If you are reading this from another country, or as an archivist from the final pages of The Handmaid’s Tale looking back into our history, you may not be aware of The War on Christmas. As the Times describes it, this phenomenon is a “sometimes histrionic yuletide debate over whether the United States is a country that respects Christianity.” As a non-Christian person who knows way more carols than I do Hanukkah songs, I personally have experienced nothing but Respect for the holiday in my life. Fun story: when my brother Aaron was little and people wished him a Merry Christmas he once said, “I’m not Christmas, I’m Hanukkah!”
A few months ago I was driving and found myself behind the truck picking up the Christmas trees from the curb. It was sort of melancholy but the smell was overwhelming and primally wonderful. It made me think about the difference between the made-up War on Christmas, and how those who came up with the idea will always find themselves needing more respect and reverence, compared to the mystical and indifferent (to us) natural world that gives rise to faith and wrestling with faith.
I can’t point to glosses on Shakespeare or Eliot in this one but I’m delighted to put Oh Sheila back in the front of your mind. Along with Hearing Study I’m seeing this as a series of poems, perhaps called the Five Senses of the Trumpocalypse, that grapple with our physical sense of the world as a lens for These Times We’re In. Coming soon! Or in any case, within a year or so!
Eau de “War on Christmas”
Late winter, stuck behind
The garbage truck that takes the trees
Wherever they go when Yule
Is done. The crunching mandibles
Ahead, the fractured limbs
Compose a tableau from The Lives
Of the Saints: but from the scratch
Of wood on metal, I sniff the sap:
It blows into my car,
The bow wave of a nova’s blast
As ten trees’ smell become
In death a forest’s worth of green.
When all this pine last filled
The car, it was December: I rode
Beside a stranger in
An Uber Pool, no words exchanged,
Subjected to talk radio
And the scent of Pine Fresh Hanging Tree
Billowing back to us.
The Merry side was winning, and
Mere Happy vanquished: not
Oh Sheila but O Tannenbaum
Would be the tune to carry
That loyal smell enwreathing us all.
Truth is, Merry I’m not,
Now least of all. I’m rooting for
The tree, though: even for
That dangling specimen in the car,
I hoped I’d never see
Its boughs fade into gray, and smell
The citrus arson tang
Of bark beetle armies at their work.
This unlit pyre ahead
Is planting memories—the kind
By smell, that jack in deeper than
The wavering 2D
Of sight or sound. Now I’m back here
From a drier future:
The winters then don’t freeze; the pines
And their invasive bugs
Have found an equilibrium
That almost reads mesquite
In the nose. From then, the made-up fight
To claim this smell will seem
Like battling for the Hanging Pine,
Which long since lost its scent,
Kept in a reverential box
Like a beloved’s last clothes
That come, instead, to smell like you.