In the weeks before and after Christmas, I like to read a book set in the season. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a holdover from the days we’d read our boys Christmas books from Thanksgiving to Epiphany. Nowadays, it’s adult books I read -- often a murder mystery set in the Highlands or a big city, now or in the past, often with a food theme (coffee, chocolate, cookies). I’m sure it’s just a fanciful escape from the to-do lists that consume my waking energy before Christmas. But some years, I’m in the mood for something more serious: a short collection of essays by Raymond E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas, or a novel by Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas. I’ve read each of them many times over the years. The reason why is probably obvious with Brown’s book, but this year it was Mr. Ives’ turn. When I finished it this morning, I thought about why I return to this particular book again and again. It is a sad story that spans many Christmases and only near the end is it pierced by slivers of hope. It’s an odd choice, even for me.
Part of my attraction is the setting -- New York City, specifically the Morningside Heights neighborhood around Union, where I went to seminary. Mr. Ives lives on Claremont Avenue -- as did we. He attends the same Catholic Church, visits many others I’ve been to, walks through parks I know, buys pizza and Christmas trees on Amsterdam Avenue. Reading this book summons good memories of the Christmases we spent in Manhattan.
The language is lovely. The details evoke so many of the changes that have transformed New York City for good and for ill since the 1950s. And Hijuelos captures the shifting hearts and minds of his characters as they work and worship, live and love, hurt and heal. Here’s a sample:
“Of course, while contemplating the idea of the baby Jesus, perhaps the most wanted child in the history of the world, Ives would feel sad, remembering that years ago someone had left him, an unwanted child, in a foundling home. (To that day, to all the days into the future, there remained within him, the shadowy memory of the dark-halled building in which he lived for two years, a place as cavernous and haunted as a cathedral.) A kind of fantasy would overtake him, a glorious vision of angels and kings and shepherds worshiping a baby: nothing could please him more, nothing could leave him feeling a deeper despair.”
The characters are real -- rough and smooth, sympathetic and off-putting -- and their personalities come back to me quickly, even when years have passed between my reading of this book. As I mentioned, the plot is a sad one. Tragedy strikes early on and through all 248 pages, an easy answer never rears its ugly head. Ives endures the tragedy, the pain, the sorrow, the memories, the paralysis, the despair, the doubts, the odd monotony of loss. And when the “answers” come, they are not obvious or even easy to understand, either for him, his friends or me.
I think that’s why I love this book and come back to it again and again. We all know that Christmas is a difficult time for many people, for many of us. Somehow most of us soldier through the glitter and glad tidings. Occasionally we re-emerge cheered and comforted. Some of us have witnessed moments of mystery that we don’t understand but hope are good omens. We know the first Christmas was marked by violence and sorrow and yet, love endured and hope, though it often seems fleeting, can pierce our lives. Mr. Ives reminds me of that everytime I visit him at Christmas.