[Editor’s note: This year at Hutchmoot, John Cal not only fed us with delicious food; he nourished us with beautiful stories, providing context for each meal and what it meant to him. What follows is the last of his speeches, given on Saturday, October 6th—you can read his first one by clicking here and his second one by clicking here. Enjoy.]
Every morning you greet me
Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Bless my homeland forever
I am not one to make promises, but I promise the story is true.
I understand it’s hard to believe, in part, because it begins with me arriving early to class: Public Speaking 101 with Professor Blake.
One morning, a brief silence fell amidst a normally raucous room. There was humming from somewhere behind me on the left. Later I’d learn it was Michael Paradise. I knew the tune, somehow, and so did Yara Gomez apparently, who sat next to me, because when I turned to my left and we made eye contact, the words came in unison: “Edelweiss, edelweiss.” As if on cue, Stephanie Burks joined in, then Michelle Corson and Ryan McCullough; before long we were all singing at the top of our lungs and Mr. Blake was waving his hands about like a conductor, beckoning the Von Trapp family to sing, filling the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg with music.
I think about that day often, like magic, an unexpected gift, and I get it: it’s hard to believe, but I promise the story is true.
Now that we’ve become better acquainted, built spaces of trust, and dare I say, become friends, I would like to admit something to you, deeper and darker perhaps than my previous admission that I, much to the chagrin of Pete Peterson, have still not seen Star Wars.
I don’t celebrate Christmas, don’t like it, try to avoid it if I can, and am annoyed by the music, decorations, and lights. I find it the most aggressive of all the holidays. To be clear, I do love Jesus and am a big fan of his birthday. I am deeply grateful of his being begotten as the only Son of God, and annually, usually, around the 25th of December, I try to hold that truth in my mind, that I am loved and treasured. It’s just Christmas I can’t stand.
Sure, there was a time when I liked Christmas—what four year-old can resist the temptation of all those shiny boxes? But the pomp of it all lost its circumstance for me early on.
“Why don’t we make cookies for Santa?” my father would say to six year-old me.
“Because Santa isn’t real,” I would reply shortly.
“He left a note last year, thanking you…”
“The note was in your handwriting,” I would say, with a well-placed eye roll.
There are good untrue stories, like the one of Samwise and Frodo or Hermione and Dumbledore. There are stories that, while they didn't really happen, point to the truth, like that of Kalmar and Podo, or Edmund and Lucy and Aslan. But I promise these things happened. I promise this story is true.John Cal
At ten years old, I decided that cutting down thousands of Christmas trees every year and shipping them all the way from the Pacific Northwest to Hawaii was ecologically unsound and financially irresponsible; and so I declared that I would boycott Christmas unless my parents invested in an artificial tree. Even after my parents divorced, my father tried desperately to hold on to some sort of celebration, wrapping presents in bright paper and inviting friends over for dinner, though he was the only one in his household of two who was keen to do so. I tried, at least I think I tried, to allow him his festiveness by staying out of the way, but I’m also sure it isn’t easy to celebrate and revel in any sort of holiday alone.
But there was one strange Christmas, my favorite ever Christmas, a day that paradoxically restored my love for the holiday and further solidified my detest of it.
To my surprise, out of nowhere on the night of the 24th, my father asked, “What do you want to do tomorrow? I don’t have anything planned.”
I thought it was a trick, but with trepidatious hope queried, “Could we go to the movies?”
James Cameron’s Titanic had been released five days earlier and all my friends had already seen it.
“Okay,” he said without belaboring the point, and as to not jinx it, I stayed relatively silent for the next twenty-four hours.
We went, just he and I in a preposterously crowded theater. Titanic was supposed to be the movie of the decade, and Leo and Kate were the “it-onscreen couple” that was going to deliver us the entertainment spectacular of the season.
As the movie started, Dad tapped my knee twice and gave it a squeeze, something he still does to this day. “Hey there buddy,” and “proud of you” are what I imagine he’s silently trying to communicate.
Then there it was, the ship of dreams. Rose in that purple hat bedecked with striped grosgrain ribbon. Jack wins tickets aboard the ship at a hand of poker, but wait…the horn is blowing. Are he and Fabrizio going to make it?
Rose is unhappy. Jack saves her with his cleverness, but she’s in a loveless engagement to Cal. Rose’s mom is insufferable. New money, Molly Brown is feisty and makes inappropriate jokes at dinner, all the while Bill Paxton, the treasure hunter, is just trying to get out of the old lady where the necklace is.
But then we watch the ship sink, and there isn’t enough room on the floating door…allegedly. And everyone, even Bill Paxton is heart broken. Then, that night in the middle of the Atlantic, we find old lady Rose has had the necklace all along. She dangles it over the edge, giggles a girlish laugh, and tosses it into the sea.
“She wouldn’t have done that!” my dad yells from his seat.
Someone nearby shushes him. A few people laugh.
“She should sell the necklace and give the money to her granddaughter!” he continues, still not whispering.
I was mortified.
Afterward we ate in the food court, and I told him how embarrassed I was about what he did in the theater.
He laughed and said, “Well, she wouldn’t have thrown it over. Would you have thrown it over?”
“I guess not,” I said, starting to laugh myself.
I know it sounds silly, but it was everything I ever wanted out of Christmas: the togetherness, the laughing, the just being, my dad being completely and truthfully who he was, and me getting to be completely and truthfully who I was, even the parts that were embarrassing.
When school started again after break, my friends didn’t get it. They didn’t believe me.
“It was just you and your dad?” James asked.
“Yeah, but we hung out and it was fun,” I said.
“And there wasn’t any pie or presents?” asked Anna.
“No, we had Chinese food and watched Titanic, and my dad was so embarrassing in the theater,” I said, laughing.
“But it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without pie,” came the retort.
You go home tomorrow, and some of them won’t believe you because what we do here is so utterly preposterous, so out of sorts and strange compared to what the rest of our lives looks like. And maybe even you don’t believe it yet, that this happened, that for a moment we shared something special that was just between us, that we sang “Edelweiss” together, that we celebrated and were merry.
And it’s okay that they don’t get it. It’s okay if you don’t quite get it yet.
We’re bombarded with so many stories. Some are just lies: like horoscopes or fortune cookies. “If you just eat this fruit…” the beautiful serpent said. (That’s how lies work. They’re always bathed in a veneer of beauty.) There are good untrue stories, like the one of Samwise and Frodo or Hermione and Dumbledore. There are stories that, while they didn’t really happen, point to the truth, like that of Kalmar and Podo, or Edmund and Lucy and Aslan.
But I promise these things happened. I promise these stories are true.
So tonight we feast on take-out Chinese food, the meal from my favorite Christmas ever, the celebration in which I felt most loved and connected to my father.
“Who sends a baby to save the world, anyway?” my friend Tyler asked a few months ago when we were riffing on how absurd Christianity sounds.
“An illegitimate baby,” I added.
“Adopted,” Tyler said.
And then, if you believe the prophecy in Isaiah, he wasn’t even a cute baby:
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”—Isaiah 53:2
It seems unbelievable that the all-knowing great God of the universe would choose to connect with us, would call us into community, into his presence by sending a baby…an illegitimate, adopted, not cute, brown skinned, middle eastern baby to a poor family from a repressed, occupied minority group.
But I promise the story is true.
I promise it was magic when we sang “Edelweiss” that day. I promise we watched Titanic together and were embarrassed and laughed real laughter. I promise that we few unlikely pilgrims who gathered here have done our best to be present in moments and spaces of truth and respite through story and song, with tobacco filled pipes, and ink smudged drawings, with kind and difficult words, and plates of food. I promise that a baby was sent to save you.
So until we meet again, whether here or on that farther shore, keep sharing these ludicrously unbelievable stories of our blessed homeland and its Great Emperor across the sea, and come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.