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East End Thoughts: Little Ghosts of Christmas Past

Posted on 26 December 2008

by Richard Gambino

“The Child is father of the Man,” wrote Wordsworth. So it is I see so many ghosts from my earliest Christmases. Little ghosts. All about me.  In Sag Harbor, so far from the Brooklyn of my earliest years, the Red Hook long gone, itself a ghost of an Italian immigrant neighborhood where longshoremen walked the streets to and from work with bailing hooks twisted into their belts. Where each December, my father and I would go to Court Street and select the largest evergreen tree for sale on the sidewalk outside a grocery store. We lived in the “parlor floor” of a brownstone built in the 1880s for a rich family, and  before I was born converted to four cold-water, three-room apartments, one on each floor, to rent to immigrant families like mine.

But being on the parlor floor had a great distinction. It had been the floor for entertaining when the building was a grand townhouse, so our beautifully ornamented nineteenth-century ceilings were eighteen feet high, allowing us to have the tallest Christmas tree we could buy, the tallest Christmas trees by far that I’ve ever had. And under the tree, a hand-carved wood manger with a baby, his parents and some gentle-looking farm animals. In the Italian tradition, such crèche scenes go back many centuries. A story has it that Francis of Assisi shocked church officials by bringing  real live farm animals into a church to enliven a life-size manger scene. But can you imagine how much the kids must have loved it!

In my youngest years, I was, of course, too young to understand theological doctrines, so what I saw before me was just a child and his family, much like mine. A child’s Christmas, as it was. And still is, for every child I see on Sag Harbor’s Main Street, eyes large and alive to the multi-colored lights brightening a winter’s long night, the serene manger at one end of Main Street, and tall Christmas tree and the lighted, sacred Menorah at the other. (A heart-felt thank you to all the good people who each December make the town into such a wondrous delight.) Later on, as a young man studying for a PhD in philosophy, I read the theological arguments for the existence of God, and, from time to time since then, have taught about them. The best of them are, in my opinion, only arguments that belief in God is not irrational. But beyond them, the truest argument I know for a loving God is each small child, every one of them.

In the faces of very young children, open faces, I find the core of all hope. They haven’t yet put on masks of persona, of what we want the world to see and not see about us. There is so much wonder in the eyes of  young children, nourishing a drive to explore and learn, and such a great natural feeling of the joy of living (at least in those who have not been neglected or abused). So, in each child’s face I read  hope for the future, hope that for him or her the lucid eyes and open heart will be well cultivated and brought to bear in making a good life for each of them, and all of them. I feel this hope because I’ve become again one of them, the bright wonder of  life outshining  the darker areas of  my adult knowledge. So I refuse to join in any cynicism such as I heard recently that childhood takes so long because it takes a long time to make kids who are bright of mind and bright of spirit into many adults who are dull of mind and spirit, or worse.

The kids’ infectious and inspiring expressions and responses also remind me of John Adams’ truth that, “There are only two creatures of value on the face of the earth, those with the commitment [here, responsible adults] and those who require the commitment of others [here, children].” Seeing the infant in his humble, make-shift crib on Main Street reminds me of our responsibility to the very young, who so depend on our love and wisdom. Here’s a rub: the possibilities of the kids becoming adults who are compassionate, loving, generous of spirit, and intelligent, depend on our  being compassionate, loving, generous of spirit and intelligent toward them. 

A couple of centuries ago, David Hume stated what I think people with common sense had long observed. All decent behavior by a person relies on his  having as part of his most inner being what Hume called “moral sentiment,” meaning a real, living sense of empathy and sympathy for other people, and for their joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains, aspirations and set-backs. So far as I know, this truth has been confirmed by every psychologist who has studied children. Oh, the language has changed. Hume talked about “character,” and modern developmental psychologists instead use the word “personality.” But the truth is confirmed. In contrast, throughout most of history, children over the age of seven (the “age of reasoning”), and even younger were commonly treated as miniature adults. Worse, moral and religious ideas were drummed into them by intimidating  lecturing, often enforced by fear of punishment.  Religion by terrorism. And by a certain age, the kids got the message by listening to the real lesson in the experience, “the music behind the words,” as it were. The lesson that power and fear rule the world. That real sympathy and empathy for others, and the lesson that “God is love,” are just abstractions, like “God is infinite,” and “God is eternal.”  Fit maybe for people like Francis of Assisi, but, nod-nod, wink-wink, we had better be self-centered and calloused toward others behind the masks of “goodness” we, as children, learned all too well to wear. Moral sentiment? Social rites and rituals, okay. Even some religious ones, maybe. But don’t push me more than that.

Yet, each December I look into the innocent, intelligent, joyful  eyes of little children on Main Street and  become again the young child enthralled by the infant and his family under a huge Christmas tree improbably set in a Brooklyn tenement. That little boy is still father to the man I am now. And I thank God for that. 


RICHARD GAMBINO wishes everyone a good Christmas, Hanukkah and 2009.

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