The long journey from one holiday to the next

THE feast of Thanksgiving is one day past. Christmas is 30 days ahead. In this span, as neat as the cycle of a month can be, the concept of holiday comes full circle. Thanksgiving, with its cornucopia and groaning board, acknowledges the harvest, innocently linking the rewards of nature to divine favor.

The smell of food seems to rise in the air like a sweet savor. The celebrator finds himself back in the Old Testament, counting blessings like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the measurable forms of fruitage.

Christmas is all light and glimmering star - prophecy and promise. In the long, cold December nights faith is the substance of things not seen.

The Thanksgiving celebrator moves into the world of the New Testament where covenants take place in the rarefied heart. No wonder the glitzy materialism of Christmas, as celebrated, appears so madly contradictory.

Thanksgiving is immersed in history, in time, like turkey in giblet gravy.

Christmas is out of history, out of time: pure hope.

Between the last week of November and the last week of December true (and faltering) believers make the transition from one holiday to the next rather like the journey of the Magi.

After the warm, convivial substantiality of Thanksgiving, it can be a lonely trip - this following of a remote star.

In the beginning, at the very thought of Christmas, there is the excitement of a discovered mission, the clarity of a revealed destiny, as if every Christmas were the first. But how easy it is to get bored, to get lost - to forget.

``A hard time we had of it,'' T.S. Eliot said of the journey, speaking for the Magi. A hard time we have of it, too. The star is there; we are here, plodding after it every Christmas to the tune of shopping-mall Muzak, confusing the star with the blinking trees in store windows.

Chestnut stuffing and cranberry sauce and the Ten Commandments seem simple by comparison with this new dispensation we zigzag toward, commanded to love our enemies - and sometimes even harder, our friends - and to be therefore perfect!

What could be more ingeniously designed to make us feel how confused an enterprise history is and how imperfect the human players? The serenity, the calm light of that star mocks our vaulting wills and raging hearts, even as it leads us on.

Never mind love. Where is mere compassion? Where is mere brotherhood? Where is mere peace? In the desperate muddle of daily lives there is scant evidence of a Promised Land.

Yet we travel on - cranky pilgrims, part believing, part disbelieving, ``with the voices singing in our ears'' (as Eliot wrote) ``saying that this was all folly.''

It is as if, at Christmas, we wanderers finally have nowhere to go but this place where, it is rumored, time is healed by eternity.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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