On Childhood Memories and the Christmas Sensawunder

As I left the office Monday evening, the moon, a waxing crescent, held in the sky to the south southwest. There was a planet nearby in the sky, I presumed it was Jupiter, just from its brightness, but I didn’t honestly know.

In general, the sky was remarkably clear. Monday had been a brutally windy day, with gale force wind warnings through ten o’clock that night. As I walked to the train stop, a bitter wind swept across the parking lot, buffeting me and catching my wool coat’s hood and knocking it away.

For some reason, and I’m not entirely certain of why, that moment reminded me intensely of high school, of reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series over Christmas break 1987. Something about that moment made me think of Michael Whelan’s covers, of Golan Trevize’s search across the galaxy for the Second Foundation and Earth itself.

Was Christmas 1987 brutally windy and bitterly cold? I have no idea. Was it that the Baltimore sky Monday night was just very deep and very dark, much like night skies in West Virginia were twenty-odd years ago (and presumably still are)?

I don’t have many cherished childhood Christmas memories, sadly. I vaguely remember Christmas shopping at Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport when I was in high school. Earlier than that, I remember building LEGO sets over the years — I remember a house made of red bricks whose instructions were unclear, I remember the Space Cruiser (and I still have the instructions somewhere), and the Knight’s Castle from a few years later (and yes, I have the instruction booklet for this one, too).

It seems that 1984 is the Christmas I remember best. That would have been the Christmas of the Knight’s Castle. That also would have been the year of a field trip at Christmas to Washington, DC, to see A Christmas Carol performed at Ford’s Theater. Or, perhaps, that field trip was in 1983. :) I remember DC being icy and snowy in December, I remember that we had dinner at the Old Post Office Building before heading out of the city and heading home. I remember buying Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 in paperback (though I’d already read it). (And that book instilled my love of typography, by the way; mid-80s Del Rey science fiction books used Peignot as a chapter heading font.) I don’t know if it were the same Christmas or not, but I remember that my mother received a record for Christmas — Placido Domingo’s Perhaps Love. (A Google search tells me that album came out in 1983, so that may have been been the year before.)

The next year’s Christmas was done at my grandparents; I’m certain of this only because of Paul McCartney’s “Spies Like Us,” which I remember hearing on the radio while spending Christmas with my grandparents. (I also remember the song as being more interesting than it actually turns out to be. I always wondered why “Spies Like Us” was left uncollected, since it’s McCartney’s last top-ten song, but it’s such a slight and uninspired piece of work that I’m not surprised it’s been left of the dustbin of his vast catalogue.)

I can vaguely remember doing churchly things at Christmas, like singing in the church choir or making ornaments for the tree. (I remember an ornament because I’m certain it was naff.) But they’re not distinct Christmases; they all sort of blended together.

I do remember having homework over the Christmas holidays — and then doing absolutely none of it. That sounds like 1984, definitely.

I also remember watching a documentary on Jesus’ birth on PBS that talked about the astrological significance of triple conjunctions and the like. No, scratch that. I don’t think it was on PBS at all. No, my father liked to take me, my brother, and my sister to the local planetarium, and I suspect that it was in one of their programs that I first learned of the triple conjuction of 6 BCE between Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. I’ve always said that it was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos that set me on the path to atheism, but I could also point to those old planetarium shows.

I find, as much as I love Christmas music and the spirit of the season, that Christmases all blend together. I spent fifteen Christmases working retail, one was much the same as another, and I seemed to spend more time making sure others’ Christmases were fantastic rather than making my own.

The more I write this, though, and the more I think about it, I would say, really and truly, that the thing that I will remember best about Christmases from my childhood are those planetarium trips. My father and I watched Cosmos together when I was six, my mother gave me Sagan’s book for Christmas when I was seven. There’s a fantastic Carbon Leaf lyric that goes, “Space brings back boyish wonder,” and I know what that means exactly; I’ve said before that, on a very dark night, I could so easily fall into the stars. I think that feeling, and it’s a feeling that I realize that moment Monday night as I left the office touched, is the sensawunder that comes from realizing how vast and overwhelming the universe is and how amazing it is to be here, in this time.

Christmas touches that, too. Christmas is the time, every year, when everyone gets to indulge in the sensawunder.

That’s not such a terrible thing. :)

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