Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dropping The (Christmas) Ball

(From today's Times and News-Star)

At unquestionably the biggest night church service of the year, with proud moms and great aunts and uncles tucked in tight to see cute children take part in the symbolic Christmas ceremony, a granddad fumbled the mistletoe ball.

Literally in front of God and everybody.

“The fan mail continues to come in,” he said in mid-week after that traumatic Sunday night. “It’s nice to be noticed again. I’m surprised it wasn’t ‘Play of the Day’ on ESPN.”

He’s accepted the electronic waves of mail and the face-to-face snickers with the guarded good cheer of a man who stepped over the edge -- and lived to be ridiculed about it.

“This is the gift that will keep on giving,” he said, “right on through 2012.”

It happened during the Hanging of the Greens, a traditional service in which every branch and bough hung has seasonal meaning. Cedar represents royalty, fir and pine represent everlasting life, holly for resurrection, mistletoe for … sin? I’m not sure. But this is what happened.

The children go all over the church putting up wreaths and boughs at predetermined times. The organist plays. The congregation or choir or soloist sings. At some point, a fashioned orb of mistletoe the size of two basketballs and with a hook attached is lifted by a human holding a hooked stick and placed on a high hook in the sanctuary.

When you’re dealing with that many hooks and a human and a stick and a somber audience, you’re dealing with liturgical dynamite.

Dressed in his holiday finest, my guy (to use his name would be indiscreet; we’ll just call him Pat) had practiced before the gig. Hung it right up. But as he sat in the congregation preparing for The Hanging, the hook appeared smaller. And higher. And the stick looked to weigh roughly the same as your average piece of pulpwood.

It was time. He secured the mistletoe ball on the stick. Heaved it skyward. Arms began trembling. He zeroed in on the hook. It bobbed and weaved. He glanced over his shoulder toward his precious wife of 50 years, who seemed to say with her eyes, “Please! While we’re young!”

He got it! The hooks hooked! But only a bit. And as he brought the stick down, well, the mistletoe ball…she fell. To Pat, it happened in slow motion. The ball seemed to fall in sections. Took a calendar day for the thing to hit the ground, which it did with a soft splat. Of course to Pat, it sounded a clothes washing machine had just been dropped out a fifth-story window.

It was all about pride at this point. Again he went in, with the stick, and hooked the ball. (What I’ve imagined is a guy trying to land a marlin, only in reverse.) He pointed the stick and the unruly mistletoe ball skyward, took aim, and after a few more agonizing eternities, she hooked. She hooked! Lord have mercy, securely, she hooked.

The children, lined in back and paying more attention in church than at any time previous in their entire lives, paused, eyes on the ball, just to make sure. And when she’d held for five seconds and then 10, and the end of the torment was assured, they actually burst into cheer. They cheered in church!

Pat sat. He did what he always does in times of distress: he looked upward. The center held. It was finished.

But not without a price. “The only other greens I’ll ever hang again,” he said, “will be turnips.”