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A Clue About Christmas (Baltimore, 1954)

One year in Baltimore, Kazue learned that there was more to Christmas than a spindly tree with glass balls atop the TV. Mrs. Gill, her mother’s friend from work, invited them for Christmas Eve. The Gills’ groundfloor apartment was jammed with furniture in dark, rich colors– mahogany, maroon and hunter green. Mrs. Gill herself was resplendent in stiff black taffeta. Her round face was framed by oddly dark hair—two tight braids wrapped around her head like a knotty halo. Her Kevin was equally festive in a green-and red  plaid vest. He about 12, and fair, freckled and pudgy. He had impeccable manners and an air of self satisfaction as broad as his belly.
The children were expected to play together while the grownups chatted, but Kazue was more interested in Mrs. Gill's house than in her son. The Christmas tree put Kazue's tiny one at home to shame. The Gill's tree rose from floor to ceiling, and was topped by an angel instead of a star. It was dense with silver snowflakes and candy canes, and pressed glass ornaments in the shape of pine cones. Christmas according to the Gills included red-ribboned mistletoe hung in a doorway, and dishes of ribbon candy. And magical golden chimes with angels that revolved slowly over the heat from bright red candles. And eggnog served in a glass punch bowl hung with little glass cups. And fruitcake, which Kazue had never seen before. She marvelled at the bright translucent colors of the embalmed fruit. But when she took a bite, she had to wrinkle her nose at the unexpected tang of brandy.
Kevin wanted to show her his train set. It was arranged in a ring in the middle of the living room rug. He demonstrated all the features. The locomotive tooted and blew smoke. The crossing gated lifted and lowered by magic as the train ran past them. He fussed over his domain like a lord over his manor. Since Kazue was just a girl, she was allowed to look but not touch.
And Mrs. Gill presided over the festivities like a dowager duchess showering her largesse on the heathen masses. In reality, she was a precursor of Martha Stewart, seeking to put her life into order through things. Take away the stuff, and she was a middle-aged divorcee with a soft, spoilt son, and Kazue and Helen were her only guests this holiday season.
Towards the end of the evening, Kevin showed Kazue the manger scene under the tree. Pointing to the pudgy-legged Christchild in his manager, he said, "That's why Christmas is so special. It's the day that Jesus came to save us all from Hell."
"That's like Buddha's birthday," Kazue exclaimed, relieved to find something in common. "We decorate his shrine with flowers and pour sweet tea over his head."
"It's not the same at all!" Kevin insisted. "If you don't believe in Jesus, you'll burn in Hell!"
A shiver ran down Kazue's back and into her socks, making her ankles tingle. Kevin stood about a head taller than her, so she was looking at his necktie, which was red satin, to match his vest. Kevin lowered his head to look her in the eye. “You're going to burn in Hell," he hissed.
Tears sprang into Kazue's eyes. "No, I'm not." she blurted. "Buddhists don't believe in Hell."
“What’s going on?” Mrs. Gill called out. She had heard the rise of voices and come to investigate. Kevin explained in an aggrieved tone. Mrs. Gill’s eyes grew hard as black buttons while her bright red lips continued to smile. She ruffled her son’s hair. “My goodness, I didn’t realize it was getting so late,” she said to Kazue’s mother.
Mrs. Gill’s eyes stayed hard as Kazue and Helen got their coats and said their goodbyes.
Kazue felt deeply resentful. All this stuff about Christmas trees was fine. She didn't even mind that she had to recite the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm at her public school after the Pledge of Allegiance. The Christians had the right to believe what they believed, but they had no right to make her believe it. She didn't push her religion on them. Why should they push theirs on her?
Kazue thought about her friend Patsy's First Communion. Patsy had been excited about it for weeks, and Kazue had been excited for her, even though she really missed playing with Patsy on the afternoons when Patsy had to stayed after school to study the Catechism. When the big day arrived, she got all dressed up in a lacy white dress and matching veil. She looked like a miniature bride, with a little white veil and flowers and everything. Afterwards, she showed Kazue the new rosary she had gotten, and the Holy Cards, vivid pasteboard pictures of Jesus and Mary. Patsy pinned her favorite card up on her bedroom wall. It was a picture of the sacred heart, a bloody thing encircled with thorns.
Kazue thought the picture was creepy, but she never told Patsy that. And Patsy and her mom never made her feel bad that she didn't believe in Jesus.
"How come we have to burn in Hell?" Kazue asked Helen on the way home from the Gills’ house. "It doesn't seem fair. What about all the people in Africa and India and the Amazon jungle? Why should they burn in hell when they've never even heard of Jesus."
"We won't burn in Hell," said Helen quietly. "Mrs. Gill has a hard time, raising Kevin without a father. She has to believe what she believes, and we can believe what we believe.
They had driven into a blinding rainstorm. The rain poured down the windshield in sheets. The windshield wipers worked overtime. But they only made thick ripples that caught the glare of on-coming headlights. It was almost impossible to see the road. “Î hope we make it home all right," Helen said. "Baachan (Grandma) always used to say, “When you’re scared, think of Hotoke-sama (the Buddha).” She began to sing a Buddhist song at the top of her lungs, “Non nono nonosama, Hotoke-sama, watashii no suki ni kasama de..”
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