Times Past

How to celebrate holidays of light amid darkness

Steven Smith’s mural based on themes from children’s literature at the home of Liz and Dan Krieger.
Steven Smith’s mural based on themes from children’s literature at the home of Liz and Dan Krieger.

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.”

The prophet Isaiah’s writings span the period from the destruction of ancient Israel to its restoration from exile in Babylon by Cyrus the Great. We need Isaiah’s words now, especially after a very divisive election.

December has three great celebrations of light: Hanukkah, Christmas and the Dec. 8 commemoration of Buddha gaining enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi Tree.

The first Christmas I can remember, 1944, the terrible losses of World War II saddened us, including nearly 400,000 Americans by then.

My cousin, Bob Hess from Taft, was among them. Bob was in the Army Air Corps. His aircraft went down over Italy. I remember fishing with Bob at Camp Nelson and later, at Union Station, waving goodbye to him for the last time.

Memories of Bob and his death hung heavily over our Christmas table. My grandmother’s prayer alluded to Isaiah, asking that with all the horror of war, we might remain a people of gladness who see a great light.

Liz and I were given an early Christmas gift by Steven Smith. It fills us with awe. Steven is a young, talented artist who has filled our home with many treasures.

His paintings from children’s literature now cover the sides of bookcases from the much-missed Novel Experience Bookstore that turned a room in our home into what one Hawthorne School kid called “a treasure cave” where classes selected armloads of books to take home and keep.

Laura Kirschner, a Hawthorne teacher, exclaimed, “When I first looked at Steven’s mural, my eyes were drawn to the little girl reading, and I thought, ‘We need pictures like this in public places in San Luis Obispo.’ This is my student; this is a portrait of one of our community’s children. Our children need to see pictures of themselves as readers and know that we value that and we support them.”

When Laura went to school the next day, “I showed the students the picture on my phone and realized that my student, Fernanda, looked so much like the little girl. The kids agreed and grabbed my phone, pointing to the book characters in the painting and naming the book each character represented.”

Recently, Fernanda and her friends had a “blast” deciphering Roald Dahl’s words like “belly poppers,” (i.e., helicopters), and “frobscottle” (in which the fizz in the Big Friendly Giant’s favorite drink goes down instead of up — with noisy, smelly consequences).

We cannot become paralyzed as a nation by distrust and fear of our differences. That’s what Steven’s mural reminds us.

Like the monkey and the elephant who confront the main character in Roald Dahl’s “The Enormous Crocodile,” we must be clever in vanquishing rapacious bullies. “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Where the Wild Things Are” remind us that challenges can be thrilling — like trying to learn Spanish at the age of 51 and experiencing unimaginable blessings in the process.

Winnie the Pooh means well but has so many imperfections, including his disastrous encounter with bees and honey. And aren’t we often like Pooh — as individuals and society?

In Dahls’ “The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me,” a 5-year-old boy and his friends do more than wash high windows and foil robbers. They form a community. And so can we.

Amid our fears, we can still see a great light. Our land is overflowing with generous-hearted people and amazing role models who remind us that a vibrant democracy is not a spectator sport. That we must remain vigilant, unafraid to listen and to speak up.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.