Christmas Eve, 2014

Perhaps you are reading this first thing this morning, coffee in hand, still dark outside. You are up early, not to feed the birds, or for quiet time, but to prepare to work through the list, that list that seems to grow longer every day, no matter how many items you have checked off.

Perhaps you are reading this, mid-afternoon, all out of steam, Ice storm with berries reading for a small diversion, because, really, you are just about at the end of your rope, and the kids are just getting wound up, or wound up again for the fourth time today, and the cookies have burned, and the candy won’t set, and you dribbled something permanent on your favorite Christmas sweater a year ago, and now what will you wear tonight?

Perhaps you won’t read this until tomorrow, or Friday, or at all, because as priorities go on this, one of the busiest days of the year, reading this column ranks somewhere down there between planning the 4th of July fireworks bash and selecting your 2015 fantasy football team.

Bikes in the snowPerhaps you are listening to music, all your favorites. Burl Ives wishing you a “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver Bells” and you think of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, although you don’t have an inkling what to do with them once they are roasted, and there is an ordinance against open flames in the city, but still. And as tiresome as that song might be, we would miss it if it disappeared from the rotation.

Maybe you are listening to Handel’s “Messiah” or some Christmasy Bach. I have my ear tuned to “Once in Royal David’s City,” a song I have heard for years but am just now paying attention to. It isn’t so very old, the tune and lyrics written in the mid-1800’s. It was first poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander, who also gave us “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” and it was set to music by an English organist, Henry John Gauntlett, which explains its majestic swells and why it is often used as a processional hymn at Christmas Eve services.

Carp in tubsMy  friends in the Czech Republic will gather tonight with their families to enjoy their traditional Christmas Eve fare, carp and potato salad. The carp will have been bought live from big vats in the city center, and brought home for a few laps in the family bathtub before, well, you know.

They will save the Christmas cookies and cakes for tomorrow as they spend the day wandering from home to home, pub to pub, toasting each other with slivovice and chilled sweet wine. I have friends with Italian mamas and they will sit down tonight to the feast of the seven fishes.

My southern friends with southern mamas will have a nice glazed—make that candied–ham. My family will gather to circulate around the table in an unending loop, filling our plates with a mishmash of favorites, Czech garlic spread, hot artichoke dip, strong imported blue cheeses which no one eats but the guys and Hannah, my mother’s icebox cookies, a jam cake or two, maybe a ham, maybe shrimp, supplemented by whatever else we had energy to prepare.

We don’t care all that much, as long as we are laughing and the line keeps moving. Christmas Eve can be for a crowd, or for a couple. There can be food lovingly–or grudgingly–prepared, or there can be pizza.

I have spent some Christmas Eves alone, and that has been nice, too, all quiet, and calm, and peaceful. But, if nothing else, on Christmas Eve there should be light. Nothing garish or overly bright. The Christmas tree lights in a darkened room, or here and there a couple of candles.

Or just one. Just enough light to draw the eye, the heart.

Light enough to gaze upon and ponder. Wonder. And wonder some more.

Unlikely Christmas Memories

Don’t look at the calendar if you are faint of heart. This time next week will be Christmas Eve. Panic ensues.

My Christmas tree is  still in a bucket out back, the pine roping still in the backseat of my car, where it had been for some time, and while it gives my errands a lovely pine-forest scent, my mantel would like some festive garb and the the little niches in the living room look pretty bare and sorry, too.

I know a bit about being terrorized by beautiful Christmas decorations. My sister alone has scalped several magnolias in her
neighborhood–some with permission, some, I suspect, without. She travels the streets in darkness, driving slowly, trunk open and clippers on the passenger seat. We try not to look and we never ask.

Her house is festooned–there is no other word for it–with magnolia and three different kinds of pine, a half-mile of gold ribbon and spotlights.  Inside there will be  a fire going. There is nary a cookie baking. It’s not her thing.

Food is my thing, and I pore over cookbooks and even when I get DSCF3337
around to decorating the mantel, I usually throw some walnuts and clove-studded oranges in among the greenery. I buy flour, brown sugar and marshmallow cream in school kitchen proportions, which reminds me. I need to go toss out last year’s, to make room for more.

I rarely get around to all my baking projects but it comforts me to think I might. Where do you think the cloves and walnuts comefudge from? The point is, some of us decorate, some of us bake, some of us just think we are going to do those things, and it doesn’t really matter, as long as what we do brings us joy.

The grey and wintry weather has me thinking of other Christmases, and the ones that come to mind, my favorite moments on Christmas Eve, are the least likely to seem nostalgic and are, by themselves, hardly memorable.

Twenty years ago, maybe more, I was young and working at the college, a new faculty member with other new faculty members. It was Christmas Eve, mid-afternoon. Three of us, unattached and free of responsibility with the exception of showing up at parents’ homes on Christmas Day,  found ourselves at loose ends. Our pals bolted from the office to pick up their kids, get Santa Claus ready, I don’t know what all.

We ended up at Colby’s, talking, enjoying the warmth of the restaurant we had to ourselves, as the staff clattered plates around us, for soon they would close. We watched the snowColby's interior begin, big feathery flakes that wouldn’t add up to much, but delighted us in that moment.

It was impromptu and unhurried, and as companionable an afternoon as I have spent before or since. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about, work, probably, and movies, maybe something philosophical, but only just. A small afternoon, a small moment, but not a Christmas goes by that I don’t think of it.

As a graduate student in Bowling Green, I worked part-time on the crisis line. It fell to me to work on Christmas Eve until midnight. I dreaded it, to be honest.

Statistics tell us Christmas Eve is the hardest day of the year on the lonely, the sad, the broken. The phone, though, was oddly silent until about eight p.m. Then, it rang, and rang and rang, not with crisis calls, but with Christmas greetings.

Our clients were in the habit of calling regularly. Some called every day, every shift, it was their only contact with the outside world. Or, perhaps their therapist asked them to call throughout the week, just to check in, to help keep them on an even keel.

They knew us by name and we knew them. On that evening they  called to see who was the unlucky one to work on Christmas Eve. They called to keep me company. They called to wish me Merry Christmas. That was it. Just checking on me. Making sure I wasn’t too sad.

I thought about it on that long drive home at midnight. The idea of Christmas, how Christmas Eve can be good, without candles, and punch bowls, without even seeing another person’s face, but together all the same.

Or happy and warm in a public place. Snow falling. Safe. I’d give every perfect bow, every pretty cookie for more of that.

christmas tree and ornament


Christmas Music Must-Haves

It appears that we have been in the Christmas spirit since before the turkey was thawed and roasted. Trees are up in homes and have been for weeks. Not at my house, of course. But in yours. And, really, it is lovely, all those Christmas sights and smells, fresh trees, garland, cookies baking, but while I might be a laggard in getting my own home ready, let me join you in a spasm of holiday cheer and talk music.

If you have grown tired of all the standard Christmas music—you know the ones–the compilations by various artists of the same sixteen Christmas standards, then you might want to find some of these. I mean, honestly. After a while, Garth Brooks, Maria Carey and Harry Connick, Jr. begin to sound alike as they beg us to have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.

My friend, Jason, a music connoisseur of the highest order, would suggest the following collections to start your holiday off right. OnTUDOR-CHRISTMAS his list of favorites is “A Tudor Christmas,” given to us by the Choir of Christ Church-Oxford. I have been to Oxford so that alone seems reason enough for me to find this and give it a listen.

He continues with Tori Amos and “Midwinter Graces”, “A Christmas Cornucopia” by Annie Lennox. You remember her. She was one half of the Eurythmics, the best half, as it turns out. Jason will be listening to Jessye Norman’s “Christmastide.” Jessye Norman is an Americanjessye_norman_250opera star, but don’t be put off by that, if in fact, you are tempted to be. Her voice is mesmerizing and compelling and rich as any confection at Christmas should be.

He will be giving the McGarrigle sisters a listen, too, as Kate and Anne perform on their Christmas album, “McGarrigle Christmas Hour.” It shames to say that I don’t know the work of this sister duo from Canada, except for the songs they wrote that are performed by others, Linda Ronstadt and  Emmylou Harris, for example. One song on this album you may be familiar with is “Some Children See Him,” a lovely and touching song that reminds us we are all connected, and it is nice to be reminded of that at Christmas.

The only album on Jason’s list that I know, and by know I mean I can sing along and I can sing all the parts, is “A Light in the Stable” given to us by Emmylou Harris. This one gets a good workout in my car all December long. I purchased the original version of this album back in the early ’80’s. It has been expanded, and while the original was great, the new one is even better.

It now  includes a song by the McGarrigles, as well as Beth Nielsen Chapman, who has an album entitled, “Hymns.” While it isn’t a Beth Chapman Neilsen HymnsChristmas album, it is lovely beyond measure and would fit right in this time of year, what with its offerings of “Ave Maria” and “Panis Angelicus” and so many more. With Jason’s permission, I would like to recommend a couple of my favorite Christmas albums for your consideration.

The first is Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night…” I know, I know, Sting is all angst-y and well, so Sting, but this album is beautiful, if moody in its way. In selecting the songs for this project he talked about wanting a range of music that reflects the realities as well of the mysteries of Christmas.

Not an album to put on while you are stringing popcorn, but trust me. There will be some evening or grey afternoon in the next few weeks where this will be exactly what you want to hear.

I love Loreena McKennitt, the Canadian singer, harpist, and composer whose music is shot through with Celtic and Eastern Loreena McKennittinfluences and it is dramatic and otherworldly as all get out. She has three Christmas albums that I have, and love, and recommend. They are “To Drive the Cold Winter Away,” “A Winter’s Garden,” and “A Midwinter Night’s Dream.” As their titles are all similar, so are the albums, so just pick one, you won’t be disappointed. Her music is grounded and mystic at the same time, with rich cellos and instruments you can’t even name.

Perhaps these suggestions will help round out your Christmas collection and set the tone while sparing you Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer on an endless loop.