Chesterman Beach – photo by Ellery Littleton
This year, I heard Christmas rattling and clanging just over the horizon in mid-November. And as usual, I had mixed reactions to the premature onset of this most beloved and loathed of our major rituals.
There is much that I still enjoy and love about Christmas; somewhere in the comfortable old living room of my deep memory are visions of sugar plums connected largely to treasured family moments. Again this year, children and grandchildren will visit, a traditional tree will go up and be decorated with familiar old baubles – some of them from as far back as the 1920’s, inherited from my aunt.
Close friends will gather, too much rich home cooking will be consumed, seasonal carols will be in the air like aural fog, and, against all odds, some of them will still touch my heart and trigger that brief nostalgic, poignant reaction that is part of my experience of Christmas. Somewhere, mommy is still kissing Santa Claus.
And of course, there is the dark side of the Twelve Days. And the period leading up to it. Key words: families, alcohol, traveling in wretched weather, stress, debt, indigestion, boredom, a sense of ennui brought on by too much of the familiar sugary old soundtrack of advertising, bad music and phony sentimentality.
Years ago, the three-year-old daughter of a friend of ours, who was rather overwhelmed by the Christmas tsunami, asked her mother, “Mommy … who is baby cheesy?” For me, that statement will always represent the ultimate comment on the downside of the season.
No wonder people flee to warmer climes for Christmas; or just to some other climes, somewhere else. Others choose to create minimal Christmases, downplaying the whole spending/giving/consuming component, moving away from excess toward restraint. There are a thousand roads to Rome. We all deal with the Christmas thing in our own way.
The poems following here all come from my 2008 book Riverwalk – A Poem A Day For A Year. They represent a brief cross-section of my own experience of the dark and light aspects of Christmas. My experiences are not much different from those of many people, I suspect. There is much to enjoy in the mix, and once in a blue moon (which usually makes at least one appearance in the dark night of the solstice) something sacred and worth celebrating occurs.
downtown the lonely old man
holds out his ragged Santa Claus hat
and collects a few snowflakes
Coffee and cookies at my friend’s house.
We exchange Christmas cards and complain
about the weather. She weeps bitter tears
over the death of her father last spring,
regrets her broken marriage, misses her
ex-lover, now living with his mother.
We agree that life is full of swell surprises,
and oh well, there is still a lot to look
forward to, and go on to talk about movies
and music and plans for the holidays.
A big old Christmas stocking,
stuffed with the riches of life.
A safe warm haven from
the brutish winds of winter.
A small anthropological museum,
with treasures from the seven
corners of the world. A storehouse
of esoteric knowledge. A precious
egg of Castanadian energy protecting
the beating heart of the family.
Like wild animals, we lay in stores
against the future. The ancient patterns
of the prehistoric past kick in, and our
old hunter-gatherer selves go walkabout
at the market and the mall. Food, drink,
clothing, pile them on. Gather the clan,
take the lid off the pot, keep enough for
yourself and give the rest away.
Six a.m. My winter face
in the bathroom mirror is
fish-belly white; there is luggage
under my eyes. I look my age
and then some. The house is cold.
I eat an orange and read the newspaper.
I feel old and tired. But my daughter
is coming for dinner tonight and the
weather is brightening up. Another
cup of tea and I should be ready
No big surprises this year,
but many small ones,
some quite exquisite,
like delicate Christmas
tree decorations, suspended
from the branches
of everyday life.
The wind from the west
is raw and cold and sweet.
Well, maybe not sweet
in the usual sense …
but in the sense of waking up,
to the stark stunning winter
beauty of snow-capped mountains
and the dark blue sea.
We stay up late for us
and watch a movie.
Finally at eleven or so,
Mary Helen drifts off to bed,
and I crash in front of the
tube to watch the fireworks
around the world.
Soon, the neighborhood erupts
with screams and shouts;
music blares out briefly-open
doors and windows, drunken
buffoons bellow at the midnight moon.
I step out on the front porch for a minute
or two as the old year clatters by like
a broken stagecoach, smiling to myself,
looking back, looking ahead, full of wonder,
with a tremor of despair,
ready for bed at last.