24 December 2012

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign. 

19 December 2012

Christmas musings

"Three things in human life are important:
the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind." 
—Henry James (1843-1916)

Mr. James's sentiments have never seemed more timely to me than during this season. If only there were more kindness in the world. For the truly charitable soul, kindness is second nature.  For the merely pragmatic, it simply takes less energy to be kind than being mean-spirited.  Surely Mr. Scrooge added age lines and shaved years off his life being so miserly and uncaring. And his step must have seemed far lighter the moment he performed his first act of kindness after waking from such terrible dreams.

Here, in my cottage, the holly and ivy is in place, seasonal music floats on the air, films reflecting miracles, changes of heart, and how wonderful our lives truly are play in the background, and the tree glimmers in the darkness by the hearth. But the wand that spreads true magic over this sparkling tableau, indeed the highlight of every Christmas, is being with my family.  It happens the moment I step into their warmth, see their faces, hear their laughter as they talk over one another, and smell the food so lovingly tendered to us by my mother's hands. Like a static diorama come to life, the garlands seem more lush and colorful, the music more heavenly, the films and their cautionary tales more moving, and the garnished tree a living symbol of every Christmas that came before

It makes sense to me that family should be at the heart of it. It began with a small family, after all, this thing we call Christmas and spend an inordinate amount of energy celebrating with our pocketbooks.  A little family with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Destined to be homeless on what was perhaps the most important night of their lives but for the kindness of a complete stranger.

Which brings me back to Mr. James. 

"Three things in human life are important:
the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind." 

There are acts of kindness captured and imprinted on our collective hearts every day if we only pay them heedFor every man who chooses to photograph a person trapped on a subway rail rather than offering him his hand, there is a police officer who bends down to help an unshod homeless man.  For every child whose rage propels him to destroys 20 lives, there is a teacher willing to risk her own life to save as many children as she can. For every looter ravaging vulnerable homes aftera storm, there is a man or woman who uses that energy to bring food, light and hope to those in need.

“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world
in a conspiracy of love.” 
Hamilton Wright Mabie


  Things will be quiet here at the Cottage for the next week or so.... 

 Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


17 December 2012

Broken hearted

Artist: Fridolin Leiber

 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted...


10 December 2012

Decking the halls

This week I hope to purchase a Christmas tree. With luck it will be upright, lighted and strewn with treasured decorations and beloved family baubles by Sunday evening. 

The bears in the little den upstairs will be journeying downstairs to sit by the tree in their rocking chair while the tiger next to the hearth will be getting his annual crown of Holly. And a cradle full of dolls will be set up in the parlor.   (There has been much excitement about these developments, if one is to believe even half the gossip one hears upstairs in the night....)

Christmas music boxes will get a random twist each time I brush past, and carols from Kings College Cambridge will be wafting throughout the cottage, in counterpoint with Bing Crosby, Andy Williams and Perry Como. 

I've already watched a few of my favorite Christmas films:  A Christmas Carol (in one of its numerous iterations), Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas with the Kranks, and It's a Wonderful Life. And there will no doubt be many more to come over the next few weeks, ranging from the sublime (versions of A Christmas Carol featuring Patric Stewart, George C. Scott, Alistair Sim, and the Muppets) to the ridiculous (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation), not to mention the beloved cartoons featuring Frosty, Rudoph, the Grinch, and Charlie Brown.

My favorite and well-worn Christmas books are stacked on the old leather suitcase in the parlor: The Night Before Christmas, several editions of A Christmas Carol, various issues of Christmas Ideals, and a favorite copy of A Child's Christmas in Wales with beautiful woodcut illustrations.

My supply of powdered cocoa has been shored up, in anticipation of nightly cups by the fire. Holly, ivy, and spruce greens will be clipped and brought indoors to be placed in pitchers and vases here and there. The guest room will be the nerve center ("Command Central") of my Christmas Present gathering, while the dining room table will routinely be cleared for wrapping and packaging.

The pecans, almonds, white and dark chocolate, brandies and liqueurs, brown sugar, molasses, golden syrup, currants, and sultanas have been purchased little by little over the past month or so, in anticipation of the cookies, fudge, truffles, pralines, and steamed puddings I'll be baking.  (I have walnuts on lay-a-way, and should be able to release them into my custody pending a 2nd mortgage being approved.  Apparently they are dipped in gold after being harvested by elves since there can be no other possible reason for their exorbitant price.)

The cards will be brought down from the attic soon and I will pick a quiet Sunday afternoon to sit and go through them, choosing just the right one for each person before writing messages of peace and harmony and good wishes to loved ones.

It's not easy to hold fast to the magic of Christmas in small ways, while all around you it seems frenetic commercialism scrawls its Surrender Dorothy warnings overhead. But it's important to make the time to wander through the neighborhood on foot at night to gaze at all the light displays, or to enjoy quiet evenings by the fire with hot cider, or to feel the warm wool take shape in your hands as another sock or hat materializes and goes into the present box. 

One Christmas was so much like another...  that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. 

Perhaps I'm inordinately naive, but I genuinely believe we have as much time as we need or wish for, and this is never more true than at Christmas.  It all comes down to refining our choices and selecting those that are important to us and make us truly happy. For me the list is a long but fairly simple one: holly, cocoa, re-reading favorite Christmas stories, baking, knitting, candlight, Carols, and seeing my Christmas tree glimmer in a darkened parlor.  If I don't make time for this then I've truly missed the point.

A Child's Christmas in Wales. (Wood engraving by F. Eichenberg)

07 December 2012

Favorite Thing No. 91

Ever since I was a child I have loved book plates.
I loved the sense of ownership it lent a book.

 My first book plates, purchased by my mother,
still appear in books I received as a child,
my name written in her careful hand
on the scroll beneath the ship's port-hole.

As a teenager I began a life-long love affair
with Antioch Book Plates.
This one—a tree's roots entwined around a book—
was one of the first ones I bought myself.
My name is in a rounded signature that I barely recognize today.
This was followed, in my twenties, by a plate 
that brought reading nooks in English cottages to mind,
and my writing grew more similar to what it would become as an adult.
The book plates of my thirties bore images of a library
that I hoped to replicate in my own home one day.
By now my name was in a hand I recognize:
artistic, almost draughtsman-like, and yes, slightly illegible.

As I grew older I discovered an evocative silhouette
that reminded me of the tree I would sit in as a child.
It was comforting to remember being buried in my favorite book,
surrounded by the scent of lilacs from a nearby hedgerow.

In my dotage, I have reverted back to book plates that are fit for a child,
of anthropomorphic creatures drinking tea in their bathrobes
whilst reading by a fire.

And so the wheel turns.
But at the heart of it are the book plates I've loved
and the possessiveness I feel
when I hold one of my books in my hands.

03 December 2012

'Tis the season

Time seems to have been slipping past quickly these past few weeks but I refuse to let it carry me along on waves of panic or make me feel frantic. Where's the pleasure in that?

I'm a somewhat unhurried and reflective person on the best of days.  (Alright... pokey is a more apt description.)  My mantra, no matter the time of year is, "What gets done gets done."  And I've learned that if I allow myself to get too caught up in preparations for Christmas I miss the beauty of the season entirely.

And so I'm doing what I can to stay at peace and enjoy each day.  It is still Autumn, after all, despite all the artificial snow and sleighbells one sees nearly everywhere. The gardens and pavement are full of jubilant jewel tones—ruby red rose hips, amber andromeda, and sable brown seed heads—and today we are relishing unexpectedly mild weather with a damp earthy scent in the air.  Short-lived, no doubt, but welcome after several very chilly nights.

We had a steady but very light snowfall throughout much of Saturday, filled with "rainy snowflakes" (or perhaps they were "snowy raindrops") drifting downward from leaden skies and coating the trees and shrubberies and roofs like confectionery sugar.  There was a fire on the hearth and scones and tea on the table and a sense of winter stealthily making its way to us until we are entirely consumed with the efforts to stay warm and dry.

But not today.  Today is positively balmy and Christmas couldn't seem further away despite my having turned the calendar to December two days ago. I have been quietly knitting, reading, writing, pondering things, tidying the house, and slowly going through boxes and sacks of presents I've been putting aside all year to see what there is.  Something invariably turns up that I'd entirely forgotten about.

No doubt my own plodding progress towards Bethlehem this year will be as measured and perhaps even as tardy as the Three Kings. Like them, I will have gifts for loved ones—humble tokens of how grateful I am for their presence in my life.  And as Christmas draws near, I will try to remember what is truly important.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give Him -- give my heart.
      —Christina Rosetti