“I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects.” ~ Charles Dickens
Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home! ~ Charles Dickens
“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.” ~Edna Ferber
I wonder if Edna Ferber had Charles Dickens in mind when that thought came to her. Is there any one person who felt and expressed Christmas as did Dickens? Jesus may have invented Christmas, in a manner of speaking, but it was Dickens who revived it from its doldrums of early 19th century England when the holiday was sputtering like a wet yule log. Charles Dickens, breathed life back into Christmas and in the process influenced the celebration of Christmas to this day.
Dickens wove tales that carry the reader from the gloom of a bitter cold winter to the glow of a holiday gathering; the scent of evergreen, cinnamon and citrus. Reading a Dickens Christmas tale is like being served a snifter of holiday congeniality; a steaming mug of Christmas spirit to warm the cold hand before soothing the belly and the spirit. He chills the reader on a cold London street and then guides him to a warm Christmas hearth. His words of generosity and goodwill sing like the sweet refrain of a choir. In his stories live the spirits of redemption, hope, fellowship, joy and charity.
For decades Dickens has visited me at Christmas. As a child I watched cartoon and film versions of A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol has always sung to me. Nearly every December I pull out my worn copy and travel back to Victorian London to visit with Scrooge, the Cratchits, Fred and the ghosts of Christmas.
It was 47 years ago that my then girlfriend Denise and I discovered The Dickens Christmas Faire, held on weekends at the Cow Palace Exhibition Halls in San Francisco. The Dickens Faire transforms the dank halls into the lanes of Victorian London, complete with shops, music halls, pubs, a Fezziwig dance party and purveyors of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, meat pies, bangers and roasted chestnuts all washed down with ales, hot toddies, mulled wine or gin. The following year we went again, this time in period costume. I wore a waistcoat and Denise squeezed carefully into my Mustang wearing a hoop skirt.
Below: The Dickens Christmas Faire
Christmas is arriving early this year. Of course that’s just in a manner of speaking. The 25th of December is always the 25th of December. It just seems early because that traditional start of the season, Thanksgiving, always celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November arrived late. Christmas isn’t really early, the window is just shorter and when it comes to shopping, planning, parties and stalling the window is the most important thing. The start of the season could just as easily be August 1st and only in our procrastination would Christmas arrive early. One of the traditional verses of Christmas season, probably more common than, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly,” is the frantic, “Oh my God it’s almost Christmas and I haven’t bought a thing yet.”
For Cora and I the gift lists have been drastically shortened. We long ago stopped exchanging gifts, realizing that if we want something we can just go out and buy it. This avoids one of the scariest of Christmas ghosts, the gift return line. The kids are grown up and have told us that if they want something they’ll just go out and buy it; might as well, they make more money now than we do. That leaves the grandchildren and they’re relatively easy to shop for.
Before the NBA season kicked off I got tickets for the Golden State Warriors. That’s a gift for Jackson and Cora and I. Since then Steph Curry went down with an injury and I’m praying for his recovery before the game. For Sophie the eldest I got a Billie Eilish hoodie. Her mom told me that Billie is Sophie’s fav music idol du jour. And all the while I thought her favorite might be the Grateful Dead – or not. The hoodie comes with a free download of her latest album. I listened to a bit of it. Not bad actually and that’s coming from a 66 year old white guy. Lucy’s gift is still TBD and Zack the toddler will be happy with almost anything, even an empty carton.
I’d always considered myself pretty good at choosing gifts for Christmas. Throughout the year I’d take note of things that Cora admired or talked about and with the approach of Christmas I’d buy them as gifts. When all else failed there was always Victoria’s Secret – during our younger days. As I recall Cora’s response was to hold the flimsy, opaque article up to the light, and say something like,
“Am I supposed to wear this?”
Dad was a virtuoso at procrastination. He would get down to the 22nd or 23rd of December and then head down to the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo where he would stroll aimlessly down the aisles of Macy’s waiting I guess for the perfect gift to leap into his arms. I usually tagged along because I liked the Hillsdale Mall in those days of my childhood.
Hillsdale was an outdoor mall (as most were in those days). In late December you rushed from store to store leaning into a rain soaked gale, dodging puddles that reflected Christmas lights that danced in the wind. If we couldn’t have snow in the Bay Area then I was fine with horizontal rain, madly swaying Christmas lights and shoppers desperately trying to keep umbrellas from blowing inside out. If we couldn’t have a white Christmas then grant us a wet, stormy Christmas.
After an hour or so of catatonic meandering Dad usually settled for a sweater or pajamas or a pair of gloves. God love him, Dad’s taste in clothes was pretty horrible and so I cringed a little when mom got to his gift for her. Mom’s response usually came with the five dreaded words, “Did you save the receipt?”
But then Dad wasn’t what you would call a big Christmas guy. He did his duty by it and that was about the extent. He put up the outdoor lights, he drove us to the tree lot and helped pick out a proper tree and then gave it an unceremonious shove into the station wagon. Before dragging the tree into the house he damned it to topiary hell while he bashed away with a saw at a trunk that wouldn’t fit in the stand. It’s a tradition that I’ve faithfully upheld. Once the tree was up he took on the traditional male role of hanging the lights and then he sat in his recliner and had a brandy spiked eggnog and boozily supervised the tree decorating. Dad wouldn’t have any truck with religion and he skipped church, so while I fidgeted in wool slacks and listened to the gibberish of a Latin midnight mass Dad was having a nightcap of hot buttered rum. I don’t hold much truck with religion either but I try to make it a point to accompany Cora to mass.
We usually go to the Christmas mass at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Grace is an Anglican Church, the religion that I took a run at after I got disgusted with the Roman Catholic Church. I’m sure I’ll fall afoul of my papist family and friends but I found the Anglican Church to be more Christian. At the very least more inclusive and accepting. At Christmas time Grace lives up to Robin Williams’ old adage of the Episcopal Church having, “All of the pageantry – none of the guilt.” As the big old pipe organ booms through the cavernous building a grand procession of priests and choir members files solemnly up the aisle, colored by the sun filtering through the ornate stained glass windows. The procession is headed by a fellow swinging a gilded ball holding smoking incense and is brought up by a rear guard of unknown folks who for all I know get to march by buying the VIP experience.
I did make an exception one recent year and went with Cora to the Roman Catholic service at the nearby Pinole church. The parish had cycled through a few priests since I’d been there last. The fellow standing at the pulpit that day had all the pizazz of spoiled eggnog. To make matters worse he was full of himself enough that he did two sermons; one after the Gospel reading as prescribed and one more before dismissing the, by then, antsy “we need to get home to the Christmas festivities,” crowd. As he launched into his encore the congregation stopped in annoyed mid-exit and I turned to Cora and exclaimed, “The fuck is this?” Okay I didn’t really say that, but it’s what flew through my head like eight pissed off reindeer – and probably Cora’s although she might not admit to it. I suppose the highlight of the service was the layperson who went in front of the congregation to do the Gospel reading resplendent in an outfit that looked like it had been borrowed from a MacArthur Street hooker. I can only imagine what Nonna Maria and my mom, who dressed solemnly right down to the required head covering would have thought.
But all that’s still a week and a half away. I started decorating the house just a few days past. Decorating starts with going up a ladder to the storage space over the garage and pulling down boxes that seem to get heavier each year and each year I hope that Cora won’t step into the garage to find I’ve fallen off the ladder and I’m sprawled on the floor bleeding out with my melon smashed open.
When everything is down on the garage floor I go through the time honored tradition of untangling the strands of lights. It wouldn’t be Christmas without hurling invectives at knots of Christmas lights. Once unsnarled the lights usually go up in short order. I made sure that the lights were up and twinkling by the time the grandchildren got home from school. So little effort to garner so much excitement from the children.
The kids’ excitement over the strands of colored bulbs carries me back to my own childhood. I don’t so much recall excitement, although the hanging of the lights brought about the anticipation of Christmas. The lasting memory of the Christmas lights of my childhood is of a warmth and comfort that I felt lying snug in my bed and pulling back the curtains to peek at the lights on the eaves above. On rainy nights the colors shining off raindrops on the window seemed to sprinkle the glass in the festive colors of the season. The recollection of that coziness still warms me on a rainy winter night.
Yesterday I pulled down the Christmas village from the overhead and set it up on a table in the entryway. When I first bought the village the family was thrilled. As I added pieces and Cora found out that they’re ridiculously expensive she asked that I put a halt to my urban development project. Given that the kids loved it I ignored her for a year or two until my miniature London threatened to outgrow the table.
Years later I got an electric train for under the tree but when Lexi joined the family the train was relegated to storage; too much hazard of her being a Gordon Setter Godzilla to our little train.
The village is a Dickensian scene with a church, the boarding school that young Scrooge attended and a decrepit old building that’s the home of the old miserly Scrooge. The village includes a poulter, an olde curiosity shop (which happens to be the title of a Dickens short story) and a steak and kidney pie shop. As I was setting up the village nine year old Jackson asked, “What’s steak and kidney pie?”
“That’s a British dish.”
“Well I like steak,” he said.
“I’m not so sure you’ll like the kidney part though.” And then I kidded, “When I order steak and kidney pie I always tell them to ‘hold the kidney.’”
Every year it seems a little harder to get into the Christmas spirit. What I found this year is that you don’t force the spirit. You just go up the ladder, pull down the boxes and after the first fit of cursing is done and you’re on your way to decorating the feeling of the season warms you, even in a nipping winter wind as your 66 year old back aches when you reach up to hang strands of lights. It’s sort of like that with religion. Your faith has to come from inside in its own due time.
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” ~ From A Christmas Carol
You don’t have to buy Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Like many other classics it’s available online at Project Gutenberg.org.