This may be read as a continuation of my meditation on Christmas and report on what the Admiral (Jim), Izzy and I plan to do on the 25th, 26th, and 31st of December this year: Doing Christmas. Towards the end I try to speak of why this winter time off has such a grip and causes such fraught behavior. Holidays" seems to me a misnomer. Most people have a couple of days off at most; sometimes they take a week. Schools close for a week and their staff gets off. What it is is a break from the routine. Me I love routs and routines They ask so much less and contain reasonable expectations.
Why have this yearly ritual. Well, the winter season caught up in its icon: snow. So, first, the season out of which probably the yearly ritual grew: a time of dark and cold against which human beings put out lights and come together for warmth and support:
Nell Blaine (1922-96), Trees from her studio window (1972).
First from Cowper's Task:
Through the hush’d air the whitening shower descends,
At first thin wavering; till at last the flakes
Fall broad, and wide, and fast, dimming the day
With a continual flow. The cherish’d fields
Put on their winter-robe of purest white.
’Tis brightness all; save where the new snow melts
Along the mazy current. Low the woods
Bow their hoar head; and ere the languid sun
Faint from the west emits his evening ray,
Earth’s universal face, deep hid, and chill,
Is one wild dazzling waste, that buries wide
The works of man, 1780s
There's nothing I love more than a picture of snow. I like to imagine myself and also be in front of a window looking out at the snow. Since I'm inside looking out the experience here is predominantly imagined.. I have a book filled with images of snow by the French impressionists: Effets de Neige (Charles Moffett the gatherer). I like it when the New Yorker has drawings of snow in Central Park, and can make do with photographs too. This I found no Catherine Delors's Versailles and more blog
Luigi Loir, Paris in the Snow, very late 19th/early 20th century
I used to enjoy walking in the park (Central) in snow. When I was young and lived in NYC, there was nothing I liked better than what snow seemed to do to my immediate environment. Suddenly the noise, and movement and sense of stress gone -- like very early morning walks when people's faces can be more open. All was hushed in the streets as I looked out my window -- but the sound of feet making their way through.
Camille Pissaro, Loucouviennes after the Snow (1770s)
I should mention -- realistically -- going out in the frigid cold and snowy world is not much fun for older people. On Friday at 6;15 the world was pitch-dark, I had to get into my 93 chevy cavalier, an old car whose heating system works poorly, then an igloo and drive to GMU, arrving before dawn. My CD player would not work. I'm not sure I was up to appreciating the crimson lower sky as I arrived.
The deadly Winter seizes; shuts up sense;
And, o’er his inmost vitals creeping cold,
Lays him along the snows, a stiffen’d corse,
Stretch’d out, and bleaching in the northern blast.
R. W. Macbeth, The Postman arrives (mid-Victorian watercolor)
Snow is a fearful element in gothic stories (Mario Soldati's "Footsteps in the Snow," I passi sulla neve) -- something whose apparent peace allures you. So we move out from the individual to something more generic:
Paulene Bourges, later 19th century impressionist painter, Winter (1872)
First it connects to war's devastation going on now around the world -- as well as the horrific and spiteful (backed by military) closing down of universities to all but the wealthy unless you have the wherewithal to mortgage your life to a bank (or debt collector), the ending of social services as far as a wealthy minority dares to (pretty far). Back to the 19th century.
C. K. Stewart's poem on the war the US inflicted on Iraq, opens with “bitter” “slashing” winter weather outside (lines 1, 2),
I was thinking,
as I often do these days, of war;
I was thinking of my children, and their children,
of the more than fear I feel for them,
and then of radar, rockets, shrapnel,
cities razed, soil poisoned
for a thousand generations; of suffering
so vast it nullifies everything else.
So why the grip? I can see how people want to mark time, the passing year, to look back, commemorate maybe, get a-hold of one's life and see it "whole" (or at least over the past year and remember back to the ones before) for a bit, but Christmas doesn't do that. It's an originally religious holiday for the hegemonic Christian culture of the US to re-assert its world view and its people to make plain to themselves and others how they belong to this group identity and adhere to their values. It's important therefore to be insistent on sweeping away anything and everything that contradicts the sort of thing we see in typical popular Christmas sentimental movies
So as a counterweight are two final 18th century poem by Mary Robinson, not so well known as Cowper or Thomson's, poems that insist on paying attention to what meretricious versions of the season omit:
The Wintry Day:
Is it in mansions rich and gay,
On downy beds, or couches warm,
That Nature owns the wintry day,
And shrinks to hear the howling storm
'Tis on the bleak and barren heath,
Where Mis'ry feels the ice of death,
As to the dark and freezing grave
Her children, not a friend to save,
Is it in chambers silken drest,
At tables which profusions heap,
Is it on pillows soft to rest,
In dreams oflong and balmy sleep?
'Tis in the rushy hut obscure,
Where Poverty's low sons endure,
And, scarcely daring to repine,
On a straw pallet, mute, recline,
O'erwhelm'd with woe!
Is it to flaunt in warm attire
To laugh, to feast, and dance, and sing;
To crowd around the blazing fire,
And make the roof with revels ring?
'Tis on the prison's flinty floor,
'Tis where the deaf'ning whirlwinds roar;
'Tis when the Sea-boy, on the mast,
Hears the wave bounding to the blast,
And looks below!
Tis in a cheerless naked room,
Where Mis'ry's victims wait their doom,
Where a fond mother farnish'd dies,
While forth a frantic father flies,
Man's desp'rate foe!
Is it where gamesters thronging round,
Their shining heaps of wealth display?
Where fashion's giddy tribes are found,
Sporting their senseless hours away?
'Tis in the silent spot obscure,
Where, forc'd all sorrows to endure,
Pale Genius learns - oh! lesson sad!
To court the vain, and on the bad
False praise bestow!
Where the neglected Hero sighs,
Where Hope, exhausted, silent dies,
Where Virtue starves, by Pride oppress'd,
'Till ev'ry stream that warms the breast
Forbears to flow!
On Leaving the Country for the Winter Season, 1799:
YE leafless woods, ye hedge-rows bare,
Farewel! awhile farewell
Now busy scenes, my thoughts must share
Scenes of low guile,
Where shrewd Hypocrisy shall smile,
And empty Folly dwell!
Ye rising floods, ye mountains bleak,
Farewel! awhile farewell
The din of mingling tones I seek;
The midnight gloom
I change, for the light taper'd room
Where sounds unmeaning swell.
Ye meadows wide, that skirt the stream,
Farewel, awhile farewell
Ye green banks, where the summer beam,
So rich and gay,
Among the fragrant buds would play
Adown the silent dell.
Now dark and dreary hours I see,
I hear the deaf'ning noise;
The troublous scene returns to me,
Who sick'ning sigh
For the soft breeze, and summer sky,
With all their glowing joys!
Yet, yet, where'er my course I bend,
May ev'ry hour be blest
With the sweet converse of A FRIEND!
A calm contempt for human woes:
Then, Splendour take the rest!
I'm not immune: this year I may well re-watch once again John Huston's film adaptation of Joyce's The Dead, which does not erase the cross-currents and at least some middle class realties of Irish lives-- which perhaps I'll write about here. I do think it's important (if you cannot fly out of the US and other Protestant capitalist places) to avoid the bleak feeling, the fraughtness and all the stress Christmas causes whatever way you can.
Look at pastoralized pictures of the snow:
Monet, Road to the Farm, Saint Simeon, Harfleur (1867)
This has been personal, political, and partly prompted by threads I've read here on the Net (listservs, blogs, facebook), letters and cards I've gotten, and Mary Favret's "Still Winter Fall", an essay that appeared last year in PMLA, Winter issue . Also Bobbie Ann Mason's "Drawing Names," a truthful humane Christmas story in her Shiloh and Other Stories.
A more recent briefer commemoration.