This is my way of thanking Sylwia for her informative history of Christmas customs in Poland as a reply to my blog on Austen's uses of Christmas in her books. The history of Christmas in the US is so varied from every point of view, from region, to era, to religion, to individual ways of getting through, that the best way I can express one understanding of this group-identity holiday is to tell a little of how we spent ours this year.
From The Maze, a redemptive Christmas tale
It was the best we've had in 5 years. Rewind to the year 2000: we had had 3 Xmases so bad I told Jim, I really thought I'd come near suicidal if I had to endure another such experience. For 3 years running, not just corrosive comments, jeering, overt jealous resentment and wrenches thrown in to ruin all pleasant plans, but Jim's own bad memories of Christmas which used to make him overtly irritated by any attempt at gaiety (such as Izzy and I enjoying ourselves on a boardwalk one Christmas Eve twilight, laughing and throwing snowballs which he insisted on bringing to an abrupt end). When he was a boy there was no money whatsoever for presents, they lived in condemned housing and his memories of Xmas are of embittering exclusion.
So he decided we needed to scotch this bad past and start afresh. We went to Paris and had one of these magically happy times (the three of us also did this in Bath and Devonshire the spring of the same year). We went to museums, saw many plays, a remarkable Offenbach musical, and just enjoyed Paris. Christmas day Paris is not closed and we went to a play and for that day Jim cooked a French style meal, and we had cake afterwards and wine. New Year's Eve we went to the part of Paris where the Eiffel Tower is and got rained on very hard. I don't remember if the fireworks worked, only that we were in a cab for a long time getting back to our lovely flat and saw the "banlieu:" - suburbs of tall personality-less buildings, no decent public arenas, dull cheap shopping of the Wal-Mart type, where so many non-European people who work long hours keeping France going live.
When we got home for 2 years after that we had good Xmases. I remember the first especially. As a joke we said we'd do a traditional Jewish Christmas. This means going out to a movie and eating Chinese food. That year we discovered it was no longer a traditional Jewish Christmas since so many people did it. I forget what movie we saw, but remember that we went to a Chinese restaurant to hae Peking Duck and the Duck was brought out in front of us in flames before it was cooled and cut up. The next day we went to the National Gallery and saw a vast Victorian exhibit. The next year we repeated this set of customs, with the difference the exhibit was a vast French 18th century rococo genre one (Chardin, Watteau, Fragonard). We did keep up our walk and the museum for the years following, but Christmas day no longer was the time of kindness and loving good will to be at peace together it had been.
This year we didn't manage to get back to 2002, but we began a journey towards it. Alas, we no longer have the money to go to Paris or some other totally different city in order to make a new threshold. But we could work out of our own hearts and minds. About a week before Xmas Izzy and I went to a JASNA dinner where we ate, and talked and had a good time in a splendid restaurant in a place hard to get, Tysons Corner. The practice trip there and back was a nightmare. But it was fun and other women had the same sticker on their cars, sat in the car not to go in too early. There was champagne and an excellent talk on the uses and distrust of laughter in Pride and Prejudice.
So Christmas eve we took our walk in Old Town in the twilight. Old Towne is such a pretty place and it was prettier with the snow. No neon. Strong zoning regulations (and a belief money comes in from tourism) has kept it decent looking and we have a museum where contemporary artists show their work near the Potomac. There's a long boardwalk by the Potomac at the end of the town and a long narrow park too. We saw other small family groups and friends and individuals walking.
On Xmas day around 2 we put away what we were doing separately. I am working on my paper "Rape in Clarissa" by rereading Richardson's Clarissa once again; Izzy listens to Christmas music Christmas morning (she watched a Yuletide log on TV) and was watching ice-skating and worked on her novel; Jim read a book and browsed the net and the cats plays. At 2 we gathered round our long wooden coffee table in the front room and exchanged presents. We told one another why we liked what we had gotten. Half an hour of suddenly spontaneous talk to one another: I have the Forsythe Saga (24 episodes on DVDs), Brooklyn by Toibin; Izzy got an ice-skating romance, and Jim a learned tome on medieval history (that's what he likes). I then drove to the movie as Jim has a Jaguar which is terrible in snow.
Our movie house, the art cinema Izzy and I go to regularly during the year was supercrowded. The only theater not full the one we were in for Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces (with Penelope Cruz, his favorite actress). It was a over-lauded art film: Jim said it had implausible characters doing improbable things and alas not a witty statement for the whole film. They were all so "dull." Izzy there were worse ways to spend a couple of hours.
Then I drove us to the Asian (Hong Kong food) restaurant, Mark's Duck House, which was also crowded with family groups and friends, mostly white. Some years it has been less crowded and with more Asian people. It was okay since we had reservations, the food good. It's a nice place, not too fancy but still cheering, with lovely framed pictures on the walls. We had good talk, and when we came home we listened to some Xmas music, Izzy in her room in front of her TV , and Jim and I in front of the TV.
Upon getting home, Jim and Izzy went to sleep much earlier than me. I read Mary Ward's Helbeck of Bannisdale, began my present, Toibin's Brooklyn (superb) and then watched the first hour-long part of Andrew Davies's 8 hour Little Dorrit. I wrote friends on the Net and read their letters and cards to me. On my mantelpiece were 20 more. These missives help enormously in getting through. I used the term "black crazies" for those who were experiencing the horrors of family life such occasions can make intensely visible. I heard on one of my lists a woman poet, Rachel Wetzsteon, had committed suicide. Here is one of her moving melancholy elegant pieces. You need to know that Sakura Park is a small park known for its cherry trees; it's near Riverside Church in an area of NYC called Morningside Heights (the area Columbia University is in and mostly owns):.
The park admits the wind,
the petals lift and scatter
like versions of myself I was on the verge
of becoming; and ten years on
and ten blocks down I still can’t tell
whether this dispersal resembles
a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.
But the petals scatter faster,
seeking the rose, the cigarette vendor,
and at least I’ve got by pumping heart
some rules of conduct: refuse to choose
between turning pages and turning heads
though the stubborn dine alone. Get over
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade
but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness
(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.
There is still a chance the empty gazebo
will draw crowds from the greater world.
And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:
the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.
We had gone to no places with crowds (beyond the crazed roads where it would take hours to crawl along roads), no malls; all shopping (5 small presents) was done on the Net.
A mall in England, circa 2004
We had said we'd go to a museum the next day and perhaps we should have, but there really was no show that we wanted to see (not even in the Phillips), and it was so cold and rainy that instead we stayed in. I finished the first volume of Clarissa (780 pages of the 1470). Izzy and Jim decided to buy a new large windows computer for her -- her old large one is dying and the small laptop they bought for her is not up to 24 hour a day use. Then she and I returned to the art flm theater (again supercrowded), this time for Emily Blunt in Young Victoria (Paul Bettany was Lord Melbourne, Jim Broadbent the king, Harriet Walters the di rigueur court lady with a funny European accent dispensing essential advice -- Barbara Murray plays the type as Madame Max in the 1974 Pallisers). Talk about Revential. It was ludicrous at times. I did enjoy the romance and the costumes were accurate and the literal events true to history -- even if the inner life of these was unreal. I wish I had seen Marie Antoinette by Coppola's daughter to compare. Isabel liked the type Emily Blunt stood for and we had an easy outing and good talk and music (Nanci Griffith) in the car coming and going). Poor Mark Strong though -- the bad guy everywhere (he's the bully Conroy and Moriarity in the silly stunt-man, action adventure Sherlock Holmes making the rounds of moviehouses just now).
I will write separate blogs on our time at the MLA in Philadelphia. We left on Sunday morning and we back on Wednesday evening. Suffice to say we had a rejuvenating time despite the brutal cold: met some old friends, made new acquaintances, went to a number of interesting sessions which included: one on the very 17th and 18th century women writers of memoirs and histories; two on movies [women's, French]; one on a Global Defore; one included Scott and Oliphant; one on George Eliot; astonishingly one on Thomas Holcroft and Caroline de Lichfield; one on just the 20th century women novelists we've read over the years on WWTTA [e.g., Rosamund Lehman, the writer of Our Spoons were Bought at Woolworth's; one on girlhood which is basically invisible in a sense I tried to explain when I describe Guppy's memoir, girlhood has not been picked up by feminist groups, though FGM one thing done to a huge number of girls in traditional cultures is at least acknowledged as horrifying. We visited the city and ate out in two good restaurants and one wonderful Irish pub. Alas, the streets of Philly are filled with homeless people still. . One session at the MLA was directly about the possible disaster nearing us, for it was about Margaret Atwood's recent fiction (the most recent, The Year of the Flood).
I did treat myself to watching the rest of of Davies's Little Dorrit late at night (and it's very long, 2 one hour parts, 12 half-hour ones each with a different set of differently mixed trailers reminding us of threads and looking forward to others). Claire Foy managed to make me like Amy Dorrit almost as much as I do Esther Summerson; I loved Matthew MacFayden as Arthur Clenham, and Tim Courtney was brilliant as Mr Dorrit, to say no more of the other great performances and the greatness of this mini-series here.
Amy coming up to Clenham house
Arthur visiting the Meagles
In the Marshalsea
Watching this movie solaced my heart, absorbed me, I just loved the themes, inferences -- Davies seemed to me to make good sense and brilliant theater of Dickens. i was not nervous while I had this going.
Philadelphia was also good because Jim and I do need time alone, to go out to bars and dance a little (we did), not worrying, no cats continually there, just be plucked away. In the session on Margaret Atwood where two papers talked of her resolutions not necessarily to forgive, but "let go" (how the phrase repeats) and carry no burden of resentment/hurt/poison resolidified my vow to dismiss our own family "black crazies" from my mind.
Isabel did take herself ice-skating one night. She had one bad day where the computers didn't work but she fixed them. The third morning Ian (Little Snuffy) made all over her bed, and the girl cat was a bundle of neuroses -- apparently they need the company of three not one person -- but they soon reverted to his more usual calmness interspersed with wariness and anxiety (Ian, aka Little Snuffy) and alert play, tenacious affection, boldness and determination (Clarissa-Marianne).
We had a quiet New Year's Eve. We watched a rousing New York Philharmonic concert and I loved it: Aaron Copeland Apalachian springs, Cole Porter, George Gershin and Thomas Hansom singing rousing songs and talking about them, but then there was nothing else. We had thought to walk to a high hill in Alexandria about 10 minutes from us to see the fireworks but Jim felt exhausted around 11 and it had been raining earlier and was damp and chill. Isabel went to bed earlier -- she often does -- after watching programs on TV, interacting on webrings and reading. She carries on writing her second novel (vampire)
We have a screened porch from which I can just glimpse this hill where the fireworks go off so after reading for a while and listening to Music, I got onto my porch and watched and heard fireworks and went to bed. I read Hugo's Les Miserables translated by Norman Danny. It is so big but in Norman Denny's translation it's very readable, and more of Eilis Lacey in Toibin's strengthening comfort novel, Brooklyn. The next evening we again watched TV, this time the Vienna Philharmonic playing Strauss.
For several years before and after Paris we went to Kennedy Center for New Year's Eve: dinner at the lovely cafeteria on the high terrace, a good play, and then afterwards a ball. I love to dance and the ball was "for free": you had to pay to go to the play. On one side Strauss waltzed and the other old-fashioned rock-n-roll. I loved yearly seeing a man in his 50s in tux and white gloves dancing elegantly with a woman who I at first thought hismother but was probably his wife. Such grace and elegance. And they survived year after year. Alas, Woolly Mammoth the play company we'd go to see has built their own theatre, and while one year Kennedy Center itself had a moving play musical, The Light in the Piazza from Elizabeth Spencer's short story (about a mildly disabled daughter and her mother who travel to Italy together), most years the Center has drek on its own. And then the price went up: $450! So then we have to sit through 2 hours of drek (last year we went to an Andrew Lloyd Weber -- awful, the worst kind of neon and noise except for the famous "Memory" song). We are surrounded by people like ourselves, looking for a pleasant civilized time, but showing how money matters, it's just not worth it. (When young I went to Times Square but nowadays its equivalent in DC would be an endurance trial.) So we have to give this custom up unless there is a play we can enjoy. Instead stay home, listen to music, go to fireworks ten minutes away will be our solution.
To conclude, more on what we didn't have or do. We didn't have a tree this year because the cats cannot resist attacking the balls, so no fiber optic penguin was taken out (called Colin, he wears a scarf, carries a sled, has boots and mittens and a sweet smile). No wrapping presents because of the same said cats.
What we didn't have. You can see Colin guarding our tree. I meant to hire an electrician to put lights on the bushes, but it snowed so strongly and the snow never melted. I'll have him come in February and put in electricity not only outside the house, but in our fixed porch and have a ceiling fan-and-light put up in my room. Our sole decoration was the cards across the mantelpiece. And I kept up my friendships, contacts, reading with and discussions of books and movies and politics on the Net with friends and listserv members.
It's a time to be weathered. There is an intense pressure to pretend to come group-identity of happy families, blessed fellowship with all sorts of friends and connections. The reality is far from that (a good story to read here is Bobbie Ann Mason's "Drawing Names"). It's not as bad as vacations can be because shorter and at home, but having the same troubles of high expectation, fraughtness from past histories of interconnected needs and abuses among closely knit (or not) people. Our very worst moment occured at a neighborhood party where the poison injected into our family was suddenly exposed by tactless questions by someone not meaning harm but assuming a picture book reality; a shame because the get-together was pleasant: I met neighbors I've lived near for ten years for the first time, and the woman across the street who gave the party is a kind intelligent woman, no phony, tactful herself. Arlette Farge shows that in the ancien Regime such days of group-identity were also pushed by the established ruling groups in France, swirled around religious holidays too. People acquiesced to get a day or days "off."
Me, probably 2002, trying to relax after having spent to much money (another thing we did not do this year).
I'm trying hard to look forward with cheer to the coming year and to remain hopeful for Izzy, and my many friendships on the Net are central to my life's joy. The Admiral (as I used to call him), has been planning trips again since we did have a good time -- not this summer as we have enough to try to go (Albuquerque in March, Portland next October, California MLA in 2011), for but planning after that. He dreams -- we shall go to Venice it seems, and Austria (Vienna) and to England again. Each one next to a year :). Where he's getting the money for all this he doesn't say. (Meanwhile the rocking chair he sits in is so broken only he can sit in it. Like Samuel Johnson on his three-legged chair, the admiral has learnt how to sit there so the chair holds up. Probably the final blows were given by one male cat named Ian who takes rocking chairs to be trees and he Lewis Carroll's Chesire Cat.) He needs things to look forward to too. All of us do