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Dear friends,

Again this year the "signs" of Christmas around our house are the lights we managed to spread across our bushes in front of our house: alternatively webs of white and strings of varied colors; in the house, fewer paper cards than ever on the mantelpiece, and in my room Colin, my fiber optic penguin (a spontaneous gift from a neighbor who alas is no longer next door), of whom I've become very fond.

He does glitter when I plug him in.

He is in my room because my two pussycats either appear appalled by him when he stands by a window looking out (thus preventing the boy, Ian, from enjoying himself staring at birds) or play with him and risk hurting themselves by the wires or somehow ruining one of his parts -- as in his sleigh, scarf, snow shoes, hat. Gentle reader, he's all I've got left to stand for childhood feelings.

Colin, the noseless penguin
had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw him,
You would even say it glows

All of the other penguins
used to laugh and call him names
they never let poor Colin
join in all their penguin games.

Then one foggy Christmas eve ...

Colin with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight ...

And so on and so forth.

I was thinking this afternoon what is so painful about Christmas is this myth of love, and longing for happiness in intimate love and friendship. Also fear of exclusion. Have you got company on that day? Since growing up every year I come across this, since abruptly I am once again disillusioned of this dream of reciprocity. I know I should not blame Dickens, but I also know it was he who first instilled in me this hope of all settling together in kindness.

Certainly no one else did. I'll mention my mother is Jewish and to this day (quite literally) persists in refusing to recognize there is a holiday going on around her that matters. Sending her a paper card (as I will) usually elicits a reluctant thank you with the usual reminder it's not her holiday; Caroline has knitted her something and probably she will hide her actual attitudes insofar as she can by sending along a birthday present of money with thanks somewhere between apologetic and effusive. My father was an atheist and while he read Dickens too (indeed aloud to me), and allowed as Santa was a pretty lie, he couldn't understand (quite explicitly) why I so intent on pretending the day was special or happy. Well, were he alive today he'd know I've given it up or keep trying to.

Looking over Jacquie Lawson's selection today after fighting the burning cold air and winds of Old Towne Alexandria walking to find it there were any card shops anywere (this year I am experiencing chilblains as a matter of course), I decided I'm going to send mostly e-cards. Only those who are not on the Net will I send and those friends for whom I don't have an email addresses even if they are on the Net and we have corresponded once or twice (how is that? well, I neglected to save an address), only these will I send paper cards to. Why?

I like Jacqui Lawson cards better than those I can find in my neighborhood!  Where I live most card shops have closed (no stationary shops but Staples, no bookstores, the local museum stopped carrying cards). I usually did dislike most of the cards I ever sent, or not like them enough. Apologies to the post office but they should console themselves that I provided very little assistance as the attack on them does not actually come from the ordinary person not using the post office. This Xmas one place that was perpetually crowded was the post office with people sending oddly shaped packages wrapped in brown paper with string to fugitive destinations.

Miss Shuster-Slatt (an old friend), contemplating the mailing out of hundreds of post-cards asked, "What say you? Shall I kill hundreds of birds with one stone (so to speak) and post ONE holiday card on Facebook and then not have to send out any? Seems unsporting, and I haven't actually seen anyone *do* that yet...but it can't be long, can it.?"  Four people "liked" that comment. I answered at the time:  "I will go out and buy a small box of cards -- although I find it ironic that I get as a value those who send me a paper card are somehow asserting a "better" or realer" or different relationship than someone who sends me an ecard. I have a few relatives who are not on the Internet (and older friends who I have as yet not met on the Internet) as far as I can tell and of course they I must send paper cards to. I'll do that tomorrow after finishing my students papers, for not done yet!" Well I've finished the papers and gone and looked at the cards available. And it will now be a tiny box of cards.

A hour later: another advantage: since my hand-eye coordination has gone so bad and I can no longer write prettily, hardly legibly, another advantage is I can send messages that are readable. I've actually spent more time to more purpose writing little salutations to each person, and have found individuated cards.

My choices were: Shining Star, Christmas at Chudwell's (a book shop), White Christmas, Handbells and Christmas Eve Adventure.

As to music, give me Bach anytime. I find in listening to the latest updated Xmas music I am led to see the 1950s, 1940s even 20s and 30s kind of stuff I've thought of as "traditional" music seems just as time-bound and dated. Here and there some of these are moving (like one where the man sings "if only in my dreams") but for the most part they are silly & corny and not superior to the recent really dull "Glee" or other rock stuff. What moves me are the older carols done with older instruments. Better yet, Bach and organ music. Nothing less hits the longing soundly.

I hope within the next couple of evenings to watch with Yvette Whit Stilman's Metropolitan, an analogous updating of Austen's Mansfield Park set around Xmas time in NYC. Christmas day in the evening I've been watching Joyce's The Dead as done by the Huston family and Donal McCann.

What, gentle reader, are your rituals to get through this exacting time? The Admiral, Yvette and I have several routines we follow: one is on Christmas Eve itself to go for a long walk in old town, see the lights everywhere and walk along the water, and then come back for drinks (he and I) and dinner; Christmas Day, morning lovely music, around noon, exchange gifts, go to a movie (this year we are hoping for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, with Colin Firth and Bernard Cumberbatch), and then to Mark's Duck House; and Boxing Day, a trip to a museum exhibit

What is one shutting out:  Today Iraq is destroyed physically. 99% of its people are in abysmal poverty. Thousands & thousands of widows who are supposed to get $150 a month (not enough to feed themselves) an get nothing. All privatized. British Petroleum and American companies in there to take away the resources and make big sums for these corporations  !6000 contractors will remain: these are mercenary soldiers. Over 50% of US people living in poverty. The ravaging of female immigrants. The ruthless stifling of all dissent to the point where environmentalism and animals rights people are called eco-terrorists.

Christmas is then a particularly fraught time. That's the truth of it. People are expecting way too much and most are actually unwilling even to give some, want a lot and carry enormous baggage. Many make it worse for other people by pretending otherwise.  The best adult story I know to read is Bobbie Ann Mason's "Drawing Names" in her Shiloh and Other Stories collection; for comfort turn to the fraught comedy of Trollope's "Christmas at Thompson Hall."

Henri-Pierre Danlous, Reverend Henry Walker ice-skating -- on which image see comments.

Sylvia (Miss Drake)


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 19th, 2011 05:17 am (UTC)
Someday take a look at Pomegranate.com that has the most beautiful cards and calendars. I especially like the Asian-themed ones. get my calendars from Pomegranate each year; I think you would like some of them. Jill
Dec. 19th, 2011 05:18 am (UTC)
Well I did it tonight. I made out my very first Xmas list and sent most of the cards by ecard (3 I didn't & must buy individual cards for). I don't know if I've really made this clear: my handwriting has become impossible. I've lost all hand-eye coordination. I literally could not write a note the way you did for the Xmas card you sent me (thank you and it's on my mantelpiece); it would not be legible. I can't take down in sten what everyone says anymore. I'll look at Pomegranate. Jacqui Lawson's site makes it easy to do. That's a consideration. I've yet to learn how to use an ipod.
Dec. 19th, 2011 05:18 am (UTC)
One year, ala The New Yorker, I wrote a longgggg poem of rhymed couplets, working in the name of all 103 friends I sent it to. It was the millenium, so I don't have to do that again. I have usually liked my cards, mostly made them or found amazing ones, like one year in Scotland, cards of the famous Scottish painting of the pastor skating on Christmas day. Diane Kendig
Dec. 19th, 2011 05:19 am (UTC)
Shall we not exchange snail cards, then, this year, Ellen? My glorious e-card is all ready, us, cats, poem and all! I will send it to you right now! (Oh, I've always loved the skating pastor, Diane - for some reason he makes me think of Mr. Collins!) Diana
Dec. 19th, 2011 05:19 am (UTC)
I've made them all to arrive on 12/24. I somehow thought that would be best. I love e-cards. Send away. Diane your poem sounds lovely. I know that painting.It's attribution is often to Allan Ramsay but people have doubted it as it's unlike his usual portraits.

Next morning correction: Diane, I remembered this morning that the ice-skating man is Rev Robert Walker, the picture only usually attributed to Henry Raeburn, but nowadays thought to be by a French revolutionary type, Henri-Pierre Danloux.


Edited at 2011-12-19 12:36 pm (UTC)
Dec. 19th, 2011 05:45 pm (UTC)
Life changes
"I used to buy next year's cards the day after Christmas, too--and ornaments on sale. Now I buy handmade cards at an arts fair and write a letter, because I find that I like receiving letters from the many people for whom the exchange of Christmas cards is our only contact. I also like writing the letter as a way of looking back over the year. So cards mean the letter + a card + a personal message, but usually to people I haven't seen for years and may never see again. Last year we had no tree, or rather a tiny artificial tree at our son's house (his wife is Jewish and this was her first tree). This year I got a Norfolk pine, with the idea that it can live on the deck the rest of the year and we can trundle it inside at Christmas time and hang the ornaments on it. But it is small, so I only got out about half the ornaments, and it has no top, so the angel for the top (which I made from a doll I bought Brian when he was 4) is still packed away. One thing I don't know what to do about is the Praesepio, a wonderful nativity scene with many figures we bought in Italy. For some years the kids would set it out and really enjoy arranging it, but it has sat in a drawer for years. Perhaps I should put it up on ebay--next year."

Judy Shoaf
Dec. 19th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
Life changes
Time goes by, life changes and this yearly ritual has somehow to reflect -- or ignore it with strain. I agree best to try to reflect it. I once had people sending cards who I would get into contact with at no other time but many have fallen away -- or died (aunts, uncles, all grandparents, some cousins too). I love a letter and understand why people send a sort of generic letter with a personal message attached. To the ecards I was able to write something legible; I kept each short but tried to make it appropriate somehow. I too have ornaments that have a meaning for me from years ago (one fairy which I'd put on the top of the tree) -- not that many years: a devastating happening was in NYC when one year I took out the ornaments to find it had become a roach nest. I had to get rid of everything and some went back to my parents' trees. So we go back only to when Laura was 2-3 and we had our first tree. So that's 12 years into our marriage. Before that we didn't have a tree but then we began to do it each year. Now it's that the cats just attack and attack and I can't take it. The half-decorated tree just won't do. My daughters had a small fake tree of their own in their room but that's long gone as a ritual. Now all that's left is the lights on the bushes and a few cards on the mantelpiece. But we do have certain rituals for each of three days which we didn't used to and they help manage as long as we follow them. Being Jewish Christmas time is a whole 'nother topic of fraughtness (no matter how this might be individually denied).

Dec. 20th, 2011 12:17 pm (UTC)
Kathy: "Well, I'm glad you've got your Penguin and lights up. The decorations are nice this time of year. We wait to put up our (artificial) tree at the end of the week. Otherwise Christmas really gets on my nerves. :) I did all my shopping this day and felt much less pressured than most years ... I planned to read all of Dickens's Christmas books this year, but am only halfway through A Christmas Carol. The best thing about it is the reminder that Christmas should be marked by philanthropy. I haven't gotten to any of the great reunion scenes, and am not sure I want to. "
Dec. 20th, 2011 12:20 pm (UTC)
In reply to Kathy on Dickens,

I suddenly remembered that while Trollope has a whole series of stories set in and around Xmas, there are no reunion scenes, no bliss, only qualified quiet getting along :).

A friend who is reading through Dickens for this month, reminded me how many blissful reunion scenes Dickens has and said she's not looking forward to them as she finds that they make reality harder to bear. I suddenly remembered that Trollope has none of this: at the end of his Christmas stories you will have a qualified quiet getting along together. I like that. One might say that Oliphant goes Trollope one better: in rewriting the ghost story where often all is retrieved, that is "Lady Mary's Story," we find that in fact there are acts that are irretrievable and just must be borne with.


Edited at 2011-12-20 12:25 pm (UTC)
Dec. 20th, 2011 01:34 pm (UTC)
On not doing Christmas rituals
"I think it was me who sent you your first Jacquie Lawson card! I haven't seen their selection this year, but the one of the bookshop sounds nice, maybe you'll send me that one. There's a lot of synchronicity about being the same age - I too have trouble addressing by hand now, because of an arthritic thumb (it types just fine, thank goodness). So I'm very thankfully moving toward more e-cards and less snail ones, as you are."

Edited at 2011-12-23 11:25 am (UTC)
Dec. 20th, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
IN response to Diana,

Well perhaps you never had an investment in this holiday -- coming from a Jewish family it's easier to dismiss. Also you are good at not allowing fraught material to come too near, not seeing them, so they are not there.

I wasn't trying for a Victorian pageant. E.M.

Edited at 2011-12-23 11:26 am (UTC)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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