I always intend to do more at this time of year or at least to do it sooner: it's that "perfect Christmas in childhood" syndrome. Christmases were to the max in childhood or maybe it was just that all I had to worry about was when Christmas would arrive. Our Ohio grandparents loved Christmas and they always hosted gatherings of their children and grandchildren at their Akron home on Christmas Eve, complete with roast beef dinner served Victorian English style, and a pile of presents in the living room for each of us. [Somehow, Santa stopped there early on his way to everyone's house and one year he actually did pay us a visit!] There were red glasses filled with ribbon candy on the side board. Gleaming glassware and silver and even finger bowls with small porcelain flowers in them (I was lucky to inherit those, even though I have yet to use them). Our Grandpa usually made a short but heartfelt speech after tapping his glass and I can hear the sound the crystal made when he lightly tapped it with his silver spoon. He also took a lot of photographs (thank goodness for those and my main project this next year ahead: sorting and filing and sending to family members at last).
There were our own quiet Christmas celebrations at home the next morning where we stayed in our pajamas all day–even our father–and our mother prepared a lovely breakfast and dinner later on. I just assumed that everyone did Christmas as we did. It wasn't that we each got piles of presents–there were just enough (usually something we really, really wanted and then other things we really loved, too)–but that all combined it seemed like so many blessings and love and happiness mixed into the food we ate, in the family time together, in the beautifully wrapped parcels and the lights and decorations all around us. My early childhood seemed just heaped with piles and piles of blessings and only as an adult and a parent myself do I better appreciate the enormous amount of work that went into "putting on Christmas." [So here's to all of the parents and grandparents out there who gather their clans together and do their darnedest to make things merry and bright for their children and grandchildren, no matter what their own circumstances.]
We brought many of the same traditions to New Hampshire to our grandparents' farm after my parents' divorced. Even though Christmas was never quite the same, it was reinvented once more. There we added the coziness of constantly burning wood stoves and often a balsam tree that we cut in our own woods. There were cookies, of course, and in Ohio days, Mom's banana bread baking and delivering (a tradition I have renewed here in Kentucky: in fact, last night I baked banana bread for deliveries today when we delivered assembled food baskets to larger families we know, or in need, and breads to friends). Last week on "Prairie Home Companion" Garrison Keillor called banana bread "the comfort food of Christmas" in the Midwest and it's true. Last year I found a new version, with added cinnamon, and I further tweaked the recipe this year. [I'll try to post it before New Year's.]
This morning I listened to the live program of "A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" on NPR, something I try to catch each Christmas Eve while baking or working around the house. In England it was late afternoon, of course, but I enjoy hearing it simultaneously. It is so beautiful that I can even overlook the reality that men and boys' choirs still predominate in England (but there is no purer sound than a boy soprano before his voice has changed–and you can't beat tradition).
Two of my favorite carols were played together, "In the Bleak Midwinter" (which the commentator said was just voted most popular Christmas carol of all time), followed by my very favorite Christmas carol of all time, Personent Hodie. For a brief fifteen minutes I actually made my boys calm down and sit with me and listen, too, to the glorious message of Christmas and the beautiful music.
The English translation of the first verse of Personent Hodie is as follows:
On this day, Earth shall ring
with the songs children sing,
to the Lord, Christ their King,
born on Earth to save us,
peace and love he gave us.
Sir David Willcocks, King's College choir director from 1957-1974, will be 90 years old on December 30th and several of his carol arrangements were sung today in his honor. My father was a big fan and I have sung many of Willcocks' arrangements in various choirs over the years. It is likely that Dad even heard him perform here in this country as he was also a noted organist (and my father was also an organist so we all grew up with a rich musical tradition, especially at Christmas).
One of the highlights of several past visits to Britain were my treks to Cambridge and spending time in various college chapels, including King’s. Each has a splendid organ console, beautiful architecture–like the drippy perpendicular Gothic style that defines the interior of King’s and the era of King Henry VIII–and such history.
There is nothing like an English Christmas carol to get my Christmas spirit soaring, no matter what there is to do. Strip it all away and it is really about the gift of a newborn child who came here in the most human moment, in the most simple of surroundings and with the purest of intentions: "God with us." [I even held a newborn baby this afternoon (our friends Verna and Paul had a child earlier this week) and winked at another, too, across the room (that baby was sleeping, born last month to friends Norma and James).]
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 him my heart.
from "In the Bleak Midwinter"
Words by Christina Rossetti set to music by Gustav Holst
After we spent four hours driving around the countryside delivering gift baskets this afternoon, Henry said on the way home, "I really enjoyed that."
Blessings and a very Merry Christmas to all!