While I loathe the frantic search for expensive gifts in shopping malls resounding with irritating music, and while I sigh with relief when the decorations are finally taken down and the last desiccated Christmas-tree needles are hoovered up, I do not agree with Ebeneezer Scrooge that “Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” I love Christmas with the same awe and wholehearted sense of ritual participation that I have felt since childhood.
Easter in Italian is called la Pasqua. It has always amused me that in Italy they refer to Easter Monday with the diminutive la Pasquetta, “the little Easter.” But the casualness of this usage should not really be surprising in a culture where religious traditions are so much a part of life that there is no need to pay fussy reverence to the holy mysteries. In Italian churches black-shawled old women genuflect before the icons, cross themselves, kiss their fingertips, and carry on recounting scandalous gossip about their neighbors. Christmas in Italian is il Natale; so on the model of la Pasquetta, I have started calling the past week il Nataletto, The Little Christmas.
I remember my mother sitting at her desk with her Christmas card list, her Parker pen, her March of Dimes stickers, and her stack of cards. One year my father, an industrial engineer who made blueprints as part of his work, designed the family cards as Christmassy little blueprints of our house; another year we gathered birch bark on our summer vacation in the Berkshires and made our own cards. What a lot of work that was! But the daily harvest of cards that arrived in the mail, or post as it is called here, was greeted with a thrill of anticipation. Since I can appreciate the holidays with full relish only once I have banished the anxiety that accompanies the search for presents and the sense that all the preparations might not have been properly seen to, I try to buy my presents and get my Christmas cards out early. Ridiculously early, some might say.
Let me explain my “little Christmas.” The first day of December found me tucked up by the fire with my Christmas cards. I was listening to “The Messiah.” Handel, though English was not his first language, heard the beauty and simplicity of the King James Bible and set it perfectly to music. Whether you are religious or not, it is reassuring to be told that “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low”; to hear the repeated words:
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.
And the government shall be upon his shoulders.
And his name shall be called Wonderful! Counsellor!
The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
And then it started snowing. We live on a mountainside, and we do get snow here every winter. But never this early, and never so much of it. It was like the snow in A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas: “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.”
The rare times it snowed at Christmas when I was a boy in Memphis and my brother and I would kneel in front of the window of our little upstairs bedroom to watch the sparse flakes falling around the streetlight on the corner, our question was always “Do you think it’ll stick?” It seldom did, and here on the slopes of Slievenamon it seldom stays on the ground for more than a few hours. Last week’s snowfall was different. Everyone was quoting Joyce’s line from “The Dead”: “Snow was general all over Ireland.” The roads were icy, everything was canceled that could be. The only thing that lured us out onto the icy roads was to see a sparkling performance of “The Mikado” by an amateur choral group in the nearby town of Clonmel.
When I was young, people used to speak of something called “the Christmas spirit.” We would ask each other, “Have you got the Christmas spirit yet?” In other words, have you yet begun to share in the common intoxication of Christmas? The Christmas spirit is what makes poor Bob Cratchit mildly reprimand Mrs. Chatchit when she objects to the toast he raises to Scrooge at the family dinner: “The Founder of the Feast indeed! . . . I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.” It is that elixir with which the torch borne by the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’s fable was tipped when he stood in the doorway of the neighborhood bakery and “sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch. And it was a very uncommon torch for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled with each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it and their good humour was restored directly.”
I am by temperament subject to delusions. Once in the hospital in Michigan when I was coming out from under the anaesthetic after an operation, I was for unknown reasons convinced that I was in a hospital in Greece. I’ve no idea why. The nurse would say to visitors before they came into my room, “He thinks he’s in Greece. Just humor him.” The delusion lasted until they served me my first hospital meal. During the “little Christmas,” what with the Christmas cards, the snow, the Christmas music, and the fact that my partner G’s children were home from their school on account of the weather, I so deluded myself with the Christmas Spirit that, for me, it actually was Christmas. It never occurred to me that December had only just begun. When I handed her a card to be signed, G laughed when she read that I had written, “I hope you’re enjoying Christmas as much as we are.”