Saturday, July 28, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Christmas in July

There is a tradition of “Christmas in July,” although I don’t know why. The charming Dick Powell/Ellen Drew/Preston Sturges film is from 1940. Just last week USA reran the Cynthia Nixon/Christmastide episode of House, so someone is keeping it alive. I will contribute to the idea by continuing the Irish Christmas travels with Cadfael that I started on Bloomsday.

It is Christmas Eve, 2003. We are staying in the Galway Radisson, the only hotel for miles open on Christmas. Dinner at the hotel is a proper Christmas Eve feast: roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, broccoli and salad followed by a bouche de Noel, with the banquet tables festooned with fresh fir garland and white and red candles lit everywhere. After dinner we are walk to the great Cathedral in Galway under a clear dark sky. The night air of Christmas Eve has always felt palpably different to me. Maybe it’s the fleeting visceral sense of holiness and its companion, “the thrill of hope.”

Midnight Mass was warm and joyous. The bishop spoke in Irish for quite a while before changing to English.

After Mass we return to the hotel, to the Scandinavian-inflected bar with a beautiful open fire, filled with the interesting mix of people who find themselves in a hotel at Christmas. There was an older gentleman—tall, solid, like a boxer, with shocking white hair, the map of Ireland on his face, wearing a beautiful, stiff white dress shirt and exquisite black suit, who stood up and sang “O Holy Night” a cappella in a strong tenor voice. It’s an old tradition, this bar singing, but you don’t always see it. And there was that thought again, “the thrill of hope” in all the beauty of the music. Cadfael then sat down at the piano, and accompanied the gentleman through several other songs, which we sang harmony to. It was the first time since Elba that Cadfael and I sang together, and it was lovely.

So, you may ask, what do two drifters off to see the world do on Christmas Day?

They go to the Cliffs of Moher—-that cold, dramatic, stark place of imposing beauty. The cliffs at their height are a sheer drop of 700 feet to the Atlantic. We drove through the Burren through small, rural villages under a deeply leaden sky. From the moment we got out at the visitor's car park, the wind was a formidable presence as we made our way to the cliffs' edge. It was the perfect anti-Christmas Day. While families all over the world were waking up to a cuddly Christmas morning, the monk and I were hiking around the ancient sandstone—-I screamed a bit and laughed and cried, feeling a little like King Lear on the plain. Not everyone gets to have the cozy Soprano Christmas tableau.

The next day we flew over to Inishmore, the first and largest of the Aran Islands. That brought us back to 1000 B.C. to a fortress called Dun Aengus, built during the Bronze Age. We hiked through terraced layers of the ancient stone fortification to the cliffs’ edge, braced by the cold, snapping air that brought the primal place strangely to life. I could imagine those Bronze-Age people trying to scratch a life out of the harshness of that rocky land, and going to their deaths defending their next-to-nothingness from Barbarians trying to take it away. Being at Dun Aengus—without the hordes of summer tourists--tore a rip in the cozy fabric we shroud our lives in—-I could see and feel life stripped down to the barest elements, and it felt good.

Cadfael and I were headed for Rome for New Years, but we stopped for a night in Dublin to see The Return of the King, which had just opened. In a movie theater near O’Connell Bridge we were swept into the strongholds of Rohan and Gondor for the final battles for Middle Earth. It was a stunning visual complement to the actual ancient fortress we had seen. It reinforced my admiration for Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s astonishing imaginations. The movie is also a paen to fellowships outside of traditional nuclear families, which is something I know a lot about. As the credits rolled, Annie Lennox’s haunting "Into the West" filled the theater in a very Celtic ending to our time in Ireland.

We left for Rome the next day. It was December 30, and on January 1 The Talented Mr. Ripley (the scary, newly ex) was walking down the aisle with his ready-made family in my own parish. I was relieved to be in exile, but more distractions from the crushing reality of it all were still needed.