Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Snapshots of A Child's Christmas in Massapequa

There's a whole literature of vibrant writing from writers looking back to the Christmases of their childhood for memoir or fiction.

My favorite is Dylan Thomas's wildly florid prose poem of A Child's Christmas in Wales:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

Dylan's writing is so exuberant it lead me to search for some memories of my own childhood Christmases . . .

years and years ago when the GI Bill first lead to the burgeoning of middle class suburbia outside of Gotham, and the next generation reaped the benefits of prosperity within its sprawl. A split level house meant having a staircase to bound down on Christmas morning. The anticipation of walking down those stairs made us all giddy.  As we descended, the living room came into view, dotted with brightly wrapped presents piled high in specific spots for each family member. It was a magical sight and the joys of the day were those that would never be matched again in quite the same way.

Katherine Anne Porter wrote the lovely "A Christmas Story"

When she was five years old, my niece asked me again why we celebrated Christmas. She had asked when she was three and when she was four, and each time had listened with a shining, believing face, learning the songs and gazing enchanted at the pictures which I displayed as proof of my stories. Nothing could have been more successful, so I began once more confidently to recite in effect the following:
    The feast in the beginning was meant to celebrate with joy the birth of a Child, an event of such importance to this world that angels sang from the skies in human language, to announce it and even, if we may believe the old painters, came down with garlands in their hands and danced on the broken roof of the cattle shed where He was born.


I shared my Christmases with my only sibling, an older brother. His presents were of no interest to me--a virtual litany of trucks, cars, trains, army men, model airplanes-- but we still were supposed to wait to watch each open one present at a time, so our parent's attention could focus on each of us, ping-pong like. There were some things he got before I was old enough to open presents that I liked, including styrofoam building blocks that you could build an igloo with and then get inside.

We don't know here that he will one day have his own family of two girls and a boy to share Christmases with and I could be the aunt in Porter's story.

Charles Lamb wrote an Elia story that also comes to my mind this time of year:

CHILDREN love to listen to stories about their elders, when they were children; to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great-uncle or grandame, whom they never saw. It was in this spirit that my little ones crept about me the other evening to hear about their great-grandmother Field, . . .

We too liked to hear stories of our elders. Grandma O. told of one Christmas Eve she saw a spider on the ceiling, and thinking it was bad to kill a creature on such a night she let it live, and the family went out to Midnight Mass. When they came back, the spider had given birth and there were dozens of baby spiders "dropping all over the place" as she told it. That was too much for her and she got the broom.

We didn't sit upon our dear old dad's lap often, but this one Christmas Eve he wanted to read us "Twas the night before Christmas," and mom captured the scene that is so real it looks like a scripted movie set: the roaring fire, the stockings hung with care, the wreath, the hand-made paper chains lining the fireplace, the post war paneling and Eames-inspired chair and ottoman. 

We don't know here that my dad will die an early death from colon cancer, or that I will have more in common with Elia's tale of his Revery: Dream-Children than I would want:

"We [Alice and John] are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name”—and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor armchair . . ."

But there has been music. More music than I ever could have imagined.

For Dylan Thomas too, who closes his tale with this:

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Merry Christmas, One and All.


scribbler50 said...

Late in getting here but glad I finally made it. As usual, M.A., you've posted something both thoughtful and beautiful. And even though I'm reading this two days after Christmas, you've warmed the Christmas spirit for me all over again. Thanks!

A Sentimental Sap!

Ellen O'Neill said...

Scrib, you are a reader's reader. I'm always so glad when you stop by. Happy New Year! E.

scribbler50 said...

Thanks, friend, and a Happy New Year to you!