A fes­ti­val of mem­ory

Hopes, fears and Perry Como

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Carla Carlisle

Carla Carlisle re­mem­bers her Christ­mases past, from the Deep South to Suffolk woods

IF I could work my will,’ said Scrooge in­dig­nantly, ‘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.’

You don’t have to be a paid-up Dick­en­sian to know who spoke those blood-cur­dling words. The mean old miser is as much a part of our col­lec­tive Christ­mas mem­ory as holly wreaths, mistle­toe and car­ols. Ev­ery year, a new edi­tion of A Christ­mas Carol ap­pears, with il­lus­tra­tions that have be­come more lav­ish and kinder than in Christ­mas Past.

My orig­i­nal ver­sion con­sisted of black line draw­ings that were as scary as the words. I can re­mem­ber Scrooge’s ter­ri­fied face when he sees Mar­ley’s ghost, the fog of Lon­don re­placed by the haze of Ch­ester­fields as my fa­ther smoked and read to us.

Christ­mas is a fes­ti­val of mem­ory. We may lose track of names, places and dates, but we re­mem­ber the words to car­ols, the fixed menu of the feast that marks the day, the story that be­gins with the un­promis­ing words: ‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a de­cree from Cae­sar Au­gus­tus, that all the world should be taxed.’

It doesn’t take much to trig­ger Christ­mas mem­o­ries. Mine were set off this week by a book called I Re­mem­ber by Joe Brainard. First pub­lished in 1970, I Re­mem­ber is a cult clas­sic that had passed me by. For­tu­nately, Not­ting Hill Edi­tions, pub­lish­ers ded­i­cated to the best es­says past and present, has given it new life. As I read Brainard’s res­o­nant mem­o­ries, I felt like a wit­ness to a me­teor burst­ing across the win­ter sky.

The time­line of Brainard’s ob­ser­va­tions is the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and each mem­ory be­gins with the re­frain ‘I re­mem­ber’. In­evitably, his mem­o­ries ac­ti­vate one’s own and you be­gin to roam around your own lost fields of time and place. Two things help: Brainard’s be­lief that ‘ev­ery­thing is in­ter­est­ing, sooner or later’ and Christ­mas it­self, the siege of to­geth­er­ness, when the mem­ory’s pin­na­cle of hap­pi­ness sits side by side with the hopes and fears of all the years.

I re­mem­ber go­ing with my grand­mother to the boot­leg­ger each au­tumn to buy whisky for her Christ­mas fruit­cakes. Mis­sis­sippi was the last state to re­peal Pro­hi­bi­tion and my grand­mother, widow of the county pros­e­cut­ing at­tor­ney and a South­ern Bap­tist, for­ti­fied her dar­ing trip with the be­lief that her Christ­mas fruit­cakes were the birthday cake of Je­sus.

I re­mem­ber writ­ing to Santa Claus and ask­ing for cow­boy boots and a Davy Crock­ett hat with a real racoon tail.

I re­mem­ber the ec­stasy of Mid­night Mass and the glow of in­cense and can­dle­light.

I re­mem­ber the scrap­book I re­ceived one year. The only pic­tures I put in it were of horses and dogs and a pho­to­graph of An­thony Eden I tore out of Life mag­a­zine —I thought he was more hand­some than Elvis. I was seven and had never been north of Ten­nessee.

I re­mem­ber Christ­mas records: Perry Como, the Vi­enna Boys Choir, Bar­bra Streisand.

I re­mem­ber my first Christ­mas in Eng­land. On the train jour­ney into Lon­don, I was shocked to see shanty towns more piti­ful than any in the Delta. I thought of what Christ­mas was like there as I took in the beauty and grandeur of A Fes­ti­val of Nine Lessons and Car­ols at King’s. Sev­eral years would pass be­fore I learned that the slums were al­lot­ments and no one lived in the shacks.

I re­mem­ber my first mar­ried Christ­mas in Suffolk. The house was filled with my English hus­band’s fam­ily and I did all the cook­ing: turkey with corn­bread dress­ing and sweet-potato casse­role. No bread sauce. No chipo­latas. In­stead of Christ­mas pud­ding, I made Jane Grig­son’s frozen le­mon souf­flé. De­spite their se­cret long­ings, my new in-laws prac­tised a tact­ful si­lence.

I re­mem­ber when Sam was lit­tle and we had a stand of way­ward conifers in our woods. My hus­band went out early in the morn­ing and dec­o­rated a small tree with weighted can­dle­hold­ers and can­dles. At noon, we headed off with a Ther­mos of hot choco­late. Just be­fore we reached the tree, I’d dis­tract Sam as his fa­ther ran ahead to light the can­dles. Hand in hand, we’d come upon a mag­i­cal can­dlelit tree. This tra­di­tion con­tin­ued un­til Sam was more in­ter­ested in felling the tree with the axe than in the can­dles.

I re­mem­ber when my fa­ther came for Christ­mas, the year af­ter my mother died. He brought us wool sweaters from L. L. Bean that we still wear and a gal­lon of Jack Daniels to lace our eggnog. He brought Sam a Davy Crock­ett hat with a real racoon tail. Once upon a time, it had been mine.

Ev­ery­thing is in­ter­est­ing, sooner or later

She be­lieved her Christ­mas fruit­cakes were the birthday cakes of Je­sus

I re­mem­ber the verb ‘to give’—christ­mas was a time of giv­ing. No one said they had ‘been gifted’ or spoke of ‘gift­ing’. It was a much bet­ter time for lan­guage.

I re­mem­ber when the Christ­mas sea­son be­gan in De­cem­ber, not Septem­ber. Ev­ery­body liked that bet­ter.

I re­mem­ber that my mother al­ways dec­o­rated our Christ­mas tree when we were at school—it was only on tele­vi­sion that the happy fam­ily did it to­gether. Now, I dec­o­rate the tree and spend hours set­ting out my crèches (what the English call cribs). I be­gin with Once in Royal David’s City and cof­fee and by the time I lay Baby Je­sus in his manger, Judy Gar­land is singing Have Your­self a Merry Lit­tle Christ­mas and it’s eggnog and whisky. I feel happy and sad.

I re­mem­ber be­ing in­tim­i­dated by the ruth­less Christ­mas games­man­ship of the fam­ily I mar­ried into. Now I, too, love the games. This year—with grat­i­tude to Joe Brainard—i’m adding a new one: the Re­mem­ber Game. The fire is lit, Joan Baez and Elvis are singing car­ols, fruit­cake and mint tea are plen­ti­ful and the old­est per­son goes first. The sub­ject is Christ­mas and the only rule is: ev­ery sen­tence must be­gin ‘I re­mem­ber’.

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