A festival of memory
Hopes, fears and Perry Como
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’.