the chilly notes of old carols

christmas cards

Almost every year since 1980, we’ve printed Christmas cards on our 19th c. Chandler&Price platen press. It’s treadle-driven, with an elegant fly-wheel, and when it’s in action, I can hear it from the kitchen, the rumble of its gears, and the steady thump of the treadle. I say “we” but John prints the linocuts that I make at the kitchen table after softening the lino against the window of the woodstove. I’m not an artist but almost every year I come up with something that we match with passages of poetry, old carols, a few sentences from an essay. The blue boat you can see at the back of the photograph is one of the carol ships we used to watch from our friend Edith Iglauer’s deck. The boats would move in and out of the little bays, their rigging strung with lights, and you could hear people singing carols on their decks. Those of us watching from shore would try to match our voices to the ones that drifted across the dark water. One year the card was our house on its hill. Another showed our cat sitting on a windowsill. Once a quilt block (Variable Star), once a pear, once a grouse in cotoneaster, once a pygmy owl on the bough of fir where we spotted it on a walk. Last year there was supposed to be a Steller’s jay but I wasn’t happy with the inking and said I wouldn’t mail it out. John went quiet. (It’s a lot of work to set the block, to set the type, to print—often in two colours, which means two inkings, two times through the press.) He mailed a few and somewhere there’s a stack of under-inked jays with rather dashing crests.

This year, there won’t be a card. When I said the press is treadle-driven, I mean that there’s an iron treadle that is pedaled with the right foot. If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll know that John had double hip surgery in October and suffered from a compressed sciatic nerve that affected his peroneal nerve, resulting in a paralyzed right foot. It may or may not recover, though he’s experiencing more feeling in his foot and more movement, and we are hopeful. With some work, he will no doubt be able to figure out a good way to use the treadle again but not yet. He has some plans for press work in the new year and who knows, there might be something to send out then.

I think my favourite of all the cards is the one on the left, in front—two coho salmon in Haskins Creek. Every year we walk over to the creek to witness the return of the fish to the tiny creek running down off Mount Hallowell to where it enters Sakinaw Lake. The fish swim the length of the lake in summer and early fall, waiting until there’s enough water in the creek to allow them to make their way to the gravel beds where they’ll dig redds and spawn. Eagles wait in the huge cedars and coyotes lurk and once I saw a bear dragging a fish away on the opposite bank of the creek as we walked towards the water. Watching the salmon puts life, and death, in perspective.

Mid-winter is the season of miracles—children returning from distant enterprises; the chilly notes of old carols in the air; ancient stories of birth and death; two dark red fish sidling together in a riffle overhung with ferns, fish who have come such a vast distance through rain and under stars to find this unlikely water; a few loose eggs in the gravel glistening like a rare and costly gift.

—from “Autumn Coho in Haskins Creek”, published in Phantom Limb, Thistledown Press, 2007.

Later this morning we’ll go over to the creek. I don’t know if the fish are there yet. Some years they arrive in early December. We’ve watched them at New Year. So who knows. But we need this now. We need to remember the ancient stories that sustain us, all of us, as the northern hemisphere tilts its furthest distance from the sun and we prepare for the shortest day of the year. We will be the couple, arm in arm, on the bank of the creek, looking into its fast clean water, as the fish swim past barely noticing us. And if you listen carefully, across the dark water, you might hear one of us singing softly:

I sing of a night in Bethlehem
a night as bright as dawn
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
the night the Word was born*

*this is one of my favourite Christmas moments, recited by Burgess Meredith on the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin

6 thoughts on “the chilly notes of old carols”

  1. I’m delighted to have one of those linocut cards (a winter wren). Thank you for the beautiful image of you and John on the creek bank softly singing to the salmon. And the passage from “Autumn Coho” — so beautiful. This will be a different Christmas, for sure. Not without its own moments of joy, I hope.

    1. I hope there will be more to come, Leslie! Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to do — to remember to go to the silvery creek with its fast water and look for fish. They weren’t there yesterday but they’re just beyond the mouth of the creek, waiting for the water to be just right. I saw a small dark jack darting among the rocks. When we got home, it was the place we loved again, and still.

  2. You must have read “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, where she describes the indigenous peoples of the NW states setting fires on the headland to light the way for the returning salmon. She writes, as you do, of gathering along the streams to sing and welcome the salmon home. She says our North American settler culture lacks the roots to place that immigrants must have had in the Old Country, that those traditions didn’t transplant to the new places. The fact that you have a connection to the salmon is proof that new rituals, traditions and even ceremonies can develop here if we are in tune with the life around us. It’s sad that you can’t celebrate the creatures you share your part of the coast with in another lovely card this year. And in spite of what you say, you are an artist!

    1. I love that book, Susan. Have read it several times, given it as a gift. I was struck in the National Gallery looking at William Kurelek’s Green Sunday, depicting the ceremonial observance of the first Sunday in May with poplar boughs brought into the house, that so much of how humans have found meaning is connected to the turning of the seasons, the natural world, and we need to continue to honour these rituals on a daily basis. Not in a performative way, for others to notice, but for our own souls. Right now mine needs what it’s always needed: the beauty of returns, of lights in the darkness, of bringing in the green boughs in winter, of wishing (as I did) on a single bright star in the west. I send you warm wishes for a peaceful holiday season in your cold part of the world!

  3. Theresa, this was so very beautiful including the excerpt from “Autumn Coho in Haskins Creek.” What a gift your cards are for each recipient. The thought and the love and labour put into each I’m sure are held precious by friends and family.
    Although this pandemic Christmas will be different for us all, I just know it also holds gladness and more.

    1. When I found the archive of cards in a drawer, it was as though I was discovering the accumulated Christmases too. The one when we saw the owl, the one when I cut a little fish boat into the lino and then painted lights in an arc over top, the one with the cat in a window, a tiny star stuck onto each one with a bit of glue on a toothpick.

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