the ghosts of christmas past

I loved the moment in A Christmas Carol (which might have been my father’s favourite movie) when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebenezer Scrooge’s hand and flies with him over London, out into the countryside where Scrooge sees his younger self, lonely and abandoned at boarding school, then rescued by his beloved sister. There’s a joyous party with the portly and kind Mr. Fezziwig. Scrooge sees himself falling in love with a young penniless woman and then extracting himself from that early relationship when he becomes more interested in commerce than love.

Dickens knew something about Christmas. It is truly a time of ghosts. The gatherings of the years, over the years, the parties, the sad occasions when the recently-dead were more present than anyone else (it seemed so to me, at least), the sound of bells in the night (which turned out to be the windchime near our bedroom window but which had its own magical moment as we listened and wondered), the arrival of guests in snow, the bringing in of the tree to dress in all the finery hidden away for the rest of the year, the scent of oranges, bowls of nuts and foil-wrapped chocolates,  the stockings miraculously filled overnight and waiting by the woodstove, the music  — Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin, Bruce Cockburn, silvery harp versions of all the old carols, Stephen Chatman’s A Chatman Christmas for choral splendor, Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, Light of the Stable with the transcendent Emmylou Harris, oh, and  so many more…more songs, more ghosts. I love the season but know that there are always moments when a shade casts its shadow in the bright kitchen and the Christmases of the past crowd into my heart. making me sit for a moment to honour their memory. “These are the shadows of things that have been,” the Ghost tells Scrooge and I always cried, because it seemed so deeply true. No matter how the years accumulate with their rich promises, their gifts (an early morning Skype date with my grand-daughter Kelly: when I was saying goodbye, I recited a line from a book I gave her the last time I saw her — “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” — and her dad said, “She’s going to her bookshelf to get the book…”), there are always the losses, the boy in the classroom with his book, abandoned. The love cast aside for whatever reason. The darkness.

This morning I’ve been preparing jars of marinated olives, Gaeta and Cerignola olives with slivers of our own garlic, Meyer lemons (from the tree in the sunroom), branches of rosemary and thyme from the garden, red wine vinegar and lovely green olive oil. Oh, and little dried chilies. When I finished all this and cut some paper for labels, I thought how the olives looked so beautiful in their clear jars, ready to be gifted, and opened by friends in their own time. This will be the first year olives find their way into the Christmas bags but so many people don’t eat gluten or sugar these days so these at least are free of those particular additives. But this afternoon I’ll bake the shortbread with rosemary (for remembrance) and the gingerbread boys with their Smartie buttons and dragee eyes, the same ones I’ve made for the last 30 years. Because there are ghosts and there are ghosts, the shadows of things that have been, and when I listen to Burgess Meredith recite the spine-tingling “ Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil” (“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.”) followed by Kevin Conneff singing it in Irish, I’ll want shortbread and a glass of sherry, the memory of lying in my bed in darkness, waiting for morning and the stockings and carols, and hearing bells as clear as anything.


St. Stephen’s Day (murders)

The day after Christmas, house a warm clutter of wrapping paper waiting to be sorted and folded for next year, ribbon untangled, the bowl of nuts and chocolates replenished for those watching sports (yesterday it was basketball…). I love Christmas in all its textures and paradoxes. The newspaper and televsion ads exhorting us to buy big, to take out interest-free loans — and the brightly wrapped packages of books, games, and small thoughtful things under the tree we cut from our own property. Magazines full of recipes for amazing food arranged on china kept just for this season — and our table set with the big Italian plates we’ve had for twenty years, the usual turkey stuffed with cornbread and sausage and dried cranberries (as it is every year), the mashed potatoes (because when I tried something fancier one year, there were groans of disappointment), the bowl of brussels sprouts which only John likes (though it would be unthinkable not to steam a few and grate some lemon zest over them with a dollop of butter), the cranberries cooked with port and orange peel. In the stockings, the same Terrys orange chocolates that have been a staple of Christmas since John’s childhood.

And the same music, every year. A favourite is The Bells of Dublin, the wonderful Chieftains cd with contributions from everyone from Marianne Faithful to the McGarrigles to Jackson Brown. And Elvis Costello singing “The St. Stephen’s Day Murders”:

And the carcass of the beast left over from the feast
May still be found haunting the kitchen
And there’s life in it yet we may live to regret…

The carcass of our particular beast is in a pot, waiting to be made into soup, while the leftover meat is heaped on a platter to feed us today, along with leftover carnitas from Christmas Eve (I’m not sure why we first prepared Mexican food for Christmas Eve about twenty-five years ago but I do know that it’s firmly entrenched and can’t be changed now).

Yesterday as I was making the stuffing for the turkey while others napped or watched basketball, I listened to A Chatman Christmas, a beautiful gathering of carols and choral pieces set by the Canadian composer Stephen Chatman, sung by the University of British Columbia Singers, conducted by Bruce Pullan. The harmonies are so lovely, the arrangements so original and clear (I thought of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, another seasonal favourite): a gorgeous backdrop for the preparation of the great feast.

a chatman christmas