“I sing of a night..”


Yesterday I was down in Sechelt (about 45 minutes south of where I live) and I thought how festive the small town looked. In the Bakery, where we had coffee and one of the delicious chocolate-dipped shortbreads, John observed that every surface was decorated. Big tins of gingerbread people, silver stars, baskets of the shortbreads (and several other versions), so that we felt we sitting inside a Dickens story. And outside, the chestnuts and acacias on the square were draped with lights, the trees along Cowrie Street twinkled, the storefronts were bright with stars and garlands. I wonder if it’s easier somehow to keep Christmas in a minor key when the place where you shop is so lovely? I was thinking about this as I drank my coffee this morning, planning how best to pack the parcels going to Victoria and Edmonton (we are going to Ottawa for a few days over Christmas so it’ll be a matter of finding room in our suitcases for the gifts going there). I remembered the early days of our family life here and how we wondered if we’d be able to continue the traditions of a tree cut on Christmas Eve, cards printed on our old platen press, simple presents for our immediate family, baskets and bags of homemade treats for our friends. I’m happy to say that most of this continues. I say “most” because this year the card—a Steller’s jay cut into lino—didn’t work out, despite two days of painstaking work on the part of the printer. I made the lino-cut, from a sketch by our friend Liz, using a photograph and an actual jay on the railing of the deck, eating its breakfast. John set the type, blocked it up, but the ink was old and the results aren’t nice. We are of two minds. He wants to send it, with an apologetic verse (more typesetting, more tedious fiddling). I don’t.

Still, the woods look so beautiful this morning and the oranges in a bowl in the kitchen smells like Christmases past and today I’ll wrap and package the things I hope carry messages of deep affection and longing. The old carols call, asking to be played, to be remembered on the cold days leading up to the day itself. My favourite might be the haunting “Don oiche ud i mbeithil“, recited by Burgess Meredith in English, sung in Irish by Kevin Conneff, on The Bells of Dublin.

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

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.