"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

December 10, 2012

Joyeux Noël

This month I read a short, delightful Christmas story by Donald Hall (with beautiful woodcuttings by Mary Azarian). Christmas at Eagle Pond is the author’s imagined holiday with his grandparents over the stretch of Christmas week in the early 1940s at their New Hampshire farm—a Christmas he never shared with them because he only came up with his parents from Connecticut each summer. Hall has carried these memories with him, over 70 years later, of his grandparents’ farm: their routines, the foods they ate (his grandmother’s pantry!), the daily chores and the many country experiences and conversations that he shared with his family.
When I was a child I dreamt and daydreamed of my grandparents’ own New Hampshire farm throughout the winter: where we too would only visit in the summer. I imagine that their Christmases—after their children and grandchildren lived elsewhere—were quiet and marked by the early morning service at their Episcopal church, a few simple gifts (most likely books to each other or favorite plants tended in their own greenhouse), an easy dinner, and quiet moments around the fireplace after chores.

My grandparents, despite their illustrious upbringings around New York City, spent their last thirty years together on 1790s New England farm where they raised their six children amongst an assortment of animals—including milking cows, horses, chickens, geese—and acres of produce. They were among the first wave of “back-to-the-landers” and their farmhouse contained the scattered—and often delightfully tattered—remains of generations: old portraits, assorted silver and china, rooms full of old, well-loved books and even the precious porcelain “courting cups” that had been a regular gift from my great-grandfather to his future wife. There was a cavernous barn with an attached annex and summer kitchen—evocative of the “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn” motif that was predominant in many New England farmsteads—and fragrant pinewoods, fields and brooks surrounded it. The farm was a magical place, despite the sorrows that did occur there, and will be forever a part of me. We had our own Christmases there after my parents divorced, my grandfather died, and we moved from Ohio with my mother in 1974.

Eli's creche scene (2011).
My mother’s Christmases were probably a bit more elaborate than those of her parents or her own childhood—but still with an infused simplicity and beauty. The tree was the focus—filled with handmade ornaments from friends and older glass balls and tinsel. We brought out favorite decorations from our Ohio days but mostly it was the greenery that I remember: the red winterberries, the boughs, and bits of the forest that my mother gathered from the pinewoods and assembled with her own flourishes. We attended the midnight Christmas Eve service and spent the entire next day in our pajamas—even having our Christmas feast that way (a tradition I continue today where flannel is de rigueur at the dinner table). The sounds of our Christmas were the constant low music from the hi-fi (usually Andy Williams, the Kingston Trio, and other favorites) and the crackle of the fire in the woodstoves. In future years, before I was married and when I was working in Boston, I would return back to the city, open my suitcase and welcome the cold, fresh air and pungent wood smoke that had been encased with my belongings. It was the tonic of home.

Gertie, Emmet and Cora at Christmas (2010) • They are now back in the wild.
Last year's tree (2011) at the double-wide.
There will be fewer gifts this year, by choice.
So here is to a Merry (quiet) Christmas or whatever your tradition at this time of year—we are hoping to light a large bonfire around the Winter Solstice, too. And these words have meant much as we've simplified things a great deal in our holidays this year. [And be sure to check back in a few weeks for a special New Year's greeting, too.]

You come back when you're ready!


NOTE: Donald Hall, a former United States Poet Laureate, has written many books over the years including my favorites String Too Short to Be SavedOx-Cart ManLucy’s Christmas (the former a memoir and the latter two for children) and some recent memoirs about his life shared with, and after, his wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon (I highly recommend her poetry, also). Since the mid-1970s he has lived on his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm where he continues to write.


  1. I have just heard about this book and need to get it. I love Lucy's Christmas. Merry Christmas to you.

  2. Oh Catherine!

    If I close my eyes, I can actually see, something I once took for granted, but now miss so much, a New Hampshire Christmas. If I think on it too long, a lump forms in my throat. And, in my opinion, there is nothing like the smell of a wood stove burning. Each home, warmed by wood, it seems, has its own smell - smells that would become engrained in our Northern Isle Sweaters each winter.

    Loved this post,


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