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.]
NOTE: Donald Hall, a former United States Poet Laureate, has written many books over the years including my favorites String Too Short to Be Saved, Ox-Cart Man, Lucy’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.