Saturday, December 15, 2012

On the Fourteenth Day of Advent: Opening A Christmas Carol in Bastrop

I opened A Christmas Carol at Bastrop Opera House last night to a small but generous audience.  They were involved and engaged, and genuinely seemed affected by it.  I took two bows and think I could've taken three.  It was thrilling to tell the tale on that old stage in that old, old theatre.  I felt as if I were channeling Charles Dickens himself!  I'm honored and grateful to have such a chance.  Three more performances to go!

Friday, December 14, 2012

On the Thirteenth Day of Advent: Rain in Tripoli and Band Aid 1984

The most memorable part of Christmas 1984 for me was Band Aid and the song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

Although I'd been determined to do so, I eventually chose not to stay in Tripoli over Christmas.  The inability to find decent food (let alone Christmas food), coupled with appalling weather -- rain ten days straight, if memory serves, which flooded the already terrible roads and isolated me more than usual from my friends -- finished me off.  At the last minute, I flew back to England to spend the season with my family.

All I heard about, from my arrival in London until my departure a week later, was the third-world horror that was Ethiopia -- I'd never seen such poverty and devastation -- and the well-intentioned, first-world song designed to alleviate it.  It was also the first time I witnessed what can happen when large groups gather to do good.  A spark of "charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence" was ignited in me during what was a rather self-pitying time in my life, reminding me that a sure-fire way to stop feeling sorry for oneself is to focus one's attention on someone else's needs.  Apologies if that sounds self-righteous but it's how it was.  What I thought of as "my miserable Christmas" couldn't compare with the miseries of others.  I was a bit old at twenty seven to need reminding but I'm glad the spark was lit.  Even now, I readily admit that more often than not I need a "mighty fire" lit under my arse before I actually get off it (my arse, that is), but my intentions are good, even if my personal road to hell is paved with them.

Band Aid was a charity super-group featuring leading British/Irish musicians and recording artists.  It was founded in 1984 by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money for anti-poverty efforts in Ethiopia by releasing the song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?"  for the Christmas market that year. On 25 November 1984, the song was recorded at Sarm West Studios in Notting Hill, London, and released in the UK four days later. The single surpassed the hopes of the producers to become the Christmas number one on that release. Two subsequent re-recordings to raise further money for charity also topped the charts. The original was produced by Midge Ure.  (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On the Twelfth Day of Advent: "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus"

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

On the Eleventh Day of Advent: Snow!

When temperatures flirt around the freezing mark in Austin, Texas, it's a big deal.  It's headline news.  Brits tend to laugh at this as, in their homeland, it's flirtin' around flippin' freezin' for much of the winter.

For British kids, however, snow on Christmas Day is a big deal.  Just once in the twenty-seven Christmases I spent in the UK, we woke up to snow on the day itself -- in 1962.  We couldn't understand the grown-ups' general lack of enthusiasm but then we didn't have to shovel the front steps or grit the streets.  All we knew was that our dreams had come true.  God, Father Christmas, and the baby Jesus had conspired to bring about perfect winter weather for this nearly-five and nearly-six year-old.  

I don't seem to have my sister's obvious glee but that's perhaps on account of my bad hair-cut.

Sis and me in the snow

On the Tenth Day of Advent: Long, Long Ago

ANON has written many exquisite poems.  Here's one of my favorites, taken from "The Family Read-Aloud CHRISTMAS TREASURY" (Alice Low and Marc Brown)

Winds through the olive trees
Softly did blow,
Round little Bethlehem
Long, Long ago.

Sheep on the hillside lay
Whiter than snow;
Shepherds were watching them,
Long, long ago.

Then from the happy sky,
Angels bent low,
Singing their songs of joy,
Long, Long ago.

For in a manger bed,
Cradled we know,
Christ came to Bethlehem,
Long, Long ago.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

On the Ninth Day of Christmas: Arabian Nights!

Most single expatriates in Dubai celebrated Christmas Day with their friends in apartments or villas.  My own favorite took place in a true Middle Eastern house with a large, central, stone-paved courtyard sheltered by willowy palm trees.  All the rooms, including the kitchen, went off the central courtyard.  In the corners sat enormous pots with ficus trees and bright pink bougainvillea plants, still blooming in December and growing up the inside walls , their trunks so thick you could see how old were the original plants.  

It was a typically warm December so a dining table set for twelve had been established outdoors in the middle of the courtyard.  The Arab setting was so perfect, you could almost picture the Scheherazade and the Sultan sitting down to partake in a spectacular feast with marvelous stories to follow.  This image was slightly distorted by the Christmas crackers on each dinner plate, and the smell of the traditional English turkey dinner filling the air.  Also somewhat incongruous was the twinkling, colorfully decorated Douglas fir in the corner of the yard beside the bougainvillea.  All the same, this was a beautiful blend of European expatriate and local Arab themes.  When we twelve sat down to a multicultural dinner of turkey, sage and onion stuffing, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts, combined with local vegetables, cous-cous and Persian salads, I was moved by an almost overwhelming feeling of joy – of community and sharing and love. It probably looked absurd: singing English Christmas carols, paper hats on our heads, while palm fronds waved above us and the Islamic call to prayer blared out from the mosques...but that's when I reminded myself that I was closer to the actual birthplace of Jesus right here under these shimmering stars than I’d ever been in my life.

Waxing so poetic here, I make the whole day sound wistful, sentimental.  Not at all!  Crazy cocktails were devised; Australian boxed wine was supped, and though I'm not a Scotch drinker, I "tested" several of those that were available.  Family stories and saucy jokes were told.  Ridiculous presents were exchanged then played with throughout the afternoon, proving that grown-ups everywhere revert to childhood once Santa has been to town.

Honestly though, for all the fun and merriment, what I remember most is the sight of the "table of plenty," that moment of connection, and a lasting sense of being included in a home away from home.  And the scotch.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

On the Eighth Day of Advent: The Twelve Days of Christmas

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS is an English Christmas carol, first published in 1780.
No Christmas would be complete without it!

Here's a fine version by The Chipmunks:

On the first day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

On the second day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree! 

Friday, December 7, 2012

On the Seventh Day of Advent: Festive Vittels, England, c. 1964

A short post today because the photo says it all.  

Life was simpler back in the early 1960s.  Everything connected with Christmas is on top of, alongside, or in front of the radiogram. 

  • Christmas Tree - check
  • Creche with the Angel Gabriel on top - check
  • Fruit (including rare oranges and bananas) - check
  • Nuts with nutcracker - check
  • Selection of drinks including sherry and two bottles of beer, and a tray of all-purpose glasses at the ready - check
  • Fern wallpaper - check
There should be a tin of Quality Street and/or Roses confectionery somewhere -- I wonder if the biblical birth scene is on top of the chocs; there's definitely a box beneath the log cabin.  I can't see the little wooden box of EatMe dates, dates being the one concession to the actual birth place of the baby Jesus.  I think those are little bottles of orange juice but if so, where's the gin?  Orange juice is of no use without gin.  This was before the days of wine-drinking, at least in our house.  We always had Dubonnet and Schweppes bitter lemon to offer guests but it seems to be MIA -- maybe Christmas Eve was a bit jollier after the children went to bed, or maybe Santa was less of a milk and cookies man than we thought!  I believe that's a bottle of Scotch whisky lurking behind the cheap sherry -- that would be for Dad.  The unopened Bristol Cream Sherry would be for Mum.  There's "Tizer" for my brother and sister and me.  That would be our Christmas dinner treat. 

I suppose the gifts are out of sight under the tree.  Surely that one wrapped parcel on the chair can't be the only gift! 

It's quite possible that the Cratchits had more for their Christmas Day celebrations than this but "Be it ever so humble," this little corner of our household brought more joy than you can possibly imagine. 

Christmas Vittels in the Nason Household

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On the Sixth Day of Advent: The Libyan Christmas Tree

1984, then, was to be my first Christmas out of England, actually my first Christmas not spent in the family home, and I hadn't missed Christmas church in my 27 years on Earth. 

Alright then.  I'd make a real effort to create some kind of festive feeling.  Libya being a strict Islamic culture, this wouldn't be easy but nonetheless I hunted for a tree.  I know now that there are indeed conifers growing in north Africa, in Libya even, but I swear there wasn't a Christmas tree lookalike to be found anywhere in Tripoli.  Naturally I didn't imagine I'd find shops selling them: Fayed's Famous Fir Trees, right?  As it was difficult enough to find simple household items for every-day life, I knew that was beyond my expectations but I had thought some expatriate somewhere might sell me a fake fir tree, or even something I could make resemble a fir tree.  Apparently, though, if expats had made what would surely be a supreme effort to bring a fake tree into the country, they either kept hold of it until they left for good at which point it would be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars; or it had to be pried from their cold dead hands like Charlton Heston's gun.

Honestly, what was I thinking?  Crazy, CRAZY, to imagine I might find a Christmas tree - real or fake - when it was so hard to find even a regular house plant.  The only way to procure a genuine potted plant, i.e. a Busy Lizzie or a Spider Plant or a Wandering Jew (not called that in an Arab land, of course) was to go to the above-mentioned house sales of folks leaving forever in the hope that they'd be selling off their domestic greenery.  Single, white females would fight over a healthy rubber plant much more vigorously than they'd fight over any single, white male.  In acts of desperation, young female expats (I number myself among them) were inclined to dream up ways of making potted plants from vegetables.  I grew many a straggly "hanging plant" from a sweet potato in a jar of water.  Of course I grew many more mosquito-ridden, mold-covered, soggy lumps of waste matter, but seriously, for the sake of a little greenery, it was often worth it.

Although not famous for my crafty ways, i.e. my ability to create something out of nothing with my hands, I decided to build a Christmas tree out of paper.  As I've mentioned many times, paper wasn't easy to get hold of but I dug up from somewhere a couple of sheets of green craft paper and I made myself a tree.  When you think that my brother is a graphic designer and gifted artist, and my sister, a naturally talented sketcher (more artistic talent in her pinky than I have in my whole being) it's hard to believe that I could create something so naff.  But there it is.  And here's a picture to prove it.   As you see, I obviously located bits of red paper, yellow paper and shiny paper too, because the fabulous tree displays a few equally naff decorations (hearts and bells?) and a star on top.  I went all-out on the creativity and made a silver angel from toilet roll innards and kitchen foil, complete with a little white net cape to represent its wings.  Don't ask where the netting came from.  God...and perhaps the angel...alone know.  It looks more like a martian bride.

A Very Naff Christmas

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On the Fifth Day of Advent: The Shoemaker and the Elves

There was once a shoemaker, who worked very hard and was very honest: but still he could not earn enough to live upon; and at last all he had in the world was gone, save just leather enough to make one pair of shoes.

Then he cut his leather out, all ready to make up the next day, meaning to rise early in the morning to his work. His conscience was clear and his heart light amidst all his troubles; so he went peaceably to bed, left all his cares to Heaven, and soon fell asleep. In the morning after he had said his prayers, he sat himself down to his work; when, to his great wonder, there stood the shoes all ready made, upon the table. The good man knew not what to say or think at such an odd thing happening. He looked at the workmanship; there was not one false stitch in the whole job; all was so neat and true, that it was quite a masterpiece.

The same day a customer came in, and the shoes suited him so well that he willingly paid a price higher than usual for them; and the poor shoemaker, with the money, bought leather enough to make two pairs more. In the evening he cut out the work, and went to bed early, that he might get up and begin betimes next day; but he was saved all the trouble, for when he got up in the morning the work was done ready to his hand. Soon in came buyers, who paid him handsomely for his goods, so that he bought leather enough for four pair more. He cut out the work again overnight and found it done in the morning, as before; and so it went on for some time: what was got ready in the evening was always done by daybreak, and the good man soon became thriving and well off again.

One evening, about Christmas-time, as he and his wife were sitting over the fire chatting together, he said to her, "I should like to sit up and watch tonight, that we may see who it is that comes and does my work for me." The wife liked the thought; so they left a light burning, and hid themselves in a corner of the room, behind a curtain that was hung up there, and watched what would happen.

As soon as it was midnight, there came in two little naked elves; and they sat themselves upon the shoemaker’s bench, took up all the work that was cut out, and began to ply with their little fingers, stitching and rapping and tapping away at such a rate, that the shoemaker was all wonder, and could not take his eyes off them. And on they went, till the job was quite done, and the shoes stood ready for use upon the table. This was long before daybreak; and then they bustled away as quick as lightning.

The next day the wife said to the shoemaker. "These little elves have made us rich, and we ought to be thankful to them, and do them a good turn if we can. I am quite sorry to see them run about as they do; and indeed it is not very decent, for they have nothing upon their backs to keep off the cold. I’ll tell you what, I will make each of them a shirt, and a coat and waistcoat, and a pair of pantaloons into the bargain; and do you make each of them a little pair of shoes."

The thought pleased the good cobbler very much; and one evening, when all the things were ready, they laid them on the table, instead of the work that they used to cut out, and then went and hid themselves, to watch what the little elves would do.

About midnight in they came, dancing and skipping, hopped round the room, and then went to sit down to their work as usual; but when they saw the clothes lying for them, they laughed and chuckled, and seemed mightily delighted.

Then they dressed themselves in the twinkling of an eye, and danced and capered and sprang about, as merry as could be; till at last they danced out at the door, and away over the green.

The good couple saw them no more; but everything went well with them from that time forward, as long as they lived.

"The Elves and the Cobbler" or "The Shoemaker and the Elves" is an often copied and re-made 1806 story.  The original story is the first of three fairy tales, contained as entry 39 in the German Grimm's Fairy Tales under the common title "Die Wichtelmänner". In her translation of 1884 Margaret Hunt chose "The Elves" as title for these three stories.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On the Fourth Day of Advent: DIY Christmas, Winchester-style!

My mum was a single parent with three children under the age of seven.  She became aware, after Dad went away, that Christmas was turning into an unhappy time for her little children, a time of worry and stress.  God alone knows how worrying and stressful it was for her -- that hardly bears thinking about -- but later she told us that, fearful we'd only remember sadness and pain, she decided to create some happy memories for us.

One of these "happy memory creations" was the making of decorations for the Christmas tree.  I imagine she couldn't afford shop-bought decorations so this was probably a cost-saving idea as well.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  Either way, on weekend afternoons in late autumn, we went ambling in the woods of Winchester.  That's a bit vague, isn't it?  There's no such thing really, but we could walk "up the Firs," a stand of glorious fir trees not far from our house, or "down the Water Meadows," a staggeringly gorgeous "living landscape" between Winchester Cathedral and at the base of St. Catherine's Hill, close to Winchester College.  We could walk across North Walls park, our town recreational area, or along the Twyford Downs through which the infamous M-3 now runs.  Wherever we went, we'd pick up pine-cones, acorns, rose-hips, twigs, leaves, seedpods, stones, whatever looked interesting; I recall little bunches of crab-apples, a bit wrinkly but somehow still alive in December.  Of course, there was always holly, mistletoe and ivy, though I can't remember mistletoe being plentiful like it is here in Texas, and I always considered ivy boring.

Back home, Mum would set the table with wire, string, scissors, paintbrushes and little pots of silver and gold paint.  I must say, the way I describe it  now, it all sounds magical and joy-filled!  Eat your heart out, Little House on the Prairie.  Truly, if memory serves, it was mostly bickering and squabbling and slapping of the backs of hands: "I found that one!" and "That's mine!" and "Mum, it's not fair..."  The phrase, "It'll all end in tears," comes to mind.  I believe it often did...end in tears, I mean.  Nonetheless, these home-made natural treasures adorned our tree that Christmas, and remained in our festive collection for years to come, precious and filled with memories, exactly as Mum intended. 

Even now, I choose natural objects for my festive decor: pine cones loiter on the paths throughout my neighborhood, "Pick me, pick me!" and my own jolly holly tree always sports flashy red berries in December.  It lends the whole season a more genuine vibe, a more sincere sense of connection with earlier, simpler times when we didn't need so much stuff to be content and didn't have to try so hard to be happy.  

My Jolly Holly Tree

Monday, December 3, 2012

On the Third Day of Advent: little tree by e.e. cummings


little silent Christmas tree

you are so little

you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest

and were you very sorry to come away?

see i will comfort you

because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark

and hug you safe and tight

just as your mother would,

only don't be afraid

look the spangles

that sleep all the year in a dark box

dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,

the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms

and i'll give them all to you to hold

every finger shall have its ring

and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you're quite dressed

you'll stand in the window for everyone to see

and how they'll stare!

oh but you'll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands

and looking up at our beautiful tree

we'll dance and sing
"Noel Noel"

e e cummings 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

On the Second Day of Advent: Christmas in the Middle East

In 1987, when I worked the Jebel Ali Hotel in Dubai, I had to work on Christmas Day.  I'd asked about a December vacation but at one of our busiest times, it was out of the question.

I've read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol every December since I was 10 and that first Dubai December, I read it at lunch-time sitting on the beach -- a bit odd being in full secretarial garb among the swim-suited German holiday-makers but I tried not to let it bother me.  When sadness overwhelmed me or I missed my family, which was often in those days, I shed a few self-pitying tears before pulling myself together.  Life goes on, right?

But I did resent working on Christmas Day.  I became a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching covetous old sinner" myself, especially when I saw that although the hotel was packed with international tourists and Dubai expatriates who did get the day off, there was no reason for me to be in my office.  Nothing needed to be done in my office that day.  Oh, I could have done some typing or caught up on filing but the phone didn't ring, no one visited, nothing had to be done that couldn't wait until the next day.  I paced around the lobby, scowling at folks enjoying their Christmas day, whining about my hard luck.  "Humbug!" I mumbled to no one in particular, "Humbug!"  Of course, it wasn't fair for one person to be off when every other staff member was on overload but that didn't occur to me until quite late in the dayIn retrospect, I was a thirty year-old of breath-taking immaturity.

I should tell you here that the conventional Victorian Christmas was alive and well in Dubai, celebrated in hotels such as the Jebel Ali; and while most European Christian expats living on the banks of the Persian Gulf observed the season in their apartments or villas, many of them took advantage of holiday merriment at their favorite hotel. 

The Jebel Ali Hotel was famous for its Christmas display.  Oh, how hard the staff worked to make it perfect for the guests!  In the lobby, there was a life-size replica of Santa’s sleigh suspended precariously above the vast expanse of marble floor. There were Norwegian spruces with blinking lights surrounded by fake snow.  Chef Lee and his patisserie team build a gingerbread house just like the one I pictured in Hansel and Gretel; its scent permeated the entire place.  I recall carolers dressed in full Victorian costume singing about “the bleak mid-winter” with sweat dripping down their faces on to their woolen scarves and mittens...or did I dream that?  At the same time, outside the hotel, through the back windows, you could see youngsters splashing about in the swimming pool; their parents sipping pina coladas with colorful umbrellas at the swim-up bar; half-naked sunbathers in loungers coating themselves with sun-oil while palm trees swayed in the warm breezes of the Arabian sea.  Every now and then, the two worlds would collide as sun-burned, sand-coated children with plastic swim-rings around their middles and stripy towels around their necks wandered through the snow-covered lobby to get roasted chestnuts.  Or as red-suited Santa himself -- the English sales manager, if I remember correctly -- sack in hand, sweat streaming down his face, would walk across the beach volleyball courts calling, “Ho-ho-ho!” 

I've often wondered: did anyone catch the irony that Jesus was more likely born in the simple sandy world outside the window with the heat and the date palms than he was in the air-conditioned indoor world of hot chocolate; roaring fires and ornamented fir trees

"Humbug!" Christmas Day 1987, Jebel Ali Hotel

Saturday, December 1, 2012

On the First Day of Advent: The Christmas Goblins by Charles Dickens

In an old abbey town, a long, long time ago there officiated as sexton and gravedigger in the churchyard one Gabriel Grubb. He was an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow, who consorted with nobody but himself and an old wicker-bottle which fitted into his large, deep waistcoat pocket.

A little before twilight one Christmas Eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself toward the old churchyard, for he had a grave to finish by next morning, and feeling very low, he thought it might raise his spirits, perhaps, if he went on with his work at once.

He strode along 'til he turned into the dark lane which led to the churchyard - a nice, gloomy, mournful place into which the towns-people did not care to go except in broad daylight. Consequently he was not a little indignant to hear a young urchin roaring out some jolly song about a Merry Christmas:

We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin;
Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here

Gabriel waited until the boy came up, then rapped him over the head with his lantern five or six times to teach him to modulate his voice.

"Modulate your voice, you little whippersnapper.  In fact, don't sing at all.  I don't like it!"

The boy hurried away, with his hand to his head,  "Owwww!"  Gabriel Grubb chuckled to himself, "He he he!" and entered the churchyard, locking the gate behind him.

He took off his coat, put down his lantern, and getting into an unfinished grave, worked at it for an hour or so with right good will. But the earth was hardened with the frost, and it was no easy matter to break it up and shovel it out. At any other time this would have made Gabriel very miserable, but he was so pleased at having stopped the small boy's singing that he took little heed of the scanty progress he had made when he had finished work for the night, and looked down into the grave with grim satisfaction, murmuring as he gathered up his things:

"Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,
A few feet of cold earth when life is done."

"He he he!" he laughed, and he carried on laughing, as he set himself down on a flat tombstone, which was a favorite resting-place of his, and drew forth his wicker-bottle.  "A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas box.  He he he!"

"Ha ha ha!" repeated a deep voice close beside him.

Gabriel looked all about him but there was nothing to be seen.

"It was the echoes," he said, raising the bottle to his lips again.

"It was not," said that same deep voice.

Gabriel leapt to his feet and stood rooted to the spot with terror, for his eyes rested on a form that made his blood run cold.

Seated on an upright tombstone close to him was a strange, unearthly figure. He was sitting perfectly still, grinning at Gabriel Grubb with such a grin as only a goblin could call up.

"What do you here on Christmas Eve?" said the goblin, sternly.

"I, um, I came to dig a grave, sir," stammered Gabriel.

"Tut, tut, tut!  What man wanders among graves on such a night as this?"

"Gabriel Grubb! Gabriel Grubb!" screamed a wild chorus of voices that seemed to fill the churchyard.

"What have you got in that bottle?" said the goblin.

"Hollands, sir," replied the sexton, trembling more than ever, for he had bought this Dutch gin from smugglers, and he thought his questioner might be in the tax-and-excise department of the goblins.

"Who drinks Hollands alone, and in a churchyard on such a night as this?"

"Gabriel Grubb! Gabriel Grubb!" exclaimed the wild voices again.

"And who, then, is our lawful prize?" exclaimed the goblin, raising his voice.

"Gabriel Grubb! Gabriel Grubb!" replied the invisible chorus.

"Well, Gabriel, what do you say to this?" said the goblin, as he grinned a broader grin than before.

The sexton gasped for breath and was unable to answer.

"What do you think of this, Gabriel?"

"It's--it's very curious, sir, very curious, sir, and very pretty," replied the sexton, half-dead with fright. "But I think I'll go back and finish my work, sir, if you please."

"Work!" said the goblin, "what work?"

"The grave, sir."

"Oh! the grave, eh? Who makes graves at a time when other men are merry, and takes a pleasure in it?"

"Gabriel Grubb! Gabriel Grubb!" replied the voices once more.

"I'm afraid my friends want you, Gabriel," said the goblin.

The sexton was horror-stricken. "Under favor, sir,  I don't think they can; they don't know me, sir; I don't think the gentlemen have ever seen me."

"Oh! yes, they have. We know the man who struck the boy in the envious malice of his heart because the boy could be merry and he could not."

Here the goblin gave a loud, shrill laugh which the echoes returned twenty-fold.

"I--I am afraid I must leave you, sir," said the sexton, making an effort to move.

"Leave us!" said the goblin laughing loud and long.  And as he laughed he suddenly darted toward Gabriel, laid his hand upon his collar, and sank with him through the earth. And when Gabriel had had time to fetch his breath he found himself in what appeared to be a large cavern, surrounded on all sides by goblins ugly and grim.

"And now," said the king of the goblins, his new friend from the churchyard, now seated in the centre of the room on an elevated seat, "show the man of misery and gloom a few of the pictures from our great storehouses."

As the goblin said this a cloud rolled gradually away and disclosed a small and scantily furnished but neat apartment. Little children were gathered round a bright fire, clinging to their mother's gown, or gamboling round her chair. A frugal meal was spread upon the table and an elbow-chair was placed near the fire. Soon the father entered and the children ran to meet him. As he sat down to his meal the mother sat by his side and all seemed happiness and comfort. The meal was small and cheap: a tiny goose eked out by apple sauce, boiled potatoes, mashed in the saucepan, and gravy.  It wasn't much of a Christmas dinner but it was sufficient for the whole family.

"What do you think of that?" said the goblin.

Gabriel murmured something about its being very pretty.

"Show him some more," said the goblin.

Many a time the cloud went and came, and many a lesson it taught Gabriel Grubb. He saw that men who worked hard and earned their scanty bread could be cheerful and happy. He saw that mothers and children with little enough to eat and drink could be joyful and glad.  Even employers and their employees could be jovial and kind to one another.  And he came to the conclusion that it could be a very respectable world after all; a world in which he, Gabriel Grubb, could be content, could be cheery, indeed perhaps could even be happy; that it was possible for him to make that choice.

No sooner had he formed this opinion than the cloud that closed over and the last picture seemed to settle on his senses and lull him to repose. One by one the goblins faded from his sight, and as the last one disappeared Gabriel sank into a deep sleep.

Christmas Day had broken when he awoke, and he found himself lying on the flat gravestone, with the wicker-bottle empty by his side.  He was quite alone.  There was no goblin nearby; he heard no voices crying, Gabriel Grubb, Gabriel Grubb. 

He got to his feet as well as he could, and brushing the frost off his coat, turned his face towards the town and started to walk.

But he was an altered man, he had learned lessons of gentleness and good-nature by his strange adventure with the king of the goblins, by the visions he'd seen in the goblin's cavern.

And as he walked into the town, people heard a sound they'd never heard before.  Gabriel Grubb could be heard to sing,

We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Telling the Tale, "Gabriel Grubb, Gabriel Grubb"
 I adapted this wonderful story for The Hidden Room's Christmas event in December 2011.  Photos are from that sublime evening.

Swing-dancing with Rommel Sulit
Loving the Tree


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

I don't know if you know this but the English don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  O. Henry loves to tell people: it is a “purely American” holiday.  In England, where I was brought up, we celebrate Harvest Festival.  Of course, we’ve given thanks for successful harvests since pagan times – the odd virgin sacrifice to the corn spirits, you know – but the tradition of Harvest Festival as it is today began in 1843 when Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church in Morwenstow in Cornwall.  I’ve always thought he probably stood on the coast at Lands End in Cornwall, (the furthest south-west you can go in England), looked over the Atlantic Ocean where he saw Americans celebrating their own Thanksgiving and said, “It’s not fair.  Why haven't the English got a similar tradition?  I shall invent one!” And he did.  England is like a spoilt child; if someone else has something, it has to have one too.  And if it can’t find one of its own, it’ll take yours!

Nowadays, on a Saturday afternoon in late September, there are Harvest Fayres held in church halls all over the country at which people sell local fruits and vegetables; home-made bread, cakes and cookies; and jams and jellies made from local fruit.  There are corn dolly displays and there's usually someone there to show you how to make one.  The kids play old-fashioned games and everyone brings tinned food to give to the poor.  I noticed when I was little that many of the tins were rusty as if folks were clearing out old cans from their pantries; or they contained things like beets, and I used to think, “I bet poor people don’t like beets any more than I do!”  I like them now but hated them then.

At the Sunday service after the fair, people decorate their churches with vases of autumn leaves, berries and flowers.  Tables are set up to hold all the donated food.  Then everyone give thanks by singing and praying.  After the service, it's all packaged up and given to local people in need. 

But there’s no family at Harvest Festival, no gathering of the clans.  That’s one of the purposes of your Thanksgiving.  Christmas Day is our gathering of the clans.  That’s when we have turkey, sage-and-onion stuffing, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, Brussels sprouts, garden peas, plum pudding, brandy butter, fruit cake, mince pies, clotted cream, and way, way, way too much sherry.

Having lived in America for 20 years, I think I now know the real purpose of Thanksgiving.  FOOTBALL!  I doubt that Squanto and the pilgrims had a big screen TV when they gathered together all those years ago, but I’m sure someone threw an oval-shaped squash that someone else caught.  I’m sure they looked at each other and said, “This is how we should give thanks.  We shall call it football!”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  My first connection with Thanksgiving was when I was living in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in 1990.  I was working for an American irrigation company which was partnered in the same building with an English landscaping company.  These companies worked together and found fame in 2 ways: (a) they built the first all-grass golf course in the middle of the desert and (b) they were accused of cheating Sheikh Mohamed, the ruler of Dubai, out of millions of dollars.  I was there for the former and had thankfully left before the latter. 

As we approached the third week of November that year, the American employees began to grumble.  They were upset because all other American expatriates in Dubai were being given a particular Thursday off work.  Apparently it was even more important than usual because we were in the middle of the first Gulf War, otherwise known as “Desert Shield,” and emotions were running high.  The “Powers That Be” in our two companies said that it wasn’t fair for the Americans to get a day off and not the English so the answer was “no”.  I'm embarrassed to say, the English folks were rather happy about this.  It could’ve been called Thanksgiving Envy.

In 1991, the same thing happened…except that this time, the “Powers That Be” decided that Thanksgiving was such a big deal for the Americans, bigger even than Christmas, they would get the day.  Well, the English were outraged.  It’s not fair they said.  What about us?  Why should they get the day off and not us?  But that’s what happened.  The English held down the fort and Thanksgiving was now recognized by all Americans in Dubai.  Thanksgiving Envy…

The following year, I left Dubai shortly before Thanksgiving and found myself in Austin, state capital of Texas.  I was visiting a friend on my way to Los Angeles to become a film actress.  I met up with a nice group of people, one of whom invited me to her family home for the Thanksgiving holiday.  AT LAST, I was going to celebrate Thanksgiving!  I knew it was an honor; I treated it as such.  I dressed up in all my finery and put on my best English manners.  My new friend's family lived in north Austin which I was assured was absolutely the best area of Austin to live; she could hardly bring herself to talk about the riff-raff that lived in south Austin.

The extended family I met that day was delightful.  They had the biggest telly I’d ever seen, like a movie screen.  Everyone seems to have one now but in 1992, this must’ve been one of the first.  All the comfy chairs were lined up to face it and all the men were seated really close to the screen watching what looked to me like a kind of rugby match.

Everyone in the family had brought something to the table, potluck style.  After lots of hugs and kisses, we gathered around to fill our plates.  Now Americans have a long tradition of mocking the English for our eating habits and every one of you seems to have a story to tell about the ghastly food you’ve been served in my country.  I know: steak and kidney pie, blood pudding, jellied eels, spotted dick.  But I have to say, I didn’t know what to make of everything I saw on the table that day.  Of course I recognized the turkey.  This had been smoked which was new to me, but I recognized the shape.  I recognized the mashed potatoes.  But there all recognition ended.

What’s that green, mushy stuff with the bits in it and the grey sauce?  Green bean casserole.  Oh.

What’s the grey sauce made of?  Mushroom soup.  Oh.

What’s the yellow, squishy stuff with orange stretchy strings on it?  Squash au gratin.  Oh.

What are the orange stretchy strings?  Pepper-jack cheese.  Oh.

What’s that orange mashed-up stuff with pink goo on it?  Candied yams.  Oh.

What’s the pink gooey stuff?  Marshmallows.  Oh.

Where are the vegetables?  Those are the vegetables.  Oh.

There was cornbread stuffing with funny lumps which turned out to be oysters.  There was cranberry sauce shaped like a can.  There was giblet gravy.  I served myself turkey and mashed potatoes with little-bitty spoons full of each vegetable.  It was certainly the most colorful celebration meal I’d ever eaten...and actually very tasty...but I was in culture shock!

Then came the pies.  Mm, pies!  I’ve never seen so many pies: pumpkin, pecan, coconut cream, chocolate, key lime, apple, blueberry, peach.  In fact, if I recall correctly, there were enough pies for everyone at the party to have a pie of his or her very own.  I had to resist the urge to start a pie-fight. 

Following the food, especially the pies, I lay slumped on an easy chair prepared to vegetate in front of the giant TV as folks always do on Holidays.  Then I learned to my horror I was being taken to the college football game at the Texas Memorial Stadium.  So I have to tell you that I didn’t know what an "UT" was; I didn’t know what an Aggie was, and I thought football was soccer…but we won’t go into that!  After 20 years in Austin, I now know the significance of the Thanksgiving football game between the University of Texas and A&M.  I also know how lucky I was to be attending the game itself when everyone else had to watch it on the big-screen TV.

Back in 1992, the big game was held on Thanksgiving Day.  For reasons unbeknownst to me, this was changed to the day after Thanksgiving.  And then it was changed back.  Now it's not going to happen at all because of some ghastly conference thingy.  Anyway, that year, I had the treat of joining a large party at the sporting event of the season.

It was particularly cold that afternoon.  A blue norther had blown through; the sky was blue, the sun shone but it didn’t get above freezing all day so we dressed very warmly.  We had nosebleed seats which means we were so high up, the people in the blimp were smiling and waving at us.  This was the point at which I found I’d forgotten my glasses.  Added to the fact that I’d had several glasses of wine at lunch, and that my buddy had provided her guests with plastic flasks filled with the liquor of their choice (mine was gin) I could barely see the football field, let alone the players.  I could just about discern the difference between the two team colors though for the life of me, I had no idea which team I was supposed to be supporting.  My friend taught me a hand signal I should use every time she elbowed me.  And every time I held up my hands with that signal, I was to shout, “Hook ‘em, Horns, Hook ‘em!”  This I did, with gusto.

I’m ashamed to say that I have no memory of the game itself, nor do I remember the score though I think UT won.  What I do remember is getting lost on the way back from the restrooms.  Let me give you some advice, if I may.  Never, ever go to the restrooms in a football stadium just before the game ends, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the stadium.  I was actually sitting on the loo when the cheering rose to that crescendo which tells you that play is over.  Texas Memorial Stadium at that time held over 75,000 people and it was full that day.  When I came out of the Ladies’, there were thousands of people swarming past like ants and of course I didn’t know where I was or where I was going.  At one point, I got swept into the current and had to spin myself out like a top.

I cowered against the wall like a lost puppy and waited.  I didn’t know what else to do.  Cell-phones weren’t common then; I certainly didn’t have one.  Eventually, as the crowds thinned, I heard a distant voice with a broad Texas accent calling, “Bernadette.”  “Help!” I shouted, “I'm over here.”  Eventually a tall, shadowy figure appeared in the tunnel ahead of me, like Red Adair, “C'mon, little lady” he said.  I nearly sobbed.  If it hadn’t been for that extremely loud-voiced cowboy, one of my new-found friends, I’d probably still be there now.

I’ve never been to another live football game though my American ex-husband is a great supporter and I’ve sat through hundreds of games of TV.  However, I have cooked several Thanksgiving dinners of my own.  I’ve also cooked English-style turkey dinners.  My ex-mother-in-law won’t eat my roast potatoes.  Mind you, she’s from Louisiana and she complains every time she’s served potatoes in any shape or form since she believes the only real carbohydrate is rice.  Vive la difference, I say, because my stepsons love my roast potatoes and they love my sage-and-onion stuffing and they love my Yorkshire pudding.  They’ve given my Brussels sprouts a try and once or twice actually swallowed a couple by accident.  I have made my own version of green bean casserole, I’ve even made squash au gratin and I’m a huge fan of pies, “Hook ‘em, pies, hook ‘em”.  But I have never made, and I have no intention of ever making, candied yams.  I believe there is something profoundly wrong with using pink marshmallows in cooking.  And I’m sure that Squanto would agree.