These days, “Blazing fire” might sometimes be the best “Christmas treat”. I have still one more post about the soups and salads made this month, but this is my final post for the books of history and memoir.
Peter Mayle’s year ends well, with his wife’s trick to get the workmen back to finish the construction, which had been on hold for three months. She suggested they “invite the builders to a party to celebrate the end of the job.” Genius, as Mayle points out:
The intuitive cunning of this suggestion was based on two assumptions. First, that the wives, who never saw the work that their husbands did in other people’s houses, would be so curious that they would find the invitation irresistible. And second, that no wife would want her husband to be the one not to have finished his part of the work. This would cause loss of face among the other wives and public embarrassment, followed by some ugly recriminations in the car on the way home.
The day after the invitations are issued, the builders return, finishing their work the evening before the party, which, by Mayle’s account, is a success, with enough champagne and food to satisfy everyone.
While the work is in progress, Mayle and his wife drive to a nearby Christmas market to catch a bit of local holiday spirit. They spot a Santa Claus: “Dressed in baggy red bouclé trousers, a Rolling Stones T-shirt, red fur-trimmed pixie hat, and false beard, he came weaving toward us…. It looked from a distance as though his beard was on fire, but as he came closer we saw the stub of a Gauloise among the whiskers. He lurched past in a cloud of Calvados fumes…”
Christmas Day, the Mayles squeeze into a packed restaurant to enjoy a seasonally appropriate feast. All is well in Provence.
Dorothy Hartley mentions holiday feasts in her December chapter, but most of it is devoted to rural housing and furnishings in medieval England. Even the most impoverished man could build a shelter in a day, then expand and strengthen it to accommodate his family in just a few more days. Whether constructed of wood or mud, these huts could keep out the cold, and even if a storm destroyed a hut, it was quickly replaced. A rural peasant’s most important belongings would be a pot for cooking and a knife for cutting. Whatever was made of wood or straw, leather or wool, could be replaced.
Some tidbits from Hartley: §Wooded districts had rectangular dwellings, reed and clay areas had round dwellings. § “A hen dropped down from the top cleared a short chimney very quickly.” § Peasants often ate healthier food than did royalty, because their cooking methods retained more of the nutrients, and their ingredients included more vegetables. § “It was not a king but a peasant who first put mint sauce to mutton, and combined the aromas of sage and onions.”
Interestingly, the mid-17th century plagues revealed to the poor that “they were better off in the country than in town” [italics in the original]. As Hartley explains, “in spite of the rebellion against the new ‘enclosures’, England was not yet too crowded for them to live on the land and off the land, as their forebears had done.” [italics in the original]
For Gladys Taber in her house in the Connecticut countryside, December brings the first real snows, which her dogs enjoy even more than she does (they don’t have to shovel out the car). The bitter cold discourages outdoor adventures, yet on one freezing night she and two friends drive to Savin Rock, on Long Island Sound, for dinner and a walk through the empty amusement park before heading home.
The ocean was black and the wind was like a sheet of ice. The strip of amusement places was a ghostly, shabby sight. We were the only living beings in sight. “It’s not like this in summer,” Willie said. By the time we got home, the wind had died and it was at least less painful to breathe. Some people, I reflected, would stay at home by the fire on such a night, but they would miss a lot. It is the people who give in to winter that have a dull time!
I’ve said too little about Taber’s style. Her chapters are essentially collected thoughts on a wide range of topics, some recurring (such as the state of the world, the afterlife, dogs, nature), and others inspired by errands, conversations, and the never-ending run of household tasks. December’s topics: snow, flee to Florida?, excursion to Savin Rock, inconvenient snow, long winter evenings, morning vs night people, up early to see a sunrise, her dad an early riser (she isn’t), avoiding morning coffee parties, meals, calories, thinness and dieting, Jackie Kennedy as style-setter, couture, shorter days and less sunlight, prep for winter storms, battery-powered radios, cooking without electricity, the bad winter of 1960-61, nature’s power, Christmas trees, decorating for Christmas, superhighways and other signs of progress, living slow, noticing each day’s gifts … I’m only half-way through the chapter, but you get the point.
Yet there are so many lovely moments. About planting your own Christmas trees: “This is a curious fact–if you plant a tree, you are not going to cut it down. You argue that it had better grow another year or two. Then it is doing so well–and is such a fine tree–why not leave it longer?” In response to another planned highway: “Something is wrong, I think, with our sense of values. Why must we speed up? Why do we hurry faster and faster? What do we gain? Do we accomplish more by the hours we presumably save by hurrying?” And finally: “…in this [Christmas] season it is well to reassert that the hope of mankind rests in faith. As a man thinketh, so he is. Nothing much happens unless you believe in it and believing there is hope for the world is a way to move toward it.”
I will leave you with that final thought. Happy holidays to everyone, and best wishes for the coming year. Keep reading, keep thinking, keep believing.