I Know I Don’t Possess You (Holiday Blues)

For all we talk here about celebrating the ceremony of a day, I know that for a lot of you, for one reason or another, this time of year is not easy. The holidays are hectic, overstimulating, excessively commercialized, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to make them perfect. Not only that, this time of year can more easily dredge up feelings of loneliness and reminders of loss. I’ve been there; I understand. I was there for a bit just last week. It was a week of worry: my mom had been dealing with an infection (she’s better now), the cat seemed not quite right, either; she wasn’t eating as heartily and wasn’t following her usual routines (she’s better and more her usual self now, too), work was not someplace I cared to be, and on top of all this, it was coming on to Thanksgiving and I was feeling like there wasn’t the time to do all I wanted to do to prepare. And then, at the back of my mind and in the core of my heart, was the reminder that Dad wouldn’t be at the table. Our second Thanksgiving since his passing was not feeling much easier than our first.

But Thanksgiving dinner was nice. Just the four of us: my mom, my sister, and Seth and me. At the table, I remembered Dad (I always do; I sit in his seat now at the head of the table––even though we were just four people that’s where my plate was set) and I remembered Grandpa, whose birthday was very often on Thanksgiving.

After dinner, after pie and coffee and after cleaning up the kitchen, we four settled into the living room. Mom wanted to watch a Doris Day movie but she was soon nodding off in her chair, sleeping off her meal, so she was overruled. My sister wanted to watch a new DVD she had just bought: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. I know, I know: Mamma Mia!, the 2008 film version of the Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus musical featuring the music of ABBA, is not the most intellectually stimulating film. If you’ve not yet seen the sequel, well, I have news for you: it’s just as dreadful as the original. But that’s part of what we love about these films. They are pure joy and fun and no one enters into a film like this expecting a life-altering experience.

This is probably a good place to tell you that I was not very popular in high school. ABBA’s popularity back then was a bit like soccer’s: hugely popular throughout the world, but here in the States, not so much. And me, I was quite possibly the only Florida member of the ABBA International Fan Club. I had all their records, I knew all their songs, even the obscure ones. I wore ABBA t-shirts and the ABBA International Fan Club Magazine arrived in my mailbox from Europe four times a year. When I was old enough to drive, while other students at my school were blasting Pink Floyd and Blue Öyster Cult out of their car windows, I was the one playing songs like “Waterloo” and “The Name of the Game.” I was never beaten up at school, but I walked a fine line. Most of the kids at Deerfield Beach High School took the high road and just chose to ignore me.

These days, I feel slightly vindicated. There’s not been a lot of Blue Öyster Cult action in these post-high-school days but thanks to the Mamma Mia movies, almost everyone now recognizes “Dancing Queen” as soon as they hear that first roll of the piano keys, and they even know the words. And when a band like Arcade Fire, critical darlings of the independent music scene, release an album like their most recent one, “Everything Now“–– one that is infused with ABBA-inspired harmonies and keyboards––well… I can feel a bit smug about that for all the unpopularity I endured in high school.

Anyway, back to Thanksgiving and back to the movie. And spoiler alert––in case you’ve not yet seen it: Being the kind of movie it is, dripping with joy and happiness, I was surprised that Meryl Streep’s character, Donna, was killed off somewhere between the original and the sequel. And––again, being the kind of movie that it is––I expected all through the film that she would come back, that her death was all a funny misunderstanding and she would show up at her hotel on Kalokairi again and all would be well. But she doesn’t; not quite. At any rate, here we all were on Thanksgiving night, my mom, my sister, and Seth, and then me, off to the side, in Dad’s chair, watching this movie, filled with all this music that I knew by heart and that I could remember my dad sometimes singing along to (he liked to do the oom-pah-pahs in “Super Trouper”)… well, it all came welling up eventually. The worry over Mom and the cat, the feelings of loss, all those emotions. By the baptism scene in the church, with the song “My Love, My Life,”––one of the few songs for which Andersson and Ulvaeus wrote new lyrics for the movie––well… I was a blubbering mess, though I did my best to contain it. I was not sobbing but I was pushing it close, and anyone could steel a glance away from the movie and at my chair to see that it was rocking back and forth, something I didn’t even realize I was doing with my foot until I stopped it, the rocking apparently my last ditch attempt at keeping it together.

And then I got mad at the movie. You do not watch a movie like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to wreck yourself and get all emotional. I got mad at the song and I got mad at Benny and Björn for killing off Donna (though I’ve since learnt it was Meryl Streep’s idea, and I can’t stay mad at Meryl). And I got mad at myself for letting another movie make me cry.

But sometimes, this is what the holidays do to us, no matter how strong we feel going in. They push us to the edge of the cliff and dangle us there. It may take a silly film or a visit to a dark church or a perhaps a quiet fireside moment, a walk in the brisk air. But you know what? No one expects you to be happy all the time, least of all me. I’ve said it before: an underlying tenet of this Book of Days is that there is always a seat at the table for Death. Loss is a natural part of our lives and it is part of what makes celebrating the ceremony of a day so special. If we had all the time in the world, would we feel the need to celebrate? And in marking our days in our revolutions around the sun, we create lives worth living, traditions worth teaching those who follow us. Some of the recipes we’ll be baking this Christmas go back to time immemorial. Grandma taught them to Mom, and now she teaches us each year, helping us improve our technique. Grandma learned the recipes from her mother, who probably learnt them from her mother, and so on. Some are distinct to their region of Italy, Apulia. And when we make and eat these things today, we remember all these people, this long line of ancestors.

That’s a big reason why it feels so strange when those who come before us up and leave. But also why we should continue what was given to us. We keep them present through simple acts. And when you get right down to it, those are the most loving acts, the ones that keep the channels open across space and time. It’s the same reason why, for many of us at least, it’s good to keep the tissues nearby at movies.

 

Chalk a lot of the emotional 1-2 punch to the power of music, too… perhaps appropriate enough since Thanksgiving this year fell on St. Cecilia’s Day, Cecilia being a patron saint of musicians. I remember in 1982, not long after Grandpa had died, driving Mom to our store and on the car’s cassette player, since it was my car, was ABBA. It was a song called “One of Us,” full of mandolins, just like the songs that Grandpa played. “Oh, Johnny,” said my mom a few minutes in, “this song is making me cry.”

Image: Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Universal Pictures, 2018.

 

The Slow Christmas Movement

I was chatting with a friend over the long Thanksgiving weekend who told me she was feeling like it was already too late to bother with Christmas. “But we still have another week of November,” I said. Christmas is a long ways away. Still, I understand how it’s easy to perceive that it’s all passing you by already. And so it seems a good time to reprint this particular chapter of the Convivio Book of Days. It was first published on the 17th of November, 2013. But the words are timely now on our approach to Advent, which itself marks the approach to Christmas. So breathe deep, take a few moments to read these few lines, and be reminded that all is well––there is plenty of time to do all you want to do this holiday season, and the slower you take it, the more content you just may be.

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My neighbor Mr. Solderholm is a grumpy old Swede who can easily muster up a rant over just about anything. A good guy when you get right down to it, but you don’t want to get in his way or cross him, even accidentally. I am nothing like Mr. Solderholm and we both know this and we respect each other’s ways, but if there is one time of year where I sense a bit of Solderholm-style ire creep into my being, it’s usually about now: I find myself grumbling and shaking my fist at houses that are all decked out for Christmas in mid-November, a season for Indian corn and pumpkins, not holly and balsam. I think it’s because I am always championing the little guy, and Thanksgiving, it seems to me, is one of those little guys: an all around nice holiday that gets a bit trampled by the bigger holiday that follows it. I do not, however, want to be as disagreeable as Mr. Solderholm. What I want is to encourage folks to give Thanksgiving its due and to take the rest as it comes.

Today’s installment of the Book of Days is simply an invitation to you all: Join us in what we call “The Slow Christmas Movement.” Rather than rush headlong into Christmas the day after Thanksgiving (or even earlier), we invite you to take your time and appreciate the approach.

What comes after Thanksgiving and before Christmas is Advent: a time of preparation. We prepare our houses, we prepare ourselves––heart, mind, soul––we set the stage for joy to enter at Christmas by making it welcome and appreciating its presence. There are songs for Advent, our favorite being a carol called “People, Look East” that is set to an old French air known as Besançon. These are the lyrics for the first verse:

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

It may be my instinctual desire for things domestic that makes me like that carol so much. If there was a verse about polishing the copper, I’d be right at home. What that carol speaks of, mostly, is preparing, and I think preparing is an important part of ceremony and celebration… which may be why I like Advent so much.

My grandparents used to get their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. This is most traditional, and while Seth and I don’t wait quite that long, we are usually visiting our friends at the tree lot quite a bit later than most people. Here’s what you’ll see at our house before the tree arrives: candles in the windows, and an Advent calendar and Advent candles nearby. We light the traditional Advent wreath each of the four Sundays of Advent, we light a daily Advent candle each evening during dinner, and we open a window of our Advent calendar each evening, too. These are slow, simple and meaningful ways to mark the days as we approach the solemnity and the celebration of Christmas… which, of course, begins its own twelve days of celebration.

What’s odd nowadays is that the dominant culture celebrates Christmas before it actually begins, and then shuts things down well before Christmas is over. Old Mr. Solderholm once punched a man in the nose for tossing out his Christmas tree on the 26th of December. Granted, there were some other things going on between them, too, but it was the tree on the curb that instigated the argument that finally pushed Mr. Solderholm over the edge. And while I would never go as far as to punch a man in the nose over anything, there is a part of me that applauded Mr. Solderholm for that act as he stood up to defend the sanctity of old traditions. We may not see eye to eye on most things, he and I, but we do seem to agree on the importance of taking things slowly and respecting the traditions of the ceremonies we keep.

The Slow Christmas Movement means keeping Thanksgiving and keeping it well and keeping Christmas, too, but in its own time. Do so and here’s something else that happens: you almost magically have more time to enjoy everything. Thanksgiving retains its independence, Advent prepares you for “Love, the guest,” and sure, there may still be a frantic rush to the 25th of December… but once it has passed, there are twelve days of Christmas still ahead to celebrate with good food, good company, and good spirit. There is no rush.

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At our online shop, www.conviviobookworks.com, you’ll find all kinds of traditional German Advent calendars (the ones with lots of glitter you remember from your childhood) as well as British ones, and some very lovely Advent candles, handmade in England. These simple things are a big part of our Slow Christmas Movement and a reason why in this house we appreciate Christmas as much as we do. (Free domestic shipping, by the way, when you spend $50 in our shop!)

FIND US on Saturday, December 1 from 10 AM to 4 PM at the Midwinter Makers Marketplace at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Free admission, free easy parking, live music, letterpress printing and crafts for the kids, plus we’re supplying the amazing doughnuts and the Louie Bossi’s Wood Burning Oven Pizza Truck will be there, too, and you’ll find about 20 local makers selling their wares. We’ll be there with our Advent offerings and plenty of great handmade stuff for Christmas, plus our full line of culinary herbs and herbal teas from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine. Follow the blue and white MAKERS MARKETPLACE signs posted on FAU campus roads to the Satellite Studios of the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, located at FAU’s historic T6 Building on the northeast corner of campus.

 

Come all You Vulcans, Strong & Stout

We are on the fast approach to Thanksgiving, a moveable feast, and with it this year come two saints’ days worthy of note: St. Cecilia’s Day on Thanksgiving Day itself, the 22nd of November, and St. Clement’s Day the next day, the 23rd. St. Cecilia is noteworthy as she is a patron saint of musicians and so her day is a fine one to enjoy their labor. In fact, concerts in honor of St. Cecilia on her feast day go back to at least 1570 in France.

As for Old Clem, he is a patron saint of blacksmiths and metal workers. In days when there were more smiths at work, the night of his feast day was a night when they would gather and drink and process about town, stopping at all the pubs. At some point, one of their number, who was dressed as St. Clement, would arise and deliver the following lines:

I am the real St. Clement, the first founder of brass, iron, and steel, from the ore. I have been to Mount Etna, where the god Vulcan first built his forge, and forged the armour and thunderbolts for the god Jupiter. I have been through the deserts of Arabia; through Asia, Africa, and America; through the city of Pongrove; through the town of Jipmingo; and all the northern parts of Scotland. I arrived in London on the twenty-third of November, and came down to Her Majesty’s dockyard at Woolwich, to see how all the gentleman Vulcans came on there. I found them all hard at work, and wish to leave them on the twenty-fourth.

Another in the party then adds:

Come, all you Vulcans stout and strong,
Unto St. Clem we do belong.
I know this house is well prepared
With plenty of money and good strong beer;
And we must drink before we part,
All for to cheer each merry heart.
Come, all you Vulcans, strong and stout,
Unto St Clem I pray turn out;
For now St Clem’s going round the town:
His coach and six goes merrily round.

It is a day when children would go “Clementing”––knocking on doors, singing rhymes in exchange for treats like oranges and apples. Rhymes like this one:

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

As I mentioned in the Convivio Dispatch for Halloween (if you didn’t get it in your email box and would like it, let me know and I’ll send it your way, for the Convivio Dispatch is something different from the Convivio Book of Days blog), my mother does not remember trick or treating at Halloween so much as she remembers doing something like it at Thanksgiving. She is Brooklyn born and bred, and there is an old New York Thanksgiving tradition known as the Ragamuffin Parade (though the name was news to her when I told her about it recently). It was popular at the turn of the last century, and began fading away by the mid 1900s. Kids would dress as ragamuffins and knock on doors, asking, “Something for Thanksgiving?”

Such interesting days, these days of late November. Thanksgiving always falls around my grandpa’s birthday, who was born way back in 1895. It was a birthday we celebrated each year on the 23rd, even though we learned later that Grandpa’s birthday may have been the 21st. It was on a Thanksgiving night, too, that my dad was visited by the ghost of his mother (which is another story that came up in that same Convivio Dispatch for Halloween). Perhaps it is this combination of ghostly stories and Mom’s Thanksgiving variation of trick or treating that always has me thinking of Thanksgiving as an extension of the autumnal days when we remember our dead. But Thanksgiving is a bit like that, no? We gather together, we share a fine meal, and for those of us who have been on this constantly rotating planet a good many years, we remember folks who have come and gone, stories that were told ages ago, and we get a bit wistful. And there is nothing wrong with that. These are all good things to be thankful for.

It is, by the way, a good time to order Advent candles and calendars from our Convivio Book of Days Catalog! Especially if you feel a bit rushed by Christmas (Why are there wreaths hanging on the doors of Lake Worth City Hall even before Thanksgiving?), a simple thing like an Advent candle that you light each night or an Advent calendar that you open a door on each day can really help bring some perspective to things. Ours are the traditional kinds: a few of our Advent calendars are made in England, but most are made in Germany, where the tradition began. And the daily Advent candles are made in England. We light ours each night at dinner. It’s part of what we call the Slow Christmas Movement. And we offer free domestic shipping when you spend $50!

Image: “Hearty Thanksgiving Greeting.” Chromolithograph postcard by John Winsch, 1910. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections. Postcards. [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.]