Charles Dickens, with his enduring 1843 tale A Christmas Carol, invented much of what we consider the traditions of Christmas - the gifting of presents, the big dinner and the fostering of good will and glad tidings. We each build upon the Dickens’ Christmas with our own traditions that lead to memory and, I’m convinced, contribute to much of the pleasure that is Christmas. One of our Christmas traditions has become the viewing of a wonderful movie – one of the very best Christmas movies ever – The Bishop’s Wife, a 1947 classic starting David Niven, Cary Grant and the lovely Loretta Young.
The plot, not unlike Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, involves a charming angel named Dudley (played by Grant) who answers a prayer from the Bishop (Niven) who is struggling to raise the money to build his magnificent new cathedral. Dudley charms everyone, including the Bishop’s attractive wife (Young), and eventually helps the Bishop realize that there is more to his Christian leadership than fundraising and catering to the wealthy parishioners who are intent on building a big building. With the annual viewing of The Bishop’s Wife it’s never difficult to find the real meaning of the season and the film always leads me back, Dickens-like, to Christmas past.
As 2012 gives way to the promise – eternally optimistic here – that our politics will move to the center, that reason and facts will come to prevail on hard cases as diverse as guns and climate and that jobs and education and cancer cures become the headlines of the New Year, I’ve been thinking about traditions that through the years have come to define memories of Christmas. Dickens may have invented the modern Christmas, but my mother perfected it. And, while Cary Grant’s angel reminds us what the season is really all about I am annually drawn back to – the tinsel.
You could say that my mom was a perfectionist. She never had a hair out of place, dressed as well as dad’s paycheck would permit and cultivated a sense of style that would not have been out of place in Hollywood or the Hampton’s. Not bad for a farm girl from western Nebraska. In terms of Christmas, for mom nothing succeeded like excess, particularly when it came to tinsel. Mother loved tinsel – silvery, shiny, straight and in volume. To hang the tinsel properly required, or course, a perfect tree. If the tree dad found wasn’t perfectly shaped, mom would get her sewing scissors out and cut and paste a branch or two until the shape suited her. Then came the tinsel, carefully preserved from year-to-year, stored safely away from one Christmas to the next. Occasionally she would agree to discard a short piece that had survived one tree too many, but not often. I distinctly remember “volunteering” to help mom hang the tinsel one year and being instructed in the fine art of making sure the strands were perfectly straight and in sufficient number. I didn’t have the tinsel gene and eventually backed off and allowed the tinsel queen her dominance. Perhaps that experience scared me for life because I shudder at the very sight of Christmas tree tinsel to this day. Some traditions are best remembered and not practiced.
Mom had certain traditional Christmas foods that would make a once a year appearance right about Christmas Eve. She made a sticky white candy – Divinity – that I never particularly warmed to, but – brace yourselves – her fruitcake was tremendous. I’ve heard all the bad jokes about Christmas fruitcake, but none of those put downs applied to mom’s cake. It was lighter than most fruitcakes, moist and lacking those awful candied fruits that often seem to have been as well preserved from year-to-year as the tree tinsel. Mom used fruit cocktail in her cake and when she learned that I didn’t particularly care for the walnuts that she added to the recipe she made me a walnut-free cake for my personal consumption. Heaven. No appetite for tinsel, but I can still taste that fruitcake.
My dad had few Christmas traditions other than to occasionally experiment with a Tom ‘n Jerry mix or to place the plastic Santa and two reindeer on the steep roof of the little house we lived in in Chadron, Nebraska when I was just old enough to have Christmas really register. Those were the days when Christmas lights were constructed so that one broken bulb would darken an entire string of lights. I can still see him outside struggling in the December darkness and cold to find and replace the offending bulb. He found it then came inside and sipped a Canadian whiskey and a splash of water while watching his elegant wife hang that damn tinsel. Dad knew better than to offer to help. Smart man that he was he admired perfection, cocktail in hand, from a distance.
As I grew older Christmas involved reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, a Christmas Eve buffet supper and memorable gifts. I still remember the bicycle and the double set of Tinker Toys. There may have been socks and gloves and pajamas, too. I gave my mother what I considered a lovely bottle of Evening in Paris cologne one year and, bless her heart, she acted like I had personally acquired the dime store fragrance from Coco Chanel.
Now, all those warm Christmas memories constitute the very best gifts I have ever received. Tinker Toys come and go, the tinsel gets discarded and the cologne fades, but the memories remain and thankfully new ones are created, including the memories I now carry of the carefully constructed scene and precious words at the end of that favorite Christmas movie. As David Niven’s Bishop Henry steps to the pulpit to deliver his Christmas sermon at the end of The Bishop Wife, Cary Grant’s angel – work completed – stands outside the church in the gently falling snow and listens to the words that have now become part of my Christmas memory.
“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking,” the Bishop says. “Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled… all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”
Happy Christmas…and thanks for checking in here. All the best in 2013.