by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

One of my family’s favorite movie musicals is Fiddler on the Roof. You probably remember the opening scene. In it, Tevya, a 19th-century Russian peasant and a devout Jew, is walking down the road, engaging the viewer in a “conversation” about his life, when he says “you may ask how” the religious traditions that guide his daily life got started. He pauses, ponders, shrugs, and answers, out loud, “I don’t know.” (Which is true of many if not most 21st-century American families as well.)

But then he says something so simple that it’s simply profound: “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky … as a fiddler on the roof.” And thus was born a great title for a great Broadway musical and classic movie, and an insightful way of describing the value and the power of our various rituals involving family and faith. No season is more replete with such rituals, of course, than November and December, with Thanksgiving and the sacred holidays that close our calendar year.

From the silly to the somber, the widely shared to the closely held, the traditions of our families and our faiths provide continuity through the generations, plus shared memories, shared bonds and shared experiences that unify us when the good times roll, and when dark days come. As has been our custom for several years, we want to share with you in this final issue of 2004 some of our favorite seasonal passages from literary works both well-known and obscure, with the focus of the passages being traditions. We hope that you and your family enjoy this season of fellowship, frivolity, and faith.

Mrs. Baxter was a traditionalist as well as something of an artist. Each year she trimmed the biggest tree that would fit into the living room with such loving and painstaking care that it put all other trees to shame. No one was allowed to see it until the evening before Christmas, when the whole family lined up outside the living room in prescribed order, Mrs. Baxter first, then the smallest child and finally Mr. Baxter bringing up the rear like a benevolent shepherd.

“Now then,” Mrs. Baxter would cry sternly, “and no nonsense.” After which she would break into the first verse of “Silent Night,” slightly off key ... (T)he tree glowed with color, lighting the familiar walls with an unreal and transient radiance ... They entered the living room, stood for a moment silently, looking, each seeing in his own way what the crowd had seen when they looked at the great tree at Rockefeller Center, each sensing vaguely that he had stepped into a magic circle from which the harshness of life had been debarred and only its warmth and tenderness admitted.

     Edward Streeter, Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter, 1956. 

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable — not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate, too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

 — Truman Capote, “A Christmas Memory,” from Selected Writings of Truman Capote, 1956. 

The celebration of Christmas Day began before daybreak with the shooting off of Roman candles. With a great roaring noise they exploded into balls of red fire arcing into the still-dark sky. After they had all been set off, my father would light sparklers for us. We could never imagine Christmas without Roman candles and sparklers; for us it was the most important part of the whole day.

Finally we would go back into the warmth of the house for breakfast. There would be eggs and sausages and plates of hot biscuits with my mother’s best preserves, and pan-fried oysters which would taste so sweet, crispy, and delicious. The familiar smell of hot coffee and cocoa mixed with the special aroma of bourbon, which was part of every holiday breakfast. We were allowed to smell, but never to taste this special drink of the menfolk.

 — Edna Lewis, “Joy in Freetown,” from The Taste of Country Cooking, 1976.

 The smell of wood smoke flavoring the air in our noses, the cousins shivering with cold, “Good-bye, good-bye,” (was) called out from everyone, and the bobsled would move off, creaking over the frost-brittle snow. All of us, my mother included, would dig down in the straw and pull the buffalo robes up to our chins. As the horses settled into a steady trot, the bells gently chiming in their rhythmical beat, we would fall half asleep, the hiss of the runners comforting. As we looked up at the night sky through half-closed eyelids, the constant bounce and swerve of the runners would seem to shake the little stars as if they would fall into our laps. But that one great star in the East never wavered. Nothing could shake it from the sky as we drifted home on Christmas.

 — Paul Engle, “An Iowa Christmas,” from Prairie Christmas, 1960. 


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