Closer to the Hearth

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

As 2008 approaches its close, most of us will likely consider it a red-letter year only for stomach-wrenching financial volatility and clamorous political theater. If the world seems a bit too much this year, well, then perhaps that’s just an apt reminder for all of us to focus on the really important things: family, friends, faith, and good health.

And there’s no better time to do that than in the last two months of the calendar year. As leafy trees expose bare limbs, we’re able to ponder the longer, clearer view. As temperatures drop, we’re able to come inside to the hearth, to read, to reflect, to share meals and memories with family and friends, and sometimes simply to indulge in a long winter’s nap. ’Tis the season for a cluster of sacred days, days to celebrate the wondrous, to gaze in wonder at the celebrations, and to give thanks for loved ones, who draw with us closer to the hearth.

So, as has been our custom now for many years, we’d like to share with you in this final issue of 2008 some of our favorite passages of the season.

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.

If there’s one thing we’d really like from Christmas, I think, it’s a little of that “season of peace” that the greeting card writers are always promising. It’s one of the reasons “Silent Night” is the all-time favorite carol. There’s a moment when we sing it each year at the end of the Christmas Eve service, with the lights out and everyone holding a candle that frames their face with soft light, and that marks for me the absolute height of Christmas.

When I was a boy, I never wanted to let go of that moment. I can remember walking my girlfriend home, and then walking two or three miles back to my house, bundled against the cold, humming carols in the early morning stillness.

— Bill McKibben, Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, 1998.

With a dramatic sweep of her arm, the screen would be pushed aside and they would parade into the darkened living room where, at one end, the 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.

To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year. There was a little device we noticed in one of the sporting-goods stores — a trumpet that hunters hold to their ears so that they can hear the distant music of the hounds. Something of the sort is needed now to hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it ... The miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart — over so many years, through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting and triumphant, at the end of confusion.

— E. B. White, “The Distant Music of the Hounds,” from The Second Tree From the Corner, 1949.


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