by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

This column is being written in late September, so the air is abuzz and the airwaves are saturated with the crowing and cawing of office-seekers and political pundits. Like hungry birds at a freshly filled feeder, they gather and grab, sing and celebrate. And fly on when the suet and the seeds are gobbled and gone.

Thankfully, the end of the political season brings the beginning of another season: the fall and winter holidays and religious celebrations. It’s a season centered on faith, enjoyed with family and friends at the shared table. A table blanketed with food that feeds the body, of course, but has a more lasting power as it feeds a deeper need, enriching the mind’s store of memories.

Memories of walks, propelled by the gravitational pull of holiday excitement, toward a familiar old house, now strange and wondrous, its daytime profile now etched in black, a moon floating above it like milkweed floss, its gauzy bright light dimming the sparkling stars sprinkled across the heavens.

Memories of doors opening wide, spilling into the chilly night air a generous cloud of wonderful smells and welcoming voices. Memories of abundant feasts not seen in months but remembered for years. And memories of wood fires hissing, then crackling, then fading into embers, their molten glow transforming everyday furniture into a magical shadow-world of dancing darkness. 

The political season is much like autumn, with a riot of color and a parade of leaf-peepers, anxious to watch the showy display. But always, the color fades, and the leaves fall.

And left to take center stage are the evergreens, there all along, beautiful in their simplicity, timeless in their power. Just like faith, and family, and friends. And memories of seasonal gatherings.

To celebrate these evergreen values, we herewith share with our readers a year-end holiday tradition that dates back more than a decade, as we publish some of our favorite passages from literary works of the season.

Christmas began when pecans started falling. The early November rains loosened the nuts from their outer shells and sent them plopping like machine gun bullets on the roof of the veranda. In the night, you’d listen and you’d know IT would soon be here.

 — Lillian Smith, “Tree-Shaking Day,” from Memory of a Large Christmas, 1961-’62.

They seem tentative and awkward at first, then in a hastening host a whole brief army falls, white militia paratrooping out of the close sky over various textures, making them one. Snow is white and gray, part and whole, infinitely various yet infinitely repetitious, soft and hard, frozen and melting, a creaking underfoot and a soundlessness. But first of all it is the reversion of many into one. It is substance, almost the idea of substance, that turns grass, driveway, hayfield, old garden, log pile, Saab, watering trough, collapsed barn, and stonewall into the one white.

 — Donald Hall, “Winter,” from Seasons at Eagle Pond, 1987.

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.

I need a key. Many keys. I need to enter the secret rooms of winter with the same curious urgency with which I enter dreams.

 — Diana Kappel-Smith, Wintering, 1984.

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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