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Dakota Christmas

From the December 2002 issue of First Things: A holiday memoir.

11:00 PM, Dec 11, 2002 • By J. BOTTUM
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But even the actual objects conjure up little more than the ghosts of how one remembers that it must have felt at the time. Curiously, the memory is a little stronger, the image a little firmer, in recollecting the buying of presents, rather than the getting: the simultaneous feeling of titanic generosity and utter miserliness, an endless calculation of love measured to the penny, and an irrecoverable sensation--the proud knowledge that one has, in a rage of magnanimity, squandered every cent, matched with the shameful awareness of just how paltry the result is. If I spent the extra $1.43 to buy my older sister the metal stands instead of the plastic to hold her dolls, it was at the well-understood cost of buying the plastic tea set instead of the china for my younger sister. If I bought the Irish handkerchiefs for my grandfather, it was at the heart-breaking expense of the potholders for my mother. I've rarely judged anything as narrowly, and yet, even now, I'm not convinced that I shouldn't have gone with the taffy for Aunt Eleanor and saved the money the chocolates cost to buy for my grandmother the larger size of glass ornament.

When I was eight, I decided that what my nine-year-old sister needed was the savings bank I found on the discount counter of a junk store, a coconut shell carved in the shape of a beatnik monkey, complete with beret, sunglasses, and bongo drums. But then, five blocks from home, Scooter West's mother pulled over to offer me a ride. And it was while I was struggling to hold my packages, thank Mrs. West, and climb inside that I knocked the monkey against the car door and cracked it down the middle. The grief was so sudden and precise, the desire not to let Scooter's mother see me cry so strong, the look on my face, reflected in the window of her Buick, so perfectly preserved in memory, that I can almost relive that sorrow just by remembering it.

And the next year as well, I was almost in tears as I walked home, listening to the dry snow squeak beneath the black rubber overshoes my mother made us wear, and with nothing but a Christmas card to give her after the store where I'd planned to get her genuine rhinestone earrings closed earlier than I had expected on Christmas Eve. But while I was trudging past the almost-deserted Christmas-tree store in the Catholic school parking lot, a salesman suddenly leaned over the fence to ask if I wanted a wreath to take home. "I don't have enough money left," I said. "That's okay, kid," he answered. "We're closing up here. Give it to your mother. Tomorrow's Christmas."

IT WAS ALL TOO MUCH. By the time Christmas itself arrived, the season had taken us by the throats and shaken us into supine jelly. Who could stand against it? For that matter, who could stand it? The Advent calendars, the shopping, the candles, the bells. The cold wind that dried the snow to particles of ice and piled them in crusted drifts against the walls of the breezeway. The snips of wrapping paper tracked from room to room. The fallen bits of tinsel trailed along the carpet. The carols that began their ceaseless tintinnabulation the day after Thanksgiving and played until all capacity for emotion had been leached away: Joan Baez trilling "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and Burl Ives growling "The Friendly Beasts" and Peter, Paul, and Mary harmonizing a song whose title I can't remember, but it was about a shivering little boy who offers to share his only piece of bread with a gray-haired lady on Christmas Eve, and we would play it over and over again on the hi-fi in the basement.

Ever since Enrico Caruso was first pressed on one of those scratchy, one-sided 78s for Mr. Edison's new gramophone machine, nearly every musical performer has felt compelled to issue a Christmas album, and the sheer bulk of that music adds up to more than anyone could listen to in a thousand holidays. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra remain perennial best-sellers, and Elvis Presley and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir still hold their own. But the music stores' discount bins tumble together Mantovani and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tony Bennett and the Vienna Boys Choir, "Paul Revere and the Raiders Sing the Season" and "The Amazing Zamfir Plays Carols on His Pan Pipes"--together with Christmas anthologies from Muzak, Motown, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Grand Ole Opry.

I once bought a version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" performed on bagpipes, just to hear what it sounded like. By itself, it was enough to make all the Whos down in Whoville cheer that the Grinch stole their Christmas. But most of the traditional songs are traditional for a reason: they're sturdy enough to stand up to almost anything the Yuletide pits against them--Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or a grade-school Christmas recital, or even my own adventures in shower-singing. (I pride myself on knowing Christmas carols' more-rarely sung verses--the bit about thorn-infestation in "Joy to the World," for instance--but these days I never get to those grimmer parts of holiday tunes before my wife knocks on the door to say the neighbors are complaining, again.)

Even when my sisters and I were children, the innumerable Christmas renditions would blend into such indistinction that we couldn't tell Don Ho's "Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say / On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day" from Nat King Cole's "Buon Natale in Italy / Means a Merry Christmas to you." By the end of the season, the carol-soundtracked Christmas rush had frazzled us into mad and maniacal elves. I remember my little sister nearly slicing off her ear in the hurry to finish up on Christmas Eve as she tried to curl a ribbon by running it across a scissors' blade, the way she had seen the lady at the Montgomery Ward gift-counter do. I remember my older sister snarling as she held together the ends of a package, waiting for the Elmer's glue to dry after the Scotch tape had run out.

Early in December, we were strong enough to take almost any amount of sentimentality in the stories our parents read to us nightly: Henry van Dyke's "The Other Wise Man," Kate Douglas Wiggin's "Romance of a Christmas Card," even my father's welshifying his way through Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales." By the last week of Advent, the mere word "Christmas" could send us howling from the room.

Dickens' energy and facetiousness leavened "A Christmas Carol" enough to make it bearable. "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail," the first paragraph ends--to which the second paragraph adds: "Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for."

But our favorite as the holiday approached was William Dean Howells' "Christmas Every Day," a story about a little girl whose wish that it always be Christmas is granted by a fairy, to horrible effect. "After it had gone on about three or four months, the little girl, whenever she came into the room in the morning and saw those great ugly, lumpy stockings dangling at the fireplace, and the disgusting presents around everywhere, used to sit down and burst out crying. In six months she was perfectly exhausted, she couldn't even cry anymore."

Years later, I was lost in my American Literature classes, for I always thought of Howells as a funny writer and expected to laugh my way through "The Rise of Silas Lapham" and "A Hazard of New Fortunes." By Thanksgiving, Howells' narrator explains, "people didn't carry presents around nicely anymore. They flung them over the fence or through the window, and, instead of taking great pains to write 'For dear Papa,' or 'Mama,' or 'Brother,' or 'Sister,' they used to write, 'Take it, you horrid old thing!' and then go and bang it against the front door."

Many of these were St. Nicholas stories. Begun in 1873 and continuing until 1939, the monthly St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls was a dominant American publication in my grandparents' and great-grandparents' time. Under the editorship of Mary Mapes Dodge, the magazine printed the first works of everyone from Jack London to Eudora Welty. Stephen Vincent Benet, Rachel Carson, Bennett Cerf, Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sterling North, and Cornelia Otis Skinner all appeared as child writers in its pages, and its adult authors included Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Theodore Roosevelt, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Richard Harding Davis.

Like the Junior Classics--another icon of that bygone era, with introductions by Harvard's president, Charles W. Eliot, no less--St. Nicholas wanted most of all to instill the nation's moral vocabulary in the young. Dodge insisted the magazine's writers aim "To give clean, genuine fun to children of all ages. To give them examples of the finest types of boyhood and girlhood. . . . To foster a love of country, home, nature, truth, beauty, and sincerity. To prepare boys and girls for life as it is," and "To stimulate their ambitions--but along normally progressive lines."

Noble editorial goals, no doubt, and we loved my mother's battered 1960s reprint of "The St. Nicholas Anthology," a book-length collection chosen by Henry Steele Commager (whose name signals just how established an institution the magazine had been). But some of those St. Nicholas stories proved that for sheer, unadulterated pap, you just can't compete with the good, old-fashioned normally progressive lines.

There was, for instance, an 1885 story by Sophie Swett, called "How Santa Claus Found the Poor-House," about an orphan boy who didn't give up easily. "You might have known that he wouldn't give up easily," Swett points out, "by one glance at his sturdy little figure, at his bright, wide-open eyes, his firm mouth, and his square, prominent chin; even the little, turned-up end of his nose looked resolute." When I was eight or nine, the failure of my little figure to look sufficiently sturdy and resolute caused some comment from my older sister when we were sent out to shovel the driveway--to which I usually responded by mentioning her own deficiencies in the little-upturned-nose department, and we would end up rolling on the ground, trying to stuff snow down each other's back. I doubt that's what Dodge, Swett, and Commager had in mind.

NOT THAT WE DIDN'T HAVE OUR SHARE of true Dickensianism--the boisterous stream that runs from Joseph Addison and Washington Irving, through the "Pickwick Papers'" Dingley Dell, and down to G. K. Chesterton's beery vision of food and drink and Christmas cheer. My father always insisted on an early Christmas breakfast, a huge feast of eggs poached in milk, and bacon and hashbrowns and pancakes and marmalade and grapefruit and a sort of sweetened toast whose name I can't remember, but it tasted like corrugated cardboard with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top.

And then, after that groaning meal, nothing. No lunch, no snack, no Christmas gingerbread, no nuts, no fruit. None of the fancy chocolate a cousin sent every year from San Francisco, none of the b che de Noël my college-aged sister taught us to make when she came back from her junior year in France with her bangs cut at a Parisian angle and her diary filled with recipes. Nothing until two o'clock, or three, or four, or, one year, even five, when the ravenous aunts had begun to snip at each other in hunger, and the starved uncles were arguing in the living room about how many terms Sigurd Anderson had been governor, and the children--past the wheedling stage, past the whining stage, past the stage of sitting on the kitchen floor and weeping for food--were crouched together on the sofa, dumb with misery.

But then at last the kitchen door would swing open in a blast of steam and smoke and relief. And the dining-room table would fill with a turkey or a goose, rolls and salad and green beans, little glass bowls of watermelon pickles with tiny three-pronged forks beside them, and cranberries plopped whole in sugared water, boiled until they started to burst, then set aside to cool. "You see," my father explained every year as we sat down to eat, "this is the way to do it: a big breakfast to stretch your stomach, then no lunch, so by dinner time you're really ready for a full Christmas meal."

They can't have all been there the same year, but my memory puts together on the table sweet potatoes and yams, butternut squash and the white potatoes mashed with milk and butter that--in one of those family traditions by which chores get divvied up--we were told only Uncle Hugo could make well. But there was always the onion-and-breadcrumb dressing into which my father dumped two, three, four white tins of dried sage, sneaking back into the kitchen to add more when he thought no one was looking.

And then there were pies: made from pieces of cooked pumpkin kept in the freezer since October, apples up from the cellar, Mason jars of mincemeat. The food was more enormous than it was complicated. The only elaborate thing I remember my mother making for Christmas was an aspic, a sort of clarified gelatin made from a consommé of veal bones and flavored with tomatoes. I have no idea where she got the idea--South Dakota didn't run much to that sort of cooking--but she would spend hours working on it.

I can't describe how much we hated that aspic. It looked like horror-movie gore, and it tasted like tomato-juice Jell-O. Every year, the relatives would ooh and aah as it was brought triumphantly on a platter to the table, and the crisis of the children's refusal to eat it would escalate from parental glares to harsh whispers to my father banging the table and forbidding us to have dessert until we finished our portions. At last, while our parents snuck out to the porch to recover their nerves, our favorite uncle would pick up our untouched plates along with his own and head off to the kitchen, whistling. He couldn't stand the stuff either.

After dinner, there was champagne for the adults, and eggnog and fruit cake, if anyone had room left for anything, and wood to add to the fireplace, and the annual crisis of fumbling in the basement with a flashlight when a bad bulb on the tree flared out and blew the fuse. There were giant Springbok jigsaw puzzles, and bridge if my grandmother was insistent, or one of the new board games to play with the visiting cousins. When I was very young, there were uncles to beg into lighting, one more time, the candles on the miraculous little machine that caught the rising heat of the flames to spin a fan that whirled around small brass angels with long wands, ringing miniature bells with each revolution. And then there were books, and more books, and yet more books--until everything we had wanted Christmas to be seemed present in the dead of those cold winters.

AND YET, the fulfillment of expectation comes with a disappointment all its own. By the end of Christmas Day, we were satisfied--and sated: drained of wonder and prone to a reaction against the overindulgence, the replete, in a season of charity. This was in the days before the nation surrendered to its secular, store-bought fate, the era when every newspaper in America ran an editorial sometime during the season bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas.

Ours was a sterner, more puritanical objection, however. We did not lack the religious meaning of Christmas; we had church goings and Bible readings, candles and Advent calendars, angels on the tree and carols insisting He was born that man no more may die. But we had something else as well, something that turned us away in an odd distaste on Christmas afternoon from the explosion of opened presents, ribbons spread across the floor, and bright balls of crumpled wrapping paper, red and green--the living room transformed into Ali Baba's cave or Hollywood's vision of a bandits' lair.

I remember bundling up and going out for air after Christmas dinner the year I was sixteen. Trudging along the lip of the white-dusted gully on the edge of Pierre, I looked out to see the land, like a cold sea stretching off to the horizon. Cities on the ocean have a choice whether to turn their faces or their backs to the water, lining the shore either with pretty hotels and rich homes or dim warehouses, narrow streets, and greasy piers. All prairie towns turn away from the prairie, however. The huddled houses form a storm-battened island in the midst of endless space.

But sometimes in winter, I could sense something else in that cold, blank range--or, rather, nothing else, emptiness itself like a positive force, an overwhelmingly present absence: purer than we were, cleaner, truer to God's purposes, more real. Once, years later, I felt it again. It was near midnight, while I driving along Highway 14 from Minnesota across the state to Pierre in the old rust-orange Ford pickup my father had given me. Expecting to see the lights of the car that had followed me from Brookings to Huron, I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw . . . nothing--the absolute nothing, a darkness from before creation. It was like falling into deep water at night, and before I awoke I was off the highway, the gravel clattering in the wheel-wells and the weeds snapping off as they tore against the fenders.

The prairie in December is brutal and indifferent, but that sated Christmas I was sixteen--with presents back home spilling off the sofa, the annual racecar-track looped in a figure-8 beneath the tree, too many new books and boxes of candy, the mothball odor of the Christmas linen and the cloying scent of the juniper branches--I perceived, in some confused adolescent's way, the spirit's harrowing side. I came to cast fire upon the earth, as the Gospel says, and would that it were already kindled! There was a burned-over purity to that frozen landscape, an icy clarity to its ash-white slate. There was an escape from the mess and clutter of our overpopulated Christmas desires, ruined by their secular attainment. To stand along the prairie's rim was to understand the impatient truth that where man is, the divine is not--to know that God lives apart from people.

AT OTHER TIMES, I have been forced to learn the opposite truth. Late afternoon on Christmas Eve, the year that I was eleven, my father took me with him across the river. I can't remember what the urgency was, but he was a busy lawyer, and he needed some papers signed by a rancher who lived across on the other side of the Missouri from Pierre. So off we headed, west over the bridge and north through the river hills.

If you've never seen that South Dakota country in winter, you have no idea how desolate land can be. I once asked my grandmother why her father had decided to stop his wagon-trek in what became the town where she was born. And she answered, in surprise I didn't know, "Because that's where the tree was." The empty hills were frozen dry, as my father and I drove along, with sharp ice crystals blowing up from the knots of cold, gray grass.

Now, we were supposed to stay only a minute or two, get a signature, and turn back for home. But you can't pay a visit in South Dakota, especially at Christmas, without facing food--endless besieging armies of it, and usually the worst of American holiday cuisine: Jell-O molds with carrot shavings, chocolate-packet pies, neon-pink hams pricked to death with cloves and drowned in honey. If you've never seen one of those prairie tables, you have no idea how desolate food can be.

From the moment she spotted us turning off the highway, Mrs. Harmon must have been piling the table. I remember eating cinnamon buns crusted with sugar while Mr. Harmon and his two tall sons told us about the coyote tracks they'd found that morning. It was the cold that made the coyotes risk it, scenting the trash cans, probably, and the livestock had been skittish all day. But then Mrs. Harmon began to shout, "Jim, Jim, the horses are out." And in a tangle of arms and jackets, we poured out to herd back the frightened animals.

By the time we were done, however, four expensive quarter-horses were loose on the prairie. Cursing, Mr. Harmon climbed into his pickup and headed north along the highway, while my father drove off to the south. Mrs. Harmon took it more calmly. She went inside to telephone the neighbors, and the boys began to saddle three horses to ride out and look.

You have to understand the significance of that third horse, for it marks the difference between town and country--even a small town surrounded by country, like Pierre. The Harmons simply assumed an eleven-year-old boy was old enough to help, while my mother would have pitched a fit at my riding out on the prairie alone, a few hours from sundown, in the middle of winter.

In fact, there was little chance of getting lost. I knew, more or less, how to ride, and the highway was in sight much of the time. Still, as the land grew colder and darker, the excitement faded, leaving only brittle determination, a boy's will not to be the first to turn back.

I can't have ridden far through the Christmas hills--maybe three or four miles--when I came over a rise and spotted one of the horses, skittering in front of a worn farmhouse. Standing in the yard was a woman, a rope in one hand and her other hand held up empty toward the horse. She was hatless and tiny, hardly bigger than I was, with a man's heavy riding coat hanging down below her knees, the sleeves turned back to show the faded lining, and she seemed very old to me. Yellow light streamed out on the cold ground from the one lit window of the house.

As I rode down, she waved me back, talking to the horse in the gentlest, lightest patter, as though nothing much had ever been wrong, really, and, anyway, everything was all right, now. He bobbed back and forth, nearer and nearer, until he touched her open hand with his steaming nose and she eased the loop over his neck.

"Bea Harmon called," she said, handing me the rope, "and told me you were all out looking for this boy. They often come to me, you know. He'll go along quietly now."

Her eyes were quick and black. "I don't see many people, here about," she chirruped, like a winter bird. "Come in and get warm. I'll make some coffee. No, you're a little young for coffee. I'll put some water on for tea, and there're the cookies I made in case someone came by." But I was proud of bringing back one of the strays and wouldn't wait. I shied away from her outstretched hand and galloped back.

Sometimes you catch sight of a turn leading off into the distance, a dirt track or a county road at right angles to the highway you're on, as you drive along those straight, miles-long lines you find only in the West. And you know you'll never go up it, never come back to find where it leads, and always there remains a sense, as you roll past, that maybe this time you should have turned and followed that track up into the distant hills.

Her hair was the same thin shade of gray as the weather-beaten pickets of the fence around her frozen garden. She had a way with horses, and she was alone on Christmas Eve.

There is little in my life I regret as much as that I would not stay for just one cookie, just one cup of tea.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard and poetry editor of First Things.