Monthly Archives: December 2016

Christmas among the Heathens

We weren’t Christian, but we kept Christmas. My mother subscribed to the Dickensian school of yule revellers. Each year, a month before Christmas, she would make a plum pudding, which to my single-digit mind did not look like pudding, and since I helped her make it, I knew it didn’t have plums in it, but lots of candied fruit and a little flour, and some suet.

One year my mother sent me down to Trent’s Market to buy the suet (she was tied to the house by her brood of six), and I can picture her handwriting on the note she wrote for me to give to the butcher: suet. Come to find out it’s just fat, but in later years she had to special-order it (and the goose) because it was no longer a standard item in the butcher case.

The plum pudding was wonderfully intense after being turned out of the fluted metal form and  flambéed and served with hard sauce, which didn’t look like sauce, but it was hard, like fossilized whipped cream.

Unlike any other family I knew, we did not have turkey at Christmas, but goose. A small, dark bird that like the plum pudding concentrated its flavor and substituted quality for quantity. I have an early oral memory of biting through the crisp, oily skin into the seriously dark meat. There was no white meat.

Another necessity for Christmas dinner was rutabaga, that big yellow turnip that was peeled, chunked, boiled and mashed, and produced a pale orange cousin to the mashed potatoes, not as hearty, and a little insipid, if “insipid” can have a positive connotation. A root vegetable we ate only twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and its rarity made it taste good too.

On Grove Street we didn’t have a fireplace, so we hung our stockings with care on the drawer pulls of a chest in the living room. I have an image of Santa Claus coming through the front door instead of down the chimney, since we didn’t have one. I never saw him, but I pictured him stepping in off the porch, and I appreciated his flexibility.

We knew about Santa mainly through the ritual reading of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” on Christmas Eve. We’d gather around my father, whose deep voice (which I did not inherit) was laced with the aroma of pipe smoke as he read the magic words. “And Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap / had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.” What a strange world, where people wore hats to bed! And I loved the idea of settling my brain — it’s something I still struggle to do — and I’m sure that our folks were hoping we could settle them too, in our half-crazed anticipation of waking up from a winter’s nap that we hoped wouldn’t be too long.

When we did awake (on Christmas you don’t just wake up, you awake) we had to examine our stockings before turning to the presents under the tree. You put your whole arm down the sock to find Brazil nuts, almonds, filberts, walnuts, and pecans, and a tangerine, and a Droste chocolate apple, from Holland. To this day I’m disappointed when I have to settle for chocolate apples of some other brand, or — sacrilege of sacrileges — a chocolate orange.

I knew we were celebrating Jesus’s birth, and I knew about the star and the shepherds and the wise men, and I knew and loved the songs and their mysterious language: “God rest ye merry gentlemen.” What was “ye”? “How still we see thee lie.” What was “thee”? “The joys and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I understood joys and fears, and all the years. There’s a wondrous melancholy in those lines that I felt at an early age.

I didn’t know that people considered Jesus divine, and I didn’t have any concept of God. We were humanist children, pint-sized agnostics without knowing it. In our Howes exceptionalism (which I didn’t yet know was so exceptional, and I didn’t yet know how much our family identity depended so much on being different) we had warm, pajama-clad family Christmas mornings that celebrated midwinter, and generosity, and plenty, and we did it without a god or church.

I know you might say that God was in our midst, even if we didn’t call it that, and you’re welcome to put it that way. But it was Scrooge’s rebirth as much as Jesus’s birth that guided us in those days. The possiblity of reaching into ourselves to find the hopes and fears of all the years, to discover a warmth and a hope that were mysterious and all the more enduring for being nameless.

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A Sled Ride in the Alps

A Sled Ride in the Alps

Between New Year’s Day and Epiphany in 1983, our friend from the University of Klagenfurt, Tina Macher, invited Christen and me to visit her family in St. Lambrecht, an Alpine market town in Styria, Austria. St. Lambrecht is home to an architecturally significant Benedictine abbey and a dynamite factory. At that time, the factory was owned by the Swedish firm Nobel Industries, but now it belongs to Austin Powder, based in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Macher family was very hospitable. Tina took us to see the magnificent eighteenth-century manger scene in the abbey church, with over 130 figures and a mountain backdrop over six feet tall. Her father was the game warden for the local woods, and he showed us home movies of stags at the salt lick and feeding station, and we met the large eagle owl (German Uhu) he kept in protective captivity. One night we ate stag liver and mashed potatoes—delicious! And Tina let us help her make apple strudel, which involved stretching a single piece of dough to cover a large dining-room table.

The unforgettable centerpiece of our visit, however, was the evening we went sledding. We set off in the afternoon with two European style sleds, which sit higher and are shorter than a Radio Flyer and are made entirely of wood, except for strips of metal on the underside of the curled runners.

Tina didn’t tell us the details of what we were about to do. We got on a bus full of skiers heading up the local mountain, the Grebenzen (about 1800 m / 6000 ft). I recall hearing music on the bus by Falco’s former punk group, Drahdiwaberl, singing a song called “Lonely,” which sounds like Ruben and the Jets and has the unforgettable line “I asked the Lord up above / what is this thing morals [sic] call love?”

When we got above the tree line, to the bottom of the ski slopes and the beginning of the t-bar lift, Tina hailed friends of hers on the lift and asked them to drag our sleds up the mountain. (Tina had been hailing friends of hers all day—St. Lambrecht has about 1000 residents.) We trudged up through the snow along the course of the ski lift until we reached the top of the mountain, from which we could see over toward Klagenfurt, which was shrouded in fog, as it often was.

We went to the ski lodge and met the owners and more friends of Tina’s. We had some nice homemade schnapps (which is not syrupy, but clear like vodka) and fresh-baked rye bread, and Tina’s friends gave us some loaves of bread to take back to her family.

The last skiers left the lodge for the last run before sunset, but we were still sitting in the lodge, wondering what was to become of the sledding expedition. We soon found out. As the skiers disappeared below in the blue twilight, we sat on our sleds, me on one and Christen sitting behind Tina on the other, at the top of the ski slope, and pushed off.

A sled can go very fast on a ski slope. Very fast. I was also in charge of keeping the fresh rye bread under my coat, but I managed to hold onto it the one time I wiped out. The snow powder flew, and we flew until we reached the tree line. The slopes were behind us, but our run was just beginning.

We got on a path that wound down the side of the mountain through the woods. It was dark, but there must have been occasional lights, because I never ran into a tree. You steer a European sled with your feet directly on the ground, and  ice was building up on my pant legs. I remember looking down and seeing the lights of the village far below, and it was beautiful, like an impossible postcard. The whole run lasted about one and a half hours. The trail led us directly into St. Lambrecht, and we went home and warmed up, for a long time.

Christen told me later that as they descended, Tina would indicate points of interest such as a spot where one friend had cracked his head open and another had broken her leg. And Tina kept calling out, “Look out for the pumps!” Christen wondered why there were pumps along the mountain trail, and hoped Tina could steer around them. Then she realized Tina was saying “bumps” with an Austrian accent.

Tina was a student of English at Klagenfurt, so we often spoke English as well as German. Her father liked to try out his English too, and the afternoon before we went sledding, which was the day after an attempted cross-country skiing outing that had been foiled by freezing rain, he asked where Christen was. I said she was upstairs taking a nap, and he said sympathetically, “Ah, she’s upstairs collecting power.”

As it turned out, she needed more power than she could have guessed to make the unforgettable sled run down the Grebenzen in the early days of January 1983, still vivid almost thirty-four years later.