Kage Baker liked to retreat on Christmas Eve.
It was time to fort up, she said, as early in the day as you could manage it. Ideally, one didn’t have to work; on years when we did, we headed home as soon as we could and got cozy.
Most years, we were off work by noon or so. We’d speed home, hitting our last ritual tasks and obligations on the way. Sometimes we went and picked holly and pyrocanthus branches, to deck the mantle with fresh red berries. Sometimes we picked up our Christmas roast, paid for with holiday bonuses. Sometimes we’d stop in various parks or isolated wooded canyons to liberate some fresh mistletoe. It grows all over California: usually in sycamore trees in the South, instead of in heraldic oaks. I’ve climbed the sycamores by the Griffith Park Carousel many times in my life, to toss down cut sprigs to Kage on the ground … no golden sickle, but I did use my cool Swiss Army knife. And Kage always made a point of catching it in a white cloth …
The whole idea was to be home, all goodies in hand, in time to cook Christmas Eve dinner. On Christmas Day itself, we’d be off at the family events, laden with presents for our multitudinous siblings, nieces and nephews – despite there being only the 2 of us in our own house, our Christmas tree was always an amazing sight on Christmas Eve, before we’d delivered all the presents!
But on Christmas Eve, we lit all the candles and lights, the house was full of wonderful smells, the table groaned under the feast. We played Christmas carols and ancient music; one of Kage’s favourites was a recording of a Yule Mass in Anglo Saxon. That Worde was Gott/That Worde was Manne, she would chant exultantly while she beat eggs into Yorkshire pudding batter … and my spelling is approximate, Dear Readers, because all I have are the memories of the sound of it over the years. You have to imagine the glottal stops and extra syllables yourself.
Right now it’s a warm, mild, dim afternoon – the classic California winter sky, a grey cloud ceiling breaking into faint prisms at the edges where the haze dissolves in distance. Lights are coming on early all over, where Christmas displays are turned on as soon as the daylight begins to diminish – in this neighborhood, most of them will burn all night, so neither the Christ Child nor Santa gets lost in the nearby dark of Griffith Park. We have a lot of Filipino neighbors, too, so every two or three houses there are enormous multi-coloured stars made of capize shells and oiled paper, that strobe fast enough to bring on epilepsy in the unwary.
My family has just about reached the point where we can settle in and down and let Christmas Eve fill up the house like a warm bath … the big dinner will be tomorrow, so tonight it’ll be soup and sarnies and pizza and fruitcake. All we still need to do is run out to the store for firewood and whatever last minute goodies catch our eyes.
The UPS trucks (3 of ’em) are still booming up and down the street in the twilight; the USPS trucks, much smaller and quicker, are zipping up and down driveways as all the drivers try to deliver last minute packages. The neighborhood dogs have simply given up – they’ve been warning us all that strangers are all over the place for weeks, and no one’s paid any attention at all. In fact, more strangers just keep coming …
Maybe the raccoons will sing carols at midnight (they’re certainly out there, in the warm Halcyon night). It’ll be the most useful thing they’ve ever done; despite the myths of talking beasts on Christmas Eve, the only one who ever speaks in English around here is Harry the parrot. The cats are just nuts, with the lights all glowing on the inexplicable tree to match their mad, whirling eyes.
Meet Me In St. Louis is playing on the telly. Judy Garland has to go to the ball with her grandfather, and is dissolving in tears … wow, not only a First World Problem, but a just-past Fin de Siecle one.Wait’ll she finds out she has to dance with all the geeks she signed up with her arch enemy! A sweeter age, from our perch here just inside the edge of the 21st century – but their problems make them just as wretched as ours do us. And the answers are surprisingly the same, too.
Family. Love. A safe, warm place at Mid-winter, redemption for our sins and our neighbors and the terrors of the cold and dark. A fire on the hearth and a light in the window.
Pizza doesn’t hurt, either. Share it with your loved ones. And have a Merry Christmas Eve, Dear Readers.