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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The way I want Christmas

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     The way I want Christmas is withdrawn, but attentive, and giving. Like a woman. During holiday hullabaloo the thrusts of commerce, and even sometimes of the church, impose upon the quiet of inner space. Any day of the year, whether in a state of joy, sorrow, or even turmoil, I want to rise and fall gently on the day's currents--nose flared, eyes raised, hands unclasped, ears unlocked. But some of the air is raucous, rank, deafening, false, and deadening. At home I pull down Christmas tubs and unsnap lids. Out with the ribbons and glitter spirals the remembered scent of oranges studded with cloves. It is a woman’s fragrance, the earth. My mother.

     And out comes the 1955 Christmas songbook, dull matte blue with worn embossed singing angels on the cover, its spine reinforced with duct tape by my father. Mom’s dark eyes ignite in candlelight at the mahogany piano, and blue-ridge vein rivers roll over her knuckles while she plays Go Tell It on the Mountain. Hip-to-hip on the needlepointed piano bench we sit where she has also taught me to play in hours of tearful frustration. But as if turning out the lamps and lighting the tree and candles illuminates a different piano and alternate faces, during these easy-going Christmas carol hours there is no tension, no mother-daughter resistance or pride. She plays and plays, and I sing, and turn the page to the next. The music floats in flakes of effortless snowfall. Many songs are foreign, strange, and special, never appearing in a church hymnal. They are haunting in their folk lyrics and minor keys. They are of woods and tender brown animals. They bloom with holly leaves and stars. They rasp with bagpipe and fiddle. They are blue, cold nights of Croatian shepherds, French rushes of wings, and a hand hewn rocking cradle of Czechoslovakia. They are whisper-sung by a woman in front of a fire, baby at her breast, fat cheeks aglow and rosy-warm, drinking the quieting calm that streams from inside a woman. Christmas is my mother’s lullaby.


TO SAY BEFORE GOING TO SLEEP

I would like to sing someone to sleep,
to sit beside someone and be there.
I would like to rock you and sing softly
and go with you to and from sleep.
I would like to be the one in the house
who knew: The night was cold.
And I would like to listen in and listen out
into you, into the world, into the woods.
The clocks shout to one another striking,
and one sees to the bottom of time.
And down below one last, strange man walks by
and rouses a strange dog.
And after that comes silence.
I have laid my eyes upon you wide;
and they hold you gently and let you go
when something stirs in the dark.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke
(from The Book of Images, translated by Edward Snow in 1991)


Sleep, little Jesus, my treasure, my blessing,
While Mary comforts Thee, tender, caressing.
Lullaby, little one, in loving arms lying,
Guarding my darling and stilling Thy crying.

~ Polish Lullaby
(translated by Henry W. Simon)
from my mom's Treasury of Christmas Songs and Carols,
which I posted about previously here

Please listen to Edyta Górniak tenderly whisper-sing this lullaby in Polish, 
called 'Lulajże Jezuniu', here

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41 comments:

Margaret Bednar said...

You have such a beautiful way of expressing yourself and your posts just ooze sentiment and warmth. Thank you for sharing these memories, this music. (I found a video of John dancing at Epcot and added it to my post... it should make you smile)

Patricia said...

I am moving off to my warm bed and will have poetry and music to lull me to sleep. Thank you for your thoughts, as ever, and this very engaging collection.

Gwei Mui said...

Having a "quiet" Christmas almost seems like a contradiction in words. Commercialism seems to have infiltrated alsmost all aspects of the festive season whether religious or secular. We are not relgious in that sense - but like many we will observe Christmas. For us it is a time to spend together in each other's company to re-affimr our love of each other and our friends by sharing food and drink.
I hope get the Christmas that you want and deserve :)

Ginnie said...

That Christmas carol book.... Oh, Ruth! Even I have dear memories of it but you have more and I rehearse them through you. Dad knew how important that book was, didn't he!

I trimmed our Christmas tree yesterday and have now just listened to Edyta's Polish lullaby. I'm 'haunted' by it. This is the kind of song to hear in the quietness of the tree's lights. This is Christmas.

The Solitary Walker said...

Really beautiful, Ruth. With each passing year Christmas aches with more and more memories. Each bauble, carol, card, scent, flavour and ritual evokes a memory which in turn evokes another memory.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Margaret. Yeah, I feel the world more than I see it. This can sometimes be problematic. :)

I went back to check out John dancing, which will be so fun to see (and feel), but sadly the link claimed "Video unavailable." Do let me know if it gets fixed so I can watch.

Ruth said...

Patricia, I am so glad you found these things that way too, and you felt lulled to sleep. I was delighted to find the Polish lullaby sung so sweetly on YouTube. And the Rilke just happened to be the next page in the volume I was reading ...

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, thank you. I don't know about deserving what I want, but maybe we all do in some sense, deserve what we want.

I don't think it's easy to filter out the infiltration of commercial Christmas, maybe it's even impossible. But I try not to let it sink in, while also trying not to resist it in the sense of denial. It is what it is, just like so much of our world that is not as I would wish it to be.

Ruth said...

Boots, as I felt this and wrote it, I thought of you many times, knowing you would read, and remembering your response to the first time I posted about this carol book. Our experience at home was quite different in some ways, given our years apart, but also we have much in common. I'm so grateful for that, for both actually. How wonderful it would be to sit or stand around the piano with mom now, and with all of us.

I was so pleased to find Edyta Górniak's recording of this lullaby. I can't even tell you how many times I've listened, but it's dozens. It takes me to fields and woods and hills and cozy cottages. I feel connected with people from all places and times.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Robert, I'm glad to hear you say that, echoing my feelings. I find that I get a little nervous talking about Christmas, because people can have real visceral reactions, veering toward the positive or negative (including some of my own negative ones). For me, as for you it seems, the meaning and connections deepen over time. It's all about memories.

Peter said...

Apart from the religious images of Christmas (which may still be there, somewhere), our Christmas, as it’s illustrated in poems, pictures, songs… is mostly very much northern Europe- (later also northern America-) dominated. Christmas is also celebrated in Andalusia, on Sicily … just referring to Europe, but do we see anything Christmas-like from there? … not mentioning the southern hemisphere. There are of course historical reasons to this, but I find it somehow surprising. Father Christmas seems to live in the north, there is always snow around… Or do I see it like this, because I live and have lived in a northern Europe environment?

Thanks for this post; it really gave me a Christmas feeleing, the way I see it! :-)

Margaret Bednar said...

I like what Ginnie said...the quietness of the trees lights. Someone I follow asked what slows us down for Christmas... (I couldn't think of a good answer, what with 6 kids!) But that's it. In the evening, I like to look at the tree and all the special ornaments - the ones made by the children, the ones bought to remind us of certain events... And the twinkling lights, paired with my memories (and ah, a small glass of red wine) help me relax. And Solitary Walker also was spot on... the memories of Christmas "ache" more every year, but in a good way for me.

I THINK I fixed the "dancing" link. Let me know if it worked. :)

*jean* said...

o ruth, i can hear it and i can smell it...i love the rolling blue rivers of her veins...your new photos are so lovely...i enjoy every moment, every connection each holiday season...i pledged years back to only do special things for those i love...and for myself, i listen to lots of music, takes walks down snowy lanes...watch "it's a wonderful life"..and enjoy the reflection that winter brings.

The Bug said...

If your mother was a Christmas lullaby then mine was the raucous spitting image of Christmas Present from the Scrooge tale - my goodness did she love to celebrate Christmas WIDE OPEN and with an embarrassment of gifts under the tree (I never minded). And the food! Christmas has never been the same since she left us - a little more contemplative maybe, but less outrageously joyous.

Loring Wirbel said...

Even your bah-humbug moments are beautiful. Mine are just bah. I hold some moments of this season dear, but they are in the minority. This helps improve my attitude.

Ruth said...

Peter, yes, I think of what you say often. Just as I was writing a comment to Letty at Freefalling in Australia, I was thinking how strange [to me] it is to have Christmas in the spring of the year. When I lived in California, it was a very different feeling too, and the poinsettias were growing as shrubs in the yard instead of on the windowsill. It does seem that the northern climes are associated in the visual arts about Christmas. Of course Father Christmas, well Santa Claus, originated in Turkey, and of course that is Asia, though they would like to be included more in the European community. Well, perhaps they are, via Christmas. :)

I'm glad your feelings echo my own about how you want Christmas, Peter. I am not surprised.

Ruth said...

Margaret, you are close to being what my mother was, she had eight, and I'm the last. I'm thinking this time at the piano with the lights low and tree lights on was calming for her too. I do love those white lights. We have ours up now, and I'll enjoy them for a month.

Yes, I appreciated Robert's word "ache" a lot too, for it connotes how we ache in pleasure and in pain over our memories.

Let me say about your dancing John, you'd better keep an eye on him! He's adorable, and every woman in sight must line up to dance with him. I know I would. Well, on second thought, I couldn't keep up!

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear Jean. I snuck the blue ridge in there because Mom and Dad lived in the Blue Ridge mountains when they were first married, and for a few years after.

We are slowing down like that too, about the giving, the exchange, which can become an almost meaningless chore if you let it. Yes, the music, the walks in the snow, and heading back to the house that is lit and warm. In Minnesota you know this more than anyone. My friend Gayla calls this "candle time." So very lovely.

Ruth said...

Well, Dana, there is great joy in the all-embracing exuberance! It's the ones like me who find that too tiring who must be more careful. But I say those who want more more more should have it! It sounds as though you have beautifully outrageous, or outrageously beautiful memories with her. We'll call her the wake-up mama!

Ruth said...

Don't be too hard on yourself, Loring, in all your curmudgeonness, you are beautiful. Please don't change one tiny Christmas light on your humbug tree. But stay happy and at peace inside, promise!

George said...

This is a lovely remembrance of Christmas and a meditation, perhaps, on what it should be. I must confess that I enter the season with considerable ambivalence and trepidation. I am moved by the ideals of the holiday, but disgusted by the exploitation and distortion of those ideals. Having read your piece, however, I will go into Christmas with a more hopeful perspective this year. Merry Christmas.

Ruth said...

George, I think I understand, if your perceptions mirror my own, which I suspect they do. I can't ask for more than that you will have a peaceful December in spite of those exploitations and distortions. I'm gratified that you found some hope here today. Thanks, dear friend.

♥ Kathy said...

That was just so beautiful Ruth. My mother's family is Polish and Czechoslovakian and your words brought my wonderful aunt into my mind. She's been gone many years now but she's still strong in my mind. Everything to her was beautiful.

Bella Rum said...

This is lovely, Ruth. December opens a floodgate of memories. I wish you peace and happiness this Christmas.

ellen abbott said...

Oh would that we could have a quiet christmas in this country. Our commercialism will never allow it, not when there is a buck to be made.

Vagabonde said...

I like your picture of your matryoshka dolls. That reminds me that I bought some while in St Petersburg, but they are still in their box – I think they would look nice at Christmas. I like many of the Christmas carols I learnt in this country. In France the most popular when I was growing up was a song called “Petit Papa Noël” sung by Tino Rossi, a singer who past away in 1983. It brings back memories.

Pauline said...

Rilke's poem is so comforting! And so is the thought that Christmas reminds you of your mother, of motherhood, of peace. Lovely post. (Love the idea of words being "whisper-sung.}

Oliag said...

What a wonderful gift it is to be raised with in a home full of music. My parents were many things, but musical was not one of them and I have felt this lack throughout my life. I love the image of the blue song book bound together with duct tape...and the one of your mother's hands at the piano. The past few years we have sung carols with my son in law playing the guitar...it is lovely.

Thanks for sharing Rilke's poem too...I love it...

Ruth said...

♥ Kathy, what a gift, the memory of your aunt, for whom everything was beautiful. I'm so glad this post conjured her for you.

Ruth said...

Bella, thank you so much, I do wish you the same.

Ruth said...

Ellen, I guess it's up to us to make it what we want, the best we can. We hardly buy any gifts now, just a couple for friends, and only one thing for each other in our immediately family. I can't leave the TV on; the ads make me nuts.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Vagabonde. Imagine, a set of matryoshka dolls bought in St. Petersburg.

I found your Petit Papa Noël here. It almost sounds like a national anthem.

Ruth said...

Pauline, yes, Rilke's poem is comforting, yet I also am haunted by the last line, not really understanding it.

Thank you, for your kind comment. It comforts me that you are comforted here.

Ruth said...

Oliag, I celebrate with you the addition of your son-in-law to your family, and the new-ish ritual of singing carols while he plays guitar. Music is important in family life, whether it is there, or it isn't, as you testify, for you sorely missed it. I am terribly grateful for this gift from my mother, as you see, and for what she passed on in blood to my son and others in the extended family. What would our celebrations be without music. What would one day be, without it?

I just happened upon this Rilke, as he was in my stack to read, and my bookmark was at this poem. I was happy for the synchronicity, and for his remarkable craft. I wish I understood what he wants to do in those last two lines though, that leave me a little haunted, more than comforted. I am trying to live with the mystery . . .

C.M. Jackson said...

Ruth

sweet memories and a wonderful start to the holiday season--I hope you and yours have a beautiful Christmas filled with joy.

Cheryl

deb said...

your words,
I felt transported.

and that song is so very very beautiful.

How a book can be such a thread . Isn't it profound?

I adore quiet candle lit Christmas moments. I am glad to know you have these ones with your Mother in your heart and spirit.

Cait O'Connor said...

What a joy this post is as is your whole blog, a haven to come to, thank you.

Susan said...

Dear Ruthie, this has put me in the Christmas spirit more than anything I've seen or heard yet. Your connection to your mother through music is a strong, unbreakable bond that continues on even though she is no longer with you.

I love that Polish song. Why do lyrics always sound so much more beautiful in another language? :)

Dutchbaby said...

My sister and I were talking this week about making a pact amongst the direct family members to cut back on the gift-giving. It's all just too much; rather than giving joy, it just creates stress.

One thing I miss about living in The Netherlands is that the holiday gifts are exchanged on Sinterklaas (December 5th) instead of Christmas. Christmas there is more like Thanksgiving here, a time for a beautiful family meal and reflection.

Dutchbaby said...

Oh, and I meant to say that I love the image of music floating in flakes of effortless snowfall. The image of you and your mother, side by side at the piano, delights me.

partialview said...

I am very green in the blogging world, still. For months, I've been surfing the virtual world to look for words and pages of honesty and style. Just one blog. And I've stopped here. You have a beautiful talent. But saying that will not be giving credit to your intellect that has made use of this talent in such a now-rare stylish ease. Thank you for making a home here and being a neighbour. I am glad I shifted.

Priya