“Cooking has many functions, and only one of them is about feeding people,” writes British food writer Nigella Lawson. Lawson’s wonderfully forgiving recipe for coq au vin was simmering on Christmas Eve. I wanted to fill the house with a delicious and comforting smell for all kinds of reasons–including one Lawson herself provides in her cookbook Feast: “When we go into a kitchen, indeed when we even just think about going into a kitchen, we are both creating and responding to an idea we hold about ourselves, about what kind of person we wish to be.” The kind of person I wished to be on Christmas Eve was solid, enduring. I wasn’t just wishing to create a Christmas-y atmosphere for my home-from-college daughter who passionately loves Christmas–I was trying to whip up a loving, cozy atmosphere that would protect me and everyone I cared about from the impermanence of life. The serious nature of life–the way that people and times we have loved disappear and never return becomes terribly clear to me this time of year.
Julia Child once said that dining with family and friends is one of “life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.” The older I get, the more I tackle the holidays like Scrooge on Christmas morning–as if cooking and candlelight and glasses raised in a toast can save me from the kind of vision that Gabriel Conroy had at the end of James Joyce’s story “The Dead:” “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling. ”
On Christmas morning, I found my daughter in the kitchen making pancakes, dressed in a skirt and jewelry and looking she thought (and I did, too) “a little like the wife in MadMen” (minus the cigarette, thankfully). Her retro outfit reminded me a little of very early memories of my mother, whom I especially miss at Christmas since she loved it so much. I wondered if she had done what I do–making merry for her children’s sake. “One by one they were all becoming shades,” reflected Gabriel Conroy. “Better to pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Surely my mother who had lost her own mother my the time I was five must have known the truth of impermanence, yet she was always like a child herself at Christmas, overflowing with excitement and generosity, reminding us that life was full of unforeseeable possibilities and magic.
In 2010, may we all open to life’s unexpected gifts and highest possbilities.
3 thoughts on “Holidays/ Holy Days”
It’s kind of like dancing on your own grave, breathing life into a passing moment, like breathing into a ballon that drifts away and eventually bursts as it descends in fragments to the earth. Alan Watts once suggested that we play our parts like actors on the stage, knowing that we are not the act but fully embracing the performance.
I am reminded of a Christmas Eve on the Western Front when the soldiers agreed to a kind of Christmas Armistice and drank and sang together. Yes, there was a war but there was also this day to mark, this day to remember their shared humanity. They had been sent to die in those trenches by men far too old to fight. They had been pawns in a chess game of alliances. But for a moment, they changed their faces, slipped on new masks, and marked something greater. The next they were killed by the bullets of those they sang songs with only a few moments ago. But for this moment, they created celebration.
Isn’t that what makes us different? This ability to celebrate, to transcend, to dance even though we know we must one day die.
I wonder how many people remember that Christmas is actually twelve days long. In the monastery we did and it was as you describe: an atmosphere that protects from the impermanence of life.
Impermanence and seriousness waited outside, like darkness surrounding a lamplit house. Inside everything was clothed in symbol, ritual, tradition ancient and new.
It took effort, planning and cooperation, but we managed to access a time and place that is always there, everywhere, but which reveals itself in a special focused way during those twelve days, to those who will.
Thank you for this. Interestingly, the bit of Joyce I quoted–the insight Gabriel Conroy had while watching snow fall–took place after a party for the Feast of the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, the last day of refuge.