Personal and Otherwise — December 20, 2013, 8:00 am

Recollections of My Christmas Tree

One thing is for certain — I wouldn’t want to be a Christmas tree

Harper's Magazine (February 1901)

Harper’s Magazine (February 1901)

I have always been vulnerable when confronted with Christmas decorations, and I am sitting in my living room staring at them. The lights on the tree are blinking on and off and I’m mesmerized. I have never been to a hypnotist but maybe mesmerization is the last state you enter before going over the edge into being hypnotized. Maybe being mesmerized is the last thing you remember. It does seem to be a state all its own. When I was a child I did the same thing — watched the lights blink on and off, alone in the living room at night. The only difference is I know a lot more about Christmas now than I did then. I knew practically nothing then. My mother put an electric candle in each window, they were ivory-colored plastic, and at the end of each taper, near the bulb, fake drips of wax were molded; I loved the drips the most, it meant that the candles looked real to people inside the house, not just to people looking at them from the outside. What I didn’t know then was that these decorations evolved from the Jewish menora, the Hebrew festival of lights. I don’t think my mother knew that either, but if she did she never mentioned it. And I certainly never contemplated the resemblance of a sleigh to a cradle. A sleigh is basically a very large cradle. The runners of the sleigh are what makes the cradle rock. Once there was a very eccentric man, in the nineteenth century in upstate New York, and when he was in his fifties he had a carpenter build him a cradle. I saw it in a museum, the biggest cradle ever made, and every night he slept in it, and when he entered his last illness he stayed in the cradle day and night, feeling the sensual throes of the cradle while somebody nursed and rocked him. I mean in the sense of caring for him. He died in his cradle, and the card on the wall of the museum said he was happy at the end. When I was a child one of my ornaments was a little red velveteen sleigh. I used to put a tiny doll in it, but now it is empty. I don’t even like it anymore and when I was decorating the tree I thought about throwing it away but then I remembered the man in the cradle and decided to keep it. My mother and father also decorated the outside of our house with lights. We lived in a different house every year, so it wasn’t easy — the length of the light strings kept changing. People who live in the same house every year don’t think about things like that, their dimensions stay the same, there’s no need to adjust anything, ever. After the lights were up on the outside of the house, my father would put us in the car and drive around the neighborhood, looking at the lights on the other houses. Sometimes he made disparaging remarks and sometimes in silence admired them. When he admired them he would make changes in his own lights the following year, but as we were by then in a new house none of the neighbors knew we were copycats. The most beautiful yard we ever saw had a snow scene with a frozen pond in the middle and life-size figure skaters who floated across the pond wearing muffs. This was in southern California, so everything was fake — the snow, the frozen pond, even the skaters were fake, and when they moved you could hear a slight whir under the ice — I guess it came from a motor. My father couldn’t copy that — I could tell from his face that he was defeated. In those days everyone had lights. Not a single house was without them. That’s one thing that has certainly changed. Today, only poor people have lights, and the poorest people of all have the most of them. At least this is true of the town I live in. There is one street which has the poorest people of all and at Christmas it is ablaze with lights, there are electric deer on the lawns and huge inflatable Santas, the roofs have more Santas descending in sleighs with reindeer, that kind of thing. The rich people think it is ugly, they don’t bother anymore and they worry about the electric bill. They try to live calm, natural lives. They bake all their own bread, they make cookies and cakes and pies from scratch, they make their own beer and their own wine and liquors and they grow their own food in the summer — and come winter, when they want a Christmas tree or some holly, they just walk out on their land and cut it. Poor people have to use money, they have to go to the store and buy food, especially the kind that is already made. It didn’t used to be that way. When I was a kid, it was understood that poor people had to make everything themselves while rich people got to buy things. My mother bought whole cakes at the grocery store and said we were lucky, not to have to make them ourselves. Now everything is reversed. If my mother and father were still alive they would be very confused. I think we would all become confused, eventually, if we didn’t die. Maybe death prevents a major confusion that would, if it were allowed to go on, eventually kill us all. When I was little, one Christmas ritual majorly confused me. My mother had a little ceramic sleigh that sat on the table. It was driven by a ceramic Santa and pulled by ceramic reindeer. Every year I had to wrap empty matchboxes so they looked like tiny presents. Then we piled them in the sleigh; they were the presents Santa was hauling. But they were empty, and it made me sad. My mother would sit at the table smoking, watching me wrap the matchboxes. Can’t we put anything in them? I asked. No, she said, they’re fake. Couldn’t we pretend? I said. That’s what we’re doing, she said. I mean real pretend, I said, but she just stared off into space and I knew the conversation had ended. One thing is for certain — I wouldn’t want to be a Christmas tree. It would be nice to be the center of attention, to be so decorated and lit that people stared at you in wonder, and made a fuss over you, and were mesmerized. That would be nice. But then you’d start dropping your needles and people would become bored with you and say you weren’t looking so good, and then they’d take all your jewelry off, and haul you off to the curb where you would be picked up and crushed and eventually burned. That’s the terrible part. Maybe that’s why so many people today have fake trees. They are quite popular. Their limbs come apart and you can put them in boxes and store them. You can have one of these trees until you die and you can pass them on to your children. They may not be real but when you look at them you can’t tell the difference. That always makes people happy — not being able to tell the difference. And happiness, to want to be happy, is the most natural thing of all. That man in his big cradle was happy, though I never understood why, when he died, they didn’t just saw the runners off and use it as his coffin. I don’t think anyone would have noticed; in the end, the difference between a cradle and a coffin is hardly worth mentioning, though then again I wouldn’t have seen the cradle later, in the museum, and if that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have kept my red velveteen sleigh, I would have just thrown it away. No, never! When it comes to Christmas, when Christmas comes, I sit firmly on the lap of Charles Dickens, and repeat after him: Welcome, Everything! At this well-remembered time, when Everything is capable, with the greatest of ease, of being changed into Anything. On this day we shut out Nothing!

Share
Single Page

More from Mary Ruefle:

From the May 2013 issue

The Gift

From the July 2012 issue

Little golf pencil

From the April 1999 issue

The bench

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Acres of crossword puzzles Americans fill in each day:

54

In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today