The tiny chapel in the woods behind our house in Germany: I find myself missing it today in the metropolitan hum of suburban DC with the tiniest of snow flurries falling. What I wouldn’t give for a German Christmas Market, a dusting of snow, and a tiny chapel behind my stone house.
Wishing you each a season that is merry and bright!
“His name became an aphorism for meanness, but the base nature of Ebenezer Scrooge was inadvertently fashioned by failing light and an author whose eyesight was equally dim.” The Scotsman, December 24, 2004
Ebenezer Scrooge– his story is synonymous with Christmas these days, his changed fate is the stuff of redemption stories (“Christ was born for this” to be sure), and his hauntings both thrill our narrative nerves and warn us of our own shortcomings. Most of us roll our eyes when A Christmas Carol comes on TV for the umpteenth time in the wind up to Christmas, but it’s a tale well told and it probably deserves its stature as a holiday classic.
These days, Dickens is even recognized as a key “inventor” of our modern Christmas traditions. He and his Victorian age put a certain stamp and feeling on the holiday that we still embrace: carolers, Christmas trees, gifts and goodies, and a St. Nick who was less complex and more “festive elf” than the saint of years past and countries east. None of the traditions was new, but the packaging and cheer of it was differently polished and easily palatable. The general rallying cry? “God bless us, every one!”
Charles Dickens had a well tuned sensibility about what made for a good tale. But how funny would it be if this Christmas tale of his was founded on a misunderstanding? What if Ebenezer Scrooge was birthed by a mistake, a misplaced letter, and an imagination that barreled full speed ahead?
It’s said that Charles Dickens kept a diary. And that diary kept a secret about A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843. While in Edinburgh in 1841, Dickens took a stroll through Canongate Churchyard (or Kirkyard, as the locals would say). It was evening and the light was dimming. He paused at the tombstone of an Ebenezer Scroggie (1792-1836) and mused at the inscription “A Mean Man.” What horrible person had this Ebenezer been, that his epitaph would be so harsh?
Not only did Dickens note this in his diary, but clearly he puzzled it over to the point that Ebenezer Scrooge was born and fully fleshed out in a tale that would delve into that miserly past but offer a redemptive future, if only Scrooge would take it. Poor, mean old Scroggie could finally be redeemed.
Except that, as the kirkyard tale goes, Scroggie wasn’t a mean man. In fact, by some reports he was quite the bon vivant. Scroggie, who was a vintner and corn/grain merchant, was actualy a Meal Man. Dickens needed better glasses.
You can’t verify this story, I’m afraid. Scroggie’s grave marker was removed in 1932, during kirkyard redevelopment. However, you can read more about Dickens and Scroggie here.
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you can enjoy your own stroll through Canongate Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s quite a beautiful church on the Royal Mile, close to the Houses of Parliament and Holyrood Palace. Back in September, I found myself strolling the Royal Mile and happened into the church. It was a slow day, and a young docent was eager to bend my ear about the bright and beautiful space. Interestingly, the space is especially bright and beautiful because of it’s sad past.
The church was built in 1690, with a Dutch gable to the façade. It’s simple and elegant, and just a little different from everything around it in Edinburgh.
The interior was to be refurbished in the late 1930’s, but WWII intervened and a war time of belt tightening and serious endeavors put that on hold temporarily. In December of 1945 the work was started, and it was finished in 1952. This is significant because, according to the docent, it changed the tone of the work done. The parish, as the United Kingdom, had suffered and lost much during the war. The number of young soldiers who did not return home was a wound that would be long in healing. And so the decision was made that the interior space must be light and bright, must be cheerful and uplifting– a reminder that, though sorrow was heavy, the world was a beautiful place and this was a space for rejoicing as much as grieving.
Still today, the interior of the church uplifts. To me, it has a nautical sensibility, at least in its coloring (though it’s possible that I’m influenced by the sea gull cries that are heard over the skies of Edinburgh– a constant subliminal reminder that you are in a port town nestled by the North Sea).
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, it’s worth your time to take a peek into Canongate Kirk. I guarantee that you won’t leave saying “Ba Humbug”!
A very merry Christmas and happy holiday season to you all! (And may God bless us, every one!)
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door-
Only this, and nothing more.” -EA Poe
Here’s hoping that only hungry trick or treaters come tapping at your chamber door this evening.
Happy Halloween, everyone! Have fun and stay safe!
Tonight marks Twelfth Night– the eve of Epiphany, the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It’s considered very bad form, and bad luck, to keep Christmas decorations up any longer than this.
This, I think, is a plot hatched by type A neatniks to push type B malingerers into a tidy-up already. Not a bad ploy; I get it. However, this time last year, I decided to keep my tree up another week or two, until my corner of Germany got some snow. When the snow finally made its appearance, I snuggled under a blanket with a book and some hot chocolate while the tree lights twinkled. No bad luck in that.
This year, I’m baffled by what to do. Family and friends to my north are expecting freezing weather and snow storms in two days. I feel like I should leave my tree up as a sign of solidarity– I can read by its twinkling lights, turn on a fan, and pretend that I’m looking out my window at a foot of snow. But I’ll be looking at this:
Good stuff, but not a winter wonderland.
Or I could be industrious and take it all down and give up on winter ever coming to Florida. (I’d be tidy and efficient, but kind of a quitter too. It’s a quandry.)
In the States, we don’t pay much attention to the “12 days” of Christmas. (Christmas day until Epiphany, January 6th.) It’s more of an Old World concept. But it lends more structure, and a greater sense of traditional festival, to the holiday than our modern sprawl (which is more like the 12 weeks of Christmas, starting before–or at, if we are very lucky– Halloween).
Twelfth Night offers a chance to wallow in Christmas traditions for one more night– to eat heartily (and include a King’s Cake on the table) and drink wassail. It’s also the night when you finally allow the yule log to die out– that log that you started burning on Christmas Day and kept going until now. The yule log is said to bring luck for the coming year, and, if you’ve kept a fire burning around the clock for the last 12 days and your house is still standing, then I’d say you’re pretty lucky! We didn’t do that at my house. We did, however, bake a yule log (a buche de Noel) and gobble up every crumb. Hopefully that imparts luck and not just extra pounds.
From our experiences in Germany, it’s obvious that Twelfth Night doesn’t just mark an ending of a season– it is also the beginning of the carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras. We’ve seen this in Bavaria and the Black Forest, where Christmas season seems to be dipped at both ends with a dollop of menace. On the front end of Christmas, Krampus came for bad children around December 6th (Nikolaustag), and now at the holiday’s closing bell, masked demons parade in the streets as the carnival season gets underway.
Two years ago, in January, we took a trip to the Black Forest. We spent the night in Triberg, and the snow was falling fast and starting to accumulate. We tucked the kids and dogs into the hotel in the early evening and told them we’d go find a restaurant in town and bring dinner back to them.
When we got down the hill and into town, we turned toward a restaurant we’d seen earlier in the day, and ran headlong into a merry band of demons parading the streets. But, you know, these things happen in the Black Forest. We laughed, but didn’t think much of it until the next day when we were talking to Oliver Zinapold in his Triberg woodworking and clock shop. We talked cuckoo clocks at great length, and even bought a lovely clock from him, and before we left we spotted a devil’s mask up on the wall. I asked about it.
“Oh, it’s a good thing you came today,” he said. “Tomorrow, I close up shop and go to Switzerland for a few days to be in the Carnival.” He showed us his hand carved mask, and pulled out a sketch book of other masks (and clock faces) he’d made. And suddenly the merry band of devils we’d seen in Triberg made perfect sense.
So, don’t mourn the passing of Christmas time at Twelfth Night . . . just realize that thirteenth night marks the beginning of another lively season. And more than a little mischief.
I’ll leave you with a short video of Oliver Zinapold’s workshop– Oli’s Schnitzstube. The video is in German, but if you are drinking your Twelfth Night wassail, I expect you’ll understand every word of it. And even if you don’t, it’s worth seeing the lovely clocks and (an added treat) one of his devil masks can be seen hanging on the wall at about 22 seconds into the video.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.
We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it. We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.
We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.
But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.
“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” ― Dickens, A Christmas Carol
When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–an uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted. It was the right sort of house for that: imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.
I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.
But then nothing happened.
Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.
Still, nothing happened.
After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened. What a rip off! I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!? Not a fair trade off if you ask me.
But ghosts are people too; they have their own agendas. I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life. It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life. What was Christmas like for them? Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver? Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage? Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?
And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area? Was the occupation oppressive or a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals . . . who must have been haunted already by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war.
And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II. What about those Christmas dinners? Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark? Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe? Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me. I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.
And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided, like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.
Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either. I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.
It’s better not to know, I tell myself.
Still, I want a ghost for Christmas. I can’t shake that feeling. It’s part of the old house package.
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” -William Faulkner
I had a ghost once, a few years ago.
I know, I know–just hear me out. This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances. The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening. For that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening (the story becomes infinitely more plausible at that point). And one more thing–the children aren’t around. If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.
I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts).
So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story in a few days. That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined. It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.
Meet me here then, if you dare, and I will tell you my story.