The real Christmas business

Holidays, if you observe them, are like a funnel cloud descending from the heavens to the earth and on below it, shuttling you right down through the cloud strata of Time. & so on Christmas Eve you are closer to all Christmas Eves of your past and the world’s past than you are to, say, the Dec. 27 of the year you are in. Take this in the way of a warning, because if you don’t care for Christmas and don’t care for being talked at about it, I would rather die than inflict on you unawares one more stale gingerbread mouse in the form of this letter regarding this time which I love so much and am so vocally embarrassing about.

—Yes, love! but love of what? I don’t care about Santy Claus and I don’t care about what’s-his-name, the baby. I care about the real Christmas business, marzipan and oranges and death and cold and pale pastel-colored sugar-icing and wicked toymakers in tail-coats and trees indoors and lights outdoors, so that any moment you might be home or in a forest, inside or outside, alive or dead. The ability to forget which is where, to be really confused and not pretending for the children, is the gift of Christmas, if you observe it, which I do. Anticipation and her sister Fear, the light in the darkness where no light should be and where no creature should be waking, not even you, but you have broken the rules. You are awake when you should be asleep; you are out when you should be in. You are going to get caught.

I love the empty night air; cold and filled with little particles that smell like winter, which means pine detritus and the dust of an old old house, wood on the floor and rats in the roof. I love Christmas: but I can only really love it best when I’m alone and dreaming. Christmas is a girl sneaking out into the open spaces of a great dark house, when it’s cold and the air is thin and all the fires are going out. Marie Stahlbaum, or me, or you:

(above, a still from Penny Slinger’s Lilford Hall.)

Speaking of Marie, speaking of Clara, speaking of Nutcracker and the King of Mice, speaking of a grievance, a grudge, an anger and a spite: it’s been five years or more and I haven’t forgiven the Pacific Northwest Ballet for throwing away its greatest gift, which is the Maurice Sendak design for that ballet —made specially for them!—in favor of updating to some stripèd monstrosity they felt was more modern and, somehow, pleasing.

Listen, this is a secret, don’t laugh and don’t tell: as a girl, Clara-Marie’s age or younger, I fell in love with Clara’s Papa in the ballet. It doesn’t matter what dancer dances him, you can’t see his face very well and you don’t want to. It isn’t the dancer but the idea of him, the vision, as you have an idea of Hamlet or Lear independent of any actor. That perfectly tailored plum-colored jacket and dove-gray trousers! how he bows to Clara’s friends and dances with all the green girls in turn, in perfect courtesy, but has eyes only for Frau Stahlbaum! How dashing he is!


&c. This is an old grievance but every Christmas Eve the wound pains me again. as the King of Mice (beaten, but not dead, I think) feels every year the ache in the place where the Nutcracker stabbed him.

The moment of power in good stage versions of the Nutcracker is when the tree grows. It creaks —it jerks —it unhinges its tree skeleton and pops and sprouts new bones until it towers over Clara-Marie, who has, you could say instead, grown smaller. What’s the difference, right? Well: but it is the tree and the nutcracker and the Mouse King that enlarge, and that’s important, it’s important that the girl doesn’t dwindle into a toy but rather the children’s world around her erupts into majesty and hugeness. Without the audience to watch and stay the same size, how could you be sure it’s the tree that cracks its knuckles and stands up, not Clara who shrinks down into herself like an Alice-in-wonderland? So the watching audience is necessary in that way, a useful anchor and measuring stick. We see as she sees, and she sees the secret world of small hidden spaces made big as cathedrals for her to run through. The vision of adult grace and beauty that is to be hers one day is the dream Drosselmeyer dreams for her, dreams through her; but to be small as a mouse, alone in the secret spaces at night, before anyone comes for her, is her own dream.

—Suspiria (the real one) is not a Christmas movie, not for real and not for a joke. It doesn’t have much to do with the Nutcracker, Hoffmann’s or Sendaks, although I think you could make a case. But my favorite part of Suspiria (the real one) is when the outraged piano player stands all alone in the Königsplatz with the cold white classical temples like paper sculptures, unreachable even if he could see them. And the more he shouts out for evil to reveal itself, the emptier and more frightening the darkness becomes, bounded by the flat white Glyptothek with the creature crouching on top but infinite in desolation and full of noises, until the tension reaches an unbearable pitch and his beloved pet, whom he trusted and defended and for whose sake he made himself an enemy of the witches, turns and tears out his life through his neck [1]

and that frozen moment when he stands alone in the white square, just before the fearful shadows unleash their mysteries on him, is the spirit of Christmas. Not how Christmas looks, but how Christmas feels, like a bone in the throat; the most dreadful kind of knowledge that something is about to happen, that when all the world is dark, something is watching.

— When I was young I lived in a house with a long winding driveway, an eighth of a mile long or a quarter mile or nearly. On that driveway my brother once fell off his bicycle and landed on his head (not fatally), and I have a clear memory that is ten-out-of-ten made up of seeing him through the tall square glass windows trudging up the winding way towards the house, covered in blood. I think it was a wet winter day, not snowy yet; dark wet tree-trunks black against a greyish mid-day sky. But I don’t think I really saw it, I think I just heard a commotion and later, a story. It could have been sunny and warm. What do I know?

Made-up memories give me a certain excessive anxiety even though everyone has them; I have a concern over stealing other people’s particular dreams and memories for my own, which I did once — without meaning to!—with a particular dream that was told to me so clearly that I remembered it as mine for many years. After all, it happened in my house. Even now I know better, now I remember the being told, I still remember it as my own. Here’s how it goes:

A white car comes up the long driveway slowly, turn after turn, going in and out of view from the house until at last it pulls up and stops. Someone is coming. Lights are on in the house but outside is dark. The car is all white. We, I, the inside of the house is visible to the outside; to look out is to be seen. The white car’s windows are opaque and white. Someone is here.

A dream I really did have as a child, me personally, was the fire dream: the house is burning, the house is burning, three nights in a row. I remember these dreams when I think about them, how afraid I was to fall back asleep and be in the fire again. Three nights of this was a century, but the horror didn’t linger; I can’t scare myself with them now. Not like the cold dream of the white car, which crushes out the fire and is the most powerful dream I know. I can still get a shiver from it, and it isn’t even mine. You are asleep; you are in the house; something is happening; someone is coming. The white car is coming. Someone is here.

happy christmas eve


P.S.: I have given the world the option of paying for WOLF TREE through the Substack subscription system. do not be suspicious or alarmed! everything is still free, you do not need to pay for access, and if you choose to pay, you get nothing for your money except the satisfaction of making me very happy.

really the only reason to Subscribe is because you are a wealthy benefactor of the arts and you think this is art, or because you have a guilt complex about reading paragraphs without paying for them, or because you need to give someone a present and everything seems more luxurious when it costs money. Don’t do it because you’re afraid of losing access to my beautiful Thoughts (you won’t) or because you think you might miss out on an elaborate fotoromanzo adaptation of von Kleist’s Penthesilea with a dramatically posed Theodora starring as both Penthesilea and Achilles. when I do that I’ll show it to the whole world.

[1] (I forbade Eliza to watch this film and Theo won’t be allowed either.)