At this time of year I often peer into store windows for clues to what I should feel. Standing before a winter wonderland scene of wicker deer and frosted apples, assorted miniature wassailers in bobble hats and tartan, all set against snow-dusted spruce intertwined with fairy lights (and in the background the heroic figure of Santa, ho-ho-ho-ing a bit too strenuously in the face of untold strain), well — it can help you make believe that all is right with the world. Or right-ish.
Loiter a minute more and a familiar mixture of anxiety and longing will arise, heralding the realization that you’re a festive athlete in preparation, and over the coming weeks every ounce of your strength and moral energy is going be summoned. It could end with one of those sore throats that feels as if you have swallowed a pair of nail scissors. So, yes, you’d better watch out.
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I don’t know where I stand in relation to Christmas anymore. I love it, and would do anything for it, but I can’t help feeling it wants my blood. Like a withholding father in a novel by Henry James, it may not be satisfied with my very best efforts. It doesn’t help, of course, that I still nurse idiotic beliefs about the season, including the tenet that good presents transform lives, and unless you do a specific placement for the parcels in the six stockings you fill (creating meaningful contrasts and crescendos), you have not tried.
I greet Christmas as if I am a weary heroine in a country song, screwing my courage together as the old faded fellow strides into town, brandishing ruin and euphoria. I know children of 8 who grieve because Christmas does not make them feel as it did when they were 5. And here it comes again.
The Christmas windows this year to my mind look slightly lost. Perhaps I am not the only person who does not know how to meet the season. Slogans are everywhere, Christmas commandments written on glass. Walking down Oxford Street in London, heading west, there are (in no particular order): #Play for Peace; Beat Winter; Moz the Monster Eats All the Mince Pies; Bring Back Merry; You Shall Find the Dress to Turn Heads; Be the Light; Give Love; Apples and Pears and Sprouts or Nowt; Simplicity and Perfection; Let’s Make Merry and Follow the Parade.
Harrods has a startling new approach: vitrine biography! Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, this is your life. Miniature, moving 3-D figures of the Italian designers, dimly recalling Statler and Waldorf from “The Muppet Show,” turn their hands to everything in the windows of the famous store.
In one tableau a figure is a “nose” smelling a rose, in order to make perfume. In another, the two designers are employees in a beauty salon, holding hair dryer and manicure tools aloft. Here they are cobblers; there they are hand-painting floral designs onto purses.
Further along they take curtain calls with divas on stage at La Scala, or they are tailors wielding measuring tapes, or chefs in hats, or watchmakers in a workshop in waistcoats, the cogs and innards of a clock spilling out before them; or disco dancers, in sequins, on a multicolored flashing floor. What does it all mean? Is it Christmassy? Is it fabulous? Does it denote a midlife crisis? Who can say.
As I gazed at this elaborate tomfoolery I conjured the holiday windows of my dreams. First I’d like the mysterious intensity of the midnight feast Porphyro lays out for Madeleine in Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes.” It is a meal so literary that it scarcely contains any foodstuffs; it is all texture and atmosphere and thread count:
“And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon …”
Then, with a seasonal nod to order and plenty, I’d recreate the Christmas dinner in “The Dead” by James Joyce. I’d set a goose at one end of a table and at the other end a great ham, with “a neat paper frill round its shin.” Symmetrical side dishes and celery vases would be stationed at intervals with cut glass decanters standing sentry to the fruit stand. I’d like this framed by Joyce’s snowflakes, silver and dark, falling against the windowpane, after the late-night confession of lost love.
Finally I’d bottle and spritz (or simply screen) the moment before Judy Garland’s character Esther Smith sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in “Meet Me in St Louis,” when she makes a strange emotional gesture, in the direction of her little sister — a half kiss crossed with a sudden expression of sympathy. It is as if, in that movement, she thinks better of saying something not quite right to her small relation, deciding to swallow her fears about the future, leaving the scene shimmering with the notion that no matter what your age, you are never quite as light and carefree as you wish to be at Christmas. That life (and Christmas) are serious things.
Something to gladden, and sadden, the heart in equal measure.