Everyone has her own holiday traditions. Be it mistletoe or eggnog or caroling between houses dripping with Christmas lights, each of us has our favorite. And I'm no exception. Halloween may fall in my favorite month of the year, and it may mean that I can dress up as a fictional character and eat my body weight in candy, but it's a single day. Christmas, as Kris Kringle says in Miracle On 34th Street, 'isn't just a day. It's a frame of mind.' An entire season is dedicated to the giving of gifts, the decking of halls, and the good willing of men.
Each year my parents seem to kick Thanksgiving out the door a little bit earlier. But it's not out of disrespect for that holiday, or a lack of enthusiasm about the season. Rather, there is an eagerness to embrace Christmas that inspires the brevity of Turkey Day in the Pancoast household. God is thanked. Mom whips up a meal worthy of the Barefoot Contessa. But the second, and I do mean the second, the meal is over...
Up goes the tree sparkling with lights. Christmas tunes float from the speakers and a fire roars on the hearth (which is only a 'hearth' at Christmastime. The rest of the year, it's a fireplace). This year we three kids and our significant others took to decorating the tree, and it was over in a flash! Every silly, shoddy little ornament we'd made since the second grade found its rightful place among the red and gold bulbs we use as fillers, and with each carefully considered placement came a story. It was like suspending memories from the branches.
The season that began for me on the Friday after Thanksgiving, with the annual Ya-Yas in San Francisco trip, will not be over until the New Year rings in. Somehow I've managed to come up with a zillion little traditions to cram into 5 weeks. It's a compilation of the traditions of my childhood, the traditions of Jonathan's childhood, and a few we've made up on our own. We have our annual Christmas Disneyland trip, which won't shock anyone. While there we'll buy a new Disney ornament for our tree. We have one from each past trip.
This weekend we'll buy our tree, and I'll wait patiently as Jon takes seven hours to string the lights just-so before we can decorate it. We watch the traditional Christmas movies: It's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and White Christmas. Then there are a few movies I think of as traditional to Christmas, but few outside my own family have heard of: Holiday Inn (where Bing Crosby first sang Berlin's White Christmas), Christmas in Connecticut, etc. And If I feel like fiddling whilst watching these nostalgic films, I'll press whole cloves into the bright red skin of an apple, or string popcorn on thread to add to our tree.
Each year I develop an advent calendar for Jon, with little presents for him to open every other day or so throughout the month. I place these tiny gifts under a little tree we keep in the kitchen. My mom always did great advent calendars for my brothers and me. Thankfully, it turns out the skill is hereditary. And it doesn't hurt that I get to decorate another tree.
At some point we'll hang our stockings. We've had them since we were little, but they've held up nicely. Of course, Disney and Crypto each have their own. They still believe in Santa; isn't that cute?
But one of my favorite holiday musts is to snuggle up with my husband and read The Gift of the Magi aloud to him. It's my favorite short story of all time. Written by O. Henry, it is the Christmas story of a very young couple at the turn of the century who learn an important lesson about sacrifice, but who ultimately teach the reader an even more important lesson about love and generosity.
I've decided to include this story word for word here, so that everyone has a chance to enjoy it. Please read in the spirit of Christmas, remembering all the while that special person for whom you would sacrifice absolutely anything.
THE GIFT OF THE MAGI
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."
The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."
"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.
"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."
Down rippled the brown cascade.
"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
"Give it to me quick," said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do--oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?"
At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."
"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"
Jim looked about the room curiously.
"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"
And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
It was an eloquent adventure from start to finish; the trends in Pam Houston's able writing are often analogous to the exact trips she's writing about. What I loved most was the genuine spirit behind the words. Everything in this book was done by a woman who, by her own contention, was born with 'not one ounce of natural [athletic] ability'. (For this lie, by the way, I forgive her.)
It all began for me in a used book store in Santa Cruz. My fiction writing teacher had recommended Houston to me as a Davis author. Her name came to mind as I perused the fiction section, and the cover of Houston's 'Cowboys Are My Weakness' appealed to me. By the time I'd turned the first page, I found myself completely seduced. Her confident style swept me right off my girlish feet. There I was in my own living room with grass in my hair, my ten-gallon on cockeyed and a silly-wide smile on my face. What a roll in the hay!
That collection of short stories is well worth picking up. I couldn't put it down. As it turns out, the art mimics life. Many of those anecdotes were pulled from her journeys all over the world with intriguing, dangerous men. In non-fiction, she continues to be a powerhouse of insight and stamina. Her words stride across the page, bold and even masculine.
When I happened upon the chapter entitled 'In Pursuit of What I Don't Do Well,' I almost stopped. Granted this was a book of non-fiction, titled unmistakably as a very introspective, self-centered memoir. But the arrogance of that title nearly turned me away. It took a great deal of trust to plunge in. After all, I can't help feeling envious of this woman who can do anything, and has already tried most things. Mock humility bothers me.
As it turns out, that chapter spoke closest to me. I felt as if she was whispering her story across a table in the dim light of a restaurant, hands wrapped around her coffee mug, confiding. Like so many girls, she wanted to find her purpose, but could only dream of being justified through the acceptance and pride of her parents. That's the way it is with children, I suppose. A child is blessed if she has folks who care enough to involve her in after school activities, help her with her homework, drive her to practice, cheer her on at games. Houston wanted to be worthy in the eyes of her father. She wanted to be told she was beautiful and athletic. It didn't happen, and when she couldn't find the pinnacle of that pursuit, she turned away from her family. The desire didn't leave her; she merely repositioned it. The chapter closed with this supposition; it is one, as the wife of a mountain climber and outdoor enthusiast, I can absolutely identify with:
'One day, if I try hard enough, I'll look like a woman on the cover of Outside magazine... I will be frozen there in the motion of someone's memory, and that someone (a man, my father, myself) will say, 'That was beautiful!''
The only thing I have to say about the chapter 'The Morality of Fat', is that if a woman like Pam Houston, articulate, educated, windblown and strong, can feel insecure about her weight, what chance do the rest of us have?
This summer I will take my husband on a trip. We have it all planned. For the first time in our marriage, I will be leading him on a journey to a place that remains to be the Eden of my childhood, a place that is a kind of Mecca to someone as summit-hungry as Jonathan, and I will be revealing it to him for the first time. I will be the expert, and he will be the one standing agape. 'They rise out of the Snake River Valley like a rich dark promise. Taller than the Grand Canyon is deep, sharper than the blade of a bread knife, the Tetons' are part of my history. My family went there in the summers, and my dad saw to it that my brothers and I respected the magnificence of those peaks as we should. Learning that Pam Houston was not able to climb the face of the Grand Teton gave me a small twinge of vindictive pleasure. That's probably not very nice to admit, but I'm trying to be as honest about my feelings as she tries to be.
Besides, the moment doesn't last long. She has the freedom to forge lasting love affairs with big, beautiful, bounding dogs. The kinds of dogs I long to have myself. She owns land in a remote corner of Colorado, surrounded by the mountains she has conquered on skis. And she has known, loved and owned horses. I am new to riding, but I agree that 'horses know the truth about what you are feeling faster than you have time to think it.' The insight in her first chapter gave me a leg up on my next few riding lessons. There are no problem horses.
But the power of this book lies not in the sheer number of adventures, but rather in the living and learning that went on in the meantime. 'Breaking The Ice' was the telling of two stories in parallel. A dead friend and a living friend being indirectly compared by a woman who is learning that it is important to have friends to be silent with. Tonight, for instance, I spent talking to a friend in front of my fireplace. Tonight we needed to talk (though I probably should have listened more). But sometimes we have the capacity just to be quiet. And I knew what she was going to say tonight long before she said it. That is beauty. That is friendship.
While I reveled in all of the Dispatches From Five Continents (and read most of them aloud to Jon), it was Houston's stories of home that appealed to me most. She may have visited every corner of the earth, but she is an American girl at heart. I can see the prairie in her hair, the big sky in her eyes. I love all that she is, an incomplete version of the success I hope to achieve someday. Yet what she has is more than enough. She has redefined success:
'...success has less to do with the accumulation of things, and more to do with the accumulation of moments... creating a successful life might be as simple as determining which moments are the most valuable, and seeing how many of those moments I can string together in a line.'
Her definition will do for me for now. I luxuriated in her writing, just the frank, lovely word choices and the capable rhythm of an author confident in her own shoes. My admiration stems from her ability to be both vulnerable and absolutely capable in her life pursuits. She owns big dogs, but admits to loving them as she has loved people, to wrapping herself around them and entwining her fingers in their fur in order to sleep alone at night. But this time it was the insight of a woman who took a trip around the world just to find that 'home is where your dogs are,' and is able to sit down and spill her guts onto paper for people like me, her insight is what made me love it.
When Marilyn Monroe sashayed in pink satin, pushing herself through a crowd of be-tuxed men and singing, 'Diamonds are a girl's best friend!', she ended up as an icon of sex appeal and fashion. Tonight I watched Kirsten Dunst attempt such a move, but her sashay looked too much like the tripping gait of a giggling, drunk sorority chick. Her philandering was not the product of passion, but rather that of a truly bad script. And while she dazzled in a wardrobe of gowns so very silk, so very rich, so very dripping with jewels, all I could do was yawn.
Marie Antoinette is a bad movie. It's important to note that this film, done so decadently, doesn't even warrant a more impassioned critical review. Had Sophia Coppola chosen to isolate still frames of the palace at Versailles, the gardens, the fireworks displays, the interiors all slathered in gold and blue tapestries, even of Kirsten Dunst made up like a saucy, greedy version of Little Miss Muffet, the collection might have ended up as a terrific coffee table book. I'm even the type of girl who would go to a museum display of replicated 18th Century French fans. But all the gold gilding in the world couldn't disguise the aimless plot, the pointless amusement of the film itself.
There was a single magnificently tusked elephant in the movie. He was wonderful.
I had high hopes as I took my seat next to a good friend and waited for the credits to roll. A modern soundtrack and fuchsia titles revved me up for a unique look at one of the most intriguing moments in history: a time when the common people got so fed up with the wonton gluttony and idleness of their monarchy that they went vehemently vigilante and literally cut off the problem at its source. Oh, the energy of the French revolution, the same energy that makes Les Miserables touching and tragic, was sugared down, washed away by champagne, and kept just on the outside of the palace walls.
Point of view is important in a film, especially one that seeks to give an audience a fresh perspective. I wanted to empathize with the child bride, the virgin queen, the isolated girl, the flibbertigibbet with a good heart. I wanted to bathe my senses in a culture based on a rigid (albeit ridiculous) code of status and political alliance, a code that blossoms in patterns of conduct, presentation of food, ceremonies for everything. When the young betrothed princess is guided across the Austrian border through a series of lavish tents, stripped of everything she has (including her precious squirming puppy), and stands naked at the entrance to France, I felt it. A twinge of sympathy as she was redressed in the clothes of her new court. But it was over before it began.
The point of view was lost in a shuffle of pink feathers and pink diamonds and pink champagne, and all the while Kirsten Dunst giggled through her plump, pink fingers, front and center.
While the plot had much potential, it petered out early. A poorly picked soundtrack was partially to blame. The audience never knew whether to yawn and lick the pink frosting off their fingers in the long silent scenes, or to get their groove on to Bow Wow Wow's 'I Want Candy'! And then there were those awkward moments when the consistently bubbleheaded queen would pause, gaze sagely at her husband and then, disregarding the approach of a murderous mob, she'd murmur, 'My place is here with my husband, the king.' What??!! Since when does she understand her rank on a level so deep she's willing to sacrifice her life, the lives of her children?
Oh yes, she does have children, by the way. Two darling platinum blonde children. They're lovely. It's unnecessary.
I'd love to stop here because I don't think this movie is worth the paper my $10.50 ticket was printed on, but I can't. The ending of the film must be mentioned. Mostly because it took forever to get there. Running time of this pepto bismol colored drivel? Two hours and three minutes. I was so sick of Kirsten Dunst, I was ready to light my own torch and shout along with the crowd, 'Off with her head!' But we didn't get to see that. Nope. The journey ended as it began, in a gilded carriage with the little girl queen bobbing along with the beat of the horses' hoofs, just saying goodbye to another palace.
We didn't even get to watch her die.
Perhaps the ending was cut because no one could explain the reason Coppola decided to make the queen's blood pink...
I was just glad to go, and to have a friend with whom to moan about the whole thing. (Jen, really sorry about this movie. We'll pick a much better one next time!) And now I've released this nausea from within myself. Too much cotton candy will do that to a person.