The Christmas Spirit

For the past several days or more we’ve had unprecedented seasonal landscape views ideal for arousing even the most deep-dyed Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist of Charles Dickens’s 1843 novel or short story; A Christmas Carol. At the beginning of the novella, Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser who despises Christmas which he associates with reckless spending. The tale of his redemption by three spirits (the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) has become a defining tale of the Christmas holiday in the English-speaking world.

Dickens describes Scrooge thus early in the story: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” Charles Dickens (further) describes Scrooge as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint… secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Towards the end of the novella, the three spirits show Scrooge the errors of his ways, and he becomes a better, more generous man. Scrooge’s last name has entered the English language as a byword for greed and misanthropy, while his catchphrase, “Bah! Humbug!” is often used to express disgust with many modern Christmas traditions.

My immediate transition from summer and fall to winter is through Christmas choral music. Today I have happily enlarged my recordings to include the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir.

The Helsinki Chamber Choir (Helsingin kamarikuoro) is a professional chamber choir founded in 1962 as the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir. It assumed its current name in 2005.

The particular album to which I am now listening as I write is

Tuo armon valkokyyhky
Christmas Carols
Finnish Radio Chamber Choir (Helsinki Chamber Choir)
Timo Nuoranne, conductor
Johanna Rusanen, soprano
Ondine, October 2001
ODE 985-2

Another includes
Riemuitkaamme! – A Finnish Christmas; and the more modern
Northlands – Music by Matthew Whittall

What makes this music especially fetching is my now faded recollection of my first visit to Finland with my father when I was about 16 years old. My father was the Attaché to the Canadian embassy in Helsinki, Finland. Not unexpectedly there was an association with Russia.  We traveled from Stockholm, Sweden (where my parents and sister then lived) to a remote military outlet in northern Finland near the Russian border. Our driver was Finnish and spoke no English.  Early one morning on our journey northward my father motioned to the driver to turn into an isolated railway station to see if there were the possibility to get something to eat. My father and the driver together approached the inside of the small station.  Once inside, from behind a door to what appeared to be a kitchen, a robust woman in a white apron emerged, gently waving her hands to indicate “Closed”.  My father was undeterred.  He looked over the woman’s shoulder and peered deeper into the kitchen.  When he spied a large metal pot on the stove from which steam arose, he motioned his hand to his mouth as though eating with a spoon. The woman directed us to a table to have a seat.  She subsequently arrived with three large soup plates filled with glistening white kernels of oats in the centre of which she had deposited a large glob of melting butter.  There was already brown sugar at hand.  Our breakfast was complete!

Though our venture through the Finnish hinterland was in the summer, the often austere landscape has always blended in my imagination with winter, perhaps encouraged latterly by the the music of Arvo Pärt an Estonian composer of contemporary classical music noted for its minimalist style. No doubt my ignorance of the Finnish language elevates the mystical almost canonical nature of the music. It is not as hypnotic as Arvo Pärt but equally captivating.

In addition to music I stimulate my absorption of other indicia peculiar to this time of year by allowing the free flow of fancy. Christmas cards for example, judiciously placed upon the console as though they were independant artistic features. Though neither of us sends “real” Christmas cards by mail we naturally enjoy receiving them. My parents used to receive so many Christmas cards each year that my mother attached them successively to large red ribbons which she then hung on doorways with sleigh bells and mistletoe.

The name mistletoe originally referred to the species Viscum album (European mistletoe, of the family Santalaceae in the order Santalales); it is the only species native to the British Isles and much of Europe. A related species with red rather than white fruits, Viscum cruciatum, occurs in Southwest Spain and Southern Portugal, as well as in Morocco in North Africa and in southern Africa. The genus Viscum is not native to North America, but Viscum album was introduced to Northern California in 1900.

We normally make a tradition of watching Alaistair Sim in “A Christmas Carol” (1951) on television.  But now that we no longer have a television we must adapt (as we have done for other purposes) to the use of our respective laptop computers instead.  It is a small accommodation because we have seen the classic film so many times together already; and, the viewing is in any event an intimate experience provoking as it does the heartfelt mirth and misery of the season.

Glancing out the drawing room window over the meadow towards the river, the sky is already becoming dull as the late afternoon approaches. Along the shore there are shades of ice covered in white snow.  The river preserves avenues of passage in twisting sweeps. But soon it will be impassable.Not many those mornings trod the piling streets: an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take it wet or fire on Christmas Day or Doomsday; sometimes two hale young men, with big pipes blazing, no overcoats and wind blown scarfs, would trudge, unspeaking, down to the forlorn sea, to work up an appetite, to blow away the fumes, who knows, to walk into the waves until nothing of them was left but the two curling smoke clouds of their inextinguishable briars.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas