'I return your seasonal greetings card with contempt'
At the risk of alarming you, it’s pretty much Christmas. Again. And as we approach the big day, huddled around the fire in our bubbles, I thought I’d send you some fitting excerpts. Please be aware that the final entry, which I’m pretty sure I’ve shared with you before but feel the need to send again, is heartbreaking. Beautiful, but heartbreaking. So you may want to give it a miss.
Thanks to all of you for reading this newsletter, either as paid-up members or not. A year on from the first instalment, it continues to act as a balm as we crawl through hell, and I always look forward to sending them out when I can find a moment. And I appreciate your responses. Even the critical ones.
We’ve had quite a nice Christmas (I spent mine mostly with animals, which is a help); a complete attendance and a white countryside, with enough snow on the roads for sleigh riding behind an old horse named Fanny—not without reason. Many rather simple people presented us with many rather simple gifts, which pleased us inordinately (Kay has just this minute opened a box containing a venison pie and 2 cactus blossoms, from the lady who does our washing), and if it weren’t for the generally diseased condition of the world, we would feel that our cup runneth over. Ate our own goose and drank some American “burgundy.”
E. B. White | Letter to Gluyas Williams, 25 Dec 1940
Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before.
Sylvia Townsend Warner | Letter to Alyse Gregory, 23 Dec 19461
I return your seasonal greetings card with contempt. May your hypocritical words choke you, and may they choke you early in the New Year, rather than later.
Kennedy Lindsay2 | Letter to Garret FitzGerald, Dec 1975
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
Francis Church, editor of The Sun3 | Letter to Virginia O’Hanlon, Dec 1897
on christmas eve our photographer was due to take pictures of the whole family, and that morning i discovered that the christmas tree we were supposed to get had been overlooked and we had no tree; finally, about five o’clock, the man arrived with two miserable little trees and said that was all he had left, and we should cut the branches off one and tie them on the other and it would be fine. you should have seen those bedraggled old things.
Shirley Jackson | Letter to her parents, 7 Jan 1949
Do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence. Once I gave my youngest boy, who loves all living things, a dwarf, peach-faced parrot for Christmas. He removed the paper and then retreated a little shyly and looked at the little bird for a long time. And finally he said in a whisper, “Now who would have ever thought that I would have a peach-faced parrot?”
Then there is the other kind of Christmas with present piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—”Is that all?” Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.
John Steinbeck | Letter to Adlai Stevenson, 5 Nov 1959
It is Christmas evening, and we are all soporific from the effects of a Christmas tea eaten on top of a Christmas turkey. Sophie never lets us off on Christmas day at all, and when this letter is finished, I shall have to go down and attack the turkeys legs which were left intact. Thoby had such a large helping that another plate had to receive the overflow, and he ate impartially from both. They spent the afternoon in making Rum Punch, which is made half of rum half of brandy, with sugar and lemon and hot water thrown in: the house smells like a public house in consequence, and we shall have a very merry evening. Isn’t this better than your high and dry aristocrats? We all talk at once, and make such brilliant jokes as never were seen.
Virginia Woolf | Letter to Violet Dickinson, 25 Dec 1904
This is Christmas day, and the lovely callas you sent me are standing white and tall on the table beside me. They have been good company for me ever since they came. This is such a terrible Christmas—it seems like a preparation for horrors unexampled and unguessed at. For the first time in my life I feel afraid—afraid of losing everything one cherished in the world and all the finest youth of the world. The address from the Vatican does not cheer one much. The new evils we all know, but in their nature they destroy our power to combat them. The cold pride of science is the most devilish thing that has ever come into this world. It is the absolute enemy of happiness. The human mind, not the spirit, has disinherited human nature.
This is a maudlin note to send out on Christmas day. Please forgive me. The time is very dark.
Willa Cather | Letter to Singrid Unset, 25 Dec 1943
I received the Xmas package you sent and was happy to receive the book and the candy.
Most people are inconsiderate at Xmas time. They either send a book or candy. With only a book it is pretty monotonous just sitting there reading: your eyes are enjoying themselves but your mouth is quiet and your tongue and your throat, along with your ears, aren’t getting in on the fun. It’s the same with just candy. You sit there munching away: your tongue and your teeth and your neck are all having a good time, but your eyes are hanging around doing nothing. Just reading a book, or just eating candy, isn’t much fun.
But you, with that uncanny knack you have of sending the proper, managed the ideal Xmas gift: a book and candy. Now I can sit here with my book open and my bag of candy open, my eyes, jaws, teeth, throat, digestive juices all going a mile a minute—and I’m eating noisily to let my ears get in on it, too.
Thanks a lot for your present, Dave.
Fred Allen | Letter to a David Rattray4, 25 Dec 1945
At this time of year, families are dreaming of seeing their loved ones. The loved ones coming back by sea, or touching down on tarmac, flowing through the arrivals lounge of airports, warm-cheeked and teary-eyed, breaking the barrier to the warm homely arms of childhood. Or coming by car, snapping the car doors shut for a while and walking in the front door of old familiarity – the family home. This is miracle-making…
Eighteen years ago this Christmas, my first child of three, my daughter was very ill and she died early in the New Year. It was a meteorite falling on a family that was already rocked by loss and absence. Since then, our family has been cruelly pared back to one, myself, the mother, living alone at home.
At night I sleep to the rattles of an empty house. Even the wind has a faraway cry when it rattles at the window. My three children, my daughter and two sons died from Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease of the lungs. They lived a full and spirited life together, their illness did not define them. They were witty, intelligent, and gifted with homegrown talents that filled this home with music and liveliness. They expressed their true selves to their world of friends, and gave of themselves freely and honestly.
Losing a child is like having your heart torn out and your stomach emptied. Grief gets in the way of daylight, not to mention the nocturnal dark.
Christmas is a black surround, without tinsel, while the masses are plumping up the shopping streets.
But grief can be another day on the wheel, when paradoxically a blue sky can unveil and a white egret appears in the branch. I have named him Doy after my youngest son, whose pet name was Doy. He will fly and land with me as I walk beside the river in the valley behind our home.
Before Doy died, his dark eyes looked ahead and he said, “Look for me in the trees. I will be there in the trees.”
Kathleen Keyes | Letter to the Irish Times, Dec 20195
Northern Ireland politician Kennedy Lindsay was returning a card to future Taoiseach of Ireland Garret FitzGerald.
To be clear, this was The Sun newspaper in New York, not Rupert Murdoch’s rag. This letter can be found in the first volume of Letters of Note.
David was a young fan of Fred Allen’s radio show.