It is with great fondness that I recall the Christmases of my childhood. The house was always beautifully decorated. I can still remember the glow of the lights and how it would fill me with wonder. I was warm and safe, and I was loved.
I was lucky. My parents grew up poor. My father more so. Being admirers of Dickens’s work, it was no surprise that A Christmas Carol played a large part of our celebrations. And of course, we had a plethora of film versions to watch. Dad’s favorite bit was always the Cratchit dinner. One day, as we watched that scene, Dad said to me:
“See what they’re doing and how happy they are? That is what it’s all about.”
“What do you mean, Daddy? The kids don’t even have any presents.” I remarked.
“That’s not important, sweetie. Christmas isn’t presents. It’s being together. You can have lots of fun with very little.”
Our Christmases were always so grand that that last statement shocked me. “Huh?”
But Dad just smiled and patiently continued.
“When I was probably about seven years old, the dairy farm we lived on wasn’t doing very well. We had so little money that there were no presents at all. We didn’t even have money to buy a Christmas dinner.”
My eyes grew wide. “Weren’t you sad, Daddy?”
“Well, we had a choice, didn’t we? But my mother observed that as we had plenty of milk, eggs and ham, that we could improvise something. So, she made pancakes and bacon for Christmas dinner. And not just one or two little pancakes, but a whole great big stack of them! We had maple syrup and fresh butter to go with them. There was hard cider in the cellar, and we had some of that, too. Just like the Cratchits, we all had a wonderful time just being together in our warm farmhouse and sharing a meal.”
I pondered this weird little tale, but wasn't completely convinced. Then, when Christmas Day came and we were sat around the table, Dad said to me:
“Remember the story I told you? Don’t you ever forget this moment, right here, right now. We are together; warm and safe and sharing good food together. This is Christmas, Jennifer. This is love.”
Thus it was that I learned that the experience of the Cratchit Family was not fiction after all. Dad, you were so right.
May this Festive Season bring you a full stomach and a contented heart.
It is about a half hour before curtain. I am standing in my Victorian underwear surrounded by piles of fabric that will, in a short time, all go onto my body in layer after layer. I learned long ago that the first rule for a woman wearing replicated 19th century attire is to put your shoes on before you don your corset. It’s just too hard the other way round.
The Avery-Copp House is a sprawling, majestic dwelling built c1800. In a second floor bedchamber, photos of former occupants and a feast of antiques look on. They seem amused as I fling the hoop over my head. By now I can hear folks arriving and the hum of chatter downstairs. My palms don’t sweat like they used to before a show, and that makes tying the hoop about my waist and the petticoat that shortly followed much easier. The gown itself is next. Skirt first. The small snaps and hooks that fasten them are placed strategically so that I can do the entire thing up all by myself. I face the mirror, and take a few deep breaths. My diaphragm is somewhat compromised by the corset, but years of practice have helped me breathe from my upper register in these situations. Every year I wonder at the ladies who stood where I am standing as they prepared themselves to receive their Christmas guests. Did they get as excited as I am, I wonder? Though if it really were the 19th century, there is no way I, a mere actress, would ever be allowed up here in my lady's room! Oh, the irony...
A light shawl around my shoulders completes the look and will protect my shoulders from the December chill as I greet arriving audience members in the foyer. But there is one more thing to do. I close my eyes.
“Mom, Dad, thank you for sharing your love of this story with me. I'm honored to share it with others. Come with me on stage tonight. Thanks. I love you.”
I can literally feel the buzz in the air as I descend the stairs. True Victorian ambiance gleams with the sparkle of garlands, decorations and candles. By the front door, a massive basket overflows with food donations. I can almost see Boz smile. Christmas treats bedeck the dining room table, ready to be devoured at the intermission. People are smiling and chatting. It is humbling to see folks who have come back year after year – some of them for eight straight in a row, since it all began.
My little cup of tea, which is kindly made for me every year and served in a real cup and saucer, is ready in its customary place for one final pre-show gulp. By now the audience is seated in the parlor. I walk into the adjacent room, toward my iPhone and Bluetooth speaker (concealed on a shelf) and place my finger on the button as I summon Old Fezziwig’s spirit:
“Fiddler, strike up Sir Roger de Coverley!”
The infectious tune wafts through the rooms of the house, and all of us back stage (meaning in the now darkened dining room) start to bounce and jig. I cannot stand still before walking onstage. I just get too excited. This never gets old. It never will. As the music ends and I am introduced briefly, I glance into the performance space to the bookshelf on the upper part of the wall. It is the second shelf that is of special interest, for it is the one with all of Dickens’s books in order. He’ll be watching over my shoulder tonight. No pressure.
I hear my name. It is time to keep my promise to the Carol, its Spirits, and its creator.
Right. Let’s Fezziwig this place up!
If you live in the area or your travels take you there, please do pay a visit to one of Groton’s hidden gems, the gorgeous Avery-Copp House in Groton, CT. It is a singular experience of a true Connecticut treasure, offering diverse programming throughout the year as well as a fantastic research archive.
Long ago on a cold winter day, a little girl with a poor immune system was desperate to go outside and play in the snow. Her mother, however, deemed it too cold for her daughter’s delicate condition. The child, though quite small in size, possessed a startling volume of lung capacity, which she henceforth employed to impart her displeasure…
Her mother, being a seasoned schoolteacher, placed her daughter on the sofa, and put a little book in her tiny hands.
“Jennifer, do you remember the movie we watched the other night about the mean old man and the ghosts?”
“Yes!” said the girl, her tears suddenly forgotten, “I was cheering for the ghosts the whole time!”
“Well, that movie is based on this book. It was written many years ago by a man named Charles Dickens. He was a very important writer, and I think you will like it.”
“But I want to go outside—“
“I know, honey. But I promise if you give this book a try, you’ll enjoy it. Just ask Daddy or me if you need help with any of the words.“
Reluctantly, the child opened the cover.
Marley was dead: to begin with…
The photo you see is of that very book. I was but seven years old the day I ‘met’ Charles Dickens, and his ‘magic lantern’, London. I fell in love with that book and its message, and became fascinated by its author. Boz did his job well. To my seven-year-old mind, those ghosts were real. The prospect of wearing a chain through all eternity scared the hell out of me. I recall looking at the knocker on our front door every Christmas Eve, hoping for a glimpse of old Marley’s face. And on Christmas Day, I would open the front door before dinner and welcome the Ghost of Christmas Present to dine with us. Truth be told, I still believe. I always will. All through my life, when times have been tough – in those moments of grief when I wanted to literally lay down and die, one question would come into my mind:
“What would the three ghosts say?”
Call me crazy, but it's the truth.
As the years passed and my parents died and life happened, I always kept my promise to Christmas, every year without fail. Though some times through tears and choking sobs, every year I still take out the decorations and place them reverently. I watch favorite films, prepare favorite foods, listen to my favorite music, visit with loved ones and donate time or money where I can. Keeping Christmas well has become a part of me.
Today marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol. Modestly priced at 5 shillings, it was an instant sensation. The initial 6,000 copies sold out in one week. Over the coming days, I’ll be sharing a little more about my enduring love affair with this story. I hope you will join me.
May the message of this ghostly little book remain in your heart this day and always.
"BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD”
The muffled drum's sad roll has beat
The soldier's last tattoo;
No more on life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame's eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Ladies in the Southern States began the tradition of decorating the graves of their war dead with flowers. The custom soon spread. Then, in 1868, The Grand Army of the Republic formally established a day of observance:
"Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan."
- General John Logan, G.A.R., General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868
By the end of World War I, the custom further grew to include all Americans killed in battle. In 1968, Congress established the last Monday in May as Memorial Day, to clarify the day's meaning – to remember the fallen. This distinguished it from Veterans Day, observed on November 11th, when living Veterans are honored.
Today as it has done for over three quarters of a century, the little New England town I live in will have a parade. Townspeople will line the street and follow the parade to a small ceremony, complete with a volley. Reenactors will also attend, representing the military of ages past. Then all will gather for coffee and fellowship, then depart home to spend time with their loved ones.
Wherever you are in the country, I hope you will join me in remembering that today is not about store sales. It is about reflection and gratitude. Today is about remembering, as President Lincoln so eloquently wrote, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I don’t usually do this. But over the years I have heard many people say, “Oh, life was simpler back then.”
Let me tell you a family story from 1697. Forget the buneficent, curly hairstyles, the lace fans, tea on a finely manicured lawn. This is a story with some real depth.
A week after delivering her 12th child, 39-year-old Hannah Emerson Dustin (my 8th great aunt) was kidnapped in an Indian raid on Haverhill, Massachusetts. Her midwife, Mary Neff was also taken, along with baby Martha and over twenty other English captives. Hannah saw her home ransacked, burned, and her baby killed. It was mid March, and she had lost a shoe in the struggle out the door. It was cold and muddy; snow still on the ground in some spots. She probably had on little more than her shift.
Hannah didn’t know if her family were alive. But her husband, Thomas, had mounted his horse and led their nine children to safety. There was no time to go back for his wife and baby.
When Hannah discovered they were on their way to Canada to be sold to the French, her blood must have run cold…then boiled. Should she accept her fate? Well, clearly she didn’t or there would be no story. Hannah decided to escape or die trying. They knew they would have to employ stealth. One night, as their captors slept, Hannah, along with Mary and a young English boy named Samuel Lenordson attacked with hatchets. They killed all but two. Hannah took their scalps, and put them in the cloth they had cut from her loom. Then the three of them got the hell out of there in a canoe. Cold and hungry, filthy and gaunt; by sheer force of will they made it back to Haverhill. Hannah was reunited with Thomas and their children. The house Tom took Hannah to upon her return still stands in Haverhill today.
If you think Hannah was off the hook because she was white, you’d be wrong. In fact, she could very well have been charged with murder. Why wasn’t she? Admittedly, I’m no expert on Puritan legalities. The bounty on scalps was actually no longer on the books. She took them as proof of what had happened. Because of this, her case was considered extreme, so the bounty was awarded to her husband. Hannah was free to go home and live her life.
Here’s my question: Why was her case extreme? Because she was a woman. Women didn’t kill. Women were not capable of such violence. They were the life-givers, the nurturers, keepers of all that was moral and virtuous. Blah, blah, blah…Would her experience have been sensational had she been born a Henry and not a Hannah? Please.
I recently saw a photograph of the statue of Hannah in Boscawen, NH, on what is now called Dustin Island (where the massacre took place). Nearby some graffiti had been sprayed: “What are you so proud of?” I find that a very valid and essential question. My answer: It has nothing to do with pride. This was a woman placed in an unthinkable situation. She wanted to go home to those she loved. In an age when women were not allowed to own their personal power, she looked her fate square in the eye and grabbed it by its horns. And no doubt she lived with PTSD (known then as Nostalgia) for the next forty years until her death. To me, Hannah is not a hero. Hannah is not a villain. No. Hannah is a survivor.
When I portray this woman in her home at the 1697 Duston-Dustin Garrison House, visitors (often her own descendants) sometimes say to her, “Goody Dustin, you are a hero!” But to their shock, she vehemently denies it. In truth, Hannah would be mortified to know she was the first woman in North America to have not one but two statues erected in her honor. But, when you get right down to it, the statues aren’t for her, are they? They are for us. What do I mean by that? They are reminders of what happens when non-combatants are forced into the horror of war. When I gaze up at Hannah’s face at her other statue in Haverhill, I hear a whisper: “Let not what happened to me and mine be so ever again.”
This is what happens when an Us vs Them mentality is allowed to thrive. This is what happens when my god is better than your god. This is what happens when my culture is superior to yours. This is what happens when you make a promise you never intend to keep; when you sign a treaty one day and break it the next. This is what happens in a world at war. It has nothing to do with pride.
Still think life was simpler back then?
Anyway, that’s my take on it. Visit the 1697 Duston-Dustin Garrison House and see for yourself.