Christmas Curios


Holidays are so soaked in feelings that their public meanings are often mere pretense. Think of those who feel, for instance, that the most important film of Christmas is the one about that guy from 12 Monkeys trying to machine-gun young Severus Snape.

The emotional tone of Christmas for me is mostly light and warmth offsetting darkness and cold. I grew up in the Midwest, where it was twilight at noon today, and snow is still falling heavily in the trees. This sounds simple enough—a WASPy/pagan childhood above the Mason-Dixon line equates to certain feelings—but what an odd mix of memories, associations, and others’ re-gifted stories my Christmas mood really is.

What if you could make your feelings visible to others by filling a box with artifacts you associate with the holiday? Your family and friends could come over and discuss it over drinks, instead of having to guess what mystery of personality has made you hide in the kitchen through the holiday and yell at the dishrag for tangling in the soapy flatware.

The draw of the curio cabinet has always been emotion; its only logical coherence was often that the odd miscellany was collected by one person and reflected something about their worldview.

My own Christmas cabinet would contain stills of villages in the UK or the Austrian Alps, in winter, early 20th century—not, say, in Shakespeare’s or Mozart’s times. Fading Kodachrome of ratty Christmas trees, Depression-era tinsel and big hot tree lights. A video clip of my mother, Playtex Living Glove on her hand, running down the hallway after a cat with tinsel hanging from its butt.

Tickets from a childhood luncheon in St. Louis with Lassie; a hotel key from one night at Our Lady of the Snows, with its lighted Way of the Cross; a check for the glazed ham and mashed potato dinner at Miss Hulling’s. A scratch-and-sniff of Switzer’s licorice factory, which you could smell coming over the Eads Bridge from Illinois.

Bitter liqueur-chocolates, a fragrant orange and apple, a variety of nuts, and little toys. Swatches from the itchy wool rug where I emptied the stocking and from the horsehair blanket I covered myself with.

Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” on the turntable of a cheap little suitcase record player. Chopin’s Études. The Peanuts soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. “Greensleeves.”

A copy of Joyce’s “The Dead,” not Dickens.

The Sound of Music (as much logic as Die Hard, since the Anschluss was in March, and the Salzburg Festival in July and August). Elf. Fred Clause. The comic rage of Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation, not the scary rage of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Snowball Express, in its 1972 Christmas theatrical release. Babette’s Feast. Beatles on the slopes of Obertauern, four kids who cannot ski.

Candles and cardboard handguards from midnight services of various faiths, which is to say varying levels of ebullience or austerity. Stocking caps from frigid rides before and after church in cars that did not have time to heat up, and recipes from late Christmas-Eve feasts.

Drawings of imagined scenes from all the holidays I missed for Army service or other work, and crushed beer cans and liquor bottles from Christmas celebrations with friends, all of us away from home.

Crappy cut-glass flutes and the cork from crappy champagne, which I took as presents to the first girl I intended to marry, because my cousin who was separated from his wife insisted I save my money. The classic black dress I made myself for the next girl I intended to marry, which fit like a glove.

Oral histories from veterans of WWI I knew—Clarence, with his lifelong gratitude for a Christmas dinner one year on a warm dung pile in France; Doc, who pulled teeth by putting his knee on the patient’s chest and became a parable about candy-eating; Pop, the owner of the bus stop and toy store, as indispensable to Christmas comings, goings, and gifting as Santa himself—and from the veterans of WWII—including Uncle Paul, who fought the Germans through the holidays, and his brother, Cot, taken by the Japanese. A score of “Silent Night,” sung during the Christmas truce in the first war and in the Hürtgen Forest (its umlaut like Noël’s) in the second. A score of the swing version of “American Patrol, by Glenn Miller, who disappeared December 15, 1944, over the English Channel, on his way to Paris, which was newly liberated.

Photo 111-SC-200483, from the National Archives, taken 12/25/1944 and captioned, “Officers of the 101st Airborne Division have Christmas dinner in Bastogne, Belgium, while the city is still under German siege. Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe (fourth on the left) commanded the division during the siege.”

A photo of me home on my first leave, at Christmas, from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101stAirborne, skinny and laughing the way I laughed the first time I heard McAuliffe told the Germans only, “Nuts,” when they demanded his surrender. A copy of this article from The New York Times, with a big question mark scrawled in Sharpie, for why I think at Christmas of the Battle of the Bulge before I do the fall of Jerusalem.

Never mind: a box or cabinet would never hold it all; neither would a book, a library, a hard drive, a house. Those years in the tropics and subtropics, whispers of palms and the smell of sea. Our first house, on the Historic Register, with its library bay and 10-foot ceiling for a huge tree, the box that my sons spent their early years in and began to collect their own emotional miscellanies and to wonder where all those we told stories about had gone.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.