Hello friends, and a merry Christmas to you all. I suspect we are all eager to see the back of this year. But the season brings on my sentimentality, and I wonder what waits on the other side of this particular solar circumnavigation. We will welcome spring and, hopefully, with it, the lifting of lockdown.
Walking around the dreary streets of the city, I worry what we’ll leave behind us in this annus horribilis. Crowds are thin, sidewalks spare. Eyes are downcast. Has the virus won the War on Christmas? I pray not.
When I was a boy, Christmas in the Dent household was a New York affair. The city was near its nadir, yet the Yuletide charm brought out its best, and ours. Even during those bad old days, the bells, brisk air and baubles hung to mark our orgiastic expression of commercial enthusiasm still worked their magic. Christmas in Manhattan had an electricity to it, almost tangible, brought about by the excitement of the holiday in the Big City. The glamour and grit combined to create common thrill, in all corners, a fleeting flirtation with neighborliness among New Yorkers.
As a teen, back from school, Christmas was a familial focal point in a longer social season. Starting the night before Thanksgiving, we would pour into the permissive pubs that still dot Yorkville, eager to set the social stage for the rest of winter, especially the balls. Before you ask, yes, I’ve run across Whit socially and we have many common friends, but I can’t say that we know each other. Still, his films are almost reminiscences of my own life, idealized versions of my own memories.
In these stylized recollections, the returning trains of my youth invariably trundle down the New Haven line. Those were the earliest days of the Metro-North, after the Conrail debacle. And for all the snoring, drunk commuters, my remembered rail runs straight to the warm embrace of the classic six, stops at St Thomas for the Midnight Mass and ends at a cramped table at Dorrian’s redolent with the smells of cigarettes, stale beer and damp wool coats.
On the subject of D’s, and again before you ask, no, I did not know Robert Chambers. He was certainly part of the scene, but he supplied a slightly faster set than my immediate circle. Plus, while I’m no prude, I wouldn’t have been caught dead at 54. I’m told by those in a position to know that it was never the same when it reopened anyhow.
But Christmas was the great escape. We Dents are New Englanders, not knickerbockers, so we packed a year’s worth of foregone enthusiasm and ecstasy into a single, blissful week of family togetherness. Or so I recall. It is always snowing in these memories. Gift-giving tended to the practical and the improving, though by the time I came around, a combination of fatigue and indulgence inclined my parents to loosen these rules, much to the chagrin of my siblings. My grandfather had gone into the insurance business at Ives & Myrick, and this convinced my mother to foist an endless number of musical pursuits on me to no end.
In later years after my father died, my first wife and I would have Christmas dinner in Sharon at the house with Mother. She is a particular type of particularly Anglo-Saxon woman. Witty, elegant, dryer than gin, yet never without a sense for the setting. Thus I cannot recall a subject upon which Mother has had nothing to say, nor can I remember a single instance of her being rude. She is pointed but never prolix: a disappearing breed in this dismal, disclosive age.
It was with her trademark perfunctoriness that mother informed me in October that, virus be damned, she would be spending Christmas with friends in Sedona, an unsubtle reminder that she expects me to make right with the missus.
Yet those amends have gone unmade, and so I find myself an aging bachelor on his own, walking the avenues of a weary, beleaguered city. The trappings of the season are muted. There is, as I write in early December, no snow in this very real present. The Christmas season has been ludicrously stretched to cover a third of the year, yet its magic, like my brother Dickie’s hair, has thinned in the extending.
Still, I have childhood memories with their quality of quintessence. Whatever whimsy weighs, those recollections are worth that weight in wampum and then some. So I’ll take a turn around my little corner of the great island of the Manhattoes, perhaps head all the way down to St Thomas, and if you see me at Dorrian’s, do say hello.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2020 US edition.