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Ex Libris

January 12, 1986|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

There are songs for the opening of the holiday season--"It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and so forth--but none for its close, only William Carlos Williams' dry, clean poem, "Burning the Christmas Greens," of which one section reads:

\o7 On the

mantle we built a green forest

and among those hemlock

sprays put a herd of small

white deer as if they

were walking there. All this!

and it seemed gentle and good

to us. Their time past,

relief! The room bare. We

stuffed the dead grate

with them upon the half burnt out

log's smoldering eye, opening

red and closing under them

and we stood there looking down.

When the room is again bare, the time is again now. Back when the room was decorated, the time was--well, it was another time, as the room was then another place.

Los Angeles may be the only American city with its own Christmas song--Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," the story of a dream dreamt in Beverly Hills:

The sun is shining,

The grass is green

The orange and palm trees sway.

There's never been such a day

In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it's December the 24th,

And I am longing to be up north.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, etc.

But even those whose Christmases are reliably white tend to dream at Christmas of being somewhere else, or somebody else. I know an expatriate Russian poet who lives now in a frosty region of the United States but spends every Christmas in Venice, Italy. Why? Because the queen city of the Adriatic is then so sodden, so gray, so deserted. Venice is no place to be at Christmas, and this is why he goes there. Intensifying his own wish to be elsewhere, he enters the secret aching heart of the season, the wellspring of the songs, yes, and of the suicides.

Christmas is the excitement of the escape from time and the mystery of the return to it even for children. On Christmas eve, the 3-year-old son of friends of ours bounded from his bedroom stark naked to throw open the front door and greet the evening's first visitor with a shout. Parents tend to say that television gets the kids worked up, as if the excitement were a recent aberration. But is there a more excited, leaping, bounding poem in all American literature than Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas"? And it was written in 1823.

When out on the lawn

There arose such a clatter,

I SPRANG from my bed

To see what was the matter.

Away to the window

I FLEW like a flash,

TORE OPEN the shutters

And THREW up the sash.

Substitute the ring of a doorbell for the clatter of St. Nick on the lawn, and our young friend could have learned his leaps at his great-grandfather's knee.

"The Night Before Christmas" has delighted so many generations of children partly because, past the nicely calculated hush of its opening lines ("not a creature was stirring" and all that), it gives such matchless expression to the mounting physical anticipation of children on the eve of a holiday. Hear the crescendo in:

To the top of the porch!

To the top of the wall!

Now dash away! Dash away!

Dash away all!

And yet the dream beneath all the prancing and pawing is the same, the dream of another reality, a place to which with the right coach-and-eight one might escape forever in the twinkling of an eye:

He sprang to his sleigh

To his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew

Like the down of a thistle.

Like the down of a thistle, like the ashes of the Christmas greens--Williams' adult poem begins where Moore's children's poem ends.


mountains, black and red--as

yet uncolored--and ash white,

an infant landscape of shimmering

ash and flame and we, in

that instant, lost,

breathless to be witnesses,

as if we stood

ourselves refreshed among

the shining fauna of that fire.

All entertainment is escape. The special kind of entertainment we dignify with the name of art is also return. And so it is also with holidays: All are escape, only the greatest are also return; and only after the greatest do we stand (Williams' word, the perfect word) refreshed as we incinerate the symbols of the merriment.

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