Sunday

Dec. 24, 2006

An Old Man Performs Alchemy on His Doorstep at Christmastime

by Anna George Meek

SUNDAY, 24 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "An Old Man Performs Alchemy on His Doorstep at Christmastime" by Anna George Meek, from Acts of Contortion. © The University of Wisconsin Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

An Old Man Performs Alchemy on His Doorstep at Christmastime

Cream of Tartar, commonly used to lift meringue and
angel food cake, is actually made from crystallized fine wine.



After they stopped singing for him,
the carolers became transparent in the dark,
and he stepped into their emptiness to say
he lost his wife last week, please
sing again. Their voices filled with gold.
Last week, his fedora nodded hello to me
on the sidewalk, and the fragile breath
of kindness that passed between us
made something sweet of a morning
that had frightened me for no earthly reason.
Surely, you know this by another name:
the mysteries we intake, exhale, could be
sitting on our shelves, left on the bus seat
beside us. Don't wash your hands.
You fingered them at the supermarket,
gave them to the cashier; intoxicated tonight,
she'll sing in the streets. Think of the old man.
Who knew he kept the secret of levitation,
transference, and lightness filling a winter night?
— an effortless, crystalline powder
That could almost seem transfigured from loss.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Christmas Eve, the subject of the beloved holiday poem that begins:

"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads."

The poem, now known as "The Night Before Christmas," was first published anonymously in a small newspaper in upstate New York in 1823, and its original title was "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." It was thought for many years to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore. But today some scholars believe that a Revolutionary War major named Henry Livingston Jr. may have been the actual author of "The Night Before Christmas." His family has letters describing his recitation of the poem before it was originally published, and literary scholars have found many similarities between his work and "The Night Before Christmas." He was also three-quarters Dutch, and many of the details in the poem, including names of the reindeer, have Dutch origins.

But whoever wrote the poem, "The Night Before Christmas" changed the way Americans celebrate the holiday of Christmas by reinventing the character of Santa Claus, and by combining St. Nicholas Day with Christmas.

The image of Santa went through many variations, until the political cartoonist Thomas H. Nast drew a picture of the fat, jolly man with a white beard that became the standard version. Santa started wearing red and white clothing after an ad campaign for Coca Cola in the 1930s.

In Holland, children are now visited by St. Nicholas on December 5th, and on Christmas Eve they are visited by Santa Claus, whom they call, "American Christmas Man."


It was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred, during World War I. German troops fighting in Belgium began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British, soon joined in the caroling. The war was put on hold, and these soldiers greeted each other in "No Man's Land," exchanging gifts of whiskey and cigars.


It's the birthday of journalist I.F. (Isidor Feinstein) Stone, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1907). In 1952, Stone was working for the New York Daily Compass when that paper folded. It was the height of the Red Scare, and suddenly Stone was too left-wing to get a job. Desperate to find some sort of journalistic income, Stone decided to go into business for himself. With his wife's help, an investment of $6500, and the mailing list from two defunct liberal newspapers, he launched I.F. Stone's Weekly, which he called, "My very own little flea-bit publication."


It's the birthday of poet and essayist Dana Gioia, (books by this author) born in Hawthorne, California (1950). He studied literature at Harvard, and then went to business school at Stanford. He went on to get a job at General Foods, where he became a Vice President. He was largely responsible for the invention of the Kool-Aid Man marketing campaign, which was a huge success.

He wrote poetry in his spare time, and since he had a well-paying job that he enjoyed, he didn't have to worry about whether he could get anything published. He kept his poetry secret from his co-workers because, he said, "I did not want to be perceived at General Foods as a fuzzy-headed creative person. I wanted to be judged as a businessman and succeed under the company's criteria, rather than asking for some implied special treatment." But eventually, magazine articles began to appear, profiling him as the poet from corporate America. He has said that he might have stayed in business until retirement, even after being exposed as a poet, but a year after he published his first book of poems, Daily Horoscope (1986), he lost his four-month-old son to sudden infant death syndrome. It took him and his wife a year to return to some semblance of normalcy, and at the end of that year he decided to devote himself to writing.


Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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