"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections: Christmas

John’s 10 December “Today in Bishop” and “Today’s Video” inspired this Nova Scotia Connections about Bishop and Christmas. When I think of Bishop and Christmas, one of the first things that comes to my mind is that she never liked this holiday, something she said/wrote many times in letters to family and friends.

Having lost her parents so early and having no siblings, this family holiday was fraught from the beginning. I wonder what her first Christmas was like: December 1911 — with her father dead only a few months and her widowed mother deeply grieving. Bishop was only ten months old, so too young, really, to have direct memory of it – but it is not hard to imagine how sad this time was for her and her mother and to suppose this sadness somehow sunk deeply into her. Without language, it would be hard to articulate such sorrow, which would have been visceral, rather than intellectual, of the body rather than the mind.

She spent most of her childhood Christmases with her maternal family, either in Nova Scotia (with her grandparents) or Revere (with her aunt and uncle), and there was some delight in these holidays; but they were always mixed with the looming shadow of her hospitalized mother. Bishop writes a remarkable memory of one Christmas in Great Village in the memoir of her Uncle Arthur Bulmer, “Memories of Uncle Neddy.” This account is full of both humour and anxiety, an experience that brought to Bishop a complex meld of conflicting emotions. The memoir is the adult recounting a memory, with the perspective of time and experience, but the story still holds much of the wonder and surprise that the child felt decades before:

“One memory, brief but poignant, like a childhood nightmare that haunts one for years, or all one’s life, the details are so clear and so awful, is of a certain Christmas. Or maybe it was a Christmas Eve, because it takes place after the lamps were lit — but of course it grew dark very early in the winter. There was a large Christmas tree, smelling overpoweringly of fir, in the parlor. It was rather sparsely decorated with colored paper chains, strings of tinsel and popcorn, and a very few glass balls or other shiny ornaments: a countryfied, home-made tree, chopped down and brought fresh from the snow-covered ‘commons.’ But there was a few little silver and gold baskets, full of candies, woven from strips of metal by ‘the blind children,’ and clips holding twisted wax candles that after many warnings were finally lit. One of my aunts played ‘Holy Night’ on the piano and the candles flickered in time to our singing.

“This was all very nice, but still I remember it as ‘the Black Christmas.’ My other grandparents, in the States, had sent a large box of presents. It contained woollen caps and mufflers for Billy and me, and I didn’t like them at all. His set was dark blue and mine was gray and I hated it at sight. There were also mittens and socks, and some of these were red or blue, and the high black rubber boots I’d wanted, but my pair was much too big. Laid out under the tree, even by flickering candlelight, everything looked shapeless and sad, and I wanted to cry. And then Santa Claus came in, an ordinary brown potato sack over his shoulder, with the other presents sagging in it. He was terrifying. He couldn’t have been dressed in black, but that was my impression, and I did start to cry. He had artificial snow sprinkled on his shoulders, and a pointed red cap, but the beard! It wasn’t white and woolly at all, it was made of rope, a mass of frayed-out rope. This dreadful figure cavorted around the room, making jokes in a loud, deep, false voice. The face that showed above the rope beard looked, to me, like a Negro’s. I shrieked. Then this Santa from the depths of a coal mine put down his sack that could have been filled with coal, and hugged and kissed me. Through my sobs, I recognized, by touch and smell and his suddenly everyday voice, that it was only Uncle Neddy” (Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters, Library of America, 630-631)

This “Black Christmas” was undoubtedly December 1916, the year Bishop’s mother went into the Nova Scotia Hospital. That the Bulmer family was sad, that the five-year-old Bishop was picking up on all this sadness, is no surprise. As with all the adults in her life at this time, on both sides of her family, the attempt to keep daily life as normal as possible, in the midst of much uncertainty and sorrow, was good intentioned but not successful.

Christmas in our culture sets up great expectations of love and peace and happiness — but the reality is that for many people, this holiday is one of the most difficult of the year. Bishop carried the sorrow of her earliest Christmases with her for decades, and often the strain of this sorrow was so great she often ended up in hospital herself. When Bishop reached Brazil and settled there with Lota de Macedo Soares, when she found what became the most secure home of her adult life, at least for well over a decade, when she was in the midst of a busy household with children, family, friends, pets, and neighbours, her Christmases became less fraught, even as she never really came to a full accommodation with this holiday.

This photograph of the tree in front of St. James United Church in Great Village, N.S., taken by Rebecca Colwell a few weeks ago, is so lovely, I wanted to keep it up for a little while longer.


During the 1950s and 1960s, from Brazil, Bishop wrote many letters to her Aunt Grace and there was always a Christmas letter, sent early or mid-December containing monetary remembrance for her beloved aunt — or she would order a fancy box of candy or some nice wine from a Boston shop and have it sent to Grace wherever she staying (sometimes in Ontario, sometimes in Nova Scotia, sometimes in Florida, sometimes in Massachusetts — Grace loved to “gallivant,” as Bishop wrote). On 15 December 1958, Bishop wrote a letter, from which I have excerpted a relevant passage, which shows that by this time, some of the old sorrow and fears of Christmas had eased, even if they never completely disappeared, that she had found her own traditions and practices to mitigate the dark memories of ancient sadness.

“You ask me if it’s warm at Christmas here...it has been the hottest November in 33 years —around 104 in Rio most of the time. (That is HOT.) Up here of course it never gets like that, but I never remember it being so hot, and we have been taking two dips in our pool every day, instead of the usual one, making sherbets all the time — it’s the season for wonderful pineapples, mangoes, etc. — We’ve had a lot of company, too — everyone trying to get away from the Rio heat. On the 22nd we are going away to Cabo Frio (“cold cape”) for ten days — the fishing-place we went to last year — friends of ours have a nice house there, on the beach. There is nothing to do but go swimming, fishing a bit, but it is beautiful scenery and we like it and it gives the maids a rest from us and us from them ... (I’ve been giving the smallest black baby here whooping-cough shots. I’d give them both Salk shots, too, if I could get the serum — it’s hard to get here.)

“When we stay home we do have a tree, of sorts — a tropical plant called graveta that blooms on the rocks at this time of year — it’s a huge thing, six or eight feet high, like a Christmas tree, more or less — anyway, with candles it is very striking, and we usually send a boy up the cliffs to cut us the biggest one he can find (we located one through binoculars one year!). But of course isn’t Christmassy at all. This year we are taking a ham with us as our contribution to our stay and will bake it and decorate it there, and I’m taking along a chocolate cake and tins of cookies! But we’ll probably spend the day swimming and lying in hammocks...” (Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College Special Collections)

I expect there are a few Maritimers in cold December who think that spending one’s Christmas swimming and lying in hammocks is the best way to end the year!

World’s tallest floating Christmas tree, Rio de Janeiro.

Ed. note: I did a little internet search for graveta, but could not find what this plant might be. Anyone who knows, please send along a comment. Instead of Bishop’s Brazilian Christmas tree, I found an image of Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular 85 metre (28 storey) floating Christmas tree, which according to Guiness World Records is the tallest floating Christmas tree in the world. What would Bishop have thought of it, I wonder! According to the internet, this image is sourced from a site: www.sea-way.org.

A bit of business, because of the holidays:

I will be taking a break from Nova Scotia Connections until early in 2011 – the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary year! John, Suzie and I will be away, but I am hoping to keep the “Todays” going as much as possible. John has collected items for the remainder of the year and it will be up to me to post them, and I will do my best. We’ll get back underway in earnest as 2011 rolls in. It is going to be a banner year for Bishop here in Nova Scotia and around the world. Stay tuned!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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