Home For The Holidays

05Jan10

The Farm, Christmas 1973

I remember coming home for Christmas, from college, from my years in Italy, from my early days in New York City, as a new mother.  I remember on one occasion lying on the couch, reading the essay On Going Home by Joan Didion and feeling just as lethargic as she had, incapable of doing much other than lying on the couch as the chaos of nine siblings and various others swirled around me.  I remember the years and years of going to my father’s on Christmas Eve, returning to my mother’s by midnight — a decree imposed by the  court on my divorced parents.  It became a ritual of sorts that carried on long after my sisters and I became adults.  I remember holidays in Sri Lanka and Nepal and Hawaii, anywhere but home, trying to find my own way.   But they were never as happy as I wanted them to be.

Of the people in the photo above, my stepfather and his mother, Merle, have died, otherwise this year nine of the ten children and my mother were at the Farm with our various children and friends passing through.  For Christmas dinner we were twenty-three.  We ate pork loin stuffed with dried fruits in a Madeira and molasses sauce; mashed potatoes; French beans with pomegranate seeds (made by Jenny who learned the recipe in London, where she lives, “They make it so much over there, at all the dinner parties, that it’s actually now a cliché to serve it.”); a salad of mache with pears and crushed almonds dressed with shalots macerated in equal parts lemon juice and white wine vinegar.  For dessert: bourbon pecan tart; pumpkin tiramisu; bread pudding with whiskey sauce.  We like to eat.  We eat well.  It snowed the day before, a vast blanket covering the fields.  On Christmas Eve we read the children “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” as Santa ran across the rooftop, scaring the littlest one.  No one fought.  In the morning: presents were opened one by one.  A howling wind and bitter cold, a gray sky which seemed to promise more snow.  The big beautiful tree lit with colored bulbs that first glowed in the 1960s, my grandmother’s glass ornaments.  The kids raced down the hill on toboggans, wrapped in scarves and hats and gloves and bulky coats.  They made a snowman, collected chicken eggs, forgot to shut the door to the coop, chased chickens, made a movie on a Flip about bad guys who not only get away with it, but convert the good guys to bad guys.  My father and stepmother, Yolanda, joined us for dinner.

All of us have tried other Christmases, elsewhere.  The chaos, the mountain of presents, the tension created by expectation, the energy of so many personalities can be too much.  But since 1973, our first Christmas at the Farm as a blended family, we have—all of us, my sisters and my step-siblings—kept trying to make it beautiful.  We have kept coming back.  We don’t give up.  Thirty-six Christmases have passed since 1973.  And this year we did get something very right.

Another holiday feast: Sarah’s Raspberry Duck with wild rice and peas

A few gathered to watch the children’s movie about the bad guys winning

An essay for the NYTimes on the hazards (and blessings) of Christmas: it happens to be, of my essays, my favorite

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6 Responses to “Home For The Holidays”

  1. Martha, that’s such a beautiful story. I love it.

    • 2 marthamcphee

      Thanks for writing. I am so glad you like it. I love my crazy, sprawling family.

  2. 3 Ama

    As an outsider who is slowly becoming an insider to this ever-expanding family, I continue to be impressed with the commitment to preserving institutions that are wild and sacred… Santa, family and The Farm… They are real to those with the curiosity to believe and courage to write. Thank you for doing both, sweet Martha.

  3. 5 Wendy

    “Let Nothing You Dismay” is what led me to such a wonderful Hofstra professor. I saved the essay and it has become part of my Christmas reading canon along with Saki’s “Down Pens”, Taylor Caldwell’s “My Christmas Miracle,” Morley’s “The Worst Christmas Story,” Damon Runyon’s “Palm Beach Santa Claus,” and of course Dickens. I’d say you are in mighty fine company Martha! And I’ll never forget the time you showed me the box top, scrawled with your grandmother’s writing. Simply wonderful…

    • 6 marthamcphee

      Oh my. I’m blushing. Thank you so much. And you are one of my favorite students. So smart and insightful. I hope you’re still writing your brilliant essays. Again, thank you!


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