What makes for a timeless Christmas story? There is the familiar window dressing, of course; a tree, a hearth, a family, hopefully some snow blanketed over a sleepy American town or a gas-lit Victorian city. Onto this stage is then usually cast a person suffering from a crisis of faith or character (Scrooge’s misanthropy, George Bailey’s despondency, the Grinch’s avarice) that is dispelled and resolved in the glowing light of the (more or less secular) spirit of Christmas, generally expressed as a blossoming of charity and goodwill toward man.
But there is something simpler and more powerful operating underneath the surface layer of these stories, something that brings us back to them each year with fresh eyes and hearts. In his slim new Christmas at Eagle Pond, former poet laureate Donald Hall strips the Christmas story down to its barest essence and shows that the true essence of the holidays is perhaps less about sending Tiny Tim for the biggest turkey in the square and more about trying to capture a particular sense of memory, both collective and personal, and a yearning for connection to eternal mysteries.
The story (and it is a story, rather than a memoir, although Hall explains in an author’s note just how much he has blurred the line) is told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy who is, as a kind of present from his parents, allowed to ride the train from Connecticut to New Hampshire in the winter of 1940. He makes the trip in order to spend Christmas on his grandparent’s farm, where he often hays in the summer. It’s been a dream of his to spend Christmas there, among that different wing of the family and the eccentric neighbors they’re always telling stories about, and that he is allowed to ride the rails by himself is momentous, an acknowledgement that he is at the dawn of various awakenings.
The boy is old enough to know that there are dangerous concerns at the margins of his life. War looms in Europe, which concerns the adults greatly, and his mother is undergoing an operation the specifics of which are being spared him, and she will be in the hospital for many days. But the farm at Eagle Pond is a safe place, enchanted with the power to shield the boy from distress, and much of the book consists of the simple day-to-day chores that constitute farm life (but that thrill the boy, clearly already beginning to favor more contemplative tasks even in his young age, nonetheless).
And the Christmas celebration is equally undramatic. Food is prepared, stories are told, some light politics are discussed, a line is formed at the telephone so that everyone can give their good wishes to the boy’s mother. The gifts that are exchanged are mostly practical and homespun, except for the boy’s new volume of poetry. In what serves as the book’s climax, the unflagging snow threatens to keep the boy stuck at the farm and away from his mother, a prospect he both dreads and hopes for guiltily.
To tell the simple story, Hall employs equally simple prose that one might be forgiven for mistaking at a glance as, frankly, unpoetic. It reads almost like a journal: “More chores followed milking. It was time for the cattle to drink from their watering trough. First my grandfather broke through the lid of ice that formed overnight, then one by one he unchained his cows; they knew where to go.” But this is the product of a poet’s natural talents for concision and compression; there is not one word in the book that shouldn’t be there, and it’s hard to imagine any that are missing. Hall refutes the schmaltz and tinsel of the perfunctory sentimentality that has come to define the holiday, and shows that even when they are stripped away entirely, there is still something there worth cherishing, something like what led Dylan Thomas to describe Christmas night as “that close and holy darkness” in his famous A Child’s Christmas in Wales, only with a unique New England stillness that Hall has spent a lifetime chronicling.
By the end of this magical little imagined memory, Hall derives the proof of the Christmas story. A good Christmas story shouldn’t just be a morality play dressed up for winter, where skinflints learn to open their coin purses and misanthropes their hearts. In order for it to connect with its audience in a resounding way, there needs to be a certain contemplativeness to balance out all the inevitable church bells and rejoicing. There needs to be wonderment—it can even approach something like fear. And it needn’t be as dramatic as George Bailey on a bridge leaning out over the water. All the elements of time, memory, and yearning that Christmas invokes are most keenly experienced in the mind of a sensitive young boy, watching as snow piles in drifts up against the barn, waiting to see if his grandfather will be able to harness the horse to the carriage, hoping against hope that he might be able to get back home to see his sick mother.