Tag Archives: Christmas in Alabama

The Poetry of Charlie Brown

The Grand Hotel – December 2021

Point Clear, Alabama. I drive down I-65 this week, renewing my annual holiday trip to the Grand Hotel, the venerable resort at Point Clear, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. It’s my first attempt at a vacation in two years.

On the drive down, somebody on the radio plays an audio clip from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), the first and best of the animated specials based on Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” cartoon strip. You know the scene: Charlie Brown, in frustration, asks if anybody knows the true meaning of Christmas. This is Linus’s cue to step into the spotlight and recite the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.

What strikes me in this listening is the simple, forthright performance of the script by the child actors. Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) asks, “Doesn’t anybody / know / what Christmas / is all about?” and the line has a haiku-like cadence that captures the wistful innocence of youth.


At Point Clear, the massive live oaks seem untouched by pandemic and recent hurricanes; Christmas lights around the lagoon are as profusely tasteful and satisfying as ever and the Civil War cannon is fired in the distance, maintaining a daily ritual. Ancient branches of live oaks drape over the pathways, belighted as natural arches for the season.

This trip – after a longer than usual absence and the factors that delayed it – is more reflective. A CD of George Winston’s classic album, December, found under a stack of CDs in the car, becomes the soundtrack for the trip. In the room, I stream podcasts by my friend, Lily Miceli, who hosts “InBetween the Music” for Wisconsin Public Radio. She recently shared two Christmas-themed programs:

www.podcasts.com/inbetween-the-music-9c45b7b5a/episode/IBM-Music-Dickens-ee75

www.podcasts.com/inbetween-the-music-9c45b7b5a/episode/IBM-Music-Christmas-d31d

Libby Rich, who ran an amazing garden shop called Plant Odyssey in Birmingham’s Lakeview neighborhood for years, now shares her expertise on Libbyrich’s Blog https://libbyrich.wordpress.com/2021/12/13/a-roll-of-quarters.  My gardening inspiration growing up was my Granddaddy Harbison, but it was in Libby’s Lakeview shop that I honed my knowledge of plants and gardens. She is a formidable presence with a kind heart and voluminous knowledge of growing things. Libby’s Christmas-themed essay, “A Roll of Quarters,” is about a customer who always bought his Christmas poinsettias at Plant Odyssey, leaving a roll of quarters for her to treat her staff. My dad collected coins, mainly quarters, in his retirement and often gifted special people with a roll. Libby’s post, read on my balcony overlooking the lagoon and Mobile Bay beyond, is especially poignant in this season of remembrance.

Along for the ride, also, are a well-worn copy of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and a brand-new copy of the first novel by artist Julyan Davis, whom I have known for many years. Davis’s A History of Saints is a jaunty satire set in Asheville, North Carolina. It reminds me, in ways, of the Alabama author Eugene Walter, who thought parenthetically and found the joy in eccentricity all around him. I won’t quite finish Julyan’s book on this trip, but I’m enjoying the ride https://smpbooks.com/product/a-history-of-saints.


On the first full day here, I go out in search of old churches I haven’t yet photographed in the area. After photographing a promising prospect near the town of Foley, I have car trouble in Summerdale and call AAA for a tow. The first AAA dispatcher I talk to (who I later learned was talking to me from California) is rude when I tell her I am in an unfamiliar place and don’t know where my car should be towed. She tells me that she can’t assist me until I tell her where I want my car to be towed; I respond, “I don’t know – isn’t that your job?” and she disconnects me.

“… a promising prospect near Foley”

On the next try, I reach a more helpful AAA dispatcher who connects me with a local towing company and auto mechanics in Foley who couldn’t be nicer. The unexpected adventure turns out fine in the end and introduces me to a helpful cab driver, a charming hotel shuttle driver, concerned workers at the Summerdale Civic Complex, and Gelato Joe’s Italian Restaurant and Tiki Bar (www.gelato-joes.com).

My car spent the night in Foley but I can’t be unhappy to be “stranded” at the Grand and enjoy catching up with familiar and new faces among the resort staff, while noting that some favorite faces have moved on in the two years since I was last here.

I usually make the trip alone and enjoy it; occasionally, I am able to rendezvous with old friends, and that is pleasant, too. This trip has been a solo experience, so I have had plenty of opportunity to observe and chat with new people.


On the first night here, while dining at Southern Roots at the resort, I notice a party of four. A couple of nights later, at a restaurant in downtown Fairhope, I spot the same foursome at a table across the room.  Back at the hotel, waiting for the elevator, one of the women of the group emerges with a motorized scooter. “Were you just at Camellia Café?” I ask.

“Are you the guy who was eating at the end of the bar?” she responds. “We were talking about you.”

“Why?” I ask. She says that I was an interesting looking person dining alone at the bar and they wondered what my story was.

“My story was that I was having dinner.”

I explain that this trip is my annual pre-Christmas escape and that I usually travel solo. This leads to an interesting conversation and I ask my new acquaintance (who is now on my Christmas card list) if that’s her mother waiting for her at the car. Indeed, the second lady of the foursome, my new acquaintance’s mother, stands patiently in the parking lot, waiting for her transport.


I may have seemed alone to the party of four, but I feel surrounded by friends down here. I have been to the Grand so many times that it feels like a kind of “home” to me (I even manage to stay in the same room each visit). I have caught up with people I see on every trip, had my annual massage in the spa, and grabbed a meal at some favorite places.

The Hope Farm

I have felt the presence of friends – Lily, Libby, Julyan, and others – as I relax in my room. It’s my final night and I try a place that’s new, that wasn’t here on my last trip, before the world shifted in March 2020. The Hope Farm (www.thehopefarm.com) is a sprawling urban farm complex off Fairhope’s main drag with a restaurant and wine bar and a steadfast commitment to local, fresh, and sustainable nourishment. After failing to find fresh oysters on the half-shell in my first few meals down here, I am pleased to find fresh Murder Point oysters, my favorite from Bayou La Batre across the bay, at The Hope Farm restaurant, which instantly becomes another of my favorite places to eat in Fairhope. I make a note to return often on regular sojourns to Baldwin County.

In the morning, I will drive back home to Birmingham after stopping for relishes at Punta Clara Kitchen, a bag of satsumas at Harrison Farms roadside stand, and pecans for Christmas and New Year’s dinners. I will pick up a Po’Boy at Market by the Bay in Daphne to eat along the way. I have a list of historic churches for photos on detours heading north. Like Charlie Brown and Linus, I will continue to find poetry in the season and remain hopeful for better days in the year ahead.

Sunset at the Grand

Happy Holidays.

Impending December

Thirty years ago, as the first day of December eased in on a cold midnight, I was sitting at the City Pier on the New London, Connecticut, waterfront. I was in the former whaling center and seaport on tour with a theatre group and had just completed a long and difficult work day in a long and occasionally demanding schedule.

As late and as cold as it was, I had walked through the quiet, empty town toward the water in a light snow to let the frigid sea air clear my head. The walk to the waterfront includes a charming statue of an earnest Eugene O’Neill as a boy, writing intently on his tablet. The acclaimed playwright spent boyhood summers at his family’s Monte Cristo Cottage a couple of miles down the harbor.

As I sat at the harbor, I listened to George Winston’s classic 1982 album December on my Walkman. That music became a frequent companion on the fall 1989 tour. It relaxed me in particularly stressful times.

As each December approaches, I find myself thinking about the soothing music of December. It speaks to the title’s power of suggestion that I only think about that album when December approaches; I would never think of listening to it after New Year’s Eve. Winston’s meditative solo piano perfectly captures the mood of the winter holiday season with its long dark nights, bittersweet memories, pensive moods, and festive gatherings.

December is upon us in this Thanksgiving week of late November. Holiday decorations are beginning to pop up in neighborhoods and stores are already a frenzy of commercial Christmas “cheer.” I plan to find my Christmas wreath at this Saturday’s Pepper Place Market in downtown Birmingham. My Christmas cards are boxed up and ready to be taken to the post office on December 1.

Everything in Alabama will seem to grind to a standstill on the afternoon of November 30 as the annual Iron Bowl football game between Alabama and cross-state rival Auburn occurs – the 84th time that this rivalry has been played. For years it was played in Birmingham’s Legion Field; now it alternates between Tuscaloosa and Auburn. It is as entrenched as any holiday tradition.

My annual December trip to the Grand Hotel on Mobile Bay is on hold. I took too long to figure out my dates and there seem to be no rooms at the inn. I will keep working on it, and I could always go somewhere else – or even take a room somewhere near Point Clear – but the pull of the Grand is strong for me this time of year and I am determined to still make it happen. Memories of Spanish moss hanging from holly trees on the lagoon are always a strong pull.

Another piece of music that comes to mind around December is Joni Mitchell’s classic, “River,” which writer Dan Chiasson calls “the song that, almost two thousand years late, made the Christmas season bearable.” “It’s coming on Christmas,” Mitchell sings, “They’re cutting down trees / Putting up reindeer / Singing songs of joy and peace // Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on …”

I prefer my rivers unfrozen, but the sentiment is clear. As dear as the Christmas holiday is, it can also be a time of stress and tension and feelings of loss. Whenever I hear somebody say, “I’ll be glad when the holidays are over,” I cringe a little.

But I get it, too.

In the meantime, I will celebrate the holidays and – like my mother’s dog, Lulu – I will seek out my warm spot in the sunshine until I find a river I can sail away on.

“In the Bleak Midwinter”

  dscn0020 Point Clear, Alabama. The thing that makes me happiest about the Winter Solstice is that the daylight begins to creep up minute by minute and the days begin to get gradually longer. I do not care for long dark nights and cold temperatures when my seasonal allergies are always at their worst.

I made my annual escape to the Grand Hotel at Point Clear, Alabama, on Mobile Bay this week before Christmas – a pleasant and much needed break in a challenging year. When I arrived, temperatures were in the 70s and shorts and flip flops were much in evidence.

dscn0587The seasonal shift became tangible and abrupt on Sunday. The morning was still warm and I was drinking coffee on my balcony when a dark cloud appeared over on the Mobile side of the bay moving rapidly toward the eastern shore. Suddenly the wind was howling and vicious, the trees were bending, and the ducks in the lagoon were quacking crazily. There were whitecaps on the bay and in the lagoon as the rains moved in. Minutes later the temperature had dropped drastically and monsoon rains enveloped the area. The good part is that this area, like the rest of the state, is suffering a drought and rains are much needed.

After a couple of dreary days, the first day of winter is showing some promise for rising temperatures and more sunshine. Last night’s final sunset of fall was stunning. The sun, which had been invisible all day, suddenly dipped beneath a heavy layer of grey cloud cover and provided a bright brief and brilliant fuchsia flash to what had been a colorless cold day. Just as quickly, it was gone. dscn0594

Early now on the first day of winter, as I pack to head north, temperatures are brisk but climbing and the sun is promising to make more than a perfunctory appearance. Christmas day temperatures here are projected to be back in the 70s.

It has always pleased me that there is a Christmas carol that captures the gloomier aspects of the season. “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with 19th century lyrics by Christina Rossetti of Pre-Raphaelite fame, does not skimp on references to the gloom and dreariness of the winter. Years ago, in my directing days, I opened a production of A Christmas Carol with a group of darkly-clad carolers singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” in a dusky light. It seemed a fitting way to introduce Ebenezer Scrooge’s pre-transformational world.

“Earth stood hard as iron,” Rosetti writes, “Water like a stone / Snow had fallen, snow on snow / Snow on snow / In the bleak midwinter / Long ago.” I particularly like that repetition of “snow on snow” – it gives me a chill to type it now.

Fortunately the bleak midwinter I am heading to in Birmingham and more northern climes of Alabama will not hold snow on snow. In fact, warmer temperatures are forecast. and it promises to be a warmer contemplative time after a difficult year.

Here in Point Clear I have reunited with old friends, had some memorable meals both at restaurants and at the home of friends, and started some new traditions. It is a preview, I hope, of pleasant hours spent with family on Christmas day and a hopeful new year ahead.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, wherever you may be, and however bleak the winter. img_1005