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.