26. Two Christmas gifts: fruitcake & music

Sometimes I think I can write. Then I read a story by a real writer, and my own delusions of adequacy fade. Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” is one of those stories. 

Reading this story has sometimes been part of our Christmas tradition. My brother used to read it aloud on Christmas Eve, at the request of my father and stepmother. Many years later, when our son was young, I think I forced it on my family a couple times. It never caught on. But I’ve always found the story, and Capote’s telling of it, powerful:

 It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather!”

The story portrays the relationship during the Great Depression between the writer, when he was 7 years old, and his elderly relative. Every Christmas the two of them made fruitcakes together and sent them to deserving people around the world, from President Roosevelt and a Baptist missionary couple in Borneo, to the knife grinder who came through town once a year and Mr. Haha Jones, the Indian bootlegger who provided the whiskey for the cakes.

Several aspects of the story have always struck me. One is the contrast between how they celebrated Christmas in 1931, and how we celebrate it today. I’m not talking about the clichéd “true spirit” of Christmas vs. today’s commercialism. I’m talking about what it means to give when you don’t have very much to give. And the real value of a simple gift like a fruitcake. Or a kite.

It’s also a story of two kindred spirits – one is 7, the other is late in her life – who were, and always will be, each other’s best friend forever.

If you’ve never read “A Christmas Memory,” this is my first Christmas gift to you: https://faculty.weber.edu/jyoung/English%206710/A%20Christmas%20Memory.pdf

My second gift is a musical one. Christmas music has always been an important part of my Christmas. The musical high point of my season happens on Christmas Eve morning with the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” broadcast live from Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, England. I’ve listened to this broadcast every year for probably 40 years. When I was single, this annual broadcast was the highlight of my Christmas season.

Because it’s not televised, I have to imagine what the congregants are seeing.

It’s 4:00 in the afternoon in Cambridge, almost dark outside as people file in, take their seats, and wait to hear the small, single voice singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City.” When that happens, the service – introduced in 1918 and first broadcast in 1928 – has begun.

There’s a story about that opening solo. It’s sung by a member of the Boys Choir of Kings College. And because there is so much pressure on that soloist – imagine a 10-year-old knowing he’s going to sing to millions of people around the world – the choirmaster waits until the last moment to communicate which voice he has chosen for the solo. He does this by tapping the boy on the shoulder at the last second.

I don’t know if that story is truth or legend. I choose to believe it’s true. It makes the opening verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” more dramatic.

Most of the music and the Biblical readings are the same each year, except for the one piece of new music commissioned every year. The Biblical readings trace a story that begins in the Garden of Eden, progresses through the words of the prophets, and culminates with the birth of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels.

I find it interesting that I’m so captivated by the whole service – the music and the readings – even though I’m not a religious old guy.

The live broadcast of “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” will be carried on Christmas Eve at 9:00 am on WFMT/98.7 in Chicago, and on KWMU/90.7 in St. Louis.

I recently discovered a full-length video of this service on You Tube. This is my second Christmas gift to you (skip the commercial at the beginning):


Carole and I are looking forward to having our son and figlia-in-law with us for the holidays. We hope all of you have a joyous Christmas, full of fruitcake and music.

8 thoughts on “26. Two Christmas gifts: fruitcake & music

  1. Enjoyed your sharing these Christmas delights. I do need to reread Capote’s story! Thanks for bringing it to mind. We often enjoy that King’s College presentation but we somehow missed it this year! Have a healthy & blessed new year. GM

  2. Thanks for sharing these Lar – I had read the bittersweet Capote one….but did so tonight whilst listening to the Kings College service – now 23 minutes into Christmas.. Lovely!

  3. A great story and a fine musical service. Together they capture what Christmas is all about. Thanks for the gifts.

  4. Thanks, Larry. I enjoy Capote and the choir. Fruit cake…not so much. I’ll be listening tomorrow morning. Merry Christmas, Tom

  5. I will be tuning in Christmas Eve morning. Merriest of Christmases to the Mitcheners.

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