Christmas Eve, 2021
Dear Frenchly Readers,
It is Christmas Eve. If you celebrate, you may have spent the day wrapping gifts and cooking, putting the last ornament on your tree. Maybe tonight is your big night, your réveillon, and you will eat off your loveliest plates, with bougies twinkling and you will make merry until the wee hours of the morning. If you don’t celebrate, I hope that you are enjoying the quiet that descends when a lot of the world is focused on something else–and in this case, not a disaster. Maybe you have gone for a lovely walk, made a quiche just perfect for one, or read a good book today. I like to think of the animals on Christmas; how the pause in our noisy, messy, human activity restores a moment of sanity and allows for an expansive feeling of safety. I do believe that whenever we think of the animals, curb our humanness just a little, we right an imbalance in the universe. For this kindness, our own hearts, in turn, get filled.
In my house, by the time you read this, we will be sitting down to a fish stew, or bouillabaisse, that I make every year and top with a lovely, pungent rouille and a crispy crouton. The recipe started with Fannie Farmer but is now my own, as I’ve added all kinds of extra things like lemon and butter and cilantro and extra fresh tomato—so I can’t share it easily here, but I can tell you that it is wonderful. After we eat our stew I will read Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales while we eat Christmas toffee and clementines by flickering candlelight. Our children will take one last look at the Santa Tracker and then, finally, they will go to bed. Hopefully they will stay there.
Dan and I will have a long night ahead of us of dishes and tidying and wrapping gifts. In our house we like to focus on the beauty and magic of Christmas, not the abundance. Even so, despite our wishes that every year we might start wrapping earlier, we are up late and there’s always a moment of “Oh my God, if I have to wrap one more gift I will cry until Doomsday!” My friend Molly told me about one year she was so tired Christmas Eve that she ended up shoving gifts under the couch and behind the plants. She had had it!
For this long night ahead, I am offering you, my readers, a short pause from your wrapping and cleaning and magic-making. This is one of my favorite pieces of writing in the whole world. It’s by the French poet, Baudelaire, and it’s called “Les Fenêtres,” or “Windows.” You will find it below and in his collection of prose poèmes, Le Spleen de Paris. As many of you already know, Bauldelaire suffered from poor health and was often housebound. I love this poem because it makes me think of the empathy we must all cultivate for other beings on our delicate planet and how the best Christmas stories teach us just that.
So tonight, with Baudelaire in mind, I imagine a beneficent spirit sailing past your windows and checking on you all. I imagine it reveling in the light on your children’s faces, a grandmother’s relieved smile when her son-in-law has brought her a small glass of sherry. I imagine this spirit hovering for an extra moment when it sees tears or an argument, because, of course, Christmas is full of pressure and heartbreak and loss, too. This spirit stays with you until the sadness passes and then it presses on into the deep, impenetrable darkness.
Celui qui regarde du dehors à travers une fenêtre ouverte, ne voit jamais autant de choses que celui qui regarde une fenêtre fermée. Il n’est pas d’objet plus profond, plus mystérieux, plus fécond, plus ténébreux, plus éblouissant qu’une fenêtre éclairée d’une chandelle. Ce qu’on peut voir au soleil est toujours moins intéressant que ce qui se passe derrière une vitre. Dans ce trou noir ou lumineux vit la vie, rêve la vie, souffre la vie.
Par delà des vagues de toits, j’aperçois une femme mûre, ridée déjà, pauvre, toujours penchée sur quelque chose, et qui ne sort jamais. Avec son visage, avec son vêtement, avec son geste, avec presque rien, j’ai refait l’histoire de cette femme, ou plutôt sa légende, et quelquefois je me la raconte à moi-même en pleurant.
Si c’eût été un pauvre vieux homme, j’aurais refait la sienne tout aussi aisément.
Et je me couche, fier d’avoir vécu et souffert dans d’autres que moi-même.
Peut-être me direz-vous : « Es-tu sûr que cette légende soit la vraie ? » Qu’importe ce que peut être la réalité placée hors de moi, si elle m’a aidé à vivre, à sentir que je suis et ce que je suis?
He who looks out at the world from an open window never sees as many things as he who looks at a closed window. There is nothing deeper, more mysterious, more fruitful, more shadowy, or more dazzling than a window lit by a candle. What we can see in daylight is always less interesting than what happens behind a windowpane. Deep in that dark or luminous aperture, life lives, life dreams, life suffers.
Beyond the waves of rooftops, I glimpse a middle-aged woman, already wrinkled, poor; she is always bent over something, and never goes out. From her face, from her clothing, from her gestures, from almost nothing, I have remade this woman’s past, or rather, her story, which I tell myself from time to time in tears.
If it had been a poor, old man, I would have remade his story just as easily.
And then I go to sleep, proud of having lived and suffered as people other than myself.
You might ask me: “Are you sure that this story is the real one?” What does it matter what reality dwells outside of me, if the story helps me live, helps me feel that I am and what I am?