About this time of year I start to think of gardening. I look out at my snow-covered window boxes and imagine them filled with geraniums, petunias, and thousand-bells.
I see my brick steps covered by the latest snowfall and remember the year I filled terra cotta pots with flowers in purple, rose, and blue, one pot for each step, and how happy they made me every time I left or returned home. I look at my little patch of New York City garden, and wonder which annuals I will plant this year, how many I can squeeze in next to the perennials.
My novel The Garden House is set in Seattle, which has a nearly year-long growing season. In such a place, gardeners — such as the book’s main character, Miranda — would already be planting potted flowers and enjoying early blooms.
Potting sheds and garden rooms would be hubs of activity, crowded with tools and pots and packets of seeds, alongside open bags of potting soil and well-used gardening gloves.
However, for those of us still in the heart of snowy winter, a little armchair gardening is just thing to weather the cold.
I used to have a tradition of reading a Dickens book every December, as part of my holiday celebration. I love the humor, empathy, and the depictions of Victorian England that Dickens wove into his stories. Though he wrote about harsh realities and the struggles of life, the overall tone is hopeful and uplifting, where love, loyalty, kindness and generosity emerge as the highest values.
Threads of Dickens runs throughout the Christmastime series. In the first book I wrote of the series, Christmastime 1940, the connection was unintentional and I didn’t see the similarities until later. The book first began as a short story (“Old Man Drooms”) that takes place in the snowy winter. However, once the tale developed into a longer story, and I moved the action to the Christmas season, the connections became quite obvious. I realized that all those years of reading and rereading Dickens had worked its way into my narrative.
For the prequel, Christmastime 1939, I made the reading of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol a part of the story. It was actually my way into the story, though it is the character of Lillian who dreads the Christmas season and can’t wait for it to be over.
In the first chapter, Lillian and her boys, Tommy and Gabriel, have returned from her sister’s house upstate where they usually celebrate Christmas. Lillian is completely unprepared for the holiday season and the boys are argumentative as they worry about how they will spend Christmas on their own.
“A tug-of-war began that Lillian feared would result in a broken kaleidoscope. She got up and took the kaleidoscope away and set it on the bookshelf.
“Why are you two so fussy tonight?”
She spotted the book that Annette had tucked into the lunch basket, just as they were leaving for the train. She had forgotten all about it, and lifted it with a sense of being rescued.
“Look here!” she said, showing them the cover. “Annette said this will put us in the Christmas spirit. Come,” she said, returning to the couch. “Let’s begin it. It will be the start of our holiday celebration. We’ll read a little bit each night. How about that?”
Gabriel was all for it and jumped onto the couch next to her. Tommy sat down on her other side and read the title. “About singing?”
“No. It’s a story about a grouchy old man who hates Christmas. I read it many years ago.” Lillian turned to the first page.
Tommy leaned over and read, “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost.” His eyes brightened and he sat up in anticipation.
Gabriel, never one for ghost stories, snuggled closer. Lillian began to read. “Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.”
I also used a touch of Dickens in Christmastime 1942. Mr. Mason indulges in the comforts of home and enjoys his holiday tradition of reading Dickens. Since one of the main themes of the book is the theater, the stage, and acting, I have Mr. Mason reading Nicholas Nickleby.
“Mason was indulging in his Christmas tradition of reading Charles Dickens. Every December he decided on a book by his favorite author. Last year he had chosen Bleak House – this year he was rereading Nicholas Nickleby. He was just settling into his book when his domestic bliss was abruptly interrupted by the whirlwind of his mother and his youngest sister, Alice, as they burst into the room.” (71)
And later in the novel,
“Mason arrived home and felt cheered by all the bustle and laughter that filled his house. This was the way he liked it, everyone busy with some Christmas activity. He would prepare himself a cup of coffee, sit in his armchair and pick up Nicholas Nickleby – read smack in the middle of it all. He chuckled inwardly, remembering where he had left off in the book, with the Infant Phenomenon.” (141)
This December, I can think of no better way to celebrate the holiday season than to curl up with a good book, and Dickens is just the thing to reaffirm our belief in the goodness of the human heart.
When it comes to baked goods, nothing quite says Christmas like gingerbread. There’s something old-fashioned and cozy about the fragrant treat. It makes a frequent appearance in my Christmastime series, especially whenever children are around.
Christmastime 1939 — at the very end of the prequel, Lillian Hapsey and her two boys, Tommy and Gabriel, attend a neighborhood Christmas party at the Rossi’s home. Lillian has baked a dessert to bring with them.
“She lifted the platter of gingerbread cake she had made the night before along with a container of caramel sauce and set them by the door.” (153)
Christmastime 1940 — the scent of baking gingerbread momentarily links Lillian and the reserved Mr. Drooms.
“That evening, Lillian began some of her holiday baking. The gingerbread loaf she had placed in the oven almost an hour ago now filled the small apartment with its spicy aroma….As Drooms passed Lillian, he caught a whiff of fresh-baked gingerbread pouring forth from her apartment. The old familiar scent flooded him with an unexpected sense of well-being, and made him feel that he could afford a little neighborliness.” (70-71)
Christmastime 1941 — The indomitable Mrs. Wilson organizes a Christmas Day spotter’s party on the roof and invites Lillian and her boys.
“I’ll be sure to bring some Christmas cookies and gingerbread,” said Lillian.
“Wonderful! And we’ll have the radio on – listening to Mr. Lionel Barrymore read ‘A Christmas Carol.’ It should be quite a day.”( 226)
And at the end of the book, Lillian uses the excuse of gingerbread to make Tommy feel better.
“Tommy was so rarely downcast, that Lillian gave him a quick squeeze to cheer him up. “How about we have our gingerbread tonight? Wil you help me with the whipped cream?”
“Sure!” said Tommy, perking up. “That’ll make Gabriel happy.” (241)
Christmastime 1942 — After work, Mr. Mason enjoys the comforts of home.
“He popped his head in the kitchen and hugged his wife as she directed the children on decorating the gingerbread house, their hands and faces smudged with white icing. Everyone was in the holiday spirit.” (211)
Christmastime 1943 — Jessica and her best friend Shirley have spent hours baking items for the town’s annual Christmas dance.
“We’ll be selling raffle tickets and if you’re lucky, you just might win my date nut bread or Sue Ellen’s famous apple strudel.”
“Or my gingerbread house,” said Jessica, joining her friend.
“Just wait’ll you see it!” said Shirley. “A gingerbread house complete with snowdrifts, a snowman, and gum-drop trees.” (189)
Christmastime 1944 — At an impromptu tree trimming party, Kate offers some holiday treats.
“Kate came to life, providing hot cider and a plate of ginger bread.” (176)
Gingerbread houses, gingerbread men, gingerbread cookies or loafs — a nice touch to add to your holiday season!
Several readers of the Christmastime series have told me that they have a special ritual for beginning the books. They get comfortable in their favorite reading chair, adjust the lighting just so — perhaps lighting a candle, or if they’re really lucky, curling up in front of a fireplace — and most importantly, they have a cup of something hot at their side to sip on while reading. Hot chocolate, a cup of tea, a fragrant cup of coffee.
So, along with a few comments from readers, I’ve gathered some images from my Pinterest boards that might inspire you to do the same. Enjoy!
“We would recommend it for anyone looking for a good book to curl up with by the fireplace.”
“This is a perfect holiday novella to read on an overcast cold and windy November or December day.”
“You will want to wrap yourself in a warm blanket with a cup of hot-buttered rum or hot chocolate as you journey your way through this story.”
“A quick, tender hearted, holiday read, Christmastime 1939 will warm your heart in all the right ways. Snuggle up next to the fire, make yourself some cocoa, and settle in.”
“This is one of those series that I will probably reread every Christmas and make it my new tradition.”
“This is a great book to kick back and read with a nice cup of tea!”
“A great…story to read as Christmas approaches! Get some hot cocoa and jump into these books!”
What is it about October that seems so well suited to the raven and all it has traditionally symbolized — thoughts of mortality, loss, longing, and loneliness. Dread, ill omen.
Is it the closing of the year, with its shorter nights and falling temperatures that force us indoors to ponder such thoughts? Is it the proximity of Halloween?
All these dark sensibilities are perfectly evoked in Edgar Allen Poe’s narrative poem, The Raven, written in 1845. Poe said the raven is meant to symbolize “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance.” Though set in “bleak December,” the poem is perfect for October and Halloween — with haunting elements of the supernatural, gripping “sorrow for the lost Lenore,” and a late night visitor “tapping at my door” uttering the unsettling refrain of “Nevermore!” Spooky.
Raven, rook, crow — there’s something authoritative about the sleek black bird. It perches high in trees and pierces the air with its call. Its sound is not the dulcet, sympathetic tones of the mourning dove, another bird associated with loss, but a more insistent and raucous “caw!” Forcing us listen to its bleak message whether we want to or not.
In honor of Edgar Allen Poe, and in celebration of this time of year, I give you the raven (all images are from Pinterest). I hope you enjoy them!
The following photographs are from my Pinterest boards. I started to collect images of the 1940s when I began writing the Christmastime series — stories that take place on the home front during World War II.
I wanted to get a sense of the times in order to better portray Lillian and her friend Izzy, and all the women in the series — women who live and work in New York City,
as well as those who run an orchard and live on a farm.
There are young mothers and career women, volunteers and performers, of all ages. And of course, there are a few images on the boards of men, to help portray the relationships in the books.
Some of the photographs on the Pinterest boards are of famous women,
others depict the not-so-average women of the day,
whose lives were turned upside down by the war. They rose to the challenge — going without, making do, and stepping into roles they never imagined for themselves.
These images helped me to tap into the spirit of the times and funnel some of the charm and energy into the characters of the Christmastime series.