In our 21 years of marriage, we’ve had Christmas celebrations in at least eight different houses, with groups as small as the two of us and as large as the thirteen who are gathered this year in my parents’ warm house. Sometimes there’s roast beef, but there’s also been turkey or roast pork. My mother has been known to light a Christmas pudding to spectacular effect; other years I’ve made a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry sauce. Some years are all about the kids — the year my brand-new nephew was in the hospital with pneumonia was a particularly striking example of that. Other years — well, scratch that: every Christmas is all about the kids.
Because as much as every Christmas is different, they are also all the same. Even if we don’t put one up ourselves, we know there will be a tree; there will be gifts and food and at least one squabble somewhere in there with all the pleasure. And, in my family, there will be books.
I love knowing that there will be books. I love knowing that things will be the same, in fact, even as they are different. My kids do as well — they remind us of the traditions we forget (or perhaps hadn’t known were traditions, such as a particular coffee cake I made one year and have made every year since). There is a certain reassurance in the likeness of one Christmas to another. Since this year we celebrated Christmas in my parents’ house, I brought the stockings we always hang and the recipes that we always make, doing what I can to provide comfort and familiarity. But of course we’re comfortable here anyway, in a house we’ve spent as many Christmases in as our own. Our alternating pattern — one Christmas here, one at home — has become its own ritual.
I’ve never lived in this house — my parents built it while I was in college and moved here when they retired. But they brought with them many of my favorite books from childhood, and I’ve been able to share them with my children here. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of one of my favorites, The Wind in the Willows a book my kids and I come back to over and over, just as we come back to this family home. Kenneth Grahame’s Edwardian masterpiece is a tough sell for some kids: the language is ornate in places, the sentences long, the story digressive. When the focus shifts away from Toad, the eternal toddler, whose adventures proceed breathlessly from cart to car to train, some children’s attention flags. Some days mine does, too. The central characters, though, are Mole and his friend the Water Rat. Mole sets the story in motion by leaving home one morning in spring, finding himself drawn to adventure despite his stay-at-home nature. The Water Rat obliges him, taking him out on the river their first day together. Mole confesses to Rat:
“Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”
“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed. “Never been in a — you never — well, I — what have you been doing, then?”
Rat shares his life with Mole, introducing him to the river, and to the best picnic in literature; to his friends Toad and Badger, and to the Wild Wood. Months into their adventuring, though, Mole is stricken with homesickness; it is Christmas time when he finds his little hole again, and the Rat offers him the greatest gift a friend can give: he gives him back his tradition. While Mole stands around lamenting that there’s no food in the cupboard, Rat makes dinner, inviting in the carolers who’ve clustered at the windows and sending one of them off for more supplies. He allows Mole to play the host, as he has in the past, and Mole feels once again at home for the first time in months. While he’s enjoyed his adventure, the smell and taste and feel of home suffuse him with comfort and joy of a sort he had forgotten he missed. The scene is lovely for the way it reminds us, as Grahame says, of “the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence . . . this place which was all his own.”
It’s no accident that the scene takes place at Christmas. The little mice who come to sing carols sit around the table, and “As they ate, they talked of old times, and . . . gave him the local gossip up to date,” just as we’ll catch up on family stories over our Christmas week. As we go through the ritual motions of the season, we remember the ones past, and relive them at the same time that we make the new memories.
The Wind in the Willows is full of scenes like this; it alternates the celebrations of the new with the pleasures of the familiar. Toad, who greets each new experience with a rapture born out of forgetfulness of the past, and Badger, who can’t abide change, represent the poles between which most of the action takes place; Mole and Rat oscillate constantly between them. In a later episode, “Wayfarers All,” Mole returns the favor Rat does him at Christmas. Rat has encountered migrating birds, and following them a Sea Rat, who tempts him with stories of travel to far-off lands. The Sea Rat’s tale is incantatory: it “conduct[s] his simple hearer from port to port of Spain, landing him at Lisbon, Oporto, and Bordeaux, introducing him to the pleasant harbours of Cornwall and Devon, and so up the Channel to that final quayside where, landing after winds long contrary, storm-driven and weather-beaten, he had caught the first magical hints and heraldings of another Spring . . . ” The Water Rat, hypnotized by the promise of the new, gathers his things together to follow the Sea Rat; only his friend Mole can turn him back. In part, he does so by reminding him of the return of the seasons — of the familiar things that the Water Rat loves: “the harvest that was being gathered in, the towing wagons and their straining teams, the growing ricks, and the large moon rising over bare acres dotted with sheaves.” The cure works.
The Wind in the Willows feels, at times, like a kind of elegy. The novel is suffused with a sense of nostalgia for a past quickly receding, about to be lost to all but memory. The cars that Toad adores were altering Grahame’s countryside forever, and few of us now welcome carolers into our houses. Yet I go back to the novel as I do to my family’s home — a home I never lived in, but that represents tradition and stability nonetheless — as a way of grounding myself, marking the continuity between the self that first read the book and the self that shares it now, just as Christmases and other holidays mark the same kind of continuity for us all.