Allow me to begin with a small advertisement for a local event. On Saturday afternoon, December 16, in the Fog Bar on Main Street in Rockland, they will be performing Handel’s “Messiah,” just as we did in Portland at the bar Port City Blue last Saturday. The 3rd Annual “Barroom Messiah” begins with practice at 2:30; I highly recommend it.

Joining random restaurant patrons in singing “Messiah” while holding a glass of local brew will hopefully become an annual holiday celebration. My husband does not choose to sing but he enjoys the music, and the cider, and our daughter and I hope to do this every year (“until we learn it!”). I’d suggest the event reflects just the right attitude toward both classical music and beer. Besides, community sing-alongs are among my favorite parts of Christmas. If you think the Messiah belongs in a church, you may be mistaken.

Not every holiday custom makes quite as much sense, however.

Sometime back in the past, its origins lost in the mists of time, a custom began around a table in South Thomaston in which a round-robin read-aloud of Edgar Allan Poe’s morose and laudanum-infused poem “The Raven” became an annual part of the December celebration. If you were visiting that night, particularly in the early days, participation was not optional.

After a few years I fired back by composing a satire of the whole thing, entitled (of course) “The Craven,” which included such literary gems as:

“Just what is this kind nepenthe? Naphtha,

Bathtub bourbon, or some solvent used to strip a floor?

You get it in the hardware store…”



I thought our well-oiled recitation of “The Raven” was about the strangest tradition around here, until I heard that our daughter’s boyfriend’s relatives always watch “Die Hard” movies on Christmas Day. (They also play Night Croquet with balls that have been soaked in kerosene and set on fire, so they do sound like good people to know.)

My husband’s family has a long tradition of the useful-items Christmas stocking, in which the recipient slowly, ceremoniously withdraws each item with great acclaim — to wit: “Ah, wonderful! What lovely contact lens cleaning solution! Just what I wanted! Oh, wow, thank you, paper clips! I needed paper clips! Such nice soap! None finer!”— until, eventually, the happy recipient reaches the toe of the stocking, where a single gift, more meaningful and valuable, is tucked.





Since the advent of the big-box discount warehouse bulk-package store, and of online shopping, everything seems to come in huge packages now, making the “stocking” actually a rather substantial parcel. “And thank you for the lovely gross of toothbrushes!” Underwear was always included in this assortment of domestic practicalities, a custom that began when the original recipients were all small children but which was somehow never outgrown. The relatives charged with making the useful purchases want to get the right things as recipients grow up and become more discerning in their toiletries, so these days the family requests a list of your preferred toothpaste, shampoo, office supplies and such. This has developed into the awkward question of whether or not you want to describe to your in-laws, or your grandmother, your particular preference in underwear.

Lots of families have some Special Object, something patently ridiculous which is shunted around to unwitting suspects, who are then stuck with the family Thing until they can figure out a way to foist it off onto some other sucker, who usually has to be tricked, else they see it coming and spoil the effect. We have a “Farm Friend.” I will leave it at that. The “Farm Friend” has been lugged to several foreign countries for mailing back here, has been disguised in refined packaging, and has been circulating for roughly 30 years. I’m not even sure who has it right now. Uh oh.…

My sister-in-law has taken to the yard sales in recent summers, as they are plentiful and reliable in her part of Maine, and she squirrels away the more humorous finds until this time of year. Along with the Wedgwood, a game of shot-glass chess, a hundred carpenter’s pencils, multiple copies of the Transistor, Thyristor and Diode Manual, and several items we still have no idea what they are have been lovingly wrapped and ribboned. I usually get a monkey wrench or two each year. I am not kidding.

I hope to belt out my rock-bottom alto parts of “Messiah” in a barroom for many Decembers to come, and it is with pride that I admit to a genuine monkey wrench collection now, and I’ll take my chances with the underwear and the Farm Friend. I don’t remember much about “Die Hard,” “but what the heck. As for Edgar Allan Poe, as it says in The Craven,” “… He shoulda stayed in Baltimore....”