Merry Christmas, everybody! I say this upfront because it’s Christmas Eve, and also to gently chide those who a few years ago were shouting that our ostensibly Muslim president had forbidden the use of “Merry Christmas,” and we were all required to say “Season’s Greetings” instead. (Donald Trump still believes it.) But “Merry Christmas” is with us yet and, like Tiny Tim, is here to stay.
We’ve always loved Christmas, though with our four children swooping around the world like Santa’s reindeer, it’s hard to organize it from one year to another. As we awaited this year’s clarifications, we held long Dickensian discussions of Christmases Past. We’ve hung stockings in faraway places like Neuchâtel and Warsaw, in American cities like Washington DC and St. Paul, twice in Hawaii (last year with family in Kailua, and in 1993 just the two of us wandering lost on Lanai Island). But, in the spirit of “A Christmas Carol,” our most memorable celebration was in 1992 in London.
During that fall we were living with 18 students in the heart of Bloomsbury. The semester was over by mid-December, and slowly our students left us and flew back home; and slowly, in turn, our children began to arrive. A perk of teaching at Gower Street was that we could remain after the students left, enjoying London until the next batch, with their new professor, arrived in early January.
London is illuminated during the holidays: Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, the giant ferris wheel called the Eye of London, and St. Paul’s Cathedral shimmer in light. We tried to imagine being in St. Paul’s when John Donne was preaching: “No man is an island, entire of itself…” We went to plays around Leicester Square, took long walks through the parks, and listened to remarkable, not always rational, debates on soap boxes at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park — much wittier than our recent TV political polemics. And out of many, our favorite pub was the Dove: We decided to have Christmas dinner there.
The Dove Pub is pretty perfect as pubs go — even getting there’s romantic. From Goodge Street we’d take the tube to its last stop in East London. We’d walk over the Thames River on the old iron and stone Hammersmith Bridge; on the right as we got off was the Riverside Theatre, where we once sat behind John Gielgud watching John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. To the left is a cluster of old buildings that include the famous designer and printer William Morris’s house, and the Dove Pub, an ancient Georgian structure on the water.
To get there, you have to walk through a narrow cobblestone alley (the Morris house is on the right). The pub’s door leads to a small bar, its walls covered by photos of the literary and political history of London; on the right is another door leading into “the smallest barroom in England.” There’s a larger dining room with a big fireplace and windows looking out at the boats sculling along the Thames.
At Christmas, we sat by the fire as the turkey and salmon and crisp potatoes and salad and pudding with its brandy butter rolled out, accompanied by Fuller’s Ale, wines, port, and eventually brandies. We could see why the poet James Thomson wrote “Rule Britannia” here; toward the end of the evening, we were sure we saw Charles Dickens at another table. The Dove reeked of tradition, and our own tradition of Christmas slipped happily into it.
—Both quotes from “The Gift of the Magi” by Peter Meinke, in Liquid Paper: New & Selected Poems (U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1991)