Eugenia Wynne, Edmund Wilson, Eugene O'Neill—extracts from memoirs and diariesby Ian Irvine / December 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
25th December, 1796:
Eugenia Wynne, aged 17, living in Corsica, writes in her journal:
“When I woke, my eyes instead of being pleasantly struck by the welcome rays of a brilliant sun, were obliged to employ all their power in order to see through the gloom of the clouds that surrounded and threatened with a deluge of rain. I went to church with a sad heart for I was sadly afraid to miss the Ball. On our return from Church the Vicar made me as mad as possible in pretending that we should give up the ball, and make a sacrifice of it etc. and God knows what stuff. I made no answer, but thought, my friend, if instead of that black robe you had a petticoat on, if instead of the weight of 50 years you had only 17, you would not speak so.”
25th December, 1955
Edmund Wilson, critic, at his house in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, writes in his journal:
“Elena [his wife] made gingerbread cookies like a maniac—perhaps as a substitute for candy. They were supposed to be for the tree—cut up into shapes of men, angels, stars and chickens—but the first batch was eaten so quickly that she made another and another, each somewhat different from the others—more or less crisp and spicy, or rich in a vanilla way. They were garnished with little gobs of jelly or decorated silver balls or crumbs of coloured sugar—the men had raisins for eyes, the angels little white frills— but we went on eating them just the same. One day—during the terrible cold spell, when there were only a few rooms we could live in—Helen [his daughter] said, as she was leaving for school: ‘I want to come back to a warm house, permeated with the smell of cookies.’”
25th December, 1773
James Woodforde, sub-warden of New College, Oxford, writes in his journal:
“I dined in the Hall, and there were fourteen senior fellows with me. I invited the Warden to dine with us as is usual on this day, but his sister being here, he could not. We had a very handsome dinner of my ordering, as I order dinner here every day being Sub-Warden.
“We had for dinner two fine cods boiled, with fried soles round them, and oyster sauce, a fine sirloin of beef roasted, some pease soup and an orange pudding, for the first course; for the second we had a lease of wild ducks roasted, a fore-quarter of lamb, and salad, and mince pies. After the second course there was a fine plum cake brought to the senior table as is usual on this day. We dined at three o’clock and were an hour and a half at it.
“We had rabbits for supper roasted. The Sub-Warden has one to himself; the bursars each one apiece; the senior fellows half a one each. The junior fellows a rabbit between three. NB Put on this day a new coat and waistcoat for the first time.”
25th December, 1953
Barbara Skelton (Mrs Cyril Connolly) writes in her diary:
“Woken in the morning by a Church Army band outside the window playing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Arrive at the Flemings [in Sussex] in good time for lunch. A large gathering of three generations. Ann Fleming’s father and step-mother. Ann’s daughter, Fionn. And, in Ann’s words, ‘I can’t imagine a Christmas without Peter.’ Mr Quennell in person and a rather nice blokey friend of Ian’s—best, best friend apparently.
“Since doing the Atticus column [in the Sunday Times], Ian seems to have become a very dried-up and red-veined plain family man. Has lost any semblance of glamour or good looks, a bottle-necked figure with a large bum. Very bad manners—by that I mean a heap of something is plonked on one’s plate so that it trickles over the side. Atmosphere hearty. We are offered a Bloody Mary. Cyril holds forth on our previous evening, making it sound funny, but not coming out of it in such a good light as he thinks.
“We had been told about their wonderful new pair of cooks. A rancid stuffing with the turkey, bottled chipolatas and another brown sauce with bits of turkey liver floating in it. The Christmas pudding was good, but the brandy butter was made with sham cream.
“Then, after tea, present giving. The Awkward Age from Peter, a Henry James he gave me ten years ago, although I didn’t tell him so. From Ian some sexy black pants with black lace and a hideous beige galoshes bag. And then, because Cyril had previously said to Ann, ‘I wonder how Peter will find a solution between meanness and avoiding to appear so’, he gave me an extra present of some bath essence. We gave Ian a bottle of Taittinger Blanc de Blancs which he had mentioned in his book [the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, published earlier that year] without ever having drunk any. Ann was given an eighteenth-century Wedgwood pate dish which I would have liked to keep myself.
“We left at six and broke down on the hill—out of petrol. We both got out of the car and walked off in separate directions, me talking a short cut so that I reached the garage first. I cried all the way driving to Eric Wood. Felt everything was miserable.”
25th December, 1657
John Evelyn, gentleman, author and Royalist, writes in his diary about Christmas under the Puritan Commonwealth:
“I went to London with my wife to celebrate Christmas-day, Mr Gunning preaching in Exeter Chapel. As he was giving us the Holy Sacrament, the chapel was surrounded with soldiers… and [we were] kept prisoners by them.
“In the afternoon came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others from Whitehall to examine us one by one. I told them we did not pray for Charles Stuart, but for all Christian kings, princes, and governors. They replied, in so doing we prayed for the King of Spain, too, who was their enemy and a Papist.
“As we went up to receive the Sacrament, the miscreants held their muskets against us, as if they would have shot us at the altar, but yet suffering us to finish the office of Communion, as perhaps not having instructions what to do in case they found us in that action.”
25th December, 1909
Eugene O’Neill, playwright, then aged 21, writes to his parents from Honduras:
“Merry Christmas! For you I hope it may be merry but speaking for myself it is the most dismal and depressing day I have ever passed. I have been sick with fever and an acute bilious attack caused by the rotten food, vilely cooked, that we have to put up with.
“Since 11th November when we left Tegucigalpa we have had absolutely no butter, bread but three or four times and milk about the same number. Nothing but beans – and lots of times we cannot even get them—fried, rice, fried, salt dried meat, fried (much tougher than leather) with sometimes an egg or two thrown in. But eggs are very scarce. We always get tortillas—a heavy soggy imitation of a pancake made of corn enough to poison the stomach of an ostrich. This is the limit of your bill of fare—breakfast, dinner and supper, day after day, week after week. The fleas are fierce and I have never been free from bites one day since I arrived in this country. You have probably read of the Revolution down here. Do not worry about it as they are of the comic opera variety and they only affect Americans in that they delay the mail. I only received your letter of 31st October two days ago.
“PS Menu for Christmas Dinner: beans, tortillas, one egg. Tea made with lemon leaves.”