Monday, December 2, 2013

O, Little Town of Bethlehem, NH

Edward Burne-Jones, Star of Bethlehem

     Some of us -- and you know who you are --struggle to get into the spirit of the holiday season. No need to name names. But believe me, you have plenty of company.
     For many, the ghosts of holidays past are too much with us, as Dickens might suggest; so perhaps is Wordsworth’s world of “getting and spending,” as we race from Black Friday to the finish line under the lavishly decorated tree (though Camille Paglia, in her book Break Blow Burn, puts a new spin on explicating that oft-quoted phrase from the famous poem; suffice it to say the early Romantics were, well, romantic). 
     We cringe to recall the hard work and expense poured into celebratory meals gone utterly amok.  The guests who wander in ninety minutes late; the one-upmanship over cranberry relish recipes; the finicky eater who won’t touch the entrée or six of the seven elaborate side dishes.
     I’m thinking of the mother of a friend who, in a fit of despair or exasperation, threw the blasted turkey out the kitchen window, which one would assume put something of a crimp in the family gathering.  I’ve pulled a few slightly bloody carcasses out of the oven myself -- the still-frozen underbellies of overstuffed birds simply refusing to roast. Then there was a leg-pulling over a spiral cut ham that sent a sensitive relative to another room in tears. Yes, that was a fabulous holiday indeed.
     Some of us, missing those no longer at the table, can’t help but feel a little sadness creep in this time of year. Or, in the fever pitch of shopping and planning and partying, we find ourselves so overwhelmed that when the day itself arrives, we’re physically and emotionally spent. Occasionally, I’ve wanted to greet guests at the door with, “Here’s your turkey sandwich. Have a safe journey home.”
     It helps to hold in mind why we’re gathering together in the first place, often from afar, and to consider that legendary journey long ago, a difficult one, as T.S. Eliot described it in his Ariel poem, Journey of the Magi:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey;
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

     Soon we will come into winter with its weather “sharp.” We know what the Magi sought, however in Eliot’s poem, simple joy is not to be found in Bethlehem: the birth of the Savior summons in the death of the old order.  So it is with all that’s new and unfamiliar. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded that it’s frequently a tough, hard road to a desired destination, and that even mixed blessings are blessings still.
     Now it’s December. Time to catch our breath on the fast track to celebrations both sacred and secular. By seeking out a bit of tangible proof that joy exists not merely in myth, we are better able to reach the end of the holidays with our spirits lifted, not simply with the satisfaction of having lived through them for another year.  To that end, I took myself on a journey recently to our own Bethlehem, close by and with an easy highway that needs no sure-footed camel to traverse.

Bethlehem NH, 1907

      Bethlehem was first known as Lloyd’s Hill, but according to the official town website, voters resolved to change the name after the revolution, apparently to break from loyalist’s roots. Less than 3000 people live in Bethlehem proper, which in the Gilded Age became a resort for the rich and powerful, luring profiteers and presidents alike.  In the 1920s, it was the headquarters of the Hebrew Hay Fever Relief Association, as many Jewish families from New York vacationed or decided to reside in Bethlehem, finding the clear mountain air alleviated their symptoms.
     Bethlehem is quieter now, though stately old homes of more ostentatious times stand guard along the main street as you drive into the village, where shops, antique stores, and eateries await. On a recent Saturday morning, patrons walking the streets were few; a restaurant I had hoped to visit was closed. A sign in the window, illustrated with a photo of a bear, indicated that the establishment was in ‘hibernation’ until early December.  Business hours on another shop were described this way:

OPEN most days about 9 or 10
Occasionally as Early as 7, But SOME DAYS
As Late As 12 or 1.
WE CLOSE About 5:30 or 6
Sometimes as Late as 11 or 12.
SOME DAYS OR Afternoons, WE
Aren’t Here At All, and Lately
I’ve Been Here Just About All the Time,
Except When I’m Someplace Else,
But I Should Be Here Then, Too.

     At any rate, I found that business and others were open and well worth the trip.  Two antique shops satisfied my passion for searching out beautiful things at bargain prices. Ragamuffins Design offered select antiques and gently used books and clothing, along with oriental rugs, batik scarves, and hand crafted ornaments and greeting cards.  In Country Collectibles, I examined at length lovely platters, glassware, and ornate silver-plated tableware and serving pieces. From this store I came away with a delicate glass-domed plate – the perfect showcase for iced and decorated Christmas cookies.

Country Collectibles

     If you visit Bethlehem, you’ll have to stop at Local Works Marketplace, the gallery of handcrafted items and specialty foodstuffs from the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network.  One room is devoted to wines, cheeses, and row upon row of small batch local preserves and condiments.  WREN members fill the store with gorgeous jewelry; healthy dog treats and cool canine supplies; pottery and original paintings; unusual cards and prints; and fragrant soaps and balms. Here I found a skein of hand-dyed wool for a friend, a great gift for someone unlikely to have sought it out for herself.

Local Works, WREN Gallery

     After a few hours of gratifying hunting and gathering, I enjoyed a stunningly good lunch of spinach-artichoke heart quiche and a bowl of tomato-roasted pepper soup at Maia Papaya, a small café next door to the post office, where some 50,000 seasonal cards are postmarked each year.  There’s still time.
    On Saturday, December 7th, the town will host the annual Christmas In Bethlehem celebration, which kicks off with the Methodist Church Bazaar and Santa’s Workshop for younger children; a cornhole tournament for those nine and up; a tour of Dawn Cottage; and a late afternoon spaghetti supper. Main Street will close at 6 p.m. for all sorts of festive entertainment, including bell ringers; several tree lightings (arrive earlier in the day and cut down your own tree at The Rocks Estate); tractor rides; the arrival of Santa himself; fireworks; and even a giant bonfire, which might warm the heart of those among us of more pagan sympathies. 
     In our own backyard, you’ll find a day of merriment and light, and of simple joys, enough to brighten the disposition of even the weariest traveler on the long holiday journey, and a reminder to be grateful for the abundance and blessings so close at hand. In Bethlehem, New Hampshire.

Some of the local libations available at Local Works.

This column appears in the December 2013 issue of The North Star Monthly. Check out their site.

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