The snow seems so utterly appropriate today…
As Christmas Eve arrives, I remember that this festive time of the year is connected emotionally for me with Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps not for the reasons one might suspect. Yes, there is “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” with its seasonal setting (December 27, for the uninitiated) and even seasonal themes (not the robbery part, but the forgiveness element). But that story came later than my original tying of the great detective to Christmas.
When I was a child, we seemed always to make great journeys for Christmas, visiting both my maternal grandmother and my fatherʼs folks over the break (since my dad was a teacher, as I have reported before, we enjoyed the ten days to two weeks off that education provides). Both sets of grandparents lived in Iowa, about two or three hours apart originally (later my Grandma Fischel moved to Traer, where she died, a location that put the two sides a little closer for travel purposes). And, as I remember things, we always, invariably, tediously for me, had to be at both households over the holidays. Sometimes actual Christmas arrived at my momʼs motherʼs, sometimes at my paternal grandparents (and even sometimes the holiday was at “home,” then we would get on the road to Iowa). The problem was that we werenʼt living in Iowa for much of my remembered childhood, not returning to this state until my sophomore year in high school (the big move to Mt. Pleasant), so our family had some long drives to get away from home for the holidays.
I told about those drives for Thanksgiving. The pilgrimages at Christmastime were simply snowier, on worse roads, freezing even colder in the back of my dadʼs car. (I am, by the way, certain that my attitudes as a child made those drives just as unpleasant for my siblings and parents. Apologies at last.) It seems like it was always either dark or snowing to me now, although I know better — just one or two events remaining as the only relics of those visits.
My Burrow grandparents lived in an old farmhouse, later a new ranch farmhouse, across the road from my Uncle Bill and his family, who had taken over running the farm. I dimly recall the old farmhouse, which by the way had no running water (meaning we used an outhouse), but the new home is the realm of most of my memories. They had old-fashioned bubble lights on their Christmas tree, which some of my siblings still think is the only kind to have (although I do remember hearing those were about as dangerous as any kind of tree illumination). The whole clan, four big families, would gather at that place for Christmas Eve when my grandmother would make her notorious oyster stew (notorious among us younger cousins who didnʼt like the slimy oysters), and in hilariously overcrowded conditions we would eat, us kids usually being discharged to the basement, which was fine with us as we had developed many games to play down there, including one involving the clothes chute (a novelty, I believe, to all of us, something found only there, at the grandparentsʼ house). Presents were on a draw-a-name system, at least by the time I got old enough to understand, so we didnʼt have too many gifts awaiting us at this celebration, but it was still great fun.
And you probably expect me to say I got a Sherlock Holmes book for Christmas one year. But I didnʼt. Well, I didnʼt back then…
However, it was at my grandparentsʼ home, perhaps not even at Christmastime, that I first read one of the tales. It was in a book of stories for children that the old folks owned, probably just for us grandchildren, and sometime between about fifth and seventh grade I devoured whatever was in that book, including the excitement of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” That story was my introduction to Arthur Conan Doyle, a pleasure I have never outgrown.
That wasnʼt my first encounter with Holmes, however. One summer at Spartan Village, when my dad was getting his masters, or some further training, through Michigan State University, I think as part of some other kidʼs birthday celebration/party, many of the boys and girls in our area went to the movie theater to see the Peter Cushing Hound of the Baskervilles. It mesmerized and terrorized me, and I know I had dreadfully, delightfully technicolor dreams for weeks after involving the scenes and settings from that movie. (I am pretty sure that reading the other story came later.)
In Mt. Pleasant, at the public library I found the Christopher Morley one-volume edition of all 56 stories and the four novels (which Janet kindly gave me for Christmas many years later and many years ago, 1986) in which I first read all the stories, particularly The Valley of Fear. I believe I was reading that book while waiting for the dentist at least once. (I actually have the feeling I was reading Holmes while in a dental waiting room one time in Michigan, earlier, as well.)
My Sherlockian enthusiasm was rekindled in my adult life, me having given way to more literary reading in my late college and early teaching years, by acquiring the two volumes of Baring-Gouldʼs Annotated edition about 1979 or ʼ80 (by mail from Barnes & Noble, only a mail-order catalog house in those days, or Scholarʼs Bookshelf, from which I also acquired a complete Arden Shakespeare and a complete Shelley), once I was in Jackson County and living in the apartment on Matteson Street. I really enjoyed his quirky notes and the game of pretending the characters were real (the Irregular practice of which I had previously been innocent). I also got aroused by his rearrangement of the stories in his own chronology, which gave many of them a freshness, out of order.
As a teacher at Andrew Community School, I eventually incorporated Holmes into the curriculum, once I realized that I was instructing kids who had never read any of the stories. An old textbook had “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” in it, and because it was usually late December when we would read some Doyle (either before or after Dickensʼs A Christmas Carol, perhaps my first favorite piece of literature), I also included “The Blue Carbuncle.” Over the decade or so that we included Holmes in Advanced English, I acquired some old videotapes of the Jeremy Brett series, particularly, although not a favorite story for me, “The Resident Patient.” I hope the students enjoyed that unit; I meant for them to. They should. The tales are pure storytelling, done pretty well, and Sherlock Holmes is, like Tarzan, one of the few literary figures mythically larger than the literary oeuvre in which he actually resides.
I have lots to say on Holmes, but I have wildly exceeded my thousand words, and perhaps a genuinely literary post isnʼt the thing for Christmas Eve. Later will do fine. I will conclude merely by adding that the current updated Sherlock on PBS (from Britain) gets it very right and works well. Robert Downy Jr. wasnʼt bad at all, either.
* Weʼre supposedly getting up to seven inches of snow overnight and today.
©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A