‘Not Long Ago Joy Abounded at Christmas’ by Jack Kerouac

A Christmas Eve memory in this excerpt from the 1957 essay “Not Long Ago Joy Abounded at Christmas” by Jack Kerouac:

“. . . Christmas was observed all-out in my Catholic French-Canadian environment in the 1930s much as it is today in Mexico. . . .When we were old enough it was thrilling to be allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve and put on best suits and dresses and overshoes and earmuffs and walk with adults through crunching dried snow to the bell-ringing church. Parties of people laughing down the street, bright throbbing stars of New England winter bending over rooftops sometimes causing long rows of icicles to shimmer as we passed Near the church you could hear the opening choruses of Bach being sung by child choirs mingled with the grownup choirs usually led by a tenor who inspired laughter ore than anything else. But from the wide-open door of the church poured golden light, and inside the little girls were lined up for their trumpet choruses caroling Handel.  . . .

“After mass the open house was on. Gangs would troop back home or to other houses. Collectors for a Christmas organization of Medieval origin and preserved by the French of Quebec and New England called ‘La Guignolee,’ and now sponsored by the Society of the Poor, St. Vincent de Paul, would appear at these open house parties and collect old clothes and food for the poor and never turn down a glass of sweet red wind with a crossignolle (cruller) and even join in singing in the kitchen. They always sangs an old canticle of their own before leaving. The Christmas trees were always huge in those days, the presents were all laid out and opened at a given consensus. What glee I’d feel to see the clean white shirts of my adults, their flushed faces, the laughter, the bawdy joking around. Meanwhile the avid women were in the kitchen with aprons over best dresses getting out the tortierres (pork pies) from the icebox. Days of preparation had gone into these sumptuous and delicious pies, which are better cold than hot. Also, my mother would make immense ragouts de boulettes (pork meatball stew with carrots and potatoes) and serve that piping hot to crowds of sometimes 12 to 15 friends and relatives: her aluminum drip grind coffee pot made 12 large cups. Also from the icebox came bowls of freshly made cooled cortons (French-Canadian for pate’ de maison), a spread to go on good fresh crusty bread liberally baked around town at several French bakeries.

“In the general uproar of gifts and unwinding of wrappers it was always a delight to me to step out on the porch or even go up the street a ways at 1:00 in the morning and listen to the silent hum of heaven diamond stars, watch the red and green windows of homes, consider the trees that seemed frozen in sudden devotion, and think over the events of another year passed. Before my mind’s eye was the St. Joseph of my imagination clasping the darling little Child.

“Perhaps too many battles have been fought on Christmas Eve since then—or maybe I’m wrong and little children of 1957 secretly dig Christmas in their little devotional hearts.”

—Jack Kerouac,  first published in the World Telegram and Sun, Dec. 5, 1957

3 Responses to ‘Not Long Ago Joy Abounded at Christmas’ by Jack Kerouac

  1. Steve Albert says:

    Paul, quick Kerouac question:
    Making the rounds on FaceBook for the past couple of months has been a picture of a sign commemorating a fight between Kerouac and Burroughs about a year before JK died. Obviously it isn’t entirely accurate since it claims that the incident was mentioned in Dr Sax which was published ten years earlier. Pretty sure I’ve seen the actual sign somewhere though.
    Where’s the sign and how much of the story is true? Is it completely fabricated or did they simply get the dates wrong?

  2. PaulM says:

    Hi Steve: I saw that item on the “internets,” and do not think it is based on a real thing. The whole situation being described is far-fetched. Somebody else may know more about the source of the claim.