The Night Before Christmas


Dear Artist,

It’s the night before Christmas and I’ve decided to paint. I might as well. Everything’s been taken care of. On the distant highway I can hear the drone of last minute shoppers. It would not be a good idea to go out driving right now. I’m squeezing paint instead. A glass of plum-wine is dancing in my head. It’s real quiet here. Somewhere in the studio I can hear a mouse stirring. My daughter Sara (the artist) phones and tells me the “four stages of life:”


“The Night Before Christmas”
illustrated by Arthur Rackham

You believe in Santa Claus
You don’t believe in Santa Claus
You are Santa Claus
You look like Santa Claus

It’s sort of like an extra bit of peace has been provided for this little extra blast with the brush. My son James (the filmmaker) phones to ask if I saw the documentary on PBS about Jewish kids and Arab kids crossing checkpoints in Israel and Palestine in order to play ordinary kids games with each other. I tell him I want to see that one. I’m holding the stump of my cigar tight in my teeth. My clothes are all tarnished with ochre and soot. I’m wishing the world was all happy. My son David (the musician) phones to say he can’t think of anything I need and by the way what do I need? I can’t think of anything I need. Not a thing. Except perhaps better work — and he can’t help me much with that. “How’s about a book, ‘How to Paint,'” he suggests. “Go for it,” I say. He’s a last-minute kind of guy but his heart’s in the right place.

Then the intercom goes off. It’s Carol. I clean my brushes and lay my finger aside of my nose. I remember to put the lid on the Titanium white. I’m feeling like the down of a thistle. I attach Emily’s antlers. There’s Clausal duties.

Best regards,


PS: “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” (Henry Livingston Jr.)

Esoterica: Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828) of Troy, NY, wrote The Night Before Christmas about 1822. It has erroneously been attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The poem has the honour of being the most frequently recited in the English language.

The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.


Time to recharge
by Pattie Schey, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

I am going to take advantage of being on vacation from my job to get on with my other job of painting. My brushes have been idle to long and not from lack of motivation. My desire to paint has been next to nil with the events of the last year. Not only the tragedy in our country, but the death of my father and then my stepfather, plus worrying about my 80 year old mother and trying to help my 16-year-old step daughter make correct choices and not view us as the “enemy,” has taken a toll on me emotionally. So now is the time to renew myself and evolve. Its time to paint and get ready for whatever else life brings me whether it’s good or bad. Its time to recharge.


New eyes
by Frank Bales, Staunton, VA, USA

Santa was good to me: books, paint, brushes, w/c paper, and money so I can buy more art supplies! I like to think, and your letter makes me think. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” (Marcel Proust)


German Christmas
by Faith Puleston, Germany

I enjoyed your description of a blissfully mundane Christmas Eve. Here in Germany Christmas Eve or “Holy Evening” is the big day. Presents are brought to the baby Jesus when it starts to get dark, and families have their own traditional eating habits ranging from sausages and potato salad to huge tin plates decorated with Christmas motifs and piled high with all sorts of spicy and chocolate edibles. Traffic closes down soon after all the shops shut, at 2 p.m. and it is as if the whole world goes into hiding. Some go to church — especially in the cities people who are heathens for most of the year turn up at Midnight Mass. Being British, I always had a secret aversion to counting my Christmas chickens. I have banished the 24th of December from the calendar (I now call it 23a)


The message eludes us
by Len and Lois Townsend

I was a commercial Santa for 4 years, and was known as the “Cerebral Santa,” aggravating the photo lady when I took too long with a child of wonder, or a mom who needed a knee or a grandmother who wanted her own picture because she lived far away and only had a few days with the grandchildren. I could write a book on the miracle of Santa mystique and the mystery of why we are kind and giving and full of love and good thoughts for this 3-4 day period. Boxing day may just be aptly named because some usually get back to fighting again. Somehow miss the message given repeatedly each year by the spirits who have eternal patience with we fools of the earth.


Give thanks
by Robert C. Sheridan

Thanks for the Christmas Eve interlude. Thanks Sara, for the “Four Stages of Life.” My wife laughed out loud when I read it to her. I’ve sent it off to many of my artist acquaintances. As miserable as most of the rest of the world seems to be we can’t but give thanks for being free at times like these.

(RG note) And thanks to all who wrote with wishes for the holiday season. A book that was in my stocking was World’s Great Letters edited by Lincoln Schuster, quoting letters from Napoleon, Michelangelo, Beethoven, D.H. Lawrence, Abraham Lincoln, etc. In the introduction I found: “The post is the consolation of life.” (Voltaire) In reading the book I’ve come to realize how important the exchanging of letters has been in the shaping of minds and the destiny of many. I’d like to say that I’m starting to take this letter writing thing seriously, realizing how valuable the flow is for people, how it’s available to connect us all, and what an empowering miracle the internet is. “More light, more light.” (Voltaire’s last words)


Question on quote
by Wendy Christensen, Barrett Mountain, New Hampshire, USA

Esoterica: Major Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828) of Troy, NY, wrote “The Night Before Christmas” about 1822. It has erroneously been attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Interesting! What is your source for this?

(RG note) Bartlett, and others, credit Moore. Some opinions on this are at I’m always interested in just who was the originator of a style, a quote, an opus. The field is wide open. There is some doubt that the works of William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare. They were perhaps written by another person with the same name.


Live fully
by Sherry Purvis, Georgia, USA

I lost my father on the 12th of this month after a long struggle with Parkinson’s. My mother, my husband and children, and I were with him daily. I can honestly say that this man was truly worthy and shared his honorable life with us all. It is all still too fresh to deal with, but after I read the poem by Jack London (see letter December 21, 2001), I knew not only was it my father, but myself. For at least the past 6 months my artwork has been changing. I now know why and am completely happy with the direction that it is going. It amazes me that our bodies respond to these happenings before our minds will let us in on it. Christmas was different here, mostly put away this year.


Lasting power?
by Frans Tieleman

The Call of the Wild (December 21, 2001). Interesting letter, though you seem to skip the part about “it takes courage to stay.” Anna ran away, you say, and Jack London killed himself…

Meteoric they may be, but what about lasting power?

(RG note) Good point. I try in my letters to present and report situations objectively in order to stimulate creative minds. While you can show people how they might mix paint and also to conceive ideas, I don’t think you can tell them how to run their lives. Individual uniqueness is a prime asset, even though it may at times be destructive or anti-social.


Drawing lessons
by Barnaby Guthrie

I’m planning to do a book about discovery. Rather than being a catalogue of what has been discovered, it will be about the process — amongst other things, what drives it, what happens on a number of levels the instant that it occurs, and what inhibits it, such as illusion of knowledge. The book will be anecdotal rather than academic; I want to involve the reader in the discovery process as much as possible within the act of reading the book. The title will be “Chasing First Light.”

As a topic of research involving one discovering process, I want to see if I can learn to draw in pencil, or pen and ink. Apart from the attractiveness of using a sketchpad and pencil or pen rather than a camera for recording scenes in my travels, learning to draw would be a good way of experiencing discovery through the “re-viewing” of one’s surroundings. I have no trained artistic sight whatsoever. It will be a challenge at this stage in life to see what I can draw — and draw what I can see! And it will certainly put me in touch with moments of discovery that I feel are such an important part of the process. I realize that the least frustrating way of learning to draw would be in a class situation and I am exploring what is available locally. Additionally, I’m wondering if you and your artist-friends would recommend a book or two about pencil and pen and ink drawing technique. I’m particularly interested in learning to draw landscapes and buildings.

(RG note) Good idea. I recommend you get Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. It’s the popular and perhaps latest word on how to draw well and quickly. There is no point in taking a course at your stage — some people take a lifetime to get good at drawing and they start very young. You need to develop a shorthand drawing technique for this project that will help you in your own idiosyncratic way to illustrate your thesis.


No guilt
by Don Hinrichs

Your letters NEVER make me feel like someone is laying a guilt trip on me. Thank you. I didn’t paint a lot (in contrast to my wife) or well, and since a stroke in October 2000 I seem to have lost some of my ability to concentrate. It was mainly right brain which left me with my memory and speech intact but some crazy aftereffects which I am still trying to cope with.


Sorting pegs
by Linda Holloway

My husband works for Bell South and began painting for the first time since he was a teen after a stroke a eight years ago. The stroke was attributed to high blood pressure, but the true culprit was politics — he was the Mayor of our small town. The doctors told him to do something that was peaceful and fulfilling. Slowly, the paint brush brought him back to a place of contentment. There should probably be a law that artistic people should not be allowed to run for public office. It hinders their ability to shape the world with their thoughts and brush. I recently began my life-long dream of writing for a semi-living. I think about the “what ifs” of doing exactly what I wanted to do when I was younger. I plan and dream backwards to a life as an investigative reporter. I don’t have any regrets about my role as a homemaker and mother. My husband and I did the “normal” things that most people do to make a good living. After all, how many people like yourself actually make a living with their creativity? That is the safest assumption anyway. Just when I was feeling that we had our material and artistic personalities sorted into the proper pegs, our twenty-one year old son dropped a bombshell on us. Three semesters away from a business degree of the University of Alabama, he told us that he was changing his major to film and telecommunications. He wants to produce films, pursue his music writing ability, and play the guitar. And he was voted “most ambitious” out of his high school class.


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 95 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2001, including Deborah Russell of Baltimore, Maryland, USA who sent this from the Tao Te Ching:

Act without doing,
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.
The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.

(Lao Tzu)



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