But the presence of the child could, conceivably, change all that. Efforts will be made to show her a good time. Festive motions will be gone through. (Already there is talk of visiting Santa in his grotto in a town a half-hour away.) And what happens after that is a matter of record in the psychological literature of this species. Adults orchestrate elaborate, magic-filled Christmases "for the sake of the kids" the same way they play chess out of genuine concern for the safety of the king. Absolutely they want the child to enjoy it, but at the same time they're using the child's presence as an excuse to revisit, reenact, even improve upon, their own fond memories of Christmas, to get back to that womblike state of magic and satiety before life became hard, before they knew the difference between a 1099 and a W-2, before root canals, and blind dates, and laundry, and...
"Do you have the car keys?" my father asks.
"I am going to the butcher," he declares with a sort of dreamy confidence. "For I am planning to make a ham."
It's happening already. Not only is a ham—not ham, crucially, but a ham—exactly the sort of special-occasion delicacy that I can see playing very Dylan Thomas-esque in the recollection...
...and father would cook a great ham. Hours it would bubble in its dented pot while we sang to the radio and toasted its progress with tumblers of sherry, then with two mismatched wooden spoons he would paddle it up from the briny deep...
...but as long as I've known my father he's never cooked one. Clearly this is some childhood memory of his that's been nudged to float to the surface by the presence of the child. Which is excellent news. For my father really was, like Dylan Thomas, a little boy running around the Welsh seaport town of Swansea in the prewar half of the last century. They were born a few miles and only a decade or so apart. If his childhood memories of Christmas start resurfacing, then the odds of our having a Dylan Thomas-style Christmas increase radically.
Just when I think the scene can't get any more quaint and nostalgia-worthy, it does. My father heads to the cupboard beneath the stove, rummages for a while, and emerges brandishing, to my niece's delight, the lid of our largest cooking pot. I query him as to his intentions for that item and he replies that he will be taking the lid to the butcher's shop in order to measure the ham. You simply can't make this stuff up.
Selflessly, I offer to drive, and off we go in our sleigh-like Honda Civic, a youngish man and his father, cresting the hills and plumbing the valleys of their ancestors, all the way to the little town of Talgarth, home to—in my experience—the world's finest meat emporium: W. J. George. From a tiny shop in a narrow winding street generations of the George family have distributed fresh lamb and beef and every other sort of meat to discerning carnivores from across mid-Wales. The great Bryan George, the shop's current head honcho, has seen it all in a lifetime of blood and sawdust, yet even he suffers a moment of bewildered hesitation upon being handed the lid of a stockpot—thus confirming for me the atavistic quirkiness of my father's behavior.
Back at home, wine has been opened, and I fall into an armchair by the fire with a glass of it and a leather-bound copy of Bleak House—with which I would make more progress if I were not distracted, pleasantly and repeatedly, by my own awareness of the scene's idyllic and memorable nature.
Yuletide wonder and magic accrue steadily over the ensuing six hours. After a deep, Dickens-inflected doze I head out onto the darkening hills with my binoculars to look for birds.
I spent the summer here alone trying to finish my second novel, but birds would keep landing on the branches outside my window and I felt duty-bound, as a man of letters, to jot down details of their plumage and then look them up in reference books. My favorite was a buzzard the size of a pterodactyl who perched all night on a fence post at the edge of our property. I wasted a lot of creative energy trying to tame him and get him to answer to "Stuart." My calculation was that from professional and romantic standpoints I'd do just as well returning to Manhattan with a huge bird of prey on my shoulder as I would with a mediocre lump of sophisticated urban fiction on my laptop—and, frankly, the former seemed more likely. But no. Magpies stole all the meat I left out, and if ever I crept within 50 feet of Stuart he would hop into the air, flap his mighty wings exactly once, and free-fall smoothly away down the valley, clearly not keen on an interspecies relationship at that point in his life.
But here comes Stuart now, at dusk on the 23rd, gliding out of the gloom and circling my head with a high, girlish cry. And for an instant everything is perfect. There we are: a youngish man and his pet buzzard enjoying a moment of peaceful reflection on the darkening hills of Wales on the evening before the evening before Christmas. Classic.
From here it's all downhill.
The ham, for one thing, is a disappointment—by which I mean that it's fine. I was secretly hoping my father might drop it on the floor or bungle the glazing process in some eccentric way that I might look back on years later with wistful amusement. But no, the ham is fine: moist and pink and strongly evocative of some ham I once bought at a high-end delicatessen on lower Broadway.
Nor was his decision to cook the thing mere whimsy, as I had hoped. The ham had a function: to be part of a light buffet supper for various friends and locals, who come trudging over the hills for Christmas Eve drinks. On a sort of macro, visual level the party is reasonably cozy and charming. New arrivals hang their rain-wet scarves on the Aga to dry. Firelight does flicker on earthy, rural faces flushed with wine. There is, as mentioned, the ham. But the conversation is unrelentingly modern and prosaic, flowing from the intellectual deficiencies of George W. Bush to the nuts and bolts of European agricultural subsidies and back again. My niece, who tends to hit the hay pretty early, makes a cameo in her one-piece pajama suit, but contrary to my elaborate theory, her talismanic presence fails to spark any noticeable uptick in Christmas spirit. Either my theory is flawed, or there's something wrong with the child, I reckon.