Christmas at Ouzilly
We spent a stormy, but otherwise tranquil, Christmas at Ouzilly. Just the family, plus Beirne, my young assistant in Paris.
Churches all over Christendom were decked out and well attended on Christmas Eve. St. Maurice, our little church in little Lathus, France, was no exception. It celebrated the coming of Christ pretty much as it has done for the last 1,000 years. Lit by candles, crowded by parishioners, most of whom only attend church a few times in their lives, the annual Christmas Eve service is one of the longest-running shows in the world. And still popular.
We are no strangers to Christmas Pageants. Every year, they turn out to be a mixture of solemnity and hilarity. The story has not changed in 2,000 years. The same script. The same lines. The same plot. The same dramatic tension.
And yet, each year, there is an element of spontaneity too.
The promise is so big — to have life, more abundantly… and for all eternity — it is sure to bring in the crowds. And the costumes, lighting, and music have been worked on for hundreds of years, to the point where the pretensions and artistic fads have been worn smooth — like the stones you find on a beach. It is both extremely na‹ve and extremely sophisticated at the same time — light as myrrh and heavy as gold.
But the real crowd pleaser is the participation of the children. Parents never tire of seeing their children perform. They get a vicarious thrill from it. And the crowd gets the thrill from the unexpected too — as you can never be sure what the children will do.
Put the little kids in angel outfits and let them walk up the aisle. The littler the better. Sing Silent Night. Light the candles. It is a hard act to follow.
One year, when Jules was very little, he wore his angel outfit and sat on the steps in front of the altar. The minister (this was at the Episcopal church in Maryland) was delivering a sermon, and everyone was very quiet as he hit upon a particularly hallowed point. But Jules’ halo had fallen off. And reaching for it, he tumbled head first and rolled in the aisle.
Jules redeemed himself in pageant history about 7 years later. It turned out that he had perfect pitch and a boys’ choir kind of voice. So, the choir mistress had him sing a solo of "Oh Holy Night."
Anyhow, when Jules opened up on "Oh Holy Night," he gave it everything he had. His voice was so strong, so perfect, and so pure — it brought a tear to my eye. And I wasn’t the only one.
Jules has grown up a bit since then. Thom, who manages the Daily Reckoning project, came to visit in the spring and taught him how to play the guitar. But Thom leans towards blues and rock & roll, rather than hymms — so Jules has moved on from "Oh Holy Night." In fact, he asked for an electric guitar for Christmas. (Which he didn’t get — I’m not crazy, after all.)
All the boys had little parts to play in Friday’s pageant. Edward, 6, was one of the angels — approaching the straw-stuffed manger with a lit candle. (I looked around for a fire extinguisher.)
Jules, who celebrated his 12th birthday on Christmas day, took up the collection, looking angelic. And Henry was the star of the show. He had a costume which I couldn’t identify — one of the 3 kings, perhaps — and read a letter from St. Paul whose message passed me by like one of the Christmas decorations blowing down the street.
Henry read without hesitation, accent or mistake, making his parents, and grandmother, feel very proud.
The service continued with a sermon from Pere Blot. Again, I had trouble following it. But I fear the good priest has fallen into Bishop Tutu’s pit of politics. Jesus made it very clear what his message was — love thy neighbor. This private charge Pere Blot turned into a vague, social responsibility. He urged us to act in "solidarity" with those who struggled against oppression and want. He was referring, I suppose, to the truck drivers who were striking for the right to retire at 55 with full pay. Or perhaps with the unemployed who demonstrated for a Christmas bonus. I doubt he had in mind the small businessmen, or taxpayers, who demonstrated recently against the high tax burden and government interference in business.
Christ’s personal message — which you carry around in your heart — thus became a political message, which you can wear on your sleeve, like the stripes of a corporal in the SS.
But no matter, it was Christmas Eve, and damned if I was going to let it be ruined by a dim, though nice and well-meaning, cleric.
Back at home, a roaring fire, and a CD of Tammy Wynette singing Christmas songs, contributed to a festive and cozy atmosphere on Christmas Eve. Jules and I tuned up our guitars and did a few Christmas tunes. We were pleased to see that Jules’ voice has not yet changed — he still hit the high notes of "O Holy Night," while the rest of us screeched.
"I’m tone deaf," Beirne announced. "They made me lip sync in my high school choir." In school, Beirne was a member of the school chorus. He had figured out that the chorus members got into line first at the cafeteria. When the music teacher heard Beirne sing, he let him stay in the group, but asked him not to sing.
It was nice having Beirne over the holidays. He’s a family friend as well as an employee. His mother called to see how he was doing. She feigned to worry that Beirne might slip into one of the traps of sin, lassitude, and debauchery that abound in Paris. I reassured her that Beirne was safe with us out in the country.
"I’ve looked all over Paris for those traps," said Beirne, "I just can’t find them."
After the children went to bed, Santa and Ms. Claus went to work. Stockings were stuffed. Presents were tagged and placed under the tree. Finally, Mr. And Mrs. Claus were able to retire too… and then, all through the house, not a creature was heard… not even a mouse.
Actually, you wouldn’t have been able to hear a rhinoceros either… not over the gale force winds! There arose such a clatter that I had to get up and see what was the matter. It was shutters blowing and clacking.
But after a half-hour of roaming effort, they were secured. And all was well. And soon, it was Christmas.
December 27, 1999
P.S. I hope you had a merry Christmas too. Or, a happy holiday, depending upon your persuasion. I understand that some people actually hate Christmas. There are websites for these people, I am told. I hope these people get what they deserve too, as surely they will.
Tomorrow, I will write about less important matters — money!
In Today’s Daily Reckoning:
*** World markets rise on Christmas Eve
*** Finding Pvt. MacDonald
*** "What Wrong with Warren?"
*** Stock markets in London, Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore, and who knows where else, hit net highs on Christmas eve. Santa worked overtime.
*** Not much financial news from Wall Street, however, since the markets were closed.
*** Help me out on this: a French guy at our little church, named Gilbert Mining, asked me to see if I could locate an American WWII soldier he knew in Morocco in 1943. The two of them struck up a friendship — speaking German to one another — but have not been in touch since the end of the war. The American’s name is Jack MacDonald. He showed me a picture of him, from 1942, and an address in Los Angeles I couldn’t make out. Anybody know him?
*** Here we are 56 years later. Nobody really cares about WWII — it was all lies and brute force. But the memories of friendship remain. It would mean a lot to Gilbert to hear from his old friend.
*** Barron’s this week features the world’s greatest investor on the cover. Warren Buffett’s photo is headlined: "What’s Wrong Warren?" Seems Buffett has lost 23% of his fortune this year.
*** The poor guy failed to get in on the boom in tech and nets. He only invests in the things he understands – – like insurance, newspapers and coke. Too bad he didn’t understand businesses such as Amazon or VA Linux. But then, who does?
*** It was a heckuva week for stocks last week… almost every index was up. There were even slightly more stocks going up than down — 1777 advances compared to 1671 declines. The Nasdaq rose 5.6% for the week — which is why people still like stocks. You get as much gain in one week from the Nasdaq as you do from a bond in an entire year. (Do these indexes ever go the other way?}
*** By the close of the week, the S&P was priced at 33.1 times earnings — and yielding 1.15%.
*** Not everyone got richer though in the week before Christmas, for every stock that hit a new high, 3.5 hit new lows. And among common stocks, more fell back than moved higher.
** Floyd Norris of the New York Times figures that 2/3rds of all stocks are down 20% from their peaks.
*** The Oxford Club’s Steve Sjuggerud is reporting some spectacular results from recent recommendations. Datacraft-Asia and YahooChina, shot up 25% and 18% respectively, in a single trading session last week… Datacraft has now more than doubled since he recommended it on October 1st. And YahooChina is up nearly 50% since we recommended it Dec 15 issue. www.oxfordclub.com
*** I was recently exploring the link between political folly and financial folly. Political thinking, based on mob psychology, is similar to the psychology of manic markets. Here’s George Soro’s contribution to this discussion: "Economic history is a never-ending series of episodes based on falsehoods and lies, not truths. It represents the path to big money. The object is to recognize the trend whose premise is false, ride that trend, and step off before it is discredited."
*** The present mania in internet and tech stocks is an example of an episode whom premise is false. I have not ridden it, alas.
*** A New Year’s prediction from Rick Ackerman: "Yahoo, whose shares currently sell for nearly 1,500 times earnings, buys Genentech with the goal of developing a drug to help investors live long enough to see the day when it and other dot.com companies become solidly profitable."
*** A couple of interesting historical footnotes — it was on this day 99 years ago that Carrie Nation broke up a bar in a hotel in Wichita, KS… eventually inciting the mobocracy to ban alcohol by constitutional amendment. And Charles Darwin began his voyage on the HMS Beagle — which would result in the Theory of Evolution. (By the way, our London affiliate publishes the complete works of Darwin in a set of books that takes up at least 3 feet of shelf space… and costs as much as a Volkswagen. Let me know if you’re interested.)
*** Insurance executives slept poorly Christmas night. A fierce storm ripped through Europe leaving 50 people dead. I was not among them — fortunately — though a big limb crashed down moments after I stood beneath it. And one of the century-old pine trees in the yard came down — uprooted by the wind.