It’s Christmas. It’s winter. It’s dark now as I write this, and the streets and roads are sparkling with starlight or decorations, with snow or rain. I feel sentimental, and am sent to my mental cabinet to retrieve some memories.
Here: a little cabin, glowing in the cold windy dark. A small space of light encased by night, a warmth to cross a frozen yard towards. Cold and dark, night, and beckoning light from a small wooden refuge, warm enough for the time: this, to me, is a Christmas picture, and one I have walked through more than once.
When I was an infant we lived for some duration in a cabin, though I don’t remember it. But we moved several times in my childhood and youth, and on two occasions we were in mid-move at Christmas and spent it in guest cabins, once at a motel in Canmore, once at the Rafter Six Ranch.
I can recall passing a jolly Christmas Eve in the main lodge at the ranch, with light and warmth and people and songs and food and beverage, and then stepping out into the cold dark, just by myself; my parents had already headed over to the cabin. The contrast was stark: light, warmth, sound; then the door shut, and none of the three remained, just me alone at night outdoors in winter at the edge of the Rockies. It was no Thomas Kinkade painting. The snow was windswept, crusted and gravelly, bare patches of dead grass peeking through. The sound was just my feet and the rustling of my jacket, and perhaps the buffeting of the wind. It was a familiar enough scene; I’d grown up around there. But this time I was heading not to a large warm home fully inhabited with stuff, so many rooms owned and furnished and worn easily like personal clothing. This time I was heading to a small cabin, not quite as warm, with just our suitcases’ capacity of effects, the rest packed up somewhere else to be delivered to a new place hundreds of kilometres to the north. We were moving away from where I had grown up, and this cabin was the last warm light at the edge of the woods.
I was already at university at the time, I should say. I was just home for Christmas. But this time there was no home to come to. Well, so be it. Many people spend Christmas at beach resorts, padding to cabanas in the sun to change into swimwear and refresh their beverages. They will end up back home, and all will return to its wonted ways. For me this time, home had stopped being one place and had not yet started being another. We were at a limen, in a temporary shelter, a glowing light across the cold empty snowy and stony night.
This was not a Wenceslas moment; the distance from lodge to cabin was much less than a league. I crossed the barren easily in a couple minutes’ walk and went in. It was not spacious; it was not as well heated as a home; the shower produced a stream less warm and strong than a horse’s relief. But it was there, a light across the frigid silent empty night, with the woods behind.
To me, that is the pattern of a cabin: a cozy remote space of transience, a refuge of light in the great surrounding dark.
I have spent other Christmas Eves in other cabins: the motel cabin in Canmore, similar but less isolated, and the passenger cabin of an airplane – a metal container of light flying through the windy night. I have been in other cabins not at Christmas – our cabin on a cruise ship, for instance: another transient box of light, from which you can look out at the vast darkness of the sea. And I have taken many a cab in the night. We also have our cultural images: little cabin in the woods, Lincoln’s log cabin, perhaps Uncle Tom’s cabin (no snow there, though); in Quebec, the cabane à sucre, a sugar shack in the maple forest.
Some people have lived permanently in cabins. My family lived in one, as I have said, when I was an infant. But originally a cabin was a temporary structure made of light materials, perhaps even a tent – something more resembling a beach cabana. Of course cabana comes from the same source, late Latin capanna. In English the term shifted over to refer to a more permanent structure made of rough materials. They are typically small, and it is from that that we get the ship and airplane sense (on the other hand, taxi cab is from taximeter cabriolet, not related). But the log cabin type can expand: the international airport terminal for Mont-Tremblant is a log cabin, but a very comfortable two-storey one. You do still have to walk across an open space outdoors to get to it, though – there are no jetways.
And a cabinet? A small cabin, originally. Our storage-space sense draws on Italian gabinetto, which comes also from capanna but more altered. Your cabinet is not a light in the dark but a dark space from which you draw things to bring them to light and use. Your memory is a cabinet, and you keep – among other things – the images of your past cabins in it. What better time to bring them out than Christmas?