by | Jan 6, 2017 | The Writer's Life | 5 comments

By Francine Mathews

Years ago when I had small boys underfoot, my sister Liz sent me a slim little book entitled A Round of Applause for Mrs. Claus. It lays out the theory that women make the holidays go round–that without us, men would wander through the soulless winter solstice without a cheering flame or the crinkle of gift wrap. In my household, this is indisputable. I appear to be the only person capable of stringing lights on an evergreen as they ought to be strung, or of filling the outdoor urns with trailing juniper and fake red hydrangeas, or of cooking a pancetta-wrapped fillet of beef with wild mushrooms as it must be cooked. I alone remember that one sister likes mail-order ice cream and another mail-order cheese. Someone has to carry the weight of civilization. In the Mathews family, it is I: Mrs. Claus.

Which is why I am generally knocked down for the count with some sort of noxious disease as the clock tolls twelve on December 25th. I’m worn out from sustaining the holidays for a multitude. This year it was double pinkeye, which my elder son brought home from the Ivy League. It made me look like Voldemort by New Year’s Eve. Some years it’s flu. But every year, I toddle into the cold embrace of January with as much relief as if it were England regained after four years in The Somme. 

If April is the cruelest month, January is the best. If it did not exist, if it had somehow been left out of the plan for the year because it was too busy organizing its off-season getaway to Dubrovnik or Puerto Vallarta, it would be necessary for us to invent January.

We all know it’s a time of fresh starts. That’s obvious. Regardless of whether you keep your resolutions, it’s a pause–a caesura, in fact–between the cynicism of a year played-out and the hope of a year yet begun. I wake up on New Year’s day ready to strip the house of greens and red ribbons and toss everything in the trash. I strip beds. I strip my closet. I strip the dogs. 

I clean out my refrigerator.

And then, once the college kid has flown back to Newark and the high school kid has schlepped off to the first day of his final semester, I walk downstairs and enter my office.

It’s been quiet and dark for a few weeks, now.

But January–time of lung-stopping cold, of drifting flakes, of landscapes sunk in monochrome, of the soft swish of tires on icy streets, of the silence of a single bird call against the frigid morning branches of a bare tree–January is waiting.

It offers a clean, spare, bracing road forward. It offers lowering skies that deny any impulse to fritter away time by wandering out of doors. It offers hair pulled back and monkish discipline. January is the Marine Corps of months. 

I sit down at my desk. I pull up and open a file I haven’t touched in thirty days. It is the book half-gestated, almost stillborn, I left unfinished in December. But it is the book I will write and sell in the next few months.

January gives us this power: the cold, clear, commitment to hard work and good dreams. This month, I wish you discipline and focus. I wish you long hours. I wish you dedication to task and the vital things that come from it.

There’s nothing going on outside except traffic accidents and blue language. Put your words to better use indoors, and write down your dreams.



Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Jamie Freveletti

    Loved this perspective on January and the promise it brings. I too, wish you the focus and dedication to build your dreams. (and I cleaned the refrigerator yesterday, so ready to go). Thanks for the post!

  2. Sonja Stone

    Oh, Francine, this is beautiful. First, I'm so sorry for your pink eye and I'm glad you're on the mend! Second, I've never read such a gorgeous description of a desolate winter month. You almost made me miss snowy weather! Until I remembered I have a hike planned for later today. 🙂

  3. Karna Bodman

    Francine – what a great post! You really nailed it when you said women truly carry the whole holiday scene on their shoulders — and that January is such a great time to re-organize and re-fill the "Christmas closet," and then heave a huge sigh of relief and hunker back down to tackle the writing we love to do. Your routine was truly reflected in our household activities as well – except that I have no clue how to make a pancetta wrapped filet (care to share that one? Sounds delicious)

  4. Francine

    Here's a link to the filet recipe, Karna–it was originally published in Bon Appetit Magazine. It's foolproof, show-stopping, and easy to slice. Some people argue that beef tenderloin lacks flavor, but I've found that organic, grass-fed tenderloin is hard to beat, particularly when enlivened with a kick of pancetta, shitakes, and brandy. I doubled the recipe for nine people at Christmas and had not a scrap left–although five of my guests were male. By the way, I've used a variety of mushrooms in this over the years–whatever is good and available.

  5. Chris Goff

    Every year I swear that I'm not going to play Mrs. Claus, but then the guilt of knowing none of my husband's relatives will get presents, or our family's annual Christmas letter, weighs heavy. Inevitably I am lured by the season and energized by the thought of the New Year. Great post.