Christmas reading at UMD a holiday tradition for many
For Rhonda Peterson, Christmas doesn't start until she has heard her former English professor, Joseph Maiolo, do his annual reading of Truman Capote's short story "A Christmas Memory." "I don't like to put my tree up, decorate or wrap presents un...
For Rhonda Peterson, Christmas doesn't start until she has heard her
former English professor, Joseph Maiolo, do his annual reading of Truman Capote's short story "A Christmas Memory."
"I don't like to put my tree up, decorate or wrap presents until I hear the Christmas story," Peterson said. "I can't even put the wreath on the door."
Maiolo, an award-winning writer, has been teaching at the University of Minnesota Duluth since 1976 -- and has publicly read Capote's story nearly every year since. On Friday, Maiolo read for a nearly full audience of students, children, friends and community members at Weber Music Hall on the UMD campus.
It was a spare set-up: just Maiolo dressed in a red sweater and black pants, a glass podium holding the story, a drink propped on a horizontal music stand to his right, under soft light on the stage. At one point in the story, he pulled out his lone prop: a photograph of the characters mentioned in the story.
Capote's story, more autobiography than fiction, is set in the 1930s and is about 7-year-old Buddy and his friend -- a 60-something-year-old cousin, with whom he spends every day. At the start of the story, Buddy's friend has announced that it is fruitcake weather, and the duo begins its annual tradition of making the holiday gift for 30 people -- including President Roosevelt.
Buddy talks about how they save money for the project (at one point killing flies -- earning a penny for every 25 dead), and a Fun and Freak show they host, starring a three-legged chicken (freak) and a relative's vacation slides (fun).
"I wouldn't miss it," said Leonore Baeumler, who is friends with Maiolo. "It wouldn't be the Christmas season without hearing Joe read this story."
Part of the draw, Baeumler said, is the way the professor speaks, and "that accent."
Maiolo is originally from Virginia. He said his accent has roots in the Appalachian Mountains and is not a snobby Eastern Virginia way of talking.
Maiolo, who said he hasn't quite memorized the story but knows his way around it very well, got chuckles when he read about Haha Jones, a legendary character in town to whom Buddy and his friend go for bootlegged whiskey for the cake. Later, they drink the remainder to celebrate finishing the project.
"The simplicity of it is what life is all about," said first-time listener Chris Louma. "Life, friendship and love, and how it's portrayed."
Of course, this is the last Christmas season Buddy and his friend spend together. The former is shipped off to military school; the latter makes fruitcakes alone at a home Buddy never gets to visit.
"I think I cried just as hard this time," Carolyn Russell said. "I just like the way he reads it. The sentimentality of the writing is superb. It couldn't be more touching."
"I just have to come," Peterson said. "It's like I'm drawn here."