Thinking back over her memories of Christmas, Maya Angelou recalls the aroma in her family’s store in Stamps, Ark.
“My grandmother would take an orange and almost parboil it ... and she would stick cloves into the peel and wrap it up,” she says. Then a week before Christmas, the oranges would be unwrapped and “the whole store, and of course, the house which was around the store, everything, would just smell of oranges and cloves.”
Stirred by the memory, Angelou almost sniffs the air as she decides she may make some of those oranges herself this year.
She’s also serving up another holiday treat this season, hosting the Hallmark Channel’s “Celebrate! Christmas with Maya Angelou,” replete with not only good food, but also music, laughter, memories and a solid dose of Angelou’s wisdom and philosophy. It airs Friday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m. and on Christmas Day at 1 p.m.
Back in the spring, when rhododendrons and azaleas were in bloom around her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., the Hallmark production team “dressed my house the way it would be dressed for Christmas, with two huge Christmas trees, and my family and friends came from around in a Christmas mood.”
Angelou’s immediate relatives — including her son, Guy Johnson, and great grandchildren, Caylin and Brandon — are at the gathering, but so are members of what she calls her “extended family,” including singer-songwriters Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, whose voices and musical skills add to and accompany the impromptu chorus of Christmas songs and carols sung during the course of the party.
The couple stopped by the Santa Monica hotel where Angelou was staying on a recent visit to Southern California.
They echo each other in saying Angelou is “all about celebrating,” so there was no difficulty at all in creating Christmas spirit out of season at the Winston-Salem party shoot.
“It’s her spirit. You just gravitate to her. That’s why I call her my angel,” beams Ashford.
“There is no word that really encompasses all that she is, but what she encompasses is the fact that we should be everything we can be,” says Simpson when asked how she might sum up Angelou’s myriad accomplishments — poet, writer, teacher, historian, dancer, singer, actress, Grammy winner, civil-rights activist. “So many of us cut our possibilities down ... She embraces everything and does it well and is not afraid.”
‘Wisps of glory’Born Marguerite Johnson, Angelou’s 13 books include the autobiographical best-seller “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and the current cookbook “Hallelujah! The Welcome Table.” She has acted on Broadway, in the TV miniseries “Roots,” and will soon be seen playing “I think myself ... sort of one of the older, wise women” in the movie comedy “Madea’s Family Reunion.” She has won three spoken-word Grammys, and teaches humanities at Wake Forest University.
Asked if there is a collective noun that might encompass her abilities, Angelou replies, “I am a human being. I think everybody born is born with talent. We all come from the creator trailing wisps of glory.”
With so many outlets for her talents, how does Angelou choose where to focus her energies?
“I try not to wear myself out, though usually expending energy gives me energy. That old saw, ‘If you want something done give it to a busy person.’ It’s just that I’m selective, and I’m careful, and by that I mean when I came into this room I brought all of myself, so I could be completely present with you.”
The presence is formal, dignified but not standoffish. She asks to be addressed formally — Dr. Angelou — and returns the respect to a reporter. Her sentences are thought-through, but often contain a self-teasing kick of humor amid their blend of poetry, common sense and spirituality.
Now 77, she suffers from knee problems and has to move cautiously. Yet her deep, distinctive voice is as fully ripe as when she memorably delivered her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She slips easily into song during the interview, singing “Born, Born, Born in Bethlehem” to illustrate the African-American spiritual.
Her new poem, “Amazing Peace,” which she read Dec. 1 at the lighting of the National Christmas tree in Washington, speaks of how celebrating Christmas transcends boundaries of all faiths.
“I celebrate the birth of forgiveness, the birth of Jesus Christ into all the great religions of the world ... the idea of peace, the idea of forgiveness is yearned for. We hunger after it,” she explains.
Like many, she would prefer holiday seasons to be less commercial.
“It does worry me,” she says. “I think we are wasting something, things our children will never know about — some of the delicious aspects of all the holidays, whether Christmas, or Seder, or Tet, or Ramadan” ... the deliciousness of the family getting together and laughing a lot, and teasing, and saying, ‘You remember last year when ...”’