22 January 2021

Somewhere It's Snowing...But Not Here

Snowy Night 
Mary Oliver
Last night, an owl
in the blue dark
an indeterminate number
of carefully shaped sounds into
the world, in which,
a quarter of a mile away, I happened
to be standing.
I couldn’t tell
which one it was –
the barred or the great-horned
ship of the air –
it was that distant. But, anyway,
aren’t there moments
that are better than knowing something,
and sweeter? Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness. I suppose
if this were someone else’s story
they would have insisted on knowing
whatever is knowable – would have hurried
over the fields
to name it – the owl, I mean.
But it’s mine, this poem of the night,
and I just stood there, listening and holding out
my hands to the soft glitter
falling through the air. I love this world,
but not for its answers.
And I wish good luck to the owl,
whatever its name –
and I wish great welcome to the snow,
whatever its severe and comfortless
and beautiful meaning

15 January 2021

"Winter Night"

Pile high the hickory and the light
Log of chestnut struck by the blight.
Welcome-in the winter night.

The day has gone in hewing and felling,
Sawing and drawing wood to the dwelling
For the night of talk and story-telling.

These are the hours that give the edge
To the blunted axe and the bent wedge,
Straighten the saw and lighten the sledge.

Here are question and reply,
And the fire reflected in the thinking eye.
So peace, and let the bob-cat cry.

                                                           Edna St. Vincent Millay

08 January 2021

"When Winter Came to Call"

Mildred L. Jarrell
from Ideals Christmas 2020

A silver world was all about
when I awoke this morn,
for overnight the silver frost
of winter came along.

An ermine robe was draped around
the stately evergreens,
and tatted lace of frost was placed
on deown pond and stream.

The little brook was silent,
locked in winter's clasp,
Hemmed in crystal stitchery
with icy blades of grass.

The meadow lay in silence,
while over all the snow,
wildlings tracked their calling cards
where'er they'd come and go.

A wondrous cloak of whiteness
the snow king laid o'er all,
fashioned from a leaden sky
when winter came to call.

07 January 2021

Last of the Christmas Books (At Least Until Rudolph Day)

Ideals Christmas 2020, Ideals Publications
As Christmas got derailed, so did my reading. Since the 24th of December most nights I have tumbled into bed without reading what with being so exhausted or sad. I'd intended to get a few more volumes under my belt but never made it. (My digital reading is way behind, too; I still have autumn magazines I put aside for Christmas magazines I never got to, and the few hardcopy magazines I bought I am still reading through as well.) But just over the line, one night, on Distaff Day, I decided to fit this one in.

This year's issue had a lot more essays in it than usual, as always of the inspirational/nostalgic sort. Anne Kennedy Brady, daughter of Pamela Kennedy who has an annual essay, has one of her own this year about the family's plane trip to visit Grandma, where, Pamela reveals, they ended up crowded in one cabin instead of having two. David La France suggests a unique keepsake if you get a live tree each year. There are nine essays in all, plus the usual complement of Christmas poems—I was particularly fond of "Simple Joys" and "Christmas Song"—plus Tennyson's "Voices in the Mist," four pages of Biblical quotations and accompanying illustrations, two pages of recipes and another duo of quotations, the story of the hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and of course the softly nostalgic paintings and simple photographic still lifes (including a snug little den scene that I wanted to leap into) that give the "Ideals" books their distinct flavor.

My favorite piece was probably the winter poem by Mildred Jarrell, "When Winter Came to Call," with its lovely imagery, and the quote from Mary Oliver's "Snowy Night."

06 January 2021

Along Sea and Over Land in Kent

A Kent Christmas, Sutton Books
I found the first of these Sutton Christmas anthologies (A Worcestershire Christmas, if you care) at a library book sale several years back, and another at a library sale a couple of years later. I think the coronavirus emergency made me a little crazy this year; every time I found a book from this series for less than five dollars with postage, I bought one and managed to accumulate nearly a half dozen, a portion which will either need to be saved for Rudolph Days or next Christmas, thanks to our perilous Christmas adventures. Anyway, these contain short excerpts of Christmas/Christmastide passages from various British novels, memoirs, and poetry books, with the action taking place in the shire or historical era denoted in the title.

Kent, in the southeastern portion of England and one of the "home counties" around London, is famous for being the home of Canterbury Cathedral and also for the Romney Marsh coast where smugglers, enraged at the taxes the King imposed on luxury items, especially from France, flourished. With the latter, it is totally appropriate that the first entry is a Christmas tale from Russell Thorndyke's multi-book "Dr. Syn" series, which was made into Walt Disney's noted Scarecrow of Romney Marsh three-part story and later film. Due to Kent's Channel-side location, a Christmas shipwreck story is also in order.

Dickens' happiest childhood days were spent in Kent and The Pickwick Papers' Christmas scenes were set there, so there are two entries from that volume, Christmas Day itself and a Boxing Day spent skating. Nonfiction includes several memoirs from men and women who remember their childhoods in Kent, including a butcher's daughter, and a man who recalls a snowstorm which isolated his family for days over the holidays, and some of the unique customs, including the Hooden Horse, in which players went from house-to-house with a man dressed as a horse as part of their act.

Two Kentish historical events also figure in this volume: the return of Lord Nelson's body after his death at Trafalgar to England where he was interred over the Christmas holidays. Nelson's body was preserved in a barrel of brandy, and, when decanted, was found to be well preserved. The other death was of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury as appointed by Henry II, who then became the King's enemy by taking the church's side against the monarch. Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170.

Other articles address Christmas at the Churchill country residence, Chartwell; unique Kent versions of Christmas songs; royal visits to Eltham; even a recipe for Christmas pudding and an old-fashioned Twelfth Night cake. A nice package of essays, especially the historical ones.

Who...is La Befana?

The story goes that as the Magi made their way west following the Star, they stopped one night at the home of a lone woman, living on her own or widowed we do not know, and asked a favor. Depending on the story, they asked to water the camels, or asked to stop for the night on her land, or perhaps asked to buy any fresh food she had to supplant what dried supplies they had brought with them. This elderly woman was famous in the area she lived for her cleanliness, and she indeed was once again cleaning her small cottage when the Magi stopped by. Legend has it that she was quite rude to them, and may have even refused their request, or given to them what they asked with bad grace.
Yet the Magi treated her respectfully and told her the story of the Child they were looking for. She was too busy scrubbing something to even look up at the Star. Some hours after the Magi left and she'd finished scrubbing, she thought about what they had said about the Child and felt ashamed. She dressed in traveling clothes and stout boots and found a big bag into which she put some toys (whether she bought them or they were her grown children's toys no one knows), looked up in the sky, and began following the Star, too.
Alas, she never caught up with the Magi, and felt so badly that now yearly she travels from home to home on the eve of the Epiphany still looking for the Christ Child. She looks carefully into the face of every child she sees, but since he or she is not the Child she is looking for, she leaves them a toy or a book or something else special instead.

In Italy this gift giver is known as "La Befana," "Befana" coming from the word "Epiphania," from the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. She's portrayed as a typical old Italian woman in a long skirt, cloak, and slippers or shoes, and she rides a broom like a stereotypical witch to get around to search all the children of the earth on Twelfth Night, so she is frequently referred to as "the Christmas witch." La Befana used to be the only gift giver in Italy until the advent of "Babbo Natale," Father Christmas or Santa Claus. So now some lucky Italian children get gifts both on Christmas and Epiphany, and should they live in northern Italy, they often get a visit from "Santo Nicolo," St. Nicholas, too!

This custom also exists one other place, in Russia. There our gift-giver is known as Baboushka.

04 January 2021

The Rise and Flourishment of the Christmas Card

The History of the Christmas Card, George Buday
Oh, I was a bad girl. Someone talked about this book so temptingly on a Christmas group I am on that I hunted down a copy even though I didn't intend to buy any more Christmas books this year. Luckily it was at a reasonable price! This book is a year older than myself, and is a charmingly vintage and scholarly look at the history of the first Christmas card and the "growing," as they say these days, of the custom of sending them. Today we so nonchalantly declare that the first Christmas card was sent by John Calcott Horsley in 1843 that we forget there was a time, as at the printing of this book, that this information had just been recently discovered by scholars. Previously people kept in touch with long Christmas letters, the forerunner of the "Christmas newsletter" some people tuck into their Christmas cards or packages, but busy Horsley was dismayed by the time it took to sit down and write all these missives. He had his friend Sir Henry Cole design the card for him, and then sent it to his friends in lieu of a letter. Others thought it a delightful idea and soon other printers and lithographers were designing these "Christmas cards" and they became fashionable.

How the cards looked also had an interesting history. The first Christmas cards were the size of visiting cards (a slightly larger version of the business card people still used today) that one dropped off in a friend's front hall if you stopped by and that friend was not at home, like postcards. It was only later that they opened and had a sentiment inside. The card was invented, in fact, before the creation of the envelope, so that many times they were technically postcards, with an address scribbled on the reverse side. Eventually these cards became so elaborate, made of not just paper but silks and satins, false "jewels," metallic colored cardboard, metal, feathers, etc. and decorated with elaborate cut-outs and sometimes made to unfold, that they actually substituted as gifts, and people kept them in scrapbooks. Most of Buday's examples, for instance, came from the copious Christmas card scrapbooks kept by Queen Mary, the wife of King George V of Great Britain. So this book has a mainly-British focus, although the Louis Prang company, the original creator of Christmas cards in the United States, and Rust Craft cards, also in the U.S., are mentioned briefly (as is "Hall Brothers," the company that later became the 8000-pound gorilla of cardmakers, Hallmark).

As I said, this is a scholarly book, and Buday goes into minute details of the cards, which include elaborate animated and "mechanical" cards, some of what we would today call "pop-up" cards. The craftsmanship on the latter cards sounds incredible in the detailing included in these works of art, produced on 19th century printing presses and then hand-crafted. Buday also discusses subjects portrayed on cards (he doesn't even try to explain, though, the bizarre Victorian convention of having dead birds, usually robins, on their cards!) and the surprising revelation that, even though Christian groups will try to persuade you that "people were more religious back then," the Nativity is portrayed fewer times on Christmas cards even back in the 19th century, less than sleighs, stagecoaches, holly and ivy, Christmas trees, children, etc.! Included in the cards shown are hand-drawn or hand-embellished cards by "Bertie" (later King George VI) and his daughter as a child, now Queen Elizabeth II. He also traces the style of the Christmas card in correlation with the Valentine cards of the day.

A really "nifty" (excuse the "Addieism") look at Christmas card development over the years if you can deal with the scholarly prose.

02 January 2021

A Snowy Christmas Eve in the Blue Ridge

Re-read: The Homecoming, Earl Hamner Jr.
In 1961, Hamner published his novel Spencer's Mountain, about Clay and Olivia Spencer and their nine children, living a hardscrabble life in Appalachia (specifically the Blue Ridge in Virginia), where Clay works in a soapstone factory. They long to better their children, and most of the story revolves around Clay Spencer Junior, called "Clay-Boy," his growing up and budding teenage feelings, resentment at being the eldest and "babysitter" for the younger children, and feeling the first pangs of romance, while his parents work to raise enough money to send him to college to become a writer as he desires. The book was made into a film in 1963 by Warner Brothers. In 1970, Hamner published this book, a novella about the Spencer family at Christmas, and it was turned into a Christmas movie in 1971, with the names of most of the principals changed because Warner Brothers now "owned" the Spencer family's names.

As The Waltons was a slightly softened version of the television film of this book, the film was a softened-down version of the novel. Although the basic story remains the same—the family father is late returning home from his job thirty miles away (a drive we now make in no more than an hour) and the family anxiously awaiting his arrival—certain details differ. In the book instead of the father's parents, we meet Olivia's parents; the Baldwin sisters are Miss Etta and Miss Emma Staples; Ike Godsey runs the combination pool hall/restaurant, not a store; Clay-Boy only briefly meets Hawthorne Dooley, and Hawthorne does not work for the sisters; Claudie doesn't tell the family about the missionary woman, Birdshot Sprouse does (Birdshot is kind of a Huck Finn character); Clay-Boy goes out to get the Christmas tree alone and has an adventure with a deer (he also smokes); Charlie Sneed isn't a "Robin Hood," he's a poacher hunting out of season to give the food to deserving families; a few other minor things. It's much grittier than the television film, giving one a good sense of just how tough life was for the Virginia working man during the Depression.
If you're a fan of the Christmas film, you owe it to yourself to read the original.

31 December 2020

At the Gate of the Year

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
                                                       . . . from "The Gate of the Year" ("God Knows") by Minnie Haskins

26 December 2020

Who...is St. Stephen?

"Good King Wenceslas went out
On the Feast of Stephen..."

Ever wonder why we sing this song at Christmas, since it mentions the Nativity not at all?

The song is actually meant to be sung on St. Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas, and celebrates the second day of the "twelve days of Christmas" with a plea to the well-to-do to share with those not as economically fortunate. The kindly Wenceslas (who was actually a Polish nobleman, not a king) saw a needy peasant and went out to give him food, drink, and firewood. Because he was holy and doing a kind deed, his very steps were warmed, and his page was able to keep warm as he and Wenceslas walked "a league" (a little over three miles) to the peasant's home.

St. Stephen is celebrated because he was the first martyr in the history of the Christian church. He was stoned to death for opposing the views of the Sanhedrin, the priest class of the Jewish faith. One of the onlookers, who took no part in Stephen's stoning, but made no attempt to stop the event, was a man named Saul. Later he was converted to Christianity and known as St. Paul the Apostle.

St. Stephen's Day is known in Great Britain and other former British colonies as "Boxing Day," and it is customary to give gifts (or "boxes") to the church as well as to people who serve you during the year: the postal carrier, for instance, servants, your lawn service or gardener, etc. It is a legal holiday in Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, and also other European countries like Germany and Serbia. The holiday has also been long associated with horses, and Boxing Day fox hunts used to be popular. Now that foxes are a protected species, the hunts are still held, but with the hounds chasing a dragged cloth with artificial fox or rabbit scent on it.

Winter Fun at the Lake

The Tuckers: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
"Penny Tucker stood on her knees among the cushions of the window seat and pushed her nose against the cold glass. With each fresh gust of wind, hard little white balls shot out of the dark and hit the windows. Across the street every house twinkled with ropes of Christmas lights...[t]onight the PTA was holding a special meeting to celebrate the beginning of Christmas vacation. All of the Tuckers...were to take part. That is, all but...seven-year-old Penny. She had been kept in with a virus infection Nobody had asked her to be on the program."

Children's series books have proliferated since the late 1800s; this was one that was supposed to appeal to both boys and girls: the stories of five children, their parents and grandparents, plus one big black-and-white wooly dog and a black cat. The kids are a rambunctious, but generally-well-behaved bunch, but the youngest girl is not always well and in this Christmas story, she begins to fret that she is becoming lost in her family of achievers. Her oldest sister Tina can bake, her older brother Terry is a builder and his twin sister Merry is musical, and her younger brother Tom is practical—but what can frail Penny do? She finds out when she wishes the family can spend Christmas at their lake cottage: it's a week of fun, friends, festivities, and even suspense, when she and a friend discover an abandoned baby in a trailer.

While written in simple words, Penny's plight is still touching and will appeal to anyone who feels left out by life. The warm events in the cottage and at a nearby farm will enfold you in its Christmas arms; you'll wish you were out, carefree, playing games in the snow and joining the kids in finding a Christmas tree. But it's Penny's search for a place for herself that really makes this book special and sets it above all the other books in the series.

"Wonderingly she thought, 'I've found something I didn't know I was hunting. I've found Christmas.'" In reading this, may you, as well.

25 December 2020

"The Singular Christmas"

The Christmas Survival Book, one of my go-to reads before the holidays, has a chapter about "the singular Christmas." You know the one, where there's a death in the family, a car accident, a hospitalization, or even an emotional shock (author Lawhead uses as one example a woman who told her husband she was leaving him on Christmas Day). I've had singular Christmases, like 1983, when my cousin Sonny was killed by a drunk driver on December 23rd. And some semi-singular Christmases we've had when James had to work and either got sent home early or was able to telework, so we could have dinner with friends but later than usual.

This year we thought we might have another "singular Christmas" as COVID-19 captured the world. However, we had a close circle of friends that have been keeping a low profile during the chaos, and as we gather once a month for haircuts, we thought it would be safe for Christmas dinner. It would be the same group of people, who have been mostly home-bound since March, and we planned to wear masks when not eating. Such was our plan until yesterday afternoon.

We managed to have fun yesterday despite the fact that it was deeply grey, cold, and raining. We did the usual grocery shopping in the morning (the store was slammed, but everyone was very good-humored) and wished everyone in earshot at Publix a Merry Christmas, then came home for lunch and watched Forged in Fire Christmas (they had to make George Washington's sword). Then we decided we needed to do something to cheer up the day, so we did a "drive-by Christmas gift drop." We told Alice we were coming and she left our gifts on a table on their porch and I took those and swapped them with our gifts and waved to Alice through the windows. Then we drove to Mel and Phyllis' house and dropped off late Hanukkah gifts. It was raining in earnest then and starting to get colder and we didn't stop to talk (Phyllis standing six feet away under the roof of the carport and me in a mask) very long. Our final stop was at the Boulers, where we left their bag with the gifts in it on their doorknob, the trip there only interrupted by a brief stop at Lidl to get bread and onions.

We had Tucker with us, since I'd had to take him out a second time in the afternoon because he wouldn't stay out in the rain this morning. He was interested in the trip until he realized it didn't involve food or going for a walk and then he got bored and yawned a lot.

We did make a happy discovery on the way home: Hibachi Grill has reopened! Oh, and it was sleeting instead of raining.

Anyway, it was at least fifteen degrees colder when we got home as when we left, so much so that the rain turned into snow for about a half hour (nothing that stuck; it just looked pretty with the birds at the feeder), and I was damp from getting in and out of the car, so I made some hot chocolate when we got home.

Here's where it went pear shaped. James said, "Wow, I'm cold. I'm so cold I'm shivering." He'd never gotten out of the truck, and at Lidl he'd put the heater on.

I took his temp about three times during the afternoon and he had no fever. But James was visibly shaking and he was flushed. I made dinner (our usual Christmas Eve dinner of macaroni and gravy with pork in it) and he had no appetite and didn't eat much. (He could still smell the gravy and the macaroni, and still taste. He just wasn't hungry.)

And then his temperature started to inch up. 99.5...100.1...100.8...it topped out late that night at 101.5. He finally called the Advice Nurse at Kaiser. She said if we were worried to take him to Urgent Care, but if Tylenol kept the temperature under control we could do self-care. However, if his temp kept going up or if he had any of the warning signs of COVID-19 we needed to make haste to Urgent Care.

Urgent Care. Christmas Eve at Urgent Care. Fluorescent lights and endlessly beeping medical instruments. What a prospect.

Luckily, the Tylenol did keep the temp under control. It got to 99.5. We got through The Homecoming (after my nerves sent me running to the toilet every twenty minutes) and the weather report and pieces of two different Midnight Masses. Then James took a lukewarm shower, and he really did look better afterward; the flush was gone. We finally got into bed about 1:30, and slept all the way until ten, with one potty break at eight.

Ironically, James looked better at eight than he did at ten. At ten he was flushed and his temp back up to 100.5. And he was by then so hungry he was feeling nauseated. Once he ate he was fine, and after the Tylenol, continued to improve. He's been under 100 most of the afternoon.

We didn't really have any lunch, just a good breakfast. Then we broke into the gifts. I got a new Mercedes Lackey paperback, a new wallet (really needed!), and a book-themed mask. I got James the PanAm game he wanted and two other World War II books. We also opened our gifts from Alice and Ken (plenty of keen things including a no-touch soap dispenser) and the big red "Royal Mail" bag from the Lawsons which was full of Terry Pratchett-related things, a nice basin, and other goodies. About two James fixed himself some soup and I ate a bun from Lidl. My stomach was too upset thinking of having to take him to Urgent Care. Late in the afternoon we noticed he had a little rash forming on his left foot, where he also has an ingrown toenail. We have been trying to get into podiatry for three straight weeks now so they can fix the nail; all they said was we'll call you back about an appointment but in the meantime if it looks infected to go to Urgent Care and get antibiotics for the infection. Well, it hasn't looked infected, and I should know, because I'm the person taking care of the toe. However, it does need attention and Urgent Care will not do that.

After this afternoon I'm wondering if the temp is one of two things: an infection in the toe (even though it doesn't look infected) or a UTI. The Urgent Care nurse said that with the fever the one thing he needed was liquid, liquid, liquid, and I don't think he's let out as much as he's taken in.

But anyway...definitely a singular Christmas. This afternoon we've been quietly watching some videos (a history of Christmas and of Santa Claus, The House Without a Christmas Tree, and now I've been watching Ask the Manager Christmas episodes while James surfed the net). Luckily we had turkey thighs in the freezer. We'll have them for dinner with stuffing and some boiled potatoes (I can't rouse enthusiasm for the carrots), and watch more Christmas until the holiday episode of Call the Midwife comes on.

(Goodness, Juanita just stopped by with more goodies!)

"Today, Christ is Born"

Christ was born on Christmas Day;
Wreath the holly, twine the bay;
Christus natus hodie:
The Babe, the Son, the Holy One of Mary.

He is born to set us free,
He is born our Lord to be,
Christus natus hodie:
The God, the Lord, by all ador'd for ever.

Let the bright red berries glow
Ev'rywhere in goodly show;
Christus natus hodie:
The Babe, the Son, the Holy One of Mary.

Christian men, rejoice and sing;
'Tis the birthday of a King,
Christus natus hodie:
The God, the Lord, by all ador'd for ever.

24 December 2020


by John Betjeman

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

23 December 2020

Dashing Through the Snow

Re-read: Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
I’ve been trying to figure out how many years I’ve been reading this book. It was in the Stadium School library, and I guess I got to it about fourth or fifth grade. So…1965 maybe? And then of course a long gap where I was no longer at Stadium School, but remembered this book so fondly until thirty or so years later found a copy, and it was just as full of Christmas joy as I remembered. Frances Frost wrote four books about the Clark family of Webster County, Vermont (not far from the Canadian line), a farming family of the late 1940s/1950s, the protagonist Toby Clark, the eldest boy of three children. Toby loves life on the family’s dairy farm, and his life was complete in the first book of the series, when he received Windy Foot, a fleet-footed large dapple-grey Shetland pony. It’s due to Windy Foot that Toby first meets Tish Burnham, whose father raises race horses.

In this second book in the series, Tish and her dad Jerry are due to visit the Clarks for Christmas. In the meantime, Toby and his sister Betsy and little brother Johnny make preparations for the holiday: Toby cuts down an old sleigh to fit Windy Foot and impatiently awaits the gifts he ordered from the mail order catalog, Betsy and Toby go searching for princess pine and partridge berries to hang on the Christmas tree and see an amazing sight, and Johnny, as always, talks a lot in rhyming verses and is generally cute (okay, sometimes the rhymes get tiresome, but he’s only five). Jim Clark is planning a big Christmas surprise for Betsy to boot, plus there’s a marauding bear come down from the north to add a little excitement.

I still read this book amazed at the amount of work Toby can do–and how much he can eat! He repairs and paints the old sleigh (and polishes up the sleigh bells), shovels snow, helps milk the cows, does other farm chores–all in one day at one point!…no wonder he never gains an ounce! I can’t blame him for wanting to eat, as his mother cooks up all quantities of delicious-sounding food. Living on the farm and near the small town sounds marvelous: there’s gorgeous countryside and wildlife, and it’s a lovely small town with a cozy general store, friendly livery stable and drugstore owners, and the community has carol sings and late shopping days before Christmas. You literally want to don some warm underwear and go skiing, snowshoeing, caroling, and other activities with the Clarks and their crusty but inwardly genial farmhand Cliff. It’s like being in a Hallmark movie, but better, since there’s no little magic elves, picture-perfect holiday community, and drippy love story (unless you count the fact that Jim Clark loves his wife Mary and the feeling is mutual, and that you can see a glimmer of a future down the line where Toby marries Tish).

Yes, it’s only a kid’s book–but a warm and happy Christmas gift of one, with a couple of dramatic moments, especially the one near the end, to remind us that even the best of life is fraught with a little hardship. Come home to Crooked Valley and spend a country Christmas with Toby, Tish, and the rest of the families. This book is worth hunting up a used copy for. The Young Pioneer edition is okay, but the original McGraw-Hill version is the best.

21 December 2020

Boy Bishops, Christmas at the Pub, and Other Stories

A Herefordshire Christmas, Sutton Publishing
I found my first Sutton "Christmas anthologies" (A Worcestershire Christmas, if you care) at a library book sale many years back. When A Surrey Christmas turned up at a subsequent sale I realized this was a series. I think the coronavirus emergency made me a little crazy this year; every time I found a book from this series for less than five dollars with postage, I bought one and managed to accumulate ten (or is it eleven?). These contain short excerpts of Christmas/Christmastide passages from various British novels, memoirs, and poetry books, with the action taking place in the shire or historical era denoted in the title.

The Herefordshire edition of this series is as crammed with Christmas as a traditional Christmas pudding is crammed with raisins. There's an account of caroling in Fownhope, another of wassailing the apple trees (Hereford being noted for its orchards and its cider) in ancient and modern times, a long chapter on traditional Christmas customs, several entries about the old custom of "Burning the Bush" (thirteen piles of brush were set afire around a farmer's fields and then one of them, the Judas pile, snuffed immediately; the rest of the piles, representing Christ and the remaining apostles, burned to give the farmer good luck in raising a crop in the coming year), the story of a ghost encounter, a tale of a good-hearted eighteenth-century landowner in "Tales of Old Ross," even a couple of accounts by children of their Christmas day haul. Recipes featuring cider (natch!) are included, as well as some others, there's Christmas poetry from John Masefield and Thomas Traherne, and even an excerpt from Masefield's classic children's Christmas novel The Box of Delights (a six-part BBC production of this story was a staple for years on Nickelodeon in the 1980s).

Photos and vintage illustrations round off this satisfactory volume!

20 December 2020

"The Time Draws Near the Birth of Christ"

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The time draws near the birth of Christ:
      The moon is hid; the night is still;
      The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.

Four voices of four hamlets round,
      From far and near, on mead and moor,
      Swell out and fail, as if a door
Were shut between me and the sound:

Each voice four changes on the wind,
      That now dilate, and now decrease,
      Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.

This year I slept and woke with pain,
      I almost wish'd no more to wake,
      And that my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again:

But they my troubled spirit rule,
      For they controll'd me when a boy;
      They bring me sorrow touch'd with joy,
The merry merry bells of Yule.