12 December 2019

When You Don't Care Who Gets Murdered...

A Christmas Party, Georgette Heyer
Heyer's Regency romances have been popular since I was a kid, but I never knew she wrote mysteries. A friend told me that she didn't think the mystery stories had the appeal of the Regencies, and if I had to judge all of her mysteries by this one, I'd certainly agree.

Joseph Herriard, a genial former actor, invites family and one close friend to his brother Nathaniel's home Lexham for Christmas (where Joseph and his wife Maud, a colorless former chorus girl, have been living since returning from abroad). There are Joe and Nat's sardonic nephew Stephen, his dippy fiancee Valerie, his niece Paula (excitable actress) and a playwright she drags along in hopes that her Uncle Nat will finance his play, cousin Mathilda Clare, and Nathaniel's business partner Edgar Mottisfont. Joseph seems the only one with Christmas spirit: the rest of the Herriards quarrel with each other incessantly and Nat and his partner are at odds as well, and it's evident Nathaniel hates his nephew's fiancee and the odious playwright, especially after the latter reads his play to the guests before Christmas Eve dinner. Nathaniel goes stamping off to his room to dress for dinner, locking the door behind him—and never comes down again. When a worried Stephen and Joseph break into his room, they find him dead, and bleeding from a wound in his back. The police are called, and, baffled, they finally ask for help from Scotland Yard.

I struggled getting through this book: every single one of the characters, even the officious butler, was so unlikable that it was tempting to wish all of them had been murdered. Even the optimistic Joseph and the pragmatic Mathilda are annoying in their own way. The police characters are dull and colorless until one of the continuing characters in Heyers' mysteries shows up to liven up the proceedings (Inspector Hemingway) and by then you are halfway through the book. They continue to accuse, backbite, and annoy, and then Valerie's even more annoying mother shows up. One can't expect every character in a book to be likeable, but these people are the limit.

The best part of the book is the final two pages, when a character totally does an about-face and leaves you with a dropped jaw.

10 December 2019

Woolworths At Christmastime

A British page: Woolworth's lasted longer there than it did here, but alas, it's gone from Great Britain as well. "Woolies," as the Brits called it, was as popular a store there as it was here. There are still Woolworths stores in Australia.

Christmas Decorations at F.W. Woolworth

Woolworth Christmas Display at the National Christmas Center (sadly, now closed, but supposedly going to open again at another location in 2021).

9 Old-Fashioned Five and Dime Stores Still Existing

I still have a Woolworth's star on our Christmas tree. I always pray it holds out! I remember buying Shiny Brite ornaments, plain and stenciled, there, and also individual figures for the "manger scene" under the tree.

Remembering Woolworth's is a great book about the store.

09 December 2019

"30 Minutes of Disappointing Television"

...or maybe, one holiday broadcast to remember:

Mike Rowe's "The Way I Heard It" Podcast

Can you imagine Christmas today without those songs? Or without those classic lines of dialog?

Happy 54th anniversary!

07 December 2019

Beatrix Potter Was Very Frugal and Other Stories

A Lakes Christmas, compiled by Sheila Richardson
Alan Sutton Publishing has a series of these "Christmas anthologies," the first which I bought at a book sale several years ago. Now I try to pick them up used when they're a dollar or under, with the postage as the bulk of the purchase. I had two others picked out originally, then decided to get this one and A Fenland Christmas because of thoughts of Beatrix Potter and Lord Peter Wimsey, respectively.

I was expecting a selection from Potter, actually, or something about her life on her beloved Hill Top Farm, but instead was amused to find her included in "Party Time at Sawrey," the remembrances of a young "cottager" who attended the children's parties given by the wealthier members of the community. She recalls the best party was given by a Mr. Edmondson, who had a big Christmas tree, treats like cakes and trifle served in the ballroom of his big house, a gift to take home, and even a Charlie Chaplin film! "Mrs. Heelis" (Beatrix Potter) gave them jam sandwiches in her chilly barn, and only gave them an orange to take home. Once a little boy untied all the girls' pigtails and pinafores, and she forbade him from coming to her party again, so none of the other children attended, and there were no more parties at Hill Top Farm!

The entries in each of the books is variable, but this one has some interesting ones: the Christmas memories of an evacuee, the first landing of an aircraft in the Lakes area, excerpts from the diary of Dorothy Wordsworth (who apparently has been rediscovered after slipping into the shadow of her more famous brother, poet William Wadsworth), going to visit Father Christmas on a narrow-gauge railway train, taking care of the sheep during the snowy winters, traditional Lakeland treats like rum butter, medieval miracle plays, several essays about frosts so severe that horses drawing coaches could cross the ice of the lakes, an interesting account about trail hounds (who are one year old on January 1, just like race horses), accounts of winter services in the area churches, and several tales of climbing the mountains around the Lakes, including one about rescue operations.

A charming mixture of very old (going back to 1500!) through the 1950s!

The biggest surprise: nothing mentioned at all about Arthur Ransome, who wrote so lovingly about the Lake country in his children's adventures beginning with Swallows and Amazons.

05 December 2019

One of the First Christmas Trees in the United States

From the Colonial Williamsburg podcast:

Professor Minnigerode Lights a Tree

Karl Minnigerode led quite a life; check out his biography!

04 December 2019

Is Santa Claus Really the Heir of St. Nicholas?

Re-read: Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker
I hadn't read this book since I bought it, and I had forgotten the amazing case Siefker makes for her theory.

We all know the story: a selfless man named Nicholas became a bishop, performed various miracles and was canonized as a saint. He became one of the primary gift-givers in Europe at Christmastime, and then was brought to the United States by the Dutch. They called him "Sinter Klaas," which was mutated into "Santa Claus."

Well...maybe. Because, according to Siefker, the jolly old elf of Clement Clark Moore fame who became popular in the the US, a chubby man all tarnished with ashes and soot who came through chimneys, consorted with reindeer, carried a big sack on his back, and who could seemingly travel the world in the wink of an eye didn't descend from Nicholas at all, but from the enigmatic, vengeful partner that the good saint had in Europe, the one who actually punished the bad children (since kindly St. Nicholas was too gentle to do so). This creature was variously known as "Black Peter," or "Knecht Ruprecht," or "Hans Trapp," and even then he wasn't even what he seemed, but was descended from the pagan "Wild Man" who was the spirit of the forest and who kept the land fertile. When he appeared in village plays he was usually portrayed in fur and sometimes half animal, such as a goat, and phallic symbolism was often used. Some of his other legendary relatives were Robin Hood, Robin Goodfellow (Puck), and Herne the Hunter, and he was also the ancestor of the mischievous Harlequin. And there were also female spirits of the forest who were associated with winter: Frau Holle, for example, and the spirits Berchta and Perchta. He was even associated with the elves and fairies, which past histories declared to be true.

The only existing traces of this Wild Man today, we are told, are the rapidly disappearing Ainu on the north island of Japan, who are intermarrying with the Japanese. They still carry on the customs of their ancestors, which include raising bears (today they are kept as pets until age two, but previously they were sacrificed).

Some fascinating theories in this offbeat Christmas book. (But, beware, it's a McFarland small press book, so it's expensive!)

"Ballad of Christmas"

O sing a song of Christmas!
Pockets full of gold;
Plums and cakes for Polly's stocking.
More than it can hold.

Pudding in the great pot,
Turkey on the spit,
Merry faces round the fire,—
Sorrow? Not a bit!

Sing a song of Christmas!
Carols in the street,
People going home with bundles
Everywhere we meet.

Holly, fir, and spruce boughs
Green upon the wall,
Spotless snow upon the road,—
More about to fall.

Sing a song of Christmas!
Empty pockets here;
Windows broken, garments thin,
Stove all black and drear.

Noses blue and frosty,
Fingers pinched and red,
Little hungry children going
Supperless to bed.

Sing a song of Christmas,—
Tears are falling fast;
Empty is the baby's chair
Since't was Christmas last.

Wrathfully the north wind
Wails across the snow;
Is there not a little grave
Frozen down below?

Sing a song of Christmas!
Thanks to God on high
For the tender hearts abounding
With His charity!

Gifts for all the needy,
For the sad hearts, love,
And a little angel smiling,
In sweet heaven above.

03 December 2019

Vintage Christmas Videos

These are Christmas stories from the 1950s done either as shorts for a Christian film company, Cathedral Films, or were shorts done on anthology television series. They are all heartwarming if a bit old-fashioned.

"Star of Bethlehem" (the story of the Nativity told with narration and silhouettes)

"Three Young Kings" (three young Hispanic boys re-enact the story of the journey of the Magi)

"Christmas is Magic" (a war widow and her son take in an amnesiac veteran at Christmas)

"Holy Night" (the first part of "The Living Christ" series, about the Nativity)

"God's Christmas Gift" (a little girl learns that Christmas is more than about gifts)

"Child of Bethlehem" (a live-action black-and-white Nativity story)

"The Christmas Spirit" Part 1 and Part 2 (the story of a boy who wants a pony for Christmas)

"The Guiding Star" Part 1 and Part 2 (Uncle Henry solves the family's Christmas problems in his own way)

02 December 2019

Vintage Carols and Poems: "Greetings"

by Sydney Grey

Can there be any greetings, I wonder,
To feeling and friendship more dear,
Than the two that so seldom we sunder—
"Merry Christmas and Happy New Year"?

When affection's whole force is paraded,
A genial warfare to wage,
And each holly-crowned home is invaded,
Like that on the frontispiece page.

Our artist has surely with reason
Permitted his fancy to rove,
For good wishes just now are in season,
And letter-bags bursting with love.

Here's a bit of young madcap's sweet folly,
Which grandpapa's laughter will stir;
Here's a card to dear Ted from Aunt Molly,
And somebody's missive to her.

Cousin Tom has a certain small token,
The sender it fails to avow,
But I doubt not his thanks will be spoken
Very close to the mistletoe bough.

Well--away on your mission, fair greetings,
High embassy yours to fulfil;
Ever hailed amid joyous heart-beatings,
The pledges of peace and good-will.

01 December 2019

There's More to the Christmas Story...

Light of the World, Amy Jill Levine
This is an Advent book with a twist. The author is Jewish, and teaches New Testament classes at a university. As a Jew, she knows the Old Testament history behind the heritage, customs, and forebears of the main characters in the Christmas story: Zechariah and Elizabeth, and then Mary and Joseph, and finally the young Jesus, and also the historical events that help anchor the story to what was happening in the area that is now the Middle East.

Levine also gives more than a cursory reference to the women involved in the story, including the involvement of Elizabeth, who would give birth to the boy known later as John the Baptist, and other Biblical women, including Moses' sister Miriam, Deborah, Hannnah, Anna (St. Anne, mother of Mary), and another Anna, a prophet who meets Jesus as an infant when he is presented at the temple. She weighs the differences between the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew, and discusses the erroneous details we have given to events like the arrival of the Magi (they are never referred to as Kings, nor do we know how many there were).

I enjoyed Levine's threading of the events approaching the Nativity back to details mentioned in the Old Testament, and the explanation of traditional Jewish customs and how this would have affected each of the main characters in a story we have all learned by heart. Recommended if you are looking for a new aspect to Advent devotions.

First Sunday of Advent

For the first Sunday of Advent, the theme is Hope.

This Advent, Lord, come to the manger of my heart.
Fill me with Your presence from the very start.
As I prepare for the holidays and gifts to be given,
Remind me of the gift You gave when You sent Your Son from Heaven.
The first Christmas gift, it was the greatest gift ever.
You came as a baby born in a manger.
Wrapped like the gifts I find under my tree,
Waiting to be opened, to reveal Your love to me.
Restore to me the wonder that came with Jesus' birth,
When He left the riches of Heaven and wrapped Himself in rags of earth.
Immanuel, God with us, Your presence came that night.
And angels announced, "Into your darkness, God brings His Light."
"Do not be afraid," they said, to shepherds in the field.
Speak to my heart today, Lord, and help me to yield.
Make me like those shepherd boys, obedient to Your call.
Setting distractions and worries aside, to You I surrender them all.
Surround me with Your presence, Lord, I long to hear Your voice.
Clear my mind of countless concerns and all the holiday noise.
Slow me down this Christmas, let me not be in a rush.
In the midst of parties and planning, I want to feel Your hush.
This Christmas, Jesus, come to the manger of my heart.
Invade my soul like Bethlehem, bringing peace to every part.
Dwell within and around me, as I unwrap Your presence each day.
Keep me close to You, Lord. It's in Your wonderful Name I pray.

~~~~~~~Renee Swope, “The Manger of My Heart” (under "Advent" at Christianity.com)

30 November 2019

"We'll Keep Our Christmas Merry Still..."

from Marmion by Sir Walter Scott

Heap on more wood!-the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.
Each age has deem’d the new-born year
The fittest time for festal cheer:
Even, heathen yet, the savage Dane
At Iol more deep the mead did drain;
High on the beach his galleys drew,
And feasted all his pirate crew;
hen in his low and pine-built hall,
Where shields and axes deck’d the wall,
They gorged upon the half-dress’d steer;
Caroused in seas of sable beer;
While round, in brutal jest, were thrown
The half-gnaw’d rib, and marrow-bone,
Or listen’d all, in grim delight,
While scalds yell’d out the joys of fight.
Then forth, in frenzy, would they hie,
While wildly-loose their red locks fly,
And dancing round the blazing pile,
They make such barbarous mirth the while,
As best might to the mind recall
The boisterous joys of Odin’s hall.

And well our Christian sires of old
Loved when the year its course had roll’d,
And brought blithe Christmas back again,
With all his hospitable train.
Domestic and religious rite
Gave honour to the holy night;
On Christmas eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas eve the mass was sung:
That only night in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
The damsel donn’d her kirtle sheen;
The hall was dress’d with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry-men go,
To gather in the mistletoe.
Then open’d wide the Baron’s hall
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And Ceremony doff’d his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose;
The Lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of ‘post and pair.’
All hail’d, with uncontroll’d delight,
And general voice, the happy night,
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.

The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide:
The huge hall-table’s oaken face,
Scrubb’d till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
 Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar’s head frown’d on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
Well can the green-garb’d ranger tell,
How, when, and where, the monster fell;
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassel round, in good brown bowls,
Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie:
Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
‘Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.           

29 November 2019

It's Hot Cocoa and Cookies Time Again

Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, edited by Amy Newmark
It's time for another collection of warm and fuzzy Christmas tales from the Chicken Soup folks. As always some of them are deeply sentimental, but some of them are downright funny, too, like the story of the ugly elves, the traditional Norwegian breakfast ale, and the one-page poem about an unexpected flight. You'll meet reindeer named Chester and another named Fwank, tales of homemade gifts that meant so much to the givers and the recipients, the pony that wasn't quite the gift a little girl expected, acts of kindness to people in trouble, wonky Christmas decorations, a young man who spends an unexpected Christmas with a Jewish congregation in need of one more participant, a fruitcake that goes to the Mideast and a happy gift that makes a difference in Kenya, and more.

There are also some recipes, Charlie Brown Christmas trees abound, and a nice warm blanket of words to keep you cozy over the holidays.

This year's treat for 2019.

28 November 2019

Happy Christmas With the Happy Hollisters

The Happy Hollisters and the Trading Post Mystery, Jerry West
One of the most fun children's series of the 1950s was the "Happy Hollisters," about the lively Hollister family: Dad owns a combination sports/hobby/toy store called The Trading Post in the lakeside community of Shoreham, and, of course, Mom stays at home supervising her active brood: the two elder, more responsible children Pete, 12, and Pam, 10, then mischievous Ricky, age seven, and sparkling Holly, age six, and finally little Sue, who's only four, plus Zip the collie and White Nose and her kittens (who stay kittens for the duration of the books). Author Andrew Swenson (Jerry West) based the kids on his own children and the stories on trips the family took, adding simple mysteries to drive the plots. I was never able to read these as a child, and began picking them up one and two at book sales or used book stores, and recently ordered three of the reprints.

Then I found out all of them are available to read if you have Kindle Unlimited, and this was the first one I had not yet read. As I somehow managed to turn up an Easter-themed one last April, and still had the Cape Canaveral-set book left to read for the anniversary of the moon landing, this book is providentially set at Christmastime.

In a previous book, The Happy Hollisters at Mystery Mountain, little Sue fell in love with a black burro, and the owner promised to send the little donkey to them as a gift for helping his family. Now it's just before Christmas, and Domingo is on the way! But when they retrieve him from the airport, he has a cryptic rhyme attached to his bridle, and even when they take him home new little rhymes keep showing up in his stall.

In the meantime, the kids prepare for Christmas at school by studying Yuletide customs in other countries, their uncle and aunt and cousins arrive for the holidays, and they participate in their dad's wonderful idea for a Christmas promotion at the Trading Post: if people buy toys for charity, he will discount them. And, to advertise the store, he's bought a complete Santa Claus outfit for the roof, Santa, sleigh, reindeer and all. It's a great promotion and they're collecting lots of toys—until sneak thieves steal the entire outfit one night! So now the kids have two mysteries to solve.

It's another breathless adventure where modern kids will gape at the idea of Pete and Ricky being able to go search for thieves with a friend (riding an iceboat on a frozen lake, no less), and the kids track down clues on their own, all with no hovering adults—although Dad and Officer Cal and several other adults seem to turn up when the Hollisters and friends need them most. The odious Joey Brill and his buddy Will Wilson are back as well, and no matter how many times they get reprimanded, they're always good for yet another mean prank.

These are great, lively books with imaginative kids who make their own fun rather than sit around and play video games, love each other and help each other unashamedly, and if some old-fashioned terms (the Hollisters have a friend who is Native American who is referred to as an "Indian") and stereotypical sex roles (the boys help with "boy" chores and the girls usually clean up, but all the kids participate in the adventures) work their way into the tales, they can be used as teaching moments to compare changing attitudes. This particular book bubbles with all the glow of a classic midcentury Christmas.

A Thanksgiving Feast With a Side of Owl

As for many years now, Thanksgiving Day began with the Macy's parade. I still remember fondly waking up upon Thanksgiving morning and rushing to get breakfast so I could park myself before the television and watch the parades on CBS. They had the "Thanksgiving Parade Jubilee," showing parts of the J.L. Hudson parade in Detroit (Hudson's is long gone, but one of their offspring survives: Target; the parade survives as "America's Parade," I discovered this year), Gimbel's parade in Philadelphia (Gimbel's is gone, but Philly still has a parade), the pre-recorded Eaton's Santa Claus Parade (which, as I read in a book about the parade, long confused Canadian broadcasters on why the Americans wanted a Christmas parade on Thanksgiving; Eaton's is also gone, but Toronto still holds the parade), and finally the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade usually coming in last to present Santa Claus. In the real "old days" it was hosted by Captain Kangaroo from the Treasure House, later William Conrad took over the host duties from a richly-appointed men's den, drinking a toast at the very end. Later they ditched the Hudson's parade and started showing a parade from Hawaii with Jack Lord as the host (who the dickens wanted to watch flowers on Thanksgiving? I wondered), and Gimbel's got tossed in favor of a Walt Disney parade. Now CBS also has Macy's coverage and I heard the CW has the parade from Philadelphia. Probably had I known the latter I might have changed channels. Macy's has turned into, amazingly, not a big ad for Macy's, but a big ad for a bunch of young singing stars. Most of them were good, but who really cares? The announcers spend too much time yapping and promoting upcoming NBC shows.

This year, it was the commercials that were amazing. First came a four-minute epic from Xfinity, about a distant traveler who comes home for the holidays. Next came a magical visit to "The Time Shop" (I want to visit there!) with echoes of Narnia. And finally a little girl gets to ask all those pressing things a kid wants to know from the oddest of sources.

In the meantime James was in the kitchen cooking up goodies for our Friendsgiving feast, corn casserole and brown-sugar-glazed carrots, plus we had some Belgian chocolate seashells to bring along. We set the National Dog Show to recording and skipped out about one o'clock to find the feast about to begin at the Lucyshyn house. We had turkey, duck, pot roast, spiral-sliced ham, a whole passel of vegetables, Ron's mashed potatoes, a relish tray, bread, and, after all that, two kinds of pies, blondies, the chocolates, and brown bread with raisins (Oreta had to give out the recipe for the latter because it was so popular). We spent the time chatting, enjoying, and digesting.

The apex of the day was just after the sun had set. A line of orange and yellow was still on the western horizon, brightening the gap between two houses behind the Lucyshyn back yard, but above it, it was beginning to get dark and a quarter moon with Venus dangling beneath it was hung in the deep blue western sky just above the orange streak. I only had my phone with me, but I thought I might try to take a picture of it. So I went outside and snapped several photos.

Clair had followed me outside and both of us heard an owl hoot several times. Clair suddenly said "There it is!" and  pointed out the tallest tree in the neighborhood, silhouetted black against the southwestern sky. There at the top of the tree was the owl—we could see it stretch out every time it hooted, showing its head and tail! And then a few minutes later a second owl flew up to the same tree, different branch, and they hooted back and forth at each other for a few minutes, sketched against the sky like an Arthur Rackham illustration. Magical!

We drove home after admiring yet again the neighborhood overachievers nearby (the house at the very entrance of the development across from Alex and Pat's development) who had the front of their house covered with lighted Christmas trees, a manger scene, Snoopy on his doghouse, light spheres hanging from the trees, and so much more. (As a friend of mine might say, it looked like something had barfed up Christmas all over the place.) When I got home I went to the Cornell Ornithology website to identify the hoots, and it seemed we had two Great Horned Owls up in that tree! Clair confirmed that it was probably mating season for them, and what we saw might have been an attempt at courtship.

Turkey for dinner, owls in the night sky, and budgie song when we got home: that's what I call a Thanksgiving Day!

For Your Thanksgiving Library

• Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience

• This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

• The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America

• Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

• Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday

• Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History

• 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving

• Mayflower 1620: A New Look at a Pilgrim Voyage

27 November 2019

What Are You Reading for December?

Here's my pile!

This is all but Merry Midwinter, which I liked so much as in e-book I bought a real one, but it hasn't yet arrived.

A Lakes Christmas, A Fenland Christmas, and A Wartime Christmas are part of Sutton Publishing's Christmas series; they are short excerpts of Christmas/Christmastide passages from various British novels, memoirs, and poetry books, with the action taking place in that shire or era. I buy these when I can find inexpensive copies (these were 38¢ each plus postage). I chose the fenland one in memory of The Nine Tailors (and was surprised to find the opening passages from that book in the text) and the Lakes book due to Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome and was equally surprised to find no contributions from either, although Potter's town of Sawrey was mentioned.

I've never read a Georgette Heyer book. I hear her Regency romances are better than the mysteries, but I shall try this one out. I love English country house mysteries.

There's also a book in one of my series (the Witch City mysteries) that is set at Christmas.

Of course I plan to re-read my annual favorites: A Christmas Carol, Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Christmas After All, and The Cottage Holiday.

What's in your book pile?