25 March 2017

Rudolph Day, March 2017

There is a myth that more people commit suicide during the holiday season than any other. According to "Psychology Today," "...[c]ontrary to popular belief, the suicide rate peaks in the springtime, not the wintertime. This is probably because the rebirth that marks springtime accentuates feelings of hopelessness in those already suffering with it. In contrast, around Christmas time most people with suicidal thoughts are offered some degree of protection by the proximity of their relatives and, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, the prospect of 'things getting better from here.'"

Nevertheless, sometimes Christmas can be sad if a family member or close friend has passed away.


CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW

The 13th Gift, Joanne Huist Smith
When Joanne's husband Rick died several months before Christmas, it left the entire family adrift. Joanne could no longer sleep in their bedroom, eldest son Ben takes refuge in driving dangerously, middle child Nick disappears into his video games, and youngest girl Megan is the only one who seems to know that Christmas is approaching, keeping up a hopeful vibe even as she cries alone. Joanne simply wishes she could sweep the holidays under the rug and bury herself in her grief. Then, twelve days before Christmas, the family finds a poinsettia on the doorstep with a little rhyme attached intimating there will be other surprises to come.

This is a sad but hopeful little book, about twelve simple little gifts that became so much more. I have to admit I was a little angry at the mom. She had let her grief consume her so much that she didn't see how badly their father's death was affecting the children. I appreciated how devastated she was but also felt sorry for the children, who really needed the support. After my dad died my mom never forgot that I was hurting, too. But then I have never been in that spot and will never be; you never know how grief will affect someone. Thankfully they had relatives nearby that helped out some, but it seemed very touch-and-go with the two boys.

Smith's story makes her grief and fears very real, and that both made me want to see what happened and yet at the same time it was hard to bear her sorrows. This might be a tough book to get through if you have suffered the loss of a loved one. Take heart: you will find out the origin of the gifts and what prompted them. Both heartwarming and affirming.

25 February 2017

Rudolph Day, February 2017


With Valentine's Day a big focus of February, love is the theme, and love is the theme of the following Christmas books:

The Birds' Christmas Carol, Kate Douglas Wiggin
"Her cheeks and lips were as red as holly-berries, her hair was for all the world the color of a Christmas candle-flame,her eyes were bright as stars, her laugh like the chime of Christmas bells..."
Wiggin is most well-known for her championing of the kindergarten movement and her timeless character Rebecca Randall, the girl from Sunnybrook Farm, but another of her perennial favorites is this short tale of little Carol Bird, born on Christmas Day and named after the songs playing as she was born. As in the manner of so many Victorian children, Carol is a sickly child and lives an invalid life in her room, which is as fine as her father and mother and three older brothers could make it. She occupies part of her shut-in days watching a big family of poor Irish children play outside. On her tenth birthday, she has the idea to invite the little Ruggles children for a Christmas surprise.

While very quaint and with a rather typical heartrending "invalid child" plot, this is nevertheless a sweet holiday story along with a soft story of unselfishness. It's also a lovely window on how Christmas was celebrated in the 1880s.

The Story of Holly and Ivy, Rumer Godden
"This is a story about wishing..."
Holly, a little Christmas doll, is the newest toy in Mr. Blossom's toy shop in the village of Aylesbury, dreams of having a little girl of her own on Christmas Eve, if nothing else to escape Abracadabra, the scoffing stuffed owl who all the other toys are afraid of. Ivy, an orphan at St. Agnes' Orphanage, doesn't even get chosen to spend Christmas with a kind family; instead Miss Shepherd is sending her to St. Agnes' infants home for the holiday. But Ivy instead gets off the train in Aylesbury, where she stubbornly insists she has a grandmother. And Mrs. Jones, the childless wife of the Aylesbury police constable, wakes up Christmas Eve wishing for a little girl.

Well, of course it works out just as you think it might, but it's the getting there that's all the fun. In simple language that can be understood by the youngest child but with great use of words, Godden describes Ivy's and Mrs. Jones' loneliness to perfection, and her account of the wonderful toy shop and the village market makes you long to spend the holidays in a small English town. I have the Scholastic reprint of the original novel, which is illustrated with inventive and thematic red and green pencil drawings, but there's also a version illustrated by Barbara Cooney that's very nice (although for some reason the name of the town has been changed to Appleton). You don't have to be a child to enjoy this luminous Christmas tale.

The Thirteen Days of Christmas, Jenny Overton
I don't remember where or when I found this book, probably on a Borders remainder pile, but I hadn't read it in a while and had forgotten how funny it was.

After the death of their mother, Prudence, Christopher, and James Kitson, plus their father, are at the mercy of their elder sister Anne (who prefers to be known as "Annaple" because it's a more "romantic" name) whose mind wanders to fantasy thoughts while she's cooking, with most of her meals turning out inedible. Wealthy Francis Vere is in love with Annaple, but, stoked by fairy tales and lush romances, she thinks Francis rather dull. When the children confer with Francis about what to get Annaple as a Christmas gift, they tell him to be imaginative—and on Christmas morning, Frances shows up with a unique present for his persnickety love: a trained partridge in a miniature pear tree. But it's only the first day of Christmas, and there are eleven more surprises in store.

Overton mixes long-abandoned Yuletide customs, when each of the twelve days of Christmas and Epiphany had their own meaning and celebrations and even their own carol, with the hilarious story of mercurial Annaple and her very serious suitor, who takes the Kitson children's ideas and turns them into an inventive method of courtship that gets funnier and funnier as each day dawns and the neighbors start to turn out to see what will happen next. The songs quoted are authentic medieval music and old customs like the Boy Bishop, blessing of keys, "churching day" (bringing the baby Jesus into church and singing a lullaby to Him), lighting fresh candles on New Year's Day, etc. take place. (Actually, this probably takes place after 1582, when the Christian church re-established January 1 as New Year's Day. Before that, celebrating New Year on that date was considered pagan.)

This would be a great book to start on Christmas Eve (the first chapter takes place on St. Nicholas Day, but it probably could be read together with the Christmas Eve chapter) and then read one chapter each day for the twelve days and and Epiphany.

Plus the ultimate romantic Christmas short story: "The Gift of the Magi"



(You can find the pattern for the pretty heart here!)

14 February 2017

Will You Be My Valentine?

A diamond (and the bill for it) is forever? Tennis bracelets? Weekend getaways that cost more than your wedding? Ruth's Christ Steak House?

Let's have some fun and information for Valentine's Day instead.

39 Vintage Valentine's Day Card Fails (there are more than 39)

Single on Valentine's Day? Who Cares?

Celebrating Valentine's Day With a Box of Chocolates

How Chocolates and Valentine's Day Mated for Life

Who Is Cupid?

Vinegar Valentines

Happy Valentine's Day: I Hate You

02 February 2017

Candlemas Day is Here Again

February 2 has many names. In the Christian calendar it is Candlemas, Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which commemorates the presentation of Jesus Christ in the temple, and the purification of the Virgin Mary (a ritual performed the traditional forty days after a boy's birth). Called "Candlemas" because the church's candles were blessed upon that day, you were supposed to toss your used candles and light a fresh, blessed candle instead. (Presumably if you could afford to do so!)

All About Candlemas

Candlemas: From Time and Date

Candlemas Day in Dartmoor, England

Robert Herrick wrote this classic rhyme about Candlemas Day, which was the final day one could keep up Christmas greens without calling down bad luck upon oneself!

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with holly, ivy, all.
Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.


February 2 is also a ritual feast day in pagan circles, Imbolc. The goddess Brigit's day falls on this date. Many of the traits of Brigit have been carried over to the Irish St. Bridget or Brigid, also called Bride.

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/517%2BuNKBClL._AC_SL230_.jpg
I just finished reading the book at left, which is primarily for those of the Wiccan persuasion; however, it fully explores Brigit's ties with St. Brigid/Bride with a lengthy account of the goddess, her symbols, and the similarities between herself and the saint. Since Candlemas is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the day traditionally acknowledges the lengthening of the days and the lessening of winter's grip upon the countryside. Some of the symbols associated with Brigit and Brigid are snowdrops, sheep (lambing signifying the arrival of spring), and cows (freshening due to calving). The book also contains traditional recipes associated with Candlemas, end of winter, spring, and Ireland.

Groundhog Day stems from the belief in Germanic countries that the weather on Candlemas Day predicted the remainder of the season. Their "weather creature," however, was the badger!

The rhyme associated with this event is as follows:

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight,
But if Candlemas Day be clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.”

25 January 2017

Rudolph Day, January 2017

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.


Do you love photographs like this as much as I do? Do you sometimes want to leap into vintage photographs—especially Christmas photographs—and see what it was all really like? To see the ornaments you remember from Grandma's Christmas tree in the store window all new and shiny like they are here? To look overhead and see Christmas garlands and wreaths overhang the city streets, and then pan downward for the elaborately decorated Christmas windows showing this year's novelty toys, games, fashions, furniture, and appliances? To see the shoppers dressed in the clothing of the time and listen to their chatter? Maybe it would be something funny—"My goodness, my last date was a real sad apple! I told him '23 skidoo!'"—or it could even be something sad: "I wish Bob could be home for Christmas. Being stationed in the South Pacific must be gruesome, and Mama and Papa miss him so much." There could be happy smells of roasting peanuts and chestnuts from street vendors, the scent of coffee wafting out of a nearby coffee shop, the tantalizing odor of that Chinese restaurant down the street. On a cold day your scarf would flutter in your face and the ubiquitous awnings over store windows would flap in the breeze, and once your shopping was done you'd be glad to retreat to a warm diner for "a cup of joe" and some pie or the bus station to wait for your ride home.

Then I have a book for you! This is A Very Vintage Christmas by Bob Richter. Richter collects all things vintage Christmas, starting from when he was a little boy and his father gave him a box of old Christmas ornaments to start his collection. The book is filled with beautiful full-color photos of vintage ornaments ranging from gilded paper Dresdens and kugels to turn-of-the-century figurals to wire-trimmed "scraps" to unsilvered paper-capped World War II ornaments. He chats about the best way to decorate a Christmas tree, how to make little Christmas "vignettes" for every room of your house, and things that you can collect that have nothing to do with ornaments and lights: vintage Christmas cards, old photographs, postcards, placards once used in stores, Christmas sheet music, old magazines, etc. that can be combined with greenery and simple items like paper chains, beads, and old plastic Santa and reindeer to make great nostalgic displays, as he shows in his own home.

Whether you wish to also begin a vintage Christmas collection or you just want to bask in the happy comfort of nostalgia, this volume should satisfy—you may not want to come back to January.

15 Old Fashioned Christmas Craft Ideas

06 January 2017

Love and Inspiration

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
A Tree for Peter, Kate Seredy
I became a fan of Kate Seredy in elementary school when I read The Good Master and The Singing Tree in the library. Her wonderful stories combined with her evocative illustrations were as good as pied piper songs. In junior high I found a new favorite, The Chestry Oak, and in college The Open Gate. Ironically my least favorite book of hers so far is the one that won the Newbery Medal, The White Stag.

I'd heard about A Tree for Peter for years, but never had a chance to read it until its recent republishing. There is a Christmas element to the story, but it's not really a Christmas story—but yet it is, if you believe in the story of hope and renewal that is essential to the Christmas mythos. Small Peter is a lame boy who lives in a shantytown of abandoned homes, the only place his mother can find to live after his father's death and medical bills have stripped her of everything. She works in a laundry six days a week to feed and clothe them, while Peter stays alone. Shy and afraid, six-year-old Peter hides from the rough boys in the area and even the tall policeman who comes every day, until he befriends a tramp also named Peter, Peter King. It's "King Peter" who stills his fears and brings joy (and the gift of a little red spade) to his life—and doing so plants a seed of hope in the community.

Cynics will find it a corny story. The rest of us will find it inspiring, a modern-day parable about what kindness and community can do. One wishes the illustrations in the new edition were not so muddy, as they are beautiful examples of Seredy's art. A splendid book to end Christmastide.

Christmas in the Country

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Country Diary Christmas Book, Sarah Hollis
PBS's Masterpiece Theatre initially chugged along with costume epics like The First Churchills, but its breakout moment came as people got immersed in the life of the Bellamy family in the Edwardian-era Upstairs, Downstairs. 1970s' Downton Abbey, Americans who couldn't tell Edward VII (the portly one) from Edward VIII (the one who abdicated) and thought Brits were all upper-class twits were crazy for the program and its characters, especially parlourmaid Rose (Jean Marsh) and her fellow servants. Suddenly Edwardian-era things were all in demand. In the meantime, a member of Edith Holden's family cherished an illustrated nature diary the young woman had kept in 1906. Edith's watercolors of birds and plants, combined with diary notations and quotations, was finally published in a facsimile edition in 1977 as Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Snapped up by Upstairs, Downstairs fans, the book spun off blank books, notepaper, china, etc. Another of Edith's diaries emerged in the 1980s and was published as Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady.

Author Sarah Hollis compiled several other books based on Edith's book, and I don't remember when and where I found this one, probably on the remainder table at Borders, but it's been a cherished part of my Christmas library and Christmas reading for years. It's an irresistible combination of winter entries from Edith's diaries, and paintings (including some by Beatrix Potter), engravings, poetry, essays, excerpts from books, Edwardian-themed Christmas cards, recipes, small crafts, and other Edwardian-era items that make you feel you are back in a wood-paneled, gaslit home accented with the heavenly scent of candles, evergreens, polished wood, and Christmas goodies cooking in the kitchen. It's perfect bedtime reading for Advent and Christmastide: warm, soothing, nostalgic. If these are the things that mean "Christmas" to you, find a copy of this book. A Christmas classic!

Happy Epiphany!


Why Christians Celebrate the Feast Day

Epipany and Theophany Around the World

The Vatican's Epiphany of the Lord, celebrated this year on Sunday, January 8

05 January 2017

What ARE The Twelve Days of Christmas?

Epiphany by Janet McKenzie
Just what are the twelve days of Christmas? Well, the commercial community will have you believe they are the twelve days before Christmas, during which you need to spend, spend, spend to make sure you give your family and friends their due gifts. It's a cynical slap at what used to be twelve days of merrymaking between Christmas Day—the first Day of Christmas—and January 5, which is celebrated as Twelfth Night. (Those in Shakespeare's time knew this, hence his play, "Twelfth Night," as the merrymaking reaches its peak.)

January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, generally regarded as the date on which the magi from the east found the child Jesus. (The Bible makes no mention of three "kings" or three of anything at all, except the gifts that are mentioned: gold, frankincense, and myrrh—and these may be symbolic. The magi or "wise men" are never said to be kings, and they do not arrive at the stable along with the shepherds—the translation clearly indicates a house, and Jesus is described as a "young child," not a baby. They may have reached the family several years after his birth, which explains Herod's order to kill all male children up to two years old.)

Even then, Christmastide is not over for many segments of the population. Scandinavians celebrate until January 13, "Knut," when they dance around the Christmas tree and then plunder its contents (since the tree is often decorated with cookies). Eastern Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar, so Christmas falls on January 7 and Epiphany (Theophany) is not until the 19th.

Even further in the past, folks left up their Christmas greenery until Candlemas, February 2. But, after that, it's bad luck to keep it up. (This may come from sensible reasoning: Christmas greens back then were fresh, and the longer they remained up, the drier and more flammable they became!)

* * Wikipedia Entry * *

04 January 2017

All is Calm, All is Bright, All is Song

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Christmas Ideals, Worthy Publishing Group
What can you say about "Ideals" annual Christmas issue? It's a mixture of attractive Christmas and winter photographs, nostalgic paintings and line art, simple rhymed poetry, quotations, and essays, and is unabashedly corny and comforting. Cynics and avant garde types will probably avoid. We corny folks will read and enjoy.

These annual issues have been published since 1944. The newer issues rely more on photography than on original art than the initial issues—but privately I thought the art in the old issues was pretty bad. This year's photographs weren't as spectacular as in previous issues, but most were cozy and warming enough. One thing I do miss from "yesteryear" is the essays; the authors did a better job in the past being heartwarming without being simplistic. Or perhaps that's the way the readers want it today.

Christmas Bells, Jennifer Chiaverini
I haven't crossed paths with Chiaverini before, as I am not a devotee of what is called "chick lit." I know she has done some well-received historical novels and a series of books based on quilting. However, since I am a devotee of Boston and Cambridge I was attracted by this novel's Cambridge setting and the two alternating storylines.

In Cambridge's St. Margaret's Church, choir director and music teacher Sophia has arranged a special performance around Longfellow's "Christmas Bells," set to music as "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." She is troubled after having learned she is about to lose her job teaching music due to budget cuts, and totally unaware that the church's talented pianist is in love with her. Two children in the choir and their mother are also troubled after not being able to speak to their soldier father/husband in Afghanistan. Father Ryan is hiding familial problems and a sad older woman who comes to watch rehearsals is similarly troubled. Only bright Sister Winifred is happy this holiday season.

The troubles of the modern-day characters are alternated with chapters about the Longfellow family and how Henry Longfellow broke from a long period of depression and not writing after the terrible death of his wife and the departure of his son to fight in the Civil War to write "Christmas Bells," one of his most well-remembered poems.

I found this book easy reading, but the modern day characters pretty much cookie cutter: the pretty choir director and the handsome pianist, the loving mom and troubled scholarly daughter and mischievous son, the devoted priest, the one not-sleazy politician and his partner wife, the stalwart soldier husband who loves music and an envious brother. They're all easy to love, but uncomplicated and you have no doubt that things are going to come out okay for all of them and that while there is sorrow in their lives, it is tempered with joy, just as a grieving Longfellow found happiness from his children and from translating Dante. Chiaverini is at her best as she recaptures the joy of a 19th century Christmas as well as the fears and trials of the Longfellow family during the American Civil War. Beware, however, that it is very slow moving. Definitely something to sit and relax with.

(BTW, I would have loved to have seen the mother's confrontation with the suspicious teacher who accused her daughter of cheating. Of all the plot threads in this book, this one was the closest to my heart. I wanted to bawl out that teacher so badly!)

03 January 2017

The Krampus Gang

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, Al Ridenour
Christmas for our ancestors was a darker, more dangerous season. Instead of a childlike, bright Santa Claus in pajamas and a stocking cap who gives gifts to children no matter what, the European tradition included St. Nicholas, who loved children but was a stern taskmaster. For disobedient children—especially deliberately disobedient ones—he traveled with a partner, a usually fearsome companion who threatened children with beatings and, in hard cases, being taken away to face further monstrous punishment, like being eaten alive.

One character enjoying a revival is the Krampus, a furred, horned, goat-footed monstrosity with a long red tongue, who evolved from other, older winter monsters called Perchta. This is Ridenour's journey to Austria/Germany/the Swiss Alps to find those who still follow the traditions and find out where they come from.  Some are newly revived, some go back centuries, all are now involved in complicated performances during Christmastide, and some of them are borderline professional, to the scorn of others who practice the old customs for love. All the side influences are also examined: evil Lucia personas to accompany St. Lucy on December 13, Frau Holle and La Befana, Silvester "Claus" characters, and the original Percht.

Ridenour tries to separate the original characters from what he thinks are false conclusions reached in the 19th century (that all the evil characters were ancient fertility symbols) and neopagan modern practices from more traditional processions. The book is lavishly illustrated with full-color, elaborate costumes and gatherings and the different aspects of the characters (fur-clad demons to men of straw to "pinecone men"). It's all fascinating reading, but his attempts to document every single different custom in each village may become tedious for some readers after a while.

31 December 2016

Christmas Reading

Yes, I've cheated. I let the books get away from me, so instead of individual day reviews, here they are all in one fell swoop for the rest of December.

Remember, Christmas isn't over yet...

book icon  Christmas: A History, Mark Connelly
I had never seen this history of Christmas in Great Britain and worried when I ordered it that it might be too similar to Gavin Weightman's Christmas Past. I needn't have worried; Connelly takes a different tack in talking about the traditional English Christmas. The notion has usually been that Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Washington Irving's Old Christmas re-invented the holiday, but Connelly believes that Christmas was there all along, changing with the years, and Dickens and Irving just described what was going on, and he also explains how Christmas, although its customs have come from places as varied as Germany and the Netherlands, has become very much an English holiday.

I just loved this book. There are long detailed chapters about how the Victorians idolized the medieval Christmas (something I also noted in those old issues of "St. Nicholas" magazine; lots of stories of knights of old celebrating Christmas), the origins of the unique English pantomimes and how even in the late 19th century people were complaining that they weren't as good as they used to be because they failed to use the original characters like Harlequin anymore, how post-Victorian Britons rejected the folk carols in favor of "real" English music, plus more chapters about different celebrations around the Empire (was a warm weather Christmas even legitimate?), the spread of commercialism in the celebration, Christmas in relation to radio broadcasts (including the Monarch's classic speech), and Christmas in British films and on British television. It's a real treat if you are interested in the history of the holiday and especially of how the British have contributed to the celebration and our conceptions of Christmas.

book icon  Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus, edited by Kate Wolford
For those of you who deplore the "sticky sweetness" of Christmas, have we got a book for you. The old St. Nicholas was less forebearing than his modern North Pole counterpart, and in most parts of Europe he traveled with a dark assistant (Pelznichol, Bellsnickel, Black Peter, etc.) who punished the naughty children the good bishop didn't want to touch. The most horrendous of these forms was the Krampus, a horned, hoofed beast with a long red tongue who carried a basked upon his back to carry the naughty ones away.

And here are twelve tales of Krampus in all his sinister power, from a smitten toy store employee who agrees to play Krampus if it pleases the girl of his dreams without knowing what he's getting into, a little girl who gets revenge on a pesty brother, a wealthy yet sinister Victorian man whose precise life is about to take a wrong turn (at least for him), the story of a meeting in a pub that goes terribly wrong, a retired policeman who's tired of the neighbor kid vandalizing his Christmas display, and seven more tales of revenge and fantasy. My favorite was "The Wicked Child," which actually paints a different picture of Krampus, but I found "Santa Claus and the Little Girl Who Loved to Sing and Dance" unsettling based on how it ended. Actually, most of the stories herein are "a little creepy." Definitely not for younger children!

This is definitely "something different" for Christmas!

book icon  Christopher Radko's Ornaments, Olivia Bell Buehl
If you collect Radko ornaments, you know the story: the Radko family had fragile, historical glass ornaments going back to the 1800s, carefully purchased by great- and grandparents. One year young Christopher bought a new tree stand and carefully fastened the family tree into it. After it was decorated, the tree stand collapsed, and most of the fragile ornaments were destroyed. Heartbroken, Radko traveled to Germany, where most of the ornaments were made, and found that the glass ornament business had pretty much died due to cheaper alternatives. But the molds were still there...

This is the story of Radko ornaments and how he took the risk in reviving the old glassblowing skills, with pages and pages of photographs of the beautiful creations. Frankly, the text is a bit embarrassing, as the self-congratulation goes on forever. Better is the story of the ornaments, but these older ornaments (the book was published in 1999) are a far cry from the overly-glittered ones that they sell today at inflated prices. Frankly, after seeing the originals I don't understand why they have to be so overdone today. Anyway, this book is perfect for vintage ornament lovers and those who are interested in the secrets behind making them.

book icon  Swedish Christmas, Catarina Lundgren Astrom and Peter Astrom
This is a lovely full-color volume about Swedish Christmas customs as recalled by a Swedish woman now living in the United States. Starting with the first Sunday of Advent, Astrom chronicles holiday preparations and all the stops along the way (Nobel Day, Lucia Day, Dipper Day) through St. Knut's Day on January 13. There are recipes (according to Astrom, a Swedish Christmas is pretty much just an excuse for eating!) and even a few crafts, and wonderful photographs of simple customs and midwinter landscapes. The memories are recorded with such affection you want to jump into the book and join the celebrations.

And who knew a favorite Swedish Christmas custom was watching Donald Duck on Christmas Day?

book icon  The Bark Before Christmas, Laurien Berenson
Now back helping special needs kids full time at her old private school, Melanie Travis Driver has been saddled with organizing the annual Christmas bazaar. Luckily, she discovers that her committee has things well in hand, and the school headmaster has even arranged for the Santa Claus to be stationed at a pet photo booth. She's expecting only small problems to pop up—until one of the school alumni, Sandra McAvoy, loses her valuable show dog, a West Highland White Terrier who is on his way up in the dog show world, and the hand-picked Santa Claus is found dead. Sandra vows to sue the school if little "Kiltie" isn't found, and Melanie is volunteered to ferret out the dognapper.

There's much more going on than the mystery in this story: the Driver family gearing up for Christmas, Davey entering his first dog shows, Melanie's work with her students, a police officer who can't believe "this dog business" would be serious enough to cause a murder, and the marriage of Melanie's ex-husband to someone she (and the family) really like. I figured out one of the accomplices quickly enough, but the ending has a bad taste due to the fate of one of the supporting characters. It will make you angry that some people allow this to happen.

As a bonus, the book has a Christmas novella at the end called "A Christmas Howl" that harks back to when Aunt Peg was still married to her husband Max. We meet Melanie and Frank as teenagers and learn a little more about their parents. Some of the revelations aren't happy ones.

book icon  The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, Charlie Lovett
Ebenezer Scrooge was as good as his word. For twenty years he has been so generous he still lives in his gloomy digs while providing for the poor. He says "Merry Christmas" every day of his life, even in the depths of summer. It is, in fact, a warm midsummer day when he meets again with his ghostly friend Jacob Marley and finds to his dismay that all his good deeds have not helped his chain-bound partner's burden much. So Scrooge sets out to catch bigger fish: send his well-spoken nephew to Parliament to plead for the poor, talk his creditors into helping debtors, and convince Bob Cratchit not to be such a workaholic.

Using the same format as A Christmas Carol, Scrooge asks Marley to send back the spirits who helped him. Lovett borrows Dickens' passages freely in order for these transformations to take place. Frankly, the result is dreadful. The emotions that so permeated the original book are sadly missing, and it's hard to imagine Bob Cratchit becoming such a nose-to-the-grindstone bore. When Scrooge is transformed you want to cheer. When this book ends, you're relieved. I'd skip it.

book icon  Dear Santa,Mary Harrell-Sesnick
This is a sweet collection of letters to Santa Claus from the late 19th century through 1920. Back in those days, Santa Claus letters were taken to the local newspapers, where often some wealthy benefactor would take the name of a poverty-stricken family and help them. These selections were taken from these newspaper offerings. Some of them are charming snapshots of the time: children asking "Dear Santy" for "arctics" (galoshes), velocipedes, silver "hartes," and other vintage toys. Others are sad, with children asking for clothing and extra food for their siblings and widowed mothers who are working hard to support them. Modern people may be surprised for requests for items that are now everyday things in grocery stores, like oranges, nuts, and apples. Sometimes the missives are unintentionally funny, like the boy who asks for a rubber ball that won't break windows. The letters are divided by decades, with notes to explain unfamiliar terms like "hartes" (they're charms, like for a bracelet). It's a neat look back into the past.

book icon  Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
I've reviewed the next three books before, many times, so if you are interested you may go looking for the titles above in the search box. I read them every year because they epitomize the coziness of Christmas. This one is a library favorite from my childhood, taking place on a Vermont family farm after the Second World War. Windy Foot is a pony, but while he's involved in significant episodes, the emphasis is on the Clark family and their Christmas preparations, and the happiness of having guests for Christmas. Many old customs emerge, including putting small gifts on the Christmas tree (like in the song), decorating with live greens, carol singing in the village square, etc. There's even some excitement with a bear that has become a livestock killer and a skiing event that almost turns deadly. The Swedes would call this hygge and they'd be correct!

book icon  The Tuckers: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
Whitman Books published this series about a family of five children, parents, and a dog and cat in the 1960s. Most are about the kids getting involved in projects or with neighbors, but this one is a little different: youngest daughter Penny, who is frailer than her rollicking siblings, is searching for her place in life. When her doctor says Penny is well enough for the family to spend Christmas at their rural summer cottage, the children discover the fun of finding their own Christmas tree, help a young mother with a baby, and even face danger with a cougar stalking the local farms. But it's the Christmas preparations and the warmth of family relations that take center stage, and at the end Penny has not only learned something about herself, but she's found something more important. Simple and special all at once.

book icon  Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Kathryn Lasky
This is my favorite of all the "Dear America" books, the story of a Midwestern family battered by the failing economy of the Great Depression. Minnie, the youngest daughter, forms a special friendship with their cousin, a waiflike escapee from the Dust Bowl, Willie Faye Darling, who comes to live with them after the death of her parents, and in return, it's Willie Faye who holds the family together after Mr. Swift loses his job and, it seems, his confidence. Again, a good window on the time: eating thrown-together dinners with only bits of meat in them, closing down rooms to save heating coal, taking food to the homeless, bread lines, and the public's fascination with the movies and with radio shows. This story is marred only by the slightly fantastic epilog; otherwise, the family (based on Lasky's own mother and aunts and uncle) rings very true.

29 December 2016

On the Third--and Fifth--Day of Christmas

I've been out this week twice stocking up on crafting supplies. What with James' problems taking up most of the first seven months of this year, I had gotten out of the habit of using the Michaels and JoAnn coupons. I need to take this up again. What I gather can be use for gifts, and when money starts getting tight in the future, that will be useful.

Tuesday I went to Town Center because I had two good JoAnn coupons, a fifty and a forty. Town Center is great because four hobby/craft shows are right near each other, in walking distance, really, if you are in good shape. I skipped Hobbytown because they're mostly models, trains, and puzzles, and started at Hobby Lobby, where they were industriously putting up Valentine decor, having scrunched Christmas into as few aisles as they could. I checked out the leftovers, but mostly ugly stuff was left. I was getting an urgent call of nature, so I left without picking up anything else.

First checked out the bathroom at JoAnn, then the merchandise. Storage was already on sale, so I finally got a case for my drawing pencils. With the other two coupons I got a start on a Christmas gift (actually parts for a couple). Then next door at Michaels I picked up something that will become another Christmas gift, plus a bag of little pieces of wood. I have an idea for them that isn't quite formed yet.

From Craft City I went to Book City to check out the clearance table at Barnes & Noble. No goodies today, sadly. Checked for new books and gave the magazines a once-over, then went to Publix in the hopes of finding a baguette. I did, as well as some low-sodium beef soups for James, plus they had Sterlite storage boxes on BOGO, so I bought two.

I came home through the battlefield park and down Kennesaw Avenue past the beautiful old homes with their long aprons of lawn and sweeping sidewalks, which are more traditionally dressed in greens and red bows. I like to slow down and look at the homes, but always there's someone behind me and I can't linger too long to check out the beautiful gingerbread trim and the columned porches. A couple of people even have wire fences like the one that used to be in front of my grandfather's house, not your garden variety chain link, but like the wire in the photo at right (click to see details). They make me ten kinds of nostalgic.

I got home just in time to see the flurry of posts on Facebook about Carrie Fisher's death. Damn. I hate 2016 more each day. I sat down, got fidgety, and pulled out my drawing pencils and sketched Artoo-Detoo saying farewell to his princess in hologram. Yeah, cliche and corny, but who cares? (Damn. She was younger than me.) And then, oh, yeah, the exterminator showed up.

Casually skipping over yesterday and later Tuesday night, which is covered elsewhere, I woke up having had a sort-of decent sleep. After breakfast and puppy perambulation and enjoying listening to Dana and Mugs, I headed for Lowe's to see what was left of their Christmas stuff. They had strings of C-9 clear bulbs and I decided to try once again to provide some light out in the back yard, while the tattered remnants of the last string still hang broken from the deck. I have to take them down and put the new string up properly; I think it broke because I just swagged it from some floral wire; it shouldn't dangle. (Of course there's a chance the stupid squirrels chewed it, too.) I also bought clear and white C-7 bulbs, and checked out the LED bulbs again. I also looked for winter banners, as ours is shredded. They had some, but only in small sizes. Eeek! I've had to order one online. Hope I don't get skunked.

Now, Michaels had a two-day after-Christmas coupon: 40 percent off all jewelry-making supplies. This seemed too good not to take advantage of. I originally started for the Hiram store, but changed course to go back to Town Center because I still had two more JoAnn coupons. I was able to pick up some really good pieces in Michaels, either under the coupon or on clearance, and found some dimensional Modge-Podge to use with their 50 percent off coupon. JoAnn was just as profitable; I bought some permanent colored pens, a holder for James to use for his medications, and a few more sale items.

I told Snowy I would try to be home around noon, but missed it by an hour. Once again I came home through the park. The parking lot near the park headquarters was crammed with cars and dozens of people (and many dogs) were walking on this beautiful sunny day with temps in the 50s, tempered by a pretty brisk wind which kept a steady stream of dead leaves swirling around any area they had accumulated. At one point leaves came dancing in front of my car like tiny ballerinas skipping across a stage. Once again I logged on to Facebook to discover that someone has passed away: this time it was Debbie Reynolds. She had what they thought was a stroke yesterday after commenting on daughter Carrie's death. ::sigh:: Now mother and daughter are reunited again.

For the rest of the afternoon, I had a leftover pork chop for lunch, put some of the most egregious mess away, updated blog entries, played Christmas music and more Christmas specials stacked up on the DVR (Perry Como in Austria and Bing Crosby joined by Mary Costa and Robert Goulet, plus the second half of a Pearl Harbor special that I unfortunately missed the first hour of, talking about how Admiral Kimmel was screwed by military intelligence and warned too late due to multiple blunders.

James and I had the rest of the pork-recipe beef pot roast for supper with scalloped potatoes, slices of a Terry's chocolate orange for dessert, and I have been watching specials about Switzerland: a tour of Swiss Christmas markets and now a train ride through Switzerland.

26 December 2016

Boxing Day Blues and Greens

It was 61°F when we went to bed. Even with both fans in the window, we both slept badly. James got up at seven to telework, but I hung on another hour, having been woken up being warm, again being itchy, again because my leg hurt—it became a litany. Woke up to find it grey, gloomy and grizzly. So I dressed, walked Tucker, ate a quick breakfast, and left James staring at his computer (he had no calls all day dealing with what he's supposed to support at all; any calls he took were from people who couldn't log onto their laptops).

I hadn't gone to Walgreens at all during Advent, and based on the leftovers there today, I needn't have wasted my time then or now. However, I had a 30 percent off total purchase for CVS, so that was my next destination. BreatheRights were on sale so I couldn't get them, but I stocked up on PeptoBismol, some disposable shower caps, wide headbands to use in the car with the window open, and a few other toiletries. Next it was over the railroad bridge and past the leftover Christmas trees to Bed, Bath & Beyond, but had to stop at Barnes & Noble first. I wanted to see if they had the clearance items out, but...nope. Just like CVS, they were still in the process of marking them down. So I used the bathroom and skedaddled.

James had asked me to get him a 10" saute pan at Bed, Bath & Beyond. I picked that up (it turns out what he needed was a 8" saute pan, so now I need to swap it), plus a fold-up stepstool for the laundry room, and a gadget to scrub out the shower. Even when I kneel down I cannot reach the back of the shower compartment. This thing has an extension pole on it and has a rotating scrubber. I hope it will cut down the pain to my back. I found one of those "star shower" things (the brand that's red, green, and blue) half price and got one for James, and also some balsam and cedar Yankee candle tea lights.

Next I stopped at Costco, as we were out of both milk and Skinny Pop. I bought something for us to take to Bill and Caran's annual New Year's Eve bash, and picked up the "Time" salute to John Glenn as well.

My last stop was Michael's, where I indeed did pick up two Christmas clearance items, but mainly grabbed a few small things to use a 30 percent off total purchase coupon which is only good today. I am looking for a container for my drawing pencils, but everything is too big! I want something the size of a pencil case, and it's all huge.

Got home just in time to dodge the rain and have lunch with James (leftover shells with pork from Friday's supper) and then sat down to watch some Christmas things, starting with The Little Match Girl. The only resemblance to the Andersen story is that there's a little girl selling matches; in this go-round she's an angel in disguise, trying to help a fragmented family in a 1920s era Philadelphia-clone city. Keshia Knight Pulliam plays Molly the angel with a sweet combination of innocence and roguish knowledge, and William Daniels is perfectly stuffy as the wealthy businessman who doesn't realize he's being played by a crooked police chief.

The rest of the afternoon was reserved for assorted unusual Christmas specials I've recorded over the years: first The Greatest Tree on Earth, a fascinating British program about the history and traditions of the Christmas tree, following a Tokyo family, a Lappish family, and a Brooklyn family with their Christmas prep, intercut with historical insights and the workings of a Christmas tree farm. The most bizarre segment showed German propaganda films from World War II, made to convince the population that everything was fine. There was a huge tree hung with Hitler ornaments and glass acorns with swastikas on them, topped with a star, under a big swastika. Talk about unsettling! Then Christmas and the Civil War. Using re-enactments, it showed how Christmas went from a small religious holiday to a national celebration, following the lives of Thomas Nast, Louisa May Alcott, a plantation owner's wife, and a slave who was originally a Christmas gift to his master's wife. Next Christmas Lights, simple  footage shot in different places, no narrative, just some background music: the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, a writer's cabin in Alaska being decorated with lights and ornaments with a bonfire held outside afterwards, Washington DC and the display around the National Christmas tree and other public buildings, the coast of Maine where children and adults decorated a tree with lights and goodies like apples, popcorn, corn, seed-covered peanut butter pinecones, and even herring for the local wild animals, and finally the streets and decorations and then the Grand Illumination in Colonial Williamsburg. Dreamy, lyrical and simply beautiful.

Finally there was another re-enactment special, The Christmas Truce, that included an appearance by the daughter of Bruce Bairnsfather, a famous cartoonist who served in World War II.

We had Italian wedding soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for supper, watched Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and now I'm on the Christmas specials I still have stacked up on the DVR: two Merv Griffin Show segments to start with. One was in black and white when Arthur Treacher was still Merv's sidekick: he was dressed up as Santa Claus and sang two songs. The other was a color episode which featured William Shatner —all excited about a project he was working on with inner city kids—and Mel Torme, who sang "The Christmas Song," of course, and did an acappella duet with Merv of Christmas songs. Smashing!

(Guess what! What James wanted was an 8" saute pan. He said ten. So back we will have to go to BB&B.)

25 December 2016

Two Days of Christmas

Had a busy Christmas weekend, starting yesterday when we were expecting company: James' mom and sister were coming up for a Christmas dinner. I believe this is the first time they have been up since we had Thanksgiving dinner in 2006. James was up early to put our little turkey, all nine pounds of it, into the oven. He tried it Alton Brown's way: brown it for a half hour at 500°F, and then lower it to 325 and let it cook until it was done. In the meantime he made a gravy with the neck and giblets, and stuffing. (This gravy came out thick and rich and wonderful. Like Aunt Meg's gravy in Twister, it was a food group all its own, especially since James put pureed vegetables in it.) I finished cleaning up and made room for folks to sit down and primped the bathroom a little, and even went downstairs and put the new tags on our license plates and our new registrations on the sun visors. The turkey was done at noon and we had a chance to relax—and nibble on it a little, of course!—before Mom and Candy arrived.

We had an informal lunch around the coffee table, with Mom bagging a tray table. The turkey came out well except that one side was a bit underdone, another sign that the oven is not working properly. The stuffing was soft and flavorful. Mom and Candy had brought scalloped potatoes, green beans, corn casserole, and a grape salad. There was Christmas music on in the background and the tree lights were all on. After lunch we exchanged gifts. James got a nifty airplane clock and an airplane wine bottle holder and some sangria. I got a bunch of bird related things, including a rustic frame, a big stand-up sparrow in a Santa hat, and another little bird. We have been giving them a different type of food basket every year: once it was Italian, once it was soup, etc. This year it was a "garnish" basket, things to spice up meals: salad fixings, finishing sauce, Asian noodles, ice cream topping, garlic dip mix to go into butter to make garlic bread, sprinkles for ice cream and cake, etc. We also gave Candy an Eeyore mug and a Cowboys Beanie Baby for her birthday two weeks ago, and Mom a Robert Ludlum novel.

They headed out before it got dark. We gave them the rest of the white meat and kept the dark; James put the drumsticks in the freezer, but as the shadows lengthened, we had a light dinner of the rest of the leavings: I just put hunks of turkey meat and some gravy on two Kings Hawaiian rolls and ate those; James made a little plate with stuffing. Then we hurried out to go look at Christmas lights; we've been going so "late" (like 8 p.m.) that people already have turned them off! This is absolutely flabbergasting to me because we always keep our Christmas lights on all night: Mom said it would help the Holy Family find our house. (I also keep ours on New Year's Eve and at Twelfth Night.)

The light situation was a bit iffy. I didn't want to go far from home because James was feeling a bit off, so we just stayed around the neighborhood. Not a whole lot of festive folks around. Not sure if it's the political climate, the economy, or if people just aren't celebrating. I do notice, though, that a lot of the newer homes have their living rooms at the rear of the house, so you see fewer big Christmas trees in front windows. We did have some luck going up toward downtown Smyrna; while the Park development seemed to have several fewer decorations than last year, two new plats were well dressed. We saw swooping stars, large decorations that looked like giant illuminated bulbs, classic decorations (white candles, green wreaths, red bows), those new "star shower" things, lights outlining windows, lights along paths. Also checked out the Craftsman-style homes on King Springs Drive. I would love to have one of those. (Yeah, I know. House envy. But it's more because they tickle all the nostalgic bones in my body.) However, we didn't go to Dunleith to see if they did luminaria this year, or to see of the big house on Cunningham Drive had turned into what we call "the wedding cake house," it is so draped in lights.

Finally, back home, I took Tucker out, and then we settled down and watched The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. Once that finished, we put on the news and then watched Midnight Mass from the Vatican. This year NBC did not cut it off at 1 a.m., but showed the whole thing. And since we were up anyway, we opened presents. I had bought James a new Ott Light for his model work, and four books (one about the Berlin airlift, another about World War II films, the new book about Pearl Harbor defending Admiral Kimmel, and a book about the World War II Memorial). He bought me War of the Roosevelts, a nifty metal barrette, a "thesaurus" t-shirt, a great Cumberbatch-as-Doctor Strange poster, and a Steiff budgie. (Yes, a Steiff budgie, blue with a white face. I knew they made more than bears, but not birds!)

Needless to say, we slept in on Christmas morning, and then James was up before me, having walked Tucker and made himself some breakfast. I made myself an eggnog to have with my oatmeal and yogurt, and spelled James making his special dessert, caramel sauce over oranges. He also made corn to take to the Butlers, and we brought the green beans and mushrooms left over from Christmas Eve dinner. I'd had Christmas music on earlier, but while the oranges were soaking in their sauce, I watched The House Without A Christmas Tree and then A Christmas Memory with Geraldine Page.

I also gave Tucker the second half of his Christmas gift. Last night I gave him his new plush blanket. I meant to bring it out from the spare room and surprise him in the living room, but I forgot to close the gate and he followed me in. I held up the blanket—he had chewed holes in his old one—and his eyes widened and he reared up on his hind legs and grabbed at it with his forelegs. When I did give it to him, he shook it like a rat and proceeded to growl and roughhouse with it until he finally got it in a lumpy pile and laid on it. This morning I gave him the fox. This is a non-stuffed toy because he eviscerates stuffed ones. He had the squeakers that are sewn at either end killed within an hour.

We headed to the Butlers about 2:30 and were still one of the first to arrive. As always, it was a wonderful time. There seemed to be a running gag today: someone would walk in and see A Christmas Story running on the television (first Charles, then Juanita, then Alex) and say, "You know, I've never seen this movie." Wow! Anyway, we snacked on Lin's piecrust pastries and apple and cheese and a relish tray until it was time for dinner, which was turkey, steak, pot roast and ham, with mashed potatoes, biscuits and butter, carrots, and our beans and corn. Later there were two pies and our oranges for dessert (they were lovely; I had three helpings). Once again, we did not see Sylvester the new kitten (who is now an adolescent cat), but we understand he's already fond of climbing the Christmas tree. They get him down by turning on the Death Star tree topper that Phyllis gave them. Later on we exchanged gifts. James got a nice warm throw and movie tickets, and I had two Doctor Who adult coloring books with pencils and a mug. We headed home around eight, full of food and friendship, and snuggled by the tree (as we couldn't very well snuggle by the fire, as it was 70 bloody degrees out; I'd walked in the door earlier and called "Happy Easter!") until bedtime.

24 December 2016

Sleep Well...


Being The Last One to Bed on Christmas Eve
from "The Simple Things," December 2015

There's a sense of anticipation the night before Christmas—and not just for children. The solstice is past and the new year beckons. It feels like a good time to look back, count blessings and appreciate what we have. Some of us find space to reflect at church, in the rituals of a traditional service. The bonhomie that follows Midnight Mass is not just down to shared mince pies and mulled wine. Others simply light a candle and take a moment to watch the flame flutter, or sit by the tree with just the glow of a fire. Then, once the house is quiet, it's time to blow out the final tea light and creep up the stairs full of well-being and wonder.

"On Christmas Eve"


On Christmas Eve

Carollers sing at cottage doors,
Their songsheets bathed in lantern light,
Familiar words sound loud and clear,
Upon this frosty, moonlit night.
The sound of church bells fills the air,
Calling the faithful to midnight prayer.

Gusts of wind shake the holly hedge,
Where birds perch huddled out of sight.
Children are tucked up warm in bed,
Dreaming away this magic night.
Outside, late revellers in the lane
Sing "Good King Wenceslas" again.

                         . . . . . . Colin A. Lycett