25 March 2020

Lady Day


"Lady Day" is the traditional name in some English-speaking countries for the Feast of the Annunciation. In Christian tradition, this is the day that the angle Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would be the mother of Jesus, the Son of God.
Luke 1:26-38:
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.

And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.

And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?

And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God.

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her
 In England, Lady Day was one of the four "quarter days,"  "the four dates in each year on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due."
  • Lady Day (March 25)
  • Midsummer Day (June 24)
  • Michaelmas [Feast of Michael the Archangel] (September 29)
  • Christmas Day (December 25)
Before tradition designated January 1 as New Year's Day, Lady Day was considered to be the first day of the New Year, appropriate as by March 25 spring would be in full bloom and the growing year would lie ahead.

The Importance of Lady Day in Regency England

Lady Day on Astrology.com

Catholic Encyclopedia: Annunciation

Lady Day Feasting at Catholic Cuisine

Orthodox Church: Annunciation

Pagan Library: Lady Day

14 February 2020

Happy Valentine's Day


02 February 2020

Happy Candlemas!

Wait, isn't it "Groundhog Day"?

Well, yes, but the Groundhog Day custom came from Candlemas.

Candlemas is (from Wikipedia):
"also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a Christian Holy Day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. It is based upon the account of the presentation of Jesus in Luke 2:22–40. In accordance with Leviticus 12: a woman was to be purified by presenting lamb as a burnt offering, and either a young pigeon or dove as sin offering, 33 days after a boy's circumcision. It falls on February 2, which is traditionally the 40th day of and the conclusion of the Christmas–Epiphany season. While it is customary for Christians in some countries to remove their Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve), those in other Christian countries historically remove them on Candlemas. On Candlemas, many Christians (especially Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics) also bring their candles to their local church, where they are blessed and then used for the rest of the year; for Christians, these blessed candles serve as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who referred to Himself as the Light of the World."
Robert Herrick, the late 16th-17th century poet, wrote the following verses about Candlemas:

1. Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly now upraise
The greener box for show.

2. The holly hitherto did sway,
Let box now domineer,
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's Eve appear.

3. Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

4. When yew is out, then birth comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin,
To honour Whitsuntide.

5. Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comly ornaments,
To readorn the house.

6. Thus times do shift;
Each thing his turn doth hold;
New things succeed,
As former things grow old.


(If you can't imagine keeping your Christmas decorations up until February 2, remember these customs began in countries where winter was bleak and cold. Bringing greenery into the house—especially greenery that might have bright berries like holly and mistletoe—and decorating fireplace mantels, picture frames, doorways, and windows would have added a cheery air to a dark season. Furthermore, fire-lit homes, while looking cozy in photos, without the backup of central heat or at least a stove, were still quite cold. Historians estimate those cozy images you see of "the little house on the prairie" or other pioneer homes don't pass on the reality that the temperature inside that house was only about 55°F! No wonder they wore long woolen underwear!)

However, the groundhog tradition comes from these old verses about the holiday:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again.

or

If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half o the winter's to come and mair;
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o the winter's gone at Yule.

German tradition postulated a badger that came out of his burrow on February 2 and either cast a shadow (dry and fair) or did not cast a shadow (rainy, or at least cloudy), and this sign meant the same thing. When Germans first migrated to the United States, they did not see badgers, so the custom was transferred to the woodchuck, commonly known as the groundhog.

Many people read this backward: that the groundhog seeing his shadow means spring is coming, and not seeing his shadow means winter is sticking around. But it is indeed the other way around: if he sees his shadow, the winter chill is continuing and will soon "blow itself out" and spring will come early. If he sees his shadow with the weather being sunny and dry, winter is "taking a breather," then is sure to come back stronger than ever.

08 January 2020

And One Final Book Review for the Holiday Season...

Hanukkah in America, Dianne Ashton
I'm not sure what I was expecting when I bought this book, but I thought it was going to be more about how Jewish people have come up against the juggernaut that is Christmas each year and how they counter with a celebration from their own culture that was a minor holiday, but which has expanded in response to being in proximity to the Yuletide frenzy that happens in December.

It does indeed address that issue, but is a lot more in depth than that, and delves more deeply into Jewish tradition and pre-Jewish-American-culture customs. In hindsight, I wish I had known a little bit more about the latter to truly appreciate how Hanukkah affected Jews.

Again, Hanukkah was a minor holiday on the celebratory calendar, one that did not require you to not work during the holiday period. However, when Jews migrated in great numbers to the United States, not only did they face Christmas advertising and celebration in every store window and in their children's schools, but they also came into contact with American culture itself, some of which ran counter to Jewish custom from "the old country": longer working hours and working on High Holidays, a narrative of the past that included "action heroes" like the Western pioneers and scouts, greater freedom for women, etc. For instance, Judah Maccabee would be compared to men like Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody, and for Jews he would be considered a patriotic hero who fought against tyranny, like George Washington, the Union soldiers of the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War combatants. It would only be later that the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights and celebrating each night with your family in lighting the menorah would be emphasized more as Hanukkah did go head-to-head with Christmas, to show that both holidays had similarities: celebration of Light, miracles, family gatherings, special food, specific games, and gifts.

Not having background in traditional Jewish (read: Orthodox) customs did not keep me from appreciating this book, and how Jewish culture adapted and changed (like my own Italian culture) in order for the immigrants to assimilate as Americans yet keep their Jewish heritage. Enjoyable and approachable if you are looking for a more scholarly study.

07 January 2020

"Snow-Flakes"

by Mary N. Prescott, "St. Nicholas," March 1880

"Come," said the Snow-flakes, "it's time we should rally,
     To tuck up the roots of the grass,
To shine on the hill-top and whiten the valley
     And touch the world up as we pass.

All the huts that are ruined and ugly
     Let us change into marble halls,
We will cover the naked hedges up snugly,
     And festoon the ragged stone walls.

We will build our drifts on the king's highway,
     Mimic the shape of star or feather,
We will silently waltz the livelong day,
     Or sculpture garlands together.

Never, outside of the spider's loom,
     Shall be spun such laces as ours,
And never, after the summer's bloom,
     Shall be seen such wonderful flowers."

05 January 2020

"I Sprang from My Bed..." To See Who Wrote the Poem

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Inventing Santa Claus: The Mystery of Who Really Wrote The Most Celebrated Yuletide Poem of All Time, Carlo DeVito
On December 23, 1823, a poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel. It went on to become the most beloved Christmas poem of all time, and established much of the mythos of the Santa Claus character as we know it today: the sleigh, the eight reindeer and their names, his pipe, his jolly face. St. Nicholas himself was popularized in the New York area by Washington Irving. For years the poem was reprinted as being from "anonymous," until the family of Clement C. Moore, a theologian and scholar, claimed he wrote it. Moore, usually a serious man, did not take credit for the poem until 1844, when it was included in a book of his more serious verse.

But the family of Henry Livingston, Jr., related to Robert Livingston of Declaration of Independence fame, stated that the poem was his, and had been written earlier than the 1820s. They stated that its famous rhyming couplets were typically used by Livingston in his other poetry (he was noted for his light verse).

This slim volume discusses the history of both Moore and Livingston, the facts surrounding the printing and the reprinting of the poem, and the claims of both the families, taking them both into the present time. DeVito takes no sides in the quarrel, just presents as many facts as he can gather about both sides of the story.

There is a more detailed book on this subject (Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question by MacDonald P. Jackson), but this appears to be more succinct and accessible.

04 January 2020

From Drunken Revel to Family Holiday

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Re-read: Christmas Past, Gavin Weightman and Steve Humphries
This British trade paperback was a purchase from the remainder table of original Borders Books on Roswell Road in Atlanta. I was delighted to find it because I had seen (and videotaped) the original television special years ago when it was broadcast on A&E (back when A&E showed documentaries and wasn't overburdened with overwrought reality series). It is a history of the celebration of Christmas in Great Britain, and, like the television special, is crammed full of historical photographs about bygone holidays. It is especially fascinating talking about customs that are pretty much unknown in America, from the most familiar which might be the "Christmas cracker," a festively wrapped tube with candy, paper hats, and funny mottoes inside that "cracks" when you open it, hence the name, to obscure customs like the "Mari Llwd," a horse's skull carried from house to house in Wales which was a legacy of pagan times (along with the wassailing of Christmas trees). Another once-popular custom—even more popular than having a Christmas tree—was a decoration called a "mistletoe," crossed barrel staves decorated with tissue paper and hung with holly or mistletoe mounted at the the center and perhaps with little ornaments on the outside, that would be dangled from the ceiling as the main display. There are also memoirs from men and women who grew up poor in the early part of the 20th century and remember the meager Christmases of their youth, as well as memories of children and adults who had to celebrate in the workhouse. A lot of the language is a bit more salty than appeared on the edited American version.

And wait—there's more: memories of colonial Christmases in India, the Victorian contribution to the celebration, wartime Christmases with rationed foods and celebrations in air-raid shelters...as full of goodies as a stocking hung on the mantel. Highly recommended

03 January 2020

Because There's No Place Like...

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
More Holmes for the Holidays, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh
I enjoyed the first volume so much I decided to send for a used copy of the sequel, but was a little disappointed when it arrived. It's a much smaller volume than the first, with fewer stories. However, most of them were pretty enjoyable, and written by familiar names like Anne Perry, Peter Lovesey, Barbara Paul, and Loren Estleman, among others. The Perry story that opens the book is a subject close to Holmes' heart: violins and a superb performer of violin music. Holmes' unique solution to the problem includes a very special Christmas gift for him. "The Four Wise Men" revolves around an old Army compatriot's request of Watson, that he play Joseph in a unique neighborhood Christmas pageant that involves his Army friend carrying a priceless star made of silver and studded with gems, and includes a chase with Watson in biblical regalia.

Other adventures include Chinese carol singers; a Yuletide plot to destroy goodwill between England and France; a tale involving choirmembers, a spoiled boy soloist, and stolen collection money; and one involving a young woman who has inherited an estate and an old curse. One story is a sequel to "The Copper Beeches," and to me is the one really weak story of the lot, playing on an old story to achieve its climax. Other stories feature Holmes with real-life people: Erskine Childers, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Darwin, and, in my favorite of the stories, Kipling appears along with an adult Timothy Cratchit, who is trying to fulfill the final part of Ebenezer Scrooge's will. I guessed the twist in that one at once, but the story was so entertaining I didn't care.

Still a worthwhile purchase, but do be aware there is less content than the original.

02 January 2020

Keep Calm and Christmas On

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
A Wartime Christmas, compiled by Maria and Andrew Hubert
Alan Sutton Publishing has a series of these "Christmas anthologies," the first which I bought at a book sale several years ago, and I try to pick up inexpensive copies when I can find them. Most of them concentrate on a certain shire or area in England, but there are a handful, like A Dickens Christmas and A Bronte Christmas that are set around an era instead. This is their World War II volume, and, predictably for the subject, it is in an oversize trade-paper format.

The contributions cover a varied range of subjects: the memories of children evacuated to the country, tales of trying to produce a typical Christmas feast with rationed food and sweets, stories of overseas celebrations (from soldiers putting on a raucous impromptu pantomime of Aladdin to men existing on meager portions as POWs), soldiers able to spend Christmas in Bethlehem and those assigned to long days in Iceland. There are several memories from Polish men who eventually came to England to join the RAF and who were one of "the few" who stood against Hitler in the Battle of Britain, and at least one memory of POWs attending church on Christmas Day to no acrimony.

The volume includes cartoons, vintage photographs, wartime recipes and peeks into recipe books of the time, old advertisements—and, typically for any English Christmas compilation, a ghost story!

If you are an Anglophile and Christmas fan, you owe it to yourself to check out these Sutton volumes!

01 January 2020


31 December 2019

The Real Spirit of Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Re-read: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
"The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain..." Their mother works double shifts to make ends meet, their father left home long ago, and they move through elementary school, as the narrator states, "like those South American fish that strip your bones clean in three seconds flat..." Luckily, they don't go to church, the one place the local kids have any peace.

Well, until our narrator's little brother tells one of the Herdman kids that the minister gives them snacks at Sunday School. And they just happen to show up the day the yearly Christmas Pageant is being cast.

This is a fast, funny, but ultimately poignant story about a misfit bunch of neglected kids who cause chaos but prompts at least one person, our unnamed narrator, and hopefully the reader, to take a new look at the Nativity story. Even though this story was published in the 1970s, it has a timeless quality that still makes it relevant nearly 40 years later. A great before-Christmas read.

Re-read: The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock
In Alan Shayne's book A Double Life, he talks about how the classic 1972 Christmas special was conceived; asked by CBS to concoct a Christmas tale and wanting to present one that hadn't been done before, Shayne took a prompt given to him by a co-worker, a Nebraska native named Roberta Gail Rock. In the process he asked Gail to write down everything she remembered about her home growing up: how it looked, how her grandmother and father looked and acted, what her schooldays were like, and she did.

I have a feeling most of those notes Gail took made their way into this terrific novelization of the television production, for not only is the script told pretty much verbatim, but she adds what the best media novelizations do: delightful details that flesh out Addie Mills' everyday life in 1946, especially with much more description of the critical character of her grandmother and her eccentricities. Little pieces of business like Carla Mae's home life, Addie and Carla Mae making their names out of the letters in alphabet soup, etc., just provide homey detail to an already touching story: for years 10-year-old Addie has wished to put up a Christmas tree in her home, just like her friends, but her distant father thinks it's a waste of money. This year Addie's request will bring things to a head—but in a way that will change things forever.

This is one of my two favorite Christmas specials ever, and the novel just adds richness to already rewarding tale. Thanks, Gail Rock!

30 December 2019

A Bumper Crop of Reading

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Carols From King's, Alexandra Coghlan
Since 1918, King's College (commissioned by Henry VI and completed during the reign of Henry VIII) in Cambridge, England, has offered a program on Christmas Eve at 3 PM called "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols." I have a CD of the service, but for the first time this year had an opportunity to listen to it broadcast live thanks to the internet. I had also picked up this little book from the BBC about the history of the service.

What this "little book" is is delightful, telling not only the story of the "Nine Lessons and Carols" but the history of carols in general—they weren't originally just for Christmas, they were considered earthy folk contributions and generally didn't fit the "hymn" category of sacred, they came from disparate sources, the Puritans (of course) hated 'em. Another novelty about the service is that for many years now they have been commissioning a new carol for each year's service, and some of the disapproving comments King's has received about them are very funny. She talks about the backgrounds and the creation of several of the new carols, but, sadly, she missed one of my very favorites, "Candlelight Carol."

Truth be told, I was kind of disappointed when I saw what a small book it was, until I got into it: it's a little volume packed with a lot. If you've heard of or heard the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and would like to learn more about it, this is the right book for you.

Ideals Christmas, from the Ideals Publication
I've been buying these seasonal books—I really, really, really miss their Thanksgiving/autumn edition—probably since the 1990s, when the photography and artwork improved, and every year it's a treat. This, their 75th anniversary issue, was delightful, with some poetry I had forgotten (e.e. cummings "little tree") and original verse written by readers, the usual Christmas essay from Pamela Kennedy, apt quotations, a couple of recipes (which is Quite Enough, thank you!), and the usual illustrated version of the two different Bible narratives (Luke and Matthew) about the Nativity.

Some of my favorite verse from this edition: "Silhouette," "Wonderful Wintertime," "Red Birds," "Christmas Brunch," "Chickadees," "Children's Winter," and "Sparkle Sparkle."

I also particularly enjoyed the essays/stories "Christmas Thoughts for All the Year," originally from "McCall's," Clara Brummert's "The New Skates," and Pamela Kennedy's sweet "A Long Way from the Manger."

The final third of the issue is a representation of covers over the years since 1944, the story of how Ideals came to be, and some representative pages from each decade. Truly a "box of delights" in the pages.

Re-read: A Little House Christmas Treasury, Laura Ingalls Wilder with colorized illustrations by Garth Williams
This is a compilation volume of most of the Christmas stories from the "Little House" books: from Christmas in the Big Woods to Mr. Edwards' encounter with Santa Claus on the prairie to two different Plum Creek Christmases (Christmas horses and Laura's first Christmas tree) to Almanzo Wilder's food-filled Christmas to a Christmas celebration in May after the Long Winter to a final Christmas with Laura just before her marriage. It's sweet to go back and read these, about children who have such full lives that they are content with items like red mittens, a stick of candy, or a tin cup for Christmas.

These aren't all the "Little House" Christmas tales, however; this "Treasury" volume omits the story of Pa getting stuck in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve and also the Christmas when little Grace received the swansdown cape. To get all of them you must purchase both volumes (one red and one green) of A Little House Christmas.

28 December 2019

Vintage Carols and Poems: "The Carnal and the Crane"

A Nativity parable.

[Note: a "carnal" is a French term for a crow.]

As I pass'd by the river side,
    And there as I did reign [run],
In argument I chanced to hear
    A Carnal and a Crane.

The Carnal said unto the Crane,
    If all the world should turn,
Before we had the Father,
    But now we have the Son!

From whence does the Son come,
    From where [or when] and from what place?
He said, In a manger,
    Between an ox and ass.

I pray thee,1 said the Carnal,
    Tell me before thou go,
Was not the mother of Jesus
    Conceived by the Holy Ghost?

She was the purest virgin,
    And the cleanest from sin;
She was the handmaid of our Lord
    And Mother of our king.

Where is the golden cradle
    That Christ was rocked in?
Where are the silken sheets
    That Jesus was wrapt in?

A manger was the [or his] cradle
    That Christ was rocked in:
The provender the asses left
    So sweetly he slept on.

There was a star in the West land,
    So bright it did appear,
Into King Herod's chamber,
    And where King Herod were.

The Wise Men soon espied it,
    And told the King on high
A princely babe was born that night
    No king could e'er destroy.

If this be true, King Herod said,
    As thou tellest unto me,
This roasted cock that lies in the dish
    Shall crow full fences three.

The cock soon freshly feathered was
    By the work of God's own hand
And then three fences3 crowed he
    In the dish where he did stand

Rise up, rise up, you [or my] merry men all,
    See that you ready be;
All children under two years old
    Now slain they all shall be.

Then Jesus, ah! and Joseph,
    And Mary, that was so pure,
They travell'd into Egypt,
    As you shall find it sure.

And when they came to Egypt's land,
    Amongst those fierce wild beasts,
Mary, she being weary,
    Must needs sit down to rest.

Come sit thee down, says Jesus,
    Come sit thee down by me,
And thou shalt see how these wild beasts
    Do come and worship me.'

First, came the lovely lion,
    Which Jesus's grace did spring,
And of the wild beasts in the field
    The lion shall be king.

We'll choose our virtuous princes
    Of birth and high degree,
In every sundry nation,
    Where'er we come and see.

Then Jesus, ah! and Joseph,
    And Mary, that was unknown,
They traveled by a husbandman,
    Just while his seed was sown-

God speed thee, man! said Jesus,
    Go fetch thy ox and wain,
And carry home thy corn again
    Which thou this day hast sown.'

The husbandman fell on his knees,
    Even upon [or before] his face:
Long time hast thou been looked for, [or talked of,]
    But now thou art come at last.

And I myself do now believe
    Thy name is Jesus called;
Redeemer of mankind thou art,
    Though undeserving all.

The truth, man, thou hast spoken,
    Of it thou may'st be sure,
For I must lose my precious blood
    For thee and thousands more.

If any one should come this way,
    And enquire for me alone,
Tell them that Jesus passed by
    As thou thy seed did [or had] sow.

After that there came King Herod,
    With his train so furiously,
Enquiring of the husbandman
    Whether Jesus passed by.

Why, the truth it must be spoke,
    And the truth it must be known;
For Jesus passed by this way
    When my seed was sown.

But now I have it reapen,
    And some laid on my wain,
Ready to fetch and carry
    Into my barn again.

Turn back, says the Captain,
    Your labor and mine's in vain;
It's full three quarters of a year
    Since he his seed has sown.

So Herod was deceived,
    By the work of God's own hand,
And [or No] further he proceeded
    Into the Holy Land.

There's thousands of children young
    Which for his sake did die;
Do not forbid those little ones,
    And do not them deny.

The truth now I have spoken,
    And the truth now I have shown;
Even the Blessed-Virgin
    She's now brought forth a son.

25 December 2019

Everyone is Family at Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Tuckers: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
Dear America: Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
These are two of my yearly Christmas reads, and I've reviewed them so many times I'm loathe to repeat the reviews. You can search for the titles and review all the different things I've noted about them. They are both series books: one in a series about a family and one in a series of epistolary historical novels.

The Tuckers are a common series family: five kids, mom, dad, grandparents, the inevitable shaggy dog, and a cat. The kids occasionally quarrel, but are always ultimately kind to each other and other people. The vocabulary is simple, so this is safest for even younger children, although there is an incident involving an abandoned baby and a lost woman stalked by a cougar. The others in the series are alternately sweet or funny, but this one has a special touch to it as if the author was adding some depth to the character of Penny, who is pretty much just a sweet seven-year-old in the other volumes. Compared to her active brothers and sister, Penny is physically frail, and she hopes a Christmas trip to the family's lake home will help her find her own strengths. It's a wonderful snow romp with almost every Christmas dream you might have ever had as a kid: endless days playing in the snow, skating, cutting your own Christmas tree, lots of yummy food, and adventures with happy endings. The ending always brings a lump to my throat.

Christmas After All is a Christmas tale of a different sort: a family in 1932 Indianapolis having to tightening their belts as the effects of the Depression grow deeper. Youngest daughter and next-to-youngest child Minnie Swift narrates as the family closes off more rooms in their home to save coal, eats pretty-much-meatless meals as it's all they can afford, and notice that day by day their father comes home a little earlier until one day he doesn't go to work at all, as his company has gone out of business. Then a twist of fate sends them an orphaned cousin, Willie Faye Darling, who comes from a dust-bowl ravaged town in Texas. As Minnie and her science-geek little brother Ozzie and the rest of the family are awed by the different life Willie Faye has led, the Dust Bowl survivor also is fascinated with the chatty, diverse Swifts, who, like the Tuckers, rally around each other in times of need.

Yet it's quiet, artistic, humble Willie Faye that will prompt their inventiveness in a seemingly dark Christmas, and who will get the Swifts through their greatest family crisis. It's a dark story sometimes (something very upsetting happens to one of Minnie's friends, and then something shocking happens to the Swifts themselves), but also one full of hope. The one false note is the standard "Dear America" epilogue that strays into the realm of fantasy, and checks off every significant late 20th century historical event to involve the various members of the family with.

Otherwise, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.

Vintage Carols and Poems: "Bells Across the Snow"

[Note: Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879) was a noted writer of verses for Christmas cards. Her most famous verses were these.]

O Christmas, merry Christmas,
Is it really come again,
With its memories and greetings,
With its joy and with its pain!
There’s a minor in the carol
And a shadow in the light,
And a spray of cypress twining
With the holly wreath tonight.
And the hush is never broken
By laughter light and low,
As we listen in the starlight
To the “bells across the snow.”

O Christmas, merry Christmas,
‘Tis not so very long
Since other voices blended
With the carol and the song!
If we could but hear them singing,
As they are singing now,
If we could but see the radiance
Of the crown on each dear brow,
There would be no sigh to smother,
No hidden tear to flow,
As we listen in the starlight
To the “bells across the snow.”

O Christmas, merry Christmas,
This never more can be;
We cannot bring again the days
Of our unshadowed glee,
But Christmas, happy Christmas,
Sweet herald of good will,
With holy songs of glory.
Brings holy gladness still.
For peace and hope may brighten,
And patient love may glow,
As we listen in the starlight
To the “bells across the snow.”