25 May 2017

Rudolph Day, May 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.

Stories have always been part of Christmas. The most enduring one has been the story of the Christ Child; for His followers this is a sacred truth. But over the years other stories have been engendered by the holiday season: the "scary ghost stories" told around the fire of old, the most popular being Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol; legends of King Arthur and knights celebrating medieval feasting; fantasy tales of elves and spirits; true tales of sad Christmases and miracles on Christmas Eve and unexpected truces during times of war; simple celebrations and fabulous wealthy feasts; stories of giving and tales of hope, stories of faith and narratives that are just plain fun. In modern times we have had media stories: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and all their compatriots who now find themselves classics, and there are even famous radio stories, like "The Small One" and "The Cinnamon Bear."

There may be stories out there you've never heard before, too. Have you read "The Fir-Tree Cousins"? Try searching the web for "vintage Christmas stories"—there are at least a dozen by Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery alone.

And of course who could forget O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi"?

However, there are so many Christmas story collections that just repeat the classics—most of these books which I have already picked up—that I was surprised to discover Keeping Christmas: The Celebration of an American Holiday by Philip Reed Rulon and find some novelties therein. This volume is a combination of fiction and nonfiction, but all of it having to do with different ways of spending Christmas in the United States. There are a few of the usual suspects, but still favorites: Stowe's "Christmas, or the Good Fairy" about a discontented rich girl who finds much better gifts by giving something away, and Truman Capote's melancholy "A Christmas Memory," bringing alive the friendship between an elderly woman and a small boy and the enduring Western "Stubby Pringle's Christmas." There is also a Nathaniel Hawthorne offering, "The Christmas Banquet," which is at once lugubrious and pointed.

Some of the historical texts are interesting to read, including an account of Columbus' first Christmas in the "New" World, an account of Christmas at Sutter's Fort before the gold rush of 1849 at which Johann Sutter makes a prophetic statement, accounts from Robert E. Lee and other Civil War soldiers, and two different accounts of Native Americans encountering Christmas customs (the second of these, "How the Indians Spend Christmas," may not be entirely politically correct today, but at many points is sympathetic with the Natives, who, if they have not yet been converted to Christianity, basically see Christmas as a day to eat themselves sick as they have seen the settlers doing, and, as one chief points out to the narrator, "Fort July" is just about white men getting drunk)!

Of novelty was finding Earl Hamner's "The Homecoming" included in this volume. I have the novella, so I am not sure if the shorter version included here is the original version which was later expanded or if it were trimmed to fit. Its roots to The Waltons are mentioned and one can definitely see them here. Another surprise is the 1844 "Santa Claus, or The Merry King of Christmas," which can be described as a Boston-set cross between "A Visit from St. Nicholas," L. Frank Baum's Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, and A Christmas Carol/"Christmas, or the Good Fairy" appeal for charity, where diminutive Santa, his team of reindeer, and hordes of fairies emerge from the Old Oak on the Boston Common and determine to make it a merrier Christmas for the poor. "Christmas in a Country Doctor's Home" is another fun story, about preparations for the holiday in that family and of the daughter's wish for her father to have no babies to deliver on Christmas Day so they can have their frolic. There's a sweet story about a Christmas tree seller and an amusing effort by Alexander Woollcott, and yet this stocking is not yet plumbed.

This is an interesting little volume with much to recommend it. If you see it in a used book store, you may wish to pick it up!

25 April 2017

Rudolph Day, April 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.

Christmas comes once a year, but often what is going on in that year conflicts with the reverent and celebratory customs associated with the holiday. So what happened in Christmas of 1914 was all the more astonishing.

In April 1917, with fervor bordering on religious, the United States declared war on Germany, having stayed neutral even after a great number of Americans were killed in the torpedoing of the ocean liner Lusitania in 1915, finally spurred into action by the infamous Zimmerman Telegram. "The Great War" was already in its third year, scarring Europe with trenches slashed across the landscape and grinding both Triple Alliance and Triple Entente personnel into small pieces, the hatred against each other seemingly never ending. However, events that took place during the Christmas season of 1914 gave a bit of lie to that hatred.

From "The Illustrated London News"

Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914, Malcolm Brow & Shirley Seaton
The weary British troops, already sick of war after five months in the field, were astonished on Christmas Eve of 1914 when the "Huns" in the enemy trench on the opposite side of No-Man's Land, a nightmare landscape of barbed wire, caltrops, chevaux de frise, and dead bodies (both of men and horses), dropped their weapons and waved their hands or a white flag and called to the "Tommies" a message of peace for Christmas. While this was not an orchestrated truce and it did not happen between all adversaries, it was celebrated by enough men that word of it got home to England via letters to family and it was publicized in the newspapers. One hundred years later it is still an amazing story, but, if you read this book you will realize that most of the men did not even have any malice toward each other; they were simply fighting because their governments told them so. The British "Tommies" talked to numerous "Hun" who had, not months earlier, worked as waiters, barbers, teachers, etc. in Great Britain.

The authors have assembled their story about the Truce from actual letters and reports written by the British and the German men who took part, chronicling cold weather, death, and hardship interrupted by surprising overtures of Peace on Earth: the trading of food and tobacco, a few unofficial games of football, singing to each other over No-Man's Land, and men willing to fire into the air to preserve a few more days of Christmas spirit. The text is a bit dry, but it's a very complete account of what happened (and what didn't happen) on that extraordinary Christmas of 1914. Students of history, especially military history, should enjoy.

16 April 2017

25 March 2017

Rudolph Day, March 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.

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 comes during a moment of sorrow: a long hospital stay, an aging relative slipping away, family conflicts, the death of a pet—but especially if a family member or close friend has passed away.


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 without children 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 through most of the story.

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

"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.

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.

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

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

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 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

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.