25 July 2018

Rudolph Day, July 2018

"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. Once again, I'm reading a Christmas book (or, rather, books), this time for "Christmas in July." In fact, one of the books takes place during a "Christmas in July" celebration. All are cozy mysteries, and have a lot in common: they both take place in small towns where the industry revolves around Christmas, and involve local women who left home for bright lights in the big city, only to return home after romantic catastrophe to work in their hometowns.

Hark the Herald Angels Slay, Vicki Delany
This is the third, and I hope not the last, in Delany's "Year Round Christmas" Mystery series, set in the upstate New York town of Rudolph. I'll admit I was iffy about the first one, but Merry Wilkinson and her family and friends have grown on me. In this entry, it's Rudolph's annual "Christmas in July" celebration, and Merry, proprietor of the gift shop Mrs. Claus's Treasures, thinks her biggest problem is what to wear in the boat parade in which her father, who plays Santa Claus, will feature.

Then her ex-boyfriend Max walks back into her life. Merry used to live in New York City, working at the popular lifestyle magazine Jennifer's Lifestyle (think Country Living crossed with Bella Grace) and was engaged to Max until he dropped her for the new manager, Jennifer Johnstone's granddaughter Erica. Merry came home to Rudolph and is now happy running her shop and being in a developing relationship with woodworker Alan Anderson. She wants Max out of her life, but Jennifer's Lifestyle is planning to do a story on Rudolph, and spoiled Erica is part of the group.

A day later Merry runs back to her shop to pick up something she forgot, and finds Max strangled in her office, and her assistant Jackie missing. While Erica shrieks that Merry is the killer because Max "spurned" her, Detective Simmons makes Jackie the prime suspect, but Merry can't believe Jackie would do such a thing. So she'll have to prove her innocence.

I was pleasantly surprised by the story, which included a twist I wasn't expecting, even if it was a bit of a cliché. Even Merry's adolescent St. Bernard fits into the tale well, although he's portrayed by a Bernese Mountain Dog on the cover. If it is the last book in the series, it ended up in a good place.

Twas the Knife Before Christmas, Jacqueline Frost (and The Twelve Slays of Christmas)
I actually read the sequel to this "Christmas Tree Farm" mystery (Knife) before the first book. I'm not entirely sure if I would have read the second book if I'd read them in order.

In Twelve Slays, Holly White returned to her hometown of Mistletoe, Maine, from Portland after her fiancé dumped her fifteen days before their Christmas Eve wedding for a yoga instructor. Her parents run Reindeer Games, a four-generation Christmas tree farm, and Holly arrived home just in time for the annual Twelve Days of Reindeer Games events, and for everyone to be angry at Margaret Fenwick from the town Historical Society because she'd been badgering everyone to make the town comply to historical society parameters. The day before the Reindeer Games are to start, Margaret is found stabbed to death with one of the markers Bud White uses for his Christmas trees. New sheriff Evan Gray considers Holly's dad his prime suspect at first, and he's shut down Reindeer Games right before their biggest days of business a year. Holly feels the need to clear her dad and starts asking questions—and starts getting threats.

In the second book (Knife), Holly's wealthy friend Caroline West, who's started a cupcake business with "Cookie" Cutter, owner of the local Christmas craft shop, is accused of killing Derek Waggoner, who started to put the moves on her during a date arranged by her disapproving parents (they hate her working "in trade") after one of the monogrammed knives from her shop is found to be the murder weapon. Holly can't let her best friend take the rap, and once again starts asking questions. And once again starts getting threatening notes. Sheriff Gray—whose romantic status with Holly amped up in the first novel, but now appears to be off—tells her to stop asking questions.

Of course if she does, the mystery stops here.

I love the town of Mistletoe, Holly's parents, Cookie, Caroline, and even Cindy Lou Who, Holly's cat. I want to visit there during the Twelve Days of Reindeer Games, as they all sound like a blast. I like the fact that Holly's talent at making glass jewelry has borne fruit. I like the moody sheriff formerly of Boston. I love the people of Mistletoe; it's the ideal small town. It's Holly I'm not sure I like. Oh, I love her pluck, but, especially in the first book, she seems immature. I also am irritated that the romance between her and the sheriff took off so quickly; I would have liked to have seen it build. But to be honest I am tired of romances in cozies, especially with the male always being impossibly handsome and heroic. Plus she ends up in distressing danger at the end of both novels; her predicament in Knife is particularly creepy. But I'm a Christmas fan to the end and will be keeping Frost's next "appointment" in Mistletoe.

23 July 2018

04 July 2018

What is an American?

We're back with the Clark family of Vermont for a July read. Between 1947 and 1956, Vermonter Frances Frost wrote four "Windy Foot" books about a Vermont farm family that saw them around the year, starting at the late summer/early fall county fair, continuing at Christmas and in the spring, and ending on Independence Day. Read more about the Clarks in this post about Maple Sugar for Windy Foot.

As mentioned, I didn't know the fourth book in the series existed until a few years ago. Reading it today is half an exercise in nostalgia, but it's also still relevant to current events.

Toby and his younger sister come home on the last day of school excited: there is going to be an Independence Day parade in town and Betsy is going to be on a float honoring modern farm women with her bull calf Kris while Toby is going to be the flag-bearer in a recreation of the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware. But Toby—who must be the most good-natured, friendliest kid in the world (unless you try to hurt Windy Foot)—has a bee in his bonnet: the eighth grade boy who was chosen to portray George Washington is an Italian boy who came to Vermont six years ago. His parents aren't even citizens, Toby protests, so why should he get to portray the First President of the United States? His family is disturbed by his attitude and his father tells him that until he thinks a little bit more about this business he won't be allowed to carry the flag in the parade. Toby is shocked, and even more shocked when all his friends think Pietro, the Italian boy, is a great choice.

As Toby helps his dad repair their house which was damaged in the spring by a flood, Jim Clark doesn't lecture Toby as they paint a room or even look at the stars together. He won't give him the answer; that would be too easy. Instead he asks Toby to think—with simply an occasional offhand question or remark that makes the boy rethink immigration and what makes an American. But when Pietro himself does the Clarks a kindness, can Toby use what he's learned to see the truth?

Fear not, the plot isn't all serious thought: there are band concerts, family fun, horse training, farm adventures, and a visit from Toby's best friend Tish Burnham. But it's Toby's revelation that makes this one special.

25 June 2018

Rudolph Day, June 2018

"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. Once again, I'm reading a Christmas book (or, rather, books).

It's not only Rudolph Day, but since it's June 25, it's also "Leon Day" (Leon = Noel spelled backward), with six months until Christmas. Garlands and bows are already appearing in craft shops. This brings the trappings of Christmas to mind: the candles, the carols, the special food, the special services at various houses of worship, the creche, the scents. There are many trappings of Christmas, and one of the most celebrated are the gift givers: Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, La Befana, Grandfather Frost, the Three Kings, St. Lucia...

Santa Claus goes back many years, and Katharine Lee Bates, the woman who gave us "America the Beautiful," popularized the idea of Santa Claus having a wife (although stories mentioning Santa's wife were written earlier) in her 1899 Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride. But what about Santa's family? Does he have one aside from his wife? Two very different books explore this idea.

The Legend of Holly Claus, Brittney Ryan
Holly Claus is a lush fantasy in the style of 19th century writers like Frank Stockton and Abbie Farwell Brown, and stories like Burnett's Rackety-Packety House, Davy and the Goblin, and Baum's Queen Zixi of Ix, with touches of the Oz books and Andrew Lang's color-titled fairy tale collections. In Ryan's Christmas world, Nikolas, king of the Land of the Immortals, lives in a beautiful castle in a land where the famous names who live forever come when they gain immortality—Galileo, Cadmus, fairies, Roman and Greek gods, centaurs, artists, scientists, religious figures, and more—along with his wife Vivienne. Nikolas' greatest joy is his annual Christmas journey giving gifts to children, and every year he looks forward to their letters. Then one year a young boy named Christopher writes him an unusual letter. He asks for nothing; instead he asks what Santa Claus wants for Christmas. There is no question for Nikolas or Vivienne. What they want is the one thing that does not exist in the Land of the Immortals: a child. A year later, in the autumn, they become the parents of a daughter they name Holly. At her christening party she is showered with gifts both esoteric and practical.

But as with the Sleeping Beauty, there is one being who does not wish Holly well. The evil Herrikhan began his life as a boastful young man who became a cruel king, who then wished to be worshiped as a god. He was punished for his cruelty and his vanity, banished to a wasteland. The only thing that can save him would be a pure heart, given to him from the owner of thus freely. Herrikhan knows Holly will have that pure heart. He escapes his prison long enough to encase Holly's heart in ice. For the rest of her life, unless she gives her heart to him willingly, she will only be able to stay in cold places.

Holly lives an enchanted childhood, playing with her dear friends Tundra, the wise wolf; Alexia, a talkative fox; Euphemia, a snowy owl; and Empy, a little penguin, watching centaurs play games, entertained by fairies, tutored and protected by Sofya, her Russian godmother. But as she grows older, she learns she's not just "sick," she's cursed, and not only does she wish to overcome the curse, but she wishes what every growing young woman does: to go out to live her own life and do some good in the world. Her terrified parents wish that she wouldn't, but Holly knows she must go out into the world, to the place she calls the Empire City (New York City), because it holds the key to her fate.

This is not a fairy tale for younger children. This is based on tales like the original Grimm stories, with cruelty and death appearing. Herrikhan is the embodiment of pure evil and when he first comes to curse Holly he kills Tundra's beloved mate Terra in a terrible way, then curses Holly with no remorse. Ryan remains close to the 19th century fairy tale model by using language that would be appropriate in those stories. For those willing to accept those precepts, this is an amazing and magical tale. The text is accompanied by gorgeously-detailed pen-and-ink illustrations by Laurel Long.

(There is a children's picture-book version of the story, Holly Claus, the Christmas Princess, with the exquisite artwork hand-colored, but the flavor and the "teeth" of the story are lessened by gentling it for the picture-book crowd.)

Christine Kringle, Lynn Brittney
On the opposite side of the coin is this funny, fast, and enjoyable take on the Santa Claus legend. In Brittney's Christmas world, there isn't just one Santa Claus, there is an entity called The Yule Dynasty, a family comprised of all the gift-givers around the world. Each year they have a conference, and in Christine Kringle they are meeting in Finland. The American Santa Claus is nervous because he's about to propose a change to the Yule Dynasty rules. For years the Santa Claus mantle has passed from father to son, but Kris Kringle has only a daughter, Christine. Rather than have Christine marry and have her husband carry on the Santa tradition, he wishes that Christine be given the job when the time comes. He knows he will face opposition: the Yule Dynasty is very male-oriented, although there are female gift-givers in the Dynasty, and this will be a hard sell.

In the meantime teenage Christine makes two new friends, Nick Christmas, son of the British Father Christmas who really isn't all that excited about having to inherit the job (he's even allergic to gingerbread), and "Little K," the son of the Japanese Santa, Santa Kurohsu, who's a brilliant inventor. "Santa K," in fact, will be addressing the Yule Dynasty as well, about Little K's new invention, "Living Lights," Christmas tree lights that don't need to be plugged in and which automatically decorate whatever you throw them at in gorgeous festoons. When the two Santas make their proposals, sure enough there is a protest about "a girl" inheriting the Santa title, and worries about the makers of electric lights conflicting with Little K's new invention.

And then everything comes to a screeching halt when Sky News reports that a little town in England, Plinkbury, has banned Christmas. The Yule Dynasty is horrified; what if this custom spreads? And what has happened in Plinkbury? In a mad scheme thought up by Ma Kringle and the members of the Sisterhood (the female gift-bringers), Christine, Nick, and Little K are sent to Plinkbury to find out what's going on. They will be helped by Nick's mother, Zazu, who is a bit of a scandal in the Yule Dynasty world because she's a "tall elf" and kind of a ditz, but at the same time kind at heart, and  Zazu's brother, Egan, who runs a chain of Christmas stores and has a wild plan of his own.

Brittney takes this crazy idea and runs with it for a delightful romp. The whole Yule Dynasty idea is brilliant—it even includes the Germanic disciplinary assistants like Black Peter, Belsnickel, Schmutzli, etc. who run the convention and the security at the convention—and the Living Lights are fascinating and funny (even what they run on is humorous). The "Yules" are written as very human: they have a big party before the conference begins with karaoke and everyone getting a bit rowdy, the ladies plot against the implacable men, Nick has an aversion to Christmas. Several of the funniest gags are, alas, based on stereotypes: Babbo Natale, the Italian Santa, is in love with his Ferrari, has two sons who are bullies, and his elves are Mafioso-like; Pere Noel (the French Santa) has a chubby son who's a glutton; the Sisterhood is forever battling with the male-chauvinist members of the Dynasty, especially Grandfather Frost, whose mother is Babushka, the senior member of the Sisterhood. Brittney also pokes fun at news reporters and Christmas collectors who have to have everything.

Again, perhaps a young adult read, not a children's one, based on some behaviors and also the use of "Christmas Spirit" in gift chocolates to turn the tide. Fall into the fantasy and coast into this one for the fun of it. You'll have a big grin on your face by the time you come out.

25 May 2018

Rudolph Day, May 2018

"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.

At this time of year, with the temperature already having reached 90°F, my mind has drifted somewhere cold. Not cooler, as in New England or Minnesota, but really cold: Canada. We went to Canada on vacation several times when I was a child, before terrorists ruined the world for everyone and you could just drive over the border with an legal ID and an inspection on the way back. I remember the French signs in Quebec (and having to advise my dad what to do at a gas station, as you could still get leaded gasoline in those days; I remembered that sans was French for "without" and the scientific name for lead being "plumbium"—thank you, science class!—so it was safe to use "sans plumb" gasoline in our new unleaded gasoline car) and staring at the beautiful St. Lawrence River from the heights of the Citadel, having a great time at Canada's Wonderland amusement park, visiting the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and driving to Niagara-by-the-Lake (and eating luscious cherries direct from the orchard on the way). I fell in love with Canada quite early in my life and regret I don't live close enough any longer to make trips there. Some of my favorite television series have even come from Canada, like the spooky soap Strange Paradise, Doctor Simon Locke (filmed in Kleinberg, Ontario), the fun kids' series The Forest Rangers, Kevin Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables and its sequel, and of course the modern Murdoch Mysteries! (Plus the first two Addie Mills' specials were filmed with Ontario standing in for Nebraska.)

Since I already had a book to read for July, instead of celebrating Canada Day, I'm here celebrating Victoria Day (May 21) instead with some Canadian-style Christmas books.

Christmas in Canada, by the editors of World Book
This entry in the World Book Encyclopedia "Christmas in..." volumes will put you in a holiday mood immediately, with its cover of the glowing Citadel overlooking the old city of Quebec, and following with an introductory chapter on "Christmas Lights Across Canada," the first Thursday of December when each city in the country turns on its holiday displays with the capital of Ottawa leading the way. Since the first explorers of Canada were French, French customs, like réveillon and Pere Noёl are discussed first, then following in close order are British customs (which from the majority of Canada's national customs derive), German, First Nations tribes that were converted by the French, and Ukrainians who settled the Canadian plains, and who celebrate their Christmas and Twelfth Night in January, based on the Julian calendar. Of course, each province has its own customs: for instance Newfoundlanders still practice mumming, Ukrainian families' celebrations featured a sheaf of wheat called the didukh which represents the family, Inuits hold contests and snowmobile races, "belsnicklers" still roam in Nova Scotia, and everyone enjoys the Santa Claus Parade from Toronto, originated by the now-defunct Eatons Department Store.

Color photos and illustrations illustrate all these customs, and two crafts, recipes, and two traditional Canadian carols, including "The Huron Carol," are included in this volume.

A Pioneer Christmas: Celebrating in the Backwoods in 1841, Barbara Greenwood, illustrations by Heather Collins
This is a sequel to Greenwood's classic A Pioneer Story (A Pioneer Sampler in the U.S.) about the Robertson family, a family of Scots descent who live in the Canadian backwoods in the 1840s, in which the simple, liberally-illustrated family story is broken between chapters to provide projects for young readers and also facts about the historic events behind the story. Once again middle child Sarah (the family consists also of the Robertson parents, older siblings Meg and George, middle brother Willie, little Lizzie, and baby Tommy, plus Granny Robertson) is the focal character as she participates in simple Christmas preparations (helping stone the raisins for the plum pudding, knitting gifts, making pine branches into garlands and pomander balls, and also preparing for the visit of her cousins Andrew and Sophie, who are expecting a baby. But will the snow make the visit impossible? The family also participates in a school exhibition and a "Christmas frolic" where dancing and music are held.

A plum pudding recipe and also one for permanent cookie decorations, plus instructions for making a pomander apple and other typical pioneer gifts are included. A nice peek back into when Christmas was a simpler holiday! I also applaud the illustrator for putting little Tommy in a dress as all small children would have worn in those days!

Christmas With Anne and Other Holiday Stories, L.M. Montgomery
This is a sweet collection of seasonal short stories written by Montgomery for magazines between 1899 and 1910, plus two Christmas chapters from the Anne books: Anne's gift of the dress with puffed sleeves during her first Christmas at Green Gables, and Katharine Brooke's eventful stay at Green Gables from Anne of Windy Poplars. They are not "great art," just gentle, happy little stories about ordinary people overcoming obstacles and celebrating a merry Christmas (or New Year's, as in several stories) even if in just the simplest manner. Several stories are about families reuniting accidentally after years of feuding; others are about wealthy protagonists deciding to help less fortunate neighbors. In one tale an old-fashioned aunt deplored by her niece provides a merry Christmas when the unexpected happens, in another a group of wealthy children bored by Christmas instead do something nice for a struggling family, in a third travelers stopping by a farmhouse inadvertently provide a happy holiday.

Best read with a cup of hot tea or cocoa, with a pet snuggling on your lap whilst listening to Christmas music. (Afghans and fireplaces also work. 😊 )

25 April 2018

Rudolph Day, April 2018

"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.

Is spring the last period you would be thinking of Christmas? Yet the 2018 Hallmark Keepsake Ornament catalog is out already among the blooming flowers and the leafing trees. Since it is the season of blooming, for my Rudolph Day read I decided to stick with a greenery theme.

Pagan Christmas, Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ereling
Holly Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker
Fir trees, holly, ivy, apples, oranges, roses, poinsettias, mistletoe, incense, chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg...just some of the plants, herbs, and spices associated with Advent and Christmastide. If you're looking for a less traditional and a bit offbeat look at Christmas, this "ethnobotany" of Yuletide plants may be your cup of (herbal) tea. Authors Rätsch and Müller-Ereling dig into the pagan past behind all the flora mentioned above and more. Ever notice those cute little red mushrooms included in European Christmas illustrations, the ones with the festive white spots? Those are fly agaric mushroom and, when used in small doses, were used by shamans to reach "higher planes" of consciousness. Holly represented male sexuality and ivy female sexuality, and "The Holly and the Ivy" was originally a song about the battle of the sexes, not how holly mimed the life of Jesus; holly was also the greenery associated with Frau Holle, the Germanic goddess who shook out her feather pillows to make it snow. Many Christmas plants were considered aphrodisiacs, especially the mistletoe, which was banned from Christian churches for years even though holly and ivy were allowed. In Germany, pipe-smoking carved Father Christmases and "smokers" are common decorations, but what these St. Nicholases are smoking isn't plain tobacco, but "baccy," which contains hemp and other intoxicating weeds. Chocolate—chocolatl—was part of Mayan religious ceremonies and sometimes associated with cannibalism; today we eat chocolate figures molded in the shape of Santa Claus. Poppyseed, coca (as in Coca-Cola), apples (appearing in Norse and Greek myths), rose hips, boxwood, laurel, wines, and many more are investigated in this intriguing look at the pagan past behind some common Christmas customs. Reading this will make you understand why greenery was banned from most Puritan churches for years.

Liberally illustrated with photographs, advertisements, and old ephemera.

01 April 2018

Happy Easter!

31 March 2018

Around the Seasons With the Clarks

Between 1947 and 1956, Vermonter Frances Frost wrote four "Windy Foot" books about a (presumably) Vermont farm family that saw them around the year, starting at the late summer/early fall county fair, continuing at Christmas and in the spring, and ending on Independence Day. They are not only fun to read, but give a picture of a bygone era: a family-run farm rather than a giant agrobusiness; living with only electricity and a telephone and a radio, with food cooked on a woodstove and winter heat provided by the stoves and a fireplace; one vehicle only, otherwise the family uses horses for transportation; lots of hard work but lots of fun times, too: community dances and carol sings, fairs, parties with dancing and games, sleigh rides, skiing, hikes in the woods, stargazing, fishing.

Modern-day children reading the books will also be surprised and perhaps aghast at the freedoms allowed in those days. Lead character Toby is twelve and can be entrusted with driving his little sister back and forth to school many miles each day as well as taking care of the titular pony, Windy Foot. He chops wood and helps his father milk cows, can be trusted to stay home and guard the animals with a small rifle when a bear prowls around, can properly tap maple trees and is learning to boil sap to make maple syrup. Even more amazing, he and his nine-year-old sister are allowed to snowshoe and hike in the woods alone, no one worries when they drive into town and back that they might be assaulted or the buggy might turn over. Toby is allowed to defend himself in a fight with a bully and his mother doesn't panic and immediately rush him to a hospital; neither does six-year-old Johnny get rushed to the doctor when he falls off the banister while sliding down the stair rails and gets a bump on his head.

I read the first two of these books in elementary school and found the third some years later. I didn't even know the fourth existed until I saw it on the internet and hunted down a copy. A city kid, I lived vicariously through Toby and his friend Tish: horseback riding! gathering Christmas greens in the woods! carol singing around a big community tree! maple sugar parties! I was less enamored by the youngest Clark sibling, little Johnny who makes up rhymes when he's happy; sometimes I just wished he'd shut up, just like a real older sister.

While all the books describe some seasonal happiness—and the occasional seasonal drawback, like a broken leg from skiing—the most exciting and the saddest of the books, Maple Sugar for Windy Foot, takes place in the spring, from before St. Patrick's Day to Easter Sunday. It opens with busy times on the farm: the first sugar snow has fallen! Those unfamiliar with maple syrup production may not know this process happens in the early spring when the days start to get warm, but snow is still on the ground and nights are cold. The sap in the maple trees begins to run before the trees bud (once the tree buds the process is stopped so the tree may grow) and it is then when sugaring off begins.

Today the process has been simplified: clear plastic tubing runs from each of the "tapped" maple trees to a vat where the sap is collected; when enough sap is collected it is run through pipes to a facility that does so. There is less skimming and cleaning of the sap needed because it goes directly from tree to vat.

Maple Sugar For Windy Foot illustrates the old-fashioned way of sugaring off, when for several weeks in March the family with the "sugarbush" had little sleep. Everyone pitched in to tap the trees (you tried not to tap the same trees every year, to give a chance for the tapped trees to heal), hang tin buckets (early in the century the buckets would have been wooden) under the tap, and check the buckets several times a day, using an old-fashioned yoke and a team of horses pulling a small sledge (better for traveling in the woods than a vehicle) to transport the sap to a log sugarhouse near the maple grove. Twenty-four hours a day, the sap would be boiled at a very specific temperature so that the water evaporated and the sweet maple syrup remained. The person boiling the sap had to know his business. The sap had to be skimmed and then strained multiple times before it was fit for human consumption.

When "sugaring off" was over, then it was time to play. In the book, Toby and sister Betsy invite classmates and their schoolteachers over for a sugaring off party, where the kids poured hot maple syrup on snow to make delicious toffee-like candy, and also ate doughnuts and sour pickles to offset the sweet. (You will probably read these books amazed at all the food Toby eats; he already has a stereotypical teenage appetite. All the kids seem to eat a ton, and then they go outside and exercise it off. Overweight people are rare in this era's farm country!) After eating they play games and dance.

This happy opening gives no clue to what will happen once sugaring season is over and the snow begins to melt. Runoff and days of rain bring the river that passes through the Clark property to higher and higher levels. At first it only overflows its banks and wets a bit of the farm property. But it keeps raining...and raining. The fields are covered and now the water begins to creep up to the house, and the barn. The whole family works together to save their animals and themselves...but there may be no way to save their property.

When the crisis comes, both Toby and Windy Foot do their part in averting a total family disaster as well as helping their neighbors. Unlike the other books, which have minor crises as part of the plot (an exciting rescue after a skiing accident, a family member's injury, an attempt at sabotage in a sporting event, a lesson for Toby), this episode in the lives of the Clarks will touch your heart and make you cry. For a spring story with a difference, this one can't be beat.

Sugaring Off

25 March 2018

Rudolph Day, March 2018

"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.

I'm still in "read a book for Rudolph Day" mode, but got a little delayed by James' hospital stay, which started out in a frighteningly abrupt manner that brought him to the ICU and ended up somberly twelve days later, with new protocols and routines for both of us. However, since it was Women's History Month, I decided to read something on that subject, and came across this little volume, which I had read before, but apparently had never mentioned in this blog.

"May Your Days Be Merry and Bright": Christmas Stories by Women, edited by Susan Koppelman
There is a genre of literature called "occasional stories," which, many years ago, were written for magazines, whether for sensationalized pulps such as "Black Mask" or "The Shadow" or for staid newsstand favorites like "Redbook" and "The Saturday Evening Post." Many of these "occasionals" were written for women's magazines and of this subsection there was a smaller genre of Christmas stories that usually revolved around home or family. You've probably read many of these if you are an aficionado of Christmas literature.

These are, in general, more obscure tales from noted writers like Edna Ferber and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, bookended by the Christmas chapters from Little Women and the story "Christmas for Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo," who are the "little women" one hundred years later, three daughters of a traditional Gullah weaver who was widowed in wartime. In between are such treats as "Old Mother Goose," about a despised woman from the wrong side of the tracks who longs to see the famous singer Thamrè—who is keeping a secret of her own), the enjoyable "Mrs. Parkins's Christmas Eve" (a bit of a cross between "A Christmas Carol" and the Christmas tale "The Water Bus") in which a parsimonious woman has a telling lesson on the day before Christmas, the chilling "The Twelfth Guest" wherein a family accidentally sets an extra place at dinner only to have a lost child show up at the door to fill it, the Damon Runyon-ish "The Nth Commandment" about an exhausted shopgirl supporting a sick husband and a child and the raffish man pursuing her, and Edna Ferber's pointed "No Room at the Inn" which rewrites the Nativity story as a modern-day refugee tale. The rest of the stories are swell, too, especially Fisher's often amusing "As Ye Sow" about a woman who discovers her little boys are tone deaf.

A great collection of Christmas gems, but without the mawkish sentiments that often accompany Christmas stories.

25 February 2018

Rudolph Day, February 2018

"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.

Valentine's Day has come and gone. This year I had some time to take with dinner, and when James arrived from work, he discovered dinner nearly ready, a card and a gift, and a menu in French. (Let me say I know very little French. Le Menu was courtesy of Le Google Translate. 😁 ) We had lobster ravioli in a butter sauce I cobbled together from ghee, Kerrygold, and Smart Balance, with flavored vinegars and a little sweetener (it, amazingly, came out pretty well) with a cucumber salad. (It was supposed to have tomatoes as well, but I ran out of room in the bowl.) For dessert we had three selections each from a box of dark chocolate only Russell Stover candies. I gave James a book about a fighter pilot and a stand for his cell phone; he gave me Red, White, and Who: The Story of Doctor Who in America, which I dived into like a heated pool and didn't come out until I was finished.

Chocolates were the reason I chose the following book for this month's Rudolph Day reading:

Christmas in Belgium by the staff of World Book Encyclopedia
I started collecting these with the resolve that I was going to only pick them up at book sales and was not going to get any of the volumes about Christmas in hot places. But then I couldn't leave Australia out and when you start a collection you want to finish it. So I am trying to assemble the rest of the collection from inexpensive online sources.

I was particularly interested in Belgium because they combine two different cultures, the Dutch-speaking Protestant Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Catholic Walloons in the south (with a substantial German population as well). This is a really nice volume because it talks about how the two cultures enrich each other. Like the Dutch, they still celebrate St. Nicholas Day, like the French they include santons in their Nativity scenes, which, the book tells me, dot the Belgian cities and countrysides. As in all the World Book Christmas volumes, they tell you how Advent, Christmas, and Christmastide is celebrated with food, the growing popularity of Santa Claus and Christmas trees, Advent wreaths, and special cookies called speculoos, which you can buy here in the US as "Biscoff" cookies.

However, there are several unique aspects included as well: there is a piece on the Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I, the famous lacemakers of Belgium (lace ornaments being popular on trees), Belgian chocolates (said to be the best in the world; Godiva is a Belgian brand), post-Christmas customs like "Lovers Day" and the National Horse Show, and the story of Begijnhofs, small towns of women in the post-Crusade era that supported themselves.

This is an excellent entry in the World Book Christmas series.

13 February 2018

Before Ash Wednesday Comes...

The 40-day period before Easter is known as Lent, a time when Christians prepare for the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a time when you fast from all rich foods, and people who are participating in the fast usually eat last hearty treats like pastries, doughnuts, cake, and pie on the day before Ash Wednesday. That is why it's referred to in the US and in France as Mardi Gras, which means "Fat Tuesday." The most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States is held in New Orleans, where parades, social organizations called "krewes" who supply the floats for the parade, candy and beads glitter the day.

Mardi Gras New Orleans

In England the day is called Shrove Tuesday, because the faithful went to church on that day to be "shriven" (confessed) of their sins and then took the next 40 days to do their penance. To use up all the fat in the household, traditionally pancakes were made, so it's now referred to as "Pancake Day."

Shrove Tuesday: What is It?

The Origins of Pancake Day

Pancake Day: Why Shrove Tuesday is a Thing - BBC News

Happy Pancake Day 2018!

What's the Meaning Behind Shrove Tuesday?

06 January 2018

For Love of Language and Christmas

A Book of Christmas, William Sansom
I found this book in a very funny way. I was just finishing the book Christmas in Pennsylvania and reading the bibliography. The author states that probably the best book he knows about Christmas was William Sansom's Book of Christmas, and I thought to myself that I should look it up sometime. A few days later I went by Atlanta Vintage Books on my way home from work. They only have their Christmas books out at Christmastime, and since December was upon us I hoped they had their small supply available. I was rewarded by a small stack of books on top of a small stool.

There on top was A Book of Christmas. It could have only been fate.

Oh, and Christmas in Pennsylvania was quite correct. This is a wonderful book. I have other histories (or "biographies") of Christmas, but Sansom's is told with delightful language—his opening paragraphs alone are poetic:

     What is the colour of Christmas?
     Red? The red of toyshops on a dark winter's afternoon, of Father Christmas and the robin's breast?
     Or green? Green of holly and spruce and mistletoe in the house, dark shadow of summer in leafless winter?
     One might plainly add a romance of white, fields of frost and snow; thus white, green, red—reducing the event to the level of a Chianti bottle.
     But many will say that the significant colour is gold, gold of fire and treasure, of light in the winter dark; and this gets closer.
     For the true colour of Christmas is black.
     Black of winter, black of night, black of frost and of the east wind, black dangerous shadows beyond the firelight.
     Darkness of the time of year hovers everywhere, there is no brightness of Christ Child, angel, holly, or toy without a dark surround somewhere about. The table yellow with electric light, the fire by which stories are told, the bright spangle of the tree—they all blaze out of shadow and out of a darkness of winter. The only exception is an expectation of Christmas morning, the optimistic image of sunlight on the snow of Christmas Day and a sparkling brisk walk through the white-breath frosty air. But it only lasts a short while, and has its own dark frame, made up of the night before and the early dark of a December afternoon.

The twelve chapters (with header drawings from "The 12 Days of Christmas") cover the spectrum of the celebrations: sacred celebrations, feasting, Christmas music, plays, literature, giftgivers, etc. in pages crammed with color and black and white illustrations, photographs, woodcuts, and engravings. Any Christmas lover should enjoy Sansom's tale-spinning of pantomimes, Krampuses, holly bushes, vintage decorations, "Merrie Olde England," sacred art, and all the trappings that herald Christmas.

02 January 2018

"Old Christmas" from the Source

December 25th: The Joys of Christmas Past, Phillip Snyder
When Snyder set out to do a book on antique Christmas ornaments, he found himself reading nineteenth-century newspapers on microfilm, chiefly from New York City. He was so enchanted by the reports of Christmas celebrations that he continued reading and came up with this book, designed to take you "way back when" to see how the holidays (and they were called that, even back then, because the custom was originally to give gifts at New Year) were celebrated.

Incorporating the words and descriptions of the unnamed reporters of the day, supplemented by a five-page bibliography and a dozen magazine articles, we discover the sights, sounds, and smells of the Christmas food markets in Victorian-era New York City and discover what prodigious feasts those who could afford them had; read about the racket that used to greet Christmas day, whether it be small boys with horns or men pounding gunpowder on anvils; the sheer fatigue of the overworked store clerks, delivery boys, elevator operators and other sales employees in the days when stores stayed open through midnight on Christmas Eve; the experience of a sleigh ride one snowy Christmas; the unfortunate drunkenness that accompanied Christmas celebrations; the first department store Santa Claus (and where that jolly old persona came from); and more, from Christmas trees to live evergreen roping to sacred music to the delightful experience of an elderly man "taking a slide" one Yuletide night.

Snyder takes care that the experiences sound as first hand as possible, taking his narrative directly from the newspaper reports, which gives you a "first hand" appearance that most histories of Christmas do not. In addition, the book contains old illustrations and woodcuts from newspapers and the reference books to enhance the experience (the development of the "look" of Santa Claus, street scenes, market scenes, etc.). If you're at all interested in the history of American Christmas celebrations (or non-celebrations, as in Puritan-influenced New England), you will enjoy this book!

01 January 2018

Not As Old As You Think

Christmas: A Biography, Judith Flanders
Flanders, who's previously described the Victorian home and the Victorian city in her immensely readable books, tackles the story of Christmas in this newest volume. She opens by reminding us that Christmas is a very different holiday depending on where you celebrate it, and everyone believes their Christmas customs are the authentic ones, when nothing could be further from the truth.

For instance, there is a notion that Christmas was "more religious" in the past, yet most of the writing about Christmas in the "goode olde dayes" is about eating and drinking. Texts from the year 389 and in the seventh century had clergy complaining about feasting, drunkenness, and gluttony. Indeed, for the first few hundred years, it was unthinkable to celebrate Christ's birth, as if he was "some pagan god." The date of Christmas was fixed on December 25 to coincide with existing celebrations (the Kalends, Saturnalia, Mithras's birth, Yule) and many pagan symbols were given Christian symbolism (Christmas trees from the "everlasting life" of the evergreen, holly standing in for the crown of thorns, etc.).

Flanders also discusses how "traditional" Christmas celebrations were said to come from the "days long ago" when some of them were only several decades old, how businesses were open on Christmas (so people could buy Christmas food and drink) until very recently, how those wonderful old country house celebrations you hear about (like Christmas at Downton Abbey) required a great deal of drudgery, dirt, and loss of sleep for the servants despite their being tales of revelry among the staff, and how Christmas advertising goes back to the 18th century and that people at the turn of the last century were already complaining about Christmas commercialization (and how wealthy young ladies already bemoaned the fact that their friends got more Christmas gifts than they did).

There are more detailed books about the "biography" of Christmas (which Flanders notes in her bibliography), but this is a great summary of all of the truths and the fallacies about the holiday season. Flanders even provides little icons in the margins to indicate which subjects she is discussing (a horn for music, a mask for revelry, a Santa face for the history of gift givers, etc.).