31 December 2004

St. Sylvester's Day

"On the seventh day of Christmas
"My true love gave to me...
"...seven swans a'swimming
"six geese a'laying
"five gold rings
"four calling birds
"three French hens
"two turtledoves
"and a partridge in a pear tree."
Been a busy day--got some things to take to the parties tonight, bought some groceries, visited Borders...am now home watching The Poseidon Adventure, which takes place on New Year's Eve/Day. For many years Fox Movie Channel has shown this film on New Year's Eve. One year they had the full-screen version, widescreen version, and a version with popup facts. Last year they showed it with a documetary about Poseidon Adventure fans.

This year there are other films on, in respect, I will assume, for the victims of the tidal wave in Indonesia. The photos and stories coming from that part of the world are heartbreaking. If you're an Amazon.com customer and are looking for a quick way to give the relief effort some help, you can do a one-click payment via Amazon. Or visit www.redcross.org.
Thursday Threesome

::Taking the Lights Down...::

Onesome: Taking-- --some time off? Are you on holiday schedule tomorrow? ...or is it just another day in the mines? How about a party in the evening? No?

When a holiday is on a Saturday, you get the Friday off where I work. But since I had Friday off anyway, I got Thursday off as well...and then we had the power failure on Wednesday which sent us home before noon. So even though I had to work this week (I had no leave left, after taking two weeks of vacation), it was a nice short one! (It's actually not bad working between Christmas and New Year's...no one else is at work! You bring a book and enjoy yourself.

Twosome: the Lights-- Hey, is this the weekend all the decorations come down? When do you "de-Christmas" your place?

After January 6th, which is when the twelve days of Christmas are over. This is the feast of the Epiphany, when it is said the Wise Men reached the location of the Baby Jesus.

Threesome: Down-- --time... Are you getting any relaxation time this weekend? ...or are you all wrapped up in parties and events? ..and for the students: are you done with down time? When do you have to go back?

We have two New Year's Eve parties tonight, but hopefully it will be fairly quiet afterwards. We have to rest--we have a Twelfth Night party next Saturday.

30 December 2004

Churching Day

"On the sixth day of Christmas
"My true love gave to me...
"...six geese a'laying
"five gold rings
"four calling birds
"three French hens
"two turtledoves
"and a partridge in a pear tree."
The titles that I'm giving to the Twelve Days of Christmas, BTW, are from a novel called The Thirteen Days of Christmas, a medieval tale about a wealthy man who gives his intended bride the twelve days of gifts (no, this isn't the sarcastic version in letters) to convince her he's not staid and unimaginative. The children in the Kitson family conspire with the suitor to get their bossy sister Annaple married off because they hate her cooking! It's very funny.

Another visit to the past today: A Louisa May Alcott Christmas, short stories from various 19th century magazines. This volume cheats a bit--two of the stories are Thanksgiving tales, but the merrymaking is Christmasy enough. (There's another volume, A Louisa May Alcott Christmas Treasury, which purports to contain "all Alcott's Christmas stories," but only about half of the stories and poems are duplicated between the two books.) Alcott Christmas was marketed as a children's book, but at least two of the stories are adult domestic dramas with Christmas framing. The cover makes it look too cute for words.

29 December 2004

St. Thomas of Canterbury Day

"On the fifth day of Christmas
"My true love gave to me...
"...five gold rings
"four calling birds
"three French hens
"two turtledoves
"and a partridge in a pear tree."
A freebie today, as the power went out at work. I spent the blackout time reading Paul Davis' The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. If you're a fan of A Christmas Carol, you'll enjoy this examination of how readers' interpretations of this simple book have changed in the 140 years since it was written. To the early Victorians it was a plea for charity at the Christmas season, to the late Victorians a celebration of family and children (up to the exclusion of Scrooge). In one era it was treated as a children's story, in another an indictment of economics. A great examination of changing social mores.

28 December 2004

Childermas (Holy Innocents Day)

"On the fourth day of Christmas
"My true love gave to me...
"...four calling birds
"three French hens
"two turtledoves
"and a partridge in a pear tree."
Anyone interested in the history of Christmas customs in the United States should get a copy of Karel Marling's Merry Christmas! The history of Christmas customs has been chronicled in many other books, but Marling's fresh take is informative and interesting. Do you know why we wrap Christmas gifts, when the first gifts were actually distributed unwrapped and hung on the tree? Did you know those ubiquitious Christmas villages lit from within by electric bulbs weren't the creation of Hallmark or any other Christmas merchant, but derive from old European custom? Do you know how Santa Claus evolved from an aesthetic bishop to a "right jolly old elf" to the "six foot God Emperor of Christmas" (complete in red and white, Coca-Cola's colors)? Marling's book tells you all this, and more, from the evolution of "White Christmas" to the celebration of the holiday in foreign climes. Highly recommended!
Tuesday Twosome

1. Do you make resolutions and why (or why not)?

No, I don't keep them.

2. What two things do you want to change about yourself or your lifestyle in 2005?

Lose weight and get more sleep.

3. What are two important events that occurred in your life in 2004?

It'll have to be four: My budgie Bandit died, I had surgery to remove an ovarian cyst and had a hysterectomy, I adoped Pigwidgeon, and I bought a new car.

4. If you could change two things/events of 2004, what would they be?

Most importantly my mom's cancer not getting worse would have been the best thing to happen.

That dippy woman in the SUV who hit me could have slowed down and missed me, too.

5. Are you going to "Partay" on New Year's Eve or just "chill"?

"Partay" with friends, but most of us don't do that drinking thing, and those that do, don't do it to excess. I don't even know if I could drink, even if I liked to, because of my heart pills.

27 December 2004

St. John's Day

"On the third day of Christmas
"My true love gave to me...
"...three French hens
"two turtledoves
"and a partridge in a pear tree."
I finally had a chance to put on my "Happy Holiday Hearth" DVD tonight. This is a version of WPIX's beloved "Yule Log" with a fire crackling onscreen. You can watch it with the fire crackling, with Christmas carols, or with both.

There are several versions of video fireplaces, of variable quality. This one is pretty nice; generic singers doing the carols, pretty traditional. There's one fireplace set that actually has non-Christmas music to it so you can use it all year 'round.

I was ambivalent about the existence of video fireplaces, but I kind of liked it last night as I was reading, with the crackling of the fire in the background. It must be a visceral, instinctive thing, being attracted to the snap and crackle of the flames.

(Of course I could go upstairs and listen to the real fire, but it leaves Pidge alone; I spend so little time with him weekdays that I hate to do so.)
Monday Madness

1) Which holiday do you celebrate this time of year? (If necessary, modify the following questions to suit your holiday.)

The Christmas season, through Epiphany. (And Advent, of course.)

2) Do you begin shopping for gifts earlier than Thanksgiving, looking for the perfect gift? If not, when do you begin?

I shop for gifts all year long. I know what the people whom I buy presents for like and when I see an appropriate gift, I buy it.

3) Do you only purchase gifts that you know are perfect for the recipient and if you don't find that gift, do you just get anything?

I still try to get a gift that's appropriate. I had particular trouble with one friend this year, but found something in that person's sphere of interest at the last minute. I would have preferred something a little more personal, but this was quite close.

4) Did you receive or give any "obligatory" gifts this year?

I dunno if it's an obligatory gift--the nice fellow who cuts our lawn gave us an amaryllis plant. I wish he wouldn't; I killed the one he gave us last year. We really don't have anywhere to keep it and I'm allergic to flowers.

5) Do you decorate your tree as evenly as possible or do you skip the areas that are not visible?

I put the older ornaments in the back of the tree. (You can tell; they're faded.)

6) Do you like multi-colors on your tree or do you prefer monochrome?

The tree and front door wreath are multicolor; the rest of the lights are blue. Both James and I love the ethereal look it gives to the house. If we ever get a plug put into the front of the house we can put up more lights...

7) Did you bake "traditional" cookies, frost them and decorate them? or did you cheat and buy the ready to bake kind? (like I tried)

Frosting? Ugh! I did make traditional cookies, Italian wine biscuits. This is what my mom used to bake, along with almond bars and molasses cookies and butterballs. The butterballs had powdered sugar on them; that's as sweet as we got. (Frosting...shudder...)

8) Are you the host of a holiday gathering? which one? family, work, friends?

We have a Twelfth Night party on the closest Saturday to January 6. I've never done the cake, though. (You're supposed to put a bean in it and the person who gets the bean will have good luck throughout the year.)

9) With whom do you spend the holiday?

Sometimes we are invited to friends' homes, but this year we had Christmas on our own. We went to see James' family on Christmas Eve.

10) How did the holiday turn out? Perfectly? funny mishaps? miss anyone?

We had a nice quiet day which was quite relieving for this year! We had vacation at Thanksgiving and the week after and then two weekends where we did nothing but run off our feet doing errands and repairing things. We slept late, had presents, spent a quiet afternoon with the animals, had turkey for dinner and made turkey soup.

26 December 2004

Boxing Day/St. Stephen's Day

"On the second day of Christmas
"My true love gave to me...
"...two turtledoves
"and a partridge in a pear tree."
We ended up not going down to the Fox at all. We had the usual weekend errands to run since we'd played hooky for the rest of the time. The usual tiresome run for groceries, of course, and the ubiquitous washing of the clothing. But now we have Christmas cards for next year and have stocked up on some soda for our Twelfth Night party.

We discovered that if we want to see the World War II exhibit at the Atlanta History Center, we're going to have to make tracks there next Sunday since the Center is closed New Year's Day. January 2nd is the last day.

Looking a the calendar and watching those last few days of 2004 clock down.

Sigh. Another year gone...

25 December 2004

Anticipation is the Best Part...But Can't We Make It Last?

I found this beautiful passage in Kate Seredy's The Open Gate:
Christmas never comes all of a sudden. It shouldn't. It has to be hoped for and waited for with joy. It is like a beautiful, bright, glowing comet that one can see from very far away. It floats closer and closer, growing more beautiful as it comes. The few days before it finally envelops the whole world in a shining, warm light are perhaps the best part of Christmas. They mean secret smiles at bulky, strange objects trying to hide in closets and under beds, or anywhere, where people are not supposed to look, but, because it's Christams, always do. They mean wonderful, spicy odors all through the house. They mean whispered conversations that suddenly stop when one comes into a room unexpectedly, and the bubbling feeling inside one that comes from the knowledge that there is another surprise being talked over and plotted with such secrecy that one can't help but know about it. That is the best part of Christmas; the waiting, the preparing, the hoping for the joy to come."
We wait so long for this time of year--why rush it when it comes? As Kris Kringle said in Miracle on 34th Street," Christmas isn't a day, it's a state of mind. But yet somewhere tonight trees are being undecorated and "Christmas is over."

What happened to letting the Christmas season at least go through New Year's Day? Even the stores tear down their decorations where they used to last until New Year's. There are twelve days of Christmas, and, even though most of us poor working class drones must go back to work on Monday, why not keep the season going as it should and parcel a bit of fun through each of the days? Enjoy the decorations and the movies and the scents and the colors and the plays of the season! It's all yours to celebrate--don't let it slip away so easily!

There's No Christmas Like a Home Christmas

"On the first day of Christmas
"My true love gave to me...
"...a partridge in a pear tree."
Woke still feeling a bit under the weather; at this point I still have a nagging headache. However, the animals are overjoyed: Pidge is running riot with his new bird toys and chirping at the top of his lungs and Willow is clinging to her daddy happily. We had presents late this morning and then breakfast; then James popped a new network card in his new computer--and viola (as Snagglepuss would say), now everything works, so it looks like the network card was the culprit. He's happily downloading new versions of Firefox as we watch holiday window and yard decorations on HGTV.

Up in the kitchen the turkey necks we bought are simmering into turkey soup and our dinner, turkey legs and wings, are brining ala Alton Brown before cooking, the living room stereo is playing carols, and the tree glows over the small cache of gifts, mostly books and DVDs. Since we didn't make it out to the real movies (we were planning on seeing The Aviator), we'll probably watch one of the DVDs in a bit: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (which we had to order from England).

24 December 2004

I Spoke Too Soon

The trip to church has been abandoned. I seem to have had a bad reaction to something I ate and am sticking close to the bathroom. But there's Christmas music here and a warm fleece wrap and Pidgie singing a bird carol.

35 minutes till Christmas...

Ho, Ho, Ho, the Festivities are Just Beginning

We drove down to Warner Robins today to visit James' mom, sisters, and niece. Before arriving we stopped to exchange gifts and vist with our friends Clay and Marianne and their two mini dachshunds, Rupert ("Ripper") and Jenny. At James' mom's home we had a buffet lunch and chatted and exchanged gifts under the tree and showed them our vacation pictures. James' mom has an enormous Christmas village that covers one corner of her living room. I haven't counted the houses, but there are several dozen of them, and sleighs and skaters and horses and all sorts of village goodies. On the sideboard and in the dining area are little Santa and other Christmasy statues. It's a veritable Christmas wonderland.

We left about seven and rode, as we had on the way up, to the Christmas songs on the radio. At the beginning of the season I programmed the three Atlanta FM stations doing Christmas music into the buttons on the radio. I'm mainly listening to Lite 94.9, but when they start yakking I just press the buttons for another station. WABE (Public Radio) was doing some carols as well.

We got home in time to have a bowl of warm soup and play (or in Willow's case, cuddle) with the animals a while. Disappointed: HGTV is not doing Christmas Across America this year! They've done it for all the time I've been watching HGTV, I think, and this year nothing. Darn. It was fun to watch all those different town and home decorations.

And of course we checked in on Santa's progress on the NORAD site! He's over Newfoundland and Labrador at the moment, with a two-fighter escort courtesy of the Canadians. We're waiting for you, Santa!

But right now we're off to Midnight Mass at the Church of Our Saviour in Virginia Highlands. Our friends the Taylors go to this church and we love their Midnight Mass. The highlight is when they turn down the lights and the choir sings "Silent Night" with candles. I always end up crying.

One hour and 35 minutes until Christmas!

23 December 2004

Gerald Toner's Christmas World...

...packaged with love in A Cozy Nook.

22 December 2004

Airborne Christmas

Sat down to watch Christmas specials last night: Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol first of all; this is the first Christmas special I ever remember watching, except for Amahl and the Night Visitors. The score is so memorable it was in my head years later when Magoo wasn't broadcast for so long. I wanted to see Broadway someday just because of that opening song!

We also watched the Hill Street Blues Christmas ep, "Santa Claustrophobia." There are a lot of memorable scenes in this one, including Furillo talking to a resentful boy and Renko's "Oh, Lordy God, it's Christmas Eve and I'm going to be shot dead in a moose suit" (he's just finished a hospital benefit where he's been dressed as a reindeer), but our favorite scene is where raucous drunk "Buck Naked" exposes himself to Fay Furillo so he'll get arrested and sent to the Michigan Avenue Complex for a turkey dinner. Fay wails (Fay was always wailing) "Can't someone arrest this man?" and Lucy Bates, after gazing at the fellow's "attributes," says drily, "Insufficient evidence, Mrs. Furillo."

By far, however, James' treat of the night was Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771, a television movie from 1993. Scott Bakula plays Jay Parkins, a rather feckless pilot whose wife wants him to settle down now that they are expecting a baby, but he doesn't want to be trapped in a 9 to 5 type job. To make some money, he and a friend take a job shuttling two crop dusting planes from San Francisco to New Zealand. At Pago Pago, his buddy's plane is disabled, but Jay, needing the cash, flies on, not knowing his instrumentation is damaged. Soon he realizes he's way off course and lost.

Enter an Air New Zealand flight enroute to Auckland. Pilot Gordon Vette is determined not to let the young man die and convinces his crew, passengers, and air traffic control to allow him to help find the plane. By a series of rather unorthodox tricks in a computerized age, Vette locates Jay's plane and is able to guide him through one last obstacle, a violent thunderstorm.

This is a suspenseful movie, despite the fact our leads are stuck in aircraft seats for 3/4 of the movie. Bakula is great in the lead, but it's Robert Loggia's irascible Vette who really shines.

If you're able to see the movie, look for two men cheering and hugging each other in the tower when the plain lands; one is very tall with light hair and the other is shorter. These are the real Jay Parkins (real name Jay Prochnow) and Gordon Vette.

Vette, I didn't realize until "googling" him, is quite a "name" in commercial aviation. He wrote a classic book, Impact Erebus, on the Mount Erebus air disaster in which a New Zealand flight crashed into a mountain in Antarctica.

Here's a great review of the movie at Air Odyssey, which includes the differences in the film and the real life story. (Also an image link to something that looks like a DVD cover, except the movie's not on DVD; a great pity.)

I also found Mayday in December, an account of the incident and how celestial navigation was used to locate Prochnow's plane.

20 December 2004

Curled Up by the TV With A Christmas Book

Finished Ann Hodgman's I Saw Mommy Kicking Santa Claus. This is pretty much a funnier version of The Christmas Survival Book. Hodgman talks about the unrealistic Christmas expectations we make for ourselves. The most amusing part of the book are the anecdotes that pepper its pages from individuals remembering their worst holiday memories (from the cat knocking over the tree to rude relatives and botched gifts).

Also read Ben Logan's Christmas Remembered. Logan, the youngest of four boys, grew up on a Wisconsin farm in the 1920s/1930s. His earlier nostalgic book, The Land Remembers, is a fond account of the hardships and happiness of farm life back before labor-saving devices and electricity. His Christmas book is as lyrical and absorbing: accounts of two farm Christmases, plus his later Christmases serving in World War II and postwar living in Mexico. His account of family life during a blizzard will make you long to be snowed in.

17 December 2004

Christmas Fun...and Aggravation

I slept late, so I was in a good mood when I set out this morning: was headed for a couple of places at Town Center--mainly Barnes & Noble to get the latest copy of my favorite cross-stitch magazine, Quick & Easy--and expected it to be crowded. But it was a Friday and I expected many people to be at work. They weren't. I finally blew off going to JoAnn Etc and dropping in at Media Play, made a U-turn on Barrett Parkway, and drove back down to the Cumberland Mall area where everything was much saner.

Most of the crowd up on Barrett was going to the mall; it was jaw-dropping. It continually astonishs me every year how many people leave Christmas shopping till the last minute--and how much importance they put on the excursion. I know we are bombarded from October onward with this buy-buy-buy mentality, but it's extraordinary. And I know why these people hate Christmas. To me Christmas is a nice, friendly holiday. You listen to special music, put up colorful decorations, visit friends and family, make goodies you don't ordinarily make during the rest of the year, and buy a small, appropriate gift for certain people that you like. But so many people make it a contest: give the most gifts (and max your credit card out on them), put up the prettiest decorations, cook the finest meal, make the most cookies...for cryin' out loud, you're supposed to be having fun here! It's like sports: they're supposed to be for fun, and people make it into this life-and-death thing and harass their children who don't win.

I'm sorry so many children are getting initiated into this "you get expensive things or nothing" lifestyle. Looking back, I remember getting many nice gifts at Christmas: a television one year, a tape recorder another, the crowning glory--my typewriter--yet another. But not one of my special Christmas memories has anything to do with a gift! It's scents and colorful lights and family gatherings and Italian baked goods and sometimes snow and going to church on Christmas Eve and the surprise on Mom and Dad's face when I gave them a present.

In that vein, I bought a new book at Border's, I Saw Mommy Kicking Santa Claus, which is supposed to be a humorous book about how to cope with all this crass materialism and competition at Christmas.

And it didn't matter that I skipped JoAnn at the end: I got some bits and pieces at Michael's and one at the Dollar Tree to do what I wanted: gather some things for a winter exhibit after Christmas. I have a little blue gateleg table in the den that right now holds our ceppo with the little Christmas tree full of Hallmark miniatures, plus a candy dish and some other Christmas decorations on some cotton batting. In the fall I had a fall bouquet and some autumn leaves and a little stuffed scarecrow on it, and before that it was a bouquet of lilacs and some little games (I don't decorate much for summer; it's a season I'd rather forget) and in the spring I had the Easter tree on it. I wanted a winter exhibit: I have a silver and blue bouquet and a stuffed snowman, and today bought some silver and blue branches and some pine needles and cones, a couple of statues of animals in the snow and little pine trees, and another stuffed snowman. It will look nice during January and February and the first part of March.

15 December 2004

Parakeets, Purses, and Pumpkin Pie...All In One Place

For some reason the lights on the Christmas wreath had quit working when I put it up (they were fine when I put the wreath in the closet last year), so we had to buy another set.

Christmas lights are everywhere these days: you can get them in drugstores and supermarkets and craft stores, and from Sears to Kmart (almost hard to believe that over 100 years ago you needed a "wireman"--electrician--to set up Christmas lights on your tree; the darn things were $20 for a set of 16, or something like that). And I knew that.

But the first thing I said was "I miss Woolworths."

I did an online search on "Woolworths" last night and found it very depressing when all the British, Australian, German, and New Zealand stores showed up–to know that here in the US, where Mr. Woolworth pioneered a new type of store, it's no more.

Okay, who out there remembers Woolworths? Not the Woolco department stores, nor the last-gasp Woolworths of the 1980s, but "the five and ten," Woolworths, the one you walked into and smelled the good hot coffee and simmering soup from the lunch counter on one side of the store plus the fresh popcorn offered in the candy department. Where you could literally order soup–at the lunch counter–to nuts–canned Planters, in the candy department. Where you didn't have to buy candy in measured containers, but could order it freshly scooped by the candy lady in as little or as much as you wanted. Where the parakeets chirping from the pet department accompanied the whirr of the demonstrating fans in the summer and the low hum of the heater in winter. Where you could get anything from hardware to inexpensive toys to sewing thread to dry goods, and the aisles were packed with all sorts of goodies, from toy cars to candy bars to ladies' makeup and shoe polish.

Oh, there were Valentines aplenty in February and too many marshmallow chicks and chocolate rabbits to count at Easter and flags flying and picnic sets for Independence Day, but it was at Christmas that Woolworths came into its own. After all, Frank Woolworth sold the first glass Christmas tree ornaments imported into the United States from Germany in his stores. At Christmas Woolworths became an explosion of color. The store was draped in garlands–tinsel garlands and accordion foil garlands and holly garlands and pine garlands--and lights, and Christmas decorations popped up everywhere from the front windows to the lunch counter. The waitresses wore Christmas corsages and the checkout clerks donned red-and-white Santa hats. Woolworths had their own line of Christmas decorations and lights and artificial trees. To the scent of popcorn was added the delightful odor of peppermint. The aisles bloomed with net Christmas stockings, holiday-wrapped Whitman samplers, and Elizabeth Arden gift sets, plus cards, bows, ribbons, wrapping paper, tissue paper, stickers (anyone remember Christmas stickers, the things that held your wrappings together before adhesive tape was popular?), and tags. There was always a train, however small, set up someplace, with some type of Christmas boxcar (this year's newest design), or a flatcar full of Christmas trees. They were usually too small to have a Santa Claus like the department stores, although some Woolworth Santas did exist, but there was a Toyland, filled with all the latest dolls and trucks and other coveted playthings.

In certain parts of the country, in the basement with the Christmas decorations, you could find bins filled with different figures for the family creche scene. One started out simply, with the Holy Family. Then the Three Kings could be added, and some shepherds and of course an angel. In subsequent years you could add the ox, and the donkey, the camels and the camel boy, other people offering gifts, sheep, a goat or two, a sheepdog. A crudely-made stable could also be purchased, as well as miniature straw bales, so that an entire Bethlehem scene could sit under the tree or on top of the big box-shaped television for the kids to move about and re-inact the Christmas story. The traditionalists didn't put the Baby Jesus figure into the manger until Christmas Eve and started the Kings and their camels in the kitchen, slowly following the star until finally arriving at the manger on Twelfth Night or the day of Epiphany.

Among this forest of Christmas fantasy were all the ethnic goodies that made the holidays so memorable. The Woolworths in our neighborhood sold torrone and panettone along with German stollen, and we knew in the Spanish and Portuguese neighborhoods those folks were able to buy their own favorites at their Woolworths. It was one of the few non-specialty stores where you could find Hanukkah fixings: small menorahs, blue candles, plastic dreidels, and net bags full of chocolate Hanukkah gelt. Jewish kids would tease us that they got eight days of gifts and we only got one.

Plus there were those hard candy fruit slices in orange, lemon, and tangerine flavor that only were sold at Christmas, and the little candies whose wrappers looked like strawberries and which were strawberry-flavored inside, and red and white popcorn balls and of course candy canes of every stripe, and spheres and disks of chocolate covered with Christmas-themed foil.

Oh, for a time machine, if just for one day before Christmas...

13 December 2004

On the Christmas Track

I've read the reviews of David Balducci's The Christmas Train on Amazon.com. And all I can say to a few of them is...did we read the same book?

The Christmas Train is the story of reporter Tom Langdon, who, having been banned from flying in the continental US after an unfortunate contretemps in security, takes the train from Washington, DC, to LA to be with his current girlfriend who he doesn't have much of an emotional attachment to. His great love was Eleanor Carter, a fellow reporter, who walked out on him in Tel Aviv many years earlier--and who, coincidentally, turns up on the same train with a movie producer and his assistant, a pair of lovebirds who plan to be married enroute, a priest, a rather overweight woman who's friends with all the train staff, plus a hoard of friendly train employees and unusual train travelers.

The reviews decry Train as not being like Baldacci's other books, as being a commercial for Amtrak, for being like a romance novel. Folks, did you even read the description of this book? It is a romantic story, and it is an unabashed paean to the good old days of train travel--what did you expect in a book taking place on a train with a plot about a man writing about the romantic side to train travel, a commercial for Delta?

I won't claim this book is perfect. There are almost too many eccentric characters--doesn't anyone normal travel by train? (I guess those are the people we don't get names for, who are also on the train; they're too normal to figure in the story.) Also, there's not one Amtrak person who doesn't like working on the train (or if there is, we don't meet them). This is sort of a book version of a good old Hollywood Christmas film like White Christmas, or one of the classic Lassie and Timmy Christmas episodes and should be savored as such; if sentiment isn't your bag, pick up a Jack Higgins thriller. But please don't criticize The Christmas Train for being something it's not supposed to be.

(And for heaven's sake don't make the mistake of thinking it's like John Grisham's excruciating Skipping Christmas. While Balducci's book makes me want to take a train trip and be nice to people, all Grisham's book makes me want to do is murder the Kranks' neighbors.)

BTW, several folks comment that "Mark Twain is mentioned several times for no reason." In your haste to read this book looking for murder and mayhem, you completely missed the explanation that Tom Langdon was related to Olivia Langdon, Twain's wife.

Detractors of The Christmas Train will probably be turned off by the beautifully illustrated The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, which I also purchased this weekend. It's the simple, sentimental story of an embittered woodcarver who takes on the job of carving a new nativity scene for a widow and her little boy. The detailed illustrations make you want to leap into them and live within.

Happy St. Lucy's Day!

In Scandinavia, many people still follow this old custom: the eldest daughter in the household rises first and serves her family coffee and a special coffeecake, called Lucia cakes. Traditionally, she wears a crown of lighted candles, but I wonder how many families follow this seemingly-dangerous custom these days! It does sound lovely, however: imagine the young woman coming in the door in a probably dark or dim house, crowned with bright candles!

Here's a web essay by Margarette Connor about celebrating St. Lucia's day.

O Christmas Tree!

I'd like to say I had a joyous, happy time decorating the tree on Sunday, but I had a backache that had started before we had to get together and fix the fence (see today's "Yet Another Journal" entry about the fence), and then I fought for about an hour with the string of lights before abandoning it for another string. (I'm having a problem with light strings this year: first the one on my mom's tree, then the one on the wreath--which still isn't fixed--and now the tree lights. They worked fine when I took them down last year!)

The lights go first, of course, then the ornaments, and finally the icicles. I wonder how many other folks still put on "the tinsel"--even my mom has abandoned the custom since it's just too much for her arthritic fingers. When I finished I watched the silvery threads floating in the breath of air from the furnace.

I remember reading one of the books about the old-style icicles, the original version made from lead foil. Of course they were banned in the late 60s when all the data came in about lead poisoning in children. It seems to me, though, that even in my childhood we had the lighter mylar tinsel (perhaps in the 50s we had the older sort that you had to throw away every year because it tarnished). This book went pretty hard on the mylar stuff because the lead foil hung like real icicles from the tree while the mylar blows and vibrates in every breeze and holds a static charge.

The latter is a pain in the neck. One of the reasons I won't let the dog near the tree is because tinsel follows her like crazy; she's very "magnetic." But it's funny, the other reason that the author dislikes mylar icicles is the very reason I like them: the way they move when a slight draught eddies about the tree. It is almost as if the tree is alive when they move, like the light fur on an animal or the leaves on a tree. In the end it is what you've grown up with, I suspect.

10 December 2004

Grinch of Another Color

A couple of months ago I lucked out on a used DVD sale at CD Warehouse; got PBS's Seabiscuit, White Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas at a good price.

Watched the Grinch last night: since this was in a paper case and not a keep case I figured it was just basic special and that's it. To my surprise, I discovered it had commentary on it by animator Phil Roman and voice artist June Foray (who was "Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two"). I can't say it was the most informative commentary I've ever heard, but it was quite pleasant. There are also two short documentaries about the music and TNT's "Making of the Grinch" special with the late Phil Hartman (who I don't find as funny as everyone else does).

The Grinch isn't my favorite Christmas special, but it's fun and I love the "Welcome Christmas" song.

I see there's a furor going on in the Amazon.com reviews about the DVD version: yes, the Grinch is yellowish in the first part of the story on DVD. I have no idea why. I thought I was seeing things. Oh, well, I'm sure someone will do a super-colossal release of the story some day. And a yellow Grinch is infinitely preferable to a Jim Carrey Grinch of whatever persuasion.

In the meantime, we Chuck Jones fans would like more of his productions out: what about the three Jungle Book stories from the early 80s, "The White Seal," "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," and "Mowgli's Brothers"? Or all three of the Chester Cricket specials, which includes A Very Merry Cricket?

09 December 2004

"And God Bless Us...Everyone"

A few years ago I found Michael Hearn's The Annotated Christmas Carol on the remainder counter at Border's. Let me say simply that I love annotated books. You not only get a text you want to read, but histories and explanations that enhance its meaning. Since I love history it's as if you've gotten a bonus.

The Carol annotations are superb. Hearn starts with a history of Charles Dickens up to the writing of the book, chronicling its conception and publication, the "rip off" versions--even Dickens had trouble with plagarism--and reviews of the day. Then all the referrals in the text are footnoted: not just allusions to other literature, but explanations of terms that were common in Dickens' day that are unfamiliar now: what is the "'Change" Scrooge is known on, for instance, or what a Sir Roger de Coverly dance is. It was an embarrassment of riches.

Earlier this year I found out Hearn had done an expanded edition for 2004. The mind boggled. The introduction now included reviews of the Carol, there were additional footnotes, and the book also included the edited version of the story that Dickens employed when he did live readings. It was pricey, so I decided to bide my time to find a reasonably-priced edition.

Well, I walked into Borders yesterday to get the newest magazines and there to my astonishment was the new edition on the remainder shelf. Ohboy! (And yes, it's as wonderful as I thought it would be!)

Home to Nebraska

Even though we had watched it last Friday, I came home the other day and put The House Without a Christmas Tree on once more.

I love this story so much. It's a combination of everything: the characters, the storyline, and the setting. I especially appreciate the setting as so many period pieces are so obviously trumpeting "this is a period piece and look at all the neat costumes/props we have from the era." The 1940s postwar era is portrayed in this story as ordinary life: there is no trumpeting--that's just the way it is. And what a homey (or "homely," as the British say) setting: the kitchen and living room remind me of many of my relatives' homes before they were remodeled. Look at the hoosier cabinet in the kitchen, the stove, James' easy chair, the fireplace...it's truly like going home.

I adore Addie. She reminds me somewhat of myself, with the drawing and enjoying school, but I could only have wished for this child's self-confidence and assertiveness. I delight in her creativity. It would have been so easy to make her father the villain--I'm certain a modern production of the story would have--but instead one can see his own pain beneath his gruffness and occasional cruelty. What he can't express in words he does in small things: leaving Addie a cupcake from his lunch, teaching her physical and mental skills. He is a marvelously complicated character.

The schoolroom is perfect. I would have loved to attend Miss Thompson's classes, warm with steam heat, with the memorable scents of chalk and wood and the traces of sweet pea perfume, learning vocabulary and music and history.

Even the theme music is memorable, as well as the collage commercial segues. On tape they divide the story into acts like a classy stage play.

The sequels are also good, especially the first (Thanksgiving Treasure), but nothing quite equals this lovely Christmas story. A pity it isn't on DVD. Anyone listening out there at CBS???? (Or are we simply to drown in CSI clones for the rest of our lives?)

08 December 2004

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

If I were still living at home I would be going to church today: it's a Holy Day of Obligation.

It took a while for some kids to get it once we learned about the facts of life. "If Jesus was born in December," they argued, "how could Mary get pregnant with him in the same month? Was she pregnant a year?"

The Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with Jesus. It is rather the Virgin Mary who was immaculately conceived without sin in order to be the mother of Jesus.

Here's the doctrine from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

06 December 2004

Very Merry Reading

I picked these all up on vacation:

It's a Wonderful Christmas, Susan Waggoner. I saw this before we left; for some reason, I found it in Borders Books in the Collectables area. It's not a collecting book with prices, however: it's a delightfully nostalgic look at Christmas in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s by use of text with reproductions of old advertisements, toy and Christmas ornament boxes, magazine and book illustrations, wrapping paper and cards, etc. Woolworth Christmas ornament boxes, ads for vintage toys, and wartime memorabilia bring back a world that was, while flawed, appears closer and warmer than today.

A Quiet Knowing Christmas, Ruth Bell Graham (Billy Graham's wife). A find from the bargain shelf at Barnes & Noble!--poems, anecdotes, small simple craft projects and recipes in a quietly beautiful book. Christian oriented but not "pushy." It's a firelight and cocoa read-by-the-Christmas-tree type book.

All Aboard for Christmas, Christopher Jennison. Surrounded by wonderful baubles in the Breakers' (Newport, RI) gift shop, I was mesmerized instead by this wonderful hardback volume concerning trains. I like watching cool model railroad setups and I am moderately interested in the romantic side of train travel, but I'm nowhere near a "train buff." However, unless you really consider trains boring, this volume is absorbing from beginning to end as a history of a vanished way of life. There are chapters on train travel on or for the holidays, toy train setups at home and in busines, and railroad workers during the holidays. The text is accompanied by fabulous train advertisements, toy train memorabilia, and paintings of trains in the snow. Indescribably beautiful and nostalgic.