30 November 2006

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW: Classic Christmas: True Stories of Holiday Cheer and Goodwill

Edited by Helen Szymanski. These are short, true stories of people discovering the Christmas spirit, in the vein of the Chicken Soup for the Soul volumes. This volume includes the unique perk of profiling some of the small towns where the stories take place, from the area's founding to its heyday and what the town is like today.

If you enjoy the type of story described, this is the book for you. It has a delightful "old world" illustrated cover and is nicely bound; it would make a good gift book for someone who likes heartwarming Christmas stories. It's nothing out of the ordinary, however, so if you're looking for "something different," it may not be your cup of tea.

28 November 2006

Monday Madness

Let's talk about holidays... Depending on where you live and what religion you are, you may celebrate different holidays and at different times of the year than others. But most of us do celebrate at least one holiday a year. Let's share! =)

1. Which of the holidays that you celebrate, do you feel is the most important?

Most important? Thanksgiving, because it's important to stop and say thank you for whatever good or positive things happened to you during the year. You don't have to say it to a supreme being and it doesn't have to be a prayer. But just being alive is a reason for thanks.

2. Which holiday do you most enjoy?

Ah, now that's Christmas. I love the colors and the music and the lights and getting together with folks you love. Gifts are nice, but they aren't important.

3. Is there one holiday that your family tries to get together every year? If so, which one?

We get together with James' family on Christmas, just not always Christmas day, because it's such a hassle. James usually has to work the day after and we can't just sit and relax and talk because we have to drive the nearly two hours home early to get ready for work the next day and the traffic is crazy. (I'll never forget that head-on collision I so narrowly avoided several years ago on Christmas morning. The thought of it makes my skin crawl.) Any one of the twelve days of Christmas is appropriate!

4. Share one special memory from a past holiday.

Oh, golly, this is the one I always talk about. You're free to skip to the next question if you've heard this one more than once.

When I was a girl we always went to my Grandfather's (Papá, Dad's father) on Christmas Eve and later Christmas Day (occasionally for dinner on Christmas). This was always down in the cellar, which was partially belowground; you entered from a door in the back and stepped down two steps. This was a average-sized room with an old bedroom dresser used to keep table linens in (at Christmas it had candy dishes and plates of cookies on top), a big table that held at least a dozen people, a black old woodstove that had been converted to gas, a built-in china cabinet and a old deep sink. In an alcove under the stairs was my Grandma's old treadle sewing machine and on a tall shelf an old Bakelite radio. (This was only half the room; the other half was partitioned behind boards and was the boiler and clotheslines to dry clothes on wet days and the summer clothes and some shelves with tools and nails, and also an old icebox.) The stone walls were painted grey (the cabinets were a dark red and made of beadboard) and in one corner was the door to Papá's frigid-in-winter wine cellar (Papá made his own wine, including a rich deep burgundy that I miss every time I make wine biscuits). Probably anyone would have seen it as homely and even shabby, but I loved it. My Aunty Margaret would cook quantities of macaroni and dozens of Italian cookies and we'd all eat around the big table which was covered with a new oilcloth every year (but you could check underneath for previous year's patterns, like layers in a archeological dig).

We would save pennies for weeks and then bring a bag and everyone would play Po-ke-no, a pot each for center, corners, and "bingo." Then all the men would play poker while we kids sat and listened to the women talk.

At that point I would go upstairs, ostensibly to the bathroom on the second floor, but always because I wanted to see the house all quiet and glowing for Christmas. The upstairs hadn't been redecorated since the late 40s or something like that and it was like stepping into a time machine. The kitchen had metal cabinets and a big old Roper stove that had been bought for my grandmother before she died in the late 1950s, but she seldom got to use it because everyone ate downstairs. Aunty Margaret took care of the house and the kitchen table was always covered with a pretty checked cloth and had little decorative candy dishes on it: Christmas candy and torrone and these citrus candy slices in lemon, orange and tangerine. Next to the kitchen was a room called "the den" that had an old sleeper sofa and a green linoleum floor and not much else, but if you went through the glass door of the kitchen to the front of the house there was the dining room, with heavy brown Victorian-like table and chairs and sideboards and the front window where the Christmas tree always stood. Next to the dining room was the parlor with its old-fashioned reddish wallpaper and there was always an uncle who had come upstairs, ostensibly to check the football scores but in reality to get away from the racket, who had fallen asleep in the chair or on the sofa with the lights low and the television murmuring.

All the lights were off elsewhere except for the tree and the candles in the window. It was like some magical place where you might step through the gateway of time if you just knew the way and come out in another era. I always liked to sit on the floor and look up through the tree from the bottom. With the tinsel and the big C7 bulbs and the old ornaments it was in itself a glittering passage to Times-Gone-Past. It was a good place to sit and think about Christmas and the people below and the years they had seen: the rising fortunes of the Twenties, the Depression, the sacrifice of World War II, the schizophrenic Fifties.

Miss it. Hurts sometimes.

5. Name one holiday coming up, that you're really looking forward to, and why.

Well, Christmas, silly. :-) Our first in the new house. We can finally be in the same room with the Christmas tree, instead of it being upstairs and seeing it going up and downstairs and on Christmas Eve only. And a little Christmas village; always wanted a small one. And the Twelfth Night party.

Maybe someday I'll even do the cake with the bean in it. :-)

27 November 2006

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW: The Christmas Tree Book

Back in November of 2003, I reviewed this book by Phillip V. Snyder; I had first read it from the library.

I also had read the library's copy of The Christmas Tree Book some time ago, and when I discovered I could purchase it used—since it's out of print, used is the best you can do—for $1 online, I immediately snapped it up.

Snyder again uses magazines and newspapers of the era (when possible, since he goes back to the 15th century) to trace the history of the Christmas tree and its two important festoons, the ornaments and the lights. This includes a fascinating section on the Christmas cookies that were used to decorate the tree, the story of how the Germans' tabletop tree became the floor-to-ceiling American variety, and the trend from candles to "lighting outfits" (do you know that one of the things that caused the decline of the Christmas tree candle was the refusal of insurance companies to honor policies if the fire was caused by a "known danger," i.e. tipped candles on the tree?). Snyder even talks about the rather unsavory conditions under which those beautiful kugels and other German ornaments were created back when Frank Woolworth first encountered them to bring them to the U.S. If you are interested in the history of Christmas tree ornaments or decorating, this book is definitely worth hunting up. Comes with dozens of photos (both black and white and color) of vintage Christmas tree ornaments.

26 November 2006

A Season of Light...and Smoke?

Saw more people putting up decorations today and bringing trees home. We've just been buying and planning. :-) The lietmotif of the entire weekend has been people burning leaves. Maybe where we lived before (only a few miles away!) no one did it because of laws or something. Everyone around here has been burning leaves or having a wood fire, despite how warm it's been during the day. At one point when we were driving home last night the smoke was so bad that our eyes were watering and we were coughing. There was literally a pall of smoke over everything. We saw at least a half dozen people burning leaves today within a mile or two of our house. They are excavating an old farm on Olive Springs Road to be a development and the smoke was hanging over the torn-up soil.

This wouldn't be so bad except we have the fans on in the bedroom because it's been so warm. Our bedroom reeks of burning leaves and woodsmoke.

Great Site to Read On "Stir Up Sunday"

The Christmas Archives by Countess Maria Hubert von Staufer

25 November 2006

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW: Christmas Dogs: A Literary Companion

What's more Christmasy than that ideal Christmas puppy sitting under the tree, his neck tied with a beautiful red bow, his gleaming large eyes gazing soulfully at you?

The ideal puppy is just that, idealized, since he's more likely to be knocking the ornaments off the tree, tearing open the presents, or leaving his own "present" on the rug. But that's a puppy and that's why we love them.

This book has the cute Christmas puppy in a Santa hat on its cover and I'd like to say the text lives up to the cover, but this book in general comes off as a bargain-basement version of a Chicken Soup for the Soul book (in fact, the first story is actually from a Chicken Soup volume).

Not that most of the stories aren't touching. Several stories, including "The Christmas After the Wildfires," deal with animal agencies helping both animals and people. There's a Christmas-themed chapter from My Dog Skip and the final story, the one bit of fiction in the volume, is the "Christmas Eve" chapter from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which most people are probably more familiar with as a Disney film. The Shel Silverstein poem included is amusing.

But so many of the stories are odd or just dull. I couldn't make out heads or tails (pun intended) of "Nice Doggy," which begins "The other day my Welsh springer spaniel, Cooper, gave me a manicure," and just gets odder from there. "Christmas Memories," taken from Southern Fried Divorce, I guess was supposed to be funny. I thought it came off like a bad skit on Blue Collar TV. The one rock-hard reliable offering was the James Herriot piece about Tricki Woo, but that doesn't even take place at Christmastime. Neither does "Neighbors," from Dog is My Co-Pilot, which mentions a Christmas card, but that's about it.

I'd say this was a "buy off the bargain table" type book if the price is cheap enough, but that's just me. I got it for $3.45, which I guess was worth it.

24 November 2006

The Wearin' O' the Black (Friday, That Is)

When the alarm rang at six, I wandered out to the living room and took the ad scraps I'd cut from the paper yesterday into the bathroom with me.

It convinced me there wasn't anything I wanted That Damn Bad. :-) So I went back to bed until James' alarm rang.

He went off to work (his phone rang once and it wasn't even a "real call") and I went to Lowe's, where they had various holiday containers on sale for $4.99. Since the cheapest I've seen those tall skinny giftwrap containers has been $8.96 (that was JoAnn—at half price!) I grabbed two, one for Christmas wrap and one for presents the rest of the year.

I did wander into the garden center and saw that they had little tabletop-size Frasier firs with container for only $14.95. Boy, was I tempted; I love real Christmas trees. But it would have to live on the porch since I'm allergic. Sigh. Sorry, I don't want bronchitis for Christmas like I did the last time we had a real tree.

With some trepidation, I went to Target. By this time it was almost nine and I expected a mob. There were lots of cars, but absolutely no long lines. Most people were crowded in the electronics department. I was astonished. Anyway, I got sale copies of the special edition of Miracle on 34th Street (with commentary by Maureen O'Hara!), Ice Age 2, and for $5.95, a copy of National Treasure (I don't really like Nicolas Cage, but this movie was just goofy fun enough that I enjoyed it).

Oh, and I got the very last Shark stick vac they had for $10. If it doesn't last long, well, I didn't spend much. It's basically a hand vac with a "power head" and a stick handle that turns it into a little stick vac.

Stopped at Walgreen's to pick up a little "garnish" for a couple of presents and got a red sweatshirt to make Christmasy. Then drove to the elegantly named "the Avenue at West Cobb" (there's also an "Avenue at East Cobb" that has a Borders and a Bed, Bath and Beyond; this one has the Barnes & Noble and the Linens and Things). I assume the partner shopping center also has two big red Christmas ornaments flanking its entrance, too. :-)

Just checked out the magazines and bargain books in B&N, then pondered a high-dollar purchase in Linens, and checked out what the weekend specials were at Hallmark before I committed myself. Then I drove on to the Town Center area and hit Costco for gas before going to Borders.

Turned out the one Christmas CD I wanted from them was not at that Borders, but at all the others. Sigh. Just popped on the freeway and drove down to the Borders that is closest to our house. The CD was the newest Revels release, English and Scottish Christmas and celebratory music. I also got three books on the bargain table: Eloise at Christmastime (sold for $17.95 last year; I got it for $2.99), a book of Christmas stories, recipes and crafts, and a little book of Christmas prayers and poetry.

The newest of Jill Churchill's "Grace and Favor" mysteries was out, so I got that, too, and something called Carpe Demon, which sounded cute: soccer mom is also a demon hunter (think Buffy the vampire slayer grown up). And the November issue of the British version of "Country Living." I love the British version because the American one is cool, but it basically talks about decorating your house in country style and recipes. The British version is about really living in the country and features interviews with smallholders, people who run walking tours and construct buildings or gardens in the old manner, etc. Lots of pics of the countryside.

Came home, tidied the house (it was cleaned for Thanksgiving, so I was home free) and watched Miracle with the commentary on. I can't say that I learned all that much from it, but Maureen O'Hara told a little about how she got the role and how strict the studio was, complimented Natalie Wood's talent, mentioned her other two roles with John Payne, reminisced about Christmas in Ireland, and commented, of course, on the famous "Post Office" scene, which I guess is everyone's favorite scene in the movie--anyway, it is mine! :-) She sounds so well, voice very strong, and she was 86 this summer--bless her!

I watched the colorized version. It was okay. I usually hate colorized movies like poison, but when they said in the liner notes that they had looked at color photos of the actors and Macy's and New York to get the colors right, I decided to try it. Some things were quite good, but they still don't have white flesh yet (the African-American lady who appears briefly as Doris' maid looks as if she was on color film, but the white complexions are still pretty-fake looking). I noticed that in anyone who doesn't have lipstick on, the men and the children, the grey of the black and white comes through the lips and looks unnatural and teeth still look grey. On the other hand, the clothing, wallpapers, upholstery, Christmas trees, and scenery was not too bad. The gold lettering on some of the stores and the gold trim looked best of all.

Also listened to the Revels album and then a couple of other Christmas things while I looked through my books. However, I still hadn't looked through my embroidery threads before James came home. They're on sale 5/$1 at JoAnn and I need to look and see if any of my colors are getting low.

We went to JoAnn anyway. I'll look at the threads tomorrow and go back while he's at his club meeting.

23 November 2006

"As Yellow as Gold"


Here is a pumpkin, fluted, golden,
Written o'er with customs olden
Out of bygone days.
Cinderella's ancient glory,
Sung in song and told in story,
Suits its yellow blaze.

Tables at the first Thanksgiving,
When colonial dames where living,
Shewed its golden sheer.
Still it smiles a friendly greeting
At the happy family meeting
On the feast-day dear

Christmas rooms are gay with holly,
Christmas sees the merry folly
Of the mistletoe.
Easter lilies, pure and stately,
In the springtime bloom sedately,
When soft breezes blow.

Autumn dressed the woods in splendor;
But their colors, rich and tender,
All have passed away.
Now the pumpkin, ripe and mellow,
Keeps a tint of Autumn's yellow
For Thanksgiving Day.

Mary E. Knowlton (1904)

22 November 2006


High Winds May Blow Out Parade Balloons

Hard to believe they used to release the balloons at the end of the parade for people to find!

Famous Thanksgiving Songs

One secular, one religious.

This is the long version of Lydia Maria Child's "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day," a.k.a. "Over the River and Through the Wood." Nope, they're not going to Grandmother's (or Grandfather's, rather) house for Christmas. A very Northern New England poem!

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood-
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose,
as over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood.
with a clear blue winter sky,
The dogs do bark and the children hark,
as we go jingling by.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring, "Ting a ling ding!"
Hurray for Thanskgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood-
no matter for winds that blow;
Or if we get the sleigh upset
into a bank of snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to see little John and Ann;
We will kiss them all, and play snowball
and stay as long as we can.

Over the river, and through the wood,
trot fast my dapple gray!
Spring over the ground like a hunting-hound!
For 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood
and straight through the barnyard gate.
We seem to go extremely slow-
it is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood-
Old Jowler hears our bells;
He shakes his paw with a loud bow-wow,
and thus the news he tells.

Over the river, and through the wood-
when Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, "O, dear, the children are here,
bring pie for everyone."

Over the river, and through the wood-
now Grandmothers cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!
About Lydia Maria Child
We Gather Together

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,
Sing praises to His name: He forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side, All glory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
And pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
A Hymn's Long Journey Home:
The Surprising Origins of "We Gather Together," a Thanksgiving Standard

This isn't the version I learned, incidentally. Apparently there is a Catholic version that contains the following verse:
We gather together to sing the Lord's praises,
To worship the Father through Jesus His son.
In this celebration all sing with jubilation;
We are His holy people whose freedom He won.
But I don't remember the rest. I was so very puzzled the first time I watched the America segment "Home From Home" and heard them singing "We Gather Together" with the three verses stated above.

And just for a bit of Thanksgiving jocularity (I can hear William Christopher doing Father Mulcahy now), here's Tom Lehrer's version of that venerable hymn:
We gather together to ask the lord's blessing
For turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce.
It was slightly distressing, but now we're convalescing,
So sing praises to his name and forget not to floss.

Our nearest and dearest we don't want confessing,
It's sort of depressing to have them so near.
Our feelings suppressing for lightly acquiescing,
And perfectly professing we're glad they were here.

We gathered together and got the lord's blessing
Of course we're just guessing 'cause how can you tell?
Our stomachs are bloating, our kidneys nearly floating,
Hellos are very nice, but goodbyes can be swell.

21 November 2006

Excitement in the "Big Apple"

They're polishing up the trumpets and doing a last fitting for Santa Claus in New York for the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade (warning: site requires Flash 7).

I still miss the old CBS parades. Originally (or at least when I first watched them in the early 60s) they were hosted by Captain Kangaroo. Then William Conrad took over. He sat on a warm plush "men's study" type set with a big fireplace sipping a toddy as he introduced the different segments, which switched to the guest announcers actually freezing out there in the cold, especially in Toronto (Eaton's Santa Claus Parade) and Detroit (Hudson's Department Store parade). I think the Santa parade is still held, but it's not sponsored by Eaton's anymore (I believe the store has gone out of business). I wonder if they still have the Storybook Land theme for the floats. It seems old hat for today's kids who play Nintendo and listen to I-Pods. I think I read the Detroit parade is still going on, but no longer sponsored by Hudson's. I'm not sure any of the Hudson's stores are still around, but their subsidiary, Target, is everywhere.

The old Gimbels parade, of course, in Philadelphia, is long gone. Macy's (ooops, Macy*s), overcame their old rival years ago and then managed to eat up Atlanta's Davidson's and Rich's stores, Boston's venerable Jordan Marsh and Filenes, and dozens of others. The more famous Philadelphia parade has always been the Mummers' Parade at New Year's, but I'm not sure it's broadcast nationally any longer.

The kiss of death at CBS for me was when they began broadcasting the Hawaiian parade. Yawn. Who wants to look at dopey flowers before Christmas?


Quite possibly the best Christmas book I've ever read.

I've been reading them since the 1960s, when my favorite was Frances Frost's Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot from the school library. The story doesn't necessarily need to involve magic, like The Legend of Holly Claus; even more I like stories of regular families having a warm holiday season: The Tuckers: Cottage Holiday is a prime example. The new Callahan Cousins book is pretty good in that department, but it can't compare to the three examples above, or A Christmas Carol, or Christmas After All.

The "Dear America" books are something I can take or leave. I got a couple with good coupons and the rest on the remainder shelf. My Secret War was pretty good, as was When Christmas Comes Again (not really a Christmas book, but about the "Hello girls" in World War I), and the story of the Italian girl crossing the great plains. The Titanic book was average and the Pearl Harbor book was pretty bad. I've heard some pretty scathing criticisms about the two books involving Native American characters.

But in Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky has created a masterpiece within the diary format of the books.

It is the story of Minnie Swift, youngest of four sisters, her precocious genius younger brother Ozzie, and her parents during the days of the Great Depression. Dad's job is going badly and the family is reduced to shutting down rooms in their home to cut down on coal bills. They rarely have meat for supper, but eat a succession of aspics and "O'Grotons," as Minnie calls them.

Then, as December begins, Willie Faye Darling comes into their life. Willie Faye is the only daughter of cousins of Minnie's mother. Her parents, from a small town called Heart's Bend, Texas, have died after losing a battle with life in the Dust Bowl. Willie Faye is Minnie's age (11), but looks two years younger due to malnutrition and hardships. She arrives at the Swift home covered in dust and with a kitten named Tumbleweed whose nose she had to suction out morning, noon and night to keep him from smothering. Willie Faye has never seen an indoor bathroom, gone to a movie, read a Buck Rogers comic, or listened to the radio, so Minnie thinks that Willie Faye will have a lot to learn from them.

She never dreams what she—and the entire family—will learn from the fragile-looking but tough little girl from the Dust Bowl when the ravages of the Depression begin leaching away the family's security.

I have many of Lasky's other books and love them as well (the only series of hers I couldn't get into was the Starbuck family books), including Prank, which takes place in East Boston, and her adult mysteries starring Calista Jacobs. But Christmas After All has a special magic to it, perhaps because it is based on Lasky's mother's experiences as well as her own and the characters ring true.

Christmas After All is highly recommended.

20 November 2006

The "First" Thanksgiving Actually Comes at the End

Here's Caleb Johnson's MayflowerHistory.com site, which includes a review of last night's Desperate Crossing, the three-hour (with commercials) documentary re-inactment of the Pilgrims, beginning with their move to Leyden in the Netherlands to escape the wrath of the King of England and ending with "the first Thanksgiving," which, as has been pointed out on many sites, really has nothing to do with what the Pilgrims would have considered a "thanksgiving," which was a day of prayer and fasting. The scene we re-inact today is what the Pilgrims would have known as a harvest festival or "Harvest Home."

Plymouth Rock? No one even remembered it until 1841 when an elderly man claimed that the big rock the citizens of Plymouth were about to build a wharf over was, according to his grandfather, who heard it from his grandfather, where the Pilgrims had stepped off the Mayflower in 1620 (actually, they came ashore in small boats). The Rock actually remained in the wharf until Victorian-era Americans, venerating the Pilgrim forefathers, extracted it (and broke it in half). Most of the cute little myths we believe about Thanksgiving were actually created by the Victorians, including the black Pilgrim hat that still serves as a symbol for the Massachusetts Turnpike and the big-buckle shoes and the legend of how popcorn was first eaten at the feast attended by the surviving Pilgrims and Massasoit's Wampanoug tribe.

I recorded the whole thing which is a good thing because I missed a lot fussing over that frelling gas log with James. I did enjoy what I saw, although I wonder if the real Pilgrims (and "Strangers") actually did use the very formal forms of speech you often heard in the program. Johnson comments about several scenes sounding stage-y.

(Music Listening To: Windham Hill, "Thanksgiving," specifically that very American hymn, "Simple Gifts.")

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW: Callahan Cousins: Together Again

Well, I might as well review the fourth Callahan Cousins book here, since I've hit all the others.

We've been through Hillary being insecure about her parents' divorce (The Summer Begins), Neeve being insecure about a family secret (Home Sweet Home), and Kate being insecure about not being cool (Keeping Cool). Now it's bookworm Phoebe's turn to be insecure—about Christmas celebrations and faith.

In this fourth book summer is over, but the girls have once again gathered at Grandmother Gee's big house on Gull Island to celebrate the holidays. Phoebe, who's from Florida and the voracious reader in the bunch, has one big wish: to celebrate the kind of Christmas she's always read about in her beloved books. Not a snowless, cheerless (at least to Phoebe) Christmas where her dad and sisters decorate with tacky garish plastic ornaments and sing kareoke carols, but one full of sleigh rides, and home-made gifts, ornaments, and treats, and snow, snow, snow. She comes to Gull Island complete with her own "wish book" (a notebook of magazine and newspaper clippings) about just how "it should be" and ends up roping her cousins into helping her achieve this goal through helping her with the things they do best (creative Kate will help them do crafts and baking, sporty Hillary will arrange sledding and other winter athletics, friendly Neeve will be social director for parties).

Of course Phoebe goes overboard—it's a lietmotif of the series—but her desire is so charming that I really enjoyed the story. Come on, who among you that is a Christmas lover has not wished for the grand and glorious holiday you've read about in books and seen in the movies? Who hasn't wanted to have a grand party with friends gathered around a magnificent old-fashioned tree (perhaps with candles, however dangerous) and then go out caroling house to house, filled with the spirit of bonhomie? To celebrate a deep, meaningful Christmas like the Ingalls family or Anne Shirley or the March girls and eschewing the canned music, buy-buy-buy commercials and adverts, and the plastic sentiments? I know the idea appeals to me tremendously (although not the tree with the candles!); I spent my childhood wishing I could go to one of those parties like on Petticoat Junction where everyone ends the night singing old songs—or Christmas carols!—around the piano.

The generosity of her cousins (except for Neeve's occasional protests) and finally her grandmother enables Phoebe to have the Christmas she wants, but there are a few bobbles along that way including a warm front—Phoebe, for all her reading, seems to have missed the fact that shorelines and islands don't usually get the type of Vermont-like snow she's pining for and it melts faster when it does snow—and interference from snotty Sloan Bicket. There is a more serious thread woven through this outing: Phoebe's reluctance to show emotion and also her need for something spiritual to believe in for the future (hence the heavily angel-centric theme that comes into play soon after the book begins).

It's a fun Christmas outing with some thought behind it and a good way to finish out the tetralogy.

16 November 2006

Splendor and Spectacle

If not England, this is where I'd like to go someday: German Christmas Markets. I've read and seen photos of these wonderful places for years. Probably couldn't afford a thing after travelling there, but just being among all those lovely ornaments and the smell of gingerbread and spices...heaven!

14 November 2006

Christmas DVD Wish List

#1: The House Without a Christmas Tree
#2: The Gathering

Also, all those great Perry Como Christmas shows.

A couple of obscure ones: Simple Gifts, which was a collection of animated shorts that appeared on PBS in the late 70s. One of them was about the Christmas truce, another was about "The Great Frost," a third was taken from a letter written by Theodore Roosevelt as a boy, etc. This is a much-requested item on TV Party. Also, from the same era, PBS did a special based on Norman Corwin's radio play in rhyme, "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas." The gimmick to this one was that the first half hour showed how a radio show was produced, and then the story was presented as part of the second half hour. The show featured radio veterans such as Ezra Stone, plus Edward Asner as Santa Claus.

The half-hour animated version of A Christmas Carol featuring Sir Michael Redgrave. This was done in the style of Victorian drawings and won an Oscar for best animated short.

REVIEW: "Christmas Classics," Volume 1 DVD

This is the title of an el cheapo DVD I picked up at Fred's (sort of a poor man's Woolworth's) in a paper sleeve; only cost me 50¢ as I recall. It has three 1950s Christmas presentations on it, including the one featured on the cover, the Christmas episode of Date With the Angels starring Betty White and Bill Williams.

The first offering is "A String of Blue Beads," taken from the classic Fulton Oursler story about a storekeeper named Pete, who, embittered after the death of his fiancé, finds life again on Christmas Eve thanks to a little girl. This is a very short story that has been embellished mercilessly for its 26-minute timeslot; some of the embellishments, such as showing him with Marilyn, the girl he loves, are fine additions, but had they stuck to Oursler's original dialog it would have been a lot better. The whole cast is very stiff and Louis Jourdan is just not my idea of Pete. The "acts" of the story are introduced and closed by marionettes and the passing of time is, interestingly, illustrated by seasonal paintings from a Manhattan art gallery.

It is also filmed in some rudimentary version of color which has altered and faded so that the only two colors seem to be red and green (with the occasional flash of beige). It was so ennerving that I finally turned the color down and watched it in good old-fashioned black and white.

The second cut is from a religious series called Crossroads, which is, the titles and the credits tell us stenoriously, vetted by a military Protestant chaplain, a Catholic priest, and a rabbi. The story, "Our First Christmas Tree," concerned a German minister who planned to introduce a Christmas tree into the service and was roundly cheered by the local children and condemned by the children's parents, who think the minister is taking their children away from "the Bible, the Psalms, and hymns" and leading them to worship a pagan idol. These neighborhood busybodies never give the well-meaning reverend a chance to explain and are about to tear down the tree when the minister's brother, also a man of the cloth, explains to them how the tree fits into the ceremony. I have heard several stories of the origin of the Christmas tree, the two most popular being the story of Martin Luther coming home in the snow one night and seeing the moon sparkling on the snow-covered branches of the fir trees, which led him to create a similar scene in his home with candles on a small cut tabletop tree, and the story of St. Boniface, who, seeing Druids about to make a human sacrifice, chops down the Holy Oak and a small pine tree springs up in its place.

But I had never heard the story the pastor tells his brother's congregation, about all the animals and plants going to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child and of the struggling little cedar that almost gives its life to do so, and is rewarded by God with everlasting life and has stars rained down upon its branches.

Of course the congregation is abashed and the pastor and the happy children have the Christmas tree. (One of the boys is played by Todd Ferrell, who played Timmy's buddy Boomer for a year on Lassie.) Again, done in a rather stiff style, but with a charm of its own.

The Date With the Angels "Christmas Show" probably would come as a revelation to devotees of today's sitcoms. While there are two-tart tongued characters in the story—Vicki Angel's (Betty White) friend Connie, played by Nancy Kulp, who later went on to fame as Jane Hathaway in The Beverly Hillbillies, and Richard Deacon—Gus and Vicki Angel are our sweet-tempered protagonists (not an insult is passed between them) who help an elderly neighbor (the father of Richard Deacon's character) get a Santa Claus job at the department store where Connie works for a Mr. Scrooge-ish manager and also assist a lost child at the store. It's very sweet and nostalgic, and all three are interesting representations of 1950s Christmas programming.

I haven't seen Volume 2, if one actually exists, but it would be interesting to see what was on it.

XM Holiday on the Air!

Whoa! I was cooling my heels waiting for the train and paging through the XM stations and found their Christmas channel, "Holly." What a surprise, then, to find that they actually have five Christmas channels, but the others don't start until Thanksgiving.

It doesn't show up on this page, but there's also "Radio Hanukkah" on from December 15 to 25.

Checked to see if Sirius had their music channel up, but I don't find it. Dish Network's Christmas music channel isn't on yet, either. Perhaps on the 15th.

(Coda, November 20: Sirius' holiday music starts on Thanksgiving. They are again taking over the Starlite channel for popular music, one of the country channels for country music, and the Pops channel for classical Christmas music.)

05 November 2006

"Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November..."

If your only experience with the name "Fawkes" is reading Harry Potter novels, here's the skinny on Guy Fawkes, whose Gunpowder Plot and its defeat have provided the British with an annual holiday devoted to fireworks and bonfires.

Lesser known is that Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated in "the colonies" at one time, although its name was changed and some definite Catholic bashing went on.
"17th and 18th-century Bostonians celebrated the anniversary of the English Gunpowder Plot as Pope's Day. To mark the occasion, residents of the North and South Ends held separate parades, carrying effigies of the Pope with them. Both parades led to the center of town, near the Old State House. When the two groups met, a riot typically ensued; each group fought to secure the other's effigy of the Pope. The group that succeeded in doing so was declared the winner."

From Boston History.org

More on Guy Fawkes Day:

Fawksian Society Website

Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night

Wikipedia Entry

Scrap Album's Guy Fawkes Victorian Images

Woodlands Junior School's Bonfire Night Site

Holiday Spot's Guy Fawkes Day Site

03 November 2006

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW: Christmas in New England

This slim book by Amy Whorf McGuiggan, published by Commonwealth Press, is a delightful compendium of short takes about notable Yuletide events from the New England states, with a little Christmas history tossed in. Since many people's idealized Christmas is that of a New England Christmas, with sleigh rides, fresh balsam trees, etc., it's always hard to realize that for a long time, due to Puritan influence, the very word "Christmas" was anathema in the far Northeast, unlike the South which celebrated with guns and bonfires and the middle states with their settlers of German and Dutch ancestry, who had Christmas trees and the custom of St. Nicholas.

McGuiggan's text, enlivened by black and white photos and a color insert, talks about the various memorable parts of a New England Christmas: fresh balsam trees from Maine, Nova Scotia's annual tree gift to Boston in memory of that city's assistance after the deadly explosion in Halifax Harbor in 1916, the "Flying Santa" who for years dropped gifts to the isolated lighthouse keepers' families, a bell factory that made the original sleigh bells (far from being just "something pretty" to listen to when you went sleighing, bells were actually required by law, so pedestrians could hear the silent sleighs coming), Boston's "Christmas for the Horses," charity events, etc. Some very touching personal stories are included.

I'm hoping McGuiggan is aiming for a sequel, because it beats me how she's done a book about notable New England Christmas traditions and not once mentioned Edaville Railroad! Now Edaville USA (it's still open), this is a small steam train setup in South Carver, Massachusetts, that is especially popular in the fall and winter. It was closed in 1991 but was resurrected in 1999. Before the cranberry harvests, Edaville would offer a ride through the cranberry bogs and then take riders to a pumpkin patch with refreshments of hot cider and other goodies. But Christmas is when Edaville really "shines." They have a seven-million-strong holiday light display and other events.

I also didn't see the fact that the first department store Santa Claus originated in New England. In 1841, a Philadelphia storekeeper named Parkinson had a man dress as "Crisscringle" and enter his store through the chimney as a publicity stunt (a pivotal scene in Jeff Guinn's just-published Great Santa Search), but the masqued Santa didn't remain at the store and talk to children. Fifty years later, the Boston Store in Brockton, Massachusetts, featured a Santa who sat among the toys and listened to children's wishes for Christmas, the first real "department store Santa."

Since New Year's is part of the Christmas season, I also expected to see some events in that area mentioned, especially "First Night," which originated in Boston.

However, I give the contents of this volume a solid B+ and hope Ms. McGuiggan brings us another volume in the future.

02 November 2006


The name "Hallowe'en" is a a corruption of "All Hallow's Eve," which is the night before All Saint's Day, November 1. The following day, today, is All Souls' Day, where prayers are said for those who have died. The entire period is called "Hallowtide."


123Holiday.net's All Souls' Day Page
During the 19th and 20th centuries children would go "souling"—rather like carol singing—requesting alms or soul cakes:
A soul, a soul, a soul cake.
Please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry.
Up with your kettles and down with your pans,
Give us an answer and we'll be gone.
Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate,
Crying for butter to butter his cake.
One for St. Peter, two for St. Paul,
Three for the man who made us all.
The "Soulers" would go around the houses singing this song. Soul-caking has survived throughout the west Midlands, from Coventry to Manchester to Sheffield.

From Woodlands Junior School's Facts About November.

"Souling" is thought to be one of the origins of "trick or treating" on Hallowe'en.

Additional lyrics:
God Bless the master of this house, the mistress also,
And all the little children who around your table grow.
Likewise your men and maidens, your cattle and your store,
And all that dwells within your gates we wish you ten times more.

The lanes are very dirty and my shoes are very thin.
I've got a little pocket I can put a penny in.
If you haven't got a penny, a ha' penny will do;
If you haven't got a ha' penny, then God bless you.
You can see that it shares some similar lyrics with the round "Christmas Is Coming (The Goose Is Getting Fat)."

Here's a soul cake recipe:


3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup caster/superfine sugar
4 cups plain flour, sifted
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon allspice
3 tablespoons currants
a little milk


- Cream the butter and sugar together until pale in colour and fluffy in texture.
- Beat in the egg yolks.
- Fold in the sifted flour and spices.
- Stir in the currants.
- Add enough milk to make a soft dough.
- Form into flat cakes and mark each top with a cross.
- Bake on a well-greased baking tray in a hot oven until golden."

Peter, Paul and Mary sing "A Soalin'" (sic) on their "Holiday Celebration" CD.