31 December 2007

Greg's Christmas Village

And I thought my mother-in-law's setup was elaborate!


There are 69 shots in all. Tip of the hat to Cori on "Christmas to the Max."

30 December 2007


• The Victorian Christmas Book, Antony and Peter Miall
This book was referenced so many times in The Country Diary Christmas Book that I finally hunted up a copy (which arrived appropriately on Christmas Eve). The Miall brothers use catalogs, images, and books of the time to paint us a Victorian Christmas, from the historical events leading up to the Victorian revival of the holiday as a children's festival, then to each sequence in the celebration to finally end on Epiphany. Included are pages of old magazines, gift projects, household books, original recipes, period illustrations and liberal quotes from that most Victorian of books, A Christmas Carol. Wonderful historical treat.

• Re-read: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
Western Publishing's Whitman books, inexpensive hardbacks for children, published a series of books by "Jo Mendel" in the 1960s about the Tuckers, five children, stay-at-home mom as common in those days, dad who works with his own father at the town variety store, and Grandma. The children are typical for the day: sometimes helpful, sometimes moody preteen Tina, twins Terry and Merry who alternately fight and stick up for each other, quiet and often sickly Penny, who loves dolls, and five year old Tom (five going on twenty somedays). The adventures are typical for the day: solving minor mysteries, neighborhood foibles, summer days at the lake, etc.

Cottage Holiday has always been a little different: sickly Penny, who feels left out of family activities, is allowed by her doctor to go with the family to their lake cottage to spend the Christmas holidays. They have fun in the snow, help a young woman and her baby son, and face the threat of a cougar stalking nearby farm animals, but paramount to the story is Penny's search for her place in the scheme of things. It's remarkably introspective for what is supposed to be a simple children's story. It's one of the stories I read once a year for a good dose of Christmas spirit.

• Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments
Nice little book about the history behind the Hallmark Keepsake Ornament line and assorted artists who created some of the most popular lines. Worth finding remaindered if you are a Hallmark collector or fan.

• The Time-Life Book of Christmas
Another library acquisition that I should hunt up: oversized, lavishly illustrated in black-and-white and color, with standard sections on Christmas food, decorations, and various ethnic customs, some popular—and some not-so-well-known—stories, but other sections about Christmas cards, decorations, etc. with wonderful file photos of vintage celebrations, Christmas cards, ornaments, magazine clippings, etc. The photo sections are worth the price of the book.

28 December 2007

Christmas Bargains

Made a trip out to Books-a-Million today for any Christmas sales; they had their Christmas books half-price, but there was nothing I wanted that badly. I did get a Richard Peck book off the bargain table and, since it was buy one bargain book, get the second half price, got the Worst Case Scenario Christmas Survival Book for only $1.50. It should prove amusing, especially to James.

Got some miniature woodpiles for the Christmas village and acid-free tape at Michael's, then went to Walmart. I really love the one in Acworth; they always have enough cashiers and everything is clean and moves briskly. They had everything on our grocery list (and things we needed that weren't there) except for low-carb wheat tortillas. Sigh. I just got low-carb ones to tide us over.

Oh, and I returned my library books...and came out with The Time-Life Book of Christmas!

We've had a few sun break-outs, but it's been mostly cloudy today and it rained with thunder during the night and drizzled when I went out at 10:30. Willow immediately broke out into a salvo of barks at the thunder, and if that hadn't woken me, she certainly did!

Christmas—as well as this week!—has certainly gone by too quickly!

25 December 2007

"Christmas, Christmas, Wonderful Christmas!"

Had a nice sleep in yesterday courtesy of the Big Boss, but I'd really intended to go to Harry's earlier. It wasn't quite a Dickens Christmas there—
"...[t]here were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers" benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner..."
but it was crowded with folks piling their carts high with goodies for the feast. I also dropped in to Publix for some dessert goodies for tomorrow, and started next year's shopping at Michael's.

I had hardly arrived home and done laundry and vacuuming and other minimal chores when I realized I did not have enough salad dressing for the salad we were bringing to dinner tomorrow, so I nipped out to Food Depot—not as crowded as I feared—and found it, surprisingly, first try!

Then I was finally ready to sit down, with Schuyler's cage next to me, to her surprise and wonder, and I had lunch—yummy salad greens, milk, a bit of the demi baguette I bought myself as a treat, and pistachio nuts—and we watched The Homecoming: A Christmas Story and the 1980, 1981 (two shows), and 1982 Ask the Manager Christmas shows, from Joe receiving his spotted tie as a gift to Dan telling Dana about the "Christkindl" custom at his house for the first time. Oh, yeah, and the eggnog and Joe intoning "Rudy Cheeks, Rudy Cheeks, Rudy Rudy Cheeks." Always shed a tear now at the end of the 1980 show when the cast and crew do their "Merry Christmas" and the late Cliff Allen appears.

Oh, also got a nice late surprise in the mail: the copy of The Victorian Christmas Book that I had bought from Amazon Marketplace arrived. The Country Diary Christmas Book uses so many quotes from this book that I couldn't resist ordering it: it was 30 cents, an ex-library book, but quite intact and with an excellent cover.

By then it was time to load Christmas gifts in a Xerox box, get Schuyler back to her perch on the bookcase and clean up, and take Willow outside. To our surprise, we met James at the door—they let him out fifteen whole minutes early! Soon we were in the truck and heading to the Boulers for Christmas Eve dinner. We went the long way, through Dunleith, the neighborhood next to our old one, but they did not do luminarias for Christmas Eve this year; I don't know if they have quit or did them over the weekend.

We had a grand time at the Boulers, with the Spiveys, the Elders and the Boroses, plus Keith—noshed our way through turkey, ham, beef roast, some veggies, dessert, then did presents before the fire. Keith, as always, gives the most unique gifts: this year we received a bird feeder, a bag of birdseed, and a guide to wild birds of North America. The Boulers' dogs watched us enviously from the upstairs balcony: G'Kar, the Jack Russell, shoved himself between the banisters to stare at us.

We came home via a roundabout route to check out more lights. When we got home, I was still in gift mode, so we opened our gifts under the tree. I had bought James a new copy of Top Gun (he only had the videotape), two books about the space program and one about World War II fliers, a DVD set of WWII videos, and a 4GB jump drive. I received the book of The War, London Then and Now, a bag for my new camera, and some Japanese Cherry Blossom cologne from Bath and Body Works. We also received some cute gifts from Emma, who bought me a cute pig Webkinz. I think I will name her "Peggy" after Mike's guinea pig (I know, not the same species, but both cute!). Miss Schuyler got a nice big piece of millet from Santa, and Willow got beef and cheese treats (which she has been staring at since last night).

We then sat and relaxed and listened to Christmas music and then the Midnight Mass from the Vatican, which lasted over an hour tonight.

This morning, therefore, we slept in, despite the pinpoint power failure at 8 a.m. which turned James' C-PAP on and off again. Willow finally started to bark, at which we discovered Santa had sent Atlanta a Christmas gift: it was raining! It rained steadily for nearly two hours, then cleared, but it looks as if another bank of rain is headed this way. I'd rather have snow, but we need the rain.

While I went out searching for a newspaper, James made French toast out of the last of the challah loaf we bought last weekend. (Last year we had hit six places Christmas Day and never found a newspaper. One place even told me they didn't print a newspaper on Christmas. Nonsense! Large Metro area newspapers are like hospitals; they never take holidays.) I was successful in one try and we ate breakfast—luscious French toast made with Splenda and topped with the lovely Grade B super-maply syrup my cousin Donna bought us two years ago—and read the paper along to the end of the Walt Disney World parade and then Christmas at St. Olaf's.

Anyway, it's about time for me to go wash the salad...Merry Christmas to all, and Buon Natale, too!

[Later: I should say we had a great time at the Butlers, but that would be redundant—we always have a great Christmas dinner there, and the company is always delightful.]

Happy Christmas to All!

Check out a "whole passel of pictures" in Autumn Hollow.

24 December 2007

From the Library of Congress

Today in History

"Christmas Eve"

The door is on the latch tonight,
     The hearth-fire is aglow,
I seem to hear soft passing feet—
     The Christ child in the snow.

My heart is open wide tonight
     For stranger, kith or kin;
I would not bar a single door
     Where love might enter in.

. . . . . . . Author Unknown

23 December 2007

Gift Wrapping for Men

This is the time of year when we think back to the very first Christmas, when the Three Wise Men; Gaspar, Balthazar and Herb, went to see the baby Jesus and, according to the Book of Matthew, "presented unto Him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh."

These are simple words, but if we analyze them carefully, we discover an important, yet often overlooked, theological fact: There is no mention of wrapping paper. If there had been wrapping paper, Matthew would have said so:

"And lo, the gifts were inside 600 square cubits of paper. And the paper was festooned with pictures of Frosty the Snowman. And Joseph was going to throweth it away, but Mary saideth unto him, she saideth, 'Holdeth it! That is nice paper! Saveth it for next year!' And Joseph did rolleth his eyeballs. And the baby Jesus was more interested in the paper than the frankincense."

But these words do not appear in the Bible, which means that the very first Christmas gifts were NOT wrapped. This is because the people giving those gifts had two important characteristics:

1. They were wise.

2. They were men.

Men are not big gift wrappers. Men do not understand the point of putting paper on a gift just so somebody else can tear it off. This is not just my opinion: This is a scientific fact based on a statistical survey of two guys I know. One is Rob, who said the only time he ever wraps a gift is "if it's such a poor gift that I don't want to be there when the person opens it." The other is Gene, who told me he does wrap gifts, but as a matter of principle never takes more than 15 seconds per gift. "No one ever had to wonder which presents daddy wrapped at Christmas," Gene said. "They were the ones that looked like enormous spitballs."
I also wrap gifts, but because of some defect in my motor skills, I can never completely wrap them. I can take a gift the size of a deck of cards and put it the exact center of a piece of wrapping paper the size of a regulation volleyball court, but when I am done folding and taping, you can still see a sector of the gift peeking out. (Sometimes I camouflage this sector with a marking pen.)
If I had been an ancient Egyptian in the field of mummies, the lower half of the Pharaoh's body would be covered only by Scotch tape.
On the other hand, if you give my wife a 12-inch square of wrapping paper, she can wrap a C-130 cargo plane. My wife, like many women, actually likes wrapping things. If she gives you a gift that requires batteries, she wraps the batteries separately, which to me is very close to being a symptom of mental illness. If it were possible, my wife would wrap each individual volt. My point is that gift-wrapping is one of those skills like having babies that come more naturally to women than to men. That is why today I am presenting:


* Whenever possible, buy gifts that are already wrapped. If, when the recipient opens the gift, neither one of you recognizes it, you can claim that it's myrrh.

* The editors of Woman's Day magazine recently ran an item on how to make your own wrapping paper by printing a design on it with an apple sliced in half horizontally and dipped in a mixture of food coloring and liquid starch. They must be crazy, or women, or both.

* If you're giving a hard-to-wrap gift, skip the wrapping paper! Just put it inside a bag and stick one of those little adhesive bows on it. This creates a festive visual effect that is sure to delight the lucky recipient on Christmas morning.

YOUR WIFE: "Why is there a Hefty trash bag under the tree?"
YOU: "It's a gift! See? It has a bow!"
YOUR WIFE (peering into the trash bag): "It's a leaf blower."
YOU: "I also got you some myrrh."

In conclusion, remember that the important thing is not what you give, or how you wrap it. The important thing, during this very special time of year, is that you save the receipt.

A Little Christmas Humor

(As Mr. Spock might reply dryly, "Extremely little, Ensign.")

A Few Christmas Questions

Q: What do elves learn in school?

A: The Elf-abet!

Q: If athletes get athletes foot, what do astronauts get?

A: Missle toe!

Q: What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire?

A: Frostbite.

Q: Why was Santa's little helper depressed?

A: Because he had low elf esteem.

Q: Why does Santa have 3 gardens?

A: So he can ho-ho-ho.

Q: Where do polar bears vote?

A: The North Poll.

Q: What do you get when you cross an archer with a gift-wrapper?

A: Ribbon hood.

Q: What kind of bird can write?

A: A PENguin.

Q: What do you call a cat on the beach at Christmas time?

A: Sandy Claus!

Q: How do sheep in Mexico say Merry Christmas?

A: Fleece Navidad!

Q: Why does Santa's sled get such good mileage?

A: Because it has long-distance runners on each side.

Q: What do you call a bunch of grandmasters of chess bragging about their games in a hotel lobby?

A: Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer!

All on a Christmas "Eve Eve"

Had some problems last night that I am pretty sure were attributable to not taking one of my pills and then taking another before bed. This happened another time when I did not take the Prilosec (or took it after the fact) and then had chicken. Poor Schuyler must think we are nuts, especially with us having stayed up past midnight and my watching "Christmas in the Airwaves" a second time on chat with Rodney and Mike.

Needless to say we had a slow start this morning and did not make it to the Colonnade on time to have lunch; the after-church crowd was already milling its way out the door. We went to Ryan's, which used to be Olde Country/Hometown Buffet. I only had a little steak—it was so highly peppered even James complained—and a few spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, a bit of crust from a tiny slice of apple pie and some chocolate cake. It seemed to sit okay.

We then drove up to the Stage Door Players to see ARTC's annual "An Atlanta Christmas." They had a new sketch this year, "Civil War Triptych," which was originally performed when "Atlanta Christmas" was a stage production rather than a radio show: a Civil War Christmas was described by turns by a white woman (the preparations for the feast), a black woman slave (the "Christmas Gif'" tradition and the happiness of the relative freedom of the celebration), and a Confederate soldier (privations of camp and homesickness). Plus of course all our favorites, including "USO Christmas," the affecting "O Tannenbaum" about the Christmas truce, and "Are You Lonely Tonight?" We sat between Lin Butler, Stephanie Gould, and the Rutledges and enjoyed beginning to end while I snapped photos.

We must have arrived at the Colonnade for supper during a lull: we got right in and were served promptly, and then people began to arrive again. The Colonnade opened in 1927 and, despite one loss of location and one fire, has survived ever since. They serve "down home Southern food," and you can't pass tables without seeing big plates of fried chicken, but my favorite here is the turkey and dressing: it's the only dressing I eat all of and in large quantities. Their applesauce is not overly sweetened, either.

Unfortunately my tummy was still in a tender state and I have been tasting supper ever since.

We were home early enough to watch "Christmas in Yellowstone" on Nature, a beautifully photographed overview of the park in winter. How I loved the red fox pouncing in the snow, and the beautiful wolves! Also saw Rick Steves European Christmas.


• If Only In My Dreams, Wendy Markham
Several years ago I was reading romance books rather regularly, usually the adventure type where the male or female lead was some type of professional adventurer (Navy SEAL, police officer, etc.). Then I got tired of the repetitive plots and bundled them all off to the library except for Laura Hayden's books, Alan Brennert's Kindred Spirits, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

However, Dreams is a keeper: it's the story of actress Clara McCollum, who's about to start filming the plum role of the sweetheart of Jed Landry, a real-life World War II soldier who died in Normandy. But Clara has just received a medical blow: she has breast cancer. She is in mental turmoil when she steps onto the vintage train they are using in the movie—then the train jerks and she is thrown to the floor. When she rises and gets off the train, she is in 1941, and there waiting to help her is the real Jed Landry.

This is a well-written time-travel romance that I found enjoyable not just because of the time period. Markham works all aspects of the past and present plot into a coherent whole.

I have one tiny quibble with the story: part of the plot hinges on the "I'll Be Home for Christmas" line "...and presents on the tree." Jed Landry in 1941 wonders why the line is not "...under the tree" and says it makes no sense. Jed should still remember when some gifts were part of the Christmas tree decorations; I have books written in the 1930s and 1940s where gifts are placed on the tree as they had been during Victorian times.

• Re-read: Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
This is a book I read for the first time over 42 years ago, in the Stadium School library. It was one of the first books I went hunting for when the internet made finding old books so simple. It is the story of the Clark family, a farm family in 1948 Vermont, particularly the oldest boy Toby, age twelve, who owns a dapple-grey pony named Windy Foot. They are expecting their friends the Burnhams, widowed Jerry and his twelve-year-old daughter Tish, and the story follows their simple Christmas preparations and celebrations: decorating with woodsy decorations, awaiting the birth of a calf, buying gifts and taking part in a carol sing, skiing, etc. Warm, wonderful stuff. You want to grab your winter things and go live with the Clarks.

• Re-read: A Treasury of Christmas Stories, Webb Garrison
These are Yuletide stories with a twist: they all involve some historical event that took place or that was initiated at Christmas: the beginnings of Miami as a vacation location, President Theodore Roosevelt's acceptance of the cutting of Christmas trees, the safe escape of slaves William and Ellen Craft to Philadelphia, Thomas Nast's rework of Santa Claus from Dutch burgher to elf—even the Magna Carta. Something different from the rank and file Christmas literature.

22 December 2007

From Creeping Crud to "Kringly"

I've had a decided case of the "ughs" today: woke with a burgeoning migraine as well as a sick stomach. The headache was easy to explain: I went to bed with the fan in the window, aimed directly at my head. This is a no-no when you have arthritis in your neck. As for the other, the Mongolian beef I liked so much last night might have had a beef with me.

So today wasn't a very enthusiastic day for me, needless to say. However, we did go to the hobby shop—the guys always put together some goodies on the Saturday before Christmas. There was an orange-zest flavored sugar-free cheesecake type cake there that was quite tasty. We also went to Borders to spend my birthday coupon; I ended up with Mr. Monk and the Two Assistants, which has just come into paperback, and four magazines. We also braved the crowds and went to Costco. The Cumberland Costco is next to Cumberland Mall and the traffic was, predictably, horrendous: people driving around and around looking for close parking spaces when you could see clearly that the "hidden" deck of the parking garage was mostly empty. Everyone crowds the top deck and the bottom deck and ignores the middle one.

Costco wasn't as crowded as we expected and we got out with necessary milk and also a bottle of cinnamon tablets. Supposedly they improve your glucose levels.

We finished up at Michaels with the world's slowest cashier. This Michaels accepts JoAnn coupons, but they have to fill out a form every time they accept a competitor coupon!

We had parts of a rotisserie chicken from Costco for supper and commenced to be Kringly (Betty Roberts' dad's term for Christmasy): first up was Mercy Mission: The Rescue of Flight 771, with Scott Bakula and Robert Loggia, the story of a pilot lost in a small plane between Pago Pago and Norfolk Island on Christmas Eve and the New Zealand airliner pilot who helps guide him to safety. Then:
• The Simpsons Christmas Special: Homer doesn't get his Christmas bonus and Marge has to spend the holiday funds to get a tattoo removed from Bart's arm; hilarity ensues when Homer gets an extra job playing Santa.
• The Bestest Present: The first of two "For Better or For Worse" animated specials about little Elizabeth losing her toy rabbit during Christmas shopping—love the "First Day of Snow" song!
• The Christmas Angel: The second special, in which Elizabeth chafes at being "the kid in the middle" and breaks her mother's precious glass angel.
• It's a Wonderful Tiny Toons Christmas: A parody of It's a Wonderful Life, with a special guest star, which reminds us how darn good Tiny Toons was and why in God's name isn't it out on DVD?
• The Waltons' "The Best Christmas": The family plans a grand Christmas after Olivia voices fears that her children won't all be with her in the year to come, but an icy evening that plunges a tree into the church roof, traps Grandma and Grandma in Charlottesville, and finds John-Boy helping rescue a neighbor and her niece, trapped in a car that drove off the road into an icy pond nearly ruins their holiday.
• Remember WENN's "Christmas in the Airwaves": A delightful confection of song and story; controlling financier Rollie Pruitt plans to shut down Pittsburgh's favorite small radio station, while writer Betty Roberts, scheming manager Scott Sherwood, and the actors of the ensemble try to thwart his evil machinations. Guest stars are Peter Noone and Betty Buckley...still makes me cry at the end.

The Christkind is Coming!

Celebrating With the Christkind, written by Rick Steves.

21 December 2007

Christmas-y Goodness Redux

Been nice the last half of this week working in the light of the Christmas tree and the village on the mantel, listening my way through my collection of Christmas music on cassette. The second side of the carrier holds many favorites: Mannheim Steamroller, Mantovani, the early "Revels" albums, and even a couple of the obscure British carol albums I bought at Oxford Books before they closed.

(List of stores I miss, especially before Christmas: Woolworths, Woolworths, Woolworths, Woolworths, Woolworths, and Oxford Books, PharMor, and, always, the old Paperback Bookstore in Providence...did I mention Woolworths?)

Tuesday evening our branch had a Christmas party at Maggiano's at Perimeter Mall. Ed (our supervisor) let us out early, so I rushed home, walked Willow, then drove back to James' work so we could carpool. We went "through the back" instead of via interstate and found the non-valet parking nearly surrounded by police cars with blue lights flashing. Maybe shoplifters? It was a super party, with good food and good company. All the food was delicious, but my favorite of all was the bread! Before we left, we had a little prayer for Carla, whom we lost last Saturday.

This evening we bought a few last things. Two items we bought at Borders and had the young ladies doing the free gift wrap do their thing. They were eager but not very skillful (but then they had a very small table; it was very hard for them to maneuver). Came home to wrap three more things, and now under the tree looks like a Macy's ad.

I was mourning the fact that the Russell Stover maple cream Santas had milk chocolate coating. Their maple cream Easter eggs have dark chocolate coatings and in 2006, so did their Hallowe'en "buzzard eggs," but this year the buzzard eggs I found were...ugh...marshmallow. Well, I wandered off to look at their Christmas things and James appeared with an entire box of Easter maple cream eggs! He found them on the highest shelf in the candy department. I put the box up in the spare room closet; I can have one a week as a treat and they will last me until next fall. I see Mr. Nicholson has been hanging about again. I wonder if that was their Easter supply in advance?

Welcome, Yule!

So the solstice has arrived!

Ancient Origins: Yule

Yule Lore

Midwinter's Eve: Yule

Bright Yule Blessings!

19 December 2007


• Christmas and Christmas Lore, T.G. Crippen
Another book with no mentions of media Christmas since it was published in 1928. It is referenced in Bill Bryson's I'm a Strange Here Myself as "scholarly and ageless," and indeed it is a fascinating history of Yuletide lore as seen eighty years ago in Great Britain and Ireland. The customs span Advent through Epiphany, even touching on "Old Christmas." Worth finding used if one can find an affordable copy.

• Happy Christmas, compiled by William Kean Seymour and John Smith
I was disappointed in this British-published book; perhaps the small entries entries were seen as useful as nightly reading before Christmas, but they are too short to be satisfying. Beatrix Potter's charming "Tailor of Gloucester" (which is printed whole in the book following) is reduced to one page about Simpkin the cat's guilt along with a drawing, and Graham's "Dulce Domum" is heavily edited.

• A New Christmas Treasury, edited by Jack Newcombe
I wouldn't mind getting my own copy of this outstanding anthology. Standards like Andersen's "The Fir Tree," Bret Harte's "How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's Bar," and of course "The Gift of the Magi" are included, plus there are familiarities like Irving's "Christmas Eve," Capote's "A Christmas Memory," Kenneth Graham's "Dulce Domum" (in its entirety rather than abridged as in Happy Christmas), and F. Van Wyck Mason's "Valley Forge: 24 December 1777," but this crammed-full volume includes modern, unusual entries like Cleveland Amory's "Rescue" and George Plimpton's "Christmas Bird Count," a Christmas short story mystery, "The Murder of Santa Claus," by P.D. James, the Christmas chapter from Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter, and other less-anthologized Yuletide pieces. Some hitherto unknown stories of interest: an outcast white boy shows shows the Christmas spirit to a black traveler in segregated Capetown in "A Christmas Dinner" and Ring Lardner's absolutely heartbreaking "Old Folks' Christmas," about a 1920s couple who shower their college-age children with everything and are rewarded with indifference.


• The Christmas Mystery, Jostein Gaarder
In 1948, a little girl named Elisabet disappeared from a department store in Norway. Elisabet remembers following a toy lamb who came to life. Now, almost fifty years later, a little boy named Joaquin buys an old-fashioned paper Advent calendar at a local bookseller. The bookseller doesn't recognize the calendar and assumes it was placed there by the odd flower-seller who always seems to have roses aplenty in December. When Joaquin opens the first door of the Advent calendar, a small piece of paper falls out. As Joaquin reads the tiny writing upon it, he is drawn into the story of Elisabet, who follows the "lambkin" and meets an angel—and day by day, as Joaquin opens more doors on the calendar and finds more small pieces of paper, we follow Elisabet's trip back in time as she, and the fellow voyagers that join her, go back to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.

This is an interesting mystery that includes a very pointed political statement near the end. Did Elisabet truly go back in time to the first Christmas or was she kidnapped? You will have to decide for yourself.

• A Family Christmas, ed. by Caroline Kennedy
This is a wonderful collection of Christmas stories and poems from multi-ethnic and multi-racial points of view, some well-known, including Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," but most of them material not usually included in Christmas collections. My favorite along with the Capote piece was "Amos'n'Andy Christmas Show Fails Test of Time," a bittersweet column originally written for the New York Times. An African-American father takes his hip kids back to his country hometown, hoping to spark some Christmas magic in the bored children by showing them his favorite holiday treat, the Amos'n'Andy Christmas show which had been so magical to him as a child.

• When Santa Fell to Earth, Cornelia Funke
I found this on the bargain table at Borders and purchased it, despite not enjoying Funke's much-ballyhooed Inkspell.
From School Library Journal. The leader of the Great Christmas Council, one Gerold Geronimus Goblynch, has outlawed all of the old, magical ways. Snowmobiles have replaced reindeer, elves and angels are banned, and noncompliant Santas are turned into chocolate. Niklas Goodfellow is the last real Santa. He and his ramshackle companions—two fat angels named Matilda and Emmanuel, an invisible reindeer, and a bunch of foulmouthed elves (steaming reindeer poo!)—are hiding from the Council. Luckily, local children Ben and Charlotte and Charlotte's dog, Mutt, join forces to save Niklas from a chocolatey fate.
While I didn't find this as magical as Holly Claus or as humorous and endearing as Christine Kringle, this was an imaginative tale with memorable characters, down to Ben's downbeat parents who want to go to tropical climes for Christmas. The text is set within charming black-and-white art and Niklas is the type of Santa we'd all love to have visit our homes. Parental note: the elves don't actually use any really bad language, but those with small children who love to parrot "dirty words" might be a bit taken aback by Niklas' rowdy elves. Also, Ben is allowed to cheat in school without any repercussions, which might sit badly with some.

• Magical Christmas Tales, originally published in Great Britain
This is simply a nice children's picture book with eight Christmas stories and Christmas carols, all nicely illustrated; the Rudolph story illustrations are particularly adorable.

16 December 2007

A Different "White Christmas"

An amusing Shockwave animation.

15 December 2007

Cookie Reverie

James went to his club party tonight. I was invited, but I decided to stay home and make cookies instead. I don't make many; we have nuts and chocolate in the house already and we try not to overdo. He got home just as I was starting on a second batch. I don't always do a second batch, but thought it would be nice to have some to give away.

James looked at my baking, regretful. I only make wine biscuits these days. He says, "I'm sorry—they just don't do anything for me."

I shrug. "Sugar cookies never did much for me, either. If you're going to bake cookies like that, they need to be chocolate." (And have no icing!)

With a small bow to Capote: "Imagine a Saturday in mid-December. It is biting cold, but there is probably no snow on the ground. Inside the steel radiators under the windows (and later the long, low grey baseboard heat vents) render it warm and cozy, and the cracks of the front door are already stuffed against the cold with strips of old flannel pajamas, the door closed until March." But the tale isn't about fruitcake, it's about cookies.

It had to be Saturday, since the cookies had to be ready for Christmas, but I wouldn't be out of school yet and if it was after I entered seventh grade, Mom would be at work during the week.

Sugar cookies were unknown in our house. We were Italian and made Italian cookies. At that time, Mom made about four different kinds: butterballs, molasses cookies, almond bars, and wine biscuits. In kitchens all over Providence and Cranston and elsewhere in Rhode Island, my aunts and my cousins were making the same kind of cookies, and other Italo-American mothers and daughters, up at "Federal Hill" and "Silver Lake" and Edgewood and other Italian communities, were doing the same. Some of them made other cookies, ones with Hershey kisses in their centers. Ambitious and patient women like my Aunty Petrina made wandis, which are like an Italian wonton cookie, but instead of being small and flat, they are long ribbons tied into knots and waves and deep fried and sprinkled with confectioners' sugar. They took hours of hot work to make and were a true labor of love; most people just bought them from bakeries.

Imagine the small square kitchen of a 1950s Cape Cod house. One wall, the one overlooking the narrow, one-car driveway, one with a window in the center, has a long counter broken at the end where the refrigerator is located and centered with a white porcelain sink and drainboard. Tall white cupboards reach the ceiling. The counter is of linoleum, speckled in the 1950s fashion, like the floor; the floor has a black border around the edge, giving it a nice finished look. The stove is on the left wall, a window on the right wall (and to its right, the door to the back porch), the opposite wall is tiled in pale yellow, like the rest of the kitchen and the hallway, edged in black. The walls are painted yellow. A big rectangular table takes up what wall there is opposite to the counter, because closest to the door is a big closet which is pantry, cleaning supply storage, and breadbox all in one.

The table is loaded with the various ingredients and covered partially with a long, wide board that has been used for cookie and pie baking for years, so that it has a sheen like polished furniture even though it is just a plain hardwood board from a lumberyard. And there on the table and in the little Glenwood stove that so embarrasses Mother (the Providence Gas Company did not level it properly and all her cakes are crooked), we make magic.

We make butterballs, which are called elsewhere Danish wedding cookies or even Mexican wedding cookies: sugar, butter, flour, baking powder, a bit of salt, a bit of vanilla flavoring (I believe), and chopped walnuts. Always Diamond walnuts, always Gold Medal or Pillsbury flour, always Calumet baking powder (I love the Indian on the label). When they are done they are rolled in confectioner's sugar. The scent of good butter and sugar fills the kitchen.

Daddy loves the butterballs, but also likes the almond bars to dunk in a cup of coffee. Flour, sugar, other things I can't recall, a bit of almond extract and slivered almonds. She makes them in long narrow loaves like French bread and when they are done, cuts them into slices like biscotti. Now the faint odor of almond joins the kitchen scents.

The molasses cookies are my second favorite. They are chewy and deep chocolate brown with Brer Rabbit dark molasses and have a sweet, gingery, musty molasses scent. For years we argue: I hate nuts in cookies; she says they are traditional. So she makes two loaves, one with nuts for tradition, one without for me. These are made loafways as well, and cut like biscotti. The rich dark scent of baked molasses is added.

Then my favorites: the wine biscuits. They are a "biscuit" in the English sense, made of flour, sugar, a bit of salt, baking powder, oil, and wine. (The traditional Italian recipe, I have found, adds a bit of pepper, but this has been abandoned long ago.) It is my Grandmother Lanzi's recipe, says Mom, but she has adapted it by lowering the amount of sugar. She did this with all her recipes and I am still unable to eat things that are too sweet. I'm not sure where else the recipes diverge, because when my Aunty Margaret (the oldest of the Lanzi aunts) and Aunty Lisa make them, they crumble when you bite into them. Mom's are firm and crisp.

The finest ones were made back then, before my Papà Lanzi died and for a few years after. He made his own wine in a corner of the cellar in the old house, blocking it away from heat so it was always cold, and cool even in summer. I remember big dark wine barrels laid on their sides and tapped, and the sweet/acid smell of his wine, made with deep dark purple grapes that steeped for ages before being pressed into wine and the wine was purple and so the wine biscuit dough was also purplish, a strange color with a heavenly scent. The dough was as good to eat as the finished cookies, although Mom would protest when I did so: "You're going to make yourself sick." When Grandpa's wine finally finished and we had to get hearty burgundy from the liquor store or from the state liquor store in New Hampshire on Columbus Day weekend, it wasn't quite the same. (Now when I make it, even with "hearty" burgundy," the color is anemic; I rarely get the purplish dough anymore.)

Our house was built as a two-story Cape, but we had never finished the upper story, so the hardwood stairway led up to the cold, cold winter attic. The stairs kept cold as well, and here the cookies were stored, topped in plastic wrapped bowls. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and even through the New Year, Mom arranged a variety of cookies on Christmas-themed paper plates, a few of some, several of another, scattered with red and green wrapped Hershey kisses, wrapped them in plastic wrap, topped them with a bow. One would go to my Godmother next door. I worried about my Godmother; she and my Godfather never decorated for Christmas. They didn't even have a tree. Padina would protest that Christmas was for children and she and her husband had none. (When I was a teenager she finally bought one of those ceramic Christmas trees with the colored bulbs at the tips of the "branches" that you put a light bulb in. She placed it on her beautiful sideboard in the dining room on a crocheted doily and asked me, "Are you satisfied now?" Well, it was better. <g>) She decorated with Christmas cards around the door and a Christmas tablecloth.

One went to Padina's brother Jimmy (his name, like my grandfather's, was Vincenzo, but they called them both "Jimmy," a nickname I never understood) and his wife Dotty and their daughter Cindy. One always went to my confirmation Godmother, Margaret (who sent cookies back, including the chocolate ones she knew I loved) and her family, and one to Margaret's oldest daughter, Barbara, who cut Mom's hair. When I was older I would take a plate to the Gustafsons, parents of my friend Cindy, and her brother and sister, and to the Metcalfes, parents of my best friend Sherrye.

And of course there would be plates to exchange with other members of the family. I'd whisper to Mom, "But yours are best!" which made her feel good, but I truly thought so.

It was with that in mind that I made the second batch today. Not many folks like them; it's an acquired taste, I suppose, like sugar cookies. But I will share, in a Christmas paper plate, maybe with a few red and green and silver Hershey kisses scattered about.

But the memories, indeed, are worth more than the cookies...

13 December 2007

Happy St. Lucy's Day!

St. Lucia Festival in Chicago: a Beautiful Photo of a Lucia Re-enactor

Here's a plain but great site about Scandinavia's Lucyfest, with a great collection of links at the bottom of the article.

Here are the words to the Lucia song, the feast song in German and Swedish, and then the original Italian song, which is not about the day, but about the Bay of Naples.

10 December 2007

A Library Christmas

I belong to a Yahoo Group called "Christmas to the Max" where everyone decorates multiple trees (the owner of the group has 56!). I'm not in their league, but I love reading about their decorations and they're just Nice Folks. However, being there has inspired me to do a couple of small "theme trees." I have all my Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ornaments on a small tree set in a boot planter on the table in the hallway, and put the feather tree with the old 1950s ornaments and the gilded walnuts in the dining room this year.

But I wanted something "library-ish" for the library this year and came up with the idea of a literary tree. This is only three feet high and on a table near the window. Some of the ornaments were easy: I got this year's Harry Potter, Gone With the Wind, Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Winnie the Pooh ornaments (even though they are Disney's version and not Shepard's) from Hallmark. I looked on e-Bay to perhaps get one of the American Girl ornaments, but Molly or Kit (especially Kit as she is the one who likes to write) were both too expensive. I also missed going by American Greetings and getting the Carlton "Ralphie" ornament, since the sequences in A Christmas Story are taken from Jean Shepherd's short stories (but I can still go by there if I like). Our main tree ornaments include a Raggedy Ann and Andy (the Johnny Gruelle books), a Pokey Little Puppy, and a bookworm, so I can pull them out to use, and I also bought Hallmark's bookstore ornament and used one of the Rudolph ornaments since he was originally a book character, but I still needed lots more.

I settled for using the small plastic figures they sell at both Michael's and at Hobbytown for dioramas and playsets. Most of these turned out to be animals, as there were very few figures of humans that I could link to a character. (I noticed at Hobbytown last night that they only had a woman veterinarian; if it had been a man I could have let him represent James Herriot...oh well.) Some of the figures actually can stand in for multiple characters. How many of these characters can you guess? (Remember, these have to be from books, not the movies or television, although the book could later have been made into a movie or television program.)

A fawn.
A small pink pig.
A sorrel horse with a light mane and tail.
A black horse with a white mark on its forehead.
A Jack Russell Terrier.
A West Highland White Terrier.
A collie.
A man in medieval costume with a sword by his side.
A peg-legged pirate.
An adult Dalmatian.
A little girl in a homespun dress and braids holding a doll.
A fox.
A rabbit.
This is the hard one (let's call it extra credit):
A girl in jodhpurs and a white shirt holding a currycomb.

06 December 2007

Happy St. Nicholas Day

Did St. Nicholas arrive today upon his white horse? or via sailing ship? Or even on a donkey?

The venerable saint comes visiting in many ways. Here are some links about him:

Saint Nicholas ::: Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus

Women for Faith and Family St. Nicholas Day Page

The Legend of St. Nikolas

"Presents in Your Shoes"

Christmas Lore's Santa Claus Page with St. Nicholas Links

Decking the Halls

In honor of St. Nicholas Day, a parade of Old-World Santas, plus the ceppo, decorated with a Hallmark miniature nativity set and St. Nicholas below, wandering the woods.

Old-world Santa collection

Next the primitive blocks and other primitive decorations I bought at the Apple Annie Craft Show last weekend.

primitive blocks and ornaments

I have put the feather tree upstairs this year. The goofy cow and horse antique-looking wheeled toys, plus the top and the rustic Santa, look appropriate underneath.

the feather tree

A Star Wars Holiday

If you've only heard second-hand about the wonderful awfulness of 1978's The Star Wars Holiday Special, be deprived no longer. You can see the entire thing (complete with 1978 commercials) here.

Notable as the first appearance of Boba Fett in an animated short that is considered the only redeeming thing about the special. Other highlights: Princess Leia sings! With truly horrible appearances by Beatrice Arthur and Harvey Korman (obviously dressed as "the Dame" from the panto).

Notice something nice about the broadcast: no station bugs, no pop-ups, no advertisements at the bottom of the screen...

05 December 2007

Homecoming Season

Since it's now the season for The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, here's a nice interview of Earl Hamner to go with it.

04 December 2007

Happy Hanukkah!

To all our Jewish friends, may each light on each night bring a small miracle to your life. L'Chaim!

Some links:


Facts about Hanukkah

And, of course, Hanukkah Recipes

03 December 2007

Send a Virtual Christmas Cracker

Or for any other event:

Send a Cracker

02 December 2007

"The Nice Thing About Life is That You Never Know When There's Going to be a Party"

Miss Emily Baldwin says this in The Homecoming and I was reminded of it today; our First Sunday of Advent treat was the annual Marietta Christmas Tour of Homes.

Each year they try to do different homes; the ones we saw this year were not only different, but along a different street than last year. These homes were all off Kennesaw Avenue, which we frequently take when we come home from Town Center Mall.

The first home was the Gignilliat-Griffin-Gilbert home, which was originally built in 1840 as a four-room house and subsequently enlarged. This was a delightful house full of crannies and nooks; the children's rooms upstairs had areas under the eaves, and the moment you walk into the yard there is an old-fashioned children's playhouse. As always in these homes, there are multiple trees and decorations; my favorite was a small feather tree decorated with tiny reproductions of old German ornaments. The latest owners of the home restored the original portion, then added an addition at rear that included the most comfortable media room I've ever seen; the television picture was projected on the wall and the sofas were so cuddly you could imagine it would be nice to stay home sick and hibernate there.

From a large house to a small: the next home, the Minshew-Coons House, was built in 1943 at a cost of $4,250! (The entire development of 27 Cape Cod homes only cost $120,000.) This was a tiny 4-room home even smaller than the Cape Cod I grew up in. It has been restored to the way it looked in 1942 (they even removed the vinyl siding) and is very much a ladies' house (the current resident is a single lady). The house featured beautiful original woodwork and a 1940s bathroom with original tile. In the bedroom was half of a sash window from the old Kennesaw House, which used to be a hotel and is now the Marietta Museum of History. When they replaced their windows, she bought one and had it painted with a country scene.

The third house was "The Alamo House," a 1929 brick home believed taken from a kit design and done in Spanish style. At the side of the house is a lovely rectangular stone pool that had been decorated with old Christmas balls floating in the water. The owners of this house run a ski vacation business in Switzerland and are also descended from an automobile-building family, so there are motoring motifs—including some wonderful 1920s vintage motoring china—and also Swiss and French decorations about the house. The couple had just recently remodeled the back of the house, adding an apartment for a father-in-law and also making offices of the basement where the servants used to be. The folks are "fourth generation Boston Terrier owners," so this latter area was liberally decorated with Boston Terrier statues, pillows, etc.

The shuttle bus, driven by wonderfully cheerful ladies, dropped us off closest to the fifth house, so we did that next. This was the Green-Sutton-Crowley house from 1907, a cottage that opened with a 7-foot wide corridor down the length of the house. This house featured some beautiful primitive mantel decorations, one complete with a Santa bread mold from the 1800s being used as a decoration, and nativity figures made from cotton mill spindles from South Carolina.

As we walked down to the fourth house, we went by a little girl selling water and pretzels; James rewarded her enterprise by purchasing some water. We were luckier this year than last, since it was overcast pretty much the entire day and there was a nice breeze. We could walk from house to house or wait outside without sweltering like last year, when it got into the 70s.

The Turner-Smith-Manning House, built 1904, was next. The front rooms were decorated in wonderful dark molding and the Christmas decorations were of gold and copper, giving the entire area a vintage feeling. In the dining room was a gingerbread house done to resemble the house, with tiny candy canes for fencing and many other delightful details. The sun porch had a very simple but effective Christmas decoration: bowls of cranberries with cinnamon sticks crossed in them. Two rooms were a study in contrasts: the master bedroom had pale ice blue paint and was cool in blues, whites, and silvers, while the study was golds and warm colors. The entire house was full of equestrian prints and the daughter of the house was upstairs telling people about her room, which had one wall covered in ribbons from horse shows!

The final house, the Patterson-Miller-Brennamon House, was from 1901. We had noticed this house several years ago as undergoing renovation. The newest owners have only been in the house since spring, when renovations were finished. A room downstairs was decorated as a nursery, with an old-fashioned pram sporting a sign saying "Coming soon." The steep stairs were lined with baby photos of the older child. I loved the kitchen in this one the most; while the appliances were modern, the furniture in the breakfast nook was primitive, with a wonderful collection of nutcrackers in the old cabinet.

We had gone to the Marlow House for snacks and the Root House last year, so we rode the bus back to the Welcome Center and went to the Museum of History, which was free today to tour attendees. I have always been so sorry I missed the Christmas exhibit of antique toys two years ago. The museum is small and rather a hotchpotch of things, but it was great browsing. The feature exhibit was almost 200 years of wedding gowns, from a Regency gown from the early 1800s to modern dresses. Also in this gallery was a collection of music-making instruments, from an old-fashioned hurdy gurdy to a 1950s "hi-fi." The docent played some of these items for us, including the hurdy gurdy, a music box, and the Edison cylinder machine. Off in a corner were some memorabilia taken from the old courthouse, and a model of a 1940s kitchen.

There were two military galleries: one was from the Revolutionary War to modern times, with a collection of pistols and rifles from Mr. Dupre, who used to run a store on the Square (it is now an antiques market). This had small cases devoted to different subjects: the Holocaust, women in the military, etc. The other was a Civil War gallery with relics having been dug up in the area, and of course an exhibit about the Great Locomotive Chase, which was planned right there in the Kennesaw House.

Finally there was a rather mixed gallery of local interests: memorabilia from businesses around the square, like a beauty shop—this had an original permanent machine, which looked like something to electrocute prisoners—and a fluoroscope like the ones that used to be in shoe stores to look at the bones in your feet (the one linked here is larger than the one we saw), more war memorabilia, printing presses, an old wringer washer, saws, doctor's equipment, and many other objects, not to mention "a big shiny aluminum Christmas tree," complete with color wheel.

I bought two items in the gift shop: a DVD called My Christmas Soldier and the CD of the Christmas music playing, which was lovely light piano music.

By then breakfast was five hours gone, so we decided to have some lunch...although it was closer to tea by the time we had our meal. We ate at La Famiglia, an Italian Restaurant that has gotten some great newspaper reviews. We both just had pasta; it was quite good—although the sauce was still a bit sweet to me, it was not overloaded with Italian herbs, but just gave a mild hint of them. And the bread was great, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.

While we were finishing up, the waitresses were all in a flurry. We couldn't figure out what was going on, then our waitress told us that Rudy Guiliani was supposed to be visiting. People were assembling outside with signs and the news crews from the various television stations had shown up. The rumor was that he might go into some of the stores or restaurants before he made a speech in the square, so they were tidying up the place as quickly as possible.

Well, we ended up waiting around to see what would happen, just standing on the corner with others. It was like a big block party. Across the street, the Ron Paul supporters had gathered; I was amused wondering if there was going to be "a rumble." Finally we were at the point of leaving when James saw a car and SUV drive into the alley behind the stores we were sitting in front of. He said, "I bet that's him." Then a few minutes later the press was told he was going to be coming around the corner where we were standing, so they ran across the street to get a better vantage. But this was just a diversion because he had simply gone into the Brumby Rocker store from the back and sure enough came out their front door (where the news crews had been standing originally!), flanked by his entourage. We both got a couple of photos of him on our cell phones and I was next to him for a few minutes, but he was shaking hands with the folks on the other side, and then proceeded across the street while the newsmen crowded around. We decamped at that point, went to Kroger, and then came home.

I still had residual energy at this point, so I took down all the Thanksgiving things and reboxed them, then decorated the front porch, except for the lights, which are James' job. After all that walking, I was quite content by 7:30 to sit down and watch My Christmas Soldier, which is a short, sweet, locally-produced story about two children waiting for their father to come home on leave on Christmas Eve 1943. Boxcars of German prisoners are being shipped inland to prisoner of war camps, and the little boy befriends one of the men, trading a toy soldier for the man's Iron Cross, and bringing the men some food and coffee. The adults are suspicious of the Nazis, until the Germans begin singing "Silent Night." The extras with the story included a former German prisoner telling about his actual experiences.

01 December 2007

The Spirit Of Christmas With Lorne Greene

Here's a find: short radio pieces that Lorne Greene did for the CBC many years ago!

The Spirit Of Christmas With Lorne Greene