31 December 2014

Christmas Annuals, Part 2

The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock
"Do you think Dad might do it this year? Might buy me a tree?"
Ten-year-old Addie Mills has a comfortable life in small-town Nebraska in the late 1940s. Her mother having died when she was a baby, Addie has been brought up by her serious, taciturn father and her offbeat but caring grandmother. She's a good scholar, artistic, and articulate, but somehow no matter what she does, it never quite pleases her father, who has refused for her entire life to have a tree at Christmas. Once again, Addie pleads her case, but is rebuffed—but a contest at school brings the situation to a head.

If I've seen the television special, you may ask, why read the book? Well, because it says so much more—about Addie and Carla Mae's friendship (and Carla Mae's family), about Addie's conflicted feelings about Billy Wild, and, most of all, about Grandma; we learn much more about Grandma's eccentricities than were intimated by the special (the breakfast scene where she drops the pancake, for instance), so you can understand more fully why Addie's classmates think Mrs. Mills is a little peculiar. Addie's narrative rings true to the opening and closing voiceovers heard in the specials and lends a special note to the tale.

And frankly, because this is such a good tale it deserves to be told again. :-)

The Tuckers: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
"Penny Tucker stood on her knees among the cushions of the window seat and pushed her nose against the cold glass. With each fresh gust of wind, hard little white balls shot out of the dark and hit the windows. Across the street every house twinkled with ropes of Christmas lights...[t]onight the PTA was holding a special meeting to celebrate the beginning of Christmas vacation. All of the Tuckers...were to take part. That is, all but...seven-year-old Penny. She had been kept in with a virus infection Nobody had asked her to be on the program."

Children's series books have proliferated since the late 1800s; this was one that appealed to both boys and girls: the stories of five children, their parents and grandparents, plus one big wooly dog and a black cat. The kids are a rambunctious, but generally-well-behaved bunch, but the youngest girl is not always well and in this Christmas story, she begins to fret that she is becoming lost in her family of achievers. Her oldest sister can bake, her older brother is a builder and his twin sister is musical, and her younger brother is practical—but what can frail Penny do? She finds out when she wishes the family can spend Christmas at their lake cottage: it's a week of fun, friends, festivities, and even suspense, when she and a friend discover an abandoned baby in a trailer.

While written in simple words, Penny's plight is still touching and will appeal to anyone who feels left out by life. The warm events in the cottage and at a nearby farm will enfold you in its Christmas arms; you'll wish you were out, carefree, playing games in the snow and joining the kids in finding a Christmas tree. But it's Penny's search for a place for herself that really makes this book special and sets it above all the other books in the series.

"Wonderingly she thought, 'I've found something I didn't know I was hunting. I've found Christmas.'" In reading this, may you, as well.

30 December 2014

A Historic Christmas

The Christmas Heritage of Old Salem, Flora Ann L. Bynum
This is a thin volume about Christmas in the Moravian settlement in North Carolina that eventually merged with another town called Winston to become Winston-Salem. The Moravians, from a sect of Protestanism founded by Jan Hus, are known for their simple decorations which include candles and a multipointed star which has become known as a Moravian star and a ceremony called a lovefeast in which sugar buns are served. I picked it up because it was a dollar; there's not much to it, but the photographs are lovely.

Christmas in Williamsburg, Taylor Biggs Lewis Jr and Joanne B. Young
My last book about Christmas in Williamsburg was a children's book; this is more of a souvenir type volume which was published in the 1970s and updated for the Bicentennial. Despite the printing date, the photographs inside are full-color and very evocative of Williamsburg decorations in that era. I can't remember if it was actually at Williamsburg or in a book I bought at Williamsburg two years ago, but they mentioned they are getting away from the Della-Robbia type (fruit-decorated) wreaths and garlands of the 1970s simply because citrus fruits were too costly in those days to decorate outside with (the inside fruit would be eaten). They are getting back to classic greens and ribbons instead. This is another place I have on a bucket list that probably won't get to fruition: Colonial Williamsburg on Illumination Night.

Christmas Annuals, Part 1

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
"The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse...I don't suppose they woke up that morning and said to one another 'Let's go burn down Fred Shoemaker's toolhouse!'...but maybe they did. After all, it was a Saturday and not much going on."

Thus begins Robinson's now-classic story about six kids "from the wrong side of the tracks" who get involved in a church Christmas pageant after they're told there will be cookies and soda served. Their working-class mother is either laboring or sleeping, so they don't even know the Christmas story—and let's say their interpretation surprises everyone: they spend a lot of time trying to think up ways to off Herod the King to defend the infant Jesus. Eventually the tales about the pageant rehearsals get around and everyone is predicting this will be the worst pageant ever.

This is a humorous look at a group of undisciplined kids who have been left to their own devices so long that they appear to be budding criminals. The narrator (she's known as Beth in the television adaptation of this story, but she's unnamed here) takes a sharp, funny look at the Herdman kids and the other adults and children around her, especially snooty Alice Wendleken, and along the way some truths are revealed and even the horrible Herdmans have a lesson to teach about Christmas.

If you haven't read this book—why not? If you have, Christmas is the time to pull it out once again and enjoy.

* * * * *

Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
Frances Frost's tetrology of books about growing up on a Vermont farm in the late 1940s were once perennials in school libraries. Now they are highly sought on book sites (especially the rare fourth volume), and while it's mainly for the story of Toby Clark and his Shetland pony Windy Foot as the seasons roll around on the Clark farm, passages like this might also be the reason: "The village lawns about the white houses lay withered and rusty yellow; the leaves had long ago been raked to the roadsides and burned; and the only brightness was the dripping scarlet of the barberry bushes around the north side of the square." "Up on the south hill the snow lay heavily on the dark green boughs of spruce and hemlock, pine and fire. Silently Toby and Betsy snowshoed through blue shadows and brilliant patches of sunlight...[t]here at the farther edge of the clearing, on the verge of the dark woods, stood a young fox, curiously unafraid, his fur golden russet against the snow, watching them with burning eyes."

As the Clark family prepares for Christmas by making and mail-ordering gifts, stringing popcorn, cutting a live tree, baking cakes and pies, and searching the woods for greens, they await the visit of their new friends the Burnhams. Toby can't wait to take Tish Burnham sleigh riding behind the sleigh he's cut down for Windy Foot to pull. The family goes to town to shop at the general store, and later to sing carols around the village tree, and Toby and Tish ski and share ice cream to their hearts' content. This book takes you into the family so you feel warm by the Clark fireplace and smell the delicious foods Mary Clark cooks and sing Christmas songs along with the family. You're there to see the gifts wrapped in tissue paper and held closed with stickers, the smaller ones inserted in the branches of the tree as was customary at the time. It's warm and happy, like a big hug from a favorite friend. Like a friend you see once a year at Christmas, it's there to welcome you to into the holiday.

* * * * *

Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
Most of my favorite Christmas books are, except for A Christmas Carol, from childhood or the 1970s; the exception is this one, written in 2001 as part of the "Dear America" book series. It rings so true for me from the opening: "Mama and Papa believe in cold. That's why I tell Lady we have nothing to fear. You see, Mama and Papa have toughened us up on the sleeping porch. That's where we sleep with no heat and just screens, and not just in summer but all through the fall and beginning again in early spring. We're used to cold. But now we're going to be hardened off for the rest of the year in the rest of the house...[t]his is going to be an odd Christmas, no doubt about it. Instead of sugar plums and stockings stuffed with goodies and stacks of presents under the tree—a Time of Bounty—I am thinking of this as The Time of the Dwindling. Everything is diminishing: our money, the light of day, and even the hours that Papa works. But in my heart I know we Swifts are tough—hardened off like seedlings. I just know that somehow, someway, this shall be a Christmas. Not the same kind of Christmas as others in the past, but maybe one to remember all the same."

Still, even Minnie (our protagonist) would have lost faith if the family had not taken in a cousin from the Dust Bowl, a wispy child whose outer delicacy belies an inner strength that helps carry the family through hard times. Perhaps the characters seem so true to me because Lasky based them on her own family, so that they have an air of verisimilitude to them. A couple of times word choice gives me pause—for instance, Minnie's brilliant (we'd call him geeky) brother says something about cousin Willie Rae which her older sister calls "extremely insensitive" (back then I think she would have just said "rude"!)—and the standard "Dear America" epilog seems overly politically correct and even a little fantastic, but the book as a whole is endearing. I look forward to this one all year.

29 December 2014

Rescued by Rudolph

Rudolph!, Mark Teppo
I was attracted by the cover. And the title. And finally by the mind-boggling description on the back cover.

A few days before Christmas, Santa's special elf in charge of operations catches his boss hacking into the Vatican's website; before he knows it, he's been lassoed into a desperate mission. Santa Claus is upset because he has found one final letter from a little girl whose father was killed in an accident at Thanksgiving, a little girl who has asked for Santa to bring her father back. And that wish is one Santa is determined to fulfill, even if he has to go to Purgatory for it.


Told by Santa's special elf Bernard Rosewood, this is a story of adventure and loss, violence and tenderness, and vivid fantasy, in which the very existence of Christmas is threatened by Higher Powers, and only one can affect the rescue: Rudolph himself, not the nasal cutie from television, but a reindeer who has literally survived a hellish accident.

I really, really enjoyed this. If Unholy Night was not your traditional Nativity story, this is definitely not your traditional Santa Claus story. I loved all the little touches: how Santa really does deliver all those gifts in one night, the extraordinary abilities of the reindeer team, behind the scenes at "the Residence" (otherwise known as the North Pole), Mrs. Santa Claus' sizable role, all mixed up with a mind-blowing trip to the ends of the earth, complete with mathematical calculations and lots of firepower.

Note: this isn't a children's story, but older teens will probably love it because the attitude is as snarky as they are. :-)

28 December 2014

Annual Inspiration

Ideals Christmas: 70th Anniversary Edition
Not much to say about the latest version of Ideals Publications annual collection of verse, inspirational essays, photographs, and seasonal artwork. You either like the collections or you don't. I happen to enjoy the modern ones. This year's issue came with a bonus: 32 additional pages from past issues, including one from 1945, the second year of publication, and an essay from Gladys Taber.

Note to Ideals: I still miss your Thanksgiving issue! Please bring it back!

27 December 2014

Homespun Christmas

Christmas Through the Years, Gladys Hasty Carroll
I remember seeing this author's books in the library as a child; they were what today we would call "chick lit," or more likely "domestic dramas." However, they were a cut above the usual; apparently one of Ms. Carroll's books lost out on a Pulitzer Prize to The Good Earth. But I found this book in the Christmas rack of the Friends of the Library book sale, and the price was right...

...and I loved it. This isn't the kind of rubbish they write today about divorce and adultery and affairs; oh, the families in these short stories have problems, but they're homelike problems of growing up, losing a family member, growing older, trusting one's child's spouse to do the correct thing, etc. The first four pieces are charming examples of how farm- and middle-class folk celebrated the Christmas season before and during World War I. "Christmas 1922" is notable because it is taken from the author's own diary and talks about Christmas in her home, with much nostalgia about telephone party lines.

"Christmas 1946" is a reprint of one of her most famous stories, a Christmas novella called While the Angels Sing, about a widowed mother who is staying with her daughter and her family for Christmas and learning many things about her son-in-law and her grandchildren, still thinking about her son, who survived World War II, but never came home. I couldn't wait to turn the pages to see what had happened with the daughter and her best friend, the older brother who had a crush on the snobby daughter of a neighbor, the younger brother who was so independent, yet so caring of his little sister, or if the janitor would really turn on the heat in the church for the Christmas pageant!

"Christmas 1949" is yet another novella, Christmas With Johnny, the sweet story of a nine-year-old boy who feels left out at home, at church, at school. His parents give up his beloved farm, so that he has to move away from his only friend, a little girl (a fact he is teased about in school and by his father), and when it looks as if he may have found a secure place in Sunday School, he's teased about that as well, and bullied at school. It takes a crisis for his parents and his teachers to discover how alone he actually feels.

The other stories were lovely as well, but I liked the two novellas the best. If you enjoy stories about families at Christmas, with strong family values and Christmas cheer, you would do well to look up this book.

26 December 2014

Lovely to Look At...

The Christmas Book, Alvin Horton and Karin Shakery
I found this book at the Smyrna Library book sale at the fall Jonquil Festival. It's another collection of history, decorating tips, recipes, and lush color photographs of decorations, landscapes, foods, decorated trees, etc., also addressing entertaining and simple Christmas decorations. I guess I sound a little jaded about this one, and it isn't fair to the book: if you don't have a omnibus-type book like this, it's very pretty, well-written, and potentially useful to anyone looking for recipes or decorating tips, but by now, having bought several different publishers' versions of these books, I always notice how they stress simple recipes and natural decorations brought from your yard, and the houses they show are downright opulent, with gorgeous woodwork, big open rooms, massive fireplaces, all wonderful to look at, but not really realistic. And apparently they all have big yards with pine trees and bittersweet in them to use for the natural decorations. I mean, how many people can afford to live like this? Someday I'd love to see all this care and attention  and beautiful photography lavished on 1200-2200 square foot normal family homes, or even ordinary apartments, and show what a little bit of love and Christmas magic can do for them!

Welcome Back, GRT!

The Christmas Turkeys and Other Misadventures of the Season, Gerald R. Toner
It's been over ten years since I found Toner's first book of Christmas stories, Lipstick Like Lindsay's, misfiled in a used book store, and promptly went out to find his other two books, Holly Day's Cafe and Whittlesworth Comes to Christmas. I hadn't seen anything else by him for years, and then by accident discovered he had a fourth book of Christmas stories out.

Again, Toner doesn't write stories where magical figures like elves or angels come out to solve everyone's problems, or religious-themed fiction where faith holds sway. His stories are about everyday people facing everyday Christmas issues: two men who volunteer each year to distribute Christmas baskets, the couple who have restored their grand old Victorian house in a now-swank neighborhood with one eyesore holdout who throw a Christmas open house, the young man who takes a job in a home for the elderly just to make money for the holidays, a man who goes out looking for his homebound-for-Christmas daughter in a snowstorm, and more. Some will make you sniffle, some will make you laugh (I particularly enjoyed the ending of a story about two business rivals trying to outdo each other with Christmas charity), all are down-to-earth, folks you might live next door to or meet in church or in the supermarket. If you want a good Christmas read, you couldn't do any better than to check out any of Gerald Toner's books.

23 December 2014

The Ghost of Antioch

Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith
This book opens with a bang with a Syrian thief being chased camel-back across the desert fresh from an exploit to steal treasure from a minor Roman ruler. His name is Balthazar, and he's wanted by the Romans (and everyone else) for his thievery. Finally captured and transported to Herod's palace, he meets two other criminals destined for death, Gaspar and Melchior. It will take all of Balthazar's cunning to free them—but what happens when, during their escape, they take refuge in a cave where a young carpenter, his wife, and their new baby are hiding from Herod's rampage against all boys under age two? Will they leave the child and his family to be slaughtered?

Obviously, this is a revisionist version of the Nativity story, as written by the author of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It's also an adventure story in which Balthazar, the clever thief known as "the Ghost of Antioch," is the central character; sadly, the other two "wise men" have a strong opening once they are introduced, then fade into the woodwork as the story progresses.

Your tolerance for this tale will depend on whether you can accept a different view of the Nativity story. Grahame-Smith writes a Joseph who is willing to fight for his family, a Mary who is not a sweet silent cipher nursing her babe in holy light, and a "wise man" who is neither perfect nor laudable, but there are certain factors in his past which you slowly discover lead him to make the correct choices. This is not a feel-good story, except in the last few pages which some may find a bit trite; it is, like the days Jesus lived in, full of violence, pride, and unfairness. Battles and torture are both described for what they are, and it is not a clean, pretty place as in a creche scene. However, it is an acceptable, if not outstanding or particularly memorable, retake on a familiar tale.

21 December 2014

Movies for Christmas

For the fourth Sunday of Advent, some different films:

Mercy Mission: The Rescue Of Flight 771

Scrooge  (Albert Finney)

An American Christmas Carol

Santa and Pete

The Winter Solstice

Five Questions and Answers About the Solstice

Everything You Need to Know About the Winter Solstice

Why We Need the Winter Solstice

Happy Yule!

"Old" St. Thomas Day

And, of course:

The Shortest Day
"And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
to keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.”

                                            -- Susan Cooper 

18 December 2014

Mint Juleps, Sauerkraut, and Frolics

The Southern Christmas Book, Harnett T. Kane
To read this book you must do it with the eyes of an historian, as it was written in 1958. Gratefully, it is relatively free of the tongue-tangling dialect, references to stealing watermelons, and "happy days on the Ole Plantation" attitude of most pre-Civil Rights Southern books. Oh, it comes across very clearly that the author is white and there are black servants flitting around in the background somewhere having a happy time getting new clothes and new shoes; they pretty much disappear after the Civil War, too.

What is appreciable about this book is that they identify that there wasn't just "one" South, but different areas of the South which celebrated Christmas differently. In Baltimore the large German population ate sauerkraut with their Christmas turkey. The Colonial Virginia Christmas was full of drinking and dancing—and later that newfangled decoration, the Christmas tree. No Christmas was possible in the early White House, but later John Adams' granddaughter enjoyed the holiday there. Christmas customs in Louisiana and Missouri had French roots, while rugged settlers in the mountains held "frolics" where homespun-dressed folks danced to "a fiddle." Even the rough-and-ready Texans held parties, even if they had to make do with a little coffee and fresh-caught venison, and decorate a tumbleweed with yarn, while the Spanish residents had la posada, luminaria, and pinatas for their fun. Obscure celebrations that included "Old Buck," John Canoing, shooting in Christmas, and fireworks are also touched upon.

Valuable as a chronicle of history and an interesting read, even if half the population is considered in only a few paragraphs.

15 December 2014

That Pagan Pine

The Solstice Evergreen, Sheryl Ann Karas
Everyone knows the legend of the Christmas tree! St. Boniface prevented a group of Druids from sacrificing a young boy and in the process cut down their sacred oak with one slash of his axe. From the stump sprang a young fir tree, which, the saint explained, was the symbol of eternal life.

But there are many legends surrounding evergreens, and here Karas collects many of them, from Native American tales to Japanese, German stories to MesoAmerican, Russian foklore and Sicilian, showing that around the world, all mankind was fascinated by the trees which did not shed their leaves in winter. Each chapter discusses the evergreen in relation to different religions: the nature-based prayer of native tribes, the Wiccan, Greek mythology, to the sacred tree of Norse legend, Yggdrasil. The narrative is slightly plodding, but the included tales from different countries and tribal areas are unique. A desirable library withdrawal or sale purchase if you are curious about the various aspects of the evergreen that came together to form the Christmas tree.

14 December 2014

What the Dickens...?

Inventing Scrooge: Dickens' Legendary A Christmas Carol, Carlo DeVito
I can't figure out if DeVito's former English teachers are going to be chuffed that an old student had a book published or if they're going to hide their heads in shame at his awkward sentence structure and downright howlers.

I think if I hadn't read other books about the origins of A Christmas Carol (the material in the annotated version, The Man Who Invented Christmas, and the fascinating The Life and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge), I might have been more forgiving to this book. There are certain interesting facts in this one, such as the origins of Tiny Tim and nephew Fred, Scrooge's and Marley's names—oh, and the John Leech color plates from the original book are reprinted in their glory on the endpapers, but they're marred by simplistic text, repetition, padding, typos, and a few incredible grammar errors. This is most obvious in the chapter "Fred," where in paragraph 4 it says "In 1824, at the age of fourteen, Charles took Fred in when he moved into a three-room apartment..." Wait. Charles moved into an apartment at the age of fourteen? No, it was Fred who was fourteen, judging by the previous paragraph. In the next few paragraphs, we hear about Dickens' father, wife, two men named Willis and Marcone, and then in paragraph 10, talking about Dickens' post-marital household: "In addition to Mary, young Frederick Dickens...was now a member of the household." Mary? Who the heck is Mary? She hasn't been mentioned in the chapter at all. In paragraph 11 come the topper: "And when Kate's sister Mary [ah, now he explains it] was suddenly seized by a grave illness, of whom Charles was immensely fond..." I read this twice, then read it aloud to my husband, who said, "Wait, he was immensely fond of grave illness?" Egad.

It's stuff like this that ruins a potentially good book. In short, I liked the trivia, but the execution was less than sterling. If you can find this on remainder, I suggest you buy it that way.

Animation for Christmas

For the third Sunday of Advent, which is Joy:

Classic Disney Winter Cartoons

"Noel" (The Christmas Ornament"

"Pinocchio's Christmas" (Rankin-Bass)

"The First Christmas: Story of the First Christmas Snow" (Rankin-Bass)

12 December 2014

Classic Tales of the Newborn King

The Christmas Book of Legends and Stories, Elva Sophronia Smith & Alice Isabel Hazeltine
This is a thick book of old-fashioned poetry and stories about the spiritual side of Christmas celebrations, first published in 1915 and expanded in 1944 (with a good deal of Ms. Hazeltine's poetry in the process). The book is divided into sections about various aspects of the Christmas story, including "The Pilgrims," "The New-Born King," "The Christ Child," "The Boy Jesus," etc. and is chiefly verse, some from such noted authors as Katherine Lee Bates ("America The Beautiful"), Heywood Broun, Elizabeth Coatsworth, Selma Lagerlorf, Ruth Sawyer, Sara Teasdale, and even poetry from Joyce Kilmer and John Milton. Legends pepper the pages: that of Babouska (in Italy known as Befana), Joseph of Arimethea, St. Christopher, and Bride, there are stories of Christmas celebrations in foreign lands (including an excerpt from Monica Shannon's Newbery winner, Dobry), and there are also several simple playlets for children to present as part of a church gathering. Interestingly enough, one is about the daughter of one of the Wise Men, who breaks tradition by asking to accompany her father (she doesn't, but ends up having visions of the journey).

Even with all the collections of Christmas stories and poetry I have, several of these stories were new to me, or were new versions of old tales. This is a great book to find at a used book store or library sale for those who wish for something more spiritual to read at bedtime or during quiet time, but simple enough to be calming and nostalgic. A happy find.

07 December 2014

Books for Christmas!

Some reviews for the second Sunday of Advent:

The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch
I had this on my Amazon wishlist, so was chuffed when I found a copy, brand new, in with the Christmas books at the Friends of the Library Book Sale. I think it probably surprised someone who took a look at the subject matter and disposed of it posthaste.

This is not a book about Victorian Christmases or charming olde world Christmas celebrations: this volume goes back, way back to the pagan era, and the different gods, little people (elves, kobolds, boggarts, etc.), mythic figures, and dark creatures hiding in the winter nights that so frightened and awed the population which fought a never-ending battle against cold and hunger. In its pages we meet witches, the Wild Hunt, dark St. Nicholases dressed in fur and smutched with soot, the Yule Buck and other animals long ago associated with the winter solstice; characters from Nordic legend and German tales, goddesses who later became associated with the Christian story of Christmas (St. Lucy, La Befana), the Yule Lads  who commit mischief and the Kallikantzari who are more sinister. Plants associated with Christmas are also discussed.

I have several books of pagan Christmas lore, and Raedisch still surprised me with Yule tales I hadn't heard. She also sneaks sly, humorous references to present media in the text, which keeps it from being a dry recitation of old legends. A must for those interested in the ancestral antecedents of the modern Christmas celebrations.

A Christmas Story Treasury, Tyler Schwartz
This is a thin but oversized gift book tribute to the now-classic 1980 film that did terribly at the box office (because it was pulled five weeks after release and wasn't available for Christmas) and became a tradition—and a hit—via cable TV. (I saw it for the first time on HBO; by the time I went to the theatre, it was gone.) It's chock-full of color stills from the film, tidbits about the origin of the story and its filming, and eight nifty buttons at the side that you can press to hear actual dialog from the movie. But wait, Red Ryder aficionados, there's more: an envelope in the back that contains goodies like Ralphie's Radio Orphan Annie membership card, a reproduction of the original movie poster, and more.

This book originally sold for $25, but these days you can get it for a more reasonable $10 on the remainder stacks at Barnes & Noble. At that price it's perfect for reliving your memories of Scut Farkas, not putting your arms down, Christmas themes, Chinese turkey, and shooting your eye out!

Stories for Christmas

For the second Sunday of Advent:

"Peace on Earth, Good-Will to Dogs"

"A College Santa Claus"

"A Child's Christmas in Wales"

"A Dream Story: The Christmas Angel"

"Merry Christmas"

01 December 2014

Today's Saint...

...is St. Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths. Of course, for many of us, he lent his name to the hospital in the television series St. Elsewhere, which, darnit, still isn't released on DVD... (I think they did first season.)

27 November 2014

25 November 2014

Rudolph Day, November 2014

The last Rudolph Day of 2014 features two books:

12 Stories of Christmas, Robert J. Morgan
This is a sweet collection of Christmas stories with a spiritual bent, perfect for reading during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The tales range from nostalgic, such as the story behind a snowglobe that takes a boy back to 1943 when the family car is stolen, and the gentle story of a telegraph girl who searches a hospital for news of her brother at Pearl Harbor, and the story of an unexpected catalog delivery to an impoverished family during the Depression, to humorous, in which a teenage bookworm is persuaded to participate in his aunt's opus of a Christmas play and falls prey to stage fright in a delightful way. There are even romantic tales. My favorite ended up being the last, about the husband of a young couple awaiting the birth of their first child; he's encouraged to build a cradle by his wife, who's tired of him fussing over him. The result is a total surprise!

The volume is peppered with beautiful color photographs that relate to the stories without being actual illustrations based on the text. This is a lovely gift book for those who like heartwarming or spiritual Christmas tales.

An Old-Fashioned Christmas, text by Karen Cure
I almost didn't pick this book up because it looked as if it was mainly recipes, but for only a dollar I did anyway, and was unexpectedly delighted. The book does present recipes, but from different periods in American history, and, along with the recipes, Cure tells us something about each of the historic locations/homes in the book: Colonial Williamsburg, Winterthur Museum, and Sleepy Hollow Restorations representing Colonial America; Victorian America's homes: the Mark Twain House and Chateur-Sur-Mer in Newport. The Gallier House in New Orleans, the Conner Prairie Settlement, and Columbia, a State Park in California are regional representations. "Christmas With the Presidents," a series of recipes from George Washington's kitchens, and some vintage Christmas carols finish out the volume. Liberally illustrated, with a third of the photographs in color. Perfect for fans of Christmas and history.

23 November 2014

Merrymaking in the Midst of Danger

Especially for "Stir Up Sunday," the day when the Christmas pudding would be made so it could be soaked in brandy, cooked, and then put away until Christmas.

Christmas on the Edge of the Abyss, 1939

BBC's Christmas in World War II

London in the Blitz

British newsreel: Christmas Under Fire

From the series Wartime Farm: Christmas Episode

Stir Up Your Sunday!

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent is "Stir-Up Sunday," from the first words of the collect in the Anglican service. Traditionally, this is the day the Christmas pudding is made, and then soaked in brandy or another spirit and put away to serve on Christmas Day.

More about Stir-Up Sunday, with a traditional pudding recipe.

Jamie Oliver talks about Stir-Up Sunday and Christmas puddings.

According to Catholic Culture, Stir-Up Sunday is also the First Sunday of Advent.

A Telegraph writer makes the case for home made pudding, not one purchased at the store.

31 October 2014

Hallowe'en Viewing

Mellow viewing;
For Better or For Worse: "The Good for Nothing"

Cheesy, but fun, with Melissa Sue Anderson 180 degrees from Mary Ingalls:
Midnight Offerings

Not Hallowe'en necessarily, but spooky:
A Cold Night's Death

Suitable for small ones, but psychedelic:
The Worst Witch television film

More conventional school story:
The Worst Witch television series, starting with Episode 1

And then there's completely off the wall:
Paul Lynde Halloween Special

13 October 2014

A Pioneer Christmas

A Little House Christmas Treasury
This is a darling little book comprised of Christmas chapters from "the Little House" books, with the now-classic illustrations by Garth Williams in color, and decorative snowflakes scattered throughout. The Ingalls celebrate Christmas in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and finally in DeSmet, Dakota Territory, and the Wilder family has a feast in upstate New York. It will strike you all over again how little these children had, but who made their own fun in inventive ways, playing tea parties with leaves and acorns, cutting paper dolls from scraps of paper, just running and making "snow people" and having snowball fights, and how little it took for them to be happy: red mittens, a drinking cup of one's own, a stick of candy, a rag doll, a "boughten" hat. It also brings home the chill of living in a cabin where the only heat comes from a fireplace...in other chapters not included in this book Laura describes waking in rooms so cold that the nails in the wall are furred with frost, and the visiting relatives in these stories wrap in layers and layers of clothing and blankets in order not to be frostbitten on the sleigh ride home.

A super acquisition for your Christmas library, especially if you have young children—but it will make you count your blessings!

02 October 2014

Whetting Your Appetite for Hallowe'en

Some videos just for fun:

Bunnicula the Vampire Rabbit

Halloween is Grinch Night

"Trick or Treat"

Winnie the Pooh's Halloween Stories (complete with CBS Special Presentation logo!)

24 September 2014

Small Town Mystery Dressed Up in Bows

Silent Knife, Shelley Freydont
In this second of the Celebration Bay cozy mysteries, town events' manager Liv Montgomery is overseeing what plans to be the most beautiful Christmas the town has known. The square will be nostalgically dressed for the holiday season and all sorts of events are planned, but there's one fly in the ointment: the tacky new Christmas shop that has opened right on the square, spoiling its cozy nostalgia with windows festooned with drunken reindeer, beer-belly Santas under palm trees, and other tacky and inappropriate decorations, with the proprietor a grumpy Scrooge of a woman. Just when the town inhabitants think things can't get any worse, the man the owner of the Christmas shop hired to play Santa Claus has his throat cut in the store during the town Christmas parade.

Freydont populates her town with people you'd love to know: the friendly bakery owner who cooks delicious treats (even for Liv's West Highland White terrier), the gregarious coffee shop owner, the nurturing quilt shop owner, the ex-hippie natural gift shop proprietor, a friendly good ol' boys club of a town council, two darling elderly ex-schoolteachers, Liv's 60-ish assistant Ted who has daily "singing" bouts with Whiskey the terrier, the bewhiskered older man who always plays Santa Claus so well, one bitchy ex-events' manager (well, there had to be one unfriendly person in town), and even a sexy but usually diffident newspaper editor. The mystery is reasonably convoluted (although you know the nice people who are accused can't possibly be guilty of the crime), the Yuletide atmosphere so Christmassy it will make you hear jingle bells and shiver against the chill, and personal attractions begun are continued.

Readers of police procedurals and Nordic noir, take note: this isn't your bag, but if you're the type of person who likes cozies and Christmas, this book will be perfect for your holiday reading. It even ends up with a meal so luscious it will make you hungry, and some mistletoe. Enjoy!

23 September 2014

16 September 2014

A Simpler Christmas

Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli
The Christmas Survival Book, Alice Slaikeu Lawhead
These two books were originally written within three years of each other (1982 and 1985, respectively; the Lawhead book originally titled The Christmas Book), and revised in the early '90s, and are virtual bibles for trying to change the conception of Christmas from a holiday of spend-spend-spend and false promises about what the holiday will provide. Lawhead does quote from Christmas Machine: the memorable "Ten Hidden Gift-Giving Rules," which are uncomfortably true. Both books address the same topics (children stoked with toy commercials who compose incredible Christmas lists, the reality of Christmas as opposed to the dream vision given to us by advertising, the fact that Christmas doesn't reform unpleasant families or crises) and even supply their own fictional tale of Christmas woe (Machine's updated version of Christmas Carol and Lawhead's Christmas Eve fantasy vs. reality). Machine provides a large appendix of alternate gift suggestions, addresses how men feel left out of Christmas celebrations and women feel overworked, and suggests ideas for simpler Christmases. The Lawhead book emphasizes spirituality more, even including a chapter of how churches unconsciously add to the burden of Christmas by scheduling too many events. It also mentions how traditions can be meaningful—or a burden. I was also happy to see that she talks about extending Christmas activities into Christmastide itself and through Epiphany, and there are suggestions for non-alcoholic New Year's Eve activities.

Even though they cover some of the same ground, the two writing styles are very different; both, if found, purchase both.

04 September 2014

Sweet September

Just when I thought summer would never end, September slipped in the door in the midst of DragonCon. You couldn't have told it by the weather, which has remained hot and steamy. But a few autumn magazines have already strayed my way, and the sky knows it's autumn if the sun does not. Today I found a Christmas magazine from the publishers of "Country Sampler." And I've been reading the first of my three pre-Christmas reads, Celebrate the Wonder: A Family Christmas Treasury.

It's usually the first because it talks about planning for Christmas as early as September, which may make some blanch, but Christmas has turned into such a circus of excess, and even more in the intervening years since this book was published in 1988, that it feels like you must start planning the holiday as if it is a military campaign. Never fear, this book makes planning a gentle thing; the authors' sole purpose is to start you thinking early, with gentle meetings, musical interludes, and thoughtfulness, so that your December does not become a frantic, stressful rush. The volume is Christian-centered, which may turn off some readers, but if you are more a secular celebrant there are many good ideas for simple crafts, ethnic dinners, and tons of snippets about the history of Christmas celebrations and about celebrations in other countries. While many of the illustrations are clipart-type simple line drawings, the book also features some wonderful 19th century engravings from Thomas Nast and other Victorian artists. One of my favorite parts are the bits of poetry quoted throughout, from unfamiliar European carols to familiar passages from A Christmas Carol. It makes you want to pick up a book of holiday poetry.

These days there is also a wonderful nostalgia factor to the book, as it was written just as the internet was aborning. Catalog shopping has been replaced by web surfing, but in the end the results are the same. If you have a chance to pick up this mellow volume at a used bookstore or library sale, it still has something to say to today's Christmas celebrants. My only quibble with it is that it does not address anything after New Year's, although Epiphany and its cast of characters (La Befana, Babouska, the Little Camel, etc.) are talked about in earlier chapters.

04 July 2014

Happy Independence Day!

25 April 2014

Rudolph Day, April 2014

I thought for April I would review the three "Christmas Around the World" books from World Book that I picked up at last month's book sale. It was a nice trip into the holidays in an annoyingly allergic spring!

Christmas in Mexico
There are certain Christmas customs from Mexico that have become universally loved, especially the poinsettia and, to a lesser extent, the piñata and La Posadas, and they certainly have their time in the sun in this book, but other charming customs come to light as well, especially the naciamiento, what the Mexican people call the Nativity scene. Like the French creche and the Italian presepio, the Mexican version mixes the traditional figures with those more familiar figures: people in serapes, tortilla makers, and other friendly faces that bring the world of the Christ child closer to His followers. Another custom I was not aware of was the performance of pastorelas, descended from the medieval mystery plays. A typical performance includes the Devil as a character who tries to tempt one or two humorous, but weak shepherd figures, but who is inevitably defeated by the angels. I also did not know the traditional Mexican celebration lasts all the way through Candlemas.

Christmas in the Philippines
The Filipino celebration, while highly Christ-centered, is also a time of great feasting and fun. Traditional Asian dishes with ingredients like coconut join foods of Spanish heritage, reflecting their history. While the Filipinos have and love Christmas trees, the decorations central to their Christmas are the belem (short for Bethlehem) or what we would call a manger or Nativity scene and the parol, the star lantern, which can range from a simple small wood-frame and colored paper decorations with a candle in its heart to huge pieces made of colored plastic and metal so large they must be carried on trucks. Celebrations revolve around church services and family, and end on the feast of the Epiphany, known as Three Kings Day.

Finally we travel from two warm locations to a cold one:
Christmas in Scandinavia
Portions of this book are expanded on in the Christmas in Denmark book, especially the story of Christmas seals and the Christmas plates, but its charm is that it includes the other Scandinavian countries, so there are pieces about St. Lucia Day in Sweden, specific culinary treats in each of the countries, Norway providing Christmas trees to barren Iceland (and one very special tree to Trafalgar Square, commemorating the British aide to Norway during World War II), the different aspects of the Christmas elves, and the Star Boys who see out the Christmas season on St. Knut's Day, January 13. Beautiful photos of candles and bonfires against the Christmas snow give this volume a warm, welcoming feel.

16 April 2014

The 2014 Hallmark Christmas Dream Book

I can hear Seigfried Farnon talking about the carol singers in the All Creatures Great and Small episode "Merry Gentlemen," remarking that they come earlier every year and soon they'll be coming before they turn back the clocks! Here it is barely spring and the Hallmark ornament "Dream Book" is already out.

Check it out here.

25 March 2014

Rudolph Day, March 2014

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler
If you like your Christmas stories with a bit more excitement and less content for your soul, you'll probably enjoy this huge collection of Christmas mysteries. Of course it contains the usual collection of Christmas standards, like the Father Brown "The Flying Stars," Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," and "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" featuring Hercule Poirot—even a mystery from classic author Thomas Hardy, "The Thieves Who Couldn't Help Sneezing"—but even if you've read the bargain shelf collection Murder for Christmas, there's not as much overlap as you might think (and you don't have to read that awful Woody Allen short story, either).

The book is divided into sections, from "A Traditional Little Christmas" to a special section for some Sherlock Holmes to modern Christmas tales, from police procedurals (at the 87th precinct and more) to amateur sleuths (Lord Peter Wimsey and Ellery Queen among them). There are also some thrillers and psychological pieces, and the authors are a delightful variety of talent including Ellis Peters (two tales, in fact, one not a Brother Cadfael story), Ngaio Marsh (Inspector Allyn), E.W. Hornung (Raffles), Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse), and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe, of course). Plus a final Christie featuring Miss Marple!

Best yet, there are over fifty stories in total, so you can start sometime in November and end on Epiphany, so you'll be able to read one a day throughout the entire Christmas shopping season and Christmastide.

28 February 2014

Rudolph Day, February 2014

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

Two different winter storms gave me a good opportunity for finishing up my Christmas magazines, but my reading was touched with sadness since we had to put our little dog Willow to sleep on February 22. She was just not recovering from her illness and eating less and less (and sometimes vomiting that). Occasionally she seemed to rally, but when her bad days began to overwhelm her good days, there was only one decision to help her. Everything is a little lonelier without her.

I was drawn to "Vintage Holiday Christmas" because of its lovely cover of a bowl filled with multicolor Christmas "baubles," as the British call them. I do have vintage ornaments of my Mom's, fifties vintage, in a glass jar with other little memories: some candle bulbs, a plastic stained glass angel ornament, and some glitter, but I love this idea of ornaments in a bowl, which just feeds the multicolor fascination I've had all my life. A super multicolor bauble wreath was also featured, and a series of articles about how to decorate a tree to represent different decades. Pink trees and white rooms, however? Not me. "Style at Home" is a nifty British magazine that gives you inexpensive looks. I do like the British magazines for their (usually) nice wood-trimmed interiors! It had surprisingly cute little projects, like taking an empty picture frame, painting it red, making a star with green ribbon inside, and hanging baubles from the ribbon. What a darling look. Of course some recipes; ho hum.

Then some little upscale reads, like "House Beautiful Christmas Ideas." The "Scandi style" was really big in British magazines this year, all year 'round, not just at Christmas, with its red-and-white patterns. More recipes, and an increasing fascination with creating elaborate wrappings, which has always struck me as silly, since folks are just going to rip it off and toss it out! "Ideal Home's Complete Guide to Christmas" usually covers the whole shebang: gives you a schedule so Christmas prep won't be overwhelming, advises you how to buy a tree and also how to decorate with natural products (it seems common in Britain, at least as portrayed in these issues, that you can just go outside and get all sorts of greens from your "garden"). Setting a good table is also a must! And finally "Victoria Classics Holiday Bliss," with flowers and greens, beautiful crockery and glassware, vintage ornaments and lavish garlands, all enough to decorate Downton Abbey top to toe. Bonus in this one was a pictorial journey through Europe's Christmas markets.

Then on to my favorites, starting with "Bliss Victoria." Like the last magazine, it's a picture of elegance and color. Even the ads are elegant, for gift shops and china. The desserts stand up and pose! You want to walk into the homes shown, sit before the fire and read a book. Perhaps classical music plays in the background. My favorite article was "Christmas at Mount Vernon."

I've been buying "Victorian Homes" since the year they did an article on the Mark Twain house which we had just visited. The historic homes that appear in this magazine are the big draw, and then the Christmas decorations make it a wonderful package. This issue had an article on feather trees (which are made of feathers, but are not those cones you see covered with feathers at craft stores; these feather trees were originally made of green-dyed goose feathers and go back to the early 19th century). A new house had some of the most beautiful Victorian furniture I'd ever seen. Gorgeous Victorians mansions drip with Christmas cheer, stained glass windows, and polished wood. Bliss.

A unique treat this year was a holiday issue of the "Saturday Evening Post." Last year they did an all-Norman Rockwell edition, but this one had other illustrators, and, along for the fun, vintage ads! Starting with Thanksgiving and ending with New Year's, the illustrations range from 1917 to the 1960s, with a chronology of New Year's babies and how they were affected by world events.

And finally, a favorite since last year, a British outdoor magazine called "Landscape." There are actually two similar magazines, "Landscape" and "Landlove," which both publish bimonthly (I favor the former but both are nice), but "Landscape" has a Christmas issue. The magazines cover the countryside of England and the animals which inhabit it, and foodstuff from the land, whether raised or foraged, plus gardens in each season. Sheep and shepherds, skaters, broom and Christmas cake makers, foresting with horses, and white arctic animals and swans were all covered in this issue. Yes, it had a sizeable cookery section, but at least, being an English magazine, these were different dishes from the usual American potatoes and corn. Both "Landscape" and "Landlove" are tranquil magazines. I read them in the fall and in the winter.

25 January 2014

Rudolph Day, January 2014

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

I'm still having Christmas when I can because I still have Christmas magazines left; due to Willow being sick. I didn't have a chance to read all of them. I'm still paging through them since things really haven't slowed down since Christmas (it's complicated). My favorite of the magazines so far, of course, is the Christmas issue of "Early American Life." This year's issue was partially devoted to Santa Claus: two people with Santa Claus statuette collections, and then a history of Santa Claus himself. In addition, it talked about Boxing Day and prohibitions on Christmas celebrations by Puritans, plus pyramidal desserts. "Country Sampler" had a nice collection of prim-decorated homes and then the usual catalog. This magazine used to be a "maybe I will/maybe I won't" purchase until they started concentrating on primitive country (many years ago they also featured that ruffly cutesy-poo type of country decorating), but now I always get the fall, Christmas, and winter issues. Not into whites and pastels, so I tend to ignore the issues for the remainder of the year.

I'm not sure why I buy "Holiday Cottage" (or the other "cottage" magazines; I'm in the midst of "Christmas Cottage" at the moment), as the items they show are always expensive! They are also elegant when I go in more for old-fashioned, casual items. I tried a British magazine called "The Simple Things" this year as well. I liked the articles on history and nature; again, although there is "simple" in the title, the products they push are rather costly. (I notice this about the British "Country Living," too; they talk about buying local and living simply, and then they advertise expensive clothing and appliances and furniture!)

It was fun looking at the vintage items in the Christmas "Flea Market Decor." I've never seen any finds like these folks turn up in our local antique stores! The same with "Southern Lady"—lots of pretty homes and decorations! As with most of these magazines, I find the recipes for food and drink, and the occasional clothing articles, kinda dull. I don't like cooking and dressing up isn't my forte unless I can wear a long skirt.

07 January 2014

One for the Road!

The Christmas Almanack, Gerard and Patricia Del Re
I didn't know this book existed until I found it among the Christmas books at the last Cobb County Library Book Sale. It's a cheaply-done trade paperback from 1979 with eleven sections concentrating on some aspect of Christmas, starting with the Gospels. Other sections have to do with Christmas films, historical events which happened on Christmas, Christmas literature, and of course the inevitable Christmas recipes, plus a wildcard section of facts, trivia, and other short passages. My favorite part about this book is the authors' tongue-in-cheek attitude to what they're discussing; a particularly favorite comment comes when they are discussing a European Christmas personality, whose entry reads "Berchta...is a frightening old woman who watches out for laziness at Christmas time. She appears in the Tyrolean Alps during the twelve days of Christmas, chastising young women who leave unspun thread at their spinning wheels. She has nothing really to do with Christmas. Her concern is for household duties and seeing to it that they don't get neglected at the approach of the holidays by casting bad-luck spells on lazy females. She was probably invented by someone who never had to undergo the drudgery of keeping a house, presumably a man." LOL. However, much information is imparted as well; there's a nice section on the history of Christmas carols, for example. This was well worth the dollar I paid for it.

06 January 2014

Farewell to Christmas

My Christmas Journey Ends


My Christmas trip with World Book has ended, and even extended into Asia during this last reading bout. Christmas in Russia is divided into three parts, the first about Christmas celebrations in czarist Russia, including a chapter from War and Peace, followed by a chapter about how they holiday emphasis changed to New Year under Communism, and finally how Christmas has been resurrected after glastnost. Christmas in Scotland chronicles the long rise of Christmas in a country which suppressed it for years for religious reasons; today Hogmanay celebrations on New Year's Eve still rivals the popularity of Christmas. The volume also includes the celebrations held on the Orkney and Shetland Islands, including "Up Helly A," which closes the holiday season in the Shetlands.

Christmas in Switzerland is a mixed bag, literally, since German, French, and Italian speakers, plus those of Romansch, combine various customs. In one area the gifts come on St. Nicholas Day, in others, Christmas Day. One area eats seafood, others have turkey or goose. Who delivers the gifts? It could be Samichlaus or Le Petit Noel. There isn't even a guarantee of snow, because there is one Swiss canton is so far south that it has palm trees and a balmy climate. So there is no typical Swiss Christmas, but all celebrations are joyful.

My final volume was the beautifully-illustrated Christmas in Ukraine. The volume emphasizes the down-to-earth Ukrainians, their oft-overrun country, and their love of beauty. The native dress of the Ukrainians is simply beautiful, and the book also shows examples of their art, including pysanky, brightly-colored geometrically-decorated Easter eggs. It also explains the difference between the Western calendar and Eastern Orthodox calendar, which is why the Ukrainians are celebrating Christmas tomorrow.

Someday I would like to get World Book's Christmas in Belgium and take yet one more Yuletide journey in Europe.

05 January 2014

Around Europe (and a Bit Further East) At Christmastide

Since my last book review here, I've been jaunting around Europe during Christmastide courtesy the World Book folks, and what a great trip it's been! Christmas in Denmark was very appealing, with their simple approach to the holiday season and the red-and-white color scheme. I love the tradition of joining hands and dancing around the Christmas tree, which is still lit with candles as it was in the past. All those candles during the darkness of the winter solstice sound homey (or "homely," as the British would say) and warm.

Christmas in France is delectable! Many of the customs have to do with eating special food, plus there is the City of Light threaded in even more lights. I am fascinated with the idea of santons, the little figures with which the French populate their nativity scenes. As in some other cultures, like Spain and Italy, the French construct more than a simple stable scene with Holy Family, shepherds, animals, and Wise Men, but build whole villages, with bakers, merchants, carpenters, etc. We had an arrangement like this in our church; it was fascinating to see life going on in Bethlehem. Next we traveled "next door" to "today's" Germany (published after the reunification), where they note that Germany was the origin of many of our enduring Christmas customs, like the Christmas tree, the Advent wreath and calendar, glass Christmas ornaments, and gingerbread houses. Some pages are taken up with how Christmas was celebrated in East Germany when the nation was still divided, and, delightfully, several more about the christkindlmarkts, Christmas markets, where special gifts, ornaments, and foods are sold. It's my dream to see one someday! From St. Martin's Day in November, to Epiphany on January 6, it's a great big long wonderful season.

Christmas in the Holy Land is structured a little differently; the first part repeats the pertinent parts of the Bible narrating the story of the Nativity, and tries to explain a little more about the history and culture. For instance, to us shepherds sound very innocuous, but in those days they had bad reputations and were often former criminals. There are a few pages about Christmas in modern Bethlehem before the crafts/food portion standard to each volume begins.

Once again, Christmas in Ireland emphasizes how the cultures of Europe build up to a twelve-day celebration of Christmas with simple preparations and Advent activities rather than the orgy of shopping in the United States that ends Christmas abruptly on December 25, to have everything swapped out for Valentines Day shopping. It was the Irish who began the custom of having candles in the window at Christmas. They told their British administrators that it was so that the Holy Family could find the home on Christmas Eve, and the British dismissed it as superstition, but it was actually, in those days of Catholic persecution, a sign that a Catholic family lived there and priests could visit and say Mass.

I actually have both the older Christmas in Italy and the newer Christmas in Italy and Vatican City. The texts are the same, just arranged some differently in the newer book,  but over half the photographs/illustrations are different, so I'm keeping both. I'm Italian by ancestry, so all the customs were so familiar: fish on Christmas Eve, the emphasis on having a presepio (manger scene), and the delectable traditional foods. One of the books even has a woman making what we called wandi, but they call crostoli. My Aunty Petrina was a great hand at wandis, even if they were a devil to make, especially at Easter time, when cooking them would be hot, exhausting work. And of course no book about Christmas in Italy would be complete without La Befana, the "witch" who delivers the gifts!

I was amused by Christmas in the Netherlands, where they spend several pages chronicling the adventures and travels of St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and his Moorish companion Peter, who arrive in Holland by ship from Spain. Much is made of the mischief but goodness of "Black Peter," who is supposed to collect naughty children in his sack and take them back to Spain, but who ends up being as capricious as the kids. Although photos are provided, there is no commentary in this 1980s volume that Peter is played by white men in blackface, which has become an issue as Holland becomes more racially diverse. He is a very popular character with the Dutch. (This is a volume I need to replace some time if possible; the spine is split.) From Holland we go north and east for Christmas in Poland. The volume is peppered with Polish mottoes, which made me think of the television detective Banacek, who was always spouting "Polish proverbs," and there's an amazing chapter about the elaborate nativity scenes built by the Poles; these look like little castles or palaces.

The last volume I finished today was Christmas in Spain, which is interesting because of the different cultures that exist within the country, from the Moorish influence on southern Spain, which celebrates a warm Christmas, all the way up to Catalonia near France, whose speech is close to the Provencal language. While there are similar foods and celebrations, each are colored by the area of the country they live in. Music and dancing play a great part in the celebration, and children's gift wishes are not fulfilled until the very end of Christmastide, on Epiphany when the Three Kings bring their gifts.

I still have four volumes to go, but am determined to finish reading them all. I probably won't make it before Christmastide is over—or maybe I will. After all, Christmas isn't over in Norway till St. Knut's Day on the 13th, and in Armenia until the 18th. Heck, in Poland some areas celebrate until Candlemas (February 2)!

02 January 2014

An Annual Treat

Ideals Christmas
I was very disappointed to hear two years ago that the Ideals folks were no longer going to publish their annual Christmas issues. They had already given up the other five special annuals they did, especially my beloved Thanksgiving issue, with its beautiful photographs of autumn trees. To my surprise, I found an Ideals Christmas last year and this year as well. I guess they had enough protests about this annual to continue.

This is a particularly pretty issue, with a lovely poinsettia cover. I wish there were more landscapes inside and fewer still lifes, but it's a minor complaint, and there's a great shot of a snowy barn to compensate. The poems are simple, but nice, and several charming essays, including one about a day-by-day arrival of manger figures and a classic from Marjorie Holmes. Definitely one to add to your Ideals collection.

Ideals, please bring back the Thanksgiving issue!!!!

01 January 2014

Continuing Around the World With World Book

Christmas in Australia, Christmas in Austria, Christmas in Brazil, Christmas in Britain by World Book Encyclopedia
I've just cracked the surface of the volumes I have bought. Of the four, the Australia and Brazil books are the most lightweight in text. The Australian book pretty much concentrates on how traditional British celebration changed due to the climate, while the Brazilian book notes the combination between the Portuguese Roman Catholic and the native slave-religion (from Africans captured and imported for sugar plantations) which has shaped the Christmas/New Year's celebration. Both books note how hot it is! Lovely color photos bring out the beauty of Australian and Brazilian flowers and summer costumes.

Due to a longer history, the Austrian and British books have much denser texts. The Austrian book not only talks about Christmas customs (Christmas trees with candles not decorated until Christmas Eve, Advent wreaths, etc.), but features Vienna during the holiday season and the musical season that surrounds the New Year. The first half of the British book follows the Christmas preparations of the Bushnells, a typical middle-class English family: mother, father, the daughter Elizabeth, and her two mischievous brothers. Information on "Christmas past" is supplied almost totally by a dream Elizabeth has when she falls asleep as her father reads A Christmas Carol and finds Ebenezer Scrooge guiding her through vintage Christmas customs. Since I'm not a warm-weather person, you can guess these two volumes were my favorites!

Chills, Charm, and Creeps

An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Dennis Pepper
Well, I wanted a different book of Christmas stories, and this one certainly qualifies! No Scrooge, no Taylor Caldwell, no Norman Vincent Peale, no Pearl Buck.

Ostensibly this is a children's book, but these days, with the stories' vocabulary, I would say older children, and mind that they are not for a child who is used to cloying Christmas stories with sweet, happy endings. This volume contains, among others, some very traditional British ghost and thriller stories ("A Lot of Mince-pies" is especially creepy), stories about children with unhappy lives (Frank O'Connor's "Christmas Morning" and "Get Lost," about a rejected child in the hospital top this list), and even fairy tales about killer snowmen. But there are tender or memorable moments: a flooded-out Australian family's unique holiday, Laurie Lee talks about carol singing as a youth, a story of a stillborn child and a mysterious stranger, memories of a refugee camp after the Second World War, the nativity story as recollected by Mary. Shirley Jackson provides a bitter twist as always, and there's even a humorous tale about a remarkable boyfriend. For a touch of the familiar, there's Mr. Pickwick sliding on the ice.

I really, really enjoyed the twists in some of these stories, even though I'm also a Chicken Soup for the Soul kinda gal. There must be some tart to balance the sweet and this offbeat book certainly provides a generous amount. Highly recommended!