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!