31 December 2015

St. Sylvester's Day

From the Fish Eaters site: "Lucky foods" are eaten, all of which vary from place to place. In Spain, one must eat 12 grapes at midnight to fend off evil in the following year. Pea Soup is a German "lucky food," and in France it is oysters. In the United States, black-eyed peas are consumed, along with collard greens and hog jowls (typically on January 1).

"Silvestering" was an old custom of begging for food on St. Sylvester's night, but now fireworks are usually the case.

St. Sylvester I | Saint of the Day

Catholic Online - St. Sylvester

Fish Eaters: St. Sylvester

A History of New Years

Do You Know What Sylvester Is?

A Death in Christmas Town

Rest Ye Murdered Gentlemen, Vicki Delany
This is the anticipated first book in a series taking place in Rudolph, a New York town near Lake Ontario, which has fashioned itself as an all-year-round "Christmastown" after its connection to the War of 1812 ended a bit ignominiously (that's a pretty amusing story, too). Our protagonist, Merry Wilkinson (her dad is named Noel since he was born on Christmas Day) runs the high-end gift shop Mrs. Claus' Treasures, and as the story opens, her float in the town's annual Christmas parade almost doesn't make it in the queue due to its transport not working, just the first in a series of mysterious mishaps. Then, later, after a non-alcoholic post parade party, a reporter from an international travel magazine, in town to do a story on Rudolph, is found dead in the park. Initial verdict: he was poisoned by a gingerbread cookie made by Merry's best friend Vicky, owner of the town bakery.

This is a middle-of-the-road cozy which I didn't love, but didn't hate. I do like the idea of a Christmas town, the main character is appealing (although I think her dog contributes nothing to the plot and it seems she's always leaving him home alone to work or do other things), and there are enough red herrings: a woman determined to oust the local mayor, a jealous boyfriend, and the citizens of Muddle Harbor, one town over, which is economically depressed and no competition for Rudolph—unless its food can't be trusted. Plus I really enjoyed some of the supporting characters, especially Merry's dad (who should be working in her shop, as he always magically seems to know what customers want) and her retired opera-singer mother (who reminded me a lot of Hilary Booth from Remember WENN). Tiresomely, however, Merry's got two gorgeous guys fighting over her, which tends to trip the story into romance fantasyland occasionally, and there seems to be the usual stock characters (nosy landlady, aggressive opponent, etc.) tossed in the mix.

However, I love Christmas, and just the idea of a Christmas town and the characters I do like will overcome what I don't like. Put me down for the next one, too.

29 December 2015

Christine Kringle Saves the Day

Re-read: Christine Kringle, Lynn Brittney
This is a funny, funny novel with a (pun intended) novel take on Santa Claus.

How does Santa deliver all those gifts in one night? Because he isn't one gift giver, he's many! The American Santa Claus, or as he's known in this novel, Kris Kringle, is part of the Yule Dynasty, a huge family of gift givers, from Father Christmas in England to OzNick in Australia, to Babbo Natale (and La Befana) in Italy, to St. Nicholas in Holland, to the Three Wise Men in various countries, to Santa Kurohsu in Japan. Each year they have a big conference to discuss Christmas and other family concerns. This year the meeting is in Finland, where Kriss Kringle wishes to propose something never broached before: that a male gift-giver can hand his gift-giving tasks over to a female child. Although there are female gift-givers, St. Lucia, La Befana, Babushha, etc. among them, usually a female child marries and that husband becomes the new gift-giver. Kriss Kringle, however, wants his bright daughter Christine to inherit the job.

But barely can the subject be broached when an emergency occurs: a small town called Plinkbury in England is raising eyebrows and making the news by declaring Christmas illegal. And it's up to Christine and her friends Nick Christmas (son of the English Santa and allergic to gingerbread) and Little K (son of the Japanese Santa and creator of the wonderful new "Living Lights") to find out how this happened and try to stop it—with the help of Nick's ditzy but understanding and inspirational mother Zazu, and his uncle Egan, who are both "tall elves."

Brittney skewers several sacred cows on the way through the plot—the male dominated gift-givers of Christmas, Christmas collectors, stuffy parents who stifle their children's imaginations—and produces a very funny story in the process. There is a reliance on a few stereotypes on the way: Babbo Natale drives a Ferrari (a magic one, of course) and his compatriots have Mafia overtones, the son of France's Pere Noel is a fat kid who is constantly stuffing his face, the Japanese kid is the inventive genius, but these shortcomings pale against the hilarious story, which will keep you chuckling throughout. One of my favorite parts involves the Sisterhood, the female gift-givers who gang up upon their male counterparts in order for the kids to make their getaway (in the Ferrari, of course; reindeer and a sleigh would be too noticeable) to Plinkbury.

Recommended for all ages!

28 December 2015

A Con Man in Old New York

The Santa Claus Man, Alex Palmer
John Duval Gluck was just another businessman, toiling as the head of a importing business like his father before him, rather bored with the process. He wanted to do Something Big, and he eventually did: he made children's dreams come true for a short time in the 1920s.

Before Gluck, New York City children's letters to Santa Claus ended up in the "dead letter" office at the central post office. Gluck, bypassing the usual fundraising methods, forms "the Santa Claus Association," which takes the children's letters and matches them up with wealthy or just financially well-off contributors who will buy gifts requested in those letters after Gluck's association checks out if the children are really in need.

It sounded like a wonderful idea and indeed some children did receive "a Christmas" because of it. But as always happens when human beings are involved, human corruption reared its proverbial evil head. Was the "selfless" Gluck really as portrayed, or is he profiting from the "poor kiddies"?

The best part about this book is the portrait of New York City between 1913 and the early 1930s, and the weaving in of the role New Yorkers like Washington Irving, Clement Moore, Thomas Nast, and Francis Church had in how Christmas is celebrated today, not just in NYC, but all over the United States. The most fascinating part is the lost history of a rival group to the Boy Scouts of America, the "U S Boy Scout," an organization I had never heard about, a more militaristic group which John Duval Gluck got himself involved with, and which the BSA despised. Along the way we meet Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, end up in a classic hotel and the Woolworth Building, and make the acquaintance of the man who was Gluck's downfall, Bird Coler.

I can't say I was absolutely bowled over by Gluck's story, but I loved the historical background and all the great photographs!

27 December 2015

An Annual Treat

Ideals Christmas, Worthy Media
May I say first how much I miss the other "Ideals" seasonal volumes? The Christmas one is the only one left. The autumn/Thanksgiving one was always breathtakingly beautiful in modern times (as opposed to the old "Ideals" up until about the 1990s, which often had terrible drawings in them which were then made worse by "colorizing" it in one color) with gorgeous photographs of autumn landscapes. The Christmas ones have snowy landscapes and cozy still life photos.

I really enjoyed the collection of essays this year; I usually like them better than the poems, which are pleasant but derivative. "The Stillness of Christmas" by John Peterson was lovely, something you don't usually see Ideals essays about. Michael Drury's "Christmas Has a Secret" was also good, and reminded me a little of Taylor Caldwell's oft anthologized "My Christmas Miracle." Dona Maxey's "A Gift of Love" about a mother's devotion was sweet as well.

I could wish for more snow photos, but...it was a good edition nevertheless.

25 December 2015

A Christmas for Finding Oneself

The Tuckers: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
The Tuckers series began in 1961 with the publication of the Whitman book The Wonderful House, in which they move into the big old house on Valley View Avenue. They were a typical 1960s literary family: working father, stay-at-home mother, five rambunctious kids under twelve, loving grandparents, and an assortment of friends. The kids got into usual foibles: rivalries, mistaken impressions, summer vacation adventures, arguments, but family love always wins through.

The Cottage Holiday revolves around Penny, the shy seven-year-old of the children, who catches cold easily and is always being pampered. But she doesn't revel in the attention; she inwardly resents it. She wants to play with her brothers and sisters and be part of family activities, and she wants to know what her part is in the scheme of family dynamics: Tina's domestic, Terry's clever, Merry's musical, Tom's sensible, but what is she? Then she makes an idle wish: she would like to spend Christmas at the family's lake cottage, where they could all participate on an equal footing. Surprisingly, her doctor says she's well enough to do so as long as she takes precautions, and suddenly the family is off for a winter adventure that includes a marauding cougar, a missing calf, an abandoned baby, and the sheer fun of finding a Christmas tree, making treats for one another, and playing in the snow with their lake neighbors Mel and Butch Smith.

This is of a similar domestic theme to Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, but the story is more simply told with a more limited vocabulary that often makes the dialog stilted. Yet Penny's wish to participate more fully in her family's activities shines through the story like a beacon, and the final pages will make you misty eyed. It's more introspective than the other books in the series and that serves to make the story more timeless. A yearly treat for me.

24 December 2015

A Christmas of Dwindling

Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
Most of my annual Christmas reads go back to my childhood, but I picked this up because I loved Lasky's Prank and her adult mysteries involving Callista Jacobs. It is one of my favorite Christmas books, even if the ending is a bit idealized.

The Swift family lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, at the height of the Depression in 1932; Minnie, the youngest girl, is both happy and puzzled when an orphan cousin her age comes to live with them. Willie Faye, who grew up in Dust Bowl Texas, arrives in town with nothing but an almost empty suitcase, a cherished newspaper article about better times, and a kitten named Tumbleweed. She's never seen an indoor bathroom, a movie, or peaches. But this wise-beyond-her-years child with life experiences the Swifts could not have imagined is instrumental in helping the entire family see beyond the leanness of the Depression, and helps them keep faith when the unthinkable happens.

I just love the characters in this story: Minnie, who has a gift for words; the practical Willie Faye whose artistic dreams lends them ideas for gifts and stories of faith; Ozzie, the science-crazy little brother; Lady, the unconventional sister who can take old clothes and scraps of fabric and turn them into fashionable dress; Minnie's stolid father and glamorous mother and her two more conventional sisters; and Jackie, the family's maid, who is portrayed as authentically as possible for the 1930s setting without being overtly patronizing. The realities of the Depression hits home in so many ways: the closing of the bank that supports Mr. Swift's employer, closing off rooms in the house since they can no longer afford to heat them, eating endless meals of "au gratins" and aspic to stretch what little meat they have, not using the car so they can afford a movie now and then, taking food down to a Hooverville where people are living in tar-paper shacks or even piles of tires with tin on top, the fate of a classmate's father. During all their trials little Willie Faye sustains them.

My only problem with this book is the standard "Dear America" epilogue which tells you what happened to the family. Depending on the author, these epilogues can be matter-of-fact, filled with interesting details, or even, in the case of Barry Denenberg, really depressing. <wry grin> Lasky chose the interesting details approach, but made the results rather fairy-tale-ish. It strikes me as being very sugary after a tart and rather dark narrative.

Nevertheless, Minnie and Willie Faye will keep me coming back each year.

23 December 2015

Christmas in Vermont Revisited

Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
The Clarks are a small farm family in late 1940s Vermont in this classic four-book children's series by Frost, a Vermont native. In the opening book, 12-year-old protagonist Toby Clark received the dapple-grey pony Windy Foot as a birthday gift and raced him in the annual county fair pony competition, where he met 12-year-old Tish Burnham, a horse breeder's daughter. At Christmas, the whole family: dad, mom, Toby, 9-year-old Betsy, 5-year-old Johnny, and farmhand Cliff (who's pretty much family) are preparing to welcome Tish and her father Jerry for a visit as well as planning a true farm Christmas with homemade decorations, gifts ordered from the mail order catalog, caroling under the town Christmas tree and shopping at the general store, and Toby taking Tish out riding in the new sleigh he refit for Windy Foot.

Fifty years after I read it for the first time, I still get as much enjoyment out of this story as I did the first time, even if Johnny's little impromptu poems still make me roll my eyes and the girls' brief talk about dolls bore me. It's an annual read, and a portrait of a vanished era: cows milked by hand and barns lit by lanterns, kids going on their own showshoeing to gather Christmas greens or going skiing without adults keeping tabs on their every move, boys renovating things on their own, the family gathered by the fire instead of each around an electronic device. There's even a marauding bear, a skiing accident, and a stolen sleigh to add a little excitement. It's very easy to be taken into the warm home-circle and feel comfortable with these characters.

I have always found it notable that in a book written in 1948, Tish's ambition is to be a surgeon or at the least a medical doctor. Toby finds that this idea of "a girl being a doctor" fills him with "awe," but also thinks that she'd make a good one. There is no attempt by Toby or any other adult to try to dissuade Tish from this goal, a surprising attitude in an era when even "career girls" were eventually expected to quit their jobs in favor of marriage and a family. Also, Betsy is given an unusual Christmas gift and no one says that a girl should not be receiving such a gift.

Frost also has a talent with picturesque descriptions that remind me of Gladys Taber.  This is a nostalgic book well worth seeking out for its approachable characters, family interactions, Christmas-cozy factor, and pacing.

22 December 2015

Shivers for Christmas

Ghosts for Christmas, edited by Richard Dalby
There are times of the year when the veil between the known world and the unknown world is very thin, and spirits from beyond can creep into the mortal world. In our world it engendered a whole tradition of ghost stories, which is why the narrator of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" mentions them, and A Christmas Carol is one. Before television, movies and the internet, after Christmas dinner was digested and wine consumed, it was common to gather around the fire and tell tales of the supernatural.

This collection, I must admit, is a corker. While I'd read a couple of the stories, including Dickens' precursor to Scrooge in The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, Stevenson's Markheim, "The Prescription" written during a most unusual housecall, and The Real and the Counterfeit (in which I think the protagonist paid too dearly for his error!), most of them were new to me, and well enough done that being alone reading the stories on a rainy, gloomy day gave me a real chill! Particular favorites were "Wolverden Tower," about a modern young woman invited to a house party who  makes two new friends who seem to change her perception of a reconstructed tower; "Thurlow's Christmas Story," about a man trying to write a Christmas ghost story but who cannot come up with an idea even though his job lays on the line; "The Kit-Bag," concerning an attorney who gets a guilty client off and lives to regret it; "The Snow," about a marital argument that goes all too wrong; "The Demon King," in which a substitute actor enlivens a dull pantomime; "Lucky's Grove," where cutting down a Christmas tree from the wrong place sets off a chain of frightening events; and "Gebal and Ammon and Amalek," in which an older man's dissatisfaction with his church's changing views has disastrous complications.

Plus these are all set at classic ghostly locations: English churches, country houses, deserted estates, rambling vicarages, and more! A very satisfactory and spooky Christmas collection!

21 December 2015

The Longest Night


Everything You Need to Know About the Winter Solstice

Five Strange Facts about the Winter Solstice

Something for Everyone: A Solstice, Tonight!

Winter Solstice Arrives, and Here’s What It Means

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

A Souling, a Souling...

Roman Catholics now celebrate St. Thomas the Apostle in July.

"Thomasing," soliciting alms and foods on St. Thomas' Day, was thought to be the precursor of trick or treating on Hallowe'en.

St. Thomas' Day Recipes and the History of St. Thomas Day

German Celebrations for St. Thomas' Day

St. Thomas' Day

20 December 2015

Have Yourself a Silent Little Christmas!


19 December 2015

On the Radio and Around the Tree

Standing in the Spirit at Your Elbow, Craig Wichman
Since its publication in 1843, Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been adapted into movies, television specials, and plays. At least one book devotes itself to following all the film versions of the reformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, that "tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" But between the time Dickens' miser appeared on film and on television, his story was heard regularly on the mass medium of the 1920s-1950s, the radio.

Wichman, an audio actor in his own right, has written this unique little book chronicling all the broadcast and recorded versions of A Christmas Carol, including that granddaddy of Christmas traditions, the performances of Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge. To modern audiences used to George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, and Mr. Magoo as being "traditional" in terms of the Carol, at one time the Barrymore presentation of Scrooge was just as beloved and repeated for eighteen years, only killed by the advent of television. His version was even recorded for posterity on shellac and then LP records.

Wichman was able to interview some of the performers involved with the Carol (sadly not all of the adult principals), mostly young performers like Arthur Anderson and before-he-was-a-Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr who recalled working as Tiny Tim or "the turkey boy." This gives us an even more authentic look behind the scenes at the actors and the era. Completing the book are reprints of newspaper advertisements and publicity photos and album covers, plus the author's list of known Carol radio performances.

A neat, interesting-written niche publication for fans of radio and/or of A Christmas Carol.

Round the Christmas Tree, edited by Sara and Stephen Corrin
This is a little volume of Christmas stories suitable for children, and children of all ages. Usually when you find these collections they are of well-known stories or of vintage tales where the copyrights have run out, but this one, originally published in England, contains at least half of its stories from Scandinavian sources. They range from pseudo-fairy tales like "The Big White Pussy-Cat" and "The Voyage of the Red Cap" to tales about children living their everyday lives (including "The Christmas Train" which sounds like it might have come out of The Railway Children) to absurd encounters with supernatural folk, as in the very funny "Another Mince Pie" to a Christmas story by Beatrix Potter that isn't "The Tailor of Gloucester." For the young and the young at heart.

15 December 2015

A Lot of Christmas Magic!

A Stone Mountain Christmas, from Gilded Dragonfly Books
The stories in most anthologies are like people, some are good, some not so good, some middling. Occasionally, though, one breaks that routine.

I don't think there's a bad story in the bunch here. Now, of course these are Christmas stories, and if you don't like Christmas stories, or prefer action-adventure or serious social commentary, you may not share my opinion. However, the mix was just the right amount of sweet (but not too sugary) and spice. I'd say about half of the stories have romantic underpinnings, but they're also about real people, not the plastic mannequins that turn up in churn-'em-out romance books. A couple of the romances are peripheral to the actual storyline as well, so it's not the total focus of the story. Some are straight relationship stories, while in others a little fillip of magic adds the sparkle that makes the story special. The other stories are a nice mix of subjects: a woman getting used to her widowed father's new love (who's the complete opposite of her mother), a relationship story from the point of view of a lost dog, the story of a grandmother trying to cope with her emotionally and physically abused grandson, a newspaper editor who's about to throw in the towel until a young woman gives him a new angle on the classic story "A Gift of the Magi," an elderly man grief-stricken after the death of his wife, and even a mad, mad romp about a chicken superhero and her mouse assistant—which is not only plausible but funny.

One of the stories, "Christmas Rose," was familiar to me. This was adapted into an Atlanta Radio Theatre Company audio drama for their annual "Atlanta Christmas" show. I always have enjoyed the radio story, but I absolutely loved its source material, since we learn more about the protagonist and her friend, and about what led to her attitude at the beginning of the tale and what happened afterward.

If you love Christmas, this one comes highly recommended.

Christmas in My Heart #6 and #12, Joe Wheeler
Wheeler began these books many years ago by "rescuing" old Christmas stories from older magazines, sentimental pieces about orphans finding a home, couples finding each other, lost souls finding a home or God, poor people who are rich in spirit as compared to the wealthy with soulds of ice. Each of the volumes are illustrated with vintage etchings and woodcuts. The final story is always by Wheeler himself, usually a tale of a relationship gone sour and how it is redeemed by faith and love.

These days more modern stories and memoirs mix in with the vintage material. I confess I enjoy the vintage material more and wish the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" type stories had not intruded. It's possible Wheeler's mining in the last few issues has come up lacking. I recommend reading these for the marvelous old stories which illustrate not only the romance and feelings of the past, but the way people lived and believed. Favorites in volume #6 include "Small Things," about a tired doctor who says the wrong thing to his fiancee and then has cause to regret it and "Bid the Tapers Twinkle" about an elderly woman who lives for her children coming home for Christmas and has a big disappointment coming. Favorites in #12: "Van Valkenburg's Christmas Gift," the story of a longtime bachelor and a small orphan child and "Santa Claus is Kindness," the story of a young woman grown flippant in her teens, dismaying her longtime intended.

13 December 2015

A Very British Christmas

The Great British Christmas, compiled by Maria Hubert
Once many years ago at a book sale or used book store I found a volume called A Worcestershire Christmas, an anthology of poetry, prose, and illustration written by authors from or taking place in Worcestershire, England. I really enjoyed the collection of nostalgic prose, and was surprised some years afterward to find a similar volume, A Sussex Christmas. A little research revealed that the publisher, Sutton, apparently has done books for each of the English shires, plus included other locations (A London Christmas) and also books from certain eras (A Victorian Christmas, A Georgian Christmas, etc.)

This book is a collection of prose and illustration about what makes a British Christmas a British Christmas, from the history of the Sword in the Stone (which was raised by the future King Arthur during Christmastide) and the story of how the Puritans banned Christmas to the introduction of the Christmas tree to the celebrations by Prince Albert (the original decoration was an arrangement of hoops and holly called a Kissing Bough) and the Christmas cracker. Sprinkled between are Hogmanay and Twelfth Night, Christmas pageants, vintage village celebrations that toasted apple trees, and excerpts from diarists like Samuel Pepys. Included in its entirety is Dickens' classic essay "The Christmas Tree," which usually ends after the author describes "the new German toy," as he waxes on about his childish Christmas fantasies of yore.

If I could collect all these books, I certainly would!

Vintage Holiday Music


Nope, we're not talking Duran Duran. These are really vintage...

from 1900-1910

from 1920-1930

from 1930-1940

And here's a playlist of 160 vintage songs; start it up and let it play in the background. 1930s-1950s.

Happy Lucia!

St. Lucia Day in Sweden (video)

Santa Lucia in Sweden (video)

Swedish Lucia for Dummies (video)

Christmas in Sweden

Santa Lucia Day in Italy

10 December 2015

With Love and Laughter

Lighthouse Christmas, Toni Buzzeo with illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
This is a darling picture book for a child or the child in all of us about Frances and Peter, two children who wonder if they will have a Christmas now that their widowed father has taken over caretaker duties at Ledge Light, a remote lighthouse. Will Santa Claus even know where they are? They try to make their own Christmas and consider spending the holiday with their aunt, but everything changes when a storm comes up and their father must rescue a stranded fisherman. Will they still have Christmas? And will Papa ever accept that one-eared cat?

It's a sweet story about the hard life of a lighthouse keeper's family, a subject I've been fascinated by since I read "Maudie Tom, Jockey," way back when, and about making the best of what you have. The pen-and-ink crayon (?) illustrations are so evocative of another era. A great read for Christmas Eve.

Laughter: the Best Medicine Holidays
It's a collection of "Reader's Digest" short humor, from Thanksgiving turkeys to New Year's Day and winter. Some of the jokes are perennials, like kids who get Christmas song lyrics incorrect, but there are also some real giggles throughout. A great "bathroom book" or guest room book for the Christmas season.

09 December 2015

Let's Celebrate!

Christmas Worldwide, Cathy C. Tucker
I have several "Christmas Around the World" books, but this is my first that was written in a year not beginning with "19." In fact, all of them (except for the individual "World Book" "Christmas in..." books) are from the 1940s/1950s, and it's reading this one that clearly illustrates how Christmas celebrations have changed over the years, not just in the United States, but all over the globe.

For instance, one change I noticed first in Rick Steves' European Christmas, where they show the Swiss Christmas gift-giver as "Samichlaus." In all the older books I have, the Christkindl delivers the gifts in Switzerland. In just fifty years, the Santa Claus celebration has transferred itself to yet another country. It's interesting—yet sad—to see how Americanized holiday celebrations have become around the world, overwhelming local customs. Also, many of the author's sources have now come from web pages rather than totally from books as in my older volumes.

This is not the most lyrically written book I've ever read. Most of the facts are presented in a cut-and-dried manner in short, precise sentences. Due to that, it lacks the warmth that some other Christmas books contain. However, it's still an intriguing trip around the world from Antigua to Wales, from the tales of unusual Christmas meals in Australia to celebrations of St. Thomas' Day before Christmas in Belgium to how Canadian festivities changed from customs particular to the frontier to celebrations similar to those in Great Britain, from tropical Christmases in Cuba to freezing ones in Denmark, Christmas in countries with long histories of Christmas customs and in countries like Somalia where Christmas is celebrated by only a tiny minority. Its also interesting to see which countries share similar celebrations, like Germany/Holland/Switzerland/Hungary's St. Nicholas Day festivities.

So, interesting, but don't expect sparkling prose.

06 December 2015

Happy St Nicholas' Day!

§ St Nicholas' Day: Dark secrets behind the myth of Santa Claus

§ St. Nicholas in Canterbury

§ St. Nicholas: The German Way

§ St. Nicholas and Your Shoes

§ The Art of Simple: St. Nicholas

§ Why are Boots Placed Outside the Front Door on St. Nicholas Day?

§ St. Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins

Unusual Christmas Videos


Christmas in Space: Apollo 8

The Pagan Origins of Christmas

Tony Robinson's "The Worst Jobs in History: Christmas"

Traditional Carols and Songs

The Story of the Christmas Truce

30 November 2015

Och, Aye, It's St. Andrew's Day

For many years St. Andrew's Day opened the Advent season in Scotland.

St Andrew's Day: 14 Scottish Phrases You've Probably Never Heard 

Five Things You Didn't Know about St. Andrew (could one of them be "he wasn't Scottish"?)

St. Andrew's Day in Scotland

St Andrew’s Day 2015: Why Even the Scots Couldn’t Care Less (I had no idea the poor sod Scots now had Black Friday, too)

Brown Pants for Christmas and Other Stories


Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!, edited by Amy Newmark
So what better place to start Christmas reading than here, 101 (like the Dalmatians) of short, inspirational stories for the holidays (and I mean both, since Hanukkah features many times in this edition, while other Christmas stories have Jewish protagonists participating in the festivities).

What's really to say about these stories? Some are funny, like the one about the woman determined to make the perfect dinner, even though she's not much of a cook, who has the unexpected happen with her Christmas turkey. Others are about people discovering the joys of giving (my favorite part of the holiday!) rather than getting, or about getting through Christmas after a beloved relative or friend has passed on or because they are alone. We learn about a Christmas tree full of heart ornaments, and another in which for a long time all the decorations were simple love notes from a husband to wife and vice versa. There are stories taking place in sunny Arizona, in snowy mountains, on a cruise ship and on a boat. Along the way a dog comments on Christmas cookies, people look at gifts a whole new way, a few marriages change, others cope with a whole new way of life, grandchildren grow and carry on traditions, with the common factor being the Christmas spirit. You can have it with no decorations, or a twig hung with the most unexpected of ornaments, or a tree that won't fit in the space properly, because that's really all that is needed: not gifts, expensive china, turkey dinners or snow.

It's sentimental. Gruff "I hate sentiment" folks are warned. Buy something else that you love to read. But if you want a nice warm fuzzy throw of love, hot cocoa in print, this one will do it for you.

29 November 2015

Christmas Nostalgia in Photography


Vintage Christmas Photographs: 1920s

Vintage Christmas Photographs: pre-1920s

Vintage Christmas Photographs: 1930s

Vintage Christmas Photographs: World War II era

Vintage Photographs of Christmas in Boston, mostly 1950s era

Vintage Christmastime in the City

Wartime Christmas

26 November 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

17 November 2015

Read a Thanksgiving Story!

Read the story in book form at Archive.org, the first story in this volume of Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag.

L.M. Montgomery's "The Genesis of the Doughnut Club," a different kind of Thanksgiving story.

A poor but honest boy gets a reward in "Bert's Thanksgiving."

Read The Children's Book of Thanksgiving Stories online or download it to your e-reader.

15 November 2015

Vintage Thanksgiving Photographs

Over the years, Thanksgiving celebrations have changed. If you've read Betty Smith's classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, you may remember Francie and Neely going out playing "ragamuffin" on Thanksgiving. Here are photos of the real thing:

Thanksgiving Masquers in 1911

Additional Photos of Thanksgiving Masquers

In the 1920s, the Macy's parade began:

Vintage Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Photos

More Macy's Parade Photos

Amusing Photos of Macy's Parade Balloons

More black-and-white Thanksgiving photographs:

Little Girl and Thanksgiving Turkeys

Smithsonian Vintage Thanksgiving Photos

Classic Black-and-White Thanksgiving

11 November 2015

This holiday was originally called "Armistice Day" to commemorate the ending of World War I, originally the Great War, which officially ended at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918 ("the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month"). My parents, who were born in that decade, still called it that even after the name was changed after World War II.

In "my day" (that sounds so pretentious!), this poem was heard at school assemblies every November. We all learned it by heart:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

It's probably the one World War I poem everyone knows. The author was John McCrae, a Canadian, who did not survive the war.

More World War I Poetry

31 October 2015

30 October 2015

Autumn Reveries

Fall scenes set to beautiful music!

Autumn Animals!
Hedgehog from Centerparc's blog:

Red squirrel from BoredPanda.com

West Highland White in the leaves from Animalfair.com

White horse in autumn by Brian Jannsen:

Nothing Gold Can Stay
Robert Frost (1923)

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

God’s World
Edna St. Vincent Millay (from Renascence and Other Poems, 1917)

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
     Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
     Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
     But never knew I this;
     Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

25 October 2015

Rudolph Day, October 2015

Truman Capote's enduring classic:

"A Christmas Memory"

"Why I Reread 'A Christmas Memory'"

04 October 2015

"October Gave a Party..."

October's Party
George Cooper

October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came-
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.

The Chestnuts came in yellow,
The Oaks in crimson dressed;
The lovely Misses Maple
In scarlet looked their best;
All balanced to their partners,
And gaily fluttered by;
The sight was like a rainbow
New fallen from the sky.

Then, in the rustic hollow,
At hide-and-seek they played,
The party closed at sundown,
And everybody stayed.
Professor Wind played louder;
They flew along the ground;
And then the party ended
In jolly "hands around."

01 October 2015

Welcome to Fall!

I know the equinox was in September, but it really doesn't feel like fall until October is here.

How'd you like to walk down this path right now?

25 September 2015

Rudolph Day September 2015

How about the stories behind some Christmas carols, told in film and prose:

Story of "The Huron Carol"

Story of "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

Story of "Silent Night", also told in this Coronet film

25 August 2015

10 May 2015

05 April 2015

25 March 2015

Rudolph Day, March 2015: Vermont Holiday

A Vermont Christmas, Richard Brown and Jay Parini
This is a nifty coffee-table book of mostly photographs—with a difference. Most of the books of this sort are a confection of beautiful decorations, breathtaking scenery, and warm celebrations. There are many photos of scenery in this volume, but most of the photos are of the more "homely" (as the British say) sort: a cow next to an old barn, a minister ready to go before his congregation, a child before an old stove, a man shoveling snow from his roof, sheep in the snow. Some local recipes using maple syrup are included, but most of the text is nostalgic, including a wonderful essay by a woman who lived on a Vermont farm in the 1920s and an excerpt from The Lone Winter from 1923. A book for a cold afternoon, to partake by the fire and/or with a cup of cocoa.

25 February 2015

Rudolph Day, February 2015: Lost Christmas Gems

A Dream for Christmas, 1950s African American family moves to Los Angeles to take over a failing church; written by Earl Hamner Jr

A Christmas Carol 1971 animated version which won an Oscar

The Carpenters: A Christmas Portrait musical special

Hollywood Palace (1968) with Bing and Kathryn Crosby

Bob Hope Christmas Special (1965; his first in color)

06 January 2015

Over by Christmas

The Walnut Tree, Charles Todd
This is a "holiday novel" by a very loose thread only, when a beautiful thing happens on Christmas Eve, so it was appropriate for the end of the Christmas season. In this one-off novel from Todd as not part of the Bess Crawford or Ian Rutledge series, Lady Elspeth Douglas is in France with her good friend Madeleine when the Great War breaks out. Elspeth has been brought up in great wealth, but when she sees hordes of thirsty soldiers in Paris and tries to help them, she is called to serve as she has never been called before. Having an "understanding" with her best friend's brother, she is disconcerted when she is attracted to the Army officer who makes it possible for her to get out of England. Defying her guardian, she trains as a nurse and goes back to the front, where she discovers a purpose for her life, but a dilemma for her heart.

This is a short, sweet wartime romance about a wealthy girl who finds her true self and her inner strength in serving on the battlefield. She experiences mud and misery and terror, grief and love, kindness and loyalty, with her nerve and her dignity intact. While the end may seem a bit pat for modern audiences, the events narrated did happen in real life. I enjoyed all the characters and the brief look at the nursing sisters' experience at the front and with the wounded, and the stubborn resolve of the men determined that their cause was the right one. And the holiday event brings to mind a beautiful image that will stay with me.

05 January 2015

So Many Nights Before Christmas

The Annotated Night Before Christmas, Martin Gardner
Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" forms the basis of this book that features not just an annotated version of the poem—otherwise the book would be about six pages—but as many of the parodies and similarly-metered poems that have been written in the succeeding years. (Incidentally, the first thing Gardner says in his introduction is "I hope no one imagines that I regard the selections in this book as good poetry," which makes him sound incredibly snobby right off the bat. But, truly, there is much doggerel in this book.) It also opens with a brief biography of Moore and his estate, which gave the New York City neighborhood "Chelsea" its name, Christmas in Moore's time, and the history of St. Nicholas, before descending into homage and parody, the earliest which was written only a scarce dozen years after the original. (Most of the earliest "sequels" are 19th century polemics against gluttony and greed.) There are alcoholic versions, one portraying an exhausted salesgirl, fairy tale incursions, even a collection of "MAD" magazine versions and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, plus various ethnic versions (Cajun, hillbilly, etc.) in excruciating dialect.

Near the end there's a "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" chapter, since the original Rudolph story (not the Rankin-Bass classic) was written in the same meter, as well as its lost sequel, Rudolph's Second Christmas.

For Moore fans everywhere. To be read slowly, however, over several nights, or else the poems read one after the other become frankly annoying.

03 January 2015

In Time for Christmas Pudding

Mrs. Jeffries and the Merry Gentlemen, Emily Brightwell
This is a long-running mystery series (this is book 20-something) about the household staff of Inspector Witherspoon, a Scotland Yard detective with an impressive record of solved crimes. What his superiors don't know, of course, is that his housekeeper, the titular Mrs. Jeffries, and the rest of the household staff have formed an investigative team of their own. They go where Witherspoon isn't trusted, among other servants, or to the shopkeepers, and gather clues which they bring back to the clever Mrs. Jeffries, who sits down with her employer each evening and manages to subtly feed him the clues until he comes to the inevitable solution.

In this story, one of the members of an investment club called "the Merry Gentlemen" is murdered, and Witherspoon (and of course his unknown compatriots in service) must find out whodunnit quickly, or his Christmas holidays will be ruined.

The readers of 20-plus books in this series can't be wrong, so I feel a bit guilty about being so diffident about it. It's not a bad book, I just have so many series I like better that I wouldn't involve myself in this one. The characters are appealing and the stories remind one of the plotlines and protagonists in the Pennyfoot Hotel mysteries. If you're looking for a Victorian cozy, this is a good one to try (well, starting at the beginning, anyway).

02 January 2015

The Greatest Gift...Freedom

Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, Patricia McKissack and Frederick McKissack
This is a picture book for children about slavery just before the Civil War, portraying the two different celebrations on a Southern plantation: the opulent world of the planter and his family and the poor living conditions of their slaves. While Christmas means the slaves are given extra privileges and more food and a chance to also celebrate the holiday, the comparison between the revelries of the planter's families and the simple celebrations of the slaves make the point of the story all the more powerful.

This is a simple way of introducing children to the injustices that existed during the time of slavery, with beautiful illustrations that bring the dreams of freedom of the enslaved men and women alive.

01 January 2015

Christmas in New Amsterdam

Santa and Pete: A Novel of Christmas Present and Past, Christopher Moore and Pamela Johnson
First, this is not the Christopher Moore of snark. The gentleman who wrote this little book is relating some of his own family history in writing the story. While ostensibly it is the story of how St. Nicholas and his assistant Peter (known as "Black Peter" in the Netherlands) met, began to travel, and migrated to the new world in time to avert war between the Dutch and the Native people, it is the framing narrative that is the meat of the tale. Young Terence's grandfather, who drives a New York City bus the length of Manhattan, is lonely after the death of his wife, and Terence's parents wish him to learn something of his heritage and his grandfather rather than being self-absorbed, so every Saturday a rather resentful Terence is placed on his grandfather's bus to follow him on his route. Gradually Terence becomes entranced with Grandpa Mann's historical tales and the regulars who take his bus.

There are some liberties taken with the Nicholas/Peter story, since originally the pair delivered gifts on December 5, both in the Netherlands and in New Amsterdam; however it would take away from the narrative to have to divert to explain the date change. While the description says it's the tale of Santa and Pete, it's really the story between Terence and his grandfather and their friends on the bus that carry this sweet story.