05 January 2016

Poetry, Songs, and Annual Favorites

The Carols of Christmas, Andrew Gant
I have several books on the history of Christmas carols, so I was very pleased to see a new one in the stacks of Christmas publications. Gant's is pretty much devoted to the story of English carols, although "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Jingle Bells" make appearances, so if your favorite carol isn't here, that may be why.

This book's greatest novelty is also what might turn people off about it: it's written for people who have a knowledge of music and musical terms. If you're confused by the use of terms like "demi-quaver" and "semi-quaver" and "plainsong" or don't wish to pick your way through Latin and French verses, you might want to pick up Ace Collins' simpler Stories Behind the Most Beloved Songs of Christmas. For those who stick with Gant, you'll enjoy his puckish sense of humor as he traces some of the well-known hymns back to old folksongs sung in regional variations by the poor, some of them even rather bawdy. Then there's "Good King Wenceslas," with its words set to a French song about the spring! From Advent through Epiphany, you'll learn what "wassail" is, which carols have different melodies depending which side of the Atlantic they're on, and a theory about how the partridge, a ground bird, got up that pear tree. Great reading, especially for music lovers.

The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems, edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark
This is a companion book to The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, both ostensibly for children, but as I commented in my review of the latter, definitely for older children, since you won't find cloying sweetness about puppies and Santa here. In fact, some of the poetry is definitely aimed at adults, from T.S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" to W.H. Auden's "Well, That is That." The poetry ranges from winter odes through Christmastide and through Epiphany and the dead of winter, some playful, some thoughtful, a few even tragic, like the grim Victorian "Christmas in the Workhouse," with a few terrifying pen-and-ink illustrations. A charming "Haiku Advent Calendar" enlivens the endpapers and a magical poem about a boy's discovery of the Nativity is told in "Journey Back to Christmas." Worth finding if you are a poetry aficionado or just wish to read some different and descriptive verse for the holiday season.

Re-read: The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock
This "novelization" of the classic Christmas special about Addie Mills has no dependence of the special itself, and indeed Rock gives the characters more background than they were able to provide in the filmed story, expanding Addie's exploration of her world and especially giving more depth to Grandma and her eccentricities. Seeing that this story is based on Rock's life, we may have gotten more insight into what the grandmother who cared for her was like. We also see more of Carla Mae's home life, and the end of the story is structured differently from the television production. The wonderful illustrations by Charles Gehm are also a plus. A must-have for an Addie Mills fan.

Re-read: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
This is the just plain funny, but ultimately touching, story of six undisciplined kids who terrify their classmates and drive their neighbors crazy. The Herdmans—Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys—are pretty much on their own all the time; their father has vanished, their mother works two shifts to support them. They steal, blackmail their classmates, harbor a dangerous cat, and are generally a nuisance. The only place safe from them is church, until a kid named Charlie tells one of them that the minister gives out free treats.

Told in a fast and funny narration by our unnamed narrator (Charlie's sister), we follow the Herdmans as they get involved with the church Christmas pageant—first having to learn the story of the Nativity from scratch. As the chaos grows, the pageant is threatened with cancellation, but a surprise is in store for everyone.

Peppered with such delightful descriptions like "My friend Alice Wendleken was so nasty clean she had detergent hands by the time she was four years old," this is one of my annual reads which brings a smile to my face every time.

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