31 December 2016

Christmas Reading

Yes, I've cheated. I let the books get away from me, so instead of individual day reviews, here they are all in one fell swoop for the rest of December.

Remember, Christmas isn't over yet...

book icon  Christmas: A History, Mark Connelly
I had never seen this history of Christmas in Great Britain and worried when I ordered it that it might be too similar to Gavin Weightman's Christmas Past. I needn't have worried; Connelly takes a different tack in talking about the traditional English Christmas. The notion has usually been that Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Washington Irving's Old Christmas re-invented the holiday, but Connelly believes that Christmas was there all along, changing with the years, and Dickens and Irving just described what was going on, and he also explains how Christmas, although its customs have come from places as varied as Germany and the Netherlands, has become very much an English holiday.

I just loved this book. There are long detailed chapters about how the Victorians idolized the medieval Christmas (something I also noted in those old issues of "St. Nicholas" magazine; lots of stories of knights of old celebrating Christmas), the origins of the unique English pantomimes and how even in the late 19th century people were complaining that they weren't as good as they used to be because they failed to use the original characters like Harlequin anymore, how post-Victorian Britons rejected the folk carols in favor of "real" English music, plus more chapters about different celebrations around the Empire (was a warm weather Christmas even legitimate?), the spread of commercialism in the celebration, Christmas in relation to radio broadcasts (including the Monarch's classic speech), and Christmas in British films and on British television. It's a real treat if you are interested in the history of the holiday and especially of how the British have contributed to the celebration and our conceptions of Christmas.

book icon  Krampusnacht: Twelve Nights of Krampus, edited by Kate Wolford
For those of you who deplore the "sticky sweetness" of Christmas, have we got a book for you. The old St. Nicholas was less forebearing than his modern North Pole counterpart, and in most parts of Europe he traveled with a dark assistant (Pelznichol, Bellsnickel, Black Peter, etc.) who punished the naughty children the good bishop didn't want to touch. The most horrendous of these forms was the Krampus, a horned, hoofed beast with a long red tongue who carried a basked upon his back to carry the naughty ones away.

And here are twelve tales of Krampus in all his sinister power, from a smitten toy store employee who agrees to play Krampus if it pleases the girl of his dreams without knowing what he's getting into, a little girl who gets revenge on a pesty brother, a wealthy yet sinister Victorian man whose precise life is about to take a wrong turn (at least for him), the story of a meeting in a pub that goes terribly wrong, a retired policeman who's tired of the neighbor kid vandalizing his Christmas display, and seven more tales of revenge and fantasy. My favorite was "The Wicked Child," which actually paints a different picture of Krampus, but I found "Santa Claus and the Little Girl Who Loved to Sing and Dance" unsettling based on how it ended. Actually, most of the stories herein are "a little creepy." Definitely not for younger children!

This is definitely "something different" for Christmas!

book icon  Christopher Radko's Ornaments, Olivia Bell Buehl
If you collect Radko ornaments, you know the story: the Radko family had fragile, historical glass ornaments going back to the 1800s, carefully purchased by great- and grandparents. One year young Christopher bought a new tree stand and carefully fastened the family tree into it. After it was decorated, the tree stand collapsed, and most of the fragile ornaments were destroyed. Heartbroken, Radko traveled to Germany, where most of the ornaments were made, and found that the glass ornament business had pretty much died due to cheaper alternatives. But the molds were still there...

This is the story of Radko ornaments and how he took the risk in reviving the old glassblowing skills, with pages and pages of photographs of the beautiful creations. Frankly, the text is a bit embarrassing, as the self-congratulation goes on forever. Better is the story of the ornaments, but these older ornaments (the book was published in 1999) are a far cry from the overly-glittered ones that they sell today at inflated prices. Frankly, after seeing the originals I don't understand why they have to be so overdone today. Anyway, this book is perfect for vintage ornament lovers and those who are interested in the secrets behind making them.

book icon  Swedish Christmas, Catarina Lundgren Astrom and Peter Astrom
This is a lovely full-color volume about Swedish Christmas customs as recalled by a Swedish woman now living in the United States. Starting with the first Sunday of Advent, Astrom chronicles holiday preparations and all the stops along the way (Nobel Day, Lucia Day, Dipper Day) through St. Knut's Day on January 13. There are recipes (according to Astrom, a Swedish Christmas is pretty much just an excuse for eating!) and even a few crafts, and wonderful photographs of simple customs and midwinter landscapes. The memories are recorded with such affection you want to jump into the book and join the celebrations.

And who knew a favorite Swedish Christmas custom was watching Donald Duck on Christmas Day?

book icon  The Bark Before Christmas, Laurien Berenson
Now back helping special needs kids full time at her old private school, Melanie Travis Driver has been saddled with organizing the annual Christmas bazaar. Luckily, she discovers that her committee has things well in hand, and the school headmaster has even arranged for the Santa Claus to be stationed at a pet photo booth. She's expecting only small problems to pop up—until one of the school alumni, Sandra McAvoy, loses her valuable show dog, a West Highland White Terrier who is on his way up in the dog show world, and the hand-picked Santa Claus is found dead. Sandra vows to sue the school if little "Kiltie" isn't found, and Melanie is volunteered to ferret out the dognapper.

There's much more going on than the mystery in this story: the Driver family gearing up for Christmas, Davey entering his first dog shows, Melanie's work with her students, a police officer who can't believe "this dog business" would be serious enough to cause a murder, and the marriage of Melanie's ex-husband to someone she (and the family) really like. I figured out one of the accomplices quickly enough, but the ending has a bad taste due to the fate of one of the supporting characters. It will make you angry that some people allow this to happen.

As a bonus, the book has a Christmas novella at the end called "A Christmas Howl" that harks back to when Aunt Peg was still married to her husband Max. We meet Melanie and Frank as teenagers and learn a little more about their parents. Some of the revelations aren't happy ones.

book icon  The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, Charlie Lovett
Ebenezer Scrooge was as good as his word. For twenty years he has been so generous he still lives in his gloomy digs while providing for the poor. He says "Merry Christmas" every day of his life, even in the depths of summer. It is, in fact, a warm midsummer day when he meets again with his ghostly friend Jacob Marley and finds to his dismay that all his good deeds have not helped his chain-bound partner's burden much. So Scrooge sets out to catch bigger fish: send his well-spoken nephew to Parliament to plead for the poor, talk his creditors into helping debtors, and convince Bob Cratchit not to be such a workaholic.

Using the same format as A Christmas Carol, Scrooge asks Marley to send back the spirits who helped him. Lovett borrows Dickens' passages freely in order for these transformations to take place. Frankly, the result is dreadful. The emotions that so permeated the original book are sadly missing, and it's hard to imagine Bob Cratchit becoming such a nose-to-the-grindstone bore. When Scrooge is transformed you want to cheer. When this book ends, you're relieved. I'd skip it.

book icon  Dear Santa,Mary Harrell-Sesnick
This is a sweet collection of letters to Santa Claus from the late 19th century through 1920. Back in those days, Santa Claus letters were taken to the local newspapers, where often some wealthy benefactor would take the name of a poverty-stricken family and help them. These selections were taken from these newspaper offerings. Some of them are charming snapshots of the time: children asking "Dear Santy" for "arctics" (galoshes), velocipedes, silver "hartes," and other vintage toys. Others are sad, with children asking for clothing and extra food for their siblings and widowed mothers who are working hard to support them. Modern people may be surprised for requests for items that are now everyday things in grocery stores, like oranges, nuts, and apples. Sometimes the missives are unintentionally funny, like the boy who asks for a rubber ball that won't break windows. The letters are divided by decades, with notes to explain unfamiliar terms like "hartes" (they're charms, like for a bracelet). It's a neat look back into the past.

book icon  Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
I've reviewed the next three books before, many times, so if you are interested you may go looking for the titles above in the search box. I read them every year because they epitomize the coziness of Christmas. This one is a library favorite from my childhood, taking place on a Vermont family farm after the Second World War. Windy Foot is a pony, but while he's involved in significant episodes, the emphasis is on the Clark family and their Christmas preparations, and the happiness of having guests for Christmas. Many old customs emerge, including putting small gifts on the Christmas tree (like in the song), decorating with live greens, carol singing in the village square, etc. There's even some excitement with a bear that has become a livestock killer and a skiing event that almost turns deadly. The Swedes would call this hygge and they'd be correct!

book icon  The Tuckers: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
Whitman Books published this series about a family of five children, parents, and a dog and cat in the 1960s. Most are about the kids getting involved in projects or with neighbors, but this one is a little different: youngest daughter Penny, who is frailer than her rollicking siblings, is searching for her place in life. When her doctor says Penny is well enough for the family to spend Christmas at their rural summer cottage, the children discover the fun of finding their own Christmas tree, help a young mother with a baby, and even face danger with a cougar stalking the local farms. But it's the Christmas preparations and the warmth of family relations that take center stage, and at the end Penny has not only learned something about herself, but she's found something more important. Simple and special all at once.

book icon  Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Kathryn Lasky
This is my favorite of all the "Dear America" books, the story of a Midwestern family battered by the failing economy of the Great Depression. Minnie, the youngest daughter, forms a special friendship with their cousin, a waiflike escapee from the Dust Bowl, Willie Faye Darling, who comes to live with them after the death of her parents, and in return, it's Willie Faye who holds the family together after Mr. Swift loses his job and, it seems, his confidence. Again, a good window on the time: eating thrown-together dinners with only bits of meat in them, closing down rooms to save heating coal, taking food to the homeless, bread lines, and the public's fascination with the movies and with radio shows. This story is marred only by the slightly fantastic epilog; otherwise, the family (based on Lasky's own mother and aunts and uncle) rings very true.

29 December 2016

On the Third--and Fifth--Day of Christmas

I've been out this week twice stocking up on crafting supplies. What with James' problems taking up most of the first seven months of this year, I had gotten out of the habit of using the Michaels and JoAnn coupons. I need to take this up again. What I gather can be use for gifts, and when money starts getting tight in the future, that will be useful.

Tuesday I went to Town Center because I had two good JoAnn coupons, a fifty and a forty. Town Center is great because four hobby/craft shows are right near each other, in walking distance, really, if you are in good shape. I skipped Hobbytown because they're mostly models, trains, and puzzles, and started at Hobby Lobby, where they were industriously putting up Valentine decor, having scrunched Christmas into as few aisles as they could. I checked out the leftovers, but mostly ugly stuff was left. I was getting an urgent call of nature, so I left without picking up anything else.

First checked out the bathroom at JoAnn, then the merchandise. Storage was already on sale, so I finally got a case for my drawing pencils. With the other two coupons I got a start on a Christmas gift (actually parts for a couple). Then next door at Michaels I picked up something that will become another Christmas gift, plus a bag of little pieces of wood. I have an idea for them that isn't quite formed yet.

From Craft City I went to Book City to check out the clearance table at Barnes & Noble. No goodies today, sadly. Checked for new books and gave the magazines a once-over, then went to Publix in the hopes of finding a baguette. I did, as well as some low-sodium beef soups for James, plus they had Sterlite storage boxes on BOGO, so I bought two.

I came home through the battlefield park and down Kennesaw Avenue past the beautiful old homes with their long aprons of lawn and sweeping sidewalks, which are more traditionally dressed in greens and red bows. I like to slow down and look at the homes, but always there's someone behind me and I can't linger too long to check out the beautiful gingerbread trim and the columned porches. A couple of people even have wire fences like the one that used to be in front of my grandfather's house, not your garden variety chain link, but like the wire in the photo at right (click to see details). They make me ten kinds of nostalgic.

I got home just in time to see the flurry of posts on Facebook about Carrie Fisher's death. Damn. I hate 2016 more each day. I sat down, got fidgety, and pulled out my drawing pencils and sketched Artoo-Detoo saying farewell to his princess in hologram. Yeah, cliche and corny, but who cares? (Damn. She was younger than me.) And then, oh, yeah, the exterminator showed up.

Casually skipping over yesterday and later Tuesday night, which is covered elsewhere, I woke up having had a sort-of decent sleep. After breakfast and puppy perambulation and enjoying listening to Dana and Mugs, I headed for Lowe's to see what was left of their Christmas stuff. They had strings of C-9 clear bulbs and I decided to try once again to provide some light out in the back yard, while the tattered remnants of the last string still hang broken from the deck. I have to take them down and put the new string up properly; I think it broke because I just swagged it from some floral wire; it shouldn't dangle. (Of course there's a chance the stupid squirrels chewed it, too.) I also bought clear and white C-7 bulbs, and checked out the LED bulbs again. I also looked for winter banners, as ours is shredded. They had some, but only in small sizes. Eeek! I've had to order one online. Hope I don't get skunked.

Now, Michaels had a two-day after-Christmas coupon: 40 percent off all jewelry-making supplies. This seemed too good not to take advantage of. I originally started for the Hiram store, but changed course to go back to Town Center because I still had two more JoAnn coupons. I was able to pick up some really good pieces in Michaels, either under the coupon or on clearance, and found some dimensional Modge-Podge to use with their 50 percent off coupon. JoAnn was just as profitable; I bought some permanent colored pens, a holder for James to use for his medications, and a few more sale items.

I told Snowy I would try to be home around noon, but missed it by an hour. Once again I came home through the park. The parking lot near the park headquarters was crammed with cars and dozens of people (and many dogs) were walking on this beautiful sunny day with temps in the 50s, tempered by a pretty brisk wind which kept a steady stream of dead leaves swirling around any area they had accumulated. At one point leaves came dancing in front of my car like tiny ballerinas skipping across a stage. Once again I logged on to Facebook to discover that someone has passed away: this time it was Debbie Reynolds. She had what they thought was a stroke yesterday after commenting on daughter Carrie's death. ::sigh:: Now mother and daughter are reunited again.

For the rest of the afternoon, I had a leftover pork chop for lunch, put some of the most egregious mess away, updated blog entries, played Christmas music and more Christmas specials stacked up on the DVR (Perry Como in Austria and Bing Crosby joined by Mary Costa and Robert Goulet, plus the second half of a Pearl Harbor special that I unfortunately missed the first hour of, talking about how Admiral Kimmel was screwed by military intelligence and warned too late due to multiple blunders.

James and I had the rest of the pork-recipe beef pot roast for supper with scalloped potatoes, slices of a Terry's chocolate orange for dessert, and I have been watching specials about Switzerland: a tour of Swiss Christmas markets and now a train ride through Switzerland.

26 December 2016

Boxing Day Blues and Greens

It was 61°F when we went to bed. Even with both fans in the window, we both slept badly. James got up at seven to telework, but I hung on another hour, having been woken up being warm, again being itchy, again because my leg hurt—it became a litany. Woke up to find it grey, gloomy and grizzly. So I dressed, walked Tucker, ate a quick breakfast, and left James staring at his computer (he had no calls all day dealing with what he's supposed to support at all; any calls he took were from people who couldn't log onto their laptops).

I hadn't gone to Walgreens at all during Advent, and based on the leftovers there today, I needn't have wasted my time then or now. However, I had a 30 percent off total purchase for CVS, so that was my next destination. BreatheRights were on sale so I couldn't get them, but I stocked up on PeptoBismol, some disposable shower caps, wide headbands to use in the car with the window open, and a few other toiletries. Next it was over the railroad bridge and past the leftover Christmas trees to Bed, Bath & Beyond, but had to stop at Barnes & Noble first. I wanted to see if they had the clearance items out, but...nope. Just like CVS, they were still in the process of marking them down. So I used the bathroom and skedaddled.

James had asked me to get him a 10" saute pan at Bed, Bath & Beyond. I picked that up (it turns out what he needed was a 8" saute pan, so now I need to swap it), plus a fold-up stepstool for the laundry room, and a gadget to scrub out the shower. Even when I kneel down I cannot reach the back of the shower compartment. This thing has an extension pole on it and has a rotating scrubber. I hope it will cut down the pain to my back. I found one of those "star shower" things (the brand that's red, green, and blue) half price and got one for James, and also some balsam and cedar Yankee candle tea lights.

Next I stopped at Costco, as we were out of both milk and Skinny Pop. I bought something for us to take to Bill and Caran's annual New Year's Eve bash, and picked up the "Time" salute to John Glenn as well.

My last stop was Michael's, where I indeed did pick up two Christmas clearance items, but mainly grabbed a few small things to use a 30 percent off total purchase coupon which is only good today. I am looking for a container for my drawing pencils, but everything is too big! I want something the size of a pencil case, and it's all huge.

Got home just in time to dodge the rain and have lunch with James (leftover shells with pork from Friday's supper) and then sat down to watch some Christmas things, starting with The Little Match Girl. The only resemblance to the Andersen story is that there's a little girl selling matches; in this go-round she's an angel in disguise, trying to help a fragmented family in a 1920s era Philadelphia-clone city. Keshia Knight Pulliam plays Molly the angel with a sweet combination of innocence and roguish knowledge, and William Daniels is perfectly stuffy as the wealthy businessman who doesn't realize he's being played by a crooked police chief.

The rest of the afternoon was reserved for assorted unusual Christmas specials I've recorded over the years: first The Greatest Tree on Earth, a fascinating British program about the history and traditions of the Christmas tree, following a Tokyo family, a Lappish family, and a Brooklyn family with their Christmas prep, intercut with historical insights and the workings of a Christmas tree farm. The most bizarre segment showed German propaganda films from World War II, made to convince the population that everything was fine. There was a huge tree hung with Hitler ornaments and glass acorns with swastikas on them, topped with a star, under a big swastika. Talk about unsettling! Then Christmas and the Civil War. Using re-enactments, it showed how Christmas went from a small religious holiday to a national celebration, following the lives of Thomas Nast, Louisa May Alcott, a plantation owner's wife, and a slave who was originally a Christmas gift to his master's wife. Next Christmas Lights, simple  footage shot in different places, no narrative, just some background music: the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, a writer's cabin in Alaska being decorated with lights and ornaments with a bonfire held outside afterwards, Washington DC and the display around the National Christmas tree and other public buildings, the coast of Maine where children and adults decorated a tree with lights and goodies like apples, popcorn, corn, seed-covered peanut butter pinecones, and even herring for the local wild animals, and finally the streets and decorations and then the Grand Illumination in Colonial Williamsburg. Dreamy, lyrical and simply beautiful.

Finally there was another re-enactment special, The Christmas Truce, that included an appearance by the daughter of Bruce Bairnsfather, a famous cartoonist who served in World War II.

We had Italian wedding soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for supper, watched Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and now I'm on the Christmas specials I still have stacked up on the DVR: two Merv Griffin Show segments to start with. One was in black and white when Arthur Treacher was still Merv's sidekick: he was dressed up as Santa Claus and sang two songs. The other was a color episode which featured William Shatner —all excited about a project he was working on with inner city kids—and Mel Torme, who sang "The Christmas Song," of course, and did an acappella duet with Merv of Christmas songs. Smashing!

(Guess what! What James wanted was an 8" saute pan. He said ten. So back we will have to go to BB&B.)

25 December 2016

Two Days of Christmas

Had a busy Christmas weekend, starting yesterday when we were expecting company: James' mom and sister were coming up for a Christmas dinner. I believe this is the first time they have been up since we had Thanksgiving dinner in 2006. James was up early to put our little turkey, all nine pounds of it, into the oven. He tried it Alton Brown's way: brown it for a half hour at 500°F, and then lower it to 325 and let it cook until it was done. In the meantime he made a gravy with the neck and giblets, and stuffing. (This gravy came out thick and rich and wonderful. Like Aunt Meg's gravy in Twister, it was a food group all its own, especially since James put pureed vegetables in it.) I finished cleaning up and made room for folks to sit down and primped the bathroom a little, and even went downstairs and put the new tags on our license plates and our new registrations on the sun visors. The turkey was done at noon and we had a chance to relax—and nibble on it a little, of course!—before Mom and Candy arrived.

We had an informal lunch around the coffee table, with Mom bagging a tray table. The turkey came out well except that one side was a bit underdone, another sign that the oven is not working properly. The stuffing was soft and flavorful. Mom and Candy had brought scalloped potatoes, green beans, corn casserole, and a grape salad. There was Christmas music on in the background and the tree lights were all on. After lunch we exchanged gifts. James got a nifty airplane clock and an airplane wine bottle holder and some sangria. I got a bunch of bird related things, including a rustic frame, a big stand-up sparrow in a Santa hat, and another little bird. We have been giving them a different type of food basket every year: once it was Italian, once it was soup, etc. This year it was a "garnish" basket, things to spice up meals: salad fixings, finishing sauce, Asian noodles, ice cream topping, garlic dip mix to go into butter to make garlic bread, sprinkles for ice cream and cake, etc. We also gave Candy an Eeyore mug and a Cowboys Beanie Baby for her birthday two weeks ago, and Mom a Robert Ludlum novel.

They headed out before it got dark. We gave them the rest of the white meat and kept the dark; James put the drumsticks in the freezer, but as the shadows lengthened, we had a light dinner of the rest of the leavings: I just put hunks of turkey meat and some gravy on two Kings Hawaiian rolls and ate those; James made a little plate with stuffing. Then we hurried out to go look at Christmas lights; we've been going so "late" (like 8 p.m.) that people already have turned them off! This is absolutely flabbergasting to me because we always keep our Christmas lights on all night: Mom said it would help the Holy Family find our house. (I also keep ours on New Year's Eve and at Twelfth Night.)

The light situation was a bit iffy. I didn't want to go far from home because James was feeling a bit off, so we just stayed around the neighborhood. Not a whole lot of festive folks around. Not sure if it's the political climate, the economy, or if people just aren't celebrating. I do notice, though, that a lot of the newer homes have their living rooms at the rear of the house, so you see fewer big Christmas trees in front windows. We did have some luck going up toward downtown Smyrna; while the Park development seemed to have several fewer decorations than last year, two new plats were well dressed. We saw swooping stars, large decorations that looked like giant illuminated bulbs, classic decorations (white candles, green wreaths, red bows), those new "star shower" things, lights outlining windows, lights along paths. Also checked out the Craftsman-style homes on King Springs Drive. I would love to have one of those. (Yeah, I know. House envy. But it's more because they tickle all the nostalgic bones in my body.) However, we didn't go to Dunleith to see if they did luminaria this year, or to see of the big house on Cunningham Drive had turned into what we call "the wedding cake house," it is so draped in lights.

Finally, back home, I took Tucker out, and then we settled down and watched The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. Once that finished, we put on the news and then watched Midnight Mass from the Vatican. This year NBC did not cut it off at 1 a.m., but showed the whole thing. And since we were up anyway, we opened presents. I had bought James a new Ott Light for his model work, and four books (one about the Berlin airlift, another about World War II films, the new book about Pearl Harbor defending Admiral Kimmel, and a book about the World War II Memorial). He bought me War of the Roosevelts, a nifty metal barrette, a "thesaurus" t-shirt, a great Cumberbatch-as-Doctor Strange poster, and a Steiff budgie. (Yes, a Steiff budgie, blue with a white face. I knew they made more than bears, but not birds!)

Needless to say, we slept in on Christmas morning, and then James was up before me, having walked Tucker and made himself some breakfast. I made myself an eggnog to have with my oatmeal and yogurt, and spelled James making his special dessert, caramel sauce over oranges. He also made corn to take to the Butlers, and we brought the green beans and mushrooms left over from Christmas Eve dinner. I'd had Christmas music on earlier, but while the oranges were soaking in their sauce, I watched The House Without A Christmas Tree and then A Christmas Memory with Geraldine Page.

I also gave Tucker the second half of his Christmas gift. Last night I gave him his new plush blanket. I meant to bring it out from the spare room and surprise him in the living room, but I forgot to close the gate and he followed me in. I held up the blanket—he had chewed holes in his old one—and his eyes widened and he reared up on his hind legs and grabbed at it with his forelegs. When I did give it to him, he shook it like a rat and proceeded to growl and roughhouse with it until he finally got it in a lumpy pile and laid on it. This morning I gave him the fox. This is a non-stuffed toy because he eviscerates stuffed ones. He had the squeakers that are sewn at either end killed within an hour.

We headed to the Butlers about 2:30 and were still one of the first to arrive. As always, it was a wonderful time. There seemed to be a running gag today: someone would walk in and see A Christmas Story running on the television (first Charles, then Juanita, then Alex) and say, "You know, I've never seen this movie." Wow! Anyway, we snacked on Lin's piecrust pastries and apple and cheese and a relish tray until it was time for dinner, which was turkey, steak, pot roast and ham, with mashed potatoes, biscuits and butter, carrots, and our beans and corn. Later there were two pies and our oranges for dessert (they were lovely; I had three helpings). Once again, we did not see Sylvester the new kitten (who is now an adolescent cat), but we understand he's already fond of climbing the Christmas tree. They get him down by turning on the Death Star tree topper that Phyllis gave them. Later on we exchanged gifts. James got a nice warm throw and movie tickets, and I had two Doctor Who adult coloring books with pencils and a mug. We headed home around eight, full of food and friendship, and snuggled by the tree (as we couldn't very well snuggle by the fire, as it was 70 bloody degrees out; I'd walked in the door earlier and called "Happy Easter!") until bedtime.

24 December 2016

Sleep Well...

Being The Last One to Bed on Christmas Eve
from "The Simple Things," December 2015

There's a sense of anticipation the night before Christmas—and not just for children. The solstice is past and the new year beckons. It feels like a good time to look back, count blessings and appreciate what we have. Some of us find space to reflect at church, in the rituals of a traditional service. The bonhomie that follows Midnight Mass is not just down to shared mince pies and mulled wine. Others simply light a candle and take a moment to watch the flame flutter, or sit by the tree with just the glow of a fire. Then, once the house is quiet, it's time to blow out the final tea light and creep up the stairs full of well-being and wonder.

"On Christmas Eve"

On Christmas Eve

Carollers sing at cottage doors,
Their songsheets bathed in lantern light,
Familiar words sound loud and clear,
Upon this frosty, moonlit night.
The sound of church bells fills the air,
Calling the faithful to midnight prayer.

Gusts of wind shake the holly hedge,
Where birds perch huddled out of sight.
Children are tucked up warm in bed,
Dreaming away this magic night.
Outside, late revellers in the lane
Sing "Good King Wenceslas" again.

                         . . . . . . Colin A. Lycett

22 December 2016

Finding Christmas in the Nicest Places

Since I spent yesterday doing laundry and feeling a little homesick, I thought I'd try to do better today. After sleeping until eight, I had breakfast and walked the dog, then gathered up a couple of coupons and drove into Buckhead. Traffic was very light and I was able to check out the wreaths, bows and garlands along the route. I went through the little village of Vinings, all decked out in garland and bows and candy canes and wreaths, and thereafter the route is tree-lined with large homes with lush lawns and some unusual decorations: someone had an inflatable Snoopy, Santa in an airplane...and Santa riding an elephant?

The parking lot of the Barnes & Noble was crowded, however, mostly because it's next to a Publix. I managed to round a corner just as someone was pulling out, which took care of my parking problem. The bookstore was fairly busy. I'd promised myself I would just go in and pick out the book I wanted, but when I go into a bookstore all promises go out the window. I trolled the magazines quickly and picked up "Taproot" just to get it out of my system (a lot of the text is gardening/cooking, neither which remotely interest me, although I'm drawn to self-sufficiency—go figure), checked out the new books one more time, and then bought a copy of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (the illustrated verson). The cashier and I had a nice chat and then I was off to the real purpose of my trip, a visit to Richard's Variety Store.

If you live in or near Atlanta and have never been to Richard's...what's the matter with you? It's a wonderful store. I remember taking Jen and Meggan there when they visited. If you remember old five-and-ten-cent stores with fondness, you need to go to Richard's. They stock an eclectic collection of books (a lot of humorous or offbeat ones, plus a neat group of republished classic children's books like Make Way for Ducklings and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel), cards, toys, glassware/cooking items, and along the side and back wall, hardware items and housewares, some that I've never seen anywhere else. For instance, they had something that was a plug at one end and a light bulb socket at the other. I may have to get some for the library, since you can't see in the first bay with the overhead light out of order. I found a nice slotted dipper for getting meat out of the crock pot without the juice that goes with it, and bought a new meat thermometer and a whole huge spool (2300 feet!) of baker's twine. But at the back I found something we really needed. Both the plugs in the sinks in the master bath don't work. James' has simply become detached from the gadget that makes it go up and down. The gadget in my sink appears to be broken. Anyway, James has to watch it when he takes the copious amount of pills he's prescribed or one or two escape down the drain occasionally. He's been putting a paper towel there. I found these metal inserts with holes in them, like a tiny colander, called "crumb cups" which fit snugly into the drain hole. No more losing pills (or insulin needles, for that matter).

The store was filled with mostly women and children, but some men, buying stocking stuffers. This is a good place for them. They have Hot Wheels cars, plastic fantasy animals, gag gifts, small stuffed animals, gadgets for your bike, playing cards, and any number of small things like that. The floors are old linoleum, and there is still a horse you can take a ride on for a quarter.

(I nearly bought a beautifully illustrated copy of Wind in the Willows. I've seen versions where the animals look real, or the illos are just line drawings. These were lovely, very Beatrix Potter-like. But the book was abridged. 😞 )

I came home via Northside Drive and the freeway, and instead of getting off at Spring Road as I am wont, went up one more exit so I could check out the new Ollie's Bargain Outlet off Windy Hill Road. My sister-in-law was right: Ollie's did have small calendars. I usually buy an inexpensive 5"x5" calendar, value about a dollar, to keep next to my computer and tick off my paydays and what I have to pay on each one. This year neither Michael's nor Kmart had any. Every other place sells 7.5"x7.5" calendars, which are too large to fit in the space. Well, up front they had three-calendar packs: a wall calendar, a mini calendar, and a pocket calendar, all for $1.99. I got the lighthouse one. The mini is a tiny bit wider and an inch longer, but it was the width that was the problem and this would fit.

Came home and dumped all the stuff inside, and then really should have had lunch, but I was about fifteen minutes later than I wanted to be, so I grabbed a towel, the dog soap, and the dog, and hustled the last two down to Petco's dog-wash so Tucker will look smart and shiny when his Grandma and Aunt Candy visit. We were alone there at first, but then a woman came in with a golden Labrador and, just as Tucker was dry, a German Shepherd came in with his people, a mom and two kids. Tucker and the German Shepherd eyed each other with interest; it's just the one at the end of the street he doesn't like. Tucker was very good; I even took a chance and removed the restraining leash he was on to brush him properly and then dry him, and he was good as gold, didn't try to jump out of the tub or anything, and he sat quietly, although he hates the noise, as I dried him off.

We got home and waited for James, who had had a doctor's appointment at 1:45 and then was picking up stuff we needed for Saturday at Publix. It took him ages to get home because the store was so crowded. In a while we had our leftover steak for supper and watched the new "Holiday at Pops" concert that PBS broadcast this year. It was so good to see it! James and I remember watching it yearly on A&E television before they became a haven for misbegotten reality shows. I sang along during the sing-a-long and really enjoyed Justin Hopkins' singing. I followed with The Waltons episode "The Best Christmas." I remember this for a funny thing that happened a couple of weeks after it aired. There is a sequence where Curt and Mary Ellen are helping two frostbite victims, and are applying cold compresses, and then slowly warmer ones. Well, someone wrote a heated letter to "TV Guide" screaming that it was not the correct way to treat frostbite!!! Sure, not in 1976 when this aired, but it was the way you treated frostbite in the 1930s, when it took place! I laughed myself silly over that one.

We closed out the night with "Merry Christmas, Bogg" from Voyagers!

11 December 2016

Third Sunday of Advent (With an Accent!)

I've been an Anglophile ever since I was a tiny child in feetie pajamas who watched Richard Greene in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies.

If you've binge-watched Downton Abbey, still remember the original Upstairs, Downstairs and Flambards, and are a Fawlty Towers fan, having a British Christmas may be for you!

A Very British Christmas

10 Ways to British Up Your Christmas Celebrations

How to Celebrate Like the Royal Family

Christmas Telly

6 Very British Christmas Traditions That Might Surprise You

09 December 2016

"It's So Tinsel!"

Finally, it was time! I slept until 8:30, ate breakfast and walked the dog, and commenced to tree assembly and then decoration. Snowy played supervisor as I stacked the tiers of the tree and plugged each in, sighed in relief when each lighted, snaked an extension cord down the "trunk" of the tree so I could plug in the star, and then started to apply decorations, old in the back, large everywhere first, to be filled in with smaller ones. This year I did not put the Hallmark "twelve days of Christmas" ornaments on the tree. We have half of them now, and I bought the metal display tree a couple of years back. We have one more bird to go, the swans a'swimming, and then I will note with interest when we leave the birds and start with the humans. This set has made the number five not "rings" as in the kind you wear on your fingers but as ringneck pheasants; this is a theory about the song is that the "five golden rings" were golden ringneck pheasants, which were known as "rings" in the era the song was conceived. (It's not, as some people say, about the Bible. It's a song to be sung at a game, back from the days when that was part of the Christmas celebration, not watching football on TV or playing on your iPad.)

The tinsel, as always, took the longest. I always want to get that perfect waterfall effect, like ice flowing down the tree. It's made harder by the fine icicles that they make today. The version through the late 60s (when they replaced lead foil tinsel with the mylar stuff) through the 1990s was thick enough that I could remove it after Christmas and keep about three quarters of it. The new stuff is almost as fine as angel hair, and if you remember that awful stuff, you also remember how it was prone to static electricity. At least it was cold today! The temperature was down in the 20s this morning. Last year it was so warm when I decorated the tree that I had to wear a glove to hold the tinsel because it was sodden with perspiration from my hand.

Once the manger figures were under the tree, I was done! "It's so tinsel!" as Lanny and Wayne the Christmas elves would say. I changed clothes quickly and took four of the five packages we need to mail (one has a missing part) to the post office to get them off. Remarkably, this only took about fifteen minutes. I'm going to quit going to the PO when it opens!

I'd only eaten oatmeal, yogurt, a piece of bread and three glasses of milk all day, so Uncle Maddio's Pizza was a welcome supper! Then we went to Sprouts and then to Publix. We just need milk and eggs and "plastic cheese"—which we can get at Costco tomorrow.

So nice to blog by the glow of the tree...

06 December 2016

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

 The Story of Santa Klaus, from 1909, attempts to bring the threads of the origins of Santa Claus together.

Nine Things to Know About St. Nicholas

What Has St. Nicholas To Do With Ireland?

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated most famously in the Netherlands, where he arrives on a ship from Spain accompanied by his servant, "Zwart Piet," Black Peter. Not long ago Peter was an ominous figure to Dutch children: parents would tell their children that if they didn't behave, they would be stuffed in Peter's sack and taken away. (Other Germanic cultures have a similar character, like Pelznichol—"Nicholas in Furs"—or the dreaded Krampus, who looks like a devil with a long red tongue.) Today Black Peter is controversial because he is often still played by people of non-African descent in blackface makeup, and portrayed on wrapping paper in stereotypical fashion with large lips and big rolling eyes. Most illustrators today are like the one above who makes Peter look like a real person rather than a hurtful clown and books like Santa and Pete have reworked the Black Peter character to present him in a positive manner as St. Nicholas' full partner. The modern Peter carries candy, not a sack, and gives out sweets to the children.

04 December 2016

Second Sunday of Advent

We stopped by Big Lots after completing our errands at Costco and some "us" time at Barnes & Noble. A year or two ago, the lights on the little pre-lighted silver tree we used for James' airplane tree died. We used it that year sans lights, and James bought a blue tree the year after, but it was not pre-lighted. We tried a candle, but there was no way to light up that tree and it sat sad in the dark unless the hall light was on. I'd been searching rather haphazardly for a new tree; really, a three-foot tree would have been perfect, but apparently they don't make three-foot trees anymore. So I changed my search to 4-foot. It's amazing how much some sites wanted for a 4-foot tree, but of course some of them came in big planters. Guys, just want a silver, pre-lighted Christmas tree.

Lowes, Home Depot, Michaels had only green trees. I guess I could have gone looking at Walmart, but...Walmart...before Christmas...oh, dear. That's suitable only for emergencies, and I couldn't find any small silver trees on their website anyway. So Big Lots was the only place I could find a 4-foot silver tree with white lights that didn't cost an arm and a leg.

Once I decanted it, I knew why it was cheap, too. I've seen twister seals with more tensile strength than the branches of this tree; if you can't hold a plastic Hallmark airplane without drooping, what's the chance it will hold a glass ornament? Poor thing was as "homely as two toads," as Aunt Emily used to say to Lucinda in Roller Skates, when I took it from the box. I've perked it up a bit, but it took a lot of fluffing, plus I had to bend some of the branches up to offset the weight of the ornaments. The stand is so wide and the stand downstairs so narrow that only two of the three feet are actually on the top; I had to shim the third leg. In the end, it came out looking okay, and I could finally use the red, green, and gold garland I bought for it originally, with the red and the green corresponding to landing lights.

Earlier in the afternoon we watched Maryellen 1955: Extraordinary Christmas based on the Maryellen series of "American Girl" books. Maryellen's adventures were released just recently and she was not one of my favorites; she's just too frivolous for me, and her little sister the ballerina is freaking annoying. I like her bookworm sister the best. Surprisingly, the film pulled the storyline together much better. Instead of Maryellen painting the front door red to welcome her mom's old war plant workers, in the television story she chiefly does it for the handicapped son of one of her mother's friends from the war plant. Instead of her going to her grandparents' for Christmas and being lonesome and disillusioned, she gives up the trip for a better reason. Plus Maryellen in the film is talented in drawing. Beverly the little dancing pest was heard from little and they gave Maryellen's dad something to do other than just be a name in the book. She was played by the same little girl who played Dolly Parton in the recent film Christmas of Many Colors (and its predecessor, Coat of Many Colors), which I found rather lightweight and unbelievable, despite the great cast; the script was just too didactic and childish. In fact this Maryellen episode was much better than that Parton film, although Alyvia Alyn Lind was perfect as young Dolly.

(Supposedly this is the first in a series of Maryellen stories on Amazon Video. Will be interested in seeing the rest. If you have Amazon Prime I recommend this.)
In the meantime, some videos to enjoy:

Probably my favorite episode of The Ghost & Mrs. Muir TV series: "The Ghost of Christmas Past"

Another "GAMM" favorite, although not Christmas: "The Medicine Ball"

Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory

Homicide in a Holiday Town

We Wish You a Murderous Christmas, Vicki Delaney
Merry Wilkinson is the proprietor of Mrs. Claus' Treasures, a specialty gift shop in the small New York town of Rudolph, which, after languishing for years, is now a successful year-round Christmas town, with everything themed to that holiday. As the story opens, Merry and her best friend Vicky, who's a bit sweet on the handsome new chef at the Yuletide Inn, have finished their meal and run into Merry's parents and the Olsens, owners of the Inn, just as Jack Olsen suffers a heart attack. The next thing everyone knows, Gord Olsen, Jack's bullying son from his first marriage, has come into town and is making plans to sell the Inn to a cheap motel chain and the adjacent gardens to a discount superstore chain. Everyone in the town is opposed to the idea, none more than Merry's dad Noel, one of the townspeople that came up with the Christmas town idea. So when Gord is murdered after an argument with Noel on the very night he doesn't have an alibi, he's the natural suspect. And of course Merry, who proved herself an able sleuth in her first outing, won't stop until she clears her dad.

I'm a Christmas freak, so I love the idea of a town dedicated to Christmas year 'round (heck, I'd live there myself). I like Merry, but I feel she's a bit hard on her assistant Jackie in this outing, although I understand that she's freaked out by her dad being under suspicion. (She does better by her dog in this book, however.) As usual in a small town, Noel has his opponents, including the annoying Sue-Anne Morrow on the town council (apparently related to Sue Ann Nivens from The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and the envious neighboring town of Muddle Harbor, a fading relic just as Rudolph would have been, also throws its unscrupulous oar into the water. Since there was no love lost between Gord and anyone else, except for his awful wife Irene, there is no lack of suspects.

It's not a perfect series. Merry has two handsome guys fighting for her attention. Yeah, as if. The police office investigating the case is correct: Merry's just sticking her nose in too much (but then the story ends here!). And odious Irene kind of just vanishes near the end of the book. Nevertheless it's a cute little series revolving around a neat (for me) concept. I'd love to see Merry's oft-mentioned brother Chris appear in the next story!

03 December 2016

Trim Up The Tree...

...but not quite yet!

As I'd reported in my main blog, on the first Sunday of Advent I managed to get the Christmas candles up in the front window, the door wreaths up, and the wreath, little blue tree, the Santas in the chairs, and the Father Christmas flag up on the porch, and draped the net lights over the bushes out front. The other lights would have to wait. I had taken Monday and Tuesday off, and this helped greatly. I spent Monday morning divesting Thanksgiving and dusting off things, and putting out the Christmas stakes (reindeer, candy cane, and jingle bell) outside and the mailbox cover. Plus Woody and Holly, the log reindeer. I'd planned to have the foyer all decorated when James got home, but the string of lights on the mini-ornament tree failed and I wasn't going out during rush hour. Instead I toted all the boxes that needed to come upstairs upstairs (I even managed to get the village upstairs; it's not heavy, just awkward.)

Tuesday morning I had to run to Michaels. All they had were LED strings in sets of fifty. I used them, but the tree now looks garish. Sigh. The kids today will grow up thinking LEDs are normal and pretty, but they will never know how soft and sweetly lovely incandescent lights were, comforting and gentle rather than garish. Anyway, I was able to finish up the foyer, and then I put up the library tree and the decorations dotting the library shelves and the couple of things in the downstairs bath.

Wednesday I had to go back into work; got my telework training done for another year and sent a file on for approval. Unfortunately I think the chicken salad in my sandwich was starting to spoil. I got very queasy after lunch and finally came home. I logged on to work via my computer in case something needed immediate attention, but it was all quiet and I swigged some Pepto Bismol and finally had a short nap. James was late so I roused up and busied myself putting greenery in the china cabinet and cleaning off things in prep for decorations.

Thursday was a telework day, but I got a bunch done during lunch and after work: put up the ceppo on the china cabinet, the feather tree with the vintage ornaments and the gilded walnuts I made as a teenager (so I guess they're now vintage, too!), and finally the table, which had to be cleaned off first (I swear, horizontal surfaces in this house gather so much junk). I did everything but the "1910 tree" because there wasn't time, but did get to the gingerbread and candy cane decorations in the kitchen. This was all possible because James came home late because he was picking up his new glasses. They are pewter colored and look super with his beard. I even had the Christmas village up on the mantelpiece before he walked in the door.

Friday morning the decorating continued—the "1910 tree" becoming the centerpiece on the table, the Rudolph tree going up in the hall. I had to dust and polish my entire bureau before I could put the little Italian and Scottish decorations up our bedroom. I absolutely don't understand how the bedroom gets so dusty. I could probably leave the spare room without dusting for a year and it wouldn't accumulate as much as it does in our bedroom in a week.

All I had left was the woodland tree, but it was time for me to get dressed and head to the Apple Annie Craft Show at the Catholic Church of St. Ann off Roswell Road. I don't even know anymore how many years I have been going to this event. I like this church; it's a pity it's such a long drive away. There were a lot of jewelry vendors this year. I stopped to talk to the first one, who was a man who made his own links (jump rings) out of wire and then he makes chain-mail bracelets from them. If "chain mail" sounds big and awkward, these weren't; they were fine and beautiful. He does the chain work and his wife the beadwork. I felt old; I mentioned Trifari to him and he had never heard of it. ☹  It was such a part of my life growing up that it's hard to believe that no one remembers any longer except for some jewelry collectors.

Well, I had two surprises, one sad and one good. The sad one was that they are remodeling the meditation garden, so I couldn't have my usual peaceful visit. I was a bit unhappy at first, because they have torn out all the plants and the pond and the statues and they're putting in granite. But it turns out that they are building a columbarium, a place to inter ashes, like the place at the Church of All Saints where Amy Rutledge is, and a prayer garden. It was supposed to be done by Christmas. I know when it is done it will be very nice but I was sorry that the rustic look of it is going away.

The happy surprise is that I ran into Claudia Barbour. We chatted a few minutes and I invited her to the Twelfth Night party.

Most of the things I would have liked to buy were very expensive: solid wood lazy Susans with beautiful blocky designs, natural wood "no electric" speakers (I actually would have bought one of these but we had nowhere to display them properly) with beautiful geometric decorations, solid wood crosses hand-carved. Not a lot of cute clothing for grandchildren this year, either.

Did stop in the sanctuary to say some prayers before I left. I always pray for James and Tucker and Snowy to be healthy and for me to be a better person, but mostly I prayed for all this political hatred to end. Reading Facebook has become a chore and the vitrol from both sides is frightening.

I stopped at Michaels on the way home to get some Sharpie markers, Trader Joe's to stock up on Christmas goodies, and finally at Kaiser at Town Center to pick up my levothroid. I was thirsty and feeling a bit cranky, but then the phone rang in the purse of the lady ahead of me, playing the Boston Pops' "Sleigh Ride." It cheered me up no end.

I got the woodland tree up tonight before settling in to watch Christmas specials tonight: John Denver and the Muppets, A Muppet Family Christmas, "Santa Claustrophobia" from Hill Street Blues, and Christmas Past.

Christmas on the American Frontier 1800-1900, John E. Baur
I got this at the library book sale, having taken it out at least once. Taken directly from diaries, journals, and histories by the people who lived the experience, chapters address different aspects of the American pioneer experience, starting from the founding of the country and the customs brought from Great Britain, France, and Spain and introduced to the native inhabitants, some who took great enjoyment from the holiday, but sadly, mainly due to alcohol. Some inspiring stories tell about settlers, cattlemen, explorers, and trappers making the best of what they had and sharing what little they had with others, or riotous dances at distant ranches, but more often the tales are bleak: people lost in blizzards just feet from the homes they were heading for, groups on short rations enduring another hungry day, cowboys spending the day tending cattle and wishing for some camaraderie, rough-and-tumble miners breaking from hardscrabble life for one day, and even British immigrants learning to endure the wild Western weather. Other customs are learned as Spanish customs like farolitoes and La Posadas catch the eye of visitors.

This book is from 1961 so the text may not be as softened as it might be at the present time, but the main draw here are the actual words of the pioneers. Coloring-book type illustrations break up the text. Slightly dry, but with some surprises (for instance, the word "hop" as a synonym for a dance; it sounds like a 1950s term, but goes back at least one hundred years earlier).

02 December 2016

Heartlukewarm Stories

Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas, edited by Amy Newmark
The 2016 edition, which advertises itself as being not only about Christmas, but having stories of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, too, which is strange, since I did find the one Hanukkah story and didn't find one about Thanksgiving.

I've loved these things for years, but this seems like a lesser effort. Maybe it was from reading two "true" stories that were remarkably similar to Pearl Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning" and a novel called The 13th Gift. Maybe it's because I keep seeing the same authors' names over and over; do they just have an affinity for heartwarming Christmas events happening to them? Maybe it's because some of the stories were just "meh" this year, like the little boy repeating to Grandma exactly what his mother asked him to say? Or maybe it's just that 2016 has made me extremely cynical?

Whatever. Some of the pieces are heartwarming, but this isn't the "Chicken Soup" folks at the top of their game.

01 December 2016

"Trees of Winter"

E.B. White

Oh, they are lovely trees that wait
      In the still hall of winter,
      Silent and good where the Good Planter
Fixed the root, wove the branch delicate.

Friendly the birches in the thin light
      By the frost sanctified,
      And here, too, silent by their side
I stand in the woods, listening, upright,

Hearing in the cold of the long pause
      Of the full year
      What trees intend that I should hear:
Interpretations of old laws...

Hearing the faint, the chickadee cry
      Of root that molders,
      Of branch bent, and leaf that withers,
And little brown seed that does not die.