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.

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