30 December 2017

Of Icons and Airplanes

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Ideals Christmas, Worthy Media
This 2017 edition of the yearly magazine contains the usual complement of artwork, cozy photographs, poetry and essays. I was surprised this year to see an essay by a man, as the "Ideals" essays usually tend to be written by women. The Robert Frost "Christmas Trees" is also included, and there's an essay and poem by Edgar Guest.  I really loved the illustration opposite the title page; very stylized, like a 1930s or 1940s card, and the beautiful photograph of Beacon Hill in Boston in the snow.

Spirit of Steamboat, Craig Johnson
This is a dandy novella in the Walt Longmire mystery series. Before Christmas, Walt is visited by a young woman of Japanese ancestry who says she has something to return to the man who preceded Walt as sheriff of Absaroka County, Lucian Connally, a former World War II bomber pilot. She claims to know both Walt and Lucian, but they don't recognize her. Until she mentions the word "Steamboat."

It was back in 1988 when Walt, fresh in his sheriff's uniform, is coordinating a lifeline flight of a little girl who was burned in an accident. It is Christmas Eve and Absaroka County is in the midst of a raging snowstorm. The lifeline helicopter pilot refuses to go on to Denver, and there are no facilities to help her nearby. None of the other airplanes at the local airport is powerful enough to get through—except a World War II-era B25 named "Steamboat." Determined to save the child, Walt ropes Connally into flying the B25 to Denver.

Although how the flight turns out is not in doubt, this was a page-turner as the pilots and Walt keep "Steamboat" running and Walt also helps the attending physician keep the small child alive with the help of her grandmother. Erratic navigation, ice buildup, low fuel and open bomb-bay doors plague the flight, and there's a hair-raising conclusion to their rescue mission. Enjoyed this one a lot.

(I was also amused to recognize the procedure the doctor performs on the little girl as the one Steve McGarrett had to do on Danny Williams in the penultimate episode of the latest season of Hawaii Five-0.)

Back to Monroeville for Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale, G. Neri
Nelle Lee and her friend "Big Boy" Carter eagerly await their friend Truman Persons on a sweltering December day in Monroeville, Alabama. They haven't seen Tru for two years; he's been living with his self-absorbed mother and new stepfather. They expect Tru will jump at the chance to live back in Monroeville with his beloved cousin Sook and her family, but instead at a custody hearing between his mother and his father, Tru baffles them both by choosing to go with his mother and be adopted by his stepfather.

Two years later it is Truman who is running back to Monroeville, having been stuck in a military school by his mother. He's convinced he's cursed, but when he find the most beautiful Christmas tree ever, he thinks bringing it back to Sook and her family is the one way to break the curse. Instead it it's only the start of an incredible series of adventures.

Neri's text, as in Tru and Nelle, mixes real-life events (the trial Amasa Lee participated in that inspired To Kill a Mockingbird, the incident with a bully that prompted the short story "The Thanksgiving Visitor," plus touches of "A Christmas Memory" with Sook and the fruitcakes, Truman Capote's experience with his mother and stepfather, a fire that destroyed the home of Sook, Jenny, and Truman's other cousins) with fictionalized involvement of Nelle with a murder trial and events around a rare snowy Christmas. The interactions between the kids is great, and Neri does not softpedal the terms of the time nor the racism, but it also seems like an "everything but the kitchen sink" drama, with the murder of the river merchant and the events with the tree and Truman's feeling of being cursed and the events with the fire all jockeying for attention. I think I liked the parts best which dealt with Truman's conflicted feeling for his parents and Nelle's and Big Boy's attempts to help him.

As a whole, glad I read it!

28 December 2017

Childermas Day

Childermas, or Holy Innocents Day, commemorates the slaughter of the children by the orders of Herod the Great after he was visited by the Magi following the star to the birthplace of the infant Jesus. Because of the horrific associations of the day, it is said to be bad luck to start on a project on this day.


Massacre of the Innocents - Wikipedia

Liturgical Year: Holy Innocents Day

Feasts and Festivals: Holy Innocents


27 December 2017

A Depression Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
In 2001, the "Dear America" books were still in the middle of their run. This one caught my eye because (a) it was a Christmas book that took place during the Great Depression, which my own parents had endured, and (b) it was written by Kathryn Lasky, who wrote the Calista Jacobs' mystery novels for adults and some great novels for kids like The Bone Wars and Prank, the latter which takes place in East Boston. I opened it and was immediately transported into the life of Minnie Swift, age eleven, at the end of 1932 as the Depression closes its relentless jaws around her family. They've already closed off rooms to save coal, hardly eat any meat at meals, and her father comes home a little earlier from work every day. Minnie correctly deduces that this will not be a season of bounty, but one of want.

And then a surprising thing happens: the daughter of one of Mrs. Swift's cousins is sent to live with them after the death of her mother in the dust-scourged tiny town of Heart's Bend, Texas. Willie Faye Darling arrives encrusted with dirt, carrying a basket with a kitten whose nose and mouth she must siphon out three times a day to keep it from suffocating, meager clothing, and not much else. Minnie is astonished when Willie Faye reveals she's never seen a movie, doesn't know who Buck Rogers is, has never used an indoor toilet, and is frankly amazed by the hyperactive Swifts, including Minnie's super-intelligent younger brother Ozzie and her "distractible" and artistic older sister Lady, so Minnie figures Willie Faye will have a lot to learn from them.

What she, nor the family, knows is how much they will learn from this undersized, quiet refugee from the Dust Bowl.

The story pretty much paints a bleak view of the era, with her father eventually losing his job, friends who have had fathers disappear, seeing friends in bread lines, their visiting a shantytown. But the Swifts also manage to have good times and their ingenuity works to help them. Like my parents did, they forego other treats to attend the movies, make their own Christmas gifts, and find inexpensive amusements.

Only the epilogue comes off as slightly too fanciful.

Otherwise this is a magical book.

Once Again, A Gift from Joe Wheeler

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Christmas in My Heart, Book 12, Joe Wheeler
Wheeler has done almost thirty of these little books that combine old Christmas stories from magazines with an original Christmas story he writes for each volume. The later volume also started including more modern stories from "Reader's Digest" and what you might call "Chicken Soup for the Soul" type tales, but nevertheless, all the entries are heartwarmingly appropriate, from the pre-1927 stories like "Christmas Bread" (written by Kathleen Norris, who was my mother's favorite author, and which has a woman surgeon as a protagonist) to 2000's "Merry Christmas, Mr. Keene," about a wealthy man and a Christmas pageant. There was even a Temple Bailey (author of the lovely "Candle in the Forest") story I had never read. This volume concludes with Wheeler's "Christmas Sabbatical," about a Ph.D. who lost track of life in his pursuit of a degree, and a wonderful opening essay about Joseph, the "hidden man" of the Holy Family, which including an excerpt from one of the Pearl Buck stories I had just finished reading yesterday.

Grab these when you can! They are out of print now, but occasionally turn up in used bookstores. I liked the earlier ones better, when he just resurrected vintage magazine stories rather than using the "Chicken Soup-y" entries, but they're all worth the trouble, just for his stories.

26 December 2017

Spend the Holidays With Pearl Buck

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Once Upon a Christmas, Pearl S. Buck
I picked this up at a used book sale noticing it had the essay "Nineteen Stockings by the Chimneypiece," which was reprinted in "Reader's Digest" for so many years, and figured it would also have Buck's most famous Christmas story of all, "Christmas Day in the Morning," about the teenage boy who devises a novel gift for his father. To my surprise it is not in this volume, which is a combination of essays by Buck about various Christmases in her lifetime and short stories she wrote, including "Christmas Miniature," about a little boy who sneaks downstairs on Christmas morning, just to see if Santa has been, you understand, and ends up saving a very small life; "The New Christmas," in which a family of seven discovers a "new" kind of Christmas when it looks like they won't have any money for a big celebration; and "The Christmas Secret," about a couple who has adopted a Vietnamese child of mixed ancestry (this one annoyed me a little, as the couple appeared to be protecting a man who came off as a jerk, but which I believe was Buck's intent).

I loved both stories and essays, but found the latter fascinating learning more about Buck's life as the child of missionaries in China (missionaries who did not believe that the Chinese they were living among were "heathens" or not as good as white people). Her story about the Christmas they didn't celebrate because they were too busy keeping Chinese refugees from starving, or about the Chinese boy who turned up at their doorstep and whom they adopted, or about their almost being murdered when the Japanese invaded Nanking were quite affecting. My favorite essay was "Thoughts of a Woman at Christmas," which begins as an essay about Joseph and turns into one about feminism, and something I've been thinking for years, that the reason men want to entrap women behind veils or under burkas, or abuse them and abuse children, is that there are too many men who are really afraid of women, that a woman being as intelligent as they are or as strong as they are somehow demeans their manhood. Back in the 1950s, Buck was writing about issues that still trouble us today: equality between the sexes and equality between the races, and her anger about the injustices of mixed-race adoption are those I remember from Helen Doss' The Family Nobody Wanted.

As a bonus this volume contains pencil illustrations by Donald Lizzul. Worth your while.

25 December 2017

Old-Fashioned Christmases

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Children's Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Asa Don Dickinson and Ada M. Skinner
I picked this up at the Northside Library in the fall, a jacketless volume from 1913 that I knew would at the least contain either a whole copy of A Christmas Carol (as these books were wont to do) or excerpts thereof, and I was correct. In fact. the Cratchits' Christmas dinner is excerpted twice, under two different titles, as if the editors didn't even notice. And certainly there were the usual reruns: Andersen's "The Fir Tree," Ruth Sawyer's "Voyage of the Wee Red Cap," "Why the Chimes Rang" (a reworking of the story of the Widow's Mite, "Little Wolff's Wooden Shoes," and "Little Gretchen and the Wooden Shoe" (the last two prime examples of the noble small children in 19th century stories who know the real meaning of Christmas).

But there were several new ones that I found enjoyable. About four were stories gleaned from a 1904 volume called Kristy's Queer Christmas. Apparently the Kristy of the title is a little girl who gets sick at Christmas, and instead of being able to celebrate must stay in bed, so various guests and her relatives cheer her up with stories (rather like Alcott's Spinning Wheel Stories). These include "The Telltale Tile," about a poor woman who does a fiscal favor for an even poorer neighbor and finds her contribution repaid tenfold, and a story about a snowed-in prairie family. Several other stories were taken from that venerable children's newspaper "Youth's Companion," including "The Little Sister's Vacation," which made me angry until the end (our heroine, Peggy, is the one child still at home, and when her married sister and her professional sister come to visit, the mother drops everything to socialize with them, leaving Peggy—"Peggy is so handy!"—to plan the dinners, help in the kitchen, and ride herd on the married sister's three year old daughter, plus study for a Latin exam during her Christmas vacation!). Another was about Betty, who had to stay at boarding school over the holidays because there was no money for a visit home, and how she made the others staying there happy, and the third about a philanthropist who refuses to meet the people he gives money to, until his lost dog draws him into a mystery. Another boarding school story involves a little boy who cannot go home for the holidays.

One story I'd read before and liked seeing here was "A Christmas Matinee," about a wealthy girl who runs about with a fashionable crowd who does a good deed for a trolley driver in 1890s Boston. The familiar streets and trolley stops always make me smile.

A worthwhile purchase, even with the duplicate stories!

Christmas in the Air

As I mentioned, James volunteered to work today so he wouldn't get drafted, especially on New Year's Day. Plus it was double time and would make up a little for his three doctor's appointments last week. So this Christmas morning James was up at seven to work. I got to sleep in a bit.

James was twiddling his thumbs when I got up and had breakfast. I was changing channels looking for something Christmasy, and stumbled over Come to the Stable on FXM. I wish I'd known it was on. I hadn't seen it in years. It's not really a Christmas movie, but begins in winter when two nuns arrive in New England to try to found a children's hospital. I'd forgotten how funny bits of it was, especially Sister Margaret driving the jeep.

Tucker was very patient and waited for me to finish with the movie to go out. It was very cold out, in the high 20s with a sharp wind snapping the St. Nicholas banner and the flag. It felt good! There were high clouds and bits of sky showing as we strolled the neighborhood. Someone down the street was having company for dinner. The cars filled their long driveway and spilled out to the street.

James took a break before lunch and then we had presents! O, what a haul! Four books and two DVDs, the books all from my Amazon wish list: World War II in Rhode Island, Rhode Island Radio (with a photo of Jack Comley, my favorite radio talk show host ever), Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Britcom FAQ.  The DVDs were both Rick Steves: his new episodes for 2017-2018, and all his specials (even the Easter special). I gave James two military nonfiction books, Andy Weir's new book Artemis, the second season of WKRP in Cincinnati, and a Jethro Tull concert DVD. And of course the chair he was sitting in! (We discovered Tucker sleeping in it last night, and it looked so sweet, the little dog curled up in the big red chair next to the Christmas tree.

Put on The House Without a Christmas Tree while we had lunch: our turkey leftovers from West Cobb Diner on Friday night, a clementine, and Terry's dark chocolate orange slices. Tried not to snack too much so we could save the calories for the feast at the Butlers!

While James waited for someone to call, I also washed some towels and unloaded and loaded the dishwasher and made the bed.

Spent the later afternoon watching The Homecoming and feeling very drowsy, so took a 45-minute nap (well, I tried to; I really didn't sleep much), then took Tucker for a walk, fixed him a special Christmas dinner with a little chicken broth and beef and carrot dog-food puree, got dressed and washed my face, brought James his shoes (otherwise he was ready to go) and a hairbrush, and put the gifts together.

At five o'clock James signed off having had nary a call, and we loaded up the car with presents and chocolate cake and were off to the Butlers to enjoy three hours of friends, food and fun. People had just sat down to dinner and we availed ourselves of apple cider basted turkey, spiral-sliced ham, pot roast, mashed potatoes, noodle kugel, sprouts, and carrots. Dessert was two homemade pies, fruitcake cookies, our chocolate cake and a coconut cake, and some Andes mints we also brought. Once the feasting was complete, we gathered in the living room for gifts. We got many lovely things, too numerous to list.

Journeyed home about eight, stopping at a housing plat along the way to see their decorations. One end definitely had a "glitter gulch"! Yet another lawn was covered with inflatables: two Mickey Mouses, a Minnie Mouse, a Minion, Olaf the snowman, Santa in an airplane, Santa with his sleigh, and about a dozen more.

Once home we watched the Call the Midwife Christmas special—very interesting story based around "the Big Freeze," the cold winter of 1962-1963. Will the actress who played Barbara not be in the new season? They have sent her and her husband the curate to another church for six months. I've always loved Barbara and will miss her.

24 December 2017

Books and Christmas Lights in Our Hearts

It's almost as hard to sleep on Christmas Eve as it is to sleep on Christmas morning, which explains why we were up at eight o'clock this morning. James thought about making biscuits, but I scotched the idea. If you're going to be stuffing yourself on carbs soon, better save them for the one-time-a-year yummies, and that last word definitely describes Lin's pies and Ron's mashed potatoes!

But we were intending to go out and have a good time anyway.

First we had to start with the adult mundane stuff: that 32 percent off coupon at CVS (and a CVS gift card) made buying stuff we needed, like Band-Aids, Neosporin, and the like a good bargain. Once that was all taken care of, it was off to Acworth, enjoying Christmas displays in front of people's homes, as we go a back way through country roads. I needed one more gift, and there it was at Books-a-Million. James got a few magazines and a game, then we had hot peppermint cocoa to make the trip really worthwhile. 😉

We took a few minutes off to get James' truck some gasoline—why is gas 14¢ a gallon cheaper in Acworth?—and then had lunch at Panera. It wasn't raining, but it was a grey and damp day, so hot soup hit the spot!

Then it was on to Barnes & Noble. Perhaps everyone at the mall doing their last-minute Christmas shopping were in bad tempers, but at both bookstores everyone was full of good cheer. Used my second 20 percent off newstand purchase for a Christmas "Landscape" and a cross-stitch magazine and the "Writer's Digest" yearbook and bought James an aviation magazine.

Headed home in the gloom to find the television still playing Christmas music for Snowy. We sat and relaxed for a while, then when it started getting dark went out to look at Christmas lights. We used to do this after we ate dinner, and it would be like by the time we went out (around 7:30) half the houses would have their lights turned off already. Timers, people, timers! Even if you have to be out, your lights will be on! They don't cost that much!

We were listening to Christmas music from one of the local stations through most of the ride and had the windows down (we were bundled up and it was only 45). We just stayed in Smyrna; went up toward downtown and drove around there looking at the lights, then checked out some side streets. Went down Bank Street with all their delicious new Craftsman-style homes, and crossed Atlanta Road to check out the "Craftsman" units on "old" Spring Road and opposite the railroad tracks. Our final stop was the unusual development near the end of Old Concord Road: the homes are quite close to each other and all have double glass front doors.

Some people still didn't have all their lights on, as late as seven o'clock! Some lights came on just as we were driving by at 7:15! One of our favorite things wasn't there: one of the houses near downtown Smyrna has this swoopy star that looks like a comet, but it didn't seem to be up, let alone on. But we saw two pairs of the same figures: Yoda and Darth Vader next to each other. One set was made of lights and the other set was inflatable, on a tiny lawn filled with inflatables: they also had a Dory, the M&M guys, Santa in a helicopter, a snowman, and more.

Dinner was kinda small. We picked out some shrimp to have as shrimp scampi, with linguini, but we should have bought more shrimp. We were trying to keep costs down, so basically James had nine shrimp and I had eight. This would have been fine if they were jumbo shrimp, but they weren't. I was hoping we had some clam chowder left in the larder, but almost all the clam chowder went away in the Great Sodium Purge, and the one can we did have amazingly seemed to have come from the old house! Neither of us wanted to eat that! We did find some vegetable orzo soup and shared that, and had gingerbread sticks for dessert.

During dinner we watched the Christmas episode of Remember WENN ("Christmas in the Airwaves"). Noticed the costume designer seemed to work it out that when Scott and Betty are next to each other they are mostly in red and green. :-)

For the last story of the night, I played The Little Drummer Boy. I still have my VHS version because the DVD is missing bits of the soundtrack, and it looks terrible to boot ("restored" version my foot). But as always the story is luminous.

"Christmas" by John Betjeman

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Dreaming of the Cold

An early December snowstorm raised our hopes for a completely chilly December after a very late fall. And indeed it was a bit of a miracles as we usually have snow one day and rain comes along, or high temps come along, to wipe 90 percent of it away the next day. This time the temps stayed low enough that we had some snow around for a week, even if on the last day it was just in the folds of the roofs of houses and in shady spots most of the day. But in the past few days we've had 60s, and sometimes high 60s, and almost all very stick 60s as it keeps raining.

So I've been fantasizing about Canada, somewhere I haven't been in a good many years. I went there several times in the late 60s and the 70s, including to what was left of Expo 67 in Montreal and several times to Quebec City (for some breathtaking views of the St. Lawrence River from the escarpments of the Citadel) and once near Toronto to Canada's Wonderland. (There were also a couple of trips to the Canadian side of the falls at Niagara, where I remember wonderful cherry orchards between Horseshoe Falls and the little city of Niagara on the Lake.)

I fondly remember Canadian programs, too, like Swiss Family Robinson with Chris Wiggins and Diana Leblanc, and Strange Paradise, with Colin Fox and Dawn Greenhalgh, but some of my best memories are of Canadian Christmas stories, including the unusual North Station/Station Nord, which I saw for the first time when we got HD television some years back. Sadly, North Station/Station Nord is not available anywhere I can find online, and you can't buy a DVD. You can find it in Italian in two places on YouTube as Miracolo di Natale, but the voices are chipmunk and at least one is "flopped" (mirror imaged).

But here are a couple of links to a few Canadian Christmas tales, including two episodes of The Forest Rangers, which was syndicated in the 1960s and turned up on early morning weekend television:

The Christmas Martian

The Christmas Raccoons

The Forest Rangers: "A Christmas Story"

The Forest Rangers: "Santa MacLeod"

23 December 2017

Rainy, With a Chance of Kringly

The forecast of rain precluded us going to Chattanooga today, so we had an alternate idea: we'd go up to Books-a-Million for a hot cocoa and a look at the calendars, and come back by MicroCenter to return something we'd bought that we didn't need. Well, the weather report seemed to indicate the rain would start at noon and end right after three, and we didn't want to rush, so we put off the book trip. Since we don't have to cook for Christmas Eve (much), we can go up there tomorrow.

Instead, after breakfast we returned the item to MicroCenter, then, because we were halfway there, made a quick trip to Trader Joe's for a tea James liked, got a little more peppermint bark (the Peppermint JoJos were completely gone), and then headed for Ollie's Bargain Outlet, as James was looking for new bungee cords to hold the tarp on the power chair. We picked up a gadget that is supposed to air fry in the oven (and if it doesn't it's only $10 wasted) and I found the same three-calendar set as I did last year, so I can have a small calendar near the computer. It has become so hard to find calendars smaller than 7x7 anymore. There used to be several sources: Michaels, Kmart... We got home right as a few specks of rain tapped the truck window.

Had lunch to M*A*S*H Christmas episodes, then did a spate of vacuuming while James was making more breakfast burritos. This will get him past Twelfth Night before he has to do any more. Once he finished, did two more M*A*S*H episodes, and finally The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, after which we left for supper, timing it just as the mailman arrived, with another Christmas card from a friend, and two Christmas packages from two different friends. And the rain? The few specks of rain went away until about one, we had about a half hour of hard rain, and then, whoosh, it was gone. We even saw a brief gleam of sun until the clouds closed up again.

Oh, well, I can't say I wanted to drive up to Chattanooga two days before Christmas...

Supper was at Fried Tomato Buffet (it's barbecue rib night) and we came home by Kennesaw Avenue to see the decorations on all the big old houses, and then went past our old neighborhood to see if they still do luminaria in Dunleith. If they do, it wasn't tonight. We did go past one of my favorite houses; among all those modern designs, there is a house that looks like a colonial saltbox, complete with a period door, etc. They still just use plain white candles and plain green wreaths and red bows, although the white electric lights on the big pine tree out front kinda ruins the period effect. 😃

More Christmas specials tonight: Father Christmas, The Snowman, The Night Before Christmas, "Christmas at Plum Creek" from Little House on the Prairie, and finally The Best of the Andy Williams Christmas Specials. Snowy sang blithely to all of them!

The only sobering part of today is waiting to hear about James' mom. She and his sister went to visit his sister's daughter and husband and their little boy up in New Jersey, and Mom was not feeling good, so they went to the emergency room. She is not critically ill, but she's stuck in the hospital while they are doing tests to see what is causing her shortness of breath, and who wants to be in the hospital at Christmas, even if it's the best hospital in the world?

21 December 2017

Miracles for Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
A Book of Christmas Miracles, edited by Amy Newmark
I was a little dismayed when I read that the stories here had been taken from other volumes of the "Chicken Soup" series, but it turned out very few stories were from previous Christmas editions, but were from books I didn't read, including a couple of Canadian editions. So most of the stories were new to me. There were a few from Thanksgiving, and several from Hanukkah (including a miraculous story about a stolen menorah), and even New Year tossed in. Strangers unaware, animal angels, new starts in life, needed money arriving in the nick of time, family reunions, unexpected gifts, emotional revelations—they're all here.

I was especially taken by the penultimate story, "The Secret of the Cedar Chest." In this memory, a woman named Gail is talking about her lifelong book obsession, from when she was a girl asking her mom "did you bring me a book?" Her mom always bought her books for Christmas and hid them in a cedar chest in her bedroom, and Gail talks about having discovered the hiding place and sneaking into her parents' room when they were watching TV and reading the books ahead of time.

I had to laugh, because Mom always bought me a book for a good report card and eventually I discovered where she hid them until report card time. She would go to sewing class every Tuesday and I would go in her bedroom and dig under the stockings in the right corner of the bottom drawer of the dresser and carefully take out the book, read it a little, then put it back exactly how I found it. I remember having almost finished Green Grass of Wyoming by the time report cards came out.

(Green Grass of Wyoming had been a little miracle anyway because we took a wrong turn one Sunday going to Diamond Hill [a skiing area in winter] for the concerts they used to have there, and stopped by this drugstore for some reason [we could never find that store again, either]. I found Green Grass of Wyoming on the spinner rack and was surprised because I never knew My Friend Flicka and Thunderhead were part of a trilogy. So I talked Mom into buying it for my next report card and then read most of it on Tuesday afternoons, because I couldn't wait to see what happened to Ken and Carey—and of course Thunderhead!)

It was a very personal memory in a very enjoyed series.

17 December 2017

Third Sunday of Advent: Hygge and Hard Drives

Our original plan for today: go to McKay's in Chattanooga and then eat at City Café. I love going up to McKay's before Christmas; they have the Christmas CDs and Christmas books right out and easy to find. And City Café has a brilliant chicken soup that they put broken-up spaghetti in instead of noodles. Every Italian kid remembers his mother doing this for a quick supper. It's like suddenly going back in time: to grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles speaking Italian (I miss people speaking Italian), and torrone squares in with the Christmas cookies, which weren't sugar cookies with thick colored frosting or gingerbread boys, but almond bars and molasses bars and wine biscuits and pizelle, and even hard fruit-flavored Italian candies in the candy dishes, and always a dish of nuts in the shell.

But it was supposed to start raining in Chattanooga by 10 a.m. and in Atlanta by two. The power chair isn't supposed to travel in the rain, and you can't carry cardboard Xerox paper boxes in a pickup truck's truck bed in the rain. Life happens and rain happens. I've driven home from Chattanooga in the rain, chair or no chair. It's not pretty.

We spent part of the morning swearing because yesterday we'd pretty much had to wedge the new hard drive into James' old computer (everything is riveted in) and since it didn't work, we now had to take the new hard drive out, and the old hard drive, too, to get the files off it. It took James about a half hour, and I had to use a wrench to bang part of the strip of housing that was holding the enclosure with the hard drives in it so it would come out (and he still had trouble). But he got the old drive out, put it into the enclosure, and prepared to copy the files off.

The old disk was completely blank. The update hadn't corrupted Windows, it had wiped everything!

James had done a backup of his main drive to a portable disk in June, so we were able to extract his Eudora mailboxes from that. I turned on the Christmas tree and the Christmas village and put more Christmas cassettes on and we had Christmas hygge as he loaded Eudora and WordPerfect and Paint Shop Pro and other necessary programs, and we restored his mailboxes. We even cleaned out the spinner full of program discs on the top shelf of his computer desk. We found some relics up there, including some disc that could be booted in DOS and a WindowsXP operating disc! He threw out old stuff, kept discs of images, e-books, and manuscripts, and kept any games he was still interested in. The next step will be to see if all the games (mostly military, a few fantasy and some arcade) still open in Win10, and if they don't, if compatibility mode will make them work.

For supper we had half of the four-pound pork loin I found at Kroger, slow cooked in barbecue sauce, with a cucumber salad chaser. It was delicious, and there's leftovers for lunch for both of us.

To finish out the night, we watched the live performance of the Broadway play version of A Christmas Story. It was super, especially the little boy—Andy Walken—who played Ralphie. What a voice on that child! He made it all real. Interesting bits added to the story, like about Schwartz being Jewish (he isn't in the movie and apparently the Hanukkah scene was written for the television production), Miss Shields having OCD, etc. I loved how they worked adult Ralphie, played by Matthew Broderick, and his narration into the action, and really adored the songs "Counting Down to Christmas" and "Just Like That" (also nodded vigorously to "What a Mother Does"!). But what brought down the house for me was the ending narration provided by Broderick, about how sometimes parents didn't say they loved you, but they worked for you and nagged you and kept you safe, which was the same thing. It made me cry. Thinking about it still makes me cry.

And the Bumpus hounds were played by rescue dogs to boot!

15 December 2017

From the Bluegrass to the Mountains

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
A Kentucky Christmas, edited by George Ella Lyon
This is a big book of short stories and poetry by Kentucky authors mostly taking place in Kentucky. The first few stories trace the history of Christmas celebrations in early Kentucky, including the story of a slave named Cato who is able to gain his greatest wish on Christmas Day. Some of the stories are memoirs, others are fiction.

As a whole I liked this book, although a few stories had little to do with Christmas, and a couple of others were just depressing, like the story about the mountain woman who hopes to make Christmas merry for the abused daughters of her young, callous cousin. Another story, "No Time Like Now," was very coarse and seemed to have no purpose, especially in a Christmas book. On the other hand, "Bread" was a sad, but heartwarming piece, and "Christmas Comes to Lord Calvert" had a surprise ending that made my eyebrows rise. "Letters from the Karst" chronicles the return of an addicted young woman to her family, and a secret kept. "Alene" and "When She Came to Mercy" are both heartwarmers about women who learn to live again. Another favorite was "Christmas, Down Home," about a man in a hurry to get to his family Christmas gathering due to a snowstorm, ignoring the wishes of his wife and daughter to do so.

In the end, more pluses than minuses. I suppose I don't get the full effect since I'm not from Kentucky.

12 December 2017

Feast of Lights

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Light the Lights!, Margaret Moorman
This is a charming little picture book about a little girl whose family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. The illustrations show her celebrating Hanukkah with her father initiating the celebration, and then Christmas with her mother doing so. The story emphasizes the commonalities of the two celebrations: special food, lights, family visiting, but doesn't really explain a lot about either of them, just simply showing the happy celebrations in the home. It's a sweet little book showing how a religously mixed family handles the two separate holidays, but if you wish to learn about Hanukkah's origins (or Christmas's, for that matter), this isn't the book.

10 December 2017

Second Sunday of Advent: A Christmas Miscellaney

This snow storm unexpectedly delivered to us on Friday has been novel in many ways. It pretty much almost set a record for Atlanta snows, depending on where you were. The record is 8.3 inches from 1940, and if it hadn't rained I think we would have made it or gone over. We had 7 inches on our deck on Sunday morning. Furthermore, today we still have snow on the ground—not some small bits of white stuff in perpetually shady places, but snow still on lawns and bushes. It commonly snows one day and then goes up to 60℉ the next.

So it's been a nice Christmas-y coda to the weekend (except for the poor folks who are still without electrical power). It sure was beautiful on Friday. I'll not soon forget crunching on the new fallen snow, watching the streetlights and the Christmas lights come on, the unearthly silence that a mantle of snow throws over the landscape, the beauty of the clearing sky the next morning with the stark white against brilliant blue.

James started the day in lovely fashion by making biscuits. This cleaned out our Bisquik. Since apparently we can't go to the grocery store without forgetting something—this time it was onions—there was another item for our grocery list.

Our most pressing need was getting James a new hard drive. So our first stop today was MicroCenter. He got a hard drive and a hard drive enclosure so he could get his files and his Eudora mailboxes off the old hard drive (then perhaps he can reformat it and use it as a second drive). They had Fitbits on sale, so for Christmas I bought him a Fitbit Alta with a heart monitor. When he does cardio rehab he has a certain heart rate he is not supposed to go over; I want him to find out what that is so he can do exercises at home during bad weather or other times he can't attend. The doctor gave him stretching exercises to do at home, and he has weights he lifts. He can use the Fitbit to monitor his heartbeat.

So we stopped by Publix to get onions and Bisquik and a little more yogurt, and picked up a few more things like always. We had a fun time in dairy: they always put my yogurt on the top shelf and being a shrimp I can only reach so far. This time they were so far back I couldn't even get them with James' cane. So a lady with a schoolage son helped us, and he was quite chuffed about the whole thing. And then we went by Mink's, where I had to once again go on a search through the dark corners of the store to find a bottle of hearty burgundy (all I ever find is Gallo Brothers, so it's not like I even have a choice) so I can make cookies.

And now for the fun portion of the afternoon, it was our annual attendance at "An Atlanta Christmas." Last year they did all our favorites; this year they did mostly new scripts. My favorite this year was "The Role of a Lifetime," a previously-performed story written by Brad Strickland about a down-on-his-luck actor playing Santa Claus at a 1950 department store who is stunned by a little girl's Christmas request and what he does about it. It's very sweet and very reminiscent of stories written by Thomas Fuller, who wrote the original "Atlanta Christmas" sequence of tales. Kelley Ceccato did a new story this year, "The Sleigh of Unbroken Dreams" (or it may have been a typo in the program book and it's "Unspoken"), about a trio of elves at the North Pole who dream about giving a different type of toy to children rather than the commercial standards, just like another elf did long ago. With the help of a retired reindeer, they work on making their own dreams come true. I really, really enjoyed this one, and think it would make a fantastic children's book! I was listening to it envisioning the characters as illustrations and wishing I could draw the way I saw the pictures in my head! "Rory Rammer" was "A Visit from St. Rex," a perennial favorite.

We picked up Chinese food on the way home and ate by the light of the Christmas tree. Watched Alaska: the Last Frontier, which ended on a tragic note with Shane having fallen off the roof of their new house (it was finished a week earlier) and broken his back.

09 December 2017

The Christmas Tree Distraction

Well, it certainly was an interesting day. Not in the Chinese sense, just...different.

The original plan for today was that James would go off to his club meeting Christmas party, and I would have my annual orgy decorating the tree. Well, Atlanta had about eight inches (at least) of snow yesterday. This is nothing in New England and Michigan and Minnesota and up in the "great white north" over the border in Canada. But the folks up there have snow tires, snow plows, snow shovels, snow blowers, plentiful sand trucks, and enough snow yearly that they know how to drive in it. (Well, judging by the accidents on the news, at least they should!) Your average Atlantan has no experience with snow. He may have all-weather tires but no snow experience. Plus the ground always starts as warm, so there is always ice under the snow. I don't know about you, but my car is not Sonia Heine or Michelle Kwan, and neither is any other vehicle in the metro area.

So we had been snowed in yesterday and it snowed more during the night, and we woke up to a beautiful white world. It had snowed so much the bird feeders were blocked with snow and there were 7 1/2 inches of snow on the deck. James' party was canceled. Instead he continued working on his computer, which died in the middle of a Windows update. It's just...stuck. So I set up an account for him on my computer, in case he needed it.

My project began when James and I cleared the rocking chair and other things out of the corner, I vacuumed, and then I commenced bringing the four parts of the Christmas tree upstairs. After a brief gaffe when I put the wrong part into the stand assembly, I got the tree together and plugged it in.

Arggh! Half the string in the center section was out! Now what would I do? This is our practically brand new tree, the one we got at Kmart in 2014. It didn't look terribly awful, but there was a dark spot around the "waist" of the tree, and this has never been an overly bright tree. I supposed I could have tried putting light colored ornaments (the white and pink satin balls, for example, the snowman ornament, the unicorn in a stocking, etc.) on that dark section, but I was pretty upset.

In the meantime James noticed he was down to six of his homemade burritos. He had meat and beans, but needed wraps and cheese.

By this time it was noon, the sky had cleared and turned a brilliant blue, and the snow was melting rapidly in the streets and was falling in blobs from tree branches and other tall structures. People were out walking. We called Hobby Lobby to see if they had a gadget called a Lightkeeper Pro; they did, and we had them hold it for us. Then we got in the truck and drove there via the main roads, which were pretty clear. There wasn't a ton of traffic, but what there was was brisk.

We picked it up and then went to Publix, where we did the shopping, including ingredients for the burritos and the twofers. We were starving by the time we got home because it was wayyyy after two, but I only cut off a little of the loaf of French bread before I girded my courage and tried the Lightkeeper Pro.

I've been hearing about this gadget for years in various Christmas groups, and most of the time it's positive. It looks like a plastic gun with several parts, runs on included batteries, and has a couple of different ways of correcting Christmas light string (only miniature lights) problems, the most common being the "quick fix trigger method." There is a socket connector at the front of the LP. You pick out any light socket in the part of a light string that does not work, pull out the light bulb, and plug the LP into that empty socket, then you press the trigger. It works by overriding a burned-out filament and fixing the shunt that make electricity flow through the string. If it doesn't work after thirty presses, there is an alternative method called an audible voltage detector, which reads like voodoo to me.

And it worked! It needed only about three pulls of the trigger to fix the string. There were also two burned-out bulbs which I moved to the back of the tree.

I spent the rest of late afternoon decorating the tree, interrupted by some supper between the ornaments and the tinsel. I watched Christmas Is, The City That Forgot About Christmas, For Better or For Worse: the Bestest Present, For Better or For Worse:The Christmas Angel, It's a Wonderful Tiny Toons Christmas Special, and finally, Raggedy Ann and Andy in the Great Santa Claus Caper. And then about four or five episodes of Rehab Addict during the tinseling.

The tinsel took forever. I hope I never have to put icicles on a tree at night again. Even with the lamps on it was hard to see to layer the branches and the static electricity was appalling. It's bad enough that these modern icicles are so thin. They kept whipping around and attaching themselves to everything but the tree.

But finally it was time for the final touch: the manger scene under the tree.

It became immediately apparent that we were going to have no more luck keeping Tucker's tail away from the tinsel than in previous years, so the baby gate is back up in front of the tree.

As a reward for creating colorful sparkle, there was gingerbread with whipped cream for dessert and a viewing of Mercy Mission: the Rescue of Flight 771, followed by a John Denver and the Muppets chaser.

08 December 2017

A Simpler Time, A Wonderful Place

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
Frost wrote four of these novels about the Clark family of Vermont and the titular pony in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Windy Foot is a Shetland pony owned by 12-year-old Toby Clark, but he is just one part of the action and doesn't do miraculous equine tricks. As the book opens, the Clarks are awaiting not only Christmas, but a visit from their new friends, Jerry Burnham, a horse trainer, and his daughter Tish, who has become Toby's especial friend after Windy Foot beat her pony Jigs in the Webster County fair some months earlier.

This is a warm and nostalgic book, with simple preparations for a holiday composed of simple gifts given to those who are loved, homemade and homegrown farm food, a small village with occupants of many nationalities who gather for happy events like a village carol sing and Christmas shopping at the general store, and children and adults working hard and reaping rewards from it (and learning some small lessons about life and consideration of others).

One of the things I notice each time I read this book is how much the children, especially Toby, eat. Christmas Day is particularly astonishing: they have a big breakfast, the kids snack on cookies, then there's a big Christmas dinner, Tish and Toby go into the village and have two hot fudge sundaes at the drugstore, and then there's a buffet party at night! Yet no one is overweight because they are always doing some kind of work: in Toby's case during the week chronicled by the book he has done daily chores like taking care of the horses and helping milk the cows, patrolled the farm for a bear, rebuilt and painted a sleigh and restored some sleigh bells, run errands for his parents, shoveled snow, filled and refilled the woodbox (presumably having chopped some of the wood), gone skiing twice, gone snowshoeing with his sister to gather greens to decorate the house, made a base for the Christmas tree, and other stuff I've forgotten. It's amazing reading how many chores everyone in the family had to do just to keep warm and fed.

This is an annual read and a nostalgic one, going back to when the book was in my elementary school library. It never fails to make me feel loved and cozy and happy and home, whether it's imagining the cold air in a buggy ride home from school, gathering Christmas greens and spying a beautiful fox in the woods, dreaming yourself participating in the Christmas sing or the Clarks' Christmas party, or just wanting to own a lovable pony like Windy Foot.

05 December 2017

A New Take on Santa Claus

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Immortal Nicholas, Glenn Beck
I confess, I picked this up because it was only $2. It reads a little like Henry Van Dyke's The Fourth Wise Man. Agios, a frankincense hunter, loses everything after his wife, stillborn son, and ten-year-old son die. He burns their cabin and becomes a wanderer, working for his food and shelter, until he is captured by men named Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar in a huge caravan who wish him to find frankincense for a baby who is about to be born, a child who will be king. Later Agios will find himself a foster son, a simple, misshapen giant of a boy named Krampus who loves the little figures Agios carves. And finally, he will follow the Christ child as he grows into a man

Beck attempts to square the story of Jesus with the story of Santa Claus. I had to admit Agios' story made me keep turning the pages, but it seemed he wanted to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the story. Krampus, for instance, in legend is a monster who accompanies St. Nicholas in some countries. Since the good saint is supposed to be gentle and kind, it is Krampus who punishes the bad children by beating them with his stick and then stuffing him into a sack. Krampus in the book is just a disabled young man who frightens people with his looks. Later Agios meets the real St. Nicholas, but the story is twisted again.

I thought the book was worth reading, but I thought Beck tried too hard to make everything gel with the legends.

04 December 2017

Aliens, Nativities, and Other Festive Subjects

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
A Lot Like Christmas, Connie Willis
This is an expanded version of Willis' Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, with one story ("The Pony") removed and five new stories added, including the inventive "All Seated on the Ground," about alien visitors who respond only to certain verses in Christmas carols. (The protagonists in this one are named Calvin and Meg, a neat touch.) I'm a particular favorite of "Miracle," as it's a humorous story about a young woman who favors Miracle on 34th Street over It's a Wonderful Life. In a completely different vein is the thriller "In Coppelius' Toyshop," about a selfish man who gets his just desserts. The other carryovers are "Inn" (a woman involved with her church's Christmas program helps two strangers who show up unexpectedly), "Adaptation," "Cat's Paw" (a Poirot-like mystery tale with a twist), "Newsletter," and "Epiphany."

Besides "All Seated," the new stories are "All About Emily" (where an aging actress meets a very unusual rival), "deck.halls@boughs/holly" (a Christmas decorator meets an unusual client), "Now Showing" (what's going on in that multiplex, anyway?), and "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know" (involving an uncanny snowstorm).

Connie Willis writes a heck of a story, and her Christmas stories are no exception. Old films, faith, Christmas carols, church pageants, country house Yuletide mysteries, and snowstorms all receive new twists in this collection. A great choice if you want something different in Christmas tales.

03 December 2017

First Sunday of Advent: Never Enough Time

I've loved Christmas seemingly forever, from the days when I made my own ornaments out of cardboard and the foil saved from chocolate Easter eggs and gum wrappers, and painstakingly broke apart walnuts and glued the empty shells back together, gilding them with Testor's gold and silver enamel paint and sprinkling them with different colors of glitter. (All of these ornaments are still on my feather tree.) I still look forward to decorating with anticipation, although it seems each year the boxes get heavier!

What makes me sad is that each year it's a race to get everything done. There are cards to be sent and gifts to be mailed and decorations to go up, and no matter how early I begin, I never catch up. I want to do everything. It's not a chore, but that clock keeps chasing me. This year I am behind because of a ridiculous cold.

I think what bothers me most is that I also like to do "Christmas-y" things at Christmastime: visit the stores in downtown Marietta, go to see "An Atlanta Christmas" as done by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, drive up to Chattanooga to see what's going on at McKay's Books (and to have some yummy chicken soup from City Cafe), attend the Apple Annie Craft Show at the Catholic Church of Saint Anne. I keep wanting to do other things, too: perhaps go to the Botanical Garden, or back to the History Center, or drive through Madison, GA, which is a picture-perfect antebellum town that puts on the dog for the holidays. But, like the decorating and the mailing and the cards, all these things have to be done before Christmas. Well, okay, a craft show pretty much has to be held before Christmas...but it frets me that I can no longer do some of the things, like the Christmas walk around the city, or the McKay's trip, or going to Madison or the monastery, in the week between Christmas and New Year's. I know that no one's done the Twelve Days of Christmas properly for years, but I remember things being slower to turn around "way back when."  Sure, there were sales galore on December 26, but all the Christmas decorations stayed up until New Year's, with black-and-silver and black-and-gold New Year's Eve decorations dotting the still festive streets and store aisles. There was still one week left to enjoy the Christmas season, another week to savor the leftovers and enjoy the presents and admire the outdoor decorations and the colorful lights.

Now by the time afternoon comes on December 26, everything's ripped up, put in a corner and marked "clearance," and everything has turned pink, heart-shaped, and chocolate. (Next thing we know there are "if you love her you will buy her expensive jewelry" commercials.) We're chivvied, rushed, and left bereft as Christmas just clicks off like a light switch at midnight. Good grief, can't we at least get past New Year's Day without hearing from Valentine's Day? I miss the Aste Spumonte ads and the displays of party hats and noisemakers and paper horns and blowouts, and the reports on the news about resolutions.

It's one place where the "slow movement" and "mindfulness" should come back. Till then I'll have to retreat into my leftover Christmas magazines and reread my Christmas books and enjoy my own lights—everything here stays up until Epiphany!

01 December 2017

The Lights of Christmas

Maybe that's what I fell in love with first.

I was a color junkie as a kid. Rainbows. 64-count boxes of Crayola crayons, where my mom just couldn't understand why a 48-count just wasn't enough. But the best thing of all was Christmas lights. Back when I was small the bulbs were fat and bright, red, yellow-orange, blue, green, white, and the miniature ones came later. I might have gotten it from my parents; I remember their delight in a miniature set which had bulbs of two different colors, covered with a clear plastic crystal icicle-type cover.

Who invented Christmas lights?

The Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights

Untangling the History of Christmas Tree Lights

A Brief History of Christmas Lights

From Edison to LED

The Curious Evolution of Holiday Lights

Might Christmas Tree Candles Make a Comeback?

And we can't talk about Christmas tree lights without this lovingly reconstructed site, Old Christmas Tree Lights.

29 November 2017

A Story for Every Night Before Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Book of Christmas Virtues, edited by Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen with Carol McAdoo Rehme
This is an older "Chicken Soup" book, which means the stories are a little bit more rugged than the modern versions that are offered. Arranged around the seven virtues of kindness, joy, love, gratitude, faith, simplicity, and wonder, each section opens with an introduction and ends with ideas for Christmas projects. In between you will meet people down on their lucky, selfless givers, cute kids, and those who learn what Christmas is really all about.

28 November 2017

How To Make a Williamsburg Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg, Susan Height Rountree
It was nearly brand new and only a dollar. This is the only way I can explain that I bought a book about how to make the same sort of Christmas decorations as they use at Williamsburg. This is definitely decorating for people who like to work with flowers and live fruit, and use metal frames, roofing nails, wet floral foam, and other support systems to put it together.

There are many nice photos, including close-ups of windows and different styles of wreaths (one interesting one is made of tobacco leaves with a long pipe across it), of the Williamsburg streets, but most of the text is instruction how to make the fruity arches over the doors and wreaths on the door, topiary shapes, and even towers of decorative food for the table.

The photos are even a bit nostalgic as they mentioned the last time we went to Williamsburg that they are decorating less with fruits than they used to, especially with oranges and pineapples, which were rare and costly during colonial times and would have not been wasted nailed up outside a home or shop, but saved for Christmas punch. But really, for purchase full price you must seriously want to make these decorations.

27 November 2017

Elfs in Bondage, Keeping the Yule in Yuletide, and Other Thoughts Over the Holiday Season

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Christmas Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal, edited by Scott C. Lowe
I confess, it has taken me literally years to finish this book, which I bought at Borders before it closed. It's a series of pretty much serious essays about Christmas: whether it's good or bad to tell your kids the Santa Claus myth, if there really could have been a virgin birth or is it something too unbelievable even to take on faith, is there really a "War on Christmas," where'd this Santa Claus dude come from anyway, and why is he wearing a Hawaiian shirt, etc.

Last time I only made it halfway through; this time I had changed enough to enjoy all the entries, even the one about Festivus (and I'm not a Seinfeld fan), although the wrestling business sounds intimidating. (I can see fights breaking out during the airing of the grievances, though.) I was heartened by the essays saying that telling your kids about Santa Claus is okay, because I've never figured out why some people have resented it so when they found out what their parents told them was a story. I mean, my parents also told me about Cinderella, unicorns, Robin Hood, and the Easter Bunny. When I was old enough, I realized they were all neat fairy stories, and that included Santa Claus (but it didn't include Jesus). You grow out of Santa Claus the way you grow out of your blankie or your favorite teddy; it's a natural progression into adulthood. Why resent it or your parents? Did you resent the fact they read to you about a spider talking to a pig, or about tesseracts? Odd.

One of the most interesting essays talks about how Santa's predecessor St. Nicholas, a real-life bishop, was no wimp. When he attended the Council of Nicaea, he decked someone for implying that Jesus was not divine! (The conflict about this goes on to this day.)

Other essays address Christmas consumerism—and it's been there a longer time than you think—and the working conditions at the North Pole (does Santa Claus run a sweatshop, and could Hermione Granger and SPEW find a good place to protest at Santa's workshop?), plus there are even essays on A Christmas Story (what does Ralphie learn from his BB gun gift?) and A Christmas Carol (what's Scrooge's problem, anyway?).

Definitely something different for Christmas reading, if you can keep an open mind and not get huffy if a belief is contradicted.

26 November 2017

Almost Advent

Stir-up Sunday is an informal term in Anglican churches for the last Sunday before the season of Advent. It gets its name from the beginning of the collect for the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which begins with the words, "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people." But it has become associated with the custom of making the Christmas puddings on that day.

Last year, when Christmas was on a Sunday, the season of Advent was the longest it could be. This year, with Christmas on a Monday and Christmas Eve being the last Sunday of Advent, it is the shortest. So this final Sunday of November is the ending of the church liturgical year instead of the beginning of it.

The Christmas pudding never caught on as an American custom, but here it's presented in all its glory in Great Britain: The Ultimate Guide to Stir-Up Sunday.

When is Stir-Up Sunday 2017?

When is Stir-Up Sunday?

A History of The Christmas Pudding

11 November 2017

"St. Martin on His White Horse..."

You might hear this charming saying in the Czech Republic or Poland or some other Balkan countries, commemorating St. Martin of Tours, the soldier who became famous for tearing his beautiful cloak in half to give the half to a beggar he found shivering on the road. Since then he's been a patron of the poor. If you see "St. Martin on his white horse" it means that it is snowing.

His saint's day falls on November and is also known as "Martinmas." Back in earlier centuries, Advent was celebrated in a similar fashion to Lent and was a fasting period except on Sunday, and it also lasted forty days and began on Martinmas. In honor of St. Martin's Day and the original start of Advent, here are a couple of Christmas books that span media styles (some horses involved, but no white ones):

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Triple Dog Dare, Joanna Wilson
Wilson, the nostalgic writer behind the blog "Christmas TV History," and with two books about the subject under her belt, was curious if anyone has ever sat through the entire TBS/TNT 24-hour marathon of 1980's marvelous masterpiece A Christmas Story, and what it would be like to do so. She found one blogger who had, but that person had just used the time to catcall the film. Wilson wondered if in watching she could figure out the answer to some questions: why is the movie so popular? Are there any movies that would make a better marathon? Why is Christmas Story so popular as a marathon movie anyway? (2017 makes the 20th year it will be shown in a marathon format.) Would she hate the movie after she saw it so many times? And she was going to watch it with commercials! Would they drive her crazy before Ralphie did?

With her boyfriend's help, Wilson set up her experiment for Valentine's Day weekend so her real Christmas plans would not be interrupted by her experiment. She put up a tree, played Christmas music, had Christmas cookies. She even managed to find a copy of a broadcast with commercials from the 1980s (her boyfriend pinpoints the date from sports scores mentioned during the broadcast), so her commentary on 1980s commercials and "must have" gadgets become part of the text. She notices bits she's missed over the years even after viewing the film so many times, discovers many parallel scenes, and even familiar faces from recent television shows. Along the way, she references several times a book I didn't realize anyone else remembered: the 1968 Seven Glorious Days, Seven Fun-Filled Nights by Charles Sopkin, who uses six televisions to watch a week's worth of network programming to comment about Newton Minow's "vast wasteland." (I can tell you without looking at the book what week he watched: April 23-29, 1967, because the Lassie episode he describes is "Goliath.") I love that on each run she notices something different: behind the scenes actors in one, the music in another, the scheming of the kids in a third, etc.

If you're a Christmas Story fan or just wonder who would do such a crazy thing, you'll probably enjoy this exploration of leg lamps, Christmas nostalgia, and "you'll shoot your eye out!"

A Christmas Carol Christmas Book, Tim Hallinan
This was only a buck at the library book sale and I keep looking at it every time it shows up, so this time I finally "done the deed." It's a thin, coffee-table size book put out by IBM to celebrate the release of 1984 television version of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott. The first third of the book is a "photonovel" ('member those?) of the film and the last third is a complete version of the novel. In between are four sections about Charles Dickens and how the Carol came to be written and how the family celebrated, about Victorian crafts and traditions at Christmas, of typical Victorian holiday food and drink offerings, and about caroling.

Obviously, if you're a big fan of Scott's Carol, this will have the most draw for you, and you'll have a copy of the original book, too, which is a big plus as far as I'm concerned! The historical chapters are cool as well if you've never read anything about Victorian food and games. A nice primer to the Dickens' era.

(But everyone knows the best version of Christmas Carol is Mr. Magoo...[winks, ducks, and runs])

01 November 2017

November Exactly!

November has a contented glow about it. Not only from the autumn colours but fire and light bring a cheeriness and warmth to the now long, dark nights. Make time for your own golden hours during this peaceful month—festive preparations can wait—and indulge in slow cooking, appreciate the landscape or your neighborhood, simply enjoy reading or maybe drawing in a journal. Wherever your pleasures lie, be soothed and rested as this mellow season comes to a close. Calming comforts cannot be rushed, so light a fire, pull up a blanket and let the world get along without  you for a while. It will.

Lisa Sykes in the November "The Simple Things"

25 October 2017

Rudolph Day, October 2017

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

Only two months until Christmas! Fall is flying by as usual, while stinky, soppy, sullen, searing summer takes its own sweet time slouching toward Hades to die a welcome death and bring us autumn.

I've been having a Dickens of an autumn: literally! Netgalley presented me with two different books about Dickens and Christmas, and I approached them both with anticipation. Well, one out of two wasn't bad.

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
book icon  Dickens and Christmas, Lucinda Hawksley
"There is a strangely prevalent belief that the British did not celebrate Christmas in any memorable way until ... the arrival of Charles Dickens' Christmas Books. Contemporary accounts ... show this to be untrue."

There are several new media about Charles Dickens and Christmas out this year, this one and a fiction entrée, as well as a film called The Man Who Invented Christmas. I'm not certain why, as it doesn't appear to be a Dickens' anniversary of any kind, unless we are considering the 180th anniversary of Oliver Twist. But it's our gain. This book is the nonfiction entry of the two, and is literally what the title states: Christmas celebrations over the years during Charles Dickens' lifetime, starting with how Christmas would have been celebrated when Charles was a boy (greenery in the home, great feasting on a Christmas porridge, gifts—but more commonly gifts at New Year—and a big cake and an even larger celebration on Twelfth Night that included a cake which has now been transferred to the Christmas festivities). The writing of Dickens' "Christmas Books" (some not taking place at Christmas at all, but just called that because the books were intended as Christmas gifts) and his celebrations with his family follow, with festive food and plays put on by Dickens and his children.

As with any family, the Christmases were not always merry. One year the Dickens' oldest child was very ill. Later Dickens and his wife separated as he carried on an affair with young actress Ellen Ternan, and the plays and feasts came to an end. Dickens spent his last few years doing readings of his work and pretty much working himself to death.

I enjoyed reading about how the family celebrated Christmas and how Christmas celebrations changed over the years, but it was also sad how Dickens' bright youthfulness turned sour and his family life collapsed. The book is liberally illustrated with period etchings and woodcuts.

book icon  Mr. Dickens and His Carol, Samantha Silva
I must be the only one who's read this book so far (having read some other reviews of it on Goodreads) who really wasn't charmed by it.

This is a fictionalized story about how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. Things are not going well for Dickens as the year 1843 comes to a close. His novel Martin Chuzzlewit has not been well received, especially in the United States, since Dickens lampooned some of the "characters" he met on his American tours in the book. His publishers are asking for a Christmas book, but he has not one idea in his head about what to write. The family's extravagant spending has caught up with them; he still fears ending up in debtors' prison as his father did, and his improvident father is still charging his own expenses to his son's account, so the author begins lashing out at every expenditure made, even though weeks earlier he would have approved of them. And then Dickens compounds his problem by meeting up briefly with an old flame; when his wife hears about it, she packs up the children, Dickens' annual partners in the family's wonderful Christmas festivities, and leaves for Scotland.

A sober Dickens moves back to his old digs where he wrote The Pickwick Papers, and amazingly, finds a muse: a beautiful woman in a purple cloak who works at the theater where his friend performs. As he tries to track her down, he encounters situations that will later make its way into his writing—but can he write his Christmas book to pay his bills, and somehow make amends to wife Catherine in the meantime?

Author Silva actually apologizes in the afterward for creating a fictional situation around Dickens' writing of the book, saying that she loved Dickens so much she wanted to create an adventure around him. Honestly, I have to admire a lot of this novel. I love the way she uses Victorian language to describe situations: Dickens' hyperactive household (although she has the Dickens' kids playing with rubber bands in his study, two years before they were invented), the streets of London, the warrens of the poorest areas, the world of the theater. She also works into the story Dickens' habit of remembering unusual names and incorporating them into his tales. It's just that I figured out the secret behind Dickens' muse almost immediately and then became irritated as he tried endlessly to make contact with her. And then he writes another book before he even tackles the Carol? In the end it seemed overwrought and endless.

Here's a great BBC article about the actual writing of A Christmas Carol.

Of course, if Christmas preparations in August and Christmas carols in October incense you, you may enjoy this a bit more:

book icon  Bah, Humbug! Grumping Through the Season, gathered by William Cole
This funny little gift book is for your favorite pre-Carol Scrooge, with witty sayings and essays about the excesses of the holiday season. From Hilaire Belloc's terse Christmas card verse, "May all my enemies go to hell, Noёl, Noёl, Noёl, Noёl," to sour essays by luminaries like Roald Dahl and George Bernard Shaw, down to James Thurber's dour version of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" as written by Ernest Hemingway, it's the perfect gift for anyone who objects to Christmas trees appearing in craft shops in July, endless Christmas carols at the mall the minute Hallowe'en is ended, and the arguments for and against Black Friday's screaming approval of excess.

18 October 2017

Not Just Baking Cookies Anymore

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Mrs. Claus: Not the Fairy Tale They Say, edited by Rhonda Parrish

Santa Claus' wife: she's the plump white lady who bakes cookies for the elves, right? Homebody. Mistress of the kitchen, the lady who spoils the reindeer.

Not in this book! In fourteen imaginative short stories, Mrs. Claus is a valkyrja, a goblin fighter, a being from another planet, a member of the Fae, a witch; she detects, can repel North Pole invaders, pilot an airship, visit alien worlds, stalk monsters who kill reindeer —and in one story she's even evil! I loved every one of the concepts except for one, and the whole idea of Mrs. Claus not conforming to the standard housekeeping stereotype and having a talent separate from Santa, who is also portrayed in various nontypical ways, including being a woman.

Some of my favorites in this volume: "Wight Christmas," the spooky "The Asylum Musicale," "Christmas Magic," "Unexpected Guests," "Shouldering the Burden," "Captain Lizzy and the Stranger in the Fog," and "Red to Hide the Blood."

If you love Christmas, fantasy tales, and strong female characters, this one's a triple threat of delight! You'll never see Mrs. Claus and her wooden spoon and frilly clothes in the same way again.

05 October 2017

"October"

by Grace Strickler Dawson
("St. Nicholas," October 1929)

With an artist's eye
For color and line
And delicate grace
In a new design,
She fashions her gowns
With care, with care,
And saunters by
With a casual air--
Who but October
Would think to wear
Old bronze lace
On a pale jade sky?

25 September 2017

Rudolph Day, September 2017

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

I fell in love with Susan Branch's wonderful watercolor art years ago, and two of my favorite books of hers are these (she also has a Christmas memory book which I have):


Susan Branch took much of her inspiration from Beatrix Potter, who too many people know only as "the author of those silly kiddie books where the animals are in clothes." While Potter's fame rested mainly on these "Little Books," as she referred to them, she is so much more; even in her illustrations for the "Little Books": the minute details of these juvenile pieces of artwork are stunning. Take any of these illustrations and look at them closely, especially those of hearthsides and countrysides. The little country store in "The Tale of Ginger and Pickles" was based on a shop in Potter's hometown of Sawrey and even today the drawing looks exactly like the restored shop.

But not many people know that Potter was a talented nature artist and illustrated university-level botanical catalogs (the ones she was permitted to, that is, since the faculty usually blanched upon discovering that "HBP" was a woman, even as they admired her detailed illustrations). One of her watercolors of winter at her Hilltop Farm is one of my favorites:


Which is why I picked up the following:

 CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
A Peter Rabbit Christmas Collection, Beatrix Potter
If you don't remember "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" having anything to do with Christmas, don't worry. "Peter" and his sequels ("The Tale of Benjamin Bunny" and "The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies") are included here because "Peter" is her most famous work, and also because over her lifetime Potter used Peter and his cousin Benjamin as themes for her home-made Christmas cards which she sent to friends and especially children of friends. These rare cards and notes Potter wrote to the children are included in this volume, along with a Christmas chapter from Potter's The Fairy Caravan, a lesser-known novella written after she stopped writing her "Little Books" and devoted herself to farming full time—and preserving the wild landscape of the Lake District—with her husband William Heelis, plus the story "Wag-by-Wall" about a poor woman, which ends on Christmas Eve, and "The Tale of the Two Bad Mice." The gem in the collection is Potter's "The Tailor of Gloucester," her favorite of all the stories, the tale of a poor tailor, a selfish cat, and some very talented mice.

A great gift for your favorite child, even if that favorite child is yourself: a great book to pore over on a winter afternoon with a cup of tea and some gingersnaps.

A link to Potter's brilliant botanical art, which was featured in textbooks.

25 August 2017

Rudolph Day, August 2017

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

Do you like mysteries? I do. Most of my favorites are within what is called "the cozy" realm, amateur sleuths solving crime. I cut my teeth on the early Bobbsey Twin rewrites, where they solved mysteries and were brought into the present time (the Twins debuted in 1904), and while not a reader of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, still love Trixie Belden.

The classic old Christmas ballad "The Mistletoe Bough" is at its heart a mystery story, and many classic writers have set short stories at Christmastime: Agatha Christie had at least two, "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" and "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" (in which some astute kids help the Belgian sleuth. One of my favorite mystery story heroes, Lord Peter Wimsey, solves a Christmas theft in "The Necklace of Pearls." Anne Perry publishes an annual novelette set at Christmastime and Victoria Thompson and Rhys Bowen have produced Christmas adventures with their regular characters. And of course Sherlock Holmes solves a Christmas mystery in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle."

This month I had two mysterious Christmas treats:

 CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Holmes for the Holidays, edited by Martin Greenberg, Carol-Lynn Rossel Waugh, and Jon L. Lellenberg
I've been waffling about buying this book for years, so when it turned up at a library booksale at a deep, deep discount, it was a sign. As you may have guessed from the title, this is a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories with a Yuletide theme. Several of my favorite authors—Anne Perry, Barbara Paul, Gillian Linscott (who writes the Liberty Lane mysteries under the name "Caro Peacock")—had stories in the volume as well. Sadly, I figured out the Perry story immediately, although her narrative was good. Paul's story, about a thief stealing from Christmas charities, was much better. I had read the Linscott before, in another volume of Christmas stories, but found it just as enjoyable as the previous time; it is narrated by a girl spending Christmas in Switzerland. Gwen Moffat's story also features a child who is affected in the murder of a countryman in a hiking accident—but part of the mystery is being covered up.

"The Adventure of the Three Ghosts" and "The Adventure of the Christmas Ghosts" both riff off Dickens' A Christmas Carol as if the events actually took place. Another story takes place at Twelfth Night and has Watson discovering what happened in an old case he helped Holmes investigate, while a dog figures in the tale of a man having dreadful dreams. Holmes' "Christmas Client" is a mathematician who is hiding a literary secret, while he must rescue a woman wrongly accused of murder in "The Adventure of the Angel's Trumpet."

All of the stories are of some interest, although I thought "The Italian Sherlock Holmes," while colorful, a bit boring. My favorite is the Linscott story.

If you enjoy this book, there is a second collection of Sherlock Holmes Christmas stories—and of course Doyle's classic "Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle."

Wagging Through the Snow, Laurien Berenson
I had an opportunity to read this new Melanie Travis mystery as an ARC on Netgalley, as I've always enjoyed her dog-show based mysteries. However, I was a bit irritated to discover that they want full price for this story when it's really only a novella.

Thanksgiving has barely concluded when Melanie's brother Frank, once a bit of a sad sack, but now a successful business owner, husband, and father, arrives at the Driver home with exciting news: he has taken the profits from his business (a coffee shop called the Bean Counter) and invested in a new business, a Christmas tree farm. Trouble is, he hasn't told his partner (Melanie's ex-husband) he did so and wants Melanie to tell him. Understandably, Bob Travis is a bit irritated, so Melanie and her family (and redoubtable Aunt Peg) accompany Frank and Bob when they go to check out the property, which is run-down but promising. Unfortunately, they also find a body in the woods, an alcoholic homeless man named Pete. Everyone thinks it's an accident—until a friend of Pete's appears and says Pete had stopped drinking and there's no way he walked into that "accident." So once again Melanie is sleuthing as she tries to shop, bake, decorate, and listen to gift hints from her two sons.

This is a quick, festive read, with the reclamation of the Christmas tree farm almost more interesting than the mystery. I loved being with Melanie and her family for Christmas, but the mystery is almost too slight. Another subplot and a full book's worth of story would have helped.