05 October 2017


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:

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:

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.

25 July 2017

Rudolph Day, July 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.

And now summer in all its sunshine, and, unfortunately, all its heat, is truly upon us. Even as a child I wasn't a summer fan, and it's when I most miss living near the ocean, although I got tired of "the beach thing" very early in my life. The noisy radios, the cigarette butts, the obnoxious crowds, the blazing sun, the creepy jellyfish all combined to make sunbathing at the beach an unpleasant activity (and this didn't count scrubbing sand off and cleaning the tub when you got home). I much preferred walking along a sea wall on a summer day, and then retreating to the nearest Del's Lemonade truck for a cool drink.

Later I became a devotèe of the seashore in winter. The crowds were gone, the heat was gone, it was the same beautiful sea, the same beautiful scenery in the distance, the same tangy smell of brine and seaweed and fish and low tide, the same beautiful sunset spreading across the western sky, the dormant plants and grass and the swell of the waves making a picturesque and natural backdrop to quiet thoughts and communion with nature rather than frustration with mankind.

After I left home I would always go back for Christmas, and it became our custom to go out to Newport on Christmas Eve. We would walk some at the Brick Walk Marketplace until the stores began to close, have lunch, and then spend a few hours at Brenton Point, walking on the sea wall, investigating the crumbling stables that once belonged to the imposing Budlong home that once graced the point, climbing the old water tower in the rear. One Christmas Eve it was so cold we didn't stay long; even the seagulls didn't want to go into the water and the sea foam was freezing on the edge of the beach, but we saw a spectacular sunset before heading home.

A Nantucket Christmas, Leslie Linsley, photographs by Jeffrey Allen
This was such a summer choice!

So you have to know that I have been wanting this beautiful book since it was published, but waited thirteen long years to find it at an affordable price. Not that the price wasn't justified! Two hundred photographs of Nantucket homes, scenes, and decorations are lavishly spread through this solid coffee-table book, and, fortuitously, it snowed the day they were doing the photos, which made the few outdoor shots and shots through windows more festive.

I'll admit that the decorations in some of the "swank" homes on the island weren't of much interest; they didn't look any different from the stagy, stiff, and soulless magazine spreads in the Christmas magazines. One can tell these are the work of designers, not of families decorating with love and creativity. Of more interest were the simple, lovely displays, some just using greens and berries and a little bit of burlap or ribbon, in old cottages, converted fishing shacks, and historical buildings, dotted with the mementos of the sea: glass floats, oars, shells, starfish, scrimshaw, and the exquisite actual and reproduction sailor's Valentines. Especially loved the Christmas trees decorated with vintage ornaments and bead garlands in homes with classic woodwork and wallpaper, bringing back memories of Christmas trees in the old homes owned by my relatives when I was a little girl.

If there's any regrets, it's that there aren't more outdoor shots.

04 July 2017

Happy Independence Day!

25 June 2017

Rudolph Day, June 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.

Here we are already at "Leon Day" ("Noel" spelt backwards)! The new year is fast becoming the old year, as time spins its inexorable thread. One hundred years ago, the items you see above were common Christmas decorations. The Santa Claus on the left is called a "belsnickel," a tradition among the Pennsylvania Germans, and is also a candy container. Many other designs of candy containers existed: reindeer, snowmen, sleighs. This belsnickel not only carries a sack for gifts, but, as in German tradition der Weihnachtsmann brings the Christmas tree, a little fir tree.

The Santa on the right is one of many "figural" electric Christmas bulbs that were popular in the early 20th century. They came in various Christmasy themes, but also in the shape of animals and fruits, and in media shapes like Snow White and the seven dwarves, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Pluto, and even comic strip figures like Felix the Cat and Spark Plug the horse from "Barney Google."

The beautiful ornament in the middle is called a "Dresden," because they were made in Dresden, Germany, the home of so many beautiful Christmas ornaments. Although they look metallic, Dresdens were actually made of cardboard. Wet cardboard was pressed into a detailed mold, one sheet for each side of the ornament. When dry, the two pieces were glued together and then hand-painted. Some were of one color, perhaps silver, gold, bronze, others multicolor like this rooster, and sometimes trimmed with gold tinsel. They came in all sorts of designs: animals, fruits, vegetables, angels, small children, "Kriss Kringle," even airships and motorcars.

Deck the Halls: Treasures of Christmas Past, Robert M. Merck
If you like what you've seen so far, you'll probably love this thin 1992 volume of photos of all sorts of vintage Christmas ornaments taken from author Merck's private collection. This must have the largest collection of color photographs of figural bulbs that I've ever seen in one book (even Schiffer books).

Modern readers may find many of the Santa Claus figures a bit...stern. Even threatening. But these Santa figures were based on the original St. Nicholas, who, while fond of children, was still a disciplinarian. One hundred years ago children looked forward to his visit with as much fear as anticipation. In many households a man posing as Santa/Belsnickel/St. Nicholas would come to the door and question the children about their behavior during the year. We all hear the jokes about coal in your stocking, but what parent ever goes through with it? Back then they did—and naughty children often watched their brothers and sisters play with simple toys and dolls and eat candy (a rare thing in those days) while they had a handful of switches (thin tree branches) with which they would be whipped. Nor was Santa always in red. Victorian "scraps" show him in every color, even brown and gray.

Merck also shows off a small collection of ornaments made with cotton batting. These ornaments are rare because the white cotton dirtied easily in homes heated with coal and many still lit with gas and kerosene and were thrown out when they got grimy.

Pages 38 and 39 show off Merck's vintage tree, with Pennsylvania "Dutch" Putz below, to splendid advantage. A great used book find for the lover of vintage Christmas ornaments.

25 May 2017

Rudolph Day, May 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.

Stories have always been part of Christmas. The most enduring one has been the story of the Christ Child; for His followers this is a sacred truth. But over the years other stories have been engendered by the holiday season: the "scary ghost stories" told around the fire of old, the most popular being Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol; legends of King Arthur and knights celebrating medieval feasting; fantasy tales of elves and spirits; true tales of sad Christmases and miracles on Christmas Eve and unexpected truces during times of war; simple celebrations and fabulous wealthy feasts; stories of giving and tales of hope, stories of faith and narratives that are just plain fun. In modern times we have had media stories: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and all their compatriots who now find themselves classics, and there are even famous radio stories, like "The Small One" and "The Cinnamon Bear."

There may be stories out there you've never heard before, too. Have you read "The Fir-Tree Cousins"? Try searching the web for "vintage Christmas stories"—there are at least a dozen by Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery alone.

And of course who could forget O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi"?

However, there are so many Christmas story collections that just repeat the classics—most of these books which I have already picked up—that I was surprised to discover Keeping Christmas: The Celebration of an American Holiday by Philip Reed Rulon and find some novelties therein. This volume is a combination of fiction and nonfiction, but all of it having to do with different ways of spending Christmas in the United States. There are a few of the usual suspects, but still favorites: Stowe's "Christmas, or the Good Fairy" about a discontented rich girl who finds much better gifts by giving something away, and Truman Capote's melancholy "A Christmas Memory," bringing alive the friendship between an elderly woman and a small boy and the enduring Western "Stubby Pringle's Christmas." There is also a Nathaniel Hawthorne offering, "The Christmas Banquet," which is at once lugubrious and pointed.

Some of the historical texts are interesting to read, including an account of Columbus' first Christmas in the "New" World, an account of Christmas at Sutter's Fort before the gold rush of 1849 at which Johann Sutter makes a prophetic statement, accounts from Robert E. Lee and other Civil War soldiers, and two different accounts of Native Americans encountering Christmas customs (the second of these, "How the Indians Spend Christmas," may not be entirely politically correct today, but at many points is sympathetic with the Natives, who, if they have not yet been converted to Christianity, basically see Christmas as a day to eat themselves sick as they have seen the settlers doing, and, as one chief points out to the narrator, "Fort July" is just about white men getting drunk)!

Of novelty was finding Earl Hamner's "The Homecoming" included in this volume. I have the novella, so I am not sure if the shorter version included here is the original version which was later expanded or if it were trimmed to fit. Its roots to The Waltons are mentioned and one can definitely see them here. Another surprise is the 1844 "Santa Claus, or The Merry King of Christmas," which can be described as a Boston-set cross between "A Visit from St. Nicholas," L. Frank Baum's Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, and A Christmas Carol/"Christmas, or the Good Fairy" appeal for charity, where diminutive Santa, his team of reindeer, and hordes of fairies emerge from the Old Oak on the Boston Common and determine to make it a merrier Christmas for the poor. "Christmas in a Country Doctor's Home" is another fun story, about preparations for the holiday in that family and of the daughter's wish for her father to have no babies to deliver on Christmas Day so they can have their frolic. There's a sweet story about a Christmas tree seller and an amusing effort by Alexander Woollcott, and yet this stocking is not yet plumbed.

This is an interesting little volume with much to recommend it. If you see it in a used book store, you may wish to pick it up!

25 April 2017

Rudolph Day, April 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.

Christmas comes once a year, but often what is going on in that year conflicts with the reverent and celebratory customs associated with the holiday. So what happened in Christmas of 1914 was all the more astonishing.

In April 1917, with fervor bordering on religious, the United States declared war on Germany, having stayed neutral even after a great number of Americans were killed in the torpedoing of the ocean liner Lusitania in 1915, finally spurred into action by the infamous Zimmerman Telegram. "The Great War" was already in its third year, scarring Europe with trenches slashed across the landscape and grinding both Triple Alliance and Triple Entente personnel into small pieces, the hatred against each other seemingly never ending. However, events that took place during the Christmas season of 1914 gave a bit of lie to that hatred.

From "The Illustrated London News"

Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914, Malcolm Brow & Shirley Seaton
The weary British troops, already sick of war after five months in the field, were astonished on Christmas Eve of 1914 when the "Huns" in the enemy trench on the opposite side of No-Man's Land, a nightmare landscape of barbed wire, caltrops, chevaux de frise, and dead bodies (both of men and horses), dropped their weapons and waved their hands or a white flag and called to the "Tommies" a message of peace for Christmas. While this was not an orchestrated truce and it did not happen between all adversaries, it was celebrated by enough men that word of it got home to England via letters to family and it was publicized in the newspapers. One hundred years later it is still an amazing story, but, if you read this book you will realize that most of the men did not even have any malice toward each other; they were simply fighting because their governments told them so. The British "Tommies" talked to numerous "Hun" who had, not months earlier, worked as waiters, barbers, teachers, etc. in Great Britain.

The authors have assembled their story about the Truce from actual letters and reports written by the British and the German men who took part, chronicling cold weather, death, and hardship interrupted by surprising overtures of Peace on Earth: the trading of food and tobacco, a few unofficial games of football, singing to each other over No-Man's Land, and men willing to fire into the air to preserve a few more days of Christmas spirit. The text is a bit dry, but it's a very complete account of what happened (and what didn't happen) on that extraordinary Christmas of 1914. Students of history, especially military history, should enjoy.

16 April 2017

25 March 2017

Rudolph Day, March 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.

There is a myth that more people commit suicide during the holiday season than any other. According to "Psychology Today," "...[c]ontrary to popular belief, the suicide rate peaks in the springtime, not the wintertime. This is probably because the rebirth that marks springtime accentuates feelings of hopelessness in those already suffering with it. In contrast, around Christmas time most people with suicidal thoughts are offered some degree of protection by the proximity of their relatives and, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, the prospect of 'things getting better from here.'"

Nevertheless, sometimes Christmas comes during a moment of sorrow: a long hospital stay, an aging relative slipping away, family conflicts, the death of a pet—but especially if a family member or close friend has passed away.


The 13th Gift, Joanne Huist Smith
When Joanne's husband Rick died several months before Christmas, it left the entire family adrift. Joanne could no longer sleep in their bedroom, eldest son Ben takes refuge in driving dangerously, middle child Nick disappears into his video games, and youngest girl Megan is the only one who seems to know that Christmas is approaching, keeping up a hopeful vibe even as she cries alone. Joanne simply wishes she could sweep the holidays under the rug and bury herself in her grief. Then, twelve days before Christmas, the family finds a poinsettia on the doorstep with a little rhyme attached intimating there will be other surprises to come.

This is a sad but hopeful little book, about twelve simple little gifts that became so much more. I have to admit I was a little angry at the mom. She had let her grief consume her so much that she didn't see how badly their father's death was affecting the children. I appreciated how devastated she was but also felt sorry for the children, who really needed the support. After my dad died my mom never forgot that I was hurting, too. But then I have never been in that spot and without children will never be; you never know how grief will affect someone. Thankfully they had relatives nearby that helped out some, but it seemed very touch-and-go with the two boys through most of the story.

Smith's story makes her grief and fears very real, and that both made me want to see what happened and yet at the same time it was hard to bear her sorrows. This might be a tough book to get through if you have suffered the loss of a loved one. Take heart: you will find out the origin of the gifts and what prompted them. Both heartwarming and affirming.

25 February 2017

Rudolph Day, February 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.

With Valentine's Day a big focus of February, love is the theme, and love is the theme of the following Christmas books:

The Birds' Christmas Carol, Kate Douglas Wiggin
"Her cheeks and lips were as red as holly-berries, her hair was for all the world the color of a Christmas candle-flame,her eyes were bright as stars, her laugh like the chime of Christmas bells..."
Wiggin is most well-known for her championing of the kindergarten movement and her timeless character Rebecca Randall, the girl from Sunnybrook Farm, but another of her perennial favorites is this short tale of little Carol Bird, born on Christmas Day and named after the songs playing as she was born. As in the manner of so many Victorian children, Carol is a sickly child and lives an invalid life in her room, which is as fine as her father and mother and three older brothers could make it. She occupies part of her shut-in days watching a big family of poor Irish children play outside. On her tenth birthday, she has the idea to invite the little Ruggles children for a Christmas surprise.

While very quaint and with a rather typical heartrending "invalid child" plot, this is nevertheless a sweet holiday story along with a soft story of unselfishness. It's also a lovely window on how Christmas was celebrated in the 1880s.

The Story of Holly and Ivy, Rumer Godden
"This is a story about wishing..."
Holly, a little Christmas doll, is the newest toy in Mr. Blossom's toy shop in the village of Aylesbury, dreams of having a little girl of her own on Christmas Eve, if nothing else to escape Abracadabra, the scoffing stuffed owl who all the other toys are afraid of. Ivy, an orphan at St. Agnes' Orphanage, doesn't even get chosen to spend Christmas with a kind family; instead Miss Shepherd is sending her to St. Agnes' infants home for the holiday. But Ivy instead gets off the train in Aylesbury, where she stubbornly insists she has a grandmother. And Mrs. Jones, the childless wife of the Aylesbury police constable, wakes up Christmas Eve wishing for a little girl.

Well, of course it works out just as you think it might, but it's the getting there that's all the fun. In simple language that can be understood by the youngest child but with great use of words, Godden describes Ivy's and Mrs. Jones' loneliness to perfection, and her account of the wonderful toy shop and the village market makes you long to spend the holidays in a small English town. I have the Scholastic reprint of the original novel, which is illustrated with inventive and thematic red and green pencil drawings, but there's also a version illustrated by Barbara Cooney that's very nice (although for some reason the name of the town has been changed to Appleton). You don't have to be a child to enjoy this luminous Christmas tale.

The Thirteen Days of Christmas, Jenny Overton
I don't remember where or when I found this book, probably on a Borders remainder pile, but I hadn't read it in a while and had forgotten how funny it was.

After the death of their mother, Prudence, Christopher, and James Kitson, plus their father, are at the mercy of their elder sister Anne (who prefers to be known as "Annaple" because it's a more "romantic" name) whose mind wanders to fantasy thoughts while she's cooking, with most of her meals turning out inedible. Wealthy Francis Vere is in love with Annaple, but, stoked by fairy tales and lush romances, she thinks Francis rather dull. When the children confer with Francis about what to get Annaple as a Christmas gift, they tell him to be imaginative—and on Christmas morning, Frances shows up with a unique present for his persnickety love: a trained partridge in a miniature pear tree. But it's only the first day of Christmas, and there are eleven more surprises in store.

Overton mixes long-abandoned Yuletide customs, when each of the twelve days of Christmas and Epiphany had their own meaning and celebrations and even their own carol, with the hilarious story of mercurial Annaple and her very serious suitor, who takes the Kitson children's ideas and turns them into an inventive method of courtship that gets funnier and funnier as each day dawns and the neighbors start to turn out to see what will happen next. The songs quoted are authentic medieval music and old customs like the Boy Bishop, blessing of keys, "churching day" (bringing the baby Jesus into church and singing a lullaby to Him), lighting fresh candles on New Year's Day, etc. take place. (Actually, this probably takes place after 1582, when the Christian church re-established January 1 as New Year's Day. Before that, celebrating New Year on that date was considered pagan.)

This would be a great book to start on Christmas Eve (the first chapter takes place on St. Nicholas Day, but it probably could be read together with the Christmas Eve chapter) and then read one chapter each day for the twelve days and and Epiphany.

Plus the ultimate romantic Christmas short story: "The Gift of the Magi"

(You can find the pattern for the pretty heart here!)

14 February 2017

Will You Be My Valentine?

A diamond (and the bill for it) is forever? Tennis bracelets? Weekend getaways that cost more than your wedding? Ruth's Christ Steak House?

Let's have some fun and information for Valentine's Day instead.

39 Vintage Valentine's Day Card Fails (there are more than 39)

Single on Valentine's Day? Who Cares?

Celebrating Valentine's Day With a Box of Chocolates

How Chocolates and Valentine's Day Mated for Life

Who Is Cupid?

Vinegar Valentines

Happy Valentine's Day: I Hate You

02 February 2017

Candlemas Day is Here Again

February 2 has many names. In the Christian calendar it is Candlemas, Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which commemorates the presentation of Jesus Christ in the temple, and the purification of the Virgin Mary (a ritual performed the traditional forty days after a boy's birth). Called "Candlemas" because the church's candles were blessed upon that day, you were supposed to toss your used candles and light a fresh, blessed candle instead. (Presumably if you could afford to do so!)

All About Candlemas

Candlemas: From Time and Date

Candlemas Day in Dartmoor, England

Robert Herrick wrote this classic rhyme about Candlemas Day, which was the final day one could keep up Christmas greens without calling down bad luck upon oneself!

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with holly, ivy, all.
Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

February 2 is also a ritual feast day in pagan circles, Imbolc. The goddess Brigit's day falls on this date. Many of the traits of Brigit have been carried over to the Irish St. Bridget or Brigid, also called Bride.

I just finished reading the book at left, which is primarily for those of the Wiccan persuasion; however, it fully explores Brigit's ties with St. Brigid/Bride with a lengthy account of the goddess, her symbols, and the similarities between herself and the saint. Since Candlemas is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the day traditionally acknowledges the lengthening of the days and the lessening of winter's grip upon the countryside. Some of the symbols associated with Brigit and Brigid are snowdrops, sheep (lambing signifying the arrival of spring), and cows (freshening due to calving). The book also contains traditional recipes associated with Candlemas, end of winter, spring, and Ireland.

Groundhog Day stems from the belief in Germanic countries that the weather on Candlemas Day predicted the remainder of the season. Their "weather creature," however, was the badger!

The rhyme associated with this event is as follows:

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight,
But if Candlemas Day be clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.”

25 January 2017

Rudolph Day, January 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 love photographs like this as much as I do? Do you sometimes want to leap into vintage photographs—especially Christmas photographs—and see what it was all really like? To see the ornaments you remember from Grandma's Christmas tree in the store window all new and shiny like they are here? To look overhead and see Christmas garlands and wreaths overhang the city streets, and then pan downward for the elaborately decorated Christmas windows showing this year's novelty toys, games, fashions, furniture, and appliances? To see the shoppers dressed in the clothing of the time and listen to their chatter? Maybe it would be something funny—"My goodness, my last date was a real sad apple! I told him '23 skidoo!'"—or it could even be something sad: "I wish Bob could be home for Christmas. Being stationed in the South Pacific must be gruesome, and Mama and Papa miss him so much." There could be happy smells of roasting peanuts and chestnuts from street vendors, the scent of coffee wafting out of a nearby coffee shop, the tantalizing odor of that Chinese restaurant down the street. On a cold day your scarf would flutter in your face and the ubiquitous awnings over store windows would flap in the breeze, and once your shopping was done you'd be glad to retreat to a warm diner for "a cup of joe" and some pie or the bus station to wait for your ride home.

Then I have a book for you! This is A Very Vintage Christmas by Bob Richter. Richter collects all things vintage Christmas, starting from when he was a little boy and his father gave him a box of old Christmas ornaments to start his collection. The book is filled with beautiful full-color photos of vintage ornaments ranging from gilded paper Dresdens and kugels to turn-of-the-century figurals to wire-trimmed "scraps" to unsilvered paper-capped World War II ornaments. He chats about the best way to decorate a Christmas tree, how to make little Christmas "vignettes" for every room of your house, and things that you can collect that have nothing to do with ornaments and lights: vintage Christmas cards, old photographs, postcards, placards once used in stores, Christmas sheet music, old magazines, etc. that can be combined with greenery and simple items like paper chains, beads, and old plastic Santa and reindeer to make great nostalgic displays, as he shows in his own home.

Whether you wish to also begin a vintage Christmas collection or you just want to bask in the happy comfort of nostalgia, this volume should satisfy—you may not want to come back to January.

15 Old Fashioned Christmas Craft Ideas

06 January 2017

Love and Inspiration

A Tree for Peter, Kate Seredy
I became a fan of Kate Seredy in elementary school when I read The Good Master and The Singing Tree in the library. Her wonderful stories combined with her evocative illustrations were as good as pied piper songs. In junior high I found a new favorite, The Chestry Oak, and in college The Open Gate. Ironically my least favorite book of hers so far is the one that won the Newbery Medal, The White Stag.

I'd heard about A Tree for Peter for years, but never had a chance to read it until its recent republishing. There is a Christmas element to the story, but it's not really a Christmas story—but yet it is, if you believe in the story of hope and renewal that is essential to the Christmas mythos. Small Peter is a lame boy who lives in a shantytown of abandoned homes, the only place his mother can find to live after his father's death and medical bills have stripped her of everything. She works in a laundry six days a week to feed and clothe them, while Peter stays alone. Shy and afraid, six-year-old Peter hides from the rough boys in the area and even the tall policeman who comes every day, until he befriends a tramp also named Peter, Peter King. It's "King Peter" who stills his fears and brings joy (and the gift of a little red spade) to his life—and doing so plants a seed of hope in the community.

Cynics will find it a corny story. The rest of us will find it inspiring, a modern-day parable about what kindness and community can do. One wishes the illustrations in the new edition were not so muddy, as they are beautiful examples of Seredy's art. A splendid book to end Christmastide.

Christmas in the Country

The Country Diary Christmas Book, Sarah Hollis
PBS's Masterpiece Theatre initially chugged along with costume epics like The First Churchills, but its breakout moment came as people got immersed in the life of the Bellamy family in the Edwardian-era Upstairs, Downstairs. 1970s' Downton Abbey, Americans who couldn't tell Edward VII (the portly one) from Edward VIII (the one who abdicated) and thought Brits were all upper-class twits were crazy for the program and its characters, especially parlourmaid Rose (Jean Marsh) and her fellow servants. Suddenly Edwardian-era things were all in demand. In the meantime, a member of Edith Holden's family cherished an illustrated nature diary the young woman had kept in 1906. Edith's watercolors of birds and plants, combined with diary notations and quotations, was finally published in a facsimile edition in 1977 as Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Snapped up by Upstairs, Downstairs fans, the book spun off blank books, notepaper, china, etc. Another of Edith's diaries emerged in the 1980s and was published as Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady.

Author Sarah Hollis compiled several other books based on Edith's book, and I don't remember when and where I found this one, probably on the remainder table at Borders, but it's been a cherished part of my Christmas library and Christmas reading for years. It's an irresistible combination of winter entries from Edith's diaries, and paintings (including some by Beatrix Potter), engravings, poetry, essays, excerpts from books, Edwardian-themed Christmas cards, recipes, small crafts, and other Edwardian-era items that make you feel you are back in a wood-paneled, gaslit home accented with the heavenly scent of candles, evergreens, polished wood, and Christmas goodies cooking in the kitchen. It's perfect bedtime reading for Advent and Christmastide: warm, soothing, nostalgic. If these are the things that mean "Christmas" to you, find a copy of this book. A Christmas classic!

Happy Epiphany!

Why Christians Celebrate the Feast Day

Epipany and Theophany Around the World

The Vatican's Epiphany of the Lord, celebrated this year on Sunday, January 8

05 January 2017

What ARE The Twelve Days of Christmas?

Epiphany by Janet McKenzie
Just what are the twelve days of Christmas? Well, the commercial community will have you believe they are the twelve days before Christmas, during which you need to spend, spend, spend to make sure you give your family and friends their due gifts. It's a cynical slap at what used to be twelve days of merrymaking between Christmas Day—the first Day of Christmas—and January 5, which is celebrated as Twelfth Night. (Those in Shakespeare's time knew this, hence his play, "Twelfth Night," as the merrymaking reaches its peak.)

January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, generally regarded as the date on which the magi from the east found the child Jesus. (The Bible makes no mention of three "kings" or three of anything at all, except the gifts that are mentioned: gold, frankincense, and myrrh—and these may be symbolic. The magi or "wise men" are never said to be kings, and they do not arrive at the stable along with the shepherds—the translation clearly indicates a house, and Jesus is described as a "young child," not a baby. They may have reached the family several years after his birth, which explains Herod's order to kill all male children up to two years old.)

Even then, Christmastide is not over for many segments of the population. Scandinavians celebrate until January 13, "Knut," when they dance around the Christmas tree and then plunder its contents (since the tree is often decorated with cookies). Eastern Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar, so Christmas falls on January 7 and Epiphany (Theophany) is not until the 19th.

Even further in the past, folks left up their Christmas greenery until Candlemas, February 2. But, after that, it's bad luck to keep it up. (This may come from sensible reasoning: Christmas greens back then were fresh, and the longer they remained up, the drier and more flammable they became!)

* * Wikipedia Entry * *

04 January 2017

All is Calm, All is Bright, All is Song

Christmas Ideals, Worthy Publishing Group
What can you say about "Ideals" annual Christmas issue? It's a mixture of attractive Christmas and winter photographs, nostalgic paintings and line art, simple rhymed poetry, quotations, and essays, and is unabashedly corny and comforting. Cynics and avant garde types will probably avoid. We corny folks will read and enjoy.

These annual issues have been published since 1944. The newer issues rely more on photography than on original art than the initial issues—but privately I thought the art in the old issues was pretty bad. This year's photographs weren't as spectacular as in previous issues, but most were cozy and warming enough. One thing I do miss from "yesteryear" is the essays; the authors did a better job in the past being heartwarming without being simplistic. Or perhaps that's the way the readers want it today.

Christmas Bells, Jennifer Chiaverini
I haven't crossed paths with Chiaverini before, as I am not a devotee of what is called "chick lit." I know she has done some well-received historical novels and a series of books based on quilting. However, since I am a devotee of Boston and Cambridge I was attracted by this novel's Cambridge setting and the two alternating storylines.

In Cambridge's St. Margaret's Church, choir director and music teacher Sophia has arranged a special performance around Longfellow's "Christmas Bells," set to music as "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." She is troubled after having learned she is about to lose her job teaching music due to budget cuts, and totally unaware that the church's talented pianist is in love with her. Two children in the choir and their mother are also troubled after not being able to speak to their soldier father/husband in Afghanistan. Father Ryan is hiding familial problems and a sad older woman who comes to watch rehearsals is similarly troubled. Only bright Sister Winifred is happy this holiday season.

The troubles of the modern-day characters are alternated with chapters about the Longfellow family and how Henry Longfellow broke from a long period of depression and not writing after the terrible death of his wife and the departure of his son to fight in the Civil War to write "Christmas Bells," one of his most well-remembered poems.

I found this book easy reading, but the modern day characters pretty much cookie cutter: the pretty choir director and the handsome pianist, the loving mom and troubled scholarly daughter and mischievous son, the devoted priest, the one not-sleazy politician and his partner wife, the stalwart soldier husband who loves music and an envious brother. They're all easy to love, but uncomplicated and you have no doubt that things are going to come out okay for all of them and that while there is sorrow in their lives, it is tempered with joy, just as a grieving Longfellow found happiness from his children and from translating Dante. Chiaverini is at her best as she recaptures the joy of a 19th century Christmas as well as the fears and trials of the Longfellow family during the American Civil War. Beware, however, that it is very slow moving. Definitely something to sit and relax with.

(BTW, I would have loved to have seen the mother's confrontation with the suspicious teacher who accused her daughter of cheating. Of all the plot threads in this book, this one was the closest to my heart. I wanted to bawl out that teacher so badly!)

03 January 2017

The Krampus Gang

The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil, Al Ridenour
Christmas for our ancestors was a darker, more dangerous season. Instead of a childlike, bright Santa Claus in pajamas and a stocking cap who gives gifts to children no matter what, the European tradition included St. Nicholas, who loved children but was a stern taskmaster. For disobedient children—especially deliberately disobedient ones—he traveled with a partner, a usually fearsome companion who threatened children with beatings and, in hard cases, being taken away to face further monstrous punishment, like being eaten alive.

One character enjoying a revival is the Krampus, a furred, horned, goat-footed monstrosity with a long red tongue, who evolved from other, older winter monsters called Perchta. This is Ridenour's journey to Austria/Germany/the Swiss Alps to find those who still follow the traditions and find out where they come from.  Some are newly revived, some go back centuries, all are now involved in complicated performances during Christmastide, and some of them are borderline professional, to the scorn of others who practice the old customs for love. All the side influences are also examined: evil Lucia personas to accompany St. Lucy on December 13, Frau Holle and La Befana, Silvester "Claus" characters, and the original Percht.

Ridenour tries to separate the original characters from what he thinks are false conclusions reached in the 19th century (that all the evil characters were ancient fertility symbols) and neopagan modern practices from more traditional processions. The book is lavishly illustrated with full-color, elaborate costumes and gatherings and the different aspects of the characters (fur-clad demons to men of straw to "pinecone men"). It's all fascinating reading, but his attempts to document every single different custom in each village may become tedious for some readers after a while.