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

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.

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

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 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 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):

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.

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

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


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