12 December 2019

When You Don't Care Who Gets Murdered...

A Christmas Party, Georgette Heyer
Heyer's Regency romances have been popular since I was a kid, but I never knew she wrote mysteries. A friend told me that she didn't think the mystery stories had the appeal of the Regencies, and if I had to judge all of her mysteries by this one, I'd certainly agree.

Joseph Herriard, a genial former actor, invites family and one close friend to his brother Nathaniel's home Lexham for Christmas (where Joseph and his wife Maud, a colorless former chorus girl, have been living since returning from abroad). There are Joe and Nat's sardonic nephew Stephen, his dippy fiancee Valerie, his niece Paula (excitable actress) and a playwright she drags along in hopes that her Uncle Nat will finance his play, cousin Mathilda Clare, and Nathaniel's business partner Edgar Mottisfont. Joseph seems the only one with Christmas spirit: the rest of the Herriards quarrel with each other incessantly and Nat and his partner are at odds as well, and it's evident Nathaniel hates his nephew's fiancee and the odious playwright, especially after the latter reads his play to the guests before Christmas Eve dinner. Nathaniel goes stamping off to his room to dress for dinner, locking the door behind him—and never comes down again. When a worried Stephen and Joseph break into his room, they find him dead, and bleeding from a wound in his back. The police are called, and, baffled, they finally ask for help from Scotland Yard.

I struggled getting through this book: every single one of the characters, even the officious butler, was so unlikable that it was tempting to wish all of them had been murdered. Even the optimistic Joseph and the pragmatic Mathilda are annoying in their own way. The police characters are dull and colorless until one of the continuing characters in Heyers' mysteries shows up to liven up the proceedings (Inspector Hemingway) and by then you are halfway through the book. They continue to accuse, backbite, and annoy, and then Valerie's even more annoying mother shows up. One can't expect every character in a book to be likeable, but these people are the limit.

The best part of the book is the final two pages, when a character totally does an about-face and leaves you with a dropped jaw.

10 December 2019

Woolworths At Christmastime

A British page: Woolworth's lasted longer there than it did here, but alas, it's gone from Great Britain as well. "Woolies," as the Brits called it, was as popular a store there as it was here. There are still Woolworths stores in Australia.

Christmas Decorations at F.W. Woolworth

Woolworth Christmas Display at the National Christmas Center (sadly, now closed, but supposedly going to open again at another location in 2021).

9 Old-Fashioned Five and Dime Stores Still Existing

I still have a Woolworth's star on our Christmas tree. I always pray it holds out! I remember buying Shiny Brite ornaments, plain and stenciled, there, and also individual figures for the "manger scene" under the tree.

Remembering Woolworth's is a great book about the store.

09 December 2019

"30 Minutes of Disappointing Television"

...or maybe, one holiday broadcast to remember:

Mike Rowe's "The Way I Heard It" Podcast

Can you imagine Christmas today without those songs? Or without those classic lines of dialog?

Happy 54th anniversary!

07 December 2019

Beatrix Potter Was Very Frugal and Other Stories

A Lakes Christmas, compiled by Sheila Richardson
Alan Sutton Publishing has a series of these "Christmas anthologies," the first which I bought at a book sale several years ago. Now I try to pick them up used when they're a dollar or under, with the postage as the bulk of the purchase. I had two others picked out originally, then decided to get this one and A Fenland Christmas because of thoughts of Beatrix Potter and Lord Peter Wimsey, respectively.

I was expecting a selection from Potter, actually, or something about her life on her beloved Hill Top Farm, but instead was amused to find her included in "Party Time at Sawrey," the remembrances of a young "cottager" who attended the children's parties given by the wealthier members of the community. She recalls the best party was given by a Mr. Edmondson, who had a big Christmas tree, treats like cakes and trifle served in the ballroom of his big house, a gift to take home, and even a Charlie Chaplin film! "Mrs. Heelis" (Beatrix Potter) gave them jam sandwiches in her chilly barn, and only gave them an orange to take home. Once a little boy untied all the girls' pigtails and pinafores, and she forbade him from coming to her party again, so none of the other children attended, and there were no more parties at Hill Top Farm!

The entries in each of the books is variable, but this one has some interesting ones: the Christmas memories of an evacuee, the first landing of an aircraft in the Lakes area, excerpts from the diary of Dorothy Wordsworth (who apparently has been rediscovered after slipping into the shadow of her more famous brother, poet William Wadsworth), going to visit Father Christmas on a narrow-gauge railway train, taking care of the sheep during the snowy winters, traditional Lakeland treats like rum butter, medieval miracle plays, several essays about frosts so severe that horses drawing coaches could cross the ice of the lakes, an interesting account about trail hounds (who are one year old on January 1, just like race horses), accounts of winter services in the area churches, and several tales of climbing the mountains around the Lakes, including one about rescue operations.

A charming mixture of very old (going back to 1500!) through the 1950s!

The biggest surprise: nothing mentioned at all about Arthur Ransome, who wrote so lovingly about the Lake country in his children's adventures beginning with Swallows and Amazons.

05 December 2019

One of the First Christmas Trees in the United States

From the Colonial Williamsburg podcast:

Professor Minnigerode Lights a Tree

Karl Minnigerode led quite a life; check out his biography!

04 December 2019

Is Santa Claus Really the Heir of St. Nicholas?

Re-read: Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker
I hadn't read this book since I bought it, and I had forgotten the amazing case Siefker makes for her theory.

We all know the story: a selfless man named Nicholas became a bishop, performed various miracles and was canonized as a saint. He became one of the primary gift-givers in Europe at Christmastime, and then was brought to the United States by the Dutch. They called him "Sinter Klaas," which was mutated into "Santa Claus."

Well...maybe. Because, according to Siefker, the jolly old elf of Clement Clark Moore fame who became popular in the the US, a chubby man all tarnished with ashes and soot who came through chimneys, consorted with reindeer, carried a big sack on his back, and who could seemingly travel the world in the wink of an eye didn't descend from Nicholas at all, but from the enigmatic, vengeful partner that the good saint had in Europe, the one who actually punished the bad children (since kindly St. Nicholas was too gentle to do so). This creature was variously known as "Black Peter," or "Knecht Ruprecht," or "Hans Trapp," and even then he wasn't even what he seemed, but was descended from the pagan "Wild Man" who was the spirit of the forest and who kept the land fertile. When he appeared in village plays he was usually portrayed in fur and sometimes half animal, such as a goat, and phallic symbolism was often used. Some of his other legendary relatives were Robin Hood, Robin Goodfellow (Puck), and Herne the Hunter, and he was also the ancestor of the mischievous Harlequin. And there were also female spirits of the forest who were associated with winter: Frau Holle, for example, and the spirits Berchta and Perchta. He was even associated with the elves and fairies, which past histories declared to be true.

The only existing traces of this Wild Man today, we are told, are the rapidly disappearing Ainu on the north island of Japan, who are intermarrying with the Japanese. They still carry on the customs of their ancestors, which include raising bears (today they are kept as pets until age two, but previously they were sacrificed).

Some fascinating theories in this offbeat Christmas book. (But, beware, it's a McFarland small press book, so it's expensive!)

"Ballad of Christmas"

O sing a song of Christmas!
Pockets full of gold;
Plums and cakes for Polly's stocking.
More than it can hold.

Pudding in the great pot,
Turkey on the spit,
Merry faces round the fire,—
Sorrow? Not a bit!

Sing a song of Christmas!
Carols in the street,
People going home with bundles
Everywhere we meet.

Holly, fir, and spruce boughs
Green upon the wall,
Spotless snow upon the road,—
More about to fall.

Sing a song of Christmas!
Empty pockets here;
Windows broken, garments thin,
Stove all black and drear.

Noses blue and frosty,
Fingers pinched and red,
Little hungry children going
Supperless to bed.

Sing a song of Christmas,—
Tears are falling fast;
Empty is the baby's chair
Since't was Christmas last.

Wrathfully the north wind
Wails across the snow;
Is there not a little grave
Frozen down below?

Sing a song of Christmas!
Thanks to God on high
For the tender hearts abounding
With His charity!

Gifts for all the needy,
For the sad hearts, love,
And a little angel smiling,
In sweet heaven above.

03 December 2019

Vintage Christmas Videos

These are Christmas stories from the 1950s done either as shorts for a Christian film company, Cathedral Films, or were shorts done on anthology television series. They are all heartwarming if a bit old-fashioned.

"Star of Bethlehem" (the story of the Nativity told with narration and silhouettes)

"Three Young Kings" (three young Hispanic boys re-enact the story of the journey of the Magi)

"Christmas is Magic" (a war widow and her son take in an amnesiac veteran at Christmas)

"Holy Night" (the first part of "The Living Christ" series, about the Nativity)

"God's Christmas Gift" (a little girl learns that Christmas is more than about gifts)

"Child of Bethlehem" (a live-action black-and-white Nativity story)

"The Christmas Spirit" Part 1 and Part 2 (the story of a boy who wants a pony for Christmas)

"The Guiding Star" Part 1 and Part 2 (Uncle Henry solves the family's Christmas problems in his own way)

02 December 2019

Vintage Carols and Poems: "Greetings"

by Sydney Grey

Can there be any greetings, I wonder,
To feeling and friendship more dear,
Than the two that so seldom we sunder—
"Merry Christmas and Happy New Year"?

When affection's whole force is paraded,
A genial warfare to wage,
And each holly-crowned home is invaded,
Like that on the frontispiece page.

Our artist has surely with reason
Permitted his fancy to rove,
For good wishes just now are in season,
And letter-bags bursting with love.

Here's a bit of young madcap's sweet folly,
Which grandpapa's laughter will stir;
Here's a card to dear Ted from Aunt Molly,
And somebody's missive to her.

Cousin Tom has a certain small token,
The sender it fails to avow,
But I doubt not his thanks will be spoken
Very close to the mistletoe bough.

Well--away on your mission, fair greetings,
High embassy yours to fulfil;
Ever hailed amid joyous heart-beatings,
The pledges of peace and good-will.

01 December 2019

There's More to the Christmas Story...

Light of the World, Amy Jill Levine
This is an Advent book with a twist. The author is Jewish, and teaches New Testament classes at a university. As a Jew, she knows the Old Testament history behind the heritage, customs, and forebears of the main characters in the Christmas story: Zechariah and Elizabeth, and then Mary and Joseph, and finally the young Jesus, and also the historical events that help anchor the story to what was happening in the area that is now the Middle East.

Levine also gives more than a cursory reference to the women involved in the story, including the involvement of Elizabeth, who would give birth to the boy known later as John the Baptist, and other Biblical women, including Moses' sister Miriam, Deborah, Hannnah, Anna (St. Anne, mother of Mary), and another Anna, a prophet who meets Jesus as an infant when he is presented at the temple. She weighs the differences between the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew, and discusses the erroneous details we have given to events like the arrival of the Magi (they are never referred to as Kings, nor do we know how many there were).

I enjoyed Levine's threading of the events approaching the Nativity back to details mentioned in the Old Testament, and the explanation of traditional Jewish customs and how this would have affected each of the main characters in a story we have all learned by heart. Recommended if you are looking for a new aspect to Advent devotions.

First Sunday of Advent

For the first Sunday of Advent, the theme is Hope.

This Advent, Lord, come to the manger of my heart.
Fill me with Your presence from the very start.
As I prepare for the holidays and gifts to be given,
Remind me of the gift You gave when You sent Your Son from Heaven.
The first Christmas gift, it was the greatest gift ever.
You came as a baby born in a manger.
Wrapped like the gifts I find under my tree,
Waiting to be opened, to reveal Your love to me.
Restore to me the wonder that came with Jesus' birth,
When He left the riches of Heaven and wrapped Himself in rags of earth.
Immanuel, God with us, Your presence came that night.
And angels announced, "Into your darkness, God brings His Light."
"Do not be afraid," they said, to shepherds in the field.
Speak to my heart today, Lord, and help me to yield.
Make me like those shepherd boys, obedient to Your call.
Setting distractions and worries aside, to You I surrender them all.
Surround me with Your presence, Lord, I long to hear Your voice.
Clear my mind of countless concerns and all the holiday noise.
Slow me down this Christmas, let me not be in a rush.
In the midst of parties and planning, I want to feel Your hush.
This Christmas, Jesus, come to the manger of my heart.
Invade my soul like Bethlehem, bringing peace to every part.
Dwell within and around me, as I unwrap Your presence each day.
Keep me close to You, Lord. It's in Your wonderful Name I pray.

~~~~~~~Renee Swope, “The Manger of My Heart” (under "Advent" at Christianity.com)

30 November 2019

"We'll Keep Our Christmas Merry Still..."

from Marmion by Sir Walter Scott

Heap on more wood!-the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.
Each age has deem’d the new-born year
The fittest time for festal cheer:
Even, heathen yet, the savage Dane
At Iol more deep the mead did drain;
High on the beach his galleys drew,
And feasted all his pirate crew;
hen in his low and pine-built hall,
Where shields and axes deck’d the wall,
They gorged upon the half-dress’d steer;
Caroused in seas of sable beer;
While round, in brutal jest, were thrown
The half-gnaw’d rib, and marrow-bone,
Or listen’d all, in grim delight,
While scalds yell’d out the joys of fight.
Then forth, in frenzy, would they hie,
While wildly-loose their red locks fly,
And dancing round the blazing pile,
They make such barbarous mirth the while,
As best might to the mind recall
The boisterous joys of Odin’s hall.

And well our Christian sires of old
Loved when the year its course had roll’d,
And brought blithe Christmas back again,
With all his hospitable train.
Domestic and religious rite
Gave honour to the holy night;
On Christmas eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas eve the mass was sung:
That only night in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
The damsel donn’d her kirtle sheen;
The hall was dress’d with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry-men go,
To gather in the mistletoe.
Then open’d wide the Baron’s hall
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And Ceremony doff’d his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose;
The Lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of ‘post and pair.’
All hail’d, with uncontroll’d delight,
And general voice, the happy night,
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.

The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide:
The huge hall-table’s oaken face,
Scrubb’d till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
 Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar’s head frown’d on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
Well can the green-garb’d ranger tell,
How, when, and where, the monster fell;
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassel round, in good brown bowls,
Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie:
Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
‘Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.           

29 November 2019

It's Hot Cocoa and Cookies Time Again

Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, edited by Amy Newmark
It's time for another collection of warm and fuzzy Christmas tales from the Chicken Soup folks. As always some of them are deeply sentimental, but some of them are downright funny, too, like the story of the ugly elves, the traditional Norwegian breakfast ale, and the one-page poem about an unexpected flight. You'll meet reindeer named Chester and another named Fwank, tales of homemade gifts that meant so much to the givers and the recipients, the pony that wasn't quite the gift a little girl expected, acts of kindness to people in trouble, wonky Christmas decorations, a young man who spends an unexpected Christmas with a Jewish congregation in need of one more participant, a fruitcake that goes to the Mideast and a happy gift that makes a difference in Kenya, and more.

There are also some recipes, Charlie Brown Christmas trees abound, and a nice warm blanket of words to keep you cozy over the holidays.

This year's treat for 2019.

28 November 2019

Happy Christmas With the Happy Hollisters

The Happy Hollisters and the Trading Post Mystery, Jerry West
One of the most fun children's series of the 1950s was the "Happy Hollisters," about the lively Hollister family: Dad owns a combination sports/hobby/toy store called The Trading Post in the lakeside community of Shoreham, and, of course, Mom stays at home supervising her active brood: the two elder, more responsible children Pete, 12, and Pam, 10, then mischievous Ricky, age seven, and sparkling Holly, age six, and finally little Sue, who's only four, plus Zip the collie and White Nose and her kittens (who stay kittens for the duration of the books). Author Andrew Swenson (Jerry West) based the kids on his own children and the stories on trips the family took, adding simple mysteries to drive the plots. I was never able to read these as a child, and began picking them up one and two at book sales or used book stores, and recently ordered three of the reprints.

Then I found out all of them are available to read if you have Kindle Unlimited, and this was the first one I had not yet read. As I somehow managed to turn up an Easter-themed one last April, and still had the Cape Canaveral-set book left to read for the anniversary of the moon landing, this book is providentially set at Christmastime.

In a previous book, The Happy Hollisters at Mystery Mountain, little Sue fell in love with a black burro, and the owner promised to send the little donkey to them as a gift for helping his family. Now it's just before Christmas, and Domingo is on the way! But when they retrieve him from the airport, he has a cryptic rhyme attached to his bridle, and even when they take him home new little rhymes keep showing up in his stall.

In the meantime, the kids prepare for Christmas at school by studying Yuletide customs in other countries, their uncle and aunt and cousins arrive for the holidays, and they participate in their dad's wonderful idea for a Christmas promotion at the Trading Post: if people buy toys for charity, he will discount them. And, to advertise the store, he's bought a complete Santa Claus outfit for the roof, Santa, sleigh, reindeer and all. It's a great promotion and they're collecting lots of toys—until sneak thieves steal the entire outfit one night! So now the kids have two mysteries to solve.

It's another breathless adventure where modern kids will gape at the idea of Pete and Ricky being able to go search for thieves with a friend (riding an iceboat on a frozen lake, no less), and the kids track down clues on their own, all with no hovering adults—although Dad and Officer Cal and several other adults seem to turn up when the Hollisters and friends need them most. The odious Joey Brill and his buddy Will Wilson are back as well, and no matter how many times they get reprimanded, they're always good for yet another mean prank.

These are great, lively books with imaginative kids who make their own fun rather than sit around and play video games, love each other and help each other unashamedly, and if some old-fashioned terms (the Hollisters have a friend who is Native American who is referred to as an "Indian") and stereotypical sex roles (the boys help with "boy" chores and the girls usually clean up, but all the kids participate in the adventures) work their way into the tales, they can be used as teaching moments to compare changing attitudes. This particular book bubbles with all the glow of a classic midcentury Christmas.

A Thanksgiving Feast With a Side of Owl

As for many years now, Thanksgiving Day began with the Macy's parade. I still remember fondly waking up upon Thanksgiving morning and rushing to get breakfast so I could park myself before the television and watch the parades on CBS. They had the "Thanksgiving Parade Jubilee," showing parts of the J.L. Hudson parade in Detroit (Hudson's is long gone, but one of their offspring survives: Target; the parade survives as "America's Parade," I discovered this year), Gimbel's parade in Philadelphia (Gimbel's is gone, but Philly still has a parade), the pre-recorded Eaton's Santa Claus Parade (which, as I read in a book about the parade, long confused Canadian broadcasters on why the Americans wanted a Christmas parade on Thanksgiving; Eaton's is also gone, but Toronto still holds the parade), and finally the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade usually coming in last to present Santa Claus. In the real "old days" it was hosted by Captain Kangaroo from the Treasure House, later William Conrad took over the host duties from a richly-appointed men's den, drinking a toast at the very end. Later they ditched the Hudson's parade and started showing a parade from Hawaii with Jack Lord as the host (who the dickens wanted to watch flowers on Thanksgiving? I wondered), and Gimbel's got tossed in favor of a Walt Disney parade. Now CBS also has Macy's coverage and I heard the CW has the parade from Philadelphia. Probably had I known the latter I might have changed channels. Macy's has turned into, amazingly, not a big ad for Macy's, but a big ad for a bunch of young singing stars. Most of them were good, but who really cares? The announcers spend too much time yapping and promoting upcoming NBC shows.

This year, it was the commercials that were amazing. First came a four-minute epic from Xfinity, about a distant traveler who comes home for the holidays. Next came a magical visit to "The Time Shop" (I want to visit there!) with echoes of Narnia. And finally a little girl gets to ask all those pressing things a kid wants to know from the oddest of sources.

In the meantime James was in the kitchen cooking up goodies for our Friendsgiving feast, corn casserole and brown-sugar-glazed carrots, plus we had some Belgian chocolate seashells to bring along. We set the National Dog Show to recording and skipped out about one o'clock to find the feast about to begin at the Lucyshyn house. We had turkey, duck, pot roast, spiral-sliced ham, a whole passel of vegetables, Ron's mashed potatoes, a relish tray, bread, and, after all that, two kinds of pies, blondies, the chocolates, and brown bread with raisins (Oreta had to give out the recipe for the latter because it was so popular). We spent the time chatting, enjoying, and digesting.

The apex of the day was just after the sun had set. A line of orange and yellow was still on the western horizon, brightening the gap between two houses behind the Lucyshyn back yard, but above it, it was beginning to get dark and a quarter moon with Venus dangling beneath it was hung in the deep blue western sky just above the orange streak. I only had my phone with me, but I thought I might try to take a picture of it. So I went outside and snapped several photos.

Clair had followed me outside and both of us heard an owl hoot several times. Clair suddenly said "There it is!" and  pointed out the tallest tree in the neighborhood, silhouetted black against the southwestern sky. There at the top of the tree was the owl—we could see it stretch out every time it hooted, showing its head and tail! And then a few minutes later a second owl flew up to the same tree, different branch, and they hooted back and forth at each other for a few minutes, sketched against the sky like an Arthur Rackham illustration. Magical!

We drove home after admiring yet again the neighborhood overachievers nearby (the house at the very entrance of the development across from Alex and Pat's development) who had the front of their house covered with lighted Christmas trees, a manger scene, Snoopy on his doghouse, light spheres hanging from the trees, and so much more. (As a friend of mine might say, it looked like something had barfed up Christmas all over the place.) When I got home I went to the Cornell Ornithology website to identify the hoots, and it seemed we had two Great Horned Owls up in that tree! Clair confirmed that it was probably mating season for them, and what we saw might have been an attempt at courtship.

Turkey for dinner, owls in the night sky, and budgie song when we got home: that's what I call a Thanksgiving Day!

For Your Thanksgiving Library

• Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience

• This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

• The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America

• Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

• Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday

• Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History

• 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving

• Mayflower 1620: A New Look at a Pilgrim Voyage

27 November 2019

What Are You Reading for December?

Here's my pile!

This is all but Merry Midwinter, which I liked so much as in e-book I bought a real one, but it hasn't yet arrived.

A Lakes Christmas, A Fenland Christmas, and A Wartime Christmas are part of Sutton Publishing's Christmas series; they are short excerpts of Christmas/Christmastide passages from various British novels, memoirs, and poetry books, with the action taking place in that shire or era. I buy these when I can find inexpensive copies (these were 38¢ each plus postage). I chose the fenland one in memory of The Nine Tailors (and was surprised to find the opening passages from that book in the text) and the Lakes book due to Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome and was equally surprised to find no contributions from either, although Potter's town of Sawrey was mentioned.

I've never read a Georgette Heyer book. I hear her Regency romances are better than the mysteries, but I shall try this one out. I love English country house mysteries.

There's also a book in one of my series (the Witch City mysteries) that is set at Christmas.

Of course I plan to re-read my annual favorites: A Christmas Carol, Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Christmas After All, and The Cottage Holiday.

What's in your book pile?

25 November 2019

Rudolph Day, November 2019

"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.

Well, this is it, folks: it's one month until Christmas Day. Had it been several hundred years ago, Advent would have already have begun on November 11, Martinmas (St. Martin's Day). Like Lent, Old Advent was forty days (not counting Sundays) during which you refrained from eating rich food and prepared yourself for the coming of the Christ Child. The animals one could not feed during the winter would be butchered and smoked, and the root cellar was full of vegetables carefully stored so they would not rot to feed the family during the winter. You feasted on this bounty before Advent began.

I have been feasting on bounty from two electronic ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies)!

The Christmas Book, Andy Thomas
This is a nifty short book crammed full with color illustrations and black-and-white drawings that traces the history of the Christmas celebration, going all the way back to Egyptian observances of the god Horus and non-Christian solstice festivals. The Christian embracing—and frequent rejection of—a celebration of Jesus' birth is nicely summarized, with a section on the Puritan ban on the holiday after the English Civil War.

Although Thomas is from Great Britain and chiefly writes about the English and American way of celebrating the holidays, there are frequent asides to interesting customs in other countries, involving the Yule Lads in Scandinavia and Papai Noël in Brazil, and even a page about Russia's Grandfather Frost traveling with the Snow Maiden (the only male gift bringer to have a female sidekick). If you weren't aware previously, you'll discover that the Bible never mentions how many wise men (nor calls them kings nor states what gifts and how many they brought), that Prince Albert did not introduce the first Christmas tree into England, that the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is still in doubt, and that Stonehenge probably chiefly celebrates the winter solstice, not the summer event as previously thought, among other things. (Note to the author: The narrator of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was not "nodding off in front of the fire"; he was in bed, with his nightcap on, remember? Aroused by "such a clatter" that he flew to the window "to see what was the matter"?)

A great jumping off point to so many books about Christmas history and customs, from Williams Sansom's Christmas to Penne Restad's Christmas in America to Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas to Clement Miles and Karal Ann Marling, and more!

Merry Midwinter!, Gillian Monks
I have awarded this book the ultimate accolade: after reading the electronic version, I ordered the "real" book.

Monks, who describes herself as a Quaker and a practicing Druid (I didn't think that was possible!) has written a great book about celebrating all of the winter holiday season, from Hallowe'en/Samhain all the way through Candlemas, as our ancestors did. She traces the history of all the wonderful customs of the season, from decorating with evergreens (greens which represented both the spirits of nature and the "ever green" eternal love of the Son of God) to celebrating female bringers of light like Saint Lucy and Frau Holle to the connection of the winter solstice to the establishment of Christmas by the Christian Church on a day that was already celebrated as a religious holiday (the Saturnalia of the Romans, the feast of Mithras by the Persians, and ceremonies for the Egyptian Isis and the Greek god Apollo). And of course she addresses feasting, gift giving, the origins of some of the gift givers, including the now-ubiquitous Santa Claus, snow. As she states "Midwinter has always been a time for people to set aside their differences, lay down their weapons, and come together in a sense of community and celebration."

Her chapters include some of her personal memories of each of the holidays marking the winter season, along with family recipes and DIY crafts, but the thing she emphasizes most of all is simplicity and anticipation: not to rush any part of the winter season, but to enjoy each aspect of it, from the fun of Hallowe'en to the days building up to Christmas, and then not to let Christmas just stop at 11:59 p.m. on December 25, but to celebrate the entire twelve days of Christmas and even the January days leading finally to Candlemas/Imbolc on the second of February by walking in wintry woods or enjoying the cold weather, and enjoying days doing crafts indoors when the weather is inclement. She firmly believes in the philosophy of "there is no bad weather, only inadequate clothing" and invites you not to bemoan the loss of summer warmth but to embrace the wintry chill. I loved this whole attitude of enjoying all the seasons, and also of not allowing Christmas revelry to be trapped in a 24-hour period as our modern society dictates.

21 November 2019

Thanksgiving Books Online

The first book in this list is on archive.org and is out of print, so is readily available to borrow. To read all but the last book, you must register with archive.org (it's free) and then borrow the book for fourteen days. The final book is free on Google. (Archive.org is a great source for older books which are still under copyright, but out of print. You may enjoy being registered there.)

Thanksgiving: Its Origin, Celebration and Significance

Thanksgiving: Memories of the Day, Helps to the Habit

Thanksgiving: Feast and Festival

Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday

The Thanksgiving Ceremony: New Traditions for America's Family Feast

The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England

12 November 2019

From Under the Maples by John Burroughs

The time of the falling of leaves has come again. Once more in our morning walk we tread upon carpets of gold and crimson, of brown and bronze, woven by the winds or the rains out of these delicate textures while we slept.

How beautifully the leaves grow old! How full of light and color are their last days! There are exceptions, of course. The leaves of most of the fruit-trees fade and wither and fall ingloriously. They bequeath their heritage of color to their fruit. Upon it they lavish the hues which other trees lavish upon their leaves. The pear-tree is often an exception. I have seen pear orchards in October painting a hillside in hues of mingled bronze and gold. And well may the pear-tree do this, it is so chary of color upon its fruit.

But in October what a feast to the eye our woods and groves present! The whole body of the air seems enriched by their calm, slow radiance. They are giving back the light they have been absorbing from the sun all summer.

The carpet of the newly fallen leaves looks so clean and delicate when it first covers the paths and the highways that one almost hesitates to walk upon it. Was it the gallant Raleigh who threw down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth to walk upon? See what a robe the maples have thrown down for you and me to walk upon! How one hesitates to soil it! The summer robes of the groves and the forests—more than robes, a vital part of themselves, the myriad living nets with which they have captured, and through which they have absorbed, the energy of the solar rays. What a change when the leaves are gone, and what a change when they come again! A naked tree may be a dead tree. The dry, inert bark, the rough, wirelike twigs change but little from summer to winter. When the leaves come, what a transformation, what mobility, what sensitiveness, what expression! Ten thousand delicate veined hands reaching forth and waving a greeting to the air and light, making a union and compact with them, like a wedding ceremony. How young the old trees suddenly become! what suppleness and grace invest their branches! The leaves are a touch of immortal youth. As the cambium layer beneath the bark is the girdle of perennial youth, so the leaves are the facial expression of the same quality. The leaves have their day and die, but the last leaf that comes to the branch is as young as the first. The leaves and3 the blossom and the fruit of the tree come and go, yet they age not; under the magic touch of spring the miracle is repeated over and over.

The maples perhaps undergo the most complete transformation of all the forest trees. Their leaves fairly become luminous, as if they glowed with inward light. In October a maple-tree before your window lights up your room like a great lamp. Even on cloudy days its presence helps to dispel the gloom. The elm, the oak, the beech, possess in a much less degree that quality of luminosity, though certain species of oak at times are rich in shades of red and bronze. The leaves of the trees just named for the most part turn brown before they fall. The great leaves of the sycamore assume a rich tan-color like fine leather.

01 November 2019


from Marmion by Sir Walter Scott

"November’s sky is chill and drear,
November’s leaf is red and sear:
Late, gazing down the steepy linn,
That hems our little garden in,
Low in its dark and narrow glen,
You scarce the rivulet might ken,
So thick the tangled greenwood grew,
So feeble trill’d the streamlet through:
Now, murmuring hoarse, and frequent seen
Through bush and brier, no longer green,
An angry brook, it sweeps the glade,
Brawls over rock and wild cascade,
And, foaming brown with double speed,
Hurries its waters to the Tweed.

No longer Autumn’s glowing red
Upon our Forest hills is shed;
No more, beneath the evening beam,
Fair Tweed reflects their purple gleam;
Away hath pass’d the heather-bell
That bloom’d so rich on Needpath-fell;
Sallow his brow, and russet bare
Are now the sister-heights of Yair.
The sheep, before the pinching heaven,
To sheltered dale and down are driven,
Where yet some faded herbage pines,
And yet a watery sunbeam shines:
In meek despondency they eye
The withered sward and wintry sky,
And far beneath their summer hill,
Stray sadly by Glenkinnon’s rill:
The shepherd shifts his mantle’s fold,
And wraps him closer from the cold;
His dogs no merry circles wheel,
But, shivering, follow at his heel;
A cowering glance they often cast,
As deeper moans the gathering blast."

Ten things you didn't know about November.

25 October 2019

Rudolph Day, October 2019

"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.

This month's books are about having the Christmas you want, not the one you're told you should have.

Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli
The Christmas Survival Book, Alice Slaikeu Lawhead
I like to pull these two books out before the holiday season gets up too much steam to remind me that the Christmas season is what you make it, and not what the advertisers, the magazines, and the media tell you what it's supposed to be.

In its strictest sense, Christmas is about the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity ("Christ's Mass," after all). We really don't know when Jesus was born, but so that it was more easily acceptable to people who were not Christians (in the hope these people might convert), an early Pope attached this feast to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a time of the year when the light was dying but was given over to feasting, dancing, and other celebration. Non-Christians in the north called this same celebration "Yule," where we get the word "Yuletide" for a Christmas season synonym. Sound familiar? Sure it does, because that's what the broader celebration of Christmas is today: eating a delicious meal, visiting with friends and family, noise, music, lights (all December holidays, from Christmas to Hanukkah to Kwanzaa to St. Lucy's Day emphasize light in some fashion, since the winter solstice will bring the longest night of the year), alcoholic beverages, and most of all gifts, which was a holdover custom from the Romans, although they gave them at the new year.

Early Christians actually disowned the holiday. "Christ should not have his birth celebrated as if he is some King Pharaoh!" was one of the comments. Later Christians complained bitterly about its licentiousness. It was pretty much a holiday that allowed too many liberties, like cross dressing, eating and drinking to excess, and clandestine sexual activity. You might decry them as being a bunch of Puritans, but these Christmas revelers did things that would be considered illegal today. For instance, what we think of as the quaint, sweet tradition of caroling was originally carried out by young men who expected a shot of something alcoholic at each house. Even in those days when everyone drank "small beer," even small children, because the water was so polluted, and all became accustomed to some alcohol in their systems, after several home visits these young men would be dead drunk. If they knocked on your door and you chose not to answer, or chose not to give them a libation, they might break in, break your windows, or otherwise vandalize your house. Women or anyone who the young men thought might have money on their person were not safe to travel alone. It was only until Christmas morphed into the child-centered gift-giving celebration we claim it is today that these behaviors were checked (and even then old habits died hard: long into the early 20th century it was still common for young men to get dead drunk on New Year's Eve, to the point that some of them passed out and froze to death in chillier climes).

Today there's more pressure than ever to have "a perfect Christmas." This means you must entertain flawlessly, with beautiful table settings and expensive food; buy your spouse/significant other and children costly gifts to show that you love them; stuff yourself with every goodie known to man, foodwise and alcohol wise, to properly appreciate the season; and generally spend lots of money, even if you have to go into debt to do so.

These two books remind you that all that is whitewash to sell products, that Christmas isn't about $2000 tennis bracelets, matching SUVs, drinking yourself silly on expensive champagne, stuffing rich food into yourself. They also remind you that fictional stories always require a happy ending, but that Christmas won't fix the problems you have with your life: little Christmas elves or Christmas Spirit aren't going to make your Dad stop drinking, your Mom criticizing your housekeeping; it won't bring back your estranged sibling or spouse, and it can't cheat death. Those things only happen in movies or in the few miracles we're allowed.

Instead the authors talk about having a Christmas that suits you, with no ideal to live up to. You can have a lively noisy holiday with family or friends, or you can celebrate with one person, or alone. You can give fancy gifts if you can afford it, or what your budget will allow, or no gift at all. There's no requirement that Christmas live up to magazine ads, television commercials, and Hallmark films. Nor is there any requirement that Christmas stop dead at 11:59 on December 25, leaving you to cram all your Christmas activities into the short season between Thanksgiving and the big day; go ahead, do as your ancestors did and celebrate all the way to Epiphany (just ignore all those Valentines Day cards and candy that suddenly appeared on the 26th)!

While both books make the same point and offer good suggestions, I like having both and suggest both be procured if the subject interests you. The Lawhead book focuses a little bit more on the Christian celebration, but there is no proselytizing and the church suggestions can just as easily be used for organization, club, or work situations. Both books were published in the early 1990s, so there's no reference to internet sites, but the basics can easily be looked up online. I especially enjoy Lawhead's prologue "What is Christmas?" which starkly compares the idealized holiday we get from the media versus its real-life counterpart.

And both include the same message: Slow down. Savor. As we would say today, Be Mindful. Enjoy.

20 October 2019

"Fall of the Year"

The world's on fire in the cold clear air
The world shouts Autumn everywhere
All the little animals began to grow more fur
All the summer birds began to fly away,
The little grey kitten came out of the wind to purr
And the leaves blew away. All in one day.

Darkness came before the night
The air grew cold enough to bite
Chrysanthemums were shaggy yellow
The leaves turned red
The leaves turned brown
The tumbled all over the frosty ground
The worlds on fire in the cold clear air
The world shouts AUTUMN everywhere.

--Margaret Wise Brown
From A Celebration of the Seasons

15 October 2019

"Forest Flame"

When Jack wakes in the morning,
     In these sweet autumn days,
He sees the sumac burning
     And the maples in a blaze,
And he rubs his eyes, bewildered,
     All in the golden haze.
Then: "No. They still are standing;
     They're not on fire at all"—
He softly says, when slowly
     He sees some crimson fall,
And yellow flakes comme floating
     Down from the oaks so tall.
And then he knows the spirit
     Of the sunset must have planned
The myriad bright surprises
     That deck the dying land,—
And he wonders if the sumac
     And the maples understand.

"St. Nicholas", November 1880

09 October 2019

It's a Real Thing!

I've always wondered what you call people who had the opposite of SAD, because that's me. And then, voila, there I am reading The Morville Year (sequel to the lovely The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift, about a British woman who restores a garden at a beautiful country home) and this pops up:

"I sometimes think that, like the peacock butterflies, I undergo a period of diapause in late summer—defined by my Collins Field Guide to Butterflies as 'a period of suspension of activity or development.' The more familiar form of diapause is hibernation (from the Latin word for winter). Midsummer diapause is called aestivation (from the Latin 'aestas,' meaning summer), and is defined as 'a state of torpor in summer heat or drought.' That's me, all right. People who suffer from SAD syndrome (Seasonal Affective Disorder) have the opposite problem: they experience a waning of vitality and lowered mood at the onset of winter, a condition linked by some doctors to an atavistic need to hibernate. Where as at the first nip of frost my spirits start to soar."

Aestivation. That's me, all right, too! So when I'm miserable in summer, it's a real thing. I'm aestivating.

06 October 2019

And, Finally, Relief...

Ninety-one days. Nine tens followed by a one. That's how many 90°F-plus days we have had in Atlanta this year. The latest one was Friday. We set records on October 2, 3, and 4 for highest temperature in October, and had lunch at O'Charley's with friends on a Friday so hot that the metal door handle was blistering and I had to wait for one of the O'Charley's folks to hold it open for James.

Then, with a click of a switch, it was over on Saturday morning. We rose to a Saturday morning cool and silky, with a little breeze, so that we drove to the Hallmark October ornament premiere with the windows of the truck down.

After all those mornings of having to chivvy myself from bed early to walk the dog before the sun topped the trees in the back yard (and not succeeding really well, as I have been feeling really terrible this summer), this morning was like heaven! It was 62° and cloudy, a nice grey high-perched cloud blanket overhead, with just the tiniest bit of a breeze. It's on these mornings that I feel like I could walk forever—alas, that gives out about halfway during the walk and my back lets me know it. Nevertheless, Tucker and I had a nice long walk, the whole street including the upper cul-de-sac, then out to Smyrna-Powder Springs Road and across the street to the little white Baptist Church and across the front, then back down the street all the way to the daycare center and then across the street again so we could walk down a sidewalk, all the way opposite the home we call "the guy with the pretentious fence" (it's an ordinary split level house, but they have a fence that looks like it belongs around a McMansion in Buckhead, painted steel blue and trimmed in gold no less). Also walked around the parking lot of the daycare center twice. Did 1.7 miles, and I only started to perspire on the inward leg. Excellent.

It's still going to be wavering around 80 during the next few days, but the mornings will be in the 60s, and anything is better than the scorching, blazing, sweltering, smelly 90s.

Crossing fingers and looking forward to the book sale on Friday.

01 October 2019

"October's Party"

by George Cooper

October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came—
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.

The Chestnuts came in yellow,
The Oaks in crimson dressed;
The lovely Misses Maple
In scarlet looked their best;
All balanced to their partners,
And gaily fluttered by;
The sight was like a rainbow
New fallen from the sky.

Then, in the rustic hollow,
At hide-and-seek they played,
The party closed at sundown,
And everybody stayed.
Professor Wind played louder;
They flew along the ground;
And then the party ended
In jolly "hands around."

25 September 2019

Rudolph Day, September 2019

"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.

Silent Night, Deadly Night, Vicki Delany
Fourth in the year-round Christmas mystery series.

It's almost Thanksgiving and Merry Wilkinson is looking forward to her favorite holiday, even though she lives in the year-round Christmas town of Rudolph, NY, which reinvented itself after industry moved out. Two of her three siblings will be home as well. Right now she's helping her mother Aline, a former opera singer, prepare her home for the visit of five old college friends, anticipating a happy reunion. Unfortunately, it's less than happy: the women are always quarreling with each other, one is a wealthy show off, one a high-powered lawyer, one a dipsomaniac, one not well off financially, one always complaining even though she and her husband have a thriving lumber business. And one of them, Merry has discovered, is a shoplifter, after a pricy necklace vanishes from her gift shop, Mrs. Claus's Treasures. Surely they'll be able to endure the backbiting for a few days?

And then Karla, the complainer with a deadly peanut allergy, goes into anaphylactic shock at the Wilkinson dinner table. Her Epi-Pen, which she carries with her everywhere, has vanished. Her death, then, can only be deliberate.

Once again Merry is faced with a mystery. I found this one a little hard to get through, not because it was bad, but because Aline's friends are just so toxic. Even after Karla dies they snipe at each other continuously. Plus, Sue-Anne, Noel Wilkinson's bete noire in the mayor's office, is making noises about Noel's annual role as Santa Claus again. A new man in town, Wayne Fitzroy, is angling for the job and talking about changing the town's image to have a more "adult" Christmas.

The mystery is easy to puzzle out if you pick up on the clues, and there's a relationship change in the story that I found quite appealing. I'm sorry not to have met Merry's siblings, however, and really want to see Chris and/or Carole and/or Eve show up in a future story. And oh, how I would like to visit a place like Rudolph some day! (And what more appropriate to be reading about a town named Rudolph on Rudolph Day?)

25 August 2019

Please Take My Sunshine Away

I tell myself each year, in the spring, that this year it's going to be different. Since there's nothing I can do about summer, I need to at least make up my mind that there will be no whining and complaining this year. If I can't really enjoy the season, perhaps I can just accept it as it is, even as I go dodging from air-conditioned home to air-conditioned car, setting the controls on "afterburner" so I can endure the ride, and then sprint across a parking lot to an air-conditioned store. Acceptance is the answer.

Acceptance to summer is not my speed. I can't help but after a few weeks of high 80s-lower 90s, to start the litany again: Summer sucks. Summer sucks so much it should be renamed "Hoover." (I've been told that that's very old-fashioned. Okay. Summer sucks so much it should be renamed "Roomba.") The sun gives me headaches, or a rash, or both. In rare cases it has given me heart palpitations, but always too long out in the sun I can hear my heart start to beat like the big bass drum in the circus parade: BOOM BOOM BOOM. It shakes me until I run inside and sit under a fan, waiting for it to return to the quiet lub-dub. I'm chivvied out of my bed early to walk the dog before the sidewalks turn into griddles, the asphalt stinks, the air smells of car exhaust. I can't see the appeal of sitting all day on a beach under a broiler whose fire makes my skin burn and prickle. So most of this summer, especially when temps climbed into the high 90s, I kept my head down and prayed for autumn.

Last night a wind blew down out of the north and we woke to mid-60s temperatures. It so invigorated me I walked the dog an extra quarter mile and, while we did keep a brisk enough pace for me to break a sweat, it wasn't the usual one where even my underwear became sopped. As soon as I was inside, I threw open a few windows and opened the door to the deck and turned on a couple of fans.

Out the living room window I saw this. The tulip trees, at least, are longing for autumn. Too, the scuppernongs growing wild out on the main road have grapes swollen to size, and now ripening and falling. The oaks are already host to browning leaves that are dropping. Other bushes have leaves turning yellow, or even drifting off every few seconds, like the down when Snowy moults.

Look at that tulip tree sporting its saffron spots. The plants know summer is waning—I wish the weather would figure it out! I long for cool temperatures and cool breezes, weather cold enough to snuggle in flannel and fleece, wearing a robe and fuzzy slippers, eating gingerbread and sipping peppermint-spiked hot chocolate. Weather where you feel comfortable, not attacked. A chill that keeps the mosquitoes (a big problem this year!) away. Wander off, O summer, where the odd ones want you: down to Florida and all those inexplicable lookalike Caribbean resorts that are giveaway prizes on Wheel of Fortune. Sail away...even better, jet away. Wish you could stay there for good, too.

21 April 2019

20 March 2019


"Instructions on Not Giving Up"
Ada Limón, 1976

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

19 March 2019

An Exceptional Father

Isn't this lovely? It reminds me of the little saints' cards and saints' books we used to get in the 1960s and 70s.

Once every month or so, we would take a ride to Fall River, MA, to go to Saint Anne's Church. In those days the church dominated the town; you could see it on your right as you drove south and east on I-195 and crossed the Braga Bridge over the Taunton River. We'd get off at the first exit and drive through a little warren of triple deckers and tenement houses, relics of the days when Fall River was a mill town, and turn on South Main Street, only to have the landscape open up with the park at our right and the big church on our left. In those days you could park right out front, across the street, and look at the magnificent structure; the original Catholics in Fall River were French, and the church was built in homage of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec City. Upstairs the sanctuary looked like a little cathedral, with smaller chapels in the rear. Mother would patiently go from chapel to chapel and light a candle at each and pray for her family and Dad's family and anyone else who was ill. No matter what the season the church was always quiet, dark and so peaceful. The old wood in the church—the pews, the confessional booths, the other seats—were worn smooth, and it smelled of candle wax and incense.

Downstairs there was a second sanctuary which was eventually fixed up with pews, but originally had folding chairs. In the corner was a big pile of mostly wooden but some metal crutches, some of them ancient. These were the implements of dozens of people who had come to the church praying to be cured—and they were. Like the sick man who rose from his pallet, they walked unaided for the first time in years. It was awe-inspiring.

There was also a little antechamber downstairs where a priest was always seated in the office. Mom would go in to speak with him to have a Mass said for her parents or someone else, and I would look at the little booklets and tracts in metal racks outside his door. (The church used to have a little shop, but it closed back in the 60s.) Some of the little booklets were for children, and some were of the saints, called Miniature Stories of the Saints. I had four of them; there was a story about the saint on the left side and a picture of the saint on the right, and they would be similar to this. Even when the story of the saint was something horrible, like St. Sebastian being pierced with arrows or St. Andrew hung on a cross upside down or St. Catherine tied to her wheel, the picture could always make you believe that person went straight to sit by God when they were martyred. It was comforting.

St. Joseph had to be an exceptional man. Think about it, you are to be married and then discover your fiance is pregnant. You love her, and then you realize "Oh, she must have cheated on me!" How that must have hurt! And then she tells you this incredible story, about an angel! Preposterous! Angels don't come to speak to working people like us, they are for the high priests and the mighty. Of course he doubted her—until the angel found him as well. So he brought up this unusual boy like his own son, taught Him a craft, took Him to Jerusalem like a good parent of those days would. I wonder if Joseph was dismayed at twelve-year-old Jesus talking with the temple elders, his excuse being He was doing His Father's work. Aren't I his father? But from all indications Joseph understood.

He died before Jesus fulfilled his destiny.

Buona festa di San Guiseppe, and peace and long life to all exceptional fathers everywhere.

(I just found out Ste. Anne's closed last year. They celebrated their last Mass on the final Sunday of the liturgical year, November 25, 2018. Apparently the church was in disrepair and the diocese of Fall River has no money to fix it. I am very sad.)

04 March 2019

March Forth

Will you tell me how on earth it is March already? The days fly by since I've retired, even when all I'm doing is listening to podcasts while cleaning house. It's 3:30 already as I write this and I haven't even vacuumed yet.

February was a full month, thankfully without disasters. James did have one doctor's appointment and next week must have a skin cancer removed through a MOHS procedure. We are crossing our fingers about this. Mostly we have watched the weather get warmer and warmer (it was high 60s some days and a couple of low 70s, too) and the trees starting to bud, and the blossoms everywhere: the Bradford pear trees have already turned to white snowballs and are leafing out, and the flowering cherries and plums are bright pink and purple, and the yellow blaze of forsythia here and daffodils there is quite daunting. The purple and white magnolia tree up the street has not only bloomed but is already scattering petals to the strong wind. Ironically we are having another cold front this week—well, until the weekend, when it will go back to 60s, but then it will rain. It seems that it has done nothing but rain, and it always rains on the weekend. We had a cloudy but dry day on Saturday, but had to race a rainstorm home yesterday (and south of here the storms swarmed angrily and formed tornadoes). I'm not sure why everyone wants spring so badly when all it does is make us sneeze and brings alive the threat of tornado sirens heralding disaster.

I didn't even get a Rudolph Day post done for February (I was reading Emlyn Williams' Southern Christmas which is full of the flower blooms that are traditional of southern holiday decorations, perfect for the springing of spring, but I never finished it), it zipped by that quickly. It's almost time for this blog to go semi-dormant. Heck, next Sunday is the annual travesty of turning the clocks forward, which drives me bonkers. All winter when he's gone to work James has had to use the floodlights on the driveway to be able to see when he mounts the power chair on the truck. Now that it's finally light enough in the morning for him to see without the lights, we're going to push the dang clock forward an hour, meaning it will be pitch dark at seven in the morning again. The sun won't rise until almost eight, which is stupid.

I pray for a happy March.

14 February 2019

Valentine's Day

There are romantic things I like. I love long skirts, for example. The wonderful swish makes me feel so feminine, and to my absolute disgust, I grew up in the 60s with those dreadful sacklike miniskirts. I hated them. Me, I wanted to come through a door looking like Loretta Young at the beginning of her famous television anthology show, with her beautiful skirt swirling as she entered. But I'm not much into the traditional romantic things. Diamonds leave me cold. Colored stones are preferable, but I really think it's a waste of money spending it on jewelry. (They were advertising a $2000 "tennis bracelet" on television once and I turned to James and said, "If you ever buy me anything that costs $2000, it better be in a big box with 'Dell' on the side.") I have costume jewelry that's just as pretty, and it comes with wonderful associations, because it was made by Trifari, where my mom and dad met, where Dad spent his career, and where I worked for one summer and then full time three and a half years. I still miss the people I worked with.

I'm not much on romance books, either. I have the ones my friend Laura wrote, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Some of my cozy mysteries or fantasy books have romances in them; some I can take and leave. I'm tired of the whitebread gorgeous woman runs into the whitebread gorgeous guy trope. I'd really rather they not fall in love at all.

Ah, but I do have my media couples. That I will happily indulge in. Max and 99 from Get Smart were my first "'ship" ('ship as in "relationshipping," a fannish term). One of my favorite couples for almost 40 years has been Christina and Will from Flambards. And who didn't love Tom and Barbara from The Good Life (Good Neighbors)? Plus there was the 'ship that never got to port, thanks to those @$%!$! at AMC: Betty Roberts and Scott Sherwood of Remember WENN..

Our own Valentine's Day was much more traditional. James had to go into work, because it was not a rainy day (and thankfully he had no doctor's appointment). When he came home I had the shrimp prepped and we collaborated on a sauce, and for dinner we had shrimp scampi and a cucumber salad, with blueberry pie for dessert, and a new episode of The Orville to boot. It was a nice holiday.

01 February 2019

"Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve"

by Robert Herrick

Down with the rosemary and bays,
      Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
      The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
      Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
      Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
      Your houses to renew;
Grown old, surrender must his place
      Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
      And many flowers beside;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
      To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
       With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
        To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

31 January 2019

"Silence Profound"

by Coleen Shelver Keefe
(from "Victorian Homes," December 2006)

Quiet, soft and steady,
Not a sound can be heard,
Not a whisper of the wind,
Not a call of a bird.

A cold stormy night
Let a blanket of snow
And a silence as pure
As a carved cameo.

The snowy ground glistens,
The air smells of pine.
Trees webbed with hoarfrost
Leave a dreamy design.

Nothing compares,
To the beauty of snow,
To the sparkle of frost,
To the clouds hanging low…

Except for the quiet,
The stillness profound,
That floats on the air
And covers the ground.

25 January 2019

Rudolph Day, January 2019

"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 was actually listening to some Christmas music today as I read my very last Christmas magazine, "Early American Life's" Christmas issue. This is always the last one I read because I like to savor it. The articles this year were chiefly about vintage (18th century, early 19th) Christmas decorations and historical sites that feature them, like Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts. There were also photographs of hand-crafted primitive Christmas items like hooked rugs and hand-carved Santas (ones featuring the Santas I favor, the figures with a robe and hood). On the CD player was George Winston's "December" album. I love Winston's playing and compositions. I can't describe how he plays; it's as if you are hearing the whole song but also the pure, individual notes one at a time. I also played the Windham Hill album "Simple Gifts." This includes a lovely instrumental version of "In Bethlehem City."

Christmas Past, Robert Brenner
Price guides are usually a snooze. Really, you just buy one of these volumes to determine if a certain item or items you have is worth money. There are photos of an item and prices for "fine," "good," and "fair."

Unless you get a Schiffer book, and this one is a prime example of one: oh, there are prices, but way in the back. The rest of the book is a history of whatever  you're pricing: in this case, vintage Christmas ornaments of all stripes (and one chapter on vintage Christmas lighting outfits and lamps), with lots of text and a variety of black and white/color photographs. Brenner covers everything, from the history of decorating trees to the specialty decorations: wax figures, gilded painted "Dresdens" (3D paper ornaments), glass balls and figurals, Czechoslovakian bead ornaments, wire, tinsel trims, "scrap" paper ornaments, cotton batting figures. There are also photographs of vintage Christmas trees and advertisements.

More than a "price book" for collectors, this is a history book. It is somewhat out of date (revised edition being 1992), so the prices won't be correct, but as a reference book it's still a delight to read. I had not read it since I purchased it in the mid-90s and discovered references to several things I had come to learn about since that time. In a later chapter Brenner discusses the opening of Christmas stores and mentions Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, MI, a place we had the delight of visiting in 2012. It also mentions the old Christmas store that used to be in Helen, GA, that was, sadly, damaged by fire and closed. And finally, for knowledge of vintage Christmas ornaments, he directs people to the super group The Golden Glow of Christmas Past, an organization of people who collect and decorate with vintage Christmas ornaments, and who have a yearly convention where these ornaments are sold and panels about Christmas decor are given. I belong to their Facebook group and this is a super-nice collection of people who have the most astoundingly beautiful decorations.

If you still remember your grandmother's (or even great-grandmother's) vintage ornaments, or if beautiful old Christmas trees in vintage photographs delight you, or you're just interested in the history of Christmas decorating, this is a great source for information and the variety of ornaments from the past—realistic fruits, hot air balloons, Charlie Chaplin and Native American heads, hedgehogs, pigs, red-topped mushrooms, bunches of grapes, and more—will certainly please. Brenner has several other books about Christmas decorations, including a volume about the 1940s-1950s, one for the 1960s forward, and a big hardback called Christmas Through the Decades.

15 January 2019


Robert Louis Stevenson

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,  
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;  
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,  
A blood-red orange, sets again.  
Before the stars have left the skies,
At morning in the dark I rise;  
And shivering in my nakedness,  
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.  
Close by the jolly fire I sit  
To warm my frozen bones a bit;
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore  
The colder countries round the door.  
When to go out, my nurse doth wrap  
Me in my comforter and cap;  
The cold wind burns my face, and blows
Its frosty pepper up my nose.  
Black are my steps on silver sod;  
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;  
And tree and house, and hill and lake,  
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.

06 January 2019

"Farewell to Christmas"

Noël is leaving us,
Sad it is to tell,
But he will come again,
Adieu, Noël.

His wife and his children
Weep as they go.
On a gray horse,
They ride through the snow.

The kings ride away
In the snow and the rain,
After twelve months,
We shall see them again.

French Epiphany Carol, quoted in Celebrate the Wonder

05 January 2019

The Real Victorian Christmas

A Victorian Christmas Treasury, edited by Moira Allen
Many people are fascinated by Victorian Christmas customs because so many of our modern customs derive from the Victorian time: the Christmas tree, turkey dinners, the Father Christmas/Santa Claus custom, the season being devoted to children (instead of wild partying and drinking as had been customary before that), etc. We chiefly get our ideas of a "real Victorian Christmas" from modern magazine articles that explore the origins of these customs, but it's quite different reading the material that was actually written at the time. Thus this book, which is a collection of 250 articles long and short (and a couple of short stories) from 1853-1898 mostly British magazines.

In one way it's not much different from modern magazines: every third article seems to be recipes for Christmas food, so there are a lot of recipes for plum pudding! However, if you are not used to reading Victorian-era prose, beware that it's wordy and effusive, and most of the time in teeny-tiny type, and illustrated not in color, but with black and white engravings. If that doesn't faze you, dive in and enjoy the customs that didn't make it to today: steamed puddings made of stale bread, "bran pies" with gifts in them, elaborate plays being staged for charades, the wandering mummers' parade about St. George, for just a few examples. There are accounts of Christmas celebrations in foreign lands (Italy, France, Germany, even a Canadian spending Christmas in England) and Christmas spent in unexpected places, like a hospital. There are accounts of how to make authentic Victorian decorations, like mottoes (glued together with flour paste) and greenery dipped in epsom salts and ground glass to simulate frost or snow, accounts of young people making money selling Christmas greens, accounts of Christmas past and the history of Christmas, a long and fascinating narrative of how a medieval Mystery play was produced and what it would be like, Victorian children's letters to Santa Claus, interviews with famous Christmas card verse writers (which produces the astonishing fact that back then religious cards were not very popular), articles on "sledging" and skating (and one on oranges), even a long story about a Christmas in Provence.

Even with the ever-present recipes, this is a fascinating sample of how Christmas was really celebrated, and the now-quaint vocabulary and unfamiliar words only adds to its mystique. Students of Christmas history should enjoy!

Anyway, I did something astonishing this year: I finished all my Christmas books! I usually pick up three or four during the year at used book sales, and pick up three or four new ones, but end up still having a tidy pile of around ten books at the end of the season. This year I read a "new" (to me) book every other Rudolph Day and re-read an old one down in the library, and still had enough books for the Christmas season with the three or four I usually re-read every year, and completed all of them, except the new book about Hanukkah I bought which I will save for December. This means I can do some happy re-reading this year.