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.

"The Three Kings"

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Three Kings came riding from far away,
Melchior and Gaspar and Baltasar;
Three Wise Men out of the East were they,
And they travelled by night and they slept by day,
For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star.

The star was so beautiful, large and clear,
That all the other stars of the sky
Became a white mist in the atmosphere,
And by this they knew that the coming was near
Of the Prince foretold in the prophecy.

Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows,
Three caskets of gold with golden keys;
Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.

And so the Three Kings rode into the West,
Through the dusk of the night, over hill and dell,
And sometimes they nodded with beard on breast,
And sometimes talked, as they paused to rest,
With the people they met at some wayside well.

“Of the child that is born,” said Baltasar,
“Good people, I pray you, tell us the news;
For we in the East have seen his star,
And have ridden fast, and have ridden far,
To find and worship the King of the Jews.”

And the people answered, “You ask in vain;
We know of no King but Herod the Great!”
They thought the Wise Men were men insane,
As they spurred their horses across the plain,
Like riders in haste, who cannot wait.

And when they came to Jerusalem,
Herod the Great, who had heard this thing,
Sent for the Wise Men and questioned them;
And said, “Go down unto Bethlehem,
And bring me tidings of this new king.”

So they rode away; and the star stood still,
The only one in the grey of morn;
Yes, it stopped—it stood still of its own free will,
Right over Bethlehem on the hill,
The city of David, where Christ was born.

And the Three Kings rode through the gate and the guard,
Through the silent street, till their horses turned
And neighed as they entered the great inn-yard;
But the windows were closed, and the doors were barred,
And only a light in the stable burned.

And cradled there in the scented hay,
In the air made sweet by the breath of kine,
The little child in the manger lay,
The child, that would be king one day
Of a kingdom not human, but divine.

His mother Mary of Nazareth
Sat watching beside his place of rest,
Watching the even flow of his breath,
For the joy of life and the terror of death
Were mingled together in her breast.

They laid their offerings at his feet:
The gold was their tribute to a King,
The frankincense, with its odor sweet,
Was for the Priest, the Paraclete,
The myrrh for the body’s burying.

And the mother wondered and bowed her head,
And sat as still as a statue of stone,
Her heart was troubled yet comforted,
Remembering what the Angel had said
Of an endless reign and of David’s throne.

Then the Kings rode out of the city gate,
With a clatter of hoofs in proud array;
But they went not back to Herod the Great,
For they knew his malice and feared his hate,
And returned to their homes by another way.

02 January 2019

Two Readings for Advent and Christmastide

Goodness and Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, edited by Michael Leach, James Keane, and Doris Goodnough
Preparing My Heart for Advent, Ann Marie Stewart
When I saw these both at the same book sale, I figured it was fate. Here was something I could do for Advent and Christmastide, one reading a day until Christmas from each.

Alas, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was still juggling too many things. I skipped the books totally last year after starting the second one, and waded in with good intentions on November first. One would have ended on Sunday, the other on Monday, but since this weekend will be busy I just sat quietly today and finished the readings from Christmas Day onward. Perhaps next year.

Goodness and Light is a small book with one essay a day starting November 1 and finishing on St. Distaff's Day (January 7). These range from poetry to essays to a couple of short stories, one of which, Cheever's "Christmas is a Sad Time for the Poor," I didn't think was really representative of the rest of the theme. However, "Papa Panov's Special Christmas" was quite welcome. Some of the essays are by religious figures who were missionaries put into prison; some are totally unexpected, like one from Anne Rice who became a born-again Christian after writing her famous vampire books. There are some well-known names here: Maya Angelou, Pope Francis, Annie Dillard, even one by Ghandi, but it's the sometimes small ones that captured my attention, like "Holy Innocents" for the 28th of December, or "Salvation Army Santa Claus Rings His Bell."

Preparing My Heart for Advent is partially a Bible study and workbook. You begin on November 1 reading from the Bible and doing the daily exercises. These readings of the old and new Testaments explain the background behind the coming of the Messiah: the prophecies, the history, the primary and secondary figures in what we call "the Christmas story," hymns, etc. From December 1 through Epiphany there are daily devotions, each with a Bible verse, a Reflection and finally a Response (prayer).

If you are looking for a more spiritual experience at Christmas, both these books are recommended. If you wish to delve a little more into Biblical study, the second book would be an appropriate choice.

01 January 2019