13 January 2023

"Calennig" -- a Welsh Holiday Custom

The name "Calennig" comes from the Latin "Kalends," which was the name for a Roman New Year's festival. The Romans gave each other olive branches as a way of wishing others good health for the new year.

In Wales, the offering is traditionally an apple, stuck with cloves, with an evergreen branch (usually boxwood, but sometimes pine or holly) through its stem and three small sticks of wood to form a tripod to support the apple. This "perllan" would be taken door to door; in the "olden times" the children begged for food, but in more modern times the children would receive some coins or candy.

A town called Cwm Gwaun and other villages in the surrounding area still celebrate this old custom on January 13, the first day of the new year on the old Julian Calendar.

Read more about the Welsh new year traditions on Hen Galan (Welsh for "first day of the month").

05 January 2023

75 Years of Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street: The Perfect Christmas Classic (75 Years)
Technically this is a special interest publication put out by the people at "Time" magazine under the old "Life" moniker, but it's a nice tribute to this classic film, and I'm glad to have found it, because I believe there's too much fuss made about It's a Wonderful Life when this is such a satisfying Christmas fable. There are some nifty publicity and behind-the-scenes photos, portraits of the four main actors in the film, a short history of the Macy's parade, a discussion about Macy's rival Gimbel's, but, really, why, oh, why, if this was a tribute to the 1947 film did they have to devote eight pages to the Richard Attenborough remake? Couldn't we have had brief portraits of the careers of the supporting actors, including Porter Hall as Dr. Sawyer, William Frawley as Halloran, Jerome Cowan as DA O'Mara, Gene Lockhart as Judge Harper, and Philip Tonge as Shellhammer, not to mention brief mention of character actress Thelma Ritter (this was her first film!) and the "guy at the post office who saved Santa Claus," future Oscar winner Jack Albertson? I sure would have been more interested in them than photos of the dorky remake.

04 January 2023

Shepherds--and Carolers, Tipteers, Etc.--Arise!

A Sussex Christmas, compiled by Shaun Payne
Alan Sutton Publishing has a series of these "Christmas anthologies," the first which I bought at a book sale several years ago, and I try to pick up inexpensive copies when I can find them. Most of them concentrate on a certain shire or area in England (there are a handful, like A Dickens Christmas, A Wartime Christmas, and A Bronte Christmas that are set around a historic era instead).

This volume is stuffed with Christmasy and wintry goodies, covering the southern shire of Sussex, known for its rolling downs and sheep, so there are several entries that have to do with shepherds and their importance in the Christmas story as well as providing a portrait of Sussex in the old days when the independence of farmers and livestock owners was prized. A good deal of the tales are those of families celebrating in an old-fashioned style, with beef roasts and turkeys that had to be cooked in the bakers' ovens; trees covered with candles, and children happy with gifts like tops, dolls, and nuts; lottery drawings for Christmas dinner prizes; and cutting fresh holly in the woods. Of course there are a couple of ghost stories, an excerpt from the "Mapp and Lucia" stories; and several essays about walking the beautiful Sussex downs in wintertime. The routine story about the Christmas mummers is presented in a different manner, this time concentrating on a man who was trying to revive the custom in Sussex. Offerings from Bob Copper, a popular folk singer, are also included. Poetry also scatters the volume, including Francis Thompson's beautiful verse "To a Snowflake," and, of interest among the illustrations (maps, posters, advertisements, and more) are vintage winter photographs from the late 1930s, some from the George Garland collection.

02 January 2023

Memorably Heartwarming

Memorable Christmas Stories, compiled by Leon R. Hartshorn
This is another Christmas book I just plucked up from a book sale to add to my sizeable Christmas book collection (I don't buy recipe or decorating books, just histories of Christmas and short stories). I didn't look at it more closely until I got home. It's a publication of Deseret Books, and basically is a collection of heartwarming original short stories and "Chicken Soup for the Soul" type entries from several publications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as "Mormons"): "The Deseret News," "Improvement Era," "The Instructor," and "Relief Society Magazine," as well as publications like "Reader's Digest" and "Guideposts."

This certainly gave me a lot more pleasure than this year's "Chicken Soup" book! The fiction pieces, especially, are in the style of stories that might have been published in "St. Nicholas" or in women's magazines of the early 20th century (or in the current magazine "The People's Friend"). At least two of the stories ("The Fiftieth Cake" and "The Christmas Cards") are about older people finding love, which I adored. Others are about small children having faith and their wishes coming true. One, the story of a streetcar conductor and some rich teens, I had read in one of Joe Wheeler story compilations; the grandmother character in the first fiction piece in the collection put me to mind of Gran in Kate Seredy's The Open Gate!

If you like Christmas stories in the vein of Christmas With Anne and Other Stories by L.M. Montgomery, it is well worth your while to pick up even if you aren't a Latter-Day Saint.

31 December 2022

An Ideal Treat

Ideals Christmas 2023, from the editors of "Ideals"
This is another nice issue of "Ideals"—what can I say, I like the mix of poems, photos, essays, and artwork in these annual issues (but I still miss their autumn/Thanksgiving one; seems like all they do is Christmas and Easter now).

The essays are pretty nice this year, including the latest from Pamela Kennedy. I've been following her for years. She used to write essays about her kids, now she's writing essays about her grandchildren. It's like having a window into her life. The Christmas caroling and book essays were the best.

I discovered a lovely Nativity poem by C.S. Lewis. The winter poems are less corny than the Christmas ones. Loved the photo of the bookstore and the sleigh ride painting.

30 December 2022

Winter—and Christmas—in Suffolk

A Suffolk Christmas, compiled by Humphrey Phelps
I found the first of these Sutton Christmas anthologies (A Worcestershire Christmas, if you care) at a library book sale several years back, and another at a second library sale a couple of years later. These contain short excerpts of Christmas/Christmastide passages from various British novels, memoirs, and poetry books, with the action taking place in the shire or historical era denoted in the title

This Suffolk book is a little lacking in Christmasy entries; a lot of them seem to be just generic winter entries, no less interesting, but a little disappointing after some of the other volumes. Suffolk and Norfolk are the two easternmost counties in England, and in general they enjoy "soft" weather at Christmas. But snowy Christmases take the fore in many of the stories, which range from 19th century feasts and customs to a 1971 retrospective of a 20th century celebration. Christmas in the marketplace is a popular theme in Suffolk's country setting, also carol singing among the country estates, Nativity plays, the pantomime, several ghost stories, vicarage parties, and even an account of a vet's Christmas day.

Still worthwhile reading, but a few too many out-of-season entries for my taste.

25 December 2022

An Annual Favorite

Re-read: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
This never gets old. I've watched and listened to many versions of the Carol, but nothing satisfies so well as the book, especially if you find the perfect version.

This one is mine.

Treat yourself and read the book!

23 December 2022

Another Dose...

Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Christmas, edited by Amy Neumark
I think I'm going to give up reading these books. The stories are starting to be monotonously alike—and the same names keep popping up on the stories; how many heartwarming moments can happen to the same people? In this edition I was expecting Hanukkah and New Year stories, but there are a large bulk of Thanksgiving stories here.

19 December 2022

Welcome to "Zommerzet"

A Somerset Christmas, edited by John Chandler

I found the first of these Sutton Christmas anthologies (A Worcestershire Christmas, if you care) at a library book sale several years back, and another at a library sale a couple of years later. Anyway, these collections contain short excerpts of Christmas/Christmastide passages from various British novels, histories, memoirs, and poetry books, with the action taking place in the shire or historical era denoted in the title.

The Somerset book is a very nice collection of essays and excerpts from the early 1800s all the way to the mid-1960s: accounts of wassailing parties (including an unusual version of the "12 Days of Christmas"), a different version of the St. George mumming play that includes an Admiral (not unusual since it is a seafaring area), a very interesting look into the history of the first Christmas card (including some different contenders for the title), several pieces on "unique to Somerset" Christmas carols, a ghost story, unique to Somerset beliefs about the Christmas and New Year season, and a story about the Glastonbury Thorn, among others, with the usual complement of advertisements, broadsides, artists' work, photographs, and other media to brighten each page.

In addition, there's the usual jokes about the "Zommerzet" accent unique to the area.

15 December 2022

Georgiana and Darcy Do Christmas...Murder

God Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen, Rhys Bowen
This is another delightful entry in Bowen's "her royal spyness" series featuring Lady Georgiana Rannoch and her husband, Darcy O'Mara. They're now settled at Eynsleigh, the lovely little estate Georgie's stepfather is allowing them to use, and they plan to have a nice small Christmas party with Georgie's grandfather, her brother and sister-in-law and their kids, and maybe her mother, if she's not off playing footie with her German husband.

Instead, Darcy receives a note from his lonely Aunt Ermintrude, asking them to spend Christmas at a grace-and-favor cottage on the Sandringham estate. Georgie finds out it's because she's been summoned by Queen Mary once again to keep an eye on the Prince of Wales, known to his family as "David," and his unsuitable, constant girlfriend, Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. But there's danger in the household: in the previous December, two men attached to the royal household died in mysterious circumstances. Now it seems as if the Prince of Wales is in danger as "accidents" keep happening again, including the death of a brilliant rider and an almost fatal shooting during a hunt in which the King is present.

I did actually suspect who was behind the killings early, and you may, too, given the broad hints provided, but the details of a country house Christmas gone wrong and the combination of characters make this a fun Yuletide read—with a nice surprise (that I also guessed) at the end.

11 December 2022

"Jingle Bells" ... NOT a Christmas Song!

Third Sunday of Advent:

Even though "Jingle Bells" is a universal musical trigger to begin thinking "Christmas," the song, originally called "The One-Horse Open Sleigh," was written by James Lord Pierpont to be sung in a Thanksgiving pageant (in those days of the Little Ice Age, snow in New England and the northern US often started as early as November); indeed, it doesn't mention Christmas at all. It's actually a dating song, the 19th century equivalent of taking your best girl out in your convertible on a summer night. Young ladies were usually not allowed to go out with young men they were not engaged to unless they had a chaperone. However, a one-horse open sleigh, with just room for two and used in public in freezing weather, was considered relatively safe for a young lady to ride with her beau alone. These sleighs were considered the equivalent of sports cars and sleigh racing between young men and their ladies was common. That's why there's a verse about the "bob-tailed nag" who's "2:40 for his speed"—a mile done by a trotting horse in two minutes and forty seconds was considered quite fast in the day.

Other fun facts about sleighs and sleigh bells:

  • Contrary to what you see or hear, roads in those days were not necessarily plowed; instead big shire horses pulled rollers over the snow to smooth it out for sleighing.
  • Sleigh bells were originally made in two halves and soldered together, later bells were cast in one piece. Bells could be either single-throated (with one open slash) or double-throated (with a cross slash).
  • Sleigh bells were originally made like cowbells, and then like cones.
  • There were different brands and types of sleigh bells; some were on the harness, some on the shafts of the sleigh. Brands were Swiss Pole Chimes, Mikado Chimes, King Henry Bells, and Dexter Body Straps. Some sleigh bells, like those of Conestoga wagons, were mounted on an arch of metal over the horse's collar.
  • Sleigh bells weren't put on horses to sound pretty. People all wore thick hats or earmuffs against the cold in those days. A sleigh is a fairly silent vehicle since the runners make almost no sound and the horse's hoofs are muffled by the snow, and they can't stop on a dime. The bells are a safety device to warn pedestrians!

* some facts are from Eric Sloane's The Seasons of America's Past.

08 December 2022

What Happens When You Love Christmas...but You're Jewish?

The Matzah Ball, Jean Meltzer
For years, Christmas has been Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt's safe place. The daughter of a famous rabbi and a fertility physician, she battles both Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the naysayers who claim it doesn't exist; although a devout Jew she both collects Christmas kitsch and writes famous Christmas romances under the name Margot Cross, both which she keeps secret from her parents. However, this year her pushy publisher wants to branch out and asks her to write a Hanukkah romance. (Frankly, I don't blame Rachel; the publisher just wants to do this so the company can say they're behind diversity, which is annoying.) Rachel feels lost after years of writing Christmas stories, and thinks she can get ahold of the proper spirit if she attends the Matzah Ball, a big specialty blowout dance for wealthy Jewish people. But all the tickets are sold out...unless she can get one from Jacob Greenberg, who's running the event, and also the boy who broke her heart at age 12 at Camp Ahava.

The characters in this are...okay. I sympathized with Rachel, who basically has a condition a lot of doctors don't believe in and who suffers terribly if she exerts herself too much, and how she didn't want her conservative parents to know her secrets. She's also been burdened for years with the idea that as the famous rabbi's daughter she was required to be Miss Perfect. Jacob also has had his problems: his mother was also chronically ill (from a different disease) and he grew up throwing himself into his work in order to escape his fears and his guilt.

Other things didn't gel too well. Except for Jacob's wonderful bubbie Toby, my favorite character in the book, all the people in the novel seem to be rich and I couldn't relate to them. The whole Matzah Ball thing seemed so over-the-top compared to the sort of amusements my Jewish friends partake in. It also struck me as weird that Jacob and Rachel couldn't get over this "thing" that separated them back in summer camp. I mean, they were twelve, and never moved on? And then there's Mickey. Don't get me wrong, Mickey is a great best friend—Rachel's a lucky girl to have such a great friend. But again...wacky gay friend. This is something like the third or fourth book I've read where the straight female protagonist has a wacky gay friend. Plus Mickey meets several other overdone tropes: he's a black gay kid who was adopted by two Jewish lesbians.

It's cute, but depends on your tolerance for two emotionally miserable people involved with what's basically a rich person's gathering.

06 December 2022

Christmas and A Lot More

Llewellyn's Little Book of Yule, Jason Mankey
I'd intended to borrow this book from the library. They had it two years ago. I took a photo of it to remind myself it was there. Then they remodeled. And poof, it was gone! Nor was it in the library system at all! In fact the library seems to have fewer and fewer books every time I go to it, and more computers. When I first moved to this county 30 years ago, the main library had wooden shelving way over my head and almost every shelf was stuffed with books. Now there are fewer, metal shelves, they are not even six feet high, and if each shelf is 1/3 full, that's a lot. Many of the shelves have only four or five books on them.

But I digress. I found it for a good price, so I bought it.

Unlike other Wiccan books, this does not solely concentrate on Wiccan practices only and acknowledges the Christian, Jewish, African-American, and other ethnic holidays that surround the Winter Solstice, talking about what formerly pagan customs were incorporated into the Christmas celebration itself. There's a history of midwinter celebrations, Wiccan craft projects you can do (some of them which can be adapted into just family crafts), histories of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, going all the way through Epiphany and the wassailing of apple trees.

I found it a rather nifty little volume!

05 December 2022

Be Good, Or the Krampus Will Get You!

St. Nicholas, in the "olden days," never traveled alone. Since he was a good and kindly fellow who could never condemn anyone, he required a stern companion to help him handle naughty children. Unlike Black Peter, who accompanied the good Saint in Holland and helped him hand out presents, this companion—known by names like Pelznichol, Belsnickel, Hans Trapp, etc—carried birch rods which were given to parents of naughty children to beat them (the modern equivalent would be the mild "coal in your stocking"). Of all these "punishers," Krampus was the most fearsome: he looked like a cross between a man and a goat, with cloven hooves on his legs, horns on his head, and a big long red tongue that lolled out three to four feet. Originally he took bad children and stuffed them in the big sack he carried upon his back.

This custom died out in the 20th century, but is now being revived, especially in Germanic European countries, as a scary but fun festival at Christmastime.


Krampusnacht - December 5, 2022

Krampuslauf 2022 in Salzburg, Austria