14 February 2022

Happy Valentine's Day!

06 January 2022

Stars, Lovefeasts, and The Celebration of the Season

Moravian Christmas in the South, Nancy Smith Thomas
This is a beautiful coffee-table sized book about people of the Moravian faith who settled in Salem (now Winston-Salem), North Carolina, and their Christmas customs. The Moravian sect was founded in Prague by Jan Hus, and they originally emigrated from Europe to Pennsylvania, where they founded three towns, including Bethlehem, now the center of the Moravian community in the United States. The Moravians have a very distinct way of observing the Christmas season, centered of course on the birth of Christ, and including a celebration called a "lovefeast" and a decoration of a multipointed "Moravian star." However, unlike some other Protestant sects, which rejected Christmas because of the drunken revelry that came with it, Moravian society has embraced much of the secular side of Christmas that does not "go overboard," including Santa Claus, Christmas trees, caroling, etc.

So one of the treats of this book is that not only does it chronicle how Moravians have celebrated Christmas over the years, with excerpts from pioneer journals and Native American narratives, but it's also a pocket history of Christmas as it developed in the United States (Santa Claus spreading from the Dutch tales of St. Nicholas and reaching Pennsylvania as "Bellsnickle" or "Pelznichol," the Christmas tree coming from German immigrants and then given popularity by Prince Albert, etc.). The volume is illustrated liberally with drawings, artwork, exhibitions in New Salem, North Carolina, photographs, paintings, handbills, and documentation of historic Christmas celebrations.

As a publication of the Old Salem museum in North Carolina, this is a marvelously informative and very "kringly" overview of a specific society's Christmas customs.

01 January 2022

Christmas Among the Spires

An Oxfordshire Christmas, compiled by David Green
Britain's Alan Sutton Publishing did a collection of these volumes for what looks like almost every shire in England, not to mention for historical eras (A Victorian Christmas, An Elizabethan Christmas, A Regency Christmas, etc.). I picked up A Worcestershire Christmas and A Surrey Christmas several years back at the library book sale, and have been buying them one by one ever since.

Oxfordshire Christmas takes place along the streets and around the city of Oxford. Many of the excerpts both factual and fictional talk about the simplicity of Christmases in the past: simple children's gifts consisting of an apple, an orange, sweets, nuts, and perhaps a penny or a sixpence. Little girls received dolls, lucky little boys got a little horse or car or perhaps a locomotive engine. Decorations were greens trimmed from the countryside and paper chains. Attending church services were de rigueur.

Another story tells the tale of the estate of the Lovells, the family involved in the ballad that became the famous poem "The Mistletoe Bough." Mummers and the St. George and the dragon play make further appearances, we read a Christmas piece from the famous "Miss Read," and two different excerpts from the "Lark Rise" series (as in the series From Lark Rise to Candleford). "Christmas in Banbury" features the account of a freezing winter, W. H. Auden sings the after-Christmas blues, an article examines Christmas hymns specific to the Oxford countryside, Pam Ayres sees—in wry verse—the frustration of the season, and a long tale proves that, through the years, all anyone can ever talk of on Christmas Day is the weather.

As always there's a ghost story, Christmas at a vast estate, the Boxing Day hunt, and more. A satisfactory edition of this series.

Happy New Year!

28 December 2021

Just Gimme That Chicken Soup...

The Blessings of Christmas, Amy Newmark
The 2021 edition (ta-da!) of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" contains all the things it should: more short heartwarming Christmas stories suitable for bedtime or relaxing reading during the holiday season. This edition had quite a few multicultural stories, which I enjoyed, such as a Korean woman bringing up her child to revere both her heritage and fun American Christmas customs, the story of a Jewish woman who married an Italian Catholic man and who finally won over his resolutely sorrowful grandmother, another Jewish/Christian family who have lovingly combined customs, a family who invited Navy midshipmen from other countries to their Christmas dinner and made two homesick young men from Cameroon very happy, and several more. Many of the stories involve children giving up their Christmas goodies, as the March sisters of Little Women did with their Christmas breakfast, to help other kids who had no gifts. There's the story of a homemade Christmas tree that lives up to a wealthy girl's designer one, a one-of-a-kind chair made by Mom that eventually returns home, a request for a can opener that opens an annoyed woman's heart, the gift of a coat to a boy that changes a giver's mind about charity, a flower delivery to a hospice that makes a difference—101 tender and sometimes funny stories (can't kids decorate a gingerbread house without making a mess? and why do a succession of cats keep stealing only one ornament?) to leave you with the warm and fuzzies.

The one thing that sort of doesn't amuse me is the proclamation on the back that "25 cents of every book sale goes to Toys for Tots." Surely the publishers of this book could work it that more of the profit go to the charity? Skinflints!

27 December 2021

D.H. Lawrence, Dame Edith Sitwell, and More Share Christmas Memories

A Derbyshire Christmas, compiled by Robert Innes-Smith
I found my first Sutton "Christmas anthologies" (A Worcestershire Christmas, if you care) at a library book sale many years back. When A Surrey Christmas turned up at a subsequent sale I realized this was a series. These contain short excerpts of Christmas/Christmastide passages from various British novels, memoirs, and poetry books, with the action taking place in the shire denoted in the title.

Derbyshire is just south of Sheffield, England (famous for their knives), and this volume is crammed full of mostly reminisces and diary entries from the 1840s through the 1940s, the most famous of the correspondents being Dame Edith Sitwell, the poet, and her younger brother Osbert. There is only one verse in this volume, which is very rare, unfortunately it has to do with fox hunting, but then it's a touching tale of how Lord Harrington's hounds, turned out for their first hunt after he died, went straight to his grave as if called. There are a couple of other hunting memories, and the rest are more salubrious, from how Christmas was celebrated in a great country house, including the festivities "downstairs" among the servants; a couple of accounts of Christmas in the workhouse which are much more cheerful than George R. Sims' pathetic verse tale; diary entries from Edith Sitwell and an account of Christmas by Osbert; only one ghost story, but it's an amusing one; a medieval tale at Haddon Hall; different recountings of old customs like caroling, "Thomasing," guising, mumming, and the St. George and the Dragon play; and even Christmas letters from D.H. Lawrence, who called Derbyshire home.

One of the more interesting volumes in that it includes many personal accounts from the POV of different ages and different eras.

25 December 2021


24 December 2021

The People of Christmas: Clement C. Moore

If you have ever explored New York City extensively, you have possibly visited a neighborhood at the lower portion of Manhattan Island, near Greenwich Village: Chelsea. Chelsea has had a varied history and today has an extensive LGBTQ population and is a popular shopping venue, but it started out life as a sprawling estate that eventually belonged to a professor of Oriental and Greek Literature as well as of divinity, Clement Clarke Moore. Moore was an author, a canny landowner who sold parts of his estate to make a maximum profit, and a husband and father of nine.
In 1823, as the story goes, Moore wrote a poem for the amusement of his children called "A Visit From St. Nicholas" in a sequence of rhyming couplets. Moore usually did not write light verse, but it was said a woman visitor to the home at Christmastime enjoyed the poem so much she jotted down the verses from memory. Moore did not share the poem with anyone but his family, but apparently this visitor did share it, with a Troy, NY, newspaper. The poem caught the fancy of many people and was reprinted in different papers for ten years before Moore was identified as the author. He himself did not acknowledge it until 1844, when it was included in a book of more somber poetry. It created several of the now-traditional features of the Santa Claus story: that he is plump and jolly, smokes a pipe, and drives a sleigh driven by eight reindeer named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem. (The last two, whose names mean "thunder" and "lightning" in Dutch, were later changed to the more German "Donder"—or "Donner"—and "Blitzen.") An earlier poem, "Old Sante Claus," had introduced Santa driving one reindeer pulling a flying wagon, but the eight and the sleigh were Moore's creation. His image of Santa, according to Moore, was based on a elderly Dutch servant at Chelsea.

Or was it?

For many years a case has been made that Moore was not the author of the poem. The family of Henry Livingston Jr. have long claimed that he wrote the poem, and several years before Moore. Livingston was apparently fond of writing light verse in rhyming couplets,  and, as with Moore's claim, this poem was written for his children. Supposedly there were other clues: the reindeer named Dunder and Blixem when Moore did not know Dutch, the lighthearted narrative unlikely to be written by a stern professor, etc. It was said that there was physical evidence of this, but, as homes back in the 18th and 19th century were heated and lit by fire, they were always in danger of burning down, and the Livingston evidence was lost in a house fire. Several scholars have looked into this claim and have differing opinions on claims of authorship.
Two books are available on this controversy, the simpler Inventing Santa Claus: The Mystery of Who Really Wrote The Most Celebrated Yuletide Poem of All Time by Carlo DeVito, and a longer, more scholarly work Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question by MacDonald P. Jackson. 
There is also Seth Kaller's website on the controversy (he's firmly in the Moore camp).
Here's a link to a 1968, 26 minute animated story about the writing of the poem: The Night Before Christmas. In this version Moore writes the poem for his daughter Charity, who requested "a book about Santa Claus" as a gift, but he could not find her one. This animated tale is particularly notable for several things: although done in limited animation and featuring a cute dog for some chuckles, the drawings stick very much to how the Moore family, their home, and the world around them must have looked. Moore and his wife and the children, with the exception of little Clement, wear fairly authentic 1820s styles, Gretchen the cook works over an open fire and with an oven in the fireplace, Mrs. Moore mentions bringing a bedwarmer, etc. Moore did have children named Charity, Clement, and Emily, and apparently Peter is the "Dutch servant" he based the look of St. Nicholas on. (Little Clement is the only false note. Little boys of his social class would have still been in skirts at his age, or perhaps in pantaloons, but certainly not the overalls he was wearing, which were not invented until the 1870s. Also, the Moores would not have decorated a Christmas tree.) In addition, the musical version of the poem used in the story was arranged by Ken Darby, and had a long history on the music charts and on old-time radio. It was originally performed on The Johnson Wax Program with Fibber McGee and Molly in 1947.

23 December 2021

The 2021 Edition

Ideals Christmas 2021, from the editors of "Ideals"
"Ideals" was born during World War II, in 1944, and this annual combination of poems, short essays, retellings of the Nativity story, and illustrations and (later) photos at one time was published several times a year, with spring/Easter, summertime/patriotic, winter/Valentine's, and autumn/Thanksgiving also making appearances. Now only the Christmas and (sometimes) Easter editions remain.

I didn't like this magazine until about the 1980s or 1990s, when they started publishing more natural photographs and quit color-tinting artwork and pages. Since then, to me, they have been a joy (and I miss the autumn edition!). The pretty blue cover this year is a change of pace, and there are several wonderful essays in this one, the best being Pamela Kennedy's "A Hand Crafted Christmas" ("The Puppy Who Came for Christmas" is pretty cute, too, and "A Snow Party" is heartwarming). I don't usually pay attention to the recipes, but the cinnamon cookies made from pie dough sound delicious. My favorite poems were "Round and Round" by Dorothy Thompson and "Winter Twilight" by Carol Collier

And I had to smile at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree picture because we'd just finished the limited series Hawkeye and watched the titular character and his partner Kate Bishop vs. their enemies make a wreck out of 30 Rock, the tree, and the ice skating rink!

A British Christmas Perennial

Christmas Crackers: Tom Smith's Magical Invention, Peter Kimpton
In the United States, some people use Christmas crackers, but in the United Kingdom they are a traditional part of the Yuletide celebration. Shaped like wrapped "bonbon" candies with a twist of paper at each end, but six- to twelve-inches long, the cracker wrapper usually enfolds a funny paper hat, a "motto" which is usually like a "Dad joke" or a silly pun, and then some other type of prize or prizes (small animal or people figures, toys, tiny games, etc.). It's called a cracker because when when two people pull one apart, a strip of paper gives the cracker an audible "snap."

Many manufacturers on the British Isles have made crackers over the years, but the most famous of them is "Tom Smith, Inc." (sadly, no longer owned by the Smith family), whose boxes and crackers themselves as well as their catalogs featured brilliantly colored, inventive illustrations. And that's the main draw of this history of the Christmas cracker: the gorgeous color plates of Tom Smith (and other manufacturers') cracker boxes over the years. There are also photos of the original Smith family and the Smith factory with its factory girls, and some interesting ads that would not be allowed today that perpetuate racial stereotypes. One chapter covers the history of crackers during the first World War, and an appendix has a reprint of an article by Charles Dickens Jr about visiting a cracker factory.

If you're one of the people to whom Christmas crackers are an indispensable part of the holiday, or if you're curious about this Christmas tradition, this is a great overview of the history of the holiday treat.

20 December 2021

Puppies and Just a Little Bit of Murder

Here Comes Santa Paws, Laurien Berenson
I've always loved Berenson Melanie Travis books, but this entry, a Christmas novella, is a little bit on the fluffy side, and at one point Melanie and her friend Claire do the dumbest thing ever.

Christmas is fast approaching when Melanie gets two intriguing phone calls. The first, from her formidable Aunt Peg, takes her visiting to see Peg's newest acquisitions, three adorable Australian Shepherd puppies someone abandoned in a big decorative stocking on her mailbox. The second, from Claire Travis (she married Melanie's ex-husband and they're all now friends), is a bit more problematic: Claire, a party planner and, for the holiday season, a personal shopper, has just found one of her clients, Lila Moran,  murdered in her gatehouse home while delivering her packages. Frightened and knowing she has solved other murders before, Claire wants Melanie to be with her while she's questioned by the police.

All this I can understand, as well as Claire hoping Melanie can get to the bottom of the mystery. But somewhere in the middle of the book they do something so unbelievably stupid that Claire suggests and Melanie goes along with that it bugged me for the rest of the book. Also, I pretty much pegged the murderer right out. Nice touch basing a character on the unconventional Huguette Clark, and the Travis/Driver Christmas prep and the dog characters are, as always, lovely. But, dang, I hate it when the characters have to do something stupid to add to the plot or move it along.

Christmas in the Factories and the Workhouse

A Lancashire Christmas, compiled by John Hudson
Yet another in Alan Sutton Publishing's Christmas compilations highlighting poetry, essays, art, and photographs from the different shires of England. In this one we venture north into England's industrial area, west of Yorkshire and north of Liverpool. This volume has a bumper crop of personal reminisces from working-class people: an entertainment at a mill strikes terror into a shy boy, a visit to Santa Claus may cause a youngster to doubt, verse tributes to the school Nativity play, a girl's memory of visits to her grandfather known as "Wonnie," Christmas during the Blitz, a free Christmas goose makes a lot of trouble in the kitchen, a final class tries "barring out the schoolmaster" to disastrous results, taking geese to market, the story of the hymn "Christians Awake!" (written by a Lancashire man), and more. There are several reports about Christmas in the workhouse, including a sad account of "suits" debating whether the people in the workhouse deserve a special Christmas meal (it has echoes to today as several of the members of the committee say the workhouse inmates are just layabouts and don't deserve a treat).

The delightful highlight of this volume is the comic poem "Old Sam's Christmas Pudding," about Sam Small, a sad-sack World War I soldier who is punished for his dirty kit by denying him his Christmas pudding, but he redeems himself during a return cannonade with a surprise weapon.

Some of the poetry and stories are in Lancashire dialect, but these shouldn't detract from the narratives.

14 December 2021

Murder for the Holidays

Mrs. Claus and the Santaland Slayings, Liz Ireland
This is first in a series taking place at the North Pole and featuring April Claus. April, formerly an innkeeper in Oregon (she still owns the inn), met and fell in love with one of her guests, Nick Kringle, who'd come to her inn to decompress. They marry and it's only then April discovers she has married...Santa Claus! Nick became the official Santa after the death of his father and of his oldest brother Chris, who died in a hunting accident.

It's now April's first Christmas as the official Mrs. Claus (although most people think of Pamela, Nick's mother, as "Mrs. Claus") and December is a harried jumble of activities. But things have gone sour at one of the first Christmas activities: an elf named Giblet Hollyberry, who was already angry at Nick when he lost an ice-sculpting contest and accused him of killing Chris, is murdered by a black widow spider in his stocking. Next a snowman (snowmen in Santaland are alive) is melted to death...and again Nick is the suspect when his custom-made coat button is found in the remains. April doesn't trust Constable Crinkle, the affable police officer, to hunt down the real killer, and even with dark detective Jake (not Jack!) Frost on the case, she knows she'll have to do some sleuthing to get Nick cleared.

Ireland does some fun world-building here, with the Santa family heirarchy (Lucia is actually the eldest, but the Santa title officially goes to the oldest boy) and family squabbles, the "Santaland" geography, the elf community, the idea of reindeer dynasties as well as Santa dynasties, the relationship between the in-laws being the same as in ordinary families, all mixed up with a cozy mystery, a misfit and coddled reindeer named Quasar, and an intelligent protagonist who's a little bit in over her head. Lots of interesting characters, including Jake Frost, although most of them lightly sketched, including Nick, which is frustrating.

Trouble is, I twigged to the murderer early on, and I think most people will, too, plus April is kind of a stock cozy character: perky red-haired inn-owning good-looking young woman. If you buy into the whole fantasy, it's fun. Otherwise, you may find it confusing—there are so many characters—or dull.

12 December 2021

A Cathedral Miracle, A Donkey's Tale, and More

A Cheshire Christmas, compiled by Alan Brack
This is another of Alan Sutton publishing's "Christmas Anthologies," which 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 volume has more "real life" excerpts from diaries/books than usual, and doesn't repeat the usual "mummer's play" scripts as some of the other volumes do. The first essay is about owning a turkey farm that supplies free-range birds for the holidays. There are also an encounter with a ghosts at an old estate, a woman's memories of Christmas at the family's country house, an amusing narrative of an 82-year-old man who goes hunting on Boxing Day and ends up having to be extricated from the mud where he was trapped under his horse (the horse came out okay, too!), the story of a supposed "miracle of light" at Chester Cathedral during a sermon and what really happened, a fictional tale of two feuding families and how the sickness of one family's baby brought the feud to an end, several lively Christmas poems (one told from the POV of the donkey who carried Mary to Bethlehem) as well as one very lugubrious one about the mortality of man for New Year's Eve, and even two excerpts by Americans: a diary entry from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who spent an English Christmas in 1854, and passages from Washington Irving's "Old Christmas" section of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. Elizabeth Gaskell of Cranford fame is represented, as well as Lewis Carroll, whose "Christmas Greetings," the original inscription for his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is reprinted.

All in all a nice selection for bedtime reading before Christmas!

09 December 2021

Cards and Tree Lightings

Season's Greetings from the White House, Mary Evans Seeley
This is a coffee table style book I found at the library book sale about the history of the official White House Christmas card and also the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, which date to the same era. The special production of a Christmas card from the White House started during Calvin Coolidge's presidency, as did the erection of a Christmas tree, originally on the lawn of the White House, as a "National Tree." The cards were created by artists who produced watercolors, gouache, and other media types for the White House—except for most of the cards during the Eisenhower administration, which were painted by the President himself—and then specially made by Hallmark or American Greetings. The lighting of the tree and the President's speech is also covered for each year the President was in office, and later articles detail how the White House itself was decorated and the theme each First Lady chose for that year. There are large photos of each card and something about the artist and how he (there were no female artists chosen, not even in the Clinton era) conceived and created the painting. This itself may be the best part of the book, as the narrative is a bit dry, but learning how the artists perceived their commission and how they then carried it out is fascinating. The book covers the administrations of Coolidge through Clinton, and, as an appendix, selected addresses by the President at the National Tree Lighting are reproduced (such as Roosevelt's famous 1941 sharing of the platform with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was secretly in town for war planning against the Nazis; Churchill's speech is also included) and Reagan's speech after the return of the Iranian hostages after their 444-day ordeal.

Worth finding if you are a White House history devotee or even someone who enjoys knowing how an original artwork is commissioned and then becomes a Christmas card or print.

06 December 2021

Christmas Mummers and Ghosts

A Berkshire Christmas, compiled by David Green
This is another in Alan Sutton Publishing's Christmas compilations highlighting poetry, essays, art, and photographs from the different shires of England. This Berkshire volume features excerpts from Jane Austen's Christmas diaries (not very Christmasy to us today; more a commentary on social mores), yet more of the ghost stories that were so popular around the holidays (commemorating the belief that on Christmas the "veil" between the mortal world and the "great beyond" was extremely weak, and ghosts could communicate with the living), "The Christmas Mummers" (a long version of the usual "St. George and the Dragon" play that was a tradition from medieval times), and of course there are nostalgic essays about "Christmas in the olden days" when children were happy to get a gingerbread cookie, an apple, an orange (an exotic and expensive fruit back then!), and nuts in their stocking.

Fictional offerings, too, such as ones from "Miss Read," provide colorful views of village life and the rivalries therein.

In addition, we have an excerpt from Queen Victoria celebrating her still happy early married life at Windsor Castle, a different "Holly and Ivy" song, a Christmas excerpt from The Wind in the Willows and also from Kenneth Grahame's The Golden Age, and much more.

Always a treat!

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

Many European countries celebrate St. Nicholas Day as the gift-giving day of December and leave Christmas Day for religious observances. Some countries celebrate on both days.

In the Netherlands St. Nicholas rides a white horse and arrives on a ship from Spain. Other St. Nicholas figures ride a donkey. They usually travel with a companion like Zwarte Pete ("Black Peter"), Krampus, Belsnickel, or Pelznichol, who is the actual figure who disciplines the children. When the children swear they will do better, St. Nicholas forgives them and gives them a gift, holding off the Christmas disciplinarian!

St. Nicholas Day - December 6, 2021 - National Today

How St. Nicholas Day Became a Cincinnati Tradition

German Culture--St. Nicholas Day

Heinz History Center: Awaiting the Arrival of Old St. Nick

Leave Your Shoes Out: It's St. Nicholas Day

St. Nick May Have Inspired Santa, But His Own Story is Very Inspiring

Celebrating Sinterklass in the Netherlands

04 December 2021


Christmas, goodwill and good cheer
Comes, they say, but once a year.
Presents, tinsel, food galore,
All the goods come out of store.
Lots of money needed now,
Parents must find it somehow.
Songs on radio, TV,
All add to the spending spree.
Mincepies, crackers, Christmas cake,
Busy mothers try and bake.
Puddings, holly, mistletoe,
Carols sung where e'er we go.
Turkeys, geese and chicken fine,
Port, gin, sherry and white wine.
Open parcels, eat and drink,
Not much time to really think.
Once more mankind intent on bliss,
The hidden beauty tends to miss.
They keynote of it all is love,
Brought to us by the power above,
Beneath, around and in all life,
To overcome problems and strife
E'er present on this planet Earth.
Remember then the divine birth!
Translate the love in kindness true,
In every little act you do.
In every thought and every day,
Help someone on their weary way.
Although we can't all Christlike be,
At least we can each try and see.

. . . . Percy E. Corbett from his collection The Enternal Stairway