03 December 2023

Poetry for Christmas: "The Shepherd's Calendar: December"

by John Clare

Glad Christmas comes, and every hearth
   Makes room to give him welcome now,
E’en want will dry its tears in mirth,
   And crown him with a holly bough;
Though tramping ’neath a winter sky,
   O’er snowy paths and rimy stiles,
The housewife sets her spinning by
   To bid him welcome with her smiles.

Each house is swept the day before,
   And windows stuck with ever-greens,              
The snow is besom’d from the door,
And comfort crowns the cottage scenes.
Gilt holly, with its thorny pricks,
   And yew and box, with berries small,
These deck the unused candlesticks,
   And pictures hanging by the wall.

Neighbours resume their annual cheer,
   Wishing, with smiles and spirits high,
Glad Christmas and a happy year,
   To every morning passer-by;                      
Milkmaids their Christmas journeys go,
   Accompanied with favour’d swain;
And children pace the crumping snow,
   To taste their granny’s cake again.

The shepherd, now no more afraid,
   Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
   Beneath the branch of misletoe
That ’neath each cottage beam is seen,
   With pearl-like berries shining gay;            
The shadow still of what hath been,
   Which fashion yearly fades away.

The singing wates, a merry throng,
   At early morn, with simple skill,
Yet imitate the angels song,
   And chant their Christmas ditty still;
And, ’mid the storm that dies and swells
   By fits—in hummings softly steals
The music of the village bells,
   Ringing round their merry peals.
When this is past, a merry crew,
   Bedeck’d in masks and ribbons gay,
The “Morris-dance,” their sports renew,
   And act their winter evening play.
The clown turn’d king, for penny-praise,
   Storms with the actor’s strut and swell;
And Harlequin, a laugh to raise,
   Wears his hunch-back and tinkling bell.

And oft for pence and spicy ale,
   With winter nosegays pinn’d before,              
The wassail-singer tells her tale,
   And drawls her Christmas carols o’er.
While ’prentice boy, with ruddy face,
   And rime-bepowder’d, dancing locks,
From door to door with happy pace,
   Runs round to claim his “Christmas box.”

The block upon the fire is put,
   To sanction custom’s old desires;
And many a fagot's bands are cut,
   For the old farmers’ Christmas fires;            
Where loud-tongued Gladness joins the throng,
   And Winter meets the warmth of May,
Till feeling soon the heat too strong,
   He rubs his shins, and draws away.

While snows the window-panes bedim,
   The fire curls up a sunny charm,
Where, creaming o’er the pitcher’s rim,
   The flowering ale is set to warm;
Mirth, full of joy as summer bees,
   Sits there, its pleasures to impart,            
And children, ’tween their parent’s knees,
   Sing scraps of carols o’er by heart.

And some, to view the winter weathers,
   Climb up the window-seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
   In Fancy’s infant ecstasy;
Laughing, with superstitious love,
   O’er visions wild that youth supplies,
Of people pulling geese above,
   And keeping Christmas in the skies.              

As tho’ the homestead trees were drest,
   In lieu of snow, with dancing leaves;
As tho’ the sun-dried martin’s nest,
   Instead of i’cles hung the eaves;
The children hail the happy day—
   As if the snow were April’s grass,
And pleas’d, as ’neath the warmth of May,
   Sport o’er the water froze to glass.

Thou day of happy sound and mirth,
   That long with childish memory stays,            
How blest around the cottage hearth
   I met thee in my younger days!
Harping, with rapture’s dreaming joys,
   On presents which thy coming found,
The welcome sight of little toys,
   The Christmas gift of cousins round.

The wooden horse with arching head,
   Drawn upon wheels around the room;
The gilded coach of gingerbread,
   And many-colour’d sugar plum;                    
Gilt cover’d books for pictures sought,
   Or stories childhood loves to tell,
With many an urgent promise bought,
   To get to-morrow’s lesson well.

And many a thing, a minute’s sport,
   Left broken on the sanded floor,
When we would leave our play, and court
   Our parents’ promises for more.
Tho’ manhood bids such raptures die,
   And throws such toys aside as vain,              
Yet memory loves to turn her eye,
   And count past pleasures o’er again.

Around the glowing hearth at night,
   The harmless laugh and winter tale
Go round, while parting friends delight
   To toast each other o’er their ale;
The cotter oft with quiet zeal
   Will musing o’er his Bible lean;
While in the dark the lovers steal
   To kiss and toy behind the screen.  
Old customs! Oh! I love the sound,
   However simple they may be:
Whate’er with time hath sanction found,
   Is welcome, and is dear to me.
Pride grows above simplicity,
   And spurns them from her haughty mind,
And soon the poet’s song will be
   The only refuge they can find.

02 December 2023

Poetry for Christmas: "The Christmas Wreath"

A wreath for merry Christmas quickly twine,
A wreath for the bright red sparkling wine,
Though roses are dead
And their bloom is fled,
Yet for Christmas a bonnie, bonnie wreath we'll twine.

Away to the wood where the bright holly grows,
And its red berries blush amid winter snows,
Away to ruin where the green ivy clings,
And around the dark fane its verdure flings;
Hey! for the ivy and holly so bright,
They are the garlands for Christmas night.

Louisa Anne Twamley, 1835

01 December 2023

29 November 2023

Guising and Other Traditions


A Cornish Christmas, Tony Deane and Tony Shaw
This is the final volume of the Sutton Christmas books from the different shires of England that I've been collecting for several years now (not the last book in the series, just the one I bought last). Not sure why this is in a different format: a much smaller volume with teeny-tiny print and photos as compared to the others, but once again a series of short excerpts from Cornwall-set novels, nonfiction articles, and poetry set at the Christmas season, complete with the Cornish dialect ("z's" for "s's," for example).

Much commentary about guising, which would probably terrify the cross-dressing religious whackos showing up on the news: Christmas past was a time of men dressing up as women, women dressing up as men, and lots of costumes. It was, as you'll read, also a lot of drunken revelry. Still, happy childhood memories pop up with children happy to get an orange and an apple in the Christmas stocking, full butcher shops, and the occasional snowstorm, plus people making merry at the workhouse.

The small format of this volume makes it hard to see the historic photos. A pity.

Christmas Past
, Brian Earl
Brian Earl has been doing the "Christmas Past" podcast for six years now; it's an enjoyable excursion into the traditions of the Yuletide season. This book distills some of his most popular episodes into print; it's excellent for a gift book for someone who's curious about where our Christmas customs come from. I have several books like this (Ace Collins, Clement Miles, Tanya Gulevich, etc.), but this has updated information and also includes modern traditions—most prominently about classic television Christmas animation, but the chapter about the snow globes was fascinating, too.

As Earl points out, a lot of the traditions go back so far that it's difficult to track down exactly where they started. However, I am puzzled by his chapter on "The Twelve Days of Christmas." It is indeed a "forfeit" song, sung for party games, not a Christian metaphor, and I remember singing about "colly birds" (rather than "calling birds") from when I learned the song in the 1960s, but at one point it states "On days six through nine, we have pipers piping and drummers drumming." Actually day six is the geese and day seven is the swans, it's days eight through twelve that are interpreted as other things than birds. (Hallmark's answer to the "five golden rings" in their recent "12 Days of Christmas" ornament set was to make the fifth day a ring-necked pheasant.) I'm not sure how that error made it into the book.

Otherwise, if you've never read a book about the history of Christmas, this is a good place to start; Earl has a nice chatty writing style, and the book is supplemented with illustrations and photographs (which I wish were in color rather than retro black and white) and cheery graphics.

02 September 2023

Sugar and Spice and Ancient Ways

The Secret History of Christmas Baking: Recipes & Stories from Tomb Offerings to Gingerbread Boys
, Linda Raedisch
This is, at its heart, a recipe book, and I don't do recipe books...but-!

This is by the same author who did The Old Magic of Christmas, which is a delightful, nonstandard history of Christmas' pagan antecedents—truly, "not your mother's Christmas book." This volume is about the Christmas standards: stollen, gingerbread, fruitcake, and all, full of the spices and nuts we consider essential to the holiday, and the history of the use of these spices along with the recipes for these items (and more) included. For instance, one used to have to get spices from apothecaries, as they were used in ancient medicines. Raedisch's history begins, indeed, in ancient Egypt, with a recipe using "tiger nuts." Did you know that candy corn was originally invented as a Christmas treat? In the United States, where corn syrup replaced marzipan as a sweetening for the lower classes, the result was candy corn! Also covered is Germany's Christkindl, portrayed by a young woman in a crown, the bleak companions of St. Nicholas who meted out punishments, and finally American contributions to gingerbread lore via the Pennsylvania Dutch.

History and vintage recipes all in one volume! I'm here for the history, but I don't mind the other.

Many thanks to Netgalley for the Advance Reading Copy!

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.