08 January 2020

And One Final Book Review for the Holiday Season...

Hanukkah in America, Dianne Ashton
I'm not sure what I was expecting when I bought this book, but I thought it was going to be more about how Jewish people have come up against the juggernaut that is Christmas each year and how they counter with a celebration from their own culture that was a minor holiday, but which has expanded in response to being in proximity to the Yuletide frenzy that happens in December.

It does indeed address that issue, but is a lot more in depth than that, and delves more deeply into Jewish tradition and pre-Jewish-American-culture customs. In hindsight, I wish I had known a little bit more about the latter to truly appreciate how Hanukkah affected Jews.

Again, Hanukkah was a minor holiday on the celebratory calendar, one that did not require you to not work during the holiday period. However, when Jews migrated in great numbers to the United States, not only did they face Christmas advertising and celebration in every store window and in their children's schools, but they also came into contact with American culture itself, some of which ran counter to Jewish custom from "the old country": longer working hours and working on High Holidays, a narrative of the past that included "action heroes" like the Western pioneers and scouts, greater freedom for women, etc. For instance, Judah Maccabee would be compared to men like Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill Cody, and for Jews he would be considered a patriotic hero who fought against tyranny, like George Washington, the Union soldiers of the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War combatants. It would only be later that the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights and celebrating each night with your family in lighting the menorah would be emphasized more as Hanukkah did go head-to-head with Christmas, to show that both holidays had similarities: celebration of Light, miracles, family gatherings, special food, specific games, and gifts.

Not having background in traditional Jewish (read: Orthodox) customs did not keep me from appreciating this book, and how Jewish culture adapted and changed (like my own Italian culture) in order for the immigrants to assimilate as Americans yet keep their Jewish heritage. Enjoyable and approachable if you are looking for a more scholarly study.

07 January 2020


by Mary N. Prescott, "St. Nicholas," March 1880

"Come," said the Snow-flakes, "it's time we should rally,
     To tuck up the roots of the grass,
To shine on the hill-top and whiten the valley
     And touch the world up as we pass.

All the huts that are ruined and ugly
     Let us change into marble halls,
We will cover the naked hedges up snugly,
     And festoon the ragged stone walls.

We will build our drifts on the king's highway,
     Mimic the shape of star or feather,
We will silently waltz the livelong day,
     Or sculpture garlands together.

Never, outside of the spider's loom,
     Shall be spun such laces as ours,
And never, after the summer's bloom,
     Shall be seen such wonderful flowers."

05 January 2020

"I Sprang from My Bed..." To See Who Wrote the Poem

Inventing Santa Claus: The Mystery of Who Really Wrote The Most Celebrated Yuletide Poem of All Time, Carlo DeVito
On December 23, 1823, a poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel. It went on to become the most beloved Christmas poem of all time, and established much of the mythos of the Santa Claus character as we know it today: the sleigh, the eight reindeer and their names, his pipe, his jolly face. St. Nicholas himself was popularized in the New York area by Washington Irving. For years the poem was reprinted as being from "anonymous," until the family of Clement C. Moore, a theologian and scholar, claimed he wrote it. Moore, usually a serious man, did not take credit for the poem until 1844, when it was included in a book of his more serious verse.

But the family of Henry Livingston, Jr., related to Robert Livingston of Declaration of Independence fame, stated that the poem was his, and had been written earlier than the 1820s. They stated that its famous rhyming couplets were typically used by Livingston in his other poetry (he was noted for his light verse).

This slim volume discusses the history of both Moore and Livingston, the facts surrounding the printing and the reprinting of the poem, and the claims of both the families, taking them both into the present time. DeVito takes no sides in the quarrel, just presents as many facts as he can gather about both sides of the story.

There is a more detailed book on this subject (Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question by MacDonald P. Jackson), but this appears to be more succinct and accessible.

04 January 2020

From Drunken Revel to Family Holiday

Re-read: Christmas Past, Gavin Weightman and Steve Humphries
This British trade paperback was a purchase from the remainder table of original Borders Books on Roswell Road in Atlanta. I was delighted to find it because I had seen (and videotaped) the original television special years ago when it was broadcast on A&E (back when A&E showed documentaries and wasn't overburdened with overwrought reality series). It is a history of the celebration of Christmas in Great Britain, and, like the television special, is crammed full of historical photographs about bygone holidays. It is especially fascinating talking about customs that are pretty much unknown in America, from the most familiar which might be the "Christmas cracker," a festively wrapped tube with candy, paper hats, and funny mottoes inside that "cracks" when you open it, hence the name, to obscure customs like the "Mari Llwd," a horse's skull carried from house to house in Wales which was a legacy of pagan times (along with the wassailing of Christmas trees). Another once-popular custom—even more popular than having a Christmas tree—was a decoration called a "mistletoe," crossed barrel staves decorated with tissue paper and hung with holly or mistletoe mounted at the the center and perhaps with little ornaments on the outside, that would be dangled from the ceiling as the main display. There are also memoirs from men and women who grew up poor in the early part of the 20th century and remember the meager Christmases of their youth, as well as memories of children and adults who had to celebrate in the workhouse. A lot of the language is a bit more salty than appeared on the edited American version.

And wait—there's more: memories of colonial Christmases in India, the Victorian contribution to the celebration, wartime Christmases with rationed foods and celebrations in air-raid shelters...as full of goodies as a stocking hung on the mantel. Highly recommended

03 January 2020

Because There's No Place Like...

More Holmes for the Holidays, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh
I enjoyed the first volume so much I decided to send for a used copy of the sequel, but was a little disappointed when it arrived. It's a much smaller volume than the first, with fewer stories. However, most of them were pretty enjoyable, and written by familiar names like Anne Perry, Peter Lovesey, Barbara Paul, and Loren Estleman, among others. The Perry story that opens the book is a subject close to Holmes' heart: violins and a superb performer of violin music. Holmes' unique solution to the problem includes a very special Christmas gift for him. "The Four Wise Men" revolves around an old Army compatriot's request of Watson, that he play Joseph in a unique neighborhood Christmas pageant that involves his Army friend carrying a priceless star made of silver and studded with gems, and includes a chase with Watson in biblical regalia.

Other adventures include Chinese carol singers; a Yuletide plot to destroy goodwill between England and France; a tale involving choirmembers, a spoiled boy soloist, and stolen collection money; and one involving a young woman who has inherited an estate and an old curse. One story is a sequel to "The Copper Beeches," and to me is the one really weak story of the lot, playing on an old story to achieve its climax. Other stories feature Holmes with real-life people: Erskine Childers, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Darwin, and, in my favorite of the stories, Kipling appears along with an adult Timothy Cratchit, who is trying to fulfill the final part of Ebenezer Scrooge's will. I guessed the twist in that one at once, but the story was so entertaining I didn't care.

Still a worthwhile purchase, but do be aware there is less content than the original.

02 January 2020

Keep Calm and Christmas On

A Wartime Christmas, compiled by Maria and Andrew Hubert
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, but there are a handful, like A Dickens Christmas and A Bronte Christmas that are set around an era instead. This is their World War II volume, and, predictably for the subject, it is in an oversize trade-paper format.

The contributions cover a varied range of subjects: the memories of children evacuated to the country, tales of trying to produce a typical Christmas feast with rationed food and sweets, stories of overseas celebrations (from soldiers putting on a raucous impromptu pantomime of Aladdin to men existing on meager portions as POWs), soldiers able to spend Christmas in Bethlehem and those assigned to long days in Iceland. There are several memories from Polish men who eventually came to England to join the RAF and who were one of "the few" who stood against Hitler in the Battle of Britain, and at least one memory of POWs attending church on Christmas Day to no acrimony.

The volume includes cartoons, vintage photographs, wartime recipes and peeks into recipe books of the time, old advertisements—and, typically for any English Christmas compilation, a ghost story!

If you are an Anglophile and Christmas fan, you owe it to yourself to check out these Sutton volumes!

01 January 2020