Tag Archives: Christmas

443. Booklist Reboot

On December 15, 2015 I posted this list of Christmas books. 

Here is the annotated booklist I promised you yesterday. You could also Google Christmas or old Christmas, or search either of those subjects on Amazon. I suggest you do. This is not a best list because there are too many books on Christmas for anyone to have read them all. This is simply a list of what I’ve discovered over the years, minus the clinkers. Some of these are easy to find, others will lead you through the back stacks of used bookstores, but there’s no harm in that.

A Christmas Carol by Dickens has to head any list. He also wrote many other Christmas works and gets his own post next Wednesday, the 23rd.

Washington Irving had a powerful influence on Christmas, which is largely forgotten today. Among his followers was Clement Moore of Night Before Christmas fame. They also get their own post, on Christmas Eve.

The rest of this list is in order from decorator froth to historical complexity.

Go to any bookstore and you will find dozens of Christmas cookbooks and books on Christmas decor, sometimes with historical tidbits. You’re on you own here, with one exception. The Spirit of Christmas series by Leisure Arts is classy, has been around since about 1990, and fills up ten pages of Amazon with choices.

Christmas in Colonial and Early America, 1975, by World Book, is an early, sepia toned version of this kind of book with a little more meat in it’s history.

For almost two decades, Ace Collins has been writing books titled Stories Behind . . . , beginning with Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas. The title tells the tale; the individual stories are interesting and heart felt.

The Curious World of Christmas is lightweight and breezy, a book of short entries which can be digested one little bite at a time.

The only recent Christmas book I can’t recommend is Nicholas, by Jeremy Seal. I found it dark and tedious, and couldn’t get past page 42, but if you want a detailed look at how St. Nicholas became Santa, it’s the only work I know completely devoted to that subject.

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford and Inventing Scrooge by Carlo De Vito each tell the story of the genesis of Charles Dickens’ most famous story. As a writer and a lover of Christmas, I couldn’t choose between them. Read the one that is easier for you to find. Then read the other one next Christmas.

A Mark Twain Christmas has been sitting on my next shelf for a couple of weeks. I will give it a tentative approval based on a thumb-through, and the fact that it is also by Carlo De Vito.

A Christmas Treasury of Yuletide Stories and Poems by Charlton and Gilson has works by every famous author you’ve ever heard of, from St. Matthew through The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.

Ruth Kainen’s America’s Christmas Heritage contains well written regional histories of Christmas at a level of detail that is satisfying without being overwhelming.

John Matthews’ The Winter Solstice has a look similar to the decorator/cookbook works above, but with a unique twist. It concentrates on the Roman, Celtic, and Germanic contribution to Christmas. It feels like the Middle Ages, without falling into the trap of New Age Gaia worship.

Christmas Customs and Traditions by Clement Miles is a Dover reprint of a 1912 work. It is an old fashioned history of the evolution of Christmas from Roman times to what was then the present.

Christmas in America by Penne Restad is a scholarly telling of the history of American Christmas. 172 pages of text, 36 pages of notes. You get the picture; a book for the overeducated Christmas nerd, but it is still a good read.

The remaining “recommendations” are probably over the top.

I have in front of me Christmas in Early New England, 1620-1820: Puritanism, Popular Culture, and the Printed Word by Stephen Nissenbaum, published by the American Antiquarian Society. I have already confessed to having two masters degrees, one in Social Science and one in History. This is the kind of thing I used to read for a living. I still read them, but only if they are on a subject that really interests me. Nissenbaum taught at Amhurst; you will find his original research referenced in many of the less scholarly books above. His book The Battle for Christmas was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but a scholarly work of 400 pages is not something to take on casually. I confess to not owning it; I read it on interlibrary loan years ago. If, however, you are a Christmas nerd and a history buff, it is available in paperback. Go for it; what have you got to lose?

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BY THE FOLLOWING YEAR I had purchased and re-read Nissenbaum, and wrote three posts summarizing The Battle for Christmas. If, like me, you are a complete Christmas nerd, click here to read them.

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439. Jose, Maria, y Jesus in Trumpland

[Don’t expect even handedness here.]

In English we call him Joseph, in Italian he is Giuseppe, in Basque he is Joseba, in Spanish he is just plain Jose.

In English we call her Mary, in Hebrew she is Miryam, in German she is Maria, and also in Spanish.

In English he is Jesus, in Cornish he is Jesu, in Italian he is Gesu, and in Spanish he is Jesus again, but pronounced Hey-sous.

We are going to walk with these three in this sermon for the Christmas season.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went, every on into his own city. And Jose also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, to be taxed with Maria his espoused wife, being great with child.

Of course that could be written as Joseph and Mary, but surely they are the same couple, in any language. Jose was a carpenter. He built things out of wood to feed his family, and he paid his taxes like everybody else. All the world was to be taxed, and he had to go back to the place from which his people came.

Where would that be? Perhaps a land with cities named Sacramento for the Holy Sacrament, or maybe Atascadero, Alameda, Camarillo, El Segundo, or Escondido. Perhaps cities like Fresno, La Mesa, Madera, or Mariposa show where his people once lived. Certainly they must have lived in cities like Los Angeles, Merced, Paso Robles, Salinas, or San Francisco. Even if his people no longer own the land, certainly the city named after him, San Jose, must once have belonged to his people.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

I think Luke shortened this a bit. Was there only one inn in Bethlehem? We can see the young couple, going from place to place, Jose leading, Maria on a burro since she cannot walk so late in her pregnancy. Everywhere they are turned away. Are all the sleeping places truly full? It may be. Or perhaps something about the two of them, perhaps the color of their skin, makes the innkeepers turn them away. Luke does not tell us.

I see migrant housing everywhere I go in California and I think, perhaps, a manger was preferable.

Now they are in a place where their people once lived, but to which they are no longer welcome. And here, their son is born.

Donald Trump would call Him an anchor baby. I wonder what He will call Trump, when they finally meet.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

To all people. ALL people. Imagine that!

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Luke’s story is complete, but ours is not. It is up to every one of us to see that it turns out right.

278. The Veil is Thin

Christmas, the most beloved holiday, has passed. Five days ago, the sun ended its southing and began its return, but still the days of darkness are upon us. The veil is thin between the worlds, and for a time, the order of things is turned upside down.

Now the calendar year is ending and there are festivals, but sometimes they don’t make sense because they have migrated beyond their origins. They grew up in one place, and are now celebrated in another. Christmas in Europe and America means snowmen and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Christmas in Australia means sunbathing, surfing, and a barbie on the beach. (That’s barbecue, not the excessively-skinny doll.)

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, full of New England foods like pumpkin pie, cranberries, and turkey. Right? Maybe. Under the microscope, it is exactly that. Looked at from a greater distance, it is one of a hemisphere-wide set of harvest festivals. This is not a global phenomenon, however. These festivals are tied to the temperate zone, where the cycle of the seasons rules all human life.

My interest in all this began with Christmas, but I came to realize that Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, New Year, St. Nicholas Day, Boxing Day, and a host of other holidays are all variations on the same theme.

There are three facets which these holidays share, in varying degrees. First is food, precious, and only temporarily abundant. Before Santa Claus and Walmart made Christmas a lynchpin of the economic system, gifts were small, and often consisted of food: apples, oranges, and cookies or other sweets.

You might remember from any of the movie versions of A Christmas Carol, that Bob Cratchit buys apples for his brood, while Tiny Tim wishes he could have oranges. Oranges were imported from the tropical realms of the British Empire and would only be found on the tables of the rich. In agricultural Europe, the harvest season filled the larders of the rich, but not so much the larders of the poor. With the onset of industrialization – the world of Bob Cratchit – this disparity became even more pronounced.

This is the second facet of these holidays, that those below beg or demand their share from those above — wassailing, often riotous, in the past — trick-or-treat today.

The third facet is the thinning of the veil between the worlds, with visitations from the dead. We don’t usually think of Christmas that way, but wait. The sub-title of A Christmas Carol is A Ghost Story of Christmas. And there are the four ghosts. Yes, four — don’t forget Marley, who says:

“It is required of every man . . . that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!’’

So mix and match to suit yourself, and you will see that all these holidays of fall and winter are defined by the same three facets.

          *           *

I polished my understanding of the interrelationship of the holidays during this last decade, but much earlier I understood to role of food and the onset of winter. Early in my writing career, I began the Menhir series, set in a realistic fantasy world where the hand of hunger lies heavy.

Midwinterfest was in a time of plenty. The tichan and cattle who were least valuable to the herds had been slaughtered as soon as the cold had set in reliably. Frozen carcasses hung in meatsheds all over the Valley – indeed, all over the Inner Kingdom. Hunger would come in late winter, as it always did.

The hardest months of winter are not the first, nor are the deepest the most cruel. As spring approaches, and the days lengthen, winter hangs on, well schooled in snow and ice and cold, and unwilling to relinquish its hold. Then, when the first green of spring is only a month away, comes the dying time.

An excerpt from that series, called Menhir: a winter’s tale, begins tomorrow.

276. Wild Parties Never End

154px-uphellyaa7anneburgess30jan1973Wild parties never end, they just get organized. And maybe slightly domesticated. Consider Mardi Gras. Better still, consider Up Helly Aa.

It is said that fishermen can never get far enough north. Fishermen from Indiana go to Michigan. Fishermen from Michigan go to Ontario. Fishermen from Ontario head for the Arctic.

I found the same thing to be true when I visited Scotland. The first trip I made it north to Caithness. The second trip I made it to the Orkneys. Eventually I made it to Shetland, and once there I worked my way up to the northernmost point on the British Isles.

I didn’t see Up Helly Aa. It comes the last Tuesday in January, and in January I will always be in California, not standing in the wind off the pack ice. But I wouldn’t mind beaming in, watching the festivities, then beaming back before my liver froze.

Up Helly Aa is a relatively new celebration of the end of the Christmas season, mixed with a revival of old Viking themes. As early as 1824, on Christmas eve, a diarist recorded:

the whole town (of Lerwick, Shetland’s capital) was in an uproar; from twelve o clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting.

If you followed the posts on The Battle for Christmas, this will sound very familiar. Christmas has been domesticated since this report, but the spirit of riot is well represented in Up Helly Aa.

It began as “tar-barreling”. Mobs of masked young men dragged barrels of burning tar through the streets of Lerwick, often colliding with other mobs, and clogging the narrow streets of the town as they made their way toward the harbor. Sober citizens were not amused. The Town Council appointed constables to keep things in check.

About 1870, the participants themselves began to change the proceedings. They invented the name Up Helly Aa, began a torchlight procession, and introduced ‘guizing – going in disguise. Soon Viking themes became common. By the 1880, Viking longships were being dragged through the streets instead of flaming tar barrels, and the ‘guizer Jarl (Jarl is the Viking equivalent of Earl) had become master of ceremonies.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know that dead Viking chiefs were put on their longships, and the ships burned? That’s what happens in modern Up Helly Aa. The purpose-built longship is dragged by torchlight, by masses of young men in Viking costume, down through he narrow streets to the harbor where the torches are all tossed aboard for the fiery finale.

Then the drinking starts in earnest. Who wouldn’t love that?

The day after Up Helly Aa is an official holiday so everyone can recover.

274. Solstice: a poem

DSCN4794This is the day that the sun has turned it face furthest away from our northern lands. The veil between the worlds is thin today. Among pagans, there is expectation of visitation from those who have gone on before, and among all men there is an understanding that individuals, like the years they inhabit, have ends as well as beginnings.

Solstice

It hardly seems an hour
since the sun rose up
into the crystal sky.

Now it sinks westward into clouds
like a crimson bird, descending
slowly into gray.

A bitter wind cuts deep.

I was young this morning
and worried already
about the end.

Now that I’ve known
both youth and age . . .
They are no different

Tonight I am cold,
        but I’ve been cold before.
I’ll sleep well under blankets
        that trap what little warmth remains.

Good evening, sun.
I thank you for the day you gave me.
Now the long night begins.


I will see you in the morning
           And if not
That will be all right, too.

273. Jesus and Joseph

I have a mental image that I would convert into a painting, if I had the skill. I don’t. I can draw; I can paint; but I lack the spark that turns such work into art. It’s frustrating — I’ll have to make do with words.

Imagine the interior of a carpenter’s ship, two millennia ago, somewhere in the middle east. Research won’t help much on this one. The best you can find is a painting from the European middle ages, or the Japanese middle ages, and then you have to reason backward with few facts to help you.

There will be two figures in the painting, and of course, you already know who they are. Joseph is planing a board he has just riven. Jesus is sweeping the floor. From time to time their glances meet, but there is little conversation.

If you have read many of these posts, you know I am not a Christian, but I started out as one, and Biblical images live in my bones. I have always wondered at the strangeness of the Son of God growing up apprenticed to his human father. And I’ve wondered how Joseph must have felt about it all.

Joseph gets little respect. Catholics give their affection to Mary. Protestants ignore him altogether. The ancient Cherry Tree Carol sees him as an insensitive doubter who thinks Mary is carrying another man’s child.

I have also wondered how Jesus must have felt. Even if you believe he was God, he was also a boy, with a child’s limitations, trying to understand his human father.

So . . .   Joseph and Jesus are in the carpenter’s shop. Jesus is sweeping the floor, since he is not yet trained. HIs father is planing the board he has just riven. Jesus looks up from time to time. There is affection in his gaze, even though he knows that his father’s love is limited by Jesus’s own strangeness. Then he drops his eyes back to his sweeping.

Joseph looks up in turn, stern and a little puzzled by the child’s silences. His hands pause a moment at his work. A traditional picture would fill his eyes with wonder. I don’t think so. I see them filled with frustration and resentment. And yet, with affection. The two sides of the moment are at war in his eyes. Then he draws back his hands and the plane moves through another stroke, because, for God or for man, there is always work to do.

Father – it’s a tough job description. Son isn’t much easier.

271. Here Comes Santa Claus

This is the last of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read them in order.

Now we are on the verge of Christmas as we know it. Good old Santa Claus is about to take the stage. His midwife will be a group of stodgy old men who hated the rise of the common man, and longed for good old days that never were. Washington Irving was their leader, but a one-poem wonder named Clement Moore would be the one to change the world.

St. Nicholas and his companion delivered presents or coal to the children of Holland, but he never crossed the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. The notion that he did is a common myth, reading subsequent events backward.

John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, played a role in establishing the Fourth of July and several other events as national holidays. He also brought St. Nicholas to the attention of America when he tried to make him the patron saint of New York City. In 1810, he published a broadside that showed a picture and accompanying poem with St. Nicholas delivering presents to children on St, Nicholas Day, Dec. 6.

Washington Irving’s Sketch Book came along a decade later. Everyone knows that Rip van Winkle, from that book, fell asleep and woke to a different era. Not many people remember that he hated the new America he found upon waking. So did Washington Irving and his cohorts, who called themselves the Knickerbockers, and patterned themselves after the old Dutch burghers they imagined to have inhabited New Amsterdam — all based on Irving’s fanciful Knickerbocker’s History of New York.

In the Sketch Book, Irving portrayed Old Christmas in England as a joyful celebration between good masters and their servants. In Knickerbocker’s History, he related a dream which included:

. . . and, lo! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. . . .  And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

St. Nicholas, giver of presents to children, had won over a group of grumpy old men, but the rest of America did not know him yet. He was still confined to the Knickerbockers who, despite their fantasies, were of British heritage, not Dutch, and were High Church Episcopalians, not post-Puritan religious conservatives.

Clement Moore changed that, not overnight, but over about a decade. He was not the first poet of St. Nicholas. You will find the text of an earlier poem near the bottom of one of last year’s posts. If you check it out, you will agree that it would never have taken the world by storm.

If you read A Visit from St. Nicholas (which I have tacked onto the bottom of this post in case you don’t have it handy), you will see that almost the whole modern Santa is there, repackaged from the Knickerbocker mold, and made charming and familly friendly. It would be wrong to say Moore invented Santa, given St. Nick’s Dutch origins and his twenty year history with the other Knickerbockers, but it would be hard to imagine Santa conquering the world without Moore’s poem.

The only major thing missing is his red suit. We can thank Thomas Nast and Coca-Cola for that.

Could even so charming a poem have so changed the world by itself? It is doubtful. It is more reasonable to see it as a perfect summing up of forces already at work. Wassailing had turned to riot, tinged with felonious assault. Peasants wandering from door to door had become masses of overcrowded urban poor spilling wildly into the streets. A few tipsy peasants had, by sheer population growth, turned into a dangerous mob.

The middle class was rising. Respectability had become something to strive for. Falling from middle class respectablity had become something to fear. Children were no longer just a source of free labor, but were quickly becoming the center of the family. Clement Moore’s poem rode that wave of change into the hearts of America.

Bacchus was still God of the street, but Santa was becoming God of the hearthside. Frankly, I like it better that way.

Postscript: They do it differently in Shetland. I’ll tell you that story on December 26th.

A Visit from St. Nicholas (AKA The Night Before Christmas)
by Clement Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

photo by By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands (Intocht van Sinterklaas in Schiedam 2009) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons