Tag Archives: Christmas

A Graveyard Christmas 1

Charles Dickens invented Christmas.

That is an oft repeated observation; an exaggeration of course, but not that far from the truth. His book A Christmas Carol written in 1843 forever changed the holiday. That story has become a part of the world’s DNA, and has been represented in numerous films, cartoons, and rewritings, frequently of low quality. I’m sure that anyone in America above the age of five has seen some version.

Dickens wrote four other Christmas novellas, which I have referred to in the past. In fact I have made so many references to Christmas, real and literary, that I will be providing a list of links on the twenty-fourth.

There is one more Christmas tale that will appeal to completists. It is part of the Pickwick Papers, but it sometimes appears separately. I present it here because it is somewhat hard to find. You will see that it presages the same themes that Dickens returned to in A Christmas Carol, although Gabriel Grub in this version is meaner than Scrooge, and less warm and fuzzy after his redemption.

I don’t return to this tale often, but I wouldn’t have missed reading it once.

By the way, my post title is accurate, if odd, and designed to pique the interest of search engines. Sorry about that.

            Syd Logsdon

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton
by Charles Dickens

In an old abbey town, down in this part of the country, a long, long while ago – so long, that the story must be a true one, because our great-grandfathers implicitly believed it – there officiated as sexton and grave-digger in the churchyard, one Gabriel Grub. It by no means follows that because a man is a sexton, and constantly surrounded by the emblems of mortality, therefore he should be a morose and melancholy man; your undertakers are the merriest fellows in the world; and I once had the honour of being on intimate terms with a mute, who in private life, and off duty, was as comical and jocose a little fellow as ever chirped out a devil-may-care song, without a hitch in his memory, or drained off a good stiff glass without stopping for breath. But notwithstanding these precedents to the contrary, Gabriel Grub was an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow – a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket – and who eyed each merry face, as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as it was difficult to meet without feeling something the worse for.

A little before twilight, one Christmas Eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself towards the old churchyard; for he had got a grave to finish by next morning, and, feeling very low, he thought it might raise his spirits, perhaps, if he went on with his work at once. As he went his way, up the ancient street, he saw the cheerful light of the blazing fires gleam through the old casements, and heard the loud laugh and the cheerful shouts of those who were assembled around them; he marked the bustling preparations for next day’s cheer, and smelled the numerous savoury odours consequent thereupon, as they steamed up from the kitchen windows in clouds. All this was gall and wormwood to the heart of Gabriel Grub; and when groups of children bounded out of the houses, tripped across the road, and were met, before they could knock at the opposite door, by half a dozen curly-headed little rascals who crowded round them as they flocked upstairs to spend the evening in their Christmas games, Gabriel smiled grimly, and clutched the handle of his spade with a firmer grasp, as he thought of measles, scarlet fever, thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolation besides. continued tomorrow

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Back for Now

On September fifth I temporarily closed out Serial. The reason was:

It has been three years, almost to the day, and I’m out of stuff.

I’m still out of stuff, since all my recent writings are looking for more traditional publishing opportunities, but I reserve the right to bring Serial back to life  long enough to bring in ringers like:

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton
by Charles Dickens

This is the short story that later became A Christmas Carol. I will be presenting it in Serial in eight installments, starting Monday.

484. Steampunk Anglophiles

I have come to the conclusion that most steampunk fans are also Anglophiles. That isn’t really surprising, but it puts me in a bit of an odd position, since I am not.

It’s not an aversion to England; I’ve been there several time and it is full of wonderful things. However, I have a disinterest in many of the things Anglophiles find interesting. Downton Abbey bores me silly. I don’t care who lives Upstairs or who lives Downstairs, and I really couldn’t care less about Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

One reason for my disaffection with a certain kind of English literature comes from being forced during high school to read Great Expectations. It was enough to put a person off reading altogether. With some exceptions (to be fair, probably quite a few), the recommended cannon of English literature, 1750 to 1900, is a litany of insipid characters, dull plots, uninteresting situations, and tales of a tedious and self-destructive culture. Thank God for Shakespeare and science fiction, or I might be illiterate today.

English history is fascinating, but I found my interest in English literature only on the periphery. First came Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m not talking about Treasure Island, which made him rich and famous. I mean, primarily, Kidnapped, and its almost forgotten sequel David Balfour (also published as Catriona). They are two halves of the same story and form a true classic. Critics see them as children’s books, but together they are the tale of a young man who successfully fights his way to become a morally responsible and honorable adult.

Of course, Kidnapped/Catriona is really a Scottish novel.

As an undergraduate, I studied India, one of England’s major victims. That inoculated me against Kipling style jingoism. My wife’s ancestors were Scottish and that led me into a study of Scottish-English relations — another complicated and ugly story. It also led me to two incredibly talented Scottish authors, Neil Gunn and George Mackay Brown.

Nevertheless, I did find English literature to love — even Victorian/Edwardian English literature to love — but not in the official cannon. First came Sherlock Holmes. I found a copy of the two volume Doubleday version when I was in my twenties and I have read it to shreds. I really need a new copy. That led me to Chesterton’s Father Brown; the real one, not the imposter on PBS.

Through my interest in small boats, I stumbled onto Riddle of the Sands, with two of the most English, most honorable, most fun heroes ever. I also found author John Buchan, who now occupies two feet packed tight on my library shelf. Buchan finally showed me inside the minds of some British imperialists whom I could respect, and even identify with.

Finally, the musical Scrooge led me to the non-musical adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and they led me to the novella itself. What a revelation. Dickens is wonderful, despite the agony of being force-fed Great Expectations while still too young.

So I ended up with a balanced view of England. England is the origin of our civilization and also the meanest SOB on the block. England both destroyed and preserved the great civilizations of the past wherever they conquered; and that was pretty much everywhere. English literature is both fascinating and as dull as a downstairs maid polishing the silver. England brought modern mechanized civilization and increased poverty to most of the world.

So I came to steampunk from out of left field and it shows in my new steampunk novels.

In The Cost of Empire (written in 2017 and looking for a publisher as we speak) the hero is a farmer/fisherman from the fens who is on the rise as an officer in Her Majesty’s Air Service (dirigibles, of course). He is a defender of the empire, but he begins to have doubts when he comes to know Amir Kalinath, an advocate of Indian independence. I have a long excerpt from the opening chapter scheduled here shortly.

And Like Clockwork, presently more than half finished, is a deeply weird take on Old London. It started out by imagining what would happen if the toy shop in Scrooge (the musical) was real, and it’s proprietor had built those incredible clockwork toys himself. I’ll say no more, since even I am not sure how this one is going to turn out.

448. The Good King

Merry Christmas and why are you on the internet when you should be sitting by the Christmas tree?

Christmas is my favorite holiday. Of all the masses of Biblical knowledge I accumulated in my religious childhood and youth, the story of the Nativity is the only part that still moves me to joy.

I particularly enjoy Christmas carols, even the unsingable ones. However, I never understood the appeal of Good King Wenceslas until I saw and heard it in the movie Miracle Down Under, where it is sung by a poor family and some swagmen to the accompaniment of a washboard. Then I understood the bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump non-melody as something that could be handled even by coarse voices without instruments.

I also paid attention to the lyrics for the first time. The King is watching over his people, and when a poor man is spotted gathering wood for his fire, the King goes to his hut with food. The final few lines are particularly moving, despite their awkwardness as they are tacked on as a sort of “moral of the story”.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
    wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
    shall yourselves find blessing.

Not bad. Even today, we could use a President who understands that simple message.

447. Lupe Revisited

Last Christmas, I told the story of Lupe in a world where Donald Trump was going to be President. Now he is President, and things have not gotten better. Here is Lupe’s story again.

Ramon came in, stamping the snow from his feet, and shook the snow from his jacket before closing the door. The sun was low in the eastern sky behind him as Lupe moved up and hugged his leg. He smelled of sweat and manure and soured milk, but she didn’t mind. She had hugged him this way every morning for as long as she could remember, and he always smelled the same. For Lupe, the smell was as familiar and welcome as his cold fingers on the top of her head.

Every morning Ramon rose before the sun was up, and left the house. His daughter greeted him when he returned hours later, and saw him off again in the afternoon. She was usually asleep when he came home at night.

It is hard work milking cattle twice a day, and the pay is low. The cattle march in from the muddy lots to take their turns in the stalls, where fast moving men attach the milking machines. The cattle resent the process and the workers have to move quickly to avoid having their hands caught against he stanchions. It goes on for hours, in heat or cold, beginning every morning before daylight, and continuing again every evening until long after dark.

Lupe stepped aside to make room for her mother. Today she seemed worried; her voice was unusually sharp as she asked, “What did he say?”

Ramon said, “I didn’t tell him.”

I translate, of course. Every word was in Spanish.

“You got your money for the week?”

Lupe’s father nodded, “I told him I needed it today, to buy things for Christmas. I was afraid to tell him the truth. He is a good man, but it seemed best that he should not know.”

Lupe’s sister came out of the single bedroom with a cardboard box in her arms, tied up with twine. Lupe looked up with interest. It was not wrapped in paper, but any box is interesting so close to Christmas. Carmella put the box down on the floor and returned a moment later with blankets and bedding, also rolled up and also tied up with twine. Lupe asked what she was doing, but Carmella ignored her.

Her father carried the box and roll outside. Her mother came out of kitchen with a box of food, and that began a procession of boxes, coming from various parts of the house and out to the car. Lupe’s mother and sister had gathered their possessions during the pre-dawn, while Lupe slept.

Now Lupe dragged at her mothers leg asking questions, but she was ignored until Carmella pulled her aside and said, “We are going away.”

“Where?”

“I wish I knew Lupita. I wish I knew.”

“But why?”

“It’s only a month until he becomes President. Everyone here knows who we are. We have to go away, somewhere where people don’t know us.”

“But why? I was born here. This is home.”

“So was I, Lupe, but mother and father were not.”

When they pulled out an hour later, Lupe stared back at the little house where she had spent her whole, short life, until it disappeared around a bend. Then she looked out the windshield, past her mother and father’s silent heads. It was a long road, wet with melted snow. Her father would not leave the house tonight before the sun went down and go to the cows. There would be no more money, no more warmth, no more little house. It would be again as it had been, before the job at the cows, before she was born. Lupe knew what that was like from hearing her parents talk. Now it would be like that again.

*          *          *

Is Lupe real? She was born from the hundreds of little Mexican-American girls I taught over twenty-seven years. How many were undocumented? I never knew. I never asked. I didn’t need to know.

Is she real? She is as real as heartache. She is as real as fear. She is as real as dislocation, cold, hunger, and injustice.

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.

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.