Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shrinking Circle

We've had a very nice Christmas here in City of Lakes, but now Sisterfilms and I are beginning to feel the after-Christmas letdown, since our family circle is shrinking again. Onkel Hankie Pants returned to Maine this morning (he should be landing in City by the Sea any minute now) and Cordeliaknits went back to California on Sunday afternoon, after a triumphal return to the pulpit of the church where she was baptized and confirmed. Sisterfilms and the Traveller helped with the service by singing and playing, respectively, In the Bleak Midwinter. This afternoon SF and I have errands to do, and then we'll meet The traveller to see The (can't remember full title ) Benjamin Button movie. We are looking forward to a couple more parties before I return to Maine next Tuesday. At that point I will post photos of some of my Christmas presents, especially the handmade ones. I'm enjoying reading Book 2 of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik -- it's sort of Patrick O'Brian with dragons. I will also report later on some of the concerts and theatre I saw here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 24

Christmas Eve, or perhaps Christmas morning by the time anyone is ready for bed at our house. A very short story is called for, the first Christmas story. I own and use a lot of Bible translations, but for this story I do prefer the King James Version of Luke's gospel:

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 this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 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. 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. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The manger scene above is by a photographer identified as AsemTa, who is part of a manger scene group on Flickr. com. There are many other photos worth looking at in this group.

Terre Roche of The Roches wrote this beautiful song, Star of Wonder. She has made it available for anyone to sing, here. It also appears on The Roches' Christmas album, We Three Kings (see December 17 for a link). I can't think of a more appropriate song to end this Advent series. The photo is by a photographer named Joorro from Venezuela, also from Flickr, and was the first astronomical photo to come up when I searched "Star of Bethlehem."
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night, and God bless us every one!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 23

In the Danish tradition, this is Lille Juleaften (Little Christmas Eve). In a way, for us, it's "The Night Before Christmas" since so much of our celebration takes place on Christmas Eve -- church, dinner, dancing around the tree and tree presents. On Christmas Day, we have stockings and later celebrate Sisterfilms' birthday.

So, the "story" for tonight is a poem, Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas. There is a base canard that says Moore didn't write it; go here for a history of the poem and a rebuttal. There are more editions of this poem than I can count, and we have several; I chose a picture of the Grandma Moses edition we've had since SonShineIn was a little boy. I'm sure you have at least one somewhere around the house, or maybe you know it by heart, as I think I still do.

As with many poems, this one has been set to music quite a few times. I chose the Peter,Paul and Mary version from their CD A Holiday Celebration. But one of the most famous musical versions is by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians and you can listen to it here.

Monday, December 22, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 22

Here is another Christmas tale of arriving home after a long journey. It's another one I read on Christmas Eve at church in City of Lakes a few times -- Dulce Domum, from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. The picture is from Arthur Rackham's illustration. As you will probably recall, Mole has been on an adventure and has met his new friend Ratty, who has introduced him to boating and the open road. On Christmas Eve, they are trudging through the snow and suddenly Mole can smell his old home. At first Ratty doesn't understand and urges him onward, but finally (and quite sensibly!) they go into the old place and, although Mole is at first worried about what his grand new friend will think of his humble home, they have a very good time. The story includes the words to a lovely carol which begins "Villagers all, this frosty tide" and which has been set to music by at least a few composers. The nicest one I've found, based on the audio sample, is by Brian Holmes, found here. There's also a nice one by Sir Philip Ledger, and there's a quirky animation to it by a student which is well worth watching and listening to, here on BBC Norfolk. (The carol is often called Carol of the Fieldmice).

Since I don't have a recording of this carol, I chose one which at least one of my daughters had sung with a choir, Night of Silence, by Daniel Kantor, paired, as it often is, with Silent Night. I have the album by Marty Haugen and friends (another Twin Cities musical treasure); although Amazon says it's discontinued, that's not true, and you can get it from GIA Publications. I found this very home-y and lovely version with voice, guitar and flute which I hope you will enjoy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 21

As the days grew closer to Christmas of 2006, I began to anticipate my daughters' arrival to spend Christmas in Maine. So what better tale than R. P. T. Coffin's classic memoir, Christmas in Maine? Robert Peter Tristram Coffin was a poet, essayist, historian and memoirist who was born in Brunswick and grew up in Harpswell, on a saltwater farm on Great Sebascodegan Island. He is the only native son among the four writers with ties to Brunswick who are honored with plaques in our Maine Street sidewalks. (Can you guess the other three?) We have a school and (I think) a swimming hole named for him, and he still has a number of relatives in the area. His memoir describes a simpler time, when Christmas gifts, food and fun were all handmade at home. It's been anthologized more than once, for example in A Christmas Treasury edited by Jack Newcombe, and there is also available, from used booksellers, a 24-page edition published in 1941 (which would be a nice present for Auntie Knickers).
My father was also reared partly on Great Sebascodegan, in the hamlet of Cundy's Harbor, and one of his aunts who died young is buried in the Cranberry Horn Cemetery there, where R.P.T. Coffin and his wife are also buried. I don't really know how much Daddy cared for poetry as a rule, but I do remember that he carefully copied down and typed out this epitaph, one of Coffin's own poems, from the slate gravestone in Cranberry Horn:
This is my country, bitter as the sea
Pungent with the fir and bayberry.
An island meadow, stonewalled, high, and lost,
With August cranberries touched red by frost.
A juniper upon a windy ledge,
Splendor of granite on the world's bright edge.
A lighthouse like a diamond, cut and sharp,
And all the trees like strings upon a harp.
I, made of clay inflamed with sun,
Something solid still have done.
I have kept the ancient law,
I have written what I saw.

The song that seemed most appropriate for this reading was God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen -- one of the carols Coffin mentions his family singing. I chose a rendition by the BBC Welsh Chorus as giving the best approximation of the Coffin family's lusty singing. It's on a very nice CD called Celebration: Christmas Fanfares and Carols. (I'd like to mention that I've had very good luck buying used CDs from various sources. This is a nice album, but it's not $50 nice!)
(Note: the sleighride photo is from flickr.com, and was taken by This Handmade Life, who has many other nice photos there; check 'em out!)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

December Songs and Stories, Part 20

Tonight we have another Scandinavian tale, this one from Sweden. It's Astrid Lindgren's retelling of Viktor Rydberg's classic Swedish poem, The Tomten. A tomten is quite a bit like the Danish nisse -- a guardian spirit, usually depicted as a red-capped elf, who lives on a farm and, if well-treated, will ensure that things go well there. The nisse, at least, is especially to be propitiated at Christmastime, when he gets his own bowl of the Christmas rice porridge. The Tomten doesn't have a lot of plot, but gives a lovely, peaceful, comforting feeling, so it's a fine bedtime story. There is nothing quite like snuggling up together to read a book like this, but if you happen to be alone, I found this video version on YouTube.

I mentioned before that the Swedish custom has been to have a Christmas worship service at dawn, so that the congregation travels to church in the dark. (This is depicted in Christmas in Noisy Village, see December 13 post). I used to work at a Lutheran church with Swedish roots and, in looking at some of the historical materials, I discovered that they had kept up this custom at least into the 1930s. An Internet search revealed only one service for sure this year: East Union Lutheran Church in Carver, MN will celebrate its 150th anniversary with a Julotta service at 7:00 am on Christmas morning.
In any case, this custom probably inspired the hymn Nar Juldags Morgon Glimmar (When Christmas Morn is Dawning). I have a recording by Janis Hardy and Garrison Keillor on the album Now It Is Christmas Again, but then I found this one -- Agnethe Faltskog of ABBA and her bandmate's wife (I think) Linda Ulvaeus, with some children. I'm pretty sure their Swedish is better than Garrison's, too. (Note, it doesn't say that's who's singing, but it is the same as the credited one, and I like the Tomten picture). God Jul!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Five: Countdown to Christmas Eve edition

Songbird at RevGalBlogPals reminds us that Christmas Eve is less than a week away, and asks: what five things do you need to accomplish before then?

1. I need to finish reading a book that I'm planning to re-gift. 

2. I need to buy wrapping paper, ribbon and tags at the Dollar store so I can wrap presents, having left my stash of such items back in Maine (and you can't bring wrapped presents any more).

3. I need to get a few more presents, and also some new mittens or gloves because I seem to have lost one yesterday and it's cold here!

4. I need to work with Sisterfilms on planning our Christmas Eve festivities (the meal, especially).

5. And I "need" to have fun, which will happen tonight when I see SonShineIn play Santa Claus at the Bedlam Theatre; enjoy their dinner theatre production "Turducken"; tomorrow when Cordeliaknits arrives, and we go to see the Rose Ensemble in the evening; Sunday when I go to church and the caroling party; Monday when we see Onkel Carpenter and Tante Rosemaler before they and The Traveller head to Tacoma; Tuesday when Onkel Hankie Pants finally arrives; and at odd and unexpected moments throughout the time. It's good to be back in City of Lakes even though it's cold and snowy and things look different here.

You are invited to share your pre-Christmas planning in comments or on your own blog.

December Stories and Songs, Part 19

I grew up in a northern New England family of primarily Scotch-Irish and English ancestry, and our Christmas customs reflected this, as well as the prevailing American Christmas of the 1950s. Thirty-six years ago, married six months, I celebrated my first Christmas incorporating Danish customs, and the following year I was living in Minnesota, where I began to steep myself in all sorts of Scandinavian-ness. (No lutefisk, though). It was culture shock of the pleasantest kind.
So, today here's one of my favorite Scandinavian Christmas tales, and what someone once called "the world's best cat story" -- The Cat on the Dovrefjell, a Norwegian folktale collected by Peder Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe. When SonShineIn was small, we had a paperback book of troll stories in which the name Halvor, the farmer in the original tale, was replaced by SonShineIn's real name, a slightly less unusual Danish name. He was always tickled to hear his name in the story, called out by trolls.
More recently, Tomie DePaola has illustrated the story, and so have some others. But you can also read the original version here.
For a Norwegian story, a Norwegian Christmas song -- perhaps THE Norwegian Christmas song. It will bring tears and smiles of recognition if sung at any nursing home in the Upper Midwest. Of course I refer to I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve (Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld). I've linked to the Cyberhymnal for those of you who don't have a Lutheran hymnal handy. My favorite version is by Mike and Else Sevig, a Minnesota couple who do wonderful harmonies with it. You can buy their album, A Norwegian Christmas, from Ingebretsen's, just down Lake Street from Onkel Hankie Pants' old home. Going to Ingebretsen's at Christmastime is an experience in itself.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 18

When SonShineIn was small, we got a copy of Russell Hoban's book Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, and it quickly became one of our favorite Christmastime books. Since we didn't have HBO then (or ever), it wasn't until many years later that we learned Jim Henson had made a television film of it in 1977. Although that's a very good film -- Jim Henson, after all -- please, get hold of a copy of the book if you can and read that.
The plot has something in common with O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, but with enough twists that it is much more than just a "children's version". Family, friends, music -- and the story is all about animals who live in a swamp. It's a story with a message that is never heavy-handed.
I often find a song that's mentioned in a story, but seldom one that was inspired by and written for it. In the book, Emmet, his mother, and his band sing a song called "Downstream Where the River Meets the Sea" in memory of Pa Otter (who is already dead when the story begins). We are only told the title, no lyrics. When the film was made, the song, with title slightly altered to "When the River Meets the Sea," was written by Paul Williams (he also wrote The Rainbow Connection, We've Only Just Begun, and many other hits). You can hear it on this clip from the film, but if you don't already own a copy of the CD John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together -- well, you need to get one, that's all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 17

It's that time of year when, in some schools, students give their teachers presents. So for today, I've chosen a little more "grown-up" story, The Night of the Magi by Leo Rosten, from The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N. In researching and looking for links, I discovered that I used an apparently later version (from an anthology) of the chapter Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N and the Magi; and that the book was originally published under one of Rosten's pseudonyms, Leonard Q. Ross.
The book, a classic of American humor, details the experiences of Mr. Parkhill, who teaches an evening class in English to a group of Jewish and Italian immigrants in New York City sometime in the early 20th century. Rosten (also author of The Joys of Yiddish) had the ability to laugh at the fractured English of his characters while loving their enthusiasm, determination and vision of the American Dream. (H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, by the way, is the class leader and occasionally a sore trial to Mr. Parkhill; he always writes his name in all caps with asterisks between each letter. I have a feeling he went on to have a building named after him at my alma mater).
In this story, Mr. Parkhill knows that the air of suppressed excitement in his class, and the absence of a few key members, means that they are planning his Christmas gift. While giving the class a spelling lesson, he reminisces about past gifts and conjectures what wildly inappropriate present he'll get this year. In the end, he realizes that is is, really, the thought that counts; and that perhaps his "worst" pupil has taught him something.

Since this is such an urban story, for the song to go with it I chose Silver Bells, by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. It was introduced by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the film The Lemon-Drop Kid, which was based on a story by Damon Runyon, and you can hear and see that clip here. National Public Radio did a piece on the song's history a few years back, and you can still listen to that here. But for one of my favorite versions, you'll have to get the one from The Roches' album We Three Kings. These three New Jersey sisters really catch the spirit with their unique harmonies. Then again, Johnny Mathis was what I grew up with, and he did a great job too.
Silver Bells, by the way, is probably Onkel Hankie Pants' and my favorite secular Christmas song; so much so, that when OHP wanted to write a sung grace for special meals, he set his words to that tune. You can see them here. Be sure to let him know if you decide to sing them at your special meal!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Off to glory...

In my childhood, when we set out on a trip, my father (a salty old cuss) would often remark, "Off to glory in a shower of s__t!"  (And if we asked, "When are we going to be there, Daddy?" he would reply "When we drive into the G.D. driveway!")

So, in the wee hours this morning, my nephew the economist and founder of a nonprofit organization will be picking me up for the drive to the bus terminal in City by the Sea. The terminal is open for half an hour in the middle of the night so that people with early flights out of Logan can catch the bus and arrive around 5:00 am. By half past ten (their time) or half past eleven (my time) I'll be in City of Lakes, where Sisterfilms will pick me up. Her plans for my afternoon include a nap and switching laundry from washer to dryer at The Traveller's house, since the cold weather is forestalling the re-installation of the dryer chez Comrade Landlords. 

I'm all packed, with just a few things to think about before I leave, so will probably watch a movie tonight.  I hope I can get Rusty into his garage sequestration without incident. He already suspects something is up that he won't like.

I hope I can remember how to get email while I'm away, and that I can get onto Blogger occasionally. I've already done and scheduled the remainder of the December Stories and Songs posts.  One of my DorothyL mystery list colleagues recommended them on DorothyL! And she's a real writer!  

But, if neither of these things come to pass, be assured that I wish all of you a Merry Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of year, and a happy and, if not prosperous, at least not destitute New Year!

December Stories and Songs, Part 16

It's only nine days till Christmas, so for today, the classic, Caldecott Medal-winning Nine Days to Christmas by Marie Hall Ets, illustrated by Aurora LaBastida. They seem to be asking an amazingly high price for a children's paperback, but the Caldecott award means that you'll probably be able to find it in your local library. It's the story of a young girl in Mexico looking forward to her first pinata party for Las Posadas. Las Posadas is a Mexican custom, where people go from house to house singing a traditional song, enacting Mary and Joseph's search for lodging. Every house rejects them until the last, where they are welcomed and there is a party.

There are two songs especially associated with this custom. The first is Pedir Posada (Seeking Lodging) and the second La Pinata, about the pinata (Blogger won't let me make a tilde). Both can be found on a CD called Navidad en Mexico. Here's a video of some children singing Pedir Posada:

Monday, December 15, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 15

As I mentioned at the beginning of the month, the stories and songs I'm sharing here were actually part of Advent 2006. So today's (tonight's) reading and songs are for the first night of Chanukah, which was December 15 that year, but this year is not until December 21. Since I spent four years at a "non-sectarian, Jewish-sponsored" university, we usually take note of Chanukah by listening to some stories and songs, making latkes, and eating some chocolate Chanukah gelt. The Peddler's Gift by Maxine Rose Schur is a fine Chanukah story, set in an Eastern European shtetl. It's available primarily used and in libraries. For it, Ms. Schur won the Sydney Taylor Award, given in honor of the author of the All-of-a-Kind Family books, which were favorites for reading aloud in our family.

Three Chanukah songs, because I couldn't decide -- the first is a newer one, Chanukah Blessings by the Barenaked Ladies, a Canadian group. Here's a link to YouTube if you don't have their wonderful album, Barenaked for the Holidays.
Then the first Chanukah song I learned, Chanukah Oi Chanukah, and the first one my children learned, Drey Zikh, Dreydele (I Have a Little Dreidel), both sung by Western Wind on the CD Chanukkah, featuring Theodore Bikel. Another way to hear some of Western Wind's Chanukah songs, along with other tales and information about the holiday, is to listen to this program on WGBH's audio archives. And in case you're a Trekkie, this program features Leonard Nimoy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 14

With only a little over a week left until Christmas, readers and listeners may be looking for a good laugh right about now, especially if they are working in retail, in the church, or are students. So the story I've chosen for today is The Peterkins' Christmas Tree by Lucretia P. Hale. The link will take you to the whole story, which was written at a time when Christmas trees were not as commonly found in homes as they are now, particularly in New England. If you are not familiar with the hapless Peterkin family, you are in for a treat. The word "over-thinking" was invented for them. But somehow, with the help of the Lady from Philadelphia, things always turn out all right for them. (The photo is our 1988 Christmas tree, so tall in our then-new-to-us 1905 house that you can't see the angel on top).

Of course the first song most people think of when they think of Christmas trees is O Tannenbaum. The Vienna Choirboys (Wiener Sängerknaben) have some very nice versions, but I found this one by the Tölzer Knabenchor on YouTube, AND they're wearing lederhosen! I also enjoyed the instrumental accompaniment on this one.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 13

Today is the Feast of Saint Lucy, or Sankta Luciadag in Sweden. We have never celebrated this day in the traditional way, because we are Danish, not Swedish. (Well, everyone else in the family is wearing the "Kiss Me, I'm Danish" button, I'm the one wearing the "Being Married to a Dane Builds Character" one). In case you don't know, it is the custom in Sweden for the eldest daughter to bring saffron buns and other pastries to the rest of the family in the morning, while wearing on her head a crown of lighted candles. Seriously!

Anyway, for this day I chose a Swedish story, one of our favorites, Christmas in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren. Noisy Village, which appears in at least one other of Lindgren's books, is so-called because it's a small village with several children. The book takes us through the days leading up to a Swedish Christmas celebration, with baking, decoration-making, tree-cutting, outdoor sports, and the celebration itself, which includes the traditional early-morning service on Christmas Day.

The first time I heard the song Santa Lucia, it was a translation or re-writing of the Italian version, which was in my school songbook in 4th or 5th grade. My brother was recently reminiscing about how I 'tortured' him during one summer by singing this song over and over. It is a really pretty tune, and some Swede evidently thought so too. He brought it back to Sweden and wrote new words to sing on Sankta Luciadag, on the theme of darkness being overcome by light. Anne-Sofie von Otter, as befits a Swedish mezzo-soprano, sings it very beautifully on her CD Home for Christmas. But, I also found this lovely video, where you can see that they really, really do have lighted candles on their heads. I should add that many Swedish and Swedish-American communities have community/church celebrations of Luciadag.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Five: Windows of the Soul

Sophia at RevGalBlogPals says today:

"This Friday Five is inspired by my husband's Lasik surgery yesterday....He'd been contemplating it for a while and was pushed over the edge by the fact that we put too much money in our healthcare spending account this year and it would have been gone anyway. (There was only enough for one eye, but the kind people at the eye clinic figured out a way to divvy up the charges between surgery and followup in January=next year's spending account). So please say a little prayer for his safe recovery and share with us your thoughts on eyes and vision."
Prayer said, here are my answers:
1. What color are your beautiful eyes? Did you inherit them from or pass them on to anyone in your family?
I used just to say brown, but now, having looked closely at really brown eyes, I say hazel. I believe they are close to the same color as my mother's were. However, having married a blue-eyed man, and having had a blue-eyed father and a blue-eyed maternal grandfather, all three of my children have blue eyes.
2. What color eyes would you choose if you could change them?
Just as with hair color, I'm quite happy with what I have. But if I had to make a change (and it could somehow be a natural one) I'd like red hair and green eyes, please. It's such a Romantic Jacobite Heroine combination!
3. Do you wear glasses or contacts? What kind? Like 'em or hate 'em?
I've worn glasses since I was seven. I can still remember the joy of riding home from the optician's and being able to make out the letters on the advertising signs (I couldn't actually read them because they were in German, this was in Wiesbaden). I'm very nearsighted, have astigmatism, and of course now have developed presbyopia (nothing to do with Presbyterians, it's "elder sight" or farsightedness) so I have bi- or tri-focals. They're progressive, no line in the middle, which I like. In my late teens, contact lenses were just becoming widely available/affordable but I was never tempted. I am very grateful for my eyeglasses.
4. Ever had, or contemplated, laser surgery? Happy with the results?
Too scary. Also, I suspect I have too many different things going on in there for successful treatment.
5. Do you like to look people in the eye, or are you more eye-shy?
I'm terribly shifty-eyed. Also rather shy in other ways. Looking people right in the eye seems very intimate to me.
Bonus question: Share a poem, song, or prayer that relates to eyes and seeing.
This is by Edna St. Vincent Millay, from her first book of poems, Renascence, published in 1917. I don't have a particular association with grey eyes, but I understand the sentiment. Courtesy of Bartleby.
7. Tavern
I’LL keep a little tavern
Below the high hill’s crest,
Wherein all grey-eyed people
May set them down and rest.
There shall be plates a-plenty, 5
And mugs to melt the chill
Of all the grey-eyed people
Who happen up the hill.
There sound will sleep the traveller,
And dream his journey’s end, 10
But I will rouse at midnight
The falling fire to tend.
Aye, ’tis a curious fancy—
But all the good I know
Was taught me out of two grey eyes 15
A long time ago.

December Stories and Songs, Part 12

Sometime in the middle of recording all these stories, I usually get a tired throat (sometimes even a cold, which is why I've learned to begin early in the fall). So each year I've included an audio file of an author reading his own work. The first year, it was Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas in Wales. You can hear it too here. I can actually do a halfway decent job with this, and have done many times over the years, but there's no one like Thomas himself. As far as the book is concerned, there are several editions now, but the one I've always read from is the one pictured, a Christmas present from my friend The Boss in 1964.

The Welsh are known for their singing, and indeed there are songs mentioned in the story, which I could now purchase through digital downloads. But in 2006, I chose instead a Welsh lullaby often used as a Christmas song, Suo Gan. I had a version by an unidentified Welsh male voice choir on a CD called All the Best from Wales, but Chanticleer also sings it. I'm editing this post to include this video from King's College, Cambridge:

Thursday, December 11, 2008


It takes more than a teaspoonful of brains to work this Blogger scheduling thing. So just don't read anything that says "December 13" before the 13th, if it appears. OK?

December Stories and Songs, Part 11

I've always wondered why Nativity scenes, creches, etc. so seldom contain cats. What sort of barn would it be without a cat? A barn overrun with mice and rats, that's what sort. So I was very happy to find a charming little picture book called Cat in the Manger for Sisterfilms and her cat Winifred to listen to together.

Since the book is quite short, there are two songs to the same tune to go with it. The first is Cats May Safely Sleep, written by Garrison Keillor to the Bach tune, and sung by Keillor and Frederica Von Stade on the CD Songs of the Cat.
"God in His grace has given us cats,
So that even the lonely may love and admire."

Then, another rendition of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze, done by the Modern Mandolin Quartet on A Winter's Solstice IV -- perhaps my favorite of all the Winter's Solstice albums.

And, I now know that I could get a cat family for my nativity scene, but maybe I'll just let Heidi, our cat, watch over it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 10

Today there's one of my very favorite stories. I read it more than once on Christmas Eve at my church in City of Lakes. It has a message that a lot of us are wanting to hear this year, when both our hearts and our wallets are saying that we need to discover ways to celebrate without spending. The message is about what is enough, and the book is Star Mother's Youngest Child, by Louise Moeri.

There are dozens of Christmas songs about stars, but I felt that this one, which doesn't actually say anything about Christmas, had the best feel to go with this story. Oh, Watch the Stars is sung by Mike, Penny, and Peggy Seeger on the album American Folk Songs for Christmas.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part Nine

Today's story is set in Poland: In Clean Hay, by Eric P. Kelly. It's anthologized in The Home Book of Christmas, but is also available (used) in an edition from 1953 illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham. Kelly, who learned to love Poland as a soldier in the aftermath of World War I, won the 1929 Newbery Medal for his book The Trumpeter of Krakow. In Clean Hay was first published in 1940, when Poland was again at war. But there's no war in this story, just a family of children who want to make a little Christmas money with their szopka krakowska, or puppet theater telling the story of the Nativity. These puppet shows are still given today both in Poland and in Polish-American communities.
Above is a photo of a young Polish man holding a szopka; as you can see they are often quite elaborate.

Polish Christmas carols are some of the loveliest and least-known of the songs of Christmas. To go with today's story, I chose a carol which is mentioned in the story, Wsrod Nocnej Ciszy (Amid the Silence -- there should be some diacritical marks in the Polish, but Blogger doesn't let me do them). The tune begins quietly, as the words tell the story of a quiet night on the hillside outside Bethlehem, where angels appear to the shepherds. Then you can hear in the music the excitement of the shepherds as they go to the manger to see the baby Jesus. My recording of this carol is by the Krakowsky Chor Kameralny, and I ordered it all the way from Poland via eBay! However, I found a lovely YouTube video of the carol, which I'll post here for those who can't wait. You can also go here to purchase an MP3, but I don't like any of them as well as the one on YouTube and the choir from Krakow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part Eight

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It's not a day I regularly celebrate nor a doctrine in which I believe, but it seemed like a good day to honor Mary, the Mother of God.  In my tradition (Pilgrims, Puritans, Calvin, Zwingli) we are slowly getting better about this.
For today's story, we're back with the inimitable Tomie de Paola. The book is one of his very best, The Clown of God. It's based on Anatole France's story Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, (The Juggler of Our Lady) and retold and illustrated by de Paola in a colorful, Renaissance-inspired style. The message of this story, I think, is that what we do, our vocation, if it is done as well as we can do it and done with love, is pleasing to God.  
With many renditions to choose from, I picked the Wiener Saengerknaben (the Vienna Boys' Choir) to sing the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria for this day.  I have it on this old CD called Christmas Favorites, but it's on several of their other albums as well.  Whether you pray to Mary or simply revere her as the God-bearer, I hope you will enjoy this song and story today or some time soon.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part Seven

The book for today combines two themes that were much on our minds (Sisterfilms' and mine) that December -- a New England Christmas and making, rather than buying, presents. Lucy's Christmas, by Donald Hall with illustrations by Michael McCurdy, is based on Hall's mother's childhood in rural Vermont in the early 20th century. The farm and small-town setting, in which the whole town gets together for the Christmas program and tree, is something few people today experience. Even the store-bought presents coming from the Sears, Roebuck catalog would be a novelty to today's children. (Although I've seen many a Glenwood wood-burning kitchen range in my time!) Donald Hall, who was U.S. Poet Laureate in 2006, is a New England treasure.

To go with this book, the song I chose was O Little Town of Bethlehem, to the preferred American tune by Lewis Redner, sung by Janis Hardy and the Plymouth Music Series Ensemble Singers on the CD Now It Is Christmas Again, compiled from Prairie Home Companion broadcasts. It's one of the songs mentioned in the book and, as an American carol, seemed most appropriate.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part Six

Happy St. Nicholas' Day! In some traditions, this is my Name Day, so it's a special day for me.

Today there are two "stories": a poem and a non-fiction picture book. The poem is Jest 'Fore Christmas by the Children's Poet, Eugene Field. Field lived only from 1850 to 1895, and left a wife and eight children. Fortunately for them, as soon as he married he had arranged for all he earned to be sent to his wife, because he believed he had no head for money. You may know some of his other poems, such as Wynken, Blinken and Nod, and The Duel (The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat).

The book I chose was Christmas on an Island by Gail Gibbons. I got this book from the library, and for some odd reason there are no images of the cover available on the Internet. So to liven up the page I found this lovely picture (and craft idea for the crafty among you) called Sea Angel, posted on Flickr by someone who goes by the handle Monheganmoments. Check out this person's photos, s/he has some other wonderful ornaments made from seaside finds.

Of course the song for St. Nicholas' Day is Jolly Old St. Nicholas. I wasn't able to find out much about this song other than that it was "often credited to Wilf Carter". Wilf Carter was a Canadian country singer also known as Montana Slim, although he was born in Nova Scotia. He was famous for his yodeling, although there's none in this song. At the time, the only recording I had of this well-known song was an instrumental by the Mouldy Figs, a Minnesota-based old-time jazz band. It comes from their album Have Yourself a Mouldy Little X-mas and has a fine, raucous, good-times sound.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Five: Advent Simplicity, Light and Beauty

It's Friday again, and Sally at RevGalBlogPals has us thinking about Advent, light and hope:

"Imagine a complex, multi-cultural society that annually holds an elaborate winter festival, one that lasts not simply a few days, but several weeks. This great festival celebrates the birth of the Lord and Saviour of the world, the prince of peace, a man who is divine. People mark the festival with great abundance- feasting, drinking and gift giving....."(Richard Horsley- The Liberation of Christmas)

The passage goes on, recounting the decorations that are hung, and the songs and dances that accompany the festival, how the economy booms and philanthropic acts abound....

But this is not Christmas- this is a Roman festival in celebration of the Emperor....This is the world that Jesus was born into! The world where the early Christians would ask "Who is your Saviour the Emperor or Christ?"

And yet our shops and stores and often our lives are caught up in a world that looks very much like the one of ancient Rome, where we worship at the shrine of consumerism....

Advent on the other hand calls us into the darkness, a time of quiet preparation, a time of waiting, and re-discovering the wonder of the knowledge that God is with us. Advent's call is to simplicity and not abundance, a time when we wait for glorious light of God to come again...

Christ is with us at this time of advent, in the darkness, and Christ is coming with his light- not the light of the shopping centre, but the light of love and truth and beauty.

What do you long for this advent? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? What is your prayer today?
In the vein of simplicity I ask you to list five Advent longings...."

1. I long for my children to find and achieve their right livelihoods. Some know what they are, and are still working toward them; some are struggling with choices that have to be made.
2. I long for all those who are depressed and upset by the news of the day, to see the good news that's also out there. I am making it a practice to look for the good news every day when I read the paper. I find so much of it has to do with our young people, a generation that truly seems to have a heart for others and to believe that they can make a difference. For example -- a Sunday School class at the Phippsburg Congregational UCC, a small church in a small town, decided to raise enough money to buy a Heifer Project ark of animals (about $5000). It took about a year, but in fact they raised $6000!
3. I long for all of us in my country to work together to solve our problems. I think that's pretty self-explanatory.
4. I long to be a bit more organized! This may seem like a rather worldly wish, but I am speaking more of time management than stuff management (though that needs still to happen too). With better time management I would make time for more spiritual pursuits and more work to help others.
5. I long for my church congregation to continue our transition to new ministers and a renewed vision for the church. We went to a small group meeting the other night in aid of our transition process, and I emerged feeling very optimistic. I hope this spirit continues.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

December Songs and Stories, Part Five

It's St. Nicholas' Eve! In several Northern European countries, this is the night that children await a mysterious giver of presents. The story for today, then, is the chapter "The Festival of St. Nicholas" from the classic Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge. It has the flowery language and moral didacticism of the Victorian children's book, but I think it could still be enjoyed by older children with a parent to read and explain. It's available in numerous formats including Kindle, and also, since it's in the public domain, on Google Books here (the chapter begins on page 71).

Because of the Dutch setting of the story, I wanted to find a Dutch Christmas carol to go with it; this proved surprisingly difficult, at least a couple of years ago. I might have a slightly wider choice now. I did find this song, King Jesus Hath a Garden, sung by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge. It has a cheerful, bouncy chorus:
There naught is heard but Paradise bird,
Harp, dulcimer, lute,
With cymbal, trump and tymbal,
And the soothing flute.

The English translation is by Percy Dearmer, who turns out to have been quite an interesting person (or parson, since he wrote The Parson's Handbook). He was an early advocate of the ordination of women, and worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams on the classic hymnals The English Hymnal, Songs of Praise, and The Oxford Book of Carols. From his two marriages he had three sons, one of whom was killed in World War I and one in World War II, and the third, Geoffrey, died at age 103, a poet and also a World War I veteran.

December Stories and Songs, Part Four

Today is St. Barbara's Day in German-speaking countries.  St. Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen (my father was one), although I'm not sure why. Her story is reminiscent of Rapunzel because she was shut up in a tower. When her father learned that she had been baptized against his wishes, he condemned her to death. In her prison cell, her one earthly comfort was a cherrytree branch, which she watered daily with drops of her drinking water until it bloomed.  In parts of Germany still, a Barbarazweig (twig or branch) is brought in to the house on St. Barbara's Day to be forced; if it blooms on Christmas Day it's good luck.

In Visions of Sugarplums, a great Christmas cookbook by Mimi Sheraton, there's more on St. Barbara and special dishes to make for her day.

So, a story from a German-speaking country for today: Schnitzle, Schnotzle and Schnootzle as retold by Ruth Sawyer in her book The Long Christmas.  I don't have a picture of the cover, nor does anyone else, it seems. But it's available at public libraries and through Alibris.com or other used booksellers.  It's based on the familiar folk motif of the visiting stranger who rewards hospitality, and comes from the Austrian Tyrol.

The song that goes with it sounds like a lovely lullaby: Aba Heidschi Bumbeidschi.  I chose it partly because it's sung in (I think) an Austrian dialect, and sounds "nonsensical" just like Schnitzle, Schnotzle and Schnootzle.  In reality, if you can understand all the words it is not a song you would choose to sing to a child. The original lyrics translate roughly to "Aba Heidschi Bumbeidschi, sleep long, your mother has gone away, she has gone away and will never return, and has left her baby all alone."  They continue on with a suggestion that the child should go to heaven and live with the angels!  Apparently, a newer version has different words as sung by Engelbert Humperdinck and similar vocalists.  But the Konrad Plaickner Chorus is traditional on the album Christmas in the Alps. Happy St. Barbara's Day! (By the way, CatholicGreetings.org doesn't have a greeting card for her. Sad.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part 3

Off to Italy today with Tomie de Paola and a rollicking tale of what happens when Big Anthony tries to comply with Strega Nona's rule about preparing for Christmas with no magic.  Sisterfilms thought that I should post disclaimers about some of the stories, because they might make readers or listeners cry.  This one won't, unless you laugh until you cry.  (By the way, if you want to read some very nice memoirs about Tomie de Paola's Christmas celebrations over the years, his book Christmas Remembered, published by Putnam in 2006, is a winner).

Years ago, the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis did a wonderful stage version of Merry Christmas, Strega Nona. At one point, shepherds from the Abruzzi come into Strega Nona's village playing their bagpipes, in the Canzone di Zampognari (in Italian variously Quanno nascette Nino and Tu scendi dalle stelle).  I recognized the tune as one I'd heard on a folk music album with English words. The song was 'Twas on a Night Like This, the words by Pete Seeger, and the album I now have is this one: 'Twas on a Night Like This, a Folk-Legacy recording featuring Cathy Barton, Dave Para, the Paton family, Ed Trickett, and even a reading of Howard Thurman's Benediction by Gordon Bok.  The song is also available for download as sung by Pete Seeger, from the Smithsonian website in conjunction with Folkways.

So, grab a biscotto and an espresso (or Italian soda, for the uncaffeinated) and spend some time in Italy with dePaola's sunny colors.  A perfect antidote for any grey skies you may be seeing outside!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

December Stories and Songs, Part Two

The story for today is The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, with illustrations by Barbara Cooney.  I just learned that it was made into a television movie called The Wish That Changed Christmas.  It's the story of a girl named Holly and a doll named Ivy, and how they found each other and a home.  Girls who like dolls will especially like this story.

To go along with it, of course one of the many versions of The Holly and the Ivy.  I chose a classic rendition by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers from their album Songs of Angels.

(By the way, you can't really click to see inside the book here. But on Amazon.com you can.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

December Stories and Songs, First Day

It's a bit late in the day here on the East Coast, but I'm still going to start this out so that there will be a story and song suggestion for each day up to December 24th.

For a few years now I've been recording a story and adding a song or two as a way of sharing Advent with Sisterfilms although she is far away.  The list I'll be posting this year is actually from 2006.  Therefore, there will be one story that comes on the wrong day for this year -- the one for the first night of Chanukah, which was December 15 that year, but is December 21 this year. Of course, you can read the stories in any order you like.

The very first story, and the one that gave me the idea to do this, is one we have loved for a number of years. I blogged about it last year in one of the Advent Friday Fives.  It's Karin's Christmas Walk by Susan Pearson. Unfortunately it appears to be out of print, but there are several used copies available through Amazon.com and other online used booksellers, and there's also a good chance you can get it at your local library.

For a song to go with this book, which is about coming home for Christmas (and waiting for someone to come home for Christmas), I chose I'll Be Home for Christmas.  A number of people have recorded this, notably Bing Crosby, but I'd also like to suggest Neal and Leandra's version, which includes the intro, as Bing's version does not.

Each day I will have a new story and song suggestion;most of this year's are suitable for younger children, a few would be more suited for older kids just because of length and vocabulary.