Wednesday, December 9, 2009

December Stories and Songs, Part 9

Continuing the Christmas tree theme, today’s story is The Tree that Didn’t Get Trimmed by Christopher Morley. It’s available in a couple of solo editions, which are out of print and quite expensive; but I also located it in A Christmas Treasury and The Home Book of Christmas, which should be easier to find. Like the tree in H. C. Andersen’s The Fir Tree, the tree which is the protagonist of this story wishes very much to be a Christmas tree; to enjoy the merriment and be decked with shiny baubles. But he languishes on the tree lot and there is a different fate in store for him – a far more cheerful one than that of Andersen’s tree!

Although I only chose two songs to accompany this tale originally, I’m giving you three today. I found a beautiful rendition of Sang til Juletræet by Christopher Pedersen. However, it appears (at least to my tin ear) to be sung to a classical setting by Edvard Grieg and not to the tune I am familiar with from Mike and Else Sevig’s A Norwegian Christmas. So here’s the Sang til Juletræet that I was able to find.


And to show how important the tree is to a Scandinavian Christmas, here’s another familiar song from our Danish Sangaften, Højt fra træets grønne top (High upon our Christmas tree).

And last but not least, a funny song by the late Erik Darling, which you can listen to here. You will need to download RealAudio (free and safe) before you can listen to Revenge of the Christmas Tree. Erik Darling, who died in 2008, had a long career in folk music. One of the first folk records I bought was Travellin’ on with the Weavers, on which Darling replaced Pete Seeger in the group.

December Stories and Songs, Part 8


Here’s a picture of me and Brother #1 at Christmas, I think 1952. Our Christmas tree this year will come from the same woods that this one probably did. We don’t have it yet – I’ll have to send Onkel Hankie Pants out into the snowy woods for it this weekend. But if you don’t have a tree yet, it’s probably time to start thinking about it. So the story and song today are both about Christmas trees. (I’m hoping to get caught up today….)

A Christmas Tree for Lydia A Christmas Tree for Lydia is a short story by Elizabeth Enright that I found in a little Scholastic paperback called Ten Tales of Christmas. Ten Tales of Christmas The paperback anthology is still available and not too expensive; it’s worth buying for that story alone. The story also appeared earlier as a picture book (see photo at left), but that one will now set you back $50.00 or more. You could ask your local librarian to track it down in either version, or check the Short Story Index to see if it’s anthologized elsewhere.

The story is set in New York City shortly after World War II, where a young war widow is struggling to raise two children – an elementary-age boy and Lydia, a preschooler. The theme is not an uncommon one for Christmas tales – love and ingenuity overcome poverty to make Christmas happen. It’s one of my favorites, and I hope you will be able to find a copy.

Wonderland Both the story and the song today are ones you may have to buy, unless you can find them at the library. The Tree is by Jim Henry, a folk singer/songwriter from Western Massachusetts. It appears on the CD Wonderland: A Winter’s Solstice Celebration, and as best I can tell, some of the royalties on this album still go to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. The CD is still one of my favorites several years after I bought it; it holds a great mix of music, from Bach to You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, and several original songs, all performed by local artists. Henry’s song is full of childhood memories of the Christmas tree and how big it seemed, and how “it won’t be Christmas till we’ve got the tree.” By the way, if you get hold of the CD and can play music, here are the chords and lyrics to The Tree.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December Stories and Songs, Part 7

There are just a few Christmas stories that have become iconic, and subject to endless retellings and re-imaginings. One is the Nativity story itself; another is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; and a third is O. Henry’s classic short story, Gifts of the Magi. (According to the editors of A Christmas Treasury, from which I took my reading, this is the original title; it makes more sense to me than the usual The Gift of the Magi, but I have not been able to verify this.) Hardly a year goes by without some film or television special giving us a new version; in fact, one of the stories I blogged about last year, Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, is essentially a retelling of the O. Henry tale. In any case, that’s the story for December 7. (Sorry about the late posting.)

O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) wrote several Christmas tales – The Cop and the Anthem and Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking come to mind. Many of his stories were first published in the New York World’s Sunday magazine, and Gifts of the Magi, said to have been written in Pete’s Tavern, (hence the photo above) was published in the World on December 10, 1905. Later it appeared in the short story collection The Four Million. gift of the magi Since it is now in the public domain, there are a number of illustrated versions available, and it appears in probably 9 out of 10 Christmas anthologies as well. However, you can also read it here if you like.

Illustrated books, films, musicals, and at least two operas (one in Finnish!) have been based on the story, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers have a song that recounts the story on their CD Christmas Caravan. Christmas Caravan And, through the magic of YouTube, here they are performing The Gift of the Magi:

Sunday, December 6, 2009

December Stories and Songs, Part 6

First, a photo I couldn't resist including: SonShineIn, 30 years ago, standing in front of the Little House in the Big Woods reconstruction near Pepin, Wisconsin.

Today’s reading almost needs no introduction. For St. Nicholas’ Day, I wanted a Santa Claus story, and one of our favorites has always been Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus, the Christmas chapter from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here’s a picture of the cover of the first edition, before the Garth Williams illustrations. I don’t have this, but I do have a battered copy of The Long Winter with the original pictures by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle. lens6751062_1251739697LittleHouseOnThePrairie

Some people, confused by the television show, think that the Little House on the Prairie was, like the Little Town on the Prairie, in South Dakota. Not so but far otherwise! It was in southeastern Kansas, near Independence. Winter there can often bring rain, sleet and ice storms more than snow, hence the problems Santa encountered in reaching the Ingalls girls, causing him to enlist Mr. Edwards’ help.

In some ways, Little House on the Prairie is the most problematic of the books, because of Ma’s distaste for Indians and the fact that their part of Kansas, near Oklahoma, was the place where the family had the most contact with them. For this reason, I think it’s important for parents to read the book aloud with their children so that they can discuss the reasons for Ma’s feelings and why our ideas today are different. (Of course, Onkel Hankie Pants has always felt that Laura’s relationship with her mother was quite conflicted and that this shows through in her description of many of Ma’s attitudes.) In the Christmas chapter, there are other springboards for discussion – I wouldn’t be too heavy-handed about it, I suspect most kids will catch on pretty fast to the difference between Laura and Mary’s joy at their few meager gifts, and their own feelings about all the plastic and electronic wishes we foster in our children today. Not to mention how appreciative Pa and Ma are of the sweet potatoes Mr. Edwards brings – we can get them for 99 cents a pound this week in the supermarket.

Surely you have a copy of Little House on the Prairie (and all the other books in the series) at home; but if you don’t, they are readily available at public libraries and bookstores everywhere. For a special Christmas book, try A Little House Christmas, which brings together Christmas chapters from several of the books in a nice format for reading aloud.A Little House Christmas

I don’t know why it’s so hard to find a recording of a solo fiddler playing Christmas songs. The nearest I could come in my collection was a CD by Vassar Clements, Norman and Nancy Blake, and some other folk and bluegrass musicians, called An Americana Christmas. An Americana Christmas From it I chose Cradle Hymn, better known as Away in a Manger; it’s the James R. Murray version which is best known to most Americans. Searching YouTube, I did find a couple of poorly recorded efforts by very young violinists, and was about to give up when I happened on this very nice violin-guitar duo which includes some fine pizzicato.

December Stories and Songs, Part 5

I was feeling punk today (maybe it was the Punk Rock Advent Calendar?) and then we went out to see a community theater production tonight, driving home through fast-falling snow. So this posting is a bit late, and will be short, but I highly recommend the story and the song.

a yuletide universe O Come, Little Children, by Chet Williamson, was apparently considered a ghost story by at least one publisher. I read it in A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales. I’ll leave it to you to decide – fantastical? Miraculous? It’s a story about a child who believes, but not really a story for children. You can read it here.

old sailor's christmas For a song to go with this story, I chose one from a recording I bought at a local craft fair from the artist. Jimmy Barnes is a Maine singer-songwriter in the “country-eastern” style and some of the songs on his Christmas album include “Grandma’s Woodstove,” “Ribbon Candy,” and “Lobstah for Santa.” But along with the nostalgia and humor there are a couple of serious songs on the album and one of them is “Would You Let Him In.” “…would you say “We’re busy – could you call again? If Jesus knocked on Christmas Eve, would you let him in?” It’s not an original idea for a song or tale, but Barnes does a good job with it. On his website, you can listen to small samples of the songs, and you can order this CD or his other non-seasonal ones, and support a Maine artist.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

December Stories and Songs, Part 4

if i may Because of the Friday Five and a dentist appointment, I’m quite late in posting this; and also I just realized that I switched yesterday and today, although there was no special reason for the dates on which the stories were read. So, today’s story is really an essay – or, as I just learned, actually only a portion of an essay, by A. A. Milne. It’s called “A Hint for Next Christmas,” and has been anthologized more than once, but it was not until I read it online here that I got a chance to read the whole thing. The part I recorded omits the whole section about Christmas cards as well as some of the introductory material, and concentrates on the house party Christmas gift-giving, and is quite funny in a quiet British way. It appears in its entirety in a book of essays by the author of Winnie the Pooh called If I May.

William, the young man in Milne’s essay, is attending a Christmas houseparty in a large country house, of the type familiar to readers of Anthony Trollope and Agatha Christie. One of the activities of the Christmas week guests would doubtless have been going to the local church for the carol service, so to go with this story I chose Cecil Frances Alexander’s Christmas hymn, Once in Royal David’s City, with music by Henry Gauntlett. It is the traditional opening to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge and to many other Lessons and Carols services elsewhere; in fact, in the absence of a willing boy soprano, Sisterfilms herself sang the opening verse at our church’s service for several years running. She had the advantage of prior warning; as is now fairly well-known, the chorister at King’s who is to sing the opening verse is not told until a moment or two before he is to sing. a child is born
I initially chose a recording of the hymn by the choir of another Cambridge college, Trinity, from a CD called A Child Is Born, because the first verse on my recording of the King’s College service was almost inaudible. festival of nine lessons

However, apparently in England they do a television broadcast and in the video below, the sound system was working very well and you can also see the young chorister in close-up, looking remarkably poised. I’ll be attending our town’s ecumenical Service of Lessons and Carols on Sunday afternoon; I hope you can find one in your neighborhood. And of course, on Christmas Eve morning, you can listen to this year’s service on most local NPR stations.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Five: Do Nothing Edition

busy doing nothing

This photo of a calico cat, in memory of our cat Heidi, is from the photos of ‘Xena*best friend*” on Its title is “I’m busy... doing nothing;-).”

Sally in the UK says:

I am reading a wonderful little book for Advent; its title: "Do nothing Christmas is Coming!"
So this week’s Friday Five is simple.
List Five things you won't be doing to prepare for Christmas.
And while you are doing nothing play the bonus, put your feet up and listen to your favourite Advent Carol, and post it or a link to it...

1. Shopping much in malls or big box stores. As much as possible, shopping in local stores or church/craft fairs, or ordering handmade things online.

2. Traveling. I enjoyed our trip to City of Lakes last year, but it’s nice to be at home and expecting visits from our daughters and Onkel Hankie Pants’ sister and a new friend. Also not having to be in an airport….

3. I should be used to this by now, it’s the fifth year … but it still feels rather odd that no one in the family has any responsibilities for the Christmas Eve worship service. For so many years I read the children’s story and one or more other family members sang in the choir; church was at 5:30 and we had to be there around 4:45, with the big Christmas Eve dinner coming after church. It was hectic, but gave us a real feeling of being part of worship. Now our only responsibility is showing up – and church is so crowded that no one would notice if we didn’t. (And in case anyone from Big Taupe Church is reading this – ushering on Christmas Eve is definitely something I will not be doing!)

4. Buying things with a credit card. Not gonna do it.

5. Obsessing about perfection. Whether the food, decorations, presents, or whatever are perfect or not, they will be what they will be. Not that I won’t do my best, but then I will let it go.

Bonus: I didn’t get a chance to read through all the other responses yet, but so far no one has chosen this lovely hymn, Prepare the Way. I think the tune is one of those Swedish folk tunes which make such beautiful hymntunes. I’ve embedded one rendition by a good-sized choir and linked to another by a smaller one – both appear to be the same arrangement and each choir does a great job in its own way.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

December Stories and Songs, Part 3

old country pickup truck
Photo courtesy of Daisy's Little Cottage on There are many wonderful photos if you search "old pickup truck" but some had snow on I chose this one.

Today’s is a real grown-up’s story. Modern writers of literary fiction frequently set their stories at Christmastime (at least often enough to fill a number of anthologies), but precious few of them have seemed suitable to me for reading aloud. So often the stories are about dysfunctional families enduring the enforced togetherness of the holiday season. Although I don’t insist on complete sweetness and light, I do like there to be some hope of redemption at the end of any story, and especially a Christmas story. Deputy Sid’s Gift by Tim Gautreaux has that and more.

The story is told in the first person by a Louisiana man who works in a nursing home because his oilrig job disappeared. When an old “going to the dump” truck disappears from his property, his efforts to get it back involve him in the life of a black alcoholic neighbor. Deputy Sid, the local lawman (who is also black) and the narrator’s parish priest also play their parts. I like Gautreaux’s ear for language and the thoughtfulness of his characters. a very southern I found the story in A Very Southern Christmas, an anthology of tales by Southern writers; you can also get it in Gautreaux’s collection of short stories, Same Place, Same Things. The story was first published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1995, and if you are a subscriber you can read it here; or perhaps you can find it in your local library,

For a story taking place in Cajun country, there are a number of different songs with similar titles: “Christmas on the Bayou” or variations on that theme. I chose the one by Beausoleil from the excellent CD Alligator Stomp, Volume 4: Cajun Christmas.alligator stomp cajun

And lo! here it is on YouTube:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

December Stories and Songs, Part 2

Green Gables “Green Gables,” Prince Edward Island

Some of my favorite Christmas stories are chapters from books that aren’t all about Christmas. Although I read all of the Anne of Green Gables books as a child, I had forgotten about this Christmas chapter from the first book until a couple of years ago. My local library acquired CHristmas with Anne Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories by L. M. Montgomery. ”Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” was the first selection (and in my opinion, the best of the bunch.) In this chapter, the orphan Anne Shirley has been with Matthew and Marilla, the aging bachelor and spinster, for some time, and they are beginning to be a family. Matthew, who’s very shy and unworldly, nevertheless notices, when a gaggle of girls come to practice for the Christmas concert, that Anne’s clothes are unfashionable. The struggles he goes through to obtain a fashionable dress as Anne’s Christmas present are both funny and charming. The opinionated, but good-hearted Rachel Lynde comes to his rescue, and even the starchy Marilla unbends a bit. You can read the story here if you don’t have a copy of Anne of Green Gables.

Lucy Maud (L. M.) Montgomery, 1874-1942, had an early life that in many respects mirrored that of her most famous character; her mother died when Maud was not yet 2 years old and she was principally reared by her grandparents. However, it appears that they were stricter than Matthew and Marilla. She also taught school and had early ambitions to be a writer; Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, but she had published magazine and newspaper stories before that. She is much honored in Canada, having appeared on postage stamps and been remembered in more than one museum at sites where she lived.

I realize now that I was being anachronistic when I chose the song Ding! Dong! Merrily on High to go with this tale, for it was not published until 1924, although the tune dates back to the 16th century. George Ratcliffe Woodward (1858-1934) wrote the lyrics (as well as the verses for Past Three O’Clock) and published them in his The Cambridge Carol-Book. The exuberance of the tune reminds me of Anne Shirley’s personality; the consciously archaic words (“Let steeple bells be swungen,” forsooth!) probably would have appealed to Anne, who was not above a bit of affectation herself.

Bright Day Star The rendition I chose to include was an instrumental by the Baltimore Consort, whose album Bright Day Star is one of my favorite Christmas CDs. (It should probably be titled Branle l’Officiel as it’s only the tune and not Woodward’s words. According to the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas, the tune name should be translated something like “Brawl in the Servants’ Hall.) In my search for a video to post, I found this excellent little group singing it in a benefit concert one of the singers had arranged. As Anne Shirley wore her dress with the puffed sleeves to a concert meant to raise funds for a school flag, I thought this was an appropriate performance to share.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December Stories and Songs, Part 1

Here begins my Advent Calendar of songs and stories for the season. These are the ones I recorded for Sisterfilms in 2007. I have on hand fewer stories than for last year, since in ‘07 she was able to join us earlier. But by the time I run out I will have figured out a solution to posting sufficient readings. In 2007, I also chose a few stories that were written for adults – fair warning, one of them even has some rough language!


Today’s story is Dancing Dan’s Christmas by Damon Runyon. It’s a tale of crime and romance with some humor thrown in. Runyon, a newspaperman and writer, was born in Kansas and raised in Colorado but became the supreme chronicler of a certain kind of New Yorker. He is best known for Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser musical (and later film) made from two of his short stories. Other films based on Runyon stories include The Lemon-Drop Kid, A Pocketful of Miracles, and Little Miss Marker. You can follow the link above to read the story online, and it’s also anthologized in several books including Murder for Christmas. If you don’t mind filling out a free registration, you can also listen to a dramatic reading with music here. (And really, if you really, really want to, you could let me know your snailmail address and I’ll send you my recording!)

The songs for today are not really Christmasy at all, but they were all that Dancing Dan and the narrator could come up with when they had imbibed their quota of Tom and Jerries and wanted to sing some celebratory songs. The words to Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May? were written by James J. Walker, who later became Mayor of New York. Bob Hope played him in the movie Beau James, which I saw with my brother at the Hainerberg Theater in Wiesbaden. Unfortunately it is not available on DVD. The music was by Ernest R. Ball, who also wrote When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. You can go here to hear a very early recording of the song by the Elysian Singers, or you can listen to Dan Linnell of They Might Be Giants. I bought an MP3 of the song as sung by Johnny O’Tolle and His Naughty Band from an album called Gay 90s. Gay 90s Watch out for this one – just reading about it had me going about the house inflicting my poor excuse for an Irish tenor on the long-suffering Rusty.

The song Dancing Dan himself sings in the story is My Dad’s Dinner Pail, which also brought to mind a favorite movie. The song was written by Edward (Ned) Harrigan (lyrics) and his father-in-law David Braham. Harrigan and his partner Tony Hart were the fathers of musical comedy with their shows in the 1880s. George M. Cohan wrote H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N Spells Harrigan in honor of Ned Harrigan, and it appeared in the James Cagney film Yankee Doodle Dandy, which must have been shown several times a year on New York television stations when we lived in Connecticut. McNally's Row of Flats In 2007, I had to buy a CD by Mick Moloney called McNally’s Row of Flats to get the song; it has a number of Harrigan and Braham’s songs of the Irish-American experience and was well worth it. Recently I found this rendition by Debra Cowan, who has a lovely voice that reminds me of Priscilla Herdman’s. The songs Dancing Dan and his friend sing are both highly sentimental, and serve to show that in spite of their obvious criminal bent, these guys have hearts of gold – which they also prove by their actions in the story.


If any of you want to try making a Tom and Jerry, here’s a recipe.