Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Twelve Days of Christmas

I took a walk through the neighborhood the day after Christmas and noticed a forlorn Christmas tree already lying in the gutter, awaiting the trash truck. It reminded me of an email I'd recently received from my daughter who now shares a house with three other girls in the Pacific Northwest. She said she was thankful that we'd brought up our kids with lots of Advent and Christmas traditions in contrast to one of her housemates who reported that all they did on Christmas was open their presents and then stare at each other and feel sort of depressed. In Biblioland we celebrate four weeks of Advent (including the special feasts of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Nicholas) followed by twelve days of Christmas culminating in the feast of The Epiphany.

Naturally, food plays a big role in all these celebrations, as Darwin Catholic describes in A Taste of Christmas. And I'm with him on the tamales! But this year I have not done any Christmas baking or even any tamale making. (I've been diagnosed with prediabetes, and the only way to keep myself from eating as I oughtn't is just not to have the stuff in the house.)

However, I can still enjoy the other taste of Christmas which is traditional in our family -- reading aloud. Starting on Christmas Eve, Fillius and I have been reading Christmas stories or Christmas related selections from much-loved and familiar books. The list varies from year to year. Here is what we read during the twelve days of Christmas, 2008:

"Christmas" from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Little House books have many good Christmas chapters. This one is an an account of an iconic American Christmas. It's got all the elements: preparing handmade gifts, baking special treats for the big day, extended family coming to visit, playing in the snow with cousins, listening to the grownups talk after you've gone to bed, and the excitement of gifts in your stocking. Laura's ecstasy at receiving her special Christmas gift, a rag doll handmade by Ma, still moves me as much as it did when I first read it as a third-grader.

A Christmas Card for Mr. McFizz by Obren Bokich. Mr. McFizz, a fussy little ground squirrel is appalled when the Griswolds, a family of packrats, move into the hollow tree next to his tidy little burrow. He watches with increasing annoyance as the collection of clutter in their front yard grows larger and larger. Yet despite their messy ways, the Griswolds have many friends. Mr. McFizz, perhaps because he's always so busy cleaning, has none. Most of the time this doesn't bother him much. But as Christmas approaches he becomes melancholy because he never receives any Christmas cards. When the Griswolds' mailbox overflows with them, poor Mr. McFizz goes completely off his head and hatches a plot to squelch their simple happiness. How he has a change of heart and reconciles with his neighbors is one of the better examples of the "learning the true meaning of Chrismas" genre. (I especially liked that even after the reconcilation, Mr. McFizz still dislikes his neighbor's clutter. That seemed a realistic touch.)

"Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves" in Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I love reading about shy Matthew's valiant attempts to buy a new dress for Anne who, because of Marilla's notions of squelching vanity in children, has never had a pretty, fashionable dress like the other girls -- one with puffed sleeves! (It's hard to believe that there are people who haven't read the Anne books before, but if you're among them, check out the Lucy Maud Montgomery Reading Challenge at Reading to Know.)

Spirit Child: A Story of the Nativity translated from the Aztec by John Bierhorst. This story was composed in the sixteenth century by Fray Bernardino SaghagĂșn with the assistance of Aztec poets. The basic story comes from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but it also combines elements from medieval legends and traditional Aztec lore. The style in which the story unfolds is very much in the Aztec tradition. Some portions, such as the angels' song to the shepherds even use Aztec figures of speech. This aspect of the book is reinforced by Barbara Cooney's beautiful illustrations. (I love her depiction of the archangel Gabriel with his green feathered wings and jaguar skin garment.) A beautiful and reverent retelling of the birth of Christ.

The Church Mice At Christmas by Graham Oakley. We're big fans of Oakley's Church Mice books. They take place in the English village of Wortlethorpe where all of the mice in the community have taken up residence in the local Anglican church where, in exchange for sundry chores such as polishing the brasses, the vicar gives them a safe haven in which to live and a weekly allowance of cheese. This book recounts their attempt to acquire the funds for "A real Christmas party with paper hats and crackers and games and things." The problem is that parties cost money, and they're all as poor as, well, church mice. When their attempt to raffle off Sampson (the church cat) is unsuccessful, they attempt to earn money by Christmas caroling, having "spent the whole morning practising their scales and the whole afternoon sorting out the pronunciation of Wenceslas." But their diminutive size is against them, and an inadvertent run-in with the local constabulary results in a mad chase through a toy store. Various other attempts to scrounge up the party fixings fail until Arthur and Humphry, the leaders of the church mice, inadvertently perform a public service which rewards the mice with the party of their dreams -- "In fact it [the party] was so good that they were all ill for three days after it . . . ." My kids always enjoyed poring over Oakley's illustrations which have a lot of humorous detail.

"Godmother's Magic" and "Dumpling Speaks Her Mind" in Family Sabatical by Carol Ryrie Brink. Though better known for her pioneer novels Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons, Brink wrote many other novels which were among my childhood favorites and which I read aloud to my own children when they were small. Family Sabatical is about a midwestern American family which spends six months in France while their father, a history professor, is researching a book. The children's discovery of French culture and their attempts to celebrate such American holidays as Halloween and Thanksgiving are very funny. In the first of these Christmas chapters, I loved the description of their visit to Notre Dame on Christmas Eve. This non-Catholic family had never been in such a large church before "nor one so sweetly mysterious. Very quietly they walked all around in it, feeling its strangeness, which was at the same time a kind of warm familiarity." Far back in the candlelit church they discover a life-sized creche. "The children stood and looked at it for a long time, and suddenly this was more like Christmas Eve than any Christmas Eve that they had ever known before." The second chapter is about the family's celebration of Christmas the next morning and about the healing one member of the family experiences when she discovers that home is not a place as such; it's wherever your family is.

"Welcome Yule" by Jan Mark in An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories edited by Dan Pepper. This collection, which I checked out of the library, was a real disappointment. Published in the 1980s, the stories in this collection are mostly grim and gritty, often having very little to do with Christmas. "Welcome Yule" was a delightful exception. The new vicar, who has the personality of an enthusiastic steam roller has organized carol singing on the evening of the feast of St. Thomas despite the strange reluctance of the villagers to go out singing on that date. Their objection? That's the night that the "Waits" always sing. And no one wants to offend them. Who are the Waits? No one in the parish wants to explain it to the Vicar. So no one shows up at the scheduled time except the family of the narrator whose father had been shanghaied into playing a portable harmonium for this gig. Everyone else is hiding behind closed doors. The Vicar, already annoyed, is especially exasperated when they glimpse another group singing curiously antique carols. When he stomps off to confront them, he gets rather more than he bargained for.

The Story of the Three Kings by John of Hildesheim, retold by Margaret B. Freeman. "Of the three worshipful Kings all the world is full of praise from the rising of the sun to its down-going, and what these three Kings did at the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ is written oft in many books and places but what they did after is peradventure to many men unknown." So begins this best seller of the Middle Ages. At the time this book was written, the Magi were among the best loved saints in Christendom. But the author, a Carmelite friar, was the first to gather together the many legends of Balthasar, Melchior and Jaspar into one book. Margaret Freeman based her retelling on a Middle English text of 1399 and managed to preserve the flavor of the original. What I love about this book is that everything is full of meaning. For example, part of the gold which Melchior offered to the Christ Child was thirty gilt pennies. And these same thirty pennies were owned by anyone who was anybody throughout history. They were made by Thara, the father of Abraham. Then Abraham used them to buy a burial ground for himself and his family. Joseph was sold into Egypt for these same gilt pennies; later they were used to buy spices in Saba for Jacob's burial. These self-same pennies were later brought to King Solomon by the Queen of Saba. And after Jerusalem was destroyed, they were brought to the land of Arabia of which Melchior was king. Our Lady lost the thirty pennies during the flight to Egypt. They were later found by a shepherd who had an incurable disease. The shepherd was cured by Christ who recognized the pennies and told the sheherd to offer them to the temple. And wouldn't you know, it was those same thirty pennies with which the temple priests paid Judas to betray Our Lord. Whew! I also love the charming and colorful detail of these stories. For instance, when the star first arose it had in it the form and likeness of a young child and a sign of the cross above him. Out of the star came a voice saying, "Unto us is born this day the King and Lord that folk have long sought. Go then and seek him and do him worship." Not historically accurate, but who cares? In a way, it's early fan fiction!


Sherwood said...

The puffed sleeves chapter! Oh yes!

Karen said...

I was delighted to see the Laura Ingles Wilder book on your site. I have read all of them and studied some of her history. Did you know that her books are the only accounting of the Wilderness Crossing from the eyes of a child?


rhinemouse said...

Oh, gosh, I'd forgotten the thirty gilt pennies. That was an awesome book.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

"Did you know that her books are the only accounting of the Wilderness Crossing from the eyes of a child?"

No, are they really? Wilder certainly does have the knack of portraying a child's eye view, a quality I love. But it was also very interesting to read Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Family Collection which is a collection of articles she wrote between 1911 and 1918 for the Missouri Ruralist, a widely read farm paper. Some of the articles deal with themes or incidents in her own life which she would later reuse in the Little House books. It is interesting to note the different manner in which she presents them.

Joe Schriner said...

My wife is a homeschooling mom who has read all the Little House on the Prarie series to our children. What's more, we've visited many of the 'Little House' spots around the country -- during our campaign travels... I am a Campaign 2012 presidential canidate (already declared) who has based his whole platform on the full spectrum of Catholic teaching. By the way, as early as this seems, the time to get behind the campaign is: now. So it looks as viable as possible in the year 2012

I LOVE YOU said...
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