Saturday, December 20, 2014

Deck the Halls

Anyone who has read this blog in the past knows that last year I made a solemn vow (and I believe also the year before) that there would be no more ornaments bought for our tree.  Enough was enough!  It was fine when we had the 9 ft tree but now that we are in closer quarters there are three feet less to decorate.  And that makes a difference - this year certain decorations were not even taken from their place in the big decoration box.  However ....  and you just knew there had to be a however didn't you?  As we decorated the tree I realized that there was one Christmas legend that was missing:  we didn't have a Krampus!  I mean how can you have a Christmas tree without a Krampus on it?

Well that has now been remedied and an image of the beast is now hanging on our tree as a warning to all bad little boys and girls!

Krampus now hangs on our tree - ready to give a sound switching to naughty boys and girls;
and ready to cart the very bad off in his basket to.... well heaven only knows where.
For those of you who may not know Krampus is a demonic sort  who shows up on Saint Nicholas Eve (December 5th)  to punish all the bad little boys and girls in Austria, Bavaria and Eastern Europe.  The naughty are given a taste of his switch and the really bad are thrown into his basket and carried away - some say to his lair others to hell.  Now if that doesn't make you behave yourself nothing will.


Frankly I'm not sure I would trust either Saint or Demon to bring me a gift
the way they are portrayed on this Austrian greeting card.  One looks almost
as ill-natured as the other.

Krampus often accompanies the good Saint on his rounds on December 6th - I mean you can't expect a saint to do the dirty work can you?  So it seemed only right and proper that if we had someone to punish the bad we needed someone to reward the good.

Cut out sheets like this were popular at one time, particularly in Germany and England
- and the days before Christmas were spent cutting, pasting and assembling all manner of
decorations for the holiday.
I have a bad habit (well several really) of buying facsimiles of the sheets of old cut out toys, theatres etc.  I have every intention at the time of purchase of snipping, cutting, folding etc but often the love coloured sheets languish for months or sometimes years.  A fine example is my working model of the Pantomime Theatre in Tivoli complete with Peacock Curtain.   And another would be the Sankt Nikolaus that I bought in Dresden just after Christmas back in 1998.  It was meant to grace our Christmas festivities in 1999 but somehow got rolled and stored away.  It moved back to Canada with us and saw three or four more moves until I came upon it - creased and a bit worse for wear - just last week.  So foam board, glue stick, exacto-knife and paper fasteners in hand I pasted, cut and assembled him last Sunday.  

Finally Sankt Nikolaus has taken his place greeting anyone coming to our door between now
and January 6th. 
He now welcomes all the good boys and girls who knock on our door with a promise of all manner of games, horns, drums and goodies.  And once inside as they can look at the tree and see what would have been waiting for them if they had indeed been naughty rather than nice.

December 20 - 1999: Macau is handed over to China by Portugal.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Simple Gifts - Part III

The next two gifts are again studies in contrast from the early years of the 20th century.

The Great 1914-1919 War was to define the century and the aftermath resounds to this day.  One of the events of the first year of that conflict, never mentioned in the history books when I was in school, was what became known as the Christmas Truce of 1914.  It is only in recent years that it has become an iconic moment in that war to end wars.  The first time I heard about it was in Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War when it was staged in Toronto in the 1960s.  Her musical entertainment was based on a radio series by Charles Chilton which was the catalyst for a more critical view of that monumental waste of a generation - a bitter lesson in hindsight at its finest.

Now that spontaneous fraternization of the two sides along the front on December 24-26, 2014 has been marked in stories, songs, a movie, an opera and just this year a highly controversial ad campaign in Great Britain.

James McMullen illustrated this first hand account, from a letter to his mother by Captain Sir Edward Hulse, of one of the remarkable truce in his signature "high focus" style.



Equally recognizable is the style of Fontaine Fox in this tribute to his Toonerville Folks - a regular feature in the Funnies from 1908 until 1955.   Toonerville was the quintessential American hinterland between the urban and the rural that existed until urban sprawl became the norm.    Fox captured the everyday adventures of Skipper and his Trolly that met all the trains with an loving if slightly satirical eye.  And in this little vignette he captures the hustle and bustle of the seasons perfectly.



December 19 - 1924: The last Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost is sold in London, England.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

At their recent sold out Chamber Society concert here in Ottawa the King's Singers included a short cantata by Francis Poulenc as part of their Christmas programme.   Written in 1944 it is based on four poems that Paul Éluard sent him later in the winter of 1944.  Éluard was fighting for the Resistance and at the time was in hiding with other fighters and Jews who had been give cover at the mental asylum at Saint-Alban.   Poulenc lived in Paris during most of the occupation but was under constant surveillance because of his homosexuality and as a suspected Resistance supporter.   Earlier he had written Figure humaine, a cantata based on eight of Éluard's poems which had been banned for its final sentence: I was born to know, to name you: Liberty.    Needless to say the authorities squashed any attempt to perform it in France.

Un Soire de Neige is filled with hidden references to the life of the Resistance fighters:  the wolves refer to the German soldiers in their gray uniforms hunting down their prey.  And the elements of the winter are as cruel and unforgiving as the enemy.

The piece was written for six mixed voices or choir acapella: the Netherlands Chamber Choir's version is remarkably fine.  The songs will follow one after the other automatically on separate videos.




Un Soir de Neige A Snowy Evening
I. De grandes cuillers de neige
De grandes cuillers de neige
Ramassent nos pieds glacés
Et d’une dure parole
Nous heurtons l’hiver têtu
Chaque arbre a sa place en l’air
Chaque roc son poids sur terre
Chaque ruisseau son eau vive
Nous nous n’avons pas de feu
I. Great snowy spoons
Great snowy spoons
Pick up our icy feet
And with a harsh word
We confront stubborn winter
Each tree has its place in the air
Each rock its weight on the earth
Each stream its living water
But we have no fire
II. La bonne neige
La bonne neige le ciel noir
Les branches mortes la détresse
De la forêt pleine de pièges
Honte à la bête pourchassée
La fuite en flêche dans le coeur
Les traces d’une proie atroce
Hardi au loup et c’est toujours
Le plus beau loup et c’est toujours
Le dernier vivant que menace
La masse absolue de la mort

II. The good snow
The good snow, the black sky
The dead branches, the pain
Of the forest full of traps
Shame to the hunted creature
Flight like an arrow in its heart
The tracks of a ferocious prey
Onward, wolf, and it’s always
The finest wolf and it’s always
The last one alive threatened by
The absolute weight of death
III. Bois meurtri
Bois meurtri
bois perdu d’un voyage en hiver
Navire où la neige prend pied
Bois d’asile bois mort
où sans espoir je rêve
De la mer aux miroirs crevés
Un grand moment d’eau froide a saisi les noyés
La foule de mon corps en souffre
Je m’affaiblis je me disperse
J’avoue ma vie j’avoue ma mort j’avoue autrui.

III. Bruised Woods
Bruised woods,
lost woods of a winter’s journey
Ship where the snow takes hold
Sheltering woods, dead woods,
where without hope I dream
Of the sea with its gutted mirrors
A surge of cold water gripped the drowned
Making the crowd of my body suffer
I grow weak, I am scattered
I confess my life, I confess my death, I confess the other
IV. La nuit le froid la solitude
La nuit le froid la solitude
On m’enferma soigneusement
Mais les branches cherchaient leur voie dans la prison
Autour de moi l’herbe trouva le ciel
On verrouilla le ciel
Ma prison s’écroula
Le froid vivant le froid brûlant m’eut bien en main

IV. Night cold loneliness
Night cold loneliness
They locked me in carefully
But the branches were seeking their way into the prison
Around me grass found the sky
They locked and bolted the sky
My prison crumbled
The living cold the burning
cold had me right in its
hand
Paul Éluard (1895-1952)

The composition, dated December 24 to 26, 1944, carries the dedication:
Pour le Noël de Marie-Blanche [de Polignac] tendrement, Francis, 25 décembre 1944. Excusez cette cantate sur la neige, tout à coup pleine de boue.

For  Christmas, to Marie-Blanche [de Polignac] tenderly, Francis.  25 December 1944. Excuse this mud-caked (somber) cantata on snow.

The Wikipedia link to the biography of Éluard makes for a fascinating reading and a left click on the link at the first reference to him (above) could prove interesting.

December 17 - 1790: Discovery of the Aztec calendar stone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Chag Urim Sameach! *חג חנוכה שמח

* Happy Holiday of Lights to all my friends who are lighting their first candle tonight!  And I can think of no better way to make that wish than with something by my beloved Emanuele Luzzati.  If anyone could capture the joy of the holiday it would be Lele.

The traditions of Hankkah are many - some centuries old, others more recent as the diaspora adapted to new homes and circumstances.  Where ever it has been celebrated the Festival of Lights has always included prayers, rituals, food, music and entertainments of a homely sort.

In past years I've written about the Hanukkah menorah - both beautiful antiques and equally beautiful if unusual modern designs - that is so central to the ritual of the eight days of the holiday.  Of the food, well tonight many households I know will be redolent with the smell of cooking oil as a subtle - sometimes not so subtle - reminder of the miracle of the oil in those far away days.  And according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus when Judas decreed the celebration of the Festival of Lights he commanded that there be music.  I believe this simple little song by Levin Kipnis, the author of many children's books, poems and songs, fills the bill.


I have a candle, I have a small thin candle
On Hanukkah, my candle I will light.
On Hanukkah my candle will glow
On Hanukkah I will sing songs.
 As for the entertainment the spinning of a dreidel, as simple as it is, has brought delight - and disappointment - to young and old alike for almost a thousand years.   Though there are some legends that trace the history of the dreidel back to the Seleucidian occupation it first appeared as a game in the Middle Ages.  It was adapted from the teetotum or spinning top used in a popular German game of chance.  The best known dreidel song for Hanukkah is I Have a Little Dreidel or in Yiddish Ikh Bin A Kleyner Dreydl, which actually translates as "I am a little Dreidel".  Another difference is that in English the spinning top is made of clay while in Yiddish it is made of lead.  Certainly in the early days many were made of lead but a dreidel can be something as simple as a homemade cube of clay on a wooden axis or the work of a master craftsman in silver, wood, gilt, ceramic or precious stones. 








No matter the material the game is always played the same way.  Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet:נ (Nun), ג(Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for "נס גדול היה שם" (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – "a great miracle happened there"). These letters also form a mnemonic in Yiddish for the rules of the game: nisht (nothing),  halb (half), gants (all), and shtel ayn (put in).
In Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, (Nes Gadol Hayah Poh—"A great miracle happened here")  referring to the miracle occurring in the land of Israel.

Each player puts game pieces (most often chocolate gelt) in the pot and then spins the dreidel in turn.  What ever side is facing up determines if the player gets "nothing", "half" the pot, "all" the pot or has to "put in" to the pot.  If a player loses all their stakes then they are out of the game but it's always possible - particularly for the younger children - that another player (or obliging parent) will provide a loan to keep the game going.

This lovely paper dreidel - Dancing Children - is by Melanie Dankowicz
who creates beautiful designs with lazar cut paper and metal.

Dreidel or dreydl is the Yiddish word but in Hebrew it is known as  סביבון‎ a sevivon, a word invented by Itamar Ben-Avi, one of the champions of modern Hebrew.   It is the title of this little song, again the lyrics are by the prolific Levin Kipnis.  There are quite a few versions available on YouTube but I found this one sung by the Sanderson High School Sandpipers from Raleigh, North Carolina particularly lively.



Spinning top, spin spin spin,
Chanukah is a great holiday.
Chanukah is a great holiday.
Spinning top, spin spin spin,

Spin here and there,
A great miracle happened here/there,
A great miracle happened here/there
Spinning top, spin spin spin.


In reading the prayers that are said each night as the light from the menorah becomes brighter I was struck by the words of praise that are spoken only on the first night of the eight.  How fitting they are as people gather around to celebrate any feast or festival regardless of their religion or beliefs:
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam
shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh. (Amein)

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe
who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season (Amen)

December 16 - 1707: Last recorded eruption of Mount Fuji in Japan.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

Christmastide just wouldn't be Christmastide without a visit with our favourite Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets - well okay the field isn't exactly flooded with Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets to rank but you know what I mean.  Here they are with their own particular warped version of a well-known Christmas yarn.  - warped? yarn? ... get it?   They're made of wool and .....oh forget it! Bah humbug!



Bah humbug! Bah humbug!

December 15 - 533: Byzantine general Belisarius defeats the Vandals, commanded by King Gelimer, at the Battle of Tricamarum.

December 15 -

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday in Advent 2014

Say to them that are of a fearful heart:  Be strong, fear not: behold your God will come and save you.
Communion Sentence - Advent III
Sarum Rite Anglican Missal

There are so many wonderful songs for Advent and Christmastide that take us beyond what for most of us are our traditional carols.  I was fortunate growing up to be introduced to many Polish carols as well as traditions by the Michalskis who lived next door to my family and were my best friends.  This may well have been the door that opened up a world for me which went beyond my Anglo-Saxon roots. 

Through the years I've been introduced to Christmastide music and customs that are as varied and wonderful as the place where I experienced them.   And it seems in the last twenty years that Christmas music has expanded beyond the traditional to include carols from all eras and many cultures.

The traditions and music of the Basque region are generally unknown to the world at large but one regional carol has become a favourite over the past few years.   Birjina gaztetto bat zegoen recounts the story of the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary of her role as chosen vessel for the birth of Christ.  The original melody was dance-like as performed here by Aquabella.



In 1897 on a commission from the French Government the French musicologist, teacher and composer Charles Bordes collected and published Les Archives de la tradition basque.  It came to the attention of Sabine Baring-Gould one of the most fascinating men in Victorian-Edwardian England.  Baring-Gould was an Anglican priest, hagiographer, antiquarian, novelist and eclectic scholar.  He wrote over 1240 publications - ghost stories, novels, biographies, hymns (Onward Christian Soldiers is only one of his many), collections of folk stories and, what he considered his greatest achievement, collections of folks songs.  He made alterations in some of the lyrics which he considered too risqué for the time but left his notes behind for those who in the future might wish to study the original texts.  He translate much of Bordes' collection, the most widely known being Birjina gaztetto bat zegoe.

It does not appear that the carol achieved any great popularity in the early 1900s but over the past few decades has become a choral staple at Christmastide.  There have been many settings though few have preserved it's dancing metre.   Of the many videos available I found this simple version by the Crimson Ensemble the most folk like.


The Wikipedia entry on Baring-Gould makes for a fascinating read - the man was a true polymath, a ture genius and a fascinating character besides.   And he opened the door that gave us this beautiful Advent carol.

My blog buddy Debra and I had the same thought and she has posted a lovely version of this carol on She Who Seeks.

December 14 - 1896: The Glasgow Underground Railway is opened by the Glasgow District Subway Company.