Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year 2015

To all those we love and care for

Nick, Nora, Laurent and Will

December 21 - 1695: A window tax is imposed in England, causing many householders to brick up windows to avoid the tax.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Here We Are Again!

That greeting rang from the stages of British theatres on Boxing Day evenings from the late Georgian to the early Elizabethan eras, with echoes being heard even in some places today.  And with that cry, and the cheer that went up from the audience, the high jinks, acrobatics and tricks of the Harlequinade and Panto season began.

An excited audience awaits the beginning of
the Panto on December 26, 1826.  This satirical
print is by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, brother of
the better known illustrator George Cruikshank.
British Museum Collection
It was first given by Joseph Grimaldi at Drury Lane in 1799 as he established himself as the most popular Clown in London.  In those days the Harlequinade was the heart of what we call today Christmas Pantomime.  The story leading up to it could be from a fairy tale, a popular novel, a Shakespearean play or just some fanciful tale - I have a wonderful 1829 playbill from Drury Lane that advertises The Queen Bee or Harlequin & the Fairy Hive:  now that's a story I've always wondered about. The point was to have the Good Fairy (Fairy Faithful, Fairy Bluebell etc.) defeat the Demon (of Discord, Discontent et al) wave her wand and give the Lover the magic bat that would transform them all into Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, the Dandy and Clown and set them off chasing, tumbling and racing across the stage.  To thwart Pantaloon and assist the lovers Clown would dress up as an old lady, steal sausages, mock the gentry, elude policemen and create general havoc.  And Grimaldi introduced singalongs encouraging his audience to give him tag lines and then showing horror when their responses were less than polite.

Chances are that if he wandered into the New Theatre in Wimbledon to see Cinderella this Christmastide Grimaldi would have difficulty recognizing it as the entertainment he knew.  Over the years Panto changed and developed - sometimes for the better, often for the worse.  Gradually the fairy tale element took over and Panto became an excuse for extravaganzas with ballets, chorus girls, parades and music hall comedy.  The Dame, the Principal Boy, the Double Act, the Ghost scene, the sing-along and the Grand Transformation all had their roots in Georgian pantomime but Harlequin and Clown faded not just into the background but eventually from the stage.

Joseph Grimaldi owned and sign this copy of Tegg's
Prime Song Book with vignettes by Thomas Rowlandson.
Princeton University Library
Sadly the Harlequinade didn't go out with an appropriate bang of a slapstick but whimpered along until as late as 1953 when Harlequin and Columbine appeared, rather apologetically, in the annual Panto at the Palladium.  Their only task was to dance a twee pas de deux in the Transformation scene.  It was a long way from that excited cry of "Here we are again!"

Fortunately the Harlequinade tradition was captured by the pens of many writers and illustrators.  In 1838 Charles Dickens took a rather weighty manuscript left by Grimaldi and edited it under the pseudonym "Boz".  The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi was published later that year as a two volume set with illustrations by George Cruickshank.  Dickens, in words, and Cruickshank, in drawings, recorded scenes that became the foundations of a treasured British Christmas tradition.

But they were not alone - at Panto time the illustrated periodicals of the time were filled with items and drawings hinting at what was to be expected at Drury Lane, Sadler's Wells, Covent Garden, the Haymarket and a myriad of places of entertainment for Christmastide.  When the pen was being held by "Alfred Crowquill" the illustrations were often of a satirical nature as he poked fun at the old traditions.   The pseudonym is somewhat odd as it was used jointly by two brothers:  Alfred Henry Forrester (1804-72) and his older brother Charles Robert Forrester (1803-50).  Alfred specialized in witty sketches for Comic Arithmetic, Punch and The Illustrated London News.  By the end of 1843, he had apparently ceased to publish caricatures under this pseudonym, leaving it for the exclusive use of his older brother.   His pantomime sketches with humorous verses beneath (as seen in The Illustrated London News during the Christmas season of that year and later published in book form in 1826) must have been among his last graphic works placed before the public under that nom de plume.

Plagued by ill health, exhaustion, drink and old injuries Grimaldi retired from the stage the same year that Crowquill penned his tongue-in-cheek series.  In 1847, ten year's after Grimaldi's death,  the great pantomime author J. R. Planché decried, in rhyme, the decline of Clown and his antics:
Poor Arlechino took a prance
To merry England via France;
Came just in Christmas-pudding time,
And welcomed was by Pantomime.
But Pantomime's best days are fled:
Grimaldi, Barnes, Bologna* - dead!
* Along with Grimaldi's Clown, James Barnes as Pantaloon and Jack Bologna as Harlequin were the stars of Georgian Pantomime.

December 30 - 1919: Lincoln's Inn in London, England, UK admits its first female bar student

Monday, December 29, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

Christmastide has always been a time for laughter and when it comes to laughter Bizarro has poked a good bit of fun at the traditions of the Holiday Season.

The Lead Up:

The Big Day Itself:

The Aftermath:

December 29 - The Irish Free State is replaced by a new state called Ireland with the adoption of a new constitution.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014

Merry Christmas    Joyeux Noël    Buon Natale

New Prince, New Pomp

Behold a silly tender Babe, in freezing winter night;
In homely manger trembling lies, alas a piteous sight:
The inns are full, no man will yield this little Pilgrim bed,
But forced He is with silly beasts, in crib to shroud His head.
Despise Him not for lying there, first what He is enquire:
An orient pearl is often found, in depth of dirty mire;
Weigh not His crib, His wooden dish, nor beasts that by Him feed:
Weigh not His mother's poor attire, nor Joseph's simple weed.
This stable is a Prince's court, the crib His chair of state:
The beasts are parcel of His pomp, the wooden dish His plate.
The persons in that poor attire, His royal liveries wear,
The Prince Himself is come from heaven, this pomp is prized there.
With joy approach, O Christian wight, do homage to thy King,
And highly prize this humble pomp, which He from heaven doth bring.
Robert Southwell (1561-1595)

The photo is from an amazing pulpit at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Tallinn and the poem from a remarkable collection of Christmas poems by writers of the English Renaissance.

December 25 - 1100: Baldwin of Boulogne is crowned the first King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Simple Gifts - Part IV

This final gift I've left to unwrap until Christmas Eve is from R. O. Blechman himself.

In his distinctive style that is well known from The New Yorker,  Esquire, Punch, commercials and books he puts a sardonic, modern twist on the journey to Bethlehem.   Would this be the way it would really be for a man and his pregnant wife seeking a place to lay their heads in our modern world? 

As I said at the beginning of this series of posts I'm at a loss to understand why this gentle little special has not reappeared more often.  But perhaps it is better not to wonder but to simply repeat what Coleen Dewhurst says:
The failure to recognize a gift when it is offered to us shows us something within ourselves.  Let us leave that something open.  Let's us make room at the inn.

Thanking you for sharing this time with me and wishing you a Christmas of simple gifts richly bestowed and warmly received.
December 24 -  1955: NORAD Tracks Santa for the first time in what will become an annual Christmas Eve tradition.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

The one thing you will never see either on here or on my FaceBook profile is either of the HFH dressed up for any reason or season.  Only once have I ever done that and I regret it to this day.  I put a pair of reindeer antlers on our Reesie only because some friends had brought them all the way from Australia. As everyone laughed poor Reese looked so ashamed and hid himself in my lap. I still have the picture and vowed at that point that never again would it happen. 

So we have no HFH Christmasy photos - in fact these two won't even go near the tree - doesn't interest them at all.   But that doesn't meant we can't have some seasonal fun where dachzies are concerned. 

I'm sure all my friends who are owned by dachshunds can identify with this and many other tasks:  

And from any of those morning when the landscape is white with new fallen drifts of snow,  here's a little song to sing as you struggle to put on boots, coats and outdoor paraphernalia.

December 22 - 1894: The Dreyfus affair begins in France, when Alfred Dreyfus is wrongly convicted of treason.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fourth Sunday in Advent 2014

The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him: yea, all such as call upon him faithfully.
V. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord: and let all flesh give thanks unto his holy name.
Alleluia, alleluia
V. Come, O Lord, and tarry not: forgive the misdeeds of thy people. Alleluia
Gradual - Advent IV
Sarum Rite Anglican Missal

Today the last candle on the Advent wreath will be lit in churches around the world.  By coincidence it is also the shortest day of the year when perhaps that extra light is appreciated.

Cecil Sharp was the driving force behind a revival of interest in folk melodies of the British Isles in the early years of the 20th century.  He began collecting folk songs in 1903 on a visit to South Somerset.  He extended his search for traditional lyrics, melodies and dances into other other regions of Britain and in 1916 as far afield as the Appalachian region of the United States.

Sharp's original transcription of This is the
Truth as sung to him by Seth Vandrell (aged 70)
and Samuel Bradley (aged 71) in October 1911.
It comes as no surprise that many of the songs he collected were carols including This is the Truth Sent from Above.  Sharp collected the carol from Seth Vandrell and Samuel Bradley of Donninglon Wood in Shropshire in an eight stanza version - though in his notes he mentions that a longer version was known to exist in a local carol book.  Sharp published it in 1911 as The Shropshire Carol in his English Folk-Carols.

Inspired by Sharp's work Ralph Vaughan Williams collected folk melodies on his travels around Great Britain.  In July of 1909 during a stay at King's Pyon, Herefordshire he heard Emma Leather a local folk singer and collector sing a four stanza version with an entirely different melody which she had learned through oral tradition from a Mr Jenkins.   It was initially wrongly attributed to Jenkins when Vaughan Williams had his transcription first published in the Folk-Song Society Journal however the credit was eventually given where due.  In 1912 Vaughan Williams was to include the carol as the first melody in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols and the melody was later used by Gerald Finzi in a choral work in 1925.

Being in the oral tradition there are variations in the text but they all speak to the creation of Adam and Eve, their fall from grace and the promised redemption through Christ.   One of the more amusing variations was the omission of several verses which leads to the second verse ending "Woman was made with man to dwell", and the next verse starting "Thus we were heirs to endless woes"!

I was unable to find a version of the Sharp transcription as sung to him by Mr Vandrell and Mr Bradley as it seems that the Vaughan Williams version is the more popular.  This lovely version is by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir.

This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the God of love:
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,
But hearken all, both rich and poor.

The first thing which I do relate
Is that God did man create,
The next thing which to you I’ll tell,
Woman was made with man to dwell.

Then, after this, ’twas God’s own choice
To place them both in Paradise,
There to remain, from evil free,
Except they ate of such a tree.

But they did eat, which was a sin,
And thus their ruin did begin.
Ruined themselves, both you and me,
And all of their posterity.

Thus we were heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose,
And so a promise soon did run,
That he would redeem us by his Son.
For some reason many versions omit the last verse which seems to me to set it in the carol rather than liturgical mode:
God grant to all within this place
True saving faith, that special grace
Which to his people doth belong:
And thus I close my Christmas song.
And I find it a fitting wish as the season as Advent draws to a close.

December 21 - 1844: The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers commences business in Rochdale, England, starting the Cooperative movement.

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 lovely 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.

A left click on the Gift Tag will open the last gift:

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
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.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Simple Gifts - Part II

Though they could not be more different the next two gifts that R.O. Blechman offers us share a common theme:  memory.  One is written looking at the past, the other writing of the present before it becomes the past.  One is born out of a life of poverty, the other of privilege.  Both are rich in language and perhaps richer in a sense of family - again in two very different ways.

In the wake of an attempt to turn the book into a play that put it, briefly, back in the spotlight I recently reread Moss Hart's Act One. When it was first published in 1959 I found the story of his early life in the tenements of New York difficult and unsettling reading and put the book aside unfinished.  Fifty-odd years later I still found the story of his early years unsettling but myself better equipped to understand it.  His writing is witty and, if at times slightly romantic, unsentimental.   I only wish he had lived to give us Act Two and Three.

This segment, narrated by José Ferrar, mixes archival photographs of New York of the time (1910s) with still shots of the characters that make up Hart's family.  An ingenuous way to present this gift of memory.

Christmas could not have been more different than as recorded by the eleven year old Teddy Roosevelt in 1869.  I particularly enjoyed that very matter-of-fact last sentence. Illustrator Chas. B. Slackman and actor Dean Wareham take us into the pages of the young man's personal diary for another snapshot in time.

A left click on the Gift Tag will open the next gifts:

December 13 -1974:  Malta becomes a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Christmas Bouquet - Part I

In the late 1970s early 1980s I was addicted to catalogue shopping - Trifles, Horchow, Neiman-Marcus and Bloomingdale's catalogues arrived monthly.  As Christmastide approached it became an avalanche of marvelous, intriguing, glitzy and Christmasy things you just couldn't live without.  For a long while I had a complete collection of NM Christmas Books from 1979 to 2010 however I was convinced to recycle them in one of our moves - O foolish man!

The first Neiman-Marcus Christmas Book I
received in the post in 1979. I was hooked
on catalogue shopping for years afterwards.
But I digress.  One of the great pleasures for this poor boy living in the deepest darkest suburbs of Ottawa was discovering the wondrous treasures that, if available in Canada, certainly weren't available here in my particular neck of the backwoods.  Some totally useless - I recall purchasing a brush with a silver-plated handle for cleaning champagne flutes as a gift for a friend and a gold-plated toothbrush for another - others of a more lasting value - an antique style brass razor which is still used to this day.  The one thing that could be guaranteed was that that gifts would be different and chances of duplication slim.  And another of the  pleasures was that crowds and stores could be avoided during the seasonal rush - a phone call to the always pleasant sales people and a week or two later the postman would be at the door.  And often items would be ordered from catalogues earlier in the year - one year I had my Christmas shopping completed by August.

This year as we trimmed our tree I was reminded of how many of our decorations came from those catalogues, particularly the "collectibles".  N-M accounts for the 30 silver balls that we began collecting in 1979 and the charming felt mice that our Bundnie use to love; Horchow for the Russian fairy tale enameled porcelain roundels; and Bloomingdales for the Wedgwood Jasper ornaments and the Towle silver floral medallions.  Because our tree is, perforce, not a large one these days we have chosen to not include the Wedgwood or Russian ornaments this time around but this year the Floral medallions were given their place.

It was in their 1983 catalogue that Bloomingdale's announced that Towle, the New England silversmith, had issued the first in a Limited series of ten floral creations for the Yuletide season.   And thus began a new tradition in our house.

It has proven difficult to take clear photos of the medallions - silver, particularly recently polished silver - reflects everything including the camera lens.  However I thought I'd capture what I could of the remarkable artistry that went into their creation as well as the legends behind their association with Christmas.

1983 - The Christmas Rose

A rollover with your mouse will show the delicate work on the back of the ornament.
Roses have always had a place in Christian iconography particularly as a symbol of the Virgin Mary and as the sign of a miracle.  During medieval times the red rose and its thorny stem became associated with the Passion of Christ.

However what we call the Christmas Rose (Hellebore niger) is not a member of the rose family but is an evergreen flowering plant known for its winter hardiness.   It bears a white flower in late December/early January which lasts well into the coldest days of winter.  As the flower ages it often turns a pale pink. 

But why is it called the Christmas Rose?  Perhaps because it normally bloomed by Christmas Day on the Julian Calendar (January 7 on our Gregorian Calendar).   Also according to a popular legend that on the first Christmas as the shepherds made their way to the manager, the small sister of a shepherd tarried behind the others, playing in the snow.   When she arrived at the stable the shepherds had given their homage to the Infant and she had no gift to give.  She began to cry and and where her tears fell on the snow beautiful white flowers sprang up.  Her tears turned to joy and she gathered the flowers up and gave them to the Christ Child. The baby and his mother smiled at her and she left high of heart and told everyone of the birth of the baby Jesus.


1984 - Hawthorn 

A rollover with your mouse will show the delicate work on the back of the ornament.

The Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) has been considered a sacred tree since the time of the early Greeks and was revered for both its spiritual and medicinal properties by the Roman, the Celts , the Chinese and North American First Nations.  For the Romans and the Greeks it was linked to hope, good fortune, marriage and childbirth. Garlands of hawthorn leaves adorned bridal parties, processions were lit by hawthorn torches and leaves were put in the cradles of Roman babies to ensure good fortune.   For the Celtic peoples the hawthorn was known to be the favourite abode of the fairy folk and hawthorn groves were often the site of altars to the old gods.

It is said that during the Flight into Egypt Joseph  left the sleeping Mary and Jesus to find water and food.  Seeing Herod's men approaching the magpies gathered boughs of hawthorn to cover the sleeping mother and child and protect them from their enemies.

It was also believed that the Crown of Thorns was made from hawthorn and this led to its close association with death in Medieval times.  It was consider a sign of impending death to bring hawthorn into a house, a superstition that is still believed in some parts of England.  It was also believed that when Joseph of Arimathea came to evangelize England he had with him a staff made from the wood of the tree that had been used for that painful cornet.  On his journey he stopped on Wearyall Hill in the area of Glastonbury and when he lay down to rest pushed his staff into the ground.  When he awoke he found it had taken root, begun to grow and blossom.  He left it there and every Christmas and Spring the hawthorn sets forth buds and blossoms.

The story is told that during the Civil War a puritan tried to cut it down but was blinded by a splinter of wood before he could complete his task.*  The truth is that it was uprooted and burned during the time of the Commonwealth as a relic of heathen superstition but one of its castaway fragments - pilgrims were forever taking souvenir cuttings - found its way back to Glastonbury and to this day still blooms on Christmas Eve.  Each year a sprig of thorn is cut, by the local Anglican vicar and the eldest child from St John's School, and sent to the Queen.

*Sadly in 2010 it appears that vandals were able to accomplish what that unknown puritan could not.  On December 9th of that year the branches of the iconic tree were deliberately cut off.  When new shoots appeared the following year they were also removed in the dark of night.  And again in 2012 a newly grafted sapling was destroyed.  The current Glastonbury  Holy Thorn was propagated by grafting a cutting onto a common blackthorn tree. 

December 12 -  Paula Ackerman, the first woman appointed to perform rabbinical functions in the United States, leads the congregation in her first services.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Simple Gifts - Part I

This time of year those of my visitors who own televisions are not doubt inundated by seasonal specials - Rudolph, Frost, Peanuts et al.  It seems the same things turn up every year.  But there were some wonderful Christmas specials out there that made one or two appearances and then disappeared from sight.  Two years ago I mentioned A Child's Christmas in Wales but I also remember A Gift of Love, a gentle, touching TV movie with Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick and the much under-appreciated Polly HollidayPeeWee Herman's Christmas Special (the Christmas special to out special any special) and Simple Gifts, Six Episodes for Christmas.

Created for PBS in 1977, Simple Gifts was produced by illustrator, cartoonist and graphic novelist R. O. Blechman.  The premise was a simple one: actress Colleen Dewhurst offered us six "gifts" in the form of spoken word, music and animation vignettes with the hope that we would open our hearts and receive them in the spirit they were being given.

As well as contributing a segment himself, Blechman called on fellow artists Maurice Sendak, James McMullan, Seymour Chwast, and Charles B. Slackman to create graphics  to match words by writers as varied as Sendak, Virginia Woolf, a young Teddy Roosevelt, Moss Hart and Sir Edward Hulse.  The stories were voiced by Hermione Gingold, José Ferrar, Paul Dooley; amongst the musicians was the familiar name of Willian Bolcom.

Fortunately a broadcast by PBS Cleveland has been preserved and posted on YouTube by David Hansen - a big thank you to David for giving us this gift. And in the spirit of the piece I'd like to share that gift with you over the next few days.

The style of Maurice Sendak is unmistakable in the Prologue that introduces the episodes. 

During what is referred to as the "Little Ice Age" winters in England reached the coldest in the country's recorded history and the Thames River froze over 26 times between 1408 and 1814.  Though it was known that Queen Elizabeth enjoyed target shooting on the frozen river in 1564 and other sports were played on it's ice bound surface, the first Frost Fair was held in 1608.  In Orlando Virginia Woolf sets the episode of the young nobleman and his Russian Princess during this great event.  In adapting it for Simple Gifts Chwast and Blechman change the period and soften some of the social aspects of Woolf's tale - said to be based on the love life of her own lover Vita Sackville-West.

It's a remarkable series of short films and I'm at a loss as to why it hasn't become a holiday tradition. Well perhaps by posting them here I can start one.

A left click on the Gift Tag will open the next gifts:

December 10 - 1884: Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

Well I'm just happy that the performance of The Messiah I sang in last Friday didn't go for stage effects.

Thanks to Pam for this one.

Sidebar: And on a not at all humourous note - the sound of 399 other voices around me singing this incredible music was a very emotional experience.

December 8 - 1542:  Mary Stuart  is born in Linlithgow, six days later she became Queen of Scots. (d. 1587)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Second Sunday in Advent 2014

O people of Sion, behold the Lord is nigh at hand to redeem the nations: and in the gladness of your heart the Lord shall cause his glorious voice to be heard.
Ps. Hear, O though Shepherd of Israel: thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.
V. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.

Introit - Advent II
Sarem Rite Anglican Missal
One of the advantages of working shift work those many years ago at Air Canada was that it gave me the opportunity to listen to Off the Record, a Monday to Friday early afternoon staple on the CBC.  I have often spoken of how host Bob Kerr introduced me - and thousands of others - to music from his enormous and very catholic collection of recordings.  So much of what I came to discover and enjoy in music was because of  his eclectic and encyclopedic taste.  And at no time were those discoveries more enjoyable than in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Bob would play everything from Medieval to Mady Prior to Meissen and a world beyond Adeste Fideles was revealed.

One particular favourite became Sing We Noel - Christmas Music from England & Early America by the Boston Camerata.  This rather eclectic mixture of music jumped back and forth across the Atlantic mixing Medieval with American folk interspersed with readings in Old and Middle English.  One of my favourite tracks was The Midnight Cry, a Southern American shape-note hymn.

Though the Parable of the Ten Virgins (see below) only appears in one of the gospels it was a favourite subject in the Middle Ages and strongly influenced Gothic art and architecture.  It's message was clear: the call to judgement could come at any time, you must be always ready.  It was a warning that appealed to many of the Evangelical sects and became a popular subject for sermon and song in the Protestant church. 

The shape-note tradition was to find it's genesis when the first edition of The Sacred Harp appeared in 1844.  Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha King gathered, transcribed and arranged hymns and songs of worship of the American south and published some 250 pieces - proudly announcing that it included "nearly 100 pieces never before published" - in the first edition.  It was to undergo many revisions and became the standard music book for many churches until well into the early 20th century.

The Midnight Cry appeared in that first edition, and every subsequent revision.  Other than the fact that the tune was first published in the Southern Harmony Hymnal in 1835 and the words a year earlier in the Baptist Harmony Hymnal little information is available concerning its origins.  In the Denson revision of 1911 the writer notes: None of the books we can get hold of give the name of the author of this music. It is an old tune and has been in use for 100 years. The original text had ten verses including some rather stern admonitions to the unprepared and a rather frightening description of their impending fate.   White and King reduced it to six verses and it is this version that the Boston Camerata recorded.

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.  And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.
Matthew 25:1-13
Though the tale is a cautionary one I have always questioned the attitude of the Wise Virgins. After all one would think that Christian charity would have extended to sharing their lamp oil. However that is a theological discussion for another day.

December 7 - 1965: Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I simultaneously revoke mutual excommunications that had been in place since 1054.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

A Window Stained With Colour

You may have noticed  that the header on my blog changes frequently. The change can depend on the season, holidays, current travel or just because.  When it's a holiday or travel destination the choice is fairly easy but what to do during those times between?

Fortunately the internet is a constant source of material - that and friends share moments of their lives which they have captured.  My friend Elizabeth and I met through a picture I had taken of a wine shop window in Rome - don't ask! - and over the past seven years we have shared stories and pictures through our blogs and Facebook.  Recently she posted a simple picture of a window in her home.  Simple but it captured, for me at least, those first days of winter.  The frost is on the window, the trees are almost bare of leaves, the light looks filtered through gray, and possibly stormy, clouds yet it still picks up the glow of a few of the pitchers and vases she has collected.

As I look at this one of my thoughts is:  time to be put the kettle on for a nice cup of hot tea to fight the coming cold. 

Thanks for sharing Elizabeth.

December 2 -  1991; Canada and Poland become the first nations on earth to recognize the independence of Ukraine from the Soviet Union.