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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

Though undoubtedly there are some wonderful worldwide New Year’s celebrations (we read about some of them on December 2nd, and there are many more in the Crump Encyclopedia), for the sake of brevity and my sanity, this will focus on the Anglo/Celtic diaspora of celebrations, though with a flavoring of other traditions.

Between the 13th century and 1752, New Year was observed on March 25th, “Lady Day,” the Feast of the Annunciation. Scotland (as detailed on December 11) changed its New Year to January 1st in 1600, so, with the decision by the Presbyterian church that celebration of Christmas had no biblical basis, New Year’s became the principle midwinter celebration.

Customs on the Stroke of Midnight

In Wales and the Marches, the back door is first opened at the first stroke of midnight to release the Old Year, then the door is locked to keep luck from escaping, and finally on the last stroke, the front door is opened to let the New Year in.

The First-Footing is what Crump calls “an endearing tradition” in the north of England and in Scotland. It’s based on the ancient superstition that the first person or creature to come in the door on the first day of the New Year will influence the kind of luck the household has. In Scotland, a dark-haired, tall, handsome man with a high instep is favored, as are dogs. The anonymous webmaster of Hogmanay.net suggests that the reason light-haired men are considered bad luck is a race memory of the Vikings from their adventures in Scotland in the 4th through 12th centuries. What will bring you bad luck is: women (what a surprise!), people with flat feet (I’m doubly damned then!), people with squint-eyes (triply damned!), gravediggers, doctors, and cats. People who meet the first criteria will go house by house, entering shortly after midnight, to bring good luck. They take with them handsels, which are bread, coal, salt, money, and whiskey. The person coming in places the coal on the fire, the gifts on the table, and pours a drink for the head of the house. (According to Will Forbes, the coal is so that the house will never be cold, the food--a black bun in the northeast--so that you will never go hungry.) No one is supposed to speak while this is going on, until the First-Footer pronounces a New Year’s wish of luck and prosperity. Then the host shares the gifts with everyone, especially the First-Footer. In Scotland, they may also bring shortbread, oatcakes, black bun, chocolates, or fruit. Hogmanay.net suggests that it is more likely that groups of friends now go from house to house in a first-footing ceremony.

There were once customs and superstitions associated with New Year which have since disappeared, such as the old year’s bad luck being burned with the cailleach, a small wooden effigy of an old woman who represented the spirit of winter (a custom that appears worldwide; one thinks of Zozobra). Men also went thigging (begging on behalf of the needy) from door to door (like the elusive Hoggells?). Douglas records the following rhymes in association with thigging:

Rise up, guid wife, an’ shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggars:
We are bairns come out to play
Get up and gie’s our Hogmanay!

My feet’s cauld, my shoon’s din,
Gie’s my cakes, and let me rin.

In Aberdeenshire, a newborn baby who gave three “greets” at the New Year was expected to live a long and healthy life. In many places in Scotland it was considered unlucky to marry during the first 12 days of the New Year.

In England, following the Old Calendar, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s when the Lord of the Manor was given samples of produce by his tenants and peasants, while he gave a valuable gift to the Queen or King. Also, husbands would give their wives money at this time to buy pins, which is why we have the phrase “pin money.” Girls might drop egg whites into water, finding the names of their future husbands in the whites.


“But surely you can’t have had a good New Year if you can remember it.” --Response of a correspondent on being asked for Hogmanay memories, from Hugh Douglas’ The Hogmanay Companion

The word for the Scottish New Year celebrations is of unknown origin. It might come from French; from Homme est né (“Man is born,” describing Christmas), aguillaneuf (a New Year’s gift), or hoguinané (the Norman dialect of aguillaneuf); or from Celtic languages: halegmonath (Anglo-Saxon for “holy month”), oge maiden (Gaelic for “New Morning”). Or it could come from further afield: hagmena (Greek for “holy moon”); hoggo-nott (Scandinavian for “night before Yule”); or hoogmindag (Flemish for “great love day”). (Each one seems less likely than the last.) New Year’s Eve is known in Gaelic as Oidhche Chaluinne, Night of the Candles.

Similar to the preparations Indian families perform for Diwali, Scottish families clean and repair their homes in the weeks leading up to Hogmanay. There is an old ritual to fumigate homes with juniper berries to purge evil. On Hogmanay, the host sets food and drink before all guests. This might include shortbread, black bun, cherry cake, plum cake, sultana cake, seed cake, oatcakes, or clootie dumpling (cake with raisins and dumplings). The drink might be het pint or Athollbrose (made of oatmeal, whiskey, cream, honey, and eggs—doesn’t sound too dissimilar from syllabub, see December 12). Or for the teetotallers, ginger wine (made of lemon, oranges, sugar, and ginger).

Here is a recipe from 1826 for het pint.

4 pints mild ale
3 eggs
½ pint Scottish whisky
Sugar to taste

Grate a nutmeg into two quarts of the ale and bring it to a boil. Mix a little cold ale with sugar necessary to sweeten this, and three eggs, making sure they don’t curdle. Pour in ½ pint whisky, bring it nearly to a boil, and then pour from one vessel to another until it becomes smooth and bright.

Some countries like Bulgaria have the custom of children tapping adults with decorated poles to give good luck and health (think of the Hunting of the Wren, see December 9). There is a similar custom on the islands of Lewis and South Uist. Boys bearing sticks enter homes and chant Gaelic rhymes. The leader wears a sheepskin and walks clockwise around a chair while others tap the sheepskin with their sticks. Presumably this is carried out in a room that’s been cleared of most of its furniture, as it now becomes a health and safety nightmare. The leader singes his sheepskin and everyone has a whiff of the smoke for good luck (ewww). Then the hosts give them oatcakes or else they get cursed.

In the larger cities of Scotland, the Hogmanay celebrations have become ticketed events with sponsored concerts, street parties, ceilidh (pronounced “kayleh”) dancing, and torchlight processions. There are also many sporting events on New Year’s Day, including the Huskies at Holyrood (a sled-dog race). People also take “dooks” (dunks) into freezing rivers. A curious custom is that of the Kirkwall Ba’ Game played by men in the city of Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands. It has been played there in its present form since 1850. The object of the game is for Doonies (those born north of St Magnus Cathedral) and Uppies (those born south, naturally) to try to move a hard, cork-filled leather ball to a goal, with 200 or more fellow players. According to medieval legend, this game came from a man from Kirkwall slaying a regional tyrant, decapitating the head and tying it to his saddle. He then accidentally cut himself on the head’s tooth, got infected, and died. So the people of the town kicked the head through the streets in revenge. That sounds like the Scots!

Fire Processions

Bonfires are a large part of Hogmanay celebrations. In the city of Biggar in Scotland, the fire traditionally burns all night, and the gifts of red herrings are toasted over the fire and eaten on the spot. In Stonehaven, men march down the High Street, swinging 20 pound fireballs on 5 foot metal chains down to the harbor. They then toss them into the sea. In Comrie, flambeaux of canvas torches soaked in paraffin are set atop 10 foot birch poles placed along the dyke by the Auld Kirkyaird. They are lit at midnight, men and a pipe band march them through the streets, and then they are hurled into the River Earn.

In Burghead, the unique “Burning of the Clavie” takes place on January 11th, which is the Old New Year’s Eve in the Julian calendar. Clavie is a tar barrel on an 8 foot pole. It can only be touched by the Clavie Crew. A Clavie King is chosen who lights the clavier, bears it across the town, and smoldering brands are thrown into house doors or to bystanders for luck (sounds dangerous). The clavie is taken to Doorie Hill, where it is fixed to a stone pillar. The Clavie King refuels it with more tar, then after awhile smashes it with a hatchet, and people save pieces for luck.

In Herefordshire in the early 20th century, there was a “Burning of the Bush.” The bush was made of hawthorn and mistletoe and hung in the kitchen from one New Year’s Day to the next. In London in 1987, a new event was called the Lord Mayor of Wesminster’s Big Parade, which is now known as the New Year’s Parade—London. It is the world’s largest

New Year’s parade

In Wales, there is the tradition of the calenigg (small gift) which comes from Kalends (see December 1). Welsh children would take water and evergreen branches and go door to door singing carols and anointing friends’ faces with water. They would receive in turn coins. Sometimes they gave out good luck charms, caleniggs which were apples set on three sticks decorated with almonds, raisins, greenery, ribbons, and one candle wedged on top. Another curious custom that comes from Wales is that of the Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare). This goes back to Teutonic times when horses were sometimes sacrificed to the gods. The skulls would then be placed on poles and the jaws propped open as a talisman against enemies. The Welsh custom involves operating the horse skull’s jaws by a wooden pulley, operated by a man hidden under a white sheet. The skull is bedecked with false eyes, ears and ribbons. The Mare and an entourage of black-faced men go door to door singing verses of a song competitively with the occupants. Once the occupants missed a verse in the pwnco, the men would rush in and cause mischief. Then they would want to be rewarded with food and drink.

Auld Lang Syne

“Auld Lang Syne” has gradually replaced the centuries-old “Good night an’ joy be wi’ you a’” in Scotland, and of course came to be known all over the English-speaking world. In a letter from 1788 to his friend Mrs Dunlop, Robert Burns wrote,

“ ‘Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They spoil these ‘social offsprings of the heart.’ Two veterans of the ‘men of the world’ would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet . . .”

He later claimed that he had discovered the tune from an old man’s singing and that it had never been in print. Adding two verses of his own in Scots dialect, he sent the song to his colleague, James Johnson. Johnson was publishing volumes of The Scots Musical Museum, as he collected Scots folk tunes. In 1796 in volume 6 appeared Burns’ piece, some 6 months after Burns’ death (there is evidence that Burns saw it in the proof stage, somewhat spoiling the tragi-ironic tone!).

Johnson had hesitated because the original melody had appeared previously in the same collection to lyrics by Allan Ramsay that went, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot / Tho’ they return with scars?” One source for the lyrics of the Burns piece might be a folk ballad of 1568, “Auld Kyndnes Forgett.” Or a poem by Sir Robert Aytton, from 1711, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And never thought upon.” Or a late 17th century street song, “On old long syne / On old long syne, my jo, / On old long syne: / That those canst never once reflect / On old long syne .” Today’s tune was selected by George Thomson, a tune known as “The Miller’s Wedding” or “The Miller’s Daughter” published between 1759 and 1780.

It was Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians who first played it on their New Year’s Eve radio broadcast in 1929, doing much to popularize it. It is used as a graduation song in Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan, and for funerals in Taiwan.

Customs from Other Lands

From the 18th century in the US, making calls on New Year’s Day was customary. Robert Segwick made a total of 63 calls in 5 hours in New York City. From the terms of John Adams to Herbert Hoover, annual New Year’s Day “levées” were held. In France, New Year’s is a time for exchanging presents between adults (traditionally, only children receive presents at Christmas) and New Year’s cards. Friends also have dinner parties and eat rich fare. It is also amusing to note that the original New Year in the French calendar, using the Old Calendar, would have been, as we discussed, the Annunciation. Therefore, a joke was made that people were still receiving New Year’s gifts, rather late, on April 1st. This is why April 1st became April Fool’s Day, or Poisson d’Avril. In France, a big deal is made of it, with paper fishes being taped to people’s backs and the shop windows full of giant chocolate fishes. Did you know that the Times Square ball is made of Waterford crystal and that it was a tradition that began in 1907? Did you know that in some southern states, it is considered good luck to eat black-eyed peas and ham hocks (“Hoppin’ John”)? Finally, in some South American countries, the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes on the stroke of midnight for good luck is still practiced.

There is a hilarious description of American New Year’s at this Australian website: http://www.fathertimes.net/traditions.htm

from BLUE
happy new year—
pine needles silting
the paving cracks
Nigel Jenkins

“Auld Lang Syne.”

“Hogmanay FAQ.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Nutcracker Ballet

I have discovered that The Nutcracker Ballet, more or less ingrained on my childhood Christmas, is not that big outside of the US. Jennifer Fisher, who has written a fascinating book on this phenomenon, says, “ . . . in North America at least, The Nutcracker, regular as clockwork, performed anywhere someone has ballet shoes, a Tchaikovsky CD, and a dream” (ix).

The History of Nutcrackers

The oldest surviving nutcracker is from the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E and is in a museum in Tarent, Italy. Iron-lever nutcrackers date from the 13th and 14th centuries, and by the 15th century, brass was being used. Eventually moulds were used in production. By the 16th century, artisans in England and France were carving intricate wooden nutcrackers. By the 18th and 19th centuries, likenesses of humans and animals were carved by artisans in Austria, Switzerland, and northern Italy. In early 18th century Germany, nutcracker carving was a spare-time activity of miners and they often used their carvings to lampoon figures of authority. By 1830, standing wooden nutcrackers in the forms of soldiers were being carved in Germany. In 1872, production had gone commercial. I don’t, however, think I ever knew about the nutcrackers until The Nutcracker.

I knew, of course, that The Nutcracker came from the E.T.A Hoffmann short story—nevertheless, I had never read it and didn’t realize what an eventful trip the ballet had from commissioning to the present. All productions share a few plot elements: “a tree must grow, mice have to fight, snow will fall, and candy ends up dancing” (4). Many productions end (though the original does not) with Clara leaving her fantasyland and waking up in her bed. Many people have problems with the plot (or lack thereof).

If you’ve forgotten some of the plot, read a short version here:

The Original Ballet

There isn’t enough documentation to reproduce the first production at the Maryinksy Theatre in St Petersburg, 1892; original choreography by Lev Ivanov has survived in bits and pieces. The story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was from 1816 and was simplified by Ivan Vsevolozhsky from a French translation. Marius Petipa was the original choreographer before his assistant had to step in. He gave Tchaikovsky a shopping list of elements he wanted in the ballet. Due to various disappointments and the death of his sister Sasha, Tchaikovsky felt unhappy while writing the ballet. Nevertheless, by the time he had finished the score, he felt satisfied with it. It’s well-documented, too, that he wrote many parts of the ballet around the celesta, a miniature piano that gives the Sugar Plum Fairy her distinctive sound. He discovered the instrument in Paris and immediately wanted to include it in the score. In the spring of 1892, he conducted a program at St Petersburg Musical Society and included the Nutcracker Suite, which was extremely popular.

The premiere took place as a double-bill with the opera Iolanthe. Reviews were mixed, but the bad ones were extreme in their vitriol. One critic called it “a ballet produced primarily with children for children.” The dancer playing the Sugar Plum Fairy, Antonietta Dell’Era, was called “corpulent” and “podgy.” The libretto in particular was panned. After 1893, the ballet disappeared until 1909. It was re-choreographed in 1919 by Alexander Gorsky and by Fedor Lupkhov in 1929, and then by the Kirov (Vasily Vaironen, 1934) and the Bolshoi (Yuri Grigorovich, 1966). Various Russian ex-pats took bits and pieces of it with them during performances in Paris in the 1920s. By the 1930s, a partial Nutcracker had been staged in Canada. In 1934, a London production was based on the notation score, so called itself more “authentic.”

A Golden Era

A 1940s-‘50s US tour by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo offered a “condensed” version of the original. The first full-length version was performed in the US by William Christensen in 1944 for the San Francisco Ballet. George Balanchine popularized it in 1954 at the New York City Ballet. Furthermore, the sequence in the 1940 film Fantasia “envisioned [it] by Disney [as] a literal fairy

tale and a romp through idealized nature” (27).

Balanchine also brought the Nutcracker to TV during Christmas 1957 and 1958 with a televised version of his choreography. He was a big fan of Nutcracker and loved the way it celebrated childhood. He felt it made him a kid again. When the stagers of the TV version asked about getting rid of the tree scene, Balanchine replied, “No, the ballet is the tree.” He emphasized the role of Drosselmeyer; he even brought in Santa and his reindeer at the end of the ballet! Balanchine’s ability to “combine the ‘high’ art of ballet with popular images comes across in his Nutcracker, which is not only full of swift, intricate classical dancing but also resonates with the joys of family life and souvenirs of childhood” (34).

Archetype & Canvas

“Evidently you can leave The Nutcracker but The Nutcracker may never leave you” (40). By the 1960s it had become a seasonal, universal offering in North America. One way to explain its perennial popularity is that it indulges in nostalgia for simpler times (smaller productions costume the cast in something that “approximates” the Victorian style), brings families together and celebrates the family. In my work on my radio drama thesis, I have realized that radio drama is the nexus of “high” and “low” art, which is evidently what Nutcracker is. “Elite but accessible, serious but fun, decorative but meaningful” (51).

One Ohio production from 1974 used Cincinnati immigrants’ German traditions. There has been a Bayou Nutcracker (Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre), a Southeast Nutcracker (Tucson Regional Ballet), a pre-World War I Canadian-set Nutcracker (1998, Winnipeg), and a 19th-century Russian Nutcracker (1995, National Ballet of Canada ). Jennifer Fisher was most impressed by the 1996 Harlem Nutcracker. In this version, Clara is portrayed as a grandmother whose life flashes before her eyes and her recently dead husband shows her, in flashback, the Harlem Renaissance. Less successful in Fisher’s view is Vigi Prakash’s bharata natyam (Indian traditional dance) version of The Nutcracker.

Diminutizing Ethnic Groups?

One of the most interesting aspects the book addressed was something that did strike me as an adolescent watching one of the countless Nutcrackers of my childhood: namely, wasn’t the Chinese dance a bit politically incorrect? And what about the Arabian dance (Edward Said’s Orientalism)? No one bats an eyelid at the Spanish (Chocolate) dance, which uses escuela bolero style. The Trepak dance is traditionally Russian or Ukrainian. Fisher is at a loss to explain the popularity of the “we’re number one” hand gesture used in the choreography of the Chinese (Tea) dance. She says it might have been inspired by a Mongolian chopstick dance, or the imitations of it in Orientalist ballets like Les Indes Galantes. The Arabian dance music is based on a Georgian lullaby and the choreography owes more to Hollywood than the actual Middle East. On the other end of the scale, San Francisco’s Dance Brigade has staged multiple outings of its Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, which is a “dance-along” and involves all kinds of performers (the disabled, cross-dressers, etc).

The Psychology of the Nutcracker

What are the main, male dancing roles in The Nutcracker? The Cavalier, the Mouse King, and the Nutcracker Prince, of course. Who, you might ask, is the Cavalier? Basically, he’s the guy needed for the pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy. He was so far down in the totem pole that in the original production he was called Prince Boqueluche, Prince “Whooping Cough.” In Russian productions, the Nutcracker Prince was a student dancer, so not a lot of prestige to that part, either. As for the Mouse King, he’s a bit of a rebel without a cause; his motivation has been lost in the ballet scenario (according to Hoffmann, it’s revenge). And it always puzzled me—this was before I had experience with British pantomime—that Mother Ginger was played by a man. (The Austin, TX Ballet has, since 1997, invited local celebrities to play the role of Mother Ginger, among them Lance Armstrong and Kinky Friedman.) Fisher likes to think “classical dancing transmits messages that go beyond storytelling and creation of sheer beauty” (142).

With strong role models like the Sugar Plum Fairy, who the Cavalier plays second-fiddle to, Clara is both a “little girl” and a “woman.” The Russian casting makes her an adult, presumably preparing her for romance with the Nutcracker Prince. With the casting of her as a child, however, for the plot to work, Clara feels that she has to escape the behavioral constraints of her childhood home. From what we can tell, Clara has a loving, well-off family with a mysterious (possibly creepy) godfather in Drosselmeyer, and though her brother Fritz may be a pest, he’s kept well within line. Why, then, does she dream of escaping to the Land of the Sweets with a prince? Is it all just related to the crux of the Russian casting, ie, as in traditional fairy tales, preparing her for growing up and conforming to marriage/romance stereotypes? The Hard Nut is a version which has a unisex snowflake scene; this means the iconic snowflake ballet is played by boys and girls dressed as snowflakes. And drag roles in that version can be found in unexpected places.

In any case, it brings us back to the central nexus of The Nutcracker: “is it ‘high’ art, popular spectacle, festival-like fun, hackneyed tripe, just a way to earn money, or a resonant experience?” (184). I remember my friends who were dancers in The Nutcracker took it as seriously as any show, and unlike some people, who get really sick of hearing Nutcracker music, I find the music perennially charming and the ballet more entertaining than any other ballet I’ve seen. The magic of it really appeals to the inner child, as George Balanchine recognized, and I think I empathize with Clara, who dreams of this magical world but in the end returns home to reality and a family Christmas.

I wonder why it has caught on so massively in the US and not elsewhere? In Britain, productions are much harder to find (though I did see a big tour bus recently of Russian dancers expressly touring The Nutcracker). Are North Americans just really susceptible to its saccharine charms? Or perhaps the immigrant component, the fact that it seems deeply rooted in an Old World, nullifies its appeal in Europe?

Ballet Austin.
“History of Nutcrackers.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Christmas Card

Wood engravers had been producing prints with a religious theme for Christmas since the Middle Ages. That was still a long way off from the roaring trade of Christmas cards we have today. At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, it was a popular practice for people to send hand-drawn “Christmas sheets” to family and friends (recall the 18th century tradition of children bringing home their penmanship copies). It was also popular to send special Christmas calling cards.

Henry Cole

Henry Cole instigated the first cards. He had been in the Royal Dragoons, created the penny post, helped organize the Great Exhibition in 1851, and was one of the founders of the Victoria & Albert Museum. At the time he created the cards, he was working in the Public Records Office and found he was so busy he didn’t have time to write to all his friends and family sending his Christmas wishes. So, in 1843, Cole commissioned artist John Callcott Horsley to do an image of a family party with inserts of people performing charitable acts. Horsley (1817-1903) was a narrative painter and a Royal Academician. “They were printed in lithography by Jobbins of Warwick Court, Holborn, London, and hand-colored by a professional ‘colourer’ named Mason. The cards were published under Sir Henry Cole's nom de guerre, ‘Felix Summerly’—by his friend Joseph Cundall, of New Bond Street” (Haug).

The triptych shows a family toasting, which was not popular with those from the Temperance movement. It was printed on hard cardboard and the card is about the size of a modern postcard. The inscription says, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You!” It sold for a shilling each, and Cole sold nearly 1,000, of which between a dozen and 20 remain in good condition—in 2005, one sold at auction for £8,500. Nevertheless, this was certainly beyond the means of an average working person, and cards remained a luxury item. Charles Goodall & Sons were the first printing press to produce the cards commercially. “In 1866 Mr. Josiah Goodall commissioned Messrs. Marcus Ward & Co., of Belfast, to lithograph, for his firm, a set of four designs by C. H. Bennett, and in the following year another set by the same artist. These, together with Luke Limner's border design of holly, mistletoe, and robins, may be taken as the forerunners of today’s Christmas card” (Haug).

R.H. Pease was the first American distributor of Christmas cards in the early 1850s. His cards showed a family scene, as well as an elf-like Santa figure, a ballroom with dancers, arrays of Christmas food and drink, and a Black servant setting the table.

Popularity & Design

Soon there were pop-up cards, and by the 1860s cards were mentioned in Punch and The Times. The ubiquitous robin appeared on a card in 1862. The centrality of the robin was reinforced by the character of Robin postman in Trolloppe’s Framley Parsonage (1860). The robin also came to symbolize the vulnerable child at Christmastime in need of charity. Religious cards emerged in the 1870s but remained a minority. Some cards even were produced with spring, summer and other unrelated themes (for example, the first Cole card is mostly pink and has no trapping of holly, ivy, or evergreens which we would expect). There have been stranger subjects of Christmas cards, too, ones that include devils, insects, monsters, and rats, and a strange sub-genre of nubile, barely-clad women, or even prepubescent girls.

In 1880, a London firm offered the extravagant prize of 500 guineas to writers and artists to create the most successful Christmas card. Artists like Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, and Thomas Crane created beautiful work for such an occasion.

By 1873, people had already started publishing advertisements in newspapers wishing their friends their best but regretting they would not be sending Christmas cards that year. In 1880, the Post Office made its first plea for “Post early for Christmas.” The popularity of the Christmas card was made possible by the invention of the chromolithographic printing process and the reform of the postal service. By the 1880s and 1890s, cards took a dip in popularity as they became “mass market.” The Times wrote in 1883, “This wholesome custom has been . . . frequently the happy means of ending strife, cementing broken friendships and strengthening family and neighborhood ties in all conditions of life” (Golby 70).

In the US, cards quickly became popular, due to increased geographic mobility. Following the Civil War, when Congress standardized the mail system, mail travelled more dependably and more cheaply. There’s an amusing quote from 1882 from a post office official. “I thought last year would be the end of the Christmas card mania, but I don’t think so now,” he said, quoted in the Washington Star. “Why four years ago a Christmas card was a rare thing” (118). Americans preferred the cards of Louis Prang, who in 1868 owned perhaps half of the steam presses in America. Prang exploited the market throughout the second half of the century, producing larger and more beautifully-illustrated cards, with a high commitment to a strong aesthetic vision.

In the UK, even more than in the US, the ritual of exchanging cards is extremely widespread. “For twenty years the only communication between two households is the annual exchange of these tokens. This is done with the understanding that such cards keep alive the potential for intimacy if circumstances should ever change to allow it. . . . Thereby the actual expansion of Christmas across the globe becomes itself an instrument in accomplishing the sense of Christmas as the festival of the microcosm” (Miller 30). In Mary Searle-Chatterjee’s essay about cards, there is rather astonishing fact when you think about it: above all on contemporary card design, evergreens and winter scenes dominate (just as they would have during the Yule festivities). “Christmas, then, judging by cards, is a winter festival stressing the survival of life in the form of evergreens” (179).

In France, cards are sent at New Year’s rather than Christmas, known as les voeux, which wish you a Happy New Year.

Jane Austen’s World blog.
“A Theory of Christmas.”
Weston Thomas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in the 20th Century

“Yet the twentieth century has seen the increasing dominance of a Christmas
which is essentially Anglo-Saxon, or more accurately, Anglo-American” (Golby

An Empire Christmas

Historian W. Dawson wrote in 1902, “Wherever Englishmen are on 25th December, there is Christmas. Whether it be in the icy regions of the Arctic zones, or in the sweltering heat of tropical sunshine the coming round of the great feast brings with it to every Englishman a hearty desire to celebrate it duly” (CaSH101). Christmas in the British Empire seemed to waver between melancholy remembrance and enthusiastic embrace of the new atmosphere. In 1873, the Illustrated London News wrote, “Old Father Christmas would have to put on a very different fashion of dress. A linen blouse and a light straw hat would be more comfortable we suppose” (102). In 1925, the Sydney Daily Telegraph mentioned more and more native plants were being used as decorations. By 1933, for example, in New Zealand the Pohutakawa was being used instead of a Christmas tree. The Times of India, meanwhile, in 1878 disparaged an Indian Christmas as “not cheerful . . . the occurrence of the ‘festive season’ chiefly serves to remind us that we are exiles” (105). But by 1928, a different face was put on it, “the pictures conjured up are kaleidoscopic in their variety. Calcutta devotes itself to polo, racing and cricket in the bright but not too warm winter sunshine. The restaurants and clubs give their best. Bombay, more tropically hot—the pretense of wearing European clothes to be abandoned in the middle of the day—gives itself up no less thoroughly to feast and jolliment” (112).

Comedian Spike Milligan recalled the Army and Navy Christmas catalogue which arrived 3 months ahead of time, at his father’s army cantonment in India. This 3-month vigil changed when the first delivery of Christmas airmail came in 1931 to Australia and New Zealand. By 1933, the Lord Mayor of London was urging British housewives to make “the coming Christmas an Empire Christmas” (ie, to buy products from the colonies).

The Role of Radio

The first Christmas carol heard on radio was broadcast from Reginald Fessenden’s Massachusetts radio station broadcasts to ships in 1906, and by 1923, the Illustrated London News celebrated the fact that listeners could hear carollers on the BBC for the first time. One consequence of radio (not just at Christmas!) was that the nation was centrifugally pulled into London. “We have definite knowledge that had we closed down Christmas Day,” said BBC staff in 1926, “thousands of lonely people throughout the country would have no message of cheer or Christmas greeting. That little brightness may have been brought to lives all too drab and wretched, is more than ample compensation” (135). (A typically paternalistic BBC attitude—and yet, even in 2005, 6% of people surveyed said they would spend Christmas alone—usually the oldest and poorest people in the population.)

1926 was also the beginning of the BBC tradition of Reverend Barnard Walker’s nativity play Bethlehem, which was an adaptation of a Chester miracle play. It was so popular that it was broadcast every Christmas for 9 years. Also invented on radio was the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, based on a Truro service from 1880. It was received immediately at King’s College Cambridge was an ancient custom in 1918. The BBC took it up in 1928, and it was broadcast on MBS in the US in 1938.

(This might be a relevant place to mention Amahl and the Night Visitors, which I know some of you love. I enjoyed it when seeing a live performance in Albuquerque. As the first opera written for TV, it enjoyed perennial popularity in the first years of the ‘50s after it was shown on NBC. Here is a link to the score in prose form. http://www.christophervandyck.com/o/story/amahl ] You can also find it on YouTube.

Hollywood and the Second World War

One of the few sources of constancy and comfort for Americans during the War were films. And certainly the Christmas film offered “the impossible but very potent scenario of family unit, reunited lovers, and a return to the customs and traditions of an idealized past” (Glancy 60). It is worth mentioning, too, that in the 1930s in Britain at least, cinema was a way of rewarding underprivileged children. There was a scheme that if a child had 52 marks on his cinema card (which signified 52 visits to the cinema during one year) he was entitled to attend a free Christmas show. At some cinemas doctors and nurses would be in attendance and the children were given medical examinations as they waited in line to get into the film.

One film from 1940 that works rather better as a screwball comedy than a Christmas heart-warmer is Remember the Night, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who steals a bracelet at Christmastime. The consequences of charming the DA on the case leads her to his hometown Christmas celebrations and provides the impetus for her reform. Remember the Night extols the virtues of small-town America, while The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) criticizes it as a narrow-minded backwater.

Holiday Inn (1942) gushes escapism; a morale-booster. “Its dream of an idyllic and old-fashioned Christmas became the cornerstone of many Christmas films that followed in its wake” (65). “White Christmas,” the smash-hit of the film, is the only song sung twice. Irving Berlin won an Oscar for it and it inspired White Christmas (1954), which ironically summons up nostalgia for wartime. “ ‘White Christmas’ has no dark side” (Restad 166). Meet Me in St Louis (1944) breaks the pattern somewhat, being set at the turn-of-the-century and having been tailored for a predominantly female audience. The male characters are notable mainly for their absence. Its lesson is that the nuclear family is sacred; the father in the story has to reject “the modern and urban world.”

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) sounds like a rather sobering story for Christmas. It was based on a radio play in which two felons, one male and one female, are on furlough for the holiday season. There is “a sense that Mary and Zack represent the couple of the future, the postwar couple who will have to put their wartime experiences behind them and begin life anew” (71). Somewhere between the winter wonderland of Holiday Inn and the snarkiness of The Man Who Came to Dinner is Christmas in Connecticut (1945), in which the characters defy gender stereotypes. The heroine is an inept homemaker who is masquerading as a kind of proto-Martha Stewart and has to face up to this deception when she is sent to an idyllic country house for Christmas and accompanied by the hero, who turns out to be the “new man” who can take care of babies and help around the house. Their romance is the result of sharing seasonal activities.

In one sense, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) overshadows all these films, but that was not always the case. It’s a Wonderful Life lost money at the box office and divided critical opinion upon its release. It drifted into relative obscurity until 1974, when it became part of the public domain and could be shown without royalties on TV. Munby’s contention is that people were touchy around It’s a Wonderful Life at the time because it cut too close to the bone. Only when the period it represents (1919-46) becomes myth instead of historical reality can “the more bitter elements relinquish their power over the movie’s meaning” (41). Some of the reasons Munby suggests it broke the mold have to do with its style—it can be characterized as film noir—the fact that Potter, in one sense, wins (“Potter’s crime in stealing $8,000 goes unpunished, thus violating a Production Code dictum that crime must never be seen to pay on the American screen” (47). Nevertheless, it does lurch toward a happy ending—“George escapes the reality of a Pottersville future through the deus ex machina force of Christmas” (45). In Capra’s mind, a darker vision was needed—Hollywood was looking very “same-y” by the time he worked on the film, and having made films about the war “must have tempered Capra’s traditionally affirmative vision” (49).

Blitz Spirit Christmas

Christmas during war has always endured despite a sense of deprivation. For the very poor, conditions were already tough. Fred Mills, one of twelve children of a farm laborer in Essex at the turn of the 20th century recalled he might hope to receive presents of oranges and nuts from his family. In early December 1914, Pope Benedict XV wanted all the warring armies to cease hostilities over the Christmas period—this was impractical for several reasons, one of which that not all parties could agree that Christmas was on the 25th of December—after all, Russian Orthodox Christmas takes place 13 days later. However, the “Christmas in the trenches” from 1914 is well-known. A report appeared that the Germans swapped barrels of beer for Christmas plum puddings, and a Scottish chaplain and a German divinity student held a joint burial service for the dead. However, all of this rather embarrassed the English, and by 1915, strenuous efforts were made to keep the troops so occupied they wouldn’t be tempted to fraternize with the enemy.

This custom continued into WWII. A regiment in Burma in 1944 celebrated Christmas on the 28th, but dinner was delivered by airdrop (pork, goose, duck, chicken, plum pudding and beer) plus there were soccer games. Christmas parties at American air and army bases in Britain were popular with children who were on rationing. British forces in Europe were also unceasingly generous with treating the children there to Christmas parties.

On the homefront, Christmas fare was scarce. In 1943, one diarist noted that mutton was the best they could hope for. Blackout shopping conditions made things difficult.


• The poinsettia’s name comes from Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett, US ambassador to Mexico, where it goes by the name of the Flower of the Holy Night. In Mexico it was once the tradition to place gifts for Jesus on church altars on Christmas Eve. One poor boy had nothing to give and knelt outside the church window and prayed and up sprang the poinsettia. Encinitas, CA is the poinsettia capital of the world.
• Over twice the quantity of wines and spirits are bought in Britain between October and December than any other quarter.
• The mathematical formula for the total number of gifts given in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (as they are cumulative) on any one day when N is a particular day out of the 12, the total number of gifts given on that day= N(N+1)(N+2)/6 Since 1984, the PNC Wealth Management has maintained the Christmas Price Index, which gives the price of each year’s partridge in a pear tree, et al.
• The first Advent calendars were from the 19th century, roughly the 1850s. Before that, the German Lutherans lit a new candle each day of Advent or hung up a new religious image, or even marked a line in chalk on the door of the house. If candles were used, they were mounted on a device called the Advent clock. The first printed calendars came from Hamburg, from 1902 or 1903, by a printer named Gerhard Lang. During the Second World War, the manufacture of Advent calendars ceased as cardboard was rationed. After the war they regained popularity. Chocolate-filled ones were available by 1958.


“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was a poem written in 1939 for Montgomery Ward stores in Chicago, a creation of copywriter Robert L. May. In 1949, it was set to music and recorded by Gene Autry. “As a story of an outcast youngster and written during the Great Depression, Rudolph’s adventure ratified the American dream in terms of merit and acceptance rather than money” (Restad 165).

The reindeer is the only deer that can be domesticated. The Finns once measured distance in terms of how far a reindeer could run without having to stop to pee. A Poronkusema is a measurement between 7-10 km. Female reindeer are only females of any species of deer that have horns. One reindeer can pull twice its body weight up to 40 miles. Vegetarians by choice, they will eat anything from eggs to shed antlers. Male reindeer lose antlers in the winter, only females and castrated males keep them. Oh dear . . .

“The Christmas Song”

I love the story behind one of my favorite secular Christmas songs. According to Mel Tormé, one hot July 1946 day in California, he drove to the house of his friend Robert Wells. He could not find Wells as he entered but went to wait by the piano, where a pad was lying open with the first four lines of a poem which went,
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

When Tormé asked him about it, Wells said he had been so hot he wanted to write something to cool himself down. Together they saw the merit in the song so far and wrote it at the piano in 45 minutes. They waited a year for Nat King Cole to record it, but the rest, as they say, is history. It was near the beginning of a successful career for both songsters. As Anderson says, “is as fine an impression of the positive nature, friendliness, and spirituality of Christmas ever managed by an entirely secular song.”

“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”

Like a number of Christmas songs, I first heard this in the movie Home Alone. Anderson has nothing but praise for this rock carol by Johnny Marks, recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958, for his contributions of songs such as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Silver and Gold,” “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year” (both from 1964), and “A-Caroling We Go” (1966). He suggests that Marks might even surpass Irving Berlin—he of “White Christmas” and “Happy Holiday” fame. Anderson also points out that it’s one of a handful of songs that celebrates the centrality of the Christmas tree. He lists a few others: “Du gronne, flitrende tre, god-dag!” (“You Green and Glittering Tree, Good Day!”) from Denmark, “Am Weihnachtsbaum die Lichter brennen” (“The Christmas Tree with Its Candles Gleaming") from Germany, and “Christopher the Christmas Tree,” “Do You Know How Christmas Trees are Grown?”, and “Gather Around the Christmas Tree” from the US.

Christmas at the End of the Century

In the 20th century, developments toward a smaller family, single-parent families, and serial marriages have changed the way Christmas has been celebrated. So, too, has Christmas become increasingly child-centered. “All children, it is felt, have a right to a rewarding visit from Santa,” whether or not they have actually been good (Golby 88). A “real” Santa has been a fixture of department stores in the US since the 1920s. Judge John H. Hatcher of the West Virginia Supreme Court decided in 1927 that “Ex parte Santa Claus,” as years before, Frank Church had declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Norman Rockwell’s art and J.C. Leyendecker’s drawings for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post were very influential and always tended to be Victorian or medieval scenes, hearkening back to a Christmas nostalgia. “It has been suggested that the family is celebrated so earnestly at Christmas precisely because it is under threat” is one opinion (Golby 94). Christmas journalism in the UK still focuses on the Royal Family. We have little idea how the majority of people in Britain were spending their time at 8 pm in 1884, but at the same time 100 years later, over 70% of the population were watching TV, and almost 40% were watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, let us not be too quick to judge ourselves: there is little public transport in Britain or public places that are open, so there is little reason to go outside. 1912 was the last year in which newspapers were published on Christmas Day, and the majority of the outdoor communal sporting events that used to be a big fixture of Christmas past in the UK do not exist.

Rowana Agajanian examined Hollywood Christmas films from the 1980s and 1990s. According to this scholar, A Christmas Story (1983), with its infinitesimal degree of religious sentiment, demonstrated that this era’s films had their own “musical iconography.” Lethal Weapon (1987) “wastes no time in suggesting something sinister is afoot, for even before the opening credits roll we see the reflection of Christmas lights appear in the cocaine mirror of the first victim” (156). She sees Die Hard (1987) as pro-family and pro-Christian, as it’s about “wish fulfillment [and] being given a chance to prove one’s worth” (157). Of Home Alone she says that although the violence was critiqued by critics, the film also “critiques the American way of life particularly in its promotion of affluence and material goods” (150). Jingle All the Way (1996) is criticized for, well, everything.

In 2010, the Evangelical Alliance (in the UK) reported predictions of Christmas sales forecast to hit £68.7 billion, compared to £67.84 billion in 2009, a year-on-year increase of £860 million. They also found that the Royal Mail had expected to handle 700 million Christmas cards and 40 million parcels from Internet shoppers. In its research, it found that 41% of toys and presents given to children at Christmas would be broken by March. 90% of parents in 2007 expected to spend £500 on their children that year! Also, according to its findings, almost 90% of children under 18 would be willing to receive fewer presents if it decreased the financial strain on their parents. Almost 2/3 of children polled saved an average of £34 in pocket money in order to buy gifts for their family. Of children polled, 89% were excited about the impending season, 79% were happy about the holiday period, but one in six said they felt sad, nervous or left out at Christmas. 54% of adults surveyed said they felt Christmas was overrated.

According to the (US) National Mail Order Association, 20 billion was the number of letters, packages and cards the U.S. Postal Service expected to deliver between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2006. The busiest mailing day that year was expected to be December 18th. 44% of Britain’s online adult population upped their online spending last Christmas compared to 2009, according to Econsultancy: Digital Marketers United. On December 26th, eBay and Amazon were the most visited e-commerce sites, with 9.96% and 7.02% of visits respectively. In the US, online retail spending for the entire November to December 2010 holiday season reached $32.6bn, the highest ever.

Christmas: A Social History.
Evangelical Alliance.
National Mail Order Association.
Weston Thomas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Carols and Poems

Now, there may be rhyme in the below but is there reason? Many of these carols are among my favorites, but not all of them are. For some, I just liked the origin story, and I also tried to give a good balance between the semi-obscure and the very popular.

What is a carol? From the Greek choros, which translates as a dance, via the Latin choraula and the French carole (a ring-dance). The earliest known hymn in honor of the Nativity is “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus, Light of All the Nations”) written by St Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368).

The Christmas Tree
It shone, it sparkled, it was bright
With all the stars of Christmas night,
And every child that came to see
And wonder at that shining tree
Made it more radiant, for those eyes
Lent it the joy of Paradise.
Idris Davies

In Dulci Jubilo

This is one of the oldest and most famous of the “macaronic” carols, which means it was written in both Latin and a vernacular language (in this case, German). It has a charming story behind it. In 1328, Dominican monk Heinrich Suso (or Seus) had a vision or a dream in which jubilant angels appeared to him dancing and singing “Nun singet und seid froh” or “In Dulci Jubilo” (in sweet jubilation). The tune appeared in a manuscript from around 1400 in the collections of Leipzig University Library (along with “Joseph lieber, Joseph mein”) though the tune could be older than 1328. It was collected several times throughout the 16th century and beloved by both Catholics and Protestants alike.

John Wedderburn’s Gude and Godlie Ballatis from around 1540 is perhaps the first English translation of the tune, with others following in 1708 and 1825. Robert Lucas de Pearsall wrote in 1837, “there can be no doubt that it is one of those old Roman Catholic melodies that Luther, on account of their beauty, retained in the Protestant Service. It was formerly sung in the processions that took place on Christmas-eve, and is so still in those remote parts of Germany where people yet retain old customs” (Anderson). Both Michael Praetorius and Bach wrote settings for it.

Reverend John Mason Neale, whom we have to thank for many of our popular modern carols, reworked “In Dulci Jubilo” into English as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” in 1853 based on a rare copy of a Latin book given to him by a friend. Neale was a Cambridge-educated cleric whose poor health (and theological wranglings with the traditional Church) forced him into semi-seclusion in East Grinstead, Sussex, on a very small salary. Nevertheless, he managed to write and translate extensively. “He was passionately fond of music, and had an exquisite ear for melody in words, but ‘he had not a note in his voice’” (Anderson). He very much was interested in re-introducing Eastern Orthodox hymns to the Anglican churchgoers. After a prominent carol collection in the 1860s was published, Neale’s version of “In Dulci Jubilo” enjoyed popularity. (Though Edward Heath disparages it as “the most horrible” version.) At a gathering of the Moravian Mission in Bethlehem, PA, in 1745 was reported to have the song sung simultaneously in 13 European and Indian languages.

Because I love the sound of bells
I haunt the churchyards all year long
no matter where I might be traveling.

Because true holly makes me smile
I wait for Christmas just like children,
And I wait for children too.

Because September travels slow
I catch it when I can
and hold it over for another month or two.

Because this year I’m poor again
I’ve written you another Christmas poem
made with last year’s love and next year’s too.
Rod McKuen

Carol of the Bells

1900s Ukraine is not where you’d expect to find one of the enduring Christmas classics of the 20th century, and what we call “Carol of the Bells” was not originally a Christmas tune. Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych was commissioned by Oleksander Koshetz to write something based on folk melodies. What he wrote was “Shchedryk” in 1916, which was performed at Kiev University. It comes from shchedrivka, a good luck song traditionally sung around New Year’s Eve (January 13th in the Russian Orthodox calendar), usually by young girls going door to door (in a similar tradition to wassailing or more relevantly, the girls with the Milly Boxes (see December 7). The song predicts good fortune and does this in the character of a sparrow foreseeing springtime.

Along with the 13th century legend of all trees across the world blooming in winter when Christ was born, there is a Slavic legend that tells of the night when Christ was born, and that at midnight, all bells around the world rang of their own accord (to be honest, that can’t have been too many bells seeing as there were no Christian churches yet? Does it mean bells of any size, including the ones livestock might wear, or wind chimes?). It seems that Peter J. Milhousky, American composer, lyricist, and conductor, had this in mind when he wrote new lyrics to Leontovych’s tune in 1936. Milhousky had a Czech background and translated other Slavic tunes.

This is my favorite carol.

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

Some sources date this carol, “Es ist ein Ros ensprungen,” back to the 14th century. The story goes that a monk was walking in the woods at Christmastime near Trier and found a rose blooming in the snow. He took the rose back to the monastery and put it on the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The song was dedicated to Mary, who is compared to the mystical rose praised in the Song of Solomon 2:1: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” It was published first in 1582 or 1588 in Gebetbuchlein des Frater Conradus.

Michael Praetorius, therefore, did not write the hymn as if often claimed but harmonized it in the version most heard today, when Protestants adopted the hymn and shifted the focus from Mary to Jesus (some sources say that Jesus was sometimes depicted as a rose in medieval iconography. See also the title of Musica Antigua de Albuquerque’s Christmas album, A Rose of Swych Vertu, which comes from a 15th century English carol, “There is no rose of swych vertu”). (Isaiah 11:1 is cited, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”) Praetorius’ Musae Sioniae was published in 1609. The melody has since been adapted by Johannes Brahms for his 1896 choral prelude. Herbert Howells’ setting has been adapted as “A Spotless Rose.” The best-known English setting is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” by Theodore Baker.

Christmas roared through like a train
we’d waited for impatiently
as winter blew its cold
around the station’s emptiness.

We’d watched the distant lines,
pretended not to look,
and looked again, but still
it came like a surprise
trailing holly wreathes and bows,
old songs and robins perched
in snow. Passengers streamed out
and set up trees that flowered stars,
placed tables with vast feasts,
made spaces into mounds of gifts.

Meanwhile some shepherds
searched along the carriages
and found a girl in blue
who held a child in gentle quiet
as angels fluttered wings
above the platform roof.

Suddenly, with everything
packed back inside it went
like a surprise, and winter
blew its cold around
the station’s emptiness.
Angela Rigby

I Saw Three Ships

Ian Bradley brought up a very good point about this song. Why do Joseph, and/or baby Jesus, and Mary, need three ships? Surely baby Jesus doesn’t intend to sail on his own? I once saw an amusing illustration that tried to rectify this mystery, by putting Joseph in one boat, Mary and the baby in another, and St Nicholas in the third! They are also supposed to be sailing from Bethlehem, but as we know, Bethlehem is pretty much landlocked.

It all actually does make some sense in the context of the origin. The oldest variant of the text is in Forbes’ Cantus (1666). It seems to derive from the Mediterranean journeying of the relics of the Magi, the “Three Kings of Cologne.” Empress Helena, mother of Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, carried the relics of the Magi to Constantinople in the 4th century from where they were taken by St Eusthathius to Milan. In 1162 they were given to Cologne Cathedral, where they remain today. A version of the carol collected by Lewis Davis from a boatman on the River Humber makes the association clear. It begins, “I saw three ships on Christmas Day . . . I axed ‘em what they’d got on board . . . They said they’d got three crawns [skulls] . . . I axed ‘em where they was taken to . . . They said they was ganging to Coln upon Rhine . . . I axed ‘em where they came frae . . . They said they came frae Bethlehem . . .”

I love this byre. Shadows are kindly here.
The light is flecked with travelling stars of dust,
So quiet it seems after the inn-clamour,
Scraping of fiddles and the stamping feet.
Only the cows, each in her patient box,
Turn their slow eyes, as we and the sunlight enter,
Their slowly rhythmic mouths.
‘That is the stall,
Carpenter. You see it’s too far gone
For patching or repatching. My husband made it,
And he’s been gone these dozen years and more…’

Strange how this lifeless thing, degraded wood
Split from the tree and nailed and crucified
To make a wall, outlives the mastering hand
That struck it down, the warm firm hand
That touched my body with its wandering love.
‘No, let the fire take them. Strip every board
And make a new beginning. Too many memories lurk
Like worms in this old wood. That piece you’re holding –
That patch of grain with the giant’s thumbprint –
I stared at it a full hour when he died:
Its grooves are down my mind. And that board there
Baring its knot-hole like a missing jig-saw –
I remember another hand along its rim.
No, not my husband’s and why I should remember
I cannot say. It was a night in winter.
Our house was full, tight-packed as salted herrings –
So full, they said, we had to hold our breaths
To close the door and shut the night-air out!

And then two travellers came. They stood outside
Across the threshold, half in the ring of light
And half beyond it. I would have let them in
Despite the crowding – the woman was past her time –
But I’d no mind to argue with my husband,
The flagon in my hand and half the inn
Still clamouring for wine. But when trade slackened,
And all out guests had sung themselves to bed
Or told the floor their troubles, I came out here
Where he had lodged them. The man was standing
As you are now, his hand smoothing that board –
He was a carpenter, I heard them say.
She rested on the straw, and on her arm
A child was lying. None of your crease-faced brats
Squalling their lungs out. Just lying there
As calm as a new-dropped calf – his eyes wide open,
And gazing round as if the world he saw
In the chaff-strewn light of the stable lantern
Was something beautiful and new and strange.
Ah well, he’ll have learnt different now, I reckon,
Wherever he is. And why I should recall
A scene like that, when times I would remember
Have passed beyond reliving, I cannot think.
It’s a trick you’re served by old possessions:
They have their memories too – too many memories.

Well, I must go in. There are meals to serve.
Join us there, Carpenter, when you’ve had enough
Of cattle-company. The world is a sad place,
But wine and music blunt the truth of it.
Clive Sansom

O Come, O Come, Emanuel

This carol is often given a date of 12th or 13th century in songbooks, but that only tells half the story. It was written in 1851 by Reverend John Mason Neale, but it is based on “O” Antiphons which are some of the oldest Christian prayers. One verse was sung each night, rather than all together as they are in the hymn today. In their original order, they are:

1. “O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi . . .” (“O Wisdom from on high”)
2. “O Adonai et dux domus Israel . . .” (“O Lord and leader of the house of Israel”)
3. “O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum. . .” (“O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people”)
4. “O Clavis David et sceptrum domus . . .” (“O Key of David and scepter of our home”)
5. “O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae . . .” (“O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light”)
6. “O Rex gentium et desideratus . . .” (“O longed-for King of the nations”)
7. “O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster . . .” (“O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver”)

The Antiphons date at least to the reign of Charlemagne. One source has even suggested that Boethius made a reference to them, dating them at least to the 5th century. Apparently they are within 11th century manuscripts held in the British Library and the Bodleian. At least two or perhaps five verses were added to the original, but we know that these seven must have originally been collected together, because the reverse acrostic of the first letters (SARCORE) is ero cras, “I shall be with you [tomorrow].” Sometime between the 12th century and the 18th century, five of the verses were put together to form the verses of a single hymn, with the refrain “Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel” (“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel; Shall come to thee, O Israel”). Neale’s original title was “Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel,” but in 1857 it was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern under the more well-known title.

The origin of the tune itself was unknown until 1966, when Dr. Mary Berry discovered it in a manuscript at the Bibliothèque National in Paris. It was a processional tune for French Franciscan nuns. In this particular manuscript, the tune was reproduced on the left page and a mirror image in harmony was reproduced on the right, so two nuns could share as they walked and sang.

This carol also has an obscure connection to The Hobbit. The poem “Christ” by Cynewulf was reworked by T. Tertius Noble and set to music as the hymn “The Carol of the Star.” The lines from Cynewulf that inspired Noble go,

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
over Midgard to men sent,and true
radiance of the Sun bright above the stars, every season
thou of thyself
ever illuminest.

Earendel is the fanciful name for the star and was also used by Tolkien, among other references from Cynewulf; Earendel the Mariner is a hero from the First Age in Middle-Earth (note the use of the term Midgard, “Middle-Earth”).

Now softly come the minstrels
heads bowed into hymnals
caroling for cookies and safe smiles.
We owe them more than candy
for the redness of their ears alone.

Faint footsteps down the hill and gone,
there music dying through the trees
as back to Bach we go
on phonographs and radios.

The needlepoint of patchwork quilts,
the counterpoint of carols.

Novembers come and gone too soon
there are so many quarrels
that we haven’t finished,
and they might lessen
in the January rain.

Quarrel in December?
November comes up every year.
This Christmas comes but once.

I am not master of the holly,
nor are you mistress to the fire.
Still, together we’re the Christmas people
and dancing down the year end has its merits.

We can fire our memories as the Yule logs burn
and give away our secrets
each in turn.

Never mind what Whitman said,
proud music of the storm never kept the
nations quiet;
lovers each to each do that—
they know that wars don’t work

Merry then and Allelujah too,
I love you just as much as I love Christ.
He opened up my life for me.
You unlocked the final door.
Rod McKuen

“I Wonder As I Wander”
This 20th century carol was collected in 1933 by John Jacobs Niles in Murphy, Cherokee County, NC. He learned it from Annie Morgan, whom he made sing it repeatedly until he had memorized it. He published it in 1934 in Songs of the Hill-Folk. Carl Rütti’s arrangement is the most well-known and recorded.

When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they're cut down
And brought into our houses

When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows

We hear and sing
The customary carols

They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common

But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet's message

Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices

They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.
Anne Porter

Bring Your Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

A carol not often heard these days, some authors have suggested the tune dates back to the 14th century, as a dance rather than as a sacred hymn. Some have also suggested that the lyrics refer to the setting up of a crèche (see December 6) and link it to paintings of Georges de la Tour, most prominently Le Nouveau-Né (The Newborn) c. 1645. Several sources indicate that the music and lyrics were first printed in Cantiques de Premiere Advenement de Jesus-Christ (1553), while others contend the text first appeared in Noëls français (1901).

Deck the Halls

I wouldn’t leave a genuine Welsh Christmas song out, would I? It comes from “Nos Galan,” (New Year’s Eve), a dance carol that appears in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards (1784) by Edward Jones, a Welsh harpist. He organized the eisteddfod and lamented the decline of Welsh folk music at the end of the 18th century, attributing it to the influences of Nonconformist sects. The tune belongs to the competitive canu penillion tradition, where dancers would ring around a harpist, spitting out song verses which would be echoed by the harp. Eventually nonsense syllables, such as “fa la la la,” would be substituted for the harp. I quite like the original first verse of “New Year’s Eve”:

Soon the hoar old year will leave us [Fa la la etc]
But the parting must not grieve us [Fa la la etc]
When the new year comes tomorrow [Fa la la etc]
Let him find no trace of sorrow. [Fa la la etc]

out of the lamplight
whispering worshipping
the mice in the hay

timid eye pearl-bright
whispering worshipping
whisking quick and away

they were there that night
whispering worshipping
smaller than snowflakes are

quietly made their way
whispering worshipping
close to the manger

yes, they were afraid
whispering worshipping
as the journey was made

from a dark corner
whispering worshipping
scuttling together

But He smiled to see them
whispering worshipping
there in the lamplight

stretched out His hand to them
they saw the baby king
hurried back out of sight
whispering worshipping
Leslie Norris

Ding Dong Merrily on High

Much as I love this carol and associate it with Little Women, the lyrics were written around 1924 by George Ratcliff Woodward, making their inclusion in that film a bit of an anachronism! The tune itself, however, is quite old, and a carol in the sense of a secular dance tune, the original meaning of “carol.” “Branle de l’Officiel” is one of many tunes collected in Orchésographie, a dance book written by Johan Tabourot (1519-93). At the time, it was a song for servants to dance to, and sometimes gentlemen and women if they were playing the part of peasants and shepherds (presumably in a masque or a ballet). Anderson suggests that the best English translation of the title is “The Servants’ Brawl.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Silver Bells
“Silver Bells” is another of my absolute favorites (can you tell I like songs about bells?). Unlike many 20th century Christmas songs, it has an urban setting, the unique ¾ time signature, and an unusual counterpoint between the chorus and verse. It was written in 1950 by the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. During this 64-year collaboration, this remained one of their greatest hits. In 1950, they were under contract with Paramount and had been assigned a Bob Hope film called The Lemon Drop Kid. The studio wanted an Oscar-quality hit Christmas song, but the writers balked. They were eventually inspired by a bell in their office and were originally going to call the song “Tinkle Bell,” until Livingston’s wife reminded him “tinkle” had another connotation. They put the song away for some time but eventually finished it. The producer loved it, and before the film’s release Bing Crosby came by their lunch table at Paramount and ended up recording it himself before the release of the film. This was a big boost for Evans and Livingston. Evans, in retrospect, appreciated the irony of the song’s success considering he was a Jew and a non-believer. Oh well, it’s a pretty song!


Monday, December 19, 2011

The Messiah

“The feelings of joy you get from the Hallelujah choruses are second to none. And how can anybody resist the Amen chorus at the end? It will always lift your spirits if you are feeling down.” –Lawrence Cummings

Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with classical music will know of Handel, probably through his Messiah or possibly through the Water Music, and indeed, almost any Western person with ears will have heard strains of Messiah, in one place or another. Slowly, with my research into Hummel, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart, my personal anecdotal knowledge of Messiah grew, but it was only last year that I actually heard Messiah. I had wanted to do a Singalong Messiah for about three years. Yet, for all this, two major questions still bugged me: why did people expect to hear Messiah at Easter? Wasn’t it about the birth of Christ? And were the lyrics always in English, or did someone translate them (I thought that since Handel was German, they might have originally been in German or Latin)? We’ll answer both those questions, along with many more, during the following.


Georg Fridrich Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. He came from a wealthy, religious family, his father a successful surgeon who would have preferred his son to follow in more practical footsteps than that of a composer—in point of fact, that of a lawyer. In a somewhat similar turn of serendipity to the discovery of Haydn’s talent (though Haydn’s socio-economic background was much less sophisticated than Handel’s), some time between the ages of eight and eleven, he was heard playing the organ by the Duke of Weissenfels. Shortly afterwards, he was allowed to study music and, in contrast to his direct contemporary, Bach, he was a bit of a wanderer, employed as a musician, composer and conductor at courts and churches in Rome, Florence, Naples and Venice. Bach and Handel never met, and though in superficial senses they were similar, in many ways their works, methods, and personalities were very different. Bach was very much confined to the court patronage system (as would Haydn later be, one that Hummel inherited at the beginning of his career), whereas Handel would write music for the court if asked, but sought work with precocity. Like Bach, however, Handel was an extremely accomplished organist.

Having an inkling about the personalities of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Hummel, I was struck right away about the nebulous nature of anecdotes about Handel’s character. For one thing, all four composers listed above had interesting (if not always wholesome!) love-lives. Yet, because of a dearth of surviving correspondence, we have to rely on contemporary, often contradictory accounts of Handel’s personality. Handel never married and never had a long-lasting relationship, though he was pursued by young women. He had a bad temper and once fought a duel in the orchestra pit. Infuriated with the attitude of soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, he threatened to throw her out a window. “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” he screamed at her. Handel also loved food. “He paid more attention to [food] than is becoming to any man,” wrote his earliest biographer, John Mainwaring, in 1760, and became very obese at the end of his life. He was also loud, wore an ostentatious white wig, and his English had (as one might expect) various phrases from other languages sprinkled in.

If you can take some of the accounts seriously, Handel also had a sense of humor. When friends came to console him when the audience for one of his oratorios was so sparse, he said, “Never mind. The music will sound better due to the acoustics of the nearly empty hall.” And again, “When a friend unwittingly commented on the dreariness of some music he had heard at the Vauxhall gardens, Handel rejoined, ‘You are right, sir, it is pretty poor stuff. I thought so myself when I wrote it’” (Kavanaugh). Handel was a fervent Lutheran and yet was not, as we have discussed, involved in church composing as Bach was. We know from one of the few surviving letters of his piety and genuine faith. He once responded to an angry archbishop by saying, “I have read my Bible very well, and will choose for myself.”

He believed in charity toward humanity. For much of his career in London, his music and his shrewd investments in the stock market allowed him to be generous to his favorite causes. When Dickens talks about Scrooge being concerned about his fellow man at the end of A Christmas Carol, he could be talking about Handel; “even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine,” says conductor Harry Birket (Kandel).


Handel was a violinist and composer for the Hamburg Opera Theatre and in Italy between 1702 and 1706, where he met, among others, Dominico Scarlatti. Handel moved to London permanently in 1710; the city was thriving during a commercial boom that allowed the moneyed merchant classes to seek out art and culture. Handel found himself on one side of a spirited musical debate: his style of Italian opera found favor with some, but others preferred the more traditional work of Giovanni Bononcini. There’s a wonderful rhyme by John Byrom from 1725 to describe the situation:

Some say compared to Bononcini,
That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny;
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle.

(After his move to England, he removed the umlaut from his name so that is why there are various spellings of it.) The early 18th century seems like a lively time to have been a musician. The ever-ballooning opera production costs were due in part to importing Italian musicians, as they were considered to have the edge on everyone else. Certainly the era had its divas; at a 1727 performance, the leading sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni came to blows in front of the audience . Audience taste had moved on by the 1730s, and this factor, as well as the fact that the operas were costing so much to produce, what with the stars and the scenery, that fuelled Handel’s interest in the sacred oratorio.

What is an oratorio exactly? I asked myself. Well, it is like an opera in English without the staging, composed for concert performances in theatres. Most have Biblical subject matter but some reached back to classical mythology as their subjects. Most of Handel’s oratorios focus on the soloists, but "the chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages,” said Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra (Kandel). Jacobson suggests that one reason for Handel’s upswing in popularity since the 1950s is the development of the long-playing record and now, obviously, the era of the CD. (As far as it is possible for this non-music-reading singer to discover, one of my new favorite Christmas songs is “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” but only the version favored in the US which is set to the “Non vi piaque ingiusti dei” aria from Handel’s Siroe, Rè de Persia opera from 1728.)

Despite the fortune he amassed at the end of his life, Handel faced bankruptcy more than once. By 1741, for example, he was recovering from the humiliating failure of an oratorio and was near debtors’ prison. His health was failing, and in April he gave what he considered to be his farewell concert. Then he received a commission from a Dublin charity, and had a visit from Charles Jennens. William Cavenish, English lieutenant in Ireland, gave the commission for a benefit concert.


Charles Jennens was a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare who was educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Despite his erudition, however, he did not gain a degree because he was a non-juror (he did not accept the Hanoverian dynasty as rulers over England). However, he was also a staunch Protestant so he could not be a Jacobite. He did not want for money, however, and was able to produce much scholarly work from his family home in Leicestershire. It is this man to whom we owe the text setting of Messiah. Jennens had been an admirer of Handel’s music since 1725; a groupie turned friend, he became personally acquainted with Handel, furnishing texts for the composer, among them L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato (1740). (Jacobson suggests that Jennens may have pirated the Messiah text from his secretary and private chaplain, Pooley.)

The working relationship between the two men was not always amiable (Handel once called Jennens “a vain fool crazed by his wealth”), but Jennens remained a lifelong admirer of Handel’s work. In Jennens’ words, he “chose a new series of extracts from the Scriptures to create an Entertainment . . . I hope that Handel will use all of his invention and all of his science.”

When Handel sat down to work on Messiah in August, he used what some have described as his usual brisk pace. Others have highlighted the fact he wrote the entire score in 24 days, locking himself up in his house and writing from morning until night, refusing visitors and food (which seems all the more extraordinary for someone who liked food so much) . When he finished the “Hallelujah” chorus, a servant described him as having tears running down his face as he exclaimed, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” If listening to Messiah is an intense experience, Handel’s experience in writing it can hardly be less so. He quoted St. Paul, saying “whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not” (Kavanaugh).

In 1732, there had been outrage when Handel’s oratorio Esther had been performed in a secular location; thus he had gained a bit of reputation for being profane. With this in mind, it is not difficult to understand why he chose Dublin rather than London to premiere the opera. Dublin was also a fast-growing, up-and-coming city. However, he did meet with opposition; Dean Jonathan Swift, old and cranky, had tried to prevent the premiere from going ahead. It did go ahead, performed in the Musick Hall on April 13th, 1742, raising £400 for charity and saving 142 men from debtors’ prison. The crowd numbered over 700, as women had obeyed the plea not to wear gowns “with Hoops.” The contralto, Susannah Cibber, was embroiled in a scandalous divorce. However, “So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!’” (Kandell) In another celebrated incident, this time at the London premiere a year later, during the strains of the “Hallelujah” chorus, King George II rose to his feet and the rest of the audience followed him, establishing a tradition that endures to this day.

The London premiere was titled “A Sacred Oratorio” to pre-empt scandal. Jennens was involved in this one and printed in 1743 a wordbook to explain his thought processes better. It is actually very helpful for our purposes, as it gives us the “plot” (so to speak) of Messiah, which, as we know, takes its text from Scriptures carefully chosen by Jennens.

“I (i) The prophecy of Salvation; (ii) the prophecy of the coming of Messiah and the question, despite (i), of what this may portend for the World; (iii) the prophecy of the Virgin Birth; (iv) the appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds; (v) Christ's redemptive miracles on earth.
II (i) The redemptive sacrifice, the scourging and the agony on the cross; (ii) His sacrificial death, His passage through Hell and Resurrection; (iii) His Ascension; (iv) God discloses his identity in Heaven; (v) Whitsun, the gift of tongues, the beginning of evangelism; (vi) the world and its rulers reject the Gospel; (vii) God's triumph.
III (i) The promise of bodily resurrection and redemption from Adam's fall; (ii) the Day of Judgement and general Resurrection; (iii) the victory over death and sin; (iv) the glorification of the Messianic victim” (Vickers).

This, then, answers my two questions at once. Messiah was in English because its writer was English, and it is performed at Easter because that is when it was originally meant to be performed. Although it contains episodes that span the life and resurrection of Christ, it is equally applicable (in my opinion) at Christmas or at Easter. “I shall show you,” wrote Jennens, “a collection I gave Handel, call’d Messiah, which I value highly and he has made a fine Entertainment of it, tho’ not near so good as he might and ought to have done.” “I should be sorry if I only entertained them,” said Handel to Lord Kinnoul at the London premiere. “I wish to make them better.”


There is no question of “an authentic Messiah.” The piece was subjected to so much revision over the years (see below); there is no one “vision” of Handel’s intentions.

Fond as Handel seems to have been of his composition—he supervised more than 30 stagings—many of them were for charitable causes. Biographers have said that there is no piece “Messiah as fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan . . . more than any other single musical production. In this or any country.” Another wrote, “Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering” (Vickers). In 1759, blind and ill, Handel insisted on attending an early April rendition of the Messiah in Covent Garden. He died at home a few days later; having expressed a desire to die on Good Friday, he lived until the early hours of Good Saturday. His estate was assessed at 20,000 pounds, making him very wealthy indeed. He left most of his money to charity, friends, servants, and family in Germany. He left £600 for himself, however, to have a funeral monument built and placed in Westminster Abbey.

Messiah was popularized by the Handel Centenary Westminster Abbey, 1784 and Victorian festivals at Crystal Palace. Unfortunately, this 19th century tendency to “improve” (by adding more and more parts) bloated Handel’s score so it was almost unrecognizable and caused composers such as Berlioz to scorn the work (by reputation only). (Wagner, however, recognized that audiences listening to Messiah had a semi-religious experience.) By the early 19th century, Messiah recitals were more popular in the US than in Britain In 2009, the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, the BBC broadcast all of his operas, more than 40 in total,  and every one of the composer's keyboard suites and cantatas was performed during the annual London Handel Festival, which included concerts at St. George's Hanover Square church, where Handel worshiped, and at the Handel House Museum.

Kavanaugh says that Messiah “has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written.” It is obvious to me that Messiah is a real work of genius. Having committed myself to Scratch (Singalong) Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall this year, I had to listen to the score dozens of times, and I have to admit, I never tired of hearing it. It is beautiful, moving, fresh, and so richly textured. By the time you read this, I will have already performed. Though the idea of singing without rehearsal has its faults, the upsurge of energy in a crowd of over 3,000 singers during the “Hallelujah” chorus is quite near to a religious experience.

I think “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” has finally replaced “Hallelujah” as my favorite part of Messiah. “The ambience is joyous, very uplifted” (Pétinot). In researching this, I also realized that the more I knew about Handel, the more I admired him. “Handel refused to be deterred by setbacks, attacks, illnesses, or even severe financial woes. It is a tribute to the faith and optimism Handel possessed, relying on God as he worked to overcome significant obstacles and to create music that is universally cherished today” (Kavanaugh).