Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

I had great ambitions to litter the blog with all sorts of appropriate songs for the Twelve Days of Christmas, but between the celebrating of it, and the necessity of showing up for work on a few of them, I have not followed through with this fine intention. However, today is New Year's Eve, and seemed a good time to do a post, so I am presenting a rather fine version of Auld Lang Syne, sung to the original tune. I do not know who the singer is, though I did try to find out, but I dearly love his voice. For those who have the misfortune of not knowing the words, be sure to click on the BACKGROUND bar beneath the video.

PS. "Auld Lang Syne" always reminds me of a scene from "David Copperfield" in which David and Micawbers are drinking punch together, and sing the song. To quote: "When we came to 'Here's a hand, my trusty feer', we all joined hands round the table; and when we declared we would 'take a right gude Willie Waught', and hadn't the least idea what it meant, we were really affected." It always makes me laugh, even though I know exactly what is meant!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Gesu Bambino, performed below by Giorgio Tozzi, is one of my very favourite Christmas songs. As you no doubt could guess from the title, it is originally in the Italian. I find this version to be particularly fine.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Today, my family and I spent the day baking and cooking for Christmas - sugar cookies, snowballs, chocolate-covered pretzels, chocolate chip cookies, truffles, biscotti, pizzelles, until the fragrant smell of the baking, mixes with the savoury smell of the meat sauce I made for my part of Christmas dinner. We are a very tradition-minded family, and Christmas dinner menu is unalterable: gnocchi and ham. Gnocchi is a lesser-known pasta, made out of potato, with a bit of egg, olive oil and flour, kneaded out like bread, and cut into wee little dumplings. Does that sound complicated? It isn't really, and for proof, I present The Crazy Gnocchi Guy for your education and amusement.

We do not bother with the grater to roll out the gnocchi, as he does, and our meat sauce is a fantastic concoction, with chunks of pork and beef in it. Served over the gnocchi, and with a side bit of ham, and it is the very essence of festivity. We are quite smug about our Christmas dinner, and firmly believe that no one has such a dinner as we do!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Reading.

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to find genuinely Christmas-spirited literature? There are a lot of books whose plot is incidental to Christmas. There are a number of significant stories with a point, that are, quite frankly, a bit depressing. There are sickly sweet stories, that try too hard. There are cynical stories that make a mockery of everything. The well written Christmas story is a rare thing indeed. Therefore, in the interest of genuine public spirit, I present the following list, in no particular order:

The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. That is an obvious one, of course. There is a reason that is has been the Christmas story for a number of years. In addition to being extremely well written, and sprinkled throughout with typical Dickensian humour, it boasts a main character has a strong, dramatic moral arch, and a deeply affecting resolution. Though it is primarily a secular story, it is heavily influenced by a Christian world view. And Dickens's descriptions of the Christmas celebrations are the most authentic of any you are likely to find.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. A singularly charming short story of true love, and a happy marriage in spite of - or perhaps, because of - poverty. The sacrifices that Della and James make to get each other a Christmas gift are sweetly touching, and the ending paragraph, that explains the title, inevitably chokes me up.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. When the horrible Herdman kids take over the annual Christmas pageant, everyone expects the result to be a shambles. What actually happens makes for an often hilarious, and ultimately touching story.

The Father Christmas Letters: by J. R. R. Tolkien. Every Christmas for years, Tolkien wrote letters to his children in the guise of Father Christmas. The letters, written in scrawling calligraphy and lavishly illustrated, mostly recount various mishaps and disasters that befall the residents of the North Pole. The ensuing chaos inevitably endangers the year's Christmas packages, but Father Christmas, and his helper, the North Polar Bear, never fail to save the situation at the last possible moment - generally with a good deal of Tolkien's droll humour thrown in.

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. Try to get the version illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. There are few books that capture the feel of Christmas the way this one does. The book brims with joy and cheerful sentiment, that never turns into sentimentality. The descriptions are densely poetic, the imagery vivid. One can feel the clean, cold air, with the salt tang in it, smell the goose, hear the gas lights hiss. It is a quick read, and I read it nearly every year.

The Spirit of Christmas by G. K. Chesterton. A collections of essays, plays and short stories built around the celebration of Christmas, both as a religious holiday, and a secular one. The sheer jolly wholesomeness of it is an excellent antidote to the maudlin insipidity that seems to be the hallmark of the season these days. Unfortunately, this book is rather hard to get a hold of.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Anonymous. This is an old poem, written in Middle English, but you can easily find it in Modern English too. The action takes place between Christmas and New Year's, and Christmas motifs run rampant in the descriptions. There are several themes running through it: knightly nobility vs. virtue, temptation, but not falling into sin, the nature of courage and honour, and their place in living a truly Christian life. These themes are treated seriously, but never overwhelm the story, nor the Christmas setting.

The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope. I am cheating here slightly, since this historical novel is not a Christmas book at all. However, there is a crucial plot development that takes place on Christmas Day, and there is something extremely satisfying in the way the author takes the incidental setting and lavishes such attention to all the little details that it makes the Christmas celebration - in the background though it is - quite memorable. (To be honest, The Sherwood Ring is just a satisfying book all the way around. It is one of my fall back books when I don't know what else to read.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

St. Nicholas

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas. Back in June, I posted a commemoration of St. Anthony, and pointed out that he seemed to be the patron saint of just about everything. I still consider the breadth of his patronage to be most impressive, especially since I seldom invoke him in any capacity other than the finder of lost items. I must, however, now revise that observation. I have just looked up St. Nicholas's patronage at - a very informative and delightful site, and have discovered that he has a truly staggering patronage. Amongst other unlikely things, he is the patron saint of thieves, military intelligence, pawnbrokers, pirates, students and candle makers. You can read the complete list at the aforementioned website, by clicking on "Who is St. Nicholas?" and then selecting Patron Saint from the menu on the left hand side of the page. It is a rather fascinating list. In fact, while you are there, check out the whole site. It is well worth it.

St. Nicholas is one of my most recent favourite saints. It wasn't that I didn't have a certain amount of affection for him before. After all, the good bishop did seem to run about, doing the most extraordinary things: supplying dowries for a family of girls too poor to otherwise have been unable to marry, for example, or restoring to life the children whom a wicked butcher had cut up and pickled. Besides, St. Nicholas is the saints whose celebrated generosity has given us Santa Claus. How could anyone not like St. Nicholas for that? Still, I must admit, I always found him a bit too remote for me to want as a particular friend. A bishop, who suffered all the pains of martyrdom, except the actual death of it. A wonder-worker, whom nothing seemed ever to disturb. I admired him, but thought him (as Sam said of the Elves) rather above my likes and dislikes. However, a couple years back, I found out something about kind-hearted, generous St. Nicholas, that did more to make me like him than any of the other stories I had read of him put together.

St. Nicholas apparently had a bad temper; one might even go so far as to say a violent temper. He was present at the Counsel of Nicea, where the teaching of Arius were being examined for orthodoxy. Arius was given a fair hearing, and he went on for some length, explaining his heretical view that Jesus, God the Son, was not equal to God the Father. The rest of the bishops listened in silence, but St. Nicholas eventually lost his temper, and struck Arius in the face! (There is some debate as to whether it was a slap or a punch that Arius received. It was a good, solid blow, at any rate). From the moment I read that story, I became a life-long devotee of the good saint.

I suppose it says something about me (and not necessarily a good something either) that this particular story should have delighted me so much. I find it extremely satisfying. We live in an age of political correctness, in which everyone is expected to listen to everyone else's opinions with broad and opened minds, nor ever dare to suggest that certain things are Absolutes and not open to discussion. And heaven forbid that you mention God as something other than a vague, great Being whose existence has no bearing on our own! This is even more true around Christmas-time, when one of the greatest holy days of the year is exploited, but never mentioned, and any public display of homage to the One whose birth we are celebrating, is severely discouraged. I find this particular facet of of our age, not only frustrating, but soul-destroying as well. It makes me feel that the world would be a far better place if we all had our own strong opinions about things, and were not above having an honest fight about them once in a while - even to the point of exchanging blows. I therefore take considerable delight in the image of generous, kindhearted St. Nicholas (who, in the guise of Santa Claus, is almost as exploited as the holy day itself) rising up and belting the nasty heresiarch, as he so richly deserved. Just imagine what would happen if it were St. Nicholas himself who was confronted with the indifference of our day.