Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hallelujah... just read the cards

The introduction is a little off-putting, but stay with it. Handel's music will never be the same for me.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Battle for Christmas

During the last few weeks of the semester, I taught two works dealing with Christmas: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and A Christmas Carol. While I was teaching the two works, I read Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, which details a fascinating history of Christmas in America. Briefly some of his information is as follows:

Mumming—costumes and masks

Nissenbaum begins by showing how the Puritans from 1620 through 1750 made the celebration of Christmas illegal. The New English Puritans objected to the drunken sense of misrule that was going on in other English areas. The Puritans recognized that December 25 was only accepted as Christ’s birth date after the 4th century. The Church at that time merely usurped the Roman Saturnalia. The early celebration varied in length, but was essentially designed as a period for workers to let off steam. Mumming, with its sense of carnival, included masks and costumes. Men often dressed as women; women as men. They selected a “Lord of Misrule.” During the celebration charity was given to the poor, with the poor going from place to place demanding drink (wassailing).

One of the signs of the conflict between Catholicism and Puritanism was the removal of “red letter days” which were the days of the saints practiced by the Roman Catholics.
Between 1730 to 1800, Christmas entered the mainstream.

Irving Creates Traditions

One author whose works helped create the sense of traditions was Washington Irving who in 1819 wrote about the celebrations at an English country manor, Bracebrige Hall. Irving admitted that he had never seen some of the traditions he described.

The Cult of Santa

The cult of Santa Claus did not exist in the Colonial Period. St. Nicholas did exist, but he was a patron saint of New Amsterdam. Irving refers to him 25 times in his writing. He is viewed as a patrician saint in a broad hat and smoking a clay pipe. On December 6, he rewards and punishes the children. A poem in 1821 refers to him as coming on Christmas Eve, traveling in a sleigh pulled by a single reindeer. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore composed “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” He’s described a pedlar and smokes a short pipe. Gentlemen smoked long pipes; plebeians smoked short ones. St. Nick’s sleigh flew and had eight reindeer.

Santa’s transformation continued during the 1860s as Thomas Nast began drawing his Santas. His most famous—and defining image-- came about in 1881, complete with long pipe.

In Pennsylvania, the Belsnickle (from Pelz-nickle “St. Nicholas in fur”) was based on Knecht Raprecht (“Rupert the Servant”) who wore high boots, a white robe, often black mask, and enormous flax wig. He frightened people, creating mischief and demanding gifts, following in the traditions of the wassailers and the mummers.

One of the major changes of Christmas occurred in the 1800s when the poor were replaced by children.
After 1826, theatrical productions, which before were not presented on Christmas Day, became popular Christmas-fare for children.

Commercial Christmas

In 1769, a man sent mittens for his wife to a dyer. Nissenbaum lists it as the first instance of a commercial gift. By 1806 the first advertisement with Christmas presents appears in the ad of a bookseller. By 1820s Santa appears. During the depression of 1830s, more ads with Santa appeared.

The Christmas Tree

Nissenbaum explains that the Christmas tree finds its origins in the practices of German immigrants during the 1830s. In 1835 a female author describes the tree of Charles Fallen, a German immigrant Harvard professor. The top of a fir tree or spruce is placed on a table, with toys on each branch and dozens of wax candles. Traditionally the tree was not seen by the children until New Year’s Eve. An 1836 illustration shows a table top tree with fence around the base, doll house, soldiers, food and toy horse. Candles are lit on each branch. The trees probably didn’t appear earlier than 1810. In Germany they seem to have been introduced in Strasboarg after 1750.

Southern Partying

In the Antebellum South, planters took December as a season of major eating and boisterous carnival spirits including guns, firecrackers and hard drinking, a way of letting off steam. People’s drinking started before breakfast. Traditional fox hunts allowed friends to visit. Slaves could use the time to rest, sleep, travel to visit friends, attend revival meetings, even make wares they could sell. The freeing of slaves created havoc with the previous traditions. Nissenbaum’s book proved very interesting reading.

Check it out:
Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas. NY: Vintage Books, 1996.

Check here to see my collection of 365 Santa Clauses.

Friday, January 09, 2009

I Am a Weeper

Are there things that make you cry?

I am a weeper. Art can move me to tears.

Julia Keller, in her Chicago Tribune article, “Our Sob Stories,”
January 8, 2009, discusses how entertainment can make us cry. In an adjoining story, artists were asked what art made them cry. The two articles made me think about which artworks touch me.


The first work that comes to mind is Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. In Act III, Cyrano wins the love of Roxane by his words as he stands under her balcony in the shadows. He—and I—weep when Christian climbs to take the kiss that Cyrano has won. In the last act, having spent 15 years visiting Roxane every week but unable to confess he was the man she loved, Cyrano comes one last time. He has been mortally wounded, but comes to her from his death bed to say one final goodbye. And as he reads the last letter he had written for Christian, she realizes that it was him that she loved. This clip, from the 1990 French film, shows the power of Rostand’s words, whether you understand French or not. [If you want to read the scene in English, try here.]

I have directed Our Town twice. During the rehearsal of the second production, my father committed suicide. The final act of the play took on special meaning as I pondered what lay beyond. Wilder sees our post-existence as a waiting, a “waiting for the non-eternal part of us to burn off.” And when Emily decides to return to view her 12th birthday, all the pain of failing to see what’s around each of us draws heavy tears of loss. Here is one production's take on that scene.

One of the most powerful productions I have seen (four times and counting) is the musical Les Miserables. Much of the production has me in tears, partially from the power of Hugo’s story of sin and redemption and the equally powerful music.
These clips, from the 10th anniversary production, move me immensely.

I Dreamed a Dream

Do You Hear the People Sing

One Day More

Empty Chairs


Movies find me an easy mark. This year’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionarie, and Milk all had me reaching for Kleenex.

For years I showed Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter and wept at the pain she shows as Eleanor of Aquitaine losing the one man she loved, Henry II.

Then we have Titanic. With the images of the ship sailing out to sea, my fountains started and since I had read volumes about the tragedy, each nod to a real person that Cameron added, evoked the tears. From the time the ship began sinking until the end, my vision was pretty much blurred. As I was looking back at images, I find even the trailer (I have to admit MANY trailers) gets to me.

Even a parody trailer can do it. This is a sequel to Titanic I’d love to see.

When Brokeback Mountain came out I wrote here in my blog about the film. With the death of Heath Ledger, the film becomes even more poignant.


Last season’s AMC's Mad Men, often brought tears—whether it was the pain of watching Joan accept the rape of her fiancĂ© or Don’s inability to say in words the depth of feeling that he conveys in subtlities. BBC’s Torchwood had an episode where Jack meets the man he took his name from and as the two grow close, he realizes that Captain Jack has to die. For those who know the series, that episode along with the character’s relationship to Lanto moves me.


As a singer, I often find music touching my soul. Listen to Judy Collins sing Song for Sarajevo (I Dream of Peace).

One of the songs my choir sang at concert was Flanders Fields by Paul A. Aitken. I had to fight while singing it not to react.

Finally, perhaps it’s the Irish in me that is always moved by a well done version of Danny Boy. Here’s one done by Michael Londra from his cd Celt who gives one of the most touching versions I’ve heard of it.

What works move you?