Archive for December, 2015

Merry cupid2

Some fragments of Christmastime cheer to help you stay merry:

I was standing in line at the post office to mail a package to my nephew in Colorado. There was only one customer ahead of me—a woman with two parcels on the counter. A young girl stood next to her with two more brown-paper packages in her arms. On the side of one of the packages, in large green letters, was written: “No socks inside!”

My sister Holli got a large, real tree and set it up in the living room of her house. She filled the tree stand with water, and checked it the next day. She was pleased to find that the tree had sucked up a good bit of the water. “That’s a good sign!” she told her husband Bobby, as she added more. She added more water the next day.

On the day after that, Bobby noticed an unpleasant smell in the room and asked Holli to come smell it with him. They sniffed at the fireplace, thinking a varmint had died in the chimney. They checked under the house, but no, the smell was definitely inside. “Do you think something came in with the Christmas tree?” Holli asked. (I pictured a wee field mouse clinging to the trunk, dying of fright during the ride on top of the car, and then having tinsel and lights draped over its tiny corpse.)

They began a more careful check of the living room and soon found that the quarts of water from the tree stand had leaked out and been sucked up into the area rug. “And there I was bragging about my Christmas tree drinking so much water,” Holli said, sadly.

Well, it’s a simple fact that not everything goes smoothly during the holidays, does it? Our church Christmas program was planned for simplicity so that we could put it together in a short amount of time with a small number of people and not mess it up. The minister’s wife said, “It’s all songs that we know, with a narration of the Christmas story, and we’ll practice twice.” We practiced twice, and found that, unschooled and mostly lacking in talent, we were simply not up to the task of singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” or “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” Those two songs were edited out of the program almost immediately. Anyway, angels and shepherds appeared in the lyrics of some of the other songs, so it hardly mattered. Simplicity—that was the ticket.

It came to pass that on the day of the Christmas program, the music left propped on the organ had been mysteriously scrambled. Instead of following “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the minister’s wife began playing “We Three Kings,” which should have come nearer the end of the production. Those of us in the choir made that shift successfully, but then had no idea of what we were expected to sing next. After much rustling of song sheets and a stage-whispered consultation with the minister’s wife, we got back on track and limped to the finish in record time. I believe that in at least two cases we finished singing our song before the minister’s wife had quite finished playing it.

Afterwards the minister said, “Well, wasn’t that a lot of fun!” His wife, still seated at her instrument, shook her head no. He didn’t get a single “Amen” from the congregation, either, but with no decrease in enthusiasm he added, “And don’t you know that Jesus enjoyed it!”

Finally, from my friend Elizabeth von Arnim we get a sweet illustration of a German country Christmas, complete with three Christmas trees in the library:

It is the fashion, I believe, to regard Christmas as a bore of rather gross description, and as a time when you are invited to over-eat yourself, and pretend to be merry without just cause. As a matter of fact, it is one of the prettiest and most poetic institutions possible, if observed in the proper manner…. [F]or days beforehand, every time the three babies go into the garden they expect to meet the Christ Child with His arms full of gifts. They firmly believe that it is thus their presents are brought, and it is such a charming idea that Christmas would be worth celebrating for its sake alone.

When the trees are lighted, and stand in their radiance shining down on the happy faces, I forget all the trouble it has been, and the number of times I have had to run up and down stairs, and the various aches in head and feet, and enjoy myself as much as anybody.

(There follows a description of the singing of carols, and the distribution of gifts to all of those who work on the family’s estate, until finally the festivities come to an end.)

When [the babies] came to say good-night, they were all very pale and subdued. The April baby had an exhausted-looked Japanese doll with her, which she said she was taking to bed, not because she liked him, but because she was so sorry for him, he seemed so very tired. They kissed me absently, and went away, only the April baby glancing at the trees as she passed and making them a curtesy.

“Good-bye, trees,” I heard her say; and then she made the Japanese doll bow to them, which he did, in a very languid and blasé fashion. “You’ll never see such trees again,” she told him, giving him a vindictive shake, “for you’ll be brokened long before next time.”

She went out, but came back as though she had forgotten something.

“Thank the Christkind so much, Mummy, won’t you, for all the lovely things He brought us. I suppose you’re writing to Him now, isn’t you?”

I cannot see that there was anything gross about our Christmas, and we were perfectly merry without any need to pretend, and for at least two days it brought us a little nearer together, and made us kind.

So may we all be brought nearer together, and as we are merry we should remember also to be kind. If we chance to over-eat ourselves, let us not forget in our stupor to write our own thank-yous to those who bring us gifts—even if we find upon unwrapping the package that there are, in fact, socks inside.


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Christmas Memory

I’ve been reading the collected works of Elizabeth von Arnim, mainly because I was able to buy 11 of her novels for $1.99 via Kindle. I came across her when reading about British author Barbara Pym, who was heavily influenced by von Arnim. Pym is one of my favorites for low-key humor, so I collected the 11 works and set to reading.

First, about the author: She was a mess. Elizabeth was born (under about three different names, none of which matter for our purposes) in Australia, grew up in England, married a Prussian aristocrat and lived in Germany, married the elder brother of Bertrand Russell, split with him, carried on with H. G. Wells for about three years, had a lengthy relationship with a British publisher who was 30 years (thirty years!) younger, and died in Charleston, SC in 1941 at age 74. I expect she was exhausted.

But I enjoy her writing immensely. I started with Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and then read The Pastor’s Wife and Enchanted April. Elizabeth is, besides being a mess, a hoot. There is one passage in German Garden (which is autobiographical) in which her small daughters attempt to tell her the story of Moses in the bulrushes, using a mix of German and English:

“He wasn’t a cat,” [the April baby said.]

“A cat?”

“Yes, he wasn’t a cat, that Moses—a boy was he.”

“But of course he wasn’t a cat,” I said with some severity, “no one ever supposed he was.”

“Yes, but mummy,” she explained eagerly, with much appropriate hand-action, “the cook’s Moses is a cat.”

“Oh, I see. Well?”

“And he was put in a basket in the water, and that did swim.” [There follows a bit of back-and-forth about how the Konigstochter and her ladies discovered the basket.]

“And then they went near, and one must take off her shoes and stockings and go in the water and fetch that tiny basket, and then they made it open, and that Kind did cry and cry and strampel so”—here both babies gave such a vivid illustration of the strampeln that the verandah shook—“and see! It is a tiny baby. And they fetched somebody to give it to eat, and the Konigstochter can keep that boy, and further it doesn’t go.”

That is the most entertaining retelling of the Moses story that I have read, though I have seen a modern e-mail circulate that featured children’s views of various Bible stories. My favorite was: “Jesus also had twelve opossums. The worst one was Judas Asparagus.”

Another von Arnim book, In the Mountains, contains no children or Bible stories. In it, the main character returns to her family’s summer home after five years away and finds that the books have shifted about on the shelves during her absence:

There is the oddest lot of books in this house, pitchforked together by circumstances, and sometimes their accidental rearrangement by Antoine after cleaning their shelves each spring… would make their writers, if they could know, curdle between their own covers. Some are standing on their heads—Antoine has no prejudices about the right side up of an author—most of those in sets have their volumes wrong, and yesterday I found a Henry James, lost from the rest of him, lost even, it looked like, to propriety, held tight between two ladies. The ladies were Ouida and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. They would hardly let him go, they had got him so tight. I pulled him out, a little damaged, and restored him, ruffled in spite of my careful smoothing, to his proper place. It was the Son and Brother, and there he had been for months, perhaps years, being hugged. Dreadful.

But it is impossible, I find, to tidy books without ending up by sitting on the floor in the middle of a great untidiness and reading. The coffee grows cold and the egg repulsive, but still I read. … Perhaps I had better not get arranging books before breakfast.

(Later in the book, she has this to say about breakfast: “There is a great virtue in a hard boiled egg. It holds one down, yet not too heavily. It satisfies without inflaming.”)

The description of books being jammed together inappropriately on the shelves reminded me of the book-spine poems I had so much fun writing. But they are not as easy as you may think, and I tore up several rooms looking for a good combination. I’m not as happy with it as with my earlier efforts, which were satisfyingly sing-songy, but it is appropriate for the season:

A Christmas Memory
Refiner’s Fire
Celestial Navigation
A Lovely Light

Now I sit in the middle of a great untidiness, with books scattered all over and stacked in threes and fours across two rooms. I’ll pick them up tomorrow, before a satisfying (but not inflaming) breakfast.

And further it doesn’t go.



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