Saturday, December 31, 2011

“The Old Year is Past and the New Year is Come”

Here is a favorite New Year’s toast:

A Happy New Year

The old year is past and the New Year is come,
And all the jolly soldiers are a beating on the drum.
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Here's a health to you in water― I wish it was in wine!
And all the money you have got I'm sure it's none of mine.
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Here's a health unto our Master and Missus likewise,
And all the pretty family around the fireside!
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

We wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
Your pockets full of money and your barrels full of beer!
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Collected by Cecil Sharp from Frederick Grossman of Langport in Somerset in 1909 [#368B, p. 506 in Vol. II of Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs, Maud Karpeles (Ed.), Oxford University Press, 1974].  More information about Nowell Sing We Clear:

The Seventh Day of Christmas ― The Oxen

On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Today, December 31st, is the Seventh Day of Christmas. It’s also New Year’s Eve, the last day of the calendar year.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and communities that still follow the older Julian calendar, Christmas (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6) fall on January 7 and January 19, respectively, in the modern Gregorian calendar, meaning that for some Christians, Christmas has yet to arrive. And that’s my rationale for writing about a wonderful Christmas poem, “The Oxen,” by one of my favorite writers, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).


None of the Biblical descriptions of Christ’s birth mentions animals near the manger, but it makes sense that religious leaders embroidered the Bible stories to make them as familiar and appealing as possible to their illiterate parishioners.

Over the centuries, the animals have crept into the Nativity story: the ass and cow, displaced from their stalls by their unexpected stable-mates; perhaps a few hens, drowsing on the rafters; and of course, the sheep, crowding gently around their shepherds as they came into the light and warmth.

To the early Christians, the inclusion of these silent witnesses brought the Heavenly story down to earth, giving human context to God’s great gift, the Christ Child. The inclusion of stable animals at the Nativity was first recorded in the 9th century chant O magnum mysterium, the fourth of the nine responsorial chants sung during Matins on Christmas Day:

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum,
jacentum in praesepio.
O beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare Dominum Jesum Christum.

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,
that beasts should behold the newborn Lord
lying in a manger.
O blessed Virgin, whose womb
hast merited to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.

I grew up on a farm, where an old legend ― beloved, if not altogether believed ― held that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the animals in the stable would kneel in prayer, in recognition of the birth of Christ. The story holds the most appeal for little children and, I suppose, those who believe blindly in the stories of the Christian Nativity.

English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) knew the legend well, and used it as a vehicle to express his own views on religion.

The Oxen
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Originally published in The Times of London, December 24, 1915; a revised version was published in Moments of Vision, 1918.

A barton is a cow-shed; a coomb is a valley.

The first line of the third stanza originally read: “So fair a fancy few believe;” Hardy later revised it to read “So fair a fancy few would weave”

In sixteen simple lines, in regular meter and with a regular rhyme scheme (abab/cdcd/efef/ghgh), Hardy presents questions which have been central to Western human thought for two millennia or more – is there a God? Was that babe born in Bethlehem, and was that child endowed with some sort of divinity? And is the story worthy of our hope, faith, and worship?

With carefully chosen words, he paints the classic Nativity scene: the children are, like sheep, in a “flock;” the creatures are “meek and mild,” like Jesus (e.g., in Wesley’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild”) and Mary (anonymous 15th century song, “Mary, mother, meek and mild”).

By evoking a childhood memory common to many of us ― gathering around the hearth to hear an elder recount a beloved Christmas story – Hardy draws us in to an intimate place, where we become children once again, ready to hope, ready to believe; and indeed, as he says, most children did believe, and never would have thought to do otherwise: “Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt they were kneeling then.”

Hardy acknowledges that times have changed, and that modern people are less likely to believe the old story: “So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years!”

Still, he acknowledges the human need for security of mind and body, and the tradition of seeking that security in the comfort of religion, despite the “gloom,” that is, despite the uncertainty and unlikelihood of finding that which is sought: “Yet, I feel, / If someone said on Christmas Eve, / “Come; see the oxen kneel … I should go with him in the gloom, / Hoping it might be so.”

“Hoping it might be so.”

At this point, some readers will think, “He hopes that it might be so, and believes that it will be so. He believes; he has faith.”

Others will interpret that last line thus: “He hopes that it might be so, but knows that it will not be so. He does not believe.”

“Hoping it might be so.” Hardy makes no suggestion that it was so, or is so, or would be so.

What he is invoking is the memory of hope, his reminiscence of the mystery he felt on Christmas Eve, when as a little child he heard the tale and wondered if the animals would indeed kneel down in their “strawy pen.” And by crafting this poem so intimately, he draws us in to the story, and takes us back to our childhood’s dream, so that we may feel the full weight of that last line, “Hoping it might be so.” This is an expression of lost faith, a song of nostalgia for the feeling of faith, and perhaps an acknowledgement of the powerful appeal of the Nativity story, especially to children.

I’ve read analyses of this poem that remark on its “sorrow of disbelief,” or say that it “aches with a sense of loss and exclusion” or is marked by “wistful regret or poignant loss.” There may be poignancy and perhaps even wistfulness, but there is no regret, and no a “sorrow of disbelief,” and certainly no impulse to return to the stable.

Hardy composed “The Oxen” in 1915, as World War I was spattering Europe with the blood of millions of young men lost to the carnage of the trenches; it was a time (“In these years!”) when many turned away from God and the comforting religion that many had previously accepted without question (“Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt”). Though Hardy had been raised in the Christian tradition, and had even, early on, considered an ecclesiastical career, by the time he wrote this poem (1915), he had long since abandoned his faith and accepted a rational, humanist, atheistic outlook.

No matter your belief, Hardy’s “The Oxen” is a beautifully crafted poem and certainly one of his best. A detailed, nicely referenced analysis and contextual discussion, worthy of your time, may be found here:

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of “The Oxen” is the central movement of his Christmas cantata Hodie. You can read more here:

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sixth Day of Christmas ― Wolcum Yole!

On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Today, to mark the Sixth Day of Christmas, I’ll share an anonymous 14th-century Christmas text, “Wolcum Yole!”


The “Twelve days of Christmas” which fall between the Feast of the Nativity (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6) have traditionally been a time of merrymaking and visiting, as well as the celebration of the feast days of several important saints and martyrs. In this anonymous 14th century text, Wolcum! is offered to one and all; the feast days and the winter solstice are marked; Epiphany is anticipated; and the New Year is welcomed with joy.

Here’s the original text, followed by a modern English “translation,” followed by some notes on the text.

Wolcum Yole!
Wolcum be thou hevenè king,
Wolcum, born in one morning,
Wolcum for whom we sall sing!
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye, Stevene and Jon,
Wolcom, Innocentes everyone,
Wolcum, Thomas marter one,
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye, good Newe Yere,
Wolcum, Twelfthe day
both in fere,
Wolcum, Seintes lefe and dere,
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye, Candelmesse,
Wolcum be ye, Quene of bliss,
Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.
Wolcume Yole!

Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum alle and make good cheer.
Wolcum alle another yere.
Wolcum Yole!

Welcome, Yule!
Welcome be Thou, heavenly King,
Welcome born on this morning,
Welcome for whom we shall sing,
Welcome, Yule!

Welcome be ye, Stephen and John
Welcome, Innocents, ev’ry one,
Welcome, Thomas, Martyred one
Welcome, Yule!

Welcome be ye, good New Year,
Welcome, Twelfth day, almost here
Welcome, Saints, loved and dear,
Welcome, Yule!

Welcome be ye, Candlemas
Welcome be ye, Queen of Bliss,
Welcome, both to more and less,
Welcome, Yule!

Welcome be ye that are here,
Welcome all, and make good cheer,
Welcome all, another year,
Welcome, Yule!

Yole = Yule, a pagan winter solstice festival; also, the feast of Jesus’ nativity, held on December 25

Stevene = St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast day is December 26

Jon = St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, whose feast day is December 27

Innocentes = Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28), which commemorates the children slain by Herod in his vain attempt to kill the infant Christ

Thomas = Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, December 29, 1170; his feast day is December 29

marter = martyr

Newe Year = January 1, the Octave of Christmas, and the start of the New Year

Twelfth Day = Epiphany, January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas; Epiphany, the last day of Christmas in the Western Christian calendar

in fere = “well-nigh” or “in company”

Candelmesse = Candlemas, the blessing of the candles, he Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on February 2

more and less = great and small

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Stamps Feature American Raptors

On January 20, 2012, the U.S. Postal Service will release some beautiful new stamps featuring five magnificent American birds of prey, painted by Robert Giusti:

From left to right: Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), and Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus).

Very fine.

Too bad they’re not for standard first-class one-ounce mail, though; I’d buy a hundred. Who uses 85 cent stamps (for three-ounce items) on a regular basis?

More info:

The Fifth Day of Christmas ― Smoking Bishop

On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Today, to mark the Fifth Day of Christmas, here is a bit of the famous end of the fifth “stave” from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. (Clever Dickens! His “carol” is divided into five musical staffs, or staves. I’ve always loved that!)

[Scrooge] was early at the office next morning. Oh he was early there. If he could only be there first, and catch Bob Cratchit coming late! That was the thing he had set his heart upon.

And he did it; yes, he did. The clock struck nine. No Bob. A quarter past. No Bob. He was full eighteen minutes and a half behind his time. Scrooge sat with his door wide open, that he might see him come into the Tank.

His hat was off, before he opened the door; his comforter too. He was on his stool in a jiffy; driving away with his pen, as if he were trying to overtake nine o’clock.

“Hallo,” growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?”

“I’m very sorry, sir,” said Bob. “I am behind my time.”

“You are?” repeated Scrooge. “Yes. I think you are. Step this way, if you please.”

“It’s only once a year, sir,” pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. “It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.”

“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again; “and therefore I am about to raise your salary.”

Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”


Well, that’s lovely.

But the question of real importance ― what the Dickens (sorry) is “smoking bishop”?

It’s a festive drink of hot spiced wine, “scented with oranges and infused with port.” ( Here’s a recipe which, according to NPR, is Dickens’ own.

Perhaps I’ll make some for our family’s ongoing Christmas revels.

Smoking Bishop

Take six Seville oranges and bake them in a moderate oven until pale brown. (If you cannot procure any bitter Seville oranges, use four regular oranges and one large grapefruit.)

Prick each of the oranges with five whole cloves, put them into a warmed ceramic or glass vessel with one-quarter pound of sugar and a bottle of red wine, cover the vessel, and leave it in a warm place for 24 hours.

Take the oranges out of the mixture, cut in half and squeeze the juice, then pour the juice back into the wine.

Pour the mixture into a saucepan through a sieve, add a bottle of port, heat (without boiling), and serve in warmed glasses.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Fourth Day of Christmas ― Baking Favorite Christmas Cookies

On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Of course, Christmas means, in part, “special, delicious food.” In our household, three baked goods must be had at Christmas: soft white rolls for dinner, pecan pie(s) for D, and sugary-vanilla Christmas cookies, cut into fanciful shapes and decorated with colored sugar.

Though I did most of my Yuletide food preparations in the days immediately before Christmas, I haven’t had a chance to write about any of it until now. For today, the Fourth Day of Christmas, I’ll share my favorite recipe for Christmas cookies.


In the three decades since I’ve been keeping my own kitchen, I’ve tried plenty of recipes for Christmas cookies. The one I’ve come to favor is my own slight adaptation of “King Arthur’s Special Roll-Out Sugar Cookies,” from the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion (Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, ©2004, page 59).

This is a marvelous cookbook, full of practical information and helpful illustrations alongside a wealth of really good recipes. The sugar cookie recipe is easy to mix, shape, bake, and store. The recipe doubles well; the amounts shown below are doubled from the original recipe. The baked cookies keep well in a tightly closed container for two weeks. Yield: About six dozen small- to medium-sized cookies.

In a large flat-bottomed mixing bowl, combine 2 cups soft butter, 2 cups sugar, 1.5 teaspoons salt, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 4 teaspoons vanilla extract. [I omit the almond extract called for in the original recipe.]

Beat these with an electric mixed until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs and beat well.

Add ½ cup heavy cream, 6 tablespoons cornstarch, and 6 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour. (Don’t bother with other flour brands; King Arthur is, quite simply, the best flour you can buy.) Mix just until thoroughly blended. Do not over-mix, as this will toughen the dough.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a light touch, work the dough with your hands (I hesitate to say “knead,” as this implies a mechanical process) just until the mixture is smooth and completely blended. This should take no more than 8-10 seconds. Divide the dough into four equal portions. Again using a light touch, roll or flatten each piece into a circle about ¾” thick.

Stack the rounds in a baking pan, separating each round with a piece of plastic wrap, and covering the whole stack carefully to prevent drying:

Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour; this will make it easier to roll out.

When you’re ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 350˚F, and prepare the baking sheets. I use baking parchment, which facilitates even browning, catches all the drips and drops and bits of sugar, and makes for a quick and easy clean-up.

When rolling and cutting, work with just one piece of dough at a time; leave the others closely covered in a cool place.

Sprinkle just a bit of flour on the rolling surface (the nice cool marble counter top is great for buttery cookie dough), and gently roll out the dough to between 1/8 and ¼ inch thick. If it’s too thin, it will brown too quickly and may burn. If it’s too thick, the cookies will be doughy instead of crisp.

Use sharp, clean cutters to cut the dough into your preferred shapes. Some of these cutters have been in my family for generations; they’re a bit battered but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets.

Dampen the top of each cookie with a tiny amount of water, using a fine-bristled brush; this will help the decorations stay on instead of rolling all over the pan. Damp, not wet.

We prefer simple colored sugars and little rainbow dots, sprinkled with a liberal hand.

Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes, until they are a light golden color. Watch them carefully after about five minutes. If you are baking two sheets at a time, you may need to rotate them part way through the baking time, to ensure even baking.

Some might say that the cookies in the next photo are overdone and too brown on the edges, but I like them that way.

Remove the cookies to a rack, and let them cool completely before storing them in a tightly closed container.

All my recipes may be viewed here:

They are further organized as follows, with some overlap:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

“Like Ornaments on a Christmas Tree for Merlot, Pinot, and Chablis”

Once in a while a perfect gift comes along.

A colleague gave me these three lovely jewel-toned wine stoppers as a Christmas gift:


Aren’t they pretty? This is just the sort of elegant thing I love to have but would never splurge to purchase for myself. I’ve long wanted pretty stoppers for wine bottles, but could never justify the expense. How nice, then, to have received these as a gift!

I sent him this bit of doggerel as a thank-you:

When I enjoy a new bottle of wine,
Especially one that’s costly and fine,
I no longer curse the fragments of cork
That chip off when I apply too much torque;
For now I’m at ease, and very proper:
Each flask of wine now sports a stopper!
These baubles are of lovely hue,
Emerald, ruby, and sapphire blue;
Each is a beauty in its own right,
Catching and reflecting the light,
Like ornaments on a Christmas tree
For Merlot, Pinot, and Chablis.

[Yes, the bottles in the photo are Merlot, Toscano, and Sancerre. But those don't rhyme with "Christmas tree."]
© 2011 Quodlibet. Dissemination, re-use, or duplication prohibited except by express permission of the author.I pay attention and I will find you if you cite, republish, or use my work without credit or without attribution.

The Third Day of Christmas ― Partridges, Plovers, and Popingo-ayes – The Birds of the Twelve Days of Christmas

On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

For today, the Third Day of Christmas, I can think of no better place to start than with the traditional song that marks the Twelve Days. Here’s a longer version of a program note I prepared for a recent choral concert.

At the end of the essay, I’ve appended a few notes about the birds mentioned in this old song.


Though we think of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a playful recitation of a lover’s generosity, the song probably originated as a children’s game of forfeits, wherein each player had to recite the growing list of gifts in turn, paying a “forfeit,” or penalty, if a mistake were made. The verse may be as old as the thirteenth century, and the first printed version appeared in London around 1780. In recent years (1979), some have claimed that the twelve gifts represent “secrets of Christian belief,” with the partridge in the pear tree representing Christ, and the other gifts symbolizing various numbered ideas (three = Trinity) or people (eleven=faithful disciples) in Christian doctrine, but this interpretation has been shown to be of very recent origin and without evidence as to its authenticity. (

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me…
A partridge in a pear tree,
Two turtle-doves,
Three French hens,
Four calling birds,
Five golden rings,
Six geese a-laying,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Eight maids a-milking,
Nine ladies dancing,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Eleven pipers piping,
Twelve drummers drumming.

The birders of the world, of which I am one, love this song for its many avian references. Most of the birds named ― the partridge, two turtledoves, six geese, and seven swans ― are familiar and easily imagined. But what of the others? French hens? Calling birds?

The three “French hens” may be nothing more than ordinary farmyard birds, perhaps prepared for the table in a French style.

The four “calling birds” is a bit more complicated. “Calling birds” is probably a corruption of “colley-birds,” or birds that are as black as coal; e.g., blackbirds. The European blackbird is a common thrush, closely related to our American Robin, and like our Robin, a marvelous songster. (I loved hearing this thrush from the woods outside the Moulin des Ruats in Avallon this past July.)

The five “golden rings” have been interpreted to mean five “ring-necked pheasants” or perhaps “goldspinks” (goldfinches), either of which would preserve the use of birds for the first seven gifts. Natives of Georgia, Ring-necked Pheasants were introduced into Eurasia by ancient Greeks and Romans, and later (19th century) into North America.

A different version of the song was enjoyed in Scotland in the early part of the 19th century: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, a popingo-aye [parrot]. The later gifts included two partridges, three plovers, a grey goose, three starlings, three goldspinks [goldfinches], three ducks a-merry laying, and three swans a-merry swimming, among other things.

The bird-lovers’ blog, 10,000 Birds, has a nice post on the subject, with some beautiful photos:

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Second Day of Christmas ― What's the Rush?

For many Americans, today ― the day after Christmas, the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Today is the day that many families discard their Christmas trees, throw away the Christmas cards that arrived from friends and family, and take down their Christmas decorations. I expect that if I drove around town today, I'd see plenty of discarded Christmas trees, some still festooned with plastic “tinsel,” cast to the side of the road ready for trash pick-up. Some of them will be in large plastic trash bags. It's a pathetic sight that always makes me feel sad.

And of course, today is the day that many stores and retailers will offer “post-Christmas” sales and specials. The big department store near our village is holding an “After-Christmas Blitz and Clearance!” At many discount and grocery stores, today you can buy Christmas decorations and goodies at 50%, 60%, 70% off! The radio stations have already stopped playing Christmas music.

But what’s the rush? Why not enjoy the Christmas season a bit longer? Whatever happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas, which extend from Christmas Day to Epiphany, the sixth day of January?

I suppose that for most Americans, Christmas begins sometime in mid-October, or even earlier, when Christmas decorations and such begin to appear in shopping centers and supermarkets, even before Hallowe’en has come and gone. Thanksgiving, too, is swallowed up by Christmas, especially by the frenzied shopping that seems increasingly to be the central event of Thanksgiving weekend. And of course for many families, the day after Thanksgiving is the day to purchase (or un-box) and decorate a Christmas tree, hang the lights and decorations, and begin listening to Christmas music. So, by the time Christmas arrives, they’ve had enough.

Our family is happily out of step with most of America on this. Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions, and we enjoy them rather slowly.

We did not buy our Christmas tree until December 15 or 16, when K was already home from school and she and D could enjoy going out together to find the perfect tree. D put up the tree and put the lights on it, but we did not decorate the tree until a few nights later, when we could all be together for our “Christmas Carol” tree-decorating tradition. (Read about it here:

I confess that I did not bake any Christmas cookies until…yesterday. Christmas Day. Here they are: We’ll enjoy them as we observe the Twelve Days of Christmas, and K can take some back to school with her to share with friends.

We’ll leave our Christmas tree up until January 6, on which date we’ll also put away the indoor Christmas decorations. We’ll leave the evergreen wreaths on the outside doors until the end of January.

I’m going to try to avoid going into any retail outlets for a while… the Valentine’s Day stuff is probably already on sale.


POSTSCRIPT: Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Words Fail Me

I pride myself on my verbal wit, my snappy retorts, my punning.

But sometimes I run across things that just leave me speechless.

This is one of those things.

I saw this in the holiday candy aisle at the local supermarket. I was looking for those neat chocolate oranges that break into sections. My disappointment in not finding the oranges was nearly assuaged by my delight in finding something so patently absurd as this:

Front of Box

Back of Box

No words can make this seem rational or even clever.

Well, D, K, and I had a good laugh over it, anyway.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Carol

It’s a tradition in our family that on the evening that D and K decorate our Christmas tree, I read aloud from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We never get past the first chapter of the first stave, of course, but we like to do it anyway.

I continue with the book on my own, reading it gradually over Christmas week (along with the three or four other books I have going at any one time).

I never tire of A Christmas Carol; I always find some new insight, or clever turn of phrase, or subtle nuance that I had not noticed before.

That’s true for all good books; they bear reading many times over a lifetime.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nutcracker Suite



Our Daily Bread


“Nothing in the whole range of domestic life more affects the health and happiness of the family than the quality of its daily bread.” (Mary Johnson, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book, 1884)

Monday, December 19, 2011

“Composed less than a year before his death”

[Somehow the sequence of text in this entry became garbled; I've reposted it with the text in the correct order. Apologies to my legions of loyal readers. You are legion, aren't you?]

Try entering this exact search string, with the asterisks and the quotation marks, into Google and see what you get:

“Composed * before * death” “program notes”

Here’s a sampling:

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto was composed in 1791, shortly before Mozart's death…
Schubert's epic late Cello Quintet, D. 956, a piece composed two months before the composer's death…

The Four Last Songs, composed shortly before Strauss's death…

[Mozart’s] great clarinet concerto, composed only weeks before his death...

…the last [piano concerto Mozart] composed, less than year before his too-early death at the age of not-quite 36…

Ave Verum Corpus ... was composed six months before [Mozart’s] death, at age 35 

As a program annotator, I regret that so many music writers fall prey to a retrospectively tragic assessment of a composer’s final works, imbuing them with some special quality simply because the composer happened to die soon after their completion. The snippets cited above give only an inkling of this sort of writing, but we’ve all seen plenty of extended examples in program notes, reviews, and liner notes, where a writer gives in to the sentimental urge to look for poignant, elegiac, or tragic qualities in music created shortly before a composer died.

Yes, in one or two cases, an elderly or ill composer might have known that he was at the end of his creative trajectory, and therefore took special care with works that might end up being his last. This was certainly true for J.S. Bach and his Mass in B Minor, and with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, and perhaps even for Mozart’s unfinished Requiem.

But most composers, especially those who died young ― Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn immediately come to mind ― did not expect to die when they did, and it is extremely unlikely that they regarded the music that we speak of as their “last works” as anything but “current works,” especially for composers like Mozart and Mendelssohn, who were at the height of their powers.

That those works which composers wrote shortly before their deaths ended up being their “final works” can only be known in retrospect, and were surely never perceived as “final works” by the composers themselves.

Music writers must always be able to assess a composer’s works within the context of the composer’s own lifetime, without bringing too much of our contemporary understandings into the picture. That is, when we write about, say, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, we must assess it on its own merits as the work of a young but mature composer, not as a “last work” written months before he died.

Unless they are hugely narcissistic, people just don’t live their lives as if everything they do is their “final work,” whether they are composers or plumbers or writers or biologists. Unless we die at an advanced age or after an extended illness, we are apt to die in the middle of it all. Like Mozart, like Mendelssohn.



I contributed four dozen crescent rolls to a potluck for an ensemble in which I used to sing:

Baking bread for good friends is always a pleasure.

“Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbour is a spiritual one.” (Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948), Russian religious and political philosopher.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Little Red Riding Hood Finally Gets a Cookie

Several weeks ago, just before Hallowe’en, I shared a reminiscence with my friend Alison.


I was just five years old, and Hallowe’en was fast approaching. There was going to be a Hallowe’en party in my kindergarten classroom. I loved the kindergarten and my teacher, the wonderful Mrs. Karplus, who was also our friend and next-door neighbor. I rode with her every day to and from Mrs. Reed’s house, where Mrs. Karplus held her one-class kindergarten in a bright basement room that opened out onto a sunny yard.

I remember the shiny gray painted floor, the low bookshelves that lined the room, the little chairs, the big rocking chair where Mrs. Karplus would sit to read to us. The tall, upright piano where she played every day, and where we gathered around to sing. Games, reading, resting, snack, outdoor play. I loved it there!

But – Hallowe’en! Costumes, treats! I was tremendously excited. I was going to be Little Red Riding Hood! [To my adult mind, it now seems an odd choice, as I never really liked that story; Red seemed foolhardy, gullible, and impetuous, and did not follow the “rules” of fairy tales as she ought to have done.]

To understand this story fully, you must understand that our family had little money, and certainly no money at all to buy Hallowe’en costumes or anything fancy with which to make them. [This was around 1965, when there were few ready-made costumes on the market anyway; most people made or improvised their costumes. More fun that way, anyway.] And for reasons which I never quite understood, we were not allowed to go trick-or-treating. Perhaps it was because we lived in a rural area, where walking from house to house would have been a risky undertaking in the dark late-autumn evenings, and there was no way to transport us to a more populous area (and that’s a rather modern practice, isn’t it?). My mother did make a nice little at-home Hallowe’en party for us kids, and we enjoyed seeing the trick-or-treaters come to the door. But I never felt that we experienced Hallowe’en as fully as other kids did.

But here I was, getting ready for a real Hallowe’en experience at kindergarten! My mother, who seemed able to make anything out of nothing, somehow found or made a beautiful red hooded cape for me – lightweight scarlet cloth, with a nice tie under the chin. I was given a basket to carry goodies in, just as Red Riding Hood had a basket of food to take to her grandmother. I suppose I looked rather like this:

In my basket, my mother put an entire package of Oreo cookies. Store-bought cookies were a luxury in our household, and here was an entire package! [We had home-made cookies and pies and cakes – I know now that in that regard I was much better off, but what does a five-year old know about things like that?]

My mouth watered, but she told me firmly (but kindly) that these were not for me, but for the other kids. I was to go to each child and offer a cookie. Crushing disappointment! But I obeyed.

I remember that day so clearly: We sat in circle, and each child in turn showed his or her costume and then went round the circle to offer a treat to each of the other kids. Ah, that was the plan – now I understood why I had to give those cookies away. Well, perhaps there would be one left for me. My turn came, and I remember walking from child to child, watching the other hands go into my basket to take my cookies. As the basket emptied, the tears welled up, and by the time I got back to my seat, I was in tears. I felt so selfish in wanting a cookie for myself, but I was also keenly aware that the other kids probably had store cookies and other costly things that I never had, and it just felt so unfair.

I did gather my share of candy and whatever else the other kids shared, but no one else had cookies to share. At the end, there were no Oreos left at all for me, except a few bits at the bottom of the basket. (I am not making that up.) Candy was OK, but I preferred cookies. (Still do.)

I have never forgotten that feeling of being left out, of not having what other kids had, of missing out on something as trivial as a store-bought cookie. It seems silly, but still, the memory has persisted, like a bitter taste, for nearly fifty years.


Well, I told a shorter version of that story to my friend Alison in October.

The other day, she sent to me this little gift:

She understood that the hurt feelings of a little girl can last a long time.

Thank you, Alison, for remembering, and for making that hurt finally go away.

Little Red Riding Hood finally has her Oreos.