12 Days of Christmas Music 2016: 1st Day, “Santa Lucia”

Hello! It’s that time again. Every year this 12 Days of Christmas Music countdown starts December 13 because that’s how the math works to finish the countdown the day before Christmas. But that means that every year this countdown also begins on St. Lucy’s Day or St. Lucia’s Day. Celebrated primarily in some Catholic and Lutheran traditions, St. Lucy’s Day honors the saint Lucy who was a martyr in Syracuse at the turn of the fourth century.

St. Lucy is known for various things including prizing her virginity which she had consecrated to God. Without knowing about this arrangement, Lucy’s mom tried to arrange for her future and set up an engagement. But Lucy wasn’t having it and started giving the family fortune away to the poor. When the betrothed heard about this, he got angry and tried to talk her out of it, by which we mean that he got the governor to order Lucy to go to a brothel. She stubbornly refused, even when they purportedly hooked her up to a team of oxen to drag her there. They had to try various means before Lucy died, but eventually she did and became a celebrated martyr.

saint_lucy_by_domenico_di_pace_beccafumi
Santa Lucia, by Domenico Beccafumi, 1521

Since her death, here are a few other stories about Lucy: They say that she wandered into dark catacombs to bring food to Christians hiding there, and she wore a wreath of candles on her head to keep her hands free for schlepping the food. They say that she had her eyes gouged out, hence the mildly creepy image of Lucy holding a pair of eyes on a platter.  (She’s also the patron saint of sight and of the blind). Get this: she was buried but then had to be moved in 1861. Why? Zoning issues; they decided to put in a railway station. But then thieves stole all her bones except for her head in November 1981! And then they found her bones again on her very feast day. So far parts of St. Lucy’s corpse have made their way to at least five cities in Italy as well as Sweden, France, and Germany. Someone should really make St. Lucy into a movie. For centuries St. Lucy’s Day was on winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This, as well as her name sharing the root of the Latin word for light, lux, has led to St. Lucy’s Day being a celebration of lights.

And that, dear readers, is the theme of this year’s countdown–light.

Let me give you just a few more details about the song for today. The story of the song can basically be summed up like this: a Swede, a Neapolitan, and Elvis walk into a bar… Above in the embedded video you can see a typical Swedish St. Lucia celebration and rendition of the song. But listen to that rolling 6/8 meter! Through the 20+ hours of daily darkness from the Swedes you get a Venetian gondolier. That’s because the song is actually a canzone napoletana like “O sole mio.” It comes from the tradition of songs that Neapolitan boatmen would sing from their boats. So you can bet that the lyrics in the original version weren’t about night walking with heavy step and shadows brooding in our house and darkness taking flight soon, like they are in the Swedish song. Nope. The song’s original lyrics were in praise of a picture-perfect waterfront area of Borgo Santa Lucia in the Bay of Naples, an area that has changed considerably in the 150+ years since the song became more widely known. (You can see images of what it used to look like in the video below.)

First translated from Neapolitan to Italian and published in 1849, the Italian lyrics go something like this,

On the sea glitters the silver star
Gentle the waves, favorable the winds.
Come into my nimble little boat,
Saint Lucy! Saint Lucy!

O sweet Naples, O blessed soil,
Where to smile desired its creation,
You are the kingdom of harmony,
Saint Lucy! Saint Lucy!

So, now you know why the story of the song sounds like the beginning of a joke–Swedes, Neapolitans, and what about Elvis? He recorded it in 1964 for the film Viva Las Vegas. But the song is also popular with Austrian fraternities and is the anthem of Silpakom University in Thailand, whose founder was Italian. It’s versatile like that.

Happy first day of the Christmas music countdown, and Happy St. Lucy’s Day!

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Happy Thanksgiving 2016! “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

There is a very bad pun waiting to happen in the title of today’s poem as the final entry for this year’s Thanksgiving countdown. I’ll just leave that much here.

Beyond bad puns, this is a beautiful poem that, I find, expresses something essential about gratitude: “All things…/ Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)/ With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim”–all things. Years ago I was told by a spiritual mentor that if I would notice and be grateful for the small things, that I would be blessed with more. Now, with degrees and jobs and a bit more skepticism under my belt I can feel a knee-jerk reaction to that maxim that mutters something about confirmation bias. But I also know that during times I have felt most irritated with life in general, I take up a gratitude practice, and I see results that defy a straightforward, rational explanation. Sometimes I write what I’m grateful for before sleeping each night. My most common practice has been to set my phone timer for four minutes and just think through things I’m grateful for until the timer runs out. It’s brief. The action is small. For me, the effect, even after just a few days, has been astounding.

So here is a brief, small poem. It finds beauty in the speckled, mixed, cross-colored bits of life that, so often, may be categorized as second-best.

Pied Beauty
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

 

If you’d like to explore more Thanksgiving poetry, let me suggest this compilation from the editors at the Poetry Foundation. Wishing you a blessed and happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Poetry 2016, Day 6: “Family Reunion” by Maxine W. Kumin

I’m grateful for socializing over food. So many of my best memories are conversations and gatherings around food. The combinations of lovely people and delicious food are infinite, and I look forward to several more permutations. But beyond the delight and satiation of it, there’s something intimate and bonding about sharing a meal together, especially in a home.

Maxine Kumin captures how a meal seems to melt the divisions between people, specifically family. It’s not a Thanksgiving dinner, but the effect is there. She was a Pulitzer Prize winner and in 1981-82 held the post that would be come Poet Laureate. From New Hampshire, her poetry circled around New England themes throughout her life, and she was often compared to Robert Frost. Also, she broke her neck in an accident with a horse at age 73 and recovered! Kumin passed away in 2014.

Family Reunion

by Maxine W. Kumin

The week in August you come home,
adult, professional, aloof,
we roast and carve the fatted calf
—in our case home-grown pig, the chine
garlicked and crisped, the applesauce
hand-pressed. Hand-pressed the greengage wine.
Nothing is cost-effective here.
The peas, the beets, the lettuces
hand sown, are raised to stand apart.
The electric fence ticks like the slow heart
of something we fed and bedded for a year,
then killed with kindness’s one bullet
and paid Jake Mott to do the butchering.
In winter we lure the birds with suet,
thaw lungs and kidneys for the cat.
Darlings, it’s all a circle from the ring
of wire that keeps the raccoons from the corn
to the gouged pine table that we lounge around,
distressed before any of you was born.
Benign and dozy from our gluttonies,
the candles down to stubs, defenses down,
love leaking out unguarded the way
juice dribbles from the fence when grounded
by grass stalks or a forgotten hoe,
how eloquent, how beautiful you seem!
Wearing our gestures, how wise you grow,
ballooning to overfill our space,
the almost-parents of your parents now.
So briefly having you back to measure us
is harder than having let you go.

Thanksgiving Poetry 2016, Day 5: “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins

I’m glad for children. They come built-in with requiring adults to practice selflessness.

Listen to Billy Collins read this one. It’s a delight.

The Lanyard
by Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Thanksgiving Poetry 2016, Day 4: “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver

I’m thankful for the joy of learning, of amazement, as Mary Oliver puts it here. The posture expressed, “When death comes … I want to step through the door full of curiosity,” that posture strikes me one of gratitude. And it’s not as if the images of death, about which the speaker is so curious, are terribly positive. Maintaining wonder and hope and learning in the face of what is frightening and unknown—that strikes me as a kind of gratitude.

 

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Thanksgiving Poetry 2016, Day 3: “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

I’m grateful for parents who got up early everyday and to feed us, read with us, and to build a fire in the winter.

From Robert Hayden who studied with W. H. Auden and became the first African-American Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a post now known as Poet Laureate, we get “Those Winter Sundays.” It’s a popular American poem, anthologized more often than “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Thanksgiving Poetry 2016, Day 2: “Thanks” by W. S. Irwin

Lately I’m thankful for efforts at civility and kindness, even if they have a sort of poignant futile quality.

Today’s poet, Irwin, said something similar: “I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time. I think that’s a social role, don’t you? … We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect. But … one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.”

Thanks
by W. S. Irwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is