12 Days of Christmas Music 2016: 3rd Day, “We Need a Little Christmas”

“… put up the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen!”

I thought the above photo by Bill Gracey captured the thrill of Christmas lights and the urgency of today’s song from the 1966 hit musical, Mame. Starring Angela Lansbury on Broadway, Mame is, at least partially, a gender inversion of the musical Annie: wealthy New Yorker Mame Dennis lives a carefree lifestyle with her eccentric rich friends and colleagues, and then her newly orphaned nephew comes to live with her, right around the time of the Great Depression. But, whereas Annie seems to soften Daddy Warbucks, Auntie Mame is not so reformed; rather, she scoops her nephew Patrick into her freewheeling lifestyle.

I’ve always found this song infectious but learning that in the musical it comes just after the October 1929 stock market crash makes me like it more. Mame is decorating, filling stockings, eating fruitcake (my grandpa actually makes a really good one, so this counts as celebrating in my book), and insisting on holiday cheer and spirit in spite of just losing her fortune. A note about the timing–in this version they sing that it’s only a week past Thanksgiving. Here’s your cultural artifact to show that the Christmas creep starting earlier and earlier is actually a thing. By the time Lucille Ball starred in the 1974 film version, the lyrics were changed to say, “But Auntie Mame, it’s one week from Thanksgiving Day now!” We may be rushing things, indeed.

This is a “Tutti-Frutti” Pifco Christmas lights set from the 1980s-1990s showcasing various possible lightshades. Photo credit Alex Liivet.

I found myself wondering if hanging Christmas lights in 1929 was a thing, and turns out that decorating with Christmas lights has enough of a history that I’ll break it up across a few days of this countdown. For today, yes, it seems possible that they were used in 1929, although it’s hard to tell how commonly they were used anywhere other than on a tree, and initially they seemed to be a feature of wealthy households in particular. Christmas lights go by several different names including fairy lights (in the UK), twinkle lights, holiday lights, mini lights, and Italian lights (but this name is mostly just in Chicago–random, I know).

I agree with Mame about the lights: I’ve felt much more spirited ever since we put a string up about a week ago.

photo credit by Billy Wilson




12 Days of Christmas Music 2016: 2nd Day, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”

Following this year’s theme of light, a song with the injunction to bring a torch was a natural fit. Some version of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” likely has been around since the 1300s, not as a Christmas song but as a dance. You can picture the twirling and skipping and footwork in this tune. Then it seems it was first published in France in a collection of Christmas songs in the early 1500s. In the Provence region kids may still dress up and carry lights to Christmas Midnight mass while singing this song. Some have speculated that this song served as a way of physically performing the assemblage of a creche scene. As everyone meets with their torches and candles, they gather around the Christchild, and, in the song, they must be quiet and careful not to wake him.

To be honest, I had a hard time knowing what song to choose for today. Last night as I prepared for bed, I saw more breaking headlines about the crisis in Aleppo, and I remembered four years ago today when we heard the terrifying news about the shooting at Sandy Hook. Then in 2012 it seemed that posting festive Christmas music was perhaps a bit tone deaf during the next few days, and I thought of those same feelings again today. Although the Robert Shaw recording may not evoke this interpretation, I found myself reflecting on the words of the second verse:

It is wrong when the Child is sleeping
It is wrong to speak so loud;
Silence, now as you come to the cradle,
Lest you awaken little Jesus…

And that seemed to get at some of the feelings I was thinking through. Then, as I rummaged for pictures to use, looking for something with torch, I saw one of the Statue of Liberty and thought about how it had been gifted to the United States from France in 1886. Lady Liberty also lights a torch and looks to bless the weak and the poor.


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.

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!

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.