In honor of the Star Wars: The Last Jedi opening tonight, I give you the annual 2017 Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar. If you’ve never seen this before, you’re in for a treat, and there are already 14 days up! Read about each image and be amazed at the universe.
I’ve done the 12 Days of Christmas for years. I’m still doing it this year, but this year I’m simplifying. The truth is, I’ve got a writing deadline that means I don’t have blog posts in me at the same time this year. So posts will be short and hopefully quality. I promise that there’s at least one serious one that is longer and substantive. But most of the time it will be puns. (In addition to music and poetry, I absolutely love puns.)
For today, let’s go with brief and smile-inducing. Happy first day of Christmas!
I often resist trends. I never read gossip magazines. I don’t really follow clothing trends. I pointedly avoided getting on the Serial podcast bandwagon until all the episodes were complete. But Hamilton? Hamilton is a trend I can get behind. Like most popular things I had been warily watching the hubbub about Hamilton from a comfortable distance. I’d even tried to get tickets once before it got to Broadway and gave up when all the shows in the next ten days were sold out.
But then near the end of September 2015 NPR hosted the entire soundtrack for free streaming. The day it came out, my brother-in-law, whose opinion in such matters has never steered me wrong, privately messaged me to say that I had to check it out. I had just happened to find myself stuck for at least an hour and a half at the budget airport in Frankfurt with nothing much to do and free wifi. So I figured I would give it chance at least for a few songs. Needless to say, I was happily blown away. After listening to less than 25% of the album, I knew I would finish the whole thing and listen several more times.
If you’re not into Hamilton, I first recommend that you listen to the entire thing in order before writing it off and second tell you that, although it helps, it’s really not necessary to know the show to enjoy today’s post. “Hamildolph” is a fun mashup of a few Hamilton songs with white guys (Eclipse 6) telling the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (The white guys really is a notable difference from the show where the only role played by a Caucasian was King George III.) Rudolph’s nose vies with the star marking the Christchild’s birth for the most famous light of Christmas. So enjoy, and take away this lesson from Hamilton that every once in a while something gets popular for good reason.
Today’s song is a little different musically from what I normally post (largely in that it is more sentimental), but it holds a personal and sentimental place for me. In my family we’ve grown up making music all our lives. We would gather around the piano and sing, and as we got older, we added voice parts and different instruments. I don’t know where she got it, but years ago my mom got several copies of the choral arrangement of today’s song, and it always made its appearance in our Christmas music rotation singalongs. In addition to this song’s place in our impromptu living room performances, many times my brother and I sang it for church services. We worked out when we would take solos and who would sing which parts.
The song has a lovely melody and, for a Christmas song, a somewhat unusual approach in its message. It’s a spiritual retrospective; it’s not just nostalgia but a recognition that time changes our perspective and is not always kind. Is a symbol, in this case, a star still significant or relevant as it was years earlier? The composer, Dan Carter, talks about this in relation to this song. Originally he had written the tune for a stage musical, but it was never used in the show. Somehow he got the idea of remaking it into a Christmas song and mentioned it to a college friend, Sherri Otteson Bird. She wanted to try writing lyrics for the song, took it, but then Carter didn’t hear from her for several months. Suddenly she and her husband called one night with the news that she had finished writing the lyrics. They dropped what they were doing around 10PM, got together, tried it out around the piano, and felt like it was the right fit.
I like the idea that symbols and songs can shift in their purpose and can still feed us.
“… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!