Saturday, December 31, 2016

Christmastide 2016: The Seventh Day

Welcome to the seventh day of Christmas 2016, the last day of the year. That means it's also New Year's Eve. In much of Christian Europe this day is also known as Silvester or the Feast of Sylvester. Some of the more interesting iterations of celebrating the arrival of the new year occur in the Celtic nations of Scotland and Wales. The day is known as Hogmanay in Scotland. It's a nice blend of old and new elements including fireworks, bonfires, torchlight processions, partying, and the driving out of trolls. In Wales "New Year's Eve" translates to "Nos Galan," a day to pay off all debts, visit from house to house (first-footing) to sing carols, exchange gifts, drink a refreshing beverage or two, and enjoy mincemeat pie and rice pudding.

Postkarte no. 305 Hans Kalmsteiner. ART & ARTISTS: Wiener Werkstätte postcards – part 1:
Weiner Werkstatte postcard No. 305                                     Heines Kalmsteiner

The great musical tradition of Wales has provided us with the melody for the most appropriate carol for the day, Deck the Halls. A wide variety of lyrics emerged over the last three centuries. The video below provides one example and a partial translation. The video concludes with the more familiar "Deck the Halls" lyrics written in 1862.

Cold is the man who can't love,
Fa la la la la, la la la la,
The old mountains of dear Wales,
Fa la la la la, la la la la,
To him and his warmest friend,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la,
A cheerful holiday next year,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Cold is the snow on Mount Snowdon,
Fa la la la la, la la la la,
Even though it has a flannel blanket on it,
Fa la la la la, la la la la,
Cold are the people who don't care,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la,
To meet together on New Year's Eve,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmastide 2016: The Sixth Day

Today is a quiet day in the Christian calendar, a day without a feast or commemoration, We'll take the opportunity to focus on what has become the song of songs for Christmas in the last 75 years. It is White Christmas, written by Irving Berlin and debuted by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn. He reprised the song in a 1954 "remake," White Christmas, but the film, even in color and the first in VistaVision, simply doesn't hold up to the original for most film buffs. To be fair, there is enough divergence in the story lines and music to make both films enjoyable, a point that may be vigorously discussed by those who choose to have a "battle of the films" on some cold evening during the holiday.

In 2012, the political observer, Mark Steyn, who also happens to be an expert on the history of popular music and musical theater, made some fine observations about White Christmas as the song of songs for this season. It's not only that - the 1942 recording by Crosby still ranks as the best-selling single worldwide with sales exceeding 100 million copies



Thursday, December 29, 2016

Christmastide 2016: The Fifth Day

As we approach the midpoint of this holiday season it's time for a childhood memory. In days of old the milkman delivered dairy products door-to-door in the early hours of the morning a few days each week. It was my responsibility to retrieve the goods from a small insulated box the Potomac Farms Dairy provided to its customers. One morning, probably during the week before Christmas in 1953, I popped open the lid to that box and found this around the neck of one of the bottles:

It was a nice gesture on the part of the company and a treasure to at least one seven year old. For a few years the decoration appeared in our Christmas yard under the tree. Beginning in 1956 Santa and his elf moved to a prominent place on the tree where they have cheerily greeted family and friends over the last sixty years. Here they are in 2016:

Today, our adult children are quick to notice this tradition when they arrive for a holiday visit. I have yet to decide how to divide this artifact into three sections so the "kids" can carry on the tradition with their families.

In keeping with the family theme of this post here is a seasonal selection paying homage to my Welsh ancestors:

Clyd a chynnes ydyw hon;
Breichiau mam sy'n dynn amdanat,
Cariad mam sy dan fy mron;
Ni cha' dim amharu'th gyntun,
Ni wna undyn â thi gam;
Huna'n dawel, annwyl blentyn,
Huna'n fwyn ar fron dy fam.

Huna'n dawel, heno, huna,
Huna'n fwyn, y tlws ei lun;
Pam yr wyt yn awr yn gwenu,
Gwenu'n dirion yn dy hun?
Ai angylion fry sy'n gwenu,
Arnat ti yn gwenu'n llon,
Tithau'n gwenu'n ôl dan huno,
Huno'n dawel ar fy mron?

Paid ag ofni, dim ond deilen
Gura, gura ar y ddôr;
Paid ag ofni, ton fach unig
Sua, sua ar lan y môr;
Huna blentyn, nid oes yma
Ddim i roddi iti fraw;
Gwena'n dawel yn fy mynwes
Ar yr engyl gwynion draw. 

Sleep my baby, at my breast,
'Tis a mother's arms round you.
Make yourself a snug, warm nest.
Feel my love forever new.
Harm will not meet you in sleep,
Hurt will always pass you by.
Child beloved, always you'll keep,
In sleep gentle, mother's breast nigh.

Sleep in peace tonight, sleep,
O sleep gently, what a sight.
A smile I see in slumber deep,
What visions make your face bright?
Are the angels above smiling,
At you in your peaceful rest?
Are you beaming back while in
Peaceful slumber on mother's breast?

Do not fear the sound, it's a breeze
Brushing leaves against the door.
Do not dread the murmuring seas,
Lonely waves washing the shore.
Sleep child mine, there's nothing here,
While in slumber at my breast,
Angels smiling, have no fear,
Holy angels guard your rest.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmastide 2016: The Fourth Day

The Feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on the fourth day of Christmas.

Massacre of the Innocents                                    Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515

Music for the day is the "Coventry Carol" , a song from the mystery play, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. Guild plays in Coventry, England, date to the 14th century but the documentation of their contents did not appear until the mid 1500's.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his owne sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.


Photos and Illustrations:
Massacre, National Museum, Warsaw

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Oscar Levant: A Fine Blend Of Genius And Insanity

Indeed there will never be another entertainer quite like Oscar Levant (1906-1972).  He was a classically trained concert pianist, composer, author, actor, dancer, and comedy genius. The one thread moving throughout his working life was mental illness, a condition that eventually became the core of his stage persona. It was an odd therapeutic for Levant and it brought laughter to millions. Today he's likely unknown to more than a generation of Americans but that doesn't mean he's ready for history's dustbin. Quite the contrary. There must be something important about Oscar Levant if Hollywood director Ben Stiller may be developing a film based on the entertainer's life.

Although Levant's presence on the entertainment spectrum is broad, his greatest impact was as a concert pianist, comedian, and author. He was trained in classical music in Pittsburgh and New York and divided his musical time between Hollywood and Broadway as a young performer and composer. He became a close friend and associate of George Gershwin and his extended family of stars and admirers. With Gershwin's early death in 1937, Levant would become known as the finest interpreter of his work for almost two decades until the end of his own career as a concert performer. Levant's Hollywood association not only led to his role as a composer but also as an actor. Although his filmography is short it contains a host of memorable, mostly comedic scenes involving song, dance and wit. Here are two clips of Levant at his best:

From the 1951 film, An American in Paris,

Next there is Levant, the radio and television personality. From the 1930's into the 1950's he was featured regularly on several radio programs and made frequent guest appearances on others. His knowledge of Hollywood personalities combined with his musical talent, quick wit and self-deprecating  posture made him a hit from coast to coast. That status also made for an easy transition to television. 

Finally, there is Levant, the writer. He produced three memoirs, two of them best-sellers. His Memoirs of An Amnesiac (1965) is a recollection of his often weird and tattered life as well as a tour de force of wit and wisdom aimed at Hollywood's famous and infamous personalities beginning in the 1930s. His The Unimportance of Being Oscar appeared in 1968. Although both books are a bit dated, readers with some knowledge of popular culture and politics from the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930's to the entertainment world of the 1960's would certainly find both books entertaining reads.

After hosting his own syndicated television program from Los Angeles in 1958-59 he made several noteworthy appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar where he openly discussed his mental health issues. By the early '60's his mental and physical condition deteriorated significantly, his drug dependency increased, and he withdrew from public life. Here is one of his last television appearances:

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line.
                                                                                   Oscar Levant, 1959

Happy birthday, Oscar!


ClassicalNet biography, Oscar Levant, Oscar Levant

Christmastide 2016: The Third Day

On this Third Day of Christmas in the Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran traditions we celebrate the feast day of  John the Evangelist and Apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved.

File:Zampieri St John Evangelist.jpg
Saint John the Evangelist                                                           Domenichino (1581-1641)


Photos and Illustrations:
Domenichino painting, National Gallery, London

Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmastide 2016: The Second Day

On this Second Day of Christmastide, the Christian world in the west celebrates its first martyr, Saint Stephen.

St. Stephen detail, Demidoff Altarpiece                                      Carlo Crevelli, 1476

File:Paolo Uccello - Stoning of St Stephen - WGA23196.jpg
Stoning of St. Stephen                                                          Paolo Ocello, ca. 1435

His death in the name of charity has led this day to be associated with the distribution of food and other essentials to those in need. A thousand years later stories about the life and death of another generous Christian, Wenceslas of Czechoslovakia, would eventually lead to the writing of a mid-19th century Christmas carol that forever links the two martyrs.


Photos and Illustrations:
Demidoff Altarpiece, The National Gallery, London
Stoning,, painting is in the Duomo di Prato. Italy

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas 2016

The Holy Family                                                             Salvadore Dali, 1959

As Christmas Day comes to a close in the eastern U.S. we recall a day of gathering for family and friends, prayer celebrating Christ as the focus of the day, a wonderful dinner of beef and turkey accompanied by all the traditional sides, the giving of gifts, and much laughter shared over wine, dessert, and coffee.

In the day's last hour there is restored order. With clean house and washed dishes it is time for subdued conversation, quiet music, a good book or simply contemplating the faces in the flames dancing in the fireplace. It is a time for memory and imagination.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Sun Stands Still - Winter Solstice 2016

The winter solstice in the eastern United States arrived about two hours before sunrise today. For those who don't care for winter - I'm one - this is a happy day because days will now be getting longer all the way until the summer solstice in June. Over the next six months in the northern hemisphere the sun reaches a bit higher in the sky each day. And as the days lengthen, the increased insolation means higher temperatures. It's a wonderful prospect around our house. In fact the rebirth of the sun hasn't gone unnoticed by humans over a long, long time. If you ever wanted to know more about the science behind the solstice or these cultural responses. . .




The Druids

Google's Doodle


The Feast of Juul



Dia de Santo Tomas en Guatemala

. . . check out The Telegraph's article, "When is the winter solstice? Everything you need to know about the shortest day of the year."  The Telegraph doesn't like ad blockers so you'll have to close their popup notice if you have one installed.

The winter solstice is also know as Midwinter is some circles. Here is unquestionably the song of the day, In the Bleak Midwinter, a perfect blend of nature and the "coming of the light" in the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air -
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him -
Give my heart.


Photos and Illustrations:
Simon Banton, Sunset at Stonehenge 12/20/2009.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Fourth Week Of Advent: Magnum Mysterium

Wheaton College Advent Devotional

Oh Great Mystery...

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Jesum Christum.

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
 was worthy to bear 
our Saviour, 
Jesus Christ.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Erskine Caldwell's Window On The South

The peculiarity, poverty, and injustice in the Depression-era South was embedded in Erskine Caldwell's memory. His observations had little to do with remnants of "the late unpleasantness" - the polite Southern term for the Civil War. They had everything to do with being a "PK," a preacher's kid who moved with his family to a number of churches throughout the South before settling in Wrens, Georgia when he was fifteen. Still, his father preached on long circuits and was happy to have his son accompany him. Caldwell later wrote that his father traveled so regularly that he could determine the destinations by the odor of coal smoke on his suit. 

On these travels Caldwell observed the raw realities of the human condition in the South. After he left the South in the late 1920's, his vivid observations would be recorded in both fiction and non-fiction in an attempt to raise public awareness and appeal for reform. He is best known for his novels,  Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933). An adaptation of Tobacco Road played on Broadway for eight years - a record at the time - beginning in 1933.  God's Little Acre remains one of the most popular novels in the U.S. with over ten million copies in print. A 1958 film version is considered the best presentation of Caldwell themes on film.

A very loose 1941 film adaptation of Tobacco Road directed by John Ford contributed to the stereotyping and ridicule of poor white Southerners. Furthermore, his "in absentia" crusade for improving conditions did not sit well with many Southerners. They were also uncomfortable with his depiction of sex and violence that frequently placed him in conflict with censors across the country.

Caldwell was born in Moreland, Georgia on this day in 1903 and died in Arizona in 1987. He remains an interesting blend of 20th century authors. He is Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Christopher Isherwood, Joseph Mitchell, and a reflection of other modernists. Readers who enjoy Southern history and seek more than discourse on the happy veneer of its early 20th century human condition will enjoy Caldwell's interpretations.

Read more about Georgia's Erskine Caldwell in this article from the New Georgia Encyclopedia. The volume is also the information source for this post.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Gaudete Sunday And The Third Week Of Advent 2016

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Here is the chanted Introit - with translation below - from which this Sunday gets it name:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.
                                                                           Philipians, 4:4-6: Psalm 85(84):1 

Madonna in the Rose Garden            Stephan Lochner, ca 1448

Prepare the way by proclaiming good news.  The early church gave the title "Gaudete" to the third Sunday in Advent. The word simply means, "Rejoice!" When you are joyful about something, you share that good news. Think of the custom of the family Christmas letter. Many families will send out letters during these holidays, summarizing the joyful family news of the past year: the birth of a grandchild, a new job, etc. If such joyful events are considered worthy of sharing, how much more the goo news that the Son of God came into our world to save us from sins! Moreover, he is coming again to take believers to an eternity of glory. That is good news believers need to hear again and again. It is a message that we with joyful faith yearn to share with a world that is in desperate need of some good news.
The joyful nature of this Sunday is illustrated by the lone, rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath. It hints of the joyful birth that we are soon to celebrate.

It is our hope that your week has been filled with rejoining.



"Prepare the way..." quote, Gaudete Sunday Bulletin, Abiding Grace Lutheran Church, Covington, Georgia, 2013

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Second Sunday of Advent 2016

In lighting the second candle of the Advent wreath today, we acknowledge the messengers sent to prepare the way for Christ. John prepared people for Christ's first coming. Today's messengers prepare people for Christ's return. God wants us to view these messengers as evidence of his love. He wants us to listen to their message, through which God himself makes us ready.

John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord by preaching repentance. 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene-- 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all mankind will see God's salvation.’” 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Holiday Punch: Booze, Fruit, Socks, Nylons, And A Dash Of Battle Dirt

The brisk winds and cool temperatures sweeping across Atlanta today reminded me that only a few weeks remain to brew up a delicious Savannah tradition for the coming holidays. I'm sure the old money - and new money wannabes - have already set aside a batch for Christmas, New Year's Eve , and Twelfth Night gatherings. Of course the batch were talking about is Chatham Artillery Punch, by far the city's most historic and memorable beverage.

In 1977, I was introduced to Chatham Artillery Punch at the so comfortable but long-gone Lion's Den in the DeSoto Hilton in Savannah. It reminded me of rumtopf only it was better. Much better. The elite military unit for which it is named, one of the oldest in the nation, has a storied history of defending Georgia and the United States for over two centuries, including service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today the unit serves as the 1st Battalion, 118th Field Artillery. The punch always graces their celebration of Saint Barbara's Day and Christmas. I can think of no better way to end a traditional celebration of Christmas in Georgia than enjoying one cup of this wonderful drink among family, friends and colleagues.

I'm sure the ingredients varied over the years depending on what was at hand but the following recipe - derived from several formulations and an archival source that shall remain nameless - captures the historic flavors nicely, Although a 2006 Georgia National Guard newsletter noted that a pair of soldier's socks, the stockings of a soldier's wife, and sand from Iraq were added to the punch that year we're not going that far.

Chatham Artillery Punch (for 50 guests)

2 quarts of strong green tea (soak about 1/4 pound of tea for a day, then strain)
Juice of 10 lemons
1 1/4 pounds brown sugar
2 quarts Catawba wine (a red muscadine will be easier to find and work just as well)
2 quarts Santa Cruz rum (use Virgin Islands style rum, light or dark)
1 quart brandy
1 quart dry gin (I like the flavorings in Bombay Sapphire)
1 quart rye whiskey
3 pints Queen Anne cherries
3 pints pineapple chunks
3 quarts champagne

To prepare, sterilize a 5 gallon crock or similar vessel. Mix the tea and lemon juice then dissolve the brown sugar and gently stir in all the alcohol except the champagne. Add the cherries and pineapple chunks carefully. Cover the crock tightly and sit aside in a cool, dark place for at least one week, but one month is better. Careful sampling is permitted to insure the fermentation process is working. To serve, pour the mixture carefully over a block of ice - anything smaller will dilute the punch -  add the champagne, and stir gently. Never refrigerate to cool ahead of serving or serve with ice cubes.

This is a deliciously smooth, flavorful and potent drink to be enjoyed responsibly. Also keep in mind that the longer it ferments, the more powerful, deceptive and tasty it becomes. here is a point - say after two months - at which the punch becomes a lightly fruited rumtopf, a perfect topping for ice cream or bundt. To be honest, I suspect using it in Old Savannah as something other than a beverage would be a sacrilege.

Regardless of how you plan to enjoy Chatham Artillery Punch, know that your expense and anticipation will be rewarded. I once brewed a batch for eight weeks. It was legendary.