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Posts Tagged ‘christmas’

Signed books for the holidays

Just a quick reminder: if you’d like to get one of my books signed for the holidays, Borderlands Books can help you out. Get in touch with them, place an order, and then they’ll let me know and I’ll go up there to take care of it.

But act fast! It’s a hike for me to visit the store, so it might take a week or so for me to arrange a time when I can swing by.

light against the darkness

I’m not very religious. Growing up, I remember my family going to church occasionally; I was confirmed Methodist, for all the good it did.. Then it became Christmas, Easter, and whenever my grandparents were in town. Then my grandparents stopped traveling, and it became Christmas and Easter. Then Easter fell by the wayside and it was just Christmas. These days, I’m pretty much just an agnostic . . . but Christmas has stayed.

Because the Christmas Eve service is sacred to me, in a way that has nothing to do with Christianity or even necessarily with religion. Not the whole service, really — just the end. Where they light the candles from the central one and come down the aisles to light yours in turn, and then you light your neighbor’s candle and they light their neighbor’s and so on, and the sanctuary goes dark except for those little flickering flames, and everyone is singing.

That’s sacred. Sharing light in the midst of darkness.

(The only way it could be more perfect is if it happened on the winter solstice.)

So I’ll keep going to Christmas Eve service, because I need that moment in the depths of winter. I need the candles and the darkness and the sharing and the singing. I will keep resenting the church we go to in Dallas, where they don’t turn off the stupid LCD screens at the front of the sanctuary that advertise upcoming events or what hymn you’re supposed to turn to next, because dammit, I want the only light around me to be the little flickering flames. I will keep sharing that flame in the depths of night.

Whatever religion you celebrate — or lack thereof — I wish you light in the darkness, and the company of neighbors.

This entry was also posted at Comment here or there.

the music of Christmas, part four

This post? Is the reason I did this whole series. I figured if I was going to write up something about this one aspect of my Christmas traditions, I might as well talk about more of them. And the really real reason for the post is that I found a Youtube video weeks ago, that allows me to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

Which is the Vocal Majority.

As with Peter, Paul & Mary, these are not people I generally listen to. They’re a barbershop chorus, and I do not especially like the barbershop sound, at least not in large quantities. But I think the existing melodies of Christmas carols confine the barbershop-ness of their arrangements, or maybe they just tone it down, or maybe I don’t hear it as much on these albums, or something. I have no perspective. With the occasional exception (“Little Altar Boy”), their Christmas songs do not sound barbershop to me.

They just sound awesome.

The Vocal Majority is a chorus of 150+ men with some of the most amazing diction and dynamics you have ever heard. Their lyrics are crystal clear, and they can go from full-bore fortissimo belting down to almost-inaudible pianissimo in about half a second flat. How good are they? The rules of the International Chorus Championship say that when a group wins, they can’t compete for the following two years. The VM won in 1975, placed second in 1978, won in 1979, and has proceeded to win every three years like clockwork ever since then. If they manage it again next year, that’ll be a thirty-year unbroken streak.

I promised to talk about my other favorite Christmas carol recording, and I told lady_puck9999 that I would have something to say about “O Holy Night.” Unsurprisingly, these two things coincide. The sound quality on the following video is crap, regrettably, but it should give you an idea of the real thing, which puts chills down my spine every. time. I hear it. You want “O Holy Night,” I’ll give you “O Holy Night.”*

My apologies to all the church choirs and soprano soloists out there, but as far as I’m concerned, they shouldn’t even try. “O Holy Night” rendered by anything less than a hundred and fifty men is a pale subsitute for the real thing. I’ve heard the VM in concert, many a time, and let me tell you — in live performance, it’s like being smacked in the face by a solid wall of sound. When they sing “Fall on your knees”? You feel like FALLING ON YOUR KNEES.

If men’s choruses are your thing, or you want a rendition of “O Holy Night” that makes you believe the angel voices are huge resonant basses instead of sopranos with way too much vibrato, you can buy a recording or three. The Secret of Christmas is the one with the good rendition of “O Holy Night;” for some reason they over-orchestrated it on The Twelve Days of Christmas, instead of leaving it with just the organ. But there are other good songs on Alleluia, and even Twelve Days, which rehashes a lot of songs done elsewhere, redeems itself with “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” another favorite of mine.

These guys, more than anything, are my Christmas inheritance from my father. I have childhood memories (if by “childhood” I mean anything up to and including the present day) of him singing along with “The Little Drummer Boy” — I told you I had reasons of association to like that song — and I think I’ve assimilated harmonic lines from their “O Come All Ye Faithful” into some part of my DNA. They are the sound of Christmas to me, and my father’s the one I got them from.

And every year, I regretfully put their albums away, and promise myself that the day after Thanksgiving, I can hear “O Holy Night” again.

*Ignore the bit where it says “The Battle of Jericho.” That song’s on the video claiming to be “O Holy Night.”

the music of Christmas, part three

This next CD, I also associate with my father, though properly speaking I don’t know which one of my parents it originated with.

It’s the Peter, Paul, and Mary Christmas album, simply called A Holiday Celebration. This is from some live concert they did — I’ve seen the video — and despite the fact that I have zero interest in or knowledge of that trio outside of this single recording, it’s one of my absolute favorites.

Not everything on it is great. I despise “The Cherry Tree Carol” on general principle, and Mary’s rendition doesn’t help; according to my mother, her voice had very much gone downhill by then. (Mris, you’d probably dislike her performance of “I Wonder As I Wander,” though I’m okay with it.) And, you know, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is an odd choice for the season. But it has a lot of other selections I’ve never heard anywhere else, like “The Magi” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” and variety is a good thing to have around this time of year. It also has two Hannukah songs — “Hayo, Haya” and “Light One Candle” — which hold the distinction of being some of the only members of that genre that sound like actual songs in their own right, rather than somebody’s misguided attempt to make Hannukah More Like Christmas. In other words, I believe the songwriters had something they wanted to express about that holiday; they weren’t just cranking something out to provide a Jewish alternative to all the carols. And “Hayo, Haya” is lovely if you’ve got a thing for melancholy, minor songs.

Speaking of which . . .

If there were nothing else I liked on this CD, I would still want to own it, if only for “A Soalin’.” I don’t know if there’s some folklore/musicology term for what I’m thinking of, but it’s in the genre of “beggar songs” in my head, the ones that are about people coming around in the cold of winter and asking for charity, with many blessings for the generous, or for those too poor to share. “Gower Wassail” is another, and “A Pace Egging Song,” though I don’t think that one’s season-specific. (Why do I have these song titles to hand? Because they turned into a story. I should update that page; the story hit print months ago.)

“A Soalin'” is simply beautiful. It’s solemn but quietly hopeful; it has counterpoint and guitar of exactly the sort I love. (And a little bit of irony, thanks to the line “One for Peter, two for Paul; three for Him who made us all” — given who’s performing it.) I very much like “The Magi,” which generally causes my father and I to stop whatever we’re doing and sing along when it comes up on the shuffle, and I’ve already mentioned “Hayo, Haya,” but “A Soalin'” is one of my two favorite tracks on any Christmas album I own. Depending on my mood, it places either first or second. (What’s the other? Wait for tomorrow’s post.)

And if I recall correctly, my father went to great lengths to make sure I would have it. We’d had the CD for a number of years — which may have been difficult to get in the first place; I can’t remember — and it was such a staple of our music rotation that he went the extra mile and got copies for both myself and my brother. Most of my other childhood favorites, I have now because I burned dupes from my parents’ CDs, but this one I properly own. And I’m very glad I do.

the music of Christmas, part two

Much of what I’ve said so far about Christmas has been traceable back to my mother, with respect to food and decorations. Now it’s my father’s turn, because it transpires that much of my seasonal music comes from him.

The Messiah is our first example. Sure, Handel wrote it for Easter, but it’s become Christmas music since then, and not just for my family. Lots of places have “Messiah sings” in December. We used to go to one every year; I can’t remember where it was*, though I can visualize the room almost perfectly. There was a small professional choir, whose soloists performed some of the arias and recitatives and so on, and then for the choral pieces the audience would stand up and sing along. The tenors were perenially weak — which was a very great pity because my mother’s voice, and mine once I got older, are on the low side of alto. (With training I could probably pass for an alto. With my present lack of an upper range, I find the tenor part more comfortable than any other. It only occasionally goes too low for me.) Really, though, we tended to grab whatever line we could hear and follow, even if we were in the wrong octave.

I associate The Messiah with my father because there’s a long-running tradition of it in his Ohio hometown. A few years back, they had their hundredth anniversary performance, and invited anybody who had ever sung with them to come back for the event. And make no mistake, it was an Event: most groups only perform a selection of pieces from the whole, but for this anniversary they staged the entire thing, all five or six or however many hours of it, with a dinner in the middle. Sadly, neither my brother nor I was able to go along. I’m still sad I missed it.

We used to have a five-CD changer hooked up to our speakers, and would put five Christmas albums on shuffle, of which one in any given load might be a volume of The Messiah. That was always a little weird, because there are tracks that are all of sixteen or thirty-five seconds long, brief transitions between one piece and another, that I’m not very familiar with, and which sound weird out of context. But “And he shall purify” and “Lift up your heads” and (of course) the “Hallelujah Chorus” are staples of the season.

*My mother, who is sitting next to me frantically trying to finish cross-stitching a stocking for my brother’s fiancee, tells me it was at UTD.

the music of Christmas, part one

It’s going to take me several posts to get through the music I associate with this season.

First up, since my mother and I were talking about it earlier today: The Nutcracker. The ballet itself is not one of my favorites; I like the second act well enough, but so much of the first act is taken up by people wandering around being at the Christmas party, without much in the way of actual dancing going on. I do, however, adore the music, most especially “Trepak” (the Russian dance) and “Coffee” (the Arabian dance), but also standards like “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.”

Really, I just kind of adore Tchaikovsky overall. Him and Prokofiev. If I sat down to work it out, they’d probably turn out to be two of my favorite classical composers.

Most of the other music I want to talk about will deserve separate posts — there’s a story behind much of it — so I’ll just use the rest of my time here to bring up Christmas music overall. We have a number of compliation CDs that are a part of the season for me just because I’ve been listening to them for ten, twenty years; there isn’t anything particularly special about them. I do not, however, like everything on them equally. In general, my favorite carols are the ones played less often, which I doubt is coincidence: I don’t get bludgeoned with them every time I turn on the TV or walk into a store, so I haven’t gotten tired of them yet. But I also like them for a reason that probably feeds back into them not being played as often: many of them are in minor keys, or otherwise darker-sounding. You can keep your “Away in a Manger” and your “Jingle Bells” and most especially your bloody “Sleigh Ride*;” give me “Coventry Carol” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Carol of the Bells” and “We Three Kings,” “What Child Is This” and “Oh Come Emmanuel” and most especially “O Holy Night,” about which I will have more to say later.

Favorite carols? Least favorite? Anything you’d rather rupture your eardrums with a spork than listen to?

*It should be noted that my hatred of “Sleigh Ride” has less to do with the song than the fact that I had to play it. On French horn. Which meant six goddamned pages of upbeats. My hatred of “Sleigh Ride” is just my hatred of marches transposed to the Christmas season. “Rudoloph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” on the other hand, I hate because I had to play it, but not because of upbeats; that one we played in a parade, and two hours of any carol alternating with a drum cadence is pretty much guaranteed to make you hate the carol.

the movies of Christmas

Meant to post about this last week, when we had our annual Christmas movie-watching party, but the Death Bug got in the way.

This is a new tradition; this is something kniedzw and I have started, not inherited from either side of the family. Every year we spend an afternoon and evening watching Christmas movies, and we invite other people over to join us.

But this isn’t your normal Christmas movie marathon. I’ve got no particular patience for It’s a Wonderful Life and 99% of the other usual suspects. If you want to watch those, all you have to do is turn on the TV. We? Go for other Christmas movies.

Like Die Hard.

Oh, there’s one usual suspect in there: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (The REAL one. The only one that exists. If you bring up Jim Carrey I will blink owlishly at you and ask what you’re talking about.) I suspect I watch that movie primarily for the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” the rest of it being icing on the cake, but it’s great throughout, really. I mean, how can you beat Dr. Seuss? You can’t.

You can, however, watch The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I’m never sure if I should count as a Halloween movie or a Christmas one. Either way, I love it. Also Blackadder’s Christmas Carol — much preferable to Dickens’ version — and The Lion in Winter, which is the only “dysfunctional family working out their issues when they get together for the holidays” film I can stomach, probably because their method of working out issues involves plotting palace coups. And finally, no, I wasn’t kidding about Die Hard. What? It takes place at a Christmas party. It features things like “NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN — HO HO HO” written on the sweatshirt of a dead German terrorist/thief. It’s totally in the Christmas spirit!

It’s in my Christmas spirit, anyway.

What films do you like watching at this time of year?

the decorations of Christmas

Today kniedzw picked up at the farmers’ market something that could pass for Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. It’s perfect for our purposes, though; we’re flying to Dallas on Saturday, and weren’t organized enough to get a tree sooner, so it doesn’t make sense to drop lots of cash on anything big. And it’s cute.

Real trees are weird to me, though. My parents eventually figured out that maybe there was a reason their asthmatic son kept landing in the hospital around Christmas, so it’s been a fake tree for as long as I can remember. Which does have some advantages; I don’t want to know how much you’d have to pay for a real ten-foot tree that’s even half so bushy and full. But anyway, while fake trees are the order of business in my mind, I do not object to the real ones. Artificiality of greenery is not a requirement in my holiday.

What is apparently a requirement, judging by the smile with which I greeted it this year, is woven straw. It’s a very Scandinavian thing, I think, though it pops up in other cultures. My family recently retired one of our sadder mobiles in favor of something less worn-out, but I adopted the old one, so now I have some straw angels and hearts hanging in my entryway, and a little straw angel ornament on the tree. Like winter soup, this is something inherited from my mother. (My father’s influence will show up elsewhere.)

In general, though, our ornamentation — especially on the tree — is eclectic with a vengeance. We do not have a designer tree. We have keychains and necklace pendants from all around the world, souvenirs brought home to double as tree jewelry. We have Buddhist prayer ornaments.

We have a two-inch piece of split copper pipe inscribed with the date “December 25th, 1989.”

This one has a story. 1989, Dallas did one of its sporadic freezes, like it does. I think the high on Christmas Eve was maybe in the 20s. The day after Christmas, we were scheduled to get on a plane and fly to the British Virgin Islands for a sailing trip. Christmas Day . . . Christmas Day warmed up into the 40s or so. And some time after we opened presents, my mother wandered back into the master bath and felt the carpet go squish.

You know where this is going.

My grandparents were visiting that year, as I recall, so my father and grandfather went out back and started bashing away at the wall. They were lucky; the first brick they took out was directly over the broken bit of pipe. Then they noticed that, having taken a brick out, they were looking right at the pipe! . . . yeah, the layer cake of the wall went outside-bricks-pipes-insulation-inside. Brilliant construction, that. Anyway, they fixed the pipe — my memory insists that the “Hallelujah” chorus came on the CD shuffle when they came in to announce it was done — and the pipe piece wound up on the tree as an ornament. One year somebody stole it off and got it engraved, and it has occupied a position of pride ever since. This has become a family conversation piece to the point that this year, when my brother announced that he and his fiancee had bought a tree (a real one; here’s hoping his lungs don’t collapse) and were inviting people to bring ornaments, I went to Home Depot and bought him a piece of copper pipe.

(Actually, I bought a longer piece and hacked off a chunk for him, a chunk for me. My own copper pipe is currently serving as a tree topper, since we don’t have an angel or star.)

I love having a decorated house for Christmas. The density of decoration has gotten a little ridiculous at home — we’re pretty sure our ornaments sit up in the attic all year and breed — but I love the greenery, the red and silver and gold, the way the house puts on a different dress for a little while. The decorations are really the source of my conviction that the Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving: once my brother and I went away to college, we got in the habit of putting everything up while we were home for break. Christmas ends (of course) on Epiphany, not because I’m Catholic but because I need some kind of landmark to end on, and New Year’s is too soon. Anyway, these things — garlands, ornaments of woven straw, all that good stuff — are special because they only get brought out for a little while. As much as I love them, I wouldn’t want them around all the time, because then they would cease to be special.

Winter Soup

As requested by many, the recipe:

2 lbs ground chuck
2 med. onions, chopped
1 can tomatoes, cut up
1 can stewed tomatoes, cut up
1 can tomato soup and 1 can water
1 can beef consomme and 1 can water
1 beef bouillon cube (or 1 tsp granulated)
1 green pepper, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 can Vegall (mixed vegetables)
1 small can kernel corn
3 Tb brown sugar
1 Tb mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Brown and salt beef, drain off fat. Add rest and cook for several hours in a large pot.


I’m not fast at chopping things, so prep time for me tends to be half an hour, maybe a bit more. By “large pot” I mean a stock pot; by “cook for several hours” I mean simmer at a relatively low setting for three hours or so. My recipe card doesn’t specify that the pot should be covered, but I’m pretty sure that’s just an oversight; I do put a lid on. Vegall brand mixed vegetables are not required, but someday that company will go under and then as far as I’m concerned winter soup will never taste right again.

This serves six people moderately well, or two people with a lot of leftovers. It can be frozen and then thawed again later, though it tends to get thicker when you do so.