Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children: “I wish it wasn’t over.”

A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know that he’d stopped by.

“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”

I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”

Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I headed to the living room and began picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.

I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or oxen kneeling in their stalls.

Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering — so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.

With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.

Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                             “Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.

Christmas ~ Once More, With Felines

Many of you met Dixie Rose and her merry Cat Carols some years ago, but newer readers haven’t had the pleasure. She’s no longer with me to celebrate the season, but her legacy lives on. In this difficult year, her carols — including one never before published — seem a fitting tribute, and a fine bit of fun.

If you dared to laugh at the antlers, you laughed at your peril. That business-like look in the eyes of my beautiful calico demanded respect. Dixie Rose (short for Dixie Rose, Center of the Universe and Queen of All She Surveys) loved Christmas, and she intended to be ready when it arrived. I never attempted to stand in her way.

Dixie arrived on my doorstep as an unloved, four-month-old stray who became my first real pet. During my childhood, the painted turtle met an unfortunate end, and the birthday puppy that terrified me with its enthusiasm had to be sent away, but even the feisty fox squirrel and standoffish prairie dog that arrived later and stayed longer hardly qualified as pets.

Dixie Rose was a different matter. A beautiful, spoiled creature, she brought me great happiness despite her quirks, and eventually she came to accept me with bemused tolerance.

During our first Christmas season together, it became obvious that old routines would have to be adjusted. Tree trimming and gift wrapping ended in chaos as shredded ribbon, broken ornaments, and pulled-down swags marked her passage through the house.

After she tipped the tree a second time and then a third, I surrendered. We celebrated with a bare tree weighted at its base with several feet of galvanized chain. No candles burned. No poinsettias glowed. Presents piled up in the closet until time for humans to unwrap them, and all things sparkly were banned due to my furry darling’s obsessive appetite for tinsel, glitter, and gold.

As Christmas Day approached, Dixie and I engaged in sharp disagreement about the nature of true celebration. Things weren’t always good that year, and the phrase “This hurts me more than it hurts you” became as common as “Merry Christmas.”

Eventually, I began trying to distract her and amuse myself with the first of the Cat Carols. Before long, she began to contribute her own verses. (Click any title for the original version.)

Wreck the Halls

Wreck the halls all decked with holly,
Fa-la-la-la-la, la la-la-la.
Sheer destruction is so jolly,
Fa-la…
Tip the tree with all its treasures,
Fa-la…
Shred the presents for good measure!
Fa-la…
Fast away the fur-ball passes,
Fa-la…
To wreak havoc on the masses,
Fa-la…
Swinging through the punch and cookies,
Fa-la…
Snarling at the reindeer rookies,
Fa-la…

When I included the lyrics to “Wreck the Halls” in Dixie’s Christmas card to her vet, he suggested she keep writing. So, she did.

Stalking in a Winter Wonderland

Collars ring, are you listening?
In the lane, eyes are glistening…
The moon is so bright, we’re happy tonight,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.
Gone away are the bluebirds,
Here to stay are the new birds.
They sing their sweet songs as we skulk along,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.
In the meadow we can build a snow mouse,
And pretend that he is fat and brown.
He’ll say “Are you hungry?” We’ll say, “No, mouse,
but we’ll save you for dinner on the town.”
Later on, we’ll retire
For a snooze by the fire,
And dream of the prey we’ll catch the next day,
Stalking in a winter wonderland.

Of course, not everyone loves the kitty-cats, so there’s even a song for them. I don’t advocate shooting cats (or dogs, or people, for that matter), but I do understand how pure frustration might lead to this:

Jingle Bells

Jingle bells, shotgun shells, there’s that danged old cat!
Get my gun, let’s have some fun, I know just where he’s at!
Jingle bells, oh, Hell’s bells, now he’s on the run!
If I find my glasses, that cat’s hunting days are done.
A day or two ago, I thought I’d feed the birds,
I grabbed a bag of seed, a second and a third.
But halfway ‘cross the yard, I saw the bushes shake,
It was my neighbor’s scroungy cat, a big orange tom named Jake.
Oh, jingle bells, shotgun shells, (repeat chorus)…..
I love to feed the birds, it makes me feel so glad.
But Jake, that danged old cat, he makes me so darned mad!
He’s not content to eat a lizard or a mouse,
He wants to eat my pretty birds: that cat’s a stinking louse!
Oh, jingle bells, shotgun shells (repeat chorus)

Like children, cats need to be reminded that the magical night is not far off, and there’s a cautionary tale just for them:

Santa Cat is Coming to Town

Oh, you’d better not hiss, you’d better not bite,
You’d better not tempt the dog to a fight;
Santa Cat is coming to town!
He’s making a list, checking it twice,
Gonna find out who chased all those mice,
Santa Cat is coming to town!
He knows when you’ve been scratching,
He knows who you’ve outfoxed,
He knows if you’ve been in a snit
And refused your litter box!
With potted cat grass and catnip-filled balls,
Snuggly warm beds and mice from the malls,
Santa Cat is coming to town.

Eventually Dixie’s online friends joined the fun, sending along their own contributions to the songfest. Housecats themselves, Mister Man and Miss Moo knew how to have a good time despite not being allowed to stalk in the great outdoors.

Hark! The Housebound Felines Sing

Hark! the housebound felines sing,
Glory to the milk-jug ring!
Mice on earth and squirrels reviled,
Even indoors we are wild!
Warily our tails we twitch as
Through the halls our toys we pitch, while
With triumphant meows proclaim,
Cats do have superior brains!
Hark, the housebound felines sing,
Glory to the milk jug ring!

Eventually, Dixie began working on another song, but while “O, Christmas Bush” bubbled away in our lyrical stewpot, she departed this mortal coil, leaving only a fragment of song:

O, Christmas Bush

O, Christmas Bush, O, Christmas Bush,
I sat upon you with my tush.
I did not see you lying there;
Thank God you weren’t a prickly pear.
O Christmas Bush, O, Christmas Bush,
I do believe you’re flattened.

It’s pure silliness of course: just another bit of holiday excess. On the other hand, excess isn’t necessarily bad, and even silly excess can become a path toward truth.

Singing these seasonal parodies to Dixie Rose, I often thought of another, joy-filled carol. Remarkably, we don’t sing, “Joy to human beings: joy to those who walk upright, drive cars, open too many credit card accounts, and are nasty on social media.” We don’t sing, “Joy to the church-goers, the faithful, the worthy, the few.” No, we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king.”

The joy we sing is meant for the whole world: for stars and dirt, mountains and seas, trees, rocks, valleys and hills, and every creature that dwells within. While human hearts prepare, heaven and nature are singing out this truth: the gifts of the season are meant for all. The coming of truth and grace is meant for the world as a whole. We who inhabit that world, tracing a path upon its soil and gazing upon its stars, are called to sing its praises, too.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or whether you don’t, whether you take the promises of the season seriously or simply enjoy the traditions and the festivity, accept these bits of silliness as a gift from Dixie Rose. Feel free to laugh at them, sing them to yourself, or pass them on to friends. Believe me – an entire room filled with pet-lovers singing these songs can be hilarious, and they’ve been known to bring a smile even to the face of the most anti-feline Scrooge.

As for Dixie Rose, eventually she learned she could avoid kitty-jail by avoiding kitty-misbehavior, and we trimmed our tree in peace. Free to hang ornaments even on the lowest branches, and to display cookies and gifts without fear, I prepared our celebrations while she spent her afternoons sleeping in the low, slanting light. I often imagined visions of catnip-plums dancing in her head as she awaited, in perfect peace and joy, whatever gifts would come next.

In this season of Advent, this season of waiting and anticipation, may we all be blessed with such peace and joy.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Such a Nice Fruitcake!

Johnny Carson said it, although I never believed it. Every year he began the Christmas season by reminding us that “There’s only one fruitcake in the world. It’s been passed around from person to person since time immemorial, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’ll never escape The Fruitcake.”

Of course his little joke wasn’t based in fact. Every year, multitudes of fruitcakes march like overzealous Nutcrackers into the heart of the holiday season, overflowing store shelves and filling up catalogs. How essentially good ingredients — fruit and cake — can be combined into a ‘treat’ both gummy and dry is beyond me, but the fruitcake people have managed it. I prefer not to waste my holiday calories on something that appears to have been circulating since the days of the Roman Empire, and I’ve always wished Carson were right. If only one fruitcake existed, it would be easier to escape the ghastly conconction.

Behind every fruitcake, of course, lurks a fruitcake-baker, and over the years various friends tried to convince me they’d finally discovered the secret to truly good fruitcake: soaking the raisins in bourbon, pouring brandy over the finished cake, substituting walnuts for pecans, eliminating the candied pineapple. Despite their opinions, I never wavered in my conviction that fruitcake was dense, dry and tasteless: except when it was gummy, sticky and tasteless. It was a grim excuse for a dessert, and a terrible holiday tradition.

When it came to fruitcakes, I was following in my father’s footstep. If co-workers or business associates gave Dad a fruitcake, presenting it to him with smiles so big you’d think they’d just handed over the keys to a Mercedes, Dad always responded graciously. He’d thank the givers profusely, then rid himself of the cake as soon as their backs were turned. Sometimes he sliced it up and left it in the coffee room at work. Sometimes he gave it to the postman. Now and then, he put one into a gag-gift exchange, counting himself lucky if he received a fishing lure or risqué necktie in return.

As the fruitcakes piled up, he always gave at least one to my grandparents’ neighbor, Sadie. One memorable Christmas, Sadie’d had enough. She gave the fruitcake to my unknowing grandparents and, ever willing to share, Grandma sliced up the cake and presented it to my dad. “Sadie! Such a nice woman!” she said. “See what she gave us — a fruitcake! Have a piece! Have two!” And so he did; my poor father playing the role of the good son, eating the fruitcake that had come home to roost.

One year, after lugging home the biggest fruitcake we’d ever seen, he suggested leaving it in the pantry for a year to see what happened. In the end, nothing happened. We opened the fruitcake a year later, sliced it up and gave it a try. It didn’t taste any better or worse than any other fruitcake. That was the year my frugal father began tossing out any fruitcake that came through the door. Under normal circumstances, wasting food wasn’t allowed in our house, but, as my ever-reasonable father pointed out, fruitcake doesn’t meet any of the normal criteria for food.

Edward Gorey’s Fruitcake Toss

It seems we were on the cutting edge. As more people became willing to admit their distaste for traditional fruitcake, the good folk of Manitou Springs, Colorado caught on and ritualized the tossing of the fruitcake. Their Great Fruitcake Toss became a Chamber of Commerce event involving catapults, relay teams, high school science classes, and spatula races. Even out-of-town visitors could participate; local motels provided personalized, heavy-duty fruitcakes to anyone wanting to join in the fun.

Eventually, I discovered fruitcake-free zones scattered around the world, but once I moved to Texas, there was no avoiding that apotheosis of fruitcake production, Corsicana’s Collin Street Bakery. As the Handbook of Texas notes, the place has quite a history.

In 1896 August Weidmann, a young German immigrant, opened a bakery on Collin Street in Corsicana, with financial backing from Tom McElwee, a local cotton buyer and opera-house proprietor. Weidmann’s specialty was fruitcake baked by a recipe he had brought with him from his native country. McElwee suggested the trade name DeLuxe Fruitcake for the product.
In 1906 the business was moved to a location on Sixth Avenue, and there McElwee opened an exclusive hotel on the second floor of the bakery. Enrico Caruso, John J. McGraw, and Will Rogers were among the celebrities who stayed at the hotel at various times. In 1914 a Ringling Brothers circus troupe, in Corsicana for a performance, bought dozens of DeLuxe Fruitcakes to give as Christmas gifts to friends and relatives all over the United States and in Europe. As a result, the bakery received an overwhelming number of orders from the recipients for more cakes, and the company’s mail-order business resulted.

When friends discovered I’d never eaten a Collin Street cake, a fruitcake party was arranged. Everyone brought their own version of fruit-and-cake, with the famous Texas fruitcake rounding out the menu. There were delicious offerings, to be sure: pear tortes and mincemeat tarts, apple-raisin-and-walnut cakes, povitica, and panettone. I brought along my California fruitcake, a concoction of apricots, dates, and pecans that fit in nicely.

After a few hours of coffee, desserts, and chit-chat, the Collin Street cake was sliced and passed around. I ate my portion, graciously agreeing, as my father would have, that it was very nice: even as I  thought to myself, I’ll not be buying one of these things. When the hostess asked if anyone would like to add a fruitcake to the order she was placing, I declined. And that, I assumed, was that.

And so it was, until the day I found an unexpected parcel slip in my mailbox. In those pre-Amazon locker days, the manager accepted shipments, but we had to dig through the boxes ourselves. After several minutes of looking, I couldn’t find my package. Hearing my sigh of exasperation, the manager looked around the corner. “How could you miss it?” she said. “It’s right in front of you.”

And so it was. On a box imprinted with a scene that combined frontier Texas with a romanticized winter landscape, I saw my address, and the words Collin Street Bakery. Balancing the box on one hand, I realized it had to be one of Corsicana’s finest: a traditional fruitcake in their famous red tin, studded with pecans and weighing nearly six pounds.

Convinced someone from the fruitcake party had decided to play a joke, I opened the box. The enclosed gift card  bore the name of a friend who lives in England. The fruitcake wasn’t a joke occasioned by my criticisms of the ghastly concoction, but a lovely, seasonal gift sent from the Fruitcake Gods by way of England to affirm Johnny Carson’s truth: You cannot escape The Fruitcake.

After calling my friend to thank her, I carried the cake to my mother’s apartment, and brought it out after dinner. “Oh!” she said. “A fruitcake — and from the Collin Street Bakery! Wherever did you find this?” While I served coffee and cut a few slices, I explained it had been sent as a gift, and laughed as my mother channeled my grandmother. “Oh!” she said. “I remember Jean. Such a nice woman. So nice of her to send you a cake!”

While I picked my way around the candied cherries and citron, Mom made her way through three slices. “It’s too bad,” she said. “I wish your dad was here. He always did love a good fruitcake.” Thinking of the multitudes of fruitcakes my dad had disposed of, I grinned as I gathered the empty plates, knowing that Dad would have been proud to see me tucking the remnants of this one next to Mom’s coffee pot.

“You’d better take your fruitcake with you,” she said, as I headed for the door. Just for a moment, I paused, then said, “I’ll leave it here. Jean will be pleased to know I shared it with you, and the next time I get an urge for fruitcake, I’ll just stop by and cut myself a slice.”

Comments always are welcome.

A Season to Celebrate Waiting

The key sits loosely in its lock: unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.

In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure: no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes still tidy in original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Where two closets nestle side by side, hers is an obvious jumble of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, has been arranged more precisely into a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.

Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious, compelling and sancrosanct. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in the weeks before Christmas, a child might forego caution after being tempted by the faintest whisper of possibility: There might be presents…

It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children searching out what parents have tucked under the bed, into the basement, or on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. Inevitably, any child will be tempted toward the best hiding-place of all: a parent’s bedroom closet.

When I decided to invade the closets, I found their locks less of an impediment than a bottom hinge. It had needed oiling for months, and protested with a rising, audible whine whenever the door eased open. Hesitation only increased its volume; pulled firmly, resolutely, it remained silent.

More dangerous was the oak floor board lying halfway between the room’s threshold and the closet. However firmly or lightly someone stepped, it creaked beneath their weight: the sound sharper by far than the scrape of branches on winter-frosted windows. Counting from the threshold, it turned out to be the twenty-eighth board that complained. Careless or inattentive, I sometimes failed to watch, count, and count again before crossing the floor. One step on the vocal board would be enough to raise a different voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”

I lived for several years with that twenty-eighth board, plotting and planning my way across the bedroom floor like Meriwether Lewis confronting a cataract. Even today, faint beneath the raucous holiday traffic and insistent, obnoxious advertising, I sometimes hear that murmuring hinge and the floor board’s muffled creak. Their memories evoke more than amusing sorties and nostalgic sounds. There is the sting of regret; the slight, bitter taste of deception; and the chagrin of learning what life can hold for a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.

The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was upright and strung with lights, ready for cranberry garlands and tinfoil bells. The first of the Christmas cookies had been baked and decorated, and the menu planned for Christmas dinner. Still, the house felt empty, bereft of the excitement and anticipation stirred by the sight of gifts.

No bits of wrapping paper decorated the trash; no extra Scotch tape or out-of-place scissors suggested seasonal activity. Most suspiciously, no tell-tale car doors slammed after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious, and just a little nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get gifts. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.

A week later, our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house, and my mother allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home. Sensing opportunity, I choose to stay home, muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects. From an upstairs window, I watched my parents cross the yard, then disappear into our neighbor’s home.

With my parents safely occupied, I sprinted out of my bedroom and into their room, heedless of the squeaking board. As I opened the door to my dad’s closet, the thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon barely lit its contents.  I pulled the chain hanging from a single, overhead bulb, and the sudden explosion of light confirmed my worst fears. Nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, and peered at the familiar shoe boxes. No packages huddled in the gloom, no paper or ribbon hinted at Christmas glory. Perplexed, I shut the door.

Despite my conviction that any gifts would have been secreted in my father’s closet, I glanced into my mother’s closet, then stepped inside the already-opened door. Even after turning on the light, I nearly missed the glint of candy cane striped foil. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped at the pile of waiting boxes, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. Each carried a tag, and of the few that I could see, most carried my name.

At the time, I’d not heard the phrase ‘crime of opportunity,’ but on that day I had opportunity, and I fell easily into crime.

Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the mending nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a box. The wrapping paper, heavy, smooth, and slick to the touch, remained intact. The tape peeled up perfectly, the sharp, crisp folds of paper popped open easily, and I discovered the contents by reading the end of the box.

Oddly, I no longer remember the box’s contents. I recall only my sudden sense of guilt, a dread of being discovered, and the disappointment I experienced when unwrapping the package on Christmas morning. Guilt, disappointment, and dread would have been punishment enough, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of dishonesty’s primary consequence: having to pretend all was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.

My unwillingness to wait, born of a child’s desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that gifts would be given, had left me unable to celebrate. I spent that terrible day wishing only for Christmas to end, and I never engaged in untimely unwrapping again.

Today, during this strange season of demands and disappointment, the beginning of the season called Advent extends a gracious invitation to delay gratification, and learn a deeper patience.

A season of silence and shadows, Advent whispers an uncomfortable truth: waiting is the condition of our lives. From birth to death, from our coming in to our going out of this amazing, implausible world, we live our lives in a state of perpetual waiting.

We wait for arguments to be resolved and peace to be restored; for bitterness to ebb and pain to flow away. Season after season, we await the budding of spring and the gathering of the harvest: the coming of the storm and the clearing of the sky. Sleepless after midnight, we wait for time to pass until the coming of the dawn. Exhausted by the day, we wait for the blessing of darkness, and the restorative powers of sleep. Always, we wait for laughter; for love; and for the simple, unexpected gifts of life.

Of course, in the process of waiting, there are choices to be made and consequences to be suffered. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we can be tempted to rush our lives, demanding immediate satisfaction even though our willingness to slip away a ribbon, lift a bit of tape, and unfold a sheet of love-creased paper may destroy our joy.

But when patience is learned, waiting becomes a mysterious and compelling experience that arrives hand in hand with whispers of possibility. T.S. Eliot clearly understood that waiting can become the greatest gift of all: a gift that nurtures and deepens our humanity.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Carol of the Guardians

Common or Eurasian Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis (Wikimedia)

Christmas traditions vary from family to family and culture to culture, but nearly everyone who celebrates cherishes at least one or two. Some have been passed down for centuries. Others are newer, but no less beloved: a certain Christmas Eve dish; a favorite cookie recipe; a must-see movie; candlelight services at midnight.

My own celebrations recall the traditions of my Swedish family: cardamom seed buns and pickled herring; strings of cranberries on the tree; bayberry candles, and sweet, tinkling angel chimes.  Pink and lavender trees, Mannheim Steamroller, and Elves on the Shelves have their place, but I prefer my family’s older ways, and probably always will.

Still, something new occasionally emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of our commercialized season to attract my attention. Some years ago, a snippet of song stopped me as I shopped in a local grocery. Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with indecipherable words sung in an unfamiliar language.

Eventually, I found the source of the song and learned its extraordinary history.

Riu, Riu Chiu” is a part of the Cancionero de Upsala [sic], also known as the Cancionero del Duque de Calabria or the Cancionero de Venecia, a volume of mostly anonymous Spanish music printed in Venice in 1556.

The only known original, held at the library of Uppsala University in Sweden, either was “highlighted by Rafael Mitjana y Gordon in 1904” or “edited in 1909 by Rafael Mitjana,” depending upon which source you consult. Despite uncertainties about the date, Mitjana’s spelling of ‘Upsala’ is correct, since the name of the town wasn’t changed to ‘Uppsala’ until the major Swedish spelling reform of 1906.

That a collection of Spanish songs, printed in Italy, should end up at a Swedish university appears to be one of the more delightful accidents of history. The volume may have been acquired as war booty when the Swedish army plundered Prague in 1631, or 1648, although how the manuscript traveled to Prague isn’t clear.

In any event, “Riu, Riu Chiu” is part of a collection titled:

Villancicos de diuersos Autores, a dos, y a tres, y a qvatro, y a cinco bozes, agora nvevamente corregidos. Ay mas ocho tonos de Canto llano, y ocho tonos de Canto de Organo para que puedam aprouechar los que, A cantar començaren. Venetiis, Apud Hieronymum Scotum, MDLVI.

This translation not only clarifies the collection’s contents, it sugggests its broad appeal :

Villancicos from divers authors, for two, and for three, and for four, and for five voices, now newly corrected. There are also eight tones of plainchant, and eight tones of organum for the benefit of those that are still learning to sing. Venice, by Hieronymus (Girolamo) Scotto, 1556.

Two other songbooks, the Cancionero Musical del Palacio and the Cancionero de Medinaceli, contain all the richness and variety of the Spanish Renaissance in their collections of compositions for instruments and voices. On the other hand, the Upsala collection has preserved fifty-four villancicos.

Over time, villancico has come to refer primarily to Christmas carols, but the songs, rooted in village life, were much like our folksongs. Sung in Castilian Spanish, Catalan, and Galician-Portuguese, most of the villancicos were secular, but twelve in the Cancionero de Upsala were meant for Christmas, including “Riu, Riu Chiu,” attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder.

Just as Swedish spelling reforms cause difficulty for people dealing with early documents, changes in the Spanish language have left room for interpretation when it comes to the lyrics of “Riu, Riu Chiu.”

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, tell us that:

“Riu, riu chiu” was a traditional call of Spanish shepherds when guarding their flocks in a riverside fold. Elsewhere, the catchy tune is found in a variant form with a secular shepherd-song, and it may derive from a genuine example.

Jula Karolaro, on his Yuletide Carols site reports that “Riu, riu chiu” is the call of a nightingale, or the call of a shepherd to his sheep. As he puts it:

The first line in Spanish is ambiguous, as to whether the riverbank is protecting a nightingale, or a shepherd is protecting his flock at a riverbank. So in both translations, I equivocated a bit in that first line by vaguely referring to a “riverside guardian”.

Lisa Theriot, in notes accompanying her own translation, says:

“Riu, riu, chiu” is meant to be onomatopoeia for birdsong, though the type of bird is still under debate. Leading candidates are the nightingale, for the beauty of his song, and the kingfisher, because of the concept of guarding the riverbank.

After listening to recordings of the kingfisher, Lisa found herself favoring its role as the anonymous bird. Well acquainted with the kingfisher’s call, as well as its willingness to aggressively defend its territory, I’m more than happy myself to consider “Riu, Riu Chiu” the “Kingfisher’s Carol.”

Whatever questions remain about the history of the villancico, we can be grateful for the graceful translation of the lyrics provided by the San Francisco Bach Choir, and the happy transmission of the melody through the centuries.

Today, versions of the carol abound. Everyone from Chanticleer to the Monkees have given it a whirl. But in this age of overly-produced recordings, the simplicity of the version offered by the Capella de Ministrers, an early music group formed in 1987 in Valencia, Spain, brings life to a timeless song of the season.

Cancionero de Upsala/Cancionero del Duque de Calabria ~ Atríbuido a Mateo Flecha el Viejo
Riu, riu, chiu
la guarda ribera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera.
El lobo rabioso
la quiso morder
Mas Dios Poderoso
la supo defender
Quizo la hacer que
no pudiese pecar
Ni aun original
esta virgen no tuviera.
Riu, riu, chiu…
Este que es nascido
es El Gran Monarca
Cristo Patriarca
de carne vestido
Ha nos redimido
con se hacer chiquito
Aunque era infinito
finito se hiciera.
Riu, riu, chiu …
Pues que ya tenemos
lo que deseamos
Todos juntos vamos
presentes llevemos
Todos le daremos
nuestra voluntad
Pues a se igualar
con nosotros viniera.

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank is protected
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God
Knew how to defend her
He willed to make her
Unable to sin
Even original sin
This virgin did not have
Riu, riu, chiu…
The one who is born
Is the Great Monarch
Christ the Patriarch
Clothed in flesh
He has redeemed us
By making himself small
Though he was infinite
He became finite
Riu, riu, chiu…
Now we have
What we desire
Let us go together
To present him gifts
Let us all give him
Our will
For he came
As our equal
Riu, riu, chiu…

Comments are welcome.