Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Twelve Days of Christmas

One thing I find fascinating about the Christmas season is how soon people start packing up the Christmas decorations. Christmas Day ends, and boom! People start thinking about taking the decorations down. They don't realize that traditionally, December 25 is the BEGINNING of the Christmas season! Traditions differ on whether the legendary 12 Days of Christmas are December 25-January 5 or December 26-January 6. Either way, Christmas is not over at the stroke of midnight on Boxing Day. December 25 is, obviously, Christmas. December 26 is St. Stephen's Day. January 6 is Epiphany or Three Kings' Day.

As for the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, there are a few stories about its background. The one that comes to mind is from an e-mail that has been circulating. Snopes considers it to be bunk, and while I have learned to take Snopes with a grain of salt sometimes, I think they have a point here. More about that later.

According to the e-mail, the song was written during a time when the Catholics were severely persecuted. They wrote this song to remember the tenets of their faith in a way that the persecutors would not recognize. The gifts symbolized the following (I added the dates...they aren't mentioned in the e-mail. I included both possible dates, depending on which tradition):

A partridge in a pear tree (Dec 25 or 26): Jesus on the cross (also symbolizing His sadness over Jerusalem)
Two turtle doves (Dec 26 or 27): The Old and New Testaments
Three French hens (Dec 27 or 28): Faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Four calling birds (Dec 28 or 29): The 4 Gospels/Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)
Five golden rings (Dec 29 or 30): The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
Six geese a-laying (Dec 30 or 31): The 6 days of creation
Seven swans a-swimming (Dec 31 or Jan 1): The 7 gifts of the Spirit and the 7 Sacraments
Eight maids a-milking (Jan 1 or 2): The 8 Beatitudes
Nine ladies dancing (Jan 2 or 3): The 9 Fruits of the Spirit
Ten lords a-leaping (Jan 3 or 4): The Ten Commandments
Eleven pipers piping (Jan 4 or 5): The 11 faithful disciples (in other words, minus Judas, who betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide)
Twelve drummers drumming (Jan 5 or 6): The 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed

Snopes points out that there's no ancient documentation to support this, and the earliest data they can find to support it dates way back to the 1990s AD. One point that comes to mind for me is the Catholics' main enemies in the Middle Ages were Protestants...and most of the doctrines mentioned above are areas of agreement between Catholics and Protestants. Laws did go back and forth giving the death penalty alternately to Catholics and Protestants (depending on the persuasion of the King), but areas where the two faiths agree probably wouldn't have needed to be put in code. (Snopes also points this out.)

That said, I'm not convinced it's completely bunk. It may have involved some or all of that symbolism, but I think the info in the e-mail is generally a recent invention.

Now, for my facetious thoughts.

The singer has a very rich true love. Think of it: On day one, he or she gives a partridge in a pear tree. On day two, the gifts include two turtle doves and another partridge in another pear tree. The list goes on. According to my calculations, that comes to a total of 12 partridges in 12 pear trees, 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 calling birds, 40 golden rings, 42 geese a-laying, 42 swans a-swimming, 40 maids a-milking, 36 ladies dancing, 30 lords a-leaping, 22 pipers piping, and 12 drummers drumming, for a grand total of 364 gifts. The receiver would need a lot of space for a sudden onslaught of an arboretum of pear trees, a menagerie of 184 birds, and 140 people (who would all need someplace to sleep and live). Oh, and not to mention enough fingers to wear 40 rings. Maybe the singer could wear a different ring depending on what else they're wearing? Of course, that doesn't take into account that the geese are actively laying, so there will soon be many more geese. That also doesn't account for the fact that in order to be able to lay, all the geese would need to be female. There would need to be at least one gander in addition to the 42 geese. The swans would need someplace to swim. We would presumably need something for the maids to milk, since one doesn't typically milk birds. I would guess the ladies and lords have to dance and leap to get around and over everything else. The drummers and pipers would need a way to care for their instruments. That's also assuming that a partridge and a pear tree are a single gift.

So many animals in one place would probably raise concerns with organizations such as PETA and ASPCA, and if they allowed the singer to keep all the gifts, said singer would probably need to get a business license, declare it to be a zoo or farm, and make sure all the birds are treated humanely. I'm not sure what kind of legal issues that would raise in addition to that, but I'm sure there would be lots.

Then there's the issue of owning 140 people. The 13th Amendment to our Constitution specifically states:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Thus, all the people being given need to have consented of their own free will (unless, of course, they're serving time for a crime), and they would need to be treated with respect. They would either need to be under the clear understanding that this dancing, milking and music-making is volunteer labor, or they would need to be paid. Some politicians would probably insist that they unionize, which could lead to a lot of headaches and the threat of strikes if the singer doesn't treat them well or pay them as much as they feel they should be paid. Then there's the sticky issue of background checks. They would probably also need a lawyer or ten.

Oh yeah, and the singer would probably need to hire labor to take care of those 12 pear trees, clean up after the animals, feed the animals, etc.

Conclusion: I hope my true love, when I find her, understands that I don't expect her to give me all that, and I really don't want the headaches that would come with it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Good King Wenceslas

December 26 is a somewhat underappreciated day. Many people just know it as the day after Christmas. Stores are starting their post-Christmas sales and getting ready for the New Year celebration. Some folks are suffering from hangovers after their Christmas parties last night. This being Sunday, many people have just been to church.

December 26 is also known for its own celebrations. According to tradition, it is the first day after Christmas, the day the singer of The Twelve Days of Christmas got a partridge in a pear tree. Britain, Canada, Australia and other countries are celebrating Boxing Day, and many folks are celebrating the Feast Day for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Shortly after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, Jesus' disciples started fearlessly preaching the Gospel. They were so busy preaching that the widows started complaining that their needs were being neglected. The apostles thus appointed seven men to take care of the widows and the needy. Among them was a man named Stephen. In addition to helping the needy, he preached the good news that Christ was the promised Messiah. This didn't sit well with the Jewish authorities, who felt that Jesus was a blasphemer. They thus put Stephen up for trial, and he gave an eloquent speech detailing the history of Israel, going through the prophecies of the Messiah, and explaining how Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. At the end of his speech, Stephen looked up to heaven and saw a vision of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. When he told the Jewish authorities what he saw, they had heard enough. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him. As he died, he echoed Jesus' words on the cross, praying that God forgive his murderers, and committing his spirit into God's hands. The men who stoned him took off their coats and asked a Pharisee named Saul to hold them for them. This event had a strong impact on Saul's life, as he would later be stopped in his tracks by a blinding light from God and turn his life over to God. Saul became Paul, one of the greatest apostles, whose ministry spanned several decades and several countries around the Mediterranean region--present-day Israel, Turkey, Greece and Italy, possibly even Spain.

You probably weren't expecting a paragraph summarizing the book of Acts in a post on Good King Wenceslas, were you? :-)

Wenceslas was born near Prague, now the capital of the Czech Republic, then part of Bohemia, around the year AD 907. His father died when he was 13, and he succeeded him as duke. Until his father's death, Wenceslas was raised by his grandmother Ludmila. At that point, his mother Drahomira took over as regent, due to Wenceslas' young age. Drahomira proceeded to persecute Bohemian Christians, and it is believed that she ordered the murder (by strangulation) of Ludmila. She didn't allow Ludmila and Wenceslas to see each other out of fear that they would conspire to overthrow her. Wenceslas did indeed overthrow his mother when he was 18, and he ruled in a much more just manner. He was good to the poor, and he stopped the persecution. He even did a lot to spread Christianity in Bohemia, much to the displeasure of the nobility. He was assassinated in AD 935 by his brother Boleslav and some of Boleslav's supporters. After his death, Wenceslas was canonized as a saint, and he became the patron saint of Bohemia, and later of the Czech Republic. His feast day is September 28. Emperor Otto I of the Holy Roman Empire later granted him the title of King, thus the title of the song. However, during his lifetime, Wenceslas was only a duke.

Engraving by Brothers Dalziel, 1879

Another thing...the title of the song kind of makes it sound like he might be a wizened king...perhaps in his 50s or 60s...which is how I have always pictured him. However, doing the math, I just realized that he was about 28 when he was martyred. Wenceslas actually lived a relatively short life (although I think the life expectancy was shorter back then).

According to Wikipedia, the tune of "Good King Wenceslas" comes from a 13th-century Latin song called Tempus adest floridum (It is Time for Flowering), and the lyrics were published by John Mason Neale in 1853, a translation from a poem by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda in Czech, German and Latin.

I think it's significant (and intentional) that the song tells the story of something Wenceslas did "on the Feast of Stephen." Both Wenceslas and Stephen used the gifts and talents they had to serve the poor, and both were sainted after their deaths.

The carol itself is fairly well-known, but until now, I have only really known the first verse. This song tells the story of a time when Wenceslas saw a lowly peasant out gathering firewood on a bitterly snowy St. Stephen's Day evening. It turned out that the peasant in question lived a fair distance away, and would have a difficult time getting home in the deep snow and frost. Wenceslas took his page, and the two of them went to bring the peasant to the castle to dine at his table and get warm. The page started complaining that he couldn't go any farther in the snow, or he would freeze to death. Wenceslas thus told him to follow behind him, and step in his footsteps. The duke (or king) then led on until they got to the poor man. The last verse is a challenge to all of us to serve the poor, and in so doing, we will not only be blessing the poor, but also ourselves.

This has all the marks of a legend, and I'm not sure if it's entirely a true story, but Wenceslas was a historical figure, and true or not, I think we can all learn from this selfless act of a duke who had every right to stay in his warm and cozy castle, but instead looked out and had pity on a man who likely would have frozen to death if he hadn't stepped in.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in the Northwest

Christmas in the Northwest is not as well-known of a song as most other Christmas carols, but it's one of my favorites. The following was the best YouTube video I could find of it. I find it somewhat ironic that the song is about how it doesn't necessarily snow, and yet the video is full of snow shots. It was done by someone in Gig Harbor, WA:

The lyrics are here.

According to the official Christmas in the Northwest website, the song was written in 1985 by Brenda White, who also recorded it, as a submission to a project for Seattle's Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center. They proceeded to name the entire project "Christmas in the Northwest", and they have produced CDs every year since then, the proceeds of which benefit Children's Hospital. I think that's a very worthy cause. The CDs feature local Northwest musical artists, and all of them include Brenda White's heartwarming song.

As America gets farther and farther from its Christian roots, I find this song to be a breath of fresh air, as it celebrates Northwest culture, weather, and the true meaning of Christmas. Unlike many Christmas songs that celebrate snow falling, this one points out that the Northwest is not known for its snow, and because of all the rain that we get, "Christmas in the Northwest is a gift God wrapped in green." I also enjoy how, with the Northwest's fascination with small towns, it points out that Christmas began in a small town. It never mentions Jesus or Bethlehem by name, but it does tell that "in a small town, a child came down, the Father's gift of love and life."

I think it brilliantly captures the true spirit of Christmas. It's about celebrating the birth of the Savior, spending time with family, enjoying the weather (even if it's raining and not snowing). The recurring theme of loving and teaching children is a particularly cool part. This is undoubtedly because it was written to benefit Children's Hospital, but it isn't expressed in an advertisy (like the word I just made up?) or preachy manner.

Children have a way of dreaming that adults seem to forget. I think we have a lot to learn from the dreams of children, and I think we should never stop dreaming. We also need to learn to be content with what we have. If it's raining, we don't have to be grumpy because it isn't snowing. If it's snowing, we don't need to be grumpy because the roads are slick. We need to be willing to help and give and love...and dream!

Whether it rains or snows, it's Christmas. Whether or not anyone gets presents, we all have love to give. Christmas is about giving, not receiving. And the ultimate example of the Christmas spirit is the Child who came to earth about 2000 years ago to give us love and life. That is a greater gift than anyone could ever dream of giving.

Following is a short documentary on the song and the Children's Hospital project with the same name.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I'll Be Home for Christmas

I'll be home for Christmas. You can count on me.

Really? That's so exciting! I can hardly wait! So much to plan. Let's see, we'll need to prepare the spare bedroom, set an extra place at the table, make sure the Christmas tree is just the way you like it...where to begin?

Please have snow and mistletoe...

Snow in the Northwest can be a bit of a tall order, and the media tend to freak out when it snows...but it sure is fun! I can't guarantee that there'll be snow, but I can always pray and see if the Creator of snow can provide some for us. We could build snowmen and have loads of fun. As for mistletoe, I guess I'll have to see if I can find some. I wonder if they sell it at Wight's?

...and presents on the tree.

On the tree? Not under the tree? So you want me to wrap your presents and hide them in the branches? That's kinda weird. Or do you just want ornaments this year? Maybe that's it.

Christmas Eve will find me where the love-light gleams.

What's a love-light? Is that some kind of lantern? Did you want me to form the Christmas tree lights into the shape of a heart?

I'll be home for Christmas...

I can't wait! I'm bubbling over with excitement!

...if only in my dreams.

Wait a minute. So you WON'T be home for Christmas?! You went to the trouble of sending me a promise that you'd be home for Christmas, only to dash my hopes and dreams. Alas, alack. I'm crushed! No love-light for you! Whatever that is.


According to Wikipedia, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was written by Buck Ram, Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, and it became popular in the early 1940s when Bing Crosby recorded it. A lawsuit ensued when Mr. Ram discovered that Messrs. Gannon and Kent had copyrighted it without him. Such a heartwarming story.

It was born out of the hope of soldiers in World War I that the war would be short and they would be able to come home by Christmas. Sadly, that was not to be, and the dream remained just that. The song was particularly popular during World War II, as soldiers around the world once again dreamed of an end to the war so they could go home to their families. Many would never return, as they bravely laid down their lives. Many were Home (in heaven) for Christmas.

For me, one of the most moving renditions of the song is this one by Josh Groban, including greetings to their families from soldiers in the recent war in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the Middle East. Despite my facetious thoughts above, I truly love this song, and I am deeply thankful for the sacrifices of our Armed Forces throughout the history of our nation. It is thanks to them that we are still a free nation.

***UPDATE (April 6, 2011): Disney's Tangled to the rescue! I think I figured out what a love-light is! Check it out:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sleigh Ride

Sleigh Ride is one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. However, as Wikipedia points out, it isn't necessarily even a Christmas song. It's more of a winter song. I find it fascinating that Leroy Anderson started working on the music during a heat wave in 1946. Yeah. A song about a snowy day born out of a heat wave. I wonder if the winter part of it was his idea or the idea of Mitchell Parrish, who wrote the lyrics in 1950?

I can't help but smile at the catchy tune and lyrics... "Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too! Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you!" Sounds good to me! When can we go? As I mentioned in my post on White Christmas, I love snow, and watching it fall is thrilling (at least, for me it is). I have happy memories of playing in the snow, sledding, building snowmen and making snow angels. I don't recall if I've ever ridden a sleigh, though. I've been on hay rides. Does that count? :-) The song just makes me want to get on a sleigh right now and go for a ride, with someone beside me to keep me warm and with whom I can enjoy the day. Of course, as the song suggests, we would have to be singing at the top of our lungs. When we're not sleighing, maybe we could get out and have a snowball fight.

"There's a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray. It'll be the perfect ending to a perfect day."

I've always thought Farmer Gray, who is hosting a birthday party (notice it doesn't say Christmas party), was a historical person. Now I'm not so sure. It may be someone Mitchell Parrish knew, or it may just be that Gray rhymes with day.

Whatever the case, the next part of the song brings back more happy winter memories for me. At this point, we are all celebrating a birthday party inside the farmhouse, sitting in front of the fireplace and getting warm. The chestnuts are popping, and we're passing around chocolate (some versions say coffee) and pumpkin pie. Yum!! Well, as I recall, I don't much care for chestnuts, but the sound of them popping would be cool. But chocolate and pumpkin pie! The mention of pumpkin pie seems to indicate that this is early winter, maybe around Thanksgiving. birthday is right around Thanksgiving. Coincidence? I think not! Clearly, Mitchell Parrish had amazing foresight, and he knew that someday Steven Sauke would need a song about his birthday party. Makes sense to me. Just like a picture print by Currier & Ives. For those of us who were born long after Currier & Ives closed their doors, they were a printing company who printed some incredible bits of artwork. Click on the link in this paragraph to see some of their prints.

"These wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives!"

Very true. I haven't had very many winters with snow, but I have some great memories of playing in it when I was little, many years ago. (Actually, I haven't fully grown out of it. I made a snow angel a couple weeks ago when it snowed. I don't ever plan to grow out of it.)

In this day and age, life has gotten so complicated. We have tight schedules, and we have to get to work to get our full 40 hours (or more) a week in. When it snows, many people start to go crazy, as cars and snow don't necessarily mix well. Especially when people don't know how to drive in it. Cars aren't built for snow like sleighs are. I submit that instead of driving cars in the snow, we should all get horses and sleighs. It would make the snowy commute so much more fun to ride in vehicles that are actually built to be used in snow. Then we can go home in our sleigh, make some hot chocolate, and sit in front of the fire and write blog entries on the song "Sleigh Ride."

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

From the moment the first scene started, I was in awe. The movie drew me in like few movies have, and I was rather surprised when I realized we were already getting close to the end. I did not realize that much time had passed since it began. The mark of a truly great movie.

Back up a bit.

In the past few months, I have gone through a range of emotions anticipating The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I watched excitedly as and other sites posted pictures from the filming, and I couldn't get enough of it. However, then the ads started coming out, prominently featuring the White Witch, Peter and Susan. They are hardly mentioned in the book, so why would they be major characters in the movie? I got further worried when I started to hear about a "green mist" and a quest to find lost swords, that is nowhere to be found in the book. It concerned me that Ramandu's daughter introduced herself in the trailer as their "guide," which is not her role in the book. When it comes to adapting books to movies, I am a bit of a purist, and it seriously bothers me when studios make major changes or cuts. (Don't get me started on the butchered adaptations of Eragon and the old animated Lord of the Rings.) I was also concerned about the precedent that Disney/Walden set with making major changes to Prince Caspian that were truly painful to watch (and were very likely the reason it didn't do as well in the box office). For a long time now, I have wanted to see all seven Chronicles of Narnia adapted for the big screen, and the last thing I want is for the franchise to end early because it is not adapted well.

I am happy to report that, though they did make changes to the plot, they made it work well, and I am OK with them. I don't want to spoil too much, but they did indeed add a green mist and a quest to find the swords of the seven lost lords. Both of these add a common thread throughout the episodic nature of the story. The order of the islands is shuffled from the book, and they combine two islands into one. The changes are very much in line with Lewis' views and the spirit of the story. As for the concerns with Peter, Susan and the White Witch, they make it work. Peter and Susan do not go to Narnia, as the marketing made it appear, and you only see them very briefly (Susan more than Peter). The White Witch appears briefly as a sort of memory, only to Edmund.

Each character must learn to fight their temptations. Whereas the battles in the first two movies were with swords, the ones in this movie were more internal battles with each person's inner demons. Lucy does battle with her feeling of inferiority to her older siblings, especially Susan. Edmund battles a similar inferiority complex, in which he tries to enlist in the British army at the beginning, and later wants to take some of Caspian's authority (but not in an annoying way like Peter in Prince Caspian). Eustace, on the other hand, must learn to battle his superiority complex. Will Poulter does an amazing job of portraying an arrogant brat, who finds out that he has a lot to learn from the most unlikely of characters: a mouse.

That is not to say there are no sword battles. There is a brief battle in the Lone Islands, and the battle with the Sea Serpent is quite spectacular, much more dramatic than in the book.

For me, the brilliance of this movie shines through in several ways...

The effects. The mist is visually amazing. The White Witch, Caspian's father and a couple other characters appear in a misty form, embodying the dreams of various characters. Dragon-Eustace and Reepicheep were amazing, and I especially enjoyed the expressions on both of them. The credits alone are worth the price of admission (especially in 3D).

The lessons. They kept the lessons C.S. Lewis put in his book. (One of the disappointments for me in Prince Caspian was how many lessons they left out.) They expanded on the theme of resisting temptation, as well as covering restoration brilliantly. They toned down Eustace's undragoning a bit, but they were very clear that only Aslan could undragon him. Aslan's charge to the children to get to know him in our world with his other name was there, verbatim from the book.

The acting. Everyone nailed their part.

There were some possible references to other movies. I especially noticed a line that seemed to be straight out of Star Wars, and an element that very much reminded me of a scene in Harry Potter (although it could also have been inspired by a scene in The Silver Chair). I enjoyed the subtle (and not-so-subtle) foreshadowing to The Silver Chair, which were added.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I'd give The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a solid 99. I had to deduct a point because of the plot changes. :-)

(Note: I'm pretty sure those are stars in the picture, not snowflakes. Stars are much more important to the story than snow, which only appears once and very briefly.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

White Christmas

White Christmas is one of those songs (and movies) that just makes me happy. Having grown up in the Philippines, where the closest thing to snow was when Mt. Pinatubo blew and covered the surrounding islands with ash (and I missed it), I have not experienced nearly as much snow as most Americans. I was born in the middle of a Montana snowstorm one November afternoon, and my first Christmas was white. Obviously, I don't remember that. Since then, I think I have had two white Christmases. I love snow (but at the same time, have a healthy respect for it, and I try to avoid driving in it).

I'm not sure if "just like the ones I used to know" applies to me, but I'm sure it applied to Irving Berlin, who wrote the song...but even though most of my Christmases have been anything but white, I do have some happy memories of playing in the snow, and even just watching in awe as it fell. I think of times we've gone into the mountains to get a Christmas tree, making snowmen and snow angels, sledding down the slopes. Seeing the "treetops glisten" is an especially amazing part of a snowy day.

I don't write very many Christmas cards (I'm more into giving presents than cards), and sadly, I don't generally write "May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white." (It's usually more along the lines of "Merry Christmas!") But that's a great greeting. Maybe I should start writing that on all my Christmas cards.

UPDATE (12/15/2010): I just realized that Irving Berlin had an interesting way of writing. He says "WITH all my Christmas cards I write..." With, not in. I write with a pen or pencil. Maybe markers, crayons or chalk. I've even written with my fingers. I can't say I've ever written with a Christmas card, though. Mr. Berlin wrote with ALL his Christmas cards, or so he says. Fascinating.

New Blog

I thought I'd start a blog. For now, I'm thinking I'll post some thoughts on songs, movies, books, etc., but that may expand in the future.