Wednesday, January 1, 2014

And suddenly, it's CHRISTMAS!

My man Sherlock is back at last.

Brilliant, my dear...  brilliant, as usual.
Sock-worthy, in fact.

I can't wait till Sunday...

Friday, December 27, 2013

Hell's Bells

Remember Christmas Eve, when I posted all kinds of hope and gratitude?  Well, in that post, I made the grave mistake of saying that I thought the tummy bug that had been going around my family had finally abated.

Wrong thing to say.

I must have angered The Beast, because by 3am on Christmas Day, Child Number One went down.  By morning, Wee Three was sick for the second time.  By lunchtime, both Gramma and Grampa, who had traveled back with us from Stratford, were down-- but not before Gramma had stoically stuffed the turkey and put it into the oven.  (Seriously.  Raw poultry and gastroenteritis??  That woman is tough.)

In the end, we cancelled Christmas dinner.  My sister and her brood were sent home within minutes of arriving on our doorstep, and they took my brother with them.

"Save yourselves," I called as they skidded down my ice rink of a driveway in hasty retreat.

December 25 saw our house turned into a little hospital...  Thank God there were enough grown-ups left standing to run out to the 24-hour pharmacy for supplies, and to care for those who needed them.

It was no Christmas, that's for sure.

On that day, I was supposed to post a carol entitled "All Bells in Paradise".

Ha ha.  Very funny.

Today is December 27, but we're having a "re-do".  I've got enough food in my fridge to feed a small army, so we've recruited as many family members as are able to come and help us make a dinner of hot turkey sandwiches, mashed potatoes, two-veg and lashings of gravy.  We might even be up for a little steamed pud, although it just won't be the same without my mum and dad here to argue about exactly HOW MUCH brandy to souse it with, and set it on fire.  There's also an incredible load of baking to get through-- and it had better be gotten through, because after today, I am purging this house of all things Christmas with a vengeance.

The remainder of the week will be spent quietly, with me printing out calendars and making plans for the next few months.  One of the projects I'll be tackling will be the re-modelling of the second floor bathroom.  After spending an extended time in there on the floor with various patients, it has come to my attention that the fixtures in there are way past their prime.  That gave me something else to think about, as I was swilling the place down with as much bleach as I had on hand.

On the bright side, at least we are not among the hundreds who are still without power and heat in our town...  at least the weather forecast is predicting warmer temperatures, and we will be able to get outside to begin the long process of cleaning up our property.

We're on the mend.

Not out of the woods just yet...

But, I have faith.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

Away in a Manger
music by Bob Chilcott, and performed by 
The BYU Concert Choir


Silent Night
performed by Haley Westentra

What a time we've had these past few days...  and I'm happy and relieved to report that (knock shattered, ice-encrusted wood) the worst would seem to be over.  The tummy bug seems to have been conquered, the most destructive ice storm ever to his this part of Ontario has finally abated, and late last night, the lights and heat finally came back on at my house.  

I can't begin to tell you how grateful I felt to be safely holed up in my parents' place with my three kids during that time, or how relieved I was when I knew that our beloved critters had been evacuated from the cold and the dark, and were being cared for by good friends.  When we finally were able to get back home late this morning, most of the roads had been cleared, and a remarkable amount of work had already begun to clean up what remained of the beautiful old trees in my neighbourhood.

We've been remarkably blessed to be cared for by the good, hard-working people at Powerstream.  Those ladies and gents have been working around the clock since the sleet hit the fan, so to speak.  The company kept in touch with us all by Twitter, and constantly reassured us that help was on the way.  The Twitter-feed from the past few days pretty much sums up the story for you.  The very best parts have been the huge THANK YOUS that customers have posted, one even describing how when the lights on her street finally went back on last night, a lusty cheer erupted from the entire neighbourhood.  Folks stepped out onto their doorsteps to applaud as eight Powerstream trucks rolled down the street, on their way to help another cold, dark pocket of our town.

As Child Number One said yesterday, this is the kind of thing that Christmas is all about: people helping one another.  For us this year, the ice was a cold, hard reminder that it's not about the "stuff".  

Stay warm, everybody.  Hugs all around.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

December 24

"Adoration of the Magi", by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)
Note that the star appears as a comet above the Christ Child.
Giotto witnessed an appearance of Halley's Comet in 1301. 

There Shall be a Star of Morning Gleams
from the unfinished oratorio "Christus", Op. 97
by Felix Mendelssohn
and performed by Ex Cathedra

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, known as Felix Mendelssohn, was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period.  Although he was born into a notable Jewish family, his parents turned away from their faith, and raised young Felix without religion.  He was later baptized as a Reformed Christian.  He was recognized as a musical prodigy at an early age, but his parents were careful, and resisted capitalizing upon his remarkable talent.

Mendelssohn had what were considered to be "conservative" musical tastes, and he blended characteristics of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven with those of more contemporary composers.  After enjoying a great deal of success in Germany, he travelled throughout Europe, and was then very well received in Great Britain, where he toured on ten occasions.  He was greatly admired, and then befriended, by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

As with so many great artists, Mendelssohn had a highly sensitive temperament, and frequently worked himself into states of extreme nervous exhaustion.  During his life, he was known as "The Discontented Polish Count", and he referred to this epithet in his own letters.  After his death, however, the family made a concerted effort to promote the image that he had always been a happy and equable person.  This was apparently not the case at all, a great deal of the time.

His strange and inappropriate behaviour may actually have been a symptom of the health problems that would lead to his premature death.  He often flew into fits of rage that would end with his physical collapse.   Eduard Devrient wrote his recollections of Mendelssohn in 1869.  Apparently on one occasion in the 1830s, Mendelssohn's wishes were not obeyed, and the result was that "his excitement was increased so fearfully...  that when the family was assembled...  he began to talk incoherently, and in English to the great terror of them all.  The stern voice of his father at last checked the wild torrent of words; they took him to bed, and a profound sleep of twelve hours restored him to his normal state."

It would seem that Mendelssohn was perhaps suffering a series of small strokes, and it was this affliction that eventually ended his life at the age of 38, on November 4, 1847.

"Christus" was the title given by Mendelssohn's brother Paul to fragments of an unfinished oratorio, which was published posthumously as Op. 97.  The German libretto was taken from Biblical sources by Karl Josias von Bunsen.  Mendelssohn began composing the work in 1846, and continued with it during his final year.  "Christus" was first performed in 1852.

The libretto of "There Shall be a Star of Morning Gleams" is linked to the star prophecy, which is found in the Book of Numbers, chapter 24, verse 17:

I shall see him, but not now:  I shall behold him, but not nigh:  there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.

Most likely, this prophecy was originally intended to refer to an event in the immediate future.  But by the time of the New Testament, early Christian theologians were connecting it to the Star of Bethlehem, which is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 2-11:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?  for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea:  for thus it is written by the prophet,

And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda:  for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him:  and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

December 23 (part 2)

Bethlehem Down 
music by Peter Warlock, with words by Bruce Blunt, 
 and performed by Polyphony 

 When He is King we will give Him a King's gifts, 
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown, 
Beautiful robes", said the young girl to Joseph, 
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down. 

 Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight, 
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold, 
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music, 
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold. 

 When He is King they will clothe Him in grave-sheets, 
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown, 
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary, 
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down 

 Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming, 
Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold, 
Mary for love, and for lullaby music, 
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem Down.

I don't think this carol will ever fail to break my heart when I hear it.

We all want wonderful things for our children.  In the first few minutes of the euphoric rush that follows the delivery of a new baby, every mother knows with an other-worldly certainty that her baby is the most beautiful; the most perfect of all.  

Indeed, Mary had been promised it by an angel:

He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest:  
and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever:  
and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Luke 1:32-33

In this piece, the poet Bruce Blunt perfectly captures that rush of new-motherhood:  It has clearly never occurred to Mary that anything terrible could ever happen to her child.  God had chosen her because of her devout obedience.  He would keep them all safe:  the promises would be fulfilled.

But there was a bigger plan in place for them all-- especially for that tiny little baby.  His mother would see him through the highest highs, and watch him perform miracles.  Later, she would suffer the ultimate loss, as she witnessed his tortured death.

This carol paints a perfect, peaceful scene between two loving new parents, during that wonderful time when it feels like there is only the three of you in the entire world.  

Yet the future is clearly foreshadowed, and what is to come hangs over the vignette with a terrible foreboding.  

Yes, Christ was born to save us...  but the humanity of this piece illuminates how terribly difficult it must have been to endure such sacrifice.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

December 23

Well, folks...  it's been quite an adventure this weekend.

The News From Here is that there has been a terrible ice storm where I live, and our power and heat have been cut off.  This also means no telephones (other than cell, which is reserved for "emergencies") and no internet.  The music that was previously scheduled to be brought to you for December 23 isn't co-operating, because even my regular music server is out-of-whack, and (more than likely) frozen solid.

Luckily, it's Monday, and I'm able to bring you this, courtesy of Youtube.  It is the very BEST worst version of "Sleighride" I have ever had the dubious honour of laying ears on.  I don't know who these guys are, but I'm sure they must know something about music-- no one "untrained" could do this poorly so incredibly well, if you know what I mean.

And, it pretty accurately reflects the way I'm feeling tonight:  totally discombobulated, and desperately racing towards some sort of imaginary finish line.

True, we're still squatting in my parents' cosy home, enjoying all the electricity and warmth and eating up the Christmas baking...  but we're worried about those we left behind, not the least of whom are our menagerie of cats, hamsters, and a small herd of woinking guinea pigs.  We are assured that they have been wrapped in blankets and towels and are snuggled in front of the fire...  but we are longing to be with them.

Better times tomorrow, I hope. If the roads are clear and sanded, we will try to make the long trek home: the girlies are anxious to make it there before Santa Claus does.

Bloomin' heck...  so am I.

December 22

"...on a winter's night with ewe."

Song for a Winter's Night
written and performed by Canadian
Gordon Lightfoot
This song is for my mum...  with thanks for hosting my brood for an extended weekend, due to the Ice Storm AND a walloping, unexpected dose of "the barfies".

I know.  We're  never dull, and classy house guests that way.


Friday, December 20, 2013

December 21

"Madonna and Child" by Wee Three, 2009

The Heart-in-Waiting
poem by Kevin Crossely-Holland,
music composed by Bob Chilcott,
and performed by The NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir 

Jesus walked through whispering wood: 
‘I am pale blossom, I am blood berry, 
I am rough bark, I am sharp thorn. 
This is the place where you will be born.’ 

 Jesus went down to the skirl of the sea: 
‘I am long reach, I am fierce comber, 
I am keen saltspray, I am spring tide.’ 
He pushed the cup of the sea aside

 And heard the sky which breathed-and-blew: 
‘I am the firmament, I am shape-changer, 
I cradle and carry and kiss and roar, 
I am infinite roof and floor.’ 

 All day he walked, he walked all night, 
Then Jesus came to the heart at dawn. 
‘Here and now,’ said the heart-in-waiting, 
‘This is the place where you must be born.’ 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

December 20

"Adoration of the Christ Child" 16th Century Flemish

music composed by Michael Finnisy
and performed by
The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge

Soon must I sing with rejoicing,
For the time is run.
Of a wee child all undefiled,
The King of Heaven's Son.

His blood so red for thee was shed,
The price it was not small.
Remember well that which I tell,
And come when Jesu call.

Man stands in doubt, and seekst about,
Where that they mayst him see.
Idols they set, riches to get,
Fashioned from stone and tree.

His blood so red for thee was shed,
The price it was not small.
Remember well that which I tell,
And come when Jesu call.

Mankind I call which lies in thrall,
For love he made thee free.
Top pay the debt the price was great,
From Hell he ransomed thee.

His blood so red for thee was shed,
The price it was not small.
Remember well that which I tell,
And come when Jesu call.

This is the very first recording of this lovely carol, which is set with an ancient anonymous sixteenth-century verse. Michael Finnissy's arrangement first appeared in 2008 in a collection of new carols by contemporary composers. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December 19

a leaf from William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience",
which is now held at the Library of Congress

The Lamb
poem written by William Blake in 1789, 
with music composed by Sir John Tavener
and performed by Tenebrae

Little lamb, who made thee 
Dost thou know who made thee 
Gave thee life, & bid thee feed. 
By the stream & o’er the mead; 
Gave thee clothing of delight, 
Softest clothing, woolly bright; 
Gave thee such a tender voice, 
Making all the vales rejoice! 
Little lamb, who made thee 
Does thou know who made thee

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee, 
Little lamb, I’ll tell thee! 
He is called by thy name, 
For He calls Himself a Lamb: 
He is meek, & He is mild, 
He became a little child: 
I a child & thou a lamb, 
We are called by His name. 
Little lamb, God bless thee! 
Little lamb, God bless thee! 

"Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" were poems that were, of course, written with the intention of having them sung.  Sadly, the original music scores of these anthologies have been lost, but several different composers have set selected works to music.  

The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the most famous to attempt this particular poem, but he described it as "... a horrible little lamb- a poem that I hate."  


Luckily for us, however, one of my favourite composers, the late Sir John Tavener, took a car trip with his mother from South Devon to London one day.  "It came to me fully grown, so to speak," wrote Tavener.  "It was written in an afternoon...  All I had to do was write it down."

He dedicated the piece to his three-year-old nephew, Simon.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December 18

music by Bob Chilcott, with words by Janet Lewis (1899-1988)
and performed by The Vasari Singers

 Lullee, lullay
I could not love thee more
if thou wast Christ the King.
Now tell me, how did Mary know
that in her womb should sleep and grow
The Lord of everything?

Lullee, lullay
An angel stood with her,
who said ʻThat which doth stir
Like summer in thy side
shall save the world from sin.
Then stable, hall and inn shall cherish Christmas-tide.ʼ

Lullee, lullay
And so it was that Day.
And did she love him more
because an angel came
 to prophesy his name?
Ah no, not so,
she could not love Him more,
But loved Him just the same.

Lullee, lullee, lullee, lullay.

Happy Anniversary

"I love being married. It's so great to find that one special person 
you want to annoy for the rest of your life."
--Rita Rudner

Well, it's that time of year again.

Wee Three:  How long have gramma and grampa been married?

Terrible Two:  About five million years.

Sometimes I'm sure it feels that way for them.  But for the rest of us, they are the constant in our family's universe.

Thanks, you two.  We love you.

Keep up the good work.

Monday, December 16, 2013

December 17

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
performed by Rowlf the Dog, with John Denver

Sunday, December 15, 2013

December 16

I'm a Little Christmas Cracker
performed by Diana Decker

A few years ago, I discovered the most amazing series from the BBC, entitled "Victorian Farm Christmas".  It is a wonderfully entertaining resource, which teaches the history of many of the Christmas traditions that we observe to this day, including the making of a wide variety of decorations, different recipes, and of course, the good old Christmas cracker!

Here is a snippet on how to make your own Christmas crackers, if it's still early enough in the month that you're feeling energized and enthusiastic.

(Those of us who are disorganized and frazzled will simply watch, and then nip out to the stores and buy some, before they're all sold out.)


Help yourself!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

December 15

"Doings of Kriss Kringle" c 1897

Kris Kringle
performed by "The Barnsley Nightengale"
 Kate Rusby

In spite of this little tune being sung by the lovely Kate Rusby, of Yorkshire, England, "Kris Kringle" is a name derived from the German, Christkindl, which means "Christ Child", and has been the name used for the Christmas giver of gifts in many parts of Europe.  Interestingly, the "Christkind" was promulgated by Martin Luther, in an effort to deflect attention from St. Nicholas during the Protestant Reformation.   Rather than bringing gifts on December 6, the Feast of St Nicholas, the little angel would visit the houses of children on Christmas Eve.  The Christkindl was never seen, and the sound of a tiny bell would signal that he had visited, and left gifts under the Christmas tree.

Although the tradition of the Christkindl is still popular in some parts of the world, it continues to face serious competition with Santa Claus.  I would imagine that this is because Santa Claus has a much better publicity department, and gets more press.

The name Christkindl began to change over time, especially after it was introduced to America by the Pennsylvania Dutch community in the early 1800s.  Christkindl eventually became what many people now know as "Kris Kringle":  another name for Santa Claus.  The name "Kris Kringle" became wildly popular with the release of the film "Miracle on 34th Street".  

Nowadays, "Kris Kringle" is widely known as a type of holiday party activity in the United States, and is the equivalent to what we know of in Canada as a "Secret Santa" type of event.

If you have the misfortune to be invited to such an event this year, as I have, allow me to pass along this tidbit of wisdom:

An inexpensive itunes gift card makes a far superior choice for exchange, rather than a wonky coffee mug that lists dangerously to the right, emblazoned "Here comes SLANTA Claus!"


December 14

"Sparkle and Shine"
from the soundtrack of "Nativity!"

Well, here's a sassy little Star of Bethlehem, from one of my favourite Christmas films of all time!

If you haven't yet seen this gem, starring the magnificent Martin Freeman, then I insist you purchase yourself a copy.  It's completely hilarious from beginning to end, is packed with improvised dialogue, and features a brilliantly original version of the "traditional" Christmas story.

No airy-fairy Disney nonsense here...  You'll go between being on the edge of your seat, and rolling on the floor laughing as you watch primary teacher Mr. Paul Maddins and his "Educational" Assistant Mr. Poppy pull off the craziest Nativity Pageant EVER.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

December 13

"Vierge au Lys" by Eugène Delaplanche (1878)

Hymne à la Vierge 
Music composed by Pierre Villette (1926-98),
words by Roland Bouhéret (1930-95),
and performed by The Vasari Singers 

O toute belle, Vierge Marie, 
Votre âme trouve en Dieu 
Le parfait amour. Il vous revêt du manteau de la Grâce
Comme une fiancée 
Parée de ses joyaux. 
Alléluia, Alléluia, 
Je vais chanter ta louange, Seigneur, 
Car tu as pris soin de moi, 
Car tu mʼas envelopée du voile de lʼinnocence. 

Vous êtes née avant les collines, 
O sagesse de Dieu Porte du Salut. 
Hereux ce lui qui marche dans vos traces, 
Qui apprête son coeur 
A la voix de vos conseils. 
Alléluia, Alléluia, 
Je vais chanter ta louange, Seigneur, 
Car tu mʼas faite, avant le jour, 
Car tu mʼas fait précéder le jaillissement des sources.

Avant les astres 
Vous étiez présente Mère du Créateur 
Au profound du ciel 
Quand Dieu fixait les limites du monde 
Vous partagiez con coeur 
Etant à lʼoeuvre avec lui. 
O toute belle Vierge Marie.

Marie Guyart
While in Quebec City, my eldest daughter and I made another pilgrimage.  We visited The Musée des Ursulines, which is built on the site of the very first school ever established in what was then known as "New  France".  

The Ursuline Order of Roman Catholic nuns was founded in Italy in 1535, and was one known as La Compagnie de Saint-Ursule.  In 1639, at the request of the Jesuit priests, three Ursulines arrived in Québec City.  One of those women was the 40-year-old widowed Marie de l’Incarnation, born Marie Guyart.  

Marie's husband had been a silk merchant, and died when his wife was just nineteen years old, leaving her to care for her infant son, Claude.  Marie was also left with a struggling business to run-- which she did until it became successful enough for her to sell, thus enabling her to return to her family home.  There, she supported herself and her child with the beautiful embroidery that would later become so important in her religious and teaching career.

Guyart experienced a mystical vision on March 24, 1620, which set in motion a series of events that would completely transform her life.  In 1621, she decided to enter the Ursuline monastery in Tours.  This cannot have been an easy decision, as it meant leaving her young son to be raised by another family.  Claude was so completely distraught by being abandoned by his mother, he attempted to storm the monastery with a band of schoolboys.  It was not until many years later, when he was ordained as a Benedictine Monk, that he re-established contact with his mother, and the two were able to correspond about their spiritual and emotional trials

Marie Guyart professed her vows in 1633, and was given the name Marie de l’Incarnation by the Ursuline Order.  After reading The Jesuit Relations in 1634, she experienced another spiritual vision; this one instructing her to go and establish the Catholic Faith in the New World. On 19 February 1639 she was introduced to Marie-Madeline de Chauvigny de la Peltrie. She was a widow who was also drawn to serve in the new colony, and was financially able to support such an endeavor. Marie, along with another Ursuline, Sister Marie-de-Saint-Joseph, aged 22, received the necessary permissions to undertake this mission. Despite the strong opposition of her family, de la Peltrie signed over the bulk of her estate to the Ursuline Order for the maintenance of the mission in New France. They then traveled to Dieppe, the port of departure for New France, where a member of the local Ursuline community, Sister Cécile de Sainte-Croix, volunteered to join them.

When these women arrived in The New World in August, 1639, Quebec was hardly a town:  only six houses stood at the foot of the mountain, on the spot that had been chosen by Samuel de Champlain thirty-one years earlier.  They established their convent, and moved into a stone building in the upper town in 1642, on the site where the modern buildings are situated today.  Their school for girls gradually flourished, and they soon built a boarding house to accept live-in students.

Because the school exclusively taught female students, the curriculum focused on what were considered "the female arts", with an emphasis on sewing and needlework.  The craftsmanship in all of the articles on exhibition in the museum is nothing short of spectacular.  Samplers and baby garments were created with as much care and attention to detail as the elaborate altar pieces and religious robes.  Of distinction is the collection of liturgical vestments and altar frontals, which include examples of the most remarkable three-dimensional embroidery techniques:  the silver, gold and silk threads are padded-up and reinforced by horse hair, which is then completely covered over by the exquisite stitching.  The students were taught a complete range of artistic subjects, including drawing, painting, sculpting, and the playing of a wide variety of musical instruments.

The girls of New France were exceptionally fortunate, because the nuns also believed in instructing them in subjects that were traditionally reserved for boys.  As well as learning cooking and nutritional health, they were given lessons in chemistry and physics.  They were taught ways to prevent and treat illness and injury, and also received courses in botany and biology. They were taught to run an economically sound household, and the complex mathematical skills required to ensure that this would be a certainty.  The idea of giving females a complete and well-rounded education was a revolutionary one in the early 1600's.  It is astounding to think of the kind of lives the average female faced in Europe at that time by comparison:  such teaching was reserved for the highest nobility, and even then, women were rarely (if ever) given the opportunity to actually utilize the knowledge that they had.  Advanced schooling made them "marriage-able", and almost never "power-ful".  The colony of New France was a whole new playing-field, however.  Establishing and maintaining a self-sustaining life was unthinkably hard, and all people-- men, women and children alike-- had to use every wit and ounce of stamina they had in order to survive.  In this way, women DID become "power-ful", as clever, skilled and practical females provided a strong foundation upon which to build a new society.

It was not only the French colonist families that desired their daughters to be educated by the Ursuline nuns.  One of the things that I admire the most about the life and work of Marie de l’Incarnation was her acceptance of, and devotion to her many Aboriginal Canadian students. She was soon able to teach these young girls and women in the Huron, Algonkian, Montagnais, and Iroquois tongues.

When we visited the convent, chapel and final resting place of Marie de l’Incarnation, we were guided by a member of the "modern" Ursuline Order.  She told us that the favourite school-room of their founding Mother was outdoors, under a particular ash tree.  She would sit, and the Native children would gather around her, in the atmosphere where they felt most comfortable.  The ash tree lived for many, many more years than Marie de l’Incarnation, who passed away on April 30, 1672.  Once it fell, however, it was severed into many pieces, which were passed on to other churches and kept as holy relics.

I had a wonderful chat with our guide, and our conversation deepened when we discovered we were both teachers.  I told her a little bit about the extremely challenging year I had just experienced with the community class I had taught, and she was full of good counsel and encouragement.  She eventually pushed a small prayer pamphlet into my hands, and invited me to sit down in a beautifully carved wooden chair, beside Marie de l’Incarnation's tomb.  She left me to it, and I was able to enjoy ten or fifteen minutes of silent solitude, which was remarkably refreshing and surprisingly restful, considering the emotional turbulence that had been plaguing me since school had let out just a few short days before.

As I was departing the chapel, the tiny nun approached me to say goodbye, and asked me if I was feeling better.  I said that I was, and promised that I would persevere and make positive changes in my teaching career.

It was then that she pointed back towards the chair that I had been sitting in.

"That cross?" she said, in her deeply accented English.  She pointed to a tiny carved detail, which was an insertion of blond wood, in contrast to the rest of the chair which was stained a much deeper colour.

"That cross is made from the ash tree.  Her tree.  I thought it might help you to sit there." 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

December 12

Christmas in Old Quebec City, Canada

'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime
arranged by John Rutter
and performed by The Cambridge Singers  

'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunter heard the hymn:
"Jesus your King is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

 Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high...
"Jesus your King is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

 O children of the forest free,
O sons of Manitou,
The Holy Child of earth and heaven
Is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.
"Jesus your King is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

I have written extensively about this carol in previous years.  It is one of my favourites, and not just because it is said to be the very first Christmas carol written and sung on Canadian soil;  in or around the date 1642.

I love it mainly because it is a example of respect between two cultures working together to establish a "common ground" and understanding.

Father Jean de Brébeuf was a Jesuit missionary who was sent from France to the New World. From what we now know as "Old" Quebec City, he traveled West, and eventually settled near where I live, in a place called "Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons", in what is now Midland, Ontario. Father Brébeuf was a truly great man, and he loved and admired the people he was sent to serve. Like any good teacher, he understood that he had as much (if not more) to learn from the Huron people as they did from him.

 A prime example of this was in his understanding of the necessity to preserve and record the Wendat language. As a scholar, he excelled in the study and acquisition of languages, and he demonstrated a significant ability to represent sounds in writing. He is also said to have mastered the native oratory style, which used metaphor, circumlocution and repetition, in order to tell a story. He was the first to record the existence of compound words in the Wendat language, and this enormous breakthrough in the study of Native language became the foundation for all further Jesuit linguistic work.

 Father Brébeuf wrote what is now referred to as "The Huron Carol" in the Wendat language. The song's original title is "Jesous Ahatonhia", which means "Jesus is Born". The melody is based upon a traditional French folk song, "Un Jeune Pucelle". In 1926, Jesse Edgar Middleton translated the carol into English. The story of the Nativity is told in such a way that it "blends" the two very different cultures: Jesus is born in a lodge of broken bark, rather than a stable, and wrapped in rabbit skin, rather than swaddling clothes. He is surrounded by hunters, rather than shepherds, and the name used to refer to the Creator, Gitchi Manitou, originates from the Algonquian dialect. Brébeuf seemed to understand that the Native people would never simply abandon all of their traditional beliefs, and made a great effort to make his Christian teachings more acceptable for the Huron.

The Martyr's Shrine
Midland, Ontario
In 1649, Father Jean de Brébeuf, along with several other Jesuit priests and many native converts, was captured by the enemy of the Huron tribe, the Iroquois. The priests were taken to the occupied village of Taenhatenteron, where they were subjected to ritual torture. While enduring the unthinkable, it is said that Father Brébeuf was far more concerned for his fellow captives than for himself. Apparently even the Iroquois were amazed by the bravery shown in his stoic, silent suffering. He was finally burned to death on March 17th. Beatified in 1925, he was canonized as a saint in 1930. He is now a patron saint of Canada.

 Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Quebec City with my eldest daughter, who was embarking on a five-week French exchange. While there, we toured many churches and cathedrals, including the beautiful Jesuit chapel.
We were welcomed by a charming gentleman who spoke mainly French, "with a little bit of English".  He was delighted by our questions, and happily toured us around the beautiful sanctuary, rich in art work and steeped in history.  One of my favourite parts of our afternoon was when he beckoned us over to a pew stall.  He pointed down towards the floor as he moved the kneeler back and forth.  A deep groove had been worn in the wooden floor beneath the little legs of the kneeler:  an indication of just how many people had worshiped in that very place.  

In my rusty highschool French, I attempted to express how much I have always admired Jean de Brébeuf, especially as he had worked and been martyred so near to where I live. He led me towards the gilded wooden altar-- upon which carvings of sheaves of wheat represent the bounty of the New World-- and gestured to the left. There was Father Brébeuf. His remains do not rest in the chapel, however.  Jean de Brébeuf is buried at the Church of St. Joseph, at what is now the reconstructed site of Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons.  He will always be remembered in the work and beautiful music for which he sacrificed his earthly life. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

December 11

Le Message des Anges
performed by the vocal ensemble "Le Petit Sablon"

Les anges dans nos campagnes 
Ont entonné l´hymne des cieux, 
Et l´écho de nos montagnes 
Redit ce chant mélodieux : 
Gloria in excelsis Deo 

 Bergers, pour qui cette fête? 
Quel est l´objet de tous ces chants? 
Quel vainqueur, quelle conquête 
Mérite ces cris triomphants : 
Gloria in excelsis Deo 

 Ils annoncent la naissance 
Du libérateur d´Israël 
Et pleins de reconnaissance 
Chantent en ce jour solennel : 
Gloria in excelsis Deo

 Cherchons tous l´heureux village 
Qui l´a vu naître sous ses toits 
Offrons-lui le tendre hommage 
Et de nos cœurs et de nos voix : 
Gloria in excelsis Deo 

 Bergers, quittez vos retraites, 
Unissez-vous à leurs concerts, 
Et que vos tendres musettes 
Fassent retenir les airs : 
Gloria in excelsis Deo

This traditional seventeenth century French carol originates from the Languedoc Region, and has gone by many titles, including "Échos de Bethléem", "J'entends là-bas dans la plaine", and "Les Anges dans nos Campagnes".  It was published in Paris in 1842, and was likely introduced to French Canada at about that same time.  The English version of the carol was translated in 1862 by James Chadwick, who was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, in the north-east of England.  Because "Angels We Have Heard on High" became popular so quickly in that area, it is often referred to as a "Cornish" carol, as described by R. R. Chope, and featured in Pickard-Cambridge's Collection of Dorset Carols.

Monday, December 9, 2013

December 10

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming 
performed by The Vasari Singers

 DET är en ros utsprungen av Jesse rotoch stam. 
Av fädren ren besjungen den står i tiden fram,
En blomma skär och blid,
Mitt i den kalla vinter i midnatts mörka tid. 

 Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! 
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung. 
It came a floweret bright amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night. 

 This German traditional carol, set to an anonymous verse, was first published in the Speyer Hymnal in Cologne in 1599.  The version here today was commissioned by The Choir of King's College Cambridge, and was first performed at their "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" in 2009.  The music was composed by Michael Praetorius, and this choral arrangement was composed by Jan Sandström.   The anonymous verse was translated
 into Swedish by Thelka Knös, and into English by Theodore Baker.

In which I could sing "Hallelujah"...

...because the "Heart Blanket" is done, just in time to welcome a baby boy.


Maybe I'll settle for a little celebratory "Tequila" instead:

Because after knitting 108 tiny little hearts, I deserve it.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

December 9

Mrs. Beeton's Christmas Plum Pudding
a classic recipe set to music by John Harle,
performed by The BBC Singers

For as long as I can remember, my dear old dad has never failed to deliver The Classic Line From the Kitchen during the grand finale of our family's Christmas Dinner:

"IS EVERYBODY WATCHING???!!  Here it comes!!!

Damn...  could somebody hand me another match?"

Saturday, December 7, 2013

December 8

Little Tree
poem by e.e. cummings, set to music by Eric Whitacre
and performed by the BYU Choirs

little tree 
little silent Christmas tree 
you are so little 
you are more like a flower 

 who found you in the green forest 
and were you very sorry to come away? 
see     i will comfort you 
because you smell so sweetly 

 i will kiss your cool bark 
and hug you safe and tight 
just as your mother would, 
only don't be afraid 

 look     the spangles 
that sleep all the year in a dark box 
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine, 
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads, 

 put up your little arms 
and i'll give them all to you to hold 
every finger shall have its ring 
and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy 

 then when you're quite dressed 
you'll stand in the window for everyone to see 
and how they'll stare! 
oh but you'll be very proud 

 and my little sister and i will take hands 
and looking up at our beautiful tree
 we'll dance and sing 
"Noel Noel"

"Be of love a little more careful than of anything."
--e.e. cummings

December 7

"Christmas is Coming"
by Vince Guaraldi, performed by Dave Benoit, 
for the album"40 Years:  A Charlie Brown Christmas"

It's hard to believe that it's been over 40 years since the first Peanuts animated film appeared on our television screens.  And after reading about the history of this program, it's even harder to believe that it made it to our television screens at all.

Judging by the choppy and primitive animation style, it will not come as news that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was produced on a shoestring budget.  However, when Charles M. Schulz was later approached with the idea of making improvements to the original film and soundtrack, he did not hesitate to veto the idea immediately.  After all the good fights that had been fought to produce "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on HIS terms, Mr. Schulz was not about to allow anyone to change a single thing-- not for the sake of "progress", or even the availability of a bigger budget.  

One of the many nits chief network executives picked about the show was its absence of a laugh track.  How, they attempted to reason, would the American public know what was meant to be funny, unless it was explicitly indicated?  Charles Schulz was adamant in his refusal, stating not only his faith in basic human intelligence, but also his fans' understanding and appreciation for the Peanuts characters.  This did not stop chief executives from creating a version that included canned laughter, just in case Schulz changed his mind.  He never did.  Although it was never actually used on television, the dumbed-down "unauthorized" version of the film apparently makes an occasional appearance on the internet.

Executives also had qualms about the decision to use actual children to voice several of the characters, rather than hiring adults.  Although Peter Robbins (the voice of Charlie Brown), Christopher Shea (Linus) and Tracy Stratford (Lucy) were experienced young actors, others had some difficulty.  Kathy Steinburg, the little girl who played Sally, was so young that she couldn't read, and had to be cued one line at a time, throughout the entire production.

Apparently, the inclusion of jazz music composed by the great Vince Guaraldi was also felt to be an inappropriate choice for what CBS considered to be a "children's program".

Clearly, the Powers that Be had completely missed the point of what the "Peanuts" comic strip was actually all about.

As I'm sure you can all imagine, the BIGGEST fight that Charles M. Schulz had with the network was about the inclusion of Linus' monologue.  Schulz, who was a deeply spiritual man, wanted to not only include the story of Christ's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke, but he also insisted upon using the King James Version of the Bible as the script.

Executives tried every argument they could think of to influence him to cut the scene.  They were convinced that the American public would completely loose interest in the show and change the channel...  And when it became clear that they weren't going to win, they tried using a threat:

"We will, of course, air it next week, 
but I'm afraid we won't be ordering any more."

Schulz was nonplussed.  He is reported to have said:

"If we don't tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?"

The rest, as they say, is history.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" aired for the first time on December 9, 1965, and immediately became a critical and commercial hit.  

In spite of all, the network's fears, Schulz had not over-estimated the public.  People "got it".  They loved every minute of the film, and found the primitive quirkiness of the production to be completely endearing.

Best of all, though, was the critical reception of Linus' monologue, which executives had railed so hard against.

Dorothy Van Horne, of The New York World-Telegram, wrote:

"Linus' reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, 
the dramatic highlight of the season."

For many of us... it still is.

Friday, December 6, 2013

December 6

"If Ye Would Hear the Angels Sing"
composed by Peter Tranchell, lyrics by Dora Greenwell,
and sung by The Choir of King's College, Cambridge

I f ye would hear the angels sing 
‘Peace on earth and mercy mild’, 
Think of him who was once a child, 
On Christmas Day in the morning. 

If ye would hear the angels sing, 
Rise, and spread you Christmas fare; 
‘Tis merrier still the more that share, 
On Christmas Day in the morning. 

Rise and bake your Christmas bread: 
Christians, rise! the world is bare, 
And blank, and dark with want and care, 
Yet Christmas comes in the morning, 

If ye would hear the angels sing, 
Christians! See ye let each door 
Stand wider than it e’er stood before, 
On Christmas Day in the morning. 

Rise, and open wide the door; 
Christians, rise! The world is wide, 
And many there be that stand outside, 
Yet Christmas comes in the morning.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December 5

Some Children See Him
Music by Dave Gruskin, Lyrics by Wihla Hutson and Alfred S. Burt,
performed by James Taylor

Some children see Him lily white, 
The baby Jesus born this night. 
Some children see Him lily white, 
With tresses soft and fair. 

Some children see Him bronzed and brown, 
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
 Some children see Him bronzed and brown, 
With dark and heavy hair. 

 Some children see Him almond-eyed, 
This Savior whom we kneel beside. 
Some children see Him almond-eyed, 
With skin of yellow hue. 

Some children see Him dark as they, 
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray. 
Some children see him dark as they, 
And, ah! they love Him, too! 

 The children in each different place 
Will see the baby Jesus’ face 
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, 
And filled with holy light. 

O lay aside each earthly thing 
And with thy heart as offering, 
Come worship now the infant King. 
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

I am extremely fortunate to live and work in one of the most culturally diverse communities in North America.

And every, single day, it is not lost on me that I go to school to teach children...  but more often than not, it is the children who teach me.  From them, I learn more than I ever imagined I could.

As a middle-aged, pink-skinned woman, I am the minority, and often a great curiosity to these delightful little people.  They constantly pepper me with questions:  

"How old are you??" 
"Do you have a husband?"  
"How many children??" 
"Are you wearing MAKE-UP??"

One child saw me knitting, and immediately wanted to know, "Do you have GRAND CHILDREN??"

(I confess:  I immediately went shopping for new face cream, once the final bell rang that day...)

The children I teach proudly proclaim themselves to be "Brown", and range in shades from a delicate milky-almond to the most robust deep chocolate you can imagine.  

They are all beautiful.  Every, single one of them.  

I never tire of hearing tales of their families and home life.  In many cases, extended family members live all in one home, and I often have tremendous difficulty sorting out who are the sisters-and-brothers-or-cousins of whom.  The bonds are intense, and everyone looks after one another.

Many are brand new immigrants to this country.  When I begin the process of booking parent-teacher interviews, the invitations are sent home translated into no fewer than five different languages.  As responses trickle in, I ensure that the correct translators are available to be present, so that we can communicate with one another.

Sometimes, though, words are not necessary.

During the early days of my first teaching placement several years ago, a worried grandfather who did not speak a word of English appeared at my classroom door.  Using hand gestures and facial expressions, he did his best to convey to me that he wanted to know if his newly-arrived grandson was adjusting to his new school.  It took a few minutes for me to fully understand who he was, and what it was that he wanted to know...  but when I smiled and began speaking gently as I pulled books and drawings out of the little boy's desk, the grandfather began to relax and smile, too.   He eventually turned to leave, and I walked him to the doorway of my classroom.  He made a slight bow, and then chastely kissed my hand in an expression of gratitude.

Few gestures have ever carried as much meaning for me as that one did.

No matter who we are, no matter what part of the world we come from...  our children are our treasures.

Between them, my students celebrate nearly every, single holiday and religious observance on the calendar. There are a great many times of the year when I need to be sensitive about scheduling assignment due-dates and assessments.  When children have been absent from class, I always make a special effort to build time into our schedule for "community circle", when we all sit down together to talk and share.  When I begin asking questions about what it was like to go to celebrate in a Temple, or a Mosque, the children fairly burst with information: what they wore, what they sang, what they ate, how they danced...  It is always fascinating.

Several children have brought me copies of a sort of "comic book" which depicts the lives of their Gods-- I have been allowed to keep them to read, for as long as I like.  A group of little girls once offered to let me join their dancing group, and enthusiastically demonstrated the steps that they knew.  Last year, one sweet thing brought me a beautiful clay lamp, as I had mentioned my admiration for the observance of Diwali, and had said that I would like to light a candle with my own three girls.

"My kids", as I call them, are always incredibly generous with their knowledge and understanding.  

And for the most part, they take one another's differences completely in stride.

One of the loveliest sights of the winter is the beautiful Holiday Tree that is put up in the foyer of our school.  The ornaments are as diverse as the students in attendance, and symbolically reflect the many different celebrations that occur during the year.  These trees bring everything and everyone together, in one enormous, beautiful display.

I'll never forget that first year of teaching, when for the first time, the community circle discussion about "Christmas" ventured beyond presents, and the fat, bearded visitor in the red suit.  To be honest, it had not surprised me that so many families had chosen to adopt the "Western" tradition of including a visit from Santa Claus in their holiday plans.

"My kids" finally asked me what my children and I would be doing over the holidays.  I began to tell them about the decorations, the arrival of family, the preparation of the dinner, and of course, our Santa Claus...  

But I also told them a little bit about church, and all the beautiful music, the pipe organ and the choir.

Their enormous brown eyes betrayed their amazement as I spoke:  clearly they had never considered this before.

"You mean you're CHRISTIAN??!" exclaimed one little boy at last.

"COOOOOL!!" said another.

Never before in my life had I ever been considered a "novelty" for this reason.  It was yet another instance when I felt so grateful and proud to be a citizen of a place that is truly a "multicultural mosaic".

The next day was Friday...  the last day before our two-week school break began.  We had a class party, did special crafts and activities.

But before we all left for the day, a little girl approached me shyly.  She pushed a package wrapped in crumpled grey tissue paper into my hands.

"Here," she said.  "My dad took me out last night.  I got this for you.  To help you celebrate your Christmas."

I carefully undid the lashings of scotch tape, and my gift was revealed.

It was a crude plastic figurine depicting the Virgin Mary, in all of her alarming dollar store glory.

It remains one of the loveliest gifts I have ever received, and is still one of my most prized possessions.

"Some children see Him..."

I have learned so much during these extraordinary years.

I've learned that the real truth is this:

It doesn't matter how any child sees Jesus.  

A great many children really don't know very much about Jesus, if anything at all.  

They don't need to.  They have their own traditions; their own ways of understanding, expressing and celebrating Love.

What really matters-- really, truly matters-- is how children see one another.

I'm pretty sure that that's what Jesus thinks is most important, too.

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