for 24 December 2022
Have you noticed that though worldwide post-agricultural cultures are mostly decidedly patriarchic and grossly misogynistic, much if not most of ritual, imagery, and myth is centered on women? The major pagan celebrations largely honor female deities, or, if they are male, then they’re only vaguely human-like with substantial animalistic elements. The king of the gods may be a male sky-god, but most of the narrative and energy is devoted to female gods, mostly of the hearth and home. Vesta, the principle deity of the Roman Empire, is a prime example. Her Greek counterpart, Hestia, is known as the “first of the gods”. Hindu myth has many swashbuckling heroes and powerful, if shadowy creators, but the deities that receive daily adulation are female. They are also usually the saviors in any given myth. And then there’s Amaterasu… the sun deity who is so central to otherwise male-dominated Japanese culture that she is centered on their national flag.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of the Christian god in human form. This story was included in the selected writings from that time period — and the resulting ritual calendar — fairly late in the evolution of the religion and the Book. There is scant reference to the mother of god anywhere else in the Bible except this lovely story of the hidden Chosen One born to commoners in a lowly stable. How did this atypical story become second only to the crucifixion in importance and arguably more significant in the broader context of world culture?
Because this is the story of the goddess. She will come through every myth, even those that deny her existence. Mary is the Queen of Heaven, the Star of the Sea, the Rose of Galilee, the Mother of God. She is eternal and magisterial, but also gentle and loving, watching over and tenderly caring for even the least of her children of Earth. Her original name is from a Hebrew word meaning “beloved”, but the name given to her in translation has the overlain sense of “marine” or “drop of the sea”, a name that has far too many parallels with the Mediterranean sea-born goddess of love to be mere happenstance. Mary is a very old story of deep love.
The pagans would not accept a faith that expunged their Mothers, a triple deity honored during the darkness of the winter solstice for millennia. This is Mothers’ Night, Modranacht, the night when North Europeans remembered their Mothers, the ancestors and spirits that created and preserved their very being. The Roman Catholic Church resisted Christmas for centuries but finally included the myth of the holy birth in order to win the hearts of those given to the goddess. Not only the Germanic and Celtic peoples, but myths throughout the Mediterranean are echoed in the birth of a savior deity from a virgin (complete-in-herself) mother. This is an old and powerful story, one that will not be abandoned to the sky gods.
And so we have Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child. We have shepherds and angels, donkeys and sheep. We have Magi, who were not kings, but Persian wizard-priests. We have a midnight birth and a harrowing escape. And we have a fierce mother who gives her child life and protects that tiny flame against all the howling winds of humanity.
From the Book Cellar
Everybody puts out a Christmas book at least once in their publishing lives. There are probably a few hundred versions of The Night Before Christmas alone. I’ve put together some of the more durable and delightful books for reading to kids in the winter darkness. Next week you may be able to find many of these on clearance — before the 12 nights are even over!
Around the beginning of this century, Gibbs Smith Publishers began pumping out tiny “night before Christmas” books for states, towns, professions, and whatever else struck their fancy. The books are jacketed hardcovers, about 3″ by 4″, and printed in something like 36 point typeface. So they get forty to fifty pages out of the famous poem, rewritten for each book in bouncy verse and illustrated in quirky mid-century tour book style. I have a copy of The Night Before Christmas in New Mexico (2003, written by Sue Carabine, illustrated by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki). If you live out West, there’s a book for your place that will bring knowing smiles to every dear face. (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)
If you want a version that you can read aloud by the fire with the kiddies all around, Philomel created a beautiful — and very large — illustrated reproduction of an 1870s version of Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night before Christmas, or a Visit of St Nicholas. There is no illustrator credit, but the original pictures are all stone lithographs, most of them familiar art icons.
Now, if you’d like a picture book of the Christian story, there is no better than Ruth Sanderson’s literally iconic The Nativity (1993, Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers). This is the story taken from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew illustrated with the rich color and majesty of a Renaissance painting.
I have a few “local” tales for Midwinter. The Woodcutter’s Christmas by Brad Kessler with wistful photographs of mostly abandoned holiday trees by Dona Ann McAdams (2001, Council Oak Books) is a beautiful little story of an old Vermonter who has a mystical experience and decides he really doesn’t want to cut down trees for Manhattanites. A Child’s Christmas in New England (2013, Bunker Hill Publishing), written by Robert Sullivan and illustrated by Glenn Wolff, is another heart-warming read-aloud that manages to neatly side-step schmalz. On a personal note, it’s set in north-central Massachusetts very near my former farm. And then there’s S. D. Nelson’s Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Story (2007, Abrams Books for Young Readers). Anything about Coyote is a great story. Add in Christmas, Raven, an accordion, Grandma and Grandpa, adorable kids, and Nelson’s formidable story-telling skills in both words and image, and, well, it’s just perfect.
The Twelve Days of Christmas [Correspondence] by the historian (and Viscount) John Julius Norwich and illustrated by the inimitable and incorrigible Quentin Blake will forever ruin the song for you. You’ll be laughing helplessly by Day 3. Every time. If you don’t want it ruined completely, a colorful and energetic “Twelve Days” comes from writer Gary Robinson and artist Jesse T. Hummingird — Native American Twelve Days of Christmas (2011, Clearlight Publishing). The last verse is twelve weavers weaving, which, I think, is the best Midwinter gift you could give!
Possibly the best illustrated version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was done by the fabulous Robert Ingpen (2008, Penguin Young Readers, minedition). This book contains the full Carol plus A Christmas Tree, a bit of history on Christmas after Charles reinvigorated it, and the whole chronological catalog of Dickens’ writing.
Then there’s the illustrated version of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi (1991, Unicorn Publishing House) which translates the story of a young, impoverished couple into siblings orphaned by the 1918 flu epidemic. Most of the story is verbatum Henry. The new parts are written in his voice. The illustrations make the story alive and sparkling. I think it might make more sense for this to be a story of children, but then Henry probably meant for us to think of Della and Jim as kids, plopped into a hard adult world well before they were ready.
Yes, truly everybody makes a Christmas book. I’ve elected to not include very many from the “well-loved picture book character does holidays” pile. But here are a few that I love just for themselves. The Christmas Quiet Book written by Deborah Underwood and softly illustrated by Renata Liwska (2012, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children). Fletcher and the Snowflake Christmas written by Julia Rawlinson and illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (2010, Greenwillow Books). And my personal favorite (because I want to live in Woodcock Pocket) is I’ll Be Home for Christmas by Holly Hobbie, Toot and Puddle at their best.
There are many legends of old women at Midwinter, so I thought I should include a couple. These are child-friendly tales, as opposed to the child-eating in many stories featuring the winter hag. The first is The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie DePaola. (I have a Voyager paperback from 1980.) Tomie’s version of the legend ends with Befana flying through the air every 12th Night to leave warm goodies for kids. The next is the story of Germanic Tante (“Auntie”) told in Cobweb Christmas: The Tradition of Tinsel written by folklorist Shirley Climo and illustrated by Jane Manning (my version is the 2001 HarperCollins Children’s Books edition of this 1982 picture book). It explains why spiders are on most Bavarian Christmas trees and paints a gentle portrait of the old witch of the woods. There is no gingerbread.
Two more from Tomie are essential Midwinter reading: The Legend of the Poinsettia (1994, PaperStar/Putnam) and The Night of Las Posadas (1999, Puffin). Both have Tomie’s “Author’s Notes” that tell the cultural narrative behind his joyful tales.
Two kid dreams of Santa that end in bells on Christmas morning are by now classics. The first is The Polar Express (1985, Houghton Mifflin Company), the least scary of all that Chris Van Allsburg has created for kids (and yet still sort of darkly foreboding for a happy holiday tale). I have to say that this is really not my favorite book, but millions of kids from at least two generations now will beg to differ. Then there’s the more recent instant classic, The Christmas Wish (2013, Random House), written by Lori Evert and illustrated with brilliant photography by Per Breiehagan. For every child who wants to trek to the North Pole with a host of friendly creatures, this is a sort of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” fairy tale with Santa Claus in place of the Ice Queen. The star of the book is the daughter of this husband and wife team — can you imagine how fun that project must have been!
And now we’re down to my favorites. Chris Raschka illustrated the poem, “Little Tree” by e. e. cummings with his busy geometrical images and wrote a whole story to go with the poem (my version is a board book entitled Little Tree from Hyperion, 2001). You’ll not be surprised to hear that cummings is my favorite poet and this particular poem one of the dearest from his large body of work. But Raschka tells the story from the tree’s perspective, adding the enduring desire to gather together at this time of year. The same motif is found in The Perfect Tree by Thomas and Christopher Bivins (1990, Unicorn Publishing House). Only it takes quite a lot for Badger to realize that all he really wants is his friends, not all the trappings of the holiday. I have read this book to kids every year for decades. I honestly can’t imagine Christmas without it. And my favorite? A book I’ve had since childhood — Why the Chimes Rang, written by Raymond MacDonald Alden and illustrated in colored pencil drawings by Rafaello Busoni (my version is from 1954, Bobbs-Merrill). A variant of the “greatest gift” folktale, this story beautifully captures the heart of generosity. Again, I can’t imagine Christmas without this book.
A Few More Pictures…
And now, it’s time for me to rest for the rest of the year. I don’t really have much to say that you really want to read in these busy days. So, until after the New Year, be seeing you…
I wish you a wonderful holiday of storytelling and gathering. Stay warm and stay safe!
©Elizabeth Anker 2022
8 thoughts on “The Daily”
Enjoyed that posting! One quibble, though, from this descendant of Henry Livingston. The authorship of A Night Before Christmas was more likely Henry L. than Moore. For one thing, Henry was a man who loved children, whereas Moore was kind of an old grouch. (The evidence piles on from there.)
A very old controversy, and likely way beyond your wide-ranging interest. Every year in upstate New York the Livingston crowd stages a mock trial on the matter. It’s fun to follow, even though there is probably no hope it will ever be resolved.
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Thank you for finally telling me who probably DID write the poem. I’ve only known — for years — that Moore probably did not & had got sort of tired saying “commonly attributed to”. Not sure why we keep giving Moore the benefit of doubt. By all accounts he was totally capable of plagiarism. Maybe if we just stop saying “Moore” and inserting “Livingston” instead, we can make it as true as anything from that long ago needs to be…
http://www.henrylivingston.com/xmas/livingstonmoore/index.htm has all the details! More than you want to know, of course – that is, unless you have some “dog in this fight”. For me, it’s kind of a fun thing, and something to talk about in gatherings at this time of year.
Henry L. was a 5 or 6xgreat-grandfather of mine. I lost count somewhere in tangled growth of the family tree.
No dogs other than regularly feeling a pang of guilt saying “written by Clement C Moore” when I know that’s not true. As a writer, that sort of cuts deep.
So who was Henry?
Merry Christmas! Keep warm and safe and enjoy some quiet, restful days!
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You as well! Don’t jump into all those projects you lined up for yourself. 🙂 Take a few days to sleep.
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Hahaha my project list is always longer than what I actually do 😀
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thank you so much for returning Christmas/solstice meaning for me!!!
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