Las Vegas, NV
May 20, 2020
Garrison Keillor hits Las Vegas with a new solo show!
April 18, 2020
Garrison Keillor comes to the Rochester Civic Theatre for a night of stories, songs, poetry, and humor. Tickets $50 and up
February 19, 2020
Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 2 of 2. Tickets $30+
February 18, 2020
Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 1 of 2. Tickets $30+
The Christmas Story
by Robin Richstone
We know by heart these stories
of a cold world, unwelcoming inn,
the murderous tyrant,
Mary on a donkey, escape,
how cruel, how long ago, how far
from what we mean to sing,
O Come, O Come,
to the weary, the terrified,
Mary’s heart beating fast,
her grip on the baby,
the strains of it fill the shops,
the streets, flow down rivers,
cross seas, cross borders,
the refugee mother kneels
to change her infant in
an open field, the shepherds gone,
the angels quiet,
her safety now
completely up to us.
Robin Richstone, “The Christmas Story” from The Museum of Fresh Starts. Copyright © 2019 by Robin Richstone. Used by permission of The Permissions Company LLC on behalf of Finishing Line Press, www.finishinglinepress.com. (buy now)
Today is Christmas Day. Many of our Christmas traditions here in America came to us from England — specifically, Victorian England of the 19th century. In fact, there are some who credit Charles Dickens with inventing the holiday, at least as we know it today.
In early 19th-century Britain, rural workers were moving to the cities in droves. They left behind the Christmas traditions of their home regions, but they didn’t really adopt the practices of city dwellers, either. The holiday was slowly waning, and by mid-century, middle-aged Britons had begun to feel nostalgic for the holidays of their youth, even as they adapted to new customs like the Christmas tree, a tradition imported by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert.
But by the mid-19th century, few could afford to take off “the twelve days of Christmas” to celebrate the season, as they once had. Conditions for industrial workers and miners were very bad, and Dickens — who had himself worked in a blacking factory as a boy — became determined to “strike a sledgehammer blow” for the poor. He also thought a great deal about the Christmas traditions of his father’s boyhood in the country: games, dancing, mulled wine, Christmas pudding, and a fat roasted goose. Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol contains both of these elements — an appeal to care for the less fortunate as an act of Christian charity, and a celebration of that cozy country Christmas that Dickens imagined so fondly. The story was an instant success, and Dickens found himself obligated to churn out a new Christmas story on a regular basis for many years. He grumbled, but he really did love the holiday. As his son later remembered, Christmas was, for Dickens, “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on […] And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”
It was on this day in 1956 that novelist Harper Lee (books by this author) spent Christmas in New York City with friends, and received a gift that changed her life. In 1949, Lee had dropped out of a law program at the University of Alabama and moved to New York City, the home of her childhood friend Truman Capote. Capote had just published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) — which featured a character based on Lee, and he was a literary star. In New York, Lee found a job as a ticket agent at an airline. For seven years, she wrote on the weekends, but she never published anything.
She rarely got time off from work, so she wasn’t able to get home to Alabama for Christmas. That Christmas of 1956, she was homesick. Lee wrote: “What I really missed was a memory, an old memory of people long since gone, of my grandparents’ house bursting with cousins, smilax, and holly. I missed the sound of hunting boots, the sudden open-door gusts of chilly air that cut through the aroma of pine needles and oyster dressing. I missed my brother’s night-before-Christmas mask of rectitude and my father’s bumblebee bass humming ‘Joy to the World.’”
Lee spent that Christmas, like many others, with her closest friends in the city: a couple named Michael and Joy Brown, whom she had met through Capote, and their two sons. Michael Brown was paid by companies to write promotional “industrial musicals,” like “Wonderful World of Chemistry” for DuPont, which was performed 17,000 times. In the fall of 1956, he had written a successful industrial show for Esquire magazine, and he was feeling rich.
Lee and the Browns had a tradition of trying to exchange the best Christmas gifts for the least amount of money, and that year Lee’s present for Michael Brown was a portrait of an 18th-century Anglican writer and cleric. It cost her 35 cents. Lee couldn’t hide her disappointment when everyone had opened their gifts and there were none for her. The Browns told her to look in the tree, where she found an envelope addressed to her. Inside, it said: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
Lee thought it was a joke, and when she finally realized that it wasn’t, she protested, but the Browns insisted — they were feeling financially comfortable, and they thought she was talented and deserved a chance to write full-time. When she said that it was too big of a risk for them, Michael replied: “No, honey. It’s not a risk. It’s a sure thing.” She wrote: “I went to the window, stunned by the day’s miracle. Christmas trees blurred softly across the street, and firelight made the children’s shadows dance on the wall beside me. A full, fair chance for a new life. Not given me by an act of generosity, but by an act of love. Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.”
She went to work immediately, and just three weeks later she brought 49 pages of a new novel called Go Set a Watchman to an agent. By the end of February, she had finished the draft. Her agents suggested some edits, and by October of 1957 the manuscript was sent off to a publishing company without a title. The publishers liked it but thought it needed major revisions — most significantly, they thought that Lee should focus on the childhood, not the adulthood, of the novel’s narrator, Scout Finch. Lee spent two years reworking the novel, and came up with a new title: To Kill A Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) went on to sell more than 30 million copies and become one of the most beloved books in American literature.
Lee didn’t release another book until 2015, when she published what had been the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, now marketed as a sequel to it: Go Set a Watchman. She died in 2016.
Today is the day St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene, in Greccio, Italy (1223). A Nativity scene, or crèche, is the special exhibition of objects that represent the story of the birth of Christ. Nativity scenes can be assembled using model figurines, animals, and human reenactment.
St. Francis was a Roman Catholic friar and preacher. He’d recently completed a trip to the Holy Land. Inspired by his visit to Jesus’s traditional birthplace, he wanted to create something to honor the birth of Christ that the villagers of Greccio could take part in. At that time, Mass was in Latin, which only the clergy understood, so during the Middle Ages, “Mystery” and “Miracle” plays were created as ways to teach Scripture to laypeople. They were popular and educational, and Francis thought he could use that idea to entertain the villagers of Greccio.
He received the blessing of Pope Honorius II, gathered an ass and a donkey, found some villagers to play Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, and staged the whole thing in a cave outside Greccio. He drew quite a crowd and preached about the “babe of Bethlehem.” His living Nativity was such a hit that the hay he used as a crib for baby Jesus miraculously acquired the power to cure cattle diseases and various pestilences.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (books by this author) wrote:
“I heard the bells, on Christmas Day,
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Sir Walter Scott (books by this author) wrote:
“Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;
Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.”
And it was Irving Berlin who wrote:
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know.
Where the treetops glisten,
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write.
May your days be merry and bright.
And may all your Christmases be white.”
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®