28 December 2012

Calling Birds

So today is the fourth day of Christmas, and my house is supposed to be piled with four partridges and concomitant pear trees, six turtle doves (two every day since the second day), six french hens (two days @ three each), and now the addition of four calling birds.

I have no idea what a calling bird might be; I don't think it's referring to those girls in call centres who try to sell you on their latest cellular phone plan. (Pardon me, I have call centres on my mind. I just watched my Christmas DVD, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", which prominently features a call centre in its plot line. Love that movie - a whole flock of ├╝ber-talented veteran British actors strutting their stuff, being funny and poignant and romantic and oh-so-very English, in India, no less - what's not to like?).

Okay, calling birds. I just googled it, and found out that in the song, "calling bird" is a corruption of the English "colly bird", which comes from "coaly bird", i.e. a plain old blackbird. Now, European blackbirds are songbirds - so, in a sense, they are "calling" birds.

Photo credit: Malene Thyssen, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Malene

It's one of the things I miss about Europe, the sound of birdsong. Here in Western Canada we have lots of noisy birds alright (don't get me started on the racket they make at 4:00 AM on a summer's morning when I'm trying to sleep!) but they don't sing. They chirp, and tweet (with their throats and beaks, not their smartphones), and cuckoo and caw and trill and make lots of other delightful birdy noises, but I have yet to hear the kind of tune that a blackbird will sing on a dusky summer's evening sitting in the tree outside your window. Blackbirds warble, in ever-varying tunes; they really sing.

So that's the kind of calling bird that one's true love is supposed to hand over, in multiples of four, every day from now until Twelfth Night, by which time one will have a full three dozen of the critters. Which, I suppose, will make the filling for one-and-a-half Sing-a-Song-of-Sixpence Pies, which are meant to contain four-and-twenty blackbirds each. And here's another mystery: if they were baked in the pie, how on earth are they still capable of singing once the pie is cut open?

Life, the Universe, and Calling Birds. Happy Fourth Day of Christmas!

26 December 2012

The Second Day of Christmas

It's the second day of Christmas. I believe that calls for Two Turtle Doves. And yesterday, it was a Partridge. In a Pear Tree. Why a pear tree, one wonders? (Apart from the alliteration, of course. But then, why isn't it a quetzal in a quince tree, huh?) Partridges. Hmm. There's Mr Partridge in "Tom Jones" (the book, not the singer), who is accused of being Tom's father. He's the sort of chap who'd be quite liable to sit around in pear trees, being an odd sort of bird, and hungry half the time. But I don't think that's the Partridge the song is talking about.

Today also happens to be St Stephen's Day. You know, the one that Good-King-Wenceslas-looked-out-on-the-feast-of. Stephen, as you no doubt are fully aware, was the first Christian martyr; he got stoned to death because he had the temerity to be a do-gooder who handed out food and such-like to poor people on account of his strong faith in something other than what the establishment wanted him to have faith in, which was principally their authority and the bounden duty of everyone to acknowledge said authority as the be-all and end-all of life. Stephen wouldn't have none of it; he insisted on believing what he believed and carrying on with his do-goodery. And the powers-that-be didn't like that. So they decided to do away with him (silly them). St Stephen is rather a cool character, because he wasn't really all that heroic - he was just a kind, gentle man who refused to play ball with the bullies.

So I suppose the Turtle Doves are kind of apt for today's true love's gift, being the usual symbol of innocence and gentleness and so on - just like St Stephen himself.

Next up: Three French Hens, and the feast day of St John the Evangelist (St John the Baptist's Day being, of course, the summer solstice counterpoint to Christmas, celebrated on June 24th. If you listen carefully on that night, you can hear the animals speak in human language. Ditto for Christmas Eve, I think. But seeing as we've missed that opportunity for this year, we'll have to wait for Saint-Jean-Baptiste 2013 - there's always another opportunity, thankfully.).

And none of that has anything to do with Steve, who is named that just because "Steve is a nice name" (as you will know if you've ever watched "Over the Hedge").

Life, the Universe, and the Twelve Days of Christmas. Happy St Stephen's Day!

24 December 2012

Peace On Earth

A miracle occurred: both our cats were sitting on back of the same couch, within a few inches of each other, without hissing at, batting, or chasing the other. Peace on earth, goodwill to cats! It must be Christmas.

Oh, pardon me - am I not being politically correct here? Okay, let me rephrase that: It must be The Holidays. Wait - which ones? Easter? Or Victoria Day? Maybe Valentine's - love and romance in the air... Pfffft. That just doesn't cut it.

You see, I'm talking about Christmas here. Not wimpy, wishy-washy, generic culturally neutered "holidays". I celebrate Christmas, the Christian feast, as my family has done for I-don't-know-how-many generations. Not only that, I'm fully aware and appreciative of the fact that a great many of its traditions that I hold dear have their origins in the pagan culture of my long-ago Germanic ancestors. I'm quite sure that the Christmas tree, for example, started out as some kind of fertility symbol: in the darkest time of the year people brought the evergreen tree into the house, hung apples and other gifts onto its boughs, and lit candles to show that the light would, indeed, return, and trees would once again bear leaf and fruit. (That's my own theory; I don't have any actual historic information to back this up - but it just makes sense to me, you know?) Christmas is deeply rooted in traditions of my faith, of my culture, of what generations upon generations of those who have gone before celebrated in similar or else very different ways.

I celebrate Christmas, not Hanukkah (as I'm not Jewish, more's the pity), or Kwanzaa (being of a rather pale complexion), or any other of the wonderful feasts that are being celebrated at this time of year by others. There is no disrespect to other cultures, other traditions, other faiths, in wishing someone a Merry Christmas. If that's what you celebrate, of course. If your biggest holiday is Ramadan, then I wish you a very happy one of those, indeed, and I hope you enjoy your traditions as much as I revel in mine. And I would love to hear what it means to you, and what the traditions that go with it are meant to symbolize.

You see, I don't know anything about Ramadan, or about Kwanzaa, and only a little bit about Hanukkah. But I do know a lot about Christmas, and I love everything it stands for. It's no accident that we celebrate this holiday right around the time of Winter Solstice. The message of the birth of the Christ Child fits extremely well into that setting: at the darkest time of year, in the darkest hour of humanity, light came. Just one tiny speck of light, just one tiny human infant - but it turned the tide. No longer is the darkness paramount, but the light once again returns. Light, and peace.

Peace on earth, goodwill to men - or, in other words, human beings actually practising peacefulness towards each other, rather than engaging in the malevolence that so often wants to assert itself in our dealings with others, particularly those of another complexion, faith or culture. That's what Christmas is about.

And today, even two black cats, with seven legs between them, were able to share the back of the couch in a modicum of peacefulness.

Life, the Universe, and Peace on Earth. Merry Christmas!

20 December 2012

It's Grimm

 Google tells me that today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Brothers' Grimm "Children's and Household Tales". Wonderful. Thank you, Google!

I've always loved Grimm's fairytales. They actually don't have a lot of fairies in them, definitely none of the Tinkerbell kind. Tink is an English invention of the early 1900's; the Brits, for all their stiff upper lip and what-not, are an eminently sentimental lot. The Grimms, on the other hand, even though their stories are the prime example of the German Romantic period, are, in fact, rather grim. There's romantic, and there's Romantic (and then there's RRRRROMANTIC, as in, the Marianne-Dashwood-Be-Still-My-Heart variety, but that's a topic for another post).

The Grimm's fairytales, as you probably know, weren't actually children's stories to start with. In fact, the term "fairytale" is rather misleading; a better word would probably be "folktale". Because that's what they were. Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm didn't write these stories, as in, made them up, they just wrote them down. Some of the ones in my fat complete edition (844 pages, 210 tales) are written in dialect, low German, presumably just as they came from the mouth of the storyteller. They are stories that were told around the fireside at night, when everyone was gathered, adult, children, teenagers, the lot. So, yes, they weren't NOT for children, either - the children heard them along with everyone else.

So there was no expurgation of the nasty bits, no bowdlerization. In Grimm, the solution to the story, which is frequently the punishment of evil, can be grim indeed. The wicked stepmother-witch in Snow White goes to her death dancing in red-hot shoes at Snow White's wedding. The equally wicked usurper servant woman in "The Goose Girl" gets rolled down the hill in a barrel spiked with nails on the inside. Cinderella's ugly stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by the turtle doves (which take the place of the fairy godmother in this version - see, no fairies!) - but that's after they commit acts of self-mutilation, chopping off their toe and heel, respectively, in order to fit their feet into the golden slipper (having your eyes pecked out by doves is probably restful by comparison). Need I go on? Oh yes, one more: the Frog Prince gets unfroggified not by a sloppy, sentimental kiss, but by being picked up and chucked against the wall, hard - the princess is so grossed out by him, she can't stand it any longer. Splat. "And when he fell to the ground, there stood a handsome prince..." and one presumes that he isn't gross any longer, because now she's happy to marry him. (You have to wonder if, when he develops a potbelly in middle age, she'll smack him against the wall again to keep up the handsomeness standards; it sure works well the first time round.)

So did I mention I love these stories? I always have. And that's the funny thing: I hate, loathe and abhor violence and pain. I avoid it like the plague in fiction - the real world is too full of it already, I don't want to experience it in my stories. But when it comes to the bloody violence in the Grimm's tales, it doesn't bother me. It never has. And I think it's because of this: the people in a fairytale, or rather, in a folktale, aren't real people. They're personifications, not humans. And so when the witch keels over during her charming red-hot slipper dance, it's not a woman who suffers pain, it's Evil, pure, unadulterated Evil, which gets its comeuppance. There is justice being done, the world is back in balance. Also, whenever one of the good guys suffers, the suffering usually gets fixed: when Rapunzel's prince has his eyes poked out by the thorn bush the witch chucks him into (ouch!), at the end of the story Rapunzel's tears fall into his eyes and, hey presto, fully restored vision.

Incidentally, the one Grimm story I do not like, never did, is "The Goose Girl", in which the princess' talking horse has its head chopped off, and the horse never gets reassembled; it just, literally, remains a talking head. That always bothered me, I didn't think it was fair. The decapitation of the horse is a gross injustice, and it does not get rectified. If the horse (his name is Fallada) were resurrected, I'd like the story just fine - the nail-spiked barrel at the end is, after all, nothing more than the nasty servant deserves. Justice is served.

And as another incidental remark, I was never terribly fond of Andersen's fairytales, either. His are literary fairytales which he wrote himself, not folktales like the Grimms'. And in his stories, the characters are people, not personifications, and they often do not receive justice at the end, as far as I'm concerned. The Little Match Girl is a real girl, with feelings and wishes, and she dies at the end; the Little Mermaid does not marry the prince, but has to watch him marry another, and because she loves him, she refuses to kill him and save her own life, so she turns into the foam on the top of the waves (which is what happens to mermaids when they die, not being possessed of an immortal soul. You didn't know that? Well, now you do. Blame Disney for your previous ignorance.). Andersen has too much pain, too little Happily Ever After. The Grimms might be bloody, but they deliver the happy ending for those who deserve it, and do away with those who don't.

So there you have it: two hundred years of blood, murder and mayhem for our edification. Thank you, Brothers Grimm.

Life, the Universe, and Fairytales. And they all read happily ever after.

10 December 2012

The Pleasure of Socks

Steve got socks. Christmas socks, at that. A friend just gave them to me for a Christmas tree decoration; they are a lovely red-and-white striped knit with red heels and toes, and they just happen to be a perfect fit for Steve. Sorry, Christmas Tree, stuffed bears get priority.

A nice pair of socks really is a beautiful thing. Nothing says "comfort" like a cozy pair of fluffy socks. And, on the other hand, nothing is as uncomfortable as clammy wet socks. Brrrrr. I hear that keeping your socks dry is absolutely crucial if you're going to survive long marches, say, in the military. I'd better mention it to Steve, just in case he was thinking of enlisting.

My favourite every-day kinds of socks are plain cotton ones, in a medium-weight knit. For really cold weather, or inside hiking or snow boots, thick woolly socks over top of the cotton ones are the best (a red stripe around the cuff is optional). And then for wearing inside nicer shoes, I have thin black socks, probably with a dash of nylon; but those kind are starting to leave the realm of sockishness and move over into stockingland. So I'm not sure they qualify for this post. Anyway, a really good pair of socks is a pleasure (Professor Dumbledore would tell you the same).

Now, I wonder if I should make Steve a toque to go with his socks - something in a Santa style, perhaps? But I don't know if I have any red yarn of the required weight available. Or the time to do any knitting right now. Also, his ears look warm enough right now, so he'll probably be okay, don't you think? He doesn't go playing in the snow very often, anyway. For now, he might as well just enjoy his socks.

Life, the Universe, and the Pleasure of Socks. Every bear should have a pair of his own.

09 December 2012

Christmas Cookies

I finally got around to baking Christmas cookies yesterday. There were any number of other things that were also on my "must do" list, but the cookies catapulted to the top. One must have one's priorities. What's the big deal about cookies, you ask? Oh, simply that, without them, it wouldn't be Christmas.

Well, okay - of course it would be Christmas, but it wouldn't feel right. Cookies are among the half a dozen or so Christmas essentials (the others being a Christmas tree of some kind, music, candles, and presents of sorts - homemade or no-cost are just as good as money-spending ones). Christmas celebrations are all about traditions, connecting with the past. So my cookies, they have history. Well, not the individual ones, of course, but the kinds of cookies I make. They're the kind my mother made, and my grandmother, and her mother, and her mother... I have some special carved cookie moulds that are over a hundred years old; they used to belong to my great-grandfather's sister-in-law. Among my cookie cutters are ones that have been in a family since at least my mother; I remember using them as a child. One of the favourites was always the little choo-choo train with coal tender and cars; we used to argue about who got to use it first. And then I added to the collection, myself - there's a little donkey cookie cutter I bought at the Christmas market in Stuttgart five years ago, and one that's a car, sort of like a new beetle, which tells you right there it's not an antique.

The thing about these recipes is that they're very specifically Christmas cookies; never, at any other time of the year, would you make these cookies. The recipes were developed to use the most special, rare ingredients - literally 'rich' recipes, because you couldn't afford them any other time. They're loaded with butter, sugar, white flour (as opposed to the coarse whole-grain flour you'd bake your bread from year-round), eggs, almonds - all foodstuffs that were carefully rationed, in the days when there was some connection between the difficulty of producing a food and its cost. (Take butter, for example: it takes about a quart of cream to make less than a pound of butter; and a lot of milk to get a quart of cream. So a recipe that calls for half a pound of butter - well, that takes huge amounts of milk to get there.) And the spices that go into Christmas cookies are almost all exotics, as far as Europeans are concerned. Vanilla, lemon and orange peel, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, star anise -   from India, China, the Spice Islands, rare and costly.

Today, all these foods are commonplace, and cheap. I eat butter every day, and white flour and sugar are so ubiquitous in our diet that it takes an effort to avoid them. As for the "exotic" spices, they tend to be cheaper and easier to get a hold of than anything that might be grown locally. But the cookies are still special, even today. Because what is rare and in short supply today is time - the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into making these things. Cutting cookies from a sheet of rolled dough takes much longer than dishing out the dough by the spoonful onto a cookie sheet, and normally, during the course of the year, I would never stand at the counter carefully brushing icing onto five dozen cinnamon stars - it takes far too long. But for Christmas, it's worth it. And the labour of making the cookies becomes part of the tradition. I have very fond memories of cookie making as a child, and my own kids now carry on in the same vein. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Life, the Universe, and Christmas Cookies. Come on over for a visit, we're happy to share!