"I drank coffee and read old books and waited for the year to end." - Richard Brautigan
This isn't actually how I'll be spending my New Years' Eve, but it sounds good. In reality, I'm going to be spending the evening with family, playing board games, eating, and watching a movie. It'll be a lot noisier than sitting around reading, but also a lot of fun. Hope yours is just as good. Happy New Year!
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells across the snow: The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind, For those that here we see no more, Ring out the feud of rich and poor, Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause, And ancient forms of party strife; Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the times; Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes, but ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out the false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease, Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart the kindlier hand; Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.
- Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tennyson wrote "Ring Out, Wild Bells" as part of In Memoriam, an elegy he composed for his sister's fiance, Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at the age of 22. This particular portion is very obviously about New Years' Eve, as we can see from various lines such as "the year is dying in the night" and "the year is going, let him go". Also, the poem speaks very clearly about change and renewal- of putting the negative things of the past year behind you and facing the new year with a determination to be a better, truer person. Over and over Tennyson contrasts what has come before with what we should strive for going forward: "Ring out the old, ring in the new... ring out the false, ring in the true" and "Ring out the false pride in place and blood... ring in the common love of good." All of this is very much in keeping with the idea of New Year being a time for reflecting on past actions, and then modifying or rejuvenating them, and is suggested by the very name of the month- January. It is derived from the name Janus, who was the Roman god of beginnings and transitions (janua being Latin for door, or gate). January is the door into the upcoming year, which we should pass through with resolve and purpose, closing it behind us on the failures of the last twelve months. The changes which Tennyson urges are split between some for the individual- such as ridding oneself of false pride and spite- and the societal, advising ringing out the "feud of rich and poor" and ringing in "sweeter manners, purer laws". This suggests that we should strive for change and betterment personally, but also corporately as a community. Tennyson also writes of leaving off the pain and sorrow for those who have died in the past year, and not allowing grief to inhibit you from living fully in the new one: "Ring out the grief that saps the mind/ For those that here we see no more." No doubt this is specifically referencing Arthur Hallum, but it is also advice for all who have suffered loss. His words not only exhort one to move past heartache, but also suggest that the separation is a temporary one ( ...for those that here we see no more). Tennyson reassures the grief-stricken that they will one day see their loved ones again in Heaven, a suggestion of the spiritual which he continues to emphasize in lines such as: "Ring in the thousand years of peace," which specifically references the biblical prophesy about Christ's return. Indeed, Tennyson seems to suggest that, while we should take the opportunity offered by the new year to effect changes in our lives where possible, true transformation is brought about by Christ:
Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart the kindlier hand; Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.
So, those are my thoughts on Tennyson's poem about the start of a new year. Hopefully they made some sense; I don't attempt poetry analysis very often, mostly because I'm not very good at it. Maybe that's one thing I should resolve to better in the upcoming months.
Last weekend I went home to my parents' place for our annual Christmas tree decorating get together. Besides my parents and I, three more of my sisters were there, and my sister's fiance, to help with the tree. This is always a fun time, and it's the event which makes me feel like the Christmas season has really started. Our family always makes a big deal out of this... well, actually, we make a big deal out of everything surrounding Christmas... and have certain traditions which accompany the bedecking of the tree. One of these is that we open our grandparents' old radio/ record player- it's the one time a year that it's used- and play the old Christmas LPs that we've listened to while decorating the tree every year that I can remember. Digital downloads, CDs, forsooth! In my head, memories of tree decorating are always accompanied by a soundtrack of crackly vinyl.
One of these records is the Mario Lanza Christmas album, while others include Gene Autry and Rosemary Clooney, Elvis, and Frank and Bing. And then, of course, there's the First Christmas Record For Children, which was always one of our favourites. I think it belonged to my mother as a child, but in any case, it's been played every year that I can recall. It has a variety of songs and stories on it, sung and told by entertainers who were popular when the record was first released, in the '50's.
There are selections by Rosemary Clooney and Gene Autry, Doris Day, Jimmy Boyd, Mitch Miller, and even Captain Kangaroo. But by far, the most popular track on the record for us when we were kids was a story told by Red Skelton, entitled The Little Christmas Tree. This is a story about a tree which has been cut down, taken into a house and decorated by a rather unthankful family, and is wondering rather bitterly if this is what his purpose in life really was. And then he has a meeting with Santa Claus. We all loved this story as children- oh, who am I kidding- we still love it. And quote it: it has some great quotable lines. The record was released on CD in 1999, but the track of The Little Christmas Tree had been removed from the recording. I'm not sure why this was done... maybe there were some copyright issues... but I have a sneaking suspicion that maybe there might be another reason. Skelton's story was really a product of its time; it had an overtly Christian message (Santa tells the Christmas tree that every year he comes back, hoping to find people living not by man's law, but by the Ten Commandments) and also an anti-communist one. Relating his travels, Santa tells of flying over a "vast, dark place" where he runs head-on into an iron curtain, and two of his reindeer are knocked out. As kids, we had no idea what the iron curtain was, but we used to quote the lines all the time. It wasn't until later that we realized what Santa was actually talking about. If this is why the producers of the CD left it off the recording, well, shame on them. And no one liked it; I went to Amazon and checked out the reviews for the 1999 release, and literally every one I read mentioned their disappointment that The Little Christmas Tree was missing- obviously we weren't the only family who loved the story. Fortunately, for those not lucky enough to own the record, it's been put on You Tube numerous times. Enjoy.
Last night, one of my sisters and I went to see It's A Wonderful Life, which was playing at one of our local cinemas. Of course, we've seen the movie many, many times but never before on the big screen and we thought it would be fun. It was. My sister was running a bit late, so I bought our tickets and got a coffee while I waited. The theater was really crowded, but mostly with people going to see the new Star Wars movie and I wondered how well attended It's A Wonderful Life would be. When my sister arrived, she wanted to get some popcorn, and the line was really long, so I went ahead into our theater to make sure we got good seats. As it turned out, it's a good thing I did, because it was hard to find two seats together. By the time the movie started, the only seats not filled were the ones right in front. It was really heartening to see so many people- from all age groups- packed in to see the classic movie. Most there seemed to be like us: people who knew and loved It's A Wonderful Life, but there was a small group of teens not far from us who I think were seeing it for the first time. During certain amusing scenes, when the rest of us would laugh appreciatively and fondly, their laughter seemed surprised, if that makes sense. In any case, we all had a great time, and when the movie ended, everyone applauded enthusiastically.
It was really nice to watch the film on a big screen. With the picture so large, you notice things- or see them more clearly- which you couldn't before. Also, the sound being better- and louder- I actually heard a line, spoken by someone in a crowd scene, which I had never heard before: when George chases librarian Mary into a bar, a guy in there threatens to hit him over the head with a bottle. It was the first time I'd heard that line. Speaking of George, I was stuck afresh by just how good Jimmy Stewart is in this film. He plays George Bailey over a number of years, and displays every emotion from boyish enthusiasm to bitter cynicism, to quiet desperation. He channels an inner darkness which previous Stewart movies never really hinted he was capable of. This is important, because other than the opening of the movie, when George is a child, Stewart is in almost every scene. And he's certainly up to the challenge.
I love every bit of this film, but the scene I think which makes me the most happy is when, after getting his life back, George runs impetuously through the town, shouting "Merry Christmas!" After all the tension and drama, it's such a joyful, cathartic scene. But really, it's hard to pick favourite moments, because the whole movie is just so great. It's one that I can watch again and again, and it never gets old. The people at the cinema to see Star Wars may have been more excited, but I guarantee they didn't leave any happier or more satisfied than those of us who were there to watch It's A Wonderful Life. What a great film!
"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew. "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure that I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!" - Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol)
Last Saturday night, my choir had its Christmas concert. We sang a lot of beautiful music, as well as some very fun pieces. One of my favourites of the latter category was The Boar's Head Carol. It's an enthusiastic, robust song, meant to be sung vigorously while marching into and around a hall. Unfortunately, space in the church we held the concert in didn't allow for any marching about, but it was still a lot of fun to sing. The head of a boar being carried around the room and sung about might seem like an odd tradition, but it's a very old and venerated one. No one knows for sure when exactly it developed in England, but one of the first mentions of it is in an account of a celebratory feast which King Henry II held for his son (also Henry) in 1170: "Upon the daie of coronation, king Henrie the father serued his sonne at the table as sewer, bringing up the boars head with trumpets before it, according to the maner."
The boar's head ceremony seems to have been originally held on any special day or event- the above dinner was in June- but gradually became associated mostly with Christmas. In Marmion, Walter Scott provides an account of just such a Christmas feast:
The fire, with well-dried logs supplied, Went roaring up the chimney wide: The huge hall-table's oaken face, Scrubb'd till it shone, the day to grace, Bore then upon its massive board No mark to part the squire and lord. Then was brought in the lusty brawn, By old, blue-coated serving man; Then the grim boar's head frown'd on high, crested with bays and rosemary. Well can the green-garb'd ranger tell , How, when, and where the monster fell; What dogs before his death he tore, And all the baiting of the boar. The wassel round, in good brown bowls, garnish'd with ribbon, blithely trowls. There the huge sirloin reek'd; hard by Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie: Nor fail'd old Scotland to produce, At such high tide, her savoury goose. Then came the merry maskers in, And carols roared with blithesome din; If unmelodious was the song, It was a hearty note, and strong.
There are a number of songs which are sung at these feasts, but the one we performed is the most well-known: The Boar's Head Carol. It is generally associated with the Boar's Head Feast which has been occurring annually at Queen's College in Oxford for centuries. Legend has it that, in the 1300's, a scholar from Queens College was walking in the woods, studying while on his way to Mass on Christmas eve, when he was attacked by a wild boar. He saved himself by stuffing his book (by some accounts, Aristotle) into the beast's mouth, choking it. The Boar's Head Feast is held every Christmas to honour this event. The earliest version of the carol sung at it is found in Wynkyn de Worde's Christmasse Carolles, published in 1521. So, not only is the music great, and the lyrics fun to sing, but the carol comes with a long and fascinating history which enhances my enjoyment in singing it. The version below isn't exactly how we did it- a cappella- but gives an idea of the kind of marching beat its sung to:
Philip Van Doren Stern was an author and historian who specialized in Civil War history. He wrote many books on the subject, and also compiled the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, and Henry David Thoreau. A well respected scholar, he might seem an unlikely person to produce a dark, supernatural tale about a man contemplating suicide on Christmas eve, and perhaps others thought so too, as he struggled to find a publisher for it. Ultimately unable to sell it, in 1943 Stern had The Greatest Gift printed up as a booklet which he handed out to friends at Christmas.
One ofStern's little booklets ended up in the hands of a producer at RKO Pictures, who showed it to Cary Grant. Grant was interested in starring in a movie based on it, so RKO purchased the movie rights from Stern in 1944 for ten thousand dollars. The project never got off the ground, however, and in 1945 RKO sold the rights to Liberty Films for the same amount of money. Liberty Films was Frank Capra's production company. If you read my summary of the plot of The Greatest Gift, then you probably don't need me to tell you that Capra used the story as the basis for his most famous movie, It's A Wonderful Life. Though there are of course differences, the central plot device is the same: a suicidal man is shown what the world would be like if he had never lived. Some other plot points which made it into the screenplay: the scene on the bridge, the tree injured by George, the death of his brother because George wasn't there to save him, and the scene where he bursts into his house, shouting for Mary and his kids. Some scenes seem to be taken almost directly from the booklet's illustrations:
There are also, of course, many differences as well. It's A Wonderful Life adds a backstory which the short story doesn't contain. This is a good thing, because it allows us to care about George (Bailey, not Pratt; most of the names are at least partially changed as well) in a way we can't in The Greatest Gift when we meet him for the first time on the bridge. In the movie, we witness George being pushed to the very edge by circumstances- and an evil man- beyond his control, and understand why he is so desperate and hopeless. In the short story, all we're told is that George feels that his life has been wasted, and that he has never done anything important, so wants to end it all. This is less understandable; most of us are living ordinary, unremarkable- from a worldly point of view- lives, and it's hardly a reason to toss yourself off a bridge. And to contemplate suicide over such paltry problems when he has a wife and children to support, as well as parents and a brother who love him, seems more selfish than sympathetic to me. Yet another reason why I would be unsuited to a career in counseling... telling people to get over themselves is probably not an acceptable form of therapy.
There are a lot more people in the movie than in the story, and those that make the transition to film are generally changed in character and/or role. For example, in The Greatest Gift, Mr. Potter is a very minor character- merely the proprietor of the photographic studio where the young Pratt brothers got their picture taken. In It's A Wonderful Life, Potter is the poisonous old coot who tries to destroy George's life. One part of the short story which I think does work better than the movie is the part describing how Mary's life turned out due to the absence of George in it. In It's A Wonderful Life, without George Mary has become an old maid (and a librarian), and the movie treats this as if it's a terrible thing. Now, maybe it's because I'm single, but it seems to me a bit much to classify spinsterhood as a horrible tragedy. I mean, come on now, being unmarried isn't the end of the world... though it does seem to have caused Mary's hair to have been molded into an immovable bun, and ruined her eyesight, to boot:
In The Greatest Gift, however, Mary has ended up married to her other suitor, Art, who has become a drunk. How much more affecting is George's anguish when he realizes that, due to his absence from Mary's life, she is tied to a brutish sot who is making her life miserable. This is a far, far worse tragedy than her merely being alone. Imagine if, in It's A Wonderful Life, Mary had ended up married to Sam who, though nice, had a wandering eye... imagine how much more guilty and frantic George would have been. It would have lent even more urgency to his desire to return to his once despised life.
In conclusion, I would say that, while I will always love It's A Wonderful Life best, The Greatest Gift has much to recommend it. It's certainly interesting to compare the movie with it's source material and take note of what was kept, and what was changed and/or added to. Most of all, both story and film portray an important truth: no life is worthless or insignificant. In the words of John Donne, "No man is an island"; no matter how unimportant we may consider ourselves to be, our lives are inextricably linked to others, and our absence- or theirs- would cause changes and damages which we cannot even fathom. In short, life is a gift which we should never despise or take for granted.