Friday, December 22, 2017

Merry (Almost) Christmas!

Mary Elizabeth, not yet Liz, in a rare Fort Worth, Texas snowfall about 1926.
by Denis Ferrara

It’s been one hell of a year.  For all of us.  Because Liz Smith is still so much on my mind, so recently gone, I wanted to end this year with one of her own traditional Christmas columns.  Perhaps, if I continue writing here, I’ll concoct some sort Christmas column tradition of my very own. (I will try to run some photos of my “Christmas Bordello.”) Until then, I am comforted — and very much in the holiday spirit — in repeating this, from Liz.

“THE sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day, in Beverly Hills, L.A. But it’s December the 24th, and I’m longing to be up north.”

You probably won’t be singing this, the opening verse to the famed Irving Berlin song, “White Christmas.” People usually start out merely singing, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas just like the ones we used to know.”

This song, now over 60 years old, has been described by Jody Rosen: “A cantor’s son from Russia took the Christ out of Christmas by composing one of America’s favorite songs. It is the darkest, bluest tune ever to masquerade as a Christmas carol. And it’s not a carol — that implication is religious. It’s just a popular song!”
AS the old joke goes, “What if there had been room at the Inn?” Would it have changed history?

Every year in the memorable past, my late friend Nora Ephron, who appreciated her Hebrew lineage, would make every Holiday party begin with the singing of the ageless “White Christmas.” And she would insist on singing the verse herself, having grown up with her screenwriter parents, living in L.A.
Nora Ephron with her sons, Jacob (left) and Max, around 1981. Photograph from the Ephron/Pileggi/Bernstein family.
Some people find this song discomforting in that its merry build-up moves to a minor chord on the second half of the held note. Why should the word “bright” suddenly turn dark?

Irving Berlin dominated American musical history from the '20s through the '50s. He wrote “White Christmas “ for a Broadway revue and days had not been “merry and bright” for him and his socialite wife. They were much criticized for having a “mixed” marriage in those days. And they had lost their infant son on Christmas day in 1928.
Their marriage lasted until Ellin Mackay's death in 1988. Here, they pose for Cecil Beaton in the June 1930 Vanity Fair.
Charles Dickens in New York, 1867.
THE MAN who really “invented” Christmas wasn’t a Gospel writer. He was Charles Dickens. With his descriptions of food, casseroles, and his good-bad characters from Ebenezer Scrooge to Bob Cratchit, all written with vigorous cheer helped the writer stay out of debt. Dickens once described “leftover turkey twice the size of Tiny Tim.” This dealt the goose-raising industry of England such a blow that it tanked.

Just for your curiosity, back in 1648 on December 25th, there were seven British sovereigns still alive at the same time. The book, “Schott’s Original Miscellany” lists them: Richard Cromwell ... Charles the second ... James the second ... William the third ... Mary the second ... George the first ... and George the second.” What a treat for paparazzi and hidden cameras if they had been around back then.

On the north Atlantic seaboard, disgruntled revolutionary colonists were ostensibly yearning for religious freedom while taking away everything from those they called “the savage Indians.” These rebel free thinkers didn’t really believe in celebrating. They were too rigid and religious for Christmas.

So people are still saying “Happy Holidays,” which I detest. Either say “Merry Christmas,” or drop it. I say “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanza” to people and it doesn’t diminish Christmas a bit. On the contrary.
An illustration from one of many 17th-century pamphlets dramatizing the Puritans' anti-Christmas crusade.
Regardless of your religion or lack of it, I think you can celebrate Christmas by its regular name without offending any of your gods. I repeat John Betjeman’s poem:

“AND IS it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?”
SO whether we are Jewish, Christian or something else, we are celebrating an early European tradition of fighting against the winter darkness, using lights, candles, food, fireplaces, gift giving and the festival of the Solstice. We also celebrate something else — the rise of the idea of St. Nicholas who became transformed into Santa Claus. So, this is the week to celebrate all the goodwill versions, of the Yuletide as well as Biblical history’s Middle East miracle — the birth of Jesus Christ. I believe this myth, legend or reality changed the Western world for the better, whether one believes in its divinity or not.
A 13th-century depiction of St. Nicholas from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.
P.S. Quick: What were the names of all of Santa’s reindeer?

And there is a current TV ad. A man is granted a wish and he asks for “a million bucks,” whereupon a million buck reindeer appear on his street. What is the fallacy about this? Well, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen (and maybe the 20th Century’s Rudolph) are male. But the interesting thing about this is that reindeer are all female at this time of year. And only females have antlers at Christmas time.
"A million bucks."
Other unimportant facts: Christmas trees were traditionally brought into the house only on Christmas Eve. Considering the travail of putting up a tree, I’d say ignore this and pay if necessary for the tree to be set up well in advance.

Let’s get it down that the three wise men who followed the star were Melchior, who brought the baby gold ... the King of Tarsus, Gaspar, who brought Frankincense ... Balthazar, the King of Ethiopia, brought myrrh. But with the first gift I’m surprised there was no room at the inn.

Anyway, Merry Christmas from Liz to all!
Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar in this late 6th century mosaic from the Basilica of Saint Apollinarius in Ravenna, Italy.

Contact Denis here.