Oh, You Big-Mouthed Woman!

Johnny Cash and June Carter, singing a song a friend wrote just for them.

Shepherds redux

Here goes again with "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night," a/k/a "Sherburne" in the Sacred Harp songbook, minus the tinny buzzing (headphones!  no feedback!), and this time with the benefit of the alto part, somehow dropped out last time.  Also, I learned how to embed:

This one is from the Episcopal hymnbook, called "They Cast Their Nets in Galilee":

Adieu, C.T.O.U.S.

Today being Boxing Day, we turned our Fists of Righteous Harmony to the task of dismantling the Christmas Tree of Unusual Size and regaining the use of our dining room.  I tried something new this year:  we bought the tree fairly early but left it standing in a pail of water for some weeks after.  Then we brought it in and trimmed it only about three weeks before Christmas, and took it down today before it could become desperately dry.  In other years, I felt an urge to have it up for a long time, but somehow this year it was enough to enjoy it briefly and then let it go.

The job's not over by a long shot, though the tree is in pieces and staged on its way to the area where we're piling brush to compost.  There remains the task of dismantling the stacking bookcase that blocks the hidden Christmas closet upstairs, bringing down all the boxes, stashing the fragile ornaments carefully, humping the boxes back upstairs into the hidden closet, and re-assembling the bookcase.  But at not quite noon the day after Christmas, I feel we've knocked a great big hole in the undertaking.  In fact, I may take the rest of the day for Righteous Harmony and tackle the ornaments tomorrow.  About a dozen overripe bananas, the result of exuberant fruit-basket giving, are calling us from the kitchen, urging banana-bread baking on us.

When do you dismantle Christmas deckings?

While shepherds watched their flocks by night

My husband bought me a "Garage Band" program ages ago, but I only recently figured out that it's possible to record voice tracks on the computer's native microphone, if a little tinnily.  I've spent many a happy hour this week laying down all four tracks of a series of Shape Note tunes, including this Christmas carol.

Even when it's just me singing with myself, it's surprising how hard it is to get all the voices to blend.  I'm going to be practicing for a long time laying down the tracks, trying to keep all the parts together and on the beat.  What could be more fun?  And I'll need a better microphone at some point.  But there are only 45 minutes of Christmas left, so this carol has to upload in its current state.

The Feast of Stephen

You may wonder why Saint Stephen's day is the very day after Christmas. Saint Stephen was a martyr killed quite shortly after Jesus himself was put to death, by stoning and for the same sort of blasphemy against the Jewish tradition that occasioned Jesus' execution. You can read a version of the story here. St. Paul mentions Stephen's murder, having been a witness before his own conversion.
When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 22:17-22)
We know him best from two songs that have nothing to do with his life or death, but which pertain to his feast day. The more famous is "Good King Wenceslas," which takes place on the Feast of Stephen.

My favorite, though, is the Clancy Brothers' rendition of a song built around an Irish tradition called Wren Day. You can hear their retelling of the tradition starting at about 07:05, followed by a very cheerful song about the sacrificial tradition of wren killings and funerals.

Merry Christmas

Many things attend the feast.

The Second Council of Tours... proclaims, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the "twelve days" from Christmas to Epiphany, and the duty of Advent fast; that of Agde... orders a universal communion, and that of Braga (563) forbids fasting on Christmas Day. Popular merry-making, however, so increased that the "Laws of King Cnut", fabricated c. 1110, order a fast from Christmas to Epiphany....

Only with great caution should the mysterious benefactor of Christmas night — Knecht Ruprecht, Pelzmärtel on a wooden horse, St. Martin on a white charger, St. Nicholas and his "reformed" equivalent, Father Christmas — be ascribed to the stepping of a saint into the shoes of Woden, who, with his wife Berchta, descended on the nights between 25 December and 6 January, on a white horse to bless earth and men. Fires and blazing wheels starred the hills, houses were adorned, trials suspended and feasts celebrated.... Knecht Ruprecht, at any rate (first found in a mystery of 1668 and condemned in 1680 as a devil) was only a servant of the Holy Child.

The rest of the history is just as interesting: mystery plays and carols, feasts and fires. Through it all, in every generation, we struggle to remember what it was really all about. Sometimes, some of those artists and customs help us see.

Christmas Eve in the DPRK

A rather less enchanted kingdom is a sad reality for millions.
Spare a thought on Christmas Eve for Christians who live in countries where practicing their faith is an act of courage. Nowhere is that more true than in North Korea, where religion is banned....

..."the arrest, torture and possible execution" of Christians, Buddhists and others conducting clandestine religious activity....

23 Christians were arrested in 2010 for belonging to an underground Protestant church. Three were executed and the rest were jailed. The commission estimates there are thousands of Christians among the 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans incarcerated in the regime's infamous political prison camps.
[D]espite this repression, something is happening that many characterize as nothing short of a miracle: Christianity appears to be growing in North Korea. Open Doors International, which tracks the persecution of Christians world-wide, puts the number of Christians in North Korea at between 200,000 and 400,000.
The courage of the old martyrs still lives with us today. Remember them.

Christmas Eve

Once, Sir Gawain quested through harsh country for a long time. It was on this night he found rest and hospitality:

Many cliffs he over-clambered in countries strange,
far flying from his friends forsaken he rides.
at every twist of the water where the way passed
he found a foe before him, or freakish it were,
and so foul and fell he was beholden to fight.
So many marvels by mountain there the man finds,
it would be tortuous to tell a tenth of the tale.
Sometimes with dragons he wars, and wolves also,
sometimes with wild woodsmen haunting the crags,
with bulls and bears both, and boar other times,
and giants that chased after him on the high fells....
Thus in peril and pain, and plights full hard
covers the country this knight till Christmas Eve

Now he had signed himself times but three,
when he was aware in the wood of a wall in a moat,
above a level, on high land locked under boughs
of many broad set boles about by the ditches:
a castle the comeliest that ever knight owned,
perched on a plain, a park all about,
with a pointed palisade, planted full thick,
encircling many trees in more than two miles.
The hold on the one side the knight assessed,
as it shimmered and shone through the shining oaks.
Then humbly has off with his helm, highly he thanks
Jesus and Saint Julian, that gentle are both,
that courtesy had him shown, and his cry hearkened.
‘Now hospitality,’ he said, ‘I beseech you grant!’...

A chair before the chimney, where charcoal burned,
graciously set for Gawain, was gracefully adorned,
coverings on quilted cushions, cunningly crafted both.
And then a mighty mantle was on that man cast
of a brown silk, embroidered full rich,
and fair furred within with pelts of the best –
the finest ermine on earth – his hood of the same.
And he sat on that settle seemly and rich,
and chafed himself closely, and then his cheer mended.
Straightway a table on trestles was set up full fair,
clad with a clean cloth that clear white showed,
the salt-cellars, napkins and silvered spoons.
The knight washed at his will, and went to his meat.
Servants him served seemly enough
with several soups, seasoned of the best,
double bowlfuls, as fitting, and all kinds of fish,
some baked in bread, some browned on the coals,
some seethed, some in stews savoured with spices,
and sauces ever so subtle that the knight liked.

May you all find good cheer, and warm shelter, this Christmas.