Sunday, December 22, 2013

On the 22nd Day of Advent...HOT CROSS NUN

Everyone was afraid of Sister Mary.  She was American and that was scary enough to an English child who'd never met an American before, and "Mayen, shay taweckd funny."  She wore the full black nun's habit with white around the face and a long black veil, like the nuns in The Sound of Music.  Her crucifix hung down in front of her like a weapon and when she walked...she always walked very fast as if she were genuinely "on a mission from God" would swing from side to side ready to swipe asunder any child who got in her way.  When I first watched The Blues Brothers and saw Sister Mary Stigmata (aka the Penguin), I knew on whom the character was based.

When I started school at age 4, school lunches were provided for one shilling, about 15 cents.  Today they cost 2 pounds, about $3.  We used to walk from St. Peter's Roman Catholic Primary School on Gordon Road, across North Walls, along St. Peter's Street to Milner Hall, then the Catholic social center but which had been the original boys' school, when the girls were taught by Benedictine nuns in what is now the very upscale Royal Hotel across the street.  In those days lunches were served from giant metal pots (I used to think of them as cauldrons) by dinner ladies who said things like, "Eat your cabbage; it'll make your hair curl" or "Don't leave anything on your plate; think of the starving children in Africa."  We always thought, "I hate curly hair," and "If the African children want it they can have it!"  Truly we complained bitterly about the quality of the food but looking back, the meals were actually pretty good: meat, potatoes and at least one vegetable, and always fish on Friday because as you know Jesus always had fish on Friday.  School puddings (or desserts, as you call them), could be nice except when dessicated coconut was glued on top with jam and as I hated coconut, I couldn't eat them.

A year or two later, a new hall and kitchens were added to the school building so we no longer had to walk to lunch.  By this time, Sister Mary had joined the school to teach the "first class" or PreK.   I was grateful to have missed her by one year.  She lived with the other nuns in the building next door to the presbytery where the priests lived.  These two buildings were sandwiched between Milner Hall and St. Peters Roman Catholic Church.  I don't know about "Servants of God" or "Brides of Christ"; it seemed to me, after doing all the cooking and cleaning, they were more like "charladies to the priests."    

Anyway, the traditional mealtime prayer of thanks was always said before we ate our food:

Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty,
through Christ, Our Lord.  Amen.

Although the headmaster, Mr. Bogan, Mr. Peter Paul not-just-one-saints-name-but-two Bogan sometimes said grace it eventually became Sister Mary's regular job.  She'd stand on the steps of the new hall, like a giant white-necked vulture.  She'd sign the cross then: "Bless us, Oh Lauwered," she say.  She could make "Lord" last for three syllables, i.e. "Bless us O Lauwered, " which I found hilarious and at which I would've snickered, if I hadn't been so completely terrified of her.

Every December, work would begin on the Christmas play which was usually some sort of nativity.  The only time I remember it not being so was when we did Amahl and the Night Thieves.  In my last year at primary school when I was ten years old, it was decided to do a different kind of nativity in which none of the children would have to learn lines because there would be a narrator who told the audience everything they needed to know while the kids acted it out alongside.  The narrator was the only one who was required to learn anything.

Now I have no recollection of how or why it happened but I was given the role as narrator.  I was delighted.  Even at the age of ten I was already considering a career on the stage.  I hadn't yet prepared my Oscar acceptance speech -- I did that the following year after seeing Barbra Streisand win the award for best lead actress -- but I was thinking about becoming an actor.  What a good start this would be!

The only downside of taking on this role was that Sister Mary was the director of the show which meant that she'd be at every rehearsal and would be telling me what to do.  Somehow, since the early days of my schooling, I had managed to avoid her ever-more frightening figure as it stormed down the main corridor of our tiny school.  Through hiding in doorways and scurrying about the playground, our paths had never crossed and so the performance in this play was to be my first real encounter with the terrors of Sister Mary.

To my horror, the narrator had a lot of lines.  Saying that would imply that I had some knowledge, at the tender age of ten, of how long it would take to learn a large number of lines...that is not so...I had no idea.  However, what I did know and could foresee was that there was ample opportunity here for Sister Mary to get on my case and be displeased with me.  She seemed to be in an almost constant state of displeasure.  I was sure that whatever I did, she would be displeased with me.  And more than anything in life, I lived in fear of people -- anyone at all -- being displeased with me.  The slightest criticism from anyone except my mother could reduce me to tears in a second and crying in public was another thing that frightened me.  A vicious cycle if ever there was one.

In the early stages of rehearsal, I stood at the side of the stage, reading the lines from the script, as Sister Mary moved the younger children around behind me.  The stage wasn't really a stage at all.  The hall (no longer new and now just called "the hall") had two long steps down the length of it which led to a wide corridor.  If you went left along the corridor, you'd get the back exit of the school.  If you went right, you'd reach the classrooms.  Thus, the top step was actually the corridor and became "the stage.  The two steps leading to it were the front and middle of the stage.     

Everything was going quite well.  Sister Mary wasn't really taking much notice of me and I just read my stuff while she rehearsed everyone else.  When I wasn't reading I'd stand and look at the pictures on the wall of the hall.  High up on the left, there was a large painting of the two fishes and the five loaves.  High up on the right, a picture of the crossed keys of St. Peter after whom the school was named.  At the end, taking up most of the width of the room, there was a huge colorful mural that I could stare at for hours and always see something new.  I'd be lost in thought when the sister would suddenly shout, "Now start reading again!" I would read:

"Christmas...Christmas...what is Christmas?  Just a time for fun, music and merry-making?  Just a time for..."  Unfortunately, that's all I have left in my head now, in spite of vigorous internet searches.  But it went on, as far as I can recall, that there was much more to Christmas than "fun, music, and merry-making" -- that it was a serious time and people all over the world were dying of starvation while we ate our festive dinners, and even more important than that was the birth of the baby Jesus.

At this point in my acting career, I can tell you that there is a method to learning lines.  Of course one hopes that lines will be learned during the rehearsal process, that the daily running of the lines while working with your fellow actors will instill them in your mind and the movement provided by one's director will also help fix them -- actors call this "muscle memory" -- if I walk over here then this is the line I say; if I pick up this cup, this is the line I say.  When all else fails, and most actors hate this, one has to repeat the lines over and over again at home, in the car, at the bank, in the supermarket line, at the gym, attracting unwelcome attention as passers-by think one has gone certifiably crazy. 

I did not know any of this when I was ten and clearly nor did Sister Mary.  At some point in the rehearsal process, she told me that I should know my lines by now and that I was to put down the script.  And this, my friends, is where the trouble really began.  I'd managed to avoid her focus until now but at this point, all her impatience at the younger students, all her frustrations at the fact the play was to be performed on Sunday afternoon and it was nowhere near ready, all her wrath at the sheer thanklessness of her task, came raining down on me.  I'd gone from being the quiet little girl innocently reading the story on one side of the stage to the object of all her hatred and bile.  At least, this is how it felt to me.

Now instead of being behind me moving around the little ones, she was in front of me, standing in the hall while I stood at the side of the stage, and screaming at me, "Move over there!" and "Sit on the step there!" and "Put that script down!"  There I was, abandoned in the middle of the stage with the two fishes and five loaves on one side; the crossed keys on the other; and right in the middle, a very hot, cross nun. 

I was afraid to tell my mother about all this because it seemed to me quite wrong to tell tales about a nun, and anyway, in those days parents tended to think teachers were right, whatever the circumstances.  It's different these days.  Parents don't seem to support teachers the way they did when I was at school.  I had no reason to think my mother would believe me if I told her that Sister Mary wasn't being very nice to me.  I wouldn't have been at all surprised if my mother said, in response to such an accusation: "Well, dear, I'm sure you deserved it...".  

So now I lived in terror all day during class that at the end of the day I would again be the victim of Sister Mary's anger.  I seemed unable to learn the lines.  Naturally I know now that stark terror can shake the simplest words from one's mouth.  But I didn't know that then and the more she shouted at me, the more difficult it became for me to say a word.  Even reading was tough.  And of course all I wanted to do was burst into tears and ask her why she was being so mean; what had I ever done to her?  Couldn't she see I was desperate to please and trying my best?

It all came to a head on Friday afternoon, at our last school-day rehearsal before the Sunday show.  There was to be a final dress rehearsal on Saturday but Friday was the last official run-through.  I had a costume now, a beautiful, full-length cream-colored satin dress.  It was gorgeous...but I couldn't appreciate it because I was in such a state.  My long hair was pulled back off my face in a high, tight pony-tale at the back of my head.

Sister Mary had given me some basic blocking: move across the stage on this line, point to the manger on this, etc. I still didn't know my lines and was stumbling all over the place and making stuff up.  In the theatre world, we call this improvisation but in the land of Catholic nativity plays, it's apparently known as disobedience.

I was supposed to say a particular line then cross the stage to the other side.  But I didn't.  I don't know if I said the line incorrectly or my muscle memory didn't click in or I was so utterly petrified that I was rooted to the spot, but I didn't move when I was supposed to.  Sister Mary stomped up the steps, grabbed hold of my pony tail and dragged me across the stage to where I was supposed to be. 

My pony tail had been quite tightly gathered so it was already rather uncomfortable.  Add to that the fact that it had been up like that for several hours and -- I think the ladies will back me up here -- the skin around it tends to start aching after a while.  And then the sister had twisted my hair in her hand to pull me.  All this combined meant that it really hurt.  But the real hurt I felt was at being so wronged.  What had I ever done to this woman?  Why did she hate me?  I'd tried my best and it wasn't good enough.  I was a failure.

Oh, the pain of trying not to cry, not to let her see how much she'd hurt me.  As soon as I was released and started the walk home, I started to cry.  I always thought nuns were supposed to be sweet and kindly.  I sobbed all the way. 

My mother was having a bath when I got home.  It was my usual habit to go into the bathroom and sit on the down-turned toilet seat to tell her about my day but I didn't want to do that because she'd see I'd been crying and she'd make me tell her why.  But she called out to me to join her and I couldn't say no.  I cleared up face, put on a smile and sat down.  But you know what it's like when you've been crying, particularly as a kid, it only takes one kind word to set you off again and my mother noticed my red eyes immediately and asked what was wrong.  I didn't want to tell her, felt terrible about telling on Sister Mary but I had to tell someone and who else by my beloved mum.  So I told her, without much detail, that Sister Mary was angry I hadn't learned my lines and pulled my hair.  I didn't have to say another word.

No one could've been more surprised than I when my mother stood up in the bath, quite naked of course because, well, that's how one takes a bath, and said, "Let me put on some clothes.  We're going down the school!"  You would have to know my mother to know how out of character this was.  She was a sweet, peace-loving, mild-mannered woman who hated arguments or confrontations of any kind.  To this day, my siblings and I have issues with expressing anger or standing up for ourselves -- my therapist and I have worked through some of mine -- but you've got to understand, I had never, ever seen this side of my mother before. 

In a matter of moments, she was dressed and we were walking back to St. Peter's RC Primary.  I use the term "walking" loosely -- she ploughed through passers-by on the street.  If my mother had been wearing a crucifix on a chain like Sister Mary, she'd have knocked people into the oncoming traffic with it.  She held my hand in a knuckle-cracking grip.  I was scared all over again.  I felt sick to my stomach; my heart was pounding.  What if Sister Mary denied it, said I'd made it up?  If she could torture a little girl, she could certainly lie about her.

We went through the front entrance of the school, and I'm necessarily vague about the next bit as I think I've blocked it from my memory.  If this were a movie, we would storm down the corridor straight to the headmaster's office.  But I think we stopped at the first room in the building which was Sister Mary's room.  I'd like to tell you that I heard my mother say, "If you ever touch my daughter again, I'll have your guts for garters" because that was one of her favorite sayings but I can't because I don't remember if she went in and partially closed the door leaving me outside or if she went in holding my hand.  I think she said something like, "I hear from Bernadette that you pulled her hair and if you ever do something like that again, (I'll have your guts for garters) there will be repercussions."  All of this is vague, I can't be sure and I don't want to lie to you. 

So let me tell you instead the results of my mother's actions.  I dreaded the next day's final dress rehearsal but when I arrived at school, Sister Mary was all smiles, a totally unfamiliar sight.  Not a word was said about meeting my mother.  I was dressed in my lovely angelic outfit and was allowed to read my script while standing on the left of the stage.  I waited for the sister to tell me to move but no instructions came.  Lights were set up; music was added.  The whole rehearsal went like clockwork and not one single voice was raised in anything other than Christmas song.

The actual performance was spectacular, like a magical dream.  A full house of happy parents watching their adorable children on stage; glorious Christmas music and a rather surprised ten year-old narrator.  I was given a fresh script which made my many lines much clearer for me to read.  But you know what?  I didn't need it!  I mean, it was a great comfort having it in my hand like an angel reading from a divine scroll but I discovered that, once the bullying was over, I really did know the lines.

I've met other nuns since then and they've always been exactly as I envisioned as a child: sweet and kind.  I found out as an adult that Sister Mary's order of nuns chose a path for each sister to follow and the path chosen was the one they least wanted to take.  If a nun didn't like something, she was going to deal with it by confronting it.  Sister Mary's most despised thing in the whole wide world was children, she LOATHED them.  Thus her path was to spend time with children for as long as it took to defeat that demon.  And all I have to say to that is...well, thanks a bunch!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

On the Fourteenth Day of Advent...COVENTRY CAROL

Although I grew up with the Coventry Carol, hearing it sung most Decembers by the Winchester Cathedral Choir or at the Mayor's Advent Carol Concert, I didn't sing it myself until the State Theatre's A CHRISTMAS CAROL in 2005.  And I didn't discover its origin until relatively recently.  I found its history extremely interesting so I thought I'd share it.  There are more versions available on youtube than I imagined but I've chosen the one closest to how I remember it as a child.  

Thanks to Wikipedia for the following encapsulation:

The "Coventry Carol" is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors.  The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother's lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play.

It is notable as a well-known example of a Picardy third (a harmonic device used in Western classical music, referring to the use of a major chord at the end of a musical section that is either modal or in a minor key.)  The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella. There is an alternative setting of the carol by Kenneth Leighton; another by Phillip Stopford.

The only manuscript copy to have survived into recent times was burnt in 1875. Our knowledge of the lyrics is therefore based on two very poor quality transcriptions from the early nineteenth century, and there is considerable doubt about many of the words. Some of the transcribed words are difficult to make sense of: for example, in the last verse "And ever morne and may For thi parting Neither say nor singe" is not clear. Various modern editors have made different attempts to make sense of the words, so such variations may be found as "ever mourn and say", "every morn and day", "ever mourn and sigh". The following is one attempted reconstruction.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On the Seventh Day of Advent -- Santa Claus: The Definitive Survey

On the Seventh Day of Advent -- SANTA CLAUS: THE DEFINITIVE SURVEY

From The Guardian, 24th December 1991

Armed with just a sleigh and a reindeer, he allegedly delivers toys to children the world over.  Using computers, we assess if it is physically possible.

Do you believe in Santa Claus?  This is a complex theological question that each child must decide for him or herself.  Until now, that is.  With the aid of computers, we have conducted a rigorous statistical investigation into the question of Santa's existence.

We begin by assuming that Santa Claus really does exist.  Now, if you've learned anything about human nature, you know it's highly unlikely that a normal man would choose to devote his life to making toys and delivering them to boys and girls the world over.  But this is an objective enquiry, and questions of motivation aren't relevant.  We want only to know whether such a man could accomplish his mission.

Santa's first obstacle is that no known species of reindeer can fly.  However, scientists estimate that out of the earth's roughly two million species of living organisms, three hundred thousand or so have yet to be classified. So we can't rule out the slight possibility that a species of reindeer does, in fact, exist.  And that no one besides Santa has ever seen one.

A bigger obstacle for Santa is that there are two billion children under eighteen in the world.  The good news is that he needs to deliver presents only to Christian children, of whom there are approximately three hundred and seventy-eight million.  Let's assume that fifteen percent of these Christian children are bad and thus -- like Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children -- ineligible for gift-getting.  Still at an average of three point five children per household, Santa has a back-breaking ninety-one point eight million homes to visit on any given Christmas Eve.

Fortunately, Santa has thirty-one hours of Christmas Eve darkness to visit all these homes if he travels from east to west, thanks to the rotation of the earth.  Unfortunately, this still works out to eight hundred and twenty-two point eight visits per second.  So, for each Christian household with good children, Santa has just over a thousandth of a second to land, hope out of his sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the rest of the presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left out, get back up the chimney, climb back into his sleight, take off and fly to the next house.

How fast is Santa moving?  Assuming all ninety-one point eight million stops are spread evenly over the earth's landmass, Santa must travel nought point seven nine miles per household -- a total trip of seventy-two million, five hundred and twenty-two thousand miles.  (This is a conservative estimate.  It doesn't include trips across oceans, feeding stops for the reindeer, etc.)  Given the thirty-one hour time period, Santa's sleigh must maintain an average speed of six hundred and fifty miles per second, or more than three thousand times the speed of sound.  To give you an idea how fast that is, the fastest man-made vehicle ever built, the Ulysses space probe, travels at a relatively poky pace of twenty-seven point four miles a second, and conventional, land-bound reindeer travel at a top speed of fifteen miles per hour.  But let's just assume that Santa's flying reindeer can somehow reach hyper-sonic speeds -- thanks, say, to the magical spirit of Christmas giving.

Let's take a close look at Santa's vehicle.  First of all, assuming a cheapo two pounds of presents per child (that's like the crummy Lego set), the sleigh must still be able to carry a load of three hundred and twenty-one thousand, eight hundred tons -- plus Santa, an overweight man.  On land, a reindeer can't pull more than three hundred pounds of freight and, even assuming that flying reindeer can pull ten times that amount, Santa's massive sleigh has to be drawn by two hundred and fourteen thousand, two hundred beasts.  They increase the overall weight of the Santa payload to three hundred and fifty-three thousand, four hundred and thirty tons (not including the weight of the sleigh itself).  This is more than four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner.  Imagine: Santa skimming over rooftops in a gargantuan hypersonic aircraft with even less manoevrability than a Big Wheel.

Here's where things get fun.  Three hundred and fifty-three thousand tons of reindeer and presents are going to create an enormous amount of air-resistance -- especially at six hundred and fifty miles per second.  This air-resistance will heat the reindeer in the same way that spaceships are heated up when they re-enter the earth's atmosphere.  According to our calculations, the lead pair of reindeer will absorb fourteen point three quintillion joules of energy per second each.  This means they will burst into spectacular, multicolored flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them.  As Santa continues on his mission -- leaving deafening sonic booms in his wake -- charred reindeer will constantly be sloughed off.  All two hundred and fourteen thousand, two hundred reindeer will be dead within four point two six thousandths of a second.

As for Santa, he will be subject to centrifugal forces seventeen thousand, five hundred point nought six times greater than gravity.  A two hundred and fifty pound Santa will be pinned to the back of his sleigh by four million, three hundred and seventy-five and fifteen pounds of force (after we deduct his weight).  This force will kill Santa instantly, crushing his bones, pulverizing his flesh, turning him into pink goo.  In other words, if Santa tries to deliver presents of Christmas Ever to every qualified boy and girl on the face of the earth, he will be liquefied.  If he even exists, he's already dead.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

On the Sixth Day of Advent...A Christmas Carol at the State Theatre, 2005

The Eight Who Played Everyone except Scrooge

I've been in five different productions of Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL since arriving in America in 1992, excluding my own solo presentation which is in its fifth manifestation.  Each has its own special qualities and memories.  

One of my favorite moments happened on the evening that Ms. Carla Nickerson, a wonderful Austin actress who played Mrs. Cratchit (among others) in the 2004 and 2005 productions at the State Theatre, took the stage and introduced herself as Mrs. Bob Marley.  It's a wonder this hadn't taken place before to anyone who has to mention either Jacob Marley or Bob Cratchit -- so easy to get those mixed up, particularly when there exists in history the reggae giant, Bob Marley.  On that particular night, I was in the middle of a quick change (stage-left) into Ms. Belinda Cratchit, Bob Cratchit's daughter.  I had put on my blue pinafore and was just pulling on hairband with three brown ringlets on either side when I heard that immortal line, 

"Mr. Bob Marley's house.  Mr. Bob Marley's wife, Mrs. Bob Marley."  

Since my line, as I zipped on stage immediately afterward, carrying plates, and curtseying to the audience was, "Belinda Cratchit" -- I didn't know whether to say, "Belinda Marley" to support my stage mother, or keep my line as it was supposed to be.  If I said Cratchit, it would point out Carla's slip of the tongue, but if I said Marley, we'd have to change that familiar family name for the rest of the play.  So I curtseyed and said, "Belinda Cratchit."  No sooner had I uttered the words than Carla's eyes widened with horror as she continued, "Her daughter..."  By this time, all the other actors were coming on stage and taking their place in the scene.  We could barely hold it together!  Like the professional actors we were, we channeled that hilarity into the moment.  It was the liveliest, merriest, unashamedly entertaining Cratchit scene in the history of the play -- at least for the actors.  Fingers crossed it translated to the audience!

Cast of State Theatre's A CHRISTMAS CAROL, 2005 (with Scrooge)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On the Fourth Day of Advent...THE CRATCHITS

"A CHRISTMAS CAROL" by Charles Dickens (an excerpt)

Scrooge and the Ghost passed on, invisible, straight to Scrooge's clerk's; and on the threshold of the door the Spirit smiled, and stopped to bless Bob Cratchit's dwelling with the sprinklings of his torch.  Think of that!  Bob had but fifteen "Bob" a week himself; he pocketed on Saturdays but fifteen copies of his Christian name; and yet the Ghost of Christmas Present blessed his four-roomed house!

Then up rose Mrs. Cratchit, Cratchit's wife, dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown, brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence; and she laid the cloth, assisted by Belinda Cratchit, second of her daughters, also brave in ribbons; while Master Peter Cratchit plunged a fork into the saucepan of potatoes, and, getting the corners of his monstrous shirt collar (Bob's private property, conferred upon his son and heir in honor of the day) into his mouth, rejoiced to find himself so gallantly attired, and yearned to show his linen in the fashionable Park And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker's they had smelt the goose, and known it for their own; and, basking in luxurious thoughts of sage and onion, these young Cratchits danced about the table, and exalted Master Peter Cratchit to the skies, while he (not proud, although his collars nearly choked him) blew the fire, until the slow potatoes, bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan lid to be let out and peeled.

"What has ever got your precious father then?" said Mrs. Cratchit.  "And your brother Tiny Tim!  And Martha warn't as late last Christmas day by half an hour!"

"Here's Martha, mother!" said a girl, appearing as she spoke.

"Here's Martha, mother!" cried the two young Cratchits.  "Hurrah!  There's such a goose, Martha!"

"Why, bless your heart alive, my dear, how late you are!" said Mrs. Cratchit, kissing her a dozen times, an taking off her shawl and bonnet for her.

"We'd a deal of work to finish up last night," replied the girl, "and had to clear away this morning, mother!"

"Well!  Never mind so long as you are come," said Mrs. Cratchit.  "Sit ye down before the fire, my dear, and have a warm, Lord bless ye!"

"No, no!  There's father coming," cried the two young Cratchits, who were everywhere at once.  "Hide, Martha, hide!"

So Martha hid herself, and in came little Bob, the father, with at least three feet of comforter, exclusive of the fringe, hanging down before him; and his threadbare clothes darned up and brushed, to look seasonable; and Tiny Tim upon his shoulder.  Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!

"Why, where's our Martha?" cried Bob Cratchit, looking round.

"Not coming," said Mrs. Cratchit.

"Not coming!" said Bob, with a sudden declension in his high spirits; for he had been Tim's blood-horse all the way from church, and had come home rampant, -- "not coming upon Christmas day!"

Martha didn't like to see him disappointed, if it were only in joke; so she came out prematurely from behind the closet door, and ran into his arms, while the two young Cratchits hustled Tiny Tim, and bore him off to the wash-house that he might hear the pudding singing in the copper.

"And how did little Tim behave?" asked Mrs. Cratchit, when she had rallied Bob on his credulity, and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart's content.

"As good as gold," said Bob, "and better.  Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard.  He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember, upon Christmas day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see."

Bob's voice was tremulous when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty.  His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool beside the fire; and while Bob, turning up his cuffs, -- as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby, -- compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round and put it on the hob to simmer, Master Peter and the two ubiquitous young Cratchits went to fetch the goose, with which they soon returned in high procession.

Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigor; Miss Belinda sweetened up the applesauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped.  At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said.  It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long-expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried, Hurrah!

There never was such a goose.  Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked.  Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.  Eked out by applesauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last!  Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!  But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone, -- too nervous to bear witnesses, -- to take the pudding up, and bring it in.  Suppose it should not be done enough!  Suppose it should break in turning out!  Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose, -- a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid!  All sorts of horrors were supposed.

Hallo!  A great deal of steam!  The pudding was out of the copper.  A smell like a washing-day!  That was the cloth.  A smell like an eating-house and a pastry-cook's next door to each other with a laundress's next door to that!  That was the pudding!  In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered, -- flushed but smiling proudly, -- with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

O, a wonderful pudding I Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage.  Mrs.Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour.  Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family.  Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up.  The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovelful of chestnuts on the fire.

Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, and at Bob Cratchit's elbow stood the family display of glass, -- two tumblers, and a custard cup without a handle.

These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and crackled noisily.  Then Bob proposed: --

"A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears.  God bless us!" Which all the family re-echoed. "God bless us every one!" said Tiny Tim, the last of all.  He sat very close to his father's side, upon his little stool.  Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.

Scrooge raised his head speedily, on hearing his own name.

"Mr. Scrooge," said Bob; "I'll give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast!"

"The Founder of the Feast indeed!" cried Mrs. Cratchit, reddening.  "I wish I had him here I'd give him a piece of my mind to feast upon and I hope he'd have a good appetite for it."

"My dear," said Bob, "the children!  Christmas day."

"It should be Christmas day, I am sure," said she, "on which one drinks the health of such a odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge.  You know he is, Robert!  Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow!"

"My dear," was Bob's mild answer, "Christmas day."

"I'll drink his health for your sake and the day's," said Mrs. Cratchit, "not for his.  Long life to him!  A merry Christmas and a happy New Year!  He'll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt!"

The children drank the toast after her.  It was the first of their proceedings which had no heartiness in it.  Tiny Tim drank it last of all, but he didn't care two pence for it.  Scrooge was the ogre of the family.  The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On the Third Day of Advent...STEALING BABY JESUS

I was brought up Roman Catholic in Winchester, England.  Like all Catholic families, we had various traditions leading up to Christmas -- the Advent Calendar, the list for Father Christmas (a.k.a. Santa Claus), and the putting together of the Creche.  Actually, we didn’t call it a crèche in our house, we called it the crib scene.  Anyway, every year we would unpack each item and place it lovingly in the open wooden shed: Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, all the shepherds, the sheep, the donkey, an assortment of other animals, the wise men, the camels, the angels, etc.  As you know, everyone was present at the birth of Jesus on 25th December AD 0000, at least that's what I thought.

Nativity at St. Lawrence Church, Winchester

When I was 9 years old, I unpacked the Nativity pieces ready to put together the Christmas scene.  The previous year, we’d lost the little manger and everyone had been rather upset.  We’d had to use an empty matchbox, you know, one of those little purple boxes made of balsa wood.  The baby Jesus nestled in cotton wool quite comfortably until Epiphany on 6th January.  But this year I was horrified to find that the baby Jesus had disappeared too.  So now we had no baby Jesus and no manger.  This was serious.  I don’t mean to be funny but when I was growing up, and particularly in my family, there wasn’t the kind of ready cash people seem to have nowadays, and there certainly weren’t any credit cards.  The loss of the baby Jesus and his manger was a big deal.

And so it was that I found myself on Saturday morning, walking around Woolworths on Winchester High Street.  I don’t know if Woolworths in America was the same as Woolworths in England.  Long aisles with a shop assistant marching up and down like a warden, keeping an eye on counters that were filled with goodies, everything costing under a shilling.  Oh dear, English money before decimalization.  Alright, here we go.  A shilling was 12 pennies; 20 shillings made up a pound.  A pound in those days was worth about 5 dollars.  Therefore a dollar would be 48 pennies, i.e. 4 shillings.  Is that right?  You do the math.  Under a shilling was less than a quarter.  Pretty cheap.

I wasn’t looking for a baby Jesus.  I really wasn’t.  Walking around Woolworths on a Saturday morning was quite simply one of my favorite things to do.  If 9 years old seems young to you for a child to be ambling around the streets of a city’s down-town area, I can only say that everything was safer then.  My mother never worried about me and there was never anything to worry about. 

My favorite counter was the sweet counter, and by that, I mean the candy counter.  All sorts of different kinds of candy.  It was a youngster’s delight.  If I list the English candy, I know my American friends won't have the slightest idea what I’m talking about.  We probably had the same candy but the names were different.  We had flying saucers: rice paper with sherbet in the middle which you sucked until the rice paper melted, stuck to the roof of your mouth and shot the sherbet down your throat, choking you half to death.  Fun.  We had shrimps: large, pink, shrimp-shaped lumps of sugary stuff that tasted a bit like bubble gum but had the texture of sweet rubber.  You’d chew and chew and chew till your mouth was bright pink, like I used to imagine it would be if you’d eaten a whole, raw lobster.

It just so happened that right next to the sweet counter was the little plastic objects counter.  If America these days has lots of things with “Made in China” written on them, in England in the 1960s it was “Made in Hong Kong.”  Every little plastic object was made in Hong Kong.  All of a sudden, I was struck magpie syndrome, my eyes were drawn to all these bright, shiny things and the one that attracted me most was a brightly colored, very shiny baby Jesus in a manger.  Not just a baby Jesus, not just a manger but a two-in-one, baby Jesus in a manger. 

I left the sweet counter and went to look close up.  There must’ve been a hundred baby Jesus’s in the baby Jesus section, all exactly the same.  I didn’t care.  The more the merrier.  Let everyone have a shiny, plastic, made in Hong Kong baby Jesus.  "Baby Jesus's for Everyone!"  I picked one up.  The manger was brown and shiny; the straw was yellow and shiny; the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, white and shiny.  The King of Kings had an actual face with an actual facial expression.  It was gorgeous.  Frankly, it was much nicer than our old baby Jesus which was tiny and whose face was so small there was no expression, not even any features to speak of.  This was a magnificent piece of craftsmanship.  Really, it was.  It didn't matter that there were hundreds of them all exactly the same.  It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

I turned it over and looked at the price.  Sixpence.  Okay, here we go.  There were 20 shillings in a pound; there were 12 pennies in a shilling so there were 240 pennies in a pound.  Or…sixpence was half a shilling.  So it was cheap.  But when you’re 9, it has to be really cheap and it wasn’t cheap enough.  Would my mum pay for it?  Probably not – she’d say, “Make one out of a pine cone darling, I know you can.”  I didn’t think I could, actually.  And I didn’t have any pocket money of my own, certainly not sixpence.  What was I going to do?  I really needed the baby Jesus in a manger.  We really needed the baby Jesus in a manger.

So…I took it.  I STOLE IT!  It was so easy.  I waited until the lady behind the counter turned her back to me and I slipped it into the pocket of my anorak.  I already wanted to put it back but it was too late, the deed was done.  Feeling sick to my stomach, I slunk out of the shop.  I had never stolen anything before; you can only imagine my sense of guilt.  But imagine you’re catholic and you’ve stolen something; the guilt is like a tangible, living thing.  And when you’re catholic and you’ve stolen the baby Jesus, the doors to hell might just as well open up and swallow you, right there, right then.

I could see it now.  Headlines of the Winchester Catholic Digest: “Nine-year-old Bernadette Nason of Elm Road, Winchester, was arrested today for stealing a shiny, plastic baby Jesus in a manger (made in Hong Kong) from Woolworth’s.  Peter Paul Bogan, headmaster of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic School is quoted as saying, 'She always seemed like such a nice girl.  I suppose the devil works in mysterious ways too.'”

I hardly remember the walk home.  I do recall it burning a hole in my pocket.  It was so hot, my hand dripped with the sweat of shame.  When I got home, I took the offending object out of my anorak pocket and placed it in the middle of the Nativity scene so that Mary and Joseph could once more pick up their roles as mother and father to the Son of God.  But there was something I hadn’t considered, something that wouldn’t have occurred to a 9 year-old.  The shiny, plastic, made-in-Hong-Kong baby Jesus in the manger was bigger than his parents.  The object was huge, at least compared with the Holy Mum and Dad.  Our Mary and Joseph were elegant and...well...small.  My too-hot-to-handle Holy Babe was gigantic.  It was like setting a tractor in a room full of Lamborghinis.  Mary and Joseph would’ve required a stepladder just to gaze down on him lovingly.  I was just beginning to realize the ridiculousness of the situation when my mother walked into the room.

I didn’t enjoy walking back to Woolworths.  Humble pie with a big dollop of groveling apology was a hard thing for me to swallow.  I hadn’t even had time to appreciate the error of my ways before being caught in the act.  There were no criminal repercussions, no shame-filled stories repeated at a later date -- not until now, anyway -- and no punishment that I recall.  My mother had her own methods of instilling morals.  Her quiet disappointment was almost more than a person could stand.  A daily glance at the empty matchbox with cotton wool and an imaginary baby (which sufficed that year for the infant in swaddling clothes) was enough to remind me that stealing the baby Jesus wasn’t the way to build a crèche; it wasn’t the way to please my mother, and it certainly wasn’t the way to get to heaven!

Monday, December 2, 2013

On the Second Day of Advent...JEBEL ALI HOTEL, DUBAI

Many of you know that I worked at the Jebel Ali Hotel, just outside of Dubai City in the UAE from 1987 to 1989.  And last year, I mentioned in my December blogging the brilliant Christmas decorations in the hotel lobby.  Here is a December 1987 picture of the life-size replica of Santa's sleigh which was suspended precariously above the vast expanse of marble floor.  The lobby was, on an ordinary day, pretty spectacular, as you can see from its golden elevator doors and sparkling tendril lighting.  At Christmas-time, the whole place was splendiferous!

A Christmas Wonderland at the Jebel Ali Hotel, UAE, December 1987

Sunday, December 1, 2013

On the First Day of Advent...AWAY IN A MANGER

For the first day of advent, here is my favorite childhood English carol.  I've come to enjoy the American tune as well but this is the original for me so I thought I'd share it with you.


Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head

The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay

The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side,
'Til morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray

Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there