BIRDS AND CACTUS: LAST DECEMBER IN A NUTSHELL – Marilyn Armstrong

Since we never did Changing Seasons for December, I thought I’d put together a nice collection of this month.

It’s pretty much all birds and cactus because I got bird feeders in November, and my cactuses, which were blooming in November and at Christmas are still blooming. Vigorously. The most enthusiastic blooming I’ve ever seen and lots and lots of birds.

And then, there were two Christmas cactus. First, the scarlet one bloomed and now, the pink one, which looks redder than it is supposed to be, is blooming.

 

And of course, there was Christmas.

Our tree, before the gift
The tree with the gifts

And Bonnie was groomed!

Groomed Bonnie

And of course, let’s not forget the squirrels!

And that’s pretty much December. Not counting watching movies and having Garry hear stuff! Not outdoor pictures unless you count the birds and squirrel, but it was certainly a busy photographic month. I worked so hard on the birds and squirrels I developed an actual issue with my right arm. I needed a cortisone shot. Anyone have a spare tripod?

THE HOLIDAY SEASON – Garry Armstrong

It isn’t depression.  It isn’t anger or melancholia. Maybe, it’s just a case of the “blahs,” the post-Christmas brain drain.

Last Night, Marilyn and I were doing our usual Christmas ritual of watching a classic, old holiday movie. We started with “A Christmas Story” which is always good for laughs. Darren McGavin is a treasure as the embattled but nice Dad. Peter Billingsley’s “Ralphie” captures a little of all of us when we were kids.

We were still smiling as we went to our second feature, “Holiday Inn”. This is the 1942 version (the year many future legends made their début on the world stage): Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire with lots of Irving Berlin classics including “White Christmas” making its début with Crosby, pipe smoke billowing, crooning in familiar style.

There are problems with “Holiday Inn” which we usually ignore but really couldn’t this year. The biggest is the Blackface act with Crosby and cast singing “Abraham” to mark a holiday. I left the room as the scene began and found chores to do until the next scene.

Blackface — which has stirred new controversy — has always troubled me deeply.  This classics movie lover usually fast forwards through similar scenes in beloved films from old Hollywood where racism was a staple and white stars would usually laugh benignly at the characters played by Black actors. The Stephen Fetchit, Amos ‘n Andy factor.

An old friend emailed a few days earlier, expressing her distaste for the “Holiday Inn” scene. It had made an admired film unwatchable for her. The racial controversy took a back seat as we enjoyed the rest of “White Christmas,” it’s creaky plot and great music. But it left us both feeling uneasy.

I had “A Christmas Carol” (The Alistair Sims version) ready for our holiday movie trifecta. Marilyn said she wasn’t in the mood for any more holiday movies after “Holiday Inn.” I usually stand up for old movies but I instantly knew what Marilyn was saying.

The Blackface scene reminded us of much of what’s wrong in our world now.  You can’t escape it by watching another old movie. The melancholia had settled in. We had striven all day to keep our minds off reality and just enjoy Christmas.  We couldn’t maintain the happy glow. I was reminded of Commander-In-Chief Donzo’s insensitive remark to a child about believing in Santa Claus.  All of the bad stuff started to march forward in our brains.

We settled on watching “Midsomer Murders,” a BBC series we’ve grown to love in recent years. That was the temporary Rx to our blahs as the dogs found their second wind and raced outside to bark at the moon, serenade our neighbors, and irritate the bejesus out of me now that I can hear them with my Cochlear implant.

Marilyn and I discussed some upcoming stuff and, clearly, we had lost the thin veneer of holiday cheer. We touched on my overfeeding the dogs which we’ve discussed before and I have ignored.  It endangers the furry kids’ health.  Marilyn’s point is on target even as I used their begging as an excuse to shirk responsibility.  The mood was clearly changing as we tried to engage our attention on “Midsomer Murders”.

The dogs provided some humor with their barkathon, my racing in and out to admonish them with no real success. I focused on Duke who was the main noise culprit. At one point, Duke raced into the crate before I could order him to do so as punishment.  We all laughed at the silliness of the moment. I think some of our good humor was restored as Christmas night drew to a close for us.

It’s still interesting how quickly things can change compared to the yesteryear world of Ralphie and “A Christmas Story”.

CHRISTMAS EVE 2018 – Garry Armstrong

It was a very enjoyable Christmas Eve. A drama free (dee-lish) dinner.

Everyone enjoyed their gifts including the furry kids who hadn’t destroyed their toys as of Christmas morning.

I had a long and delightful phone chat with my family. Two younger Brothers, cousins, and cousin-in-law. I was able to hear everyone clearly (first time!) with my cochlear implant. I think I was a bit giddy because I rambled all over the place, chatting about how the cochlear implant has changed my life.

We shared memories about Christmases past. Lots of laughter as I said goodbye.

Owen brought over a bunch of old ’78’s (Those of a certain age know what I’m talking about).

We listened to vintage performances of Christmas music performed by Bing Crosby, Mahalia Jackson, Gene Autry and Red Foley. Yes, Red Foley. “White Christmas” is still a signature song of the season and it belongs to Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby.

One of the 78’s contained soundtrack music from the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn” in which Bing Crosby introduced Irving Berlin’s beloved “White Christmas.” Gene Autry’s “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” brought back a rush of childhood memories as did a rendition of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” I found myself singing along — softly — because I sing off-key.

What a blast! Thanks, Owen.

I, too, wonder about the mince-pie mystery.

What happened to mince-pie? Marilyn and I have been searching in recent weeks for mince-pie, fresh or frozen.  No luck.  No answers.  I just read an online piece about a cache of mince pies discovered in England, stashed in a basement — from World War Two. A Mom’s gift to her Son in the army. The pies are over 70 years old. No mention of how they taste.

This still doesn’t answer our mince-pie mystery. Russian collusion?

Christmas Day is upon us. The house is quiet. The furry kids are searching for their toys. Santa Claus has been very kind to us. Yes, Donzo, there is a Santa Claus.

I suppose he forgot about you.

ON CHRISTMAS DAY IN THE MORNING – Marilyn Armstrong

On the first day of Christmas

And so there we were. The family. We actually opened presents before dinner because no one could wait. And that’s sort of funny because they were all small presents. Not big, grand surprises. And I think everyone liked their stuff.

Owen brought over a record player and a bunch of Christmas 78 RPM records. They still play, too. Lots of crackle and pop. Amazing.

There was a roast at least a pound bigger than we needed, making me wonder what I’m going to do with the food I defrosted for tomorrow because we have a lot of food. Really. A lot of food. An entire unopened key lime pie, too and half a cheesecake.

Good thing I didn’t also make apple pie.

 

OUR MANAGEABLE LITTLE CHRISTMAS AND HOW IT GOT THAT WAY – Marilyn Armstrong

When I was little, everyone’s trees were covered in tinsel and some fluffy white stuff. It imitated snow on the branches of your tree and placed judiciously, was quite lovely. The white fluffy stuff was banned because it was mostly fiberglass. It was lethal to pets and dangerous for people, too.

2003

As for tinsel, I think it was a cleanup issue. It got into everything. Animals ate it, including dogs, cats, and baby rug-rats. It did look very pretty, all silvery on the trees. It came in other colors too, but I don’t think most people really got “into” the pinks and oranges and blues.

From when I married Jeffrey in 1964, we had ‘real’ trees. It was a family thing, to get the biggest tree you could, then spend hours reconstructing it with saws and wires to make it look perfect

2015

Real Christmas trees weren’t expensive, either. Even though they made an awful mess (I was usually still trying to get those dried pine needles out of the wood floors a year later when the new tree was going up), it wasn’t a big deal to get a tree and there was a tree lot on every corner.

2017

Then one year — it must have been during the late 1970s — the price shot up and a tree that had cost $10 the previous year was $50 the next.

We still got a real one until the end of the 1970s when Jeff and I divorced and I moved to Israel.

2014

By the time I came back from Israel (August 1987), a $10 tree was $100. Garry and I bought got real ones for a few years when we had the townhouse in Boston. One was so perfect — and so WIDE — it took up the entire living room. The following year I tried to find an unreal tree that would fit into our actual space.

Christmas cactus – 2018

Then we moved here and since we live 5 doors down from an actual Christmas tree farm (which today I noticed is for sale, so there goes Arrowhead Farms!), you could choose your tree in August or September, watch it grow, then cut it down yourself immediately before you were ready to put it up. Talk about a FRESH tree.

I never had trouble putting up the tree and everyone was eager to help decorate it, but no one ever wanted to take it down or put away the decorations. We still had a tree standing one year on my birthday in March.

2016

We had a few more live ones after that, but the bloom was coming off the rose. Even a six-foot tree took up more room than we could really give it. There was nowhere to walk around it — and the dogs were always trying to eat the glass ornaments.

NO ONE wants their dogs eating glass anything, much less those fragile ornaments. Cats just liked to play with them, but the dogs liked a good hefty bite! Then, for a while, it became almost impossible to get glass ornaments. Some sort of national agreement that all decorations would be plastic.

A few years ago when my son and his family moved out, Garry and I realized we didn’t need gigantic trees. We started buying little real trees in pots on the theory that we could plant them in the spring, but they never survived long enough to plant. They dried out and died long before it was warm enough to plant anything.

2014 – The year of two small trees!

Finally, three years ago, I found the perfect fake 4-foot tree. It looks so much like a real tree, most people think it is real until they touch it and even then, they aren’t sure.  I had a lot of searching to do to find it.

Also, it is big enough to have some presence. It feels like a tree, not like a toy yet it is small enough to put on our huge coffee table on which we never serve coffee. The table really functions as a place to show off old pottery and other small decorative things because under the glass top is a shelf for “stuff.” And it’s big enough to sort the laundry.

2013

Thus we found a viable version of Christmas for us. It is big enough to be a Christmas but sufficiently small and neat to make it something we could do ourselves without winding up exhausted with a giant mess following the holiday.

I think our 4-foot always-decorated tree is perfect. It safeguards all our earlier Christmases and it’s ready in half a blink to take its place. From last year, it also has lights.

2018 again

There’s nothing religious — per se — about the tree but there is symbolism in it and continuity. It means something because we’ve always had some kind of Christmas. This is easy, pretty, painless … so we get to keep our personal history.

A very little, very pretty Christmas from us to you! And don’t forget: at least one of us is sort of Jewish, in a casual sort of way.

THE BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS – Marilyn Armstrong

I almost missed Christmas. I was so busy taking pictures, my son said: “So, see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Not Tuesday?”

Hiding Woodpecker and a Warbler. For reasons best known to the woodpeckers, they hide on the opposite side of the feeder most of the time
Little Yellow Warbler

He looked at me. “Tuesday is Christmas Day. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.”

Diving Chickadee
Red-bellied Nuthatch and a Chickadee

I thought about what I had to do. It was daunting. Garry hadn’t even looked at the Christmas cards and no one had wrapped any presents. I wasn’t even sure what I was going to wrap them in. I had nothing written for either the Eve or the Day and I wasn’t even sure when I was going to wrap.

Couldn’t I just hand things out?

Two Chickadees
Tufted Titmouse and Chickadee

I think I’m not wrapping. I’m okay on most things, but I don’t want to wrap.

And then, today, it snowed today. Just a little bit, but photographically perfect. I had to take pictures, didn’t I?

Woodpecker in snow
Nuthatch in snow
Titmouse and two Warblers
Tufted Titmouse and a Warbler in Christmas Eve snow
Hungry Warbler
Another Nuthatch with Warbler
Junco with two Warblers
Tis the season from this Warbler

And a Merry Christmas from birds and beasts!

All shall be well fed this season!

TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE – Marilyn Armstrong

By Clement Clarke Moore


‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.

1864
1864

And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap —
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

1883
1883

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

1886
1886

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen;
“To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”

1896
1896

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys — and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack.

1898
1898

His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

1901
1901

He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


A quick note:

Back when newspapers were getting read by normal people, every year The Boston Herald printed this poem on its front page. The Herald was disbanded this year, a very sad day for Boston now reduced to just one newspaper, so I have undertaken to print the poem myself.

The pictures are originals of the book’s covers through the years. Sometimes called “The Night Before Christmas” and other times called “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and periodically both, the covers show this variation.

Most people know it by both titles anyway. I used to know it by heart.