Michaelmas/Rosh Hashanah


This year two festivals of autumn fall upon the same day: Michaelmas, the feast of the dragon-conquering St. Michael the Archangel, and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. And appropriately so, since both, although from different spiritual traditions, call for reflection upon and atonement for our deeds and misdeeds of the past year and a courageous awakening to our innermost thoughts. The days now grow shorter, and as we head into winter we plan consciously to nurture the light within.

So in our family we honor the season ecumenically, if perhaps sacrilegiously, and don red garments, blow our tofu horn, say special verses and blessings to help us reflect, and share apples dipped in honey and challah baked in the shape of a dragon. A light-filled MichaelmHashanah to you.


Queen of the May


Since the 16th century, May has traditionally been the month of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic church. When I was a girl, on the first of May the entire population of our Catholic school lined up for a procession to the grotto at the far end of the school campus, where the statue of Mary presided serenely, unperturbed by our playground misdemeanors, as the ideal mother would be. While we sang hymns, some lucky pre-selected girl (never yours truly) stepped forward to place a crown of flowers on her plaster head. Just one of the many pagan customs that have kept me in the church.




According to tradition, today is the feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce an unexpected little surprise that was to arrive on Christmas Day…EXACTLY nine months later. Unlike most of the rest of us moms, Mary was apparently not fated to go into premature labor or run weeks past her due date, thus alarming midwives, spouse, and relatives.

In Sweden, this day is celebrated with waffles. You may ask why we celebrate the pregnancy 2000 years ago of a nice small-town Jewish girl with a medieval Dutch cake? Well, as the story goes, in Sweden, the Feast of the Annunciation is called Vårfrudagen, or “Lady Day.” Which is similar enough to Våffeldagen, “Waffle Day,” to cause a little confusion on March 25th and launch an annual tradition. It’s a confusion we are happy to perpetuate in our household, despite its being the middle of Lent. It IS the Annunciation, after all.


This image is available as a high-resolution print on 8.5″ x 11″ archival paper.

March On


Hmm, you may be saying. Isn’t this a DECEMBER post?

But no, today is a January double anniversary. On this day in 1870, caricaturist Thomas Nast first used the donkey as a symbol for the Democratic party.

A donkey had been used decades earlier in the 1830s during the campaign of Andrew Jackson. When his political opponents labeled him a “jackass” for his stubbornness, Jackson took advantage of the insult and used the animal on his campaign posters to represent instead his unyielding tenacity of purpose.

Nast, however, in his cartoon, “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion” intended his depiction to rebuke the Democratic party for its disrespectful treatment of the recently deceased Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s controversial Secretary of War. Nast went on to use the Democratic donkey in later, similarly admonishing cartoons, and the association eventually became permanent. The donkey symbol has the advantage of interpretation by the viewer as representing either 1. (if you are anti-Democratic) foolish obstinacy, or 2. (if you are pro-Democratic) humble determination.

Both the names and the respective goals of American political parties have evolved over the years. It was, after all, Republican Abraham Lincoln who authored the Emancipation Proclamation, after the newly formed Republican party split off from the slavery-supporting Whigs. But, over the last century, the Democratic donkey has become a symbol, both respected and derided, of progressive values. At times it seems the Democratic party is mired in confusion, lacking direction, and anything but resolute. But if we take the veeerry looong view, we can see, beyond party affiliation, the ultimate triumph of progressive goals.

Which brings us to our second anniversary, the birthday on January 15th of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), whose dedication, passion, eloquence and non-violent means effected tremendous change in attitudes and legislation. King is now such a heroic cultural icon that it might even surprise some of today’s schoolchildren to learn of the bitterness and vile tactics of his enemies, the assaults and death threats directed against him and his followers, the fierce opposition to what strikes us today as self-evident fairness and justice.

With his lifelong struggle for desegregation and civil rights, his goal to end poverty and compensate descendants of slaves, his protest against United States support of Latin American dictators, his encouragement to redirect government funds from the Vietnam War toward healing of social ills, he was clearly a man way ahead of many of his small-minded fellow citizens. And in this he seemed, sadly, destined for martyrdom.

Today the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March On Washington, and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are the stuff of history textbooks. And, thanks to the Internet and YouTube, we can celebrate Martin Luther King Day by listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in recognition of the progress we have made. So far.

In the Stable


For a long time I wanted a Nativity scene, and several years ago I suddenly realized I might make one myself from stuffed wool felt. My delusional scheme was to create one figure each Advent until we would eventually have a vast elaborate setup resembling the creches of Italy and Provence and the angel tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Except in wool felt.

However, once I had completed the Holy Family, a donkey, a shepherd, and a sheep, and my husband had built a stable from branches and a lovely fragment of bark (thanks, Leah!), the time available for handwork had pretty much evaporated, aside from necessities like sock-mending and the occasional Halloween costume. Perhaps one day…

I wish you all a joyful, loving, and peaceful Christmas.



St. Nicholas Day: Part 2

(continued from December 6th)


However, after Livingston’s death in 1829, Moore quietly wrote to the newspaper asking if they knew the author of the popular verse, “The Night Before Christmas.” When the editors replied that they did not, as it had been published anonymously, Moore claimed authorship, saying that he had been “too embarrassed” to claim it previously. His surprised and delighted family, and many others, came to believe him.

When Moore later included it in a book of “his” poetry (which actually included several other poems later revealed not to be Moore’s own—tsk, tsk), the astonished Livingston children protested. But would a rich and respected theologian actually LIE about his work? Not to be believed. So nobody did. Livingston’s papers, including his handwritten copy of the poem with its changes and crossed-out passages, had perished in a fire, and the children had no evidence beyond their personal knowledge. Moore later churned out several handwritten copies of his own (not exactly matching Livingston’s original, but what the heck) which eventually sold to collectors for big bucks.

End of story… until the arrival on the scene of Donald Foster, an English professor at Vassar and a well-known textual scholar, who included in his 2000 book Author Unknown a fascinating analysis of the use of language in the work of Moore and of Livingston. His conclusion, built step by step on literary evidence, is that Livingston, and not Moore, authored the poem in question.

But even we lay people, dear reader, can probably deduce this for ourselves by reading further examples of poetry.

For example, contrast with Moore’s grim and foreboding efforts the poem Livingston wrote for his own daughter’s marriage:

‘Twas summer when softly the breezes were blowing
And Hudson majestic so sweetly was flowing
The groves rang with music & accents of pleasure
And nature in rapture beat time to the measure
When Helen and Jonas so true and so loving
Along the green lawn were seen arm in arm moving
Sweet daffodils, violets and roses spontaneous
Wherever they wandered sprang up instantaneous.

And another, in a letter to his brother, praising the sewing of a cousin:

To my dear brother Beekman I sit down to write
Ten minutes past eight & a very cold night.
Not far from me sits with a baullancy cap on
Our very good couzin, Elizabeth Tappen,
A tighter young seamstress you’d ne’er wish to see
And she (blessings on her) is sewing for me.
New shirts & new cravats this morning cut out
Are tumbled in heaps and lye huddled about.
My wardrobe (a wonder) will soon be enriched
With ruffles new hemmed & wristbands new stitched.

The only real benefit from Moore’s perpetrated fraud is that Livingston’s poem has survived for generations to enjoy it. Perhaps now, thanks to Donald Foster, its true author will be recognized.

St. Nicholas Day: Part 1

Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas. On the eve of this day, our children put out their shoes, and in the morning each finds therein a golden walnut (we have quite a collection by now) and one or two small gold-wrapped treats. In honor of this day, I post a tribute to the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” Henry Livingston, Jr.


“Uh, Henry Who?” you are muttering. “I thought it was written by Clement Clarke Moore.” Well, that’s what Clement Clarke Moore would like you to think, too, unless he has repented his wicked ways in whatever hell is the repository of naughty plagiarists.

Henry Livingston (1748-1829) was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. As a young man he served briefly in the army; later he worked as a farmer and surveyor, and in his spare time wrote poetry and made sketches for the amusement of his large family (eventually nine children). His daughter Eliza wrote, “When we were children he used to entertain us on winter evenings by getting down the paint box… first he would portray something very pathetic, which would melt us to tears; the next thing would be so comic, that we would be almost wild with laughter.”

Some of his work was published anonymously in local papers and journals. One of these poems was “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which the children recalled their father reciting to them in the early 1800s. It made its way through the family’s various households and it was submitted, as usual anonymously, and printed in the newspaper. In this pre-electronic era, writing and reading poetry were popular pastimes, and there was plenty of dreck going around. But this particular poem was well-received, and it grew in popularity. Livingston died a few years later, unacknowledged as its author, except by his family.

Enter Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), a prosperous Biblical scholar in New York and a relative of Livingston by marriage. Moore also dabbled in poetry in his spare time, churning out tracts and verses admonishing children and reminding them to be humble and serious. Here is an excerpt from Moore’s jolly poem “Old Santeclaus,” written from Santa’s perspective:

But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,
I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.

Or, how about this cheery, romantic poem Moore penned for his daughter on her wedding day:

But oh! how soon we pass this endless track,
That, like perspective art, deludes our view:
And, when we turn and on our path look back,
How short the distance! and our steps how few!

Till death do part, how gaily we repeat
When joy and health are in their prime and strength:
Life is a vista then whose borders meet;
So endless, to our fancy, seems its length.

Trust not the gilded mists and clouds that rise
Where flattering Hope and fickle Fancy reign;
But turn from these, and seek with anxious eyes
The clear bright atmosphere of Truth’s domain.

Moore’s work did not capture the heart of the public. How disappointing.

(continued on December 7th!)

Celtic Christmas


Today is the feast day of St. Cecilia, my saint-name-day (Sheila being the Irish form of Cecilia). St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music, a fact that has always pleased me—irrationally, considering I have no musical talent beyond the ability to sing lullabies relentlessly for hours to restless children.

Anyway, in honor of St. Cecilia, I post this tribute to a wonderful holiday concert that my husband and I attend every year with a group of friends: Celtic Christmas, at Dumbarton Church in Washington, DC. This concert is difficult to describe. It takes place by candlelight in a beautiful old church in Georgetown, and includes traditional seasonal music, unusual obscure pieces, and original compositions, which vary from year to year. The incredibly diverse Linn Barnes plays lute, guitar, banjo, harp-guitar, and Uillean pipes. Allison Hampton plays Celtic harp as if descended from on high to share the music of the spheres. Their performances are heightened and deepened by those of amazing flutist Joseph Cunliffe and percussionist Steve Bloom.

Pieces are interspersed with Barnes’ anecdotes both serious and humorous providing historical background (here is a man serious about music). Other pieces are accompanied by Robert Aubry Davis reading evocative seasonal poetry and prose that he researches especially for the concert (here is a man serious about literature).

This annual event sweeps us into the spirit of a joyful yet poignant Christmas. We depart expecting to step out into softly falling snow, listening for sleigh bells, the call of the heavenly host, and the distant howl of a wolf.

CakeDaisiesAunt Marge


Yahrzeit2John Fitzgerald Kennedy