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There are a LOT of holiday movies out there on DVD. Most of them are really mediocre. Much is made about the old — and still pleasant — It’s a Wonderful Life, which is frequently seen on television every year sometime during the holiday season.
Views of course differ, but in my opinion, the all-time best holiday movie is the old 1951 black and white production of A Christmas Carol (released as Scrooge in England) — the one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge. There are several movie versions of the classic Dickens tale, but accept no substitutes: the absolute best of them is the Alastair Sim version. And be sure to watch it in black and white, not the colorized version, because the latter loses a good part of its visual effect.
And for something lighthearted, if you can find it, The Cheaters (1945) is another pleasant holiday surprise among old black and white films (why are so many of them, made at a fraction of the cost of today’s films, often so much superior?) In it you will find Billie Burke, who also played the good witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.
Yesterday I discovered a much more recent film (2007) — in color — that is so well done it really should become a holiday classic, though I was previously unaware of it. It is a film made in Finland, where it is titled Joulutarina. The title of the English version, available on DVD, is simply Christmas Story. It is directed by Juha Wuolijoki. It is well written, beautifully acted and filmed, and if I tell you what it is about, it would spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say that you will see something familiar in a quite different perspective.
The important thing about these films for the winter holiday season is that they may allow us to look beyond the superficiality of so much of modern life to a deeper significance — a change that comes from within rather than from without.
Tomorrow — December 21st — is the Winter Solstice, the ancient holiday of Great Yule. It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It is also the turning point after which the days once more gradually lengthen, and the nights shorten.
That is why, in ancient times, it was seen as the “rebirth” of the sun, which had been crossing ever lower and nearer the horizon after Midsummer’s Day. Yule was celebrated as the sign of the return of light and warmth, a time of celebration and feasting.
Some of us still keep the Yule holiday with its twelve days. Because it is the Winter Solstice, it is the “natural” winter holiday. For those of who keep up Christmas traditions without the dogma, it is not an “either/or” matter. Because Yule continues for twelve days, it easily incorporates the Christmas gift giving for those who wish to continue that. And of course all the greenery indoors that one associates with Christmas was originally part of Yule and still is. In Welsh the holiday greeting this time of year is “Nadolig Llawen,” meaning “Happy Birth.” One can apply that to the Winter Solstice as well, when one remembers the ancient tradition that it is the rebirth of the sun, which metaphorically it is. The sun once more begins to climb higher and higher as it arcs across the sky, eventually bringing us to spring.
Yule is a reminder that even the darkest times, there is hope for better. The world, with its daily news filled with violence and dismal prospects for the environment and humanity could certainly use some of that now.
Sometimes the smallest things can take us out of ourselves and our personal preoccupations, bringing a bit of light to dispel dark thoughts, as in this winter poem by Robert Frost:
DUST OF SNOW
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
GLAD YULE, EVERYONE!
Though there are many “secular” songs for the holiday season such as the very popular “White Christmas” (written, oddly enough, by the Jewish Irving Berlin), there are also numbers of older songs which, even though one may not have the slightest interest in Christian dogma, are traditional and very often heard.
My point in mentioning this is linguistic. I have noticed that many people, even those who have heard or sung these songs all their lives, are not quite sure what some of the words mean.
It is not a matter of mishearing, such as thinking that “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” is actually “While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night.” It is a matter of not knowing what certain old terms mean, because the words are no longer used in everyday speech.
So as a preface to the holiday season, here is a discussion of such often puzzling words in some old Christmas carols.
Let’s being with “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” This is not, as some kids think, a song about an angel named Harold. “Hark!” is an exclamation meaning “Listen!,” “Turn your attention to the sound!” In old literature we often find the related “hearken,” as in “Hearken to my words,” meaning “Listen attentively to my words.”
So the lyrics are saying “Listen! The herald angels sing…” A herald is someone who proclaims a message, often a message sent by royalty or some other state authority. So “herald angels” are official messengers sent to bring and proclaim a message.
Later in the song come the words “With th’ angelic host proclaim…” “Th'” is of course just an abbreviation of “the.” But what is a “host” here? It does not mean a host who entertains or takes care of a guest or party, as used today; instead it comes from the old meaning, “a multitude of soldiers,” “an army,” though in this particular case “heavenly host” is generally just understood to mean “a multitude of angels,” a “great crowd of angels,” with no emphasis on “army.”
The carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” sounds at first as though it is addressing angels, but it means simply “We have heard angels high above.” And when it speaks of mountains “echoing their joyous strains.” “Strains” is the problem word here. Today “strain” commonly means either to filter something or to damage a muscle; but in this carol it is a plural noun meaning the phrases of music sung by the angels; today we would just say that the mountains “echo back their joyous song.”
And of course many people have no idea what the carol means when it goes off into its long Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a in Excelsis Deo. That is because it is Latin, derived ultimately from the very old Vulgate translation of the Bible. It has nothing to do with a girl named Gloria, but means instead “Glory (Gloria) to God (Deo) in the height” (in excelsis) or as the King James Bible gives it, “Glory be to God on high.”
People happily sing the carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” but they almost never understand what it means. It does not mean “God give you rest, merry gentlemen”; instead, it uses the word “rest” to mean “keep in a certain condition.” So “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” means “May God keep you merry, gentlemen.” “Merry” is a very old, bu now seldom-used word in English (I always think of the old line from the Liber Eliensis (c. 1175), Merie sungen ðe muneches binnen Ely ða Cnut ching reu ðer by — “Merry sang the monks at Ely as Canute the King rowed there by”). And when it finishes up with “O tidings of comfort and joy,” “tidings” means “news.”
And then there is the popular “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” “Deck” here means “to ornament, to adorn.” So it is referring to putting up branches of the holly tree in rooms to ornament them. And then comes the now-notorious “Don we now our gay apparel,” which originally meant simply to put on bright and colorful or festive and cheerful clothing. It continues with “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,” “troll” meaning here to “sing with a full and merry voice” the very old carol of the Yule time, Yule having become the “Christmas” season.
“See the blazing Yule before us.” means “Look at the burning Yule log (in the fireplace) in front of us.” The burning of the Yule log in the fireplace at Christmastime was an old English tradition. “Strike the harp” means “Pluck (play) the strings of the harp.”
A word often heard in regard to the Christmas season and in some Christmas carols is “Noel.” It is borrowed from Middle French (and Anglo-Norman), and signifies “Christmas.”
Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated. It is, in Japanese:
冬 枯 れ や 世は一色に 風の音
Fuyu-gare ya yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni kaze no oto
The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:
You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.
Fuyu means “winter.”
Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.” Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.
Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that. It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.
Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:
In a world of one colour
The sound of the wind.
We can translate it very literally as:
Fuyu-gare ya yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni kaze no oto
Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound
Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”
We could say,
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.
That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….
Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku. “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse. But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”
Anyone familiar with English literature and with history will know the term “Tyrian purple.” This purple color was once the prerogative of royalty, thus the expression “to the purple born,” which we can trace back to the Byzantine Greek expression porphyrogennetos.
We find a variant of that word — Porphyrogene — in Edgar Alan Poe’s rather creepy poem The Haunted Palace:
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well-befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
Emily Dickinson, who was fond of the color purple, mentions
An altered look about the hills —
A Tyrian light the village fills —
Reference to ancient royal purple — Tyrian purple — pops up in innumerable books and contexts. Tyrian purple has been a part of our history since ancient times. In fact our English word “purple” itself comes originally from the Greek porphyra, the name for the pigment we call Tyrian purple (as well as the mussel from which it was made).
All of this is just a preface to telling you that yesterday I was saddened to read in The Guardian that the shellfish used in ancient times to make the dye Tyrian purple (so called from the ancient city of Tyre) has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean due to the rise of sea temperature caused by climate change. It is just one worrisome sign among a multitude of troubling evidence that the world has entered precarious and dangerous times environmentally and climatically.
Here is the link to the article:
Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost. To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place. Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it. He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.
The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature. He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow. So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says. He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field. They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars. It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.
Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness. One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.
There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.
This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear. It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau. We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:
In field and mountain,
The snowy morning.
As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”
There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.