I picked this book up from a bookseller at a conference last year because I love the artwork of Valenti Angelo. We read from an exquisitely decorated The Book of Psalms each day. I remembered Ruth Sawyer's The Year of the Christmas Dragon, so I thought I'd be safe with the text. As a bonus, it smelled deliciously of old book.
A few pages into the Introduction, I knew I had found a treasure.
Never before within our memory has it seemed so important to keep the Long Christmas; to begin early enough and hold to the festival long enough to feel the deep, moving significance of it. For Christmas is a state of mind quite as much as a festival; and who can establish and maintain a state of mind in the rush and turmoil of a single day, or two days? Around no other time of year has been built so much of faith, of beauty. Out of no other festival have grown so many legends.It bears repeating, "Who can establish and maintain a state of mind in the rush and turmoil of a single day, or two days?" Sawyer is advocating for a "Long Christmas," a celebration of weeks after the day itself, time to soak in the mystery and the loveliness.
Later, Ms. Sawyer quotes Anne Carroll Moore in My Roads:
We too often forget lighting up time at Christmas and lay upon the day itself too heavy a load of material substitutes for the great good gifts of beauty, song, and laughter, of genuine play and fresh adventure in two worlds.The weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas build an anticipation that may be crushed by an "imperfect" celebration on the day itself. Let the storytelling, singing, and laughing continue throughout the season of Christmas!
Thirteen stories, gathered from various countries, are included in the book: one for Christmas and all the days through Epiphany. Before each tale is a poem or hymn. Some are old carols or hymns, but some, I think, are written by Sawyer.
The tales broach every human emotion but all are centered on the birth of Christ and the celebration of that great feast. From The Holy Lake:
Now pride and scorn are poor bedfellows. They will turn a good man into an empty-headed fool. If there is no longer need of earning daily bread, no longer need of counting the busy hours of the day that life might be wise and diligent, then the empty-headed fool becomes a man both vicious and greedy--a baser metal himself, and good for little but scrapping.One lone woman continues to welcome the guest in Christ's name, to comfort and nourish. A strange young child comes to her humble cabin on Christmas Eve, rejected from every other village home.
And then he talked to her of his own mother, of their simple life at home, of his brothers and one sister. She saw, in what he told, her own life taking form as it had been, and felt again how good it had been, these things of living, of homely service, of preparing food, of hushing children, of making garments, of keeping a house tidy and pleasant. And while he talked, bringing the years home to her, she nodded and at last slept.In the morning, she finds the town drowned by a lake along with all the gluttonous, greedy villagers. Though the story seems to hint the stranger was Christ himself, I find it difficult to think he would have suffered more when thinking of what would happen to the people of the town, guilty as they were. (Also, as Catholics we believe Christ would have had no siblings.) Still, a tale does not need to be theologically perfect to be thought-provoking.
My favorite story is The Crib of Bo'Bossu, in which a poor deformed carpenter desires to carve a beautiful new crib for the Christ child in the Nativity scene at the cathedral. His great gift of wood-working, his only gift, he wished to dedicate to drawing the eyes of others to Christ.
With the crib conceived, there remained only to win time for the work. He worked far into the long evenings; he worked at full of moon; he rose an hour before time for morning coffee. His own working hours for the Old One were long enough to tire; but this was work for love and he rested at it.As the feast neared, he struggled to find time and finally found himself struggling to see in the darkness before the feast before an unfinished cradle. Miraculously, a stranger appears who magnificently completes his gift.
The penultimate story is A Candle for Saint Bridget. Unlike the other stories, all taken from traditional tales, this one is a story of the authors own. Overcome by the spirit of giving when visiting a family struggling vainly against hunger and poverty, she leaves an offering for the children from St. Bridget.
I'm looking forward to reading this book aloud to my children next Advent, in preparation for our own celebration of the Long Christmas.