Santa Claus Around the World

Santa Claus Around the World by Lisl Weil. Holiday House, 1987.

I have a special treat for St. Nicholas' Day! It's a wonderful nonfiction book from 1987 by Lisl Weil. You may remember the book Donkey Head, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that I posted about back in June? This book is by the same author/illustrator.

So as much as I love to mix traditions from all over into our holiday season, I admit, we play it pretty old-fashioned American when it comes to Santa Claus. We have talked about the original St. Nicholas, we have talked about European St. Nicholas traditions (shoes, coins), but Santa is still the guy in the red suit who comes down the chimney.

This is the year Big Sis was ready to give up the game. She planned to "Susan Walker" us this Christmas, not telling us what she wanted. She wanted to see if she would get her secret wish, proving once and for all if Santa was real. She wouldn't let up, and finally, we told her the truth. It was a very bittersweet moment. She understood that she was letting go of a bit of childhood magic, and horribly sentimental mama that I am, I cried. I read the original "Yes, Virginia" editorial to her, which I think is so sweet. She decided she was definitely Team Santa, and she'd play along for her sister's sake a bit longer.  Little Sis is still into it, and I always loved the magic of Santa as a kid, even after I learned the truth when I was 7. (Of course, I'm also the mom with the fairy house in the backyard - or, I was, until Mr. B tore it down two weeks ago, to make room for the new fence.)  I plan on finding a used copy of this book when the time is right, because I love the history and explanations of different Santa-style traditions.  The book is informative but also simple and engaging, and I adore Weil's cartoonish illustrations.

The book first gives an overview of St. Nicholas: his generosity, his miracles.

It explains how St. Nicholas traditions in December began in Europe, starting with the Netherlands and Sinterklaas, where our name Santa Claus originated. Sinterklaas is often accompanied by Black Peter, who travels with sticks and a big sack, to punish naughty children. In France, Petit Noël or Père Noël is accompanied by Père Fourchette (Father Fork) or Père Fouetard (Father Whip).

The book touches on traditions all over Europe: Father Christmas in England, Samichlaus in Switzerland.  Boys in the Germand-speaking area of Switzerland get to help Samichlaus pass out treats.

The Romansch-speaking region of Switzerland, as well as parts of Germany, have a second gift-bringer called the Christkindl, the Christ Child (sometimes depicted as an angel), in order to put the focus back on Jesus's birth.  The name Christkindl is similar to Kris Kringle.

And in Austria, Hungary, and some other nearby countries, Niklaus is accompanied by the Krampus! Gruß vom Krampus!

Krampus prunes!!!

While I knew about Russia's Baboushka - the old lady who was too busy to go with the Wise Men, so now she searches for him, leaving gifts behind for the children - I wasn't aware that Italy has their Befana, with a similar story.

And we do get to read a bit about the Tomten of Scandinavia, riding their Julebock.

We learn a bit about Mexico, and about the gift bringers of Japan, Korea, and China, before heading back to the United States.  Weil mentions how the original American St. Nicholas looked more like a bishop, but how the different European traditions began to melt together to create the modern Santa Claus. .)

Whatever your tradition, have a beautiful 6th of December!

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Nibble Nibble, Little Mouse...

Sometimes, you just gotta know when to let things go.

I think gingerbread houses can be very pretty

Mine are not pretty.

To be fair, I am not a baker. I am not a visual artist. I kid-craft. In 2011, the girls' uncles sent them a gingerbread house kit. Just follow the instructions and decorate as you will. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

I cried.

The icing was so thick, it clogged my decorating tips. The girls thought it was funny. Mr. B was gleefully texting his brother: "You made Danzel cry!"

I just wanted it to be as pretty as the ones my best friend's super-crafty SAHM made and brought to school every year. I was always so jealous.

This is our first gingerbread house.

My brothers-in-law sent us TWO HOUSES the following year. Making Danzel cry makes everyone else laugh.

But I learned from our mistakes the first time around, and our 2012 houses were much nicer, if far from perfect.

 The uncles didn't send us any kits last year, and I certainly didn't buy one. But this year, Little Sis got a less-fancy, name brand candy kit for her birthday. As soon as the tree was up and the boxes were put away, they begged to decorate it.

My job was to put the main structure together. The girls insisted on doing all the decorating themselves. See those faces? They were saying, "Go away, Mom. Leave us alone, Mom. We got this, Mom."

The only icing on the house was there as glue for the little candies. This wasn't going to be a Pinterest-worthy gingerbread house, but it wasn't my kit. Let it go, Danzel.

No tears this year. It wasn't my house.

Oh, wait - there was a downside to letting the girls take over. You see, the real reason they wanted me out of the way was so they could pick off most of the candies and put them in their little mouths.


As I went to move the house to the girls' play table in the family room, I finally noticed the missing candies. "Nibble nibble, little mouse," I muttered in my best Joan Collins-as-witch voice.

But that gave me an idea.

You know those Madame Alexander dolls that sometimes make it into McDonald's Happy Meals? I've thrifted a few through the years, and a certain pair just happened to be lurking next to the fairy tale books in the living room.

Anytime I can tie fairytale goodies into my decor, you know I'm happy, right?

I thought I'd round up a few wonderful gingerbread houses in illustrated versions of "Hansel and Gretel" today. I have a tendency to judge the art from this story based on how delicious the witch's house looks. The Japanese puppet book from the My Tiny 3-D book series wins, I think, although the Paul O. Zelinksy house looks rather tasty.

Clockwise from the Top: Arthur RackhamThe Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 1909; Kay Nielsen, Hansel and Gretel and Other Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, 1925 (taken from here); Jen Corace, Hansel and Gretel by Cynthia Rylant, 2008; Paul O. Zelinsky, Hansel and Gretel by Rika Lesser, 1996; Adrienne Adams, Hansel and Gretel, 1975; Gustaf Tenggren, The Tenggren Tell-It-Again Book, 1944; Rose Art Studios (Tokyo), Hansel & Gretel (My Tiny 3-D Book Series), 1960s; Joan Walsh Anglund, Nibble Nibble Mousekin, 1962; Jessie Willcox Smith, A Child's Book of Stories, 1911; Mercer Mayer, Favorite Tales from Grimm, 1982.

And of course, you've just gotta love the classic Little Golden Book illustrations, both the original Erika Weihs edition from 1943:

and the Eloise Wilkin edition from 1954:

Okay, I've exhausted this post.

Anyone have a favorite version of "Hansel and Gretel"? A favorite gingerbread house illustration? Do you decorate gingerbread houses? Do you use a kit, or do you actually bake your own?

Okay, truth - I love to bake, just not decorate. And I really, really, really want some gingerbread now...

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Greenglass House

If you or your older kiddo is in the mood for a little mystery, especially one that just happens to take place around Christmas, I urge you to grab a copy of Greenglass House.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford,
illustrated by Jaime Zollar.
Clarion Books, 2104.

The very first chapter sets the tone: "The Smugglers' Inn." Milo is 12 years old, living with his parents in a ramshackle old inn called Greenglass House, named for the beautiful stained glass windows that decorate the converted manor. It is also known as the Smugglers' Inn, because their little port town is a popular gateway for smugglers, and Greenglass House is home away from home for many. High on a very steep hill, it is a long way up to the house on foot, although a cable railway car is available. (You can read an excerpt at the HMH Books website.)

It is the start of Christmas vacation. Milo is looking forward to the quiet time at home. No one comes to the inn during the treacherous winter months. Milo is thinking about Christmas when the first unexpected guest arrives. And then another. And another. A whole set of mismatched travelers make their way to the inn, disturbing Milo's peace with their secrets and strangeness.

Milo's new friend Meddy urges Milo to solve the mysteries of the guests. A weird old map appears and disappears. Guests' possessions go missing, and Milo and Meddy make it their job to find them. It becomes clear that some of these strangers know each other, but for whatever reason, are pretending they do not.

The children suggest that the guests tell stories to pass the time. Often, the stories provide clues to the mysteries, and for the reader, they are always entertaining.

Milo and Meddy have their own secrets. They devise characters based on a role-playing game, using those characters for courage. Milo is adopted. His Asian features often make him feel "other" from his parents. Although he loves them very much, he wonders about his heritage. Meddy harbors her own secrets, but hers take a long time to unfold. Their characters give them outlets to work out their feelings.

I don't feel it's possible for me to do this story justice. It has so much to recommend it. It manages to be fun, suspenseful, and melancholy all at once. I also read it back in October, but saved it until now, so I know I'm not doing it justice. I just wanted to share it now. It calls for a cozy chair and a cup of something hot, while you read about the biting winter chill and the children's meeting place behind the Christmas tree. It's also a National Book Award finalist, if that's important to you.

Just...  go read it.

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A Little Women Christmas

How many of you associate Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women with Christmas? I know very well that it isn't exactly a Christmas book, but it does contain some of the most memorable Christmas scenes. Of course, if you've ever seen one of the movie versions, especially the 1994 film, the New England snow and indoor blankets and fireplaces seem like characters unto themselves.

I was beyond ecstatic when I learned that a new picture book based on one of those Christmases was coming out this year.
A Little Women Christmas by Heather Vogel Frederick, based on the work by
Louisa May Alcott, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014

Heather Vogel Frederick, if you don't already know, is the author of the Mother-Daughter Book Club middle grade series, which is set in Concord, Massachusetts. Each book in the series revolves around a classic the club is reading together, and in the first book, the club reads Little Women. Frederick grew up in Concord herself, and her adaptation is warm and faithful.

While my favorite Christmas scenes in Little Women come earlier in the book - the opening lament about the lack of presents, giving their Christmas dinner to the poor family - Frederick chose to adapt the memorable chapter after Beth's illness, when Father comes home from the war.

Bagram Ibatoulline's art is amazing. I'm not even sure I can add anything to that statement. The beauty speaks for itself.

We checked out one more Alcott-related picture book this week.

An Alcott Family Christmas by Alexandra Wallner. Holiday House, 1996.

This one was written and illustrated by Alexandra Wallner. We checked out a couple of Wallner's titles for Women's History Month.

This book has the bright folk art illustrations that mark all of Wallner's books. I found it a bit problematic, however. I've been a big Alcott fan since I was a child. My grandmother gave me a copy of Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston, and I read it over and over. When I was older, I finally read Little Women, and as an adult, I've watched documentaries and read biographies. It is well-known that Alcott based much of Little Women on her own life. The March girls (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) were largely modeled on the Alcott girls (Anna, Louisa, Lizzie, and May). I enjoyed the way certain aspects of the Alcott's lives were mixed into the Marches' story in the 1994 film, such as when Jo tells Professor Bhaer about Transcendentalism Popping a little more reality into the fiction worked for me.

Fictionalizing nonfiction bothers me, though. As I read this book with the girls, I found myself questioning things. Why are the Alcott's excited for this Christmas goose? I thought they were vegetarians. And gee, this Christmas seems exactly like the one in Little Women, except Bronson Alcott is present, since it takes place years before the Civil War. Only the names have changed. Near the end, it mentions that Louisa was saving the memories of this Christmas, because she knew she would write about them later in a successful book. This doesn't seem true to character, either. Little Women was a departure for Alcott, and not the kind of book she necessarily wanted to be known for, according to other things I've read and watched.

Lovely illustrations. It just doesn't ring true to me. It was published only a couple years after that last film version, and it reads as fiction. Perhaps she should have left Bronson Alcott out of it, and just adapted part of Little Women, like Frederick and Ibatoulline did.

I know from previous posts that I have some Little Women fans among my readers. Does your favorite scene in the book take place at Christmas? What about the movies? I love the gorgeous snow, and the girls singing "Ding! Dong! Merrily on High" in the 1994 version, and I always loved the very cozy Victorian atmosphere of the 1933 version, starring Katharine Hepburn. I know a lot of people prefer the 1940s MGM film, but it was never my favorite. My love for Margaret O'Brien aside, she should not have been cast as Beth. (I'm sorry, '49 fans!)

I found a fun blog post over at the Quirk Books site, titled "Let's Have a Little Women Christmas!" I've actually done quite a few of these things, come to think of it, although the last couple of years we've gone less Victorian, more mid-century kitsch. I like to shake it up.

For more Louisa May Alcott in picture book form, see my posts about An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving and Louisa May's Battle: How the Civil War Led to Little Women.

By the way, as of last night, each girl had a new old book by their bedside. Little Sis took my copy of Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston, and Big Sis took off with my old copy of Little Women. Not sure if any reading will occur, but I appreciated the sentiment.

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Mickey's Christmas Carol (A Little Golden Book)

Mickey's Christmas Carol (A Little Golden Book) by Walt Disney Productions.
Golden / Western Publishing Company, 1983.

1983 marked the return of Mickey Mouse to the big screen, in his first theatrically-released new short film in 30 year.  I still have my little stuffed Mickey's Christmas Carol character toys from Hardee's.  

I don't think we had the Little Golden Book version of the cartoon, but we probably had a read-along book and cassette.  You have no idea how much I loved this short when I was in first grade.

My favorite part of the cartoon was the pretty theme song, which is obviously missing from the book. I still play "Name That Character!" when I watch it at home.

I haven't read a lot of Charles Dickens, but I adore A Christmas Carol. I love the original book, and I have a soft spot for most of the film and television adaptations I've seen: from the 1930s versions (this one and that one) to the 1950s Alistair Sim version, from Mr. Magoo to Mickey to the Muppets. There are so many, I haven't come close to seeing them all.  In fact, don't ask me about the Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, or Kelsey Grammar versions that show up on TV so often. Haven't gotten to them yet!  Or the more recent animated versions, come to think of it...  I do prefer the adaptations to be set in the Victorian Era, but I must admit, one of my favorite holiday films period is 1988's Scrooged with Bill Murray.

Sorry, I'm rambling now, right?

Here are some videos I found on Vimeo and YouTube.  If you ever try to watch Mickey's Christmas Carol on ABC Family, you will get a choppily edited version.  They butcher all those Christmas shorts during their 25 Days of Christmas promotion.  Here is the whole cartoon via Vimeo, but you can buy the DVD or Blu-Ray, rent or buy it from Amazon Instant Video, or from DisneyOnDemand on YouTube, or VUDU or  iTunes.

Here is a making-of special from 1984.

And here is a YouTube video of the original Disneyland Records record production, 
"An Adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol Presented by the Popular
Repertory Company The Disney Players" from 1974.

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