Christmas: Then and Now

December 10, 2014

Copyright restrictions prevent Distributed Proofreaders from working with recent publications so, by the very nature of what we do, we constantly look back towards the past and compare our present circumstances with reports of similar experiences from times gone by.

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, I wonder if the Christmas spirit has been the same in past times, if people a hundred and fifty years ago had a similar spirit or performed similar practices in their Christmas festivities as we do today.

cover

This came to my mind when post-processing Christmas Stories from French and Spanish Writers, by Antoinette Ogden, an anthology published originally in Chicago, in 1892, containing nine French and six Spanish tales, translated into English, and written several decades earlier. In these fifteen stories I found features that were similar to, and others that were a bit different from, our present way of celebrating Christmas.

Religious practices, Catholicism being the main religion of both France and Spain, are evident in most of these tales. Where religion is not present, Christmas appears more like a social event. In the French tale “I Take Supper with My Wife,” by Gustave Droz, the central point is how charming it is to have a quiet Christmas dinner at home, when it was expected to be had outside in a social gathering. And in the delightful story of Alphonse Daudet, “The Three Low Masses,” the crux is the clash between religious observance and gluttony.

In fact, Christmas is a traditional time for gluttony. Food is present in most of the French tales, but not in the Spanish ones, which usually depict less affluent people. Gift giving is not central in any tale, and there are many in which the idea of gift giving is totally absent (what a difference from the consumerism of our own times!). Christmas trees are not to be found, except very tangentially in a Spanish tale when describing the habits of an upper-class family. Christmas mangers are far more common, and even the yule log is to be found in the very title of the French tale “The Yule Log,” by Jules Simon, and also mentioned in the Provençal form of cacho fio, in Daudet’s sad tale, “Salvette and Bernadou.”

One thing that surprised me is the deep dramatic content in tales that are expected to be gentle, full of optimism, and suitable for children. In half of the tales of this collection, death is present, usually at the end. But in Benito Pérez Galdós’s “The Mule and the Ox,” it is present at the very beginning, most of the tale happening around a child’s coffin. Nevertheless it is a gentle story, where fantasy and dream, the more child-like properties of a tale, do soften and brighten the raw sadness of the scene.

Fantasy and dream play a principal part in many of the other stories too. “A Christmas Supper in the Marais,” by Daudet, is no more than a dream of what a Christmas Eve party would have been in pre-Revolution times among the French nobility. Star characters in “A Tragedy,” by Antonio Maré, and “The Princess and the Ragamuffin,” by Galdós, feature figurines and puppets interacting with humans. And the innards of heaven and hell make their appearance as a result of the fiasco in “The Three Low Masses.”

In all these stories Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day, just as in present times. Christmas Eve is pictured as a warm familiar gathering for those in deprived classes, evolving into a more social and public gathering when we move to an upscale world. This is the central point of “The Poet’s Christmas Eve” by the Spanish author Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, where the poet, unwilling to go to the conventional party he is expected to attend, takes refuge in a café where he reflects, to the lyrics of a seasonal carol, on the differences between his childhood and his present adult life.

Being Spanish myself, I was amused to find that the very same carol I used to sing at Christmas when I was a child was in use almost two centuries earlier. In reading the English translation I was able to recall, and hum, the Spanish words:

To-night is Christmas eve;
To-morrow is Christmas day.
Maria, fetch the jug of wine;
Let’s be merry while we may.

Esta noche es Nochebuena
y mañana Navidad,
dame la bota, María,
que me voy a emborrachar.

and:

Christmas comes,
Christmas goes;
But soon we all shall be of those
Who come back — never!

La Nochebuena se viene,
la Nochebuena se va,
y nosotros nos iremos
y no volveremos más.

In my early years, we sang this last stanza with other children in the street as a plea for some coins. The meaning was, “Tip us and we won’t come back again,” that is, we won’t annoy you any more, but the poet makes a very different reading of these last verses:

But soon we all shall be of those
Who come back — never!

Horrible thought! Cruel sentence, the definite meaning of which was like a summons to me,—death beckoning me from the shadows of the future. Before my imagination a thousand Christmas Eves filed by, a thousand hearths were extinguished, a thousand families that had supped together ceased to exist,—other children, other joys, other songs, lost forever; the loves of my grandparents, their antiquated mode of dress, their remote youth, the memories thereof that crowded upon them; my parents’ childhood, the first Christmas celebration in our home, all the happiness that had preceded me! Then I could imagine, I could foresee, a thousand more Christmas Eves recurring periodically and robbing us of our life and hope,—future joys in which we should not all take part together, my brothers scattered over the earth, my parents naturally dying before us, the twentieth century following upon the nineteenth!

How depressing! However, if we use Christmas time to reflect on our own lives, to remember the past, to foresee what is to come, especially if it is not good or amiable, when the future comes it may find us prepared, aware and resolute.

Considered globally, the Christmas festivities in these stories are not so different from ours, even if there are some differences in the detail. What these stories show is that they are not Christmas tales for children, but for grown-ups. That they are not, most of them, tales to be read to the family around a Christmas tree or a Christmas manger, but literary works to be savoured alone; tales not only to be enjoyed but to be reflected upon.

The main components of the Christmas spirit — hope, good will, forgiveness, fair-play with men and God, attention to the weak and the poor, generosity and unselfishness — are indeed present as a central theme. Christmas is a time of year to show the best of ourselves. It was already so in the 19th century. It should be so in the 21st century.

My best wishes for a merry (and thoughtful) Christmas to all members of Distributed Proofreaders.

rpajares (with thanks to jjz for overseeing my English)


Because We Remember

November 11, 2014

Rookie Rhymes cover

At Distributed Proofreaders we are all about preserving history. We believe in saving the classic, the good, the dry, the funny, and even the bad. A few years ago, it was my honor to pick up Rookie Rhymes to post-process for Veteran’s Day.

Written by The Men of the 1st. and 2nd. Provisional Training Regiments, Plattsburg, New York, May 15—August 15 1917, it is a short book. Some of these poems and songs are funny:

STANDING IN LINE

When I applied for Plattsburg I stood for hours in line
To get a piece of paper which they said I had to sign;
When I had signed I stood in line (and my, that line was slow!)
And asked them what to do with it; they said they didn’t know.

And when I came to Plattsburg I had to stand in line,
To get a Requisition, from five o’clock till nine;
I stood in line till night for the Captain to endorse it;
But the Q. M. had one leggin’ left; I used it for a corset.

We stand in line for hours to get an issue for the squad;
We stand in line for hours and hours to use the cleaning-rod;
And hours and hours and hours and hours to sign the roll for pay;
And walk for miles in double files on Inoculation day.

Oh, Heaven is a happy place, its streets are passing fair,
And when they start to call the roll up yonder I’ll be there;
But when they start to call that roll I certainly will resign
If some Reserve Archangel tries to make me stand in line.

They are poignant:

GO!

Your lips say “Go!”
Eyes plead “Stay!”
Your voice so low
Faints away
To nothing, dear—
God keep me here!

God end the war,
And let us two
Travel far
On Love’s road, you
And I in peace,
Never to cease.

Your lips say “Go!”
Eyes plead “Stay”—
Ah, how I know
What price you pay.

and

EUREKA

It may be from hot Tallahassee,
It may be from cold northern Nome,
But there’s nothing that can be compared with
That BIG little letter from home.

They are even dark at times, with a glimpse of the blackness of war, with temptations such as desertion found in “The Ballad of Montmorency Gray,” and far worse found in “The Three,” and falling beneath what you know is right. (But he doesn’t.)

These men opened their notebooks and let the rest of the world see their thoughts, their fears, and their strength. Because of men and women like these, most of us do not have to face these same fears. So, thank you men of the Regiment, thank you those who are willing to stand, thank you for facing your fears so that I can whine about the cost of eggs, the weather, and kiss those I love goodnight every night. We remember.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


DP on Twitter

November 7, 2014

logo

Distributed Proofreaders is on Twitter! Now you can keep up with DP’s milestones, new blog posts, and other news. Just follow @DProofreaders to stay in the know.


Wilson’s Tales of the Borders and of Scotland

October 22, 2014

Wilson's Tales

Distributed Proofreaders has posted the last of the 24 volumes of Wilson’s Tales of the Borders and of Scotland: Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative. The original 66 stories were collected by John MacKay Wilson (1804-1835). He began publishing them weekly in 1834 as editor of the “Berwick Advertisor.” His unexpected death at age 31 the following year left a widow with an inadequate income. The executors of the estate and friends of the family then gathered a further 233 tales, which were published for her support. Alexander Leighton, one of the major contributors of stories, published the collection in the 24-volume set which is now complete at Project Gutenberg.

The short stories of these collections paint vivid pictures of life in the Borders — deaths and marriages, shipwrecks and celebrations, the ordinary and extra-ordinary events in the lives of people living on the edge of both Scotland and England. These details and more about the tales and the editors of the collections can be found at The Wilson’s Tales Project.

Hundreds of Distributed Proofreaders volunteers collaborated for over ten years to ensure the wide availability of these delightful and historical tales. The first volume was posted in February of 2004, and the last in September of 2014. There were several challenges facing the DP team in their effort to accurately render the tales as the editors intended. In addition to period spelling and grammar, the tales are full of words from the local dialect and dialogue modified to help the reader hear the border speech patterns. These contribute significantly both to the charm and the historicity of the tales, but also caused thousands of words in each volume to fail traditional spell-checkers and to need verification, sometimes with research. Congratulations to the Distributed Proofreaders team, who have continued the work of Mr. Wilson to preserve these stories for future generations to enjoy.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer who worked on Wilson’s Tales.


Typesetting

October 8, 2014

Typesetting is a topic close to the hearts of many DPers, and the foundation on which the books we work on were built.

I learnt typewriting on a manual typewriter when I was at school. A classmate secured a job as an editor with a magazine based on the skills she learnt in the course we were doing. I was so envious! Editor on a magazine, with no work experience, and no qualification. A few years earlier, when asked by a teacher what I wanted to be, I replied I wanted to be a journalist, not because I wanted to be a writer, but because I wanted to work on newspapers, with those monstrous printing presses and the glorious smell of ink, and fiddly bits of lead.

I did manage to become a journalist and editor, but the huge presses were ageing, and typesetting was becoming regarded as no more than wordprocessing on a computer. I remember being chastised for the miles of galley paper that spewed out of the printer one time when I forgot to close off the heading command properly and ended up with a whole article in 72-point Times, a somewhat expensive mistake as rolls of galley proof paper were not cheap.

setting type

Working on the book, Typesetting, by A. A. Stewart, for Project Gutenberg, I couldn’t help but reflect and wish I could have been an apprentice hand compositor and daydream about what the publishing industry must have been like when each character had to be manually placed in the composing stick; when the characters of each font were housed in separate type cases; when measurements for line lengths, page sizes, and margins, had to be mentally calculated quickly and accurately; when justification of lines was achieved by manually placing a mix of different space widths characters (and even resorting to “pieces of paper or thin card” if metal thin spaces were not at hand).

type case

Imagine being able to set type and be able to read the text upside down; to have the dexterity to take a piece of type from the case and place it in the case; to proofread the lines of type and correct mistakes before justifying the lines.

upside down

How arduous the correction process, where “Simple errors like the exchanging of one type for another of the same width, the turning of an inverted character, or the transposition of letters or words, are corrected by pressing the line at both ends to lift it up about one-third of its height and picking out the wrong types with the finger and thumb. The line is then dropped in place and the right types put in.”

Not to mention having to wash the type and placing each character back into the proper slots in the proper cases, so that the type pieces could be used over and over.

Sitting at my computer, selecting fonts, messing about with HTML and CSS coding, I still want to be an apprentice hand compositor. “Typesetting, a primer of information about working at the case, justifying, spacing, correcting, making-up, and other operations employed in setting type by hand”, is an excellent training manual that gives me an insight into what I would have been doing had I been able to achieve my dream.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


Introducing . . . Harrison Ford! (1918 Edition)

September 24, 2014

cover

I was looking for an online copy of The Cruise of the Make-Believes by Tom Gallon to find out if a certain bit of punctuation was a colon or semi-colon (semi-colon, by the way), and, as one does when Googling, I found other links with the same title: one was to Turner Classic Movies and another to the Internet Movie Database. Yes! My book was turned into a movie in 1918. A silent movie!

I pointed the link out to a friend, and she noted who one of the leading men was: Harrison Ford. Now we both knew that in 1918, it wasn’t Han Solo or Indiana Jones or the President. Time for more searching.

This not-at-all make-believe Harrison Ford was born in 1884 in Kansas City, Missouri. He started in the theater on the east coast before moving to Hollywood in 1915. He was in over forty films. His final was his only talkie, Love in High Gear, which was released in 1932. He then took his career back to the stage and also began directing there. During World War II, he toured with the USO. He died in 1957, without having had children, and is no relation to that other Harrison Ford.

Harrison Ford

One of his hobbies was collecting old books . . . a man after DP’s own heart. I’ve no idea why this book was chosen to be made into a movie. It seems no better nor worse than any of our other romances. Old books, you just never know where they will take you. This one took me on a hunt to find the first dreamy Harrison Ford.

You can read more about this Harrison Ford here or here or here, all of which I used for my information with gratitude.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


Wednesday the Tenth: A Tale of the South Pacific by Grant Allen

September 10, 2014

Picture of Book Cover

I wanted to tell you about an excellent adventure story, published in 1890, that I read recently.

The book is Wednesday the Tenth: A Tale of the South Pacific by Grant Allen. To be honest, I picked it up because it was short and I wanted something that would be easier and quicker to read than my usual fare. I’m glad I did, though, because it was an exciting and suspenseful tale that had me enthralled to the end.

It starts with a rescue, when two boys in an open rowboat are discovered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by a steam yacht plying its trade among the islands (yes, I know that’s a sailing boat on the cover, but it is definitely a steam vessel in the book). They are the children of missionaries and they tell a harrowing tale of slave traders who get the locals drunk and rouse them up against the family, after the father thwarts the slave traders’ attempts to get the locals to sell people to them.

The family are taken prisoner and held by the locals who plan to kill them—and then eat them. The boys manage to escape and set to sea in the rowboat, in the hope of finding help.

In this excerpt, the boys have just been picked up by the yacht and the crew have given them a small amount of food and water (not too much as they are literally starving). The older boy is already lying unconscious on a bunk and the younger is about to follow him, but manages to utter a few words:

“Steer for Makilolo … Island of Tanaki … Wednesday the tenth … Natives will murder them … My mother—my father—Calvin—and Miriam.”

Then it was evident he could not say another word. He sank back on the pillow breathless and exhausted. The color faded from his cheek once more as he fell into his place. I poured another spoonful of brandy down his parched throat. In three minutes more he was sleeping peacefully, with long even breath, like one who hadn’t slept for nights before on the tossing ocean.

I looked at Jim and bit my lips hard. “This is indeed a fix,” I cried, utterly nonplussed. “Where on earth, I should like to know, is this island of Tanaki!”

“Don’t know,” said Jim. “But wherever it is, we’ve got to get there.”

Wednesday the tenth of the month is when the sacrifice is scheduled to happen. The boys are convinced it’s Friday, but the sailors on the yacht are equally convinced it’s Saturday. Even so, the yacht’s captain gives orders to make for the island at full speed, sure they’ll make it in time.

Now, obviously, all doesn’t go as smoothly as anticipated or there wouldn’t be a book to read. As they get close to their destination they run aground on a reef that isn’t where the charts say it should be.

… Jim, looking up from in front, with a cool face as usual, called out at the top of his voice, but with considerable annoyance, “By Jove, we’re aground again!”

And so we were, this time with a vengeance.

“Back her,” I called out, “back her hard, Jenkins!” and they backed her as hard as the engines could spurt; but nothing came of it. We were jammed on the reef about as tight as a ship could stick, and no power on earth could ever have got us off till the tide rose again.

Well, we tried our very hardest, reversing engines first, and then putting them forward again to see if we could run through it by main force; but it was all in vain. Aground we were, and aground we must remain till there was depth of water enough on the reef to float us.

They get off the reef, but the yacht’s damaged, and they’re running out of time. Between engine troubles, the tide and a contrary wind will they make it before the missionaries are killed and eaten?

You’ll have to read it yourself to find out.


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