Twelve Books of Christmas

December 23, 2015

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Distributed Proofreaders loves to celebrate special days, and holiday-themed projects abound among its contributions to Project Gutenberg, including well over 100 Christmas-related books. These come from just about every genre: Christmas novels, stories, poetry, and plays for all ages; inspirational books and biographies of Jesus; and accounts of Christmas legends and customs throughout the centuries in different parts of the world. Here’s a selection of twelve of these books, in celebration of the twelve days of Christmas.

A Visit from St Nicholas

Lovely Christmas collaborations of famous authors and famous illustrators include Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Walter Crane wrote and provided rich color illustrations in A Winter Nosegay, a delightful little collection of Christmas tales for children. Old Christmas, taken from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book, is filled with entertaining sketches by Randolph Caldecott. And here is the classic poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas — a.k.a. The Night Before Christmas — by Clement Clarke Moore, beautifully illustrated by F.O.C. Darley.

Religious offerings include Ernest Renan’s excellent Vie de Jésus, also available in English as The Life of Jesus. For children, there is The Boyhood of Jesus by an anonymous author. Inspirational thoughts abound in A Christmas Gift, written “to the American Home and the Youth of America” by a Danish Lutheran minister.

For those interested in the history of Christmas, there is The Book of Christmas, by Thomas K. Hervey, which traces the origins of various English Christmas customs back to ancient pagan winter festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia and the Northern European Yule. Or Christmastide, by William Sandys, which includes Christmas carols you can listen to. Christmas customs in different parts of the world are represented by several books, including Yule-Tide in Many Lands by Mary Poague Pringle and Clara A. Urann, and The Christmas Kalends of Provence by Thomas A. Janvier.

Finally, for sly Christmas humor, check out A Christmas Garland, “woven” by Max Beerbohm. This is a 1912 collection of Christmas stories that are actually spot-on parodies of the styles of noted literary figures, including Henry James, H.G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, and G.K. Chesterton.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Happy New Year!


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.

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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)


Spinning-Wheel Stories

February 13, 2014

Some time ago I smooth-read Spinning-Wheel Stories, by Louisa May Alcott. What a fun book to read! I enjoy Alcott’s story-telling style, and her ability to inject small morals into stories without being too preachy most of the time. She has occasional lapses, as most authors do, but in general she is able to capture and hold my interest. This particular book is a collection of short stories, recited to amuse children who are visiting their grandmother over the Christmas holidays. The children are kept indoors by severe winter weather, and are slowly going stir-crazy. In an effort to amuse the children, Grandmother and Aunt Elinore tell them stories each evening.

One of my favorite little stories in this book is the incident where the children are romping in the attic, and they discover the old spinning wheel. Almost everything else in the attic is dusty and obviously has not been touched for a long time. But the spinning wheel is clean and there is still flax on the distaff. The children lug the spinning wheel down to where Grandmother is sitting next to the fire, and the girls ask her to teach them how to spin.

Grandma's Story

Grandma’s Story

A thrilling tale ensues, as the wheel goes round and round while Grandmother begins her story. There are wolves, a race, and much excitement in this story! And best of all, it’s a true tale of Grandmother’s life.

If I still had young children, I would love to read this book with them. The stories told here recount events from days long gone by: spinning wheels, big-wheel bicycles, young girls learning to cook, heroic Native Americans, and many others. I think youngsters today would probably enjoy the stories, given an opportunity to read them.


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