Our friend Jo Page, fiction writer, essayist and journalist, is also a Lutheran pastor. She’s more informed than many of us when it comes to the liturgical calendar, and in this Christmas season she’s written about the beautiful —and, as she notes, strange —celebration of of St. Lucy’s Day. Perhaps you’ve seen the procession of St. Lucy Day, at least in photographs. In fact, it’s extraordinarily beautiful; nowadays the young women wear crowns of electric candles, but not so long ago those were real candles — the youth, the beauty and the danger were all there together. Here’s Jo in her own words:
On Dec. 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, in many Scandinavian countries and in Lutheran communities in the United States, young girls wearing crowns of candles and bearing plates of saffron buns—to represent St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes—come before their families to sing “Santa Lucia.” Originally this was a Neapolitan sailor’s song, but the words to the Scandinavian versions plea for the return of light and for the release from winter’s darkness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the weirdest things about the observation of St. Lucy’s Day concerns the legend of the saint and how then how this 4th-century Sicilian saint came to be venerated by Lutherans, who tend not to put much stock in saints.
St. Lucy was a 4th-century Christian martyr during Emperor Diocletian’s widespread persecution of Christians. St. Lucy’s crime was that she had consecrated her virginity to God and wanted her dowry to be distributed to the poor.
Well, when her pagan fiancé found this out, along with her refusal to marry him, he did the stand-up guy thing and denounced her to the Roman authorities. After she refused to burn a sacrifice of the Emperor’s image (this was done to show fealty to the Roman authorities and to reject Christianity), it was determined that a fitting punishment would be to stick her in a brothel where she wouldn’t be able to protect her virginity.
The legend says that when the guards came to take her away they found her so filled with the spirit of God that she was as stiff as a board and too heavy to move even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. In some traditions St. Lucy is tortured by having her eyes gouged out with a fork. In another legend, her fiancé comments on the beauty of her eyes and she gouges them out herself, declaring, “Now let me live to God”.
(This explains why she is seen in paintings bearing her eyes upon a plate and also why she is the patron saint of the blind and those with vision problems. It also explains the grisly custom of having saffron buns represent her eyes. Does put a damper on the appetite.)
Whether or not she was actually burned on a funeral pyre is unclear, but many martyrs under the Emperor Diocletian were. And in St. Lucy’s story, she continues to confess her faith in God’s love while burning to death. Even a spear thrust through her throat could not silence her.
So how does a 4th-century Sicilian martyr become the poster child for the mid-December tradition of putting candles into a crown and having a procession of girls in white robes with red ribbons come in singing a lilting Italian song that had originally been written to request favorable winds while sailing around the bay of Naples?
Well, it’s not clear.
But the lyrics to the Scandinavian versions all share in common the plea for the return of light amid winter darkness:
The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
It is, indeed, a strange and beautiful tradition, but more than its strangeness is how it speaks to that common need for light to return and to outlive the darkness, not merely of winter and of night, but the darknesses we find in our lives. When Christina Rosetti wrote “In the bleak mid-winter, long ago/Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” I think she was talking about a lot more than just the climate. She was talking about existential isolation and the hope—the need?—for redemption, which for her came with her faith.
In the Santa Lucia processions, almost pagan in their evocations of nature and the spirit of St. Lucy, I think we find that same deep yearning for restoration, for light and for renewal. Because the storied St. Lucy, bearing her eyes on a plate, represents a vision for more than what our eyes, in this darkness, can see.
December has its merry and bright times — evergreen trees with sparkling lights and glittering ornaments, the festive foods, the plum pudding, spicy cakes, and eggnog. All along the roof the eves are hung with fairy lights pretending to be icicles, and there are candles in every window. But December is also the month with the shortest days and longest nights. The dark encroaches. Marilyn Robertson’s poem, “The Pink Cloud of Evening,” has something to say about that.
Sometimes I feel I could live forever —
Like right now, listening to a Norwegian choir on the radio
and watching the last pink cloud of evening
drift over the neighbor’s field.
My ancestors came from Norway.
But they’re long dead — and I’ll die one day, too,
no matter how many clouds and choirs there are.
I ought to quit calling death the Grim Reaper.
I ought to invite him, or her, over once in a while,
like I used to invite my friends.
Can Carol come over to play, Mrs. Townsend?
Can Dorothy spend the night?
What is it about time anyway—
Whizzing through every place I’ve ever lived
as if it’s doing the hundred-yard dash?
Children are born. And their children, grown.
The little triumphs. The winter rains.
The voices of other children on the hill.
Twilight deepens and I start to dance,
humming a little something from Cole Porter.
Perhaps I’ll live forever after all.
You might want to rethink that, says the dark,
coming in for its solo on the bass,
always so mellow, so sure of where it’s going.
Something didn’t happen in the Senate last week, so you may not have heard about it. What didn’t happen? The US Senate didn’t ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention, including its goals and some of the wording, was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act. That pioneering legislation was guided through the Senate a couple of decades ago by Republican Senator Bob Dole, Senate majority leader at the time. One of his arms was all but useless due to injuries suffered in World War II. Bob Dole himself, 89-years old and now in a wheelchair, was brought onto the floor of the Senate to bolster support for passage.
Ratification of treaties and conventions of this sort requires a two-thirds majority, but 38 Senators – all Republicans – refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention bans discrimination against people with disabilities and promotes their full participation in Society. It’s been signed by 154 nations and ratified by 126 and entered into force in 2008. Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, is typical of those opposing the Convention. “The treaty threatens U.S. sovereignty,” he said.
Our friend Ed Atkeson (best known as a graphic artist, puppeteer, hiker and iceboat racer) sent us a note recently. And that note sums up beautifully why an electronic cyber book , despite its many virtues, cannot replace an actual paper book.
“I just saw an advertisement that showed a mother reading Curious George to her kid on a Kindle. I thought it was sad because for the kid, Curious George wouldn’t exist. I mean, exist as a book, where he could be found and chewed and written on, colored, puzzled over. Curious George wouldn’t exist as marks on paper, and so the whole idea of writing, bookmaking, story making and picture making, that having a printed book laying around the house naturally leads to, wouldn’t exist either. Yeah, sad.”
Another quality that children’s books have that cannot be translated into an electronic reader is difference in size and shape. Kid’s books are often quite large compared to the relatively small printed page that appears behind the translucent surface of the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook. You can’t get down on the floor and spread open an electronic reader and let your imagination roam over two square feet of lavish color illustration. The same is true for adult novels as well, because behind the glassy window of the e-book reader all pages are the same in size, margin, texture and type face. It’s like landing on a planet where everybody has a unique history, but — GOOD GRIEF! — everyone looks exactly like everyone else.
The end of November and the beginning of December is a time of encroaching darkness. (Readers in the Southern Hemisphere can skip this until May of next year.) For reasons we can only guess at, the earth’s axis is tilted 23.4 degrees in respect to the plane of its track around the sun.* These months we in the North are tilted away from the sun, which is why it’s so low above the horizon — and, of course, in that position the sun’s radiant energy strikes us at a shallow angle, giving us reduced heat.
So now is a good time to hug the clothes when you fetch them from the dryer. Simply reach in, gather the wonderful warmth of freshly dried towels and pajamas and socks and what have you, and clasp that heap of warmth to your chest. Now hold them that way as you make your way to the sorting table. If your dryer is in the cellar and you have to climb stairs, hold the stair rail with one hand and the clothes with the other. Just keep going until you dump the still warm clothes on the bed and sort them there. The important thing is to hug that warmth. There’s nothing like it.
Or, if you just came in from the cold and your hands are reddish-blue blocks of ice, wash a few of those dishes that are stacked jumble-wise in the sink. The warm soapy water will melt your digits and you’ll feel better all over. And for dinner, we suggest soup.
*John Milton, the great Puritan poet, ascribed the tilting of the earth’s axis to Adam and Eve’s misbehavior in the Garden of Eden. In his Paradise Lost, the earth’s axis is vertical in relation to the ecliptic plane prior to their eating the Forbidden Fruit, so it’s summer all year round, but after the Fall of Man God tilts it awry. Some cosmologists have speculated that the newly formed earth was hit by a large asteroid that knocked the earth off the vertical and tore a chunk away that became our moon. These two explanations of axial tilt seem equally plausible. In any case, to calculate the diminished effect of the sun in winter, multiply the effect of the sun when directly overhead by the cosine of the sun’s angle above the horizon in winter.
Turkey is the main course at Thanksgiving dinner. And there’s good historical reason for that. William Bradford, the leader of that band of separatist Puritans who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, recorded in his history of the plantation that “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”
Our focus on feast and family at Thanksgiving generally obscures the staggering hardships that those settlers endured— those few who survived. Bradford gives us our description of it in his history, named simply, Of Plimouth Plantation. Here is an excerpt describing their plight.
Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.
Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished.
The painting reproduced below, The First Thanksgiving, is contrary to most of what we know about that occasion. The painter, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, was born in Philadelphia in 1863 and died in 1930. His fame rested on a series of 78 historical painting, entitled The Pageant of a Nation. However, his fame did not last and those works have been rightly criticized as being Romantic idealizations of events — precise in their details but often inaccurate in total. The First Thanksgiving shows Wampanoag Indians with feathered headdress which, in fact, they didn’t wear. The details of the headdress are correct, but it belongs to a far different tribe; the chair on the right is an accurate portrayal of a chair owned by William Bradford, the 17th century clothing is accurate, but probably not worn by the Puritans. Whether a young woman would be serving the heathen native men of the area is doubtful. Certainly the trees would be bare in Plymouth, the weather would be, at best, quite chilly and the Europeans would not look so well fed, nor so healthy. By the way, if you’re familiar with the name Jean-Léon Gérôme you may wonder what the connection is between that better known French painter this American. Jean Ferris’s father was a painter who admired Gérôme and gave that name to his son.
Most likely you haven’t see The Fairy, a French movie with a story composed of brilliantly funny sequences of almost silent comedy. Advertising for the film compares it to the slapstick work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati and in a sense that’s true — especially in regard to some of the work of Jacques Tati. But slapstick is a small part of this curious film.
The two central actors are Dominique Abel (playing Dom) and Fiona Gordon (playing Fiona), two members of a well known comedic trio that includes Bruno Romy who has a small role in this movie. The story is set in a gritty stretch of urban seaside in the ugly industrial port city of Le Havre.
Dom is the night clerk in a small hotel when Fiona, barefoot and in a rain-soaked jersey and baggy sports trousers, enters and asks for a room. She also announces that she’s a fairy and will grant him three wishes. Dom asks for 1) a motor scooter (during the credits we saw him peddling a bicycle with a loose chain through the rain) and 2) a lifetime supply of free gasoline. He can’t think of a third wish and Fiona tells him to take his time.
It has to be said that neither Fiona nor Dom are beautiful people. Quite the contrary, they have extraordinarily plain faces and thin angular bodies. But they have a certain fluidity of motion, especially Fiona, and after they fall in love the viewer is on their side, hoping they’ll survive the twists and turns of the movie. (The not-so-beautiful faces of these two reminds us that you don’t have to be beautiful to be genuinely in love, and it can happen in an ugly industrial port city, too.) The plot is a bizarre linear farce in which each scene leads logically to the next, but always with unexpected results.
Fiona can grant Dom’s wish for free gasoline by giving the woman who manages huge gasoline storage tanks the key to her hotel room (the woman needs a place to meet her lover) in exchange for the key to a storage tank outflow pipe. In the movie there’s a café named Love is Blurred — an inexplicably odd name until we get to the café and discover that the owner, played by Bruno Romy, isn’t blind but extraordinarily nearsighted. (It may take a moment to get that one.)
There are a couple of minor sub plots which are neatly linked to the main plot. The central story is that Fiona disappears and Dom finds her in a hospital for the local nut cases from which she probably escaped prior to reaching his hotel. In the course of the movie Fiona gets pregnant more or less by willing it, producing a bulge with the speed and sound effects of blowing up a balloon. And later she delivers the baby in an equally unusual fashion. Whether Fiona is truly crazy or just a simpleton fairy doesn’t really matter. How he rescues her and how they get away together makes for 94 minutes of very, very light entertainment. This whimsical tale is on DVD disk in French with English subtitles. Check it out.
It’s over! The seemingly endless campaign has ended! As soon as it became clear that Obama would be back in the White House for four more years, it also became evident that he’d be facing essentially the same Congress and certainly the same major players. But while much remains the same, a lot has changed. And some of the changes are remarkable.
Two states, Colorado and Washington, astonished the other forty-eight by voting to decriminalize marijuana. It’s clear that the vote puts those states in conflict with the federal government, but we have no idea what it does to those currently imprisoned for previously illegal pot possession.
And two other states, Maine and Maryland, voted to legalize gay marriage — a decision which had never before come from the popular vote but only from legislatures or the courts.
A few months ago, Democrats seemed positioned to lose up to six seats in the Senate; instead, they added two. And Tammy Baldwin became not only the first woman senator from Wisconsin, but the first openly lesbian to be elected to the Senate. We haven’t tracked each of them down, but according to the Victory Fund, which supports gay and lesbian candidates, at least 118 gay or lesbian candidates won their races.
All in all, it was a good election cycle for women. There will now be more women in the Senate than ever before. Indeed, New Hampshire will have a woman governor and its entire Congressional delegation will be composed of women.
We’re back on Standard Time now. That means you drive home from work in the dark. Hawaii and Arizona never left Standard time, so they don’t have to mess with their clocks. Some of us liked it better before the world began organizing time. Some of us right here at Critical Pages, for example, get suicidal when twilight creeps up in the middle of the afternoon.
But suicide isn’t necessary. A study by professors Paul Fischbeck, at Carnegie Mellon University, and others, found that after the time change pedestrians walking during evening rush hour are nearly three times more likely to be struck and killed by cars than before the change. Which is another reason we don’t like messing with the clock.
Fooling with clocks is always lethal. “The Monday and Tuesday after moving the clocks ahead one hour in March is associated with a 10 percent increase in the risk of having a heart attack,” says Martin Young. Professor Young is in the Division of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of Alabama (Birmingham), so he probably knows what he’s talking about. Furthermore, he says, “The opposite is true when falling back in October. This risk decreases by about 10 percent.”
In the old days — we’re thinking of the 1800’s here — every town and city set its own time. When the sun was directly overhead, that was twelve noon, so they set the big town clock to twelve and everyone in town set their timepieces by the local clock. That worked fine until railroads became an important feature of life. British railroads switched from local time to the time set by the British observatory at Greenwich, hence what we call Greenwich Mean Time. And by most folks it was called Railway Time. During the 1800’s the British and the French were competing to set standards — standards for weights, lengths, time, and where the zero meridian should be placed. The French wanted it to run through Paris. The British won out, so it runs through Greenwich. On the other hand, the French won on length and had the final word on how long a meter was.
But we digress, as usual. The illustration for this post is a still from the 1923 movie “Safety Last” starring Harold Lloyd. It’s an example of how dangerous it is to mess with clocks. Check it out — if you have a few minutes of Standard Time.
L’Osservatore Romano, the 151-year-old newspaper put out by the Vatican, has gone gaga over James Bond. Or, maybe we should say that the editor, Gian Maria Vian, has taken to heart the Pope’s suggestion to liven up the daily. Some years ago L’Osservatore Romano praised The Blues Brothers, surprising just about everyone, but that was ages after the movie had premiered and, after all, it was a comedy and the plot featured John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on a “mission from God” to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up. (By the way, though it came out in 1980, the film is still a blast.)
But praising the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, is different. This time the Vatican newspaper has five different articles related to the movie, all of them laudatory. “Skyfall does not disappoint,” says the Vatican. “The 23rd Bond film is one of the best in the longest cinematic story of all time…” Furthermore, according to L’Osservatore Romano, the film “does not lack any of the classic ingredients which have made James Bond a legend — the title credits song, adrenalin pumping action, amazing hyper-realistic chases, exotic locations, extremely beautiful Bond girls, the usual super villain and the essential vodka martini.” At the same time, Bond himself is “less attracted to the pleasures of life, darker and more introspective, less invulnerable physically and psychologically and because of this more human, even able to be moved and to cry – in a word, more real,” said the newspaper’s film critic, Gaetano Vallini. Not bad, especially when you remember he’s talking about a womanizer with a license to kill.
About the the hurricane Sandy and what it did it did to New York and New Jersey, the paper reported today that ” Sandy mette in ginocchio New York e il New Jersey” or, as we say in English, Sandy brought New York and New Jersey to their knees. Now that’s the kind of metaphor we expect to find in the Vatican newspaper. Frankly, we’ve never thought of L’Osservatore Roman as a source for movie reviews, so we missed the edition with the Bond mania. We’ve relied on the translation supplied by Britain’s Guardian.