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Journey into Christmas and Other Stories by Bess Streeter Aldrich – Susan’s Newsletter December 2014 and 2007


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Susan's Thursday Morning Note December 18, 2014 followed by Dec. 7, 2007 writing
Bess Streeter Aldrich "The Drum Goes Dead" - Children hear the bells.
Keeping beauty in perspective regardless of present circumstances

Good morning!  Awakening to a covering of snow.  Silence and light snow.  Coffee.  The gift of a new morning again gently handed to me from my angel of dawn.  I can’t help but add a description of the different “tablecloths” laid upon earth’s surface by Bess Streeter Aldrich to begin her short story I’m going to be writing from today, The Drum Goes Dead…”There are few changes in the ensemble from year to year.  Only the tablecloth is different.  There is a vivid green one for spring, a checkered green-and-tan one for summer, a mottled yellow-red-and-brown one for autumn.  Just now – the day  before Christmas- Nature, the busy housekeeper, had dressed the table in a snow-white cloth for the first time.  It was thin, however, as though she must patch it soon with more white.”  With so much despair and sadness this week in the news I want to write out of a short Christmas story on the mental decision we must make as adults to see the beauty.

My favorite author ever (grinning) from Nebraska, Bess Streeter Aldrich, has a collection of Christmas stories, with one entitled, The Drum Goes Dead.  This title taken from a line in a Christmas story written in 1626 by Nicholas Breton in his novel Fantasticks.  Bear with me on the wording.  How Bess Streeter Aldrich pulls it all together later is what captivated my thinking.  On the ability of a human soul to conquer thoughts of despair in the midst of the beauty of life.

“It is now Christmas, and not a cup of drink must pass without a carol; the beasts, fowl, and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bakehouse and the pastry: cards and dice purge many a purse, and the youth show their agility in shoeing of the wild mare: now, good cheer, and welcome, and God be with you, and I thank you — and against the New Year provide for the presents — the Lord of Misrule is no mean man for his time, and the guests of the high table must lack no Wine: the lusty bloods must look about them like men, and piping and dancing puts away much melancholy: stolen venison is sweet, and a fat coney is worth money: pit-falls are now set for small birds, and a woodcock hangs himself in a gin: a good fire heats all the house, and a full alms-basket makes the beggar’s prayers: — the maskers and the mummers make the merry sport, but if they lose their money their drum goes dead : swearers and swaggerers are sent away to the ale-house, and unruly wenches go in danger of judgment: musicians now make their instruments speak out, and a good song is worth the hearing. In sum it is a holy time, a duty in Christians for the remembrance of Christ and custom among friends for the maintenance of good fellowship. In brief I thus conclude it : I hold it a memory of the Heaven’s love and the world’s peace, the mirth of the honest, and the meeting of the friendly. Farewell.”

Back to The Drum Goes Dead by Aldrich.  This short story is on the the thoughts of one particular character throughout one day in the Christmas season.  His feelings of despair as he sees so much surrounding him being sad, depressing, overwhelming to comprehend.  During his conversations throughout this particular day he begins with an older man who talks a lot.  This man tells of his Christmas memories.  The conversation switches the thoughts of our main character.  He then proceeds with his meetings to ask each person he works with, “What is your favorite memory of Christmas?” and begins to listen to each tell their story.  Following is the conversation bringing in the line from 1626:

…Old Professor Shellhorn came in, his cane thump-thumping across the little lobby, with George muttering under his breath, “And what is the subject of our lecture today, professor?” 

“Merry Christmas!”  The old man nodded gravely to them all.  “Christmas time again, good friends”  He spread out his arms in theatrical gesture, quoted grandiloquently: “’Now good cheer and welcome.  Not a cup of drink must pass without a carol; the beasts, fowl and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bake house and the pastry.’  You see, I have been reading again as I have for many years the Christmas customs of old England.  Those were merry days, according to authentic information.”  The pedantic old man!  “It was several centuries ago that this was written anent the Christmas season:

The maskers and the mummers make the merry sport…But if they lose their money, their drum goes dead.’

“I have been telling my daughter-in-law that while the original thought was not quite the same as my modern application, it had held good for these hundreds of years.  We are all more or less like that, are we not?  We’re maskers and mummers having a merry time but if we lose our money or our crops or a friend, the drum goes dead.  It takes a great deal of spirit and courage to beat away as though nothing had happened, does it not?”

The end of the short story ends with our main character having to unexpectedly play the role of Santa Claus at a local Christmas pageant in the evening.  He listens to the voices of the little children.

“Yet in thy dark street shineth
    The everlasting Light;  
The hopes and fears of all the years 
    Are met in thee tonight.”

The man who had been feeling that Christmas gifts should be abandoned until the world could give and receive them with better heart was looking into the glowing faces of the children who had just made him a gift of cheap drawing-paper – a priceless gift of heart-warming friendship and trust.  And so suddenly that it seemed a new thought – though it was as old as the silent stars – a bright-colored strand wove itself across the gray warp of his mind.  The world was not in chaos to these children.  Through their eyes it was still the same world of limited dimensions he and these other burdened people had known as children, and because this was so, it was still a good world. 

Humanity must hang fast to its faith and its hope.  It must never let them go as long as there remained in the world a child and a song, a gift and a star. 

Peculiarly, he had a sensation of lightening spirits.  Nothing had changed materially.  The same losses, disappointments and burdens awaited the community outside like dark-omened birds of prey, but they seemed less forbidding now.  He felt mentally strengthened, emotionally comforted.  He could carry on as “helpful citizen, counselor and friend” 

Everyone went home – to the big houses and the little ones, the well-kept ones and those with peeling paint – the homes witch, God be thanked, were still a part of the bulwark of the nation.

The snow was covering the unfruitful corn lands and the green winter wheat with its life-giving moisture, reminding all that another spring would come.  The Christmas stars hung low in the winter sky.  Up the street the high clear voices of carolers were singing “No-el, No-el.”

Why do the Bells of Christmas Ring?  by Eugene Field (1912)

Why do the bells of Christmas ring?
Why do little children sing?

Once a lovely shining star,
Seen by shepherds from afar,
Gently moved until its light
Made a manger’s cradle bright.

There a darling baby lay,
Pillowed soft upon the hay;
And its mother sung and smiled:
This is Christ, the holy Child!

Therefore bells for Christmas ring,
Therefore little children sing.

Children.  Again seeing life from our Creator’s perspective.  Blessed are the children, for they shall see God.  Children.  Children sing.  Children gaze.  Children notice.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children notice the paw prints in the snow.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children look into eyes.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children splash in the mud.  Children purposefully try to step in the puddles of slush for the sheer pleasure of the splash.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children see the baby in the nativity scene.  Children stop to look.  Stop to take in the beautiful scene.  Children hold our hands.  Children trust.  Children don’t look too far into the future.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children see the beauty of each moment.  Children forget.  Children forgive.  Children hope.  Children notice beauty.  Children sing.  Children hear the Christmas bells.

Our angel of dawn has disappeared as the sun begins to now make her appearance.  Will we thankfully receive her gift presented privately to each of us?  Will we notice the grains of the sand of time today as they so quickly pass through our sand-timers?  Will we realize no matter how quickly they pass, still only one grain passes per moment?  Will we be able to notice some grains as they slide down?  Will we have any moments handed to us today that are worthy of being inscribed on our epitaph tonight in stone?  Our epitaph of the moments of life we will never be handed back?  Beautiful life.  Beautiful today.  This moment.  A child using wrapping paper to be his fireman pole.  He hears the bells.  A child using his blanket as his cape.  Again hearing the bells.  Seeing life in the beautiful moment.  The bells ring.  Regardless of what is also reality and sad and overwhelming in life, the bells still ring for the children.  Beautiful moments and beautiful life.  Thank you for letting me enter your Thursday again.  Thank you for coming into our store for your gifts.  How we thank you for your friendship and encouragement.  Year after year.  So many of Aldrich’s short stories were on how memories of Christmas’s in our pasts all merge together in our minds.  The one holiday that seems to blend itself.  As we look at our past Christmases may we also realize that there will be more.  More stories.  More bells.  Always more bells will be ringing.  Merry Christmas!  Susan

Latin for this week:
tintinabulum - bells

Works Cited:
Aldrich, Bess Streeter.  Journey Into Christmas and other Stories.  Lincoln. 1985.  University of NE Press.
Susan’s Thursday Morning Note December 20, 2007
A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich 
(excerpt from Journey Into Christmas by Bess Streeter Aldrich)
Good morning! So many emotions come with the week before Christmas.  No matter what we go through, within each of us (I believe) there is a desire to look forward – to not spend the holiday season with only the memories that might pain us…the desire to find beauty, to find life, to find our souls, to give to others, to see our children singing & laughing.  I have had a hard time finding words to write that are going to give your mind something to ponder this week (I’ve been coming back & forth to this note since five this morning!), so I have decided to type for you out of a Christmas book of short stories I’ve been reading this week by our Nebraska author, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Journey Into Christmas.  I hope that you will see why I underlined these parts & hope that they give you something to focus on as you go into this holiday week, regardless of what your personal circumstances are.  We must continue to strive for celebration, for renewing our minds, for hearing the music.  I loved the Latin line below – Music is a gift from God. The gift that we never have to fear losing! I can’t resist (even though this will get too long!) another Latin line I read this morning:
Arbor eram vilis quondam sed viva tacebam, Nunc bene si tangor mortua dulce sono” – “I was once an ordinary tree, although living I was silent; now though dead, if I am well played, I sound sweetly.” (Latin motto from the 17th century on a harpsichord ) Don’t you love that!??!?!??!
Christmas on the Prairie (Excerpt from A Lantern in Her Hand):

Everyone was in want that year of 1874…They were beaten.  One could stand a few disappointments and failures, but when everything turned against one, there was no use trying to fight . “Nebraska hasn’t turned against us,” Will would argue stubbornly . “It’s the finest, blackest land on the face of the earth.  The folks that will just stick it out…You’ll see the climate change,…more rains and not so much wind…when the trees grow.  We’ve got to keep at the trees.  Some day this is going to be the richest state in the union…the most productive.  I’ll bet anything next year…” Always “next year”! It was a mirage, thought Abbie, an apparition that vanished when one came to it.  Six times now they had said, “Next year, the crops will be fine.” And so she could not throw off the blue mood that had descended upon her, a horde of worries that had come upon her even as the horde of grasshoppers had come upon the land.  The thought that there was nothing to do with; that they could scarcely keep body and soul together; that she probably would never be able now to do anything with her voice; that another child was coming, – they all harassed and tormented her…

(Then a barrel & box arrived from the east…)…it broke something in Abbie, some tight-bound band around her heart and throat, which had not been loosed for months…She mustn’t let youth slip away and her voice go with it. She was ashamed of herself that she had not sung for months…  The coming of the barrel seemed to put something back into Abbie which had been gone temporarily, – laughter and hope, courage and faith.  She began planning right away for Christmas.  “You know, Sarah, I think every mother owes it to her children to give them happy times at Christmas.  They’ll remember them all their lives.”

Historians say, ‘The winter of ’74 to ’75 was a time of deep depression.” But historians do not take little children into consideration.  Deep depression? To three children on the prairie it was a time of glamour.  There was not much to eat in the cupboard.  There was little or no money in the father’s flat old pocketbook.  The presents were pitifully homely and meager.  And all in a tiny house, – a mere shell of a house, on a new raw acreage of the wild, bleak prairie . How could a little rude cabin hold so much white magic? How could a little sod house know such enchantment? And how could a little hut like that eventually give to the Midwest so many influential men and women? How, indeed? Unless,…unless, perchance, the star did stop over the house.

(The writing then moves forward to when the children were adults & back for Christmas.)…Far into the evening they sat around the old coal burner, talking and laughing, with tears not far behind the laughter, – the state legislator and the banker, the artist, the singer, and the college teacher.  And in their midst, rocking and smiling, sat the little old lady who had brought them up with a song upon her lips and a lantern in her hand.

Then, to begin a different short story she penned a paragraph that I love to read and picture – can’t leave this one out of the e-mail (grin!)  Bellfield is similar to a hundred other small Midwestern towns . From the air its buildings look like so many dishes clustered together on a flat table.  The covered soup tureen is the community hall. The red vase in the center is the courthouse.  The silver-tipped salt shaker is the water tank.  There are few changes in the ensemble from year to year.  Only the tablecloth is different . There is a vivid green one for spring, a checkered green-and-tan one for summer, a mottled yellow-red-and-brown one for autumn . Just now – the day before Christmas – Nature, the busy housekeeper, had dressed the table in a snow-white cloth for the first time.  It was thin, however, with bare brown places showing through, as though she must patch it soon with more white.  In one of the red-brick dish-no, houses – lived the Lannings…….
Okay, I’ll stop.  So much in books that I love to read!!! I really do hope that you all have time to reflect on what has made you who you are – the good in you.  Bring into your life something (if not a barrel from the east).  Something that brings you laughter and hope, courage and faith.  We have so much in our blood that has the ability to make us truly LIVE.  What picture in your mind do you want to have in your scene – when you are the “old lady (or man) who brought them up….” – your choices now will inherently find their way into the way our children make decisions in the future.  Let’s continue to have “a song on our lips and a lantern in our hand” – regardless of whether the song is for children in our home, or for those we love that are not our relatives, or for those we want to sing to that need us.  God bless your season! Thank you so much for your part in our store and in my song.  Susan
Latin phrase for this week: 
Musica Donum Dei “Music is a Gift from God”
Works Cited:
Aldrich, Bess Streeter.  A Lantern in Her Hand.  1994.  University of NE Press.  Lincoln.