Dec. 24, 2012


by Robyn Sarah

Make much of something small.
The pouring-out of tea,
a drying flower's shadow on the wall
from last week's sad bouquet.
A fact: it isn't summer any more.

Say that December sun
is pitiless, but crystalline
and strikes like a bell.
Say it plays colours like a glockenspiel.
It shows the dust as well,

the elemental sediment
your broom has missed,
and lights each grain of sugar spilled
upon the tabletop, beside
pistachio shells, peel of a clementine.

Slippers and morning papers on the floor,
and wafts of iron heat from rumbling rads,
can this be all? No, look — here comes the cat,
with one ear inside out.
Make much of something small.

"Bounty" by Robyn Sarah, from A Day's Grace. © The Porcupine's Quill, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Christmas Eve, celebrated around the world in a combination of religious and cultural festivities. In Germany, where the Christmas tree originated, Father Christmas brings presents in the late afternoon of the 24th, after people have been to church.

It was on this day in 1818 that the carol "Silent Night" (Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!) was first performed at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria. Father Joseph Mohr was working there as a young priest, and had written the poem two years earlier.

Legend has it that as Christmas approached, the church pipe organ was broken, threatening a Midnight Mass without music. Father Mohr paid a quick visit to the choir director, Franz Gruber, and asked him to compose a melody for his Christmas poem. Late that night, the two performed the carol as a duet at the Midnight Mass. Father Mohr sang tenor and played the guitar while Gruber sang bass. The song was immediately popular throughout the village, and copies of the sheet music soon began to spread around the country. By the middle of the 19th century, it was embraced throughout Europe, and was being sung by folk singers, church choirs, and in the courts of kings. It is now sung in 300 languages around the world.

Father Mohr died penniless 30 years after that first performance, having donated his entire church salary to care for the elderly. He also founded a school in Wagrain, in the Austrian state of Salzburg. The school — which still stands near the parish house where Father Mohr once lived — provided education for children of the poor. The song's composer, Gruber, remained unknown in his lifetime, and many believed that "Silent Night" was the work of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven — a myth that persisted into the 20th century. It wasn't until 18 years ago that a copy of the original sheet music was authenticated and the original composers were officially credited.

And it was also on this day in 1914 — nearly a hundred years after it was written — that German soldiers along the Western Front began singing "Silent Night"(Stille Nacht) from their frozen trenches. German troops fighting in Belgium began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British, soon joined in the caroling. The war was put on hold, and the soldiers greeted each other in "No Man's Land," exchanging gifts of whiskey and cigars. In many areas, the truce held until Christmas night, while in other places the truce did not end until New Year's Day. In one area, the opposing sides played a soccer match together.

British commanders Sir John French and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien disapproved of the truce, and they ordered artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve in the remaining years of the war. Troops were also rotated with regularity to keep them from growing too familiar with the enemy troops in the close quarters of trench warfare. The Christmas truce was a war tradition of the 19th century, and its disappearance marked the end of wartime protocols of that time.

It's the birthday of poet and critic Matthew Arnold (books by this author), born in Laleham-on-Thames, England (1822). He is probably best known for his 1853 book called Poems, which included some poetry — most notably "Dover Beach." His first book of poems, The Strayed Traveller and Other Poems (1849), attracted little notice. He was also a fierce critic and when he died, Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Poor Matt. He's gone to Heaven, no doubt — but he won't like God."

He said that good poetry must possess "clearness of arrangement, rigor of development, [and] simplicity of style."

It's the birthday of journalist I.F. (Isidor Feinstein) Stone (books by this author), born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1907). In 1952, Stone was working for the New York Daily Compass when that paper folded. It was the height of the Red Scare, and suddenly Stone was too left-wing to get a job. Desperate to find some sort of journalistic income, Stone decided to go into business for himself. With his wife's help, an investment of $6,500 and the mailing list from two defunct liberal newspapers, he launched I.F. Stone's Weekly, which he called, "My very own little flea-bit publication."

The I.F. Stone Weekly was basically just a four-page pamphlet written by Stone, examining and criticizing the activities in Washington. What made Stone revolutionary was that he didn't try to interview Washington officials to get the inside scoop. Instead, he just read Washington documents. He found that if you actually read the documents put out by the Pentagon and compared them to what the politicians were saying, you could uncover all kinds of dishonesty.

Over time, Stone became a hero to many investigative journalists, and the circulation of his one-man newsletter soared to 70,000. Stone's columns were collected in books such as The Haunted Fifties (1963), In a Time of Torment (1967), and Polemics and Prophecies, 1967-1970 (1971).

I.F. Stone said: "Some people become radical out of hatred. Others become radical out of love and sympathy. I come out of the second class. I have hated very few people. ... I have faith, despite the imperfections of the human race, that a better society, a better world, a more just world, a kindlier world can come into being.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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