Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Halloween ... Already?

On Sale At Target!

I have been thinking much about the aesthetics of the Gothic as Halloween approaches.  As I coast into my 55th year, I continue to be amazed at how adults have successfully co-opted the holiday.  When I was a boy, Halloween was primarily a children’s holiday, and when most adults thought about it (if they did at all), it was as a nuisance.

All of that has changed.  For 2017, the National Retail Foundation (NRF) predicts that 69.1 percent of Americans will celebrate the Halloween holiday this year.  To do so, they will spend $8.4 billion (billion!) – with 44.4 percent of them starting their Halloween observance in the first two weeks of October.

This figure has been steadily increasing; for 2007, for instance, Halloween spending was “only” $5.1 billion.  This year, we will spend more than $350 million on costumes … for our pets.

People of my generation remember that Halloween was quite a big deal to us as children, but we were mostly on our own.  Halloween costumes from the Ben Cooper company arrived in October, along with some plastic pumpkin satchels and some cardboard window decorations – and that was it.  Today, each and every retail store (from card shops to food stores) has some kind of Halloween selection.  The broad array of choice and quality in Halloween products is remarkable.  These include candelabrum, snow globes, coffin-shaped jewelry boxes, plaster gargoyles and gnomes, monster bookends, dining and bedroom sundries, let alone more perishable items, like black plastic curtains and crepe paper wall coverings.  If anyone were seriously interested in spooky décor, one could furnish their home during the Halloween season and be set for the year.

We here at The Jade Sphinx love Halloween, of course. But the co-opting of the holiday by adults seems to hit a discordant note. Much like the vulgarization of classic children’s properties like Peter Rabbit, the infantilized adults we have become continue to pollute things ideally left for children.

It seems as if we are hell-bent on ruining all the great rituals of childhood because … we, as a culture, seem incapable of growing up ourselves.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Cultural Decay: The Trailer for Peter Rabbit

Longtime readers of The Jade Sphinx know of our longstanding love for children’s literature. Now, Beatrix Potter’s classic tales of Peter Rabbit have been adapted into a new, animated film. Here is the trailer:

Since this simply beggars description, I will simply remain silent.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Eve at The Jade Sphinx

Toby Roan, the man behind the 50 Westerns From the 50s blog, graciously invited me to write a guest column on the Lone Ranger

At the same time, I was thinking about a special Year End column for The Jade Sphinx, and the more I thought about both, the more they morphed together.  So, please check Toby’s blog for a special post by Your Correspondent.  You can find it here:

Happy New Year to all my readers, and expect more of the same in 2017.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve at The Jade Sphinx

No time in all the Twelve Nights and Days is so charged with the supernatural as Christmas Eve.  Doubtless this is due to the fact that the Church has hallowed the night of December 24-5 above all others in the year.  It was to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night that, according to the Third Evangelist, came the angelic message of the Birth, and in harmony with this is the unique Midnight Mass of the Roman Church, lending a peculiar sanctity to the hour of its celebration.  And yet many of the beliefs associated with this night show a large admixture of paganism.

The above is a brief excerpt from the magnificent Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by Clement A. Miles, first published in 1913.  There is much to savor in this book, but to me, my favorite passages deal with Christmas Eve.  (You can find the entire book, for free, on the invaluable

Christmas Eve has always been the cornerstone of my Christmas celebration.  I was recently dining with a friend who observed that one of the chief joys of Christmas, as we grow older, is remembering Christmases past.  When I do, I find my mind returns again and again to Christmas Eve much more so than the day itself.

In my household, the family exchanged gifts to one-another on Christmas Eve (while ‘the mother lode’ was delivered by Santa as we slept).  This time always seemed more dear, more special to us than Christmas morning.  Many souls now long gone spring to mind as I remember those nights, and the phantoms of Christmas appear particularly bright.  And there are little tokens everywhere that litter my life from those Christmas Eves, even though the people are long gone.  I still have a beautiful meerschaum pipe given to me by family members more than 30 years ago – the pipe remains, but they themselves are just memories.  When I hold it on Christmas Eve, it is almost as if I can summon them back, for a brief time, and be content in the moment and in the day.

Earlier, when I was a very young boy, my maternal grandmother lived with us.  On Christmas Eve, by older brother William and I would lie abed till all hours, wondering at what wonders were to come.  We would sneak downstairs sometime around 2:00 a.m. or so, and find the gifts under the tree and the lights ablaze.  My grandmother would always stir and sit upon the stair and watch us, then admonish us to come back to bed.  These moments – fleeting, human, yet magical withal – are so much more important to me than the many happy memories of Christmas Day.

I think this particularly memory resonates with me because it illustrates the … complicity with which we greet Christmas.  My brother and I were up all night in league to see Santa; my grandmother watched from the stairs with a benign twinkle, and Santa, well… Santa had been plotting all year long.

So, yes, there is something about Christmas Eve.  Miles knew it 103 years ago, but any child could tell you the same thing today.  It is almost as if a veil between ourselves and a more magical, invisible world momentarily lifts, and we catch a glimpse of some inner miracle.  Christmas makes us more alive with the expectation of some transcendence, or, more rightly, makes us see and realize the miracle that has already taken place.  The quiet, happy miracle of our own lives, this is the spirit of Christmas time, not just the mirth and cheer we all feel.  It is deep and powerful magic that even the most dull and inattentive can tap into.

On Christmas Eve, be attentive and tap into this spirit.  Many of us will be fortunate enough to be with beloved friends and family.   But we all know someone less fortunate—who has just lost a loved one, or for some other reason is feeling alone. Reach out to those you love and cherish and let them know how you feel; make Christmas Eve a memorable night for them, and you make it one for yourself, as well.

On this Christmas Eve, we here at The Jade Sphinx wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a happy, prosperous and joyous New Year.  If you have only one goal this year, make it this: have fun with those you love.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Best in Snow, by April Pulley Sayre (2016)

Best is Snow is a charming books of photographs by April Pulley Sayer celebrating the mysteries of snow.  And what better mediation for this, the Eve of Christmas Eve?

Sayre is the author of a companion book, Raindrops Roll.  One imagines that she was inspired to move onto snowier topics by living in South Bend, Indiana, one of the snowiest cities in the United States.

The text of Best in Snow is a study in brevity – this review alone would equal three-to-four times as many words.  But if a picture is worth a thousand words, than this simple book speaks volumes. 

Sayre shows us photos of a variety of birds, squirrels and other animals as snow gently drifts on idyllic sylvan scenes.  These are pictures of remarkable beauty and refinement, and are perfect for a quiet evening before the fire … or even the radiator.

In addition to her animal photos, Sayre provides great shots of leaves, branches and ice crystals, and she illustrates the effects of ice, water, cold and snow on natural, living things.

The final two pages of the book are some fun facts about snow … some even obscure enough to be a surprise to Your Correspondent.

This is a great book for the winter-fans, snow-buffs and nature-lovers – not to be missed!

A Special Christmas Eve Message Tomorrow!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christmas Meat, by Charles Marion Russell (1915)

Though it may not be entirely true that deep in the breast of every aesthete beats the heart of a cowboy, it is certainly true of Your Correspondent.  Thoughts of Christmas always seem to carry with them thoughts of the Wild West – it’s the way my brain is wired.  For many Bing Crosby is the voice of Christmas; at The Jade Sphinx, it’s Gene Autry.  (By the way, there is no better way to feel elderly – if not prehistoric – than by trying to explain who Gene Autry was to a young person.)

We have written about self-proclaimed ‘cowboy artist’ Charles Russell (1864-1926) before.  When we reviewed his letters and diary snippets, we were delighted to learn how wonderfully boyish and enthusiastic Russell was in person.  Russell never fully grew-up and he often approached his life, like his art, with a child-like sense of wonder.

So it comes as no surprise that Russell loved the Christmas season.  He would often retreat into his studio weeks before the holiday, designing his Christmas card(s), writing letters to close friends and oft-times painting a holiday-themed picture.

Today’s beautiful watercolor, Christmas Meat painted in 1915, is a picture of great warmth, despite the presence of snow.  In it, a Westerner brings a fresh-killed stag to a lone homesteader for Christmas dinner.  Russell painted many Christmas pictures with greater whimsy (Westerners coming across Santa during a snowy night, for example), but here he chooses instead to illustrate the holiday with a simple act of kindness.

In these days of easy consumption and near-instant gratification, we forget the every-day difficultly of the lives of previous generations.  Distances in the West were vast; a simple motor trip today would last several days on horseback.  People were extremely isolated on the countryside, with no phones, electronic entertainment, news, or, very frequently, neighbors. 

Russell, who went West in the waning days of the frontier, lived among the cowboys and knew how isolated it could all be.  But, he also loved the West, and was continually moved by the neighborliness, the open-handed generosity and many acts of human kindness he encountered there.

Let’s take a look at Christmas Meat.  As always, Russell’s command of anatomy is sketchy, at best (where, for example, is the rest of the cowboy’s left leg?), but he more he is more than able to pose his figures dramatically in the composition of narrative.  The outstretched hand, the visible smile, the bow-legs, and upheld rifle speak volumes – here’s Christmas dinner, pard, I got it myself.

And look at the homesteader!  Hand in his pants (so, clearly, a bachelor), complete with pipe and red union suit underwear, this man is clearly a character.  And his head leans forward in thanks, in appreciation, and admiration. 

Marvel at Russell’s sense of color.  Blue is the dominant color … and wonderfully suggests the cold.  The frozen trees in the distance are just impressionistic dabs of blue, as is the wooden smokehouse to the left.  Even the smoke from the cabin’s fireplace has a blueish tint … rest assured, it is cold outside.

Also, Russell uses the mountains of his backdrop to illustrate the expanse of the Western terrain.  There is no one for miles around; however, he undercuts the feeling of cold waste by a smart use of yellow.  The yellow light in the distance, along with the warm yellow of the window and doorway of the cabin, illustrate the warmth of human kindness at Christmas time.

The partially cut wood in the foreground may seem superfluous, but Russell, a master of composition, knew that something was essential there to keep the eye moving through the picture.  (It also serves to illustrate the cold … the homesteader does not tread far to get his firewood!)

This is a lovely little grace note of a picture, filled with honest feeling and a great deal of warmth.  It doesn’t descend into the overly sentimental, and it shows people at their best.

As such, it makes for a hell of a Christmas picture.

More Christmas books tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Candy Cane Lane, by Scott Santoro (2016)

One of our favorite memories of Christmas 2016 will be having read Candy Cane Lane, by Scott Santoro, under our Christmas tree.  It is a delight.

Santoro is the author and illustrator of Farm-Fresh Cats and Which Way to Witch School?  He has also worked on several animated feature films, including The Lion King, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Gnomeo and Juliet.  He is a great talent and deserves wider recognition; it is our hope that Candy Cane Lane is the breakout holiday book of the 2016 season, and that it reaches a wide readership.

The story is about a little girl who lives on the eponymous street.  Every house is a marvel of outlandish holiday decoration, each lawn is more elaborate than the one proceeding it.  Her house, however, is always empty, as her father cannot afford fancy lawn ornaments.

Just before Christmas, a mighty storm blows in, and the ornaments of Candy Cane Lane are scattered everywhere.  A plastic choirboy ends up in the nearby trashbin, and she takes it for her own.  Her pleasure is short-lived, however, when the trashmen take it away.

Alone, in the snowy city dump, the choirboy pines for Candy Cane Lane and the little girl.  He is befriended by a plastic, illuminated reindeer, and, later, by a discarded Halloween ghost.  They decide to join forces and find their way back.

Lost, they come upon the offices and showroom of Giant Displays, where they are befriended by the plastic Giant out front, along with the scores of factory rejects (like Green Santas or giftless Magi) who also need homes.

What follows is a parade of ornaments and over-sized product avatars seeking their own, special Christmas refuge.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the charm of this book.  The illustrations have a loose line and sense of fun, and the coloration of the pages is stunning.  Each page is filled with work that has real forward momentum … many of the figures seem ready to fly off the page.  Santoro also has the gift for capturing ‘glowing’ light, and, better still, the quality of light thrown off by Christmas lights in the darkest of nights, against backdrops of snow.

There is also an antic sweetness to the book that irresistible.  Perhaps it is Santoro’s background in animation that makes so much of this book reminiscent of the animation style of the Little Lulu or Mighty Mouse cartoons of the 1940s, produced by Famous Studios and Terrytoons, respectively.  

Like the best animated cartoons, it makes the inanimate live, and shows us the interior lives of the objects around us.  One could almost imagine a Big Band score to accompany the illustrations – and Your Correspondents hopes that Candy Cane Lane becomes a cartoon itself, some day.  The book is touching without being cloying, and smart without being knowing.  In short, Santoro has created a little Master’s Class in making the difficult seem easy, all with a wonderful vibe that is both retro and timeless.   

Candy Cane Lane is a delicious confection – and our favorite Christmas picture book of 2016.  Bravo Santoro – and more, please!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Night Gardener, by The Fan Brothers (2016)

There are so many great picture books for children this Christmas season that it’s almost impossible to write about them all.  But there are a few standouts that demand particular attention, and we will try to bring them top-of-mind this week.  (The number of excellent prose novels recently released for Young Adult readers is equally impressive, and we will tell you about some of those before the New Year rings in, we promise!)

One of the most original and delightful books to cross our desk this season is The Night Gardener, by Terry Fan and Eric Fan.  These extremely talented brothers are Ontario-based writers and illustrators, and The Night Gardener is their best book to date.

The story tells of life on Grimloch Lane.  Life continues apace, without much interesting seeming to happen.  Young William notices, though, a mysterious gardener steal by one night, a gardener who transforms an ordinary tree into a magnificent topiary sculpture of an owl.  The neighborhood falls agape with wonder … and the mysterious gardener continues to ply his trade, leaving these amazing wood-and-leaf sculptures in his wake.

William, of course, promises to stay up one night and catch him in the act…

There is so much going on in The Night Gardener that adults will delight in unpacking the story as much as children.  The evocative illustrations for this book were rendered in graphite, and then digitally colored.  Fortunately, the Fan Brothers exercised as much restraint in the coloration process as they did with their drawings.

Grimloch Lane in the early pages of the book is a fairly gray, monochromatic place.  As the Night Gardener creates more and more topiary art, the pages slowly and subtly infuse with color, reaching a full, rich coloration at the end.  But this is never used to cheap effect; indeed, illustrations that take place in moonlight are just as mysterious and creamy as they are subdued. 

The drawings themselves have a great deal of charm; they are mindful, in their way, of the pen-and-ink work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000).  But where Gorey was macabre and mordant, the Fan Brothers are more mysterious and insinuating.  The brothers have a happy knack of composition, and the drawings are filled with witty details that catch the eye. 

Any attentive reader paging through the book will, again and again, return to the word ‘subtle.’  We are told very little about William, but there is a picture of his parents on his windowsill.  We never learn anything about them, and it was not until my second page-through that I noticed that the building he leaves at one point is an orphanage.  And our gardener seems to sculpt his animals based on whatever animals happen to be in the neighborhood.  And who are the mustached, hat-wearing twins in nearly every group drawing?  Could it be the Fan Brothers, themselves?

But just as interesting as the illustrations are, the story is even more compelling.  Are the Fan Brothers offering a parable on the affect that art has upon us, or a story of transferring intergenerational expertise?  Is it about the soul-crushing effects of ugly neighborhoods and urban blight, or about the restorative effects of engaging in the arts?  Is it a meditation on seasonal changes, or a commentary on created families?

This is a book with no easy answers, but many earned pleasures.  The Night Gardener is sure to intrigue both children and adults with its subtle drawings, evocative narrative, and hidden clues.  A gem!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas Carols Part III: Away in a Manger

Away in a Manger is one of Your Correspondent’s favorite carols, probably because it is the only one he can sing in (approximate) key…  It also presents something of a Christmas carol mystery.

Though many have attributed Away in a Manger to Martin Luther (1483-1546), there are no documents in any way connecting it to him.  Indeed, there are no German manuscript documents of that vintage that make reference to the carol, at all.  (There are no German texts, in fact, prior to 1934 that reference the tune.)

Most scholars now believe that this lovely carol is entirely American in origin.  The first two verses of the lyrics were published under the title Luther’s Cradle Song in the November 1883 issue of The Sailors Magazine and Seamen’s Friend (claiming authorship to Luther); with another article in the May 1884 issue of The Myrtle, with the same lyrics and the same claim.  Prior to that … no trace of it exists.

The first known musical setting was published in the Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School collection, Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, in 1885, under the title Away in a Manger.  The third verse was written some time later, by Dr. John T. McFarland, secretary of the New York Board of Sunday Schools, between 1904-1908.  It has been in use ever since.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

A particularly lovely recording by the late John Denver can be found here:

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas Carols Part II: The First Noel

One of our favorite, traditional English Christmas carols is The First Noel.  (Noel is an Early Modern English synonym for Christmas.)  There are many, many excellent recordings, but perhaps our favorite is that of Bing Crosby (1903-1977), which can be heard here:  (Oddly enough, this wonderfully evocative Christmas recording was cut on May 11th in that long-ago year of 1949.)

The carol tells of the Annunciation to the Shepherds and their adoration of the Christ child.  Oddly enough, the Star of Bethlehem does not appear in the Biblical books that also mention the adoration of the shepherds. 

The carol is Cornish in origin, and was first published in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) and Gilbert and Sandys Carols (1833), edited by William Sandys.  The version you hear today is usually the four-part hymn arrangement by the English composer John Stainer (1840-1901), published in Carols, New and Old, which appeared in 1871. 

The First Noel has a fairly unusual melody in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a refrain which is a variation of that phrase.  All three phrases end on the third of the scale.

The first Nowell the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter's night that was so deep:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
Born is the King of Israel.

They looked up and saw a star,
Shining in the east, beyond them far:
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night:

And by the light of that same star,
Three Wise Men came from country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star whersoever it went:

This star drew nigh to the north-west;
O'er Bethlehem it took its rest;
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay:

Then entered in those Wise Men three,
Full reverently upon their knee,
And offered there in his presence,
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense:
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind hath bought.