Monday, December 20, 2010

A Season Bright and Dark

For those of us with an awareness of history, every day of the year is a cornucopia of commemorations. 'Twas on December 20 in 1192, that the Duke of Austria captured 35-yr.-old Richard I of England. You can read about this son of Henry & Eleanor [of Aquitane] in Richard the Lionheart, by Susan Sales Harkins & Wm. H. Harkins. Our nation accomplished a stellar real estate transaction on another 20 Dec., 207 years ago. The Louisiana Purchase, by Dennis B. Fradin and Rhoda Blumberg's What's the Deal? are a couple of excellent books on that topic. And it's said that the subject of David A. Adler's A Picture Book of Sacagawea, died on this day in 1812.
But of all the year, the dark winter days, coming on Christmas, pack a particular wallop. I confess that I was not aware of the fact that William of Normandy had himself crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066, but now that I am, I'm minded of folks huddled around smoky fires, tending wounds not yet healed, from the battle (of Hastings) some ten weeks earlier. Many of you may know that Christmas marks Clara Barton's 189th birthday (and Humphrey Bogart's 111th). Barbara A. Somervill's book appears to be a fine showing & telling of the life of the founder of the American Red Cross. And, by the old calendar, anyway, December 25 will mark the 367th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Newton, Giant of Science, about whom Kathleen Krull wrote so well. It was 390 years ago this week that those Mayflower wayfarers landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. I think of John Adams, shivering in the not-quite-completed President's House on Christmas Day, 1800, less than a month after the death of his n'er do well son Charles; of a pair of fellows cobbling a carol together, just 18 years later. Margaret Hodges tells the story in Silent Night: The Song and its Story. It was on that Christmas night, 1818, that musicians presented G. F. Handel's Messiah to an American audience: a first. I think of those Bostonians with their pomaded hair, gloved hands, shawls, cravats, artfully tied, and dimming memories of the revolution. I think of U.S. astronauts broadcasting from Apollo 8, Christmas Eve, 1968. (...and how Charlie Chaplin had exactly nine more years to live, did he but know it.)
Think on the December of 1776, when a desperate general "led more than 2,500 freezing, starving, sleepy men plus their animals to the banks of the icy Delaware River." So I wrote in my George Washington picture book biography some years back. Louise Peacock delves more deeply into the perilous event in her fine book, Crossing the Delaware: A History in Many Voices. Only the other day I read a splendid and moving book about another Christmas, another war: Jim Murphy's Truce, when English and German soldiers when did their best to end the great and terrible First World War, in the winter of 1914. A mere thirty years later, still more soldiers were suffering thereabouts. A graphic take on this event might be found here, in Hitler's Last Gamble: Battle of the Bulge, by Bill Cain & Dheeraj Verma.
So, let's sing and dance and make good cheer for Christmas comes but once a year. That's about enough.

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