JOY: THE LEGACY OF JERRY HERMAN

There’s just no tune,

As Exciting

As a show tune,

In 2/4.

Jerry Herman was born on June 10th, 1931.  At an early age, he fell in love with the musical theater.  Living near the NYC theater district his parents were frequent theater goers and when they came home they were filled with the music of the show they had seen.  Jerry’s parents were also amateur musicians and their home was filled with music of the theater.

When Jerry was old enough his parents brought him along on their theater excursions and much to their surprise on arriving home Jerry was able to play much of the score he had heard that night.  Jerry was born with Broadway in his blood.

The lyrics quoted above are a line from one of Jerry’s earliest songs.  In a way, it is the philosophy behind every song Jerry ever wrote.  To him, every song was about the character singing it.  And into each song, he infused joy and enthusiasm for life.  Even in his most grumpy characters such as Horace Vandergelder in Hello Dolly, you can’t help feeling that deep down he’s a cuddly bear when he sings “It Takes a Woman.

Jerry Herman began writing for Broadway at a time when Broadway was at its zenith.  The 50s and 60s brought show after show and each was memorable.  Many are still being revived on Broadway or are perennially used in community and regional theater.

This was the world of Rodger’s and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Meredith Wilson, Kander and Ebb.  A young Stephen Sondheim was just getting started and Ethel Merman and Mary Martin were both queens of Broadway.  This was the Broadway Jerry Herman entered.  Broadway would never be the same.

I came across Jerry Herman in an off-beat kind of way.  My mother loved musicals and would play records and sing at the top of her lungs every Saturday while cleaning.  These records were always musicals.  The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Funny Girl, and The Music Man were played almost every week but no Jerry Herman.  I was not fond of musicals at the time.  I was listening to The Archies and The Partridge Family.  The theater bug bit me in the 8th grade when I was cast as Harry Macafee in our school’s production of Bye Bye Birdie.  I heard applause for the first time, just for me, and it changed something deep inside me.

From then on my record money went to original cast recordings and Hollywood soundtracks.  Always looking for a bargain, I was a teenager on an allowance, I would delve into the bargain record bins at Jerry’s Records, a store in the Bazaar of All Nation in Clifton Heights PA.  One day I found a copy of the movie soundtrack for Mame in the bin.  I had never heard of it but it starred my favorite actress Lucille Ball and it was $1.99.  I bought it and ran home.  I played that record over and over.  Everyone was telling me that Lucy can’t sing but I only heard gold and though I knew nothing of the story I fell in love with the music and lyrics of Jerry Herman.

Mame was amazing.  I soon found a script for the Broadway show in our local library so I understood where the songs fit and knew the story.  Eventually, I was able to order the book the musical was based on Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis.  I had to special order it at Walden Books and I got it but nothing compared to the music and lyrics of Mame.

Mame is probably the most uplifting and life-affirming musical ever written.  Jerry had already had two successful shows on Broadway before Mame.  The first was Milk and Honey the musical, as I understand it was about a group of older American Jewish women looking for husbands in The Holy Land or Israel.  Two wonderful songs came out of that production, the title song Milk and Honey and a lovely ballad called Shalom.  All the songs can be listened to by following the Youtube links.

Shalom Shalom,

You’ll find Shalom,

The nicest greeting you know.

It means bonjour, salute and skoal,

And twice as much as hello.

It means a million lovely things,

Like peace be yours welcome home,

And even when you say goodbye,

You say goodbye with shalom.

After that Jerry was asked to turn  Thorton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker into a musical.  That musical graced the stage and won the Tony Award for best musical in 1964.  The show was Hello Dolly but more on that later.  Back to Mame.

Mame came to Broadway in 1966 and also won the Tony for best musical.  Mame was played by Angela Lansbury and is the story of Patrick Dennis an orphan who goes to live with his only living relative Mame Dennis in New York City.  The opening of Mame takes place in the streets of New York where Agnes Gooch, Patrick’s nanny, and Patrick are looking for Mame’s Beekman Place apartment.  They sing a prayer to St Bridget and arrive at Mame’s as she is throwing a lavish party.  Mame appears at the top of the stairs blows a bugle and sings It’s Today

Light the candles.

Get the ice out,

Roll the rug up,

It’s Today.

Though it may not be anyone’s birthday,

And though it’s far from the first of the year,

I know that this very minute,

Has history in it,

We’re here!

This song set the whole tone of the show and gives Mame’s philosophy of life.  In this song, she sings the spoken line that is in all of Mame’s stage and movie adaptations. “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  Mame raises Patrick for as long as she can using this state of mind.  It becomes more clear in the song Open a New Window.  This song is a joyous anthem about taking chances and never saying no to whatever life offers you.  It feels good, it’s upbeat, and when you listen you want to go with Mame to wherever she leads.

If you follow your Auntie Mame,

I’ll make this vow, my little love,

That on the last day of your life,

You’ll be smiling the same young smile,

You’re smiling now my little love,

If you wake up every morning,

And you pull aside the shutter,

Ans promise me that these will be,

The first words that you utter.

Open a new window,

Open a new door,

Travel a new highway,

That’s never been tried before.

I could go on all day about the wonderful songs in Mame.  My Best Girl, Bosom Buddies, We Need a Little Christmas, If He Walked into My Life and of course the title song Mame.  But this whole blog would end up being only about that one show.  This was my first introduction to Jerry’s music and what I didn’t know was there was more.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Lucille Ball’s portrayal of Mame.  Some felt her voice and her age worked against her playing the role.  I’m not sure that’s all true.  My biggest problem with the film is the stuff they cut out and the script.  After finally seeing the stage production and hearing the original Broadway cast album a lot of the story was left out and or changed and this was not necessary.  The song That’s How Young I Feel was cut and it was key to describing Mame’s feelings as an older woman as she sings it when Parick has grown up.  The script just didn’t work for me in parts.  One change that I did enjoy was Lucille doing her best to get out of a store where Mame has been fired from wearing one roller skate.  It was hilarious and true Lucy antics.

For a long time, Lucille’s portrayal as Mame was all I knew and I loved it.  When VHS tapes came out and you could buy movies to own them for the very first time.  My first purchase was Mame.  The movie will always be dear to my heart.

I have to admit I keep hoping every year that NBC will decide to do Mame Live as they have done with The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, Grease, The Wiz, Hairspray, and most recently Annie.  NBC usually airs these television events at Christmas and Mame would be perfect, especially with a Christmas song embedded in the show.  That is also my hope for the next Jerry Herman show we’ll discuss Hello Dolly.

Hello Dolly opened in 1964.  It is the story of Dolly Levi a widow who has decided to “rejoin the human race.”  She decides to accomplish this goal by marrying Horace Vandergelder the leading citizen of Yonkers New York.  The musical takes place in 24 hour time period it has a prelude in NYC continues in Yonkers, goes back to NYC, and ends in Yonkers.  Not bad for a day.

It took me a while to catch on to Hello Dolly.  I wasn’t interested at all at first.  All I knew of the show was the title song sung by Louis Armstrong and recorded in 1964.  I was three years old and didn’t care much for it.  My grandmother would be playing it while we visited her and it wasn’t a kid’s song.  It took me a long time to find out where that song came from.

For a moment I want to take some time and talk about Jerry Herman the human being.  Jerry’s songs were always joyful and filled with life.  He came from a family that gave him that but he didn’t change when it came to being successful.  Some folks when they make it big in their chosen professions don’t have time for others but Jerry was not like that as illustrated here by my good friend Richard Tyley Jordan.  Richard has written the definitive book on the Character of Mame Dennis and it was over this book that Richard and I met.  He is also the author of The Polly Pepper Mysteries which are great fun and have been called a cross between The Carol Burnett Show and Murder, She Wrote.  Here is Richard’s story of his first meeting with Jerry Herman.

When I began writing my nonfiction book But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!, I sent a letter to Jerry Herman requesting an interview. I didn’t actually expect a response. Why would the legendary composer of Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Mack and Mable, and La Cage Aux Folles, among other Broadway hits, deign to offer an audience to me, an unaccomplished kid (I was actually in my 30s, but I felt completely inferior compared to the great man)? I was equally terrified that he’d grant my request and find that I was an interloper in his rarefied world. I just happened to be in New York doing research for my book when I got the call. Yes! Jerry Herman would see me on Friday afternoon at 2:00! My world was spinning! 

When I arrived at Jerry Herman’s brownstone, I was greeted by his amiable assistant, who guided me to the left and down two steps, and into Jerry’s wood-paneled office. A set decorator couldn’t have designed a more perfect room for showcasing career memorabilia of Tony Awards, Grammy Awards, framed gold records, and posters from Mr. Herman’s many Broadway triumphs. The assistant asked if I’d like a tea or coffee (“No, thank you.” I was too edgy as it was.) and said, “Mr. Herman will be with you shortly.” And then the moment arrived! Jerry Herman … in-person … appeared in the doorway, brandishing a friendly smile and a warm handshake. I was immediately instructed to drop the “Mr. Herman” formality and call him “Jerry.”

Jerry sat behind his desk (with a portrait painting of Carol Channing as Dolly Levi looking down from the wall behind him), and I sat nervously in a brown leather wingback chair. Neurotic me was trying very hard to appear intelligent and sophisticated so that he wouldn’t realize I was just a fan on a mission to chronicle the success of author Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame character. What I remember most about that afternoon is how gracious he was to me. For those two hours, we talked about how much he loved Mame and composing the songs for that show and how it was actually one of the easiest shows he’d ever worked on. But we also talked about how deeply and personally disappointed he was with Lucille Ball’s film version of his hit musical.

I guess I did something right that afternoon because when we concluded the interview, it was Jerry himself who offered to write the introduction to my book! This amazing man, whose songs I had admired my entire life, offered to personally contribute to my labor-of-love project! I’m still overwhelmed by his generosity. That’s the kind of man that Jerry Herman was. I’ve rarely known anyone more magnanimous. I will always be grateful to Jerry Herman, not only because he believed in my book and penned the introduction to it, but also because he gave me the soundtrack of my life:

I Am What I Am

If He Walked into My Life

It Only Takes a Moment

It’s Today

I Won’t Send Roses

Put On Your Sunday Clothes

Time Heals Everything

Although my book is long out of print (maybe I should release an e-book version), I am forever and deeply indebted to Jerry Herman, one of the finest men and talents I’ve ever known.

I don’t think much more can be said of the man.  He was not only talented but he had a spirit of generosity to both see and nurture talent in others.This can also be seen in Angela Lansbury’s autobiography where she tells of Jerry so wanting her to get the role of Mame in the original Broadway cast that he coached her on how to sing the songs he wrote before she auditioned.  This is the kind of man he was.  Because of this generous, beautiful spirit music poured out of him.

Hello Dolly is a show about second chances.  It’s a show about coming out of the fog and realizing you’re alive and life is worth living.  It’s a show that tells you in no uncertain terms that you can begin again at any time of life.  I of course saw Dolly first as a film starring Barbra Streisand.  It may not have been my best introduction to the show but it was fun nonetheless and had a deep impact on my life.  The music and lyrics are just as amazing as what Jerry would soon write for Mame but the theme was different.  Mame is about knowing life is wonderful and teaching that lesson to the upcoming generation.  Hello Dolly is about forgetting that life is wonderful and having to relearn the lesson.  This didn’t mean much to me as a young man but it means a whole lot now.

In 2018 I had the privilege of seeing Bernadette Peters in a revival of Hello Dolly in NYC at The Schubert Theater.  Watching Miss Peters was a revelation of what this show means.  It’s for and about older people starting again.  Anyone can start again, but there are plenty of movies and plays about young people starting again, not so many about our older generation.  Right now, my generation.  I came away from that show not only singing beloved songs but knowing I could start again.  It took awhile but this blog is part of that second chance for me.

The songs of Hello Dolly are full of joy.  I Put My Hand In, It Takes a Woman, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Dancing, Before the Parade Passes By, Etiquette, It Only Takes a Moment and of course the title song Hello Dolly.

Carol Channing the original Dolly in the musical tells the story of recording the cast album.  In the recording studio the whole cast couldn’t contain themselves and they burst into the kicks while singing the title song.  It has been said that the cast recording of Dolly is one of the few that makes you feel like you’re in the theater.

In the show Jerry’s Girls, the title song gives a list of many of the actresses that played in Jerry’s shows.  One of those names is Lucie Arnaz.  I reached out to Miss Arnaz about how she feels about performing the music of Jerry Herman.  Miss Arnaz replied:

“Jerry writes about joy and, as a performer, it’s a vacation to sing his music.”

And that is about the best thing that could be said.  Singing Jerry’s music can be a balm for me when I’m down.  The songs from Hello Dolly are infectious.  You can’t help singing along and if you have them in your heart you can’t help singing them when life has kicked you in the gut.

One such song from Hello Dolly is a sort of anthem for second chances.  The song is Before The Parade Passes by

Before the parade passes by,

I’m going to go and taste Saturday’s high life.

Before the parade passes by,

I’m going to get some life back into my life.

I’m ready to move out in front,

I’ve had enough of just passing by life.

With the rest of them.

With the best of them.

I’m gonna hold my head up high.

I’ve got a goal again,

I’ve got a drive again.

I wanna feel my heart coming alive again.

Before the parade passes by.

Can you think of better words to say to the world that you still have something to offer, that you still count, and that you are part of the parade ready to do your bit and find a full life?  In this respect, the roles of Dolly and Mame are very much alike.  Both women are driven to find the best out of the life that they have and to have joy in that journey.

After his stellar success with Hello Dolly and Mame Jerry would write several more shows for the Broadway stage some successful and some not so successful.  Even the shows that weren’t so successful had memorable moments and great music.  One such show was Mack and Mabel.

Mack and Mabel opened in 1974 and told the love story of silent movie director Mack Sennett and silent movie star Mabel Norman.  It opened with two Broadway legends as the leads, Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters.  It had wonderful music.  Movies were Movies, I Wanna Make the World Laugh, Look What Happened to Mabel, I Won’t Send Roses, Wherever He Ain’t and the ballad Time Heals Everything.

This show only played 91 performances which had to be a big letdown for the entire team.  I have read that the show’s ending with Mabel’s death due to drug addiction was hard for the audience to watch. With all the upbeat music the show brings you down in the end.  I have also read that the ending was reworked and is now not as dark.  I have never seen a production of this show but I would love to.  It does continue to be performed in regional and community theater.  The cast album is great and I enjoy listening to it.  No matter the ending you can’t help feeling happy while listening to the music.

Jerry’s Next Hit would come in 1983 with his show La Cage Aux Faux.  La Cage is about two gay men who have raised a straight son who now wants to marry.  I have not seen this show but the son wants his dads to act a bit more middle of the road which is hard to do when you consider that the dads own a club that features men in drag and one of them is the star performer.

The title in English translates to The Cage of Fools and it was originally a French film, but not a musical.  After the musical opened an American version of the film was produced called The Birdcage and it starred Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. 

La Cage Aux Faux was a big risk for Jerry and Broadway.  There had been plays about gay men before but they weren’t lavish musicals and this would be a big production.  It also opened at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and gay men were again being attacked for who they were.  But despite all of that La Cage was a hit and won the Tony award that year.  To add to its honors the show was revived twice in 2005 and 2010 and won the Tony for best revival both times.

There are two stand-out songs in La Cage.  One is almost a campfire song and Jerry himself describes it as such.  The song has a great melody and is easy to learn.  The song is The Best of Times.

The Best of Times is now,

What’s left of summer but a faded rose,

The best of times is now

As For tomorrow, well who knows

Who knows,

Who knows.

So make the moment last,

And live and love as hard  as you know-how,

And make this moment last,

Because the best of times is now

Is now

Is now.

The other song is an anthem for gay men and for everyone else who feels misplaced in society.  It is a song for the marginalized, for people of color, for the odd kid at school that gets beat up because he’s different.  The song is I am What I Am.

I am what I am

I am my own special creation.

So come take a look,

Give me the hook or the ovation.

It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in,

My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.

Life’s not worth a damn,

‘Til you can say, “Hey world, I am what I am.”

I am what I am,

I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity.

I bang my own drum,

Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty.

And so what, if I love each feather and each spangle,

Why not try to see things from a diff’rent angle?

Your life is a sham ’til you can shout out loud

I am what I am!

In 1996 Jerry Wrote the words and music for a Christmas television musical called Mrs. Santa Claus.  It was aired only once as far as I know but it had a terrific cast and storyline and of course incredible music.  The leading lady was Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Claus.  She feels neglected sometime around 1900 and decides she knows a better route for Santa to deliver his toys.  She takes the sleigh in order to go around the world only to be stranded in NYC on Avenue A where she meets and is befriended by many locals.  In the few days she’s there she reunites a family, softens the heart of an evil toy manufacturer, and strikes a blow for women’s rights.  All to the sound of some terrific and clever music.

 My favorite song from the show is Almost Young a declaration of you’re as young as you feel and Angela proves it to a bunch of children who work in the toy factory

I’m holding back the hands of time
And though a fool might say I’ve passed my prime
My heart has always clung to staying almost young

A few grey hairs, A few gold teeth
Can never hide the kid that’s underneath
The kid whose hopes are hung
On staying almost young

My walk is swift and sporty
My disposition is evergreen
Why say I’m over forty, I’m over seventeen

I’ll still have all the speed it takes
When all the others have applied the brakes
And when my knell has run

I’ll still be struttin’ and kickin’
Like some little chicken
I’m almost young

Considering Miss Lansbury was 71 when she made this musical you can see she was still pretty spry if you follow the Youtube link.

I haven’t said much about Jerry’s Love songs and there were a good many.  It Only Takes A Moment from Hello Dolly, Time Heals Everything and I Won’t Send Roses from Mack and Mabel, Loving You from the film version of Mame.  My favorite is from Mrs.  Santa Claus and it’s sung by a young couple who Mrs. Claus helps bring together.  It’s called, We Don’t Go Together at All.

{Sadie}:
Look Marcello…
A girl with a drive and a fellow with a dream
Are like pickled herring with vanilla ice cream
So, as unromantic as my words may seem
We don’t go together at all

My big loud mouth and your quiet ways
Are like August evenings with December days
Are like corned beef and cabbage topped with mayonnaise
We don’t go together at all

We’re like chicken soup
And a slice of ham

{Marcello}:
We’re the big bad wolf
And the little lamb

{Sadiе}:
Like a picnic lunch
That’s ruined by a sudden squall

{Sadiе}:
We don’t
{Marcello}:
No we don’t

{Both}:
No we don’t go together at all

{Marcello}:
Like an overcoat
And a hot July

{Sadie}:
Like a bowl of borscht
And a pizza pie

{Marcello}:
Like if I asked you
To come to the policemen’s ball

{Sadie}:
We don’t

{Marcello}:
No we don’t

{Both}:
No we don’t go together at all
{Sadie}:
An onion roll at a Mayfair tea
Like a march by Sousa in a minor key

{Marcello}:
So forget all the magic that was meant to be
We don’t go together at all

{Marcello}:
A stable boy and a suffragette
Are about as peculiar as a pair can get

{Both}:
So it’s, oh, such a pity
That we even met

{Sadie}:
We don’t go together at all


I love the cleverness of the lyrics to this song.  It also has a catchy tune and it’s fun to sing either the girl part or the boy part or both.

This is truly the longest blog I have ever written.  I hope I captured the joy of Jerry’s music and the inspiration he has given to…well too many people to count.  If you are unfamiliar with Jerry’s work the CDs are still available to buy and Spotify has all of his original cast recordings and soundtracks as well as many many different artists that have covered his songs in one way or another.  If you can catch a performance of any of his musicals spend the time and money it is well worth it.  Mrs. Santa Claus is available on DVD and well worth adding to your holiday film collection. The film Mame is available on DVD and electronically on platforms such as Vudo.  Hello Dolly is available on DVD and electronically.  It is also available to stream on Disney+.

I’m leaving you with Jerry’s first hit.  It was used in the show and to advertise lunchmeat and as a presidential song for Lyndon Johnson.  I don’t know if it helped but he won the 1964 election.  For the election it became Hello Lyndon, For Oscar Mayer it was Hello Deli, for me it will always be Hello Dolly. 

Hello, Dolly,
Well, hello, Dolly
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong
You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly
I can tell, Dolly
You’re still glowin’, you’re still crowin’
You’re still goin’ strong
We feel the room swayin’
While the band’s playin’
One of your old favourite songs from way back when

Golly Gee, fellas
Find her an empty knee, fellas
Dolly’ll never go away again.

It is my Hope Jerry Herman will never go away too.

It is my understanding that under The Fair Use Law it is legal for me to use partial lyrics for songs.  That is what I have done here.  For the full song use the links provided above each set of lyrics.  There are some terrific performances there.

Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January sixth.  This celebration marks the visit of the magi to see Jesus and worship him as the newborn King of the Jews.  It is the end of the Christmas holidays as they used to be celebrated and in my own opinion should still be celebrated.  Put the tree up later bake some treats after Christmas, maybe even save some gifts for this particular feast.  Remember this celebrates the first people outside of Mary, Joseph, and some shepherds who knew who Jesus was.

I often wondered what the word epiphany means.  I had never really heard the word used outside the context of the holy day.  Epiphany means a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being.  In this case, the birth of Christ is revealed to the whole world the Jewish people being represented by the Shepherds and the gentile world is represented by the magi.

Matthew’s Gospel is the only Gospel that tells of the visit of the kings and you can read it there.  Time and tradition have embellished the story what we do know for sure is the Magi came from the east following a star.  The star disappeared as they approached Jerusalem and they went to King Herod who ascertained from the scriptures where the child would be born and sent the magi on their way telling them to come back and report to him when they had found the child so that he could worship him as well.  Herod was deceiving the Magi as he desired to kill the child.  As the Magi left Jerusalem the star reappeared and led them to a house where they found the baby and his mother Mary and presented gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  They were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and returned to their homes using a different route.

That’s what we know.  Here is what we have embellished.  It was at some time decided that there were three of them.  That they were not only Magi but Kings and that their names were Caspar, Melchior, and Belshazzar.  Also, that each was of a different race.  One white, one Asian, and One Black.

The Feast of Epiphany is also the twelfth day of Christmas as you may remember from the song the gift was twelve drummers drumming.  These twelve drummers are meant to represent points of belief in The Apostles Creed.

The Feast of the Epiphany is also known as 12th Night and it is the last day of Christmas.  There used to be 12th Night parties where games like Snapdragon were played.  I have always wanted to try to play Snapdragon.  The game is mentioned in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and also in Agatha Christie’s Halloween Party.  The game is pretty simple.  You get a big plate full of raisins you douse the raisins with plenty of brandy and light it on fire.  You then try to pick raisins out of the blazing plate without getting burned.  And yes this was a children’s game.

There is also a 12the Night Cake.  It is made from Puff Pastry and filled with almond crème.  In the cake is placed a ring or a tiny baby representing Jesus.  Whoever gets the slice of cake with the ring or the baby gets declared King of the Feast and is given a crown to wear.

Of course, all of this is gone now.  The Catholic Church has moved the Feast of Epiphany to the Sunday after Christmas and not many protestant churches recognize it at all, at least not in the United States.  And yet we sing about it.  We Three Kings is the song of the magi.  It’s not a Christmas Carol but a 12th night song.  And The Little Drummer boy which is completely fictitious is also a staple throughout the Christmas season but is never heard after Christmas as it should be.

Some biblical historians believe that the magi arrived about two years after Jesus’ birth.  There is some logic behind this.  The scriptures tell us that the Magi found the child in a house which means they had moved out of the stable where Jesus was born.  Herod asked the Magi when the star appeared and when he realized that the Magi were not coming back to him had all the babies two years and younger killed in Bethlehem.  This is known as The Slaughter of the Innocents and is the basis for another Christmas carol The Coventry Carol.  It is thought that the star appeared on the night of Jesus’ birth and it took two years for the Magi to reach him.

I am of the school of thought that says we go back to the old ways.  Let’s celebrate all 12 days of Christmas.  Let’s not set up our trees right after Thanksgiving but just a day or two before December 25th.  Let’s have parties and gatherings straight through until  January the sixth and have one last fling that night before we enter into our dull winter routines.  Christmas could be more fun that way and maybe even less stressful.  We could have dinner parties for twelve nights straight and see all of our family members.  Those twelve days, if observed could bring a whole new dimension to Christmas.

On January the sixth let’s take a moment to remember what the word epiphany means. >The manifestation of a divine being”.  It is acknowledging to the world that we believe Jesus was fully God and fully man as the scriptures attest to.  In many ways, it is an act of faith to celebrate this day and one I believe we can all profit from.

It is said that two groups of people were allowed to see the baby Jesus those who knew they knew nothing, the shepherds and those who knew they didn’t know everything, the magi.

Christmas 2021

I am not a poet.  As I assume all writers do I dabbled in poetry.  I went into fields and climbed trees and looked for inspiration in all the usual places I imagined poets would
go to find their muse.  I never found mine except once.

It was 1979 not long before Christmas when I realized I had no money to give my folks a Christmas gift that year.  It was my first semester in college and as all college students are, I was broke.  I thought and thought and slowly an idea came to mind.  I would write a poem.  Initially I must have thought it would be a Christmas poem, but it turned into something slightly more elaborate.  I wrote the poem, bought some poster board and hand printed it out with some small amount of artwork for the borders.  I was no great poet, but I was and am an even worse artist.  Still, it was a heartfelt gift and I present it to you now as I presented it to my parents as a Christmas gift.

Jesus

They say he was born in Beth’lem town,

And on that night there was the sound,

Of trumpets from the heavenly host,

And in all this the saints would boast.

He grew up alongside men,

Who in their sight he would begin,

A ministry of peace and light,

And leading people toward the right.

For three short years he labored strong,

And taught the people to go along,

A path of wisdom both just and bright,

To walk not in darkness but in light.

The leaders feared what this man taught,

And in their fear a man they bought,

A follower to betray the lord,

For they knew he feared no earthly sword.

They hung him on a wooden cross,

And men believed that they had lost,

A friend much closer than a brother,

Their only friend man had no other.

He died upon that cross so high,

And they placed him in a tomb nearby,

They placed him there while women moaned,

Then covered the entrance with a stone.

For three long days he lay there dead,

The world lost hope and all men said,

That he was good and just and wise,

But like all men he had to die.

But on the third day God shook the earth,

And when the stone rolled from its berth,

He rose again then into life,

And took away all pain and strife.

The world for long awaited this,

For this man he brought a gift,

Of everlasting life for us,

If in Him we put our trust.

As I have stated in other places you can’t have Christmas without Easter.  If Easter did not happen then there would be no reason to celebrate the birth of Christ.  We would still be partying in one way or another.  After all, Christmas did replace the roman feast of Saturnalia.  And that feast had parties and bringing in the green form outside, as well as gift giving.  But the church, as her job, redeemed the pagan holiday and its customs and turned it into one of the most beautiful times of the year. It makes us know that we are loved and somehow instils in us the need to love and help others.  As Dickens wrote it is “a time when want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices.”

Dickens further writes in A Christmas Carol.

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around, apart from it’s sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it could be apart from that, as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.  The only time in the whole calendar of the year when and women, seem by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as fellow passengers to the grave and not another race of creature bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good and so I say God Bless it.”

This was speech given to Scrooge by his nephew in A Christmas Carol.  Very few stage or screen productions ever let the actor have the whole speech but in those words is the true meaning and heart of Christmas.

Earlier this week a fellow Christmas Carol fan, Michael Castellano wrote a poem that embodies the whole story of A Christmas Carol.  He did this all-in-one day and I think it’s pure genius.  With his permission I present it to you now.

My Carol

A chill to my Christmas

with harsh blowing winds,

I’m mean and I’m ornery

when my story begins.

My hearts made of stone

I may never reform,

and to be quite honest

I should have never been born.

Money and power is all that I crave

and my earthly delights,

will end soon

at the grave.

Bah Humbug to Christmas

with its tinsels and lights,

my hatred is strong

where others delight.

my partner in life

has returned from the grave,

“I’ve come here to assist you

your soul I’ll help save.”

You’ll be visited by three spirits

you’ve nothing to dread

they’ll take you on journeys

from the foot of your bed.

The first spirit came

with a bright shining light,

to show me my past

on this cold winters night.

We visited scenes

from my boyhood at school,

where I sat all alone

with a spoon and some gruel.

Then on to the Fezzywigs’

with their great Christmas fete,

with plenty to drink

and abundance to eat.

The love of my life

my very own Belle,

she had me entranced

I fell under her spell.

But greed overtook me

I lost at loves game,

now everything’s different

and nothings the same.

The spirit soon left me

as the city clock struck two,

where I met a gentle giant

who sipped a strange brew.

” Come know me better!”

he said with a laugh,

a crown of live holly

adorned his large staff.

with a touch of his robe

such a soft gentle touch,

we flew over mountains

to a boy with a crutch.

He showed me my life

and my cold frozen heart,

although I saw much

it was only a start.

The giant soon left me

at the end of his haunt,

but inside his robe

I saw ignorance and want.

The last of the spirits

appeared from the mist

a silent spirit

my life to assist.

He showed me my future

my life at its end,

he scared me this spirit

but he was truly a friend.

My name on the grave

I was truly alone,

“I’ll change” I cried

please don;t leave me alone.

Now I’m a new man

the old man is dead,

I’ll help Mr Cratchit

and a visit to Fred.

I’ve finished my story

I’m finally done,

so Merry Christmas to all

and God Bless Us Everyone.

If you have no time to read A Christmas Carol or watch one of the film adaptations, you at least have this poem.

One more note about A Christmas Carol.  I have a tradition of reading the book every year.  I start at night on the 21st reading the First Stave Dickens uses the word Stave instead of Chapter in his book as it is a musical term meaning the verse of a song.  For the next three nights, I read a single Stave usually right before bed.  On the 25th Christmas morning I read The Final Stave entitled The End of It and live with Scrooge all the joy he found that Christmas morning.  For me, it’s a meaningful and touching way to read the classic.  It’s also something a family could do together.

One last thought before leaving you.  Several years ago I was working in dialysis at a local hospital and one of the docs gave me and the rest of the unit employees a little card with a free verse poem on it.  It was beautiful and very timely, and it is a reminder that the celebration of Christmas is only the beginning.  That little card did not have the author’s name, but I found that out recently and I present the poem to you as a last gift of Christmas.

The Work of Christmas

When the star is the sky is gone,

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas Begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among the people,

To make music in the heart.

  • Howard Thurman

Christmas Memories

I think was blessed to be born in the early part of the 1960s.  Technology had not come near the point where things were handed to you instantly.  Fast Food restaurants did not exist yet and microwaves and cell phones were in the far-flung future.  Because of this life was slower and could be savored and we did even as children.

Television was still in its infancy in the early 60s.  Sure it had been around a while but it was still black and white and though color sets existed they were out of the reach of most people.  We had three channels to choose from NBC, CBS, and ABC.  Eventually, we would have PBS and three UHF Channels for my area they were channels 17, 29, 48.  It was on these channels that the reruns of shows that had gone off the air would play as well as a plethora of old movies.  That was it and I don’t think all of that was established until I was at least 6 or 7.

So what did that mean?  It meant that we had to wait.  There were no streaming shows when we wanted to see them.  There was getting hold of the newspapers TV listings and scanning what was on that week to plan what you were going to watch.  And if you missed it that was too bad.  Never was this more true than at Christmas.

I was the youngest of four children and at Christmas time I became the ruler of the TV set, or at least my family let me think I was.  I was born just as the great Christmas shows were being made for the first time.  I was three When Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer first went up against the Abominable Snowman.  Mr. Magoo had already captured the world with his version of A Christmas Carol and so many were to come.  A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty The Snowman, The Year Without A Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Little Drummer Boy, and so many others.  I would grab The Sunday TV supplement every week, as soon as I learned to read, scanning for these yearly events and hoping my family didn’t have to go out the night they were aired.  If we did, it would be a whole year before I could see them again.  I was pretty lucky.  I don’t think I missed any of them except Rudolph once when I was in the hospital with an eye injury.

Anticipation, which ultimately is the theme of Advent, was in the heart of every kid I grew up with.  Not anticipation for spiritual things, that comes with growth and maturity, but anticipation for the fun and joyful things of Christmas.  In some ways, it was good practice for when we grew up and awaited Christmas for its true meaning.

But we didn’t wait just for kids’ shows.  There were other more adult shows that we waited for.  Bing Crosby’s yearly Christmas show, the same for Bob Hope, Andy Williams, and the now almost forgotten King Family.  The whole family gathered around the set for these treats presented to us by the three networks.

Then there was that special night.  My brother Vince would usually spot it first in the TV listings.  The night the movie White Christmas would air.  White Christmas was not a kids movie, it is a full musical that kids can be charmed by but also can be loved by parents.  So every year until the family began to go our separate ways all six of us sat around that TV and watched this beautiful movie unfurl.  That time will never come again but it is sweet to remember.

The family watching White Christmas led me to even more Christmas movies.  Things that were being shown but the rest of my family had little interest in.  Movies such as Holiday Inn and Meet Me in St Louis soon became more yearly favorites.  When a new version of Miracle on 34th Street was shown starring Sebastion Cabot and David Hartman I was hooked and wanted to see the original.  I had never heard of It’s A Wonderful Life until Marlo Thomas remade the film switching the gender roles and calling it, It Happened One Chrismas.  Eventually, these made-for-TV movies made me want to back to view the original and they all became favorites. I directed a stage version of It’s a Wonderful Life in 2000 it remains a lovely memory.

Still, we had to wait every year for these treats.  Watching television was not the only thing that made Christmas special.  I remember going out every year to find the perfect Christmas tree.  At first, it was in local lots where people were selling freshly cut trees, as we grew older my family began to drive out to Christmas tree farms where we would cut down our trees.  By then my brother and sisters were married and it was a caravan that would go to these places.  Stopping at Burger King for a quick lunch and then coming home to hot turkey rice soup and meatball sandwiches that mom had warming in crockpots while we were away.

Then there was the tree decorating.  No one was more of a perfectionist than my father when it came to how the tree looked.  It had to be straight as an arrow before one light or ornament could be placed on the branches.  And the lights, this was still back in the time when if one light had blown none of the lights would come on.  You then had to spend as much time as it took to find the dead bulb.  There were more Christmases with dead bulbs than without.

After that, we kids generally took over looking for our favorite ornaments to hang on the tree.  We had a nice variety of the delicate glass balls, homemade ornaments that my brother had done, and some store-bought figures.  My favorites were Santa’s eight reindeer with Rudolph in the lead.  Those needed to be spaced nicely so it looked as if they were flying around the tree.  My family were tinsel people and my dad again took charge of that,  Tinsel had to be placed delicately on the tree almost one strand at a time.  It took forever. when I learned about garland and you only had to drape it around the tree, I thought I had been given the Holy Grail of Christmas.

Christmas was family time, but not just our immediate family.  I had cousins and aunts and uncles and second and third cousins and we all got together on Christmas night, not just once but three times.  My father had two sisters, My Aunt Mary and my Aunt Dolores.  My grandmother, my father’s mother (My grandfather had died before I was born) would alternate  between her three children where she would go on Christmas day for dinner.  Where ever she was the whole family would descend on that house for dessert first.  After that, we went to the two other houses for dessert making it a three dessert holiday.  Actually, it was four desserts as we had dessert with dinner too.  We kids had a blast because there were still gifts to be received at each of the Aunt’s houses.  I liked going to my Aunt Mary’s and Uncle Steve’s best.  She had a wonderful bakery at the top of her street and she always had mini Danish and coconut cream pie which was my favorite.  I got it once a year as mom never made it. That is not to say Aunt Dolores didn’t outdo herself. At her house, there would be delicious stromboli and Christmas punch made with soda, juice, and a tub of sherbert.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve had another wonderful tradition that fascinated all the kids and most of the adults. In their basement, there was an enormous train display. It had mountains and tunnels and trees and all sorts of things to delight the mind of a child. I don’t know where the tradition originated and who was most responsible, my Uncle Steve or his eldest son Steven or if it was a yearly team effort. I do know that Steven kept up the tradition as best as possible in his own home. Trains weere a big part of Christmas. At our house there would occasionally be a set wrapped around the bottom of the tree. But nothing I have ever seen compared to that wonderful set in my aunt and uncle’s basement.

Christmas eve was a day of preparation, as a little kid I remember going to midnight Mass with my whole family.  The Mass was said in Latin up until 1966 so I understood very little of it.  It was, however, still beautiful to me.  There was a solemness in the church that I could feel but also great joy and anticipation.  In those days our church had the whole town of Bethlehem laid out in a special display, I remember filing past this to catch a glimpse of the tiny baby in his manger.  I couldn’t wait for that moment.  At that moment I knew Christmas had come.

I had been to see Santa and I made sure, one way or another a letter got written to him.  In those early days, my family had a custom of meeting my dad in Center City Philadelphia for dinner and to see the amazing light show at Wanamaker’s a prestigious, though now gone, department store.  We would take the train in town and meet Dad at the station, we would then proceed to a restaurant called The Pub and then on to Wanamakers.  The light show was amazing and if I was lucky I could sit on the eagle statue’s base, which was in the middle of the hall.  I am happy to say that Macy’s bought the Wanamaker’s building and keeps the light show going every year.

After the light show, it was on to Santa’s village for the walkthrough display of animated dolls in Christmas scenes, and at the end of the village was the man himself waiting to hear about my list of toys and questioning my behavior of the previous year.  Like I would ever tell him I had misbehaved.

There was still a last treat for the littlest of children.  Between the ages of maybe 3 and 10, you could ride the in-store monorail.  This monorail took you all around the toy department and let you see from above all the things you could wish for.  It was exciting because it was a ride that, after I was 5 years old, I could go alone.  I think that was the first thing I could ever do for myself.  I don’t think there was anything like it in any other store in the country.

Christmas morning came early, even if we did go to Midnight Mass.  Little kids don’t need a lot of sleep and I’m pretty sure I was the first one awake.  I shared a room with my brother Vince who was seven years older than me.  He was the second one to be awake on those mornings. 

I don’t remember eating breakfast on Christmas morning at all.  I do remember piles of gifts for all four of us under a lovely tree.  My parents were generous to us, for me, in the name of Santa.  Not everything was there but there was never a reason to feel disappointed.  There was enough to keep you very happy.

There wasn’t much time to play with my new treasures.  Shortly after we opened the gifts and got ready for the day we got whisked off to my other grandmother’s house for another round of gift-giving and receiving.  Sometimes my grandfather, who was a chef, would make apple dumplings with warm vanilla sauce and the sugar rush would begin.

And there was a sugar rush all day long.  My mother was a wonderful baker and so all kinds of cookies were made and decorated.  There were sugar cookies in Christmas shapes and raisin filler cookies that looked like little round ravioli, then there were butter cookies also pressed out into festive shapes and of course chocolate chip.  And it wouldn’t be Christmas if my mother didn’t spend hours making the Italian Pizzelle.

At dinner, which would always be a turkey (In the early years my grandfather, my mother’s step-father, would cook the bird, but as he got older my mother took over) we also enjoyed mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce from a can, until I learned how to make it myself, green beans, apple, and pumpkin pie and then, what we now call, a Jewish apple cake.  Back then it was a German apple cake.  I don’t know why.  The reason for the cake was that December the 25th was not only Jesus’ birthday but also my father’s and my mom did the best she could to separate the two.  After dinner, we sang Happy Birthday and gave him his gifts.  It was a shame that he had to do it all in one day but he took in stride and never complained.

In later years my sister’s Trish’s husband would be included in the ranks as he was born not on Christmas day but very close.  Mom would always get him a large chocolate chip pan cookie with Happy Birthday written on it from the local bakery.  A lot went on in the Roberto house at Christmas.  For the kids it was a lot of fun, for the adults I think, it was mostly exhausting.

I think the most important thing in my Christmas memories is that from a very early age I knew what Christmas was all about.  I didn’t need Linus to explain the Gospel story to me, I knew it and saw played out in church every year and every Sunday.  At an early age, I connected Christmas to Easter and in the third grade, I wrote a poem about the child who waited for death so near.  Even as a babe Jesus was both fully man and fully God.  This is the mystery of the incarnation, how God worked it all out I will never know.  I only know he did and because of Christmas and Easter, we have freedom from our slavery to sin and great joy in knowing that there is a reward waiting for us after death.

Christmas has come under scrutiny now and many want to dismiss the day.  Some folks only see the non-Christian side and just decorate trees and wait for Santa without knowing what is behind these symbols of the season.  This is very sad because these symbols, the tree, the holly, the wreath, Santa, the TV shows and big screen movies and everything else is pointing directly at Jesus.  But it is as the saying goes, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”  If you are interested in the great traditions of Christmas may I point you to the books by Ace Collns.  He has done his research well and in three volumes captures just about everything you’d want to know about the holiday.

What are your Christmas memories?  I’d love to hear about them.  Please leave them in the comment section so everyone can share your joy in the season.

The Holiday Season

The holiday season is now upon us.  If you are like everybody else you face the next 6 weeks or so with a mixture of Joy and Dread.  I hope that the joy will outweigh the dread but for many, this is not the case.

Why do we allow the most joyous time of year to become a burden?  Why do the stores dress for Christmas before we’ve gotten rid of the last bite of Halloween candy?  I blame President Roosevelt.

Before WW2 no one thought about Christmas until about a week before. The Holiday Season began on December the twenty-fifth, Christmas Day, and ended on January sixth, The Feast of The Epiphany, the celebration of when the Wisemen came to Bethlehem.  So all the fun stuff we do now, before the 25th, like Christmas Parties and multiple family visits were all done after the 25th.  There was even a party held on the eve of The Epiphany called a 12th Night Party and people would gather to play games and sing songs and enjoy themselves.  This 12th-night party is mentioned in Stave 3 of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Present.  Twelfth Night should remind you of the song The Twelve Days of Christmas because those were the 12 days that are mentioned in the song.  The time between December 25th and January 6th.

President Roosevelt changed that with a very small snowball that rolled downhill and turned into a snow monster.  He asked that everyone do their Christmas shopping extra early so that packages being mailed to soldiers either here or overseas would arrive before Christmas,  This was a great idea for the soldiers but it turned into what we have now.  Roosevelt even tried to move Thanksgiving from the fourth Thursday in November to the third to allow people more time to shop,  Thankfully he did not succeed in this endeavor.

If you watch the I Love Lucy Christmas show you’ll notice that they don’t get a tree until Christmas Eve or decorate at all.  Black Friday, the big sale day after Thanksgiving, did not begin its yearly craziness until the 1950s and then grew stronger thru the 60s and seventies.  Now Black Friday can either make or break many businesses.

The history of Black Friday has nothing to do with retail.  How retail adapted the name seems shrouded in mystery.  Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving was given its name by Philadelphia Policemen.  In the early days of football, the Army-Navy game was played on the day after Thanksgiving.  This would bring many visitors and tourists to Philadelphia.  This caused the police departments to have their officers work overtime and pull extra shifts at a time when the rest of the country was taking a break.  So the Philadelphia cops named the day Black Friday.

And with a Bang Christmas is upon us.  If you live in the most typical of North American homes you don’t even get a chance to enjoy your Thanksgiving leftovers before the shopping frenzy starts.  As the years have gone by this frenzy has gotten worse.  This year the stores are claiming you’d better get all your shopping done immediately or the gifts you want to buy won’t be available with our current worker shortage.  In times past the big stores and malls were opening at Midnight on Black Friday or any early hour of the morning.  I remember back in the early days of early store openings going with my brother-in-law to Best Buy and waiting in quite a line for a 6 a.m. opening.  The doors opened and insanity struck.  People pushing and pulling and even slamming folks into other aisles to get to the sale item they wanted.  I never went to an early opening again.

The message seemed to be “Thanksgiving is over now let’s kill each other.”  This is not the message of Thanksgiving or the message of Christmas.

Maybe it’s time to start slowing down.  Yes, there is a lot of preparation for Christmas but do we have to begin that preparation on Black Friday?  I want our retail stores to have great Christmas sales, but they can get our money a few days or even weeks later.  We will buy gifts and shop just not that day.  I think we should have Blue Friday.  In fact, Sky Blue Friday.

On Sky Blue Friday we take up where we left off on Thanksgiving.  On Thanksgiving, we gave thanks to God and maybe to the people who made our lives a little better or helped us through hard times our focus was outward.  Not thinking about ourselves but of God and other people.  On Sky Blue Friday I believe we should look inward.  It has been said that an “unexamined life is not worth living,” yet many of us rarely take the time to examine where we are or who we are.  We don’t ask if who we are is who we want to be?

Self-examination can be hard but it is also a gift we can give ourselves.  In Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is forced to examine his own life by looking at his past, seeing his present, and getting a glimpse of what his future would be if he persisted in his present course.  On Sky Blue Friday we should do the same examine our past and present and see where our current, attitudes, beliefs, jobs, work ethic, relationships, and hobbies may be leading us.  If all is well then there is nothing to do if all is NOT well then we need to determine what changes need to be made and make them.

Black Friday being replaced by Sky Blue Friday can lead us right into the next part of the holiday season, Advent.  Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day.  It is celebrated in Churches as the four Sundays before Christmas.  More often than not the first Sunday of Advent will fall on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  The traditional Advent Calendars that you buy in the store with the little windows that open up begin on December first but that is not the Advent season.

Advent is a special time.  At Easter, we go through Lent and in some way try to participate in the sufferings of our savior.  In Advent, we are looking forward to the coming of our Savior, and this is with great excitement and joy because we know what he brings will be good.  For the Christian, we look to the past for the birth of Jesus into this world and to the future for his promised return.

Advent is a time of preparation.  Many churches have Advent Wreaths as part of the season but this is also something you can do with your family or even by yourself.  Advent candles and wreaths are available on Amazon or you could easily make one yourself with fresh evergreen branches some wire and candle holders.  You can check out the Gospel for each day on the liturgical calendar.  Both Catholics and Protestants use this calendar.  On the first Sunday of Advent, you light the first candle read that day’s Gospel, and say a short prayer.  Maybe even sing some carols or turn on the Christmas Music.  Then each of the following days you do the same reading the Gospel for the day.  If you want to make it simpler there are many advent devotionals you can use if the liturgical calendar isn’t for you.

This is a great way to spend Advent it will slow you down and it will help you focus on what we are really celebrating.  If you’re reading this and you are not a Christian do this anyway.  There are a lot of bad things being said about Christians these days and most of them are false.  If you prepare for Christmas this way you’ll get a taste of who Jesus was and is and it may make your celebration even more joyful.  You may find yourself wanting to know more about Jesus.

Speaking of Joy, did you know that the song Joy to the World is not actually a Christmas song.  It’s not about Jesus first coming over 2000 years ago, although we sing it with that in mind.  The lyricist’s intention was this song to herald the second coming of Jesus.  This is the song we will be singing when Christ comes back as he promised he would.  Now we sing it in anticipation of that event.

There are so many ways to slow down in this upcoming season.  Take in a concert, See a production of A Christmas Carol.  There will be a whole lot about A Christmas Carol in an upcoming Blog.  Better yet read A Christmas Carol.  The book has so much more than any filmed version.  I haven’t forgotten Thanksgiving.  Here’s a last word.  God gives us the sunshine and the rain.  He makes the crops grow and so supplies us with food.  He gave us life and each of our lives is precious to Him.  When you sit down with whomever you share Thanksgiving with or if you are by yourself take one second, a moment and remember all He has done.

Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving!