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Partridge in a Pear Tree Wall Tapestry

"A Partridge in a Pear Tree" wall tapestry (

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Warm your feet by the fire

The popcorn’s warm and buttery. The cocoa’s thick and rich and… well, chocolaty. It must be time… Yes! It is! … for the annual Sister Alma Rose Semisecular* Christmastide Videorama.

* To Sister Alma Rose, nothing is truly secular. Is there somewhere God isn’t? She doesn’t think so.

First, but not necessarily foremost, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by Straight No Chaser, whom we adore, in close harmony with nutty variations and a few outright departures. (The song itself — not the Straight No Chaser rendition — might be three hundred years old — no one seems to be sure — nor can anyone say with certainty whether each day’s gift has any particular significance.)

Okay, these next two give Sister Alma Rose goosebumps, but not me. I just sob.

Christmas in the Trenches

“Perhaps,” Sister Alma Rose ventures, “y’all have heard the story of ‘Christmas in the Trenches'”:

Australian infantry wearing gas masks, Ypres, 1917

Australian infantry wearing gas masks, Ypres, 1917

Christmas truce” is a term used to describe several brief, unofficial cessations of hostilities that occurred on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day between German and British or French troops in World War I, particularly that between British and German troops stationed along the Western Front during Christmas 1914. In 1915 there was a similar Christmas truce between German and French troops, and during Easter 1916 a truce also existed on the Eastern Front. —Wikipedia

It is said that after the particular truce described in the song “Christmas in the Trenches” (by folksinger/songwriter John McCutcheon), the soldiers were unable to or refused to fight and had to be sent home. Sister Alma Rose does not know whether this is true, nor does she know whether it makes them heroes or fools (cowards they certainly were not), nor should it reflect on the courage and honor of those who stayed and fought, or of those who do so till this day, God bless them all.

Bing and Bowie

Mama, the musician, likes to introduce this video:

If you’re under a certain age, you need to understand the subtext of this 1977 performance. Bing Crosby — one of the biggest stars of the 1940s and 1950s, and still a popular celebrity when he died in 1977, was very straitlaced and conservative, a strict Roman Catholic, and David Bowie… wasn’t.

Bing Crosby: He could carry a tune

Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby’s singing and acting career “stretched over more than half a century from 1926 until his death. Crosby was a best-selling artist until well into the rock era, with over half a billion records in circulation.” (Wikipedia)

Apart from some youthful drinking and indulgence in marijuana, Bing was so squeaky-clean, both publicly and privately, that the public sometimes wished (although it was none of “the public’s” business) that he were less strict with his four sons (from his marriage to Dixie Lee, who suffered from acute alcoholism and who died of cancer in 1952). Two of the couple’s four sons committed suicide, Lindsay in 1989 and Dennis in 1991. Bing Crosby had three children with his second wife, Kathryn Grant Crosby.

Asked what he would write for his own epitaph, Crosby replied, “He was an average guy who could carry a tune.” Well, Bing, if you say so.

David Bowie — Mega-Shocker, Megastar

Iman and David Bowie

Iman and David Bowie; photo by David Shankbone

David Bowie is a highly respected “English musician, actor, record producer and arranger. Active in five decades of popular music and frequently reinventing his music and image, Bowie is widely regarded as an innovator, particularly for his work in the 1970s. He has been cited as an influence by many musicians and is known for his distinctive voice and the intellectual depth of his work.” (Wikipedia)

His music has been tagged as “psychedelic folk,” “glam rock,” “heavy metal,” and a dozen other styles, some of which he invented. On tour, he has startled even hard-core fans with his androgynous appearance, “ultra” theatrics, and “shocking stage moments….”

He married the Somali-born supermodel Iman Abdulmajid at Saint James Church in Florence in 1992. Their daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones (she goes by “Lexi”), was born in August 2000. The family has homes in Manhattan and London.

David Bowie, "Music's Most Fashionable Man" 2009

David Bowie, "Music's Most Fashionable Man" 2009

Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, Bowie’s son with his first wife, was born in 1971. He earned a bachelor’s degree and then graduated as a director from the London Film School.

Bowie has been notorious at times — for years of heavy drug abuse, particularly cocaine; and for “politically radical comments, saying that Britain could benefit from a fascist leader and that Adolf Hitler was ‘the first super-star.'” Yet Bowie has steadily reinvented his image and his music so creatively that he is said to have progressed from “superstar” to “megastar.” Some who know him well say that the private David Bowie is at heart a family man but that periodically shocking the public is part of his mystique.

Culture Clash

The wildly differing backgrounds of Bowie and Crosby set up a cultural tension between the two that makes their duet all the more poignant — like watching the Crips and Bloods Mixed Chorus, maybe. It’s also helpful to know that “White Christmas” was a huge hit for Bing Crosby — his signature song, in a way.

This video is lovely, and Bing and Bowie are fun to watch. The duet, I think, is overorchestrated, which blunts the impact of the two very different men making music together. Even so, it’s a rare treat. I hope you enjoy it. And a very Merry Christmas to you….

Bing Crosby - White Christmas Album

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    A Meeting of Spirits



    Sister Alma Rose and I flew (on an airplane) to a wedding last week. Sister Alma Rose said it was okay for me to write about it as long as I didn’t use people’s real names. I don’t know why; it wasn’t like it was supposed to be a SECRET or anything. I mean, they sent out scores of wedding invitations, and the invitations didn’t say, “You’re invited to a wedding, here’s the place, here’s the time, but we can’t tell you who the bride and groom are. It will be a SURPRISE!”



    Sister Alma Rose, however, usually has a good reason for saying what she says and doing what she does, so I will use pseudonyms for everyone as she requested.

    The groom, “Lance” (not his real name), is Sister Alma Rose’s godson. Lance and his bride, “Alexandra,” had lived together for four years with their beautiful son, “Rex.” Sister Alma Rose did not understand why they waited so long to get married — Sister Alma Rose is a big fan of marriage, plus she absolutely adores Alexandra, as evidenced by paying her the highest possible compliment of allowing her (Alexandra) to marry her (Sister Alma Rose’s) godson — but anyway, Lance said that now they can put a big tattoo on Rex’s forehead that says LEGITIMATE. That Lance, he is such a jokester.

    'Rex' (spring 2008)

    'Rex' (spring 2008)

    Lance and Alexandra had a secular wedding. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know the meaning of secular. She considers practically everything to be sacred — picking your nose, cleaning the oven, whatever — and she told me that when two people pay thousands of dollars to make a commitment in the presence of their friends and families to become married, and, with their son and any subsequent children, to be a family… and then immediately celebrate that union by eating dolled-up chicken breasts and sweet little salads with pansy petals in them, drinking inordinate amounts of wine, and dancing endlessly to music played by a cornball deejay who made sly, unfunny witticisms about “the wedding night,” and so forth… there is no way that that ceremony and that celebration are not sacred.

    'Claire' and 'Rex'

    'Claire' and 'Rex'

    But, Sister Alma Rose goes on to say, every true friendship, sometimes even a chance encounter, can be “a meeting of spirits” and therefore sacred.

    In any event, the marriage took place in a lovely garden and the reception was in the adjacent ballroom. I guess a lot of people get married there, because there were two efficient “wedding planners” at the rehearsal, which was the night before the wedding, and the wedding planners were telling everybody when to walk down the aisle and where to sit, and nobody was paying attention because everyone had temporarily reverted to seventh grade, and we all assumed that something would go wrong anyway, which, if it doesn’t, it’s not a real wedding and there’s nothing to talk about for years and years afterward, and besides, there was going to be a lavish party involving lots of food, beer, and wine immediately after the rehearsal, so let’s get this over with, was the prevailing attitude.

    'Christine,' 'Max,' and 'Claire'

    'Christine,' 'Max,' and 'Claire'

    The lavish party was at Lance’s “Aunt Amelia” and “Uncle César’s” lavish house, about which I remember nothing except that it was lavish and there seemed to be a lot of gorgeous marble everywhere. The reason I don’t remember much about the house is that it was so full of happy people, each one kinder and more gracious than the next, which was a miracle in and of itself, because in a gathering of that type you can expect an assortment of ex-spouses and current spouses and significant others and “blended families” and so forth. But everyone seemed to have left his or her baggage at the door, because, as Sister Alma Rose said, (1) no one wanted to mar the occasion for Lance and Alexandra, (2) all the current and former couples are, for the most part, mature adults (except on solemn occasions like weddings and funerals) and get along pretty well anyway, and (3) the bride and groom and the hosts set the tone for the party, the tone being, as Sister Alma Rose put it, “generosity of spirit.” The hosts were Lance’s dad, “Ken,” and Ken’s wife, Tomoko (and that IS her real name because I can’t think of any other Japanese women’s names at the moment), Lance’s “Aunt Savannah” and “Uncle George,” and, of course, Aunt Amelia and Uncle César.

    The groomsmen — 'Jeremy,' 'Max,' and 'Tom'

    Men in black: groomsmen 'Jeremy,' 'Max,' and 'Tom'

    After the party, the glowing bride-to-be and her friend “Christine” took Christine’s daughter, “Claire,” and Rex to the hotel where they had a room. Claire’s dad is Lance’s brother, “Max,” who stayed at Lance and Alexandra’s house with his sweetie, “Justine,” and their one-year-old son, “little Max.” Are you following along here? Sister Alma Rose and I stayed there, too, along with several other delightful people, and it was just… well, delightful. Even the day of the wedding was pretty relaxed, until everyone realized how late it had gotten and all dove for the shower at once because we were supposed to be at the wedding place by 4:30 for “pictures,” which, of course, took ages and consisted mostly of waiting and trying to not sweat.

    'Lance' and his new father-in-law, 'Mike'

    'Lance' and his new father-in-law, 'Mike'

    Lance’s mom’s name is “Peggy” (not really). For the actual wedding, Lance escorted her to the front row to sit next to Ken and Tomoko. Then Lance went and stood at the “altar,” so to speak, so handsome and grown up in his pinstripe suit, and Peggy broke into heaving sobs, and of course, although Peggy and Ken have a cordial relationship for two people who used to be married and haven’t seen each other for ten years, she couldn’t very well bury her face in Ken’s shoulder. Sister Alma Rose was about to go up and sit next to Peggy (“Every groom’s mom needs a shoulder to sob on,” she whispered to me) when there was a pleasant distraction.

    'Claire' and 'Rex'

    'Claire' and 'Rex'

    Lance’s irrepressible best man, “Tom,” entered with Alexandra’s sister “Jeanne” on his arm, and Tom is such a goof, and I mean that in the nicest possible way because I adore Tom, that he had talked Jeanne into walking down the aisle in that kind of step-touch, step-touch way of walking that I don’t think anybody does any more, not even in church processionals or at graduations, so Tom and Jeanne cracked everybody up and Peggy stopped sobbing.

    She got a little weepy again when her grandchildren Rex and Claire, both age 4, ringbearer and flower girl respectively, ambled down the aisle. Claire apparently forgot that she was supposed to be scattering flower petals until she got to the front, so she just sort of poured them into a little pile by Peggy’s feet and went over to sit with her mom.

    Grandpa 'Ken,' 'Max Jr.' and Grandma Tomoko

    Grandpa 'Ken,' 'Max Jr.' and Grandma Tomoko

    The officiant — I guess that’s what you call the person who performs the marriage ceremony if he or she is not a minister — was wearing a toupee, which was not very well affixed, and it sort of slid precariously around on his head, looking like a wandering tribe of spiders, and Sister Alma Rose and I got the giggles, and the officiant talked on and on about nothing, which, if it’s not a religious ceremony, what is there to talk about anyway? And we’d think he was just about done secularly sermonizing, and he’d take a deep breath and go off in another direction, and he kept stuttering, and I thought that Sister Alma Rose was going to cause herself grievous bodily harm, she was trying so hard not to laugh out loud, but she just coughed a lot instead, as though she were trying to dislodge an entire yam from her throat.

    'Tom,' 'Alexandra,' and 'Celeste'

    'Tom,' 'Alexandra,' and 'Celeste'

    AT LONG LAST, when the officiant asked Lance the usual wedding questions, such as, do you, Lance, take Alexandra, blah, blah, Lance answered, “ABSOLUTELY,” in no uncertain terms. Alexandra gave the more conventional “I DO,” but just as loudly, so that nobody present, or within a radius of three blocks, was left in doubt of their commitment, which was sealed with a very lavish kiss.

    But the best was yet to come — the dinner, the champagne toasts, the wedding cake, and the dancing. Even though the deejay was a complete dweeb, as I have said, he was really into being a deejay, and at one point all the dancing stopped and the deejay, along with Alexandra’s other sister, “Felicia,” and the three groomsmen, did this choreographed skit to music from the movie Grease, completely unrehearsed and very silly and fun.

    Alexandra danced all night, and she was stunning. I’m not intuitive the way Sister Alma Rose is — she sees auras and stuff — but I turned to Sister Alma Rose at one point and said, “There’s so much love in here you could cut it with a knife.” And Sister Alma Rose agreed.
    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Emotional boot camp

    Sister Alma Rose mostly talked to Peggy, who was still in shock brought on by seeing both of her sons in pinstripe suits.

    'Alexandra's' sister 'Jeanne'

    'Alexandra's' sister 'Jeanne'

    “For ten years,” Peggy said with a sigh, “I had a sweet-natured daughter and wondered what all the fuss was about when it came to parenting. Then I had Max, and eighteen months later I had Lance, and the very first time I put Lance into his playpen, Max dropped one of those big Tonka dump trucks onto Lance’s head, and I should have seen it as a harbinger [except she pronounced it “hairbringer”] of things to come [which is, of course, redundant]. When the boys were teenagers and the phone rang in the middle of the night and I picked it up and a voice said, ‘Is this Mrs. Jones?’ [not her real last name], I would say, ‘That depends,’ or, ‘Who wants to know?’ I spent so much time in courtrooms and principals’ offices and teacher conferences that I bought a couple of modest Amish-looking dark-colored dresses with white Peter Pan collars and referred to them as my ‘mother-of-the-felon’ wardrobe.

    'Max Jr.'

    'Max Jr.'

    “Raising children,” Peggy told Sister Alma Rose, “is like emotional boot camp. I don’t think that most people, before they become parents, have any idea how far they can stretch without breaking… or that, if they DO break, God puts the pieces back together.

    “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, though,” Peggy said wistfully, “being a mom is the best, and I’d gladly do it all again, except without Tonka trucks.”

    We took an early-morning flight home, and Sister Alma Rose was so tired that she fell asleep several times right there in her seat on the plane and woke herself up saying something that related to whatever she was dreaming about while she slept. The first time, she said, loudly, “It’s TEN dollars, not THIRTY dollars,” and the second time, she sat up very straight and announced, “I am NEVER going to go into REAL estate.”

    Now we are home, and I am missing Lance and Alexandra and Rex a whole lot, and so I went outside and made a big chalk arrow on the sidewalk and then under it I wrote, “This way to Lance and Alexandra and Rex’s house,” and for now it’s enough just to know that we’re all on the same planet.


    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete


    Santa Clues

    Christmas Can Be Cancer-Causing

    jackolanternDear Sister Alma Rose – Every year at about this time I get a little crazy. It starts when carved pumpkins appear on people’s front porches. The jack-o-lanterns seem to be sneering at me. “We’re pumpkins,” I can almost hear them hissing, “like, you know, in pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, which will be here VERY SOON, and close upon its heels will be the HOLIDAY SEASON, and you haven’t even STARTED your Christmas CHORES.” Then they laugh this eerie laugh. “HA-hahahaha.” And they’re right. Or, they would be if pumpkins could talk. But their gap-toothed mouths don’t actually MOVE. Although I’m almost sure I saw one of them blink.

    stockings_mantleI kind of go all out for Christmas. I make dozens of jars of Sherry’s Cherry-Vanilla Marmalade for friends. I make and send more than a hundred individually cross-stitched Christmas cards, each with a handwritten note. I write, illustrate, print, and bind about a dozen books for the children in my extended family. I’m an enthusiastic bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. I make and shop for gifts, not just for my own family and friends, but also for our Adopt-a-Family families (we have five this year). I stencil all the wrapping paper myself, on 100-percent recycled unbleached newsprint. And, of course, we have our annual Holiday Open House, which requires two full days of cleaning, decorating, baking, and cooking. I don’t actually grind my own wheat or use honey from my own beehives, but I’ve thought about it. Oh, and I sing in a community choir that gives three public performances, and of course there are extra rehearsals, plus I organize the children’s Christmas pageant at church, and make all the costumes. There’s more, but you get the idea, don’t you, Sister Alma Rose? The month of December is one big panic attack. What should I do? —Signed, Burned Out in Buffalo

    Dear BOIB — Y’all need to give Sister Alma Rose a minute or two. Y’all have caused her to have a panic attack.

    Okay, Sister Alma Rose has recovered.

    blood_testingIt’s too late to point out that y’all could have done three-fourths of y’all’s “chores” back in August… although, Sister Alma Rose supposes, y’all probably run around in a minor-league frenzy the rest of the year too.

    Fortunately, Sister Alma Rose has several helpful suggestions. Here they are, in no particular order:


    On or about December 1, break a leg or contract a temporarily debilitating but not life-threatening illness, such as mononucleosis — anything that will require y’all to spend about three weeks in bed….

    snowflakePROS: (a) Y’all will have time to reflect on the meaning of Christmas and the Winter Solstice, which is, briefly, the returning of the Light and the reminder that Life will soon emerge from the frozen earth even though you forgot to mulch the rosebushes. (b) Y’all will discover that the world won’t come to an end simply because you haven’t made marmalade or cross-stitched cards or sewed pageant costumes. (c) Y’all will get some much-needed rest. (d) Y’all won’t make yourself and everybody around you miserable with the stress generated by your crazed, obsessive activity (see Table 1).

    CONS: Y’all’s injury or illness has to be genuine. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know of a reliable way to break one’s leg without putting the rest of one’s limbs and one’s internal organs in jeopardy (as would be the case, for example, if y’all hurled yourself out of a third-story window) unless y’all just whack at y’all’s leg with a ball-peen hammer, which y’all might be able to do if y’all have fortified yourself with immense quantities of hard cider. But what if y’all’s hubby walked into the room in which y’all were hammering away at your tibia? He’d likely say something like, “Darling, why are y’all butchering y’all’s shin?” and y’all would gibber, being under the influence of the hard cider, you know, and y’all’s husband might thereupon insist that you take a prolonged “vacation” at a “special hotel” where everybody wears white and where none of the “guests” is issued sharp objects, not even a plastic fork.

    As for contracting mononucleosis, even supposing y’all were able to find someone who had the disease (perhaps by taking out a classified ad) and who could be persuaded to cough directly into y’all’s face… mononucleosis is nothing to mess with, inasmuch as in rare cases it can produce complications such as meningitis and possibly death, which, though it does solve the wrapping-paper problem, is perhaps an inordinately high price to pay.

    christmas_house2. MINIMIZE

    Substitute Welch’s Grape Jelly for Sherry’s Cherry-Vanilla Marmalade. Find oversized bathrobes for the children to wear at the Christmas pageant. Give fruit baskets to the adults on y’all’s list, money to the older children (a dollar per year, agewise), and diapers to the babies. For the fruit baskets, don’t even THINK about growing the fruit yourself in y’all’s backyard. Have a BYOB potluck open house. Do NOT make cross-stitched Christmas cards; they only cause the recipients to feel guilty when they throw them away. Send postcards instead. That way y’all don’t even have to seal envelopes.


    Calculate the health effects of y’all’s holiday activities. Make an Excel table, per the following example:


    As this table clearly and scientifically demonstrates, y’all are NOT doing yourself or the world any favors by maintaining this frantic holiday pace. Furthermore, the table doesn’t account for a great number of other Seasonal risks: indebtedness comparable to that of General Motors, toxic mall ambience further polluted by continuous replays of Chipmunks Christmas album, antagonistic attitude of people who don’t celebrate Christmas and don’t think anybody else should either, danger of cat upsetting Christmas tree and spilling water that shorts out electronic Christmas presents already wrapped with arithmetical precision, as if going to be inspected by army drill sergeant, and set under tree, etc.

    christmastreePlease do not misunderstand. Sister Alma Rose adores Christmas. She loves every tacky song, even “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as sung, a little peevishly, it must be said, by Burl Ives. She enjoys glittery parties and judiciously spiked punch. She likes over-the-top outdoor decorations that are visible to the naked eye from Saturn (never mind that there are, as far as we know, no eyes, naked or otherwise, on Saturn). She is crazy about making and giving and receiving gifts. She doesn’t even mind that for a month or so the entire town of Hilltop is transformed into a giant red plastic Thing.

    Sister Alma Rose realizes, however, that even she has limitations. When celebration crosses the line into consternation, a highly contagious upper-respiratory infection cannot be far behind. She recommends that y’all follow Sister Alma Rose’s example, which, when in doubt, is always an excellent practice, and particularly so during the Holidays: minimize the stress factor, maximize the joy factor, and never, ever, do all your shopping on Christmas Eve at Bob’s Pharmacy, which Sister Alma Rose once did, and everybody received sinus irrigators.


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