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A Christmas blessing. December 25, 2011

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Each year at Christmas, we at Poor Richard’s Almanac—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—have made a tradition of sharing a letter written at Christmas by Fra Giovanni to his patron in 1513 with all of you. This tradition is borrowed from Tasha Tudor, the beloved children’s author and illustrator, who read Fra Giovanni’s letter aloud to her family and guests every year at Christmas. The beauty and wisdom it conveys make it a tradition worth preserving, as we think you’ll see:

“I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.

The Gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

This festive and joyful season, we wish the same for each other and for every one of you. God bless us every one!

       —Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders

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Welcoming the Christmas season. November 30, 2011

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Silence Dogood here. Last Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent, when our friend Ben and I very sadly bid farewell to the season of Harvest Home that culminates in Thanksgiving, which we love, and turn our faces to our very favorite time of year, the Christmas season.

Mind you, it’s not even December yet, so you won’t find us putting up our tree or cloaking our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, with lights, or anything like that. We like to build up to Christmas to keep the excitement going. But we do like to acknowledge the change in seasons with a few significant changes.

First, to celebrate the Advent season, when all the Christian world prepares to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, we set out our Advent calendar. In our case, it’s one by the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Tasha Tudor, whose early 19th-century lifestyle we admire enormously. Advent calendars have little “doors” (usually paper, as in the case of ours) that you open each day to reveal an illustration, thought, or scripture passage, leading up to Christmas. The excitement of opening a new door every day awakens the child in all of us.

Next, we get out our Christmas incense, balsam and pine and frankincense and myrrh and every good Christmas thing, and our Christmas candles, pine-scented, cinnamon- and clove-scented, bayberry, and so on. We love candles and incense, and we love changing them according to the seasons, so this is an important seasonal ritual for us, ushering in the Christmas season.

We don’t want to rush Christmas decorating, but we always set out two harbingers of Christmas on our mantel on the first Sunday of Advent: a small olivewood Nativity scene from the Holy Land that I acquired as an undergraduate, and a delightful Mary Engelbreit card of Santa approaching a chimney with “Believe” written below. We do believe in all that the magical season of Christmas has to offer.

The only other early-Christmas effort we make is to get out and start playing our collection of Christmas music. Every year, we try to add a CD or two to our collection, and, loving music as we do, nothing says Christmas to us (besides the smells of the season) more than music. We’ll share our faves with you tomorrow.

Soon, we’ll begin watching our annual “Scroogefest” of various DVD interpretations of Charles Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol. We’ll read our favorite Christmas classics. We’ll decorate our tree, mantel, and table, put up a wreath on the front wall of Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home, plan our Christmas meals, write our Christmas cards, gather all our Christmas gifts. We’ll prepare to delight each other and spoil our dog, cats, and birds, surprise our neighbors, and give our very best to our families and friends when the big day comes.

Meanwhile, we’ve got a lot to do. And a lot to enjoy. And the enjoyment starts now!

            ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Merry Christmas to all. December 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Each year at Christmas, we at Poor Richard’s Almanac—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—have made a tradition of sharing a letter written at Christmas by Fra Giovanni to his patron in 1513 with all of you. This tradition is borrowed from Tasha Tudor, the beloved children’s author and illustrator, who read Fra Giovanni’s letter aloud to her family and guests every year at Christmas. The beauty and wisdom it conveys make it a tradition worth preserving, as we think you’ll see:

“I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.

The Gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

This festive and joyful season, we wish the same for each other and for every one of you. God bless us every one!

       —our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders

A Tudor Christmas. December 22, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. A reader recently came on to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, with the query “Was the Tudors’ Christmas like ours now?” Now, I’m assuming they meant Tudors as in Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I, not Tudors as in Tasha Tudor, American children’s book author and illustrator. (Tasha’s amazing and delightful Christmas celebration and rituals can be enjoyed through the wonderful book Forever Christmas and the video/DVD “Take Joy!”)

But getting back to the British royal line, the short answer to our reader’s query is “not so much.” Why? Well, think of what epitomizes Christmas to us: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, a roasted turkey and all the trimmings, eggnog, stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” Christmas cards, The Night Before Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol. We all know that Christmas movies and TV specials wouldn’t have been a part of a Tudor Christmas. But none of the rest of this would have been, either.

So what would a Tudor Christmas have been like? Let’s take a look:

A season, not a day. For people in the Tudor era, Christmas lasted an entire month, from the 6th of December (St. Nicholas’s Day) through Twelfth Night (Epiphany, January 6). The month wasn’t one long holiday, of course, but there was plenty of time for feasts, traditions, churchgoing, and celebrations.

The Yule Log. One key tradition was the Yule Log. Of Viking origin, the Yule Log was adopted by everyone, since it fit in nicely with the winter woodburning and huge fireplaces of the time. (All heating and cooking was done with wood, and fireplaces in the kitchen and great hall were large enough to sit in very comfortably. No wonder Santa came down the chimney in later traditions!) On Christmas Eve, a huge, previously selected log was cut, festooned with ribbons, and brought into the hall. It was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas to usher in the Christ Child and a prosperous New Year, and any scraps that hadn’t completely burned were kept to kindle the following year’s Yule Log to bring good luck . 

The Holly and the Ivy. Christmas trees didn’t become popular until Victorian times, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced them from Germany. But the concept of using evergreen plants—be they pine or fir trees, holly branches, ivy, boxwood, yew, laurel, or mistletoe—to celebrate the winter solstice and the promise of rebirth and new life to come—was the same, and of Druidic origin. “The Holly and the Ivy” was a popular carol that commemorated this tradition, and the Tudors would have sung it. Folk in Tudor times would have decorated their homes with greens on Christmas Eve rather than, as we do, long before, because if you didn’t wait, it was considered bad luck.

Caroling. Yes, caroling—singing Christmas songs and dancing for joy—was as popular in Tudor times as it is today. (Though somehow we forgot the dancing part of the original caroling.) You might even know some popular Tudor carols, like “The Coventry Carol,” “The First Nowell,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” In fact, “What Child Is This?” is based on a popular Tudor tune, “Greensleeves,” which legend attributes to Henry VIII himself, as a love song to Anne Boleyn. The wonderfully-named Wynken de Worde published the first collection of carols in 1521, so Henry and his court would have been familiar with it. Religious plays centered around Christmas were also popular aspects of a Tudor Christmas; they were often called “mystery plays” because they celebrated the mystery of the Incarnation.

Wassail. Another legacy of the Viking occupation of Britain, the Wassail Bowl is still recalled by most of us as a Christmas legacy, even if, like us, you’ve never tasted Wassail punch. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, Wassail was composed of hot ale, sugar, spices, and apples. Its name derives from the Saxon Waes-Hael, “be whole,” “be healthy.” Click the link and you’ll discover how our custom of “toasting” came to be, and it’s a pretty amazing story. Sounds like our own version of Wassail is hot mulled cider, though our friend Ben and I prefer ours with Gosling dark rum, not ale.

Christmas Dinner. Two meat pies dominated Christmas dinner in Tudor times. The “folk” ate mince pie, including dried fruit, spices, and mutton, and shaped like a crib in honor of Baby Jesus. The Court ate Christmas pie–a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon, all packed into a pastry casing called a “coffin” and dressed with jointed hare, small game birds, and wild fowl. Yow!

We Americans know that turkeys are native to our land, so how would they have figured in a Tudor Christmas? Well, the colonists sent turkeys to England in 1523, and King Henry VIII was the first king to include turkey in his Christmas celebrations. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, turkeys quickly gained popularity, and “large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot, a journey which they may have started as early as August.” Talk about some very fit turkeys!

Most Britons of the day feasted on swan, goose, woodcock, venison, wild boar, or peacock. (Elizabeth I insisted that goose be the choice for Christmas dinner, a tradition most of us in the U.S., who’ve never had goose, recall fondly from Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner.) Another popular dish was souse, consisting of pickled pigs’ feet and ears. Christmas pudding was a sausage of meat, oatmeal and spices. And a boar’s head on a platter was ceremoniously presented at the table in wealthy households and—gulp—served.

There was a version of our dreaded fruitcake even back in Tudor times, called Twelfth Night Cake. And the Tudors even ate a variation on our salads, including sprouts, but pressed into the shape of the Tudor coat of arms. 

Gingerbread and sugarplums. Gingerbread men were presented to guests by Queen Elizabeth I, cunningly designed to resemble the fortunate recipient. Less lofty individuals enjoyed gingerbread men and pigs (!) and eaten on Bonfire Night, November 5th. Sugarplums, by contrast, didn’t make an appearance until the 1600s, so they weren’t a Christmas treat on Tudor tables. And by the way, they weren’t made from plums; the word “sugarplum” referred to a plum-shaped sugar candy. 

Presents. Our all-important custom of giving Christmas presents was also a big deal in Tudor times, but not for Christmas; it was a New Year’s custom. If you happened to be a noble or a courtier, not only were you expected to give gifts to your extended family, dependents, and friends; you had to give a gift to your monarch (aka Henry) as well. And if he rejected your gift, God help you. 

Christmas cards. In Tudor times, people didn’t send Christmas cards. But they did send original poems—typically, epigrams—for New Year’s. Since Henry VIII himself was an accomplished poet, his court had to meet a pretty high bar.

Mistletoe. Another sacred plant of the Druids, mistletoe was brought into the home for good luck, protection from witches, and fertility on the winter solstice, December 21. But sorry, all: The kissing ball (usually hung in the entrance hall) and kissing under the mistletoe is an 18th-century custom. Needless to say, Henry VIII didn’t need the excuse of mistletoe to kiss whomever he liked!

There you have it. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many other traditionas that characterized a Tudor Christmas, so if you can think of any, please let me know!

          ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

A Tasha Tudor teacup giveaway. December 18, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. As an admirer of the children’s book author and illustrator Tasha Tudor and her authentic 1830s lifestyle, I was thrilled to discover that the Tudor family is giving away an antique pink lustreware teacup to six lucky recipients. Tasha drank her custom-blended Welsh breakfast tea from an antique pink lustreware cup every day. Winners will be able to do the same—or proudly display this memento of a remarkable woman.

To see the cups (each has a different pattern) and register to possibly win your favorite, go the the Rookery Ramblings blog (http://rookeryramblings.blogspot.com/) and leave a comment for Natalie, who works with the Tudor family. Tell her which cup(s) you like best, and make sure you include your e-mail address in the message so she can contact you if you win.

The deadline is December 22, and the competition is piling up! When I left my comment, 65 people had beaten me to it. When I checked the link this morning, there were 378 comments! So if you’re a Tasha fan, I suggest that you take a minute now to click the link and join the fun. Think how thrilling it would be if you won!

             ‘Til next time,

                      Silence 

Disclaimer: These cups were not owned by Tasha Tudor, but have been specially collected in the spirit of Tasha by the family for this giveaway.

Advent calendars. November 28, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. Today is the first day of Advent, so of course our friend Ben and I got out our Advent calendar. It’s the first stage of our Christmas celebration, and one of our favorite traditions. Opening that first window makes us feel the Christmas season has really arrived!

For those who don’t know Advent calendars, they typically show every day from the first Sunday of Advent through Christmas Eve. Behind the door or window for each day is a surprise, so you open one each day until Christmas. Talk about building up anticipation!

Most Advent calendars are printed on heavy stock, and their windows open on illustrations or Bible verses. But we’ve seen wooden Advent calendars whose doors hide handmade Christmas ornaments, and Advent calendars made of felt with infants’ soft toys behind each door. Some Advent calendars let you hide your own choice of treats, toys, and tiny scrolled verses behind the doors.

Ours is a Tasha Tudor Advent calendar book, Tasha Tudor’s Advent Calendar (Philomel Books, New York, 1988). We love it, first for the delightful illustrations by the beloved children’s book illustrator, featuring all the animals her observation and imagination could provide, and second because the book format protects the calendar, which has the traditional windows that you open to reveal, in this case, animals in their Christmas finery. Like any good Advent calendar, part of the fun is finding each day’s window, hidden as they are in a lively scene of Christmas frolicking in Ms. Tudor’s beloved Corgiville. (Tasha Tudor fans, you can get your own Tasha Advent calendars at www.tashatudorandfamily.com.)

This year, we were fortunate enough to find two delightful tiny Advent calendars for OFB’s niece and nephew. Made in Germany, the cunning little calendars were no bigger than postcards, but still had windows that opened for each day, revealing surprises behind the scenes of Santa with his elk-drawn sleigh, surrounded by creatures from the woods, and Santa in an Old World village, lit like a scene from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. So much fun! It was hard to resist picking up another for ourselves.

We think the Advent calendar is a tradition worth reviving, if it’s not already a Christmastime classic in your home. It’s a delightful, innocent way to count down the days ’til Christmas in a sweet or spiritual rather than consumerist manner, reminding us each day of the “reason for the Season.”

             ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

A Cordiall Water September 11, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. Passionate as I am about food and cooking, and as many hundreds of cookbooks and food history books as I’ve collected, I’m woefully ignorant of the genre known as “food writing,” essays and memoirs related to food. I can count on one hand the books I’ve read on the topic, if we can lump all the Julia Child books (My Life in France, Passion for Life, Julie and Julia, etc.) on one finger. I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful food adventure story, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Ruth Reichl’s second biographical book, Comfort Me with Apples; Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat; and Peter Mayle’s French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew.

But I had never read the most renowned of the modern food writers, MFK Fisher. Love her or hate her, she defined food writing in the Twentieth Century, and from everything I can see, continues to define it, it and a certain sensibility with regard to food. Food writers copy elements of her style, or her approach to food and life, or they very consciously don’t. She is the gilded Oscar on the food writer’s shelf, the taunting presence, the one to beat, the one you hope critics will compare you to: “A modern-day MFK Fisher!”

Unfortunately, I appear to be landing in the “hate her” camp. I recently stumbled on her book  A Cordiall Water: A Garland of Odd and Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man and Beast in a used book store. My fascination with herbs and herbal remedies and lore is equal to my love of cooking and cookbooks, so I bought the book without a second thought. A chance to finally read MFK Fisher and to see what she has to say about old-time remedies: Talk about win-win!

Talk about win-lose. I should have paid more attention to the photo of Fisher on the back of the book rather than the topic on the front. It was so elaborately, so consciously, so preciously styled as to resemble press-release shots of starlets in the Roaring Twenties, or perhaps famed stage beauties of the 1890s. And this tone infused every chapter of what might otherwise have been a fascinating read.

It might not have been Ms. Fisher’s fault; she was born in 1908, and came to womanhood during those same Roaring Twenties, the Flapper era, when laquered waves, bobs, and helmet hats were de rigeuer, a ruler-flat figure was the height of fashion, the Ziegfeld Follies were the most popular entertainment, Tallulah Bankhead was the reigning celebrity, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his circle set the style. The Algonquin Hotel and its “Vicious Circle” of critics and biting wits, including Dorothy Parker, flourished from 1919 to 1929. It was an artificial era, and the 1929 crash that ushered in the Great Depression smashed the brittle, manic gaiety that had defined it. 

However, other women who were her contemporaries effortlessly rose above this artificiality and brittleness and created their own styles. Julia Child (born four years later), Helen Nearing (born four years earlier), and Tasha Tudor (born seven years later) certainly spring to mind.

Ms. Fisher drew on her very privileged globe-trotting life to bring herbal remedies from Provence, Mexico, and Switzerland into her book; she also researched remedies over time and quoted sources from Mediaeval and Elizabethan England to her hero, the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste (Physiologie du gout), published in 1825, which Ms. Fisher ultimately published in her own translation. So far, so good.

But the constant name-dropping (or, in her case, name-inferring: “a certain beautiful actress/stage star/celebrity”), the preciousness of her unendingly self-conscious lifestyle and writing style, the shocking bigotry that was somehow allowed to get into print when she published A Cordiall Water in 1961 and that was retained verbatim in the 2004 edition I bought, destroyed my appreciation of the potentially useful and educational book I was reading. I could not help but conjure up the image of a smug, superior, reptilian personality, and the taint lingered. I felt that I needed to pour one of the healing baths she recommended and soak in it a good, long time to remove the taint, the miasma, of her polluted personality.

Yes, I know I’m slaying the sacred cow here, and that I should stay my hand until I’ve read more of her 26 books. But to me, there is something tragic about a person who’s privileged to live all over the world and enjoy experiences the rest of us can only dream of, but still feels she has to name-drop by implication (“a beautiful blonde stage star”) to make her place in the world, to give herself importance. MFK Fisher seems to me the forerunner of today’s celebrity sickness: “I saw Lady Gaga! Look, here’s the pic I took on my cell! She was really walking down the street in front of me. How awesome is that!!!”

Give me the forthright types who are true to themselves and couldn’t give less of a damn about preciousness or posturing. Give me Julia, Helen, and Tasha any day. Give me Flannery O’Connor or Margaret Mead or even Margaret Mitchell. I don’t have time for pretentiousness or bogus self-importance gained by who you know rather than who you are. I’m too busy cooking and writing.

           ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

Tasha Tudor Day August 28, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. On this day, August 28th, the beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tasha Tudor was born in 1915. She’d be 95 today. Her fans and friends have designated August 28th as Tasha Tudor Day in her honor.

I wasn’t brought up with Tasha Tudor’s childrens’ classics, Pumpkin Moonshine,  the Corgiville stories, and all the rest. In fact, I’d probably never have been aware of Tasha at all had it not been for the books about her extraordinary life, including The Private Life of Tasha Tudor and Tasha Tudor’s Garden, by Tovah Martin and Richard Brown.

As you can guess, our friend Ben and I love the idea of time-travel back to Colonial and Federalist times. Apparently, Tasha Tudor did too, back to a specific era, 1830s America. And unlike us, she succeeded in recreating that era in her home and lifestyle and mastering all the skills, including weaving, sewing, and hearth cooking, that her 1830s counterparts would have needed to survive and thrive.

With a few exceptions—Margaret Mead, Helen Nearing—I’m not sure I know of any woman more self-aware and self-determining than Tasha Tudor. Whether you’re enamored of a given historical era or grew up with Tasha’s children’s books or enjoy personable, historic cookbooks (The Tasha Tudor Cookbook is simply delightful) or love detailed paintings drawn from nature, it’s worth entering Tasha’s world and taking a good, long look, and what more appropriate time than on her birthday?

A great starting point is the Tudor family website, http://www.tashatudorandfamily.com/.  I can think of no finer celebration than trying Jen Tudor Wyman’s wonderful Raspberry Coconut Cakes with, of course, traditional tea. You’ll find the recipe on the Receipts section of the website (“receipts” being the old-time English spelling of “recipes”).  

Thanks, Tasha, for showing us what the combination of imagination, passion, talent, and determination can achieve. Happy birthday! I love you.

               ‘Til next time,

                              Silence

Our Christmas gift to you. December 25, 2009

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Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders have decided to make a Christmas tradition of offering the most wonderful Christmas gift we know to our readers, as we did last year, the first year of PRA’s existence. This gift is a letter, a wish, a Christmas card, a prayer.

It was originally written in 1513 by a monk, Fra Giovanni, to his patron. We have seldom seen so much profound truth compressed into so few lines. Please join us in reading Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer. You may decide to make it a tradition in your household as well, a tradition that originated not with us, but with the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Tasha Tudor. Her reverence for this prayer may have been one of the sparks that fired her delightful and extraordinary life. What will it do in your life? Read it, read it aloud, and see…

             Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present instant. Take peace.

The Gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

Our hope for each one of you is that, on this glorious Christmas day and every day, “the day breaks and the shadows flee away.” Take Joy!

             Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders

Take Joy! Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer December 25, 2008

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In 1513, Fra Giovanni wrote a letter—what we’d now consider a Christmas card—to a friend and patron, containing a Christmas prayer. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood first encountered it in a wonderful book about Tasha Tudor, Forever Christmas, because Tasha loved this letter and read it aloud to her loved ones every Christmas. The wisdom, the joy, and the attitude towards life that it expressed shaped her life.

Prayers contain power, and we agree that this prayer has the power to change lives. We cannot think of a better Christmas gift for our families, for our friends, for all of you. So on this blessed Christmas day, those of us here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, would like to share this gift with you. Bright blessings to you all, today and all through the year!

          Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present moment. Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.