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Joyeux Noël

The Christmas Truce

As the year comes to a close, the days begin to shorten and the outside temperatures drop, the season becomes infused with the inviting warmth of festive cheer.  It seems there’s no better time to be close to those you hold nearest and dearest, basking in the wonderful glow of the holidays.  At least, sometimes anyway.  Other times, things lean more toward a stream of complete madness and you’d prefer to go the way of the shut-in, forsaking all outside contact until the insanity of the holiday subsides. 

No matter how you do it, The Metropolitan Library System wishes you a safe and happy season.  Whether you’ll be travelling home this December, taking an exotic getaway, working overtime to pay for those lavish credit card bills or just trying to stay in from of the cold and make it through, your library has an extensive collection of materials to help you along.  Below are some of the system’s seasonally-themed history selections to perhaps assist with your holiday spirit.

 

The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York by Alex Palmer

Every year throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as certain as snowflakes fell onto the streets of New York City, a growing mountain of Santa letters ended up in the post office’s dead letter office, unopened and eventually destroyed. That is, until a charismatic broker named John Gluck Jr. saw an opportunity. Creating the Santa Claus Association, Gluck and his associates soon began answering the Christmas requests of the city’s children, delighting the public and earning numerous accolades from the press. For 15 years the group’s work would continue with money and gifts increasingly flowing into the organization. And, with each year, Gluck’s ambitions grew. Branches of the Santa Claus Association were established in other cities, celebrities like John Barrymore and Mary Pickford were recruited to promote the cause and plans were announced for the construction of a Santa Claus Building in Manhattan. As the number of letters increased, so did Gluck’s requests for funds. It started with a few dollars to cover the two-cent stamps required for each letter. Then, it became hundreds of dollars to pay for gifts. Soon, hundreds of thousands were requested to fund the construction of facilities and other operating costs. The patriotic passion from the Great War combined with Jazz Age optimism kept most New Yorkers in an idealistic, trusting mood. So, as the association became a greater part of the holidays, few people asked questions. That is, until a curious charity commissioner uncovered some of Gluck’s dark secrets. From stolen artworks and phony Boy Scout Troops to kidnapping and hot-pursuit by the FBI, The Santa Claus Man is a holiday tale with a dark underbelly, chronicling the enthralling rise and fall of the man behind New York City’s Santa Claus Association and the invention of Christmas in New York City.

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by: Stanley Weintraub

It was one of history's most powerful, yet overlooked episodes. And just as suddenly as it occurred it was overtaken again by the tide of horror that filled the battlefields of Europe in the years to follow. In December 1914, for a few brief moments amidst the squalid mud, the merciless rain, and the senseless killing in the trenches of World War I, one of history's most remarkable events took place. It began on Christmas Eve when German soldiers lit candles on small Christmas trees and joined in as British, French and Belgian troops commenced serenading one other from across no-man’s land. In spite of significant language barriers and against commanding officers’ orders to cease and desist, these soldiers, who had been living down among the muck and the mire, suddenly threw down their arms and came together across the front lines to sing carols, trade gifts and compete in impromptu games of football. As the spirit of the holiday grew among them, the soldiers broke bread, exchanged letters and, in many cases, began to discover deep admiration for one another. Although the “Great War” was still young, many among the ranks naively hoped that the conflict would be short-lived, that they were fraternizing with future friends. But, gradually, the truce began to subside. However, when angry superiors ordered them to resume the shooting, many soldiers aimed harmlessly high overhead. Today, the events of the 1914 Christmas Truce make it one of the only times in history that peace spontaneously arose from the lower ranks in a major conflict, bubbling up to the officers and temporarily turning sworn enemies into the dear friends. Silent Night revisits this story, presenting with vivid detail a gripping tale of humanity during even the bleakest of hours and proving that sometimes the greatest beauty emerges from deepest tragedy.

George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by: Ellen T. Harris

Most historical accounts credit George Frideric Handel with composing his famous oratorio, Messiah, in twenty-four days for the Charitable Musical Society of Dublin. Its premiere performance on April 13, 1742 supported three charities: the Society for Relieving Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmary and Mercer’s Hospital. Despite having origins aligning it more with Easter, the work has become a regular Christmas staple, particularly in the America. Every December, major orchestras and choirs across the United States and Europe stage extravagant Yuletide performances of this cherished work in attempts to capture the essence of the season. During his lifetime, the sounds of Handel’s music reached from court to theater, echoed in cathedrals and filled crowded taverns, but the man known to most as the composer of Messiah has proven a bit of a mystery. Though he took meticulous care of his manuscripts and even provided for their preservation after his death, very little information has survived concerning the intimate nature of his own life. But one document, Handel’s will, does offer a glimpse into the personal life of this enigmatic composer. In it, he remembers not only family and close colleagues but also competitors and rivals alike. Seeking to separate the man from the legend, author Ellen T. Harris has tracked down letters, diaries, personal accounts, legal cases, and other documents connected to these bequests. The result is George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends, a tightly woven tapestry of London in the first half of the eighteenth century that interlaces the stories of Handel’s acquaintances like the subjects and countersubjects of a fugue and introduces readers to an ambitious, shrewd, generous, brilliant, and flawed man, hiding in full view behind his public persona.

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The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

In December of 1843, the publisher for a then debt-ridden and dispirited writer called Charles Dickens denied publication of a small book the author had penned in hopes of keeping his creditors at bay. Though he feared the work could signal the end of his career as a novelist, Dickens was desperate to strike out in a last-ditch effort to change his fate. So, using what little money he had left, the author put out A Christmas Carol on his own. The problem was, Christmas in those days was hardly the occasion it is today. There were no Christmas cards, no Christmas turkeys, no department-store Santas, no Christmas trees at royal residences, no outpourings of Yuletide cheer, no gift-giving frenzies. In fact, despite all of Dickens's own enthusiasm for the event, the holiday was a relatively minor affair ranking well below Easter and causing little more stir than Memorial Day or St. George's Day does today. Yet, something strange happened. The book immediately caused a sensation. It breathed new life into a holiday that had fallen on hard times, undermined by lingering Puritanism and the cold modernity of the Industrial Revolution. It had been a harsh and dreary age, in desperate need of rejuvenation. And, Dickens’s book, one that ended with blessings for one and all, seemed to strike a chord. Yet, as heart-warming as the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge may be, the story behind the work, the tale of how one writer and one book revived one of the biggest holidays of the Western world is perhaps even more uplifting. The Man Who Invented Christmas whisks readers back to Victorian England, revealing its most beloved storyteller, and shedding light on the birth of Christmas as it is today.

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