Sunday, December 25, 2011

What I Really Wanted to Get You for Christmas

  • a bright blue sky over a seamless field of snow
  • that drop jaw feeling that comes when a piece of music or art is too wonderful to wrap your mind around
  • a chance like Emily's in Our Town to visit one day from the past
  • a permanent vacation from arthritis, allergies, aches and pains

  • a leaf-crunching, wood-smoke scented Indian summer that lingers till Thanksgiving
  • a who-needs-fireworks meteor shower when shooting stars whistle and flash, whistle and flash all night
  • a refreshing swim in the ocean and a long nap on a warm beach

  • a sudden burst of inspiration / confidence / courage / laughter / peace
  • a magic wardrobe that opens to another world
  • a real-life get out of jail card that gets you out of writing a paper or doing the dishes or getting up early to go to work one yucky winter morning
  • a time-travel trip to the first nativity scene, where we could kneel before a cattle trough and worship the King of Everything.

But if there is a mega-mall or dot com that sells such things, I couldn't find it on Google. And let's face it — I probably couldn't afford to shop there anyway.

So I just got you this scarf / fruitcake / puzzle / potato peeler / stupid card (please circle all that apply...).

I hope you like it, but even more,
I hope you understand 
that what I really wanted to get you for Christmas
can only come from God.

                              --Patty Kyrlach

Sunday, December 18, 2011


A Russian Folktale -- retold by Patty Kyrlach

In Russia, at Christmastime, the little boys and girls don’t wait for fat-bellied, twinkle-eyed St. Nick. Instead they hope to catch a glimpse of a rather cranky, wrinkled old woman. Her name?


Russian Peasant Woman
 by L. Bakst
Throughout the winter months, she tip-toes into the bedrooms of children and leaves behind little gifts—a piece of candy or a wooden toy or a shiny ball. She loves to find babies sleeping in their cribs. She will bend down, look closely at their tiny curled fingers, listen to their soft little sighs, and sometimes on the baby's pillow, she will drop a single tear.

Some people say she is searching, always searching. But what is Babouscka looking for?

Many long years ago, Babouscka lived at a crossroads, in one of the loneliest places on earth. In summer, when the fields were full of flowers, she would venture outside and stare this way and that, down the roads facing north, south, east, and west—wondering where they might lead. In winter, she sat by the fire, while the wind howled liked hungry wolves, and the icy branches of trees chattered like shivering teeth.

On such a winter’s night, Babouscka was sweeping her house. Sweeping, sweeping—for she had no husband and she had no children. All she had was her little house, and she liked to keep it tidy—sweeping, sweeping with her broom.

Suddenly she heard the sound of a trumpet. Then voices of men and beasts. She must have thought she was losing her mind, for this was a clamor like a traveling circus.

She ran to the window and pulled back the curtain, and then she was certain she was losing her mind. For there before her small house was an entourage of foreign dignitaries--riding camels! She saw the men dismount.

They knocked loud and long on Babouscka’s door before she summoned the courage to answer.

Then she watched in amazement as one…two…no, three great kings entered her humble home. In the firelight, they glittered with jewels and silk, and a delicious scent of spices and incense filled her house.

The kings said they were following a bright star, searching for a child. Since they were strangers in this land, they asked Babouscka to come with them and help them find the right path.

Through the window Babouscka saw the gleam of the star, beckoning her to a great adventure. But she could still hear the cold wind howling in the deep black of night.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but the wind is cold and the night is dark. And besides, I need to finish sweeping my little house. Why don’t you stay here by my warm fire tonight?”

But the travelers were anxious to be on their way.

The next morning, Babouscka awoke with an ache in her heart.

Why, oh why, had she stayed in her house at the crossroads, when she might have journeyed with kings? They had spoken of a child, born to be a king of all kings. They were going to worship him and to lay their gifts and their crowns at his feet. 

If only she could see this child! If only she too could bring him a gift.

With a thud, Babouscka shut the door of her little house behind her and set out to find the child for herself. And she is searching still.

In every child’s room, in every infant’s cradle, she looks for the Holy Child. She searches each child’s face with hope, but always turns away, disappointed once again.

Whenever the wind wolves howl, whenever icy branches chatter like teeth, look carefully and you may catch a glimpse of Babouscka quietly leaving your bedroom. Or you may find one of the gifts she leaves behind, for the sake of the Child she seeks.

Dearest Christ Child, may we not be so busy sweeping (or shopping, wrapping, entertaining) that we neglect to seek for you--for if we seek you, we will surely find you. Indeed, you came to seek for us.

Stark Raving Mythopath pieced this story of Babouscka from several different versions.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Ghost of Dickens' Past

So what exactly was Charles Dickens doing in a Scottish cemetery at the twilight hour? 

He had gone for a walk, after giving a public reading of his work—a nineteenth century version of a book tour. As shadows deepened, he came upon a cemetery called the Canongate Kirkyard, and he went in to look around. The wind in the trees whispered like ghosts, and an owl gave a mournful cry.

Suddenly one peculiar epitaph caught his eye:

Here Lies Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie: 
A Mean Man

What in the world had this man done in life that he would be so vilified in death?  How awful to lie for eternity beneath such a condemning stone. Could a man like this ever change?

Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

As it turned out, Dickens had misread the stone, perhaps due to the dying light of day and his own slight dyslexia. The headstone actually referred to Scroggie as a “meal man,” a popular name for a corn merchant. Scroggie, a relative of the famous economist Adam Smith, has been described as “a jovial and kindly man”—although a bit of a philanderer.

But no matter. Dickens’ imagination had already been sparked by musings about this “mean man,” and he would go on to immortalize Mr. Scroggie as Ebenezer Scrooge in his most famous tale, A Christmas Carol.  It’s unclear in the original story exactly what Mr. Scrooge’s profession is, but we do get the sense that he is a hard-headed—and hard-hearted—business man. In fact, Dickens describes him as "...a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"

Marley's ghost visits Scrooge

During the story, Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his former business partner, Marley—and then by the three Ghosts of Christmas—Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Scrooge looks back on his selfish life and feels remorse for failing to help the poor and needy. He vows to change if only he can somehow be given a second chance.

In fact, Dickens was well-acquainted with the poor and needy. At twelve years of age, he was forced to sell his books and drop out of school to take a job in a blacking factory—because his father had been put in prison. It was a grim time for young Charles, and he saw men, women, and children suffering the debilitating effects of poverty. Those images would haunt him throughout his life, and they certainly influenced his writing, and especially the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol was published on December 17, 1843, with a red cloth cover and gilt edge pages. It was an instant critical success, and shortly thereafter, it began to be adapted for the theater. In his lifetime, Dickens gave over 100 public readings of the tale. 

Sadly, one publisher stole the book and published it without permission. Dickens sued and won, but the culprit simply declared bankruptcy, leaving Dickens to pay the considerable legal fees. Ironically, the story that has sold a gazillion copies worldwide and has been produced countless times on stage and screen was not a financial success for the author. Bah, humbug!

Scrooge and Bob Cratchett

But as Scrooge learned, it’s not always about the money. Charles Dickens gave the world an amazing Christmas present when he wrote A Christmas Carol, a story that has touched the hearts of readers and audiences for more than 150 years with its simple but powerful message. We can start again. It’s not too late to change. There is still hope. It's more blessed to give than to receive. Good news for everyone who needs a second chance.

Sounds a lot like the Gospel to me.

Stark Raving Mythopath would like to thank Donna Patton. Her article on Scrooge in the Times-Gazette of Hillsboro, Ohio, introduced me to the origins of A Christmas Carol.

Dickens pictured with his characters

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sekko and the Dragon

A Japanese Folktale, retold by Patty Kyrlach

Once long ago, in the island country of Japan, there lived an artist named Sekko.

Sekko was famous for his paintings of dragons. He painted colorful dragons on plates and pottery, on fabric and tapestries, on canvases of all sizes, and even on the wall of the great hall of the emperor's palace.

Everyone oohed and ahhed when they saw the flashing eyes, the smoking nostrils, the curled claws, and the fearsome faces of Sekko's dragons. Sekko drew angry dragons, laughing dragons, dancing dragons, sorrowful dragons, and sleeping dragons. He even made a painting of the world's most famous artist reflected in the eye of a dragon.

Soon all the ladies at court were wearing dragon jewelry and braiding their hair with dragon claw combs. The men wore robes made from cloth that imitated dragon scales. Children built cages in hopes of finding a dragon egg and raising a dragon as a pet. But only the emperor was permitted to wear a  robe with a big dragon symbol -- hand painted, of course -- by Sekko.

It came as no surprise when Sekko was asked to lead the Dragon Symposium, an annual seminar dedicated to dragon studies -- their likes and dislikes, their lore and learning, their diet and mating rituals, and the fundamentals of dragon psychology. He drew diagrams of dragon anatomy. 

And he spoke at length on everyone's favorite subject, the fabled treasures of dragons. He painted maps that promised to lead sincere seekers to riches-beyond-reckoning. (No one seemed to notice that the only one getting rich was Sekko.)

Sekko's painting and treasure map business was thriving, until one day, when the earth shook.

In the artist's studio, pots and plates and paintings and tapestries went flying as the floor rocked like a ship in a storm. A burst of flame erupted just before the walls cracked and the roof came caving in. The artist barely escaped with his life.

Was it an earthquake, wondered Sekko? A volcano? The end of the world? 

Lying in a heap by the road, he looked up just in time to see a dragon -- a humongous, rainbow-colored, fire-breathing dragon -- sailing into the clouds.

Everyone came running to find Sekko. "Help us!" they cried. "What do we do now? You know everything about dragons. How can we save our village?"

But Sekko hung his head in shame.

"I don't know," he said. "I've never seen a real dragon before."

- - - - -

Many people are just like Sekko. They think they've got God all figured out. They know his likes and dislikes. They know the kind of people he associates with -- which, what a coincidence! -- is people just like them. They figure that God's political philosophy or theological views must surely match up with their own. Many Americans think that God is a Republican or a Democrat or a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian.

But they've never met God.  Not the humongous, rainbow-colored, fire-breathing God of the Bible.  After Job had an encounter with God, he said, "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you."  (Job 42:5)  Before he met God, Job had a lot of good suggestions about how God could run the universe; but after his encounter, he could only say, "I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:6)

The world doesn't need any more experts on God. What the world needs desperately are people who know God personally, people who can show God's love and kindness to everyone.

Stark Raving Mythopath thanks Inez Schneider, who first introduced her to this Japanese story.