Listen: Bill Holm shares memories, music from Minnesota Christmas past

When Minnesota poet, author and musician Bill Holm sat down to write a Christmas letter, he sorted through a lifetime of memories. He was born in 1943 and died in 2009 at the age of 65. Holm put some of these memories in a book he wrote in 1997 called "Faces of Christmas Past." That same year Minnesota Public Radio produced this "Voices of Minnesota" special, with Bill Holm reading from his own book.

Program also includes music, a Christmas ghost story from Iceland and a little holiday philosophy from Bill Holm.

Holm is perhaps best known for "Faces of Christmas Past," "The Music of Failure," "Windows of Brimnes," and "The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth." Though he also wrote many other books. "Faces of Christmas Past" was published by the Afton Historical Society Press.


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[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WANAMAKER: Welcome to MPR News Presents. I'm John Wanamaker. Many people write cards and letters this time of year, and sometimes this is the only time of year that they do so. When Minneota, Minnesota poet, author and musician Bill Holm sat down to write a Christmas letter, he sorted through a lifetime of memories.

He was born in 1943 and died in 2009 at the age of 65. Bill Holm puts some of these memories in a book he wrote in 1997 called Faces of Christmas Past. This hour, a 1997 Minnesota Public Radio Voices of Minnesota special with Bill Holm reading from his own book. We'll also hear some music, a Christmas ghost story from Iceland, and a little holiday philosophy from Bill Holm.

BILL HOLM: "My interior Christmas begins early, sometimes the first snow in October, sometimes the last scorcher in August. The Christmas letter rears up in the mind's eye like a sudden thunderhead in a bright sky. I imagine the rummaging through drawers for last year's pile of Christmas cards and the attempted rationalizing my way into an escape.

Why bother? No one reads them. I don't have time for this. I haven't seen some of these people in years. Others don't bother. I make a list.

It's a silly habit. Habits can be tamed and broken. The whine goes on. The excuses don't work. During the first blizzard, I rummage, find not only last year's Christmas cards, a sizable lump, but the last 10 years, maybe 20.

Some senders are now dead from inevitable age or bad luck. Some are divorced, some remarried, some not. Some simply moved or disappeared. At Christmas, we want steadiness, a still point in a chaotic world, but we get mutability-- a mirror with the face of chaos staring back at us.

In the second blizzard, I brewed and examined my own character, my passing life. I cross examine it, send it to the interior jury, convict it, sentence it, if not to death, at least to exile. But either mercy or lethargy or both reprieve it.

Of what am I guilty? Of being silly and weak, a procrastinator, a carrier out of orders from the dead, a skeptical practitioner of ritual, of having arrived at middle age without entirely finishing youth? Thus I am guilty of being human more normal than I imagined in my more grandiose moments.

By the third blizzard, I am steeled to the job, lashed to the grim wheel of duty. Since recent Minnesota, blizzards have been the three or four-day variety with howling hurricane winds, the world invisible inside a maelstrom of snow, and wind chills lethal enough to finish you off in two or three minutes, there's not much else to do except your duty. I write the Christmas essay, a half whimsical, half melancholy sermon on the progress of another year, set out the sheets of stamps and boxes of envelopes, arrange the pens next to the pile of cards, stare wistfully out the kitchen window at the icy white scrim over the universe, and begin. Merry Christmas.

What, you might ask, am I doing with 10 or 20 years of old Christmas cards. For all I know, 50-year-old cards may lurk in unopened boxes. At 32, I found myself heir to my mother's and father's lifetime accumulations of stuff too valued to be thrown-- old tools, photographs, boxes of crocheting, knitting, wood painting, every toy I ever played with and every scribble of paper in my handwriting, childish poems, school essays, letters.

I was in adored only child, but this, this was ridiculous. At the back of a closet sat a shoe box full of baby congratulation cards from 1943. Jona and Big Bill were both devoted packrats. Raised without money in Icelandic immigrant farm families, they married in 1932 to slog through the whole depression, trying to buy back my grandfather's farm from a loan company.

They narrowly escaped foreclosure, hanging tenaciously on to the old home farm at the edge of the dust bowl until World War II, Governor Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson, and FDR saved them. One consequence of that chronology was the inability to get rid of anything that they actually owned. Neither of them was thrifty with money, rather, they practiced mad generosity to friends, strangers, and of course, to me, the beloved child.

But a broken hayrack or iron tractor wheel or a bag of holey nylon stockings, patched underwear, paper-thin overalls, and moth-eaten sweaters was different. They could be recycled, made useful, given new life, like half-gone leftovers disappearing into a hot dish. I once wrote a poem about my mother's habit with these lines. 'You never know,' she said, 'when it might come in handy. And you can always put it in the soup where it'll taste good.'

After more than 20 years of overseeing the whole my ancestral junk, I look around appalled to find that not only have I thrown almost nothing, I have instead doubled the holdings. I am a genetic packrat with a weakness for paper, not iron or craft supplies. Books, magazines, letters, musical scores, manuscripts, and old Christmas cards have eaten wall space, corners, window ledges, the floor up to the bedsprings.

The ritual of the Christmas card list is a visible emblem of spiritual packrattery. Going through my mother's boxes after she died in 1975, I found her collection of old cards. What to do? I added my mother's list to my already sizeable accumulation-- more cousins, uncles, aunts, old neighbors, her stamp pals, schoolmates.

After 20 years, the old family list shrunk through the attrition of death, but new cousins surfaced, new connections from strange parts of the world where I've lived and worked, old friends with grown children who have themselves become friends. My December duty now resembles Jacob Marley's chains. They rattle after me wherever I go.

But the Christmas letter is only half a burden. It is also a necessity, even a pleasure. No matter the awkwardness of tone or expression, Christmas letters are often comically guilty of two great human failings, bragging and complaining. Its real message lives under the language.

'I am alive,' it says, 'still on the planet. I have not forgotten you.' The thread, whether of blood, nostalgia or friendship that sews us together has not been cut. In a culture balkanized by technology and groupthink, the Christmas letter is a human message in an envelope bottle, a small ritual where we name each other one at a time, even if only in a scribbled sentence at the bottom of a Xerox.

The old cliché to the contrary, a picture is probably not worth a thousand words. Language, like music, takes time. A picture slaps us in the face in an instant. It hardens and makes plain what language can sometimes soften and make subtle. Some find escape from an annual Christmas essay by sending the Christmas card snapshot with a cheery but brief printed greeting. I have never sunk to it.

I take my photographs with sentences. But at the bottom of a dusty box of family memorabilia, I found evidence that my mother and father swallowed the whole bait for years, sending out cute photographs of their long-awaited single son. The sequence begins in the mid '40s, continuing until the mid '50s. Surliness robbed the photographs of their cuteness, so Jona and Bill retreated to hallmark and handwritten notes.

I don't remember ever seeing those photos as a child. When I first found them at about 40, I chuckled at the grotesque little boy who certainly didn't seem to have much connection to me as a grown man. But now past 50 and barely recognizable as this dimpled young fellow, I realized with a kind of ironic dismay that I still contained the little cowboy of 1949.

He's duded up with his Hopalong Cassidy outfit, chaps, six guns in holster, bandanna, and Suzuki size 10 gallon hat, ready to fast draw on the photographer proclaiming in his soprano grumble, 'stick em up.' My hand already clutches the gun. In 1950, the seven-year-old goose hunter sends season's greetings-- Big Bill's 12 gauge, 1897 Remington pump in one hand and the neck of a dead Canadian honker in the other.

The next year features the solemn boy in a floral shirt standing in front of the family's new brown Dodge asphyxiating Andrew, the white barn cat. The cat, with terrified nice and flat ears, looks ready to claw the boy and leap for freedom. In 1952, same boy, same shirt, but now he's squeezing an alarmed rabbit. Thick black spectacles adorn his pink nose. He's on his way to junior high nerd king.

No printed letter accompanies these cards depicting the progress of little Billy. In time, the gunslinger and goose hunter grew up to be a devout pacifist who spent his 20s clean for gene, marching against Lyndon Johnson's war. The pet joker grew up to think that animals deserve to stay wild and outdoors. These Christmas photos announced to me and to you, since your face probably appeared on similar cards, that I most certainly am not eternal, but that some stubborn core of character born early will last until my own death, whether I want it or not.

On December 22, 1996, the Sioux Falls Argus leader's travel columnist Anson Yeager published an essay on Christmas photo cards that takes a cheerier view than mine. Here's a tip he writes for young couples who want a Christmas card in pictorial history in one package. 'Make your Christmas card a family picture of some significant event during the year. Continue with a new card every year as your children grow up and you become grandparents.

My wife and I last week mailed our 44th picture Christmas card since 1952. We switched from Black and white to color pictures in 1980. There were graduations, weddings, and new faces of daughters in law on the cards. Grandchildren followed.

Picture taking has become easier. My automatic Japanese camera rarely missed good shot. In 1990, the Yeager clan donned Western gear from Frontier army uniforms to Dancehall Girl costumes during our summer reunion near Mount Rushmore. One recent Christmas, Ada Mae gave each child a photo album of cards. They said it was one of their nicest gifts ever.

Now there's Americana. All the right buttons buzzed at once-- history, family, tradition, good-humored kitsch and clowning around, and a coffee table conversation starter to boot. But we do our superior clucking at some peril to our souls.

That Christmas photograph album is a right. And as humans have been assured by Confucius and every sane philosopher since quote, 'He who can submit himself to ritual is good. If a ruler could for one day himself submit to ritual, then every one under heaven would respond to his goodness,' says Confucius.

One conspicuous omission in Mr. Yeager's breezy view of a nice Christmas gift is that no one is dead yet in his 44 years of snapshots. So no one remembers or imagines the absent faces staring into a near half-century-deep chasm. Christmas cards should weep a little, too.

Americans love cheerfulness pep, the old can-do spirit, but it afflicts us with a kind of deliberate unconsciousness to the civilizing power of ritual. We cannot have the yang without the yin, as Confucius contemporary Lao Tzu reminds us, otherwise, we grow into only half a human trapped in an imaginary golden or leaden childhood. The boy still lives, but heavier now, not only according to a bathroom scale.

This bit of cautionary moralizing will not affect the arrival next year of 100% of the photo cards from your friends adorned with gleaming teeth and countenances of pure, buoyant, good cheer. Smile, it's Christmas."

[MUSIC, "WHITE CHRISTMAS"] I'm dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write may your days be merry and bright and may all your Christmases be white.

JOHN WANAMAKER: You're listening to writer Bill Holm reading from his new book, Faces of Christmas Past. Later this hour, Bill Holm tells a Christmas ghost story from Iceland, and he sings a couple of little known verses which give us a whole new view of a traditional Christmas hymn. Let's return to Faces of Christmas Past.


BILL HOLM: "At Christmas, the gavel of tradition bangs on the table to call the house to order. We have always done it this way. So do it now. We have always eaten oysters, lutefisk, ham balls, fill in the blank. So we shall eat them again.

In towns like Minneota, the solid front of Christmas habit brought even the atheists to church on Christmas Eve. The Jewish doctor's children acted in the Sunday school Christmas pageant. A Hindu could not have escaped appearing in the manger scene, toasting the holiday afterwards with garishly decorated butter cookies dunked in thin coffee.

Yet tradition, anywhere in America and certainly in the Midwest, is a strangely jackleg affair, hardly old enough to qualify as tradition at all, rather only invented procedure. A tradition must be so old that its true origin, while lost to us consciously, remains quick inside the cells of the body. Tradition grows from the texture of the grass, the shape of the hills, the color of rivers when the snow melts, the swampy pasture where our great grandfather's horse stumbled and broke his leg.

We haven't been long enough in Minneota to earn that kind of tradition. But what about the old country, you ask? Didn't tradition travel over on the boat from Ireland, Norway, Iceland, Belgium? A majority of Minneotans descend from those stocks hardly over a century ago.

But traditions seem not to travel well over water, most sickened in mid-Atlantic and expired shortly after they stepped off the horse cart onto the tall grass prairie. This is a country of interrupted traditions, just entering a difficult puberty to start growing real ones. The physician poet William Carlos Williams described us well, if a little harshly as tricked out with gods from imaginations which have no peasant traditions to give them character.

But at Christmas, my mother, Jona, tricked out her house with gods that would have astonished even Dr. Williams. And as she would have briskly assured him, she had plenty of character. She might have defined tradition as anything you did once that looked good to you. So you practiced it 40 or 50 times more and behold, you have invented tradition.

Jonina [? Sigurbjörg ?] Josephson Holm, my mother, was a woman of extraordinary energy and vitality. In her, the life force was not an idea, but an eruption. Born in 1910 on a farm to parents who spoke little or no English, she longed for education, travel, adventure, the big world. She escaped all of seven miles South to Minneota to graduate from high school, worked in Leland's Drugstore illegally filling prescriptions.

And in 1932, after years of his courting and cajoling, married Bill Holm, her childhood sweetheart, to return seven miles North to yet another immigrant farm only a few miles from her parents. No college, no career, no New York, not even Minneapolis, half a lifetime away on mud roads, just an unpaid for farm, a drafty shack of a house, kerosene lamps, a pump over the sink, and a two-holer outhouse. These bare details of her life are not peculiar.

Her story is the story of a million women of her generation in the rural United States and probably in the big cities, too, though school was easier there. Like most of that million, she didn't whine. If luck and circumstance thwarted her longing for beauty, elegance, and exciting life, she would act out her longing by inventing her own version of them wherever she was.

Without having any idea of what art or taste were, she possessed, probably from birth, the equipment of an artist-- a skilled hand, a sharp eye, a willingness to make mistakes, and mammoth reserves of energy. She crocheted. She knitted. She embroidered. She painted figurines and wooden plates and breadboards.

Sh made ceramic ashtrays, lamps, bowls, casserole dishes. She glued beads and gewgaws on any recyclable object, however unlikely. She canned and baked and pickled. She collected stamps hand ruling the pages with a Parker fountain pen after checking her perforation gauge.

She sewed dresses, shirts, coats, and when they wore thin, she adorned them with decorative patches and then patches on top of the patches. Whatever interested her at any given moment, she surrendered to in excess. Without ever having heard of William Blake, she practiced his maxim by instinct. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

When wooden plates captured her attention, she painted 50 for relatives, 50 for neighbors and friends, 50 to sell, though mostly she gave them away, and another 50 for storage under the bed, just in case. Not only was her enthusiasm contagious, she owned no resistance to the enthusiasms of others. If a neighbor learned from the radio or a crafts magazine how to make pink swan soap dishes out of plastic soap dish bottles, Jona swung into action and tried a few hundred herself.

None of her projects, however, intruded into the time she spent on her real passion, human beings, creatures capable of language and conversation, the telling of stories. She entered a room talking, eyed the company to see who might need cheering up, finishing the sentence, which he closed the door behind her. Once she died, one of her friends amazed the death had been tough or fast enough to do Jona in sighed and said, 'She had only two speeds, high and off.'

Her house became the gallery for her projects. And at Christmas, her favorite season, the show doubled or tripled in size to overwhelm the cramped little farmstead. Out came the boxes of hand-made tree ornaments, the painted figurines of Santa and his whole retinue, reindeer, elves, sleighs, a set of wise men and camels, and an electrified manger scene with blinking lights, angels of various color and design, dishes and bowls decorated with poinsettias and mistletoe, the embroidered Christmas tablecloth and napkins, the rose-balled napkin rings, wooden plates painted with Christmas motifs and yuletide greetings and four or five languages, Christmas bric-a-brac on every flat surface, hand-made candle holders of maybe 15 designs with scented candles burning brightly for a month, their smells of lavender sachet, pine forest, and spicy cinnamon oozing together in the drafty rooms.

And finally, my favorites, the Christmas angels, made from folded magazines most often the Reader's Digest shellacked and spray painted to a board like stiffness. And the piece de resistance, the Christmas toilet seat cover with a gay, red winking Santa Claus waiting for your hind end. This came after acquiring a flush toilet in 1950.

And it was a house of gods. No subtle Earth tones or delicate pastels for Jona. She loved bright, intense Gypsy color, red, hot pink, purple, orange, gold, lime green. These wise men had style. These angels played tambourines, not ethereal harps. In a bleak old farmhouse on the bleak North crest of a bleak Hill on a bleak prairie with the bleakest climate on the continent, this house, inhabited by Scandinavian Lutherans, looked like a Hungarian restaurant decorated for a Chinese wedding.

My mother cared little for the theology of Christmas. She was at best a nominal Lutheran faithful to ladies aid and do-good projects, but casual in her piety. Her Christmas music consisted of breathy performances of [SINGING IN ICELANDIC], "Silent Night" in Icelandic and "Jingle Bells" on a Hohner harmonica, but this only after a well-laced Tom and Jerry or two.

She loved the festivity of Christmas, the chance to create some light and noise and gaiety at the bottom of the years darkness, cold, and silence. If you had to live in this God-forsaken place, at least show some evidence of being actually alive. Maybe that's the real kernel of psychological wisdom underlying the Christmas rites anyway.

Jona's extroverted nature guided her to stumble into that wisdom unconsciously. What she made was not kitsch. Kitsch implies a consciousness of fashionable taste satirically undermined. Jona invented beauty as she understood it. Her creations connected not so much to her ego as to her affectionate desire to please others. If you admired a piece of her handiwork, you went home with it.

As a boy sometimes overwhelmed by the crowded Gypsy camp atmosphere inside the house at Christmas, I kept wishing for more traffic, more guests to do a little thinning and pruning on the collection. It would have done no good. She would simply have swung into action and invented more.

The Icelandic Christmas tradition inside her family and immigrant culture evaporated in the new world, except for a few Christmas recipes that were adaptations of food that had already begun to disappear from real old country tables. One ritual function of a tradition is to create connection inside a community. So lacking Iceland, Jona made do, announcing, 'This is now tradition. Help yourself.'"


JOHN WANAMAKER: Writer Bill Holm remembering Christmas traditions from his home in Minneota, in Southwestern Minnesota. He's reading from his book called Faces of Christmas Past, a special Voices of Minnesota feature today, here on Minnesota Public radio. Ghost stories are not a big part of the Christmas tradition in this country, but they are in Iceland. Here's more of Bill Holm reading from his book.

BILL HOLM: "I traveled to Iceland as a Fulbright professor in 1978 to teach American literature. I also wanted to find what my relatives had left behind when they moved to North America. They left Christmas, for one thing.

Two Yuletides in Iceland taught me something about the sentimentalizing of holidays in America. Christmas still generates a little terror in Iceland. All cheer and no fear take the edge off our Christmas fun.

In almost 66 degrees North, not much sun arrives in Reykjavik in December, only a few hours of slant, gray light that slithers over the mountains. Keep your car lights on and your lamps lit. Somewhere at the edges of the island, old glaciers grind down inexorably toward the sea in pitch darkness, volcanoes simmer under that ice Not far away, close.

Icelanders, while not overtly religious, are superstitious. Just in case to believe that the dead remain present in a landscape seems a mark of civilization to them. To practice the rights, you must use memory and invite the dead, whether you love or fear them to join. It's probably no surprise that the best Icelandic ghost stories I heard take place on Christmas Eve.


The deacon of [INAUDIBLE] dark church arranges to pick up his girlfriend, [? Gudrun, ?] a hired girl on a neighborhood farm on his gray horse, foxy, to ride to Christmas Vespers. Since he has drowned in a glacial river a few days before, he's a little late picking up [? Gudrun, ?] and he doesn't say much. With an icy hand, he hoists her brusquely onto Foxy and rides off with her through the frozen valley. The moon scuds through a cloud strewn sky, sometimes giving a little light.

When Foxy plunges down a steep bank to ford a river, the deacon's hat lifts slightly. As the moon drifts from under a cloud, [? Gudrun ?] sees the bare skull. The deacon croons, 'The moon is gliding. Death is riding. See the white fleck at the back of my neck. [INAUDIBLE]'

Having joined the undead, the deacon can no longer pronounce [? Gudrun's ?] name since the first three letters spell the Icelandic name of God. [? Gudrun ?] is terrified, but what can she do? The horse gallops wildly to the church gate.

In the churchyard, [? Gudrun ?] sees an open grave surrounded by a pile of freshly-dug dirt. The deacon leaps from Foxy's back and grabs [? Gudrun's ?] riding cloak in his bony grip. She left home in such a hurry that she had put only one arm into her cloak.

Clutching the empty cloak, the deacon leaps into the open grave while the piles of heaped dirt scamper down into the hole to cover him. The pastor came later to sing Psalms for the shaken [? Gudrun. ?] But as the story reports, she was never quite the same. A sorcerer had to be summoned to cast spells and roll a boulder over the deacons grave to keep his ghost quiet. Merry Christmas, [INAUDIBLE].

Instead of the kindly, benevolent, pink cheeked, blubbery old coot of a Santa Claus who squeezes down chimneys to satisfy consumer cravings of spoiled bourgeois children, the Icelanders enjoyed the 13 Christmas trolls, the [INAUDIBLE]. Their names in the literal translations are too grand and strange to leave only to Icelanders. Here's the lot of them pronounced fearlessly. Neglect no consonance.

[ICELANDIC], sheep cod clod. [ICELANDIC], gully gawk. [ICELANDIC], shorty. [ICELANDIC], ladle licker. [ICELANDIC], pot scraper.

[ICELANDIC], bowl licker. [ICELANDIC], door slammer. [ICELANDIC], skier gobbler. [ICELANDIC], sausage swiper. [ICELANDIC], window peeper. [ICELANDIC], door sniffer. [ICELANDIC], meathook. [ICELANDIC], candle beggar.

They live in the mountains, a fierce prospect in Iceland. The interior mountains are uninhabitable lava crags that resemble the surface of the moon and begin appearing at farms and towns one per day, 13 days before Christmas. They also leave one per day, thus making Christmas a 26-day white knuckler for worried children.

These trolls eat naughty children or steal them back to the mountains for god knows what horrors. Behave or else-- the trolls come by their foul natures honestly, born out of wedlock, of course, to troll parents named Gryla and [ICELANDIC]. The misshapen ogres Gryla comes from some ancient dark corner of the Norse mind, the Viking tooth mother.

She is named in the old Eddas and described this way in the sagas of Icelanders. 'Here goes Gryla by the farm, and from her hang 14 tails. On every tail, 100 bags. In every bag are 20 brats.'

She wakes her boys the oldest fainter before Christmas, sending them down to fetch children for her always brewing pot. If you have seen one of the cute little Norse elves in the Christmas gift shops, steel yourself for Gryla's face and cackle. She is your nightmare.

If they escaped the clutches of Gryla and her gang, Icelanders generally spend a quiet Christmas Eve with their relatives eating smoked mutton, creamed potatoes, and peas washed down with coffee or for the urbane, a bottle of wine. After too many layered cream cakes and sweet breads, they opened presents, yawn, then drift off to sleep listening to the wind from Greenland howl while they dream of beaches in Spain. Maybe my mother should have moved back to the old country to bring a little pizzazz and color to the Icelandic Christmas, or at least cover the toilet seats with something to amuse the bad-tempered trolls on their nightly visits. Tradition can move in two directions, after all."

JOHN WANAMAKER: Bill Holm. You're listening to Voices of Minnesota coming to you here on midday. Of course, Bill Holm is well known as a writer, but when holiday time rolls around in his hometown of Minnesota, Bill Holm is also in big demand as a singer.

Gigging around in some books, Bill found the poem that is the basis for a famous Christmas hymn. He was surprised how the poem changes the hymn's meaning. Let's return to his reading of Faces of Christmas Past.

BILL HOLM: "I oughtn't to make harsh remarks about Santa Claus, since judging by the mirror, my outer shell has grown into him. The little cowboy progresses in middle age to jolly old Saint Nicholas. Once red hair and pale cheeks, now red cheeks and pale hair with a properly jolly belly for good measure.

I went to Madagascar early in 1997, as far from Minnesota as you can travel and as foreign a place as exists on the planet. I walked through the market in Antananarivo, sweating in the heat of a tropical summer, accompanied by gangs of golden skinned, barefooted children who addressed me jovially and loudly as Pere Noel-- Father Christmas. I have metamorphosed into a cliche or to put a more kindly construction on my fate, entered into tradition by virtue of biology as destiny.

But my destiny was not to work in a department store, getting a wet lap, and having my beard tugged. I loved neither the giving nor the receiving of conventional gifts. My connection to the tradition and rites of Christmas from childhood until now came from the chance it offered to sing, play, and hear wonderful music and have read to me the resonant cadences of the King James Bible, whose language remains sublime verbal music in my ear. My Christmas duty to my neighbors and to my community consisted in refusing no chance to perform music.


Christmas music presents us with an odd paradox. In the presumed season of goodwill, good cheer, and buoyant optimism, much of the greatest music is sad, inward, and reflective. Sometimes we bowdlerize that feeling for whatever motives in order to thump a tune or poem that ought to quiet us.

When I was a boy soprano, I loved singing the setting of Longfellow's poem "Christmas Bells." In every hymnal I've examined, it's printed with four stanzas. The last verse begins, oddly with a then that makes no grammatical sense in the context of the first three.

For years, I credited this to Longfellow's shortcomings as a poet and his tiresome tell me, not in mournful numbers, upbeat cheeriness. Last year, browsing through his complete works, I discovered to my surprise seven stanzas in the poem. The first three are the ones you remember, and then these three appear.

(SINGING) 'Then from each black, accursed mouth the cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound the carols drowned of peace on Earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent the hearthstones of a continent, and made forlorn the households born of peace on Earth, good-will toward men!

And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth good-will to men!'

With stanzas 4, 5, and 6 restored, and the poem's date 1863 revealed, the Civil War barges into the Christmas writes to upset the decorum of Christmas sentiment. The poem deepens. The earnest Victorian tune deepens, too. Try singing it with all seven verses.

Two new guests enter the church. History and human nature, so often left shivering in the snow outside the church door, take their seats to join the congregation. Longfellow's trumpet blast assertion in the last verse, 'The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,' still seems hollow. We'll see about prevailing as time goes on and also see if humans can think clearly about moral categories without capital letters and exclamation points. But the lost stanzas restore the honor of the right.


Christina Rossetti brings cold and poverty into the church on Christmas Eve. Her poem "In the Bleak Midwinter," most famously set by Gustav Holst, proved irresistible to other composers, too. All the tunes are lovely and quiet, as if the poem itself insisted on quality in the notes it wears.

(SINGING) 'In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter long time ago.'

How well Minnesotans understand lines 5 and 6, snow seems to begin falling inside the language of the stanza. The poem ends

(SINGING) 'What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what can I give him-- give my heart.'

Try that, sung [? santo ?] voce, in a candle-lit church on Christmas Eve. Eyes will moisten in the pews. At last after the tinsel and toasting, we are all cold and poor, and some part longs to have the news sung to us.

Sometimes, perhaps during a December blizzard, I celebrate a private Christmas by playing odd pieces on the piano for an hour or two. Bach, Handel, Christmas carols? No, I play the Christmas pieces of Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni, two of the grandest virtuosos of the last century, and this respectively, both famous for producing tidal waves of sound pages black with notes.

But their Christmas pieces are instead austere, quiet, reflective, simple and heartfelt. The piano hardly rises above pianissimo. Sometimes the notes seem to disappear into wind, snow, and silence.


Liszt, whatever his mistaken reputation as rake and bounder, was a tender and devoted father and grandfather. In his mid 60s, he wrote a set of Christmas pieces called "Weihnachtsbaum, Christmas Tree Suite" dedicated to his granddaughter, Daniela. Two of his children had died young. His possibility for marriage and domestic life was finally frustrated.

Like any man in his mid-60s, he reflected on his own childhood and past Christmases. The 12 pieces, while not easy, can be managed by amateurs-- the notes few and thin, the mood thoughtful and inward. He resets a few old carols, a medieval chant "In Dulci Jubilo" and "Adeste Fideles" among them, writes a few Christmas bell pieces, a cradle song, reminiscences of places he has lived, songs he's heard.

But I think [INAUDIBLE], formerly the saddest four pages of Liszt. In this dreamy waltz, a man of complicated character meditates on what is lost and irretrievable in his 65 Christmases. The music shrinks to a single line, then only a note or two played with a single finger, then silence. If you own a piano, play it yourself however, while you can manage it. After it takes shape under your hands, play it for someone you love in a half dark room.


Busoni Dedicates his sonatina "In Diem Nativitatis Christi," 1917, to his son Benvenuto, a soldier in World War I. Like most European intellectuals, Busoni saw the whole of his civilization collapsing around him in a heap of gunpowder, trench mud, mustard gas, and patriotic cant while his own much-loved son dodged bullets fired for no sane end. He thus composes his most serene and lucid music, full of the tolling of sad bells, [? Harford ?] carols, and in the closing passages directs that the music be played [SPEAKING ITALIAN], 'as if transfigured.' If civilization insisted on destroying itself with bloodlust, Busoni would hold his small corner together with order and calm, a fragment shored against the ruin of Europe, a hope that the ancient Christmas ritual survived the mindless savagery of war.

There is my little Christmas concert for you to play at home or offer as a Christmas gift, a couple of hymns and a few sad piano pieces by unlikely composers. You have your own private list of Christmas music that moves you. Maybe the Boys of King's College singing the floating descant "Above Once in Royal David's City," maybe Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas." It makes no difference. They are gifts to you. Give them away. Share the right.


Human beings have proved their capacity to survive suffering, bad luck, poverty, isolation, natural disasters. Christ did, after all. And that's one of the rights we celebrate at Christmas for each other.

We age, and we die. Old Christmas photos provide evidence. But we think about it, and at our best, sing about it. Christmas, much more than New Year's eve, is the ritual that asks us to take stock. Remember, allow our minds and consciences to be flooded with our own history.

If we are honest, this will not lead us to backslapping cheeriness, but it might bring us some quiet joy that we have done our job as human beings by living out our lives, however, many Christmases we have marked off on the calendar. The little cowboy of 1949 still sends me interior Christmas cards. So I humor him by putting up my hands saying, I surrender to age, the passage of time, what cannot be fixed in this world, maybe to the necessary rites of civilization.

May you never fall into the clutches of Gryla. May you cultivate virtue. May you keep the rites of civilization in your own house, in your own way on Christmas eve, whenever it falls in your life."


GARY EICHTEN: Bill Holm reading portions of his book Faces of Christmas Past, published by the Afton Historical Society Press. This hour, we heard music by the King's College Choir, Franz Liszt, Ferruccio, Busoni, and Bing Crosby.

Minnesota Public Radio's music librarian Rex Levine played Gustav Holst "In the Bleak Midwinter." Michael Osborne recorded Bill's reading. Thanks to Studio M Productions for their help. And of course, thanks to Bill Holm for his reading. Our Voices of Minnesota Series is produced by Dan Olson.

JOHN WANAMAKER: That was the familiar voice of long-time MPR Midday host, Gary Eichten, who retired a few years ago. This program was produced in 1997. Dan Olson retired in 2016, but we'll be hearing programs from his Voices of Minnesota series for many years to come.

Bill Holm of Minneota, Minnesota died in 2009 at the age of 65. He was a poet, essayist, memoirist, and a musician. Bill Holm is perhaps best known for Faces of Christmas Past, The Music of Failure, Windows of Brimnes and The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth. He also wrote many other books. That's MPR News Presents for today.


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