Goodwill, Hope, and Fun

My previous blog was about children’s books that focus on the Nativity. Today’s post features fun Christmas books from my childhood, as well as recent books that send a message of goodwill and hope.

Christmas around the World (1961)

IMG_6126.JPGChristmas is celebrated in many ways, and this book highlights different traditions from around the globe from Austria to (the then) Yugoslavia. In Denmark, the Jul-Nisse, the “benevolent little man in the attic,”is seen by no one and “is responsible for many mischievous happenings in the house.” The children place of bowl of porridge and a pitcher of milk next to the attic door for him on Christmas Eve. In Mexico, “street vendors display hand-carved religious figures…and tapestries of religious design are used as banners.” In Brazil, “the Christmas fiesta season is solemnly heralded by an air mass at midnight on Christmas Eve…a colorful altar is set up in the Cathedral churchyard…in a fiesta atmosphere of banners.”

It’s a time-traveling trip to 29 countries through a book.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs (1973)IMG_6129.JPG

In this cheeky English tale, Father Christmas is a bit of a grumpy fellow. With no elves to be found and no Mrs. Christmas to keep him company, Fr. Christmas has to feed the reindeer, fix his sleigh, and lug the many heavy bags of presents by himself. On top of that, he has to travel through blooming cold, go down blooming chimneys filled with blooming soot, and weather snow, ice, frost, sleet, hail, rain while everyone else is enjoying their parties in warm homes. It’s not a glamorous life.

Still, Fr. Christmas gets to enjoy milk and cookies and sherry and mince pies while on the job. And when his long night is over, he sits down to a good cup of tea, enjoys a lovely pud and a good bath, has himself a good drop of ale and some lovely grub with his dog and cat. It’s not such a bad gig, after all.

While younger children probably won’t understand it, this book is lots of fun and older children who understand dry humor will enjoy this spin on Santa.

Father Christmas and His Friends by Christopher Maynard and illustrated by Colin Hawkins (1979)

In this behind-the-scenes tell-all, we learn a lot about Santa. We get an up-close and personal look at his features. For instance, he suffers from a swollen right knee; the inflammation is “local and seasonal. It is the result of having thousands of children sit and bounce on it.” We get to peek at his home, his friends (including a butler, a guardian, a chief elf, and his Spanish friend, Black Peter), and his attire. We even learn what Fr. Christmas eats for breakfast: an all-or-nothing IMG_6128.JPGsandwich.

Next, we visit the reindeer nursery and the stag bar (for adult reindeers to enjoy adult beverages), and we learn lots of reindeer facts, such as their great weakness for cherry and chocolate gateau. It’s off to the mines, the blacksmith’s workshop, and the toy workshops where quality control is performed. The traditions of carols, holly, mistletoe, candles in the window, and midnight snacks are explained. And for anyone who’s ever wondered just how Fr. Christmas manages to traverse the globe in a single night, we are privy to his sled routes, time management skills (including, perhaps, the ability to travel at the speed of light and to make time stand still), how he gets into houses (including the tricks and tools of the trade), and how he’s prepared for dogs and awake children. You’ll be reeling from all the information in this 92-page exposé!

Again, this isn’t for younger kids and it’s by no means politically correct by today’s standards (it is, after all, 35 years old). If you’re looking for a sanitized version of Santa, this isn’t the book for you. However, if you’re looking for a good laugh with some irreverent humor, then see if you can track down a copy.

Well-loved Carols chosen by Audrey Daly and illustrated by Peter Church (1986)IMG_6127.JPG

I love Christmas carols. Singing really is a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and to spread good cheer. This little book features 19 beloved carols that are a joy to sing. From Away in a Manger to O Little Town of Bethlehem to Winter’s Snow, gather your family and friends and sing to your hearts content. The illustrations are lovely and harken to olden days.

Grace at Christmas by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

IMG_6133.JPGThis story reminds us that the Christmas spirit is about helping others, even when you’re not feeling so merry and bright.

Book description from Amazon: “Grace loves Christmas – acting out the nativity story, opening presents, celebrating with Ma, Nana and Paw-Paw. But this Christmas Nana announces they will have visitors from Trinidad. Grace is horrified! She does NOT want to share the day with another little girl she doesn’t even know. But after some wise words from Nana, Grace’s generous spirit shines through. And in the end, as they all share a special surprise, Grace thinks it could be the best Christmas ever!”

Mortimer’s Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman

IMG_6132This sweet book with perfectly adorable illustrations proves that home is where your heart it.

Book description from Scholastic: “Mortimer Mouse needs a new house — a house that’s not so cold, cramped, and dark. Where can he go? He sees a huge tree covered with twinkling lights. And next to the tree, a mouse-size house. And inside the house, a wee wooden manger just Mortimer’s size. But statue people seem to already live there! One by one, Mortimer lugs and tugs the statues out of the house — only to find them all put back in their places each evening! What is Mortimer to do? It’s not until he overhears a very special story that Mortimer realizes whose house he is sharing and where Mortimer himself belongs. It is the story of Christmas and the night the baby Jesus was born that warms Mortimer’s heart in this magical holiday offering.”

Santa’s Favorite Story by Hisako Aoki and illustrated by Ivan Gantschev

IMG_6130.JPGKeeping the focus on the birth of Jesus while acknowleding the fun of Santa can be a difficult process. This book manages to balance both aspects of Christmas in a gentle, non-judgmental manner.

Book description from Barnes & Noble: “Discover the true meaning of the holidays with Santa’s Favorite Story. The forest animals are alarmed when it appears that Santa might be too tired to make his Christmas rounds, until he recounts for them the Nativity story which gives the holiday its true significance.”

The Message of the Birds by Kate Westerlund and illustrated by Feridun Oral

I reviewed this book last year on Good Reads with Ronna, where you can find the latest and greatest in children’s literature reviews.

ThIMG_6131.JPGe Message of the Birds tugged at my heart. It is a simple, still book, but it is full of the warmth and innocence that parents so often desire for their young children’s lives. The book encompasses a single theme: let there be peace on earth.  As the birds in the rafters of the stable watched over the Baby Jesus, they “heard in his voice…the words of a song that they would carry throughout the world…It was a special song of blessing, of joy and good will.” Unfortunately, as old owl explains years later, that message has been forgotten or ignored. But Robin believes that children will listen and understand, and that the hope for a better world lies with them. So, the birds plan to carry the special message by singing to children. It’s a lot of work, full of long journeys, but the birds try their hardest. And something wonderful happens:

“They saw hands linked together—white hands, brown hands, black hands. Children everywhere were joining together. The children had heard the message of the birds, and what had started as a whisper now resounded from shining faces all over the world.”

What a wonderful thought to teach children, especially this time of year.

The illustrations are spot on.  The snowy, wintery scenes juxtaposed to the birds’ colorful plumage and children’s cheeriness bring the story alive. And in a way that only a masterful artist can manage, the pictures seem both lively and still.

During what is one of the busiest times of the year for many people, taking a break to enjoy and understand The Message of the Birds is well worth the time.

Merry Christmas and happy reading!

Why April 24 Matters

NOTICE: This post contains subject matter of a sensitive nature and graphic images. 

 Twitter is blowing up with the hashtags #TurkeyFailed and #ArmenianGenocide. Why? April 24 is the official date of remembrance for the Armenian Genocide, and 2014 marks the 99th anniversary of those atrocities.

On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government actively began plans to massacre Armenians. Over the course of a few years, they murdered 1.5 million Armenians in the first act of genocide in the 20th century. Whole villages were rounded up and executed. Men and women were raped and tortured in heinous acts. Thousands upon hundreds of thousands were sent on death marches, forced to walk without water or food until they died. Young children were sold by Turkish soldiers or kidnapped by families and taken as slaves.

Turkish official teases starving Armenian children by showing them a piece of bread during the Armenian Genocide in 1915

An Armenian Child Starved to Death

Bodies of Armenian Children





Here is video testimony of Astrid, a Genocide survivor. 

 These events were widely accounted for, documented by, and written about by English, French, German, and American witnesses, including Henry Morgenthau, the United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He formed the Committee on Armenian Atrocities to raise awareness and to supply aid. Unfortunately, nothing stopped the Turkish government from carrying out their campaign of annihilation, especially as World War I served as a cover for their crimes. armenian poster

Despite Turkey’s plans to annihilate an entire ethnicity, a few Armenians survived. One was my maternal grandmother, Siranoush. She was very young at the time of the Genocide, perhaps three or four, so young that she could not remember her surname. She was a survivor of the battle of Musa Dagh (Musa Ler, Mountain of Moses) and stayed in a refugee camp in Egypt. She was sent back to Musa Dagh as an orphan after the Genocide was over. When she got married, she moved to Antioch in Syria and from there to Damascus and then Beirut, Lebanon. None of this was an easy life. She was widowed at a young age and left with five children. The youngest is my mother. Despite terrible economic hardship and having to flee yet again due to Lebanon’s civil war, my Nana didn’t just survive, she lived. She had many grandchildren and was honored by her family until her death.

photo (3)

My maternal grandmother

Had Turkey been stopped, perhaps my grandmother and other grandparents would have had much easier, happier lives. Perhaps the millions of Armenians would have been saved. Perhaps the country of Armenia would not struggle economically-—had more men and women survived to till its soil and build its industry. Perhaps my heart and those of my fellow Armenians would not have to grieve for the horrors our ancestors faced. Perhaps my grandparents would not have been orphaned. Perhaps my parents and I would not have been products of the Diaspora. Perhaps my children would have happier stories to tell about their ancestral history. Perhaps April 24 would be a date of celebration instead of commemoration.

But the Genocide happened. Despite Turkey’s denial, despite its campaigns to revise history, despite its attempts to extricate itself from wrongdoing, Turkey murdered 1.5 million Armenians.

BUT Turkey failed in its attempt to wipe out a culture. It failed because the Armenian culture is alive and strong and well. It failed because millions of Armenians around the world recognize that they must continue despite a tragic past and the burdens of such a history. It failed because we still sing songs and listen to our music. We still recite our literature. We still pray our “Hayr Mer” (Our Father). It failed due to the bravery of those who stood against it. It failed because I, like so many others, am here today. It failed because my children and their generation know their history. It failed because the Armenian Genocide will not be forgotten.

And that is why, 99 years later, April 24 matters.

Genocide memorial


To this day, Turkey does not recognize the Genocide and actively teaches against it. Twenty-one countries and 43 states of the USA do recognize the Genocide.

Please consider signing the petition urging the US Congress to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

If you would like to learn more:

Facing History, Facing Ourselves: The Armenian Genocide

The Armenian National Institute

The History Channel: The Armenian Genocide

The United Human Rights Council

Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian, a National Book Award finalist

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response by Peter Balkian

The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Powers, Pulitzer Prize winner and currently the US Ambassador to the United Nations

The Sandcastle Girls by New York Times bestseller, Chris Bohjalian

Zabelle by Nancy Kricorian

(While the above books are linked to Amazon for book descriptions, please consider purchasing them from a local bookstore.)

You Can Have Your Tea and Enjoy It, Too.

Tea has been a part of my life since childhood. Between being born into an Armenian family and spending my formative years in London, I was surrounded at an early age by dried leaves of splendor. A cuppa (or cupper) was the beverage of choice when my Mum’s friends dropped by for a quick visit. Likewise, we were served tea when we went visiting. I don’t think I can recall anyone ever saying, “No, thank you. I’ll have a coffee instead.” That, in the pre-Starbucks England of the ’70s to mid ’80s was unheard of.

Tea was everywhere. We saw it on the telly on adverts (commercials) and shows, such as EastEnders. The PG Tips monkeys were very popular and the company ran a long campaign with them (1956-2002). You couldn’t get away from the stuff, not that you’d want to, and drinking tea was as much a part of the day’s activities as breathing. 


Of course, there was tea time (otherwise known as afternoon tea) and high tea. We would come home from school and our Mum had tea and iced buns or Bakewell tarts waiting for us. We’d slip out of our school uniforms into our comfort clothes, and enjoy the tea as its steam warmed our hands, cheeks, and noses. That was our tea time, usually around 4 p.m., and we held to it for all our England school days. Cream_Tea

Every now and then, we’d have high tea, which is distinguished as more of a meal, something like supper. For high tea, we would have sandwiches, perhaps some fish and vegetables, and, of course, tea with the cosy on the teapot. For us, tea time was almost a daily occurrence; whereas, high tea was occasional. I remember both very fondly.


Maybe J.R. is enjoying a Long Island Iced Tea?

Less tasty was my first venture with iced tea. My younger sister and I made it on a whim, after viewing an American evening soap opera, perhaps Dallas or Dynasty. In any case, we knew iced tea was an American phenomenon and, thus, it had the allure of glamour. There we were in our kitchen, measuring the water, dropping in the teabag, waiting for it to cool, and adding in a few ice cubes. Maybe we didn’t brew it correctly, or, more likely, our taste buds weren’t used to it, but we were disgusted at the first sip. Everything about it seemed wrong–from pouring tea into a glass instead of a cup or mug to watching the ice cubes bob away. We couldn’t understand how Americans could suffer the stuff. We thought they were as nutty as their behavior on the soap operas indicated. Many years later, I’ve grown to love iced tea and it is my cold (non-alcoholic) beverage of choice.

Nostalgia aside, I like the associations that tea carries with it. Coffee has a place in my household, and its aroma is delicious. However, I find that coffee is almost always linked with caffeine addiction and getting through a tedious workday.

Tea tends to have more positive connotations.

Tea is healthy. When was the last time you heard anyone state, “Yeah, the doctor said I had to give up tea”? Probably never. Tea has proven medicinal benefits, such as protection against heart disease and types of cancer. My Mum would serve us mint tea when our stomachs hurt, and, many years later to this day, the smell of mint tea conjures the same loving feeling that I felt as a child. Beyond my Mum’s herbal remedies is scientific proof in Dr. Oz’s article about the benefits of tea. In fact, “there doesn’t seem to be a downside to tea,” says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman, Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, LD. You can read more about the types of teas and their health benefits here.

Another wonderful attribute is that tea is communal and comforting. You offer a cup of tea to soothe shaken nerves or for warmth. People ponder and reflect and commiserate while having a cup. Even young children play tea party, where they mimic the hospitality of serving and sharing tea. Within many countries (China, Japan, India, Afghanistan, for example), the sharing of tea is ritualized. Some rituals are for more formal occasions, such as the Chinese wedding tea ceremony, and others are honor-bound, such as the offering of tea to guests. People share it, and that’s one of the many things that makes tea so lovely.  

Finally, tea has quite the association with another of my favorite subjects, literature. Esteemed writer C.S. Lewis is quoted as having said,”You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”  Henry James, acclaimed American author, stated, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” I couldn’t agree more.
Check out this flavorwire article on 25 famous tea drinkers. Most of them are authors, and there’re some musicians and actors in the blend. I especially like Morrissey’s take on tea: “One day I decided to try to have a complete day without tea. I was quite shaken. I was quite disturbed.” I know what you mean, mate! I can’t go a day without a good cup of Earl Grey, Darjeeling, or Irish Breakfast.
So, whether you are of the likes of the Downton Abbey staff or of the Countess Dowager’s ilk, whether you add cream, sugar, lemon, or leave it be, you can have your tea and enjoy it, too.
Downton Abbey staff Dowager Countess
Photos from Google Images.

Move Over Punxsutawney Phil: Hedgehogs Rule!

February 2, 2014, is widely known as Groundhog Day in the USA. That’s when groundhog and pseudo-meteorologist, Punxsutawney Phil, emerges from his burrow (or doesn’t) to predict if winter will last for another six weeks. Unfortunately for the folks on the East Coast, that is apparently the case this year. Tough break, guys.

But, the groundhog is a sorry seconds. That’s right. The original weather forecasting hogs weren’t groundhogs or even warthogs but hedgehogs. Romans used hedgehogs to predict winter’s length. Apparently, this tradition spread through Northern Europe and the German settlers in Pennsylvania, not having hedgehogs at their disposal, substituted the native groundhog instead.

Whether hedgehogs or groundhogs can accurately predict winter’s length is supposition at best, but I will say that hedgehogs are just a lot cuter. As a child in London, I imagined having a Beatrix Potter/Enid Blyton-esque garden one day, complete with a stream, river otters, foxes, rabbits, and hedgehogs as my companions. (I also believed in gnomes, and knew, with all certainty, that they would be residents in my beautiful landscape.) Well, an English country garden is hard to find in the Southwest, so here’s my attempt:

Hedgehogs and GnomesIt’s no Kew Gardens, but it’ll do for now.

Hedgehogs may be cute, but they are badass when it comes to their hedges. They do hog them, after all.

Hedgehog or groundhog, it’s going to be a long(er) winter, so stay warm out there!

Men Who Secretly Love Downton Abbey

I greatly enjoy Downton Abbey. The drama, the  formalities, the tea, the fancy clothes, and snarky, witty remarks. Love it. All of it. And, I’m not afraid to admit it. So, here’s the curious thing. I have two male friends who watch the show, but won’t admit it widely. Only a couple of us fellow viewers who have been sworn to secrecy know that they watch it. That’s right, it’s all very hush-hush, just like Edna’s affair with Branson.

“Why the secrecy? ” you ask in incredulous tones. “What could possibly compel them from participating in such rich water-cooler discussions?”

Friend #1 believes that his wider circle of sports-loving, beer-drinking friends will taunt him. (And knowing those guys, he’s probably right.) He can’t bear the idea of such humiliation and its resulting loss of respect. So, he chooses to watch by his lonesome and discuss Lady Mary’s frosty demeanor, Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ unrequited love, and Thomas’ schemings behind closed doors with his chosen few.

Friend #2 is sure that Downton Abbey falls in the same category of “Anglophile pretentiousness” as Dr. Who and Sherlock. That is, Americans who watch these are a bunch of wannabes who quote these shows to demonstrate just how very clever they are. His wife watches, so, of course, he must helplessly watch along with her. Problem is, he really digs Downton Abbey. He just can’t admit it openly because he’s spent so much time dissing it and the people who watch it.

This leads me to the biggest and most important question of all:

Where can I get this dress?! Because it is simply stunning!!!


Seriously, if you have info on where I can purchase a version of it, let me know!

Okay, back to the topic at hand. I think it’s too bad these dudes are too scared or ashamed to admit they watch and love Downton Abbey. Haven’t we yet  gotten to a place in the good ol’ USA where red-blooded men can hunker down on the couch and turn on the TV to enjoy the love-lives and financial issues of English folks in the 1920s? Are we really so very narrow minded, people?

Should these very manly men come out of the drawing room and admit they watch Masterpiece Theater? Or must they hide forever in the stables like a scullery maid waiting for her tryst with the footman?

Do you know of any closet DA viewers?

Zoos: An Ethical Dilemma

Elephant in zoo

Please let me be free.

I have mixed feelings about zoos, and it was with a certain amount of anxiety that I recently visited the San Diego Zoo with my husband and two young children. On the one hand, I enjoy watching my children squeal with delight as they spot their favorite animals. After all, animals are fascinating, and I remember as a child just watching squirrels as they ran around, dug for nuts and generally reveled in all their squirrelly manicness. The squirrels were being themselves in their normal, natural environment. They were free to do as they pleased and follow their natural instincts. And therein lies the rub…zoos aren’t natural. So on the other hand, how do you enjoy the zoo when it comes at the expense of the animals? To try to make more sense of this, I made a pro and con list. Here it is.


1. Zoos sustain species, especially ones that are threatened. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, zoos will probably play a more active role in assuring the preservation and survival of the most affected species. Animals that are hunted by poachers, especially tigers and rhinos, are able to survive due to zoos.

2. They provide an educational opportunity for people to see animals they normally wouldn’t be able to see. I don’t foresee going to Madgascar any time soon, so being able to see a lemur is pretty cool.

3. If the zoo is a well-run organization, it also includes conservation aspects, such as visits to local schools to teach about the environment and animals, outreach programs to help protect endangered species and so on. Obviously, these are positive aspects.


1. Zoos seem cruel in that they place human desires above animal needs. We’ve captured and enclosed these animals for our human amusement and enjoyment. When you see an elephant, which in the wild travels hundreds of miles a year, enclosed in a pen (even a spacious one), it is depressing. Elephants, especially, seem despondent in zoos and spend time swaying back and forth–not a sign of a cheery life. Monkeys are used to swinging through the jungles/forests. Does swinging in a much smaller area take away from their joy? I would imagine so. So, does human desire to look at these animals outweigh their mental and emotional health? Is that fair?

2. They are unnatural. Animals are not in their native, natural habitats. Even exemplary zoos such as the San Diego Zoo that try to recreate habitat can’t come close. That’s because animals spend their days being animals–hunting, avoiding being hunted, mating, marking territory and so on. Put a pride of lions in a pen and feed them. It’s not natural. What happens to the lions’ instincts to hunt, chase, and patrol? They can’t just go away. Does the lion attempt to do all those activities in a severely limited area with no natural prey in sight? That can’t be healthy; in fact, it must be maddening. What about polar bears that are used to swimming in oceans? Swimming in a pool must feel so limiting and confining. On our recent visit, we saw one polar bear repeatedly walk back and forth from one spot to the other. Why? Obviously, I don’t know for sure, but I fear it was boredom or frustration.

3. Do they break apart families, herds, prides, troops, and so on? The zoo animals come from somewhere. How are they procured? Are these animals taken forcibly from their families and habitats?

For all the good that zoos do, I still can’t help feeling uncomfortable when I’m visiting one. Even as I try to intellectually justify visiting a zoo, I find that I feel inherently wrong for being there. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe this is just my hang up.

How do you feel about zoos?

Men Aren’t Boys, so Why Are Women Called “Girls”?

Have you ever heard a man refer to himself as a “big boy”? I’m betting no. Now take a second and think if you’ve ever heard a man or, worse, a woman referring to a woman as a “big girl.”  I’m betting yes. Why the difference?

Men rarely ever reference themselves in a fashion that detracts from their manhood. The last time a man in your life was going through a rough situation, did he ever declare, “I’m a big boy! I’ll get through it!” I somehow doubt it.

Yet, turn on practically any episode of “The Bachelorette” and listen to both the male contestants and the bachelorette herself refer to her as a “big girl.”

“I’m a big girl. I can handle myself.”

“She’s a big girl. She knows what she’s doing.”

And, of course, there’s Lena Dunham’s equally lauded  and bashed show, “Girls.” While it’s true that some of the females on the show act in a childish fashion, they also engage in some very adult activities. But, I suppose the producers decided that calling the show “Women” or “Ladies” just wouldn’t have enough appeal.

Remember Sarah Michelle Gellar’s show, “Ringer”? In it, SMG’s character refers to herself as a girl. (Go to :24 in the video.) Now, all due respect to the wonderful SMG, but you’re 36 years old. Your character doesn’t look like a girl. Couldn’t you have mentioned to the writers (or couldn’t the writers have thought for themselves) that declaring, “You have the wrong woman” would work just fine?

How about when women reference a girls’ night out? Nope, ladies, sorry. Your evening plans usually entail drinking alcohol, which girls aren’t allowed to drink, let alone purchase. Your fun times may happen in a bar or other adult establishment, where girls can’t go. It may last into the wee hours of the morn, when girls should be sound asleep in their own beds. So, no, ladies, have your ladies night out, but leave the girls to their sleep-overs and Disney channel marathons.

Girls gone wild? That would be child pornography. Yet somehow “women gone wild” doesn’t have the same tawdry allure, which is a good thing. Why? Because “women” indicates maturity and sense, and attributes displayed by adults (hopefully).

We live in a world where women are inundated with images and language that encourage, cajole, and pressure us to infantilize ourselves. Look younger! Dress younger! Be younger! Get rid of the wrinkles. Why celebrate womanhood when that makes you old, boring, and undesirable? Be a girl and stay young, interesting and desirable forever!

Well, enough. I say “woman” isn’t a dirty word. It’s a badge of honor. It means you’ve grown, lived, experienced and, hopefully, flourished. It should be empowering to call yourself “a woman!” Men don’t refer to themselves as boys. It’s time for women to stop referring to themselves as female children and start embracing who they are and what they’ve been through and accomplished to become WOMEN.