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Posts Tagged ‘Little Women’

A friend recently asked me what are my family’s traditions for Christmas.  Besides a formal meal, we also purchase and decorate a Christmas tree, the latter usually to the backdrop of nostalgic Christmas songs and candlelight.  But the most familiar tradition, even an oft-lamented one in our materialism-saturated society, is the exchanging of gifts.  But I am convinced there is nothing inherently wicked with either the getting or the giving of presents.

Gift and give are newer forms of a presumed old, old root, the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *ghabh- meaning “to give or receive”.  Before it reached English, it appeared in the Old Norse with a definition “gift, good luck”.  For a while it was pronounced yiven, before the guttural ‘g’ resurfaced.  An initial ‘h’ sound is also associated with the root, developing into the somewhat opposite word have.  Isn’t it interesting that giving and receiving are so closely linked that they’re all mixed up with the same family of words?

Present specifically carries the notion of something offered, freely, but before it is received.  It is set in the presence of one, placed “before their face”.

The word receive has a more Latin than Germanic heritage, entering English c. 1300, about 200 years after the Norman French conquest of England, from the Old North French, meaning at that time “seize, take hold of, accept”.  I like the emphasis on the fact that a gift cannot simply be thrust on someone; the action is interactive, with the receiver willingly taking the gift.  In earlier forms, found in Latin, the word meant “regain, take back, recover, take in, or admit”.  There’s a sense of vengeance contrasted with the sense of hospitality.

Hospitality is, in Greek, xenia, especially referring to the “rights of a guest or stranger”.  There is a city in Ohio named for this word.  I think that is a lovely motto of which to be reminded every time one’s city is mentioned.  It is not so much seen in our country as in many other nations, including the Israelite tribe whose generosity to the poor and stranger in the land was mandated by the Mosaic Law (see also this passage).

Hospitality is also a French/Latin borrowing, also since the 1300’s.  It comes from a word meaning “friendliness to guests”.  Compare this to the word host, whose entry at Etymonline.com goes further than the longer form hospitalityHost goes back to the PIE *ghostis- which is supposed to have referred to both the host and the guest, with an original sense of referring to strangers, on whichever side.

In the 1993 movie, “Shadowlands”, based on the life of C.S. Lewis, there is a scene about Christmas in which he is discussing the fate of the season in their mid-century culture:

One [Inkling] laments, “I’m afraid Christmas, as I remember it, is rather a lost cause.”

Jack, as his friends call him, and sounding rather like his voice is echoing out of far-away winter-bound Narnia whispers, “It’s because we’ve lost the magic… You tell people it’s about taking care of the poor and needy, and naturally they don’t even miss it.”

To which his friend, a Roman Catholic priest, responds, “The needy do come into it: ‘no room at the inn,’ remember?  The mother and child?”

I do like to remember that.  I like that older songs remember that.  I like that my friend this year asked for suggestions of how to make our holiday reflect the truth of this verse, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” She wanted to know how to celebrate being made rich and to imitate Christ’s poverty-bearing, rich-making love.

There is a tradition of being charitable particularly at Christmas.  (This is in the line of other, biblical feast-days, during which kindness to the poor was encouraged in response to God’s blessings of abundance that were being celebrated, especially in the harvest-feasts of Firstfruits and Tabernacles.  It is a way to recognize that it is God’s undeserved blessing that provides enough to survive or feast.  If we, by pleasing Him, do not relinquish His grace, we are to expect His continued blessings.  And He is pleased when we remember the poor and have charity towards them.  We can give like the saints in Philippi, depleting our own storehouses, knowing that the God who is using us to care for the poor will faithfully provide for us as well.)

This responsibility to the poor is communicated by the history of the word generous, which originally meant “of noble birth” (same root as genus, referring to biological descent and classification into kinds or races or families) and only by implications of the duty, of those blessed with more, to share with those who have less did it come to mean “magnanimous”.

Benevolence, “disposition to do good”, is a compound word, from the Latin bene “well” and volantem “to wish”.

Alms is another term for this benevolence.   In Old English it was ælmesse, occurring also in German, and Latin, where it is spelled eleemosyna.  This was, in turn, borrowed from the Greek eleemosyne, referring to “pity, mercy”.  In modern English, though rare, it means a gift, especially of money or food, given out to the needy.

Charity is from the Old French, “charity, mercy, compassion; alms” from Latin, “costliness, esteem, affection”.  Isn’t it instructive, the impulse of expressing love by costly, sacrificial giving?  It can be satisfying, and blessed, to give.

Love is, by own definition, the giving of a treasure.  Treasure comes from the same Greek root as thesaurus, and it means “hoard, storehouse, treasury” – presumably of something worth enough to be collected and kept safe.  Can stores be shared?  What does it say when one is willing to disperse a hoard?

Donation is attested in Latin, donum, “gift”, from the PIE *donum.  The same word is found in Sanskrit: danam “offering, present” and in Old Irish dan, “gift, endowment, talent”.

In my family’s tradition, the focus is more on expressing love to one another than to those less fortunate.  Our gifts are an exchange, late 1300’s, “act of reciprocal giving and receiving”, from the Latin ex- “out” and cambire “barter”.  Cambire is supposed to be of Celtic origin, the PIE *kemb- “to bend”, developing in the sense of altering the current state, then specifically changing something by putting something else in its place.

At Christmas especially, the packages under the tree are almost always wrapped, so as to be a surprise.  Unexpectedly, this word used to mean only “a taking unawares; unexpected attack or capture”.  The roots are sur- “over” and prendre “to take, grasp, seize”.  It might be ironic that though we think of thinly cloaked gifts as surprises, at Christmas they are not always unforeseen or unexpected; who hasn’t made a Christmas wish list?  In fact, it is perhaps a disadvantage of our custom: that gifts come to be expected, or even demanded, by the recipients.

When the word wrap appeared in English around AD 1300, it meant “to wind, cover, conceal, bind up, swaddle”.  I think we do this to increase the ornamental feeling of festivity, not as a symbol of the baby Jesus being similarly wrapped before being placed in a manger.

Swaddle seems to come from a word meaning a slice or strip.

Ribbon, which often adorns our gifts, might have a similar historic meaning, if it is related to band, “a flat strip” and “something that binds”, a rejoining of two divergent threads of Middle English, distinguished at one point by different spellings, band referring to joining together and bande to a strip or even a stripe (where it likely morphed into ribane, a stripe in a material).  The original root of band is, PIE *bendh- “to bind”.

Something else we use to hold things together when we’re wrapping them?  Tape.  My cousin says, “tape, lots of tape.”  This Old English tæppe is a “narrow strip of cloth used for tying or measuring”.  It could be formed from the Latin for “cloth, carpet”, tapete, or it might be related to the Middle Low German tapen, “to pull, pluck, tear”.

(These words are so fun, the way they communicate the action by which the thing got to be – or the state that inspired and enabled an action.  What was life like for the people who named a strip of fabric tape?  Well, maybe they were pulling on cloth {reminiscent of one of my favorite Christmas movies, “Little Women”, where the ladies of the house spend time tearing old sheets into strips to be used as bandages for those soldiers wounded in the American Civil War}.  Why would they do that?  To have something with which to bind things together.  It’s a different world from our manufacturing-driven lifestyles, where tape and ribbon and string are purchased in packages off of shelves.  They’re things made originally for their purposes, not improvised from something else.  It’s like a history lesson in a word!)

The other reason we think of gifts during the holiday season in which we remember God’s entry into our world in human flesh is because His birth was honored by gifts from wise visitors from the East.  These men recognized that Jesus was born to be the King, the long-prophesied King of the everlasting kingdom.  And though this God-King could have turned stones into bread, and summoned armies of angels, He chose to experience poverty.  Though He experienced the lowliness of being born to a poor mother and living as a refugee, a stranger, in Egypt, he was honored by costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh when a very young boy.

Such is the nature not only of love, to give sacrificially, but also of worship.  How remiss would any of us be, to overlook the presence of the Highest King?  Not only is His worth expressed by Kings giving Him treasures; it is demonstrated by the “sacrifice of praise” every person can offer:  The Christmas carols sing that the wise men have “come to pay Him homage,” Old French “allegiance or respect for one’s feudal lord”, from Latin homo, “man”.  Or in “What Child Is This?” we are bid to “haste, haste, to bring Him laud”, also Old French, “praise, extol” from Latin laus, “praise, fame, glory”.  A cognate, or brother-word in Old English was leoð, “song, poem, hymn”.  He is worthy of the richest treasures.  We owe Him everything we have, everything that is.  We also owe Him our allegiance, our praise, our songs.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

Many thanks and credit to the resources of www.Etymonline.com and www.Dictionary.Reference.com in compiling these definitions and histories.  Also to www.BlueLetterBible.org for Scriptures.

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I must say, much as I am a fan of literature, that I never liked Shakespeare.  My taste, whatever else may be said about it, does not like to be dictated.  Which men chose the classics and left better books behind?  Must Dickens be praised and Burnett read everywhere while every little author with soaring words is neglected?  What is to be praised in Dickens?  And above all, why do we give to children what is supposed to be fine and profound literature? 

 

Shakespeare’s poetry does not rhyme, and its meaning is not always evident.  To me sometimes it sounds forced.  And his plays do not interest me.  Literature class forced Romeo and Juliet upon me, and in respect for a friend I read Tweflth Night.  So I don’t have a lot of exposure to his plays, and I have never seen them acted.  If I had, their interpretation might have more hold on my heart.  Most of all I find that Shakespeare is overrated. 

 

Perhaps, however, he is under-read.  The one thing that tempts me to scorn my own opinion of Shakespeare is that whenever a true fan of his work, someone who has invested the thought to understand his themes, has described to me a play or a couplet, I have enjoyed the metaphor.  The Danish prince on Prince and Me aids the American farmgirl in her literature class by directing her penetration of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  My immediate reaction is that any poetry that requires so much thinking is not romantic, though it masquerades as such.  Maybe the metaphors were more common, or the objects of comparison an everyday thought.  But I must praise the ability to say more with words than the words themselves, to do something with choice of words and order, rhythm and association, pattern and emphasis that has, even to those unaware, layers of influence and meaning.  My friend who convinced me to read Twelfth Night explained the statement Merchant of Venice is on Jewish philosophy.  I greatly enjoyed that.  When Chesterton critiques A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I feel let in on the secret.  And occasionally when I catch radio host Hugh Hewitt interviewing David Allen White, a literature lecturer, about a piece of Shakespeare, I am delighted by the events and ideas Shakespeare addressed.  How he did it from a cottage in the country I’ll never know. 

 

Dickens always ought to be musical.  Because Jo March and her sisters liked him, I always felt guilty for despising his work.  I wanted story, and Dickens talked about issues, the dark, depressing issues of London which one hopes have been reformed since his creative efforts to address them.  I feel very much as though I was being told what to do, a list of morals told in story form.  Again, whoever makes the selections for literature books is sadly out of touch with students.  I read a shadowy scene of Pip visits Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, and found myself very bored.  If Oliver had not been set to music, I would have been turned off by the immorality and violence of the tale.  But don’t you see that to make it musical, someone had to understand the story and love it enough to adorn it for the world to enjoy?  A radio interview and Chesterton again are responsible for the majority of the interest I have in Charles Dickens.  The former described the magic of the words the classic author used, how each word added to the tone of the novel. 

 

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote to Dickens, and shared his concern for their country’s social issues.  Through her stories I feel as though I receive commentary on Dickens, both a defense and a rebuttal of his work.  Her novels are more realistic, more on the border of the issues to enable her readers, themselves well outside the slums, to look in at a window, gently led like Mr. Scrooge by the ghost to look at the needs of others.  Her heroes have compassion held as an example to the readers.  They learn and love just like the rest of us.  Even her villains are not completely bad.  Each has a story that, while it cannot justify their rebellion, is a justification for kindness shown to them. 

 

To move my heart a story must be near enough my own experience.  Few people today have family feuds preventing childhood romance.  No one I know was beaten in an orphanage.  Maybe in some parts of the world or my city these things are the case, but my life is without them.  Jane Austen appeals to me because she writes about families with normal problems and interests.  Tolkien intrigues me because, though he sets it in a fantastic world of elves, goblins, and dragons, his epic deals with the basic cases of right and wrong, sacrifice and friendship, and the choices everyday to turn back.  More grown up than when I took literature class, I appreciate biographies for mapping the way individuals of the past navigated the questions of life.  New genres are opening to me; maybe soon I will love the classics on my own. 

 

Last summer I hosted a literature party in which each girl or lady was invited to bring a passage from her favorite children’s book.  There was Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Little House on the Prairie, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Alexander, and more.  I liked best loving those books through the eyes of my friends, to have them share with me what is so relevant or poetic or sentimental about the stories. 

 

So many people talk about classic authors.  I wonder if they do not derive some of their potency and meaning from being a matter of commentary and interpretation.  Is Shakespeare truly better when discussed?  Dickens wrote for the very purpose of stirring thought and inspiring movement in his society.  And what writer does not write to be read and to matter? 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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I’m sitting here, sinking into my computer screen as only happens when I’m completely tired. One boot is on, and one is off. I’ve been eating an indulgent amount of chocolate cheesecake. A friend told me this week that her favorite version of Little Women is that with June Allyson (an many other famous people, including a whole entourage also appearing in Meet Me In St. Louis), so I was watching that. When I read the book I was young and not all that attentive to detail, but I’m pretty sure the newest adaptation is more accurate. This version was delightful, though.

My finger is better today, still carefully protected by a band-aid. A patient gave me a bracelet that is in a variety of pretty pastels, including two shades of pink but only one of blue, green, and purple. I’m enjoying drinking out of a glass and pondering the extensive contamination our world has with plastic.

At work today I spent every free moment studying Shechem, which was an exciting biblical exercise, and with a little more research completed when I am fully conscious, will be a blog post. I imagine my faithful readers checking my blog and thinking me crazy, for the information is quite long, and I’m not entirely sure of its relevance. But I feel sure that it is important, and I am very interested.

Also coming up will be a review of the final Jane Austen Season offering from Masterpiece: Sense and Sensibility. I intend to watch the entirety in one sitting at some point to form my opinion sufficiently for blog authority.

My cat is awake, and so is a family member, since they just turned their doorknob (fortunately those handles are not homicidal). This week I finished sewing a shirt for my sister which I began before her birthday in January. Buttons on my black coat are mended into security. But curtains I made for Mom’s birthday in November 2006 are still not entirely functional; we use clothespins to hold them up and let light in – without which we get cabin fever and insist on turning on each of the five lamps in the room. All this so we can gaze transportedly into laptop or television screens.

With the best of intentions I resolved to get to bed on time and rise earlier to pray more diligently beginning this week. Though I set my alarm at 8 this morning, I only got up at 9, but fortunately had time enough to put gas in my car (sufficient to get me to work) and stop for a doughnut. Now it is after 1 AM, and I am still not being self-disciplined in my schedule. My problem, I think, is the food supply in our house. I feel obligated to eat dinner, and if I eat it ought to be something substantial, but either there is nothing or it is the same something I ate twice already this week. By the time I convince myself those excuses are petty, I’ve wasted positively hours. Not to worry; I spend the whole intervals between opening cupboards and refrigerators conversing pleasantly with my tolerant and sympathetic family. Then I supplement my decisions with cheesecake or ice cream, and the world doesn’t seem bad at all.

Before I had a blog I rambled like this in emails to my friends. Some bloggers would divide this into many posts. I don’t consider my consolidation lazy. I am quite willing to separate my topics, but WordPress and Blogger are so tedious.

Let me close tonight by sharing with you something I once said so casually and sincerely that without it being considered by a dear friend to be my motto, I would have forgotten. “You can laugh at me; I do.”

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

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