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4. The Yuletide Juggler

© 2018 Jan M. Ziolkowski, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0148.04

This old favorite has been universally loved by people of all faiths for its warm portrayal of the spirit that is Christmas. It is presented here with the heartfelt hope that, whatever your belief, you will have found in its message added meaning for your celebration of the birth of the Son of God.

Easter Tumbling

The term “ecumenism” means pan-Christianism. Whatever word we light upon, the phenomenon has conspired with commercialism to render the basic pacing of Christian holidays both simpler and more Christocentric, in the United States and many other western countries, than would have held true in earlier eras. Among other things, the simplification helps to obscure the distinctions among different strands within Christianity. In commerce, the major festivity has become Christmas, with Easter running a distant second. In the US economy, the Eastertime dyeing of hardboiled eggs and nibbling of chocolate rabbits, crème eggs, and jelly beans exercise far less effect on overall economic consumption than do yuletide parties, entertainment, travel, and above all gift exchanges. Yet the predominance of the Feast of the Nativity was not at all an established fact in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, the celebration was abominated by many denominations.

When Our Lady’s Tumbler first penetrated the English-speaking landscape, an attempt was made to nudge the narrative toward the Paschaltide. The front cover of the 1900 translation by Wicksteed hazards no gesture at subtlety. It is emblazoned with a cross, flanked by lilies, with the legend “For Eastertide” above, and “He is Risen” below (see Fig. 4.1). The crucifix and flowers are two surpassingly common symbols of the holiday. Inside the slim volume, the Virgin’s ministrations toward the title character are presented in an illustration as an entirely female affair, looking for all the world like a scene of the Deposition of Christ multiplied exponentially (see Fig. 4.2). A color card of the same vintage is not connected directly with the juggler story. In fact, it lacks any human figure whatsoever. Yet it displays the same bloom, emblem of Mary as well as of Easter and Jesus, in a Gothic architectural setting (see Fig. 4.3).

Fig. 4.1 An Eastertide cross. Published on the front cover of Philip H. Wicksteed, trans., Our Lady’s Tumbler: A XIIth Century Legend (London: J. M. Dent, 1900).

Fig. 4.2 “How the Queen of Heaven tends him.” Illustration, 1900. Artist unknown. Published in Philip H. Wicksteed, trans., Our Lady’s Tumbler: A XIIth Century Legend (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1924), frontispiece.

Fig. 4.3 Postcard depicting Eastertime lilies (H. Wessler, 1909).

Roughly a half century later, the same effort to paschalize the tale is repeated, in a version from 1949 that entitles it explicitly as “an Easter play.” In 1956, BBC television aired a theatrical production of Our Lady’s Tumbler on the day before Easter Sunday. The network billed the show as “a morality,” presumably to the same end. The 1977 version by Frederic Vanson, although for the “Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity,” is capped by verses that tether the narrative to same festival.

Though the paschal holiday may hold greater importance within Christian doctrine, in broader culture Christmas has exerted the irresistible pull, especially over the past century and a half. Anatole France annexed the story to May, the month of Mary, but only halfheartedly and not enduringly. In the medieval French poem the tale was bound to the Cistercian order and to the Virgin, but not to any one event in the liturgical calendar, and no association with the Nativity was implicit in any way. Yet throughout the twentieth century, the account became entwined irrevocably with the season of goodwill.

The Commercial Aesthetic of “Ye Olde”

To be up-to to-date meant to look as old as possible.

Especially in Anglophone lands, Christmas remains a Victorian holiday, but one packaged as pseudomedieval. In the late nineteenth century, Noel came to be imagined as a celebration characteristic of the Middle Ages. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the festivity became baked definitively into this fantasy world of more than a half millennium earlier. A memorable case in point can be found in a famous department store in Philadelphia. The moment is ripe for a few words about Gothic storefronts and exteriors, as exemplified by one specific shop.

The original marketplace established by John Wanamaker was called Wanamaker’s Grand Depot. The building opened in 1876, a special anniversary for the City of Brotherly Love owing to the American Centennial Exposition. Its style included a Moorish façade that squared well with the Gothic mania of the period, since it featured pointed arches (see Fig. 4.4). The interior of the facility strove for modernity, with all sorts of “firsts” to its credit as a sales outlet: the first to have electric illumination, a telephone, and pneumatic tubes to transport cash and documents. This edifice was replaced definitively in 1910–1911 by a very different Wanamaker Building. Unlike the ornate spire and other trimmings that certified the Woolworth Building in New York as a Gothic skyscraper, the exterior of the great shop that bore the name of John Wanamaker put on no charade of appearing medieval (see Fig. 4.5). Yet inside the newly redesigned retail establishment was a different story, especially in the Grand Court (see Fig. 4.6).

Fig. 4.4 Postcard of John Wanamaker’s Department Store before 1904, Philadelphia, PA (early twentieth century).

Fig. 4.5 Postcard of the John Wanamaker Building, Philadelphia, PA (Detroit, MI: Detroit Publishing Co., ca. 1911).

Fig. 4.6 Postcard of the Grand Court of the John Wanamaker Building, Philadelphia, PA (after 1911).

The family nurtured a passion for the Middle Ages that originated with the superstore’s eponymous founder, John Wanamaker (see Fig. 4.7). Their medievalesque contributions to the metropolis in Pennsylvania affected the large public of shoppers and gawkers through temporary displays and other promotions within the flagship store. Permanently in place was the Wanamaker Grand Organ. This spectacular pipe instrument provided the backbone for musical performances (see Figs. 4.8 and 4.9). In this atmosphere we see an amalgam of made-up Middle Ages, commercialized Christmas, and dewy mawkishness. In this space ruddy-faced carolers can easily be imagined, trolling old-time melodies. Since the nineteenth century, this genre of music has been revived in large part thanks to the efforts of medieval musicologists.

Fig. 4.7 John Wanamaker. Photograph by George Grantham Bain, 1915. Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Fig. 4.8 Front cover of John Wanamaker, Christmas Carols and Songs of Olden Time, with the Wanamaker Grand Organ (Philadelphia, PA: John Wanamaker, 1923).

Fig. 4.9 Title page of John Wanamaker, Christmas Carols and Songs of Olden Time, with the Wanamaker Grand Organ (Philadelphia, PA: John Wanamaker, 1923).

During many yuletide seasons, the lobby of the department store was decked out as a pseudomedieval wonderland—a kind of American marketing equivalent to the Old Paris that Robida had devised for the 1900 Universal Exposition in the French capital. Once, this so-called Grand Court was beautified with a replica of the façade of the Reims cathedral. In 1928, a small-scale knock-off of Chartres was created. The recreations were also related to performances in costume. Not coincidentally, in 1924 John Wanamaker’s son Rodman (see Fig. 4.10) organized a fundraising expedition to New York City by cast members of the Oberammergau Passion play. The event would not have been exactly a “don we now our gay apparel” moment, but the Middle Ages were inherently Christmasy (or vice versa: Christmas was Middle Ages-y). The United States stayed heavily German-American, as it does to this day, and German retained its status as the second most widely spoken language, after English: it was what Spanish has become today. For all that, bringing a troupe from the old country for a tour and stay cannot have been easy or popular in the wake of World War I. The sponsorship of that visit perpetuated a tradition that the native Philadelphian John Wanamaker had instituted to celebrate the family’s ethnic ancestry through events in the emporium, such as an annual German Volksfest, or “popular festival.” The promotion of such occasions was unrestrained in playing up the Middle Ages (see Fig. 4.11).

Fig. 4.10 Rodman Wanamaker. Photograph, 1927. Photographer unknown.

Fig. 4.11 Front cover of Book of Gifts, 1924 (Philadelphia, PA: The John Wanamaker Store, 1924).

Medieval strains are present emphatically not only in books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also in printed material of the period that was not necessarily intended to be long-lived. Among ephemera of this sort, holiday cards may hold the most value for the historical examination of attitudes toward the medieval past. Such goods from the presses of this period give the sense that the commercialization of the festivities coincided with nostalgia for olden times. Even Christmas greetings set in what was then the present day would often have medievalesque calligraphy. Beyond the script, the scenes portrayed were meant to bring back the architecture of the Middle Ages, as the defining style of sincerity, simplicity, and spirituality (see Fig. 4.12).

Fig. 4.12 Christmas card depicting the hanging of holly (early twentieth century).

As weird as it may seem, even wishes for the changeover from present to future to which we attach the name of New Year’s Day could be loaded with retro elements. These cards often invite the viewer to step not forward but back, sometimes even through a pointed arch, to the cozy domesticity of an earlier era (see Figs. 4.13–4.15). Consider the paradox of wishing a bright and happy turn to a fresh yearly calendar in the twentieth century by inviting the recipient to hop five or six centuries back through an aged Gothic portal. The past is evoked as a place of soothing stability in a fast-changing present, with its threat of an even more disconcerting future. The artwork and lettering are intentionally redolent of epochs that were supposedly marked by quaintly folkloric customs and evidently simple joys. They allow us to voyage back in our fantasies through Gothic lancet arches to witness the holidays as they took place within faux Tudor houses, with their half-beamed domestic architecture, where the dowdy and the old-world were regarded as virtues and not vices.

Fig. 4.13 New Year’s card depicting holly and a Gothic window (ca. 1925).

Fig. 4.14 Christmas and New Year’s card depicting a Gothic gateway (ca. 1923)

Fig. 4.15 New Year’s card featuring a medieval musician and castle (early twentieth century).

Not fortuitously, one Christmas card features an odd-looking ecclesiastic—a bishop, it would seem from his miter—on a throne that is pinnacled in Gothic revival style (see Fig. 4.16). He hoists a pewter tankard to a king in crusader garb (are we to surmise Richard the Lionheart?) who sports his crown at a rakish angle and draws on a flamboyantly long clay tobacco pipe in what might be thought to be the Dutch fashion. This item has a mate that shows the same medieval influence (see Fig. 4.17).

Fig. 4.16 Christmas card depicting a medieval bishop and crusader king (early twentieth century). Image courtesy of Michelle Higgs. All rights reserved.

Fig. 4.17 Christmas card depicting a medieval woman wearing a hennin who is on the verge of being fought over by two suitors (early twentieth century). Image courtesy of Michelle Higgs. All rights reserved.

The trend could lead to peculiar and even spectacular anachronism. For example, one card wishes the recipient “A Happy New Year” in painstakingly lovely imitation of a Gothic manuscript, with floriated embellishments at top and bottom (see Fig. 4.18) The central text is penned in a script that achieves an improbable compromise between blackletter and easy-to-read. The medievalesque here is unconsciously double-dealing, since the passage comprises a definition of cheerfulness ascribed to the decidedly unmedieval eighteenth-century English literary great Samuel Johnson.

Fig. 4.18 “Cheerfulness. The habit of looking at the bright side of things is worth more than a thousand a year. — Samuel Johnson.” New Year’s card (Ernest Nister, 1912).

Among the legacies of earlier medievalism, the medieval revival of the Gilded Age bequeathed a plethora of tacky words and phrases that linger to the present day. Take for example “ye olde.” The faux-medieval or at least pseudoarchaic practice of writing these two words in lieu of “the old” took root in advertising and elsewhere at the latest from the 1880s on (see Fig. 4.19). Another archaic “ye” existed to compete with “ye olde.” Sometimes both homographs appeared on one and the same card (see Fig. 4.20). This couple of forms comported comfortably with Christmas, because of its medieval associations. The holiday’s name is itself an Old English noun, first documented in the early Middle Ages.

Fig. 4.19 Google Ngram data for “ye olde,” showing a marked increase in usage in the 1880s and a peak in the 1920s and ’30s. Vector art by Melissa Tandysh, 2016. Image courtesy of Melissa Tandysh. All rights reserved.

Fig. 4.20 “Ye Merrie Christmas Wishes.” Christmas card depicting holly-bearing figures in traditional dress (early twentieth century).

From the nineteenth century on, the celebration was retailed for its at least supposedly medieval traditions. The intermixing of “ye” with the real or sham Middle Ages can be documented readily on holiday cards from the early twentieth century (see Fig. 4.21). Somewhat less mannered is a card that portrays youths towing a king-sized piece of firewood. At the center, a jester with a large, belled coxcomb blows an impressively king-sized set of bagpipes (see Fig. 4.22). In such illustrations, the festivities afford opportunities for jaunty and rowdy male-bonding. Another very similar greeting begins “Ye Jollie Christmastide” (see Fig. 4.23).

Fig. 4.21 “Ye Merrie Christmas Greetings.” Christmas card depicting figures in traditional dress with a Yule log, in a procession led by a jester (early twentieth century).

Fig. 4.22 Christmas card depicting a Yule log (New York: E. P. Dutton, early twentieth century).

Fig. 4.23 “Ye Jollie Christmastide.” Christmas card depicting candle-bearers and a jester before the enthroned king or Father Christmas (early twentieth century).

Consider too the poem embossed upon a gilt postcard of the same vintage that enjoins “Merrie Xmas Cheer.” A jollily jingling jester cavorts, once again in parti-color. He clasps the wand characteristic of his profession as well as a spray of mistletoe, this time with red berries galore. Near the jolly joker, a boy holds two candelabra, each ablaze with five candles (see Fig. 4.24). The brief text is rife with “ye’s. It looks like a shopping list for the feast days that starts with holly and a sprig of mistletoe. Doubtless “ye poinsettia” is not far away. (We readers can shoehorn in one further expletive: ye gods!)

Fig. 4.24 “Merrie Xmas Cheer.” Christmas card with medieval poem and jester (ca. 1910).

Less grating “Merry Christmas” and “Christmas Cheer” cards dispense with “ye,” as they picture rosy-cheeked young lads dragging a Yule log (see Figs. 4.25 and 4.26). They conjure up the Middle Ages through a backdrop of a snowy landscape with a Gothic-looking building and a church spire. Even by itself, the huge chunk of a tree is enough to connote a homey medieval Noel. The trunk presupposes stainless coziness. In simpler days of old, the happy faithful gathered around a woodburning chimney. This imagined hearthside heartiness took place long before whale oil, coal, gas, petroleum, and electricity existed, along with the industrialization they facilitated. These colorful pieces of stiff paper emphasize communal good cheer in centuries of yore rather than the commercial exchange that is stressed in the Santa-centered commercialization of Christmas today: ho, ho, ho! Also “ye”-free is a greeting that simulates a medieval charter: certifiable happiness. At the bottom are images of red and green wax seals, like the berries and leaves of holly; at the top a pretend illumination with one fool strumming a stringed instrument and another holding on to a jester’s wand (see Fig. 4.27).

Fig. 4.25 “Bringing in the Yule Log.” Christmas card depicting medieval figures dragging a Yule log (ca. 1910).

Fig. 4.26 Christmas card depicting medieval figures dragging a Yule log (Philadelphia: Hoover, 1916).

Fig. 4.27 Christmas card depicting a jester and musician (early twentieth century).

The most minimalist approach is taken by a card that simulates the sort of tag that would be attached to a gift. Here the caption “Hearty Xmas Greetings” stands alongside a likeness of a red-clad joker with vaguely sinister eyebrows who fingers what looks vaguely like an unfretted guitar (see Fig. 4.28). A fuller version has a buffoon in red, with a fool’s cap and the same musical instrument (see Fig. 4.29). These figures occupied a cultural space under development that was soon usurped by Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, and finally Santa Claus.

Fig. 4.28 Christmas card depicting a medieval musician framed by holly (London: B. B., early twentieth century).

Fig. 4.29 Christmas card depicting a mounted medieval musician (Saxony, early twentieth century).

What larger meanings do all these items evoke? Charles Eastlake anticipated them by nearly fifty years in his History of the Gothic Revival, when he editorialized on the good old days. The Englishman notifies us, without necessarily aiming to do so, that in 1872 people longed already for a joyous prelapsarian Christmas past in a preindustrial, courtly, and feudal Middle Ages. The invention of holiday spirit had as its concomitant the creation of a medieval period in a specific vein. Across the Atlantic, the American Andrew Jackson Downing voiced much the same pining in 1842. His yearning may have been fueled by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, although without the specific association with yuletide. The American landscape designer described how the traditional, mostly Gothic architecture of the English countryside could transport the viewer magically backward to better days. Not eighty years after Downing, and not fifty after Eastlake, such longings were allayed by mass-produced goods that were meant to funnel consumers back in time to this romanticized medieval period. Seasonable products of these types help us to achieve multidimensionality as we endeavor to envisage the Middle Ages as folks did during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their ways of seeing those times remain with us still.

Take for example a card to illustrate “England of Old, 1475.” This gem portrays a procession of brightly clad and well-coiffed fifteenth-century singers, led by a lutanist in the garb of a professional entertainer (see Fig. 4.30). In the background stand half-timbered edifices that would have been completely at home in the Tudor revival throughout the British Commonwealth and United States (see Fig. 4.31).

Woodrow Wilson was domiciled in a house of this sort in Princeton when he served as president of the university. Hard as it may be to picture his wife and him at their front doorway cheerily greeting visitors with glass cups from a punch bowl of steaming grog, others living on his street at this time would have given a friendly reception to bands of neighbors out a-caroling and a-wassailing to mark the season.

Fig. 4.30 Postcard depicting “England of Old, 1475” (London: Raphael Tuck & Sons, early twentieth century). Illustration by M. C. Whishew.

Fig. 4.31 Christmas card with a red-nosed drinker against a backdrop of Tudor-style half-timbered buildings. Illustration by George Mason (London: Raphael Tuck & Sons, 1907).

Even without any archaizing language or medievalesque lads and lasses, the Middle Ages slipped into modern Noel through the front door—and in this case, access came effectively through the central portal to a cathedral. When Gothic enters the picture, the old metaphor of the body politic cries out to be revised. The body ecclesiastic is so Gothicized that an arch or portal in this style suffices to say Church and Christianity. In the first few years of the twentieth century, a holiday card was crafted that communicated unambiguously the parallelism between the snugly lit pointed arch of the entranceway to a cathedral and a decorated tabletop Christmas tree (see Fig. 4.32). Wholly independently, an advertising firm designed for publication on Christmas Eve of 1968 an expression of best wishes from a local electric company which juxtaposed a large and lavishly lit evergreen with the lancet of the doorway to a Gothic church (see Fig. 4.33). Again and again over the centuries, associations between the shapes of trees and architectural features of large places of worship have induced theorizing about what has been called arboreal Gothic. The ecclesiastical buildings could seem forestlike, while groves of trees could appear cathedralesque. Some things never change.

With each tick of the clock, we venture ever deeper into yet another new and different century, our own chaotic twenty-first. Yet the lenses through which we peer back to 1200 and thereabouts are unavoidably conditioned, and even coated, by what our predecessors saw. We carry their rose-tinted (or rose-window-tinted) views of the world within ourselves as afterimages. This condition stays true even if recently our preference has been to embrace the darker Middle Ages of malodorous crypts with their sloe-eyed and sinister denizens. Ours are days of modern-day Goths, with black-lined eyes and painted faces. Nothing guarantees that the fair damsels and knights in shining armor of yore will ever again enjoy their day in the sun, but we should remember how omnipresent they were even just a hundred years ago. Granted, there is no going back, but who would feel certainty in second-guessing what will be the next big retro? Now could be the moment to revive Gothic revival—and with it, the juggler. Christmas could be just the ticket.

Fig. 4.32 Christmas card depicting a cathedral and Christmas tree (ca. 1907).

Fig. 4.33 Advertisement for Philadelphia Electric Company. Published in Philadelphia Daily News (December 24, 1963): 13.

Noel Juggling: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.

—2 Corinthians 9:7 (King James Bible)

In a loose sense, the very gist of the tumbler’s tale lifts the spirit of its readers in ways roughly comparable to A Christmas Carol (see Fig. 4.34). Charles Dickens, author of the famous novella, deserves more than perfunctory mention, since he played a unique role in establishing Christmas as the family-centered economic institution it has transitioned into being today. At the start of the nineteenth century, the holiday fell under siege from all sides, for the irreligiosity and rascality shown by its celebrants; by the turn to the twentieth, it won seals of approval from most of the same types of people who had clucked their tongues only a few short decades earlier. Bah, humbug!

Fig. 4.34 Frontispiece and title page of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, illus. John Leech (London: Chapman & Hall, 1843).

As a narrative, the account of the juggler stands the merest shade removed from fable or fairy tale in its universality. The line that sets off our story from these other genres relates to religion. God, or his agent Mary, belongs to the very raison d’être of Our Lady’s Tumbler. At the same time, the oft-told tale holds appeal partly because it exalts a person who exists outside the ecclesiastical hierarchy and, to a degree, outside formal doctrine or dogma. Adaptations of the medieval story succeed best when the balance struck between edification and entertainment remains as challengingly, but inspirationally, subtle as in the original Our Lady’s Tumbler.

As a model for faith, the juggler has been mobilized in catechistic books. In one such case from the waning twentieth century, his tale is rendered into a Little Juggler Play to be staged at the close of the calendar year, between “Christmas Stations” and “Holy Innocents.” By way of context, we are assured that both Our Lady’s Tumbler and Le jongleur de Notre Dame bring home positive messages about the need to be receptive to true piety in unanticipated places and unexpected people. The exercises that accompany the skit in the cathechism place weight on a passage from the New Testament. Attention to the little juggler’s antics and attitudes can enable self-examination and soul-searching, so that we may determine whether, like him (and apostles), we have followed Saint Paul’s words and thoughts by risking ridicule while playing “fools for Christ.” As the proposed performance of the theater piece at the end of December suggests, the most common function that has been dreamed up for the story has been to provide comme il faut amusement at suitable dates in the annual liturgical cycle, especially Christmas.

The Little Juggler Play is set explicitly within a medieval cathedral. It opens with a procession that sings a Marian hymn and carries an effigy of the Mother and Child. A wealthy merchant is fittingly named Mercado, Spanish for “market.” He has donated the statue and makes a lavish gift to it. In contrast, the title character has nothing of his own to present except a performance of his craft. During the night, he drowses. In the morning, it turns out that a miracle has occurred: one of his juggling balls he thought he had lost has landed in the hands of the infant Jesus in the statue—and it has turned to gold.

The simultaneous medievalization and commercialization of the yuletide season could not help but draw the story of the jongleur and juggler into the gravitational field of Christmas. In 1897 William Showell Rogers composed as his annual poem of holiday greeting the first English verse treatment of Our Lady’s Tumbler (see Fig. 4.35). The Englishman presented his “Tumbling Monk of Clairvaux” as a humble attempt to give an impression of the flavor and spirit of the original. At the end of the poem the professional lawyer and amateur poet tucks in a marginal note “Here followeth the lesson” to flag the final quatrain:

Thus the abbot and his brethren

Learned, when gifts of love are given,

That ‘tis not the gift, but giving,

Findeth favour most in heaven.

Fig. 4.35 William Showell Rogers. Photograph, before 1899. Photographer unknown. Showell Rogers, Christmas Greetings, and Other Verses (Birmingham: Cornish Brothers Ltd., 1902).

Across the Channel in the same year, the translation into French by the symbolist Adrien Remacle of a Hungarian tale was printed in the special illustrated Christmas issue of a Parisian daily morning newspaper. “The Fool” relates a modified form of our story, but it is identified simply as “a legend” with no acknowledgment of indebtedness to Our Lady’s Tumbler, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, or any other specific written or oral source. In this supposedly Hungarian version, a humble fool stamps out a wild routine before a beautiful Madonna that ends in his collapsing, whereupon the Virgin descends amid great light to sponge the sweat from his face with the starred veil that encircles her head. Illustrations by the renowned artist Alphonse Mucha embellish the text.

Fig. 4.36 Mary tends to the fallen juggler. Illustration by Alphonse Mucha, 1897. Published in Dezsö Malonyay, “Le fou, légende hongroise,” trans. Adrien Remacle, in Le Figaro de Noël (December 1897): 226.

More momentously for the future reception of the narrative, Massenet’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame did not premiere in December but on February 18, 1902. Yet already in 1901, the composer presented the first draft of the opera as a Christmas present to the wife of his music publisher and friend, Henri Georges Heugel (see Fig. 4.37).

Fig. 4.37 Henri Heugel and Jules Massenet. Photograph, 1899. Photographer unknown.

In 1907, Edwin Markham brought out under the title The Juggler of Touraine a free versification of Anatole France’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame. Not long thereafter, a reviewer labeled this effort “an unusually meritorious Christmas poem.” In the magazine the pathos of the story was heightened by four attractive, even incantatory, full-page, color illustrations (see Figs. 4.38–4.41).

Fig. 4.38 “He and the wind were alone on the road.” Illustration by Leon Guipon, 1907. Published in Edwin Markham, “The Juggler of Touraine,” in Century Magazine (December 1907): 220.

Fig. 4.39 “Sprinkling the world with his merriment.” Illustration by Leon Guipon, 1907. Published in Edwin Markham, “The Juggler of Touraine,” in Century Magazine (December 1907): 223.

Fig. 4.40 “Nothing of these he could do, alas.” Illustration by Leon Guipon, 1907. Published in Edwin Markham, “The Juggler of Touraine,” in Century Magazine (December 1907): 227.

Fig. 4.41 “Lightly down from the dark descends the Lady of Beauty.” Illustration by Leon Guipon, 1907. Published in Edwin Markham, “The Juggler of Touraine,” in Century Magazine (December 1907): 231.

By the finish of his tragically short life, the illustrator responsible for these artworks had already evidenced an undoubtable interest in the Middle Ages. This Leon Guipon may even have identified himself with its craftsmen, in cover art that was released in 1908 (see Fig. 4.42). The artwork in question shows a tonsured monk, with a black surplice over a white tunic. He hunches over a drafting desk in a scriptorium, a setting that was a favorite artistic theme (see Fig. 4.43). Here the scribe, surrounded by the tools of his trade, is focused intently on a codex. The same painter also produced “The Fair Crowning the Brave,” a lovely image of a damsel placing a garland upon the head of a kneeling knight, presumably just back from a joust or some other feat of knightly valor (see Fig. 4.44).

Fig. 4.42 “The Illustrator in the Middle Ages.” Illustration by Leon Guipon, 1908. Published on the front cover of Collier’s 42.10 (November 28, 1908).

Fig. 4.43 Monks at work. Illustration by Henri Morin, 1928. Published in Anatole France, Abeille / Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame / Les Pains Noir, ed. R. I. Graeme Ritchie (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1928), 9.

Fig. 4.44 “The Fair Crowning the Brave.” Illustration by Leon Guipon, 1910. Published on the front cover of Woman’s Home Companion (October 1910).

Guipon’s work appeared just when the style sometimes known as the Brandywine School reached its pinnacle. The artists’ colony was founded by the prolific Howard Pyle, “the father of American illustration.” Although the French immigrant was not one of Pyle’s students, Guipon’s oeuvre betrays distinct traits of the master’s manner, which is often held to have coincided with the golden age of book illustration. Among other things, the “Pyle look” emphasized historical accuracy, and inclined toward tales about heroes such as King Arthur and Robin Hood: Pyle was an Anglophile. Guipon’s drawings also bear a resemblance to the creations of Maxfield Parrish, with which they were once publicly displayed. In “The Juggler of Touraine,” the relevance to Christmas is impossible to miss at the story’s conclusion. A simple image of Jesus as a swaddled neonate is placed in a cruciform position, flanked by lilies and surmounted by a star (see Fig. 4.45). Thanks to this iconography, no room is left for slipperiness about the specific holiday at issue here.

Fig. 4.45 The infant Jesus framed by a cross. Illustration by Leon Guipon, 1907. Published in Edwin Markham, “The Juggler of Touraine,” in Century Magazine (December 1907): 233.

Such early linkage between the tale of the jongleur and Noel has held firm or even rigidified during the more than a century that has elapsed since then. Because of gift exchange, the festivity of Christmas holds acute consequence for juveniles who celebrate it, and often the holiday season has ramifications even for those who do not. Through retailing and entertainment, it has saturated culture in Europe and the Americas, to point a finger at only the most obvious examples. Among Christians, the story could be used to inculcate and fortify belief in children as well as adults. The narrative could help the young to overcome diffidence about giving of themselves to others and to God.

Already in medieval times, the Adoration of the Magi bulked large as a major component in the long bacchanalia that began with Christmas Eve. The three kings journeyed to the crib and brought offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor the Christ child with Mary. Although the wise men were thoroughly regal, the setting was humble. This episode herded the thoughts of medieval viewers gently toward gift-giving. As a holiday, yuletide revolves ever more around bestowing and receiving gifts, trades that put both parties on pins and needles (in this case pine needles) while at the same time arousing pleasure. Givers may worry that their presents are not appropriate or considerate. They may agonize that what they have at their disposal to present may be too expensive or inexpensive. Those who receive something given may fret about how to respond if it is not what they wanted, or even what they can take on sufferance. Easily overlooked is the basic reality that the day is a birthday, on which offerings should most suitably be made to Christ, not to all the others who swap them on the holiday. But what can a believer tender that would be worthy of the Son of God? In the final quatrain of a Christmas carol now called “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti summed up well the worried question of a believer in this quandary: “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 I can I give Him: give my heart.” Such characters as the Little Drummer Boy, Amahl, and the poor little juggler share this anxiety and ultimately this solution. All these heroes of feel-good stories have been drawn ad infinitum into the orbit of Christmas.

The poem from the Middle Ages depicts a performer who renders his devotion to the Virgin and to her alone. No such votives from other monks are mentioned. In contradistinction, Anatole France lived deep in a market economy that had grown away from the medieval culture of gift exchange. He tilts his lens away from lone worship to focus upon a competition among would-be gift-givers, the brethren who make good use of their God-given talents. All the other monks in his short story create tangible objects: theological treatises, physical copies of them, miniatures to accompany the writing, sculpture, and poems. At the next stage, Jules Massenet homes in on a painter, poet, sculptor, and musician, with whom the jongleur competes at least tacitly through his dance. In both France and Massenet, then, all of the brothers confront the quandary of what to give the woman who truly has everything, in her capacity as the Mother of God.

In one version of The Little Juggler by Violet Moore Higgins from 1917, our piece is placed as the first of three supposed fairy tales. On the facing page stands an illustration, seemingly set in the late Middle Ages, of youths who have in hand presents such as a kite and dolls. Beneath, like an early twentieth-century chyron, runs the legend “To Give Is the Spirit of Christmas.” Gift-giving is fundamental to the story as this writer tells it. Although the authors of children’s books would do themselves a disservice by worming heavy-duty theory into their narratives, they often make their texts about the tumbler pretexts for confronting the challenges of reciprocation. They are especially alive to the difficulties that subordinates may face when they strive for reciprocity in giving to their superiors. John Nesbitt’s telling of “The Juggler” was soon recorded and retailed under the title “A Christmas Gift.” Then in 1942 the fictional treatments of competitive gift-giving culminate in a film short: The Greatest Gift of All dramatizes none other than the narrative of the juggler as transmitted from Anatole France via Jules Massenet and countless others.

Within a few years of Higgins, in 1925, a French sociologist would publish a foundational essay on reciprocal exchange in societies that in preceding decades would have been considered primitive. One conclusion of Marcel Mauss’s study was that giving can improve life for the giver as well as the receiver—for the commonweal. Not many fiction writers are well versed in sociology or anthropology, but many authors of children’s literature have felt their way by the seat of their pants to similar messages, expressed in religious or ethical terms, when they have written about the jongleur. They have implicitly equated his medievalness and his childishness, they have been sympathetic to his sense of inadequacy in wishing to be generous to a being already incommensurably gifted and giving, and they have celebrated the sincerity of the only gift he finds himself capable of making.

The account of the juggler purveys reassurance that, as the adage holds, it is the thought that counts. The most valuable offering is to bestow oneself and one’s talents. Thus the tale constitutes a splendid point of departure for reflection on the spirit of Advent, the season of expectation and preparation that leads up to marking the Nativity of Christ at Christmas. As such, it has been pointed up in numerous books for Christmastide that are meant to help parents find a lull for sharing with their young and for nurturing in them an appreciation for what should be a happy holiday. An early treatment can be found in a 1956 children’s activity guide for Christian feasts and seasons across the year. In this publication the “story about a juggler” appears as the very first fiction selection. It demonstrates how youths can be taught how to approach “the all-important matter of a birthday gift for the Light of the World.” The interpretation advanced takes the narrative in a direction like that of “The Little Drummer Boy.” In fact, this reading of the juggler emphasizes outright that the offering “must be a giving of self.” The difference is that this presentation underscores the notion of penance, so that the message of the tale becomes less about pure and simple giving than about giving up and forgoing, by sacrificing habitual pleasures during the season.

Coordinating the narrative with Christmas holds a further advantage. Audiences in preponderantly Protestant countries or communities would spring to mind as likely to be dead set against the veneration of saints. To them, the natural salience of Mary in this holiday could represent a major hurdle. But this snag disappears in an account set in the remote past. The medieval devotion to the Mother of God, and the connection of the Virgin with Christmas, were two topics on which Protestants and Catholics in America and elsewhere could be on the same page of Holy Scripture.

Within Protestantism, yuletide is the main stretch of the year when Mary’s role within the otherwise heavily Christocentric faith is customarily feted. The association of the Virgin with Christmas would help to provide reasons for commemorating a character who holds her in special reverence. In other words, it would be natural within non-Catholic but still predominantly Christian cultures to fix the narrative of the juggler at a point in the liturgical calendar where the Mother of God would understandably stand out. In the medieval tale as well as in many later ones, the infant Jesus is present as a silent prop in the arms of his mother. In Protestant versions of the story, the role of the Christ child may have been almost automatically heightened, since Protestantism assigns much greater weight to Jesus than to Mary. But at Christmas, in all denominations of Christianity, both the Mother of God and the infant have their roles to play.

Other reasons could be conceived why Christmas made a good setting for the narrative. The medieval poem stresses that the tumbler ritualized his routine, by doing it again and again. We are probably to imagine performances at all the canonical hours, day in and day out. The ritualism would resonate later with Catholicism, but less so with Protestantism. For Protestants, the idea might be more appealing that the entertainer—whether tumbler, juggler, or another sort of artist—came up with his idea spontaneously for one holiday and that it bore fruit immediately in a miracle of redemption. So too would the notion of purging the tale of brethren and making the rivalrous gift-giving a community affair, rather than a monastic one. Accordingly, we find the story de-Catholicized, by making the juggler not a lay brother but an injured or trapped outsider who takes temporary hospice with the monks. Alternatively, the monastery disappears from the tale altogether.

For all sorts of reasons, then, the juggler settled into a natural place in a medievalized, Gothic, ecclesiastic Christmastime. That is where the mother and child belong. Accordingly, an unsigned card for the holiday by the prolific American illustrator Ellen Clapsaddle depicts a vaguely Raphael-like Mary and infant Jesus, both haloed. They are framed within a sort of mandorla that is ensconced beneath a trio of lancets with quatrefoils all around.

Fig. 4.46 Christmas card depicting the Virgin and Child (early twentieth century). Illustration by Ellen Clapsaddle, date unknown.

The Juggler in Holiday Books and Cards

From a business perspective, in modern times Christmastide has become ever more a season not only for observance of God but also for consumption and consumerism. A mid-twentieth-century lyric proclaims, “Christmas comes but once a year.” Even so, the one day is preceded by a binge of buying that stretches across many weeks and even (for those who put advance planning into action) months. Consequently, no one should be startled to find that at a very early stage the tale of the jongleur-turned-lay-brother was attracted rapidly and powerfully to Noel for commercial purposes. In effect, the narrative was turned into a commodity available for retail and purchase. Early on, Our Lady’s Tumbler earned recognition for its compactness and charm. Thanks to these qualities, it was printed as a Christmas present from small presses for their patrons, or from individuals who commissioned copies with their own names imprinted on them, to be distributed as token keepsakes for clients, associates, and friends. These gift books were brought out with notable frequency in the mid- to late 1930s. On Christmas Eve in 1933, the New York Times Book Review gave conspicuous play to one such volume (see Fig. 4.47) and an attractive specimen from 1938 presents first an English translation and then the French original of Anatole France’s story (see Figs. 4.48 and 4.49).

Fig. 4.47 Title page of Anatole France, Our Lady’s Juggler / Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, illus. C. Leroy Baldridge (New York: English Book Shop, 1933).

Fig. 4.48 Front cover of Anatole France, Our Lady’s Juggler / Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, trans. Frederic Chapman (New York: William E. Rudge, 1938).

Fig. 4.49 The Virgin descends to the juggler. Illustration, 1938. Artist unknown. Published in Anatole France, Our Lady’s Juggler / Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, trans. Frederic Chapman (New York: William E. Rudge, 1938), frontispiece.

Fig. 4.50 Front cover of Bertha C. Krall, ed., Further Christmas-Tide Stories (London: The National Sunday School Union, 1946).

Even during the depths of the Great Depression, the affluent could afford special upmarket presents at Christmas. But the stinking rich were not the only ones who engaged with the narrative. The tale, especially in forms indebted to France’s version, was not restricted to the fortunate few. At the opposite end of the spectrum from boutique books would be a dirt-cheap and dingily functional little softcover that was first printed in 1934, to assist Sunday-school teachers (see Fig. 4.50). Here the story, entitled “Our Lady’s Juggler,” is subtitled “A Legend from Long-Ago France,” without credit to its ultimate source, Anatole France. The nexus with Noel is made clear by implication through scriptural quotations. In the United States one key player in the trend to package the fiction in a volume tailor-made for the holiday was named Walter Kahoe. He trained as a printer at presses that brought out Christmas books.

From a slightly later period is the 1948 Our Lady’s Tumbler by Sheldon Christian, a former pastor based in Maine. During his ministry this playwright maintained a passion for theater. Besides delivering illustrated lectures on theatrical history, he composed short plays to be acted out for his congregation. Although he also devised such pageants for Easter, Christmas was understandably a focus area. Our Lady’s Tumbler as likely as not relates to this habit of composing seasonal dramas. The avocations of this clergyman and writer also extended to bookmaking. In the natural course of things, he would have been familiar with editions of Our Lady’s Tumbler by the publisher Thomas Mosher. Beyond having a name instantly recognizable to bibliophiles in the United States, the homegrown book pirate from earlier in the twentieth century could not fail to have been a well-known quantity to a later typesetter and bookmaker located in his adoptive state. Mosher had reprinted Philip H. Wicksteed’s translation, making economical use of medievalesque touches in the typography. Yet if Christian knew his predecessor’s work, he chose to strike out on his own and to base his Christmas play on Eugene Mason’s English version. This private printing of Our Lady’s Tumbler makes subtle use of an element commonly deployed in printed volumes, and before them in manuscripts, to call to mind olden times: it bears a rubricated colophon that concludes: December, 1948.

The juggler tale sent out ripples everywhere in North America and Western Europe in the early 1950s. Its ubiquity can be verified by considering gift books from both seaboards of the Atlantic that were explicitly dated December, or even more specifically on the twenty-fifth of the month. Of two from the United States, the earlier is a small octavo that proclaims “Christmas 1951” on its title page. Entitled An Adaptation of the Story of Our Lady’s Juggler, it features illustrations from the frontispiece on (see Fig. 4.51). The climax of the narrative is depicted unusually. The Madonna before whom the performer stands with bowed head does not soothe him. Instead, the miraculous intervention comes from a brilliant epiphany of Mary herself and not merely her effigy (see Fig. 4.52). In his handling of the Virgin, this artist hews closer to the medieval poem than most other illustrators do. Of the five full-page pictures, one depicts the entertainer conversing for the first time with his future abbot. The landscape is incongruously wintry for talk that breaks the metaphorical ice between the two of them. The cold is in all likelihood an adjustment of the original late November timing in the text, where no snowfall is mentioned, to suit the Christmas season. Eventually those recounting the tale insinuated the holiday into it, so that its crescendo, the lay brother’s fullest performance before the altar, took place on Christmas Eve.

Fig. 4.51 The juggler. Illustration by Raymond Lufkin, 1951. Published in Thomas J. McCabe, An Adaptation of the Story of Our Lady’s Juggler (Tenafly, NY: Adeline and Raymond Lufkin, 1951), frontispiece.

Fig. 4.52 The Virgin blesses the juggler. Illustration by Raymond Lufkin, 1951. Published in Thomas J. McCabe, An Adaptation of the Story of Our Lady’s Juggler (Tenafly, NY: Adeline and Raymond Lufkin, 1951), 14.

The later of the two books contains only two items (see Fig. 4.53). This Christmas Miscellany contains two two-tone artworks. One is a title page for the story, on which an almost disturbingly enthusiastic Barnaby keeps aloft no fewer than seven knives before a statue of the Virgin, without child, in what looks to be a modern church (see Fig. 4.54). The other is a single initial at the start of the narrative, with a less intricate depiction of the performer.

Fig. 4.53 Front cover of Heywood Broun and Anatole France, Christmas Miscellany: A Collection of Short Stories from Traditional Literature, illus. William F. M. Kay (Berkeley, CA: Lederer, Street & Zeus, 1953).

Fig. 4.54 The juggler performs before the Virgin. Illustration by William F. M. Kay, 1953. Published in Heywood Broun and Anatole France, Christmas Miscellany: A Collection of Short Stories from Traditional Literature (Berkeley, CA: Lederer, Street & Zeus, 1953), 7.

The phenomenon of printing the fiction in small batches as a Christmas gift or holiday card was not restricted to North America. A fifty-copy edition of Anatole France’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame rolled off the presses, after a fashion, in December of 1955. Fritz Bühler meant this production to circulate among intimates as a present (see Fig. 4.55). This Swiss graphic designer, born into the family of a printer, worked above all in advertising, a métier that he regarded as uniquely positioned to extend the appreciation of modern art. In fact, he conceived of graphics “as a tool to convert the public to art.” It requires scant effort to intuit why, as a teacher, painter, and illustrator who earned his living by working in the ad business, he would have been drawn to the story of the jongleur. Beyond such loose parallelism in life choices and style between the medieval athlete and modern advertisers, his own character made him a sort of self-effacing tumbler redivivus. In the very year in which he assembled his Christmas project, he summed up his guiding principle about his craft as a designer: “You can always find attractive and fitting solutions, if you think about the task and not about yourself.”

Fig. 4.55 Fritz Bühler. Photograph, date and photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Heinz Waech. All rights reserved.

The juggler had dropped (or been forced) out of German culture just as the so-called New Typography movement came into its own in the late 1920s and 1930s. Now the story benefited in the Germanosphere, if not in Germany itself, from a very loosely related later impulse to matchmake graphics and typography. Throughout his work Bühler fused techniques from these two crafts, all the while taking inventive advantage of colors that pop. In this case, he illustrated heavily with brash, hand-painted coloring. In all copies of the book he presents the juggler flourishing a conical clown’s hat, with short shirt and pants, over tights (see Fig. 4.56). On the last side within the covers, the artist depicts his own toolkit for writing and illustration (see Fig. 4.57).

The custom took solid root of dealing out copies of the medieval poem in translation, Anatole France’s tale in French or English, or radio scripts based freely on them. Long afterward, commercial vendors began to mass-produce Christmas cards with summaries of the story or allusions to it. In the mid-twentieth century, one company peddled through traveling salesmen a card (see Fig. 4.58) that shows an adult juggler in a clownlike outfit, with a conical hat, ruffled collar, short jacket with a pointed fringe, green and yellow tights, and pointy pink shoes, as he manipulates colored balls before a lifelike Madonna and Child. A faint broken line behind him conjures up a pointed arch. Inside, a caption clarifies that the artwork interprets an authentic twelfth-century legend of a juggler “who had only his talent to offer in his devotion to the mother of the Christ child.”

Fig. 4.56 The itinerant juggler. Illustration by Fritz Bühler, 1955. Published in Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (Basel, Switzerland: St. Alban, 1955), 6.

Fig. 4.57 The illustrator’s toolkit. Illustration by Fritz Bühler, 1955. Published in Anatole France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (Basel, Switzerland: St. Alban, 1955), 16.

Fig. 4.58 Christmas card depicting juggler dressed as clown (Deer Crest / Grant, ca. 1950s).

In the 1970s, the merchandiser with the largest market share in the US included in a set of three Christmas cards one that delineated a young boy, wearing a simple shirt and trousers with a patched knee, who kept aloft three colored balls before the infant Jesus in the manger, with two lambs dozing nearby. The interior of the card, on the side opposite the Christmas greeting, retold the story of “The Juggler” with a couple of unusual wrinkles. First, the boy is not a juggler by profession. Through sheer happenstance, he is inspired to toss the small but colorful spheres he has brought as gifts for the baby. His improvisation succeeds, to the point where the Christ child beams. Second, the tale is presented as an origin story to explain “why colored balls are hung on Christmas trees everywhere on Jesus’s birthday.”

Probably in the same era, a roughly similar card appeared (see Fig. 4.59). Like the other, it retells the story on the left-hand side of the opening. Here the boy is a little juggler (as the folded cardboard is labeled on the outside), who can bring to the table no gift beyond this dexterity. Baby Jesus responds with a spontaneous smile to show “that on this Day of Days, there is no greater gift than the gift of love.”

Fig. 4.59 Christmas card depicting the juggler as a child (Dallas, TX: The Drawing Board, 1970s). Illustration by Christine Damen. Image courtesy of American Greetings Corporation. © AGC, LCC. All rights reserved.

Amateur Theater

Books and recitations were not the only media to be sucked into the Christmas-izing of the jongleur in the early twentieth century. In 1927 a corporate lawyer named Charles Robinson Smith put together and had printed as a holiday treat a simplification of Massenet’s opera. This noncommercial production preserved what was effectively the script of a private performance arranged for his grandchildren. With them in mind as the primary audience, the attorney took pains in the foreword to underscore that “this is the story of a little boy.” He specified a sort of syllogism. First, the “old medieval tale” took place in the era identified. Second, it was a miracle. Third, the two preceding circumstances were intertwined in ways that bring home major differences between then and now: “Miracles sometimes happened in the Middle Ages, but they almost never happen nowadays.”

The grandfather enlightens his two grandsons by explaining who jongleurs were: they anticipated the “song and dance” men of his own day, who had full quivers of talents in fiddling, singing, dancing, and performing other tricks. He spiced up the enaction of his own skit by arranging for musical accompaniment by a pianist and singer. To heighten the high jinks, the patriarch personalizes his recounting by slipping in the names of artists whom his extended family had met at his home. Yet in the end, his aim goes beyond merely grandfatherly fun and games, for he sums up the narrative to endow it with a characteristically American creed that has been called the Protestant work ethic. The performer’s footgear flaunts no bootstraps by which he can pull himself up, but in this New World context, the moral of the story becomes that hard work pays off. Ironically, the tale that the twentieth-century attorney chooses for this purpose has as its protagonist a medieval entertainer who would be consummately unclubbable in his own twentieth-century social set. Smith’s text is not a closet drama, to be read rather than acted: rather, it provides the groundwork for an in-house and almost all-in-the-family production.

Transformations of the thirteenth-century fiction like the one by Smith, often as mediated through Anatole France’s short story or Maurice Léna’s libretto, must have been common. Obiter dicta about them abound. We have other printed forms of the texts that were enacted. To take a very different example, in 1926 Everett Glass, who later achieved recognition chiefly as a film and television actor, published The Tumbler, after an Old Legend, a Play in Two Scenes. A footnote on the first page allows a glimpse into another intimate and amateurish performance, this one in Berkeley: “First Presented as the Xmas Jinks, 1923, at the Faculty Club, University of California, in the large dining room.”

The setting must be to blame for the decision to have the leader of the brethren at one point sprinkle coffee grounds onto the tumbler. The piece of theater is dedicated “To Certain Abbots Here and There.” From this instant, it gives many signs of being intended for a specific in-group—and no one can doubt that the coterie is academic and all-male, a veritable old boys’ club.

On display is the ethos of the United States, and especially of Berkeley in this era, where the atmosphere was multicultural and multilingual but still Eurocentric. Many European languages make cameo appearances in the facetious doggerel of the dialogue. Yet Latin holds pride of place. The head of the monastery would seem to be a classicist. As Latinists are prone to do, the good father cannot resist discussing the cases of nouns. The confabulation between him and the monk Barnabas typifies the air of the piece. The shenanigans are both drolly and ponderously professorial—faculty clubs never did roar as raucously or fascinatingly as speakeasies—but at the same time amiably high-spirited. The men-only cast makes it hard to imagine flappers anywhere in the vicinity. Even so, the text allows us a century later to dip our toes into a collegiate ambience in the roaring twenties and the Prohibition era. Who knows, the campus establishments may have availed themselves now and again (especially during the holiday season?) of the black-market booze that bootleggers had ready for delivery.

The drama reaches a boisterous curtain call when Pierre’s tumbling, for which the brethren stand ready to cane him, elicits beautiful music from the Virgin. The tumbler, compelled to impose a penance upon the brethren for their previous doubtfulness, declines a chance to have them flog each other. Instead, he obliges the abbot himself to perform gymnastics. The play ends when Barnabas exclaims, with a gusto that may be more commendable than his comprehension of the dead language, “Ave Maria, mater joculorum!” This exclamation can be translated into English as “Hail, Mary, mother of little jokes,” but a typo, misspelling, or poor Latin may obscure the expected “of jongleurs” (joculatorum). The classical language was much on Everett Glass’s mind, but it may not have been his strong suit.

The original building of the Berkeley Faculty Club (see Figs. 4.60 and 4.61) was made to order by the architect Bernard Maybeck, who in 1892 took up residence in the town and became a professor of engineering drawing at the university there. His architecture succeeds in an idiosyncratic but healthy commingling of fashions, in which medievalism receives its equable due. Maybeckian design amalgamates light touches of Gothic with orientalist trimmings, especially Japanese. Whatever the combination, he shows his training as a woodcarver to apt effect.

Fig. 4.60 Postcard of the Faculty Club, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA (before 1915).

Fig. 4.61 Postcard of the Faculty Club, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA (San Francisco: E. P. Charlton, early twentieth century).

In 1907, Maybeck produced a pencil and watercolor painting The Juggler of Notre Dame, which depicts the culminating scene of the medieval story as adapted by Anatole France and followed by Jules Massenet. The setting is a large Gothic chapel or cathedral. No perspicacity is required to understand why a man who designed buildings would have formed such a picture in his mind. Vaulting with a fleur-de-lis-like motif soars high above a haloed Mary, who is clad in blue and holds her child. Before them a jongleur juggles as he lies supine. The animation of the Virgin is evoked by an unpainted double image of her in motion toward him. A yuletide setting is suggested by a snow-covered conifer outside (see Fig. 4.62).

The Faculty Club was officially incorporated and dedicated in 1902. The interior of the structure lent itself, as it still does, to pseudomonastic revelry. Although not a quadrangle, the institution is set on the campus in the serenity of a bosky glade. The Great Hall has medievalesque stained-glass windows and dragon-headed rafter supports that hold true to the eclectic northern California style for which Maybeck is celebrated. In the holiday season, the Club has been festooned with heraldic banners. More important, a hallowed Christmastime tradition has institutionalized “the fantasy of the monastery” through a brotherhood of up to fifty singers. What began as informal caroling has evolved into something much more elaborate and histrionic. Men robed as cenobites have chanted “The Boar’s Head Carol” as they carried in this very item on a salver to mark the commencement of the Yule feast.

Most years have involved comic plays, seasoned with lyrics that satirize specific subsets, individuals, or episodes from college life. By the early 1920s, the performers had reached their highest point as amateurs in both monasticism and theater, with in-jokes and parodic ditties in equal measure. The Faculty Xmas Jinks starring the jongleur probably had no afterlife whatsoever. Most likely, the text was never reused. In contrast, the tale on which the short performance was based was poised to ascend in popularity. The narrative retained its niche on campuses, especially at Christmas.

Schools furnish another venue in which the story of the juggler has exercised appeal as a Noel-themed musical. In the United States, such adaptations have even been composed in French and Spanish for acting out by foreign-language classes. In 1932, a teacher at what is today the Juilliard School in New York City enumerated activities that could plant the learning of French in the context of music, dance, costume design, and other arts and crafts. Her plan of study conjures up in lush detail minutiae of nostalgia and make-believe that we have seen flurrying around the juggler again and again—Christmas cards, carols, Maeterlinck, dance, stained glass, Chartres, and medieval-style outfits. In hindsight, reworkings of this sort seem almost inevitable, in view of the heavy use to which French teachers put Anatole France’s tale in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Even now in the twenty-first, the tradition of Christmas musicals based on the narrative lingers on, though the custom lacks the vitality that it once had. The tale has lost its allure, to artists, audiences, or both. Our Lady’s Tumbler and The Juggler of Notre Dame have moved to far lower orbits. If they nosedive much further, they will ignite, fragment, and vaporize like rogue satellites.

Fig. 4.62 Bernard Maybeck, The Juggler of Notre Dame, 1907. Pencil and watercolor. Image courtesy of PBA Galleries, San Francisco, CA. All rights reserved.

Mass Radio

Radio has been employed widely for the transmission of voice and music since the 1920s. At the time, many found the technology marvelously novel, but more than mildly intrusive. As receivers bulked up and invaded homes, the novelty and foreignness caused an understandable yearning to assimilate the devices to the more trite and old-line. What could meet those objectives better than the look of a medieval cathedral (see Fig. 4.63)? Such churches have acoustics that remain so well known even today that the brand name Cathedral lends itself well to reverb pedals for electric guitars. The way for radio sets in this manner had been readied on an urban scale by Big Ben and earlier medieval clocktowers, on a domestic level by grandfather and even more by mantle clocks in the steeple Gothic manner.

Fig. 4.63 General Electric J-80 Cathedral Radio (1932). Photograph by Joe Mills, 2018. Image courtesy of Joe Mills. All rights reserved.

Cathedral radios of the 1930s were the granddaddies of later home entertainment systems. Their handsome wooden cases give them their name. Despite occupying a generic rectangular footprint, they featured at the top a pointed arch. On the front, they flaunted grilles carved into lancets and quatrefoils. At first high-end household possessions, such gizmos became ever more affordable. The inside sheltered the latest electronics. In its carpentry, the outside proclaimed sobriety, elegance, and traditionalism, while promising tonal quality that befitted a serious listening experience. Their cabinetry delivered within the home the hybrid of fantasy and elegance that listeners in both England and the United States grew to expect through their exposure to the most radically new equipment.

Etymologically, the English word focus comes from the Latin for a hearth. Aptly, the darkest moments of the 1930s and 1940s often caught American families clustered around such pointed boxes: these confections of old and new were focal points of living rooms, as listeners hung on the comforting words of hope that Franklin Delano Roosevelt vocalized in his fireside chats. Now these devices survive as treasured antiques, sometimes reconditioned for collectors.

Fig. 4.64 Man listening to one of President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats.” Statue by George Segal, 1997. Washington, DC, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, before 2006. Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carol M. Highsmith Archive.

As a medium, radio is well attuned (forgive me) to the story of the juggler or jongleur. Since the very beginning of its documented life in the medieval French poem and Latin exemplum, the fiction has cried out to be recited. In the Middle Ages, the principal audience may well have included illiterate adults. Notable among them would have been lay brothers, either already committed or prospective. In the late twentieth century, the target became youthful. To those who wish to perpetuate the narrative even today, a good counsel would be straightforward: dust off a seductively illustrated copy of the old tale, find a story-starved child, and read it aloud. But let us wend our way back to the sitting rooms of a century ago, when to divert themselves listeners clustered around radio receivers.

In Spain, Remigio Vilariño (see Fig. 4.65) began in 1925 to deliver broadcasts of entertainment for families with children underfoot. One of these scripts adapted, however indirectly, the tale of Our Lady’s Tumbler. Of the three illustrations to the text, the last shows the monk-acrobat in the middle of a backflip, with his tunic lying on the floor. In the background an altar is visible with a Madonna that resembles a cage doll (see Figs. 4.66 and 4.67).

Fig. 4.65 Remigio Vilariño. Photograph, date and photographer unknown.

Fig. 4.66 The juggler before the Madonna, illustration by Goiko, in Remigio Vilariño Ugarte, Radiocuentos por Erreví Esejot (Bilbao, Spain: El Mensajero del Corazón de Jesús, 1926), 101.

Fig. 4.67 Cap i pota doll, ca. 1850–1900. Photograph by Joe Mills, 2018.

A vast corpus of Marian miracles unfolded on the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages, but the medieval story of Our Lady’s Tumbler showed no sign of having seeped in there at the time. Later, Anatole France manifested scant curiosity about Spanish culture or literature, apart from Cervantes. In return for his disinterest, authors in Spain retaliated by displaying far less interest in his oeuvre than was shown elsewhere on the Continent. To scan northwestward from the Pyrenees, the BBC transmitted Massenet’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame in its 1928–1929 season. An illustration to the libretto places us in the thick of Art Deco, with its emphasis on angled geometricity (see Fig. 4.68). Likewise in 1928, the same corporation aired, in “The Children’s Hour,” a program with a retelling of “The Tumbler of Our Lady” in its medieval French guise.

Fig. 4.68 Maurice Léna and Jules Massenet, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame: A Miracle in Three Acts, trans. Louise Baum (London: British Broadcasting Company, 1929), 4.

In the United States, commercial broadcasts of the story, sometimes solely narrative, at other times musical, become pervasive on air at the latest in the 1930s and 1940s, when multiepisode melodramas were in vogue. The account of “Our Lady’s Juggler” was not such a serial, and the dynamic at its heart was not strictly interpersonal, but it had the sort of soppy or sudsy sentimentality that appealed to soap-opera listeners and advertisers. The very attributes that had rendered the tale magnetic to operagoers in earlier decades now did the same for devotees of the soaps.

In developments that could be seen as concomitantly commercializing and democratizing, the fiction of “The Jongleur of Notre Dame” passed from special printings by niche presses for Christmas distribution to productions by radio stations for holiday transmission—and vice versa. The narrative speedily became a staple of Christmastide, although initially such programming was not restricted exclusively to December. The shows revolved around such heavy hitters as the singers and actors Bing Crosby, Orson Welles, and Spencer Tracy. The texts for these dramatic readings were now and again printed for the Christmas book trade. Later, as technology made strides, performances of these routines were made into bona fide historical records, through recordings pressed first on shellac and later on vinyl.

The intensity of the cross-marketing does not necessarily signal that scriptwriters could take weeks to sweat over their prose: on the contrary, they typed the texts mostly to tight deadlines. Despite the unfavorable conditions, they sometimes created adaptations that became favorite listening and reading for decades to come. For example, the version by Alexander Woollcott secured a distinct visibility, partly no doubt because of its author’s notoriety. He was a broadcaster, writer, lecturer, and columnist for the American weekly magazine, The New Yorker (see Fig. 4.69). His version of the story seized the lead above all because of his skill as a spinner of yarns. His radio script circulated in a limited and informal print form from 1937, but it spread much more broadly when reprinted in books as well as in heavily read magazines. The impact of his popularization is a snap to track, since columnists would cite it in retellings that made the rounds in the days running up to Christmas.

Fig. 4.69 Alexander Woollcott. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1939.

Fig. 4.70 Title page of Alexander Woollcott, Our Lady’s Juggler: An Antique Legend as Retold for the Air (San Mateo, CA: Quercus, 1937).

The initial edition of Woollcott’s Our Lady’s Juggler: An Antique Legend as Retold for the Air suffers from an odd chronological tension. Still clinging to the calendar of Anatole France’s tale, the events within the narrative come to a head in the month of May. For all that, the colophon makes clear that the book is meant for the Christmas season. That is when the tale was most often aired in radio broadcasts. The title page is equally unambiguous, with a medieval woodcut of the three Magi presenting gifts to the infant Jesus as he perches on the Virgin’s lap near the feeding trough (see Fig. 4.70). By this point, the so-called antique legend had been sucked into the environment of December. Whatever associations the late nineteenth-century French short story had earlier with May, it would have had a nearly impossible time fighting free from the yuletide chokehold.

The performer whose version achieved the broadest currency was John Booth Nesbitt (see Fig. 4.71). This narrator, announcer, and actor was a luminary in the golden age of radio in the United States, from the early 1920s until the 1950s. That stage concluded when the medium was displaced as the paramount avenue for scripted programming: in the United States, television first became commercialized in 1941, but did not pass the tipping point in the consumer market until after World War II ended in 1945. By 1955, half of American households owned black-and-white sets. But the previous mode of communication did not go extinct. Old-time radio lives on even today as one sliver of the ever more finely gradated bandwidth, through programs that play recordings from decades ago.

Fig. 4.71 John Nesbitt, age 46. Photograph, 1956. Photographer unknown.

Known first on radio and later the small screen, Nesbitt first recounted The Juggler of Our Lady on the air in December, 1938. His effort was an overnight sensation, with thousands of requests by mail for copies of the script. In the following year, the author shared his creation with Ronald Colman. For years afterward, radio listeners became accustomed to the reading of this crowd-pleasing Christmas favorite by one or the other of these dramatizers.

The storyteller professed to have adapted an original translation of a centuries-old French legend, miracle story, or folk tale that he had unearthed in a trunk of papers from his late father. The fact sheet that accompanies the earliest recording plumes this averred finding as “one of the most interesting literary discoveries of modern times.” The names of the characters give away that this claim is bogus. Either directly or indirectly, the announcer lifted the tale from Anatole France and Jules Massenet, without acknowledgment. The names and special talents of the monks are one giveaway. Other aspects seem indebted to the staging of the opera. The only substantial change is that he gave the story a Christmas setting. In short order Nesbitt’s retelling was printed and recorded. The recording was marketed and remarketed, broadcast and rebroadcast on radio stations. Before long, this narration was distributed far and wide through the medium of long-play (LP) records.

The tradition of radio airings followed by audio recordings belongs to the decades-old backcloth behind the telling of “Barnaby the Juggler” that Andy Griffith incorporated into his 2003 gospel album entitled The Christmas Guest. The American actor, storyteller, and singer had long been a familiar face in US mass culture, especially owing to his role as lead character in the situation comedy The Andy Griffith Show, which was transmitted from 1960 to 1968. The wholesome, humble, and homespun character of the juggler story lent itself well to narration by him, and the fact that the tale had become associated with the good old days of the 1950s and 1960s would not have hurt either.

The radio broadcasts probably played a role in the further metastasis of amateur adaptations. The nonprofessional reenactments fitted with the growth of the postwar economy and the values of then-contemporary society, which accentuated the traditional togetherness of family, work, and Christmas. Arrestingly plain-spoken insight into the ethos of the year immediately following the end of World War II can be mined from an article about a music program sponsored by Goodyear. The tire and rubber company hailed the value of music for its workforce and their families as “a living activity with its many admirable qualities helping to overcome some of the social unrest contagious among people who have found little beauty and joy in their jobs or their environment.” Our tale occupied a predictable slot among Christmas fare.

The title of this production by corporate workers, The Simple Heart, most likely alludes to a narrative by this name by Gustave Flaubert. Still, we have seen both Our Lady’s Tumbler and its hero likewise termed “simple.” In fact, the leading character was even assigned the monastic denomination Simplicius. Whether a literary reference to the nineteenth-century French author is intended or not, the inescapable thrust of the play is to celebrate childlike devotion in leading into a holiday that takes the joy of birth and infancy as its starting points.

Artists and audiences made a turn, or return, to the juggler during the perturbations of the global conflict and its aftermath. This impulse belongs part and parcel within the simultaneous gravitation of Catholic believers toward major Marian pilgrimage cults. Such worship centered upon miracle sites where visionaries had had sightings of Mary. This kind of yearning for a toehold in the safety of the divine order through a benevolent intercessor makes sense, in view of the many political and social anxieties that predominated in the 1940s and early 1950s. The Virgin held out hope of a heavenly haven.

Mid-Century Medieval US Television

In the 1950s, the narrative made the leap downward and outward to the flickering small screen in the United States. The process concretized the mutual importance of Christmas and television. The transition would not have been heavy going, since by then the tale had fidgeted its way into the repertoires of storytellers, singers, actors, musicians, and many others. Plays and pageants had been based on the miracle for decades. But the mainstay of the move to TV would have been radio performances, alternately narrative and theatrical.

Medievalesque pageantry goes hand in hand with Noel spirit, within the larger orbit of medieval-themed television. The season is sold as a time of reverie. Ever hear the oft-sung words “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”? No past time is dreamier than the Middle Ages—even though when the era assumes its darker forms, the dreams can turn out occasionally to be nightmares. Finally, the opera appearances by Mary Garden had made a lasting mark in American culture in the handling of the jongleur.

Very early the tale was recorded as performed on a live variety show known as Fred Waring’s America, named after the leader of a big band. Eventually he enlarged the company to encompass a choir and to showcase the singing and sex appeal of three so-called Waring girls (unquestionably women by today’s lights). Long before venturing from the dance halls into the pathbreaking medium of television, he had more than once staked out a stand as a vanguardist of novel technologies. Tech-savvy, he earned cred as an early adaptor decades before the term came into being. By the time the TV era dawned, he had already left a mark across phonographic records, radio, and film. Apparently, vaudeville was coupled so strongly with early movies, especially silent ones, that it put an unfading stamp on his approach to the new forum.

With an acute sense of both commercial markets and developing media, Waring sized up in a blink the potential that the narrative possessed for the small screen. Consequently, he inserted it annually into his show as part of the regular fare in the weeks leading up to Christmas. These segments capture the miracle as it took shape in the passage from the musical drama of 1902, through vaudeville and radio from the 1930s through the 1950s, down to television and film. The clips are disconcertingly faithful to a popularized, and greatly abridged, form of the opera, presumably by way of the stage in the 1930s and later. When the juggler is first featured in an episode in 1950, the bandleader rolls out the little drama with several sentences of recapitulation. Not altogether out of nowhere, he conflates Le jongleur de Notre Dame gently, even insouciantly, with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As a result, the setting becomes the cathedral in Paris. The episode assumes prior knowledge of the tale about the humble entertainer. As in Anatole France, the wretch is poor and unsuccessful, a sad-sack butt of mockery. As in both the medieval story and its late nineteenth-century adaptation, his dominant trait is humility.

Fig. 4.72 Nadine Gae. Photograph, ca. 1949. Photographer unknown.

If the 1950s may be said to resemble the two-faced Roman god Janus, then episodes with the title “Our Lady’s Juggler” from The Fred Waring Show limn the half of the visage that looked back in time, deep into the first half of the century, for simple faith and innocence. The role of the title character was performed, silently, by a female modern dancer. The audience needs no explanation to grasp why the male part should be played by a woman (see Fig. 4.72). For the forward-facing visage of the divinity from the same time, we will need later to turn elsewhere—not to snippets of television produced by the entertainment entrepreneur when he was in his fifties, but to an illustrated book and animated short by a recent college graduate named R. O. Blechman in his twenties.

Waring’s productions of “The Juggler” are indebted tangentially to Mary Garden. They feature a lady in the lead role. But a salient characteristic of the sequence is that the talent who fulfills the role of the juggler is not a singer, but rather a dancer who employs techniques reminiscent of mime to convey the rudiments of object manipulation. The proximate source of the sketch on The Fred Waring’s Show was campus productions at the University of Oklahoma by the local branch of Orchesis. As we have noted, in the early 1930s this female dance group disseminated throughout the United States the custom of delivering dance recitals of The Juggler of Notre Dame in women’s collegiate societies. A few Sooners who went to work for the bandleader as singers in his glee club cajoled him into televising The Juggler.

Fred Allen lived from 1894 through 1956. The American comedian’s career exposed him to the whole sweep from vaudeville, radio, and long-play recording into the formative years of the small screen. Of the last-mentioned, he once observed famously: “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.” In its early days, TV was omnivorous in absorbing stories and other materials wherever its scriptwriters could light on them. A sickly-sweet medieval miracle that had merited the seal of approval in French literary and operatic culture before being repackaged for Christmas marketing in the United States was fair game. Long before videotape technology, the kinescope recordings of Waring’s “Our Lady’s Juggler” were made with a movie camera mounted in front of a video monitor. However clumsily, these highlight reels give us a one-way mirror into our story as it lived through performances throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Postwar Britain

A peek into a similar kind of Christmas presentation across the Atlantic can be gained from instructions for staging wordless theater that were published in 1951 in London. Among such items set to music Our Lady’s Tumbler: A French Mime stands out.

Fig. 4.73 Mary Gertrude Pickersgill, Clever Alice and Other Mimes (London: Samuel French, 1972), 44.

Other productions influenced a far larger public in Britain than this play did. In the United Kingdom, the pinched economy of the postwar years certainly affected the story’s reception. But in general, the treatment of the tale probably did not stand worlds apart from contemporaneous tendencies in the United States. A case in point would be the one-act Our Lady’s Tumbler of 1951, composed by Ronald Duncan. This playlet based on the narrative about the jongleur turned up at the tail end of a minor vogue for poetic drama. The writer was conditioned literarily by T. S. Eliot and the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound, with both of whom he corresponded. At the same time, verse theater lost its lustre and became devalued precisely as Duncan came into his own. In many of his works, the playwright plumbs the long-simmering tension between traditional religious faith and modern scepticism. The basic contours of the medieval narrative accorded perfectly with his predisposition to peel back seeming mundaneness and indifference in daily life to lay bare a covert spirituality and engagement.

Our Lady’s Tumbler was commissioned for the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition that took place in the summer of 1951. Duncan’s contract stipulated that his composition would be performed before the altar of Salisbury Cathedral and that it should require no scenery, set, or props. The dramatist opted to make a virtue of the necessity by taking advantage of the ecclesiastical environs. His piece, like Massenet’s original opera, calls for an all-male cast. This circumstance renders it anomalous within its own contemporary context, despite being true to the realities of medieval monasticism. If the church venue and production budget dictated a rigorously self-disciplined staging, they also prompted the writer to “use as much music as possible,” with “a small orchestra to accompany Brother Andrew’s acrobatics” and a full choir to sing the hymns with which the play opened and closed.

The frontispiece claims explicitly that Duncan’s drama is based on the 1873 edition of the medieval French Our Lady’s Tumbler. Yet despite being coordinated ostentatiously with the original from the Middle Ages, the English divulges indebtedness to other sources of inspiration in the much later tradition deriving from Anatole France. For instance, the protagonist, Brother Andrew, is a once-acrobatic clown, who is alleged to have retired from the circus ring and to have become a lay brother out of financial need. In an autobiography, Duncan related that after accepting the commission, he kept picturing a clown as the focal character in the play he was to compose. What would have attracted him to such a figure? This casting decision may partly reflect his predilection for the pathos, beauty, and physical comedy of Charlie Chaplinalthough the verse dramatist would not have been aware that the comedian had himself been drawn to Our Lady’s Tumbler. Then again, the medieval poem and its inheritors stand apart from much of modern comic acting. The actions can be physical, and humorous elements are present here and there, but the tale nowhere approaches the slapstick of acts along the lines of the Three Stooges. Taken in toto, the miracle of the jongleur is no laughing matter.

There is more to the story. Duncan later maintained that for a long while he could not fathom why he had the mental image of this character. Even so, a eureka moment eventually occurred. As he suddenly remembered, years earlier a girl had mailed him a brief of Le jongleur de Notre Dame with the tip that he write a ballet on it. We have seen repeatedly how often writers who interconnect with this story reconstitute it from nothing more than bare-bones summaries and nebulous memories. With equal frequency, either volitionally or involuntarily, they obscure the full extent and nature of their indebtedness to previous versions that they have read, heard, or seen. The obfuscation started early: Anatole France was the first to muddy the waters of his own beholdenness to another author. Both trends operate here.

In Duncan’s play the action features a competition among the monks to produce tributes to the Holy Virgin on her birthday. Father Marcellus oversees the process, which in due course pares down the field to three finalists. According to the tradition as the poet describes it, the statue of Mary is supposed to indicate approval when the ideal contribution is made. Once this threesome has been identified, the clown is permitted only to light the candles. But when none of the preselected offerings bestirs the image of Our Lady, Brother Andrew first snuffs out the candles, then strips off his habit to reveal the clown’s smock he wears beneath it, and ultimately begins to perform his old act. Unable to accomplish any of the acrobatics that once came as second nature to him, he finally collapses and ceases clinging to life. At this juncture the Mother of God lets a rose fall on his body, a miraculous gesture witnessed by the abbot and the other three brothers. After the survivors bear the clown’s lifeless body to the altar and close the chancel gate, the villagers depart, dusk turns to night, and the brethren sing the “Hymn for the Dead” with a concluding “amen.”

Initially, Duncan and the set designer sought to contrive mechanical devices to release the bloom, but eventually they “decided that the safest and simplest solution was to make a statue behind which a girl could stand and drop the rose, only the live hand being visible.” However interesting we may find the means of achieving a special effect in an otherwise minimalist and fastidiously womanless play, a more noteworthy observation is that the production incorporates the motif of a rose bestowed by the Virgin. The flower by any other name appears periodically in versions of Our Lady’s Tumbler, most memorably in the book and animation by the American artist R. O. Blechman, despite its absence from either medieval form of the tale. Floral touches bob to the surface (or flutter down to it) often in other miracles of Mary.

Beyond special effects and the red rose, larger considerations loom over the overall tenor and effect of the play. In this regard, what matters most is that Our Lady’s Tumbler is a church drama, in both its setting and its central theme. Brother Andrew embodies humility and selflessness, a matchless incarnation of Christian spirit. Duncan worried that in his drama, a circus entertainer who cut capers and turned somersaults would be too indecorous for the liking of the cathedral dean and chapter. But the overriding concern of the clerics turned out instead to be that placing a statue of Our Lady before the altar could detonate Catholic associations. Since the venue was an Anglican great church, venturing too close to Catholicism by emphasizing the Madonna posed a risk. Even high Anglicanism remains more Christocentric, and consequently less hospitable to Marianism, than any strain of Roman devotion. Perhaps so as not to heighten Mary’s prominence but maybe merely as a result of the summertime staging, the world premiere in the Salisbury Cathedral had no Christmas connection (see Fig. 4.74). Duncan’s play was too long by more than half. One reviewer summed up, “The moving and simple story of the poor acrobat is, I think, too brief a tale to fill a 100 minutes of performance.”

Fig. 4.74 Scenes from Ronald Duncan’s Our Lady’s Tumbler. Photographs, 1951. Photographer unknown. Published in The Salisbury and Winchester Journal (June 8, 1951).

Pondering the case of Jackanory will help to round out our appreciation of the appeal Our Lady’s Tumbler has held in Britain. This long-running children’s progam on BBC television conformed to a strict fifteen-minute format. In every segment, an actor read aloud a specimen of children’s literature or folktale. In two Christmas episodes in the show during the late 1960s, the English comedian Ted Ray recited The Little Juggler in the version by Barbara Cooney. Since the American children’s book author was first exposed to the story through the radio, this transfer of medium was a kind of onion-layered poetic justice (or chiasmus?).

The French Connection

The story became equally ubiquitous on the American side of the Atlantic in the fifties and sixties. Since the tale was French not only in its medieval origins in both verse and prose, but likewise in its first major adaptations in literature and music, we should not find ourselves flabbergasted to discover that during the same period it remained familiar in the most heavily Europeanized portions of Francophonie, in both France and Canada.

Ronald Duncan’s play reverberated at least twice outside England. Although broadcast once by radio in Italy in 1952, his piece of theater had its real day in the sun in the Great White North (although not in a season with much daylight there) as the screenplay for a thirty-minute telecast on Christmas Eve of 1955. In an autobiographical novel entitled The Inheritor, the director Paul Almond described selecting Our Lady’s Tumbler for programming at the holiday. The tale was well suited for transmission by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation because of its appeal to both major constituents in the linguistic demographics of the country at the time, the Anglophones and the Francophones. No doubt religion belonged in the picture too, since French Canadians were heavily Catholic, whereas English speakers belonged preponderantly to the Anglican Church and other Protestant denominations.

The French connection was real. Although unbeknownst to the national television network, the co-opting of Le jongleur de Notre Dame for the small screen was not a purely English-language phenomenon. The opera also aired on TV for Christmas in France in 1959. The cover of a weekly magazine devoted to French programming presented a female actor with a gamin hairdo. The accompanying caption singles out her performance as the jongleur himself, and the photograph poses her, dressed in Marian blue, with a lighted candle in her left hand and a painting of a Gothic country church poking up behind her head (see Fig. 4.75). The taper calls to mind both yuletide and the devotional flames that often blaze before images of the Virgin in miracles such as that of Our Lady’s Tumbler. The casting of a woman in the lead role gives evidence of influence from the United States, moderated or not. The entire tradition of playing the medieval performer en travesti can be traced back to the operatic tours de force of Mary Garden in Manhattan, Chicago, and elsewhere.

Fig. 4.75 Christiane Lasquin. Photograph by Daniel Fallot, 1960. Published on the front cover of Télé 60, no. 795 (January 23, 1960).

Although not in the medium of television or film, a collection of Christmas stories in French published in Belgium in 2005 substantiates that the tale of the juggler continues to be associated with the holiday season. The book is the work of two Dominican sisters. In this grouping the narrative of the jongleur of Notre Dame is flagged as a “legend of the Middle Ages.” The opening sentence presents us with a cathedral that is personified as it awakens on a Christmas morning. Beyond the anthropomorphism, the building serves as a metonym for the whole medieval period.

The next paragraph introduces a statue of the Virgin and Child, smiling at each other. Then the lens widens to encompass the bustling square before the great church. At last, we come face to face with the famished and freezing jongleur. The poor entertainer cannot grab the attention or secure the donations of the passersby who scurry on Christmas errands as snow swirls. Eventually he catches sight of the Madonna, and the boy gives him a sign. The juggler begins juggling frenetically. When he blacks out, youthful Jesus takes over for him. In the hoopla and high adrenaline of the moment, the other sculptures within the house of prayer come to life, and the effigy and her babe in arms beam only more brilliantly. The grin is as common a manifestation of Mary’s delight as is the gift of a rose attested in other versions. The reader, too, may see images of the young Christ with or without the ball his mother has handed him. The manipulation of objects is reminiscent of motifs in medieval miracles of the Virgin in which her infant child interacts with youths. Such rascals find carvings of the Mother of God and her boy so lifelike as to mistake them for real people.

Juggler Film

Noel is not always an essential ingredient in cinematic and small-screen reflexes of the story. A spectacularly wretched feature-length version not set at this holiday is The Juggler of Notre Dame, a dismal and even dispiriting shoestring affair from 1970. In contrast, Christmas is the day on which the crowning performance by the juggler takes place in the more widely known, fifty-minute The Juggler of Notre Dame from 1982. This made-for-television movie was coproduced by Walt Disney and the Paulist Brothers. Such teamwork between a secular entertainment conglomerate driven by the bottom line and a Catholic religious society motivated by charity may strike us, to say the least, as far-fetched. But the specific values and mission of the Paulist Order played a role in the choice of topic and medium. Interviewed by a New York Times journalist, the head of the brotherhood’s cinematic branch underscored the value of outreach and his firm’s long presence in Hollywood “as a production company concerned with human values and audience enrichment.” The color film was given an up-to-date setting in the United States. In addition, it starred a real juggler in the leading role.

Despite these gestures toward typical values of the big screen, the motion picture is languorous, anything but action-packed. In it, Barnaby becomes the victim of two life-altering personal tragedies. First, we are told, partly through flashbacks, a backstory about the death of his wife in a tightrope accident when both high-performing spouses are under the big top. Later, we witness the murder of the hobo who becomes Barnaby’s bosom buddy, after the juggler has left the circus tent to become an itinerant and indigent street performer. Although initially soothed by being invited to enter a comradely community, the has-been entertainer soon despairs at having no gift to offer Mary and Jesus. At the conclusion, he receives a regenerative present from the Virgin, via a Madonna.

Juggler Christmas Books Live On

A man sits on a bench, reading a book. A juggler walking by asks, “So, how many of those can you read at the same time?”

The Christmastide versions of the juggler story for television and cinema did not mark an end to printed forms of the narrative. As we have seen, special iterations of it continued to be designed as Christmas books in the United States. From England, we have in 1978 a private-press printing for “the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity.” More indicative of the toll that tasteless commercialization was taking is the tale’s inclusion in Norman Rockwell’s Christmas Book. In this 1977 anthology, a coxcombed jester once painted by the artist for a magazine cover is slapped beside a translation of Anatole France’s version. Not even a minimal attempt is made to achieve any meaningful harmonization between the two modules (see Fig. 4.76). The American painter would not pass away until the following year, but clearly his lifework was already being monetized without much anguishing over maintaining the quality of his artistic legacy.

Fig. 4.76 Norman Rockwell, Jester, 1939. Published in Molly Rockwell, ed., Norman Rockwell’s Christmas Book (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977), 58. Illustration © Norman Rockwell Family Entities, 1939. Image courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.

Not fifteen years later, the miracle was pared down physically and downgraded in language, characters, length, and everything else by being fabricated as a pop-up. The volume was one in a series. The advertising copy on the back cover egged on potential buyers to “Deck the Halls with Dial Stockingstuffers!” The narrative of The Little Juggler gives a short-circuited rendition of our story that derives obliquely from Anatole France, but with the major adjustment that the object of the little virtuoso’s devotion is the Christ child. The infant is pictured unmistakably on the front cover and three times within the book itself—and of course at the center when the tableau is deployed to engage in three dimensions. Mary is suppressed in favor of a female angel, who materializes a single time to take the pint-sized performer in her arms and kiss his forehead. The tale closes with the orphaned juggler euphoric at being permitted to stay in the monastery, whereas before he had no home.

The book in question here was assembled in the Republic of Singapore. Why Southeast Asia, at the southern tip of Malaysia, far from the jongleur’s usual stomping grounds? Does the location hold any significance—does the chain of custody relating to the manufacture of the physical object reflect any special Singaporean involvement in this narrative? The population is a fifth Christian—and the faithful are heavily Catholic. The sovereign city-state boasts an impressive Gothic house of workship, the Anglican cathedral of St. Andrew, a centerpiece of downtown, built between 1856 and 1861. Yet no evidence suggests that the island country was anything more than the place of fabrication for the pop-up: it was neither created nor sold there.

In 2012, the narrative was curtailed in a different way: it was scaled down in a collection of ten Christmas stories, all of them designed to be read aloud in 120 seconds or less. In this case, the account is billed as “The Little Juggler,” as having originated in Italy, and as having a protagonist named Pietro. A big-top artist, he juggles seven balls, all of different colors, which he supplements with a golden globe that shines like the sun. After he fails once to keep the orb in the air, he is fired and takes up performing on his own. Now an old man, he finds himself begging outside a cathedral at Christmas after the midnight service. Inside, he devises the notion to do his act before a statue of Mary and the infant Jesus. The story wraps up after he throws the sphere in the air: “The baby Jesus had caught it in his outstretched hand, and he was sure the mother was smiling” (see Fig. 4.77). Alterations have been made in miscellaneous elements, but this version is indebted to the one by Tomie dePaola that has become the perennial frontrunner in the children’s market.

Fig. 4.77 Elena Pasquali, The Lion Book of Two-Minute Christmas Stories, illus. Nicola Smee (Oxford: Lion Children’s Books, 2012), 37. Image courtesy of Lion Hudson PLC, Oxford, UK. All rights reserved.

Already in the first decades of the twentieth century, the jongleur had been rendered a product. At that time the familiarity of France’s short story and Massenet’s opera led to the Rochegrosse poster of 1904, the first Ferroud printing of 1906, the advertisement for Bénédictine liqueur, attractively ornamented scores and librettos from the publishing house of Heugel, and a superabundance of other such items. The commodification hastened and expanded in the mid-twentieth century. In the process, the tale stood to reach ever larger audiences, but simultaneously it risked shedding or contaminating defining aspects of the spirit that endowed the narrative with its charm. The commercial hype placed the simplicity of the juggler and the sincerity of his faith in mortal jeopardy. The story has at its core the superfluity of possessions and the indispensability of religious belief. Consequently, merchandising it as an object to be purchased and gifted is inherently self-disruptive.

One other complication bears noting. Especially in the United States, the narrative of the tumbler or juggler, as naturalized within mass culture, has become susceptible to garbling. With the precipitous descent from popularity of first Jules Massenet and later Anatole France, the tale lost the stabilizing effect of being coupled to an authoritative composer or author. Even its name has suffered from instability. For that reason, the story has not enjoyed the secure rigidity that can result from bearing the equivalent of a trademark. For a few decades everyone was exposed to the narrative, but by the same token everyone recollected variously what they thought they knew. Their knowledge appears often to have come second- or third-hand. The account retained its luster, but the gleam grew hazy from tarnishing.

Ultimately, a point arrived when some remembered the narrative, but many forgot it. The American playwright John Guare, raised Roman Catholic and educated through college in Catholic institutions, could not have escaped exposure to the tale. By 1977 and his Rich and Famous, he was well aware that not everyone would be au courant with the legend. His theatrical work is about the first production of a script by an aspiring playwright. The play contains a scene in which the dramatist-protagonist, Bing Ringling, encounters an old high-school girlfriend. This Allison recalls his “Christmas story about the juggler who goes to the cathedral and the Kings and Emperors all bring gold and diamonds, but the Blessed Mother only comes alive when the juggler juggles because he had a talent and gave what was closest to him.”

The recapitulation, in not even fifty words, raises a few questions about how the fictitious writer had presented it to Allison in her younger days. In the first instance, did Bing premeditatedly misreport someone else’s creation as his own—and is he still hanging back from admitting his borrowing? Did he display creativity by fusing two well-known fictions, one about the juggler and another about the three Magi, with an artfulness that his female friend from earlier times failed to notice? Did she embarrass him by putting her finger unknowingly on what was effectively plagiarism? Or did she make intolerably public her own insufficiency of culture, by not recognizing a nugget of cultural trivia he took for granted? Whatever the answers, this handling of the narrative about the juggler captures beautifully the paradox of the account, in being known universally yet the personal trouvée of everyone who retells it.

Related Stories of the Season

Reduced to its rudiments, the first extant version of Our Lady’s Tumbler from the early thirteenth century betrays similarities to a few Christmas entertainments that have been sentimental standbys since the 1950s. No proof exists that the tale as told in the poem from the Middle Ages was informed by long-lost antecedents to any of the later stories. Contrariwise, through its own descendants the piece of medieval poetry may have influenced later Christmas operas and songs, but in this case too no one has yet sniffed out the sulfurous fumes of any smoking gun to prove any conjectural indebtedness. The only sure relationship among all the narratives is analogy. Whatever connections or disconnects we intuit among the various adaptations, they speak to certain widespread and even almost universal human responses to the stresses of gift-giving and the challenges of determining what to offer up to God.

A first analogue is a one-act lyric opera, with text and music by Gian Carlo Menotti. Entitled Amahl and the Night Visitors, this dramatic work with music transported the form into a new idiom. It was the first musical drama composed specifically for television. Reviewers reacted favorably, singling out for special plaudits the child actor who starred as the title character. In view of Mary Garden’s adamancy that the role of the jongleur be rewritten to allow her to perform en travesti, note should be taken that Menotti insisted that in all productions of the musical drama the lead be a young male. But the composer’s triumph has been pyrrhic. His proviso has held, but as fate would have it, his hallmark genre has nearly vanished. Not only the boy star of the opening night has died. Television opera, after its initial heyday thanks to Menotti, has also crept toward near extinction.

Frequently enacted on stage as a Christmas classic for more than a half century, this musical drama views the Nativity from the perspective of the fatherless Amahl and his mother. Under the inspiration of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Adoration of the Magi, Menotti made the son is what would have been called in the Middle Ages “crippled,” in the mid-twentieth century “handicapped,” and now “disabled” or in North America “differently abled.” The pair chance to be visited by Balthazar, Melchior, and Kaspar, as the three kings of Christian legend hike in search of a newborn (see Fig. 4.78). The child whom the threesome seek, although patently Christ, is not named explicitly, and the location is not spelled out as Bethlehem. For that matter, the three rulers are not linked outright to the Magi, who from a cursory mention in the Gospel of Matthew developed into the three kings or three wise men whom later tradition describes as bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for Jesus after his birth.

Fig. 4.78 Front cover of Gian Carlo Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors, adap. Frances Frost, illus. Roger Duvoisin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952). Image courtesy of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved.

When the potentates in Menotti’s tale stay the night, Amahl’s mother is caught red-handed trying to filch some of their precious metal. Melchior proposes that she keep what she has pilfered, because the savior they crave will rule by love and not by riches. After the woman returns the treasure and expresses the wish that she had a gift of her own to present to the newborn, her lame boy volunteers his crutch. No sooner has he done so than suddenly he can walk (see Fig. 4.79). In the lump-in-the-throat ending, the now ambulatory little guy tags along with the kings so that he may present his prop personally to the Christ child. Not a dry eye in the house!

Fig. 4.79 The miraculous healing. Illustration by Roger Duvoisin, 1952. Published in Gian Carlo Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors, adap. Frances Frost (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952), 75. Image courtesy of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved.

Fig. 4.80 Brother Ambrose supports the injured young juggler. Illustration by Violet Moore Higgins, 1917. Published in Violet Moore Higgins, The Little Juggler and Other French Tales Retold (Racine, WI: Whitman, 1917), between pp. 16–17.

The lyric opera Amahl and the Night Visitors evinces parallels to Our Lady’s Tumbler. One is the humility of its chief character. Another is his desire to make a divine offering of his only high-value possession or, in the case of the medieval French poem, ability. As a puny kid who can get around only with the help of a wooden staff, Amahl bears a prominent resemblance to the youth named Rene in Violet Moore Higgins’s 1917 version of The Little Juggler (see Fig. 4.80). Menotti would never have chanced upon the earlier children’s book, nor does his musical drama need to have been related by consanguinity to Massenet’s (although he could hardly have been unaware of Le jongleur de Notre Dame). The probability can be rated even lower that the Italian composer was indebted to any segments, such as Waring’s on the juggler, that he had viewed on television in America or elsewhere. However suggestive, the similarities look unlikely to have resulted from source-and-influence relationships.

A second Christmastide commercial success that shows likenesses to Our Lady’s Tumbler is The Littlest Angel, a short story by Charles Tazewell (see Fig. 4.81). The fiction was reportedly drafted as a radio script in just three days in 1939. It relates the various hiccups in the post-mortem metamorphosis that an active four-year-old boy makes to being the newest attendant of God in heaven and the runt of the seraphic litter. The small book tells of the discomfiture that the correspondingly little protagonist, named Isaiah, experiences in choosing a gift to make to the holy infant when Jesus is born. When he lands on the ground (or the cloudtops) in the firmament, the freshly arrived cherub at first cannot adjust. The proverbial “little angels grow into big devils” would seem to be unexpectedly applicable. The quondam mortal sings off key, disrupts prayers, and sinks himself in celestial quicksand for his rollicking behavior. Finally, he is granted a heavenly hall pass to retrace the route to Earth and to retrieve a small box that contains the odds and ends he had treasured while alive.

Fig. 4.81 Front cover of Charles Tazewell, The Littlest Angel, illus. Katherine Evans (Chicago: Children’s Press, 1946).

Fig. 4.82 Gift box. Illustration by Katherine Evans, 1946. Published in Charles Tazewell, The Littlest Angel (Chicago: Children’s Press, 1946).

The tiny casket helps Isaiah adapt to the afterlife, but soon he faces the new ordeal of selecting a present for Jesus. The angelic tyke is plagued about what to give, since he lacks the musical talent to compose a lyric hymn, and the literary or verbal skill to formulate a prayer. In the end, the winged moppet sets down before the throne of God the unpretentious package of his valueless valuables (see Fig. 4.82). When the climax comes, the wee winged one bursts into tears. Belatedly, he recognizes how woefully inappropriate and inadequate his offering is. Yet despite its shortcomings, his gift proves to be the one preferred by God. At that instant, the coffer is suffused with a brilliant radiance. It turns into the refulgent star of Bethlehem, which revealed to the Magi the birth of Jesus and led them to the scene of the Nativity.

This narrative too resembles Our Lady’s Tumbler in the modest lowliness of its cherubic champ and in the divine vindication of his eagerness to bestow his most cherished belongings upon the infant Christ. In The Littlest Angel, the cutest being is the bright-eyed innocent who lavishes upon others what he loves, rather than what he hopes will impress. The story brings home the moral that the gifts of those who are regarded as being lowest in importance and stature earn the highest esteem from God.

By heroizing small children such tales express the propensity for favoring the underdog. At the same time, they speak to anxieties about gift-giving that youngsters feel from holidays such as Christmas, when whatever trivialities they can throw together or purchase are guaranteed to be outmatched by what adults can furnish. God’s response to the gifts of the leading figures in these narratives plays out on a divine-to-human level the validation that real-life young people crave, particularly as their parents unwrap their low-cost or handcrafted presents on major holidays. The jitteriness of the situation resonates too with grownups, who tense up annually under the pressure of finding the elusive or even nonexistent “perfect gift.”

Tazewell, who launched his career as an actor and stage director, prepared this fiction as a script for radio in 1939. Owing to the story’s success, he subsequently made a specialty of telling about pint-sized protagonists. Many such accounts supplied the basis for products in other media. Still more of these “little”-themed and -titled books emerged posthumously under his name. The lessons could not be clearer. A little can go a long way, and every little bit helps. The readiness with which Tazewell’s narratives were soon associated with the miracle of the juggler may be detected already in a 1955 article on the use of Christmas stories in junior high schools. The list of recommended readings and recordings includes “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” The Littlest Angel, and The Small One.

A third yuletide entertainment that calls to mind Our Lady’s Tumbler is “The Little Drummer Boy.” The song amounts to not even eighty words, with the ellipsis of no fewer than twenty-one instances of the onomatopoetic refrain. With the subtraction of the incessantly assonant “pa rum pum pum pum” and “rum pum pum pum,” the lyrics run as follows:

Come, they told me, / A new born King to see,

Our finest gifts we bring, / To lay before the King,

So to honor Him, / When we come.

Little Baby, / I am a poor boy too,

I have no gift to bring, / That’s fit to give the King,

Shall I play for you, / On my drum?

Mary nodded, / The ox and lamb kept time,

I played my drum for Him, / I played my best for Him,

Then He smiled at me, / Me and my drum.

Katherine K. Davis, often credited as the composer, reputedly professed that the piece came to her while she was “trying to take a nap” and that the words “practically wrote themselves.” Some listeners may judge the earworm, especially the repeated lines, to be suitably soporific. Others could not imagine sleeping with such a melody and rhythm whirling about in their heads. The composition, a fixture of holiday radio and elevator music, receives so much airplay for a few weeks each year that despite seeming eminently forgettable, it becomes unforgotten. The nonstop nonsense syllables give new meaning to the idiom of having something drummed into you.

The apocryphal story of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which embodies first-person tale-telling at its most protozoan, overlaps with that of the tumbler. In both tales the lead figure becomes convinced that he has no present worth bestowing, beyond a performance on a humble instrument, and in both (despite initial anxiety) the modest gift is ultimately deemed more than merely acceptable. Although in the song the device in question is a drum, rather than the devotee’s own body as in Our Lady’s Tumbler, the equivalency between the two accounts remains potent. Although the would-be musician bangs his equipment to honor Jesus, and although the lyrics trail off with a description of the baby’s pleased reaction, the little instrumentalist may be directing his offering to none other than Mary. Another possibility is that the addressee in “Shall I play for you?” is Christ, for whom his mother communicates by nodding. He is an infant. As the very etymology of that noun presumes, he is unable to speak.

Where did such literature spring into being? It seems redundant and even wrongheaded to piece together a genealogy for all of them that would lead back to a single progenitor. There is no need for a cartoon-like evolutionary tree, which predicates a missing link. But what could be the alternative? Arguing against a single origin is the existence, first in medieval Spain and later in Mexico, of a Christmastime folk ritual that entailed music, song, dance, and painting, and included a scene in which a shepherd presented his dance to the infant Jesus. The nature and diffusion of this show suggest that this kind of motif may have arisen recurrently, when common folk and parish priests joined forces and literary imaginations.

From locale to locale, such symbiosis between the laity and clergy would have arisen naturally from negotiations over cradle cults. Such customs were threaded with practices such as Nativity plays. These dramas, which evolved in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, were acted out in churches. They may have derived especially from a tableau vivant of a crib or crèche that was constructed in Greccio to celebrate the birth of Christ in 1223.

The oldest evidence for the Spanish and Mexican version appears to be fossilized within the didactic Stanzas on the Life of Christ. The heterogeneous contents of this Castilian narrative poem encompass what has been interpreted as a pastoral Nativity play. The character Mingo proposes to his fellow herders that they worship the holy family with music and movement. At one point, he watches and listens with delight as choristers intone hymns and gambol in ring-dances around the manger. Later, as his fellows play instruments and sing, Mingo renders thanks and prayer. He makes his votive not in Latin verses he does not understand. but in a manner recognizable to him: he frisks in the steps of a rustic dance before Mary and the infant Jesus. His gift can be compared with performances recounted in other anecdotes drawn from real life, such as one in which a girl prances before a picture of Jesus or in stories such as Our Lady’s Tumbler.

In one hypothesis, the poem’s author was inspired by solemnizations of Christmas that he had earlier witnessed himself. Such protothespian festivities would have borne a strong resemblance to religious theater that survives hundreds of years later, reported in New Mexico as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. In this act, the poorest in the cast of sixteen shepherds declares that he has no possessions to offer as tokens of his heart’s devotion except song and dance. This herdsman may bear a biblical name, but Holy Scripture contains no source for this scene. By 1906, could knowledge of Our Lady’s Tumbler, Anatole France’s Jongleur of Notre Dame, or Massenet’s opera by the same name have already unfurled across North America to reach working-class Hispanics in what would later gain acceptance as the Land of Enchantment? Alternatively, could Chicano campesinos in a bustling town on the Santa Fe Trail and the railroad have been in touch with a motif that goes back to much older Spanish tradition?

Fig. 4.83 Front cover of Raymond MacDonald Alden, Why the Chimes Rang, illus. Mayo Bunker (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1909).

Fig. 4.84 Raymond MacDonald Alden, Why the Chimes Rang, illus. Mayo Bunker (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1909), 1.

From the same year we have a printed Christmas story that could have been conceived in response to a variant of Our Lady’s Tumbler—or not. Called Why the Chimes Rang, the tale has a timeless, fairy-tale-like indeterminacy (see Fig. 4.83). It begins “There was once, in a far-away country where few people have ever traveled, a wonderful church.” To gauge by the illustration of the first page (see Fig. 4.84), the house of worship was envisaged as a Gothic cathedral. This huge edifice has an immense carillon that flaunts at the top a set of holiday bells. These would toll impromptu, perhaps sounded by angels, only on Christmas Eve when “the greatest and best offering was laid on the altar” to the Christ-child. A boy named Pedro hatched the plan to attend the celebration with his younger brother. While on their way they found a poor woman, who had fallen unconscious in the snow. To save her, the protagonist remained behind, but gave his sibling a little silver piece to deposit as his votive offering. None of the grand gifts made by others caused the giant metallic cups to awaken from their long silence, but this coin moved them to peal.

***

The relationship between Our Lady’s Tumbler and the Christmas holidays is a double-edged sword. How long will the two continue to be interwoven? In the United States the prognosis in the early twenty-first century must differ sharply from what it would have been one hundred years ago. One explanation could be that circumstances within public schools have altered radically.

Over many decades the sugarcoated and candy-striped power of Christmas worked to the tale’s advantage, whether in Anatole France’s French, modern English translations from the medieval original, or adaptations. On the web and in children’s books the connection with the special day may still serve well. Yet now the long-established associations with religion redound to the story’s detriment. In fact, the context militates against the tale in the United States. For close to fifty years, the so-called Christmas controversy has pitted freedoms of religion and speech against separation of church and state. At no other point in the calendar do tensions between the two extremes in the debate flare up more often than in the weeks leading up to the winter festivity. Secularists and civil libertarians, sometimes navigating perilous waters among the shoals of religions and atheism, file suit over concerns about crèches and colored lights, Santa Clauses and reindeers, and menorahs. Tellingly, the contention has sometimes been labeled inflammatorily the “war on Christmas.” In all this, the juggler has not been taken to court or for that matter given his day there. Instead, he has been summarily dispatched except from children’s books, and even those have been mostly excluded from use in public schools and libraries.

The time may have arrived for sundering the bonds, hardly original to the medieval account, that have fastened it artificially to modern manifestations of yuletide. Despite the airtight reality that the tale started out as an expression of Christian culture in the Middle Ages, Our Lady’s Tumbler in all its finest expressions stakes out a complex and subtle stand toward religion that has made the narrative enticing to believers of many faiths, agnostics, and even probably atheists.

The jongleur has been dulled and damaged by being restricted to a Nativity narrative. As we have discerned, this function as a seasonal story was not even faintly implicit in the original medieval poem and exemplum. Repentance, so pronounced an ingredient in the French from the 1230’s, and joy, equally salient in the Latin from the 1270’s, may be narrowly associated with Lent in Christianity but more broadly such remorse and contrition know no season. Pulling the narrative away from Christmas might give it a chance to recover from whatever taint it may have taken on from middle- or even lowbrow culture after becoming omnipresent through television in the fifties.

Then again, the endeavor to defibrillate the legend might be futile. Like so many victims of organized crime, the corpses of numerous tales lie encased within the concrete that has been poured to prepare for a better future. Although a noble effort has been made to broaden culture to allow entrance to regions and religions, peoples and classes, that were formerly overlooked or shut out, the inclusivity has not been all-accommodating. The past has been treated as intrinsically different and alien in ways that warrant boxing it out. The humanities and arts need not be zero-sum: not every inclusion of a new element requires the exclusion of an old one. For our own good and pleasure, we still deserve to benefit from what has preceded us, along with the memory of its personages and the appreciation of its aesthetics. Not all bygones should be bygones. Being ignorant and prejudiced about what originated at a chronological remove from us is no better than being so about what comes from a geographical distance. A present without a past is a present without a future.