Christmas Shopping with Mary Poppins

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

Would you like to go Christmas shopping with Mary Poppins? I know I would, for the obvious reason, the outing would most certainly entail some kind of unexpected magical experience. And who wouldn’t enjoy a little magic? Although, Mary Poppins’s magic is never meant to entertain.

No, despite all appearances, Mary Poppins’s magic has a much more serious purpose. And, it is not the one conveyed by Disney’s movie “Mary Poppins” (and even less so by the sequel “Mary Poppins Returns” ). Mary Poppins does not visit the Banks family to save them or Mr. Banks, as another Disney movie “Saving Mr. Banks” suggests.

Mary Poppins comes to teach the Banks children, and all those who read the original stories, about life and its mysteries. The essence of these stories is mystical and with each subsequent book* (as the spiritual journey of P.L. Travers evolved) they become more and more spiritually infused.

I thought that a blog post about the story Christmas Shopping from the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 would be an appropriate theme for this time of the year.  

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 2

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

It is almost Christmas, and Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael Banks are riding the bus on the way to the Largest Shop in the World. Jane and Michael are excited:

                                    ‘I smell snow’, said Jane, as they got out of the Bus.

                                    ‘I smell Christmas trees’, said Michael.

And what does Mary Poppins reply?

                                    ‘I smell fried fish?’ said Mary Poppins.

Now, this is Mary Poppins! She never gets overly excited and she never gives away any sign that something magical is about to happen. And why would she? There would be no magic without an element of surprise!

Of course, Mary Poppins’s attitude does not stop Jane and Michael from being excited about Christmas and from marveling at the toys displayed in the windows of the Largest Shop in the World. The children take their time because, by now, they know Mary Poppins, and they know that there is nothing she likes more than to look at her own reflection in shop windows.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 4

(original illustration by Mary Shepard)

Jane and Michael are looking for presents for their family. The Toy Department is definitely the designated place for such a purpose; a clockwork train with special signals for Daddy, a small doll’s perambulator for Mommy, a mechanical beetle for Robertson Ay, a pair of spectacles for Ellen who, by the way, doesn’t have any eyesight problems, and Robinson Cruose for the twins to read when they grow up. You get the gist. The children are choosing for themselves. And what does Mary Poppins do? Nothing. She lets them do as they wish, for she does not interfere with their choices, at least not in an obvious way. And anyhow, she it too busy having an argument with Father Christmas over a cake of soap. Now, it is time for tea, and they have to leave the store. Understandably, Jane and Michael are not ready to tear themselves away from the toys.

But Mary Poppins hurried on and they had to go with her. Behind them Father Christmas was waving his hand, and the Fairy Queen on the Christmas Tree and all the other dolls were smiling sadly and saying. “Take me home, somebody!” and the aeroplanes were all beating their wings and saying in bird-like voices “Let me fly! Ah, do let me fly!” Jane and Michael hurried away, closing their ears to those enchanting voices, and feeling that the time in the Toy Department had been unreasonably short.

Just at that very moment, when the children are about to walk out of the shop, a flickering figure of a child pops out of the spinning door at the shop entrance. The adventure begins.

… the child had practically no clothes on, only a light wispy strip of blue stuff that looked as though she had torn it from the sky to wrap round her naked body.

This is Maia, she is the second star of the seven Pleiades; those are the stars that Mr. Banks showed one night to Jane and Michael.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 3

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

Maia has come down to earth to do a little Christmas shopping and buy toys for her sisters who can’t get away very often because they are “so busy making and storing up the Spring Rains.”

So, Michael and Jane are now following Maia in the store as she choses the gifts she wants to bring back home. Maia selects a little stove with silver saucepans and a stripped broom for her eldest sister because she is domestic, and because, of course, up there where they live there is a lot of star dust.

Then Maia choses a skipping rope for another one of her sisters because she likes to dance and a book for another who is quiet and never wants anything. As for the youngest one of Maia’s sisters, Maia asks advice from Jane and Michael. A humming-top and rubber ducks will do the job.

Now it is time for Maia to go back home. Jane remarks that Maia has no Christmas gift for herself and she starts searching through her parcels to see what she could spare for Maia.  It is then that Mary Poppins whips off her new gloves with the fur tops; the first gloves she ever had and the ones she thought she would never grow tired of looking at in the shop windows, and she gives them to Maia, because it is cold outside. Maia kisses Mary Poppins and steps on an invisible ladder carved into the sky and begins to climb up in the air.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 5

(original illustration by Mary Shepard)

Clearly, Mary Poppins teaches Jane and Michael about generosity and the nature of gift giving. A lesson taught without preaching, in the most effective way, by example. She shows them that a gift is an act of love and that one must choose a gift to match the desires and needs of the receiver and not the giver.  And, if we push the interpretation further, we can say that there is an element of sacrifice in the ritual of gift giving, at least in P.L. Travers’s mind. The lesson here is similar to another Christmas story written by P. L. Travers The Fox at the Manger.

Another interesting theme in the story is the question of money. After Maia has chosen all her gifts, a practical question is raised by Michael:

                                    “But she has no purse. Who will pay for the toys?”

And Maia answers:

What did you say?” demanded Maia with round, surprised eyes. “Pay? Nobody will pay. There is nothing to pay – is there?” She turned her shining gaze to the Assistant.

“Nothing at all, madam,” he assured her as he put the parcels into her arms and bowed again.

“I thought no. You see,” she said, turning to Michael “the whole point of Christmas is that things should be given away, isn’t it? Besides what could I pay with? We have no money up there.” And she laughed at the mere suggestion of such a thing.

After all, the spirit of Christmas is about love, generosity and compassion and not so much about shopping. Mary Poppins might have been written in 1934 long before the invention of the internet and smart phones, but she is just as relevant today as she was back then. If we could only remember her!

Maia’s comment about money hints at something we lose out of sight in our everyday life. Money outside of our human social structures has no importance whatsoever. The Universe in which we spin couldn’t care less about money.

We might be living in a material world of our own creation, but we must remember that we are a part of a much vaster macrocosm that obeys different laws. How are we to strike a balance between our material and spiritual needs? And, does one exclude the other? Don’t we need both perspectives even if they appear to be at odds with each other?

And did P.L. Travers succeed in finding that balance? I am not certain, but spirituality was a major part of her life experience, and the spiritual teacher who influenced her outlook on life was G. I. Gurdjieff.

I have written a few posts on this blog about Gurdjieff and I believe that it is relevant here in this Christmas post to talk about Gurdjieff’s inverted Christmas tree and P.L. Travers’s own thoughts about the meaning of this symbol.

There is an ancient tradition originating in Eastern Europe of suspending Christmas trees by their roots and it appears that this tradition was also adopted by G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff inverted Christams tree

(picture from Gurdjieff and the Women of the Rope)

Rene Zuber a pupil of Gurdjieff experienced Gurdjieff’s inverted Christmas tree firsthand and wrote about it in his book Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?:

(…) I will describe what happened to me on Christmas Eve (the Russian Christmas which is thirteen days later that ours). I had been asked to go to his flat where I found another of his pupils. The master of the house showed us into the empty drawing-room, and there in the middle of the floor lay piles of toys, sweetmeats and oranges. We had to divide them up and put them into little paper bags, so that each child could have his share.

A lovely pine tree, fresh from the flower market, confirmed that everything would be done to custom. I took upon myself to transform it into a Christmas tree with the necessary tinsel, candles and stars. For someone from Alsace, like myself, this was a deeply satisfying task.

I had almost finished when Mr. Gurdjieff came in, glanced at our work, and going up to the tree signalled to me to hang it from the ceiling. I could not believe my eyes. ‘But….Monsieur….from that hook up there? Upside down, with the roots in the air?’ That was exactly what he wanted. So I was left to strip the tree, climb on a stool and attach the roots to the ceiling as best as I could. (…) The story is perplexing. (…)

Maybe Gurdjieff wanted to encourage Zuber to change his perspective on life, to look at things from different angles, to question customs and habits. Zuber writes of Gurdjieff’s teaching as being “invigorating” with “provoking quality” that is “inexhaustible”. These are some of the traits of Gurdjieff’s teaching that must have appealed to his pupils. Or, maybe Gurdjieff was pointing in the direction of P.L. Travers’s interpretation.

P.L. Travers examined the symbol of the tree in a talk she gave for The Far West Institute in the summer of 1973. In that talk she informed her listeners that the tree appears as a major mythological symbol throughout different cultures at different times in the history of humanity, and almost always in the same vein: as a cosmic pillar connecting the underworld, the earth and the Heaven.

She gave examples from the Bible, the Kabbalah, the Norse and Teutonic myths, the Avestan tradition, the ancient writings of the Parsees. And then she introduced her audience to a lesser known mythology, that of the inverted tree:

But it is in the earliest writings of Hinduism that one finds it most vividly portrayed, the mysterious Asvattha Tree of the Rig Veda, with its roots in Heaven and its branches spreading downward. Clearly this tree has a solar aspect, not so much of a physical as of a supernal sun whose rays strike downward bringing life.

 And thus, she links the symbol of the inverted tree to G.I. Gurdjieff’s cosmogony:

And all this can be assimilated to Gurdjieff’s system, whose great symbol, the Ray of Creation, is also an inverted tree, rooted above in the Absolute and descending as an octave through ever denser stages of being from one Do to another. Clearly the message of this many faceted symbol is that the roots of man are not on earth but in the Heaven….

In that talk she alos mentiones, although rather briefly, the Tarot card of the Hanged Man. This gives me an idea for another blog post. And on and on it goes… I hope you enjoyed reading this post and that you will come back to read more about Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers.

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* There are eight Mary Poppins books.

A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers

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Christmas is just around the corner, which means that now is the right time to revisit Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable “The Fox at the Manger”.

It’s Christmas Eve in postwar London. The narrator along with three young boys takes part in the carol service at St. Paul’s cathedral. The young boys have brought their old toys for the poor children. Only, when the time comes to part with their toys, the boys swiftly change their minds and run off remorselessly in the opposite direction. The narrator witnessing their selfish behaviour affirms that “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere”. But the meaning of the story of the fox at the manger expands beyond this aphorism about love.

Right from the start, the title of the story hints of its unusualness, as Pamela L. Travers’s friend and collaborator, Brian Sibley, accurately noted when he first discovered the book: “What a bizarre, almost blasphemous idea: the wild, rough, red-haired chicken-thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.” The idea is certainly provocative and the fox’s discourse throughout the story challenges our well accepted ideas about good and evil, love and service. I can assure you that Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable is definitely unlike any other Christmas story you have ever read or listened to. The story begins in a Christian religious context, but then quickly veers off and dives into the author’s inner world of esoteric beliefs, such as this poetical reference to the mysteries of time and space, to the Akashic records where all past, present and future human events, thoughts, emotions and intents are encoded in the non-physical etheric plane of existence:  

What had been here – some stately office? A bank? A merchant’s hall? And before that, what? I wondered. If it is true the print and form of things remain forever, as they say, invulnerable and invisible – surely these children were dancing now through forgotten board-meetings, and shades of accountants. lawyers, clerks. Or, if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire of London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontosaurs; and beyond that we would whirl in lava, turning fierily through the air, nothing but elements.

Contrariwise, would not the City lords to come, in rooms that would rise from this fern and rubble, start up in astonishment at the fancied sight of willow-herb breaking through the carpet? And old cashiers scratch their heads, wondering if they were out of their wits or whether they had really seen three little boys run through the cash desk? Are we here? Are we there? Is it now? Is it then? They will not know. And neither do we.

When one of the boys asks the narrator “Why weren’t there any wild animals at the crib?” the narrator tells the story of the forgotten verse in the Carol of the Friendly Beasts, the one about the visit of the fox at the manger. The fox comes with a special gift for baby Jesus. The fox presents the Son of God with its cunning.  The idea is subversive as it goes against the teachings of the Bible where the fox is portrayed rather negatively. But in Pamela L. Travers’s story, the fox appears in its positive aspect: wisdom and discernment. And at the end, wild and cunning and selfish as it may appear to be, the fox proves itself capable of the ultimate act of love, self-sacrifice. “‘It was not sudden, the fox said, coolly. ‘I was a long time coming to it and it was not easy.’”

Of course, when the fox arrives at the manger, it is not welcomed by the tamed animals, but their rejection does not deter it from its plans. In response to the common disapproval of its character the fox says:

Reynard you called me, and that is my name. But if you use it to threaten me, ass, I bid you remember its meaning. It comes from Raginohardus, a name that means ‘strong in counsel.

The farm animals see the fox from a narrow perspective. They see the selfish predator, the thief of chickens, but then the fox turns the tables around on them and confronts them with the idea that man is no different than the fox and that chickens are made to be stolen. The fox did not invent the laws of nature it simply lives by them. “I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from the air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve, I do not know.” Does man really know? Nothing is less certain…

The dialogue between the farm animals and the fox also questions man’s place in Creation:

You speak like a slave, said the fox, mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forests no man has seen- do they not still go on growing? Will the fire at the core of the earth go out because man cannot warm his hand on it?

The fox also directs our attention to our all too human failure to see our life situations for what they are and the price we pay for not thinking for ourselves: “What would it profit me to run with the flock, shoulder to shoulder with woolly brother, when all it leads to is the basting dish.”

And as for the nature of the fox’s gift, well, it is ingeniously confounding, isn’t it? What use can Jesus have of cunning? I was dumbfounded by the fox’s gift, just as the farm animals in the story. Dumbfound and at the same time amused by Pamela L. Travers’s obstinate refusal to give explanations.

But what will you do with such a gift? I am puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” Pamela L. Travers’s answer to the questions of the ass is that it is not important to understand but to simply let it be. Although this is a wise advice, especially when confronted with unanswerable questions, in this particular case, I couldn’t let it be. Knowing a little (just a little) about Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual beliefs I was convinced that there was some hidden meaning to the fox’s gift, some allusion to something deeper. This was not an unanswerable question.

My doubts were confirmed. I learned that:

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff believed that in order to make progress in the world it is necessary to have the devil on one’s side.” and also that “St Paul speaks of the cross as a trick against the Devil whose own cunning failed to make him aware that by crucifying the Lord of Glory he was thus caught in a trap which would see his end. Jesus’s crucifixion releases the end time: the end time for the wicked angels who have governed mankind. The cross is then a kind of trick, an act of pre-ordained cunning, played on Satan.”**

Pamela L. Travers must have been aware of the ambiguities and subtleties of the issue, or why would she write: “ For wild and tame are but two halves and here, where all begins and ends, everything must be whole.”

If you are interested in the story of “The Fox at the Manger” you could listen to Brian Sibley’s radio adaptation. Music is omnipresent throughout the dramatization and it beautifully enhances the emotional tonalities of the story. British actress Dame Wendy Hiller lends her voice to the narrator in the story, and I am almost certain that she must have prepared herself for the role by listening to interviews given by Pamela L. Travers (or maybe they even met), because the intonations of her voice are strikingly similar to the dramatic way of expression of Pamela L. Travers.

And one last comment, Pamela L. Travers had a somewhat analogous difficulty relinquishing the character of the fox in the hands of Brian Sibley as she did with her Mary Poppins and Disney, but of course with lesser intensity, the stakes were not the same. Only in this case the adaptation is loyal to the original creation.

She, who didn’t bother with radios or television found it almost as difficult to entrust the Fox at the Manger’ to me as the children in the story found it to relinquish their toys. ‘How is the child going to speak? How can you possibly give Him a voice? Why don’t you call the children X,Y and Z, as they are in the book? I don’t want them to be given names, you understand, but how will we know which one’s speaking? Does quite so much of the narrative have to go? Couldn’t someone just read the story? I’ve read it many times – in cathedrals too! Does it have to be a play…?*

One must admire Pamela L. Travers’s constancy.

Happy Holidays!  

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*  Excerpt from “A Good Gift, Thoughts on The Fox at the Manger” by Brian Sibley

** Tobias Churton, author of “Deconstructing Gurdjieff”