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9 Reasons This Sign Language Version of “'Twas the Night Before Christmas” is Great

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Sheena McFeely is a deaf mom with a YouTube channel* where she and her husband Manny Johnson teach signs with the help of their two adorable daughters, one deaf, one hearing, both native, fluent users of American Sign Language. She recently posted this wonderful video of Shaylee, who is deaf, signing a version of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

You don’t have to know anything about sign language to be blown away by the sheer force of personality coming through in Shaylee’s performance. But with a little knowledge of how ASL works, you can also be amazed by the complexity of her linguistic and storytelling skills. Here are nine great moments from Shaylee’s video.

1. At 0:30, she signs a complex sentence with a topic-comment structure. She introduces a long noun phrase, (“a mouse that was running about”) and says something about it (“is now still”). The topic noun phrase is indicated by her eyebrow raise. She lowers her eyebrows appropriately for the comment part. A big sentence for a little girl.

2. Here, she uses a discourse strategy called role shift to great effect. She introduces the stockings as straight narration, with her eye gaze straight ahead, but then, describing how the stockings looked, she shifts her gaze toward the point in space where she has established their location, allowing her to use her facial expression to express a reaction to their beauty. And what an expression!

3. Again, she uses role shift, this time to provide coherence for a series of clauses. She introduces the children in straight narration, and then, with her face, adopts the role of the sleeping children, while maintaining the narration with her signs. The role adoption lasts as long as she produces clauses which have “the children” as their subject. Then she effortlessly shifts back out of the role. Anyone who has tried to learn ASL as a second language can tell you this is not easy to do.

4. This role shift, where her slightly worried expression represents dad’s reaction, also provides coherence. She adopts the dad role with her face as he springs from bed, then shifts to neutral narration to explain that it was because of a noise, then shifts back to dad as the action continues.

5. She makes the sign for “old” in an exaggerated, extra long way. It’s like she saying “old” with a slow, creaky, old person’s voice. Great, engaged storytelling.

6. In this performance, she’s not only representing a neutral narrator and a bunch of roles within the story, she’s also herself with her own opinions. Here, for a moment, her own feelings about Santa shine through, without breaking the rhythm of the story.

7. She continues to shift perspectives smoothly from dad to narrator to Santa and back without missing a beat.

8. This is a great illustration of how what she is doing with her role shifting is very different from simple playacting or pantomime. Her head turns to show Santa’s head turning, and she winks to show Santa winking, but at the same time she produces the correct ASL signs for head movement (the flat “base” hand, the fist, the orientation change from palm into to palm out) and the ASL sign for wink (an actual wink is not an ASL sign). She is acting and performing and expressing emotions and moods, but all within a linguistic context—just as you would be doing with your voice and face if you were telling this story (assuming you were any good at it, that is).

9. “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” As she slows down to deliver the last line, she holds your attention in the palms of her capable little hands. Can you hear, and see, Santa’s voice echoing over the quiet, snowy landscape? Was there ever a sweeter end to this poem?

*To turn on the English captions for the videos, click the CC button at the bottom of the YouTube screen.

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7 Spine-Tingling Tales of Christmas Ghosts
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Traditionally, Christmas in England was a time for scaring the bejesus out of little children by telling ghost stories around the fire. Charles Dickens led the way with his famous ghost story A Christmas Carol, but what of the "real" ghosts said to haunt the land at Christmas time? Below are seven spine-tingling and seasonal stories of Christmas ghosts.

1. THE HAUNTED CHRISTMAS FEAST AT ALCATRAZ

Dinner hall at Alcatraz
Alex Light, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The island of Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco, has a long and spooky history. In its earlier days, Native Americans allegedly used to banish miscreants to the island as punishment, where they were reportedly plagued by the local spirits. Alcatraz, of course, became a notorious federal prison in 1934, housing criminals such as Al Capone before it was shut down in 1963. Today, visitors to the island report hearing screams, the clanging of metal doors, and the sound of voices within the walls. One of the more famous tales associated with the island supposedly occurred in the 1940s, when warden James Johnston held a Christmas Day party at his residence for the staff at the prison. The good cheer is said to have been brought to a swift halt when an apparition sporting mutton-chop whiskers and a gray suit appeared. The temperature in the room plummeted and the fire blew out, before returning to normal when the spirit disappeared about a minute later. The rattled guards were too scared to stay in the residence, and the rest of the Christmas celebration ended abruptly.

2. THE GHOSTLY QUEEN RETURNING HOME AT HEVER CASTLE

Hever Castle
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Anne Boleyn is notorious as the second of King Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives. To marry Anne, Henry spent years seeking a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and went on to sever England’s relationship with the Catholic Church in Rome, forever changing the course of British history. Despite the lengths he went to ensnare her, Henry soon grew tired of Anne and, choosing to believe the idle gossip surrounding her, had her beheaded in 1536. A number of reports exist of the ghost of Anne Boleyn, but perhaps the most affecting is the version said to haunt her childhood home, Hever Castle in Kent. Some say that every Christmas Eve, the spectral figure of Anne Boleyn can be seen slowly gliding across the bridge over the river Eden toward her family home, where she was at her happiest.

3. THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN AT ROOS HALL


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Roos Hall in Suffolk lays claim to being one of the most haunted houses in England. The 16th century hall has a number of sinister connections, including a gruesome “hanging tree”—an oak tree planted at the site of the old gibbet where numerous criminals were hung. To make things even spookier, inside one of the building's cupboards, the mark of a devil’s cloven hoof is said to be imprinted. But perhaps the most dramatic haunting is supposed to happen every Christmas Eve: Legend has it that a headless horseman clatters down the driveway with his four black horses pulling a phantom coach, terrifying anyone who witnesses him.

4. THE HAUNTED DINING ROOM AT THE CRESCENT HOTEL

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was built in 1886 and is rumoured to harbor numerous ghosts, who seem to be especially playful during the holidays. One Christmas, the staff came down to set up the dining room only to find the Christmas tree had been moved from one side of the room to the other. Another year, all the menus in the dining room had been scattered around the room. Other visitors have reported seeing groups of ghostly dancers clad in Victorian-era clothing, whirling around the deserted dance floor.

5. THE GHOSTLY GATHERING OF KINGS AT WAWEL CASTLE

View of the Wawel Cathedral from the Wawel Castle entrance
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Poland's Wawel Royal Castle was built on Wawel Hill in the 1500s. Within the hill lies a deep cave known as Smocza Jama (Dragon’s Den); legend has it that a great dragon once lived there, terrorizing the locals, before Prince Krak bravely vanquished the dragon and brought peace to Poland. To memorialize this event, a statue of the dead dragon now stands in the cave. Go deeper into the cave and you come to yet another chamber, and it is here that on December 24 every year, all the long-gone kings of Poland are said to meet and hold a spectral special council.

6. THE MISTLETOE BRIDE AT BRAMSHILL HOUSE

The Long Gallery, Bramshill House
Tsukiko YAMAMURA, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the early 17th century, a young woman named Anne was to be married on Christmas Day at Bramshill House in Hampshire, England. After the ceremony and feast, as was tradition at the time, the guests were all set to carry the bride to the bedchamber. Anne suggested a game be played, and asked for a five-minute head start before the guests came to find her. Everyone searched long and hard for Anne, but no sign of her could be found. At first they thought she had played a merry trick, but soon a sense of unease fell over the guests. The bridegroom, Lord Lovell, was distraught, and guests began to whisper that she must have fled. Days, weeks, months, and years passed, and Lord Lovell never stopped looking for his bride. One day, some 50 years after her disappearance, Lord Lovell was up in the huge attic of the sprawling mansion, where he began tapping on the oak panelling. As he knocked, a long-hidden secret door sprung open, and inside he found an ornate wooden chest. He pried open the heavy wooden lid, and there, still in her wedding dress and clutching her mistletoe bouquet, were the skeletal remains of his beloved. The scratch marks on the inside of the lid of the chest attested to her desperate, but futile, effort to free herself from her hiding space. (While the story appears in many variations, Bramshill House is thought to be the most likely site.)

7. THE APPARITION OF A MURDERED HIGHWAYMAN IN KENT

A burial in the forest
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One Christmas Eve near the close of the 18th century, a notorious highwayman named Gilbert is said to have stopped a coach and horses on the Hawkhurst Road in Marden, Kent. The coach contained a young lady and her father, and Gilbert ordered them out onto the road. Just as the girl stepped out, the horses bolted, taking the coach and her father with them. The young lady was left alone on the dark road with the highwayman, and as she looked into his face, she recognized him as the very same highwayman who had murdered her brother some years earlier. Horrified, she drew a hidden knife from her bag and stabbed Gilbert in the side, fleeing into the bushes. When the horses were calmed and the coach returned a little while later, the men discovered the bloodied body of the highwayman, and buried him at the side of the road. When villagers found the woman in the forest the next day, she had gone completely mad. They avoided that spot in the road for many years, and it's said that every Christmas Eve, the bloody scene is silently replayed to all that pass through.

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