Tag Archives: Christmas

All Wrapped Up

I think I spent more time on wrapping my Christmas gifts this year than purchasing them: I rationalized this by incorporating presentation into the cumulative “thought” that counts! I became rather enchanted with several images of seasonal, botanical anthropomorphism and they kind of took over my holiday: I made cards to affix to many of my gifts and even some custom wrapping paper via Spoonflower. Despite intensive searching online and off, I can’t find the creators of these images: the children transformed into Christmas trees, mistletoe, and plum puddings were issued as holiday cards by the Courtauld Gallery a few years ago, and the little holly sprites come from a vintage Christmas postcard in my possession, but I have no idea where they poinsettia lady comes from–she’s one of those random, unidentified, Tumblr images. If anyone has any information about these plant people, please forward so I can give proper credit!

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Holly Sprites Paper

Plant People for Christmas 2014.

 


Mummers Mumming

A 14th-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library contains the first illustration of mummers, costumed players or “guisers” performing occasionally out-of-doors in a merry band, for amusement and/or some form of compensation. These mummers, wearing masks of stag, rabbit, and horse heads, are in good company: accompanying them in the margins of this cycle of Alexandrian romances are knightly puppets, dancing monkeys, hunting hares, monks and nuns on piggyback, and monstrous men. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to associate their appearance with Christmas revelry in the text of the manuscript, but several centuries later the Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson did just that in his 1616 Christmas Masque, in which the progeny of Father Christmas personify and epitomize the main institutions of the season: “Mis-Rule, Caroll, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post and Paire, New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Offering, Babie-Cake”. And from that point on, mumming was an essential part of the Merry Old English Christmas, as described by a succession of English social “historians” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From his American heritage perspective, the novelist Washington Irving (whose biography of Christopher Columbus laid the very solid foundation for the Flat Earth Myth), contributed to this association with his Bracebridge Hall sketches, first published in 1820. Mumming is part invention of tradition, part social commentary in the industrializing nineteenth century, both a sentimental look back to the way things were in a supposedly-simpler society and a controlled expression of seasonal “misrule” by the villagers or the workers for that society.

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Mummers 14th 19th c.

Bodleian MS Bodley 264, f. 21v: The Romance of Alexander in French verse, by Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise and his workshop, 1338-44, with additional sections added in England c. 1400; Illustration from Old England, A Pictorial Museum, edited by Charles Knight (James Sangster & Co, c. 1845).

In the vast revival (or creation) of Merry Old Christmas that occurred over the nineteenth century, one book really stands out for me: Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Book of Christmas:  descriptive of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas Season (1836). This is really a delightful book, made more so by the original illustrations by Robert Seymour. Hervey presents mumming as traditional custom and folklore, in the company of Morris and sword dances, regional plays and London pantomimes, and Christmas caroling, and definitely de-emphasizes the misrule. And Seymour’s illustrations (which you can see almost in their entirely here) depict the Christmas that we all want to have. Their audience was perhaps interested in escaping the increasingly-complex world that was being created by industrialization and urbanization, but it is rampant Christmas commercialization that makes me want a Merry Old Christmas with mummers, whether it was real or not!

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Hervey’s Book of Christmas (1836), with illustrations by Robert Seymour,University of St. Andrews Special Collections.

Modern Mummers (excluding those from Philadelphia–a whole other story!):

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Mummers, 1952, Frank Ernst Eurich, Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries; Fritz Wegner commemorative stamp for the 1981 GB Folklore series.


Holiday Happenings

Material girl that I am, my Christmas spirit starts to surface with the first parties, at which (I have to admit) I relish the setting and scenery almost as much as the company. While I am always very happy to see all of my friends on festive occasions, I love Christmas decorations, both for their own aesthetic, traditional and seasonal qualities as well as all for all the effort and creativity that goes into their display–and last week was most definitely one of display. I had to get my own house in order for a Christmas tea at the beginning of the week, and at the end came the Christmas Dance at Hamilton Hall, which always kicks my seasonal spirits into high gear. Each year the committee which organizes the Dance chooses a group of patronesses who host dinner parties before the festivities–and these parties are often just as major as the main event; speaking as a former patroness, I would say more so. Hosting 30 or 40 people for dinner while you’re in an evening gown is never easy, and so when we all finally get ushered into the Hall these women deserve the bows and curtseys that we give them! We were fortunate to attend a pre-Dance party at a beautiful c. 1795 gambrel-roofed house on Federal Street, at which our hostess (who had just finished putting up beautiful Waterhouse wallpapers) had enlisted her children to serve us our home-cooked dinner on (50!!!) Friendship dinner plates accompanied by silver and linen. Then off she want to stand in the line of patronesses, leaving us to enjoy her beautiful house until our own departures for the Hall. I don’t have too many pictures of the Dance itself, for two major reasons: 1) I like to dance myself, and 2) I just can’t get the light right–with the only camera small enough to fit into my evening purse. But let me assure you, it was a lovely night.

My Christmas Decorations:  I’m big on bunnies this year, and deer as usual. The tree has a nice shape, but it’s dropping needles like crazy–I hope it makes it to New Year’s.

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On Federal Street: this house has the most amazing details and scale. One of my favorite mantel displays any time of year, and great entry and dining room. Besides the mantel, the living room has a lovely chair rail detail.

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At Hamilton Hall: the dance floor from below and above; my Hamilton Hall ornament next door.

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Addendum:  The Caterer’s View of the Hamilton Hall Christmas Dance! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dHf5PnT8z0&feature=share.


A Very Gorey Christmas

The juxtaposition of crowded academic and social calendars at this time of year always makes me a bit grumpy. I try to contain (or hide) my scrooge-like sentiments, but I’m generally too tired to make that much of an effort, and consequently they pop out periodically. This year I am taking comfort in a book that I received from a thoughtful friend last year: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, a 1993 collaboration between iconic illustrator Edward Gorey and John Updike. These terrors (a too heavily-laden Christmas tree, the threat of electrocution from all the electronic games under said tree, fears of not giving enough, not receiving enough, and returning all the stuff you did receive) are not quite my terrors (fatigue, rampant commercialism, over-consumption of food, drink, and stuff) but I like the overall sentiment, or lack thereof. And then there are the illustrations. “Christmas” and “Gorey” are not words that naturally go together, but he had tread that terrain previously–with a series of not-too-macabre Christmas cards for the Albondaconi Press and other publishers from the 1970s on–and the success of Terrors inspired a second holiday book: The Haunted Tea-Cosy. A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas Dispirited (1997), a parody of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. All very merry images, in that distinctly Gorey style.

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Gorey Christmas Card

Gorey Great Veiled Bear Christmas Card

First editions of Edward Gorey’s Twelve Terrors and The Haunted Tea-Cosy & Albondacani Press Christmas cards, Swann Auction Galleries; Gorey Christmas Cards, The Gorey Store/ Charitable Trust.


Koehler Christmas Cards

Looking around for inspiration for our family Christmas card, which I desperately would like to evolve from the traditional “here we are in front of some natural (maritime or snowy) backdrop”, I have become quite taken–like many before me, and no doubt after–with the whimsical illustrations of Mela Koehler (1885-1960). Koehler was a conspicuous member of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), an artistic collaboration for artists, artisans, designers and architects inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Workshop became incredibly influential due to the fact that it emphasized both the artistic and the entrepreneurial: marketing was clearly a priority and the postcards produced by its members were the primary marketing tool. Mela Koehler created about 150 postcards for the Workshop: typically fantasy fashion images which served not as advertisements for actual clothes but as inspiration for women to experiment with their own attire. Add a tree or some holly, or a muff (clearly her favorite accessory), and you have a winter/Christmas postcard, offered up just at the moment that these merry missives were taking off. Original Koehler postcards are quite valuable, but most seem to have been acquired by Leonard Lauder as part of his massive collection (commenced when he was 6 years old), which has been generously donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The MFA featured an exhibition of a sample of the Lauder postcards last year, and many have been digitized, fortunately for us and for posterity–because as artistic as these little cards are, they are still (or were), in essence, ephemera.

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Mela Koehler Christmas postcards, circa 1912, from the Leonard Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


What I want for Christmas

Well, it’s a bit too late to put in this request, but if I had been able to make a Christmas list of wants rather than chores and things to buy at the grocery store, these amazing “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious would be on the top. I’ve never really appreciated either holiday china or twentieth-century china, but these dishes are just so striking, as are most of the pieces made by Ravilious in his short life (1903-1942). My favorite is the first plate with what looks like a flaming (steaming) Christmas pudding, which was accentuated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of a Christmas card. I was looking for a traditional Christmas pudding recipe when I found this plate, and then my search was over–I put in an order with our new bakery because I was so distracted by these decidedly cooler (in more ways than one) versions. Happy Christmas, everyone.

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Wedgwood “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious, 1938, collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Smoking Bishop

It must be because I have traditional Christmas drinks on the brain, but for the first time a reference to smoking Bishop in one of the last lines of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol caught my attention when I saw a live musical version the other day. I could not count how many times I’ve seen this story on stage and screen, but I never really heard that term before. It came right at the end, after Scrooge has been reformed and is in the process of pledging his support to Bob Cratchit and his family:  “A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we’ll discuss your affairs this very afternoon, before this very fire, over a Christmas bowl of smoking Bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

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Now at first I thought this name was yet another example of early modern English anti-Catholicism, or at the very least, an anti-establishment jab. The Puritans disliked the Anglican bishops in their own country just as much as Catholic bishops abroad. But it turns out the name is all about color: the mulled red wine, mixed with port and spices and roasted fruit, was also known as purple wine, a reference to the purple robes and sashes that bishops wore–and still do. Yet another variation on the Wassail–there appear to be countless.

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Illustrations from the 1911 edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol by A.C. Michael, the 1915 edition by Arthur Rackham, and Scrooge and Cratchit drinking their Smoking Bishop before the fire by John Leech; Pope Francis greeting a succession of bishops at St. Peters.


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