For the past couple of years, our family has split our Christmas holiday between Boston and Salem: we all want to be home for the holidays but also at the Copley Plaza! My husband and I started a Christmas Eve tradition at the Oak Room tradition a few years ago and now it has expanded to include spending the night at the hotel and attending the Christmas Eve service at Trinity Church in Copley Square. I’m not sure we’ll do this forever—it is a bit indulgent, but it’s been perfect over the last couple of years. I’m still struggling with the sciatica after-effects of my hamstring strain from nearly a month ago, so there was no twilight long walk across the Common and over Beacon Hill for me, but I still managed to eat, drink, and be merry within the gilded confines of the hotel, and then on Christmas morning we returned to Salem for presents and dinner.
Christmas Eve in Copley Square:
Christmas in Salem: including my beautiful presents—-a pair of elephant planters with a lovely turquoise glaze from my husband, and an antique feather painting from my parents. Apparently the latter has been hanging around our family house forever, but I never noticed it, and it has been restored to reveal some really stunning artistry. I’m obsessed so prepare for more feathers! As you can see, bears are this year’s animal theme: I have absolutely no subtlety in my Christmas decorating (or any decorating really) so these are just a few on display. I’m hoping everyone had a wonderful Christmas, and am really looking forward to the New Year.
Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as if Halloween was spilling over into Christmas this year in Salem, with “Haunt the Halls” and “Grave Tidings” markets offering up dark wares and bats popping up in nearly every shop I entered: adorning jewelry, candles, and walls. Now I really do like bats, but they are not my creature of choice for this particular season; I would rather see deer, rabbits and sheep, squirrels and foxes—and fluffy fake stuffed versions of the latter rather than the taxidermy example I encountered at one downtown shop, right alongside a box of bones and more bats (real stuffed). Thankfully I was able to find light in several other shops with more cheery merchandise, the city’s bustling restaurants, and all along the streets, with so many houses lit up for the season: because we have quite enough darkness at this time of year, thank you very much. I have wanted to do more posts featuring Salem at night for quite some time, but my photographs never turn out very well. I took all the advice that was offered on the web, and began my photo safari at dusk as recommended, and I think I came up with some pretty good shots, but for every image you see below there are about six or seven blurrier examples. I felt a bit voyeurish sneaking up on all these Christmas trees but that’s why they are in the window, right? And all those lights are why Christmas is so great in the city–much more so than silver bells these days.
And a blur of red: Lunch for Santas and Paxton’s penguins at dusk and later.
I felt a lovely spirit among the volunteers and tour-goers at this year’s Christmas in Salem tour yesterday: a clear and sunny 40ish day which made every open house shine. There were proud owners, dedicated stewards, enthusiastic guides and curious visitors everywhere in attendance. As I emphasized in my preview, it was particularly impressive to see such strong collaboration between Salem’s heritage and civic groups, not only between the tour sponsor, Historic Salem, Inc., and this year’s focus and host, the House of the Seven Gables, but also the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, two churches—Salem’s first Catholic Church, Immaculate Conception, which is now part of the amalgamated Mary, Queen of the Apostles parish, and the amazing Russian Orthodox church, St. Nicholas—-as well as the beautiful Brookhouse Home, a residence for senior women since 1861. There was of course the conspicuous absence of that elephant on Essex Street, the Peabody Essex Museum, but special compensatory recognition should be given to the relatively new Salem Historical Society, a group of young historians who formed during the prolonged closure—now apparently permanent—of the PEM’s Phillips Library. The SHS has no archives, of course, because the bulk of Salem’s archival history belongs to the PEM and is now housed in the relocated Phillips Library 40 minutes north on Route One, but they have goals: and chief among them is to get more recognition for Nathaniel Hawthorne. This tour was a means to that end, and a very material measure of their success is a brand new sign marking the sight of Hawthorne’s birthplace on Union Street, installed just in time for this “Vey Hawthorne Holiday” tour. The actual house, which was moved to the House of the Seven Gables campus in 1958, was on the tour as well, along with the storied mansion itself, the Custom House where Hawthorne (reluctantly) worked, and his least-favorite residence in Salem, his very own “Castle Dismal” (which is neither a castle or dismal).
From the brand new Hawthorne’s birthplace sign to the House of the Seven Gables, and then back to Herbert Street and “the house that Hawthorne hated” via Derby Street and the Custom House.
There were so many lovely houses on the tour interspersed among these Hawthorne sites: mostly early nineteenth-century, some eighteenth, with different degrees of detail and scale. There is a great range of houses along Derby Street, encompassing everything from the stately mansions alongside the Custom House and facing Derby Wharf, to simple Georgian cottages further along the street. I appreciated the diversity of structures, their number (this tour is an obvious bargain when compared to all the house tours I have attended this year!), and the mix between public and private buildings. It’s always a very personal commitment for a homeowner to open their doors for a house tour—and consequently it is an intimate experience for those that step within, and a privilege. But the public buildings have an intimate feel too, because the people that care for the House of the Seven Gables, the Brookhouse Home, the Custom House, and the churches, are so very committed to their preservation and interpretation. I ran out of time (because of a long lunch, another holiday tradition) and couldn’t quite make the Immaculate Conception by the end of the day, but several members of the congregation as well as the pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church were on hand to share their beautiful parish church, which was established in 1901. Beautiful day, great tour: if you couldn’t make it yesterday, it’s also on today: the weather may be a bit frightful but I assure you the interiors will be all that more delightful!
Just a sampling here: there was so much to see.
The Captain William Lane House (with such a cheery laundry/mudroom! and decorated by Mr. Frank Bergmann who trims (other meaning) all my shrubs and trees; the Josiah Getchell House and the Thomas Magoun House along Derby Street–all absolutely charming.
I’m just obsessed with the staircases now–two very different ones, from the Brookhouse Home (1810-11) and the Ives-Webb-Whipple House (by 1760). More from the latter–one of my favorite houses in Salem which is now for sale. The Captain John Hodges House on Essex (c. 1750), whose owners have some very compelling ancestors! I never take pictures of recent family photographs, but ancestors from 100+ years ago are fair game: I could not resist this remarkably handsome man, plus I am a Maine girl so must show you Joshua Chamberlain (center, dark suit, hat in hand), the hero of Gettysburg, at his 1912 family reunion.
The very festive Brookhouse Home and very serene St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, on Forrester Street.
A brief Christmas break and then it’s right back to Save-the-Phillips-Library-for-Salem business! But I had a very visual Christmas so I wanted to post some pictures. We were a party of only 6 adults this year, and so we decided to divide our holiday into Christmas Eve in Boston and Christmas Day in Salem, spending the eve between at the Fairmount Copley Plaza, just to top off my year of heritage hotels. Lots of eating and drinking and walking in town, after which we went to the 11 pm services at Trinity Church and then fell into our king-size beds across the street. We woke up to a very snowy morning, and managed to navigate our way to Salem without mishap. Presents, (much) more food and drink and then it was over. So much preparation, so little time, every year, but let’s hope the Christmas spirit prevails for a while longer.
Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.
The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!
I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff. But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.
“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings: a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.
I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.
And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!
Early December is busy for any academic, so just about the only handcrafted Christmas decoration/gift I can manage is the humble pomander. I wrap rubber bands and ribbons around oranges and lemons as Martha Stewart advises, and then stick in the cloves. But it doesn’t matter how many beautiful photographs of Martha’s Christmas vignettes I peruse for pomander-inspiration, I’m always going to think about the plague when I make these things. Given the contemporary belief in the spread of the pestilence through a fog-like miasma of foul air, a corollary faith in the preventative pomander was equally long-held over the late medieval and early modern eras. If you could not smell the plague, you could not contract it. Sweet-smelling herbs, encased in little silver balls which were also called pomanders if you were rather rich, never left your side, indoors or out. Paintings of patrons with pomander in hand became almost conventional–these little balls were the symbol of an infectious age.
The Evelyn portrait above is very unusual: I suspect this was a hollowed-out orange filled with the usual plague herbs but it looks like one of my little pomanders! Much more common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were images of sitters with silver and gold pomanders in hand, chained, ever-present: a display of wealth and fortitude. The Flemish sitters below were far more typical in their presentation: the plague was endemic, it could strike at any time, so you must be ever ready with your “preservatives”. They might as well be encased in a spectacular piece of jewelry.
So what was inside those little chalices (or “swete” bags if you were less wealthy)? There are lots of “recipes”, with many constants and some variation. Here are a couple of concoctions from the Certain Necessary Directions ; As well for the Cure of the Plague As for Preventing the Infection approved and offered up by the College of Physicians in 1665, a terrible plague year. For the common sort: angelica, rue, zedoary (a type of tumeric), myrrh, camphor, labdanum (most of these don’t actually sound very common–I think most people just grabbed some rue when they went outside). For the “richer sort”: “citron pilles”, angelica, zedoary, red rose petals, sandlewood, lignum aloes, gallic moschat, stozar benzoin, camphor, labdanum, gum tragacanth, and rosewater.
Pomander recipes with a seventeenth-century skull pomander, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Well, of course, none of these things actually worked to preserve the body from plague. Yet despite their ineffectiveness, the major plague “preservatives” survived through evolution into much less serious substances: vinegar–a major plague fighter–evolves into vinaigrette, theriac, the most powerful supposed plague antidote, into sweet treacle, and pomanders into perfume and sachets and various forms of aromatherapy, as well as Christmas decorations.