Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas without Stockings

Our stockings were hung on the mantle with care but I wore no stockings with my Christmas dress:  it was far too hot! It was 69 degrees by my last observation, the warmest Christmas in greater Boston since 1932. That’s a bit deceptive though, as I did a little research (weather history–now there’s a rabbit hole!) and found that Christmases in the high 50s/low 60s degree range were not all that uncommon in the twentieth century. There were windows open throughout the house, I was cooking with the back door open, we had drinks and appetizers out in the backyard. People wanted to spend time outside, so the usual mid-afternoon Christmas feast was pushed up to evening, along with the presents. So many thoughtful ones, including a cocktail shaker shaped like a 1950s rocket from my stepson and a necklace with a propeller charm from my husband—and new chimneys, of course. The only low point of the day was a jammed (by me, and too many potato peelings) garbage disposal, for the third year in a row. Like clockwork.

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Christmas 2015: out back and front, a green and misty morning giving way to sun, oysters outside, Bette Davis’s adorable hat in The Man who came to Dinner (1942), too sunny for Christmas dinner!


Chimneys, Mantles & Mice

I just finished sweeping up the last bits of mortar and plaster dust in the house, the consequences of some oddly-timed house projects: a major rebuilding of two of our towering chimneys and some minor plastering and painting in our central hallway. So after I clean myself up, I’ll be ready for the Christmas festivities! I hope that wherever you are, things are a bit more peaceful, and less dusty–and if it is your preference (it certainly is mine), colder: we are expected to hit 7o degrees on this Christmas Eve, 2015. What an odd year, weather-wise, with Snowmaggedon in February and Christmas in July in December–such extremes are portents of the future, I fear. Before everything gets messed up again, I took some pictures of both inside and outside, decorations and scaffolding. We have a great tree this year, if I do say so myself, but as I find it impossible to photograph Christmas trees I’m not sure you will be able to appreciate its glory. You’ll have to trust me. My mantle decorations are the usual excessive winter wonderland installations. I was inspired this year by two particular creatures: an Asiatic dormouse in the form of an Asian export soup tureen dated 1760 I spotted at the Peabody Essex Museum and a Christmas card featuring a drypoint etching of a rabbit by the artist Bruce North from 1996. Nice mice are hard to find though, and the combination of mice and rabbits made my double parlor look a bit nursery-ish, so I mixed it up a bit with foxes and of course, deer.

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Christmas Inspiration

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Christmas Play

The invention of Christmas as not only a religious and social holiday but also as family time over the course of the nineteenth century meant that people had to find things to do while at home for stretches of time. Imagine what we now call “the Holidays” spent in the company of our extended families with no telephones, televisions, or computers and you can can quickly grasp the need for some form of distraction, occupation, or Christmas “merriment”: songs, tales, but above all, games. The Victorians were great entertainers and also avid consumers of board games, first for educational and later for entertainment purposes, so it only makes sense that they would develop parlor games which were specifically focused on their favorite holiday. The first Christmas game I found actually pre-dated Victoria herself:  Christmas circles : or amusement for the new year. A new game designed to entertain a numerous party, featuring a board of concentric circles consisting of Christmas objects and characters, dates from about 1825. There are tokens but no apparent rules, and in the center of the board said objects and characters are “staged”, suggesting a pantomime at home. This is a London-made game, and given the British propensity for pantomines at holiday time, a domestic version makes sense. Just a few decades later, Alfred Crowquil’s Pantomime (As it was, is, and will be…to be played at home) brought pantomimes into the parlor, though accessible illustrations of stock characters.

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Christmas pantomimes never really caught on on this side of the Atlantic, and I don’t think a Christmas dinner party game called The Feast of Reason. A Christmas Dinner Party Puzzle did either, as I have been able to locate only two copies, one in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum and one which sold to a private buyer at auction a few years ago. Both were published by the Salem firm C. M Whipple and A.A. Smith in 1865, after a charming drawing by the artist William Emmerton (featuring marginalia that looks like a medieval manuscript) and lithography by the J.H. Bufford firm. There are multiple riddles for each course, and I have yet to figure out even one. Later in the century, another Salem producer, Parker Brothers, manufactured several games for Christmas time, including The Santa Claus Game and The Night before Christmas.

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As the Parker Brothers’ games illustrate, by the twentieth century Christmas games seem to have evolved into children’s games primarily, rather than family or parlor games. There are a few exceptions, but there seems to be a holiday segregation of sorts, with the children preoccupied with gaming and gifts and the adults occupied elsewhere (purchasing, preparing, drinking?). At least everyone comes back together for the feast, followed by a little Crackers merriment, always over in Britain and increasingly over here.

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Christmas games:  Christmas Circles, c. 1825, The Twelve Days of Christmas, c. 1950, and Batger’s Crackers, 1920s-30s, Victoria & Albert Museum Collection; Alfred Crowquil’s Pantomime, Harvard University; The Feast of Reason, c. 1865, Boston Athenaeum, Parker Brothers’ Santa Claus games, 1890s, National Museum of Play, ©The Strong.


Dancing towards Christmas

A week of events and grading: there is no why to make the latter look enticing or even interesting (though admittedly there is much less of it now that I’m chair, one of the few benefits of that position) so I’ll focus on the former. Over the past week we went to an “audience-driven” theatrical event at the Peabody Essex Museum‘s Gardner-Pingree House, the PEM’s monthly PM evening, themed as “Wassail” for December, and the annual Hamilton Hall Holiday (Christmas) Dance. The first event, All at Once upon a Time, was very special. I must admit that I signed up for it simply so I could spend an hour in the Gardner-Pingree, arguably Salem finest Federal house and Samuel McIntire’s masterpiece. It wasn’t every expensive: I would have been willing to spend much, much more simply to stare at those mantels and moldings for an hour. But the experience, for lack of a better word, carried me away from the material world, at least for a bit. The creation of Giselle Ty, a freelance opera and theater director based in London and New York, All at Once consisted of a small cast of seven or eight interacting with an “audience” of fifteen people, engaging in various activities, sketches and performances throughout the house–indeed on every floor. We were led through the house and enticed to listen, observe, read, write, dance, drum, and throughout it all, wonder. Ty is really after wonder, an increasingly rare commodity in this know-everything-instantly information age. The house looked magical, and because none of us were allowed to have phones or cameras I will entice you to click over to see some of John Andrews’ beautiful pictures at his Flikr photostream: he has allowed me to use a couple below but you should see more. Everyone’s experience is a bit different during this happening, so here’s mine:  I listened to a tale of trees in the front parlor, wrote a few lines of poetry in the dining room, unraveled and danced with a ballerina in a second-floor bedroom, and then watched a monkey and bear dance up on the third floor, after which we all danced with all of the cast. Then downstairs through the kitchen (with a Rumford Roaster!!!) to where we began. Later in the week, the PEM’s Wassail included traditional music (including the fifteenth-century Boars Head Carol) and dancing, and provided another opportunity to view the exhibition of  Native Fashion Now. The week was capped off by the Hamilton Hall Christmas (Holiday) Dance, preceded by a lovely pre-dinner party by one of the Dance’s patronesses at another one of Salem’s elegant Federal houses. I’m feeling very fortunate this morning, and still trying dust off some of the silver glitter in which I doused myself last night!

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Photo by John Andrews for Peabody Essex Museum

Photo by John Andrews for Peabody Essex Museum

Photo by John Andrews for Peabody Essex Museum

Photo by John Andrews for Peabody Essex Museum

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The Week’s Festivities: photographs of Gabrielle Ty’s All at Once Upon a Time at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Gardner-Pingree House courtesy of John Andrews of Creative Salem and Social Palates photography; Morris Dancers at PEM’s Wassail and formal attire from Native Fashion Now; fabulous skirt at a fabulous pre-Christmas Dance dinner party and the Christmas (Holiday) Dance at Hamilton Hall. I can never capture the actual dancing!

 


Seeing Red

It’s finals week and getting reading for Christmas week so please excuse a few short posts. My house is not quite ready yet, but the rest of Salem is draped in red. No white Christmas this year for sure–we’ve had several 60 degree days this month and the forecast looks brown, even green, as the warm weather has resulted in some startling regrowth out there–much of my garden looks like it is still alive! I know you’ve seen a thousand pictures of Hamilton Hall here, as it’s right next door and a site of constant activity and attraction for me, but I popped in to see it decorated for the Christmas Dance (now called the Holiday Dance but I’m still going to call it the Christmas Dance) this weekend. It looks lovely, better empty really though I do love the Dance.

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Downtown: Santa getting ready to ride, beautiful red berries in the Derby House garden, red door on Mall Street; next door at Hamilton Hall, exterior and interior.


The Merry Boys of Christmas

One of the most dramatic examples of raucous Christmas revelry happened in Salem Village on Christmas Day, 1679 when four youths barged into the home of John Rowden and started singing loudly before the fire. After a few off-key tunes, they demanded compensation in the form of spirits: perry, in particular, as Rowden maintained a profitable pear orchard and was known to make a pleasing pear cider. According to the record of the subsequent trial: it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and to drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went”. Rowden and his wife were not pleased with the songs, or the demands, so they sent the young men away, but they quickly returned with a scrap of lead which they tried to pass off as coin to pay for their perry. The Rowdens rebuffed them again, and then all hell broke loose. According to Mr. Rowden’s testimony, The threw stones, bones, and other things against the house. They beat down much of the daubing in several places and continued to throw stones for an hour and a half with little intermission. They also broke down about a pole and a half of fence, being stone wall, and a cellar, without the house, distant about four or five rods, was broken open through the door, and five or six pecks of apples were stolen.” This was a case of Christmas wassailing gone bad, very bad, recounted by Stephen Nissenbaum in his wonderful book The Battle for Christmas as “The Salem Wassail” and a great example of why Puritans on both side of the Atlantic abhorred Christmas. Their power in both Parliament and the Massachusetts Bay Colony resulted in the great Christmas ban of the mid-17th century: from 1651 to 1660 in England and 1659 to 1681 in Massachusetts.

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The Vindication of Christmas, 1652, lamenting the prohibition of its “keeping” in England during the Interregnum.

There were three major reasons why the Puritans hated Christmas. Their insistence on scriptural authority cast doubt on its date, as nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Nativity occurred on December 25th. They could only conclude, very reasonably, that some ancient winter festival, the Roman Saturnalia or the Winter Solstice, had determined this date, and that the Christian Church had merely adopted and assimilated it: consequently Christmas was perceived as a pagan holiday with a Christian gloss. Given their mandate to purify the Church of all its non-scriptural “traditions” and Popish trappings, it became a conspicuous target. The third reason was primarily social: the Christmas that the Puritans targeted was “Old Christmas”, or “Merry Christmas”, which they saw principally as a prolonged season–Christmastide, which could stretch beyond the twelve days of Christmas to encompass all of December and January–of disorder, misrule, and excess. In Cotton Mather’s words, the “Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty….by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling…..”.  By the time Mather  wrote this, “Old Christmas” had returned to England with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Salem seems a little behind the times in 1679 when those young men wassailed the Rowdens so crudely; indeed in that same year the government of Charles II begin requesting that the Massachusetts General Court repeal its anti-Christmas law. If the Rowden revelers had been a bit less rude (and much better singers) one wonders if they would have been let off as mere “merry boys of Christmas”, the subjects of a popular British ballad who cast off all constraints in their keeping of Christmas: these Holidays we’l briskly drink, all mirth we will devise, No Treason we will speak or think, then bring us brave mine’d Pies: Roast Beef and brave Plum-Porridge, our Loyal hearts to chear: Then prithee make no more ado, but bring us Christmas Beer!

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Keeping “Old” Christmas and the “Merry Boys of Christmas” broadside woodcut illustrations from 1680s; Christmas Carols return to Old England at about this time, but New England will have to wait a bit longer.

Dedicated to my friends at the Salem Historical Society and Creative Salem, big supporters of history AND revelry.


The Eyes of Saint Lucia

The astronomical winter solstice will not occur for a week or so, but the shortest day on the Christian calendar is that associated with the Feast of Saint Lucia or Lucy, occurring on December 13. John Donne referenced this connection in his poem A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day: ‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,/ Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;/ The sun is spent, and now his flasks/ Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;/ The world’s whole sap is sunk;/ The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,/Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,/ Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,/ Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Lucia’s story is part late antique and part late medieval: the earliest accounts depict her as a young virgin martyr from Sicily who was put to death in the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. She had devoted herself to Christ following the miraculous recovery of her mother from chronic “bloody flux” (dysentery) and afterwards devoted herself to distributing her not-inconsiderable dowry to the poor of the island. Her spurned betrothed turned her over to the Roman authorities, and she was tortured and threatened with “fouling” in a brothel. Her virtue and virginity were maintained by another miraculous intervention which rendered her body immovable, but she was martyred by a sword to her throat (after burning also failed). Her veneration seems almost immediate, and by the sixth century Lucy’s story had spread through much of Europe. Her association with “light” (lux in Latin) seems to come principally from her name, but in the later medieval era she also became a patron saint to the blind and those with eye diseases: we increasingly see her with attributes of eyes (generally on a plate) from the fourteenth century on, and this depiction becomes standard with the Renaissance.

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British Library MS Additional 22310 (Venice, 1460-70); Francesco del Cossa, Saint Lucy, 1473-74, National Gallery of Art (and detail); Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Lucy, 1625-30, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Once Lucy became associated with both light and sight, the eyes appear in her depictions and then a story is constructed and grafted onto her hagiography–but it has variations: sometimes Lucy is punished for her vision of the end of Roman rule by the gouging out of her eyes before her martyrdom; in other accounts she gouges them out herself to repel her pagan fiance. Each tales develops its own embellishments: Lucy’s eye’s were so beautiful that both the emperor Maxentius (whose reign would soon end according to her “vision”) and her evil and equally pagan betrothed wanted them gone; Lucy’s faith was so strong that she sacrificed her most beautiful feature so that she could “see” in only that way.

The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy, Watercolor, n.d., Wellcome Library and Images, London.

The equation of “light” with “sight” in these ways, over time, is just one interesting aspect of Lucy’s veneration. Another is its durability–and its range: even after the Reformation she maintained her stature in Protestant Europe and even increased it in largely Lutheran Scandinavia. Lucy/Lucia is venerated in parts of Italy and eastern Europe too, but it’s the Scandinavian rituals that really interest me, because I can’t quite figure out whether they are a continuation or “invention” of tradition. As the first references to Lucia rituals are in the eighteenth century and the first national processions in the twentieth, I’m guessing the latter, but clearly they had a cultural basis that was rooted in both the Christian and pre-Christian past. On December 13, white-clad, red-sashed “Lucias” lead singing processions out onto the streets wearing head wreaths made of lit (by wax or battery) candles; in the home, the household Lucia serves her family a substantial breakfast of special saffron buns (lussekatter–with raisin “eyes”!) after the long winter’s night. These Lucias bring light into their world on the darkest day of the year, when there is none.

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Photogravure of St. Lucia’s Day, 1898, Wellcome Library; The crowned Lucia at this year’s Festival of  St. Lucia at York Minster, sponsored by the York Anglo-Scandinavian Society (© Ian Forsyth/Getty Images); Carl Larsson’s Christmas Morning, published in “Lasst Licht Hinin”; St. Lucia’s Day Saffron Buns at Simply Recipes.


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