Tag Archives: Christmas

Let There be Light

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.

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And a blur of red: Lunch for Santas and Paxton’s penguins at dusk and later.Santa Lunch

Light RedMerry Christmas!


The Christmas Ball at Hamilton Hall

It is formally called the “Holiday Dance” now, but I always think of it as the Christmas Dance or better yet, the Christmas Ball, held next door at Hamilton Hall since whenever. I’ve been going for decades, and it really never gets old for me. I remember well my first attendance, clad in some old Laura Ashley velvet frock, when appeared before me a woman in the most elegant vintage black gown, from the 1930s I think, and I immediately thought: I must up my game. I’ve tried to do so every since, and this very same woman, clad in a very different–but equally elegant–gown from India, was one of the dance patronesses this year. Yes, there are patronesses (and for the last few years patrons) to whom we bow and curtsey, escorted before them by ushers. There’s an amazing traditional punch which led to the loss of several Sundays in my past, but now I’m too smart (experienced) to imbibe, and a rather loose “grand march” at the end of the evening. I was in bed by that time, so no pictures, sorry.

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HH Christms Dance

This is a very traditional event, but not an exclusive one. Anyone can go: well, as many as can fit into the Hall. In years past, I remember smaller crowds but last night was definitely a crush. This event, along with a lecture series on world affairs that began right after World War II, is one of two major fundraisers for the Hall, which is primarily maintained through revenues from weddings and a more recent membership initiative. As a next-door neighbor, I would rather that the Hall was a little less busy, frankly (although the weddings are limited to 25 per year and there are none in July and August), but I know that it has to work for its living. It was built by subscription and maintained by its “proprietors” until the 1980s, when it was transformed into a non-profit. Everyone turned in their shares, but these were just paper: not an endowment. I’m really interested in how the “Proprietors of the South Buildings” (which included not only the Hall but Samuel McIntire’s majestic South Church across the street, which burned down in 1903) conducted their business: all the corporation’s records, like those of every Salem organization, are in the collection of the Phillips Library but as the shares were held privately you often see them on ebay or at ephemera sales. There were various management companies that ran the Hall and employed caterers and that famous “conductor of affairs” John Remond, who is announcing some major redecorations in 1844 below. Just before Christmas in 1850, the gaslights were turned on at Hamilton Hall, the very same chandelier and sideburners that shone so brilliantly via electricity last night.

Hamilton Hall Certificates Collage

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Hamilton Hall Gas

Hamilton Hall SHeila FoleyI love this view of the Hamilton Hall ballroom, with its “Russian” mirrors and green chandelier, by artist Sheila Foley: see more of her live event paintings here


Joy and Remembrance

My husband was down south in the snow this past weekend while I was home alone for the bright and chilly December weekend. It was quite festive: with a dinner, drinks, an open house and an estate sale, although I missed one event due to an extended nap! When I wasn’t out I watched my favorite holiday movies on TCM, so Barbara Stanwyck was much in view as she is in most of them. I finished decorating all of my mantels, although we still don’t have our Christmas tree up yet: several years ago we had a dried-out tree well before the holiday, a traumatic experience which has led me to push it later and later ever since. I’m worried that I’ve pushed it too late this year as my favorite Christmas tree lot just sold out! For those of you who might be surprised that I have included an estate sale among these festivities, let me elaborate: I have found that local estate sales are often community events which not only provide people (Yankees, of course) to obtain a bargain but also an opportunity to remember–and celebrate–the deceased through admiration and remembrance of his or her items. They really are quite poignant occasions. As I walked through the adorable house of a recently-deceased lady among her cherished collections, I kept hearing the phrases I remember when and she loved that. This particular lady was obviously an enthusiastic keeper of Christmas, so the sale was even more festive—and she had great taste (I hope people will say that same about me as they sift through my things—I better purge a bit). The weekend ended on a high note when I was invited to attend an open house in the home of my “daguerreotype crush” from last week’s tour: his name is Benjamin Kendall, by the way.

The second week of December in Salem: at home

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Around the McIntire District:

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At the estate sale & a drink with Mr. Benjamin Kendall

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A Brief Christmas Break

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.

Christmas Eve in Boston:

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Christmas Day in Salem:

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Three Golden Balls

In Salem, December 5 has been celebrated as krampusnacht more often than St. Nicholas’s Eve over the past few years, but I’m following up on a post about the latter today. I want to connect the forerunner of Santa Klaus to pawnbrokers, through the symbolism of three golden balls. This is not an original association, but a reader referenced it several years ago, and I always wanted to connect the dots, so this day seems like a perfect time to do it! I think that the traditional pawnbrokers’ sign of three golden balls attached to a (straight or curved) bar is recognized universally in the west, or at least in Europe: here’s a John Crowther watercolor of Aldersgate Street in London in 1886 with both a traditional symbolic trade sign and a sign of the trade sign, and a photograph from Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York of an old pawnbroker’s sign that is apparently about to vanish—it might be already gone.

Three Golden Balls John Crowther

Pawnbroker sign NYC John Crowther, Aldersgate Street, London, 1886, Guildhall Library; the trade signs of the defunct S&G Gross Pawnbrokers in New York City from Vanishing New York.

Nearly everyone traces the origins of the three balls back to the Medici family for several reasons: the Medici crest features balls (palle) prominently, their financial roles in Renaissance Europe, which can somehow (not at all clear to me) serve as a predecessor for pawnbroking, and the fact that they were Italian, like the Lombards who became the first Christian moneylenders in medieval Europe, when usury (charging interest for a loan of money) was expressly against canon law. There is also an old yarn about a monster, Charlemagne, and the balls representing defensive dings in a shield, adopted by the Medici as proof of their valor, but I don’t think I need to delve too deeply into that tale. The Medici had as many as twelve balls on their crests before the fifteenth century, when they finally settled on six. Not three.

Three Golden Balls Medici MS 15th CThe Medici Crest with its distinctive six palle on the leaf of a 15th Century MS of Propertius, Elegies, Oxford University Bodleian Library MS Canon. Class. Lat 31.

Raymond de Roover, a prominent mid-century medieval economic historian, wrote a short article just after World War II in which he asserted a general connection between the heraldry of all of the moneylending families of late medieval Europe, each and every one featuring spheres on their crest to symbolize coins, and modern pawnbrokers’ signs. He discounts a distinct Medici connection, but also the St. Nicholas one that I favor, with the argument that such a marginal occupation as moneylending (and by association, pawnbroking) could not possibly be associated with as esteemed a saint as St. Nicholas of Bari (or more correctly, Myra), who was known, even beyond the expectations of your average saint, for his charity. But I believe that Professor de Roover is incorrect: perceptions of St. Nicholas clearly focus on the ball symbolism later associated with pawnbrokers, and one of the key links between these two disparate entities is the dowry, an absolute requirement for every Renaissance bride. The most famous example of St. Nicholas’s generosity, depicted time and time again by nearly every Renaissance artist, is the aid he gave to an impoverished family of three daughters of marriageable age: under cover of darkness he threw three purses (increasingly depicted as golden balls) through the window so that the girls would have dowries and avoid destitution or even worse, prostitution. From the mid-fourteenth century through the sixteenth, this scene is played out again and again on canvas: the paintings below represent the beginning and the end of this era–during which St. Nicholas was always pictured with his identifying attribute: the three golden balls.

Three Golden Balls SCALA_ARCHIVES_10310197649 1340s

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Three Golden Balls AGETTYIG_10313913291Crivelli 1469

Three Golden Balls ANGAIG_10313967631 Paolo Veneziano, The Charity of St. Nicholas, 1430-45, Galleria degli Uffizi; Girolamo Macchietti, The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari, c. 1555-1560; National Gallery of Art, London; Taddeo Crivelli, St. Nicholas, 1469, J. Paul Getty Museum; Sebald Beham, Saint Nicholas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This same period is also one in which public institutional charitable funds emerged, first the famous Monte delle doti, which enabled Florentine fathers to invest in the city’s public-funded debt and ensure a sufficient dowry when their daughters were of marriageable age, and later in the fifteenth century the Monte di pietà, a form of public-administered pawnbroking designed to provide an alternative to avaricious private moneylending. The Florentine state, and other states as well, were quite willing to engage in official lending, especially if it could finance its public debt and alleviate a pressing social concern at the same time. With its system of collateralized lending and low interest rates, the Monte di pietà, in particular, represented a beneficial Christian form of lending in contrast to the old Lombard system, inspired and reflected by all those images of the three-ball-bearing St. Nicholas, who eventually became the patron saint of pawnbrokers.

Three Golden Balls HGP 342650 (1) Canterbury

Three Golden Balls Boston Leslie JonesCoat of St. Nicholas on the Christ Church gate of Canterbury Cathedral, @Neil Holmes; Leslie Jones photograph of Boston pawn shop signs in the 1920s, Boston Public Library.


In Praise of Townhouses (and Small City Living)

This weekend will bring the (38th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour, centered on the “City Sidewalks” of downtown Salem, with decorated homes on Central, Crombie and Chestnut Streets open, along with a house on Hamilton Street. I love this tour: for me it highlights Salem at its best, showcasing the creative continuity of the city rather than exploiting one dark time, in stark contrast to that other big Salem event (yes, I’m referencing Haunted Happening, which I still can’t get out of my system). I’m not exactly sure what the “City Sidewalks” theme means, but for me it conjures up a streetscape of diverse buildings—large and small, residential, commercial and institutional–closely aligned together so to form a community characterized by the integration of all the activities of daily life: a city, and to be more precise, a small historic city like Salem. Maintaining the balance between all of these diverse structures is challenging: the materials, scale, and infrastructure of modern construction can be a constant threat. Consequently preservation and planning advocacy is absolutely paramount, and the proceeds from the annual Christmas in Salem tour go towards these efforts on the part of Historic Salem, Incorporated.

Townhouses Central

Townhouses Crombie

Townhouses Chestnut2Central, Crombie & Chestnut Streets, Salem

I am certain that the tour committee also wanted to emphasize the diversity of residential structures in downtown Salem, as everything from an above-the-shop flat (in a Bulfinch building no less) to a sea captain’s mansion (designed by McIntire of course) will be on view. They are all townhouses in the general sense of the word, but the more specific designation—a multi-level, semi-detached structure–will be represented on the tour as well. The two 1906 covers of The House Beautiful below illustrate my vision of winter/Christmas in an urban village of townhouses–and the one on the right features the Chestnut Street mansion of Pickering Dodge, who commenced the construction of one of the tour’s featured townhouses–just next door– for his daughter and son-in-law in 1828. Since I acquired my own townhouse, which was built just the year before on the same street, I’ve bookmarked images of townhouses—semi-detached and freestanding, exteriors and interiors—that have enhanced my appreciation of their functionality and design: first and foremost the two “party” paintings of Boston artist Henry Sargent in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Dinner Party (1821) and The Tea Party (1824). It might not be Christmastime, but it feels like it in these festive parlors. Another great townhouse interior painting is Robert Scott Tait’s A Chelsea Interior (1857-58) featuring the author Thomas Carlyle, along with his wife and dog in the parlor of their London townhouse:  again, likely not Christmastime, but the “shotgun” perspective is classic townhouse. The taller townhouses of the 1850s are featured in the wintry Street in Winter: Evening by an anonymous artist, who casts light on the city sidewalks from a shop window: in the next century all of those windows will be lit up, especially at Christmas time.

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Townhouse Dinner Party Sargent

Townhouse Tea Party Sargent

Townhouse Chelsea

Townhouses New England Street

Townhouse paperHenry Sargent, The Dinner Party & The Tea Party, 1820s, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior, collections of the National Trust; A Street in Winter: Evening, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; I am very enamored of this townhouse wallpaper from the new Hearth & Hand/Magnolia collection at Target.

Christmas in Salem “City Sidewalks” Tour, December 1,2 & 3, 2017—more information and additional events here: http://salem.org/event/37th-annual-christmas-salem-house-tour-2/2017-12-02/.


Keeping Christmas

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!


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