Thursday, December 31, 2015

When the Bells All Ring, and the Horns All Blow

Hello. Or should it be goodbye? The past week has slipped by without me noticing, and what seemed like an endless expanse of days has now wound down to those dreaded last few days before back to work and life and routine. It's been tea-filled and cozy, as well as rainy and chilly and not at all seasonable.

But the year is tired, unlike this guy who's supposed to be napping right now (after a little nephew sleepover last night)--

--and the tree has had enough--

The decorations know they're about to go on another eleven-month vacation.

And the poinsettia leaves are curly and drooping.

Even this project, in a huge game of yarn chicken (where you see if you'll finish the project or a wee little yarn end will have the last laugh) came with that sudden poignancy of the last project of the year.

While people generally don't understand why I feel this is the saddest day of the year, I don't understand celebrating the passage of time. However, this year, I'm trying something new. I'm changing my mindset and hopefully changing myself. I'm going to bust a hole in my long-standing shell, and make a sincere effort to be a little more open, to share a little more of myself, and to banish the nerves that hold me back at times. There, I said it. It's on the internet, so you know it's true or will have to be true because that's the way it works.

But just in case I get cold feet (literally), I'm wearing these babies out tonight.

Yes, out. I'm starting those resolutions early--I'm breaking my long-standing rule of not venturing forth on New Year's Eve (but doing so with some trepidation as all the crazies will be about as well). I don't want to say what's the worst that could happen (believe me, I know and it's why I stay in), so I'll flip it and say what's the best? I know that, too, actually--I'll be missing what they market as Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, which is nowhere near how nice it used to be. See? Time passing is sad.

Anyway, on with the day and on with the new year. It's got no mistakes in it yet, and 366 days to fill with whatever you want. Happy new year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

This Is My Wish

Every year I tell you how much I love Christmas. And I do. I love the lights, the glitz, the aromas associated with this time of year, the cold weather (which has been absent this year--rainy and warm all December long), the good cheer, the hearty wishes for a merry day, the church when it's all lit up, the movies, the giving spirit that prevails--every last bit of it, both secular and sacred. Top to bottom, all around, and back again.

I do have a confession, though. I often find myself low on Christmas spirit. Gasp! I know. How? I'm in the running for chief elf, I get very Bob Cratchity with my "But it's Christmas!" urgings, I'm a charitable being, and so on and so forth. But I find myself mentally lamenting (a la Santa Claus via Ed Asner in Elf) "There's just no Christmas spirit anymore!"

And then, this year, I realized my mistake. I was looking somewhere else for it, as though songs on the radio or just the right candle scent hold the key to holiday happiness. That's not how it works, apparently. It comes from within you. It's a teeny bit of light that grows brighter and warmer the more that you let others in, until you're consumed by yuletide cheer. I've been looking for it all month, and I found it today.

My Christmas wish for you: may your candle burn bright.

Love and hugs, you glorious beings!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The First Christmas

Welcome to the last stop on our tour. While most of this museum has a large amount of fifties Christmas kitsch to it, this last part is all about the oldest and most sacred of Christmas traditions--the nativity/creche.

Here you can take a seat in front of this replica of Bethlehem, while a recording of the gospel plays. The whole thing starts off dark, and different parts light up as they are brought into the story.

If sitting and listening is not your speed, there are numerous representations of the essential figures gathered from many countries around the world.

Of varying intricacy and materials, there are numerous display cases of the essential ingredients of the scene--the Holy Family, as well as the angels, the shepherds, the magi, and a few animals. Made of wood, clay, plaster (and even corn husks), many figures are made in the likeness of people known to the creators, making each one personal and individual.

The next part is very unlike the rest of the museum. Designed to look like the town of Bethlehem over two thousand years ago, there are many scenes that one may have actually come across in one's travels.

Entering the scene you are greeted by a Roman centurion reading the decree that everyone must head to town and be counted for the census (see? Government was just as annoying even then). Traveling a little further, we come upon some home scenes with some pieces that could be right out of that time period (I don't know if they are genuine artifacts, but they do set the scene quite nicely).

Many dwellings had no furniture, but utilized straw mats and other such items to serve as seats and beds. Animals were often brought indoors (!!!) at night to protect them from predators, and also to provide warmth when the temperatures plummeted. 

Proceeding along the winding streets, we come upon carpentry shops, and an oasis marketplace where weary travelers could rest for a bit and replenish their supplies. Musicians provide a nice distraction from the monotony of such travel. The hardships that Mary and Joseph faced during their journey are outlined in great detail. There is no mention of a stable in the gospels; most likely the scene took place in a small cave or grotto, places that would have served as a stable in the small middle-eastern town of Bethlehem. Such a place serves as the final scene for the journey that started as a trip to take part in the census.

Upon emerging, we are greeted by one final scene.

Thought to be around one-hundred years old, these three-quarter life size figures were stored in a warehouse for about eighty years. Originally displayed at Marshall Fields, these twenty-two pieces are thought to be among the best in carousel figure art. Target Stores actually donated these pieces to the museum. Each is extremely intricately carved, and quite life-like up close. If you look just left of center, you can see a bag-piper, which suggests that this display was carved by someone (or several somebodies) from the Austrian-Italian border. In Italian nativity scenes, it is very common for a bagpiper to be included. As bagpipes were used by shepherds to calm their herds, it's not a far stretch to imagine that those fellas in the fields keeping watch over their flocks were a fair hand at the instrument.

This brings us to the gift shop. If you were hoping you'd find replicas of things you saw you'd be disappointed--it's very similar to things you see in your everyday shops (which was good for my wallet, because I don't even want to imagine what could have happened if the stuff in Woolworth's was available).

I don't know if you've enjoyed the tour, but I've enjoyed writing about my visit. Obviously I'd highly recommend this place if you're ever in south-central Pennsylvania. You can read more about it here on their website. See you soon! And don't forget to tell your friends! Or don't--this is a pressure-free zone.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Study in Vintage

Today we'll be looking at some of the things that adorn the halls of this expansive museum. There's going to be a test at the end, so take notes.

First, we've got the Noma Decorative Lights window.

Noma was once the largest manufacturer of holiday lights in the the world, but now the name is just a trademark. The business declined as other companies jumped on the illumination bandwagon, and offered cheaper alternatives. Do you remember those red brick cardboard fireplaces that used to be a decoration in schools when you were still allowed to decorate? You can still buy giant rolls of corrugated brick paper, if you find yourself in such need.

Do you remember several years ago when I shared some of our Christmas decorations, and this little angel was one of them? Well now I know a little more about that bit of cuteness.

Franklin Gurley and his W&F Manufacturing Company were known for making holiday candles shaped like small figures (Halloween and Christmas being the most popular, even now among collectors). Originally marketed under the Tavern brand, Gurley eventually bought the rights and renamed it the Gurley Novelty Company (if you've got a Gurley and not a repro there should be a sticker on the bottom bearing his name). Anyway, these candles (which, even though they have wicks, were more for decoration and not for burning) were commissioned by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company (now Exxon-Mobil) as a way to use excess paraffin (a by-product of the oil refinery process). You could get these for a dime at stores from Woolworth's to Macy's. The Vermont Country Store bought the molds, and now sells reproductions.

Ah yes, the good old Sally Ann. A global religious organization founded in London that uses volunteer "soldiers" to assist the hungry and the destitute through a variety of programs, the Salvation Army's most recognizable symbol is the red kettle that appears at Christmas time. Volunteer bell-ringers place themselves outside businesses and on street corners to seek donations for the needy. Can't say I'd love it outside my front door, though.

I didn't show any pictures of this, but various Santa figures guide you along the twists and turns of the museum. This guy below might not seem like the Santa you know and love.

Santa (and all associated figures) were depicted in various forms, from a cloaked old man to a more gnome-like figure, until a few artists gave us the more standard image. Thomas Nast, an artist for Harper's Weekly magazine, gave us the first glimpse of modern Santa Claus when he drew upon his own German heritage of Pelznikel (a bearded, pipe-smoking Santa) to draw a small figure based on Clement Clark Moore's poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas ("a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer"). He's credited with the fur-trimmed suit, the stocking cap, and that big old belt buckle.

But Haddon Sundblom, an artist for Coca Cola, gave us our most famous version. A human-sized Santa, always dressed in red (color used to be variable, but was often green), with his cherry nose and whatnot, has become the most enduring image of that jolly old fella. And how much do you love that six-pack of Coke on the hutch in the very background? Confession: I pretty much took this picture for the hutch and the canisters sitting on it. And the table and chairs. And the cuckoo clock.

Can you imagine how much fun a toy store like this must have been? Do toy stores like this even exist, or is everything just your basic big-box toy store? I love that store in Home Alone 2 (Duncan's Toy Chest--props to the sissie for remembering that). It should be a law that toy stores look like that. Get on that, Congress.

Every year when my sisters and I are making our chocolate-covered pretzels and other goodies, I always think how much fun it would be to work in a good old-fashioned candy shop, with paper bags full of sour balls, and pretty boxes of amazing chocolates, all weighed out and tied up pretty. Why did we let these things become part of the past?

And here we have a bit of fun from my favorite Christmas movie (just edging out A Christmas Carol). 

I'm pretty sure my grandma had some of those light-up Santa figures (probably from Woolworth's). And I remember my mom walking around with her stencils and can of spray snow to decorate the glass surfaces in our house.

Though Santa peeking in like that is a little creepy. And oh my goodness. I just now noticed something. See those carolers on each side of that candelabra? We've got those!! I don't know where my parents bought them, but they are on the mantle right now.

And those spiky ornaments on the tree? We've got some of those, too. Just noticed that. I took this pic for the cardboard chimney-like base for the tree. And that cellophane bow! Remember when colored cellophane was a craft medium? We used to have a Santa made of the stuff, and I remember pulling on it and stretching out the pieces and so on, probably destroying it. I should go back in time and punish myself. It would obviously have been a museum piece now.

I'm the annoying sibling who wants to watch this all day on Christmas. I don't get why people want to change the channel. Do they not remember childhood? This was playing on a constant loop on a vintage TV set.

So that was kind of a literal tour down memory lane. Only one exhibit left before we head for the exit (was that a collective sigh of "thank goodness" I just heard? Sorry--I just looooooooove Christmas!).

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Toyland Train Mountain

While there are certainly more elaborate and impressive train displays than this one (I showed you one here), model train sets and Christmas trees have gone together since before Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye. The first electric train sets made their appearance in 1900, when Joshua Lionel Cowan founded his company. As train travel was the way to go for a long time in this country, model trains were popular into the sixties, when an expanded road system and the popularity of air travel led more Americans to drive or fly to their destinations. Model trains fell by the wayside, but are still enjoyed extensively by hobbyists (my father included).

I can't tell you if these are HO, or N, or....some other scale or gauge, but my dad could (and probably explain the virtues and pitfalls of each).

The clear focus of this room is the large display in the center--with three tiers and a thirty-foot diameter, it is literally covered with houses, figures, and animals, all in miniature, all lit with Christmas lights that made it really annoying to get decent pictures.

Smack dab in the center is a Christmas tree that sprawls across the ceiling and is decorated with over three thousand glass Christmas ornaments. I once read an article online about a woman who decorated her entire first floor ceiling in just such a manner, but with about ten (maybe twenty?) thousand ornaments. I loved it, but wouldn't want to do it myself (can you imagine how sore your neck would be?).

As ever, I spent a lot of time trying to pick out which house I would want to live in. Does anyone else do that, pick out your imaginary house, whether it's on a piece of fabric, or a greeting card, or something like the above? I have no idea why, but I do it constantly.

This reminds me of Hanson's Mill on the Little House TV series.

See the train just zipping by?

You can tell that this wasn't made by a meticulous hobbyist, as it seems to be a mish-mosh of trains and accessories, all of them clashing in a wonderfully kitschy and Christmassy way.

See the train, again in a blur? Cute little snowpeople families, too.

This one makes me think of a Swiss chalet, so I think I might like to live here, but a little further from the tracks (even though the goats seem used to it).

Of course, if I was the banker in town I'd be living in that candy cane house with the red bows everywhere.

One of the side displays in this room consisted of a huge amount of the little paper houses like those we saw in Woolworth's. I would love to know if these all come from a single donor, or if someone scoured the countryside for these or what. There are just so many! I love when everything old is new again--I have been seeing a ton of miniature houses and bottle-brush trees kind of everywhere this year (and not exactly cheap, either). Again, I appear to have a tiny house fixation...

One of my earliest memories is of my dad and his train set. I don't know what it is with boys and trains, but my dad has always loved them, and my nephews did as well (well,one still does, but the other now has technology at his fingertips so it's no longer exciting). He built this big platform out of plywood and what looks like green sandpaper, put up his track, and built the houses and buildings that would make a tiny train town. My brother and I weren't supposed to touch them when he wasn't around, so we would wait for him to come home from work so he could run the trains for us. Eventually they were relegated to attic living, but when I was in ninth grade, my sisters and I convinced him to build a small platform and let us make a town. I forget what we called it, but there was a papier mache mountain in the corner, and I think we decorated it for Christmas. Last year he created a work area in the basement and dabbles in building his own layout. We have to save any trash bits that look like they could be part of something (a chimney, an antenna, etc.), so my mother is loving that. On Saturday a set of paints was delivered, and he said "Now I can paint miniature people!" I come by it honestly, folks, because that sounds like a lot of fun to me, too.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Tudor Towne

Welcome to Tudor Towne, an animated storybook village of cute little animal characters, and an insane amount of detail (have I mentioned before how much I love teeny details?). The story that you read along the way is an original Christmas fairy tale featuring Meggie and Jestifer (which, I don't know why, but I love the name Jestifer). I'll confess--I was kind of running amok taking pictures of some of the scenes so I didn't take pictures of the story and...I didn't even really read it. I know that it's their first time celebrating Christmas, and a weasel named Sleezil tries to wreck their plans. Of course, he doesn't and all is well by the end and everyone is friends.  Don't worry, I won't quit my day job to write fairy tales.

The book is for sale in the gift shop, and I was going to buy one, but the photos were uninspiring so I didn't, totally forgetting I hadn't read the story along the way.

I feel like there is no more perfect winter activity than ice skating. I can't ice skate even a tiny bit, so that perfect activity will elude me. I'll knit instead. And I kind of really took this picture for that adorable teeny sweater.

Obviously this was my favorite part of this exhibit. How cozy does it sound to sit around in cozy, fire-lit rooms and make things for people?

She's slightly blurry because she moves. But look at her little work basket, and that little pink spool of thread! Pigs are seen by many as a symbol of prosperity and good luck (hence their namesake coin collecting receptacle).

I love the irony (is it irony? I never quite get that one right...) of the sheep knitting the sweater.

And the weaving loom. The picture doesn't show it well, but doesn't that green cupboard look absolutely darling? Like something the seven dwarves kept their dishes in?

I decided I'm going to live in this house. The steps will be good exercise.

Just. How. Cute is this?????? And the little shed out back????

This reminds me of 'The Wind in the Willows' where the Christmas caroler's come 'round to Mole Corner and sing songs in the little court. I remember reading that scene as an excerpt before reading the whole book, and it drew me right in, kind of like that scene of the beavers' home in 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.'

Hmmm....maybe I'll live here. Or this can be my holiday cottage...

I could not remember why I took this photo. Until I saw the quilt and remembered I took it for that color scheme.

Look how cute that little rabbit is with his surprised look and his candy cane pajamas?

See that little round door with the hole next to it? That's a wee bedroom. How cute! Unless you're claustrophobic, in which case, how terrifying...

Wouldn't you just love to have your shopping and Christmassing accompanied by little impromptu bands? Pigs in sailor suits, preferably...

This was the end scene of the story I can't remember. Everyone in town is there, including Sleezil the Weasel and friends, the knitting sheep, and Father Christmas.

I did have a lot more pictures of this, but this section was very low-lit and almost all of them came out blurry. Sad face. Next time I will surely bring the better camera.

I've always had an affinity towards scenes like this--little house and village displays, with animated characters, and a great attention to detail. The first time I saw such a thing was when I was ten years old, and we went to the Enchanted Christmas Village that used to be located in the old Lit Brothers department store at 8th and Market. It was purchased for a song, and now can be seen in bits and pieces at the Please Touch Museum. The other famous exhibit we've got here in Philly at Christmas is the Dickens Village, which I wrote about here last year.

Have you got anything like this where you live? Or it is just us Americans that go hog wild with Christmas?


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