Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

Inventing tradition

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate it! Right now, I am frantically wrapping presents and mumbling nasty things about my to-do list, so here’s a re-post from December 2009, about Victorian Christmas inventions. Hope you enjoy it, and have a wonderful holiday!

Quick: name three Christmas symbols.

If you’re like me, the first things you picture are Christmas trees, a red-suited Santa Claus (or in England, Father Christmas) and the now-endangered paper Christmas card. Did you know that all three are, in many ways, Victorian inventions or mashups of older traditions? If we were transported back to England, 1840, we’d be celebrating without any of these icons!

Take, for example, Christmas trees – the visual centrepiece of English-speaking living rooms. But the Christmas tree is actually a German tradition made popular in 1840s England by the royal family, who were of German origin. (Queen Victoria’s first language was German and her husband, Prince Albert, moved to England on his marriage at age 20). Victoria and Albert loved celebrating Christmas, and it was their enthusiasm that made the tree (Tannenbaum) popular in England. Oh, and those first Christmas trees were small, potted affairs placed on a table with the gifts beneath – like so (image from the BBC’s Ten Ages of Christmas):

Victoria & Albert's Christmas tree

Victoria & Albert’s Christmas tree

Santa Claus and Father Christmas are part of a tangled tradition, too. St Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian bishop much admired for his generosity – far from an elf! We get “Santa Claus” from the Dutch name for St Nicholas. Santa’s red suit is a recent revision, too: until the 1880s, he generally wore a long, green cloak. The most popular images of Santa Claus in a red suit were done for a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1930s, and they’re what we think of now, automatically. Even so… any bets on how long that red suit will endure?

What else would Santa drink?

What else would Santa drink?

And oh, the Christmas card: all that paper is harder to justify each year, but e-cards are so soulless. Yet paper Christmas cards are themselves an invention of convenience – a commercial product without much tradition behind it apart from not wanting to write a long letter. Sir Henry Cole commissioned this next image in 1843 and used it to print the first commercial Christmas card. Note the lack of Christian imagery, here – it’s a family drinking wine together – and even the kids are imbibing:

Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

Henry Cole’s first commercial Christmas card

Although we tend to think of Christmas as something solid, something that all Christian-influenced cultures have always celebrated, our modern Christmas is pretty new indeed. I find the flexibility and brash (relative) newness of these traditions exciting. For me, it means that Christmas is for adapting, for inventing, for personalizing for my family. How about you? And if you celebrate another holiday – Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Eid, Diwali – how have your traditions evolved?

Either way, I hope your holidays are splendid.

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Toronto’s Harbourfront

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve been in Toronto for the past few days, gadding about. This is a bit of a March ritual for my family during which we see dear friends, closely compare a range of cafés, and walk until we’re footsore. I have a long list of favourite things and places but I made a couple of discoveries along Queen’s Quay and the Harbourfront this year that I’m especially pleased with.

Pearl Restaurant at Queen’s Quay. I was raised to be suspicious of Chinese restaurants that were too “nice” – ie, places that spend a large percentage of operating expenses on rent and table settings. Most of my extended family believes that the cooking is all that matters, and would gladly eat a banquet while squatting beside a dumpster, if the food was sufficiently fabulous. Pearl fails to meet these criteria: the food is decent but not spectacular, and they have beautiful pewter chopstick rests made in the shape of dragons. But it overlooks Lake Ontario and so, on the first evening of daylight savings time, you can eat Rainbow Chopped in Crystal Fold while gazing upon a gilded lake. Call me a sucker (my grandfather will), but there’s a time and a place for that kind of restaurant.

– I went to an art gallery with the children in tow, and it was not a gong show! We went to the Power Plant, a contemporary art gallery at the Harbourfront. The current exhibition features British installation artist Mike Nelson. It was the perfect introduction to contemporary art for a five-year-old: a series of four elevated caravans to explore, hundreds of small and familiar items presented in ways that begged to be talked about, a slide show featuring abandoned campfires along the West Coast. It was dense and busy and intense, and I’m still thinking about what I saw.

pain au chocolat vs. almond croissant: which is superior? The investigation continues. Please do weigh in with your opinion!

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Shopping (the bookish kind)

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Hello, friends. It will probably not surprise you to know that when I go on holiday, I like to bring home books as souvenirs. I love plucking a book from the shelf and remembering both the book and the place where I bought it. For me, the combined memory becomes that much more precious, and I seem to remember more details about the holiday when they’re paired with a book.

Here’s our family’s shopping list from a recent jaunt to Victoria, B.C., where we spent a weekend with old friends. We were walking down the street in Oak Bay, looking for the marina, when we were pulled, as if by magnets, into Ivy’s Bookshop. Ivy’s is a friendly and beautifully curated neighbourhood bookstore that inspires you with confidence in the power of reading. Highly recommended!

Catharine Arnold, Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City

Nick plucked this one from the shelf before I’d even spotted it, and I was transfixed. It’s best read in small snatches (for me, at least), as I find the gleeful descriptions of gore and human perfidy a bit too much after a few minutes. It’s a popular history and thus only lightly endnoted, and if I were using any of this as source material I’d double-check it all. However, it’s a pretty delicious snack of a book.

Lorraine Harrison, Latin for Gardeners: Over 3000 Plant Names Explained and Explored

Is this a retired person’s book or what? As we lurch gracelessly towards middle age, Nick and I find ourselves reading more and more non-fiction, and developing a taste for botanical illustrations. (Actually, that’s untrue: I’ve always be transfixed by delicate botanical illustrations.) But we have been gardening more, and this seemed rather inevitable.

Bill Peet, The Caboose Who Got Loose

Our five-year-old chose this because it’s about a train, and I really like the illustrations. I’m ambivalent about the seemingly endless doggerel rhyme, but I do love the subversive ending. If this were a book in the Thomas the Tank Engine franchise, Katy Caboose would learn about Duty and Being Useful, and end up knowing her place in the English class system.  I love that in this new world train story, Katy actually escapes.

Emily Gravett, Matilda’s Cat

And this one’s for our two-year-old. We love Emily Gravett’s artwork and her wry way with narrative. It’s really quite perfect.

So that’s what we’ve been reading for the past few days. What have you been reading?

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Negotiating with tradition

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Hello friends! We celebrate Christmas in our house, and we’re still figuring out our traditions. I come from a family whose only tradition is to not have any traditions (even the Christmas tree was hit-and-miss throughout my childhood, and I doubt we’ve ever eaten the same Christmas dinner twice), and my spouse, Nick, is from a family with very strong, sentimental rituals. He and I have talked about what kinds of traditions we want to cultivate. The problem? Our lives are so hectic right now that it seems as though every year, we crash-land in the middle of December with no fruitcake, no lights, and the vaguest of plans to get a tree “soon”.

We have to get our act together.

So this morning I was thinking, what are the most important Christmas traditions for our family? Clearly, we’re going to have to be selective, this year. For me, it’s about a special family meal that we look forward to each year. There will be small menu changes, but it’s not going to be Chinese food one year, followed by Italian the next. For Nick, it’s about the tree and the excitement of Father Christmas for little kids. Following in his dad’s tradition, Nick will create tiny reindeer hoofprints for the kids to find on Christmas morning, as evidence of Santa’s visit. For our four-year-old, it’s all about the gingerbread house, aka an excuse to eat unlimited amounts of Smarties and buttercream icing. And our littlest one is just learning about Christmas, which means she’ll be very forgiving of any amount of last-minute holiday anarchy.

As the kids grow, become more independent, and develop interests of their own, our traditions will evolve. We’ll get to the Christmas baking, the crafty ornaments, the homemade Advent calendar, the big Christmas party – one day. In the meantime, we’ll focus on our dearest rituals and enjoy them to the fullest.

What are your favourite, most-loved holiday traditions?

P.S. There’s a nearby family farm that raises heritage-breed bronze turkeys. The birds roam outdoors, get lots of sunshine, eat organic food (and bugs), and generally have happy turkey lives. We’re all set – for 2013, that is. Yes, we’re waiting on a turkey that hasn’t even been born yet. We are going to be SO ready next year!

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A Bear in the House

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Hello friends, and Happy Hallowe’en day! It’s cool and raining here in Kingston, and we’re all very grateful that Hurricane Sandy lost momentum before getting here. It’s strange to think of so many communities still without power, still scrabbling for basic needs, while we here contemplate costumes and candy. It’ll be a bittersweet Hallowe’en, for sure.

I thought I’d show you what I’m up to this morning: finishing up a costume for a four-year-old who wants to be “a big brown bear”.

The ears are still waiting to be attached. Then all we need is brown pants, some black eyeliner for a nose and whiskers, and the roaring can begin!

I hope you have a Hallowe’en that’s memorable for all the best reasons.

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