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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Glories of Christmases Long, Long Ago

Christmas itself is a time capsule, with a crumpled old green bow on it.

Like...the ornament I bought from Charleston in 2002, the first time I had shrimp and grits (as opposed to the ornament I bought in 2005, which was the first time I liked shrimp and grits). The Christmas plates and canisters that my mother-in-law gave me one year, without any hints or suggestions (see, Mom, I told you I liked them!). The wreath I made with my friend Mary Jane, who could wrestle pine cones onto a wire form like no one's business.

It's why it's the most wonderful time of the year (assuming you like Charleston, Christmas plates, and my friend Mary Jane).

But I'm not interested in talking about recent history here. I'm talking about Christmases *long*, *long* ago. Like the song. Like this blog--historic.

In Pennsylvania, during the 18th and 19th century, Santa was not exactly a fat jolly giggling man but a frightening, evil, masochistic man (or woman) who was looking for free liquor and an excuse to hit young children. I know, I sounds like your Uncle Dave after his football team loses. But hang with me here.

In the wild and unchartered pre-Santa Claus days (Thomas Nast didn't do his first Santa cartoons until 1863; see them at, a mischievous and occassionally belligerent Christmas elf made his rounds of rural children. Dressed in patched and baggy clothes, often the clothes of the opposite gender (not that there's anything wrong with that), the Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel rewarded good children with fruit and cakes, while the bad children were punished with whips from the Belsnickel's lash.

As a "gut Dutchie" from Pennsylvania, I grew up with stories of the Belsnickel. Or Bellschniggle. Or Belsh Nichel. We Dutchies aren't much for spelling. Apparently, all of the names stem from the German "Peltz Nicel," meaning "Nicholas in furs," which referred to the bearskin coat or skunk-skin cap that often accessorized the Belsnickel's disguise. When he didn't wear a cap, he wore a tall pointy hood, probably to keep him warm in the Pennsylvania winter.

The December 26, 1826 issue of the Pottstown LaFayette Aurora described the Belsnickel as "a mischievous hobgoblin that makes his presence known to the people once a year by his cunning tricks of fairyism. Christmas is the time for his sporting revelry, and he then gives full scope to his permitted privileges in every sharpe that his roving image can suggest."

Again, a little bit like Uncle Dave.

I have loved Belsnickels since I was a little girl. Maybe because I was a good student, and I would have killed to see the bad kids hit with a stick while I feasted on nuts and oranges. Maybe because I've always wanted a fur hat of my own, or at least a fur muff that I could wear when I went skating like a scene from Currier &Ives. (Full disclosure: I can't ice skate. I just like the costumes).

Boyertown, Pennsylvania has a craft show each November called "The Belsnickel Craft Show." Oddly enough, there are very few Belsnickels there. (Check out the attached link: . For the record, that's an honest-to-goodness, full-blown Thomas Nast Santa Claus there on the right. Not a Belsnickel at all. Someone should really tell the show promoters).

But once, years and years ago, I managed to find a humorless chalkware Belsnickel amongst the crocheted pot holders and funny looking wooden things. I bought him and brought him home, where he could glare at me from a side table.

He looked lonely there, so I bought a couple more, finding them at Christmas stores, in catalogs, at yard sales. I amassed my own little army of angry, arm-folded villains.

This is only about a quarter of my collection. It grows a little each year, and moves around the house: some on the side table, some on a dresser. Some I hide in the bathroom to scare my husband when he steps out of the shower.

There are Belsnickels made of papier mache. Belsnickels made of chalkware, poured in old chocolate molds. Some are--don't tell--some kind of resin concoction. I have two cast iron ones, too...the scariest thing about them is the damage that they do when they fall off a dresser and on to my toes (which is why they're typically the ones that I hide in the bathroom).

They're my favorite part of the time capsule that is Christmas. They remind me of my childhood, and of my family's origins in Germany, and of my many happy years as a credit-card-carrying member of the "Ladies for Economic Recovery" club. They remind me that you can travel across time as easily as you can travel to grandmother's house.

Sometimes more easily; especially when the road to grandmother's house is covered with 20" of snow.

Merry Christmas! From my time to yours!!

PS--The Belsnickels featured above are rural Belsnickels. Meet their urban hip-hop brethren in my next blog, New Year, Old Tricks.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Root of the Problem...

Many people have asked me just how I've gotten this way. And I don't just mean psychiatrists, either. Normal, concerned individuals have asked: Why do you love historic destinations so much? Do the old portraits make you feel pretty by comparison? Do you think mustiness is a treasured perfume? Are you just against hotel chains on principle?

The answers, of course, are yes, no, and yes. But there is a deeper reason.

I love old buildings, old portraits, and old furniture because of this:

Yes, that's the childhood home. It's been in our family since the 1700's, when my great great great great great grandfather bought it from Thomas Penn. Apparently young Thomas inherited his Pop's stake in Penn's Woods (along with his brothers) when William passed in 1720.

My brother owns the house now, and--to assert that it was his house and not Dad's anymore--he just removed the plaster and re-pointed the house in June. When I was a kid, the house was white plaster with black shutters. I was afraid that the hidden stone would be ugly (Why would someone have covered it with plaster? I asked my brother more than once as he planned the project). I was wrong, obviously. The stone is beautiful.

The inside is even better: the house boasts
  • drawers built into the front windowsills (so the lady of the house could pay the help without actually having to stand on the porch with those lowly ne'er do wells)
  • hand graining (if you look closely at the wood grain in some rooms you can find rabbits and ducks and other little critters), and
  • a fireplace built with a stone from every county in Pennsylvania (my great great grandfather got around quite a bit while his wife was in Europe. Ahem).

My room was in the "back" of the house, facing the driveway and the old barn. I wallpapered it myself around 1979, and I rearranged the furniture as often as I used to apply pimple cream.

And that's why I am the way that I am.

Please tip your docent on the way out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Smile and Say "Trees"

At the risk of going all stand-up comedian on you, I have to ask: What is the deal with tree lightings?

I mean, HTG is all about spiked hot chocolate. And I love a cute cashmere scarf as much as the next girl (assuming that the next girl is one who really really likes cashmere scarves).

But standing in the cold for an hour, waiting for a tree to go from a dark silhouette to a dark silhouette with little lights on it?

Frankly, I've found you can get the same effect by standing in front of said tree with your eyes closed for about 30 seconds, and then opening them.

Ooooh. Aaaaah. *applause and laughter and squeals of delight*.

Now where's that hot chocolate?

Having said that, I did go to the annual tree lighting at the Physick Estate in Cape May, NJ. I did it not for the spiked HC, but for the free house tour that they offered as part of the festivities. (Full disclosure: I was in the house's dining room when the docent cried that the tree lighting was in 2 minutes. I looked at her with pity and said "I'm exactly where I want to be." She laughed and said "You couldn't get me to stand outside in that cold for nothing." Which I thought wasn't very Victorian, as well as not being very good grammar).

Cape May does trees exceptionally well. Many of the bed and breakfast owners put decorated trees on their porches, so that you can enjoy them without craning your neck to peek in the lace curtains at night. Which HTG has done. And she has been caught doing it.

And she has not been offered spiked hot chocolate afterwards.

But, for those of you who like the tree lightings, here is a before:

and an after:

Hand me the butterscotch schnapps.