The Snail and The Crested Porcupine

Those of you that pay attention to the Categories and Tags may notice that this is listed under “Christmas”, “Christmas Tree”, and “Christmas Decorations”.  A Snail and a Crested Porcupine – what do they have to do with Christmas?  Traditionally?  Nothing!  But in our house they are linked with a trip to Siena back in 2011 and two ceramic ornaments that were added to our Christmas trove on that trip.

A bit of background would probably help.  The city of Siena is divided into Contrade; the nearest concept in English would be wards. Set up in the Middle Ages they were initially military enclaves during the wars with Florence and other city states.  Over time they lost that aspect but became centres of fierce patriotism to a community.  Rivalries and alliances were formed – think Verona, Montagues, Capulets – and each Contrade became almost a city unto itself.  There were originally 59 but today amalgamation and urban change has reduced the number to 17.  However each  Contrade has retained its own animal symbol, motto, and colours; not only that every Contrade has its own museum, fountain and baptismal font, feast days and festivals.  They are tightly knit communities within the larger city and only come together for grand occasions or, more importantly the Palio di Siena.

The ornaments we purchased bear the colours and symbols of two of the Contrade: Chiocciola (Snail) and Istrice (Crested Porcupine).  I should add this was not because of any allegiance on our part but purely because I liked the designs.

Chiocciola is situated in the south-western corner of the city; traditionally, its residents worked as terracotta makers.

Their symbol is the snail and the motto translates as  “With slow and deliberate steps, snail leaves the battlefield triumphant.” Their colours are red and yellow, trimmed in blue.  

There is an expression in Siena, “The people of the Snail  drown their saints.” In 1888, after losing a Palio, the people of the Contrada was so angry that they threw a statue of Saint Anthony (patron saint of horses) into a well. The statue wasn’t removed until 1910 and miraculously the district won in 1911. Saint Anthony hasn’t exactly been on their side recently – they last won the race in 1999.

Istrice occupies the north-western most edge of Siena and contains the San Vincenzo e Anastasio church, home of the city’s oldest surviving fresco.  By tradition its residents were blacksmiths.

Their symbol is a porcupine and their colours are red, white, blue and black. The motto is Sol per difesa io pungo (I prick only in self-defense). The porcupine is “crested” with a crown award

During th 14th century the community gave quartering to the Knights of Malta and were awarded the title Sovrana which earned their porcupine his crest or crown.  They last won the Palio in July 2008.

I mentioned that all the Contrade congregate on special occasions and on one of the days we were there an important canonization was taking place in Rome.  I captured some of the medieval pageantry as we walked towards the Cathedral Square and as the standards of each Contrade were being carried into the church.  I apologize for the quality but I was – and am – still learning how to use and make videos.

As I have often mentioned the ornaments on our tree bring back wonderful memories of voyages, homes, place and people.  It is a tree of memories.

On this day in 1971: Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) filled a law suit against Henry Wade, Dallas county attorney, in the Roe v. Wade case.

Christmas Collections

No, not the priest’s purse on Christmas Day.

It took all day but thirty balls are gleaming, polished, and waiting to be hung

As my faithful reader may recall from previous years I went through a period of being mildly addicted to Christmas collectibles.  For thirty years I collected the sterling silver Christmas Ball that Neiman-Marcus features each year until they became a) prohibitively expensive c) impossible to have shipped to Canada because of “currency restrictions” c) to much work to polish.  Then there was the Towle Christmas flower medallions – also silver, also needing polishing but a limited series of ten.  When trade with Russia became easier Bloomingdale’s began a yearly series of ceramic lacquer ornaments that were lovely if a trifle dark but at least didn’t have to be polished.

And finally an ad in the Christmas Gourmet magazine – of late lament – in 1988 got me hooked on one of Wedgwood’s annual Jasperware ornaments.  The ad pictured an evergreen bestrewed mantel decorated with several medallions of a beautifully detailed white bas-relief Christmas tree on the iconic Wedgwood blue background engarlanded by holly berries.  It was to be the first of eleven that I collected.  During the time we were in Poland (1998-2000) I missed three of them and the last, a snowflake, was issued in 2001.  Though Wedgwood still issues yearly collectibles I don’t find them as fine or appealing – which may say more about me than Wedgwood.

Of course as my faithful reader knows this didn’t stop me from collecting Christmas ornaments – just from collecting collections.

On this day in 1924: The last Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost is sold in London, England.

Come Ye To The Fairs

I’ve honestly lost count….

It seems there are Christmas Fairs going on at almost every corner in Charlottetown and in every town of any size here on the Island. Last weekend the Victorian Fair took up most of the weekend and a block of Queen Street, and just down the street the Murphy Centre was hosting another indoor fair.


Santa and Mrs Claus were at the street fair  and there were free horse drawn wagon rides through town.


Red Adirondack chairs were set up around braziers where fires gave comforting smells and warmth to a coldish day.  Many of the arts and crafts merchants from across the Island were there displaying their Christmas lines.  And a few of the food venues offering cookies, cakes, sweets, savouries, and mulled cider  for the holidays.

A left click on the Cabin Fever Carving logo will take you to their etsy page.

Amongst the jewellery, knitwear, handmade cards, woodwork, and stollen one tent in particular caught my  eye: Cabin Fever Carving.  Now as anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows over the past few years I have developed an amateur’s appreciation of work from the North in bone, antler and natural materials.  It was the use of those materials by carver Trudy Gilbertson that drew my attention to her stall.   She creates unique jewellery, ornaments, and sculptures using those materials as her medium.  Her time in Northern Canada, as best as I can figure from her Facebook profile as a warden with Parks Canada, shows in many of the pieces that she has created.  They are echos of the Inuit carvings where the natural form of the material dictates the finished shape and use.


And wouldn’t you know it she just happened to have a few little baubles for the Christmas tree.  Yes! Yes! YES!  I know I said no more Christmas ornaments after last year’s fox but …. but….  hey get off my back I’m old enough to make my own decisions okay?

The camera (time for an iPhone X?????) didn’t quite capture all the facets of this piece carved from a shed antler with it’s very unusual shape.  (A left click will enlarge the photos for a closer look.)

The ring effect is caused by the exterior hard bone and the interior porous bone – I’m not sure what created that small hole in the middle.

As I admired these newest additions to our never-decreasing collection I thought I’d do a bit of a search on antlers – what they are, how they grow, and why the heck they are there in the first place.

Antlers are true bone extensions of an animal’s skull found in members of the deer family.  They are generally found only on males, with the exception of the caribou.   In early spring two patches about as big a loonie appear on a buck’s head.  Protected by a velvet-like thin skin that is a network of blood vessels and nerves they begin to produce bone cells at a rapid rate.  A healthy buck’s antlers can grow by three quarters of an inch each day.   If their bodies are not creating adequate calcium the deer will take the needed mineral from the non-supporting bones in its body.

In fall the velvet begins to shrink and gets incredibly itchy which is why deer can be seen rubbing their antlers against saplings and branches.  Once the velvet has been shed their new head gear is revealed in all its glory and set to perform their primary functions:  objects of sexual attraction and weapons in fights between males for control of harems.  After mating season they’ve served their purpose, and besides they are heavy and a bit of a nuisance in manoeuvring through thickets and forest.  So at some point during the winter, depending on location, they are shed – a process that can happen within a matter of hours.  The cycle will begin again in the spring.

On this day in 1803: The Balmis Expedition starts in Spain with the aim of vaccinating millions against smallpox in Spanish America and Philippines.

The Fox on the Tree

In which the writer justifies the acquisition of another Christmas ornament.

One of the delights of Nora’s life in Ottawa was the ever-mounting squirrel population.  She would warn us of a squirrel crossing the street from her vantage point on the 4th floor balcony or the presence of one of the furry little bast creatures on a lawn 300 feet away as we took one of our four or five daily walks.  And the warning wasn’t just for us – anyone in a six block radius had the advantage of being able to hear her hunting howl and take appropriate action.

She has found no such sport in our new home!  Though we have three types of squirrels here on the Island (red squirrels, Northern flying squirrels and the Eastern chipmunk) they tend to prefer country to city living.  Having said that back in 2009 a red squirrel that had decided to nest in the suburban hydro substation at West Royalty gnawed through wires and set a fire that left 55,000 homes in the Charlottetown area without power for almost 24 hours.  Notice this was long before Nora’s arrival and had she been living here at the time no doubt there would have been a warning sounded!

But I digress.  That is not to say that we have not encountered wildlife (and I don’t mean the tourists partying down at Peake’s Quay) on our daily or nightly walks over the past few months.  Though we have never caught sight of a single  Tamiasciurus hudsonicus nor one of his even more elusive airborne cousin Glaucomys sabrinus,  two or three Tamias striatus have chattered their displeasure at Nora nosing a little too close for comfort.  That’s been it for the squirrel population.  We have had the warning scent of the odd skunk that has led to another path being chosen.  And the crows – well let’s not go into the crow situation here except to say “stone the f…!”  However the creature most often encountered has been a very beautiful and not at all shy silver fox.  We’ve seen her down by Confederation Landing, in our friend Cathleen’s backyard and near the Basilica on Great George Street.  When I mentioned it to some friends they didn’t seem the least surprised.  It turns out that urban foxes are as much part of life here in Charlottetown as those pesky squirrels were in Ottawa.  

This is not our local vixen but the colouring is pretty close including the white tipped tail.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is indigenous to the Island and even though our friend is black (with silver highlights and white tipped hence the name) she is still identified as a “red” fox.  That silvery black colouration is the result of the natural development of melanin, the dark coloured pigment in the skin.  At one time silver fox were a vital part of the Island economy and fortunes were made, and lost, as fashion trends, world wars and economic depressions came and went.

The first fox farm was a secret operation set up by Robert Oulton and Charles Dalton on an island in Alberton Harbour in 1884.  Through careful breeding of silver fox with silver fox (melanism is a recessive trait) they produced a pelt that became much prized in the fur industry.  When one of their pelts sold at auction in London for $1,807.00 (approx $82,000 today) the breeding secret became if not known then known to exist.  In 1900 Dalton sold a breeding pair to a neighbour and his partner, and another pair to two brothers who had been experimenting on their own farm.  The “Big Six Combine” dominated the fox fur trade which was still centred in western Prince County.  They made a verbal contract to keep their  breeding practices secret, to never sell a live fox, and not to produce too many pelts. In this way they expected to keep prices high.

However in 1910 a nephew of one of the combine members broke the pact and sold a breeding pair to a syndicated set up by the heir to Holman’s Department Store.  In a very short time fox breeding became a mania – people bought shares in foxes, options were bought and sold and companies formed.  By 1929 there were over 700 fox farms on the Island and when the Depression hit the number miraculously rose to almost 1,200.  It seems that fox farmers were willing to sell their pelts at reduced prices which still fetched more than what they got for other stock in those lean times.

In 1939 over 76,000 pelts were sold but fashion was changing and the glut on the market saw the bubble finally burst.  There were many factors that led to the decline of what had been a multi-million dollar industry on the Island:  a world war, taxation, competition from foreign markets, a flood of inferior pelts from greedy breeders, war time shortages of feed, and a change in fashion.  Fox pelts became so devalued – one year only 20% were sold at auction – that many farmers simply gave up and released their stock into the wild.  Many of the foxes on the Island are descended from that release – perhaps even our local resident.


So why, other than spotting our vixen once or twice, this sudden interest in foxes?  Well you know I made this promise pronouncement that there would be no more ornaments purchased for the Christmas tree.  However (and you just knew there was going to be a however didn’t you?) when I was attending the Antonine Maillet  lecture at the Confederation Centre last week I wandered into the gift shop and low and behold there was an entire selection of Foxy things including – wait for it – a red fox Christmas tree ornament!  Well I mean how could I not?  It’s an Island thing after all!  I was simply doing my patriotic duty!

Foxy Facts – from our friends at the CBC.

  1. Foxes have an expansive territorial range – between 40 to 160 square hectares
  2. The average litter is between 4 to 6 kits – though occasionally it can go up to 9.
  3. The male (dog, tod or reynard) stays with the female (vixen) to raise the young.
  4. Litters are normally born in March after the January mating season.
  5. Kits stay with their family until they are between 9 and 12 weeks old and then head out on their own.
  6. On PEI their main predators are coyotes, with vehicles second and hunters third.
  7.  Adults foxes are extremely adept at crossing the road, they even look both ways, and some have been observed waiting for lights to change at intersections,  –  pups often fall victim to traffic
  8. They have keen senses of smell, hearing and vibration.
  9. It is not necessary to leave out food for urban foxes; they eat everything from twigs and leaves to worms and seeds, hunt for frogs, mice and birds, and take advantage of carrion.
  10. They are playful – a few have been observed playing on backyard trampolines – true story!!!
  11. They are not – I repeat – NOT a prime carrier of rabies here on the Island.

And you now know more than you ever really wanted to about foxes – or at least foxes as Nora and I observe them here on the Island.

On this day in 1933: Thailand has its first election.