They … fell down, and worshipped him.

Well the Three Kings are riding up to the stable in our Presepio, ready to play their part in the story of the Nativity. And with their appearance Christmastide comes to an end and the task of taking down the decorations begins.

In the spirit of both Epiphany and Throwback Thursday I’m reposting something I wrote back in 2013 on the story of Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar.

Willy Or Won't He

… Three Great Kings in their bright array.

This rather fanciful, and busy to the point I couldn’t get the camera to focus, scene is an Adoration of the Magi cutout that I bought at the Tirolervolks Museum in Innsbruck.  This little “creche in a perspective box” was the work of the Engelbrecht Brothers some time between 1712-1735 and is very like the tradition of the toy theatre.  Prints could be bought plain to be hand-coloured or already coloured and ready to be cut out and assembled.  I also have the Visit of the Shepherds – which is not quite as busy – shepherds bring with them only sheep not a royal entourage.

I remember this from my choral music class in grade 9 and being told by Mr Livingstone that it was based on music from Bizet. Being the smug little bastard I was I probably told him that…

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Tradition! Tradition!

Christmas in our house is, as it is in many houses, all about tradition. And one of our more hallowed traditions was going to go by the wayside this year. It would not have been the first time however on those very rare occasions it was because we were not at home base that particular Christmas. I admitted a day or two ago I just haven’t been in the HoHo spirit this year; however this morning (December 17th) brought a change of, if not spirit, energy. I decided that tradition should not, could not, would not be denied.

So I set out the required equipment for the annual polishing of my balls. Oh grow up! Honestly faithful reader, do you not think I’ve heard all these puerile comments since I first mentioned this lovely tradition back in 2007? And I will confess it has often hurt me that this hallowed custom has been sullied and soiled by what you were just thinking? You have obviously forgotten the lovely story behind my annual ball polishing.

Christmas 1979 – the one that started the ball rolling.

Back in 1979 I was a catalogue shopaholic and my drug of choice was Neiman-Marcus, particularly their Christmas Book. It was also our first Christmas together. Out of my addiction and our blossoming relationship a lovely – howbeit much mocked – tradition was born. Each year N-M featured a lovely sterling silver ornament: a simple Saturn-like ball with Christmas and the year engraved on it. And for the next thirty years no matter where we called home – Ottawa, Mexico City, Cairo, Chicago, Amman, Warsaw, Beijing, Rome, or Aylmer – I would have a new ball to polish. (Just stop it!) Finally in 2008 it became too expensive, N-M would no longer ship internationally as it was now considered “currency”???, and they had taken over the tree. And frankly polishing 30 sterling silver Christmas balls became one of those traditions – like Aunt Mae’s fava bean casserole – that became a threat hanging over the festivities.

Now I said I caved in once again this year and did (oh what’s the use -go ahead!) polish my balls… but not all of them. This year only ten of my balls are gracing the boughs of our pseudo-sapin: three from each decade and my original ball! All it would take is a bit of spit (well okay Salvo) and polish to have my balls sparkling and ready to reflect the Christmas lights.

Ten balls gleaming and shining all ready to be hung on our tree!

So after over two hours of gentle handling and vigorous but careful rubbing my balls were sparkling and ready to be hung! And well hung they are!

The word for December 18th is:
Tradition /trəˈdiSH(ə)n/: [noun]
1. The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.
2. A long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another.
3. Theology: a doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the late Middle English: from Old French tradicion, or from Latin traditio(n- ), from tradere ‘deliver, betray’, from trans- ‘across’ + dare ‘give’.scriptures.

Odds and Sods Around Our House

The approach of Christmas has elicited a mix reaction this year. Yes the decorations have been been taken out of the storage closet but other than setting up the tree nothing much has been done in the way of decking our halls. There is even a good chance that the annual “Shining of Will’s Silver Balls” will be a non-event in 2021. Despite the freak snow storms there really not much of feeling of Christmas in the air.

Emanuel Luzzati’s pop-up Presepio – our Nativity scene this year.

The one thing that has been brought out and set up in readiness for Christmastide is our Nativity scene. However this year we decided not to use our Polish Szopka – though it is a work of carver’s art it is also on the slightly sombre side. Instead the delightful pop-up Presepio created by my beloved LeLe (Emanuele) Luzzati is brightening up our Christmastide.

The designs are in Luzzati’s signature deep almost jewel-like colours and child-like drawings. And in the tradition of presepe he mixes the everyday with the fantastical. His people, and animals, are obviously filled with the joy of the birth of the Infant Jesus.

As angels proclaim the good news with sounding brass and joyful song as a Shepherd makes his way from the fields accompanied by his sheep and oblong herd dog. Laurent has always insisted that the elongated pup is probably a dachshund and possibly modelled on Nicky.

When I first opened the book back in 2009 I was puzzled – there were Mary and Joseph with attendant ox and ass, angels and assorted folk in attitudes of adoration but I couldn’t find the baby. Then I pulled the star up in its slot and there he was – which is as it should be; the Bambino should never be revealed until Christmas Eve when the star appears. And I must say he is one of the happiest baby Jesus I have ever seen.

Perhaps in homage to the traditional Neapolitan presepe an old orange vendor is making his way to see the newborn Christ. Rather alarmingly he is joined by a little drummer boy who appears all set to serenade (?) the Holy Family.

Italian presepe are very much on a time line so like the Infant Jesus Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar are hidden until it is their turn to make their presence and presents known. On January 6th they will come out of their secret slot and canter their way up to the manager. The strange thing is that though there are three kings there appears to be only two horses???

Luzzati designed many giant persepe and they are a feature in squares and parks in many cities in Italy: Torino , his hometown of Genoa, and in 2009 at the Parco della Musica in Rome. The pop-up was based on a design he did for Torino in 1997 and it’s a shame more of his delightful characters could not make an appearance. However we will rejoice in those we do have and maybe, just maybe, some of the joy of Christmas they convey will help us get in the Yuletide spirit.

The word for December 16th is:
Non-event /ˌnänəˈvent/: [noun]
1.1 A disappointing or insignificant event or occasion, especially one that was expected or intended to be exciting or interesting.
1.2 A scheduled event that did not happen.
1957-58, non- “not, lack of,” or “sham,” from Old French non-, from Latin non “not, by no means, not at all, not a,” + event 1570s, “the consequence of anything” (as in in the event that); 1580s, “that which happens;” from French event, from Latin eventus “occurrence, accident, event, fortune, fate, lot, issue.”

A Barn Elf at Christmas

This coming Friday we are having was to be our Christmas dinner at the Club and as always there was to be entertainment during the pause between mains and dessert. One of the characters in the entertainment – that was to be played by yours truly – was a grumpy old Nisse! Grumpy? Old? Not much of a stretch says my faithful reader! No probably not. But what the heck is a Nisse anyway, asks my now puzzled faithful reader.

A Nisse tends to his favourite animal.
Johan Thomas Lundbye – 1842

In Norwegian folklore a Nisse is an elf but an elf with his own domain – the farmstead. If he is treated well he protects the farm, the family and the animals from misfortunes and all manner of evil. He has also been known to give a a hand with the chores when help is needed. He is particularly fond of horses and woe betide anyone who mistreats his equine charges. Unfortunately he has a very short-fuse and if annoyed or insulted can be vindictive and, at times, downright nasty. He has been known to injure or even kill livestock, even his beloved horses, in revenge for a slight or insult.

Nisser are short, with grey beards, very elusive and very old – it is said they were acquainted with Odin and the other gods of Valhalla, which makes them very old indeed. It is even thought that they may be the souls of the first people who farmed the land who have come back to check on the stewardship of those that followed them. They have no particularly relationship with Christmas as we know it; their duties – such as they are – are year round. However they prefer the dark which is why they are most active in the long December nights leading up to Jul.

A Christmas card, circa 1894,
by the Swedish artist Jenny Nystrøm.

Though they do not give gifts at Christmas Nisser expect a gift on Christmas Eve; and not just any gift. They expect a bowl of porridge. And not just any porridge: it must be piping hot, made with cream, topped with a spoon of sugar, a dust of cinnamon and a big pat of butter. There have been consequences when a less than satisfactory dish is served. The story is told of a farmer who by mistake put the butter in the bottom of the bowl so it was hidden under what was a very good porridge. To say that the Nisse was displeased when he perceived there was no butter on his porridge is a bit of an understatement. In a fit of anger he killed the farmer’s milk cow but when he reached the bottom of the bowl he discovered a rich pat of creamy butter. He immediately regretted his rash act but knew that a farmer a few miles away had a similar cow and simply switched the two to atone for his mistake.

Now to be honest the Nisse (Nisse in Danish, tomte in Swedish Tonttu in Finnish) I am talking about is probably not the one you will find in Nordic lands today. Since the late 1899 he has become a softer, at times even cuddly, little guy more given to harmless pranks that brutal acts of revenge. And he has become the bearer of gifts much like the Dutch Sinterklaas, the English Father Christmas or our own – gasp – Santa Claus. It is one more spike in the coffin of folklore, but that is a topic for another day.

My own introduction to these feisty little creatures was this ad from 2017 by Tine, the largest dairy producer in Norway. I love the way they quietly advertise their milk and butter and that they still give Nisse a bit of an edge.

Given the situation here on the Island and in the spirit of caution the dinner has been postponed and the world will have to wait for my appearance as a grumpy old elf until next Christmas – or just until something upsets me tomorrow morning.

The word for December 14th is:
Elf /elf/: [noun]
A supernatural creature of folk tales, typically represented as a small, elusive figure in human form with pointed ears, magical powers, and a capricious nature.
Old English, of Germanic origin; related to German Alp ‘nightmare’

A Winter’s Tale – 2020

Our annual Christmas ghost story.

After all the excitement of Christmas the almost hungover-like lull of Boxing Day had taken hold. It was just after midnight. The house was quiet save for the sound of the wind rattling the loose eavestrough and the occasional crackling of a log in the fireplace. It had been a clear night with the moon waxing its way to fullness. But that wind had come up bringing with it a scuttering of clouds that threatened to blot out any light from the moon or stars. A fox barked in the parkland behind us and was faintly answered by a neighbourhood dog.

A fragment of a sharp blast of cold wind found its way into the room. These old houses are riddled with cracks and crevices and the wind always finds a path. There was a chill to the room; another log and perhaps a small snifter of brandy could restore some warmth. As the warmth spread I picked up the book on the side table and idly leafed through it as the brandy spread a warmth through my body. A Warning to the Curious and other Ghost Stories by M. R. James.

Of course a Ghost Story! We always tell a ghost story on Boxing Day. There are the sort of chills that a brandy can chase away but the chills that James provokes stay with you for a good long while.

Now off to Bedfordshire – and perhaps once we’ve shaken off the chill and snuggled up we may have an undisturbed sleep! Or will we?

The word for December 26th is:
Chill /CHil/: [1. noun 2. verb 3. adjective]
1.1 An unpleasant feeling of coldness in the atmosphere, one’s surroundings, or the body.
1.2 A metal mold or part of a mold, often cooled, designed to ensure rapid or even cooling of metal during casting
2.1 To make cool or cold.
2.2 To horrify or frighten someone.
3.1 Chilly
3.2 Very relaxed or easygoing
Old English cele, ciele ‘cold, coldness’, of Germanic origin.

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