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.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

No not our tree – a lovely piece of enamel work that we picked up in Salzburg on one of our frequent trips there back in the day.

I honestly thought when we got the prelit Christmas tree years ago that putting up the tree would be a less onerous process. It was not unknown for me to rehang the lights two or three times – though I believe the record was five! And there are times when it has taken that many days to complete the task of decking our tree let alone our halls. And keep in mind that I am not including the annual polishing of my balls. (oh grow up!)

This year we are on day four of decorating the holiday shrub! The decorations are all up – though not as many as in years past and that 40 year old tinsel star is in place. However I’m still in the processes of hanging the 250 tin icicles that we use as tinsel. They’re artfully twisted strips of polished tin fashioned by Greg Pietersma at The Tin Shop in Chesterville. I bought them on a visit to Upper Canada Village about twenty years ago. About half way through the chore task I get, how shall we say, a little testy and mutter curses demanding to know who started this bloody tradition. The mood is not improved when I’m reminded it was me and that Laurent is not really all that fond of it. I am then sorely tempted to follow Laurent’s father’s advice: buy a package of tinsel, stand back three feet and throw handfuls of it towards the tree, letting it fall as nature and the gods decreed.

I am currently at icicle 45 with only 205 more to go. At that point a photo of this year’s attempt will be published to the world. In the meantime here’s young Oisin decorating the tree with a little help from his Mum!

The word for December 18th is:
Icicle /ˈīˌsik(ə)l/: [noun]
1.1 A hanging, tapering piece of ice formed by the freezing of dripping water.
1.2 A thin, shiny strip of plastic or foil hung on a Christmas tree for decoration.
Middle English: from Old English īs + dialect ickle ‘icicle’ (from Old English gicel.
And not a mention of tin anywhere!!!!! Oh well back to hanging my icicles.

A Christmas Bouquet – I

1983 – Christmas Rose

Roses have always had a place in Christian iconography particularly as a symbol of the Virgin Mary and as the sign of a miracle.  During medieval times the red rose and its thorny stem became associated with the Passion of Christ. However Helleborus niger or Black Helleborn is not a member of the rose family but a perennial evergreen closely related to the common buttercup.

Then why is it called the Christmas Rose?  Perhaps because unusually it blooms around what was Christmas Day on the Julian Calendar (January 7 on our Gregorian Calendar).   And according to a popular legend on the first Christmas as the shepherds made their way to the manager, the small sister of a shepherd tarried behind the others, playing in the snow.   When she arrived at the stable the shepherds had given their homage to the Infant and she had no gift to give.  The child began to cry and and where her tears fell on the snow beautiful white flowers sprang up.  Her tears turned to joy and she gathered the flowers up and gave them to the Christ Child. The baby and his mother smiled at her and she left high of heart and told everyone of the birth of the baby Jesus.

Since ancient times black helleborn has been used for its medicinal qualities and was known for both its purgative and sedative powers. It was also recognized as a toxin that in some cases that could cause a rather painful death. In the Middle Ages its magical (i.e. superstitious) powers were many, and contradictory. The flowers were strewn on floors to drive evil spirits out of a house; animals were blessed with it; and it was used to ward of the power of witches. However those same witches threw it into their bubbling cauldrons as they cast their evil spells. It was ground into a magic powder by alchemists that when thrown into the air around them made sorcerers invisible.

1984 – Hawthorn

The Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) has been considered a sacred tree since the time of the early Greeks and was revered for both its spiritual and medicinal properties by the Roman, the Celts , the Chinese and North American First Nations.  For the Romans and the Greeks it was linked to hope, good fortune, marriage and childbirth. Garlands of hawthorn leaves adorned bridal parties, processions were lit by hawthorn torches and leaves were put in the cradles of Roman babies to ensure good fortune.   For the Celtic peoples the hawthorn was known to be the favourite abode of the fairy folk and hawthorn groves were often the site of altars to the old gods.

It is said that during the Flight into Egypt Joseph left the sleeping Mary and Jesus to find water and food.  Seeing Herod’s men approaching the magpies gathered boughs of hawthorn to cover the sleeping mother and child and protect them from their enemies.

It was also believed that the Crown of Thorns was made from hawthorn and this led to its close association with death in Medieval times.  It was consider a sign of impending death to bring hawthorn into a house, a superstition that is still believed in some parts of England.  It was also said that when Joseph of Arimathea came to evangelize England he had with him a staff made from the wood of the tree that had been used for that painful cornet.  On his journey he stopped on Wearyall Hill in the area of Glastonbury and when he lay down to rest pushed his staff into the ground.  When he awoke he found it had taken root, begun to grow and blossom.  He left it there and though Hawthorn should only bloom once in a year by some miracle the Glastonbury thorn blooms twice a year: Spring and Christmas. There is on catch – as with the Christmas Rose it keeps to the Julian calendar and in 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian system the tree stuck to the old ways and bloomed on January 7th.

The story is told that during the Civil War a puritan tried to cut it down but was blinded by a splinter of wood before he could complete his task.  The truth is that it was uprooted and burned during the time of the Commonwealth as a relic of heathen superstition but one of its castaway fragments – pilgrims were forever taking souvenir cuttings – found its way back to Glastonbury and until recently still bloomed on Christmas Day. Each year a sprig of thorn from the tree at St John’s church in Glastonbury is cut by the Vicar and the eldest child from church School and sent to the Queen.

The 1986 Christmas stamp in the UK.

Sadly in 2010 vandals were able to accomplish what that unknown puritan could not.  On December 9th of that year the branches of the iconic tree on Wearyall Hill were deliberately cut off.  When new shoots appeared the following year they were also removed in the dark of night.  And again in 2012 a newly grafted sapling was destroyed.  In 2019 the landowner decided to remove the tree however there are still what are said to be shots of the original at both St John’s and Chalice Well in Glastonbury.

The word for December 3rd is:
Tradition /trəˈdiSH(ə)n/: [noun]
1.1 The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.
1.2 A doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the scriptures.
Late Middle English: from Old French tradicion, or from Latin traditio(n- ), from tradere ‘deliver, betray’, from trans- ‘across’ + dare ‘give’.
Not sure I’m passing any customs down but putting those medallions on the tree is a “tradition” in this household.

Where Is Your Bethlehem?

My blog buddy Mitchell post a wonderful series of pictures from the crèches or belén in his town of Fuengirola that brought back memories of the presepe we saw in cities, towns and homes throughout Italy during our four Christmases there.

At the centre of each one was the familiar Nativity scene but what surrounded it seldom resembled the landscape around Bethlehem familiar from Christmas cards. The Holy Family were encircled by the traditional Shepherds, Magi and Angels but set in panoramas that mirrored the surrounding neighbourhood. Castello Sant’Angelo loomed in the background at Santa Maria in Via, in Napoli a plume of smoke from Vesuvius oversaw the birth of Christ, in Piazza Sant’Eustachio the filigree tower of Sant’Ivo peeked over the rooftops. The birth of Jesus is happening, not in a distant exotic place, but in the midst of the people who are celebrating the Feast Day.

As well as the link to Mitchell’s photos – the belén created by the children is a true delight – I thought I would reblog a post from those days in Rome. It is only a fragment of what would have been a larger scene but looking at it today gave me a sense of delight and brought back great memories.

Willy Or Won't He

Its no secret that I have a fondness for Napoli and things Napolitani – even though the first visit there was a bit unsettling, the second time I came away from the city enchanted and wanting to go back. And another well documented fact is my love of presepe and there is nowhere in the world quite like Napoli for these incredible minature scenes. Divina, the restaurant we went to New Year’s Eve in Madrid had the most wonderful presepe at one end of the dining room that was immediately identifiable as the work of Napolitani craftsmen.

As is this remarkable little tableau that was in the window of a small cafe on a side street off Piazza Fiume near our house. It is obviously meant to be only one element in a larger presepio. (Remember that a left click will open a larger version of the photos in…

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Wreathed in Wreaths

Every year The Friends of the Confederation Centre have a wreath decorating contest. There were 31 entries this year and everyone had their favourites. Here’s a few that caught my eye and fancy on a stroll in the hall of the Centre!

Now talk about non-traditional: this is my #1 favourite. Though come to think of it The Nightmare Before Christmas is a bit of a holiday tradition in some households! I haven’t seen it in years – time for a look-see.

December 11th is Noddle Ring Day – now I am going to admit I had to look that one up.