Friday, December 24, 2010

The Julenisse

In traditional Scandinavian folklore, the tomte or nisse was small supernatural figure, not unlike the English brownie or hob. Like the brownie, he tended to care for the farmstead and all of its animals, and like a brownie he could have a terrible temper if insulted or slighted. In the 1840's in Sweden the bringer of Christmas gifts became the nisse, and was the called the Yule Nisse, or Julenisse. In 1881 Swedish poet Viktor Rydberg published a poem called Tomten, accompanied by a picture by Jenny Nystrom, showing a red-capped friendly figure contemplating life alone on a cold snowy Christmas Eve. This solidified the image in the Scandinavian imagination, much as Clement Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" did to Santa Claus in America; it is the figure perpetuated in the book Gnomes (Tomten in the authors' original language). The Julenisse is often shown accompanied by the Yule Goat, another traditional figure. Over time, of course, the Juelenisse has become influenced by popular concepts of Santa Claus. But the influence could go both ways: the tomten might have contributed to the concept of Santa's Christmas elves.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Looking A Lot Like...

Perhaps I'm not perfectly qualified to be a completely unbiased judge on this matter; perhaps I view all of this through a warm, magic haze of nostalgia. But all these "vintage" decorations all seem to me to be vastly superior to most modern versions of Christmas cardboard. Most card decorations of today have flat colors and are "cartoony" in the worst possible sense of the word. These old decorations have gleams and glints and shades of color, and, while they are far from realistic, they are "cartoony" in the best sense of the word. Cute without being cutesy; simple, but not simplistic. Full of character while remaining iconic. Why can't they just keep running these, or do they do so somewhere more blessed that around here?

Professor Hinkle: Favorite Quotes

"We evil magicians have to make a livin', too."--Professor Hinkle, from Frosty The Snowman.

Monday, December 13, 2010

And What Is A Weihnachtsmann?

A Weihnachtsmann (tr. German: Christmas-man) is a figure developed by Protestants in Germanic countries to replace the Christkindl (tr: Christ Child; this term devolved in the U. S. A. into Kris Kringle) as a Christmas gift-bringer. Christkindl himself had been a replacement for the all-too-Catholic St. Nicholas, but it came to be felt that the role of present deliverer was beneath the dignity of the Messiah. The Weihnachtsmann took over many of the attributes of St. Nicholas: he was a thin old man with a long white beard, his stick replaced the saint's staff, and his pointed hat or hood the bishop's miter. He was often pictured as trudging through the dark and snow with a pack on his back and his stick in hand; as such he rather resembled the itinerant peddlers of the time, and one can imagine parents pretending and children mistaking such a one as "Santa" (in fact, in the old Shirley Temple film Heidi this happens to the Grandfather when he visits town around Christmas). His coat and hat were often trimmed in fur (usually brown) and he could be rather stern of countenance, because he also brought whips to punish the naughty and sometimes even a tail if they had been beastly! The image of the Weihnachtsmann became widespread around 1900 with the predominance of the German lithographic industry and the imagery they employed; much of the "Victorian Santa" pictures come from this era. With the advent of World War One, of course, this popularity dropped off. As time has passed the Weihnachtsmann has gained more and more of the attributes of the American Santa Claus, so that now there seems to be little difference visually between the two. But there are plenty of people who still enjoy the more traditional figure of the Weihnachtsmann as being more distanced from the commercially worn icon of Santa Claus.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Denizens of Dennison's

A cartload of Christmas cut-outs, culled from commercial computer conveyers.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Santa I See

These cardboard die-cuts (most of them by Dennison) are the sort that used to hang in classrooms when I was a kid, and this is how I picture Santa: a robust rather than obese character, jolly, hale, ruddy, and just a little intimidating in an energetic, larger-than-life manner. This image is, I expect, very influenced by the famous Coca-Cola ad Santas. I like a Santa with a touch of green, whether it be a sprig of holly or a pair of mittens: it softens the rather severe red and white.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Giving Thanks For "The Hobbit"

The Rankin/Bass adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit first aired today thirty-three years ago, on November 27, 1977, four days after Thanksgiving. It's hard to believe that an entire generation has passed since then, that there are grown-ups today who can't remember a time when it wasn't around. I remember I had only heard about Middle-Earth four years earlier, but even that short time had got me yearning for any adaptation of the material. The excitement had been building since I first heard it announced and was eager for any scrap of news; there were articles in TV guide and in our Weekly Readers; there was even a float dedicated to it in a Thanksgiving Day parade. Finally on the evening the family was gathered in a darkened room, and to the strains of an enchanting melody we heard John Huston as the voice of Gandalf begin, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit..."

There were cuts to the story and some disappointing designs (like the elves), but on the whole it was a great adaptation. I liked the fact that except for the song "The Greatest Adventure" all the songs were taken from Tolkien's original poetry. In those pre-VCR days the closest we could get to a copy of the show was a long-playing set of records with a booklet; a deluxe edition of The Hobbit with illustrations from the show was soon added. Many a night we would lay down to the sound track set up to play, and drift off to the unfolding of Bilbo's wanderings. We listened to it so much that we could recite it all straight through, and even today a stray phrase can start my brother and me quoting at length.

Nowadays of course in the wake of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films a big budget adventure movie of The Hobbit is in the works, and you will hear people now and then deploring the quaintness and childishness of the Rankin/Bass show. But The Hobbit is a children's book, perhaps one of the greatest children's books ever, and I hope that in the fever of making a "sequel" to Jackson's films that is not completely forgotten. Rankin/Bass did a good job with that.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving 2010

"In amber shade
The feast is laid;
The turkey is turning brown.
Out in the yard
The grass is starred
With leaves that've fallen down.
The russet rolls
And, too, the bowls
Of gravy, the pies, and tea
Are each one all
As brown as Fall
And all look good to me..."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Imagery

Schmaltzy? Sentimental? Historically inaccurate? I suppose so, but there is always a small germ, an ideal spark that can be cherished, no matter how fugitive and fleeting, that could hopefully lead us to better things. Family gatherings really more frazzling and emotionally charged than depicted? True, but there can be redeeming moments and happy memories to be grasped if we only keep our hearts and eyes open to possibilities. In other words, if we don't have the ideals to strive for and the hope to keep us going, we are only left with a bleak dry bone-pile to endlessly rake over. For some of us, this sort of Thanksgiving imagery, even though "debunked" and scorned, consigned to be the stuff of comedy routines, still serves as a kind of signpost or even blueprint, pointing to a more innocent time, less introspective and more straightforward. It's a celebration of the Fall of it all, the browns and yellows and reds, the feasting and games before winter locks everything down and the gathering of the greater family to count heads and be grateful we made it through so much. So while it may not be coldly factually, it is true, and an expression of a truth in our life that we should continually strive toward. If this is sentimental, what is sentiment but emotion; and people and cultures that cannot share in emotions are on the road to sociopathy. I still cherish an ideal vision of Thanksgiving, and for that, I am truly grateful that I am not dead yet.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Tom Turk and Daffy": Thanksgiving Cartoons

Another cartoon that deals with one of the most disturbing cartoon motifs--bird on bird cannibalism! From Daffy lusting after the full Thanksgiving meal--"The yams! The yams did it!"--to Woodstock in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving to actual turkey-on-turkey craving in Pilgrim Popeye, not to mention Donald Duck in the Disney/Rockwell take-off, it's as bizarre as human beings eating, say, monkeys. One of those weird cartoon things that turn up.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Variations On A Thanksgiving Theme

In 1943 Norman Rockwell produced a series of four paintings on the Four Freedoms, a concept that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had introduced in one of his speeches. One of these painting, Freedom From Want, has come to exemplify the old American traditional Thanksgiving, and is most often referred to as the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. Over the years there have been many spoofs and variations on this image; I present here several of them.

"Jerky Turkey": Thanksgiving Cartoons

A 1945 offering of Tex Avery wackiness, redolent with WWII-era jokes.

"The Man With The Golden Key": Quotations

"In other words; I have never lost the sense that [childhood] was my real life; the real beginning of what should have been a more real life; a lost experience in the land of the living. It seems to me that when I came out of the house and stood on that hill of houses, where the roofs sank steeply towards Holland Park, and terraces of new red houses could look out across a vast hollow and see far away the sparkle of the Crystal Palace (and seeing it was a juvenile sport in those parts), I was subconsciously certain then, as I am consciously certain now, that there was the white and solid road and the worthy beginning of the life of man; and that it is man that afterwards darkens it with dreams or goes astray from it with self-deception. It is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending, and it is he who has his head in a cloud."

--from The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton, 1936.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. And The Works Of Mercy: Quotations

"It has been said many times that man's knowledge of himself has been left far behind by his understanding of technology, and that we can have peace and plenty and justice only when man's knowledge of himself catches up. This is not true. Some people hope for great discoveries in the social sciences, social equivalents of F=ma and E=mc2, and so on. Others think we have to evolve, to become better monkeys with bigger brains. We don't need more information. We don't need better brains. All that is required is that we become less selfish than we are.
"We already have plenty of sound suggestions as to how we are to act if things are to become better on earth. For instance: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. About seven hundred years ago, Thomas Aquinas had some other recommendations as to what people might do with their lives, and i do not find these made ridiculous by computers and trips to the moon and television sets. He praises the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy, which are these:
"To teach the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to console the sad, to reprove the sinner, to forgive the offender, to bear with the oppressive and troublesome, and to pray for us all.
"He also admires the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, which are these:
"To feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and prisoners, to ransom captives, and to bury the dead.
"A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly the lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness.
"Science has nothing to do with it, friends."
--from "Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College, 1970," from Wampeters Foma and Granfalloons, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Which Is Not About Christmas. Really.

Charlie Brown: "I've never been so mad in all my life! I went down to the store to get a Halloween mask and they were all out of them!"

Patty: "Aren't they going to order any more?"


--Peanuts, Oct. 23, 1959.

Charles M. Schulz made that timely observation over fifty years ago now, and however peculiar or exaggerated it may have been then, it has since become all too true. A considerable chunk of our economy has come to depend on how much we spend during the "Christmas Season," a time that has expanded through advertising and sales to fill every available moment immediately after Halloween. And unfortunately if one does not start buying early and often along with the rest of the crowd you can find yourself scouring the dregs of merchandising for items (whether gifts or decorations) when the actual holiday is near.

So the problem for me has become how to fight Early Christmas Burnout. I love Christmas in a hopeless, visceral way that can only be achieved when you had a brief shining experience when you were five that was followed by a gray waste of Christmaslessness until you were almost an adult. I love red, white, and green, and the scent of evergreen, and twinkling colored lights. I listen to some Christmas carols all through the year. The slightest hint of Christmas starts a nostalgic yearning emotional brewing inside me, and the human heart is not, I think, designed to keep that sort of thing on a constant boil for fifty-five days. All too often Christmas comes not with a bang but a whimper, for what could possibly live up to the weeks-long build up?

Thanksgiving used to be a sort of speed bump in the long holiday slide, but has become less and less significant. As a national holiday (with only slight ties with Harvest Homes and Days of Thanksgiving) it carries little of the hefty clout of tradition that Halloween and Christmas have, and has become burdened with the distaste for the Pilgrims' Puritanism and the national shame over the treatment of the Native Americans (never mind the peaceful and friendly relations they and the Pilgrims had for eighty years). It was recently pointed out to me that there is no tradition beyond the meal itself (apart from the take-it-or-leave-it sprawl of the Thanksgiving Day Parade and ignoring the chance association with football) that is of defining importance to Thanksgiving, no movie or TV special or book that is the classic of the season, some kind of 'must-do' without which the day seems incomplete.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to my latest two acquisitions: Halloween: Vintage Holiday Graphics and Christmas: Vintage Holiday Graphics, both edited by Jim Heiman. These are volumes in the Taschen Icons series of books, solid little items devoted to the iconography of specialized subjects. They include advertising and decorations and actual old photos of people celebrating the seasons, so one gets the feel of how things used to be.

But rather significantly there is no Thanksgiving: Vintage Holiday Graphics in the series. It is a secular, American holiday where we are asked to give thanks, without any specifications or demands to whom or what we should be thankful. But gratitude is good, and spiritually and psychologically healthful, no matter how unpopular it has become. So whether we are thankful to God or the government, our ancestors or simply to the universe itself, on that day it behooves us to bow our heads and acknowledge the worth of all that we have been given, and that things could be a lot worse.

So I'm trying hard not to be engulfed in the Xmas Holiday Rush, trying to savor the leaves falling and the smell of woodsmoke in the air and the crickling sounds of squirrels as they scramble for acorns. I'm struggling to keep my posts Thanksgiving themed, if I must talk about holidays. I'm refraining from joining in Christmas carols that my co-workers have already starting to hum (and whose lyrics they are mostly woefully scrappy on--my know-it-all urge constantly nags me to tell them the complete and true readings). I have drunk a lot of eggnog and bought a room freshener labeled "Bayberry Spice and Everything Nice"--but pacing, pacing is the key. I must make the long march to Christmas, but still arrive with the strength to join the battle.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Holiday For Drumsticks": Thanksgiving Cartoons

Peculiarly enough, animated food (particularly spaghetti) always makes me hungry, and in this cartoon we are treated to a plethora of lovingly detailed comestibles that Daffy devours as he scams the turkey out of his fattening feed. I think this portrayal of eats might have something to do with the country coming out of some lean times after WWII, when the depiction of scarce food and good cheer approached something of the level of pornography.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Pilgrim Popeye": Thanksgiving Cartoons

I want to bring together a string of Thanksgiving cartoons we watched as kids, and thought I'd start with Pilgrim Popeye. I like the somewhat bleak November backgrounds in the first part as being very atmospheric, along with Popeye's little hymn to nippy weather. What annoys me now about most of these old cartoons is the assumption that all "Injuns" are Plains Indians (or perhaps I should say Plains Native Americans) and portrayed as simply enemies. Favorite quote from this cartoon: "What! No toikey?!"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Cornucopia Of Cornucopias

The story of the cornucopia, or 'Horn of Plenty,' goes back at least to the fifth century, B.C. The myth is that as a child Zeus hid from his father Cronos on Mt. Ida in the isle of Crete. He was nourished there on the milk of the nanny goat Amalthea, and one day while playing with her he broke off one of her horns. In remorse, he returned it to her imbued with the power to provide its owner with whatever they wanted. Several mythological figures were portrayed holding the cornucopia, including the personification of autumn and the harvest. These days in the United States the cornucopia has become associated with Thanksgiving and is often used as a centerpiece or display decoration.