Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas decorations remembered

Watching "Wartime Farm: Christmas" and seeing Ruth Goodman making paper lanterns, I was catapaulted back into Geasons Primary School and our messy endeavours to make decorations every Christmas.  One teacher had us painting tree branches white, and hanging baubles from them. Another had us making paper chains. Everyone had them - strips of coloured card that formed a circle.

When I was a child, we hung paper streamers across the ceiling and bunches of balloons in the corners. The decorations looked like these (right) - they were made by a company called Harlequin and were intricately cut and bright colours. These gave way to similar "drop downs" where several metres of coloured foil cut out decorations were concertina'd between two end plates.

Our first artificial Christmas tree arrived around 1969, courtesy of Freeman's catalogue. It was very tall, right up to the ceiling, and turquoise with silvery bits.

We had a faithful old collection of baubles that came out year after year, and long plumes of tinsel and strands of lametta. Mum liked to hang lametta from the chains across the ceiling, which used to constantly drop down and drive my dad mad.

Some of the baubles were those delightful old-fashioned ones with the side cut out. I've seen similar ones on eBay. We had a couple of glass birds. I loved them and was thrilled to find a very similar one at one of the Christmas shops in Oberammergau.

The fairy lights were big and chunky, some of them with a sugary texture. When one bulb failed, the whole lot stopped working.  They looked similar to those on the right.

And at the top of the tree was a shabby fairy who resembled a ballet dancer. Her white crepe paper dress became a dirty yellow over the years.

One thing I've found is that there isn't much on the Internet about Christmas decorating traditions. I'll come back tomorrow with an update.


Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Tudor Christmas

Last year I wrote about the Christmas traditions of other countries. This year I thought I would step back in time to look at the Tudor Christmas.

I'm fascinated by the Tudor period, and knowing how devout they were, I imagined their Christmas would revolve around church with the rich enjoying a "bird within a bird within a bird" roast.

There would be no Christmas trees - this didn't start until Prince Albert popularised them in Victorian times - or "Father Christmas," who came along courtesy of the Coca Cola company.

The Tudors' Christmas festival lasted from December 25 to January 6. Some fasting was required as preparation, so on Christmas Eve they didn't eat meat, cheese or eggs. As a bonus, they didn't work during this period except for those who had to look after animals. Flowers were wrapped around spinning wheels to stop women from working.

Christmas Day was a busy time for Henry VIII. He had to go to Mass three times and was expected to wear new clothes. He banned any sports taking place on Christmas Day except for jousting and archery.


During the 12 Days of Christmas people visited friends and relatives and shared "mince pyes,"identical to the mince pies we enjoy today. They had 13 ingredients representing Christ and the apostles.

Tudor Pie
They did indeed enjoy a bird within a bird ---- in the form of a Tudor pie. This was traditionally a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. It was made into a pie. Turkey was made popular by Henry VIII who was one of the first Britons to eat one at Christmas.

Feasts were accompanied by the "wassail bowl" of punch. A piece of bread was soaked at the bottom and always given to the most important person in the room, becoming the tradition of toasting.

The Tudors also had a Christmas pudding, but it was shaped like a sausage and contained meat and spices.

Presents and carols

Gifts were not exchanged until New Year's Day. Carols were popular in Tudor times as a way of spreading the story of the Nativity. Celebrations came to an abrupt end in the 17th century when the Puritans banned Christmas. Carols became extinct until Victorian times.

Other traditions

The kiss under the mistletoe harks back to the Tudor period. In the 15th century it became customary to create a "kissing bough" made of a bendy wood. An effigy of Christ was placed inside and the bough was hung in the house where the local priest would bless it. Anyone visiting the house would embrace under the bough to show they brought goodwill.

Further Reading
The Tudors Wiki
Historic UK
Local Histories


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The silly world of Claridge's

A programme on BBC Two took us into the hallowed portals of posh London hotel Claridge's last night, "for the first time ever!"

In this old-fashioned, fusty looking place rooms cost around six thousand pounds a night.

The guests are the uber rich:  Arab royalty, little known US designers and popstars  ("Mr The Edge" has lost any edge now we know this is where he holes up).

No guest's request is ever refused. It's as if the abundance of money has rendered common sense and good manners redundant.

Some of these rich guests demand for their room, nay suite, to be redecorated! At their own expense, of course. It reverts back to beige blandness afterwards  (the uber rich are not very tasteful - look at the Trumps, the Ecclestones). One imagines an Arab princess stamping her foot like Veruccae Salt and demanding a new carpet for her stay.

Talking of Arab princesses, Claridges' staff were hard at work transforming a whole floor into an Arabian palace. They weren't sure when the retinue was arriving: the guests were too busy flitting around on planes and no-one had the decency to lock down on an actul date  (how suburban!). In fact it was possible they could cancel. But in this fiercely competitive world, Claridge's just has to grin and bear it in case the spoilt family went somewhere else. So bedrooms were turned into banqueting halls and kitchens, and two rooms were set aside just for the shopping.

The rich guests sometimes stuff safes or carrier bags with wads of cash, we were breathlessly told. And leave it behind! Hmm, I would be a bit suspicious of that. The late Michael Jackson carried cash because he was in such debt that anything paid into his bank account would have gone straight to creditors.

Does all this money buy you happiness? Well, no-one does much work, it would seem, and they spend their time flitting from one gilded cage to another. Paris today, London tomorrow. The only one who seemed content was Sammy the dog, whose Botox'd owner told us that he liked coming to Claridge's where he has his own bowl and basket. The concierge was probably less happy when she gave him what looked like a coin for the privilege of walking Sammy.

This hushed and hallowed world seemed very vacuous and silly. These people can teach us nothing about humility and good manners. They should take a leaf out of the book of Bill and Melinda Gates, who have dedicated their lives post-Microsoft to spending their fortune on good causes. They travel a lot too but it's not to race tracks or fashion shows. They travel to places where women are forced to give birth to children one after the other because their corrupt governments don't spend on women's health or contraception.

I suspect we would not find Mr and Mrs Gates arguing about their carpet being the wrong colour or needing a room set aside for atrocities purchased in the Egyptian room of Harrod's.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Art for Art's Sake

Good art, like good newspaper columnists, should divide opinion.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and it would be a sad world that didn't encourage diversity, variety and controversy.

So I was amused when the Daily Mail in its usual heavy-handed, "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" style launched a broadside against Damien Hirst this week. The writer told us gleefully that Hirst's works are falling in price, and that the adulation around him was Emperor's New Clothes, because he can't paint or draw and has dozens of minions who churn out his works.

Tracey Emin wasn't free from the broadside either, as the writer poured venom onto her "dirty bed."

No, real artists are the likes of JMW Turner, said the writer.

Hmmm. I admire the works of JMW Turner but I'm afraid their...well, sludginess, and high percentage of ship content, does not induce any sort of emotional response in me. Nor does the work of Damien Hirst, but I wouldn't be so naive as to criticise one artist over another. Indeed, the Bishop of Chichester has defended Hirst this week, saying he is an agent of Jesus Christ, a man of substance whose "exquisite" work draws us to a contemplation of Heaven.

And that is as it should be. Everyone perceives art in a different way and has a different reaction to it.

A few years ago, I had an encounter with the three Rothkos in Tate St Ives. I was completely floored; sat transfixed, feeling myself consumed within those boundless colours.

I'm sure that Daily Mail writer would sneer at the work of Mark Rothko. He would probably say a child of six could do something similar.

This writer even sneered at the wonderful "A Bigger Picture" David Hockney exhibition a few months ago. I had a less emotional response but nonetheless I was breathless and awe struck at the energy and passion that resonated through the galleries. This was not the work of an elderly man, and in this lies the beauty of art. Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon were still painting just before they died, and their work had lost none of his power or vigour.

Art makes you immortal.

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