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Arts & Crafts:
From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright

by Arnold Schwartzman

The author focuses on a British craftsmen, such as William Morris and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who turned their backs on the mass production of the Industrial Revolution to form a ‘Round Table’ in order to establish a means of returning to hand-crafted products.

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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

 Celebrating an Olde Fashioned Christmas
by Bob Brooke


Christmas! It comes but once a year, but what a warm and joyous holiday it is. No other holiday in America boasts such a wealth of traditions and customs. Christmas is familiar songs, delicious food, gifts and greeting cards, as well as brightly lit trees and wreaths festooned with red ribbons. And don’t forget Santa Claus and filled stockings. But all these traditions didn't come from the same place, as did the people who brought them to America.

Not only do we enjoy our uniquely American traditions---Christmas dinner with roast turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, tiny lights strung on houses; plump Santa Claus---but we also celebrate in ways that reflect the diverse backgrounds of our immigrant ancestors. Their holiday traditions, transplanted here from many countries, have taken root and thrived.

A Colonial Christmas
To the first English colonists who arrived in Virginia in 1607, Christmas was both a holy day and a festival which they celebrated here with the same merriment and feasting that they did in England. They also began the practice of exuberant noise-making, with horns, drums, and firecrackers, that's still part of Christmas in the South.

Early American Christmas celebrations were simple by necessity. Life offered few luxuries, and most families struggled just to survive. But the Pilgrims took a dim view of the singing and dancing, feasting and drinking that characterized the Yuletide celebration back in England. For them, Christmas was strictly a religious event, and merrymaking on this holy day was an unwelcome reminder of pagan winter rites. So the Pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts in the winter of 1620 spent December 25th erecting their first building, refusing to make the day special in any way. By the Revolutionary War, they began to lift their bans, but it was not until 1856 that Massachusetts recognized Christmas as a legal holiday.

Fortunately, Christmas was cheerier elsewhere in the colonies. On Christmas day, 1624, an expedition of the Dutch East India Company went ashore to the now island of Manhattan to give thanks with a merry feast. As more colonists arrived from Holland, they brought their Christmas customs of a gift-bearing St. Nicholas, the stocking filled with treats, and the spirit of family closeness that's so much a part of Christmas today.

Other immigrants along the Atlantic seaboard joined the Dutch in keeping a merry Christmas. With the Scandinavians who settled in Delaware in 1638 came the legend of gift-giving elves, as well as the custom of hanging a wreath of fir or pine boughs on the front door as a sign of welcome and a symbol of good luck. A century or so later, German colonists introduced the practice of decorating evergreen trees with candles, cookies, and ornaments.

Christmas in the southern states was a convivial affair, the American counterpart of the English Yuletide revelry. It wasn't so much an occasion for gift giving as for friendship and hospitality. In Williamsburg, Virginia, people lit the Yule log as the foundation of the traditional Christmas Eve fire, and gathered to sing carols. The Yule log played a special role in holiday observances. As long as it burned, usually throughout Christmas week, no one was expected to work. Not surprisingly, people went to great lengths to keep the giant log ablaze. The next morning they attended church services, and then the festivities began--banquets, dances, games, hunts, and fireworks--sometimes continuing until the New Year.

Other Early Christmas Traditions
In the huge expanse of country beyond the 13 original colonies, other traditions took hold. From the Great Lakes to Louisiana, French settlers attended a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, then sat down to a special supper called a reveillon. Children left their shoes by the creche before going to bed, in hopes that the infant Jesus would fill them with gifts. For most French-American families Christmas was a time of peace and contemplation. The secular celebration waited until New Year's Eve, which they celebrated with a town festival complete with parades, masquerade balls and the like.

Spanish communities in what's now Texas and in the mission settlements of the Southwest re-enacted the journey of Mary and Joseph on the first Christmas. Called Las Posadas, this combination procession, play, and pageant was followed by a lively celebration. At the height of the festivities, children swung at a pinata with a large stick, and when it broke scrambled after the toys and sweets that spilled out.

As the tide of immigrants swelled in the 19th century, new Christmas customs appeared. It was at this time, too, that Christmas assumed national importance. By the 1840s, Clement C. Moore's classic poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" became a family favorite. Christmas parties and gift giving, Santa Claus and ornamented trees were common to the whole country by 1860.

A Victorian Christmas
By the 1890s, the height of the Victorian era, Christmas had acquired many modern traditions. During the Victorian Era from 1837 to 1901, people celebrated Christmas with special family gatherings, feasting, embellishing the home with decorations, and gift giving in increasing abundance. Victorians loved to decorate for the holidays. A giant fir tree, adorned with dried hydrangeas in shades of rose and pale green, lacy fans, white silk roses(a symbol of the Virgin Mary), German glass balls, and delicate handmade paper ornaments, held together with lace garland, woven with ribbon and strung fresh cranberries, stood in the parlor. Many people believe that the Christmas tree evolved from the Paradise tree, a fir hung with red apples and wafers(the host) which represented the Garden of Eden in a medieval miracle play about Adam and Eve performed on December 24.

Arrangements of fresh greens and holly, a pagan custom adapted by Christians, decorated Victorian homes. The color green came to symbolize the Christian belief in eternal life through Christ. Legend says that Jesus' crown of thorns was plaited from holly. It's said that, before the crucifixion, the berries of the holly were white, but afterward, they turned crimson, like drops of blood.

Greens hung from chandeliers. Pine roping, wrapped with pearls and pink moire taffeta bows, draped the grand staircase. Perhaps a small wooden tree covered with prisms stood on a marble-top table. Another, covered in intricate origami birds, might have stood on a hall table. The crowning touch was a large welcoming wreath that hung on the vestibule door flanked by alabaster urns filled with gold tinged twisted willow and red poinsettias. But the most important part of the Victorian celebration was the family's creche, which featured carved figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child set in a miniature village, complete with meadows, fences, windmills and ponds. flanked by poinsettias. Many believe St. Francis of Assisi created the first creche using live animals in 1223.

Gift giving played an important role in Victorian celebrations. The lady of the house would smile as she peeled back the tissue covering a heavily embossed sterling silver dresser set or opened a box in which a pair of gold and amethyst earrings nestled. Children often received books, considered appropriate for their educational or moral value. Or perhaps a doll's china tea service and sewing equipment for the girls, and miniature tools for the boys to help prepare them for adulthood. Men weren't left out. To go walking, a man might receive a gold-tipped cane or a fine ivory meerschaum pipe.

Then as now, Americans remembered the true meaning of Christmas through generosity and charitable deeds. While they made merry with family and friends, they also recalled the origin of this once-a-year event, exemplified in star-topped trees, Nativity scenes, performances of Handel's Messiah, and above all the sharing of joy and love with their loved ones.

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