For some reason I feel like people are really down for Christmas this year. Maybe 2014 has been a year of political unrest, significant advancements in technology, and just another year in the modern world, but the ‘Christmas Spirit’ whether it’s ironic or not, seems to be pervasive. There’s also about 15cm of snow on the ground, which makes it downright yuletastic. I thought it would be interesting to investigate the history and traditions of Christmas, in the days before Christmas, you know since 1822 or so it’s been a festival of charity, good will, and domestic harmony. (That one’s for you, Dad!)
For my first entry, I chose to look at the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” which we also know as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, written by Clement Clark Moore, which is disputed, so it could have also been written by Henry Livingston Jr. Regardless, the bouncy cadence and jaunty characterization of St Nicholas clearly indicate this poem was composed for children.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings* were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas* soon would be there.
*Before the Victorian era, Christmas had fallen out of fashion, (something that would never happen today) and even old folk traditions were rarely practised. English society and the Bank of England observed fewer and fewer holidays; 1761 the Bank of England closed for 47 holidays, and by 1834 that number had dropped to four. In 1833, the Factory Act ruled that workers in Britain were allowed only two holidays besides Sunday: Christmas and Good Friday.
A number of things brought Christmas back into vogue during the later half of the 17th century, one of which was images of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their brood celebrating Christmas- with a decorated Christmas tree, introduced to the country by the German-born Prince Albert. Moreover, the publication of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843, kindled a greater interest in the Yuletide season. For the wealthy classes, Christmas was a time of feasting, parties, and good cheer. Even the poor, with their two holidays, were allowed Christmas suppers in their workhouses after the passing of an 1847 law. It also became a season of distributing charity to those less fortunate, unfortunately still referred to as ‘the poor’. Gifts and food boxes were distributed to needy folk of a parish or community, which is also the origin of the holiday on 26th of December known as ‘Boxing Day’ .
This was a season of gift giving, it is clear. After a picture of the Royal Family gathered around their Christmas tree was published in 1840, the Christmas tree tradition was revived by the middle classes. The tree was the epicentre of gift giving and receiving, covered in good things to eat, and small gifts. Since the tree was popular among middle classes, the working class families started to adopt the tradition of Christmas stockings, which was more affordable and convenient. And that’s why we have stockings..
*St Nicholas was a kind but secret gift giver from the 4th century, a saint who left coins in people’s shoes on the eve of feast day, December 6th. In the poem here, he’s called St.Nicholas, but most kids today, call him Santa Claus, or Santa. How did St.Nick transform into Santa Claus, you ask? The Dutch word for St.Nicholas is Sinterklaas, which was transfigured into St.Aclaus, Santeclaw, St.Claas, Sancte Klaas, etc. which turned him into the Santa Clause we know and love today. I’m not really sure I’d be into the gifts that Santaclaw would bring. Let us continue.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums* danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief*, and I in my cap*,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.
*sugarplums are the treats and goodies that sweetened up the holiday season before high fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. Sugarplums and other candied fruits like sugared plums, ginger, apricots, cherries, caraway seeds and anise seeds, might all be known by the handle of sugarplums, and could be anything from stewed fruits, to sugared and crystallized confections. Remember, this is all before the 12 month growing cycle, which is why this range of preserved fruits are all called the sugarplum.
*kerchief originates from the French word couvre-chef, which means a head covering, in this case it’s likely a handkerchief or nighttime head covering for a woman.
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash*.
*window panes in two parts that slide vertically, this word here isn’t a belt for a dress, or a piece of fabric that crosses from shoulder to waist, but a part of window construction.
The moon on the breast* of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer*.
*historical tidbit for you: often ‘breast’ would be changed to crest or to preserve young, impressionable ears!
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers* they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!
“Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen*!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen*!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
*also known as Dunder and Blixem, Dutch-American words for thunder and lightning, respectively, also thought to originally be Donner and Blitzen, German-American words for the same weather event. Their origin is surrounded in controversy, but is likely from a publisher’s confusion over the two words which sound similar and mean the same thing in both languages. Before Vixen was pulling sleighs for St Nick, he/she was pulling carts for Aesop.
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers* they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.
*coursers are very strong war horses, ridden by knights or men at arms. Here, the reindeer are tasked with pulling the toys, ahem Toys for all the children in the world, as well as the patron saint of gift giving. Talk about precious cargo!
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur*, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler*, just opening his pack.
*A peddler is a nomadic person who would travel around, with objects, would trade a meal and a place to stay for the night with an opportunity to look at his wares, which usually were unique, and exotic.
His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath*.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!
*The circular, evergreen wreath has a range of origins, likely the German Advent wreath or Irish folk customs. The word ‘wreath’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word writham meaning ‘to writhe’, or ‘to twist’. Regardless of their origin, they have been significant symbols for a long time. We all know about Ancient Rome, where those imbued with divine favour wore laurel wreaths around their heads. Winners of athletic or literary contests wore laurel wreaths, as did, sacrificial animals, and kings. To those who celebrated Saturnalia, evergreen wreaths symbolized the sun, and the renewal of life at the winter solstice, December 25th on the Julian calendar.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings*, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!
*Another note about stockings, St Nick places his gifts in the stockings and not under the tree, since the poem was composed between 1822 and 1837, before those middle classes, or anyone had returned their interest to the Christmas tree.
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”
Sources: Encyclopedia of Christmas, Tanya Gulevich, 1998; The Christmas Encyclopedia, William D. Crump. 2005
This winter, don’t forget to take the label off the sleeve of your new wool coat, before its maiden voyage. Moreover, when you get it home, take a pair or scissors and cut the thread holding the back pleat together, as well as the threads holding the pockets closed. Stores do this because the coat hangs better, and keeps its New Coat Feel, but since you’re more active than a department store mannequin, bending, walking, sitting and, you know, moving, taking off this stuff will ensure a more positive coat experience!
Ask Fibres is delighted to present the first guest post on the site, written by Mary Jane McIntyre.
At a book launch for “Inside the Museums” (1) that was held at Mackenzie House on Bond Street in downtown Toronto recently, I saw horsehair upholstered furniture. Horsehair is a fibre one doesn’t see too often these days. Mackenzie House was completed in 1858 and although the furniture cannot be traced to the Mackenzie family, it is representative of the time.
Horsehair is the long coarse hair from the mane and tail of the horse (pictured). It can be cropped from live or dead horses. The texture of horsehair can be influenced by the breed and management of the horse including diet and climate. (2) The best horsehair comes from live horses.
Horsehair has had many uses: hat making, upholstery as fabric and stuffing, ropes for fishing lines, fishing mittens, rugs and sieves to name a few. The horsehair is the weft or cross thread when woven into fabric but can be woven using it for warp and weft for sieves for milk and flour. (3) Horsehair fabric was originally woven on handlooms where a child stood by the weaver and served him each hair. In 1870, this child labour ended when the Education Act was passed ensuring all children in England went to school. (4)
Horsehair is a protein and can be dyed using dyes suitable for protein fibres. Today, the most common uses are for brushes and upholstery stuffing. (5) Horsehair upholstery long wearing and versatile. at John Boyd Textiles, weavers of horsehair since 1837 in Castle Cary, Somerset, England, many designs and colours from the late 1800’s are still available and woven on the same looms! Custom colours are a minimum order of 20 metres. The width of the fabric is determined by the length of the hair, usually 26 inches (66 cms) or 22 inches (56 cms).
White horsehair from the tail is used for the ribbon of violin bows. Stallion hair from Siberia is considered the best. Usually, 150 to 200 hairs are incorporated into the ribbon of a violin bow. Other instruments in the violin family have a wider ribbon so use more hairs. Hairs may break during playing so the bow must be rehaired from time to time. The hairs must be straight and strong. Bows cost anywhere from $40. to several thousand dollars if made by a renowned bow maker. The musician rosins the bow to have it move smoothly across the strings.
Where would you come across horsehair in daily life? Most probably using brushes for painting, either decorative or artistic, and cleaning. Horsehair brushes are used for sweeping and dust removal, take a look at the horsehair fireplace brush. Pony hair brushes are used in forensics for fingerprint dusting.
Note from Ali: I used to work in a store that sold Aboriginal and Inuit art, jewellery and gifts from Canada, and once, the manager ordered some supplies to make jewellery, including a skein of horsehair. The horsehair arrived from Ontario held together nicely by the chunk of skin from the horse’s rump. Lovely. One of the most interesting uses for horsehair (to me) is its use in dancehall sprung floors. The horsehair provides padding and shock absorption to the floor, providing a more comfortable dancing experience. Two examples in Canada, are Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom (now hardwood) build in 1929, and Saskatchewan’s Danceland ballroom, a 5000 square foot ballroom, in Manitou Beach.
Danceland’s ballroom is made of 21 coils of horsehair, each about 60 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. The horsehair is twisted tightly, wrapped in burlap and wired. The horsehair is placed underneath the dancefloor, and can give up to an inch and a half during use. Incredible! Have you ever danced on a horsehair sprung floor?
Belts actually come up regularly in English idiomatic expressions, ‘To hit below the belt’, ‘to take a belt’, ‘belt something out’, ‘tighten one’s belt’, ‘the Sunshine belt’. The expression typically means to have learned or mastered knowledge or a skill, consider the fact that a belt is also something you use to secure something, or securely hold your pants up: Jill was proud of getting her botany certificate under her belt. Here, we mean that Jill has completed a course or program in botany, and now possesses that qualification. It’s also used to describe when something is completed, or achieved: Jack took comfort that the fortnight’s dragon slaying was under his belt. And, most literally, it means to have consumed something by eating or drinking: Joe knew the magic mushrooms were under his belt when a magenta platypus started tap dancing nearby.
Interestingly, most early uses involve alcohol, meaning the amount that a person had consumed. An example below, “At half and hour past eight in the evening, he was carried home with fix [sic] good bottles of claret under his belt and it being then Friday, he gave orders that he fhould[sic] not be difturbed [sic] till Sunday at noon-” (from: 1790‘s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (first published 1771))
The expression originally meant the amount of liquor one has consumed and, over time, grew to include a meal or food and then experience or knowledge. A citation from a 1954 issue of The Manchester Guardian Weekly describes, “His wife had 135,000 miles driving in the States under her belt[?]but was still failed.”
Scottish proverbs continue to delight us here at Ask Fibres, and an old Gaelic one, d’òrdag fo mo cheios, or in English, ‘Put thy thumb under my belt’ meaning to submit or concede, where a writer mixed the two, saying, ‘My Tongue is not under your belt’, more plainly, ‘You can say nothing of me that will make me hold my tongue’. Strong language!
However, nowadays, tongues under belts would mean a whole different thing, and this is not one of those blogs, so we’re going to leave it there for now!
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
The Principles of Gaelic Grammar- John Forbes, 1848
1790‘s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (first published 1771):
1817‘s Ormond, a tale by Maria Edgeworth:
After looking at the images of the artist Christopher Payne, a photographer who focuses on the dwindling textile industry of the United States, and the processes and people who are part of the shrinking community. To view the gallery click here. There’s an accompanying article called ‘Fruits of the Loom’ After looking at the gallery, come back and read the AskFibres generated glossary, below. Then you’ll finally know what a beaming creel is.
beaming creel- A creel is a frame where multiple bobbins can be arranged where they will supply the threads to a loom. A beaming creel has the threads wound from the creel to a second beam before being used in the warp of a textile.
Bobbin is what people do when they move their heads to music. Well, in this context, it’s also a tube around which yarn or string is wound.
burling is a finishing process, where knots, nubs, lumps or loose threads are removed
carding- pink piles of wool that look like asbestos or insulation in the piece, carding is the process of combing a large quantity of wool into order. Wool, after it is dyed is a big tangled, kinked mass. The carding machine, a roller with metal teeth combs all the wool into straight, even lines, where it can be spun into yarn, much easier.
knitting machine- much like embroidery, most commercial knitting is done by knitting machine, where thread is knit back and forth to create the knit jersey most of us know as the material t-shirts and the like are made of.
roving is the piles of carded wool, before it is spun into yarn. Roving can also be used to make felt for felted hats, jackets, sheets of felt and so on.
spool- similar to a bobbin, a spool is basically a bigger bobbin
textile twister is a machine that takes multiple threads of yarn and twists them into one, it can also add more twists or tension to a thread, which determines how loosely or tightly it is formed.
wool picker is a machine that picks the wool, not in a choosing sense, but a picking out the threads and clumps to open it up and loosen the chunks, this helps blend the fibre, and colour if you’re working with wool dyed multiple colours.