“Always, worlds within worlds.” –Clive Barker, Weaveworld
We private libraries do like a theme. We may start out looking random, but patterns tend to emerge as we grow. Fiction. Non-fiction. Mysteries. Biographies. Science. Sci-fi.
Take my shelves, for instance. Memory is one of my big themes. And place and space. Storytelling and identity. Childhood, holidays, time. Art, music, poetry. Museums and the collecting impulse. Creation and salvation. Melancholy and death. Re-creation. Play. Call me existential, but call me.
If I had to describe my theme in one word, I’d say “worlds.” And then I’d say “and world-making” because I’m not a one word (or one world) kind of library.
But back to Christmas, another of my big themes. Today I unveil the first of our favorite Christmas books, unless you count the Sears, Roebuck Wishbook mentioned in my previous post. And it has to do with worlds and world-making.
So, Little Drummer Boy drum roll, please. Pa-rumpa-pum-pum. (God, I hated that song, and I don’t even have ears. Just my mind’s ears.)
For the first of my Twelve Days of Christmas Books, I select: Keeping Christmas – An Edwardian-Age Memoir by William F. Stricker, and illustrated by Joseph Sheppard.
Stricker, a priest-monsignor, grew up as a neighbor and friend of H. L. Mencken in the Union Square neighborhood of Baltimore. This manuscript was found among the Monsignor’s papers after he passed away.
The book touches on several of my themes: memories of childhood, lost worlds (Baltimore, Maryland around the turn into the 20th century–LW, of course, is originally from Maryland, but east of the Bay), and Christmas. It also has some lovely watercolor illustrations as seen above. LW’s big on visuals.
But since she has lots of new books to read (Boxer’s Day is “Browser’s Day” in this live-in library), I’ll cut to our favorite part of Keeping Christmas, the part that has to do with world-making.
It’s the part Mgr. Stricker describes in Chapter 5, The Land of Lilliput about the elaborate preparations Baltimore citizens of all stripes put into their renowned displays they called Christmas gardens. Every firehouse as well as many shops and private homes in Mgr. Stricker’s day created models of Christmas or winter scenes for their front windows. Firehouses competed among themselves for the best display. (Even now parts of Baltimore are known for going all out with holiday decorations.)
Some of their scenes, Mgr. Stricker writes, “were enlivened by special mechanical effects,” such as the scene that featured “a periodic fire and spurting water to put out the recurring blaze.” He continues, “What renewed the fire is still unknown, for the inventor perished in the line of duty and took his secret with him.”
Another inventor-type he describes hung only angels on his tree. Using a rod and axle arrangement, the man suspended the tree through a hole in the ceiling from the room above it. Windmill blades were attached to this get-up, and a ring of gas jets propelled the blades, causing the tree to rotate. And when the tree rotated, the angels would fly.
The Christmas garden displays resonated with LW because she had heard that her paternal grandfather used to put up similar scenes in the family’s apartment above his photography studio in Salisbury. These featured a miniature windmill he had made (and that her parents would continue to use for some of their first holidays together) set on a river of aluminum foil that was populated by rubber ducks. A church, some trees, perhaps a train(?), and another house or two completed the scene, which was so popular in the neighborhood that some years (an aunt told her) it was not taken down until April.
LW has vague memories of some similar, if less elaborate displays from her earliest Christmases. The vagueness of these memories make her want to fill them in, recreating Childhood Worlds.2 or .3 or .4 with whatever bits of information she can find.
In recent years she has enjoyed world-making in the Christmas garden tradition. She sets up her own Christmas village, a mix of several kinds of store-bought buildings and kitsch, including some inspired by the movie A Christmas Story. (Needless to say, we keep Jean Shepherd’s books close.)
She is open to suggestions for the name of the town as well as the streets. Here is the main drag, currently called Main Street.
LW enjoys immersing herself in these scenes. She claims to be inside the theater shown below, watching “Babes in Toyland.”
And here’s the elementary school on the night of the holiday pageant. That’s her on the right, coming out of the candy store. Its owner kept it open late, knowing she and her friends would be stopping by for Pom-Poms.
And the photo below was taken the night her sister JW sang Christmas carols at the local radio station with her Girl Scout troop. In real life, the Scouts’ radio gig went down without incident, but in Christmas Town, the troop came on right after the tipsy yahoos you see in the window and before The Chipmunks. (“Thank God we didn’t have to follow The Chipmunks,” she said later.)
Next up: more world-making at Christmastide. Joy to the world!