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A Christmas Carol

By Laura James · December 19th, 2007 · The Big Picture
  The Taft Museum of Art revels in the holiday season with An Antique Christmas, an exhibition that conjures Dickens� A Christmas Carol.
Joe Lamb

The Taft Museum of Art revels in the holiday season with An Antique Christmas, an exhibition that conjures Dickens� A Christmas Carol.

It started in high school and lasted about 10 years: Every December I would bundle myself in blankets and read A Christmas Carol to get me in the wintery spirit. Something about Dickens´ tale -- not the comic-strip adaptation of it, but the real story in all its cold, candle-lit glory -- stuck to me. It took me to a place where Christmas meant so much more than presents or religion. It was about being cold and suddenly feeling the rush of a warm fire, about being hungry or full or sick or healthy or lonely or surrounded by those you love the most.

It´s been years since I read A Christmas Carol, but wandering through the TAFT MUSEUM OF ART last week, through all the halls decked in trees and toys from another era, reminded me of all those Dickensian feelings.

Granted, the decorations are mostly German rather than English and date about a half a century after the novella´s publication. But AN ANTIQUE CHRISTMAS reminded me of Christmases past -- both good and bad, both others´ and mine.

Feather trees are tucked in nearly every corner of the Taft´s permanent collection. They vary in color and size, but most are about 18 inches tall. The feather tree tradition began more than 100 years ago in Germany, when artisans would wrap goose feathers around wire to emulate the white pines of the German countryside.

The feather trees at the Taft come from the homes of local collectors. Many German immigrants relied so heavily on their feather tree tradition that they made them small enough to travel across the Atlantic.

Underneath the trees in perfect tableaux sit antique tins of candies, blocks, greeting cards, games and toys. Ornaments, also antiques, hang from the precious tree limbs in various forms -- from free-blown glass ¨encased in ¸ thin crinkly silver wire¨ to spun cotton garlands to fruit to paper figures called scraps.

Perhaps my favorite things in An Antique Christmas are the Belsnickles. Called Pelz Nichols (Saint Nicolas in fur) in Germany, where they originated as an extension of a similar French figure, Belsnickles are figures of Santa Claus dating from the 1870s. These Santas, with their stern faces and slender shapes are hardly what we contemporary Americans picture when thinking of Santa Claus.

And therein lies the beauty of these strange little homunculi: They´re really nothing like our own. No jolly red cheeks, no ho ho ho, these Santas seem to bear the weight of some reality on their papier-máché shoulders. They seem to know that Christmas, like heat, health, and wealth, does not come equally to every home.

It´s all very Dickensian, isn´t it?

Not to worry, though -- the Taft has also devoted a small gallery to Thomas Nast´s drawings from Harper´s Weekly. Nast is commonly believed to have originated the image of Santa we now take for granted: ¨plump and jolly,¨ with a long white beard and a smile all around. Nast borrowed ideas from Clement Clark Moore´s poem ¨Twas the Night Before Christmas,¨ as well as creating his own idealized image of the white Christian family, all together in a warm house awaiting their presents.

Nast´s drawings come from a different era, too -- one that should help us understand why St. Nick became such a ubiquitous figure in American culture. It was the Civil War in the United States, and Nast was a political man. (Abraham Lincoln said that Nast was the North´s ¨best recruiting officer.¨)

A hint of the artist´s political leanings are in my favorite work in this gallery, ¨Picking Mistletoe in the South,¨ an image of a young African-American boy picking the seasonal plant, conjuring in one etching images of both cotton-picking slavery and of sweet, human freedom.

contact laura james: ljames@citybeat.com


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