The Tree and Creative Family Celebrations

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The Tree as a centrepiece of the festive season brings joy to family celebrations and allows for all kinds of creative interpretations. In our home it has been the focal point for gatherings of family and friends so we try to put an effort into making it a little bit different each year, without spending a fortune or getting too stressed. I can usually find something in our decoration stash to re-invent the tree every season whether it is a real or artificial pine, or the alternative kind. 

One of our most memorable trees was a Monterey Pine that we placed beside the fireplace in the old part of our house. This was the largest tree we have ever had. It was nine feet tall and nearly reached the ten foot ceiling. Ellie and I went to a tree farm to choose it and brought it home with the help of our uncle and his trailer. It was a job getting it on to the tree stand and I’ll never forget the strong scent of pine that permeated the house. We fed the tree regularly with sugar, vinegar and a few drops of bleach (to kill mould) that was added to the bucket in which the trunk was placed. This kept it looking fresh for the whole festive period.

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We had an old fashioned Christmas party that year where everyone came dressed in costumes of the late Victorian era. The pine tree was decorated in this style, with candles, toys, papier mache and glass ornaments.  We already had many of these decorations and found inexpensive items at two dollar shops and chain stores. On top of the tree was a large papier mache star. 

We did not light the real tree candles in case naked flames ignited the volatile pine needles. Instead the room was lit with large candles in the fireplace and assorted candle sticks and holders, as well as some oil lamps. The light reflected in the shiny glass baubles of the tree and created a lovely atmosphere. Luckily it was a cool summer’s evening and the candles did not generate too much heat.

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All our guests entered into the spirit of the occasion and we had a wonderful evening trying to recreate a celebration from a bygone era. We may have lacked the snow but once the sun had eventually set it was hard to tell that it was summer and the tree gave us a taste of a northern winter Yuletide.

More recent trees at our place have been the alternative kind, being created from a music stand, a dead tree and a ladder, all of which suited the more modern section of our house and fitted well with the summer season. Here are some photos.

This year I dug out a 1970s, six foot, green tinsel tree from the attic. (That is the great thing about old houses with roof storage. Plenty of places to store old family items that can be rediscovered and reused.) We have not put up this tree since 2007, so I thought it was about time and it looks good in our more casual family room.

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When sparkling aluminium and vinyl trees first appeared they must have seemed so modern compared with the traditional pine trees. The only thing they have in common are the branches formed into a cone shape. They remind me of something from the space age, like some strange satellite antenna. Many examples of these shiny vintage trees are available to buy online and they are especially relevant where it is summer and no sign of snow. They look great with the sunshine reflecting on the metallic foliage. 

Mixing both original and contemporary ornaments can give new life to a vintage tree. As well as some vintage decorations, such as the synthetic silk balls, I used more recent decorations from our collection that also suit this tree, like white, gold and silver stars, aluminium tree and butterfly cutouts. Basically anything sparkly and shiny. Amongst the branches are white and silver Christmas Crackers (or bon bons) to hide the trunk. I did not put on any lights or glass baubles because electricity, glass and dogs are a recipe for disaster. And speaking of dogs, we have placed our tree on a small table to prevent the original silk balls being appropriated by our dogs. The last time we set up this tree one of our previous fox terriers stole and destroyed a few. It would be too tempting at ground level, especially as our younger dog loves balls. So far so good. The tree looks quite dramatic and nearly touches the ceiling.

Our vintage tree will be a cheerful feature at our end of year party and will allow us to time travel back to the mid twentieth century for our celebrations. Nothing like cocktails and retro finger food partaken around the tree on a summer’s evening to put everyone in happy, holiday mood, especially when the sun does not set until around 9.30 pm. 

Have fun and be creative with your tree. Whether it is real, traditional or modern, there is something special about getting together with family and friends around the tree for whatever you celebrate at this time of year.

Thank you for dropping by to my erratic blog and wishing all of you Happy Holidays and a joyful Festive Season.

Kat

The following is a typically Aussie, irreverent take on a well known Christmas song by Bucko and Champs (Greg Champion and Colin Buchanan) You won’t hear this one in stores!

Midwinter Chills: Ghastly Ghosts and Comical Phantoms

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It’s the middle of winter in Melbourne and there have been icy winds, frosts and dull days. A good time for ghost stories as these are so much more enjoyable when it’s dark and cold. Reading a modern ghost story has brought back memories of the classic old spooky tales, which I have always loved. Not all are serious and a bit of humor is needed when it is chilly. These stories stimulate the imagination and have led to endless interpretations of this intangible world.

Belief in the supernatural has provided plenty of material for artists and writers over the centuries. Shakespeare gives a chilling account of a ghostly apparition in the form of Hamlet’s murdered father, which has given visual artists inspiration for some beautiful illustration.

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In the 19th century ghost stories were very popular. They were so much more convincing at a time without electric light. In winter one could imagine terrible spectres lurking in the dark of night. Some of the stories are quite creepy, like those by the Irish author, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, who wrote some truly disturbing tales. A couple about haunted houses, like An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Anger Street (1851) and An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, are full of terrible apparitions and shadowy figures on the walls (click on titles to read stories). Read these late at night when the wind is howling for full effect.

Ghostly legends can also be very funny. The Ingoldsby Legends (1840) by Thomas Ingoldsby (Rev Richard Harris Barham) contains many humorous stories and poems about ghosts. Tales such as The Spectre of Tappington; The Ghost; The Legend of Hamilton Tighe; and The Dead Drummer are accompanied by quirky black and white illustrations (click on titles to read stories), which include skeletal spectres, headless figures and phantoms done by well-know artists of the time. These stories are wonderful parodies of ghostly folklore.

Another writer and illustrator who dealt with ghosts in a humorous way was W S Gilbert, the lyricist of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta fame. His collection of poems, Fifty “Bab” Ballads (1884) contains a nonsensical poem that I have included below called The Ghost, the Gallant, the Gael and the Goblin, complete with Gilbert’s (Bab) delightful drawings. It’s about competitive haunting that does not go to plan. A very quaint story with the witty use of words you would expect from the man who wrote, “I am the very model of a modern major-general, I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral…etc.

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Probably the most famous ghost story of the 1900s is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. We have a copy from the 1890s that has drawings by Fred Barnard, who was one of the illustrators of Dickens works. The grotesque depiction of Marley’s ghost became the prototype for many film versions of the tale. Michael Hordern as the tormented Marley in the 1951 version of Scrooge starring Alistair Sim, seems to have stepped out of the illustration.

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The magic of film has made it possible to depict transparent ghosts and ghastly hauntings. From the earliest days of film we can see attempts to bring the spectral world alive for the viewer often with unintentionally hilarious results, as for example in George Melies The Haunted Castle, 1896.

Since then there have been some very terrifying movies, such as The Haunting (1963), with its horrifying haunted house. You would not want to watch this one alone on a dark winters night. It uses sound to a frightening degree (warning: even the trailer is really chilling). Often films that leave much to the imagination are scarier than those with lots of special effects because of the mystery.

There have also been many entertaining comedy films about ghosts, such as Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennet, a hilarious story about a dead married couple haunting a crusty old bachelor that lead to some ridiculous situations.

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Plains of the Darling, NSW, detail by Edward Officer

In Australia there are old bush ballads about ghosts, such as the swagman who haunts the billabong in Waltzing Matilda (Matilda was his swag, not a woman). Like Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the idea of a ghostly horseman riding through the countryside has also peaked Australian writer’s imaginations. One of my favorites is the poem Rafferty Rides Again (1940) by Thomas V Tierney about a bushranger’s ghost that is seen riding in the bush on moonlit nights. As it is still in copyright click on title for a link to the poem. The song Ghost Riders in the Sky is in this tradition and Johnny Cash does a great version.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, in wintertime it is fun to read or watch spooky stories, especially when you are inside near a fire or heater and you know you can turn up the lights any time you like.

And what better way to end this post than with Australia’s Kransky Sisters, singing Talking Heads Psycho Killer as only they can.

Kat

Stuck in a Fug

I have been in a bit of a creative fug this week and am trying to fight the urge to vegetate. The post that I was going to put up has stalled. In the middle of winter with the heating on sometimes you just want to curl up with a book and do nothing, so I have thought of a few fun things to stop the malaise that might work for others as well.

Wear something red. It can be a beanie, a fedora, glasses or something completely crazy. Red always brightens up your day and stimulates the senses.

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Play with your dog or cat. Pets are so full of energy that you can channel their liveliness. Just don’t watch them sleeping. It has the opposite effect. A ball game outside when it is cold will take away the cobwebs.

As owners of fox terriers, just watching them running around makes you want to get up and do something.

Eat a couple of pieces of 70%+ chocolate, as it is a stimulant. It’s safe provided you don’t overdo it and tastes wonderful. But don’t leave the packet lying around or you might be tempted to eat more and it’s dangerous for dogs.

Music can make you feel more energetic. Play something you love loud. It does stimulate the brain.

Victorian band Stonefield, made up of the four Findlay sisters, channel the rock of the 70s in their own unique way. Really wakes me up.

Talk with others in the real world, not just online or by text. A nice long conversation with a friend either on the phone or in person will give both of you a boost.

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Climbing Up the Walls

If you are climbing up the walls it is time to go out and do something with others. Then you will return refreshed.

And if you really need a break don’t fight it. Find a really good book or movie and enjoy the experience. Sometimes your body is telling you to have a rest.

Kat

Winter Creativity: Escape the Cold Weather Blues

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Penguin illustration from A Sketch of The Natural History of Australia by Frederick G Aflalo, 1896.

The weather in Melbourne has turned cold. For those of us who can’t leave town during the winter months it is good to find creative solutions to keeping warm and feeling invigorated. I’d rather feel like a butterfly happily searching for nectar, than a penguin sitting on a nest during a snowstorm. I’m not talking about pumping up the heating but tricking yourself into forgetting about the cold, dark days and taking a summer holiday in your mind.

I know compared with other countries our winter is relatively mild. You need to go up into the hills and mountainous regions to experience snow. But in Melbourne we do have icy southerly and southwesterly winds that blow straight from the Antarctic and the wind chill can be very unpleasant in the winter months.   I once heard a frequent British visitor say that he felt colder here than in an English winter. That’s why many retired people head north to escape. I could write a whole post about the peculiarities of Melbourne weather but I won’t. Instead here is a video taken by a drone of a snow-covered landscape near Ballarat, Victoria last year.

A good way to deal with the winter blues that can sometimes affect anyone is to involve your imagination and use all your senses. Begin with sight and surround yourself with images of summer: Flowers, the beach, out-door activities, whatever reminds you of the warmer months. When you need a boost watching movies that are set in the spring or summertime help to shut out the cold. Unfortunately we will view the new series of Game of Thrones in the middle of winter and all those snow scenes always make me feel really frozen. It will be a case of a fleece blanket, warm dog on lap and spicy curry on these days. So if possible avoid films and TV programs about snow (unless you are mad about snow sports) and find something with a sunny theme. Here’s a list of 100 Summer, Vacation and Beach Movies. You can also search for videos on You Tube with tropical related themes. Films of butterflies make me think of a past trip to North Queensland and the rain forests.

If you are lucky enough to have a spa pool, access to a local heated pool or volcanic hot springs you can still enjoy water activities in the winter, like the snow monkeys in Japan. A nice hot relaxing bath warms you up for ages, especially before you go to bed. If you have some type of bath, treat it like a holiday spa, with bath oil or bath salts. A few drops of essential oil will make it luxurious and smell wonderful.

On the subject of smell, fresh flowers with a lovely scent can lift your spirits when it is icy outside. Plants like Daphne and Winter Sweet give out a lovely fragrance in the cold weather and it is worth planting these in your garden to bring some flowers inside. Pine tree cuttings can do the same. Your home will smell wonderfully fresh. If you do not have access to any flowers you can always use fragrance diffusers or scented candles. The smell of lemon in a hot drink is most refreshing; in fact any citrus fruit brings in the sun so use oranges and limes in cooking.

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With the sense of taste you can relive summer memories and the right food will make you feel better. Nowadays we can obtain various summer fruits and vegetables all year round so put salads with your pasta dishes and make fruit pies. Curries, chilies and Asian style rice and noodle dishes are warming in winter but also a reminder of holidays in hot climes so tuck into these at any opportunity. Put pieces of fruit in drinks and stick in some cocktail umbrellas and imagine you are in the tropics. There are many more ideas for comforting food. My favorite dessert treat is Macha (Japanese powdered green tea) Key Lime Pie that requires no cooking just chopping, mixing and refrigeration (Recipe).

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Macha Key Lime Pie

Sound will take you to a warmer place. In a world full of music there is something for everyone to evoke the summer. It could be from a particular culture or from time spent in the sun. This is bound to be quite personal and there is no standard set list. When you are feeling sick of the cold play your favorite summer music and revel in the heat. Dance and sing to the music to elevate those endorphins. That’ll take away the winter blues.

When the cold weather is getting you down with a bit of creative thinking there are obviously plenty of ways to bring back that summer warmth and energy.

Kat

Here is a quirky indie pop song done by Melbourne band, The Lucksmiths, called T-Shirt Weather. I could not find a video version with good sound but the lyrics paint a sunny picture.