Thursday, December 20, 2012

Collecting ... or not

When I once commented to my husband how I marveled at the quantity of stuff some people manage to amass in their lifetimes, as witnessed by the overflowing abundance offered at the estate sales I am fond of attending, he said, "Maybe they liked to go to estate sales."

I take that warning to heart, I really do, and try to limit my estate sale purchases to things I can actually use, especially quirky little items to include in my tins of "Stuff!" for kids, which have become a fairly popular attraction in my Etsy shop (of course you want to pop over to the toy section to see a few examples, right?)

So when I picked up these sweet little ceramic figurines that were scattered amongst the usual clutter and chaos at one recent estate sale, that's what I had in mind. Although I wasn't sure they were quite small enough to fit in the little boxes, which are the same size as an Altoid tin, but at something like a buck apiece, I figured it was worth the risk.

I like to see what I can find out about items like this when I acquire them, so I looked on the bottoms for any clues as to their origin, and found that the turtle had the words "Wade England" on it. The others simply had little ridges. And so I began my search.

Ceramic figurines like these have been manufactured by Wade Ceramics of England since the 1950s. They are known as Wade Whimsies and are apparently popular collectibles, according to several sources, including the Wade Ceramics website, which promotes a collectors' "club" and continues to manufacture a variety of animals and characters, from Pokemon to Disney characters (according to Wikipedia) to Bette Boop. Their primary market these days is distillers, though; they make ceramic whiskey flagons, too.

Only the earliest figurines had the "Wade England" stamp on them; soon they started putting the ridged texture on the bottom instead, which became a kind of trademark and also has a practical function—you can strike a match on them. Although it's not clear to me whether that was the intention, they were supposedly used in this way in kitchens and pubs, according to the Red Rose Tea company, which has given away Wade Whimsies in some of their boxes of tea as a promotional item since 1967.

 I don't know whether the currently manufactured figurines have this feature, there's probably not a lot of demand for things to strike matches on these days. But it's a novel idea; I may just try it out sometime. Oh, wait—I think our matches are all "strike-on-box" types.

Even though they are considered collectibles, the little figurines are not particularly valuable; at least, not the ones that I have. Some of them are offered for sale online for up to $50, but most are in the $2–$5 range. And I'm not so keen on the cynical world of buying and selling "collectibles" for speculative prices, anyway.

But I still don't know if they'll fit in the little tins because I haven't tried them out yet. I'm kind of inclined to hang onto them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Counting Crows—and Wrens and Chickadees and More

Cooper's hawk (drawings by Sharon Parker)
Today begins the 113th Annual Christmas Bird Count, a comprehensive bird census conducted by fans of birds all over North America and coordinated by the National Audubon Society.

With tens of thousands of birding enthusiasts tallying up millions of birds, the count provides useful bird information to scientists, allowing them to track the distribution of birds in winter and bird population trends, which in turn can be indicators of threats not only to birds but to the environment in general.

But it wasn't really started as a citizen scientist project. Rather, American ornithologist Frank Chapman introduced the idea in 1900 as an alternative to the then-common tradition of the Christmas Side Hunt, in which gangs of hunters joyfully went forth on Christmas Day to slaughter as many small critters, both feathered and furry, as they could. The game was to see which party could count the highest number of little carcasses after the hunt.
Black-capped chickadee

The origin of that tradition may stem from the custom of hunting the wren on the day after Christmas in parts of the British Isles.

Chapman suggested that people skip the hunting part and just go straight to counting instead. Twenty-six others joined him on that first Christmas Bird Census—in Toronto, Ontario, and Pacific Grove, California, along with several cities in Northeastern North America. The number of participants has grown tremendously ever since.

Chapman was an officer in the recently formed Audubon Society, and he was among the scientists and amateurs in the fledgling conservation movement who were concerned about declining bird populations in North America.

The count continues through January 5 and anyone can participate. The Audubon Society website has all the details for those who would like to head out into the snowy field to count birds alongside fellow (peaceful) avian enthusiasts.

Don't look in pear trees for partridges to count, though. You won't find them there; they don't like to perch in trees.

Wild turkey

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hanging of the Greens

The greens on my front step
Today being the first Sunday of Advent, churches everywhere are festooned in the rich evergreens and glittering ornamentation that have come to symbolize the entire season for so many of us. I remember our church's hanging of the greens festivities, when congregants cheerfully gathered to decorate the fragrant trees that had been brought into the sanctuary, and hang garlands about the halls, then join in a convivial meal that we had all contributed to.

It felt like the true beginning of the Christmas season, and it didn't bother us a bit that our Puritan forebears would have been appalled at such an ostentatious display that incorporated pre-Christian —pagan!— customs.

Modern Christians seem to have gotten over that, though, and our midwinter observances are much more cheerful for their having done so. Although it can be a bit ironic when the occasional disgruntled individual complains about all the other holidays and customs that crowd into December, insisting that there is only one "reason for the season." Indeed there is, but it's a purely scientific one: the tilting of the earth's axis. The festivals of many religions are tied to this one dispassionate fact.

All of this leads me to share a rather interesting discovery that I made recently, when researching historical customs around Christmas for a planned self-published chapbook on the 12 Days of Christmas (which, unfortunately, has been set back again, so it won't be done for this Christmas season).

In Medieval times in England right up until the Puritans tried their best to do away with Christmas altogether in early America, advent was not a time for decorating our homes and churches or shopping or parties. It was observed in a manner more comparable to Lent, with dietary restrictions and general austerity. It was a period of spiritual preparation for Christmas, rather than one of material preparation for the holiday, writes Ronald Hutton in The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994)

In fact, going even further, author and historian David Cressy writes in Bonfires & Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England that advent was one of those periods, along with Lent (and one other season known as Rogations that I know too little about), when weddings were forbidden.

This period of fasting — all rich foods were avoided, including eggs, meat, dairy and, of course, sweets — fell between the end of the various harvest feasts, which began with Lammas ("Loaf Mass") on August 1 and continued through Martinmas (St. Martin's Day) on or around November 11, and the beginning of Christmastide.

Churches and homes were decorated on Christmas Eve, and after church services on Christmas Day, the feasting and festivities of the 12 Days of Christmas began and lasted through Epiphany, January 6 (which is actually 13 days, for which I have yet to find a truly satisfactory explanation).

Maybe if we observed Advent in a similar manner nowadays, we would curb some of that holiday weight gain!