Christmas in the Cabin

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

There is something about celebrating a holiday with your family that establishes a place in your heart as a home. Although we’ve owned Heiser Hollow for 4 decades, perhaps the lack of heated bedrooms and showers had always discouraged us from overnight trips in the winter. Now that we’ve finished the cabin, this year seemed like a good time to spend Christmas in the woods.

On Christmas eve, Elizabeth and I drove to a local tree farm, cut down a spruce we particularly liked, and threw it in the truck bed, in the hopes that the new tree stand would actually work.  It turns out that even with an emphasis on acorns, wood, straw, and other ornaments either made from or depicting natural things, we had more than enough baubles to hang from the tree. We included 3 ornaments that Mom made from scratch when she and Dad were first married, the cardboard  “Santa’s Breeding Farm” ornament that I made in the 2nd grade (or 12th—the details are dim), some early work by Kirk, and what may well have been the highlight of our short time in Indian Guides, three glass balls with paint dribbled on the inside.

Kirk drove in from college, and Mom & Dad drove across the county, and lacking any convenient attachment points near the chimney, we hung our stockings with care on the bannister.  After a couple of drinks, we all nestled snug in our beds.


Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around an energetic and fun-loving maiden Aunt, who entertained me with extended weekend visits to rock shops, surplus stores, and whatever passed for tourist attractions in Akron, Ohio.

It might as well be true that my treasured ornament dates from the year I  learned  NORAD was tracking Saint Nick. Hearing the reports on the radio during a long winter’s drive from Bay Village, I breathlessly informed Aunt Eloise that you could see Santa on the RADAR.  She lived alone in a funny little old Firestone Park house with its perpetually out of tune piano, push button electric switches, and a treasure trove of an attic.  Her Christmas tree was full of these fascinating plastic ornaments, glitter-infused in blue, and green and pink, an army of kitschy gold foil propellers, silently spinning away over C7-generated updrafts.  Eloise unhooked one from the tree and generously handed it to me.  46 years later, that thing is still spinning away on a Heiserbaum, its longevity assured by today’s lower wattage bulbs.

Can you remember a time when Christmas didn’t come from China? As it turns out, the Twinkler Ornament was made in Ohio, conceived of in 1949 by Boardman, Ohio native John Garver and manufactured by the Tinkle Toy division of defunct Ohio firm Plakie Toy Company (and who would not want a Tinkle Toy?). According to Garver, who was trying to relaunch an updated version of his popular retro ornament in 2009, fifteen million of the things were manufactured. It would be nice to think that my ornament is not alone, and that Garver’s estimate that 2/3 are still intact and spinning was correct, although price history on eBay suggests otherwise. A fellow Twinkler reports that many of these were unfortunately lost in the heat of the 1950s moment.

Garver’s 1956 patent shows a somewhat less ornamental ornament, yet the basic design is clear.  Thumbing through some of the related patents leads to some interesting paths, including a somewhat different approach for a thermally-driven rotating tree display,  and my favorite, AE Newton’s 1933 patent for Electric and Other Artificial Fire, a whimsical device that I can only envision as a sort of flaming cash register, which probably had a greater impact on 1960s dens than the Twinkler.

I’d always referred to my ornament as the birdcage, and its inexplicably satisfying to learn that the creator of the thing called it that, too. Its just a little bit of Ohio, hanging on the family tree of my life, embodying a rich and wonderful set of memories in a dated but surprisingly sturdy form.

According to a site dedicated to retro Christmas decorations, the following text appeared on the outside of the box.



When placed above the light


Made of durable plastic, not glass”

Unfurling the Tannenbaum

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Tannenbaum08-3.jpgBefore leaving on my trip, I had to perform one last ritual, the ceremonial unfurling of the Tannenbaum, which is a purely male task in my household. I used to think that it took a lot of effort to purchase and ‘plant’ a natural Christmas tree. I remember my dad struggling with the tree and a flimsy sheet metal holder, made out of red & green sheet metal. It had 3 screws to hold and center the tree, and he used to put pennies between the ends of the screws and the tree to keep them from just boring right thru the tree. We had a similar holder when first married, but when I found a heavy welded steel holder at a shopping mall gadget shop, I bought it, intending it to be a lifetime purchase. It still took between 30 and 120 minutes of fussing with saws, hatchets, and acetylene torches, usually in a constant downpour that was just a bit to warm to freeze, at least until it was under your collar.

Moving to Europe, and renting our dwelling, we decided that artificial would be most appropriate. I guess we’ve gotten our money’s worth out of the current tree, which I’ve just spent over an hour straightening. The tree is made from a central stalk with a bunch of brushes hanging off it from wires. Once you’ve found it in the garage, taking it out of the box (last year, we bought a special bag for it), and putting it together is about a 5 minute task. Then you start preening and straightening the branches. This is when you start wondering if a real tree wouldn’t be less work. Its a trade off between the sticky sap and pleasant smell of a real tree, and the straightening and increasingly moldy whiffy smell of the Fuller brush tree. I should borrow one of those pine tree scent gidgets that all cabbies have hanging from their rear view mirror (some are pine, many are vanilla, and a lot of them are just something abstract and stinky to compensate for the loss of tobacco privileges).

Listening to the recording of a recent NFL game, just to get me into an American mood, I started in on the lights, which is another male responsibility. Christmas lights used to be big hunky fiddly things that were so expensive you’d repair every year. Now they are delicate little fiddly things that break even more often, but aren’t worth repairing. Like the tree, they come from China, so they are probably unhealthy to eat. Light strings don’t just plug into the wall any more–they plug into a 24v wall wart. This means that you not only have to find the lights, but you also have to figure out where your son put the transformers. Even though he’s at college in the States, he still managed to hide them before leaving, using them for his Chinese-themed (again) 18th birthday party. The market seems to have standardized on a common voltage and plug, so the good news is that you don’t need the transformer that came with the light string your wife wants to use. I managed to get about 80% of the lights working on a string of incandescent bulbs, and all the lights were burning on an incredibly blue LED-based string.

Chasing St Nick in Switzerland

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

On December 5, St. Nicholas day eve, Elizabeth and I went to the Swiss town of Küssnacht to attend a uniquely Swiss sort of Christmas celebration. Referred to as the Klausjagen, or Nicholas Chase, it is a parade involving 1000 noisy Swiss guys in the pitch dark. The lights go out, and the parade is led by a team of whip crackers. A bull whip makes a huge amount of noise, and 20 of them, cracking in near unison, are almost deafening. Whip cracking ceremonies, are a tradition in most of the alpine region (extra credit for anyone who can tell me the Tyrolean word for this–I think it starts with a ‘schn’.), probably dating back to various versions of the Wild Hunt folk myth.

Luzern08-644.jpgAfter the whips, the parade quiets down a bit as a hundreds of men slowly swirl around wearing huge illuminated hats, called Iffelen. Shaped like bishops’ mitres, they are gorgeously decorated with colored paper or plastic, and are lit from the inside by candles. Many of the Iffelen have a design on the front that looks like stained glass, while the back may portray a cathedral. A few youngsters had sort of training Iffelen that were only a bit more than a foot tall, maybe not quite as big as a real mitre. Most of the hats were very large, 4-5 feet high, and needed to be carefully supported both on top of the head, and with outstretched arms. A few very large and beautiful hats brought applause from the crowd.

After the parade, we stopped to examine some of the Iffelen while the wearers rested up for the second running of the Klaus. The very largest of the hats were illuminated by 9 candles. I chatted up one of the participants, who all design and make their own hats, and ask him how long it took him. 500 hours. Wow.


It takes quite a while for all of the Iffelen to swing past. They are followed by Sammichlaus, who looks a lot like a bishop himself. Sammi is attended by 4 men in black robes and black face who are referred to as Schmutzlis (Krampus in Austria). Another folk tradition that has some relationship to the Wild Hunt, 2 Schmutzlis are pictured here a day later, in front of our Luzern hotel, where the lights were much better. You can just barely see the bundle of sticks that one of them is carrying.

This is followed by a band playing the traditional Klaus song, a cloyingly simple 1-bar melody that only consists of three notes. It kind of sticks in your brain, after you’ve heard a couple hundred untuned stanzas.

Luzern08-405.jpgThe next part of the parade consists of groups of men slowly walking in unison, ringing large steel bells called trycheln that are hammered out of steel, making for a relatively light bell (given that it is the size of a bowling ball bag), with a somewhat unpleasant sounding clang. You know how some harsh instruments are smoothed out when a lot of them play together, like bagpipes or violins? Well, in this case, the opposite happens.

Pictured here while walking to the parade, before the lights were extinguished, trycheln ringers have to affect a very stilted, Frankenstinian sort of walk in order to strike in unison. It makes for a very eery effect. As shown here, many of these guys were smoking some sort of long skinny things.

The Klausjagen finally ends with a procession of men blowing a simple 3-note pattern on cow horns (a ‘U’ in morse code, dot dot daaaaash). Most of the cow horns seemed to have some sort of double reed inside them, so they sounded more like huge party favors, and not so much like hunting horns.

Many of the participants refresh themselves between the two runnings of Chlaus, and after the second and final run, the party moves to the local gues houses.

The guys below had nothing to do with the parade, but were also part of the Christmas experience in Luzern, playing at the Christchindlimarkt in front of our hotel. Teutonic Christmas markets are a great tradition, with lots of handmade gifts, and lots of gluhwein, raclette, and heissi marroni.Luzern08-1291.jpg