There's no better celebration of any season than the decorated tree adorned with the rich symbolism of nature—my ritual to inform and inspire you in the journey called life.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

tree of treats

AT HALLOWEEN, the usual distinctions between the living and the dead, children and adults, fun and fear are mysteriously blurred. The magic of the season lies in the progression of summer to fall and the onward march to winter. Autumnal colors brighten the landscape with a blaze of color, but eventually turn brown and fall to the ground to nourish the soil. It's all part of the continuous circle of life and death with the promise of rebirth in the coming spring. The Halloween tree is a recent phenomenon and is fast becoming a holiday fixture. It's fun to transform a traditional Winter/Christmas concept. 

THIS HALLOWEEN treat tree (above) is made of black crimped wire formed into a trunk with spiked branches creating a spindly silhouette. It is decorated with large metal cones painted to resemble candy corn which are filled with Halloween candy. Similarly, the first modern Christmas trees were hung with fruits, nuts, cookies and pastries. Blown glass ravens with black feather tails perch precariously and glittery wire spiders hang and crawl about—to represent the circle of life and death and pay homage to the natural world. Ravens are incredibly intelligent birds and have the ability to mimic many sounds. Because of this, they are considered wise and to possess powers of prophesy. A small autumnal tableau of pumpkins and gourds are at the base of the tree and Halloween candy is scattered about. The two pumpkins below the base are carved with a folk art tree of life and a black cat, it's back arched in classic Halloween style. The metal crow to the left is pecking at a bowl of candy treats. "Happy Halloween!" letters are strung together behind, along with a witch flying across the moon.

THE MOST CREATIVE public display of an autumnal tree I've seen was a fifty-foot tall pumpkin tree artfully composed with vines and artificial pumpkins of every shape and size. It appeared at Stone Mountain Park in the Crossroads area a few years back. I went back this year expecting to get pictures of a similar tree, but it wasn't to be found. Rarely do I see a commercially decorated tree of this size with such a magical natural-looking quality.

I JUST DISCOVERED Ray Bradbury's book, The Halloween Tree  and although I haven't read it, I'm intrigued. Below is the review of the hardcover edition:

. . . Eight boys set out on a Halloween night and are led into the depths of the past by a tall, mysterious character named Moundshroud. They ride on a black wind to autumn scenes in distant lands and times, where they witness other ways of celebrating this holiday about the dark time of year. Bradbury's lyrical prose whooshes along with the pell-mell rhythms of children running at night, screaming and laughing, and the reader is carried along by its sheer exuberance.

Bradbury's stories about children are always attended by dread—of change, adulthood, death. The Halloween Tree, while sweeter than his adult literature, is also touched at moments by the cold specter of loss—which is only fitting for a holiday in honor of the waning of the sun.

This is a superb book for adults to read to children, a way to teach them, quite painlessly, about customs and imagery related to Halloween from ancient Egypt, Mediterranean cultures, Celtic Druidism, Mexico, and even a cathedral in Paris. (One caveat, though: Bradbury unfortunately perpetuates a couple of misconceptions about Samhain, or summer's end, the Halloween of ancient Celts and contemporary pagans.) —Fiona Webster

FRIGHTFULLY FESTIVE | Decorating this "Halloween treat tree" (top, right), wire spiders hang from chains atop a wooden pedestal all from Pottery Barn (a few years back), while the metal crow was bought there this season. The rustic metal candy corn cones are from the workbench of Tom Guffe, created exclusively for Ohio Wholesale, Inc. and found at a shop in the Crossroads at Stone Mountain Park. The glittery spiders are from Z Gallerie. Five raven ornaments stand guard and are manufactured by the Merck family's Old World Christmas. The small matte orange and black glass baubles are from Borders. The "Happy Halloween" letter garland is from Martha Stewart Holidays and was found at Target.

PUMPKIN PRODUCTION | This incredibly artful pumpkin tree (above, left) graced the Crossroads at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia for the annual pumpkin festival for a few years. Regretfully, it didn't appear this year.

ORANGE GLOW | Ray Bradbury's original painting (left) for his classic book, "The Halloween Tree" was created in 1960.

©2009 DARRYL MOLAND | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, collecting, photography and styling by Darryl Moland

Thursday, October 29, 2009

devilish or divine?

HALLOWEEN tricks or treats can be devilish or divine, respectively. But there's always an edge of one or the other with either—the good always comes along with the bad. Disguised blessings seem to be the rule—one has to stay cognisant of the bright side of things or the lesson learned. My beautiful Calico cat Luci (photo in this post) was diagnosed with cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) affecting her tongue just this week, so I'm greeting this holiday season with a grim perspective of how precarious life can be. I'm trying my best to keep in mind that I still have more precious time with her until that day comes. I try to find solace in knowing that she's fifteen—a ripe old age for a cat. Keeping hopes for the best, her future is uncertain. Cancer of this type is an insidious disease that is practically untreatable. As long as she is not suffering too much, I have her, but I won't let her suffer for my sake. I hope she'll let me know for sure when it is time.

HER NAME is actually Lucifur in longhand. In Latin, the name literally means "light-bearer." It is almost always used as a name for the devil (Lucifer) in Christian convention. The pagan myth of the fall of angels associated with the morning star was transferred and personified as Satan. But in my life with this incredible cat, I can't  begin to think of that name in a negative light. Some contend that Satan and Lucifer are two different beings. It's all mythology to me. Fallen angel or morning star, all I know is that my Luci has been a constant source of light for me and all those who know her.

ALTHOUGH a mischievious and playful kitten, she is quite a divine diva in her adulthood—and deservedly so. Instead of being a devil, she has always been a complete joy. She's the Cat in Man and Cat Omnidesign. Whatever amount of time she has left, she does and will live in my heart—a shining light and a true familiar spirit. She has become a part of my soul.

THE FRIVOLITY of the holidays is always balanced with things to spoil all the fun. St. Nicholas in Europe (especially in Austria) is accompanied by his companion Gruss vom Krampus (or Krampus for short), a devil-like creature with a long tongue (what a terrible irony with Luci's diagnosis). As St. Nicholas travels door-to-door leaving gifts for all the good boys and girls, Krampus deals with the ones who have behaved badly over the course of the year. Krampus is pretty harsh. He shackles the bad ones and stuffs them in a wood-staved pail on his back and carts them away, flailing them mercilessly with a switch from his birch bundle. The jolly, twinkly-eyed St. Nicholas is an American invention, patterned largely  on Washington Irving's tale of the good saint as chubby, pipe smoking and industrious figure. Irving was a member of the New York City Historical Society which promoted St. Nicholas as its patron saint. The writer Clement Clarke Moore's "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and the classic cartoon of Santa by Thomas Nast which illustrated Washington Irving's (under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker) "History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty" popularized the modern form of Santa in America. This fictional history took hold and pretty much erased modern memory of St. Nicholas' discipline-dispensing companions. European traditions of St. Nicholas always rewarded the good and unleashed the punishment of the bad with his dastardly and devilish companions. 

ON THE EVE of St. Nicholas (December 5th), hordes of people gather in Austria and Hungary to participate in an unusual winter festival called "The Running of the Krampus" (or Krampuslauf). It is an Old World tradition in which young men dressed as Krampus are brought into town by the gift-giving St. Nicholas in his long robe, glistening miter (a bishop's hat) and carrying an ornate pastoral staff—and unleashed on the crowds. The furry Krampus costumes are largely handmade and elaborate, sometimes towering seven or eight feet tall. This all serves as a reminder to all that goodwill to all men and charity toward one another should be the modus operandi for all of us in the coming year.

MY CAT LUCI reminds me of all this with complete simplicity. All it takes is a nuzzle and a lick or a bite on the nose to let me know that good behavior is reflected back toward one in many unexpected and mysterious ways. One has to take the bad with the good. Love is as ephemeral as the morning star. Love bites, licks and is warm and furry. And regretfully, it is ephemeral in the end. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS | A publishing anomaly it seems (not available at this time), I found this beautifully-designed "Red Fire" edition Bible (above, right) at Ross on the clearance book shelf. It is a bit of cultural anthropology that illustrates the sometimes myopic and unwitting mistakes the culture of publishing makes, along with the sometimes desperate attempts to moving the young masses by modern religion (to make it "cool"). It is accompanied by a mouthblown and handpainted devil/Krampus head ornament by Inge Glas of Germany. Imagine a proselytizing barker standing on the street corner holding this Bible toward heaven and yelling out fiery words of hellfire and damnation.

KRAMPUS AND CAT | A valuable antique Krampus (probably German) scrap ornament framed by a circle of lametta tinsel is from the mid-to late 1800's. It is shown with Halloween postcards, one of which is postmarked October 28, 1908. The stalwart cat sitting on a fence and silhouetted by a full moon is a die-cut Halloween invitation from the Martha Stewart Crafts line at Michael's (2008). The small bumpy glass ornaments from Martha Stewart Everyday at Kmart.

KRAMPUS IN DISGUISE | An unusual candy-colored interpretation of Krampus (left) by talented illustrator Ana Bagayan is deceptively inviting (used with her permission). Her blog is here.

photography and styling by Darryl Moland, illustration ©Ana Bagayan

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

folk wonderworks

GOOD FOLK ART has a resonance that seems timeless and without a place—except in our imaginations. The pure and childlike simplicity (or complexity) of it combines a myriad of ideas in a friendly and accessible way. Santa Claus has always been the subject of folk art. His origins date back to a Dutch (Sinterklass) folk tale derived from the historical figure Saint Nicholas, who was also known as Nicholas, the Wonderworker because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession. Just as primitive art forms visually inform in the most sublime way, the verbal art of storytelling and oral history is passed from generation to generation. It is as if the gift-giving that Santa is known for starts with the spoken tradition of storytelling passed down to the next generation. It is interesting to note that modern Dutch life in the Netherlands heralds St. Nicholas Eve (December 5th) as a much more important holiday than Christmas.

WITH SO MANY varying stories about how and where Santa originates (depending on what country you're from and depending on which form of Santa is popular), it's no wonder one starts seeing Santa as early as Halloween (if not all year in some form). Living in Atlanta (home of the Coca-Cola Company), the ubiquitous American form of Santa in Coke ads helped shape his modern-day image. Although I don't condone kitchy Coca-Cola tree ornaments (why?), the well-designed World of Coca-Cola museum houses an incredibly interesting array of Coke ephemera, folk art and advertising (including a large array of Coke Santa illustrations and ads). To sell flavored, high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened water which is extremely bad for your health, the advertising has to be innovative. If nothing else, Coke is to be applauded for its cutting-edge advertising history. Born-and-raised in the American South, I was practically weaned on Coke-Cola (as true Southerners call it). There is nothing like an icy glass of Coke during the dog days of summer, although I try my best to steer clear most of the time.

IN THIS unusual, almost sinister-looking folk art figure that could be Santa, a snowman, Christmas or Halloween figure (above, right) is holding a pumpkin candy basket in one hand and a goose feather tree stem in the other, you see a wonderful amalgamation of the holidays right through Christmas, no matter what culture in which you learned about Santa. This little guy was so unusual, I had to bring him home. He illustrates such a wonderful and unapologetic folk art weirdness!

I BOUGHT a misfit candy container at a discount store that my friend David Schump retrofitted with a folk art Santa that he made (an incredible folk artist in his own right) from vintage trims and a rabbit fur beard and gave back to me (being re-gifted was never so good). He sculpted the face and hands from clay and painted them carefully. It was such a wonderful surprise to see what he had done (left). This little Santa has a similar effect on me. When looking at him, how can you help but smile and wish good tidings and cheer to everyone—whether Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas? The bubbles might burn your throat on the way down or even bubble up in your nose (like a Coke), but the sweetness will make it go down all right. Let the mash-up we call the holiday season begin! 

HALLOW'S SANTA |The Santa figure (Top) was distributed by Bethany Lowe Designs and originally made by an inspired folk artist Virginia Betourne of Trout Creek Folk Art. I bought it in Westside Atlanta at Star Provisions. 

FOLKSY GIFT |My friend David Schump (a fellow graphic designer) embellished this snowball candy container (Above) in a most sublime way. I'll cherish it for years-to-come. He even placed a surprise in the inside with red-and-white-checked pleated round with a die cut Santa head in the middle. 

collecting, photography and styling by Darryl Moland

Friday, October 9, 2009

spinning a holiday web

USHERING IN the holiday season is Halloween. Alongside the shelves of the ever enlarging Halloween merchandise available every October, the Christmas shelves start to fill. There always has to be a trick with a treat to keep good little boys and girls in line. The Christian co-opting of these holidays had a lot to do with this. Several of the oldest European Christmas traditions seem more like Halloween traditions—tricks for bad, treats for good. The old-world traditions were modified to keep the sins of humanity in check in the Christian world. The meaning and symbolism depends on how you look at the magic and mystery of the holiday season that begins with All Hallows Eve. Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain (a celebration of the end of the harvest season) and the Christian All Saints' Day. Although the latter holy day now occurs one day after Halloween, they were both originally celebrated on the same day. But with the blending of holidays one-into-the-other every year, it's hard not to get them all mixed up (like Jack Skellington did—more below).

LEAPING FROM Halloween to Christmas isn't hard web to spin at all. According to German and Ukraine legend, a poor woman was unable to buy decorations for the holiday tree and decorated it with fruits and nuts. Spiders that were displaced in the holiday cleaning of the house spun beautiful webs all over the tree Christmas Eve night. When Father Christmas visited the house, he saw the web-covered tree and changed the webs to silver. Christmas morning, the family awoke to a sparkling tree covered in silver "tinsel." The legend of the Christmas spider is commemorated by placing a silver spider in its web and using tinsel on the tree. The magic of the holiday season is ushered in by the sinister things associated with Halloween (like spiders) every year. The stories have all been modified to fit how one sees best—religious or secular.

IT'S HARD TO to believe the 1993 Tim Burton stop-motion animated movie The Nightmare Before Christmas has already celebrated its 15th anniversary (last year). In the movie, Jack Skellington from Halloween Town opens a portal to Christmas Town and becomes enamored with Christmas, and the fusing of the holidays ensues to great effect. This movie is Tim Burton's best animated film in my opinion. It has a purely magical quality that stands above many of his successive films. It is consistently rated as one of the best Christmas films and  blends the two holidays in an unprecedented way. It's not hard to see how Jack Skellington was inspired by Christmas, even though his attempts are off-kilter because all he has known is Halloween.

HALLOWEEN FESTIVE | (Above, right) The large white pumpkin topped by a bewitched bird is from Ross. Green and orange Polish ornaments are reminiscent of a pumpkin and the calyxes of Chinese lanterns. The cat head noisemaker, along with the pumpkin/lantern ornaments are from Cost Plus World Market, and shown nestled with a real miniature white pumpkin and seasonal gourds (from Publix). The cat head noisemaker's (jingle bells attached with a pipe cleaner) original checked bow was replaced with a bow tied from 'Happy Halloween' ribbon from Martha Stewart Crafts at Michael's (2008). The small bumpy ornaments from Martha Stewart Everyday at Kmart round out this fall-colored collection. 

SPIDER SENSE | A Christmas spider in a large white bugle-beaded web ornament (above, left) was bought from a vendor at Scott Antique Market—I believe it is Czech in origin. The reproduction old-fashioned tinsel garland in a coil is from Bayberry Cove by Bethany Lowe Designs, was marketed for Halloween on one side of the sleeve it was packaged in, and for Christmas on the other side. It is attended to by a cardboard spider silhouette from Martha Stewart Holidays at Target (a test market?). The tiny orange and black Halloween baubles are from Border's. 

collecting, photography and styling by Darryl Moland