Saturday, 29 November 2014

Does Santa really live at the North Pole?

Dressed for the Cold - Bodleian Libraries' Shop
Legend and stories tell us that Father Christmas (or Santa) lives in the far North. Exactly how did St Nicholas from Turkey end up in such a cold place, nobody knows, but that hasn't stopped people telling the tale.

For example, Thomas Nast, a 19th century cartoonist, did a series of drawings showing Santa living at the North Pole. Nash also gave him a workshop for building toys and a large book filled with the names of children who had been naughty or nice!

And one of my favourite authors, J.R.R. Tolkein (The Hobbit etc) wrote Christmas letters and drawings to his children between 1920 and 1943, including this one of Father Christmas dressed for the cold at the North Pole.

Many countries lay claim to be the home of Santa - well, the Artic Circle does cross many borders after all. In North America, letters to Santa are addressed to The North Pole, although the US uses an actual city in Alaska called The North Pole, and Canada uses the postcode H0H 0H0 - which is brilliant. And of course he has lots of different homes in the Nordic countries too, especially as many people wonder how the reindeer can find lichen to eat at the real North Pole! Maybe it's part of his magic so we don't really know exactly where he lives.

Me, I like to believe he's at the real north North Pole - you know, the one marked by the intersecting longitude lines on the globe. Although we can't see his home - it is magically hidden - I know he's there.

Santa Envelope - Welsh version - The Old Button
I imagine his home to be warm and cozy, with lots of log fires and plenty of comfy chairs for enjoying hot chocolate and mince pies. There is a workshop where he and the elves still make traditional toys - although he's sub contracted the more modern stuff to the big toy factories in recent years; stables (and lots of lichen) for the reindeer, and of course a sorting office for all the letters....

Of course, you don't have to post your letter - my children always wrote handwritten letters and left them in envelopes on the mantlepiece for his magical helpers to collect. I've developed this tradition into a gorgeous wool envelope design, with the address hand embroidered on the front - we call him Sion Corn in Wales, and Pegwn Y Gogledd is Welsh for The North Pole.

But the elves reliably assure me that if you believe, your letter will get to Santa, whatever address or language you use.

Every Christmas Eve in our house, we track Santa with NORAD - well I say we, but it's mostly me. My husband and teenage kids may watch a bit, but I check every hour and watch all the video clips -  Christmas doesn't start for me without a glimpse of the man himself in his sleigh pulled by reindeer - with Rudolph leading the way. But although he does seem to set off from the North Pole, NORAD are very careful not to give away his exact location!

Norad Tracks Santa
Why does NORAD track Santa? This You Tube video explains how in 1955 a little girl called the the Continental Air Defence Command telephone number by mistake, and asked the colonel on duty if he was Santa. The colonel explained that he wasn't, but that he had radar that could track him.  And the rest is history.....  Norad starts getting ready to track Santa on the 1st of December, and the main event starts on Christmas Eve of course, but they do have a great trailer.

And what about those fantastic reindeer - Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen - these are named in the brilliant The Night Before Christmas poem (originally called A Visit from St Nicholas). But what about Rudolph? Where did he come from? Apparently the story of Rudolph can be traced back to a specific author - Robert L. May, a cartoon - who created the idea of a misfit reindeer who saves the day for Santa on a foggy Christmas Eve, for a Christmas coloring book.... Or did he think it up all by himself? Maybe he saw Rudolph's flashing nose one Christmas.... and Santa asked him to tell the story....

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Christmas Stocking Story

Many years ago, in the 3rd century or so I am told, there lived in Greece a man called Nicholas. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra and there are many stories and legends about how he spent his whole life giving gifts to people in need. One of these stories is about stockings...

 Origami figure from St Nicholas Center website
One night, or so the story goes, Nicholas was visiting a village when he heard about a poor merchant who couldn't afford to give his three daughters a dowry, which meant they couldn't marry and may have to spend the rest of their lives as servants.  

Knowing the proud merchant wouldn't accept charity, he rode by that night on his white horse and tossed three bags of gold coins into the merchant's chimney.  The bags fell down the chimney and landed in each of the girls stockings which had been hung up that night by the fire to dry.  On waking the next morning, the girls were delighted to find their gifts and went on to make good marriages. 

And since that day, children have hung up their stockings by the fire, hoping for gifts to fall down the chimney from St Nicholas....

And so the story of St Nicholas and the gifts given in stockings began. But over the years in different countries, the giver of gifts changed his name - in the UK, he became known as Father Christmas, and in France Père Nöel. In Germany he was called The Christ Child, or Christkindel, and the tradition travelled to America and became Kris Kringle. And in Holland, toys were left in wooden shoes called clogs by Sinterklaas - and Dutch settlers to the USA are likely to be the origin of the modern name Santa Claus.

And the origin of the famous red coat. Is it in recognition of St Nicholas's bishops robes? Or is it from the time of the early Coca-Cola adverts? Perhaps only St Nicholas knows.

Of course fashion changes and children usually wear socks instead of stockings now. I remember as a child using one of my father's old football socks as a "stocking" as it was bigger than my child sized sock. It was big enough for lots of goodies including an orange and some walnuts, a book and a small toy or two. And of course some sweets and chocolate. It did look rather lumpy though!  Do you remember what was in your stocking as a child?

I hope St Nicholas (or Father Christmas or Santa Claus...) leaves some great gifts in your stockings this year.  And if you don't fancy leaving him a lumpy old football sock to fill, why not take a look at some of my quirky Christmas Stockings (available to purchase seasonally through my shops)

Nativity Stocking by The Old Button
Howdy Santa Stocking by The Old Button
Holiday Santa Stocking by The Old Button

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Yule Log

The Yule Log
The medieval Christmas was a welcome mid-winter celebration, starting with the lighting of the Yule Log with the saved end of the previous year's log, which was burnt continuously for the Twelve Days of Christmas, providing much needed light and warmth. Some 17th centuary historians wrote that the Yule Log was a way of blending pre-Christian traditions into the Christian faith - linking the birth of Jesus to the winter solstice - or Yule - a celebration of fire, light and joy celebrating the turning point of winter and the new born sun.

The Yule Log was originally a whole tree - one end would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room, and over the 12 days it would gradually be fed into the fire. Of course, this is not so easy with modern fireplaces!

Many countries and regions still have a Yule Log tradition with lots of interesting local variations - for example in Catalonia in Spain, Tió de Nadal or Christmas log is covered in a blanket and fed grass or fruit, then beaten with a stick to an accompanying song persuading it to "poop" sweet edible gifts - a fun tradition that has its roots in hopes for a fertile harvest the next year.

In Devon and Somerset in the UK, some people use a large bunch of ash twigs instead of the log, based on a local legend that the shepherds found some bunches of twigs to burn to keep the baby Jesus warm.  And in parts of France the log is sprinkled with wine so it smells nice when burnt.  Here in Wales we don't have any specific yule log traditions - but it is sometimes called a boncyff Nadolig meaning Christmas log or "Christmas stump"!

The most modern tradition I found is the TV Yule log in America, where in 1966, a Yule Log burning in the Lord Mayor of New York's fireplace was shown on TV on Christmas morning.  The TV Yule Log is still being shown today - you can watch it yourself on the web through

But for many of us, our Yule log is a chocolate one. The Chocolate Yule Log or 'bûche de Noël' is a chocolate sponge rolled into a log shape and smothered in rich chocolate cream. Delicious.  If you fancy making your own - here's a link to the Hairy Biker's Yule Log.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Twelve Days of Christmas - a Perfect Gift List?

Traditionally since medieval times, Christmas in the UK was celebrated over 12 days starting on Christmas Day - the 25th of December, and finishing on the eve of Epiphany on January 5th.  The period celebrates the time between the birth of the baby Jesus to the coming of the Three Wise Men, who brought lavish gifts to the infant king.

The Twelve Days of Christmas Gift List
The traditional carol - The 12 Days of Christmas - was first written down in the 1700s but dates from earlier times and may originally have come from France. There are many origin and hidden meaning stories but there is no evidence that it is anything more than an amusing memory game or rounds song - as this article on Snopes explores.

The carol celebrates a time of dancing and music and, of course, gift giving, with a different gift being sent to the giver's true love on each of the 12 days of Christmas. 

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me: A partridge in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me: Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me: Three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

and so on... 

I have to say, it was quite an impressive gift list. Not sure I'd want all those swans, lords and ladies in my house at the same time though. And the pipers and drummers would get kind of noisy.

Today we still give gifts to our loved ones at Christmas, and as those of us with young children will testify, some of the gift wish lists can be as fanciful as the Twelve Days one! 

If you are going through your Christmas gift lists, you may want to check out the fantastic handmade gifts showcased on Craftfest. Here are some of my favourites - which have been inspired by some of the Twelve Days of Christmas gift ideas.

Some say the first 7 gifts are all about birds. The partridge, turtle doves, geese and swans are easy enough to visualise. And hens, sure - although perhaps French hens were fancy ones with gallic charm! But what about gifts number 4 and 5? The four calling birds is likely to mean black birds, as the original word was colly, an old regional English term for black. And the five golden rings may relate to ringed necked birds, possibly pheasants. All of these birds would have been welcome edible gifts at Christmas.  No sign of a turkey in the song though - that's a rather more recent festive fare! 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Elen's Prom Dress - Part 4 - Laced Corset Back and that Dratted Rolled Chiffon Hem

This is the final post on Elen's prom dress and I'd like to share with you how I did the laced corset back, and what I thought would be the hardest part of sewing her dress - the chiffon hem! Oh, and let's not forget the blinging up.

I thought the laced corset back would be fairly straight forward. I'm familar with lacing from doing stage costumes and she had tried on enough laced backed prom dresses for me to know the lacing had to be strong.

Edwardian corset
A corset was traditionally an undergarment made from heavy fabric that had bones (initially whale bones) inserted into channels sewn over the seams.  It was used to shape the body - often into unnatural shapes - through the tightening of the back ribbons, which cinched the waist in to tiny proportions.

I found this fantastic blog article What everyone ought to know about wearing a victorian corset on the Historical Sewing website, which gives some facinating tips on wearing a historic style corset - including one on visiting the "facilities"!

Modern corset bodices borrow many of the principles of historic corsets, but are not as so damaging to the body as the extreme corseting approach, which could cause significant problems to a woman's body. 

Elen's prom dress was in a corset-style and used plastic boning so wouldn't have the same effect as a correctly tailored corset, but even if you are not looking to get that tiny waist effect, the most important part of lacing a corset is getting it to cinch in the waist so that the upper bodice is supported from the torso. I've seen so many girls hitching up their strapless prom dresses all night because they rely on tight lacing round the bust but the corset bones aren't supported correctly from the waist area. 

I needed the lacing ribbon and loops to be strong so I could lace her up tight - often fashion dresses have skimpy lacing that snap and loops that pull out of the seams.  And I wanted them to look the same as the dress so I decided not to use satin ribbon but to make rouleau loops and cording from the satin and chiffon overlay.  

This How to make rouleau loops tutorial by Peggys Pickles shows how to sew together long strips of fabric (right sides together) that are then turned inside out to make a long thin tube with the right side showing. This slightly round shaped cord can be used to make button loops, but is also great for lacing loops and ribbon, especially if it's made a little wider than normal. You can add extra strength and prevent bias stretch by threading a polyester or cotton cord through.

I also found this fantastic How to make loops for the back of a wedding dress corset You Tube Video by Des Swags Curtain Make which shows how insert the central cord as you make it and use it to pull the whole thing the right way through. Brilliant - although I agree with the lady in the video - it is really hard to pull the cording through the middle. 

Sewing the loops to the bodice - I took a length of rouleau cord and tacked it to the v-shaped back of Elen's bodice (not the lining) - in loops as shown in my diagram left.

The actual loops are the bigger ones that fall to the left in the diagram - when I was happy with the size and shape (and checked they matched on both sides) I machine stitched in place (I actually sewed it just inside seam allowance line) - sewing it twice for extra strength.

I then placed the lining on top of the whole bodice (right sides facing) and stitched together up each back seam and along the top, before turning right sides out and slip stitching the bodice lining to the skirt seam along the inside waist. 

I then had a dress with a lined bodice that had matching loops that were caught between the bodice and the lining seam - strong and neat.

The lacing was another very long piece of rouleau loop cord made in the same way as the loops and just threaded through in a criss cross pattern when putting the dress on.  And the lacing was straight up the centre of her back - unfortunately she is twisting slightly in this photo so it looks out of line.

(I didn't use rouleau loops to fasten the self covered buttons on the skirt as they were too bulky - I used shirring elastic to make stretchy loops that disappeared behind the little buttons.)

Blinging it up - this photo shows off the beautiful diamante trim - this was a pre-stoned chain in a beautiful scroll shape that I hand stitched to the bodice top and waist line - so it can easily be removed when laundering.   It was really hard to sew on though - I kept getting the thread caught up in the stones and loops.... This actually worked in our favour though for a headpiece as Elen's hairdresser needed to use hardly any pins to keep some in place in her hair. 

And talking of hard work..... I'd been dreading doing the chiffon hem.  I had made a chiffon wedding dress for my sister many years ago and the double folded hem was not my best work! So I did a bit of research and came up lucky with this fantastic You Tube video How to sew a rolled chiffon hem by Ami Simms.

Contrary to my assumptions, you don't roll up the hem before stitching, but you form a ladder of tiny stitches that connect to each other by thread slipped between a folded hem - when you gently tug on the thread, the fold rolls up on itself and the stitches disappear.  Amazing.

After cutting the hem to the right length (poor thing, Elen had to stand on a box for ages while I measured, pinned, checked, and then rechecked), I gave it a go.

It was so simple to do and although it took a bit of time, I actually loved doing it - I sat in front of the television and just stitched away. The finished hem looked stunning. I wish I'd hand rolled the satin underskirt and lining now....

Ah well, there's always her wedding dress to do, although I hope that'll be a few years in the future...... In the meantime, I'll leave you with a few more photos, including one of Elen with her grandmother and the links to the earlier blogs about Elen's Prom dress. Part 1: A design concept     Part 2: Boned corset bodice     Part 3: Bias skirts in satin and chiffon