Last week’s Life Book lesson was taken by Andrea Gomoll and was all about painting a figure who was caught between an area of darkness and an area of light. The medium was primarily watercolour, which I always enjoy working with. I decided to place my figure in the centre of the paper with her hair flowing upwards to create a clear dividing line between the dark area and the light area. I enjoyed letting the paint in those background areas bleed into one another and create blooms. I built the flesh tones up gradually, using a neutral palette first and then layering the stronger colours on top, dividing the face between the cool blues of the dark side and the warm yellows and pinks of the light side. I possibly should have gone more dramatic with the shading and lighting on the face. I grounded the piece by painting black into the torso area of the figure and then tried to make the background and the figure cohere by adding spatter in white and black watercolour.
Having decided to pick out two lessons to “catch up” on missed art lessons, the second one I picked was another Life Book lesson. I wanted to tackle this one as the layering and creation of texture would present me with challenge and, therefore, learning opportunities but the inclusion of figures meant it was a subject (unlike florals) that automatically appealed to me.
The lesson was by Gillian Lee Smith and I really enjoyed her approach to building up layers and balancing out dark and light elements throughout that process. Once I got the background to a level of grunginess I was happy with – and I used shades of brown for a sort of vintage, sepia feel – it was time to work on the figures. I did not have the materials required for the method Smith demonstrated so I had to improvise. I also decided not to incorporate more than one figure and just focus on one face. I think it was the whole sepia tone thing as it made me think of a carte de visite photographic portrait. I really enjoyed the process of pulling the figure out from the background through use of light and shadow, white paint and black ink. I am not overly keen on the outcome – she looks a bit spectral to me, like something you might find hanging on the wall of a haunted house – but I really did like the process and felt I learned quite a bit from it. Something to return to in future and try again.
I really struggled with this week’s Life Book lesson. I was rushed and flustered and improvising as per usual but it was more than that. I just couldn’t quite pull all the elements together to make the concept I had in my head materialise on the paper.
The theme was about embracing every part of yourself, whether positive or negative, and that was visually translated into a piece about shadow and light incorporating a kneeling figure. In my head, I had the idea of golden fireflies emerging from the hands of the figure, their metallic glow contrasting with the dark, grungy background. What emerged, however, was a bit of a mess to say the least. Perhaps I will find the time at some stage to attempt a “do over” on my idea and execute it more successfully.
One week into December and our holiday traditions are underway. Despite not being Christians, we celebrate a secular version of Christmas as both Mr Pict and I were brought up with Christmas and wanted to keep those traditions going when we had kids of our own. Of course, some of the traditions we had back in Britain have had to be mothballed since we emigrated to America. Pantomimes, for instance, do happen here but are far too expensive for us to attend so no more pantomimes for us for the time being. We have, however, started new traditions since moving here. It seems those are already ingrained since the kids were determined that we were going to do the exact same things this year that we have done before.
First among these was the Holiday Light Show at Shady Brook Farm. We first went in 2013 for our first American Christmas and then again last year. I offered a suggestion that we do something different this year, another light show even, but the kids shot my suggestions down. They want repetition and tradition. So off to Shady Brook Farm we went. I think the kids like that we drive through all the illuminations, cosy in the car, not having to wander around in the chill night. They had fun seeing old favourites among the lights and spotting some new additions. Then we parked up and got out to see the tree and buy some kettle corn and visit the farm shop. The place was jam packed with people, however, so we didn’t stay too long.
December also means the return of advent traditions to help the kids count down to Christmas Day. We have a small wooden chest full of drawers that gets open every day plus a Playmobil advent calendar, both traditions we have had since the kids were tiny wee, but now we also have Noel, our Elf on the Shelf. Now there is a tradition I regret starting. We don’t do the whole “magical” bit. The kids know fine well it is me who moves the Elf each night and they know that the Elf is not reporting back to Santa. For them, finding Noel each morning is just a fun wee treasure hunt. They look forward to seeing what Elf s up to, either some kind of antics or else a message for them regarding a festive activity. All harmless fun except that I have to remember to move the ruddy Elf every evening. Already, a mere week in, I have had to get back out of bed in order to go and move him somewhere, having been jolted out of the land of Nod by the sudden remembrance that Noel is exactly where he was the 24 hours before. I am also struggling to be very creative with him. Some people do these amazingly elaborate set ups with their Elves. Not me. I just hide Noel somewhere. If I do a set up, it’s usually something that makes the kids chuckle rather than create magic. Noel pooped chocolate into a jar the other day. On the first day, he was found under the Christmas tree with a bottle of liqueur. That was just as well since I failed to move him that night and I had the excuse of an Elf hangover for why he hadn’t moved.
One day, Noel the Elf was found with a gingerbread house ready to be decorated. I once baked a gingerbread house from scratch but I had a conniption trying to get the walls to stick together with icing and it ended up looking like a total hovel. I discovered prefabricated gingerbread houses when we emigrated and, therefore, they can become part of our family’s holiday traditions without me losing the plot. The three younger boys had a lot of sticky fun decorating the house and eating the surplus construction supplies.
We decorated the house for Christmas right after Thanksgiving. Mr Pict would rather wait until later into December but all the hassle involved in decorating makes me want to have it last for a good few weeks, more return for my investment. I don’t go overboard. We don’t decorate the exterior of the house. Yet. Mr Pict wants to get stuff for outside but I don’t know that I could deal with the additional hassle. Bah humbug. Sorting out the twinkly lights for the Christmas tree was quite enough stress, thanks very much. It was worth it though: the formal living room has a lovely glow to it now.
The sweetest thing, however, is that my 6 and 8 year old boys made their own advent calendar. Playing outside in the garden one evening, they gathered up 12 rocks and decorated them with a sharpie in order to depict the Twelve Days of Christmas. They then brought it indoors and arranged it on the kitchen floor as a surprise. Which it was. A delightful surprise. I do love it when my kids are creative, experience a spark of inspiration. We now have the rocks arranged on the windowsill. Just to add to the cuteness, my youngest keeps singing that the third day is “three henchmen”. I am now changing the lyrics in our household. That’s another new holiday tradition.
Christmas was always going to be very different for us this year as we have always spent that time with the boys’ grandparents. This year it was going to be just the six of us. While clearly missing out on some of our family traditions as a result, my husband and I decided to spin that into a positive opportunity to establish some Pict family traditions of our own, tailor Christmas to the six of us, and determined to fuse established rituals and habits and fuse them with new experiences which – if successful – could become traditions to carry forward into future festive seasons.
By coincidence, as we were discussing this plan, I was invited by my six year old’s teacher to talk to her First Grade class about Christmas in Scotland as part of their “tradition trade”, and that gave me an opportunity to synthesise what the key customs were from our own family and cultural background, focusing on the ones that were most important to carry forward. Of course, most things are just the same as in the US – letters to Santa, stockings hung on Christmas Eve and snacks left out for Santa and the reindeer. Traditionally in Scotland a turkey or a goose would be the centrepiece of the meal but we decided that, so soon after Thanksgiving and with the price of them, we would have a plump chicken instead. We definitely wanted to have roast potatoes and roasted parsnips which led Mr Pict on a quest all over town trying to find some. I am assuming those are not such a popular root vegetable in America. The kids in the class had just about heard of them though only my own child could recognise them in the photo. Shame because parsnips are actually my favourite vegetable. Mr Pict and our 8 year old also wanted brussel sprouts. To me they smell like sweaty bum crack (the word for which is a shuck in Scots as in “If ye didnae hae a shuck ye’d droon”) and taste acrid and bitter. But they are traditional and so they too were purchased. Normally there would be Christmas pudding (round and steamed and served ablaze) and Christmas cake (hard, dry fruit cake covered in a layer of marzipan and icing) but none of us really appreciate those so we continued our own tradition by opting out of those and having different desserts instead. As you will gather, reader, most of our festive rituals revolve around our mouths and stomachs. One thing I thought I would have a hard time finding in the US was Christmas crackers, as I know they are not part of the festive culture here. For the uninitated, these are tubes of thin card covered in cheery paper and closed at each end and, when pulled, they make a bang and the contents are revealed, said contents being a paper crown (which it is compulsory to wear), some wee toy or item, and some corny jokes. I was so thrilled to find some in a local discount store that I literally jumped up and down with glee as I snatched them off the shelf.
Here’s my 6 year old pulling a cracker with me over Christmas dinner:
And this is my husband and me wearing our cracker crowns:
So those were the old traditions; now for the new.
The first was not of my own design. It was part of the Elementary School’s programme and something I understand is done in schools up and down the land – but it was new to us, of course, and that was Polar Express Day at school. I have a love-hate relationship with the movie ‘Polar Express’ (I’ve never read the book) in that I like the concept of taking a journey to rediscover the magic, wonder and joy of belief but to my mind that is rather undermined by the dead-eyed mo-cap animation of the human characters, some of the misery being just too cold and gloomy and the fact the central character is difficult to like. Not my thing it’s fair to say. My triumvarate of Christmas movies are ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’, ‘Muppets Christmas Carol’ and ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. The last day of school before Winter break was designated as Polar Express Day so the boys went to school in their jammies, had hot chocolate and other treats and made crafts and generally had festive fun. It was a charming way to end the term. I am glad they could be part of that tradition.
The weekend before Christmas, we took the boys to a nearby Holiday Light Show. It was at the same farm where we had experienced Halloween fun and purchased pumpkins so it covered a vast area. We drove through the Light Show which was fun and cosy. We each oohed and aahed over each design. Some of the designs were really elaborate, with lots of mobile elements or animations, but the simple ones were also very effective. There were themes as we drove through, starting with designs indicating corporate sponsors, the Twelve Days of Christmas, fairy tales, the nativity, world landmarks and animals. My favourite part was driving through a tunnel of twinkling lights. It made for a lovely evening and next year we might even stay longer in order to toast marshmallows over the fire pits but we had not had our dinner so we went for a nosh up at Cracker Barrel instead.
We’ve always done the tradition of new jammies as a Christmas Eve gift because, frankly, I want the kids to look decent in the photos of Christmas morning as well as giving them some new pyjamas just because they could do with them. This year, however, we upscaled the Christmas Eve gift a little. I bought each of the boys a Christmas tree ornament that was perfect for them in order to serve as an annual reminder of their first Christmas in America, the idea being they would then have it to start their own individual collections of tree ornaments when they eventually grow up and leave home. Mr Pict’s contribution was to forage for some European sweet treats for us to munch along with some luscious hot chocolate.
In the end, all of our forging of traditions old and new worked a treat and we had a superb Christmas. We were relaxed and content throughout the day and most of all the boys were blissfully happy and that ultimately was the critical thing. We were striving to make their first Christmas in America a memorable one and that mission was accomplished.