Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

A big thank you goes out to our friend Richard Seibert for the gift of this lovely print. Castle in the Air has grown a lot this year, and to us this picture symbolizes that as well as our work to "stake up" ourselves as we prepare for an even greater 2009. Happy New Year!

Peek Into the New Year

Just like Midsummer's Eve and Halloween, the holidays are a time when the veil between the world of mankind and the spirit world is a bit thinner. This has contributed to the appeal of fortune-telling traditions at New Year's Eve parties.
One of these traditions is called "the casting of tin," or molybdomancy. Party-goers are given tin charms in the shape of horseshoes, which are melted in tiny pots over a flame before being poured into cold water. The tin solidifies into a shape that can be read as a means of telling the caster's future. Some of the symbols are fortuitous (an angel foretells good news, a full moon love), while others are not so good (beans mean money trouble, an owl someone you can't trust). It is thought that this form of divination was an outgrowth of the practices of medieval alchemists.

At my family's New Year's Eve party, I'm known to disappear just before the arrival of the mysterious Madame Ghurka, a beturbaned, bare-midriffed soothsayer. She gathers the guests around a basin of water surrounding the island of Happiness, the Island of Riches, the Island of True Love, and other Islands of Good Fortune. Fortune cookie strips rest around the basin and strings run from them into the water. Each friend gets a boat, consisting of a walnut shell and a tiny candle. They take turns lighting the candle and setting their boat afloat. The boat comes to rest on an island or touches one of the strings, thus telling that person's fate. I wish I would get a chance to play, but Madame Ghurka always vanishes before I come back into the room!

The pictu
res seen here are some New Year's fortune-telling postcards in our collection. They're fun because they incorporate mirror writing that can only be read when held to a mirror. It's hard to do that on a computer, though, so I've put the reverse pictures below -- scroll down to read your fortune!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Evening of High Amusement

Although we're taking a break from it this year, traditionally my family has hosted a New Year's Eve party for our friends and family. All the holiday bread is gathered up and baked into a bread pudding, which we eat flambe style. Aside from the eating and drinking, we make merry with a host of vintage games and other entertainments. You can click on this picture to view our program from a few years ago.

Maybe you've played "Blind Man's Buff," where one person is blindfolded and must catch another person and guess who it is before he is allowed to take off the blindfold. Or "Pass the Slipper," where one person sits in the middle of a ring of friends packed tightly together. They pass a shoe behind their backs and "it" tries to guess who has the shoe at any given moment. High jinks!

Our most excruciating game is called "Poor Pussy." In this one, someone is picked to keep a straight face while another friend does their best cat impression, be it sweet or wretched -- whatever it takes to get the other person to crack a smile. If "it" can say "Poor Pussy" three times in a row without so much as a smirk, they are off the hook and the cat has to go to someone else. If not, they are the cat! (It's difficult to describe how hilarious this one gets. Maybe there's a YouTube video about it.)

One of the most dramatic games we've played is called "Snap-Dragon." We float a handful of raisins in a bowl of brandy and set it on fire. Then, whoever wants to take a turn must pluck a flaming fruit from the bowl and put it out by popping it into his or her mouth. This one is played with the lights out, the blue flame atop the brandy the only illumination. The most exciting part happens when the players are so hasty that flaming brandy flies all over the room!

At midnight, we fire the confetti cannon and all left standing sing "Auld Lang Syne" and make wishes for the coming year. What's yours?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Lucky Charms for the New Year

We've been looking at vintage postcards at the store today, and found several having to do with New Year's. The gnomes of Christmas are still partying like it's 1899, and they've been joined by an odd assortment of good luck charms for the new year. It's a traditional time to wish loved ones well, either through sending a card or exchanging charms on New Year's Eve.

The four-leaf clover is a charm associated with Saint Patrick's Day, but it features on New Year's cards, too. The clover was used in ancient times to tell if a demon was coming by for a visit, and it also could protect people from insanity. Christians find the four-leaf clover lucky because of its visual association with the cross.

Pigs, horseshoes, fly agaric mushrooms, and chimney sweeps are other popular good luck charms for New Year's. The horseshoe is almost as popular a charm as the four-leaf clover -- it's also used in New Year's Eve fortune-telling (more on that in a few days). In Finland, the pig also has some clairvoyance. A girl who asks the family pig whether she will be married in the coming year will know once she gets a grunt ("Yes") or silence ("No") from the porcine prophet.

Chimney sweeps are considered lucky because they used to come door to door on New Year's Day and wish everyone good luck. As for the poisonous red-and-white mushrooms, they're lucky as long as you don't eat them!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Twas the Night Before...

There's a lot to wish for at the end of this turbulent year, but at the top of our list is a wish for peace on Earth and in the hearts of all people.
(Image courtesy of NASA)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Four Seasons in Berkeley

One of the best things about living in Berkeley is that it really is an inclusive city, and not just among people. Mother Nature is into equality too, and doesn't discriminate on the basis of season. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn can all co-exist, sometimes within mere feet of one another!

Castle in the Air's own Mr. Marsh (who manages our publishing company and shipping department, among other things) sent us this video showing how this is true on the block where he lives in Berkeley.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ornament Swapping at the Townhouse

This past Friday the Castle in the Air staff gathered for our annual holiday dinner and ornament swap. We celebrated at the Townhouse Bar & Grill in Emeryville, a cozy gathering place with a colorful history not far from the shop.

Everyone at Castle in the Air is an amazing artist, and the ornament swap is our chance to honor that and enjoy the creativity and camaraderie we all share. The hours (sometimes days) of preparation of each ornament is also a lovely gift to give oneself during the holidays, when it's easy to get swept away tending to our loved ones.

On the night of the swap, all the ornaments are brought to dinner
wrapped in gift boxes and places at the center of the table. We all draw numbers from a hat, and whoever gets "1" gets to open a package from the pile. We move on through "2," "3," and so on, and each person has the chance to open an unwrapped package or appropriate someone else's ornament. High stakes!

Each of us has our own artistic personality that is reflected in the ornament we make. Shari made an adorable matchbox miniature, John an optical illusion Santa scene using a convex mirror and Victorian scrap. Daniel's decoupaged gnome ornament was actually a box full of holiday treasures. Maggie took a glass ball and seed beads and made an ornate Victorian lampshade. Julie's Elizabethan bird was made of samples of nearly every delightful supply we carry. Fantastic! I brought the Mad Hatter (with butter in his pocket watch) and his friend the March Hare. Even my husband and kids got in on the fun, with spectacular result. I wish all the photos from the evening came out so you could see.

It's really magical to watch as each person opens their package and reveals a little holiday wonder. We all take some of that magic home at the end of the night!

Friday, December 19, 2008

All worship at the Temple of Flora!

Leave it to Taschen. It's not every day that a book floors me not only with its over-the-top production quality and subject matter, but also with its connection to my artistic past.

Taschen Books is, of course, the premier publisher of "art, anthropology, and aphrodisia," printing new works of provocative painters and photographers as well as reissuing long out-of-print, highly sought volumes from the history of the book trade. One of this season's offerings is The Temple of Flora, one of the masterpieces of botanical illustration.

In 1799, English physician and botanical writer Robert John Thornton commissioned the world's most renowned painters to create 33 plates showing exotic plants in unusual, romantic settings. The resulting folio, The Temple of Flora, took nine years and all of Thornton's wealth before it could be published in a print run of only 300 copies. He died penniless but will forever be a hero to those who appreciate the life and sense of wonder he brought to this early scientific work.

When I was in college studying botany and the history of art, I had the good fortune to glimpse a miniature reproduction of this rare work. Ever since then, I've scoured rare book libraries and collections looking for a full-sized copy. And so today, when I visited Builders Booksource here on Fourth Street, my jaw dropped when I saw the new Taschen edition of this holy grail of botanical illustration. Fantastic undertakings such as this renew my faith in publishing and in the ability of beautiful art to bridge the gap between art and science. Thank you, Taschen!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stamping Out the Fun

The lines are getting pretty long at the post office as people send out their holiday mailings. It's the card-sending season, and everyone wants to make sure their messages get to family and friends in time for the various celebrations marking the beginning of winter.

We love greeting cards so much at Castle in the Air that, through our publishing imprint Dromedary Press, we print many of our own styles for everyday giving as well as for the holidays. We use one of my favorite paper stocks imported from Italy so the cards are as enjoyable to hold as they are to look at.

Earlier this week, a customer told us that when she went to the post office to post her holiday cards she was told by the clerk that they required extra postage. We asked our postman that day whether this could be true, and he said that one stamp should have been enough. But when we took some cards and packages to the post office this morning, we got a different story!

Even though a Dromedary Press card in its envelope weighs less than one ounce (and therefore don't necessarily require more than one First-Class stamp), it is -- at just over 6 ⅛ inches in height -- just a tiny bit too tall to qualify for the U.S. Postal Service's "letter" rate. In order to ensure regular delivery for one of our ca
rds, then, a sender must put 83¢ in stamps on the envelope.

Do your holiday cards qualify as "letters" or as "large envelopes" when it comes to the U.S. Mail? Letters must be no smaller than 3½ inches tall and 5 inches long. If they exceed 6⅛ in height or 11½ inches in length, then they are large envelopes and need more than just a single First-Class postage stamp. Additional postage is required for, among other things, envelopes that are square, rigid, closed with one of those darling button-and-string ties, or addressed such that the envelope must be held "tall" in order to read it (fun!). And don't forget to add 20¢ if you seal your envelope with wax, as this requires hand-cancellation of the envelope.

In short, many things that make a personal letter more interesting and fun will make it costlier to mail it. We love the postal service and we want to see them thrive, but the inconsistency of opinion as to how much postage a greeting card needs, and the arcane rules surrounding postage rates, is just discouraging to people who want to use the mail to keep in touch with loved ones.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How-To: Tie a Ribbon Around a Box

It's a problem that plagues so many gift-givers, but it doesn't have to -- how to tie a proper ribbon around a gift box. Many people start by holding the center of their length of ribbon over the top of the box, then wrapping it down the sides and giving it a quarter-twist so that the ribbon can go up the remaining sides and meet at the top to tie a bow. This method works, but the quarter-twist at the bottom results in a "bump" that can be problematic for small packages or other gifts which need to sit flat.
Here's a way to get over the "bump" method and tie a ribbon that also looks nice. Unspool enough ribbon from your roll to tie half of the bow (one loop and one tail). Pass this portion through your hand and pin the ribbon to the center of the top of the box with your thumb.

Continuing to unspool, wrap the ribbon all the way around the box -- down one side, across the bottom, and up the other side until you're back to your thumb. Then do the quarter-twist on the top of the box, such that the bump will end up where you will tie your bow. Keep unspooling and wrap the ribbon down an unribboned side, across the bottom and up the final side.
Once you're back to the top of the box, unspool enough ribbon to complete the bow (enough for the second loop and second tail). Tie the bow, and presto! You've tied a ribbon around your gift perfectly!

It's that easy!

Silhouettes from Ulla

Yesterday I was so charmed when Ulla Milbrath came by and gave me the sweetest present -- a silhouette papercut scene starring Pinocchio and some of his winged friends! We're big fans of Pinocchio at my house, and are thrilled to have the honor of hanging Ulla's fantastic picture in our house.

For those of you who want to try silhouette papercut for yourself, Ulla has promised to teach a class this spring at Castle in the Air on this intricate and rewarding art. Sign up for our class schedule and we'll email you once the date is set.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

O Tannenbaum!

This morning we got a request (Yes, we take requests!) to give a little background about the use of the Christmas Tree to celebrate the holiday. As with so many Christmas traditions, the origins of the Christmas Tree seem to be lost in a blizzard of conflicting stories and appropriated histories.

The ancient Germanic and Celtic tribes are believed to have decorated trees with lights on the shortest day of the year, and the practice may have been handed down to future generations in the form of burning the Yule log and decorating the house with mistletoe and evergreen boughs. As the Christian church gained power in Europe, the Catholics claimed Saint Boniface as wresting the lit tree tradition from the pagans. Some Protestants attribute the invention of the Christmas Tree to reformer Martin Luther, who is said to have been inspired by seeing stars twinkling through the branches of a pine tree one night.

Recognizable Christmas celebrations involving trees began in German churches and guildhalls in the 16th century, and within a few generations had made their way into the country's private homes. Aristocrats throughout mainland Europe and into Russia took up the custom, such that when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in the mid-1800s, he brought the tradition with him. Through Victoria and Albert's example, Christmas Trees were popularized in England and America.

Our own Christmas Tree at Castle in the Air is a marvel to behold. With the help of our industrious gnomes, a handful of people stayed up all night weighing down every branch of the nine-foot Tannenbaum with more than 1,000 glass ornaments and lights. Some customers are afraid to help themselves to the decorations -- please do! As ornaments disappear we replace them so that there's never a moment when the tree looks any way but bountiful and gorgeous.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rainy Day Escapes

Winter weather has finally hit Berkeley after a very long autumn. For most of America, winter means snow, but in Northern California we get downpours. Having grown up here, I always get the feeling that Christmas is that much closer once the rains begin.

In a town where the weather stays so nice for most of the year, it can be a treat to be forced indoors for some rainy day activities. One such pastime we promote at Castle in the Air is assembling and playing with paper theatres. For a c
entury Pollock's toy theatres were at the top of the Christmas list for every boy in London, including my father. He collected them back when they were printed uncolored, and he painted them and brought to life daring adventures complete with lightning and cannon-fire effects. He was such an accomplished producer at the young age of 12, that when the BBC visited Pollock's and asked for someone who could perform paper theatre plays on live television, he was chosen for the honor.

New entertainments have edged out DIY theatres, but our friend Alan Pryor has kept the curtains up for Pollock's by reprinting a number of their paper theatre kits which we sell at Castle in the Air.
It's amazing to me how scissors, glue, and a bit of imagination can transport me to the land of Aladdin or the quarterdeck of Blackbeard's pirate s
hip. Who said rainy days were no fun?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hello Hedgehogs!

There was a great hubbub around the gnome stump today, and when we went to see what was going on, we found that instead of just the two Steiff hedgehog residents at the stump--Mr. and Mrs. H.--there were four! Annalou and Russell arrived this morning by train. They had stayed behind in Germany while Bradshaw and Mrs. Hedgehog immigrated and got things arranged for their children. Now they're all reunited and they look so happy together. Mrs. Hedgehog gave the kids' faces a good scrubbing and straightened their clothes before we could take this photograph--she's very particular.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Bohemian Cup

This fall, Castle in the Air began what we hope will become an annual tradition -- the awarding of The Bohemian Cup. This prize recognizes a person or organization for, as the gilded certificate states, "extraordinary Imagination, Decency, Wit, Artistry, and Love," traits that we can all agree are exemplary but aren't often ceremonially reinforced. That's all changed now!

Many of you have heard of St. George Spirits, the Bay Area distiller largely responsible for bringing absinthe back to America after a century-long ban. We stood in line for hours last December to buy two bottles of their Absinthe Verte on its debut day, and we fell in love with the elixir immediately.

Through a series of happy coincidences, St. George co-owner Lance Winters contacted us earlier this year to ask if we might help him with a bookbinding project. He described what he was working on, a special, one-of-a-kind book he intended to give as a gift. We were intrigued and excited by the offer, and agreed to do whatever we could to help him make it happen.

When the project was complete a few weeks later, we were all so happy with the results, and with the grace and generosity Lance had brought to the project, that we felt like showing our gratitude in an official sort of way.

As such, we're very happy to announce Lance Winters and St. George Spirits as winners of the 2008 Bohemian Cup. Congratulations! We are already on the lookout for next year's winner!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Secondhand Handshakes"

Alan Pryor of the Kent-based Pryor Publications is perhaps the world's foremost preserver and distributor of charming reprints of the pamphlets of yesteryear. Topics common among the Pryor library include history, vintage cookery, courtship, and recreational pastimes like magic lanterns and optical illusions. Alan publishes the works of other authors far more often than his own, but he took pen to paper recently and the resulting pamphlet is destined to become a classic in its own right for its practicality and genius.

Secondhand Handshakes is a booklet small enough to fit in any jacket pocket or handbag, and that's exactly where you should keep your copy, becau
se it acts as a sort of passport to the social world. As Alan writes in the introduction to the booklet, "Few of us ever personally get to meet the great, the good, the famous or indeed the infamous in our everyday lives, though strangely enough we may be a lot closer than we think."

Like an autograph book, Secondhand Handshakes has pages dedicated to recording the handshakes you accumulate during the course of life, with space to write the name of the person you met, the date, and anything noteworthy about the encounter. Turning to the next section in the book, you can enter the handshakes they have acquired, and the handshakes those people have acquired, until you've got a several-generations association with someone you never might get to meet personally. It's amazing how easy it is to populate your pages with popes, presidents, and other world-famous individuals this way!

Alan gives a gr
aphic example of such a tree of handshakes in the booklet, starting with a Great War-era photograph featuring T.E. Lawrence, the King of Jordan Abdullah I, and other British military officers. Alan then traces a line of meetings across the decades until he comes to a photograph of (then) Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown shaking hands with young entrepreneur Tristan Cowell, followed by a photograph of Cowell meeting Pryor himself.

Anyone who is more chuffed to having shaken hands with Lawrence of Arabia--albeit five times removed--over shaking hands with the Prime Minister once removed is tops in our book. And just think, we've shaken hands with Alan!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

History Lesson: Letterpress

After losing myself in Mariaelisa Leboroni's xilographic wonderland yesterday, I thought I might learn more about the history of printing, especially letterpress, which is the most widespread recognizable descendant of woodblock printing.

The story goes that in 175 CE, the Chinese emperor decreed that the six most important lessons of Confucianism be carved in stone, such that an authentic text could be preserved for future generations. Scholars who wanted their own copies used graphite or charcoal to make rubbings of the stones, the way people today might take a rubbing from a gravestone or a bronze plaque.

Sometime before the eighth century, an industrious person tried carving such texts in relief, cutting away the stone around each letter, then inking the remaining surface before applying and peeling away a sheet of paper to it. The result was the first example of printing. Whole pages of religious texts were carved into stone and wood blocks, then printed on single sheets and scrolls, as printing flourished throughout what is now modern China and Korea. The market for these works was mainly among religious pilgrims.

The Koreans excelled at printing, and near the end of the 14th century realized that they could save time by producing individual, moveable letters, eliminating the need to carve an entire page. Interestingly, Korean printers were so daunted by trying to produce the variety of characters in the Chinese language that they invented their own national alphabet, known as han'gul.

Just as this was happening in Asia, the German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg began his own experiments with moveable type, using a wine press he converted to press the letterforms onto paper. As with Asian printers, Gutenberg found a ready audience for religious texts. His first works were a Bible and a psalm-book.

As printing technology grew more sophisticated, it allowed for type and drawings to be reproduced on the same page, and the rise of the religious press was paralleled, then overshadowed, by political and commercial printing in the early 17th century. Mechanical rotary presses and automated typesetting were invented in the mid-19th century, enabling newspapers to print daily editions for entire cities. Throughout the 20th century, the faster, more reliable technology of offset printing slowly edged out letterpress as the preferred means of printing.

But as the cast-off letterpress machines were retired, a number of them were rescued by smaller print shops and amateur printers. These groups have found a growing market of people enthusiastic about letterpress. Today, the bread and butter for independent letterpress printers lies in wedding invitations, but customers increasingly ask for letterpressed fliers, stationery, business cards, and art editions of books. Printers now often incorporate state-of-the-art technology in their work, foregoing the chore of setting type letter by letter by using photopolymer plates made from images typeset on a computer.

Castle in the Air has benefited from the flourishing of modern letterpress through our association with our dear friend Richard Seibert, who printed our first book, Castle in the Air, using vintage letterpress machines.

An interesting piece of letterpress trivia: When printers organized their individual pieces of type, they put the "big" letters in the top, or upper set of cases, and the "little" letters below.
Hence the alphabetical terms "upper-case" and "lower-case" today!

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Prints of Mariaelisa Leboroni

One of the most beloved collections we carry at Castle
in the Air is the line of journals, albums, prints, and other beautiful objects from Italian artisan printmaker Mariaelisa Leboroni. Under the name Xilocart, Mariaelisa uses xilography (xilografia in Italian) printmaking tools and techniques that have been found in the artifacts of particular cultures reaching back across the millennia.

Xilography is a method of printing first employed by ancient Egyptians and later by the Chinese, who expanded from single block carving to moveable type as early as the 8th century, 700 years before Europeans began using similar techniques. Artists carve away parts from the surface of a block of wood, leaving intact the shapes they would like printed. Ink is applied to the carved surface, which is then pressed onto paper or cloth. A xilographic artist may print using a single impression, or let the first impression dry and add others using different blocks or colors of ink.

Perhaps more than for the sense of history conveyed by Mariaelisa's books, people love her work for its whimsy. Contented frogs, cheerful cityscapes, smiling suns, and simple pictures of trees in autumn grace the covers of her books, all in lovely color combinations. Because each print is handmade and one-of-a-kind, no two books will have exactly the same image, although it is easy to recognize pieces from the same "family."

Mariaelisa is truly a treasure for the beau
ty of her works and for her preservation of an ancient art form, and we are honored to know her and carry her books and prints.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Welcome Saint Nicholas!

Put out your shoes and say your prayers, because Saint Nicholas is making the rounds tonight!

The tradition of Saint Nicholas' Eve is in recognition of the life of Nicholas of Myra, a generous man from the 4th century in the land now known as Turkey. Nicholas devoted his life to helping needy children with anonymous gifts and deeds, from a few coins left surreptitiously in shoes to lifesaving exploits worthy of a modern-day superhero. The story most often told of St. Nick involves his help to a poverty-stricken father who couldn't afford a dowry for his three daughters. Nicholas heard of the family's plight and tossed a bag of gold through the family's open window one night, followed by another bag the next night. On the third night, the father stayed up to see if he could catch a glimpse of the mysterious benefactor. But Nick was too clever and instead crept onto the family's roof and dropped a third bag of gold down the chimney, where it was found in the morning at the bottom of a stocking which had been hung to dry over the embers in the fireplace.

Nicholas' deeds inspired a tradition of gift giving on his saint day. Today, children in Europe and elsewhere leave out their shoes (or sometimes a special boot) and some food for the white horse who carries Saint Nick from house to house. In the morning--provided they've been good children in the past year--they will find some gifts in their shoes. If they've been bad, well, we dealt with that in yesterday's post.

Through the wonderful mishmash of traditions that is so common throughout human history, St. Nick's story blended over the centuries with elements of Nordic myth, other Christian traditions, and American commercialism to give us the annual visit of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Whether or not you celebrate Saint Nicholas' Day, today is a good day to reflect on whether you deserve a couple of coins in your shoe or Krampus' switch!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Greetings from Krampus

Tomorrow night is St. Nicholas Eve, when good children in Austria, the Netherlands, and other parts of Europe leave their shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with treats after they go to bed. But if the children haven't been all that good this year, they might also be visited by Nick's servant Krampus, a large, shaggy goat-man spirit who may beat them with a birch branch, take back their gifts, or--if they've been especially bad--toss them in his black bag and carry them off! Appreciative parents traditionally have Krampus stay for a few shots of schnapps before he trundles off to the next home.

In Austria, gangs of Krampuses lead St. Nicholas' procession through the streets. They are covered in bells and chains and have their switches at the ready. St. Nick brings up the rear of the parade and tosses candy to those terrorized townfolk who remain.

Castle in the Air imports many traditional holiday objects from Europe--perhaps we can call for Krampus to immigrate to America? After all, a simple lump of coal may not be enough of a threat to keep the little children from being naughty!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Real Castle in the Air

The phrase "Castle in the Air" comes from the title of a memoir written by my grandfather, the Scottish poet Charles Richard Cammell. Years ago, I took up the phrase as a focus for my creative and professional life, reveling in the notion of "castles in the air," imaginative fantasies that can lead to amazing and soul-nourishing works of art.

When I find objects with this same essence, I try to bring them with me either into my home or into the store to share with the world. When the objects prove too large to carry--such as an actual Scottish castle--a photograph must suffice.

I took this picture of the indescribably gorgeous Eilean Donan Castle several years ago, and it has been an inspiration in my creative and professional life ever since. Standing on an island nestled between Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Long, the castle was once the refuge of the religious hermit St. Donan. It was a stronghold for Clan MacKenzie from the 13th century until its destruction at the hands of the English in 1719.

The castle lay in ruins for nearly two centuries, until John MacRae-Gilstrap and Farquhar MacRae (perhaps ancestors of our own John McRae?) reconstructed it between 1912 and 1932.

To me, Eilean Donan Castle is the Castle in the Air, the way it seems to float above the earth. Its setting, its history of drama, and its rebirth as Scotland's most beautiful castle never cease to inspire me.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Tomte and His Temper

Although we don't often hear about him in the United States, the tomte is one of the most popular figures in Scandinavian folklore. The tomte (also known as the nisse) is the familiar of a farmstead, thought perhaps to be the soul of the farm's first inhabitant. He looks like a short man, dresses in simple rustic clothes and a red cap, and works harder than anyone else, taking care of the animals and watching over the property and the children all night long.

This little fellow's temper is as legendary as the tomte himself. He doesn't mind rewards, but he can be very particular about what he receives. One tomte who was recognized for his labors with a new set of clothes quit soon after, as his work was mussing up his nice new shirt! Sometimes the farm's horse (supposedly the tomte's favorite animal) can be found with tangles of "tomte braids" in its mane and tail. These aren't brushed out, for fear of upsetting the spirit.

With the rise of popular Christmas traditions, the tomte was often seen among the household holiday decorations. We've got a few visiting us this month at Castle in the Air. They seem to help best with the dusting!

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Great Glass Pickle Pursuit

Among the hundreds and hundreds of decorations hanging from the Christmas tree here at Castle in the Air, there is one which stands out from the rest. Or perhaps it is better to say, it doesn't stand out. That decoration is our humble pickle, a glass ornament with a peculiar legend surrounding it.

The pickle ornament has been hung from the Christmas tree for generations, a tradition which has passed to America from Germany. The first family child to find the pickle ornament on the tree gets the honor of an additional gift from Saint Nicholas on Christmas Day, and the first adult is bestowed with good luck for the coming year.

Or so we thought! Following a bit of research on the subject, we discovered that we'd been tricked about the history of the pickle ornament. Apparently, hardly anyone in Germany observes this tradition, or has even heard of it. Furthermore, Saint Nick visits German children much earlier in December than Christmas, and the children open presents on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. (We're hoping against hope that the good luck for grown-ups legend is true, though!)

But aren't debunkers such party-poopers? They just want to take the fun and mystery out of life. To counteract their naysaying, Castle in the Air hereby inaugurates the Great Glass Pickle Pursuit. To take part in the G.G.P.P., simply visit our Online Shoppe and find the special glass pickle ornament we've hidden there. Don't be fooled by the ornament listed along with all our German glass ornaments -- the pickle you're looking for is special. You'll know it when you see it.

And your prize? Between now and Christmas (or until we run out of pickles), any customer who finds our special hidden pickle will be entitled to purchase one special pickle ornament for only six cents, with purchase of one or more regularly-priced items. And that's no myth! Good luck!