Holiday installment of PBS series creates comfort and joy


Holiday installment of PBS series creates comfort and joy
By Mary Thomas
December 17, 2013

“Craft in America: Holiday,” which airs at 9 p.m. Friday on WQED-TV, is full of the kind of cheer that’s just right for the weekend leading up to Christmas. But its appeal reaches more widely, to the joy of handicraft and to the unique interpersonal rewards that communal celebrations bring.

The program focuses on traditions in North Carolina and San Antonio, Texas, with a side trip to Boulder, Colorado. From the opulence of Christmas at the Biltmore House, the 250-room Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, to the San Antonio kitchen of Isabel and Enrique Sanchez, who lovingly make traditional holiday tamales for their children and grandchildren, the emphasis is on people coming together in ways that have been established for generations.

In an age that’s rapidly going virtual, the “Craft in America” crew sensed a longing for handmade objects and for the rejuvenating experience of creating something. Unifying a diversity of crafts and participants are the stories of the expressive, warm and generous makers.

The opening sequence has Harley Refsal teaching Scandinavian flat-plane wood carving at the highly regarded John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. He has lived in Norway and grew up in western Minnesota, where “everyone did things with their hands,” he says as he coaxes a gnome out of a nondescript block. A professor emeritus of Scandinavian folk art at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Mr. Refsal explains that many Christian and non-Christian holiday traditions had their origin in pagan winter solstice festivities.

In her Boulder studio, Susan Garson constructs an ever-varying array of fanciful, colorfully glazed clay menorahs that are destined to become family heirlooms. Some make their way to a Hanukkah celebration with her congregation.

Finally, viewers join La Gran Posada, an annual candlelight procession along San Antonio’s River Walk that represents Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter as the birth of Jesus nears. At Garcia Art Glass, Dora Garcia and Gerardo Munoz make sparkling ornaments, and at home Kathleen Trenchard produces elegant ephemeral luminarias by the papel picado (punched paper) method she learned in Mexico.

Mr. and Mrs. Sanchez give one another the gift of time together as they make the holiday treats. “I feel sad,” he says, “that the younger generation aren’t doing this. They go to the store and buy tamales that are nothing like homemade.”

“Holiday” closes with Veronica Castillo, who, with her family in Puebla, Mexico, has received renown for making richly painted and detailed clay tree of life candelabras. As she forms the parts of a Navidad (Christmas) Tree of Life, she speaks to the origin of the tree in ancient Olmec culture.

As each of these featured traditions, objects, foods and activities evolve, the core — bringing people together to mark a particular event — remains solid.