Morning Coffee: Twelve Days of Christmas

ChristmasWhile we might have trouble remembering the words to this traditional holiday song, we all recognize it when it plays and stumble as we try to sing along. The debate that rose at this year’s Christmas Eve party was just what does the song mean? Are the twelve days of the song leading up to or away from Christmas Day? That question got me thinking.

On the website www.christianitytoday.com/history I found my answer. Advent, the fourth Sunday before Christmas, begins the count-down to Christmas Day, which is then followed by the celebration of the twelve days of the Christmas season, and ends with the feast of the Epiphany on June 6th. This was the traditional Christian celebration of Christmas, as opposed to our modern celebration which begins sometime in November and ends abruptly on December 26th.

Additional research taught me the song is probably of French origin first published in England in 1780 as a chant or rhyme without music. It may have been a children’s memory game. The tune we use today came about in 1909. It’s an arrangement of a traditional English folk song by Frederic Austin. He was the first to introduce the elongated “five golden rings” we all belt out with exuberance to show everyone else that we at least know that line.

Personally, I don’t think I’m up to an additional twelve days of Christmas celebrations. I feel like I’ve been preparing, and then celebrating, for long enough. I look forward to the quiet of winter after the New Year’s celebrations are over. I don’t care for the cold, and the snow is at its best when viewed through a window with a glass of wine (or coffee) in one hand, a book in the other, and a roaring fire in the background; but I do love the quiet. Other than this blog, I have not had time to do any serious writing in weeks. I’m anxious to get back to my next novel.

I’m even looking forward to the day I discover all the tins of Christmas cookies empty…and that’s saying a lot…because clearly knowing I shouldn’t eat anymore is not enough to stop me from eating more.

Happy New Year to all of you and I’ll see you again on the other side of all this holiday madness.

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Morning Coffee: Christmas Candy

ChristmasChristmas is almost upon us and I’ve been busy baking cookies and making fudge. Sweets are a big part of Christmas, always have been. Who hasn’t read over and over, “Visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,” from Clement C. Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” published in 1823? (Better known today as “Twas The Night Before Christmas”.) And there’s the beautiful dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies in Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” composed in 1892. While not as popular as they once were, sugar plums can still be purchased online.

My grandmother always had a bowl of mixed traditional Christmas candy, including the ever popular ribbon candy. I was never sure how to eat those as they were so big. It was too much to eat at once and it quickly got too messy to set down to save for later. The small candies were easier to handle but I always thought them too pretty to eat. And since they weren’t individually wrapped it didn’t seem to take long before they were fused together in one big lump of sticky colored sugar, partly from being touched by everyone else as they dug around to be certain they saw all their choices.

Ribbon candy goes back centuries in Europe. It was originally shaped by wrapping around the candy maker’s thumb. It was the 1800s before a mechanical finger-like crimper was developed. It took three candy makers to achieve this classic shape. The first made the candy, the second spun off a ribbon and fed it through the crimper, while a third stood at the end and cut off the individual pieces with scissors. It worked well, but was slow labor-intensive work. It wasn’t until the 1940s that a single spinning roll was developed. By carefully tending the candy batch it was found the middle job of hand spinner could be eliminated, speeding up the process. A bottleneck in production still existed at the cutting end, but with the invention of an air activated cutter by Sevigny Candy, a process still used by F.B. Washburn Candy today, the brightly-colored ribbons could now be mass produced.

Perhaps the most popular Christmas candy is the candy cane. It originated 250 years ago in Germany and started out as a straight white sugar stick. There are many legends of how the candy cane took the shape they are known for today, but they probably aren’t true. The earliest record of candy canes goes back to about 1900 when red stripes were added and they were flavored with either peppermint or wintergreen. Around 1920, Bob McCormack started hand-making canes for his friends and family. As they became more and more in demand he started a business, Bob’s Candies. It was his brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, a Catholic priest, who invented the Keller Machine that made turning straight candy sticks into canes automatic.

Some have given Christian meanings to the parts of the canes. The shape can represent either a shepherd’s crook or the letter “J” for Jesus. The white stripe is the purity of Christ and the red the blood He shed on the cross; the peppermint flavor representing the hyssop plant that was used in Biblical times for purifying. The three thin red stripes supposedly represent the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

No matter what candy is your favorite at Christmas, may you have enough this holiday season to satisfy your sweet tooth without making yourself ill or rotting your teeth.

Merry Christmas!

Morning Coffee: Poinsettias at Christmas

poinsettia-6I love poinsettias. Red, green, or white, it doesn’t matter; although I do prefer the red. This year I have a small red one as a center piece on the dining room table, as well as a large floor plant.

Poinsettias are not native to the United States, but originate in southern Mexico and Central America where they “flower” in the winter. Actually, they aren’t flowers at all, but special leaves called bracts. The Aztecs called the plant cuetlaxochitl and used the flowers to make purple dye for cloth and cosmetics. They made fever medicine from the milky white sap we know as latex.

Joel Roberts Poinsett is credited for originally bringing poinsettias to the United States in 1828. Poinsett was appointed the first US ambassador to Mexico in 1825 and shipped the plant back to his plantation greenhouses in South Carolina where he began growing the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens as gifts.

One of those friends, John Barroom of Philadelphia, gave a plant to his friend, Robert Buist. Buist sold the plant under its botanical or Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, which means, “the most beautiful Euphorbia”. Once it became known in the mid-1830s that Ambassador Poinsett was the one to introduce the plant to the country, people began referring to it as a poinsettia.

One version of how poinsettias became linked with Christmas can be told through an old Mexican legend: “There was once a poor Mexican girl called Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked to the chapel, sadly, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up. ‘Pepita,’ he said. ‘I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him, will make Jesus happy.’ Pepita didn’t know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She began to feel better, knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers, and everyone who saw them were sure they had seen a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.”

Another interpretation, one I’ve heard many times over the years, is this: the shape of the flower represents the Star of Bethlehem, the red color the blood of Christ, and the white leaves purity.

For more fun facts on Christmas traditions, go to www.whychristmas.com/customs.

Morning Coffee: The Christmas Pickle

poinsettia-6Christmas is a time of traditions. As I decorate our home this week I am reminded of one many of you have probably never heard of: the Christmas Pickle. The story is that this is an old German custom. You hang a glass ornament shaped like a pickle on the tree and the first child to find it gets an extra present. In our case it was something small, like a bag of M&M’s. If parents couldn’t afford to purchase an extra gift, that child was allowed to open presents first.

Actually, the origin of this tradition is rather murky. The ornament may have first appeared in the United States in the 1880s. Woolworth stores were importing glass ornaments from Germany in the shapes of different fruits and vegetables. It’s possible a pickle was among those ornaments. The thing is, most Germans have never heard of this tradition.

There are two other possible origins of the Christmas pickle, both equally odd. The first goes back to the American Civil War. A soldier who was born in Bavaria was taken prisoner. Starving, his last request was to have one last pickle before he died. The guard granted his request and presumably this pickle so buoyed the man’s resolve that he had the mental and physical strength to live.

The second is linked to St. Nicholas and takes us back to the medieval tale of two Spanish boys. The boys were traveling home from school for the holidays. On their journey, they stopped at an inn for the night. The evil innkeeper murdered the boys and hid their bodies in a pickle barrel. However, St. Nicholas stopped at the inn that night, found the boys’ bodies in the barrel, and brought them back to life. There is a different legend of St. Nicholas saving two boys from a barrel, but that barrel held meat for pies and not pickles.

No matter where the tradition began, I know it was something my children looked forward to every year. They’re adults now and I still get asked about the pickle!

Oh, and in case you were wondering where the Christmas Pickle Capital of the world is located, it’s Berrien Springs, Michigan. They hold a Christmas pickle festival in early December every year.

For more fun facts on Christmas traditions, go to www.whychristmas.com/customs

Morning Coffee: The Christmas Spirit

ChristmasThanksgiving is over and now begins the mad rush to Christmas. What we need to remind ourselves when the planning and gift shopping panic sets in, when the constant countdown reminders begin to haunt us, is that this is not what Christmas is all about. For those of us who profess to be Christians, Christmas is still, at its very core, about the birth of Jesus Christ. But, for all of us, no matter what we believe, Christmas is about gathering with our friends and families to laugh, sing, possibly drink too much, and definitely once more eat too much before embarking on our annual diet pledge.

In my novel, “Mary Bishop”, my heroine finds herself alone at Christmas while the pains of her husband’s death are still raw. She laments the loss of her husband, her children, parents and siblings. She remembers how wonderful Christmas was before and tells herself there is no reason to ever celebrate it again.

While Christmas growing up always began with church it didn’t truly start for her and her brothers and sister until Mother’s Christmas feast was laid before them that afternoon. The whole house smelled like heaven and the memory still made her mouth water. There would be a turkey roasted to a crispy brown, golden yams swimming in butter, carrots baked in a honey glaze, fruit compote, and sweets the likes of which they never saw any other time of year. After dinner, their bellies nearly bursting, they’d take turns being blindfolded and see who they could capture first. No one could ever capture her and she laughed now at the thought. Not a tap of the foot or a creaking floorboard betrayed her position, nor did she give into the temptation to giggle, like Lucy, when their brothers’ hands came a little too close…

She continued those same traditions after her marriage to Earl and the birth of their son, Ander, adding traditions of their own as the years went by. There were the candy sticks Earl handed out to all the children in the congregation every Christmas. There was the tree with its beautiful candles and decorations they modeled after the illustration they saw of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children, although much smaller than the royal tree, and the decorations not near as grand. Ander spent hours searching the woods for anything he could fashion into an ornament; a pine cone or an abandoned bird’s nest, long lengths of ivy they would drape around the tree, clusters of berries to tie to the end of branches, anything to brighten their holiday. But Ander was gone now, too…

 Everyone was gone. Everyone but her…

 Mary wiped her eyes. They were tears of both happiness and sadness. She could see no reason for a feast only she would eat and no reason for a tree only she would gaze upon; yet, there were still the children. She knew Earl’s candy sticks were the only treat some of them received on Christmas and she couldn’t bear to disappoint them.”

Mary forces herself to set aside her grief and loneliness for the sake of the local children and, in doing so, sets in motion her journey to a new life and happiness. That’s what Christmas is about, finding joy in what we can do for others. It can be as simple as buying one less gift for someone who already has plenty and putting that money saved into the Salvation Army’s red kettle, or baking an extra batch of cookies (giving up half of what you really don’t need to eat yourself?) to share with the elderly couple next door. Food cupboards are in desperate need of donations and your local soup kitchen might need a helping hand serving Christmas dinner to those in need of a hot meal. Take your children caroling at a nearby nursing home. The residents won’t care if you sing out of tune and your children will get the chance to see there’s more to the season than whether or not they receive the newest electronic device from Santa. You won’t have to look far to find a long list of ways to give back. Find your own Christmas spirit.