Tag Archives: Christmas

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

As the rush of activities for Christmas slows down for our family (and I hope for you), I turn on some Christmas carols and look around at my home and loved ones.  I’m typing in view of our Christmas tree, filled with beloved ornaments.  A cup of tea is steeping that I will enjoy soon.  My oldest is home following her finals and my youngest has only a half-day of school left before her vacation starts.  Ah yes, the joys of hearth and home during the holidays….

My carols are competing with two televisions, the buzz of texts to a boyfriend, and a discussion between a sixteen-year-old and a twenty-one-year old about the likelihood that an American equivalent of Hogwarts exists. Dirty laundry waits for its turn to go into the washer and dryer by the basement door, because its owner is watching one of the aforementioned TVs. The decorations in the entryway are competing for space with a book bag, shoes, and boots while I ponder whether the Christmas dinner I planned will include enough food for the boyfriend and my aunt and uncle, invited to join us by my mother (thankfully, she informed me of this before Christmas Day itself).

The pile of cards needing stamps catches my eye, as does the cat snoozing in a previously cat-hair-free spot on our tree skirt.  There’s some additional baking to do as well. And I just realized that I can’t remember where I put some of our gifts. Wrapping paper and ribbons cover the basement floor because the last person that used them didn’t put it away.

Oh, and I just realized that I need to research the British East India Company for my WIP, possibly resulting in some major rewriting.

The most wonderful time of the year? YEAH, BABY!!!

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Happy Twelfth Night!

No, not the play by Shakespeare, though it is named for the holiday.

Starting in the Middle Ages, Twelfth Night referred to the last of the twelve days that make up Christmas.  You know, like in the carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.   It is celebrated January 5th, the Eve of the Epiphany, or on Epiphany itself, January 6th.

The holiday ended two weeks of revelry and role reversal.  Led by a Lord of Misrule, often someone of low status within the household, servants dressed as their masters.  Both men and women cross-dressed.  Songs and mummery entertained the wealthy, and everyone feasted.  Cooks prepared special food and drink, such as wassail and a King Cake.  In England, a bean and a pea were baked into a ‘plum cake’.  (This sounds like a precursor of the plum pudding of Dickens’ day.) Whoever found the bean won the title of King, while the recipient of the pea would be Queen.  If a woman found the bean in her slice, she was allowed to choose the King, and a man who found the pea chose the Queen.

Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Mexico have versions of the King Cake, with coins, tokens, or beans hidden inside.  There are references to Twelfth Night cakes in English cookbooks in Victorian times, and my mother-in-law speaks fondly of the King Cakes eaten during her childhood in France.

Although To be Seduced opens shortly after Twelfth Night, there is no mention of the holiday in the book.  My heroine was raised in a Puritan household, and they did not celebrate any part of the Christmas season.  As the Bible does not mention that the early Christians commemorated the birth of Christ, they considered it unseemly to acknowledge it.  And they objected strenuously to the secularization of Christmas — some things never change!  Under Cromwell, celebrating Christmas was outlawed.

My family’s Twelfth Night dinner ends with a cake of whatever flavor takes the cook’s fancy, with a quarter baked in. When my youngest was a toddler, I figured the quarter would be easy to find and hard to swallow!  As it is, the poor child didn’t get an uncrumbled slice of cake till she was about eight.  Whoever finds the coin is King or Queen and gets to (read: must) wear a paper crown for the rest of the night.  And our tradition is rippling outward now.  My oldest started throwing Twelfth Night parties in high school, and one of her college friends has asked about plans for the 2010 party.

Remember, if you decide to try a King Cake, TELL EVERYONE TO TAKE SMALL BITES!!  (Seriously! I almost choked on a penny when I was a kid!!)

Here is a link for a modernized version of a medieval King Cake.

And here is an eighteenth century recipe that looks like a plum pudding.

Twelfth Night,or King and Queen

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Bean’s the King of the sport here;
Beside we must know
The Pea also
Must revel, as Queen, in the Court here.

Begin then to choose,
(This night as ye use)
Who shall for the present delight here.
Be a King by the lot
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day Queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the King and the Queen here.

Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lambs-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the King
And Queen wassailing;
And though with ale ye be wet here;
Yet part ye from hence,
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.
– Robert Herrick, 1648

Confessions of a Tree Tyrant

I freely admit that I suffer from OCTD: Obsessive Christmas Tree Disorder.  I put ornaments on the tree from the top down, with the smaller ones at the top and the largest at the bottom.  By now, I’ve trained my kids to do this as well, although my husband remains immune to my attempts to convince him that this is really important.  I keep my ornaments boxes out when my family and I have finished trimming the tree, because I know that next day, I’ll find bare places in the branches to fill up, or a dark spot that needs something nice and shiny to brighten it up.  Yup, it takes a minimum of two days before I can pronounce the tree finished.  Where my mom used tinsel, I use bead garlands, and it can take several minutes to adjust a ‘swoop’ the way I want it.

The first ornament that goes on is always the angel my parents bought for my first Christmas tree, the one that fit on a tabletop in their apartment in Germany.  The next ones are my girls’ first ornaments, and then the tiny balls that perch on the topmost branches, just below the spire that we use instead of a star or an angel.

Why? Why do I take such pains (and according to my kids, pass them on to everyone else)?  Most of the time, decorating anything is as much a challenge to me as a calculus problem.  Yet when the Barbie ornament is too close to the teapot, I make a mental note to move one or both of them when their owner is not looking.  Not that that works, because the she tells me I’m stifling her inalienable right to put her ornaments where she wants to, and returns them to their original spots.  Anarchist.

I learned my wicked ways from my mother, who makes beautiful, magic Christmas trees that range from elegant, with gold and crystal, to whimsical, with toys, Santas and candy canes.   She got the knack from her mother, who managed to dress up her aluminum tree by selecting a couple boxes of plain balls from the drugstore.  One year Grandma used red and green, another year, shades of sky blue, and another, her favorites: purple and lavender.  My college student put our tabletop tree up in her dorm and assured me she placed the ornaments in their proportional places and made sure the wires for the lights were hidden.  As my tree-tyrant bosom swelled with pride, the Anarchist just rolled her eyes.  I reminded myself that at least one of my children would carry the Persnickety Tree Gene into the next generation, and that the other is getting an A in chemistry.

Then a few days ago, we made spritzer cookies.  My oldest and I were happily sprinkling them with colored sugar when the Anarchist let out a gasp of horror. “You can’t just dump on sugar like that!  These aren’t just cookies, they’re works of art!”  My momly heart overflowed with joy.  She might not care if the tree looks just right, but even she can’t deny her Inner Tyrant.

Christmas Lists

Not a ‘Get’ list or even a ‘To Do’ list.

This time of year, families celebrate the holidays with a myriad of traditions: favorite foods and meals, favorite movies and books, favorite activities. Here’s some of the things we do at our house each year, with a few reasons why I love them. (Just a heads up…some of them might not match up with the customary images of joy and family togetherness.)

Favorite Movies
The Lion in Winter: Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine celebrate Christmas in France. Except he keeps her imprisoned most of the year, she aids their sons in rebelling against him, and he’s doing the nasty with the future Richard Coeur-de-Lion’s betrothed. And you think your family has rotten holidays.

A Christmas Carol: The version with Patrick Stewart only. Captain Picard as Scrooge! Make it so!

Holiday Inn: Bing Crosby first sang White Christmas in this movie, which premiered in 1942.  Fred Astaire co-starred as a rival performer.  The movie was remade in 1954, again with Bing, entitled — you guessed it — White Christmas.

Favorite Rituals:
Some of these are done in lots of families. Some are very, very different. Allow me to emphasize that no one has ever suffered permanent injury or death as a result of any holiday activity in my home.

Putting up the World’s Biggest Cat Toy:
In non-feline homes, this object is referred to as a ‘Christmas tree’. The cats get very excited when they see the boxes and love to help, especially when we’re engaged in weaving the long strings of lights through the branches.

Wrapping presents: Okay, it’s a bit of a chore, and the cats like to help with this, too. But if you’ve got company, it’s fun to outdo each other in disguising gifts with unique packaging. We once convinced my youngest that she was getting the world’s largest piece of salt-water taffy. (It was a pillow made by my oldest.) And who knew duct tape could be so festive!

Christmas Eve at my in-laws: Pandemonium! 25 people on my hubby’s side, including some small children. Potluck buffet, champagne, and little ones asking if it’s time for presents every five minutes. It’s a blast!

Late Christmas Eve Service: The celebration of Christ’s birth moves me every year. The service ends with the congregation singing ‘Silent Night’ as the lights dim. With the altar candles glowing in the darkened church, I reflect on how small the lights of Grace and Mercy are in our world, and yet how brightly they shine.

Christmas Brunch with my family:
More pandemonium, particularly if my sisters are visiting. Let’s just say we tend to get creative with ribbons and bows once they’re off the gifts. My mother says we look silly, but we ignore her.

Sparring matches: These break out periodically over Christmas season between my daughters, both of whom are testing for their black belts in taekwondo this month. They spar over who gets which of my ornaments when I’m dead, over who gets to use the prettiest wrapping paper first, and over the last dinner roll. Among other things.