12-10-2015 Pastry Day

Happy Hanukah to anyone who is celebrating. We haven’t had latkes yet, but we have the potatoes, so I’m sure we will. It provides such a wonderful excuse for eating something delicious!

Just for fun, here are a few holidays to which you can look forward:
9    Christmas Card Day, Pastry Day, and Nightgown Day
10    Sister Friend Day, and Moravian Christmas Putz Season begins
11    Ugly Christmas Sweater Day (always the 2nd Friday)
12    Ambrosia Day, Gingerbread House Day, Pointsettia Day, St. Lucy’s Eve, and
Gingerbread Decorating Day (2nd Saturday)
13     Cocoa Day, Little Yule, Santa Lucia Day- (this is your excuse to have saffron buns, even if you don’t have a daughter who’ll bring them to you in bed with a wreath of lit candles on her head!) Then we have a few days without Christmas themed holidays; although Halcyon Days start on the 15th and run until the end of the month.

lightbrite christmas house    John put the lights up around the front door this week. I really would love to have the edge of the house outlined, but none of us is good on ladders, and I don’t know any young men to get to do it anymore! Still, I enjoy having the colored lights up. It’s sort of funny how much I love Christmas lights, and yet resent them when they’re put up before the season! When I was a kid, Christmas lights meant strings of multi colored lights going above the down town streets. That’s  still my favorite. When we came down to Winchester, I discovered Winchesters strings of lights in deciduous trees- a different color for each tree. I’d never even heard of lighting anything but an ever-green. I’m not sure we saw many lights on houses either- they were mostly for trees! And certainly not to the extent some neighborhoods had them. I know I was enchanted by the houses that were outlined in all blue lights! Our neighborhood was too “upper classy” for that, we went in for “boring” electric candles in the windows. Variety was in whether they used singles or trios, or whether they had white, yellow or gold “flame” bulbs. I must not have been the only one who loved the lights because they’ve certainly gotten more popular over the years. I have enjoyed watching the new designs coming in, the swags, the icicles, and other variations- mostly in white. This year I’ve seen a couple of houses that seem to have nets of tiny blue lights over the whole front- a bit like the nets people use to cover their bushes. Still, probably because of my sense of “that’s how it’s supposed to be done” (in other words, the way I first saw it, I like a house outlined in multi colored lights, and wish we could do it again.
This morning I went up to the attic to look for my Christmas Pyramid, and found various boxes of “stuff” that are now down on the dining room table, waiting to be sorted. I admit that this goes completely against my basic rule that we do not decorate until the house is at least mostly clean, although things like wreaths, music, and dinnerware doesn’t count. On the other hand, I should probably do my best to be laconic (like that’s going to happen!) and get it sorted, and put away before we need to use the table again.
(Willow corrects me that she isn’t selling as many blankets as I said last week. She sent two off today, so it seems a lot to me, but I’m sure she has a better idea of how many she’s doing than I. One was to a friend, so maybe that doesn’t count.)

Steve came up last Friday for breakfast (he’s being pressed to use up his vacation days), so we had a lovely chat and omelets. IMG_0010
I’d realized it was high time to get the pumpkins off the front step, and cooked one up the night before, sadly, I grabbed the wrong jar and sprinkled the seeds with garlic, not salt, before putting them in the oven, so they tasted a bit odd.  I got the last, biggest, one while Steve watched (and took a picture; of course he got me with my tongue out!) I was more careful to use salt on that batch. Pumpkin has a lot more liquid in it than squash, so takes longer to cook down, so I’m glad we’ve got the wood stove going.
Friday was National Cookie Day, but I didn’t make any cookies. I did make a much pared down list of the cookies I plan to make this season. About a dozen “must haves” and another dozen “would likes”, but we’ll see. It did allow me to make my shopping list: 35 pounds of flour, 15 pounds of sugar, 9 pounds of butter, and some nuts, etc.

I think I mentioned that Josh Friedman had died, I was hoping to go over with Megan, but while she has gotten back from England, wasn’t recovered enough to go visiting, so I went by myself on Saturday. Josh was one of the sweetest, gentlest men I ever met, and (as usual when someone dies) I wish I’d spent more time with him. I shall have to make a point of spending more time with Gwynneth/Amy.
DSC02239 Saturday night was St. Nicholas’ Eve, and we put out our shoes, but we didn’t actually get them filled until morning, because Willow had picked up the stuff this year and had gone to bed, and I didn’t know where she’d put it. I had found Chocolate saints, and candy canes, but that was about it- she’d gotten cane shaped candy collections, and we now all have “Ugly Christmas Sweaters”.  I’ve been trying to get a picture of us in them, but we wear them on different days!
In theory I am doing the holiday cleaning, but I keep getting distracted. As I will mention shortly, I’m reading a bunch of books on Christmas customs. Kat and I went out for errands- she got an “order” from someone who saw her steam-punk charm bracelet on Etsy with the little vial in which she has her medication list for the paramedics- in case of an accident. The not-really-a-customer just wanted to buy some of the vials from her, and when we checked the craft store was out of them. Luckily she found them on-line, and sent the link to the woman who wanted them. While we were there I found a package of gold doilies to make into “cornucopias” to hang on the tree. I think they’ll be charming.
I’ve dug into my desk drawers and pulled out old paper lace doilies and Victorian stickers to make other “theme” decorations. I also found some “decorative box making” books I’d gotten and put away because the boxes they made were too tiny, but they’ll make excellent tree decorations.
Sadly, when John was putting away the Cake dome last week (we finally finished the last of the pies), it fell and broke. They tend to come with cake stands, but it always seems to be the dome that breaks. I think that at this point I now have 7 cake stands, all of which have lost their domes. I griped about it to Liz, and bless her, she sent me dome with no stand, even though the only ones you can buy that way are more expensive! I found it as I was leaving for Nashua, and set it aside because it was gift wrapped. But when I got home, she called and told me to unwrap it now, so I could use it during the holidays. How wonderful!
This year the solstice is mid-week so we’ll be having the open house on the weekend before Solstice (before Christmas too which is on a Friday this year). Usually we ask about 50 people and about 10 come. (EVERYONE is so busy this time of year, we understand that anyone who can make it, their time is a real gift!) This year I’ve invited a hundred, so we’ll see if we get a few more. I’ve also put up a facebook event page and have been posting menu, recipes, polls about which cookies to make, and posts on gifts/mathoms, and my adventures with the plum pudding. This may generate some more interest. Also, anytime people can wear costumes is always more fun! By the way, if I haven’t invited YOU yet, I’d like all my kith and kin to come, so if you are within range- or are traveling past and have an hour where you can drop in and eat a cookie or two sometime during the weekend- or even after, we’d love to see you!
The plum pudding! What an adventure! Since we’ve chosen a Victorian/steampunk theme this year, I figured that we really should have a plum pudding. Kat got me a plum pudding mold a few years back, and hitherto I’ve only made round cakes with it. (Chocolate Grenades) But I figured we should have the real thing this time!
DSC02236  I apparently did not use the wits my mother gave me. When the recipe for the plum pudding clearly calls for a pound of raisins, a pound of currants, a pound of peel, a pound of flour, a pound of crumbs, a pound of suet, eight eggs, two glasses of cognac, (and more), I should have realized that it was time to half or quarter the recipe! Clearly just what I mentioned totals more than seven pounds!
I looked up on the internet and watched an instructional piece from Great Britain (where they probably know what they’re about), and boiled the first pudding in a stoneware bowl, under a paper. The next day Willow located the mold and I found two others and was able to fit all three into the turkey roaster on the woodstove. Did you know that you boil (actually steam) a plum pudding for six hours, then you let it sit in the pantry for a month “feeding” it more brandy. Then you “boil” it again for a couple more hours before serving. No wonder Mrs. Crachett was worried how it was going to come out. What a production!
Some plum pudding trivia: There are no plums in plum pudding, it’s called plum because it plumps when steamed. (although the first one didn’t plump enough, and isn’t a nice ball, luckily the fifth pudding seems to have come out beautifully and that’s the one I’ll serve at the feast!). A “figgy pudding” is actually the same thing- again, no figs as such. Figs were simply what they called raisins in that region (Cornwall?). Best to simply call all of them Christmas Puddings! It’s all regional variations. The flavor reminds me of “mincemeat”. You may remember that modern mincemeat often contains no meat. Mostly it’s chopped raisins, currents, suet, apples, brandy, and spices, which was added to the shreds of meat salvaged after getting all the good cuts off the bones. That certainly sounds similar.
Another bit of trivia- Plum pudding is a Victorian thing. (It’s when I read that I knew we needed one.) Before that they had Christmas or Plum Porridge- a sort of fine stew with lots of fruit that was the first course in the Christmas feast.
We did get everyone in the family to stir it, sunwise, and make a wish. But held off on putting in the silver charms until we’re I was afraid of breaking the spoon, and used my hands- so for the rest of the day they smell like brandy.
Now I have five plum puddings (that I’m “feeding”) in the pantry. I need to find recipients for the extras. Given the amount of brandy I’m putting in, I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t have bought it off the bottom shelf. I assume that a more expensive brandy tastes better, although I have no experience in that.
The punch line of the adventure is that I came up with the “clever” idea of putting a drop of food coloring in the bathwater so I could more easily keep track of how low the water was getting. You are supposed to keep it 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up the sides of the mold, and it was a bit hard to see. A couple of drops. Open the bottle, drip it in, close it, put it back on the shelf. It got on the counter. It got on the dishes. It got on my hands, and seems to have tattooed my nailbeds green! HOW‽‽DSC02240
Well, that’s done anyway!
Next I made the first batch of cookies- Candy Canes of course. Only to discover that I was out of peppermint extract. I found a bottle of Peppermint oil at the back of the closet with a tiny amount in it. Sadly, I discovered another thing I should have remembered. Oil that’s held too long goes rancid. Yes, it tasted pepperminty, but also a bit rancid. Luckily the kids couldn’t tell and now we have a new bottle of extract. I shall make more cookies as soon as I’ve put away the stuff I brought down this morning! I am so looking forward to seeing those jars in the back hall fill!
Last week I had Sha Blackburn (the Loonwitch) on the New Normal talking about the associations and energies of the Days of the Week, and it sounded so cool that I have been joining her class (except tonight, because it’s at the same time as I was doing the New Normal- this week I had on Janine Marie talking about Pagan Prison Ministry).
Annoyingly, last night I kept hearing the chewing sounds of rats over my head during the class. SO annoyed! Also they have finally discovered the pantry and our apples, so I’m doubly cross. Luckily for the cats, this morning they left us half a rat corpse on the front steps, so I feel a bit better about them. (Although concerned- had that rat eaten any of the poisoned bait? I hope not!) Better stick to the traps, and keep the cats out of the pantry and back hallway!

I have to admit to having gotten distracted a lot this week. All my reading about Christmas stuff led me to talk to the Autocrat of the Barony 12th Night. (Apparently they’ve opted to have a 12th night rather than a Yule event this year, considering how everyone is so busy, I can understand that!) I had a lot of ideas I wanted to share with her, and she was pleased enough that she asked me to be Deputy autocrat, so I’m going to get to indulge many of my ideas. One I’d really like to do is have a “masque” or short play. It was really traditional in England to have the story of St. George, like the one we did in AS 10 (I think), for the Carolingian Masqued Ball. Then they redid it for Kingdom 12th night. There was musical accompaniment between the Turkey Knight and St. George, and it was rehearsing for that- doing the pease bransle on his knees that really bunged up his knees. But before that he was changing into his Turkey Knight costume when he was called into court to be knighted, and he almost didn’t change first. I guess whoever found him told him to take the time to change! Anyway, they did St. George plays a lot for English yules, and I want to do one too. I’ve found a website that discusses dozens of variations and has scripts, now if I can just pare it down to what people can learn and find some actors!  Another thing I’m hoping we can do is some caroling- dancing while singing carols. This was so traditional, but can we get people to do it? We’d need to find carols that fit bransles we know, or make up easy to learn bransles for carols we know. I think it could work. Anyway, I’m very excited!
We still haven’t heard whether we’re going to get tables at Birka this year. (I didn’t reserve in time and we’re on the waiting list). A friend from Pennsic, Kat has gotten in, and and she’ll be crashing with us. I have tentatively planned to finish the auction of the Shadowmaker knife at Birka, and that will be harder if we don’t have a table. I still have to figure out how to set up an online auction for that, but Kat says she can do that for me. (I shall have to break in, she’s starting writing this year’s Billy and Zoe stories.)
Today the gentleman from Mensa (Tom Thompson) came up and collected the boxes of military books for his friends and gaming stuff for himself. We had a lovely chat over tea and cookies, and now we are down to the bins of books aimed at Osgkar and we’ll have gotten rid of Mark’s excess books. Time to start getting rid of mine! At least the living room is becoming visible again!
Another thing that distracted me this week was Kat turning me on to a 70s British SF show Blakes’s Seven, which I immediately stayed up watching three episodes in a row. I’d been doing so well at going to bed and getting up at a reasonable hour, and here I am, at the keyboard past midnight again! As usual it shows an assumption that power will be abused, a rather depressing trope. Kat was right, the self-serving “coward” is swiftly becoming my favorite character.
I also watched Anonymous, which bugged Kat since it was exploring the idea that Shakespere was illiterate, and simply a front for the noble Edward de Vere- who wasn’t able to write because he was being groomed for (in this story) taking over the country, by Elizabeth’s major councilors the Cecils. I am OK with a fantastic theory exploring a twist on accepted history, and this is a fun one. I enjoy the bits like we saw in Shakespere in Love, where well know scenes from Shakespere’s plays are inspired by incidents in his life. Apparently Robert Cecil was a hunchback, which I’d never known. It was all woven together with great wit, but annoying jumping back and forth in the time line- probably to keep us from learning the dread secret until they want to reveal it at the end. Puritanism notwithstanding, I found the weakest point in the plot that a noble gentleman would be dishonoured by writing plays. Redgrave, as the aging queen, was marvelous!
I watched Scents and Sensibility– a modernization of Sense and Sensibility, which was OK, but forgettable, so I rewatched the Thompson and Rickman version again, and it is SO good, the backwash made the new one look better.     Trains, Planes and Automobiles,  a Thanksgiving film, arrived, I watched that, and it was a touching comedy as billed. I am down to the last set in the Odyssey of the West, audios, I’ll admit that listening to the development of the various philosphies sequentially makes Hegal and Marx make more sense than they have before. I can’t say that I am really interested in them, but it does give me more context for understanding the 19th century. I haven’t listened to much of the Daily Life in the Ancient World this week, I’ve been reading “way to many” Christmas books.
A Foxfire Christmas had marvelous stories- I liked the custom of serenading, young people would go to neighbors on Christmas Eve and sneak up on the house then make a huge amount of noise, banging pans, shouting, firing shotguns, etc. until the homeowners let them in and gave them some food and drink, in exchange for which they sang. If the home wasn’t opened to them, they’d play a trick on him- like hiding a tool, switching the cow and the horse to each other’s stall, or more ingeniously, disassembling the carriage and reassembling it on the roof of the barn. If the homeowner heard them coming and shot of his own firearm before they shot theirs, he would be passed by (assuming he wanted to be). They indicate that the pranks got increasingly ingenious/obnoxious until popular opinion put an end to the custom. One can see how easily acceleration of pranking could go that way. The custom fits in with much of what I have learned about medieval formalized begging practices.
 The Encyclopedia of Christmas is absolutely full of wonderful trivia, it must have been so much fun to research! I fear I have probably bored the kids with the bits I’ve found so interesting (which is what drove me to Nuala).  I took out 8 of the World Book series Christmas in (various countries) including Christmas in Scotland, Christmas in Finland, Christmas in Russia, Christmas in Denmark, Christmas in Switzerland, Christmas in Poland, and Christmas in Ukraine. I also took out and when I’m done with these there are at least a half a dozen more in my queue. They have different authors, and slightly different approaches, but each includes customs for the whole season, with descriptions of food, decorations, activities, and the build-up and how the season ends.
For example, Scotland seems to have gotten stuck in the reformation when Christmas was not celebrated. Instead they moved their celebrations from Great Christmas to Little Christmas (New Years). Their Hogmanay celebrations are epic, and the Norse heritage (I’d never really noticed that the Shetlands were nearly equidistant between Norway and mainland Scotland) is displayed in the Up Helly Ah celebrations- which, they admit, are only a couple of centuries old. I am left with an urge to try making a “Black Bun”… but not this year. I shall settle for shortbread. I was struck by the difficulty that no one was supposed to work at all during the 12 Days of Christmas- yet the house must be totally clean for the New Year (I wonder how they managed that?). Like the Appalachian Serenaders, a contingent of First Footers apparently were willing to tramp across what we’d consider great distances to bring a dram, a bannock, a bun and a piece of coal to distant friends. I rather liked the variation where some young men would beg for a specific poor old person, and collect donations for them. As old and infirm made unlucky first footers, this would have made it hard on them to do that begging anyway.
I was pleased to see that Russia and Ukraine were handled separately, since I’ve only really integrated how separate they have been historically. I like Grandfather Frost, and wonder how much of what they do now is survival and what is reconstruction- as in modern paganism.
Poland has a ton of divination methods, each associated with a different saints day. I am inspired to do a class on Saints Days and perhaps on the various wassailing, begging/singing customs from the Middle Ages. I am particularly fond of the Mari Lwyd-  where they carried a horses skull on a pole and used it to terrify the folks they visited before exchanging in a musical duel of wits. I loved reading about how Poland switched only gradually to Christmas trees, starting first with hanging decorations like a straw, tissue, and feather mobile called a pajaki (spider), which are still sometimes hung over the tables.  These were supplanted by suspended small trees (hung point down) and now trees are most common. I am especially enchanted by the descriptions of the food: the Wigilia- the Christmas Eve feasts with 12 dishes, for the 12 months of the year, all vegetarian. This is followed by a meat rich feast on Christmas day! So many recipes! This is probably the reason I long for a feast at this time of year, so I perform this heroic level of cooking occasionally and have someone to eat it.

I will pass this week, on sharing more than a hint of my sadness about the items in the news that baffle and worry me. I know in my heart that we have made great strides at making a world that is more fair and benevolent, that while prejudice and bigotry still exists, that we have acknowledged it, and turned light and our gaze upon it and said “this is wrong, we need to fix it”, whether it’s sexism, racism, or it takes other shapes. I’m sure it’s the rate of change that has made many people feel insecure and worried about their place in the world. In the fifties we congratulated ourselves that we were the best and had the most free and fair nation possible, and yet we were turning away from a great deal of unfairness we simply didn’t want to see. Some people want to go back to that “innocent” sense of pride and invulnerability, but we cannot do that. Being pushed too fast to change, they push back. I remember reading about the wonderful advances and modernization in Iran under the Shah, but it was too fast, and they rejected what we saw as progress. We must soothe the fears of those who resist change, and so they stop fearing it, although it does mean that they will have to give up some of their illusions that everything we choose to do is good. It is hard to recognize that we’ve been doing bad things, and it hurts. But we can’t stop if we don’t recognize it. We must stop living in such a way that it hurts the natural world, and impoverishes other people, whether Native Americans, or those in poor countries. We need to stop using “profit” as the way we decide whether what we are doing is appropriate. There’s a word for unrestricted growth and it’s cancer. We need to embrace our ideals- not of being the most powerful nation, but of being the most just. We can do it if we are not afraid. I have decided to not share any political posts on facebook until after the holidays. While sharing important information is a good thing, we don’t need to wallow in indignation. I think sharing good news is a better choice.

Until next week, let us all be kind to each other and let some hard truths go unsaid. I’m sure we have enough about ourselves to look at internally we can work on fixing, without looking for problems outside ourselves. Instead, let us celebrate whichever holiday inspires us to be better people.
I am already thoroughly sick of how long the nights are getting, and looking forward eagerly to the days lengthening again!

“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol