Monday, December 31, 2012

Cold Day, Hot Toddy

This weekend, as the twelve days of Christmas reached their midpoint,
we went exploring around the Shire.
But the weather was cold and rainy one day,
making everything dreadfully damp and chilly.

Regardless, we climbed to the grassy top of old Fort Monroe,
which gave us a vantage point across the Moat, Chesapeake Bay,
and the convergence of waters known as Hampton Roads.
From this height, we could also see the old Chamberlin Hotel
in the distance:

In the warmth of the Casemate Museum's gift shop,
I found a cookbook called Virginia Hospitality
which contained new and old recipes over 200 years.
It's a great combination of history and cookery.

One of those recipes was for a Hot Toddy,
which I had always heard of, but knew few details about.
According to the Cookbook, 
rum was an important  and popular drink for the Virginia colonists.
So in homage to a cold and rainy day in the Virginia shires,
and to what is commonly celebrated today as New Year's Eve,
 here's a vintage Virginia recipe
to ward off the cold and welcome in the New Year:

Hot Toddy
2-3 ounces of rum, light or dark
1 and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar
2 whole cloves
1 slice of lemon
boiling water

Place a silver spoon in a small glass or mug. 
Add rum, sugar, cloves, and lemon slice.
Pour in boiling water, stir and serve.

For those who prefer a few more calories,
one tablespoon of butter can be added before the water is poured in.
That creates the traditional Hot Buttered Toddy.

Here's a quote from p. 31 of the Cookbook:

"Rum in your toddy is good for a cold.
Or whatever else ails you--or so I am told."

Virginia Hospitality is produced by the Junior League of Hampton Roads,
729 Thimble Shoals Blvd., Suite 4D
Newport News, VA 23606.
Copyright 1975. Manufactured by Favorite Recipes Press, Nashville Tennessee

It would make a lovely gift to be given 
during the twelve days of Christmas, or any day.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Five Golden Rings and ...

 I have often wondered about the origin of some of the lyrics
in the song "Twelve Days of Christmas."
 cited in yesterday's blog has some interesting information.
The origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas song
may go back to the troubadors of 13th-century France,
but later was a children's game of memory
requiring each player to recite a portion of the song correctly
or pay a forfeit of some kind.
The words were recited start to finish, then reversed 
for a total of 23 lines.

The thing I find most interesting is the process of "folk-etymology,"
which caused the original lyrics to change
over the years because people mis-heard or misunderstood them.
For example, yesterday was the 5th day of Christmas;
which most of us recognize in the refrain "five golden rings."

photo courtesy of

But the site Hymns and Carols says the original lyric was more likely
"five goldspinks," meaning goldfinches.
Another possibility for the original lyric is five gulders,
which is a name for turkeys.

This folk-etymology also affected "four calling birds,"
originally four colley birds which are blackbirds.
The lyrics "partridge in a pear tree" may result from confusion 
of the French word for partridge, perdrix "pear dree"
which sounds nearly like "pear tree" in English.

The Hymns and Carols web site also includes several different versions of the song.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Christmas Truce

In the early centuries of Christianity, 
the Twelve Days of Christmas 
were ordained as a time of peace and goodwill.
Some believe this may have been in part responsible 
for the unusual Christmas truces of World War I.

photo courtesy of

According to,
a series of unofficial truces between British and German soldiers
occurred all along the western front in the week of Christmas 1914.
The opposing armies, camped in trenches, were close enough 
to talk with one another. 
In some cases, they left their positions, met in the middle,
played football, and even exchanged gifts.

Richard Schirrman wrote about a 1915 Christmas truce,
that occurred after the Christmas bells sounded in a nearby village.
Hearing the bells, the German and French soldiers ceased fire
and visited each other through unused trench tunnels.
They exchanged "wine, cognac, and cigarettes
for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham."
Source: search "Christmas Truce"

Eventually, as hostilities increased, 
the Christmas truces became less frequent.
However, the Wikipedia article cites recent evidence 
of a Christmas truce occurring as late as 1916:
The University of Aberdeen has a copy
of a Private Ronald MacKinnon's 1916 letter from the front,
in which he relates the following:
"Our German friends were quite friendly.
They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars."

A 2005 French film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)
depicts one of the early truces between French, Scottish, and German troops.
The Christmas Truces are fascinating examples of
peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
Even if temporary ones.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas

 December 28 is the fourth day of the twelve days of Christmas 
which begin on Christmas Day and end on "twelfth night," 
the night before January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany.
Some families observe the tradition of the twelve days
by keeping the Christmas tree and the nativity up until the 6th,
which is sometimes referred to as "Little Christmas."

photo courtesy of

Celebrating the twelve days of Christmas has a long history.
The  web site Hymns and Carols of Christmas has some of the most comprehensive
and well-researched information about Christmas traditions that I've found.
The site has some interesting information about the origin 
of the twelve days celebration.

According to the Hymns and Carols web site, 
 observing the twelve days of Christmas 
was first described by Ephraem Syrus,
 also known as Saint Ephrem the Syrian, 
a 4th-century Turkish priest of the Eastern Orthodox church.
Later, King Ethelred (991 - 1016) of Britain mandated the twelve days of Christmas
as a time of peace and accord among all Christian men.

Hymns and Carols speculates that 
this mandate and the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas
may have been in part responsible for the WWI Christmas truces.
I'll describe those remarkable stories of Christmas tomorrow.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Radishes for Christmas

I was on the Internet recently when something caught my attention:
a headline via Twitter that read: 
Survived the Mayan Apocalypse? 
Here come the Radish People.
The headline was for NPR Blogs,
specifically a blog written by Maria Goody on December 22, 2012.
And Maria wasn't speaking metaphorically.
She really meant radish people.

Goody explains that the kind people who live in Oaxaca, Mexico
observe a 115-year-old Christmas tradition: 
La Noche de Rabanos, the night of the radishes.
During the festival, they gather in a public market 
and commence to sculpting giant radishes into a variety of figures.

Here's a  photo by Michael Benanav that depicts a radish nativity scene:
photo by Michael Benanav on

I admire the sheer creativity of  food as art.
And it just goes to show that playing with food 
is not always dawdling.
It can be an act of reverence, culture, and community
and a way to express the wonder of it all.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Pipers Piping and Lords A-Leaping

As anyone who has read this blog can attest, I enjoy history--
especially the more quotidian goings on 
of those who lived in the centuries before us.
So the other day when I was clarifying 
that the reference to a Yule-clog was not a misprint,
I came upon a site that described Christmas traditions from the early centuries,
from Christmas Eve to "Twelfth Night":

Brand cites Braithwaite's 1631 tract "Whimzies"
which describes a typical Christmas celebration of the day, which included:
ivy trimming the doorways, carols, mirth, and melody.
And during the Christmas season, a piper appears, bringing:
an ill wind that begins to blow on Christmasse Eve,
and so continues, very lowd and blustring,
all the twelve dayes ... and then vanisheth
to the great peace of the whole family the thirteenth day.

This would explain the reference to "pipers piping" 
in the Twelve Days of Christmas song.

As for "lords a-leaping," this next passage gives a hint.
Brand cites Laurence Price's Christmas Book of 1657 
which describes a 1651 Christmas celebration in a cobbler's home.
Following the Christmas meal, there were
roasted apples placed in bowls of ale and discourse without profanity. 
Some  played cards, other sang carols.
Then the company of plow-boys and maids began to dance,
sipping and leaping for joy while singing:

Let's dance and sing, and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year.

This was followed by games which included the saucy Hot Cockles game
and a rousing game of Shoo the Wild Mare 
(described in the Still Waters blog dated December 23, 2012).

I'll close with these lines from the 1630 ballad, "The Praise of Christmas":
When Christmas-tide comes in like a bride,
with holly and ivy clad,
Twelve days in the year, much mirth and good cheer,
To every household is had.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
Joyeux Noelle
Feliz Navidad!
Frohe Weihnachten
С Рождество́м!
Buon Natale
Wesołych Świąt
from our home to yours!

Monday, December 24, 2012

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

The "Nutshell Library" collection of Christmas stories
written and illustrated by Hilary Knight,
published by Harper & Row in 1963,
is full of Christmas fun--and a little mystery.
Each book is smaller than a playing card,
but Knight's illustrations are worth the effort of turning the tiny pages.

One miniature book is called "A Firefly in a Fir Tree,"
written as a poem, but following "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song,
a song of French origin (
Knight's version is charming, 
with the first gift a firefly to light the loved one's Christmas tree.
The gifts include silver pins, thistle dusters, nesting wrens,
blue bells, and feather fans, as well as spinning spiders and bees "abuzzing"

Another book covers the ABCs of Christmas for children: from Angels to Lanterns,
Quilled notes to Reindeer, to name just a few.
Another book "A Christmas Stocking Story" recounts the bemusement
 of a number of different-sized animals 
who encounter a Christmas stocking, but don't know what it's for.

image courtesy of printing

But the most well-known in the collection 
is the little book titled "The Night Before Christmas,"
also known by the title "A Visit from St. Nicholas,"
credited to Clement C. Moore, with pictures by Hilary Knight.

And this is where the mystery begins.
Hilary Knight definitely illustrated it, but who really wrote the poem
that has been read to excited children every Christmas Eve
since it was first published December 23, 1823?

I read a fascinating article by Joe McKeever
pointedly titled "The Christmas Fraud" at

McKeever asserts that forensic linguist Don Foster, 
who correctly identified
Ted Kazynsky as the Uni-bomber 
and Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors,
discovered that the real author of The Night Before Christmas
was a Dutch writer named Henry Livingston, Jr.
One bit of evidence for this: in the original version,
two of the reindeer are named Dunder and Blixem, 
Dutch words meaning thunder and lightening.

It has been said that Moore took credit for the poem
and changed the names to Donder and Blitzen 
when he later published the poem as his own in a collection.
A cited article in wikipedia also discusses the evidence for Livingston's authorship:

Regardless of who the author was, the poem epitomizes
the joy and magic of Christmas felt by many children (and adults)
when they hear these words:
He sprang to his sleigh,
to his team gave a whistle,
and away they all flew,
like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim,
ere he drove out of sight:
Happy Christmas to all 
and to all a good night!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Games

Reading Washington Irving's accounting of late 18th
and early 19th century Christmas celebrations,
I was intrigued by some of the Christmas games he mentioned in this passage:

As we approached the house we heard the sound of music, 
and now and then a burst of laughter from one end of the building. 
This, Bracebridge said, must proceed from the servants' hall, 
where a great deal of revelry was permitted,  
and even encouraged, by the squire throughout the twelve days of Christmas, 
provided everything was done conformably to ancient usage. 
Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles,
 steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle 
were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, 
to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.*

(Note: a clog is an archaic word meaning piece of wood, sometimes even a tree root. 
Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, cited here)

So I thought I'd see what I could find out about these Christmas games.
Fortunately, I'm not the first person who has had this idea,
so it was relatively easy to find an explanation for each.
Some of these Christmas games are a little strange by today's standards,
but a few were still played when I was a kid.

photo courtesy of

Hoodman Blind is blind man's bluff, where someone is blindfolded 
and then tries to touch the players around him. says this game was played in Henry VIII's court in the 16th century.

Another game is Shoe the Wild Mare. 
According to the blog Montegue Blister's Strange Games  
the game is played by one person sitting astride a beam
and using a hammer to strike the underside of it repeatedly--without falling off. 
The site author says this game dates back to the early 1600s.

Hot cockles? This one is weird, and no doubt has a more sexy version
than the one played during Victorian Christmas celebrations.
the game hot cockles involves one person sitting on the floor;
another person, blindfolded, lays his head on the other's lap.
The first person places an open hand on the blindfolded person's back.
Other players take turns tapping the blindfolded person's back
while he tries to guess who has touched him. takes its information from  the Oxford English Dictionary of Folklore,
which dates this game all the way back to an illustration in a 14th-century manuscript.

According to Maria Lebedko, Far Eastern University,
in the article "Christmas Games, Customs, and Traditions"
Steal the White Loaf involved one person holding a small item behind their back,
facing away from the other players. The "it" person would try to spin around to catch
another player trying to steal the item.
That one sounds kind of fun.

Bob apple is bobbing for apples in a tub of water, 
a game still played in some version in different regions;
Lebedko cites Corinne Ross, author of Christmas in Britain, 1978,
to explain the game Snap-dragon.
Here's how it's played:
Get a large bowl of brandy with raisins in it. Set it on fire.
Players try to grab as many raisins as possible and eat them.
Apparently to play Snap-dragon, one needs the paramedics on stand-by.

So this year, as families gather and the kids need something to do,
try some of these old Christmas games.
Although it might be a good idea to leave out the ones with the hammer
and the bowl of fire.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

When Celebrating Christmas was Illegal, Part 2

After the English Civil War in the 17th century,
Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans established 
a theocratic government in England, 
a period known as the Interregnum or the Puritan Republic.
The Puritans favored a return to strict Calvinist principles,
a kind of an austere, no frills approach to life and religious worship.

In 1644, they passed an ordinance clarifying that indeed, 
the monthly fast legislated to occur on the last Wednesday of every month
included fasting on Christmas Day if the holiday fell on that Wednesday. 
The ordinance said in part that the fast on Christmas was:
to be observed with the more solemn humiliation ...
because of our sins ... 
who have turned this feast into an extreame forgetfulness of [Christ],
giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights ... ."

And then there was this in January 1645:
Festival days, vulgarily called Holy days ... are not to be continued.

Nigel Jamieson aptly titled an abstract in the Oxford Journals: Statue Law Review
 "Oliver Cromwell: The Grinch that Stole Christmas."
It is ironic that the only western government established to preserve Christian beliefs
is also the one that banned Christmas celebrations of any kind.
Once the British monarchy was restored, 
Christmas celebrations were too, 
perhaps starting small, with a warm fire, a good meal,
and a few sprigs of holly and mistletoe.

Friday, December 21, 2012

When Celebrating Christmas was Illegal: Part 1

Now trees their leafy hats do bare
To reverence Winter’s silver hair;
A handsome hostess, merry host,
Tobacco and a good coal fire,
A pot of ale now and a toast,
Are things this season doth require.*

*Poor Robin’s Almanack, 1684,
Cited in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon
by Washington Irving, 1820

According to, Poor Robin's Almanack 
was one of the first comic almanacs,
one which parodied the astrological horoscopes published in others.
Even so, its description of  Christmas celebrations 
requiring only a fire in the fireplace 
and a delicious dinner with friends isn't too far off the mark for the time.

Considering that the Christian Christmas holiday 
was overlaid on the pagan Roman feast of Saturnalia
and the Celtic feasts celebrating the winter solstice,
both being celebrations characterized by joyful feasting,
gleeful revelry, and a suspension of conventions,
the quiet night by the fire seems an unusual way to pass the holiday.

photo courtesy of

But this may be because "Poor Robin" 
was writing during the early decades of the English Restoration,
which saw the return of the monarchy 
and an end to the government's suppression of Christmas celebrations.

Yes, it's hard to believe that England, responsible for the Victorian Christmas
which brought us greeting cards, Christmas cracker toys, games, 
and popularized Christmas trees,
was once a place where Christmas celebrations were illegal.

photo from, search "Christmas crackers"

In some cases, even eating food on the day was prohibited;
so any Christmas feasting had to be done in secret.
How could such a thing happen in 17th-century England, a Christian country?
Join me tomorrow to find out how it happened--
and who was responsible.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Tree Lights

It has been said that Martin Luther was the first person 
to put lights on a Christmas tree.
He saw the stars twinkling 
through the snowy branches of an evergreen tree 
as he was walking home one night
and wanted to share the beauty of it with his children.

Although Martin Luther was the first to add lighted candles to a fir tree,
the tradition of bringing evergreens into homes
to mark the winter solstice dates back centuries. 

photo courtesy of

According to the web site
people once hung evergreens on their windows and in their homes
in order to ward off ghosts, witches, and sickness.
In the pre-Christian era, evergreens symbolized the new growth of spring
and the hope  for its return. 

Germans were among the first Christian peoples 
to bring evergreen trees into their homes,
and the early German settlers brought the tradition to the US.
Yet, it took a long while for the Christmas tree to catch on,
and it really only became widespread after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert,
who was German, were depicted standing by their candle-decorated 
Christmas tree with several of their nine children.
This is the 1846 image, as shown on

Lest one think that only evergreens 
will do for a solstice or Christmas celebration, notes that even the ancient Egyptians 
brought palm fronds into their homes
to celebrate the return of their sun god Ra and his triumph over death.
There's no record of their having burned candles or oil pots 
on their palms leaves, however.

Today, tree lights are essential, with many artificial trees coming pre-lighted.
But people remain very particular about the type  of Christmas lights they will use.
One of my brothers insists on the old-fashioned elliptical lights like these:
photo courtesy of

Others prefer the small lights like these:
photo courtesy of

But even these small lights are becoming "yesterday's news."
LED lights that give a piercing bright light in multiple colors 
are becoming more common.
In my neighborhood, most people have white lights,
a more conservative choice nowadays.

Lights on Christmas trees have come a long way 
since Martin Luther first saw the stars sparkling and lit candles on his tree.
But one thing hasn't changed: 
the stars can still out-sparkle anything that humans come up with.
And I do think the reason we love Christmas lights so much  
is that for a short season,
it's almost as if we can bring the stars from the sky inside to brighten our homes.
Here's something Emerson said about the stars that describes our love of light:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,
how would men believe and adore; 
and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God
which had been shown!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Spices for Christmas

My French instructor, who was from Normandy, once said 
 she didn't understand why Americans 
put cinnamon in everything from coffee to cookies to pastries,
and sprinkled it on everything from squash to salmon. 
She felt our love affair with cinnamon ruined many dishes.

I was more than a little surprised to hear her thoughts.
My mother always made delicious homemade cinnamon rolls and cinnamon toast, 
and her family celebrated Easter every year with a special cinnamon coffee cake.
I figured everybody liked cinnamon as much as we did.

Cinnamon is one of those spices that says holiday to me.
So I'm including three ways that cinnamon can spice up the season.
The first is the simplest: sprinkle one quarter teaspoon of cinnamon
on top of the coffee in a coffeemaker or French press.
The cinnamon adds a lovely flavor
and makes that first cup of coffee on Christmas morning something special.

photo courtesy of

The second way to add a little spice
 is with my favorite mulling spice mix.
I found this recipe called "Barclay House Mulling Spices"
in Southern Living magazine in the early 1980s.
I've made it several times through the years 
although I have never added the oils.
Even without them, the fragrance lasts an incredibly long time.
I had made some for my mother-in-law in the 1980s,
and after she passed away in 2003, we discovered it in its original tin.
I still have it and it still smells delicious.

 Mulling Spices recipe:

8 oranges & 8 lemons
8 ounces of stick cinnamon
8 ounces whole cloves
8 ounces whole allspice
2 tablespoons whole coriander
2 tablespoons orange oil
1 and 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon oil

Peel the rind from oranges and lemons, cut them into 1/4 inch wide strips 
and dry for at least 24 hours. I break them into smaller pieces after they are dry.
I also break up the cinnamon sticks into smaller pieces.
Place all ingredients together in an air tight container.
Store at least 7 days, stirring occasionally.

A couple of teaspoons of this in a tea ball 
will flavor a cup of hot cranberry juice or tea.
For mulled wine, 
place 1/2 cup of the mix in a 9-inch square of cheesecloth 
and steep in a simmered mixture of 1/2 gallon of red wine, 
 2 cups pineapple juice and 1/2 cup sugar. 

The third idea for cinnamon is a cute and easy project to do with kids: 
cinnamon-apple teddy bears.
It comes from Redbook magazine, December 1989.

Cinnamon Teddy Bear Recipe:

3 and 3/4 ounces of ground cinnamon 
23 ounces of applesauce
white glue
trim or ribbon for decorating the bear

Pour the cinnamon in a bowl and spoon in applesauce
until a stiff dough forms. Mix dough by hand,
then roll into a ball about 1 and 1/4 inches in diameter to form the body.
Roll a smaller ball to form the head.
Make 4 smaller balls and roll them into logs for the arms and legs.
Make 4 more even smaller balls for the feet and ears.
Join all together to fashion the teddy bear.
Be sure to pinch edges together and then smooth them out with fingers.
Poke holes for eyes and nose using a pencil or skewer.
Allow bears to dry thoroughly. Use white glue to join parts if needed.
Glue the trim or ribbon to the bear.

This same recipe can be used to make small pomander balls.
Just place the dried pomanders 
inside a small square of fabric and tie with a ribbon. 
I made these once and thought the fragrance 
could have used a boost from a little cinnamon oil.

So there they are. Three delicious and creative uses for cinnamon.
Even if the French don't care for canela,
there's nothing better for creating happy memories.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Frankincense and Myrrh

The gifts of the Magi were three: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We all know why gold was valuable,
but what about frankincense and myrrh?

First of all, both frankincense and myrrh are resins
harvested from a couple of very scrubby trees, historically in Arabia and Somalia.
Each tree exudes a sticky resin that dries into tears;
myrrh turns reddish brown after several days.
Frankincense is traditionally harvested in the autumn,
according to Gus W. Van Beek,
author of the article "Frankincense and Myrrh"
published in an edition of The Biblical Archaeologist, 
Volume 23, No. 3, Sept 1960, pp. 82 - 86.

This limited harvest helps explain in part the high demand for it centuries ago.
Van Beek says that frankincense was primarily valued
in ancient times because of its fragrance
and for its use as an ingredient in incense used for religious offerings.
The incense was regarded as holy, so it was reserved for honoring Yahweh.
But not only was frankincense important for temple rites,
archaeological evidence reveals numerous small frankincense burners
in homes in Egypt and Palestine.
Van Beek interprets the prevalence of individual burners
as evidence for frankincense burning during individual devotions.
But frankincense was also commonly burned during funeral rites
and was even found in King Tutankhamun's grave.
Frankincense was also valued for medicinal purposes,
including as an antitode to poison.
These multiple uses and limited availability
may help explain the great demand for frankincense
before and after the common era.

Frankincense Tears 

Van Beek says that myrrh was also used for incense, 
but not as frequently as frankincense.
Myrrh was primarily valued for its fragrance.
In Assyria, it was burned in a censer over a sick bed,
Yet, Van Beek says myrrh was equally important as a cosmetic and perfume.
Beauty regimens relied on the perfume and lotions made of myrrh.
For Van Beek this is evidence that the ladies of the day 
regarded myrrh as a mark of "gracious living."
Myrrh also had multiple medicinal uses
and was an important substance for embalming and mummification.

Myrrh resin

 Frankincense and myrrh were fragrant, medicinal, and funerary,
and as Van Beek suggests, the two had many more daily and ritual uses
that are lost to modern researchers.
Once a year harvest, long trips along trade routes, and universal appeal
made both resins extremely valuable.
Fit for a king.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why are Red and Green Christmas Colors? Part 2

In yesterday's post,
I wrote about different theories that attempt to explain
how red and green became traditional Christmas colors.
And from Sanskrit body chakras to evergreens with red berries or apples,
the ideas are wildly varied.

photo courtesy of

But I ran across a very interesting article called "Who Colour-Coded Christmas":
This was published by the University of Cambridge in October 2011.
A research scientist at Cambridge, Dr. Spike Bucklow,
says that red and green for Christmas
dates well back to the Middle Ages, and probably even further back.
He points out that the Victorians started many Christmas observances,
but they also resurrected long-held traditions of Christmas,
including the motif of red and green.

Bucklow came up with his theory after studying medieval rood screens,
wooden screens spanning the width of old churches
in order to separate the congregation from the priests and dignitaries on the altar.
These rood screens, "rood" an archaic term for a cross, 
which was always affixed to the screen, 
 were  often painted with vivid images of saints or church patrons.
More commonly, they were painted green on one side and red on the other
to mark the boundary between the narthex and the chancel.
He says that the choice of these two colors was deliberate
because each expressed a powerful symbolism.

My curiosity was piqued by his research, 
so I went on the internet and found this site: 
 a virtual museum called WebExhibits: Pigments through the Ages.

According to the web site, 
green represents rebirth, regrowth, and hope in many cultures. 
However, some cultures consider green a symbol for death.
The Egyptian god Osiris, the god of death and the afterlife, 
was often depicted as a green-skinned person.
And in the 15th century, the devil was also often described as green. 
WebExhibits says it is because green was a friendly, pleasant color,
attractive to animals and therefore the source of "hunter green";
the devil appeared thus to lure his human prey.

On the other hand, red expresses life and passion.
WebExhibits says the ancient Egyptians 
colored their skin with red ochre as a sign of vitality.
It also says that the Egyptian god Seth [Set]
was depicted as having red hair and eyes,
and depending on the context, either symbolizing victory or destruction
 after his having killed the green-skinned Osiris.

Could this historic symbolism for red and green, 
this kind of a yin and yang balance,
be the two opposites that those in the medieval period 
used to mark the spiritual boundary 
between life and death, beginnings and endings?
And if so, how old is this red-green nexus in Western culure?

photo courtesy of

Dr. Bucklow says that the use of red and green to mark a boundary line
goes back much further than the Middle Ages;
 he cites a reference in the 13th-century Mabinogion,
a collection of Welsh stories that are based on pre-Celtic oral traditions.
In one, the hero comes upon a tree, half-red and half-green,
that marked the boundary between two lands.

photo courtesy of

Bucklow surmises that the Victorians recognized red and green 
as symbolically marking
the boundary between the old and new year.
Dr. Bucklow published a book about his color theories in 2009:
The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science, and Secrets from the Middle Ages,
available through many booksellers.
I'd love to read it to see his evidence.
Until then, red and green will have to remain one of those marvelous mysteries.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why are Red and Green Christmas Colors? Part 1

In recent years, the choice of colors for Christmas decorating
have grown increasingly varied.
This year I've seen a lot of deep purple, lavender, teal, and chartreuse.
Also fuschia pink, deep royal blue, and black.
Of course there is always a lot of silver and gold metallic.
One year I was able to buy bronze and copper glass ornaments;
another year I decorated my tree with soft rose-pink
and an unusual green that the label called "Victorian green."
It had strong hints of black and verdigris.
But the colors that endure are the traditional red and emerald green.
And why are red and green the traditional colors for Christmas?
There are lots of ideas, but not many facts.
Here are some of the proposals I came across on the web:
Evergreen trees and leaves would seem to explain the green.
The word green derives from an archaic verb
that meant "to green" or "to grow,"
so it is a color that, more than most, symbolizes nature.
And bright red holly berries might explain the red.
photo courtesy of
Or perhaps a bright red cardinal on an evergreen bough
could have captured someone's attention.
Some people speculate that the color symbolism came from red apples
being used to decorate small evergreen trees in the 17th-century.
Another theory explains red and green in terms of the chakras.
Green is the color of the heart chakra, for expressions of love,
and red is the color of the root chakra,
expressing our sense of family and belonging.
That might well explain the choice of red and green for Christmas.
But then we could look at the role of red and green on the color wheel:
they are opposite one another and therefore complementary colors,
but then, if that's all it takes,
 why not blue and orange or purple and yellow?
Some point to the color symbolism in priests' vestments:
green to symbolize hope and growth,
red to symbolize love, passion, the blood of martyrs, and the apostles.
All good theories, but join me tomorrow for Part 2,
when we will look at some historical evidence
that explains the use of red and green for Christmas.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reindeer Games

When the holiday season arrives,
some people get giddy with excitement.
They love the season so much,
that not only do they "deck the halls,"
they also dress up a few other things too.
Here's a house tied up with a bright red bow:
photo courtesy of

I suppose it all started with people dressing up themselves first.
Men would wear red or green or both.
Decades ago, there was a man
who wore bright green pants and a bright red shirt every Christmas.
He didn't seem to be a particularly upbeat guy,
so I was never sure if he was deliberately trying to look like a poinsettia
or if it was just accidental.

In his defense, many men do choose holiday apparel, if less vibrant;
perhaps they put on Christmas-colored socks
or don a tie with Santas or candy canes,
maybe a pullover sweater with a snowflake motif across the chest,
but they usually don't go as far as women do.

Women have always been able to gild themselves more than men could.
For the season, some make a pilgrimage to craft stores for supplies,
then decorate sweatshirts and sweaters with Christmas symbols
like Santa, elves, Christmas trees, and reindeer--
all over-frosted with puff paint, glitter, sequins, little bells, and ribbons.

But it soon became apparent that decorating houses and clothing wasn't enough.
People started to festoon their cars and trucks
with a cheery Christmas wreath on the grill.
Fair enough.
But from there, things got rapidly out of hand.

Now there is a newer trend:
dressing one's vehicle to make it look like a reindeer.
This involves two large chenille or soft felt antlers 
protruding from both the driver's and passenger's doors,
and in a nod to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
one very shiny red "nose" on the front grill of the car.
There are a couple of photos of a reindeer car
on this blogpost by Kathleen Kirk:

Just when I thought I'd seen it all,
yesterday I found myself in a parking garage next to a car
that had what looked to me like a couple of very large pig ears
sticking out  of the windows.

I had to think a minute:
how did pig ears have anything to do with Christmas?
I tried to look casual as I walked to the front of the car
and glanced over at the grill.
And there affixed was a small red- and green-striped elf hat.
Considering the size of the piggish elf ears,
I would have expected the elf hat to be much larger.
But I give them high points for breaking out of the car-as-reindeer mold.
Here's a photo of an elf car wearing the kit, on sale at

One would think it would end there.
It didn't.
Driving home last night,
I was behind a car with what appeared to be a small decorated box
dangling from the exhaust pipe.
After we stopped for a traffic light, I was able to see what it was:
a small gingerbread house.
From the tail pipe.

Americans' creativity--and willingness to embarrass ourselves--
gives us a certain charm.
So I can't wait to see what some innovator comes up with next.
Perhaps someone will figure out how to make their car look like a Yule log.
Or a fruitcake.

Friday, December 14, 2012

More Mistletoe for Christmas

The other day, I wrote a post about mistletoe and its history.
As coincidence would have it, a few days later
I noticed a couple of small trees, not oaks, laden with balls of mistletoe.

The leaves are a dark black-green,
so they are difficult to see in the photos below
because the sky was dark and overcast: 

This next tree is completely inundated with mistletoe:

I have read accounts of people harvesting mistletoe 
by taking long poles and knocking the plant to the ground.
I suppose a ladder and a garden clippers would be more civilized,
but not necessarily more effective.
However, I have read that in order to retain its magic,
mistletoe should never touch the ground.

At Christmas, many people weave mistletoe into garlands or wreaths,
but more of them gather a few sprigs together into a bouquet
and hang the mistletoe upside down in a doorway or foyer
in hopes of stealing a kiss.

Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs
explains that Victorians hung a "kissing ring"
fashioned from two interlocking hoops wrapped in colorful ribbons 
with a sprig of mistletoe suspended in the middle.
That sounds much prettier than a dangling bouquet.

The Victorians may be able to lay claim to the kissing ring, but not the tradition.
Washington Irving, in his 1820 book
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon
describes the mistletoe kissing tradition
 that was already antiquated by the time of his writing:

The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas,
and the young men have the privilege of kissing under it,
plucking each time a berry from the bush.
When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.

Mistletoe--maybe it's one of the things that puts the "merry" in Christmas.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Just in Time for Christmas

Not two nights ago, the temperature outside was so warm,
we nearly turned on the air conditioning.
Contrast that with yesterday which was so frigidly miserable
that we all wondered if it was going to snow--
December snow something of a rarity in this part of Virginia.

The air temperature wasn't really that cold--
I think it was 46 or 48 degrees, 
but the wind was viciously sharp,
forcing all of us to draw our coats near 
and keep our heads down 
as we hurried to get out of the weather.

Despite the winter-y chill, 
I went outside and hung the last outdoor Christmas wreath on my house.
And that was when I noticed the snowdrops 
nestled at the trunk of the river birch tree,
their gentle white arriving just in time for Christmas. 

I can't say how many times over the last decade 
I have glanced through the window 
at the forlorn landscape wrought by bleak winter days,  
 only to lay eyes on these delicate blossoms:

What a lovely feeling they give;
their appearance always surprises me.
And I can't help but feel optimistic when I see them.

Even though December is when all the poinsettias appear in stores,
thanks to our climate here in the Shire
we have outside flowers just coming into bloom at the same time.
Besides snowdrops, we enjoy pansies,
Lenten roses, and camellias through the winter. 
Here are some beautiful Lenten roses,
also called Christmas roses:
photo courtesy of

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring once wrote
that there is something
"infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature--
the assurance that dawn comes after night,
and spring after winter."

And to that I would add,
flowers that bloom just in time for Christmas.