When I was a kid life was simpler. We didn't have the Internet to answer all our questions, and there was no such thing as "reality TV" to claim to show you what life was really like when you grew up. It was easier to believe in magic then, but I don't think it's impossible now. Christmas is a great time to practice, so this week I'm going to remind you how much fun it can be :)
Do you feel better when you see Christmas spirit in action? You know, those stories posted on Facebook about people who pay it forward and help out someone less fortunate or even just a random stranger.... doesn't it warm your heart, just a little? It's a sad fact of life that these things happen much less often throughout the rest of the year but as Christmas draws near many people are inspired to perform those random acts of kindness. Perhaps they are not even random, but due to the power of the holiday season to infuse us with just a little more generosity of spirit.
In 1897, little Virginia wrote her letter to the New York Sun newspaper editor Francis Church asking about the veracity of Santa Claus. His famous reply reassured her and a whole generation of children and adults that magic does not have to be understood to be believed. It is still the most reprinted editorial in English newspaper history.
"Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus. He exists as surely as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary the world would be if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence."
In the 1950's a local Sears ad for Christmas, that gave a number to call Santa in case kids couldn't see him at the store, mistakenly gave an incorrect phone number to dial. That number - off by just one digit - happened to be a top secret line at the Continental Air Defense Command (the predecessor to NORAD.) Colonel Harry Shoup was the officer on duty who answered the first call from a hopeful child looking to speak to the Man in Red. His heart softened at the voice on the other end wanting to speak to Santa directly and he put in motion the work to have airmen answer the phone and tell kids Santa's progress around the North Pole. In 1958 when CONAD became NORAD, Col. Shoup's organization kept up their work. Now kids around the world can connect through the internet to see Santa's ongoing progress.
I remember listening to the Christmas Eve reports on CBC radio when they would contact NORAD and get the latest news. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to hear the officer tell of the blip on the radar that could only be Santa. We didn't have the "Elf on the Shelf" but as kids, my brother and I knew that Santa was watching to see if we were good or not. I still like to think he watches me, and I do my best to have a little extra spirit around Christmas. I don't have children but my childhood spirit can live on.
May the spirit of Christmas live on in your heart, too. It will be good for all of us :)
Here we are, coming up quick on the Big Day, and everyone is running at mach speed trying to check everything off the list and be sure that they are ready to fulfill all their holiday obligations. Fight the traffic to get to the mall, wait in line to buy the gifts, attend the kids' Christmas concert, stay up 'til midnight wrapping and baking and decorating... so that it’s all according to plan for Christmas Eve. You barely have time to get to the parties to see people, and then do you relax? You are probably thinking of the million other things that need doing when you get home. The problem is, Christmas is all over too soon and many of us are left feeling symptoms of withdrawal when - all too soon - things are just back to the usual rat race. So, fear not, Gentle Reader – I have a simple solution for you to save the spirit of Christmas, and your sanity!
Here it is – are you ready? Stop the rushing. Just listen, look and enjoy.
You think I am a bit nuts, don’t you? I can’t stop, you say, or I shall never get it all done. Well, so what? Isn’t the most important thing to be able to enjoy the season, to spend time with family and friends, to be grateful for what we have? There are many movies, stories and songs about the magic and mystery that is in the true spirit of Christmas. It seems to me Christmas loses its mystery when we lose sight of its true significance.
Instead of worrying about all the gifts from the store, remember that Christmas is about gratitude. If you are stuck on gifts, think of a simple meaningful gift for your loved ones (maybe it is a “gift certificate” for an afternoon spent sharing a coffee). Stuck on dinner? Instead of the complicated holiday menu, try the shortcuts you can find all over the internet or on the Food Network. Stuck on all the chores?? Ask the kids to help wrap gifts or clean the house or shovel the walk... and then spend the time gained sharing a hot chocolate or humming a carol or two. You will find that even the smallest moment spent simply enjoying the fun of the holiday season gives your heart a boost that will broaden your smile and increase your stamina, not to mention your Christmas spirit.
Author Tom Robbins said:
“It is contrary to the nature of mystery to stand still. Yet it’s always there, somewhere, a world on the other side of the mirror…, a promise in the next pair of eyes that smile at us. We glimpse it when we stand still.”
Take the time to stand still and enjoy Christmas and you will realize another truth this same author wrote:
“It is never too late to have a happy childhood.”
As a closing note, here is a simple treat for you to enjoy – fun to share with guests, and it can be a great gift when packaged in a tin or gift bag, too!
You can use hazelnuts or walnuts too (many of us have trees – include the recipe with some nuts from your tree and you have a very personal gift for a friend or neighbour!)
- 1 cup sugar
- 3/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ginger
- 10 rasp strokes of freshly grated nutmeg (or 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg)
- 1/8 tsp ground cloves (optional - cloves have an intense flavour)
- 1/3 cup evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 cups nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds - or a mix, if you like)
In a heavy saucepan mix sugar, spices and evaporated milk. Place over medium heat; cook, stirring constantly until mixture comes to a boil and sugar is dissolved. Continue cooking until candy reaches 234F on a candy thermometer, or until a few drops of the mixture form a soft ball when dropped into cold water.
Remove from heat, add water and vanilla, mix well. Stir in nuts until they are coated. Spread onto one layer of parchment paper or a silicone mat and work quickly to separate nuts with a spatula or spoon. Let cool.
Break pieces into portion or bite-size pieces. Serve in a bowl for nibbling, or portion into bags for gifts.
A very Merry Christmas to you all!
We all would love to have our cake and look good too (did you see how I manoeuvred that expression?!) However, we know that is unrealistic. Don't worry though... were you afraid I was going to suggest the best way to achieve this is some ab exercise or extreme diet? You should know me better than that!
I'm the first one to admit that my exercise program has a lot to do with vanity; I like butter and cheese and I work out like a fiend so I can :) But I know that method isn't for everyone, so here are a few tips to manage your consumption and not feel punished ...
1. Drink a glass of water before you go to the Christmas party, and have one in between drinks. (This helps manage your drinking and keeps your system working efficiently so it can process calories.)
2. Eat something savoury first. (Remember, sugar puts your body on a roller coaster. Let it warm up to the idea of sweets.)
3. Reduce your portion. (If it's a buffet think about how much food would fit on a plate, like a regular dinner. When in doubt about taking more, don't. You can always go back.)
4. Take the stairs on your way home, or maybe walk the dog after a meal. (Seriously, moving around helps your body work and you'll feel refreshed.)
5. Drink a glass of water before you to bed, and have another when you get up. (Staying hydrated is a big bonus for your body; it will help you stay healthy overall and it makes you feel more full when you first increase your consumption.)
We fight an uphill battle during the holiday season; indulgence is encouraged and we don't want to miss out. It's winter, so we yearn for richer foods to keep us warm. And hardest of all, the trend has been to increase portions overall so we are used to eating more. (Did you know that if we compare portions from the Last Supper, they are 69% larger today? Even in the last ten years, most packaged foods suggest portions from 15-50% larger than before!)
So, once again my message is to share this season. Consider it a random act of kindness to make your dishes go farther by making your portions smaller.
If you're looking for a new holiday recipe to try, how about Ultra Divine Cape Brandy Pudding? It's similar to the increasingly popular Sticky Toffee Pudding you see on many menus now. It also goes by the name "Tipsy Tart", in case you needed more enticement to try it :)
I was thinking about a topic for this week, and I remembered that December 6th was the Feast of St. Nicholas, another day that is celebrated amidst the many that make up the festive season. That made me think about the traditions of the holidays and how they got to be….
Do you know, the real St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Turkey in the 4th century, a particularly generous man who was especially devoted to children? His popularity increased to such a point that by the 12th century, he had become a Patron Saint in most European countries and a church holiday was created in his honour, one that became known for gift-giving and charity. The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings was apparently started because St. Nicholas helped out three young ladies whose father had squandered the family fortune after the death of his wife. This prevented the girls from having dowries and being able to marry. St. Nicholas wanted to help them anonymously, as was his custom, and so he rode his white horse to the nobleman’s house and dropped gold coins down the chimney, where they were caught in the stockings hanging by the fire to dry.
Were you aware that mistletoe has been a symbol of winter celebrations since Druid times, before the time of Christ? It was said that ancient Romans would lay down their weapons if they encountered an enemy under a branch of mistletoe. The Celtics believed it had magical powers and could ward off evil spirits, and the Scandinavians included it as a symbol for their goddess of love. It is thought that this link is the beginning of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. This act is said to give those lucky kissers good fortune in the coming year. (I am proud to be from such sociable roots!)
Here’s another one for you… poinsettias are another giving gesture for the season. Legend says a small Mexican boy heading to the nativity scene in his town realized he had no gift for the baby Jesus. So, he gathered green branches that were by the side of the road. The other children teased him but once the branches were laid in the cradle, red, star-shaped flowers appeared on the end of each branch.
There’s more! Candy canes were invented alongside Christmas trees, but there is a bit of a twist to this story (full pun intended here). Cookies and candies were used to decorate the first Christmas trees, Apparently it was a choirmaster at a cathedral in Cologne who suggested twisting the plain sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s crook. This not only made them easier to hang on the tree, but it also provided a treat for children. It became a custom to hand candy canes out to children at church ceremonies across Europe, to help keep them quiet. And I really can’t resist – I have to tell you that there is another ironic twist to this piece of history: it was another man of the church who automated the process of making candy canes – Catholic priest, Gregory Keller.
I am sure you see the running theme here…that the season seems always to be about sharing with others. Whether you share your wealth, your generosity of spirit or the fruits of your labour, the result is all the same: we are all better for it. So, in case the aforementioned ideas don’t do enough for you, here is my bit of sharing for this week – one of my favourite recipes for Christmas. My brother and I used to both help my Mom make and decorate these cookies; great discussions sometimes went into the decorating details. My Mom placed the completed cookies in the oven like they were works of art created by Michelangelo.
If you don’t have someone to help make these cookies, give some away to friends or colleagues – they are a bit different than the usual shortbread but still melt in your mouth. Decorate them with candied cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, coloured sugar, almonds… as inspiration strikes you.
- 1 cup Butter
- ½ cup Brown sugar, firmly packed
- ½ teaspoon Vanilla extract
- 2-1/4 cups Flour
- ½ teaspoon Almond extract (optional)
Preheat oven to 325F.
Cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until fluffy. Add extract(s) and mix well. Add flour ¼ cup at a time, saving ¼ cup or so for the rolling.
Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Place one portion on a well-floured surface. Pat it down and turn it over. Roll out to ¼ inch thickness. (Do not roll too thin or the cookies will burn.) Cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheet. (If you have a silicone baking sheet you can still use that on the pan.) Decorate cookies and bake for approximately 12 minutes or until golden. Store in a sealed cookie jar.
A few wise words from Chef Martin:
Living in Quebec, traditional food was a big deal at Christmas but not so much baking cookies. In my family tourtiere (meat pie) is what we did and sometimes if my Mom had a not so hard year she baked homemade mashed potato donuts, which is a sweet donut that uses mashed potatoes in the dough!
My birth father is also a chef - well, was a chef before he retired. He is now 70 years old and in his retirement is still making 200 tourtieres for friends, family and neighbours. Way to go, Dad!
I hope that all of you with younger kids have started teaching them some of the family recipes. The best gift you can give a child is a recipe book of all the fun dishes you made during their childhood. My mom died when I was 10 years old and I have zero recipes from her. Don’t wait, do it today! Christmas is a great time to start those things you keep meaning to do.
Read more Happy Gourmand articles
- Nuttier than a fruitcake Nov 22
- Gastro sexual Nov 15
- The other 50 shades of grey Nov 1
- Hallowe'en apples! Oct 25
- Chef's thanks for hunting season Oct 18
- Giving thanks for the weirdest things Oct 11
- Cheers! Oct 4
- Sustainability and responsibility Sep 27
- Indian Summer Sep 20
- How to eat your peas & quinoa Sep 13
- Pork Jam Sep 6
- The dog days of summer Aug 30
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