Keep the spirit alive
I was thinking about a topic for this week, and I began to ponder the waning of the Christmas spirit after December 25th. There are so many great traditions but all centered around that one season. That made me think about some of those traditions and how they got to be…. maybe in their history was a clue as to how to keep the spirit alive a bit longer.
In many European countries The Feast of St. Nicholas is the start to the holiday season. 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 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. If you feel you have overindulged leading up to the holidays and can't eat them all, then feel free to share!
BROWN SUGAR SHORTBREAD
- 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 1/4-1/2 inch thickness. (Do not roll too thin or the cookies will burn; thicker cookies will be even more "melt in your mouth".) 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.
NOTE: If shortbread is not your thing, check out my blog's recipe archives for other ideas.
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! After Christmas while the kids are still on holidays is a great time to start those things you keep meaning to do.
Read more Happy Gourmand articles
- Red carpets and champagne Mar 1
- Sounds, smells and tastes Feb 22
- De-stress at dinner...meals on vacation Feb 15
- Why does food taste better on holidays? Feb 8
- Fun foods from A to Z Feb 1
- Chicken soup, orange juice and hot tea Jan 25
- In the heat of the moment Jan 18
- Let's hear it for comfort food! Jan 11
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