Once upon a time most of the makings for a merry Christmas came from the garden. Although most of us today might begin at a big box retailer or the grocery store, up until the last generation, Christmas was mostly home-grown. Even so, much of what we purchase today still comes from someone’s garden or farm.
Even as the agricultural year is at its lowest ebb, and snow covers much of the country this weekend, there is a great deal to be gathered outside. Solstice celebrations have honored trees since earliest times. The Egyptians brought palm fronds indoors in late December to honor the rebirth of Ra. Trees have been a potent symbol of life and longevity for time out of memory.
Evergreen trees hold a special place in solstice celebrations all over the world and symbolize everlasting life and promise the return of the sun. Evergreens with red berries, like holly and Nandina are especially popular winter decorations since the berries are symbolic of the returning sun. So branches of trees and shrubs, cut from one’s own garden or purchased from a nursery, are first on our list merry-makings from the garden.
We include mistletoe among the evergreens. Growing on trees, though not a tree itself, it is an evergreen plant full of myth and meaning. It is an important part of our decorations.
Even bare branches make beautiful decorations. I love white twinkle lights laced through the bare branches of crepe myrtle. Once I decorated an entire spiral staircase with dead branches pruned from mountain laurel shrubs, wrapped in white lights. It was perfectly beautiful and I kept it lit each evening until spring.
We also gather every sort of cone and seed. Whether used as is, or painted white or gold; cones are beautiful in wreathes, swags, sprays, centerpieces and hung on the Christmas tree.
Nuts and nut shells can be used in the same way to make decorations. Nuts are also gathered for wonderful Christmas foods like cakes, cookies, fudge, puddings, and breads. Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and almonds grow over much of the United States. It’s always wonderful to have a nut tree in one’s own garden or the garden of a friend. Peanuts, although not from a tree, are an important food at Christmas all over the southern United States and can be grown at home.
We also enjoy every sort of fruit and berry at Christmas. Except for persimmons, pomegranates and the occasional late fig, most of us have to use dried fruit or preserves. Local apples are still available in Virginia, but they were picked and stored weeks ago. We import oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes from Florida and California. Whether used in wreathes; stuck with cloves and set out in bowls; sliced into mulled wine or Wassail; or peeled and eaten out of hand, citrus is an important part of our Christmas celebration.
Cranberries don’t grow well in Virginia, but they fill whole shelves of the produce section at the local groceries. We eat them from Thanksgiving through the new year baked into cakes muffins and breads. We grind them with oranges to make cranberry relish and cook them with sugar and other fruits to make preserves. Those that don’t get eaten are strung onto garlands or stuck into wreathes.
Virginia had a lively trade with islands in the Caribbean during Colonial times and has maintained those ties. Pineapples are an important symbol of hospitality in Virginia. Pineapples, imported from the islands, were available for Virginia Christmas celebrations.
And of course grapes are enjoyed on party trays with cheeses, or savored as wine. We bake raisins into cakes, cookies, and puddings. We use grapevines as the base for wreathes and garlands.
We even have greens and produce in the garden. Our holiday meals are built around potatoes, carrots, celery, kohlrabi, collards, cabbages, kale, salad greens, broccoli, and brussel sprouts. Many of these are still out in the garden with a little winter protection, or have just come in for winter storage.
Some might count eggs, since many keep their own chickens or buy eggs locally. Eggs are used in such huge quantities as we bake our way towards Christmas day. Likewise honey, an important part of the holiday, and a gift from our gardens.
Flowers, like lavender, Achillea, roses, hydrangea, baby’s breath, and cockscomb; dried last summer, come out to play their part in our decorations. Whether worked into our wreathes, or tucked into the branches of the Christmas tree, they remind us of fragrant summers past.
Herbs can still be cut here in Williamsburg, for both cooking and for decorations. We still have sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley, germander, and some fragrant geraniums living in the garden. Many more dried herbs and spices shine at Christmas. How could we bake without cinnamon? Cinnamon sticks. star anise, and cloves work their way into our decorations with dried citrus and herbs. Sprigs of herbs tied into a bow make a Christmas gift fragrant. Herbs and essential oils melted with beeswax and Shea butter or mixed with salt or sugar make special indulgent gifts for loved ones.
The garden at Colonial Williamsburg was bustling with activity when we visited on Thursday afternoon. In fact, it was the busiest place we visited. So many beautiful vegetables are still growing in the garden. The shop is full of tempting wreathes, arrangements, dried materials, tools, and books. As garlands and wreathes continue popping up all over town, we see the wintery landscape transform into a beautiful botanical paradise.
Everything we need is at hand to make our Christmas merry and bright, waiting for us in someone’s garden.
Here is a recipe to make your Christmas a little more flavorful. Mulled wine and mulled cider are traditional at Virginia Christmas parties, as they are in England. Mulled wine, or Gluehwein, is served at Christmas markets all over Germany, Switzerland, and Austria today. I’ll be making this tomorrow afternoon for our neighborhood cookie exchange party. After helping to construct nearly 2 dozen little houses from graham crackers and royal icing, I’ll be more than ready to sit back and sip a cup while watching the children decorate the houses with candy.
Mulled Wine or Gluehwein
Combine 1 1/2 c. of water and/or orange juice and 1 1/2 c. sugar in a large pot and simmer on medium heat as the sugar dissolves. Wash, and cut 2 oranges, a large lemon, and an apple into narrow wedges or slices. Stick whole cloves into the sliced fruit to use between 12 and 20 cloves. Add the fruit to the simple syrup along with a 2 tsp. of cinnamon or a cinnamon stick. Allow the syrup and fruit to simmer on a very low heat for at least 20 minutes before adding two bottles of red wine. I like to use a Shiraz or Syrah as they are bold, fruity wines. Once the wine is heated through (do not boil) transfer the mixture to a crock pot to keep warm, or serve directly from the cooking pot for informal events.
For a non-alcoholic treat, use apple juice or cider, or a combination of apple and cranberry juice in place of the wine. Skip the water, and mull the fruit and spices in the fruit juices. Add a little rum to individual servings as needed.
All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013