Wreathes of the Season

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“There is something about saying, ‘We always do this,’
which helps keep the years together.
Time is such an elusive thing
that if we keep on meaning to do something interesting,
but never do it,
year would follow year with no special thoughtfulness
being expressed in making gifts, surprises,
charming table settings, and familiar food.
Tradition is a good gift
intended to guard the best gifts.”
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Edith Schaeffer

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“All you need to enjoy this world
is imagination, not money”
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Vineet Raj Kapoor

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Christmas eve invites nostalgia from the most contemporary and practical among us.  Like our own birthday or wedding anniversary, Christmas eve is one of those still points on the wheel of the year where we pause and remember.

Christmas eve invites, and perhaps demands, that we observe the rituals learned from our parents, adopted from our friends; inherited from the literature of our evolving lives.  We light candles, make music, prepare our family recipes.  We share the evening with loved ones.  Anticipate giving and receiving gifts.  Re-tell familiar mystery stories.

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Christmas eve celebrates the great mysteries of our lives and loves.  As the year winds down towards its close, we hope our dearest wishes will be fulfilled in a sparkling starry magical way that gifts us with wonders we have not earned, and perhaps can never explain.  However practical, whimsical or existential our wishes may be, we dare to believe they will be granted on this magical night.

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Christmas, as we know it, is a relatively ‘new’ holiday built on ancient customs and symbols.  One of those ancient symbols is the evergreen wreath.

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Once again this year, Colonial Williamsburg is dressed in its Christmas finery, wreathes upon most doors.

Although Christmas was barely celebrated in the colonial era, and ran more to parties and church services than to elaborate decorations or shopping, visitors find beautiful della robia wreathes and other decorations made of evergreens, fruits, nuts, pods, berries, flowers and twigs throughout the Colonial part of town.

We enjoyed the wreathes as we walked through CW earlier this week, and I hope you enjoy these few photos I captured.

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On this Christmas eve, I wish you and yours the merriest of Yule celebrations tonight.

May you be with those you love, and may your greatest gift this year be a heart filled with happiness.

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“Take the time to celebrate stillness and silence
and see the joy that the world can bring, simply.”
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Tony Curl

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“December is full of the beauty of Light
and love we can bring into our life.
You can chose to be stressed
or you can choose to let the small stuff go
and be peaceful this Holiday season.
It really is a choice you make.”
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Eileen Anglin

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018
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“We are travelers on a cosmic journey,
stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity.
Life is eternal.
We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other,
to meet, to love, to share.
This is a precious moment.
It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”
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Paulo Coelho

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Christmas Tree Topiaries

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This year I’ve been inspired to make tabletop topiary Christmas trees.

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A few friends and I are hosting a Christmas luncheon next week.  I wanted to make a small Christmas tree for each dining table, and also some for the buffet tables.

It seemed like a fairly easy project as I dreamed it up…

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After several days of research, studying photos online and visiting Sharon’s beautiful Crafts ‘n Coffee blog a few dozen times; I was ready to begin assembling the materials.

After looking at many different topiary trees, constructed from various materials, I finally had a few basic ideas for tree designs.

People can be incredibly creative!   There are so many ways people have designed topiary Christmas trees from simple Styrofoam cones!

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Choosing ribbon for the first set of topiaries helped establish the color scheme: soft greens and a golden cream.  I found a coordinating sueded fabric to use with the shell trees.

All four of these designs are enormously simple to make.  Tracking down the materials was the most challenging part of the project.

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All begin with a Styrofoam tree form and a square wooden base purchased at the crafts store.  The ribbon trees were made entirely by attaching ribbon to the form with straight pins, then embellishing the trees with glass beads and pearl topped straight pins.  The tiny birds are actually metal beads.

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The shell trees were assembled on a fabric covered Styrofoam base.  The shells were hot glued into place, then the trees finished with shells and freshwater pearls, attached with pearl headed pins.

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Many shells can be found pre-drilled and strung, wherever strings of beads are sold.  Most shells come rather dull when found on the beach or purchased in bulk. 

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I polished these with a cotton swab dipped in pure mineral oil to bring out the colors of the shells.

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Finally, the wooden trees were the most interesting to assemble.

There are five different sizes and cuts of wooden sticks, found at several different craft stores, in addition to bamboo skewers from the kitchen.  I’ve added sheet moss to the undersides of the Styrofoam cones and to the wooden base for these trees.

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A ‘trunk’ is made by gluing broken sticks into the base of the cone in a roughly round pattern; about 1.5″ in diameter.  Glued to the styrofoam and to the wooden base, this makes a fairly sturdy foundation for building the trees, which are quite heavy.

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A friend made the miniature gnomes and rabbit for me a while ago.  They originally lived in a ‘fairy garden’ amid some shade loving plants.  Now they will live under these trees.  The larger gnome, and the mushrooms, came from the craft store.

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Interestingly, each tree came out differently. The wooden sticks are glued both to the Styrofoam, and to each other.  Larger sticks can be broken, and both ends used.  so long as the rough edges are covered by another stick, construction continues.  The bamboo skewers help cover gaps and holes.

The largest tree was constructed over two days.  I ran out of wooden sticks and had to finish after a shopping trip the following day.  I can see a difference in style from each session working with the trees.

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I hope these little trees inspire you to try something new this holiday season.

The shell trees are on our mantle at the moment; the other trees on the buffet in the dining room.  Since we start late with decorating here, these are bringing a little holiday joy to our home as they await their day at the luncheon.

Since we don’t truly need nine topiaries, we’ll find new homes for most of these after the luncheon next week.

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I enjoyed working on these topiaries and learning some new techniques.  And, I”m still inspired by the fascinating photos of others’ trees discovered in my search.

There are free form driftwood trees, trees made with Cinnamon sticks, button trees, scrap fabric trees and trees covered in shiny glass balls…

Please do visit Sharon if you enjoy making things with your hands.  She has some wonderful designs, and offers clear and easy to follow instructions for her projects.

I appreciate the inspiration and guidance she offered as I was exploring ideas for this project.

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It always surprises me how much cheer a little Christmas decoration can bring as we descend into winter and the short dark days of December.

Whatever we can do to brighten the world for ourselves and for others is a good thing, I believe.

And I hope these little trees end up making the season a bit brighter for you and for all who see them.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

A Forest Garden 2016 calendar is available now.

Christmas Eve: Tuesday Snapshots

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The old, traditional holidays always begin at sunset.  So it is Christmas here in Virginia. 

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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May your greatest gift this Christmas be a gift of love and connection to those who share your life in this moment.  Whether you are near or far from home, close to family or estranged, young or old; may your heart be warmed in the light of love from those who share your path in this moment.  May you find friendship and understanding, support and caring from those with whom you share this Christmas.

December 24 Christmas Eve 003We all have loved ones far from home.  Some are away by choice and others by necessity.  We learn that time and distance can not separate those who hold one another in their hearts.

May you find quiet moments, this Christmas, to remember happy moments from Christmases past.  Whether the same cast of characters will gather with you this Christmas, or whether your family includes loved ones who have passed on or gone away for whatever reason; recall those whose lives have touched yours with love.

Christmas is a bittersweet time for many, perhaps more so with each passing year. december 15 2013 Santas 048 We can best honor those who have loved us by remembering them with love.  Our family stretches beyond the boundaries of time and space to include those who have gone before and also those who will come after.  Each year we welcome newcomers into our lives, and look forward to the time we will share along the way.

Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer is an open heart and warm hand to the new ones among us.   Especially to those who find themselves far from home, who need to be included, and made one with a new family; a family of caring, if not of shared blood.  We are all a bit like children at Christmas, and all in need of a little love.december 15 2013 Santas 073

So I hope your halls are decked in holiday cheer, your table is set, your baking done, and your loved ones are gathering.  The door has opened and we have entered Christmas once again.  Let us keep it well, with loving heart and twinkling eye. 

The spirit of Christmas lives in each of us.

All photos by Woodland Gnome, 2013

“Welcome Christmas. Bring your cheer,
Cheer to all Whos, far and near.

Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to grasp.

Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we.

Welcome Christmas while we stand
Heart to heart and hand in hand.”

-From the cartoon version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Theodor Seuss Geisel

Weekly Photo Challenge: One

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The mistletoe and tree are one, growing together as a single organism.  Roots deeply embedded into the living tissue of the tree, the mistletoe draws water and nutrients from the tree’s sap.  The evergreen mistletoe still makes its own food from sunlight, and has its owl life cycle living high in the branches of this oak.  Feeding birds, insects, and other tiny creatures, the mistletoe’s branches also offer shelter and safe haven.  As birds visit and eat the seeds in late winter, they help the mistletoe colony to spread and grow to nearby branches and other trees.  Every winter the new growth is revealed when the oak’s leaves have fallen.

One garden, one life.  Everything is connected in the most subtle ways.  Appreciating the interconnectedness of life takes a lifetime to fully comprehend, if then.

Our skies are overcast again today, with rain puddling on the ground and in all of the low spots.  A snow sky, we called it growing up, with heavy white and grey clouds full of moisture.  Too warm for snow in the moment,  once the temperatures plummet tonight, we may have snow for Christmas Eve.

The last work day before the Christmas holiday begins in earnest has been a soggy one.  The gifts we took around to friends today were all touched by the winter rain; perhaps an added blessing.

May your December 23 be a productive one.  May your remaining Christmas chores be completed in joy and good company, and may all of your travels be safe ones.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Retail Me Not: Little Christmas Miracles

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Time was, Christmas was about “miracles:” totally unexpected and improbable events which brought meaning and joy into otherwise routine lives.  The remembering of the themes and memes of the season asks us to acknowledge the intervention of the unexpected benevolent omniscience of the universe in daily life.

december 22 2013 lights 002We remember the miracle of the virgin birth, and the miracle of a special star which led a group of astronomers to find the hidden birthplace of a king.  We remember the miracle of angels appearing out of the night sky to serenade the new family.

More recently, we recall the miracle of flying reindeer, and of a timeless man who brings special gifts to all of the children of the world in a single night.

Some might even celebrate the “miracle” of getting a specifically coveted gift, the “miracle” of a family re-united, or the “miracle” of mended relationships.

Even the popular Christmas movies of the last few decades tell stories of people who create positive change in their little corner of the world when their hearts are warmed by Christmas magic.

And yet, those of us who watch TV, listen to radio, spend time online, or venture away from home to shop have been constantly bombarded for the last six weeks to prepare for Christmas by buying.  I can’t quite get my brain around the transition from the miraculous to the retail.

Coca Cola learned in the 1920’s that Santa sells.  Some of our most iconic Santa Claus art was created by Haddon Sundblom for the Coca Cola Company over his 33 year career.  That is when Santa Claus and Christmas moved out of homes and churches and into the stores. december 22 2013 lights 006

Of course Woolworths, Sears, and other retailers had started selling Christmas ornaments, electric lights, and artificial trees decades earlier.  But somehow the idea of “Christmas Shopping” came into the public consciousness, at least here in the United States, with the advent of department store Santas, specially decorated holiday windows and Christmas parades.   New York and Detroit hosted the first Christmas parades, to bring Santa to the department stores, in the early 1920’s.

Montgomery Ward created a story about “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” in 1939, to give away to the children of Christmas shoppers as a promotion.  The song followed 10 years later.  The big department stores led the way, and we’ve all happily followed along.

When I was a child, we made an annual pilgrimage to the Miller and Rhodes store in downtown Richmond to have our portraits made with Santa and give him our Christmas lists.  We made a day of it, no matter where we were living at the time, and enjoyed lunch or dinner in the tea room with Santa and the Snow Queen as part of the experience.  We always did a portion of our shopping at Miller and Rhodes, and across the street at Thalhimers.  It was our tradition, along with slowly studying all of the animated windows, visiting the toy departments, and buying sugary treats in the “fine foods” department at Thalhimers.

I think our focus has shifted way away from where it was, even a century ago, when it comes to Christmas.

Lately every time I turn on the TV, there is this popular singer, at his white piano, crooning holiday songs about buying new cars for Christmas.  Really?  Christmas is about getting new cars, I phones, big TVs, and other “techno junk” these days?

When did that happen?  At least in the 60’s we were preoccupied with children’s toys.  The adults were happy with their new socks and ties, lipstick or scarf, and the occasional suit coat or new sweater.  Although Santa sometimes brought big family gifts, I don’t recall expensive Christmas gifts  for adults as the norm until recent years.

december 22 2013 lights 015My email inbox is full, at the moment, with urgent greetings from retailers encouraging me to take advantage of 30%-40% off and free shipping if I’ll just order that one more gift by Christmas Eve.  Our modern miracle is the fantastic retail savings online, and Amazon’s wonderful delivery options.

It feels to me like there has been a seismic shift in our response to the “Christmas holiday” in America.  Of course, there has been a seismic shift in nearly every part of our culture, so there should be no surprise.

If you were to ask me right now for my “Christmas List,” it would be very short and to the point.  First, I’d ask for a full recovery for my ailing father who just got home from hospital yesterday.  His getting home was my first Christmas miracle of the year, for which I am deeply grateful.  We hope he will be strong enough and recovered enough to take joy in Christmas Day and enjoy the family who gathers.

Secondly, I wish for a safe and easy delivery for my daughter, whose first child will arrive some time in the next week or so.  I hope for a healthy first grandchild and good fortune for her parents, who are so very excited to now have a daughter of their own.

Beyond that, my wants are insignificant, as I am already blessed with such abundance.  Nothing from a store could compare with the well being of my family during this time of transition.

And yet, I was blessed this evening with a beautiful, joyful, totally unexpected, tiny miracle.  I had made up my mind that outdoor Christmas lights weren’t going to happy here this year.  I’ve been so busy with other pressing things, and with extra travel to help out with my father’s hospitalization, that I had pushed the thought of outdoor lights aside.

And yet, as I pulled into the drive at dusk tonight, home from another day of helping my folks, I was greeted with beautiful twinkly Christmas lights all along the front of the house.  What an amazing and beautiful sight.  While I was away, my partner had found them all and created a beautiful wonderland of light to greet my return.

To me, this night, that was a beautiful Christmas miracle.

The love that prompted such a generous gesture is what we long for and celebrate each year.

Such love is the light that warms our hearts and keeps us all children at heart, year upon year upon year.

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Finding the Moon

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Again this morning, I was up and moving well before sunrise.  In fact, I was at the computer, watching for lightening skies through the window blinds when I was summoned.  “You have to see this!” my newly risen partner called. And when I followed the call, what beauty filled the skies.

December 20 sunrise 010It was a pink and golden dawn.  I found the camera and took photos of the trees silhouetted  against the sunrise skies towards the east.  But then,  looking around a bit more, was thrilled to find we had a 360 degree panorama sunrise this morning.

The sky was beautiful towards the north and west as well, where the waning moon was nestled in the branches of a tree.  Finally, I had found the moon.

Our shortest day of the year is tomorrow, with the sun not rising until nearly 7:30 in the morning, and setting before 5 PM.  The moon won’t even appear until after 8 PM.  The tea time hours darken so quickly this time of year, with night descending over the landscape with firm finality.  December 20 sunrise 012

I was on the road yesterday, racing to be at home before darkness had settled on our rush hour streets.  I was delayed leaving by only a few minutes, but still drove the last 20 miles in ever deepening twilight, straining against the glare of headlights to weave through traffic and find the way home.  My reward was the beauty of Christmas lights in front yards along the way.

As we approach this longest night, every minute of daylight seems that much more precious; and every brightly wrapped tree and lit window more appreciated.  It is a good time to gather with loved ones to celebrate the many joys and blessings of the year.December 20 sunrise 015

This solstice time is full of beauty and promise.  As surely as the sun and moon follow their tracks through the sky, so our days will lighten and lengthen yet again.  The buds will swell, seeds will sprout, and the new year will unfold.

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape, the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. 

Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”

Andrew Wyeth

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

PaintThe Sky  (Forest Garden)

The Real Santa(s)

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There are many layers of myth and meaning attached to Christmas. 

It feels like the winter solstice is the most emotionally and mythically charged period of the year, for many of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, at least.  Its roots run deep in our history, deep in our religious practices, and deep in our psyches.

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How often have you been admonished to remember the “real” meaning of Christmas?

The Roman Church, and its Protestant offshoots, have tried to limit our understanding of Christmas to their religious interpretation as the Feast of the Nativity.

Students of history know that the roots and meaning  of Christmas are millennia older, and run far deeper than the Christian Gospels dictate.

Keep in mind that the church didn’t designate a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus for over 300 years.  The first known references to such a celebration were recorded after 300 CE.

The date chosen, 25 December,  had served as the birthday celebration for Mithra, associated with the “Unconquerable Sun,” in the contemporary and very popular Roman mystery religion known as Mithraism.  This cult had its roots in ancient Persia, and worshiped the Sun as the source of life and all goodness.

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December 25, a few days past the long, dark night of winter solstice, has been celebrated as “birthday of the sun” for as many years as we have histories to remember.  Our celebrations of this winter festival run deep into human history, and also include traditions from parts of Europe north and west of Rome.

Our modern Christmas is such a mix of secular and sacred, “pagan” and “Christian.”  It is confusing to explain often times, and tricky to tease the tangled threads of meaning one from another.

Much of our popular Christmas mythology and iconography originated in Northern Europe and Asia; at a time when shamans guided and healed their tribal people, in the centuries before Christianity spread to these areas.

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This is where we find the origins of our much loved “Santa Claus.”  Tribes living within the Arctic Circle respected their shamans as leaders and guides on many levels.  They healed, counseled, mediated, and taught the mythology and history of the tribe.  These shamans regularly used hallucinogenic mushrooms to facilitate their vision quests.  They also shared these mushrooms, regarded as sacred, with other members of the village.

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The hallucinogenic mushrooms, called Aminita Muscaria, have a red cap with white flecks on it, and a white stem.  These special mushrooms grow exclusively under certain trees, like pines, firs, cedar and spruce.    Growing in a special relationship with the roots, they are considered “gifts of the tree.”

Aminita muscaria still grow throughout much of the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and have been spread to many areas of the Southern Hemisphere.  Considered poisonous when eaten fresh, skilled shamans prepare them and give them to their followers under the proper conditions to facilitate a spiritual journey, or trip.  The mushroom gives one the sensation of flying, and helps one find the answers to questions about the nature of life and living.

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When mushroom hunting in autumn, the ancient shamans often wore a coat of reddish or brown fur, and tall black leather boots.  They carried bags to hold the mushrooms.  Once gathered, the mushrooms were dried and aged either by hanging them from the branches of conifer trees, or by stringing them and hanging them over the hearth in the shaman’s home.

In those days, the people envisioned their world as situated in the middle portion of the “World Tree,” or Yggdrasil.  The roots of the tree reached down into the Earth, and its branches reached up into the heavenly realms around the North Star.  The Shaman had the ability to travel up the World Tree into the heavenly realms to confer with the heavenly beings after ingesting the magic sacred mushrooms.  The shaman could also travel down Yggdrasil, to the underworld, on his or her quests.

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In far northern Europe these tribal people often lived in round Yurt like structures.  They had a hole in the middle of the ceiling for smoke to escape.  After the snows fell, the smoke hole became the winter door to the home.  Either a pole or a ladder extended through the hole to the roof.  When the Shaman came to bring gifts of the dried mushrooms, he came in through the smoke hole, entering through the chimney, with the mushrooms in his bag.

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The memory of this shamanic gift giver, visiting the family dressed in fur, entering through the chimney; echoes down to us today in our mythology about Santa Claus.  In fact, modern day shamans of these far northern European tribes continue to wear the traditional red fur coats trimmed in white, today.

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The native deer of far Northern Europe, called reindeer, also love to eat A. muscaria.  The chemical compounds in this special mushroom given vision and enormous physical strength.  Reindeer, eating the mushrooms, run faster and jump higher than normal.  The reindeer love these mushrooms and seek them out.

On a more mundane level, reindeer who have eaten Aminita muscaria pass the psychoactive compounds in their urine, refining them, and making those compounds less toxic.  Drinking the urine of reindeer is another way to ingest the mushrooms.

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The mushroom’s distinctive red and white colors have also come down to us as the colors of Christmas, along with the green of eternal life.  Santa Claus’s iconic costume is nearly always red, trimmed in white, like the mushrooms.

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You may have noticed that many European Christmas decorations feature these beautiful red and white mushrooms. Have you ever wondered why?  Have you noticed them in Walt Disney movies, and in illustrations of elemental nature spirits such as elves and fairies?

Use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is one of those rarely discussed bits of cultural history which has come down to us from our ancestors. Those who have taken them describe how differently the world looks.

Nature “comes alive” in ways we normally can’t perceive.  The energies of nature take form and can communicate, in the guise of these elemental beings.  That is why Christmas stories so often include elves, fairies, and other magical beings, like our Santa Claus who can travel around the entire planet in a single night.

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Many mushroom themed Christmas ornaments come to us from Germany, and Eastern Europe, where these shamanic traditions were strong.  Another element of our modern Santa Claus from that culture is the tradition of the great god Woden, or Odin.

The great father god of the ancient Norse people, Odin, is pictured as an older man with white hair, a flowing white beard, who is missing one eye.  Odin traveled on an eight legged horse during his flights around the world at mid-winter.  Loved as a bringer of both gifts and wisdom during the Yule celebration, his image evolved into “Father Christmas.”

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A more modern strand of our Santa Claus comes to us from the historical Saint Nicholas.  A Christian Bishop in Myra, now Turkey; he was imprisoned by the Romans for his faith, then later released, and died on December 6, 345 CE.  December 6 was celebrated as his feast day throughout much of Europe throughout the middle ages, as it still is today.

St. Nicholas was known for his kindness, generosity, and the help and protection he extended to children in need.  Stories about him spread across Europe.  The Dutch made his feast into a day to give presents to children, who left out their shoes for St. Nicholas, or “Sinterklaas” to fill.

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Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myrna

Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myra

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The example of St. Nicholas inspired the custom of lavishing gifts and attention on children at Christmas time.  The tradition came with Dutch immigrants to the colonies, where St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, or “Santa Claus,” became an icon of giving to children by the early 1800s.

St. Nicholas is pictured as a tall, stately elderly man with long flowing white hair and white beard, dressed in the red and white clothing of a Catholic Bishop.  He carries a golden crooked staff.

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Our popular image of Santa Claus, in the United States, was cemented in the 19th century by a cartoonist and a poet.  Clement Clark Moore published, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

His vivid images of Saint Nicholas created our popular expectation of a rotund, jolly, red suited “elf” bringing gifts to children by coming down the chimney.  Filling stockings, and traveling in a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer” are all depicted in the poem we now know as, “The Night Before Christmas.

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Thomas Nast, the well known illustrator and cartoonist, drew the first modern portraits of Santa Claus in the mid 19th century.  His portraits of Santa Claus appeared in Harper’s Weekly from the first Christmas cartoon around 1863 until his last in 1886.

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He published a whole book of drawings about Christmas in 1890 titled, Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.  Nast is credited for describing Santa’s home as the North Pole in modern literature.

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The moons and starts are the garb worn by ancient astronomer priests, or magi.

The moons and stars remind us of the  ancient astronomer priests, or magi.

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A generation later, the Coca Cola Company adopted Santa Claus as part of their winter advertising campaign.  Haddon Sundblom’s iconic portraits of Santa Claus first appeared in Coca Cola’s advertising in 1931.  Based on the images in Clement Clark Moore’s poem, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa for the next 33 years.  He used friends, family, and even himself as the models for his paintings.

Santa Claus was adopted by organizations such as The Salvation Army around this same time, who used the image to inspire a nation to give generously to those in need.

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Beginning in 1890, unemployed men were dressed in Santa suits and sent into the city streets to beg for money to finance the Salvation Army’s outreach to the poor.  By dressing their bell ringers as “Santa,” they try to appeal to the better nature of each of us to give generously in the spirit of Christmas.

So there really is no separating the secular from the spiritual in our Christmas traditions.  When gifts are given on Twelfth Night, January 6, it is done in commemoration of “Three Kings Day” when the three kings or Magi of the east, gave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus.  Gifts are given on January 6 in Spain and Latin America.  The Eastern Orthodox Christian churches celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on January 6.

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In Great Britain gifts are given most often on Boxing Day, December 26.  This custom dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, when gifts were given to servants and children, and the alms boxes were opened and distributed to the poor.  It has been customary for employers to give gift boxes to servants, employees, and tradesmen in appreciation for good service throughout the year.  Today it is a major shopping day in many countries.

Our Christmas is a very rich and diverse holiday, with many layers of meaning. 

When have we seen such agreement among so many different nations, as we see in the matter of celebrating the winter solstice?  Whatever we may call it; we mark it with gifts and gatherings, remembrance, spiritual renewal, and great joy.  It is a festival of light, and keeping it well illuminates the rest of the year with love and good feeling.

 

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

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For more information:

Hallucinogenic Mushrooms and Santa Claus

Santa and the ‘Shrooms:  The Real Story Behind the “Design” of Christmas

What Hangs On Your Tree? (Forest Garden)

Siberian Shamanism

Who Is Saint Nicholas?

St. Nicholas

Mithraism

The Real Santa in Richmond, VA

Cookies at Christmas

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Sweet and spicy aromas fill our homes as December passes towards Christmas day.  We bake special cookies and cakes filled with spices, and drink warm spice infused concoctions of fruit juice and wine in the evenings as friends and family gather.

Returning crusaders brought spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, anise, cloves and nutmegs home with them when they returned from years spent in the Middle East.  By the 11th century Europe enjoyed its first taste of spices.  I’m sure you know the history of world exploration based upon looking for shorter, less costly routes east to support the spice trade.

Not only were these spices delicious, they helped preserve food and mask the flavor of meats in the days before refrigeration.  Even breads and pastries stay fresh longer when infused with ginger and other spices.Dec 8 2013 ccx 022

It didn’t take long for Europeans to fall in love with “ginger-bread.”  Ginger had been used in cooking centuries before in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and through most of Asia.  Its healing properties were well known.  It came home to Europe, however, with the crusaders, and recipes multiplied.

In the early days, ginger bread was a mixture of ground almonds, dried breadcrumbs, ginger, honey, rosewater, and other spices.  No eggs or flour were used.  This paste was pressed into carved wooden molds to shape it, and then decorated with gold leaf paint or white icing to reveal the design.

These small edible tokens, often illustrations of favorite stories or small motifs such as hearts, were tied with ribbons and sold at market days and fairs.  A whole industry grew up in northern Europe, especially in areas now part of Germany.

Eventually the recipe changed to include flour, eggs, sugar, molasses, treacle, and other ingredients.  Gingerbread could be crispy and wafer thin or thick and cake like.  It was extremely popular throughout much of Europe during the Middle Ages, and came with the early German settlers to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Queen Elizabeth was famous for giving “gingerbread men” to her favorite guests and courtiers, decorated to resemble the recipient.  Gifts of gingerbread were very common at the time.  Later, as families decorated Christmas trees in northern Europe, decorated gingerbread cookies tied with ribbons were popular gifts hung on the trees.Dec 8 2013 ccx 012

The story of Hansel and Gretel was based on a witch living in a house made of gingerbread and candies, who imprisoned two children to fatten them up.  They were allowed to eat the candies on her house.   Once the Brothers Grimm published their version of Hansel and Gretel in 1812, gingerbread houses appeared on the scene in parts of Europe and in the United States.  Never very popular in Britain, they caught on in Germany and Eastern Europe, and of course in America where Germans had settled.  Traditionally called, “lebkuchenhaeusle,” they are an important part of Christmas tradition for many families.

Our neighborhood has a long tradition of neighbors gathering in December to exchange home-baked cookies.  These Christmas Cookie Exchanges were hosted by our neighborhood Women’s Club for many years beginning in the late 1960’s.  Each participating family bakes 4-5 dozen cookies from a favorite recipe and brings the cookies and a copy of the recipe to a cookie party.  The cookies are tasted during the party, and everyone leaves with an assortment of several dozen cookies baked by their friends to enjoy during the holidays.100_6588

The tradition died out here sometime in the 90’s.  Some friends and I decided to revive the tradition three years ago and open it up to the entire neighborhood to participate.  Instead of being a party just for the ladies, we invited entire families to participate.  With craft activities for the children and light refreshments, other than cookies, for all; we wanted to make it a family gathering in our community center.

Light refreshments were available so we didn't all eat too much sugar!

Light refreshments were available so we didn’t all eat too much sugar!

And this year, we decided to include “gingerbread houses” for the children to decorate.  This is project which can be as simple or complex as your time and imagination permit.

Gingerbread houses with pre-baked pieces, ready to assemble, are available from many stores and catalogs this time of year.  There are also many molds, cutters, patterns, and recipes for those who want to begin with a bag of flour and a jar of dried ginger.  I’ve heard so many horror stories from those who tried to bake their own.  If you use a recipe with eggs, baking powder or soda, or one with too much shortening, the pieces often rise unevenly and distort in the baking.  If you go this route, please use a recipe for structural gingerbread!

We had a small subdivision of cookie houses ready for the children to decorate!

We had a small subdivision of cookie houses ready for the children to decorate!

We took a middle way and skipped the gingerbread altogether.  We built our houses from graham crackers.  Like gingerbread, graham crackers are hard and thin enough for building and will hold up for a long time.  Their basic rectangular shape makes it easy to build a simple little bungalow for a little child to decorate.  A tip:  If you need to cut the graham cracker, first wrap it in a moist towel and microwave for 5 seconds or so.  Then cut, gently, with a plastic picnic knife.  Graham crackers are notoriously brittle.  Buy more than you plan to use, as many are lost to breakage and nibbling during construction.

Use Royal Icing to assemble the house.  Again, this is a structural icing which hardens like mortar.  Mixes are available, but we used liquid Egg Beaters and confectioner’s sugar.  We used a recipe from Alton Brown and had great results.  This icing kept well in sealed baggies from Friday to Sunday, and would probably keep longer.  It needs to be soft to stick, so again, heat it for a few seconds in the microwave to soften it as you work.

Place icing into a pastry bag, or simply put it into a zip lock bag and snip a tiny corner off of one end.  (Tiny means no more than 3 mm, or the icing will pour out too fast when it is hot.)

Dec 8 2013 ccx 013We constructed the houses on the tops of shoeboxes, covered in foil.  Since the houses had to make it safely home on a rainy night, we kept the boxes to go home as covers.  These could be made at home on a cake stand or a pretty plate, and the “yard” around the houses created from icing and candy.

A handful of us had a seven hour marathon on Friday producing a total of 19 houses.  We made up all the icing we needed for construction on Friday and decoration on Saturday going through over 17 pounds of sugar.  The building was sweetly scented with sugar and vanilla as we worked.

To make your own graham cracker “gingerbread house,” secure one whole graham cracker to the center of your base with a strip of royal icing.  Lay two whole crackers beside the base to form the sides of the building.  Trim two more crackers to form the ends and eaves, to the correct height.  This is the tricky part.  Use a light sawing motion and little or no pressure to make the cuts.

Using warm royal icing, run a line of icing along the lower edges of the whole cookies for the house sides.  Set each into place along the long edge of the base, so icing touches both the base cookie and the foil covered box top.  Allow these to set up for a moment, straightening them if they lean in.Dec 8 2013 ccx 017

Run a line of icing along the lower edge and sides of the end pieces, and set them in place at either end of the house.  Again, let the bottom edges touch both the base cookie and the foil.  Seal the gaps at the corners with additional royal icing.  Allow the houses to set up for a minute or two, straitening any leaning walls.

Finally, use two whole crackers for the roof.  Run a line of icing along both short ends of the cookie, and gently place them, icing side down, on the diagonal cut of the eaves.  The roof cracker may try to slip down.  Patiently adjust it as the icing sets.  The edge of the cookie needs to come up to the pointed peak of the eave.  Run icing along the two short edges of the second roof piece, and position it on the other diagonal cut of the eve.  Run additional icing along the top of the roof where the cookies join.  Touch up any other seams or holes with additional icing, and set the house aside to set up and dry.

After a few hours, or the following day, decorate the houses using royal icing as the glue.

There are so many wonderful choices for decorating these houses.  We asked for donations of candy, and many gave us left over Halloween candy or purchased traditional Christmas candies like peppermints.  Gumdrops, pretzels, licorice, chocolate, sprinkles, marshmallows, breakfast cereal, and most any other small edible you can imagine can be incorporated into the design.

Families and friends gathered to decorate the houses last night.  We had grandmothers helping grandchildren, teens helping toddlers, and lots of happy children licking sticking fingers.  The cookies were almost an afterthought in the fun of decorating the cookie houses.Dec 8 2013 ccx 015

Decorating gingerbread cookie houses is a wonderful American tradition, with its roots Medieval Europe.  All around the world there are displays of beautifully decorated gingerbread houses at Christmas time, including the famous White House gingerbread houses produced each year by our White House pastry chefs.

For the more adventurous, stained glass windows can be created by melting colored hard candies in the microwave.  Melt them in a pretzel frame for an interesting effect.  Make marzipan people and animals.  Color the Royal icing with food colors, and make up some colored fondant to mold walkways, ponds, or to create architectural details and icicles.  Use “tiles” of shredded wheat or crackers on the roof.  There are so many delicious possibilities.

Gingerbread has a long history here in Colonial Williamsburg.  It is one of the signature treats visitors here look forward to at Christmas time.  Gingerbread cookies and cider are sold along Duke of Gloucester Street, and Gingerbread is on the menu in many of the restaurants.  It was a favorite treat throughout colonial Virginia, as it was up and down the East coast.  Molasses was readily available and perfumes our traditional recipes.

My cookies for the exchange last night were not gingerbread cookies.  I opted for a Spicy Mexican Chocolate cookie.  These are definitely adult cookies with a kick.  Or is that a bite?  Delicious with good coffee or hot chocolate, they are wonderful on a cold, wet wintery night, like tonight.  See for yourself:

Spicy Mexican Chocolate Cookies

Mexican Chocolate Spice Cookies

Spicy Mexican Chocolate Cookies

preheat to 350 F

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, ½ c. cornstarch, ¼ tsp. baking soda
2/3 c. dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. pepper, 1/2 tsp. expresso powder
3/4 cups butter, softened
½ c. packed brown sugar, ½ c. confectioner’s sugar, 1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract, 1 egg white

1.  In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, soda, cocoa, cinnamon, cayenne, salt and pepper and stir in the expresso crystals.
2   In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg white and vanilla. Mix on high for 2 minutes until light and fluffy.December 10 parkway eagle 002

 
3.  Slowly add the dry ingredients until they are fully blended into the dough and no traces of the flour mix remain.

 
4.  Divide the dough in two and roll each half into a log that’s 10 inches long. Wrap each log in waxed paper and chill for at least 2 hours, until firm.

5.  Roll each log in Demerara sugar before slicing it.  Using a sharp knife, cut ¼” cookies and place on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper.  Bake at 350° F for 10 minutes, or until edges are firm. Allow cookies to cool 30 seconds to a minute, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

6.  Melt white chocolate  and drizzle on cooled cookies to garnish, or sift a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar over them to look like newly fallen snow.

Most photos by Woodland Gnome, some borrowed from a friend and fellow conspirator

Dec 8 2013 ccx 009

Fresh (and Dried) From the Garden

An herb garden on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

An herb garden on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

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.

Artichokes growing now will bloom in the spring.

Artichokes growing now will bloom in the spring.

Pomegranate growing near the Bruton Parish garden.

Pomegranate growing near the Bruton Parish garden.

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.

Trees in the garden at Colonial Williamsburg

Trees in the garden at Colonial Williamsburg

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.

Wreath in Colonial Williamsburg

Wreath in Colonial Williamsburg with cones, artichokes, apples, dried fruit, and seed pods on an evergreen base.

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.

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A different wreath, using much of the same fruits, cones, and vegetables for decoration.

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.

Many crops still wait to be harvested in the CW garden.

Many crops still wait to be harvested in the CW garden.

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.

Wreathes for sale in the Colonial Williamsburg garden on Duke of Gloucester St. use pineapples, feathers, oyster shells, apples, English holly, and dried flowers in their designs.

Wreathes for sale in the Colonial Williamsburg garden on Duke of Gloucester St. use pineapples, pine cones, feathers, oyster shells, apples, English holly, and dried flowers in their designs.

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.

December 5 2013 DOG St 031Herbs 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.

A centerpiece in the garden shop at CW will make a local table very festive this month.

A centerpiece in the garden shop at CW will make a local table very festive this month.

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.  December 5 2013 DOG St 017After 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

December 5 2013 DOG St 026

Is It Christmas Without A Tree?

Our community Christmas tree

Our community Christmas tree

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My dad used to always know someone with some property in the country where we could cut a tree for Christmas.  It was a much anticipated family outing in the week before Christmas.  He brought his old hand saw and some rope.  We would walk together around the fields, considering one cedar tree and then another, until we found the perfect Christmas tree for the year.

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Cedar trees growing along the bank of College Creek in Williamsburg.

Cedar trees growing along the bank of College Creek in Williamsburg.

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It needed to be taller than Dad, but not too tall.  We looked for one that was full and fat and without obvious holes or defects.  Once we had all agreed on the best tree, Dad cut it, and we helped carry it to the family car, where it was carefully tied on top.  Once home, Dad brought it into the living room and set it into the tree stand with fresh water.

We never paid for a Christmas tree.  It was all transacted with a friendly conversation and handshake.  And we were always thrilled to have it.  The house finally “smelled like Christmas” after we brought home the tree.  Cedars are a common tree in Virginia and crop up as volunteers in fields and along the edges of the woods.  We put up a cedar tree each Christmas until I was grown and away from home.

I’ve always considered the process of finding and bringing home the tree part of the fun of the season.  Whether the tree was found in a friend’s field, outside of the Food Lion, from a charity Christmas tree lot, or from our friends’ garden center; I’ve always loved bringing home and decorating the annual Christmas tree.

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My parents' tree in 2011

My parents’ tree in 2011

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I can remember lying on the floor looking up through the tree at all of the lights and ornaments.  The same old ornaments took on fresh glamour hanging among the tiny colored lights.  When I was a child, my mother constructed little villages beneath the tree with ponds, skaters, trains, and houses.  We would play under the tree in the evenings, enjoying its glow and fragrance.  But the presents never appeared until Christmas morning.

In my father’s childhood the Christmas tree was part of the Christmas morning surprise.  It appeared after he and his brothers had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, and was seen for the first time on Christmas morning lit and skirted with gifts from Santa.

Now, many families bring out their Christmas trees on Thanksgiving weekend.  Carting the artificial tree out of storage goes along with leftover turkey, and it’s certainly up and decorated before the children return to school on the first Monday of December.  Families enjoy the tree for the entire month, and then pack it away again before the New Year.

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The tree is an integral part of our Christmas celebrations.  Whether living or fresh cut; plastic, metal, or tinsel; large or small; our Christmas tree is the center of our Christmas decorations.  Gifts are somehow “blessed” by being laid beneath the tree.  We cover the tree in lights and adorn it with ornaments which have meaning and relevance to our lives.

The first Christmas tree in Williamsburg was lit in 1842.  A William and Mary classics professor, Charles Minnigerode, newly emigrated from Germany, put up the tree for the children of his colleague, Nathaniel Tucker, at the St. George Tucker House, where he was boarding.  The tree was trimmed with candles, cut paper ornaments, and gilded nuts. Other Williamsburg families adopted the custom the following year, and there have been Christmas trees in Williamsburg every since.

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A variety or ornaments decorate this tree, including origami, blown glass balls, bows, and lights.

A variety or ornaments decorate this tree, including origami, blown glass balls, bows, and lights.

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The Christmas tree became popular in England after one was decorated at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria by her husband, Albert, in 1841.  Albert brought the custom with him from his native Germany where trees were trimmed with candles to look like stars in the starry sky.  Ornaments included sweets tied onto the tree with ribbons.  The royal family, of German descent, had enjoyed small Christmas trees in the palace as early as 1800 hung with sweets for the children at royal parities, but the practice became popular throughout England after an illustration of Victorian and Albert with their children around a Christmas tree was published in a London paper.  A similar illustration ran in an American paper the following year, and the custom soon spread throughout the country.

German families had been cutting small evergreen fir trees and bringing them indoors to decorate with candles and sweets since at least the 16th century. Wax and gingerbread ornaments were sold at Christmas markets as souvenirs, and the first tinsel, made from real silver, had been produced in 1610.  Each member of the family often had their own tabletop tree, decorated with their own ornaments, where their presents were placed.  Most ornaments were home made from paper, fruit, nuts, candy, or baked goods.  Paper flowers in red or white were used to make the tree resemble the “tree of paradise” from the garden of Eden, and ornaments were symbols of plenty.

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This hand made ornament uses a real oyster shell and cultured pearl, hung with a ribbon.

This hand made ornament uses a real oyster shell and cultured pearl, hung with a ribbon.

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In the 15th century there are records of trees decorated with sweets and small gifts erected in guild halls in northern Germany.  Apprentices and children of guild members collected gifts from the tree on Christmas Day.  Community trees were also sometimes erected out of doors in the market.  Young people often danced around the trees.

Colonists in Virginia, like many families in England, used evergreen branches to decorate for Christmas. The first Christmas trees appeared after 1842.

Colonists in Virginia, like many families in England, used evergreen branches to decorate for Christmas. The first Christmas trees appeared after 1842.

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There is a long tradition of venerating trees in Europe.  Evergreen trees or branches were brought indoors at the winter solstice as early as the 12th century, and hung upside down from the ceiling.  Their triangular shape was used to explain the Christian trinity.  Branches of evergreen plants have been used indoors during winter to symbolize eternal life since ancient times all over Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia.

The ancient Celtic people venerated trees and associated specific trees with the gods and goddesses of their mythology.  The Druid priests hung golden apples and lit candles on oak trees to celebrate the winter solstice.  Romans decorated evergreen trees with small gifts, and topped the tree with an image of the sun during Saturnalia.  When Christianity spread across Europe veneration of trees continued, and trees were incorporated into the Christian teachings.  Trees grew in popularity in Germany after the Protestant Reformation.

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A star on top of the Christmas tree has its roots in ancient custom.

A star on top of the Christmas tree has its roots in ancient custom.

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Christmas trees became popular throughout Europe and North America during the 1840s.  Although there are records of individuals, of German heritage, constructing Christmas trees in North America before that time; the custom didn’t catch on until after the illustration of the Royal family’s tree from Windsor Castle was published.

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Many people use a combination of hand made and purchased ornaments on their tree.

Many of us use a combination of hand made and purchased ornaments on their tree.

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German made glass Christmas ornaments were introduced in England by the 1870’s and Woolworths store made them available in America in the 1880s.  Before this ornaments were made by hand for the family tree.  Electric Christmas lights were patented in America in 1882 and metal hooks for hanging ornaments were patented in 1892.  German glass ornaments remained the “gold standard” of ornaments for many years. After 1918 export issues made it harder to get German ornaments. The United States began producing Christmas ornaments.  After World War II Japan, and then China, began producing Christmas ornaments for the United States.  Most of our Christmas decorations are now manufactured in China.

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By the 1890s Americans were bringing larger trees home and the table top tree popular in Europe was replaced by the full sized floor to ceiling trees we enjoy today.  By 1900 “themed” trees became popular and mass produced Christmas ornaments were widely available on the East Coast.  Out west, those who put up Christmas trees were still making many of the decorations by hand.  Tin ornaments grew in popularity.  Some families created Christmas trees by wrapping branches of hardwood trees in cotton batting to resemble snow.

Germany first produced the “goose feather” tree in 1880.  These were made to protect the evergreens trees which were getting butchered each year across Europe to meet the demands for Christmas trees.  These were small table top trees, and caught on in England, especially when Christmas trees became less popular after Queen Victoria’s death.

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December 6 2013 tree 007

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Other manufacturers followed with “bottle brush” trees, and the first aluminum tinsel trees appeared in the 1950s. Popularity for artificial trees increased, and by the 1970’s American manufacturers produced the first realistic green plastic artificial trees.  These have improved in quality and appearance ever since.  Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered its first artificial Christmas trees in 1883.

The most popular artificial trees today are already wired with lights and decorated with small cones and berries.  You simply set them up and plug them in.  Some families have a place to store them, assembled and decorated, from January through November. The trees are simply moved into place, plugged in, and the festivities begin again each year.

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The Christmas tree tradition appeared to come full circle when potted living trees grew in popularity in the United States as a part of our environmental movement.  These small, living table top trees live indoors in pots during the Christmas season, and can be planted out in the garden afterwards.  The trick, of course, is to keep them watered and alive indoors until they can be planted out.

A National Christmas tree has been lit each year at the White House since 1923. Other large public trees are decorated each year, including the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which has been decorated and lit each year since 1933.  Some of these have been living trees, transplanted in place to serve as a living Christmas tree used again and again each year.  This has not proven very successful over time as the trees are often damaged during the decorating process, or by the weight and heat of the lights and ornaments.  Many question whether cutting and transporting these huge, majestic old trees for a few weeks of decoration is a good practice or not.

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This hand blown ornament from Washington State's Glass Eye is made with volcanic ash.

This hand blown ornament from Washington State’s Glass Eye is made with volcanic ash.

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Concern for the damage done by cutting Christmas trees each year has been ongoing in Europe since the 19th century.  Although Christmas trees were first offered for sale in the United States after 1850, they were cut from the wild.  Evergreen forests were being decimated, and President Theodore Roosevelt tried to discourage the practice of cutting Christmas trees out of concern for our forests.

The first Christmas tree farms sprung up to meet the demand for trees in 1901, and have been providing trees to American families ever since.  Of the 30 million cut Christmas trees sold each year in the United States, almost all are grown on Christmas tree farms.  The most popular trees grown for the American market include varieties of spruce, fir, pine, and cedar.

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Harvesting trees cut from the wild for Christmas harms the environment, but trees grown on a farm for Christmas actually help in many ways.

Harvesting trees cut from the wild for Christmas harms the environment, but trees grown on a farm for Christmas actually help in many ways.

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Christmas tree farms are important because trees are planted each year to replace those cut.  During their years of growth, trees filter carbon and air pollution from the air, fixing it in their trunk and branches.  They protect the land from erosion, provide habitat for birds, and allow families to earn a living on land too steep and rocky for other types of farming.  After Christmas the trees are still useful when ground up for mulch, burned as firewood, or used to protect beaches or other areas from further erosion.  Most cities will collect and recycle Christmas trees in January.

My parents finally bought an artificial tree some time in the 80’s when a doctor diagnosed my dad’s allergies to evergreens.  We wondered why he was sick so often for Christmas, and we found out he was reacting to our family Christmas tree.  Families who buy artificial trees do so for many different reasons.  I tried an artificial tree a few years, but always missed the fragrance and feel of the real thing.  Our most recent artificial tree, left behind in the garage by the previous owners, sits in the basement draped in lights; ready to plug in should we ever bring it upstairs again.

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Cedar trees left to grow mature into large trees which feed and shelter wildlife.  Their wood is fragrant and valued  for building and for lining closets and trunks.

Cedar trees left to grow mature into large trees which feed and shelter wildlife. Their wood is fragrant and valued for building and for lining closets and trunks.

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Today, as much as we love our Christmas trees, we almost take them for granted.  When they stay up for weeks at a time and are covered with trinkets made in China, they lose some of the wonder and mystery trees had back in the day.  Once upon a time, the tree was the gift; and the Christmas tree was covered in tiny gifts and treats lovingly tied on with ribbons and string.  It was magical, lit for a few moments with living fire, appearing in the dark days leading up to Christmas.

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December 12, 2014 ornaments 022.

 

O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves/needles!
You’re green not only
in the summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows.
O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
How loyal are your leaves/needles!

Ernst Anschütz, 1824

All Photos By Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

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December 5, 2014 ornaments 023.

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