Light a Candle in Your Window

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Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, I place a candle in each street-facing window, an ancient symbol to welcome the Christ Child. Somehow, I had assumed the tradition arrived from Germany, just as the Christmas tree had come to England via Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria. My research revealed, however, that the custom began in Ireland following the Cromwellian era and for very different reasons — hospitality notwithstanding.

Back in the 17th-18th century (1691-1778), the British government targeted Roman Catholics in Ireland by enforcing Penal Laws. Priests were not allowed to practice their faith, certainly not to celebrate Mass. Many were forced to flee the country for France, or else go into hiding. Written stories and novels tell of country houses maintaining a “priests’ cellar” entered by a separate passageway. The single lighted candle in a front window indicated a Catholic household wherein a traveling priest could slip in safely to minister to the family. When the British occupation forces questioned the Irish about these candles, they had to make up a story about welcoming Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus.

Some Irish Catholics would light three candles, one for each member of the Holy Family, thus satisfying the British and allowing the families to practice their faith in secret. It also started the alternate legend that Mary and Joseph would reenact their search for a place to stay every Christmas Eve and would come to the home of a family that signaled its welcome to them with the candle.

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Over time, the lighted candle tradition evolved as a beacon of hope for any strangers passing by on a dark winter evening. The lighted candle signaled the house as a place with warm food and shelter for travelers on roads where inns were few and homes were far apart. The custom spread to villages, as well, spreading a welcoming glow among neighborhoods.

Early settlers to the American colonies brought the tradition with them. Here, where religious freedom began on this continent, the candle in the window became a beacon of light and safety where visitors would find refuge in a new and sometimes wild land. Window lights were a signal to neighboring homes to welcome back visiting family members.

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Today, Colonial Williamsburg is the epitome of a scene such as this. The house in the photo above reminds me of similar houses in the historic district of Apalachicola, Florida, where I visited during the Christmas season several years ago. A single candle shone in each window of every house, replicating this Southern tradition. I continue it in my own modern home although not all the windows line up like toy tin soldiers. Our dark nights, as well as numerous gloomy days, cry out for a welcoming light in each window.

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Next week, when I decorate the house for Christmas, I’ll add sprigs of evergreens snipped from our Colorado spruce to the window sill that faces the front porch.

 

 

 

Get Ready for Advent

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On the heels of Thanksgiving comes the first Sunday in the Advent season whether we are ready to release autumn décor or not. Some years an extra week of November follows. Not this year. Sunday, December 1st is the day.

Pre-Christian Germanic peoples had used wreaths with lit candles during dark December days as a way of marking the time until the New Year, and Scandinavians placed candles around a wood wheel and offered prayers to the “god of light” to turn the wheel of earth back to the sun.

The Christian tradition of placing an Advent wreath with candles in the church chancel began sometime in the Middle Ages — probably about 1600 — as part of spiritual preparation for Christmas. Wreath symbolism points to the eternal Christ as “the Light that came into the world” to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God (cf. John 3:19-21). 

Evergreens — usually mountain laurel and pine and spruce, holly and yew — are arranged in a circle without beginning or ending to represent eternal and everlasting life. Four purple candles represent the four weeks of Advent, a prayerful and penitential season imbued with quiet joy. Some liturgical traditions celebrate Gaudete Sunday with a pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent instead of a purple one.

Each Sunday, one candle is lighted, progressively, until all four are lit on the fourth Sunday. At Christmas, four white candles replace the colored ones, and a white candle added in the center. All five candles are lighted on Christmas Eve and throughout the Christmas season until Epiphany, indeed a magical time of holy expectation.

A corresponding Advent Wreath in the home is most appropriately lit at dinner with a special prayer, something like this:

O God, by whose word all things are sanctified, pour forth Thy blessing upon this wreath. Grant that all who use it may prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, and may receive from Thee abundant graces. Through Him who lives and reigns forever. Amen.

Someone lights the first candle, and the blessing for the meal is recited.

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For subsequent weeks, the prayer before the blessing goes something like this:

O Lord, stir up our hearts that we may prepare for Thy Only begotten Son, that through His coming we may be made worthy to serve Thee with pure minds . . .

. . . and two candles are lit, and so on. I promise you that this quiet observance at the dinner hour will enhance your season and calm your nerves in the excitement that shopping and wrapping gifts, planning special meals, baking, sending cards brings every December.

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The CRANBERRY Sauce

It’s a bit like the proverbial icing on the cake, made of sugar and spice and even wine and, of course, fresh cranberries usually found in produce aisles this time of year. None of the canned jellied stuff for me. It may look pretty on its cut glass relish tray, a round silver spatula by its side, but subject to slipping right off onto Grandmother’s white Damask tablecloth.

I still have the pierced flat cranberry jelly server handed down in my husband’s family. It lies, unused, in the silver drawer, taken out annually for its polishing, along with other serving pieces such as the special jam/sauce spoon I use for real cranberry sauce cradled in his grandmother’s cut lead crystal bowl.

The November 2001 issue of Bon Appetit featured several recipes for chunky relishes and sauces. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Spiced Cranberry Sauce with Zinfandel

1 3/4 cups red Zinfandel or Merlot

1 cup sugar

1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar

6 whole cloves

6 whole allspice

2 cinnamon sticks

1 3×1-inch strip orange peel

1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries

Combine all ingredients except cranberries in medium saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced to 1 3/4 cups, about 10 minutes. Strain syrup into large saucepan. Add cranberries to syrup and cook over medium heat until berries burst, about 6 minutes. Cool. Transfer sauce to serving bowl and refrigerate.

Cranberry Sauce with Port (or other sweet wine)

1 2/3 cups ruby Port

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar

1 6-inch-long sprig fresh rosemary

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries

3/4 cup sugar

Combine first 6 ingredients in medium saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes. Discard rosemary sprig.

Mix in cranberries and 3/4 sugar. Cook over medium heat until liquid is slightly reduced and berries burst, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Cool. Transfer sauce to bowl. Chill until cold.

Both these sauces can be tweaked to your liking and made up to a week prior to Thanksgiving. Just keep covered and refrigerated.

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George Washington Started It

According to Virginia’s Mount Vernon history archives, it was President George Washington who designated the first national day of public thanksgiving, to be held on Thursday, the 26th day of November, 1789 — not President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The Proclamation was printed in newspapers, including the October 9, 1789, issue of the Pennsylvania Packet and the Daily Advertiser.

Washington, however, long knew of the value of a day set aside for thanksgiving before he was our first president of the new United States. Periodically, during the American Revolutionary War, he ordered special thanksgiving services for his troops after successful battles.

“The Prayer at Valley Forge” by Arnold Friberg, whether painted from the artist’s memory or his imagination, is an especially poignant reminder of Washington’s deep, abiding faith in Divine Providence, as described in Washington’s God by father/daughter writing team Michael and Jana Novak (2006).

Below is Mount Vernon standing in the afterglow of a Thanksgiving Day sunset.

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Planning the Feast

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Early wind storms stripped my birch trees and sent golden leaves fluttering down the street. Gardens have faded to brown and grey. I tend to dress accordingly in brown corduroy riding skirt topped by a long grey sweater. But the house interior still retains my favorite fall colors of golds and deep reds and burgundy in blue and white porcelain containers. The dining table it set for our Thanksgiving Feast with an old blue plaid lap blanket and an equally old hammered aluminum pot fill with an arrangement of leaves and berries snipped from the garden earlier this month.

Last week I promised fall vegetable recipes — old favorites with a twist — great not only to accompany the bird but also lovely for roast pork during the winter. Fall vegetables actually are my favorite part of the meal, along with oyster dressing and finishing up with pecan pie and coffee. All recipes are salt-free.

Let’s begin with ROASTED SWEET POTATOES.

3 large sweet potatoes or yams, cut into 1/2-inch wedges

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Wash, peel, dice sweet potatoes/yams.

In a large bowl, toss sweet potatoes/yams in olive oil and syrup, add black pepper. Spread the mixture evenly on baking sheet; bake for 30 to 40 minutes until edges of the sweet potatoes are crispy and gold brown. Flip potatoes half way through the baking time.

NOTE: If your oven is too crowded, the sweet potatoes can be pan roasted under a lid just as well. Adjust cooking time as needed, and stir periodically to keep them from sticking.

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HARICOTS VERTS (Skinny Green Beans)

2 pounds beans

2 tablespoons minced shallot

4 tablespoons butter, divided

2 tablespoon Italian parsley, minced if fresh

optional lemon zest

In a large saute pan, saute shallots in 1 tablespoon butter over medium-low heat until fragrant and slightly translucent, about 2 minutes. Add beans to the pan and toss well to combine the butter and shallots with the beans. Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add 1/4 cup water to pan and cover with a lid. Allow beans to steam for 3 to 4 minutes until bright green, tender but not mushy.

In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons softened butter with Italian parsley, optional lemon zest, and whisk until well blended.

Drain beans of any excess water, then transport them into a large serving dish with the herb butter poured over them. Garnish with additional Italian parsley and lemon zest, if desired.

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MAPLE ROASTED CARROTS

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup pure maple syrup or honey

2 teaspoons cumin powder

2 pounds carrots, scrubbed, tops and roots trimmed (slice lengthwise if large)

1 medium lemon, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons Italian parsley and optional chives thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, whisk olive oil, maple syrup or honey, cumin powder. Toss the carrots and lemon slices in this mixture. Spread evenly on baking sheet.

Roast for 30 to 40 minutes until the carrots are tender and the lemon slices have caramelized. Stir carrot mixture at least once halfway through baking time.

Put carrots into serving dish and sprinkle with Italian parsley and chives.

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SUGGESTION: Prepare all vegetables the day before and refrigerate overnight. Make cranberry sauce up to two or three days ahead and refrigerate until serving time. And the grand finale? Early in the week bake your pies. Here is my favorite: SOUTHERN PECAN PIE from an old Colonial Virginia recipe.

1 9-inch pie crust shell

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups dark corn syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup flour

1 cup pecan halves

Beat eggs in a medium-size bowl. Blend in sugar, corn syrup and vanilla; stir in flour. Pour into prepared pie crust shell. Arrange pecan halves in a circular pattern on top, similar to illustration below.

Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) 45 minutes, or until center is almost set but still soft. Pie will appear puffed up until it cools and settles.

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Bon Appetit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All in Good Time

Christmas seems to be popping up almost everywhere I look these days. Not the season, mind you, but decorations from garlands to trees to wreaths, with or without twinkling lights. Why rush the season? Maybe it’s the recent news of January blizzards blasting the central United States from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Christmas will come all in good time after Thanksgiving, with Advent in between.

Remember the old-fashioned song, “Over the river and through the woods / To grandmother’s house we go. / The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh / O’er the white and glistening snow.” Well, some folks will enjoy a snowy Thanksgiving two weeks away, unless the sun comes out tomorrow.

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This morning, one of my favorite bloggers, “Pine Cones and Acorns,” posted ten ideas for a Thanksgiving table setting. I posted it on Facebook, and now I’d like to share a few of her ideas with you all. She began with laying a cozy plaid blanket and adding small pumpkins and seasonal pyracantha berry sprigs snipped from her garden. Dinner plates with a wild game bird pattern complete the setting.

Here is another blanket-covered table idea, this one with a centerpiece of pumpkins in an antique bread dough bowl.

For a large gathering, she suggests a runner laid down the center, topped with bowls of apples, berry sprigs, accented with a colorful fall leaf arrangement. Notice the mismatched chairs and dinnerware? It’s the company and good food that really matter.

And if you decide on a simple bowl of polished red apples, simply remove the autumn leaves and berries and substitute snips of evergreen sprigs from the woods for an early December look. I’ll have more ideas later, including recipes for Thanksgiving sides and how to design an Advent Wreath, a creative project for the last Saturday of November.

Bicycle Thanksgiving

 

 

Pin Cushion Friend

 

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Charlie, my cocker spaniel, noses dried grasses beneath the fence line on our country walk one recent fall afternoon. He reminds me of a hedgehog rooting through undergrowth in search of frogs or mice, or perhaps snails and centipedes. But a 30-pound dog is nothing like a small carnivorous animal about the size of a tea cup.

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The hedgehog got its name from its foraging methods – rooting through hedges and other undergrowth – for small creatures for its dinner. Because its eyesight is weak, it must rely heavily on its senses of hearing and smell.

Often compared to porcupines because of its coat full of spines or quills, the hedgehog is native to Europe, Africa, and Asia, not found in North or South America in the wild. Hedgehogs are spiny mammals known as insectivores whereas porcupines are rodents that shoot their quills in self-defense. Hedgehogs roll into tight prickly balls. It is virtually impossible to unroll one; when the fella feels relaxed and unthreatened, he’ll unroll on his own.

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Hedgehogs are spiny mammals known as insectivores whereas porcupines are rodents that shoot their quills in self-defense. Hedgehogs roll into tight prickly balls. It is virtually impossible to unroll one; when the fella feels relaxed and unthreatened, he’ll unroll on his own.

The one-inch long modified hairs cover the hedgehog’s back and sides. Unlike the porcupine’s quills, however, these hairs are neither barbed nor poisonous. Fur covers the face, belly, throat, and legs.

It’s a myth that hedgehogs are silent creatures. On the contrary, they snort and snuffle, grunt and squeal, click and hiss as they root about foraging. When they’re content, however, they purr like a cat but scream if they’re in pain.

Many of us met our first hedgehog within the page of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mrs. Tiggle-Winkle, the story of a hedgehog washerwoman. A little girl finds the tiny cottage and stays for tea. Then the two deliver freshly laundered clothing to the animals in the neighborhood.

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In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts employed rolled up hedgehogs as croquet balls. Unhappily for Her Majesty, the hedgehogs simply scampered away.

Image result for queen of hearts from alice in wonderland hedgehogs

William Shakespeare called hedgehogs “hedgepigs” and “urchins” in The Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Early German settlers in colonial Pennsylvania, who had accustomed to hedgehogs, learned to use the native groundhog to predict the arrival of spring. And that was the beginning of that annual February event still carried on today in great silliness.

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If my cocker spaniel were to find a non-existent hedgehog creature along a fence line, I can be sure he’d bark with high-pitched yelps and yips until the poor creature retreated into a tight ball, never to unwind until I had pulled on the dog’s leash all the way back home.