Tag Archives: Christmas

What I want for Christmas

Well, it’s a bit too late to put in this request, but if I had been able to make a Christmas list of wants rather than chores and things to buy at the grocery store, these amazing “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious would be on the top. I’ve never really appreciated either holiday china or twentieth-century china, but these dishes are just so striking, as are most of the pieces made by Ravilious in his short life (1903-1942). My favorite is the first plate with what looks like a flaming (steaming) Christmas pudding, which was accentuated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of a Christmas card. I was looking for a traditional Christmas pudding recipe when I found this plate, and then my search was over–I put in an order with our new bakery because I was so distracted by these decidedly cooler (in more ways than one) versions. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Christmas Pudding Plate

Christmas Pudding Plate Card

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Christmas Pudding Sauce

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Wedgwood “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious, 1938, collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Smoking Bishop

It must be because I have traditional Christmas drinks on the brain, but for the first time a reference to smoking Bishop in one of the last lines of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol caught my attention when I saw a live musical version the other day. I could not count how many times I’ve seen this story on stage and screen, but I never really heard that term before. It came right at the end, after Scrooge has been reformed and is in the process of pledging his support to Bob Cratchit and his family:  “A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we’ll discuss your affairs this very afternoon, before this very fire, over a Christmas bowl of smoking Bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

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Now at first I thought this name was yet another example of early modern English anti-Catholicism, or at the very least, an anti-establishment jab. The Puritans disliked the Anglican bishops in their own country just as much as Catholic bishops abroad. But it turns out the name is all about color: the mulled red wine, mixed with port and spices and roasted fruit, was also known as purple wine, a reference to the purple robes and sashes that bishops wore–and still do. Yet another variation on the Wassail–there appear to be countless.

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Illustrations from the 1911 edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol by A.C. Michael, the 1915 edition by Arthur Rackham, and Scrooge and Cratchit drinking their Smoking Bishop before the fire by John Leech; Pope Francis greeting a succession of bishops at St. Peters.


Be Merry and Drink Perry

One of the most famous colonial Christmas “incidents” occurred here in Salem on Christmas night, 1679: the so-called (by Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas) “Salem Wassail”. In the old English wassailing tradition, but quite contrary to the prevalent Puritan culture of Salem, four young men from Salem Village burst into the remote home of 72-year-old John Rowden and began singing before his hearth in an effort to entice him to offer them some of his (apparently renown) pear wine, or perry. Rowden and his family tried to get the intruders to leave, but they responded that “it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went.”  The Rowdens were steadfast (after all Christmas revelry was actually illegal in the colony from 1659-1681), but wavered a bit when the young men offered them some money for the wine, “coins” which turned out to be pieces of lead. More pleading, a request for directions to Marblehead  (apparently not as dry as Salem), and then the young men stoned the Rowden homestead in demand of perry. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and as we all know, the holidays can promote rather disorderly behavior. The seventeenth-century “war on Christmas”, provoked by Puritans who saw no scriptural basis for the holiday and associated it with paganism (they were right) and popery, was largely over in Old England at the time of the “Salem Wassail” and it would soon end in New England as well.

Here and now, I have stocked up for my Christmas visitors with perry ( a traditional local version from Russell Orchards in Ipswich and a more festive sparkling variety–see below) as well as other spirits: I don’t want to get stoned.

Perry

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Bonny Doon Vineyards Sparkling Perry label (there’s also quite a few artisanal pear CIDERS on the market now–not sure if they are the same as perry; Russell Orchards makes both); two tracts from the war on Christmas in the 17th century: The Vindication of Christmas (1653) and Merry Boys of Christmas, or The Milk-Maids New Years-Gift (1660).


Christmas Roses

I like to decorate with live plants at the holidays–and all year round–but I don’t particularly care for the traditional Christmas plants: cyclamen is too gaudy for me, as are Christmas cacti, and I can’t stand the smell of paperwhites. I suppose amaryllis are alright, but I can never get them to bloom on time and, again, I find them a bit showy. Poinsettias are too predictable (and I have cats). So the only flowering plant that I seek this time of year are hellebores, varieties of which are alternatively called “Christmas Roses” (helleborus niger) and “Lenten Roses”. You’ve got to love a winter-blooming flower, and the association with Christmas is based not only on the season but also on the story of a penniless shepherdess who sought to give a gift to the baby Jesus–an angel turned her tears into pale waxen flowers, which were, of course, the greatest gift. Like tears, hellebore petals are seemingly-fragile, especially in contrast to their sturdier stems, and white, like winter (although there are pale pink varieties too–but the Christmas rose is white). There is another dissonance between the virtues of the plant and its seasonal beauty:  all of the classical and medieval herbals testify to its toxic qualities.

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Hellebore after John White BM 1600

Hellebore Mary Delaney BM 1770s

Hellebore Cooper Hewitt early 19th century

Hellebore McIntosh

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A succession of hellebores:  British Library MS. Egerton 747, Salernitan Herbal c. 1280-1310; two images from the British Museum: after John White, c. 1600 and Mary Delaney, 1770s; early 19th century British soft paste plate from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian; a Charles Rennie MacKintosh drawing, c. 1901-1914, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; one of my potted hellebores, overlooking a snowy Chestnut Street.


Verjuice

From sweet to sour, or tart.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the most delicious pork scallopini at an Italian restaurant in Rhinebeck, New York. It had an interesting acidic flavor in its sauce–my stepmother identified it as vinegar, but after looking through a bunch of recipes, I’m pretty sure it was verjuice, a close relation with a long history. Verjuice (or verjus) just means “green juice”, and generally it refers to the juice of strained unripe apples or grapes, hence the tartness, but I’ve seen references to it in recipes dating way back–and most prominently in the late fourteenth-century household guide Le Ménagier de Paris and the Tudor cookbooks of Thomas Dawson. I always thought verjuice/verjus was just another name for vinegar (an incredibly important substance in the medieval and early modern eras–essential in both cooking and preservation), but upon closer reading, it’s clear that it is different, as this recipe from Le Ménagier makes clear:  SAUCE FOR RABBIT OR FOR RIVER-BIRD OR FOR WOOD-DOVE. Fry onions in good oil, or mince them and put to cook in the dripping-pan with beef drippings, and do not add verjuice nor vinegar until boiling: and then add half verjuice half wine and a little vinegar, and pass the spices. Then take half wine half verjuice and a little vinegar, and put all in the dripping pan under the rabbit, dove or river-bird; and when they are cooked, boil the sauce, and have some bits of toasted bread and put in with the bird.

Verjuice was (is) neither vinegar nor wine, but perhaps something in between, which is not my original observation. In this foodie world that we live in, it was only a matter of time before verjuice made a comeback, and the Australian chef Maggie Beer started producing it commercially a while ago. Just the other day, I was strolling through a shop in Newburyport, and there it was. So now I can try to make my own perfect scallopini–or maybe a traditional syllabub for our Christmas Day desert.

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Verjuice Dawson

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Noble Verjus at Wishbasket in Newburyport; Title page of the 1610 edition of Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewel, which has many recipes calling for verjuice; “As sour as Verjuice”, George Hunt print c. 1825, British Museum.


Christmas in Salem 2013

The Christmas in Salem house tour, Historic Salem, Inc.’s major fundraiser, has been an annual tradition in Salem for over 30 years. It alternates between neighborhoods from year to year, and this year’s tour–Ports of Call–is centered on Derby and Essex Streets in the eastern end of the city. I’m always impressed with the effort that goes into this tour, as well as the generosity of the owners (and I speak from experience here–it’s quite a commitment), but of course it’s all about the architecture. Ports of Call suggests a maritime theme, but for me, this year’s tour was all about architectural diversity–as I walked through a succession of houses that included McIntire’s perfect Gardner-Pingree House and a stunning modernized house on Salem Harbor filled with the “souvenirs” of a global life well-lived with a bunch of super-insightful friends, I was, once again, blown away by Salem’s architecture. The tour is on today, so if you’re in our area you should go.

Starting out at Gardner-Pingree (1805):

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Some amazing floors at 91 Essex Street (1868):

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The very creative owners of Two Curtis Street (c. 1731), short on space but quite attached to their piano, turned their dining room into a “lounge” situated in its quadrilateral addition!:

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Various vignettes and views of the Captain John Hodges House (c. 1750):

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Captain Hodges himself, and exterior decorations of the house:

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26 Hardy Street (built 1851): a Christmas display with Lenin bust, and the dining room overlooking Salem Harbor. So much to see I was overwhelmed!

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Purple glass doorknob leading into the Sarah Silsbee House (c. 1807); “Three lobstermen” in a Derby Street shop window).

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Christmas with Barbara

I love classic films, so naturally my favorite television channel is Turner Classic Movies:  I often have it on in the background when I’m home, as you never know what–or who–might turn up!  This month, I have to admit that it’s been on even more than usual, as December’s “Star of the Month” is Barbara Stanwyck, my very favorite movie star.  No one comes close to Barbara in her ability to fill the screen and capture her audience’s attention, in my opinion; certainly no actor or actress in the present (a time when movie stars seem much smaller), and perhaps only Cary Grant and Bette Davis in the past. I love everything about Barbara:  her toughness and her vulnerability, her flexibility, her stature, her walk, her ability to sit a horse, her little cropped jackets, her obvious professionalism. There is a sense of inner “simmering” in her that I find captivating, and I think she chose her roles very well. I find even her early 1930s movies–in which she seems to be playing the same downtrodden character again and again–watchable, but she really comes into her own in the 1940s, when she became the highest paid woman in America.

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Miss Stanwyck at the height of her power and popularity, Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Two of my favorite Stanwyck films happen to be Christmas movies: Remember the Night (1940) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). For as long as I can remember, I have generally watched both at least once during the holiday season, but this particular month I seem to be watching them again and again, so many times that I almost feel like I’m having Christmas with Barbara!

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I think most people have heard of or seen Christmas in Connecticut, and it is certainly a wonderful film with a charming Barbara (and a great supporting cast), but she is even more endearing in Remember the Night.  This movie, the first of what I think were three pairings with Fred MacMurray, shows the actress in transition from her 1930s vulnerability to her 1940s confidence:  she is both sad and funny, tough and vulnerable, skittish and resolute. MacMurray plays a New York City Assistant District Attorney who prosecutes Stanwyck’s shoplifter character in a Christmas Eve trial:  when he realizes 1) that the joyful jury will let her off in a collective display of Christmas spirit; and 2) that she is a fellow Hoosier, he postpones the trial until the New Year, bails her out of jail, and offers to drive her home to Indiana for the holidays as he is heading home himself (you have to suspend some  judgement here). On the way west, back to the country, they have various escapades and encounters that bring them closer together. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when they arrive at her childhood home and face her dreadful mother; Fred will not let her stay there and he whisks her away to his own mother, the polar-opposite perfect mom, played, of course, by Beulah Bondi, Mrs. Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life!  On the farm, they celebrate Christmas the old-fashioned way and fall in love, always knowing that they’re going to have to go back to the big city, and the big trial, after the holidays. And they do: neither compromises their principles or their admiration for one another and so the “resolution” of the film provides a nice contrast to more predictable Christmas fare, including Christmas in Connecticut.

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray look over their scripts with director Mitchell Leisen in this behind-the-scenes shot, TCM Archives.

Actually, as I write this, I am realizing that there is a major similarity between Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut:  in both films a very urban Barbara has got to go to the country and experience an “old-fashioned” Christmas (complete with country dances in both films) in order to find herself. In Christmas, Barbara plays a Martha Stewart-like character named Elizabeth Lane who writes a monthly column about her bucolic married life in Connecticut, including elaborate menus for perfect home-cooked meals. The problem, which doesn’t become a problem until her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) forces her to entertain a war hero named Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for the holidays, is that Elizabeth Lane is actually a single “career woman” who lives in a New York City apartment and relies on local restauranteur Felix Bassenak (a perfect S.Z. Sakall) for both her daily sustenance and recipes for her column. She cooks up a scheme with her editor, Felix, and her long-suffering architect beau (Reginald Gardner), whom she promises to marry in exchange for his perfect Connecticut country house, which becomes the setting for their deception. The house is so perfect, with its vaulted ceilings, picture window, and huge stone fireplace, that it is almost a character in the film. In crystalline Connecticut, many situations ensue, involving babies, a cow named Mecushla (there’s a big cow scene in Remember the Night as well), flapjacks, a horse-drawn sleigh, and rocking chairs, and in the midst of all this Elizabeth/Barbara and her war hero fall in love. It is 1945, it is Christmas, and all is well.

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Barbara in my bedroom:  facing her architect fiancé (“when you’re kissing me, don’t talk about plumbing”), facing the war hero seconds later, and in her perfect little cropped Christmas jacket.


Red Christmas

Even before I read a nice little article yesterday on how the holidays obtained their color themes, I was already planning to focus on red:  it’s been a dreary week and I needed a little cheering up. The red that we now associate with Christmas comes from an amalgamation of historical and cultural forces:  iconic images of St. Nicholas of Myra wearing red robes, holly berries and the apple props of medieval mystery plays, the Victorian poinsettia craze, the colorful depictions of Santa Claus by nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, and the Coco-Cola Santa Claus of the early twentieth century. I’ve already covered Saint Nicholas in a lengthy post a week or so ago, so this perspective is going to be structural. Here are some of my favorite red houses, tastefully decorated for the season in typical understated New England fashion. I’m starting up north, in my hometown of York, Maine, where I happened to be last week before our weather turned dreadfully dreary, and then I’ll work my way home to Salem via Newburyport.

Two of the Historic House Museums of Old York:  the 1719 Old Gaol (Jail) and the 1754 Jefferds Tavern. As you can see, the gaol is situated on a little hill that overlooks York Village below. There is a large new barn-like structure attached to the tavern which I dont really care for (despite the fact that it is named after my wonderful high school guidance counselor) so Im showing a vantage point that excludes it.

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Heading south, I stopped in Newburyport–a city of white houses for the most part–and found two adorable colonial side-shingled houses on side streets in the south end.

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Back in Salem, where there are not a lot of red houses, really. But there is venerable Red’s Sandwich Shop downtown, and the Manning house in North Salem, which was once in the midst of one of the most famous orchard nurseries in Massachusetts. This was the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle, Robert Manning, a famous “pomologist” (an expert in the cultivation of fruit trees) and according to the sign, also a stagecoach agent–news to me. The last picture in this group is a rare red Greek Revival on Essex Street: you seldom see a house in this style painted red, as they are meant to mimic stone. From these pictures it appears we like our red houses with white trim in Salem.

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red house North Salem

red Manning House

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Finally, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s c. 1750 birthplace, moved to its present location adjacent to the House of the Seven Gables on the harbor in 1958 from downtown. A rather gnarly tree seems to be threatening it! And last but not least, a wonderful old (fishing?) shack on the other side of the Gables: a little worse for wear maybe, but still red and picturesque–it does seem to be crying out for a wreath at this time of year.

Red Hawthorne House

Red Hawthorne House rear

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Saint Nicholas

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, (270-343) who evolved, through the centuries, into Santa Claus, because of his legendary roles as a protector of children and secret gift-giver. This was quite an evolution, in more ways than one! Nicholas is known alternatively as Nicholas of Myra, as he served as Bishop of that southern Turkish city (now called Demre) for much of his life, and Nicholas of Bari, as his relics were removed to southern Italy in the eleventh century. The Italians who confiscated the relics of the revered Saint claimed that were acting in the name of “security”, as Myra was increasingly vulnerable to Muslim attacks, but one could certainly ascertain that it was a case of simple theft. There are many stories associated with Nicholas’s holy works, so many that he is also referred to as Nicholas “the wonder-worker”, but the most popular relates a rather dark tale in which Nicholas visited an inn during a regional famine, and quickly discerned that the innkeeper had chopped up three boys and encased them in brine to sell them as pickled pork.  Nicholas brought the innocents back to life, and evolved into the savior of children who found themselves “in a pickle”.

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Nicholas BM Dutch

Nicholas BM Flemish

British Library MS Stowe 12, “The Stowe Breviary”, 1322-25; Dutch woodcut print, 1480-1490, and hand-colored engraving from a Flemish prayer-book by the “Monogrammist M”, 1500-1525, both British Museum.

Images of Nicholas with the resuscitated boys (in their pickle barrel) can be found in all manner of religious texts from the medieval and early modern eras, as illustrated by those above, and were also the single focus of a succession of paintings and prints from the Renaissance and after. When Nicholas is not in the company of the boys, he is often pictured with the young women whom he saved from lives of prostitution by secretly gifting their father with gold for their dowries, another work of wonder that solidified his connection with the young (and vulnerable).

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Two altarpiece panels representing the holy deeds of Saint Nicholas by Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-35:  Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths and Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The religious history of Saint Nicholas is pretty easy to reconstruct, but when hagiography meets folklore it gets a bit more confusing. One thing is certain: the transformation of the saint into the jolly dispenser of gifts is much more a phenomenon of western Christian culture than it is of the Orthodox Church, which still recognizes Saint Basil of Caesarea as the benevolent gift-giver (on his feast day of January 1).  The other factor that seems pretty clear is the role of the Reformation. The modern Santa Claus seems to be an amalgamation of the Dutch and Flemish Sinterklaas, the English “Father Christmas” and a secularized Saint Nicholas. While the Dutch Sinterklaas still arrives on the eve of St. Nicholas, wearing a Bishop’s hat and bearing a staff, the Protestant prohibition of his veneration gradually transformed him into a secular figure. Across the English Channel, a similarly-dressed (and aged), “Father Christmas” reemerges only after the Reformation and Revolution, when the Restoration ushers in a return to the “merry old England” of memory. And when these figures cross the Atlantic, the melting pot of American culture (and Coca Cola) gradually transforms them into our very own Santa Claus.

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Nicholas Sinterklaas

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Engraving of Saint Nicholas by Antonius Wierix, 1604, British Museum; Sinterklaas celebration in Amsterdam, 2011, and a Father Christmas card, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum.


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