Tag Archives: holidays

The Golden Age of Gift-Giving

Before the Victorians and the twentieth century transformed Christmas into the extravaganza that it is today, New Year’s Day–in the midst of an extended Christmastide– was the occasion for offering and receiving gifts. We know a lot about the meaning and materiality of gifts in Tudor England because of some extraordinary records, and several recent works which have transcribed and interpreted them for all of us, most notably Jane Lawson’s momentous transcription of 24 surviving Gift Rolls from Elizabeth’s reign, The Elizabethan New Year’s Gift Exchanges (2013) and Felicity Heal’s The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (2015). These two complementary volumes are really interesting and useful (though expensive–fortunately I received one as a gift!). I’m sure you can imagine how valuable and variable these sources are–as Elizabeth received a lot of stuff from her courtiers: pounds of gold coins in little bags made of luxurious fabrics and embroidered, beaded and embellished, books, jewels, articles of clothing, as well as more unique items. Let’s just look at one year’s haul, recorded in the roll from 1578-79 entitled New Yer’s Guiftes giuen to the QUENE’S MAIESTIE at her Highnes Manor of Richmond, by these Persons whose Names hereafter do ensue, the First of January, the Yere abouesaid, which has been digitized by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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Our sources: the gift rolls are quite literally ROLLS.

It’s a long roll, organized by the titles of the gift-bearers, from Earls to Gentlemen, and the value of their gifts, a perfect illustration of currying favor. Elizabeth’s long-time favorite, the Earl of Leicester, offered up a very fair jewel of gold, being a clock fully furnished with small diamonds pointed, and a pendant of gold, diamonds, and rubies, very small; and upon each a lozenge diamond, and an apple of green and russet enamel. From the Earl of Ormond, a very fair jewel of gold, wherein are three large emeralds set in which and red roses, one bigger than the other two, all the rest of the same jewel garnished with enameled roses and flowers, furnished with very small diamonds and rubies; about the edge very small pearls; and in the bottom is part of a flower-de-luce garnished with small diamonds, rubies, and one sapphire, with three mean pendant pearls, two of them small; the backside a green-enameled flower-de-luce. More jewels, lots of gold coin, and embellished apparel, including girdles and kirtles, mantles, “forepartes”,”scarfs”, petticoats, caps, mufflers, gloves and handkerchiefs  in cloth of gold, satin and velvet. Very detailed descriptions: you can easily see why these rolls are so valuable to historians of clothing and accessories, as well as to those attempting to piece together the intricate and dynamic relationships that formed the Elizabethan Court.

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A crop of Elizabeth and the Three Goddesses by Hans Eworth (1569), ©Royal Collection Trust: a rare image of the Elizabeth wearing gloves, a common New Year’s Day gift. A fragment of Elizabethan blackwork, often referred to in the Gift Rolls, ©National Trust; Elizabeth received at least one “swete bag” to fill with sweet-smelling herbs to guard her from the plague in 1579–this embroidered example is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Rather than additions to Elizabeth’s vast and well-studied wardrobe, I tend to look for more unusual items in these records, especially household furnishings.The Earl of Hertford gifted the queen with a small pair of writing tables enameled with a grasshopper, all of gold, enameled green on the backside, and a pin of gold having a small pearl at the end thereof.  From Lady Thockmorton, a large bag to put a pillow in or moire satin, allover embroidered with gold, silver, and silk of sundry colors, with 4 tassels of green silk and gold; and a cushion cloth of network, flourished over with flowers of gold, silver and silk of sundry colors, lined with white satin. Elizabeth also received  contemporary examples of things we might receive today (on Christmas Day): books, stationery, sweets, flora and fauna, including eighteen larks in a cage from one Morris Watkins, on New Year’s Day of 1579.

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Elizabethan Cushion Cover, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Toasts and Toadstools

There are myriad good luck charms associated with the New Year, and I’ve featured many of them already, including the Scottish “First Footing” ritual and the pig and chimney sweep traditions of continental Europe. I really can’t speak to the southern traditions of eating Hoppin’ John and collard greens, and horseshoes and clover seem to be universally lucky at all times of the year, so I think I’m going to go with toadstools this particular New Year. Very prominently featured on the New Year’s postcards produced and disseminated in large quantities a century or so ago are red-and-white-capped toadstools scattered about—these are “red fly” mushrooms called Fliegenpilze in Germany (which produced most of these same postcards) and they are very lucky indeed. If you’ve ever seen one of these (the proper Latin name is amanita muscaria) out in the wild, you would understand why it is such a storied plant: it looks not quite real, wondrous, and is said to have both insecticide and hallucinogenic qualities. Despite the fact that one of my favorite King Penguin books classifies this mushroom as poisonous, it was apparently a stroke of luck to encounter one: in doing so you becomes a Glückspilz (literally a lucky mushroom; metaphorically a lucky person).  It is no wonder these ‘shrooms ended up in both Alice and Wonderland and on all those New Years’ postcards, and on this particular year, on the mantle in my front parlor: I am taking no chances with 2017!

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An assortment of New Year’s postcards from my own collection and the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library; the holly and the……..mushrooms on a Mela Koehler Christmas card from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Amanita muscaria in John Ramsbottom’s Poisonous Fungi (1945).

I was just down in Rhinebeck, New York for Christmas at my brother’s house, and I had about twenty minutes in one of my favorite stores anywhere: Paper Trail. There were mushrooms in the window, and the most beautiful toadstool/mushroom (I must admit that I don’t know the difference) ornaments. So inspired, I switched up my own mushrooms (+ some hourglasses–very subtle) for the deer on the front mantle almost as soon as I got home. I think I have a pig somewhere in the basement so I might pop him on there too. And a horseshoe.

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Keeping Christmas

Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.

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The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!

I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff.  But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.

“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings:  a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.

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I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.

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And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!


The Weekend before Christmas

A very Salem weekend before Christmas highlighted by the Christmas Dance (now called the Holiday Dance) at Hamilton Hall, preceded by pre-parties at gloriously-decorated houses, and followed by shopping downtown on Sunday. I was supposed to wrap all my presents last night but fell asleep on the couch while watching the 1970 version of Scrooge (not as good as the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, but it had to do, yet even a musical could not keep my eyes open; in particular this musical).We had terrible weather on Saturday–sludgy snow/rain–but Sunday was unseasonably warm until a wind whipped up in the later afternoon. Not picture-perfect “Christmas Weather” but lots of people were out and about anyway.

Saturday: the Hall next door before the big dance and showing our ephemeral cover of snow–now gone. I took a few pictures of one very stylishly-decorated Dutch Colonial during one pre-party, but then misplaced my camera–magically it appeared at the very end of the evening when we ended up at the Merchant. No matter, because I can never take good pictures at the Dance. I hope you can make out the wonderful Christmas tree below–lit from within by a lady offering up a gift!

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Sunday: shopping at the Christmas Market at Old Town Hall, Waite & Peirce, Joe’s Fresh Fish Prints, Wicked Good Books, and Modern Millie’s, the always-impressive windows at Emporium 32, and the Poinsettia Tree at the Hawthorne Hotel.

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And some online shopping: LOVE these “Windows of Salem”  hand-drawn digitally-designed cards by EVArtandDesign: you can buy individual cards or a curated-collection with partial proceeds donated to Historic Salem, Inc.

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Tom and Jerry for Christmas

I spent a lot of time last weekend de-stressing in front of and around the television watching Turner Classic Movies, to which my little set is almost permanently tuned. There were old Christmas movies on, and it seemed like every time I looked up from whatever I was doing various characters were getting tipsy on a seasonal drink called a “Tom and Jerry”. It appeared to be an eggnog-like concoction but I had never heard of it: what was it and where did it go? I did a little Google research, and turned up multiple recipes, images of vintage Tom and Jerry punch bowls and cups (which got me even more curious and excited), and some nice sentimental articles about this “all-American” drink’s survival in the upper Midwest. Tom and Jerry is a lighter eggnog variant, which utilizes many eggs but milk (or even water, see below) instead of cream, sugar and spices and rum and brandy, and is typically served warm. Based on the sheer survival of all the punch sets on the second-hand market alone, it must have been very popular in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

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Just one of many Tom & Jerry bowls on Etsy, Vintage mid-century Fire King.

This old drink has nothing to do with the cat and mouse cartoon: according to my (exclusively internet, I must admit) sources, its origins can be traced to either an extraordinary 1821 book by a British journalist, Pierce Egan, titled Life in London, or, The day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis or to a legendary nineteenth-century American bartender named Jerry Thomas whose pioneering 1862 mixologist tome How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion featured a recipe for the Tom and Jerry. No one seems to have connected all the dots between the popular British Tom and Jerry characters and the American drink, but the recipe seems very British to me, reminiscent of all the frothy “lambswool”- like drinks of centuries past. And no matter, I’m always more interested in the search for the source rather than the actual commodity/consumable, and the research into the drink’s origins led me to Egan’s text, featuring his Tom and Jerry characters exploring the highs and lows of London society with delightful illustrations by the Cruikshank brothers. Alcohol was definitely a major part of their exploits.

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Illustrations/scenes from Pierce Egan’s Life in London, British Library.

And I also discovered Jerry Thomas’s Bon-Vivant’s Companion which is available in many reprint editions as well as here. I could spend some time with this book, but for now, and for the holidays, here is his Tom and Jerry recipe (for a crowd):

To make the batter:  5 lbs sugar/ 12 eggs/ a half glass Jamaica rum/ 1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon/ ½ tsp. ground cloves/ ½ tsp. allspice. Beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, and the yolks until they are as thin as water, then mix together and add the spices and rum, thicken with sugar until the mixture attains the consistence of a light batter.

To deal out Tom and Jerry to customers: Take a small bar glass, and to one tablespoon of the batter, add one wine-glass of brandy, and fill the glass with boiling water, then grate a little nutmeg on top.


Pastry Castles

There is much focus on food and drink during December, of course, and today I’m thinking about “pastry castles”, an early form, perhaps, of our own American gingerbread houses? The British Library recently digitized one of the oldest English cookbooks (which is actually a cook-scroll), the Forme of Cury (Add MS 5016), and the recipe for “chastletes” is a conspicuous entry. The Forme of Cury ( a Middle English title for “method of cookery” having nothing to do with England’s current national dish) was written by the chefs of Richard II’s kitchen in the later fourteenth century, and includes recipes for both “common” and “curious” foods, and “for all manner of states, both high and low”. One assumes that the pastry castles, which are a curious mix of sweet and savory in typical late medieval fashion, were produced for the former.

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Forme of Cury scroll and recipe for pastry castles, BL Add MS 5016; a feast featuring a “chastlete” in a late-medieval Bruges manuscript, BL Royal MS. 15 D I.    

Here is the recipe for chastletes in its original Middle English:  Take and make a foyle of gode past with a roller of a foot brode. & lyngur by cumpas. make iiii Coffyns of þe self past uppon þe rolleres þe gretnesse of þe smale of þyn Arme. of vi ynche depnesse. make þe gretust in þe myddell. fasten þe foile in þe mouth upwarde. & fasten þee oþere foure in euery syde. kerue out keyntlich kyrnels above in þe manere of bataiwyng and drye hem harde in an Ovene. oþer in þe Sunne. In þe myddel Coffyn do a fars of Pork with gode Pork & ayrenn rawe wiþ salt. & colour it wiþ safroun and do in anoþer Creme of Almandes. and helde it in anoþer creme of Cowe mylke with ayrenn. colour it with saundres. anoþur manur. Fars of Fygur. of raysouns. of Apples. of Peeres. & holde it in broun. anoþer manere. do fars as to frytours blanched. and colour it with grene. put þis to þe ovene & bake it wel. & serue it forth with ew ardaunt.

The “Coffyns” refer to the pastry shell, encasing the savory mixture of pork, saffron (amazingly dear at the time!), almonds, raisins, apples and pears—mincemeat essentially. The entire form was not made of “bread”, consequently it’s difficult to make the link between these constructions and our own modern gingerbread houses, which seem to have more modern, continental origins, although Elizabeth I purportedly instructed her cooks to make gingerbread men and women in the recognizable forms of her courtiers and guests. I think we’re talking about multiple lines of food cultural evolution here—pies, cakes, ginger, ginger cakes, breads, and houses–and perhaps I shouldn’t mix them up except under the label of “architectural pastry constructions”.  If I could make my own pastry castle, which I would fill with cake and not mincemeat, I would certainly recreate one of Elizabeth’s very favorite castles, Nonsuch Palace, built by her father in the last years of his reign. This is well beyond my baking abilities, but wow, just imagine such a structure!

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Two views of Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel–the second was just acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum.


Christmas in Salem 2016

stellar Christmas in Salem tour around Salem Common this past weekend, featuring all the things that I love about Salem houses and Salem people. The combination of generous and creative homeowners, perfect clear and crisp December weather, and myriad magical details made for a very special experience. Here’s just a short list of attractions (I really could go on and on): a McIntire spiral staircase, beautiful views of the Common (as seen through very clean windows–the first thing I noticed when I got home was how dirty mine are), an artist’s atelier/bedroom, an alpine-decorated deck, kitchens extraordinaire, an architectural dollhouse, exceptional artwork and collections. To be honest, I barely noticed the Christmas decorations as I was so focused on the architecture and interior design. I was a bit pressed for time, so I skipped the three institutional stops on the tour–the PEM’s Andrew Safford House, the Bertram House, and St. Peter’s Church–and went right for the private homes, all along the Common and a few adjacent side streets. It seemed to me that the tour was curated for contrast: of scale (larger institutional or single-family homes contrasted with smaller structures and condominiums), of architectural style (everything was built in the nineteenth century but what a difference between the Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian and Colonial Revival!), of design (very modern and more traditional), of embellishment (very decorated and more minimalistic), and above all, of expression: the homeowners expressed themselves in various ways: through their own art or design, or through their collections, or both!

I was fortunate to obtain a press pass so I could take photographs of the houses, but 1) I am not a professional photographer and 2) I got completely overwhelmed by all I had to see/ “capture”, so please go on over to Creative Salem  or to Historic Salem for more polished and comprehensive portfolios: it was really all too much for me, in the best possible way!

Let’s start with a sampling of beautiful rooms, and then I’ll try to present some of the details that caught my eye–just some, because there was so much to see.

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Let there be light! This  was a very enlightened tour, in more ways than one:

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Myriad Mantles……..

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Dazzling Details…….of collections, an amazing restoration, and all sorts of embellishment, including an historic Salem gallery wall, an exterior Christmas tablescape (set up by the homeowner of a beautiful condo, who felt that she need to offer a “bit more”), and the ultimate dollhouse.

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It was impossible for me to capture the complete creativity of Salem artist Thomas Darsney’s stunning home/gallery: his canvases were luminous but the entire home was in fact a canvas, with no surface or detail unconsidered. 

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Just a few exterior shots because again, the light was so beautiful on Sunday……

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Why not tie everything up with a big red bow?

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