Friday, December 17, 2010

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Grab Bag

The Christmas Tea 
When I was a child, growing up in Southern Tier New York State, my mother would attend the annual Women's Society in Christian Service Christmas Tea at our church. Hostesses would bring their best table linens, china service, sterling silver flatwear and a special Christmas dessert to be shared with all the ladies . . . and my mother was ALWAYS a hostess. I remember her baking and gathering all her finest, wrapping them in towels and packing them in boxes to take to church. I had always wished I could attend . . . .

Years later while living in Western Massachusetts, I longed for such a tradition to begin in our local church, but the people there were not accustomed to such elaborate celebrations as an English Christmas High Tea, so we opted for a Christmas Cookie Exchange instead. But even that wasn't what I was accustomed to, where women in the church brought several dozen of their family's favorite home-baked Christmas cookies and enough copies of the recipe to exchange with all the participants. In that circle, busy women weren't inclined to bake holiday treats, and some even resorted to purchasing cookies at the local supermarket . . .

Still longing for a traditional Christmas Tea, I spoke to a good friend who suggested we begin the tradition on our own. So, that year I hosted our first annual Christmas tea at my home with the special addition of using Delores' bone china cup and saucer collection. The fellowship became the tradition I had always hoped for, and each year I would invite a select group of friends to share tea and cakes, and other holiday treats, mingled with laughter and good conversation. What special times they were.

Now that I am living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, I am finding people even less inclined to attend such a formal occasion which perhaps the Vanderbilt might have enjoyed at the Biltmore Estate in times past.

It will, however, remain a very fond memory that perhaps one day might be revived in another place.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Blog Caroling: Tua Bethlem Dref, a traditional Welsh Christmas carol

Tua Bethlem Dref
On To Bethlehem Town:
a traditional Welsh Christmas carol
Music by: David Evans 
(pseu. Edward Arthur) (1874 - 1948)
Lyrics by: Will Ifin

When I saw the footnoteMaven's challenge to go Blog Caroling, I took the opportunity to find out more about my Welsh roots. While I was unable to find any history on this carol, the words are presented here in both Welsh and English, and you can listen to them in both languages in the videos posted here. 
I hope you enjoy them!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Other Traditions: Christmas Movies

Beginning on Thanksgiving afternoon, watching Christmas movies together had been a long-standing tradition in the Carter household when the children were growing up in the 1990s . . . especially for our daughter and me. It began with the original 1947 version of Valentine Davies' Miracle on 34th Street, starring Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood. Then we'd watch Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.

But one Christmas story has grown beyond tradition to a season-long event, and that is the viewing of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol in as many versions as possible, starting with Albert Finney in Scrooge: The Musical (1970).

According to Darcy Oordt, author of The Haunted Internet, there have been "over 50 versions and that does not include foreign versions or television episodes." And over the years, it has become a seasonal pre-occupation to expand my collection of all things Ebenezer Scrooge.

There are two scenes in the story that vary to some degree between versions which I especially appreciate:

The Ghost of Christmas Past
What was the purpose of this spirit's ethereal visitation? One line, which varies between versions, especially intrigues me here. In Charles Dickens' original A Christmas Carol, Scrooge meets the unearthly visitor as the bell sounds One. When Scrooge inquires of the spirit what business brought him there, he answers:
Your welfare . . . . Your reclamation, then. Take heed.
(Stave 2: paragraphs 31-33)
In Scrooge: The Musical, the ghost, who is portrayed as an elderly female, the purpose beyond Scrooge's welfare is his redemption. My favorite retelling of this purpose, however, is found in The Muppet Christmas Carol where an ethereal, boyish child warns Scrooge that the purpose is his salvation.

 The Ghost of Christmas Future
 As far as I know, there is only one version that adds this scene, which was cut from many television broadcasts for commercial break, and that is the final part of this visitation by the ghastly specter of The Ghost of Christmas Future whom Dickens refers to as the Phantom. Albert Finney's portrayal of Scrooge shows him falling into his grave and awakening in the torments of HELL. The unexpected twist here, however, is that Scrooge must suffer the very deprivations he forced upon his clerk, Bob Cratchit. 

Bill Petro gives us an History of A Christmas Carol: A ghost story of Christmas in his blog Bridging the Gap Between Strategy to Execution. I would also recommend this book,  The Annotated Christmas Carol: A Christmas Carol in Prose which I hope to  add to my collection this season.
I hope you will explore some of the wonders of this story 
and take its message to heart in this Christmas Season!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Santa Claus

As a child, my mother taught me that if I was good, Santa Claus would visit our house on Christmas Eve night and fill my stocking with lots of goodies and leave presents under the tree. I would write a letter addressed  to Santa Claus, North Pole, and leave it in the mailbox. And on each Christmas Eve night, as I lay in bed half asleep, I could hear the sound of bells going down the hallway toward the place where our Christmas tree stood. 

I believed it was Santa . . . but if I had really analyzed the sounds, I would have realized that if Santa came down the chimney, he would've landed in the basement and walked up the stairs into the living room, rather than come through the trap door from the attic which was just outside my bedroom door. 

But as I grew older, my list grew longer, and I soon discovered quite by accident that if I didn't send Santa a letter, I received more than I would have asked for. That continued for several years, until one year I received a rude awakening. 

Years before, Gram Gram Silverman had comissioned a stocking to be knitted with a Jolly Old St. Nick, coming down the chimney. He had a white angora beard, and there were bells sewn around the top where my name had been knitted into the pattern, and a bell sewn to the stocking's toe. That year I awoke on Christmas Day morning, eager to look inside my stocking and open my gifts . . . but what I found had puzzled me

Inside the stocking was a chocolate Santa, an orange and some nuts. That was all. Then I looked at the gifts under the tree. The boxes with tags that had From: Santa printed on them were wrapped in identical paper as those with From: Dad & Mom written in cursive on them. 

"Mom," I asked, "why are the presents from Santa wrapped in the same paper that you used?"

"Santa Claus is poor this year," she said, "so we helped him out and let him use our gift wrap."

WHAT! How could Santa Claus be poor!? As I opened the presents that year, I found practical gifts like school supplies and socks and underwear. That was the worst, most disappointing Christmas I ever had! 

 As a young child, my husband had wondered about a white Santa Claus coming down a chimney (which his family didn't have) . . . or breaking in through a door or window . . . in an African-American neighborhood in the city. He didn't have a chance! 

So when our children were born, we decided to teach them about the real Saint Nicholas. Our treatment of Santa Claus changed from that of a magical, all-seeing rewarder of good behavior to that of the true historical figure, a man who had accepted the free gift of Salvation through Jesus Christ, who became a priest and sought to live a life worthy of the calling of Christ to make provision for the needy. And, at the foot of our Christmas tree we placed a figurine of a kneeling Santa, adoring the Christ child.                              The True Saint Nicholas

The lyrics of the song, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, state: 
He sees you when you're sleeping, 
He knows when you're awake. 
He knows when you've been bad or good, 
So be good for goodness sake!

I would much rather my children believe this eternal message: 

But without faith it is impossible to please him: 
for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, 
and that he is a rewarder of them 
that diligently seek him. 
Hebrews 11:6 (KJV)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories -- Christmas Food

Till the time I was five years old, my Grandma  Newton would send us a Christmas parcel which faithfully included the traditional tin of Crosse & Blackwell's English Style Brandied Plum Pudding. Christmas Pudding had been a tradition in Dad's household as a boy, his father's family being English farmers and his mother's Welsh coalminers. On Christmas night we would have steamed plum pudding with Grandma's hard sauce, which Mom would make strictly from the recipe, found in a handwritten letter in Mom's recipe tin.

I say the parcels came till I was five years old, because Grandma died tragically on October 19, 1966. She had already purchased and wrapped our gifts, and Grandpa mailed them off to us that December. Our tradition, however, continued all through my childhood.

When I went away to college, some friends wanted to share a Christmas dinner, and I was asked to prepare a traditional family dish. Of course, Christmas Pudding was our family's fondest tradition, so I made a plum pudding from scratch for the very first time that year.

Ever since I have made my homemade plum pudding with hard sauce . . . but I've changed it up a bit since those early days, and my hard sauce has become a little richer than Grandma's was. But here is the recipe I use today, ideally to be made the Sunday before Advent begins . . . but I've made it anywhere up to a week before Christmas Day.

The night before making your Christmas Plum Pudding, soak 1/8 c. each raisins and currants in 1/2 c. apricot brandy.

The next day: In a large bowl, sift together: 3/4 c. flour, 1/4 tsp. each baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon; and 1/8 tsp. each ginger, cloves and nutmeg. Add: the raisins mixture, 1/8 c. chopped walnuts, a little fresh grated orange & lemon zest, 1/4 c. each carrots, raw potato and apple. Stir in: 1/4 c. finely minced suet, 3/8 c. milk, 1/8 c. dark molasses, and one egg, beaten. Pour into a 1 1/2 quart greased pudding mold (I like to use Crisco shortening). If you don't have a pudding mold: pour into a medium-sized greased Pyrex bowl. In both instances: cover with several layers of waxed paper. If using a pudding mold, close the top and secure the fasteners; tie a double piece of butcher's twine to the ring of the mold. If using a bowl, cover and seal well with a double layer of heavy duty foil, crimp the edges firmly around the edge of the bowl and tie securely with butcher's twine. 

Place the pudding on a rack set in the bottom of a dutch oven. Carefully pour boiling water from a kettle two-thirds the up the side of the mold. Bring to a boil rapidly, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover with a lid and boil gently for 4 to 4 1/2 hours, adding more water as needed. Remove from the heat, cool. I like to take my pudding from the mold and tie it up in cheesecloth soaked in apricot brandy. Store in the refrigerator, adding brandy as it gets soaked into the pudding. 

My hard sauce is made by making a roux with 1/4 c. butter and 1/4 c. white flour, then gradually adding  eggnog till it's the desired consistency. I like mine quite thick. I then flavor with apricot brandy and nutmeg. The pudding is steamed in a double boiler before serving, and the hot hard sauce is poured over the top of each serving.

I hope you enjoy our family's tradition . . . 
                 a rich sweet to be savored but once a year.  


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories -- The Christmas Tree

The Carter Christmas Tree, 2003
Our family has always had an artificial tree. Allergies . . .

Over the years our family's Christmas tree took on various shapes and sizes. My first tree was given to me by my grandfather, Mark Silverman. The two-foot tree made of silver tinsel boughs came with small, blue, glass balls to hang on them . . . sort of a Hannukah bush.

When our first child was born in 1984, I ordered a four-foot tall artificial spruce tree from the JC Penney Catalog along with wooden ornaments. In 2003, our daughter asked, "Why is our tree so small?" Dad answered, "Because when we got it you were so small! We didn't want you to get overwhelmed by it." So that year we replaced it with this six-foot tree. After the death of our youngest child in 1990, we went to the Yankee Candle factory store in Deerfield, MA and each selected an ornament that reminded us of her, which are displayed on this tree along with some of the original ornaments.

Now that my husband and I have moved the nest from Western Massachusetts to Western North Carolina, we put up a Thomas Kinkade Nativity Tree in the living room. My husband first pulls the box out of his den closet, sets it down on the living room floor, and then places the tree on a stereo speaker. "Oh, I'm exhausted from that chore," he jokes. But the HO train set his father gave him as a boy still goes around the base of the tree . . . or should I say, around the base of the stereo speaker.

First Presbyterian Church, Galveston
When I was a child, though, the tree I always loved the best was the Chrismon Tree in our church sanctuary. There was always a Saturday Christmas Craft Day when children and adults would meet in the recreation hall to make giant pine cone Christmas trees, wreaths and a variety of ornaments. The following Sunday was the Hanging of the Greens service, and the Advent Wreath with its three purple candles, one pink and a white Christ candle in the center was displayed at the altar. The Chrismon Tree stood on the right side of the sanctuary by the choir loft.

The members of Women's Society of Christian Service (WSCS) at Vestal United Methodist Church, Vestal, NY had made ornaments called Chrismons by decorating symbols cut from styrofoam with pearls, glitter and gold beads. Each shape represented an aspect of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. At church the tree and the greens were real . . . the evergreen being a symbol of eternal life.