31 December 2010

31 December - New Year's Eve; 7th Day of Christmas

Weather:  The weather today foretells the weather of July.  Beautiful!  Sunny, clear, and warm!

If on New Year's Eve night the wind blow south,
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk, and fishes in the sea;
If north, much cold and storms there will be;
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If northeast, flee it, man and brute!

And if it has been calm all evening?

Yeah, not quite the number of candles needed.  Try multiplying by...
Today is my dear brother's birthday, and I wish him many more.  Happy Birthday, Mark!
To end the old year merrily, and begin the new year well and in friendship is the object of our celebration tonight.

Finish your projects, make sure your house is clean and in order, pay your debts, and make up any differences you have with others.  You want to start with a clean slate.

It is time to make resolutions for the new year.  If you have access to a fireplace or a bonfire, or even a small brazier outside, write down all of your bad habits - which of course you intend to give up - and throw the paper in the fire to rid yourself of their influence.  Then turn over a new leaf and start afresh tomorrow.

Open the front door at midnight to let the Old Year out and usher the New Year in.

To ensure 12 happy months in the coming year: at the stroke of midnight, eat 12 grapes (very lucky if you eat one at each stroke).  Then frighten away the powers of darkness with noise - ring the church bells, set off fireworks, honk the car horns...

Tonight is another fine night for fortune telling, by dropping a little melted lead into a bowl of cold water and deciphering the resultant shapes: a pig is good luck and plenty, a ring foretells a wedding, a plane or boat means travel, etc.

As for First-Footing...  the term refers to the first person to enter your house on New Year's Day (which starts at midnight).  There is no consensus about who brings the most luck.  In some places, a fair-haired man is lucky; a dark man is bad luck.  In others, a dark-haired man is lucky; a red-headed man is bad luck.  He must be a bachelor; his marital status doesn't matter.  However, under no circumstances should the first person to cross your threshold be a man with flat-feet or a squint, and certainly not a woman, no matter what her physical attractions.

The First-Footer should bring a gift, or at least something besides himself, into the house, for:

Take out and then take in, bad luck will begin.
Take in, then take out, good luck comes about.

Traditionally, the gift was a loaf of bread, a bottle of whiskey, or a shovelful of coals.  Of course, for bringing luck to your house, you must remember to reward him with liquor or small gratuities.

Some people have traditional dinners for this night, like the boiled cod with mustard sauce of the Danes, or the German carp or dried pea soup.  Our traditional dinner continued the theme of "Bad Habits Day", in which no one made even a pretense of eating healthy foods.  Each person chose his favorite - usually some type of fast-food - and we trooped out to pick up each one: pizza here, triple-decker burger and mega-fries there, Chinese take-out, fried chicken, fish-and-chips - whatever suited the individual palate.

And then we solemnly resolved that even if we couldn't quite give them up in the coming year, they would be rarely seen.

[Well, we always meant to keep that resolution anyway.]

In the name of the Lord
The Old Year goes out the door.
This is my wish for each of you:
Peace forever, and praise to God, our Lord.

Happiness, good luck, and blessing to you all.

30 December 2010

30 December - Saint Anysia; 6th Day of Christmas; Moussaka

Weather: the weather today foretells the weather of June.  Clear, bright sunshine, a few clouds, and getting warmer.

Okay, lest anyone think that only men are hailed as martyrs and heroes of the Church, today we celebrate the feast of Saint Alysia of Thessaloniki (or Salonika) (c. 304).

She was a young Christian woman of good family, who took private vows of poverty and chastity, and used the money left to her by her parents in alms to help the poor and needy.  One day, as she made her way to a gathering of Christians, a soldier accosted her and demanded where she was going.  Frightened, she stepped backwards and made the sign of the Cross [a dead giveaway].

The soldier tried to drag her away to a pagan sacrifice, but she resisted so strongly in spite of his abuse, that in a rage he drew his sword and killed her.
For Saint Alysia's Day, have a Greek dinner.  MOUSSAKA is an easy dish to make.

Heat oil in a deep-fat fryer.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Finely chop 2 onions; mince 2 cloves of garlic. Reserve.

Peel 1-1/2 pounds of potatoes; slice into 1/4 inch slices (lengthwise or cross-wise, either one).  Fry in hot oil until golden brown.  Drain on paper towels.  Arrange half of the potatoes on the bottom of a rectangular casserole.

In a large skillet, saute the onion in 1/4 cup of olive oil until soft.  Remove onion with a slotted spoon to a bowl.  Crumble 1 pound of ground beef into the skillet and cook, stirring, until no longer pink.  Add the onions, garlic, an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce, 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste.  Pour meat mixture over the potato layer in the casserole.  Layer the remaining potato slices over the meat.

In a bowl, beat 2 eggs lightly and add 1 cup of milk.  Pour over potato layer.  Sprinkle with 1/3 cup of grated kefaloteri cheese (if you can find it; Pecorino Romano or Parmesan if you can't).

Bake for 45 minutes and serve, cut into squares.

29 December 2010

29 December - St. Thomas of Canterbury; 5th Day of Christmas; Shepherd's Pie

Weather: the weather today foretells the weather of May.
Brilliant sunshine this morning; overcast and chilly in the afternoon.
"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?!"

Today is the optional memorial of Saint Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, the most popular of the English saints (until he was stricken from the prayer book and his shrine despoiled by Henry VIII).

His story is well known: a boon companion and Lord Chancellor of Henry II who loaded him with honors, including the Archbishopric of Canterbury, the premier position in the prelature of England.  And then...  Almost overnight, the entertaining friend became a serious and ascetic priest, standing up for the rights of the Church against his king.

A subsequent author saw in him an early champion of English liberty:
"We need no longer look at the great prelate through the spectacles of his posthumous Protestant opponents.  With all its faults, the Church of Becket's day was the only possible helper of the people.  The Bishop of Rome was just then a less dangerous shepherd than Henry, the Angevin king.  Becket may not have become consciously a champion of the people when he turned an opponent of the king, nevertheless he proved a mighty agent in winning that long battle for English liberty..." Walsh, William S., Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities, p. 926.

Heads of state don't like to be reminded where they stand in the true hierarchy, and Henry was no different (any more than his namesake six Henrys later).  Supposedly, in a fit of pique, he wondered out loud why the Archbishop was still allowed to thwart him - "are there none who will relieve me of this upstart priest?"; four knights took that to mean that their king wanted Becket dead.  They obliged.

You can read a detailed account of Becket's murder here. 

To continue with Walsh:
"The news filled all Christendom with horror.  King Henry, in sackcloth and ashes, bewailed the crime which he had unwittingly instigated.  "He shut himself up three days in his closet," says good Bishop Butler, "taking almost no nourishment and admitting no comfort, and for forty days never went abroad, never had his table or any diversions as usual, having always before his eyes the death of the holy prelate.  He not only wept, but howled and cried out in the excess of his grief."  He assured the Pope of his absolute innocence in intention.  He voluntarily made all the concessions which St. Thomas had demanded.  The martyr was canonized two years after his death by Alexander III, and there was an immediate outbreak of miracles at his shrine, which long continued to be the most popular pilgrimage place in England, while his cult spread rapidly throughout every country in Europe."

"Among the first of these pilgrims came Henry II. to do a second penance in expiation of his unwitting crime and sacrilege.  After having lived upon bread and water for some days, and after walking barefooted to the cathedral, he knelt in the transept, where the martyrdom had occurred, and then in the crypt, where Becket's tomb then was.  Upon this he bowed his head, and, his lower garments having been removed, the King of England, a Plantagenet, received five strokes from the rod of each bishop and abbot who was present, and three from each of the eighty monks!  After this he stood the whole night barefooted upon the ground, resting only against one of the rude stone pillars of the crypt."
Saint Thomas was a Shepherd of the Church, one who defended his flock with his life.  So today is a good day to make SHEPHERD'S PIE

I like to make mine with ground beef - there is usually some on hand - but purists will tell you that it is made with ground or cut-up lamb ("well, it's a SHEPHERD'S pie, d'uh!").  So it is, but I have never understood the economics of eating one's profits.  Makes better sense to dine off someone else's animal.  Of course, paying for that animal when you already have a meat-pie-on-the-hoof in your own flock is probably not good economic sense either.  Well, you make the choice.  Here is a recipe with ground beef.

Boil 3 - 4 large potatoes (or however many are needed to make 3 cups of mashed potatoes.) Mash and season as desired (I always mash them with milk and butter and stir in a teaspoon or two of Seasoning Salt).

Chop 1 onion to make 3/4 of a cup.  If you have fresh carrots, thinly slice enough for 1 cup.  Thaw a 10 ounce package of frozen peas (or a box of mixed vegetables).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter; add the onion and saute for about 5 minutes. Crumble 1-1/2 pounds of ground beef into the skillet, and saute for 5 minutes more.  Stir in 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 cup of water, and if you have the carrots, add them now. (If you haven't thawed the frozen veg, just add them now as well.)

Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce heat.  Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Blend 1 tablespoon of flour with 1-1/2 tablespoons of Worcestershire; stir this into meat mixture.  Add the thawed peas (if you haven't already), cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour mixture into a 2-quart casserole.  Cover with the mashed potatoes, making lengthwise and crosswise markings on top with a fork.  Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes.

28 December 2010

28 December - Holy Innocents; 4th Day of Christmas

Weather: the weather today indicates the weather of April.
Bright, sunny, cold.

If it be lowering and wet on Childermas Day, there will be scarcity; while if the day be fair, it promises plenty.  Well, thank heavens for that.  The day be fair.  What plenty does it promise? ("Oh, I've got plenty of nothin', and nothin's plenty for me...")
Lully, Lullay, thou little child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lully, thou little tiny child
By, by, lully, lullay

(There are more Carols and Poems for the Holy Innocents here, with three versions of the Coventry Carol.)

Today, in the midst of Christmas celebrations, we mourn the slaughter of the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem, as ordered by King Herod.

[After the kids have opened and played with every possible present in Christendom, and then suddenly announce that they're booooored, there's nothing to dooooooo - am I the only one who suggests that we play Bible stories - I'll be Herod and they can be the Holy Innocents?]

Traditionally, this is the unluckiest day in the calendar.  It is not a good day to start any new undertaking, like getting married, or getting a head start on your New Year's Resolutions, or trying a new recipe, or wearing new clothes.  To some, the actual weekday that it fell on was considered unlucky throughout the following year - to the extant that not only would they not start a journey, or any of the above activities, they would not even take a bath that day.

[Sounds like something our own Innocents would pull.  What next?  No doing chores or homework, going to school, getting out of bed on Tuesdays... because Holy Innocents fell on a Tuesday?  Hop right into that bathtub, youngster!]

Another tradition was to whip the children first thing in the morning as they lay in bed, to remind them of the grievousness of this day.  Of course, the remedy for that (and children are smart; they do think of remedies) is for the children to get out of bed first, before the parents are awake.  With time, the tradition changed to whipping the last person found lying in bed, which must have made for a pretty mad scramble in the morning.

For all its unluckiness, this was also a day of children, in which they pulled pranks on their parents and other adults in the house, like stealing the house-keys (in the days when rooms and closets had key locks) and locking a parent in a closet, until they received a promised forfeit of a cookie or a little money [yes, we call it extortion. Why do you ask?]

In honor of today, let the children choose the menu and the activities. [It's only one day.  You will survive.  And who knows?  You might even like tacos or peanut-butter-and-jelly three times a day, and endless viewings of 'The Fairies Rescue Christmas'.]

Of course, it might also make you think that Herod had the right idea.

27 December 2010

27 December - Saint John the Evangelist; 3rd Day of Christmas

Weather: The weather today foretells the weather of March.
Snow covers the ground; high winds toss the tops of the trees (and make very high drifts).
Today is the feast of Saint John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, author of the 4th Gospel, three Epistles, and the Book of Revelations.  As Stephen represents those who are martyrs in will - that is, who offer their lives for their Lord - and in deed - they are killed for His sake, John represents those who are martyrs in will, but not deed.  However, it wasn't for want of trying on the part of the usual suspects.

John and his brother James were sons of Zebedee, and fishermen like their father.  Having followed John the Baptist for a time, both were called by Christ to be his disciples.  John seems to have been in the very thick of things, being one of the three who witnessed the Transfiguration, and who accompanied Christ to the Garden of Gethsemane.  He remained at the foot of the Cross, when everyone else had hidden themselves, and received the care of Our Lady from her Son.

[I've often wondered if he was trying to live down his mother's public request that her sons sit on the right and left of Our Lord in His Kingdom.  It didn't make either he or James popular with the other Ten.]

Tradition says that he remained at Jerusalem until the death of the Virgin Mary, then set out and preached the gospel throughout Asia Minor, with a home-base at Ephesus.  During the persecution under Domitian, he is said to have been taken to Rome, and plunged into a vat of boiling oil.  Miraculously, he received no injury and continued preaching.  The Emperor ordered him to drink a cup of poisoned wine, which he did so, after making the Sign of the Cross over it, and again - no effect.  He was sent to the mines of Patmos, but upon the accession of Nerva, he was released and returned to Ephesus, where he died at age 94.

The tradition, based on his encounter with the poisoned cup, is that drinking blest wine would be a sure protection against poisoning.  Well, that is as may be.  I, for one, am not going to put it to the test. Still, it is a good day to toast the good saint with a glass of good wine.  There is a blessing for the wine- called Saint John's Love - here, and a nice recipe for Mulled Wine here.

And for dinner tonight?  In honor of Saint John's bath in boiling oil, it should be something fried.  Fish and chips, butterfly shrimp, chicken-fried steak (or forget the steak, just fry the chicken), that lovely Quebec dish called 'Poutine', or the Portuguese dish Bacalhau a Bras.

And perhaps a blessing over it to keep it from clogging the arteries.

26 December 2010

26 December - St. Stephen; 2nd Day of Christmas; Dublin Rock

Weather: The weather on the last Sunday of the month indicates the weather for the next month.
Weather today foretells the weather of February.
SNOW!  And not just a little snow.  Nope, a blizzard today, with about a foot of SNOW. 

If Saint Stephen's Day is windy, it betokens ill for next year's grapes.
Well, strong gusts, but not sustained, so there is hope for next year's grape harvest.
Today is the feast of the first martyr of the Church, Saint Stephen the Deacon.

"And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Ghost..." (Acts 6:5) as one of seven men to minister not only in word but in the administration of church funds and in care for the needy, leaving the apostles to preach and make disciples as they had been bidden.

His ministry seems to have been among the Greek (Hellenist) Jews, and his arguments and logic were so successful in converting many, that men beaten in a dispute with him determined to destroy him.  This they did by false witness, accusing and condemning him of blasphemy; he was taken outside the walls of Jerusalem and stoned to death, in accordance with the Law of Moses.  The dying saint prayed for the Lord to forgive his murderers, and at the end said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit".

The Golden Legend relates several miracles attributed to Saint Stephen, and Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira provides a commentary on each of the steps leading to the saint's murder.  
Among his patronage:  To relieve headaches (that makes sense); patron of deacons and of stonemasons (that also makes sense).  And then he is the patron of horses and of coffin-makers.  Why?

As Stephen was stoned to death, a suitable dessert for today would be Rock Cakes, and there are recipes online which are more gentle on the dentures and digestion than the name (and a one-time experience on my part) would suggest; instead, however, here is a confection called DUBLIN ROCK:

Beat 2 eggs whites until stiff.  Whip 1-2/3 cup of heavy cream (it doesn't have to be stiff.  I used whipped cream - the real stuff, not 'dessert topping'.)

Cream together 1/3 cup of unsalted butter and 1/2 cup of powdered sugar.  Add the whipped cream.  Gently fold in 1 cup of ground almonds.  Add a few drops of orange flower water and 1 tablespoon of brandy.  Stir in the beaten egg whites until well incorporated.

Pour the mixture into a dish and refrigerate until set (this may take overnight).  Remove and break the mixture into pieces (some people utilize a couple of forks to help the process), which will be rough and look like rocks.  Pile the pieces on a platter.  Decorate as you might a Buche de Noel, with green-tinted coconut or angelica to resemble grass, and ground or chopped pistachios to resemble lichen (and a little squiggle of green gel frosting to resemble a snake returning to its lair, or a couple of yellow saurian eyes peeking out from the hole under a rock.  Ooo, she says, warming to her theme, what about gummy worms in the pile?).

And then enjoy.
In the good old days, the village idiots boys would capture a wren today and parade around town with the poor thing in a cage.  Then they would kill it.  The village idiots are as stupid as their name suggests.  Wrens are very useful birds, who like to eat insects and spiders in great numbers, and have condescended to eat birdseed in winter in my backyard, before attacking their preferred diet.

If you must capture a wren, please do it on film.  And for them and their equally voracious feathered brethren, put out birdseed, lots of it, and suet if you can.  You may find a lot less garden pests, mosquitoes, and spiders next year, in gratitude.
This is also the day that Good King Wenceslas looked out and espied a poor man "when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even".  A good day to give food to your local pantry, homeless shelter, women's shelter, or Saint Vincent de Paul society.

As the blessed saint asked his page to "Bring me food and bring me wine, bring me firing hither...", you might also make a donation to your local utility to help heat someone's house this winter.  Our utilities include a little yellow envelope labeled "Warm Thy Neighbor" with their paper invoices.  If you pay your bills online, see if they have a place for donations.

And God bless you for your charity.

25 December 2010

25 December - Christmas Day; the First Day of Christmas; Tourtiere

Weather: Weather today betokens the weather for January.
Started out clear and sunny, then overcast and chilly the rest of the day.

Some weather prognostications for each month in the coming year based themselves on the 12 Days of Christmas.  Others went by the weather on the first 12 days in January.  I keep track of both, which means that the weather on January 1 will be for August and January.  Don't ask me how.

A warm Christmas, a cold Easter
A green Christmas, a white Easter
Christmas in snow, Easter in wind

[Doesn't look like Easter has a chance of being warm and sunny!]

If it rains in the twelve days of Christmas, the coming year will also be wet.
The following good old English Christmas Carol is preserved in Poor Robin's Almanack, for 1695.
(Note: the author is not referring to those unfortunates who have no victuals for their Christmas tables, but those those miserly, Scrooge-like types who not only refuse to keep a good table, but also are stingy when it comes to sharing Christmas cheer with their neighbors.)

"Now thrice-welcome, Christmas, which brings us good cheer,
Minced pies and plum-porridge, good ale and strong beer;
With pig, goose, and capon, the best that may be,
So well doth the weather and our stomachs agree.
Observe how the chimneys do smoke all about,
The cooks are providing for dinner no doubt!

But those on whose tables no victuals appear,
O may they keep Lent all the rest of the year!

With holly and ivy so green and so gay;
We deck up our houses as fresh as the day
With bays and rosemary, and laurel complete,
And every one now is a king in conceit.

But as for curmudgeons, who will not be free,
I wish they may die on the three-legged tree!"

[and so say all of us...]
Well, for Christmas dinner this year, I am eschewing the usual turkey and instead enjoying a French meat pie, called a TOURTIERE.

There are lots of different recipes for this - it is, after all, one of the glorious Peasant Dishes, which are based on What Is Available, and not on exotic ingredients which can only be sold in specialty stores under cover of darkness to those with the correct credentials.

["Are you a famous chef with your own TV show?  No?  Be off with you!"]

So the meats can be beef, pork, chicken, veal, or game, (or a combination); the seasonings can be savory like thyme and sage, or sweet like cinnamon, cloves, mace, and allspice (or a combination); potatoes cubed or mashed; breadcrumbs or crushed saltines (or not); saute the whole mess, boil the whole mess, saute and then boil the whole mess; cook for 5 minutes, cook for an hour...

And then the pastry... Deep-dish pie or rectangular envelope?  I won't even get into the different flavors of pastry.  From the number of recipes online, one could have a different Tourtiere every day of the 12 Days (and then some.)

This is the one I shall be trying on Christmas Day:

Line a pie plate with pastry (yes, I'm going for the Deep-Dish Pie this time).
Boil 1 large or 2 medium potatoes (or whatever it takes to make 1 cup mashed), mash, and reserve.
Mince 1 large onion and 1 clove of garlic.

In a large skillet (with a lid) combine 1 pound of ground beef, 1/2 pound of ground pork, the onion, garlic, mashed potatoes, 1/2 teaspoon EACH of salt, celery salt, and thyme, 1/4 teaspoon EACH of pepper and ground sage, and 1/8 teaspoon of ground cloves.  Add 1/2 cup of water.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat.  Cover and simmer for 1 hour.  Remove cover and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs (to soak up any oil); let the mixture sit until cool.

Fill the pastry-lined pie plate; cover with a top crust.  Seal and flute edges; cut slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.  Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30-35 minutes or until done.
This, of course, will be followed by the first of my Mince Pies, for which I made enough mincemeat back in November (and it has been mellowing in its brandy and rum bath since then).

As the saying goes, "As many mince pies as you taste at Christmas, so many happy months will you have" or "If you eat a mince pie every day from Christmas to Twelfth Night, you will be happy all year long."  Since eating a whole mince pie every day would put me right off mince for the rest of my life (or until my taste-buds forgot), I make miniature pies in a tartlet pan, which are very good with tea in the afternoon.
Christmas falling on a Saturday betokens no good at all to anyone!

Yf Crystmas on the Saterday falle,
That wynter ys to be dredden alle,
Hyt shalbe so fulle of grete tempeste,
That hyt shall sle bothe man and beste,
Frute and corne shall fayle grete won,
And olde folke dyen many on;
Whate woman that day of chylde travayle,
They shalbe borne in grete perelle;
And chyldren that be borne that day,
Within halfe a yere they shall dye, par fay.
The somer then shall wete ryghte ylle:
If thou awght stele, hyt shal the spylle;
Thou dyest yf sekenes take thee.

If Christmas falls on Saturday,
That winter is to be dreaded.
It shall be so full of great tempests
That it shall slay both man and beast.
Fruit and corn shall fail greatly,
And many old people die.
The woman who gives birth that day
Shall do so in great peril,
And children born that day
Will die with half a year.
The summer will be ill,
And if you become sick, you will die.

So comforting...

I'm going back to my Mince Pie and Hot-Buttered Rum.  Merry Christmas, y'all.

24 December 2010

24 December - Christmas Eve

The greenery for Christmas is brought in today - only holly and mistletoe can enter the house (ivy is relegated to decorate the outside pillars), and they can only be brought into the house by men, otherwise bad luck will follow.  [There is no mention of when or by whom Christmas trees and wreaths can be brought in.]

The Yule Log is also brought in this night, and lit with a piece saved from last year's log.  Traditionally, servants were allowed to have ale with their meals as long as the Yule Log lasted, so you know they found and brought in the LARGEST log possible!

The animals are given the power of speech at midnight, but do not stay around to listen to them!  To do so is to invite disaster.

Also, if you have a barn, and are of Scandinavian descent, don't forget to leave a nice helping of the rice-pudding from tonight's supper for the Jultomten or Jule-nisse, the red-capped gnome who lives in the hayloft, and looks after the welfare of the farm and household.

Here is a charming custom found in "Sharpe's London Magazine of December 19, 1846":
"Our space will not allow of our descanting upon such Continental customs as appertain to the vigil of the Nativity: one, however, peculiar to Germany, is of too interesting a nature to be passed over without mention.  The children make little presents to their parents, and to each other, and the parents to their children. For three or four months before Christmas the girls are all busy; and the boys save their pocket-money to make or purchase these presents.  

Then, on the evening before Christmas-Day, one of the parlours, into which the parents must not go, is lighted up by the children.  A great bough of yew or birch is fastened on the table, at a little distance from the wall; a multitude of little tapers are fixed on the bough, but not so as to burn it till they are nearly consumed; and coloured paper, &e. hangs and flutters from the twigs.  Under this bough the children lay out, in great order, the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder, one by one, from their pockets, and present them, with kisses and embraces. 

On the next day, in the great parlour, the parents lay on the table the gifts for the children. A scene of sober joy succeeds; as, on this day, after an old custom, the mother tells privately to each of her daughters, and the father to his sons, that which he has observed most praiseworthy, and that which was most faulty, in their conduct."

In many countries, this is the night of celebration, rather than tomorrow.  Church services are early in the evening, followed by a sumptuous supper of traditional dishes.  Then the presents are handed out and opened, and after games and music, the coffee tray appears with cakes and sandwiches.  Christmas Day will be spent quietly with friends and family, wishing all the joy of the season.

For others, this is a fast day until sundown;  the festival dinner and family parties may be held before Midnight Mass, or after, and the parties may go on until dawn. 

Whether you celebrate tonight, or wait until tomorrow, I wish you all a Merry Christmas.

And to all, a Good Night...

23 December 2010

23 December - O Emmanuel; Hansel and Gretel; Gingerbread People

The final antiphon of the Golden Nights is O Emmanuel (O God With Us):

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum; veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver,
Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof,
Come to save us O Lord our God!

The opera "Hansel und Gretel" was first performed today in 1893, in Weimar (Germany).  The music was composed by Engelbert Humperdinck (the original of that name), and the libretto was written by his sister, Adelheid Wette, from songs that she had written for her own children.

Possibly the most well-known song from the opera is the "Abendsegen" or Evening Prayer, which the children sing as they fall asleep in the woods.  These are the words that I learned:

When at night I go to sleep, fourteen angels watch do keep,
Two my head are guarding, two my feet are guiding,
Two are on my right hand, two are on my left hand,
Two who warmly cover, two who o'er me hover,
Two to whom 'tis given to guide my steps to heaven.

Yeah, it's hard not to sing along.

What would be more appropriate today than to make GINGERBREAD PEOPLE?  Except possibly a Gingerbread House, and if you want to attempt that, there are several sites online with good recipes and instructions - this one here at About.com is easily followed.

In a large bowl mix together 1-1/2 cups of dark molasses, 1 cup of packed brown sugar, 2/3 cup of cold water, and 1/3 cup of shortening.

In a smaller bowl, sift together 7 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons EACH of baking soda and ground ginger, and 1 teaspoon EACH of salt, ground allspice, ground cloves, and ground cinnamon.  Add this to the molasses mixture about a cup at a time, stirring each addition until just incorporated.  Divide dough in half, wrap each half in wax paper or plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease cookie sheets.

On a floured board, roll out one half of the chilled dough to 1/4 inch thick (leave the other in the refrigerator until needed).  Cut out shapes with cookie cutters (dipping the cutters in flour will make it easier to release the cut-out dough).  Place about 2 inches apart on cookie sheets.  If you are going to use raisins, currants, chocolate chips, or other chocolate candies, now is the time to put them in place.  Re-roll the scraps and cut out as you can [when the scraps are not enough for another figure, I do a little free-hand cutting and make squares (to be decorated and attached as 'Christmas presents'), hats, purses, angels' wings, or the initials of the cook's helper(s).]  Repeat with the other half of the dough.

Bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until there is no indentation when pressed.  Cool and decorate.  You can make your own decorators' frosting by mixing 2 cups of powdered sugar with enough water - about 2 to 3 tablespoons - to make it thin enough to use in a decorators' tube, but thick enough to hold its shape.  Divide and color as needed with a drop or two of food coloring.  I prefer to buy the frosting ready-made, in those tubes with a bunch of different nozzles.  Accessories and candies can be attached with a dab of frosting.

22 December 2010

22 December - O Rex Gentium; Christmas Traditions

The antiphon today is O Rex Gentium (O King of the Gentiles)

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. 

O King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! 
O Corner-stone, that makest of two one, 
come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth! 
Many, many moons ago, I found an article titled "Christmas Lore and Legend Around the World".  No idea out of what magazine I tore the page 40 years ago (has it been that long?), but it is still in my Christmas binder, and herewith I post the contents which pertain to Christmas: 

Through the centuries, wherever Christmas is celebrated, each country has inherited its own ancient customs and beliefs - their origins lost in history, but fascinating and often charming to look back on today.  How many of these do you recognize and remember?

* IN SCANDINAVIA, families place all their shoes together on Christmas Day, to insure that they live in harmony throughout the New Year.

* IN DENMARK, some of the bread baked at Christmas is saved until sowing time, then crumbled and mixed with the seed to insure an abundant harvest.

* IN MANY PARTS OF ENGLAND, it is said that bread baked on Christmas Day will never get moldy.  Elsewhere, it is believed that ashes must never be thrown out on Christmas Day for fear they will be thrown in the Savior's face.  Never give fire, matches or light to be taken from the house on Christmas, or trouble will surely follow.  No gift of leather at Christmas will be durable, and wearing new shoes on Christmas brings bad luck.  The young girl who prays to St. Thomas on Christmas Eve with a sprig of holly under her pillow soon finds her true love [beats sleeping with an onion under your pillow on St. Thomas Eve].

* IN THE ANCIENT DUCHY OF SWABIA, girls went to the woodpile on Christmas Eve to draw sticks.  If a girl drew a long one, her future husband would be tall; if a thick one, stout; if a crooked one, he would be deformed.  Hot lead dropped into cold water foretold his occupation; the resulting shape resembled the tools of his trade, as a hammer shape would signify a carpenter and a shoe shape, a cobbler.  Girls formed a circle and let loose a blindfolded goose among them; the girl to whom it went first would be the first bride [have you ever tried to blindfold a goose?  They bite, you know, and I don't think any self-respecting honker is going to be blindfolded without a fight.  And then she's going to be pretty darn mad.  That is one brave circle of girls!].

IN IRELAND, it is believed that the gates of Paradise are always open on Christmas Eve, and no one dying then need enter Purgatory.  An Irish maiden may find her true love by taking four onions on Christmas Day, naming each after a man she knows and placing one in each corner of the room.  The one that first throws a shoot will be named for her future husband.  Never launder a Christmas present before giving it, as this washes out all the good luck.

* IN SPAIN, cows must be treated with special kindness on Christmas because cattle breathed upon the Christ Child and kept him warm.  A washcloth used on Christmas Day to groom the horses will make them grow fat.

* IN ARMENIA, seven is a lucky number for the holiday feast.  Seven kinds of fruit are served, seven kinds of nuts, seven dishes, and water brought at dawn from seven different fountains.

* IN THE NETHERLANDS, it is thought that nothing sown on Christmas Eve will perish, even though the seed be sown in the snow.  Eating a raw egg on Christmas morning gives strength to carry the heaviest weights.  To pick apples or nuts from the ground on Christmas will bring sores.  Take 12 pieces of onion on Christmas Eve.  Put salt on each and give each the name of a month.  The months on which the salt is found wet on Christmas morning will be wet in the New Year, and the others dry.

* IN BOHEMIA, if a wife burns a Christmas cake, she believes she will die within a year.

* IN SWITZERLAND, for a girl to accept a sprig of edelweiss on Christmas is to accept the man who proffers it.

* AND EVERYWHERE, to be filled with age-old spirit of Christmas is to bring happiness and joy to those around us, and the eternal hope of Peace on Earth, good will to men.

21 December 2010

21 December - Saint Thomas the Apostle; O Oriens; Ursid Meteor Shower

Astronomy: Tonight is the Cold Moon, and very well named, because if it is visible, you can be sure the night is very, very cold.

However, the full moon will probably make viewing the Ursid Meteor Shower nearly impossible.  Peak is tonight (actually tomorrow morning, the 22nd, and again on the 23rd) between midnight and dawn.  Look between north and northeast for the Big Dipper - the radiant will be between it and the North Star.

Also, this is the Winter Solstice.  The sun is returning!
Weather: As the wind and weather at the solstice, so they will be for the next three months.
Overcast for most of the day and then - merciful heavens!  Is that snow?

A frost beginning on Saint Thomas's Day will last for three months. No frost, just snow.  I don't want snow to last for three months.
Today the antiphon is O Oriens (O Dayspring or Radiant Dawn), when we pray again to be lifted out of the darkness.

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis

O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Son of justice, 
come to give light to them that sit in darkness 
and in the shadow of death.

In the Old Calendar, this is the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, the Doubting Thomas (now moved to 3 July.  The ways of the calendar makers are indeed mysterious.)

He it was who would not believe in his Lord's resurrection, until he placed his fingers in the nail-holes and in the wound made by the soldier's spear. And he it was who was reproved by Our Lord: "Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed" (John 20:29).  But he it was also who made the simple profession of faith: "My Lord and My God".

Doubting Thomas is the saint for this world, because it demands proof.  Strangely enough, however, it only demands proof of the existence of God, and accepts everything else because, well, you know, computers don't lie, and if a computer model can be manipulated to show global warming or cooling or imminent destruction, well that's PROOF!  And if a doctor of whatever mental attainments publishes a book of his fantasies and calls it modern sexuality, that's PROOF!  And if all science determines that certain people are not allowed to live, because they are inconvenient, well, what more PROOF do you need in order to kill them?
This was a day when farmers would go around their farmyard, sprinkling holy water and asking Our Lord's protection on all they owned, while family and servants gathered to recite the Rosary.  We can do the same, placing our house and holdings under His protection.

One of the customs of today is going 'a-Thomasing', also called 'a-mumping' or 'a-gooding', which was going from house to house begging for money or food to furnish the Christmas table.  Usually, the mumpers were poor widows or single women, sometimes children, sometime people who would not beg at any other time of the year.  Instead of money, they might receive a dole of wheat with which to make a frumenty.

Well-a-day, well-a-day, St. Thomas goes too soon away,
Then your gooding we do pray, for the good time will not stay.
St. Thomas grey, St. Thomas grey, the longest night and the shortest day,
Please to remember St. Thomas Day.

You can carry on this tradition to 'furnish a Christmas table', by making a contribution to a women's shelter, foster children's program, orphanage, soup kitchen, or parish St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Which is a sight more useful than demanding PROOF that God loves a cheerful giver.

20 December 2010

20 December - O Clavis David; St. Thomas Eve; Moon Eclipse; Bachelor Tax

Astronomy: Tonight (actually tomorrow morning) is a total eclipse of the Moon, which will be fully visible from North America (also South America, the islands of the Pacific, Greenland, northwestern Europe and northwestern Africa).  Tomorrow evening, it will be visible in Northeast Asia, the Philippines, eastern Indonesia, eastern Australia and New Zealand.

For watchers on the East Coast, the Moon enters penumbra at 1:33 am EST and exits at 5:01 am EST.  The totality phase starts at 2:41 am EST and ends at 3:53 am EST.  Yep, for a little over an hour, the moon disappears.

According to EarthSky, this is the northernmost total lunar eclipse for several centuries, and won't be seen again this far north on the sky's dome until this day in 2485.

See their page here for start and end times in the U. S. and in Universal Time.
The antiphon today is O Clavis David (O Key of David), our plea to be liberated from the prison of our sins.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.  

O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, 
that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, 
come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, 
and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death. 

Tomorrow being the feast of Saint Thomas, today is celebrated as Saint Thomas Eve.

And for tonight, there are two love charms:

To see a vision of your loved one, peel a large red onion, and stick nine pins into it.  Then say:

"Good Saint Thomas, do me right
Send me my true love this night,
In his clothes and his array,
Which he weareth every day."

Then place the onion under your pillow.  You should dream of your true love.  [If your mom wants to know who has been getting into her sewing basket, or what happened to the onion that was slated for tonight's hamburgers, tell her they were used in a Good Cause]  Good luck.

An older charm says to "take an onion, pare it, and lay it in a clean handkerchief under your pillow [make it a sweet onion, if you want to sleep].  Put on a clean smock [or in our day, a nightgown], and as you lie down, lay your arms abroad, and say these words:

"Good Saint Thomas, do me right
And bring to me my love this night,
That I may view him in the face,
And in my arms may him embrace."

Then lying on thy back with thy arms abroad, go to sleep as soon as possible, and in your first sleep, you shall dream of him who is to be your husband, and he will come and offer to kiss you."  [And that better be all he offers, at least until you get to the altar!  Of course, if he finds out that you sleep with onions under your pillow, you might not get that far.]
Even more helpful to the cause of getting a husband was Missouri's Bachelor Tax, which was enacted on this day in 1820, and levied $1 per year on all unmarried white males between the ages of twenty-one and fifty. 

"Men far outnumbered women in early Missouri, and the legislators apparently enacted this legislation in the belief that it would encourage marriage, the family, and social stability and also would ensure that the footloose single male populace would contribute its share to the general welfare."
William E. Foley, The Genesis of Missouri: from Wilderness Outpost to Statehood, p. 287.

Not paying the tax could result in jail-time; I can just picture the carefree bachelor trying to decide which ball-and-chain would be preferable.

19 December 2010

19 December - O Radix Jesse; Valley Forge and Pepper Pot Soup

The antiphon today is "O Radix Jesse" (O Root of Jesse), where we pray, with more than a little impatience, for our ruler and guide to come to us. 

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, 
at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, 
come to deliver us, do not tarry.
In 1777, General George Washington led his weary troops of the Continental Army to their winter quarters in the easily defended area of Valley Forge in eastern Pennsylvania, close enough to Philadelphia to harry the British troops who had captured the city, far enough to prevent any surprise attacks, and between Philadelphia and York, where the Continental Congress had fled.  The Army would remain there until June 1778.  In between, they drilled under Baron von Steuben into a honed fighting force, and welcomed the alliance with the French, which added more troops and ships to their number.
From the Valley Forge National Historic Park site:
Few places evoke the spirit of patriotism and independence, represent individual and collective sacrifice, or demonstrate the resolve, tenacity and determination of the people of the United States to be free as does Valley Forge. The historic landscapes, structures, objects, and archeological and natural resources at Valley Forge are tangible links to one of the most defining events in our nation's history. Here the Continental Army under Washington's leadership emerged as a cohesive and disciplined fighting force. The Valley Forge experience is fundamental to both American history and American myth, and remains a source of inspiration for Americans and the world.
Scroll down the Valley Forge NHP page to read about the men (and women) of the Continental Army, and how they fared that winter.  The traditional vision of ragged, starving, dying men will recede a little, and give you a better understanding about the significance of this 3rd of eight winter encampments. 
One of my ancestors, John Collier, rejoined his company in the 7th Virginia Regiment at Valley Forge in February of 1778.  This is what was written about him in one of the family histories: "Whenever John Collier noticed that his children or grandchildren showed the least indication of wastefulness, he at once would reprimand them, telling them of the suffering at Valley Forge, how he had seen soldiers fight for a kernel of corn; how he and others lacked shoes and socks to keep their feet warm, and as they walked in the snow, would leave the marks of blood from their tender, frost-bitten feet; how some of the soldiers had so little clothing that, when they stepped out of their huts, they had to throw their bedding around them..."

[Sounds a lot like the traditional admonishment: "When I was your age, I walked 5 miles to school, in 10 feet of snow, uphill both ways... and I was grateful!" Nothing has changed.]

Legend has it that PHILADELPHIA PEPPER POT SOUP was first made there in Valley Forge to lift the flagging spirits of the dispirited soldiers. As the story is told and retold, each time with a little change here and addition there, morale was low and desertions frequent.  General Washington ordered the mess cook to make something that would cheer his troops.  There being nothing to hand but some tripe, peppercorns, and meat scraps, the cook used them to produce a hot, filling soup, naming it after his hometown.  The next 'history' of the soup that you read will explain very carefully that Pepper Pot is part of African cuisine, which arrived here via the West Indies (with strong hints that no white person from the northern colonies could possibly create a separate version), and the next story after that will state unequivocally that the mess cook was West Indian.  That's how legends are born.

Be that as it may, here is one recipe for the legendary soup:

For 6 servings.
First, make the Butter Balls: Mix 1 cup of flour, 1-1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, and 1/2 cup of melted butter.  Shape into dime-sized balls.  Chill several hours.

Finely cut up 1/2 pound of fresh tripe.  Set aside. 

Simmer 1 veal shin in 2 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of salt for 2 hours.  Strain.  Return broth to kettle, and add the tripe and 1 pound of boneless veal.  Simmer for another 2 hours, or until meats are tender.  Remove veal, cut into bite-size pieces, and return to kettle.

Cook 2 cups of flour in a skillet until golden brown.  Blend in 2 cups of water, and stir into veal broth. Stir in 2 cans of consomme and 2 cans of tomato soup.  Simmer for 1 hour.

Season with salt, ground red pepper, and ground allspice.  Add 2 - 3 hard-cooked eggs, cut into chunks, and the Butter Balls.  Simmer for 1/2 hour and serve.

Oh, and Pepper Pot Day is celebrated on 29 December, ten days hence, when it was supposedly invented.  Maybe morale was low and desertions frequent long before the troops got to Valley Forge - otherwise, it is hard to see how morale (and food stores) could drop so far in 10 days, all of which were spent in setting up camp, building huts, and digging redoubts.  But that's legend for you.

18 December 2010

18 December - Ember Day; O Adonai; Saki (H. H. Munro)

Today is the third Ember Day of this quarter.  The weather today traditionally foretells the weather for March.  Bright, clear skies, and chilly air in the smallest state.
Today the Antiphon is "O Adonai", in which we ask the Lord of All to come quickly and save us with his justice [his justice, not the world's]:

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, 
Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai, 
come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!  
This is the birthday of my favorite author, Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote delightfully wicked stories under the pen name 'Saki'.

He was born in Burma in 1870, but at the early death of his mother, and his father being posted to India, he and his brother and sister were left in England to be brought up under the care of his paternal grandmother and aunts, whose characters can be seen in Sredni Vashtar, The Lumber Room, and The Sex That Doesn't Shop.  Like Conradin, he was always rather sickly.

You can read his sister's biography of him here and Wikipedia's article here.  Sadly, he was killed by a sniper's bullet in the trenches of World War I on 13 November 1916.  Oh, to think of all the stories that were never written.

Meanwhile, dull winter afternoons are a good time to curl up with the likes of Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, and meet the not-quite truthful Mrs Packletide (Mrs. Packletide's Tiger) and the all-too-truthful Woman Who Told the Truth.  Enjoy the 'peaceful' English countryside in The Peace of Mowsle Barton and The Blood-feud of Toadwater, with further side trips into the uncanny with Tobermory and Gabriel-Ernest.  In honor of the season, get tips on Christmas presents from "Down Pens" and Reginald on Christmas Presents, and enjoy Christmas revelry with Bertie's Christmas Eve and A Touch of Realism.

I've often wished to be Lady Carlotta teaching The Schartz-Metterklume Method, or Mrs. Pentherby (Excepting Mrs. Pentherby) who said horrible things in a matter-of-fact innocent way, and matter-of-fact innocent things in a horrible way, or had the story-telling ability of the niece in The Open Window or the bachelor in The Story-Teller.  You can read all of these and more, including stories that were never collected in books, here.  If you have never read Saki, now is a good time to start.


17 December 2010

17 December - Ember Day; O Sapientia

This is the second Ember Day of this quarter.  The weather today traditionally foretells the weather of February.
Another clear, sunny, and cold day.
Today begins the Golden Nights - seven days preceding Christmas Eve, when we intensify our prayers for our Lord's coming by reciting the 'O Antiphons' before and after the Magnificat.

Tonight we begin with O Sapientia - O Wisdom.  I use the translation provided by Fisheaters.

O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ. 

O Wisdom that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, 
that reachest from one end to another, and orderest all things mightily and sweetly, 
come to teach us the way of prudence!

16 December 2010

16 December - Catherine of Aragon; Orange and Pomegranate Compote

Today in 1485, Queen Isabella of Castile, in the midst of her continuing campaign to regain southern Spain from the Moors, gave birth to a daughter in the Archbishop's Palace of Alcala de Henares (near Madrid).  The baby was christened Catalina after her great-grandmother, Catherine of Lancaster, and from her father, King Ferdinand of Aragon, she was styled "of Aragon".

Juan de Flandes, c. 1495
Catalina's early years were full of the completion of the Reconquista by her parents, which ended in 1492 with the surrender of Granada; this was followed immediately by the discovery and exploration of the New World by Columbus, and the beginnings of the Renaissance in Spain.  Her mother was a firm believer in a humanist education for her daughters, and Catalina, like her sisters, was tutored in studies more usual for a medieval prince.

Besides lessons in deportment (including dancing and music), religion, and needlework skills, she learned to speak French, Latin, and Greek, and studied classic literature and philosophy, genealogy, and canon and civil law.  From her mother, she learned that queens could lead armies and reconcile warring factions; from both parents, she learned that a politically expedient marriage could also be a successful partnership.

As a measure of protection against France, Catalina was betrothed in 1489 by the Treaty of Medina del Campo to Prince Arthur of England (born in September 1486), son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.  In the tangled genealogy of royal Europe, Catherine had nearly as good a claim to the throne of England as her future husband, as she was legitimately descended from John, Duke of Lancaster, the third son of Edward III, while Arthur's best claim came through his mother and the House of York, who descended from the second and fourth sons of Edward III (of Henry VII's spurious claim to the throne via a bastard child of John of Lancaster, the least said, the better).  The newly established Tudor monarchy was bolstered by this arrangement with the powerful rulers of Spain, achieving a measure of legitimacy in the eyes of Europe.  Catalina and Arthur were married by proxy in May of 1499; in September 1501, she sailed from Spain, arriving in England in October.

Not yet 16, she married the fifteen-year-old Prince of Wales that November; he died the following April.  For the next seven years, Catherine, the Dowager Princess of Wales, lived as a pawn between the machinations of her father and father-in-law - ostensibly betrothed to her brother-in-law Henry, but certainly never treated as such.  This came to an end with the death of Henry VII in 1509.

And then she married Henry VIII...

You should know the rest of the story, but if not, there are more than enough books at the library and websites online to fill that lack.

Catalina's badge was the pomegranate, seen here above her head in this woodcut of her coronation.  In honor of this Infanta of Spain, have ORANGE AND POMEGRANATE COMPOTE for dessert.

This is very simple.  Remove the rind and white skin from 4 oranges; slice them on a plate (to catch the juice) and place the thin slices in a glass serving dish, or arrange them in 4 individual serving dishes.  Remove seeds from 2 pomegranates (see below for how to do that), and sprinkle them over the orange slices.  Sprinkle the fruit with about a tablespoon of the reserved juice from the sliced oranges, and the same amount of fresh lemon juice and rose water.  Sprinkle with sugar to taste, and chill until ready to serve.

This being the time of year when Clementines show up at the Commissary, I usually have a crate or two on hand, and use them rather than oranges.  Also, I am not very handy when it comes to sprinkling lemon juice, especially among separate dishes (one dish always gets more than its share); a spritzer is my friend here.  And while I am much better at sprinkling sugar on anything (about 5 decades of experience), I also place the sugar bowl within reach of those who don't think I have been lavish enough in my application.

How to remove the seeds without making a mess?  Go Here, and learn.  Of course, if your inner three-year-old likes to be one with your food, the fruit has excellent staining power, and will turn lips, face, fingers, hands, and clothes a beautiful red that is not easy to eradicate.  Trust me.

15 December 2010

15 December - Ember Day

Today is the first Ember Day for this quarter, a day of fasting and prayer.  Traditionally, the weather today foretells the weather of January.  Clear, bright, sunny... and very chilly.  Very chilly indeed.

The medieval Golden Legend says that winter is cold and moist [with which we have no argument here].  In winter (says the writer), we fast to chastise the coldness of untruth and of malice, to be mortified to the world as the dying plants, to lessen the phlegm of lightness, forgetting, and inconstancy, and to become ancient and old by prudence and an honest life.

Modern prayers tend to be for our clergy, for our right use of the world's resources, for women facing childbirth, and for justice.  All of these are good intentions, and should keep your prayer-life busy for these three days.

14 December 2010

14 December - Halcyon Days; Floating Island Pudding; Chocolate Meringues

Traditionally, the Halcyon Days begin today and continue through the 28th of December - which means smooth sailing, at least in the Mediterranean.

Alcyone was a Greek maiden, daughter of King Aeolus of Thessaly, married to Ceyx, the half-divine son of Eosphoros (the Morning Star).  They were so happy in their marriage, that she called him Zeus and he called her Hera, which angered the original owners of those names, the king and queen of the gods.  One story says that Zeus launched a thunderbolt at the ship which carried Ceyx and sank it; in her grief, Alcyone threw herself into the sea, and both were changed into aquatic birds: the kingfisher (halcyon) and the gannet (ceyx).  Another omits the shipwreck and merely says that the two were turned into birds for their impiety.

It was said that during the nesting period of the kingfisher, the seas remain calm.  This is supposed to take place a week before and a week after the Winter Solstice, as the kingfisher builds her nest and lays her eggs.  This in its turn gave rise to the artistic vision of the bird serenely riding the calm waters on her QE2 nursery.

I suppose that Bird's Nest Soup is the most apropos item on the menu, but as I don't like it, you are on your own for it.  Maybe a FLOATING ISLAND PUDDING, instead:

First make your custard.  Divide 6 cold eggs.  As 4 egg whites will be used for the meringues, separate 4 eggs, yolks in one bowl, whites in another.  Then divide the remaining 2 eggs, yolks with their fellows, whites in a third bowl.  You will have a bowl with 6 yolks, a bowl with 4 whites, and a bowl with 2 whites.  Set the whites aside, but do not chill.

Heat 2 cups of milk in the top part of a double boiler.  Heat water in the lower part of the double boiler to boiling.  Mix the 6 yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar and a dash of salt (mix thoroughly, but don't beat).  When bubbles appear around the edge of the milk, pour a little of it (about 1/2 cup) into the egg mixture and blend well.  Pour this into the milk.  Place the top part of the double boiler over the boiling water in the lower part.  Cook, stirring continuously, until thick enough to coat a metal spoon.  Remove from heat; mix in 1 teaspoon of vanilla.  Pour into a shallow serving dish and chill.

Now for the meringue islands.  Fill a skillet with about 1 to 1-1/2 inches of water and bring to a simmer.  Beat the 4 egg whites (which should be at room temperature now) in a deep bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy, then gradually beat in a pinch of salt and six tablespoons of sugar.  Continue beating until meringue stands up in stiff peaks.  Carefully drop tablespoonfuls of the meringue in the simmering water, one at a time.  When they are set (about 2 -3 minutes), carefully lift them out of the water with a slotted spoon, and place on top of the chilled custard, so that they resemble islands in a custard sea.  Chill before serving.

You can use the other 2 egg whites in CHOCOLATE MERINGUES, by beating the whites with 1/8 teaspoon of salt until stiff.  Add 1/2 cup of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating for 2 minutes after each addition; mixture should be very stiff.  Stir in 1 teaspoon of vanilla and fold in 1 cup of chocolate pieces (I like really dark, bitter, chocolate; choose your own preference).

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (make sure the oven is fully preheated before baking).  Line cookie sheets with brown paper (I cut up paper bags; you can also use ungreased cookie sheets), and drop meringue mixture onto them by teaspoonfuls.  It is optional, but I like to top mine with a bit of cut-up maraschino cherry; red and green are suitable for this time of year.  Bake for about 25 minutes.  Remove and cool.  This will make 2 to 3 dozen, depending on the size of your teaspoonfuls, but they melt in the mouth like true meringues and can be addicting.

I hope the seas of your life are calm right now.

13 December 2010

13 December - Saint Lucy

Today is the feast of Saint Lucy (or Lucia), Virgin and Martyr, who suffered, circa 303, in the persecutions of Diocletian.  A young lady of Syracuse (Sicily) who preferred a religious single life to marriage, she gave away her patrimony in alms, and was denounced as a Christian to the authorities by her rejected fiance.  The governor first tried to talk her out of her beliefs; when that failed, he (thinking that her power lay in her physical chastity) ordered her to be taken to a nearby brothel and gang-raped until she died.  They tried to drag her away to the brothel, but she could not be moved - not by one man, or a thousand, or a team of oxen.  The governor then ordered her burned alive, but the fire did not hurt her.  Finally, she was dispatched with a sword to the throat.

She is the patron of Syracuse, and of those suffering from blindness, eye-problems, and throat infections.

Her name meaning "light", she is celebrated by bonfires and torchlight processions, especially in Italy.  In the northern countries, which followed the Julian calendar until the 18th century, Saint Lucia's Day was the longest night of the year, and the saint of light was much welcomed.  Swedish Saint Lucia festivities are probably the most well-known, with the eldest daughter of the house, dressed in white with a red sash and a wreath with candles on her head, serving her parents coffee and St. Lucia buns (recipe here).

John Donne, in England, wrote:
TIS the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
  The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
  Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
    The worlds whole sap is sunke:...

Her usual attribute is a dish holding her eyeballs.  Two stories account for this: 1. That an importunate suitor claimed that he could not forget her, for the memory of her beautiful eyes stayed with him.  She then plucked out her eyes and sent them to him, begging to be left alone. [Rather snarky]  2.  That her eyes were plucked out during her torture.

For this, EYEBALL CANDIES, which you probably haven't seen since Hallowe'en, are the perfect dessert.  If you have made Buckeyes, the recipe will look familiar.

Cream together 1/2 cup of softened butter and 1-1/2 cups of creamy peanut butter.  Stir in 1 teaspoon of vanilla and 2 cups of powdered sugar, and mix well.  Chill this mixture for half an hour (makes it easier to form.  Trust me).  Spoon out a little dough and roll it into a small ball (small is relative; 1-1/2 inch diameter works for me).  Continue to make balls out of the rest of the dough; place them on wax paper and chill again for 1/2 hour.

While the dough-balls are chilling, get out 12 ounces of white chocolate (for dipping) and follow the instructions given for melting it.  Mine calls for microwaving it, which is probably the easiest.  Dip the eyeballs into the chocolate, using slotted spoons, skewers, or toothpicks.  Put the dipped eyeballs on a sheet of wax paper and cool until firm.

For the irises, you can either color the remaining chocolate with blue food coloring (or divide it, and color one part blue and one part green), or you can use decorating gels in those colors (as I did), or use Lifesaver candies.  Make a small circle on the top of the eyeball and press a miniature chocolate-chip in the center (that's the pupil).  I turn my chocolate chip upside down, so the pupil is flat.  You can use the regular-size chocolate-chips; the eyes will look like they've been smoking something.

If you don't want to go through the job of mixing peanut butter and chilling it, one recipe uses Vanilla Wafers as the eyeballs.  Dip into white chocolate and decorate as usual.  The eyeball may be flat, but still quite good.

"Sacrifice which pleaseth God is to visit the widows and orphans, and to help them in their need: I have not ceased these three years past to make to God such sacrifice, and forasmuch as I have no more of which I may make yet such sacrifice, I offer to him myself, let him do with his offering as it pleaseth him." from The Golden Legend, "The Life of the Blessed Virgin Lucy"

12 December 2010

12 December - Geminids; Pennsylvania

Astronomy: Meteors from the Gemind Meteor Shower have already been spotted, but according to EarthSky, the best time for watching will be late tomorrow evening through dawn on the 14th, with optimum viewing after the moon sets at midnight [in the smallest state, moon-set will be at 12:18 Tuesday morning.  See The Old Farmer's Almanac for moon-set times in your area].  And check out EarthSky's ten tips for watching the Geminids.
Today is the Third Sunday in Advent - Gaudete Sunday, when we set aside our penitential preparation and rejoice that Our Lord is coming to us.  Light the rose-colored candle tonight.

[And the color is Rose - not Pink.  Pink is not a liturgical color.  Some people get away with using pink candles, because rose is not that easy to find.  So be it.  Just don't call it a pink candle - or pink vestments - or pink anything having to do with liturgy.  For more information, see this article from EWTN's library.]

In 1787, the former Province of Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution of the United States, the second state to do so (after Delaware).

If you are studying our nation's beginnings, there are few finer places to do it.  Visit Independence Hall, where delegates from the colonies met first to hammer out a Declaration of Independence and then a Constitution [and if, like me, you loved '1776', try hard not to start singing "Sit Down, John!"].  Then go see Valley Forge National Historic Park, where the Continental Army spent the harsh winter of 1777-1778. 

Move up in time and wander through Gettysburg, where Lee's Confederate Army nearly took the Civil War permanently into the lap of the North.  If you prefer your history spiced with a touch of the unknown, there are Ghost Tours everywhere.

Right now, there is a Christkindl Market in Bethlehem and 'A Dickens of a Christmas' in Manheim.  Or take your chances at one of the many casinos.   Relax on a Wine Tour, or enjoy your favorite winter sport at the ski resorts (some of the western resorts are looking to receive another couple of inches this week).

You can find any number of things to do at Visit PA; currently, they are focusing on winter activities. [And while you are there, have a real Cheesesteak for me.  I've never found one to match it anywhere, and the one I had is a delightful memory.]
From Life in the Breakdown Lane: the Widow had a really bad case of stomach flu and was out of commission for a couple of days.  We now return to our previous schedule.