Plants for dyeing: Comfrey

comfreyI’ve been doing natural dyeing for a long time, and was always exasperated about the absence of a good plant source for the color green. Paradoxical, isn’t it? But the green coloration in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll. In fall, the chlorophyll ceases production and gradually disappears, leaving the leaf’s true color to show. Once, while making a dye with fern fiddleheads, the only plant material available that early spring day, I discovered to my dismay that I’d left my brass kettle at home. Had to make do with the iron one, and had a pleasant surprise. The result was a lovely, soft gray-green.

But fiddleheads are around for just a short time every year. I needed a source available in the summer. Comfrey to the rescue. This plant has many advantages, the primary one being the size and abundance of its leaves. Making comfrey dye is easy: Simmer the leaves, about a grocery bag full, in about a gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then remove the plant material. Submerge wet, alum mordanted wool into the bath and simmer in an iron container for another 1/2 hour or so. Olive green should be the result.

Using brass, glass, stainless steel containers will not yield the same results; probably a watery yellow will emerge, but who knows? Natural dyeing is more art than science.

Comfrey in New England is a perennial known for its abundant proliferation. Its tiny flowers start to blossom in  June, but the flowers aren’t used for dyeing. Medicinally, comfrey has been used to treat bruises, sores, broken bones, hemorrhoids ( there they are again), gout and joint pain. It used to be eaten in salads and tonics but has been found to cause liver damage.

Christmas Traditions: Wassailing

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Here we come a-what? Wassailing is the practice of going door-to-door singing Christmas carols until paid to go away and leave the occupants in peace. (The term also refers to the practice of singing to trees in apple orchards in cider-producing regions of England.) The word derives from the Anglo Saxon, pre-1066 toast, wæs þu hæl, “be thou hale” — i.e., “be in good health”, though it was not associated with Christianity at that time.
The practice as we know it has its roots in the middle ages, as an exchange between the lord of the manor and his peasants as a form of recipient initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from This point is made in the song Here We Come A-Wassailing, when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that “we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before.” The Lord would then give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, singing, “Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year”.

Wassail bowls, generally in the shape of goblets, have been preserved. The Worshipful Company of Grocers made very elaborate one in the seventeenth century, decorated with silver. It is so large that is must have passed around as a “loving cup” so that many members of the guild could drink from it. Then they wondered why everyone caught colds! Anyway, the drink was either punch, mulled wine or spicy ale. The larger, elaborate bowl below is from Wales.


If you’d like to whip up a batch of wassail for your own celebrations, Old Farmer’s Almanac has a good recipe here .

Happy New Year! Waes pu hael!


revised 12/30/14

Monday Morning Poem: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where   
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.


Monday Morning Poem: Christmas Pageants

by Raymond A. Foss (2006)

Small voices, raised to the rafters
singing their hearts out in the familiar story
the tale of the babe and his parents
sharing his birth with donkeys and lamb,
with shepherds and wise men from the east
marveling at the wonder of his birth
in that humble place so long ago
hearing the words of the story again
richer perhaps in the telling with little voices
echoing throughout the sanctuary
a bit noisier perhaps; but a wonderful
place to be

Christmas in Connecticut: Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Oh, dear! Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up  presents for everybody!” said young Ellen Stuart, as she leaned languidly back in her chair. “Dear me, it’s so tedious! Every body has got everything that could be thought of.”

WNPR photo

Sound familiar? This year much has been made about the over-commercialization of Christmas, and the new concept of the “dead-weight loss”, the term economists use to describe the difference between what is spent on a gift for you (let’s say $50) and the value you put on it (about $41, according to economists). It seems that at last, Americans have decided that  too much is, well, too much, and the idea of giving to charity, instead of buying stuff that will be returned, regifted, or merely thrown away is catching on.

But the plight  of the gift giver is nothing new. After all, it’s the theme of Dickens’  A Christmas Carol, probably the most popular seasonal stage show of the season, after The Nutcracker. Both of these beloved works are well over a century old. More to the point, however, is a lesser known story by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of  Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  The “little woman who wrote the book that started this great war”,  in the words of Abraham Lincoln, was a prolific writer, and in a short story called Christmas; or, The Good Fairy,  Miss Ellen Stuart laments the state of the holidays. The holiday tale opens with the paragraph quoted above, and  Ellen’s aunt, knitting quietly in the parlor, shows her how she might make Christmas more meaningful and worthwhile.

“There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote  in 1850. Sometimes we are very slow to learn the simplest of lessons.

She didn’t know the half of it…..

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center is located at Nook Farm, Hartford, CT .  Website

Christmas Traditions: Wierd Ornaments

Over the last decade or so, all sorts of businesses have tried to capitalize on the Christmas shopping rush by producing specialty ornaments, designed to appeal to only a segment of the population. It probably began with Hallmark and Disney, but the trend quickly grew to include the truly bizarre. A  few examples:

Merry Christmas! Let’s spend the day terrifying and slaughtering defenseless animals.

Yeah! Then we can mummify our victims and hang em on the tree each year!




A little Christmas candy.

He sees you when you’re sleeping. Already caught that little sucker on the right.


He’s the one who started the trend for Santa head ornaments.

Bring me the head of Santa Claus…….Hair keeps growing after death, right?

Ahh, the legend of the Christmas pickle….


Have  a holly, jolly roger.

Watch This: It Happened on Fifth Avenue

1947, Allied Artists, black and white

There’s nothing like a vintage Christmas movie to capture the holiday spirit, and It Happened on Fifth Avenue, though not very well known, fits in beautifully with its more popular cohorts. In the aftermath of WWII, many vets are having trouble finding work and affordable housing for their families in NYC, and Jimmy Bullock (Don DeFore) hatches a plan to purchase and renovate local barracks into apartments. A homeless drifter, Aloysius McKeever (Victor Moore), has made a comfortable life for himself by squatting in Fifth Ave. mansion while its magnate owner, “the second richest man in the world”, winters in Virginia. McKeever has a good heart, and he provides a home for the vets while they work out their plan. Meanwhile, the magnate’s daughter (Gale Storm) has run away from her school, and falls in love at first sight with Jimmy, who has no idea that she comes from wealth. What plays out is a warm-hearted comedy of role-reversal, in which the magnate (Charles Ruggles) finds the heart that he’d encased in granite long ago.

The casting department did itself proud by assembling these actors, who play very well against each other. The real star is Victor Moore, who masterfully pulls off  the role of tramp living like king without overplaying a single scene. There are many funny moments, and some schmaltzy ones as well. As in many early movies, the musical score is cloying to modern ears, but the film is engaging nonetheless, paying tribute as it does to the hopeful, can-do spirit of Americans after the war. The Christmas and New Year’s scenes occur at the very end, and perhaps this is the reason for the film’s failure to forge a strong association with the holidays.  In 1948, it was nominated for the Academy Award in the best story category, but it lost to Miracle on 34th Street.

Christmas Traditions: The Twelve Days

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” Every time I hear this carol it makes me smile, for more than one reason. It brings back my days as a preschool teacher, when the class knew few of the lyrics other than “five gold rings”, which they would sing out at the top of their lungs at the appropriate time every stanza. It also reminds me of my son, who when little loved to sing “a partridge apitch a pear tree. ”

But here in America, Christmas really last only 2 days, so what’s this about 12?

Of course it has its roots in the Christmas story itself, when the three Magi took a journey of twelve days to find and visit the baby Jesus. This idea seems to have come to life in medieval Europe, where celebrations started on Christmas Eve and continued till the eve of Epiphany, the 5th of January. Epiphany itself, January 6th, is the day commemorating the arrival of the Magi. The Yule log was kept burning throughout this interval, and it was a bad omen if extinguished or allowed to go out. One of Shakespeare’s comedies is called Twelfth Night, which was a festive occasion involving serious revelry and elaborate disguises, frequently with men dressing as women and vice versa. A special cake baked with a bean inside was served, with the bean finder honored as King of Queen of the day and served by all, including his/her betters. Another manifestation was the choosing of  a Lord of Misrule to direct all the mayhem and hilarity.

What about the gifts in the carol? Who needs all those musicians and animals anyway? It is thought by some that the gifts are actually all from God, the”true Love” of the song, but this cannot be proved by existing evidence. But it’s interesting to think about it this way.

partridge = Jesus Christ

2 turtledoves = the Old and New Testaments

3 French hens = faith, hope and charity

4 calling birds = the four gospels

5 gold rings = the first 5 books of the Old Testament

6 geese alaying = the 6 days of creation

7 swans aswimming = the 7 sacraments

8 maids amilking = the 8 beatitudes

9 ladies dancing = the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit

10 lords aleaping = the 10 Commandments

11 pipers piping = the 11 faithful apostles

12 drummers drumming = the 12 tenets of the Apostle’s Creed.

Just for Fun: Over the Top Christmas Lights

This morning Woman’s Day online magazine posted a series of photos of some pretty spectacular – and in some cases, tacky – Christmas light displays. All are private homes in the US, England, and Canada, and all are remarkable. Wasteful, but remarkable. The photo I’m posting here is my favorite. Which one do you like best?

Link to article.

Photo by Graeme Robertson via Getty Images.