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.


Christmas Traditions: Early Electric Tree Lights

We now take Christmas lights for granted, but they haven’t been around even for a century yet. I came across this site that tells the story of the earliest ones.


There is also a timeline of the development of lighted decorations :


And many more fascinating light facts.

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.

Christmas Traditions: Plum Pudding

Here in America, we’re familiar with the old English Christmas dessert, plum pudding, from stories and songs. Few of us, however, have ever even tasted it. One year I bought a boxed one, with a little tin of hard sauce, from the supermarket, but it was truly awful. Now I’m curious enough to do a little research on this elusive confection once held in such high esteem.

First, it’s necessary to understand that there are none of what we commonly think of as plums in plum pudding. Hmmm. The OED defines “plum” as follows:

A dried grape or raisin. This probably arose from the substitution of raisins for dried plums or prunes as an ingredient in plum-broth, porridge, etc., with the retention of the name “plum” for the substituted article.

Raisins. Got it. Now, what is pudding? That creamy custard like chocolate or vanilla dessert all kids like? Nope, the Christmas pudding’s different. Back to the OED:

A term describing several different desserts, usually cooked, including cakelike confections such as plum pudding; or a dish of suet crust containing fruits and sugar; or a spongy steamed dish; or a pastry crust filled with chopped meats, like kidney; or Yorkshire pudding, a crisp, breadlike side dish made from a flour-and-egg batter cooked in pan drippings.

Right. That means that plum pudding is steamed or boiled, and rich and heavy. It contains fresh or dried fruit, suet or other animal fat, and for holidays, is dowsed with a respectable amount of brandy or other alcohol. Christmas pudding takes a long time to age, or develop full flavor, and if you’re thinking of whipping one up for this Christmas, you’d better get started. Chef James Beard recommended making it a full year in advance!  When you think of it, it’s actually a lot like fruit cake. But you can make it this week and it should be pretty good by the 25th. Traditionally, in English families, everyone would take a turn at stirring the batter with a wooden spoon, for good luck, or to make a wish. It is also a custom to add small charms, such as coins for wealth, a ring for marriage, or a silver thimble for thrift. If you have friends or relatives who are prone to lawsuits, I would skip this custom.

Serving plum pudding should be an event. Sometimes it is decorated with holly, but I like the sounds of dowsing it with brandy, flaming it, and delivering it to the table with style. Servings are typically topped with brandy butter, rum butter, hard sauce, or cream.

Ta Da!

In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol 1843, “In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half or half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”.

A little trivia:

The name Christmas pudding is first recorded in 1858 in a novel by Anthony Trollope.

During the Puritan reign in England, plum pudding was outlawed as “sinfully rich.”

Christmas puddings were boiled in a pudding cloth, and they are often represented as round, but at least since the 20th century,
they are usually been prepared in basins.

And   here’s Julia Child’s own recipe for Glorious Plum Pudding. There are literally hundreds of other recipes out there. Find your favorite.

Monday Morning Poem: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

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 would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

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

Christmas Quotes from Notable Women

No one loves a Christmas tree on Jan. 1.

Irma Bombeck

I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the word seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.

Taylor Caldwell

It peeps through the trees with its berries of red,
And its leaves of burnished green,
When the flowers and fruits have long been dead,
And not even the daisy is seen.
Then sing to the holly; the Christmas holly,
That hangs over peasant and king.

Eliza Cook

Christmas is a time when everybody wants his past forgotten and his present remembered. What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day.

Phyllis Diller

Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas.

Dale Evans

Remember, if Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under the tree.

Charlotte Carpenter

Christmas is a time when you get homesick, even if you’re at home.

Carol Nelson

Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.

Edna Ferber

Christmas….is a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart.

Freya Stark

Christmas in Connecticut

This event for 2009 runs from 12/11 throughout the month of December.

I’m on staff at the Webb-Deane-Stevens museum in Wethersfield, CT. The museum is a small complex of three 18th century houses. The Webb House, built in 1752 by merchant/trader Joseph Webb, is the centerpiece, famous for 220 years as the place where George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau planned the campaign that ended the Revolutionary War. When I lead guided tours, I get to say, “George Washington slept here”, and mean it. He stayed for 5 days in 1781. Next door, the Silas Deane house, built in the late 1760’s, was the home of the controversial diplomat who accompanied Benjamin Franklin to Paris to solicit French military and financial assistance against the British. On the other side of Webb, the 1780’s Isaac Stevens house, which illustrates American life following the War for Independence, completes our little historic neighborhood.

This December, the WDS has teamed with the Wethersfield Historical Society, right across the street, to present a tour of historic Christmas decorations. The beginnings of the American Christmas that we celebrate today are represented in the Stevens House, while an elaborate Colonial Revival Christmas (early 20th century) is brought to life in the Webb House.

The Webb House has long been known as Hospitality House. The pineapple has long been known as a symbol of hospitality, and a fresh pineapple graces the newel post of the main staircase in the center of the building. Another pineapple crowns the top of a lemon topiary in the center hall.

Rochambeau and Washington did not know in advance that the they would clinch their victory at Yorktown, but that is what actually happened. Wallace Nutting, who restored this house in 1915, had a series of murals painted on the walls of this room to represent the conference that took place in this building and various scenes from the battle itself. Today we refer to it as the “Yorktown Parlor”. For the month of December, however, the Revolution takes a back seat to Christmas.

Electric tree lights came into common use during the 1920’s and 30’s. Gift giving became more widespread at this time. Typical wrappings consisted of white tissue paper and ribbon ties. During this time, manufacturers began producing patterned paper, usually floral prints. No Santas or Rudolphs yet.

Across the center hall is an elegant dessert buffet. Jordan Almond and rock candy topiaries, nut trees, cookies, candies, tiered cakes, plum pudding, port, creme de menthe……..Hostesses in this era prided themselves on the magnificence of their table.

Upstairs (or upchamber, as the Webb’s would have it) :

Remember making paper chains? Under the 7 foot tree is a collection of antique toys.