It is a truth universally acknowledged that this is the most wonderful time of the year! I sincerely feel this. Excitement pulses from my heart through my veins, and I am overflowing with cheer. This Christmas is my first with two children (and how I am going to keep the 11 month old from attacking the Christmas tree is a mystery I have yet to solve), and I just know it is going to absolutely magical. It doesn’t hurt that we live in Switzerland, pretty much your ideal Christmas landscape, and that the holiday starts early here. Samichlaus and Schmutzli make their appearances on the 6th, bearing sweats, oranges, and peanuts. My family also celebrates Chanukah, which is ON in just two nights time, and practices some pretty elaborate Advent preparations (we have no less than five calendars in the house this year). Plus my in-laws are visiting us, and we’re going to all the Weinachtsmarkts (Christmas markets – my favorite!) we can squeeze in. I am having such an amazing time, and there is such a month of endless fun before me! It culminates in Christmas, followed by my son’s first birthday on the 27th, then my husband’s on the 30th, and finally the fireworks over Lake Zurich on New Year’s Eve. My cup over floweth! I must share my joy.
If the clip at the top of this post did not automatically start, now would be a good time to hit play. I think it sets the mood.
How about some virtual eggnog, a drink that solidified it’s popularity (and name) in the 18th century and continues to be enjoyed in a variety of forms throughout the Christmas-celebrating world? The concoction was probably medicinal in origin, related to the possets motherly woman brew in period fiction. The Bar-Tender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas (1887 edition) features a variety of eggnog recipes (do take a look at the fabulous virtual book). If Austen ever indulged in a glass, it was probably something like a cross between the “Sherry Egg Nogg” and the “Hot Egg Nogg.” Click on the images to enlarge.
We also require seasonal fare. How about latkes? Not what Jane Austen would have eaten, I know, but I’m not particularly enamored of the heavy dishes she would have consumed, and I do love to throw some Chanukah into the mix. Latkes resemble so many other awesome dishes, like American hash browns, Swiss Rösti, and Indian pakoras, all of which my family uses as inspiration for the variety of latkes we make every year, filling the house with the scent of Chanukah (a heady mixture of frying oil and candle wax – everyone celebrate safely this year!). Amazing with curry, other root veggies, even bacon and eggs: latkes are endlessly versatile. We always make at least one batch with spinach, serve it with cranberry chutney, and call it Christmas, but my favorite is straight up potato served with lox and creme fraiche. So good! Here is my grandmother’s recipe, as published in a book I put together several years ago just for my family entitled Rosalie’s Recipes. If you are unfamiliar with the Chanukah story, you can read more here: https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/hanukkah.
Life is way too busy for me to have written one of my seasonal scribblings already, but I have found great amusement is such activity in the past. What are the holidays without the stories, old and new, that grab at our hearts and make us cry tears of pure joy? Austen did not write much about Christmas (which is why her most commonly quoted Christmas sentiment originates with Caroline Bingley, of all creatures), but we know it was a time of year when the rectory at Stevenson was filled with words. They wrote and recited poems, stories, and performed plays. I have never been able to convince my family to stage a holiday play, but they are up for the occasional recitation and can appreciate wordplay. A few years ago, I regaled you with a little ditty entitled Mr. Collins the Rambling Rector, which I point you too for a quick laugh. I wrote a far more sentimental parody back in 2012. You can read Twas the night before Christmas and all through Pemberley on my blog. Here are some lines on Christmas composed by contemporaries of Austen:
From The River Duddon: A Series of Sonnets
William Wordsworth, 1820
The Minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The’ encircling Laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.
Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings;
Keen was the air, but could not freeze
Nor check, the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scrap’d the chords with strenuous hand.
And who but listen’d? — till was paid
Respect to every Inmate’s claim;
The greeting given, the music played,
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounc’d with lusty call,
And “merry Christmas” wish’d to all!
O Brother! I revere the choice
That took thee from thy native hills;
And it is given thee to rejoice:
Though public care full often tills
(Heaven only witness of the toil)
A barren and ungrateful soil.
Yet, would that Thou, with me and mine,
Hadst heard this never-failing rite;
And seen on other faces shine
A true revival of the light;
Which Nature, and these rustic Powers,
In simple childhood, spread through ours!
For pleasure hath not ceased to wait
On these expected annual rounds,
Whether the rich man’s sumptuous gate
Call forth the unelaborate sounds,
Or they are offered at the door
That guards the lowliest of the poor.
How touching, when, at midnight, sweep
Snow-muffled winds, and all is dark,
To hear — and sink again to sleep!
Or, at an earlier call, to mark,
By blazing fire, the still suspense
Of self-complacent innocence;
The mutual nod, — the grave disguise
Of hearts with gladness brimming o’er;
And some unbidden tears that rise
For names once heard, and heard no more;
Tears brightened by the serenade
For infant in the cradle laid!
Ah! not for emerald fields alone,
With ambient streams more pure and bright
Than fabled Cytherea’s zone *
Glittering before the Thunderer’s sight,
Is to my heart of hearts endeared,
The ground where we were born and rear’d!
Hail, ancient Manners! sure defence,
Where they survive, of wholesome laws;
Remnants of love whose modest sense
Thus into narrow room withdraws;
Hail, Usages of pristine mould,
And ye, that guard them, Mountains old!
Bear with me, Brother! quench the thought
That slights this passion, or condemns;
If thee fond Fancy ever brought
From the proud margin of the Thames,
And Lambeth’s venerable towers,
To humbler streams, and greener bowers.
Yes, they can make, who fail to find,
Short leisure even in busiest days;
Moments — to cast a look behind,
And profit by those kindly rays
That through the clouds do sometimes steal,
And all the far-off past reveal.
Hence, while the imperial City’s din
Beats frequent on thy satiate ear,
A pleased attention I may win
To agitations less severe,
That neither overwhelm nor cloy,
But fill the hollow vale with joy!
From Marmion, introduction to Canto VI
Sir Walter Scott, 1808
Heap on more wood! — the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.
Each age has deemed the new born year
The fittest time for festal cheer.
And well our Christian sires of old.
Loved when the year its course had rolled,
And brought blithe Christmas back again,
With all his hospitable train.
Domestic and religious rite
Gave honour to the holy night:
On Christmas eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas eve the mass was sung;
That only night, in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
The hail was dressed with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry men go,
To gather in the mistletoe,
Then opened wide the baron’s hail
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And ceremony doff’d his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose.
The lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of “post and pair!’
All hailed with uncontroll’d delight
And general voice, the happy night
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.
The fire with well dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide;
The huge hail table’s oaken face,
Scrubb’d till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon: its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old, blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar’s head frowned on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
Well can the green-garbed ranger tell,
How, when, and where, the monster fell;
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassail round in good brown bowls,
Garnished with ribbon, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reeked: hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie;
Nor failed old Scotland to produce
At such high tide her savoury goose.
Then came the merry masquers in,
And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visor made
But oh! what masquers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
‘Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale,
‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
A poor man’s heart through half the year.