Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Deck The Halls

The evolution of the Christmas celebration as we know it has been a long and varied one. There are as many ideas of the meaning of celebrations at this time of year as there are people who celebrate. And this, the longest night of the year, is the perfect time to reflect on the bringing in of greenery, and the illumination of the darkest corners of our homes and hearts.

I love Christmas songs, particularly the old English ones like Deck the Halls and the Holly and the Ivy. I'm also a big fan of wassailing. So, as a gardener, one is curious as to what these plants and traditions mean. In ancient, pagan Europe and England, King Holly rules from MidSummer Night to MidWinter Night. King Oak ruled from MidWinter Night to MidSummer Night. Winter Solstice was the perfect time to celebrate these by bringing greenery in to remind us of life and growth. Holly boughs were brought into the homes, and Mistletoe, the parasitic plant growing in the Oak was also thought to have special qualities. Ivy was another evergreen plant in abundant supply in wintery northern climes.. The Holly was masculine, and the twining Ivy a feminine symbol.

Poinsettias, native to Mexico and Central America, were part of those Christmas celebrations long before it was introduced to America. Now, these fickle tropical plants, along with Paperwhites and Amaryllis are must have traditions as we force them into their showy displays at a time when they would normally be dormant.

My memories of decorations in my childhood always revolved around a Christmas tree. We also had a vintage nativity scene, a simple candelabra in the window, and of course, miles of paper chains. I was in my early twenties when I attended my first company Christmas party. It was held at the local town club. When I walked into this stately old club my first sight was an oak banister. They had decorated it by loosely twining fine grapevines around it. In the negative space created, there was gold tulle encasing white lights, angles blowing trumpets and doves.
I had never seen such an elegant and imaginative Christmas decoration. I was awestruck, and from that moment my thoughts of Christmas decorating shifted. I was no longer content with a tree. I longed for a banister to decorate. I've never gotten one, but I make due. The spandrel that divides our livingroom from the diningroom is the focal point, and other garlands are placed so as to compliment and balance the greenery throughout the house.

You can get quite showy with your greenery, but sometimes a simple boxwood wreath hung by a coordinating ribbon is adornment enough.

I enjoy the many color options that are offered for Poinsettias. This year I highlighted my graniteware collection with a creamy white one.

And where real greenery fails, there are many silk options to be had. I cut and combine floral picks and stick them into bare corners.

Over the sink, the usual vegetable prints are exchanged for botanical prints of seasonal plants, holly, winter pears, my favorite pomegranates, and the Colonial symbol of welcome, the pineapple. Silk bayleaf wreaths, which coordinate with the bayleaf garlands in other rooms, are hung on every pair of short cabinet doors.

Not even the bathroom is bare. The modern LED battery lights and candles make it possible for me to light up every nook and cranny.

Of course, the real thing is always best. My mother makes dozens of wreaths to give as gifts with sprigs of holly and rose hips tucked in. People look forward to this gift all year long and she enjoys shopping for ornaments to personalise each wreath to the person's decor or personality.

One year a friend of mine in Maine gifted me with a box of trimmings from her own yard. I used a centerpiece form purchased through the Colonial Williamsburg catalog to construct this centerpiece. When the pears become over ripe, just replace them with ornaments.
Colonial Williamsburg is a great source of inspiration for decorating with greenery and fruit. I page through their galleries each year looking for inspiration. In fact, it was Colonial Williamsburg which first popularised Candles in the Windows back in the 1940s. That is a look I've always enjoyed. It's amazing how elegant and festive the right sort of facade can look with careful placement of single candles.
Other sources of decorating are the idea galleries at Better Homes and Gardens and Martha Stewart.
White Flower Farms sell wonderful garlands. Sometimes I will buy one, cut an end off to use in arrangements, and hang the shortened garland for decoration. They also sell boxes of mixed greens if you have a hard time finding a local source. Williams Sonoma is another excellent source.
If you want silk greenery that you can use year after year, there are now many catalogs which supply excellent quality decorations. My favorites are Front Gate, Grandin Road, Ballard Designs, and Horchow Home.
One of my gardening projects for next summer is to plant evergreens for the express purpose of trimming for holiday centerpieces and garlands. We have a planting bed ready, and next spring I will be shopping for my own holly and ivy, and probably some box wood and other evergreens so stay tuned.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Some Things are More Trouble Than They're Worth...

There are certain things that seem like a wonderful idea at the time, but in reality, are just more trouble than they're worth. You can either buy the finished product for much less than you can make it yourself, OR you are better off just admiring a picture of it. Please remind me of this moment of clarity if I ever show signs of doing the following:

Trying to grow my own Sweet Corn, Pumpkins or Watermelon.
Canning Tomatoes or making Sauce.
Planting more than two Zucchini plants at a time.
Baking cutout Christmas cookies.

I keep a list of cookie recipes that I've mastered, and I also keep a list of failures to never try ever again. Inevitably, every few years, my memory grows dim, and a photo like this in a catalog...

...will catch my eye. I will immediately send away for the cookie cutters. I will clip the photo for inspiration. And I will take several years off my life trying to achieve similar results.

And for what? To try to impress my mother, husband, extended family, friends and coworkers with my baking prowess when I present them with a picture perfect box of Holiday delights? Trust me, there is no baking prowess. My mother is already impressed with me, due in no small part to her claim on giving birth to me. My husband barely tolerates my flights of Holiday fancy as it is, and my coworkers know they must pretend to be impressed or suffer a 40 hour work week of bad (worse) temper. My friends would probably think me pretentious and talk amongst themselves while I'm occupied with my cutout cookies.

Alternatively, there are several recipes that are a lot less trouble than they appear.
Split Seconds, for instance, have a bit of a learning curve, but are remarkably easy, and they look so festive. Especially if you drizzle white icing over the finished cookies. I use cherry jelly instead of raspberry jam, and I apply it with a cookie decorator.

Hershey's Peanut Butter Blossoms. This dough is SO easy to work with. Very forgiving. But, if it looks like you are going to get more than 4 dozen out of the batch (I got 5) be sure to unwrap the extra kisses BEFORE you pop the last sheet in the oven! Time is of essence!

Pecan Turtles. A regional candy favorite. Add two tablespoons or heavy cream instead of water to your caramels. Very easy to make, not as messy as they sound and heavenly to eat.

Now, as for those cut out sugar cookies... I still have several refrigerated dough logs to work through. I think the wise choice would be to get out the snowman cookie cutter and apply the frosting with a broad knife.