Thursday, December 24, 2009


"In comes I, Old Father Christmas.
Welcome? Or welcome not?
I hope Father Christmas will never be forgot!"
I'm from the Philly area, and when somebody mentions mummers around here, we all picture big burly guys wearing pink feathers as they strut down Broad Street on New Year's Day. I mean, doesn't everyone?

Actually seasonal mummery goes back probably to the Dark Ages or earlier. The word mummer at first denoted someone who performed stories in mime while wearing a masked costume. These masquerades were immensely popular during the Renaissance all over Europe, including Harlequin in France and the Italian Comedie. In the British Isles, the art form took a life of its own. These plays were performed at the turning of all seasons, symbolically showing, say, the death and rebirth of the year, or the return of spring, or the reaping of the harvest.

A favorite Yuletide mummer plot was about a king or knight (almost always also a saint) who slays an evil beast, then is himself miraculously brought back to life. The most familiar characters were St. George and the Dragon from England, but in Cornwall, the saint might be King Petroc, and in Ireland, you might find St. Patrick fighting the Wild Worm.

The "mime" was eventually replaced by rhyme, usually in couplet. As poetry goes, this stuff isn't prime, though it tells the story, and once in a while, you'll find some decent wit as well. All mummers plays tend to have similar characters and plots, but as they evolved through the ages, each generation put their own spin on the words, with political and topical references. If the actors are ham enough, they're always entertaining. You can still find mummers plays throughout England, and in many places settled by Englishman, like Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and even in the Carribean, where mummers take to the streets on stilts.

In my novel POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, the mummers are typical of Colonial Virginia, where they may have used grain sacks for masks and substituted King George III for the Dragon. By the 18th century in America, mummers were usually working class or poor who did their best to get a charity handout from richer folk, sometimes even forcing their way into houses at gunpoint (emboldened by drink, of course--see my last blog on wassailing). This practice became so commonplace by 1800 that most American cities, like Philadelphia, passed Masquerade Acts forbidding anyone from walking the streets wearing a mask.

Things were quiet until the 1840s, when a few neighborhood leaders in Philadelphia approached the city council to ask permission to do a little mummery at Christmastime again, just to keep the tradition alive. The city finally compromised--each mummers group had to vow to keep track of their members and be responsible for their actions, and the groups would be allowed to have a parade only, and not go into people's houses. So, Philadelphia got its Mummers Clubs and New Year's Day Parade.

A Philadelphian moved to Atlanta soon after and organized his own neighborhood mummer club, and from there, someone else took the tradition to New Orleans, where it merged with the local culture's Carnivale tradition and became Mardi Gras.

"Our play is done, we must be gone.
We stay no longer here.
God grant you all, both great and small,
A happy, bright New Year."

Peace and Merry Christmas,

NOTE: I'll be taking a little hiatus from my blog through New Year, but I'll be back for Twelfth Night. Don't take that Christmas tree down too soon!

Friday, December 18, 2009


Tonight I'm going Christmas caroling at a local hospital with a group of my friends. This is our 33rd year. I only missed once, about 6 years ago, when I had the flu, but my friends came and sang for me that year. In a way, caroling for the sick is especially appropriate, once you know the roots of the tradition.

I doubt if the Vikings who invaded England a thousand years ago ever wished that island's inhabitants a "ves heill!" In Old Norse, it means "Be healthy!" or "Be whole!" Still, Middle Englishmen eventually picked up the salute, converting it to "waes haeil!"

These same early Englishmen already had a slew of rituals and superstitions designed to keep their crops healthy. Liquor-producing crops where specially prized, apples for cider in particular. With the coming of the frosts, bonfires were lit in apple orchards, dances performed around the trees, and cider applied both internally and externally (to both trees and people), to beseech any entities who might protect the trees through the winter, bring blossoms in the spring, and a good harvest the next year.

By the 13th century, the spelling "wassail" had appeared in print and was used not only as a good wish for human beings, but for their crops as well. The imperative became a noun that described the revelry in the orchards and elsewhere. Within another hundred years, the word had become a verb, meaning "to drink to the health of." In many dialects, it meant specifically to drink to your neighbors' health at year end.

Then came the discovery of the New World. Spices were brought back, many of which complimented the taste of the cider beautifully. Spices were expensive, though, and usually saved for rare occasions. Since the year-end tradition of cider drinking had already been established, the word "wassail" took on a new meaning: a special concoction of cider, spices, sugar, and baked apples, served at Yuletide. As the recipe spread down through Europe, wine and other fruits were substituted.

By the early 1600s, for those who could afford it, fashion dictated that a special, festive bowl be brought out for the custom, and so "wassail bowl" entered the language. About the same time, Yuletide revelers came to be known as "wassailers."

At first, wassailing took place in private homes and taverns, but more enterprising fellows began going door-to-door, singing and drinking to the health and prosperity of each household, preferably with punch supplied by the host, or at least, in exchange for a few coins or food. Some combined this custom with mummery--meaning they presented pantomimes or plays as well (I'll talk more about that in my blog next week).

During Victorian times, when Temperance Leagues abounded, wassailing morphed into the type of Christmas caroling we see today, done by church and school groups, and families. The practice usually has with no connection to drinking unless you're talking hot cocoa and warm sweet cider.

But we still sing the old blessings:

"God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress, too.
And all the little children
That 'round the table go."

To everyone this season, be healthy, be whole.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Floating Islands & Pease Pudding

Being of Italian descent, I can't think of holidays--any holidays--without thinking of food. My protagonist, Pat Montella, has a similar background. In her opening scene in POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, she's stuck in traffic on her way to Williamsburg on Christmas eve, pondering how she'd normally be at one of her aunt's houses eating seven fishes or sausage, with cannolis, pizzelles, and ricotta pie for dessert. Other times in the book she mentions Sicilian advent biscottis and a family reunion with a big pork roast and tomato pie on New Year's Eve.

Pat's experiences were all taken from my experiences. So you can imagine the culture shock to both of us when I plopped her into a Christmas setting where dinner would be in the American colonial style.

In the 18th century, assuming you had the money to afford it and your religion didn’t forbid the extravagance, big dinners were enormously important to the celebration of the Yuletide. The poor ate whatever was usual for them—most likely somewhere between gruel and a pottage (a stew). Middling folk, like Mrs. Carson in the historic part of POISON, may have tried to add a few special items to the menu that time of year: mince pies (made with apples and currants unless you could afford a bit of meat too), pease pudding (peas—the last saved from the harvest --boiled, mashed and whipped with butter), a punch of some sort (probably with hard cider or wine gotten locally or made yourself). Perhaps a pheasant or wild turkey brought back from a hunt if you were lucky. Or like Mrs. Carson, you made a bit of bacon and a few squabs go as far as you could.

But much of what we know of early American meals comes from the diaries and letters of the more wealthy—men like John Adams, who once wrote in great detail about a dinner party he attended while he was a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. These lavish parties (at any time of year) were usually 4 courses, and not the courses (soup, salad, etc.) that we think of today. Imagine a long table set with 30, 40, 50 platters of food, arranged in perfect symmetry, each one presented with artistry. No whole turkeys in the center, no sir—the slicing would have been done in the kitchen and all sorts of edible garnishments added. And no one entree. You might have roast beef at one end, baked ham at the other, boiled beef to one side, turkey to the other, oysters, eggs, venison pie, pheasant, plus a variety of fancy vegetables (imagine beets cuts into the shapes of fishes), breads, relishes...well, you get the idea.

And that’s only the 1st course. Then came the “remove”—when guests would follow their host to another room for some sort of entertainment (a short concert or play perhaps). The servants, meantime, would remove the 1st course and reset the table for the 2nd. A different symmetry of platters, but just as many. Perhaps some of the same foods (the ham this time might be cooked with cabbage, the turkey stewed with a rich gravy) or, depending what was available, different offerings—turtle, veal, lamb, shad roe.

Another “remove” and then the first dessert course. Yes, I said the FIRST.

One cake? A couple of pies? Don’t be silly. Like the opening courses, you’d have variety. Desserts using alcohol and whipped cream were popular. Syllabubs were sort of a parfait made with cider or wine. A floating island was rounds of crusty bread, layered with jellies, floating in a bowl of liquored whipped cream. You might also have sweet omelettes (Pat helps to make one—an apple tansy, one of my favorite desserts—a link for the recipe is below), cookies and small cakes, ices (like sherbet), fresh and dried fruit (depending on the season or if you had enough money to import in wintertime), candied flowers and fruits, nuts. And naturally, dessert wines. George Washington, for instance, was very fond of Madeira.

A 3rd “remove” and another dessert course (my kind of dinner!). These parties, alternating dinner and entertainment, usually began in the afternoon and went on for many, many hours.

Even my Italian holiday feasts couldn't top them.

For the Apple Tansy recipe, go to:

Buon appetito,

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Holly Bears a Berry

Since so many of us are putting up trees, wreaths and lights this week, let's talk decorations.

In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, which takes place in Wiliamsburg, Pat is appalled to find that the house where she'll be spending the holidays doesn't have a Christmas tree. The house is decorated in the 18th century Virginia tradition. Trees are part of the 19th century tradition. (In fact, nearly all the trappings of Christmas that we now take for granted were begun by the Victorians.)

The first American tree was supposedly raised by German immigrant Charles Minnigerode who moved to Williamsburg in the 1840s, though his may have been simply the first publicized tree. The Pennsylvania Deutsch and Hessian soldiers might very well have set up trees in the 18th century, but the tradition was mostly confined to German-Americans and not popular otherwise.

The original tree legend says that in the 8th century, St. Boniface found German natives worshiping a giant oak tree. The saint cut the oak down (cutting down a thriving monument to God's creation doesn't seem very "saintly" to me, but I didn't write the story). From the stump of the fallen oak, a small fir tree grew. Were I those German pagans, I'd have thought this was a sign that the tree gods were showing their immortality, but Boniface's publicist managed to put a Christian spin on it. Somehow, through the years, the tree migrated from everyday Sunday school lesson over to an association with Christ's birth.

The Celtics had similar pre-Christian traditions concerning evergreens and other plant decorations, which is mostly the source of the British customs of the hanging of boughs and "greening" of the house. In an era not at all hygienic by our standards, when everyone was stuck behind closed doors and huddled around the fire for the cold months, some nice-aromatic pine on the mantel must have been as welcome as Febreze is today.

Remember, Christmas wasn't a major holiday in colonial America. Many people wouldn't have decorated at all. Those who did (mainly richer folk, for their dinner parties) probably used natural items like berries, pine cones, or even osage oranges. Contrary to modern Williamsburg decorations, nothing edible would have been used. No one would have wasted food. Very few people could afford to import pineapples, let alone, having gone to that expense, nailed one over the front door. A poor man would have stolen the fruit before the night was out, to feed his family.

Wreaths may have graced a few doors. The wreath dates back to ancient Persia and Rome, where crowns of leaves were made and either given as prizes or worn by high ranking members of society. Later, crowns of leaves and flowers were worn for holiday celebrations like May Day. The supposition is that, after having won a wreath or whatever, people hung them on their doors and windows to show them off. But, again, today's larger wreaths were more from Victorian traditions than earlier.

In Williamsburg in December today you'll see candles in windows and cressets (baskets of burning wood or oil or pitch) along the streets. Probably you would have seen neither in the 1700s. Candles burn faster when placed in a draft and 18th century double hungs weren't at all energy efficient. You'd place candles in the middle of the room, or next to a white wall, to get the maximum light from them. You might have placed a protected lantern in your window, if you wanted to help a stranger find your house easily in the dark. If outdoor fires were lit at all, they'd likely be close to the ground and not in raised baskets. Heat rises, and so, to certain extent, does light. And the wind is more likely to burn fuel faster if the fire is up high.

One Yule decoration that IS mentioned in colonial letters and diaries is mistletoe. They had their priorities straight.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

'Tis the Season

I was a proud cast member of The Philadelphia Revels from 1997 until our local company disbanded a few years ago. Each year in December, Revels groups all over the U.S. present wonderful shows filled with music, dance, poetry, and plays within the play, celebrating the solstice, year-end, and Yuletide traditions of different cultures and historical eras. Our local productions ranged from ancient Celtic to Medieval to Middle Eastern to Victorian, but my favorite was our Christmas in Colonial Philadelphia show. I helped to research and write bits of that script, and what I learned led me to set my 3rd novel, POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, in post-Revolutionary War Williamsburg during the Christmas season.

This month (and up through Twelfth Night) here on my blog, I figured I'd talk about some of the older, lesser-known Yuletide customs. Wouldn't hurt to remind us all that the season existed, and was just as magical, before electric lights and the Chipmunks. And even, to a small extent, before Christianity.

In the historical half of POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, readers will note that most of the Yuletide trappings are secular, revolving around food, drinking, superstitions, and giving money to those below you in station. By the latter, I mean that servants and workers were given coins by their employers and patrons. Working and poorer classes went door-to-door, wassailing and asking for money. Rich folk threw elaborate dinner parties. No one else much bothered with the season.

Before the 19th century, Christmas was a minor religious holiday. Many Christian sects didn't celebrate it at all, partly because the actual day wasn't specified in the Bible, and also, as the Puritans put it, the season promoted drinking and debauchery. (The Puritans, in fact, outlawed Christmas.) Many stores and markets were open on the 25th. At first, only Catholics held services. Protestant churches joined in after many of their congregants began attending the Catholic masses to hear the special music of the day.

One other thing is the difference in the way we define SEASON. Most Americans now think of Thanksgiving through December 25th as the Christmas season, but that's a recent development. Traditionally, the Yuletide season is December 25th through January 6th (Epiphany--the day the Magi visited Christ). Many cultures still celebrate Christmas on Epiphany, which came to be called "Old Christmas." This is also the 12th day of the Christmas season (you know, 12 drummers drumming?) and both its eve and the night of the 6th have been called Twelfth Night. I'll cover Twelfth Night customs in another blog.

Time for an eggnog break.



Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors