In many European countries The Feast of St Nicholas is the start to the holiday season. Do you know, the real St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Turkey in the 4th century, a particularly generous man who was especially devoted to children? His popularity increased to such a point that by the 12th century, he had become a Patron Saint in most European countries and a church holiday was created in his honour, one that became known for gift-giving and charity. The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings was apparently started because St. Nicholas helped out three young ladies whose father had squandered the family fortune after the death of his wife. This prevented the girls from having dowries and being able to marry. St. Nicholas wanted to help them anonymously, as was his custom, and so he rode his white horse to the nobleman’s house and dropped gold coins down the chimney, where they were caught in the stockings hanging by the fire to dry.
Were you aware that mistletoe has been a symbol of winter celebrations since Druid times, before the time of Christ? It was said that ancient Romans would lay down their weapons if they encountered an enemy under a branch of mistletoe. The Celtics believed it had magical powers and could ward off evil spirits, and the Scandinavians included it as a symbol for their goddess of love. It is thought that this link is the beginning of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. This act is said to give those lucky kissers good fortune in the coming year. (I am proud to be from such sociable roots!)
Here’s another one for you… poinsettias are another giving gesture for the season. Legend says a small Mexican boy heading to the nativity scene in his town realized he had no gift for the baby Jesus. So, he gathered green branches that were by the side of the road. The other children teased him but once the branches were laid in the cradle, red, star-shaped flowers appeared on the end of each branch.
There’s more! Candy canes were invented alongside Christmas trees, but there is a bit of a twist to this story (full pun intended here). Cookies and candies were used to decorate the first Christmas trees, Apparently it was a choirmaster at a cathedral in Cologne who suggested twisting the plain sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s crook. This not only made them easier to hang on the tree, but it also provided a treat for children. It became a custom to hand candy canes out to children at church ceremonies across Europe, to help keep them quiet. And I really can’t resist – I have to tell you that there is another ironic twist to this piece of history: it was another man of the church who automated the process of making candy canes – Catholic priest, Gregory Keller.
I am sure you see the running theme here…that the season seems always to be about sharing with others. Whether you share your wealth, your generosity of spirit or the fruits of your labour, the result is all the same: we are all better for it. So, in case the aforementioned ideas don’t do enough for you, here is my bit of sharing for this week – one of my favourite recipes for Christmas, Shortbread Cookies. My brother and I used to both help my Mom make and decorate these cookies; great discussions sometimes went into the decorating details. My Mom placed the completed cookies in the oven like they were works created by Michelangelo.
If you don’t have someone to help make these cookies, give some away to friends or colleagues – they are a bit different than the usual shortbread but still melt in your mouth. Decorate them with candied cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, coloured sugar, almonds… as inspiration strikes you. If you feel you have overindulged leading up to the holidays and can’t eat them all, then feel free to share!
BROWN SUGAR SHORTBREAD
1 cup Butter
½ cup Brown sugar, firmly packed
½ teaspoon Vanilla extract
2-1/4 cups Flour
½ teaspoon Almond extract (optional)
Preheat oven to 325F.
Cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until fluffy. Add extract(s) and mix well. Add flour ¼ cup at a time, saving ¼ cup or so for the rolling.
Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Place one portion on a well-floured surface. Pat it down and turn it over. Roll out to 1/4-1/2 inch thickness. (Do not roll too thin or the cookies will burn; thicker cookies will be even more “melt in your mouth”.) Cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheet. (If you have a silicone baking sheet you can still use that on the pan.) Decorate cookies and bake for approximately 12 minutes or until golden. Store in a sealed cookie jar.
NOTE: If shortbread is not your thing, check out my blog’s recipe archives for other ideas.
I was lucky enough to spend last weekend in Calgary with one of my dearest girlfriends, in honour of my 50th birthday. One of the activities on our radar was to attend the Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market, and it did not disappoint. After all, shopping and sampling goodies amidst children singing holiday tunes is lovely, but how can you beat a sneak peek at Santa’s reindeer?
If you’re like me and you love the hustle and bustle of artisan markets, then Spruce Meadows is a delicious blend of funky, kitschy, homespun and intriguing. There are vendors big and small, with all manner of gift and decor items. Every food vendor offers samples, and the concessions have such delicacies as Hungarian goulash and gluwein, in addition to good old hot dogs and mini donuts. Outside the buildings are toasty warm fire pits where you can snuggle and enjoy your treats, and inside the pavilions are seating areas near performing stages. You’ll need a bit of sustenance to manage the whole fair!
There is something here for everyone, so I encourage you to stroll the aisles and check out what strikes your fancy. The vendors in the stables are particularly charming in their stalls, and that of course, is where you’ll find the reindeer, too. You can even get a posed picture for a fee.
I found some perfect Christmas goodies, and so I’d like to offer a few suggestions from my list of favourites, just to get you started:
In Reindeer Alley (right after the guests of honour)-
- pet stuff – I loved the funny signs and toys at DOG GONE HEALTHY in Reindeer Alley, but in all fairness there are a number of vendors selling all manner of dog and cat paraphernalia
- home decor and entertaining accessories – BURGUNDY OAK BARREL DECOR has stylish, well-made wine barrel platters and other accents.
In the Riding Hall-
- KOOTANA GALLERY – featuring some lovely chimes, crystals and beautiful jewellery that is all about spirit animals, symbols and the energy in stones. You’ll feel good just checking it out!
- AFRICAN BUTTERFLY hair accessories – these masterful works of art are the best for putting up long hair, whether it’s thick or thin. I bought one years ago and was happy to see Daniel again and get Christmas presents.
- KATTINAT Swedish dishcloths – ingenious and fun! Look for the colourful designs on these organic cotton cloths that wipe up like nobody’s business! (there were 2 booths carrying these cloths; same price at either one)
- western style gifts – COWBOY CHRISTMAS has some lovely accessories and fun gift ideas, and the art at RON CHURCH FINE ART & DESIGN is stunning.
- COZY COTTAGE INTERIORS brought much of their store inventory to showcase. Great country-style kitsch.
In the Gallery on the Green and outside–
- REAL TREAT cookies – I know, you’ve tasted lots of cookies, what’s the big deal? Try the smoked pecan ones, or the salted caramel shortbread and you’ll get it.
- GIVE A LITTLE GIGGLE puppets – These wonderful people were only at the market for one weekend but check their website to see where else they are, or buy online. A great gift for little or big kids.
- garden gizmos galore – CREATIVE IRONWORKS has beautiful garden sculptures and furniture; SPRUCE IT UP GARDEN has accents and greens, and RED BARN MERCANTILE has lots of fun Christmas accents and decorations
- home decor – LITTLE MONKEY METAL WORKS has a striking display of silhouette metal art.
In the Equi-Plex (this is also where the main food concession is – think Hungarian Goulash – as well as many of the performances)
- BIG BLUE MOMA jewellery and textiles – if you want something handmade and unique, the collection here will do the trick for sure. Jewellery, cushions and table linens all made in Canada with materials made by hard-working entrepreneurs in Ghana. They are one of the delightful booths featuring international wares – be sure to wander this aisle and check out all the unique items.
- TORILL’S TABLE – delectable Norwegian waffles, made from a mix – try a sample!
- KRUSE’S BAKERY – has stollen, and some delicious-looking cookies. Save some time and enjoy someone else’s baking!
There are 2 more weekends left to enjoy this market in Calgary’s south end. Easy access is available through public transit, and there is a parking shuttle too. You can save $2 per ticket if you buy online through their website. Plan on spending about half the day if you want a good look around; my list is only the tip of the iceberg. If you are there after dark, you’ll get the added benefit of all the lights!
If you’re not in the holiday spirit yet, this is sure to do the trick. Thanks to Spruce Meadows and all their volunteers for putting on such a professional and welcoming holiday event.
Sunday is our day of rest and often, indulgence. Sunday brunch, full of rich creamy dishes and comfort food – an excuse to jam all the best parts of breakfast and lunch into one occasion, not to mention allowing cocktails and dessert as part of the menu as well, just because, well, it’s Sunday 🙂 Then there’s Sunday dinner: the roast beast and all the trimmings. Granted, most of us are used to having this meal with numerous family members (not always good for the digestion) but a larger group allows for economies of scale in cooking… and it makes for good sandwiches in the coming week! It often means a few more calories consumed, but we’ll be back at the workouts on Monday, won’t we?
At Rabbit Hollow, we often work Sundays, so the brunch happens whenever we have a day off, which might just as easily be Tuesday. With only the two of us for family close by, we don’t tend to do a large dinner either. But I often take on baking projects if I’m not out in the garden on a Sunday, so I thought I might share some of those favourites during the Spring Break season. With kids home all week, you could even take on these recipes on a weekday!
A fun item to add to any breakfast or brunch is a muffin, and I have a great, healthy (but tasty!) recipe – Banana Bran Muffins. Leftovers are great to take to work with coffee, too.
I made Chocolate Coffee Cake this week. A friend posted a recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens blog, one of their most popular items. I thought why not? Martin, my husband, loves coffee cake. Well, it’s an all-afternoon project with dough that needs rising, but if you don’t mind the start-and-stop, the result is pretty wonderful. He loved it for brunch this morning.
Cookies are always good to have on hand, and fun to share at the office or with friends. One of my faves is a recipe I kind of made up, Tropical Delight Cookies . If you are feeling down about not getting away to a more exotic destination, these might help lift your spirits. This is an easy recipe that the kids can make, too – just in case they are driving you crazy being underfoot at home.
If you’re more the savoury type, but you still want to feel that exotic sense of wonder, how about Chicken with Cinnamon & Dates ? It’s a great way to jazz up any night’s dinner.
A tradition that we had when I was growing up was for each of us kids to cook one meal a week. Spring Break is a good time to start that if you haven’t already… Sundays work well, too. Kids can start out chopping veggies or assembling salad, and then as they get older (and taller) they can work their way up to preparing dishes for the oven, or cooking at the stove. Carrots with coriander and caraway is a great first recipe for kids – simple, fast and tasty.
Even something as straight-forward as flavoured popcorn can be a family cooking experience. If Sunday brunch or dinner seems too much, try just getting everyone together for a pick on Netflix and then adding a bit of zip to your popcorn or pretzels or nuts. Spice blends are fun to play with – you can try the ones in your cupboard (cajun popcorn or pretzels? smoked salt on toasted almonds?) by just adding a drizzle of butter or olive oil. Toasting nuts a bit first really brings out their flavour – about 5 minutes at 400F will usually do it. If you don’t have any mixes, think of flavours you like – spicy hot? herbs? (rosemary popcorn is fun). Cheese is a fun addition too – the powdered parmesan you get works great (look for real cheese, not the processed stuff in a can). You can mix it with other flavours or just add it on by itself.
Any effort you make in the kitchen is worth some quality time – it might just be a moment with a cookie and a glass of milk or a cup of tea, but especially if you can share that moment with a friend you have a chance to connect and catch up. In our busy world, that’s worth a few calories any day, if you ask me.