Archive for the ‘Christmas Traditions’ Category

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January 06, 2016: “Little Night” on “Little Christmas”

January 6, 2016

 

Moo's Minestrone SoupI get this Christmas article done just under the wire: today is the last day of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Today, January 6th, is known as “Little Christmas” or (in Irish) “Nollaig na mBan” otherwise know as “The Feast of the Epiphany” when the wise men, according to tradition, gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ-child. It is also the day, James Joyce used to place in time one of my favorite short stories, “The Dead.”

It is quite appropriate that I should publish this on “Little Christmas” as it concerns the Christmas dinner I made for my family, which I called “Little Night.” Swaseys+DogsFor a while now, I have been promising a “Big Night” for my folks. This is a dinner based after one of my most favorite foodie films of that name. The film features some of the most amazing Italian food in cinema, and my idea is to make a number of dishes from the film to serve after my family seeing the film. Christmas, of course, has too much going on to devote all that time to cooking, so I thought I would give my family a scaled-down version to whet their appetite…hence, “Little Night.”

One of our family traditions for some time was developed when, years ago, I made Minestrone Soup at Christmas and it was a universal hit. Even the guys who won’t eat veggies (…and you know who are…Stephen Swasey…oh, did I just type that?!!!) liked it. A tattered copy of my recipe has been hanging around for some time, and the actual dish has been duplicated so well by others, that I haven’t made it at Christmas for years now. Moo did an excellent job with this years’ batch. The rest of the meal was mine, ‘tho. We had:

Moo’s Minestrone Soup Chicken Roasted in Spiced Dough Bow Tie pasta with Greens Fancy Salad Tiramisu Chicken B-Ball

The chicken dish is called “Pollo al Sal” or chicken roasted in a salted dough. The dough spices the meat as it traps all the delicious moisture in. The dough bakes as the chicken roasts. At the end of cooking (dubbed the “chicken basketball” by the guys by virtue of how it looked) and after resting, you break the dough with a hammer and you have the most tender chicken of your life! We decided to substitute fresh herbs (rosemary, and thyme) instead of salt for a healthier, tastier chicken.Hammering Chicken

My next dish was a bit of a flop…this time. I usually make the bow tie pasta dish with broccoli raab, a slightly bitter veggie that looks like broccoli gone to seed. It sweetens very nicely when you saute it with garlic in olive oil and sweet red peppers. Trouble was…I couldn’t find broccoli raab anywhere, so I substituted dandelion greens instead. This ended up a little too bitter for most of my family’s taste. I also made the mistake of grilling the parmesan cheese which ended up hardening the pasta a bit. Microwave always has worked for me in the past. Lesson: stick to what works for the basic dishes.Plated Chicken+Pasta Salad

My salad was nice with a center of lentils cooked in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and spices. This was covered with exotic greens, matchsticked fennel, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, clementine sections, all topped with a blood-orange olive oil and wine vinegar. The salad tasted very good, but I need to work on my salad-arranging skills for the next big meal.

My Tiramisu has been perfected over the years, and I love especially it near Christmas. When I found out that Nickki my niece liked it, I had to make it! Most recipes use beaten raw egg yolks. I cook mine with kaluha, beating all the while, to make zabaglionTiramisue, an Italian light custard, which I then cool before whipping in the marscapone (an Italian cream cheese.) I could not find espresso either, so I brewed a strong coffee and concentrated its brewing to get a good substitute. I also could not find spiced cocoa, so I made my own. Then, it’s all assembly: lightly dip lady fingers in the coffee, a layer of the custard, sprinkle of spiced cocoa, and shaved dark chocolate. Cover and chill. I save the top layer of chocolate shaving until just before serving. Steve+Sophie“Little Night” was my gift, but my family spoiled me rotten with gifts of their own, with the charming company of four lovely dogs, as well as their own sparkling personalities!

[Thanks to Stephen Swasey for all photos, except the one of the family (me) and the one of me and Sophie (Nickki)]

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January 01, 2015: NYE Seafood Gratinée

January 1, 2015
Photo by Daniel Winkler

Photo by Daniel Winkler

Teja and Barb had their annual New Year’s Eve celebration at their house. This is usually a bring-your-own affair. Dan brought his popular sous-vide beef and we both made a sauce/gravy for it. I was hoping to make a reduction with the beef juice, but time got short and we had to resort to a semi-gravy instead to get the proper “sticking” texture Dan was looking for. Katie regaled us all with her delicious, tiny, and skillfully decorated cupcakes. As always (…and how I cannot imagine, this ALWAYS happens with Teja and Barb) everyone brought the perfect balance of meats, starches, veggies, salads, and sweets to round out the meal!

My contributions were a champagne cocktail for the New Year’s toast and a Seafood Gratinée with a Champagne/Vanilla Sobayon Sauce.

The cocktail was the very same “Poinsettia” Cocktail that I served Dan for Christmas. I added orange peel to the decoration as well as a cranberry, and used a rosé champagne that I’ve never had before.

The Seafood Gratinée is a Emeril dish he had published in a Christmas & NYE themed cookbook. I duplicated the Sobayon Sauce exactly…as it is perfect. The base I changed by adding lobster and imitation crab and for the “bread” part of this I used a cranberry/sage Triscuit cracker (which I found poor as a cracker, but thought would be excellent in this dish.) I also changed the cheese to Asiago.

Seafood Gratinée with Champagne/Vanilla Sobayon Sauce:

2 C. Cranberry/Sage Triscuits (broken into crumbs)
16 oz. Imitation Crab Meat
7 oz. Lobster Meat
1 large shallot-diced
8 Tblsp. melted butter
1C. fresh parsley (1/2 coarsely, 1/2 finely, chopped)
1 small parcel (.75 oz.) fresh chives
1 C. grated Asiago cheese

6 egg yolks
1/2C. Champagne
1/2Tsp. Vanilla extract
sprinkle of salt and white pepper

In a shallow pan, melt the butter and saute the shallots until soft. In a large pan crumble the triscuits, add coarsely chopped chives and parsley. Chop lobster and crab into chunks and add butter and shallots, also. Add Asiago cheese and mix. Add the whole mixture to buttered baking dish. Top with a sprinkle more of Asiago.

Over a double boiler (medium heat) add yolks and whisk until thickened. Add vanilla, champagne, salt and pepper and continue to whisk until thick. Top seafood mixture with the Sobayon. Sprinkle with nutmeg and fine parsley and chives. Bake 400F until top is golden (about 1/2 hour.)

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December 21, 2013: Boar’s Head

December 21, 2013

Boar's Head-MedievalAs they used to say at the beginning of every Monty Python episode: “And now for something completely different…”

You might need the intelligence and humor of a Python to fully understand the inventive, arcane, and fanciful dishes popular in the British Isles:
1. “Bubble and Squeak” [This one’s not so bad: just pan-fried potatoes and veggies.]
2. “Love In Disguise” [Stuffed calf’s heart. Yeah, “a rose by any other name” is still one pretty messed-up culinary concept!]
3. “Cullen Skink” [Haddock and potato soup. This one sounds quite good.]
4. “Star-Gazey Pie” [A fish pie with fish heads poking up through the crust!]
5. “Toad in a Hole” [Sausages in Yorkshire Pudding. Weird name. Sounds good.]
6. “Spotted Dick” [Yeeesh! Now you’re just pulling my leg!]
7. “Haggis” [Uggg! Don’t even ask!]

Which leads to an enduring dish of the Christmas Season, still celebrated with much pomp in Britain: “The Boar’s Head.” I’ve heard the carol many times and wondered at this odd dish, considered “the rarest dish in all the land” but I certainly never thought I would actually meet someone who has not only tasted it, but has prepared it…and that that person would be an American!

Boar's_head_heraldryWild boar has been considered a delicacy throughout the ages. The Romans served it first at their banquets. The Norse sacrificed boar at the Winter’s Solstice (December 21st) to gain favor from their sun-god, Freyr. The Celts revered the boar as a gift from the Otherworld and at their feasts. Celtic warriors would compete over the choice parts of the boar. The best example of this in Irish literature being “Bricriu’s Feast.” That choice part was most well deserved. One needed the courage and strength of a warrior to even attempt to bring down a hundred pound-plus of an intelligent, pissed-off, muscled and tusked monster in the wild!

"Boar Hunter" Dionisio Minaggio "The Feather Book" 1618 McGill Library

“Boar Hunter” Dionisio Minaggio “The Feather Book” 1618
McGill Library

In addition to emotional fortitude, one tool needed for a boar hunt was a boar’s pike. This was usually made of a short-ish and thick  staff of ash or oak, capped at the bottom with a short metal spike and topped with a longer pike with the most important part: a strong metal crossbeam. The trick then was to find and corner the boar and (providing you could stand your ground) the boar would do all the work. As the tusked behemoth charged, you planted the bottom of the pike into the ground and leveled it at the boar’s chest. The boar would run himself through the pike trying to get at you! The crossbeam (usually) stopped the boar’s charge and prevented him from running straight up the shaft and skewering YOU with his tusks, instead!

Being a vegetarian for some years, getting carnivores to talk about the odd meat dishes they’ve had, is bit like going to see a horror movie or a having a near-miss on the freeway for me: I know I’m ultimately safe, but the rush remains! It was a recent discussion about “favorite organ dishes” with the owner of my company, Jim, that I was surprised that his immediate answer was “Boar’s Head!” From previous discussions about food with Jim, I understood him to have a very adventuresome, but discriminating palate, so I trusted his opinion.

Bringing_in_the_Boar's_HeadJim had boar’s head years ago, as an English student attending college in Buffalo, NY. Close to Christmas, a British exchange-student, knowing Jim had a culinary talent, asked him to help prepare a boar’s head for a Christmas party. As boar is unheard of in America, they settled for a pig’s head from the butchers, and started the laborious (three hours worth) process of preparation. First they soaked the head in warm water to loosen the skin of the head. They carefully made a short incision at the back and peeled the skin off. They then removed the brain, eyes, and tongue of the beast for later. In a large pot they added boiling water to the skull to further remove any remaining meat and discarded the skull.

Now that they had all the meat, they chopped it all up (yes ALL…brains, eyes, tongue…the works) and added pork butt to extend the meat from the head. Added to the meat was stock, beaten eggs, leeks, onions, mincemeat, celery and spices (sage, thyme, and probably bay.)  To extend the stuffing further, they added cooked rice (Jim pointed out that bread would have been more traditional.)

Next, was reassembling of the head, putting the stuffing back into the “pig’s mask.” This, Jim says, was definitely a two-person job: one to hold the head together, another load the stuffing in and to stitch the back with butcher’s twine and a bone needle. Once assembled, the ears were covered with foil, the head was glazed with a jam or cherry sauce and the whole thing baked for several hours until the skin was crisp. As decoration, whole parsnips were placed in the mouth as tusks and cherries for the eyes, an effect Jim says was “demonic.”

Boars_Head_XmasJim told me that Boar’s Head is served with the main course, not as the main course, so would’ve traditionally been served with a roast (beef, goose, or turkey) on a silver platter surrounded by candied root veggies and greens (traditionally evergreens, bay, rosemary, and holly.) Boar’s Head is usually served with a gravy or hunter’s glaze.

This being college, the boar’s head was served with much liquid Christmas cheer, and being Buffalo, also with the ubiquitous “Suicide Chicken Wings.” Jim says the students “attacked” the dish with relish, but when asked about the whole process, he summed it up nicely, “Ah…not for the faint of heart.”

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January 01, 2013: A Feast of “The Dead”

January 1, 2013

deadtable[One of the luxuries of blog-writing is the ability to write an article far ahead of publishing it. I fell in love with John Huston’s last film, “The Dead” when it first came out in theaters in 1987. Seeing it was one of the last pushes to get me to finally visit Ireland in 1988. The story by James Joyce is considered, by some, to be one of the best short-stories of the English Language and it has always been one of my most favorite Christmas-time stories. “The Dead” took forever to come out on DVD, being released finally in 2009. Thank you to the Hudson Public Library for ordering it for me. I write this almost one month before publishing.]

It is a brave undertaking, attempting to make a film of one of the best and most-beloved of short stories of English literature. It would take an accomplished and confident director and one who understood the story’s concern for the impermanence of the human condition and the frailty of one’s best endeavors. The story: “The Dead” by James Joyce from “The Dubliners.” The director: John Huston. It was Huston’s last film.

The story of “The Dead” is deceptively simple. If you are not a fan of subtext, you will be bored to tears by this film. On the surface, “The Dead” is a dinner/dance party in Dublin on a snowy night of The Feast of the Epiphany” (January 6th) 1904. Two older sisters and their niece, all musically inclined, are putting on the event for family, students, and friends. It is a hodgepodge mix of people of all types and ages. In the center of a maelstrom of food, drink, dancing, music, and recitation are a couple: Gabriel, who is the nephew of the older hostesses and his wife Gretta. Gabriel is a university English professor and his main role of the evening, outside of carving the goose, is an after-dinner toast to the hostesses, which appears to be an annual responsibility for him. Gabriel takes this duty very seriously. Throughout the evening he sneaks peeks at his notes and ruminates on the appropriateness of his lines.

Gabriel Rehearses.jpgAs the evening progresses, the audience is introduced to every person at the party, in turn. Despite our technological advances since, society itself has changed very little since 1904, so the audience is assured of finding familiar characters of this group of drunkards, fools, sycophants, and bores as well as those of a more talented, sophisticated, and erudite leaning.

I hope someday to have an Epiphany meal for friends or family. I would most certainly flesh this out more with a soup, salad and more veggies, but I have devised a menu, from as far as I can determine, from both story and film of the basics.

Menu from  James Joyce’s “The Dead”
Roast Goose and Stuffing           Baked Potatoes
Spiced Beef          Red Currant Jam         NO APPLESAUCE!!!!
Blancmange          Christmas Pudding          Chocolate
Toasted Almonds          Raisins          Celery (“capital for the blood”)
White Wine          Port          Sherry          Stout

As well as being concerned with the language of his speech, Gabriel is plagued all night by his failings of his spoken language. [Torture for an English professor. Doubly so, for an Irish one, who value language above all arts. Some surmise that Gabriel is a projection of Joyce of himself, if he had remained in Ireland: a fussy and prim no-talent.] It is interesting that at the early stages of the feminist movement, that the challenges to Gabriel all come from women. The first is from the serving girl, who Gabriel has known since she was young, and when he insinuates that she must be close to being married, she bitterly replies, “The men that are today are all palaver and what they can get from you.” The word “palaver” is  little archaic to our ears but means “idle or worthless talk.” Essentially, the girl is saying (in modern terms) “Men are rats!” A statement that automatically includes Gabriel.

The second challenge comes from a colleague. Molly Ivers is strong-minded, political, and far from shy, fellow teacher. While dancing with Gabriel, she accuses him of writing for an English-sympathizing newspaper and labels him a “West Briton” a shameful term at the time for an Irishman with English sympathies. Gabriel is ignorant of the term, and Molly points out that he is also ignorant of his own language and taunts Gabriel by saying “Good Night” to him in Irish.Grett Contemplates2

The last…and worst…is a rebuff from his wife, while driving home. Gretta has been distracted all night. It is clear she has a secret and Gabriel is anxious to know what it is. He uses jokes and stories to try to wheedle out what she is thinking about…all of which fall very flat.

“The Dead” is a subtle fable of a supposition about humanity: that despite all our surface trappings of tradition, pleasant company, intellectualism, and comforts, in reality all that is truly important is totally out of our control. Our loves, our creative ability, and even life itself, must finally pass.

jj_the_deadBut, this supposition has an inherent flaw, which is evident in the very story itself. Joyce, through this wonderful creative endeavor has captured the life of people (or at least archetypes) that he most certainly knew. Even Gretta must have been based as much on his wife, Nora Barnacle, as Gabriel is based on himself. This creative endeavor inspired one of the best directors of the 20th Century to reproduce it in fine form. In one of the most poignant endings of cinema, Huston gently reshuffles Joyce’s words to mark his own creative endeavor, in order to speak for himself…and for us all:

“Think of all those who ever were, back to the start of time. And me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their gray world. Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling…falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried, falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living…and the dead.”

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December 25, 2012: Best Green Bean Casserole

December 25, 2012

Green Bean CasseroleThis is one rare dish that wasn’t planned to be included on the blog, but as I was making it, I realized that it would be hard to improve on this recipe, so into the blog it must go!

This recipe has my “first” student Regan all over it. Regan faithfully sends me foodstuffs at Christmas, and it was this year’s Christmas parcel that put this recipe over the top! Regan probably doesn’t realize that she may never top her own best Christmas gift ever, when a couple of years ago I got a beautiful Christmas card from her with a Nativity theme, that announced the upcoming birth of her and her husband’s Max son Mason. The foodstuffs, however, are very, very welcome and they have found their way into many of these recipes on the blog. This year’s parcel from my favorite elf came right on Christmas Eve, just in time for my Christmas Dinner plans. Along with an adorable photo of Mason by the tree, I was treated to dried mushrooms of many varieties, most of which I had never worked with in a recipe and could never afford now.

I love Green Bean Casserole and somehow have associated it with holiday meals, despite that I really don’t remember having it growing up at the holidays. Most people have it as a side dish, but for me it is a main dish, as I love it so.

Green Bean Casserole
Soak about 1/4C. dried mushrooms (I used Regan’s Wild Morels and Chanterelles) in 4-5C. veggie broth for about a half hour. While the mushrooms soak, in 4Qts. lightly salted boiling H2O, add 32Oz. washed and de-stemmed French green beans. Boil beans for NO MORE than three minutes (you want the beans to still have a good green color and plenty of snap) and immediately immerse into cold H2O. Drain well. Slice 2C. “Baby Bella” mushrooms (these are immature Portobello mushrooms: these are tastier, more colorful, and larger than the button mushrooms normally used in this dish.) In a 9″ x 14″ buttered Pyrex dish add the beans and rearrange a bit to get them more compact. Top with mushroom slices. Salt and pepper and sprinkle with French Thyme and Herbs de Provence. Fill casserole with velouté.

Velouté
Bring dried mushrooms and stock to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. While stock is cooking, in a medium pan melt 6 Tblsp. butter, add 6 Tblsp. flour and whisk over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes. This will darken slightly but be careful you do not burn it. While still whisking, strain broth into flour/butter. This mixture will thicken rapidly. Add about 4-5C. milk while still whisking. It will thicken more as the milk gets warm over the heat. You want the velouté to be a little on the thin side as cooking it with the baking of the casserole will thicken the velouté further. If needed, add more milk, in small amounts, whisking all the while, to thin. Add lemon zest from a half lemon. Add sprinkles of white pepper, sal de mer, French Thyme and Herbs de Provence. Finish by whisking in 1/2C. Sherry (the real stuff, NOT cooking sherry.) Taste. Correct seasoning. Add to casserole.

In a 325°F oven, on a cookie sheet lined with parchment, toast 1/2C. slivered almonds, turning often. Remove almonds when they are a tad underdone, as you will be baking these further in the casserole. Top the casserole with these almonds and about 1 and 1/2C. French Fried Onions. Bake casserole on an upper oven rack at 325°F for 45 minutes.

Using the Baby Bellas was a big improvement for this recipe, adding the sherry and  lemon zest bumped the taste up a bit, but it was Regan’s dried mushrooms that gave  the velouté the bass note and rich tones that I never had before. It should be noted that the almonds and French Thyme came from Regan’s last year’s gift. I hope to return the favor someday and make this dish for Regan, Max and Mason. I promise to make the whole meal worth the wait!

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December 17, 2012: Bittersweet

December 17, 2012

Bittersweet LayoutI know what you would say. “We have more than enough Christmas traditions. There is no need to concern ourselves with yet another Christmas decoration” and in one sense you’d be correct. We have all the holly, ivy, wreaths, mistletoe, Yule Logs, perfectly healthy conifers that we cut down and bring inside to put lights on. No, I’m talking a decoration for a very different set of folks. Let’s say the holly, ivy, etc. are for the “haves” of the world, because let’s be honest…few people with money collect decorations from nature. I know of no one now that actually goes out to chop down the Christmas tree, anymore. Most people buy Christmas decorations, and if you have the ready cash to buy temporary vegetation to decorate your home for the Christmas season, that pretty much qualifies you as a “have” as opposed to a “have-not.”

Here, I want to break off and say I hope you are a “have.” I sincerely want each and every single one of you to be a “have” because now that I have had the experience of a “have-not” there is no one I would wish this state upon. Yet, I am far from alone…not this Christmas anyway, and for most Christmases either. As the man said once,”The poor will be with us always.”

The Christmas decoration that I propose for the “have-nots” is that of the American Bittersweet. First, it is a true American plant, as opposed to the holly and the ivy, both which grow in the Americas, but it is the European varieties that we see at Christmas. Bittersweet has a festive coloring, forming red berries with the occasional yellow sheath covering, just before Christmas. It is found on a long, flexible vine that can be wound around like a wreath or cut into smaller pieces. It grows in abundance just about anywhere in the wild and is free for the taking. Symbolically, it is appropriate for us “have-nots” as like poverty, Bittersweet can surround and choke off all other life it grows around. Most symbolic is the plant’s name, because as we all carry memories of better Christmases, being poor at Christmas can be perfectly described as “bittersweet.”

Bittersweet_LThe Sweet
My first introduction to Bittersweet as a decoration was at my last “real” Christmas four years ago. I was visiting my sister in Western New York State and she had her house decorated in her unique and quirky artistic style. Every corner of her house had a different and usually antique, decoration or toy. I noticed she had tastefully placed vines of red berries with yellow accents behind a number of pieces of artwork and when I asked what they were and she told me it was Bittersweet. As always, she was the perfect chef and hostess and served the family a most wonderful Christmas Eve Dinner, complete with candlelight, champagne, and  a slew of wonderful Christmas desserts she is famous for. Christmas morning was the best because I had the money to spoil my niece and nephew with a shower of gifts. As Christmases go, it doesn’t get more sweet than that.

No Cash at Christmas is a Real Dickens
Probably the biggest success story of being poor at Christmas is famous because it has been turned into the best-loved Christmas stories in English literature. Despite having been the most celebrated authors of his time, just before Christmas 1843, Charles Dickens was having his own financial crunch. His last two novels were a critical, but not monetary, success. He had just come back from a bad tour of America, where he hoped to get new ideas. It wasn’t a good mix. Dickens found Americans crude and boorish. They found him foppish and irritating. With his fifth child born and overdrawn at the bank, Dickens needed a real good story, and he needed it quick! Dickens was forever haunted by the idea of poverty. When he was eleven, he was pulled out of school and had to work at a boot-blacker shop as his father was put into a debtors prison for his own bad money management. Not only was the work, messy, dirty, smelly and filling the long day with mind-numbing dullness, but Dickens had ignominy of having to perform his job in front of a window for passer-bys. He was never going down that road again if he could help it.

So, by locking himself in a room with pen and paper, in just six weeks, he Bittersweet_Cpounded out “A Christmas Carol” and self-published it just in time for the Christmas season. The rest, they say, is history. He had managed to not only eventually rekindle his bank account but also to capture the perfect and concise story of what it means to be human. He also, single-handedly reinvented Christmas from a not-so-special holiday into what we know of it today. He managed to do all this, while at the same time not sacrificing his moral or creative ideals. Due to his own experiences, Dickens was much concerned with the education of English youths and counted it as the only way to improve the welfare of his nation’s future. Witness, the youthful spectres of “Want” and “Ignorance” that are sheltered under the Ghost of Present Christmas’s cloak.

As with our dreams, storytellers tell stories about what they know…and what they know best is themselves. It is understandable that in “A Christmas Carol” Dickens is at once Cratchit, Fezziwig, and Scrooge, especially when chastised for his avarice from his young finacee with, “You fear the world too much!”

Bittersweet_RThe Bitter
Yet who could blame anyone for “fearing the world too much” when you are under the threat of poverty? The fear is generating from the idea that you have no real control over your life. Having some experience with this, now for the fourth year, I would like to offer some thoughts that may possibly help others in my “have-not” condition (and might not hurt those of the “have” category as well!) Most of these are indeed old chestnuts, so roast them long and slow over your Christmas hearth:

No amount of wretchedness can remove your good memories. Those are yours forever. Use them to remember a time when things were not as bad. All things pass.

Never lose your ideals. There is one thing worse than being poor and that is being poor and not being able to look yourself in the mirror from being bad to yourself or others.

The only real thing you have control over is your attitude. Misery hates laughter. Find the humor. You might even find (like Dickens) with a little imagination, you have a good story.

You might feel embarrassed because it seems  you are failing. Please stop. The only people your condition matters to, are the ones who love you anyway and sincerely want you to improve. Just do your best.

The world tends to obscure blessings through the cataract of misery. Look closer. You will find blessings behind the veil.

Find solace in the free (or cheap) stuff…it is usually the best stuff anyway. Libraries, laughter of children, exercise, sunlight, fresh air, the occasional moment of grace….and just a whiff of hope, are all not to be undervalued.

I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t point out that like most Christmas decorations, Bittersweet is also slightly poisonous and should not be placed in households with pets and small children.

To my friends and family: to all the “haves” and “have-nots;” I wish you a most lovely and wondrous Christmas season. Oh…one more exceptional free thing…a good wish. Yet…if I had wealth of millions that sincere good wish would still be the best of what I could offer.

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December 14, 2012: Christmas in the Trenches

December 14, 2012

Joyeux NoelI’m a big fan of a number of movies that have to do with Christmas. All are wonderful stories of how the season can affect people. There is one film that is unique in that is based on a real historical event, an event  that one may argue represents a true miracle of how the spirit of the season can change even the worst of human behavior…that of our ability to wage war.

At Christmas Eve, 1914, in the heart of the first World War, up and down the front line, men from warring nations met in “no man’s land” the plain between the trenches that separated the two sides, to call a cease to hostilities. I was first introduced to this amazing story through the song “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. In reality, there were many stories of this behavior during WWI, much as the army leaders of Germany, France and England wanted to cover it up at the time. Truces of this sort were spontaneously called by soldiers even up to the Christmas of 1916. This is one variation of the story:

The Christmas 1914 Truce
On Christmas Eve, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm asked an opera tenor by the name of Walter Kirchoff to entertain the German troops at the front line trenches. Kirchoff was singing “Stille  Nacht” (Silent Night) which was recognizable by the Scottish and French troops sequestered in their own trenches across no man’s land and they could not resist chiming in their own languages. One song, in three tongues mixed across the battlefield. One of the French officers who had seen Kirchoff perform, recognized his voice and called out to him. In an impromptu gesture of peace (and courage) Kirchoff snatched up a small Christmas tree that the Germans had sent to their men at the front and carried it across the battlefield. Soon, men left the safety of their trenches to meet other men, who earlier were their enemy. A temporary truce was declared. The soldiers of three nations gave and accepted gifts of brandy, cigarettes, chocolate, and sundry foods to each other. They shared photos of loved ones and more songs. At midnight, a mass was said in Latin (a language common to all three nations.) The next day…Christmas day, they arranged to have their dead returned and all participated in the burials, helping one another. After, a soccer game was held. The Germans won that one, 3-2.

O Come all Ye FaithfullThe French film, “Joyeux Noel” (“Merry Christmas” 2005) does a very good job piecing together the varied stories of the WWI Christmas truces into a single, coherent tale. It traces back and rounds out the story just before and just after the actual event. “Joyeux Noel” begins with a message of hate, presented almost obscenely as it comes from propaganda spoken by children from France, England and Germany. This capacity for adults being able to sow our hatred in our children, like salt in fertile field, is particularly upsetting. A hard scene to begin a movie devoted to the message of peace, but it sets the idea of how far the extremes that a nation’s propaganda in wartime will go.

joyeuxnoel“Joyeux Noel” does not shy away from the horrors of this particularly nasty and costly World War, from its toll on the hearts and minds of the men participating. Particularly sad is the Scottish soldier who has lost his brother. Clearly, this loss is preying on his mind as he believes he has abandoned the brother at his end,  yet he continues to write his mother of how well they are both doing.

joyeux-noel_9As always, even in the harshest conditions, innate human humor can leak through. The underplayed signs in the background of the trenches are brilliant. One, in the Scottish trench points to “Froggyland 5 Feet” while the French have a similar “Rosebif Land” (Roast Beef Land) pointing out the Scottish trench. A lot of the humor revolves around the troops being unable to communicate well with one another. The neighborhood cat, freely ignoring boundaries of each nation, is adopted by all, and as each side has named it, there is a tussle over the “correct” name for the cat.

truce_tinyAfter, asked by the chaplain what he could possibly put into his report to HQ, the Scottish lieutenant says, “Well, I wrote, ‘December 24, 1914: No hostilities on the German side tonight.'”

But no good turn is left unpunished and the peace is short-lived as the agenda of the military will not be fobbed off by an obscure report. Near the end of the film, the message of hate began by the children is bookended by similar messages from unlikely sources, including censors and condemnations of the participants of the truce from their government and even religious leaders.

imagesA wonderful theme of “Joyeux Noel” is the power and irrepressible nature of the human voice. It is the tenor’s wonderful voice that brings them all out of the trenches. It is his wife’s song in Latin, during the mass, that unites them all. It is the Scottish song “I’m Dreaming of Home” that even the Germans bring with them to voice their opposition when finally the powers of state censor their actions of peace. It is most appropriate that this song is sung by children during the credits. In the end, perhaps…just perhaps, the seed of hate need not endure.

“…This is no foreign sky
I see no foreign light
But far away am I
From some peaceful land
I’m longing to stand
A hand in my hand…forever
I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home”

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