Holiday History Recollection #2

Holiday History Recollection #2

Welcome back to my series on Holiday History Recollections, where I’m looking at some of the posts I’ve done over the years on the history of holiday words and traditions!

If you’ve missed the previous ones in this series, you can find them here:

Holiday History Recollection #1

Earlier this week we looked at the stories behind some songs…today let’s look at some tasty holiday treats: eggnog, wassail, fruitcake, and Christmas cookies!

What’s the history of eggnog, and how did it get tied to Christmas?

The beverage itself dates back to the Middle Ages as “posset,” a drink that combined milk, eggs, alcohol, and spices. The egg part of its eventual name, then, is obvious–and it seems that nog was a strong, ale-like drink, though no one’s quite sure on the etymology of that part.  The ingredients, however, were expensive, which meant it was reserved for the wealthy or for times of celebration.

At least until the recipe came to America. Since so many people here had farms, and hence access to cream and eggs and cheap Caribbean rum, eggnog quickly became a favorite beverage for special occasions for everyone. George Washington even shared his favorite recipe (which was quite heavy on the liquor, LOL). The drink became known as eggnog first in America around 1775.

Are you an eggnog fan? Store bought? Homemade? With or without alcohol? (My daughter and I prefer it without, but my husband enjoys the flavors more with a dash of sherry or rum in there.)

We’ve all heard “wassailing” in some of the old Christmas songs. And you probably have an awareness (vague or otherwise) of wassail being a drink. But if you’re anything like me (before I had to research it for a book a few years ago), that’s the extent of your knowledge. 😉

Wassail is from the Old Norse ves heill, which literally means “be healthy.” It was first a salutation and then became a sort of drinking salute among the Danes in England, which then spread to the natives. But 1300, it wasn’t only something one said while lifting a glass, but also what was in the glass–particularly spiced ale that was served on Christmas Eve.

By 1600, it had taken on a bit of a “carousing” meaning, which then extended by 1742 to the practice of going house to house on Christmas Eve, caroling and offering the traditional spiced drink. In Colonial America, wassail was traditionally sold by the poor to the rich–an excuse for them to come in and see how the other half lived, and a way for the rich to give alms to the poor.

So this season, if you lift you glass in salute (whatever might be in it), try saying “Wassail!” and see if anyone understands, LOL.

Ever wonder why this cake has become a holiday staple, despite all the jokes about how much people hate it?

Well, let’s start by stripping off the layers of dislike. Up until they began to be mass-produced, fruitcake was a much-beloved special-occasion treat, made with care and considered a rare treat–and a long-lasting one.

The fruit in fruitcake is dried and candied (soaked in sugar), which means it’s well preserved. The cake itself is often made or stored with alcohol too, which in turn kills bacteria. The result? This cake can last. Up to 25 YEARS is the accepted limit (??) on its shelf-life, and apparently it was often traditional to make a cake one Christmas for eating the next. (Yeah. Sure. Why not.) Cultures around the world have their own varieties of fruitcake, with slight variations but equal presence.

So why did it get tied to Christmas? Well, it was reserved for special occasions for centuries, because the ingredients were costly. Fruit, historically, was not cheap, and neither were sugar and butter. It was a favorite cake for weddings, and of course, that most special day of the year–Christmas! So to give a gift of a fruitcake was thoughtful and would have been well received. People could treasure it, savor it, enjoy a bit here and then a bit there without fear of it spoiling.

Where do you come down on fruitcake? Special treat, or dreaded gift? Have you ever tried a homemade variety, or just the mass-produced kind? (I’d be interested in sampling a homemade one sometime! I’ll have to add it to my eventual-holiday-baking list.)

Ah, Christmas cookies. The baking, the decorating, the consuming…all part of the holiday tradition in many families. And it’s been that way for hundreds of years.

Feasts have been a part of Christmas celebration for untold centuries, and since it was counted as one of the most important days of the Christian year, that meant that all the expensive, special foods were reserved for that day. Which included spices, sugar, butter, and lard. So naturally, when one wanted to make a special treat for Christmas, one brought out these prized ingredients and created a sweet delicacy, often in the form of cookies.

The concept of beautiful decorated cookies originated with the Germans, like many of our other Christmas traditions. Why did they go to such trouble to cut out and decorate their cookies? Because they then used them as decorations on the tree! Cookie cutters became widely (and cheaply) available in the late 1800s, helping this tradition to spread.

So when did we start leaving these sweet treats for Santa? Interestingly, that dates only to 1930s America. In the throes of the Great Depression, most families didn’t have a lot…but they wanted to instill in their children the idea of not only being grateful for what they had and what they received, but of giving too. Cookies were something small and relatively inexpensive but nevertheless precious that families could offer in gratitude. Originally, stockings were filled with such treats for Santa. But over the years, people instead put the cookies and milk out for him and left the stockings empty, to be filled by him.

Holiday History Recollection #1

Holiday History Recollection #1

Over the years I’ve had so much fun looking up not only the etymology of holiday words, but also the history behind some of our common traditions. So now that we’re in Advent, I thought I’d do a series of recollections and look at those posts from years past…because I don’t know about you, but I often need a refresher!

Let’s start out with a look at the stories (true and…not) behind two Christmas songs.

I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy learning about the true story behind things like songs, poems, and stories…much like the one that goes along with the carol “Good King Wenceslas.”

This song is based on the famous life of a Bohemian duke, Wenceslaus I (known in Czech as Svatý Václav). Wenceslaus was renowned for his piety and Christian devotion, and nothing could stop him from doing good…even terrible weather. The event memorialized in the song took place on December 26, the feast day of St. Stephen, a day traditionally reserved for delivering alms to the poor. Wenceslaus was so determined to take these alms to his people that he trekked out in the middle of a blizzard to accomplish it. The song is from the perspective of one of his servants, who thought at one point during the journey that he’d surely die from the cold; the snow was so thick he couldn’t see what was ahead of him. But he made his way by literally following in the footsteps of the duke, which led him unerringly to the door of the people he was helping.

Wenceslaus lived from 907-935 and is famous for his midnight vigils and dedication to protecting and providing for his people, especially the poor. Upon his death, many biographies were written about him, and he was soon named a saint. So great was his popularity that the Holy Roman Emporer Otto even posthumously conferred on him the title of “king.” How fascinating is that? He has been held up for centuries as what a true, noble leader should be.

Wenceslaus has remained a popular figure in both Bohemia and England for centuries, resulting in the poem and Christmas carol we all know, written in 1853 by John Mason Neale. The variation in the spelling of his name has happened in the time since the song was written; it originally had that ‘u’ in there.

Because my kids asked me after I went through the original St. Nicholas story with them, when Rudolph came about, and I had no clue.

As it turns out, our beloved reindeer was an invention of a writer named Robert L. May, who was hired by the Montgomery Ward company to create an original piece of work for their annual children’s coloring book. May devised Rudolph in 1939…to some opposition. The publishers didn’t like the red nose idea. Red noses were associated with drunkards, which certainly wasn’t the image they wanted to portray. But when May had his illustrator friend create a cutesy deer character (they decided actual reindeer weren’t cute enough so went with a more familiar-to-Americans white-tailed variety) with a beaming red nose, the powers-that-be relented–and the story took off to amazing success. The original poem was written in the meter of “The Night Before Christmas.”

The song we all know and love was written a decade later, by the author’s brother-in-law. It remained the all-time best selling album in the country until the 80s!

The stop-motion animation version that I grew up thinking was the only Rudolph story worth watching, LOL, came about in 1964. Though very popular, this movie apparently doesn’t stick very accurately to the original poem. Which now makes me want to look up the original and see what’s been changed!

So there we have it. Our history of Rudolph.

Word of the Week – King

Word of the Week – King

The start of Advent seems like a great time to look at the history of a word that reminds Christians of Christ–our Lord and…you guessed it…KING!

King is obviously a word that’s been around forever and hasn’t varied much in meaning. But have you ever wondered where it came from? More, have you ever wondered if it had anything to do with kin, which looks so similar?

Short answer: it does!

Kin has meant “a family, a tribe, a race” since Old English days, and one of the main speculations (though it’s a bit uncertain) is that king is directly related, making it literally “leader of the people,” like what we’d today call a chief. It or its related words in other Germanic langauges has been applied to leaders of all sorts over the centuries–not just political figures or heads of state, but church leaders or the heads of particular fields as well.

The Three Kings, as in the Wise Men of the biblical story, has been used since around 1200. The chess piece came about around 1400 (did you know chess was that old?), the playing card around 1560, and finally, the piece in checkers/draughts in 1830.

Word of the Week – Upset

Word of the Week – Upset

We’ve all been there. We’ve had a bad day, something went wrong, someone hurt our feelings, or maybe we’re just not feeling well physically–times when the best word we can find to describe our state is upset. We all know what we mean–that nothing’s quite right, that things are unsettled, that the order has been overturned.

But have you ever paused to wonder at the word itself? It seems, at first glance, to be fairly straightforward…but when you look up the history, you’re in for a surprise!

Upset has been in the English language since the mid-1400s…but not as we know it. Rather, it meant “to set up, to fix.” Wait–what? That’s the opposite of what it means now! But until the early 1800s, that was the sole use of the word, and the one used for our current meaning was in fact overset, which is now obsolete.

It wasn’t until 1803 that the modern use began to appear, with the meaning of “overturned, capsized”–so a boat would be upset. In 1805, the metaphorical sense of mental discomposure came along. And it wasn’t until the 1830s that it began to be used for an unsettled stomach.

Word of the Week – Groundwork

Word of the Week – Groundwork

The day, my husband and I were walking and talking about a potential building project, and he said something about all the work that needs to go into a foundation, water lines, electric, etc–that “groundwork accounts for half the work.” He then mused as to whether literal groundwork was where the metaphorical groundwork came from.

Short answer: Yep! Of course!

Long answer: Since the mid-14oos, groundwork has been used to refer to the foundation of a building–you know, the part directly on or even under the ground. What surprised me was that by 1550, the symbolic or metaphorical use had come into being and was also used of immaterial things. So people have been laying the groundwork for other plans and projects and ideas for quite a long time!

Have you ever been involved in a new-construction building project? Did the cost and amount of planning for the groundwork take you by surprise?

Word of the Week – November

Word of the Week – November

Have you ever paused to wonder at the names of our months? Nearly all of them are taken from the Roman calendar, which means there are some hold overs from a culture and language that may seem odd to us. Some of the months are named for gods (January, March, April, May, June), two were re-named for emporers (July and August) and the rest…the rest are very simply numbers.

This makes sense once you realize that the –ber ending means “month.” Add in the Latin words for the numbers 7 (sept), 8 (oct), 9 (nov), and 10 (dec) and you get September, October, November, and December.

November, then, literally means “ninth month.” But…why, when it’s the eleventh?

Because the Roman calendar only had 10 months, and it actually started in March! The oddity here being that they still knew the solar year was about 365 days, which meant that the months weren’t very regulated in length, and were apparently applied very haphazardly. Eventually the Greek lunar calendar was united with the solar calendar, January and February were added in, and the lengths were set.

In my part of the world, this ninth month that is in fact the eleventh month marks the beginning of a season of holidays, autumn turning to winter, and the year winding down. For many of us who are accustomed to celebrating Thanksgiving in November, the month also becomes a time to focus on gratitude.

What does November mean for your family and community?

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