“Christmas…that magic blanket that wraps itself about us, that something so intangible that it is like a fragrance. It may weave a spell of nostalgia. Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance…a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved.” Augusta E Rundell
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.
The ancient Egyptians worshiped a god called Ra, who had the head of a hawk and wore the sun as a blazing disk in his crown. At the solstice, when Ra began to recover from the illness, the Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized for them the triumph of life over death. Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs.
Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It’s possible that the wooden pyramid trees were meant to be like Paradise Trees. These were used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches on Christmas Eve. In early church calendars of saints, 24th December was Adam and Eve’s day. The Paradise Tree represented the Garden of Eden. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.Christians use evergreens as a sign of everlasting life with God.Other early Christmas Trees, across many part of northern europe, were cherry or hawthorn plants (or a branch of the plant) that were put into pots and brought inside, so they would hopefully flower at Christmas time.
Linzer cookies are a biscuit form of the Austrian Linzertorte, a Christmastime treat named after the city of Linz, Austria. They are biscuit sandwiches with a scrumptious jam filling seen through a sweet window of any cut out shape, in the top biscuit of the sandwich.
250 g unsalted butter, softened
200 g icing sugar
A pinch of salt
500 g sifted plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
50 g mixed peel
2 egg yolks and 1 egg
Zest of one lemon, zest of one orange, 1 orange
100 g lemon or orange marmalade
5 tablespoons icing sugar for decoration
Blitz pulp of orange and mixed peel in food processor. Cream the butter, eggs, 1 tbsp of flour and sugar together until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the flour, the almonds and zest, orange and continue beating until the mixture becomes a slightly stiff dough. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap it in cling film and refrigerate it for about one hour. Preheat oven to 170 degrees C. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a sheet 3 mm thick. With a chosen cutter, cut as many shape from the sheet as possible. Knead the leftover scraps of dough into a ball and roll it out again into a 3mm thick sheet. Cut out more shapes. Cut a window into the half of the shapes. Arrange them on a baking tray, leaving space between them. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes or until light brown. Cool on cake rack for 20 minutes.Spread the solid shapes with a thin coating of jam, lay a cutout biscuit on top of each, pressing the two together so they make a sandwich. Spoon a dab of jam into the opening of each sandwich and sprinkle the tops with icing sugar before serving.
Honey Ball Cookies
Style and substance is not a question of money or age, rather it is based on knowledge and care. This is a secret family recipe is not young, not expensive and neither is posh, however, it creates something extremely festive and special. I clearly remember my grandmother making it for festive seasons, and with the memory comes the realization of her untold greatness and talent.
330 g flour
50 g brown sugar
120 g honey
2 tbsp water
3 tbsp oil
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp mixed spice
A pinch of salt
For the glaze
4 egg whites
350 g icing sugar
Mix eggs, honey and sugar until fluffy. Add the rest of the ingredients, mix thoroughly and quickly, then wrap it in foil and rest in fridge overnight. When ready to bake, form small balls and place them on lined baking tray. Bake in preheated 180 degrees C oven for about 15 minutes. Place on wire rack and cool until making the glaze.
To make the glaze place a bowl over boiling water and whisk egg whites with icing sugar to create a stiff, very glossy finish. Once this consistency is achieved, take off the steam and whisk until cooler, a couple of minutes. Finally fold cookies in the meringue and place it on lined tray. It takes about 10-15 hours for it to dry completely.
“Somehow, not only for Christmas but all the long year through, The joy that you give to others Is the joy that comes back to you. And the more you spend in blessing The poor and lonely and sad, The more of your heart’s possessing Returns to you glad.” John Greenleaf Whittier