Sunday, 5 December 2010
Christmas in the Back Woods . . .
In the pioneer days, the home was decorated with green branches and homemade decorations. They did not have a big Christmas tree because there was no room for a large tree in their small homes. Pine cones, nuts, berries and popcorn chains were hung on the tree. Figures or dolls out of straw or yarn were made. Cookie dough ornaments and gingerbread men were also hung on the tree.
The Christmas dinner was planned and preparation of the food began weeks ahead of time. The Christmas goose was fattened up and the plum pudding was left to age in the pot until Christmas day. There were chores that began months before Christmas - such as making the gifts for the family members ( corn husk dolls, sachets, carved wooden toys, pillows, footstools and embroidered hankies ). Scarves, hats, mitts and socks had to be knitted. Girls were able to knit before they were six years old. Boys would make boxes for presents.
If there had been a good harvest that year, presents were placed inside stockings . The stockings were hung on the fireplace . Cookies and fruit might also be found in the stockings.
Christmas Eve was a night for singing carols and telling stories around the fireplace. Christmas Day the whole family attended church and returned home to a Christmas meal. Then it was time to visit friends and neighbors.
German settlers brought with them the German custom of decorating an evergreen tree for Christmas. The tiny candles were lit for only a few minutes at a time because of the danger of fire. On Christmas Eve, a neighbour often dressed up in a mask as Belsnickel and visited households, bringing candies for good children and a switch to frighten bad children. On Christmas morning, the children hoped to find candies shaped like animals waiting on their plates.
As Christmas approached, English settlers bought raisins and spices at the general store so they could make mince pies and plum pudding. They dragged a huge oak log in and kept it burning for the Twelve Days of Christmas. This yule-log custom goes back to early pagan times. English settlers fattened several geese through the fall to be ready for Christmas Dinner. Children looked forward to presents of oranges (precious because they could only be bought at this time of year) and candies. Gifts weren't exchanged, but mother might knit new mittens or hats for the younger ones, and father might carve a toy for the baby.
Irish settlers had their own customs. On Christmas Eve the youngest child placed a lit candle in the window to welcome Mary and Joseph. The Mary of the family (almost every family had a Mary) would snuff out the candle on Christmas Day. Irish families also made small nativity scenes to help children understand the Christmas story.
Santa Claus first came to North America with Dutch Settlers, who first called him Saint Nicholas, then Sinter Klaas and finally Santa Claus.
Scottish settlers were surprised to find their neighbours celebrating Christmas. In Scotland, it was a day to spend quietly in church. Their festive day was New Years Eve, Hogmanay.
As the years passed, settlers in the backwoods and in the towns borrowed ideas from their neighbours and soon, instead of a German or Irish, English or Scottish Christmas, there was a distinctly North American Christmas.
I think it must have been very special to be a child back in the pioneer days at Christmas time. It must have been a wonderful time for families to reflect on their many blessings of the past year and look forward to their dreams for the coming year...a time when they could forget all the work and hard times and enjoy a special moment with family, friends and neighbours. A simple time . . . but, it seems to me, a wonderfully rich time, steeped in traditions, both old and new . . .
Here's a delicious meal to cook for supper on these colder nights, when the wind is blustering away outside and rattling your windows and doors . . .
*Lemon Roasted Chicken With Croutons*
Serves 3 - 4
A simple chicken, stuffed with lemon, roasted and then sliced onto a bed of warm croutons so they soak up all the delicious juices of the chicken . . . How good is that??? In my opinion, roast chicken in any way shape or form can’t be beat!
1 (2.5lb.) roasting chicken
1 large onion, sliced
Sea Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 unwaxed lemons, quartered
2 TBS butter, softened
6 cups bread cubes, ¾ inch (1 baguette or round boule,
I have even used a cubed olive ciabatta loaf)
Pre-heat oven to 200*C/400*F. Toss the onion with a little olive oil in a small roasting pan. Wash your chicken and remove any excess fat and pinfeathers. Sprinkle the insides with salt and pepper then stuff with the lemon quarters, giving each one a little squeeze before you put it in. The last quarter I squeeze all over the outside of the chicken before finally placing it inside. Rub the outside of the chicken with the softened butter, sprinkle with more salt and pepper and place on top of the onions in the roasting tray.
Roast for 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours, or until the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and the thigh. Cover with foil and allow to sit for 15 minutes while you do the croutons. The onions in the bottom will probably be burnt looking, but don’t worry, the flavour will be good.
Heat a large saute pan with 2 TBS olive oil until very hot. Lower the heat to medium low and saute the bread cubes, stirring frequently, until nicely browned. This will take around 10 minutes or so. Just before they are done I stir in a knob of butter and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.
Place the croutons on a serving platter and slice the chicken on top. Strain the juices from the pan, discarding the onion and spoon over all. Serve warm.
Baking in The English Kitchen today, some tasty Chocolate and Toffee Cookies!