Author Archives: John Cutrone

Stirring Up a Slow Christmas

This Sunday brings a day known as Stir-Up Sunday: it’s the final Sunday of the year in Ordinary Time as we shift into the Advent season with the First Sunday of Advent on the 28th of November. It is, in my view, a good time to slow down and refocus on the approach to Christmas. I know people who have had full on Christmas decorations up for two weeks already, and while folks can do what they want, of course, well… that’s not happening in this house. We only put the Indian corn on the front door after Halloween ended, and there are still pumpkins on the porch. We’ll be taking each day this season as it comes (as we always do): Thanksgiving, then Advent, and a gradual easing into Christmas––so we’re not tired of it before the Christmas season has had its proper Twelve Days.

If you, too, are on board with this idea, then welcome! I call it the Slow Christmas Movement. It’s not for everyone, I know, but it’s the way we like to do things, and it heightens the Christmas experience by building on anticipation, which is such a wonderful thing.

Speaking of anticipation: it is a good time right now to order Advent candles and calendars from our Convivio Book of Days Catalog! A simple thing like an Advent candle that you light each night or an Advent calendar that you open a door on each day can really help bring some perspective to things, especially if you feel rushed. Ours are the traditional kinds, made in Europe, where these traditions began, and it’s all part of this Slow Christmas Movement. We always offer free domestic shipping when you spend $60, and this year, we are once again offering our big Christmas Stock-Up Sale: spend $75 on anything and everything in our catalog, and save $10 plus get free domestic shipping: a total savings of $19.50. Just use discount code STREETFAIR at checkout. Click here to shop!

Here’s another way to slow things down: this Sunday, prepare a traditional English fruitcake or steamed pudding. Not that you’ll be rushing the season by eating it this Sunday. No, the best of these desserts need time to age and time, if you are making them boozy, to soak up the booze. And this is what Stir-Up Sunday is all about. It begins with a prayer, and here it is:

Stir up, we beseech thee, o Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Or something to that effect. The language is often updated nowadays, replacing the thees and the plenteouslies with more contemporary words, but I think you get the general idea. It is the collect––the prayer––after communion in the Anglican Church this last Sunday in ordinary time before we shift to those Four Sundays of Advent, the time when we make our houses as fair as we are able. There is the prayer, and there is also the fact that traditional steamed puddings and fruitcakes require a good four weeks to age and become sufficiently brandy-soaked to reach their best depth of flavor. Ask folks in the congregation and they may very well have their own version of the collect, which goes more along these lines:

Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot,
Stir up, we beseech thee, and keep it all hot.

This is not something we are particularly aware of in my family, Catholics as we are, and Italians, no less. But my sister does make a good fruitcake most Christmases, brandy-soaked like the best of them, and she does make it early, long before Christmas’s arrival. Same goes for her delicious Pfeffernüsse, the spicy German cookie that requires weeks to develop its flavors. They say a proper British Christmas pudding should contain thirteen ingredients––one for Jesus and each of his disciples––no more and no less. And when it is prepared on Stir-Up Sunday, each member of the family should give the pudding a stir, making a wish as they do. The stirring must be from east to west: the same direction the Magi traveled to visit the newborn child.

By the way, here is Nigella Lawson’s recipe for her Ultimate Christmas Pudding. I think we may give this a try in our home this year. You’ll find two versions presented there: one in metric measures and one in imperial measures. The two versions have more differences than just ways of measuring ingredients: The metric includes the British name for raisins (the lovely word sultanas), but it also lists suet as an ingredient, where in the American version, the suet is replaced by vegetable shortening. I’ll be making this using the shortening.

If you’re far away, don’t forget our Christmas Stock-Up Sale. But we’ll be popping up at a few nearby pop-up markets this season, and if you’re local, we’d love to see you. We’ll be outdoors at all these markets.

Sunday November 28 from 2 to 8 PM at 130 South H Street in Lake Worth Beach. We’ll have a table in the outdoor courtyard, focused on Advent candles, Advent calendars, and a selection of Christmas artisan goods from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico.

Saturday December 4 starting at 6 PM at 512 Lucerne Avenue in Downtown Lake Worth Beach. Inspired by traditional European Christmas markets. We’ll have a tent in the outdoor courtyard with a large selection of our Advent and Christmas artisan goods from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico, Shaker culinary herbs and herbal teas, and some of our textiles from Kei & Molly Designs and Millie’s Tea Towels.

Saturday December 11 from 2 to 10 PM and Sunday December 12 from Noon to 8 PM at 5111 Lantana Road in suburban Lake Worth. A traditional German Christmas market. Tickets required. Our largest pop-up shop ever will include Advent candles and calendars, Christmas artisan goods from Germany, Sweden, and Mexico, Shaker culinary herbs and herbal teas and soaps, Millie’s Tea Towels, our new line of tea towels and reusable bags from Kei & Molly Designs, market bags from Mexico, and more.

One last thing before I sign off: Won’t you join me, virtually, at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts’ next virtual Real Mail Fridays social? It’s today! Friday November 19 from 2 to 5 Eastern. We’re calling this one the ABBA Voyage Social Redux, because yes, we did it last week and it was SUCH a blast, we’re doing it one more time. Three hours of ABBA music––classics and new music from ABBA’s just released new album: their first in nearly 40 years. Click here for the Zoom link to join in the social. Come and go as you please. Supremely heartwarming. And you know I’d love to see you.

Image at top: “The Christmas Pudding” by Robert Seymour. Etching for The Book of Christmas by Thomas K. Hervey, 1836.



Closing These Days of Mystery & Remembrance

The days have been hectic and I apologize for not writing more often. No news from me for Hallowe’en, nor for Dia de Los Muertos and All Souls Night. And now, with Martinmas, we come to the close of these annual days of remembrance and mystery. And even today I have nothing new to write you, but instead offer this piece from years past. It is a worthwhile read, so please accept it as that, and allow it to give you pause as this day progresses: time to honor this day, and time to honor those on that distant shore. And time, too, to appreciate the days that lead us soon into even busier times: Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow it. There are a few invitations at the end of this chapter, too: invitations to a sale, to a story, and to an online social. Happy Hollantide. Happy Martinmas. –– John

It’s November, and very soon, Mom will wake up one morning and decide it is time to make u cutto. She’ll put her big pot on the stove, pour in the ingredients, and it will simmer all day long, and into the night. U cutto is what we call it in our Lucerine dialect from Apulia: “oo coo-toe.” In proper Italian, it would be vin cotto, or mosto cotto: cooked wine, or cooked must. It is a syrupy concoction that we use in all sorts of sweets at the end of the year. It’ll show up in Christmas cookies, and last year’s mosto cotto made an appearance at All Souls Day in a dessert distinct to my grandparents’ region of Apulia that is made just for that night. My grandparents used to pour it over freshly fallen snow as a treat for the kids. It is, at its most basic, what’s left of the grape must after winemaking, boiled down with sugar to a reduction. The aroma fills every corner of the house as it simmers through the day, as the brew reduces to its proper consistency. It is prized by my people, this autumnal concoction so distinctive to Apulia: its own sort of black gold.

U cutto would traditionally be made around the Nativity of Mary, which was in September, or around Martinmas, which is today. Mom doesn’t usually even think about these things, though: when she makes it, it is simply time to make it. It’s autumn, and her thoughts have begun shifting to holiday preparations, and making u cutto is a big preparation, and a time-consuming one. When she makes it, it is more instinctual than anything else: it is November, and this is what we do in November… a culinary tradition handed down from time immemorial. Her mother made u cutto, as certainly did her grandmothers, and their mothers before them.

Martinmas has a lot to do with wine, anyway, for it is time for the first tasting of the wine that was put up to ferment in September. It’s also when the young new Beaujolais wines of France are released. This has to do with timing and with St. Martin of Tours, who lends his name to Martinmas, being a patron saint of winemakers. It is also the last big religious feast before Advent, that time of preparation for Christmas. In earlier days, Advent was a season of fasting, and so Martinmas was a very big deal, a chance to indulge. Traditional Martinmas foods include goose and turkey, and also chestnuts and very hard biscotti, some of which are baked not just twice but three times. The extra baking makes them hard as rocks, but with good reason: Biscotti di San Martino are meant to be dunked in that new wine that we’re drinking on his day.

In the parts of Europe that most thoroughly celebrate St. Martin’s Day, it is often a time of warmer weather, the last bit of it before the full onset of winter. Kind of like Indian Summer in America, it’s known in Italy, for instance, as l’estate di San Martino (St. Martin’s Summer). But this mild weather tends to be fleeting. Colder nights lie ahead and with Martinmas we find ourselves, by traditional reckoning of time, at the natural start of winter. It is, until Yuletide, a time of increasing darkness. The living world continues its process of shutting down and receding into itself: going underground. Trees are no longer growing above, but roots below the surface still are growing. And so the connexions are strong, these darkening days, between the world of the living and the underworld of the dead.

Of course we honored these days of the dead at the start of the month with Hallowe’en and All Saints and All Souls. But the connexion of Martinmas to the days of the dead is just as strong, through memory. Before the change to the Gregorian Calendar, the 11th of November was Samhain, the Celtic New Year. Another name for Martinmas is Hollantide, and just as Hallowe’en is a corruption of the words All Hallow’s Eve, so is Hollandtide, which comes from Hallowtide: the time of the sacred, the holy––those who have gone before. Many of our contemporary Hallowe’en traditions come out of Hollantide traditions: the carving of turnips (replaced by pumpkins here in America) into Jack o’Lanterns and the going door to door in search of soul cakes, which has evolved into the trick-or-treating we know today. The day is also a traditional weather marker: If ducks do slide at Hollantide, At Christmas they will swim. / If ducks do swim at Hollantide, At Christmas they will slide. / Winter is on his way / At St. Martin’s Day.

Finally, it is, of course, Veterans Day, when we honor all who have served in the military. The day was formerly known as Armistice Day, for it was on Martinmas in 1918 that the treaty ending what would later be known as World War I was signed. The day is known as Remembrance Day in many places, but here in the US, Veterans Day became the day’s official name in 1954.

St. Martin also was a veteran. He served in the Roman army, until his conversion to Christianity and to pacifism, for which he was imprisoned. Upon his release, he went to France and founded a monastery. The best known legend about good St. Martin is his happening upon a shivering drunken man on a cold winter’s day. Martin tore his own cloak in two and gave one half to the drunken man to warm him. The legend makes St. Martin a patron saint not just of winemakers, but also of those who love wine (including those who love it too much).

And so we continue turning inward at this time of year, gathering in, preparing for winter. What’s a good way to mark this Martinmas evening? Certainly with wine. Light a fire while you’re at it. The Celts would have lit huge bonfires on Samhain to welcome in the new year, and in our case, a small celebration involving a fire in the hearth or in the fire pit in the back yard is just as good, made even better with mulled wine and good company. Good St. Martin himself would have it no other way… especially if the year’s new cutto––the mosto cotto––is already brewed and bottled and being kept cool in the fridge. Our time of Christmas preparation lies ahead. For now we pause and delight in the small things of this earth.

Images: At top, Cici Cutto (pronounced “chee-chee coo-toe”), the traditional dessert for I Morti, or All Souls Night, that comes from my grandparents’ city of Lucera in Italy. It is a strange concoction of cooked whole wheat berries, pomegranate, chopped toasted almonds, and chopped chocolate. U cutto, infused with cloves and cinnamon, is poured over it. Second photo: Mamma’s pot of u cutto simmering on the stove, to be later packed in jars and stored in the refrigerator, ready for use on all sorts of wonderful things. Like most seasonal delicacies, she makes it just once each year.



Our annual Christmas Stock-Up Sale is back! Use discount code STREETFAIR when checking out at our online catalog, and we’ll take $10 off your purchase of $75 or more, plus we’ll ship your domestic order for free. That’s a savings that totals $19.50, which is not so bad at all! Many fine things to choose from: traditional sparkly Advent calendars from Germany and handmade daily Advent candles from England to help mark daily the transition to Christmas; winter incense and traditional wooden artisan goods for Christmas from Germany and Sweden and Italy, including ornaments and incense burners and pyramids and nutcrackers (some vintage GDR!); sparkling painted tin ornaments and nativity sets from Mexico (one of them is a pop-up!), and our popular embroidered protective face masks from Chiapas (they make fine stocking stuffers); handmade soaps for Hanukkah and Christmas from our local soap maker Kelly Sullivan; fir balsam pillows that smell for all the world just like Christmas itself––they are from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine, who also offer you bags of their homegrown culinary lavender and their full selection of herbal teas and culinary herbs; letterpress printed books and broadsides that we make here in our workshop… oh and how about a Day of the Dead themed nativity set handmade in Mexico (one of our most popular items ever)? Not to mention all of our new textiles: Millie’s Tea Towels (hand embroidered by my mom) and tea towels from Kei & Molly Designs in New Mexico, plus beautiful Otomi embroidery from Chiapas.

Click here to shop our catalog and see if we can’t help fulfill some of the shopping on your list (while saving you a bit of cash, too). Your transactions translate into real support for a very small company AND for other small companies, real families, local friends and family, and as for the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community, well… they are the only remaining active Shaker Community anywhere, and America’s oldest religious community, established in 1783. All of the folks we work with are deserving of your support on this transactional basis. Our appreciation and theirs is genuine!



If my Hallowe’en Dispatch from Lake Worth never made it to your inbox (perhaps you are not a subscriber to the Convivio Dispatch from Lake Worth), click here to read the mysterious tale… fitting enough as this season of remembrance comes to a close.



One last thing before I sign off: Won’t you join me, virtually, at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts’ next virtual Real Mail Fridays social? We’re calling this one the ABBA Voyage Social, and we’re playing three hours of ABBA music––classics and new music from ABBA’s just released new album: their first in nearly 40 years. I’ll be in my ABBA T-shirt––either the brand new one that I ordered or the one I bought in 1983. Click here for the Zoom link to join in the social, which is on Friday from 2 to 5 Eastern. Come and go as you please.



Thanksgiving, or Your November Book of Days

November. Such a complex month. We begin by remembering our beloved dead. We celebrate the new wine. We thank the earth and God for bounties bestowed. And by month’s end, Christmas music is everywhere and we have our sights firmly set on the midwinter celebrations that will close the year, even if Advent is just beginning. Along with all those celebrations come also Diwali and Chanukah.

It’s a fascinating 30 days. And to accompany them, here (I know, finally) is your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for November. Cover star: an image celebrating Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving celebration, which this year was in September. But that’s the way with Thanksgiving celebrations: September in Korea, October in Canada, November here in the States. Other countries, like the UK, have harvest festivals. But the concept across the board is the same: thankfulness for a bountiful harvest.

We’ve got lots of new Advent Calendars from Germany and Christmas goods, too, plus new shipments coming soon from Sweden and Mexico and from the Sabbathday Lake Shakers… so it’s time for our annual Christmas Stock-Up Sale: Use discount code STREETFAIR at checkout for $10 off your purchase of $75 on everything in the shop, plus FREE domestic shipping. Click here to shop!

Those of you who came out to see us at Dia de Los Muertos Lake Worth Beach and at Florida Day of the Dead in Fort Lauderdale: Thank you! It was great seeing people again in person. We’ll be popping up again soon: Matthews Brewing Company Holiday Market here in Lake Worth: Saturday November 28 from 2 to 8 PM, and one of our favorite events: the annual Christkindlmarkt at the American German Club in Lantana: Saturday December 11 (2 to 10 PM) & Sunday December 12 (1 to 8 PM).


Image: Detail from “Korean Thanksgiving Day Night” by Mobilos. Digital fractal, 2015. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons. View the full image at this month’s Convivio Book of Days Calendar.