Category Archives: New Year

St. Macaroon, and Your January Book of Days

EIGHTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
St. Macarius’s Day

We enter the more contemplative period of the Twelve Days and today, for this Eighth Day of Christmas, we remember St. Macarius, who, truth be told, was not much fun in his older years. He was an extreme ascetic who lived the life of a hermit in the desert and ate only raw vegetables and maybe, on a special day, a bit of bread dipped in oil. But earlier on in life, St. Macarius was a confectioner in his native Alexandria. Macarius the confectioner is remembered more fondly than Macarius the ascetic; he is a patron saint of cooks, confectioners, and pastry chefs, some of whom call him St. Macaroon, as Macarius does not exactly roll easily off the tongue. And so today, perhaps enjoy something a little sweet––a bit of that boozy Christmas fruitcake, maybe, or something more attuned to Alexandria––dates stuffed with nuts and rolled in sugar seem like something St. Macaroon might have made in his shop centuries ago.

We also have for you today our monthly gift to you, the first one in the new year: it’s your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for January 2018. We found ourselves one day last week at the historic House of Refuge on Gilbert’s Bar at Stuart, Florida. The United States Lifesaving Service, which eventually became part of the Coast Guard, built Houses of Refuge about every 26 miles on the wild, untamed Atlantic coast of Florida, places designed as shelter for rescued shipwreck survivors. This was in the late 1800s; ours was built in 1876. The building is lovely and the coast it sits on is rocky, which is not what most folks think of when they think of the South Florida coast. The limestone outcroppings emerge from the sand like rocky cliffs, waves crashing up against them. It’s easy to see why so many ships wrecked along the coast. The house, warm, a place of obvious refuge, is decorated for Christmas now, with the kind of decorations we like best. Like the garland of oranges and cinnamon and nuts and cranberries in the kitchen. It graces your January Book of Days, reminding you, hopefully, of the warm pleasures found in simple things. For me, that often involves the kitchen… which brings us back around again to the Eighth Day of Christmas and to St. Macaroon, patron saint of cooks. May these warm feelings of hearth and home be yours, too, all through this day and the new month and new year.

 

Wassail!

SEVENTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
New Year’s Day

The passage over the bridge has been made and now we’ve crossed over into the Six Days of Christmas that are in the new year. You’ll find these six days more contemplative, I think, and a bit less rambunctious. When the Puritans banned Christmas in Britain and New England, it was mainly a reaction to this annual bout of national rowdiness. Christmas back then was not so much a holy time but more a time of drunken revelry. It was everything the Puritans despised. Their opposition to the season changed Christmas forever. It was not widely celebrated here in the States until writers revived an interest in it. Washington Irving was probably the first to push the idea of a revival of the Old Christmas ways, writing about old English customs that had long since faded away. And then of course came Charles Dickens. The new reinvented version of Christmas, steeped in Victorian ideals, still very much informs the celebration in both countries today. One curious difference between England and the States is the use of the greeting Merry Christmas here versus the more common Happy Christmas in the old country. When Christmas was being reinvented in England, the temperance movement was quite strong. “Happy Christmas” seemed more proper, a bit distanced from the merriness (ahem, drunkenness) of Christmas past, and so that greeting was encouraged in the UK and took hold there. That wasn’t the case in the States, and, oddly enough, we ended up with the more British sounding “Merry Christmas.” It is perhaps the one time a year that we use the word merry at all. I’m glad we do. I’m not one to promote drunkenness, but I’m not one to promote temperance, either. Our motto: “All things in moderation.”

And so for today, the First Day of the New Year, it is customary to brew and drink wassail. It is a delicious hot punch and I encourage you to join in the tradition. The punch is called wassail and the toast is “Wassail!” as well…  from the old English Wes Hel, “be of good health.” The New Year’s Day custom would have us toast each other, as well as the apple trees in the orchard, should you happen to be near one. We are not (apples do not grow in Florida; not that I’m aware of, anyway) but Seth Thompson and I have been known to drink our wassail, toast each other, and go out to the yard and toast some of our fruit trees, too: Wassailing the mango tree, the carambola tree, the cocoanut palms. Tradition, like language, is a living thing. It is perfectly fine (in the Convivio approach, anyway) to shape tradition around your particular reality. Here is our wassail recipe:

Convivio Wassail
Pour the contents of two large bottles of beer or ale (about 4 pints) into a pot and place it on the stove to heat slowly. Add about a half cup sugar and a healthy dose of mulling spices. (If you don’t have mulling spices on hand, you can use cinnamon sticks and whole cloves… though the mulling spices lend a more interesting flavor.) Add a half pint each of orange juice and pineapple juice, as well as the juice of a large lemon. Peel and slice two apples and place the apple slices into the pot, too. Heat the brew but don’t let it boil, then pour the heated wassail into a punchbowl to serve.

Custom calls for us to share the wassail with those gathered but also to take the steaming punch bowl out to the orchard and toast the apple trees and share some with the oldest or biggest tree in the grove. Some folks pour the wassail on the trunk of the tree, while others dip the lower branches into the wassail bowl, and others may place wassail-soaked toast or cake in the branches of the tree. All of which are invocations of magic meant to encourage a good crop of apples next summer. Traditionally, the wassailing of the apple trees is done at the noon hour. Again, we believe you’d do best to let tradition inform your ways, but not dictate how your days go. So if your wassail happens to be late at night, there’s no harm in that. Wes Hel! Huzzah and cheers! And a happy new year to us all.

Image: Detail from “The Wassail” from the Ladies’ Luncheon Room, Ingram Street Tea Rooms by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1900. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Happy New Year

SIXTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay, First Footing

Here we come to what is perhaps Seth Thompson’s least favorite night of the year: New Year’s Eve. “Too much pressure,” he says.”Everything hinges on one precise moment.” And so each year I deal with this. But if there is one thing I really love about New Year’s Eve, it’s the zeppole. These are different from the zeppole we buy for St. Joseph’s Day in March; New Year’s Eve zeppole are kind of a fried doughnut––a yeast dough, much like pizza dough, but enriched with eggs. Mom will make the dough and let it raise and sometimes it will bubble up over the sides of the bowl it’s proofing in and then she’ll spoon the dough into hot oil, stretching the dough as it slides into the fat. The result is a light, fried treat that comes in all sorts of shapes that remind you of all sorts of things as you eat them, whether they be drizzled in honey or dusted in powdered sugar or cinnamon sugar.

The zeppole are all we really need in my family for a fine New Year’s Eve, but our tradition is to make all kinds of party foods: pigs in the blanket, glazed meatballs, spinach & artichoke dip, things like that. I did try once or twice to get my family to eat lentils for New Year’s Eve dinner, but I’ve always been met with stiff resistance. Grandma Cutrone, however, would make a pot of lentils, and would come round to whoever was gathered at her home at midnight on New Year’s Eve to offer them a spoonful: Lentils for wealth in the new year, the lentils symbolizing coins and riches.

Hogmanay and First Footing refer to the New Year’s traditions of Scotland, where the new year celebration is the biggest part of the Yuletide season. The celebration there is known as Hogmanay, which is believed to to be derived from the French au gui menez, “lead to the mistletoe,” and this suggests a very ancient and pre-Christian derivation of most Hogmanay traditions, for it leads directly back to the Celtic druids and the mistletoe that was sacred to their ceremonies. First Footing is an aspect of Hogmanay that feels particularly like a magic spell: The first person to step across the threshold of the front doorway after midnight is this First Footer, and it is hoped that this person would be a red- or dark-haired man carrying whisky or mistletoe or, in some cases, bread, salt and coal. In this case he would kiss all the women and shake the hands of all the men before placing the coal on the fire and the bread and salt on the table and then he’d kiss all the women and shake hands with all the men once more on his way out.

New Year’s symbolism is potent magic, and New Year’s Eve is perhaps the most common night of the year for symbolic foods and rituals. If you have some that are part of your traditions, I’d be honored if you shared them here in the comments section. It’s easy to do so and it helps us all to learn, so please join in and help make this a conversation. Between your input and mine, maybe we can help Seth see that New Year’s Eve is not so bad, after all.

Image: “The Oswestry Old Folks Club New Year Party” or, in Welsh, “Parti Dydd Calan Clwb Henoed Croesowallt.” Photograph by Geoff Charles, in Wales, 1955 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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