Dec 252016
 

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It’s Christmas Day – of course. This year let me add my voice to the chorus of nonsense about the day. Maybe mine won’t be quite as stupid and ill informed as most. One can hope. My central theme is that Christmas is a CHRISTIAN feast – not pagan, Roman, druidic, or whatever. It is purely Christian at heart. Certainly it has accrued a mountain of stuff from other midwinter celebrations, but that does not alter its core idea.

Let’s begin with the date because exploring that path uncovers a multitude. There is no evidence that a celebration of Jesus’ birth existed on the Christian calendar before the 4th century. There was a great deal of debate about possible dates and also a certain amount of skepticism about the wisdom of celebrating a birth in general. In the 3rd century, the date of birth of Jesus was the subject of both great interest and great uncertainly. Around 200 Clement of Alexandria wrote:

There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].

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Other contemporary writers argued for May 20, April 18 or 19, March 25, January 2, November 17, and November 20 as possibilities.  Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) argued for a winter solstice date which by his time had found some favor within the church:

Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.

Early Christian writers show no knowledge of Christmas. Irenaeus (died c. 202) and Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) omit it from their lists of feasts, and in 245 Origen, commenting on Leviticus, says that Scripture talks about sinners celebrating their birthdays – such as Pharaoh, who then had his chief baker hanged (Genesis 40:20–22), and Herod, who then had John the Baptist beheaded (Mark 6:21–27) – and talks of  saints cursing the day of their birth – such as Jeremiah  (Jeremiah 20:14–15) and Job (Job 3:1–16).

The earliest known mention of Christmas as (possibly) being celebrated on the 25th of December is recorded in a 4th-century manuscript compiled in Rome. This manuscript is believed to record a celebration that occurred in 336. It was prepared privately for Filocalus, a Roman aristocrat, in 354. The reference in question states, “VIII kal. ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeæ”. This reference is in a section of the manuscript that was copied from earlier source material. It’s taken as a kind of confirmation that Christmas was celebrated on that date but the reference is too scant to be sure.

In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in western Christianity focused on the visit of the magi. But the medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the “forty days of St. Martin” (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours). The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.

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In the High Middle Ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates celebrated Christmas. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. Caroling also appears in the records of this time. The first records is of a group of dancers who sang. The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers who provided the chorus.

Throughout the Middle Ages across Europe various aspects of non-Christian midwinter celebrations got added into the mix: holly, ivy, mistletoe along with feasting, drinking, gambling, dancing, and sporting, along with elaborate masques, pageants, and plays.

Following the Protestant Reformation, many of the new denominations, including the Anglican Church and Lutheran Church, continued to celebrate Christmas. Martin Luther helped turn Christmas festivities into something specifically German which then spread to the rest of Europe and North America. The Dutch Reformed Church also celebrated Christmas as one of the principal evangelical feasts. However, in 17th century England the Puritans strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast.” The calendar reform became a major point of tension between the Anglican party and the Puritan party.” King Charles I of England directed his noblemen and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter to keep up their old-style Christmas generosity, but following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I in the English Civil War, England’s Puritan rulers banned Christmas in 1647.

Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652), argued against the Puritans, and makes note of Old English Christmas traditions, dinner, roast apples on the fire, card playing, dances with plough-boys, old Father Christmas and carol singing.

The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many Calvinist clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebration. As such, in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland discouraged the observance of Christmas, and though James VI commanded its celebration in 1618, attendance at church was scant. The Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, claiming that the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days”. It was not until 1958 that Christmas again became a Scottish public holiday.

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In Colonial North America, the Pilgrims of New England shared radical Protestant disapproval of Christmas. The Plymouth Pilgrims put their loathing for the day into practice in 1620 when they spent their first Christmas Day in the New World working – thus demonstrating their complete contempt for the day. Non-Puritans in New England, however, deplored the loss of the holidays enjoyed by the laboring classes in England. Christmas observance was outlawed in Boston in 1659. The ban by the Puritans was revoked in 1681 by English governor Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-19th  century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region. I mention all of this by way of pointing out that the contemporary (false) claim by evangelicals and the right wing in the US that there is a War on Christmas while not remotely the case nowadays was certainly true in the past – and the perpetrators were their own ancestors.

As I have been at pains to point out in this blog as well as in my professional writing in general, the supposed “origins” of customs are a complete red herring, but in the case of Christmas there is no question that it started as a Christian celebration. The fact that it accrued bits and pieces from Saturnalia, yule, etc. is neither here nor there. Christmas did not originate in these other customs. Furthermore, it is an evolving and diverse festival.

Christmas dinner has always been very important to me and in previous posts I’ve talked about mincemeat, pudding, roast goose etc. These past few years I’ve been alone without an oven, so I’ve had to be creative. Here’s a little gallery from those times.

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Now I have an oven, so I’m roasting a duck this year for the main meal. Same rules apply as always – roast as hot as the oven will go. It makes a lot of smoke but the meat is juicy and the skin crisp.

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Dec 162016
 

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Today is the official beginning of Las Posadas in Mexico and the US Southwest, although actual timing may vary. The 16th of December is 9 days before Christmas, a novena that can represent numerous things – including the 9 days of Mary’s pregnancy. La Posada is Spanish for “lodging” and is used in the plural because the celebration often involves activities on several days, or because it involves visiting numerous places that are potential lodgings.

The classic Las Posadas that I am familiar with from New Mexico and northern Mexico involves a candlelit procession of townspeople from designated house to house led by a young couple dressed as Mary and Joseph (often with Mary on a burro). At each house the couple sings a song which is responded to by the homeowner. There are many variants, of course. This is a simple sample:

Afuera:

En nombre del cielo
Os pido posada
Pues no puede andar
Mi esposa amada

[Outside

In the name of heaven
I request you grant us shelter
Given that she cannot walk
She my beloved wife]

Adentro:

Aquí no es mesón
Sigan adelante
Yo no puedo abrir
No sea algún tunante

[Inside:

This is not an Inn
Please continue ahead
I can not open
Don’t be a villain]

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The procession continues from house to house with different answers from inside, until eventually a designated host lets Mary and Joseph in and there is a re-enactment of the Nativity scene with food and drink laid out for the crowd.

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In Santa Fe, where I last attended Las Posadas about 25 years ago, the event is staged in the main plaza. Instead of going from house to house, Mary and Joseph go to the four sides of the square. At each side a devil appears at a top balcony and turns the couple away. The procession then veers off the square to a Nativity. As the couple and crowd journey around the square carrying candles, the crowd sings Spanish carols which continue at the Nativity.

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Las Posadas has been recorded as a tradition in Mexico for about 400 years, probably rooted in European traditions of re-enacting significant gospel events for a largely illiterate population who had only vague ideas about what Christian events, especially Christmas and Easter, represented (not helped by the fact that the Bible and the mass were available only in Latin, and congregations were actively dissuaded from reading the Bible).

In Mexico, the Aztec winter solstice festival had traditionally been observed from December 7 to December 26. According to the Aztec calendar, their most important deity, the sun god Huitzilopochtli, was born during the month of December (panquetzaliztli). The parallel in time between this indigenous celebration and the Christmas celebration lent itself to a merging of the two traditions. In 1586, Friar Diego de Soria obtained a papal bull from Pope Sixtus V, stating that a Christmas Mass (misa de Aguinaldo), be observed as novenas on the nine days preceding Christmas Day throughout Mexico.

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Although Las Posadas is a distinctly Mexican tradition it has analogs in various parts of the Spanish Diaspora. In the Philippines the Posadas tradition is represented by the Panunulúyan pageant. Sometimes it is performed right before the Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass), or on each of the nine nights. Mary and Joseph sing lines requesting for accommodation and the lines of the potential “innkeepers” may be sung or spoken. Usually the lyrics are not in Spanish but in one of the local languages, such as Tagalog. There was also a Las Posadas tradition in Nicaragua which older generations remember, but for unclear reasons it had died out by the 1960s.

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Cuba has a vaguely similar celebration at this time of year called Parrandas (though Parrandas has more of a Carnival atmosphere). The tradition began in the 19th century when Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones, the priest of the Grand Cathedral of Remedios, in order to get the people to come to midnight masses the week before Christmas had the idea to put together groups of children and provide them with jars, plates and spoons so they could run around the village making noise and singing verses. The idea persisted over the years and gained in complexity so that it is now a street parade and festival.

Biscochitos are common festival food for Las Posadas in New Mexico, and you can find my recipe here – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/san-lorenzo/ . Let me talk about empanaditas instead. Some empanaditas are just miniature versions of empanadas, with the same savory fillings, but some are made with sweet fillings – empanaditas dulces. Empanaditas dulces make excellent party food at Christmas. You can use pretty much any sweet filling that you want. Fruit jams are very common. I usually bake my savory empanadas in the Argentine fashion, but I fry my sweet empanaditas. Being truly eclectic, at this time of year I use mincemeat for a filling.

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Empanaditas Dulces

Ingredients

3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
salt
8 oz/225gm (2 sticks) butter, cut into 16 pieces
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp cold water
fruit filling
powdered sugar
oil (for frying)

Instructions

Mix the flour, sugar, and a pinch of salt in a mixing bowl or food processor.

Add the butter, eggs and water and mix until a clumpy dough forms.

Remove the dough from the bowl or processor and knead it for a few minutes.

Divide the dough into 2 balls, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough into a thin sheet and cut out round disc shapes for the empanaditas. I usually use a drinking glass as a cutter.

Place a little filling in the center of each circle. Do not use too much or they will leak when fried. Fold over the circle to form a semi-circle. Press down the edges firmly so that there are no holes, and crimp the edges with a fork.

Heat oil for shallow frying in a wide skillet to 350°F.  Fry the empanaditas in small batches, first on one side, then flipping them with a spatula when the underside is golden. When cooked on both sides, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on wire racks. While still warm, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

I prefer to serve them warm with whipped cream.

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Jan 132016
 

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Today is Tjugondag jul (“Twentieth Day Yule”), or Tjugondag Knut (“Twentieth Day Knut”), or Knutomasso, in English, Saint Knut’s Day, (Finnish: nuutinpäivä), a traditional festival celebrated in Sweden and Finland on 13 January. It is not celebrated in Denmark despite being named for the Danish prince Canute Lavard, and later also associated with his uncle, Canute the Saint, the patron saint of Denmark. Christmas trees are taken down on Tjugondag jul, and the candies and cookies that decorated the tree are eaten. In Sweden, the feast held during this event is called a Christmas tree plundering (Julgransplundring). In other words, in Sweden and Finland Christmas is really, really, really over.

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Canute Lavard (Knut Levard in Swedish) was a Danish duke who was assassinated by his cousin and rival Magnus Nilsson on 7 January 1131 so he could usurp the Danish throne. In the aftermath of his death there was a civil war, which led to Knut being later declared a saint, and 7 January became Knut’s Day, a name day. As his name day roughly coincided with Epiphany (the “thirteenth day of Christmas”), Knut’s Day and Epiphany were more or less conflated. In 1680, Knut’s Day was moved to 13 January and became known as tjugondag Knut or tjugondedag jul (the “twentieth day of Knut/Christmas”).

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On Nuutinpäivä in Finland, there has been a tradition somewhat analogous to modern Santa Claus, where young men dressed as a goat (Finnish: Nuuttipukki) would visit houses. Usually the costume was an inverted fur jacket, a leather or birch bark mask, and horns. Unlike Santa Claus, Nuuttipukki was a scary character (like Krampus http://www.bookofdaystales.com/krampus/ ). The men dressed as Nuuttipukki wandered from house to house, came in, and typically demanded food from the household and especially leftover alcoholic beverages. In Finland the Nuuttipukki tradition is still alive in Satakunta, Southwest Finland and Ostrobothnia. However, nowadays the character is usually played by children and is rather mild and playful.

A proverb from Noormarkku says: Hyvä Tuomas joulun tua, paha Knuuti poijes viä or “Good [St.] Thomas brings the Christmas, evil Knut takes [it] away.”

Christmas tree plundering (Swedish: Julgransplundring) is a tradition in Sweden on St. Knut’s Day, marking the end of the Christmas and holiday season. It is also known as “Dancing out Christmas” (Dansa ut julen) or “Throw out the Tree” (Kasta ut granen). It is mentioned in the Old Farmer’s Almanac that “King Knut asked them for help to drive out Christmas”. In traditional Swedish agrarian society, children would run from farm to farm to “call out Christmas” (ropa ut julen), that is call out that Christmas had ended and beg for food and drink.

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The present day tradition has changed very little since the 1870s. During the 20th century, Christmas tree plundering became mainly associated with children and candy. The observance of the feast peaked during the period 1950–70. In private homes, there is often a party primarily for children. The Christmas decorations are then put aside. Such parties are also common in schools, kindergartens, churches and other places. In many towns, the illumination of the public Christmas tree is switched off, accompanied by an outdoor Christmas tree plundering for the community. In some areas the feast is known as Julgransskakning (“Shaking the Christmas tree”).

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Party activities involve singing and dancing around the Christmas tree, “looting” the tree of ornamental candy and apples, smashing the gingerbread house into pieces and eating it, opening Christmas crackers that have been used as decorations on the tree, lotteries, creating a fiskdamm (“fishing pond”) where children “fish” for toys and candy, or a treasure hunt. The songs and dances are essentially the same as those performed at Christmas and Midsummer with some additions of songs about the end of Christmas such as Raska fötter springa tripp, tripp, tripp:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbN3i0Bh2Vs

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During the 20th century, Christmas trees were literally thrown out of the window or from the balcony, on to the street once they had been “plundered” and stripped of all ornaments. Since the beginning of the 21st century, areas for dumping the trees are designated by local authorities but even by 2015, spontaneous and illegal dumping grounds were still a problem. Some customs die hard.

I like the idea of smashing the Christmas gingerbread house and eating it. Getting rid of my gingerbread house was always tough. I put a great deal of effort into it 30 years ago. It started off reasonably simply using a commercial template with a basic gingerbread recipe. But in the process my wife got so carried away with the decorating that we did not want to eat it or discard it. So we kept it until the next Christmas . . . then the next. But it was getting tattered by then, so we threw it out in the woods where it was descended upon by birds and wild animals within minutes of leaving it. Next year we built a barn replete with marzipan farm animals. Then I went completely mad the next year making a replica of Caernarvon castle including an array of knights on horseback. After that I settled for a few gingerbread cookies as a token.

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LONDON - DECEMBER 04: A gv of a gingerbread Houses of Parliment and London Eye creation by Chef Beate Woellstein at the Grosvenor House Hotel on December 4, 2007 in London, England. The creation is 2.5 diameters and used 50 kilos of gingerbread dough. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Here’s my standard recipe for gingerbread to make a house. For a simple house this will be enough. For more elaborate displays you’ll need several batches.

Gingerbread

Ingredients

250g unsalted butter
200g dark muscovado sugar
7 tbsp golden syrup
600g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
bicarbonate of soda
4 tsp ground ginger

Instructions

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a pan.

Mix the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ground ginger in a large bowl, then stir in the butter mixture to make a stiff dough. If it won’t quite come together, add a little water.

Chill overnight.

Heat the oven to 390°F/200°C

Roll the gingerbread out to about ¼ inch (6cm) thick on baking parchment. Using a template, cut out the house components and remove all excess (which you can re-roll).

Bake on the parchment on cookie sheets for about 12 minutes. It may still be a bit soft after this time, but will harden on cooling. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Assemble the house using stiff icing sugar. Then decorate as you wish.

Dec 172015
 

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Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the deity Saturn, held on the 17th of December of the Julian calendar, originally, and later expanded with festivities through to the 23rd of December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.” In Roman official religion, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labor, in a state of innocence. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age.

Although probably the best-known Roman holiday, Saturnalia as a whole is not described from beginning to end in any single ancient source. Modern understanding of the festival is pieced together from several accounts dealing with various aspects. Saturnalia was the dramatic setting of the multivolume work of that name by Macrobius, a Latin writer from late antiquity who is the major source for information about the holiday. In one of the interpretations in Macrobius’s work, Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. The renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.

The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs have influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year. But it is a common mistake to think of Christmas as no more than Saturnalia redux. Obviously there is a degree of borrowing and syncretism, as is only natural because both are midwinter celebrations. But there are also underlying themes that are quite different.

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The statue of Saturn at his main temple normally had its feet bound in wool, which was removed for the holiday as an act of liberation. The official rituals were carried out according to “Greek rite” (ritus graecus). The sacrifice was officiated by a priest, whose head was uncovered; in Roman rite, priests sacrificed capite velato, with head covered by a special fold of the toga. This procedure is usually explained by Saturn’s assimilation with his Greek counterpart Cronus, since the Romans often adopted and reinterpreted Greek stories, iconography, and even religious practices for their own deities, but the uncovering of the priest’s head may also be one of the Saturnalian reversals, the opposite of what was normal.

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Following the sacrifice the Roman Senate arranged a lectisternium, a ritual of Greek origin that typically involved placing a deity’s image on a sumptuous couch, as if he were present and actively participating in the festivities. A public banquet followed (convivium publicum). The day was supposed to be a holiday from all forms of work. Schools were closed, and exercise regimens were suspended. Courts were not in session, so no justice was administered, and no declaration of war could be made.

After the public rituals, observances continued at home. On December 18 and 19, which were also holidays from public business, families conducted domestic rituals. They bathed early, and those with means sacrificed a suckling pig, a traditional offering to an earth deity.

The phrase io Saturnalia was the characteristic shout or salutation of the festival, originally commencing after the public banquet on the single day of December 17. The interjection io (Greek ἰώ, ǐō) is pronounced either with two syllables (a short i and a long o) or as a single syllable (with the i becoming the Latin consonantal j and pronounced yō). It was a strongly emotive ritual exclamation or invocation, used for instance in announcing triumph or celebrating Bacchus, but also to punctuate a joke.

Macrobius writes:

Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table.

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Saturnalia is the best-known of several festivals in the Greco-Roman world characterized by role reversals and behavioral license. Slaves were treated to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters. Ancient sources differ on the circumstances: some suggest that master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served the food. The practice may have varied over time, and in any case slaves would still have prepared the meal.

Saturnalian license also permitted slaves to enjoy a pretense of disrespect for their masters, and exempted them from punishment. It was a time for free speech: the Augustan poet Horace calls it “December liberty.” In two satires set during the Saturnalia, Horace has a slave offer sharp criticism to his master. But everyone knew that the leveling of the social hierarchy was temporary and had limits; no social norms were ultimately threatened, because the holiday would end. In fact, in my own writing I call such role reversal “safety valves” because they allow “letting off steam” in a “pressure cooker” culture. When the Puritans tried to ban “safety valves” in England there were grave social consequences.

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Gambling and dice-playing, normally prohibited or at least frowned upon, were permitted for all, even slaves. Coins and nuts were the stakes. On the Calendar of Philocalus, the Saturnalia is represented by a man wearing a fur-trimmed coat next to a table with dice, and a caption reading “Now you have license, slave, to game with your master.” Rampant overeating and drunkenness became the rule, and a sober person the exception.

Seneca looked forward to the holiday, if somewhat tentatively, in a letter to a friend:

It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business. … Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.

Some Romans found it all a bit much, though. Pliny describes a secluded suite of rooms in his Laurentine villa, which he used as a retreat “especially during the Saturnalia when the rest of the house is noisy with the license of the holiday and festive cries. This way I don’t hamper the games of my people and they don’t hinder my work or studies.”

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The Saturnalia reflects the contradictory nature of the deity Saturn himself: “there are joyful and utopian aspects of careless well-being side by side with disquieting elements of threat and danger”. As a deity of agricultural bounty, Saturn embodied prosperity and wealth in general. The name of his consort Ops meant “wealth, resources”. Her festival, Opalia, was celebrated on December 19. The Temple of Saturn housed the state treasury (aerarium Saturni), and was the administrative headquarters of the quaestors, the public officials whose duties included oversight of the mint. It was among the oldest cult sites in Rome, and had been the location of an ancient altar (ara) even before the building of the first temple in 497 BC.

The Romans regarded Saturn as the original and autochthonous (indigenous) ruler of the Capitolium, and the first king of Latium or even the whole of Italy. At the same time, there was a tradition that Saturn had been an immigrant deity, received by Janus after he was usurped by his son Jupiter (Zeus) and expelled from Greece. His contradictions—a foreigner with one of Rome’s oldest sanctuaries, and a god of liberation who is kept in fetters most of the year—indicate Saturn’s capacity for obliterating social distinctions.

Roast pork is the most obvious dish to celebrate the Saturnalia since it was the most common meat at festivities in Rome. A whole suckling pig would be perfect. But there were a lot of sweet dishes too for the festivities. Here’s must (young wine) rolls that I have adapted from a description by Cato. They can be used as savory or sweet. The recipe contains no leavening, so the rolls tend to be a bit tough, like ship’s biscuit. You can add some baking powder to make them lighter. Leaving the anise seeds whole or grinding them is your choice. I prefer whole. Obviously you can replace the lard with a “healthier” fat, but lard was the original choice. Spelt flour would also be a bit more “authentic.”

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Must Rolls

Ingredients

500g wheat flour
300ml young wine or grape juice
2 tbsp anise seeds, fresh ground or whole
2 tbsp ground cumin
100g lard
50g grated sheep’s cheese
bay leaves

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Pour some wine over the flour, add the anise and cumin, the lard and cheese. Work it together with your hands until you have a pliant dough, adding wine as needed. Form the dough into small rolls, then put one bay leaf under each of them on a greased baking tray.

Bake 30-35 minutes or until golden. Serve warm.

 

Oct 302015
 

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Have to be short and sweet (literally) today because I am dealing with a mountain of Italian paperwork, and struggling with the internet. This post is right on target for me, because on this date in 1894 a baker from Verona (next town over from Mantua where I currently live), patented an industrial recipe for the mass production of pandoro. Pandoro is a traditional Italian sweet yeast bread, most popular around Christmas and New Year. Now it is typically a Veronese product. It is often shaped like a frustum with an 8 pointed-star section. It is commonly served dusted with vanilla scented icing sugar made to resemble the snowy peaks of the Italian Alps during Christmas. It is also very popular in Buenos Aires at Christmas time because of the large Italian immigrant population.

Pandoro appeared in remote times. Throughout the Middle Ages, white bread was consumed solely by the rich, while the common people could only afford black bread and, often, not even that. Sweet breads were reserved for nobility. Breads enriched with eggs, butter and sugar or honey were served in the palaces and were known as “royal bread” or “golden bread” (pan d’oro).

Italian desserts of the 17th century were described in Suor Celeste Galilei, Letters to Her Father, published by La Rosa of Turin, and they included “royal bread” made from flour, sugar, butter and eggs. However, the bread was already known and appreciated in the ancient Rome of Pliny the Elder, in the 1st century. That bread was made with “the finest flour combined with eggs, butter and oil”. Virgil and Livy mentioned the preparation under the name Libum.

The first citation of a dessert clearly identified as Pandoro dates to the 18th century. The dessert certainly figured in the cuisine of the Venetian aristocracy. Venice was the principal market for spices as late as the 18th century as well as for the sugar that by then had replaced honey in European pastries and breads made from leavened dough. And it was at Verona, in Venetian territory, that the formula for making pandoro was developed and perfected, a process that required a century. The modern history of this dessert bread began at Verona on October 30, 1894, when Domenico Melegatti obtained a patent for a procedure to be applied in producing pandoro industrially.

Pandoro was the last meal eaten by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini before his execution in 1945.

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For some reason, pandoro recipes usually call for making two at a time. Maybe they go so quickly you need two on hand. You’ll also need a special baking mold. I have to say that I’ve never made this because local bakers do such a good job, much better than I can. You can slice the pandoro horizontally to make star-shaped slices which you serve with a sauce of sweet mascarpone and jam.

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Pandoro di Verona

Ingredients:

Biga:

¼ cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees F.)
1 (¼ oz) package dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 egg yolk
½ cup flour

Dough:

4½ to 5 cups flour
7 egg yolks
¾ cup sugar
3 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup water
1 whole egg
Grated zest of 1 large lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

To make the biga:

Put the warm water in a small bowl. Stir in the yeast, sugar, egg yolk, and flour. Cover with plastic wrap and put in a warm place. Allow the biga to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

To make the dough:

In a large mixer bowl, combine 4 egg yolks, ½ cup of sugar, butter, and water. Beat on low just to combine the ingredients. Add the biga and mix again to combine. Gradually add 3 cups of the flour, one cup at a time, blending after each addition. Increase the speed to medium-low and beat the dough for 3 to 4 minutes. The dough should be soft and a little sticky.

Grease a large bowl with butter, add the dough , and turn to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then cover with a kitchen towel. Put in a warm place to rise for 2 hours.

Punch down the dough and make a well in the middle of it. Add 1½ cups more flour, the remaining 3 egg yolks, the whole egg, the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, the lemon zest, and optional vanilla. Knead the dough in the bowl to combine the added ingredients. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface.

Knead for about 5 minutes, or until the dough is soft and smooth. Add additional flour if necessary. Put the dough in a large greased bowl. Turn to coat the dough and again cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Let rise for another 2 hours.

Butter two 6 x 9-inch pandoro molds.

Punch down the dough and divide it in half. Form each piece of dough into a ball. Place each ball into the prepared mold and cover with a towel. Let rise for 1½ hours or until dough is ¾ of the way up the molds.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Bake the breads for 30-35 minutes, or until tops are brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the breads cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Remove bread from molds and cool completely on wire racks.