Countdown to Halloween! ~ Giving Gratitude for an Abundant Harvest
“ I am inclined to think bathing one of the necessaries of life.”
Henry David Thoreau
I come from a family that thinks every problem in life can be solved in a warm bath. That may be a little broad perhaps, but I do know that for myself almost anything is a little less daunting after I’ve had a good soak. My mother swore by a hot bath with her Shalimar bath oil first thing in the morning before she went off to work. I loved her Shalimar, I've written about it so many times. My father swore that it smelled like chocolate mousse, and of course he loved that, but to me it was simply warm, sweet, rich and elegant. She'd start with the bath oil and would then layer it with lotion and perfume. All I need is one breath of that scent to cross my path and it I begin to smile. Mom never showered, because she came from the generation that got their hair done at the beauty parlor every week, so god forbid any warm water ever touched it between visits!
I inherited my love for a steamy hot bath from her and in the depths of midwinter almost nothing is as soothing to me as a long soak in the tub. I love to light candles and relax in the scented water with a steaming cup of cinnamon, rose petal and cream tea that I make myself by simply tossing handfuls of organic rose petals, Tulsi and cracked cinnamon chips into my teapot and adding boiled water, a pat of butter, several tablespoons of honey, a ½ a cup of madeira and some light cream. This delicious tea will quickly turn a warm bath a simple and easy luxury!
Although I do still love the scent of Shalimar, these days I opt for an herbal bath that I make myself, that may surprise you because it starts as a herbal tincture. This is a wonderful alternative to bath salts which I cannot use because they dry out my skin. This can be added to your bath in any proportion and the scent is just lovely. To a quart of spring water, add generous handfuls of dried rose petals, lavender, chamomile, calendula, mint and bay. You can even add a vanilla bean or some organic vanilla extract. Let it simmer over a low heat for about 15 minutes and then let the whole thing cool. Strain it and add about 15 drops of essential oil of rose, 15 drops of essential oil of Ylang Ylang and a cup of regular or blackberry brandy which will help preserve the scent. You can add a bit of food grade coloring for fun if you like, just to make it pretty. Put it into a glass bottle and store it in a cool dark place. The scent will hold for close to a year although you’ll use it up long before that! To use, simply draw your bath and then add a cup or two of the tincture along with a tablespoon of sweet almond oil. Climb into the bath with a cup of tea, the soundtrack of your choice, and just relax.
I am trying like hell to channel my rage into action. It isn't easy when I have dear friends who are losing three out of four parents as I type this.
This isn't about not trusting your friends and family members...this is about an enemy we cannot see. If your family members think that you don't love them because you insist upon wearing a mask in their presence? Ask them what their definition of love is? Does it include dying for them?
Remember please. Stay Home. Stay physically distant. Wash your hands. Wear a mask and a face shield when you have to be inside, in a car together and in public.
I remember the first time I heard this song. There was no snow in Africa...the country was in deep famine. People were starving. This year, listening to it again took on new meaning. If you are reading this, you’re probably not starving, homeless or in a food line. You may be jobless but you have a safety net to hold you until you can work again or a family that is helping you until this is over.
Covid and the senseless way it was handled has destroyed much for all of us.
All over this country, children are starving.
All over this country, people are sick.
All along our borders, children are locked in cages separated sometimes forever from their parents.
All over this country people are losing their homes.
All over this country people are dying.
All over this country, our fellow Americans are waking up to the realization that there are empty chairs at their tables, vacated forever and completely senselessly because of a virus that has been mishandled at the very top of our Government and dismissed by our President.
Damn it. If you're reading this you can do something. Just do it.
You can start here. Feeding America.
A cocktail party can easily be transformed into the best holiday gathering (in my mind) of all, a grand dessert buffet that usually starts at around 10:00 pm. I love to meet my guests at the door with a champagne cocktail and I always serve just a few canapés, like a cheese puff or mushroom toast just in case that my guests haven’t had much dinner.
The fun of a party like this is in the dramatic way that you present it! Have all of the candles lit in the room, but keep your guests as far away from the table as possible so that they can see the flickering flames of the candles but not the food. I'd pick a fabulous piece of music to be playing (Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy or something wonderful like that!) and at about 11:00 I'd throw open the doors and invite everyone to gather at the dessert table.
There are very few things as delightful to the child in all of us, as a heavily laden table just groaning under the weight of an abundance of gorgeous desserts! What follows here is just a
￼partial list of things that I love, because I am sure that all of you have several specialties that would be just perfect for such an evening!
Make sure that you have a bowl of fresh fruit and lots of whipped cream or zabaglione to go with it!
I always like to have one yummy jam trifle, or maybe two! Trifles are the dessert versions of a layered salad! They look simply beautiful in a cut glass bowl, or better yet, if you’re lucky enough to own a trifle bowl, use it. There’s nothing prettier than layers of ladyfingers and glistening jams, and a trifle in spite of its fancy name is among the easiest of all desserts to create.
For a wonderful gathering such as this, a Bouche de' Noel is a very traditional, delicious chocolate and chestnut and praline dessert. It is a fantastic creation, shaped like a Yule log and fancifully decorated with mushrooms and greens made from marzipan and meringue!
Displayed on your grandmother’s tea service tray and surrounded by holly and fresh greens, this is one of the most beautiful desserts of the season! There are lots of easy recipes for a Bouche de’ Noel, and I think that they are so much fun to make, but if time is short, you can usually purchase a very good one from a specialty baker!
Next, pile those wonderful little cream puffs that you can buy frozen onto any gorgeous platter and have them drizzled with chocolate syrup, raspberry or caramel, and garnished with some sugared mint leaves. You can also simply serve them dusted with
￼confectioners’ sugar for a snowy effect and serve the sauces on the side in a gravy boat!
You’ll need a rich chocolate mousse, which is guaranteed to disappear immediately as well as the platter of chocolate covered strawberries served alongside of it and if you can find them, the jewel tones of glaceed fruit are so pretty on a holiday table.
The exquisitely buttery French apple tart known as the Tarte Tatin is a fine addition to your buffet and of course, you’ll need one really grand chafing dish dessert like a Bananas Foster served with a simple vanilla bean ice cream!
I would also mound some chocolate truffles into lovely compote, a piece which is traditionally used to serve a spiced fruit or chutney. I might even consider filling those champagne glasses that I spoke of before with a creamy rice pudding, fragrantly dusted with cinnamon, and placed for effect on my silver pedestal cake plate! In fact, make use of all of the things that you own that have pedestals or feet. Along with a liberal use of candlesticks in all materials, shapes and sizes, as well as sparkling pieces of cut and smooth crystal, these pieces will provide height and interest to your table!
The last thing that you’ll need to round out the dessert offering is a cheese platter, with wedges of Brie, Camembert, and some really good cheddar! A Stilton cheese is very traditional cheese to serve right now, and comes directly from England, cloaked in wonderful drama and ritual. I always feature my cheeses on the sideboard with several different bottles of port and Madeira wine.
￼I have many cordial and small wine glasses that were my grandmothers, and this is what I use them for. Just some assorted good bread, crackers, cheese and fruit and you're all set to shine!
For beverages, a coffee bar provides a very festive end to the evening, with an assortment of liqueurs, as well as the traditional offerings of cream and sugar. You could even provide more champagne but with several wonderful choices of liqueur. Don’t forget a nice assortment of non-alcoholic sparklers, or you might want to serve a special non-alcoholic cocktail! My absolute favorite is called “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” and it’s made from sparkling water, pear nectar, a splash of lime juice and then poured into a martini glass filled with crushed ice, then garnished with a piece of candied ginger and a sprinkling of edible gold leaf if you can find it!
The last thing that I would create for the table is a wassail bowl, a gorgeous arrangement all by itself! For this I usually use my silver punch bowl, although a old cast iron cauldron or copper kettle is so pleasing to look at and historically appropriate. If you use copper, please make sure that it has a tin or steel lining so that the flavours don’t react with the metal to cause a bitter taste. I own a large copper soup kettle, and when my punch bowl is filled with eggnog, I use it for the wassail.
My wassail recipe is pretty simple, blending cinnamon stick, clove, allspice, cranberry juice, apple cider, sugar syrup, Calvados and brandy, mixed together and heated through, then served with a slice of sugared apple!
￼A bowl of steaming wassail is a wonderful aromatic welcome into your home, and if you’ve got a wonderful foyer, put the bowl there surrounded by masses of fresh greenery and berries “to drive the cold winter away” as the front door opens!
You may be wondering what to serve all of this on, and I’ll bet that we can find some holiday china right now in your cupboards!
You're wondering how?
Many of us have inherited stacks of Royal Copenhagen or Bing and Grondahl collectible Christmas plates. However, because traditionally they are hanging on the wall, no one ever knows what else to do with them, so they sit year after year gathering dust, when really they are the best holiday appetizer/ salad/dessert plates ever made! They are just the right size, and they can go into the dishwasher without any problem at all. I see stacks of them all of the time at my neighborhood Goodwill stores if you don't have any and they're always really affordable.
Handcrafted in such lovely wintry shades of cobalt blue and soft white, they are just begging to be given the honour that they deserve! I know of no better way to make them happy then to heap them full of delicious food.
Just an aside here, one of the most commonly asked questions about fine china is “Can I put my formal dishes in the dishwasher?” The answer is a resounding yes, and as a matter of fact, almost any plate made within the last 25 years is dishwasher safe.
It’s not the dishwasher that ruins your good dishes; believe it or not it’s the soap! Use about half of the amount of soap
￼recommended, and make sure that you let everything, especially the gold trim cool down, before you remove your dishes. That’s all that’s needed, and what this means is that there’s no excuse to not use the lovely things that you own. Beautiful food presentation is a feast for your eyes and uplifting to your spirit, and it’s so easy to make anything look wonderful when you put it on a silver tray or a beautiful service plate.
I’ve always gotten such pleasure from bringing out lovely old things, and inventing new uses for them. Old silver with monograms, glasses with initials, linens with fancy embroidery... all of these things make up your shared personal history. Old silver that has a beautiful hand engraved monogram is a treasure. I practically cried every time someone would bring a set of it into the store to have the engraving removed. You can’t get monograms like that anymore; very rarely do you find an engraver with that skill.
Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, and bringing this bit of history into the party atmosphere connects the past with the yet unknown future, and lets your guests feel like they’ve been welcomed into a home that’s emotionally rich and very special!
Having said all of this, I realize that I’ve left out the three most magical ingredients that I know of to create a wonderful holiday party.
First, make sure that you have a gingerbread house, lots of undecorated cookies and bowls of frosting, candy and plenty of children around to decorate and eat them!
A gift for each woman and child is a lovely reminder of your friendship and a continuation of such a special evening, how about several narcissus bulbs for fragrant midwinter blooms or a votive candle to light the New Year?
And last but not least, my personal favorite, LOTS OF MISTLETOE FOR KISSING UNDER!"
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I love Christmas trees...Well actually I love everything about Christmas and the holiday season as a rule. When I was a kid growing up, until I was about 6, we didn't have a tree. We really didn't celebrate much of anything because my parents were very reformed Jews, so I never grew up having much connection to Hanukkah either. We lived in Pepper Pike, Ohio, and we were one of only a few Jewish families living there at the time. I still remember the day my older brother and sister came home and told my parents that it was time to get a Christmas Tree..."for Beth so she didn't feel like she didn't belong", but I still remember their smiles as we strung the popcorn, oranges and cranberries to decorate it.
I think that it was easy for my mother to embrace because she grew up in Champaign Urbana, Illinois, and everyone celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah there for the sake of celebrating, which in my mind is simply the most extraordinary reason to do any of this. Mom became as my sister put it, "The Auntie Mame of Celebrations!" From that moment on, Christmas became something to really look forward to in our house because from that moment on, she celebrated it with abandon. She brought back her own mothers Christmas pudding recipe and made it on occasion (it takes a month!) and one year she taught me to make fruitcake when I was too broke to buy Christmas presents. Her first cousin began sending beautiful marzipan fruits and vegetables and exquisite bourbon balls from the her old family recipes. Christmas was wonderful in my mothers house.
The year she decided I was too old for one of her Christmas stockings, I wept. Even though we are spread all over the country we all still eat her Christmas breakfast...a perfect mix of chicken ala king, stewed fruit, perfectly scrambled eggs, cinnamon rolls and Champagne. I light bayberry candles for love and luck. I keep the table set as she would have...I even have a red dining room...hers was Christmas green.
For my dad Christmas wasn't always quite so easy. His father was a first generation Russian Jewish man and Orthodox traditions back then were the same as they are now...for the most part dogmatic and unyielding so my father became about as agnostic as you could get without being an atheist. I found out after my fathers death that I should have been named Elizabeth, but they just made it Beth Ann because Elizabeth would have been far too gentile. My mothers family does have some Catholic blood going WAY WAY back in her ancestry, but she refused to speak of it. I stumbled upon it accidentally one day when I found a rosary that had been in her family dated from 1887 and when I asked her about it you would have thought that I'd opened the darkest can of worms ever. All she said was that the rosary was older than that and we never shared another word about it although I did go digging way into the background of her fathers family and discovered hymn writers and alchemists from the 1600's although she wouldn't talk about them either, except to acknowledge that she'd known that they existed. I realized sadly much later after her death that it was probably because my grandfather would have tried to force my father to end to their relationship. It was an interesting way to grow up...Never quite Jewish enough for the Jews and not really any sort of Christian. Fortunately due to my extremely emotionally liberal upbringing (thanks Mom!) I didn't really care and if I'm being honest, I still don't. It's probably why I most closely identify with being Wiccan...We are generally accepting of all....Harm none is our creed.
Luckily, what saved Christmas for all of us was that Christmas day was also our parents anniversary. Married during the war, Christmas Day was the only day that a Rabbi could be found, so from the moment we got that first tree, Christmas was intertwined with the joy of their marriage. Double cause for celebrating so my father begrudgingly allowed Christmas to happen!
So, growing up I had somewhat of a conflicted relationship with Christmas or rather, much of my fathers family had a conflicted relationship with my mothers and my relationship with Christmas. I adored it and grew up with a store full of the most glorious Christmas merchandise ever. Carolers, bells and Christmas ornaments...every year the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas would magically appear at Schreibman Jewelers. We'd have presents everywhere, gorgeous wrappings and ribbons and mulled cider and hot cocoa for our customers. Everyday I'd play Christmas carols and find my father trying to turn them off. He'd always grouse, but we always prevailed! We'd have cookie decorating parties every weekend for the children with Mrs. Claus. We had holiday teas. I spent years chairing Christmas Tree festivals all over the city which delighted me to no end. Being in retail gave me the chance to have the kind of Christmas I'd always wanted, colorful and joyful, full of magic and the sheer pleasure of making everyones holiday dreams come true including my employees. Every year I'd find out what was their hearts desire, I'd get reports starting in September....we had so many beautiful things in our store that it was easy to give each of them a truly beautiful gift that they wanted. I think that those were the gifts that I enjoyed wrapping and giving most of all. Every season we'd close early a couple of nights before Christmas and have an amazing holiday party, full of wonderful food, laughter and champagne. We had the very best staff, I can't even call them that because they were more like family and we loved thanking them that way.
When I married Jim, he was a "recovering Catholic" with fond memories of his own fathers Christmas Tree farm and ice skating on the lake at his grandpas farms. Jim loves Christmas like an 8 year old, and that was all I needed to really go for it. Every year we decorate our home together and we have outdoor lights and wreaths everywhere. We decorate our home with carolers and hang stockings. We listen to carols from Thanksgiving through Epiphany and eggnog and bourbon milk punch literally flow through the faucets...(not really but you get my point!) We also celebrate the Winter Solstice every year which is, I like to say, what happens when Jew-Witchy girls long to celebrate Christmas without angst! We decorate EVERYTHING and throw a huge party in my sister and brother in laws lovely cabin, complete with a fire, Yule log and plenty of delicious food and libation.
As for my father? He eventually learned to love Christmas in his later years, for the togetherness of it. He stopped pretending that anything mattered to him but love. The year that my mother had a very dangerous bypass surgery it was coincidentally the day before Christmas..their anniversary. To him, I think that it was a miracle that she survived it and he really never groused about the holidays after that. Every Thanksgiving in our home we have a ritual...we gather around the table and say what we are thankful for. For my father, every year it was the same..." I am thankful for my family". That is who he was. After my mother was gone, he spent about three years in a nursing home in Cleveland that was primarily Jewish and we brought him home those first years for all of our holiday parties. One year he lamented to me that because he had no money, that he couldn't buy any of us presents. Daddy had been a painter, and a very fine one at that, so I went to Michael's craft store and bought about 6 unfinished nutcrackers. I took them to his nursing home with paints and a cd player and we spent several wonderful afternoons listening to Tchaikovsky and painting them in bright colors. I have many of my fathers paintings, but I love these nutcrackers most of all , painted after his stroke. They are imperfect, messy and colorful like he was. On Christmas morning he gave them proudly to all of us and we listened to the Nutcracker Suite as we had so many times before.
So the truth is, like my mother I celebrate simply for the pure and unadulterated joy of it. It doesn't matter to me which holiday it is. I should probably be more religious, but I simply can't... I can belt out Rock of Ages from memory as beautifully as I can sing every stanza of the Hallelujah Chorus. I go to Mass with my daughter in law every Christmas Eve and sing all of the carols and watch my son laugh at me. I make Latkes and Mashed potatoes, Roast Goose and Brisket. I learned over the years that I am a sum of all of my parts...but that to be just one thing will never work for me. To me, we are all one tribe and my religion is love.
For me these celebrations are the glue and the glitter.
For me, my family is my house of worship and that will have to be good enough and if you come knocking on my door at anytime, there will always be a place for you at my table.
I leave you with the simplest of holiday wishes from Tiny Tim..."God Bless us, Every One. " and a bit of the Nutcracker Suite....
I adore the Christmas season and for so many reasons it is so magical to me. There are always several constants like the annual reading of Clement C. Moore’s “The Night before Christmas”, white truffles, lots of chocolate, roasted chestnuts, smoked salmon, New York City and gallons of bourbon milk punch and Champagne. Of course my perfume of choice is Caron’s lovely Nuit de Noel, a fragrance that is completely saturated with the soul and scent of the holiday season.
For the last 8 years, on Christmas Eve I make a beautiful candlelit dinner and then we go to church with our son and daughter in law and sing carols until our hearts just burst. Often we drive into the country to see the lights and sometimes we get home well past midnight. That's when we light the bayberry candles for love and abundance, crack a bottle of champagne, wrap ourselves in each others arms, gorge on cookies, exchange our presents, hang the stockings and watch our daughter in laws favorite Christmas movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol .
If you’ve never experienced Nuit de Noel, trust me and if you can find some (sadly it seems to have been discontinued) try it right away because it is truly gorgeous, a voluptuous and elegant chypre perfume filled with rose, jasmine and ylang ylang and a delicious saxon moss that’s as primitive and warm as the embers of a smoldering Yule log on Solstice eve. Ernest Daltroff created it for his lover who was completely enchanted by the sounds and scents of Christmas.
Nuit de Noel is the fragrance that I’ve tucked into my engraved medieval style pomanders, a beautiful ornaments of sterling that I can wear as necklaces. These I fill with cinnamon and cloves and sugared rose petals that I’ve scented with a bit of perfume soaked leather and I love to wear them hanging low between my breasts. These pomanders are my favorite pieces of jewelry art and when I’m not wearing one of them, you’ll find them hanging in their places of honor on my Christmas tree.
Because Christmas comes but once a year I keep my precious bottle of Nuit de Noel tucked away for the rest of the time in an embroidered Christmas pouch.
Getting back to Christmas evening though, the most magical moment always comes on the drive home from the country. Nestled at the bottom of the River Road in a small town called Hunting Valley there sits a beautiful old fir tree that is practically a hundred years old. We love to visit her early Christmas morning after midnight when the world is silent except for the beautiful carols ever present on the radio.
This tree is magnificent, at least 75 feet tall and covered from head to toe with beautiful colored lights.
I visit her late at night on the evenings from Thanksgiving to New Years Day because she is usually surrounded by families of deer and I love to park my car across the street to sit quietly for awhile with a steaming mug of cocoa and the Nutcracker Suite for company. She has an alluring fragrance all her own, of freshly falling snow and sweet pine, smoky wood resins, windfall apples and moonlight. When the snow is falling softly all around I promise you have never seen such a beautiful tree.
She is forever the true essence of the season for me as she casts her warm glow on the cold December nights. I have always wanted to wear her scent and the first time that I experienced Caron’s Nuit de Noel I realized that I had found it, all of the Christmas magic that I would ever need in perfumed form, a divine gift from the angels of Yule.
Speaking of angels....
I only wear Nuit de Noel from Thanksgiving until New Years Day because I love to keep it special and putting it away isn’t the end of my Christmas dreams, only the beginning. But I hope that you’ll remember that Christmas Eve is a great time to be making wishes and I hope that this is the year that all of yours will come true whether they be truly simple or ever so bold.
You already know that I wish you all gallons of the perfumes you love, all of the truffles (chocolate or otherwise!) that you’d care to eat and all of the passion that you can possibly stand. Last but not least may there finally be peace on earth, abundance for all and true and lasting goodwill for everyone.
Sending you all of my love and lots of fabulous scents during this most magical of seasons. Please know that in this season of blessings that I count all of you among my biggest.
Thank you always for your readership, love and support.
From my home to yours...Happiest of Holidays!
Beth (aka The Windesphere Witch)