Wednesday, December 1, 2010

O' Holly, Goes Lightening!

photo by ana traina
Because the fruit of the English Holly, Ilex aquifolium is largest & brightest in winter, & the sharp leaves are evergreen, the holly has always been associated with winter magic.
Holly, a seemingly innocent decoration that we place in our homes, has many superstition surrounding is. For example holly,  can be taken as welcome d luck when a sprig of Christmas holly is thrown on the fire and makes a crackling sound. But if it burns with a dull flame and makes no sound, there could be a death in the family within the year. Such beliefs were widespread in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and Ireland.
Nowadays, to avoid unwelcome d luck, we know to take the decorations down by the twelfth day of Christmas. In the early twentieth century decorations were left up until Candlemas day-2nd February. A quote from Worcestershire explains; "It is unlucky to keep Christmas holly about the house after Candlemas Day, as the Evil One will then come himself and pull it down."
In Suffolk in 1864 it is recorded; "If every scrap of Christmas decoration is not removed from the church before Candlemas-day there will be a death within a year in the family occupying the particular pew where a leaf or berry is left."
Holly itself is a tree with many customs. For instance, like a faery tree, they should not be cut down. In mid twentieth century Devon this was the case; "About fifteen years ago two holly trees were cut down in the parish. Locals protested violently, saying this would provoke pixie mayhem."
The innocent mince pie also has strange and curious superstitions links, such as this one from late nineteenth and twentieth century England; "Mince pies, also, have their own magic; if you eat twelve of them, from twelve separate friends, during the twelve days of Christmas, you are promised a charmed twelve months to follow." This may be an excuse for gourmandizing. It is also reportedly unwelcome d luck to eat mince pies outside of the twelve days of Christmas.
photo by ana traina
"Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly."
from 'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare
In Celtic mythology the Holly King was said to rule over the half of the year from the summer to the winter solstice, at which time the Oak King defeated the Holly King to rule for the time until the summer solstice again. These two aspects of the Nature god were later incorporated into Mummers' plays traditionally performed around Yuletide. The Holly King was depicted as a powerful giant of a man covered in holly leaves and branches, and wielding a holly bush as a club. He may well have been the same archetype on which the Green Knight of Arthurian legend was based, and to whose challenge Gawain rose during the Round Table's Christmas celebrations.
"But the hue of his every feature
Stunned them: as could be seen,
Not only was this creature
Colossal, he was bright green

No spear to thrust, no shield against the shock of battle,
But in one hand a solitary branch of holly
That shows greenest when all the groves are leafless;"
from 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' ca 1370 - 1390, author unknown

A Recipe to make Mince-Pies the best Way 
Take three Pounds of Suet shredded very fine, and chopped as small as possible, two Pounds of Raisins stoned, and chopped as fine as possible, two Pounds of Currants, nicely picked, washed, rubbed, and dried at the Fire, half a hundred of fine Pippins, pared, cored, and chopped small, half a Pound of fine Sugar pounded fine, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, a Pint of Brandy, and half a pint of Sack; put it down close in a Stone-pot, and it will keep good four Months. When you make your Pies, take a little Dish, something bigger than a Soop-plate, lay a very thin Crust all over it, lay a thin Layer of Meat, and then a thin Layer of Citron cut very thin, then a Layer of Mince meat, and a thin Layer of Orange-peel cut think over that a little Meat; squeeze half the Juice of a fine Seville Orange, or Lemon, and pour in three Spoonfuls of Red Wine; lay on your Crust, and bake it nicely. These Pies eat finely cold. If you make them in little Patties, mix your Meat and Sweet-meats accordingly: if you chose Meat in your Pies, parboil a Neat's Tongue, peel it, and chop the Meat as finely as possible, and mix with the rest; or two Pounds of the Inside of a Surloin or Beef Boiled." 
---The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse, facsimile 1747 edition [Prospect Books:Devon] 1995 (p. 74) 
[NOTE: Pippins are apples, Sack is an alcoholic drink, Neat is a type of ox]