The Christmas season is upon us, and you all know what that means. Well, besides the end-of-year writing deadlines and book releases! Even we head-in-the-clouds writers are expected to hang a wreath on a fence post and shove a little something in the oven in case relatives or neighbors drop by. I suggest any recipe with apples and cinnamon. With that heavenly scent in the air, no one will notice that your Christmas tree has a list to starboard, or that the gifts underneath are still in Target bags.
When you spend your time writing about the people and events of a century and a half ago, you begin to see everything–even holidays– through the lens of history. For instance, when did we switch from buying things in burlap bags, then wrapping them in pretty boxes to buying things in pretty boxes and wrapping them in burlap? (I'm amazed by the smallest things.)
Many works of historical fiction include family scenes that take place at Christmas, the Fourth of July, and other holidays. It is not safe to assume that people always observed those occasions in the same ways that we do. For instance, it wasn’t until the 1850s that celebrating Christmas really took hold in the United States, and each community was likely to decorate one tree in the center of town rather than display them in their homes. Strangely, tomato soup was a favored dish for St. Valentine’s Day, as were other red, white, or pink foods. And where did I find such a holiday trivia tidbit?
As luck would have it, my cowgirlfriend Sherry Monahan has just released a wonderful book called Tinsel, Tumbleweeds, and Star-Spangled Celebrations: Holidays on the Frontier from New Year’s to Christmas. (Like me, Sherry can often be found whipping up dishes in the kitchen when she’s not writing.) Included are holiday family customs, historic accounts, decorating notes, and tons of authentic recipes right out of the 1800s. It’s a great reference tool, not to mention a fine Christmas gift for your writer friends.
Here’s an excerpt regarding gift ideas:
The list of gift suggestions that were advertised in local papers ran the gamut from fun to practical and included items for adults and children alike. Here’s just a small sampling of nineteenth-century Christmas presents:
Books, writing desks and portfolios
Tourists’ cases and diaries, photographic albums
Chess and backgammon boards
Fancy stationery, gold pens
Choice teas, fancy French or American bonbons
Sewing machines, stoves
Glove boxes, knives, clothing and material, hats
China, tea sets, cut glass, dinnerware
Bisque and china dolls and doll furniture
Mechanical trains, animals, wooden toys
Hobby horses, blocks, games
Of course, we can assume that many gifts were handmade where there was no access to a general store or mail-order catalog. Apples and oranges were common stocking stuffers in years gone by.
Here is the recipe Sherry included for fruitcake, which she adapted from the San Francisco Bulletin (1879). Yes, fruitcake has been around for a very long time!
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup molasses
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon nutmeg, grated
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons brandy
2 pounds raisins
Rum flavoring (optional)
NOTE: You can substitute 2 teaspoons baking powder for the cream of tartar and baking soda.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the molasses and mix until blended. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients and stir.
Combine milk and brandy. Alternately add the flour and milk mixtures, beginning and ending with the flour, stirring after each addition. Beat for an additional 2 minutes. Gently fold in the raisins.
Pour into a greased and floured loaf or ring pan and bake at 350° for about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick. Liberally apply rum flavoring, if desired.
Tinsels, Tumbleweeds, and Star-Spangled Celebrations is chock full of historical info about all American holidays. HERE is the link to buy the book on Amazon. And, if you see Sherry Monahan, tell her she owes me a cupcake or something.
The merriest of Christmas holidays to you, my friends! Until next month–happy writing, happy decorating, and happy eating.
All the best,
“Writing the Range”
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 Western Writers of America Spur Finalist (Short Fiction)