Saturday, December 29, 2012

Waiting for Downton

I am looking to the new year with great anticipation, not because I am planning great resolutions but because the new season of DOWNTON ABBEY begins in one week! I can hardly wait, can you?
I had hoped to take a sneak peek before everyone else. I am already subcriber to my local PBS station but they offered DVDs of Season 3 as an incentive so I coughed up more money. Then they sent out a memo saying that the DVDs wouldn't be shipped before January 17th. That's no use, people. The series will be half over by then and I'm certainly not going to cheat and watch the last episode.

Of course I realize I could have seen the whole thing if I'd lived in Britain. I could have asked friends to tell me what happened. But I didn't. The anticipation is all the sweeter. And in one more week.....

So what do you think will happen? Will Mary and Matthew marry? Will Mr. Bates be proved innocent? Will they discover who killed Mrs. Bates? Who do you think did it? My guess is that Sir Richard had it done. I never liked him.

And will poor old Edith finally find herself a good bloke? We know that American granny arrives and sparks fly between her and the dowager countess. So that should be fun. But when is Thomas ever going to get what he deserves, or have something happen to him to turn him into a better person?

If you've already seen it in UK, please don't tell us anything.
 But next Monday morning, January 7th, let's get together and dish on Downton again. Okay?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Rhys's 12 Days of Christmas, Day 12

It's almost here. Last minute baking. Last minute stocking stuffers. Daughter arriving from LA.  Last minute quest to find gluten-free pie crust!!!
And tonight, someone will be visiting your house, leaving presents or coal, depending on whether you have been naughty or nice.
Who this person will be depends on what part of the world we live in.
In America it's Santa Claus, of course. He is actually a corruption of the name Saint Nicholas in Dutch. And in Europe St Nicholas does not come on Christmas Eve but on St Nicholas's day, December 6th. In the Netherlands children leave their shoes out for him and find small treats in them. In Germany he comes to the house, dressed as a bishop with Black Peter or Knecht Ruprect (his dastardly side-kick) beside him. The children are called into the living room and St Nicholas reads out a list of their good and bad deeds from the year. We hope they are good because his side kick sometiems carries a whip! Then the child has to recite a poem, sing a song and is given nuts, candies.

Then on Christmas Eve it is the Christ child who leaves presents under the tree at night. I like this idea better than a strange man in a red suit, don't you?

In England he's called Father Christmas and he used to leave our presents in a pillow case at the bottom of our beds. I remember the thrill of waking in the pre-dawn darkness, seeing a bulging shape by my bed, dragging into bed with me and feeling the wrapped gifts--bursting with anticipation.

So I'm wishing all of you a merry, merry Christmas and hope that whoever delivers the gifts tonight they are exactly what you want, and your Christmas is merry and bright!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rhys's 12 Days of Christmas, Day 11

. Greetings from very soggy California. It's funny but when I look  back at the Christmasses of my childhood I never remember rain. It was always crisp and frosty and occasionally snowy as we walked down the hill to midnight mass. Our voices echoed in the still frigid air and our breath came out like dragon's fire. And the church was almost as cold as the outside, inspite of heaters--especially when I went to visit my grandmother and we went to midnight service at Bath Abbey. There was no way to heat that massive building and we huddled together, hands in gloves, stuck into pockets. But when the choirboys processed in, their angel voices soaring to the vaulted ceiling as they sang, "Yeah Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning" and at the same moment we heard the bells above chiming midnight, which meant it really was Christmas day, then frozen fingers and toes were forgotten. I remember trying to stay awake, dozing off to hear distant voices really sounding like an angel choir, and then walking home to be greeted by ginger wine and hot mince pies before falling into bed.

Have you dragged home your yule log yet? It should be ready and drying out for Christmas Eve. I'm glad we don't have a fireplace big enough at my house because I don't think there is a stick of dry wood in California right now. But the tradition was to go out into the forest and drag home a huge log. It would be lit on Christmas Eve and would continue to burn throughout the holiday, thus ensuring prosperity for the coming year.

You need an awfully big fireplace, however . My sister-in-law at her 14th century manor house in Cornwall has a fireplace big enough to roast an ox and burn a yule log, but she's the only person I know. So that tradition has vanished for most of us.

The French, as always, do things sensibly and make their yule log, the buche de noel, into a delicious cake that they eat when they return home from midnight mass.

I've already made the first batch of mince pies. More to follow... and sausage rolls. How are your preparations going? What do you bake?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Rhys's Twelve Days of Christmas--Day 10

So the world didn't end yesterday? Rats. Now I'll have to clean the bathroom and do the laundry.

One aspect of Christmas that I remember fondly was the playing of family games. Charades was always a favorite. I'm not talking about the watered down version that we play here. We used to produce a wholw little play. We'd take a multi-syllable word and then act out complete scenes to explain. Then a scene that included the whole word. For example Dandylion. One scene with a person acting in dandyfied fashion, a scene in the zoo or jungle with a lion and then someone blowing the seeds away. We had a dress-up trunk full of costumes that we used.

Another great game if you had a big enough house was sardines. It's like hide and seek but with a twist. One person hides, everyone seeks. The first person to find him joins him. More and more people cram in until either the closet or space under the bed won't hold any more or one person is left.

We also played games like passing the parcel or hot potato or even musical chairs, and after meals more sedate word games like I Went to Market. One person starts I went to market and I bought an apple. Next I went to market and I bought an apple and a ball. Next an apple a ball and a cat etc through the alphabet. A person who forgets is out.

I've a good selection of these in the compendium at the back of my new book, The Twelve Clues of Christmas.
 Does your family play any special games?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rhys's Twelve Days of Christmas, Day 9

Did I miss Day 8? I think I did. Could it have had something to do with the fact that I had 12 people coming to lunch and my dishwasher had died? And they didn't leave until 4 p.m. and we had to leave for the city by 5? Uhhh maybe...

Anyway today my fun Christmas trivia is going to be about Pantomime. This is a long-standing Christmas tradition in UK where the word doesn't mean the sort of walking against the wind that Marcel Marceau did. Instead it's a theatrical extravaganza for the whole family.... always a fairy tale: Cinderella, Babes in the Wood, Aladin, Dick Whittington etc. And with all kinds of strange conventions. The principal boy ( ie the hero) is always played by a gorgeous young woman in tights and a skimpy costume. There is always a dame played by a male comedian with lost of padding. There is always a villain whom the aidience boo and hiss. A fairy godmother is a lovely dress.

There is also a character with whom the audience interact, especially the children. He might ask the audience to to watch his gold while he takes a nap making the children go cracy as they try to wake him when someone comes to steal it. Of course there is always an aminal of some sort--the pantomime horse, or cow, with two people inside it. There are always lots of topical and even slightly naughty jokes for the adults and lots of songs and musical numbers. The form hasn't changed for at least a hundred years and pantomimes will be performed all over the country. Smaller versions might even be performed in homes--we've certainly done our share of them over the years with John as the fairy godmother (even when he sported a beard).

There is a family pantomime in my new book The Twelve Clues of Christmas and characters show surprising talents. They are always fun. Try one in your house this year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Rhys's Twelve Days of Christmas, Day 8

If you were waiting for today's Christmas trivia, I apologize. Life intervened. After breakfast I went to run the dishwasher and nothing happened. My dishwasher had died before we had people to lunch today and 12 people to lunch tomorrow. Hasty trip to Sears to find new dishwasher, then had to rush to prepare lunch.
Now they've just left and I'm late with my Christmas fact of the days. And  I was going to talk about BOXING DAY.

In England and all commonwealth countries the day after Christmas is a holiday called Boxing Day.
Why the name, you might wonder. It goes back to the time when people had servants (I wish I had one right now to do all that washing up). Those servants were expected to minister to the family on Christmas Day. Then the day after Christmas they had the day off to go home to their own families, if they lived close enough. They'd each receive a Christmas Box from their employers. In the case of servants it might be food to take home, a present of some sort or money.

The tradition of giving a gift to those who perform a service is carried on. Mail carriers, garbage men, newspaper boys stop by to wish you "the compliments of the season." And they expect to get a tip.

Until recently no stores were open on Boxing Day. It was a time to relax and enjoy a quiet time with family (and eat leftovers). In my book The Twelve Clues of Christmas there is a traditional Boxing Day hunt.  Now, alas, commerce has triumphed. Stores and movie theaters are open and life goes on as usual.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Rhys's Twelve Days of Christmas--Day 7

Today I'm going to attempt to continue with my Christmas countdown, reminding ourselves that life must go on and we have to find joy in each other, in family and in small pleasures.

So today I'm going to talk about one of my favorite Christmas traditions--mince pies. My grandmother made them, my mother made them, I always make them and now my daughters do as well. They were always available to be served to people who stopped by, and we ate them warm on Christmas morning as we opened presents.

Mince pies are made in small muffin pans, with short crust pastry filled with mincemeat, sprinkled with sugar. Mmmm. Mince meat doesn't actually contain meat any longer, although it used to. Now it is a mixture of various dried fruits and some rum and sugar. But the origins of mince meat are quite different. In the middle ages small farmers couldn't afford to keep their livestock over the winter as there was nothing to feed them with. So many beasts were slaughtered. But there was no refrigeration to preserve the meat through the winter (the winters in England not being cold enough on the whole to make ice). So the meat was mixed with dried fruits and spices to preserve it. And afterward it was served in pies--mince pies.

I'm not sure exactly when it became a Christmas tradition, but poor peasants rarely ate meat in their diet so having a mince pie as part of the Christmas feast was a logical thing to do.

If you want to make it part of your tradition you no longer have to buy your own mince meat. Crosse and Blackwell make an excellent mincemeat with pippin apples and rum. Roll out the pastry dough nice and thin, cut circles and line muffin pans. Fill each about half full (more and it will bubble over). Cut out smaller circles for lids and press on with a fork to seal the edges. Make a small slit in the top to let steam escape. Bake in pre-heated oven 425 degrees for about ten minutes, until they start to turn golden brown. Let them cool as the mincemeat inside remains very hot.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Rhys's Twelve Days of Christmas, Day 6

I was going to do a funny piece about mince pies today, but I just can't do it. My heart is still too heavy about 20 precious little angels taken from us so senselessly.

People are talking about gun control and of course I'm all for that, but the real problem is that we have no safety net for the mentally ill in this country. Too many parents live, as this mother did, with a son who shows increasingly anti-social and violent behavior and has nowhere to turn until he hurts someone--then the only answer is jail.

This is not how a civilized society behaves. We need intervention, treatment centers and health insurance options that cover mental illness and don't bankrupt a family. Let's hope some good comes out of this. Let's hope that it opens a dialog about mental health, about gun contol and we finally DO SOMETHING positive!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rhys's Tw elve Days of Christmas--Day 5

Christmas trees were brought to England from Germany in the early 19th Century when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria. In a country full of fir trees it was easy to find an evergreen to bring into the house. The early trees were decorated with dried apples, straw stars, carved angels, glass birds and instruments and candles--this made them a big fire hazard as the branches dried out.

Of course they didn't dry out as much in those days because the tree was only brought inside and decorated on Christmas Eve.  This was true when I was growing up. We bought the tree on my way to my grandmother's house and decorated it on Christmas Eve. In Germany the tree is kept up until twelfth night on Three Kings , January 6th.

Actually Christmas trees are part of an older pre-Christian mid winter celebration when greens were brought into the house and candles were lit at the longest nights of the year, to banish the darkness and remind folks that brighter das were ahead. In England the old song mentions the holly and the ivy. They were both brought indoors to decorate with, bringing a touch of bright green into the dark, dreary world.

And misletoe, of course--mistletoe, favorite plant of the druids--another pre-Christian tradition that we have incorporated into our celebrations, althougb I don't think those old druids used to stand under the miseltoe waiting to kiss anybody.

Those first Christians were not stupid. They tied in all their feast days to existing celebrations, so that people didn't feel cheated. This is how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th. Actually we don't know what time of year Jesus was born. But the early Christians thought it would be smart to incorporate this holiday with the Celtic midwinter celebration.

So when you put the lights on your Christmas tree, when you bring holly, pyrocantha, misletoe into the house remind yourself that you are carrying on a tradtion of several thousand years. Cool, huh? 

Rhys's Twelve Days of Christmas--Day 4

Today I'm remembering my favorite part of the Old English Christmas: Carol singing. A week or so before Christmas groups of carolers would appear on street corners. Children would come to the front door, singing carols and hoping to get a penny or two to buy Christmas presents.

Out in the countryside we would go around the village singing carols. When we knocked at front doors, sometimes the whole family would come to hear us. Sometimes we'd be invited in for food and sometimes they would bring treats to the door--usually mince pies or cookies, and sometimes hot spiced wine, the wassail cup, to go with it. We went on to the next house with a lovely warm feeling growing inside.

The interesting thing was that we knew the words to all those carols. Today I think children can only sing non-religious songs like Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer. And even adults only know the first couple of lines of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

We'll all find it hard to sing joyful songs this year after the tragedy that happened yesterday in Connecticut. So many beautiful young lives snuffed out. So many families shattered. So many holidays that will never be the same again.

My thoughts and prayers go out to them, knowing that nothing will ease their pain at this moment but wanting them to know that the whole world prays for them and cares for them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Rhys's Twelve Days of Christmas, Day 3

Why do they call it plum pudding when there are no plums in it?
Inquiring minds want to know.
The answer to that is simple. The Victorians used the word plums to mean raisins. And the Christmas pudding has plenty of those.
It dates back to the middle ages and should traditionally have 13 ingredients in it to symbolize Christ and the 12 apostles. It should be made on pudding Sunday (the sunday before Advent) and should be stirred by each member of the family in turn.

You might wonder how it didn't spoil before Christmas day and the answer to that is booze. Lots of it. Brandy or rum or both, poured in copious quantities. When World War 2 was approaching my mother in law made five puddings and they lasted through most of the war years.

The pudding mixture is put into a basin, tied with a cloth and then steamed for hours. It is served with a sprig of holly in it. Some people pour spirits over it and bring it to the meal flaming.
I'll give you a link to a good recipe at the end of this blog.

The other fun aspect of the Christmas pudding is the silver charms that used to be dropped into the mixture. Each charm had a meaning. If you found a boot in your slice, you were due to travel soon, a ring and you'd be a bride, a pig and you were a glutton, a button and you were destined to remain a bachelor. We also used to have silver threepenny pieces in ours--those tiny little Victorian silver coins. I don't remember anyone swallowing one or choking. I suppose we ate carefully. Today I have to confess that I buy my puddings ready made. Since only John and I really like them, we only get a small one.
 Let me know if any of you still use charms or coins in yours.
And also let me know if you try the recipe and it's delicious.

Here's the link:

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Twelve Days of Christmas, Day 2

And before.  anyone reminds me that the real twelve days start on Christmas day, I know. I just wanted to create a little excitement as we build up to the day. Afteward we're stuffed with Christmas pudding and turkey and have no energy.

So each day I'm featuring some interesting Christmas fact or tradition, especially the ones featured in my book, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

When I first arrived in the United States I went into a drug store and asked where they kept the crackers. The clerk took me to a shelf of Saltines, Ritz etc.

"No," I said. "I mean the sort of crackers that explode and a hat comes out of them."

Now he looked at me as if I was completely insane. That's when I realized that they didn't have crackers in America. Thankfully that has changed. I can find them now at all kinds of places, including Costco.

And in case you still haven't encountered them yet--they are tubes of paper with a small explosive inside. When you pull them they make a loud snapping sound and out tumble a paper hat, usually in the shape of a crown, a small toy or other gift, riddles and trivia. They are completely useless and way too expensive but my family wouldn't have Christmas without them. For years I had to bring them back from UK in my suitcase (what would the TSA explosive sniffing dogs do with them, I wonder?)

So there is one at every place at Christmas dinner. We pull them, play with the toys, read the riddles and wear the paper hats. Ridiculous but fun. And as to the origin--I really don't know. When I was a child we had all kinds of indoor fireworks, sparklers etc at Christmas. I suspect this was part of that tradition of making fire and noise at the pre-Christian holiday.

And finishing with a spot of good news: Masked Ball at Broxley Manor, that little e-story prequel I wrote for Lady Georgie, has been named on the best e-books of the year by Barnes and Noble. Right next to Jack Reacher! (which is never a bad place to be!)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Rhys's 12 Days of Christmas, Day One

In celebration of my new book, The Twelve Days of Christmas, I'm going to be blogging every day from now until Christmas Eve, sharing all kinds of interesting snippets of Christmas lore and tradition.

And what better place to start than the song on which the book is based. The Twelve Days of Christmas originally came from France, and all of the first days have to do with good things to eat.

The partridge in a pear tree... well, that's a mis-translation or misunderstanding. You see, the French word for partridge is perdrix. Try saying perdrix and it will sound like "pear tree".
So the song words are really "A partridge, a perdrix."

The two turtle doves are not lovebirds, but again birds that are good to eat at a Christmas feast.
As are three French hens.
And the four calling birds... are really colly birds, which is another word for blackbirds. And as we know they used to be baked in pies, according to the nursery rhyme.

And the gold rings?  No, not things you'd wear on your fingers but ring-necked pheasants. And then follow the geese and the swans...

So the first half of the song is all about killing fowls for the Christmas feast.

You have to remember that in days of yore the normal diet of most people was very plain, very little meat, often hungry. So Christmas was one of the few times of the year when they would pull out all the stops and feast for several days.

You'll notice there is no turkey in the song. Turkeys are New World birds and hadn't been discovered when the song was first composed.

More interesting Christmas trivia tomorrow....

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A thoroughly Modern Christmas

I decided to get into the festive spirit and cheer everyone up today so I'm reposting the poem I wrote a couple of years ago:

A Thoroughly Modern Christmas,
By Rhys Bowen

Dashing through the web
Googling sites like mad
Cyber Monday's come again
Bargains to be had

Oh, click click here, click click there
Buy it all online
Overstock and Amazon
Christmas will be fine

Oh... click click here, click click there
Bought it all online
Christmas done and packed and shipped
Have a class of wine!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Horrible Twist

A horrible twist on yesterday's post about the Aussie DJs and their prank call to Kate's hospital--I heard on this morning's news that the young nurse who took the prank call has killed herself.

What a tragic and unnecessary thing to have happened. The original prank was a harmless bit of fun, no malice intended. It hurt nobody. And I suppose it's understandable that a young nurse might be so flustered at hearing the queen on the other end of the line that she didn't stop to think it might be an imposter. (I heard the tape. The accents are quite wrong for the royals.)

But this just shows the power of the media. It has been blown up into such a big thing that it claimed a life.

The same sort of thing happened this week on the Today show when Willie Geist tapped Matt Lauer on the tush with his script as he walked past him. Apparently that crossed all sorts of boundaries of propriety. If you saw it there was nothing in any way inappropriate about it, just a friendly gesture. But again the media hyped it into something naughty, disrespectful and forbidden.

Come on, everyone--where is your sense of humor? I love jokes and pranks as long as they are not mean-spirited or harmful. I would not feel in any way offended if a friend tapped my rear end with a rolled paper as he walked past. I would see it as a friendly gesture of connection.

And yet we are now a society where it is expected that we all hug each other all the time. Makes no sense to me. How about you? And my sincere condolences to the family of that young nurse. A sad day.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Royal Hoax

Did you see on the news today that two Australian DJs put in a prank call to Kate's hospital, pretending to be the queen and Prince Charles. The nurse who answered the phone was completely fooled even though the accents were terrible and they both used language no royal would ever use.
When the queen said something about "walking the bloody corgis" that should have been a red flag.

I grew up in a genteel household in England and nobody in the queen's generation would use the word bloody. When I came home from my new job at the BBC and said airily that something was "a bloody nuisance" there was silence in the room and one of my aunts said, "So--you've taken to swearing now, have you?"

Luckily the hoax was discovered before they were put through to Kate's room. Another dead giveaway might have been that it was five in the morning--Australians never able to get their times right, as I can attest after some weird calls from my family members.

But really the nurse must have been clueless. It is highly unlikely that a royal would put through the call. A secretary would establish the contact and then put the queen or Prince Charles on the line. But it does show how easily security can be breached, doesn't it?

And it makes me wonder whether I could make use of a royal hoax in a future Lady Georgie book.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Will and Kate's Baby

So is everyone excited about Will and Kate's baby announcement? In the UK the big betting shops are already taking odds on the baby's sex, name, hair color etc.

So let's choose our own name for them. Vote here on the name you would choose for a boy or a girl.
My choices are Victoria Anne Elizabeth Dianna for a girl
and for a boy I think Phillip will be in there somewhere but not as a first name (Phillip was king of Spain at the time of the Armada) George definitely after the queen's father, maybe David or something Welsh because of their current residence in Wales: so my bet would be George Phillip David Charles.

And your guess would be?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tis the Season to Do What?

Sorry I've been absent for the past week. It was my week to blog on my group blog and I couldn't do both.
But now I'm back and I'm going to be blogging all this month with interesting Christmas related snippets, tied in to my new book THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. So stay tuned for fascinating facts such as the true meaning of the twelve days.

But today I'm a little perplexed. I've just asked everyone what they want for Christmas. One wants a gift certificate to Target, one a gift certificate to a bike shop, one just a gift certificate to Amazon. What happened to gift giving? If I give you a gift certificate and you give me one, why not just not give and buy ourselves a present instead?

When I was younger it was the giving of the gift that was important (at least that is what we were told when we opened Great Aunt Trudy's bright orange hand knitted sweater with the ducks on it). The fact that someone had had serious thoughts about what might make me happy and taken the trouble to find it in a store. Of course the gifts weren't always exactly what we wanted, but did didn't do a mad rush to return them eithre.

Today everything has to be so perfect that people are afraid to give and would rather take the risk out of failure with a gift certificate or even cash. Well, my philosophy is that Santa doesn't carry cash. I'm choosing you a gift. Be grateful.

I remember one Christmas my family decided that the holiday had become too commercial and we'd do homemade gifts for each other. It was fun. I liked it. The results were differing--one made lovely velvet throw pillows that I still use after 20 years. One made great fleece scarves and caps that are still being used. My son in law made wooden toys. My son the actor read CDs of fairytales for his nieces and nephews. Over the years I've tried to personalize presents--last year I made books of family history for each kid. A DVD of ancestors. And to me those are the gifts that are truly precious.

I wish we could do this again, although it is a little stressful trying to get gifts done in time. But I love it. How about you? Any suggestions for homemade gifts?.