Wednesday, 31 December 2008

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... six New Year's Eve traditions!

New Zealand and Australia have already welcomed in the New Year but people in the UK are still preparing themselves for the arrival of 2009.

You may well be planning to party in the New Year or carry out some familiar traditions - such as sing 'Auld Lang Syne' - so, to get you thinking, here are six familiar ways of welcoming in the New Year.

1) Watch Night
Many religious communities have a tradition of New Year's Eve being known as 'Watch Night'. The faithful of the community congregate to worship at services that commence on New Year's Eve night and which continue past midnight into the New Year. The Watch Night is a time for giving thanks for the blessings of the outgoing year and praying for divine favour during the upcoming year.

2) The Edinburgh Cannon
In Edinburgh the cannon is fired at Edinburgh Castle at the stroke of midnight.

3) Hogmanay
Scotland celebrates New Year as Hogmanay, which is the Scots word for the last day of the year. The roots of Hogmanay reach back to the celebration of the winter solstice among the Norse, as well as incorporating customs from the Gaelic New Year's celebration of Samhain.

4) Auld Lang Syne
The Hogmanay custom of singing 'Auld Lang Syne' has become common in many countries. 'Auld Lang Syne' is a traditional poem reinterpreted by Robert Burns, which was later set to music. It is now common for this to be sung in a circle of linked arms that are crossed over one another as the clock strikes midnight for New Year's Day. In Scotland the traditional practice is to cross arms only for the last verse.

5) First Footing
The practice of 'first-footing' starts immediately after midnight, and involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour's house, and often involves the giving of symbolic gifts such as salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a type of rich fruit cake) intended to bring different kinds of luck to the householder.

6) New Year's Resolutions
It is also customary to make New Year's resolutions, which individuals hope to fulfil in the coming year. The most popular resolutions in the West include to stop smoking or drinking, lose weight or get physically fit. What will you give up (or take up) for 2009?

However you're planning to see in the New Year, I would like to wish you all a very happy 2009!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

What would you like to know?

Is there anything about Christmas or the festive season that you would like the answer to? Perhaps it's some tradition that you've always followed or some curious fact you've been told but were never sure about. Well here's your chance to have that question answered.

Simply reply to this post or email me at and I'll do my best to answer it for you. I look forward to receiving your questions soon.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... five gooold rings!

Did you know...?

The original, traditional version of the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, does not contain the famous theme 'Five Gooold Rings'.

A man called Frederic Austin changed the way people sang the line 'Five gold rings' to the version we know now, and this version of the line - but only this one line, out of the whole carol - is still copyrighted today.

So if you played or sang 'Five Gooold Rings' over Christmas this year, you owe Novello & Co some money!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... three altervative recipes for Turkey!

It's quite possible that even by 28 December you still have some turkey left over from Christmas Day and you're not sure what to do with it, to make it just that little bit... well... different. Well here are three ideas from the incomparable Mrs Beeton.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... two oranges stuck with cloves!

Last night I tried out one of the recipes from What is Myrrh Anyway? on a group of family and friends who were round for Christmas Eve dinner. And even if I do say so myself it was very well received, and tasted pretty good too.

So, if you fancy a taste of Bishop's Wine, here's the recipe from the book, along with a few visual aids. (NB - I made double the quantity, which is why there's double the ingredients in all the photographs.)

Bishop’s Wine

1 bottle of red wine
1 orange stuck with cloves
1 cinnamon stick
The peel of 1 lemon
Sugar to taste

Place the clove stuck orange in a large pan; add the red wine and leave to steep for half a day. During this time the wine will take on the flavours of the orange and cloves.

Then you need to add the other ingredients together and simply warm the whole lot through half an hour before serving.

Last of all, enjoy in the company of friends and family.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Dom and Danny Do Christmas - the morning after

As any regular reader of this blog will know, I was on the radio yesterday along with Dom Joly and Danny Wallace.

Now being busy people on Christmas Day, you quite possibly missed it or - as in the case of the Green family - couldn't hear it over the inordinate amounts of noise produced by over-excited children. Now if that's the case, have no fear for Dom and Danny Do Christmas is available for download via Radio 5 Live's Listen Again facility. Simply follow this link to access the site.

But in the meantime why not enjoy the sight of Dom Joly in an inflatable Santa suit partaking in a not-so Silent Night?

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... a parakeet in a plane tree!

In the post-children's stockings pre-Christmas lunch lull yesterday, the Green family and associated hangers on went for a walk in the local park, where we saw this...

... sorry... this!

A parakeet in a plane tree!

Of course, in the original Twelve Days of Christmas, on the first day of Christmas the young woman who countdowns the bizarre list of presents receives a partridge in a pear tree. Or did she?
To find out more about the possible meaning and origins of the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas just delve into your copy of What is Myrrh Anyway?

26 December - Boxing Day

Today is the Feast of Saint Stephen (as in the one sung about in Good King Wenceslas), also known as Wren Day (once upon a time), more commonly known as Boxing Day. But why?

Well, it has nothing to do with putting out the boxes that all the presents came in on Christmas Day. It is instead to do with alms boxes. The day after Christmas, the priest would open the collection boxes that had been left in church over the festive period and then distribute the money to the poor and needy of the parish.

Boxing Day has a whole host of traditions associated with it, everything from horse racing and fox hunting to wren hunting and mummers' plays. As a child I visited the village of Marshfield in Gloucestershire once to watch the famous mummer's play there.

Boxing Day is also when the sales start, of course, although this year they seemed to start some time before Christmas. To find out more about Boxing Day and it's traditions why not turn to the chapter 'Why is 26 December called Boxing Day?' in your copy of What is Myrrh Anyway?

26 December is also the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas...

Thursday, 25 December 2008

25 December - Season's Greetings!

Merry Christmas!

Yes, Christmas Day is here at last, and hopefully some of you are waking up this morning to find that Father Christmas has left you a copy of What is Myrrh Anyway? in your stocking!

I hope you all have a wonderful day and remember you can listen to me, Dom Joly and Danny Wallace deconstructing the midwinter feast on Radio 5 Live from 12 noon.

So we keep the olden greeting
With its meaning deep and true,
And wish a merrie Christmas
And a happy New Year to you.

(Old English saying)

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Carols from King's

They are as traditional as mince pies and Christmas pudding and they're on in about 15 minutes.

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is the Christmas Eve service held in King's College Chapel. The Festival was introduced in 1918 to bring a more imaginative approach to worship. It was first broadcast in 1928 and is now broadcast to millions of people around the world.

This evening the chapel choir from King's College, Cambridge, under the direction of Stephen Cleobury, sings carols old and new in Gothic splendour, everything from God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen to O Come All Ye Faithful. There is also the story of the Nativity and poetry readings from the likes of T S Eliot.

NORAD Santa Tracker

The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), which is responsible for aerospace and maritime defence (for the US and Canada), has teamed up with Internet giants Google to make Santa's busy 24 hours visible online via the site.

The big man in the red and white suit has already dropped off some some gifts in Russia, Japan, Fiji, North Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and will of course be heading to the UK later. So you'd better be good for goodness sake...

To follow Santa's progress for yourself, click here.

24 December - Christmas Eve!

Yes, it's almost here - only one day to go until Christmas Day! So, what does Christmas Eve itself have in store?

Well, traditionalists will be putting up their Christmas trees and other decorations today, whilst last minute shoppers will be panic buying, spending (on average) £33 on last minute purchases.

There are many traditions associated with this day, but some have long been forgotten. First there is the tradition of the Dumb Cake (a type of loaf!) which a young spinster would make in silence to help her determine the identity of her future intended.

Christmas Eve was considered a day of abstinence and, as such, was a day when traditionally fish was eaten rather than meat. It is also a day when younger parishioners attend a Crib Service at church.

Of course it is tonight when hopeful children (and some adults) hang up stockings (or sacks!) in the hope that Father Christmas might fill them to bursting with presents.

And some people attend Midnight Mass with churches welcoming in Christmas Day with a peal of bells (announcing the birth of Christ and the death of the Devil).

You can read more about these traditions (and a number of others) in What is Myrrh Anyway? which is still available from good bookshops until they close for Christmas later today.

What is Myrrh Anyway? makes the perfect Christmas stocking filler!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Promoting What is Myrrh Anyway? - or - Musicial Studios

I spent the morning taking part in a number of radio interviews at Western House (the home of Radio 2). This involved me sitting in a small studio by myself, in front of a microphone, with a set of headphones on, waiting for various radio show hosts to talk to me and carry out their interviews. Some were live, some pre-recorded.

Me in Studio GB

However, due to the way in which studios have to be booked by the half hour, and the fact that (at least technically) several slots overlapped, I had to move from one studio to the next and back again. Not that it mattered - I was the only one in!

Me in Studio GC

But I have nonetheless been suitably quizzed and (think) I acquitted myself fairly well. If you heard me on the radio at all - or you have a Christmas question you'd like answered - why not drop me a line?

Oh, and Happy Christmas Eve Eve.

23 December - Posset, a traditional Christmas Eve treat

If you're anything like me, I'm sure you're up to your neck in preparations for Christmas. But amidst all the fuss and panic, why not take some time out tomorrow to enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve drink.

Posset was drunk on Christmas Eve to get the seasonal merry-making under way. It was made by combining hot milk with spices, lemon and sugar, as well as oatcake and bread. The posset was traditionally taken with a spoon. Good luck befell the fortunate youth or maiden who drew out the lucky coin (or even wedding-ring!) which had been dropped in the posset-pot!

During the 19th century, on Christmas Eve, it was the custom to offer each carolling guest a posset cup and a piece of apple pie or tart. This recipe serves 8-10.


4 cups of milk
4 tbs sugar
4 slices of toast
1 tsp cinnamon
4 cups of beer (preferably ale)

Heat the milk, sugar, and toast in a saucepan, taking care not to let it boil. Stir the cinnamon and beer together in a large bowl. Discard the toast, pour the hot milk over the ale and stir. It is best served still warm.

Monday, 22 December 2008

As welcome as a warm glass of mulled wine on a wintry night

This is what December's edition of The Good Book Guide has to say about What is Myrrh Anyway?

'As welcome as a warm glass of mulled wine on a wintry night, Green's guide to Christmas enhances the pleasures of the festive season, offering a witty cornucopia of Christmas facts and folklore.'

What is Myrrh Anyway? in the Daily Express

In case you missed it, What is Myrrh Anyway? was the subject of a feature in the Daily Express on Saturday. To read the article by Julie Carpenter for yourself, click here.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas...

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

Have a Classic FM Christmas

It's nearly time to enjoy the festive treats Christmas day will bring to many, but why wait until then? Classic FM still have three days of fabulous prizes for you to win in their fabulous online Advent Calendar. Click here to find out more.

Jona Lewie - Stop the Cavalry

This has to be one of the strangest, least festive Christmas classics, but it is a classic nonetheless. Enjoy!

Did you know?
The song peaked at number three in the UK Singles Chart in December 1980, at one point only being kept from number one by two re-issued songs by John Lennon, who had been murdered on 8 December.

The song was never intended as a Christmas hit, but the line 'Wish I was at home for Christmas' as well as the brass band arrangements made it an appropriately styled song to play around Christmas time.

22 December - Where did the Christmas crib scene originate?

It's that time of year now, when families start to visit church to take part in a crib service. The children among the congregation are invited to place the kings, shepherds, et al, into a pre-prepared stable scene. Actually there's one outside the church opposite my house. But where does this practice of recreating the Nativity tableau come from?

Well, as you can imagine, What is Myrrh Anyway? has the answers, but just to give you a taster... One man is credited with creating the Christmas crib more than any other, and that is the thirteenth-century Saint Francis of Assisi (and it's not his only connection to Christmas either).

In 1220, Francis made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem. While there, he saw how Christmas was celebrated in the town of Jesus’ birth and was so impressed that he asked the Pope, Honorious III, if he might recreate something like it in his own Italian home of Greccio.
With the help of a local landowner, Gionvanni Velita, and his friends, Francis succeeded in creating his own representation of the Nativity in a cave, surrounded by candles. Details over the actual participants in his Nativity scene vary, with some saying that Francis used statues to represent the holy family, while others say claim that real people, dressed in appropriate costumes, fulfilled the role. However, all the sources agree on the fact that at the centre of the scene was a straw-filled manger surrounded by real animals.
These days, most families have to settle for a wooden replica if they want to recreate a crib scene in their own home. In 1562 the Jesuits put up a crib in Prague, and this is considered to be the first crib of the modern kind.

In different countries the traditional Nativity scene has different names, of course. In Italy it is known as presepe or presepio; in Portuguese it is known as presépio, in Catalan it's the pessebre, in Spanish the name goes between El Belén (for Bethlehem, where Jesus was born) and also Nacimiento, Portal or Pesebre. The Maltese name is Presepju and the Czech names are betlém and jesličky. In Poland it is known as szopka, from Polish for 'small crib', in Croatian it is jaslice. In the Philippines, it is called a Belen (due to Spanish Influence). The Dutch name kerststal refers to the stable in which Jesus was born. The Scandinavian words julkrubba (Swedish) and julekrybbe (Norwegian and Danish) are made from the words for yule and manger. And in Russian and Ukrainian culture there was a type of portable Christmas puppet theatre called vertep, known in Belarus as batleyka, from 'Bethlehem'. So there you go.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

What is Myrrh Anyway? on your radio - again!

Just a few more upcoming radio 'appearances' to update you on this evening. In addition to those mentioned in my comprehensive blog of Thursday, you will also be able to hear me in the run up to Christmas on BBC Radio Three Counties, BBC Midwest Radio, BBC Warwickshire & Coventry (that's a definite now), BBC Radio Cumbria, BBC Radio Southern Counties and BBC Radio Stoke.

Don't say I didn't warn you!

Mulled wine and mince pies

Earlier this evening I enjoyed mulled wine and mince pies at a neighbour's house. Of course, the eating of the mince pies was, technically, against the law and there was no hare's liver in the mincemeat (see What is Myrrh Anyway? for more details) but nonetheless it was very nice too.

If you're looking to host a mulled wine party yourself before Christmas, you could do a lot worse than try out this simple festive recipe for the intriguingly titled Bishop's Wine.

Bishop’s Wine

1 bottle of red wine
1 orange stuck with cloves
1 cinnamon stick
The peel of 1 lemon
Sugar to taste

Place the clove stuck orange in a large pan; add the red wine and leave to steep for half a day. During this time the wine will take on the flavours of the orange and cloves. Then you need to add the other ingredients together and simply warm the whole lot through half an hour before serving.

What do you give the man who has everything?

How about a manly fragrance with a subtle hint of greasy fast food joint? Yes, that's right - fast food chain Burger King has released a fragrance for men which gives off the scent of cooked meat.

The company hopes the aftershave, called Flame, will be a novelty Christmas bestseller. So far the scent's on sale in New York for a credit-crunching $3.99 (£2.65). But sadly the spray, which apparently incorporates the smell of seduction, is not available in the UK.

JG in the Sunday Post - or - One to embarrass the children with in years to come

Should a 37 year-old man really be seen by the public looking like this?

This morning I find myself asking if there's anything I won't do to promote What is Myrrh Anyway? To find out what I was doing, allowing myself to be photographed in this condition, click here.

21 December - What is the winter solstice anyway?

21 December is traditionally the date of the winter solstice, the year's longest night and shortest day, and sometimes referred to as Yule. The winter solstice occurs at the instant when the Sun's position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observers' hemisphere. Depending on the shift of the calendar, the event of the winter solstice occurs some time between December 20 and December 23 each year in the northern hemisphere.

The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradually lengthening nights and shortening days. How cultures interpret this is varied, since it is sometimes said to astronomically mark either the beginning or middle of a hemisphere's winter. Though the winter solstice lasts an instant, the term is also colloquially used to refer to the full 24-hour period of the day on which it occurs.

Worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied from culture to culture, but most cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings and other ritual celebrations around that time.

Did you know...?
The word solstice derives from Latin sol, meaning 'sun', and sistere, 'to stand still'.

Saint Thomas' Day is also celebrated on 21 December. Saint Thomas is commemorated on this day because he was the last one of the apostles to become convinced of Jesus' resurrection - in other words, he was the one who for the longest time remained in the 'night of unbelief and doubt.' He is also supposedly to have died on this day c. AD72, near Chennai in India.

These are various traditions practised on this day, particularly in Germany, including the Thomasfaulpelz or Domesel, and the Rittberg wedding.

Thomasfaulpelz or Domesel (the 'lazybone' or 'donkey' of Saint Thomas day) were names given to the last person to get out of bed and for the last student to appear in class on that particular morning in Westphalia (roughly the region between the Rivers Rhine and Weser, located north of the Ruhr River).

The Rittburgische Hochzeit (Rittberg wedding), also in Westphalia, was an opulent meal served in the belief that if you ate well on Saint Thomas day, you could expect to do so all of the next year.

So, Happy Saint Thomas Day!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

20 December - Do you like to be scared?

Christmas has long been a time for telling tales around a roaring fire on a cold winter's night. There is, of course, the story of the Nativity, as related through the Bible, but another favourite of the festive season is the ghost story!

Probably the most well-known Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but it is by no means the only one. Some of the best Christmas ghost stories were written by M. R. James (1862-1936). Many of them were intended for reading aloud, to select gatherings of friends, as Christmas Eve entertainments.

So accomplished a write of ghost stories was he, that his method of story-telling is now known as Jamesian. The classic Jamesian tale includes a characterful setting, a nondescript and rather naive gentleman-scholar protagonist, and the discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that results in attracting the unwanted attention of some supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave. James' intention was always to, 'put the reader into the position of saying to himself: "If I'm not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!"'

Continuing in this Jamesian vein, this Christmas, BBC Four will be screening Crooked House, a haunting tale of three sumptuous ghost stories woven together for a spooky Christmas treat, written by Mark Gatiss (The League Of Gentlemen) and directed by Damon Thomas (Beethoven).

Shot in HD, Crooked House boasts a wonderfully diverse cast which includes Julian Rhind-Tutt (Green Wing), Mark Gatiss, Philip Jackson (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk To Finchley), Lee Ingleby (George Gently), Jean Marsh (Sense And Sensibility), Samuel Barnett (Beautiful People), Daniela Denby-Ashe (My Family), Anna Madeley (Brideshead Revisited) and, in his debut dramatic role, illusionist Derren Brown as the mysterious Sir Roger Widdowson.

In addition to writing and co-producing the drama, Gatiss takes the role of a museum curator with an in-depth knowledge of the fictional Geap Manor, stretching through Tudor, Georgian, the Twenties and contemporary times.

When school teacher Ben unearths an old door knocker in the garden of his new home, the curator suggests it may come from the now-demolished house. A house reputed to be haunted... Intrigued, Ben prompts the curator to tell him some of stories about the house and so begins a journey through time.

A corrupt Georgian businessman finds something unexpected in the woodwork of his new home. In the Twenties, a young couple's happy engagement party is spoiled by the spectre of a ghostly bride. And, back in the present day, Ben soon finds himself in darker, more dangerous waters than he could possibly have foreseen...

Mark Gatiss says of Crooked House: "Ever since I was a child and thrilled to the BBC's classic MR James adaptations, I've dreamt of sending a festive shiver down the nation's spine. I'm delighted to finally have the opportunity. A fantastic cast and crew have worked incredibly hard to fulfil this long held dream."

Did you know...?
On this day in 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became the oldest ever monarch of the United Kingdom, surpassing Queen Victoria, who lived for 81 years, 7 months and 29 days.

Friday, 19 December 2008

19 December - Christmas Wrapping

Just like Christmas cards and manufactured decorations, Christmas wrapping paper rose to prominence during the 19th century, at a time of growing industrialisation and the development of a consumer culture.

Before the mid-1800s Christmas presents had usually only been given to children and were small things that might be placed inside stockings on Christmas Eve. However, by the 1880s, the purchase of manufactured goods had increased, as had the production of boxes in which to store them. From there it was only a small step to create special paper to wrap it all up in.

In the late 19th century presents were wrapped in white tissue or brown paper, with a gift tag or token sprig of holly attached. From there people started using coloured tissue paper. Joyce Hall (who would later found Hallmark Cards) started producing wrapping paper in 1918, with the designs becoming more elaborate as the years went on.

And then, of course, there's this sort of Christmas Wrapping (with more of those wonderful lights!).

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Ho ho ho!

What are Father Christmas's elves called?

Subordinate Clauses!

To discover your Christmas Elf name, click here.

To take part in a Christmas elf snowball fight, click here.

Have fun!

What is Myrrh Anyway? on your radio

With Christmas Day now only a week away, I've been busy promoting my book What is Myrrh Anyway? hoping to cash in on some of those last minute panic purchases. As well as there being items in the press, I've been interviewed for various radio stations up and down the country.

This morning I was on air live for Graham Torrington's show on BBC Radio Bristol and this afternoon I've already been on Pat Marsh's show for BBC Kent. I should also be on Drivetime on BBC Leeds this evening. (I pre-recorded that interview this morning!)

Next week you should hear me on TalkSPORT Radio with Adrian Goldberg, BBC Radio Three Counties, BBC West Midlands, BBC Newcastle, Highland Radio, BBC Radio York, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Southern Counties, BBC Radio Shropshire, BBC Radio Stoke, BBC Radio Manchester and BBC Radio Warwickshire & Coventry.

It's all a bit manic, and at the moment it rather feels like I'm going to be popping up in almost as many places as Father Christmas this year, so you'll hardly be able to miss me. And then, of course, I'm going to be on air on Christmas Day for Dom and Danny Do Christmas.

And on Boxing Day... I'm going to be putting my feet up!

18 December - What's your favourite Christmas Carol?

Some weeks ago, we asked, on this blog, what your favourite Christmas number 1 is. Well now we're asking - or rather Classic FM is asking - what is your favourite Christmas carol?

To have your say, visit the Classic FM website where you will be able to choose from a huge number of carols.

Personally, I find it hard to choose only one carol but I've always enjoyed the rather nonsensical I Saw Three Ships. It has the galloping rhythm that a song associated with dancing (which is what a carol really is) should have.

I Saw Three Ships is a traditional Christmas carol from England, and some sources assert that this song is "an upbeat variant of Greensleeves", which has a similar meter. The earliest printed version is from the 17th century, possibly Derbyshire.

The whole idea of ships having anything to do with Christmas probably comes from a carol sung during the Christmas holidays about the middle of the 16th century:

All sons of Adam, rise up with me,
Go praise the Blessed Trinitie, &c.
Then spake the Archangel Gabriel, said, Ave, Marie mild,
The Lord of Lords is with thee, now shall you go with child.
Ecce ancilla domini.
Then said the virgin, as thou hast said, so mat it be,
Welcome be heavens King.
There comes a ship far sailing then,
Saint Michael was the stieres-man;
Saint John sate in the horn:Our Lord harped, our Lady sang,
And all the bells of heaven they rang,
On Christ's sonday at morn, &c.

This carol is sometimes known as Christmas Day in the Morning. Joshua Sylvestre, in his Christmas Carols - Ancient and Modern (circa 1861), said that, 'It has always been a great favorite with the illiterate, and from its quaintness will be found not displeasing to the more refined.' So that's me told!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

What is Myrrh Anyway? in the national press

Thought I'd pass on a few links to articles that have appeared recently in the national press regarding What is Myrrh Anyway?

First there was a piece in the Glasgow Daily Record yesterday by Samantha Booth about the book, which you can read here, and in the Daily Star, on the same day, there was this piece by James Moore. (Be warned - this is the Daily Star we're talking about. Apparently, even Danielle Lloyd was impressed. I didn't even know she'd read the book!)

I also got a mention in Dom Joly's column in the Independent on Sunday, as 'man... who'd written a book called What is Myrrh Anyway?' following the recording of Dom and Danny Do Christmas for Radio 5 Live a few weeks ago. For more on that particularly unusual festive experience, follow this link.

17 December - Saturnalia

17 December is the date on which the Roman festival of Saturnalia began, and Saturnalia is, of course, one of the ancient pagan festivals that influenced the development of our own modern Christmas.
As its name might suggest, Saturnalia was held in honour of Saturn, the Roman god of of agriculture and the harvest, and specifically commemorated the dedication of his temple. In time the festival came to last a whole week.
What made Saturnalia stand out from many other religious festivals was the way in which it was marked by tomfoolery and a reversal of conventional social roles, in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places. This particular aspect of Saturnalia lives on today most obviously in the modern pantomime.
You can find out more about the traditions of Saturnalia (as well as those of Christmas itself) in What is Myrrh Anyway?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Buy now in time for Christmas!

Don't forget, there's still time to buy your own signed copy of What is Myrrh Anyway? through this very website.

These hard-to-come-by signed copies only cost £6.00 each, and post and packing is free!

If you would like to purchase one of these future collector's items, simply email me at, and I'll let you know how to proceed.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

16 December - What is Eggnog anyway?

Eggnog is a popular drink throughout the Americas, and is usually associated with winter celebrations such as Christmas and New Year, funnily enough. But what exactly is it?

To put it scientifically, it is a sweetened dairy-based beverage made with milk, cream, sugar, beaten eggs (which gives it a frothy texture) and flavoured with ground cinnamon and nutmeg. However, to most it is simply a tasty alcoholic festive drinks that warms the cockles of the heart on a cold winter's night.

The drink originated in Europe in the 1700s. To keep them warm during the cold winters people developed a drink that mixed warm milk and eggs with Sherry or Brandy to keep the chill at bay. This was served in a noggin - a small, wooden mug - and, as a result became nicknamed 'eggnog'.

During the 1800s Eggnog became hugely popular in England, especially at Christmastime. It was served as a classic punch, in large volumes to all holiday visitors. It was served both warm and cold to anyone who came calling during the winter season.

Did you know...?
American President George Washington loved eggnog and made up his own recipes.

If you're a fan of Eggnog yourself or you've never tried it before and would like to give it a go, then why not try out this simple recipe from Sarah Rutledge's The Carolina Housewife (1847)?


6 eggs
2 pints of milk
Half a pint of brandy
6 table-spoons of sugar

Beat the yolks and sugar together, and the whites until they are very hard. Mix in the brandy, then boil the milk and pour it into the mixture. 19th century Eggnog - done!

Did you know?
Eggnog has long been believed to be an excellent source of magnesium.

Monday, 15 December 2008

15 December - What was the First Noël?

'The First Nowell' is a traditional English Christmas carol, most likely dating from the 16th or 17th century, but possibly dating from as early as the 13th century. But what was the first nowell?

Well, the answer is in What is Myrrh Anyway? (as well as the Bible, as it happens), available from all better bookshops now.

Readers of a certain age may remember the 1984 television adaptation of John Masefield's fantasy novel The Box of Delights, which starred former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton. Well, the seasonal theme music was Victor Hely-Hutchinson's orchestral arrangement of 'The First Noël' from his Carol Symphony.

And here, for your delectation , is the haunting opening to the show and the end of the first episode which features the music more fully.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

14 December - God Jul!

Christmas is a favorite time of year in Scandinavia. After all our modern Christmas is in part inspired by the ancient Norse Yule.

The countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden experience the darkest time of the year during the Christmas season when the nights are longest and the greater part of winter is still ahead.

'Jul' - or Yule - was celebrated long before Christianity came to Scandinavia. At that time it was an observation of the winter solstice, that from then on the days would become longer and darkness gradually recede. It was a celebration of light returning. Plants are on the windowsill and cut flowers in profusion on tables do much to dispel the gloom.

In Sweden, Christmas begins with the Saint Lucia day. The Saint Lucia ceremony takes place on December 13. Christmas Eve is known as Julafton in Swedish. After the festive Christmas Eve dinner, someone dresses up as Tomte (Christmas gnome) who is believed to live under floorboards. Find out more about Christmas Traditions in Sweden!

Did you know...?
Swedish Christmas home decorations include red tulips.

In Denmark, the mischievous Danish elf Nisse plays pranks on people during Christmastime. On Christmas Eve, many Danish families leave some rice pudding or porridge for him so that he is nice to them. Children are not allowed to see the Christmas tree until dinner time on Christmas Eve (known as Juleaften) and parents decorate it secretly with home-made baubles. Find out more about Christmas Traditions in Denmark!
Norway also has an elf called Nisse, but with the features of a goat (Julebukk in Norwegian.) The idea of Julebukk is a very old one and was probably known by the Vikings. There is a special Norwegian holiday cookie called Sand Kager. In the afternoons, children go from door to door to ask for treats and goodies. Find out more about Christmas Traditions in Norway!
When you spend Christmas in Finland, you will see that Finland shares some of its Scandinavian Christmas traditions with its neighbour Sweden - but then there are Christmas traditions in Finland that you'd never guess! Fancy a Christmas Day Finnish sauna, anyone?
Iceland has many old traditions during the Christmas season. For a start, you can expect no fewer than 13 Icelandic Santa Clauses! The origin of these 'Santas' is centuries old, and each has its own name, character and role. A special custom for Icelandic children is to put a shoe in the window from December 12 until Christmas Eve. If they have been good, one of Iceland's 'Santas' leaves a gift. If they've been bad they get a potato! Find out more about Christmas Traditions in Iceland!
Glögg is the Scandinavian form of mulled wine. Made from red wine, spices and sugar, it can also have stronger spirits such as brandy, akvavit or vodka added to it. It is served with raisins, almonds and gingerbread biscuits. Sometimes almond biscuits are served instead.

Here's a traditional recipe for Glögg, followed by one for Scandinavian almond biscuits.


1 bottle of red wine
25 g dried orange zest
25 g cinnamon sticks
20 cardamom seeds
12 cloves
200 g blanched almonds
200 g raisins
225 g brown sugar
70 ml brandy
A cheesecloth

Bring the wine close to the boil in a pot. Put the orange, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves in the cheesecloth, tie it into a bundle and boil it in pot for 15 minutes. Add the almonds and raisins, and cook for another 15 minutes, before removing the pan from the heat. Add the brown sugar and brandy, and stir them in. Then remove spice bundle. Serve hot.

Scandinavian almond biscuits

125 g butter
1 cup (220 g) white sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon almond essence
1¾ cups (220 g) plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (60 g) slivered almonds
2 tablespoons (40 ml) milk
for the icing
1 cup (155 g) icing sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond essence
1/4 cup (65 ml) milk

Preheat the oven to 165 degrees C. In a medium bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add egg and almond essence; mix until fluffy. Stir in flour, baking powder and salt; mix well. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and roll each one into a log about 30cm long. Place 2 logs per cookie sheet 10-13cm apart. Flatten each roll by hand until it is about 3 inches wide. Brush flattened roll with milk and sprinkle with sliced almonds.

Bake in preheated oven 12 to 15 minutes or until edges are slightly browned. While the cookies are still warm, cut them crosswise at a diagonal, into slices about 2cm wide. When cool, drizzle with almond icing if you like.

To make the almond icing, in a small bowl, stir together powdered sugar, almond essence, and milk until smooth. Drizzle over the cookies.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

13 December - Eat, drink and be merry

Tired of the same old Christmas fare year after year, looking for a twist on a familiar favourite, or are you simply wanting to do what you've always done, only better? The the television is the place for you over the next couple of weeks.

You could enjoy a River Cottage Christmas with Hugh Fearnley-Eats-it-all, master of the ten bird roast, pay a visit to Willie Harcourt-Cooze's wonky chocolate factory to experience Willie's Perfect Chocolate Christmas, or join champion of healthy home cooking on a budget Mr Oliver for Jamie Cooks Christmas, all on Channel 4.

And over on the BBC this week you have the domestic goddess of TV cookery (who, like a good whiskey, seems to get better with age) inviting us into Nigella's Christmas Kitchen.

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding,
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding,
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Do they know what Myrrh is anyway at Christmas?

My first efforts at making a video, uploading it to YouTube and attempting some blatant self-publicity. Enjoy...

By the way, the music is a cover version of Band Aid's 1984 Christmas number 1 'Do They Know It's Christmas', by the Removal Men (aka, my best friend's stag-do). The track was even played on Radio 1, don't you know.

And in other news...

Some recent festive news items that have caught my eye. Did they catch yours?

Teacher sacked over Santa gaffe

Santa penguins

Top ten Christmas toys

The true cost of Christmas

And now, some music...

12 December - Poinsettia, the Christmas plant

Today, 12 December, in the US, it is Poinsettia Day. The Poinsettia, with its distinctive red and green leaves, is a staple among Christmas decorations around the home these days, but how did this practice start?

The plant was know to the Aztecs, and in Nahuatl it is called cuitlaxochitl meaning 'star flower'. In Chile and Peru, in time the plant came to be known as the 'Crown of the Andes'. But it's association with Christmas goes back to 16th century Mexico. There it was called the 'Flower of the Holy Night', and from the 17th century, Franciscan monks included the plants in their Christmas celebrations.

The plant was brought to America by Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico, and it was renamed in his honour - hence Poinsettia.

Did you know...?
The town of Encinitas in California is known as the Poinsettia capital of the world because of the profusion of plants found there.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

11 December - Dickens' Christmas

One of the most well-known Christmas stories, other that THE Christmas Story, is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. However, Dickens also wrote about his views on the whole Christmas experience in Sketches by Boz. Here's what he had to say about it.

Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused - in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened - by the recurrence of Christmas. There are people who will tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be; that each succeeding Christmas has found some cherished hope, or happy prospect, of the year before, dimmed or passed away; that the present only serves to remind them of reduced circumstances and straitened incomes - of the feasts they once bestowed on hollow friends, and of the cold looks that meet them now, in adversity and misfortune. Never heed such dismal reminiscences. There are few men who have lived long enough in the world, who cannot call up such thoughts any day in the year. Then do not select the merriest of the three hundred and sixty-five for your doleful recollections, but draw your chair nearer the blazing fire - fill the glass and send round the song and if your room be smaller than it was a dozen years ago, or if your glass be filled with reeking punch, instead of sparkling wine, put a good face on the matter, and empty it off-hand, and fill another, and troll off the old ditty you used to sing, and thank God it`s no worse. Look on the merry faces of your children (if you have any) as they sit round the fire. One little seat may be empty; one slight form that gladdened the father`s heart, and roused the mother`s pride to look upon, may not be there. Dwell not upon the past; think not that one short year ago, the fair child now resolving into dust, sat before you, with the bloom of health upon its cheek, and the gaiety of infancy in its joyous eye. Reflect upon your present blessings - of which every man has many not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some. Fill your glass again, with a merry face and contented heart. Our life on it, but your Christmas shall be merry, and your new year a happy one!

Who can be insensible to the outpourings of good feeling, and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year? A Christmas family-party! We know nothing in nature more delightful! There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers; father and son, or brother and sister, who have met and passed with averted gaze, or a look of cold recognition, for months before, proffer and return the cordial embrace, and bury their past animosities in their present happiness. Kindly hearts that have yearned towards each other, but have been withheld by false notions of pride and self-dignity, are again reunited, and all is kindness and benevolence! Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through (as it ought), and that the prejudices and passions which deform our better nature, were never called into action among those to whom they should ever be strangers!

The Christmas family-party that we mean, is not a mere assemblage of relations, got up at a week or two`s notice, originating this year, having no family precedent in the last, and not likely to be repeated in the next. No. It is an annual gathering of all the accessible members of the family, young or old, rich or poor; and all the children look forward to it, for two months beforehand, in a fever of anticipation. Formerly, it was held at grandpapa`s; but grandpapa getting old, and grandmamma getting old too, and rather infirm, they have given up house-keeping, and domesticated themselves with uncle George; so, the party always takes place at uncle George`s house, but grandmamma sends in most of the good things, and grandpapa always WILL toddle down, all the way to Newgate-market, to buy the turkey, which he engages a porter to bring home behind him in triumph, always insisting on the man`s being rewarded with a glass of spirits, over and above his hire, to drink `a merry Christmas and a happy new year` to aunt George. As to grandmamma, she is very secret and mysterious for two or three days beforehand, but not sufficiently so, to prevent rumours getting afloat that she has purchased a beautiful new cap with pink ribbons for each of the servants, together with sundry books, and pen-knives, and pencil-cases, for the younger branches; to say nothing of divers secret additions to the order originally given by aunt George at the pastry-cook`s, such as another dozen of mincepies for the dinner, and a large plum-cake for the children.

On Christmas-eve, grandmamma is always in excellent spirits, and after employing all the children, during the day, in stoning the plums, and all that, insists, regularly every year, on uncle George coming down into the kitchen, taking off his coat, and stirring the pudding for half an hour or so, which uncle George good-humouredly does, to the vociferous delight of the children and servants. The evening concludes with a glorious game of blind-man`s-buff, in an early stage of which grandpapa takes great care to be caught, in order that he may have an opportunity of displaying his dexterity.

On the following morning, the old couple, with as many of the children as the pew will hold, go to church in great state: leaving aunt George at home dusting decanters and filling casters, and uncle George carrying bottles into the dining-parlour, and calling for corkscrews, and getting into everybody`s way.

When the church-party return to lunch, grandpapa produces a small sprig of mistletoe from his pocket, and tempts the boys to kiss their little cousins under it - a proceeding which affords both the boys and the old gentleman unlimited satisfaction, but which rather outrages grandmamma`s ideas of decorum, until grandpapa says, that when he was just thirteen years and three months old, HE kissed grandmamma under a mistletoe too, on which the children clap their hands, and laugh very heartily, as do aunt George and uncle George; and grandmamma looks pleased, and says, with a benevolent smile, that grandpapa was an impudent young dog, on which the children laugh very heartily again, and grandpapa more heartily than any of them.

But all these diversions are nothing to the subsequent excitement when grandmamma in a high cap, and slate-coloured silk gown; and grandpapa with a beautifully plaited shirt-frill, and white neckerchief; seat themselves on one side of the drawing-room fire, with uncle George`s children and little cousins innumerable, seated in the front, waiting the arrival of the expected visitors. Suddenly a hackney-coach is heard to stop, and uncle George, who has been looking out of the window, exclaims `Here`s Jane!` on which the children rush to the door, and helter-skelter downstairs; and uncle Robert and aunt Jane, and the dear little baby, and the nurse, and the whole party, are ushered up-stairs amidst tumultuous shouts of `Oh, my!` from the children, and frequently repeated warnings not to hurt baby from the nurse. And grandpapa takes the child, and grandmamma kisses her daughter, and the confusion of this first entry has scarcely subsided, when some other aunts and uncles with more cousins arrive, and the grown-up cousins flirt with each other, and so do the little cousins too, for that matter, and nothing is to be heard but a confused din of talking, laughing, and merriment.

A hesitating double knock at the street-door, heard during a momentary pause in the conversation, excites a general inquiry of `Who`s that?` and two or three children, who have been standing at the window, announce in a low voice, that it`s `poor aunt Margaret.` Upon which, aunt George leaves the room to welcome the new-comer; and grandmamma draws herself up, rather stiff and stately; for Margaret married a poor man without her consent, and poverty not being a sufficiently weighty punishment for her offence, has been discarded by her friends, and debarred the society of her dearest relatives. But Christmas has come round, and the unkind feelings that have struggled against better dispositions during the year, have melted away before its genial influence, like half-formed ice beneath the morning sun. It is not difficult in a moment of angry feeling for a parent to denounce a disobedient child; but, to banish her at a period of general goodwill and hilarity, from the hearth, round which she has sat on so many anniversaries of the same day, expanding by slow degrees from infancy to girlhood, and then bursting, almost imperceptibly, into a woman, is widely different. The air of conscious rectitude, and cold forgiveness, which the old lady has assumed, sits ill upon her; and when the poor girl is led in by her sister, pale in looks and broken in hope - not from poverty, for that she could bear, but from the consciousness of undeserved neglect, and unmerited unkindness - it is easy to see how much of it is assumed. A momentary pause succeeds; the girl breaks suddenly from her sister and throws herself, sobbing, on her mother`s neck. The father steps hastily forward, and takes her husband`s hand. Friends crowd round to offer their hearty congratulations, and happiness and harmony again prevail.

As to the dinner, it`s perfectly delightful - nothing goes wrong, and everybody is in the very best of spirits, and disposed to please and be pleased. Grandpapa relates a circumstantial account of the purchase of the turkey, with a slight digression relative to the purchase of previous turkeys, on former Christmas-days, which grandmamma corroborates in the minutest particular. Uncle George tells stories, and carves poultry, and takes wine, and jokes with the children at the side-table, and winks at the cousins that are making love, or being made love to, and exhilarates everybody with his good humour and hospitality; and when, at last, a stout servant staggers in with a gigantic pudding, with a sprig of holly in the top, there is such a laughing, and shouting, and clapping of little chubby hands, and kicking up of fat dumpy legs, as can only be equalled by the applause with which the astonishing feat of pouring lighted brandy into mince-pies, is received by the younger visitors. Then the dessert! - and the wine! - and the fun! Such beautiful speeches, and SUCH songs, from aunt Margaret`s husband, who turns out to be such a nice man, and SO attentive to grandmamma! Even grandpapa not only sings his annual song with unprecedented vigour, but on being honoured with an unanimous ENCORE, according to annual custom, actually comes out with a new one which nobody but grandmamma ever heard before; and a young scapegrace of a cousin, who has been in some disgrace with the old people, for certain heinous sins of omission and commission neglecting to call, and persisting in drinking Burton Ale astonishes everybody into convulsions of laughter by volunteering the most extraordinary comic songs that ever were heard. And thus the evening passes, in a strain of rational good-will and cheerfulness, doing more to awaken the sympathies of every member of the party in behalf of his neighbour, and to perpetuate their good feeling during the ensuing year, than half the homilies that have ever been written, by half the Divines that have ever lived.