Sunday, 18 January 2009

A Victorian Christmas on the farm

Victorian Farm is an historical observational documentary series showing on BBC2 at the moment. It follows a team living as Victorian farmers for a year (they wear period clothes and use only the materials that would have been available in 1885). The project is based on the Acton Scott estate in Shropshire.

Working for a full calendar year, historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn are rediscovering a lost world of skills, crafts and knowledge, assisted by an ever-dwindling band of experts who keep Victorian rural practices alive.


This week saw them preparing for winter, as autumn came to an end, and of course there was a traditional Victorian Christmas to look forward to, including decorations, cookery and church carols. The programme ended with them celebrating Christmas Day with the friends they had made over the previous four months.

To see how the Victorians celebrated Christmas for yourself, log onto the BBC's iPlayer here.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Until next time...

Now that the Christmas season is well and truly over, I won't be posting here as regularly as I did in the run up to the big day (and the 12 days afterwards). That's not to say I'm shutting this blog down. I'll still post relevant, interesting tidbits as and when they come up, but just don't expect me to be very active for the foreseeable future. Of course, come Christmas 2009, it will be a different matter entirely.
To keep up with everything else I'm up to you can log onto my Jonathan Green, Author blog, as well as the Pax Britannia blog, which will specifically keep you update with regards to all things steampunk.
But, for the time being, until next time...

Friday, 9 January 2009

Signing this evening at Forbidden Planet, London

Jonathan Green
Pax Britannia: Human Nature

Join Jonathan Green at the Forbidden Planet Megastore, 179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on Friday 9th January 6.00pm – 7.00pm.

Ulysses Quicksilver is chasing a mermaid – right up to the industrially polluted North of England and the fishing village where she was supposedly caught. What he finds are the horrors of man’s own selfishness; as he’s trapped within the very heart darkness, threatened in body and mind, he has to escape a fate that is literally worse than death.

This is a fantastical, steampunk science fiction novel from the co-creator of the Pax Britannia world!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

S Rozhdestvom!

Or, in English, Merry Christmas to all our Russian readers!

Yes, today - thirteen days after the Western Christmas Day - on 7 January, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates its Christmas, in accordance with the old Julian calendar. It's a day of both solemn ritual as well as joyous celebration.

After the 1917 Revolution, Christmas was banned throughout Russia, along with other religious celebrations. It wasn't until 75 years later, in 1992, that the holiday was openly observed. Today, it's once again celebrated in grand fashion, with the faithful participating in an all-night Mass in incense-filled Cathedrals amidst the company of the painted icons of Saints.

An old Russian tradition, which has its roots in the Orthodox faith, is the Christmas Eve fast and meal. The fast typically lasts until after the evening worship service or until the first star appears. The dinner that follows is very much a celebration, although meat is not permitted. Kutya, a type of porridge, is the main dish and full of symbolism - its ingredients being various grains for hope and honey and poppy seed for happiness and peace.

So, if you're celebrating the Russian Orthodox Christmas today - S Rozhdestvom and S Novym Godom!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The old ones are the best...

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... twelveTwelfth Night traditions!

Twelfth Night is traditionally the time to take down your Christmas tree and any other festive decorations. To leave evergreens up in the house after this point is to bring bad luck on the household!

Here are some other Twelfth Night traditions that you might - or might not - be familiar with.

1) Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany, the date on which the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.

2) The feast of the Epiphany originated in the East during the third century, in honour of Christ’s baptism.

3) During a special service held at St James’s Palace, London, on 6 January, members of the Royal Household present the Chapel Royal with the three gifts brought to the Christ child by the Magi.

4) At one time, the highlight of the Twelfth Night celebrations was the cutting of the twelfth-cake, which was supposed to have a dried pea or bean hidden somewhere inside it. Whoever found the bean was proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the evening’s fun and frivolity.

5) Another tradition involving a cake, upheld by the cast of the play currently being performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, is the eating of the Baddeley Cake. This is as a result of a stipulation made in the last will and testament of one Robert Baddeley, an actor from the eighteenth century, after whom the cake is named.

6) In the West of England Twelfth Night is the time when wassailing ceremonies are carried out.

7) At one time in England, Twelfth Night was known as being a good occasion on which to carry out various good luck rituals, as well as for its religious processions which almost went hand-in-hand with the spirited, and good humoured, revels.

8) One such ritual had farmers lighting bonfires to drive evil spirits away from their farms and fields, the tipsy agriculturalists cheering as they circled the fires to hasten the hobgoblins on their way.

9) There was also the time-honoured guessing game, whereby the (now probably inebriated) farmer had to guess what was being roasted in the kitchen before being permitted to re-enter his own home. This was not as easy as it might sound because his good wife might have something as ridiculously inedible as a shoe turning on the spit.

11) On 6 January you would also find Morris men dancing in the streets, along with fools and hobby-horses.

12) Practical jokes were the name of the game on Twelfth Night and the playing of games – particularly games of chance – with everyone determined to make the most of the last day of the holiday season.

So if you're planning to see Christmas out with a bang...

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you, and send you
A happy New Year,
And God send you
A happy New Year.

Monday, 5 January 2009

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... eleventh hour preparations for Twelfth Night!

Tomorrow - 6 January - is the Feast of the Epiphany (when the Christian Church commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child) and hence, Twelfth Night.
From the time of William Conqueror up until the start of the seventeenth century, the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated much more lavishly than Christmas Day. Having taken down the Christmas cards and decorations for another year, Twelfth Night presented one last opportunity for a knees-up, the highlight being the cutting of the twelfth-cake.
The traditional Twelfth Night cake was supposed to have a dried pea or bean hidden somewhere inside it. Whoever found the bean was proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the evening’s fun and frivolity. It then became their responsibility to announce the toasts and lead everyone else in the drinking that ensued. However, some kings and queens also earned themselves the responsibility of covering the bill the next day. In time, the bean became a silver sixpence which was cooked inside the Christmas pudding rather than the cake.
If you fancy making your own Twelfth-Cake in preparation for tomorrow's festivities, why not try this recipe for yourself?


175 g/6 oz flour
175 g/6 oz butter
175 g/6 oz sugar
3 eggs
3 tbs brandy
340 g/12 oz currants
40 g/1½ oz flaked almonds
25 g/1 oz orange and lemon peel, finely chopped
1 tbs honey
1 tsp of vinegar
Soften the butter and add to the sugar and cream in a mixing bowl. Cream the mixture until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well; also add a tablespoon of flour to stop them curdling. Pour in the brandy, followed by the flour and then the spices. Fold them all in, keeping the mixture light and airy. Lastly stir in the currants, almonds, peel and honey. Then mixture needs to be poured into a prepared cake tin which is when you can also add a pea or bean, if you wish (but do not use a kidney bean as if it is undercooked it can prove toxic!). Bake for two hours until the cake has browned on top.

You can this recipe, and others like it, in What is Myrrh Anyway? which is still available from all good bookshops.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... the top ten Christmas toys!

So now that the dust from the festive season has settled, I bet you're wondering what the Top Ten toys of Christmas 2008 were - aren't you? Well to find out, click here.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... nine wombats waddling!

One of the problems with the Christmas carol 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' are the words, not only what they mean but also what they should be.

In general, up until eight maids a-milking they are the same no matter which version you sing (although sometimes the four calling birds are mockingbirds instead, or even colly birds - an Old English name for blackbirds) but after that, it seems anything goes.

It seems that the gifts of the last four days can appear in pretty much any order. Instead of nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming you could have nine drummers drumming, ten pipers piping, eleven ladies, or even dames, a-dancing, and the twelve lords a-leaping. There is even one variation in which ten fiddlers fiddle, so doing the pipers out of a job. (Of course What is Myrrh Anyway? goes into this in much greater detail.)

And then there are the alternative versions of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'. One of my favourites has to be the Australian version.

The Aussie Twelve Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,
A kookaburra in a gum tree.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,
Two cockatoos, and a kookaburra in a gum tree.

Three parakeets.........
Four great galahs.......
Five opals black......
Six 'roos a-jumping........
Seven emus running.......
Eight koalas clinging.........
Nine wombats waddling........
Ten dingoes dashing.......
Eleven snakes a-sliding.......
Twelve goannas going.......

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Twelve goannas going,
Eleven snakes a-sliding,
Ten dingoes dashing,
Nine wombats waddling,
Eight koalas clinging,
Seven emus running,
Six 'roos a-jumping,
Five opals black,
Four great galahs,
Three parakeets,
Two cockatoos,
And a kookaburra up a gum tree!

Friday, 2 January 2009

A week today...

You'll be able to get yours hands on the new Pax Britannia novel Human Nature at Forbidden Planet megastore on Shaftesbury Avenue, and have it signed by me at the same time. I'll be there on Friday 9 January, between 6.00pm and 7.00pm, signing books and generally up for a bit of a chit-chat.

So why not come along and bring your copies of What is Myrrh Anyway? for me to sign as well. I look forward to seeing you there too.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... eight maids a-swimming!

Some people believe that the carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is one of the so-called catechism songs, with the list of gifts acting as a coded message to represent significant elements of the Catholic catechism.

In this case, the eight maids a-milking stand for the eight beatitudes mentioned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, as follows:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall posses the land.

Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

However, for some the eight maids a-milking address two of the major themes of fifteenth and sixteenth century English celebrations and parties during the Christmas holidays – those of food and romance.

Until the advent of refrigeration, milk was not a common drink because it spoiled quickly. However, milk based products that did not spoil, such as cheese, sour milk and custards were prized treats. Cheese and sour milk are the result of processes that expose milk to so-called friendly bacteria which convert the milk to a state where it can be preserved for a longer period and is also tasty. Custard is similar but this involves the cooking of the milk, which kills the harmful bacteria thereby extending the period during which it can be safely consumed.
The maids, of course, refer to the women who would milk the cows to obtain the milk in the first place. In times past, the milking of cows or goats was typically a job for women. However, the term maid is also the shortened form of maiden which is a young, unmarried, woman. By combining the images of maiden and milk, it is easy to see how this particular gift possibly has more to do with romance than with cows!

Thursday, 1 January 2009

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love also sent to me... the top seven new year's resolutions!

And here they are:

1) Lose weight and get fit.

2) Quit drinking.

3) Quit smoking.

4) Enjoy life more.

5) Spend more time with family and friends.

6) Find a better job.

7) Learn something new.

Sound familiar? And the next three on the list are:

8) Volunteer and help others.

9) Get organised.

10) Get out of debt.

Oh, and on that note - Happy New Year!

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love sent to me... seven swans a-swimming!

Before the arrival of the turkey in the British Isles, poultry was already an important part of the Christmas menu. There were, after all, plenty of native British birds to dine upon, everything from peacock, plover and pheasant to capons, woodcock and swan!

Roast swan, was a popular dish among the aristocracy that was presented as if the bird were still alive, sitting up on the platter just waiting to be eaten. There were many different ways of preparing and serving swan, and here's just one of them:

Roast swan

1 swan
Olive oil

First clean and gut your swan, then cover the outside of the bird with olive oil. Roast it on a spit or, failing that, in the oven. Baste frequently with its own juice and when it is done carve and serve in pieces.

However, before heading off down to the local butcher’s to ask for swan, you should bear in mind that all swans are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. The mute swan is even better protected because the species is owned by the Crown, and has been ever since 1482. A small number of shooting licences are granted to farmers each year, if they can prove that swans have damaged their crops, but in all other cases it is an offence to be in possession of a swan carcass, even if the bird died of natural causes!