Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Day 17 – My Old Friend Santa Bank

As I was unpacking the Christmas decorations a few days ago, I was greeted by an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in several years: Santa Bank.

I don’t remember when Santa Bank came to live with us. He’s been a part of the family for as long as I can remember.

I also don’t know where Santa Bank came from. I assume that he was a gift to me when I was a small child. His left foot says that he came from “Mexico.” I wish I knew how he got from Mexico to me.

He’s got a few cracks and chips, and part of his nose is missing. He’s obviously been well-loved.

Somebody raided Santa Bank a while back (probably me), as you can see from the injury to his backside. He’s still got some coins rattling around inside, but I just leave them there. You never know when a few extra coins might come in handy.

Santa Bank hasn’t come out to visit for quite a few years. He’s old and fragile (like me), and I was worried that he wouldn’t survive my daughter’s curiousity.

Hopefully Santa Bank will survive long enough for my daughter’s children to forget where he came from.

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This post is the seventeenth in the “2010 Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories” series, and was originally published on December 17, 2009. Slight modifications have been made.

To learn more, or to join in the fun, please visit the official blog of the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories.

Copyright © by Elizabeth O’Neal

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Day 15 – Holiday Happenings!

Because time itself is like a spiral, something special happens on your birthday each year: The same energy that God invested in you at birth is present once again.

~Menachem Mendel Schneerson

In tribute to the ancestors whose birthdays and anniversaries may have fallen through the cracks during all the holiday chaos.

The birthdays
Mary Irwin
Luvinia (Swanay) Martin
Fethias Smith
George W. Swanay
Joseph F. Brown
Mararet (Delaney) Harms
Almina (Hughes) Blanton
Sarah Jane (Swatzel) Dunn
Margaret (White) Kopp
Hannah Thompson
Serena (Baxter) Brown
Myda McGraw
Mary Jane (Grogan) McGraw
Eliza Jane (Thompson) Swatzel
Mary “Polly” (Hays) Swanay
Polly (Brown) Hartman
Susan Dunn
Peter Swatzel
Susannah (Kiser) Swanay
The Anniversaries
Malinda Taylor and Patrick Erwin
Melissa Cunningham and Barnett Baxter
Susannah Kiser and Albert Swanay
Mary Brown and William Walker
Ann Long and Nicholas Haile
Julia A. Blanton and Samuel M. Dunn
Martha Thompson and Barnett Babb
Hannah “Bridget” Grogan and Peter Bradley

A special happy birthday “aloha” to my cousin and her husband and daughter, all of whom celebrate December birthdays. Also, birthday greetings go to a certain first cousin, once-removed, and her husband; and anniversary greetings to a special couple who shall remain unnamed. Hopefully you all know who you are.

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This post is the fifteenth in the “2010 Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories” series, and was originally posted on December 15, 2009. Slight modifications have been made.

To learn more, or to join in the fun, please visit the official blog of the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories.

Copyright © by Elizabeth O’Neal

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Day 14 – Fruitcake (It’s in the Genes)

Holiday Lament (The Fruitcake Song)

On some level, I think even fruitcake knows how awful fruitcake is.

Dislike of fruitcake supposedly dates back to the American Revolutionary War.

Legend has it that Commander-in-chief George Washington approached Benjamin Franklin one day to ask for barricade ideas to stop advancing British forces. Franklin suggested using his mother-in-law’s fruitcake… apparently his uncle had broken a tooth on one the previous year.

It is doubtful that Washington took Franklin’s dubious advice.

Another legend proposes that George Washington, upon hearing from one of his men that they were out of ammunition, suggested that they fire fruitcakes at the British. Apparently many British soldiers were killed or maimed that day.

Finally, there was the story published in the New York Times in 1983, which tells of Russell Baker, the lucky man who inherited a family fruitcake that had been baked in 1794 as a Christmas gift for George Washington. Washington apparently sent it back with a note of thanks, explaining that “he thought it unseemly for Presidents to accept gifts weighing more than 80 pounds, even though they were only eight inches in diameter.”

Mr. Baker coined the phrase, “Fruitcake is forever.”

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I can only guess that my Colonial ancestors also had an aversion to fruitcake, since I have such a supreme distaste for it, myself.

If fruitcake is forever, then dislike of it must be in the genes.

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This post is the fourteenth in the “2010 Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories” series, and was originally posted on December 14, 2009. Slight modifications have been made.

To learn more, or to join in the fun, please visit the official blog of the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories.

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Funny song from the original holiday musical revue, “That Time of the Year.” See http://www.thattimeoftheyear.com/.

Fruitcake is Forever,” Russell Baker, New York Times, December 25, 1983, Section 6, p. 10, column 3 (subscription required to view the article).

Copyright © by Elizabeth O’Neal

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Day 10 – Christmas Gifts

My father is the type of person who just decides to do something… and then does it.

Now, I’m not talking about simple things. I’m talking about big, complicated projects, things about which he has little or no knowledge of how to do prior to doing them. Like, “Gee, I think I’ll make ships in bottles now.” Or, “Hey, I’m going to make a stained-glass, Tiffany reproduction lamp now.”

That sort of stuff.

One year – probably around 1978 – my father decided that he was going to build a banjo. To my knowledge, he’d never built a banjo – or any type of musical instrument – before. He’d done other kinds of woodworking: wooden candy dishes, gavels, ship-in-bottle stands, and such. But never a musical instrument.

For months I watched as a banjo began to take shape. I remember the wooden skeleton hanging from the garage rafters waiting for its”guts.” Dad meticulously carved out the ebony fingerboard and peghead, where abalone and mother-of-pearl would carefully be inlaid. A detailed design was carved into the wood on the back of the neck. A small, mother-of-pearl swan (representative of our last name, Swanay) was carved and inlaid in the heel.

I had seen my father work on lots of projects before, so to me, this was just another of Dad’s many hobbies. I assumed that he was building himself a new instrument; after all, he was the banjo-player in the house, so it made sense.

However, on Christmas morning, I was stunned when Dad handed me a large, black instrument case. Inside was the banjo, and inlaid in mother-of-pearl on the peghead were my initials, “EMS.”

All along, he’d been making this instrument for me.

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At the time, I had no idea why my father gave the banjo to me. After all, I didn’t know how to play it (although I did try to learn afterwards), and I really didn’t like listening to banjo music. I suppose that not many non-banjo-playing teenagers would know what to do with such a gift.

Dad told me later that he’d wanted to give me something special that he made himself. Something I could give to my children one day.

Thirty years ago, I didn’t get it. But I do now.

And if I forgot to say it then… thank you, Dad. I love it.

To this day, it remains the most special Christmas gift I ever received.

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This post is the tenth in the “2010 Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories” series, and was originally posted on December 10, 2009. Slight modifications have been made.

To learn more, or to join in the fun, please visit the official blog of the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories.

Copyright © by Elizabeth O’Neal

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Day 9 – Divine Divinity

Divinity, done right, is divine!

Nearly every year at Christmas, my grandmother would serve a strange, white confection called Divinity.

What is Divinity? It’s kind of a cross between fudge and a meringue cookie. I did a little research, hoping to find that it was an old, French-Canadian treat handed down for many generations, but I was disappointed to learn that it’s actually thought to be American in origin:

Although recipes for various nougat and sweet meringue-type confections (with and without nuts and fruit) can be traced to ancient Turkish and 17th century European and [sic] roots, food historians generally agree that Divinity (aka Divinity fudge, Divinity candy) is an early 20th century American invention. Why? One of the primary ingedients in early Divinity recipes is corn syrup, a product actively marketed to (& embraced by) American consumers as a sugar substitute at that time. Corn syrup was affordable (economical), practical (shelf-stable), and adapted well to most traditional recipes. Karo brand corn syrup, introduced by the Corn Products Refining Company in 1902, was/is perhaps the most famous. It is no coincidence that early Karo cooking brochures contain recipes for Divinity (from The Food Timeline).

I never much cared for Divinity as a kid. My grandmother – who supposedly got the recipe from her mother-in-law “Zee” (Faivre) Dagle – made it in a loaf pan and served it in slices. I didn’t like it this way; it included nuts and candied cherries, and reminded me too much of fruitcake. I prefer Divinity in small “dollops” like cookies.

With Divinity, a little dollop’ll do ya.

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Keep in mind that Divinity is NOT the easiest treat to make. There are many factors to consider besides ingredients: weather conditions have to be absolutely right, the planets perfectly aligned, your chi unblocked, etc., etc. You might want to check your horoscope first, too.

Seriously though, humidity and barometric pressure play a big factor.

Why does Divinity sometimes choose not to set? “Divinity is a tricky confection to make under the best circumstances–almost impossible under less than good. The recipe in one community cookbook advises a short consultation with the local meteorologist: “Please remember candy doesn’t set unless the barometer reads 30 in. or over; doesn’t make a difference whether it’s raining or not, just watch your t.v. for the barometric pressure.” Divinity like most other Southern canides shows up around the winter holidays. It is sort of a companion piece to fudge in Christmas gift boxes. —Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie, Bill Neal [Alfred A. Knopf: New York] 1996, p. 138 (from The Food Timeline).

My advice: mix, mix, mix some more. And just when you think you can’t hold the mixer any longer… keep on mixing. But, be careful not to mix too much. There’s a very fine line between too much and not enough mixing of Divinity.

I never said it was easy.

Last Christmas, I attempted to make Divinity for the first time. Unfortunately, my first attempt did not go as well as I’d hoped. The first few spoonfuls weren’t firm enough and spread all over the wax paper like big, gooey cookies. After beating for a few more minutes, the mixture firmed up quite a bit, and finally began to stiffen.

Yucky goo is not divine!

Also, with humidity at 89%, and barometric pressure at just 30.14, our weather conditions were not ideal for Divinity-making. Sadly, my Divinity refused to set properly, and is just a bit too soft on the outside for my liking.

Strangely enough though, it tastes exactly like I remember my grandmother’s Divinity tasting. One bite, and I was transported back to about 30 years ago.

It was a divine taste of Christmas past.

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DIVINITY

2 2/3 cups sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
2 egg whites, stiffly beaten
1 tsp. vanilla
2/3 cup chopped nuts
red and green sugar (optional)
Also optional: candied fruit pieces, chocolate chips, crushed peppermint pieces

Mix sugar, corn syrup and waterh in a heavy saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar is completely dissolved; then cook without stirring to 260⁰ (a little dropped into cold water forms a hard ball).

Remove from heat and pour, beating constantly, in a fine stream into the beaten egg whites. Add vanilla and continue beating until mixture holds its shopa and becomes slightly dull. Fold in nuts and other optional items (if desired).

Working quickly, drop from a greased spoon onto waxed paper in individual peaks. If it flattens out (like gooey cookies), beat the mixture for another minute or so. Do not overbeat or mixture will be too stiff. Top with red and green sugar (optional). Makes about 48 pieces.

Alternatively, fold in candied cherries or other goodies and pour into a loaf pan. When firm, serve in slices. OR, spread in a greased pan and cut into 1″ squares when firm.

Store tightly covered to keep the humidity out.

Enjoy!

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This post is the ninth in the “2010 Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories” series, and was originally posted on December 4, 2009. Slight modifications have been made. It was also published in the Geneabloggers Holiday 2009 Cookbook, which you can download for free from Lulu.com.

To learn more, or to join in the fun, please visit the official blog of the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories.

Copyright © by Elizabeth O’Neal
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