• Holidays,  News

    Happy New Year!

    Just a quick note to say we made it!!

    May this year be a much better year for everyone! Stay safe and stay tuned for some organization tips to get the year started right! They will hopefully be more helpful than the weight-loss tips we forget by January 15th. 😀

    In the interim, check out New Yorkers going wild on New Year’s in this footage from 1938! Have you or your family ever been to Times Square for New Year’s Eve? Let me know below!

    Image Credit: 2021 Images created with Canva

  • Holidays

    The Sound of Colonial Christmas

    That magical time of year is upon us, when we are frantically trying to get everything done for the holidays. Added bonus: all things 2020 are making the season even more difficult! So let’s take a much needed break and chill out with some traditional Christmas music.

    A forgotten spelling of Noël

    While our modern Christmas often looks quite different from our ancestors’ holiday season, we do have one thing in common: Christmas Carols. Music, like food, is a way we can reach across the ages and experience what people in the past experienced. Through our shared musical history, we can connect in a very visceral way.

    For today, we’re focusing on carols found in the colonies that have English/British origins. This represents the largest population group in the colonies and seems to have the greatest proportion of carols we still enjoy today. Of course, some colonists weren’t so OK with the singing and dancing–conservative Puritan New England was not down with the revelry! But most colonists incorporated music into their daily lives, just as we do now.

    I can’t imagine why the Puritans weren’t on board…

    For these performances, I chose versions that would approximate what the colonists would have heard. No giant choirs singing at Westminster or modern pop interpretations. There would have been improvisation but no jazz, blues, or rock influences since those genres didn’t exist yet.

    Without further ado, grab some eggnog, mulled cider, or hot chocolate and check these out these carols!

    The First Noël

    “The First Noël” has a bit of a fuzzy history. The song is probably Cornish from the Early Modern period (~15-16th centuries). And it is possibly based on an even older musical style from medieval France. Side note: I’m a huge music geek. We won’t discuss the rabbit holes that happened during this research! 🤐

    I like this performance because it is small and intimate. It would have been easy for colonials to perform in this style at home or in church. The guitar, in several historic forms, was available at the time, as were a number of other string instruments.

    God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

    One of the oldest known carols, going back to at least the 16th century, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is also one of the most enduring. Questions of the language use and the tricky rhyme in the third verse aside, this would have been a common song among the English-language colonists.

    Here again we have a smaller, intimate performance with instruments available in the period: voice, violin, and guitar. Having Joshua Bell on violin and Alison Krauss on vocals is an added bonus!

    The Coventry Carol

    Another oldie but goody, “Coventry Carol” is also from the 16th century or earlier. This time, we’re going with a small choral group (renowned artists The Sixteen) to represent the scale of colonial churches. We didn’t have giant cathedrals like Westminster or York in the colonies. Instead, the churches were built for our smaller communities.

    Check out those historic harmonies! Note that the sheet music shown is a different version from what is being performed. Browse the comments for discussion on the technical aspects, if you are interested.

    I Saw Three Ships

    This is a fun way to end our quick exploration. Here we have a great example of the improvisation that would have been popular in the time period. Printed music was expensive and a lot of musicians would have learned by ear and then creatively filled in the gaps.

    The song itself is probably from the 17th century (or, like the others, possibly earlier). “I Saw Three Ships” is one of my favorites to play because of the jaunty tune. Lindsey Stirling (sitting still!) and crew add a Gaelic feel to it, which would have been common in some regions of the colonies.

    I hope you found these entertaining and just what you needed this week. 🙂

    Which of these did you like most? In general, what is your favorite holiday song? Is it a traditional tune like these or are you more of a Santa Baby fan? Does your family have any “must be played” holiday music? Let me know below!

    Personally, Ukrainian Carol/Carol of the Bells is my favorite, with God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen a close second. I love those minor keys! However, no Christmas is complete without Elvis!

    Have a happy and safe Holiday Season! 😀


    Image Credits

    I Saw Three Ships Sheet Music: From William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern Published London: Richard Beckley, 1833. Available on HymnsAndCarolsOfChristmas.com.
    First Nowell Sheet Music: From William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern Published London: Richard Beckley, 1833. Available on HymnsAndCarolsOfChristmas.com.
    Country Christmas: Pinterest: Colonial Williamsburg Education board.

  • Holidays

    Happy Halloween!

    As we manage a new normal for our Halloween, let’s see how our ancestors used to celebrate!

    Like Christmas, Halloween as we know it today began in the 19th century. They were the masters of decoration and party planning! Much of our secular symbolism and traditions come from this era. Cute “spooky” images? Yep. Commercial holiday products? Of course. Magazine articles that make your own efforts pale in comparison? Food Network and Instagram have nothing on the Victorians!

    In 1891, the American women’s magazine Ingall’s Home & Art published a very extensive article on how to celebrate Halloween in style. Included are a list of activities and games, plus a full menu for what appears to be the party of the season. Dancing, courtship games, fortune telling, tongue salad. This party had it all. 😄

    Actually, times haven’t changed that much. The article implies a true hostess should hand-paint each hand-made invitation. To be fair, the overall theme of the magazine is art and decoration. But you can also imagine this being in a YouTube video on how to plan the perfect party. Maybe this is how I go viral?

    The suggested design for the invitation. My art skills are not up to this challenge.


    Before we dive into the menu, lets take a quick glance at the suggested activities:


    Per the introduction, “Halloween dancing parties are much in vogue at present” and the use of dance cards–“a quaint device”–are still used in the country and in an unspecified “modified form” in the city. However, “dancing may be indulged in until the supper hour,” after which we move onto the food and the various games.

    Proper: Spaghetti Arms. Improper: Hand on arm, other arm extended.
    Johnny would not approve!

    Bobbing for Apples

    This is not quite what you would expect! First, it is for the gentlemen only. The game involves using your teeth to grab apples suspended from the ceiling on a rod hanging on a rope. For an added challenge, there are burning candles ready to drip hot wax on the player who doesn’t keep the rod straight! The man must attempt to secure the apple while avoiding tipping the candle enough to burn himself with wax.

    Helpfully, we are reminded to protect our carpets from spilled wax. The author indicates, “This [game] is a decided improvement, in every way upon floating the apples in a tub of water, as the task of securing them is so damaging to both clothing and carpets.”

    This party has both bobbing options!

    The BBC Series Edwardian Farm recreated the candle version as part of their Halloween festivities. Peter for the win!

    Romantic Divination

    Fortune-telling activities at Halloween go back centuries and it is fun to see what was in vogue in the 1890s. The Cup of Fate, For Good or Ill, Fortune in the Meal Bag, Kaling, and the very traditional Roasting Chestnuts are given as possible options. The methods are different but all are meant to discover who you will–or won’t–marry. Would you like to partake in these games?

    A version of Cup of Fate known as Three Bowls. Beware the Pumpkin Head!
    A Chestnut Love Poem

    Fairy Boats

    More fire! The hostess (or more likely her housemaid) makes little candle boats out of walnut shell halves, including scenting them with lavender. During the party, each boat is marked with the initials of a guest. The little boats are then lit and set afloat in a tub of water. Next, the water is disturbed enough to create some motion of the boats. The fate of your boat reveals your own, from longevity to partnerships!

    If you want to make your own little boat, check out these instructions.

    My personal favorites are the dancing (though I fear my dance card would be empty once they saw me in action!) and the walnut shell fairy boats. It seems a tad dangerous by our standards but a lot more fun (and safe!) than bobbing for apples. Which are your favorites?

    I wonder how Batman feels about this…

    The Meal

    The full spread, as recommended by the magazine:

    This is not a low cost affair. It is meant for either a comfortably middle class home or to be an aspiration for the rest of us. The instructions state that this is for a “large dancing party.” They do recommend that for smaller parties or one where only games are played (no dancing), a simpler bill of fare would be appropriate. Dancing does build up the appetite.

    While this menu is often shared in blog posts, what is left out are the associated recipes. One that really stands out is the Halloween or Dumb Cake (dumb at the time meant “can’t speak”, not a statement on the person’s intelligence). This is yet another divination option, using an elaborate method to bake a cake with special prizes inside. Most importantly, the entire process must be done in silence!

    Supper was usually a late repast. This explains the heavy emphasis on dessert items. I would not be interested in tongue salad but I do embrace the three-cake concept!

    Trying It At Home

    One of the best ways we can connect with the past is through food. With Halloween here and most of my time and budget tied up in lockdown prepping (2020 is a seriously weird place), I opted to try out the Baked Apples, Browned and Glazed.

    Yep. That’s it.

    The original recipe was a bit vague. Alas, this is the way of historic recipes. Our ancestors were extraordinary: they either had deep foundational knowledge or were culinary adventurers! Thankfully, I am happy to channel my inner Townsends and did some research and experimenting.

    This is what I ended up with:

    4 Granny Smith Apples–peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 in. slices
    1/2 cup brown sugar
    1/2 cup water
    2 tbsp salted butter

    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven is heating up, peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/2 inch slices. Place them in a 2-quart cooking dish. Make a simple syrup with the water and sugar, over low heat, stirring frequently. Once the syrup is blended and heated through, turn off the heat and add the butter. Stir butter until melted and incorporated. Pour syrup over apples and stir to coat. Bake 30-40 minutes, until tender, stirring occasionally.

    The Results

    My original experiment used 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup butter. This was entirely too much liquid with the juice from the apples. I also baked them covered, which resulted in basically stewed apples instead of baked. The reduced syrup and no cover should balance everything out.

    In the end, they are quite tasty and make a nice snack or condiment. The hardest part for me was not adding any cinnamon or other fall spices! But they didn’t really need them. The brown sugar and butter did the trick. As they often do. 😉

    Which of the recipes would you like to make? Which would you absolutely leave out?

    And would your late 19th-century ancestors been able to have such a lavish party? Or would they have had a more modest affair? Mine definitely would have thrown a smaller party on a farmer’s or miner’s budget. They would have also probably included some beer!

    Thank you joining for me on this quick trip back to the 19th century. Please let me know below what you thought of the journey!

    Happy Halloween!! Best wishes for a wonderful and safe holiday!

    Image Credits

    Merry Halloween Black Cat: 1909 Postcard, Ellen H. Clapsaddle artist. Found on Pinterest. Public Domain.
    Party Invitation: Circa 1920s Party Invite. Found on SheWalksSoftly. Copyright unknown.
    Three Bowls: “Halloween Greetings” postcard, Victorian. From article, “Browse These Spooky Vintage Cards“, last modified Nov. 2, 2018. Presented by The Kansas City Public Library. Public Domain.
    Chestnut Poem:Halloween Postcard HIR 363-3 Bat Acorn People Fantasy Vintage” from Pinterest (based on expired ebay bid). Public Domain.

    Dancing Instruction: Illustrations from Dancing and its relations to education and social life with a new method of instruction, including a complete guide to the cotillion (German) with 250 figures, by Allen Dodworth. 1900. Publisher: Harper & Brothers, New York. Library of Congress Music Division, Control #00002075. Pages 300-301. Public Domain.
    Bobbing Party:Hallowe’en Festivities from an Old English Print” from the The Book of Hallowe’en, by Kelly, Ruth Edna. 1919. Publisher Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co. WikiCommons. Cropped and rotated for viewing. Public Domain.
    Grewsome Halloween Owl: From the article, “The Witch’s Hour” from the Los Angeles [Sunday] herald. 24 Oct. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Public Domain.

    Ingall’s Home & Art Magazine Clips: Ingall’s Home and Art Magazine. United States, J. F. Ingalls., October 1891. Available on Google Books, in the collection “Volume 4, November 1890-October 1891, pages 501-505. Public Domain.

    Cooking photos ©Michelle Keel 2020