xmas legends

Spiders For Xmas

I have to thank Sheila Renee Parker for sharing a post about the Legend of the Xmas Spider. I mean how did I not know that spiders were a part of xmas!

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The Eastern European folktale tells the story of a poor family who cannot afford to decorate their xmas tree. During the night, spiders spin webs, weaving them around the tree branches. When the family awake on xmas day, their tree is shimmering with sliver webs. The story has a few variations but the basic theme is of a poor family whose xmas tree is decorated by helpful spiders.

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In honour of the spiders it is traditional in some parts of the world to hang spider ornaments on the xmas tree which serve as reminders of the act of charity performed by the spiders. Spiders on your tree – whether real or ornamental – are also symbols of good luck. Decorating your tree with tinsel is supposedly inspired by the Legend of the Xmas Spider with the sparkling tinsel taking the place of gossamer spider webs. Will you be adding a little arachnid touch to your xmas tree?

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Even though I’ll be celebrating the Summer Solstice, I will pay tribute to the xmas spiders by mixing up one of my favourite summertime drinks – a Spider! Similar to an Ice Cream Float or Ice Cream Soda, you simply add a scoop or scoops of your favourite ice cream into a large glass. Pour over any flavours like syrups, juices or alcohol then top with a carbonated beverage that can be non-alcoholic or alcoholic. The drink will bubble over so it can be messy. The bubbles are supposed to look like spiderwebs. Have fun experimenting with different flavour combinations for your Spiders.

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A Piggy New Year

I’ve seen a few unusual Xmas decorations in Australia before, but this season I noticed a new character on the block – a Xmas pig! Seeing pink inflatable Xmas pigs in gardens and in stores put a big smile on my face. 

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I had never heard of a Xmas pig so I had to get investigating. What I discovered is that the pig is a popular character in European Xmas traditions.

The role of the pig as a Xmas character is related to their role as sacrificial animals and symbols of luck and prosperity. Roast pork and baked ham are traditional Xmas fare, but happily there are also symbolic foods that don’t require the death of the pig, such as pig shaped gingerbread cookies and marzipan pigs. Giving someone a marzipan pig as a gift means that you are wishing them good luck for the new year.

Similar to a marzipan pig is the Peppermint Pig™, a hard candy created in Saratoga Springs, New York, by the Saratoga Candy Co. The Peppermint Pig™ comes with its own little pouch and a small metal hammer. After Xmas dinner, the candy pig is placed in the pouch and passed around the table. Everyone takes a turn tapping the pouch whilst recounting the good things that have happened to them in the last year. The broken pieces of candy are then shared with the diners.

Why am I telling you about Xmas pig traditions when Xmas is over? Because pigs aren’t just for Xmas – they are also for Chinese New Year!

This year Chinese New Year falls on February 5th and we will be saying goodbye to The Year of the Yang Earth Dog and hello to The Year of the Yin Earth Pig. The pig is the last animal in the zodiac so a pig year symbolises the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. A pig year is also associated with Luck, Health, Prosperity and a whole lot more!

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Happy Year of the Pig!

Grand Xmas Traditions

Over the last few years I’ve become the proud Grand Aunt to three wonderful Grand Nieces. I was dubbed a Grand rather than a Great Aunt because my family think of me as the Grand High Witch from Roald Dahl’s The Witches – and I love it! My three Grand Nieces’ birthdays each have a gothic connection, making them very Grand indeed!

To celebrate the coming holidays, I’ll be reblogging posts from Xmases past and introducing my Grand Nieces to the darker sides of Midwinter. Their first lesson begins with La Befana the Xmas Witch. 

The Legend Of La Befana

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Kitty Claws Is Coming To Town!

Did you survive Krampus night? Well don’t rest easy, because there is another scary xmas monster coming your way! I am happy to introduce you to Jólakötturinn – Iceland’s Yule Cat. Steeped in the mythology of countries that have long, cold, dark and deadly winters, rises the giant black cat of xmas. Jólakötturinn is monstrously huge, has glowing eyes, whiskers as sharp as nails and razor sharp claws. As if cats weren’t scary enough, Jólakötturinn takes feline fear to a new level.

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Jólakötturinn prowls the night of xmas eve, looking in windows for a Yule offering. But what offering could subdue such a terrifying beast? If you’re thinking food you’d be wrong. Your soul? Luckily nothing so dramatic. This fashionista feline desires an offering of new clothes. Bizarrely, the clothes are not necessarily for the cat – I mean cats aren’t known for their love of being dressed up! No, the new clothes are for you and your children. If there are no new clothes to be seen, the feisty Jólakötturinn may take all your gifts, eat all your food, eat you or take away your children and eat them. What better incentive do you need for new xmas threads!

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In some ways the scary kitty myth brilliantly mirrors our capitalist and consumerist approach to xmas with its emphasis on buying new clothes. Some say the myth of Jólakötturinn was used by farmers to frighten workers into finishing processing all the sheared wool before xmas so that new clothes could be made. Others say that the threat of a visit by Jólakötturinn was used to encourage people to work hard all year so they could have the money to buy new clothes for xmas.

It’s not clear when Jólakötturinn joined the cast of Icelandic monsters but the creepy cat’s popularity surged when Icelandic bard Jóhannes úr Kötlum wrote a poem about Jólakötturinn. Interestingly, the poem suggests that we should make sure that the needy, particularly poor children, are given a special piece of clothing at xmas. The basic theme in the poem is that if those who have give to those who don’t, Jólakötturinn will be thwarted. It is actually a beautiful xmas message clothed in a scary cat tale!

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I enjoyed reading about Jólakötturinn but the Yule Cat really came alive to me when I heard Icelandic singer Björk’s version of Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s poem. My favourite link is one that features animation with a written English translation of the poem and Bjork’s haunting voice singing the poem in Icelandic. So before I share my catty recipe for xmas, sit back and enjoy this powerful myth in images and song: Jólakötturinn – The Yule Cat.

We know the Yule Cat wants new clothes rather than food, but I can’t resist trying to tempt the scary kitty with a black bottom cupcake – a chocolate cupcake with a cheesecake filling. Will Jólakötturinn be the cat that got the cream? If creamy cheese isn’t enough, there’s also catnip! Catnip is part of the mint family so you can use any mint you like for this recipe. Chia is also part of the mint family but I’m not sure if cats would be tempted by chia seeds 🙂

Creamy Catnip Cupcakes

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Ingredients
for the cheesecake filling
8 ounces (225g) cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg, room temperature

for the chocolate cupcakes
1 + 1/2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon peppermint essence, or to taste

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 12 paper cases.
Make the cream cheese filling by beating the cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the sugar and egg and beat until smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Make the chocolate cupcakes by sifting the flour, baking powder, cocoa, salt and sugar into a jug. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the water, oil, cider vinegar, vanilla extract and peppermint essence.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and stir in the wet ingredients until smooth.
Evenly pour the batter between the 12 paper cases.
Spoon the cream cheese mixture evenly into the center of each cupcake.
Bake for 10 – 25 minutes or until the cupcakes feel springy and the cream cheese filling has set. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

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Scary Xmas!

There are many reasons why the holiday season can be scary – family gatherings being one 🙂 But did you know that there is a dark side to the tradition of gift-giving? If good children are rewarded with gifts, what happens to naughty children? Enter one of the many scary creatures of xmas – Krampus!

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Krampus is half goat, half devil. He is hairy, has cloven hooves, goat horns, a long pointed tongue and fangs. His horned form appears to be a blend of ancient horned goat deities like Pan and traditional images of the devil. The name Krampus is derived from a German word for claw. I first saw Krampus in the television series Grim. He made a real impression on me 🙂

Krampus is the dark half of Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas reward good children by giving them gifts, while Krampus punishes bad children by giving them coal and sometimes beating them with the bundle of birch sticks he carries. In his scariest moments, Krampus carries a sack which he stuffs with naughty children. The fate of the children varies – but the outcome is always grim.

Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas. It is on this night that Krampus appears, ready to punish naughty children. Sometimes he is accompanied by Saint Nicholas, reflecting they are two halves of one gift-giving whole. So ask yourself this on Krampus Night – “Have I been naughty or nice?” The consequences of the answer have never been so scary!

To honour Krampus Night I thought I would do a cheeky pasta dish – Gnudi with Puttanesca Sauce. Gnudi are nude or naked ravioli. Basically they are a ravioli filling without the pasta. I have chosen goats cheese for the gnudi to reflect the goat origins of Krampus. I chose to serve them with a puttanesca sauce as the name is derived from an Italian word for whore or prostitute. I couldn’t resist topping my naked gnudi with a tart sauce. Serve with breadsticks, just in case some naughty children come for a visit and need a light beating 🙂

Gnudi with Puttanesca Sauce

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Ingredients

for the gnudi
150g soft goat cheese, room temperature
2 eggs
good pinch of sea salt
100g hard goat cheese, finely grated
1/4 cup plain flour, more or less may be needed
extra flour for dusting

for the puttanesca sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic gloves, finely minced
6 vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
6 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
1 + 1/2 tablespoons small capers, drained
1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried basil

Instructions
In a large mixing bowl mix together the soft goats cheese, eggs and salt.
Using a wire whisk, beat until smooth.
Using a wooden spoon stir through the hard goat cheese.
Add a tablespoon of flour at a time and mix through until you have a soft and light dough.
Shape into walnut sized balls.
Place on a baking tray lined with baking paper, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.
Add onion and saute until soft and lightly caramelised.
Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes.
Add the rest of the ingredients.
Stir until combined, then simmer gently while you cook the gnudi.
Preheat oven to 190C / 375F.
Bring a large saucepan of generously salted water to boil.
Remove gnudi from fridge and roll in extra flour until lightly dusted.
Drop in batches into boiling water.
As they cook they will rise to the surface. Once risen, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them in a large oven proof dish or individual ramekins.
Pour the puttanesca sauce gently over the gnudi and bake in the oven for 10 minutes.

The Legend of La Befana

Want to add a bit of Witchiness to your Christmas festivities but you don’t want to stray too far from the traditional Christian message?

Well fear not! You can have both Jesus and a Witch in your nativity scene thanks to the Legend of La Befana.

I came across the Italian Legend of La Befana when I was doing research on the history of Santa Claus. As soon as I realised there was room for a broom riding, chimney visiting,
gift-giving Witch in Christmas stories I was hooked. But who is La Befana and how did she
become part of Christmas?

As with any folkloric tale there are many versions and variations but basically Befana is an old Witch who loves to clean and bake. The Magi (the Three Wise Men) come to her home and ask her for directions to Bethlehem as they are on their way to visit the baby Jesus. Unfortunately Befana can’t help them. In some versions the Magi stay the night and find her to be a wonderful host. The Magi invite Befana to come to Bethlehem with them but she refuses as she has a lot of housework to do. Not long after they leave she regrets her decision and packs up some gifts for the baby Jesus. She takes her broom as both a form of transportation and to clean the manger for the mother. She is after all a Witch renowned for her cooking and her cleaning! Following the Star, she sets off to find the Magi but she never finds them.

Each year on Epiphany Eve, or Twelfth Night, Befana flies on her broomstick visiting the homes of children via the chimney. Some say she is still looking for the baby Jesus, others that she sees Jesus reflected in every child. She leaves behind gifts and sweets for children who have been good, or lumps of coal for children who have been bad. Sometimes she leaves black coloured candy made from black sugar instead of coal. Although Befana is portrayed as scruffy and covered in soot, she always cleans up after herself with her trusty broom! She is also very grateful for any refreshments you may leave out for her.

I was drawn to the Legend of La Befana, and not just because it features a witch 🙂 There is something so wickedly pleasurable about a woman who has better things to do with her time than visit the home of a baby male saviour. It’s the first time I haven’t questioned the role of woman as housekeeper!

So if you do put up a Nativity scene this year, why not add a flying Witch in honour of La
Befana?

Befana’s Frozen Black Coal Candy
(adapted from Amber Shea Crawley’s recipe for “Salted Tahini Caramels” in Practically Raw Desserts)

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Ingredients
1/2 cup black tahini
1/4 cup sesame flour
1/4 cup honey
black sea salt flakes

Instructions
Line a freezer safe container with plastic wrap or baking paper. (The size container will depend on how thick you want your candy.)
Mix together the black tahini, sesame flour and honey until combined.
Pour into prepared container.
Sprinkle with black salt.
Cover and freeze.
Once frozen, slice into desired sized portions with a sharp knife.
Eat straight from the freezer!

If you can’t find black tahini use regular tahini and add food colouring if desired.
If you can’t find sesame flour you can use coconut flour instead.