Family Christmas Traditions: English Wassail

As I mentioned in my last post, I really love traditions during the holidays; the older the better! My last name is Potter; so obviously, a good portion of my ancestry is English (though sadly, there is no known record of any ACTUAL witches or wizards in my family despite one of my relatives being accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials).

England is even old than Arthur, King of the Britains!

England is even old than Arthur, King of the Britains!

Now, as you know, England is one of the oldest countries in the world, and many of our American traditions can be traced back to our friends “over the pond.” Many of THEIR traditions stem from pagan rituals or Roman culture.  And of course, lots of blood was shed and whatnot over the centuries, but that’s all rather unpleasant so let’s just skip that, yes?    So moving on…one of my favorite Christmas traditions in the Potter household is wassail.  I don’t expect everyone to know what wassail is (despite it being totally awesome and something everyone SHOULD know about). Perhaps you’ve heard the Christmas carol, “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and wondered, “what are they talking about in this song? Is that some weird Victorian slang for doing drugs or something?”

The Victorian Era: letting children buy cocaine as a toothache remedy for 15 cents since 1885.

The Victorian Era: letting children buy cocaine as a toothache remedy for 15 cents since 1885.

No, children, it is not, even though I could see the confusion with lyrics like “here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green, here we come a-wand’ring so fair to be seen.” Sounds like a Victorian head trip, but I assure you, wassail causes no chemical/psychological changes to your brain, though it may produce some euphoria (if you make it right). So what IS wassail, you ask? A remarkably wonderful, hot beverage!

First page of Beowulf from the Nowell Codex. I can't read it but I assume it says, "this poem is laborious and Angelina Jolie is NOT an accurate representation of Grendel's mom."

First page of Beowulf from the Nowell Codex. I can’t read it but I assume it says, “this poem is laborious and Angelina Jolie is NOT an accurate representation of Grendel’s mom.”

Wassail, or vas heil in Old Norse and wæs hæil in Anglo-Saxon, means “good health” or “be you healthy.” The word originally appeared as a salute in the epic 8th century poem, Beowulf (remember reading THAT in high school English class? Woof.). An old legend, which is described in 1135 by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book, History of the Kings of Britain, tells the story of a maiden name Renwein who brought King Vortigern a goblet of wine at a royal banquet and toasted him saying, “Lavert King, was heil!”  Not only was this a toast, but a reference to the drink she had prepared for him. Wassail was a spiced wine, a descendant of the Roman drink hypocras, and prepared using imported, expensive spices like cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and cloves. Sometime later, the wine was replaced by fine ales, which made the drink more accessible to the lower classes in England. As a result, the recipe for wassail varies from family to family.

Vortigern and Renwein: no red solo cups at THIS party.

Vortigern and Renwein: no red solo cups at THIS party.

Wassailing is also an ancient ceremony performed in the cider-producing counties of England. It involved singing and drinking to the health of the trees to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest (sounds like something out of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings).  Eventually this practice and that of Renwein’s merged into the practice of wassailing we’re more familiar with today. Wassailing became very popular in the 1600s where people would travel door-to-door with large, decorated bowls of the drink, offering “good cheer” and sometimes expecting payment. It was temporarily banned by Parliament for a time during Puritan years (when they also banned the celebration of Christmas; HAVE YOU NO JOY, PURITANS?!), but then resurged in popularity (along with the “new” drink egg nog) in the Victorian era thanks to writers like Charles Dickens and Washington Irving. Now wassailing is a traditional part of an old English Christmas!

God bless us everyone!  Oh, and we brought liquor.

Wassailing in the 1600s.  “God bless us everyone! Oh, and we brought liquor.”

My mother and I use a family recipe to make wassail every year for Christmas. It’s a drink that warms you from your head to your toes. Ours is non-alcoholic, but you can find many a recipe online for alcoholic versions if you’re so “spirits”-ually inclined (most use some form of either wine, bourbon, or ale). We serve ours from a giant bowl, much like how it was served over 600 years ago (though in those days, they also put bread or “sops” on top…not to be confused with Beyonce putting your love on top.).

POTTER FAMILY WASSAIL RECIPE – Courtesy of the kitchen of Kathy Potter

  • 1 qt. apple juice
  • 1 qt. cranapple or cranberry juice
  • 1 qt. orange juice
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 12 whole cloves
  • Allspice

Place allspice, cloves, and cinnamon sticks inside a small sack of cheesecloth, tying it off at the top.   Place all ingredients, including the cheesecloth sack of spices inside a large pot and bring to boil on the stove. Remove cheesecloth and strain before serving.

Was heil! (Singing to trees is optional.)was heil

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Father Christmas or In Defense of Dads Yelling at the Christmas Lights

One of the things I love most about the holiday season is tradition (Tradition!  Tra-di-tion!  Fiddler on the Roof, anyone?  ANYONE?!).  Every family has their own, unique traditions without which it would not feel like Christmas to them (remember the episode of Friends where everybody asks Monica to make a different kind of potato for Thanksgiving because that’s how THEIR mom made it?).

Good grief that's good jazz, Charlie Brown!

Good grief that’s good jazz, Charlie Brown!

My family always has summer sausage, cheese, crackers, and apple slices on Christmas Eve while we watch Home Alone or Muppet Christmas Carol.  The first Christmas album we listen to on Thanksgiving night is Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.  I have my traditions, you have yours.  Traditions turn into history, and I love hearing about all the different things families have been doing at Christmastime for fifty or even a hundred years.  It’s neat, right?  History, kids: get into it!     But there is ONE tradition, every family collectively shares: The Annual Yelling of the Dads at Christmas Lights.   I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did, your dad also yells at your Christmas lights too.  He could be the sweetest, most genteel man in all the land, but when it comes to putting those babies on the Christmas tree or out on the roof, your dad goes from zero to Samuel L. Jackson in about 3.5 seconds:

"I have HAD it with these MOTHERF@$*ING LIGHTS ON THIS MOTHERF#$%ING TREE!!!!"

“I have HAD it with these MOTHERF#$%ING LIGHTS ON THIS MOTHERF#$%ING TREE!!!!”

People laugh at Clark Griswold’s meltdown at his outdoor Christmas lights in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but that’s because we’ve all been there.  We’ve all seen our fathers curse and rage at the heavens over their defunct holiday light displays.

The truth is EVERY dad is a Clark Griswold.

"I dedicate this house to the Griswold Family Christmas."

“I dedicate this house to the Griswold Family Christmas.”

Every dad wants their lights to look perfect and work and be festive and when it just doesn’t happen, something inside them snaps.  There is yelling of expletives (in my father’s case, they are hybrids of nonsense and actual curse words like “PISS WISS.”) and slamming of tools and heavy sighing as he puts on his spectacles for the umpteenth time to inspect each and every bulb, which for some inexplicable reason, don’t work THIS year even though your dad purchased them brand new last year.  Then there is the inevitable leaving-in-a-huff to go get MORE new lights from the hardware store to replace the old “new ones” from last year.  It’s a never-ending cycle of misery; a Groundhog Day of tree lights working then not working then working again.

"I told you. I wake up every day...and the lights never work, and there's nothing I can do about it!"

“I told you. I wake up every day…and the lights never work, and there’s nothing I can do about it!”

My Dad has a fairly long fuse (no pun intended) when it comes to his temper, but like clockwork on Thanksgiving night, we’ll hear a din from the dining room slowly growing louder and louder as he plugs in each successive strand of lights.  My mother, brother, and I try to conceal our laughter as we pull out the rest of the Christmas decorations and assemble our artificial trees, but we can’t help it.  My Dad is a good sport about the whole thing; he knows his frustrations have actually become a part of our traditions, so whenever he catches himself, he’ll try to over-exaggerate his yelling simply to make us laugh harder.

My dad battling with our tree lights

My dad battling with our tree lights.  “PISS WISS.”

I’m convinced the annual battle of the Christmas lights is actually the way in which men assert themselves.  I think this behavior is hardwired into their consciousness when they’re born, which is why all men act this way during the holidays.  If they can prove themselves masters of their holiday light displays, they are Christmas heroes; Fathers Christmas.  Or maybe this is a learned behavior: my father learned from his father who learned from HIS father and so on and so forth.  But that brings up a whole chicken-and-the-egg scenario to which we will probably never discover the answer.

The real question is: would those lights still look as stunning if your father HADN’T had a Hunger Games throw-down with them?  No.  That struggle is part of the process, part of the magic of Christmastime.  Seeing is believing in this case.  the hunger games

Your dad is the Katniss Everdeen of holiday lighting, and he will emerge the victor.  Girl on Fire?  Pfft.  Try DAD ON FIRE!

I mean this figuratively, of course.  I hope no one’s dad has ever caught on fire as a result of Christmas lighting.

Anyway, as I stare at the instagram photo of my Christmas tree on the background of my phone (since I’m currently in New York and therefore unable to look at my Christmas trees in Missouri), I see all my Dad’s majestic, magical, yuletide handiwork, and I recognize the hard work and hoarse voice that went into producing it.  And I know when all of you look at your respective trees, you feel the same.

So thanks, Dad.

Thanks to ALL dads for making our days merry and bright.

Clark W. Griswold would be proud.

The finished Potter Family Christmas tree.  See, Dad?  Looks perfect!

The finished Potter Family Christmas tree. See, Dad? Looks perfect!

My Favorite Holiday Films: Home Alone & Home Alone 2

HOME ALONE

'sup Macaulay Culkin?

‘sup Macaulay Culkin?

Once upon a time in the 1980s and early 90s, there was an awesome guy named John Hughes who wrote and/or directed some of the greatest touchstone films of a generation. As a result one such film, Home Alone has become a modern Christmas classic for people of a certain age (ahem, children of the 80s/90s). It really doesn’t get any better, or more early 90s, than eight year-old Kevin McCallister (who lives in like, the coolest house in the world) outwitting two hilariously inept burglars named Harry & Marv (played to perfection by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) on Christmas Eve all while his mother desperately tries to get back to Chicago by riding cross-country in a U-Haul with a polka band-leading John Candy!  I should mention that I still do not own this movie on DVD, so I watch it on VHS like a true 90s kid.  Because of this, I’ve grown fond of the two awesome ads for Pepsi and American Airlines before the movie starts.

Chicago: one of the 3 great cinematic cities for Christmas!

Chicago: one of the 3 great cinematic cities for Christmas!

First of all, there are classic lines:

Second of all, it’s set in Chicago, which I am convinced is one of the top three best places in which to set a Christmas movie (the other two places are London and New York City).  While New York and London are both excellent settings for Christmas movies, I gotta say I’m biased towards Chicago.  It’s probably due to my Midwestern upbringing.

Third, JOHN CANDY.  Polka king of the Midwest.

Fourth, Catherine O’Hara is basically the greatest 90s mom (minus the whole leaving her kid behind/losing him in New York) of all time other than Betsy Randle who played Cory and Eric Matthews’ mom on Boy Meets World.

Daylight come and me wan go home

Daylight come and me wan go home…ALONE?

Remember how crazy (read: AWESOME) she was as Delia Dietz in Beetlejuice? DAY-O!

Fifth, props to Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern for being such good sports about all the silly pranks they had to endure. I can’t imagine the movie with other actors in their roles.harry and marv

And in all seriousness, let’s take a moment of silence for the great Roberts Blossom who played Kevin’s next door neighbor, Old Man Marley.  He passed away in July 2011.  His scene in the church on Christmas Eve with Macaulay Culkin is one of the most heartfelt and honest in the whole movie.

Among my other favorite moments in the movie: the scene where Kevin talks to himself in the mirror after showering then slaps his cheeks with aftershave and also the completely underrated and hilarious phone scene between Catherine O’Hara in Paris and the two lazy police officers back in Chicago.  “Larry, can you pick up?  There’s some lady on hold; sounds kinda hyper.”

Naturally, everything turns out alright in the end, and Kevin is reunited with his family on Christmas morning.

I probably smell like the airport and a polka band.

I had to ride with an annoying polka band to be here today.

The Wet Bandits are hauled off to jail, and I assume the entire McCallister family tries desperately to suck up to Kevin for the next year after treating him like crap and being negligible parents.  But hey!  It’s Christmas and Kevin was responsible and got the milk, eggs, AND fabric softener!

NOTE: As some of you may know, some dumb exec out in Hollywood thought it would be a good idea to do about three more sequels to Home Alone after Lost in New York. I prefer to pretend as though Home Alone 3, 4, and 5 do not exist at all. When Macaulay Culkin left, the series ended. PERIOD.  The ONLY acceptable sequel to Home Alone is Lost in New York.

Parents of the year, right here.

Parents of the year, right here.

HOME ALONE 2: LOST IN NEW YORK

After the success of the insta-classic Home Alone, naturally the studios were clamoring for a sequel, so instead of Kevin being left at home again, he gets on the wrong plane and winds up in…New York City!

Hey...at least you aren't flying Jet Blue.

Cheer up, Kev…at least you aren’t flying Jet Blue.

Beyond that, it’s basically the same kind of storyline as the first movie, except you now also have a hilariously inept Plaza Hotel staff played to perfection by the master of all things hammy and awesome Tim Curry, Rob Schneider, and Dana Ivey.  Now, if I were Kevin, I’d probably be scarred for life after not only being left behind by my family but also getting separated at the airport the following year. Also, given today’s security standards for airport travel, nothing like what happens in this film would ever happen today. There might be some terminal running to “Run Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry, but no flight attendant would just let a kid on a plane because he thinks he spotted his dad.  This whole situation is a lawsuit waiting to happen. As a kid, I have to tell you, no scene brought me greater joy than when Marv gets electrocuted in the basement of the townhouse.  I laughed and laughed and laughed.  These days, I find the tool chest bit the funniest.  Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are the greatest.  Seriously.I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how great Tim Curry is throughout this entire movie.  Tim Curry is one of the few actors who completely commits to the ridiculousness of any role he’s given and does it with great gusto and pizazz (like THIS).

The finest idiots in New York

The finest idiots in New York

As the Plaza Hotel concierge, Mr. Hector (I didn’t know that was his name until I looked it up; I always just called him Concierge Tim Curry.), our dear friend Tim is perfectly smarmy and his scene with the rest of the staff as they believe they’re being held at gunpoint (“I LOVE YOU!”) is HYSTERICAL.   Oh and I forgot to mention that I have yet to spot a homeless lady in Central Park covered in pigeon poop who is as nice and coherent as Brenda Fricker. Does. Not. Exist.  If I ever DID meet a homeless lady as nice as Brenda Fricker, I would most certainly sneak into Carnegie Hall for a concert and treat her to hot chocolate just like Kevin.

Homeless people don't take you to Carnegie Hall (sounds like a Bailey Schoolkids book)

Homeless people don’t take you to Carnegie Hall (sounds like a Bailey Schoolkids book)

I love this film because it gives children both a sense of the wonder of New York at Christmas but also how scary it can be by yourself late at night. That, children, is realism, and sometimes it is missing from our current crop of children’s entertainment.   SIDE NOTE: Rockefeller Center is NEVER that empty…even if you were there after midnight on Christmas Eve.  Catherine O’Hara is lucky she had no crowds to fight through to find Kevin.  Movie magic, kids.  This is NOT a plausible situation.  Also there would be police stationed nearby who would probably inquire why this child was out alone after midnight on Christmas Eve.  The NYPD would be all over this.

O Christmas tree O Christmas tree, please let me see my family.

O Christmas tree O Christmas tree, please let me see my family.

Watching this as a twenty-four year old adult who lives in New York City gives this movie a whole new vantage point for me.  I recognize nearly all the locations Kevin visits and tell my parents about them.  It’s weirdly enthralling to know I can share in Kevin’s adventure in real life (minus the whole Sticky Bandits thing).  I DEFINITELY wish I could share in the McCallister family’s sweet, free stay in that gorgeous Plaza Hotel penthouse suite.

Yeah, I feel that, McCallister family. The Plaza rocks.

Yeah, I feel that, McCallister family. The Plaza rocks.

But I’m just glad I’m not Kevin’s dad who gets saddled with a $967 room service bill and then YELLS at him.  Let’s get real for a sec: after leaving your son at home the year before and then losing him at the airport, is this REALLY such a big deal?  I mean, REALLY?!  How about you go sleep on the Hide-A-Bed with Fuller, Mr. McCallister since you forgot your son TWICE.

The reason for Mayor Bloomberg's outlawing of sodas greater than 16 oz.

The reason for Mayor Bloomberg’s outlawing of sodas greater than 16 oz.

Merry Christmas, you filthy animals!

My Favorite Holiday Films: It’s a Wonderful Life

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is officially December, which means Christmastime is in full swing around the world. In New York (and, okay, lots of other places too) this means putting up the most ostentatious lights and decorative displays known to man and, well, elf. Besides listening to Christmas music nonstop, my other favorite pastime during this time of year is watching all my favorite holiday movies and TV specials. It feels like reuniting with old friends and stepping into a time capsule of childhood, doesn’t it? There’s something about this season that brings out the inner five year-old in all of us.

I find it only fitting to start off this special little series of holiday posts with a classic:

It’s a Wonderful Life

Is there a more heart-warming holiday film than this? No, and this is why it’s shown on repeat throughout the holiday season to make us all weep our way through George Bailey’s life story and realization that his life is indeed wonderful.500full

For all of you who find it cheesy, you probably don’t have a heart. And while, admittedly, Frank Capra had a soft spot for all-American tales of heroism, heart, and home, is that such a bad thing? I personally find it all rather refreshing in a time when we think everything has to be “gritty”and “realistic.”

This movie just wouldn’t work without Capra’s muse, Jimmy Stewart. Got to give props where props are due. Stewart makes George into a complicated guy instead of the one-dimensional melodramatic character he could be in another actor’s hands. In fact, I think George’s tale is more relatable than ever in these current, hard economic times.

George Bailey facing down Mr. Potter (no relation to me).

What I find so lovely about It’s a Wonderful Life is the older I get, the more I connect with it. It’s so easy to get caught up in all the have-nots of our lives instead of seeing all the great things we DO have. I’ve experienced that feeling so many times already in my adult life, and I can understand how enough of it could overwhelm anybody, even somebody as good and generous as George Bailey.

Mary Bailey, wife extraordinaire

Mary Bailey, wife extraordinaire

I think it’s also important to point out how great Mary is for George. She is the perfect spouse because she quietly supports him through everything, always knows what George needs (even when HE doesn’t know), and she loves him more than anything else in the world. George would be nothing without Mary, but Mary would also be nothing without George; they’re a real team.

And just try to tell me you don’t find the whole “lasso the moon” scene after they’ve fallen backwards into the pool incredibly romantic. Also the scene where they’re on the phone with Sam “He-haw” Wainright.

Just make out already. I can't handle it anymore!

Just make out already. I can’t handle it anymore!

I mean, this is the stuff of swooning, kids. Truly. I can only hope to have a love as great as George and Mary Bailey’s in my life. And the end where they’re embracing by the tree with their kids while everyone is singing “Auld Lang Syne?”  Forget it. I’m weeping. It’s a wonderful life, kids, and this is a wonderful movie.

Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!