Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Well, Christmas time is here and it is, as ever, an exciting time of the year. The wheel has turned once again and the days are getting longer with the Winter Solstice.

We all have our own traditions for this time of year, many of which have their roots in the very distant past.

I always think of our connection to the ancient and medieval worlds at this time, whether you call it Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, the festival of Sol Invictus, Yuletide, or Christmas. I am reminded of the strength of traditions, their importance in tying us together, but also in linking us to the past and our collective cultural identities.

Saturnalia Feast
In our house, we put up a tree and lights, but we also hang fresh evergreen about the home, holly, and  if we can find it, mistletoe. There is a steaming pot of Wassail on the stove (see previous post for a recipe) and the Wassailing songs to go with it. It all culminates in a feast with friends and family.

It seems no matter the stresses of daily life, of work and worry, this time of year lightens the heart and can crack a smile on the hardest of faces.

But then we also remember that this is a time when many others are not so happy or fortunate. Perhaps they don’t have the family and friends to celebrate with, perhaps they have lost someone, perhaps the season is forever spoiled by a bad experience…

Medieval Banquet
Makes you grateful for the blessings you have, but it also makes you think…

I’ve started a new tradition for myself. For the last two years I have been reading a copy of the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, in the two weeks before Christmas.

We all know this story, of course. It’s one of the most famous stories told. And for good reason.

I know Dickens is not ancient or medieval historical fiction, but Christmas is a time of long-standing tradition. A Christmas Carol is a wonderful story, brilliantly told, that moves me to no end when I read it. One passage in particular stands out. It is when Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, visits him in his office to wish him a Merry Christmas. Scrooge spits his humbug and mocks the season, but Fred counters with a wonderful description of the time:

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

It struck me this year, as I read the story, that in the long list of common traditions from the pagan past, all the way to the Christian present, the idea of Christmas being a time of charity and helping others is a uniquely Christian take on this ancient festival.

Sure, at Saturnalia the Romans gave their slaves the day off. But they didn’t free them. They also hung greens, lit lights, and gave presents to each other. And pagans in northern Europe had yule logs and trees, and made merry just like everyone else.

Scrooge and Christmas Present
Christianity incorporates all of these things, but its stress on charity and good will toward your fellow human beings, so expertly portrayed by Charles Dickens, is its most important contribution.

So, to you, dear reader, I wish you the very best of the holiday season.

May your plate be full, your celebrations joyous, and your heart light with kindness.

Merry Christmas!

You can download a free copy of A Christmas Carol on the Project Gutenberg website.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


A Wassail Feast
Give us a toast!

Here’s something to warm up your holiday celebrations.

One of the most interesting traditions at this time of year, for me, is the tradition of Wassail, or Wassailing.

The word ‘Wassail’ is actually an expression or toast that comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes hael!’ meaning ‘Be healthy!’

I love ancient traditions and this is one that is great for enjoying the holiday with friends and family.

Wassailing in Somerset
Wassailing was done at the holidays from the Winter Solstice through the New Year, especially in southern England in apple-growing regions such as Somerset. It involved visiting neighbours, singing Wassail songs or carols, and sharing drink.

The Wassail drink, was usually mulled cider and ale, with some variations containing wine or brandy. The oldest versions contained eggs and bits of toast. Hence, ‘Give us a toast!’

A Modern Wassail Queen
The most ancient rite of Wassailing, and my favourite, is when people, led by an appointed Wassail King and Queen, would go in a procession to the orchards and sing to the trees with their drinks in hand. This was intended to scare away any evil spirits who might harm the trees or their harvest.

Pieces of toast were then hung in the branches or buried at the base of the trees as offerings in the hopes of a healthy harvest of apples in the year to come.

Now, you may not live near an apple orchard, but you can certainly make your own pot of Wassail and take part in the singing of these marvelous songs.

Here is a recipe that I find works well:

2 quarts unfiltered apple juice or apple cider
1 quart cranberry juice cocktail
1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
27 whole cloves
15 allspice berries
4 (4-inch) cinnamon sticks
5 small firm cooking apples of your choice
1/2 cup water
1 medium orange
2 cups Calvados (apple brandy)

Combine the apple juice, cranberry juice, and brown sugar in a 6-quart slow cooker. Place 12 of the cloves, the allspice berries, and the cinnamon sticks in a small piece of cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine to make a bag. Add to the slow cooker, cover, and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Stud each apple with 3 of the remaining cloves and place in an 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Add the water and bake until the apples are just a bit tender when pierced with a knife, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

After the juices have stewed for 4 to 5 hours, add the apples to the slow cooker. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the orange peel in wide strips, making sure to avoid the white pith, and add the peels to the slow cooker.

Remove the spice bag and stir in the Calvados. Serve hot (leave the slow cooker on to keep the cocktail warm).

You can vary this according to your alcoholic preferences and any other areas you might want to tweak things. If you want to be really traditional, you can add raw egg yolks and bits of toast!

Either way, once it has stewed for the right amount of time, you can sit back and enjoy.

Or you can start to singing around the home or in your back yard.

I have a couple favourite albums for atmosphere and singing that I always enjoy this time of year.

For traditional Wassailing songs that you can sing along to (you can Google the lyrics), I love listening to the album Wassail by Linn Barnes and Allison Hampton. Click HERE to check it out in iTunes.

For some traditional songs and melodies that will make you think you are in a medieval hall, you can never go wrong with Loreena McKennitt’s To Drive the Cold Winter Away. Click HERE to get to it.

I hope this gives you some ideas for your celebrations, and by all means, if you have your own recipes for Wassail or other such drinks, please share them in the comments!

I think it best to close with a quote from the Somerset Wassail:

“For its your wassail and its our wassail; And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail.”

Wassail, everyone! 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Guest Post - Learning Lessons - by Roberto Calas

This week, I'm very pleased to have author Roberto Calas back for an utterly fascinating guest post on the history and state of writing and publishing. As the saying goes, 'History repeats itself', and Roberto is going to show us how much our modern age has in common with the 15th century. He is no stranger to the late Middle Ages, and so, without further adieu, take it away Roberto!


Learning Lessons

"Nobody can understand the greatness of the thirteenth century, who does not realize that is was a great growth of new things produced by a living thing."
-- G.K. Chesterton

Never build your sand castle near the water line.

Sand Castle - Creative Commons
I think most of us learned that lesson when we were very young. The tide is relentless and it doesn’t give a crap about the things you have built. I’m a bit thick, so it took a lot of mini-tsunamis and crumbled castles for me to internalize that particular lesson. But I learned.

So, in 1998, I decided to leave my career as a magazine editor to go to art school. I loved writing then, as I do now, but I could see the rising tide approaching. The castles built by magazine and newspaper publishers were too close to the water line.

To use another water-based analogy, the vast lakes of magazines, newspapers and books were evaporating, like watering holes in the African savannah. Three of the magazines I had worked for were sold out from under me – acquired by dreadnought holding companies that stripped them of staff and resources and filled them with fluff that complemented the ads that were sold. Magazine distributors thinned, from hundreds to dozens. Writing and editing jobs started paying less than marketing internships. It seemed that no one wanted to read anymore. It was all about television and online video. About photos and images.

So I went back to school. Art has always been my second love, so I decided to try making a living of it. And for fifteen years, I did.

But a new tide is rolling in. The electronic revolution is reaching far up onto the shore, destroying even the staunchest of sand castles and making room for new ones. Writing jobs are more prevalent, and they pay more again. Editors are valued once more. It is a Renaissance. A Golden Age of the written word, and it reminds me of another time in history when writing spurred a rebirth.

Back as late as the 14th century, monks were the publishers. And like traditional publishers of the modern age, they controlled what was printed and what was not.

A Gutenberg Press in action
But in 1450, Johannes Gutenberg used a few hand-molds and some oil-based ink to break the monk stranglehold. His mechanical press ushered in a golden age of writing. It’s no coincidence that the Renaissance began shortly after he invented modern printing.

But like all technologies, the mechanical press was seen by many as a bad thing. Scribes went on strike, afraid they would lose their jobs to the printing machines. The lay people were, at first, terrified by the presses. Every copy was identical, which of course meant that the devil was involved. Gutenberg’s friend and partner, Johannes Faust, was arrested and charged with witchcraft. Fortunately, Faust escaped death and the mechanical press churned on.

We are on the cusp of another golden age now and, as in the 15th century, there is resistance. Computers are the new Gutenberg press, and once again there is a witch hunt.

The traditional publishers, the very same companies that drove independent bookstores and magazine distributors out of business, are asking for help as they, themselves are driven out of business. But who was there for the independent bookstores? Who was there for the mom-and-pop magazine distributors? No one. And no one will be there for the publishers. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the new galactic overlord of the Milky Way, said that “Complaining is not a strategy.” And he’s right. Traditional publishers had the chance to jump on new technology and lead the way to the second Golden Age of Writing. They had a chance to move their sand castles back as the water rolled in, but they chose to fight the new technology, instead.

Electronic publishing is as revolutionary today as Gutenberg’s press was in his day. Traditional publishers can no more fight this technology than the monks and luddites of the 15th century could stop the wild spread of the printed word. And in this brave new world of easy publication, lots of things have changed.

The author has become the publisher. Novelists can release their works themselves, delivering precisely the product that they want, and they can connect with their readers directly, in ways they could never do before.

Serial story-telling, one episode at a time, is popular again.

Novelists are getting feedback directly from readers, as soon as their novel is published.

And those novels are being published far more quickly, because novelists no longer need to rely on the lumbering machinery of the rusted publishing companies. No, the writer becomes the head of his kingdom, contracting out editors and cover designers and doing what he or she can for publicity. Voices that were always filtered and steered by dreadnought holding companies are no longer fettered. Ten million songs, each unique and unaltered, ring out across the Web.

And while the great castles of sand built by traditional publishers slowly erode, the new castles are being built in our homes, far from the sea.

Because even a child understands that you can’t fight the tide.

Roberto Calas is a published (and self-published) author and lover of history. His serial trilogy (The Scourge) is about a 14th century knight fighting his way through a demon-infested England to reunite with the woman he loves. And every bit of it is true except for the made up parts. Roberto is taking advantage of the new publishing tide to ask readers for help in publishing the third novel in his Scourge trilogy. Please have a look at his Kickstarter campaign for more details.

In addition to The Scourge series, Roberto has written The Beast of Maug Maurai (fantasy), and Kingdom of Glass (historical fiction in the Foreworld universe).

Roberto lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, with his two children, and visits the United Kingdom on a monthly basis to be with his fiancée, Annabelle. Sometimes he fights demons to get to her.

You can learn more about Roberto on his website: http://robertocalas.com.  


I want to thank Roberto for taking the time to ‘stop by’ the blog, and for his thought-provoking words. Who would have thought – Gutenberg as an indie-champion! We do indeed live in exciting times of creativity, and Roberto is one of those fighting the good fight and giving us some great storytelling. If you haven’t read The Scourge or The Beast of Maug Maurai books, I highly recommend them. I’ve also just finished his short story, The Wages of Sin, and it’s a great read!

Be sure to check out Roberto’s Kickstarter link too. It’s a chance to help the story continue, and any measure of support will help this warrior of the written word to continue his campaign.

Cheers, and thanks for reading!