by Tyler Morrison
The smell of it baking, the taste of a gingerbread man, or the sight of a gingerbread house, conjures the holidays. Memories float forward, bumping out our to-do lists, allowing sweet visions of childhood to pervade our minds. It’s not just a number on a calendar that tells us the holidays are upon us. It’s the aromas, tastes, and visual feasts that make them real. The tantalizing proposition of baking almond butter rings elicits a hint of the holidays, but it’s the distinct scent of gingerbread that makes it definitive. Gingerbread has been embedded in our culture for centuries. And I am all about old school.
Gingerbread gets its name from the rather unattractive root “ginger.” In fact, the term gingerbread (from Latin zingiber via Old French gingebras) originally referred to preserved ginger. Gingerbread’s deep, rich color comes from molasses. Made with a variety of spices, it can contain brown sugar, molasses, granulated sugar, honey, and/or light or dark corn syrup.
Ginger itself originated in jungles from the Indian subcontinent to Southern Asia where it grows in a wide variety of subspecies. An early export from Asia, ginger was a popular discovery to the ancient Greeks and Romans where Ginger shakers were often placed on the table along with those for salt and pepper and the word ‘ginger’ came to mean spices in general.
The ginger root has long been associated with myriad of health benefits and holistic medicines. It has been thought to aid in digestion (soothing stomach aches), be an anti-inflammatory aid, help with menstrual cramps and morning sickness, fend off disease, and even relieve some of the nausea associated with motion sickness. Some use it to relieve heartburn as well, although medical evidence seems to be inconclusive as to the validity of any actual medical benefits.
So where exactly did ginger meet the bread? There seems to be almost as many theories as there are gingerbread men. According to sugarcraft scholar Steven Stellingwerf, gingerbread may have been introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean. Gingerbread was a favorite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe-often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals or even armor-and several cities in France and England hosted regular “gingerbread fairs” for centuries. Ladies often gave their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread for good luck in a tournament, or superstitiously ate a “gingerbread husband” to improve their chances of landing the real thing.
By 1598, it was popular enough to merit a mention in a Shakespeare play (“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread...”).
In Germany, gingerbread cookies called Lebkuchen have long been a fixture at street festivals, often in the shape of hearts frosted with sugary messages like “Alles was ich brauch bist du” (All I need is you) or “Du bist einfach super” (You’re really super). As far as I can tell, Germans also invented the concept of making gingerbread houses, probably inspired by the witch’s candy cottage in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, two children who, abandoned in the woods by destitute parents, discovered a house made of bread, cake and candies. By the end of the century, the composer Englebert Humperdink wrote an opera about the boy and the girl and the gingerbread house.
Gingerbread is woven into the fiber of American history as well, its origins in the traditions of the many settlers from all parts of Northern Europe who brought with them family recipes and customs. By the nineteenth century, America had been baking gingerbread for decades. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, developed a recipe for Gingerbread Cake in 1784. Gingerbread was Abraham Lincoln’s ‘biggest treat’ and he invoked a gingerbread anecdote in his Lincoln-Douglas debates. With only a brief period of decreased popularity (‘witches’ used gingerbread men as voodoo dolls in the early 17th century), gingerbread has been a delicious part of our western culture for centuries.
American recipes usually called for fewer spices than their European counterparts, but often made use of ingredients that were only available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads were made in New England, and in the South sorghum molasses was used.
Regional variations began occurring as more people arrived. In Pennsylvania, the influence of German cooking was great and many traditional Germany gingerbreads reappeared in this area, especially at Christmas time. The North and Midwest of America welcomed the Northern and Middle Europeans. At Christmas it is still very common in the Midwest to have Scandinavian cookies like Pepparkaker or Lebkuchen. Often one can find wives holding "coffee kolaches" (coffee mornings) at which European ginger cakes still reign.
Nowhere in the world is there a greater repertoire of gingerbread recipes than in America-there are so many variations in taste, form and presentation. With the rich choice of ingredients, baking aids and decorative items the imaginative cook can create the most spectacular gingerbread houses and centerpieces ever.
by Diane Larson
In 1891, Henry Holt and Company published a book by Jerome K. Jerome called Told After Supper. Told After Supper is a compilation of ghost stories that would be told on Christmas Eve. Jerome said, “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”
According to gothichorrorstoires.com, “That tradition of sitting around the fire and telling ghost stories at Christmas Eve predates the Victorian era.” In effect, telling ghost stories was as much a staple on Christmas Eve in Victorian Age as the arrival of Santa Claus is to us today.
By the Victorian Era, Christmas ghost stories were very popular. It was tradition “for a family to gather by the fireplace the night before Christmas to trade ghost stories,” according to knowledgenuts.com. Most of these stories were presumed to have happened to the story teller, they were first hand experiences with spirits, as noted by Jerome’s quote above.
It may seem an odd combination, yet one of the most well-known stories told each year at Christmas uses ghosts to explore the human themes of, guilt and innocence, wealth and poverty and our ability to transform and change our circumstances, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Using ghosts then would have been a natural tool for Dickens to use for the telling of his story.
Dickens himself had used this method in a previous story to A Christmas Carol, The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton. Like in ‘Carol’ the protagonist in ‘Goblins’ is a miserly grumpy fellow who is kidnapped by goblins so they may show him the error of his ways.
The link between Christmas and ghost stories comes from its connection to the winter solstice. The date of December 25 was chosen for Christmas because it was near to the winter solstice which is also the shortest day of the year. According to knowledgenuts.com, “The solstice was also considered the most haunted day of the year due to its association with death of light.” It goes on to say that the barrier between the living and the dead was lowered or thinned on this, the darkest day of the year. When the barrier thinned, specters could easily cross over. What better day to tell a good ghost story, particularly a firsthand encounter with spirits, then on Christmas Eve.
“Of course, as a mere matter of information it is quite unnecessary to mention that date at all. The experienced reader know it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story. Christmas Eve is the ghosts’ great gala night. On Christmas Eve they hold their annual fete. On Christmas Eve everybody in Ghostland who is anybody—or rather, speaking of ghosts, one should say, I suppose, every nobody who is any nobody—comes out to show himself or herself, to see and to be seen, to promenade about and display their winding-sheets and grave-clothes.” Introduction to Jerome K. Jerome’s, Told After Supper Christmas ghost stories published in 1891.
In the introduction to his book, Jerome explains about all the different ghosts of ‘Ghostland’ who they are, who they visit and why. Dickens uses the ghost of Marley and his appearance in a similar fashion. Marley, while explaining his experience, tells Scrooge about the ghosts that will visit him throughout the night.
“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”
“I will,” said Scrooge. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, Jacob! Pray!”
“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.”
It was not an agreeable idea. Scrooge shivered, and wiped the perspiration from his brow.
“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
“You were always a good friend to me,” said Scrooge. “Thank’ee!”
“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”
Scrooge’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.
“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded, in a faltering voice.
“I—I think I’d rather not,” said Scrooge.
“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.” ~A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol could be the most well-known holiday ghost story. “Some argue that Dickens’ Christmas ghost story single-handedly saved the winter holiday from dying out during the Industrial Revolution,” says Jeffry Peterson of Desert News.
When Dickens’ Carol was published in 1843, Christmas wasn’t being celebrated in England any longer. The day for many was just another working day. According to historic-uk.com, “Before Victoria’s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers.” The Industrial Revolution provided wealth and technologies that changed the face of Christmas.
Many of our traditions and how we celebrate Christmas in America come from Victorian England. Sending Christmas Cards, singing Christmas carols and decorating the house and evergreens.
In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens writes,
“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” Signed, Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D. December, 1843
At some point the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve faded away, at least in America. But we still watch our favorite version of A Christmas Caro; some may even dare to open the book and read the time tested novel. In recent years Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, which combines the ghosts and goblins of Halloween and Christmas to tell a new tale, has become, in some homes, a tradition.
The tradition of ghosts for the holidays can also be heard in some Christmas songs. In the well-known song It’s the most wonderful time of the year, Edward Pola and George Wyle give a nod to the old Victorian tradition.
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for hosting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago
~It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, 1963
“‘I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, of Jacob, on my knees!’”
Big Sky Connection
December 11, 2017
HELENA, Mont. - The number of people with Alzheimer's symptoms will more than double in the coming decades.
Is Montana ready for this dramatic increase?
According to a new study from UCLA, about 15 million Americans will have Alzheimer's dementia or cognitive impairment by 2060.
Today about 6 million Americans suffer from these symptoms.
Lynn Mullowney Cabrera, executive director of the Montana chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, says Montana's population is expected to age rapidly in the coming decades.
Unfortunately for those suffering symptoms of dementia, she says Big Sky Country is one of many states dubbed a "neurological desert."
"We have great expanses of state where we have insufficient numbers of geriatricians and other specialty providers, where we - like many other states - have primary care providers, just those folks that are on the front lines, that maybe don't have the latest in diagnostic criteria," she states.
According to the UCLA study, 47 million Americans already show evidence of susceptibility to Alzheimer's disease.
Cabrera says Montana is on the right track. In 2016, the Alzheimer's and Dementia State Plan was released. The plan is comprehensive and explores how the state can prepare itself.
Now, Cabrera says, the state will have to execute.
"As I've said in the past, there's no money, there's no teeth in it," she stresses. "But it gave us a road map."
In part, the plan looks at ways to make the state accessible for people with dementia.
Cabrera compares the effort to making cities accessible for people with disabilities over the past few decades.
Cabrera says family caregivers are the backbone of support, but that it's also important to find and retain nurses and nursing home workers to care for people.
"How do we enlist these individuals and entrust them and empower them to have positive experiences that then build on each other instead of negative experiences where they leave the field and we have far less than we need for capable providers?" she questions.
With this comes a hefty price tag. In 2017, caring for people with Alzheimer's cost nearly $260 billion, making it the most expensive disease in the country.
But Cabrera says the country can actually save money if it provides better community resources and prevents unnecessary hospitalizations.
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