Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas In Colonial America

George Washington’s Christmas list for his stepchildren in 1758 was ambitious: “A bird on Bellows, A Cuckoo, A turnabout parrot, A Grocers Shop, An Aviary, A Prussian Dragoon, A Man Smoakg, (a man smoking?) 6 Small Books for Children, 1 Fash. dress’d Baby & other toys.”
Children in colonial America might be given sweets or books, but most colonists wouldn’t have been this extravagant. Usually people of means gave one gift to their servants, apprentices, and children, but didn’t expect anything in return. These gifts were highly treasured and as commonly exchanged on New Year’s Day as on Christmas itself.
Christmas in colonial America bore faint similarity to the gala holiday we cherish today. The Puritans and Quakers (among other Protestant churches) banned celebrations altogether, claiming the holiday was popish and tied to pagan traditions. Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans introduced Christmas celebrations to colonial America, comprised of church services, dinners, dancing, visiting, and more of the same for wealthy folk. (*Wreath from Colonial Williamsburg)
The music featured at balls and parties was the dance music of the period, much imported from across the Atlantic. Religious carols were also sung. “Joy to the World” became popular in my home state, Virginia. “The First Noel,” “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” and “I Saw Three Ships” are several more carols still beloved today.
Rather than the fervor leading up to December 25th that dies out almost as soon as the last gift is opened now, Christmas Day in colonial America began a season of festivities that lasted until January 6—thus the “Twelve days of Christmas.” Twelfth Day, January 6, was the perfect occasion for colonists to enjoy balls, parties, and other festivals.
Our emphasis on Christmas as a special holiday for children didn’t come about until the mid-nineteenth century, brought to America by the more family centered Dutch and Germans. Christmas in colonial America was predominantly an adult oriented holiday. The Southern colonies were the root of many celebrations (less Quakers/Puritans in the South and more Anglicans) and these included parties, hunts, feasts, and church services. Children were tucked away in bed or left behind, neither seen or heard. One sign of entering the adult world was the honor of attending your first holiday ball. Think how exciting that must have been for young ladies awhirl in taffeta and lace.
Plantations and other colonial homes, even churches, were decorated with holly, laurel, garlands and sometimes lavender. My garden club used to decorate a colonial era home/museum and we were restricted to natural materials and native fruit like apples that might’ve been used in that day. Mistletoe, an ancient tradition and the centerpiece of every colonial home, was hung in a prominent place. Romantic couples found their way under the green leaves and white berries just as they do now. Light was of vital importance at this dark time of year. Yule logs blazed and candles were lit, the wealthier having more to light. (*Hearth in early American spring house.  Grandson above in same old house))
A key part of colonial Christmas celebrations were the large feasts. What foodstuffs were served and the amount set before the guests all depended on the provider’s income. The menu was similar to ours. Among the offerings at a colonial dinner might be ham, roast, turkey, fish or oysters, followed by mincemeat and other pies and desserts/treats like brandied peaches.
Wines, brandy, rum punches, and other alcoholic beverages were consumed in abundance in well-to-do households. Slave owners gave out portions of liquor to their workers at Christmastime, partly as a holiday indulgence and partly to keep slaves at the home during their few days off work. Intoxicated workers were less likely to run away or make long trips to visit distant relations.
One of our most cherished traditions was unknown to colonists. The Christmas tree traveled to America from Germany in the nineteenth century. Christmas cards originated in London and didn’t gain popularity until the nineteenth century. Santa Claus is a combination of Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas from Dutch and English traditions. As Americans absorbed new people and cultures, the holiday traditions expanded. Today, Christmas is an ever-changing blend of the old and new.
Our family makes these ‘Early American Ginger Cutouts’ from a colonial recipe I found in a cookie cookbook published back in the 1950′s.
Sift together dry ingredients:
2 ¾ C. flour, ½ tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. ginger, ½ tsp. cinnamon, ½ tsp. cloves, ½ tsp. salt
Cream together:
1/2 cup butter, 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar, ¾ cup dark molasses (we use Blackstrap), 1 egg beaten, 1 tsp. hot water, 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
Mix wet ingredients into the dry until well blended. Cover bowl and chill dough for several hours (or more). Roll on lightly floured surface and cut with cookie cutters. Place on cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees for 15 approximately minutes. We press sprinkles into the dough before baking but that’s a modern addition.
Enjoy this sweet spicy connection with our early American ancestors.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Red Bird's Song At Seriously Reviewed!

Finally, two months after its release RED BIRD’S SONG received its first review from Seriously Reviewed and it’s a good one.
"I loved the descriptions of the “flora and fauna”. Ms. Trissel describes the colors and the smells in a way that I felt I was there actually smelling and seeing with her characters. The descriptions were great; “Milkweed pods released fluffy white seeds, like tiny sails, in the barely there breeze”; “a potpourri of sensations, like contrasting scents”; “a tangle of grape vines”. 

"The ending is a real surprise, but I will let you have the pleasure of reading it for yourself."~

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Roots in The Shenandoah Valley & Old Time Mennonite Molasses Cookies

This delicious recipe is from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter.  My husband gave me this cookbook eons ago and it’s stained from many uses over the years and is a family favorite.  I noted that Amazon is selling this book new for $599.99 which boggles the mind.  They do, however, have other options that run as low as $6.99.  That’s probably what mine is worth. Also of interest, my hubby is related to the author on his mama’s side. 

When I married him, I married into the Mennonite community and church.  We attend a New Order Mennonite Church, but he’s related to all sorts of ‘Orders’ including Old Order Mennonites who drive horse and buggies (similar to the Amish).  Many of our neighbors are ‘Old Orders’ and it’s common to see buggies pass our farm at most any time of the week, but particularly on Sunday morning when a stream of horses pulling buggies briskly trot past us on their way to church.  The Old Order Churches have hitching rails out front.  Very quaint.

Needless to say, I am rather unusual in this conservative area being a historical romance author, but people are quite tolerant and do not shun me.   Bear in mind that I wasn’t raised in this community but came from the English/Scots-Irish Presbyterians who settled nearby Augusta County several hundred years ago.  We always referred to ourselves as the ‘Scotch Irish’ but have since been told this isn’t the politically correct term.  I remember my grandmother saying she was ‘too Scotch’ for this or that, meaning too cheap, and so on.

My husband is of German/Swiss descent.  His ancestors settled in nearby Rockingham County about the same time mine did in Augusta.  For generations, the German Mennonites and Scots-Irish Presbyterians did not mix. Both groups were clannish and regarded the other as highly suspect.  Even though we’re all Christians, Mennonites thought Presbyterians were practically heathen, and Presbyterians frowned on their pacifistic neighbors. 

Relations between these very different people have improved over time.  I doubt many marriages were made between them before ours, but we’ve been happily wed for many years.  However, my husband is what they call a militant Mennonite and not a true pacifist.   I’ve probably been a bad influence, though I suspect it’s his nature.    :)

One of my favorite cookies is this old time molasses variety.
1 cup shortening, 4 cups flour, 1 tsp. salt, 1 cup dark molasses, 1 cup sugar, 1 egg, 1/4 cup hot water, 1 1/4 tsp. soda

Sift flour and salt together and cut in shortening as for pastry. In another bowl, combine molasses and sugar. Add egg and beat well.  Dissolve soda in hot water and add to molasses mixture.  Combine crumb and molasses mixtures and stir until well blended.

Chill dough for several hours in refrigerator.  Turn out on a lightly floured board.  Roll to 1/4 inch thickness.  Place 1 inch apart on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 until a deep rich brown. After baking these cookies will be cracked on top.  Makes 4 dozen cookies.

*Old Order Mennonites and Amish do not like to have their pictures taken so the only photos we have are shot from a distance or angled so that you do not clearly see their faces.   The long line of wash is from an Old Order farm near us.  These pics are by my mom and husband and taken where we live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

If You Like Colonial American Romance Set During The Revolution~

“In addition to creating memorable characters, Ms. Trissel makes wonderful use of descriptive language. “Dreadful screeching, like the cries of an enraged cat, tore through the muggy night and into Meriwether’s chamber…The sweetness of jasmine wafted from the trellised vine as she peered down through moss-draped branches.”  Description like this can be found throughout Enemy of the King and really pulled me into the story so that I felt as if I were actually there.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Enemy of the King. Not only are the characters memorable and the setting beautifully described, but the action is riveting and the romance between Meri and Jeremiah is tender.  I highly recommend Enemy of the King to anyone who loves a well crafted historical romance.”







1.  Blood Promise by Richelle Mead
2.  In Over Her Head by Judi Fennell
3.  Enemy of the King by Beth Trissel
4.  Succubus Heat by Richelle Mead (tie)
4.  Through the Fire by Beth Trissel (tie)
5.  Daughter of the Wind by Beth Trissel
6.  Thorn Queen by Richelle Mead
7.  The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Renee Hieber
8.  Tempted by P. C. Cast
9.  City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
10. Bad Moon Rising by Sherrilyn Kenyon

"Enemy of the King is an amazing and vibrant look into the American Revolutionary War and tells the story through the eyes of a remarkable woman. While Jeremiah Jordan himself is a strong soldier and heroic patriot, it is Meriwether Steele who makes such a great impression in this epic novel. Her dedication to the man she loves, the lengths she must go to defend herself and others, and the unstoppable force that she is makes Meriwether one heck of a heroine.

Ms. Trissel brings the countryside and its people alive with her fascinating and at times gory details. This sexy historical book is a must read!"
Reviewer for Coffee Time Romance & More

“I love historical romances. They are one of my favorites and anymore when I think of a historical I think of Beth Trissel. She is an author who has proved herself over time. She is a beautiful storyteller. Ms. Trissel can take a story line and make it a work of art. And she did just that with Enemy of the King.
This tale was so wonderful; it really was a magical read. As soon as I started reading I felt like I was in the pages. 

The author has a way of pulling you into the story; this is your story. I could see the characters and the images Ms. Trissel described as if I were there or watching a film on TV. It’s a classic read for the ages and I highly recommend this book to everyone who wants to read a true fairy-tale.”

Blurb: 1780, South Carolina: While Loyalist Meriwether Steele recovers from illness in the stately home of her beloved guardian, Jeremiah Jordan, she senses the haunting presence of his late wife. When she learns that Jeremiah is a Patriot spy and shoots Captain Vaughan, the British officer sent to arrest him, she is caught up on a wild ride into Carolina back country, pursued both by the impassioned captain and the vindictive ghost. Will she remain loyal to her king and Tory twin brother or risk a traitor’s death fighting for Jeremiah? If Captain Vaughan snatches her away, he won’t give her a choice.~

ENEMY OF THE KING is Published by the Wild Rose Press~also available At Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online booksellers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Shades of November

Misty days, cold rain falling, leaves scattering from the trees in a red-gold swirl meld with days of brilliant sunshine.  Pure light streams through late autumn color and spills over fields of new, green rye.  My fair valley is a glistening jewel on such days and I can see the Alleghenies from my window.  When it’s hazy, mist veils the mountains rising beyond the muted hills above our meadow.

On my dining room table sits a box of crocus and other tiny bulbs that ought to be in the ground.  I’ve already planted oodles of bulbs this fall and temporarily stalled as to where to put these.  I got carried away in hot muggy August when daughter Elise and I ordered the bulbs–even tacked this order  on to the one she and I’d already made after she returned to school.  Back then autumn seemed but a  dream of faultless blue skies, crisp air, and glorious leaves that stretched on and on infinitely in my mind.

In reality,  fall comes and goes all too quickly…the wonder and beauty that lures me into those long dark months before the return of my beloved spring.  Not all the leaves are fallen yet and some vivid color remains on the trees, but not for long.  Still, there is much to be savored about every season and I seek for the joys in this one.

For one thing, advancing November is what I call ‘the snugly time.’  For those of you with real fireplaces, I envy you.  There’s such primal satisfaction and comfort in the crackle of a wood fire, the orange glow of the flames and red coals,  the smoky fragrance.  I have a fireplace DVD, I kid you not, and a large electric space heater that looks like a wood stove with a fake fire in it.  But it gives out warmth and if I play the fireplace DVD while running the space heater/wood stove, at least it provides the feel of a hearth.  Certainly better than when all I owned was the DVD that emitted zero heat in this drafty old farm house. My sister, feeling this was the height of pathetic, gave me the wood stove/space heater for Christmas.  We do have ancient chimneys here but none are safe to use.  Someday, someday, we shall build a new one.  But the farm has a way of eating up all the scanty funds before they stretch to include a new stone hearth.

I’d love a massive hearth such as I describe in many of my novels. The Big Meadows Lodge up on the Skyline Drive has the most wonderful hearth in the world.  I could settle in for days and write in that cozy room with a superb view of the ridges and valley spreading out below–my father says when he was young and the air clearer, people could see the Washington Monument in Washington, DC from a point in the Blue Ridge.  I hope we will get our air quality that pure again.  Meanwhile, when I’m in the lodge before that hearth I’m deeply content to let the rain fall and fog shroud the ridges.  A snug log cabin would also do nicely as a writers retreat.
One of the benefits of these darkening days is that it’s an excellent time for writing and reading, two of my most favorite occupations.    I need a new CD, something with a historic and fantasy sound, music that transports me from here to there, to write my latest light paranormal romance to.  Recent choices include the soundtrack from Prince Caspian, Lord of the Rings (all three of them) the latest Harry Potter soundtrack…I’m open to suggestions.  I love Celtic music and have collected releases from various artists but nothing I have seems to suit the mood I’m seeking.  On goes my search for the perfect music to write to.

*This is also a great time of year for making soup and baking bread, one of today’s projects.

*Pics of The Alleghenies, Our Farm, and Me writing with my faithful companion Sadie Sue~ Pics by mom, daughter Elise
Royalty free image of hearth

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Milam’s Gap in The Blue Ridge Mountains (Along Skyline Drive)

Quantcast The sun was low in the sky and the woods dusky as my husband and I hiked the Milam’s Gap trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains one summer evening. How green and still it was among the hay-scented fern, and the twilight mild and sweet, like a melody softly played. Few birds called. The flutelike trill of a thrush sounded overheard and a robin flew into the ancient apple trees that mark the beginning of the walk. Gnarled, lichen-encrusted, branches thrust high above us.

Milam’s Gap apple trees are far removed from the modern day dwarfs. These relics from the past were planted by the mountain people who once lived here and were coveted as the apples for cider and apple butter making. An old mountain woman told me. The ridges and hollows still bear the names of these stalwart souls, like Lewis and Dean Mountain, Hensley, Kemp and Corbin Hollow, Hannah Run Trail, and Mary’s Rock.

More menacing names, Rattlesnake Point, Dark Hollow and Ghost Forest also remain. The invisible presence of these people seemed to linger in these woods where their log homes once nestled, smoke rising from the old stone hearths, corn cakes sizzling on the griddle. What must life have been like for those hardy folks? Cold much of the time, and hard, I should think.

I envisioned the women and girls in calico dresses, the men and boys in worn pants and overalls, gathering chestnuts, hazelnuts and wild berries, clearing patches of ground to grow corn and vegetable gardens, sorghum for molasses, struggling to keep a few pigs, chickens, and cows alive. A bear snatching the pig the family had been fattening to supplement their winter diet must have been quite a loss. Trips to town would have been arduous and rare, the supplies purchased slim: perhaps flour, sugar, salt and cornflakes for a special treat, cloth, gun powder and shot for hunting. Timber, orchards, livestock and the lucrative moonshine trade helped to supplement what was quite a self-sufficient lifestyle.

Doctors were hard to come by and the people often doctored themselves. Anyone who was a healer, whether with plants, charms or incantations, would have been highly sought after. Some healers specialized in one thing, like wart removal, or in the stopping of blood from a gushing wound. Others claimed to have special stones called mad stones to cure the dreaded bite of a rabid animal. We can only imagine this long gone time.

The elderly woman who once lived near Milam’s Gap (referred to above) gave me an exceedingly fragrant herb she called the vicks vapor rub plant.  It’s scent is very like that of Vicks.  She also gave me a rose-scented geranium, both of which I still have.  The geranium fragrance is appealingly rosy and the little mauve-colored flowers last in water forever.

*Pic is of Dark Hollow Falls at Milam’s Gap.