December 25, 2015

Our Christmas Festivities

Clove-studded oranges, or Pomander balls, were featured on our Holiday table. We used to make these wreathes and Della Robia style decorations back in the 1960's and 1970's to exhibit at the Worcester County Horticultural Society Holiday show. This year, I decided to try and make them again. The scent brought me back but the pain from shoving cloves into oranges did too!

 A very happy Christmas to everyone! Here in the Eastern US, as you undoubtedly have heard, it's been unseasonably warm - if not balmy. Today I think we reached nearly 70 degrees F. and broke an all time record for having not a speck of snow here in Worcester, MA, but warm Christmases are not unheard of here in New England ( as in the movie White Christmas), I am sure we will get our share of winter soon enough. Here are some pic's of our Holiday festivities this year. I'd love to hear about your family traditions, especially if they involve plants, but food is OK too, as you will see in this very 'food-bloggy' looking post! After-all, it IS the Holiday season!

Christmas is often all about nostalgia and tradition. In Worcester, MA where I live, there are many Eastern European markets such as this Polish market, which carry imported treats and home made items not only from Poland, but from Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Lithuania. I heard stories about my grandmother, whom I never met, who used to shop on this same street in the early 20th Century. I used to go with my mother to buy sauerkraut, horseradish, sausages and fresh churned butter and farmers cheese for the Holidays. The scent of the herring barrels, garlic pickles  and rye bread transports me back to my childhood.

 I usually make (don't gross out now!) Jellied pigs feet, which in Lithuanian is called Košeliena. Just around the corner from the Eastern European markets here are some very good Asian markets. This one always had split pigs feet, as well as duck heads and cleaned chicken feet (hey, I warned you!). All this will make for a nice, clear aspic in which tender braised pork with be set in.

A selection of pigs feet, hocks, chicken feet and pork neck bones will be slowly boiled in a stock pot for about 20 hours, then strained. Not unlike chicken stock, it contains carrots, onions and parsley from the garden. The bones are removed, the clear stock strained and it will set into an amazing gelatin.

Once the Košeliena is set, it is unfolded, cut into cubes or slices and served with freshly grated horseradish and beets from the garden, vinegar and flaked salt. My brothers and sisters hate it, but Joe and I can't get enough of it, and we make so much, that we share it with our elderly Lithuanian neighbors who really cherish it.

Like many cultural Holiday meals, its all about tradition. The Christmas Eve Kūčias traditionally was (pre-Christianity) was a winter solstice event, complete with talking animals and seven cold courses of fish, dried fruits and beets. Today, many traditional dishes include primarily fish with no dairy or meat, but we deviate with - um - Prime rid, but balance it off with other Lithuanian dishes such as beet soup, pickled herring and fruit compote, but nothing beats the family favorite - virtiniai, cheese filled dumplings swimming in melted butter. Similar to Polish pierogi, these contain no potato and are 'lighter', generally speaking.

Gingerbread Houses made a debut at our house this year. They were much harder to make than we realized.
 On a sweeter note, but still not garden or plant related - my friends Jess Rosenkranz and Glen Lord came over to make Gingerbread houses. I don't know what we were thinkings, as it was a bit of an undertaking which next year we will know better and start a few days in advance. Still, for our first try, it wasn't that bad.

I try to decorate the studio in a different way each year at Christmas, sometimes working with a theme. This year, I referenced Scandinavian Jul decorations, Saint Lucia wreaths and old-world pomanders ( clove-studded citrus), which my sister and I used to make each Christmas until our thumbs bleed. I forgot how much work these were, but then in true 'Matt fashion' I decided to 'raise the bar' and make some boxwood trees like those used in colonial Williamsburg. 

Fruit and evergreens are very traditional Holiday decorations. This Della Robia style was adopted in North America and influenced the Colonial Williamsburg style of decorating, with pineapples, magnolia leaves and citrus. Many Old-World designs used citrus, pears, apples and greens such as holly, boxwood and mistletoe. 

The Loquat tree, planted in the ground inside the greenhouse is almost 16 feet tall, and it blooms around christmastime. I never seems to set fruit, but the foliage is nice and tropical looking.

I started with a base of cake stands and foam cones, which I hot-glued together. I picked some loquat leaved from the greenhouse, since hey - I had loquat leaves, and no magnolia leaves which would have been more traditional.

As you can see, they ended up looking rather fancy, but everyone seems to enjoy the decor.  I added some Forelle pears and kumquats to the topiary trees as well. In the wreath, I also used battery powered candles for obvious reasons.

I know it looks fancy in pictures, but really, we 'wing it' every year since this room has a high ceiling and it difficult to heat. We need to update it too (wood paneling) and we need lighting. Until then, many, many twinkle lights!

Helleborus niger makes an annual appearance at Christmas, just like it did in 1900. I am so happy that commercial selections like this one are available now at markets.

On Christmas day, we relax. This morning a good friend of mine stopped by with a surprise - a home made chocolate cream pie, which should balance out all of the butter, cheese and beef in our diet. I had nothing to give her, as she was traveling to her sisters house out in the Berkshires, but I quickly threw together an impromptu gift of camellia flowers set into a box with wax paper. She could then have her sister float them in a platter somewhere in their home for a bit of vintage Christmas from the 1800's when camellia's were common in cold, New England greenhouses as a florist flower.

I found a stack of my fathers old home-made Christmas cards starting from the 1940's until the 1970's. Here are a few. (check out the Sputnik in this one!). 

I hope you and your loved ones are having a wonderful Holiday!

I wasn't born yet for this 'Magazine' themed card, but he did design another magazine card in the 1960's - I was featured on the cover of the 'Trains' issue, which is a hint about how I loved model trains (still do secretly!). Yeah, we had a pet falcon too. Didn't everyone?


  1. Your Christmas looks beautiful. We have helleborus Niger blooming, camellias and paper white narcissus. Merry Christmas men!

  2. Happy Holidays! What is the name of the Asian Market? (May be another source for my parents who are in Sudbury).

    1. HI LInus. It's Binh An Market on Green St. in Worcester.

  3. Is there a garden railroad in your future?

  4. Ah, the clove-lacerated thumb. No one makes pomanders anymore.

    1. Could one use a thimble to protect their finger?

  5. A lovely, interesting post! Thank you ! I love your xmas decorations and food. You must have endless patience !

  6. Anonymous6:55 PM

    The family Christmas cards are just wonderful....thanks for posting those. And I've always admired your folk-themed kitchen cabinets, which I understand were painted by your father. Very Kate Serady, whose books I loved as a girl.

  7. Anonymous12:22 PM

    dear matt
    the images of your christmas are beautiful. as described by you, your family-life and traditions, and father's art, are wellsprings of doing and creativity, stability and comfort. makes me envious!
    they modelled for you, in your childhood, experiences one cannot pay to acquire today. i think about it--the barrenness and passivity of american kids' lives (for the most part) today--where are we going???
    noel kingsbury's recent blogpost, and the comments it fielded, touched on breezy "lifestyle" gardening books being published now, and the loss of the skill set for many formerly- mundane, now esoteric, activities.
    mentoring in whatever creativity it is we prize enriches many lives, but must revolve around concrete and tangible matter; the ideas flow from there.
    thanks for the jellied pigsfeet portion of your post. i think i can pretty much recreate it from what you wrote--we all need more collagen, right?
    all best,
    ~ 02568

    1. Dear 02568 - It's nice to read comments such as the ones you write. I so appreciate your thoughtful comments most every week. I will go check Noel's site and see what he said, but I can tell that we all feel the same way about contemporary culture. If only I posted all of my rants about this ( one written this week, but it's too long to post and I fear others will feel that I am too negative). 'Breezy' is OK, I suppose, as long as there are those tomes written with some depth, but I fear the balance has shifted given he popularity of 'lifestyle gardening'. I hold out some hope that as what happened in cooking, that books will evolve in both directions. I promise that if I ever write a book, it will like that of a chef, and not of a celebrity chef (which is funny, since when I pitched my book to Timber Press ten years ago, I pitched it in this way: Imagine "the French Laundry' for serious gardeners - the audience may never actually make head cheese with a calves head and pigs feet, but they will want to read about it and imagine that the could!"). Maybe now, we are ready for such a gardening book? Wishing you a healthy and vibrant new year!


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