I love how a Christmas tree brightens a room with its sparkling white or colored lights, and the smell of a real balsam fir. Many of us have Christmas trees in our homes this time of year, but, do you know who started this tradition?
The custom of placing a tree in our homes and decorating them for the Christmas season became widespread three hundred years ago in England.
Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, started the trend.
Born and brought up in Germany, Albert’s family’s festivities included a decorated Christmas tree as part of their celebration. Christmas trees are a German tradition. Victoria and Albert decided to introduce Albert’s family custom into their own Christmas observances and into the British royal palaces during the festive season.
Back then, the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree. And bam, soon every home in Britain had a tree laden with sweets, candy, small gifts, fruit, and home-made decorations.
The Christmas tree went viral and without the Internet. Now that’s an achievement.
I can fully understand Albert’s desire to keep a tradition alive to help what feels unfamiliar to be more like home. Traditions keep us connected to our roots.
There is one British tradition I have introduced, as part of our British family’s American Christmas—as well as eating roast turkey. If you were to enter my kitchen on Christmas Eve you would be greeted with the sweet but at the same time tangy aroma of mincemeat, and see a flour-covered countertop and dough being rolled out for mince pies.
Before you get confused, mince pies do not contain meat. The only meat product in them is beef suet.
Mince pies are a medieval creation. Some time in the thirteenth century, or earlier, they were packed with rabbit, mutton, beef or whatever other animal they ate back in the middle ages. Mince pies were made around Christmas time and oblong-shaped like a baby’s cradle.
Crusaders, coming back from the Middle East, carried with them new and unusual spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, and these began to be sprinkled in with the meat. The spices added a new meaning to the mince pie, already seen as a religious symbol. The three spices reflected the three gifts brought by the Magi at the birth of Jesus. Eventually, over the years, dried fruit replaced the meat, but the spices remained.
Nowadays, mince pies are small and circular – the size of a popover but not so deep.
Packs of mince pies line the shelves of British supermarkets during the Christmas season. And, if you have the opportunity to visit the home of a British family, you will be offered a warmed mince pie along with your cup of tea.
However, the best mince pies are homemade. I am not much of a cook, but my mince pies are to die for.
I make a sweet short crust pastry containing a little confectioners sugar. The pastry is crumbly and delicious—even when uncooked. Yes, I do nibble on the remains.
Mincemeat is best made a year in advance and then kept in the refrigerator. This improves the flavor.
I hunt down sultanas—golden raisins—to add to the currants and raisins. I import mixed peel and beef suet from across the pond. Chopped apples, the zest and juice of oranges and lemons, sliced almonds, brown sugar, brandy, and of course the spices—mixed spice, cinnamon and nutmeg—are put in a large bowl, stirred, left overnight and then slowly fermented in a warm oven until the flavors develop and mingle into a fruity mess. The fragrance is heavenly.
A dollop of mincemeat is placed in the middle of the pastry base before the pastry lid is added. Then they are popped in the oven to cook before they are ready to eat.
I couldn’t stand the taste of the spicy dried fruit as a child, but now, just writing about these pies, my mouth is watering.
Mince pies didn’t make their way to the shores of Massachusetts on the Mayflower. The Puritans feared we would worship these small fruity creations. Perhaps they were right to be worried.
But, I would be more than happy if they became a new world Christmas viral sensation.
What Christmas traditions are special for your family?
How to Make Mince Pies
First of all, make your Christmas Mincemeat:
1 lb apples, cored and chopped small (no need to peel them). Granny Smiths are suitable.
8 oz shredded suet. I use butter, grated, if I can’t get suet.
12 oz raisins
8 oz sultanas
8 oz currants
8 oz mixed candied peel. Look for European candied mixed peel.
12 oz soft dark brown sugar
grated zest and juice 2 oranges
grated zest and juice 2 lemons
2 oz whole almonds, cut into slivers
4 level teaspoons mixed ground spice
½ level teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ level teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
6 tablespoons brandy
Combine all the ingredients, except for the brandy, in a large mixing bowl, stirring them and mixing them very thoroughly indeed.
Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave the mixture in a cool place overnight or for 12 hours, so the flavors have a chance to mingle and develop.
Pre-heat the oven to 225°F.
Cover the bowl loosely with foil and place it in the oven for 3 hours, then remove the bowl from the oven. Don’t worry about the appearance of the mincemeat, which will look positively swimming in fat. This is how it should look.
As it cools, stir it from time to time; the fat will coagulate and, encase all the other ingredients.
When the mincemeat is cold, stir well again, adding the brandy. Pack in sterile jars. The mincemeat will keep for ages in a cool, dark cupboard or the refrigerator.
Once the mincemeat is made, you can make the Sweet Short Crust Pastry
8 oz plain flour, plus extra for dusting
2 oz icing sugar
4 oz good-quality unsalted cold butter, cut into small cubes
1 large free-range egg, beaten
a splash of milk
Sieve your flour and icing sugar into a large mixing bowl.
Using your fingertips, gently work the cubes of butter into the flour and sugar until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Add the egg and milk to the mixture and gently work it together using your hands until you have a ball of dough. Remember not to work the pastry too much at this stage or it will become elastic and chewy, not crumbly and short.
Wrap the dough in clingfilm and pop it into the fridge to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Once your pastry has rested, you are ready to make the Mince Pies
Use one or two muffin tins. These make slightly bigger mince pies than I am used to, but they will still be good. The pie tins I have from England are shallower than a muffin tin.
Dust a clean surface and a rolling pin with flour, then carefully roll out half the pastry as thinly as possible.
Cut as many 3 inch rounds as you can, gathering up the scraps and re-rolling.
Then do the same with the other half of the pastry, this time using a 2½ inch cutter.
Now grease the muffin tin lightly and line it with the larger rounds. Fill these with mincemeat to the level of the edges of the pastry.
Dampen the edges of the smaller rounds of pastry with water and press them lightly into position to form lids, sealing the edges.
Brush each one with milk.
Bake near the top of the oven until light golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Cool on a wire tray, sprinkle with icing sugar, and enjoy.
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