As I wind down my time as the Garden Guru, I’m looking back at some of the articles I’ve written for the holidays.
These are some of my favorite articles I’ve written over the years. From talking about the Norse legend that gives us kissing under the mistletoe, to the pagan roots of Christmas trees, the controversy of the Christmas cactus impostors and waxing nostalgic about the Christmas popcorn balls my grandmother would make with sorghum.
You can find the entire articles on my webpage (wvgardenguru.com) or by searching the Gazette-Mail online archives.
The Norse appreciation of mistletoe
Burl Ives, as the lovable, banjo-playing, umbrella-toting and story-narrating snowman in the classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” claymation cartoon tells us one of the secrets to a “Holly Jolly Christmas” is the “mistletoe hung where you can see.”
In Norse mythology, the goddess Frigga (or Fricka for fans of Wagner’s operas) was an overprotective mother who made every object on Earth promise not to hurt her son, Baldr. She, of course, overlooked mistletoe because it was too small and young to do any harm.
Finding this out, the trickster god Loki made a spear from mistletoe and gave it to Baldr’s blind brother, Hod, and tricked him into throwing it at Baldr (it was apparently a pastime to bounce objects off of Baldr, since he couldn’t be hurt).
Baldr, of course, died, and Frigga was devastated. The white berries of the mistletoe are said to represent her tears. And as a memorial to her son, she declared the plant should represent love and no harm should befall anyone standing beneath its branches.
Washington Irving, who more or less reinvigorated the celebration of Christmas in the United States in his day, and whose writings still define the idyllic American Christmas celebration, reminisced quite humorously about mistletoe and Christmas from his travels to England. He wrote:
“Here were kept up the old games … [and] the Yule log and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”
Whether or not your housemaids will be in peril, the hanging of the mistletoe can be a fun Christmas tradition. Just remember to be on the lookout for it in your landscape trees! I would recommend not getting it out of the trees the “old Southern way” — shooting it out with a shotgun.
Is your Christmas cactus an impostor?
A cactus, of all things, is one of those plants that have come to represent the holidays. But, my friends, it seems there has been an insidious marketing campaign to confuse consumers.
The cactus you buy in the store labeled “Christmas cactus” is an impostor. It is, in fact, a Thanksgiving cactus.
Cultivars and crosses of Schlumbergera truncata are the Thanksgiving cacti that have been rebranded as Christmas cacti. They can be identified by their spiky stems and zygomorphic flowers (now that’s a fancy word — it means they have a two-sided, or bilateral, symmetry).
You’ll most commonly find them in pink colors, but you can now find them in yellowish colors. The flower shape often leads to its nickname: Zygo cactus.
S. buckleyi are the true Christmas cacti. They can be identified by their rounded stems and rounded (radial symmetry) flowers. They do have a similar growing form, but those in the know can tell the difference.
A Christmas tradition
I’ll leave you with a bit of nostalgia and a Christmas tradition. Growing up, the celebration of Christmas revolved around my grandparents, namely my maternal grandmother.
The family would gather all together on Christmas Eve for the exchange of gifts and feasting on what you would call party food and then again on Christmas day for dinner.
Being close to my grandmother (my grandparents lived next door), I would often help with the days or week long preparations leading up to the celebration.
There were things that were required Christmas cooking for the holidays — oatmeal sandwich cookies made with seven-minute icing (guess who got to beat the icing?), fruit salad composed mostly of canned-fruit cocktail and, more often than not, old-fashioned popcorn balls.
These popcorn balls would be made in the traditional way she was taught, from generations of family that came through many hard times and life far away from stores and conveniences.
While many people make such treats using caramel made from sugar, that would have been a luxury. So these popcorn balls were made with an Appalachian twist: sorghum syrup.
Now, most people around the area would call this molasses, but we do not, in fact, make molasses here or even grow sugar cane (even though that’s what folks call it). We grow sorghum, and we make sorghum syrup.
The process is much the same, though instead of caramelizing sugar, you heat up the sorghum in a pan. It is already caramelized, so there’s no need for that step.
What I always found exciting as a kid, though, was a process to take some of the bitterness out of the syrup.
As the sorghum syrup heated in the pan, my grandmother would add a few spoonfuls of baking soda. The response was immediate — a reaction would occur turning the thin syrup in to a quickly expanding foam.
Once the foam died down, a little butter was added, and then the whole mess was poured over a huge bowl full of popcorn (popped in a pan on the stove — guess who got to shake that pan).
The popcorn and syrup would be mixed until all the kernels were coated. We would then work to roll the popcorn into balls, then wrap them in wax paper as individual treats for the family.
And while it may have seem old-fashioned then, and we may have preferred sweeter candies to the popcorn balls, I look back on those traditions now thankful for the time I got to spend with my family, especially my grandmother.