Here were are in the midst of another holiday season. Cakes and cookies are baked, trees are trimmed and the official celebration of winter has begun. It is a time to eat, rejoice, laugh and sing.
Given what we experience today, it’s hard to believe that Christmas was outright banned in Puritan New England. Considered pagan and materialistic, a large fine was imposed on anyone found to be celebrating the Christmas holiday. If you can imagine, New Englanders didn’t see their first Christmas tree until 1850. This is why it’s all the more amazing that New Englanders wrote many of the Christmas carols we know and love today.
Here are a few things I never knew. Abolitionist Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear at his church in Wayland, Massachusetts. His poem was set to music in 1850.
In 1857, Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jr., the first Episcopal bishop of Vermont wrote We Three Kings and set the poem to music for a college performance.
If you’ve visited the Trinity Church in Boston, you’re probably familiar with Reverend Phillips Brooks. Reverend Brooks travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in 1865. Two years later, when reflecting upon the experience, he wrote, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.
Of course, there’s also the happy tune that we now know as Jingle Bells, which was written by the unemployed wanderer James Lord Pierpont at a boarding house in Medford, Massachusetts. The song was originally entitled One Horse Open Sleigh and describes the sleigh races held on Pleasant Street in old Medford Square.
Much later, in 1948, the orchestral piece Sleigh Ride was written by Cambridge, Massachusetts native, Leroy Anderson, and was recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1949.
If you’re a lover of Christmas bells, the Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company began making Christmas bells in East Hampton, Connecticut. Sadly, a fire in May 2012, requiring 200 firefighters, completely destroyed the 19th century factory which had been in the family for six generations. No worries. They’re still making jingle bells and you can buy them online.
Speaking of bells, of all the Christmas carols written in New England, perhaps the most heart-wrenching is the poem, Christmas Bells by poet and abolitionist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While preserving a lock of their 7 year old daughter’s hair in wax (customary in the 1800’s), the dress of Henry’s beloved wife Fanny caught fire and engulfed her in flames. Henry threw himself on his wife in an attempt to extinguish the flames, burning his face, neck and arms. She died the next day and was buried on their wedding anniversary. Henry was too badly burned to attend the funeral. A year later, his son suffered a life-threatening injury fighting in the American Civil War.
In deep despair, on December 25, 1864, Henry wrote,
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
As you can imagine, his original writing is a bit different from the lyrics you hear today but this by far is the truest version I could find.
Traditions link us to the past and provide us with a bit of understanding about who we are today. For me, learning a little about history makes the holidays much more fun.
Speaking of fun, you have to make this cake. I call it Vintage Chocolate Cake because it tastes like something I wish someone’s grandmother would make. It’s a simple recipe and tastes so good that we ate the whole thing in three days.
I also want to mention that the outdoor photographs were taken at the beautiful Crane Estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts on the day of their holiday open house.
Whatever you do, try the cake. And, whatever you’re celebrating this season, I hope it’s happy, healthful and joyful.
Happy holidays everyone. Peace to you and yours!
Vintage Chocolate Cake
1 1/2 c (165 g) cake flour
1/2 c (60 g) good quality cocoa powder
2 tsp (10 g) baking powder
1 tsp (2 g) salt
1/4 c (55 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 c (285 g) cane sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp (4 g) vanilla extract
4 oz. melted chocolate, cooled
1 1/2 c (350 ml) milk
2 egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
1/2 c (95 g) cane sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C)
Grease and flour two 9″ cake pans or two 7″ spring form pans if you like the cake tall (as pictured).
Sift together dry ingredients and set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar. Mix in egg yolks, vanilla, and melted chocolate. Stir in milk alternately with dry ingredients. Set aside.
Whisk together egg whites with cream of tartar until a meringue begins to form. Gradually whip in sugar. The mixture will form peaks when you pull the whisk away from the bowl. It will be thick, like a light marshmallow creme. Fold the mixture into the cake batter. Bake until 3-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Once cool, carefully trim off any skin on top and tough edges on sides with a serrated knife. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. Chill for up to 3 days.
Vanilla Frosting (you will be making 2 batches over 2 days)
26 tbs (375 g), unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 c (220 g) organic powdered sugar, sifted (add more to taste)
3 tbs (45 ml) milk
3 tbs (5 ml) vanilla extract
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, whip butter for 5 minutes on medium speed.
Add remaining ingredients and mix on low speed for 1 minute, then on medium speed for about 4 minutes.
Note: I switched to organic powdered sugar this week to avoid GMO beet sugar. I found it to be less sweet than regular powdered sugar and everyone preferred it on this cake. I’ve also made this by adding cocoa powder in addition to the powdered sugar and it works well.