Hogmanay

by Beth Schreibman Gehring 

“The house was bright that night, with candles lit in the windows, and bunches of holly and ivy fixed to the staircase and the doorposts. There were not so many pipers in the Highlands as there had been before Culloden, but one had been found, and a fiddler as well, and music floated up the stairwell, mixed with the heady scent of rum punch, plum cake, almond squirts, and Savoy biscuits…Something of the light of that Hogmanay feast lingered on his face, and I felt a small pang, seeing it.”
Diana Gabaldon – Voyager

Hogmanay fireworks over Edinburgh Castle_Chris Flexen_UnsplashIn Scotland, December 26th marks the beginning of the week leading up to Hogmanay, a yearly celebration of farewell that takes place on December 31st. The history of Hogmanay is somewhat vague, with roots beginning in the 16th century. It’s an ancient celebration of the arrival of the New Year in a way that’s full of fire and ritual.

A contemporary New Year’s Eve celebration has never held much interest for me, so instead, for many years when we still lived on our farm in Burton, we would gather on December the 31st for a Hogmanay inspired celebration, fueled by really good single malt, folk music, celebratory bonfires, soup, roasted meats, and candlelight. I have always felt a deep affinity for anything and everything Scottish, and I married a man with a deeply Celtic soul, a family tartan, and a love of raucous gatherings.

Windesphere, our farm, was built in 1848 by a Scotsman named Samuel McBride, and our home was perched atop a hill lined with willow trees. It was a magical place to gather with my family for any holiday, but the quiet of New Year’s Eve after the hustle of the holidays was perfect. 

Living on that small farm gave me a completely different connection to the natural world and it was easy for me to imagine what it must have been like in centuries past as the days got longer and colder and darker. I am completely sure that the attitude with which the New Year would have been greeted is one of absolute revelry.

Hannah Pemberton for UnsplashLoving any excuse for continuing wassailing and caroling, the week after Christmas would find me preparing for the New Year, making clove-studded oranges and lady apples to simmer in apple cider, red wine, more spices, rosemary, hops,  honey, rum, and ale for my traditional New Year’s wassail bowl. In some parts of Scotland, wassailing is a still a traditional part of the Hogmanay celebrations, and in centuries past the farmers and their families would go out to their orchards, singing at the top of their lungs while drenching the trees with the delicious wassail and hanging wassail-soaked toast in the branches. This ritual would supposedly get rid of any evil spirits lingering, while blessing the trees so that the following year would bring an abundant harvest.

Every December 31st, after a very thorough house cleaning and smudging with a blend of sage, lavender, and pine, out would come the fragrant bayberry and beeswax tapers that I’d been saving for months. They would be lit, infused with our intentions for an abundant year. We’d then lift our glasses to toast the new year and “sain” the house, an old Hogmanay blessing custom from the Scottish Highlands. Years before I even knew what I was doing, I’d take a crystal pitcher and dunk it into the artesian spring by our barn, and then I’d bring the fresh water in to use for the blessing, sprinkling it all over the hearth, rugs, and beds, finishing with hugs and kisses all around. Traditionally in Scotland and in my home, “Auld Lang Syne” is sung to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight as the wheel turns to the new year.

Beth Schreibman GehringOne of the most well-known traditions of Hogmanay is called ‘first footing’. When the first visitor to a household in the new year appears, he will traditionally bring gifts that are thought to bring great fortune and luck to the house in the coming new year. The person who has the honor of first footing the household (hopefully a dark haired man for the best kind of luck!) gets a healthy dram of whisky, cookies, and plenty of kisses for his trouble!

Living as far out as we did, there weren’t a lot of dark handsome strangers roaming about, so instead, when my son and nephew were still very small, we would pretend that we were Vikings and build a large bonfire up on the back hill. Then we’d wander out into the pastures to look and listen for the first owls at midnight, a new year’s pastime we still call “owling”.

We’d walk through the back woods as quietly as we could, and if we were lucky we’d see deer as well as the occasional fox or raccoon. Suddenly, the three of us would be taken by surprise by a great span of wings overhead, powerful yet unearthly quiet. We’d stand very still, huddled warmly together, and we’d wait for the hoots to begin! It always felt like the very best kind of good fortune with which to begin the New Year!

Stephane Juban for UnsplashIn those shared moments, I learned that magic is truly possible when allowed to bubble away happily in the cauldron of your heart. We three had so much fun stalking the wild things ever so quietly under the New Year’s moonlight while splashing cups of wassail all about, tying pieces of wassail soaked toast onto our apple trees and hanging homemade pinecone ornaments of bird seed and peanut butter for the winter birds to enjoy!

Life is very good this year and I am most grateful for it all, especially my husband’s good health and my beautiful new grandson.

As I write, my dog Malcolm is sleeping peacefully in the corner and my cats are curled up on the couch by the fire with not a care in the world, totally stoned on fresh catnip sent by a friend. I’m filled with the peace of another year gone swiftly by, making potato leek soup and watching the snow falling softly outside my kitchen window.

I wish all of you a warm and cheery Hogmanay, filled with love, peace, joy, and everything else that you could possibly desire and more. As they say in Scotland, “Lang may your lum reek.”

I feel so blessed to have all of you in my life. Thank you for reading my words and letting me know that they’ve touched you.

It means everything to me.

See you on the other side of 2022!

Beth’s Wassail recipe:

Pomanders from CanvaFirst things first! Make several pomanders using some of the smaller apples that you’ve picked as the base. You’ll do this by taking the apples and studding them with cloves in all manner of beautiful patterns. While you’re doing this, create patterns that you love and use them as a simple way to make a very good wish for a safe, abundant, and love filled New Year. Then do the same with several small seedless oranges and set them aside. Use as many cloves as you wish, because the fragrance will be absolutely intoxicating! When you’re ready to use them , slice the oranges in half. Remove the core from the apples and halve them as well.

Then in your favorite cauldron (I used to make this in a cast iron pot on top of my wood burning stove when I lived in the country) add one gallon of freshly pressed cider, two cups of honey, one tablespoon of fresh powdered cinnamon, about five large cinnamon sticks, one teaspoon of good vanilla extract and half  a teaspoon of fresh nutmeg, five star anise pods, three tablespoons of dried or fresh rose petals for love (from your garden if you have them), one tablespoon of fresh rosemary for remembrance, about one cup of dried hops flowers for relaxation and fertility, and the pomanders.

Bring this all to a lovely rolling boil and then turn down the heat so it’s just simmering. Add one bottle of very good red wine, a couple of bottles of dry hard cider and about two and a half cups of dark spiced rum, and then stir in one stick of salted organic butter. You can add more honey if you’d like a bit more sweetness, or even brown sugar. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes then turn down the heat. Keep this hot but not boiling and serve it happily and carefully, as this is one potent brew!


Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the Senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/, or contact her at  beth.gehring@stirringthesenses.com

The Pleasure of Pomanders

By Pat Kenny

The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, pomme for apple, referring to the round shape of the early scent balls. Ambre is derived from ambergris, a substance washed up on beaches from the sperm whale which was the chief fixative for fragrances in Renaissance times.

One of the first reasons for making pomanders was the carrying of religious keepsakes (Fairamay, 2018). Adelma Simmons tells us, “originally pomanders were not made of oranges or apples but of small balls of various materials that would hold herbs, herbal scents, spices, and perfumes.  Sometimes beeswax was used for the medium. Other bases included garden soil, mold, or well-drained apple pulp.  The balls that were made only of gums and spices were costly and not available to the average household.”

There were many types of pomanders. Through the years, spices, essential oils, and green herbs including rue, sweet bay, lavender, and rosemary were used not only for their sweet scents but also for protection against contagious diseases. Historically, pomanders were either located somewhere in the home, worn around the neck, or attached to the belt like a bit of jewelry to safeguard against infection, disease, and bad luck.

Medicinal pomanders, some for curing fevers, some for insomnia, many for the medieval counterpart of what we call “nerves”, became popular.  They were a part of stillroom activities and a source of revenue for the professional apothecary.  Silversmiths and jewelers made exquisite cases for balls containing expensive perfumes, and these were worn as ornaments about the waist, while tiny ones were fashionably worn as lockets.  Sometimes beautiful metallic globes were fashioned to hold the scented material, and they were often pictured hand-held on chains in portraits of persons of high standing.

Pomanders were also carried by men in many professions.  Doctors, while visiting the sick, carried them.  Lawmakers and judges who argued and heard cases in closed courtrooms with prisoners “infected with jail fever” considered pomanders invaluable.  The dandy on the battlefield drew long breaths from a scented box to mitigate the stench of battle, and the traveler who walked along the streets lined with open sewers often carried his herbs and spices in the head of a cane which was opened and sniffed at will.

Courtiers traveling luxuriously in sedan chairs lifted languid hands to hold a pomander to the nose during passage through odorous crowds.  In pioneer New England the spice balls, clove apples, or clove oranges were placed in homemade coffins that were kept in many attics ready to receive the bodies of those who did not survive the long winters.  Often the graves could not be dug until spring, and farms were too isolated to call on the services of professional embalmers.  Pomander balls were then put to their ancient uses of preservation and fumigation, and known as “coffin balls”.

At the least, the pomander enabled its owner to escape the stenches of rotting garbage and open sewers in the airy pleasantness of garden herbs and exotic spices.  The delicate ladies and foppish gentlemen of the aristocracy would daintily wend their way through the bitter realities of the streets, sniffing their pomanders.

To turn to a happier use of pomanders, it was an English custom recorded in the time of Henry VIII to give one to each guest at New Year’s tied with a sprig of rosemary for remembrance.  This was not only a sign of esteem but of good luck.

However, today the pomander is merely an aromatic novelty, though many of the original uses stand the test of legitimacy.  Pomanders can be hung from ribbons in a room or closet, or tucked away into drawers and chests to keep moths away and give an aromatic scent.  They can be wrapped in a colorful cloth or fancy netting or just stacked in a bowl; their uses are varied and the pomander brings a welcome fragrance.  It’s an aromatic delight!

How to Make a Pomander

Pomanders are usually made with apples, crabapples, oranges, lemons, or limes.  Apples are the easiest because you can usually push the cloves into the apple’s skin with your thumb.  Lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit often have to have their skin broken with a bamboo or metal skewer in order to insert the clove.  Kumquats are little, their skin is thinner; they dry faster and are cute for miniature table trees.  They are not always available; watch out for them around the holidays, they last long in the refrigerator so buy them when you can.

I have rolled the completely-cloved fruit in mixes of ground orris and spices, yet some people are allergic to powdered orris root and the mix gets caked between the cloves. In my opinion, the mixes make the pomander hard to handle and just plain look awful.  One writer reminds us that frugal New England housewives who used pomanders would have found the cloves expensive enough without adding the orris and other ground spices recommended in more modern times.

All my most successful pomanders have been dried by simply hanging them in a warm, dry place, i.e. over the refrigerator warmth, next to a radiator or in the warmth of a pilot-lit gas oven for days or weeks, turning them if necessary.  

Materials

Paper towels

Bowls to help sort cloves, partial pieces saved

Tweezers or hemostats to help grasp cloves

Long-nosed pliers to twist the central hanger

Rubber-coated wire or other wires

Bamboo or metal skewers 

Long needles for threading

Large paper clips to use as s-hooks when drying, however you can dry the cloved fruit lying down (you may have to turn it over or around periodically).

Ribbons, bows, yarns, etc. With or without a central hanger, pomanders can be wrapped and hung in netting or stacked in a bowl. Spice oils of clove, cinnamon, etc. can be added.

Remember, I usually dry mine in an old-timey oven that has a pilot light or next to an old-timey radiator, turning it periodically. Cute, guess I have become old-timey myself; lucky me!

Procedure

  1. Choose a solid fruit.
  2. Skewer the central diameter of the fruit with care.
  3. Create a hanger through the center; includes deciding what you want to happen at the bottom of the pomander (empty loop, bead, bell?).
  4. You could sort your cloves at any time, deciding the size(s) and/or the ones with or without the dried bud and/or the thickness of the pedicel.
  5. Depending upon the type of fruit and the thickness of the skin, decide whether there is a need to make a hole with a skewer first before the insertion of the clove. Space cloves, remembering shrinkage makes them become closer.
  6. Cuddle the fruit, if necessary, with a folded paper towel which will absorb juices.
  7. After the fruit is cloved the way you want, put it where it will dry, checking it often and cuddling it within both palms if necessary to push the cloves in as it shrinks.
  8. If storing the pomanders long-term, give them a freeze treatment for about a week to kill off any pests or eggs. Make sure the pomander is dry and hard before doing so.

If you do desire to use a spice mix, here is a simple recipe:

1 tbsp. each: cinnamon and ground cloves with 1 tsp. ground orris root; place bowl in warm place and roll pomander in it twice or more a day for 3 days; remove it from bowl and set it in warm place for 2-3 weeks to dry out completely.  Decorate your pomanders with ribbons, flowers, herbs, beads or bells to hang on your holiday tree, in windows or in closets.

Photo Credits: 1) Orange and clove pomander (Wendy Piersall); 2) Silver pomanders of the 17th century (Wellcome Images); 3) Portrait of a woman by Bartholomaeus the Elder (public domain); 4) Portrait of a man by Christopher Amberger (public domain); 5) European pomander in the shape of a ship (public domain); 6) Apple and other fruit pomanders (Pat Kenny); 7) Banana pomander (Pat Kenny); 8) Pomander Pat (Sue Betz)

References

The previous writings of the following were consulted for this post:  Adelma Simmons, Mrs. Henry C. Martin,1968; Eleanor Sinclair Rhodes, 1969; Ann Tucker Fettner, 1977; Sarah Garland, 1979; Sylvia Lloyd & Arlene Linderman, Linda Foldan, 1984; Barbara Milo Ohrbach, 1986; Edythe Skinner, Hartman’s Herb Calendar, Dec. 1988; Barbara Radcliffe Rogers, Herbitage Farm, Richmond NH; Pat Kenny, 1989; David Merrill, 1991; Janet Walker, USNA Newsletter, 1996.

Fairamay, T. July 2, 2018. Thorn and thread: Warding off plague and other miasma with pomanders. Accessed 12/8/2021 from https://thornandthread.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/warding-off-plague-and-other-miasma-with-pomanders/#_edn13

Mabberley, D.J. 2008.  Mabberley’s plant book: A portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mabey, R. 1988. The new age herbalist: How to use herbs for healing, nutrition, body care, and relaxation – With a complete illustrated glossary of herbs and a guide to herb cultivation.  Macmillan, New York. 

Ordish, G. 1985.  The living garden: A 400 year history of an English garden. Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston.


While working as a medical illustrator for over thirty years for a “modern medicine” research factory in Bethesda, Maryland, Pat Kenny simultaneously followed her heart/mind in the path of nature and practiced balancing herself with Tai Chi and herbal studies. She began to play with like-minded others through county community programs, The Herb Society of America, the Prince George’s Herb Society, the Michigan Herb Associates, and the North Carolina Herb Association. Now retired, she is cleaning house after all those years of not, using up things she has been saving for what?…an herb business of some sort? (in another life!), giving herb talks to share the herbal stuff, and seeking ways she can facilitate the cause of alternative health practices, especially botanical healing during the rest of her life.