Any Excuse to Eat Candy . . . With a Little History Thrown In

I may be in my fifties now, but I’ve still got a soft spot for Halloween, even though I don’t dress up anymore, or have kids to take trick or treating. Maybe it’s because I’ve always naturally gravitated to the strange and mysterious, so I love the spooky tingles associated with the holiday. Or that it gives supposedly mature adults an excuse to let their inner kid out for a day. Perhaps it’s the whisper of old memories, traipsing under a cool night sky with my friends and feeling, for a few hours at least, like anything could happen, if we only believed . . . or the smile I still get at recalling some of my mom’s homemade costumes (hippie, anyone? Complete with a leopard-print headband?)

Of course, some people have complaints about the day, some of them quite understandable. But one I’ve never understood is that about stores stocking their Halloween wares while it’s technically still summer. I mean, come on, folks – can any excuse to eat candy ever come too early?

And while you’re munching on yours, enjoy these 31 fun facts you might not have known about the holiday . . .

English: Advertisement for Brach's candies

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

  1. The word “Halloween” comes from “Hallowmas,” a shortening of “Hallows Mass,” the feast celebrating All Saints Day.
  2. Orange and black are the holiday’s traditional colors because they represent, respectively, harvest and death.
  3. Some of the first jack o’lanterns are believed to have been made from turnips.
  4. The term “jack o’lantern” was originally a name for ignis fatuus, or “foolish fire,” the strange light that sometimes flickers over marshes and swamps. It was also a nickname for night watchmen (e.g., a man with a lantern, or “Jack of the Lantern.”).
  5. Keene, NH holds the current world record for most lighted jack o’lanterns at one time – 30,581.
  6. The record for heaviest pumpkin belongs to Swiss gardener Beni Meier, who had to use a special crane to transport his 2,096.6-pound behemoth in September 2014.
  7. The record for fastest pumpkin carving, at 16.47 seconds, was earned by Stephen Clarke in New York City on October 31, 2013.
  8. Dating to pagan times, Halloween is one of the oldest celebrations in the world.
  9. It is also the second most commercially successful holiday in America (Christmas is first).
  10. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s the country’s third biggest party day, right after New Year’s and Super Bowl Sunday.
  11. The origins of trick-or-treating have been variously attributed to costumes made of animal skins to scare away phantoms; dressing as malevolent creatures and performing antics in exchange for food and drink; and visits by the poor to wealthy homes where they would receive pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the family’s deceased relatives.
  12. Samhainophobia is an intense fear of Halloween.
  13. Fears of poisoned Halloween candy are almost entirely unfounded. Only two cases are known, both involving relatives and one of which was designed to cover up an accidental heroin ingestion.
  14. At least five Massachusetts towns banned trick-or-treating in 1962 due to safety concerns.
  15. Candy makers have been credited with lobbying for Daylight Savings Time to simultaneously increase candy sales and child safety. The industry disputes this claim.
  16. The current most popular Halloween candy is Reese’s peanut butter cups.
  17. More than twice as much chocolate is sold for Halloween as for Valentine’s Day.
  18. Dark and milk chocolates can last up to two years if stored in a dry, odor-free spot. Hard candy can last up to a year; unopened candy corn, up to nine months.
  19. October 30 is National Candy Corn Day.
  20. The 1978 movie Halloween was made on such a tight budget that Michael Meyers’ original face mask was one of Star Trek‘s William Shatner, spray-painted with teased hair and reshaped eye holes. Shatner is said to have been flattered.
  21. The custom of bobbing for apples is thought to have originated in a Roman harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit trees. The first unmarried youth to bite into an apple would be the next one allowed to marry.
  22. Scottish girls once believed they could see images of their future husband by hanging wet sheets in front of the fire on Halloween.
  23. Many countries, such as France and Australia, regard Halloween as an unwanted and overly commercial American influence.
  24. While the image of a full moon is a Halloween staple, it’s also quite rare on the holiday. You’ll have to wait until 2020 for the next one.
  25. You can really get into the holiday spirit in these oddly-named towns: Frankenstein, Missouri; Scary, West Virginia; Spook City, Colorado; and Candy Town, Ohio.
  26. In Hollywood, there’s a $1,000 fine for using Silly String on Halloween.
  27. Hollywood celebrities born on Halloween include Michael Landon, John Candy, Dale Evans and Lee Grant.
  28. Barmbrack, a yeast bread made with dried fruit that has been soaked in hot tea, is a traditional Halloween food in Ireland.
  29. There’s a gene in fruit flies known as the halloween gene.
  30. The top three songs played on Halloween are “Thriller,” “Monster Mash” and the theme from Ghostbusters.
  31. More cars are stolen on Halloween than any other holiday.

 

 

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In Which I Never Thought I Would Write About Pantyhose

woman in pantyhose

About a month ago, I had a job interview.

Anyone who has ever endured one of these will testify that, no matter the amount of preparation beforehand, they are generally nerve-wracking experiences. Adding to the stress was the question of wardrobe. Everything I might have worn was either not quite suitable, too heavy for the season, or unlikely to fit after a recent weight loss.

So a-shopping I did go, only to discover that clothing designers seemed blissfully unaware that professional women my age existed. Thirteen trips to a dozen stores finally yielded an ensemble that wasn’t more appropriate for someone three decades my junior on her way to an outdoor summer party.

But that wasn’t the end of it . . .

* * *

I don’t wear pantyhose anymore, except on the rarest occasions. I don’t think most women do, especially in my native south. However, I’m rather old-school and conservative; this was an interview with a Catholic university law school; and did I mention that I’m from a generation that still does wear the dang things on occasion? Especially if you’re so fair-skinned that a coworker calls you “the whitest white person” he’s ever seen, even though you’ve lived nearly five decades in one of the sunniest states in the Union?

There was a time when I wore hose pretty much around the clock. This was back in the eighties, when I worked for a company with a dress code requiring same, especially on the “corporate” floor, where female employees were not even allowed to wear slacks. (To any young fry who may be reading this and have been known to go to work in flip-flops, I am not making this up. Things were different back then.) Plus, three decades ago my legs didn’t look much better than they do now. They may have had less cellulite, but even that is debatable.

So I wore pantyhose. In fact, I wore them like a second skin: under dresses, skirts, nice slacks, even jeans. When I belatedly discovered the blessing of knee highs, my world changed forever.

Not just for old ladies...

Not just for old ladies…

But those wouldn’t cut it for the interview, so, mentally cursing myself for throwing out the last pair of full stockings in my sock drawer, at which time I’d sworn I would never buy another because I was tired of dodging into office supply rooms to pull them up, I headed for Walgreens. They had their own brand in convenient single-serving packages for a relatively low price.

Well, they had.

Staring in disbelief at the choices before me, I wanted to shriek that on principle I refused to pay Five Dollars! for something that could be ruined in a second, but time was short, so I gritted my teeth and opened my purse, only to find that, thanks to accumulated points on my rewards card, my bill was a grand total of twenty-nine cents.

Considerably appeased, I headed for home and soon forgot the matter . . . until the day before my appointment, when I realized I had managed to exit the store with a package labeled Size A.

(For those who are fortunate enough to know little about hosiery and care even less, all I will say is that “A” is the near polar opposite of what my middle-aged body will squeeze into, weight loss notwithstanding.)

In desperation, I pulled them out of the package and began tugging them on, praying that by some miracle I could stretch them to the point necessary for an interview, if nothing more. They did their valiant best, but gave up the ghost at my hips.

Think this was a best-seller?

Not just for wearing…

Into the trash they went. Off to Walmart I went. Yep, give me good old cheap-o Walmart pantyhose, four pairs for the price of one at Walgreens. I don’t care what brand they are; they ALL run eventually.

* * *

Allison Freer addressed the subject of the once ubiquitous legwear in a recent column for XO Jane, noting that the two occasions in her life on which she donned a pair were for an uncle’s wedding and a grandfather’s funeral:

“I’ve never worn a pair of pantyhose since, and I can’t really think of a single reason to wear them in this day and age. Maybe if you are a lady lawyer trying a landmark case against the tobacco industry and you’re pretty sure they will end up making a major motion picture about you, so you want to give the costume designer a quirky character trait to work with later on?”

Ms. Freer had obviously never met someone like me.

“I don’t really remember anything about it except that the pantyhose I wore were made by L’Eggs and came in that awesome plastic egg I remember my mother having tons of around the house, as she worked in an office that required her to wear hosiery. As children, my brother and I did a lot of hilarious arts and crafts with those leftover ‘eggs.'”

I was sorry she didn’t include a photo of those crafts, but she did share a picture of her funereal stockings:

Alison Freer Stockings

Which I thought were pretty cool. In fact, I almost wanted such a pair myself.
If only I could have been sure they were suitable for job interviews . . . .

* * *

What do you think? Are pantyhose an invention of the devil, an occasional unfortunate necessity, or something in between? And if they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they invent a brand that doesn’t run?*

*Actually, those who are, like me, of a certain age may recall an early seventies brand called “Turtles,” because “Turtles never run” – get it? Even a scissors blade failed to penetrate them, at least according to the TV commercial. What ever happened to them? Did the marketers realize they could potentially put themselves out of business because their product would never become obsolete, or was it all just smoke and mirrors? Sadly, I’ll probably never know . . . .

The 12 Mysteries of Christmas, Day 12: But Jesus Wasn’t Born on December 25!

Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1

On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love queried me: “Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 when scholars disagree on the actual date?”

Dear Soul,

Are you implying that all those Christmas cards I sent over the years depicting a snow-covered Nativity were a fraud?

Fact is, it’s impossible to know when Jesus was actually born because the Bible is silent on the subject.  Apparently its writers considered the matter unimportant.  But that hasn’t stopped speculation on the subject for centuries.  One school points out that the Gospel of Luke’s mention of shepherds tending their flocks by night when they heard the news indicates that it was lambing season, or spring.  Another argues that sheep reserved for Temple sacrifice would have been grazing freely even in winter.  Still others think the most likely time was in September.

Whatever the case, the church did not assign the Nativity to December 25 until the beginning of the fourth century, possibly because they wanted it to coincide with pagan festivals honoring Saturn (Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (Persian god of light).

It should be noted that some have chosen not to celebrate the world’s most famous birth at all.  Early church father Origen stated that “only sinners like Pharoah and Herod…make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world.”  The Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts banned the holiday because there was no Biblical basis for a December 25 festivity, as well as for what they considered its pagan roots.  Some modern Christians also adhere to the latter reason.

I like Pastor Jack Hayford’s response to that:

“Years ago I decided I would never allow myself to come to Christmas on the basis of the status quo, but that I would let the fresh joy of this season infuse my spirit, along with a child-like expectancy.  Making a decision like that requires refusing another order of spirit – the ‘bah humbug’ attitude or ‘Scrooge spirit’ that dampens delight and reduces our sense of animation, expectation, and welcome of the Lord and His season.”

My take:  Whatever your faith or traditions, it is my hope that you’ve not only enjoyed the posts of these last 12 days as much as I have sharing them, but that the “Spirit of Christmas” will live in your heart and life throughout the coming year.

“God bless us, everyone!”

Tiny Tim

The Twelve Mysteries of Christmas, Day 11: Why Do We Sing to Strangers?

Carolers

On the 11th day of Christmas, my true love queried me:  “What’s up with Christmas caroling?  I don’t feel the need to entertain perfect strangers in such a fashion at any other time of the year…unless I’m in a church choir.”

Dear Soul,

You have a point…a potentially tricky one, in fact.  After all, when it comes to singing in choirs, wannabe members must first audition before a discerning leader.  But when it comes to caroling, all bets are off.  Who wants to be labeled a Scrooge for refusing a caroler simply because he or she can’t carry a tune in a bucket?  No, better to just hope for the best and sing louder if necessary.  Unless you’re the one who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, in which case it is devoutly to be hoped that you’re already aware of it and simply mouth along, as my grandmother once did when she was asked to lead the singing of the national anthem at a convention.  Grandma was no fool.

But how did such a custom get its start?

Fact is, the origins of this one are murky, although one old story has it that a little girl by the name of Carol Poles went missing in 1888 London, at the time Jack the Ripper was abroad.  Her search party sang Christmas carols as they went from house to house, to ease the minds of residents and show them that the searchers meant no harm.  Whether the child was ever found is unclear, but it has been said that Christmas caroling continued from that time on.  The tale has, however, been discounted as Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, written 50 years earlier, mentions people going door to door singing carols.

Another account dates to the marriage of Germany’s Prince Albert to Britain’s Princess Victoria in 1840.  After reading in a newspaper that Prince Albert thoroughly enjoyed Christmas carols, peasants started serenading him with them, and caroling has been a tradition ever since.  It’s also been traced to Methodists and Lutherans who brought a modified version of the tradition to America, to the ancient Romans, and to the pre-Christian Festival of Yule.

My take:  Christmas caroling, whatever its origin, is a beloved custom that has, sadly, largely faded from view.  So why not make a resolution to revive it in your neighborhood this year?  And if you end up with a tone-deaf member or two, just remind yourself that it’s the holiday spirit which really counts.

Recipe for a Fun Christmas Caroling Session

  • 1 group of hearty voices
  • 1 pre-planned route
  • 1 batch of songs that are short and easy to sing
  • 1 camera to record the festivity (or the looks on homeowner faces)
  • 1 set of refreshments to close the party

Mix all ingredients and serve to a neighborhood near you.

The 12 Mysteries of Christmas, Day 10: Stockings Aren’t Just for Feet

STOCKINGS

On the 10th day of Christmas, my true love queried me:  “Why do we hang stockings from the mantle for Santa at Christmas?”

Dear Soul,

No doubt you have noticed that Christmas stockings are much like everything else associated with the holiday these days…an expression of individuality.  What was once a humble piece of hosiery meant to keep the leg warm is now almost a fashion statement.  Well, the times may have changed but the basic idea behind the stocking – a reward for good behavior throughout the year –  remains the same.

Fact is, this custom appears to date to the legend of a widowed nobleman with three daughters, who after losing his wealth by a series of useless inventions, was forced to move his family into a peasant’s cottage, where the daughters did all their own housework.  When they grew old enough to marry, their father became depressed because they had no dowry, leaving them spinsters.

Then one night, after the girls had washed out their clothing and hung their stockings by the fire to dry, St. Nicholas, knowing the family’s circumstances and the father’s despair, stopped by the house.  The inhabitants had all gone to bed, but St. Nicholas saw the stockings and, struck by inspiration, threw three bags of gold down the chimney to land in them, one for each daughter.  The next morning, the girls discovered that they now had enough gold for a dowry.  Each one married and their father lived a long and happy life.  As word spread of the family’s good fortune, other villagers soon began hanging their own stockings by the fire in the hope that St. Nicholas would favor them as well.

Another version holds that the custom came to America from the Dutch tradition of children leaving their wooden shoes, or clogs, by the hearth, stuffed with straw for Sinterklass’s reindeer.  A treat was also left for Sinterklass, who would leave treats in return for the children.  Countries observing the shoe tradition include France, Italy and Hungary, while in Puerto Rico children put small boxes of greens and flowers under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings.

But what about that odd practice of leaving a lump of coal in a naughty child’s stocking?  Is it for real?  Seems to me just leaving a stocking empty would send a sufficient message.

While versions vary, essentially this can be traced back to the Sicilian witch “La Befana,” who, at the time of Christ’s birth, was asked by the Magi for directions to the infant’s manger.  La Befana didn’t know where the child was, but gave them shelter for the night.  The next morning they were already gone when she awoke, and though she wanted to join them, she did not know how to find them.  To this day, she flies on a broomstick around the world, searching for the infant Jesus, and on the night of January 5 (the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas), she slides down chimneys, leaving gifts and candy for good children and coal for bad.

My take:  Whether it’s shoes or stockings or something in between at your house, here’s hoping that if Santa Claus – or La Befana – deems you coal-worthy this year, it takes the form described in the recipe below.

Recipe for Christmas Coal Candy

  • 1 egg white
  • 1.5 cups powdered sugar, divided, plus a little extra might be needed for thickening
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1.5 – 2 tsp. black gel food coloring
  • 1.5 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup water

Whisk one cup powdered sugar with the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl.  Whisk in the remaining half-cup of powdered sugar.  The mixture should be very stiff.  Pick up some of the batter and allow it to fall back into the bowl.  It should cling to the whisk when you pick up the batter and fall in thick heavy pieces back into the bowl.  If it doesn’t, add small amounts of powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached.  Set aside.

Line an 8×8 or similar size pan with parchment paper and set aside.  Combine water and sugar in a large non-stick saucepan.   Stir and mash mixture with a spatula until the consistency of wet sand.  Insert a candy thermometer and cook until it reaches 260º.

Add black egg white/powdered sugar mix to the pan and stir (do not whisk).  The mixture may foam.  When thoroughly mixed, pour into the prepared pan and allow it to stand until hardened.  Break into pieces to eat.

The 12 Mysteries of Christmas, Day 9: Turkey on the Table

Christmas Turkey

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love queried me:  “Why do we typically eat turkey and not goose (or ham or lamb or roast beef, etc.) for Christmas dinner?”

Dear Soul,

My guess is that you’re thinking of that famous scene in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” in which the Cratchit family sits down to “Such a goose, Martha!”

Fact is, there are a couple of different views on this, with economics (of course) playing a leading role.  One holds that the turkey tradition is probably a throwback to the Dickens classic that forever changed the way we celebrate Christmas, noting that turkey in Scrooge’s world was a bit more exotic and consequently expensive, so there was a subtle class distinction.  Another points out that rooster meat was tough and chickens were valuable for egg laying, cows “were more useful alive than dead,” and ham or brined pork wasn’t suitable for special occasions.  And some culinary historians say that around the turn of the century Mr. Tom became more associated with the working class and poor immigrants who received charitable birds, leading more affluent households to serve game and beef at the Christmas table.

But how about that goose?   One source from California mentioned that while goose is delicious, it is “dreadfully expensive here,” and another in Australia said it was “very uncommon” Down Under.  However, goose is traditional in Austria, and in Denmark goose, duck or pork is tradish.  In the Czech Republic you’re more likely to sit down to fried carp and potato salad; in Finland, to ham, while the menu is meatless (excepting fish) in Poland, and pork belly side in Norway.

My take:  As long as you’re sitting down with the people you care about for the holiday, it doesn’t really matter what meat’s on the plate.  Bon appetit!

Recipe for Turkey Tetrazzini with Parmesan Cheese

  • 6 tbs. butter, divided
  • 8 oz. sliced mushrooms
  • 4 cups cooked diced turkey
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
  • 2 tbs. dry sherry
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 8 oz. spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese

In a saute pan or skillet over medium heat, melt two tablespoons of butter; add the mushrooms and saute until tender and golden brown, about three minutes.  Set aside.

Heat oven to 425°.  Butter a 2 1/2- to 3-quart baking dish.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the remaining four tablespoons of butter.  Stir in flour until well blended and cook, stirring, for one minute.  Add the chicken stock and cook, stirring or whisking, until thickened and smooth.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Quickly whisk about 1/2 cup of the sauce into the egg yolk, then add the yolk mixture back to the saucepan.  Add the sherry, cream, diced turkey, and the sauteed mushrooms.  Cook, stirring, until hot.

In a buttered casserole dish, layer half of the drained spaghetti. Top with half of the sauce, then repeat with the remaining spaghetti and sauce. Sprinkle the grated Parmesan cheese over the top and bake for 15 minutes, until hot and browned.

The 12 Mysteries of Christmas, Day 8: Why is Santa’s Sleigh Pulled by Reindeer?

Santa

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love queried me:  “Why does Santa use reindeer to pull his sleigh?   Why not horses?   Or Alaskan huskies, for that matter?  They’re used to pulling sleds!  Or even polar bears?”

Dear Soul,

What a silly question!  Everyone knows that polar bears can’t fly!

Fact is, for an answer to this question we can most likely look to Clement Moore’s famous poem. “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better (if incorrectly) known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,”  although other books published before Moore’s poem also referred to Santa being drawn in a sleigh with reindeer, and the concept was long popular in Russia, where Father Frost appeared in villages in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.

Here’s the pertinent part from Mr. Moore:

…when, what to  my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
with a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher!  Now, Dancer!  Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet!  On, Cupid!  On, Donder and Blitzen!

“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew…

No mention of a ninth reindeer with a glowing red nose here – Rudolph didn’t enter the picture until 1939, when he debuted in a booklet written by Robert L. May and published by Montgomery Ward.

My take:  “Huskies,” “horses” and “polar bears” don’t rhyme with “appear.”  ‘Nuff said.  

Recipe for Reindeer Cupcakes

  • 1 box Betty Crocker® SuperMoist® cake mix (any non-swirl flavor)
  • Water, vegetable oil and eggs called for on cake mix box
  • 1 container Betty Crocker® Rich & Creamy chocolate frosting
  •  Betty Crocker® chocolate sprinkles
  • 24 large pretzel twists
  • 24 miniature marshmallows
  • 24 red cinnamon candies
  • 24 small green gumdrops

Heat oven to 350°F (325°F for dark or nonstick pans).  Make and cool cake as directed on box for 24 cupcakes.  Frost cupcakes with frosting. Sprinkle chocolate shot over tops of cupcakes.  For each cupcake, cut pretzel twist in half; arrange on cupcake for reindeer antlers.  Cut miniature marshmallow in half; arrange on cupcake for eyes.  Center gumdrop below marshmallow halves for nose.  Place red cinnamon candy below gumdrop for mouth.  Store loosely covered.