It wasn't easy but luckily I spied Santa during a break in the rain. I then made my way around the harbor looking for a good vantage point. At first he was too high, above the overcast sky then he broke through the clouds as he zig zagged looking for homes where the kids were asleep. Santa over Fishermen's Wharf!  Santa heading towards the inner harbor.  Santa checked out the Lobster
From Story #9, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Ever since she was a kid Gretchen has had a crush on Oliver but in recent years he has lived as a recluse deep in Opelt's Wood. Finally, Gretchen discovers the reason for his seclusion and helps their mutual friend Father Nick to do something about it. Oliver is grateful and Gretchen can't stop thinking about him. On Christmas Day she leaves her mother and sister and drives down to Opelt's Wood to find him:

 There were over a dozen deer feasting on apples in the hollow as she approached the sawmill. One was a buck with a beautiful rack. She was glad to see he had survived another hunting season. She pulled her car up beside Oliver's truck but before she could get out he appeared at the door of his workshop with sandpaper in his hand, Toots by his side.
“You're not supposed to work on Christmas,” she said as she got out of her car.
“Who says?” he asked.
She shrugged. “You're supposed to sit around the table with a bunch of relatives, eat way too much, get drunk, and pass out in front of a football game. Isn't that the tradition?”
He laughed and she noticed he looked very good, happy, rested, and content.
“Merry Christmas,” she said as she approached and stood on her toes to kiss him.
“Thanks for what you did,” he said. “I still can't believe it. I'm so happy.”
“It was Father Nick who found them.” She was intensely aware of the feeling of his hand on her back as he guided her into his shop. “And thank you for my beautiful clock. Where did you find that little lady with the quilt?”
He grinned. “Sister Hilda at the convent made it. I ordered a bunch of miniatures from her to put on more clocks.”
“I love it.”
He stood silent for a moment and then he looked at her feet. “I'm glad you have good boots on. I've got something I want to show you. Come on,” he said, pulling on his jacket. “Toots, you stay here. We'll be back in a bit.”
Toots gave a little whimper and curled up by the woodstove.
He walked with her to his truck and opened the passenger side door for her. “Watch your step,” he said.
He stepped up into the driver's side and said, “Fasten your seat belt and hang on.”
They headed off past the sawmill, up the single lane drive that hugged the river. Here in the depths of Opelt's Wood the snow was deeper on the ground. The trees grew thicker and darker almost blotting out the sun.
“Okay, hang on.” He guided the truck off the road onto an old logging grade and they bumped and lurched through miles of bushes so thick they scraped against the sides of his truck. She rolled down the window and captured a juniper bough loaded with frosty blue berries. The trees were wound round with the skeletons of wild grape vines. Hemlocks brushed the windshield leaving scatterings of little cones across the hood of the truck.
“This is my favorite Christmas adventure ever,” she said laughing.
“Just wait,” he said. “This is part of the Seneca Highlands not many people get to see.”
They climbed a steep hill with the truck tipped so far to the side that she thought if she reached out of the window she could touch the ground. Then, as suddenly, as they had entered the deep woods, they emerged into a clearing... a vast field in which the milkweed plants stood as high as the windows and sumac and sassafras bushes were everywhere. Ahead of them, at the crest of a rise, stood a mammoth oak tree, whose bare branches formed a pattern of black lace against the bright blue sky.
“That's beautiful,” she said.
“Wait,” he said, “I'll get us closer.” As they approached the tree he leaned over to her and pointed. “See that?”
She followed the direction of his finger. Though the branches were bare, in the them, on the right side of the tree, low in the limbs, was a ball of brilliant greenery. It looked completely out of place in a tree bare of leaves and yet it swayed and shone in the winter light.
“What is that?”
He smiled. “Come on.” He parked the truck and they hopped out. The dry winter grasses weren't as deep here at the top of the hill and he put his arm around her waist and guided her through the ankle deep snow until they were standing under the tree.
She looked up and saw clusters of small white berries nestled among the leaves.
“It's a parasite,” he said. “It takes up residence in some trees like big oaks and it grows there all on its own. Here...” He bent down and picked up a sprig of the green leaves and clusters of white berries that had fallen into the snow.
“It's beautiful,” she said, touching the berries.
“Let me,” he said and he wove it into her silky blond curls. “That's a perfect place for it. Haven't you ever seen it before?”
She shook her head. “I don't think so.”
“I bet you have,” he said. “It's mistletoe.”
He looked into her eyes and knew, as they stood under the old tree atop the snowy landscape on this Christmas afternoon, that he wanted children of his own and that this woman beside him was the one he wanted to have them with. So he stroked her hair, and drew her to him. He cradled her warm body against his, cupped her face in his big hand, leaned down, and shared with her the tradition of the mistletoe. 
Read the rest of the stories, The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall, Boxed Set.
This is from The Old Mermaid's Tale:

TEARS SWOLLEN WITH SHAME BURNED MY EYESand all the wrong words clawed at the inside of my throat but I would not cry or speak. He sat as far away from me as possible on the cracked backseat of an old taxi where years of lovers must have wound around each other, eager to be alone. Is it possible to believe that the one you are sure is the incarnation of all your desires cannot be warmed by the heat of your longing? As we turned down Canal Street the colored Christmas lights in the windows of the restaurants and taverns seemed sad and forlorn. We passed The Old Mermaid Inn and I covered my face and sighed.
“I’m so sorry, Baptiste.” I spoke as calmly as I could. “I’m sorry I was so forward.”
The door of the Inn opened and a lone, hunched figure stepped out into the street.
“I’m so foolish,” I gasped, letting the tears fall. “I dream up these ridiculous mysteries then I try to find people to fit them. I’m a stupid country girl in love with a phantom.”
I pressed my cheek to the cold of the window letting the flush of my humiliation fog the glass.
His hand slid down my back so softly I scarcely felt it. When he reached my waist he curled his arm around me and lifted me backward into his embrace. I turned but his hand cupped my chin and his mouth covered mine before a word could escape.
Snow fell in round, fat puffs as he walked me to my door. The taxi idled at the corner and I clung to him lacking any sense or thought.
“Come in.” I pressed myself against him. “Come in and stay tonight.”
He bent and kissed my mouth and let his face rest against mine. “If I do...” he said choosing his words carefully, “what will happen tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is Christmas, Baptiste. Anything can happen on Christmas.”
He lifted his face and stared down into my eyes. And then he nodded.
As he turned back to dismiss the taxi I made a solemn vow that whatever happened would exist only between us without interference from the rest of the world. I would not offer him my passion colored by conditions. If we were to be lovers, even for one night, it would be my gift, as much to myself as to him, and I would not beg heaven for more. As the taxi pulled away the driver’s eyes met mine and he smiled as though in benediction.
Baptiste turned, raised his head and shook it violently sending the snow flying in a white whirlwind. He raised his hand and pointed his finger toward me.
“This is your last chance, cher. If I walk down this path your life will never be the same.” But he was smiling.
I held out my arms and he walked right into them.
I had dreamed a thousand coming-togethers in the preceding weeks but fantasies cannot compare to reality. Whether or not Baptiste was the accomplished lover I had imagined him to be, my own fire was so intense it filled all the spaces between us. A smear of pink lipstick along his jaw startled me when I lifted my head to kiss him until I realized it was my own and our history had already begun. His breath was exquisite and I longed for his mouth even as it covered mine.
I moved my lips to his ear whispering, “Have you ever dreamed of doing something you would regret for the rest of your life?”
His hands tangled in my hair. He gasped, hiding his face from me and I could not imagine what truth I had disturbed as my lips sought his hands and the thickness of his fingers separating strands of my hair. My cloak fell across the back of the couch and was covered by his overcoat and I took his hand and drew him to the stairs. It seemed we could not stop kissing long enough to even mount them but then we were in my room and his hands were moving over me and the velvet was slithering down and puddling onto the floor. I touched my fingertips to the fine lace of hair emerging as I unbuttoned his shirt and I rubbed my face against his chest shuddering at his impossible gorgeousness.

“Take my breath away.”

Read more from The Old Mermaid's Tale

That Time of Year!

This year it's going to be a challenge to capture Santa flying over Cape Ann because I have to work. Last years Santa's run was early and I hope it is this year. If so I might have time to take pictures and post them here Christmas Eve. Since I work the midnight shift that gives me a small window to get it done. The key is for kids to get to bed early because Santa won't land until the kids are
It doesn't seem like much but every 2 minutes helps. And, despite the cold, winter can be beautiful. Blessed and happy Solstice, everyone.

All his life Boone Wilde was a tough guy--a tattoo-covered biker who worked as a roadie for rock bands and as a cowboy in Montana. Now he has returned home to run to his family's business and to discover that he is the father of a sweet little girl who needs him very much.

from The Christmas Daughter
The house was completely quiet when Boone opened his eyes and looked at the clock. It was only seven o'clock—still dark outside—but large, fat snowflakes drifted past the window. “Lazy snow,” Kit had called it when they were kids. He was the one who couldn't wait for the snow to be deep enough for them to haul a toboggan to the top of Sugar Hill and fly down it over and over.
“Come on,” he'd say impatiently as he looked out the window. “This lazy snow will take all day to get deep enough.”
Throughout their childhood Boone and Kit shared the room he slept in now. Emily was across the hall and Cody had his own room, a smaller one, next to their parents' bedroom. Both Minnie and Big Zach commented on how proud they were of Boone and Kit for sharing, getting along, rarely fighting. Boone folded his hands behind his head, still watching the snow, and wondered again if they had shut Cody out—Minnie and Big Zach always had each other, he and Kit were each others' best friend, and Emily had God. Boone knew he'd never know that answer.
He lay back remembering the Christmas mornings of his boyhood, the fragrance of turkey roasting in the kitchen, and the scent of cinnamon and apple cider and the piney perfume of the Christmas tree lingering in the air. Minnie and Big Zach always told them that they weren't allowed to leave their room until it was bright enough outside to see without turning lights on, a restriction that seemed almost too great to bear. He remembered Emily sneaking across the hall and curling up at the foot of his bed as the three of them shared quiet speculation about what wonderful things awaited downstairs. Now he wondered what his daughter's Christmas mornings had been like. Was it any wonder that she didn't know how to respond to people whose lives had been filled with love and shared affection? Last night at his aunt and uncle's house he'd watched her and, while she was happy and enthusiastic about everything, he noticed she seemed painfully shy in the presence of the natural, unabashed affection of family members. It will take time, he reminded himself. It will take time.

He was just drifting back to sleep when he heard a sound so familiar it immediately brought a smile to his face—the slow squeak of the metal drawer under the stove where Minnie kept her roasting pan. She pulled it open carefully, trying not to wake anyone, so she could start her turkey. Minutes later he smelled the distinctive holiday scent of onions simmering in butter with marjoram and sage. He heard the door across the hall open and soft footsteps scurried toward the stairs. He stretched, got up, pulled on jeans and a flannel shirt, and began his Christmas Day. 
Charity watched them walk down the path to the tavern, talking and laughing as they went.
“That was quite a dinner, wasn't it?” Boone said as he pulled aside the fireplace screen to add another log. “Grandma said she couldn't have done it without you.”
Charity gave a tentative little half smile. “I like cooking with her. I made the green bean casserole and the cranberry sauce all by myself.” She stood silently for a moment, then said. “So what do we do now?”
Boone raised his eyebrows. “I don't know. What would you like to do?”
“We never did much for Christmas—mostly just watched television. Maybe I could do something with my sewing machine?”
“Are you happy with your sewing machine?” He looked at her and noticed for the first time how much like an elf she looked in bright red leggings and a green sweater with a pattern of holly on it.
“I love it.” She sighed. “I love everything.”
“You know what.” He hunched his shoulders and thought for a minute. “I have an idea.” He crossed to the bookcases covering the walls around the fireplace. He examined the books until he found the one he wanted and, with a smile and no small amount of nostalgia, took it down. He turned to his daughter, who stood in the middle of the room watching him.
“When I was a boy,” he said, “my pop always drank beer and watched football until he fell asleep but my mom...” He held up the book. “Mom always read to us.”
“Read to you?” She wrinkled her forehead as though she'd never heard of such a thing.
“Yeah. Didn't anybody ever read to you?”
Boone stared at her. “Nobody ever read to you? Even when you were little?”
She shook her head. “Maybe sometimes in school. The Sisters read Bible stories.”
“Well, we're going to fix that.” He pushed a leather hassock close to the end of the sofa nearest the fireplace, sat down and put his feet up, then held his hand out to her. “Come here.” She gave a slight uncertain smile. He patted the space beside him. “Come on. I won't bite.”
She grinned, sat down close, and he put his arm around her. Boone took his reading glasses from his pocket, adjusted them on his nose, and opened the book.
“Don't turn the pages too fast,” she said. “I can't read as fast as you.”
“You don't have to read.” He placed his hand lightly on her head and guided it to his shoulder. “Just close your eyes and listen.”
“Now,” he said, “are you comfortable?”
“Yes.” She was smiling the soft, bashful little smile that always tugged at his heart.
“Okay.” He opened the book and turned to the first page. “Marley was dead,” he read, “to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.1

She giggled and repeated, “'Dead as a door-nail.'” Then she snuggled into him. He caught his breath, kissed her forehead, and continued to read.  
Since Christmas tends to play a large role in many of my stories, I thought I'd share a few Christmas scenes between now and December 25th. Starting off with this from Each Angel Burns:

At two as promised, the reception room bells jangled and she opened the door to a grinning man with a luxuriant mane of shiny white hair pulled back in a ponytail and a huge, handlebar mustache. He wore a tuxedo jacket over a white pleated dress shirt and, to both her surprise and her delight, a red and green plaid kilt complete with sporran.
Glenn Magnuson, at your service.” He bowed deeply and extended a beefy fist holding a clear plastic box tied with red and green straw and gold bells. “Glenn the Magnificent to my friends,” he added. “And I am honored, dear lassie, honored to be escorting such a fine...” He drew the word out in a rolling Highland brogue—fi-i-i-i-i-ne. “...lady to the day’s festivities.”
The box contained a corsage of white gardenias and tiny red rosebuds. She couldn’t help giggling as she opened it.
You’re not going to believe this,” she said, “but this is the first corsage I’ve ever received.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist, lifted her off her feet, and planted a very loud, and not at all unpleasant, kiss on her lips.
And I am proud to be the one what gave it to you.”
She watched him as he helped her secure the extravagant corsage on the shoulder of the evergreen velvet shawl she had draped herself in and decided she liked him. His big eyes reminded her of Zeke’s.
Glenn the Magnificent drove a twenty year old gold Mercedes with a finish that had mellowed to the color of an old coin. He drove the coastal route where waves crashed with an exuberance that seemed almost celebratory of the day. A Highland Christmas boomed from the CD player as he rambled on giving his opinion of Christmas and how it got to be that way. She was stunned into silence.
At the top of a pine-covered hill stood a long railroad station with an orange tile roof. “The boys”, as Glenn called them, had rescued the derelict building from scheduled destruction and spent six years turning it into a home and studio. Guests were received in the old passenger waiting room where stiff wooden benches had been replaced with deeply cushioned red leather sofas and the old, gold-lettered ticket windows now served as a bar. The entire back of the building had been removed and a long wall of glass windows offered panoramic views of the Gulf of Maine including a direct view—complete with telescopes—of a clothing-optional beach, though Derreck assured her it wasn’t very interesting at this time of year.
The food was extravagant, the company delightful. A fifteen-foot Christmas tree was decorated with bubbling lava lamp lights, holographic tinsel, and ornaments made from vintage paper dolls of Forties and Fifties goddesses of the silver screen in various exotic costumes. The entertainment ran the gamut from inspired to insane. Glenn unpacked a set of bagpipes and played a jazz version of Good King Wenceslas followed by a sweet and poignant What Child Is This.
Maggie shocked herself, and delighted Derreck and James, when motivated by far more hot mulled wine than she could recall drinking, she stood up wearing a fantastical gold and silver bow on her head and trilled La vie en rose in a creditable Piaf impersonation. Everyone hooted and applauded and she sat down blushing furiously and downed another cup of the perfectly wonderful wine.
Glenn the Magnificent proved an amiable date, pleasant but not hovering. He provided her with an exhausting workout as they jitterbugged to a Brian Setzer Christmas tune and rescued her more than once when she got trapped under one of the many mistletoes with an amorous but inebriated celebrant. It was nearing ten o’clock when he came up behind her and, snatching her around the waist, bent her over into a deep, theatrical kiss then whispered in her ear, “If I have to listen to one more goddamned Ella Fitzgerald Christmas carol I’m going to barf.”
They said their good-byes.
As sparkles of snow drifted lazily down through the lace of black tree branches, Glenn changed the raucous zydeco CD for one of the dreamy Windham Hill Solstice ones and drove her back to the abbey. It was all she could do to stay awake.
He pulled into the parking lot next to the chapel and shifted the car into park. Then he shifted himself closer to her.
Come here,” he murmured as he drew her against him and lifted her face. His kisses were very nice and she was sufficiently intoxicated not to protest.
When was the last time you necked in a Mercedes?” he whispered.
She shook her head. “Shhh,” she said. “Keep kissing.”
He obliged her. He lifted her across the console into his lap and if one of them was more eager for their caresses than the other, she couldn’t have told which it was. His hand was under her sweater kneading her breasts and she was very aware of the bulky hardness pushing against her buttocks through their clothes. This is what I need, she thought. Something totally stupid and uncomplicated. He was very good at what he was doing—his hands traveled over her back and breasts then up under her skirt to caress the warm flesh above the lace of her stockings.

Are you ready to find out what I have under my kilt,” he whispered in her ear nipping at her lips with tiny, tantalizing bites.
This is a reprint of a blog post from Christmas 2009. Enjoy!

Growing up in Pennsylvania I always looked forward to Christmas. We usually had a good deal of snow and, because I come from such a large family, there was always a lot of activity. The neighborhood I lived in was rural and there were lots of kids and we took Christmas seriously, especially caroling. Every year a gang of us would devise our caroling plan of attack fully cognizant of which houses were most inclined to pass out cookies or candy for our efforts. 

The church we belonged to, Queen of the World, was about half a mile away and there was a lovely woods with an old logging trail that we could walk through. I have a lot of memories of walking to Midnight Mass with my friends Kathy and Sue through those woods all dusted with snow. Of course once boys entered the equation there were snowball fights both coming and going. I remember one Christmas when I had this fabulous hat. Of course it got pummeled with snowballs on the way to Mass and I sat through the Mass with melting snow running down the back of my neck. All of that was a very long time ago.

One of the things my family took pride in was making a lot of our own Christmas gifts. Every year we had a party on Christmas Eve to exchange our family gifts and it was always exciting to see who made what. Knitted and crocheted scarves and mittens, quits, home-made edible treats, hand-stitched samplers and ornaments. I have a vivid memory of my sister Chris hiding in the bedroom frantically crocheting trying to finish an afghan before it was her turn to present it to the lucky recipient.

Even after I moved away I came home at Christmas time loaded down with stuffed animals, homemade dolls, hand-knit sweaters. It got to the point where it was ridiculous. One year I baked dozens of delicious coffeecakes that I wrapped in colored cellophane and tied with ribbons. Problem was they didn't keep well and by the time they were transported 1500 miles and unwrapped they were coated with green fuzz --- festive but inedible. And then there was my stollen...

Christmas stollen originated in Germany in the fifteenth century. Stollen is generally made from a butter-rich yeast bread which is loaded with candied, marinated fruit. I was living in Marblehead when I decided to make a Christmas project of homemade stollen. I decided I would make all the fruits to include and started in October by filling a huge jar with golden raisins and warm apricot brandy. I let it sit in the sunshine overlooking the ocean with the thought that perhaps some of the scent of the sea would soak into them. I found directions for making candied orange and lemon peel which was absolutely delicious.

My friend Trudi and I took a trip in to the North End to look for glacé cherries and the marzipan I wanted to put inside. Trudi had lived in Italy for many years and knew about such things. It was quite an adventure and we came home with cherries, marzipan, three different kinds of nuts, and some beautiful silk ribbon to wrap the loaves.

The making of the stollen was quite an operation. The dough was beautiful, silky and rich. I kneaded into it all the goodies I had collected and, after the first rising, made loves wrapped around a core of marzipan. I do not have words to describe how delicious the house smelled as they baked. All the while I was working on them I was thinking about our family Christmas Eve party and what a delicious treat they would be. We always had the same food Christmas Eve. Mom made a big batch of her “whopper” soup and homemade rolls. Jack brought his home-made smoked venison sausage. Anne made Wedding Soup, Lisa made her cheese and broccoli soup. Chris & Beth made different soups that were always delicious. One year Beth made a cold apple-cinnamon soup that I still remember. I was very much looking forward to adding my home-made stollen to the festivities. I just knew everyone would think it amazing.

So the stollens were dusted with powdered sugar into which I had sprinkled some silver sugar to add sparkle. They were garnished with the cherries and wrapped in tissue. I delivered smaller stollens to friends in Marblehead and packed the biggest one, the one that would earn me all kinds of Christmas praise, to make the journey to Pennsylvania.

When I arrived at my parents' house it was mid-afternoon of Christmas Eve. The only person home was my sister Beth. Her husband had taken their two boys somewhere and everyone else was either out doing last minute errands or had not arrived yet. While we gabbed I arranged my magnificent stollen in the middle of the huge kitchen table in my mother's bright kitchen. Beth had just made a pot of coffee and we sat down to chat.

Beth is seventeen years younger than I am. We have never really lived in the same house together because I went off to college before she was even walking. But, of course, we are still sisters and it was wonderful to have some time, just the two of us, to catch up. So we drank coffee and gabbed and then --- well --- we decided to sample the stollen. And sample it... and sample it... and sample it. It was every bit as delicious as I knew it would be. We were both very impressed. I told her the whole story of the making of it and we decided to see how it tasted with a glass of wine. Let me tell you, it was even better than with coffee!

It was a delightful afternoon and as the sun went down over the snowy hills outside the kitchen window people started arriving loaded with presents and soup and treats and goodies. And what they found in Mom's kitchen was two inebriated sisters and about 3 inches left of stollen. Three measly inches...

Well, I'm sure it was a lovely Christmas Eve. I'm sure everyone had good time and that all the food was delicious. And I'm sure everyone believes me when I tell them how wonderful the stollen was. Maybe some year I'll try to make it again. This time I'll mail it to them.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
In photography some things you never plan on, at least that's how I end up taking pictures. Being at the right place at the right time all depends on may factors, even what's on my mind at the time. Sometimes I would miss a shot that would be interesting only because my focus was on another concern. Another factor I consider is after I download the memory card into my computer. What can I do to

Go! – Julfest at Spiran Lodge, December 13th




Spiran Lodge flags


A few rich veins of authenticity still marble Cape Ann. One vein is the traditions behind Spiran Lodge, the local chapter of the Swedish order “Vasa,” an active preservation of the Scandinavian culture that brought song, dance and the haunting aroma of wafting cardamon to this granite promontory.

This Saturday is Spiran Lodge’s Julfest. On Friday, the Nisu team will work all day in shifts, lead by Claire Franklin, mixing, allowing to rise, pounding down, braiding, letting rise again, and finally baking the 120 glorious shining loaves of Cardamom Braid, or Pulla, or Coffee Bread; to each Scandinavian culture a different name for this delicious-with-coffee sweet bread mostly known on Cape Ann as Nisu. A pair of members (Peg Lecco and me) will drive to Crown Bakery in Worcester to pick up a brimming order of other Swedish breads and pastries to be sold at the festival, along with many Rockport-made Scandinavian treats.


rising Spiran Nisu


Nisu for sale



There will be pickled herring and the Swedish sausage, Korv. This year, for the first time, Karl’s Sausage Kitchen, a venerable source of Scandinavian and Germanic foods, will help to sponsor Rockport’s Julfest, thus offering an even wider selection of hard-to-find foods, the rich, hearty dishes meant to warm hearts through long, bleak winters, both in Sweden, Finland and Cape Ann.




Coffee and Nisu will be served for breakfast, and for lunch there will be traditional open-faced Scandinavian sandwiches along with choices of fish chowder, pea soup, fruit soup, and rice pudding.

Tables of freshly picked and arranged greens will be for sale, along with Scandinavian linens.  Serenaded by “Silent Night,” the chosen St. Lucia will walk the upstairs hall crowned by a wreath of candles. The enormous orange Dala horse will stand cheerfully on the Broadway Ave, sidewalk announcing “god jul!”

At Spiran Lodge Swedish and Finnish phrases still spring up in a sentence here and there. The members are earnest – and work incredibly hard – at keeping the traditions of their parents and grandparents alive. Matthew Rask describes Spiran Lodge as in transition from an aid society to a cultural center.

“Whereas in the past members looked to Vasa to help them learn the ways of the new country and provide them a means to share problems and solutions with their countrymen, today Vasa provides members a means to share their rich heritage with fellow Americans, and helps them to learn or remember the meaningful ways and values of the “Old Country.”

Julfest is a holiday visit like no other. Rare in a landscape sprawled with shopping malls and chain restaurants, authenticity is a commodity worth hoarding when you find it. Visit next weekend for the St. Lucia, the fluffiest of rice puddings, and the authenticity.

Here is a recipe from the Spiran Lodge newsletter. Cardamom, the cinnamon of Scandinavia, is a brilliant addition to the densely chocolate flour-less cake we’ve been making for years.



Dala horse



Spiran Lodge Flour-less Chocolate Cardamom Torte


11 ounces dark chocolate

2/3 cup unsalted butter

6 eggs, room temperature, separated

1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons ground cardamom, divided

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips


1.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

2.  Line a spring form pan with parchment paper and butter generously.

3.  In 30 second increments, melt the chocolate and butter together in the microwave. Stir until completely smooth and melted. Alternately, melt the chocolate and butter gently over a double boiler. Set aside.

4.  Combine the egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of a mixer and beat on high until very pale and fluffy – about five minutes.

5.  Mix the vanilla, salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom into the melted chocolate. Then fold the chocolate into the egg yolks.

6.  In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites on high until they hold stiff peaks. Fold carefully into the chocolate mixture. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes.

7.  When the torte has cooled, heat the heavy cream until near boiling. Add the chocolate chips and let sit for two minutes. Stir until completely smooth. Ad 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, and either serve immediately with the cake or pour over the cake and let set one hour.

Give “Cape Ann”

Cape Ann is riddled with talented bakers, cooks, crafts people, and earnest organizations. Here is a list of wonderful ways to make your gift giving local, supporting our community, and promising delighted recipients.

1.  Atlantic Saltworks.  Everyone should be giving salt this year.  Atlantic Saltworks, started by friends Heather Ahearn and Alison Darnell, is based in Salem, MA, but the salt is hand harvested in Gloucester.  Not only are you giving a handful of natural Cape Ann, but Atlantic Saltworks is the ideal gift for cooks who loves a flakey finishing salt, Gloucester’s version of the famous Maldon.  Isn’t a salty, crusty finish the perfect symbol for this city?  Atltantic Saltworks are available at The Cave and Lula’s Pantry, among other venues.

2.  Af Klinteberg Nisu.  Grandaughter Carson Af Klinteberg has returned to Cape Ann to continue the Af Klinteberg nisu tradition begun by her grandmother fifty years ago.  Nisu, the cardamom-scented Finnish sweet bread meant to look like a young Scandinavian girl’s braid, represents the still active community of Finns who arrived here one hundred plus years ago to work in the quarries.  Sweet, tender, delicious with coffee, nisu is an easy way to take one’s history.  Call (978) 281-0928 to inquire about where Af Klinteberg loaves are available, or to order full batches.

Af Klinteberg



3.  Alexandra’s “Peace Bread.”  Extend an olive branch to a friend for Christmas.  Olives, the international symbol of peace, riddle a crusty Alexandra’s Olive Branch.  The ratio of salt to black kalamata richness to crusty baguette is so perfect it’s hard to know which is a vehicle for the other, bread for olive or the reverse.  Smear with fresh unsalted butter and the story ends not just peacefully, but happily ever after.  Alexandra’s Bread, 265 Main St., Gloucester.

4. Mortillaro’s Lobsters and Gift Certificates.  Send someone a lobster, or freshly packed lobster meat, and they will hear the boats chugging out of a foggy harbor at dawn, such is the relationship between Gloucester and these marine crustaceans.  Mortillaro Lobster is a Gloucester institution; their holding and processing practices are so well respected their lobster meat earned a place in the Lobster Mac and Cheese served backstage to Neal Young and Willie Nelson at the Farm Aid concert last year.  The caterers at Farm Aid are fussy.  They want local, organic, sustainable foods, or at least as close to those adjectives as possible. Mortillaro uses no chemicals in its tanks, and its meat is the freshest there is.  Mortillaro Lobster, located at 60 Commercial St. (on The Fort), looks like an imposing wholesale business, but they welcome retail shoppers.  Walk in the metal door to purchase live lobster, fresh meat, or gift certificates, all Willie Nelson approved.

Mortillaro Lobsters

5. Woodmans of Essex; five generations of stories, 100 years of recipes, by Winslow Pettingell. Give fried clams, or at least the recipe for famous Woodman’s Fried Clams, the ones for which flip-flopped crowds wait hours in a line.   Part cookbook, part nostalgia, Pettingell’s book covers one hundred years of Woodman’s fun and history, starting when Chubby Woodman first dropped a clam in hot oil.  “Woodman’s of Essex” is filled with old photos and stories that would make anyone affectionate with the Essex River’s unique clam-digging culture a little misty-eyed.  Available at Woodman’s in Essex and online.

Woodman's Cookbook

6.  Rockport Farmers’ Market T-shirt, tote bag, and coffee mug, designed by Darren Mason.  These goods are “good.”  The purchase any or all three of these cool Darren Mason designed provisions help keep local food in Rockport, supporting the weekly Saturday morning Rockport Farmers Market in Harvey Park July through October.   Also, these purchases support The Rockport Exchange, a non-profit group that organizes, along with the farmers market, Motif #1 Day and HarvestFest.  Orders can be placed online at RockportFestivals The Store or

Rockport Exchange goods



7.  Appleton Farms Gift Box.  Those cows.  Thirty-eight registered Jersey’s will be lined up blinking their doey eyes at you if you arrive at Appleton Farms in Ipswich around 2:30 in the afternoon, milking time.  You can give this Appleton Farms herd as a gift in the form of a rustic wooden box packed with Appleton Farms cheeses:  Broad Meadow – “an earthy nutty semi-hard cheese,” Sunset Hill Triple Cream – “a silky-smooth, brie-style cheese,” and Pinnacle – “a classic farmhouse table, tomme-style cheese.”  Appleton Farms has been working hard at building their cheese repertoire.  After good bread, a good local cheese is the foundation of a good local food culture.  We applaud them and thank the Jerseys.  To learn more about Appleton Farms’ Holiday Cheese Sampler and to order yours today, visit online: or  stop by or call the dairy store: 978.356.3825, located at 219 County Road, Ipswich , open Monday–Friday, 11AM–6PM, Saturday & Sunday, 10AM–4PM.

Appleton Farms Gift box

8. Jen’s Twisted Sauce.  Three jars of this thai-inspired peanut sauce from Bonne Bouche caterer Jen Sanford of Wenham should be in one’s pantry at all times.  You’re home from soccer practice at 7:30; you couldn’t bear one more stop at the grocery store, or another empty pizza box in your recycling.  Toss hot noodles in Jen’s Twisted Sauce.  Top it with some chopped mango, avocado, red onion and cilantro, and you have a fast, flavorful dinner that would please a both fussy pre-schooler and a foodie.  Jen’s Twisted Sauce is the magic that makes grilled chicken breast instantly delicious satay.   Jen’s Twisted Sauce is available at Willowrest and The Cave, among others.

Jen's sauce


Jen's noodles


9. Fudge Everything Caramel Sauce.  Last year we lost our chocolate hearts to the Fudge Everything Fudge Sauce; this year it’s caramel.  The local ladies (from Rockport and Manchester by the sea) of Fudge Everything can now say Caramel Everything.  I say, who wouldn’t? – on ice cream, on baked apples, on fresh pears, on shortbread cookies; caramel everything.

Fudge Everything



10. Brie Baker.  Lula’s Pantry is always great local giving, but this Brie Baker is $22 gift perfection.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bake and transport that warm gooey brie to the party in one attractive, perfectly sized, dairy-farm-ceramic-evocative dish?  This is brilliant.  Include a jar of Wasik’s Chutney, the perfect oozing brie topping, and make it a Baked Brie Kit.   Lula’s Pantry 5 Dock Square, Rockport.

Brie Baker 2


11. Maple Paddle Knife from Lee & Co.  Lee & Company began when Vanessa Hobbs, 25, of Lanesville, wanted to start a project with her carpenter father, Russell Hobbs.  At a yard sale, father and daughter had found a box of old wooden tools made by a man named Lee.  The Hobbs’ first project thus began with a piece of maple and one of the yard sale tools as a prototype.  They made the tool a little larger, and graced it with curves so that it fit in one’s palm like another hand.  They sanded, and rubbed the tool with coconut oil until it gleamed; behold the Lee & Company Maple Paddle Knife.  Now Vanessa (whose middle name is also Lee) produces beautiful wood kitchen products, all rubbed only with coconut oil, including custom cutting boards.  For more information or to place an order go to

paddle knife


12.  Twelfth Night Riesling.  We don’t have a local winemaker, but we have a great local wine store always ready to educate.  Kathleen Erickson, owner of Savour Wine & Cheese, is a genius at walking someone through a wine crisis:  “What kind of wine do I bring to a potluck dinner party?!”  “I’m serving sole and my guests only drink red wine!”  “I don’t know anything about wine!”  You will leave her store calm without spending a fortune, and feeling a little more wine confident.   When I asked Erickson about a “local” recommendation, she suggested Twelfth Night wines from New Zealand; the couple who own Twelfth Night live in Arlington and chose to be married in Gloucester; that’s the local part.  Twelfth Night wines, from the southern portion of the South Island of New Zealand – almost in Antarctica! – are sustainably grown and hand-harvested.  Erickson taught me to appreciate the strengths and flexibility of a dry riesling, so I am suggesting you give Twelfth Night Dry Riesling, which Erickson describes as “spectacular with food, from seafood to turkey to roast pork and all spicy or salty dishes.” Savour Wine & Cheese, 76 Prospect St., Gloucester

This is a different giving category, but an important one.  A $25 Open Door Meal Basket provides a holiday meal that includes a 14-16 pound turkey, potatoes, stuffing mix, cranberries, gravy mix, dinner rolls, apples, carrots and squash for a struggling family in Gloucester, Rockport, Essex, Manchester-by-the-sea or Ipswich.  Download the gift certificate here: or pick one up at the Open Door offices.  The Open Door 28 Emerson Ave, Gloucester.

The Face of Winter!

Winter is settling in around here and in this post I again mixed a few old images with now ones. A rare winter rainbow.....Actually it's an "icebow" made of ice crystals over Good Harbor Beach 1/4/10.  Fishermen's Memorial  The fisherman's winter coat!  Another view  Stacy Boulevard  "Old Man Winter"!  Eastern Point Light  The Dog Bar Breakwater working hard!  High tide and
Now available: A Very Marienstadt Christmas, a limited edition paperback that is the perfect stocking stuffer. In honor of Belsnickel next Saturday I am reposting this blog post from December 2013. I'm on a mission to spread the Belsnickel Love so today I'm asking people to do something nice for someone in secret, don't let them know who their Belsnickel is! Since I wrote the original article I have also published a story about Belsnickel, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, a novella about which Book Lover's Alert says: Brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate and curl up with this story. Based in Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, it will renew your faith in Christmas, in love, and in basic human decency.

My friend Terry McMackin sent me the following two stories that were sent to him by his cousin. He does not know the origin of the stories but his grandfather is the "George Wagner" mentioned in them. Terry and I lived in the same neighborhood -- our backyards adjoined -- across the street from Mary Opelt's Woods. This appears to be two separate recollections. Thanks, Terry!

          I have been writing stories to my Grandchildren about my childhood in the City of St. Marys, Pa. One of the subjects concerned the coming of Der Peltznichol (Nicholas in Furs) on December 6th, the Feast Day of St. Nicholas. We, children, were always looking forward to this day, but always with a great deal of trepidation. Der Peltznichol always had an evil henchman who carried switches and lumps of coal. I remember quite vividly having to kneel down and say prayers so that the evil one would be forced to leave, rattling his bells and chains off into the night. Then we got candy and homemade cookies. If we were especially lucky, there would be a small toy included in the package of goodies.
          We were particularly afraid of one Peltznichol who was able to call voices out of the fireplace or from behind chairs or the couch. Long after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I got in the habit of hanging around the local brick factory. One summer day I was snooping in a kiln that was being loaded with green brick. Suddenly a voice came out of one of the firing holes right beside me. My mind was transported back to a December 6th many years before. I forced myself not to turn and look at the men in the setting crew, but waited for the voice to come again. When it started, I instantly whirled around, searching their faces for any indication or movement of lips. I perceived the slightest movement of the jaw belonging to Mr. George Wagner. I blurted out in exasperation and triumph, "You're the damn Peltznichol". A general uproar broke out among the setting crew, because they had all been treated to stories about the activities of Der Peltznichol.
          I should explain that St. Marys was a sanctuary from persecution of German Catholics in the middle 19th century, and in fact maintained bilingual teaching of German and English in the Catholic schools until World War I. The F.B.I. and government seemed to think that the associations with the Old Country posed a threat to the security of the United States and so the practice of teaching German was quickly abandoned. Even today, a certain group of the Great-Great Grandchildren of the original settlers continue to preserve the tradition of St. Nicholas, but have pretty much eliminated the evil personage and made it more like an early visit by Santa Claus.
- Bill Hoehn

Margie McKelvy:
          Sr. Maureen has sent an e-mail asking if I could send you some things about Bellsnickle and St. Marys when we were growing up in the still much German St. Marys. I have done some research about this, mostly because of several programs on N.P.R. and the fact that my father played Bellsnickle and Santa for many years.
          My research indicated that the Bavarians and the French along the border between Lorraine and Germany in the Rhine Valley and on into the Black Forest have practiced the tradition for over a thousand years. The belief is that Peltznichol (Nicholas in furs) and his evil henchman, Swart Pater (the devil) were characters in Christmas Plays to illustrate and help convert the masses to Christianity. St. Nicholas was first a Good Samaritan, who provided dowries for destitute maidens so that their poor families might get them married to promising young men. Thus the tradition of gift giving and St. Nicholas. (Good - vs. - Evil)
When my father was growing up, and even in the early years of this playing Bellsnickle, he and his friend "Coxy" Sporner always went as the good Bellsnickle and the evil Swartz Pater. By the 1930's things had changed and sometimes there were just two Bellsnickles. Except at those homes where the old traditions still held like the Crawford house where one of the visitors still wore chains and dragged them through the streets from house to house. This brings me to the collective experience of the Crawford kids. I was always invited to Aunt Irene’s on December the 6th, and so got to have the shit scared out of me along with Freddy, Dotty and Puss. (I still can't believe that she became a nun.) Freddy was so frightened of the Bellsnickle that he would hide when we heard the sleigh bells and chains coming down West Mill Street.
           After the pair entered the front room, we kids were assembled in front of them. We all had to be questioned about our behavior for the past year, and sometimes they knew a little bit more about our activities than we wanted to admit to. Several years we got some real shocks, because the voices accusing you of misbehavior would come out of the fake fireplace or out from behind the couch. We were so scared it is a wonder that we didn't all pee our pants. Then it was time to kneel down and say our prayers. If you prayed really well the Swartz Pater would shake his chains and leave, then we would each get a bag of goodies or maybe a toy.  If we were particularly bad or didn't say our prayers just right, Swartz Pater would stay and hand us a switch or worse, the dreaded lump of coal.
           Many years later, I might have been 14 or 15; I was hanging around the Elk Fire Brick Company, just watching what the setting crew was doing inside the kiln, when a voice spoke out of a firing hole right next to me. Instantly I recognized the voice, but didn't see any of the workers looking at me. I tried to see who it was that was throwing his voice, but I couldn't catch any one moving his lips. I half turned to go out the arched opening in the end of the kiln like I hadn't heard anything. Just before I reached the opening I whirled around right in time to see just the slightest movement of one fellow’s lips. I yelled, "You’re the damn Bellsnickle". There was a burst of laughter from the whole crew. One fellow said, "Finally somebody caught you, George". That's how I learned who the Bellsnickle was at Crawford's house so many years before. Old George Wagner was a super ventriloquist and a really nice old guy.
           Ku Shise (Cow Shit) was my father’s nickname, and Ku played Santa Claus many times. Once he was the Bellsnickle at Crawfords (Before I was born). My father had cut off the end of this thumb splitting wood for a fire. Anyway as he and Uncle George Crawford told the story, John was about 3 or 4 this particular time. After the Bellsnickle left, John turned to his father and said, "Ya know, Pop, dat dare one Sanny Claus had a tum off chust like Uncle Ku." After that my dad always had to wear white gloves with the thumb stuffed full of cotton.
          I started out writing about Coxy Sporner being one of the Santa Clauses. He and my dad went to Coxy's brother's house because Coxy's nephew, Hiddy, was about the right age. The Feast of St. Nicholas comes on December the 6th and is always in the middle of hunting season. This particular year Coxy had shot a buck on the first day of the season. The two Santas stood outside the living room window while Mrs. Sporner questioned Hiddy about what he would do if the Santa Clause should come to visit. Hiddy replied, "I have a great club. I would hit him over the head and drive him away." The two Santas let themselves into the through the kitchen door as quietly as they could. Mrs. Sporner, however heard them and told Hiddy to go into the kitchen and bring her a spool of thread. Be sure to turn on the light, she said.
          Hiddy came around the corner, snapped on the light and froze in his tracks. About half a second later he let out a scream, yelling, "Yiiiii! "Ich mus pee." as he tore out the back door and ran for the outhouse. My dad said it took about 20 minutes to get Hiddy to unlock the outhouse and come out. All the while Mrs. Sporner was trying to get Hiddy to come out, the Santas were laughing under their beards. Finally they were able to get him to talk and say his prayers. Suddenly Coxy growled, "I understand you shot one of Sanny Clauses Reindeer." Hiddy replied, "Oh No! Sanny Clause, Honest to God, that was Uncle Soxy!" The two couldn't keep from laughing and so had to beat a hasty retreat back out into the night.
          Such was the goings-on around St. Marys concerning Bellsnickle, and in some quarters it still continues today, but with a lot less scare and a lot more good things. Maybe it is for the best!

I also discovered a very interesting blog post about Belsnickel at: Conjure Cinema. The pictures here are from this blog:

    Today we turn to one of the strangest Christmas traditions I have come across in my research in a long time (and that's saying something), called belsnickeling. It's a holiday practice that stems from the Appalachian Valley area of Virginia and West Virginia - essentially, think "naughty mummers" for lack of a better term. A group of men would dress in outlandish costumes and go door to door, putting on some form of entertainment and demanding payment for their performance (usually food or drink, most often drink) - if the payment wasn't to their liking, then some mischief was performed at the offending house. The belsnickelers would go from house to house continuing their revelry, getting paid off with more drink at each house, until they were fully in their cups and God knows what their act looked like as the evening progressed. As you can see from the photo at left, the belsnickelers were always masked, so if the mischief got out of hand you didn't know WHO to blame for it the next day (the thought of looking for who was the most hungover in the town must not have occurred to the locals back then). Read the rest here

Thanks for the great stories and thanks for reading. Merry Christmas.
Posted in another forum by German author Cora Buhlert"Belsnickling" sounds very like our custom of "Nikolauslaufen", only that here it's children up to approx. 12 who go from door to door, sing a song or recite a poem and receive a treat in return. Nowadays, it's mostly chocolate and sweets (I always give Kinder Surprise Eggs) and tangerines among the more traditionally minded, but my Mom told me that she often got small household items such as shoelaces or matchboxes when she went "Nikolauslaufen" in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

A woman named Cora who lives in the northern part of Germany near the coast read about my new novelette, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, and sent me the following:

We don't call him Belsnickel, but I certainly know the character and got presents from him as a child. December 6th is St. Nicholas Day, dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, a bishop who lived in what is now Turkey in the 4th century.

In the Netherlands and Germany, St. Nicholas has long been associated with gift-giving. I live in North Germany, where the children put out an empty plate or their shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas Day and find that St. Nicholas had brought them treats (tangerines and nuts are traditional, though other candy and bigger presents are given as well) overnight. On the evening of December 6th, there is also the so-called Nikolauslaufen, which is a sort of trick-or-treating with the kids dressing up as St. Nicholas.

The Dutch variation of the tradition is called Sinterklaas. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is bigger than Christmas. The American Santa Claus is obviously a variation on St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas also knows if you've been good or bad. If you've been bad, you don't get any presents or treats. Instead you get a bundle of twigs. Originally, St Nicholas probably used the bundle of twigs to spank naughty children - in more politically correct times he just left the twigs behind for naughty children. Sometimes St. Nicholas has a helper who deals with the naughty children instead. In Germany, this helper is called Knecht Ruprecht, in the Netherlands it's the rather politically incorrect figure called Zwaarte Piet (black Peter).

I strongly suspect that your Belsnickel is a regional variation on the St. Nicholas tradition, particularly since Pennsylvania had a lot of German and Dutch settlers.

We have since exchanged a few emails and she said it pleased her to know that people in Pennsylvania were continuing to carry on the tradition. I sent her a copy of the story and she said the explanation of the origin of the name that I put in the story – that “Belsnickel” derived from “Pelz-Nicholas” which is German for “Nicholas in pelts” from the Rhine River Valley – sounded entirely plausible to her because wearing fur in the Rhine Valley would be a very good idea in Winter. I also took note of  “Knecht Ruprecht” because “Ruprecht” is a common name where I come from. 

I'm very happy to have had this correspondence and confirmation. I've also done a little more research and found out some interesting things. “Belsnickel” far pre-dates Santa Claus. Santa Claus only  evolved after the American Civil War but Belsnickel has been around since the eighth century. There is a good article about him on

I also found this curious article on a blog called Appalachian Lifestyles. In this area Belsnickeling is a sort of Christmas time trick-or-treat with grown men dressed up as clowns and going from house-to-house with increasing merriment.

It is rather exciting to hear from people who read the story and have stories of their own to add. There are already 2 5-star reviews on Amazon and a few sales. I hope more people will discover this little story and read more about Belsnickel. It makes me happy to know that the tradition may survive.

Thanks for reading.

I got 13 Nikolaus kids this year, which is about average. Though I've also had more than 20 kids in other years. One year, I opened the door to find an entire girls' basketball team standing outside and singing and had to dig into my own stash of chocolate, because the sweets I'd bought weren't enough for them all.
Now available: A Very Marienstadt Christmas, a limited edition paperback that is the perfect stocking stuffer. In honor of Belsnickel next Saturday I am reposting this blog post from December 2012. I'm on a mission to spread the Belsnickel Love so today I'm asking people to do something nice for someone in secret, don't let them know who their Belsnickel is! Since I wrote the original article I have also published a story about Belsnickel, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, a novella about which Book Lover's Alert says: Brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate and curl up with this story. Based in Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, it will renew your faith in Christmas, in love, and in basic human decency.

UPDATED: Great blog post by Cora Buhlert from Bremen in North Germany: Jolly Old st. Nicholas.

Who this mysterious fellow, anyway? Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas and I have been surprised by the stories I am hearing. The Scarlet Letter Press in Salem is having a Sinterklass celebration on Saturday night at their shop. My friend Cora Buhlert, who lives in Bremen, Germany (remember Grimm's The Bremen Town Musicians?) wrote to say that she got twenty Kinder Surprise Eggs to pass out tonight. These are chocolate eggs with a toy inside. Apparently in Bremen the children go Trick or Treating on Belsnickel.

Belsnickel the old man of the woods dressed in fur
My Grandmother Werner said when she was little Belsnickel was very frightening because he came with switches and a gunny sack and the legend was that he would carry off naughty children and give them a good switching. She said her brothers would run outside in the snow when they heard Belsnickel's bells jingling and hide in the outhouse. Of course, when I was a child Belsnickel didn't do those things but as I went searching on the internet I found pictures of Belsnickels carrying switches and giving a child a thrashing. These are disturbing but at the time they were popular parents much more stern with children than most are now.
Belsnickel carries a bundle of twigs to punish naughty children.
This was the Belsnickel my grandmother was told about
St. Nicholas, as my friend Cora pointed out, was a bishop in what is now Turkey. That is why he is often depicted wearing a bishop's mitre. There are a number of variations on the Belsnickel theme: Sinterklaas is the Dutch St. Nicholas, and there is also a nasty character called Krampus who is often depicted as a devil-like character and who was also in the habit of punishing naughty children.
Seen wearing a Bishop's Mitre and thrashing a bad child, this was NOT the Belsnickel of my childhood
A friend who grew up Erie, Pa told me that her parents told her about “Bushnickel,” whom they referred to as “the bad kid's Santa.” They said he came on St. Nicholas Night and left straw and switches and broken toys as a warning that kids had better shape up before Christmas came. I have been pleasantly surprised by how many people have written to tell me that they have carried on the Belsnickel tradition for their children even though they live far away from St. Marys where they grew up.
Krampus and Saint Nicholas (in Mitre) driving off with a basket full of naughty children
One of the oddest stories I heard was a custom practiced in some very rural Southern Appalachian areas. There they “go Belsnickeling” on the Feast of St. Nicholas. Men dress in clown-like costumes, wear masks, and go from house to house, singing and holding out mugs to be filled with beer or liquor. It is sort of a cross between Christmas caroling, trick or treating, and mumming, the ancient Medieval custom of going from house to house performing plays in costume.

Last year at this time I received an email from Father Kurt Belsole who is from St. Marys and is now a priest teaching at the Pontifical College in the Vatican. He told me that for years he has made up little Belsnickel bundles that he leaves outside of the doors of his seminarians' rooms. I think it is lovely to know that the St. Marys Belsnickel is alive and well at the Vatican. 

I find these customs fascinating and wonderful. As everyone who knows me knows, I love folk customs and the story-telling that goes with them. For years now I have been writing about family stories and encouraging people to tell stories handed down from their parents and pass them on to their children. I hope people will do whatever they can to keep these folk tales and accompanying customs alive. I am going to append a blog post from last December here that includes more about Belsnickel. Also, today and tomorrow my story The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood is still free for Kindle. It is currently ranked #11 in Amazon's Folklore category and #11 in Mythology. Grab a copy, brew some tea or hot chocolate and enjoy!  

I also discovered a very interesting blog post about Belsnickel at: Conjure Cinema. The pictures here are from this blog:

    Today we turn to one of the strangest Christmas traditions I have come across in my research in a long time (and that's saying something), called belsnickeling. It's a holiday practice that stems from the Appalachian Valley area of Virginia and West Virginia - essentially, think "naughty mummers" for lack of a better term. A group of men would dress in outlandish costumes and go door to door, putting on some form of entertainment and demanding payment for their performance (usually food or drink, most often drink) - if the payment wasn't to their liking, then some mischief was performed at the offending house. The belsnickelers would go from house to house continuing their revelry, getting paid off with more drink at each house, until they were fully in their cups and God knows what their act looked like as the evening progressed. As you can see from the photo at left, the belsnickelers were always masked, so if the mischief got out of hand you didn't know WHO to blame for it the next day (the thought of looking for who was the most hungover in the town must not have occurred to the locals back then). Read the rest here

Thanks for the great stories and thanks for reading. Merry Christmas.
Posted in another forum by German author Cora Buhlert"Belsnickling" sounds very like our custom of "Nikolauslaufen", only that here it's children up to approx. 12 who go from door to door, sing a song or recite a poem and receive a treat in return. Nowadays, it's mostly chocolate and sweets (I always give Kinder Surprise Eggs) and tangerines among the more traditionally minded, but my Mom told me that she often got small household items such as shoelaces or matchboxes when she went "Nikolauslaufen" in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I got 13 Nikolaus kids this year, which is about average. Though I've also had more than 20 kids in other years. One year, I opened the door to find an entire girls' basketball team standing outside and singing and had to dig into my own stash of chocolate, because the sweets I'd bought weren't enough for them all.

Girls Rule Gravlax



Jason Grow Photography

Maisie Grow, as photographed by her professional photographer-father Jason, is one of three Grow daughters – Matilda, Jemima and Maisie. They are a talented bunch, who have never for one day not lived up to the words on the twins’ birth announcement – “Girls rule.”

Maisie recently brought a shining platter of gravlax to my home; (Jemima often helps make the gravlax, I’m told, but was not around that day.) This is basically Ina Garten’s recipe, and, like so many of her recipes, worth sharing as much as possible. This one should be “required” – not elective – on holiday menus.  About presentation, Maisie is ready for her own cooking show.

For more information on Jason Grow Photography, or just for a gorgeous tour of great portraiture, from Norman Mailer to Doris Kearns Goodwin, go to:


Garten Gravlax





3 pounds fresh salmon, center cut

1 large bunch of dill, plus 1/4 cup chopped dill for serving

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons white peppercorns, crushed

1 tablespoon whole fennel seeds

Pumpernickel bread, for serving

Mustard Sauce, recipe follows


1.  Cut the salmon in half crosswise and place half the fish skin side down in a deep dish.

2.  Wash and shake dry the dill and place it on the fish. Combine the salt, sugar, crushed peppercorns, and fennel seeds in a small bowl and sprinkle it evenly over the piece of fish.

3.  Place the other half of salmon over the dill, skin side up. Cover the dish with aluminum foil.

4.  Place a smaller pan on top of the foil and weight it with some heavy cans. Refrigerate the salmon for at least 2 and up to 3 days, turning it every 12 hours and basting it with the liquid that collects.

5.  Lay each piece of salmon flat on a cutting board, remove the bunch of dill, and sprinkle the top with chopped dill. With a long thin slicing knife, slice the salmon in long thin slices as you would for smoked salmon.

6.  Serve with dark pumpernickel bread and mustard sauce. You can also serve with chopped red onion and capers, if desired.

Mustard Sauce


1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon ground dry mustard

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1/3 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill


1.  Combine the mustards, sugar, and vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil and stir in the chopped dill. Serve with the gravlax.

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