We give gifts during the holiday season to express gratitude and love to those near and dear throughout the year. But the custom of giving gifts goes all the way back to the first Christmas when the wise men brought Jesus three gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold is a precious metal we are all familiar with, but frankincense and myrrh are rare and precious aromatic resins from two different trees indigenous to the Middle East and parts of Africa. Both were crafted into precious oils that were used for personal, religious and medicinal use.
The oils were burned during religious ceremonies, used as perfumes for hygienic needs and as treatment for a multitude of skin ailments. During ancient times, frankincense and myrrh were very practical gifts but over time came to represent a symbolic gesture of gift giving.
Many of the gifts we give and receive at Christmas time, especially ones related to food, have symbolic meaning and tales of folklore behind them.
Others are just fun to make and share with family and friends. Sometimes those food gifts become an anticipated tradition that the gifter enjoys making and the receiver looks forward to every year.
Here are some creative ideas for holiday giving. Some are modern and just fun to give and receive, while others tell a tale of Christmas past.
St. Nicholas dedicated his life to God, and sold all that he had to give to the poor. Legends tell the story of how he would drop a piece of gold into stockings that were hanging in the window of a poor woman’s home. The piece of gold would fall down into the toe of the stocking. The tradition of placing an orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking is symbolic of the gold St. Nicholas used to leave.
Instead of flowers give a friend or hostess a decorated vase filled with tangerines. It’s a creative and delicious way to spread good fortune through the holiday season.
The pineapple is an American symbol for hospitality. During colonial times, sea captains would return home with the tropical fruit. It was a symbol in the villages they explored that strangers were welcome.
So the explorers began doing the same by hanging a pineapple on their door or fencepost. It indicated they were home from a trip and visitors were welcome to stop by, share food and drink, and listen to stories about the voyage.
The tradition continued with innkeepers and restaurant owners and the pineapple was incorporated into architectural elements like finials, doorknockers and gates.
Presenting a hostess with a pineapple is considered a grand gesture of hospitality and a compliment of her gracious service to guests.
All types of beans, peas and lentils are symbolic of money and resemble coins. To celebrate the new year, black-eyed peas are a southern favorite. Italians eat cotechino con lenticchie, which is sausage and green lentils. Germans enjoy lentil or split pea soup with sausage. And the Japanese eat kuromame which are sweet black soy beans.
It is also said, that because beans and peas grow larger as they cook, the person who eats them will grow in good fortune and experience plenty of good luck in the coming year. Fill a decorative jar with an assortment of beans, lentils or black-eyed peas along with a recipe for a dish using them.
Grana is the generic term for a hard-grained Italian cheese. It is best represented by Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano. From medieval times through the Renaissance era, grana cheese was a popular gift because it was a food that transported well and was easy to keep. It is not prone to spoilage because the moisture in the cheese reduces as it ages and becomes harder. It can go for long periods of time without refrigeration.
Create a classic gift combination with a block of Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, fruit paste and package of Christmas crackers.
During the frigidly cold months of winter in Northern Hemisphere Scandinavian countries, infused spirits, mulled wine or spicy glogg were used to lift the spirits and spread Christmas cheer.
Make your own infused spirits by soaking various fruits in alcohol, such as rum, gin, vodka or brandy. A myriad of flavors can be created and need only a week or two of soaking to infuse the fruit into the alcohol. The liquid is then strained and stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Use as a mixer in cocktails or add to soda or sparkling water.
Add a subtle scent or flavor to coffee, tea, fruit and baked goods by layering granulated sugar with aromatic herbs or edibles. Ideas include citrus peel, vanilla beans, mint leaves, cinnamon sticks, star anise or lavender. If the item you are using is fresh, let it dry out on paper towels for a couple of days. Mix with the sugar in sealable jars.
Instruct the recipient to sift the aromatic element out of the sugar after a few days. Also, give them a card with ideas for usage.
2014 Good Fortune Soup
Give your friends a jar filled with the dry beans needed for this soup along with a decorative recipe card. Recipe card templates can be downloaded from microsoft.com
1/2 cup each of pearled barley, lentils, dried split peas and white beans
1/4 cup olive oil
1 parsnip, diced
1 onion, diced
1 can diced tomatoes, drained and rinsed
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 quart unsalted vegetable broth
2 cups water
1 bay leaf
2 sage leaves
1 sprig of rosemary
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup uncooked broken spaghetti
The night before cooking place the barley, lentils, peas, and beans in a large bowl and cover with water. Soak for at least 8 hours. When ready to use rinse in a colander and drain. To cook the soup, in a large saucepan heat the oil and saut￩ the onion and parsnip until soft. Stir in the garlic and diced tomatoes. Pour in the broth, water and rinsed legumes. Add the rosemary, sage and bay leaf. Simmer for 45 minutes and add the noodles. Cook for 10 minutes until noodles are soft. Add more water or broth if necessary. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the rosemary sprig, sage leaves and bay leaf before serving.
Mexican Hot Chocolate Mix
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup powdered milk
3/4 cup sugar
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup mini marshmallows
4 cup glass jar
Sift together the cocoa and the cinnamon. In the jar layer the powdered milk, sifted cocoa powder and the sugar. Roughly chop the chocolate chips into small pieces and place in a small plastic bag. In the jar, place the bag of chocolate on top of the layer of sugar. In another bag, add the marshmallows and place them on top of the bag of chocolate. Attach a card to the jar with the following instructions: To make hot chocolate, remove the bags of marshmallows and chocolate. Shake the jar to combine the dry ingredients. Measure 1/2 cup of mix per 1 cup water. Whisk in a saucepan over medium heat until hot. Stir in 1 tablespoon of chocolate pieces per 1 cup water. Serve with marshmallows and enjoy.
2 cups blueberries, fresh pitted cherries, raspberries, cranberries, pineapple, blackberries
1 750-ml bottle of vodka, gin or light rum
1 to 2 tablespoons raw sugar, optional
Place fruit in a clean sealable jar. Pour alcohol over the fruit. Add sugar, if desired. Seal tightly and store in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks to 2 months depending on how strong a fruit flavor you would like to have. Shake the jar every few days. When ready, strain the alcohol through a colander lined with cheesecloth. Gather the fruit in the cheesecloth and squeeze any excess liquid into the infused alcohol. Discard solids. Pour into clean storage bottles. Store in the refrigerator or freezer. Traditional combinations include blueberries, cherries, raspberries or cranberries with vodka, blackberries and herbs with gin, and pineapple with rum. Note: The sugar is not necessary but helps break down the fruit.