Sweet Silver Bells


IMG_3888Whether silver, brass, tin, ceramic, glass or some other material, bells are as much a part of winter holiday celebrations as holly, mistletoe, and twinkly lights. Bells have a long, rich history, and have been rung for many reasons – to warn people, gather people, guide ships, to celebrate. Bell making grew with the advancement of metallurgy. Beginning in China and spreading throughout Asia, the art of bell making eventually spread to Europe where early monks were among the first to create bells of different distinct tones and use them to create music.

IMG_3858Bells seem to have a role in all major religions and spiritual traditions. Their association with Christmas likely is due to church bells calling people to worship, a tradition some say began with St. Patrick. Church bells called folks to weddings (thus the term ‘wedding bells’), funerals, and other festivities and celebrations. Bells were thought to not only call out to mere mortals, but to ring to the heavens above!

IMG_3892Whatever the reason, bells are a part of Christmas and other winter celebrations…..sleigh bells, silver bells, Salvation Army Bells, jingle bells, bells on elves shoes, on reindeer harnesses, on trees, doors, in choirs and orchestras. There’s a long list of seasonal songs that feature bells. My personal favorite, especially when played by a bell chorus, is “Carol of the Bells”IMG_3951


“Sweet silver bells, All seem to say, Throw cares away.”

The original lyrics of Carol of the Bells had nothing to do with Christmas. The song was a Ukranian folk song written as a “winter well-wishing song,” according to Anthony Potoczniak, a Rice University anthropology graduate student who studied the song’s history. Photoczniak explains:

“Written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich and titled ‘Shchedryk’, the song tells the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful year that the family will have. The song’s [original] title is derived from the Ukrainian word ‘shchedryj’, which means bountiful……”

Potoczniak explains that American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovich’s work and it reminded him of bells so he wrote new lyrics to convey that imagery.


These bells, likely made in India, and have a beautiful floral design on them.

Another favorite is I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day based on a poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in 1863, two years after the death of his beloved wife from an accidental fire caused by a candle. Longfellow’s oldest son ran off against his father’s wishes to fight with the Union army and was severely wounded. This news caused the already grieving Longfellow to write this poem of despair, ending with hope. In 1872 the poem was first put to music by English organist John Baptiste Calkin, though there have been many other musical versions of it.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”


Tiny china bells, part of childhood Christmases.

Written during a bloody war that tore our nation apart, by a grieving man, it became a Christmas song of hope, justice, peace.

May the bells on this holy-day, 152 years later, when it again seems “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men” also ring “loud and deep” a message of peace on earth, hope and goodwill to all.

IMG_4028Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice, Hanukkah blessings……. whatever you celebrate….let your bells ring out!

Read about famous bells, bell making, the story of the largest bell ever made  (it  lays at the bottom of the sea), and a brief history of bells at: historyofbells.com

To read more of the history of:  Carol of the Bells


A  youtube version for listening:


Spice up, warm up, your winter days!

Star Anise, not as common as the other spices I write about in this post, is also a warming spice. Used in a lot of Chinese cooking. From a small, evergreen magnolia tree grown in Asian countries, the stars add decoration as well as sweet anise taste to warm holiday beverages.

Star Anise, less common  then the spices I write about, is also a warming spice. Used in a lot of Chinese cooking, these pods from a small, evergreen magnolia tree grown in Asian countries  adds decoration as well as the sweet anise taste to warm holiday beverages.

Cold, damp winter weather in northern climes calls for comforting ways to warm body and soul. In both western and Ayurveda herbal traditions, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, the fragrances and tastes associated with winter holidays, are considered warming for body and spirit!

Cinnamon, the fragrant dried inner bark of the cinnamon tree, grown mostly in Sri Lanka, is a warming spice. Both sweet and pungent, it is good for circulation, respiratory health, muscles and nerves. In warm milk or warmed juices such as apple or berry, it can bring comfort and relief to a body chilled from stormy weather or a cold ‘bug’. It also harmonizes the flow of circulation.

the ground cinnamon shown in here is a much sweeter and finer tasting cinnamon than what is commonly sold as cinnamon, If you can find it, try it in your holidays baking and beverages.

“Cinnamomum verum”, considered the ‘true cinnamon’, is sweeter than what is commonly sold as cinnamon, which is from a related species and referred to as “cassia”.  If you can find it, try this ‘true’ cinnamon it in your holiday baking and beverages.

You probably already use ground cinnamon in baking holiday cookies, pies, and other desserts. It can also be used in meat and vegetable dishes, especially when combined with other spices. Cinnamon sticks are used in mulled wine or juice. Add the benefits and taste of cinnamon to your winter days by sprinkling it on your favorite tea, coffee, or other warm beverage.

the forms of cardamon, the green, dried pods, the seeds from in side the pods, and fresh ground cardamon.

The  green, dried pods; the seeds from in side the pods; and fresh ground cardamom. Oh how I wish this post could smell like cardamom!

Cardamom, an ancient Indian spice, is another sweet/pungent warming spice. Good for the respiratory system (I take long, deep cardamom breaths when I grind it!), nerves and circulation, it is a rock star for the digestive system. Not surprising, as the perennial shrub is a member of the ginger family and ginger root is the premium digestive spice. The little seeds found inside the fruiting pods of the cardamom bush stimulate digestion and can calm an upset tummy.

Cardamon tapioca pudding with toasted coconut & almonds.

cardamom tapioca pudding with toasted coconut & almonds.

Used in Scandinavian baking year round, it is especially favored at Christmas in cardamom breads and cakes. Cardamom, which reduces the mucus forming properties of milk, is delicious in a cup of warm milk at night. I use cardamom in many vegetable and grain dishes, as an ingredient in a spice blend I often use, and with cinnamon and nutmeg in cooked fruit deserts such as baked pears or apples or a fruit compote, or cobblers. My favorite use is in tapioca pudding, (which I make with coconut milk, no eggs). Cardamom/vanilla tapioca, with a hint of coconut and sweetened with honey or coconut syrup, served warm (or cooled) is a soul warming sweet dessert on a wintry night!

IMG_3803Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove tree, a tropical member of the myrtle tree family. It’s name, from the Latin clavus, means nail, which the dried buds resemble. Also pungent, and sweet, it is considered a mild aphrodisiac, good for the lymph system, lungs, stomach, it is also found in many herbal salves for pain. A long-standing use has been for tooth pain. Used in combination with cinnamon and other spices, it is popular in holiday baking, as well as meat dishes. A strong spice, too much can cause stomach irritation, and the flavor can over ride other flavors. It’s a good thing in moderation! A “classic” holiday decoration is clove buds stuck in an orange and hung to scent a room or closet. Easy to grind, the flower buds last longer whole then pre-ground.

store bought, dried ground nutmeg, and fresh grated nutmeg, showing the beautiful patterns inside the nutmeg fruit.

Dried ground nutmeg, and fresh grated nutmeg, showing the beautiful patterns inside the nutmeg fruit.

Nutmeg seems to have two primary uses in most western kitchens….holiday eggnog and desserts with fruit, such as pies and cobblers. It can also be used in cooking vegetables. A pungent spice, it works well with cardamom and ginger to aid digestion, especially in the small intestine. A superb spice for calming the mind, up to 1/4 t. of nutmeg in warm milk (or milk substitute) before bed time can help with sleep. Nutmeg and mace (another spice) come from the same evergreen tree native to Indonesia. You can buy the whole “fruit” or purchase it ground. Grinding nutmeg in a spice grinder takes a good sharp blade. It can also be grated. The resulting fresh ground or grated nutmeg will be stronger flavor than the dried, pre-ground spice.

one of my latest favorite beverages is fresh ginger tea with bilberry juice, which is thick like a nectar, added. The bilberry juice sweetens the tea and adds the health benefits of bilberry. I sprinkle cinnamon on top, though a cinnamon stick could be put in the cup as a 'stirrer'.

A favorite beverage of mine is fresh ginger tea with bilberry juice. Thick like a nectar, bilberry juice sweetens the tea, adding the health benefits of bilberry. Sprinkle cinnamon on top, or add a cinnamon stick as a ‘stirrer’.

Gingerbread and ginger cutout cookies are two favorite winter time baked goodies. Ginger is warming and “grounding” (it is a root after all!). Dried ginger is drying and heating to the body, fresh ginger warming but not drying. I prefer using the fresh in cooking soups, making tea, and some baked goods. The dried powder ginger is good in spice mixes and in baking. Ginger, considered a universal medicine, is good for many ailments, especially those of the digestion and respiratory system, and for blood flow ( it is a mild blood thinner). From baked goods to spicy soups, it is perfect for spicing up warming winter meals.

This post, long enough, barely touches on all the medicinal and culinary uses of these wonderful warming spices, nor does it cover the interesting history of them. Important as medicines and culinary use, all have been used for centuries. They are as ancient as the holidays we celebrate this month!

buy fresh, whole spices and use them to warm up and spicy up winter days and nights! I will soon be making wassail, and most of these spices will go into the pot!

buy fresh, whole spices and use them to warm and spice up winter days! Soon I will be making wassail and most of these spices will go into the pot!

A few tips: For best flavor from an herb or spice, grind fresh what you need, never buy more pre-ground than you’ll use in a month, and buy from a source that keeps spices fresh (forget the little tin cans in supermarkets!).

Store spices in a tight jar. If the aroma is lost, toss. The fragrance of spices, from the volatile oils in them, generally tells how fresh the spice is, (this is especially true of dried green herbs like oregano, thyme, sage, etc). Once ground, these oils are released, which is why buying whole spices and grinding what you will use in a short period of time gives optimal flavor and fragrance. Of the spices above, I buy ground dry ginger (but use the fresh more) and ground cinnamon, as well as the sticks. (Cinnamon “sticks”, pieces of the rolled bark, can be hard to grind fine at home, buying ground cinnamon is useful for baking, but consider cinnamon “sticks” for beverages.) Occasionally I buy ground nutmeg, preferring to grind or grate the whole. Grinding whole spices brings out a stronger flavor and makes your kitchen smell wonderful! Use a small coffee bean grinder you designate as a spice grinder. They are a affordable, the task is pleasant, and the difference in flavor in your favorite baked goods and culinary dishes will be worth it.  If you value fresh fruits and vegetables for flavor and health benefits,  the same applies to spices.

Have a very merry spicy holiday!

two books on my book shelf about spices:

The Yoga of Herbs, by Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad, 1986. Gives the medicinal properties of many spices from the Ayurvedic tradition of healing.

The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices, by Claire Loewenfeld and Philippa Back, 1974. An older favorite, gives a little history, botanical info and uses of most herbs and spices.



A year later

Remember when you watched cartoons growing up, the good and evil thoughts of a person would be depicted as a mini angel and devil sitting on opposite shoulders of some poor, conflicted, cartoon hero? These mini-characters represented the hero’s subconscious and often got into their own little comical battles, one finally triumphing over the other, the victor kicking the loser off his shoulder perch.

A year ago today I had a real life experience with those two. I wouldn’t say they were representatives of good and evil, but definitely two parts of my subconscious…the altruistic and the self-preserving.

Dr. Claire Buchhan, her eyes smiling, take with my iTouch as I was fading away. The iTouchwas for the music I listened t

Dr. Buchanan, eyes smiling, taken with my iTouch (for music during surgery) as I faded away.

It’s been one year today since I had a mastectomy, a day I remember well. There wasn’t too much drama and trauma to my experience, just anxiety, the anxiety I feel going into any surgery, and of course I wondered what life would be like with one breast. Thanks to the wonderful support of my husband Mike and cousin Shaun, and the most personable, down to earth, skilled team of doctors – surgeon Dr. Claire Buchanan, and the anesthesiologist (whose name I’ve forgotten), I felt in good hands, literally, and well cared for. The drama and trauma I witnessed was that of another woman who also had a mastectomy that day. Here is my weird mastectomy story:


Shaun sent me this photo from last yr., looking pretty relaxed for pre-masectomy! I was in good company!

Shaun sent me this photo from last yr., pretty relaxed for pre-mastectomy! I was in good company!

My surgery was in the afternoon and it was dark out when I was wheeled into the tiny, pie-shaped hospital room where I was to spend the night. Mike was not there, he was in the hospital cafeteria eating dinner with my sister-in-law, hospital staff had not reached him yet. I lay alone in the darkness, still groggy, and could hear a woman screaming right outside the door to my room. (She was actually in the next room.)

“You cut my breast off!”

“I’m bleeding!”

“There’s a hole in my chest!”

“You cut my breast off!”

“I’m going to die!”

These were the words she screamed, repetitively, as loud as she could, with great horror and panic in her voice. I lay there listening, apparently no one was able to calm her or stop her fearful, angry rant.

My first thought was “I need to get up and go to her, they don’t know how to deal with her.” This is the deep-seated social worker persona in me, the one who worked with people with schizophrenia, people having manic episodes, as well as people experiencing fearful traumas, such as domestic violence.

Then the other voice chimed in “Are you crazy! YOU just had a mastectomy yourself!” Nothing practical like “you can’t even get out of bed”, just the voice of reason…why would you even think of addressing her emotional trauma when you just had the same experience she had!

My little altruistic cartoon buddy got kicked out.  Self-preservation won, I not only came to my senses (which were pretty dull from drugs), but I tried to put the plaintive screams out of my head, which was not easy…they went on until 10 or 11 that night. (I learned the next day they finally got a psychiatric doctor to order a sedative, administered by injection, to calm her.)

Flowers sent to my hospital room last year by the crew at Sunshine Propane.

Flowers sent to my hospital room last year by the crew at Sunshine Propane.

I still felt compassion for this woman, and sad her issues were not addressed better and more immediate. The next day I got a peek at her, sitting in her room, still looking angry, but subdued. She looked life-worn.

On my follow-up visit two weeks later, I asked the surgeon what it was like to tell someone who may have mental illness that they have breast cancer. (I don’t know that the screaming woman had a diagnosed psychiatric disability, her explosive anger and fear may have been triggered by the surgery and/or medications.) My doctor told me she has had people explode at her, threatening her life, when she told them they had breast cancer, and they weren’t people with mental illness.

Life is so messy, there are so many challenges for us all.

Here I am a year later. Not an easy year. A month after the mastectomy I had a skin cancer removed from my lip.  Once I recovered from the mastectomy I began the task of closing my mom’s estate, she died a month before the surgery. Like most people with one or more cancer experiences (this was my third go-around with breast cancer), I live with the great unknown. It’s like an umbrella over you, sometimes blocking the sun with its shadow, but you constantly try to close it and put it away somewhere in the corner of your mind. The preventive meds I’m supposed to be taking cause too many bad side effects and aggravate other health conditions. When on them deep muscle and joint pain cause me to be dysfunctional. The oncologist says I’m one of the small number of women who can’t ‘tolerate’ them.  I follow a protocol of supplements. I’m trying to learn better self-care.  My self-preservation cartoon-character was strong and loud that night a year ago, but I too often ignore her in day-to-day living.

It has also been a year of deep appreciation. I’m acutely aware of multiple little blessings in my life. Often over shadowed by the BIG challenges, they accumulate and fill me up.

I hope the woman in the room next door has had even half the blessings and love I’ve had this past year. It would sooth her soul.

IMG_3641Note to readers: Very grateful to those who took time to do the poll in my last post. It was very helpful to get feedback. Equal votes for Nature and personal stories, photos appreciated (sorry for that lack of in this post), a few requests for more recipes, and comments that let me know I’m doing ok and should continue to give voice to my muse! Thank you!  I have lots of December nature topics floating around, hope to catch one soon!