A Christmas Tradition: Yule Logs

by Sandra Merville Hart

The custom of burning logs around the time of the winter solstice dates back to 5000 BC in Egypt and the time of Moses.

“Yule” logs were first used around winter solstice by the Vikings in an outdoor celebration of longer days that were coming. They brought the celebration to Britain when they invaded them.

The custom of burning yule logs moved inside homes in the fourth century.

By 1066, most British communities celebrated the custom, which continued for the next 700 years. Late winter or early spring was the time to cut a yule log from their land or a friend’s land for the next year’s celebration. The large log that had to burn for the 12 twelve days of Christmas was dragged home and set to dry.

Spices, wine, and rum were periodically rubbed into the log. When burning, the spices gave a pleasant perfume-like aroma to remind everyone of the gifts of the Magi.

It was brought into the home on Christmas Eve. After the church bells rang that day, it was lit from a piece of last year’s yule log. Folks considered it a bad sign if the log didn’t light on the first attempt.

After the fire started, the family symbolically burned the year’s misfortunes by tossing sprigs of holly into the hearth. The Christmas story was told. The family played games and sang songs before eating a meal prepared over the yule log’s fire.

For the remainder of the 12 days of Christmas, the women tended the fire because it was considered bad luck for it to die out early. A small piece of the yule log was then saved to ignite the next year’s fire.

Centuries passed. As huge hearths became a thing of the past, the yule logs were only required to burn 12 hours.

The French replaced the traditional yule log with a buche de Noel. This log-shaped cake was served after Christmas Eve’s midnight mass.

So, yule logs are usually a sweet treat these days.

It’s fun to learn the surprising history behind this modern holiday tradition.



Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Zondervan, 2003.

“Yule Log,” Wikipedia, 2020/11/13 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yule_log.



Death of an Imposter by Deborah Sprinkle

Bernie Santos never expected to begin a murder investigation her first week as detective. After all, this was the quiet community of Pleasant Valley. Nor did she expect to meet a handsome doctor. Bad things seem to happen around him. Is it a coincidence?

Dr. Daniel O’Leary comes to town to help his aunt with autopsies—at least that’s his story. He’s really an undercover FBI agent working on a case. He doesn’t expect to fall in love with the police detective who suspects him.

This story grabbed my attention and held on. Suspenseful. Fast-paced. Action-packed. Real, believable characters. I had no idea of the killer’s identity until just before the detectives discovered it.

This book was a page turner for me. I recommend this book to those who love action-packed romantic suspense novels.

I’ll look for more books by this author!

-Sandra Merville Hart


New Year’s Day Dinners in the 1870s

by Sandra Merville Hart

My dad always wanted black-eyed peas as a side dish on New Year’s Day. He said that it brought good luck into the new year. I’ve carried on this tradition for my family.

Looking for ideas for meals to serve on the first day of the year?

Here are some suggestions for New Year’s Day from an 1870s cookbook.

Suggestions for meat dishes:

Raw oysters, mock turtle soup;

Boiled turkey with oyster sauce;

roast haunch of venison, currant jelly;

deviled crabs;

cold sliced ham

There were plenty of side-dishes:

Beets, stuffed cabbage, potato souffle, baked turnips, lima beans, dried corn, canned pease (peas);

Indian bread, French rolls, biscuits, rye bread;

Chicken salad;

Celery, cold slaw garnished with fried oysters, pickled walnuts, variety of pickles;

Plums, peaches, sweet pickled cucumbers, gooseberries, spiced currants

There were lots of dessert choices:

English plum pudding, Bohemian cream; Orange souffle,

Pies—mince, potato, and chess;

Cakes—black, Phil Sheridan, pyramid pound;

Oranges, figs, nuts, raisins

Beverage choices were coffee, tea, and chocolate.

If you are wondering what to serve for New Year’s Day dinner, there are plenty of choices here!


Compiled from Original Recipes. Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, Applewood Books, 1877.


The First Christmas

by Sandra Merville Hart

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee to a virgin pledged to be married to man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Matthew 1:26-28 (NIV)

Joseph paced back and forth in his carpenter’s shop, hardly knowing what was best to do. Mary had promised herself to him … yet she had returned with child from a visit at her aunt’s home.

She had been gone three months. Did it take so little time for her to forget her promise to marry him? To be true to him?

He had no union with her. They had waited for their wedding vows. And now her betrayal tore his very heart from his chest.

Never had he considered this possibility, that his sweet Mary would return as a pregnant woman. He raked his fingers through his dark hair. How he loved her.

Did she really expect him to believe that an angel had visited her? She said the child she carried was the son of the Most High and that He was to be called Jesus. Really? They had long awaited a Savior, and to blame her indiscretion on the Lord when she had obviously fallen in love with another man was more cruel than the act itself.

Yet Joseph loved her, even though she had betrayed him. He would not bring public disgrace upon her. He’d divorce her quietly.

With a heavy heart, he lay down on his mat expecting sleep to be a long time in coming. He fell asleep and an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.

“Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”*

Joseph awoke with a sense of wonder, as if a heavy burden tumbled from his back. Mary had been telling the truth … the angel confirmed it.

His head spun to marvel that he, a poor carpenter, was being entrusted to raise Jesus along with Mary. God’s own Son.

Highly favored, indeed. Just as the angel told Mary.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7 (NIV)


*Matthew 1:21b-22 (NIV)


A Joyful Christmas

What a nice collection—all six historical stories are set during Christmas. They all have a “feel good” ending, which I really like. I read all six stories in a weekend so my interest was captured and held throughout for almost all of them.

Of course, I have my favorites. An Irish Bride for Christmas by Vickie McDonough tugged at my heart. Jackson’s niece is kept from him and Larkin believes the lies told about him.

Christmas Service by Erica Vetsch was a touching story with a great ending.

Under His Wings by Liz Tolsma had characters that readers will love—and one they definitely won’t.

A Star in the Night by Liz Johnson and Shelter in the Storm by Carrie Turansky were page turners for me. Not only were they set during the Civil War, but also the same location as one of my novels—the area of Franklin, Tennessee.

A portion of my Civil War romance, A Musket in My Hands, takes place a year later. The tragic Battle of Franklin happened on November 30, 1864, and is an important part of my story.

-Sandra Merville Hart



by Sandra Merville Hart

I recently found that Christmas dinner in the 1870s included lots of desserts. One of them was a cookie called peppernuts. This Danish cookie is also known as Pfeffernusse. To my knowledge, I’ve never eaten or even seen this cookie and decided to try it.

There are no nuts or pepper or spices in the 1870s by Mrs. Emma G. Rea, so I imagined the cookie earned its name from being small-sized. I found a modern recipe that contained ground almonds and several spices—cardamom, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice, and nutmeg. I decided to make both recipes and compare.

For the 1870s recipe, combine 1 cup of sugar with ½ cup butter until completely blended. Stir in 2 beaten eggs and 2 tablespoons of milk.

Mrs. Rea’s recipe then calls for “flour enough to roll.” There’s a lot of guesswork with these historical recipes. I started out with 1 cup of flour and mixed in 1 teaspoon of baking powder with it. Then I added a ¼ cup of flour at a time until it was just “enough to roll,” about 1 ¾ cups in total.

I chilled the dough for about 30 minutes.

I used a method from the modern recipe that suggested rolling the dough into half-inch ropes and slicing into half-inch pieces. This was quick and easy.

Bake at 375 degrees 8 – 10 minutes or until lightly brown.

The cookies flattened out in the baking, so I’ll increase the flour next time I bake them to 2 cups.

These cookies were delicious! What an easy cookie recipe with ingredients usually kept on hand. The cookies reminded me of vanilla wafers, even though there is no vanilla in them. Family who tried them went back for more again and again.

I then made the modern recipe that used ground almonds and several spices. Delicious! I chilled this dough about 30 minutes the same as the first recipe. These cookies use more flour and retained their shape in the oven.

My husband prefers the old-fashioned recipe. They are so different that it didn’t seem like the same cookie to me. I liked them both.


Compiled from Original Recipes. Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, Applewood Books, 1877.

Ojakangas, Beatrice. “Peppernuts, Food Network, 2020/11/23 https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/peppernuts-recipe-1955898.

A Christmas Tradition: Epiphany

by Sandra Merville Hart

Epiphany is a word that Christians use to describe the day that the Magi from the East found Jesus. The meaning of epiphany is a sudden, striking realization.

The Twelve Days of Christmas begin on December 25th with a celebration of the Jesus’ birth and end on January 6th, which is traditionally celebrated as the day the Magi’s visit.

In the Middle Ages, Epiphany was also known as Twelfth Night or King’s Day.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria of England turned this celebration into a family celebration in middle of the nineteenth century. It celebrated the Magi’s revelation at finding the Christ child.

The holiday season was celebrated from Christmas Eve to the Eve of Epiphany, when families sang songs and took down decorations. They attended church services on the Eve of Epiphany. Aromas from baked or simmered herbs reminded Christians of the Magi’s gifts.

Children left food for the wise men and hay for their camels that night. The food was usually gone the next morning, replaced by gold coins. This gift-giving was gradually replaced by Santa Claus in the United States and Father Christmas in England late in the 1800s.

Children in Germany dress up as Magi on January 6th and follow a child holding a star to find baby Jesus.

Epiphany is called “King’s Day” in parts of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Argentina. Wise men leave presents on the Eve of Epiphany. “King’s cake” is often served as part of the next day’s celebration.

Children fill shoes with barley for the Magi’s livestock in Italy and Spain.

A ship sails into many Spanish seaports on the morning of Epiphany with the Magi on board. These wise men give candy to children lining the sidewalks.

It’s fun to discover some of the different traditions associated with the 12 Days of Christmas.



Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Zondervan, 2003.

Kennedy, Lesley. “How 25 Christmas Traditions Got Their Start,” History, 2020/11/12


Christmas at Carnton by Tamera Alexander

Aletta Prescott struggles to make ends meet for her young son. She just lost her husband in this War Between the States as well as her job. Her baby is due in a couple of months and there’s no money to pay the mortgage. She prays for help.

Captain Jack Winston, a sharpshooter in the Confederate army, is recovering from battle wounds. His eyes aren’t healing as fast as he’d like. He yearns to get back to the battles but instead his colonel assigns him the task of assisting the Women’s Relief Society in Franklin, Tennessee.

Aletta feels fortunate to land a temporary position at the Carnton Plantation but she thinks the captain could better serve his country on the battlefield.

I really liked this story. It was a page turner for me. The characters were lovable and real. The struggles of the wives left back home while their husbands were at war tugged at my heart.

Part of the reason it snagged my interest was the setting—Franklin, Tennessee, in 1863. A portion of my Civil War romance,  A Musket in My Hands, takes place a year later. The tragic Battle of Franklin happened on November 30, 1864, and is an important part of my story.

-Sandra Merville Hart


Christmas Dinner in the 1870s

by Sandra Merville Hart

Christmas dinner is a big meal at our house. We roast a turkey large enough to feed the family and provide leftovers for pot pies and sandwiches. There are plenty of side dishes with everyone’s holiday favorites. Dessert always includes at least pumpkin and chocolate pies. There are plenty of Christmas cookies too.

I thought this was a big meal until I read suggestions for Christmas dinners in an 1870s cookbook.

Here are the meats:

Clam soup, baked fish, Holland sauce;

Roast turkey with oyster dressing and celery or oyster sauce, roast duck with onion sauce, broiled quail, chicken pie

There were numerous side-dishes:

Baked potatoes in jackets, sweet potatoes, baked squash, stewed carrots, turnips, canned corn, southern cabbage, tomatoes, canned pease (peas);

Graham bread, rolls; plum jelly, crabapple jelly;

Salmon salad or herring salad, pickled cabbage, mangoes, French or Spanish pickles, Chili sauce, gooseberry catsup; and

Beets, sweet pickled grapes, and spiced nutmeg melon.

There were lots of dessert choices:

Christmas plum pudding with sauce, Charlotte Russe;

Pies—mince, peach, and coconut;

Cakes—citron, White Mountain, pound, Neapolitan, and French loaf;

Cookies—peppernuts, ladyfingers, centennial drops, almond or hickory nut macaroons;

Candy—coconut caramels, chocolate drops;

And even ice cream!—orange or pineapple

Beverage choices were coffee, tea, and Vienna chocolate.

If large families (grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins) prepared even a third of these dishes, they undoubtedly had one thing in common with us—leftovers!


Compiled from Original Recipes. Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, Applewood Books, 1877.




A Christmas Tradition: Christmas Stockings

by Sandra Merville Hart

Modern Christmas stockings are large enough to hold fruit and small gifts, but this tradition had humble beginnings.

Hundreds of years ago, poor children often had only one pair of stockings (socks) so they washed them each night and hung them by the fireplace to dry. The next morning, they donned warm, dry stockings.

A priest named Nicholas ministered to families in his town of Patara and the whole area of what’s now known as Turkey in the fourth century. Nicholas, a wealthy man who became an archbishop while still in his twenties, had a generous heart for poor families, especially children.

Metaphrastes, a Christian author who lived in the tenth century, wrote that Nicholas learned of a poor widower while traveling outside his parish. He and his three teenaged daughters were starving to death. The father considered selling one of them into slavery to provide dowries for the others so at least two could marry, but he couldn’t do it.

The desperate father prayed for help. That night, some one opened a window, dropped a gold coin in the oldest daughter’s stocking, and quietly left.

The widower thanked God for the miracle. The coin was used to provide a dowry for his daughter and she was married. Then a gold coin was found in the next daughter’s stocking one morning. She was soon married. Later, the same thing happened for the youngest daughter. It always happened when Nicholas was nearby.

Adults and children in the region began checking their stockings daily. Nicholas traveled often to perform his duties and was known for his generosity.

It was around 350 when Nicholas died on December 6th. It became known as St. Nicholas’s Day. Children hung their stockings the night before hoping to find a treat the next morning. Often, they found one.

Stockings were associated with St. Nicholas’s Day for centuries. Then a poem by Clement Clarke Moore called “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” was published in 1823. It later became known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and changed the date the stockings were hung to Christmas Eve.

Traditional gifts in stockings are symbolic. Oranges symbolize Nicholas’s gift of gold to the widower and his daughters. Apples are for health. Walnuts are for good luck.

It’s fun to learn the surprising history behind this modern holiday tradition.


Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Zondervan, 2003.

Spivack, Emily. “The Legend of the Christmas Stocking,” Smithsonian Magazine, 2020/11/13 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-legend-of-the-christmas-stocking-160854441/.