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Friday, December 28, 2012

Discoveries in Diaries and Letters

Through reading diaries of those who lived in Georgian England one can glean any number of interesting things, things Georgians easily understood but which have passed almost into obscurity after two centuries of disuse.

For example, did you know that black wax was used to seal letters bearing news of one's death? I learned this in a letter in which the writer apologized thusly, "I have sealed my letter with black wax for too good a reason, so don't be alarmed. I have no red."

Illustration by Debra Wenlock
There's another factoid: letters were normally sealed with red wax. (This was verified by images on the internet.)

In the same book of letters, an aristocratic child wrote, "My mama writes in the carriage. She has a little table in it." Of course, I had to steal that to use in one of my books!

That same child, in another letter, references the real wood fires they only had at their country home. That casual comment alerted me to the fact they did not have wood fires at their town house in London. Of course, they used coal in the city! Had I erred in an earlier book? I certainly know better now than to have wood fires in London.

Some of the more interesting of those little-known occurrences of two centuries ago revolve around travel. Englishmen traveling in Italy during the summer slept in the daytime and traveled in their coaches only at night because the heat in the carriages could be too oppressive.

Perhaps the most interesting travel tidbit is how the wealthy Englishmen crossed the mountains. Their entire carriages had to be disassembled and carried over the passes by crews hired for this purpose. Crews also carried the aristocratic passengers along these treacherous areas by sedan-type chairs. Once the passes were cleared, the carriages were reassembled.
I'm currently reading the Grand Tour journal written by England's once-wealthiest commoner, William Beckford, and will share its enlightening facts in the next blog.

Cheryl Bolen is the launch romance author for Montlake's Amazon serial, Falling for Frederick, which begins Jan. 8.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Trees

When we think of a historical Christmas, most of us picture a Charles Dickens Christmas complete with a goose or turkey and a Christmas tree, but the English haven’t always had Christmas trees.

Early on, they decorated yew trees with small gifts or candy. But this tradition was not wide-spread until about the 1840's.

Queen Victoria 's husband, Prince Albert, decorated the first Christmas tree in Windsor Castle about 1841, according to some sources. Albert was from Germany, a place where they’d long used Christmas trees. He decorated a tree using candles, candies, and paper chains. The custom, although not entirely new, spread across England, and before long all of the English had Christmas trees just like the queen's. And shortly thereafter, so did the Americans.

Over time, people started to use more elaborate decorations on their trees, including gingerbread men, marzipan candies, hard candies, cookies, fruit, cotton-batting Santas, paper fans, tin soldiers, whistles, wind-up toys, pine cones, dried fruits, nuts, berries, and trinkets of all kinds. They often hung cornucopias filled with sweets, fruit, nuts and popcorn on their trees. Small homemade gifts such as tiny hand-stitched dolls or children's mittens were also popular. Beautiful angels were the tree toppers of choice, and some families set up a Nativity scene under the tree using moss for grass and mirrors for ponds.
By around 1860, people started buying German ornaments including glass icicles and hand-blown glass globes called "kugels" which evolved into our modern-day Christmas balls. Here is a picture to the right of a kugel.  Isn't it gorgeous?

They also decorated with embossed silver and gold cardboard ornaments in many shapes called "Dresdens."  I tried to find a picture, but I can't always tell if a picture is copyrighted or not unless there's a clear copyright symbol or a watermaark, but there are some beautiful pictures of Dresdens here.

Decorating a Victorian-looking tree today would be pretty simple without investing a great deal of money. Here are a few things you could do to get that old-fashioned, Victorian effect. 

1. String popcorn and cranberries to make a garland. My children love to help do this and I do this every year on our family room tree filled with ornaments we've made over the year.
2. Shape small paper doilies into cornucopias and fill with candy.
3. Recycle old Christmas cards. Cut out shapes you like and attach them to the tree with ribbons to make your own customDresdens.
4. Make or buy small cookies to hang on the tree. You can decorate them with glitter or paint. I hear hairspray helps preserve t hem.
5. Spray nuts in the shell with gold or silver paint and glue a ribbon or cord to them so they'll hang on the tree.
6. Victorians used real candles, but I don’t recommend lighting real candles. Instead, buy strings of electric lights in the shape of candles -- some of them even flicker.
7. Fill the tree with small toys.
8. Add cherubs and lace fans, other Victorian favorites.
9. Hang decorative tassels.
10. Shape wide velvet ribbon into pretty bows.

 Do you have any favorite old family customs you do for Christmas?


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Regency Mistletoe

A Regency Christmas story wouldn't be complete without the hero and heroine celebrating their love with a kiss under the mistletoe. Long a symbol of fertility, mistletoe, with its glossy green leaves and white berries, has become a Christmas symbol of love and marriage.

Mistletoe is an evergreen, a spot of life in the brown, dormant landscape of a northern winter. At this low point of the year, Regency people decorated their houses with mistletoe, along with other seasonal greens such as Christmas rose (Hellebore), evergreen boughs, holly, ivy, hawthorn, laurel, rosemary, and bay, as a reminder that spring would return.

In England, mistletoe, which is a parasite, grows most often on apple trees, but also on blackthorn, hawthorn, lime, poplar, rowan and willow. Although its range extends from Devon to Yorkshire, the plant grows mainly to the south and west, and is particularly abundant around London.

Some of the myths surrounding mistletoe originated with the Druids, who deemed the plant a sexual symbol--the juice from the white berries resembles semen--and, by extension, an aphrodisiac. As part of their winter solstice ceremonies, they cut mistletoe from oak trees, providing a link to the later holiday of Christmas.

The origin of kissing under the mistletoe may derive from the Norse legend of the death of the sun god, Balder, killed by a sprig of mistletoe hurled by his enemy Loki. When Balder's mother, Frigga, the goddess of love, cried over her son, her tears resurrected him. In gratitude, she kissed everyone who came under the mistletoe.

A lesser known legend declares mistletoe the plant of peace. Enemies meeting under the mistletoe had to embrace and declare a truce until the next day. This goodwill and embrace may also be the source of the kiss under the mistletoe.

Regency people used mistletoe in the form of a kissing bough--a simple arrangement of mistletoe decorated with ribbons and hung over a doorway or entrance. The gentleman would kiss his lady and then pluck a white berry and present it to her, perhaps as a symbol of the child he could give her. When all the berries were gone, that sprig of mistletoe could no longer be used to steal kisses, although many people disregarded the berries' absence.

My Regency Christmas novella, Mistletoe Everywhere, incorporates the myth of enemies--in this case, the estranged hero and heroine--declaring a truce under the mistletoe. Short blurb: A man who sees mistletoe everywhere is mad--or in love.

More info at my website,

Available at The Wild Rose Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, All Romance Ebooks and other places where ebooks are sold.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

Thank you all,

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Western Author, Marsha Ward

Donna:  Today our special guest author is Western Author, Marsha Ward who writes gritty westerns mixed with adventure and a little romance. Marsha Ward is an award-winning writer, editor, and poet, whose published work includes four novels in The Owen Family Saga: The Man from Shenandoah, Ride to Raton, Trail of Storms, and Spinster’s Folly; and over 900 articles, columns, poems and short stories. She also is a workshop presenter and writing teacher, and is scheduled to give two classes at the ANWA Writers Conference in February, 2013.

Tell me about you as a person, Marsha. What are some of your favorite things?

Marsha: I'm a widow with four living adult children, six grandchildren, and a large extended family. I live in a rural environment in Arizona, where I can hear a creek flowing nearby and enjoy the seclusion afforded by many trees in the neighborhood. Like most writers, I'm a reserved, almost hermit-like person, and feel uncomfortable in crowds. However, I also love to travel, so tell me about a road trip, and I'm so there! In fact, I've put about 8,000 miles on my car this year between various writing conferences and a research trip to the Eastern United States.

My favorite things include the above-mentioned travel, learning new skills, helping other writers, and ice cream in all its varieties.

Donna:  We share a lot of the same favorite things! Tell me, what's the craziest, bravest, or stupidest thing you've ever done?

Marsha: Maybe the craziest thing I've ever done is hike along and wade through a river in Venezuela in an attempt to see monkeys. I can't recall if we actually got to see them, but I do remember the extremely sore muscles I got out of the trip.

Donna:  Yup, I'd consider wading through a rivers in Venezuela pretty crazy. So, what are you working on now? (besides marketing your new book :-)

Marsha: I'm doing research for my fifth book, Gone for a Soldier, which takes place during the American Civil War. I'm also working on several Secret Projects.

Donna:  Ohhh, secret, huh? That's fun.  What is your newest book about?

Marsha:  Spinster's Folly follows frontier teen Marie Owen's journey into a very scary situation, due to her anxiety over not having found a husband by her advanced age of eighteen. In post-Civil War years in rural Colorado, there weren't many choices available. Marie falls into the clutches of a sweet-talking, opportunistic man whose plans don't
mesh with the dreams of any young woman of good upbringing, let alone Marie's. The story includes action enough for male readers, romance enough for women, and adventure enough to raise the pulse rates of both genders.

Donna: It sounds wonderful! How can we find it?

Marsha: Purchase Spinster's Folly
as a print book at:
Smashwords (all ebook formats)
Autographs for all ebook formats are available at:

Donna: I love your books, Marsha, and I can’t wait to read the newest one, Spinster's Folly. Thank you so much for being here with me today!

Marsha’s website is at She blogs at "Writer in the Pines" and "The Characters in Marsha's Head" Find her on Facebook at

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Mistletoe Kisses

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is as ancient as it is fun. No one seems to know the true origin of kissing under the mistletoe, but most sources seem to trace it back to old Scandinavia. It probably stems from pagan rituals, as do most Christmas traditions, even Christmas itself.

Druids believed mistletoe possessed magical powers of healing—even against poison—and helped improve fertility. Other herbology claims mistletoe is both an aphrodisiac and an abortive plant, which might be why some of the earliest customs involved more than an innocent kiss.

In the Celitc language, mistletoe means literally, “all-healer.” Modern medicine cannot prove this, so it probably comes from superstition based on the phenomenon that even in the dead of winter, mistletoe stays green and healthy because it is feeding off the trees serving as its host. Druids performed a sacred sacrificial ritual underneath the mistletoe for the benefit of sick or infertile land and animals.

But getting back to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Its earliest uses are linked to its symbolism of peace. Supposedly warring parties would lay down their weapons and declare a truce while in the presence of mistletoe. Quarreling couples would kiss and make up underneath a sprig of mistletoe. This probably led later to the tradition to simply kissing anyone “caught” standing underneath the mistletoe, which later led to interesting--and not always innocent--situations. Until recently, the young man would traditionally pluck off one of the white berries after kissing a girl. When all the berries were plucked, the kissing, at least while under the mistletoe, also ceased. Reportedly, maids in a boarding house would wait under the mistletoe, get kissed, and then the men were expected to pay a shilling.

At one point, the "kissing bunch" became a Christmas decoration in England early American homes. The kissing bunch was constructed of two hoops tied into a round frame, then decorated with ribbons, holly, apples, oranges and other bright fruits. In the center of the frame rested figures of the infant Christ, Mary, and Joseph. A sprig of mistletoe hung below this.

In my Regency Christmas novella, A Winter's Knight, which is included in A Timeless Romance Anthology, Winter Collectiona mistletoe kiss leads to heart-rending choice.  A Winter’s Knight begins when Clarissa Fairchild’s coach breaks down in front of forbidding Wyckburg Castle, a place where generations of earls have murdered their young brides. An adventurer at heart, Clarissa is as horrified as she is fascinated. When she meets widower Christopher de Champs, Earl of Wyckburg, she's torn between fleeing for her life or uncovering the handsome earl's terrible secret which may land her in the middle of a deadly curse.

In my Christmas Regency novella, Mistletoe Magic,  there are lots of plots that center around a magical mistletoe kiss, but the end result is not what anyone expected!

So the next time you need a good kissing, stand under a bunch of mistletoe in the vicinity of a person you’d like to kiss, (bring your own mistletoe if necessary) and expect a kiss. Throat-clearing may help. But remember, no berry plucking or shilling paying necessary!