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A Christmas lesson from our pets. December 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. We try to stick to original content here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, but a friend sent me this story tonight and it brought tears to my eyes. If you love pets, I know it will touch you, too, so I’m reprinting it here. What a wonderful Christmas story!

            ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Rescues Happen Every Day

Her eyes met mine as she walked down the corridor, peering apprehensively into the kennels. I felt her need instantly and knew I had to help her.

I wagged my tail, not too exuberantly, so she wouldn’t be afraid. As she stopped at my kennel, I blocked her view of a little accident I had in the back of my cage. I didn’t want her to know that I hadn’t been walked today. Sometimes the shelter keepers get too busy, and I didn’t want her to think poorly of them.

As she read my kennel card, I hoped that she wouldn’t feel sad about my past. I have only the future to look forward to, and want to make a difference in someone’s life.

She got down on her knees and made little kissy sounds at me. I shoved my shoulder and the side of my head up against the bars to comfort her. Gentle fingertips caressed my neck; she was desperate for companionship. A tear fell down her cheek, and I raised my paw to assure her that all would be well.

Soon my kennel door opened, and her smile was so bright that I instantly jumped into her arms. I would promise to keep her safe. I would promise to always be by her side. I would promise to do everything I could to see that radiant smile and sparkle in her eyes.

I was so fortunate that she came down my corridor. So many more are out there who haven’t walked the corridors. So many more to be saved. At least I could save one.

I rescued a human today.

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Let’s celebrate Scrooge (and a word about gruel) December 22, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was required reading every Christmas time in our friend Ben’s household. The family would gather by the fireplace basking in the firelight and the glow of the Christmas-tree lights, and take turns reading the Staves of the beloved Christmas classic aloud, frequently interrupted by appreciative roars of laughter at Ebenezer Scrooge’s outrageous behavior.

Our friend Ben’s Mama always feared she had raised a generation of vipers at this point, since she too had grown up with A Christmas Carol and wept over the plight of the crippled Tiny Tim, while her own children were extremely partial to the pre-reformation Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost and had no time for little Tim at all, though we did get a huge kick out of his father, Bob Cratchit, and his ludicrous—to us—attempts to get warm in the face of Scrooge’s disapproving tyranny. (Now that the adult Ben is shivering, with the thermostat set at 60 in an attempt to hold down fuel bills, I have a great deal more fellow feeling for poor Cratchit. But I digress.)

To this day, our friend Ben celebrates the season with my annual Scroogefest, with Silence Dogood, myself, and any friends who are willing watch as many film versions of A Christmas Carol as we can stand. Needless to say, we have an extensive collection, and all have their high and low points. Let me present some favorites so you can choose one or more versions to watch yourself this Christmas season. You might find yourself hosting a Scroogefest of your own! After the movie reviews, I have a book to recommend to true Scrooge enthusiasts, and then I’ll turn the computer over to Silence so she can say a word or two about Scrooge’s famous gruel and even provide a couple of gruel recipes for those daring enough to try it for themselves.

Without more ado, here are a host of Scrooges past and present:

Scrooge: The Albert Finney musical version is my hands-down favorite. It’s colorful, it’s larger than life, it’s hysterical, and it’s a real feel-good version. Our friend Ben will confess that I’m not much for musicals, but the music is actually good in this one, good enough so that Silence and I go around singing it for weeks afterwards. I love the humor, and the additional characters introduced in the film (chiefly poor folks in Scrooge’s debt) are well drawn and enrich the story rather than detracting from it. This version features my favorite Bob Cratchit, and the Cratchit family, including Tiny Tim and his adorable red-haired sister, are endearing rather than nauseating. Finally, the movie manages to provide a nice contrast between the opulence of the Victorian era for the wealthy and the bare-bones options provided for its poor.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol: This cartoon version was our friend Ben’s childhood favorite and remains a beloved must-see. Despite the obligatory nod to Magoo’s nearsightedness, and being forced to hear Jim Backus (the voice of Magoo) attempt to sing, I still find it a delight, and it’s true to both the plot and spirit of Dickens’s original. Like “Scrooge,” it’s a musical, and like “Scrooge,” the music is actually and astonishingly excellent. If you have kids or are a kid at heart, this one’s a must.

Scrooge: This 1935 black-and-white version, starring Sir Seymour Hicks as Scrooge, was to my knowledge the first film version made. It’s not a bad production at all, but the film techniques are so primitive it comes across as from the silent-film era, rather than appearing just four years before the lush color epics such as “Gone with the Wind.” Any outdoor action (and there seems to be quite a lot of it, I suppose it was considered quite progressive) causes the screen to go almost completely black. Depicting Marley’s Ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Future proved completely beyond the filmmaker’s talents, so they just did voice-overs; only the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is a much more solid and less ghostly presence, really gets a chance at screen time. Maybe it was just a low-budget issue, but yikes! If you’re an old-film buff, check it out; otherwise, fast-forward to the 1938 version, coming up next.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: By 1938, Scrooge appeared in color in a gentle, endearing version that young children (and sentimental types of all ages) would love. Reginald Owen plays the old miser rather differently from pretty much everybody else who’s attempted the role. In most cases, the actor does a very convincing job as the clutch-fisted old codger, but is unconvincing and even rather ghastly when he tries to make nice. But with his gentle face and twinkling eyes, Owen makes you believe in the good Scrooge and doubt his evil twin. Scrooge is not the only character who undergoes something of a sea change in this version. If you’re used (like our friend Ben) to seeing the Cratchit family portrayed practically in rags, drinking their Christmas toast out of chipped, mismatched mugs, you’ll get a shock when you see a portly, obviously well-fed Bob Cratchit and his comfortable Victorian family sitting down to dinner, looking more like the Alcotts in Little Women than a family in the poor underbelly of London’s Camden Town. Of interest to film and TV buffs are the appearance of Billie Burke, perhaps best known for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” as the Ghost of Christmas Past, wearing a hat that must be seen to be fully appreciated, and June Lockhart of later “Lassie” and “Lost in Space” fame in her first screen appearance as one of the Cratchit children (her parents, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, played Bob and Mrs. Cratchit).

A Christmas Carol: For many people, Alistair Sim’s star turn as Scrooge in this 1951 British black-and-white version is the definitive Scrooge of all time. Our friend Ben enjoys Sim’s performance and this version very much, but would never choose it as the only version I could have on a deserted island (in that case, give me Albert Finney’s “Scrooge” so I can sing along). My two-disc DVD gives viewers the option of the original B&W or a colorized version. I enjoy them both. But like many another version, I have a very hard time believing in Scrooge’s conversion; Sim is so convincing as the bad Scrooge that his attempt at being good Scrooge seems forced. Still, it’s a tour-de-force performance. If you’ve never seen a film version of “A Christmas Carol,” this—or the musical “Scrooge”—is the place to start.

A Christmas Carol: George C. Scott, with his hangdog features, seems the perfect actor to play Scrooge, and his 1984 interpretation is quite excellent. At least, it’s excellent while he’s still bad. You’ll love Scott as the crusty old miser. Whether you’ll warm to him as good Scrooge is another matter. One of our friend Ben’s favorite actors, Edward Woodward, plays the Ghost of Christmas Present in this version, and I’d assumed I would love him, but his performance is so self-conscious I was grossly disappointed. (If he thought the role was beneath him, he should have turned it down.) All told, though, I enjoyed this addition to the Christmas Carol canon.

A Christmas Carol: Our friend Ben was excited to hear that Patrick Stewart, who’s become one of the best actors of our age, had taken on the role of Scrooge in a one-man play on Broadway. I was crushed that I didn’t make it into New York during his run. But I was thrilled when I discovered that the play had been expanded into a movie in 1999, and bought the DVD sight unseen. Like George C. Scott, Stewart gives his Scrooge a nuanced interpretation, playing him down rather than playing him for laughs. I think his performance as the heartless Scrooge is perhaps the strongest ever. But his conversion fails to convince me, and you’ll have to see the infamous “heart attack” scene for yourself to decide whether you think it enhances or detracts from the story. I do like the Cratchit family in this version, and the Tiny Tim is the best ever (more like a youthful Harry Potter than a saccharine toothachey type).

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol: Our friend Ben would be remiss not to mention another all-time favorite, starring British comic genius Rowan Atkinson as Ebenezer Blackadder, reprising his role from the hysterical and acclaimed comedy series, along with great support from actors like Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Jim Broadbent, and Miranda Richardson. In this version, the scene opens on a Victorian Christmas Eve as Ebenezer Blackadder, the kindest man in England, attempts to spread good cheer despite his penurious circumstances. But a midnight visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, combined in the portly and fairly intoxicated personage of Robbie Coltrane, changes Ebenezer’s outlook forever, and he wakes a very different man. Like most episodes of “Blackadder,” this film is uneven, but it has enough great moments to make it a must-see if you enjoy parody and love A Christmas Carol. A surprise visit from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is a special treat, and the first mention of “Humbug!” on Ebenezer’s part ranks as one of the great moments of comedy, if you happen to know what a “humbug” is. Unfortunately, this film is only available on video for U.S. audiences (the DVD is configured for Europe and won’t play on our DVD players, what a great idea to make them incompatible), so unless you still have a VCR or VCR/DVD player, you’ll just have to hope that someday the distributors see the light. Talk about “Bah, humbug!!!”

Now, let’s talk about that book. Scrooge enthusiasts will be delighted to know that there’s a book by Paul Davis, The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (Yale University Press, 1990), which discusses how Scrooge and A Christmas Carol have been interpreted from its original publication in 1843 to the present time. Fascinating!

Please note that publication date, 1843: Far from being an out-and-out Victorian, Ebenezer Scrooge was actually a product of the Eighteenth Century, shaped more by the Regency period, the American and French Revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution, by social and societal upheaval, than by the self-satisfied prosperity we tend to associate, rightly or wrongly, with the Victorian era. (Victoria herself had ascended the throne as a slender and lovely 18-year-old in 1837, just six years before A Christmas Carol’s publication.) One last piece of trivia, which you may or may not know: Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which stands as his most enduring and popular literary work, in two weeks, to raise money to help him pay off a debt.

So there you have it. But as all Scrooge enthusiasts know, one of the most famous scenes in A Christmas Carol is the one in which Scrooge first encounters Marley’s Ghost, while he (Scrooge) is eating a bowl of gruel in front of his fireplace. Our friend Ben asked Silence Dogood, food historian that she is, to tell us more about the famous gruel and to see if she could scare up a recipe for us.

Silence Dogood here. Thanks for that ghastly, if not ghostly, pun, OFB. But let’s try to ignore it and turn our attention to gruel. When we think of Scrooge’s gruel, or any gruel, for that matter, we tend to think of oatmeal, a thick, nourishing porridge beloved of many of us. But oatmeal and gruel are by no means synonymous.

Gruel could be a thin, souplike mix of pretty much anything, from oats to barley or any grain, and combined with shreds of meat, broth, vegetables, or what-have-you. In other words, we moderns like to sweeten our oatmeal with brown sugar, maple syrup, or another syrup or sweetener, and have it with milk or cream, but in Scrooge’s day, gruel was a savory, soupy thing.

Because so many movies show Scrooge heading directly home from his counting-house to his meager fire and parsimonious bowl of gruel, it’s easy to forget that in the actual book, Charles Dickens had Scrooge go to his customary inn or restaurant for a full, hot meal before heading home. The only reason he had a bowl of gruel, as a sort of “nightcap,” was because he was nursing a head cold; it was more like a bowl of chicken noodle soup today, eaten to chase the cold, than actual sustenance.

Want to try your hand at gruel? I can’t say that you’ll love it, since I’ve never had it, but here are two variations, adapted from Helen Nearing’s Simple Food for the Good Life. Serve one up at your next Scroogefest to give your guests a taste of Christmas Past!  

     Fat Brose

Pour boiling vegetable stock over rolled oats and stir until desired thickness is achieved; add butter or oil to flavor and serve.

     Simplest Barley Soup

2 tablespoons butter or oil

4 onions, sliced

1 1/2 cups barley, soaked overnight in water to cover

1 heaping teaspoon dried thyme

dash soy sauce

veggie broth as needed

Heat butter or oil in a large skillet and saute onions until soft. Add the barley and its water (if any), and stir in the dried thyme. Transfer to a heavy stock pot or Dutch oven, and add enough vegetable stock to cover. Cook for an hour, adding more veggie stock as needed. Just before serving, stir in soy sauce.

Silence’s Amazing Cranberry Stuffing December 21, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. If you like your stuffing baked outside the turkey so it’s crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside, you’re going to love this. It’s vegetarian-friendly, too. (Fellow vegetarians, if you’re despairing over how to enjoy a rich, luscious Christmas dinner without the typical Christmas turkey or ham, seek no further. Search this blog for my incredible Curried Pumpkin Soup as a starter, or make Curried Carrots, which see, as a side dish. Make this stuffing, mashed potatoes, broccoli or asparagus or green beans with almonds, cranberry sauce or cranberry jelly, and perhaps a tossed salad or a fresh loaf of bread or rolls, and you will never want for Christmas dinner decadence again. Yum!!!)

I have made stuffing (sometimes called dressing) for many years, and have always loved it. But this year, I stumbled on a stuffing recipe that featured chestnuts, wild rice, brown rice, and homemade whole wheat croutons, along with dried cranberries. Hmmm, that sounded excellent. I hope to make it sometime this winter. But meanwhile, how could I make a faster, easier, but still luscious stuffing that was guaranteed to be delicious?

Here’s what I came up with, and I think it’s the best stuffing I’ve ever had. Mind you, many people would scoff at it as “semi-homemade,” since a bag of Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing substitutes for the croutons and rice in the other recipe. But I don’t mind. I grew up with Mama making stuffing using bags of Pepperidge Farm stuffing, and I know it keeps its flavor and crunch during cooking, so it’s traditional for me. 

        Silence’s Amazing Cranberry Stuffing

1 large bag Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing*

1 to 1 1/2 sticks butter

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup dried cranberries

1 cup pecan pieces

1-2 cups diced sweet onion (‘Vidalia’, ‘Walla Walla’ or ‘Candy’ type), to taste

1-2 cups minced button mushrooms, to taste

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon Trocamare, to taste (or substitute Herbamare or Real Salt)

2 1/2 cups veggie stock or broth (I’ve liked every one of the boxed veggie stocks I’ve tried, including Emeril’s, Kitchen Basics, etc.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Melt butter in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. (Use 1 1/2 sticks butter if you don’t plan to pour turkey gravy or juices over stuffing, 1 stick if you do.) Add olive oil, diced onion, herbs, and spices. When onion has clarified, add mushrooms. When mushrooms have cooked down, add dried cranberries and pecan pieces. Add veggie stock. Turn off heat and gently fold in Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing. Spoon mixture into a large rectangular oven-proof dish (9 x 13″, or two 8 x 8″ square dishes), and bake at 350 degrees for about 1/2 hour, or until top is crunchy but not burned and interior is succulent. Cover with aluminum foil until served. Serves 8-10. Leftovers reheat well, but don’t put them in the microwave or they’ll get mushy. Instead, pop them in the toaster oven or oven at 250-300 degrees until warmed through. Enjoy!

* Note to vegetarians: Most stuffing/dressing mixes, including most Pepperidge Farm bags, list some kind of chicken or turkey products as ingredients. But I’ve found that if you buy the Pepperidge Farm Herb Stuffing bags in November and December, they don’t list these ingredients. I always stock up then, since I love stuffing in winter, and use it as a crunchy topping for Summer Squash Casserole in summer. Read the labels carefully before buying.—Silence  

         ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

An old-time Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas. December 21, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood enjoyed our first Christmas celebration last night, traveling the snow-covered roads to our friends Carolyn and Gary’s house deep in the Berks County countryside. We drove for long stretches without meeting a single car, and the profound quiet of the snowy night, with Christmas lights twinkling through ice-coated branches, transported us to an earlier time. We could almost hear sleigh bells ringing.

This Old World mood continued when we reached Carolyn and Gary’s, the setting of our famous Friday Night Supper Club get-togethers. As we staggered in under our burdens of gifts, Silence’s amazing cranberry stuffing, curried carrots, and a massive and colorful salad, candlelight illuminated the faces of our friends Carolyn, Gary, Rudy, Betsy, and Rob. Binks the cat was curled up next to the woodstove, while the old dog, Jones, stationed himself near the table, hoping against hope for a scrap of roasted chicken skin or another delectable treat.

The table itself was adorned with a festive red tablecloth, red-and-green napkins, more candles, and red- and green-wrapped packages at each plate. The kitchen and dining room were filled with the mouthwatering smells of roasted chicken and gravy, homemade mashed potatoes, Silence’s amazing stuffing, cranberry jelly, broccoli, and the luscious orange “pennies” of the curried carrots. Everyone helped themselves to salad and food, wine and sparkling lime water were poured, and we made our way to the table.

But what really caught our attention were the smaller plates that Carolyn had carefully arranged at each place. They hearked back to a Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas tradition that followed the first German (“Dutch” is actually a corruption of “Deitsch,” the Pennsylvania German dialect for “Deutsch,” German) settlers here in the late Seventeenth Century, and that some “Plain” groups like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites still observe on Christmas Day.

The tradition is that on Christmas Eve, each child sets out a special plate at his or her place (or a special box in one of the deep windowsills the old-time stone farmhouses boasted). In the morning, the children would discover that the Christ Child, christ kindel, had filled their plates (or boxes) with special Christmas treats. These included apples or dried apple slices (schnitz), peanuts in the shell and/or other nuts, oranges, old-time pretzels, cookies, chocolates (a comparatively late-breaking addition), and the all-important colored sugar hard candy, called “clear toys,” which itself became known as the christ kindel or kris kringle. (Sound familiar?)

When our friend Ben thinks of hard candies, I tend to think of peppermint rounds, marble-like fruit-flavored “drops,” or even the elaborate ribbon candies that resemble their namesakes. But the Pennsylvania Dutch clear toys put all others to shame. They were made in brilliant Christmas colors—red, green, gold—in elaborate molds: deer, turkeys, baskets, peacocks, Santas, you name it. (They’re still being locally hand-made by a few old-timers at Christmas, but you have to look for them; we found some gorgeous ones at the Kutztown Farmers’ Market.) In some traditions, these glittering ornaments were also hung on the Christmas tree; Tasha Tudor always hung some on her great tree with her other Nineteenth-Century ornaments. But they’re older than the Christmas tree, which only became a tradition in England and America when Queen Victoria married her German Prince Albert and he brought the charming custom to England.

At any rate, we were enchanted by the quaint, delightful Christmas plates. Though their contents (except for the pretzels) were familiar to us from our beloved Christmas stockings, it looked especially festive arrayed on the plates. We brought the bounty home, so we could share the peanuts and homemade pretzels with our parrot Plutarch and the bluejays who visit our “cabin” feeder. And next year, perhaps we’ll create Christmas plates of our own.

Meanwhile, should you wish to try your hand at making authentic Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas cookies, Silence unearthed this recipe for Kutztown Jumbles—Kutztown is the closest town of any size to our home, Hawk’s Haven, so it seemed especially appropriate—from William Woys Weaver’s fantastic and beautiful book, Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking (Abbeville Press, 1993).

         Kutztown Jumbles

3 large eggs

2 cups superfine sugar*

1 cup sour cream

5 cups pastry flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg

confectioners’ sugar

aniseed

Beat the eggs until lemon colored, then gradually add the sugar. Beat until light and the sugar is dissolved, then add the sour cream. Sift together the flour, baking soda, mace, cinnamon, and nutmeg twice, then fold into the egg mixture to form a soft dough with the consistency of peanut butter. Cover and set aside to ripen overnight in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Dust a clean work surface liberally with confectioners’ sugar. Using the hands, roll large scoops of dough into the sugar to form long ropes about 1/2 inch in diameter. Cut these into 4-inch lengths and join at the ends to form rings. Scatter aniseed on greased baking sheets and lay the rings on the seeds. Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are golden brown on the bottom. Cool on racks and store in airtight containers.

Note: The confectioners’ sugar allows the dough to be handled, but too much handling rubs off the sugar. It is the generous coating of sugar that gives these jumbles their characteristic “crinkly snow” appearance.

* Silence says: Hmmm. I’d have assumed “superfine sugar” was confectioners’ sugar, but guess not. So I’d use plain old granulated sugar in this recipe for the “superfine sugar.” If you’re a stickler for accuracy, you might pound the granulated sugar with a rolling pin to break the crystals up so they’re “superfine.”

To learn more about Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas traditions, and especially about the Penna. Dutch “Santa Claus,” Der Belsnickel, see our earlier post, “A whole different Santa Claus.”

A whole different Santa Claus. December 20, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were happily browsing at our local bookstore one night this week when our friend Delilah ran up to us. “You have to read this!” she said, waving a book in our faces. “It’s hysterical!”

The book, it turned out, was Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas, by Chet Williamson and James Rice. Now, we live in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where Pennsylvania German (“Dutch” is a corruption of “Deitsch,” the dialect word for “Deutsch,” German) is still spoken, and you can still hear Dutchified English at local farmers’ markets and flea markets. “The yogurt cheese is all,” a woman will explain in a lilting accent to a disappointed customer, who has no need for a translation, as we did on first moving here: “it’s all been sold,” “it’s all gone.”

Having now been here a good many years, we could appreciate the droll humor of the book, in which Der Belsnickel, the Pennsylvania Dutch version of Santa Claus, arrives at the farmstead “chust” after the family has “outened the lights,” dressed as an elderly Amishman and riding on an old-time plow drawn by eight bemused-looking cows. (That would be “caaaaaahhh-us” in Penna. Dutch.)

FYI, this book is part of a series that includes Cajun Night Before Christmas, Texas Night Before Christmas, Gullah Night Before Christmas, Redneck Night Before Christmas, Sailor’s Night Before Christmas, and even Firefighter’s Night Before Christmas, so there’s no need to feel left out. And there’s a Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas Coloring Book, too, so the kids can color in the charmingly amusing illustrations for themselves.

Having not seen any of the others, our friend Ben can’t say how Santa is portrayed in them. As far as I know, in America, anyway, Der Belsnickel is the only actual Santa variant. (In Europe, good St. Nicholas, Sinterclaas, and others sometimes take the place of the Santa we know and love.) But seeing the Belsnickel in the gentle parody of the beloved classic reminded me of another Belsnickel-related incident that had happened mere weeks before.

Silence and our friend Ben were at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA for their annual Christmas crafts show and sale, featuring traditional Penna. Dutch crafts. We were with a group of friends when one held up a primitive handmade cookie cutter. “A woman asked me if this was supposed to be a reindeer!” she exclaimed. Everyone (except Silence and yours truly, who stood there staring at the cookie cutter in bemusement) roared with laughter. “Couldn’t she even recognize Der Belsnickel?!” someone gasped. Everyone laughed uproariously. Hmmm. It sure looked sort of reindeer-like to me and Silence.

All this reminded our friend Ben that perhaps it was time to look into the tradition of Der Belsnickel more closely. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the crusty old character:

“Belsnickel is the fur-clad Santa of the Palatinate (Pfalz) region of northwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald region of Baden-Wurttemberg. In Pennsylvania Dutch communities, it is also a mythical creature who visits children at Christmas time. If they have not been good, they will find coal and/or switches in their stockings. The Belsnickel was a scary creature not well loved except by parents wanting to keep their children in line.”

An excerpt from the Historical Review Press website has more to say: “To Pennsylvanian children of the 19th Century, the giver of Christmas gifts was not a benevolent old gentleman who dropped down a chimney to fill waiting stockings, but a menacing creature called the Belsnickel. Usually a neighboring farmer dressed in outlandish costume, Belsnickel brought goodies for well-behaved girls and boys, and carried a whip or sticks to punish the naughty. His visit was designed to strike terror into the hearts of the most recalcitrant, as he rattled his sticks over the window panes before bursting in the door.

“Customs varied from community to community, but the enormous role the Belsnickel played in Christmas celebrations in evidenced by the many cookie cutters, chocolate molds, dolls, papier-mache figurines, scrapbook cut outs, and postcards that survive from the era…. Usually American Belsnickels wore masks and carried whips to fighten the children. If a shaggy bearskin coat or skunk skin cap was available, so much the better, for they fulfilled the name, which translates ‘Nicholas in furs’. Grown ups remembering their own childhood were often amused by the figure, but children, vulnerable in their boundless belief, were genuinely frightened.”   

The article goes on to say that the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, with its portrayal of Santa Claus as a plump, hearty, jolly figure, rang the death knell over Der Belsnickel, who held on until the end of the Nineteenth Century but then faded into folklore in the face of the more benevolent Santa. However, you can still find him depicted in folk art and antiques, especially here in Pennsylvania Dutch country. And yes, he still tends to be skinny—the anorexic opposite of the “jolly old elf” whose ample belly shook when he laughed—still carries a big bundle of switches, and still looks really mean. But then again, maybe he’s just hungry!

The best Christmas presents for pets. December 19, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, homesteading, pets, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Let’s not forget our most faithful friends at Christmas, our pets, who love us gladly, unconditionally, and uncritically every day of the year. Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have a lot of pets: a dog, cats, a parrot, a parakeet, fish, a bunny, and, of course, our six heritage chickens out in the Pullet Palace. We try to make Christmas a special time for all of them.

Here are some suggestions for ways you can make Christmas joyful for your pets. Mind you, our friend Ben has never had alpacas, hamsters, mice, gerbils, hermit crabs, tarantulas, finches, turtles, or snakes. If anyone out there has these, or other pets I’ve overlooked, please send in your suggestions for great Christmas gifts for them! (Not to mention favorite gifts for your cat, dog, etc.)

Dogs: As any dog owner knows, dogs love food, and it takes very little to make them happy. Your dog would have a very merry Christmas if you fixed him a scrambled egg and buttered toast, gave her a modest portion of your turkey and stuffing or mashed potatoes, or handed out an oatmeal cookie or half a cranberry muffin, buttered biscuit, or quarter of a bagel and cream cheese. (Like us, our golden retriever, Molly, is especially partial to buttered potato skins.)

Dog bakeries have sprung up all over the country, and they specialize in wholesome, clever dog treats. If you put up a stocking for your dog, you could stuff it with a mixed bag of these, or make a batch of your own—it’s no harder than baking a batch of biscuits for the family. (I’ll include a recipe at the end of this post.)

For an older dog, there’s a special gift you can give that will make them much more comfortable and help them sleep better for the rest of their lives. Companies like Orvis (www.orvis.com) and L.L. Bean (www.llbean.com) carry a wonderful assortment of dog “nests,” or beds, that are comfy shaped cushion-beds in a variety of sizes and fabrics. They’re a great gift for dogs of every age. But for older dogs, they carry special foam-filled therapeutic dog nests that relieve pressure on an older dog’s joints. Our Molly loves hers, as do our cats, who often take it over entirely or curl up with her for a long winter’s nap.  

Cats: We’re firm believers that the simpler the cat toy, the better cats like it. A ping-pong ball makes a great cat toy. Catnip mice and other catnip-filled toys are always appreciated. One great source of handmade catnip toys filled with potent organic catnip is The Catnip Cafe (www.thecatnipcafe.com), and you can’t beat their prices, but you can find plenty of other sources online.

Our younger cats are also very partial to what we call “toys on sticks”—glittering plastic streamers at the ends of rods, feathers or toy “lures” on “fishing poles,” and the like. We’ve found ours at cat shows (a great source of quality cat toys) and craft shows, but you could even use a peacock feather for this. Of course, the success of these toys depends on your holding the business end of them and twirling them for your kitten’s or cat’s delight, but somehow I don’t think you cat lovers would mind devoting ten minutes a day to playing with your pets!

What you don’t want to give your cat are toys with small parts that could come off and be swallowed, like plastic eyes and feather tails, or toys he or she could choke on, like pieces of string. To be safe, our friend Ben suggests avoiding plastic toys altogether. And if you treat your cat to a peacock feather or “stick toy,” put it safely away when you’re not using it.

What about treats? We’ve found that, bizarrely, our cats simply love sweet breads, like pumpkin and banana breads. If you happen to have any of these, or muffins, on hand, you might try sharing a fragment with your cat. They also like a bit of sauced pasta, a fragment of cheese, and (occasionally) a piece of dry dogfood! You’re not suppposed to give cats tuna fish, which is apparently addictive to them, but on Christmas Day, perhaps a little wouldn’t hurt, or a bit of sardine or turkey.

Birds: Parrots and parakeets are very smart, and they love toys and treats as much as anyone. Parrots are omnivores, and will relish “people food” as the greatest treat. Like us and our dog Molly, our Plutarch the Parrot loves a piece of buttered potato skin, some popcorn or a pizza crust, or a few strands of spaghetti and sauce. He also enjoys pieces of most fruits and vegetables, cheese, bread, tortilla chips, hardboiled eggs, and (sure enough) crackers. Cashews and other nuts are favorites, too. Our parakeet Willow enjoys “honey treats,” the sticks and bells of birdseed “glued” together with honey-water. We also try to make sure she always has a mineral block and millet spray in her cage.

It may not be too festive, but one of the best gifts you can give a pet bird (or any pet) is to make sure they have the best-quality food you can afford and supplements like wheatgrass, spirulina, and vitamins. Good health is the greatest gift! 

Toys for parrots can range from the simplest—a wine cork—to rather elaborate. Plu’s favorite is a coconut cut in half and hung on a chain, with fiber ropes and beads hanging from the bottom. He must be a musician at heart—he loves clapping the coconut halves together, and he also loves ringing heavy metal bells and chimes. Our pionus parrot, Marcus Hookbill, preferred rawhide strips with wooden beads on the ends, which he would elaborately unknot. Our parakeet, Willow, also enjoys toys, including various bells, swings, and interactive toys. Having a selection of durable, well-made toys on hand—no cheap plastic toys that can shatter—and rotating them will keep your pet bird engaged and entertained. For a source of high-quality handmade bird toys, check out the offerings at Beakapoo (www.beakapoo.com), or visit a bird specialty store.

Fish: We feel quite strongly that fish deserve a better life than most people give them. Maybe it’s because we’re passionate gardeners, but we believe in landscaping all our aquariums with plenty of live plants. Fish, snails, shrimp, and all aquarium residents love the shelter plants provide, they add interest to the tank, and herbivores like goldfish will relish them. We also believe in treating them to the frozen blocks of “fresh food” that you can buy at pet and specialty aquarium stores. We like to get an assortment of frozen spirulina, brine shrimp, bloodworms, and etc., and give our fish a block once a week. If you’ve never done this, watching the ecstatic reaction of the fish as they rush to enjoy the fresh treat will convince you that it’s worth keeping a carton on hand in your freezer. Our favorite source of high-quality fish food, plants, and interesting aquarium denizens is Arizona Aquatic Gardens (www.azgardens.com).

Bunnies: Yes, bunnies do love carrots, especially organic carrots. (“Baby” organic carrots are excellent treats.) They also love lettuce and a wide variety of greens, including dandelions, endive, and chicory, and breads of all kinds. A great treat for your bunny would be some alfalfa or timothy hay, available in mini-bales at most pet stores. And to help their digestion, enzyme tablets made of papaya extracts are excellent treats (bunnies eat them like candy). One online source of Oxbow Papaya Tablets is Chinchillas.com (www.chinchillas.com), which also gives an unbiased overview of their effectiveness. Some bunnies enjoy wooden toy treats as well, which help them keep their teeth trimmed. 

Chickens: Our friend Ben and Silence wouldn’t dream of neglecting our chickens, who provide us with the best eggs on this planet, at Christmas. Like dogs and parrots, chickens are omnivores. They enjoy breads, pasta, tomatoes, popcorn, French fries, all kinds of greens, and pretty much any kind of leftover or scrap you have on hand, including pepper cores. (Ours even relish leftover cooked broccoli, as long as it has a bit of lemon-butter sauce on it, and of course, they too love potato skins.) We also like to give them a hay bale to play with at Christmas. We put the bale in their enclosed yard, cut the plastic ropes that hold it together and pull them off, and let the chickens rip into the bale. They love it!

Okay, that’s it for us, with one caveat: Never, ever, give any pet anything that contains chocolate, which is poisonous to them. (We confess that this makes us a bit nervous on our own behalf.) And our friend Ben would add, never, ever, give a pet some plasticy, no-ID food thing that you would not be willing to eat yourself. If it looks suspect, it is suspect. Don’t poison your pets with chemical-laced concoctions. Keep it simple and wholesome: They’ll love it anyway.

Oops, Silence reminds me that I promised to give you a simple homemade dog-biscuit recipe at the end of this post. Silence liked the “Cheesy Dog Biscuit Treats” recipe given on the GourmetSleuth site (www.gourmetsleuth.com), except for one horrific fact: They use margarine as an ingredient instead of butter. Don’t do it! Your poor dogs! Use butter instead. Here’s the recipe, with butter instead of margarine. Check the site for many other homemade dog-treat recipes, including vegetarian and vegan options.

                 Cheesy Dog Biscuit Treats

1 cup rolled oats

1/3 cup butter

1 cup boiling water

3/4 cup cornmeal

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons chicken or beef flavored instant bouillon

1/2 cup milk

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 egg, beaten

2-3 cups whole wheat flour

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine oats, butter, and boiling water; let stand 10 minutes. Then add cornmeal, sugar, bouillon, milk, cheese, and egg; blend well. Lightly spoon flour into measuring cup. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition to form a stiff dough.

Silence says you can drop this batter from a spoon onto a greased cookie sheet and bake into dog treats. But if you want to make perfect dog biscuits, you need to take another step: On a floured surface, knead in the remaining flour until dough is smooth and no longer sticky, 3 to 4 minutes. Roll or pat out dough to 1/2-inch thickness, then cut with cookie cutters (bone-shaped, dog-shaped, or any shape) and place 1 inch apart on greased cookie sheets. Bake 35-45 minutes at 325 degrees F. Cool and store. Makes 3 1/2 dozen large dog biscuits or 8 dozen small dog treats. Can be refrigerated or frozen for longer life.

Christmas bookmarks. December 18, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I saw the most clever thing at my local library yesterday. There was a basket at the front desk full of cheerful Christmas-themed bookmarks, with a “Take One” sign in front. Each bookmark was colorful and unique. And they were hand-made from recycled Christmas cards!

As I looked through them, I saw that the person who made them had chosen strips from the cards that showed something interesting, so each bookmark told a story, rather than simply cutting them up in even strips. Then she had used a hole-puncher to cut a neat hole at the top of each bookmark and tied a strip of ribbon in it using a loop knot. (I’m not sure that’s its actual name, but you know what I mean: You align the two ends of the ribbon evenly so the bottom forms a loop, then, leaving the loop on one side of the bookmark, run the two ends over the top, through the hole, and up through the loop, pulling them to tighten the “knot.”)

I thought these bookmarks were just delightful. If you’re giving books this Christmas, adding one to each book would really “dress up” your gift. And, of course, you could make them out of any greeting cards to give with books at any time of year. Or make some for yourself as a way of preserving favorite cards. But I especially love the idea of putting a Christmas-themed bookmark in a gift copy of a Christmas classic like The Night Before Christmas or A Christmas Carol. Charming!

You could make these bookmarks in minutes. And best of all, you’d only need cards, ribbon, scissors, a ruler, and a hole-puncher. No fancy equipment, no special skills, just a good eye and a love of reading. That works for me!

              ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

The gift of fire. December 17, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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We had our first real snow last night here at Hawk’s Haven, our little cottage located in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. (We had torrential rains rather than the snow and ice that blanketed much of the Northeast and caused massive power outages last week; some of our friends are still without power. Our sympathies to all who have been and/or still are suffering the effects of that storm!)

A snowstorm always brings our friend Ben’s thoughts to primal concerns: Are we well supplied to ride out this storm? Do we have plenty of food for ourselves and our animals, seed for the wild birds, an ample supply of water, a full tank of oil for the furnace? Do we have sufficient batteries for our lanterns, candles and matches, and wood for our woodstove in case the power fails?

Thinking of our trusty little woodstove brings our friend Ben’s thoughts to the gift of fire. From the dawn of man, fire was the great gift: the source of heat, of light, of flavorful and safe-to-eat food, of safety. The Keeper of the Flame may strike us moderns as sentimental nonsense, but through the long, dark, cold millennia before humans learned how to create fire from flint and tinder, nurturing the coals that would keep a group’s fire alive was considered such a vital job that it was generally the responsibility of the shaman or high priest. If those coals—the source of fire—went out, a group’s only hope rested in finding a wildfire or bartering with another group for a few precious coals from their fire, an iffy proposition at best.

Today, thanks to electricity, fossil fuels, nuclear power, and solar energy, few of us are dependent on home-generated fire for warmth, light, cooked food, clean clothes, and hot water.  (For now, anyway… ) But some are, and many more still enjoy the inviting warmth and hypnotic flames of a woodstove, open fireplace, or outdoor fire pit or chiminea. This universal love of fire links us across time, through all our uncountable generations, to our most distant ancestors and the dawn of human civilization.

It is often claimed—and with excellent reason—that the development of agriculture was the basis for civilization, enabling peoples to stay in one place and build cities rather than living a nomadic life of hunting and gathering. But our friend Ben believes that it was the secret of fire, that very keeping of the flame, that allowed civilization to take place. Without fire to cook the products of agriculture, to light and heat the home, how could a civilization rise? But I digress. 

My point here is that, though unconventional, the gift of fire is still a great choice for a Christmas present. If you have friends or family with a fireplace or woodstove that you know they use and enjoy, consider giving them wood for their fire. Whether it’s a bundle or a cord, let me assure you, it would be very welcome!

If wood is too primitive a gift for you to contemplate, consider giving its more civilized accompaniments. Many home catalogues now offer fatwood kindling in a wide variety of sizes, prices, and containers, from plain cardboard boxes and burlap bags to ornate brass and copper kettles. (Fatwood is bright-burning kindling made from harvested pine tree stumps.) They also offer an attractively gift-packed assortment of fire-starters, including pine cones dipped in wax and coloring chemicals to make colorful blue, green, and red flames leap in your fire.

Our friend Ben is acquainted with three companies that offer fatwood and other fire-related items, Plow & Hearth (www.plowandhearth.com), Orvis (www.orvis.com), and L.L. Bean (www.llbean.com), and there are doubtless many others. And don’t forget those other essentials, long matches and candles. You’re bound to be able to find those locally, and they’re bound to be appreciated. At this time of the year, real bayberry candles, beeswax candles, and cinnamon-scented beeswax candles, all of which are usually artisan-made, are especially appreciated. They’re little luxuries that some of us sigh over but won’t indulge in, since we’re buying presents for everybody else’s Christmas. What a delight to find some under our tree!

Consider giving the gift of fire to someone you love this year. It was the first gift. It’s still one of the best.

The yummy dessert with the yucky name. December 16, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Chocoholics, listen up: It’s time to share the recipe for the hands-down most luscious chocolate dessert I have ever eaten. But it’s also the dessert with the worst name I’ve ever heard, a name that’s so embarrassing that you have to steel yourself every time someone tastes it and says “This is the best dessert I’ve ever had! What’s it called?” You’re oh-so-tempted to lie, to just make a name up on the spot. But it’s not your recipe. So you gulp, take a deep breath, and say, “It’s a Chocolate Yummy-Rummy.” But you try very hard not to say it until after the person has already tasted it and is hooked.

Our friend Ben’s mama discovered Chocolate Yummy-Rummies in a Nashville Junior League cookbook when OFB was a child. They were easy to make and tasted indecently decadent—perfect for the Christmas season. They immediately became part of Ben’s family’s holiday traditions, and a battered recipe card now resides in my rolltop card box and emerges every year to take its place in our Hawk’s Haven Christmas celebration as well. Once you taste them, you’ll want to add them to yours. They’re so easy, and you can make them the day before; they’ll taste even better the next day!

Be warned, though: Like Ben’s Simms Family Eggnog (see OFB’s earlier post, “The Christmas spirit,” for the eggnog recipe), once friends and family have tasted Yummy-Rummies, they’ll want them every year, in spite of their name. (What was that woman thinking?! Maybe she’d been enjoying the leftover rum when she came up with that brilliant idea. But bless her for the recipe, anyway.) And trust me, you won’t mind making up a batch or two every year, either! Here’s all there is to it:

         Chocolate Yummy-Rummy

12-ounce package Tollhouse semisweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup strong coffee (or 1 teaspoon instant in 1/2 cup boiling water)

4 1/2 tablespoons rum (we prefer Bacardi light rum, silver label for this)

6 eggs, separated

whipped cream and pecan pieces for topping (optional)

Whip egg whites stiff. In a separate bowl, beat yolks with a fork. Heat coffee to boiling and add semisweet chocolate chips, stirring constantly so they don’t stick and burn. When they’re completely melted, remove from the heat and gradually stir in the beaten egg yolks. Add the rum, mixing well. Gently fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites, a half bowl at a time. Pour into dessert cups and refrigerate at least 12 hours before serving. Top with whipped cream (homemade, please) and/or pecan pieces if desired just before serving. (We like both toppings together.) Serves 8 to 10.

See? I told you it was easy! (But I didn’t say it wasn’t messy. Wear a full-body apron to prevent splattering chocolate and whipping cream from getting on your clothes.) Speaking of clothes makes me think of what this dessert reminds me of: The texture is like silk, the flavor like velvet, the finish like satin. It’s not a pudding, a mousse, or a dessert souffle, but there’s something of each in it. Yummy! Try it, serve it: You’ll be so glad you did. But, please: Let people try it before you reveal its name!

           ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

A Christmas tree for the birds. December 15, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about making Christmas bright for your feathered friends. Something that’s fun for you and your family and good for the wild birds is an outdoor Christmas tree just for them. Here’s how to make one:

First, you need to choose the right tree. Since, between the birds eating the decorations and the weather, the tree won’t look picture-perfect for long, I suggest that you choose a tree in your backyard rather than in front. That way, you can enjoy the view without worrying about what the neighbors will think. But about that view: You’ve probably noticed that it’s cold outside. You want to be able to watch the birds enjoying your treats without having to join them in the wintry blasts. So choose a tree that you can watch from a place you and the family often spend time in: the kitchen, perhaps.

No classic Christmas-tree style evergreen in view back there? Well, you have three options: Choose a deciduous tree with lots of small, low branches that you can see easily, or a large bush, or set up a fresh-cut tree outside where you can watch the show. (If you choose this option, make sure it’s securely staked to the ground. And remember: You can set it out in a more obscure part of the yard as a brushpile shelter for birds and other wildlife once it’s past the Christmas-tree stage. That way, you’re treating the birds twice.) 

Once you’ve selected your tree or shrub, it’s time to get busy with the decorations. Do you have ears of dried ornamental corn or wheat shocks left over from your autumn decorations? Great! Hang those ears of corn and individual wheat stalks on your tree. Make garlands of popcorn, cranberries, and raisins and wrap them ’round the tree. Use a needle and thread to make hanging loops at the top of in-the-shell peanuts and hang them individually like ornaments.

Ditto for doughnuts. Tasha Tudor liked to hang full-size homemade doughnuts on red ribbons on her “bird tree,” but buying mini-doughnuts works for me. If I’m indulging in a box of doughnuts, I tend to go for powdered, cinnamon-coated, or glazed. But forget the fancy ones when you’re choosing doughnuts for the birds: You don’t want them to end up covered in sticky goo. They’ve got enough to deal with out there! Give them plain cake-style doughnuts. (And of course it’s fine to buy a box of discounted stale doughnuts. The birds will love them anyway.) No chocolate, though! It’s poison to wild birds as well as pets.

Hanging strands of millet—the kind you buy in bags for parakeets–is a great idea. If you’ve saved whole dried sunflower heads to set out for wild birds, you can put them on the tree, too. Ditto for dried grass heads, even weedy ones like foxtails. What’s weedy to us is nourishing to wild birds (and I think foxtails are beautiful, anyway).

Here’s a fun-to-make treat you can hang on the tree as well. Take slices of white “balloon bread” (the soft, squishy bread like Wonder Bread—birds prefer white bread to more nutritious, darker types) and use cookie cutters to cut them into decorative shapes. (You can set the scraps out on your feeding platform or tray or in a sheltered spot on the ground and the birds will say thank you.) Allow the shapes to dry out and harden a bit, then coat them with peanut butter (plain or crunchy) and press birdseed into the peanut butter. String and hang. You can stuff  pinecones with peanut butter, roll them in seed, and hang them up, too.

You can also string and hang stale sugar cookies or, say, oatmeal raisin cookies. Or crackers, if you can figure out how to keep them from shattering when you push the needle and thread through them.

Other simple treats are dried apple rings or fresh apple slices, or whole crabapples if you can find them for sale. All kinds of dried fruit make high-energy treats. That’s true of chunks of granola bars (no chocolate, remember), fragments of croissants and brioche, even croutons.

You can buy elaborate edible wreaths and ornaments for wild birds from local stores and online at places like Duncraft (www.duncraft.com). I just saw entire birdhouses made from edibles at a local craft show last weekend. Whether you buy ready-made or make it yourself, the birds will appreciate it. And your whole family will enjoy hours of delight watching them come and go at your “bird tree.”

Fun as a Christmas tree for the birds is to make and watch, there’s an even more important gift you can give wild birds this year: the gift of fresh water. Water is more vital to them than any amount of food, yet studies have repeatedly shown that even dedicated backyard bird feeders don’t typically provide water for the birds that visit them. Now you can buy waterproof heating elements that will keep birdbaths ice-free all winter, or birdbaths with built-in heating elements to make sure your birds have a steady water supply. Please keep your wild birds’ water needs in mind this winter!

Do you already give your backyard birds special treats for winter? If you have favorites I’ve missed, please let me know what they are!