In the spirit of Dickens, waste less this Christmas

Ah, Christmas — one of the most beloved holidays ’round the world. There’s nothing like spending quality time with loved ones, giving (and receiving!) gifts, and the smell of your choice of decadent deliciousness roasting in the oven.

But did you know that most of what we consider to be “normal” Christmas behavior is a relatively modern invention?

Back in the day, spreading holiday tidings used to consist of merry carolers roaming from house to house. This practice of “wassailing” was sometimes rejected as a sin by the Puritans, because it often was accompanied by debauchery and raucousness.

Fast forward to the the 19th century, where author Charles Dickens and his famous novella, A Christmas Carol, resurrected and popularized the sentiment of being charitable toward those less fortunate (and not so wasteful and greedy) during the Christmas season.

In fact, the invention of the modern concept of Christmas is widely (yet somewhat erroneously) attributed to Dickens. But we can generally credit him for influencing many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit — lots and lots of generosity.

As for so many of you, Christmas is the holiday where an entire side of my family gets together — somewhere between 20 and 30 people. When large groups of people get together, you know what happens: we consume large quantities of energy!

So, being the energy-efficient steward that I am, I thought, “Where can my family save energy?” (And yours, too, of course.) Here are a few suggestions:

1. LIGHTING & HEATING

If you eat (or are entertaining) early enough, use as much natural light as you can! If you don’t have windows, see how many lights you really need to turn on. Candles can help create a homey and festive atmosphere while conserving electricity.

If you use incandescent Christmas lights, consider switching to LEDs, which use a fraction of the electricity, and will almost certainly be heavily discounted right after the holidays. Get a deal, pack ‘em up, and save energy next year!

And how about the temperature in the room? The human body produces heat, so if you get a bunch of people together, you’ll raise the temperature in the room — meaning you can set your thermostat a little cooler than normal.

If you’re cooking (who isn’t?), ovens also produce excess heat, raising the temperature of a room another few degrees — and BAM! You can turn down that thermostat.

2. COOKING

You probably know that the most efficient ways to cook are microwaves, toaster ovens, and slow cookers. While less efficient, ovens and stoves are probably the way you’ll end up going for a big crowd (and we don’t blame you). But there are still ways to be more efficient while using them.

Cook different dishes together and make the most of the oven space. Try not to open the oven door once your food is cooking — every time you do, heat escapes. And while nearly every recipe will tell you to preheat the oven, it’s usually unnecessary. You’re gonna cook that turkey for 6 hours; 10 minutes of preheating won’t make much of a difference.

When you move over to the stovetop, make sure to use pans that fit the burners. If the pan is too small, you’re losing heat; if it’s too large, it takes far longer to cook. Much like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you want it to be just right. Make sure to have the right lid for the pot to better trap the heat in the pan.

3. CLEAN-UP 

Once the meal is done, it’s time for the clean-up. My family has a ritual for this. After the meal, the men do the dishes. Depending on whose kitchen we are in, we’ll have a line of three to five people scraping, wiping, soaping, washing, rinsing, drying, and stacking.

Believe it or not, the dishwasher uses less water and energy than doing all the washing by hand, but many of the cups and plates used for holiday celebrations are not dishwasher-safe.

So, before you run that dishwasher, make sure it’s full of dishes — not half-full.

One of my favorite parts of the meal follows cleaning the dishes: the distribution of the leftovers! Every household brings a handful of containers and we parcel the food out. When you are getting those leftovers together, let them cool before you put them in the fridge. Hot food causes more of a temperature change inside the fridge than lukewarm food.

So have yourself a Merry Christmas. Enjoy the food and the togetherness — and save some money on your electric bill this holiday season!

Not that Pope Innocent: Revisiting the fruit cake’s bad rep and the Butter Letter

You may or may not have heard, but the Magna Carta comes to HMNS on Feb. 14, 2014 — because nothing says romance like an 800-year-old legal document.

I was researching the Magna Carta for our educational programming and had performed an Internet search looking for more information on correspondence between Pope Innocent III and King John (whose relationship is integral to the history of the Magna Carta for a number of reasons; you’ll just have to come to the exhibit to find out why).

I, however, was not specific enough in my search terms, so I found information on a different Pope Innocent and a different letter — this letter was titled, “The Butter Letter” or the “Butterbrief.”

Distraction ensued. “I must know more,” I thought. So here’s the story I discovered:

We all know that the fruit cake has always had a bad rep (and how it has survived this long with everyone making fun of it is a mystery). The stollen, a German fruit cake, was developed in the mid-1300s, and has been served at Christmas time from its conception. But it wasn’t very tasty for a number of reasons, including the fact that you were not allowed — by Church decree — to use butter OR sugar. Blech.

fruitcake

Advent was a period of penitence and strict fasting. Part of the rules for fasting included the restriction of “luxury items,” including sugar and butter, and the lack thereof made baked goods taste awful (seriously, what’s even the point of baking without butter and sugar?).

In Medieval Saxony (now central Germany), Prince Elector Ernst and his brother, Duke Albrecht, decided they just couldn’t take it anymore. They had to have tastier baked goods.

So what do you with a problem like bad baked goods? Write to the Pope!

It took them FIVE popes to have their pleas answered!  Pope Innocent VIII sent them  a response — known as “The Butter Letter” — which granted the use of butter for their baked goods without having to pay a fine … but only for their household. The Pope was clever and put a condition in the letter stating that others could use butter for cooking, but whenever butter was used, a donation had to be made to help with the cost of constructing the Freiburg Cathedral.

Saxony figured out a work around to this problem in the 16th century, when the lot of them became Protestant.

Over time, however, stollen has become a delicious, sugar-covered confection and so we decided to taste this little piece of history for ourselves. Allison went to Angela’s Oven in the Heights and picked up a loaf right out of the oven and brought it to work. The baker allowed Allison to take some pictures of the final steps.

Modern fruit cake with lots of sugar.

Modern fruit cake with lots of sugar.

Holiday baked goods from  Angela's Oven.

Holiday baked goods from Angela’s Oven.

Oh history, how tasty you can be! Lecker (which means “delicious” in German)!

2013 Holiday Gift Guide is Here!

2013 Holiday Gift Guide

Pick up a conversation piece. Give a smart gift. Or just scare the cat. Give it, receive it, OWN IT.

Click here to peruse our exciting 2013 Holiday Gift Guide. And feel good about yourself knowing that 100% of the proceeds benefit the museum’s educational programming. Something to warm your heart this holiday season: the HMNS Holiday Gift Guide.

Upgrade your gift this holiday season with HMNS’ fall Lego Robotics course

Editor’s note: Today’s blog comes from Xplorations Camp Coordinator Kelsey Friedemann

HMNS’ new Lego Robotics after-school program debuted this fall and was met with great success. The course was adapted from our popular Robotics summer camp, but was redesigned for a smaller class environment with more hands-on experience. Many of our fall students entered class with little to no experience, but they quickly learned how to build a robot and how to program it, as well.

Over the 10-week class, students were able to participate in specific programming challenges. As they advanced beyond introductory activities, they learned how to program their robots to make sharp turns, avoid objects using the ultrasonic sensor, and even perform a unique dance.

Lego Robotics now available for Fall courses at both HMNS locationsThe small class size allowed the students more freedom in constructing their robots, as well. One student decided to recreate the wheel for his robot — literally. He expanded upon the introductory wheel system and created a mega-wheel, but soon realized that a bigger wheel does not necessarily make a more effective wheel. Through experimentation, he was able to conclude that an earlier adaptation would make his robot more functional.

By the final week, the students could manipulate their robots to perform a multitude of tasks using several different attached sensors.

So take it up a notch this holiday season. Legos are always a hit, but this year, give the gift of knowledge!

Lego Robotics now available for Fall courses at both HMNS locationsHMNS’ Lego Robotics course makes a special, educational gift for any child – and it’s available at both Museum locations:

Ten Tuesdays at HMNS
Jan 8 – March 19
4:30 – 6 p.m.
$240 | $190 for members

Ten Thursdays at HMNS in Sugar Land
Jan 10 – March 31
4:30 – 6 p.m.
$240 | $190 for members