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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: When Should You Undecorate?

December 28, 2015


Gold Rimmed Serving PedestalTwelfth Night, the end of the traditional twelve days of Christmas, was marked by the unpopular task of taking down Christmas decor—packing away permanent ornaments, and disposing of natural ones like evergreen boughs and holly. It was once considered bad luck not to do so by Twelfth Night (we’re looking at you, guy who keeps all his lights up until Valentine’s Day). Seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick asserted that failure to make a clean sweep on Twelfth Night could turn every spine on the holly into a malevolent goblin. But Twelfth Night was not just a warm up to spring cleaning, it came with its own festive traditions like a special Twelfth Night cake. A bean was baked into the cake, and whoever found it in his or her slice was crowned king or queen of Twelfth Night, leading the gathering in songs and games. Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies, was written as an elaborate court entertainment for the season’s-end festivities.

Discover more holiday lore in our Twelve Uncommon Facts About the Holidays post.

Gold Rimmed Serving Pedestal | $368

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Do Reindeer Really Fly?

December 16, 2015

In Full Bloom Trophy Head | UncommonGoodsSanta’s sleigh-pulling deer have long been the topic of scientific speculation. The advantages of being airborne when trying to cover the globe with holiday cheer in just one night are self evident, but the question remains: how does this terrestrial team take flight? Over the years, many theories have been put forth, from the hoof-lifting benefits of fruitcake, to the propulsive properties of magic corn. But Oregon Zoo Director Tony Vecchio offers two words that get to the heart of the matter: extended leaping.* He admits the extreme difficulty inherent to flying reindeer research, and adds that reindeer relatives like elk can only hope to leap about eight feet in the air (never mind having a sleigh filled with billions of toys attached). Contacted for comment, S. Claus was reticent, but a wink of his eye and a twist of his head soon gave us to know we had nothing to dread.

*Note that Mr. Vecchio’s findings are from 2006, and may not represent the latest in soaring Cervidae research.

In Full Bloom Trophy Head | $55

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Was the Night Before Christmas a Shuttered Affair?

December 15, 2015

North Pole Dish Towel | UncommonGoods

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…Clements Moore’s classic poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” paints a picture of a holiday house as quaint as a Currier and Ives scene. But have you ever wondered what house might have inspired the setting? The poem actually offers a clue in its description of the window treatment, of all things:

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

Hold on, Santa—shutters and then sash? That means the shutters in this house are on the inside. Shutters, both exterior and interior, were common in early nineteenth century houses when the poem debuted, but the interior shutters suggest one mansion in particular: Constable Hall in Northern New York. Turns out that Moore was a cousin of the lady of the house, Mary Eliza Constable, and he visited her there. So Constable Hall is a likely candidate for the house St. Nicholas visited that snowy Christmas Eve. But to be fair, in the days before Santa Tracker, his route was anybody’s guess.

North Pole Dish Towel | $20

The Uncommon Life

From Hogmanay to Krampus: 12 Uncommon Facts About the Holidays

December 4, 2015

It seems that the holiday season gets longer every year—commercially, at least—so it’s kind of ironic that the traditions spanning the season once lasted for twelve days. Once, that seemed like a long time. Now, it’s just a portion of the holiday pie that’s served up the day after Halloween and lasts straight through the January sales. So to honor the ancient traditions of the twelve days while you ponder the perfect gift for your Uncle Ralph, we offer this gift of a dozen uncommon facts about this festive season.

The Holiday JournalThe Holiday Journal

1) First, about those twelve days of Christmas. Thanks to the popular carol, many people today think it’s about wooing your true love with a stage full of performers, barnyard animals, and five gold rings. Actually, both “twelve days” and “Christmas” are misleading for two reasons: first, if you count from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, it’s really a full two weeks on the calendar, and second, those two weeks encompass observances well beyond the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The twelve days include delightful, archaic holidays such as Boxing Day, Mother Night, St. Distaff’s Day, and the Feast of Fools, so there’s more packed into “the holidays” than you might expect.

Emergency Clown NoseEmergency Clown Nose

2) Of the colorful highlights of the twelve days now largely lost to history, the Feast of Fools may be most ripe for a revival. Like a combination of April Fool’s Day and Mardi Gras, this fourth day of Christmas was hugely popular in the middle ages as a rare opportunity to party down, despite the Church’s constant condemnation of the occasion. This popular feast day was marked by topsy-turvy social role-playing, colorful mumming, and raucous revelry of every kind. Sound good? Who wouldn’t want to blow off some steam a few days after our contemporary Christmas craziness?

Whiskey Tasting SetWhisk(e)y Tasting Set

3) The sixth day of Christmas—New Year’s Eve—might be considered first in significance in Scotland. There, it’s traditionally known as Hogmanay, a possible corruption of the French au guis menez (“to the mistletoe,” suggesting a Druidic origin). But whatever its name or origins, the celebration is essentially the same to this day—drinking toasts to the old year, counting down to the new, and tying on a few more after midnight. But a wonderful part of Scottish Hogmanay called “First Footing” is less common. In this ritual, the first person to put their foot across a threshold has the honor of bringing good fortune to the whole household. Sometimes, this metaphor for stepping through the door of a new year was accompanied by a handsel, a gift of a lump of coal or a bottle of whisky (no e in Scotland) to symbolize the many gifts of the coming year. Warmth…whisky…who needs a Christmas sweater?

A Grand Treasury of Shakespearean InsultsA Grand Treasury of Shakespearean Insults

4) Traditionally, the end of the twelve days on Twelfth Night was marked by the unpopular task of taking down Christmas decor—packing away permanent ornaments, and disposing of natural ones like evergreen boughs and holly. It was once considered bad luck not to do so by Twelfth Night (we’re looking at you, guy who keeps all his lights up until Valentine’s Day). Seventeenth century poet Robert Herrick asserted that failure to make a clean sweep on Twelfth Night could turn every spine on the holly into a malevolent goblin. But Twelfth Night was not just a warm up to spring cleaning, it came with its own festive traditions like a special Twelfth Night cake. A bean was baked into the cake, and whoever found it in his or her slice was crowned king or queen of Twelfth Night, leading the gathering in songs and games. Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies, was written as an elaborate court entertainment for the season’s-end festivities.

Oregon Fresh Holiday Wreath

Oregon Fresh Holiday Wreath

5) So how do we end up with so much greenery to dispose of at that end of the season? Since ancient times, evergreen plants like holly, ivy, and various conifers have been associated with the persistence of life through the cold and dark of winter. Originally, the power of these plants to resist seasonal die-off was seen as magical, so bringing them indoors as decorations was a way to capture some of that vitality during the winter doldrums. The old English carol “The Holly and the Ivy” reflects some of the lore that developed around these plants. But the king of holiday greens, the Christmas tree, didn’t really come on the scene until the seventeenth century. Although it has many ancient origins, including traditions of decorating evergreens during the Roman Saturnalia, the Christmas tree as we know it is a German invention of the 1600s, and didn’t catch on in American until the nineteenth century.

Manzanita Branch With Mistletoe

Manzanita Branch With Mistletoe

6) Among the traditional holiday evergreens, mistletoe has ancient origins as well as a specific, modern function. To the Druids, mistletoe was sacred and central to their rites. A parasitic plant that grows on certain trees (including oaks—also sacred to the Druids) mistletoe means “all-healing” in the Druidic language because they believed it was a cure-all (warning: actually extremely poisonous, so don’t throw mistletoe berries into your holiday baking!). Today, a bunch of mistletoe hung in a doorway becomes a special spot to steal a kiss. The connection between the Druid’s reverence for the plant and this excuse for snogging is unclear, but likely stems from a belief that the plant embodied vitality and fertility, similar to the other winter evergreens. So, next time you catch mommy kissing Santa Claus, you can blame it on a bunch of parasitic weeds.

Animal Gift WrapAnimal Gift Wrap

7) Long before the customary exchange of gift cards and fruitcakes (giving real meaning to the phrase “you shouldn’t have”), giving gifts around December 25th was an important and varied tradition. In the Christian tradition, the custom of Christmas gift-giving is based on the gifts of the three Magi, but there are other precedents for presents. In Sicily, an old woman named Strina brings gifts on Christmas, and her name may stem from the Roman goddess Strenia, whose feast day was marked by the exchange of green boughs (sound familiar?). In a related French tradition, gifts called entrennes are given on New Year’s Day. In Germany and Scandinavia, a gifting tradition called Julklapp involves knocking on doors, flinging wrapped packages into houses, and running away. Sometimes, these gift bombs incorporate marriage proposals (take that, fiancé!). And of course, there’s a certain bearded man in a red suit…

North Pole Dish TowelNorth Pole Dish Towel

8) SPOILER ALERT: Are the kids in bed? If so, read on. The familiar figure of St. Nicholas / Santa Claus / Kris Kringle has as many names and origin stories as he has toy trains and candy canes. For historians, he’s Saint Nicholas of Patara or Myra, a third century bishop from Turkey who was known for anonymous gifts to poor children. But many aspects of European Santas can be traced to the pre-Christian shamans of the Finns and Laplanders—bearded, red-robed figures with jingle bells who climbed the world tree into the sky to return with gifts of prophesy. And like the Christmas tree, Santa wasn’t fully formed as a pop culture phenomenon until the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the detailed description offered by Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”). This complex history may be hard to follow, but it’s also the source of Santa’s enduring power as the main man of the season.

You've Been Naughty Popcorn Coal

You’ve Been Naughty Popcorn Coal

9) But what if you end up on Santa’s “naughty” list at this time of year? Then you just might get a visit from one of his dark counterparts such as the German Klaubauf, Swiss Schmutzli, or Austrian Krampus. Long before they were co-opted by Hollywood, these evil anti-Santas were portrayed in central European lore as sooty, menacing monsters with fiery eyes, red, lolling tongues, and clanking chains—like a cross between a demon and Dickens’ ghost of Jacob Marley. What role do these horrific figures play in the holiday pageant? Simple: scare tactics. They appear to frighten or punish bad little children, giving grave implications to the lyrical warning “you better watch out…you better not cry.” Now, who wouldn’t rather be on the “nice” list?

September Sun Mismatched Socks

September Sun Mismatched Socks

10) Assuming you’ve been nice and remembered to hang your stocking by the chimney with care, you can expect to find it filled with treats on Christmas morning. But why stockings? Why doesn’t Santa put goodies in gloves or dresser drawers? Turns out there are at least two legendary inspirations for St. Nick’s love of hosiery. The first is a tale of the historic St. Nicholas who helped a down-and-out merchant with dowry money for his three daughters. Preferring to act anonymously, Nicholas rode by on horseback and flung three bags of gold down the chimney—they landed in the daughters’ stockings, which had been hung on the fireplace to dry. The other legend comes from the Netherlands, where the Dutch Santa, Sinterklaas, travels the country on his white steed (again with the horses). Dutch children would leave carrots and hay in their wooden clogs for the horse, and Sinterklaas would fill the shoes with small gifts in return. Not stockings…but close.

Glowing Log Lamp

Glowing Log Lamp

11) Those of us without fireplaces have to make do by hanging stockings on doorknobs or shelves, but what about the Yule log? Today, you can enjoy a crackling, digital simulation, but the tradition of burning a special log at Yuletide was central to the traditional celebration of the season. The origins of this practice are obscure, but it clearly relates to the preservation of light and warmth through the darkness of winter. It’s a case of where the practical act of heating a home took on a symbolic dimension of preserving the flame of the sun until its return. Various traditions have developed around this cozy custom, making a reverent ritual of selecting, cutting, bringing in, and burning the Yule log. In fact, the ritual extended to some personifications of Santa and his helpers carrying the ashes of the previous season’s Yule log as a sort of perpetual seed. Pressing “Play” on Youtube doesn’t have quite the same symbolic impact, but it beats setting off your smoke detectors.

Hot Toddy Diagram Glassware

Hot Toddy Diagram Glassware

12) What would the holidays be without a hearty toast or two? The tipsy traditions of the season go well beyond eggnog and spiced winter lagers. Take the ancient act of wassailing, for example—an integral part of rituals meant to bless nature and ensure a good harvest in the coming year. Wassail derives from wase haile or “good health,” and the tradition in Britain involves pouring a spiced cider or ale on the roots of apple and other fruit trees to nourish them symbolically in their dormancy. In time, this expanded to the custom of mummers going door to door with a large bowl of wassail—often carved from apple wood—sharing the brew and offering gifts of song in exchange for alms from each household. As the wassailing progressed and started to include taverns as well as homes, the singing probably got more and more boisterous! The wassailing tradition also encompasses the origin of the term “toast” for a celebratory drink. We’ll toast to that!

Perpetual CalendarsPerpetual Calendars

Finally, it’s worth noting that the twelve days of Christmas originated in part as a calendar correction. In the late sixteenth century when Pope Gregory reformed the calendar adopted from the Roman Emperor Julian, he noticed that ten days had been “lost” due to the imbalance between the true length of the solar year and the number of days on the Julian calendar. By the mid-eighteenth century when the new calendar was officially embraced by an act of the British Parliament, the “missing” days had mounted to eleven. Making these days—known as intercalary—an even twelve represents the twelve months of the year, and in the Christian tradition honors the twelve apostles. Though these days are no longer “lost,” they remain symbolically outside of linear time—a chance to pause, relax, celebrate, and enjoy the many gifts and rich traditions of the season.

Christmas Gifts


With grateful acknowledgement to The Winter Solstice by John Matthews, an invaluable resource on the many traditions of the season.

The Uncommon Life

Gorge on Knowledge: Uncommon Facts About 5 Traditional Holiday Foods

November 26, 2015

Popcorn Bowl with Kernel Sifter | UncommonGoods

Many of us will, thankfully, have multiple opportunities to stuff our faces during the holiday season. We thought you might also like to stuff your heads with a few fascinating facts about some traditional holiday foods.


The cranberry was a staple in Native American Indian diets at the time the Mayflower arrived. The Algonquin called them “sassamenesh;” the Wampanoag and Lenni-Lenape word was “ibimi,” which means “bitter/sour berries.” They were one of the foods that natives taught the Pilgrims to cultivate, enabling them to survive. To European eyes, the pink cranberry flowers that bloomed in spring resembled the head of a crane, so they called them craneberries. The slide from “crane” to “cran” has been lost to history.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Author: nigel from vancouver, Canada

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis), British Columbia, Canada. (This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photographer: nigel from vancouver, Canada)


Soapstone Pot with Copper Handle | UncommonGoods

Cooks have probably been stuffing foods with other foods since cooking began. Recipes including stuffing appear in the first known Western cookbook, the Roman Apicius (c. 900 AD). The Latin “farcire” (gorge, stuff) became the French “farcir” and the English “farce.” The term “stuffing” first appeared in print in English in 1538.

Sometime during the Victorian era, it was decided by refined elements of society that the word “stuffing” was too suggestive. So, just as a leg of poultry became a “drumstick,” thighs became “dark meat,” and breasts became “white meat,” the euphemism “dressing” became preferred over the original term. We have been uncertain about which is which ever since, but they are one and the same.


Classic Blue Serving Bowl with Felt | UncommonGoods

Chestnuts are mostly thought of as seasonal treat today, but they have actually been a staple food for millennia in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, in mountainous regions where it was difficult to grow grains. The earliest evidence of human cultivation dates to around 2000 BC. Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe to help fuel their empire-building. The chestnut was a major source of complex carbohydrates on the Continent until the introduction of the potato in the 16th century. Highland Italian peasants still survived on chestnuts for part or all of the year even in the 19th century.

Candied Yams

Olive Swirl Ruffle Serving Bowl | UncommonGoods

Thought to be native to Central America, the sweet potato has been cultivated for at least 5000 years. Ipomoea batatas, the species we make into “candied yams,” was commonly grown in the Caribbean and South America by 2500 BC. (It’s not actually a yam, but the misnomer, from the West African languages in which the verb “nyam” means “to eat,” has stuck.) African slaves in the Americas would roast them in the embers of a fire. When the natural caramelization of their sugars gave them a glassy crust, they were described as “candied.” We would probably all be better off if we had just left them that way, and the much later addition of the mass-produced factory marshmallow, perfected in the 1950s, had never happened.

Green Bean Casserole

Sac A Plat | UncommonGoods

The green bean casserole’s origins are not shrouded in the mists of time. It was invented 60 years ago, in 1955, by one Dorcas Reilly, a home economist then employed in the Campbell’s Soup Co. test kitchen in New Jersey, after an Associated Press reporter called asking for a vegetable side dish.

It wasn’t created in a single stroke of instantaneous genius, but went through iterative development. Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup came out in 1934 and turned up so frequently in Midwestern casserole recipes–including Minnesota hotdish recipes–that it developed a nickname: “Lutheran binder.” Reilly tried versions of these casseroles with corn, peas, and lima beans, but in the end, the green bean’s supremacy was too obvious to ignore. The “Green Bean Bake” burst forth to a hungry, time-pressed world.

The aforementioned Associated Press reporter wrote it up, and the recipe appeared in an AP feature for Thanksgiving 1955. The casserole is now served as part of the Thanksgiving meal in 30 million homes.

Campbell’s now estimates that 40% of the Cream of Mushroom soup sold in the US is used in green bean casseroles. There are gluten-free and paleo versions now, of course.

In 2002, Mrs. Reilly appeared at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame to donate the original copy of the recipe to the museum. The now-yellowed 8 x 11 recipe card can be found in its rightful place among inventions like Edison’s light bulb and phonograph and Enrico Fermi’s controlled nuclear reactor.

See Our Serveware Collection | UncommonGoods

The Uncommon Life

Pin the Halls Part 2: The Winning Pinner!

December 21, 2012

Our first Pin the Halls Pinterest Contest left us with some great holiday gift and party ideas, but when it wrapped up, we still had garland to hang, eggnog to spike, and our own wrapping to do, so we decided to host another contest!

Pin the Halls Part 2 participants built off of their original holiday boards or started fresh with our new prompts to spread holiday cheer, Pinterest style!

Before we announce the winner, in the spirit of tradition (following traditions is a holiday tradition, after all), here are a few of our favorite pins from the runners up.

JR’s board had some helpful tips (like Rules for Regifting), yummy hot cocoa in chocolate mugs, and a cozy scene that left us dreaming of a white Christmas.

Leanne’s board filled us with winter wonder. (I personally can’t wait to try making frozen bubbles next time I’m back home in Minnesota!) We loved her comfy PJs and pretty mantle, and NEED to get our hands on these cookie dough bites!

Speaking of treats, we thought Jessica’s board a tasteful, vintage-inspired delight! Her black, white, and red board took home the grand prize, an UncommonGoods gift certificate.

Her pins celebrate classic holiday movies, ads from the past, and an old-fashioned good time.

Congratulations, Jessica, and thanks to all who entered!

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