They’re the things we keep carefully wrapped and stored away all year in basements and attics.

They once belonged to our parents, grandparents, or us when we were tiny; though battered and aged, these objects glow with the luminescence of decades’ worth of Christmas memories. They are our time capsules, instantly transporting us back a generation or more to our childhood when we waited breathlessly, sleeplessly for Santa to arrive.

The stories attached to Christmas objects are part of their hold on us. Here are three of mine:

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In my twenties, I was a Master’s student in the University of Toronto’s Medieval Studies program (having realized the intense market demand for medievalists—ha!).

I discovered that I studied at the same library that housed a truly ambitious project, the Dictionary of Old English, which was in the process of documenting every known use of every word in the Old English language for future generations of scholars.  Like medieval monastics, the compilers of the dictionary gathered in their scriptorium atop U of T’s flagship Robarts Library and laboured for hours, sifting through obscure texts that most people have never heard of, in search of words. When I graduated in the spring of 2000, the project, begun nearly twenty years previously, had just published the letter E.

Two weeks ago, a friend sent me a notification that the dictionary committee was pleased to present its latest published letter: H.

Sixteen years; two letters.

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Think of your last trip to the grocery store.

Likely you managed to find your way through the labyrinth of ever-migrating foodstuffs, housewares, and promotional sales, only to find yourself stuck in a lengthy line at the checkout with a few vocally disgruntled kids and frazzled parents.

What if you could go for weeks between visits to the grocery store?

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You don’t need to be a locavore or a penny-pincher to appreciate the value of “found” food, that is, food we can find growing in our very own backyard. Eating what comes readily to hand in our home environment has several benefits: we lower our reliance on imported foods and their associated large carbon footprint, and we indirectly develop our resiliency and ingenuity by searching out locally available alternatives. We also save a bit of money in the process.

I’ve made a short list of some delicious alternatives to imported everyday food and drink. I’ve tried them myself and can vouch for no feeling of deprivation afterwards! Here they are…

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“I pity the fool who doesn’t have a woodstove,” reads the Facebook status update of a smug friend sitting in front of a roaring fire in the middle of a blizzard last winter.

I’ve often told not-so-lucky friends that they are welcome to come enjoy the warmth of our own woodstove any time there’s a cold snap or power outage; the offer comes along with an invitation to bring over whatever papers they want to see go up in flames–ancient Visa statements and bad teenage poetry come to mind–and to be ready to split kindling!

The beauty of a woodstove is many-fold: that ancient feeling of comfort and security that our ancestors must have felt when they gathered around their fires, the chance to use a (theoretically) renewable local resource, and of course, that warm and fuzzy multitasking feeling of cooking on the same surface that’s heating your house!


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A few more tips for eating well in an age of uncertainty:

1. Don’t keep your whole house at the same temperature.

In an ultra-insulated age, it may be hard to find a cold spot in your house or garage, but keeping a cold storage area is a really good idea for storing your root vegetables and long-keeping fruit like apples and pears in case of extended power outages and service disruptions. Many of those who weathered the aftermath of Hurricane Juan in the fall of 2003 remember how heartbreaking it was to have to throw away the entire contents of our fridges …

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Its being the dark and chilly month of November, and with the results of a recent election still weighing on my mind, I’ve been thinking, again, about what I would do if the world were to suddenly change. I wouldn’t call myself a “prepper,” that is, I haven’t stocked my basement with dry goods, barrels of water, and medical supplies to last a decade or more, though I can understand that impulse in hard times.

We may never be mentally prepared for the unexpected, but I do think it’s wise to consider a few things that previous generations would have likely taken as givens when it came to their food:

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Last night I carted six large containers of pumpkin pulp—the remains of the jack-o-lantern—to a friend’s large freezer two blocks away from our house. My own freezer is overflowing at this time of year with berries, applesauce, and blanched vegetables from the garden: Swiss chard, snap beans, and grated zucchini especially.

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When my kid was six months old and still an exclusive breast-feeder, we went to our favorite Mexican restaurant and ordered just about everything on the menu; holy smokes, does a nursing baby ever make its mom ravenous!

When the dishes arrived, Will’s eyes lit up and his chubby hand shot out to scoop up a big handful of guacamole, licking it greedily off his fingers. The refried beans met the same fate; his mom barely got a look in. The look of profound satisfaction on his round and beaming face made me realize two things:   1. This kid was going to be a foodie and 2. I might as well give away the books on infant feeding that recommended starting out with the most bland and pre-digested of mashes, and get right to the point. Even in his food choices, Will wanted to be treated like an older person, not an invalid with no teeth and a delicate constitution….

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Yesterday we visited a rural neighbour whose grandparents-in-law planted a small apple orchard on the property a century or so ago. We had ridden our bikes past those venerable trees this summer; one day, I knocked on the door and asked if their owner would mind our picking some of tempting-looking fruit. She not only kindly agreed but also gave us a tour of apple varieties in the orchard–Duchess, Astrachan, Alexander, and King– names which rang many ancestral bells for me. These old names are so familiar to me from listening to my grandmother’s stories about her childhood in an apple-growing family in the Annapolis Valley, remembering her careful distinction between “cooking apples” and “eating apples,” and her favorite early and late varieties. Many of these names have fallen out of the popular vocabulary (like Victorian men named Eleazar or Alonzo or women named Beryl and Gertie) and are no longer to be seen at farmers’ market tables or roadside stands. Many lovely old Nova Scotia apple trees…

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