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Be afraid … be very afraid. Christmas is coming but Kate Dolan is here to guide us through this darkest part of the year. Kate is a prolific writer of many hats, and today’s hat is that of the writer of not quite politically correct Regencies for Cotillion Press. And she’s giving away a free download of each of her holiday releases, The Bride of Belznickel and Change of Address. Take it away, Kate…

Back before we had the option of watching “Elf’ or “A Christmas Story” every night for a month before Christmas, we humans satisfied our need for entertainment by sharing Christmas stories around the fire. There is an ancient tradition of telling “winter tales” that included fantastic or paranormal elements inspired by our fears of the dark. Some say this practice died out during the medieval era and others say it continued unabated, but there is no doubt that the tradition of telling scary tales was being revived by the later Regency period.

My favorite figure from these tales is the Belznickel, a figure from Germanic legend who is sort of the opposite of St. Nicholas. Where the saintly Nick rewards children who’ve been good, the Belznickel does the opposite – he punishes the bad.

With whips and chains.

That could make for a very scary Christmas if you’ve been bad.

The Belznickel was generally depicted as dark, with the figure of a man but the horns of a goat. He carried a whip to chastise, and chains to confine or remove miscreants.

Some believe stories of the Belznickel derive from the vindictive Germanic god Woden, whose name in older dialects was Pelzmartel. According to legend, Pelzmartel and his wife would come to earth each year from December 25 to January 6 and they were welcomed with bonfires. In mumming tradition, the evil Belzickel figure is always portrayed by a man while his companion, the good and generous Christkindl, is always potrayed by a woman despite the fact that the name translates to Christ child and should therefore be male. This suggests that the “Christkindl” character is just a Christianized version of Woden’s wife, who was said to be as good and kind as Woden was nasty.

Others trace the Belznickel tradition to the popular stories of St. Nicholas, a bishop who lived in around the year 300 in an area now part of modern Turkey. Nicholas supposedly put money in a girl’s shoes one night to keep her from falling into prostitution. From that came the custom of putting gifts in stockings or on the floor. In some places, it was expected not only for  the Belznickel to threaten punishment but also to scatter candy and treats on the floor to reward well behaved children. If they reached down to pick up the goodies while he was still there, they risked getting hit with a whip or switch.

Stories of a mischievous or macabre “helper” for St. Nicholas vary according to different cultures. In Switzerland, for example, the helper “Schmultzli” was said to threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them to the Dark Forest. There are even tales of him drowning particularly naughty offenders.

The Belznickel tradition took on a new twist in 19th Century America. A Pottstown Pennsylvania newspaper article from 1826 calls him a Christmas “marauder”  who created havoc every night leaving the streets strewn with lumber debris. The newspaper describes the Belnickel as short and “chunky” with a long beard and clothed in a black bearskin cap, red plush breeches and moccasins “the same worn by the Chippawa Nation.”

Often those dressing as Belznickel blacked their faces, and that became such a part of the tradition in the U.S. that by 1905, at least one journalist speculated that the entire Belznickel legend originated with African-American slaves performing at Christmas.

The black face disguise goes along with another part of the Belznickel tradition that seems to fit Halloween better than Christmas. Troupes of men would go from house to house in costume, play up the part of the Christmas demon, and then be treated to drinks and food.  This is called “Belznickeling.” Even as recently as 30 years ago, a group of these revelers scared the heck out of one college student returning home for a visit with her parents. After the rest of the family had gone to bed, she heard noise outside and looked out the window to see the house surrounded by men wearing masks. She woke her parents and begged them not to open the door, but they did anyway and the men pushed their way inside and staggered into the kitchen, demanding drinks. Her parents tried to explain that this was an old European tradition.

In my experience, I would expect the college students to be the ones dressing in costumes, stumbling around in search of alcohol. Maybe the tradition of Belznickeling is still practiced more widely than we realize.

I found the Belznickel character so interesting that I used him for the basis of my traditional Regency Christmas story Bride of Belznickel, which has just been re-released as a standalone story by Ellora’s Cave Cotillion. In my tale, the heroine Hannah is forced to spend Christmas with cousins who ridicule her at every turn. To get even, she tries to scare them with tales of a Christmas demon. But then her stories start to come to life, and no one knows what to do about it, Hannah least of all.

Kate’s also giving away a copy of Change of Address. Amanda, her young sister and her unconventional mother move to a small house in a remote village just before Christmas—and discover it lacks furniture and everything else they need. Charles, son of the local squire, bursts in to rescue them when he mistakes smoke from the clogged chimneys as a house fire. When she realizes his father is their landlord, Amanda drafts Charles into helping them, and he willingly complies with the requests of the beauty. As the acquaintance between the families deepens, Amanda comes to realize that Charles may not be quite as bacon-brained as she assumed. When he rescues her from a drunken man, she then has to conspire with him to prevent worse consequences—all on Christmas Eve.

So … let’s talk about Christmas traditions. Does your family have a tradition of, uh, unusual folklore with or without whips and chains, or featuring scary stories?
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I’m still on deadline so about the only socialization I have these days in on Twitter, which I love–not because I’m interested in what you’re having for lunch today (and if this is what your posts are like, I won’t follow you, sorry) but because it’s a great way to share info.

So here are a few links I’ve found that I thought you might enjoy.

First, here’s a jolly restored panther from Hampton Court (is he adorable or what!), work of historic paint expert Patrick Baty from his blog post on heraldic colors and their significance.

If you’re interested in food–and who isn’t–or, specifically, historical food, the Allbright Museum has digitalized its collection of historical receipt books. If you don’t want to brave the archives, you can see a few samples at BBC News Today. You might, possibly, be able to find recipes suitable for the holiday season–the examples include pie decorations–and since the collection includes both culinary and medicinal receipts you also might be able to find something for overindulgence afterward.

Hair Care in the Toilet in which author Kate Dolan shares the wisdom from The Toilet of Flora: A Collection of the Most Simple and Approved Methods of Preparing Baths, Essences, Pomatums, Powders, Perfumes, Sweet-Scented Waters and Opiates for Preserving and Whitening the Teeth & c. & c. With Receipts for Cosmetics of Every Kind that can Smooth and Brighten the Skin, give Force to Beauty, and Take Off the Appearance of Old Age and Decay. Interestingly the book does include concoctions for depilatory use but not suggested for the areas in which (some of) our minds would immediately wander … or would this be implied anyway?

And finally, an interview with Terry Pratchett from a couple of years ago in which he talks about religion with great wit, good humor and smarts.

Some of my favorite quotes:

I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel.

We have an instinct toward the good … most people if left alone and unpressured are pretty decent.

On reading the Old Testament: If this is true we are in the hands of a maniac.

The New Testament: St. Paul basically should have been introduced to a good woman.

Have you found anything good online recently you’d like to share? Or any recommendations for favorite Thanksgiving recipes since I have to take something to the family gathering and I have no idea what to bring?
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Last Saturday I attended an event at Riversdale House Museum, Maryland, where historians taught us the skills of the Georgian-Federal era housekeeper. Kate Dolan, who was our guest last Thursday, was also there–here she is with an apron full of herbs.

The house boasts a beautiful garden where herbs, flowers, and vegetables are grown, often sharing the same space, and most of my pics were of the garden. If you’d like to see some really good photos of the costumed participants, go here.

After a short presentation on herbs we gathered them to make our own herb vinegars in the kitchen of the dependency (behind Kate)–it’s a mid nineteenth century building outside the house which is now used for open hearth cooking demonstrations.

We had a delicious lunch we prepared that featured produce from the garden, using some American eighteenth century recipes and a couple from Mrs. Beeton. Joyce White, the Foodways expert on staff at Riversdale, emphasized the importance of setting the table correctly and making sure that each dish (served a la francaise) was beautiful in appearance, garnished with flowers, herbs, and asparagus fronds from the garden.

Here are some pics of the garden. The right one shows the house and the monster asparagus plants on the right.

In addition we experimented with authentic cleaning substances and techniques for brass and mahogany–guess what, they worked!

We were very lucky to have Katy Cannon, an expert in historical cosmetics giving a demonstration. Check out her website at She burned some pastills for us, which were thought to perfume the air and therefore prevent infections, and we learned that our ancestors enjoyed making pastills embedded with gunpowder for innocent fun in the parlor. I bought some of her products, and here is my loot from the event:

From left to right:
A Ball to take out Stains (and it does. In use. It’s soap, lemon, and alum.)
Bags for preffe or clothes, that no Moth may breed therein. Snappy name! From a 1653 recipe, juniper wood, cloves, rosemary, wormwood. It smells delicious!
My very own rosemary and thyme vinegar.
In front, it looks like jam but it’s mahogany polish.

Tell us if you’ve tried any historic recipes or cleaning methods. Did they work?

Also if you’re in the greater Washington DC area, please come to Riversdale’s Battle of Bladensburg Encampment on August 13. It’s free, with house tours, kids’ activities, food, music, uniformed historical reenactors, and loud explosions. More details here.

And in the Blatant Self Promotion department, here are two places where you can comment to enter a contest for a copy of my erotic contemporary TELL ME MORE: Snap, Crackle, and Popping Blog and Write About.

Our guest today is Kate Dolan who writes traditional Regency romances for Blush (formerly Cerridwen) Cotillion as well as a variety of other totally unrelated books and articles. Her third Regency, Deceptive Behavior, comes out today in ebook format. And she shares her home with both dogs and a rabbit. That’s her version, so I’ll add that she’s a brilliant and productive writer, a very well-informed historian, and a good friend and critique partner. The thing I love about Kate’s books is that she includes some very risky topics and that makes her a natural here.

So naturally she’s chosen a very non-PC topic. And, oh yes, she’s offering a free download of Deceptive Behavior or one of her print backlist to one lucky person.

For the third book in my “Love and Lunacy” series, I wanted a hero who was a bit different. The challenge was to devise characteristics that would make him seem odd and even unmanly to those in Regency society, but still masculine and appealing to modern readers. He needed to be athletic, but without engaging in the traditional exercise of gentleman, such as hunting and fencing.

I made him a fast runner, but Regency gentlemen did not compete in track meets, so I needed a reason for him to run – and chasing after the heroine didn’t count.

Then I remembered a sport introduced to my husband by one of his colleagues: beagling.

Definitely doesn’t sound very masculine, does it? The sport is very similar to fox hunting, but the quarry is a hare and it is usually chased on foot. So by making my hero a beagler, I gave him an opportunity to become a good runner.

Modern hunts tend to proceed rather slowly with the field walking along behind the beagles, but sources indicate that it used to be a running sport. The Trinity Foot Beagles, a history of a Cambridge club written in 1912, is full of cartoons of men running and the theme song of the group includes a verse that says “It’s the deuce of a run, And I’m pretty well done…It’s lucky by gad, For I think every lad, Has pretty well used up his breath.”

Beagling is now outlawed in the U.K. as a blood sport, but it still has aficionados in the U.S. While clubs such as the Roscommon Hounds proclaim that it “is a dark day if anything is ever killed” during a chase, that too was obviously not true in the past. The lines I deleted from the quote from the Trinity Foot Beagles song talk about the quarry being near its death, and later lines describe the hounds “breaking up” the “pussy,” which was apparently the term of affection for the rabbit that was chased and ripped to shreds.

While “pussy’s death knell” might have a place in some romance stories, it really didn’t fit a traditional Regency, so I was fortunate that in my story I never had to depict an actual outing. My hero did chase a rabbit for a few hundred yards, but then the rabbit stopped so there wasn’t much challenge after that. (Rabbits in my yard do this all the time. They run away frantically and then just stop in the middle of the yard, somehow thinking my dogs and I can no longer see them.)

The Trinity Beagles history describes a “most rotten joyless day” of chasing a hare through turnip patches in the November drizzle, losing the quarry twice and finally giving up after at least 45 minutes of running. “And yet,” the author notes philosophically, “where there is no disappointment, there is no sport. Good days are those which exceed expectation, or they would not be good; and the red letters of the good days would not stand out in bold relief were there not the deep black shadows of the rotten, joyless ones.”

This is of course true for more than just beagling, or any other sport—it applies to everything.
So I wish you many red letter days, but remember that there is an important purpose served by the “rotten, joyless days” as well.

Please weigh in on the advantages or disadvantages of having characters who engage in pursuits now no longer socially acceptable (and we don’t mean with each other), and how do you think this is best handled when writing about such a bloodthirsty age? Or, tell us your favorite dog or rabbit stories. We’ll pick a winner tomorrow!

Today is my critique group day, so I thought I’d write about them. We’re called the Tarts because we meet at a La Madeleine restaurant (we occupy a large table at the back and try not to talk too loudly about each other’s sex scenes) and one time the restaurant had a promotion along the lines of Try our delicious little French tarts. So naturally we had to adopt the name.

We’re all published now but when I joined the group ten years ago (aargh! ten years!) none of us were. Our numbers have fluctuated over the years but now we’re down to the basic foursome. We know a lot about each other and a lot about each other’s writing and we’ve cheered each other on as we negotiated the path of bumps and turns, luck, and skill that led to publication. And we write different subgenres so it’s interesting that we function well as a critique group. But let me introduce you (in alphabetical order):

Kate Dolan. Kate is an awesome powerwriting force. She writes Regencies for Cerridwen, mysteries as K.D. Hays, kids’ books, you name it. She’s also a living history interpreter and something of an expert on colonial Maryland history.

Christie Kelley. Chris writes Regencies for Kensington although when I first joined the group she was writing Westerns. She’s smart and productive and the best plotter I know.

Kathy Love. Yes, it’s really her name. She was writing vamps when no one else was and now her urban fantasy series depict paranormal creatures living side by side with unwitting mortals.

Kate Poole. Kate, sorry, I can’t find your website (did it get eaten?), whose debut historical The Anchor and the Storm came out a couple of years ago and she has another Ellora’s Cave book coming out… soon.

So how do we function as a critique group? First, friendship does not conflict with our opinions on each other’s work. We’re not so used to each other’s writing that we don’t have anything to say about it or can’t view it with a critical eye, which I think is great. (My rule of thumb has always been that if the majority of the group says something doesn’t work, I change it. Usually.) We make a lot of jokes. Halfway through we stop to eat, of course, some delicious French tarts. So we’re not all business but we do get a lot of work done. If we’re not talking about our current mss. we talk about future plots. We have various areas of expertise, within and outside writing.

Do you have a community that’s related to writing, or reading, or any other interest? Tell us about it! And what do you think its Regency equivalent would be?

Visit a great new blog by HarperCollins paranormal authors, Supernatural Underground (and on Facebook too). Check us out! We’re having our official launch June 1 with giveaways and fun stuff.

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