CLICK ON THE SNOWFLAKE TO OPEN THE DOOR!
HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM SYD MCGINLEY
What’s a pomander?
An aromatic and pretty handmade Christmas ornament made from oranges and cloves.
When I was a little Syd, I loved historical novels for children — well, I still do now that I am a big Syd! I inhaled works by Leon Garfield, Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, and more. One that I especially enjoyed was The Wool-Pack by Cynthia Harnett. It won the 1951 Carnegie Medal, and tells the story of Nicholas Fetterlock, a wool merchant’s son. Who would have thought there was derring-do associated with woolens? Set in 1493, it’s a just fascinating tale for those interested in guilds and trades and daily life of the time. Reading it again as an adult (and writer), I groan a bit at the educational info dumps, but they still intrigue the research geek in me!
Nicholas is only twelve, but betrothed to Cecily, daughter of another merchant, in an arranged marriage. I still recall a scene where Nicholas is instructed to buy fairings– or presents — for Cecily and his mother while he and his father are at market. The item he selected for Cecily is a pomander. Something about that caught my young imagination, and it’s that scene that stayed in my head for years. To complete this calendar entry, I tracked down a copy to see if I remembered the scene aright.
And sure enough:
“This was a weighty business and required much thought. In the end Nicholas chose for Mistress Fetterlock a set of silken tassels of different colours to mark the places in her prayer book. For Cecily he picked a tiny pomander ball in fillagree silver, gilded on the outside. It was intended to hold sweet-scented spices and there was a silver ring at the top by which it would hang from the girdle — a dainty toy, said Master Fetterlock with a smile, pleasing for a child and fitting for a woman. Nicholas had chosen well.”
Something in here struck a chord for me — well done, Nicholas I thought. How clever of you. If only I could be so wise.
What Nicholas selected was something like this:
And Cecily could have looked like this:
Pomander is a linguistic smoosh (technical term!) of pomme d’ambre since originally it would have contained a ball of ambergris and spices. The ball could also contain herbs and rose petals. Ambergris sounds so pretty, but it’s actually a waxy secretion from whale intestines that they either poop or puke out. Ewww! About as bad as learning about musk origins! If you’re a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, you’ve probably read about this in The Far Side of the World.
Pomanders weren’t just early air-fresheners — they were intended to protect the wearer from disease. Miasmas and noxious airs were thought to be disease transmitters, and strong scents or perfumes were believed to protect you from illnesses such as the plague.
Clove-studded oranges were a less-wealthy person’s pomander. I’ve seen them referred to as the poor person’s pomander, but to afford that many cloves and citrus in the Renaissance meant you were by no means poor!
As a kid, I was thrilled when I heard my grandmother had a pomander, but disappointed to see it was a ball of pierced bone china painted with flowers. By the twentieth century, they had become dressing table items that were filled with scented talcum powder.
In England though, and apparently in early America, a pomander is now an aromatic decoration for Christmas time based on the old “poor person’s” orange and clove.
I learned how to make these in primary school arts and crafts lessons — along with corn dollies and Dorset buttons. So here’s an “old school” Christmas craft, and if I can make it you can — I’m famously inept. You’ll see proof in my fantabulous how I made them photos!
You can either completely cover your oranges with cloves and put several in a pretty dish after they’ve dried, or you can leave a band clear of cloves so that you can loop around a ribbon and make a hanging ornament.
Stuff you’ll need:
A glass of something to drink — mine is port.
A thin-skinned unblemished orange. Some sources suggest using lemons, which are pretty, but their shape is trickier to work with especially if you plan on hanging them, and they’re less traditional.
A darning needle or toothpick. I use a plastic wool sewing needle.
A paper bag.
Whole cloves — 1 ounce — this can vary depending on how big your orange is and how densely you cover it.
Orris root powder — 2 ounces. This is a fixative / preservative made from iris roots and most health food stores that sell loose spices and herbs will have it. Note: this means your orange ceases to be edible!
Cinnamon — about 2 tablespoons.
All Spice — about 2 tablespoons.
Nutmeg — about 2 tablespoons.
If you dislike a certain spice scent, leave it out, and add something you prefer or increase the quantity of the others. Make sure it’s a dry, powdery spice.
Some recipes add some powdered cloves as well.
Start with this step if you want a hanging ornament:
Take the masking tape or rubber bands and section off your orange into quarters along the vertical line from stem to bottom.
Begin here if you’re not making a hanging version. Take your needle or toothpick and start to prick out a pattern — if you have a good eye you can do swirls and so on — or simply fill in the sections with a grid. Each hole should be about 1/8 inch apart.
Push a clove into each hole. I usually prick out a row, and then stick in the cloves rather than make all the punctures first. The easiest way to get started is to simply cover the orange as closely as you can. It will shrink as it preserves and dries out so there’s no need to cram them in as the spacing will tighten up a little, but the more cloves, the better preserved it will be.
Here’s a version using rubber bands instead of masking tape. I covered this one a little more fully.
Keep going until your orange is covered in cloves — a naked pomander just isn’t decent! (Sorry.)
Note: I think my masking tape is too wide for this orange size which is why I started the rubber band one as well.
Now, mix your orris root powder and spices together in a dish. Add your orange.
Roll your orange around in it until it is thoroughly coated.
Then, put your pomander in a paper bag (not plastic or anything airtight — it needs to dry out), and put somewhere dry and warm (not hot).
Once a day, take it out and shake gently. Sift over a little more powder as needed. The goal is to keep it coated as it shrinks, but to allow some air to circulate so it can dry.
This stage takes several weeks. If your orange goes mildewy or rotten, toss it out! For this reason, I suggest putting oranges in separate bags to dry. They should shrink, be dry, and sound hollow. Ideally, you can’t see the fruit when you are done with the process.
When done, dust them off well. Keep your left over powder for freshening up the pomander scent over time. Either set out in a dish with other pomanders or on a mantle to look pretty and scent your room, or carry on and make a hanging ornament.
Carefully remove the tape or rubber bands. Loop your ribbon in a crisscross over the bare section. Aim to cover the exposed sections, but if the ribbon is too wide, you can fold it a little or double it over.
Note: here’s where lack of time has caught up with Syd — the loop is shown on a fresh orange because mine are still drying!
Since I’m clumsy, I like to pin mine in place first to make sure I got it right. Then a dot of glue inside the fold is a good idea. Your pomander is pretty light by this stage, but I don’t like to rely on just pins. Don’t cut the ribbon yet!
Make a loop to hang it by and pin again or glue.
Now, trim the ribbon carefully, and tuck under any stray end.
I’ve been trying to find a good pic of a finished one since mine are still drying, but all the nice ones on the web are of the oranges pre-drying. And some very pretty ones are a little misleading — they’re lovely, but since they’re not shrunk they won’t last past the season. That’s okay, if you just want a temporary decoration, but a real pomander is meant to dry out and be almost immortal — you just re dust it every so often to replenish the scent.
This one from a wedding site is the closest I could find:
I hope you have fun, make something aromatic and pretty, or at least enjoy having a drink while stabbing an orange.
Some Historical Resources:
An overview and compilation of sites: http://www.larsdatter.com/pomanders.htm
The always wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum:
And a site about scents of the middle ages: http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/scents.html#Pomanders
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
Post a comment about either your favorite children’s historical book or a memory of a favorite Christmas craft or tale about attempting one! Sweet or funny or even ribald — it’s all welcome!
I’ll pick a winner to be announced on Christmas Day!
Prize: choice of Bys Vyken