Monday, December 9, 2019

Plans For The Winter Solstice - Part 1


"Early nightfall. Crisp mornings. The sharp silhouette of leaf-bare branches. Orion marching across the evening sky. These are some familiar signs of winter. We often speak of turning inward during these darker months, becoming quiet and introspective, staying home more often, sleeping longer. Yet there’s another side to winter that contrasts with our natural inclination to rest and contemplate—a side that insists we shop til we drop, eat and drink more than we care to, and rush around busy airports. Regardless of our spiritual or cultural heritage, if we live in North America today there’s a good chance we find ourselves caught up, perhaps involuntarily or out of habit, in a commercial swirl known as “the holidays” that leaves us depleted in more ways than one."

- Susan Wasinger, Mother Earth Living

Enter, the winter solstice, which will officially arrive on Saturday, December 21 at 11:19 p.m. This day is one that holds special meaning to me, if for no other reason than I LOVE winter! I've always said that autumn is my favorite, but to be honest, I think I love winter equally as well.  Of course Christmas isn't far behind, but there is just something about the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year, that is special to me.

We have observed this day over the years with various, simple celebrations, but as the girls have grown up, my celebrations have become much more personal in nature. Building upon the traditions of the past and adding a few new, "just for me" touches,  I have made the observance and celebration of this day, for the most part, very much my own.  And so today, I thought I would take some time to share some of these traditions, both past and present, in the hopes that you might be inspired to indulge in your own celebrations. I will warn you now, this post is LONG, and it's only Part 1! Did I mention this was one of my favorite days? But before I get into the how to celebrate, lets first begin with why.

The winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year, meaning there are less hours of daylight and more hours of darkness on this day than on any other. This is in contrast, of course, with the summer solstice when there are more hours of daylight and less hours of darkness, the longest day of the year.  The world solstice comes from two Latin words: sol meaning "sun" and sistere meaning "to stand still" because it appeared as though the sun and moon had stopped moving across the sky.

"This longest night of the year, followed by a renewal of the sun, demonstrates the cyclical order of the cosmos. In this way, celebrating the solstice can be a beautiful remembrance that our lives are part of a larger order, always changing, always renewing."

- Richard Heinberg, Celebrating the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony

Many years ago, for fear that the days might be becoming darker and that the the sun might never return, our ancestors began observing a number of customs that were designed to hopefully entice the sun from departing.

THE BATTLE OF THE HOLLY KING AND THE OAK KING

One story tells of the battle of the Holly King (The King of Winter/Darkness) and The Oak King (The King of Summer/Light).   This battle takes place twice a year, on the summer and winter solstice,
At the summer solstice (around June 21—the longest day and the shortest night) the days begin to shorten and the Holly King defeats the Oak King and reigns supreme in the dark times (or days getting shorter). But in December, following the winter solstice, the days begin to lengthen and the Oak King conquers the Holly King and reigns during the light times.  As odd as this may sound, and you may, perhaps think they have it backwards, but the truth is that the winter solstice actually welcomes summer, as with each successive day the light gradually increases and the days become longer.  And then in the summer the opposite happens, and the days following the summer solstice gradually become shorter.  So as you can see, our ancestors needn't have feared that the sun would not return!

Though I have never done so, I've always thought it might be sweet to make a couple of peg dolls in the form of the Holly King and the Oak King a have them displayed somewhere on a shelf, perhaps.  You can then share the story of the battle of the two kings with your children or grandchildren, and then the reigning king could be replaced on the shelf and the other tucked away until it is time to battle once again.

❅ SOLSTICE BONFIRES

Many traditions include a bonfire, and this is one that we observed a few times over the years.  The idea is that the offering of warmth and light might appeal to the sun to warm the earth once again. One custom suggests that each person write down one habit they want to rid themselves of in the coming year and throw it into the bonfire.  If you decide to build a bonfire, it might be fun to make up some of the these spicy fire starters in the days before your celebration.  It might make your start up a little easier, and the fire starters themselves are quite lovely!

❅ THE SOLSTICE SPIRAL

The solstice spiral is one my favorite observances for this most special day, and is a celebration of the return of the light!  Solstice Spirals are popular in Waldorf schools, and you can read about that, here for context.

I do a much smaller table top version for my observance, using apples with white birthday candles, and in a pinch, I have also used tea lights and the presentation was just as lovely. I typically set it out on the kitchen table the night before so that it serves as a sweet reminder that we are cycling into a new season. This helps to build the anticipation, especially for young children. Then when the sun sets, I light the candles and allow them burn for awhile, our own little celebration of the return of the sun.

❅ A WINTER SOLSTICE WALK

This is a new tradition that I began last year and I plan to make it a regular part of my observance.  Thankfully we live in an area that plentiful with woods, and it makes for a lovely setting.  Last year I went early in afternoon to soak in the last rays of sunshine before the early darkness set in.  But this year I am considering taking it about thirty or forty five minutes before sunset.  I like the idea of returning to the warmth and shelter of home, lighting the candles on my solstice spiral, and then enjoying a festive meal, which I'll share more about below!  If you do decided to make your own solstice spiral, large or small, going on a walk might also serve the purpose of collecting some greenery.  And now, about my meal plans!

Traditionally, I always make a big pot of Grammy's Cabbage Soup.  Everyone in our family loves this hearty soup, which I really consider more of a stew, it's much heartier!  Although I was considering trying out this recipe, Crock Pot Cranberry Orange Pork Tenderloin, I think I might save it for the new year and stick with tradition. There is just something about keeping the menu simple that appeals to me, and I like the **homeyness** of a pot of stew.  I think I'll find a nice loaf of bread and serve it up with a cheese spread.  Once I have the particulars of my menu figured out, I'll post more about that.

But regardless of the main course, it wouldn't be the winter solstice without gingerbread and lemon sauce.  Gingerbread conjures memories from my childhood, when my grandmother would make it for me every time we visited!  I especially enjoy it during the long winter months, and traditionally make it for the time each season for the winter solstice.

❅ GINGERBREAD WITH LEMON SAUCE

Ginger is a favorite solstice and holiday spice, and gingerbread is a favorite from my childhood.  My grandmother made it for me often, and I always think of her when I make it today. And though I enjoy gingerbread throughout the year, I traditionally always make a loaf on the winter solstice.  Here's the recipe I have used for years.

Gingerbread
1 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
2 large eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup hot water

Lemon Sauce
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Dash salt
Dash nutmeg
1 cup half-and-half cream
2 large egg yolks, beaten
2 tablespoons butter
3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350°.

Beat shortening, sugar, molasses and eggs until well blended. Combine next five ingredients; add to molasses mixture alternately with hot water.

Pour into a greased 13x9-in. baking pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 35-40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, for lemon sauce, combine first five ingredients in a small saucepan until smooth. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until thickened and bubbly. Reduce heat; cook and stir 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat.

Stir a small amount of hot filling into egg yolks; return all to pan, stirring constantly. Bring to a gentle boil; cook and stir 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Gently stir in butter, lemon juice and zest, increasing juice if needed to thin sauce. Serve with warm cake. Refrigerate leftover sauce.

And while spiced cider has been our traditional beverage of choice, this year I'm giving serious consideration to this recipe for winter lemonade!  I may do dual service and enjoy a cup of cider over tea earlier in the day.

Another observance I began last year is eating dinner by candlelight.  In todays world, illuminated by  gadgets and technology, and faces aglow with constant media all hours of the day and night, the winter solstice is an opportunity to pause and give tribute to the natural rhythms of life.

And NOW, I am going to close and I will continue in a second post with ideas for crafting, books to read and enjoy, as well as the recipe for the soup I mentioned above!  Two recipes in one post is just making this too long, even for my "wordy" self. And just so you'll know, I realize I have only covered the first three Sundays of Advent. I'll have the fourth Sunday up this week!

Until then, my friends!  I pray your day is blessed!

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