Are you ready for the big December holiday? I’m really looking forward to it.
I can’t wait to celebrate the winter solstice.
Oh sorry. Did you think I was talking about Christmas? I suppose that also counts as a big December holiday, and I hope you have a wonderful one this year. Being Jewish, I don’t celebrate it myself. But you go ahead without me. Really, I’ll be fine.
There’s no need for you folks dressed in those cheerful red and green sweaters to shake your heads or give me pitying looks. Hanukkah, our pathetic excuse for a winter holiday, actually begins on Christmas Eve this year, so we Jews theoretically have something to celebrate at the same time (though our sweaters will be a slightly less cheerful blue and white). Even if it is a lame holiday, elevated in importance only for its value in keeping young children from converting en masse to Christianity, I’m not feeling sorry for myself.
At least, no more than usual.
I’m always depressed in December. This has nothing to do with Christmas envy. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a sort of depression that sets in when the daylight goes away. (Don’t you just love it when they create a disease to match your symptoms?) Every year for as long as I can remember — even before I knew I had a Syndrome — I’ve gone into a kind of mourning in the fall, starting from the day we change the clocks to daylight savings time.
Fortunately, it goes away right after Christmas. Well really, after the winter solstice. Its connection to Christmas is purely coincidental, I’m sure. It entirely has to do with the days starting to get longer, even if it is only by a few minutes each day.
With the solstice occurring next week, I thought I’d channel my inner pagan toward a new holiday celebration. I’m hosting a personal thank you to the earth for beginning once again to tilt back toward the sun. Other than lighting candles for the second night of Hanukkah, which takes about 2 minutes, I had nothing else on my calendar that day, so I picked Dec. 25 for the launch of this new celebration. I’ve invited some friends over – do stop by if you aren’t busy.
In order to plan out the appropriate rituals, I naturally consulted Wikipedia. When I hear “solstice” I think Druids, so I started there. But what I found did not encourage me to join the sect. Did you know they are said to have practiced human sacrifice? Also, they had a special connection to oak trees. Having spent the last two weeks maniacally raking Woody’s progeny, only to have my yard obscured with a new layer of leaves 10 minutes later, I’m not feeling all that worshipful toward oaks right now. Leaf-falling season is when I particularly appreciate evergreens.
So I was happy to discover that there’s a German solstice tradition of decorating the house with fir branches to welcome the Norse goddess of light, Hertha. This is the first I’ve heard of her, but I think a goddess of light is pretty appropriate to my holiday and I found some great swathes at the store.
I identified some other great solstice rituals to adapt, too. In northern Scandinavia the indigenous people cover their doorposts with butter so their sun goddess has something to eat. I’m not going to do that (icky, sticky!), but I will be sure to use plenty of butter in my solstice cookies. And I’ll leave some out with a glass of milk when I go to bed on Dec. 24, in case the goddess happens by in her sled made from reindeer bones.
A Celtic tradition involves putting soot on one’s face before parading through the streets. I don’t have time to organize a parade, and blackface is just not politically correct, so instead, to honor the tradition, I’ll put on a cosmetic mask while I’m soaking in my ritual tub. (I’m adding a bubble bath to my plans in honor of the Kalash people of Pakistan, who engage in ritual bathing on solstice day. With all the rain we have been getting, I finally feel unguilty enough about the drought to fill my tub.)
Wikipedia says that after bathing, the Kalash feast on “goat tripe and other delicacies.” I’ll take a pass on the tripe, but I always like the idea of feasting. I think I can work with “other delicacies.” Maybe I’ll roast a goose in place of the dead wren that the Welsh carry from house to house to honor some bizarre (Druid, naturally) tradition. And for dessert, in the Persian calendar, the solstice holiday Shab-e Chelleh is celebrated with dried fruits and nuts. So perhaps a fruitcake would be nice.
Other rites relate to ancient Roman Bacchus celebrations — you know, drinking and revelry. This is the Napa Valley. The wine cellar is full. I’ve got that handled.
There’s also a solstice tradition of gift giving and receiving. Mostly the presents seem to be foodstuffs and alms for the poor, which is what I usually concentrate on at this time of year anyway. (Sorry folks. I could not find any solstice rituals that involved flat-screen TVs or iPads, so I’m taking them off the gift list.)
And then there’s the tradition of burning fires and candles to drive away the darkness. It’s considered bad luck to let the fire go out.
I’m one of the few folks on my block whose chimney was spared by the earthquake, so unless the Grinch declares a Spare the Air day, the fireplace is no problem, but I’m a little nervous about those candles burning all night. Maybe I can substitute electric lights. I saw some nice little ones, all handily strung together in a row, when I was in the store yesterday. I could get one of those cute evergreen trees they’re selling, and hang the lights on that. And here’s an idea: I can put the gifts for my friends underneath it — won’t that look pretty?
I must say, this holiday is shaping up nicely. I may have to make this an annual event. I know it’s short notice, so if you are busy that day and can’t come celebrate with me, I’ll understand. But feel free to adapt some of my ideas for your own solstice party.
Happy holidays – and here’s to sunny days ahead!
Twice-Baked Lemon Shortbread
Alice Medrich, “Pure Dessert”
If today’s column seems familiar to you, that’s because it’s a rerun from about six years ago. I came down with a miserable cold on my column-writing day and couldn’t get anything clever to come out of my stuffed-up head, so I went with an old favorite.
This recipe is also an old favorite, and one worth revisiting. It comes from Alice Medrich’s cookbook “Purely Dessert” (which is worth adding to your collection). Alice’s recipes are always delicious, and so perfect that I never meddle with them — she knows more about baking than I ever will. But I’m sure she would give her blessing to the one change I made, adding just a bit of lemon flavor. After all, I made this for a sun celebration — and what could be sunnier looking or tasting than a lemon?
12 Tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) butter, melted and still warm
5 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. finely grated zest of 1 lemon (optional)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups flour
Turbinado or Demerara sugar to sprinkle on top
Grease a 9 1/2-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, or line an 8-inch square pan with foil.
In a medium bowl, combine the melted butter with the sugar, vanilla, lemon zest and salt. Add the flour and mix until just incorporated. Pat and spread the dough evenly in the pan. Let rest for at least 2 hours or overnight. No need to refrigerate it.
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Bake for 45 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven, leaving the oven on. Lightly sprinkle the shortbread with sugar. Let cool for 10 minutes.
Remove the shortbread from the pan, being careful to avoid breaking it. Use a thin, sharp knife to cut it into 16 wedges (if using a round pan) or 14-16 oblong “fingers” or squares. Place the pieces slightly apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet and put it in the oven for 15 minutes.
Cool on a rack.