Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter Holiday Traditions

Traditions hold a special spot in human culture, and I think they’re especially important in the winter, when daylight is scarce, and here in Wisconsin snow is plentiful. The thermometer keeps dipping down below zero this week, and my car makes an unhappy rawrrrrr, rawrrrr, rawrrr sound when I start it on cold days just to tease me a little and make me think it might refuse to get it’s little Honda butt in gear for me.

At least we’re lucky enough to live in an age of insulated homes and central heating systems (right at the top of my “to be grateful for” list lately!), but the dark half of the year is still a challenge. More so with the economy so rocky. In the dark of winter, holidays bring light, color, and joy. Time honored traditions give us something familiar to cherish, a touch of comfort in the cold.

My family celebrates Yule on the winter solstice. Sometime in early December, we cut small branches from the cedars in our backyard and fill glass vases with the vivid evergreens. Then we cut a bundle of bright red dogwood branches and put them in a large ceramic jug of water. The girls hang a collection of carved wooden birds on the branches, some of which we’ve had since before our teens were born. Next, they attach red silk flowers and red feathered cardinals, until the branches are filled with color.

We exchange the first gifts of the season on Yule, and then another each day until we’ve worked our way through the pile. Our family keeps gifts simple, and the girls often give us things they’ve made themselves. The other night, I was sorting through a drawer and I found a present from Solstice past--a little creature made out of pom-poms and glued-on eyes nestled into a yellow and white woven bed created with a potholder loom. I’m not sure which daughter made that particular gift, but she couldn’t have been more than five at the time, and it was delightful finding it now that they’re thirteen and fifteen.

Another solstice tradition in our family is that we put food out for the animals. We make sure the birdfeeders are brimming full, and the girls cut up fruit and vegetables to put out for the small critters that populate our yard. Dried feed corn cobs are another favorite treat for the bunnies and squirrels, though we can only put those out in the front yard so our goofy poodle doesn’t eat them. If it’s not too cold, we all go outside to look at the moon after dark while the girls put out food for the animals.

As with any celebration, food plays a central role. We have a big feast on Yule, and some foods--nuts to crack, clementines, fresh cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, mulled or sparkling cider, homemade pumpkin or apple pie, and either homemade cookies or scones--appear every year, and others vary. After the meal, we hold our Yule circle ritual, a time for spiritual introspection and a welcoming of the return of the light, since each day following the solstice will be a bit longer, and each night a bit shorter.

In a tradition unique to our family, we hold a Winterfest celebration several days after the solstice. Each year we pick a different food theme for a fun family meal. This year’s theme is Mexican food. Last year, the girls cooked the entire Winterfest meal, and we had six different kinds of pancakes. I’m not kidding--blueberry, banana, chocolate chip, plain, cinnamon sugar, and apple pancakes. The event provoked a great deal of laughter as we watched the teenage chefs scurry around in their red aprons concocting different batters and sprinkling the kitchen liberally with flour and globs of wet pancake goo. In addition to the feast, we decorate the table in keeping with the meal theme, listen to music, and watch a movie together in the evening.

Our winter holiday traditions help knit the family together, and give us something to look forward to when we’re cooped up indoors fighting cabin fever. What are some of your family’s most treasured winter traditions?


Lara Dien said...

Eden, that's wonderful! If I'm ever dumb enough to move to Wisconsin, can I live with you?

Here in Florida, it's harder to get into the spirit--but not much. I sometimes smile at the ones who "can't get into Christmas when it's 80" because I'm following the light, not the weather--although certainly with my Celtic heritage, a good chunk of me is wondering where winter is (those of you who think we don't have it--wrong. We just get it a few days at a time, here and there. Keeps us on our toes!). This year, for some reason, I am really anxiously awaiting the sun return.

For a variety of reasons, most of my Yule traditions have fallen by the wayside, for now, at least. One, though, that has lasted every year until this one is baking cookies--from recipes we've been using since I was a kid. One of the cookies--Springerli--is so ingrained (down to the wooden forms they're printed with) that I couldn't bring myself to make them for a few years until my mother gave me the forms last year for yule. Even though I could buy (and probably will) more, I wanted the traditional ones that are older than my father.

My tradition--one I started--is to make a mulling spice mix for cider and put it into jelly jars as gifts for friends. I have the world's best recipe, so it's tasty AND easy to make!

Other family traditions...tree goes up the weekend before, comes down on 12th night.

I love your traditions--and your description of the evergreen / dogwood branches is just beautiful. You should be a writer. LOL

Have a blessed Yule!


Edie said...

Fabulous traditions! The last few years we've been going to my son's and dil's for breakfast and to exchange presents. Then later in the day we go to my sil's for a turkey dinner with all the fixings. She's a great cook!

Lara's spice mix for cider sounds yummy. I should google for a recipe.

Eden Rivers said...

Oh wow, Lara, that's so cool that you have the wooden cookie forms that you grew up with. What a wonderful piece of family history!

What a wonderful gift idea to give out the mulling mixes for cider. We take a very simple approach to mulling--half a gallon of cider, one large cinnamon stick, and two round orange slices to float on top. But I've had "real" mulled cider from people who get all the spices together, and there's nothing like it--yum!

Have a blessed Yule!


Eden Rivers said...


That's great that you have family in the area for the holidays. My sister lives in town (though she'll be away this year), but otherwise, we dive into the holiday season solo. Our family is spread out from CA to MA and NH--coast to coast.

Have a peaceful and beautiful holiday season!


Lara Dien said...

My spice blend, for anyone who wants it:

5 parts cinnamon bark (or small, broken sticks)
4 parts allspice berries
3 parts star anise (whole or pieces)
2 parts whole cloves
1 part dried lemon peel

I find that working in parts is easier--if I'm doing a batch instead of just a little for the house, I'll start with 1/4 or 1/2 cup of the lemon peel and work my way up.

Mix it up well; add to cider in a cheesecloth bag or similar (you can dump it in, but it's a pain to strain it out). 1/2 cup mulling spices to 1/2 gallon cider. Heat cider to a simmer, add the spices and simmer 15 minutes.

If you go longer than 20 minutes, the cider becomes bitter from the lemon oil, so watch the clock. Remove the bundle of spices, and serve up!

YUMMM....I made this one up, and I've never tasted a better recipe. LOL Plus, you can switch the ingredients around to suit yourself. Like lemon? Switch places with the cloves. Hate anise? Put it last. Just be sure to put the cinnamon first!

Think I'll post this on my blog, too...


Eden Rivers said...

Oh yum!!! Thanks for sharing the recipe, Lara :-) This sounds just amazing. We've got a half gallon of cider in the fridge, so I'm going to have to try it out.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Eden,
Sounds wonderful, and all that snow, your photo looks just like a Christmas card. I live in Australia and it is hot, hot hot for Christmas. Many people have barbecues for Christmas, although the traditional English Christmas fare, roast turkey, chicken, pork, hot plum pudding with brandy sauce is still followed in many homes, especially my mother's generation.

Eden Rivers said...

Hi Margaret,

Oh wow, the heat of Australia sure sounds good today! I dreamed about being in Australia the other night, and then my daughter dreamed about Australia last night. Must have something to do with the fact that it's below zero here today, with a killer wind chill.

I love the idea of the barbeque for Christmas tradition. Wouldn't work very well in my part of the country though, LOL.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Debby said...

Traditions are wonderful but we have very few but getting together. Your poor guy on the cover of your book would be very cold in Wisconsin.

Val said...

We always have fresh cinnamon rolls on Christmas day. I always make fudge every year. My tree is decorated with homemade ornaments from my sons,my late Mom and Gram, and my Aunt Betty and I did a lot too. Everyone always comes and enjoys the stories for each one that they see we have a story to tell about how it came to be.

Eden Rivers said...

Debby -- I think getting together with family & friends is the most important tradition of all :-)

Val -- the fresh cinnamon rolls sound wonderful! And what beautiful memories, that you have hand-made ornaments, and stories to go along with the people who made them.