Happy New Year! Already? Yup; the Winter Solstice marks the Solar New Year and this change point has been celebrated around the world for millennia. Even in the tropics, the solstices are recognized as The Days Of No Shadows, since the sun is directly overhead at noon on the Equator on both days. Up in Alaska, my friend Les reports having strings of subzero days, with a full moon high of 16 F below and a biting wind to make it feel even colder. He says the challenge is to get out of bed and stay up, doing little chores and tending his winter garden. Every winter, Les spends the brief, dark days making colorful ice flowers and sculptures to illuminate with zillions of candles (the largest pieces take several dozen candles each but he has to use them because battery powered candles don’t hold a charge in subzero temperatures). He holds a Solstice ice garden tour that benefits the local library and gives people an enchanting, magical glimpse of light blooming in the darkest of days.
As I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with the commercial versions of winter holidays, Solstice celebrations have become ever more satisfying. For many years, we built a Solstice bonfire and invited neighbors to welcome winter and the return of the light. We would all throw written messages into the flames, naming things we wanted to be done with or things we hoped for, or both. My daughter often brought honey mead to make oaths or toasts with; one sip of the fiery stuff is plenty for me but getting hammered on Solstice mead is a tradition that dates back at least a few thousand years if not more. Personally, I’m drawn to the more meditative Solstice traditions, honoring the day with music, cooking festive food, doing creative handwork or making something artful.
One favorite tradition involves plunging the entire household into darkness (it’s supposed to happen at midnight but I can’t stay awake that late anymore). People gather in a circle as the lights go out, and after a period of meditation and prayer, the youngest or oldest person present lights a candle. After offering a song or story or poem, they light someone else’s candle, then that person offers their song or whatever and lights the candle of the next person. As the flame passes around the circle, the room grows brighter and the mood gets merrier until everyone is singing and laughing. Then the feasting begins, and the libations and celebrations can go on all night-or all week. These days, we light our candles in the evening, then hold revels as long as anyone wants to keep it up, but rarely do they last more than a few hours.
The most difficult part is making the whole house dark. It’s surprising to see how many little lights stay on all night, from clock faces to the stovetop and many various gadgets. Rather than unplugging the stove and internet devices, etc., we drape towels over them and cover the little lights on internet devices, surge protectors and ground fault interruptors with a bit of painter’s tape, which comes off clean and doesn’t leave any sticky residue, as electrician’s tape can (ask me how I know). The homes in our little neighborhood are very close together and it’s impossible to block out all the light from outside, but we drape sheets over the window curtains to make things darker (and warmer) indoors. Whenever I do this, I remember being in wild places where there were no human-made lights for miles and becoming aware of the power of starlight, dim yet radiant.
Good Yule To You
Long before there was Christmas, the season of Yule was an important part of the year, especially for the Germanic and Scandinavian countries as well France, England, Scotland and Ireland. The Winter Solstice was a highlight of the Yule season, which could stretch for several months and often included bonfires, songs and storytelling, as well as feasting, drinking and carousing. For many cultures, the Winter Solstice was celebrated as the end of the harvesting period, a time for rest and recuperation. Christmas celebrations changed in Queen Victoria’s reign, shifting the focus towards decorated trees and gift giving.
These days, there’s a fascinating resurgence of interest in ancient Solstices practices, some fostered by Neopagans, notably Wiccans, who prefer to focus on nature-based spirituality. There’s also new interest in aboriginal and tribal spiritual traditions from all over the world, most of which are similar in considering all living things (and often all creation) to be as important, valuable and sacred as humans. This key concept appeals to me far more than patriarchal, man-centric religions that seem to have little room or respect for the feminine, whether physical or spiritual. Sometimes it feels a bit sad to find that once-comforting old traditions have lost their potency and power for me, yet I’m finding there is hope and wholeness in other even longer-standing spiritual traditions. Let there be Light!
In Japan, many people eat Kabocha squash at the Solstice to ensure good luck in the coming year. The hardest part of preparing these pumpkin-like winter squashes is cutting them open. I’ve used everything from a small hand axe to a hacksaw but finally settled on my largest chef’s knife, newly sharpened. Once cut in half and seeded, you can microwave the squash halves until tender enough to cut easily (usually around 2-4 minutes). To bake the whole squash as pre-prep, wrap it in foil and bake at 400 degrees F for about 15-20 minutes. Now you can pop out the stem, cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds (which can be roasted and salted just like pumpkin seeds). Now you can slice the squash for roasting or dice the pieces for soups. The roasted skin is edible but can be easily peeled off at this stage if you prefer.
Roasted Kabocha Squash With
Maple Syrup, Coconut & Ginger
I tasted a version of this at a local restaurant and made up this recipe to come close to the original. You can change the spices to your taste, make it sweeter or less sweet, or just roast the slices with a little oil, salt and pepper and call it good- it will be!
Solstice Lucky Pumpkin
3-4 pounds Kabocha squash, cut in half-inch slices
(see above for directions)
3-4 Tbsp avocado oil
2-3 Tbs maple syrup
2-3 Tbsp grated ginger root
1-2 tsp grated turmeric root
1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt
1/8-1/4 tsp hot smoked paprika
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
Place a sheet of parchment paper on a rimmed baking sheet and lightly brush with oil, set aside. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a bowl, blend the oil, maple syrup, ginger, turmeric, salt and paprika. Toss the squash slices in the mixture to coat evenly and place in a single layer on the baking sheet. Roast for 15-20 minutes on a side, turning once. About 7-8 minutes before the squash is done, sprinkle with coconut flakes and resume cooking. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves at least one.