Rekindling the Fires: How We Gather and Celebrate for Yule
by Catherine Harper
I am a person much concerned with the rituals of hearth and home, and in general I am more likely to mark the turnings of the year in my kitchen or garden, or alone in the woods, than I am in larger gatherings. But even this preference aside, Yule seems to me a holiday that focuses around these intimate spaces. In the face of the darkest time of the year, who we share our table with is especially important. If sunlight brightens the whole community, away from the sun one can pick those who are each of our chosen families by candlelight. Winter, to me, breeds a love of small spaces.
Reaching for this sense of family and continuity is a challenge for the many of us who are first-generation pagans. I know that I want to be able to reach back to my own memories of being a child and find something there that I can bring forward to give to the children in my life. But this can be almost an archaeological challenge, finding amid so much past the right pieces, bringing them to the surface, cleaning them and restoring them to some kind of meaning.
I have a vague fondness still for stockings, but no context from which to hang them, and the woman who knitted the stockings I once loved is dead and gone. That memory I can love and yet watch recede into the distance.
I remember the candles on a tree in the yard of one of my dearest childhood friends that, starting with the youngest child, we would each light in turn on the eve of the winter solstice, singing carols into the night.
I love and remember the smell of a fresh fir tree brought inside, but equally I remember being seven and in tears faced with that same tree two weeks later that had died and dried and lost its needles. And mixed in with my childhood memories of yearning for lights and magic are my adult wishes for fewer malls, a different sort of family and a clear line of demarcation drawn between what I do and what is so nationally celebrated as Christmas.
Out of these conflicting needs has come our own synthesis. I don’t pretend that the answers that our dialog with the past has produced extend to anything beyond our own threshold. We don’t bring in a tree, though that ritual is as pagan as it comes. We do exchange presents and stay up all night and party and play and keep a light going through all the long hours of darkness. At midnight, everyone gathers in front of the fire and feeds it with tokens of things they are glad to have seen the last of, accompanied by explanations and applause. (A ritual that started more or less by accident but has grown and continued until it has developed such momentum I suspect I will never see the end of it.) We make candles. We eat soup, bread and little sandwiches, and trays of cakes, cookies and fruit tarts.
In the last several years, these gatherings have begun to set fruit. When they started, we were college students and young adults, mostly. Now, we are overrun by children, competing among each other to dip candles thicker than their own wrists, gorging on sweets, playing tournament mancala, helping grind flour, swimming laps in the hot tub and staying up far past their accustomed bedtimes.
My senses of past and present are becoming satisfied. Bit by bit, out of the flotsam from our childhoods, from the chance occurrences that recurred and became tradition, from literature, from history, from the stories we have imagined for ourselves, we are building something solid, something that returns and carries us along with it, something that we will pass on.
(To people who will doubtless prune it into a shape they find pleasing. There is no point in being too attached to any particular notions for the future….)
Meanwhile, for me Yule will smell like fir and beeswax and taste like cinnamon. In this land of evergreens, it is natural to bring in a little greenery when so much else has died away. In a time of darkness, of course we make a fuss over light and warmth. And when there is so little in season for the table but we need the extra nourishment to stave away the cold, our celebratory food is rich with saved eggs and butter, and spiced to overcome the monotony of the winter stores. And in 15 years, or 20, if the gods be kind, a nephew, or niece, or godson (or child?) will call me from another city where they have gone to work or to school and say “That cake, you remember? You used to make it on longest night? Do you still have the recipe?”
This is simply the best gingerbread in the world. The recipe is not original with me, but it has changed more than a bit in my keeping and may in yours as well.
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 3/4 very hot water
- 1 1/4 cup flour
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour your baking pan. (I use a 9-inch round pan, but a pair of loaf pans also works well.)
Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the molasses. (It is very efficient if you pour the hot water in the same measuring cup you just poured the molasses out of — it will dissolve the molasses residue and save you time.) Add spices. Alternately, add a bit of the hot water and a bit of the flour until both are thoroughly blended. Beat in the egg, and then quickly whisk in the baking powder and soda. Now quickly, before you lose any rise from your leavening, pour the batter into your pan and pop it in the oven. Cook for about half an hour, or until the middle is firm.
When I was young, I found a variant on this recipe and used it to make cookies in the shapes of fruit, stippling little balls of orange-colored dough to give them the texture of citrus peel, piercing them with a clove to make a blossom end, painting a blush on the surface of peaches and so forth, rather in the manner of marzipan. But the dough can be made into almost any form, as long as it is mostly flat. You can think of it as an edible, cookable play-dough. Don’t be timid with the food color — bright colors make it much more fun.
- 1 part sugar
- 2 parts butter
- Flavoring to taste
- 5 parts flour
- Food coloring
Cream together the butter and sugar, add flavoring if desired and then blend in flour. (If your one part is equal to half a cup, you can use &fraq12; to 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or a bit less almond extract, a bit more Grand Marnier, a teaspoon of citrus zest, a couple of tablespoons of minced candied ginger or whatever suits your fancy.)
Divide the dough into sections and add a different color of food coloring to each one, mixing it in first with a fork and then with your fingers. Form each color into a ball, wrap with plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour.
When it is chilled, form it into whatever shapes you — or your children — like. Bake at 325 for 20 to 30 minutes. If the dough becomes hot and sticky while it is being worked, just stick the cookies into the refrigerator to chill before you bake them. As long as they are cold when they hit the oven, the texture will be fine.