After the joy and colour of the autumn harvest, Mother Nature settles down for her long winter sleep. The trees shed their leaves and expose their skeletons, the earth grows cold and many creatures slow their heart rate and take to their nests to hibernate. We humans draw in and settle before a warm hearth. This season is a period of inner growth, of planning and preparing for the coming Spring. Our inner fire seems to burn more brightly during the colder months, as projects and celebrations unfold. Many cultures hold their main celebration during the winter time, as there is not so much work to be done. It is time to welcome the return of the light and a chance to get together with friends and family and banish the blues of the colder, leaner months. Here we look at some of the main festivities and how they can be enjoyed today.
In China, the festival of Dong Zhi, which marks the winter solstice and the turning of the year, is linked to the philosophy of yin and yang. The Chinese celebrate the fact that the yang, or muscular, positive things will become stronger in the coming months. It is traditionally a time for people to rest and for families to get together and share food and stories. One dish that is often made is Tangyuan (rice dumplings). These balls are made from glutinous rice and symbolise reunion. Each family member is given at least one large ball and several smaller ones, cooked in a sweet or savoury broth. The Winter Solstice rice dumplings are also used as sacrifices to ancestors, or gifts for friends and relatives. In Taiwan, people keep the custom of offering nine-layer cakes to their ancestors. They make cakes in the shape of chickens, ducks, tortoise, pigs, cows or sheep with glutinous rice flour and steam them on different layers of a pot. These animals all signify auspiciousness in Chinese tradition. People of the same surname or family clan gather at their ancestral temples to worship their ancestors in age order. And after the sacrificial ceremony, there is always a grand banquet.
Hanukah the Festival of Lights, begins at sunset on December 24, ending on January 1. In Jewish homes worldwide, nine-light candelabras – called menorahs – will shine on tables or in windows. Each night, an additional candle or flame is added, until nine lights blaze. Children receive Hanukah gelt (money), real or gold-foil covered chocolate coins; play dreidel, a spinning top with Hebrew letters; and receive presents, sometimes one on each night, a modern practice precipitated in part by North American culture. To feed the festive gathering of family and friends, comes the age-old tradition of eating foods fried in oil. Hanukah dates to 165 BCE, recalling the victory of the Jewish people over the Greeks at a time when the Greeks were imposing their language, religion and social customs on the peoples they conquered. Although many went along with the new rules, the Jews refused, remaining faithful, even though Jewish customs were banned and those who observed them were killed. Judah Maccabee and his four brothers didn’t give in; instead, they gathered an army, fought for seven years and won. Meanwhile, the Greeks had ransacked the Temple in Jerusalem, and when the Maccabees returned, it was in ruins. To rededicate the Temple, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) burned a special olive oil. In the ruins, one small oil container was discovered, enough for only a single day. However, it lasted eight days – a miracle – providing time for more to be prepared. Today, Jews celebrate eight days, light the menorah each night until all the lights are burning brightly, celebrating freedom, independence and free worship. The oil is also recalled in edible treats. Jews with Eastern European roots associate it with potato pancakes or latkes, but this is actually a more modern invention, as New World potatoes didn’t reach Western Europe until the 16th century and later in Eastern Europe. Among Sephardim (Jews originally from Spain and Portugal) and Mizrahim (those from Eastern countries, such as Iran) there are other delicious specialities. In Israel, latkes are eaten, although doughnuts (sufganiot) are the main event. Weeks before the holiday, doughnut stands spring up on street corners and oil scents the air.
What you need: 4 medium potatoes, peeled and grated; 2 eggs, beaten; 1 medium onion, finely chopped; 2 tbs matza meal or flour; salt and pepper to taste; 2 cups oil for frying
How to make: Wash, peel potatoes and grate. Put the grated potato into a clean tea towel and squeeze out moisture. Add eggs and onion, salt and pepper to taste, mix well. If the batter is too thin, add matza meal or flour. Let stand 5-10 minutes before cooking. In a high-sided frying pan, heat a few tablespoons of oil until very hot. Form 2- or 3-inch pancakes. To enable uniform cooking, pack batter into a measuring cup of appropriate size. Stir batter each time before measuring. For very thin, crisp latkes, use 1/4-cup of batter; pat very thin. For a larger or thicker latke use a 1/2-cup measure. Pat out and place carefully into the oil, press lightly with a spatula. Fry until golden, turn over and fry on the other side. Remove, drain well on paper towel. Add more oil to the pan as needed. Serve immediately with crème fraiche and chopped herbs. Makes about 15-20.
The dreidel is a spinning toy with four Hebrew letters, one on each side. The letters - shin, hey, gimel and nun - are the first four letters of the Hebrew words “A Great Miracle Happened There.” There are many variations of the dreidel game, but it is basically a game of chance.
What you need: A piece of card; 10 or 15 nuts per player; dreidel; central pot
How to play: Each player places one of his markers in the central pot. Spin the dreidel and obey the command showing uppermost. Num – the next player spins Gimel – the player takes the whole pot Hey – the player takes half the pot Shin – the player puts a marker in the pot. The game lasts until one player has all the counters.
Ways to celebrate Hanukah with your family
• Play a game together.
• Serve Hanukah foods. In most families, this means potato latkes and other fried foods.
• Sing prayers and songs for Hanukah.
• Younger children receive a Hanukah box which contains one small gift for each of the eight days of the holiday, and is one way that many families choose to commemorate the eight-day miracle of the oil in a way that children can appreciate and understand.
• Read about Hanukah, and about other elements of Jewish history and heritage.
Advent marks the period of preparation for Christ’s birth in the Christian calendar beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. This used to be a time of fasting, similar to Lent, and in some parts of the world restrictions on dancing and festivities were enforced during this time. Each of the four Sundays of Advent are celebrated by the lighting of a candle on the Advent Wreath. The wreath often contains a white or gold candle in the centre called the Christ Candle. Nowadays advent calendars are available from supermarkets in September and the meaning has been somewhat lost. Yes, it marks the countdown to Christmas but often in a more commercial vein than the original was intended for. Many now contain a chocolate treat for each day of the month lead up to the annual gift-giving bonanza. Perhaps a less avaricious way of marking the time prior to Christmas is an advent candle or a home-made advent calendar. Christmas marks the birth of Jesus. It has become the most economically significant holiday of the year, and is also celebrated by non-Christians. This time of year is now characterised by the giving of gifts, some of these being bestowed by a kindly sectarian fellow called Father Christmas. However, many regional Christian traditions are still practiced around the world despite the influence of popular culture.
Pomander Scent plays an important part in the festivities and a pomander is one way to harness the evocative aromas of Christmas. They also make lovely gifts.
How to make: • Use a cocktail stick to pierce the skin of an orange. Insert cloves into the fruit so that cloves form close, vertical rows. Make patterns with the cloves, if you desire. The goal is to cover the fruit with cloves as completely as possible. • Combine a teaspoon each of powdered orrisroot, ground cinnamon, ground allspice and ground nutmeg in a large sandwich bag. Place the fruit in the bag, and roll the fruit around in the spice mixture. Cover the entire fruit with spices. • Remove the fruit from the bag and shake off excess spice powder. If you have time, wrap the fruit in tissue paper and store in a cool, dry place for three to four weeks. If not, display straight away.
Roast Chestnuts When Jack Frost is nipping at your nose, there’s nothing to be done but gather around the hearth and roast chestnuts on a open fire.
What to do: • Choose a pan that has a long handle such as a frying pan (not non-stick as these cannot tolerate high temperatures and should be avoided as they give off noxious fumes). • Cut an X into the shell of each chestnut with a paring knife, this avoids a buildup of steam inside the nuts causing them to explode! • Place chestnuts in pan and cover. • Roast over the coals of an open hearth for 15 to 25 minutes or until the chestnuts are tender and the shells are beginning to open. • Peel chestnuts when they are cool enough to handle and serve with festive cheer.
Families Celebrate Around the World
In Italy, the Christmas season is so anticipated that the religious celebration begins early in December and continues throughout the month. Gifts are sometimes exchanged on December 25, but some families wait until Epiphany, a holiday celebrated on January 6, to formally exchange presents. Anna, mother of five, enjoys celebrating Christmas with her husband and his family in the Umbrian mountains. “Nonna gathers everyone around the nativity to recite prayers in the morning. She fasts all day on Christmas Eve, and we all go to church in the evening together. It’s such an important occasion. All the older folk of the village gather in the church dressed in their finest clothes. We go home to an elaborate Christmas Eve banquet, which contains no meat, but lots of fresh seafood and other treats. My children are encouraged by their Italian family to write a letter on beautiful paper containing their promises to behave during the coming year, which Tony and I find hilarious, and fairly futile!”
Maria, 39, is mother to Anna, 5 and Carlos, 2. Originally from Portugal, she has lived in London for eight years and her family Christmas has a colourful cross-cultural feel: “In Portugal, we love to get together with family and friends at this time of year. After Mass on Christmas Eve we share a meal called consoada and this party goes on into the night! We eat fish and potatoes followed by rabanadas, a bread that is dipped in egg and wine and then fried. After dinner, we open a few small presents.” Every year since her children were born Maria has spent Christmas with her family in Lisbon but this year she and her husband Stephen will be entertaining Stephen’s family in London. “I want my children to be aware of their heritage so I plan to set up the nativity scene that has been passed on to me by my grandmother and the children will put out their shoes by the fireplace on Christmas Eve to be filled with presents!”
Helena, 26, lives in Sweden with her partner and one year old daughter. “On 13th December we remember St. Lucia. Some towns organise a procession called “Lussetåg,” led by someone dressed up as Lucia. She is known as the Queen of Light, and her costume is a white dress with a red belt and a crown of candles. This year at home we will make more effort for our daughter as she is more aware. We will light the advent candles each Sunday during Advent and she will help us decorate the tree. My mother makes Jul gröt, a Christmas porridge that has one almond in it. Whoever gets the almond has good luck for the next year. I am sure that Tomten will come in the afternoon with presents and riddles. I think it will be really magical to share Christmas with our daughter this year.”
Neela, 36, lives in Birmingham with her husband and their three sons. They do decorate their house at Christmas time as Neela does not want her children to feel left out but the Festival of Lights, Divali, is much more important to them. This time is marked as a triumph of good over evil, a celebration of life and a chance to strengthen relationships. “In December we decorate our house with light. We place small candles everywhere. I have to warn the boys to be careful but it looks so enchanting when they are all lit and the flames are dancing. We often have friends and family to visit at the weekends and more so during the winter months. I love to cook traditional Kashmiri dishes with my sister, using spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and saffron. I hope the boys benefit from being brought up in an environment that embraces cultural differences and yet upholds important traditions.”
Tom emigrated to Australia three years ago with his wife and young family and he recognises how consumerism can often detract from the spirit of Christmas. He and his family have totally settled into the laid-back Aussie lifestyle, where Christmas festivities mean a barbecue on the beach with friends followed by a game of volleyball and a dip in the sea. “We love to be outdoors so this lifestyle suits us perfectly. Annette missed her family at Christmas for the first few years but we have found some likeminded people now and last year we spent the whole day on the beach, just eating, drinking and hanging out with all the kids. It was great fun and I wish all our friends could experience Christmas this way. None of the stress and overspending you often see in the UK.”
Christmas Eve Celebrations
In Latvia, Christmas is an important holiday. The celebration begins on December 24 and lasts for a full 12 days, with a gift left under the tree for each day of the festivities. Many of the old Pagan traditions still exist, such as rolling a wooden block around the house to ward off evil spirits. Similarly in Norway, celebrations mark the turn of the year and old Viking traditions like brewing holiday beer are still practiced. Other customs include leaving out porridge to appease Ninna the gnome and baking bread with a cross on top to ward off evil spirits.
In Hungary, children are also encouraged to leave their shoes out on the evening of December 5, when St. Mikulas will come and leave a gift. It is said that those who have behaved well during the previous year receive fruit and sweets whilst others discover a piece of coal or an onion. Children in Holland expect similar treatment as Sinterklaus – who travels by white horse - keeps a red book to check each child’s behaviour. Children in Romania are also expected to clean their shoes and leave them by the door so that a gift can be left by Father Christmas. It is thought that he also brings the tree on Christmas Eve. Carols are an important part of the holiday celebration in Romania. These songs are thought to give singers the power to connect with God as they reflect on Jesus’ birth, and to gain the strength to overcome life’s obstacles. Carollers go from house to house carrying stars carved out of wood, adorned with bells and ribbons. Snacks of nuts, apples, pretzels and cakes are shared amongst the festive singers. On Christmas Day, revellers attend the village hall for folk dancing and mulled wine. On 1st January, Romanians spread grain around the house in honour of St. Vasile in hope of good luck for the coming year.
Feast of the Epiphany in Ethiopia
More than half of the population is Orthodox Christian in Ethopia. The celebrations centre around the Feast of the Epiphany on 7th January. Families set up a manger scene that includes the Three Magi. Legend has it that the king bearing frankincense was King Balthazar of Ethiopia. Celebrations are infused with the essential oil of frankincense, which was traditionally a gift suitable for a high priest. An Ethiopian feast might include a main course, such as doro wat (a spicy chicken stew), injera bread (round flatbread) and homemade wine or beer. Children play ganna in the streets, a form of hockey with a stick made from locally grown trees. In Ethiopia the teams often represent certain regions and the rivalry can be fierce. According to tradition, shepherds celebrated when they heard of Jesus’ birth by playing such a game. The exchange of gifts is not customary for Ethiopians but children are sometimes given new clothing as a part of the celebrations. Although there are no Christmas trees in a traditional Ethiopian Christmas, trees, artificial snow and other gimmicks have started to spring up in the capital city of Addis Ababa.
Our Favourite Reads
The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer
The Return of the Light: 12 stories from around the world for Winter Solstice by Carolyn Edwards
Winter: A Collection of Stories, Songs and Poems by Jennifer Aulie
Baboushka: A Winter Folk Tale from Russia by Arthur Scholey