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‘Tis the Season

resized_20161207_093548It’s cold and it’s dark.  Thanksgiving was late, so it feels like the other holidays are coming early.  I’m having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit – for any of the holidays.   Yule is fast approaching.  The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, is this week.   All I want to do is crawl under the covers.

Maybe it’s the politics.  Maybe it’s the news stories.  Maybe it’s just a general sense that certain people feel like they now have permission to be rude, racist, misogynistic and all together nasty.  It definitely feels like the longest night.

The thing is, most of the winter holidays are celebrations of hope.  They are a coming together of families, of communities.  Many of them are directly linked to survival, either as an acknowledgement of the ancestors surviving or as a sacred working towards surviving the rest of the winter.

41182543-jewish-holiday-hanukkah-celebration-with-vintage-menorahBoth Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrate the faith, perseverance and fortitude of ancestors in the face of insurmountable odds.  Even the Christmas story has Mary and Joseph finding shelter where there was none to be had.   If our ancestors beat the odds, so can we.  We have their support, their example, and when our own faith wains we can lean on theirs.

The Islamic calendar is lunar, without some of the “corrections” in the Jewish calendar that keep festivals seasonal.  Currently Muslims are also celebrating the birth of the prophet, not Jesus but Mohammad.  Along with the longest night comes the birth of the sun.  In Christianity the savior is born.  There is hope in the metaphor of birth.  There is potential for something better to come along.  There is a new way of approaching the world being born.resized_20161218_142133

During the longest night people came together to share stories.  Like Hans Christian Anderson’s the Little Match Girl they create visions of the futures they wanted to see.  Dreams of sugarplums dance in their heads.  They’re visited by ghosts, ancestors, departed friends, spirits with teaching visions.  Hearth fires are tended, and gifts are exchanged.

In O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi it is the wise (or foolish) sacrifice that is a gift of love.  Yet some of the pressure of our season is that consumer culture that measures how much or how many above how thoughtful, how generous.  Finding the “right” gifts, or making them, is often how I come to the spirit of this season.  And again, this year that has been more difficult.

I’m finding more seasonal joy in sharing a protein bar with a homeless man on the street corner than in exchanging packages.  I’m finding more seasonal joy in being able to encourage a teen I’m driving to school than in writing a holiday letter.  I had more fun shopping for my women’s group ritual (where the presents represented themes rather than being for specific people) than I had baking for the family.resized_20161219_102719

I’m hoping for the hope.  I’m leaning heavily on tradition to see me through.  I’m going through the motions, believing that movement brings movement.  I am reminded of being 9 months pregnant, miserable, impatient and not really knowing what the future would bring.

Let the bells ring out.  May joy and peace be shared with all.  May love and kindness fill the world and vanquish cruelty and hatred.  May you all have a blessed holiday season.

 

Previous blogs about Yuletide:

Yuletide Greetings

Gifting

Holidays

Merry Merry

War on Christmas

 

Food

PART_1419860637603_20141223_220053It has been my blogging tradition to do a post about my family’s holiday meal.  This year everything was different – literally everything!   My whole perspective on food is shifting because of the bariatric surgery I had in July.  I’m eating pretty normally now – normal apparently for normal people.  I’m still astonished by how little food it takes to make me feel satisfied.  The problem is that my volume is so low I can’t seem to get enough protein.  So not only is protein a priority, it has become the priority.

The second thing most different thing was the menu – or perhaps how the menu was established.  Entertaining at this level has become a little too much for my Mom and Dad.  (They still do it occasionally, but we won’t “make” them do it for us anymore.)  We see how long it takes them to recover.  That won’t stop them from contributing!  You may recall that although my sister hosted Thanksgiving my Mom made the turkey (and stuffing and wild rice) and my Dad baked bread and there were contributions to the appetizer table.

This year my 21-year-old daughter (the baker) decided she was going to take on the family holiday.  She’s worked in a production kitchen.  She’s helped plan and prep meals for weekend retreats.  She’s had lovely dinner parties for 4, and hosted (with help) dinner parties for 8.  But the family holiday is a whole new level of stress.  She’s got her Grandmother’s china setting for 12.  She’s got enough open space in her apartment.  She’s got the culinary chops to pull it off.

She doesn’t have place settings for 20, or 19, or 21 or Who is coming to this event anyway?!?   She doesn’t have table space or seating for that many – room, but not the furniture.  She doesn’t have linens or enough silverware or glasses.  She also is waitressing, covering shifts for everyone who asked off for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day along with her regular shifts.  Five busy and under staffed work days followed by a dinner party for 20ish you’re hosting on Saturday is something only to be undertaken by someone that young.  Oh, and my parents coming into town planning to stay with her as well.

She really was brilliant.  She told everyone what she was making (ham and mashed potatoes) and what they were to bring.  She rented tables and washed up my old linens and dug out my stored silverware.  She did everything in her power to make sure everyone would be comfortable, contributing, and welcomed.  For most everybody that was enough.   The few lines in the sand she drew (no you can’t bring him he wasn’t invited/if he doesn’t want to be here he can go home) were appropriate and as gracious as possible.

Dinner at Merlin's Rest and a German Chocolate Cake from scratch.

Dinner at Merlin’s Rest and a German Chocolate Cake from scratch.

I ate all week.   Karina, Orion and I opened presents to each other Christmas eve and I made king crab and beef tenderloin.  I had a crab leg and maybe an ounce of beef.  On Christmas day Karina panicked and I went over to help her decorate her tree and get the house ready.  She took me out for lunch – Chinese of course.  Friday my parents came into town and we went to the restaurant where Karina was working for dinner.  Mom had mussels, Dad had a vegetarian pot pie, Orion had fish and chips (and my fries and Mom’s fries) and I had a steak and Stilton pie (mostly just the insides).  I baked my Mom a birthday cake and so we had some of that as well.  The restaurant staff was happy to have their share of cake too.  Plenty to go around when a “piece” amounts to a few bites.

Then there was the big dinner Saturday.  Dad made a tin of his caramel corn (a tin the size of a 4 gallon tub) and several loaves of bread.  He swore they’d eaten all the gravlax (he makes that too) for breakfast.  (Some found its way to my refrigerator, but no bagels.)  Mom brought shrimp dip, oysters and caviar, and artichoke dip.   I added a cheese ball (Mom’s recipe) and some pomegranate salsa and chips.   Just a little to whet the palate!   I managed to have a bite of everything but some of it waited until the next day.

This is what a LARGE portion of carmel corn looks like to me these days.  A big change from several handfuls!

This is what a LARGE portion of caramel corn looks like to me these days. A big change from several handfuls!

Dinner was the lovely bone in ham that Karina made, along with her mashed potatoes and gravy.  Darcy put together a beautiful spinach salad with almonds and blueberries.  My Mom dug out her homemade blue cheese dressing.   I roasted up some vegetables.  My little sister, Janine, made desert – a raspberry bomb – a tradition from our childhood that I haven’t had in years.  What a treat!  (2 bites worth, but I know where the leftovers are….)

You’d think I would have taken photos, but I was busy helping out in the kitchen and getting the tables set.  Kept me from drooling all over the food that I couldn’t eat. (Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t have done it.  There was too much!)    It was actually a more simple meal that we usually have, but it was especially tasty and more than enough.

We were missing Andrea (part of the reason Karina hosted was because our Thanksgiving hosts were out with his family) and my niece.  But we did have Janine  and her boys (another coup for Karina).   Everyone left early.  The elders were tired, Janine had to get home, Darcy and Zac had more relatives to visit before the day was out.   Karina was asleep in my lap within an hour of everyone leaving.

I’m so proud of my daughter for pulling off a daunting affair at her age.  She may even be willing to do it again next year (paper plates?).

Yuletide Greetings

Yule log from a community solstice celebration

Yule log from a community solstice celebration

We’re in that space between the winter solstice and the New Year.  Unless you are a committed last-minute shopper, most of the hustle of the season has ended.  It is time to raise a cup, relax, and enjoy the celebrations.  It is a time of quiet, a breath before the round of New Years eve parties and Super Bowl buffets.

It is the darkest time of the year.  The solstice marks the sun’s return, but we won’t really notice that the days are getting longer for at least a month.  The holiday lights reflected on the snow bring a hint of magic to the darkness.  It is a time to review the past year and make plans (goals and dreams) for the next.

"candles" light up the neighborhood.

“candles” light up the neighborhood.

This is a family time of year.  That family may be blood, or may just be your close friends.  But it is a time to connect with those we love and care about.  It is a time to share, not only in our exchange of presents but in our presence.

The darkness can be bittersweet, especially for those who have suffered a recent loss.  I have had years where much of my silence was missing companions.  I have had years where I couldn’t afford to purchase gifts and had to make due.  I have had years where my children and I were adopted by secret Santa’s who made our holidays bountiful in spite of our poverty.

At the heart of the darkness is the light that comes from gratitude.  I am grateful for the loved ones in my life.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to spend time and share laughter.  I am grateful to have food, and warmth, and shelter, knowing there are many who go without.  I am grateful to have the energy to participate in the holiday season in ways I couldn’t even imagine a year ago.

lights in the middle of nowhere

lights in the middle of nowhere

I am grateful to people I’ve never met who have bought my books and who read my blog.  I’m grateful for the opportunities and ability to express myself and for my voice to be heard.  I’m grateful for the family and friends who support me, promote me, and direct others to my work.

I am grateful to still be open to growth and learning.  I’m grateful for the opportunities I have to further my education either through independent research or through classes.  I’m grateful for the writers who inspire me, who make me think, and who challenge my world  view.  I’m also grateful for the one’s who express what I feel more eloquently than I could manage on my own.

May you find the space to take a breath in this part of the seasons celebrations.  May you welcome in the magic, and the darkness, and the light.  May you find renewal at the center of the unknown.  Please cherish this Yuletide Season.    Happy Holidays!PART_1419259969090_20141220_185211

Sugar Challenge

Grand-niece Emmaline

Grand-niece Emmaline

My family finally got together for the holiday!  (And incidentally I got to meet the new baby!)

1 year old Charles.  Isn't that what Christmas is about?

1 year old Charles. Isn’t that what Christmas is about?

As promised there was a new challenge this year.  SUGAR.  This wasn’t as easy as it sounds and the competition was fierce.   My youngest sister and her family opted out.  They celebrated with my folks over the Solstice.  (I was not available.)  Andrea (the middle sister) and Butch hosted and friends of theirs stopped by.  We’ve known them for at least 25 years, they’re family!  In spite of every Besnett debating in their head if their dish would stretch there was plenty to go around.

Because of timing, scheduling, and all the comings and goings courses were not served individually this year.  Instead the feast was piled up for everyone to take some and find a seat.  So I’ll have to give you the plate by plate low down the way I saw it.

The "spread"

The “spread”

That soup in the corner was Darcy’s offering.  She’s the new Mom, the mother of the 1 yr. old and the mother of Adian who is maybe in 2nd grade?  Anyway, she’s got a lot on her plate and still managed to produce a very tasty offering in spite of all the obstacles in her path.  Admittedly I was one of them.

From the stove to the table, not much for presentation.  And it's such a pretty soup!

From the stove to the table. And it’s such a pretty soup!

The soup is a curry with sweet potatoes and peas.  Darcy figured she’d just grab some curry powder out of the cupboard at Andrea’s.  That’s when I got in her way.  Most commercial curry blends have cinnamon in them, and I’m deathly allergic.  Sorry Darcy.  In my defense I did mix her up a curry blend that I could eat.  I tried to make it better and many of us agreed it was a very tasty soup, but Darcy wasn’t happy with her offering and that’s probably mostly my fault.

Alyx wasn't giving up her turn with the new baby.

Alyx wasn’t giving up her turn with the new baby.

Alyx, my niece, is prepping her dish with her new niece tucked into her hoodie pockets.  She also did a sweet potato dish, but the main ingredient (all that green stuff) is minced brussel sprouts.  This is why the competition is so close.  Everyone manages to find a way to challenge their own abilities and up their game.   A lot of people who don’t usually like brussel sprouts thought it was great.  Alyx told me she got nervous and may have added a little too much pepper.  For a novice cook it was a great effort.  Unfortunately the judges ruled it didn’t place.

Dad's job is always taking things out of the oven

Dad’s job is always taking things out of the oven

Mom and Dad went all out with that duck.  It was beautifully cooked, nicely carved and pretty tasty.  The dipping sauce was genius.  It had a crushed raspberry base.  Between the honey in the marinate and the sugar in the dipping sauce it was a great presentation of sugar without being crazy sweet.

Presentation was pretty too.

Presentation was pretty too.

Karina and I thought they should have at least placed but the judges didn’t.  I suspect the judges like the notion of Mom and Dad continuing to take the main dish next year.  I know I do!

Aren't carrots sweet enough to count as sugar?

Carrots are sweet enough to count as sugar, extra with the glaze.

That’s Andrea, our hostess, with her carrots.  She did a flambé with brandy.  She got the judges involved, but most of the group missed that part of the presentation.  Her modest entry involved a lot of time and effort and  she could have raked in cheers if she’d made it a production.  They were perfectly cooked carrots, beautifully plated.  Her son Zac (last year’s winner and the other judge) knew one of the extra guests wouldn’t touch carrots.  The fact that he not only ate them, but liked them gave Andrea extra bonus points.   When they announced her second place the judges said that was the reason.

Karina plates with precision

Karina plates with precision

Karina has been swamped.  As a professional baker she’s working extra with catering orders this time of year.  Adding to her stress was her assistant quitting right before Christmas production started.  Bless her boss for gifting her the perfect solution to our secret ingredient.

Is this really a side dish?

Is this really a side dish?

The beans are steamed, the nuts are sugared but it’s the sauce on the wings that had the judges attention.  Made with pure sugar cane syrup – thank you Alex!

I know this post is getting long, but hey it was a BIG MEAL.  We still have to have dessert.  I coerced Dylan (Karina’s boyfriend) into being on my team rather than hers.   I needed the help!   He doesn’t have a lot of cooking experience, but he stepped up with flying colors.  With dessert we knew we had to take sugar seriously so we spent a day in my kitchen experimenting with pulled sugar.

Karina stood on the counter to take this for proof Dylan helped.

Karina stood on the counter to take this for proof Dylan helped.

In planning for dessert I knew by the time we got here everyone would be too stuffed to want anything too heavy.  I had the perfect solution.   We made both peppermint and cayenne pepper sticks.   I made handcrafted marshmallows.  At Andrea’s we made hot cocoa with organic sugar and high-end cocoa powder and to seal the deal spiked it with Bailey’s Irish Cream.

I thought it plated pretty too.

I thought it plated pretty too.

The peppermint and cayenne sticks stuck in the cocoa were perfect.  The great part was that dessert was adjustable to taste.   Everyone had control of the spices.   They could have alcohol or not.  I even offered good coffee as an alternative to the cocoa.  We got RAVES.   Of course Dylan and I thought we should have won.  We placed third.

The victor for the day, and judge (along with Butch our host) for next year is our baker: Karina.  I’m happy for her.  She can use the break over the holidays given her busy work schedule.  It also means next year the judging will be at a whole new level.  Those two can really talk about food!  Watch out family – I’m playing to win!

Holidays

The Yule log is ready to light.

The Yule log is ready to light.

Here I am smack in the middle of holiday celebrations.  The solstice last weekend rang in a whirlwind of festivities.  I took a small part in a public Yule ritual put on by Harmony Tribe.

What's a Yule without flying reindeer?

What’s a Yule without flying reindeer?

This was an afternoon event and very kid friendly.  I think there were almost as many children present as adults.  There was storytelling about the traditions of the holiday, including flying reindeer.  It was a short and simple ritual with lots of laughter and singing.  I like the public events for the post ritual food.  It’s an opportunity to catch up with folks I don’t see regularly.   Lots of hugs and sharing.

That same evening the small coven I belong to gathered for their Solstice Rite.  The Deities we were working with are travelers, migratory and so the space was filled with carpets and pillows to make a wayside rest, a caravanserai.  The God in particular has a role as guardian for the shamans.   Think about the neolithic caves, the walls painted with stories of shamanic travels.   This God sits before the cave entrance to guard and protect those who enter to journey.  So we started the rite with drumming and guided meditation seeking help to fulfill our visions for the coming year.

Our altar set in the center of the Caravanserai.

Our altar set in the center of the Caravanserai.

Feasting is a big deal in our group and we did well this year.  We had smoked salmon and apples and hard cheese and fig whip.  We had pork roast and venison with gravy.  We had brussel sprouts and garden salad and wild rice.  Desert included baklava, stollen, and sugar cookies with a poppy-seed frosting.  Since I can’t find the cord that lets my camera talk to my computer I didn’t take many photos.  I’m not nearly as good with the camera on my phone.  I promise I’ll try to do better along the way.

Sunday was another Solstice celebration.  This time with the community at Walker church.  I wrote about them when the old building burned in a fire.  The new church is built and just opened so we got to celebrate at the new hearth fire.   Solstice is the celebration of the returning light after the longest night of the year.  For this ritual start in darkness and light candles representing the blessings that have shone for us that they may light us into the new year.  It’s a pretty ritual and it was a delight to celebrate with this community in a beautiful new space.

Being one of those folks who values spirituality in whatever form it’s offered I still have Christmas celebrations to come.  There is cooking to do this week in anticipation of the holiday.  Next Monday’s blog will give you the play-by-play of my family’s Christmas “Chopped” challenge.  I even have plans for a pajama party for New Years eve!

Hope your holidays a full of love and laughter.  May your travels be smooth and safe.  May your holiday wishes come true.  I’ll light a candle in thanks for all the warm comments you’ve left over the year.  Thank you for reading!  Blessed Be.

Magic

A house in my neighborhood.

A house in my neighborhood.

There is something about this time of year that is simply magical.  Maybe because it gets dark so early we find ourselves outside in the night a little more often.  The stars sparkle and their light is reflected on the snow.  Because its cold the air feels clear.  There is a sharpness to sound that evokes the ringing of bells.

Solstice Blessings

Solstice Blessings

There is a fantastical element to all the lights and decorations.  Santa can be seen in his red suit.  But Santa can also be found in small acts of kindness.  Smiles and seasons greetings pop up in unexpected places.  Generosity is abundant (and often unbounded when credit cards come to hand).  Giving small gifts of time, handmade treasures and treats or the perfect purchase is it’s own reward.

Orion is telling his good buddy Santa all about spreading holiday cheer.

Orion is telling his good buddy Santa all about spreading holiday cheer.

The season lends itself to surprises.  Unexpected guests drop in.  Carolers seem to appear from nowhere in the malls.  The postman brings cards and letters from friends far away, and sometimes packages.  It snows on the internet and inboxes are filled with invitations to festive celebrations of friends and family.

Time is funny between the solstice and New Years day.  School children are underfoot destroying any sense of routine. The offices that are open seem to have more free spaces in the day for chatting with co-workers or stealing treats from the break room.  Holiday hours are posted making that late night run for milk sometimes a tricky affair.  The mail and the garbage man seem to come intermittently and never when you expect.

The lights on my tree are Karina and Orion.

The lights on my tree are Karina and Orion.

Even staying at home can get busy.  There are presents to wrap and cookies to bake.  The smells fill the house and evoke memories of holidays past.  Boxes of decorations have been brought out of storage.  They also hold memories, keepsakes of holidays past.

All this can be frustrating and annoying and cloying and difficult.  But take a deep breath, and remember how special this time of year can be.  Slow down and notice the magic, the spirit, and the joy.  Stop before rushing off and take in the night, and the cold, and the clarity.

May the magic of the season stay with you through-out the coming year.

Hearthfires burning

Hearthfires burning

Merry Merry

Regardless of what you call the celebration where you get together with friends and family and exchange gifts in this darkest part of the year, it seems like there’s a lot of it.  I thought I cut back this year.  I skipped several Yule rituals due to double booking, rather than trying to do two things at the same time.  I declared that Santa didn’t need to come to a household were no one lived who was under the age of 18.  I am not hosting any holiday parties, attending any of the parties for my December birthday friends and am going to ONE place for New Years.

Even with that I had 2 Yule rituals, 2 Christmas dinners (I was sou chef at both), Family gift night (we can’t decide if it’s Yule or Christmas) which also meant cooking dinner, and 2 holiday parties still to come.  That’s 7 distinct events over the course of 2 weeks! I’m thinking that’s a lot even with cutting back.

When I grew up we had a long Christmas.  It started Christmas eve, went through much of the night and started up again after a long winter’s nap with Santa first thing in the morning.  We’d finish up presents, get dressed and head to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas dinner.  24 hours of Christmas.  Really one long day, even if it took two.  If there was a New Years event at all it was a small party (3 couples) just for grown-ups or being allowed to stay up and watch Dick Clark until the ball fell.

Depending on the weather we might travel to my other Grandma’s but that could wait until the following week or even until the February thaw.  That visit wasn’t really any different than any other visit to Grandma’s.  There was no special event that distinguished it as Christmas, except a small present exchange.  We usually got handmaid knit slippers or mittens.

A busy Christmas season meant getting outside to go sledding or skiing.  It meant getting to go to the movies.  It meant ice skating and cookies and hot cocoa.  The ‘busy’ part of the season was from Thanksgiving on when all the baking was going on, not during the actual holiday.

My children, who are 18 and 23, have never had a holiday season that didn’t involve multiple events at multiple households.  Their father and I were divorced when the youngest was 2.  That meant holidays at 2 households, even though we often continued to double up so Dad would stop by Christmas morning and I would go to his parents for dinner.  Practicing a different religious tradition than our parents also meant that we had Yule and Christmas.

To throw a wrench into the works, or maybe an odd spice like tamarind, my son has special needs.  He  had a caregiver who was with us from the time he was 3 until adulthood.  She’s like a second Mom to him, and her family and ours have grown very close over the years.  When they were little, we’d pack all the kids (hers and mine) up into the van and take them all downtown to see Santa.  As her kids are now as grown as mine, we’ve skipped the holiday exchange there as well.  Incidentally, they are Muslims.

I have no idea what kind of holiday traditions my children will develop as adults.  Will my son collect invitations to everyone’s party and go to as many as he can?  Will my daughter decide that she wants family traditions and invite (or uninvite) the rest of us to join her?  Will they both continue to attempt to satisfy everyone’s traditions adding more and more events to their celebrations?

I know that many of their peers will face similar problems.  We have raised a generation that has multiple families, and that considers their chosen families to be just as important.  I am grateful that, so far, pretty much everyone gets along.  There is no reason to exclude a family member just because they can’t be in the same room with someone else.  My ex-husband’s family is not so fortunate.  From what I see and hear, the ‘who doesn’t get to come’ scenario seems more common.

So as hectic or as lonely as you may find yourself this holiday season, I would encourage you to try and play nice.  Play up the love and understanding, the peace on earth.  Because the first place to start with peace on earth is in our own households.

Merry Merry!

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