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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas fires

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We're closing the circle of the year. Christmas for me is a spiral of memories, unwrapping tree ornaments from worn and wrinkled tissue paper, laying out glass and glitter, like stars burning light years away. When it's time to rewrap them, clouds will cover them until next year's opening into another season of light in Nature's darkest days.

Besides personal memories, there is genetic memory. Don comes from Brits, and I come from Swedes, Brits, and maybe some Irish. Traditions from those ancestral families were not given attention when I grew up, and I felt the lack when I saw other families make German lebkuchen or Swedish papparkakor. Whatever European landscapes are in our past, I know in my blood that I am from old stone houses with ten foot hearths, where mutton from the moor bubbling in a pot fills the room with savory smells.

This Christmas, without our Lesley, Brian and Peter to celebrate with us - Don and I wanted to honor the day simply, in new Old World ways. We found three traditions.

1 We burned our first yule log Christmas Eve, cut from a fallen French lilac branch that I'm dragging, below. For centuries European barons had laborers carry in a felled tree to their hearth, sticking its end into the fire - the rest jutting out into the room. That night everyone was invited to party - servant and master together, equal and friendly. Old feuds were drowned in flowing wassail. Then a brand was taken from the fire and set aside as a talisman against fire and evil for the year ahead. This same remnant from the yule log was used to ignite next year's holiday fire.

Smoke from our lilac branch smelled like sweet pipe tobacco outside. Christmas evening, with fireplace tongs we grabbed a charred remnant from one of its pieces in the wood stove, cooled it in snow, then set it up on the mantel to be a symbol of safety and hope for the year ahead. We'll ignite next year's yule log with this year's piece.






The whole time we focused on this yule log thing, I had my mind on another Christmas fire - the devastation I'd driven up to going to town the day before Christmas Eve. A siren-screaming fire truck barreled past me on our country road, and there ahead I saw billowing smoke, and a little house in flames! Fire trucks blocked the road, so I had to turn around and go to town a different way.



When I returned home later in the day, I drove by the charred house and could still smell fire though there wasn't any smoke in the air. We read in the paper that two young men lived in the house, though only one was home and only had minor burns on his face. We were relieved but sad thinking of what gets lost in a house fire that can't be replaced. A nightmare before Christmas.


2 The second tradition we claimed was from Ireland, the country where we both have spent more time than any other in Europe.




For Christmas dinner we cooked lamb, carrots, onions, potatoes and turnips on top of the wood stove for stobhach gaelach, or Irish stew. The smell of thyme and all that goodness almost drove us crazy for two days, first cooking the bones for broth Christmas Eve, then the stew on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve Don had to run out for buttermilk when we suddenly decided Irish stew needed Irish soda bread. He got to the store (15 minutes away) one minute after closing (it only closes once a year, for Christmas), and the utterly worn out frazzled store lady at the door mercifully let him in when she heard his desperate plea for the soda bread. "Run," she said. He ran, picked up buttermilk, then grabbed a bottle of champagne, paid for them, and handed the merciful worn out lady the bag with champagne and the receipt (so no one would think she was stealing it) saying, "thank you, and Merry Christmas," and she wept.


3 On his way home from the store Don heard Lynn Rosetta Kasper rave about a French holiday cake on NPR. So, because I am a francophile and love to bring France to the farm, we added this Gâteau Basque for dessert: a shortbread type cake with Don's homemade blackberry jam layered in the middle. "It's a great cake to make for the holidays because it's sturdy and easy to transport and can be eaten at any time of day . . . it's a grown-up pop tart." Delicious!




When our grandchildren come on the scene one of these days, I want them to connect with their own memories, those of their parents and grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and also with those of their ancestors. Stone. Iron. Wood. Fire. Water. Bones. Edible roots out of the dirt. You know, they're just embers gone cold that get rekindled on our hearths, in our ovens and on our stoves. I am very thankful for what we have not lost.

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.


Killarney, Ireland - 2006


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65 comments:

Kamana said...

ireland... ((SIGH)) one place on my list of places to visit.

Shari Sunday said...

A very thoughtful and charming post. A quiet Christmas to reflect and create some new (old) traditions for yourselves and grandchildren to come. Nice.

J.G. said...

I love how your traditions knit the past with the present. Don's spontaneous gift puts a modern twist on Yule giving, customer to clerk instead of master to servant. What a lovely gesture!

CottageGirl said...

Beautiful words, Ruth, "... clouds will cover them until next year's opening into another season of light in Nature's darkest days."
I love your new traditions!! A yule log! Never quite knew what that was until now. And your first from a lilac! Great choice. Lovely dinner!
We've been to Ireland with the family a few years ago and left our hearts there. What a wonderful place. Our brother -in-law was born and raised just outside of Dublin and he served as our guide. We so enjoyed our time with his mom and sister as we traveled from east coast to west. I can understand why you've been back so many times!

Last year Tony and I were looking for a new way to celebrate Christmas Eve since after all of our lives, we found ourselves without family around. Turned out to be a disaster ... winding up in a restaurant with strangers ... and to top it off ... The waitress forgot about our order.
This Christmas Eve we had a plan. I made a lovely roasted chicken with thyme still growing in the garden. We sat and lingered as we reminisced about the past year and raised a glass or two as the rain came down in buckets!
Here's a toast to new traditions

shicat said...

What a cozy celebration Ruth, it really sounded special. I think taking the time to appreciate the simplist, but most important things in our lives, is what makes it rich? Hustle and bustle isn't all that it's thought to be. I watched as my son and his fiance, ran from house to house. I assured them that it wasn't necessary and that they could skip our Christmas day celebration since we ate together on Christmas eve. They still showed up, and that was fine. i'm all for Christmas eve celebration and Christmas day rest at home,taking time to create your own solitary traditions and memories... Not a humbug though still eternally thankful for all of my blessings,just sometimes a smidge overwhelmed.

Still love, love, love, your farm!

ellen abbott said...

A wonderful post. I don't celebrate Christmas for many reasons but the yule log is something I would like to do, celebrating the return of the sun. Unfortunately, living in south Texas, there is no fireplace in my house. I'll have to think how I can come up with a way to do it.

California Girl said...

Great traditions to hear about. I've never known the significance of a yule log either so thanks for that. Love the story about the soda bread and champagne. Your husband is a gentleman.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year to you. Looking forward to a new year of reading and writing.

C.M. Jackson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VioletSky said...

Lovely and thoughful post, Ruth.
We are now fireplaceless, so we content ourselves with candles and a burning firelog video on tv.
Now, I should be getting ready for our family Christmas, instead of reading blogs - but really the few I've read have helped put me in a better spirit. (still no snow here, feeling a tad bereft!)

Loring said...

Had a beautiful one here, Ruth, a white Christmas but not the blizzards they received on the plains. When you talked of both families being weak on traditions when you were growing up, I thought of the German tradition-holders like Floeters and Torngrens who would say, "You've never heard of this? Had to learn a lot later on. Merry 12 days, and a wonderful 2010 to all of you! Tell Don he's a righteous soul of a type rarely seen.

Renee said...

Merry Christmas darling.

I am so glad that the young man was not seriously hurt.

I love the tradition and I have to admit when you said branch I was thinking some small little branch.

Love the picture of you pulling the log.

Love Renee xoxo

Bella Rum said...

My son loves Ireland and gave one of his children an Irish name.

These are such wonderful traditions. I love the story about the yule log and the idea of igniting next year's fire with a remnant from this year's log. As for the stobhach gaelach, I never arrive late to any meal in which lamb is involved.

It sounds like you had a lovely day. Merry Christmas.

MAXIMUS said...

I may not comment but I keep visiting your blog.

I wish you Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year, a rather ordinary wish but so close to our hearts!

Patricia said...

Awww, Lynn Rosetta Kasper! The very sound of her name gets my taste buds working overtime! I loved reading about your holiday celebrations. Please visit my old blog to see our Christmas events! http://abyssalplain.blogspot.com/
Warm best wishes of the season to you and your family.
Patricia

♥ Kathy said...

Beautiful pictures Ruth and what wonderful traditions you observed!

freefalling said...

You've made me think about my own xmas traditions.
I don't really have any - I'm a bit of a "scrooge".
I was brought up with lots of xmas traditions but I seem to have abandoned them all - I'm not quite sure why. Some reflection is probably required.

On another note - something you said in a post really struck me - it was the paragraph about Van Gogh (13 dec).
So tomorrow I'm flying to Canberra to look at his paintings.
I can't wait to see Starry, Starry Night.
(see the power you have!)

rauf said...

i keep repeating Ruth that India is a land of extremes. Oldest living civilisation at one end and Americanisation at the other. There is American influence even in China. Perhaps half the Christmas presents shopped this year were Chinese. That is sad. not good for American economy.
So the new civilisation is American. Not much room for traditions.

Not everything about traditions is good in India. Many traditions are very sick and they are not dying. Some are colourful and pleasant. Indians who live in the US become strong traditionalists than they were while in India. They become eyesores for rest of the society.
Dragging the yule branch is one day affair, where as Indian traditions and rituals are followed everyday. We simply can't get rid of them Ruth.

Internet is helping my sister to try out new dishes from different parts of the world. i get to eat things that i can't pronounce. Like your Gottu Bosquee in the picture.

i am reminded of the joke when the wife tells her husband that he bought the fire extinguisher which has never been used even once

Happy New year Ruth !

Susan said...

Such a beautiful and thoughtful post, Ruthie. Your use of old traditions is a wonderful way to celebrate.

That lamb stew and soda bread looks wonderful! And Don is such a sweetie-pie!

Annie said...

Merry late Christmas! We always have fires here during Xmas time too... People burn candles, some drink too much and then the house is on fire. :-( Stupid and sad.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I heard that report on NPR... the French pop tart for grown-ups..... and immediately down-loaded the recipe. It's wonderful to see a photograph and read a review! We have Francophiles coming to stay this week!! Sounds like the perfect treat to make for them!

Relyn said...

You may well think I am strange, but I have just fallen in love with your Don. What a thoughtful, wonderful man you share your life with.

I feel blessed to have read of your traditions. And of the small kindnesses still so present in the world.

ds said...

Love your new-old New World-Old World tradition. That must have been some lilac for you to have hauled a branch of that size! (I am glad it was a lilac, though, and that it will preside over your 2010).

Don has a rare and special grace. As do you, wonderful Ruth. Thank you for this lovely glimpse into your life. Happy New Year!

(Fire=horror. So glad the young man's injuries were not too serious.)

Oh said...

Dear Ruth, What wonderful writing and pictures! Truly a holiday treat. I know, I know, I've been fairly absent, yet still around. I am so glad to have found this entry during the Holiday season.

I love your log, the stew, the tart. Perhaps it's in the air; we, too, are taking time, burning long fires, cooking together and without schedule. I love your remembering, your return to "stone", "log," "fire" etc. Wonderful.

Isn't Christmas wonderful? Thank you for this entry.

Big holiday hugs to you and Don. And yours.

more later--
Oh, by the fire

bad penny said...

your description made me feel very good inside - thank you.

I love hearing about the yule log

Jeanie said...

This is one of the most beautiful posts I've ever read, Ruth. I love the idea of establishing new traditions and connecting with an ancestral past. It sounds like your holiday was absolutely beautiful (and mighty delicious, too!). And, I might add, Don sounds like a wonderful person, and so very thoughtful and kind.

Belated merriness and Happy New Year!

The Bug said...

Mmm - I want a poptart for grownups (although right now any old poptart will do). That looks really good!

Don's gift to the clerk brought tears to my eyes too...

Someday I would like to establish some of my own rituals. Right now we're fairly constrained by family obligations. But someday...

Deborah said...

Ruth, this is a beautiful post, full of thoughtfulness, contentment and caring. And love. What a gem your Don is, for the champagne and other things. Such a good thing for you to do, making your own new traiditions instead of simply missing loved ones and Christmasses past.

Of all the posts I've read in the last week, this has to be the one that spoke 'Christmas' to me the most.

kath said...

This was beautiful. A tradition that I am carrying on for my husband's family is making spiced beef. For 21 days there is a goopy awful piece of beef in my fridge brining away. But when we visit the siblings and I arrive with a piece for each, they are so excited and I feel wonderful.
xo
Kath

Ginnie said...

Ruth, I love it...all of it. I love the idea of getting back to our roots, which is perhaps why I am here in Holland? Well, Holland is Europe, and maybe that's what I mean. The traditions we bring back from the past are what Soul is all about. We NEED traditions, and maybe that's what you are sensing at this point in your lives, anticipating grandchildren who will pass on your heritage. In this I am glad you were alone this Christmas time to create the tradition and set it in motion. YAY!

Ruth said...

Kamana, strangely enough Ireland was not on our list. I had to go for work, and we ended up falling for it.

Ruth said...

Shari, it is so interesting to me how Christmas is different in all of our heads. And even then, each year is different.

Ruth said...

J.G., that is very insightful, wow. Thank you.

Ruth said...

CottageGirl, I really enjoyed researching the history of the Yule Log. The Internet is amazing.

We hadn't thought of going to Ireland ourselves, but I went for work on 3 study abroad trips. Don got to go along one year, and we just loved it. Having your BIL and his mom and sister show you around is the best. We were at the mercy of travel guide books and tour guides, which was wonderful, but not the same as hearing from locals. Well the tour guides were wonderful, from the Over the Top tour group.

Harvesting thyme from your Wisconsin garden in December is remarkable. I am becoming an old fuddy duddy and prefer a quiet simple holiday now.

Lifting my glass with you.

Ruth said...

Cathy, wholehearted YES. I wonder if it's aging, but I felt tired just thinking about our big family get-together on the weekend. I loved being with everyone, and I loved watching the little ones play. But the hustle of driving, food prep. cleanup, and all of that is a mental nightmare.

The farm has been a solace.

Ruth said...

Ellen, maybe a small outdoor fire? Then take a cooled brand into the house on a little altar to the sun?

All the Christmas celebrations started with sun worship.

Ruth said...

Happy New Year, California Girl. I needed your current Happy New Year post - it was exactly what I needed. I look forward to reading and writing in the coming year too, though I feel a little removed from it at the moment.

Shattered said...

Ok, so it looks like my comment yesterday disappeared into the blogging black hole...

I don't remember exactly what I wrote but I do want to wish you a Happy New Year, friend!

Ruth said...

Well, Violetski, you had white spray instead of snow, pretty cool - but not quite the same, I grant you. Happy New Year, dear Sanna.

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear Loring. We ended up having the quintessential Christmas day at the cottage Sunday - snow falling almost all day, and beautiful light when it wasn't snowing. Merry 12 days and 2010 to you too (hey, if you're into numerology . . .).

Ruth said...

Lovely Renee, your heart is big enough to pull the world along, like me and that little branch.

Ruth said...

Bella, my dear, lamb is a treat. We ate much in Istanbul - oh especially Iskender kebab, I loved that so much. I think they do something different with the meat over there, it was always tender. I wonder if I want to know what they did.

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year to you.

photowannabe said...

This was such a delight to read Ruth. I love traditions and especially when they evolve into new traditions. Our Christmas was much more quiet this year and I really enjoyed it. Those that were here pitched in and I didn't feel burned out. I could actually enjoy the company. Didn't enjoy spilling the whole pan of turkey drippings all over the floor, counter ,stove and inside of the oven. Nasty mess that didn't want to get itself picked up. Greasy. My son and daughter in law are up for sainthood for doing the bulk of cleaning up.
You have a honey for a husband. I love how he made the store clerks day.
Sue

Renee said...

Ruth that blue house divine.

xoxox

Ruth said...

Oh hello, dear MAXIMUS, what a long time it's been. I think I just left you greetings at yours, but I'm afraid I lost my way in all that Greek. :)

Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving your holiday greetings - not ordinary at all.

Ruth said...

Oh Patricia, that was gorgeous, your fire and snow thrones and key & lock and illustrated envelope! I see you don't allow comments there. What beautiful things you have, the best kind.

Thank you so much for the warm wishes, and I wish them back to you.

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear ♥ Kathy, they felt good to us.

Ruth said...

my dear Letty, I am becoming scroogey about the hubbub and heavy food tables.

I am touched by the power of van Gogh reaching through those words I wrote to you down our worm hole. Did you go? Did you spin?

Ruth said...

dear rauf, we are a young country and a melting pot. There is a sad movie called Avalon about how an Italian family's traditions got diluted into the suburbs in the 50s and 60s, good movie. All the immigrants came and their children grew up and wanted to be cool and not keep the old ways. I always felt a big hole about that. But there is the opposite too, like you said. Inge loves to tell us about the clinking of forks on china plates in Germany at 4 o'clock on Sunday afternoons when everyone eats cake. It symbolizes what drives her crazy in her own culture, some rigidity.

I think your sister is adorable and I am happy she can benefit from the Internet in the November of her life.

Happy New Year to you, rauf! And there must be some other Indian festival coming up soon.

Ruth said...

Hello dear Susie, you know one when you see one -- good food and a good man.

Ruth said...

Annie, it is sad. This one started from an electric water heater, the paper said. We have heard so many fire truck sirens in the last couple of weeks - at least six episodes.

Ruth said...

Pamela, I wonder if you made it for your friends on top of all the other hundreds of things you did this Christmas?

Enjoy your rest and get recharged.

Ruth said...

That is sweet, Relyn, and let me tell you that all the people who know Don are in love with him. You are in a good and plentiful company. In my family alone he is everyone's favorite person, bar none. And the world of it goes out from there times 1000.

Ruth said...

DS, thank you for that idea of lilac reigning over 2010. That recalled to me the significance of the color lilac with forgiveness. I had a powerful lilac meditation in Paris over the Nazi residue. Hmm, that puts me in a state of mind.

Thank you, my dear friend.

Ruth said...

Oh Oh, I'm thrilled to see your return! The Return of Oh. A good name for a book, I think. We need you in the world, and missing you in the blogosphere felt like a depletion. Truly.

I'm by the fire too. Answering comments between cleaning out shelves in the fridge. :D

Ruth said...

bad penny, from my inside to yours, Happy New Year, dear.

Ruth said...

How kind of you, Miss Jeanie. It was surprisingly one of the most satisfying Christmases for us, considering we were celebrating without our children here. I think we needed a step back to help us celebrate better in the future.

Happy New Year to you too!

Ruth said...

Dana, holidays are partly about food, I can't help it, they are. I often want to try something new rather than make the old tired and true. Let's see if I make Gateau Basque next year.

Happy New Year!

Ruth said...

Deborah, well you made my day. Thank you.

Ruth said...

What a loving thing, Kath. It's awesome they appreciate and acknowledge what you do for them.

Happy New Year with lots of xoxo.

Ruth said...

I agree, Boots, I think we needed the time alone to be more reflective and quiet. I know you felt it too, so far away. Love you.

Ruth said...

Oh, Shattered, that's too bad. Thank you, and Happy New Year to you, dear heart.

Ruth said...

Yikes, Sue. That sounds like it would need Service Master to clean up. I hope you managed to get something for gravy!

Merry merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Renee. It's my little studio.

Vagabonde said...

I enjoyed reading about your traditions and watching you pulling the log in the snow. We did see snow in Ohio, but so quickly. I am sorry to say that coming from “from the old country” as it were I did not bring old traditions with me. But as I mentioned in a past post, in Paris and in my family, like in many other families, Christmas was a more secular holiday for children, and the big tradition is at Le Reveillon, New Year’s Eve. But we had a tradition here, when the girls were little. I found a book in New Orleans telling The Night before Christmas in Cajun style – it was quite funny – I would read it imitating Cajun French with my French accent. The girls loved it. I also would bake my Kentucky Bourbon cake with almost ½ bottle of strong Bourbon – and why not I found out that Bourbon was so called because of the Bourbon family (king of France) in Bourbon county, Ky, when we visited Paris, Ky, last January.

Ruth said...

Dear Vagabonde, why oh why can't I listen to you read that Cajun book too. It should be a recording. And learning about the origin of Bourbon in Kentucky - Paris, KY no less - is just like you.

A very happy new year to you and your dear family. I hope it will be full of rich experience, travel, reading and writing. I look forward to being with you in 2010. I learn so much from you.