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.