My grandmother’s handwriting is still on the recipe, which we urged her to write down, before she passed away in 1978. It was written the way that grandmothers write recipes, without precision or exact steps, with unique spelling. She wasn’t a particularly great cook, according to my mother. Although perhaps that was about more about relationships between mother and mother-in-law than about food. I do remember finding her borscht disgusting, although what five-year-old likes beet soup with sour cream? We did, however, fight over her pierogis. More on that shortly.
My brother gave me pierogi-making tools last Christmas, but we couldn’t fit in time to make them. They are a time-consuming task, as I imagine making tamales, won tons, or empanadas might be. I decided to make them this year on Christmas then enlisted the elves when it was taking more time than our stomachs could bear. When I posted a photo on Facebook, there were questions and comments, and my reply got so long, I thought: Ok, just do a blog. So here you go.
The sun never says to the earth, “You owe me.” Look what happens with a love like that. It lights up the whole sky.
Poem: “The Gift” @1350, by Hafez, tr. D. Ladinsky
‘Tis the season, quite literally. We are approaching the turning point of the season, the lever of our mini-universe, wherein the sun will be at its Most. Here in Northern California, it will be at the lowest point to our horizon and the furthest south, which means we’re at the Solstice, baby!
Even though other latitudes and longitudes will feel that dance of the sun differently, everywhere is going to feel the sun at its Most. Those at this latitude, the 90% of humans who live on the majority of the land masses on this side of the equator, will feel this as the shortest day of the year. Tomorrow holds promise because it will be longer (for 90% of us anyway). Folks on the south side of the equator will enjoy the longest day of the year, although they might revel in our revelry, too.
People long ago lived under a differently aged sun, but they also did this dance, and they also experienced the sense of cold/hot, shorter/longer, death/rebirth, and dark/light that we are experiencing. ‘Tis the season to get me thinking all about ancient celebrations of solstice. Fair warning: this is not just a laundry list of the top 12 pagan chants or a random set of ten holiday traditions… I’ve done some of that in previous blogs, and you can google plenty of other examples. This is not just about how Queen Victoria popularized Christmas trees or Good King Wenceslas or Saturnalia or even Stonehenge–let’s go a little broader and deeper than Northern Europe. How old and how omnipresent are celebrations of the solstice? How do we know?
Christmas is the one holiday that has its own music. In fact, music is so much at the core of Christmas celebrations that three of the top fifteen best-selling singles of all time are Christmas-themed, and public venues start playing carols right after Halloween, two months early. Think about it; no other American/western European holiday involves theme music.
I realized this fact last night while attending the second holiday concert of this season, listening to a stream of sublime medieval motets and “Marian polyphony” by Chanticleer. As they sang dozens of songs about mangers and Magi, I tried to think of songs for Halloween or Thanksgiving, and they are rare, ancillary, afterthoughts. In the religious elementary school I attended as a child, Easter and Christmas were considered equally worth of pageantry, and we performed songs for parents in both. But few people would now sing “Go to Dark Gethsemane” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” while shopping for chocolate bunnies in March.
Music is a fundamental part of the Christmas experience, as old as wassailing and gift-giving, almost as old as snow and the change of the seasons.