Of Texas and Rebirth

Jump to Arroz con Pollo

With all this beautiful weather, the girls and I have been spending most of our time outside.  My parents live out in the country–it takes twenty minutes to get to the nearest town and we could walk to a large cattle ranch no matter which way we went down our road.  The road that their property abuts is fairly quiet, shaded by very old trees.  It’s so peaceful.  The girls and I walk down the road for about a mile on lazy afternoons.

I scrounged up some flower pots in my mother’s shed and bought some soil and seeds.  I decided to go with local flowers–bluebonnets, cockscomb, daisies, and cacti–in the hopes that eventually I will find a job and begin anew with a new apartment or house with a yard or patio in which to plant these flowers.  It was a lot of fun to plant the seeds with the girls, albeit rather messy.  We also planted the verbs and veggies we’d need for salsa.

By the time we were done, the girls thought it was a fabulous idea to roll and jump in the mud.  But such is the life of a parent.

We also caught a caterpillar munching on my mother’s roses.  I put it in a jar with a bunch of leaves, punched holes in the lid, and we watched the little guy munch away.  We also got to see what caterpillar feces look like.  Sadly, though, it seems the little caterpillar has passed away.  The girls wanted me to catch another one for them, but I didn’t want to negligently take another life.

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I was to mixed up in my own depression, the girls missed out on Ostara and Holi this year.  So I’ve been trying very hard to make sure they get to enjoy Easter.  We still did some pagan things–coloring eggs, having an egg hunt, and talking about rebirth–but I also explained to the girls that some people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

And here, I must admit, it’s been difficult instructing the girls in two faiths.  They see similarities with Jesus and the Green Man, which makes sense to me as well.  But I do worry if it will make it difficult for them to understand what Jesus means to Christians.  Or maybe I’m just not explaining it right?

I’m finding symbols of crawling out of a destructive situation popping up in my life lately.

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph...

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph was taken during Kali Puja at Naihati, a town in West Bengal, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had dreams where the Hindu goddess Kali, normally associated with death and destruction, has talked to me.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been leery of talking to “dark goddesses,” mostly because their destructive power is not something to trifle with.  But Kali was not telling me to go out and to destroy things.  In one dream, she was warning me about a great evil–a random guy I was having a conversation with in the dream.  In another, we were having tea at some random coffee shop, like a pair of old friends, and she was telling me how my situation (the husband/divorce issue, joblessness, isolation) is only temporary, like most things in this world.  Kali has appeared like a grandmother figure, as well.  After talking to some Hindu and pagan friends (and an anthropologist friend) about these dreams, which at first confused me, and doing my own contemplative introspection, I think Kali is telling me that some things must end for good things to begin.

Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ostara and Easter are both about death and rebirth.  Ostara is a Germanic goddess who is associated with the spring equinox.  She symbolizes the rebirth of nature after its death (winter).  Easter is literally about the death and resurrection of a god (Jesus).  Holi is also about the death and rebirth of the Hindu god of love, Kamadeva, who helped Parvati (of whom Kali is an incarnation) to marry Shiva (god of destruction and rebirth) at the cost of his life.


Arroz con Pollo

I grew up eating what my father refers to as “Texican cuisine,” or what many people call “Tex-Mex.”  One of my mother’s favorite dishes to cook was arroz con pollo.  I cooked it for myself during college, but stopped after about my third year of marriage because my husband wasn’t a fan.  Arroz con pollo, which means “rice with chicken” in Spanish, is pretty popular in Latino cooking and, like most Latino cooking, varies widely from culture to culture and family to family.

Arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that you can whip up to feed many people, and it requires very little work.  As with most of my family recipes, this is my best attempts to measure the palmfuls or shakes of the spice jar, so you may want to adjust the spices to suit your palette.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken leg quarters
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 1 cube tomato bouillon
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon cumin (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (more or less, to taste)

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Add the chicken and fry it until it is completely brown on the outside.
  2. Remove the chicken to a bowl, set aside.  (Note, the chicken is still raw and blood may drip, so you want it in a bowl you can easily sterilize.)
  3. Fry the rice in the chicken grease.  Add the onion and bell pepper.  Fry, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender.  Add the tomato and fry a little bit more.
  4. Add the water, tomato bouillon, and spices.  Stir thoroughly.
  5. Cover and let simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked (about an hour).  The rice will cook before the chicken does, but it will not burn.  Stir occasionally while it is cooking.

Arroz con pollo goes very well with a fresh vegetable composition, like black bean salad, and homemade iced tea or horchata (or margaritas).

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Giving Birth to Light Part 2: Brigid’s Day

Jump  to Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

After enjoying five days of lovely weather (temperatures in the low 50s–that’s in Fahrenheit), and considering how I haven’t really adjusted to real “winter,” I must say I was excited to see an early spring in the forecast for Ohio.  And then I read that Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog, saw his shadow, indicating another six weeks of winter.

Closeup groundhog (Marmota monax)

A groundhog - Image by Eifelle via Wikipedia

I scoffed at the groundhog.  Surely, a professional meteorologist, like the ones predicting an early spring (thank you, global warming!), and who has gone through years of school and training in the natural sciences, would more accurately predict the weather than a two-hundred-year-old rodent that whispers to a man wearing a top hat.

Well, science be damned!

As I sit and type this, the sky is dumping confectioner’s sugar onto the countryside.  At least two inches of that cold white stuff that so enthralls my girls has fallen, and by the looks of things, it won’t be stopping anytime soon.  Even more annoying (and equally amusing), the local forecast for the rest of February has–you guessed it!–changed to six more weeks of winter.

I’ve been tempted to be the Southern redneck stereotype (which I do sometimes become in moments like this) and go out and shoot me a groundhog and cook it out of spite.  It would make for an amusing blog post, certainly, but it’s not very nice.  So instead, I just shake my fist at the squirrels dancing around in the snow, mocking me and my dreams of spring.

Well, we enjoyed the lovely spring-like weather while it lasted.

I hiked with the kids on the nature trail.  My husband took them fishing.  I was able to spend two warm, sunny afternoons sitting in the grass, writing.

Since Vasant Panchami and Imbolc, I must admit, I feel like I have been channeling the creativity goddesses.  Between writing and coming up with creative projects for the rest of the year (I have a fantastic king cake idea, if I can find the supplies I need), my mind has been churning along at warp speed.

Imbolc falls on February 1 or 2, depending on the Gaelic or neopagan tradition.  It comes from the Gaelic word meaning “in the womb,” as it refers to the start of the lambing season.  Imbolc traditionally honors the Celtic goddess Brigid (or Brigit), who is the patron of poets, blacksmiths, and healing.  In some traditions, she is also associated with apple blossoms.  She is also the goddess of wisdom, physical and intellectual uplifting (like mountains and learning or prophecy), and the home and hearth.  She also is the protectress of newborns; Celtic women used to hang crosses fashioned from apple or rowan branches over their babies’ cradles to invoke Brigid to protect their babies from harm.  In Irish mythology, she was also seen as a warfare goddess.

Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man f...

Another way Celt descendants celebrate Imbolc: Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man fighting Jack Frost. Imbolc celebration in Marsden, West Yorkshre, February 2007. - Image by Steven Earnshaw via Wikipedia

Brigid was so important to the Celtic peoples that, upon their conquest and subsequent Christianization, the Roman Catholic Church came up with Saint Brigid, who still possesses some of the qualities of her pagan counterpart.

One side of her face was that of an ugly old hag, and the other was that of a beautiful young maiden.  This was to signify her role in the transformation of winter and death into life and spring.  In the pagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc complements Samhain and signifies the lengthening days and nearness of spring.  Brigid is a personification of that.

Some traditions also referred to her as the Corn Bride or Barley Bride (“corn” in this case is the archaic word that really means “wheat” or any “grain,” as corn did not come to mean the yellow grain from North America until Europeans began to colonize it).  It was a reference to her role as a fertility goddess.  Additionally, since Imbolc falls at the end of the dark half of the Wheel of the Year (when the days are shorter, basically), the lunar month in which Imbolc falls is referred to as the Chaste Moon or Bride Moon (because the next lunar month is when spring starts and is associated with birth).

Imbolc altar

A neopagan Imbolc altar - Image by Christina's Play Place

I’m not sure how the ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, but many Wiccans and neopagans generally celebrate by dressing a sheaf of wheat, corn, or barley in white lace and ribbons (like a bridal dress), laying it in a basket, and treating it like a baby or a doll bride.  At the end of the festival, they usually burn the sheaf for prophetic purposes.

I must admit that I have not done this, pretty much for lack of a ceremonial sheaf.  My tradition, instead, is to cook something where grains play a prominent role, to honor the Corn Bride, and usually with something white (like potatoes or fish or turkey), to honor the Chaste Moon.  I’d also prepare something that hints at warmer months ahead.  And, instead of invoking Brigid for prophecy, I usually invoke her for creativity (and when I was in college and law school, I’d also invoke her for educational purposes).  This I’d do by lighting candles during the dark of night and burning some incense that would remind me of the coming spring (like lavender, my favorite herb).

Sprouting Garlic

I was in a creative writing frenzy yesterday after my husband came home from work, but, naturally I took breaks for coffee and snuggle time.  During one such break, I noticed one of my globes of garlic had sprouted.  I took it as a sign from Brigid:  the white papery outside of the globe is like a bridal veil, and here is new life–hope–sprouting from within.  I’m not sure what it might be a sign of, but it was refreshing to see while happily writing.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

Since I’ve been experimenting various recipes from the newest addition to my cookbook library, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas (and, by the way, after testing so many recipes, I have found that I love this book!), I decided to try something that involves wheat and/or corn as a primary ingredient for my Imbolc dish.  I decided to go with this recipe, because it involves wheat (in the form of couscous) and corn.  It really serves 6, but since I was cooking it as a feast (translate:  I wanted leftovers for the next day), I was cooking it alongside some simple baked chicken.

The ingredients of this dish are more summery in flavor, but I wanted something that made me think of warm days (and, to be honest, I sorely miss Louisiana springtimes, which start in February and are sunny and florid).  What I love about this recipe is that it can be dressed up for any occasion.  In fact, I plan to make it for the Super Bowl, but I’ll be adding various cheese slices to the spread.  It looks fancy, so is a great dish for entertaining.  This can also be an eat-with-your-hands group dish.

Ingredients

  • 4 medium potatoes, any variety, or 2 medium-large sweet potatoes
  • Ranch dressing or vinaigrette
  • 3/4 cup couscous
  • 2 cups cooked fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 medium ears) or frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • minced fresh parsley for topping (optional)
  • 1 red or green bell pepper (or half of each), cut into narrow strips (I diced mine, as my kids prefer them that way)
  • 1 cup baby carrots, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup black olives, preferably cured and pitted (I omitted these, as my kids are not fond of them; in my opinion, kalamata olives would work equally well)
  • 1 cup red or yellow cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 medium red tomato, diced)

Directions

Cutting the Potatoes

  1. Bake the potatoes until done but still firm.  When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into bite-size chunks and place in a small mixing bowl.  Toss with enough dressing or vinaigrette to moisten.
  2. Pour 1-1/2 cups boiling water over the couscous in a heatproof container.  Cover and let stand for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
  3. Combine the couscous with the corn in a mixing bowl.  Drizzle in the oil and toss well.  Season gently with salt.
  4. Mound the couscous mixture in the center of a large platter.  Sprinkle with minced fresh parsley, if desired.
  5. Arrange alternating piles of potatoes, bell pepper, baby carrots, olives, and tomatoes around the couscous mixture.
  6. Each person can make up his or her own plate.  Serve additional dressing or vinaigrette to drizzle on the raw vegetables as desired.

As you can see, it’s a fairly simple recipe.  The longest part is the baking of the potatoes, but you can shorten that time by opting to nuke them in the microwave.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

So my review on Nava Atlas’ cookbook is a stellar one.  Most of the recipes involve ingredients that are inexpensive and easy to find, even when you take into consideration that I live in rural Ohio, where eating tofu is equated with godless fascist hippie communism (I wish I were exaggerating).  The recipes are very simple, and she gives options and alternatives to many of the recipes, if you want to kick it up a notch.  She also writes to those who are new to vegetarian cuisine, sharing recipes and tips for adjusting away from meat.  And, as I have demonstrated in this and some of my other recent posts, it’s easy to build upon her recipes to add your own personal flair to them.

Tales from a Winter Trail

Jump to Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

The past few days have been strangely warm.  I mean “warm” by Ohio winter standards, as “warm” in Texas requires the threat of heat stroke.  “Warm” in an Ohio winter means the weather is above freezing–like a balmy 40˚F.

I think we have been adjusting to the cold, because when it “warmed” up to the low 40s, it felt nice enough to go for a hike.  (You have no idea how strange it feels to me to say that 40˚F is warm enough for hiking!)  We didn’t go far, but we explored the nature trail and a local pond and canal.

Iced over pondThe pond had iced over on the surface.  This was something I knew happened in colder climates, but I’d never seen something like it before.  It was strange, like the pond was dead.  I knew it wasn’t, but it sure looked lifeless.  No ripples, no fish jumping out of the water, no fowl landing on its surface.  We stood at the bank and stared at the dead pond.  I picked up some rocks and plunked one against the ice, to demonstrate to the girls what had happened to the water because it’s been cold.  This phenomenon was particularly fascinating to the girls, so we took the rest of the rocks and skipped them against the ice.  It became a game: who can make a rock skid the furthest down the ice.  It was almost like bowling with hockey pucks.

We also wandered along the Miami-Erie trail, which runs along Rapids on the Miami-Erie Canal(surprisingly) the Miami-Erie Canal.  Because the water flows more swiftly there, it had not frozen over.  Past one of the locks, under a bridge, was a rocky area where the water moved more like rapids.  We sat on a blanket near the bank and listened to the water rushing.  It was therapeutic.  Everything around us felt dead, but at least the water was still alive.

Some kind of dead polyphore

Some kind of dead polyphore.

With my handy mushrooming guide in hand (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms), I kept my eyes peeled for the few things that might be alive this time of year.  I saw quite a few mushrooms that must have grown in November or December but had been killed by the snow and frost.  They were shriveled and black and mealy, and some tiny insects and grubs were making a meal of them.  They made me reflect on the irony that saprophytic lifeforms like mushrooms (“saprophytic” means “feeds on dead or decaying matter”) also die and become food for something else.

Trametes versicolor

Turkey Tail Mushroom

I also spotted some turkey tail mushrooms (their scientific name is Trametes versicolor), a shelf polyphore that is pretty common in North America.  They are actually quite fascinating to observe.  When I was a child, I’d imagine that little animals or something fantastic as fairies lived off colonies of these mushrooms, sort of like a small city on a tree trunk.  Supposedly you can make a medicinal tincture out of them, but I haven’t found any literature (at least, from any legitimate source) that was particularly clear about what these mushrooms are used to treat, except that they treat something.  Maybe they are the cure for hypochondria?  (Well, apparently scientists are examining it as a possible treatment for cancer, but that doesn’t explain why a Google search for turkey tail results in all kinds of “Buy this cure-all mushroom pill!” articles.)

Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata

I also made note of some possibly poisonous mushrooms that seemed to have popped up and then started dying from the cold.  These are mushrooms in the Galerina genus.  I say possibly, because there are edible (and hallucinogenic) mushrooms that very closely resemble Galerina mushrooms, but only expert mycologists with some impressive laboratory equipment can discern the difference between them.  Even expert mushroomers (usually going for the hallucinogenic kind) have mistakenly ingested Galerina mushrooms, with deadly consequences.  Most mushrooming guides I’ve read strongly recommend against harvesting “little brown gilled mushrooms,” and this is the reason.  So, as I always do, I instructed my girls to not touch wild mushrooms unless I tell them it is safe.  This is one of the reasons why.

These mushrooms were growing off a sawed-off pine log. I believe they are also in the Galerina genus. They appear to be dying from the cold.

A junco in a dormant apple treeWe did see some dark-eyed juncos in the trees.  Juncos are in the sparrow family.  They were obviously frightened by our approach (and the loud laughter of the girls amplified by the echo in the dead woods and pond certainly did nothing to convince the little birds we meant no harm).

These adorable little songbirds were certainly a refreshing break from the dead world of winter.

Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

One of our New Year’s resolutions was to eat more vegetarian cuisine.  Not necessarily vegan cuisine (although we will eventually transition to a day of fully vegan, but I’m not a fan of things that are overly processed, either), and for now we’re still doing the eggs-and-dairy kind of vegetarian.  There are several reasons for this.  One is to save money on meat, which is becoming very expensive here (as opposed to fresh produce–and also so that we can afford more whole grain breads and fresh produce).

Another reason is for health: my husband and I have both been packing

Toddler breakfast

A balanced breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, various fruits, a half-slice of whole-grain toast, and yogurt. They have water in their sippy cups. Usually the kids don't eat everything (each girl has her own quirks), but this gives them some healthy options.

on the pounds and, instead of going on a fad diet, we are just going to change what we eat.  We figure it’s better to eat things that are not processed, have more fiber, and aren’t pumped with hormones and chemicals (as so much commercial meat is, unless you buy certified organic, which is expensive and hard to come by in rural grocery stores).  For the girls, we want to make sure they are raised with healthy lifestyle choices (as opposed to my upbringing–which was the same for a substantial number of Americans) and healthy lifestyle choices are best taught by example.

It’s also for environmental reasons: just consuming things that are more sustainable (like buying organic or locally grown) and don’t contribute to greenhouse gas, as cows do.  And for me, as a Wiccan who dabbles in Hinduism, it’s also partly an ethical thing (many Hindus and Wiccans/neopagans are vegetarian because they tend towards nonviolence and they see all living things as brothers and sisters under the divine).

That’s not to preach to you to make any lifestyle changes, but just to explain why we are aiming to eat 4 days a week of vegetarian or vegan.

This is a new thing for me, being a carnivore by nature.  It’s easier for my husband, who grew up eating a mostly eggs-and-dairy vegetarian diet.  So I’ve made a wish list of vegetarian cookbooks and found some interesting websites with recipes for those who are just starting down this path.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting.  One of my first endeavors was making a country-French-inspired scrambling of eggs and mushrooms.  It turned out to be a great success with my family.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve now made it several times.  When I serve it with a side of fresh fruit and yogurt, it fills up my girls’ bellies and provides a balanced breakfast.

This recipe serves 3.

The tomatoes have been sliced and the ingredients in the egg mixture are ready to beat.

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced or chopped (portobello would work best, but any kind will do)
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, dried or chopped fresh, and extra for garnish
  • 1 large tomato (or 1/2 cup small tomatoes), diced
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, shredded or grated, and extra for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan.  Add the mushrooms.  Sautee them until they are cooked (usually they will get tender and darker).

    Making scrambled eggs & mushrooms

    The mixture in the frying pan.

  2. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Stir in the black pepper, parmesan cheese, salt, and parsley.
  3. Add the egg mixture to the frying pan.  Stir frequently so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
  4. When the eggs are cooked thoroughly, remove from heat and serve.  Garnish with any combination of parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and parsley.

It goes well served with a side of fruit, whole grain toast, and yogurt.

Striking sunset over the ice

The sun setting over an icy, dead, wintry landscape.

Yuletide Meanderings… and COOKIES!

Jump to Gingersnap Cookies Recipe

Tomorrow is Yule.

Usually I’m super-prepared for it.  By this time, I’ll usually have a Yule log decorated, lots of goodies made, a duck or goose or turkey brining (and another one or a ham thawing for the subsequent Christmas festivities), and one round of presents wrapped for the kids.  The house is usually decorated with greens and reds and candles everywhere and, if I could find them while living in the big city, boughs of holly and evergreens and pine cones.  And, because Yule is a time of renewal, I usually do a mega-cleaning of the house, moving counter-clockwise through the house; it seems to bring in positive energies and sweep out the bad ones.

This year, it seems to have snuck up on me.

Apparently it’s one of the side-effects of parenting.  Time seems to fly way too quickly.

Yule

A Yule feast - Image by Jupiter Firelyte via Flickr

Reflections on Yule

For those who may not be familiar with the holiday, Yule is one of many ways nature-oriented faiths celebrate the winter solstice.  It’s Germanic in origin, but neopagan adaptations of the holiday include some Scandinavian and Celtic practices.  Specifics on how they celebrate Yule varies depending on the pagan tradition the practitioners follow.

But pretty much all neopagans treat it as the rebirth of the sun.  It’s the shortest day of the year, and so every day afterwards is a little brighter.  And because our ancestors, lacking the technological amenities we take for granted, struggled through long, harsh winters, they put aside their hostilities and got together to share their food and wealth and celebrate the coming spring.  If you could make it to Yule, you had a good chance of making it to spring.  It’s a time of hope, of goodwill–just toss in baby Jesus and it sounds a lot like Christmas, huh?

It’s a reminder that even the deepest, darkest, scariest things in life are not permanent.  Eventually the sun will shine through and will shine brighter, no matter what personal problems in life you’re facing.

In my family, we acknowledge the science behind the winter solstice, but it doesn’t diminish the spirituality behind it.  You can revere nature and still understand how it works.  Perhaps it’s also because we love outdoorsy hobbies that we find peace in connecting with the seasons and cycles of the world around us, but I personally find something deeply inspirational in knowing that, in all the randomness and chaos of the universe, life flourished here on Earth, focused around our rather average (by astronomical standards) yellow star and the influence of it and our moon on the stability of the days and seasons.  The solstices and equinoxes, which give a sense of predictability to our world, are not standard for other planets in the universe.  It was a rare chance that life evolved on Earth, because we had all the right conditions (distance from a medium-sized star, a moon with a stabilizing effect on the Earth’s axis and rotation, the fact that the axis is positioned the way it is, and so on) and that alone is something to be grateful for.

No matter what your religious or spiritual views, I think that taking time to reflect on the importance of the sun in our lives, considering how easy it is to inundate oneself in work and stressful events and mind-numbing technology, is key to a healthier outlook on life.

manhattan solstice 3

Winter Solstice in Manhattan - Image by Dave Kliman via Flickr

If you’re interested, you can read a more thorough description of the history of Yule here (Wikipedia) and here (About.com).  The celebration of Yule has been getting more recognition in the media within the past few years.  Mainstream parenting magazines, like this partial article from Kiwi Magazine, and even some newspapers and the US and Canada, like the Montreal Gazette in this article, cover how some neopagan communities observe Yule today.  Also, there is a beautiful and captivating children’s book that explores the winter solstice from the perspectives of both ancient religions and modern science called The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson.  In my opinion, it does a great job of illustrating the way that ancient peoples viewed winter and how some of these cultural practices have been applied to modern-day Christmas traditions without being disparaging to any worldview.  It reflects the sentiments I have expressed above.

Before we had the kids, my husband and I would watch the sun set on Yule.  There is something inexplicably beautiful about it, knowing that it’s the shortest day of the year.  Last year, the night of Yule was also a lunar eclipse, and so our family festivities were particularly exciting.

This year, I’m hoping we can brave the cold weather and watch the sunset over a local lake.  It will be an otherwise simple Yule, with a few baked goodies and brightly-colored foods like sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce to honor the birth of the sun.

I like to make gingersnaps for Yule and Christmas because the flavor tastes bright and cheerful (in fact, the tradition started sometime in high school when I baked gingersnaps and sugar cookies for my friends as Christmas gifts).  They are popular this time of year, and I suspect that the flavor is part of the reason (aside from the health benefits of ginger that likely prompted our forebears to cook with ginger during winter).

Gingersnap Cookies Recipe

Gingersnaps are fairly simple to make.  They require a lot of sifting, so if you don’t mind the dust (flour can get in the air and make you sneeze), it’s a great project for this time of year.

When following the recipe, I highly recommend having the egg already cracked and waiting in a cup or bowl, along with the sugar and molasses.  When you’re mixing the dough, you’ll have to pour them in gradually, and it saves some time to have them ready in advance.  You’ll also need at least two mixing bowls to carry this out.  As for sifting, if you don’t have a fancy sifter, a large strainer will serve the same purpose just fine.

Starkitten helps by mixing the cinnamon sugar.

Cinnamon Sugar Coating

To make the cinnamon sugar you’ll need for the coating, you need:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Simply mix the ingredients together very well.  If you’re baking with small children, mixing the cinnamon sugar is a simple task that they can accomplish while you work on the cookie dough.

The Cookies

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup shortening
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup dark molasses

Directions

This is what it should look like if you use a beater to mix the dough. This was my first time trying it this way and, honestly, it's so much easier than mixing by hand--which had been a turn-off for me in the past.

  1. Preheat oven to 350 ˚F.
  2. Sift the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into a mixing bowl.  Stir the mixture to blend evenly.  Then sift and stir again, two more times.  (It’s best to sift from one mixing bowl into another.)
  3. Place the shortening into an empty mixing bowl and beat until creamy.
  4. Gradually beat in white sugar.  Then gradually beat in the egg and molasses.
  5. Sift 1/2 of the flour into the shortening mixture, and stir to blend it thoroughly.
  6. Sift in the remaining flour mixture and beat (or stir) until a soft dough forms.
  7. Pinch off small amounts of dough and roll into 1-inch balls.
  8. Roll each ball in cinnamon sugar and place 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet.
  9. Bake about 10 minutes,  The tops should be rounded and slightly cracked.
  10. When they first come out of the oven, they will tend to fall apart if you try to move them.  You’ll want to wait a minute or two before removing them from the cookie sheet.  Then place them on wire racks to cool completely.

Starkitten helps by coating the cookie dough balls with cinnamon sugar. This was her favorite task and she took great pride in making sure they were evenly coated.

Since Starkitten wanted to help me, I gave her the task of rolling the cookie balls in the cinnamon sugar.  It was a great experience for her, as it gave her a sense of accomplishment, knowing that those were her cookies, and overall a great bonding experience for both of us.

They don’t taste too sweet, which is great if you have members of your family who, like my husband, don’t care for sweets but still want a holiday treat.  They go great with a hot cup of tea or just a glass of milk.

This recipe made just over two dozen cookies.  And it wasn’t enough to sate my family’s cookie appetite.

The end product. As you can tell by the half-empty plate, they don't last long.

Mommysaurus

Keeping the Winter Holidays Simple

Jump to Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

Jump to Homemade Holiday Stockings

Winter is one of those seasons that always seems so magical.  Maybe it’s because I’ve rarely seen snow and I love being lost in the sparkling, snowy winter worlds in books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or White Fang or Dragons of Winter Night and Christmastime television programming like It’s A Wonderful Life or the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or pretty much anything else that takes me back to nostalgia about my childhood).  As a young adult, I’d often imagined myself in some snowy countryside cottage, drinking hot cocoa while sitting next to a roaring fire with a book in my hand and a cat on my lap.  And that would be a perfect way to spend a winter’s day for me.

Well things had changed a lot since my young adult years, but I still find myself unusually fascinated with snow.  And now that I have kids, I can relive the magic of this time of year with them.

Some of that weird white sparkly stuff shuts down Dallas when it strikes.

Usually in Texas, we’d get a day or two of snow.  It would shut down the entire city, because we Southerners are not very confident about driving in the snow.  In Louisiana, it was an even rarer occurrence and would lead to a greater freak-out and shut-down of things.  Heck, if it was predicted that a snow- or icestorm would be nigh, the local Wal-Mart would be packed with people stocking up on food, water, bullets, and whatever else will help them survive this hellish weather.  That’s “Yankee weather.”  Give us some triple-digit heat, 90% humidity, and sweet tea and we will feel much more comfortable.  Give us that weird white stuff, and we panic.

Of course, as I’m typing this, we are having an ice storm (and since I’m out in the country, it’s killing my internet connection–my link to the outside world).  And of course I’ve made sure to have an eon’s supply of food and water in case the world ends.  Because, like I said, winter weather makes Southerners nervous.

But, in Texas, that day or two of snow would usually fall sometime between Yule and the Super Bowl (like how last year’s snowstorm in Dallas killed the city’s economy because the local businesses were counting on the Super Bowl commerce to pull them out of the recession), which is really when you’d want snow to fall, anyways.  It feels timely.  Even in that freak spring of 2010 when it snowed right after the Saints won the Super Bowl.

I learned that in Ohio, it can snow in November.

Not that it really bothers me, or that it shocked me.  It just felt weird to see snow when I was still recovering from overindulging on Thanksgiving fare.

It was a sleepy afternoon, when the kids and I had finished off the last of the leftover turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing.  The tryptophan had taken over, and we’d snuggled up with the dog in my bed.  When we awoke from our nap, which was longer than usual, the first thing I did was groggily lead the dog to the front door so he could do his business.

Starkitten, who stood behind me, screamed what she observed:  “SNOW!!!”

And the dog–a four-pound chihuahua–decided he wasn’t going to do any business in that fluffy, cold, white stuff, even if you threatened to put him in the pot to be tonight’s supper.

I guess I got part of my young adult winter fantasy: I'm certainly enjoying the snowy countryside! And, clearly, so are the kids.

The kids had the opposite reaction.  It took a lot to convince them to get appropriately dressed for the snow, but it was worth it.  As if by instinct, they started having snowball fights, making snow angels, and tried to build a snow-T. rex (apparently a snowman is overrated).

All that frolicking in the snow got me into the holiday spirit.  We put up the tree the next day and baked cookies and played in the snow some more.

By “holiday spirit,” I don’t mean wanting to go out and buy a bunch of things.  I think the commercialized version of Christmas is insulting to everything the holiday–and all winter holidays–stands for.

This is a depressing time of year: shorter days mean lower melatonin levels.  Some people suffer mood changes from this–and it’s an actual affliction that doctors treat, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, endearingly, SAD).  The world is still and quiet–something that didn’t really hit me until this winter, when living in the snowy North made me notice why our ancestors had such a need for winter holidays.  The world really does seem dead.  And the snow that blankets the earth, while beautiful and sparkly, is also blinding.  And seeing so much white and black and gray (very much unlike the cozy world of Whoville) makes me instead feel like I’m living in a German expressionist painting or a third-rate knockoff to a Tim Burton film (as in no Johnny Deppto make it better).

One of the candles I used to illuminate my home for Yule last year. I think this picture speaks to what winter holidays mean: a light in the darkness. Hope. Peace.

It’s no wonder our ancestors needed a celebration of lights to get through the winter.  Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus, is probably the first thing people think about in terms of winter holidays.  Despite the fact that Jesus was most likely born in the summertime, his birth is traditionally celebrated in winter.  There is much historical literature which suggests that this was to make it easier for people to convert to Christianity, as older holidays occurred during midwinter: the Jewish celebration of Chanukah and the pagan holidays of Yule (Celtic/Germanic) and Saturnalia (Roman).   All of these holidays, at the core, are joyous celebrations of hope, whether it be the birth of the Sun or Son (of God), Oak King or King of Kings.  Or about getting through oppression (i.e. Chanukah and Saturnalia).  Heck, even New Year’s is a culmination of sorts, filled with lights and merrymaking (even the Chinese New Year falls in the cold-as-hell months).

The winter months are depressing.  People need something happy to help them get through it.

That’s why I must admit the terrible commercialization of Christmas is a bit off-putting to me, and I’m not the Christian in my family.  It’s disgusting because the focus on material things detracts from the hope the holiday (whichever holiday one observes) offers.  Gift-giving is fine, but there is no reason to pepper spray a stranger because you really have to get that Xbox for your kids or trample a kid because you have to be the one to snag that expensive video game on sale (and Black Friday at Wal-Mart tends to be marred with violence).  Of course, some people have to go overboard with gifts, such as by wrapping presents with money or giving a pen encased in pure diamonds.  And, of course, we are inundated with commercials on TV and the radio (and ads on the internet if you don’t use an ad-blocking software) that say, “If you love him/her, you will buy [insert unnecessary and expensive item].”

The holiday season ought to be about togetherness, about celebrating whatever deity/deities you worship, and–especially in this crummy economy–about weathering it through another year.

Inexpensive and/or Unique Gift Ideas

There are several lists like this out there, but I figured it’s worth sharing again.  There are so many things that you can make for someone or pay for that would be incredibly meaningful to them and much less materialistic than, say, a diamond-encrusted pen or an Xbox.

Here are a few of my ideas for inexpensive but meaningful gifts:

  • Bake his/her favorite cookies, bread, or pie.
  • Knit a scarf, pair of socks, or mittens.
  • Make a “coupon book” of IOUs, such as for a night of free babysitting or pet-sitting, housecleaning, and so on.  If you are skilled in a profession (ex. a massage therapist or computer expert), maybe toss in a few freebies related to that profession.
  • If you grow herbs, you could make aromatherapy tea bags or sachets or even infuse them into candles or soaps.
  • If you are a photographer, make a framed collage of the recipient’s name in art.
  • If you are an artist, use your talent to make something special for that person.
  • Make a fun, framed photo collage–maybe even include newspaper clippings or maps from the town where you and the recipient first met (hometown for family members, maybe the town where you went to school with your BFF, that sort of thing)
  • Make magnets.  For instance, if you have a friend who is obsessed with Doctor Who, print out 1-inch pictures of the Doctor in each of his incarnations, and maybe the TARDIS, laminate them, and glue them onto square-shaped magnets.
  • You can even make your own greeting cards.
For those who are pressed for time (or shipping is ridiculously high) or don’t have confidence in their talents, there are some unique options out there:
  • Give the gift of experience:  Movie tickets or scuba lessons (or a gift certificate to a spa or getaway cabin, if you have the money to spend) are such an example.  Think of something that would mean a lot to the recipient, and such an experience will be something that he/she will remember forever.
  • Order personalized calendars–there are several companies out there that will make them.  Some will even let you add “family holidays,” like Grandma’s birthday or the annual family reunion, to the printed calendar.
  • Donate to a charity in your loved one’s honor.  There are charities like the ASPCA and Oxfam America (an international charity where you can choose exactly what the money goes to–like educating midwives or buying mosquito nets and vaccines) which will send a holiday card to your loved one saying that you gave the gift of hope in their honor.  You can also check local charities–there are women’s shelters, homeless shelters, animal shelters, veterans’ groups, and the like who will do the same thing.
  • Order a personalized travel coffee mug.
  • Name a star after him/her.
  • Go to a local embroiderer and get monogrammed towels, gloves, or something else practical.  You help local business and please those who prefer practical gifts.


Homemade Holiday Stockings

That being said, I’ve never been a fan of buying those really big Christmas stockings, because they demand to be overfilled.  And overfilling them requires spending a lot of money.  And overfilling also means giving a lot of gifts, which perpetuates the entitlement culture that has become associated with this time of the year (and that reminds me of an annoying eBay commercial that aired this year with some whiny tween dictating what her gifts should be).

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot, and so we usually didn’t get much for Christmas.  A tradition we had, which was fun, was that when we put up the tree, each of the kids had a small stocking to hang on the tree (it was the size of a small child’s sock).  Every night, “Santa” (a.k.a. my mother) would place a small candy or toy (like a race car or wind-up toy or nifty pencil) into each stocking.  This way, when Christmas rolled around, it was more about the warm fuzzies of togetherness than getting gifts.

My husband and I decided to carry that tradition over, now that the kids are old enough to get an idea of this whole time of year.  Since all I could find were those obnoxiously big stockings (of which I am ashamed to admit to own a few, for winters past, but mostly for decoration than function), I decided to make the little mini-stockings myself.

All I needed was:

Stocking-making tools

  • a toddler sock that had been missing its mate and was still in good condition
  • glitter glue
  • rhinestones
  • snowflake confetti
  • colorful string
  • Gorilla glue

Then came the decorating:

  1. I first wrote the first initial of each girl’s name on her appropriate stocking.
  2. It helps to do this over some newspaper, so as to avoid getting glue all over the table that has been in your family for three generations.  Because that stuff is a pain in the arse to get off.
  3. With Starkitten’s help, I decorated with more glitter glue.
  4. Then we added the rhinestones and confetti, attaching them with Gorilla glue.  (I actually did not let Starkitten touch them once I put on the Gorilla glue, but she directed where I should place what.)
  5. Then I folded up some colorful string and glue it to the back corner of the sock so that it could hang from the tree.

Starkitten's stocking--Her initial smeared a bit because Sunfilly wanted to poke the pretty sparkles.

Sunfilly's Stocking

All Saints Day, Samhain, and the Amazing Pumpkin

Jump to Pumpkin Bread recipe

October 31 has many different meanings to many Americans, depending upon each individual’s background.

dia de los muertos display.

A Día de los Muertos display. - Image via Flickr by wolves4moe

To most everyone, it is Halloween, which nowadays means kids dress up like their favorite characters and go house to house begging for sugary sweets and, if they are lucky, they will accumulate enough to be so hyper that the combined energy of a classroom full of such children could power New York City for a week.  It’s also when adults decide to dress up as witty puns or sexy versions of something or really obscure sci-fi references and consume “grown-up candy”–alcoholic beverages and desserts displayed so as to appear to be entrails or brains.  To Mexican-Americans, it’s also El Día de los Muertos, which honors the dead in celebrations as boisterous as Mardi Gras.  To Catholics, it’s the day before All Saints Day, a day of spiritual reflection.  To pagans, it’s Samhain (pronounced “sow-en” or “sow-ayn”), which celebrates the last harvest and those who have departed this life; it’s also the pagan new year.

Pumpkins

Pumpkins are synonymous with American fall holidays. - Image by DrBacchus via Flickr

And, to most Americans, October 31 reminds them of pumpkins.  Of all the gourds that grow in the fall, pumpkins have become symbolic of this season.  Kids think of jack-o-lanterns; adults think of food.  Even typing this, I can almost taste pumpkin pie or pumpkin bread or pumpkin lattes in my mouth.

They are ubiquitous in grocery stores, hobby shops, farmers markets, and magazines this time of year, and I’m not complaining.  It’s an awesome fruit.

When it comes to edible gourds, the pumpkin is the most versatile.  You can brew your own beer in it.  You can eat the seeds.  There are hundreds–or maybe thousands–of ways you can cook it.  Yes, I may have an unhealthy fondness for pumpkins.

As a multi-faith family, our children get to celebrate two sets of holidays: Christian holidays and Wiccan ones.  So our kids were able to go trick-or-treating, celebrate Samhain, and then the humility associated with All Saints Day.  And because we are also a multicultural family, and my husband’s tribal traditions emphasize honoring one’s ancestors, the October 31-November 1 holiday season is especially important to us.  (I must emphasize that the assumption that East Africans actually worship their ancestors is a mischaracterization; ancestors are more like guardians or saints who watch over or intercede with the divine on behalf of their living progeny, or they may curse relatives who have done something terrible.  It’s a lot like East Asian ancestor veneration.)

In some ways, the three traditions are very similar.  All Saint’s Day, Samhain, and ancestor reverence all share honoring and remembering the dead in some way.  And the fact that All Saint’s Day and Samhain (and its descendant Halloween) share the same harvest-time spot on the calendar is no coincidence: when the Catholic Church was seeking to convert the pagans living in the European countryside, they aligned the timing of holy days with those already celebrated and that shared a similar meaning to ease conversion.

Green Man

A representation of the Green Man. (Image via R~P~M via Flickr)

Samhain also honors the male aspect of the divine (depending on the neopagan tradition, he is Herne, the Green Man, Pan, the Lord, just to give a few examples).  It marks the final harvest because in places above the Mason-Dixon line, this is when frost sets most nights and has effectively killed the summer grass and many plants.

Contrary to some hate rhetoric that circulates in the media this time of year, Samhain is not about human sacrifices or orgies with Satan or any other such nonsense.  The theology behind Samhain is that the male aspect of the divine dies with the harvest (to be reborn later in the Wheel of the Year on midwinter, when the days grow longer again) and the crone goddess mourns his loss.

In neopagan traditions, Samhain is said to be the day that doesn’t exist, when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead are nonexistent, making communicating with the dead easier (“the dead” isn’t just limited to people–many pagans will honor their departed pets as well).  Many pagans will light bonfires and set elaborate dishes for their departed loved ones; others may light up their homes with candles and leave west-facing doors and windows open to welcome the spirits or to help guide lost spirits towards the next life.  It’s usually a joyous celebration that typically lasts late into the night and involves feasting and music.

New Orleans Saints Logo

All Saints Day isn't about honoring the players of the New Orleans Saints. Instead, the New Orleans Saints get an entire season, from September through January or February. Celebrations are never solemn and typically require massive consumption of artery-clogging foods and alcoholic beverages. - Image via Wikipedia

All Saints Day, similarly, honors the departed.  Depending on the Christian denomination, it can vary from honoring those who have been beatified  because of their devotion to the Christian faith, and/or those whose souls are lost in purgatory or otherwise awaiting judgment, and/or all Christians who have passed on.  It’s significantly more solemn than Samhain.  People may or may not attend church on this day, depending on their faith and cultural background.  In some cultures, people light up their homes with candles (or even the graves of their loved ones).

All Saints Day Ceremony [Image 1 of 9]

All Saints Day can be a community-wide holy day or a quiet, personal time of remembrance and reflection. (Image via DVIDSHUB via Flickr)

Earlier I mentioned that many autumn holidays share a lot of similarities.  Because my husband and I are of different faiths and we wish to educate our children on both traditions (and actually all religions, in general), we have learned that it helps to point out how we are the same and embrace our differences.

This time of year is great for that.

This year, Starkitten is actually old enough to understand that it’s harvest time.  We walked around outside and observed the plants dying and the grass turning brown.  We observed the neighboring farms wrapping up harvest season.  She doesn’t really understand the concept of death in terms of loved ones (fortunately, we haven’t lost any close relatives or pets since she was born), so I spoke to her in general terms about ancestors and how this is a special time to honor them and then proceeded to give her the preschool explanation of All Saints Day and Samhain.

This time of year also great for cooking pumpkins.

And since it’s been a hectic autumn for us, I decided to cook one of my favorite comfort foods: pumpkin bread made from fresh pumpkins.

Making Pumpkin Bread

When choosing pumpkins for baking, you want to look for medium-sized ones with darker skin.  They will have the richest flavor and still have plenty of meat.  If they are too large, they will have lots of meat and seeds, but they don’t taste as pumpkiny.  The smaller ones really aren’t good for eating, although they are wonderful for painting for Halloween decorations.

The easiest way to prepare pumpkin meat for baking is to:

  1. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out all the seeds and stringy “guts,” and rinse thoroughly.  Then cut the halves into quarters.
  2. Place the pumpkin quarters with the meat side facing up on a baking sheet and bake at 300˚F for about an hour.
  3. When the meat is soft, pull out the pumpkins and set them on a rack or dish to cool.
  4. Once it’s cooled enough that you don’t burn yourself touching it, scoop out the meat (or cut it into 2-inch squares if it’s being ornery) from the shells and discard the shells.
  5. Puree the meat in a blender.

If you have any meat left over from making pumpkin bread, you can freeze it.  I typically pre-measure portions of pumpkin meat so that I can thaw out exactly what I need when I feel like making pumpkin bread later on.

While the pumpkin is baking, you can separate the seeds from the “guts” and then soak the seeds in salt water.  After you remove the pumpkin from the oven, leave the oven on.  You can drain the seeds and spread them out on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle a little cooking oil over them and bake for about 40 minutes (or more–you want them to be crispy).  When they are done, let them cool and you have a quick snack.

Ingredients for Pumpkin Bread

Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are rich in antioxidants, dietary fibers, vitamin E, and tryptophan--nature's sleeping pill. Serve them up as a side to a turkey sandwich for an extra-drowsy afternoon. - Image by Sei via Wikipedia

  • 2 cups of fresh cooked pumpkin
  • 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1/2 cup water

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350˚F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, soda, sugars, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and ginger.
  3. Add the eggs, water, oil, pumpkin, and molasses.  Stir until well blended.
  4. Pour into two lightly greased and floured 9”x5” loaf pans (or, if you wish to make cupcakes, into papered cupcake pan).
  5. Bake for about 1 hour (25 minutes for cupcakes), or until a knife stuck in the center of the bread comes out clean.

You can wrap the bread and freeze it if you decide to make large batches.  Pumpkin bread tastes well frozen because the longer it sits in the freezer, the more it brings out the pumpkin flavor.

If it's made from pumpkin--a fruit--it must be good for you, right?

Treat yourself and your significant other to a little coffee shop decadence with some pumpkin bread and chai that you made yourself.  Then you can stay in your jammies, listen to your own music, and know that you didn’t have to spend $15 to indulge yourself.

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