Monday, December 19, 2011

Seasonal Traditions, Old and New

Christmas is not a huge celebration in our house. We don’t trim a Christmas tree, bake holiday cakes, or hang colorful lights around the eaves. There are no milk and cookies waiting for Santa to come barreling down the chimney, hungry and thirsty from his sooty exertions. But before you get the idea that we’re a couple of Scrooges who do our best to ruin the joy for everyone else, let me reassure you that Christmas doesn’t pass us by entirely unnoticed. We have a rather eclectic set of holiday traditions, mixed and matched from my childhood memories and my husband’s Persian culture.

So even though Christmas is fairly low-key around here, we still manage to get into the holiday spirit. Here are my favorite ways to celebrate this joyful time of year.

My favorite ancient Persian ritual:
A few days before Christmas, we celebrate Shabeh Yalda, a winter solstice celebration whose roots go back to ancient Persia and its Zoroastrian rulers. (I blogged about it here last year.) On this longest night of the year, we stay up late eating pomegranates, preserved peaches, watermelon, and pistachio nuts, while reading Persian poetry, usually Hafez or Rumi. There is something about eating summer fruit in the deep freeze of winter that makes me think of people long ago who hoarded fragile produce as an offering to the sun god in hopes that it would give him strength to overcome the darkness and bring back spring. In our modern age, with our confidence in science and knowledge of the ways of nature, it doesn’t hurt to remember people who lacked such certainty yet paid greater attention to the world around them.

My favorite holiday meal:
Christmas dinner at our house is a far cry from the meal I grew up with. My mother used to serve a ham baked with pineapple slices and a brown sugar glaze. After the feast, the bone and remaining scraps of meat would go into a German-style split pea soup that would last us well into the new year.

Ham is not a big hit in my household today, so I make javaher polo instead, a Persian dish whose name means “bejeweled rice.” It may come from a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but I can think of no more festive dish to serve on a holiday table. The white rice sparkles with ruby-toned barberries, slivered green pistachios and creamy almonds, glistening orange peel, and a splash of golden saffron. No matter how much I prepare, this dish never lasts as long as my mother’s pea soup did, but paired with a roast chicken and served with a glass of sparkling wine, it looks and tastes just like Christmas should.

My favorite holiday decoration:
I may not deck the halls with boughs of holly or my house with garlands of lights, but my one nod to the neighborhood decorating frenzy is that I hang an evergreen wreath on my front door. I love wreaths of all kinds – herbal ones in the summertime, fragrant with mint, lavender, and thyme. Fruit wreaths in the fall as a tribute to bountiful harvests. A circle is such a comforting shape, with no beginning and no end.

My favorite family tradition:
Throughout the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I slice up a Christstollen, a dense German cake filled with dried fruit and almonds and iced with melted butter and powered sugar. Arranged on a special plate along with a few decorative rosemary sprigs (which are usually putting out their tiny blue blossoms at this time of year), it makes a sweet addition to breakfast.

This tradition started many years ago with a crotchety old aunt of mine. She lived in Dresden, a German city that at the time lay well behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic. This aunt despised my mother (and, by extension, my sister and me) and never wasted an opportunity to criticize everything we did, from the way we dressed (not fashionably Parisian enough – and this from a dyed-in-the-wool Communist) to where we lived (in the decadent heart of Capitalism). But she saved up her kindness for one act of generosity at Christmas, when she’d send us an authentic Dresdner Christstollen, purchased from a famous bakery whose holiday confections were intended only for export. You had to have serious political connections to buy one in its city of origin.

The pastry arrived in a metal box with a picture of a medieval city sketched on the side, and it took metal cutters, a hammer, and a chisel to pry the container open. But the treat inside, a gift from one of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever encountered, always reminded me that everyone, no matter how nasty they may be, has the capacity for kindness. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about?


  1. Heidi, what a lovely post. In my family, the Christmas treat is boiled custard, which is a Christmas staple in the American south. It not boiled, I hasten to warn, because that would curdle the eggs. It a thick beverage made with eggs, sugar, and milk. You heat it to about 165 degrees F., below boiling, to cook the eggs. This chill before serving. In our family, flavorings were arranged on the table, vanilla, almond, etc., plus a bottle of bourbon. My great aunt, who never let alcohol pass her lips except for this treat, was known for holding a spoon over her glass, pouring as the spoon overflowed several times over.

  2. That dessert sounds delicious. I love custards of all kinds. I've heard the name before but didn't know exactly what it was (I grew up in New England), and assumed it was boiled. How solid is it? It sounds more like something you drink than eat with a spoon.

  3. The one I make is thick, but you drink it. It is possible to eat it with a spoon, as well. It has the consistency of a milk shake.

  4. I love this amalgamation of traditions, Heidi, and the stories behind them. Especially the one of your aunt. Why do you think she continued sending you those cakes? Family duty, long-standing tradition (like sending holiday cards), or the spirit of the season? Hm...

    I'm so celebrating Shabeh Yalda this year! So glad you shared that one with us. Sounds lovely. I'll let you know how it goes. :)

  5. I don't know, Supriya, I think my aunt sent those cakes out of a sense of duty. SHe stopped sending them as soon as my uncle died (he was my mother's brother).

  6. That Christmas stollen from Dresden was certainly one of the highlights of Christmas back then. I remember the excitement of getting that & the other gifts that came from Germany. How we loved christmas eve as we could get a head start on christmas and open all the presents that came from from away, that was our main contact with those foreign relatives. We never had phone calls and certainly no internet back then.

  7. We once had a German Au Pair and her parents visited for Christmas. They brought something that looked very similar to that Christstollen, although it didn’t come in a tin box – I would’ve saved a box like that. Christmas traditions are also an interesting blend in our house. I can’t imagine a New Year without a tree - used put up one with my Dad when I was a kid. In Russia we used to decorate it on Dec 31, because that’s when the schools closed and holidays started – until mid-January. Now I put up my tree shortly after Thanksgiving and often forget Chanukah altogether in the midst of the December shopping frenzy for my husband’s big Italian family. And our holiday mean is pasta, meatballs and lasagna – all the wonderful Italian dishes he cooks.

  8. Lina, not all bakers package the Christstollen in a metal box. The one I usually buy every year comes a cardboard carton. I'm thinking of baking my own stollen next year. I was going through some old German cookbooks I have and found a recipe that doesn't look too complicated. Nice that your husband does the Christmas cooking...