A Healthful Season of Harmony and Light

The winter solstice is almost upon us. I love this time of year. In the past, I was lucky enough to live in a very seasonal place, complete with snow at about this time. There is nothing quite like a brisk day, clear skies and white everywhere. We embrace the winter solstice as a time of quiet harmony, nourishing food, gratefulness, and candlelight. I thought it might be enjoyable to share the history of this festival along with a bit of contemporary inspiration for a delightfully healthy feast and celebration.

The winter solstice provides an opportunity to nurture connection and well-being through gatherings with family and friends. Winter solstice falls on or around the 21 of December in the Northern Hemisphere and represents perseverance, new beginnings, and the return of light-filled days. Traditional festivals of the winter solstice focus on the cycles of nature, specifically the rebirth of the sun god who symbolizes warmth, light, and sustenance of life.

The Yule log, mistletoe and holly are intimately linked with this celebration. In the past, mistletoe infrequently grew on oak trees and was connected to the idea of peace and goodwill along with a sense of sanctuary. "The mistletoe would be ritually cut using a golden sickle, in a ceremony shortly after winter solstice. It would then be divided up into sprigs and dispersed to the people, who hung it over their doors for protection," as described by Hayley Nichols in "Celebrating Winter Solstice".

The Yule log was believed to protect against evil spirits, overcome darkness, and usher in good luck for the upcoming year. The logs would smolder for twelve days before being put out during a special ceremony. Several portions of the log were saved; one to be used the next spring to bless the land and another to light the Yule log of the following year.

An excerpt from, "Winter Solstice. How and Why the Darkest Day of the Year is Celebrated", describes the significance of the Yule log along with mistletoe:

The most notable tradition was the burning of the Yule log. Fathers and sons would collect the largest log they could find and light a festive fire. For the duration of the fire, a feast was held, stories were told, and reflections were made. Often, mistakes or failures of the previous year were symbolically burned in the fire, providing everyone a chance to start fresh in the new year.

Mistletoe was cut from the mighty oak tree and hung in the doorway for luck, offering goodwill to visitors. The familiar tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was meant as a pledge of friendship.

Since holly is an evergreen plant, sprigs of holly were an important symbol used during this time to represent the everlasting nature of the sun.

When I lived in the San Fransico Bay Area, I took part in the winter solstice festival at Muir Woods. If you are in the area, it is well worth a visit. The festivities begin in the afternoon and continue into the evening. This is a wonderful celebration for children and one of the rare times one can visit these incredible giant redwoods at night.

The gratitude tree makes its appearance into our lives around this time. We began this tradition during 2008 while living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico which we called home for about a year. A small, live evergreen tree takes the seat of honor on a raised table. The tree is then adorned for weeks with ribbons and small tags of "gratefulness".

A modern Yule log can be made with a large log decorated with evergreens, holly, mistletoe, and ribbons made of natural fibers. Burn in a fireplace and cultivate light as well as warmth while building connection with this ancient tradition.

Evergreen wreaths are an excellent symbol of the new growth that will arrive in the new year and a wonderful family project.

Just as the sun supports all life, a tradition of feeding winter birds is of similar intention. Stringing cranberries and hanging on outdoor trees helps to sustain the local wild bird population during the cold of winter. Moreover, a cone dipped in a combination of peanut butter and coconut oil, then rolled in bird seed can be hung on an outdoor tree away from windows to provide extra calories and nutrition for wildlife.

Lining walkways with paper lanterns helps to illuminate the darkest night of the year. Candles throughout the house are richly symbolic of the anticipation of the coming light.

A wonderful site with additional creative ideas for the festival of peace and light can be found here.

Of course, there is always a feast of sorts. The healthy, tasty kind. Found below are some short-order ideas for inspiration along with nutritional information to encourage a guilt-free celebration.

To symbolize the darkness and the return of the light, black, purple, orange and yellow selections highlight the winter solstice feast.

*(please note: organic is best for all recipes below.)

For those of you who live in crisp climates, a snowy hike is a wonderful way to connect with nature during the winter solstice. Bring along a thermos of hot chocolate to toast the abundance all around. For a healthy adaptation of an old favorite, heat unsweetened almond, hazelnut, or rice milk in a medium saucepan. A fresh vanilla bean complements this creation beautifully. Using a sharp knife, gently slice the skin of the bean lengthwise. Scrape out seeds and place in liquid. Simmer softly. Add agave, a good quality honey, or stevia to taste. Remove a small amount of of the mixture (about 1/4 cup) and whisk in a ratio of 3 teaspoons of raw cacao powder per cup of hot chocolate until smooth. Return to saucepan and stir. Remove from heat and enjoy. Ground cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cardomom, anise, and clove all make nice additions.

Black rice, sesame seeds, and plums along with blueberries are all nutritious additions to the celebratory winter feast. Black and purple foods host a variety of important nutrients. High in iron, antioxidants, and minerals, these foods are not only stunning, but also very healthy. Orange and yellow foods provide a good source of beta-carotene, vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6, niacin and folate along with fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.

A simple black rice pilaf is a unique addition to any celebration. Combine cooked rice with a citrus vinaigrette and garnish with segments of fresh mandarin and lightly toasted walnuts. Black rice is higher than its white counterpart in many essential nutrients such as vitamin B, niacin, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Walnuts add a beneficial boost of omega-3 fats and mandarines contribute vitamin C.

Roasted orange yams and heirloom purple potatoes tossed separately with Himalayan or Celtic sea salt and chopped fresh rosemary creates a striking contrast when presented together on a platter. Purple potatoes are an incredible source of the antioxidant anthocyanin which protects against cancer, cardiovascular disease, and age-related memory loss while enhancing the immune system.

A smooth curried pumpkin soup sprinkled with black sesame seeds and sliced green onions yields a colorful combination that brightens the holiday table. Pumpkin is an excellent source of beta-carotene, while turmeric has strong antioxidant properties. Black sesame seeds are an exceptional source of calcium along with protein, phosphorous, iron, and magnesium.

For an invigorating winter solstice cocktail, combine one-part chilled pure blueberry juice, one-part acai berry juice, and one-part soda water. Garnish with fresh blueberries and cranberries skewered on a decorative toothpick. Blueberries contain high levels of antioxidants, vitamin C, manganese, and vitamin E. These healthful berries also help to improve and protect brain function. Acai berries are a nutritional superfood, supplying an abundance of antioxidants while supporting cardiovascular health. Furthermore, frequent consumption of these formidable berries provides protection against cancer.

Roasted acorn squash not only imparts a sunny color to the meal, but also has wonderful nutritional benefit. This beautiful vegetable is a good source of beta-carotene which helps support eye and colon health. Roast halves face down on a cookie sheet that has been lightly coated with coconut butter until fork tender, about 40 minutes at 375ºF. When ready to serve, slice each half into 2 wedges. Brush with pure maple syrup and melted coconut butter. Sprinkle with Himalayan or Celtic sea salt and freshly ground nutmeg. Top with unsweetened dried cranberries and finely grated orange zest.

Try halves of pitted fresh black plums sprinkled with coconut sugar and broiled for 1-2 minutes, flat-side up. Serve warm with a high-quality, agave sweetened coconut 'ice cream'. Black plums are a good source of flavonoids, a powerful phytochemical that helps prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, and short-term memory loss. Coconut sugar is a guilt-free, low-glycemic sweetener.

Spiced apple cider is always a welcoming warm treat during the chill of winter. Gently simmer apple cider with several whole cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star anise until warm and fragrant. Ladle into mugs and sprinkle lightly with ground mace and cardamom.

As in the past, the celebrations of the winter solstice create a joyful space for family, friends, and community to build connection along with meaning. Delight in a contemporary version of this tradition while encouraging a healthful good time.

Sources for this article:

Hayley Nichols, "Celebrating Winter Solstice", November 2, 2008, Suite 101. Retrieved on December 2, 2010 from: http://www.suite101.com/content/celebrating-winter-solstice-a76304

Johanna Bailey, "Winter Solstice. How and Why the Darkest Day of the Year is Celebrated", December 21, 2009, Suite 101. Retrieved on December 2, 2010 from:http://www.suite101.com/content/winter-solstice-a181797

"Black Sesame Seeds (hei zhi ma)", Naturopathy Digest. Retrieved on December 6, 2010 from, http://www.naturopathydigest.com/nutrition_herbs/herbs/black_sesame_seeds.php

Valli, "Black Power: 8 Black-Colored Foods & Their Health Benefits", January 22, 2008, Trifter. Retrieved on December 6, 2010 from, http://trifter.com/practical-travel/world-cuisine/black-power-8-black-colored-foods-their-health-benefits/

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Sharon Palmer, "Healthy purple potatoes packed with antioxidants", November 3, 2010, Chicago Tribune.

Heather Fontenot, "Winter Solstice Traditions", Rhythm of the Home. Retrieved on December 4, 2010 from, http://rhythmofthehome.com/winter-2010/winter-solstice-traditions/

Tricia Edgar, "Traditions for the Winter Solstice", November 16, 2008. Suite101.com. Retrieved on December 2, 2010 from: http://www.suite101.com/content/traditions-for-winter-solstice-a80139

Navindra P Seeram, "Berry Fruits for Cancer Prevention: Current Status and Future Prospects", 2008, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 56(3), pp 630-635

Alexander G. Schauss, Xianli Wu, Ronald L. Prior, Boxin Ou, Dejian Huang, John Owens, Amit Agarwal, Gitte S. Jensen, Aaron N. Hart, Edward Shanbrom, "Antioxidant Capacity and Other Bioactivities of the Freeze-Dried Amazonian Palm Berry, Euterpe oleraceae Mart. (Acai)", 2006, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 54(22), pp 8604-8610

Heidi Reichenberger McIndoo, MS, RD, "Eat A Rainbow, Part 4: Health Benefits of Blue/Purple Foods," December 15, 2006, The Diet Channel. Retrieved on December 4, 2010, from http://www.thedietchannel.com/Eating-A-Rainbow-Part-4-Health-Benefits-Of-Blue-Purple-Foods.htm

Melanie Grimes, "Purple Foods Promote Health and Anti-Aging," November 13, 2009, Natural News. Retrieved on December 4, 2010, from http://www.naturalnews.com/027477_berries_health_foods.html

"Squash, winter", The George Mateljan Foundation. Retrieved on December 6, 2010 from, http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=63

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