Time has certainly gotten away from me this winter season. Isn’t that always the case, though, when Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s go flying by in quick succession? I think bears have the right idea with hibernation. Ideally, I like to slow down in winter – try to go to bed earlier as the sunlight is so fleeting, relax more with reading or crafts, and cook hearty dishes whose leftovers taste better as the days wear on.
I don’t think I have a favorite season. I seem to appreciate each natural cycle of the year for its unique personality – spring brings a sense of hope and awakening and rejuvenation as the days lengthen and stretch their legs, summer is full of energy and doing and our attempt to wring every last bit of joy out of each day, autumn is a riot of color as the leaves change and the heat and humidity give way to “sweater weather”, and winter is full of tradition, change, and expectation as we enter the new year.
I love our winter family traditions here in Philadelphia. They have changed over the years (my father no longer types out a Christmas morning letter from Santa, but the dining room centerpiece from the local florist arrives years after year) and feel a bit different than they did when I was a child, but the ritual layers beneath are mostly the same. I still think that there is something quite magical about the whole season despite the dark and cold that surrounds us.
Preparation – 5 or so years ago, our next-door-neighbors started a tradition called “Advent Soup Night”. In the Catholic tradition, Advent is the season of preparation before Christmas when Christians look forward to the joy that Jesus’ birth brings. It is a time of reflection and quiet as individuals think about all that has transpired in the past year and look ahead to the excitement and fresh start that is implicit with the coming of a new one. We celebrate this season by getting together with our neighbors and friends each Sunday evening for 4 weeks before Christmas. The evening notably features soup and bread. Each evening features anywhere from 2-4 soups depending on who is trying out a new recipe or if there is demand for an old favorite. Over the years, people have added small appetizers, wine, and dessert, turning our humble meal into a bit of a feast. Before eating, our host leads us in a reflection that is universal to all guests regardless of personal faith. Often the themes address darkness, light, hope, joy, sorrow, and peace. Then we sing a verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before everyone grabs a bowl and heads into the kitchen. Advent Soup has become one of the most important traditions in my holiday season and I often find myself out of sorts if I have to miss a night due to work.
The tree – As long as my mother lives and breathes, we will have a live Christmas tree. A Douglas Fir to be exact. It’s scent heralds the coming of Christmas and I never get tired of finding the same, decades-old ornaments hanging from the branches.
The lights – We always have little electric candles in the window. Actually, we keep these up year round. At Christmas, my brother and I add lights to the exterior of the house, carrying on the job my father would have done. There is nothing more comforting than coming home to those warm, tiny lights. No matter how long or how bad my day, I can always find my way home.
The food – Cookies are imperative. Each year, I try out a new recipe or two in addition to the tried and true “roll out cookie”. This year I added spiced and candied nuts to the mix. I usually gift these treats along with other edibles I have preserved throughout the year. I find baking very soothing. And what is more satisfying than a warm, homemade cookie?
The gardens – My mom and I have love taking in the holiday lights display at Longwood Gardens. I look forward to dinner in their cafe, hot chocolate, and strolling the grounds as the sun settles in for the night. In the dark, the landscape is a sea of colored lights upon the trees. The conservatory has a different theme each year – this year it is “stars” – that is elaborately conveyed through the many rooms of flowers and other flora.