Saturday morning I awoke to a wet and heavy snowfall. Though it only lightly blanketed the ground and bits of grass poked through here and there – it was the first real snow of the year. It just had that feel. Though we’ve had a few flurries before this – brief moments of delicate snowflakes floating around in the breeze in a sort of capricious way – this snow was the first to have any sense of determination and resolve about it. I spent a good part of the morning transfixed at the window.
The scene was familiar – the same curves to the landscape, the same scraggly branches of apple trees and smooth white birch trunks – but it was foreign too – like looking at the world with a curtain drawn up. Even the cats seem mesmerized, their little faces glued to the windows, leaving tiny cat sized nose prints in their wake. And though the snow had melted by noon, replaced by a cold and drizzly rain, there was still a sense that something had shifted in the world. The Canadian Geese seem to sense it too – their calls have been a frequent sound in the cold air as they pass over the house in droves, headed to warmer locations in the South.
For the Ancient Celtic Peoples of the British Isles, the transition happening at this time of year was known as Samhain, an event marked with three days of festivities that began the last days of October and continued through the first of November. The celebration marked the ending of the harvest season, and the transition from the light half of the year into the dark half (the name itself comes from old Gaelic and means “summer’s end” or “summer’s sunset.”) It also signified the beginning of a new year to the Celts, who based their yearly calendar upon the agricultural cycles they were dependent upon. One year ended when the last of the harvest was brought in and the plant life shriveled and returned to the earth. And just as the last of the vegetation began to die away, the new cycle was beginning: the earth was impregnated with the seeds of next year’s life, safely gestating in the warmth and darkness of her soils.
Samhain was also a time for honoring ancestors and friends who had passed into the next life. There was the sense that for a brief time, existing between the ending of one year and the beginning of the next, the curtain between this world and the other worlds became thin. Spirits of those who had passed could venture into the world of the living, as could mischievous fairies. You might be curious where the strange antics of Halloween came from: why children dress up in scary costumes or frightening faces are carved into pumpkins and placed on our doorsteps, all lit up with candles. All of it has roots in ancient Samhain rituals – attempting to frighten off malicious spirits and prevent fairies from wreaking havoc. (When the Catholic Church came to the British Isles, they tried in vain to put an end to all this pagan revelry, but instead gave up and tried to re-contextualize the festivities by placing All Saints Day on the date of Samhain. The night before became known as “hallowed evening”, later corrupted to Hallow e’en as we know it today. The Church could never completely get rid of the old rituals, but did succeed eventually in making people forget their significance.)
We might not be living in Ancient Ireland these days, but I think that most us can still sense the shift happening in the world around us as the seasons turn. And at this time of year, with it’s penchant for death and decay, I think we can use as many excuses to celebrate as we can get. So in whatever way that suits you, find some small ritual to honor another bountiful season of harvest and of your life, while moving ahead into that dark, inwards energy of the winter months where roots are nourished, dreams are dreamed, and visions are spun for the year ahead.
For my celebration, I decided to make up a nice spicy chai – the kind that warms you to the bone and is just the thing for a snow storm (even if the snow does switch to rain by the afternoon). This chai is full of the same delicious, warming spices as most chais are – cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper – but it is also packed full of nurturing and tonifying roots and berries of the fall to embrace the inwards, rooty energy of the season. It will keep your blood moving, your digestive fire roaring, and your immune system and inner vitality strong and vibrant as the days get colder and darker: in short, the perfect thing to embrace the winter months.
And I had to make gingerbread too, because it just seemed like a good thing to do. After enjoying some with a hot cup of chai after dinner, we set out a heaping slice on the front porch along with a candle (in the traditional Celtic fashion) to appease any wayward spirits or fairies that happened to be passing by. I don’t know if the spirits got any, but I do know there is a very happy mouse somewhere.
Kitchen Sink Chai
I call it “kitchen sink chai” because it really has a little of everything thrown in there. It’s based off of a chai recipe made by Karyn Schwartz, a good friend of mine from Seattle who is a wonderful herbalist and amazing woman. When I make it, I always think of her.
Blend the following in a large bowl, mixing well to evenly distribute the ingredients. Place in a tightly sealed jar, and store in a dark, cool place.
- 1/2 cup Astragalus root
- 1/2 cup Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng) root
- 1/2 cup Cinnamon chips (cassia)
- 1/3 cup goji berries (lychee)
- 1/3 cup ginger root
- 1/3 cup Burdock root
- 1/4 cup Hawthorn berries
- 1/4 cup Cardamom pods
- 1/4 cup Pippali (long pepper)
- 2 tbl Star anise, broken up
- 2 tbl Black peppercorns
- 2 tbl clove buds
- 1 tbl Mace (whole), broken up
To make chai, place 1-2 heaping tablespoons per cup of water in a saucepan. Simmer on low for 30 minutes, then strain out the herbs and sweeten with milk and honey as desired.
Makes about 1 quart of blend, which will go faster than you think! Herbs can be gotten from your local apothecary of ordered from an online herb retailer such as mountainroseherbs.com
Really Gingery Gingerbread
While you are waiting for your chai to simmer on the stove, you might as well whip up some nice spicy gingerbread to go with it, and really fill your house with some delicious scents. This recipe is from the Rose Bakery Cookbook, and is a seriously gingery gingerbread – not for the faint of heart. It is, however, exquisitely tender and perfectly crumbly when still warm, just as gingerbread should be.
- 1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
- 3/4 cup all purpose flour
- 2/3 cup whole-wheat flour
- 2 tbl ground ginger
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon each cardamom, cloves and allspice
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
- 2 tbs honey
- 2 tbs grated fresh ginger
- 2 tbl molasses
- 3/4 tsp baking soda
- 2 eggs beaten
1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 10 inch loaf tin and line the base with parchment.
2. In a bowl, sift together the dry ingredients: both flours, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, spices, cayenne and salt.
3. In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar, and then mix in the honey and fresh ginger.
4. In a third bowl, combine the molasses with 1/2 tsp of baking soda and add this to the sugar and butter mixture.
5. Combine the remaining 1/4 tsp of baking soda with 3/4 cup of boiling water, and add this to the butter mixture as well.
6. Add the dry ingredients and fold in well, then stir in the eggs.
7. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, and bake for 35-40 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
8. Let cool for 10-15 minutes before trying to remove from the pan (or you will break your loaf in 2 like I did to mine!).
Makes a 10 inch loaf, which serves 8.