Saturnalia , the ancient celebration of winter solstice and feast of Saturn, sounds like a real hum dinger.
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen (the Kindergarten girl who lives in my house would be a shoo in for this role). Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.” During these celebrations ancient Romans would decorate with holy, the sacred plant of Saturn, and garlands of greenery. Outdoors, trees were adorned with bits of gold and silver or baked goods.
Sounds pretty good doesn’t it ? Aside from the ducking of corked faces in icy water part , that is.
The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people celebrated Yule on December 21st. Yule is when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. Starting the next morning at sunrise, the sun climbs just a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky each day. Known as Solstice Night, or the longest night of the year, much celebration was to be had as the ancestors awaited the rebirth of the Sun King that warmed the frozen Earth . Bonfires were lit in the fields, and crops and trees were “wassailed” with toasts of spiced cider.
Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove spiked apples and oranges which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun, the boughs were symbolic of immortality, the wheat stalks portrayed the harvest, and the flour was accomplishment of triumph, light, and life. Holly, mistletoe, and ivy not only decorated the outside, but also the inside of homes. It was to extend invitation to Nature Sprites to come and join the celebration. A sprig of Holly was kept near the door all year long as a constant invitation for good fortune to pay visit to the residents.
The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the festival. There are various specific and complicated versions of the correct way to burn a Yule log. One says the Yule log must be burned for one night, then removed and placed under a bed as protection for the house and its inhabitants. Another version states that a large oak log be cut and brought into the house, placed in the fireplace, and burned for 12 days. Most traditions refer to spreading ashes produced by the log to ensure good harvest and/or protection in the coming year. In all traditions, the Yule season is full of magic, much of it focusing on rebirth and renewal, as the sun makes its way back to the earth.
However and whatever you celebrate, be sure to save a spot for a hot , spicy and fragrant wine concoction. Whether you call it Nevegado, Wassail, Gluhwein, Mulled wine, Vin Chaud, or Glogg the basic idea is the same: wine, usually red, combined with spices and served warm. Here’s a recipe for a favorite of mine – “Gluhwein mitt Schuss” (meaning mulled wine with a shot). If you’re trying to keep a lid on it (no frenzied clapping and ducking of corked faces into icy water), you can also make this recipe “mitttout” the Schuss and it will still be delicious, but I would try cutting the sweetening in half . Try this with a good inexpensive , bolder, fruitier, spicier wine. – our Cave La Romaine Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Volupté 2009 ($12) would be perfect. . The Volupté, as you might expect from the name, is richer and has a longer finish than the other Cave la Romaine Ventoux red we are importing, theTradition. This makes it an excellent wine for meats and roasted vegetables. The 2009 vintage is a little fruitier and spicier than previous years, making the “voluptuous” character even greater!
Gluhwein mitt Schuss for Saturnalia
To 1 750 ml bottle of red wine you need:
Sugar (demerara is good here – add it to taste, but start with about 1/8 of a cup)
2 or 3 Cinnamon sticks
1 tangerine or orange
Add Brandy, sweet sherry or port to the mix (I like calvados or apple jack). Add to taste; start with a cup.
Pour the red wine into a large pot and put it on the stove on a very low heat – you must not let the wine boil
Wash, then slice, the orange or tangerine then put about 4 cloves into each slice, and put them in with the wine.
Break the cinnamon sticks in half or thirds and put them in with the wine as well as 4 or 5 of the whole all spice.
Add in the “Schuss”
Add in sugar and stir.
Stir on and off for about 30 mins to give the spices time to infuse with the wine and for the magic to occur, then taste it, and add more sugar as needed. If it feels like it need a litttle lightening up, you could add a splash of orange juice or apple cider.
Let it infuse for about 30 mins more (again, not letting it boil)