It is the midwinter solstice tonight (well officially the morning of the 22nd) the shortest day and longest night. It’s nice to think that the nights are getting longer once more but I miss the darkness of early evenings and cozy nights in as it starts to fade, and the summer sun bringing with it its urge to do things outside and stay up later. Such is life though. Things move round each year and its something we just need to relax into and enjoy. There isn’t much folk-lore existing around the tradition from the Gaels or the Celts for this time of year and the boats out if it even was an important date with them as Christmas does today with most folk in the UK. However, we do have a lot of folk-lore that comes from Shetland and Orkney from the Norse folk who lived there which has existed and come down to us relatively intact. The winter solstice was called Jul or Yule, this roughly translated means wheel and was characterised by being troubled by the spirits of winter and death. One of their traditions was the yule bread loaf.
One thing we do in our household to mark the solstice is quite simple and involves making Yule bread. Following on from the idea of traditional bannocks at festival times of the year and light, in this case candle, through the night. Both of these are traditions we have borrowed from the North. It’s not clear what happened in the borders and Lowlands of Scotland at this time of year. The bread is made with caraway seeds and plaited into a three thread yule bread loaf. This is turned into a circle to represent the “Sacred Three” and the Sun respectively.
There are a number of reasons for this. The round loaf represents the sun in its circle form. Caraway seeds have lots of folklore about them. When added to things they prevent the thing being stolen or from straying and were frequently used in love charms for this reason. They were often left under the beds of newborns as well. It’s suggested that the Sìdhe/Sìth and other spirits would have to count the seeds. This would distract them from stealing the child. I assume it’s baked into the bread to prevent the virtue of the sun being stolen or the virtue of the household being taken over the time when the sidhe and spirits of winter are abroad. The three threads for the sacred three as they weave their influence through our lives. It’s a way of showing respect to them.
It’s also an offering, as demonstrated with the honey in the recipe. In this way it’s as a protective mechanism for those in the household and a gift to the Sìdhe or the good folk. We then leave a candle (we normally use a 7 day candle or a grave candle for this) in the middle of the bread circle and leave this outside over night in a sheltered place. The candle burning (hopefully) until morning. In the morning I take a piece of hair from the entire household (pets included) and singe it in the flame of the candle before the sin rises as an act of saining. Ensuring luck and prosperity for everyone the following year and watch as its rises over the horizon, and perhaps have a wee dram to the small sun as we watch it rise.
We tidy the house so its clean and fresh for anyone who might want to visit. The sidhe are famously annoyed by mess and like to cause a stramash on these nights around yule. You can hear about this in a recorded interview here. Ministers apparently also prowled the countryside to check that nothing out of the ordinary was being cooked on Christmas day. You can listen to the audio recording at http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/fullrecord/42673/1.
I’m not sure what more sinister, roaming priests or angry sidhe …
Anyway I have included the recipe we use below, it’s not traditional but does the trick and tastes good too. You might also decide to make shortbread instead of this recipe in a round. Both would do the same job. Why not give it a try whilst listening to the interviews above whilst enjoying a valerian hot chocolate.
Happy winter solstice all and I hope your safe from the stramash over the next few days
Ingredients for Yule Bread
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 package dry yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
- 1 cup warm water (Body temp)
- 1 teaspoon water
- 1 large egg
- 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, divided (about 10 1/2 ounces)
- 1 cup whole wheat flour (about 4 3/4 ounces)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (leave out if you’re not making it for humans)
- 1 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds.
- Cooking spray
- Dissolve honey and yeast in 1 cup warm water in a large bowl; let stand 5 minutes. Combine 1 teaspoon water and egg, stirring well with a whisk. Place 1 tablespoon egg mixture in a small bowl. Cover and chill. Add remaining egg mixture to yeast mixture.
- Lightly spoon flours into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Add 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup of whole wheat flour, salt, 1 teaspoon caraway seeds to yeast mixture; stir to form a soft dough. Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes); add enough of remaining all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, to prevent dough from sticking to hands (dough may feel sticky).
- Place the dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray, turning to coat top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (20°c ), free from drafts, 45 minutes or until doubled in size. (Gently press two fingers into dough. If indentation remains, dough has risen enough.) Punch the dough down; cover and let rest for 5 minutes. Divide dough in three. Working with one portion at a time, roll each portion into a 12-inch rope on a lightly floured surface. Plait ropes together, and pinch ends to seal in a circle.
- Place dough in an 8-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes or until doubled in size.
- Preheat oven to 190°c.
- Uncover dough. Brush reserved egg mixture over loaf, and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds. Bake at 190°c for 30 minutes or until loaf is browned on bottom and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from pan; cool on a wire rack.