The rituals of our year are broken into eight seasons, revolving around the solstices and equinoxes, as well as four cross-quarter days. It is an ancient cycle, based on Northern European festivals, some of which go back thousands of years. It was a pagan system that has been incorporated into the Catholic calendar, so it feels right to me, a lapsed Catholic Transcendentalist from New England. The various festival days determine the foods we eat, the decorations on our mantle and table, and they way we view the world. Every six weeks, we walk the same loop at the local wildlife refuge, observing and recording the changes we see, eat a special dinner—usually with a pie for desert—and participate in a small ritual to reflect the season. Candlemas, which falls on February second, is the first festival of the year.
Candlemas, also known as Imbolc and Groundhog’s Day, celebrates to first glimmers of Spring. It is not spring yet, but it is pre-spring. The light is just beginning to return In Britain, candles were brought to the church to be blessed on this day, hence the name. Plants in the Pacific Northwest are just waking up. In the front yard, snowdrops are blooming and buds are swelling. In greenhouses, overwintering leafy crops are finally growing. We move out of cabbage season! It is a time of new beginnings, of cleaning up, trimming back, and making way for new ideas. It is unlucky to leave decorations from Christmas up any longer, so I need to take the wreath down and turn it into compost. In six weeks, at the Spring Equinox, spring will begin, no matter what shadows the groundhog sees now. In the garden, it is the perfect time to prune trees and vines, to clean up the compost piles, and to start a few early season crops.
Our ritual for Candlemas involves planting seeds. After dinner, I light a new beeswax candle. We haul in potting soil and the six pack trays, label them, and plant all of our tomato seeds, as well as the early crops of kale, mustard, broccoli, and leeks. This is the first time we have had our hands in planting soil since late October, and it feels good. We water the starts carefully and I carry them into school, where they will grow under lights for the next month. The next day, I plant a few primroses and violets in pots on the front steps. For the next few weeks, I work on cleaning up messes in the yard, basement, and drawers. There’s a bag of stuff to head out to Goodwill by the door and the compost pile is huge.
In early February, the chicken flock comes out of its winter molt, and we have eggs once more! I can make popovers, quiches, and flans, as well as savory bread puddings. Dinners are still heavy on the winter foods. There are seven or eight squashes in the larder, half a bag of onions, and almost half of the potato crop left in their crates. Cabbage, salad greens, and kales provide fresh crunch. We have beany soups for lunch every day, pasta with mushrooms and onions for dinner, and dried fruit with oatmeal in the morning. The weather can still be grim, even in pre-spring, and there’s no real desire to lighten up just yet. In fact, potato and squash gnocci sounds quite yummy! By the end of the six weeks, the asparagus might be poking out of the ground….
Out at Finley Wildlife refuge, the world is wet. The wetlands are all flooded and the boardwalk curves through six foot long strands of green-grey usnea. Mosses are fat on the trees, the Indian Plum is just beginning to fill out, and the oak buds are swelling softly. Geese are everywhere. Newts cross the trails from pond to pond, and the coral mushrooms, which looks like spilled rice, breaks through the soil as we walk around the Mill Hill. If the day is dry, a few bees may be buzzing around, looking for early pollen on the hazelnuts. Nothing is blooming yet, but things are clearly stirring.
After the walk, we come home to a fire. I place blue glass plates and small marbles on the mantle to evoke water and rain, along with beeswax candles. The table runner is cream colored, with a floral pattern. We will eat soup, salad, new bread, and an eggy cream pie, or maybe chocolate pudding with canned cherries, for desert, and drink our home pressed cider. After dinner, we plant the seeds and dream of beginning again.
Melt 4 oz of chocolate chips in 3 cups of milk. Add 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and stir.
Whisk chocolate milk into 3 tablespoons of cornstarch, then return to pot and heat. Cook over medium heat, whisking steadily until thick and glossy.
Pour back into the bowl, add a teaspoon of vanilla and a handful for dried cherries, cover with an old plastic bag so it does not develop a skin, and cool. Or not. It's pretty tasty warm, too.