As the winter solstice beckons and the daylight hours dwindle, I start to find myself side-tracked from all thoughts of Christmas prep, ambushed by a recurring reverie of sticky ginger parkin. Six weeks too late I hear you remonstrate, Bonfire Night should have been parkin night…
But it’s on the first day of winter proper that I crave this dark spiced gingerbread which manages, with just one bite, to transport me back more than 40 years to family visits to Burnley and that granddaddy of Lancashire bakeries Oddies, still going strong today. An old recipe with pagan roots, parkin was a celebratory cake eaten to mark the start of winter and is a sure-fire cockle warmer. I love that there’s a Yorkshire saying “Don’t worry, you’ll soon be like a parkin” to anyone feeling a little under the weather.
Other cultures have winter traditions that are every bit as venerated. Fesenjan is a quintessentially Iranian dish served up for the Persian holiday Shab-e-Yalda which is celebrated on the longest darkest night of the year and predates Islam by thousands of years. Flavoured with pomegranate paste and ground walnuts, this rich aromatic stew is usually made with chicken or duck. But it is categorically not a curry, as Sainsbury’s magazine found out to howls of cultural appropriation earlier this year.
Sweetness and light
Great British Bake Off fans (and for the record I’m not one!) will already be familiar with the Danish custom of baking æbleskiver – feather-light semi-spherical pancake balls, sometimes filled with apple and cinnamon – to eat on the four Sundays of Advent and at Christmas as snacks. Legend has it that they were invented by a band of Vikings who, in an attempt to regain their strength after a hard-fought battle, made pancakes but lacking a frying pan greased their dented shields and poured the batter on them over a fire.
In Sweden, to honour St Lucia’s Day on 13 December, it’s customary to make golden S-shaped saffron buns known as lussekatter. Killed for her faith in 304AD, Lucia brought light and warmth to persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs in Rome and her feast day has become a festival of light in wintry Scandinavian countries beset by darkness. It’s a day when the oldest daughter of the house wears a long white dress with a red sash (as a symbol of martyrdom) and a crown or wreath with candles on her head and wakes everyone up with lussekatter and hot coffee.
Scandinavia has long been the flagbearer for winter cool. Just plug #hygge into Instagram and scroll through some four million posts vaunting cashmere socks, plush throws and knitted cup warmers. The hard to explain Danish concept of cosiness and comfortable conviviality is not, it would seem, that hard to explain after all….
Never one for overpriced scented candles that smell like toilet disinfectant, I much prefer the Icelandic tradition of giving books to one another on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading. Icelanders get through more books per capita than any other people in the world and the jólabókaflóð, or Christmas book flood when the country’s publishing houses flood the market with hundreds of new titles, is an eagerly awaited holiday highlight.
Staying in during the winter season has been touted as the new going out for some time now. But here’s an idea, why not do as the Norwegians do and give going out back its rightful position? Friluftsliv, literally free air life, is all about connecting with nature, living simply and embracing the great outdoors. It was popularised in the 1850s by the Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen, who used the term to describe the value of spending time in remote locations for spiritual and physical wellbeing.
I’ve touched on the immense health benefits of ecotherapy before and friluftsliv – whether expressed through a lunchtime walk in the park or an all-out assault on a mountain peak – is both a philosophy and a way of life. With #selfcare all the rage, what greater gift could you give yourself this festive season than some free air life?
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