The Spirit of Winter Solstice
From: Danielle Prohom Olson
Long before Santa charioted his flying steeds across our mythical skies, it was the female reindeer who drew the sleigh of the sun goddess at Winter Solstice. It was when we “Christianized” the pagan traditions of winter, that the white-bearded man i.e. “Father Christmas” was born.
Today it is her beloved image that adorns Christmas cards and Yule decorations – not Rudolph. Because unlike the male reindeer who sheds his antlers in winter, it is the doe who retains her antlers. And it is she who leads the herds in winter.
So this season, when we gather by the fire to tell children bedtime stories of Santa and his flying reindeer – why not tell the story of the ancient Deer Mother of old? It was she who once flew through winter’s longest darkest night with the life-giving light of the sun in her horns.
Ever since the early Neolithic, when the earth was much colder and reindeer more widespread, the female reindeer was venerated by northern people. She was the “life-giving mother”, the leader of the herds upon which they depended for survival, and they followed the reindeer migrations for milk, food, clothing and shelter.
And from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, across the land bridge of the Bering Strait, she was a revered spiritual figure associated with fertility, motherhood, regeneration and the rebirth of the sun (the theme of winter solstice).
Her antlers adorned shrines and altars, were buried in ceremonial graves and were worn as shamanic headdresses. Her image was etched in standing stones, woven into ceremonial cloth and clothing, cast in jewelry, painted on drums, and tattooed onto skin.
The reindeer was often shown leaping or flying through the air with neck outstretched and legs flung out fore and aft. Her antlers were frequently depicted as the tree of life, carrying birds, the sun, moon and stars. And across the northern world, it was the Deer Mother who took flight from the dark of the old year to bring light and life to the new.
For the Sami, the indigenous people of the Nordic countries, Beaivi is the name for the Sun Goddess associated with motherhood, the fertility of plants and the reindeer. At Winter Solstice, warm butter (a symbol of the sun) was smeared on doorposts as a sacrifice to Beaivi so that she could gain strength and fly higher and higher into the sky. Beaivi was often shown accompanied by her daughter in an enclosure of reindeer antlers and together they returned green and fertility to the land.
Many winter goddesses in northern legends were associated with the solstice. They took to the skies led by a bevy of flying animals. One tells of the return of Saule, the Lithuanian and Latvian goddess of the sun. She flew across the heavens in a sleigh pulled by horned reindeer and threw pebbles of amber (symbolizing the sun) into chimneys.
Mary B. Kelly’s book Goddess Embroideries Of Eastern Europe explores images of the horned deer mother in the sacred textiles of women. The image of the mother goddess Rohanitsa is often shown with antlers and gives birth to deer as well as children. For her feast day in late December (most likely solstice) white iced cookies shaped like deer were given as presents or good luck tokens, and red and white embroidery depicting her image were displayed.
Russian Kozuli are similar cookies baked during winter celebrations, Christmas and New Year. Often called Roe these cookies were originally small three-dimensional figures, most often shaped in the form of reindeer (and birds, fish, bears, flowers, stars and trees – images associated the ancient goddesses of the land). These magical talismans brought wealth, prosperity, good fortune to the family and were also gifted to relatives, friends, neighbors, even the animals and pets! They were displayed in the home as charms to protect from evil spirits and were used for Christmas divination by girls and young men on Epiphany evenings.
Today Kozuli are often defined as meaning “she-goat” in Russian, but in the northern White Sea region where they originate, the word kozulya means “snake” or “curl”. This is believed to refer to the spiral of life and the curling antlers of the reindeer whose twisted horns had different meanings; friendship, love, health and longevity. Sometimes the horns carry apples, birds, or depictions of the winged sun. They were traditionally coloured white and pink, obtained with the juice of lingonberries or cranberries.
These colors are thought to descend from Siberian legends, in which the reindeer took flight each winter after ingesting the hallucinogenic Amanita Muscaria mushroom, the archetypal red toadstool with white spots. Shamans would join them on a vision quest, by taking the mushrooms themselves. Climbing the tree of life in her horns, they would take flight like a bird into the upper realms. Other folktales tell how shamans, dressed in red suits with white spots, would collect the mushrooms and then deliver them through chimneys as gifts on the winter solstice. Talk about a wild night.
While many historical explorations of the pagan origins of Christmas observe the link between Santa’s garb and the red and white amanita mushroom ingesting shaman, few mention that it was the female shamans who originally wore red and white costumes trimmed with fur, horned headdresses or felt red hats! The ceremonial clothing worn by medicine women healers of Siberia and Lapland, was green and white with a red peaked hat, curled toed boots, reindeer mittens, fur lining and trim. Sound familiar?
Considering that most of the shamans in this region were originally women, it is likely that their traditional wear is the true source for Santa’s costume. And it is also very likely that they were the first to take shamanic flight with the reindeer on winter’s darkest night.
And while these women are largely forgotten today, the Deer Mother still lives in our Christmas cards, seasonal decorations and tales of Santa’s flying reindeer. And while we may not recognize her, I believe some deep, old part of ourselves still remembers the original “Mother Christmas” who brought light and new life to the world.
So this solstice, take a moment to remember the forgotten winter goddesses of old and their magical reindeer. Look out from your warm cosy home into the cold of the darkening eve. And on the sacred night when the sun is reborn, look for the Deer Mother flying across starry skies, carrying the tree of life in her horns.
Some Traditional Recipes
La Befana Cake (Gather Style)
1 & 1/4 cup cornmeal or polenta
3/4 cup almond flour
3/4 cup brown sugar (little extra or sprinkling on top) or 1/2 cup of honey
1/3 cup softened butter
3 & 1/2 cups of milk
2 teaspoons lemon or orange zest
2 tablespoons currants or raisins
1 & 1/2 tablespoons candied orange peels (chopped)
1 & 1/2 tablespoons minced candied ginger
2 tablespoons dried apricots (finely chopped) or cranberries
3/4 cup diced fresh apple
1/4 cup of Grappa (or brandy)
1 & 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 & 1/2 teaspoon of anise seeds
Teaspoon or so of sea salt
2 tablespoons of almond flakes for garnish
Put all the candied fruit, raisins, ginger, apricots in a bowl, pour over the brandy and allow to soften for an hour.
Bring the milk to a boil with a pinch of salt. Once you have reached the boil, pour in the almond flour and polenta, slowly, mixing well with a whisk, so that it does not form lumps. Reduce heat to low, continue to cook, stirring constantly, for about 10-12 minutes. The mixture should be soft and non-gritty so add more milk if necessary. It will be thick.
Remove from heat, then add the butter in chunks, the diced apple, brown sugar, brandy-soaked dried fruit, fennel and anise seeds.
Mix well, then pour the mixture into a pre-greased round springboard cake tin (8 -9 inch). Level it, sprinkle the surface generously with brown sugar. Cook at 350 F for about 50-55 minutes, a beautiful golden-brown crust should form on the surface. If you used honey you may need an additional 7-10 minutes but don’t over bake as it will firm up and set once cool. Let sit overnight so flavors can intermingle and deepen!
Juniper Berry Cookies
Juniper Berry is simply divine. For those who have never encountered the juniper berry, imagine the spicy exotic notes of eastern spices like nutmeg and allspice, and the scent of fresh-cut evergreen branches combined. Aromatic and perfumey, it is just the perfect spice for a buttery cookie. But how to best capture their flavor? Baked right in? Added to icing? What would best compliment? Chocolate, Gingerbread or a classic Sugar Cookie?
Juniper Berry Sugar Stars
Makes about 2 dozen small stars.
4 cups cake flour (sifted)
1 teaspoon baking powder (fresh)
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ounces butter
1 cup sugar (granulated, for cookies)
1/2 cup granulated golden cane sugar (or just plain) for juniper sugar
1 large egg (beaten)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 tablespoons dried juniper berries
3/4 cup cream (some for cookies, some for glaze)
1 cup of icing sugar
(1/4 cup dark cocoa powder if you want a chocolate cookie – add bit more butter to compensate)
Juniper Sugar: Grind 2-3 tablespoons of dried juniper berries in a spice or coffee grinder until it is a fine soft powder. Sieve out any large bits if necessary. Mix with a half a cup of sugar. Place in a jar and let sit overnight.
Juniper Glaze Icing: Grind 2 tablespoons of dried Juniper berries in coffee or spice grinder until fine. Sieve off any large bits. Grind again, sieve again. Place in a small saucepan with 1/2 cup of cream. Bring to almost a boil. Take off heat, cover and place in the fridge overnight. OR just mix cold coffee or espresso (in place of water) with icing the sugar and juniper berry powder for coffee juniper glaze – delish!
Let all the ingredients come to room temperature before you begin. Preheat oven to 375°F.
Cream butter, sugar, and salt on low speed. Add the egg, cream, vanilla and mix until blended.
In a separate bowl, sift the flour and baking powder together.
Mix dry ingredients with wet ingredients until combined.
Pat and press the dough into a ball. Wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
Transfer chilled dough to a lightly floured (or sugared) work area, roll out the dough out quite flat: about one-eighth of an inch thick.
Cut out cookies, placing them on an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake 8-10 minutes or until the edges and bottoms of the cookies are barely beginning to turn golden brown.
When the cookies are cool enough to handle but still warm, remove them from the pan and cool them on a wire rack. Let them cool completely before icing.
Dip one half of each cookie in the juniper berry glaze, then dip again (while still wet) into a bowl of juniper sugar.
Let the glaze dry before serving.