December is the month of snow, shopping, holiday music everywhere...and parties. For many people, winter entertaining began with Thanksgiving and will culminate on New Year’s Eve, but there are many other reasons to celebrate this month and throughout the winter.
This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 11th and continues for eight days. This festival centers on Jewish history and freedom. It commemorates the rededication of the great temple in Jerusalem following its desecration by an occupying army and the miracle of a single day’s supply of lamp oil lasting for eight days. The traditional foods of Hanukkah symbolize the oil; they are fried foods including doughnuts and latkes (potato pancakes) served with applesauce. Each evening a candle is added to the menorah as a blessing is sung; by the end of the week eight candles will be burning. Hanukkah is a time of songs, storytelling and games. Children receive gelt, or money gifts, for Hanukkah, but this celebration did not traditionally include the type of gift-giving that has become associated with Christmas, although that has changed in some families. Many families invite friends and relatives to celebrate with them during Hanukkah—the songs, games and informal foods make this celebration of Jewish heritage perfect for sharing.
For millennia, people in every part of the world have marked the winter solstice with gatherings, rituals and hope; although the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, it is also the turning point to longer, light-filled days. Gathering some friends together for a solstice celebration makes this longest night pass more quickly. Honor the dark season, but welcome the coming of more light by illuminating your home with candles or strings of tiny white lights. If you have a fireplace or even a wood-burning stove, this is the night to stoke it up. Bring in greens to decorate the table; holly and ivy are traditional choices, but in our area evergreen boughs, pinecones and mistletoe may be easier to find. Play some medieval or Celtic music or print out the lyrics to Old English carols or drinking songs. Choose a warm drink or two to offer your guests; hot cider, tea or hot chocolate are good choices, or you may want to create a Wassail bowl. The traditional Wassail beverage was hot, sweet, spiced wine or ale served in a large bowl, garnished with roasted apples. It was offered in every home as a mark of holiday hospitality.
Your winter solstice menu can reflect the traditional offerings of this season by including earthy choices like mushrooms, nuts, apples and dried fruits. A stew or soup would not be out of place and, if you have a fireplace, consider roasting chestnuts and root vegetables at the hearth. Bonfires have always been the hallmark of traditional solstice celebrations around the world; if you have a safe place to build and enjoy a bonfire, by all means invite your guests to join you in a toast and song around the fire pit—marshmallows are optional! Many solstice celebrations also include time for reflection; you can invite guests to write their regrets or fears from the passing year on a slip of paper and symbolically consign them to the fire or simply spend a few moments in quiet thoughts of how each person might bring more light to their corner of the world in the coming year.
December is a great time for daylight celebrations, too, both before and after the holidays. As I write this article in mid-October, the days are already chillier than usual, making the predictions of a cold, snowy winter seem quite plausible. We can choose to dread the coming season or find ways to celebrate our Wisconsin home and all the varieties of weather it includes.
Our local parks offer venues for all sorts of outdoor winter activities so schedule a sledding, skiing or skating party for guests of all ages. If Mother Nature does not provide snow, plan a route for a brisk winter hike instead. Back home, have a stash of dry socks ready and then warm everyone up with hot chocolate and a big pot of chili; consider making a pot of traditional red and contrasting it with a batch of white chicken chili. Don’t forget to include the trimmings—crackers, shredded cheese, chopped raw onions and chilies and extra hot sauce for bolder tastes. Some people like a little cooked pasta or rice added to their chili bowl, others enjoy a wedge of cornbread or a handful of tortilla chips. Keep things easy by replacing the salad bowl with platters of cut vegetables and wedges of apples and oranges.
Do you love having a taste of many different holiday treats, but maybe don’t have the money, time or desire to do lots of baking? The answer to your dilemma could be to host a holiday cookie exchange. In this scenario each guest bakes his/her favorite holiday cookie and brings enough to the party to sample and share with everyone else—so ten people at the party means everyone brings a dozen, or half-dozen, cookies. Assemble an assortment on serving trays and let your guests nibble while they sip tea and coffee and enjoy some conversation. The rest of the treats are divided equally, providing instant variety for everyone to take home. For a twist on this cookie exchange, make up some gift containers for elderly or needy neighbors—almost everyone enjoys holiday goodies—and then organize your guests into groups of carolers to make the deliveries!
The holiday season is a time when many of us take stock of our blessings. To extend your holiday cheer to the wider community, host a charitable potluck. Ask your guests to bring a dish or beverage to share, but also encourage them to bring non-perishable grocery items for your neighborhood food pantry or a toy or other gift to be donated to an area children’s group or gift collection point. Animal shelters always have wish lists of needed items; a school might love a gift of supplies for needy students or an area non-profit might appreciate donations of office supplies. Wrap your donations if appropriate and then head out as a group to deliver them. As an alternative, donate your time; you and your friends might provide free snow removal or house cleaning for someone in need or help out at a food bank for an afternoon. When the work is finished, return home to enjoy that potluck meal together.
In the Christian calendar Christmas, December 25th, marks the birth of Jesus Christ. This religious holiday traditionally includes worship services, celebratory meals and gifts. Santa Claus has become an icon of this holiday; Santa replaced the tradition of St. Nicholas that was familiar to European immigrants in the early years of our country. In centuries past, people gave small Christmas gifts to family and friends, but now the gifts are often expensive and piled high, leading many people to reconsider how they want to celebrate Christmas.
Abundant food is often part of the Christmas season—cookies and savory snacks seem to be everywhere and many households enjoy a special meal on Christmas Eve as well as Christmas Day. Cookie exchanges are held by groups ranging from the PTO and churches to book clubs, day cares and offices. Food is a common gift item, whether the package is put under the Christmas tree or taken to neighbors’ doors. The “dreaded” fruitcake you may receive as a gift is a custom that probably originated in medieval times as a showcase for the spices, dried fruits and nuts that were beginning to make their way from the Mediterranean to Britain and northern Europe. These rich, celebratory cakes were steeped in wine to add flavor and moisture as well as to preserve them. Over the centuries, cooks developed favorite combinations that became family traditions. Whether the fault of fluorescent-colored candied fruit or mediocre commercial bakeries, somewhere along the line, fruitcake acquired a bad reputation. If you think you don’t like fruitcake, try a recipe that is full of chewy dried fruits and freshly toasted nuts—you just might become a convert!
Turkey reigns at the Thanksgiving table in most U.S. households, but Christmas dinner is often more varied, perhaps because of our melting pot heritage. Turkey competes with duck, goose and ham; pasta stars in some homes, beef tenderloin in others. There may be eggnog or mulled cider, a chocolate Yule log, mince or pumpkin pie—Christmas tends to bring out our favorite family foods and customs. Some families sit down with their best linen and crystal, others graze at buffet tables; there might be carols in the background, the sounds of a classic holiday film or a football game. For many families, Christmas Day includes time spent playing games, enjoying the outdoors or gathering the family in another way that is meaningful.
If you like to keep Christmas as a family gathering, but still want a related celebration with friends or colleagues, host an open house on Boxing Day, December 26th. Boxing Day originated in Britain in the 19th century. The most common explanation of this holiday is that on the day after Christmas the wealthier classes would present boxes of clothing or gifts of money to servants and laborers in their homes or communities. Alternatively, it is suggested that this was the day British churches opened the “poor boxes” and disbursed the funds to needy people in the community. Since people today often take a vacation day on December 26, it can be a more relaxed time to host a party than during the pre-holiday rush. An open house format offers your guests a window of time to make a brief visit or settle in for a bit longer. Keep things relaxed by setting up a buffet of simple sandwich fixings—save some roast turkey or ham from Christmas dinner or make extra—together with a salad or two and some cookies or fruitcake. Be sure to have some child-friendly food options available if you are expecting families.
Kwanzaa is celebrated in the African-American community from December 26th until January 1st. The name Kwanzaa is taken from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” or “first fruit.” Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana Studies at California State University-Long Beach, was inspired to create this weeklong holiday in 1966 as a way of bringing black communities and families together to celebrate their culture and history. Dr Karenga based the holiday on seven traditional principles, or Nguzo Saba, one of which is honored each day. The seven principles are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
Families decorate their homes using the colors of black, red and green to symbolize the Kwanzaa flag. These colors are repeated in the candles that are placed in a special holder called a kinara; each night one additional candle is lit, usually by the youngest child in the household and one of the Seven Principles is discussed. The kinara is just one of the symbols of Kwanzaa; the others include the special candles—one black, three red and three green known as Mishumaa Saba; the Mkeka, or the mat the kinara and other symbols are placed upon; Mazao or the crops that symbolize the harvest; Muhindi or corn that symbolizes the children and the future; Kikombe cha Umoja or the Unity cup and Zawadi, the gifts. Gifts for children are an important part of the festivities and Dr. Karenga suggested that they should always include a book to symbolize the value Africans have placed on learning since ancient times and an item that symbolizes heritage.
A large community celebration and feast is held on December 31st. History, culture and thankfulness for blessings are part of the celebration. The foods represent traditional harvest favorites including root vegetables, fruits and hearty stews.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve parties run the gamut from casual events designed for families to expensive all-night extravaganzas. Fireworks displays are part of New Year’s Eve celebrations in many cultures. In the British Isles, as well as Greece, it is thought that the first person to cross the threshold on New Year’s Day brings luck to a home for the rest of the year, so midnight is a time for visiting the homes of family or friends. In Japan homes are ritually cleaned for the New Year to welcome the gods; in Mexico dirt is swept out the front door. This celebration is often characterized as an alcohol-soaked affair, but that does not have to be the case if you want a family-friendly celebration. The evening can center around board games or an old favorite like charades, a home talent contest or a costume party; outdoor activities are another good choice. Your menu can range from appetizers and beverages to a full, sit-down dinner with champagne.
Once the holiday season has passed, winter settles in and sometimes seems to last forever. When the doldrums threaten, call your friends or neighbors over for potluck. Potluck meals are fun and economical gatherings that can be as organized or as free form as you like; brunch, afternoon or evening meals are all good times to meet with friends or extended family. Choose a theme or food ethnicity if you like; choices like Mexican or Italian food are always popular, or you can designate something more unusual like “island night,” “finger foods only,” “no-cook” recipes only—you get the idea! You can assign a food category to each guest if you want to be sure of a well-rounded meal or let everyone bring his or her specialty. This last type of potluck can result in meals that are missing vegetables or heavy on desserts, so be prepared for surprises! If your gathering is very large you might need to ask guests to bring their own plates and silverware; you can also assign people to bring extra chairs, beverages, paper goods or whatever you need.
The potluck format can be applied to any informal party and it’s great if you need to get a group together for neighborhood or club business—food always seems to draw people in and get them talking. Most people are happy to contribute food or a beverage and everyone seems to appreciate keeping costs down at this time of the year. You can plan a potluck around an evening of favorite movies or a football game; make it a family event with a board game marathon or an impromptu celebration of a snowstorm. A potluck can be a way to get acquainted in a new neighborhood, or to welcome the newest people on your block. Keep it in mind for the long winter months ahead—regular potluck gatherings can help keep cabin fever at bay!
Progressive dinnery parties
If you want to do something that might be more elegant than a potluck, but is less expensive and less work than a full sit-down dinner, invite your friends or neighbors to join you in a progressive dinner party. At a progressive dinner, several—or all—of the guests prepare and host a single course of the meal. You start with appetizers and/or cocktails at one house or apartment, and then move on to enjoy additional courses at successive homes. It is easiest to coordinate a progressive dinner when people can walk from house to house, but that is not a requirement. This type of party is often rather fancy, offering everyone the opportunity to dress up for an evening so you might want to combine it with another event. The evening could start with hors d’oeuvres followed by soup, salad and the main course and then progress to a concert, dance or play, followed by dessert and coffee at a final stop.
There are many cultural variations on the old fable Stone Soup in which a traveling stranger persuades hungry, suspicious villagers to share food with him to make a meal. His “magic” stone is the basis of a generous pot of delicious soup to which each villager has donated a single ingredient. Winter is a great time to invite your “villagers” to join in making and eating a meal. Ask each guest to bring an ingredient of their choice for your soup soiree, and then add seasonings from your pantry. You can start things off with a well-scrubbed stone in the bottom of the stockpot if you wish! Serve the soup with bread, salad and cider and take turns sharing old fables as you eat.
Whatever type of party you want to throw, it pays to spend a bit of time in advance thinking it through. First, you will want a reason to invite people to your gathering; next, choose a time and place. If you are planning a more formal event or sit-down dinner, a printed or written invitation is always in good taste. Allow three or four weeks of advance notice for this type of party and include instructions for an R.S.V.P. so you can finalize your menu and make arrangements for any special equipment you might need to rent or borrow. If your gathering is less formal, invitations can be handled verbally or through e-mail if you prefer and do not usually need to be extended quite so early, but remember that December is a busy month for many people.
Plan the food and beverage menus at least a couple of weeks in advance; non-perishable items can be purchased early to help relieve last minute stress. Do your final shopping a day or two before your party and prepare some food in advance if you can. Don’t forget to pick up extra ice, flowers and candles. Family members can help clean the house before guests arrive, focusing on areas that partygoers will utilize, usually the living and dining room, family room and bathrooms. Close the doors to any rooms you want to keep off limits. If you have pets that are easily upset you may want to keep them safely behind closed doors as well. Designate a spot for coats and, if your guests will include children, set aside a play area with appropriate toys, games or movies as well as a quiet place to snooze. Be sure to have some special snacks and drinks for the kids, too.
For a truly easy, low-stress gathering, entrust your food needs to the Co-op’s Catering department. You can pick up a catering menu at the Customer Service desk or find it on our website at: http://www.willystreet.coop/catering. The catering menu includes everything from delicious entrees with side dishes to more casual platters featuring wraps, sandwiches, dips and more. There are juices, bagels and baked goods for breakfast or brunch and beautiful desserts to complete your meal. In most cases, catering orders require only 72 hours advance notice, but during the busy holiday season you may want to place your order earlier to help keep your planning relaxed.
The staff at The Seafood Center counter is happy to prepare cooked shrimp party platters for you too, but please give them at least 24 hours notice; more time is always appreciated during this busy season. In addition to shrimp, they can supply smoked fish and a variety of seafood appetizers for your gathering. For more information contact the Seafood Center at (608) 294-0116.
If you are preparing food for an event check the Resource page on our website for recipes suitable for any occasion: http://www.willystreet.coop/recipe. You know our Produce department has the best fruits and vegetables in town, with many locally grown choices still available; the staff there can help you find just what you need, at just the right stage of ripeness. Our Meat case has many choices if you are looking for something special to serve as an entrée and you can round out your menu with a selection of salads from the Deli—the choices are so fresh and seasonal that your guests will never suspect that you had a little “help” in the kitchen!
The Grocery department has all the basics you’ll need to create delicious party food; remember that Co-op Owners get a discount on preordered cases of many products—that can help reduce the cost of throwing a party. Our selection of flowers
and green plants will help make your home a more beautiful place for entertaining your guests and when you relive the festivities and recuperate the day following your bash.
If you choose to serve alcohol at your party, be a responsible host and a good friend. If a guest has over-indulged, find her a safe ride, call a cab or make him comfortable on your couch for the night. You’ll rest easier knowing your friend will be on your guest list for years to come.
Happy Winter Holidays!