Tonight begins the festival of Yule, the Winter Solstice and a very special event when for a brief moment, two planets will shine together as one body and appear closer and brighter than they have been in nearly eight centuries.
The Winter Solstice
Since prehistory, the Winter Solstice has been seen as a significant time of the year. After the Winter Solstice (the longest night of the year) the days begin to lengthen and the nights begin to shorten. Celebrated by many ancient cultures as a return to the light and warmth of the sun, the hours of daylight become longer - a return from the darkness and a herald of good things to come. Many rituals associated with this time of the year have been lost to history however countries around the world still celebrate ancient traditions associated with the Winter Solstice. Fire and light are traditional symbols of these celebrations held on the darkest day of the year.
The Yule Log
The Winter Solstice follows ancient Scandinavian traditions when a log (the Yule log) and piles of branches were lit on fire to symbolize the return of the warmth and light of the sun and the burning away of the accumulated evils of the old year.
In Italy a block of wood known as il ceppo di Natale or il ciocco creates blazing bonfires in the piazza. In Italian homes Yule logs are burned in hearths and fireplaces throughout the season sometimes sprinkled with wine to give a sweet smelling smoke or dipped in minerals to give color to the flames and sparks that fly up the chimney.
As Christmas approaches, delicious yuletide foods appear and many pasticcerie and bakeries in Italy display a pastry representation of the Yule log (tronchetto di Natale) or, as the French call it, bûche de Noël. A decorated chocolate sponge roll layered with cream made to resemble a log in the forest. If you decide to make a Yule Log be sure to click on the above Yule log link for a great video on how to do it the easiest and best way!
Regional celebrations surrounding the Yule log can be found throughout Italy as well as other countries. In 18th-century Tuscany the Yule log was personified by a large man with a huge head full of thick, ruffled hair and a crown of holly. At some point the Yule log became the Tuscan Christmas Tree made as a wooden pyramid-shaped tiered structure, il ceppo ( the stump) Each tier was decorated with objects that had a specific meaning.
The bottom tier held the Presepio or Nativity Scene, representing the gift of God
The second tier held fruits and nuts, representing the gifts of the earth
The third tier held presents, representing the earthly gifts of man
This year a special Winter Solstice happening will occur. A unique celestial experience will take place tonight. In a rare astrological event, which has not occurred since the Middle Ages, Saturn and Jupiter, our solar system’s two largest planets, are set to align. For a brief moment, the two planets will shine together as one body and appear closer and brighter than they have been in nearly eight centuries. The best time to see this very special event is about 45 minutes after sunset. After the sun has set, look in the direction where it went down and there will still be a brighter part of the sky. That is where the two planets should appear. If you pick up a pair of binoculars or a small telescope you will definitely be able to see they are two objects.
Today is a very big night. Celebrate with an Italian vin brûlé, a Northern Italian variation of mulled wine and take some comfort in knowing that the hours of daylight will steadily lengthen with hope that this “Bethlehem Star”brings wisdom from the past and the promise of a better 2021.
Vin Brulé (Mulled Wine Recipe)
1 bottle of Italian red wine (like a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo)
1 orange 1 lemon 1-2 anise stars 2 sticks cinnamon 2 cloves 2 cardamom seeds 1 cup sugar 6 ounces brandy
Rinse the orange and lemon, and then remove the rinds. Combine the citrus rinds with all other ingredients except brandy in a large pot and heat, stirring with a wooden paddle. Just before the wine reaches boiling point remove from the heat.
Let the wine infuse, covered and off the heat, for at least 20 minutes, and then stir in the brandy. Strain, and serve. Add a twist of orange or lemon wedge to your glass for a festive garnish!