The Sense of the Season

December 21, 2009

I’ve been waking up in the dark recently. This is not so unlike me, actually, as for almost as long as I can remember there has been a reason to get out of bed before the sun has risen – in high school, it was just school. College – rowing. Since college – to run before work, or before the sun threatened to scorch me, or the day got away…

This morning, it was bread. Panettone, to be exact. I lay in bed, quiet all around (with the exception of the few cars driving by and rain, yes, rain, splashing from beneath their tires,) and the whole world seemed to sigh with sleepyness. But as stirring moments drew on, the smell was unmistakable. Butter, citrus, sweet, warm — the smell that you hope would wake you from your every sugar plum vision, the smell of the season.

Of course, this sounds like an absolute fairytale; the kind that kings, queens, and people whom have no necessary line of work can write about because they have others to stew this little idyllic holiday wish for them. But this one was all of my doing and it was worth every bit.

The panettone process is certainly a labor of love; soak raisins in rum, candy citrus peels, mix the dough, allow it to sit overnight, fold it into its little paper pan (or a coffee can, as my ancestors would do,) allow to sit again while you have time to read a book, write all of your holiday cards, worry about if the bread will rise, make dinner, take a quick nap, see a movie, screw around on social networking sites and then, at LAST, bake it. And you can mix this process up as you like, being sure to allow time where time is due. And for me, I have been organizing my December days around early morning baking to draw us out of bed and into the day.

Panettone has a long standing tradition for Italians. My family, and the little village of Lentini itself, lie in Sicily and the southern-most skirts of southern Italy but in my heart of hearts I know that they enjoyed this symbol of Milan at holiday time. It is the bread of kings, and has been for centuries as for a long time, these were the only individuals wealthy enough to make the bread rich with butter and eggs, sweet with sugar and fruits, and rise with honey. When I was small, my mother read us a little story by Tommie DePaola called Tony’s Bread – about how Tony the baker wanted to marry the daughter of nobility and so created this, most delicious bread, in all the land. I could smell the bread baking as she would read about little flower pots overflowing with magic bread.

As I sit now, the loaves are hanging by skewers in all of my deepest bowls, cooling so that I can send them to our family and friends along with holiday greetings for a happy and prosperous New Year. It is hard to believe that a new one is upon us! This season, between Thanksgiving and New Years’, has always been a special one for me, and for my family. When I was little, it meant way too many packages under our bloated tree, hanging with ornaments passed down from our grandparents and great-grandparents, and to signify each year in this charmed life. As I grew older, it meant celebrating togetherness as we started to realize this was really all you HAVE and NEED. Living abroad opened the door to my anti-materialism of late, an interest in living simply and I suppose that not far behind was the realization that “Christmas” was just not something that I believed in – and the obligatory gift-giving was out of control….it was the season that I loved, and the spirit that went with it. This was a bit difficult to announce to my younger siblings, and to my mother, for which Christmas – the brunch, the gifts, the time – meant that she at last had all of her little ones home again. But, perhaps it is something that happens for each family? There is a time when we have the opportunity to celebrate and explore the true meaning of the holiday…because everyone in the room is too big to unwrap Leggos to so that the grown-ups can go back to drinking mimosa merrily.

This is the first holiday that has been under my conduction for its entirety and I must admit, it has absolutely fabulous. It has been a season without Black Friday, without online sales, sans holiday rush, and without my even knowing holiday hours of my favorite retail establishments. It has been wonderful.

Thanksgiving began for D, G and I in Montana, sharing time with good family, friends, and cooking up a storm to toast to health, happiness, and providence. Shortly thereafter, I headed back to Boulder to see my family, AT LAST, after nearly a year of being away. To spend time with my siblings, grandmother, to share good food and wine with my father, and laughter with my mother each moment of the day was truly a gift that will be unwrapped all year. We didn’t decorate a tree, or hang stockings, or concern ourselves with gifts. Rather, we immersed ourselves in the process of reminiscing our young lives, and the traditions of our family and, without that huge bag of wrapping and bows to sit in the middle of the living room well into Christmas Day eve, there was room enough to grow our strength in one another, to solidify the reasons that we grow and change and aspire all over again.

Tomorrow, my little family unit will drive north to Whistler, B.C. to spend the remains of the holiday together -celebrating each other, looking forward to a new adventure in the upcoming trip around the sun, creating traditions in unexpected places and learning how to balance a life of comfort with a life of simplicity. I am carrying panettone with us as we drive so that we can pull off the road to enjoy slices with our coffee, and as a reminder that wealth is in the palm of our hands.

And so, we have a new sense of the season. One that contradicts our countrymen’s notion of frantic rushing, inherent stress, over-spending, and exploding emotions surrounding the material. Instead, we sense that it is time to slow down, to appreciate all that the year, that the powers that be, have brought us. To celebrate healthy bodies, minds, and the ability to wake them each day and share moments with those we love, to do good with our hands, to bake our daily bread…..and to live like humble kings. 🙂

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