Tales of the Winter Season

Solstice herbs and traditions from the Italian Alps

Welcome back, friends, to the time of the Winter Solstice. Perhaps because it is the darkest time of year, perhaps because the Northlands become so cold, we find a richness of traditions, rituals, and legends from this season to keep our hearts bright and warm. I rely on them: whether stories told after supper by the light of the fire, or aromatic evergreens and candles, I would feel isolated and uninspired without them. As a child, I would dream of the wild hunt in the forest outside my grandmother's house, as we decorated trees, played games, and ate lots of food. Were there really mythical beasts and monsters carousing in the wilderness? If I opened the back door and peeked out onto the snowy trail, might I see them in the distance rushing by? And, even more pressing in the mind of a kid prone to fantasy and the exploration of the spirit world: how might I join them?

guido family home

It is the time of lights: first, the bright stars which seem so clear this time of year. But then, the lights of human homes: we redouble our efforts to shine during these longer, darker nights. Another tradition still lives: during the time of the wild hunt, the "twelve days" between the solstice and the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), folks all across the Alps take coals from the woodstove, place them in a metal bucket, and burn aromatic tree resins in huge amounts. These twelve nights are called notti del fumo (nights of smoke), for every evening after sunset the incense burning can begin. From the room with the stove, through the kitchen and bedrooms, all the way to the hayloft and barn in the back: no part of the old wooden home/barn (known as a maso in the Alps) is left behind, with particular attention paid to the doors and windows. This smoke is thought to protect the home, and banish any potential mischief-makers before they take residence in the hearth. And at the end of this ritual, the family gathers around the smoking censer, and everyone lifts their hats and scarves high up in the air, to gather the smoke and show how high the barley should grow next summer.

krampusAs far as mischief-makers, none beats the Krampus, a horned solstice demon who runs with the wild hunt but also prowls the village streets looking for food, animals, and children to eat (or so I was told). There still are parades that run through the snowy streets, led by Krampus-costumed revelers, greeted with a mix of fear and delight by the young ones who are warned to stay close to mom and dad. Inevitably, a man with a red-and-white robe and a tall, tall hat will follow close behind, waving lights and evergreens, and often bringing the smoke that banishes the Krampus and all his wicked ways. This was St. Nicholas, and I always felt he was the spirit of the spruce trees, covered in snow, come down from the mountainside to protect the village. Perhaps because of the spruce pitch incense, perhaps because of all the snowy boughs, the protective and banishing power of evergreen scent has threaded its way through my mind ever since. (Image: by magilla 03; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0) 

One tale I remember involved a small, salamander-like dragon with a child's face. Supposedly this magical creature appears during the cold months, and from time to time, you can find it perched on the branches of the hazel tree. The hazel and its nuts have always been held in high esteem not just as a food, but as a source of wisdom and maybe even clairvoyance--so it should come as no surprise that this human-salamander chimera was thought to hold some of this wisdom, too. While its breath was said to be toxic, I was also told that if you could catch it by the tail, the last piece of its tail would break off (easy for me to believe, as I'd seen this happen many times with the more mundane summer lizards sunning in the courtyard). The lucky child who was able to obtain this piece of tail could roast it, eat it--and thereby learn the language of the forest animals. Maybe that's why I remember this story: it gave a glimmer of how I might be able to join the revelers of the wild hunt.



But for most folks, winter nutrition is of a more common, practical nature. Though we'd eat this dish throughout the year, it appeared on the table almost daily in the time around the winter solstice: canederli soup (the Italianized version of the German Knodelsuppe) was essentially a big bowl of broth with two or three huge dumplings, made of meat scraps and crumbled up dried bread. In leaner times, the addition of dried nettle leaf conferred extra nutritive power to the dumplings and may have been an essential survival strategy; today, nettles are still used for their green color, rich flavor, and tonic qualities. Another common practice you still see involves steeping sprigs of rosemary in a bottle of red wine: it adds warmth and an uplifting, spicy, almost evergreen quality to the beverage found at every table and makes a welcome addition during the colder months. Given rosemary's ability to support healthy circulation, there may be some folk wisdom to this common practice.* So often, it seems, herbal traditions reflect simple, basic techniques that just make life more smooth and pleasant. A warm, spiced wine on a snowy evening might be just the ticket when you return home from vanquishing the Krampus.

But of course, these darkest days are not just about food, demon-banishing, and running wild through spruce woods laden with deep white drifts. It is also the time of gifts. One story tells of a father who had left his maso with some fresh milk and an assortment of delicious cheeses. He was walking down the mountain trail into the village to sell the milk and cheese at the market, and purchase gifts for his wife and two children. His cheeses were well-known, and quickly he was able to sell them. With the money, he bought some late-season produce, a few sacks of grain, and three amazing presents: for his wife, a thick wool blanket to keep warm; for his son, a piece of slate framed with wood and some chalk for drawing; and for his daughter, two small felt dolls and a tiny wooden house where they could live. Happy with his selections, he packed everything up and headed home, back up the long hill.

It was getting dark and he was only about ten minutes from home where he passed a watering spigot (spring water is diverted to improvised "fountains" along the trails, and locals rely on these for washing and cooking water, especially when it is cold). On the wooden bench next to it was a young woman nursing a little baby and shivering in the evening air. She looked up at him and didn't say a word, but the farmer knew she must be cold and immediately, without thinking twice, wrapped mother and child with the thick, warm blanket he'd bought at the market. She smiled at him, and he tipped his hat and hurried on his way home.

helleborus niger

When he got there, supper was simmering, and his wife was glad to have some greens and potatoes to add to the stew. After sharing a meal, it was time to share the gifts. The children were thrilled at their presents but, when the time came for his wife, the farmer was empty-handed. He told the story of the young woman and her baby, and how he'd had to give up the blanket to help keep her warm. "And you just left them there?", his wife asked, incredulous. "We should go back there right now and see if they need a place to spend the night!". So the whole family headed out, under a young moon, to the fountain where the woman had been. When they got there, there was no one to be found. Instead, on either side of the trail, amazing white flowers were blooming, shining radiant in the moonlight. These were the flowers of hellebore (Helleborus niger). It was the first anyone had seen of this plant, and the family took it to be a gift from the young woman and her child, offered in thanks for the warm blanket. They gathered a small bouquet to brighten their home, and wandered back with warm and happy hearts.

To this day, folks in Italy (and elsewhere) call hellebore the "Christmas rose", because it blooms at such an unusual time, when sometimes snow is on the ground. It is a toxic plant, and while herbalists around the Mediterranean used to prepare small amounts of the roots and leaves to give "as a cure for madness", it is so dangerous that it should not be used at all, except as a unique and hardy garden specimen. The flowers come in red, pink, and a dark purple-black, though the snowy white blooms are my favorite. For historical curiosity, I leave you with an old poison blend that features hellebore (and a lot of other interesting-- but dangerously toxic--plants), which due to its deadly nature, is not a blend you should ever actually try: the base was a small handful each of stinking goosefoot (Chenopodium vulvaria), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), and hellebore leaves. To these were added a pinch each of the roots of henbane (Hyoscyamus niger, the herb of Circe the enchantress), belladonna (Atropa belladonna), and aconite (Aconitum napellus). If you know about herbs, you'll recognize this as a potent and very dangerous blend--one that you should never try yourself. For what use was this formula employed, you might wonder? Well, it was to be harvested and blended in the days around the solstice, and thought to confer the ability to shift into animal form—and thereby join the wild hunt. This whole blend is deadly, though, and I have to emphasize that you should not try it yourself. 

Alps on the edge of winter

May your holiday season be bright, aromatic, warm, and rich with plants. May you find the gifts you need. (Alps photo credit: Luigi Mengato; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

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