Each year, the winter solstice falls on December 21 or 22, the shortest day (and longest night) of the year. And it’s a great excuse to throw a party—before everyone disperses to faraway places for the rest of the holiday season. Here are some tips for celebrating the brighter days ahead.
Set the time: Typically, a solstice party is held during the afternoon, to celebrate the fleeting daylight hours. Since it’s the shortest day of the year, twilight will occur early, so you can watch the last of the sun fade away. Don’t let the early nightfall get you down: At this point, the days can only get longer!
Light it up: The light outside may be dwindling, but your party can still shine brightly. Illuminate the shortest day of the year with lots of candles. Place taper candles in reflective silver holders on the table; adorn the mantle with an assortment of pillar candles in various heights and widths. A fire in the hearth or an outdoor bonfire can become a cozy focal point.
Break out the green: At its core, the solstice is a celebration of nature, so use lots of green to remind you of the outdoors—whether in the form of evergreen boughs on the mantle or tabletop, or green napkins accenting the buffet.
Eat and drink with seasonal cheer: Warm, winter-appropriate food and drink will entice guests. Go traditional by serving food and drink associated with St. Lucia’s Day, the Swedish expression of a winter solstice celebration. Observed in many European countries, St. Lucia’s Day originally coincided with the solstice before the reformation of the Gregorian calendar.
Traditional Lussekatter (Saffron Buns)
These traditional Swedish yeast buns, known for their delicious saffron flavor, can be made in a variety of different shapes, including an “s,” a figure eight or a cat.
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
1 tablespoon yeast
1 cup milk
½ cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
½ cup butter (1 stick)
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, beaten
1 egg white, beaten
Preheat an oven to 375°F.
Using a mortar and pestle, pound the saffron threads to break down strands.
Mix the yeast with ¼ cup of milk and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Set aside.
In a saucepan set over low heat, melt the butter and remaining milk. Add the crushed saffron. Allow the liquid to cool.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt and remaining sugar. Stir the yeast into cooled milk mixture, then mix well with dry ingredients. Add the beaten eggs.
Knead the dough in a bowl for 5–7 minutes. Place the dough on a floured board, and knead another 7–8 minutes. Put the dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning to coat the dough on all sides. Cover the dough and put it in a warm, draft-free place to rise, about 1 hour.
When dough has risen, knead it lightly to push any air out; divide into 10–12 small pieces. Roll each small piece into an 8–10-inch strip. Shape each strip into desired shape, either an “s,” a figure eight or a cat. Place the buns on lightly buttered cookie sheets. Cover them with a cloth and allow them to rise until double in bulk, 1–1½ hours. When the dough has risen, brush it lightly with the egg white. Bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cool on wire rack. Makes 10–12 buns.
Wine pairing: Try an off-dry German Riesling or Alsatian Gewürztraminer, suggests Matt Gundlach, sommelier and wine director at Moto in Chicago. “The small amounts of sugar in these wines will play nicely with the sweetness of the buns and raisins,” Gundlach says.
Traditional Cuccía (Sicilian Wheat Porridge)
Sicilians celebrate the solstice just as heartily as the Swedes. Their legend holds that St. Lucia brought wheat berries to their starving ancestors during a famine. There are many variations on cuccía, including savory versions with beans. Here we share a sweet rendition; in addition to raisins and cinnamon, you can add chocolate shavings or orange peel.
1 cup wheat berries
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups whole-milk ricotta
½ cup raisins
Honey, to taste
Cinnamon, for garnish
Soak the wheat berries in cold water, and store overnight, covered, in the refrigerator. The following day, drain the wheat berries and place in a large saucepan with the salt and enough water to cover by 2–3 inches. Cook the wheat berries at a slow simmer, partially covered, about 1 hour or until tender. The kernels will open up slightly.
Drain the wheat berries and combine them with the ricotta. Blend in the raisins and honey to taste. Pour the porridge into a large serving bowl and dust with cinnamon. Serve warm or at room temperature in small bowls. Serves 12.
Wine pairing: With this sweet version of cuccía, Gundlach suggests sipping Moscato d’Asti. Its mild sweetness will stand up to the porridge, and its honey flavor will complement the honeyed ricotta. If you’re opting for a savory porridge, match it with a Sicilian Inzolia, a nutty white wine that’s not overpowered by oak.
Traditional Glögg (Swedish Mulled Wine)
While many versions of this Scandinavian yuletide punch exist, every rendition invariably calls for red wine, orange peel, clove and cardamom. If you’re pressed for time, prepare this drink one day early and reheat it before serving.
½ cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
4 whole cloves
6 cardamom pods, crushed
1 orange peel, cut into strips
1 ginger root, peeled and cut in half
1 cup brandy
2 cups Pinot Noir, or other light-bodied red wine
2 cups Port
Raisins, for garnish
Blanched almonds, for garnish
In a large pot, combine the sugar with 1 cup of water. Over high heat, stir the liquid with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved, and then bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium, and add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, orange peel and ginger. Stir again, keeping the liquid at a simmer.
Add the brandy, wine and Port. Taste the punch, and add additional sugar or spice to taste. Strain and ladle into mugs. Garnish with almonds and raisins, and serve warm. Serves 6.