The Shortest Day
In traditional celebrations, St. Lucia is a flaxen lady proffering lights and treats. Families are supposed to stay up all night in order to ward off Lucifer. When dawn breaks, the youngest girl in the household serves hot drinks and sweet, flat, yeastless cookies, like Stroop Waffles. She is wearing a white gown or braids. Sometimes a mass is held wherein all of the children, girls and boys, dress up as Christ to dispense gifts to the congregation. Since this is clearly a pagan rite turned Christian saint-day, it's more likely than not Lucia was meant to be celebrated on the solstice, which is today: the coldest and shortest of all days. It doesn't carry the weight that it does in Scandinavia, where at the end of the winter they actually go journeying for the sun to make sure its still there.
In Baltimore, we honored St. Lucia by celebrating traditionally, which is to say conflating traditions. Lily's good vegetables (did she mention the crusty, hot garbonzo beans? The shallots as tender and white as poached eggs?), Chelsea's generous fritatta in a cast-iron skillet the size of my backyard, as well as her blueberry flaxseed pancakes. I baked a quick gingerbread loaf (Lily grated a knob of ginger), and there were also apples, tangerines, smoked gouda, amaretto cookies topped with pine nuts, and a hundred French pressings of coffee. We sat calmly, in the warm hollow of Lily's apartment. We drank mimosas and watched Home for the Holidays and stayed up only half of the night, until three at least. Chanelle awoke at dawn and walked into the refrigerator in half-sleep, which we assumed was a gesture that protected us from Lucifer. She's blond, too, like all the Christ children, blue-eyed and careful-handed, Lithuanian. The hallways were bare and open, and she lit them, Lily and I nested in her iron bed. Lily was calm, and her house was light, her cabinets high. I gave tarot readings. It was a weekend of heart-ache, and throwing Lucia to the devil (after all, does she seem any more than a sacrifice?). We made ornaments the next day. The sunset was pink and underlit from her father's studio in the city and he said, "Baltimore is known for beautiful sunsets."The comment was ironic, even I knew that, but still I believed him.
It's balmy and mild in Portland, where I'm visiting. Now the real solstice has come to an end. I woke up this morning in an old friend's new bed. It was raining, "unrelentingly," she said, and I was reminded of something about her which is that she has always used words correctly. She took me to Random Order and showed me the pies. Two cups of Stumptown coffee and a slice of apple-blackberry with walnut crust. We were glad to have shared a bottle of white wine the night before as opposed to red, because we had woken feeling light instead of filmy. You are what you eat. She left to go to work, and I sat at the window seat, the unrelenting rain. A young, bearded man took the stool next to mine, reading a tattoo magazine. I read a book about the tarot. We sat there for an hour or two sharing, as far as I could tell, the solstice, and when I left I almost said as much. Happy first day of winter, happy last dark noon.
The night ended in Happy Hour with my mother, ginger-sake mussels and chicken pate and another piece of pie on the opposite side of town. And not only that, the table upon which we ate was inscribed with a quote about pie being intrinsically American, and any pie-eating nation being indestructible. Or it ended in an Eliza Barchus Victorian, on the street I grew up on, with an old neighbor who brought out rose-infused vodka she's had bottled since 1998. Her ceilings were so high and peeling. The wallpaper hasn't been changed since 1926.