Gardens of the Cross Timbers: The Solstice Star
On December 21st the Northern Hemisphere of Earth was tilted as far away from the sun as possible. The winter solstice. First day of winter and the longest night. It also began the cycle of increasing sunlight each day until the summer solstice on June 20 2021. Don’t get too excited. We still have January and February to waltz through, typically our coldest months.
We all agree citrus fruits become their sweetest and juiciest during the winter months. My father talked about when he was a boy, the usual Christmas offering given by the church, which may have been the only Christmas gift he got, was a small brown paper sack filled with unshelled nuts, handmade ribbon candy, one apple and one orange. Years later he modified the tradition by bringing out the wooden nut bowl with nut picks and nut cracker stored in the middle. This was filled with fresh mixed nuts in the shell and placed in the center of the dining room table or parked by my father’s chair. The old-fashioned ribbon candy would magically appear. Oranges became the common fruit in the fruit drawer.
Times change, but I still search for fresh nuts and oranges in December. This year the fruity Bonne Maman Advent Calendar was a hit at the beach. Each day the kids opened up a new door corresponding to the same day in December. The Calendar was actually a 3-D box filled with one ounce jars of Bonne Maman fruit spreads and honey. Of the 24 jars, no two flavors were alike. Many were quite exotic: Apricot with bergamot, Fig with cardamom, Sweet orange and passion fruit, Cherry with elderflower and Lemon with yuzu.
Yuzu sounded familiar, but from where? A search through the “Journeys in Japan” series brought me to the February 5th 2019 episode “Exploring the Yuzu Road.” The Chugei area in the eastern part of the Kochi Prefecture (district) grows more yuzu than any other place in Japan. Kochi lies 600 kilometers (373 miles) southwest of Tokyo. The area is mountainous with distinct differences in day and night temperatures. Yuzu (Citrus junos or C. Ichangensis) is a thorny evergreen hardy to 12 degrees Fahrenheit.
The harvest of this winter citrus begins in October. Most fruits reach full maturity in December, turning from dark green to yellow-green or orange. The natural hybrid is a cross between Ichang papeda, the primitive tropical Asian native citrus and the Chinese Mandarin. The size of the fruit is comparable to a small grapefruit with a bumpy skin, lots of seeds, thin rind and thick white pith around the juicy super sour flesh.
The highly aromatic fruit is just too tart to eat plain, but does add an appealing ‘floral acidic accent’ to Japanese and Korean cuisines. The flavor is similar to grapefruit with a hint of mandarin orange. Yuzu has started to appear in Europe and the US, although in our country it is illegal to import fresh yuzu fruits. Yuzu is used in soups, condiments, teas, jams, beers, fish, cosmetics and even aromatherapy. On the winter solstice, public hot baths in Japan add yuzus to the steaming water. Yuzus emit a floral citrus fragrance that can be detected across a room. Patrons slide into the warm scented liquid and float their cares away.
The winter solstice brought another surprise this year. For weeks, about an hour after sunset, I had been watching Jupiter and Saturn edge closer and closer to each other in the southwest sky. On the evening of the winter solstice, the two planets were 0.1 degree apart from the earth viewpoint. They formed the “Solstice Star.” The conjunction of these two giant planets occurs about every twenty years, when the planets line up in their respective orbits. Some claim the last time these two planets were this close together was 1623, but others say it was much earlier in 1226. The great conjunction of planets may have been the idea behind the “Christmas Star” of Bethlehem. Anyway, the “Solstice Star” was pretty amazing to see.
As a treat for the outdoor critters, I made a gingerbread house. I cheated. The little brown box had already been cooked, cooled and held together by royal icing. The unadorned cube with roof had come with its own decorator icing, tiny tube of green fondant, five mints and a small packet of green and red candies.
Directions: Knead the packages of fondant and icing, or put briefly in microwave to soften. It really didn’t matter since the fondant refused to stick to the gingerbread walls and the icing detached at various points, giving the appearance of white tinsel draped all over the house. New plan. Wet down the house, plaster on the fondant and dot icing in strategic places. The mints and candies were plunked into thick blobs of sugar glue. I opened the entire icing bag, scraped out the remains and spread it over the roof. The roof now looked like it had mange or there had been a sudden warm up and patches of snow had melted. With a knife I covered the bald areas. Tiny deer were added to the front. Done.
Today (December 26th) is Boxing Day. The gingerbread house is going outside for the animals. It will be their “Christmas Box.”
Appearing before the 17th century in England, Christmas boxes were given to servants, tradesmen, carriers and others who performed services for employers or the wealthy. The box may have contained gifts or leftover food. The tradition may have originated from Alms boxes placed in churches on the Feast of Saint Stephen. Offerings were collected for the poor on Saint Stephens Day, the second day of Christmastide. The twelve days of Christmastide begins Dec. 25th and ends Jan. 5th.
In some countries Dec. 26th is considered the second day of Christmas. Other places hold sports competitions, boxing matches, or after Christmas sales. Kwanzaa begins today and ends on New Year’s Day.
Boxing Day at my house will be a grand event for the birds and wildlife if they can figure out how to penetrate the rock-hard gingerbread house covered in impenetrable white frosting.
Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.