THE WINTER SOLSTICE is celebrated in cultures the world over. Many people in Western-based cultures now refer to this festival as Christmas, a day chosen to represent the birthday of Jesus, but the origins are two ancient pagan festivals: the Roman Saturnalia and the Norse Yule Feast.

Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, was honoured around the time of the winter solstice. The Romans gave themselves up to wild joy; they feasted, gave gifts, decorated their homes with greenery and lit candles. The Yule candle, which is lit in many churches at the beginning of the Christmas season, is a good example of how pagan rites were absorbed into the Christian religion. Today in most homes electric ‘fairy’ lights replace the ancient reverence for the candle as a symbol of light during the darkest time of the year.

The Norse peoples saw the winter solstice as a celebration of the death and rebirth of Baldur, the sun god. From their traditions came many of our modern ones, especially that of the Yule log. Historically the Yule log was a huge log selected in the forest and dragged home. The magical properties of the Yule log were said to ensure good luck in the coming year to all those who lent a hand to pull the log to the hearth. Once the log was in the fireplace, a blessing was made and then the log lit with a torch made from a piece of wood left over from the previous year’s Yule log. It was kept burning for twelve days at the end of December, as the Celts believed that during this period the sun stood still and that if they could keep Yule logs burning bright for those twelve days then the sun would be persuaded to move again and make the days grow longer.

Feasts and festivals of all sorts have their origins in our intimate relationship with the Earth. Christmas is a feast in the middle of long, dark days but we know that Spring will wrestle with Winter and return, bringing with her growth and renewal, and this is a cause for great joy. The words ‘feast’ and ‘festival’ come from the same Latin root festus, which means ‘joyous’. Feasting is about joy, laughter and merriment; it is about caring, giving, receiving and generosity of spirit. Feasting is a recognition of the abundance of Nature; it is the recognition of a deep union with all living beings; it is the recognition of soul.

Although the traditions and foods associated with Christmas vary with climate, culture and country, food and feasting seem to be a universal part of this celebration. It is a time of great family and tribal gatherings, a time to head home to familiar rituals that are an expression of our beliefs, providing us with comfort and hope. Christmas food traditions take us back in time, connecting us to the recipes and customs that our families or communities have practised for generations. They play an essential role in bringing us all together.

Gathering together in the kitchen, sharing in the preparation of food, is an important part of Christmas. There is an invisible energy imparted to food as it is prepared which affects all those that eat the meal. A harmonious kitchen, be it one of mindful silence or happy conversations, will produce energising food. Chopping, slicing, kneading, blending, all with common intent, will bring us closer together. Sharing in the preparation of food cultivates caring, love, compassion and understanding amongst those closest to us and offers an opportunity to nourish each other physically, emotionally and spiritually. Gathered around the table enjoying a meal prepared together, we can truly hear each other, and the more we listen, the more willing we are to share deeper parts of ourselves, and the more bonded we become. The Christmas Feast enables us to receive food in the joy and understanding that in the sharing we are celebrating our connection to each other and the land.

Christmas Pie

2 diced red onions

1 tbsp olive oil

3 oz (75g) pot barley

½ pint (250ml)vegetable


3 oz (75g) diced celeriac

1 tbsp finely shredded sage

3 oz (75g) chopped walnuts

1 tbsp walnut oil

black pepper

1 lb (450g) carrots

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp honey

2 tsp chopped thyme

1¼ 1b (600g) mushroom

4 shallots

4 cloves of garlic

1 tbsp olive oil

2 tsp chopped rosemary

4 finely shredded sun-dried tomatoes

1 lb (450g) puff pastry

1 egg, beaten

12 roasted chestnuts

5 oz (125g) crème fraîche

zest of 1 lemon

crushed clove of garlic

black pepper

12˝ x 8˝ (30cm x 20cm)

baking tray

Oven 350°F/180°C/Gas Mark 4

Cook the red onions in a large pan in the olive oil until soft, add the barley and the vegetable stock, bring to the boil and simmer for about 40 minutes or until almost tender, adding more stock if necessary. Add the celeriac and cook for a further 10 minutes, by which time all the stock should have been absorbed by the barley. Tip the mixture into a bowl, stir in the sage, walnuts and walnut oil, season with black pepper and set aside.

Cut the carrots into thin matchsticks and cook in olive oil with the honey until tender, then add the thyme and set aside.

Finely chop the mushrooms, shallots and garlic and cook them in olive oil until there is no moisture left, then stir in the rosemary and the sun-dried tomatoes and cook for a further minute. Leave to cool.

Roll out half the pastry to 12˝ x 8˝ (30cm x 20cm) and lay on a baking tray. Brush with beaten egg then place a layer of the barley mixture down the middle, followed by the carrots and finally the mushroom mixture. Place the chestnuts in a row along the top. Roll out the remaining pastry and completely encase the vegetables. Seal together, neaten and knock up the edges. Make holly leaves and berries with the scraps of pastry and use them to decorate the top of the pie.

Bake for 45 minutes at 350°F/180°C/Gas Mark 4. Slide the pie onto a serving dish and allow it to settle for 10 minutes before slicing and serving with dollops of crème fraîche flavoured with lemon zest, garlic and black pepper.

Daphne Lambert runs Feast for the Soul at Greencuisine in Herefordshire with Jonathan Snell. For more information visit