The last few days have been busy ones for me, as they always are this time of year. I’ve taken over a three-generation tradition of baking and delivering Easter bread, begun by my grandmother.
I make six chocolate cinnamon babkas and distribute them across the county to friends and family. When the last bread is delivered and everyone’s mouths—my own included—are sticky from eating slice after slice of this glorious stuff, I rest. This year I’m resting and reflecting.
It’s been a tumultuous year for me between this Easter and last. Lots of loss, I don’t mind saying. Got divorced. Got hit by a car. Had to move two weeks after being hit by a car, which was all kinds of fun. I lost friends whom I thought would be permanent fixtures in my life.
There were gains as well, like writing and editing for a food magazine I’ve always wanted to work with, and there were other gains which, oddly, I realized because of the losses. After divorcing I learned I was stronger than I thought. After the accident that resulted in a concussion and a broken clavicle, I learned I was even stronger. And some of the new friends I met this year came into my life, I think, to teach me exactly what kind of people I want around me, what really good friends are, and do. Lemonade out of lemons, I suppose.
In my chocolate-laced stupor, feet up, I started thinking about the shape in which I make the breads. I’m an amateur folklorist, with a special interest in holiday lore, and realized how often the circle or spiral features in symbolism throughout the year. It’s usually at the equinox, as the sunlight weakens or strengthens.
Think about Rosh Ha’Shana, the start of the new Jewish year in the fall, when challah is made in the shape of a circle or spiral. Halloween, or Samhain, marks the end of the pagan year. It was then that buns called soul cakes were shaped into spirals and distributed from door to door. The recipients were the earliest trick-or-treaters. Think about Christmastime, and how Christians adapted the wreath from pagan tradition. Have you ever wondered why wreaths are round? It’s because they, like the challah and soul cakes, are meant to show the turn of the year, the assurance—maybe reassurance is a better word—that things keep moving. That life keeps moving. It’s one of the intractable facts of life, the reality of constant beginnings and ends, and it’s one we reinforce for ourselves again and again by shaping stuff into circles. What goes up must come down, and vice versa. Expect it.
When I was growing up, the breads my dad, sister and I made for Easter were braided and made into a circle. Later, when I took over the baking and found the babka recipe I now use, it called for the dough to be baked in a loaf pan, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. The dough gets rolled out, scattered with chocolate, butter, cinnamon and sugar, rolled up, twisted…and then coiled into a spiral. And it’s not just because I grew up with it that way. It’s because life’s precarious. I need to see that spiral.
Maybe The Wizard of Oz offers the best example. Do you remember what the very start of the yellow brick road looked like? Exactly. It’s good to have reassurances from time to time, during the holidays or whenever. We’re all in Dorothy’s red shoes.