December 3, 2009
While 195 million shoppers were jostling for bargain merchandise at the stores on "Black Friday" last week, I was in the quiet of my basement honey house, performing its seasonal transition. I inspected and organized the beekeeping equipment I use on the hives for the bees' summer honey production, dismantled the extractor, the centrifuge that pulls the honey off the comb, and put them away — another summer gone, another spring to be: memory and hope. Then I set the place up for the winter task of candle-making.
When the bees have cured the thin, watery nectar of flowers into thick, rich honey, they seal it up with a capping of wax produced by glands in their bodies. Before extracting the honey, you cut off the cappings and set them aside. After the last honey harvest in the fall, you melt the cappings in boiling water and pour the wax through a filter into makeshift containers like orange-juice cartons, where it hardens into blocks for use in candles and cosmetics.
I prefer hand-dipped tapers over the poured varieties of candle. They're elegant on the dining-room table and make coveted gifts. It takes about 30 dips of the wick into a pot of molten wax to produce a standard-width taper, and you must wait a few minutes after each dip for the new layer of wax to harden. I use four metal dipping frames strung with wicking that make six candles each, and work in assembly-line fashion; by the time I've dipped the fourth frame, the first is cool enough to dip again. At the end of the session, I've got 24 beautiful, honey-scented candles of pure beeswax. It's a long and tedious process, but there is a certain meditative quality to this kind of tedium which I enjoy.
This week, time and motivation permitting, I'll tackle the cappings and the candles. Then I'll take a day for another tedious but gratifying job, putting together a couple dozen little loaves of honey-blond fruitcake. It's a recipe I've experimented with for years, with no molasses and no green things, the two ingredients that give fruitcake a bad name. This cake turns out light and fresh-tasting, quickly converting the most die-hard of fruitcake-haters. (I'll send you the recipe on request.) Couple those items with bottles of the bees' honey and jars of pickles and relishes I canned over the summer, and I've got holiday gift-packs that Harry and David's can't touch.
Hand-crafted gifts are immensely satisfying, both for the giver and for the receiver. They demonstrate a care that is direct and personal, the fruit of one's labor unmediated by money. Some of the things I treasure the most are those that came from the heart, not the wallet: a quilt from a longtime friend, a tiny clay bee-skep from an eight-year-old boy, a pair of unwearable knitted mittens in garish colors from an elderly aunt — as well as ones that are now only delicious memories: boxes of fudge and cookies from warm winter kitchens and jars of dried herbs from a neighbor's summer garden.
There is something spooky about "Black Friday" besides its name. (Wasn't the day of the 1929 stock market crash called "Black Thursday"?) It gives me anxiety just thinking about it — the frenzied rush to Christmas and the sudden vacuum that follows, and the identification of Christmas with consumption. Clogging the aisles of the Wal-Marts and the Macy's, individuals become generic, nameless except on their credit cards, pursuing countless ready-made products that come all the way from China, many of which will end up in the generic land-fill both physical and mental, not too long after the gift-wrap does.
The recession has not severed the link between Christmas and consumerism, but it seems to have reined it in a bit — initial Black Friday data indicate there were more shoppers than before the recession but they spent less. Perhaps too, the growing eat- local movement may be triggering a more general hearth-and-home Yuletide attitude, where time spent with family and friends is the greatest value and simple gifts are the finest of all — slow food, slow living and giving.
I was glad to spend Black Friday in the honey house — it was Gold Friday to me — away from the hordes, happily anticipating a Christmas of peace.