12/20/2011 03:19 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2012

Living Up to the Holiday Lights

When I woke this morning for an early run, it was dark. (Did I really want to hit the pavement at this hour? Wouldn't that extra 30 minutes of sleep be just as good for me?) It was dark still when I laced up my shoes at the door. From the street, a thin needle of apricot silver was visible in the east, but I was a good twenty minutes into a sweat before anything you could really call "morning" appeared.

I love these December dawns, even if it's hard to drag myself out into the cold. They put me in touch with the year-end cycle in a way I'd miss if I didn't see the sun come up and go down. The winter solstice this year falls on December 22; the few days around it are the shortest of the year. Our star, Sol, will be visible for little more than 9 hours each day, and I've pledged to make note of its rise and fall. Each dawn I'll sense, with an inner kindling, that we've reached the zero point and from here on the days are beginning to lengthen.

Of course, warmth is still a long way off! No wonder, then, that for many Northern hemisphere cultures, these shortest days are associated with festivals of light. They range in scale and solemnity, from enormous crowds gathered to watch the city illuminating its Christmas trees to the single family clustered around the menorah. Some elements are ancient, harkening back to pagan solstice or Roman Brumalia festivals. One of my friends insists that it's important to have a real wood fire on the shortest day of the year, a traditional "yule log" to symbolize burning away the old and making way for new growth. In a more raucous vein, we know a German-American family that every December awaits a visit from St. Nick and his scary sidekick, Krampus, a horned monster who spanks wicked children. Other festivals are proudly new. This year marks the forty-sixth celebration of Kwanzaa, created by Dr. Maulana Karenga at the height of the Civil Rights Era. Kwanzaa candles--three red, three green, and one black--symbolize African-American traditions and have become a familiar part of this season of lights.

Food is integral to all these festivals. Over the past few decades, our culture has grown more obsessed with the gift-buying aspect of December, yet when I asked acquaintances to share their holiday memories, very few mentioned special presents. Instead, food was the element that came up again and again. And not just any food, but food cooked in company with others. In fact, while eating holiday delicacies figured in many people's narratives, I was amazed by how often it was the actual preparation that they described in detail.

Shouldn't this surprise us? We're a culture that holds "fast," "easy," and "no hassle" as our kitchen mantras. Even those of us who enjoy cooking often feel the pressure of having to put something healthful on the table every night. So why this outpouring of loving recollection about meals cooked in the company of others?

"I think it has to do with repetition and security," my friend Kim says. "Frankly, my mom wasn't a great cook--God rest her soul! But, every year she'd go through the turkey ritual, and we'd help her. One year she actually boiled the turkey first; I remember this greasy gray sludge bubbling around it in a huge pot! But it sort of didn't matter. She was really into having my brother and me do all this chopping and mincing, and then she'd have us cut orange slices into shapes to put on the turkey. And her stuffing was always great. It was like you ate the turkey as a punishment to earn the reward of the stuffing!"

My friend Bob remembers collaborative meals that blended traditions. As third generation Chinese-Americans, he and his siblings were used to the cultural mélange that the holidays inspired. "My mom would always try something different that brought together Asian and western flavors. One year she made Hoisin Duck with scallion pancakes, which gestured towards turkey and stuffing." Key for him was that he and his three brothers were expected to help in the kitchen. "My mom made sure we knew how to do everything, from prep to clean up. Over the years we all gravitated towards certain parts of the meal. I'm the greens guy. I actually spend quite a bit of time on the phone with my mom before I fly out there, brainstorming the menu with her. She has a tiny kitchen and we have to plan ahead who gets the stovetop at what point in the cooking process!"

Wasn't it difficult to get four boys cooking together in a tiny kitchen? And how do you impart kitchen skills to little kids? After all, one point I keep coming back to in relation to healthy eating is that access to quality food and knowing good nutritional guidelines are not enough. People need the skills and confidence to prepare food they like for themselves. Recent studies done in the UK show that people tend to ignore food labeling and buy foods they know are bad for them. One could argue that these consumers are simply stubborn. I think it's more likely that many don't know what to do with a raw vegetable. Imagine how unappealing piles of yams and kale or bags of beans and rice look if you have no idea how to transform them into delicious hot food.

So, what kind of educational whiz was Bob's mom?

"Actually, the holidays were a great time to get us in the kitchen, because we were home and underfoot anyway!" Bob jokes. "But seriously, she's give us each our own small task to do. I might have carrots to peel; my brother might get to use the hand mixer to beat some eggs. She would go slowly and have us taste things a lot. If we were using a recipe, one of us would get to sit with the cookbook and be the 'master chef,' reading the recipe out loud and making sure the others were doing their jobs."

One easy way to involve young kids is to have a single special recipe that you cook with them. My friend David recalls that his grandmother used to make Sicilian Sidgie cookies with him every year. "The recipe was pretty easy; most of the process was actually shaping the cookies, so it was a good way to get some basic skills without getting bored or distracted" he recalls. "But we did it every year for over a decade, and she'd ask me all sorts of questions about school and how I was doing while we rolled and cut. It was like 'Nonna's Cookie Therapy'."

There are several great websites with kid friendly recipes and tips for cooking with kids at all ages. Curious Chef, a company that makes functional-but-safe kitchen utensils for children, also features recipes on their website. Another resource is the handy PDF from The Penn State University "Better Kid Care" program, which offers tips for bringing kids safely into the kitchen. You might also enjoy the My Recipes website, featuring recipes for kids, organized by age.

One way to get started is to give your child an age-appropriate cookbook and invite him or her to pick a dish to contribute to the holiday meal. There are several wonderful "starter" books for the tiny Escoffier. Topping the list are Mollie Katzen's Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes, and her follow-up, Salad People and Other Real Recipes. These books are geared for pre-school through grade-3 and emphasize the fun of cooking.

Of course, by giving a child a cookbook, you are also promising a gift of your own time as assistant chef. What Kim, Bob, and David all have in common is the memory of an adult spending time with them and making them feel capable. That's a true gift of light. What could be more appropriate at this season?