Yesterday evening we held a lovely, warm gathering in the studio to celebrate the return of the light. There is a part of me that longs every year to travel north and celebrate the solstice in the company of the sacred circle dance community there, where each year they dress all in white and and dance by candlelight for the longest night. It dawned on me this year that I could dance these beautiful dances within my own community.
There is a subtle magic that happens with circle dance, when your feet follow simple steps that have been danced for generations upon generations, a sort of window of sacred time that opens and bestows a deeper meaning upon every movement. I watched the candlelit faces of dear old friends and new acquaintances as they moved in the circle, remembering other faces that have danced this dance, feeling so much love and fulness as we moved, again, in the steps that honor our changing rhythms and the way we mirror and learn from the rhythms of the Earth.
We opened the evening with a mini-herbal workshop, where we learned how to make massage bars with infused oils. There is something warm and wonderful about creating gifts this time of year, when sources of light and warmth are low and a small handmade surprise from a friend can be the candle that keeps us going for the day. I love to give massage bars as presents, because it is a gift that inspires further warmth, love, and touch in the using of it. Here is the recipe we used:
3 oz. unrefined shea butter
3 oz. cocoa butter
5 oz. beeswax (up to 6 oz. if you prefer a more solid bar; I like mine to melt bewitchingly in my hand)
6 oz. herb-infused oil (more on this in a bit)
1-2 tablespoons essential oil, depending on your preference
~This is a very forgiving. adaptable recipe and can be easily altered to make greater or lesser quantities. Just keep the beeswax and oil roughly equal to each other and use half that amount of cocoa and shea butters. For example, to make only 4 or so massage bars, you would use 1.5 oz of the butters, 3 oz. of beeswax and oil, and just half a tablespoon of essential oil. ~
For a sun extraction, pack a mason jar about 3/4 full with your chosen herb (I used calendula for its skin-healing properties; other good choices would include rose petal, witch hazel flower, comfrey, and lavender) and fill with the oil of your choice. Make sure no botanicals are peeking up over the top of the oil; these can rot and introduce bacteria to your infusion. Nobody wants a bacteria massage (at least, nobody I’ve met).
Let your jar sit in the sun for several weeks, checking occasionally to be sure the flowers are submerged. When the oil has taken on a bit of the color of your chosen botanical (usually 4-6 weeks) you can strain it and it’s ready to use! Be sure to label right away. If you’re anything like me, you think you’ll remember what’s in that jar, but you won’t.
The other method we discussed last night was a warm extraction. I tend to use this method when a) I’m infusing bark, twigs, or roots and b) I’m in a bit of a hurry. Roots tend to be concentrated sources of herbal compounds, so they aren’t as easily destroyed by heat, but it’s important to make sure you don’t overheat them all the same.
I prefer to use sun extraction with more delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers because they are easily overheated and their medicine compromised. You could do a warm extraction on pine bark, twigs of black birch (this makes a beautifully sassafrass-scented massage oil that goes deep into the tissues) and even garlic.
We used kava-kava root tonight, which has lovely muscle-relaxing properties when applied externally, making it an excellent choice for a massage bar. To do a warm extraction, you need either a crockpot or an oven-safe crock. Place your herbs in the crockpot and cover them with oil. I usually cover strong roots like kava kava with double the amount of oil. Set your crockpot on ‘warm’ for two hours (or place in an oven at 100 for two hours) and then turn off. Let sit all day, then repeat the process the next morning. Do this for seven days and your oil is ready to strain.
Now you have your infused oils, you are ready to make the massage bars. First, melt the shea butter, cocoa butter, and beeswax in a double boiler (you can improvise one by resting your pan upon a mason jar lid in a larger pot of simmering water). Let them melt slowly; it does take a while.
When they have melted, remove pan from the heat and slowly add the infused oil. It may congeal a bit; continue to whisk and allow the residual heat to re-melt your mixture (you want to avoid heating your infused oils, as it can destroy the medicine). Then add your essential oils.
We used a tablespoon of lavender with the kava kava for a deeply relaxing, skin-soothing bar and combined the calendula-infused oil with a teaspoon of rosemary essential oil and a half teaspoon of peppermint essential oil. I love peppermint for its diaphoretic, opening properties, but you have to be careful with it as some people react to having it on their skin, so don’t use as much as you would use a safer oil like lavender.
Pour while still warm into your molds—I use silicon baking molds; you could also use muffin tins lined with waxed paper. You can pretty much assume that any implements you use with beeswax and butters are never ever going to get all the way clean again, so maybe have some dedicated pots and pans for your herbal creations!
Let your bars solidify and pop them out of their molds…you are ready to go!
I wish all of you a deep dreaming in the darkness and a candle in the longest night. May there always be a source of light available to you, and may the darkness encourage deep rest and strong vision for the year to come.