Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This blog was originally written for the holiday lore blog at Amber Lotus. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, like the stringing of Christmas lights on trees and houses, and the lighting of the Advent candles, celebrates light during the darkest time of the year. The Jewish holiday calendar is still a lunar calendar and that means that the theme of light and dark can play out in the timing of the moon as well as the sun. Hanukkah always begins on the 26th of Kislev, three days before the dark moon closest to the full moon that is closest to the Winter Solstice, so at the darkest time of the moon and at the darkest time of the sun. Most Jewish holidays are linked to a pivotal moment in Jewish history. For Hanukkah, that moment is the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, they chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple which had been desecrated three years earlier. But the temple contained only one sealed flask of oil, only enough to light the lamps for one day. Miraculously that oil lasted for the eight days of the ceremonies. But as Arthur Waskow points out in his wonderful book on Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy, the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and by claiming the same day for their festival the Maccabees

were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.

The main ritual for Hanukkah involves lighting candles in the menorah, a candelabra that contains eight candles in a row. The first candle on the right is lit on the first night (December 25 in 2016) and each night an additional candle is lit until all eight are burning. Since the lit candles are not to be used for any practical purpose, many menorahs have a space for a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is set above (or below) the others and used to light them. The candles are lit just s night falls and are left to burn for a half an hour. No work is to be done while the candles are burning (just as the candles are not to be used for practical purposes). Instead this half hour is a time for contemplation, for saying blessings and singing songs, eating special foods and playing games. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places, they don’t work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a time of rest at this pivotal point in the year. hanukkah geltHanukkah foods are cooked in oil: potato latkes and fritters and jam-filled doughnuts, all recall the miracle of the long-lasting oil. Children play with a dreidl and are sometimes given gifts, particularly Hanukkah gelt. I’ve always loved those thin gold-foiled chocolate coins which remind me of the gifts of money so common at New Year festivals (the Romans, for instance, gave coins as New Year Gifts) and certainly,with the return of light in the darkness, the new year is born. Photo of Hanukkah gelt was taken by Liz West and posted at Flickr. Photo of the silver menorah (found at Wikipedia) was taken by Ladislav Flaigl and released into the public domain.

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An Advent Garden

by Erin Fossett

The December holidays can be a hectic if festive time of year, a season that can leave us ungrounded and disconnected from our natural rhythms. And yet, this season can also be a call to strengthen these connections, while paying tribute to some of the most fundamental relationships in our lives: our connections to the earth, to plants and animals, and to the people around us.

One way we try to honor these connections in our home is an advent garden, a tradition that has become an anchor of my family’s celebration. It is also a tradition that can be adapted to your own beliefs and traditions, expressing what the season means for you.

To make our garden, I spread a starry blue cloth on a corner table at the beginning of December, and then add four unlit votive candles. Other people might want to use an advent wreath of pine boughs, though I admit that I’m too intimidated by florist wire to try this myself. Instead, I arrange a spiral of small stones to symbolize the first week of advent, the Festival of Stones, which commemorates the earth in its most basic form.

The first light of Advent is the light of stones,
Light that lives in seashells, in crystals and in bones.

This verse is one I learned at my son’s Waldorf school. It can also be found on a wonderful collection of holiday music, The Christmas Star, by Mary Thienes-Schunemann. Every evening, we gather before bedtime around the garden. We turn out every light, even the Christmas tree. Then, singing this verse, I light a single candle for the first week of advent. We might sing a song, and I might read a fable or myth of the earth, including creation myths from various cultures. One source of wonderful stories for the solstice season is The Return of the Light, by Carolyn McVickar Edwards.

This first week, our focus is on our connection to the earth. We try to go on a hike or snowshoe, and my children keep an eye out for special rocks that they can add to our spiral. In years past, I have also wrapped individual stones, seashells and crystals in tissue paper. Each night, my children choose one to unwrap and we add it to the garden. We end our ritual with Silent Night, or another song, and I lead them upstairs by candle light.

The second light of Advent is the light of plants
Plants that reach up to the sun and in the breezes dance.

The second week of advent we celebrate the Festival of Plants. I add pine boughs and moss to the garden, and I may wrap up some pinecones for the children to open, as well as seed packets that we can plant in the spring. I try to keep most of the garden natural, but my children like to add their own touches, and it’s always interesting to see what they come up with. We’ve had the plastic pine trees from my son’s train set, bits of orange peel and a pomegranate. The important thing is to make it personal, an expression of what has meaning for you.

This week, we talk a lot about plants, celebrating the bounty of the earth and expressing gratitude for the people who grow our food. We also pay special attention to our garden, thanking the sleeping plants outside. This year, we’re even talking about planting a tree during the holiday season. We light two candles this week, and continue with our stories of the natural world, reading stories such as The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim.

The third light of Advent is the light of beasts
Light of hope that shines in the greatest and the least.

The third week of advent, we celebrate the Festival of Animals. Our garden is starting to take shape now, and the children get excited adding figures of favorite animals from their toy collections and our nativity set, as well as small animals that I’ve felted. We may set out a bowl of birdseed, or a bit of hay, to represent caring for animals.

Last year, we also made bird feeders from pine cones dipped in peanut butter and bird seed and hung them out in our backyard. We leave carrots out for the bunnies and pumpkin seeds for the squirrel who visits our back door a few mornings a week. We tell animal stories and think about how much we appreciate all living things. One group of stories that my children particularly love is James Herriot’s Treasury for Children, which includes a family favorite, “The Christmas Kitten.” We light our third candle and celebrate the growing brilliance of our garden.

The fourth light of advent is the light of you and I,
The light of love and friendship, to give and understand.

The final week of advent is the Festival of Human Beings. Add to the garden pictures of special people: relatives and historical figures that have inspired you. My children like to include doll house people as well as figures from our crèche set. By the end of the week, our garden is quite crowded. My children often play in it, moving the figures around.

I set up a pathway of little gold stars leading to the table, and each day move Mary and her donkey a little closer to the garden. All four candles are lit and their brilliance is reflected my own children’s faces. Books I like to read this week include All I See is a Part of Me by Chara Curtis and The Shortest Day by Wendy Pfeffer, which also includes some craft ideas for celebrating the solstice.

Since this final week usually includes the solstice, I try to focus on how we can bring more light into the lives of those around us. We may visit a soup kitchen, go to a nursing home, or take small homemade gifts to neighbors and friends.  On the day of the solstice, we try to forego electric lights as much as possible, and spend a lot of time outside (weather permitting). Last year, a friend gave each of us large white votive candles and we wrote our wishes and intentions for the coming year on the outside of our candles before lighting them. Another favorite solstice memory is of the snow cave we dug in the back yard one year. We set out votive candles in that sheltered space to represent the birth of the light. We left them lit in the snow as long as they lasted, long after my children went to bed, and it is a memory that still means a lot to each member of our family.

If the idea of the advent garden doesn’t appeal to you, you can think of other ways to incorporate your connections to the natural world into your holiday celebrations. Hike or snowshoe together with family and friends. Plant a tree or some indoor bulbs that you can enjoy during the winter months. Do something special to honor the animals, and to help the people around you. The important thing is to make the season meaningful for you and your family, celebrating traditions that will create memories and connections into the years ahead.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

Erin Fossett provided the photos of her Advent Garden. The snowy scene was taken by Mary Claflin. Originally posted in November, 2010.

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Embracing Darkness

by Erin Fossett

 

We had a power outage one night a few weeks ago, when my children were in the bathtub and my husband was working late at the office. I managed to dress the children in the darkness before I went to find some candles. When my husband arrived home a bit later, I was telling them a story in the candlelit bedroom. My husband raised his hands and made a shadow puppet rabbit on the wall, and then a bird flying across the half-lit ceiling. My children were enraptured. Do it again, Daddy, they said. We all tried it then, and what started out as something of a frightening experience for my children turned magical by the time they settled down to go to sleep.

The lights went on again sometime after midnight, but the evening has settled into my children’s imagination, something they’ve talked about many times since.

 

Remember the night we made shadow puppets?
Remember the night when Daddy lit all the candles and it was so dark?
When can we do that again?

The event made me think about how few times we truly experience darkness in our modern lives. True darkness, like true silence, is a rare thing. And yet I think my children, and the children inside all of us, hearken back to some distant ancestral memory…winter nights made magical by storytellers spinning tales in the darkness, the only lights the stars and the embers of a fire around which everyone gathers, seeking warmth. There is something magical for me about such a scene, people clustered together for heat and light, rather than scattered to their various corners of the house, to their various devices and diversions and pursuits. Since that night, I’ve tried to think of more ways to bring this feeling into our home, while at the same time accepting and even honoring the encroaching darkness of the coming winter season.

 

A moment of darkness: As the days shorten, and we eat our dinner after dark, I like to turn out the electric lights and then light a beeswax candle at the center of our table, a single point of light in the surrounding darkness. As I light the candle, I say the following verse that I learned from my son’s preschool teacher:

 

Though daylight wanes, our flames burn bright;
Our candles glow in darkest night.

We share a moment of silence in this circle of candlelight, and then we may talk about what we are grateful for, or of someone we miss or want to send special blessings to. I find that this interlude seems to draw us closer, and brings a mood of reverence to our table and a sense of gratitude for the meal we are about to share. On some nights we eat the entire meal by candlelight, and something about that circle of light within the surrounding blanket of darkness seems to nourish us as we face the coming season.

An hour of darkness: Lately, I’ve also tried to honor the darkness with a special moment before bedtime, extending a ritual we’ve followed in past years during the Advent season. I light a candle in the kitchen and lead my children upstairs to bed by candlelight. Then we use the candle to light another in a special glass fronted lantern on a shelf in my daughter’s room. We say our prayers or blessings by candlelight, or briefly talk over the events of the day. There is something about the candlelight that seems to invite my children to voice wishes or concerns they might otherwise find hard to share.

I’m also experimenting with reading stories by candlelight, or, better yet, using this candlelit interval to invent a story, making a creative leap into storytelling that feels easier in the darkness. With my children’s help and input, I’ve recently been shaping one story about a fairy and a magic raccoon. The story takes twists and turns that I would never have expected, helped along by their suggestions (We need two red haired princes, one good and one bad. We need a factory that builds giant Legos…) It’s a way for us to share in the act of creating, of making something from nothing, while carrying on the dreamy tradition of long winter nights.

 

I also find that when I finally blow out the candle, my children seem to accept the darkness, and coming sleep, as a friend, rather than as something to be feared or fought. It makes me think of another blessing I used to say for my daughter when she was a baby, a verse I found in Shea Darian’s wonderful book on family rhythms, Seven Times the Sun.  It begins….

 

The dark comes like a blanket,
Protecting us at night…

This is a season to think of darkness as a blanket, a friend, an ally, not as something to be overcome.

NOTE: Remember, adults should never leave a candle or lantern unattended, especially around children. I often keep our candle in a glass fronted lantern when I read to my children, and keep it well away from books and other things. I also keep my hair tied back. I try to teach my children that fire is both a magical and a powerful force, one that requires care, thoughtfulness, and respect.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

Reference: Seven Times the Sun, Shea Darian, Gilead Press, 2001, p. 140.

First published November 7, 2010

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Celebrating Advent

by Waverly Fitzgerald

The period of Advent, which means “to come,” is a period of anticipation, of looking forward, of waiting. What are we waiting for? In the Christian tradition: the birth of the Christ Child, who will be recognized as the Son of Light at Candlemas (February 2, when Mary presents him at the temple). In the pagan tradition, the rebirth of the Sun, for the Winter Solstice is the moment when the sun is at its nadir (for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere). For a few days, the sun appears to stand still, and then begins its northward journey again, bringing more light into the world with each passing day.

In the Church calendar, the first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the Liturgical year. Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays before December 25, Christmas, beginning with the Sunday closest to November 30, St. Andrew’s Day. This period was first observed, as a time of solemnity and fasting, in medieval times. At the time of the Reformation, it became part of the liturgical calendar of Anglicans and Lutherans, and was subsequently adopted by other Protestant groups. According to Father Reardon, in Orthodox churches, Advent begins on the feast day of St. Phillip, November 15, and last for 40 days, echoing the 40 days of Lent in Spring. In fact, it is often called the Winter Lent or St Phillip’s Fast.

If you prefer to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun instead of Christmas as the turning point in the year, you could mark the beginning of Advent four Sundays before Winter Solstice (which is calculated astronomically and can fall on December 20, 21 or 22). This year, both Christian Advent and Pagan Advent begin on Sunday, November 28.

Most Advent customs have to do with marking time: opening doors in an Advent calendar, lighting candles in an Advent wreath, putting symbols on a Jesse tree. All of these customs are fairly modern. Though both evergreen wreaths and candles were important symbols during the winter holidays, the Advent wreath is first mentioned in the 19th century in Germany and spread to the United States in the 1930s. The first Advent calendar was also created in Germany in 1851 and the first printed versions were made in Munich in 1908. (We also have Germany to thank for the concept of the Christmas tree.) The idea of marking time with a Jesse tree (a symbol of the tree outlining Christ’s lineage on which symbols are placed that correspond with Bible stories) is even more modern, developed in American Protestant churches in the twentieth century. Before we used these devices for marking time, there were simpler customs, for instance, marking the passing days with chalk on a doorway, lighting a candle every day, or marking lines on a tall candle (like the one on the right which I found at the Wikipedia article on the Advent wreath) and burning it for a short period each day.

Although I remember Advent from my Catholic childhood, it was a minor celebration, easily overwhelmed by all the emphasis on Christmas (presents, decorations, etc.). But I have been a big fan of celebrating Advent ever since I read The Advent Sunwheel by Helen Farias (available at my store). She outlines a weekly ceremony to be performed every Sunday (Sunday being the Sun’s day) in which you light one candle on the Advent wreath, read a story (I love the stories Helen wrote but you could use any holiday or light-in-the-darkness tale), spend a few minutes enjoying the candlelight, then indulge in seasonal food and drink. This is a lovely tradition to share with family or friends. At our house, the grand finale comes on the Sunday before Solstice, when we host our annual Winter Solstice party and St. Lucy arrives to light the Sun candle in the center of the Advent wreath.

My particular spin on the tradition is to make my own Advent wreath from evergreens I collect in my neighborhood. It is part of my goal of living seasonally and knowing what is available at this time of the year. I go on a long walk on Wreath-Making Day, the Saturday before Advent begins, to gather the greens, returning every year to the same trees and bushes. In my neighborhood, I can find cedar, holly, pine, fir, spruce, and, I hope this year, my new best friend, cryptomeria japonica.

Another Advent-related holiday (which I have not celebrated) is Stir-Up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent begins, celebrated this year on the full moon of November 21 in 2010. The name comes from the Church of England collect for that day which begins “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” That became a reminder that it was time to start stirring up the Christmas puddings and was parodied with this verse.

Stir up, we beseech thee
The pudding in the pot
And when we do get home
We’ll eat it piping hot.

Charles Kightly in The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore mentions the belief that Christmas puddings should always be stirred with a wooden spoon and all present should take a turn in order, mother, father, children and babies, by seniority, then visitors. I like it that the mother comes first in this list! Not so in Roman customs where the paterfamilias usually takes the lead.

I do observe another cooking-related Advent custom recommended by Helen Farias, and that is the baking of 13 different kinds of winter holiday cookies, including Lucy cats, Advent pretzels, gingerbread men, cinnamon stars (Zimsterne), and shortbread. Because that’s a lot of cookies, I begin baking them at the start of Advent, making three or four different kinds a week so that they will all be done in time for the Solstice Party. You can get my cookie recipes and a schedule for baking that will allow you to serve the appropriate cookie each Advent Sunday if you buy my Thirteen Cookies for Christmas book.)

Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher and dancer. She founded School of the Seasons, edits Living in Season and is the author of Slow Time: Recovering the Natural Rhythm of Life. First published November 07, 2010.

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The Advent Wreath

[Excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book]

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Gertrud Mueller Nelson in To Dance with God talks about how people in the far north removed wheels from their carts during the depth of winter. They brought these wheels into their homes and decorated them with evergreens and candles. This, Nelson says, is the possible origin of the Advent wreath. Although a charming story, I suspect it was invented after the fact to explain the circular shape of the Advent wreath.

An Advent wreath is a circle of evergreens with places for four candles. When I was growing up, our Advent wreath had three violet candles for penance and one rose-colored one (lit on the third week, which is called Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday) to symbolize the coming joy. Nelson says her family uses the traditional red candles and red ribbon to decorate their wreath.

Helen Farias in The Advent Sunwheel, her book of suggestions for pagans wanting to celebrate Advent (which can be ordered at my website), points out that the Advent wreath, made of greens in a circle shape and lit by candles is a potent symbol. The circle with the dot inside has long been a symbol for the sun and is still used that way in astrology. Helen suggests putting a fifth candle in the center of the Advent wreath, to be lit on the solstice, to make the symbolism more apparent.

I make my Advent wreath on Wreath-Making Day, the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent, by going on a walk through my neighborhood, collecting evergreen boughs. Often there’s a big windstorm around this time which knocks off branches so I don’t have to cut them. When I do cut branches, since I will be using them with a spiritual intent, I always ask permission of the tree and leave an offering (usually cornmeal) at the base of the tree.

Many years ago I bought a circular styrofoam wreath form which is the base for my Advent wreath. I hollowed out cavities just the width of standard candles and I cover the styrofoam with tin foil and then with evergreens, usually bound to the form with wire, ribbon or ivy. I like to use candles in the colors of the four directions: yellow for east, red for south, blue for west and green for north.

There is another kind of wreath which is found in Germany and Scandinavia, made of apples and dowels (chopsticks would work too). Three apples with dowels connecting them in a triangle form the base and the fourth apple is suspended by dowels above the rest, forming a pyramid. The triangle and pyramid are also both sun symbols.

This is an excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book which contains much more information about winter holidays, including folklore, recipes, instructions for making luminarias and pomanders and Yule songs. To order go to the Living in Season store.

First published November 2010

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Meditrinalia

campania-roman-wine-amphorae-and-fresco-in-pompeiThe day on which Romans sampled both old wine and the new wine, wine that was not yet fully fermented. This ritual sampling cured disease, according to this verse which was recited:

Novum vetus vinum bibo,
Novo veteri morbo medeor
.
I drink new and old wine,
I cure new and old disease.

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press

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St Francis of Assisi

giotto_-_legend_of_st_francis_-_-15-_-_sermon_to_the_birdsAs a young man he led a carefree and frivolous life until one day in the Church of San Damiano he heard the statue of Christ say to him, “Francis, repair my falling house,” whereupon he went and sold a bale of fabric from his father’s warehouse to pay for the repair of the church. His father was not amused and disowned him whereupon Francis left home, to become a roving preacher of poverty and simplicity. Although he’s not, he should be the patron of the Voluntary Simplicity movement. He was also a friend to animals and known for respecting the life force in everything, referring to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” In many places around the world, animals are brought to church on this day to be blessed. Officially he is the patron of Italy, merchants (an association he would probably have abhorred) and ecologists (thanks to Pope John Paul II).

A good day to lighten your possessions or bless your animals; see everything in your life as a fellow creature. Read Patricia Hampl’s wonderful book, Virgin Time, on her quest for the contemplative life, during which she spends some time following in the footsteps of St. Francis.

 For a beautiful visual interpretation of St. Francis, see this illuminated scroll created by Patricia Banker of Saints Preserved.

The illustration above is from the mural done by Giotto in the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Assisi

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The Most Holy Rosary of Mary

Dominic came up with the idea of the rosary during his 13th century campaign against the Albigenisians. Despite this unsavory beginning (the Dominicans went on to become Grand Inquisitors), the rosary is simply the Catholic version of an ancient spiritual practice. Certain prayers are recited as the worshipper’s fingers move along beads of different sizes and shapes strung in a circle. Other spiritual traditions use prayer beads or prayer wheels. The repetition of the physical action and words creates a trance-like effect.

Originally it was the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father…”) that was recited, hence the name “paternosters” for chains of beads. Hail Marys were added in the twelfth century when Mary worship was at its height.

In a recent issue of Goddess Regenerated, Jude Morton writes about her devotion to the rosary and the Black Madonna. After walking the labyrinth in Grace Cathedral, she bought a rosary and replaced the crucifix with an image of Our Lady of Sorrows. Based on ideas from Weber’s book on the rosary, she meditates on the fifteen mysteries as she prays: The Joyful Mysteries (The Call to the Divine, The Mother, Birth, Release, Love’s Presence), the Sorrowful Mysteries (Fear, Emptiness, Despair, Unknowing and Death) and the Glorious Mysteries (The Open Heart, Universal Connection, Spirit in Everything, The Mother’s Return, and The Mother’s Divine Love). She also adapted the Hail Mary so that it better suited her spiritual beliefs.

Eventually Morton bought a one-decade rosary, a rosary with ten beads, also called a pocket rosary, which she wears around her wrist so she can pray anywhere: at bus stops, on airplanes. She writes that it has helped make waiting bearable and notes that “repetitive prayer works like drumming and other rituals to induce a light trance. This trance can also be the trance of focus: it is a rite of grounding…”

The Zinacantecos of Mexico have chosen this day to honor the sacred salt well in the village of Zinacantan. The image of the Virgen del Rosario is brought from the village of Salinas. Two special censers filled with copal incense are lowered into the salt well which is then covered with reed mats. The Mayordomos and their wives are then required to spend three days and nights dancing without stopping except to eat and drink rum to pay homage to the Virgen and the well.

Create your own version of the rosary, a ritual device that helps you pray. Or perform a ceremony to honor salt. Lunaea Weatherstone makes and sells beautiful goddess rosary necklaces which she sells at her website. And Elyn MacGinnis has written a book about how to make beads from roses and it’s available from Amazon.

References:

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999Morton, Jude, “The Dark Circle: Prayers to the Black Madonna,” Goddess Regenerated, Issue #14, 2001
Vogt, Evan Z,, The Zinacantecos of Mexico: A Modern Maya Way of Life, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970, p. 90
Weber, Christin Lore, Circle of Mysteries: The Women’s Rosary Book, St Paul, MN: Yes International Publishers, 1995, 1997

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Guardian Angels

guardian-angelA church feast since 1670 when the guardian angels were given their own feast (they used to share Sep 29 with St Michael). The concept of a personal guardian is much older.  In Rome every man had his genius, every woman her Iuno. In the New Age we have spirit guides and totem animals.

A day to honor your own personal angel. Or daimon. Choose a totem animal from the deck by Jamie Sams and David Carson. Read The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, a delightful fantasy story about a world in which everyone has a daimon, a sort of animal familiar.

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

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Michaelmas

This is the feast day of St. Michael and all the Angels. It is the most ancient of all the angel festivals. The Anglican church celebrates all angels, both name and unnamed on one day. Roman and Orthodox Churches separate them into two categories (with the unnamed angels having their feast day on October 2nd).

From fairly early on, Michaelmas was an important holiday, the religious or Christian equivalent of the autumn equinox. In England, it was considered the start of a new quarter. It marked the start of a new business year, a time for electing officials, making contracts, paying rent, hiring servants, holding court and starting school. Obviously we still see the remnants of this in the timing of our elections and school year.

This is also a time when the weather is known to change. In Italy, they say “For St. Michael, heat goes into the heavens.” In Ireland, people expect a marked decrease in sickness or disease. The Irish also consider this a lucky day for fishing:

Plenty comes to the boat on Michael’s Day.

Barolini records a nursery rhyme about hours of sleep:

Nature requires five,
Custom gives seven,
Laziness takes nine
And Michaelmas eleven.

michaelmas-processionMichaelmas became the fixed date for the feast otherwise associated with Autumn Equinox or the harvest. As early as 1014, the laws of Ethelred in England prescribe a three day fast for all Christians before the feast. Servants weren’t allowed to work during these days. Michaelmas was a time when rents were due, and rents were often paid in food. The traditional rent for Michaelmas was a goose.

Eating something rich like goose at this turning point of the year brings good luck. In Nottingham they say “If you eat roast goose on Michaelmas day, you will never want money all year.” In Norfolk, they say, “if you don’t baste the goose on Michaelmas Day, you will want money all year.” In Yorkshire, they use the condition of the meat of the goose to predict the weather:

If the goose breast at Michaelmas be dour and dull
We’ll have a sour winter, from the start to the full.

Fitzgibbon says the Irish used to stuff the goose with potato to cut the grease and absorb the flavor. This is like the traditional onion sauce served with goose in the 18th and 19th centuries and made from onions cooked in half milk and half water, with a slice of turnip, then mixed with butter, nutmeg, cream, salt and pepper and mashed. Apple sauce is the most common topping today.

In Italy, where this is clearly considered a harvest festival, they say “For St. Michael all the last fruits of the year are honeyed and ripe.”

Cosman says that it is traditional to eat ginger on Michaelmas. She mentions ginger ale, beer and wine, gingerbread, ginger snaps, fish baked with ginger and two ginger desserts: charwardon (made with large succulent wardon pears, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger) and ginger caramels with curls of ginger-root shavings on top.

Michaelmas daisy is the name given to flowers of the aster family which bloom at this time. I’ve seen it applied mostly to purple asters but Barolini says she used to pick yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on that day.

st-michaelSt Michael

Michael is a warrior angel often pictured poised with a sword over a dragon (or demon) that he tramples underfoot. Other times he rides a white steed, and carries a three-pronged spear in his right hand and a three-cornered shield in his left. He cast Lucifer and the other evil angels out of Paradise. Thus, in the Middle Ages was invoked as the patron of knights and warriors and in modern times, of military personnel and the police.

He’s been honored since ancient times as a protector. Most of his churches are on high places, for instance, Mont St. Michel in Brittany, the church on the tor at Glastonbury, the church on the tumulus at Carnac. They were often built on the sites where Lugh, the Celtic God of Light, was worshipped earlier.

Although all angels are sent as messengers from on high, Michael has a special task. He’s sent to fetch the souls of those who have died for judgement. For this reason he is also considered the patron saint of all trades that use scales which mean he looks after pastry chefs and weighers of grain.

My friend Carolee Colter translated this Litany of Saint Michael from the French prayer card she purchased while visiting Mont St Michel in Brittany:

Saint Michael, archangel, pray for us.
Saint Michael, chief of all the angels, pray for us.
Saint Michael, filled with the wisdom of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, very glorious prince, pray for us.
Saint Michael, strong in combat, pray for us.
Saint Michael, terror of demons, pray for us.
Saint Michael, vanquisher of Satan, pray for us.
Saint Michael, our support in the fight against evil, pray for us.
Saint Michael, prince of the celestial militia, pray for us.
Saint Michael, faithful servant of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, messenger of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, angel of peace, pray for us.
Saint Michael, guardian of Paradise, pray for us.
Saint Michael, support of the people of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, guardian and patron of the church, pray for us.
Saint Michael, benefactor of people who honor you, pray for us.
Saint Michael, whose prayers reach to heaven, pray for us.
Saint Michael, who introduces souls to the eternal light, pray for us.
Pray for us, Saint Michael, archangel.

For more information about St Michael, see the images and information at the Saints Preserved website.

Elegba: In the voodoo tradition, Michael is equated with Elegba, the messenger god. All ceremonies begin and end with petitions to Elegba, the god of the crossroads, whose shrine is behind the door.

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Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths, Penguin 1955
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, Yearbook of English Festivals, H W Wilson 1954
Teish, Luisah, Jambalaya, Harper San Francisco 1979
Tickle, Phyllis, Ordinary Time

The photo of the procession is from a delightful article about reviving Michaelmas traditions written by Alys Hurn for Gardens Illustrated.

The painting of St Michael is by Guido Reni and was created in 1636.

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