Naming the Trees in Winter

This year, I made a commitment to learn about the trees in my neighborhood, as I participate with the students in my current online class, A Year in Flowers. This was the next logical step in my quest to find nature in the city.

I had already spent several years learning about the plants in my neighborhood. My plant blindness was fading. After taking classes and going on field trips with the Washington Native Plant Society, and with Seattle’ resident plant expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson, I recognized most of the plants in the few blocks around my apartment building. Here a hedge of sarcococca humilis, var. Hookeriana, already emitting its sweet perfume in January. On the corner, a witch hazel, all yellow curlicues. At the entrance to the alley, a stand of wild violets, re-emerging with their heart-shaped leaves from the mud.

But when it came to trees, I was at a total loss. I could lump the evergreens into major categories: pines, firs, cedars. I still had a lot to learn about species. But the deciduous trees were the bigger problem. In January, they were just so many trunks, so many branches. Without their leaves or fruit, I was stumped.

I began by trying to recognize the same trees when they appeared in different settings on my daily walks with my dog. It helped to give them names based on their appearance. The lumpy bumpy tree. The freckled grey bark tree. The cavorting branch tree.

My usual tools at this stage of my research: the field guides were not useful. I paged through three of them looking for the tree I called the grey freckled bark tree. I had put days into the search when it occurred to me that maybe the freckles were not part of the bark but lichen.

Now there are easy ways to identify a tree, especially in Seattle. The City of Seattle, through the Department of Transportation, has compiled a Street Tree Inventory which you can view as a clickable map.

Or you can start from the other direction: If you think you know the tree genus, you can look it up in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s excellent book, Trees of Seattle. After some remarks that help you identify the trees, Jacobson supplies some locations where those trees are located.

There are problems with both of these approaches. One is that the streets on the street inventory are self-reported so they may be incorrect identifications. And I have the older edition of Jacobson’s book. Many of the trees he mentions have since disappeared, especially the ones near my apartment on Capitol Hill, cut down because of new construction.

But I also spurned these as initial approaches because it feels a bit like cheating to me. I like to make myself work a little harder. I find it is the effort I put into the identifying process that helps me remember what I’ve learned. It’s like the difference between making small talk and getting to really know someone over a series of coffees and meals and conversations.

So I spend a lot of time studying the bark and branching patterns of the deciduous trees around me. Some trees are easy: the liquidambar in front of the apartment building are still bearing their knobby fruit capsules (sometimes called space balls). The hawthorn down the street finally shed its leaves during the last windstorm but is still sporting dark red haws. And who can forget the Empress tree? Even though there won’t be any lilac-colored, vanilla-scented flowers until May and strange pods until July, it is unforgettable once identified.

While walking a little farther afield with my dog, Flora one day, I happened upon a tree with the same grey bark and white freckles as the tree I was trying to identify. But this one still had leaves on it, all of them dried and crunchy. I took off a leaf and went home and used a field guide which was designed like a key. Gradually I made my way to the beeches and decided my grey freckle bark tree was a beech.

I mentioned this to my friend Dan and he said, “Oh a copper beech. They don’t shed their leaves until spring. The new buds push out the old leaves.” He knew because he had one in his yard. And indeed, when I looked up copper beeches I learned all about abcission (the process by which trees shed their leaves) and marcescence (some trees hold onto their leaves through the winter, notably oaks, beeches and hornbeams). The leaves won’t fall off until wind snaps the brittle petioles. One theory about why this is advantageous for a tree is that it discourages herbivores from nibbling on the emerging twigs. A mouthful of brittle, dried leaves is not appealing.

Looking up the name beech, I discover that its species name (Fagus) derives from a Latin word for edible that comes from the same root as beech. The name beech is also cognate with book. This may be due to the lovers’ practice of scratching entwined initials within a heart on the bark. Because the tree retains the same bark for its entire life, rather than shedding it like madrone or birch, or growing new protective layers like most trees, the writing remains for the tree’s lifetime. The beech is a book, recording forever the moment in time when RF and FH decided to memorialize their love.

And when I looked up beeches in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s Trees of Seattle book, I found there was another one a block away. On my next walk, I found that tree. It had the same smooth grey bark with white freckles on it. Lichen, I learn. Lichens love beeches because they don’t shed their bark.

Alas, when I turn to the Street tree inventory, it identifies my grey freckle bark tree as a Midland English Hawthorn. That’s clearly wrong. I know where the hawthorn tree is. Just a block away. So at this point, I’m going to let hold my identification lightly in my mind and heart and wait for the tree to reveal itself to me when the leaves emerge.

How do you identify strange trees in the winter? If you’d like a challenge and some companionship along the way, you can sign up for the Year in Flowers class. It’s $20 for a month, $120 a whole year of lessons.

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Tu B’Shvat: Birthday of the Trees

I first learned about the Birthday of the Trees in Arthur Waskow’s wonderful book about Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy. Celebrated on the full moon of the Jewish month of Shvat, it marked the year-end date for the fruit crop, the time when the tithe of fruit was calculated and paid. This was considered a pivotal point in the life cycle of the trees, when the sap began to rise again in trees which had been dormant during the winter. In Israel, the almond trees put forth blossoms. In 2017, it falls on February 11.

In the sixteenth century, the mystics of Safed associated the fruit tree with the Sephirot or Kabalistic Tree of Life. Thus, Tu B’Shvat was seen as the day the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe. We can help heal the world, they said, by offering blessings. On Tu B’Shvat we bless the fruit before we eat it, thus the more fruit we eat the more blessings we can offer.

Many different customs developed as Jewish communities around the world created their own versions of Tu B’Shvat. According to Ellen Bernstein, in an article on the history of the holiday, in Bucharia and Kurdistan, it’s called the “day of eating the seven species” (see Deut. 8:8) and a dinner of thirty kinds of fruit is prepared. In India, fifty kinds of fruit are served. In Moroccan villages, the wealthiest villager invites everyone for a feast and sends the guests home with their hats full of fruit.

A Greek legend says that on Tu B’Shvat angels tap the head of each plant on this day and command them to grow. Another Greek legends says that trees embrace on this day and anyone who witnesses this will get their wish fulfilled. Women who want to get pregnant plant raisins and candy near trees on Tu B’Shvat night and pray for fertility. And in some places, young girls, eligible for marriage, are “married” to a tree. If the tree buds soon after, this is seen as a promise of the marriage to come. For families who have lost a loved one during the year, Tu B’Shvat can be celebrated as a holiday of rebirth and remembrance.

In modern Jewish practice, the Birthday of the Trees has been taken more literally and many communities plant trees on this day or send money to support the planting of trees in Israel. At the same time it has taken on a new symbolic significance as “a day of celebration and reaffirmation of the necessity of protecting God’s world.” A number of new Hagaddot have been developed which focus on healing the wounded earth.

One of these is called The Tree’s Birthday and was written by Ellen Bernstein. She uses the following correspondences to explain what is served during each of the courses:

1st course
Represents Assiya, earth, winter, the physical, west
Fruit with a hard outer shell (like coconuts, bananas, walnuts, pineapple, cantaloupe)
Glass of white wine

2nd course
Represents: Yetsira, water, spring, the emotional, south
Fruit with a hard inner core (like peaches, dates, apricots, plums)
Glass of white wine with a few drops of red in it

3rd course
Represents: Briav, air, summer, cerebral, east
Fruit that is soft throughout (strawberries, cranberries, grape, apples, figs, pears)
Glass half red and half white wine

4th course
Represents: Atsilu, fire, autumn, spiritual, north
No fruit at all
Glass of red wine

If you think fruit will not be substantial enough, seeds (like chickpeas and sunflower seeds), nuts and sprouts are also appropriate, along with crackers and cheese (foods of the season).

Bernstein provides readings which she culled from sources as varied as the Bible, the Whole Earth Catalog, e.e. cummings and Rumi to celebrate the elements associated with each season, for instance, the passage where Mole first sees the river from Wind in the Willows for water. Each course begins with a song or dance appropriate for the season. For each course, the plate of fruits are blessed and before drinking the wine, a toast is offered to the season. The traditional blessing is “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree” or “the fruit of the vine,” but you can adapt that so it fits your concept of the divine. As Bernstein comments:

“Because there is no specified liturgy for the holiday, Tu B’Sh’vat readily lends itself to creative interpretation.” If you don’t want to do a complicated ritual, you might simply add fruit to your evening meal on the night of the full moon. One of the injunctions for Tu B’Shvat is to eat a new kind of fruit, one you’ve never tried before.

My first Tu B’Shvat seder was one I hosted at my apartment with a group of friends from The Beltane Papers. We didn’t have a copy of Bernstein’s book at the time, so we improvised our own ritual. I asked each of the guests to bring a reading that represented the various elements. At the start of each course, I brought out plates of fruit of the appropriate kind. Each of the guests chose a fruit and blessed it. Instead of using the traditional Jewish blessing, which we didn’t know, we made up our own words of praise, speaking about our relationship with or appreciation for the fruit. After the fruit had been consumed, we poured the ritual glasses of wine and someone offered a toast to the season.

The details are lost in the fog of time but I remember the juiciness: the kitchen counter dripping with fruit juice, the table crowded with plates of fruit, sticky fingers, juice running down the chin. There’s a certain lightheadedness associated with a meal, hours long, consisting only of fruit and wine. Although I was drinking white grape juice and cranberry juice rather than wine, I too felt the lightening as we moved from the heavy element of earth to the most insubstantial element, fire.

We were in the middle of our second course when the full moon appeared in the eastern windows of my apartment, striking us with wonder. It was a magical moment as we sat bathed in her rays, feeling our kinship with others who had sat feasting for centuries under the full moon of early spring.

Tu B’Shvat Links:

This website has a long list of articles; some of the links are broken; scroll down to the bottom for links to recipes:
http://www.jr.co.il/hotsites/j-hdaytu.htm

Let me know if you know of other good resources for Jewish holidays on the web.

Resources:
Bernstein, Ellen, “A History of Tu B’Sh’vat,” “The Tu B’Sh’vat Seder,” in Ecology and the Human Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet, ed. Ellen Bernstein, Jewish Lights 2000
Bernstein, Ellen, The Tree’s Birthday: A Celebration of Nature, 1988. No longer in print.
Elon, Ari, Naomi Hyman and Arthur Waskow, eds., Trees, Earth and Torah, Jewish Publication Society 1999.
Fitzgerald, Waverly, “Tu B’Shvat: Reawakening the Tree of Life,” The Beltane Papers, Issue Four, Samhain 1993
Waskow, Arthur, Seasons of Our Joy, Beacon Press 1982

All the photos were taken by me in my neighborhood in April of 2010 while on a tree walk with Arthur Lee Jacobson.

First published 2/6/2012.

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Candlemas Collages

My New Year’s practice is to make a collage that represents the experiences I hope to enjoy in the new year. For the past few years, I’ve been making Soul Collage (R) cards to embody the themes I’ve chosen for the year.

To the left, you can see my three themes for 2010 as works in progress: Refreshment, Sustainability and Sovereignity.

On the other side of the table you get an upside-down view of the collage my friend Janis made.  We love this ritual which we have been sharing for years. We light candles, make wishes, drink tea, nibble on cookies and play with images.

In 2011, my theme cards were Spaciousness, Clarity and Surrender to the Mystery.

Spaciousness

Clarity

(I did note that most of the images in this card were out of focus and the goal remained fuzzy as well; however the bird theme really showed up in my life in 2011)

and

Surrender to the Mystery, a theme that stayed mysterious all year.

Here’s a photo from my 2013 session. This card is called Presence, not pasted down.

Once they are done, I put them up on the wall in the entry way of my home where they will remind me every time I enter of my themes for the year.

Here are my 2016 collages on the piano:

new year collages

From left to right, Creative Expession, Rising Above the Drama, [mystery card? maybe Flow?], Spaciousness and Abundance.

Originally published 2/9/2010.

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The Year End Book

My collage for 2009

One of my favorite rituals of the year is my ritual of review. I reserve the time between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve as a time of reflection on the year past. (I share this ritual through my 12 Days of Christmas class and also a book I’ve put together that contains the ideas below and much more.)

I go over my records of the past year (my journals, my planners, the photos I’ve taken, my financial records) to get a sense of the year. My journals contain dreams, writing logs, kvetches, reviews of books read, and new ideas, all neatly indexed at the back of each notebook, so this is not as onerous a task it might be. I developed this indexing system to make this process easier. I make top ten lists, print financial reports, look for an image or title that describes the year (I’m currently playing around with the idea that it has been the Year of Hiding).

I know other people use different systems for conducting a year-end review. Chris Guillebeau uses metrics and a spreadsheet. (I love his system!). Several of my Facebook friends are currently posting their Status clouds (I get nervous when a FB application says it’s going to access all my information, including the names of my friends, so I haven’t tried this yet). I think you could come up with something similar on your own (just pull out the status reports you like, put them in a block with adjusted spacing and wing-dings between entries, and add some decorative elements).

I like to end up with something concrete, something that can symbolize the year. One year I invited all of my friends to a creativity party and asked them to bring something that symbolized the year past. People brought poems and collages, paintings and sculptures; one woman did an interpretive dance! It was pretty amazing and entertaining.

Last year I found a software program that helped me create a gorgeous little book that’s like a love letter to my year. I’ve been dancing a happy dance in my brain all year, just anticipating the pleasure of making another one this year.

The software is called BookSmart and I found it at a web site called Blurb. You download the software to your computer and use it to create your book. It does have a learning curve; it’s not terribly user friendly but it is intuitive. Basically you get your choice of different templates and you can pull your photos and text into them. It reminds me a little of the old design program we used to use to create The Beltane Papers. You choose templates (you can use a different one for every page) from the top left of the screen. You can also upload your pictures to a bar on the left and then just drag them into the screen.

This screen shot shows two sample pages from last year’s book. (if you click on it, you can see a larger version.) At the bottom of the page you can see the thumbnails of other pages in the book. That yellow triangle with the exclamation point is trying to tell me one of my pictures isn’t of high enough resolution to reproduce well. I just ignored it because this wasn’t for professional purposes, just for my own entertainment.

Of course, you could create your own book using a design program that you know well and then turn it into a PDF and then send it to a print-on-demand company like Lulu. I used them happily to publish my Slow Time book. But the advantage with BookSmart is that they’ve come up with a design template that is ideal for arty little books. The disadvantage is that they’re a little more pricey (per book) than other print-on-demand companies but since I’m only using them to make one precious, glossy, pretty copy for me, that doesn’t bother me. There are also options that allow you to share your book with your friends online, for instance, via Facebook.

I hope whatever rituals you employ to reflect upon and summarize your year are satisfying.

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.

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Lucky Moons for 2017

New moon of spring, photo by Alyss Broderick

An important part of doing magic is being in touch with the flow of energy as it expresses itself through the universe, especially through the cycles of the stars, the sun and the moon. Keeping track of these cycles is easy if you have any one of the popular calendars which list the moon sign like the WeMoon Almanac or the Pocket Astrologer or the Moon Phases card.

During every lunar cycle (or moonth, the term Donna Henes uses to remind us of the root of the word month), the moon passes through your astrological sun sign. This is often a time of personal power, when you feel truly in sync with your personality. Helen Farias noted that wishes (prayers, affirmations, spells) expressed on the day the moon was in her sun sign were usually granted. If you know your moon sign, you may also notice a shift of energy when the moon moves through this sign, which will also happen once every lunar cycle. Often this is a time when you are sensitive and aware of your feelings.

Full harvest moon, photo by Cate Kerr

You also have several other moon power points during the year. The moon will be new in your sun sign once a year and full in your sun sign once a year. The New Moon, when the moon is dark or invisible is a seed point, a time for going deep within and attuning with spirit. Since it always happens near your birthday, you can use it as a time for setting an intention for the upcoming year. The full moon in your sign is more likely to be the time for a party (too bad it’s half a year away from your birthday), a time for going out into the world, connecting with other people and expressing yourself creatively.

The moon will pass through all of its phases in your sign during the year. You might also want to note when it is in your sign in the first quarter and the last quarter. The first quarter moon in your sun sign would be a good time for initiating a project or casting a spell, planning or going on a vision quest. The last quarter moon is a time for reflecting on your achievements, evaluating your experiences and grieving your losses (perhaps with a ritual of letting go).

Now that you know the principles, you can also pay attention to these power points when they fall in the same sign as your natal moon or the sign of your Ascendant. Each one can be occasion for a ritual.

Charting Your Moon Power Points

The chart below can help you identify your Moon Power Points for the coming year. Dates are taken from Jim Maynard’s 2017 Pocket Astrologer for Pacific Time. Leos get two fresh starts with two new moons, and they’re going to need it with all those eclipses in their sign. Aquarius and Pisces also have eclipses paired with their moon power points. For a great description of how eclipses affect you, see this article by Susan Miller. https://www.astrologyzone.com/all-about-eclipses-a-guide-for-coping-with-them/

Moon Phase New Full First Quarter Last Quarter
Seed point,
make wish
Celebrate Initiate a project,
state intentions
Reflect, evaluate,
let go, banish
Aries Mar 27 Oct 5, harvest moon Jan 5 Jul 16
Taurus Apr 26 Nov 3 Feb 3 Aug 14
Gemini May 25 Dec 3 Mar 5 Sep 12
Cancer Jun 23 Jan 12 Apr 3 Oct 12
Leo Jul 23 &
Aug 21, eclipse
Feb 10,
eclipse
May 2 Nov 10
Virgo Sep 19 Mar 12 Jun 1 Dec 9
Libra Oct 19 Apr 10 Jun 30 Jan 8, 2018
Scorpio Nov 18 May 10 Jul 30 Jan 19
Sagittarius Dec 17 Jun 9 Aug 29 Feb 18
Capricorn Jan 16, 2018 Jul 8 Sep 27 Apr 19
Aquarius Jan 27 Aug 7
eclipse
Oct 27 May 18
Pisces Feb 26
eclipse
Sep 6 Nov 26 Jun 17

References:

This article first appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of The Beltane Papers: A Journal of Womens Mysteries.

Farias, Helen was the founding mother of The Beltane Papers. Until her untimely death in 1994, her wisdom and scholarship could be found in every issue. She frequently wrote about calendar customs and working with lunar and solar energies.

Henes, Donna, Celestially Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles & Celebrations, Perigee/Berkley 1996

Ask about these calendars at your local bookstore. If you can’t find them there, contact the publisher directly.

Pocket Astrologer is a handy guide created by Jim Maynard containing detailed astrological information for the year. It is available in a wall calendar, an engagement calendar, or, my favorite, the little pocket-sized book, for either Eastern or Pacific time. Order it from Quicksilver Productions, www.quicksilverproductions.com

Lunar Phases card: A simple tool for tracking the moon’s cycles, a one page card on stiff paper which can be ordered from Snake and Snake Production at www.snakeandsnake.com.

WeMoon Almanac, a lovely engagement calendar, featuring original art, good writing and astrological lore, published by Mother Tongue Inc. For more information see:www.wemoon.ws

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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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