Dallying with Dahlias

dahlias 2Every autumn the Puget Sound Dahlia Association plants a dahlia display garden at Volunteer Park in Seattle, along the edge of an open grassy field. My friend, Lori DeMarre, the photographer, first took me there on one of our monthly photo expeditions. Now I return every year (this time with my writing group) to wander among the fantastic blooms.

The dahlias glow in the autumn sun. Criss-crossing back and forth between the plants, trying to avoid the spider webs dripping with dew, I admire the sheer excess and exuberance of the species. Yellow dahlias, as big as salad plates, shining like miniature sunbursts. Tiny pompom dahlias of deep maroon. Petals of magenta and maroon curling inward in a perfect geometric pattern, like those designs I created as a child with a Spirograph. Dahlia stems, snapped in half, broken under the weight of the flowery burdens. The Mingus Toni (dahlias have fantastic names as well as fantastic colors) with magenta petals, streaked with splashes of red, exploding from an orange center.

My favorite last year was a big red dahlia called Mars. A magnificent red-orange, it blazed like the Fiery Planet itself against the dark shrubbery. With its eight single petals, it was probably similar in form to the original dahlia, which comes from Central America and Colombia and was known to the Aztecs as cocoxochitl, or at least that was the version of the Aztec name recorded by Francisco Hernandez, physician to Philip II, who compiled a thesaurus of medicinal plants from “New Spain.” In fact, I chose the Dahlia as the flower to feature for the month of August, because it’s not a North American or English flower originally, unlike many of the other flowers on flower-of-the-month lists.

Statue of Coatlicue in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City

Statue of Coatlicue in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City

According to a legend reported by Diana Wells in her book on flower names, the Aztec goddess, Serpent Woman, used to visit an eagle to gain knowledge of the sky gods. On one of her visits, she met a rabbit, holding a dahlia with eight red rays in its mouth. The gods told her to pierce the flower with a sharp spike of agave and hold this to her breast all night long. The next morning, she delivered a full-grown son, the War God, Utzilopochtli, who had gained strength for war and thirst for blood from the dahlia. However, I have not been able to find this legend in any online references for Aztec mythology.

The usual story told of the birth of Huitzilopochtli makes him the son of the Aztec earth-goddess, Coatlicue, the goddess of life and death, who was always depicted wearing a necklace of skulls and a skirt of serpents. She found a ball of feathers and tucked it into her skirt, thus becoming pregnant. This angered her other children and they plotted to kill her. But when they dragged her up on top of a mountain to sacrifice her, she gave birth to Huitzilopochtli, the war-god, often depicted as a beserker humming-bird, who slew his treacherous siblings in an orgy of blood.

The militaristic Aztec culture which ruled by fear downplayed Coatlicue’s connection with birth and instead emphasized death. Fray Diego Duran, one of the early Jesuit missionaries (but I always get nervous when Catholic missionaries describe the customs of a people they are trying to civilize as they are wont to exaggerate the barbarism) reported on the custom of enlisting a young woman to represent Coatlicue, who disappears into a lake, leaving behind a cradle containing a knife, a signal that the goddess wants more sacrifices. According to Wells, every eight years when the Aztecs sacrificed prisoners to the War God, removed their hearts and placed them on stones surrounded by dahlias and agave.

It would be interesting to know how the hummingbird became a symbol of carnage. I would assume it would represent appreciation of beauty or fertilization, not slaughter. Perhaps it represents a shift in values, just as the ancient Roman god, Mars, was a god of agriculture originally, rather than the god of war.

The dahlia of Central America, the dahlia pinnata (I love the name with its suggestion of a pinwheel) had a very simple form: eight single scarlet petals around a yellow disk. (The Spanish conquerors also found another dahlia, the tree dahlia, acocotli or dahlia imperialis, although I don’t think that’s the one they brought to Europe). Perhaps because of this simplicity, the flowers, were not at first valued by European gardeners. Instead scientists experimented with preparing the tuberous root like a potato but found it lacking in taste. However, the Aztecs had used the roots to treat epilepsy. And in Europe and America, until insulin was discovered, diabetics were often given a substance called Atlantic starch or diabetic sugar made from dahlia tubers. And the Chinese, after testing 400 plants, have chosen the dahlia to be one of 31 herbs used to treat HIV.

Jamaica Kincaid, writing about gardening for the New Yorker, has often commented on the way plants, seized during the conquest of the country, go through a colonization process. In the case of the cocoxochitl, it was renamed after a friend of Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, named Andreas Dahl. Thus the flower name dahlia is a Swedish name, meaning “from the valley,” as I discovered to my surprise when I looked for its meaning and ended up at a baby name site.

In the language of the flowers, depending on which source you use, the dahlia means gratitude, dignity, pomp, instability and misrepresentation. Geraldine Adamich Laufer provides these even more specific meanings:

Double dahlia by Redoute

Double dahlia by Redoute

double dahlia—participation
single dahlia—good taste
variegated dahlia—I think of you constantly
white dahlia—gratitude to parents
yellow dahlia—”I am happy you love me”

From L'illustratoin horticole

From L’illustratoin horticole

The dahlia didn’t really become popular in Europe until people discovered how to hybridize the flower and produce the incredible variety of colors and shapes which exists today. They were probably at the peak of popularity in the 19th century, since the Victorians loved the flamboyance and variety of the flower which could be raised in hothouses and then placed in beds for spectacular displays of color. A prize of one thousand pounds was offered in 1826 for a blue dahlia, but no one has yet produced one.

Looking at any dahlia organization website is like going to a pedigreed dog show, where the emphasis is all on classification. Dahlias range in size from AA (Giant), over ten inches in diameter, to MS (Mignon Single), up to 2 inches in diameter. The array of shapes includes formal decorative, informal decorative, semi-cactus, straight-cactus, incurved-cactus, laciniated (a twisted, fringed effect), ball, pompom, stellar, waterlily, peony, anemone, collarette, single (like the original dahlia), orchid, and novelty. Dahlias display every color but blue and black, but they seem happiest with the warm, rich, velvety colors of autumn: flame and bronze and lavender and yellow. I have only one dahlia plant in my garden this year (the rest were devastated by blight last year), but it is a color I would describe as cinnamon pink.

Dahlias are pretty easy to grow. They like rich, well-drained soil and plenty of sun. They can be planted as seeds but then need at least a year of growth before they will flower. The most common way to plant dahlias is to plant the tubers, either purchased or acquired through dividing the roots of an existing plant. The tubers are planted in spring, about two weeks before the last frost, in trenches, about four inches deep, with the buds pointing up, then covered with about two inches of soil. They will need plenty of water and support (drive a post into the dirt beside the tuber) or else they will break under their own weight. As they grow, add more dirt to the trench until it is level with the ground. When the plant is about one foot high, pinch off the top to encourage lateral growth. The more you pick them, the more blooms they produce.

I love to bring my dahlias into the house where their vivid colors warm my days. The scientists at the University of Nebraska Extension (who also have plenty to say about dahlia diseases and pestering insects) advise cutting them in the early morning or late afternoon when the blossom are almost fully open. Remove the lower leaves and place the stems in 110 degree Fahrenheit water in a cool, dark location for 24 hours. The stems should be cut again every day, removing about 1/4 inch and placing them in fresh water, or use a floral preservative.

Dahlias, used to a sunnier climate, are sensitive to frost. After the plants have been destroyed by frost, dig up the tubers on a sunny day, shake off the dirt and store them in a dry, cool place. I must admit that I have never dug up my dahlias (but then the Northwest has relatively mild winters) and they keep producing blooms year after year. This poem written by Edith Matilda Thomas, and printed by Bobby Ward in his book on flower lore, captures both the beauty and the melancholy of this season when the dahlias bloom.

Frost To-Night

Apple-green west and an orange bar,
And the crystal eye of a lone, one star . . .
And, “Child, take the shears and cut what you will.
Frost to-night—so close and dead-still.”

Then I sally forth, half sad, half proud,
And I come to the velvet, imperial crowd,
The wine-red, the gold, the crimson, the pied—
The dahlias that reign by the garden-side.

The dahlias I might not touch till to-night!
A gleam of the shears in the fading light,
And I gathered them all,–the splendid throng,
And in one great sheaf I bore them along.

In my garden of Life with its all-late flowers
I heed a Voice in the shrinking hours:
“Frost to-night—so clear and dead-still. . .”
Half sad, half proud, my arms I fill.


American Dahlia Society, www.dahlia.org
Carbonell, Ann Maria, “From Llorona to Gritona: Coatlicue in Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros, Melus, Summer 1999, www.findarticles.com
Killingsworth, Brian, “Dahlia Basics,” www.dahlia.org/basic1.html
People’s Daily, “Chinese Find Cactus, Dahlia Useful for Curing Diseases,” June 9, 2003, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200306/09/eng20030609_117907.shtml
Sander, Reinhard, writing a review of Diane Simmons’s book on Jamaica Kincaid for www.thecaribbeanwriter.com/volume10/v10p194.html
Steinegger, Donald H., John E. Watkins and Frederick P. Baxendale, “Growing Dahlias,” a publication of the University of Nebraska Extension program, http://www.ianr.unl.edu/pubs/horticulture/g189.htm
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997

Picture of Coatlicue: Del Campo, Edgar Martin, http://members.aol.com/emdelcamp/mother.htm

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Pysanky: Ritual Eggs

Decorating eggs is one of my favorite spring time rituals. Every year around this time, I set out the pots of dye and the cartons of eggs, the tools and the candles and the beeswax I need to make pysanky.  And for the few weeks before Easter, I spend a few hours every night or so, inscribing patterns on eggs. I can get lost for hours, totally absorbed in this process.

The art of decorating eggs may be the oldest art form. A recent find in South Africa of colored and etched ostrich shells dating back 60,000 years has scientists speculating on their meaning. Having made pysanky for years, I recognize them as ritual eggs, and the designs chosen as those that are easiest for beginning egg artists to create.

These eggs are magic talismans.
Eggs are  symbols of spring, found in cultures and ritual meals all over the world. Some of the most beautiful decorated eggs come from the Ukraine where they are called PysankyPysanky feature elaborate designs made with beeswax resist and are always raw. These eggs are magic talismans. The designs on the sides are messages (pysanky comes from a root word meaning “to write”) invoking fertility, long life, luck, protection and hope. Eggs with wheat and fruit designs might be buried in the fields to encourage the crops. Eggs with blue and green meander designs were kept in homes and carried around a fire to contain it.

I learned how to make pysanky from a book called Ukrainian Easter Eggs written by Anne Kmit, the Luciow sisters and Luba Perchyshyn. They have written many books on this topic but also sell tools and provide instructions on their web site: Ukrainian Gift Shop. Pysanky were always made by groups of women working together, late at night, during the week before Easter. The children were in bed; the men were not invited; the eggs were always fertile eggs. The women asked for specific blessings for each egg they made and sang traditional songs as they worked.

The eggs were distributed in a ritual manner. One or two eggs were given to the priest. Eggs were placed on the graves of family members. Eggs were given to all the children and godchildren. Unmarried girls exchanged eggs with the eligible young men in the community. A few eggs were placed in coffins to be ready in case someone died. Several were kept in the home to protect from fire and storms. Two or three were placed in the trough or the stables so the animals would have many young. One egg was placed under each beehive and one was saved for each grazing animal to be taken out to the fields with the shepherds in the spring. An egg with wheat symbols was placed at the start of the first furrow plowed and another at the end of the last. A bride would take an egg to her marriage ceremony in her skirt and on returning home, drop it saying. “Let me bear the child as easily as the egg falls.” If that didn’t work, the husband might receive an egg with a rooster on it or an oak leaf.

Every aspect of making the egg was important from the colors chosen to the designs. The most ancient and widely used symbol was the sun. Certain eggs, covered with symbols of water, flowers, growing plants and little wings, were used to “call spring.” Other eggs, called “noise insect eggs” depicted birds singing, crickets and the chirping noise of the forest to invoke the sounds of spring.

Here’s a list of some symbols.

Star: Success

Birds:  Spring, good harvest & pushing away evil

Hearts: Love

Fruits, vegetables, wheat: Good harvest

Flowers:  Beauty and children

Spiders:  Healing powers and good luck

Animals, especially deer:  Prosperity and wealth

Ladders (given to older people):  Moving to a new level of existence

40 triangles (a traditional pattern):  Wishes for the many facets of family life

Circle: Protection

Thirteen years ago I finally purchased the appropriate tool for making Ukrainian eggs, a kistka (I got mine in the art department of my local university bookstore). Ever since then, I’ve been hosting egg-decorating parties for me and my women friends. Each woman brings some eggs (either raw or hard-boiled). Meanwhile I set up several tables with kistkas, blocks of beeswax, a candle for each woman and some way of holding the egg steady (paper towels are the simplest—we also use the little plastic tables that come with your delivered pizza). The same stores that sell kistkas and special beeswax (dyed a darker color so it’s easier to see) also sell lathes on which you can turn your eggs so you can achieve perfectly even lines. We’ve never used one of these. The same stores also sell electric kistkas but I’ve scorned these as too modern. I like the simple ancient process.

I love the delicacy of the designs, the smell of the wax and the flickering light of the candle, which combine to create a trance-like state.

However, I do buy the packets of Ukrainian dyes—most of which are highly toxic—because they produce brilliant colors—turquoise, black and maroon, among others–you can’t find in ordinary Easter egg dyes. These are made with boiling water so mix them ahead of time so they can cool. I also use the regular Easter egg dyes you buy in kits at the store, particularly because I like the little wire dippers that come in these kits, handy for putting eggs in and out of the jars (I use wide-mouthed canning jars). We also use spoons for this task. I leave my dyes out, often for two or three weeks, so I can continue working on eggs. I love the way they look: the gleaming jars and the brilliant colors.

To make the design, you put a little bit of beeswax in the funnel of the kistka, then melt it over a candle flame and draw on the eggshell with the molten beeswax. Begin with a white egg and put wax on all the areas you want to stay white, then dye the egg yellow, and cover all the areas with wax which you want to remain yellow, and so forth through orange, red and a dark color (brown, black or purple). When the egg is done, place it in a low-temperature oven for a few minutes to melt the wax, which is then rubbed off to reveal the intricate designs and glowing colors of your egg. I love the delicacy of the designs, the smell of the wax and the flickering light of the candle, which combine to create a trance-like state.

If you don’t have a kistka, you can decorate eggs using a pin. Simply dip it into melted wax and drag it across the surface of the egg. It will leave a little comet-like trail. When done in concentric circles, you will have created sunbursts. The eggs, even though they are not cooked, can be kept for many years if they are stored so the air can move around them freely. I store mine in egg cartons in the basement but I have had an occasional egg go bad. Last year, I put varnish on all the eggs, hoping this would help preserve them. It’s a messy process (since there’s no way to hold an egg without getting varnish all over your own fingers) but it seems to have helped and it certainly brought out their colors. You can also blow the inside out of the eggs after they’ve been painted.

For more information on making Ukrainian eggs, you might enjoy this website created by Artist Ann Morash. For inspiration, or just amazement, check out the stunning examples of pysanky from Kolomiya Museum of Hutsul Folk Art. This web site featuring the work of Sofia Zielyk shows the way an artist might interpret this traditional craft. And then there’s Martha Stewart. She features 56 different ways to decorate eggs on her web site including marbled eggs, glittered eggs (very classy), gilded eggs, eggs dyed with natural materials, silk-dyed eggs, lace eggs, stenciled eggs and many more.

First published Mar 12, 2010

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A Poem for St David’s Day

FebruarySince March 1st is the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, I thought I would share a Welsh poem with you. And since March 1 is famously the start of a windy month (March either comes in like a lamb or like a lion, reversing its nature at the end of the month), I wanted to share a poem (see the YouTube video below) about the Wind by Dafydd ap Gwilym (who is named after the saint as Dafydd is the Welsh spelling of David).

Dafydd ap Gwilym is one of my favorites of the Welsh poets. He wrote in the fourteenth century and his poetry is clearly influenced by the troubadour tradition. His favorite topics were nature and romance and he combines them beautifully in poems about trysting with the woman he loves in a grove of birch trees. In this particular poem, the poet addresses the wind and asks him to carry a message to his beloved.

If you would like to hear the Welsh version of this, you can listen to it here.

For a really interesting (but somewhat academic) article on the meter of Welsh poetry and why Wales has produced so many great poets, check out this article on “Extreme Welsh Meter” by Gwyneth Lewis from Poetry magazine: I’ve tried writing poetry using Welsh meters myself while I was in Wales and it is both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. Can still recite whole verses form the poems I wrote because the rhyming and meter schemes made it so memorable.

The photo of the bird flying over the ocean was used to illustrate the month of Windy in my French Republican Calendar in 2013 and was taken by Melissa Gayle West. The French Republican Calendar for 2016 is still available and Melissa’s wonderful photo of sprouting moss decorates March (the month of Germinal, Sprouting).

First published February 28, 2015.

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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.



(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)


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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Solstice Traditions

My usual practice for solstice is to spend the day in silence. I don’t answer the phone or turn on the TV, radio or computer. It’s a short and quiet day of sleeping and reading, topped off by a long walk at dusk in the nearby park and a bubble bath by candlelight.

Jennifer Louden wrote about her Solstice in 2009. She lit candles in every room in the house, then went for a walk in the dark to talk with her sweetheart about the year and all it had brought, then turned the corner towards home to find the house blazing with light. It sounds like a brilliant idea (as long as you leave someone at home to watch the candles).

I hope you have a Solstice tradition you enjoy. Perhaps you could share it here.

First published December 23, 2009

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Making Bath Bombs

bathbonbsI always enjoy making Christmas presents but don’t always allow myself enough time to enjoy the process. This year I decided to make bath bombs (inspired by my daughter who is making shower melts). I have to say it’s such a wonderful winter holiday activity. Keeps me entertained for hours and my apartment smells great.

After perusing any number of recipes I found on Pinterest, I came up with one I really like. The ingredients for ONE bath bomb are listed as:

Dry ingredients:

2 T baking soda
1 T citric acid
1 T cornstarch
1 T Epsom salts
optional: rose petals, lavender buds, etc.

I had all of those things already. Citric acid is the trickiest one to find. You might find it at your grocery store, at a natural foods store or a crafts store.
I simply multiplied those by 4 to make four bath bombs at a time. Whisk the dry ingredients together thoroughly.

Wet ingredients:

¼ tsp oil (I used almond oil, a light olive oil would be fine)
¾ tsp liquid (can include strong tea, essential oil, rose water, etc.)
food coloring (1 or 2 drops)

Again multiply all of these by 4 or whatever number of bath bombs you want to make. Combine all the liquids and stir vigorously to combine.

I used rose water for the rose-scented bath bombs and orange blossom water in the one scented with lime essential oil. I used lavender oil for the lavender one and that was probably too much oil. The woman whose recipe I was copying made green tea and cinnamon bath bombs with liquid from strong batches of tea. Be careful with essential oil. You don’t want to add too much because of possible skin irritation and certain oils (like cinnamon oil) should never be applied to the skin.

The trickiest part is combining the wet with the dry ingredients. Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry mixture a few drops at a time (if you put too much liquid in, you’ll start the chemical reaction and end up with a fizzing bath bomb in your mixing bowl).

Several recipes online recommend using bath bomb molds but I didn’t have any so I adapted the technique recommended in one recipe by putting them into cupcake wrappers in a muffin tin.  I notice that many people just use the muffin tin without the cupcake wrappers but I liked the corrugated edges. The trick here is to go around the edges with a fork to tamp down the edges, and then go over the bulk of the bath bomb with a spoon to tamp them down. They need to be compressed as they dry. I let them dry for one day, then removed them from the wrappers.

bathbombs2I’m still trying to come up with the best way to package them. Thought about putting them in mason jars but I’m afraid the different scents would bleed into each other. Putting them into clean cupcake wrappers might also be fun but it would be best to combine that with a cellophane bag so the scent doesn’t dissipate.



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Twelve Days of Christmas

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Photo by Cate Kerr

Excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book:

In Babylon, the 12 intercalary days between the Winter Solstice and the New Year were seen as the time of a struggle between chaos and order, with chaos trying to take back over the world. Other cultures (Hindu, Chinese, Celtic) also viewed this as a time for reversing order and rules.

This idea survives in the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas which end on January 6 with Twelfth Night. In Wales, they were considered ‘omen’ days. In Scotland, no court had power during the twelve days. The Irish believed that anyone who died during these days escaped purgatory and went straight to Heaven.

In medieval England, all work was suspended during the Christmas holidays. Women could begin spinning again on January 7, the day after Twelfth Night, which was called St Distaff’s Day. According to Germanic tradition, the goddess Holle, dressed all in white, rides the wind in a wagon on the Twelve Days of Christmas. During this time, no wheels can turn: no spinning, no milling, no wagons (sleighs were used instead). Holle punishes women who disobeyed the taboo. Women were also forbidden to work on the days of certain female saints whose holidays fall during the winter. Lacemakers and spinners take a holiday on November 25, St Catherine’s Day. And any woman who works on St Lucy’s Day (December 13) will find her work undone the next day.

Helen Farias suggests that the twelve days were originally thirteen nights, celebrated from the dark moon nearest the solstice through the next full moon. Greek women celebrated a Dionysian ritual on the full moon nearest the Winter Solstice.

Photo by Cate Kerr

The Greeks told a story about the halycon days, the two week period before and after the solstice when the kingfisher built her nest on the waves and the sea was calm while she hatched her chicks. Aristotle refers to a poem about this time written by Simonides of Ceos: “when in the winter month Zeus brings calm to fourteen days that earthlings call the time when the wind is forgotten, the holy breeding-season of the many-colored alcyon.”

Shakespeare refers to this legend in this passage from Hamlet:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, I, i 157

Thanks to Cate Kerr for permission to use these amazing photos.

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Signs of the Season: Early Dark

Photo by Terry Musgrove

by Kelly Fine

I haven’t yet adjusted to the early darkness.  It’s only five-thirty but my house feels like a towel-wrapped birdcage.  No, it feels more enclosed than that:  these walls are solid and they seem to be wrapped in a thick comforter.  Or, to put it another way, my house feels like an isolated burrow deep in the solid earth.  I mean that these walls feel oppressive and that my living room seems dense with yellow lamplight.  Cream soup steams up my windows.  Smoke from a buttered pan hovers, finding no broad space where it might dissipate. These rich warm foods seem too substantial now, and I crave air.

Photo by Mikko Karttunen

Early darkness itself does not oppress me;  it’s only when I stay indoors all the long evening that I feel cramped.  Going about my business inside my lit house, I can’t see the skunk wobbling down my driveway or the raccoons splashing in the water saucer.  And on a cold night like this, my husband asks me to close the windows early, so I can’t hear the wind in the elms or the coyotes yipping from the drainage basin.  My house is part of a vast and lively night, but I can’t sense that.  These lights and these closed windows wall me off from the space beyond my house.

So I try to spend time outside every winter night.  Winter nights are gentle here in Los Angeles, but I spent most of my life in Minneapolis, and still I went out most nights – I just dressed for the season and kept moving.  In Minneapolis, I liked shoveling my driveway after dark, hearing the occasional car push through the new snow and, after it passed, only the scrape of my neighbors’ shovels.  When I lived in Calgary, I walked beside the Bow River every winter night.   I treasured those snow-crunching walks, the long blue shadows of poplar skeletons, a lone jackrabbit watching me from atop the snow crust, one owl inviting another to cross the moonlit river.

Photo by Terry Musgrove

If this early darkness threatens to suffocate you, go outside.  When you first step out, the darkness might seem to be a substance crowding up against your chest.  But as your eyes adjust, you will find that you can breathe, that you can see, that the darkness is as thin as color.  Go see how night has changed your neighborhood.  Whatever you find, you’ll return home knowing that you live in a space much vaster than your cluster of lamplit rooms.

It’s time for me to go see what space my house inhabits.  The sky looks still and cold.  Its stars twinkle like pure water.  My neighbor drags her heavy garbage can to the end of her driveway.  Its wheels scratch the gravel and even seem to spurt trapped twigs.  Electrical wires stream across the infinite sky, side-swiping the Pleiades.  I hear a hose ease on.  Water flows out to the soil and air and night.  The fat shadow of a parked car spills down the street to me.  Two people are clomping down a steep road near mine, but all I can hear of their conversation is its melody.  A few blocks away, a siren passes, and all the outdoor dogs sing along.  The closest dog bays low, and his hot happy breath spreads into the night air.  The L.A. skyline shouldn’t be visible from here, but there it is, winking at me.  The night that holds the stars has descended from the sky to claim my street.  How can I sit whining in my house?

Kelly Fine writes from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles.

The photos are used by permission from the photographers. To see more of Terry Musgrove’s work, visit his Flickr page.

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Who Is Santa Lucia?

By Joanna Powell Colbert

By Joanna Powell Colbert

One of the most charming customs of the Yuletide season is that of the Lucy Bride. She is the young woman or girl who wears a crown of candles on her head and walks through a dimly lit home, carrying a tray of pastries and coffee to feed her family. She is called St. Lucia and is most commonly known as the Christian saint who was said to light the way to salvation. But why did this Italian saint, with her origins in Sicily, capture the hearts of the people of the far north? For it is in the dark, northern lands of Scandinavia that she is the most beloved.

As Clement A. Miles wrote a hundred years ago, the imagery of the light shining forth out of darkness is a primary Yuletide theme, one that seems to strike deeply in the hearts of humankind. “Lux in tenebris is one of the strongest notes of Christmas: in the bleak midwinter a light shines through the darkness; when all is cold and gloom, the sky bursts into splendor, and in the dark cave is born the Light of the World.”

The historical Lucia was said to have been an early Christian martyr in Syracuse, Sicily, during the 4th century reign of Diocletian. She quickly became quite popular, with a widespread following by the 6th century. Two churches in Britain were dedicated to her before the 8th century, when Britain was still largely Pagan.

As with most saints, solid information about Lucia is lacking but many stories and legends are told about her. It is said that Lucia came from a wealthy family, and that she carried food to persecuted Christians hiding in dark underground tunnels. She wore a wreath of candles on her head to light the way as she carried her baskets of provisions. Another legend says that she plucked out her own eyes and sent them to a suitor, so that she would not have to marry him. Yet another tale claims that she was tortured for her faith and was blinded in that manner, though God restored her eyesight in the end.

Many images of St. Lucia show her holding a plate with eyeballs on it. She became the patron saint of the blind and those with eye trouble. 

The emphasis on eyes may have come from the identification of the Sicilian woman Lucia with the Italic goddess of light, Lucina or Lucetia. This goddess was often pictured holding a lamp and a plate of cakes, which were later mistaken for eyeballs. Lucetia became known as one of the aspects of the Roman Queen of Heaven, Juno. As Juno Lucina, goddess of childbirth, she was known as the opener of the eyes of newborn children.

She was also known to feed her people in times of famine. A story is told that St. Lucia arrived in the Syracuse harbor in 1582, bearing wheat on a ship for the townsfolk who had prayed to her for help while they were starving. A similar story takes place in medieval Sweden. St. Lucia, “with a face so radiant that there was a glow of light all about her head,”2 arrived in a ship on Lake Vannern bearing provisions during a winter famine. From both of these stories comes the custom of eating wheat porridge in honor of Lucia.

Various explanations are given of how the Italian Catholic saint traveled to Lutheran Scandinavia and became firmly entrenched in Nordic culture. Did the Vikings bring the story of St. Lucia back with them on their travels? Perhaps the story was carried by German traders, or priests and monks from the British Isles may have introduced the story.

However the story arrived in the northlands, it seems clear that the name “Lucia,” from lux (light), captured Nordic hearts as she merged with their ancestral traditions of Freya and Frigga. 

It was not unusual for the titles of ancient goddesses to be adopted as titles for both the Virgin Mary and for female saints. “Freya Vanadis,” meaning “shining bride of the gods,” reminds us of Lucy’s title “Lucia Bride.” Frigga was known as “Queen of the Aesir,” and St. Lucy was also called the “Lucia Queen.” 

Both were solar goddesses, associated with sun symbols such as sunwheels, cats, spinning, amber, and gold. Freya was called der vana solen, “the beautiful sun,” in a Swedish folksong.

The “eye” imagery of both Juno Lucina and the martyr Lucia is linked to Freya’s eyes which shed tears of amber in the ocean and gold on the earth. Unlike the virgin Lucia, however, who plucked out her eyes rather than submit to the caresses of a husband, Freya wept for her lost lover Odur.

She was the giver of riches. One of Freya’s names was “Gefjon,” meaning “Giver” or “Allgiver,” and she was known as the dispenser of wealth and plenty. It was said that her brother Frey gave the gift of fruitful fields while Freya gave the gift of crafted gold.

The golden saffron buns that the Lucia Bride serves are called lussekatter, literally “light cats.” One Christian tale said that the “rolls served by Lucia were devil’s cats which she subdued.” Freya’s solar chariot was pulled by her famous cats across the heavens. These cats were known to control the sunshine — it was said that if it rained at an inconvenient time, it was because the neighborhood cats were peevish or hungry.

Frigga was more closely tied to hearth and home than Freya. She is the goddess of spinning and her symbols are the spindle and distaff. The act of spinning was considered a magical act, sometimes symbolizing the spinning of destinies by the Fates, sometimes the spinning of light by the sun goddess. The winter constellation we know as Orion was called “Frigga’s Distaff,” Friggjar Rockr. “As the spinner, [Frigga] appears in Austria under the thinly Christianized guise of ‘St. Lucy’ or Spillelutsche, ‘Spindle-Lucia’, who, like Perchte, punishes those who have not spun during the year or have spun on her chosen feast-days.”

Lucy, like Frigga, is the bringer of light and life to the household in the depths of winter. 

Freya and Frigga are both identified at times with the Germanic goddesses Holda and Berchta, who are the light and dark sides of the same being. Both Holda and Berchta forbade spinning or other rotary tasks during the Yuletide season, the time when the “sun stands still” (the meaning of the word “solstice”). In Christian times, the ban on spinning was extended to include St. Lucia’s feast day.

Her feast day is December 13th, which was the day of the solstice before the change to the Gregorian calendar in the 1300’s. An old English rhyme reminds us that St. Lucia’s Day used to be the shortest day of the year: “Lucy-light, Lucy-light, shortest day and longest night.” Today, her feast day is seen as the beginning of the holiday season and is often called “Little Yule.”

The choosing of a girl to embody the character of the Lussibruden (Lucy Bride) or “Lucia Queen” in her community dates back to the 12th century. She wears a white dress and red sash (symbolic of light and fire) and a wreath of greenery (lingonberry or whortleberry twigs) on her head. Candles are attached (some say nine, or seven, or four — all sacred numbers) to the wreath and lit. She sets out while it is still dark “to carry food and drink to every house in the parish, and also to visit stables and cow-byres, so that animals as well as human beings may share in the promise of lengthening days and greater plenty that she brings.” She is preceded by torchbearers, and followed by a train of maidens, “star boys,” and wicked-looking trolls and demons. The goblins represent the bitter winter, soon to be vanquished by the radiant Lucia. “The Lucia Queen’s visits drive away misfortune and bring good luck and prosperity.”

Besides the visits of the village Lucy Bride to all the homes in the community, each household has its own bright visitor. The oldest (or youngest) daughter arises “at first cockcrow,” dons the gown, sash and crown, and in the darkness before the dawn, awakens the sleepers with songs, coffee and special buns called lussekatter. Some families then eat breakfast in a kitchen lit with candles.

Since 1927, when a Stockholm newspaper sponsored a contest to choose the city’s Lucia Bride, St. Lucia’s Day has become a source of national pride in Sweden. Lucia processions are held in schools, hospitals, offices, factories, and even airline flights. There are Lucia competitions where young women compete to represent their community. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature crowns Stockholm’s St Lucia.

Lynn Nelson, an American woman of Swedish descent, recalled the Lucia festivities of her own childhood: “I once knew a Swedish Evangelical Lutheran pastor . . . His predecessors, the Catholic priests, had taken five hundred years to clothe the [Lucia] tradition in its Christian trappings. St. Lucy was actually, he said, the goddess Freya. . . The pastor was quite old and had grown a bit testy as he spoke, and he finally rumbled that the Papists would never have been able to carry it off had they not struck on the device of placing at the center of their restructuring of the symbolism of this tradition a cup of hot, rich coffee and a slice of good coffee-cake.”

Whether or not her popularity is due to coffee and rolls, St. Lucia is greatly beloved as the Lightbringer during dark northern winters. Helen Farias neatly ties up all the elements of the Lucia story by saying that she “is the light-bringing midwife who is also bride, at the height of her power and who is most generous with her gifts, settling to earth at dawn in her cat-drawn chariot . . . just in time for breakfast.”

Joanna Powell Colbert is an artist, writer, and teacher of earth-centered spirituality and the Tarot. Joanna spent nine years creating the Gaian Tarot, which combines her love of symbolic, archetypal art with the mysteries of Mama Gaia, the natural world. Joanna blogs at GaianSoul.com.


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Florence Ekstrand,Lucia, Child of Light, Welcome Press, 1989
Helen Farias, “Customs and Legends of Little Yule,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 5 No. 8, Clear Lake WA: 1990.
Helen Farias, “Divine Mothers of a Northern Winter,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 3 No. 7-8, Clear Lake WA:1988.
Helen Farias, “Festal Food: Lucia Cats,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 1 No. 8, Clear Lake WA: 1986
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This article was first published in PanGaia magazine, Winter 2000-2001. The footnoted version is  in the appendix of Joanna’s recently published e-book, A Crown of Candles, which is filled with ideas for celebrating the winter holidays with a party honoring Santa Lucia.

The photo of the Lucy Bride with her crown of candles was taken at one of Joanna’ s legendary Lucia Parties by Paul Bingham.

The lovely photo of the Lucy girls was taken by Claudia Grunder and I found it at Wikipedia.

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