Happy Chinese New Year

I love all the opportunities the year offers for a new year, and here is one of the first: Chinese New Year!

The observation of this lunar festival (which occurs on the second new moon following the winter solstice) begins two weeks ahead of time (during the waning moon) as people pay debts, clean homes, return borrowed items, and make offerings to the household gods. Children are given little red envelopes containing money. Tangerines are also gifts of good luck. Firecrackers and lion dances scare off evil spirits.

People give each other special flowers called “hall flowers” because they have been reared in artificial heat (like forced narcissi): peonies, plum, peach and kumquat blossoms and jasmine. In earlier times, shallot, onion and madder plants were sprouted by the same method.

“blessings arrive”

People also put up lucky talismans—lucky words cut out in red paper, sometimes more than a foot long, which are pasted up on the front of gates. Pictures of the Eight Immortals are also cut out and hung up in front of divinities. (These are very much like the paper cuts that appear on Days of the Dead in Mexico and at Shavuot in Jewish synagogues).

Another New Year’s custom is the Money Tree: pine and cypress branches placed in a vase, and decorated with old coins and paper pomegranates and flowers. Old coins (with holes in them) are strung on colored threads in the shape of dragon and put at the foot of children’s beds. This is called “cash to pass the year.” It is supposed to be saved and not spent. However, money is given as a gift, usually in red envelopes.

New Year’s Day is sometimes called The Day of Beginning or the Day of Three Beginnings (of the year, of the season and of the month). On New Year’s Day, the aristocrats and officials of the Palace received purses from the Emperor embroidered with the eight treasures: the Wheel of the Law, Conch-shell, Umbrella, Canopy, Lotus, Jar, Fish and the Mystic Knot.

The meal is the most important part of the ceremonies, as each dish has symbolic significance. All the food is prepared ahead of time, as no frying or baking are permitted on the holiday. Knives and cutting instruments are put away as well. No one sweeps since that would sweep away good fortune.

The traditional main dish was a whole roasted pig, and at least one pork dish is still traditional. Chicken equals prosperity, a whole fish signifying the beginning and the end of the cycle is served but never eaten to symbolize plenty. Saifun (bean threads) represent long life and tangerines, piled high in a pyramid, are good luck and happiness. Expensive food items like sharks’ fin, bird’s nest and sea cucumbers set a tone of luxury. Clams are served to indicate receptivity to good fortune; vegetables are carved into the shape of coins.

Dumplings are popular: sometimes filled with meat and vegetables–and sometimes just vegetables as many families observe the practice of not eating meat on New Year’s Day. Deep fried to a golden color they are said to resemble bars of gold. Sometimes they contain a coin or other token inside the dumplings to bring good luck to the recipient.

In ancient China, the festival lasted two weeks, until the Festival of the Lanterns on the full moon. Today the festivities go on for three days.

According to the  writings of a sage from the fourth or fifth century, the ten days beginning with Chinese New Year are named after animals and plants. The first day is Fowl Day. The following days honor the Dog, the Pig, the Sheep, Cattle, Humans and Grains. Very much as the Twelve Days of Christmas predict weather for the coming year in British folklore, the weather on the these days predicts the coming year for each of these creatures. Bright clear days indicate prosperity while dark days warn of trouble.

2018 is the Year of the Dog

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

Li-Ch’en, Tun, translated by Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936

Simonds, Nina, Chinese Seasons, Houghton Mifflin 1986

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Birds and Valentines Day

There is no connection between this holiday and either of the two St Valentines (a Roman priest martyred in the third century and a martyred bishop) although many legends have been invented to explain it. One story says that Claudius II during a time of unpopular military campaigns cancelled all marriages and engagements, hoping thereby to channel the energy of the young men into the martial arts. Supposedly Valentine, a priest in Rome during this time, secretly married couples, thus incurring the wrath of the emperor and martyrdom.

The custom of sending valentines may derive from the custom of drawing lots (names of partners) at the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia or with the worship of Juno Februata in whose honor on the eve of her feast day (Feb 15), according to my Lives of the Saints, boys drew names of girls. St Francis de Sales trying to abolish this heathen practice in the mid-sixteenth century suggested drawing the names of the saints (with boys drawing the names of female saints, and vice versa). This does not seem to have caught on.

According to Hutton, the custom of sending valentines began in England in the 15th century, and was more popular at first among the middle classes, who sent signed valentines (not anonymous ones). In Japan it is now the custom for women to give chocolates to men on this day, particularly their superiors at work.

In the Middle Ages, people believed that birds chose their mates on this day. Chaucer’s poem The Parliament of Fowles takes place on St. Valentine’s Day. This is the time of year when the courtship flights of birds, particularly of members of the crow family, are noticeable. Thus it is fitting that the Backyard Bird Count sponsored by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and Audubon is scheduled on Presidents Day weekend, usually close to Valentine’s Day.

In honor of the marriage of the birds, Mrs. Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach), sets out treats for the birds on this day: peanut butter balls rolled in bird seed, raisins and chopped nuts, chilled in the freezer and hung in a netted produce bag.

There was a folk superstition, mentioned by Shakespeare that the first person you meet on Valentine’s Day will be your true love. Ophelia plays with this idea when she says to Hamlet:

Good morrow, ’tis St Valentine’s Day
All in the morn betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine.

Another form of divination involves bird watching. According to British folklore, the first bird you see on Valentine’s Day tells you what sort of man you’ll marry. (Sorry, guys, but all these marriage divinations seem to be designed for women!) If you see a blackbird, you’ll marry a minister;  a dove, a good-hearted man; a goldfinch, a rich man; a sparrow, a happy man; a crossbill, an argumentative man; a robin, a  sailor; a bluebird, a happy man; a hawk, a soldier; an owl, a man who will die soon. If you see a woodpecker, you will never marry.

If you want to try a more modern version of this divination, you might do as I am doing: observing the birds in your neighborhood. I am taking the free course offered by Jon Young on bird language. From Jon Young, I travelled the internet to this site, Music of Nature, by Lang Elliott, where you can listen to specific bird songs. The Cornell Lab or Ornithology website, All About Birds, can help you identify the birds you see. And if you want to know what they mean, I found a thorough list here, complete with links to images and sound tracks.

To dream of your future mate, pin five bay leaves to your pillow on the eve of St. Valentine’s (one in each corner and one in the middle). Or you can adopt the divination method used by young people in England: write the names of prospective lovers on slips of paper, roll them in clay balls and drop them in a bowl of water. The first to rise to the surface will be your valentine. Or you can adopt the ritual suggested by the LaPlante sisters: Write the names of prospective lovers on pieces of paper, put them into a container, then draw one out and say: “Thou art my love and I am thine, I draw ______ for my Valentine.” The lover you chose will be yours by the following year.

References:

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

Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990

Hoever, Reverend Hugo, Lives of the Saints, Catholic Publishing Company 1955

Hutton, Ronald, The Rise and Fall of Merry England, Oxford University Press 1994

Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987

LaPlante, Alice & Clare, Heaven Help Us: the Worrier’s Guide to the Patron Saints, Dell 1999

Patricia Banker of Saints Preserved provides additional information on St. Valentine at her web site plus some interesting links, including one to a series of Victorian valentines, which is where I got the illustrations.

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Mardi Gras

In some parts of the world Carnival begins on November 11th. In other places it starts the week before Ash Wednesday. For the members of the Samba schools of Rio de Janeiro and the Crewes of New Orleans, the planning begins as soon as this year’s Carnival has finished.

Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the final day of the celebration. The whole time of Carnival is a time of riotous activity, when there are no holds barred on behavior. Masked balls gave people an opportunity to disguise themselves and act out fantasies. The name Carnival derives from carne vale, “good-bye to meat,” as devout Catholics abstained from eating any rich foods during the six weeks of Lent.

Fat Tuesday is usually marked by the consumption of rich, fatty foods and especially meats. Each part of France has its own special dish: pigs’ trotters in Champagne, pigs’ ears in Ardeche, a leg of goat in Touraine. It’s also customary to serve various rich, deep-fried pastries and cakes including pancakes, fritters, waffles, eclairs, doughnuts and cream puffs. In Venice, the pastry of the day is galani, egg dough fritters, made with white wine, eaten cold and powdered with sugar. In Russia, the special food of the day is the blini, which is served with butter, caviar, sour cream and other rich toppings.

In New Orleans, the epicenter of American Mardi Gras celebrations, the King Cake is the special food item associated with the holiday. I love this blog describing an easy version made from biscuits which was posted at the website Cookie Madness. The King Cake is a ring cake decorated with purple, green and yellow, the colors of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A plastic toy baby is inserted into the cake as it bakes and the person who finds it is crowned the King or Queen of the party. This tradition obviously derives from the celebration of Twelfth Night or Epiphany, the end of the Christmas holidays.

In Finland, Shrove Tuesday or Laskiainen is a time for outdoor parties. Everybody lends a hand to build a toboggan slide, and children as well as adults take part in the fun. Lanterns and candles are hung in surrounding trees and afterwards everybody comes back into the house for pea soup and laskiaispulla, almond-filled Lenten buns for dessert. I got this illustration and recipe for laskiaispulla from this website.

In England, pancakes are the special food for Shrove Tuesday (the name comes from the word, “to shrive,” referring to the custom of confessing before the pentitential period of Lent). It was said this allowed housewives to use up all the butter and fat before the diminished diet of Lent. Cristina Hole observes, :like hot cross buns, they have a long ancestry and are probably descendant sof the small wheaten cakes that were once made at pre-Christian festivals of early Spring.”

Carol Field describes a variety of Carnival celebrations in Italy. One of the wildest is celebrated in Ivrea which imports a trainload of blood oranges from Sicily for wild battles in the Piazza which leave the combatants bruised and dripping, while the gutters run with the red juice. In previous centuries, the items thrown included confetti (sugared almonds), candles, beans, caramels and coriander seeds rolled in plaster or flour and left to dry. Some of these make sense—the beans, for instance, recall the Roman feast of Parentalia when black beans were thrown to propitiate the ancestors—while the candles evoke the candles of Candlemas. Nowadays shaving cream is sprayed everywhere leaving everyone and everything covered in white foam.

Masked balls are part of Carnival celebrations in many places, but particularly in Venice and Germany. Pam Mandel, in her amusing chronicles of a winter spent in Austria, describes a sort of fancy debutante ball but in earlier times, the anonymity of masks and costumes allowed people to engage in licentious behavior that would normally be censured. Fasching is the name used in Germany and Austria for the masked figures, both grotesque and beautiful, that roam the street in search of food. Storace writes that in Greece, carnival provides an opportunity for free speech and uncensored social commentary. Costumes are used in this way, for instance to mock the pretensions of authorities. They also provide an opportunity for transvestism, not just sexual, but social, an opportunity to reveal what is normally hidden.

Celebrations of Carnival reached their height in Italy in the middle ages, especially in Venice. In 1214, in Venice, Carnival was celebrated with a sort of mock battle in which 12 noble ladies held a fortress which was attacked by assailants throwing flowers, perfumes and spices. Goethe attending a carnival celebration in Rome in 1787 wrote a beautiful passage about the effects of the candlelight processions of Shrove Tuesday which Carol Field quotes in her book on celebrations in Italy:

The darkness has descended into the narrow, high-walled street before lights are seen moving in the windows and on the stands; in next to no time the fire has circulated far and wide, and the whole street is lit up by burning candles.
The balconies are decorated with transparent paper lanterns, everyone holds his candle, all the windows, all the stands are illuminated, and it is a pleasure to look into the interiors of the carriages, which often have small crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, while in others the ladies sit with coloured candles in their hands as if inviting one to admire their beauty.
Sia ammazzato chi non porta moccolo. ‘Death to anyone who is not carrying a candle.’ This is what you say to others, while at the same time you try to blow out their candles….

Orloff’s description of Carnival customs still observed in Telfs in the Tyrolean Alps gives us a glimpse of some of the ancient aspects of this festival. At dawn, a baker, an innkeeper, a chimney sweep, and a peasant carry a golden sun on a pole through the village, begging the sun to shine down on the carnival. Later the Wilden appear, men and boys in grotesque masks and costumes of moss, representing winter. They roam the streets, drunk and riotous, attacking anyone who crosses them. There is a simulated bear hunt, then another procession headed by a lantern bearer whose role is to search for carnival in the darkness of winter. He makes room for the Schleicher, the spirits of spring. Each wears a fantastic hat, a mask showing the face of a young person and a giant bell. Each carries in his right hand a stick stacked with pretzels (symbols of the sun) and in his left a linen handkerchief. The Schleicher do a magic circle dance, with slow, deliberate steps, their bells awaken the slumbering earth. This is followed by a mock tribunal (making fun of local politics and gossip) and the squirting of the crowd with water from the mouth of the carnival baby.

Bulgarian carnival celebrations feature masked dancers known as koukeri or startsi (which means old man). They dance at dawn in groups of seven or nine and perform comic scenes from every day life. They are often accompanied by other characters such as a bride, a king or an Arab. In parts of eastern Thrace they dress in women’s clothing; in the Strandza mountains they dance on stilts. In some places they dance around a mast topped with a basket of straw which is ignited on the first day of Lent.

Like Groundhog’s Day, Shrove Tuesday is day for weather prognostication for the Pennyslvania Dutch who predict the height of the flax by the length of the icicles on Shrove Tuesday.

Bulgarian customs: http://www.eliznik.org.uk/Bulgaria/history/bulgaria_customs.htm

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1980

Hole, Cristina, The Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin Books 1976

Mandel, Pam, “Attack of the Jelly Donut,” http://nerdseyeview.tripod.com/austrianwinter
Orloff, Alexander, Carnival: Myth & Cult, Perlinger 1981
Root, Waverley, The Food of Italy, Vintage 1992
Storace, Patricia, Dinner with Persephone, Pantheon 1996
Yoder, Don, Groundhog’s Day, Staackpole Books 2003

The painting of the Ridotto is from Pietro Longhi. The other illustrations of Carnival in Venice came from this website.

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Lucky Moons for 2018

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.

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 2018 Pocket Astrologer for Pacific Time. Lucky Virgos get two chances to start a new project with two first quarter moons, while Libras get two chances to wrap things up or let go of what’s not working with two last quarter moons, one at the start of the year and one at the end. Leo and Aquarius are experiencing multiple eclipses. For a great description of how eclipses affect you, see this article by Susan Miller.

Moon Phase New Full First Quarter Last Quarter
Seed point,
make wish
Celebrate Initiate a project,
state intentions
Reflect, evaluate,
let go, banish
Aries Apr 15 Sep 24, harvest moon Jan 13, 2019 Jul 6
Taurus May 15 Oct 24 Jan 24 Aug 4
Gemini Jun 13 Nov 22 Feb 23 Sep 2
Cancer Jul 12, eclipse Dec 22 Mar 24 Oct 2
Leo Aug 11, eclipse Jan 31, eclipse Apr 22 Oct 31
Virgo Sep 9 Mar 1 May 21, Jun 20 Nov 29
Libra Oct 8 Mar 31 Jul 19 Jan 8, Dec 29,
Scorpio Nov 7 Apr 29 Aug 18 Feb 7
Sagittarius Dec 6 May 29 Sep 16 Mar 9
Capricorn Jan 16 Jun 27 Oct 16 Apr 8
Aquarius Feb 15 eclipse Jul 27 eclipse Nov 15 May 7
Pisces Mar 17 Aug 26 Dec 15 Jun 6

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.
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
WeMoon Almanac, a lovely engagement calendar, featuring original art, good writing and astrological lore, published by Mother Tongue Inc. For more information, go here.  Their theme for 2018 is La Luna.

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Pagan Lent

First published in 2002 at School of the Seasons.

When I mention the word “Lent” around my pagan friends, a curious thing happens. I watch as their faces go blank, they look away as if to say, “That’s not for me. That’s something Christians do to mortify the flesh.” Certainly this was the flavor of Lent as it was practiced in the late 1950’s when I was attending St. Bridget of Sweden Elementary School in Van Nuys, California. We gave up a favorite food for six weeks and saved our pennies for the “heathen babies.” But since I’ve been studying seasonal celebrations, I realize that the roots of Lent reach far back in time and are deeply aligned with the energy of spring. So I propose taking another look at Lent, its roots and its potential as a spiritual practice.

The very name of Lent is synonymous with the season, for it comes from the Anglo-Saxon lenctene, meaning the time when the days lengthen. Lent is the 40 days before Easter. Since Easter always falls on a Sunday, Lent always begins on a Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. During the church services held on Ash Wednesday, we listened to a reading which reminded us that we would die “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust”) and then the priest marked our foreheads with a smudge of dark ash (on the third eye chakra, a place also marked with sacred ash in Hindu devotions).

For the next six weeks we were required to give something up, something which was precious to us, that we would miss, something that would build character, for we would have to struggle against temptation as Christ struggled against temptation in the desert while fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. The 40 days of Lent are a significant period. Forty is a magical number which recurs throughout the Bible (Noah floated in his ark for 40 days and nights, the chosen people wandered in the desert for 40 years, Jonah led the citizens of Nineveh through 40 days of penance). But forty is also a magical number in other ways. I’ve heard that it take six weeks to break a habit (or establish a new routine). Six weeks times seven days equals 42 days, almost exactly the same time period as Lent.

But it’s not just the number of days that are significant but their conjunction with the season. In Chinese medicine, spring is the time of the liver, whose energy is change. Haragano, who teaches Wheel of the Year classes in Seattle, says that treatment centers experience higher success rates in spring than at any other time of the year. She attributes this to the incredible energy for change which courses through the earth at this time, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, as Dylan Thomas put it. The sap is rising in the trees, which are budding; the green stalks of crocuses and snowdrops are pushing through the frozen ground. There’s an incredible shift happening which — in those parts of the world which are frozen — manifests in the spring thaw, the breaking up of the contraction of winter.

Lent is the time for making auspicious changes. It doesn’t have to be about deprivation, although that pattern is deeply ingrained in me from my Catholic childhood when I usually gave up cookies or candy for Lent. As an adult, I’ve used Lent as an opportunity to experiment with my patterns with other substances. Giving up alcohol for one Lent eventually led to giving up alcohol altogether for several years. Giving up dairy products, however, did not lead to a permanent change, even though I immediately noticed the return of a certain amount of congestion (which I had previously considered normal) when I began eating dairy again at Easter. Two years ago, I gave up coffee entirely (although not caffeine — my consumption of Darjeeling tea shot up in proportion). Again, although I went back to drinking coffee (hey! I do live in Seattle), I weaned myself from daily coffee consumption and now have a latte only once or twice a week. One year I gave up sugar, probably the most difficult of all. The effect on my energy level was drastic and shocking. The few times I ate sugar (jellybeans at Nawruz, desserts at a Victorian ball), I binged and then felt sick for days afterwards. Now although I’ve put sugar back into my diet, I’m much more sensitive to its effect on my body. I no longer buy cookies or ice cream for late night snacks and I discovered an organic Earl Grey tea that’s so sweet and delicious I can drink it without sugar.

The emphasis on giving up a rich or luxurious food item has deep historical roots. The day before Lent is often called Mardi Gras, which translates as Fat Tuesday, because people gorge on rich, deep-fried foods like doughnuts and pastries on this day. In Russia, the week before Lent is the time of the butter festival when everyone feasts on blinis, pancakes wrapped around fillings. In England, the day before Lent is Pancake Tuesday since pancakes are the food of choice. The recipe for pancakes published in The Compleat Cook in 1671 includes a pint of cream, six new-laid eggs, a pound of sugar and nutmeg or mace. The previous Sunday is Colop Sunday, the last chance to eat collops (chops) before Lent begins. Carnival, another name for the period right before Lent when people splurge on the rich foods and outrageous behavior which will soon be prohibited, comes from Carne (meat) vale (farewell) because Catholics give up eating meat for Lent.

A friend of mine who is a member of a Russian Orthodox church tells me that their restrictions on food during Lent are even more severe than those I experienced in the Roman Catholic church. Lent is like a six-week progressive fast, in which people give up first meat, then a different food item each week, until the week before Easter they are eating only bread and water. This reminded me of the diet I followed (in reverse) the second (but not the last) time I quit smoking. I was following a program outlined by the Seventh Day Adventists which prescribed a strict diet during the first week of not smoking. We were supposed to eat only fruit and fruit juice the first day, then add in vegetables, then grains. Sugar, alcohol and caffeine were all forbidden–triggers for nicotine craving. I was so obsessed with figuring out what I could eat and doing all the preparation involved in preparing fresh fruit and vegetables that I barely missed cigarettes. If you have been considering trying an allergy elimination diet this would be a great time to try it.

If you think about what’s going on in the natural world, these food deprivations make sense. This part of early spring is the most hazardous time of the year for people living close to the earth. The first bitter greens (so prominent a part of spring equinox feasts like Passover and Easter) are just emerging. Fresh eggs, also associated with these feasts, are not yet available; birds are just beginning to nest. The foodstuffs, particularly the salted and smoked meat, that were stored to carry the family through the winter may be giving out. The potatoes and apples left in the cellar are getting soft and of dubious quality. The deprivation of Lent may not be voluntary but a necessity imposed by nature. As Caroline Walker Bynum points out in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, “Fasting is in rhythm with the seasons, scarcity followed by abundance.” By choosing lack, people believed they could induce God to send plenty: rain, harvest and life. As Gregory the Great said, “To fast is to offer God a tithe of the year.”

There is a long tradition of spring purification. Cleansing is part of the action of the tonic herbs of early spring on the body. Also think of spring cleaning. Those who planned to be initiated during the Eleusinian Mysteries in the fall participated in purification ceremonies in the early spring, which included bathing in the sea. When the world is being made anew, we wish to make ourselves new. Yet any change is fraught with danger and difficulty. As a friend of mine said while we were on our way to a ritual, “There is no transformation without change.” Gertud Mueller Nelson in her wonderful book on Catholic ritual comments, “which of us…does not know we must change and fear it, and in that fear come face to face with the mystery of death.” She believes that “conscious engagement of suffering and death forces us to take stock of our gift of life and consider ways of reforming and living our lives more fully and passionately.”

Nelson mentions that a banner displaying the words Vacare Deo (meaning to empty oneself so God could fill one up) was displayed in her childhood home during Lent. Brooke Medicine Eagle assigns the same value to fasting when she describes vision quests in Buffalo Woman Comes Singing.. She writes that when we fast we refrain from taking in on the right side of our experience, thus creating a vacuum in our consciousness. “By our very nature, something else will come in to fill that space.” For Brooke, the vacuum was filled with dreams, visions, clairvoyance, astral travel and revelation, all left-sided events. “The fast,” she writes, “seems to work the same way with all people. It is a brilliant tool for opening ourselves to the Great Mystery and to the Source of Life within our own being.” In discussing how to fast, Brooke Medicine Eagle recommends doing so “not as a punishment or a sacrifice, but as a joyful way to call upon another part of yourself, a way to awaken to Spirit’s voice within you.” Although you can simply move through a regular day without food, Brooke suggests taking a day off, going to a beautiful spot in nature and creating sacred space there where you can spend your time in meditation or centering. “Whatever holes in your life you fill with food — or anything else you’ve included on your fast — will become very obvious when you begin to do without them.”

I know how powerful this practice can be from my experience with another kind of fast: the week of reading deprivation which is part of the twelve-week program described by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. For reasons similar to those described by Brooke Medicine Eagle, Julia Cameron recommends abstaining from reading for one week. For those of you who get your daily dose of words from NPR, listening to talk radio is also forbidden. “Reading deprivations casts us into our inner silence,” a place where we can “hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration.”

The effects of reading deprivation have been dramatic for me and my students. The first time I did reading deprivation, I got sick. I was indignant and frightened. How could I stay in bed and rest without reading? As a way to soothe my sore throat and get to sleep at night without the soporific of a bedtime novel, I sipped at the lavender brandy I had in my cupboard for medicinal purposes. Since I hadn’t drunk alcohol for several years, I was shocked when I realized that I had replaced my addiction to reading with alcohol. The second time I did reading deprivation, I found myself spending hours obsessively planning: rewriting to-do lists, making ten year plans, elaborating all the tasks necessary to carry out complicated projects. I had never noticed before how much time I spent planning to do things as compared with actually doing them. It was another revelation.

I do reading deprivation every time I teach an Artist’s Way class. Subsequent experiences have not been so dramatic but they have been gratifying. I now look forward to reading deprivation as an oasis in my life which is crowded with things to read. One time while standing at a bus stop, restless and impatient during a reading deprivation week, I went into the nearby florist’s shop and began sniffing all the flowers, trying to come up with words to describe their various scents. I have done some of my best writing during these weeks, which are also usually times of particularly vivid dreams.

This sort of sensory abundance and sensitivity is one of the rewards of the deprivation or purification process of Lent. Lent begins with the excesses of Carnival. It comes to an end with an outburst of joy and indulgence. The Easter feast is a banquet of rich foods, the bounty of spring. The mood of Easter is one of gaiety and celebration–it derives from a Roman festival in honor of the resurrection of Attis called Hilaria.

If you find it difficult to contemplate giving something up for six weeks, just remember that you can indulge at Easter. Knowing that you are abstaining for only a limited period of time makes exercising restraint easier. Plus you can look forward to the excess of Easter. After six weeks of soy milk lattes the year I gave up dairy, I had my first latte breve (made with real cream) on Easter.

For pagans who don’t want to align with Christian holidays, a more natural time for celebrating Lent would be the six weeks between Candlemas and Spring Equinox. In fact, you might work it into your Candlemas pledge, taking a new name which symbolizes the change you want to make.

I’ve focused on giving up substances, but there are many other kinds of changes you can make. Process addictions like planning, worrying, obsessing about love, watching TV, overeating, overworking, are all good candidates. For instance, if you tend to overwork you might want to set some bottom lines ; no working overtime, no working on weekends, no work phone calls at home. I usually try to make a change in a behavior as well as giving up a substance. One year I gave up criticizing (not an easy task for a Virgo). Another year I gave up nagging.

Several years ago, I gave up self-deprivation for Lent. Mostly through working with The Artist’s Way, I had identified a pattern which Julia Cameron calls artistic anorexia which also applied to other areas of my life. I was constantly denying myself simple pleasures with the excuse that I couldn’t afford them, either financially or in terms of time. Perhaps this was a remnant of my Catholic childhood; certainly it’s a prevailing theme in our Puritan culture. I have to admit it was hard to indulge myself every day but it resulted in an atmosphere of permission for pleasure that permeates my life to this day.

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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!). Mark Silver of Heart of Business shares his version of a year-end review focused on small business owners and entrepreneurs. Facebook always likes to send you a summary of your year. And then there’s the every-popular (but oh so sadly dwindling) tradition of the Christmas letter.

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.

In 2009,  I found a software program that helped me create a gorgeous little book that’s like a love letter to my year. And every year since I’ve enjoyed the process of creating one for the year that is sliding away.

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 (Pagemaker?) 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 screen shot 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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My Favorite Calendars

Photo by Melissa Gayle West

I love this time period between the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, when my new calendar is still empty and the old one is full of memories. I comb through one and look forward to filling up the new one. Here’s a list of some of my favorite calendars. Calendars make great gifts, for you and for your friends.

Jim Maynard’s Pocket Astrologer

If I could buy only one calendar a year, this would be the one. It contains all the calendrical information I need for the year: the dates of major Christian, Jewish and other festivals, plus moon signs, moon void of course, eclipses (and where to view them), the best meteor showers of the year, planetary transits (including Mercury retrograde), and much more, all for my time zone (Pacific; there’s also one for Eastern time). I’m not sure why I love this calendar so much. Other calendars — Llewellyn’s astrological calendars and the WeMoon almanac — provide the same information. Maybe it’s the compact size. Maybe it’s because Jim Maynard was the first person to teach me about that mysterious time interval called “moon void of course” (a transition time when the moon is “in between” signs). Maybe it’s because so much is information is packed into such a small package. You get everything I mentioned above plus a blank horoscope wheel for writing in your own chart, a visual map of the planetary motions, explanations of the qualities of each zodiac sign and planet, an article on planting by the moon and much more. Orrder one at this web site.

Planner Pad

In a totally different realm, the realm of scheduling, I would be lost without my Planner Pad which is like the control panel for my complicated, multi-faceted life. Unlike traditional planners in which one tends to write mainly the dates of external obligations (appointments, etc.), the Planner Pad system encourages you to think of what you want to do in different areas of your life and then assign them time in your schedule. (I imagine this is similar to the Covey system which I’ve never used, though I have incorporated many insights from his books into my schedule, like putting first things first (my spiritual life, then my writing) in both my schedule and my day.) I’m going to adapt some of the Planner Pad ideas into my Natural Planner. I just found a great post online from Diane who loves using a Planner Pad for organizing as much as I do and she breaks down the process in great detail. If you are interested, you might want to read her post. For years I used the 8-1/2 by 11 size, but the year I ordered the smaller size, I had a lot more time (not so many lines to fill up with tasks), so I’m going back to the smaller size in 2012. To order go to the web site.

Wall Calendars

Besides my handy astrological guide and my planning system, I always like to keep a beautiful wall calendar on my wall. Both Pomegranate and Amber Lotus offer many beautiful choices. I think you can use calendars as a focal point for your dreams, which is why I sometimes give friends calendars as New Year Gifts, calendars that feature places they want to travel (Greece, Italy, etc. ) or activities they love (yoga, writing, knitting, etc.).  One year I chose a William Morris floral design calendar which helped inspire my flower essays.

Weekly Journals or Engagement Calendars

I often use beautiful calendars as journals. I have one I kept the year my daughter was turning two and it’s full of hilarious stories about her adventures and a detailed record of her vocabulary acquisition. We both still enjoy reading it.  I also have a Book of Days that came illustrated with Japanese seasonal paintings which I use as a phenological journal, where I track the seasonal changes in my life, noting the first whiff of sweet box in January, the first ripe raspberries in my garden in June, the first time the radiator comes on in my apartment in September. I put each entry under the appropriate day and write the year in parentheses, so that over time the book has become a palimpsest of over a decade in my neighborhood. I can say with certainty, “the lilacs are blooming earlier this year.”

I heart the inspiration for the Ecological Calendar, which is available both as a wall calendar and as an engagement calendar. It’s beautifully designed and meant to help you notice the natural rhythms of the year. In the engagement calendar, each weekly page shows celestial events, the ratio of sun to darkness, natural seasonal events, the tides and a preview of what’s to come. The right hand page offers space to write in your commitments or comments. It begins on Winter Solstice, as every calendar should. I love it that the creators have named the months and the days fanciful, seasonal names, just like the creators of the French Revolutionary calendar. Winter is Celeste, Sleet and Bluster. December 24 is MoonGlow, December 25 SnowLine, December 26 Ice Floe and December 27 Frozen Lake. But these names point out one problem of seasonal calendars: they don’t fit all regions. There are no frozen lakes in Seattle, and I’d be surprised if the emphasis on snow in winter works for residents of Florida or Southern California.

Almanacs

For the past six years, I’ve been enjoying the treasure trove of seasonal information collected by Bill Felker who publishes Poor Will’s Almanack. Felker started paying attention to the weather patterns where he lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio after his wife gave me a gift of a barometer, and that expanded into a passionate devotion to all indications of seasonal time. He predicts weather patterns, lists flowering plants for every day of year, provides a pollen count and a SAD index (hours of sunlight available), describes what’s happening in the night sky, and writes a perceptive and elegant essay to begin each month. You can order the 2018 edition or his book of essays at his web site or at Amazon.

Creative Calendars

One year when I was really struggling to find balance in my life, I made a collage calendar showing the year as a circle with different slices of pictures for each month. December and January were time off months, months for dreams and visions, which I depicted with a starry sky background. February, April, July and October were months I wanted to focus on my teaching, indicated by fields of lavender. March, June, September and November were months I planned to focus on my writing (I used the image of a page of handwriting). May was my month for sending out my work (I figured if I could get it all done in one month of the year, I’d be relieved of the pressure I always feel to market my work). I indicated this month with flowers and a hummingbird drinking from them. August was a vacation month (camels in the desert). This calendar proved to be enormously useful to me since every time I was feeling frantic, I simply looked at it to figure out my priorities.

Twyla Tharp describes using a circular calendar in her book The Creative Habit. She says she keeps track of multiple creative projects by drawing circles within circles on a piece of paper with the deadlines scrawled inside the borders. Although each circle is unique it rubs up against or enfolds other circles. She writes; “If I follow my circles and match things up with my calendar, the progression begins to make sense.”

My daughter has been creating a bullet journal calendar for the past several and I love seeing the creativity and originality she puts into it. She has separate lists for appointments and tracking certain activities that are important for her. She uses different colors to capture different sorts of engagements and tasks. And it’s totally personalized to her needs and her interests. I’m giving bullet journals to all my writer friends this Christmas and hoping they will find them useful.

It’s easy to make your own calendar. Many convenience stores, like the Walgreens in my neighborhood, offer templates you can fill in with your own photos. I’ve used their template for the last few years to make a calendar featuring photos of my daughter’s Chihuahua, Pepe (who is also the hero of my novel, Dial C for Chihahua). We give them as presents to Pepe’s fans (he has many).

A few years ago, after finishing a big genealogy project on my mother’s family, the Wittaks of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I made a calendar that featured significant family dates on the date grids and displayed photo collages of the ancestors of the family and the houses they lived in. I sent a copy to all of the relatives who had helped me with my research. It made a great gift.

As you can see I love calendars! I’d love to hear about the calendars you love.

First published on December 24, 2011. Updated 12/23/2017.

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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.

First published December 14, 2015

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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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