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.

References

Freya Aswynn, Northern Mysteries & Magick, St Paul MN: Llewellyn 1998.
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
Helen Farias, “The Return of Lucia,” TBP’s Octava, Vol. 3 No. 1, Clear Lake WA: 1987.
Helen Farias, “Magical Ladies of the Thirteen Nights,” The Beltane Papers, Clear Lake WA: Samhain 1992.
Waverly Fitzgerald, “St. Lucy’s Day,” School of the Seasons, <www.schooloftheseasons.com/lucia.html> (Accessed 1/21/00)
Waverly Fitzgerald & Helen Farias, Midwinter, Seattle: Priestess of Swords Press 1995.
Susan Granquist, “Lucy Fest,” Irminsul Aettir, <www.irminsul.org/arc/001sg.html>(Accessed 1/21/00)
Stephan Grundy, Alice Karlsdottir, Diana Paxson, “Chapter XVIII: The Frowe (Freyja),” Our Troth, <w3.one.net/~dls/kspirits/ot/otfrowe.htm> (Accessed 1/27/00)
Christina Hole, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, London: Paladin 1976
Ellen Evert Hopman, Tree Medicine Tree Magic, Phoenix Publishing 1992.
Alice Karlsdóttir, Stephan Grundy, Kveldulf Gundarsson, Melodi Lammond, Larsanthony K. Agnarsson, Karter Neal, Laurel Olson, Diana Paxson, Siegróa Lyfjasgy, Dianne Luark Ross, “Chapter XIII: Frija and Other Goddesses,” Our Troth, <w3.one.net/~dls/kspirits/ot/otfrija.htm> (Accessed 1/22/00)
John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas, Quest Books 1998
Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, Dover Publications 1976/1912
Lynn H. Nelson, “Holiday Business All Done,” <www.ukans.edu/~medieval/1999.kans/msg00009.html> 1/8/99 (Accessed 1/21/00)
Patricia Monaghan, O Mother Sun, Crossing Press 1994.
Thorskegga Thorn, “Spinning in Myths and Folktales,” <pluto.nidram.co.uk/%7Eskegga/spinmyth.htm> (Accessed 1/27/00)

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.

It was first published December 8, 2015.

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Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

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

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

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

Photo of Hanukkah gelt was taken by Liz West and posted at Flickr. Photo of the silver menorah (found at Wikipedia) was taken by Ladislav Flaigl and released into the public domain. This article was first published in December 2, 2016.

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An Advent Garden

by Erin Fossett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Celebrating Advent

by Waverly Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Advent Wreath

[Excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book]

by Waverly Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published November 2010

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Moon Cake Recipe

For serving on the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival
From Chinese Seasons by Nina Simond

Filling
1/2 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped dried apricots (softened in hot water for 1 hr before chopping)
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup raisins
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts

Combine the ingredients and mix well.

Crust
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1 t salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 t vanilla extract
2 T water

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Using a large whisk or an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar for about 10 minutes, until a ribbon is formed. Add the melted butter, the vanilla extract, the water and the dry ingredients and stir until a rough dough is formed. Use your hands to press the dough into a ball. Form the dough into a long snakelike roll about 1-1/4 inches thick. Cut into 24 pieces.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Using your hands, press each dough section into a 3-inch circle, with the edges pinched thinner than the center. Place a portion of the filling in the center, gather up the edges of the dough to meet in the center and pinch to seal. Roll the cake into a ball and flatten it to a 3-inch round. Carve a decorative design on top or press the cake, joined edges up, in a lightly floured moon-cake mold. Invert the molded cake onto a cookie sheet. Continue until done. Arrange the cakes 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Prepare a glaze (by beating one egg) and brush the surface of each cake lightly with it. Bake the cakes for about 30 minutes until golden brown. Remove, cool and serve.

From my Harvest Holiday guide, available from my store.

Photo taken by Junelee. I found it on Wikipedia.

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Mid-Autumn Moon

On the full moon of the eighth Chinese lunar month, women celebrate the Moon. This moon is usually the full moon closest to the Equinox, and the same as the Harvest Moon in the West.  It corresponds with the Full Moon of October 5 in 2017.

In China, this is the beginning of the yin part of the year, when the dark takes precedence over the light, and the Moon is the symbol of yin energy, which also includes water, women and night. In the old Chinese agrarian system, autumn and winter were the women’s seasons.

The Moon Goddess, known as Hengo or Chang-o rules the Jade Palace of the Moon. Sometimes she is associated with a rabbit, sometimes with a toad. She drank the elixir of immortality meant for her husband and floated up to the Moon.

To honor the Moon, the women build an altar in the courtyard and put a figure of the Moon Hare in the center. Also on the altar are 13 moon cakes (to represent the 13 lunar months in the year), incense sticks, candles and plates of pomegranates, melons, grapes, apples and peaches. The pomegranates and melons represent children, the apples and grapes fertility and the peaches long life.

According to Anneli Rufus in The World Holiday Book, another popular fruit for the altars is the grapefruit-like pomelo, whose Chinese name, yow, is a homophone for “to have.” She also describes the filling of the moon cakes: sweet bean paste or lotus seed with a boiled egg at the heart to symbolize the moon.

When the full moon rises after sunset, the woman of the house approaches the altar and bows to the moon, followed by all the other women present. They sit in the courtyard all night long, feasting and drinking, some studying the moon for auguries, some composing poems about the beauty of the moon and the night, some playing the game of “Capturing the Moon,” by trying to catch her reflection in a bowl of water.

In Korea, to the north, this is a harvest festival. In Vietnam, it is celebrated by children who march in the night, carrying lanterns shaped like animals, birds, and fish, moving with a swaying motion, and chanting nonsense rhymes.

In Japan, this holiday is called Tsukimi. People gather at lakes or in special moon-viewing pavilions and eat “moon-viewing noodles”: thick white udon in broth with an egg yolk floating on top.

Photo by Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know

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Michaelmas

Photo by Mark Twyning

September 29 is the feast day of St. Michael and all the Angels, the most ancient of all the angel festivals. From fairly early on, Michaelmas was an important holiday, the religious or Christian equivalent of the autumn equinox. Just as spring equinox was associated with another Archangel (Gabriel) and a fixed date (March 25), so did the Archangel Micheal’s holiday become a fixed date to celebrate the harvest holiday of autumn equinox.

Michael is one of my favorite saints, especially in his role as a protector. When I was worried about my adolescent daughter, I asked Michael to protect her and promised a pilgrimage to one of his traditional sites of worship. I was hoping to get to Mont St. Michel but made due with a walk up to the top of Skirrid Fawr in the Brecon Beacons where there was a ruined chapel to St. Michael.  Most churches to St. Michael are on the top of mountains, like this handsome church on an island off the coast of Cornwall.

In England, Michaelmas was considered the start of a new quarter. It marked the start of a new business year, a time for electing officials, making contracts, paying rent, hiring servants, holding court and starting school. Obviously we still see the remnants of this in the timing of our elections and school year.

This is also a time when the weather is known to change. In Italy, they say “For St. Michael, heat goes into the heavens.” In Ireland, people expect a marked decrease in sickness or disease. Barolini records a nursery rhyme about hours of sleep:

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

As early as 1014, the laws of Ethelred in England prescribed a three day fast for all Christians before the feast. Servants weren’t allowed to work during these days. Michaelmas was a time when rents were due, and rents were often paid in food. The traditional rent for Michaelmas was a goose.

Eating something rich like goose at this turning point of the year brings good luck. In Nottingham they say “If you eat roast goose on Michaelmas day, you will never want money all year.” In Norfolk, they say, “if you don’t baste the goose on Michaelmas Day, you will want money all year.” In Italy, where this is clearly considered a harvest festival, they say “For St. Michael all the last fruits of the year are honeyed and ripe.”

The celebration of Michaelmas in Scottish highlands and islands clearly shows that this was the occasion for a ritual thanksgiving for the abundance of harvest. An unblemished ram lamb called the Michael Lamb was killed on the eve of the feast to be served as the main course. Women made special cakes called struan Michael or Michaelmas cakes, from equal parts of all types of grain grown on the farm, kneaded with butter, eggs and sheep’s milk, marked with a cross and cooked on a stone heated by a fire of sacred oak, rowan and bramble wood. A piece of the cake was thrown into the fire as a tithe to St. Michael’s opponent, the Devil. Other cakes were made for special people, for the family and for the community. Cranberries, bilberries, brambleberries, caraway seeds and wild honey were baked into the cakes. Clearly part of the purpose of this charm was to take the bounty of the farm’s harvest and use it to fashion an offering of thanks. In a similar gesture, people in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire scattered grain for the wild birds to bring good luck to the farm.

From this Waldorf site

Ginger was also a traditional flavor enjoyed at Michaelmas in the form of gingerbread. I love the playfulness of these little dragon breads which I found at a Waldorf site. They are made from bread dough, shaped like dragons, and decorated with almonds and raisins.

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A Harvest Loaf

by Kate May-Price

The colors grow richer in these early fall days – even here in San Francisco, though it pales in the shadow of upstate New York’s autumnal fires. I can still sense the natural rhythm as the weather blows the golden grains on our California hills.

It is harvest time, but nowadays it can be hard to see the relevance of ensuring the winter stores. Traditionally, this was a time for reaping grains and preserving the fruits of summer. Some of us continue this work, but many of us do not.

There is however much more than seasonal harvest nostalgia, many of us are looking for a return to the lessons learned from traditional or indigenous diets. Let us then look to Jessica Prentice’s book “Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.”

True to their personification, squirrels are clever – burying each acorn fools it into thinking its been “planted.” While the squirrel continues its gathering, the buried nut begins to release nutrients that are key to a germinating plant. In the spirit of coevolution,  these nutrients are exactly what is nutritionally required by the squirrel if it hopes to survive the barrenness of winter.

We can mimic this – increasing available nutrients – through the process of sprouting or fermenting grains. The recipe – without further ado.

From the “Full Moon Feast” book –

Sourdough:

Take 1 tablespoon of sourdough starter and mix it together with ½ cup filtered water and 1 cup freshly ground whole wheat (or spelt) flour in a clean jar. Let this sit for 8 hours at room temperature or between 48 hours and 1 week in the refrigerator before using in the recipe.  You can use it at room temperature, or cold.  Each time you cook with your sourdough, reserve 1 tablespoon of starter, mix with ½ cup of water plus 1 cup of flour, and store in the fridge for the next recipe. You can keep your starter going indefinitely this way.  Mine is about 15 years old.

 

The best way to get a good sourdough starter is from a friends or an artisanal bakery…The great thing about a real sourdough starter is that it is made up of wild yeasts – that’s what you want.  Try G.E.M. Cultures for sourdough as well.

 

You can also make your own starter.  Our hands have natural yeasts on them, so if we add the water, the flour and “get into the mix,” we have starter unique to ourselves. For more specific information, check out the new book, “The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time” by the Bay area’s own Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger.

“May we feel wonder for the gift of grain, which through dying is born again, or else gives its life to us.”

Kate is an educator, artist, gardener, and cook carrying on her family’s culinary history by following her nose. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay area. Her web site is called Pen, Trowel and Fork.

Portions of this article reprinted from Full Moon Feast, ©2006 by Jessica Prentice, with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing (www.chelseagreen.com). All of the photos are courtesy of Kate May-Price. First published August 29, 2010.

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Falling Leaves Day

Photo Credit: Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know

This has emerged in recent years as I have spent time focusing on the in between seasons. There is a time when almost all the leaves have left the trees. The trees stand bare and quite exposed but there is usually one of two leaves quivering and clinging to the last breath. This is a day that I like to spend with the leaves and it is a truly personal day created by me for me.

In itself the process of creation speaks a story that will unfold as the years do the same. This year that day is almost upon me. Once I see the day has arrived everything will be suspended. Mother Nature is in charge of when this day falls and that is one of the most enchanting things about falling leaves day.

My day with leaves will involve all sorts of creative activities with leaves. I have created leaf rubbings since I was small but I still get a gentle moment of excitement as the crayon finds the shape. Recent years have seen me dry leaves before creating a leaf garland to celebrate autumn.  My leaves are drying in readiness. Using cotton and a needle I make a small stitch into the back of the largest vein  in the leaf before leaving a gap of cotton and then continuing to sew. This garland remains in my sitting room for many months.

Over the years leaves have inspired many poems and short pieces of fictional writing and this will form the bulk of my inside time while sat next to my open fire. Before that though a ‘walk with the leaves’ is the heart of the day. Hoping for a dry crisp day where I can walk through piles of leaves tossing them into the air as I go. On our smallholding we use decaying leaves as a winter mulch and feed for the soil so some brushing of leaves will feature in the day. This raises the heart beat and reminds you that you are alive.

As I close my journal on my falling leaves day I will spend just a few minutes remembering all the times I have walked with the leaves.  It is a ritual that speaks to my spirit that immediately connects my soul to Mother Nature.

It promises to be the best of all holidays.

Fiona Doubleday is an artist who live on the Isle of Arran. Her most recent creative adventure has taken her into the textile arts. She is making and selling exquisite bowls made out of recycled and natural materials. She has also blogged for years under the name Scottish Island Mum.

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