My favorite holiday I’ve never celebrated is Holi, which is celebrated in India on the full moon of Phalgun (March 6 in 2015). It’s a spring festival during which people splash each other with colored, scented water or throw colored dyes at each other. It’s a rowdy time when the genders can mingle, and so can people of different social classes. A popular Holi drink is milk, flavored with spices, and also sometimes infused with hashish.

In earlier times, Holi dyes were made from palash flowers, also known as flame of the forest or the parrot tree. The photo is from a long photo-laced essay which enthuses about the colors and geometry of these flowers.  The flowers which bloom at this time of the year, were plucked, then dried, then ground into a reddish powder. In modern times, the dyes used have been made from potentially harmful chemicals so there is a movement to return to more natural dyes. One mother cleverly adapted Martha Stewart’s natural dyes for Easter eggs to making dyed Holi water, boiling cabbage leaves to make blue, turmeric to make yellow, beets to make pink and onionskins to get red dye. Combining the blue and yellow water created green.

Vasanta Raga, Ahmadnagar, c. 1595

One of the earliest depictions of Holi is found in a 16th century temple panel at Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagar, which shows a prince and princess standing among maids waiting to spray them with colored water. Another early depiction is seen in this miniature painting of Vasanta Raga (or spring music).  It shows a royal couple sitting on a swing, while maidens play music and spray them with colors from pichkaris (hand-pumps).

In America quite recently, images of people splashing each other with paint and colored dyes are cropping up in car commercials. There is also an organization which sponsors color runs across the United States and throughout the world, where runners are asked to wear white and splashed with colors as they pass by color stations.

I’m not quite sure how I’m going to celebrate Holi. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to drink milk laced with hashish or throw colored powder on my friends or squirt them with colored water from a water pistol or even throw balloons full of colored water.

But that reminds me of the cascarones: eggs filled with confetti that are popular in Mexico at Easter. When thrown at someone, they break open to reveal a cloud of colored dots.  According to Wikipedia, originally these were filled with perfume and thrown at women by men, which sounds more appealing. And that reminds me of the confetti and blood oranges thrown during Carnival in Venice. Obviously there is something about juicy color and sweetness and mischief that I need to honor on this spring full moon.

Found the photo here.

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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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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.


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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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.

2015 is the Year of the Goat

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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All Souls Day

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Weather Report, November 2

All Souls’, blustery and chill. I hear them before I see them, six lines scribbling across the white sky. I look up at the tiny crosses beating above me. The pain is new each year, and I’m surprised, even though I expect it the sudden cold, the geese passing over.

From Dakota by Kathleen Norris

I love Kathleen Norris’ simple but striking evocation of the mood of November 2nd. The melancholy of the geese passing overhead, warns of the arrival of winter and resonates with the image of the Wild Hunt, the horde of wandering souls that flew through the winter night sky, sometimes disguised as swans or wild geese or the wind. In Scandinavia, they were led by Odin, in England by Herne the Hunter, but in earlier times, in the Mediterranean they were led by goddesses.

The Wild Horde itself was a complex phenomenon whose origins lose themselves partly in the prehistoric past. There was the assembly of ghosts under the leadership of a female divinity, Hecate or Artemis in ancient Greece, Diana or Herodias, the mother of Salome, in the Latin West. This gathering of feminine spirits which later swelled into the crowd of evil hags at the witch sabbath was well known to the theologians of the first millenium who in vain flung their anathema against it…

As usual the effort was in vain. For as late as 1484 the Austrian Sephanius Lanzkranna reports in his ‘hymmelstrasse’ about the exploits of the Demon Dyana, whom he identifies with the local demons Frawe Percht and Frawe Holt. Herodias herself rides to the present day with the Wild Horde in large parts of Italy and in the Eastern Alps…Ritual performances meant to embody ghosts of the defunct–a feature not mentioned by writers of the first millenium–have survived over a large part of the eastern Alps under the name of Perchta, a feminine demon in whom the spirit of the Carnival is incarnated. [Bernheimer]

Bernheimer points out that the masculine Wild Horde, led by Odin, Holler, Gwyn ap Nudd, etc. is a more or less Teutonic phenomenon while the feminine one seems to be of Mediterranean origin. It may be the northern male-led horde grew out of the Southern female-led one.

In his book, Ecstasies, in which he explores the imagery of the witches’ sabbath, Carlos Ginzburg describes evidence for an early shamanic cult, centered around a goddess of abundance and the dead. She was known by many names: Herodiade, Diana, Habondia (Abundance), Richessa and the Good Goddess (Bona Dea whose festival the Romans celebrated on December 1st). Her devotees said they flew with her through the night sky, entering the houses of the rich to feast; Ginzburg suggest these journeys were undertaken in trance.

The Cathars, who developed a unique Christian religion which flourished in Southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries until wiped out as heresy by a Crusade in the 13th century, believed that this was the day when the souls of those who died during the year entered into a place of rest. Before this day, they wandered around the earth, from church to church. Angels chose from this flock those ready to be admitted to the place of rest. The living could influence the selection by saying Masses for the dead, paying off their debts and giving gifts to the poor.

This is similar to the tradition of English tradition of going from house to house, gathering ingredients for soul-cakes. Sometimes these were left out for the poor to eat, sometimes given to the priest to pay for Masses for the souls of the dead, sometimes they were given to those professionals who took on the sins of the dead, as in this passage quoted by Kightly:

In the County of Hereford was an old Custom at Funerals, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sins of the part deceased. One of them I remember (he was a long, lean, lamentable poor rascal). The manner was that when a Corpse was brought out of the house and laid on the Bier; a Loaf of bread was brought out and delivered to the Sin-eater over the corps, as also a Mazer-bowl full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him all the Sins of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from Walking after they were dead.

John Aubrey, Remains of Gentilism 1688

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church tried to replace the idea of ghosts wandering around the night sky with that of souls who went straight to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory upon death and thus could not be contacted by those spiritual practitioners whose role it was to pass along messages from one world to another. With this development, the link was broken between people and their ancestors, who could no longer be prayed to or invited to return to provide advice.

Instead, wealthy patrons bestowed money on monasteries for the privilege of having the monks pray for their souls after death. In 998, the abbot of Cluny, Odilo, dedicated the day following All Saints Day as a day of psalm-singing and alms-giving, in memory of all who had died. One legend says he was spurred on in this action by a report from a traveler who had been told by an African hermit that the monks of Cluny were famous for saving souls. Another legend, related by the thirteenth century canonist, William Durandus, recorded the fate of a certain abbot who forbade saying Masses of the dead on Sundays. The souls of the deceased “afflicted him for this with very hard blows” and so he revoked his prohibition.

The dead saints replaced the ancestors as the subject of prayers and other-worldly assistance. The only dead still presumed to have contact with the living were evil spirits who still roamed the earth. They were not the sort you wanted to encounter on a dark night, thus the association of All Hallow’s Eve with ghosts and terror.

An excerpt from my Halloween holiday e-book which can be ordered at the Living in Season store.


The first painting is called All Soul’s Day and it was painted in 1910 by Alader Korosfoi-Kriesch. The second painting is called Asgardreien and was painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1872.


Bernheimer, Richard, Wild Men of the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology, Octagon 1970

Ginzburg, Carlos (translated by Raymond Rosenthal), Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, Pantheon 1991

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

Ladurie, Roy (translated by Barbara Bray), Montaillou, George Braziller 1978

Norris, Kathleen, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Houghton Mifflin 1993.

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New Year Planning

I love planning. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Which is why I spend the whole month of January figuring out my goals for the new year. This year I’ll be doing it along with the students in my online class called New Year Dreams. I’ve been seeing an upswelling of posts on the Internet with great ideas for New Year planning and thought I’d point out a few of them.

There’s the one word approach. Christine Kane is known for this method and proposes a list of good words at her site. (My word isn’t on it though) My friend Christine Valters Paintner has a lovely blog about this one word concept too. My word for 2010 (which I got from Havi Brooks, who got it from Hiro Boga), was Sovereignity.

And if you want some magic spray to go with your word, check out Deborah Weber’s offerings. I just ordered her Sovereignity spray. She has auric sprays for many popular themes, like Trust and Serenity and she can make custom blends as well.

Chris Brogan uses three words which does extend the scope a little, and I like the mind maps that go with them. His words and maps are like little mysteries to me. They wouldn’t motivate me but I like it that they are concepts not qualities. His 3 words for 2010 were Ecosystem, Owners and Kings (which is kind of like Sovereignity).

I’m encouraged that so many people are realizing that having themes is a much more useful way to approach the year than goals, which usually get reduced to something soulless like make $XX,000 money or “lose XX pounds.” A theme helps you get at the longing behind the goal, the divine quality that is wanting to be expressed.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t need metrics. I really love the spreadsheet method of tracking your goals developed by Chris Guillebeau. (Although I do notice that the men on this list approach this process in much more practical way than the more organic approaches of the women. Still both are useful.)

I sometimes have trouble figuring out where to go with my themes and the spreadsheet helps me think of them in terms of concrete goals.

Alicia Forest has aninteresting way of working with themes and goalsthat combines the more rational approach with the organic one. She advises finding a theme for the year and then identifying four goals to accomplish, one per quarter (or season as I would have it).  She calls those the four Pillars of the year.

I may integrate this idea with the  Natural Planner process I developed to give me a more natural way of moving through the year. It reminds me to review my themes (which are different than goals) every season and acknowledge what I’ve achieved so far. Visual planning methods seem to work better for me these days than the grids and lists I used to love.

I hope you have a favorite planning process, one that fills you with delight.  If you do, please share it with me! I’m trying out as many as I can.

Collage made by me was one of my themes for 2012: Presence.

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Days of the Dead

The Tzeltals of Mexico celebrate the Feast of the Dead for thirteen days, beginning on October 25th. Graves are decorated with pine needles and tusus (yellow wild flowers).

In Puebla, the accidentados (the souls of those who died in accidents) return on October 28th, followed by the angelitos (the souls of dead children) who show up at noon on October 31, to be followed by the souls of dead adults on November 1. This sequence probably derives from the Aztec calendar which devoted two months to the dead: the ninth month to dead infants, the tenth month to dead adults.

The Aztecs did not fear death like European Christians, for whom it was a time of judgment. The Aztecs saw death as a phase in a cyclic journey. In fact, to die was to wake from the dream of life.

The Aztecs did not fear death like European Christians, for whom it was a time of judgment. The Aztecs saw death as a phase in a cyclic journey. In fact, to die was to wake from the dream of life. In the Yucatan, the Maya bury their dead with food, drink, clothing and other things they will need on their journey to the place of the dead.

The combination of the indigenous reverence for death with the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in 1521 produced a flowering of ritual and art in Mexico around the time of this holiday. Vendors sell skeletons made of paper mache or clay and wire with cotton wool hair, dressed as postmen, revolutionaries, street vendors, wedding couples and musicians and macabre toys, like clay skulls with movable lower jaws or skeletons that dance on a string. In Oaxaca, you can turn a handle and watch skeletons in small painted wooden theatres rise up in their coffins or drink from a cup. Printers make special editions and comic publications, satirizing famous people both dead and alive, who are depicted in skeleton or skull form with satirical obituaries, describing the person and his (mis)deeds.

Children beg for “a funeral” or “a death” and are given treats like bones made of milk chocolate and sugar skulls with maraschino cherries for eyes and grins of syrup and rows of fine gold teeth, sometimes bearing their name. One visitor to Mexico in 1884 remarked on figures in the shape of guitars, sheep, angels, souls in purgatory (I’d like to see this!) and animals “of every species, enough to form specimens for Noah’s ark.”


Ofrendas, offerings, to the dead of food and drink are placed on the altar.

The Days of the Dead are a time of reunion. People travel home. Altars are set up in houses, and decorated with flowers, leaves, fruit, incense and candles.  Sometimes flower petals are scattered in a path from the altar to the open door to guide the returning dead.

Ofrendas, offerings, to the dead of food and drink are placed on the altar. The dead derive nourishment from the smell of the food and drink so it should have a strong aroma. Starr mentions liquors, cigarettes, mole, pulque and tamales. Anita Brenner in Idols Behind Altars mentionfoodonaltars beans, chili, tortillas, and other ordinary dishes plus the specialties of the season: “pumpkins baked with sugar cane, pulque or a bluish maize-brew with a delicate sugar film, and Dead Mens’ Bread. For the children, candy skulls, pastry coffins, ribs and thigh-bones made of chocolate and frosted sugar, tombstones, wreaths, and pretentious funerals.”

Everyone goes to church. Masses are said. Genealogies recited. On the night of November 1, people gather in cemeteries and spend the night with “the little dead ones.” A priest might come and sprinkle the graves with holy water. Candles burn on every grave which are decorated with offerings and flowers. Brenner mentions heavy purple wild blossoms and the yellow pungent cempoalxochitl (marigolds). In Zinacantan, the graves are covered with pine needles, pine boughs and red geraniums and offerings. In Jimenez, people bring the bed in which the person died to the cemetery, hung with lace and curtains, white for children and black for adults. Those who have no beds take tables and place them over the grave instead, decorating them with gold and silver paper stars, paper flowers, etc. Sometimes bands serenade the dead with songs and music. In other places, people dance. Refreshments are sold at the gate.cemetery2

In San Augustin, the children gather at the church early in the morning of October 31st. From there, they walk to the graveyard, carrying a banner depicting the Eucharist, bread angels and green branches, accompanied by a prayer-maker and a few women and a band. In the graveyard, they say prayers and then return to the church, bringing back with them the souls of the angelitos, the dead children. After praying a second time, they go home to feast with their parents on mole, tamales, bread, squash, fruits, pumpkin prepared with brown sugar, maize cobs and other foods. At night four dishes are put on the floor of the house, together with candles, flowers and food for the dead. Bread and fruit are put on a “sun-and-water” bed made from maize stalks. Candles and tiny angels are left on the dry stone walls and fences so that the village children can come and carry them off. Animals are watched to make sure they don’t eat the offerings; dogs are sometimes muzzled during this holiday so their barking doesn’t drive away tcemetery3he dead. In the morning, the family eats the food left out for the dead and prepares another feast for the dead adults. On the third day, November 2nd, the children, along with the prayer-maker and the band, take the dead back to the graveyard.

Brenner, Anita, Idols behind Altars. Beacon Press 1970, quoted in Sayer
Sayer, Chloe, ed, Mexico: The Day of the Dead, London: Redstone Press
Starr, Frederick, from a catalogue for the Collection of Objects Illustrating the Folklore of Mexico, produced for the Folkore Society in London quoted by Sayer

The beautiful photographs were taken by Judy Maselli in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Taken from my Halloween holiday e-book which contains recipes for sugar skulls and bones of the dead, plus more information on other cultural variants of this holiday including I Morti in Italy, Samhain in Ireland, Nos Galan Gaef in Wales. You can order it and get an instant download link at my store.

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