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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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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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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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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