Dallying with Dahlias

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

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

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

Statue of Coatlicue in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City

Statue of Coatlicue in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double dahlia by Redoute

Double dahlia by Redoute

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

From L'illustratoin horticole

From L’illustratoin horticole

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

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

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

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

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

Frost To-Night

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Pysanky: Ritual Eggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a list of some symbols.

Star: Success

Birds:  Spring, good harvest & pushing away evil

Hearts: Love

Fruits, vegetables, wheat: Good harvest

Flowers:  Beauty and children

Spiders:  Healing powers and good luck

Animals, especially deer:  Prosperity and wealth

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

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

Circle: Protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published Mar 12, 2010

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Twelfth Night

Now Christmas is past, Twelfth Night is the last
To the Old Year adieu, Great joy to the new

This twelfth night of the twelve days of Christmas is the official end of the winter holiday season and one of the traditional days for taking down the Christmas decorations (The others are February 1 and January 13, St. Knut’s day in Scandinavian countries).

This is also a traditional day for wassailing apple trees. In southern and western England, revelers gathered in orchards where they sang to the trees, drank to their health, poured hot cider over their roots, left cider-soaked toast in their branches for the birds and scared away evil spirits with a great shout and the firing of guns.

The ancient Roman tradition of choosing the master of the Saturnalian revels by baking a good luck bean inside a cake was transferred to Twelfth Night. In Italy, the beans were hidden in focaccia rather than a cake: three white beans for the Magi and one black one. Whoever found the black bean was made king and could choose his queen and rule the banquet. In colonial Virginia, a great Ball was held on this night. The King wins the honor of sponsoring the Ball the following year; the Queen the privilege of making next year’s Twelfth Night Cake.

Twelfth Night
or King and Queen

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Bean’s the King of the sport here;
Beside we must know
The Pea also
Must revel, as Queen, in the Court here.

Begin then to choose,
(This night as ye use)
Who shall for the present delight here.
Be a King by the lot
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day Queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the King and the Queen here.

Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lambs-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the King
And Queen wassailing;
And though with ale ye be wet here;
Yet part ye from hence,
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.
Robert Herrick

This final day of the Christmas season, was considered the beginning of Carnival in Italy, where it was associated with jokes and tricks. In Tuscany, a man used to dress up like a witch (Befana?) and surround himself with befanotti, low-life characters wearing false beards and inside-out jackets. Booths were set up in the piazzas, offering toys and games. Vendors dressed up young boys like women, with blackened faces, caps on their heads, a long reed in one hand, a lantern in the other and hung them with baskets of oranges and golden pine cones. All of these resemble Saturnalian customs (December 17) and Twelfth Night does partake of the quality of Saturnalia with its emphasis on light-hearted fun, social satire and role reversals.

In some Italian communities, engagements are announced on Epiphany. The remaining bachelors and spinsters are then paired off by lot (reminiscent of Valentine’s Day). If a girl is left without a partner she is given the title of Befana for the year.

In France, the special cake served on this night is the galette des rois. The lovely photo of the galette and useful information on creating your own can be found at this blog. It is thin and round and is cut into pieces in the pantry, always one more piece than there are guests, and carried into the room covered with a white napkin. The youngest member of the party gets to distribute the pieces. A small china doll (formerly a bean) is baked into the cake and the person receiving this piece becomes the Queen or King and gets to choose a consort. The extra piece is called le part a Dieu, and is set aside for the first person to come through the door.

In Portugal, the bolo-Rei cake is ring–shaped and, besides the dried lima bean which designates the King (who must make the cake the following year), contains amulets and fortune-telling trinkets.

In England, the Twelfth Night cake is usually a rich and dense fruitcake which contains both a bean and pea. The man who finds the bean is the King, the woman who finds the Pea is the Queen. But if a woman finds the bean, she can choose the King, while the man who finds the pea can choose the Queen. The royal pair then direct the rest of the company in merriment. They assign the revelers ludicrous tasks or require them to behave in ways that are contrary to their usual roles. In France, every action of the royal pair is commented upon and imitated with mock ceremony by the entire company, who shout “the Queen drinks,” “The King laughs,” “The Queen drops her handkerchief!”

Traditional Twelfth Night foods served in England include anything spicy or hot, like ginger snaps and spiced ale. If you didn’t try out the Snapdragon game on Solstice or Christmas, try it on Twelfth Night. It’s the perfect game for this wild and rowdy holiday.

In Russia, this was a night for divination. Pushkin describes several of these customs in Eugene Onegin. Every one put a ring into a dish and then traditional songs were sung which predicted events like bereavement or marriage. Then a ring was chosen at random from the dish and the fate of the song ascribed to its owner.

If you want to celebrate Twelfth Night in an appropriately medieval way, try these instructions from Robert May in The Accomplisht Cook (1665):

Make the likeness of a Ship in paste-board, with flags and streamers, the guns belonging to if of Kickses [odds and ends], bind them about with packthred, and covere them with course paste proportionable to the fashion of a Cannon with Carriages, lay them in places convenient, as you see them in Ships of War; with such holes and trains of powder that they may all take fire; place your Ship firm in a great Charger; then make a salt round about it, and stick therein egg-shells full of sweet water; you may by a great pink take out all the meat out of the egg by blowing, and then fill it with rose-water. Then in another Charger have the proportion of a Stag made of course paste with a broad arrow in the side of him, and his body filled up with claret wine. In another Charger at the end of the Stag have the proportion of a Castle with Battlements, Percullices, Gates, and Draw-bridges made of pasteboard, the Guns of Kickses, and covered with course paste as the former; place it at a distance from the Ship to fire at each other. The Stag being plac’t betwist them with egg-shells full of sweet water (as before) placed in salt. At each side of the Charger wherein is the Stag, place a Pie made of course paste, in one of which let there be some live Frogs, in the other live Birds; make these pieces of course paste filled with bran, and yellowed over with saffron or yolks of eggs, gild them over in spots, as also the Stag, the Ship, and Castle; bake them, and place them with gilt bay-leaves on the turrets and tunnels of the Castle and Pieces; being baked, make a hole in the bottom of your pieces, take out the bran, put in your Frogs and Birds, and close up the holes with the same course paste; then cut the lids neatly up to be taken off by the Tunnels: being all placed in order upon the Table, before you fire the trains of powder, order it so that some of the Ladies may be perswaded to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret wine follow as blood running out of a wound. This being done with admiration to the beholders, after some short pawse, fire the train of the Castle, that the peeces all of one side may go off; then fire the trains of one side of the Ship as in a battle; next turn the Chargers, and by degrees fire the trains of each other side as before. This done, to sweeten the stink of the powder, let the Ladies take the egg shells full of sweet waters, and throw them at each other. All dangers being seemingly over, by this time you may suppose they will desire to see what is in the pieces; where lifting the first the lid off one pie, out skips some Frogs which makes the Ladies to skip and shreek; next after the other pie, whence comes out the Birds; who by a natural instinct flying at the light, will put out the candles: so that what with the flying Birds, and skipping Frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company: at length the candles are lighted, and a banquet brought in, the musick sounds, and every one with much delight and content rehearse their actions in the former passages.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Womens Press 1937

Illustration:Etching by “Phiz” (1840), an illustration for Harrison Ainsworth’s novel, Clitheroe, of Twelfth Night Merry Making in Farm Shakeshaft’s Barn

First published January 12, 2012

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Solstice Traditions

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

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

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

First published December 23, 2009

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Making Bath Bombs

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

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

Dry ingredients:

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

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

Wet ingredients:

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Twelve Days of Christmas

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Photo by Cate Kerr

Excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book:

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

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

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

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

Photo by Cate Kerr

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

Shakespeare refers to this legend in this passage from Hamlet:

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

Hamlet, I, i 157

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

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Signs of the Season: Early Dark

Photo by Terry Musgrove

by Kelly Fine

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

Photo by Mikko Karttunen

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

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

Photo by Terry Musgrove

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

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

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

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

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Who Is Santa Lucia?

By Joanna Powell Colbert

By Joanna Powell Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland. March 2009

Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland. March 2009

Jews celebrate the rowdy full moon festival of Purim with bawdy jokes, indulgence, gambling and dressing up in costume, all customs that link it with other springtime festivals of excess like Mardi Gras. Although Purim ostensibly celebrates the overthrow of the wicked tyrant Haman who was murdering the Jews, scholars believe the festival actually has roots in an ancient Persian spring holiday which featured a mock battle (like those often linked with Carnival and Easter).

People bring noise-makers to the evening service, to drown out the name of the tyrant Haman during the re-telling of the story of Esther. Some write his name on bits of paper which they tear up and toss into the air; others have his name written on the soles of their shoes which they stamp on the floor. The Talmud recommends drinking until it is impossible to tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai.”

hamantaschenAfter the service, everyone eats, hamantaschen, three-cornered cookies filled with poppy seeds or jam, which are said to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. But they also resemble the triangular filled pastries in the shape of a woman’s sex used to celebrate the  Roman birth goddesses and that would certainly go along with the bawdy flavor of the holiday. Not everyone eats hamantaschen at Purim. German Jews eat gingerbread men. Egyptians eat ozne Haman, deep-fried sweets shaped like Haman’s ears. Hungarian and Romanian Jews enjoy arany galuska, (aka monkey balls) which is similar an interesting cross between coffee cake and doughnut holes (reminiscent of the king  cake and doughnuts served at Mardi Gras).

This festival is also called The Festival of Lotteries, because of the lots cast by Haman to choose the day to destroy the Jews. But playing games of chance is a feature of other festivals of reversal like Saturnalia and Twelfth Night and other festivals of reversal. At Purim, sometimes a Purim-rabbi is elected to give a mock sermon.

In some traditional Jewish towns, teams of Purimshpielers tour the streets, juggling and singing, dancing and acting, wearing costumes and presenting plays on Jewish history. In Tel Aviv, there is a parade and carnival including a beauty contest to choose Queen Esther from among the women.

The traditional Purim dinner includes kreplach and peas, particularly chickpeas, a huge challah, and, ever since the turkey was brought to Europe from North America around 1524, turkey. Some say the turkey is served in remembrance of Ahasuerus, who was a foolish king, but it may have more to do with the scope of his kingdom, for he ruled from Ethiopia to India, and the turkey was known in Hebrew as “the Indian cock.”


Nathan, Joan, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, Schocken Books 1988

Waskow, Arthur, Seasons of Our Joy, Beacon 1982

Photo of Purim play by Henryk Kotowski, found at the Wikipedia article on Purim

Photo of hamantaschen from this website which also offers a recipe.

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Wet January

winter creek

Photo by John Brew

by Kelly Fine

January is the middle of the long wet season here in Seattle. It’s mid-January and I’m sitting beside a fast-flowing stream, a piece of vinyl between me and the wet sponge of the forest floor. I’ve come to my favorite neighborhood park – a remnant of second-growth forest – to see what drizzle, rain, and fog have made of the woods.

I visit these woods often enough to know that the leaf litter surrounding me has been wet for months. The water and fine sand splashed over its surface give it a matte sheen. On cold nights the leaves freeze brittle, and over the course of the overcast mornings, each leaf slowly relaxes again. As usual, it’s overcast today, and beyond the trees I can see a stretch of the white stratus cloud blanketing Seattle. That’s because the maples and alders surrounding me have lost their leaves for winter, and most of the taller shrubs have done the same. If I were a tree facing six months of cool, dim winter, I’d probably give up my leaves and go dormant too. But winter brings plenty of rain to those plants that keep their leaves all season, and the clearings in the canopy allow plenty of cloud-strained light to reach the understory evergreens — Oregon grape, young conifers, sword ferns, salal, and the mosses and lichens that grow on every surface of these woods and thrive in the Northwest winter.

Photo by Michelle Simkins

Photo by Michelle Simkins

When I lived in southern California, I thought I knew what health looked like: chaparral growing steadily in the sunlight, ravens gliding overhead. But in these wet woods, health looks like moss slowly pushing forth into another white day, drinking water from the air. On the lower branches of a small hemlock near me, moss grows long and thick. Sprays of hemlock needles emerge from the mats of moss, but it’s the moss that will shade the ground during the next cloudbreak. The moss reminds me of a retriever’s fur, muddy but drying in clumps after a dunk in the river.

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Big-leaf maples must be the mossiest trees in the Northwest. Running my hand over the damp moss of the maple trunk beside me, I notice a pale dust lichen splattered over its surface and fir needles caught deep in its net. Springing from the moist decay held in place by the moss, I find a small mushroom, its delicate cap thin as an inner artichoke leaf. But the most prominent living things springing from the moss are licorice ferns. Moisture-loving, they poke their tips out from the moss every fall when the rains return. After the maples lose their leaves in November, the ferns come into their prime; maybe this access to the sky gives them the light and water they crave. Now they’re extending more than a foot out from the maple trunk beside me, and their tips are just starting to feel the pull of gravity. I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust entirely to the sight of ferns growing from live tree trunks, but almost every big-leaf maple in these woods supports at least a few of them.

Rain is never far from these woods in winter, and now it arrives, a few hard drops splattering my notebook page. Soon the mere tug of a pen will tear that page. I have a lot to do today, and the cold is starting to stiffen my writing hand. Rain gathers at the tip of a sword fern leaf, sags into a teardrop, and rips free. I want to stay and see more, but I should go. As I’m debating, a black lab discovers me on the ground and gives one startled bark. I tell him it’s okay, and he comes wriggling to bury me in steaming breath and dog delight.


Kelly Fine writes from suburban Seattle. Find her at Cracked Offering.

To view more of John Brew’s photos, go to Flickr. To see more photographs and other work by Michelle Simkins, go to her website:  Greenwoman Studio.



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