An Advent Garden

by Erin Fossett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Celebrating Advent

by Waverly Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Advent Wreath

[Excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book]

by Waverly Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published November 2010

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