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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Diva Angerona

statue in the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna

statue in the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna

I’ve created one of my most satisfying winter solstice rituals around the feast day of Diva Angerona, a Roman goddess, so obscure that I can’t find a source to verify her existence. Supposedly she is the goddess of silence and is pictured holding her finger to her lips.

That is until I got a copy of The Oxford Companion to the Year, whereupon I learned that she prescribes remedies against angina. Her sealed lips represent a warning not to reveal the secret name (or taboo) name of Rome, which some claim is Amor (Roma backwards). This was also a day when sacrifices were made to Hercules and Ceres of a pregnant cow, baked goods and honeyed wine.

My ritual is simpler and involves spending the day of the solstice in silence. I don’t talk to anyone, turn on the radio or the TV or answer the phone. I turn over or hide all the clocks. To increase my sense of time out of time, I also don’t turn on the electric lights at night but light candles. I’ve been doing this for many years and I love my oasis of peace and serenity in the midst of the chaotic holiday season.

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Winter Solstice

photo by Cate Kerr

photo by Cate Kerr

The Winter Solstice is unique among days of the year — the time of the longest night and the shortest day. The dark triumphs but only briefly. For the Solstice is also a turning point. From now on (until the Summer Solstice, at any rate), the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer, the dark wanes and the Sun waxes in power. From the dark womb of the night, the light is born.

Many of the customs associated with the Winter Solstice (and therefore with other midwinter festivals such as St Lucy’s Day, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, New Years and Twelfth Night) derive from stories of a mighty battle between the dark and the light, which is won, naturally, by the light. Other traditions record this as the time a savior (the Sun-Child) is born to a virgin mother.

The Battle Between Old and New, Dark and Light

kronosThe Romans celebrated from December 17th to December 24th with a festival called Saturnalia, during which all work was put aside in favor of feasting and gambling. The social order was reversed, with masters waiting on their slaves. The Saturnalia is named after Saturn, who is often depicted with a sickle like the figures of Death or Old Father Time. Astrologically speaking, Saturn is saturnine: gloomy, old, dutiful and heavy. He was the god who ate his own children rather than let them surpass him. For new life to flourish, for the sun to rise again, it is necessary to vanquish this gloomy old fellow. Therefore, the feasting and merriment of the midwinter season are religiously mandated in order to combat the forces of gloom.

The day following the Saturnalia, was the Juvenalia, according to Z Budapest in The Grandmother of Time, a holiday in honor of children who were entertained, feasted and given good luck talismans. This makes sense. After vanquishing the Old King, it’s time to celebrate the new in the form of children, the New Year’s Baby, the Son of Man. Naturally this is the time of the year at which the birth of Christ is celebrated, since he is also the New King, the Light of the World who brings light.

The Birth of the Sun

Christ’s birthday was not celebrated on December 25th until the 4th century. Before then, December 25th was best known as the birthday of the Persian hero and sun-god, Mithra. The myth tells that he sprang up full-grown from a rock, armed with a knife and carrying a torch. Shepherds watched his miraculous appearance and hurried to greet him with the first fruits of their flocks and their harvests. The cult of Mithra spread all over the Roman empire. In 274 AD, the Roman emperor Valerian declared December 25th the Birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun.

Christ was also not the first miraculous child born to a virgin mother. As Marina Warner points out, “the virgin birth of heroes and sages was a widespread formula in the Hellenistic world: Pythagorus, Plato, Alexander were all believed to be born of woman by the power of a holy spirit.”

The union of a virgin and a supernatural force, like the couplings between Zeus and various nymphs, was shorthand indicating the presence of a miraculous child, a child with the powers of both worlds. Dionysus is such a child, born of a union between Zeus and Semele.

Parke in Festivals of the Athenians describes a women-only midwinter festival, the Lenaia, which honored Dionysos. On this night, Greek women “held their ecstatic dances in winter — fully clothed in Greek dress, with castanets or the thyrsus, dancing together with no male companions, human or satyr.” Graves calls it the Lenaea, the Festival of Wild Women (a nice companion for the Festival of Merry Women on Dec 14). He says a bull, representing Dionysus, was cut into nine pieces, with one piece being burned and the rest consumed raw by the worshippers. Dionysus was born in winter, crowned with serpents, became a lion in the spring and was sacrificed as a bull (stag or goat) in the summer because these were calendar emblems of the old tripartite year. Marija Gimbutas in Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe calls Dionysus a Year God. Mithra was also associated with the bull (his initates were baptized with the blood of a sacrificed bull) and shown with the emblems of the zodiac surrounding him, suggesting that he is also a Year God.

The Lenaia occurred on the twelfth day of the Greek lunar month, Gamelion, which falls in early winter. The twelfth day of a lunar month (which begins with the new moon) always falls on a full moon night. If we move this lunar festival to the solar calendar and count from the winter solstice, the festival would occur on January 5th or 6th.

Until the fourth century, Christ’s birthday was celebrated on January 6th, on the same date when the Virgin Kore gave birth to the year god celebrated in Alexandria with a festival called the Koreion. St. Epiphanius complains about the hideous mockery of this rite but it preceded the story of Christ’s birth. In the original ritual, the image of the goddess, decorated with gold stars, was carried seven times around her temple as the priests cried, “The Virgin has brought forth the new Aeon!”

Although Aeon, or Eon, is now defined as “an indefinitely long period of time; an age, eternity,” its Indo-European root aiw conveyed “vital force, life, long life, eternity,” and the Greek form Aionmeant specifically “vital force.” [Farias]

This description recalls the Egyptian ceremony re-enacting the birth of Horus, the sun-god to Isis. All lights in the city were doused while Isis circled the sarcophagus seven times, then brought forth Horus who was called “the Light of the World.” Statues of Isis holding the newly born sun god on her lap, presenting him to the world, are similar to pose to later statues representing Mary and Jesus.

Candles Burning in Dark ChurchFestivals of Light

The return of the light is the most prominent feature of most midwinter festivals. In Sweden on St. Lucy’s Day, young girls don white dresses and a wreath of candles and awaken their families with cakes and song. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by lighting candles over a span of eight days. The Christian custom of the Advent wreath, with its four candles, one lit each of the Sundays before Christmas, is another way of re-kindling the light.

The Christmas candle, a large candle of red or some other bright color decorated with holly or other evergreens, was at one time a popular custom throughout Great Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia. One person, usually the eldest or the head of the household, is designated as the lightbringer. She lights the candle for the first time on Christmas Eve before the festive supper and during each of the remaining evenings of the Twelve Days of Christmas. To extinguish the candle, she snuffs it with tongs rather than blowing it out, since that would blow the luck away. The candle sheds a blessing on the household and so is protected from accidental quenching. It seems likely that the candle also represented the coming year, just as the weather of each of the twelve days of Christmas foretell the weather of the corresponding month. It had protective or fertilizing powers and was kept as a charm. In Denmark, during a lightning storm, the remnant would be brought out and lit to protect the household.

Similar customs once surrounded the Yule log. The Yule log must never be bought but should be received as a gift, found or taken from you own property. Often the log to be burned at midwinter was chosen early in the year and set aside.

Tradition varies about the type of wood to be used. Oak logs were popular in the north of England, birch in Scotland and ash in Cornwall and Devon. Ash is the only wood that burns freely when green and the world-tree, Yggdrasil, in the Nordic tradition was an ash-tree. It is important that the Yule log be the biggest and greenest log available since the Christmas festivities will last only as long as the Yule log burns.

In some parts of the Scottish highlands, the head of the household finds a withered stump and carves it into the likeness of an old woman, theCailleach Nollaich or Christmas Old Wife, a sinister being representing the evils of winter and death. She’s the goddess of winter, the hag of night, the old one who brings death. Burning her drives away the winter and protects the occupants of the household from death.

The Yule log is first brought into the house with great ceremony on Christmas Eve (or the eve of solstice, if one prefers). Usually it is decorated with holly and ivy and other evergreens of the season. Some people prefer to use the Yule log as a decoration and place candles on it instead, thus transforming it into a candleabra like the menorah or the kinara. It is lit with a piece of last year’s log as described in Herrick’s poem, “Hesperides:”

Come bring with a noise
My merry, merry boys
The Christmas log to the firing
With the last year’s brand.
Light the new block,
And for good success in his spending
On your psalteries play:
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teendling.

In Italy, the Yule log is called the Ceppo. Boccaccio in the fourteenth century described a Florentine family gathering about the hearth and pouring a libation of wine upon the glowing wood, then sharing the remaining wine, thus linking the Yule log with the custom of wassailing, pouring out libations to the trees in the orchard.

The Yule log is left to burn all night, and, if possible, through the next twelve without going out, although it may be extinguished with water. The ashes are kept for good luck. They have magical properties and can be scattered in the field to fertilize the soil or sprinkled around the house for protection.

The Solstice Evergreen

Another ancient midwinter custom is decorating with greens. The Romans decorated with rosemary, bay, laurel, holly, ivy and mistletoe. The holly and ivy were both important midwinter plants in Great Britain and Ireland, as seen in the mysterious medieval carol which mentions the rivalry between them. Matthews in The Winter Solstice provides the lyrics of a 15th century carol which refers to an ancient battle between the two, with the Ivy representing the cold gloominess of winter and the Holly King, the jolly spirit of the season.

The Christmas tree is of more recent origin. In her book, The Solstice Evergreen, Sheryl Ann Karas says that the earliest record of an evergreen being decorated comes from Riga in Latvia in 1519, when a group of local merchants carried an evergreen bedecked with flowers to the marketplace, where they danced around it and then burned it. Another possible source is the custom in 15th and 16th century Germany of hanging apples on a fir tree as a prop for the miracle play performed on Christmas eve depicting Adam and Eve being driven out of Paradise (see Dec 24).

Celebrating Yule

You should enjoy yourself as much as possible on the Winter Solstice because this will bring back light (and lightness) into the world. Different traditions mention feasting, gambling, playing pranks, giving gifts, visiting, drinking, dressing up, fornicating, putting on plays and staying up all night. During the dark of winter, invoke all the forces of pleasure and love which make life worth living.

Decorating for this festival is easy since you can use all your Christmas decorations. Evergreens and wreaths represent rebirth and the circle of life. Fill your home with candles and Christmas lights. Place them on mirrors, hang up lots of sparkly ornaments and prisms and tinsel so you can create as much light as possible.

Sitting in the Dark

Earlier traditions focused on the battle between the dark and the light, but we know both are valuable. Honor the dark before calling in the light. This is the season when animals hibernate and nature sleeps and we can turn inward too. Perhaps some of the depression people feel during the holidays comes from not providing a space for feeling the sadness associated with this season. Set aside time (hard to do amidst the frenzy of the holidays) for sitting in the dark and quiet. I like to spend the entire day of the Winter Solstice in silence and reflection.

This is a natural time for letting go and saying farewell. Release your resentments and regrets into the darkness, knowing they will be transformed. Write about them in your journal or write them on slips of paper which you can burn in your Yule fire. Use your holiday cards to make amends to people you’ve hurt or neglected.

Welcoming the Light

When you light your candles and your fire, do so with the intention of bringing light into the world. What are the ways in which you can help make the world lighter? How do you bring light into the lives of those around you? Make a conscious effort to increase the amount of light you create. Nancy Brady Cunningham describes a simple yet elegant Winter Solstice ritual in Feeding the Spirit which is appropriate for a large group or a couple, for children and adults, and for people of all religious persuasions. It goes something like this:

Decorate a room with winter greenery. Place a large bowl of water and a candle in the center of the room. Have some gold glitter and scented oil nearby. Give each of the participants a candle (with some kind of holder if you’re worried about drips). Everyone sits in a circle with a lit candle in front of them and talks about their losses, putting out their candle when they’re done speaking. When all are done, the central candle is extinguished and everyone sits in the darkness reflecting on what they have lost. After a long silence, the leader relights the central candle which represents the sun and sprinkles the gold glitter on the water. Everyone lights their candles from the central candle and places them by the water so they can watch the glitter sparkling there. This is a good time to sing a sun song, like “Here Comes the Sun,” or “You Are My Sunshine.” Pass around a glass of wine or juice and toast the sun. The sun-child is the child of promise. Everyone can talk about a promise they see in the future. The leader puts the scented oil in the water and anoints each person with sunshine by dipping her hand into the sparkling, scented water and sprinkling it over each person’s hair.

I do a similar ritual at my Winter Solstice party. When the guests arrive the house is bright with Christmas lights and candles, but at some point during the evening I turn off the lights and blow out the candles and ask the guests to spend a few moments in the darkness and silence reflecting on these qualities of the winter. Then I tell the story of St Lucy and play the traditional Lucy song. As the song is playing, from out of the darkness, faint at first and growing stronger, comes the wavering light of a candle, carried by St Lucy (a role which is coveted by the younger members of the party). She is dressed in white with a crown of candles on her head and her face as she advances through the darkness, ever so intent on the candle she carries before her, is radiant. There is usually a gasp from the assembled guests, so numinous is this figure. St Lucy lights the central candle in the Advent wreath, then I invite the guests to bring their own candles to the flame to light them and make a wish for the New Year. St Lucy disappears into the darkness to reappear again as Shaw or Leah or Amy, and the house is soon full of lights and noise as we talk and listen to carols and feast on the thirteen kinds of Christmas cookies I prepare for this occasion.

Budapest, Z, The Grandmother of Time, Harper and Row, 1989
Cumont, Franz, The Mysteries of Mithra, Dover 1956
Cunningham, Nancy Brady, Feeding the Spirit, Resource Publications 1989
Farias, Helen, “The Magical Ladies of the Thirteen Nights, The Beltane Papers, Issue 2, Samhain 1992
Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess, San Francisco: Harper and Row 1989
Gimbutas, Marija, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, Thames and Hudson 1982
Karas, Sheryl Ann, The Solstice Evergreen, Aslan 1991
Matthews, John, The Winter Solstice, Quest 1998
Parke, H W, Festivals of the Athenians, Cornell University Press 1977
Walker, Barbara, Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper and Row 1983
Warner, Marina, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, Vintage 1976


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St Thomas Eve

This is another eve for love charms according to the tradition described by Charles Kighly in the Perpetual Almanack of Folklore. For a prophetic dream, stick a pin in the exact center of an onion and put eight more pins around the first in a circle while saying:

Good St Thomas, do me right
And let my true love come to-night
That I may see him in the face
And in my arms may him embrace.

sunsymbolThen sleep with the onion under your pillow. What I find interesting about this folk custom is that both onions and the circle surrounding a dot are sun symbols, so this seems to be a charm relating to the sun, which is born again on Winter Solstice.

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Halcyon Days

Alycone, whose name means Queen Who Wards Off Evil [Storms], was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of winds. She was so happy in her marriage with Ceyx, son of the Morning Star, that they called themselves Zeus and Hera (surely not the couple that comes to mind when searching Greek mythology for an example of a happy marriage). At any rate, this made Zeus mad and he struck down the ship on which Ceyx was sailing with a thunderbolt. When her husband’s ghost appeared before her, Alcyone threw herself into the sea and drowned. Some pitying god transformed them both into kingfishers.


Photo by Jennifer D Munro

The legend goes that every winter during the Halcyon Days, seven days before the Winter Solstice and seven days after, the female kingfisher carries her dead mate to his burial, then builds a nest, launches it onto the sea, lays her eggs and hatches her chicks. While she is brooding over them, the sea is unusually calm since Aeolus sees to it that no winds blow. 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.”

Actually kingfishers do not nest on water, but lay eggs in holes by the waterside. Robert Graves in The Greek Myths suggests that the myth refers to the birth of the new sacred king at winter solstice, after the Queen, who represents his mother, has conveyed the old king’s corpse to a sepulchral island. The Mediterranean is typically calm around the time of the Winter Solstice.

There was another Alcyone in Greek myth, the daughter of Pleione (“sailing queen”) and leader of the seven Pleiades. The rising of the Pleiades in May signalled the beginning of the navigational year, which ended when they set. Thus the legend seems to speak of a goddess who protects sailors from storms. The dried body of a kingfisher is used as a talisman against lightning.

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

For more ideas on the significance of this time period, see my article on Time out of Time.


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Our Lady of Guadalupe

This is the legend: In 1531, on December 9th, an Indian peasant named Juan Diego was passing by the hill called Tepeyac outside of Mexico City on his way to an early morning Mass when he heard birds singing overhead, whistles, flutes and beating wings. Then he saw a maiden dressed in the robes of an Aztec princess. She spoke Nahuatl, the Aztec language, Juan’s language, and had skin as brown as his. She told Juan that she was Maria, the Mother of God, and that he should tell the Bishop of Mexico City to build her a chapel on the site. The Bishop was not impressed by this message and demanded some proof. The Virgin appeared again and told Juan to climb the hill and gather an armful of roses, Castilian roses, which should not have been blooming in December.

painting by Jesus Guillen

painting by Jesus Guillen

But when Juan opened his cloak to show the Bishop the miraculous roses, he was surprised to see the Bishop fall on his knees. On the cloak was an image of the virgin as she appeared to him. The chapel was built and was replaced in the next century by a basilica which is the third most visited pilgrimage site in the world.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is affectionately known as La Morenita, the little dark one. She is the patron saint of Mexico. The place on which she first appeared used to be a shrine to the ancient Aztec goddess, Tonantzin. According to Patricia Monaghan in The Book of Goddesses and Heroines, Tonantzin was a mother-goddess honored on the winter solstice. She was portrayed by a woman dressed entirely in white and covered with shells and eagle feathers, who danced through the crowd, weeping and singing, until she was ritually killed. The Wikipedia article describes Tonantzin as an honorific title like Our Lady or Great Mother and says she was honored on a moveable feast named Xōchilhuitl.

Jean Milne in her book, Fiesta Time in Latin America, says that on her feast day, December 12, singers serenade her at dawn and people gamble on the hill behind the basilica.

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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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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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