Yule: Embrace winter at the solstice with logs, cakes and mistletoe

winter landscape

Photo courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.net

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 21: Wherever you live—and as long as men and women have walked the earth—the solstices have been marked as auspicious turning points in the calendar. For our Northern readers, today is the winter solstice, also known as the longest night of the year. Often termed Yuletide or Yulefest, the days surrounding winter solstice have long been marked with cold-weather festivals and warm feasts. One of the oldest celebrations of winter, Yule conjures visions of steaming cinnamon wassail, a crackling fireplace and the serenity of a blanket of snow. Despite the darkness and bitter cold, Yule is a time of joy: while enjoying the tranquility of midwinter, Pagans, Wiccans and many world citizens welcome the reemerging sun. Winter solstice marks a turning point when days begin, once again, to lengthen, and nights to shorten.

Recipes! Bake a tasty version of a Yule log with recipes from Food Network, Taste of Home and Martha Stewart. Sit back, grab a hot drink and relax in the serenity of winter.

YULE IN ANCIENT TIMES: Germanic peoples are credited the religious festival called “Yule,” and during Yuletide—which lasted approximately two months—many participants paid tribute to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky) and the god Odin (the leader of the Wild Hunt). Of course, this depended on where you lived in Europe at that time. Traditionally, enormous feasts and livestock sacrifices were associated with Yule. So merry was the atmosphere in these activities, in fact, that Grettis Saga refers to Yule as the time of “greatest mirth and joy among men.” Today’s Pagans and Wiccans often exchange gifts at Yule meals, while praising the rebirth of the sun and various gods.

YULE AROUND THE WORLD: Solstice traditions have many names around the world: Inti Raymi in the Incan Empire in honor of the sun god Inti, and Soyalangwul for the Zuni and the Hopi. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as an Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.

THE LOG & THE MISTLETOE

In ancient pagan tradition, the Great Mother gave birth to the new Sun King on winter solstice—a belief still held by Pagans today—and as centuries progressed, outdoor bonfires were moved indoors to a hearth with a Yule log. (Note that in some regions, Yule bonfires are still held outdoors.) In the hearth, a large oak log ceremoniously placed is kindled at dusk, being allowed to burn for many hours or several days—tradition varies. In Druid custom, mistletoe is cut from an oak tree. Decorated Yule candles help welcome such beloved traditions as wassail, toasts and caroling. Today, Pagans and Wiccans still celebrate with wassail, feasts and, sometimes, a Yule log. In some Scandinavian countries, this season surrounding winter solstice is known as Jul.

DIY: EMBRACE THE UNIQUE JOYS OF WINTER

Winter got you down? Recharge with some all-natural ideas from the Huffington Post, such as enjoying the beauty of firelight or relaxing to some Classical music.

Get in touch with nature by decorating your home with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; for a warm scent, make a pomander by decorating oranges with cloves (get instructions from Martha Stewart), noting the orange’s resemblance to the sun.

Instructions for a Yule ritual with candles and blessings is available at this UK site.

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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

St. Nicholas Day: Welcoming the ‘real’ Santa Claus (and his companions)

Click this image from the Saint Nicholas Center to visit that vast, educational and downright fun website devoted to the saint who became known as Santa Claus.

SUNSET TUESDAY, DECEMBER 5 and WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 6: Whether he’s known as Sinterklaas, San Nicola or St. Nicholas in your part of the world, keep watch for the white-bearded man in the red suit, as Christians around the globe celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. In European countries, today’s festival means heaps of sweets, small toys and exciting surprises left by the famed fourth-century saint as he makes his rounds. By receiving gifts—or coal—on St. Nicholas Day, advocates of this observance say,  then children can focus on the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day.

ADVENT FOR WESTERN CHRISTIANS: This special season for more than a billion Western Christians began on December 3, this year. We’ve got that story for you.

NATIVITY FAST FOR EASTERN CHRISTIANS: Families who belong to Orthodox churches began their annual fast on November 15. And, we’ve got that story, too.

BEHIND THE LEGEND: LIFE OF ST. NICHOLAS

The “real” story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, a man born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. Orphaned at a young age, Nicholas took to heart the words of Jesus and eventually sold what his wealthy parents had left to him. Nicholas gave his proceeds to the poor, and was made bishop of Myra while still a relatively young man. His reputation for compassion and generosity continued. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.)

With the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians—included Bishop Nicholas—were imprisoned and exiled. Following his release, Nicholas’s passion for helping others persisted. Stories of his deeds rapidly spun into legends, and many of those legends are still told on St. Nicholas Day.

Did you know? It is popular custom for families to host a St. Nicholas Day feast on the eve of this saint’s holiday, on December 5.

Wooden shoes filled with candies

Traditional shoes filled with sweets, a custom of St. Nicholas Day. Photo by Thomas Cizauskas, courtesy of Flickr

In 343 CE, Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, and was buried beneath his cathedral church. A relic known as manna formed in his grave, and the sweet-smelling liquid was rumored to have healing powers. This manna posthumously increased the popularity of the saint, and the anniversary of his death became a feast day in the Christian Church.

AROUND THE WORLD:
FRENCH MANNALA TO THE FIERA DI SAN NICOLA

In stark contrast to the secular figure of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas bears religious connotations in many of the countries that grandly celebrate his feast day. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in the Netherlands and Belgium, it’s legend that St. Nicholas arrives by steamship and rides a white horse. French children often hear the tales of St. Nicholas from grandparents and elders, while gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) are prepared in kitchens and bakeries. In Italy, the Fiera di San Nicola (St. Nicholas Fair) is celebrated in early December.

ACTIVITIES, RESOURCES & SPECULAAS GINGER COOKIES

Children young and old can get into the spirit of St. Nicholas with help from the St. Nicholas Center, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting his life. Among the highlights you might enjoy:

Across the site, visitors can find everything from printable candy bar wrappers and paper bag puppets to recipes for St. Nicholas cookies and chocolate initial cookies. Men dressing up as St. Nicholas can join the St. Nicholas Directory, and churches can find a range of inspirational study guides, too.

In addition, Sycamore Stirrings suggests ideas for St. Nicholas spoon puppets.

ZWARTE PIET‘ CONTROVERSY

St. Nicholas has many different companions, according to traditions that evolved across Europe. The St. Nicholas Center offers an overview of the entire array, which includes a white horse, a donkey, angels and then some companions from the dark side of mythology. Among them is Krampus, a demonic figure associated with St. Nicholas in some European cultures. Krampus was  largely unknown outside of Europe until the last decade when versions of the demon began showing up in a handful of American TV shows and even a 2015 feature film.

The most controversial figure from the dark side of the St. Nicholas legend is Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who has been popular in the Netherlands and also Belgium and Luxembourg. Historians debate whether this figure, often described as the saint’s playful black servant, was part of popular traditions before the mid 19th Century. But, all agree that a hugely popular 1850 children’s book crystalized the figure as part of St. Nicholas Day in the Low Countries.

The St. Nicholas Center has a lengthy, detailed history of this controversial figure, including lots of links to read more about this troubling tradition. Dutch communities are gradually coming to terms with this figure, who many observers around the world now consider a racist stereotype. Some traditional Dutch towns continue to feature Piet in the original black-face characterization. Other cities, businesses and organizations are changing to more acceptable forms of Piet: some as rainbow-hued helpers; some as a servant whose face is dark from chimney soot.

The Nicholas Center’s recommended links include a November, 2017, column about this issue that begins: The Netherlands may not have any Confederate statues to pull down, but the country has its own racially charged issues with its past and its cultural institutions – most notably these days the controversy surrounding Zwarte Piet.

 

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Categories: ChristianInternational Observances

Daylight Savings Time: Don’t forget to “fall back”!

Different analog clocks flat, varying sizes

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5: Enjoy an extra hour in the day today—and don’t forget turn your clocks backward!

Daylight Savings Time (DST) 2017 ends today, but the world is far from agreement on its benefits—or its future as a public policy. Many experts argue that switching back and forth from DST is a poor public policy and may cost more money than it saves. The U.S. history is checkered: DST was used in both 20th century world wars, but it wasn’t standard policy during most of our history. President George Bush was a recent proponent and signed into law an energy policy bill just seven years ago that extended Daylight Saving Time by four weeks. A couple of states are bypassing the current DST policy: Hawaii and Arizona have exercised their right to opt out by passing a state law.

DAYLIGHT SAVINGS & BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

The year was 1784 when Ben Franklin suggested Daylight Savings Time, after observing that summer morning daylight hours were “wasted” by people sleeping in; in the evening, candles were burned to illuminate nighttime activities. The problem came when seasons turned to autumn and winter, and the schedule “readjusted:” It was against human nature to change waking times (and still is).

DST TODAY: COSTS AND ENVIRONMENTAL DETRIMENT

Dark mornings necessitate more heat, and in the summer—when working folks arrive home an hour “earlier”—air conditioning is turned up because of proximity to mid-day heat. Recent studies found that one season of DST in one state demanded an extra $9 million in energy bills annually and added 188,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Cost differences are even more drastic in the fall.

Did you know? As of 2017, both Arizona and Hawaii do not participate in DST; efforts continue in New England and Massachusetts to stop using the system.

For several reasons, more and more advocates are promoting a “permanent” DST, for practical, economical and environmental reasons. Iceland, Russia and Belarus are already observing permanent DST, and Argentina, Sudan, Georgia and other jurisdictions honor a similar system. In fact, less than 40 percent of the world uses the Daylight Saving Time system, with the majority of African and Asian countries choosing not to employ the system at all.

IN EUROPE AND THE U.S.: A WEEK APARTOne week before Americans turn back their clocks, Europeans turned back one hour to Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT. Not all of Europe honors the system, though many of its countries do.

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Categories: International Observances

Halloween, Allhallowtide and Samhain: A spook-tacular time of year!

Kids in costumes in a row, smiling

Photo courtesy of Shaw Air Force Base

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31 and WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 1 and THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2:

Gather ‘round for spooky stories, ancient tales, age-old customs and plenty of apples and candy: It’s Halloween!

Rooted deeply in a centuries-old Gaelic and Irish seasonal festival known as Samhain, today’s Halloween is considered by many to be the only time of year that spirits can roam the earth. From Samhain to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, world cultures celebrate the belief that at this time of year, the veil between this world and the next is particularly thin and ancestors are held close. Don’t worry, it’s not all solemn and bone-chilling, though—today’s secular Halloween also brings out bright Jack-o-lanterns, loads of candy and a pretty good excuse for adults to join in on the costuming fun with kids!

Did you know? Samhain began in the oral traditions of Irish mythology; it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that visiting Christian monks began penning some of the tales.

As Western cultural influences spread worldwide, too, Halloween has steadily been gaining worldwide popularity—even in countries as far from North America as Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Western images of witches, black cats and trick-or-treating now have circled the planet. Halloween slowly picked up speed and now is observed as far from the Celtic homeland as Asia and Africa. In some countries, bonfires and fireworks are common additions to nighttime trick-or-treating.

SAMHAIN: AN ANCIENT FESTIVAL REVIVED

Raven of black in shadow against orange moon

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The original Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in winter, or the “darker half” of the year, in Gaelic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Legend has it that spirits could easily come to earth, and many people would leave out food and drink for the roaming entities.

Did you know? In Gaelic Ireland, guising—donning a costume—was thought to “trick” ill-intentioned spirits roaming the streets near Samhain.

In many households, ancestors were welcomed to the table with particular enthusiasm, and large meals were prepared. Multiple sites in Ireland were, and still are, associated with Samhain, and the spirits that emerge there at this time of year. Hallowed-out turnips were lit with a candle and placed in windows, their monstrous carved faces frightening bad spirits.

Today’s Samhain emerged as part of the late 19th century Celtic Revival, and Neopagans, Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Wiccans all celebrate the holiday, in slightly varying ways. Most keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

ALLHALLOWTIDE: THE CHRISTIAN TRIDUUM OF HALLOWEEN

The triduum of Halloween, “Allhallowtide,” recalls deceased spirits, saints (hallows) and martyrs alike, in one collective commemoration. The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day—pay homage to the souls that Christians believe are now with God.

Is this part of our story new to you? Practices vary widely across the world’s many Christian denominations today. While Catholics, Anglicans and many other denominations retain the fuller liturgical celebration in their calendars, many Protestant and evangelical churches long ago abandoned the traditional three-day cycle.

However, “Allhallowtide” is a Christian term that emerged in the 1400s to describe this three-day period. For centuries, it was an important part of parish life in many regions. And, while most American Protestant churches have abandoned the larger observance, others are discovering that this opportunity to remember the “saints” can become a rich part of congregational life, especially in Latino communities. Here is an Episcopal perspective on the larger observance. And here is another reflection from the Catholic Culture website.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS

Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

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Categories: ChristianInternational ObservancesNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Autumnal equinox, Mabon: Welcome, fall!

Trees of autumn shades in fall

Photo by Paul Bica, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 22: Sharp scents of cinnamon and clove, met with the sweet taste of apple cider, marks autumn, and today, astrological events signal the autumnal equinox. Equinox, a celestial event, occurs twice per year and is so named because the length of day and night are (almost exactly) equal—after which, the number of hours of sunlight each day will wane until the winter solstice. For Pagans and Wiccans in the Northern Hemisphere, this time of year is known as Mabon, during which the gifts of the harvest are recognized and a type of Thanksgiving is celebrated. Mabon is also a time to seek blessings for the approaching winter months.

Did you know? The equinox phenomenon can occur on any planet with a significant tilt to its rotational axis, such as Saturn.

THE SIGHTS AND SMELLS (AND TASTES) OF AUTUMN

Take a walk through the woods, while enjoying the bold colors of autumn; make a horn of plenty that will grace the home through the season.

Looking for a DIY project for autumn? For centuries, people have been making apple dolls and corn dollies at harvest time. Learn how to make applehead dolls and corn dollies, with tutorials from Mother Earth News.

In search of fall recipes? First, check out Bobbie Lewis’s Mabon column, complete with a delicious recipe for apple cake. Want more? You’ll find other options at AllRecipes, Food Network, Taste of Home and Epicurious.

Love the smells of autumn? Bring the scents home with a make-it-yourself scented pinecone wreath.

MABON: THE SECOND HARVEST FESTIVAL

Pagans and Wiccans offer cider, wines and warming herbs and spices to gods and goddesses, while Druids call this time Mea’n Fo’mhair, honoring the God of the Forest. Wiccans celebrate the Mabon with altars, decorating them with pinecones, gourds, corn, apples and other autumn elements.

A time of mysteries, Wiccans recognize the aging of the goddess and visit ancestors’ graves, decorating them with leaves, acorns and other elements of fall. Tables are covered in feasts of breads, root vegetables and apple cider, as scents of cinnamon and nutmeg fill the air. Families gather, and preparations are made for the coming winter months.

For Pagans and Wiccans, Mabon is the second harvest festival; Lughnassadh precedes it, and Samhain will come later. Feasts are prepared, and individuals look to the dark of winter—a time of rest. Autumn’s abundance of harvest foods, combined with a shift to cooler temperatures, has long made it a popular time to reflect, renew and gather.

 

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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Litha, Solstice and Midsummer: Celebrate the peak of summer

Group gathering outside in summer, blue skies, raising pole cross Swedish

Erecting a maypole at a Midsummer celebration in Sweden, 2013. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21 through SATURDAY, JUNE 24: Seaside picnics, Midsummer parties and bonfires abound at the summer solstice—and, across the Northern Hemisphere, June 21 is the “longest day of the year,” this year. Astronomically, the summer solstice occurs when the tilt of Earth’s semi-axis in the northern hemisphere is most inclined toward the sun; thus, inhabitants of the north experience more hours and minutes of daylight today than on any other day of the year. In many Scandinavian countries, this time of year is celebrated as Midsummer—which includes Midsummer’s Eve and then Midsummer—and it is celebrated with an entire day’s worth of outdoor activities for citizens young and old. Wiccans and Pagans may observe Litha, a holiday of gratitude for light and life.

OUTDOOR DANCING, FLOWER CROWNS & SMORGASBORD

In Scandinavian countries, the longest day of the year is one of the most cherished holidays of the year. Affectionately termed Midsummer, many spend the day outdoors with an extravagant smorgasbord lunch, games for the entire community, time at the beach, dancing and bonfires. (In a recent article on the festival, AFAR calls Sweden’s Midsummer “straight out of a fairytale.”) Whether the long, dark Scandinavian winters are the reason for Midsummer exhilaration or it’s something else altogether, this holiday is unrivaled in many countries of the world.

Bowl of fresh strawberries amid green plants, outdoors

Strawberries are a staple on many Midsummer tables. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Flower crowns are uber popular beyond Europe, and this ancient accessory for Midsummer fetes is as easy as gathering a few favorite flowers and basic craft materials. (Some stores sell simple flower circlets, too.) For a tutorial on how to create a unique, chic one, check out Lauren Conrad.com. Got real flowers? Check out this YouTube video on how to make a crown using fresh components.

The Midsummer menu is as dear to Scandinavians as the Christmas goose or ham is to celebrants of the winter holiday, and fresh strawberries take center stage in Midsummer cakes and shortcakes. (Find more info at the official website of Sweden.) Other traditional foods include the season’s first potatoes, made with dill and butter; a roast; herring or other types of fish and seafood; hard-boiled eggs and summer cabbage. For recipes and ideas on how to spend the longest day of the year, check out Bon Appetit or the UK’s The Independent.

Did you know? Though harvest is not in full swing yet, many wild herbs are mature for picking and, thus, Midsummer is known as “Gathering Day” in Wales and in other various regions. Herbs, gathered most often for medicinal qualities, are gathered and dried for later use.

LITHA: A TRIBUTE TO LIGHT AND LIFE

Adherents of Wicca and Paganism look to the Sun God on the summer solstice, noting the full abundance of nature at the point of mid-summer. (Note: Some adherents celebrate on June 25, the fixed calendar date that is known as “Old Litha.”)

Traditionally, fresh fruits and vegetables are the main course at shared meals, and bonfires are lit to pay homage to the full strength of the sun. At Stonehenge, the heelstone marks the midsummer sunrise as viewed from the center of the stone circle.

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Categories: InterfaithInternational ObservancesNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Father’s Day: Tell Dad ‘Thanks!’ on the 45 annual American holiday

Dad tie words

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

SUNDAY, JUNE 18: Take Dad golfing, make dinner on the grill and take the time to say “Thanks.” It’s Father’s Day! Across the United States, more than 70 million fathers qualify for recognition on this special day, which has been an official holiday in the United States for 45 years.

Did you know? Celebrations similar to Father’s Day have been in existence around the globe for hundreds of years. In traditionally Catholic countries, fathers are popularly recognized on the Feast of St. Joseph.

The American Father’s Day began in Spokane, Washington, in 1910, with the daughter of a single father. When Sonora Smart Dodd heard a Mother’s Day sermon in church, she approached her pastor, believing that fathers like hers—a Civil War veteran and single father who had raised six children—deserved recognition, too. Following the initial few years, Father’s Day was all but lost until Dodd returned to Spokane, once again promoting her holiday. Despite support by trade groups and the Father’s Day Council, Father’s Day wasn’t accepted by the general public or Congress until 1966. President Richard Nixon signed the holiday into law in 1972.

Did you know? Both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were first observed in a Methodist church.

Grilling meat on a grill outdoors

Photo courtesy of Pexels

CELEBRATING FATHER’S DAY:
RECIPES, ACTIVITIES, DIY GIFTS & MORE

Stumped on how to celebrate Dad today? Look no further! We’ve rounded ideas for dads of any age:

From the Grill (and beyond): Whether Dad prefers meat or fish, potatoes or corn on the cob, you’ll find plenty of recipes to choose from at AllRecipes, Martha Stewart and Food Network. Wondering what dads overseas like to eat? The BBC has collected Father’s Day recipes fit for Brit dads.

Wondering what to do with Dad today? Reader’s Digest has a list of suggested activities.

Too hot to go out? Find a list of movies fit for Father’s Day at TechTimes, from Father of the Bride to Mrs. Doubtfire to The Pursuit of Happyness.

Gifts galore: Lists abound for those wondering what to buy for Dad, and most publications offer up plenty of suggestions each year. Among our favorites in 2017 are Time’s roundup of ideas, and Business Insider’s list of gifts under $50–which includes some cool new kicks and a Bluetooth meat thermometer.

Do-It-Yourselfers can find inspiration for gifts to make Dad at HGTV.com.

NEWS 2017: DAD FOR HIRE!

A group of men in their 20s have posted an ad on Craigslist, seeking a real-deal dad to grill for a gathering on the Saturday of Father’s Day weekend, in Washington state. (Seattle Times has the story.) The winning dad must have at least 18 years of experience in his role as Dad, boast at least 10 years of experience grilling and be willing to talk about things like lawn mowers, building a deck and Jimmy Buffet at the gathering. The payment for this dad? Free food and beer. News sources report that the young men in this group don’t live with their dads, but are still in the mood to celebrate Dad’s day.

 

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Categories: International ObservancesNational Observances