Wreathes of the Season

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“There is something about saying, ‘We always do this,’
which helps keep the years together.
Time is such an elusive thing
that if we keep on meaning to do something interesting,
but never do it,
year would follow year with no special thoughtfulness
being expressed in making gifts, surprises,
charming table settings, and familiar food.
Tradition is a good gift
intended to guard the best gifts.”
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Edith Schaeffer

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“All you need to enjoy this world
is imagination, not money”
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Vineet Raj Kapoor

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Christmas eve invites nostalgia from the most contemporary and practical among us.  Like our own birthday or wedding anniversary, Christmas eve is one of those still points on the wheel of the year where we pause and remember.

Christmas eve invites, and perhaps demands, that we observe the rituals learned from our parents, adopted from our friends; inherited from the literature of our evolving lives.  We light candles, make music, prepare our family recipes.  We share the evening with loved ones.  Anticipate giving and receiving gifts.  Re-tell familiar mystery stories.

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Christmas eve celebrates the great mysteries of our lives and loves.  As the year winds down towards its close, we hope our dearest wishes will be fulfilled in a sparkling starry magical way that gifts us with wonders we have not earned, and perhaps can never explain.  However practical, whimsical or existential our wishes may be, we dare to believe they will be granted on this magical night.

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Christmas, as we know it, is a relatively ‘new’ holiday built on ancient customs and symbols.  One of those ancient symbols is the evergreen wreath.

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Once again this year, Colonial Williamsburg is dressed in its Christmas finery, wreathes upon most doors.

Although Christmas was barely celebrated in the colonial era, and ran more to parties and church services than to elaborate decorations or shopping, visitors find beautiful della robia wreathes and other decorations made of evergreens, fruits, nuts, pods, berries, flowers and twigs throughout the Colonial part of town.

We enjoyed the wreathes as we walked through CW earlier this week, and I hope you enjoy these few photos I captured.

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On this Christmas eve, I wish you and yours the merriest of Yule celebrations tonight.

May you be with those you love, and may your greatest gift this year be a heart filled with happiness.

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“Take the time to celebrate stillness and silence
and see the joy that the world can bring, simply.”
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Tony Curl

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“December is full of the beauty of Light
and love we can bring into our life.
You can chose to be stressed
or you can choose to let the small stuff go
and be peaceful this Holiday season.
It really is a choice you make.”
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Eileen Anglin

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018
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“We are travelers on a cosmic journey,
stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity.
Life is eternal.
We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other,
to meet, to love, to share.
This is a precious moment.
It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”
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Paulo Coelho

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Christmas Tree Topiaries

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This year I’ve been inspired to make tabletop topiary Christmas trees.

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A few friends and I are hosting a Christmas luncheon next week.  I wanted to make a small Christmas tree for each dining table, and also some for the buffet tables.

It seemed like a fairly easy project as I dreamed it up…

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After several days of research, studying photos online and visiting Sharon’s beautiful Crafts ‘n Coffee blog a few dozen times; I was ready to begin assembling the materials.

After looking at many different topiary trees, constructed from various materials, I finally had a few basic ideas for tree designs.

People can be incredibly creative!   There are so many ways people have designed topiary Christmas trees from simple Styrofoam cones!

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Choosing ribbon for the first set of topiaries helped establish the color scheme: soft greens and a golden cream.  I found a coordinating sueded fabric to use with the shell trees.

All four of these designs are enormously simple to make.  Tracking down the materials was the most challenging part of the project.

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All begin with a Styrofoam tree form and a square wooden base purchased at the crafts store.  The ribbon trees were made entirely by attaching ribbon to the form with straight pins, then embellishing the trees with glass beads and pearl topped straight pins.  The tiny birds are actually metal beads.

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The shell trees were assembled on a fabric covered Styrofoam base.  The shells were hot glued into place, then the trees finished with shells and freshwater pearls, attached with pearl headed pins.

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Many shells can be found pre-drilled and strung, wherever strings of beads are sold.  Most shells come rather dull when found on the beach or purchased in bulk. 

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I polished these with a cotton swab dipped in pure mineral oil to bring out the colors of the shells.

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Finally, the wooden trees were the most interesting to assemble.

There are five different sizes and cuts of wooden sticks, found at several different craft stores, in addition to bamboo skewers from the kitchen.  I’ve added sheet moss to the undersides of the Styrofoam cones and to the wooden base for these trees.

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A ‘trunk’ is made by gluing broken sticks into the base of the cone in a roughly round pattern; about 1.5″ in diameter.  Glued to the styrofoam and to the wooden base, this makes a fairly sturdy foundation for building the trees, which are quite heavy.

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A friend made the miniature gnomes and rabbit for me a while ago.  They originally lived in a ‘fairy garden’ amid some shade loving plants.  Now they will live under these trees.  The larger gnome, and the mushrooms, came from the craft store.

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Interestingly, each tree came out differently. The wooden sticks are glued both to the Styrofoam, and to each other.  Larger sticks can be broken, and both ends used.  so long as the rough edges are covered by another stick, construction continues.  The bamboo skewers help cover gaps and holes.

The largest tree was constructed over two days.  I ran out of wooden sticks and had to finish after a shopping trip the following day.  I can see a difference in style from each session working with the trees.

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I hope these little trees inspire you to try something new this holiday season.

The shell trees are on our mantle at the moment; the other trees on the buffet in the dining room.  Since we start late with decorating here, these are bringing a little holiday joy to our home as they await their day at the luncheon.

Since we don’t truly need nine topiaries, we’ll find new homes for most of these after the luncheon next week.

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I enjoyed working on these topiaries and learning some new techniques.  And, I”m still inspired by the fascinating photos of others’ trees discovered in my search.

There are free form driftwood trees, trees made with Cinnamon sticks, button trees, scrap fabric trees and trees covered in shiny glass balls…

Please do visit Sharon if you enjoy making things with your hands.  She has some wonderful designs, and offers clear and easy to follow instructions for her projects.

I appreciate the inspiration and guidance she offered as I was exploring ideas for this project.

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It always surprises me how much cheer a little Christmas decoration can bring as we descend into winter and the short dark days of December.

Whatever we can do to brighten the world for ourselves and for others is a good thing, I believe.

And I hope these little trees end up making the season a bit brighter for you and for all who see them.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

A Forest Garden 2016 calendar is available now.

Christmas Eve: Tuesday Snapshots

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The old, traditional holidays always begin at sunset.  So it is Christmas here in Virginia. 

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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May your greatest gift this Christmas be a gift of love and connection to those who share your life in this moment.  Whether you are near or far from home, close to family or estranged, young or old; may your heart be warmed in the light of love from those who share your path in this moment.  May you find friendship and understanding, support and caring from those with whom you share this Christmas.

December 24 Christmas Eve 003We all have loved ones far from home.  Some are away by choice and others by necessity.  We learn that time and distance can not separate those who hold one another in their hearts.

May you find quiet moments, this Christmas, to remember happy moments from Christmases past.  Whether the same cast of characters will gather with you this Christmas, or whether your family includes loved ones who have passed on or gone away for whatever reason; recall those whose lives have touched yours with love.

Christmas is a bittersweet time for many, perhaps more so with each passing year. december 15 2013 Santas 048 We can best honor those who have loved us by remembering them with love.  Our family stretches beyond the boundaries of time and space to include those who have gone before and also those who will come after.  Each year we welcome newcomers into our lives, and look forward to the time we will share along the way.

Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer is an open heart and warm hand to the new ones among us.   Especially to those who find themselves far from home, who need to be included, and made one with a new family; a family of caring, if not of shared blood.  We are all a bit like children at Christmas, and all in need of a little love.december 15 2013 Santas 073

So I hope your halls are decked in holiday cheer, your table is set, your baking done, and your loved ones are gathering.  The door has opened and we have entered Christmas once again.  Let us keep it well, with loving heart and twinkling eye. 

The spirit of Christmas lives in each of us.

All photos by Woodland Gnome, 2013

“Welcome Christmas. Bring your cheer,
Cheer to all Whos, far and near.

Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to grasp.

Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we.

Welcome Christmas while we stand
Heart to heart and hand in hand.”

-From the cartoon version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Theodor Seuss Geisel

Weekly Photo Challenge: One

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The mistletoe and tree are one, growing together as a single organism.  Roots deeply embedded into the living tissue of the tree, the mistletoe draws water and nutrients from the tree’s sap.  The evergreen mistletoe still makes its own food from sunlight, and has its owl life cycle living high in the branches of this oak.  Feeding birds, insects, and other tiny creatures, the mistletoe’s branches also offer shelter and safe haven.  As birds visit and eat the seeds in late winter, they help the mistletoe colony to spread and grow to nearby branches and other trees.  Every winter the new growth is revealed when the oak’s leaves have fallen.

One garden, one life.  Everything is connected in the most subtle ways.  Appreciating the interconnectedness of life takes a lifetime to fully comprehend, if then.

Our skies are overcast again today, with rain puddling on the ground and in all of the low spots.  A snow sky, we called it growing up, with heavy white and grey clouds full of moisture.  Too warm for snow in the moment,  once the temperatures plummet tonight, we may have snow for Christmas Eve.

The last work day before the Christmas holiday begins in earnest has been a soggy one.  The gifts we took around to friends today were all touched by the winter rain; perhaps an added blessing.

May your December 23 be a productive one.  May your remaining Christmas chores be completed in joy and good company, and may all of your travels be safe ones.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Retail Me Not: Little Christmas Miracles

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Time was, Christmas was about “miracles:” totally unexpected and improbable events which brought meaning and joy into otherwise routine lives.  The remembering of the themes and memes of the season asks us to acknowledge the intervention of the unexpected benevolent omniscience of the universe in daily life.

december 22 2013 lights 002We remember the miracle of the virgin birth, and the miracle of a special star which led a group of astronomers to find the hidden birthplace of a king.  We remember the miracle of angels appearing out of the night sky to serenade the new family.

More recently, we recall the miracle of flying reindeer, and of a timeless man who brings special gifts to all of the children of the world in a single night.

Some might even celebrate the “miracle” of getting a specifically coveted gift, the “miracle” of a family re-united, or the “miracle” of mended relationships.

Even the popular Christmas movies of the last few decades tell stories of people who create positive change in their little corner of the world when their hearts are warmed by Christmas magic.

And yet, those of us who watch TV, listen to radio, spend time online, or venture away from home to shop have been constantly bombarded for the last six weeks to prepare for Christmas by buying.  I can’t quite get my brain around the transition from the miraculous to the retail.

Coca Cola learned in the 1920’s that Santa sells.  Some of our most iconic Santa Claus art was created by Haddon Sundblom for the Coca Cola Company over his 33 year career.  That is when Santa Claus and Christmas moved out of homes and churches and into the stores. december 22 2013 lights 006

Of course Woolworths, Sears, and other retailers had started selling Christmas ornaments, electric lights, and artificial trees decades earlier.  But somehow the idea of “Christmas Shopping” came into the public consciousness, at least here in the United States, with the advent of department store Santas, specially decorated holiday windows and Christmas parades.   New York and Detroit hosted the first Christmas parades, to bring Santa to the department stores, in the early 1920’s.

Montgomery Ward created a story about “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” in 1939, to give away to the children of Christmas shoppers as a promotion.  The song followed 10 years later.  The big department stores led the way, and we’ve all happily followed along.

When I was a child, we made an annual pilgrimage to the Miller and Rhodes store in downtown Richmond to have our portraits made with Santa and give him our Christmas lists.  We made a day of it, no matter where we were living at the time, and enjoyed lunch or dinner in the tea room with Santa and the Snow Queen as part of the experience.  We always did a portion of our shopping at Miller and Rhodes, and across the street at Thalhimers.  It was our tradition, along with slowly studying all of the animated windows, visiting the toy departments, and buying sugary treats in the “fine foods” department at Thalhimers.

I think our focus has shifted way away from where it was, even a century ago, when it comes to Christmas.

Lately every time I turn on the TV, there is this popular singer, at his white piano, crooning holiday songs about buying new cars for Christmas.  Really?  Christmas is about getting new cars, I phones, big TVs, and other “techno junk” these days?

When did that happen?  At least in the 60’s we were preoccupied with children’s toys.  The adults were happy with their new socks and ties, lipstick or scarf, and the occasional suit coat or new sweater.  Although Santa sometimes brought big family gifts, I don’t recall expensive Christmas gifts  for adults as the norm until recent years.

december 22 2013 lights 015My email inbox is full, at the moment, with urgent greetings from retailers encouraging me to take advantage of 30%-40% off and free shipping if I’ll just order that one more gift by Christmas Eve.  Our modern miracle is the fantastic retail savings online, and Amazon’s wonderful delivery options.

It feels to me like there has been a seismic shift in our response to the “Christmas holiday” in America.  Of course, there has been a seismic shift in nearly every part of our culture, so there should be no surprise.

If you were to ask me right now for my “Christmas List,” it would be very short and to the point.  First, I’d ask for a full recovery for my ailing father who just got home from hospital yesterday.  His getting home was my first Christmas miracle of the year, for which I am deeply grateful.  We hope he will be strong enough and recovered enough to take joy in Christmas Day and enjoy the family who gathers.

Secondly, I wish for a safe and easy delivery for my daughter, whose first child will arrive some time in the next week or so.  I hope for a healthy first grandchild and good fortune for her parents, who are so very excited to now have a daughter of their own.

Beyond that, my wants are insignificant, as I am already blessed with such abundance.  Nothing from a store could compare with the well being of my family during this time of transition.

And yet, I was blessed this evening with a beautiful, joyful, totally unexpected, tiny miracle.  I had made up my mind that outdoor Christmas lights weren’t going to happy here this year.  I’ve been so busy with other pressing things, and with extra travel to help out with my father’s hospitalization, that I had pushed the thought of outdoor lights aside.

And yet, as I pulled into the drive at dusk tonight, home from another day of helping my folks, I was greeted with beautiful twinkly Christmas lights all along the front of the house.  What an amazing and beautiful sight.  While I was away, my partner had found them all and created a beautiful wonderland of light to greet my return.

To me, this night, that was a beautiful Christmas miracle.

The love that prompted such a generous gesture is what we long for and celebrate each year.

Such love is the light that warms our hearts and keeps us all children at heart, year upon year upon year.

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Finding the Moon

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Again this morning, I was up and moving well before sunrise.  In fact, I was at the computer, watching for lightening skies through the window blinds when I was summoned.  “You have to see this!” my newly risen partner called. And when I followed the call, what beauty filled the skies.

December 20 sunrise 010It was a pink and golden dawn.  I found the camera and took photos of the trees silhouetted  against the sunrise skies towards the east.  But then,  looking around a bit more, was thrilled to find we had a 360 degree panorama sunrise this morning.

The sky was beautiful towards the north and west as well, where the waning moon was nestled in the branches of a tree.  Finally, I had found the moon.

Our shortest day of the year is tomorrow, with the sun not rising until nearly 7:30 in the morning, and setting before 5 PM.  The moon won’t even appear until after 8 PM.  The tea time hours darken so quickly this time of year, with night descending over the landscape with firm finality.  December 20 sunrise 012

I was on the road yesterday, racing to be at home before darkness had settled on our rush hour streets.  I was delayed leaving by only a few minutes, but still drove the last 20 miles in ever deepening twilight, straining against the glare of headlights to weave through traffic and find the way home.  My reward was the beauty of Christmas lights in front yards along the way.

As we approach this longest night, every minute of daylight seems that much more precious; and every brightly wrapped tree and lit window more appreciated.  It is a good time to gather with loved ones to celebrate the many joys and blessings of the year.December 20 sunrise 015

This solstice time is full of beauty and promise.  As surely as the sun and moon follow their tracks through the sky, so our days will lighten and lengthen yet again.  The buds will swell, seeds will sprout, and the new year will unfold.

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape, the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. 

Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”

Andrew Wyeth

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

PaintThe Sky  (Forest Garden)

The Real Santa(s)

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There are many layers of myth and meaning attached to Christmas. 

It feels like the winter solstice is the most emotionally and mythically charged period of the year, for many of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, at least.  Its roots run deep in our history, deep in our religious practices, and deep in our psyches.

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How often have you been admonished to remember the “real” meaning of Christmas?

The Roman Church, and its Protestant offshoots, have tried to limit our understanding of Christmas to their religious interpretation as the Feast of the Nativity.

Students of history know that the roots and meaning  of Christmas are millennia older, and run far deeper than the Christian Gospels dictate.

Keep in mind that the church didn’t designate a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus for over 300 years.  The first known references to such a celebration were recorded after 300 CE.

The date chosen, 25 December,  had served as the birthday celebration for Mithra, associated with the “Unconquerable Sun,” in the contemporary and very popular Roman mystery religion known as Mithraism.  This cult had its roots in ancient Persia, and worshiped the Sun as the source of life and all goodness.

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December 25, a few days past the long, dark night of winter solstice, has been celebrated as “birthday of the sun” for as many years as we have histories to remember.  Our celebrations of this winter festival run deep into human history, and also include traditions from parts of Europe north and west of Rome.

Our modern Christmas is such a mix of secular and sacred, “pagan” and “Christian.”  It is confusing to explain often times, and tricky to tease the tangled threads of meaning one from another.

Much of our popular Christmas mythology and iconography originated in Northern Europe and Asia; at a time when shamans guided and healed their tribal people, in the centuries before Christianity spread to these areas.

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This is where we find the origins of our much loved “Santa Claus.”  Tribes living within the Arctic Circle respected their shamans as leaders and guides on many levels.  They healed, counseled, mediated, and taught the mythology and history of the tribe.  These shamans regularly used hallucinogenic mushrooms to facilitate their vision quests.  They also shared these mushrooms, regarded as sacred, with other members of the village.

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The hallucinogenic mushrooms, called Aminita Muscaria, have a red cap with white flecks on it, and a white stem.  These special mushrooms grow exclusively under certain trees, like pines, firs, cedar and spruce.    Growing in a special relationship with the roots, they are considered “gifts of the tree.”

Aminita muscaria still grow throughout much of the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and have been spread to many areas of the Southern Hemisphere.  Considered poisonous when eaten fresh, skilled shamans prepare them and give them to their followers under the proper conditions to facilitate a spiritual journey, or trip.  The mushroom gives one the sensation of flying, and helps one find the answers to questions about the nature of life and living.

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When mushroom hunting in autumn, the ancient shamans often wore a coat of reddish or brown fur, and tall black leather boots.  They carried bags to hold the mushrooms.  Once gathered, the mushrooms were dried and aged either by hanging them from the branches of conifer trees, or by stringing them and hanging them over the hearth in the shaman’s home.

In those days, the people envisioned their world as situated in the middle portion of the “World Tree,” or Yggdrasil.  The roots of the tree reached down into the Earth, and its branches reached up into the heavenly realms around the North Star.  The Shaman had the ability to travel up the World Tree into the heavenly realms to confer with the heavenly beings after ingesting the magic sacred mushrooms.  The shaman could also travel down Yggdrasil, to the underworld, on his or her quests.

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In far northern Europe these tribal people often lived in round Yurt like structures.  They had a hole in the middle of the ceiling for smoke to escape.  After the snows fell, the smoke hole became the winter door to the home.  Either a pole or a ladder extended through the hole to the roof.  When the Shaman came to bring gifts of the dried mushrooms, he came in through the smoke hole, entering through the chimney, with the mushrooms in his bag.

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The memory of this shamanic gift giver, visiting the family dressed in fur, entering through the chimney; echoes down to us today in our mythology about Santa Claus.  In fact, modern day shamans of these far northern European tribes continue to wear the traditional red fur coats trimmed in white, today.

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The native deer of far Northern Europe, called reindeer, also love to eat A. muscaria.  The chemical compounds in this special mushroom given vision and enormous physical strength.  Reindeer, eating the mushrooms, run faster and jump higher than normal.  The reindeer love these mushrooms and seek them out.

On a more mundane level, reindeer who have eaten Aminita muscaria pass the psychoactive compounds in their urine, refining them, and making those compounds less toxic.  Drinking the urine of reindeer is another way to ingest the mushrooms.

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The mushroom’s distinctive red and white colors have also come down to us as the colors of Christmas, along with the green of eternal life.  Santa Claus’s iconic costume is nearly always red, trimmed in white, like the mushrooms.

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You may have noticed that many European Christmas decorations feature these beautiful red and white mushrooms. Have you ever wondered why?  Have you noticed them in Walt Disney movies, and in illustrations of elemental nature spirits such as elves and fairies?

Use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is one of those rarely discussed bits of cultural history which has come down to us from our ancestors. Those who have taken them describe how differently the world looks.

Nature “comes alive” in ways we normally can’t perceive.  The energies of nature take form and can communicate, in the guise of these elemental beings.  That is why Christmas stories so often include elves, fairies, and other magical beings, like our Santa Claus who can travel around the entire planet in a single night.

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Many mushroom themed Christmas ornaments come to us from Germany, and Eastern Europe, where these shamanic traditions were strong.  Another element of our modern Santa Claus from that culture is the tradition of the great god Woden, or Odin.

The great father god of the ancient Norse people, Odin, is pictured as an older man with white hair, a flowing white beard, who is missing one eye.  Odin traveled on an eight legged horse during his flights around the world at mid-winter.  Loved as a bringer of both gifts and wisdom during the Yule celebration, his image evolved into “Father Christmas.”

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A more modern strand of our Santa Claus comes to us from the historical Saint Nicholas.  A Christian Bishop in Myra, now Turkey; he was imprisoned by the Romans for his faith, then later released, and died on December 6, 345 CE.  December 6 was celebrated as his feast day throughout much of Europe throughout the middle ages, as it still is today.

St. Nicholas was known for his kindness, generosity, and the help and protection he extended to children in need.  Stories about him spread across Europe.  The Dutch made his feast into a day to give presents to children, who left out their shoes for St. Nicholas, or “Sinterklaas” to fill.

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Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myrna

Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myra

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The example of St. Nicholas inspired the custom of lavishing gifts and attention on children at Christmas time.  The tradition came with Dutch immigrants to the colonies, where St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, or “Santa Claus,” became an icon of giving to children by the early 1800s.

St. Nicholas is pictured as a tall, stately elderly man with long flowing white hair and white beard, dressed in the red and white clothing of a Catholic Bishop.  He carries a golden crooked staff.

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Our popular image of Santa Claus, in the United States, was cemented in the 19th century by a cartoonist and a poet.  Clement Clark Moore published, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

His vivid images of Saint Nicholas created our popular expectation of a rotund, jolly, red suited “elf” bringing gifts to children by coming down the chimney.  Filling stockings, and traveling in a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer” are all depicted in the poem we now know as, “The Night Before Christmas.

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Thomas Nast, the well known illustrator and cartoonist, drew the first modern portraits of Santa Claus in the mid 19th century.  His portraits of Santa Claus appeared in Harper’s Weekly from the first Christmas cartoon around 1863 until his last in 1886.

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He published a whole book of drawings about Christmas in 1890 titled, Thomas Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.  Nast is credited for describing Santa’s home as the North Pole in modern literature.

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The moons and starts are the garb worn by ancient astronomer priests, or magi.

The moons and stars remind us of the  ancient astronomer priests, or magi.

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A generation later, the Coca Cola Company adopted Santa Claus as part of their winter advertising campaign.  Haddon Sundblom’s iconic portraits of Santa Claus first appeared in Coca Cola’s advertising in 1931.  Based on the images in Clement Clark Moore’s poem, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa for the next 33 years.  He used friends, family, and even himself as the models for his paintings.

Santa Claus was adopted by organizations such as The Salvation Army around this same time, who used the image to inspire a nation to give generously to those in need.

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Beginning in 1890, unemployed men were dressed in Santa suits and sent into the city streets to beg for money to finance the Salvation Army’s outreach to the poor.  By dressing their bell ringers as “Santa,” they try to appeal to the better nature of each of us to give generously in the spirit of Christmas.

So there really is no separating the secular from the spiritual in our Christmas traditions.  When gifts are given on Twelfth Night, January 6, it is done in commemoration of “Three Kings Day” when the three kings or Magi of the east, gave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus.  Gifts are given on January 6 in Spain and Latin America.  The Eastern Orthodox Christian churches celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on January 6.

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In Great Britain gifts are given most often on Boxing Day, December 26.  This custom dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, when gifts were given to servants and children, and the alms boxes were opened and distributed to the poor.  It has been customary for employers to give gift boxes to servants, employees, and tradesmen in appreciation for good service throughout the year.  Today it is a major shopping day in many countries.

Our Christmas is a very rich and diverse holiday, with many layers of meaning. 

When have we seen such agreement among so many different nations, as we see in the matter of celebrating the winter solstice?  Whatever we may call it; we mark it with gifts and gatherings, remembrance, spiritual renewal, and great joy.  It is a festival of light, and keeping it well illuminates the rest of the year with love and good feeling.

 

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

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For more information:

Hallucinogenic Mushrooms and Santa Claus

Santa and the ‘Shrooms:  The Real Story Behind the “Design” of Christmas

What Hangs On Your Tree? (Forest Garden)

Siberian Shamanism

Who Is Saint Nicholas?

St. Nicholas

Mithraism

The Real Santa in Richmond, VA

Fresh (and Dried) From the Garden

An herb garden on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

An herb garden on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg

Once upon a time most of the makings for a merry Christmas came from the garden.  Although most of us today might begin at a big box retailer or the grocery store, up until the last generation, Christmas was mostly home-grown.   Even so, much of what we purchase today still comes from someone’s garden or farm.

Artichokes growing now will bloom in the spring.

Artichokes growing now will bloom in the spring.

Pomegranate growing near the Bruton Parish garden.

Pomegranate growing near the Bruton Parish garden.

Even as the agricultural year is at its lowest ebb, and snow covers much of the country this weekend, there is a great deal to be gathered outside.  Solstice celebrations have honored trees since earliest times.  The Egyptians  brought palm fronds indoors in late December to honor the rebirth of Ra.  Trees have been a potent symbol of life and longevity for time out of memory.

Trees in the garden at Colonial Williamsburg

Trees in the garden at Colonial Williamsburg

Evergreen trees hold a special place in solstice celebrations all over the world and symbolize everlasting life and promise the return of the sun.  Evergreens with red berries, like holly and Nandina are especially popular winter decorations since the berries are symbolic of the returning sun.  So branches of trees and shrubs, cut from one’s own garden  or purchased from a nursery, are first on our list merry-makings from the garden.

We include mistletoe among the evergreens.  Growing on trees, though not a tree itself, it is an evergreen plant full of myth and meaning.  It is an important part of our decorations.

Even bare branches make beautiful decorations.  I love white twinkle lights laced through the bare branches of crepe myrtle.  Once I decorated an entire spiral staircase with dead branches pruned from mountain laurel shrubs, wrapped in white lights.  It was perfectly beautiful and I kept it lit each evening until spring.

We also gather every sort of cone and seed.  Whether used as is, or painted white or gold; cones are beautiful in wreathes, swags, sprays, centerpieces and hung on the Christmas tree.

Wreath in Colonial Williamsburg

Wreath in Colonial Williamsburg with cones, artichokes, apples, dried fruit, and seed pods on an evergreen base.

Nuts and nut shells can be used in the same way to make decorations.  Nuts are also gathered for wonderful Christmas foods like cakes, cookies, fudge, puddings, and breads.  Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and almonds grow over much of the United States.  It’s always wonderful to have a nut tree in one’s own garden or the garden of a friend.  Peanuts, although not from a tree, are an important food at Christmas all over the southern United States and can be grown at home.

December 5 2013 DOG St 039

A different wreath, using much of the same fruits, cones, and vegetables for decoration.

We also enjoy every sort of fruit and berry at Christmas.  Except for persimmons, pomegranates and the occasional late fig, most of us have to use dried fruit or preserves.   Local apples are still available in Virginia, but they were picked and stored weeks ago.  We import oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes from Florida and California.  Whether used in wreathes; stuck with cloves and set out in bowls; sliced into mulled wine or Wassail; or peeled and eaten out of hand, citrus is an important part of our Christmas celebration.

Many crops still wait to be harvested in the CW garden.

Many crops still wait to be harvested in the CW garden.

Cranberries don’t grow well in Virginia, but they fill whole shelves of the produce section at the local groceries.  We eat them from Thanksgiving through the new year baked into cakes muffins and breads.  We grind them with oranges to make cranberry relish and cook them with sugar and other fruits to make preserves.  Those that don’t get eaten are strung onto garlands or stuck into wreathes.

Virginia had a lively trade with islands in the Caribbean during Colonial times and has maintained those ties.  Pineapples are an important symbol of hospitality in Virginia.  Pineapples, imported from the islands, were available for Virginia Christmas celebrations.

Wreathes for sale in the Colonial Williamsburg garden on Duke of Gloucester St. use pineapples, feathers, oyster shells, apples, English holly, and dried flowers in their designs.

Wreathes for sale in the Colonial Williamsburg garden on Duke of Gloucester St. use pineapples, pine cones, feathers, oyster shells, apples, English holly, and dried flowers in their designs.

And of course grapes are enjoyed on party trays with cheeses, or savored as wine.  We bake raisins into cakes, cookies, and puddings. We use grapevines as the base for wreathes and garlands.

We even have greens and produce in the garden.  Our holiday meals are built around potatoes, carrots, celery, kohlrabi, collards, cabbages, kale, salad greens, broccoli, and brussel sprouts.  Many of these are still out in the garden with a little winter protection, or have just come in for winter storage.

Some might count eggs, since many keep their own chickens or buy eggs locally.  Eggs are used in such huge quantities as we bake our way towards Christmas day.  Likewise honey, an important part of the holiday, and a gift from our gardens.

Flowers, like lavender, Achillea, roses, hydrangea, baby’s breath, and cockscomb; dried last summer,  come out to play their part in our decorations. Whether worked into our wreathes, or tucked into the branches of the Christmas tree, they remind us of fragrant summers past.

December 5 2013 DOG St 031Herbs can still be cut here in Williamsburg, for both cooking and for decorations.  We still have sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley, germander, and some fragrant geraniums living in the garden.  Many more dried herbs and spices shine at Christmas.  How could we bake without cinnamon?    Cinnamon sticks. star anise, and cloves work their way into our decorations with dried citrus and herbs.  Sprigs of herbs tied into a bow make a Christmas gift fragrant.  Herbs and essential oils melted with beeswax and Shea butter or mixed with salt or sugar make special indulgent gifts for loved ones.

The garden at Colonial Williamsburg was bustling with activity when we visited on Thursday afternoon.  In fact, it was the busiest place we visited.  So many beautiful vegetables are still growing in the garden.  The shop is full of tempting wreathes, arrangements, dried materials, tools, and books.  As garlands and wreathes continue popping up all over town, we see the wintery landscape transform into a beautiful botanical paradise.

A centerpiece in the garden shop at CW will make a local table very festive this month.

A centerpiece in the garden shop at CW will make a local table very festive this month.

Everything we need is at hand to make our Christmas merry and bright, waiting for us in someone’s garden.

Here is a recipe to make your Christmas a little more flavorful.  Mulled wine and mulled cider are traditional at Virginia Christmas parties, as they are in England.  Mulled wine, or Gluehwein, is served at Christmas markets all over Germany, Switzerland, and Austria today.   I’ll be  making this tomorrow afternoon for our neighborhood cookie exchange party.  December 5 2013 DOG St 017After helping to construct nearly 2 dozen little houses from graham crackers and royal icing, I’ll be more than ready to sit back and sip a cup while watching the children decorate the houses with candy.

Mulled Wine or Gluehwein

Combine 1 1/2 c. of water and/or orange juice and 1 1/2 c. sugar in a large pot and simmer on medium heat as the sugar dissolves.  Wash, and cut 2 oranges, a large lemon, and an apple into narrow wedges or slices.  Stick whole cloves into the sliced fruit to use between 12 and 20 cloves.  Add the fruit to the simple syrup along with a 2 tsp. of cinnamon or a cinnamon stick.  Allow the syrup and fruit to simmer on a very low heat for at least 20 minutes before adding two bottles of red wine.  I like to use a Shiraz or Syrah as they are bold, fruity wines.  Once the wine is heated through (do not boil) transfer the mixture to a crock pot to keep warm, or serve directly from the cooking pot for informal events.

For a non-alcoholic treat, use apple juice or cider, or a combination of apple and cranberry juice in place of the wine.  Skip the water, and mull the fruit and spices in the fruit juices.  Add a little rum to individual servings as needed.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

December 5 2013 DOG St 026

Weekly Photo Challenge: Let There Be Light!

Bruton Parish, on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg.

Bruton Parish, on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg.

The Grand Illumination in Colonial Williamsburg is this coming weekend, on Sunday evening, and I’ve wanted all week to walk on Duke of Gloucester Street to see the wreathes and decorations while they’re fresh.  Each day lately has been filled to the brim, and so the trip was pushed into this afternoon.  And then it rained.  So much of the United States is preparing for a winter storm with snow and ice; but we are looking at a stretch of rain here in Williamsburg, just as the town fills with visitors for one of the biggest events of the year.

Lights are already lit inside the church.

Lights are already lit inside the church.

The rain stopped in early afternoon, but it looked like dusk by 2:30.  The air was heavy with moisture, every surface wet, with patches of lichen and moss thriving on trees trunks and wooden roofs.  Candles shone from windows here and there, and twinkle lights outside of restaurants were already lit.

Twinkle lights dress the Crepe Myrtle trees on Duke of Gloucester Street.

Twinkle lights dress the Crepe Myrtle trees on Duke of Gloucester Street.

A grey December day; but it didn’t affect the crowd.  Parking scarce, it was business as usual for a weekday afternoon on Duke of Gloucester Street.  And Christmas decorations are just going up in preparation for the weekend.

Colonial Williamsburg’s decorations are made mostly with fresh and dried botanicals.  Dried citrus slices, cones, seed pods, dried flowers, and evergreens are mixed with fresh fruit, spices, feathers and ribbon.  They are all hand made in the days leading up to the Grand Illumination.  Each year the designs are a little bit different, so it is always a surprise to walk around and see what the designers have created.

Ready made wreathes are offered for sale in the CW garden.

Ready made wreathes are offered for sale in the CW garden.

Wreathes and arrangements are available for sale at the garden across from Bruton Parish Church, as are the materials needed to make ones’ own.

Williamsburg is much greener today than it was in Colonial Times.  Trees were cut in the 17th and 18th century for timber and to clear land for farming.  Over the years many old and stately trees have grown back, so the area is lush today with gardens, hedges, and beautiful trees.December 5 2013 DOG St 037

In spite of a heavy brooding sky, lowering with more rain as we walked, CW felt bright and festive today.  Happy visitors strolled from building to building enjoying the decorations, the horses, the lush gardens, and the novelty of finding such an interesting place set down in the middle of a beautiful town.

There was plenty of light for a December afternoon.

A wreath for sale at the garden.

A wreath for sale at the garden.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule tide carol,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

December 5 2013 DOG St 024See the blazing Yule before us,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Follow me in merry measure,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
While I tell of Yule tide treasure,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

December 5 2013 DOG St 014Fast away the old year passes,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Sing we joyous, all together,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Heedless of the wind and weather,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Traditional

16th Century Welsh Carol

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Christmas in Colonial Virginia

Sunset on December 2, on the James River near Jamestown Island.

Sunset on December 2, on the James River near Jamestown Island.

Our Christmas is an amalgamation of many diverse strands of meaning, custom, and tradition.  The first English colonists who ventured to Virginia on behalf of the Virginia Company of London brought their traditions and customs with them.  And those customs were already an odd mix drawing bits from the ancient world of the Neolithic Celts, the Greeks and the Romans; all molded into the contemporary post-Reformation culture of urban England.

Keep in mind that the early Virginia colonists were a mix of gentlemen, craftsmen, and soldiers; who came to Virginia as a business venture to find gold, as the Spanish had further south, and to look for that elusive trade route to the rich markets of Asia.  Unlike their Puritanical cousins who settled further north along the coast 13 years later, they were not a particularly religious lot.  Members of the Church of England, they came in search of profit.  Unsuccessful in those early attempts to find gold or other valuable minerals, they eventually settled on turning a profit from agriculture and trade.

Hungry deer can be found all along the Parkway

Hungry deer can be found all along the Colonial Parkway.  Though game was plentiful, early colonists rarely left their fort to hunt due to the threat of attack from the local native tribes on whose hunting land they had settled.

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And so their traditional English Christmas celebrations from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night were about good food, plentiful drink, merry making; with a church service to mark Christmas Day.

Going back to the beginning proves a useful way to understand where we find ourselves today.  And the “beginning” of our Christmas can be found all around the planet in the celebrations of the return of the sun after the winter solstice.

Even Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland are built to track the movement of the sun.  The winter solstice sunset is perfectly framed in the great trilithon at Stonehenge.  Visitors arriving at Stonehenge from the Avenue look directly into the sunset on the winter solstice.   Sunrise on winter solstice, from December 19 to 23 sends a beam of light down the passage at Newgrange to illuminate the heart of its chamber.  Newgrange was constructed around 3200 BC; Stonehenge sometime later over a period of several centuries.  Archeological evidence has been found which indicates that feasts were held at Stonehenge to mark the winter solstice.

Winter solstice celebrations are about reversals.  Most simply, the sun reverses in its path across the horizon and in doing so, rises higher in the sky each day; illuminating the Earth for longer and longer days.  The “re-birth of the sun” with its promise of survival for another year lies at the heart of the celebration.  The Romans called the festival “Deus Sol Invictus” or the festival of the Undefeated Sun God.

Sunset fills the sky a little earlier each day.  By December there is little left to eat except for fish and game near Jamestown colony.

Sunset fills the sky a little earlier each day. By December there is little left to eat except for fish and game near Jamestown colony.

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At the time of year when days are short and cold, food scarce, and weather fierce, people gather together in extended families and communities to celebrate the return of the sun.  They hope their family will be among those who survive the winter and greet a new year.  This has been true since Neolithic times, probably before, and certainly was true in Colonial Virginia.

Animals slaughtered in December won’t need to be fed from precious stores of grain during winter.  So meat is abundant for feasting.  Fermentation of beer, ale, and cider is complete so strong drink is available.  Yule logs are lit in the hearth and parties with games and song continue through the long nights.  This was the original celebration at the solstice.

At the solstice, when the sun reversed direction, it became common for people to reverse their roles as well.  The “Lord of Misrule” from Rome’s Saturnalia survived in English custom and came with the early settlers to Jamestown.  Dressed in colorful costumes with lace, ribbons, bells, the “Lord of Misrule” and his merry company led the festivity and songs.

Christmas of 1606 found the first Jamestown colonists still at sea on their small ships.  They didn’t land at Jamestown Island until May 14 of 1607.  Their first Christmas in Jamestown found them hungry and at odds with the local native tribes.

Captain John Smith went to Chief Powhatan’s seat of government at Werowocomoco to trade in hopes of bringing much needed food home to Jamestown.  Instead, he was held prisoner for a time while he was questioned by the chief about the colonists’ intent.  The colonists, fewer than half of those who had arrived in May, huddled against the cold in their settlement over that first Christmas.

Canadian Geese on the James River yesterday afternoon.

Canadian Geese  are abundant on the James River .

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Little written record is left by diarists about those first Christmas celebrations in the Jamestown colony.  We know that the colonists would have found an abundance of evergreen holly, pine, cedar, mistletoe, and magnolia to cut for decorations if they wanted to brighten their living quarters.  They had a minister and a church was among the first structures built in 1607, so a Christmas service most likely was held.

Christmas 1608 found Captain Smith and his men in Kecoughtan, modern Hampton, again on a mission to trade with the local natives for food.  A fierce storm was blowing and he stayed with the natives living there for about a week, during which they feasted on seafood and other native foods.  Smith recorded in his diary, “There, the extreame wind, raine, frost, and snowe, caused us to keepe Christmas amongst the Salvages, where wee were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild foule, and good bread, nor never had better fires in England then in the drie warme smokie houses of Kecoughtan.”

Brackish water surrounds Jamestown Island, and there is no spring or well.  When drought left the James even saltier than usual, the colonists suffered without fresh pure water to drink.

Brackish water surrounds Jamestown Island, and there is no spring or well. When drought left the James even saltier than usual, the colonists suffered without fresh pure water to drink.

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The few records we have indicate that the winter months were especially brutal on the early colonists, and that Christmas was remembered mainly with religious observances and carols.  Surely a Yule log was lit for light and heat in the drafty shelters where the colonists lived together.  We remember the winter of 1609-1610 as “the starving time” when all but 60 of the 500 colonists perished.  They were prepared to abandon the colony and return to England when ships arrived in June bringing fresh supplies, a new governor, and a new group of colonists.

Once the colony grew stronger and more secure, more English customs were reinstated.  One of the much loved customs from home brought to Virginia was “The Lord of Misrule”, who presided over the festivities.  Dressed in a bright costume, he led the music making, games, feasting, drinking, dancing and revelry on Christmas Day.

Jamestown Island is surrounded by marsh.  The early colonists didn't know that cattails growing in the marsh can be eaten.

Jamestown Island is surrounded by marsh. The early colonists didn’t know that cattails growing in the marsh can be eaten.

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Back home in England, tensions over Christmas were already apparent.  The Church of Scotland had banned Christmas in 1583.  They recognized its strong roots in ancient “pagan” cultures, and that most of its customs came from the Roman holiday called “Saturnalia.”

During the week long celebration of Saturnalia masters and slaves changed places, with the masters serving their servants a feast.  Every home was decorated with greens, herbs, fires and candles.  Normal rules and standards of behavior were generally relaxed during a week of parties, gaming, merry making, feasting, drinking and celebration.  Government, schools, and many businesses shut down.  Gifts were exchanged, music made, and bands of carolers even ran naked in the streets with their “Lord of Misrule.”

In fact, when the Roman government decided to adopt Christianity in the mid-Fourth Century CE, they promised converts that they could keep their Saturnalia celebrations.  The Gospels don’t record a year or date for the birth of Jesus, but the new Roman church adopted the date of December 25 in 354 CE.  This was the traditional date for the birthday of previous “Sun Gods,” or “Sons of God,” including Horus, Cernunnos, and Mithras.  These gods were annually “reborn” on December 25, several days after winter solstice; when the days grew visibly longer once again and the sun was reborn in the winter sky.  Early church leaders, including St. Nicholas, believed they would gain more converts by keeping the festivals people already enjoyed.

Christ’s Mass, or Christmas, a fixture in the Roman Catholic Church, was not celebrated enthusiastically by the protestant church leaders in Scotland and England.  Christmas was banned in England by Oliver Cromwell’s government in 1652.  The Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony banned the celebration of Christmas between 1659 and 1681.  Celebrants could be arrested, fined, and punished for any observance of this “pagan” holiday.

Evergreen pine, holly, cedar and magnolia were readily available in the forest to craft Christmas decorations.

Evergreen pine, holly, cedar and magnolia were readily available in the forest to craft Christmas decorations.

Christmas was never outlawed in Virginia, and it was observed with feasting, music and revelry throughout the colony’s history.  It was a far simpler affair than it is today, however, and barely rated a mention in most surviving diaries.  There were church services, and communities came together to mark the day.

During December, I’ll continue to post about the history behind some of our favorite Christmas time traditions here in the United States.  Later this week we’ll take a look at some of our favorite Christmas decorations.

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear what news those angels bring;
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our Saviour King’s own birth.

The Sussex Carol, traditional English  

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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