A ‘Giver’s’ Tale…

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My mother and I were talking about the holidays this weekend, and I was encouraging her to simply the season by giving gift cards this year rather than shopping for presents.  Presents must still be wrapped and delivered; gift cards can easily be mailed.   Life is more complicated for elders who can no longer drive themselves or easily walk through stores.  Even internet shopping can present challenges, and I encouraged her to keep it simple this year.

She countered with a story of what happened to her when she tried to use a Red Lobster gift card at dinner last week.  Received for her birthday, she presented it to cover part of her tab.  To her surprise, the restaurant credited her for only $20 of the $25 value, claiming a $5 ‘service charge.’  Since she received the card just recently, she was surprised that she couldn’t use it for its full face value.

That is the first I’d heard of such a thing.  But she was adamant, and not entirely  convinced that my advice was good.  I had taken her shopping to Walmart on Saturday, and soon enough we encountered a huge aisle display of various gift cards.


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We approached and began looking at those available.  “You can do all of your Christmas shopping right here, Mom,” I suggested brightly.

In the spirit of the moment, I picked up a Visa gift card to send as a birthday gift, and she picked up a pack of 3 $20 Visa gift cards with a cover price of $60.00.  We have some family birthdays coming, as well as Thanksgiving with my daughter on the opposite coast.  It seemed a simple way to spread some cheer.

But, “Buyer Beware!”  We didn’t stop to read the fine print….  I checked out first, and glanced at my receipt while loading her groceries onto the counter.  There was an extra charge I couldn’t identify, and I questioned the clerk.  “Oh, that is the purchase fee,” she offered.  What?


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Turns out, and you may know this already, but there is a hefty fee charged for the convenience of using a Visa prepaid card.  Not in the habit of throwing money away, I asked her to refund the card.

She politely sent me to customer service, where the representative politely refused to issue a refund.  It is against store policy, he said, and showed me a phone number and website on the back of the card’s packaging where he assured me the refund could be easily processed.

I shared this intelligence with my mother, who promptly decided not to buy the gift cards she had picked up.  Her fee would have been nearly $10.00 for the 3 pack.  We hadn’t seen notice of the ‘fee,’ partly because it was printed in tiny white letters in the artwork on the package.  No notice of fees was given anywhere on the gift card display.

Well, Mother politely but firmly communicated her “I told you so’s,” while feeling blessed that I’d learned about the fee before she’d processed her cards.


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This morning I sat down to arrange my refund, called the ‘customer service number’ on the card’s package, and began wading through the automated phone tree.

I used every trick I know to get through to a real live person, and utterly failed.  The best I could get was instruction to go to their website to process the refund.  So, I began again at http://www.WalmartGift.com and searched that site thoroughly for a link to refunds.  The best I could find there was advice to call their customer service number.  It was the same number I’d already exhausted.

With nearly an hour invested in this circular exercise in futility, I searched for “How to get a refund on a Walmart Visa giftcard’ on the internet.

Well, that opened the floodgates of widespread frustration.  Have you any idea how many problems people are having with these cards? 

It seems that lots of other folks also exhausted the options on both the phone line and the website in utter frustration.  Everything from unknown charges on their cards, to cards that refused to activate, cards lost in the mail, and every other problem you might imagine was well documented.  And lots of others also found no way to get to a human customer service agent to actually get help with their problem.

Finally, I found Adam’s story. 


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Adam discovered that by choosing the option for the card’s transaction history, on the phone line, he could finally get to a real agent.

I decided to give it a try, only to learn that you must first enter the card’s multi-digit number, and security code, which means opening the package.  So I tore open the package (no changing my mind now….) and punched in all of the numbers… only to find that the live agent option has now been removed from the phone menu.  Guess too many people had figured out how to actually reach someone for help. 

The official Walmart website offers absolutely no help.  I searched it, too.  All they offered was the same website and phone number I’d already used.  Finally, determined to figure this one out, I called the customer service number once again, and this time entered the card’s number and code and chose the option to report my card as lost or stolen.

Finally, I broke through the miasma of the automated site and reach Gail, who pronounced her name ‘Geele.’  I explained the problem and asked for her help.  Gail politely explained why she couldn’t help me.  But, she promised to put me in touch with someone who could.  Then she transferred me to ‘Mike.’


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At this point, I’d been at it for more than an hour and a half, and felt no closer to my refund.  But Mike began asking for every scrap of  information about me, and about the store where I’d made the purchase, and about the receipt.  He needed every detail down to the exact time of the purchase.

After reading off all of this data, he asked whether  I was ready to write down the information he needed to give me.  Turns out, that although Mike took my report, I still had to email a photo of my receipt, and photos of both the front and the back of the card I want refunded,  to his bank before they would process my refund.  He said they would act within a business day of receiving the email to process the refund, and then I would get a check in the mail in a few weeks.

At last check, there has been no confirmation email back to let me know the process is underway…


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It turns out that ‘Mike’ doesn’t work for Walmart.  Mike works for a bank I’ve not heard of called ‘Green Dot Bank.’  Sound familiar?  Not to me…

There are several banks who handle these pre-paid Visa cards, and the refund comes from them.  If you look at one of these cards, the name of the issuing bank can be found at the very bottom of the back of the packaging in tiny type.   I guess the ‘purchase fee’ is so high so they can spread the profit around.

By the way, had I given this card, and the recipient didn’t use it right away, more fees would be subtracted along the way from the remaining balance.


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Why am I telling you this story?  Because you are probably starting to think about holiday gifts and shopping, too.

You may be tempted, as am I, to pick up gift cards for those loved ones who are hard to shop for.  Or maybe, like me, you wanted to send a gift card to help pay for ‘all the trimmings’ for a holiday meal to loved ones who can’t get home.  But these gift cards, convenient as they may be, come with expensive and frustrating strings attached.

“Buyer Beware!”  Mind the fine print, and maybe we’ll all have a more peaceful and affordable holiday this year!


Mark Robert's Sugar Plum Fairy


Woodland Gnome 2016

What Sits At the Top of Your Christmas Tree?


Mark Roberts "Golden Age" fairy sits at the top of our Christmas tree.

Mark Roberts “Golden Age” fairy sits at the top of our Christmas tree.


What sits on top of your Christmas tree? 

Hugh Roberts, of East Sussex UK,  is politely curious.

In fact, everyone who responds to his query will help add another pound sterling to the charitable contribution he plans to make in January.  His goal is L250. That is a lot of Christmas beauty!

Blogging friend Sue posted her tree topper earlier today and alerted me to Hugh’s challenge.  What lovely Christmas postings you’ll find from Sue!


Mark Robert's Sugar Plum Fairy

Mark Robert’s Plum Pudding  Fairy


When we moved to this home (and garden) a few years ago, a Christmas tree left behind by the previous owner was waiting for us in a huge box in the garage.  It was a pre-lit tree, with white lights, and we decided to make it our “den” tree that first year.

There was very little Christmas joy as I tried, in vain, to get all of the lights working.  I finally gave up and just put a string of colored lights on top and used this as our “overflow” tree for ornaments not displayed in the living room.  This tree held lots of childhood memories and fun ornaments given over the years by students and extended family.


Mark Robert's "Mistletoe and Holly" fairy

Mark Robert’s “Mistletoe and Holly” fairy


That January, we decided to just leave this tree assembled, covered in plastic dust covers, in the basement.  The ornaments were packed, but we just left the lights in place.  We’ve used the tree another time or two, but last year was so hectic that it never saw the lights of Christmas.

Earlier this month my partner began the discussion about discarding this old tree.  I think he planned to use its component parts in the deer barriers down in our ravine.  But I kept putting him off… and finally, took the trouble to go and lift the dust covers.  Not bad….


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I had been half-heartedly  shopping for a “new” artificial tree for the den.  I love the lights in the area where we sit and cook, and really wanted to bring some of those old ornaments out again.  But nothing I had seen online or in stores seemed worth the asking prices.  (Yes, I know, after Christmas sales…)

And so in a moment of sheer stubborness I wrestled this old tree up from the basement and plunked it down beside my chair.


A new "Santa" ornament handmade from a cypress knob by a local artist.

A new “Santa” ornament handmade from a cypress knob by a local artist.


There wasn’t much enthusiasm in the house, I must admit.  But when I plugged in the string of lights, it did look festive.

We began “fluffing” the tree.  The tree stood there the rest of the day with just the lights burning.  I was off to my parents’ home for the day, and needed to get on the road.  I planned to decorate it the following day.

Well, my partner continued to fluff it and bend it back into acceptable shape.  Its cheery glow greeted me when I returned home that evening.


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I was at peace with the decision to save the tree.  That is, until the following morning when I plugged it in on the way to the coffee pot.

The lights lasted maybe two minutes, and then nothing.  I tried and retried the plug, the fuses, the cord… Nothing would bring those old lights back to life.  They were more than 10 years old, but I still hated to give up too easily.


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My partner is no fan of non-functioning Christmas lights.  He helped out by disentangling them from the tree.

I plugged them into another outlet and went through the string bulb by bulb.  And again, and again.  No amount of jiggling or replacement bulbs brought them back to life.

By this time he was on his way to Walgreens to find us some new lights.


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But there was still the problem of the factory lights, burned out and hard wired onto the tree.  Most of the bulbs were blackened from their little explosions years ago.  They were clumsily attached, and just marred the tree in every way you might name.

And so faithful partner went to work with wire snips, pliers, and brute force.  He liberated the tree.


Handmade "Santa" purchased from the same local artist last year.

Handmade “Santa” purchased from the same local artist last year.


Hours later, we were finally ready to place the new strings of white lights.  What light!  What brightness! 

This was no longer a cast-off.  It was transformed into a thing of beauty.  And I decorated it accordingly.


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Our Mark Roberts Christmas fairies, usually enchanting the mantlepiece, took places of honor on the tree instead.  We decided to dedicate this tree to the magic of Christmas.


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It holds many of our Santa Claus ornaments, including  one crafted from a cypress knob by a local artist, which we purchased from her earlier in the month.

We created this tree to celebrate the love, generosity, kindness, and miracle-making magic the Christmas season always brings.


A gift on my first Christmas.

A gift on my first Christmas.


It is decorated with gifts I have  received from my very first Christmas until this one.  It celebrates the power of belief, the power of persistence, and the power of love. 


Another gift from one of my childhood Christmas celebrations.

Another gift from one of my childhood Christmas celebrations.


So will you join me in answering Hugh’s challenge?  If you blog, just make a post about your own Christmas tree, and link back to Hugh.  You’ll find instructions on his page.  If you don’t have your own blog, he explains how you can join in, too.

It doesn’t cost a penny to participate… only a loving heart full of joy and goodwill!


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Merry Christmas!

Woodland Gnome 2014


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What Hangs on Your Tree?

Our Waterford Byzantine Santa is new this year, found last week at the Re-Store, which supports Habitat For Humanity.

Our Waterford Byzantine Santa is new this year, found last week at the Re-Store, which supports Habitat For Humanity.

What hangs on your Christmas tree?

I’m always delighted and intrigued by Christmas trees.  Each is so personal and unique.

Birds always live in our Christmas tree.

Birds always live in our Christmas tree.

Although we all begin with an evergreen tree, or shrub, and we all use basically the same components of lights, ornaments, garlands, ribbon; every single tree takes on its own personality.

If you’ve ever spent time wandering through a Christmas shop you’ve probably gotten lost, as I have, in the bewildering assortment of decorations.  I am always attracted to the brightly painted glass ornaments from Europe shaped into birds, beasts, cars, trucks, people, and even green pickles!

Glass Amanita muscaria mushrooms are popular ornaments in parts of Europe, where their original connection to Winter Solstice celebrations is remembered.

Glass Amanita muscaria mushrooms are popular ornaments in parts of Europe, where their original connection to Winter Solstice celebrations is remembered.

Years ago we attended a breakfast with Santa when my daughter was a child.  It was part of a larger charity event which included a Christmas tree auction.  Various individuals and groups had decorated Christmas trees for the display and auction, and each tree had a theme.  The most interesting one was decorated with small glass bowls, each cradled in  a little net sling.  A Siamese fighting fish swam in each little bowl, like a jeweled ornament, on this beautiful tree.

A Margaret Furlong heart collected many years ago.

A Margaret Furlong heart collected many years ago.

Our own tree is far too small to hold all of our ornaments.  I could probably decorate a half dozen trees with the treasures I’ve collected over the years.  Each year a slightly different collection comes out of the boxes for a few weeks to take on new life on the tree.

But a few aspects remain the same.  I prefer white lights on a Christmas tree.  Not only are they much brighter, but they look like stars twinkling in the tree’s branches;which was, of course, the original idea.

This owl reminds us of the owls living in our forest.

This owl reminds us of the owls living in our forest.

My tree is always the host to a collection of birds.  From the very first tree in my very first apartment, I’ve collected bird ornaments.  I have some little nests with birds sitting on eggs, several cardinals and feathered doves, an owl and an eagle acquired here in Williamsburg, crystal hummingbirds, and geese.

One of those early Christmases brought me an early Christmas gift of a Nanday Conure.  He escaped his cage one day as I was trying to hand train him, and roosted in the top of the Christmas tree for the next several days, flying around the apartment whenever I tried to coax him onto my hand and put him back into his cage.  Since that tree, I’ve always wanted to fill my Christmas tree with small birds.

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This 80’s vintage snowflake was offered by the Smithsonian Museum gift shop.

I also collect stars and snowflakes.  I’ve found them in silver and brass, porcelain, plastic; and we even have a few crotcheted from white cotton  decades ago by my grandmother.

A have dozens of angels, mostly made in crystal or porcelain.  And a goodly portion of “For My Teacher” ornaments given by favorite students over the years.    My parents have given us the White House Christmas Ornament each year since they lived in Washington DC for a while.

A Santa given to me when I was a child.

A Santa given to me when I was a child.

I have ornaments from my childhood, commemorative Christmas balls from all over, many little Santas and elves,  and souvenir ornaments given by traveling loved ones.   The tips of our tree’s branches are hung with crystal icicles.

All in all, it is sparkling, with lots of green, living tree allowed to shine through.  It is topped with a beautiful blown glass top we found while preparing for our first Christmas together, and a golden angel.

This little snowflake is a gift from my friend, on Yalda.

This little snowflake is a gift from my friend, on Yalda.

We celebrated the festival of Yalda among dear friends on Saturday night with sliced watermelon, roasted nuts, a delicious dinner, and the poetry of Rumi.

Our  friend has decorated her first Christmas tree since moving to America a few years ago; a regal Norfolk Island Pine she has raised up into a great, full sized tree.  It is happily covered in white lights and decorated with a few white snowflakes and stars.  We were so happy to share a white porcelain star  with her, for her first Christmas tree here in the United States.

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What is on your Christmas tree?  Does it express your wishes for the future?  Does it commemorate the person you’ve become?  Is it a collection of memories from the people and places which have shaped you?  Does it reflect your travels?  Your interests? Your children?

The 2000 commemorative Christmas ball from Maymont Park, in Richmond, Va.

The 2000 commemorative Christmas ball from Maymont Park, in Richmond, Va.

I’ve always felt that making a Christmas tree is a potent form of magic. 

It is both a blessing of gratitude and an affirmation of all we want to bring into our lives in the coming year.  It is a beautiful reminder of those we love and the things which bring us joy.

May your Christmas tree fill your home with light, your heart with joy, and your life with the magic of Christmas.

All 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

Seashore Santa

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Seashore Santa was crafted many years ago by an artist in Virginia Beach.

I fell in love with him at first sight.  Winter on the beach here is rarely very wintery.  December 16, 2013 Naturalization 008We have lots of bits and pieces wash up daily, and this Santa looks as though he’s just been for a walk on the beach, collecting bits of fishing net, shell, coral, starfish, rope, and even a companion sea gull.

It is often warm enough here for walks on the beach right through the winter, and many happy hours are spent looking for treasures the sea brings in with each tide.  Often the nicest shells wash up in winter, and those fortunate enough to live near the beach cherish these days of quiet and solitude by the sea.

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A beach along the James River at sunset in December

Only locals wander the sandy miles of oceanfront, where the only sounds are the roar of waves and call of the sea birds on the wind.  Bright sun glints off of the water and the dried beach grasses, while creamy foam often washes onto the beach from the tops of wind whipped breakers.

Even here in Williamsburg, we enjoy the beaches along our rivers year round.  Neighbors are fishing along the creeks and the rivers on all but the coldest, wettest days.  The marinas stay open as boaters come and go.  There are always joggers and walkers braving the weather for a bit of time along the river, breathing the fresh air, and seeing what fresh treasures might be found. December 17, 2013 flowers 053

This Santa speaks to the essence of the spirit of giving.  He has collected what he can so that he might fashion it into something useful which will bring joy to another.  This is always the nature of the old Santas.  Whether gathering the fruits of the forest; making wooden toys; patching together a quilt; baking nuts and fruit into a special cake; or spinning wool to knit and weave; real Christmas comes from the hands of love and the heart of caring.

You give but little when you give of your possessions.  It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. 

                                                                                           Kahlil Gibran

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

The Real Santa(s)

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.


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.


Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myrna

Saint Nicholasm Bishop of Myra


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.


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.


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


The Real Santa in Richmond, VA

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