Candlemas & Imbolc – Take a break, celebrate the returning light & have some comfort food!

February 1 & 2 fall mid-way between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. The most ancient of cultures would have noticed this as a good time to have celebration and ritual. It is the downhill side of winter survival, a time of hope for the future, yet also a time of weariness of winter hardships. People were ready to celebration, to begin preparing for the coming planting season, to honor those who could assure them a successful harvest, and to rejoice in the returning light. It’s a time to clean out the ‘cob webs’ of winter.

dsc02180In Celtic tradition this mid-winter time is celebrated with the Imbolc Festival on February 1. The first written reference to Imbolc dates to the 10th or 11th Centuries in the writings of Irish monks. How extensively it was celebrated throughout the Celtic world no one knows for sure, but ancient Celtic architecture emphasizing alignment with the sun at this midway time in its cycle indicates celebrations go back much further. The Gaelic word Imbolc means “in milk” or ” in the belly”. Foods and beverages made with milk (especially ewe’s milk, as it is the time of lambing, thus fresh milk was available from the ewes) would be prepared, and milk beverages would be used to bless agriculture implements, such as a plow, and poured on orchard trees for fertility in the coming growing season. Homes would be blessed and candles lit.

IMG_0488.JPGIn Ireland, the day is celebrated as the festival of St. Bridget and blends ancient Celtic traditions with newer Christian traditions. St. Bridget herself seems to bridge the Celtic world, as her predecessor was the Celtic goddess, Brighid. Brighid (whose name has many spellings) represents light in many forms – candles, fire and Sun. Foods symbolic of the sun (see below about foods) would be part of the festivities. There is still debate as to who was real and who was mythical, the saint or the goddess. There are certainly overlaps in what each of them represents in their particular spiritual tradition – who they protect, and what their role is in handing out blessings. You can read delightful stories of both. I’ll go with the idea that both were real, and stories and tales down through the ages made them both mythical. I’m always ready to embrace a belief in a strong, benevolent woman who did good things and hands out blessings! I’m sure it is more than coincidence that Brighid and St Bridget have the same name, and both are seen as the personification of light returning and new life. Most Christian holidays follow in the footsteps of, and use many of the same symbols as, pre-Christian holy-days, it was the best way for people to incorporate the old with the new.

February 2 is Candlemas, celebrating the 40th day after the birth of Jesus, the first day his mother could take him to the temple. At the time of Jesus’ birth women had to wait 40 days after giving birth before entering a temple, a period of time they were considered ‘unclean’. On the fortieth day Mary could enter the temple with her baby and have him blessed, so the day is often called “the Presentation of Christ”, or the “Blessing of Christ”. This celebration is observed in many Christian churches, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. During Candlemas the candles that will be used in the church throughout the year are blessed. It is also a time of celebrating light, and of purification.

Looking for a sun symbol for mandala making, this very odd one was appealing! A pumpkin that froze, instead of rotting, creating an oddly textured yellow mass of yellow! One of my stranger mandalas! ;-)

Looking for a sun symbol for mandala making, this very odd one was appealing! A pumpkin that froze, instead of rotting, creating an oddly textured mass of yellow! One of my stranger mandalas! 😉

There are many versions of these celebrations, many traditions and interpretations. In reading about them, what appeals to me is the preparation for spring planting and the new cycle of life, as well as receiving the blessing of returning light.

It might be a challenge to celebrate hope and light, or seem irrelevant to do so at this time of such darkness and decline in the world, especially here in the United States. But perhaps that is even more reason to do so. Create your own ritual for blessing your home, fruit trees if you have them, and perhaps your garden. Lights candles, inside, outside, and do whatever “purification” and cleaning out you feel inclined to do in your physical environment, make it your place of refuge from the darkness. Make some special foods (food ideas below). Allow yourself to feel blessed by Brigid, either in her Celtic form or Christian manifestation. St Brigid is associated not only with spring and fertility, but also healing, poetry and smithcraft. Write a poem, plant some primroses, sow some early seeds. Let your spirit and your mind take a break and celebrate the light. It is here, we just have to let it in.

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And if all else fails to arouse hope in you…there’s always Mr. Groundhog, the ‘ancient’ American seer of weather! There are no “executive orders” for canceling the coming of spring, so embrace it.

See below for foods and recipe.

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traditional-foods

For fabulous, fancier recipes for celebrating Imbolc , I recommend one of my favorite blogs: Gather.

 

 

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Happy New Year from my muse!

Happy New Year!

img_6768Water holding fire, stones & blooms, with little birds & evergreens, usher out the old and welcome in the new.

15823007_10208383395523141_4978219945121430358_nWhen I shared a favorite poem in a post after the election, I was inspired by its message: those who survive difficult times keep active learning, creating, writing, playing music, sharing conversation. (poem re-posted below)

With the goal of making a mandala ‘almost’ every day til the end of the year, I made 41 mandalas and 8 angels in 50 days. Some days it was a challenge.  There were several weeks of “sick days” with the winter “bug” going around, and 20-30 degree days in our old funky, hard to heat house that left me less than inspired, but my muse persevered.

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Such simple acts of creative expression and reflection, with Nature to inspire, can help focus in the moment, focus on the gifts and beauty around us. I recommend you let your own muse shine in 2017, in whatever ways you are inspired!

Not sure where my muse will take me next!

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A Christmas Eve lesson from Nature on Gentle Strength

christmas-eve-mandalaAs I thought of each plant while making the mandala above, (neither as pretty or even symmetrical as I’d hoped for Christmas Eve!) I pondered how in Nature gentleness, softness or diminutive size are traits not exclusive of strength and purpose.  A lesson from Nature.

Dusty Miller’s soft fuzzy leaves hardily survive in the garden next to plants blackened by below freezing temperatures. Flexible Cedar trees sway in the wind, thin tops vulnerable to breaking out in strong storms, yet baskets woven of cedar bark will carry stones and some have survived hundreds of years.  Star Anise’s fruit, fleshy and soft, when dried hardens into pods hard as the shells of nuts, protecting tiny seeds.  Delicate white blossoms of the spider plant are fragile, yet spider plant is a powerful detoxifier of polluted air. The Lilliputian ‘cones’, barely noticed on the forest floor, fall from Red Alder, a tree straight and tall whose wood, strong enough for building houses and making furniture, makes for hot fires. (My analogies aren’t a perfect fit, but you get the idea! And there are many more examples!)

The celebration of Christmas focuses on the birth of a tiny babe over 2000 years ago who grew up, according the gospels written after his death, to teach of love and forgiveness, to teach that in the eyes of God everyone was equal and anyone, regardless of social status, whether they were criminals or ‘sinners’, men or women, could find the “kingdom of God within“.   The stories and events of his life will forever be discussed and debated, but it is known that he lived at a very tumultuous time in history and was likely seen as a revolutionary leader with a growing following who, among other acts of defiance, confronted greedy money changers and disagreed with the ‘temple tax’ every man had to pay.  An advocate of the poor and working class at a time of tyrant leaders, Jesus represented a caring, protecting presence and gave hope to those who followed him, but to those in power he was a rebellious troublemaker.  He died young, a victim of political conspiracy because  he was ‘anti-establishment’ and his ability to attracted great crowds of people was a threat to religious and political leaders.  He was, from what was written after his death by those closest to him, a compassionate person, kind to all, who could be strong as steel and hot as fire when he needed to be, especially in the face of what he saw as injustice.

Whether you are celebrating the birth of Jesus this weekend, or the the miracle of light as Hanukkah begins, I hope you have an opportunity to spend time in Nature on these wintry days and see what she has to teach you.  In the winter Nature can be peaceful and calm, for it is a time of rest before the energy burst needed for spring. But she also has a powerful stormy side as witnessed in winter storms.  She can teach us the same lessons that Jesus and other great religious leaders have taught – be gentle when gentleness is needed, and strong when strength is needed.  Love all, protect those in need, and stand up to those who are unjust and driven by greed for power and money.

Not much has changed in 2,000 years has it?

Peace and Happy Holy-days!

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Thanksgiving

Begonia preparing for winter, primrose in spring mode, and hardy little fever few keeping on!

Begonia preparing for winter, primrose in spring mode, and hardy little fever few keeping on!

It’s the time of year to count our blessings, and to all who read my blog posts, you are among my blessings! You provide me a reason to put into words thoughts and inspirations, to share photos and tidbits of information about this and that. Such sharing is important to me, writing is important to my muse, and I hope, now and then, it is of value to you. Thank you!

Perhaps like many of you, I have been riding an emotional roller coaster the past few weeks, each news story deepening my concerns and fears for many people. Part of my coping is to limit news, (easy since I’ve also been coping with chronic headaches and dizziness, making it hard to read) and to make and share a mandala a day. Yup, I mentioned in last week’s blog I was going to do this and so far I have!  If you would like to see my mandalas, besides Facebook & Instagram, I post them here: mandalas. This has helped me focus my thoughts on the beauty of Nature, the satisfaction of design, and the joy of sharing with others a bit of visual pleasure.

we-stand-with-youYesterday’s mandala was made specifically for a hashtag on Instagram, #artistsforlove, a call for solidarity among artists to support all those feeling fear due to the future administration’s agenda of exclusion and bigotry toward many groups of people. (For those unfamiliar with Instgram, hashtags are a way of grouping similar posts from many people, i.e. by writing #artistsforlove under my post, it automatically posts to a group of pictures posted by other artists with the same intent).  I also purchased, on Amazon, wool blankets and socks to be sent to the Water Protectors in North Dakota, where medics are treating many people sprayed with pepper gas and water during sub-freezing temperatures Sunday night, and shot with rubber bullets. (If you would like to donate, there is a list of needs and were to send in this article: Truthout)

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have a spicy Thanksgiving! 😉

As we enter the holiday season, beginning with tomorrow’s celebration of gratitude and abundance, a time to count our blessings, it also seems a good time to assess our priorities and values. What is important to us?  What, and who, are we willing to support and how can we do so? Even very small gestures like those above help someone, somewhere. And they helped me to feel less powerless. When we feel powerless we give someone else our right to be who we are, regardless of outer circumstances. As an aging Caucasian woman with health issues, living in the woods, far from cities and neighborhoods where people of different religions, skin color, and ethnic backgrounds are scared, scared for their children, scared for their lives – what can I do? If we look, there are always small ways to help – letters, phone calls, goods and gifts, donations, prayers, sharing with others what you do to inspire them to do similar acts. You might want to rethink your holiday shopping and gift giving based on your current assessment of your values and priorities.  There has been a shift, a change, and it is time to shift and change how we live our lives and how we (even us recluses in the woods!) are involved with others.   It is a time not just for good intentions, but for good actions.

People anticipate funds will be cut for many services and resources that help people, our state may lose funds for refusing to follow a policy of exclusion, environmental organizations will have extra battles to fight to protect lands, parks, species. The list goes on, and only as time goes on will we see what happens when those in “power” take actions that do not reflect our values.

I know I ‘preach to the choir‘, as most of you have already realized the importance of supporting and helping others. Thank you for what you’ve done, I hope it helps you feel less powerless. I’d love to hear in the comments below your stories of decisions you’ve made on how to make a difference, how to support what and who is important to you.

Let the news inspire you to take action, not ” steal” your peace, your power…….and most of all, do not let it steal the joy of the holidays!

still some color on the ground!

Many blessings for Thanksgiving, may it be filled with joy and love from family, friends, or if a quiet time for you, feelings of gratitude and peace! ❤

Festivals & Fruit Crumble

img_6229 It is a festive time in many cultures throughout the world.

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My Dawali mandala is inspired by my friend Rashmi, who is from Nepal but lives in Spain. To view more of my mandalas check out my Flora Mandala page!

In India, Nepal, and other southeast Asian countries, and by Hindus everywhere, and those who appreciate and celebrate Hindu  festivals, the multi-day festival of light, Dawali, or Dipawali  falls in late October. It’s date, determined by the Hindu calendar, can vary on the Gregorian calendar.  This year the primary day of Dawali is October 30.   Depending upon which country, there are many stories and legends associated with this festival of light, but everywhere it is a time for joyous celebration, gift giving, holiday foods, family and friends, a time for light and goodness to claim victory over darkness and evil. 🔥

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my tiny acorn squash jack o’lantern!

Those whose autumn celebrations hark to early Celtic culture celebrate Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve October 31. Originally called Samahain, it was time to prepare for winter at a time where such preparations were a matter of survival.  It is seen as a time when the veil between the world of the dead and the world of the living is lifted, letting the former raise havoc with the later.  Bonfires, candles, and other means of discouraging such behavior were, and still are, popular, while at the same time, the tradition of trick or treating implies a certain amount of encouraged mischievousness! 👻

picframeDia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, November 2, is celebrated in Mexico and by those whose roots, and hearts, are in Mexican culture.  The holiday includes the Day of the Innocence, November 1, to honor the souls of children who have died. Though there is a belief the veil between the after life and the living is easier to pass through, souls of loved ones come in peace, to counsel and console those living, not to raise havoc! A beautiful and unique folk art that is popular from the traditions of the Day of the Dead are ‘sugar skulls’, usually made of sugar to be placed on altars to deceased loved ones, but also made of clay or other materials. 💀

If you were to combine the intent of these three fabulous holidays, you would be focused on letting light into your life, into the world, celebrating the victory of good over evil, while appeasing the ancient spirits, who may do you some harm, but who also may offer you wisdom.  Well anyway, that’s my summary and I think all these intentions are worth celebrating!

img_6129Any holiday that involves lighting candles, which all three do, on a dark and rainy autumn day I am all for!

Below is a recipe for my latest favorite comfort food,  my version of an all American, easy-peasy fall dessert. You might want to make it to offer whatever spirits you need to appease, honor, or any evil entities that need sweetening! The ‘secret’ to the recipe below is my usual mantra – fresh spices! In this case, if possible, grated fresh nutmeg, a warming spice that is calming to the nerves and mind, adds a unique flavor.  Note: If you have trouble sleeping, with all these spirits wandering around, take 1/4 to 1/2 t. of fresh ground nutmeg 4 or 5 hours before you’d like to go to sleep, in warm milk or milk substitute, or in applesauce, nut butter, etc.

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adorable little jack o” lantern by Karen Brown in Kentucky. Mug by Jerry Weatherman on Orcas Island.

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A Day of Remembrance

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Roses and rosemary, botanicals for remembrance

“Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

imageHow does one say “Happy Memorial Day”? There is nothing happy about war, about having a day to remember all the lives and dreams cut short by the politics and hatred that give birth to war. Watching the National Memorial Day concert on PBS last night, I appreciate and am grateful for the emphasis on helping the wounded soldiers who come home, not just wounded in body, but in heart, soul and psych. We as a society have come a long way in understanding the human cost of war is not just in fatalities.

Memorial Day is a day to reach out to the warriors who survive the battle fronts, as well as the family and friends of those who do not come home, they too are the casualties of war and live every day with broken hearts.

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Clematis is said to represent mental beauty. May those who suffer the travails of war find again mental beauty and peace

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a warrior and a thoughtful man who saw war for what it was. Here are two of his many quotes on the subject.

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

“When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war”.

Honoring and wishing all whose lives are touched by war a day of peace and love.

Tulips, Swans and Snow Geese

IMG_4605Yesterday we took a trip to the tulip fields of Skagit Valley. This essay is my rather pensive after-thoughts, which you can skip and just enjoy the pictures!

Lovely layers of shape and color at the Roozengaarde display garden.

Lovely layers of shape and color at the Roozengaarde display garden.

Like re-reading a book, or watching a movie you’ve watched before, revisiting places can lead to very different experiences than previous visits. We are, after all, not the same person we were yesterday, or last week, or 10 years ago. Perhaps you’ve experienced the phenomena of returning to a place of your childhood and thinking, “Wow! I remember everything as being bigger!”, well, of course it was, you were littler! It’s all a matter of perspective in the moment.

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amazing how the mucky mud nourishes such a bounty of beauty!

My first trip to the tulip fields was too long ago to still have vivid memories of it. My second visit, 9 years ago, was with Mike after a doctor’s appointment in Anacortes. I was one year into 2 ½ years of being intensely ill with 24/7 nausea. Based on doctors’ predictions, I was learning to accept being nauseous might be my every day life from now on. The tulip fields were a haven of color, a playful respite for us from medical appointments and worry.

IMG_4633A few years later I went to see the blooms on my way home from visiting my good friend, and cousin, Shaun on San Juan Island. That trip was a landmark for me, driving myself after 2 ½ years of being too sick to drive. Initially it was not an easy trip to make, but 3 days of walks, chats, and sitting among spring wild flowers, listening to Shaun talk of her passion for “her” baby oak trees and the land she loves, I felt renewed and on the road to recovery. The tulip field visit was peaceful and calm (few people visiting that day) and symbolic of finding my way back to myself. (click to read more about Shaun the Oak Lady of San Juan Island)

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behind the display garden was fields of daffodils, which are still in bloom and dot the landscape with ‘fields of gold’, just as lovely as the tulips.

Yesterday’s trip was very different. A simple day trip, it was a compromise after canceling two attempts in the past month to go away for a weekend. I’ve not been feeling well, exhausted, probably from a reoccurrence of Epstein Barr virus, and in a lot of physical pain. Traveling has become challenging for me.

Our trip to the Tetons last year, and a California trip to my niece’s wedding the previous year, left me discouraged about future travel plans. By the return trips, the joy of the destination was lost in physical pain. Even a trip an hour from home results in stiff sore legs and sciatica pain, reaching our destination I can barely get out of the car. I say ‘we’ because I no longer drive an hour away by myself, my right foot in numb pain from neuropathy, and a torn meniscus in my right knee which gets worse when I drive, makes driving even short distances undesirable.

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At the Skagit Valley Food Co-op, a favorite place to shop, I bought Mike his chocolate Easter bunny, who visited the tulip fields with us!

Today’s trip to the tulip fields was a challenge, but I was determined to go, knowing that ‘getting out of Dodge’ was important for both Mike and I. And the blue skies were irresistible. By the time we arrived in Skagit Valley I was already grumpy about bodily pain and discomfort.  Hungry, we headed to Skagit Valley Food Coop where the deli was packed with folks on lunch breaks. After a car-picnic in a local city park, we were off to the fields.

IMG_4524The color was dazzling, the fields just beginning to burst forth in their vibrant, almost psychedelic rainbows of color. But I found myself more interested in the swans flying in numerous small flocks into a field just beyond the tulips. By the time they all landed there was a ‘super flock’ of hundreds.

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IMG_4558The workers picking tulips in the fields made me wonder what it must be like to live their work-a-day life of low pay, listening to their Spanish language radio songs, chatting among themselves as they worked side-by-side while tourist’s “oohed” and “aahed” over the flowers. And I wondered why some of them wore masks.

IMG_4578The big display field at “Tulip Town” had the most blooms, and people, but was off-limits to me, I could not walk the distance from car to the ‘entry point’. Over the years the tulip fields have become, out of necessity, a more managed tourist destination. I was able to take a few distant pictures, it reminded me of a surreal Peter Max style painting!

IMG_4604Roozengaarde display gardens were busy but not too crowded. There were enough people  it was not easy to sit and ‘soak’ in the color and beauty of the carefully laid out patterns of blooms, and for me it was not easy to keep walking.


IMG_4650As it turned out, the highlight of the day was not the tulips but the swarm of white birds we saw in the distance, moving as one, turning, banking, turning again. A graceful bird ballet. We followed them and found ourselves watching a massive flock of snow geese settle into a field.

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This close up photo shows only a small number of the Snow Geese. I took many videos of their noisy, moving feast.

One of my hoped for trips a month ago was to the Snow Geese Festival, which I’ve wanted to go to for years.  I was very grateful for this unexpected opportunity to watch, in awe, literally thousands of birds in such a feeding frenzy as to hardly pay notice to the cluster of human “gawkers” who gathered. (see video below to hear and watch the snow geese)

We left the Snow Geese, went into La Conner, which was quiet and ‘sleepy’, stores beginning to close at 5:00. After a simple supper at a picnic table on the river we started the trip back to the (very packed out!) evening ferry.

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The display garden has many different bulb flowers, loved this highly scented hyacinth display!

It was not the predictable fields of vivid color that will stay in my memory of this day, nor did I feel the peacefulness of previous trips to the fields, it’s the ‘chance’ events of the day – watching hundreds of swans in flight, seeing thousands of Snow Geese swarm, land, feed, even watching the field workers, the real energy behind the surreal bonanza of tulip bloom each year.  It was a good day. Of course I wish was not in pain.  (and I wish Abby had not gotten sick.)  There is a sadness knowing such a simple day trip was so physically uncomfortable.  I’m learning to accept a life that stays closer to home.  As I look at the woods out the window and the bouquet of tulips we have from ‘our’ local tulip field at Red Dog Farm, I am grateful home is a lovely place to be – and stay.

Happy Easter all! IMG_4634

For more “Eastery”  posts from past years, you can read about, and see pictures of, eggs and bunnies at these links:

Egg EnchantmentA Season of CelebrationHare Hare Everywhere

 

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love. How controversial can THAT be? It wasn’t invented by Hallmark, as many jaded folks feel about the whole affair. It does support the florist industry, not a bad thing, small flower shops could not thrive without it. And along with Halloween it probably keeps the candy industry afloat too. (There might be some controversy there, but as always, buy local and buy healthy.)

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Tin heart from Mexico

The most accepted version of how Valentine’s Day came into being is the story of a priest named Valentine. In the third century Emperor Claudius II decided single men were better soldiers then married men so he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine felt this was grossly unfair and, defying Claudius, performed marriages in secret. He was caught and sentenced to death. As the story goes, he either struck up a friendship or fell in love with (depending on the version you read) the jailer’s young daughter and wrote his young friend a letter before being executed…. often referred to as the first Valentine.

There’s not a lot of hard evidence for this story, likely passed down originally by oral tradition, but having all the elements of a good story – rebellion in the name of love against an evil emperor, it has stuck.

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Paper mache heart decoration

Before the martyrdom of Valentine the feast of Lupercalia was celebrated from February 13 to 15. “Men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain…young women would actually line up for the men to hit them. They believed this would make them fertile.” This strange ritual was followed by a matchmaking lottery. Young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be coupled up for the duration of the festival, or longer. (1)

These two stories, blended together and soften over the centuries, thanks to Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the poets of the world, became today’s Valentine’s Day. Losing the early pagan mating rituals, and rarely seen as a Christian celebration, it became a day for children to hand out funny Valentines to friends and couples to find time to acknowledge and express their love for one another with flowers, candy, dinner out or whatever. Not a bad thing!

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A vintage cardboard decoration

Growing up, our family celebrated all the traditional American holidays. Somehow Mom found time between working full-time, raising three kids, and fulfilling the responsibilities of a typical housewife in the 50s and 60s, to do a little decorating, make a special dinner and, always, a special dessert for every holiday from Halloween to St. Patrick’s Day and beyond. Christmas was a grander affair and Easter involved the extra tasks of buying Easter outfits and putting together Easter baskets.

Maybe because it was low-keyed, and definitely a family affair, I’ve always liked Valentine’s Day and never thought of it as a holiday exclusively for couples.  My brothers must have been influenced in the same way, because over the years I occasional receive Valentines from each of them, and I’m guessing not too many men send Valentines to their sisters! (Aren’t I lucky!)

As a single adult I pretty much did what mom did…decorate a little, make a special dinner, send Valentines to friends and family. I still do, most years. Mike greatly appreciates it all and it remains a low-keyed time to simply celebrate love, both within our marriage and beyond.

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delicate embroidery on a linen handkerchief

But this celebration of love has deeper meaning to me now than it did growing up. Call it Divine Love, Universal Love, Cosmic Love, or just Love with a capital “L”, it is a force greater than the lust of the early Roman couples or the amorous feelings of a condemned priest. It is the love felt when a mother looks into the face of her new born, when a friend holds the hand of a dying friend, or a spouse tenderly cares for their mate who does not recognize them any more. It is the warmth one feels with a long-time friend, or a spouse, when you share a moment of laughter at some ‘in joke’ and realize how deep and how lasting your relationship is. It is the compassion of a police officer who buys a homeless person a pair of shoes, or a child who saves her allowance and raises money to help people in a country he or she has never been to. This love is beyond romantic love. It is unconditional, made up of compassion, empathy, appreciation, respect. It is inclusive, accepting another person because you see beyond their actions, or their beliefs. Ignoring the differences that make them “other”, you see them with an understanding heart, not a critical mind. And you care about them.

This love has seemingly gone missing when you read the headlines. But it is alive and well in small compassionate acts of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, as well as every day deeds of kindness. It is alive when people take action from their hearts. It is in the stories that don’t make the headlines.

We can, and need to, nurture it and celebrate this love everyday. It’s what the world needs now, more than ever.

To celebrate it is perhaps an act of rebellion against the hatred being taught and glorified. This celebration of universal love for all, I think, would make the rebellious priest Valentine, who lost his life to help other’s celebrate their love, very happy!

Happy Valentines Day!

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(1) National Public Radio story on the origins of Valentine’s Day 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Silver Bells

 

IMG_3888Whether silver, brass, tin, ceramic, glass or some other material, bells are as much a part of winter holiday celebrations as holly, mistletoe, and twinkly lights. Bells have a long, rich history, and have been rung for many reasons – to warn people, gather people, guide ships, to celebrate. Bell making grew with the advancement of metallurgy. Beginning in China and spreading throughout Asia, the art of bell making eventually spread to Europe where early monks were among the first to create bells of different distinct tones and use them to create music.

IMG_3858Bells seem to have a role in all major religions and spiritual traditions. Their association with Christmas likely is due to church bells calling people to worship, a tradition some say began with St. Patrick. Church bells called folks to weddings (thus the term ‘wedding bells’), funerals, and other festivities and celebrations. Bells were thought to not only call out to mere mortals, but to ring to the heavens above!

IMG_3892Whatever the reason, bells are a part of Christmas and other winter celebrations…..sleigh bells, silver bells, Salvation Army Bells, jingle bells, bells on elves shoes, on reindeer harnesses, on trees, doors, in choirs and orchestras. There’s a long list of seasonal songs that feature bells. My personal favorite, especially when played by a bell chorus, is “Carol of the Bells”IMG_3951

 


“Sweet silver bells, All seem to say, Throw cares away.”

The original lyrics of Carol of the Bells had nothing to do with Christmas. The song was a Ukranian folk song written as a “winter well-wishing song,” according to Anthony Potoczniak, a Rice University anthropology graduate student who studied the song’s history. Photoczniak explains:

“Written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich and titled ‘Shchedryk’, the song tells the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful year that the family will have. The song’s [original] title is derived from the Ukrainian word ‘shchedryj’, which means bountiful……”

Potoczniak explains that American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovich’s work and it reminded him of bells so he wrote new lyrics to convey that imagery.

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These bells, likely made in India, and have a beautiful floral design on them.

Another favorite is I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day based on a poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in 1863, two years after the death of his beloved wife from an accidental fire caused by a candle. Longfellow’s oldest son ran off against his father’s wishes to fight with the Union army and was severely wounded. This news caused the already grieving Longfellow to write this poem of despair, ending with hope. In 1872 the poem was first put to music by English organist John Baptiste Calkin, though there have been many other musical versions of it.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

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Tiny china bells, part of childhood Christmases.

Written during a bloody war that tore our nation apart, by a grieving man, it became a Christmas song of hope, justice, peace.

May the bells on this holy-day, 152 years later, when it again seems “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men” also ring “loud and deep” a message of peace on earth, hope and goodwill to all.

IMG_4028Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice, Hanukkah blessings……. whatever you celebrate….let your bells ring out!

Read about famous bells, bell making, the story of the largest bell ever made  (it  lays at the bottom of the sea), and a brief history of bells at: historyofbells.com

To read more of the history of:  Carol of the Bells

 

A  youtube version for listening:

 

Spice up, warm up, your winter days!

Star Anise, not as common as the other spices I write about in this post, is also a warming spice. Used in a lot of Chinese cooking. From a small, evergreen magnolia tree grown in Asian countries, the stars add decoration as well as sweet anise taste to warm holiday beverages.

Star Anise, less common  then the spices I write about, is also a warming spice. Used in a lot of Chinese cooking, these pods from a small, evergreen magnolia tree grown in Asian countries  adds decoration as well as the sweet anise taste to warm holiday beverages.

Cold, damp winter weather in northern climes calls for comforting ways to warm body and soul. In both western and Ayurveda herbal traditions, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, the fragrances and tastes associated with winter holidays, are considered warming for body and spirit!

Cinnamon, the fragrant dried inner bark of the cinnamon tree, grown mostly in Sri Lanka, is a warming spice. Both sweet and pungent, it is good for circulation, respiratory health, muscles and nerves. In warm milk or warmed juices such as apple or berry, it can bring comfort and relief to a body chilled from stormy weather or a cold ‘bug’. It also harmonizes the flow of circulation.

the ground cinnamon shown in here is a much sweeter and finer tasting cinnamon than what is commonly sold as cinnamon, If you can find it, try it in your holidays baking and beverages.

“Cinnamomum verum”, considered the ‘true cinnamon’, is sweeter than what is commonly sold as cinnamon, which is from a related species and referred to as “cassia”.  If you can find it, try this ‘true’ cinnamon it in your holiday baking and beverages.

You probably already use ground cinnamon in baking holiday cookies, pies, and other desserts. It can also be used in meat and vegetable dishes, especially when combined with other spices. Cinnamon sticks are used in mulled wine or juice. Add the benefits and taste of cinnamon to your winter days by sprinkling it on your favorite tea, coffee, or other warm beverage.

the forms of cardamon, the green, dried pods, the seeds from in side the pods, and fresh ground cardamon.

The  green, dried pods; the seeds from in side the pods; and fresh ground cardamom. Oh how I wish this post could smell like cardamom!

Cardamom, an ancient Indian spice, is another sweet/pungent warming spice. Good for the respiratory system (I take long, deep cardamom breaths when I grind it!), nerves and circulation, it is a rock star for the digestive system. Not surprising, as the perennial shrub is a member of the ginger family and ginger root is the premium digestive spice. The little seeds found inside the fruiting pods of the cardamom bush stimulate digestion and can calm an upset tummy.

Cardamon tapioca pudding with toasted coconut & almonds.

cardamom tapioca pudding with toasted coconut & almonds.

Used in Scandinavian baking year round, it is especially favored at Christmas in cardamom breads and cakes. Cardamom, which reduces the mucus forming properties of milk, is delicious in a cup of warm milk at night. I use cardamom in many vegetable and grain dishes, as an ingredient in a spice blend I often use, and with cinnamon and nutmeg in cooked fruit deserts such as baked pears or apples or a fruit compote, or cobblers. My favorite use is in tapioca pudding, (which I make with coconut milk, no eggs). Cardamom/vanilla tapioca, with a hint of coconut and sweetened with honey or coconut syrup, served warm (or cooled) is a soul warming sweet dessert on a wintry night!

IMG_3803Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove tree, a tropical member of the myrtle tree family. It’s name, from the Latin clavus, means nail, which the dried buds resemble. Also pungent, and sweet, it is considered a mild aphrodisiac, good for the lymph system, lungs, stomach, it is also found in many herbal salves for pain. A long-standing use has been for tooth pain. Used in combination with cinnamon and other spices, it is popular in holiday baking, as well as meat dishes. A strong spice, too much can cause stomach irritation, and the flavor can over ride other flavors. It’s a good thing in moderation! A “classic” holiday decoration is clove buds stuck in an orange and hung to scent a room or closet. Easy to grind, the flower buds last longer whole then pre-ground.

store bought, dried ground nutmeg, and fresh grated nutmeg, showing the beautiful patterns inside the nutmeg fruit.

Dried ground nutmeg, and fresh grated nutmeg, showing the beautiful patterns inside the nutmeg fruit.

Nutmeg seems to have two primary uses in most western kitchens….holiday eggnog and desserts with fruit, such as pies and cobblers. It can also be used in cooking vegetables. A pungent spice, it works well with cardamom and ginger to aid digestion, especially in the small intestine. A superb spice for calming the mind, up to 1/4 t. of nutmeg in warm milk (or milk substitute) before bed time can help with sleep. Nutmeg and mace (another spice) come from the same evergreen tree native to Indonesia. You can buy the whole “fruit” or purchase it ground. Grinding nutmeg in a spice grinder takes a good sharp blade. It can also be grated. The resulting fresh ground or grated nutmeg will be stronger flavor than the dried, pre-ground spice.

one of my latest favorite beverages is fresh ginger tea with bilberry juice, which is thick like a nectar, added. The bilberry juice sweetens the tea and adds the health benefits of bilberry. I sprinkle cinnamon on top, though a cinnamon stick could be put in the cup as a 'stirrer'.

A favorite beverage of mine is fresh ginger tea with bilberry juice. Thick like a nectar, bilberry juice sweetens the tea, adding the health benefits of bilberry. Sprinkle cinnamon on top, or add a cinnamon stick as a ‘stirrer’.

Gingerbread and ginger cutout cookies are two favorite winter time baked goodies. Ginger is warming and “grounding” (it is a root after all!). Dried ginger is drying and heating to the body, fresh ginger warming but not drying. I prefer using the fresh in cooking soups, making tea, and some baked goods. The dried powder ginger is good in spice mixes and in baking. Ginger, considered a universal medicine, is good for many ailments, especially those of the digestion and respiratory system, and for blood flow ( it is a mild blood thinner). From baked goods to spicy soups, it is perfect for spicing up warming winter meals.

This post, long enough, barely touches on all the medicinal and culinary uses of these wonderful warming spices, nor does it cover the interesting history of them. Important as medicines and culinary use, all have been used for centuries. They are as ancient as the holidays we celebrate this month!

buy fresh, whole spices and use them to warm up and spicy up winter days and nights! I will soon be making wassail, and most of these spices will go into the pot!

buy fresh, whole spices and use them to warm and spice up winter days! Soon I will be making wassail and most of these spices will go into the pot!

A few tips: For best flavor from an herb or spice, grind fresh what you need, never buy more pre-ground than you’ll use in a month, and buy from a source that keeps spices fresh (forget the little tin cans in supermarkets!).

Store spices in a tight jar. If the aroma is lost, toss. The fragrance of spices, from the volatile oils in them, generally tells how fresh the spice is, (this is especially true of dried green herbs like oregano, thyme, sage, etc). Once ground, these oils are released, which is why buying whole spices and grinding what you will use in a short period of time gives optimal flavor and fragrance. Of the spices above, I buy ground dry ginger (but use the fresh more) and ground cinnamon, as well as the sticks. (Cinnamon “sticks”, pieces of the rolled bark, can be hard to grind fine at home, buying ground cinnamon is useful for baking, but consider cinnamon “sticks” for beverages.) Occasionally I buy ground nutmeg, preferring to grind or grate the whole. Grinding whole spices brings out a stronger flavor and makes your kitchen smell wonderful! Use a small coffee bean grinder you designate as a spice grinder. They are a affordable, the task is pleasant, and the difference in flavor in your favorite baked goods and culinary dishes will be worth it.  If you value fresh fruits and vegetables for flavor and health benefits,  the same applies to spices.

Have a very merry spicy holiday!

two books on my book shelf about spices:

The Yoga of Herbs, by Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad, 1986. Gives the medicinal properties of many spices from the Ayurvedic tradition of healing.

The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices, by Claire Loewenfeld and Philippa Back, 1974. An older favorite, gives a little history, botanical info and uses of most herbs and spices.

 

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