Friday, December 25, 2009


Like so many non-religious, Christian-ish derived families in America we always celebrated Christmas. We always got a tree, decorated it with lights and glass balls, ceramic animals in Santa hats and at least 2.5 “baby’s first Christmas” ornaments per person. We sent and received Christmas cards, most that said something like “happy holidays” or “peace on earth” and piled mounds of wrapped presents under the Christmas tree. After the present orgy we ate a big meal, played cards and were awkward or awful to each other, depending on how much alcohol was involved. There was no god, or Jesus, or spirituality at all involved. As a kid I loved my dad’s ancient nativity set, but felt weird about Christmas carols like O Holy Night and even Joy To the World.

As I’ve spent time exploring my own spirituality I have found a fair amount of meaning and tradition to pull out of that strictly materialistic celebration of my Photo by HRW Worchester childhood. As I studied ancient and neo-Pagan beliefs and practices I have built a winter celebration that I really enjoy. Of course, though, as soon as you think you’ve got something figured out the universe throws a wrench in the works. Keeps you on your feet, I guess.

This Advent season I started attending a Friends church in my neighborhood. Quakers come out of a Christian tradition and some groups are quite traditional and conservative in their Christian belief. The Meeting I am attending, though Portland-Oregon-liberal, still includes scripture readings and some serious Jesus talk at times. The last Sunday of Advent Meeting for Worship included a “Christmas Pageant”, the first I’ve ever attended, where the kids dressed as characters of their choice, gather around a growing nativity set. If there is anything more in the spirit of Christmas than a dozen tiny angels with bed sheet robes and pipe cleaner halos, I don’t know what is.

Being exposed to all this Christ focused thought, including that found in Waldorf inspired blogs I’ve been reading, and a “new believer’s New Testament” bible I found in a free pile, has led me to a reexamination of my beliefs about Jesus. But reexamination has not led to any conclusions yet. I still have some major reservations about Jesus and Christianity, reservations that may never be reconciled. The Bible I found has an introduction for new readers that sums up Christian belief. After long meditation I disagree with almost every point, from original sin to a devil who tries to keep us from the light. I also don’t quite hold with photo by Fruitnveggies' a belief in time with a singular beginning, pivotal and unique points and a final end. Both my spiritual and scientific world views see time as cyclical, rather than linear. And without a belief in original sin or the unique event of Jesus Christ’s life can I really believe in redemption through his death? At the same time there is so much theology and philosophy woven throughout Christianity that I couldn’t possibly reject it all out of hand. Rudolph Steiner wrote extensively about Christ and I haven’t read any of that. I look forward to continuing to broaden and deepen my relationship with Christianity, and with human’s relationships with the divine.

The pastor at my Friend’s meeting left us with a final thought the other weekend. He said that all of the characters in the Nativity story were active participants in the story. Each of the participants had heard God’s invitation and actively engaged in the events. He said some people were like the Shepherds, minding their own business until they were asked to come and witness God’s works while some are like the Magi who had been searching for a lifetime. Others are like Joseph who thinks he has everything worked out before God wrenches everything apart only to put it back together completely differently. He reminded us to listen for that invitation this Christmas season, listen for the invitation and accept it, no matter what our part may be to play. What invitation are you being sent this winter?

Christmas, though, is very much about tradition. No one ever read me the story of the birth of Jesus when I was a child, so my traditions aren't about that part of the story. In the end, there is one story that sums up Christmas to me.

"'Twas the Night Before Christmas"
By Clement Clarke Moore

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Advent, Awaiting the Birth

I didn't grow up going to church. My mother gave up religion early when she realized that history books and the bible don't jive and no one could give her a good enough answer as to why. My father was raised Irish Catholic, was a Hare Krisna for a while before I was born and, though I believe he has a personal faith and spirituality, never shared it with his family or pursued organized religion. For a while when I was in middle school my mom tried out a local Unitarian Universalist church but though it provided a community for us for a while it never quite stuck. I attended UU churches in college and afterwards but as my personal spirituality grew I found those churches lacking. One year in college my sister and I attended a "modern/evangelical/charismatic" Christian church for an Easter service and I attended a Catholic service that same spring. The Christian service gave me a sense of communal worship I enjoyed, and the Catholic service the sense of tradition I craved, but I couldn't deal with the theology of either.

This winter I started attending a Friends church in my neighborhood. The Friends, or Quakers, are a Christian community most known for their work in social justice and peace as well as their unique, silent worship. I finally quit thinking about going and just went and you know what? I love it. Really, really love it. This church uses a mix of standard churchy stuff like singing, readings and out-loud prayer along with time of silent worship. I found it amazingly refreshing, friendly and welcoming. It has really enhanced my Advent celebration and given me lots to think about this winter.

In the Christian tradition, Advent is the season of waiting and preparing before the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In my evolving eclectic pagan tradition, Advent is a season of waiting and preparing for the birth of the New Year's sun at Solstice. Considering the Bible doesn't say anything about December 25, lights, trees, cookies or hot toddies, I see no reason not to celebrate Advent just because it's been coopted by the Christians for the last thousand years.

Like I noted last post, I am decorating my advent creche again this year specifically using the Waldorf/Steiner tradition of decorating it according to the four realms of the natural world. It was quite bare the first week but it now has stones and crystals, evergreen boughs and animal figurines interspersed between the candles. Next week comes the fairy god mothers, wise men and goddesses and finally, on Solstice and Christmas eves, the baby Son and Sun.

In addition to decorating my creche and lighting candles I have been working towards being mindful of the four realms of creation during each week of Advent. During the second week I walked in the woods on a windy day and was very, very aware of the trees above me. I truly feared that a limb or a tree would come down on me and that fear kept the trees present in the front of my mind the whole afternoon. I collected fallen fir and cedar branches that day and took some holly from a tree in my yard to decorate my creche. The third Sunday of Advent included a trip to a dog park and making gingerbread cookies in the shapes of woodland creatures. Gingerbread hedgehogs are possibly the cutest things ever. I also filled all the bird feeders that week. This last week of Advent will include parties with my friends and more gingerbread men (and women).

Spicy Gingerbread Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup molasses
2 egg yolks
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
4 1/4 cups flour (any mix of white and whole wheat you would like)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice or nutmeg
2 tsp cloves
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp finely ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
more flour for rolling out

*Combine butter and sugar and cream until fluffy and well combined. Add molasses, egg yolks and grated fresh ginger and stir until well combined. I recommend using an electric mixer.

*Stir the spices, salt and leavening with the first cup of flour with a fork. Using a wooden or metal spoon stir the flour into the molasses mix one cup at a time. You will probably need to knead the last half cup in with your hands.

*Lay the dough ball onto a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper and spread into a thick disk. Wrap completely in plastic wrap or put the parchment wrapped disk in a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least three hours.

*When ready to shape cookies cut or pull baseball sized hunks of dough off the disk and using flour and your hands or a rolling pin roll the dough out into 1/4 inch thick slabs. Use cookie cutters of your choice to shape the dough, place at least 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. I found that drier dough makes sharper edges on your cookies. Decorate with cinnamon candies or sprinkles before baking or icing after baking,

This new moon is the new moon of the birth moon. We are awaiting the birth of the new year's sun, or of the Son of God. We are celebrating the birth of gingerbread people, of love in our homes and of traditions new and old. What are you doing to mark the path towards the darkest days of the year? What are your deep winter traditions? What's the cutest gingerbread cookie you have ever eaten or made?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Moving From the Season of the Dead

Today marks the full moon of the Death Moon, but it is also the middle of the first week of Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas. I have been feeling this tension of energies this week and have been reveling in it.

The Death Moon is the first moon of the year and as such it is the time of cycle change. It is a time to work on handling transitions and changes in our lives. It is a time to meditate on the fact that stagnation is crippling and stifling, only through change do we stay dynamic and alive. We have just celebrated Halloween and the lives and ghosts of our Beloved Dead are still forefront in our minds. It is the time of bare, skeleton trees, giant moons on frosty nights and dry leaves scraping and scuttling along the pavement. It's a time of stillness before the wheel starts creaking into motion again.
photo by mikeropology

I am decorating and advent creche again this year but with a little change from last year. It is traditional for Waldorf schools and families to decorate their nature tables and light their advent wreaths in a very specific order. The first week of advent is dedicated to the realm of the earth, stones, crystals and bones. The second week is dedicated to the realm of plants, the third to the realm of animals and finally the fourth week is dedicated to the realm of human beings. The nature table or creche is decorated with figures that represent these realms and verses are read at the lighting of the candles on the advent wreath that speak to these realms. I find it a very powerful visual representation of the movement, as Ann Druitt's book All Year Round says, out of "a season of remembrance for the dead, into a time of preparation for that which is to be born.”

This year I was out of town celebrating Thanksgiving with my friends and came home on Sunday, full of love and gratitutde, to decorate my creche. I cleared my altar of the Halloween decorations (photos of my grandfather, deceased friend and childhood dog, figures of owls, salmon, ammonites, a sage smudge, candles, etc.) and set it up with my creche background. I set up four tall candles and added a number of shells, stones and crystals to the table. Every night this week when I come home I see that stark, bare creche. It is clearly waiting, just like we are waiting, for the rebirth of the light in just a few short weeks.

The first light of Advent is the light of stone–.
Stones that live in crystals, seashells, and bones.
The second light of Advent is the light of plants–
Plants that reach up to the sun and in the breezes dance.
The third light of Advent is the light of beasts–
All await the birth, from the greatest and in least.
The fourth light of Advent is the light of humankind–
The light of hope that we may learn to love and understand.
-attributed to Rudolph Steiner

Are you feeling the energies of the Death Moon or the Advent season this week? Or are you feeling both? How are you marking the turning from the season of the dead into the season of that which will be born? Do you celebrate Advent? Have you had to turn on the heater yet? :)