Wednesday, December 19

Pagan Gingerbread

Baking gingerbread cookies is a Winter Solstice tradition in the House of Mama Stacey.  It is a process of many days, organic ingredients, funky cookie cutters, and elaborate decoration.

To begin, we use more natural ingredients in this dough than we do for our other batches of cookies.  We use organic flour, blackstrap molasses, raw sugar, and freshly ground spices.

Our recipe is an adjusted version of the Vegan Gingerbread recipe over at Post Punk Kitchen.  Isa & Terry's recipe is wonderful, and we used to follow it to the letter, but after several years we have made a few changes.  Where PPK's recipe calls for canola oil (yuck!) we use melted coconut oil and where they call for soymilk, we're fans of almond milk... but everything else is essentially the same.  

When the dough is ready and the oven is warmed, we roll things out and go crazy with our growing collection of witchy cookie cutters.  We have antlered beasts, cauldrons, pointed hats, fairies, stars, and round-bellied goddess'.  

We make our cookies thick.  I love a chewy, rather than crunchy, gingerbread cookie.  My son has inherited this preference.  We usually rest our gingerbread for a day before icing.  I still don't have a favorite icing recipe and with the rush of the holidays, I sometimes just whip food coloring into pre-made tub frosting.

**Note that this was originally intended to be a 2-part post... but everyone ate the gingerbread so quickly that I had nothing to photograph!  We will try again soon LOL** 

The only picture I managed to snap was with my cell phone.  It was the wee hours of the morning while Doodle Bug was supposed to be getting ready for school.  Haha!  If you look close though, you can almost see that the cookies are thick and how I pipe icing on to outline the shape.  

Tuesday, December 18

The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Holly King

Title page of A Christmas Carol
I imagine almost everyone has, at one point or another, become familiar with a telling of A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens - 1843).  It is a ghost story told in novella form, but as it is just oozing with 19th century British Christmas traditions, it is much more common to see plays and films during the winter holiday season.

If you don't own a copy (although they are downright ubiquitous this time of year) there are free electronic versions of the book available at Project Gutenberg.  There you can find many e-versions including Kindle-friendly files, with or without the original illustrations from 1843.

I am ashamed to say that I am a snobbish reader.  I had it in my head ages ago that old books were dull, stuffy, wordy, and could never peak my interest.  That all changed when a school assignment forced me to read several works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from the Sherlock series.  I was surprised at how entertaining they actually were.  Far from dull, they were witty and kept me on the edge of my seat.  I now find "old books" to be better reads than a lot of the fluff being published today.

That said, A Christmas Carol is a rather speedy read; illustrations included it is only around 160 pages.  It begins with the wonderfully eerie opening line of "Marley was dead: to begin with." and keeps you hooked until the last line of its happy ending.  An interesting thing you may find is that the book does not end in the same manner which most of the movies do.  Scrooge does not dine with the Cratchit family, instead spending time tending to his own.  It is a great story and Pagans and Christians alike can be warmed by the core morals of the story.  One day I hope to work the reading aloud of this book into our family traditions for Solstice.

The Ghost of Christmas Present

Portrayed in every play and movie as a jolly vibrant man bursting with life, images of Dickens' second spirit could be easily interchanged with just about any idea of the Holly King from Pagan mythos.  Not just in his appearance, but in the wave of life he brings with him.  When Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, the scene is described as such:

The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door. - Dickens, 1843 ~ A Christmas Carol, Stave 3

That sounds like a perfect Yuletide celebration to me.  The spirit is dressed in green robes lined with snowy-white fur.  He has an aged scabbard at his waist, although the sword is missing.  The missing sword could be taken as a tip of the hat to the duel he loses to his brother the Oak King in the spring.  He has long brown hair that runs free beneath a crown of holly.  The spirit is bare footed and his robe is open at his chest.  He has a twinkle in his eye and a laughter in his voice as he invites Scrooge to "Come in! and know me better man!"

"Scrooge's third visitor" and original illustration by John Leech in 1843.

My favorite representation is from The Muppet Christmas Carol.  Perhaps because I love his size and the way his hair bounces and the song he sings in the film, but he is the jolliest spirit that I have seen in movies yet. 

The Muppet of Christmas Present, with Michael Caine as Scrooge - 1992
Take a look at these other Ghosts of Christmas Present and see if they tickle your 'Holly King' bone.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge - 1999

The Ghost of Christmas Present, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge - 1938

The Ghost of Christmas Present - 1984

The Ghost of Christmas Present - 2009

Monday, December 17

The Monday After Sandy Hook...

I was half expecting to get a call on the automated school-alert system that classes would be canceled Monday at my son's elementary school.  By Sunday night I did not receive a call and nothing ever changed on the school's website so I knew I would have to send my little man to school today.

I suppose it's better this way.  Some children might not know and it would be hard to explain the sudden day off.  I think a good portion of parents didn't clue their kids in.  But Doodle Bug found out.  Somewhere between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning he must have heard an adult conversation because he climbed in bed with me while I was napping Saturday (this pregnancy has me taking a dedicated hour long nap each day!) and asked me about "the shooter".

Holding back tears I tried to answer his questions as vaguely as possible, but he's a curious child and kept pressing for details.  Eventually I told him that a lot of children and teachers had died because of an angry man with a gun.  He seemed to take it all in stride, but asked why the man did it.  We talked about how some people are "sick in their brains" and that they do things that don't make sense.

Doodle Bug was very concerned for the safety of his teacher and wanted to call her at home.  I told him that it was her day off and she wouldn't like that.  Instead, we drove past his school so that he could see that it was still there and safe.

This morning I was moving slow, cherishing our conversations over teeth brushing, lunch packing and shoe tying.  So much so that he missed the bus.  I can't say it was an accident.  I was most definitely hesitating.  Why?  I don't know... perhaps fear of copy-cats?  We live in a county with zero mental-health facilities and a lot of gun owners.  If it can happen in western CT, I'm sure it can happen in western PA.  My partner reminded me that I can't let my fears interrupt our son's day.  I agreed and decided to drive him to school.

We scooted through the door just as the morning announcements were starting.  Because my son is a special needs child, he is in a special wing of the school and I often walk him in.  A lot of the staff know me and say "Hi" to my son.  Today was only a shade different.  The hall monitors and random staff members all offered a knowing nod and allowed through the hallways.

Doodle Bug lit up when he saw his teacher.  She later told me that he was very attached to her today, but that she understood.  Before I left, she pulled me aside to let me know that increased safety measures were being instituted and that I would have to sign-in at the front desk and get a visitors badge from now on before walking my son to his classroom.

We chatted for a moment, sharing tears for the lives lost at Sandy Hook Elementary and talking about how stressful the staff knew today would be.  She shared that the principal had called an early staff meeting and that he had broke down twice while trying to make some announcements and cheer everyone up.  Just before leaving his teacher assured me that in a situation like this, she wouldn't have minded a phone call from one of "her kids" and made sure I had her home number. 

As I got to my car in the parking lot, I noticed a police car circle the lot and then stop near the flag pole.  Three older children came outside to hoist up the American flag for the day.  They raised it to half mast and then dashed inside.  I noticed that the police man waited until the children were all locked back inside before he pulled away.  Something about that made me feel a bit better.

When my son got off the bus that afternoon, he dumped his backpack like usual and I fished through it for homework, his empty lunch bag, and the communication journal that his teacher and I use to keep daily tabs on Doodle Bug's progress.

Today she wrote: "******* talked about CT often.  He told me he wished 'the shooter woulded go to the doctor so the doctor could healed the bad guy's head.'  I reassured him that he was safe here.  He told me frequently that he missed me when he wasn't in school."

I'm lucky to be so close to Doodle Bug's teacher.  I'm lucky that she feels a close bond with him and that he trusts her so much.  It helps me to let go of his hand at times like this and I'm pretty sure it helps him too.

I hope your family is dealing with the repercussions of this tragedy in healthy ways and finding methods to cope and heal.  Mine has been in avoiding news stories and, honestly, a lot of crying.  Still.  Every time I light a candle for this tragedy I end up sobbing.  Maybe as a mother the loss of a child just hits too close to home.  Maybe I'm 6 months pregnant and hormonal.  Maybe I'm just human.  

Sunday, December 16

The Christmas Witch

There are many aspects of the Christmas Witch throughout Europe and Slavic/Baltic regions.  Some are quaint, some bring gifts, some expect gifts, and some are terrifying!

Mother Berchta/Berta

Horned Goddess in white, Mother Berchta.
The name Berchta means "bright light".  Compiled from remnants of ancient Goddess' in German and Teutonic (Norse) mythology, Mother Berta is sometimes endearing and dressed in white, other times she is haggard and dressed in dark rags.  Some myths refer to her as a fairy, yet on other occasions she has horns or is even rumored to be triple-headed (probably a reference to her being a triple goddess).  Over time, the myth turned her into a temperamental hag who travels with a goat. 

A current take on Mother Berta is tells the story of an old, gnarled woman who rides a goat named Skeggie.  She comes into family's homes, with her sack across her back.  She would prepare a feast for the family and bring toys for children if she felt they deserved them.  Part of the feast included the cooking of Skeggie.  The family could eat as much as they wanted so long as they threw all the bones back into the sack.   When finished, Skeggie would magically climb back out of the sack good as new.  But sometimes a greedy child would break one of the bones to suck out the marrow and when Skeggie climbed out, his leg would be broken or missing.  At that point, Mother Berta would throw the bad child into her sack and disappear!

Steven Posch, a prominent member of the 'Paganistan' community of Minnesota, tells the story of Mother Berta and her sack; "Will she take presents and toys out?  Or will she stuff kids in?"

Triple Goddess

Some myths combine different notions of the Christmas Witch into a triple goddess, citing Holla or Holly as the maiden, Berchta/Berta as the mother, and Befana as the crone aspect. 

Unfortunately, I've found nothing to support this as an ancient mythos.  I find references to Holla as a mother goddess or even a crone who is related to Hecate.  Stories, however, do support the idea of Befana as a crone.  She is sometimes referred to as Grandmother Befana.

La Befana

Available at Barnes & Noble
Befana is an Italian tradition associated with the celebration of the Epiphany.  She leaves goodies in the stockings and shoes of children on January 6th.  In Italy, the Epiphany (sometimes referred to as The Befana festival) is a national holiday and children celebrate their holiday break from school from December 24th until January 7th.

Although she is probably a hold-over from ancient Pagan Saturnalia celebrations, Befana's story has been largely Christianized.  She is said to have been sweeping her home when the three kings (the Three Wise Men or Magi) came to her door, asking for help in locating the Christ-child.  Depending on which version of the story you hear, she was either too busy or thought herself too feeble to help and sent them away.  After awhile, she regretted this and left her home to help search.  To this day, she travels the world on the night of the Epiphany, leaving sweets for children and searching for the Christ-child.

For years, Befana was the primary holiday icon for Italians, however after World War II, Father Christmas (Babbo Natalle) and his mythology came upon the scene.  Befana moved into the background, becoming Santa Claus's helper in some places and disappearing all together in places like Sicily.

La Befana dolls [source: Stanko Mravljak]

Currently, she is celebrated as a kindly grandmother figure who rides a broom and is kin to Santa Claus.  She was featured in a French children's film titled "La Freccia Azzurra" (The Blue Arrow) which was later dubbed into English and retitled "How the Toys Saved Christmas" in 1997.  In it, the Befana character is named "Grandma Rose" and she is Santa's helper who runs a toy store.  She falls ill and the toys come to life and take a journey to deliver themselves to all the children of the village.

Named "Grandma Rose" in the English version, La Befana. 
The Befana festival is celebrated in a manor similar to Halloween in America; though creepy decorations are not used, it is common for people to dress up as witches and go door-to-door asking for sweets. 

Frau Holle

Sometimes referred to as Frau Perchta (a twist on Berchta for sure), she is a remnant of the Goddess Holda or Freya in Switzerland.  As the myth moves into Germany, she becomes a second name for Saint Lucia. 

Frau Holle roams the countryside on the twelve nights of Christmas.  She travels to the homes of children and if they've been good, leaves silver coins.  This idea is generalized from the older myths where she would check to be sure that all young girls had spun their assigned allotment of wool or flax.  If they had not, she didn't simply pass them by... she was rumored to either slit their bellies open and stuff them with straw or curse the remaining wool and flax to spoil and rot.  Stern stuff.

Thursday, December 6

Little Bear's Winter Solstice

Best known for his book Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak also has a nature-based show called "Maurice Sendak's Little Bear".  The show, aimed at children 5 and younger, is gentle and nature-centric.
Based on an extensive book series by Elsa H. Minarik, Little Bear was made into a animated tv series in 1995.  Little Bear and his family live in the forest and have days and nights full of star gazing, pinecone gathering, moon wishing, flower picking, and all sorts of things steeped in the reverence of nature.  There are episodes about Mother Nature, Jack Frost, and wind spirits.  A highly recommended Pagan-friendly show, it airs on Nick Jr. here in the US, and is offered on Treehouse TV or APTN in Canada as well as Tiny Pop in the UK. 

In the second season, Little Bear and his family celebrate the Winter Solstice.  Nick Jr.'s website in the US used to offer this full episode for free viewing here:  Little Bear's Winter Solstice, however in the fall of 2014 they changed the site and currently, only short clips are available for free.  

The episode opens on a moonlit night, with Little Bear sitting in the kitchen.  The table is dressed with goblets and cloth napkins.  Grandmother and Grandfather Bear come up the snowy walk outside, pulling a sled.  Little Bear greets them and the family gathers around a bare tree in the lawn.  They talk about traditions while hanging lanterns and lights in the tree for the "snow angels".  The family then holds hands and sings a song about loving winter.

They continue their celebration by hanging strings of dried fruit, popcorn, and bags of suet in the tree.  Little Bear contributes by hanging sugar cookies from the branches.  Neighbors come to visit and the children play in the snow while Solstice dinner finishes cooking.

When Mama Bear calls for dinner, the gang sit down to a feast of baked salmon, stew, potatoes, and corn on the cob.  While they are enjoying their Solstice feast, deer and other forest animals approach the decorated tree and eat the offerings left by the family.  After more singing, Little Bear checks the tree for evidence of "snow angel" activity.  He finds a single baby deer struggling to reach a cookie on the tree.  Little Bear helps the fawn and wishes all the animals a "Happy Winter Solstice".

As stated above, you can access this episode via the Nick Jr. website or, if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can view it and other episodes there. 

If you'd like a more permanent version of this, you can buy a digital copy of  Little Bear's Winter Solstice for about $2 via Amazon. This episode contains three stories, all winter based (The Snowball Fight, Winter Solstice, and Snow Bound).

If digital isn't your style, you can pick up a VHS copy of "Little Bear's Winter Tales" (4 stories in total) through Amazon or Ebay.  As of today, a new copy will run you about $40 while a used copy will only run you about $5 with shipping.

Or... if you're a thrift-store connoisseur like Mama Stacey, you may just keep your eyes peeled for this at Goodwill.  They're usually less than a dollar. 

Happy Solstice!

Filking Christmas Carols

Do you know what 'filking' is?  And, no, that's not a typo.  LOL

Filking is the practice of taking a traditional song and changing the lyrics or the topic of the song to better suit your needs.  It happens at Science Fiction & Fantasy conventions all the time... people writing about Star Trek or Firefly.

For Pagans, a common form of filking is in the reclaiming or re-purposing of Christmas carols.  Some don't need much work to ring true with the spirit of Yule.  "Deck the Halls" is a prime example:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
'Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel,
 Fa la la la la la la la la.
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
See the blazing yule before us,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Follow me in merry measure,
 Fa la la la la la la la la.
While I tell of Yuletide treasure,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Fast away the old year passes,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Sing we joyous all together,
 Fa la la la la la la la la.
Heedless of the wind and weather,
Fa la la la la la la la la. 
Of course there are variations on even this song that replace all mentions of 'Yule' with 'Christmas' or replace the line 'Don we now our gay apparel' with 'Fill the mead-cup, drain the barrel'.  Some Pagans may even find the mead reference more suiting to their celebrations.

But, then there are gems like this reworking of "Jingle Bells":

Popular Solstice Music

A popular filker of carols for Pagans is Karina Skye.  One of her most outrageous, and my absolute favorite, songs is "Faunus, the Roman Goat-God" done to the tune of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer".  Karina's version makes liberal mention of Faunus' ::clears throat:: endowment and his popularity with the ladies.  Her song is a proper Saturnalia tune, and plays in many homes this season. 

Youtube has entire channels and playlists devoted to Solstice carols sung by people at home, UU choirs, professionals like Karina, and non-filk performers like Jethro Tull, Damh the Bard, Emerald Rose, and Dar Williams

Filking at Home

Rewording carols is nothing new.  If you long for some song sheets to share with your family this Yule, you can check out Willow Firesong's website.  It's another one of those Pagan websites that seems to be as old as the internet.  She lists the lyrics to dozens and dozens of filked carols HERE.  [Warning, this is a free Tripod site with LOTS of popups!!!!]

Another collection, organized by the Greenwood Singers and published by the Green Egg e-zine back in the early 1990's can be found HERE.

Children and Yule Carols

A young Doodle Bug sits in a friend's lap, singing Yule carols and making pomander balls.  [2006]

As most parent's know, children LOVE to sing.  Music is in their bones and is the fastest way to calm a room of children.  Preschools use filked songs to mark just about every transition in the classroom because most kids will join in and act out the words of the song (like singing, "This is the way we pick up toys, pick up toys, pick up toys.  This is the way we pick up toys, before we eat our lunch." to the tune Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush )

Music is a key part of celebration and and easy way for children to join in the holiday fun, especially if you have a special needs child, like our Doodle Bug.  Perhaps you could go caroling with your local Pagan community?  If not, these will be delightful to sing around a backyard Yule log fire or even to play around with while decorating the tree.

So, I hope you'll take a moment to either indulge in filking or at least sing a merry Pagan tune with your witchlets this holiday season.