Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winter Cold and The Secret Staircase

Lovely stories are contained in the series~
I'll be reading them to Julia soon.

Winter has arrived with a vengeance and making it all the more cold is the cutting wind and drizzle. It reminds me of the winter storms which took place in January of 1986 when we had weeks of icy cold and snow. I shall never forget it because my sister was visiting with my two small nieces... being house bound with eight children under the age of nine is unforgettable!

About this time in December I am reminded of passages from one my favorite children’s books, The Secret Staircase, by Jill Barklem. The series of her stories stars a clan of adorable mice living in a charming, twisted, ancient Oak full of secret rooms within. The festivities portrayed are the old Anglo-Saxon celebrations of the Yule season. Yule is the ancient word for the months of December and January; December was “the former Yule”, and January “the after Yule”. The Vikings burned a Yule log to honor Thor, their god of war.

Originally designed to as a way to keep winter at bay and people from going mad from loneliness or cold, these festivities are still incorporated into the way we celebrate the season... with the addition of Jesus as our Christian centerpiece. Many of our holiday traditions including banquets, greenery, generosity, and cheer come directly from these ancient pagan customs.

The little poem in the book is rather timely considering the season and the cold we are experiencing lately:

When the days are the shortest, the nights are the coldest,
The frost is the sharpest, the year is the oldest,
The sun is the weakest, the wind is the hardest,
The snow is the deepest, the skies are the darkest,
Polish your whiskers, and tidy your nest,
And dress in your richest, and finest, and best….
For winter has brought you the worst it can bring,
And now it will give you,
the promise of Spring!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Give A Bird Feeder For Christmas!

My uncomplicated feeder allows Mr. Squirrel to eat too!

It seems Old Man Winter has arrived just in time for Christmas this year so perhaps we will have a white one! It is time to begin feeding the birds in earnest for from now until spring when bugs hatch they will need our help. For those who have procrastinated and have no desire to brave the mall, a feeder would make a lovely gift... bird watching is a joy for both young and old. If you add a bag of high quality feed and an informative bird book, your gift will provide enjoyment all winter! And all of it is available at local hardware stores!

Many beautiful songbirds spend the winter performing and with no leaves to hide their antics they are a delight to watch. Once you begin feeding you will discover the reason so many people find great enjoyment in bird watching for each species has personality traits singularly characteristic to their individual group.

The Blue Jays are excitable, boisterous, rather the bullies who always travel in a gang. They are like the boys who spend too much time at the gym working out! The Cardinals are polite, laid back, and lacking in aggression, much like the Catholic Cardinals whom I am convinced borrowed their color. All species of the Woodpecker family demand and receive respect; their beaks are daunting and their presence will clear the feeder immediately. The darling finches squabble and tumble about while the Black Capped Chickadee and timid Titmouse dart in-and-out for sunflower seeds. The wonderfully enthusiastic Sparrows are mentioned numerous times in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

A standard mix of wild bird feed is easily affordable and will draw many birds to your feeder. If you add thistle to the mix the Chickadees will be grateful; add more sunflower seeds and the Cardinals will adore you. Birds eat in regular intervals during the day much as we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. For this reason the feeder is sometimes chaotically busy with all species feeding together in a feathered frenzy while other times the feeder stands alone. Word spreads quickly among the bird community and people with a feeder find themselves highly popular this time of year.

Despite the warnings all over the Internet about the perils of leaving the feeder untidy, I have never cleaned, cloroxed, or fussed over mine. Nor have I worn gloves as suggested for dumping the feed or sweeping off the hulls... bird feeding and watching is a rather uncomplicated hobby. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Meeting Angels Unawares

It was late December and our children were still little so naturally we were broke. Christmas was coming and although we were not extravagant, we still provided special food and thoughtful gifts for all eight of them. We were entering the on ramp on I-40 to drive home from a grocery excursion and saw an elderly gentleman standing on the side of the hi-way, leaning on a wooden crutch. He was about 75 with a stubble of beard, dressed in ragged clothing, wearing an old gray hat. His belongings were in a small stained bag, and he had an old woolen blanket pulled tightly about him. I felt sudden sadness upon seeing him and asked Michael if we should stop. He said no because we had three of the children with us and he would have to squeeze him in the backseat with them. He said that surely someone would pick the old gent up for me not to worry. And yet both of us felt a nagging sadness at the old man’s plight.

The following morning we realized we had forgotten some necessary items and again made the twenty mile run to the adjacent town. It was overcast, drizzling and a very cold blasting North wind made conditions miserable. As we drove I asked Michael if he thought someone had picked up the old man. He promised me that surely someone had. We bought the last of our necessities and had only forty dollars left as we entered the on ramp.

Sweet Jesus, he was still there! How could he still be there? We stopped just beyond the old man and Michael got out of the car to help him to his seat. He settled in and I turned the heater to warp while he began thanking us. He said he was trying to make it the Indian Pueblos in New Mexico where he knew he could stay for the winter. He was Canadian and had served in WWII for the US but had been denied benefits due to his citizenship status. He had fallen on hard times and just needed a bus ticket to get on his way but could find no help in getting one. He had been standing on the side of the road for many days.

Michael suggested that we take him 15 miles to the Travel Plaza where all of the truckers stopped for gas and that perhaps he could find a ride from someone there. He gratefully accepted the idea and said he was warming up a bit. Michael stopped at the plaza and pressed our last forty dollars into the gentleman’s hand as he helped him into the building.

As we drove away we kept feeling a nagging worry and so after unloading our bundles, we drove the seven miles back to the plaza to check on him to see if he had gotten a ride. Our inquiries were met with puzzled looks for no one knew what we were talking about. No one had seen him... not the people Michael had nodded to as he opened the door, not gas attendants nor any the truckers. Only we had seen him and I have often wondered if he was there as a holy test for us... a test of our humanity, our faith, and to show our children by example how to generously love.

As this recession deepens, let us remember that many times our sense of compassion, our sense of brotherhood and our ability to unconditionally share with those less fortunate than ourselves may be tested.

And let us remember:
‘Forget not to show love unto strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares‘. Hebrews 13:2

*This was written years ago, but is very timely today. In retrospect, the gentleman looked very much like Odin.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Poinsettia

In the 1800’s the holiday flower of choice was the carnation which still graces many arrangements, however today the Poinsettia has come to speak of the holidays as no other. The Poinsettia began as a small Central American shrub and for centuries the Aztecs used them both medicinally and for making red dye. The Poinsettia was first introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico who discovered it while hiking. Quite an ambitious gentleman, Mr. Poinsett introduced the American Elm to Mexico and also established the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Contrary to popular belief, Poinsettias are not poisonous if ingested. The rumor began following the death of an army officer's child who ingested a leaf in 1919; the child died soon after of another sudden illness. Researchers at Ohio State University have done extensive tests with mice and rats and found no ill effects and the American Medical Association has confirmed the plant is not poisonous. (Michael's father is a physician and the myth was so extensive that they never had one in their home.) Although not poisonous, Poinsettias are a part of the genus Euphorbia , all of which exude a milky sap when broken and in many species the sap may cause a skin rash.

The Poinsettia we know today is the creation of the Ecke family of German botanists who arrived in America in 1900. Paul Ecke Jr. noted there were few potted plants that bloom in winter so he developed a full and sturdy Poinsettia that would bloom at Christmas. He then solicited editors of women’s magazines and donated his plants to be used in Christmas layouts. He also donated hundreds to be used as the backdrop on television talk shows at Christmas in the 1960’s. The placement of layers of red Poinsettias behind Johnny Carson and Jack Benny was a brilliant marketing ploy and assured the Ecke family lasting leadership in the industry. Today eighty percent of the Poinsettias marketed during the season still come from the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California where the generations of the family continue the legacy.

When selecting a Poinsettia look for a plant with dark-green foliage, completely colored bracts, and no sign of wilting or yellowing. Since the plants are sold during December it is important to make sure it is securely wrapped when purchased to prevent exposure to the elements as it is rushed from the store to the car, then the house. Since they are from a hot climate, exposure to cold may prove fatal and cause instant curling of the leaves. When you get your poinsettia home unwrap it and place it in a comfortable sunny location and water whenever the soil feels dry. Enjoy!

~Dedicated to my friend Bruce who can make his rebloom!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Farmer's Almanac... Indispensable!

Entrance to the former study circa 1980~

Last January, after consulting the Almanac, I wrote an article about the coming winter and it was correct in predicting the Winter of 2011 would be one for the record books. The Almanac, published since 1792, had noted many signs that indicate the approach of a dreadful winter. One of them was ‘rodents eating their way into the house through doors’. In spite of the fact I am surrounded by fields, this had never been a problem before last December.

I digress:
In the late sixties through the seventies auctions were prevalent and items were inexpensive. It was great entertainment to meet with friends and go shopping for one-of-a-kind items. In 1977 at an auction featuring goods from England I bought my fallow deer horns from Sherwood Forest, a raucous five paneled painting of the (now banned) hunt, an intricate iron bed, and a charming door originally from a row house. The entire lot cost under $75!

The marvelous door, made of sturdy English oak, had a perfect stained glass window and was in pristine condition... and with the traffic at this house it survived amazingly well. It must have been opened and closed at least sixty times a day and has been claw scarred by full-back-sized Mastiffs demanding entrance. Sometime along the way the lead in the glass of the window became loose and eventually had to be replaced by glass. When the little study was replaced by the great room the door became the entrance to the mud room. Only English Oak could have withstood the onslaught, requiring only an occasional layer of paint to refresh it.

Unbelievable! And where is a cat when you need one?

December of 2010:
Enter a new breed of mouse... a monstrous mouse the like of which I have never seen before. I have always had field mice and deer mice surrounding my home, and they seem cute (at a distance) but this new and nasty mouse was an anomaly! It had a sharply pointed face, narrowed glinting eyes, a dull brown coat... and apparently the sharpest teeth on the planet. On a single night in early December one (or a raucous crowd of them) ate a hole in my marvelous back door leaving a pile of wood shavings on the stoop! Naturally a board had to be added to give further life to my door. And naturally there ensued a rush to the hardware store for an assortment of mouse-killing remedies. The Almanac was correct!


Mistletoe has a long and colorful history including myth and medicinal remedies most originating in Northern Europe, the birth place of this extraordinary plant... it is amazing!

All Mistletoe plants are parasitic, meaning they attach to a host and thus take from it nutrients and water necessary to live. Over time this process may weaken or even kill the host, giving Mistletoe a rather bad reputation. In the plant kingdom, parasitism has evolved only nine times and Mistletoe has independently evolved five, making it one extraordinary species. It is a large family with over nine hundred species located in Europe, North America and Australia. Without becoming too scientific, it is safe to say that most Mistletoe is completely self-sufficient and adaptive to changes in climate.

The enigma of Mistletoe easily lends itself to lore. It hangs air born between heaven and earth, has no roots yet bears fruit, and remains green and vibrant during the winter months. It was said to have been revered by the Druids as most holy, especially if it appeared on an Oak which was their most sacred tree. The golden berries of the plant were considered a key linking the heavens and underworld. Cut with a golden sickle on December 23rd (the day of the marriage of the solar and lunar forces), it was not allowed to touch the ground but was caught with a white cloth. Two white bulls were sacrificed for the ritual which ensured fertility, protection from evil, abundance, and harmony. The ritual of kissing under the Mistletoe has its origin in these pagan beliefs.

Shakespeare calls Mistletoe 'the baleful Mistletoe,' an allusion to the legend of Balder. Norse mythology has Baldur, the solar hero child of Frigg and Odin, killed by an arrow made of Mistletoe. As Baldur descended to the Underworld, it was said that he would not return until after doomsday. Then, as the solar god, the light of the heavens, he would usher in an era of peace and light to mankind. His story is long, full of conspiracy and jealousy as the gods and goddesses of old were prone to petty emotions, however the historical power of the plant has remained.

Never to be outdone, the Greeks too have a story with Mistletoe as the centerpiece. Aeneas, a young hero, used the power of a golden bough of Mistletoe as the key which allowed for the safe entrance and return of a mortal to the Underworld. He went below and sought his father for advice and counsel and returned unharmed yet transformed and spiritually reborn.

Among Christians, it is said that Mistletoe was once a vibrant tree which was used as the wood for the cross of the crucifixion of Christ. Afterwards the disgraced tree shriveled and was reduced to a parasitic vine as punishment.

Medicinally, although the berries are poisonous, it has been used as a remedy for epilepsy with wood amulets said to ward off attacks. It has been used to reduce stress related heart palpations, relieve headaches and dizziness caused by high blood pressure, and since ancient times to treat tumors. Recent medical research has promising results with Mistletoe as a cure for cancer.

Whatever the reason to include this marvelous plant... a kiss below it, a wish for good luck, or simply a spot of bright green color... it is truly a magical addition to any Christmas decor.

*Thanks to Malcolm Brown for contributing to this article!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Christmas Tree

For those who garden, observing the weather changes is practically a religion, practiced as a daily devotional. This week winter has arrived complete with blustery winds and drastically dropping temperatures... December is here in full force.

The lovely evergreens have begun their seasonal show and it is always impressive that they choose the winter, as the world is encased in frosty slumber, to appear in their finery. Bearing fruit or berries despite the cold of winter, they have always been considered quite remarkable and were an important aspect of ancient pagan rituals.

The Romans considered evergreens symbols of fertility and used them to trim their homes for the new year while northern Europeans hung them over doors to ward off evil spirits that were believed to stalk the winter landscape. German and Scandinavian people had long made evergreen wreaths to celebrate the Winter Solstice and over time were included in their celebrations of the birth of Jesus.

It is said that Martin Luther began the German tradition of decorating trees. In about 1500 as he was walking through a snow covered forest, he was struck by the beauty of dusted evergreens shimmering in the moonlight. So enamored was he by the natural beauty that he placed a tree inside for his children, decorated with lit candles symbolizing the starry sky and honoring Christ's birth. Following this tradition, the church began to include a tree for Christmas and by the mid-1600’s it was decorated with apples to symbolize Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden.

About this time German Christians began bringing trees into their homes and soon they began to decorate them. Their tradition arrived with Hessian immigrants to the colonies and overcame the austere (and unpopular) Puritan belief that ‘all work and no play’ included banning Christmas celebrations.

In 1832 Charles Follen, a German immigrant and professor at Harvard, decorated the first American Christmas tree to share with his family and friends. And in 1846, a young German Prince Albert presented his new bride Victoria with her first tree and thus the English Victorian Christmas was born. Word of decorated Christmas trees spread rapidly and was embraced by almost all Christian cultures; it remains today a universal symbol of the holiday season.