Of Chaucer, Spring Cleaning, and Werewolves

his is the strange and convoluted history of a holiday some people love, a lot of people hate, and everyone seems confused about: Valentine’s Day.

Once upon a time, in ancient Greece, a secret ritual was held each May on the slopes of Wolf Mountain (Lykaion, the tallest peak in Arcadia—the region lauded during the Renaissance as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness, and in Greek mythology, home of the god Pan). The mountain was named for the Greek myth of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who slaughtered and dismembered one of his sons (he had fifty, so I guess one was expendable, or maybe he just really pissed him off) and fed his son to Zeus, to see if he was truly omniscient. This upset Zeus, who transformed Lycaon into a wolf (λύκος, lukos or lykos, means “wolf”), restored the slaughtered boy to life, but killed all of Lycaon’s other sons with lightning bolts.

The secret rituals of the Lykaia were essentially rites of passage for epheboi (adolescent males)  that centered on the dual threat of cannibalism and werewolf transformation. Now, I’m not sure why cannibalism featured so prominently in Greek mythology, and I’m not sure why it was a threat: most often cannibalism was practiced during periods of extreme famine, or as a mostly ritualistic means of asserting dominance over a vanquished tribe or culture. We certainly cannibalize the art and practices of nearly every culture we come in contact with (usually to that culture’s detriment), but I haven’t grasped why actual cannibalism was such a strong tendency that a ceremonial prohibition against it needed to be instituted. The epheboi were often trained to be warriors; maybe it was a way of saying, “And when you win, don’t eat the other combatants or they’ll think you’re no better than wolves!”

Now we move to ancient Italy. The month of February is named for Februa, a spring cleansing ritual held between February 13 and 15. It combined spring cleaning and washing (February is a rainy month in Italy) with the notion of ritual purification. The festival may have gotten its name from the Latin word febris, “fever,” since the sweating that often accompanies fevers were seen as purging bad substances from the body.

In Rome, the Februa festival gave way to the Lupercalia, or “Wolf Festival,” which came to be held on the same dates. This celebration was to banish evil spirits, purify the city, and bring health and fertility. The Lupercalia was named partly for Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, and partly for the god Lupercus (also called Faunus), the Roman equivalent of Pan—who was worshiped in Arcadia, where the Lykaia were held.

The rites were directed by the Luperci, “brothers of the wolf”; they were naked except for goatskin loincloths, and served in the Lupercal temple, the cave where Romulus and Remus were raised and where, at the beginning of the Lupercalia, two goats and a dog were ritually sacrificed. According to Plutarch, “[During the Lupercalia] many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs [which were called, interestingly enough februa]. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school, present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.”

Fast forward a few hundred years. The feast of Saint Valentine on February 14 was established in 496 CE by one pope, but deleted from the calendar of saints by another in 1969. So much for papal infallibility. No one is entirely sure which of the many Christian martyrs named Valentine were being honored; it was a popular name that derives from valens, which means worthy or strong, and there were three different Valentines who were named in various martyrologies in connection with February 14. Most think it was a Roman priest who was martyred sometime between 269 and 273 during the reign of Claudius II, a.k.a. Claudius Gothicus. Valentine was imprisoned for marrying Christian couples, which was against the law at this time, and while in prison, Claudius (shall we say) took a liking to him. Then Valentine made the tragic mistake of trying to convert Claudius to Christianity, so Claudius had him beaten with clubs and then beheaded.

The Feast of Saint Valentine was a minor festival in the ancient Church. But after 380, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (which was a shame, because when Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he mandated that all religions in the empire be universally tolerated), the Church systematically established Christian feasts on the same days as the more ancient pagan ones—in a future post I’ll try to gather together an exhaustive list of them. In this case, the general pagan fertility celebration on February 13–15 was so widespread and prevalent that the Church needed to bring the feast a touch of religious sobriety.

Happily, the paganish aspects of the day—people acting like goats and wolves, seducing everyone you can with the sort of abandon one might ascribe to the followers of Pan—have remained to this day, even though dear Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle did their best to make Valentine’s Day a paean to romantic love. In his love poem “Parlement of Foules” he wrote, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, / When every bird comes to choose his mate.) The problem, of course, is that Chaucer wrote it for the engagement of Richard II, which was on May 2—a date which celebrated a different Saint Valentine, an early bishop of Genoa.

But that didn’t stop others from piling on the Saint Valentine bandwagon. On February 14, 1400, in honor of Valentine’s Day, a “High Court of Love” was established in Paris to deal with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were selected by women on the basis of a poetry reading, and “valentines”—then short love poems—began to be circulated.

Since then it’s been all downhill. The early 1800s saw the first valentine cards available for purchase, and by the mid-19th century they were all the rage. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that roses and chocolates and jewelry were added to the giving of cards; apparently some 190 million valentines are sent every year in the US, not counting valentine exchanges in elementary schools.

Sickly sweet sentimentalism, to my way of thinking. I say we go back to dressing in nothing but goatskin loincloths and getting in touch with our inner wolves.

Categories: Classic civilizations, Earth-based Religions, Holidays, Sex and Sexuality | 1 Comment

Wrestling with Christmas

The older I get, the more Christmas fills me with a terrible ambivalence. But please note: “ambivalent” doesn’t imply a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. It means I’m of two opposite and conflicting minds.

As a child I was torn between childish greed, a certain delight even then in the decor, music, and “specialness” of the festivities, and a very Christian desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I was a devout little thing. I was on our local Romper Room show with Miss Connie for a whole week, and I created something of a ruckus on Wednesday (which was always snack day on Romper Room) after the prayer over the milk and cookies. Miss Connie led us all in saying, “God is great, God is good,/ And we thank Him for our food.” In my household, the prayer didn’t stop there. It continued: “By His hands we all are fed,/ Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” So I continued. Loudly. After everyone else had stopped. And then, as the cameras rolled, I told her in the most disapproving tones that God didn’t hear her prayer because she didn’t end the prayer with “In Jesus’ Name, Amen.” I remember saying it at least three times — that God doesn’t hear any prayer that isn’t prayed in Jesus’ name — each time more stridently because I thought she was ignoring me. What she was doing was gesturing wildly to the cameraman to cut to commercial. Ah, the days of live television!

When we moved to the Virgin Islands, I experienced my first Christmas there in 90 degree heat. We put our white flocked tree with its pretty blue balls (this was the 1970s, after all) on the balcony where it would be visible both when we were in the living room and when we were on the patio below, but on Christmas morning the trade winds carried the tree over the balcony and into the swimming pool, its pretty blue balls bobbing around happily in the water. Those days, when I was in high school, Christmas became just “what we did” each year. Festive and fun, but without any deeper meaning.

When I got my first apartment after college with my friend Jim, Christmas changed again. I really did Christmas up right. An eight-foot-tall fresh white pine, painstakingly decorated. My father was ill at the time, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, this would be his last Christmas with us. I gave him stocking stuffers filled with wind-up walking toys. I still remember the tears of joy and laughter in his eyes.

In the years that followed, I shared a home in Maryland with my mother, and we took similar pains to decorate well and tastefully. Jim would always come over on Christmas eve and watch TV with us, then I would go to my church for our festive 10 p.m. Christmas Eve celebration; Jim was always asleep on the couch by the time I got home. In the morning my brother Dale would join us in opening the stockings and gifts, then I would make a nice breakfast (usually eggs Benedict).

These were happy times, at least until I started suffering from depression — the chronic, crushing kind, a despair that is independent of circumstance. Because these bouts lasted for months at a time, I never knew if I’d be over it before the holidays or not. On several Christmases I remember going through the motions, putting on my characteristic happy face, when I would actually have preferred to be curled in a fetal position in the dark, weeping.

When I moved back to Florida from Vermont, and lived once again with Mom, we started recreating our Maryland Christmases, after a fashion. Jim would make a trip down once a year, and we would do the whole gift exchange thing and have a great time. But as Mom became ill, she could no longer shop, and couldn’t wrap gifts. Christmas became a burden. She wanted the house decorated, and even though it taxed her greatly, she always added some special touches. In the end, she just felt guilty over the whole thing. She didn’t want us to give her any gifts, and she just gave us money in return, hoping we’d get ourselves something we’d love.

The first Christmas after her death, I drove up to visit Jim in Virginia. Last year he came down here. This will be the first year in nearly a decade that we haven’t spent Christmas together. The only nod to Christmas in my house is my Charlie Brown tree. And it’s all right. Because I am decidedly ambivalent over Christmas.

Adam hates Christmas. I don’t think that’s stating his feelings too strongly. He has a decided antipathy not so much toward the holiday itself — people can celebrate whatever they damn well please, and more power to them — but toward the exhaustive and relentless way our society (not to mention the media) pushes it in our faces. This year I saw Christmas decorations on the shelves next to the Halloween decorations, and our local Walgreens was playing Christmas music well before Thanksgiving. For Jews (not to mention Muslims, Hindus, pagans, atheists, and other non-Christians), having grocery store clerks wishing you a Merry Christmas at every turn, or having Christmas music blasted from every loudspeaker in every restaurant and store, or having televisions broadcast nothing but Christmas dreck and artificially sappy shows with at least a tangential Christmas theme for nearly a month, is offensive in the extreme. I resent government and municipal bodies, which should be steadfastly secular and nonpartisan, celebrating the most Christian of holidays as if everyone in the world believed the same things. We don’t.

Every year I find myself wanting to pick fights with the Salvation Army bell-ringers: “Don’t you realize,” I want to shout, “that this organization you’re volunteering for actively discriminates against gays and lesbians? In 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to close all their soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City instead of following an ordinance requiring city contractors to provide equal benefits to domestic partners. Discriminating against gays was more important to them than helping the poor. On top of that, they refuse to give needy children any Harry Potter toys that have been donated because they’re ‘satanic.’ Is that the kind of ‘good’ you want to do in the world?” But I don’t shout. I drop in a Kettle Voucher, nod and give a tight little smile to the bell-ringer, and go about my shopping feeling rather Grinchlike.

One of the biggest reasons I am ambivalent is because Christmas is a fake. Jesus was not born on December 25, or anywhere near it. Assuming we’re using the gospels as our source material on the birth of Jesus, Luke clearly says the birth took place when shepherds were “living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.” This means Jesus’ birth took place in early spring, since it was only at lambing time that shepherds stood guard over their flocks in the field.

December 25, in the older Julian calendar, was the date on which the winter solstice usually fell. Romans celebrated it as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Many scholars believe the 4th century church selected the winter solstice as the celebration of Jesus’ birth to appropriate and co-opt a pagan holiday that already had a long history and huge fan base. Others, like S.E. Hijmans in his book Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, disagree: “It is cosmic symbolism [that] inspired the Church leadership in Rome to elect the winter solstice, December 25, as the birthday of Christ, and the summer solstice as that of John the Baptist, supplemented by the equinoxes as their respective dates of conception. While they were aware that pagans called this day the ‘birthday’ of Sol Invictus, this did not concern them and it did not play any role in their choice of date for Christmas.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Jesus is not the reason for the season. The reason for the season is the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the ecliptic.

And the decidedly pagan winter solstice celebrations are the source for most of our hallowed Christmas traditions:

■   Gift-giving was common in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which took place from December 17th through the 23rd — in fact, Christmas gift-giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins. Christians point to the gifts the magi gave to the infant Jesus, but forget that the magoi were Zoroastrian astrologers. Seleucus II Callinicusis, king of Syria, offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Apollo in his temple at Miletus in 243 BCE; this was likely the precedent for the mention of these particular gifts in Matthew’s gospel.

■   The Christmas tree was first seen in northern Germany in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but winter solstice celebrations, especially in Europe, have always included the use of evergreen boughs as a symbol of life in the season of death, and as an adaptation of pagan tree worship.

■   Santa Claus. He may have been loosely based on St. Nicholas — Nikolaos of Myra, 4th century bishop of Myra, part of modern-day Turkey — but his feast day is December 6, and he really wasn’t much like our modern Santa or even like the more ancient Father Christmas, who typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas but was neither a gift-bringer nor particularly associated with children. He has been identified with the old belief in Woden or Odin. And as we noted a few years ago, Santa was a shaman.

■   And then there’s the feasting. One reason the winter solstice was so important the world over was because communities were not certain of living through the winter — starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Wikipedia has a fascinating compilation of different winter solstice observances, from nearly every culture imaginable.

When someone asks me about my religious beliefs, I never have a great answer. At times I am a Christian, though certainly a theologically liberal one. But by the same token I often feel Jewish, or Buddhist, or Hindu, even though my adherence to any of those religious traditions is tangential at best. I am a postmodern shaman and most decidedly a syncretist. I am, depending on what day you ask me, an animist, a pantheist, a panentheist, and occasionally even a monotheist. And I am generally a pagan, caught somewhere between Paganism and Neopaganism, though I don’t seem to find much in common with the neopagan community at large.

As at least a nominal Christian, I must wrestle with what Christmas means. I certainly believe in the mythos behind the story of Jesus’ birth. Countless gods and salvific figures had miraculous births, and many of them were born of a virgin (though of course the word ‘alma in the Hebrew prophecy upon which the story of Mary’s virgin birth is based described not a technical virgin all but simply a young woman). All the infancy stories of Jesus are mythic: the angelic annunciation, the slaughter of the innocents, shepherds as witnesses, magi traveling to do homage. I like feeling that I’m somehow part of one of the Great Myths of humankind.

My annoyance about the date of Jesus’ birth won’t change the fact that it’s been celebrated this way for sixteen centuries. And while I don’t hide my irritation at the way our society celebrates Christmas (last night someone on television said, “Christmas is about giving! It’s about friendship!!” as if that were the perfect summation of the symbolism of the holiday), this doesn’t seem to affect my need to sing Christmas carols for a few weeks every year — the ancient, modal ones that most people don’t sing or have never heard, the ones that evoke cold winters, or the eternal struggle of light against a pervasive darkness, or joyful dancing and revelry.

I no longer have a long list of people to shop for. I won’t be alone on Christmas day, but otherwise I won’t be celebrating much. I’ll listen to my lovely, relatively unknown carols, but I’ll turn off the TV when the Christmas specials come on. And in a couple of days, on the 21st, I’ll light a candle at 6:38 p.m., the moment the winter solstice occurs where I live. Ambivalence may not be a comfortable place to live, but it’s the best I can do for the time being.

Categories: Christianity, Depression, Earth-based Religions, Family, Holidays, Judaism, Spirituality | 7 Comments

The Marilyn Monroe of Thanksgiving Turkeys

In 2006, I wrote a blog piece about the Legend of the Black Turkey. Every year it seems to get more random Internet hits. Last year, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, I was interviewed by a reporter for the Boston Herald. He had stumbled upon my blog and wanted some details on the turkey story. It was a pleasant interview, and he said the article would appear the following week. I checked online every day, well past Thanksgiving, but the piece never appeared. A full year later it shows up. Here it is:

by Kerry J. Byrne, The Boston Herald

Earlier this month we looked at the craft of smoked turkeys with barbecue champion Chris Hart; earlier this week it was the fine art of deep-fried turkeys. We close out our turkey triumvirate with the legend of the black turkey, one of the more curious food stories I’ve ever encountererd. Here’s the legend, based largely on a piece we published in the print Herald last year before Thanksgiving:

Writer Morton Thompson died long before the age of the Internet—July 7, 1953, to be exact. But he created a foodie phenomenon that percolates around the web more than a half century later.

It’s the legend of the black turkey, a charred-skin bird that’s painstakingly prepared during a day-long drunken boozefest with friends but that produces delectable, mahogany-hued meat so tasty and tender that it’s spoken of only in reverent hyperbole.

“Thompson’s turkey is to turkey as Miss Monroe is to women, as (Bobby) Jones was to golf,” wrote Richard Gehman in his 1966 book, “The Haphazard Gourmet.” Versions of the story are found in seemingly random places, from the website of an Australian Christian missionary, to more typical food blogs, to the best-selling 2003 novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which was turned into a movie in 2009.

Thompson wrote about the black turkey in a 1945 collection of short stories called “Joe, the Wounded Tennis Player.” He had served it at some point to famed essayist Robert Benchley (the grandfather of “Jaws” author Peter Benchley), who kept alive the story after Thompson’s demise.

“It’s far from a hoax,” said Craig Smith, who’s written about the history of black turkey at his blog ( “Anybody who’s ever tried it said it creates the most amazingly tender, delicious turkey they’ve ever had.”

Here’s the short version of how to prepare the allegedly delectable black turkey, with links to recipes below:

Take a “huge” turkey, simmer the giblets with herbs, spices and cider to create a basting liquid.

Start drinking, preferably a gin cocktail called the Ramos Fizz.

Then make an elaborate stuffing of fruit, herbs, spices, bread crumbs, ground veal, ground pork and butter. Fire the oven to 500 degrees and create a “stiff” paste of egg yolks, lemon juice, onion juice, spices and flour.

Now move on to martinis.

When the oven’s red hot, add the stuffed bird and keep drinking martinis until it starts to brown. Lower the oven to 350, remove the bird, coat it with paste, return to oven, let the paste set, and continue the process until all the paste is used. Then baste the bird with the liquid every 15 minutes, enlisting drinking buddies in the effort.

The skin will darken until it becomes a black, cindery crust. The fall-off-the-bone tender meat will range in color from golden brown to mahogany.

You will be very drunk by this time.

“It’s like cooking a turkey in crockery or clayware. It creates its own casing and locks in all the juices,” said Smith, the black turkey historian. “It’s a legend that’s only grown and that people talk about with awe.”

Look for black turkey recipes in completely random places, such as John Mark Ministries, Big Daddy’s Kitchen or the illustrious food blog,

If you ever actually attempt to make one, shoot us a note and let us know how it goes…you know, after you sober up.

Categories: Food and Diet, Fun, Holidays | 7 Comments

There Once Was a Writer Named Gorey

I love limericks. I quite enjoy the off-color ones (the one about the lady from Brizes is probably my favorite), but I think I delight in the limericks of Edward Gorey — he of The Gashlycrumb Tinies fame — simply because the macabre, and particularly macabre humor, is so rarely dealt with poetically. Of the very many limericks he wrote, here are the ones I treasure:

The babe, with a cry brief and dismal,
Fell into the waters baptismal.
Ere they’d gathered its plight,
It had sunk out of sight,
For the depths of the font were abysmal.

A beetling young woman named Pridgets
Had a violent abhorrence of midgets;
Off the end of a wharf
She once pushed a dwarf
Whose truncation reduced her to fidgets.

A nurse motivated by spite
Tied her infantine charge to a kite;
She launched it with ease
On the afternoon breeze,
And watched till it flew out of sight.

An Edwardian father named Udgeon,
Whose offspring provoked him to dudgeon,
Used on Saturday nights
To turn down the lights,
And chase them around with a bludgeon.

There was a young lady named Rose
Who fainted whenever she chose.
She did so one day
While playing croquet,
But was quickly revived with a hose.

From Number Nine, Penwiper Mews,
There is really abominable news:
They’ve discovered a head
In the box for the bread
And nobody seems to know whose.

There’s a rather odd couple in Herts
Who are cousins (or so each asserts).
Their sex is in doubt
For they’re never without
Their mustaches and long, trailing skirts.

Categories: Holidays, Poetry Sundays | 2 Comments

Squeaking and Squonking on White Rabbit Day

In high school, a math teacher once asked us if we’d said “White Rabbit!” that morning. When we looked at him blankly, he explained that if the first words out of your mouth on the first day of a new month were “White Rabbit,” you’d have good luck for the entire month.

This morning, New Year’s Day, I said “White Rabbit.” Does that mean I’ll have good luck for the entire year? Or will I, like Alice’s rabbit, just be late for everything?

I’m not a big fan of new year’s resolutions, but today I decided that I’m going to make a few changes that are long overdue. One is to take up the recorder. Or rather, take it up again.

My dear friend Tim, who besides being the most amazing watercolorist (his work in oils is pretty fine too, but the watercolors really speak to me) is a lovely lyrical recorder player, had been prodding me for years to get a recorder of my own. In August of 2004 I finally broke down and bought an alto Yamaha. And I got the two beginners’ books he recommended.

A month later, when we evacuated to Tampa as Hurricane Frances was bearing down on us, I took the recorder with me. That week the recorder and I got to know one another, and I made satisfying progress. Continue reading

Categories: Getting Organized, Holidays, Music | 7 Comments

On the Feast of Stephen

The story of Christmas is the story of assimilation. Sorry to put it so nakedly, but it’s true. Wrapped up in this holiday, this holy day, is a whole history of cultural appropriation, identity theft, and synchretism. And there are no easy answers. It’s all so very messy.

December 25 was the date of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere according to the old Julian calendar. In the Gregorian calendar currently in use, the solstice falls on the 21st or 22nd. Most ancient cultures held their biggest annual festivals at this time of year; if you take into account all winter festivals worldwide, the list of holidays is staggering.

The Church was pretty open about appropriating the winter solstice (or, more specifically, the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of Sol, the invincible sun god) as Jesus’ birthday. Jesus was almost certainly born in late March or early April, but if you want an instant celebration of a new concept, you simply glom onto an existing festival and add a new face to it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus is not “the reason for the season.” The reason for the season, as a friend recently pointed out, is the tilt in the earth’s axis, and humankind’s need to celebrate light and life on the darkest day of the year. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Classic civilizations, Earth-based Religions, Holidays, Judaism, Social Justice | 7 Comments

Off to Africa?

In two days I’m heading out of town for the holidays. When Dad died in 1982, Mom and I couldn’t bear to celebrate that first Christmas without him surrounded by the same old familiar things, having to put on a brave face and either be endlessly consoled or, worse, not consoled. So we decided to leave town. We drove down to Williamsburg, Virginia, and did the whole Colonial America thing. They have quite a lovely holiday celebration, and it was just so odd and so different that we thought it would be just the thing. We could be quiet and mourn in our own way, talk or not talk as we wish, and broaden our horizons just a bit.

So I thought it was an appropriate thing to do for the first Christmas without Mom. No, not Colonial Williamsburg, but a road trip. I’m heading up to Norfolk, Virginia, to spend the holidays with my old, old, old friend Jim (he’s only half a year older than I; it’s just that we’ve been friends since the age of three). He would always come over to our house in Maryland on Christmas eve and spend the night, and then we’d all open prezzies in our robes the next morning. When we moved to Florida, he spent most Christmases down here with us.

Jim bought a house a few years ago, but Mom had been too sick for me to leave her for an out-of-town visit with him. Now that he’s trying to sell it (and with the housing market the way it is, you know that’s going well!), I wanted to see it at least once, and this seemed like the perfect time to do it. We’ll have our quiet little get-together, we’ll lift a glass to Mom, and we’ll find a balance between the old and the new.

On the way up I had already decided to stop at the Waffle House my brother Darryl and I so enjoyed on the funeral trip. But as I was planning, I ran across two new potential adventures. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Family, Food and Diet, Holidays, Spirituality | 6 Comments

Family Feast

My nephew makes a mean Bloody Mary. Everyone loved this year’s Craignog (which, after years of perfecting, I tweaked once again), but sometimes you want something less dreamy and pillowy, something to make your eyebrows stand up and take notice. Erik’s Bloody Mary, with the best swizzle stick (a skewer with small bites of celery alternating with stuffed green olives) and a boatload of ingredients, a couple of them secret, was amazing.

As was his turkey. Erik has, in the past few years, been bitten by the gourmet bug. He runs a successful pawn shop, then goes home to make schnitzel with chanterelles in a cream sauce. We compared notes on braised short ribs and osso bucco, and discussed his plans for a turkey stock once the carcass had been stripped, more or less.

It was a huge turkey, which often isn’t advised because they tend to be dry. He brined it for a day, and then stuffed it with herbs and lemons and oranges and apples and . . . I lost track, it’s a long list. And it was perfect: juicy, tender, richly flavored. It was masterful. I carved. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Food and Diet, Holidays, Shamanism | 5 Comments

Not an Apple

As much as I would like to say I’m a thoroughgoing pagan, albeit one with synchretist tendencies, there are certain times of the year when one religion wins out over another. For me, Yule, the winter solstice (at least in the northern hemisphere), is inextricably linked with Christmas. Not surprising, since the early Church deliberately chose the date of December 25 because many gods and goddesses of other religions in the region had their birthdays celebrated on that date, including Ishtar (the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, and war), Sol Invictus, and Mithras. No sense wasting a holiday that was already well established.

One reason I love Christmas/Yule so much is the music. Not the gooey sweet Christmas songs that you hear on the radio, but the cold, strange carols from the Middle Ages, or centuries-old folk songs. Each year I seem to get a new favorite. Last year it was the fifteenth-century carol “Adam Lay Ybounden” (sorry, Adamus!): Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Holidays, Judaism, Psychology, Spirituality | 4 Comments

If It’s December, This Must Be Sedaris

In years past, I’ve circulated among my email friends and acquaintances—or rather, re-circulated—one of my favorite holiday essays, David Sedaris’s “Six to Eight Black Men,” which was originally written for Esquire Magazine. Last year I posted it here.

This year I found that someone made a YouTube video of it, sort of. The soundtrack is Sedaris doing a live reading of the story (slightly updated from the print version, which is interesting for editor-types like me who like to see how essays can be improved with a little judicious snipping or amplification or the change of a single word here or there), while the video is a compilation of rather interesting stills and film snippets that quite nicely illustrate Sedaris’s narrative. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Holidays, Humor, Worthwhile Reading, Writing | 1 Comment

Urban Shaman to lead Greenwich Village Halloween Parade

By Wickham Boyle | The Villager

Urban Shaman is not an easy job title, or even a moniker that can be absorbed facilely at cocktail parties or class reunions. But after three decades of producing public artwork, this is how Donna Henes describes herself. “It’s been 33 years now and I see myself as a shaman… a person who intercedes between the community and the spirit world. The shaman goes back and forth to make sure that the community — in this case, NYC — is connected.”

Henes was trained as an artist and educator, but was always drawn by multi-cultural ceremonies, rituals and rites. So it is only natural that she would lead and bless the Annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade.

In an email invitation to join her in her latest endeavor, Henes wrote: “I have been asked to lead the Village Halloween Parade with blessings. I will have a troupe of blessers, all wearing white. We will lead the parade the entire route and bless the streets of NYC and all of the participants and audience with blessings of connectivity, community and peace. Our ceremony will transform the secular city into sacred space. We will do the blessings with smudge (fire, earth, air) and bubbles (water) as well as glitter and bells. Sweepers who will literally sweep the streets clean of negativity will follow our blessing troupe. It should be wonderful.” Continue reading

Categories: Holidays, Humor, Shamanism | 4 Comments

An Easter for the Birds

Many homes in this part of Florida (that is to say, homes newer and more expensive than ours) have a large screened-in area that encloses an in-ground pool, a summer kitchen, and a lanai or roofed porch; on temperate days, the sliding glass doors open up to the kitchen and family room and even master bedroom, so that the indoors pours comfortably into the outdoors. Darryl and Janet, my brother and sister-in-law, have such a home, which backs onto on a small but very pretty artificial lake.

Yesterday they invited everyone over for an Easter cookout. To be fair, no one cooked, at least not yesterday afternoon. We all brought our contributions: Easter egg potato salad (some of the eggs were a little blue or green from the Easter egg dye); a Jello salad with lots of marshmallows; extremely garlicky green beans; a precooked ham, and a precooked turkey breast, and packaged rolls; that sort of thing. Mom was dreading the day, since she was feeling poorly and not having a good breathing day, but as she had made such a fabulous showing the previous weekend—spending the night at the Kissimmee home of my other brother and sister-in-law, Dale and Nilda, while I gave a workshop at a writers’ conference in New Port Richey—Mom felt obligated to show up at yesterday’s gathering as well. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Christianity, Earth-based Religions, Holidays | 3 Comments

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. Today you’ll see a strange sight: people walking around with smudges on their foreheads, like gray bindis over their third eyes, or like someone stubbed out a cigarette on them. These are people who have come from an Ash Wednesday service that begins the forty days of Lent.

Early in the service, ashes from burned palm fronds, leftovers from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration, are placed on the worshipers’ foreheads. Sometimes the smudge looks like a small cross, sometimes it’s just a smudge. As the ashes are imposed, the minister says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

I never went in for the whole Lenten penitential/self-abnegation thing. For me, Ash Wednesday was more existential. It was a meditation about mortality, about our connection to the earth, about our union with everything that lives, about impermanence. Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

I also like that it comes the day after Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” the day of feasting before the traditional Lenten fast. I like that it’s the last day of the Carnival season, a heady Bacchanalia in most parts of the world. I especially like that “Carnival” is derived from the Latin carne vale: “Farewell, flesh!”—as apt an adieu to physical existence as it is to meat during the fast. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, Death, Great Quotes, Holidays | 9 Comments

Santa Was a Shaman!

Flying reindeer? Red and white clothing? Climbing down the chimney bearing gifts? You may be surprised to learn the origin of these images.

The Influence of Fly Agaric on the Iconography of Father Christmas

Most people are familiar with the traditional image of Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus). The 1823 poem of Major Henry Livingston Jr, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas1 crystallised this image, and countless Christmas cards reinforced it. Father Christmas appears as a rather plump, white-bearded old man, dressed in red clothing with white buttons and trimmings. Such imagery also frequently depicts him:

  • Flying through the air.
  • Flying through the air in or on a sleigh, pulled by reindeer.
  • Delivering children’s presents down a chimney.

Although an advertising campaign by the Coca Cola Company in the 1930s made this image of Father Christmas almost universal, it was fairly ubiquitous by the late 19th Century. With an expansion of global exploration in Victorian times, travellers returned home from visiting the Sami of Lapland2 with the story of flying reindeer, spreading the tale all over central Europe.

The question arises; does some underlying connection pull all these characteristics together into a coherent synthesis? Perhaps…

Flying Reindeer

Although the Johnny Marks hit song, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ popularised the link between reindeer and Father Christmas in 1949, the association of reindeer with Christmas was already well established. For example, centuries before the development of the legend of Father Christmas, English texts from the Renaissance mention reindeer antlers being displayed during Christmas festivities.

The first reference in print connecting Santa Claus and reindeer appears in the 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ by Major Henry Livingston Jr (the famous ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’).

Reindeer are a kind of deer found in the cold regions of Europe and North America (locally referred to as ‘caribou’). They feed on grass and lichens, but also have a taste for the fly agaric toadstool, Amanita muscaria, because of its intoxicating and euphoric effects. Amanita muscaria is found in pine and birch woods of western North America, northern Europe, and Asia.

The Sami have a custom of feeding fly agaric to their deer and collecting the urine to drink. The reindeer’s digestive system metabolises the more poisonous components of the toadstool, leaving urine with the hallucinogenic and psychotropic elements of the fungus intact. Drinking the urine gives a ‘high’ similar to taking LSD. Under the hallucinatory effects of the drink, the Sami thought their reindeer were flying through space, looking down on the world. The reindeers’ liking for the toadstool hallucinogens are such that they, in turn, have been known to eat the snow on which intoxicated humans have urinated, creating a reciprocating cycle.

When the first missionaries reached Lapland they heard stories of such reindeer flight, and integrated those tales into the existing Christmas folklore of Western cultures concerning Saint Nicholas.

Red and White Clothing

The word ‘toadstool’ refers to poisonous or inedible mushrooms.

The Amanita muscaria toadstool, instantly recognisable for its brilliant scarlet cap with white warts, has long been used in the rituals of certain Asian societies. This use has arisen due to the psychotropic and hallucinogenic compounds contained within the toadstool. Ingestion leads to ‘expanded perception,’ macropsia (perceiving objects as enlarged)3, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, and the belief that one could talk directly with one’s god. It is no accident that fly agaric toadstools often appear in books of fairy tales.

Fly agaric is a source of the hallucinogenic components ibotenic acid (an amino acid) and muscimol. Ibotenic acid, only present in fresh mushrooms, has insecticidal properties4. When dried, ibotenic acid degrades (decarboxylates) into muscimol5, which has ten times the potency. Taken orally, Ibotenic acid is entheogenically active6 at 50-100 mg, whilst muscimol displays activity at 10-15 mg.

The shamans7 of Siberia use Amanita muscaria for recreational or ritualistic purposes. They use a dried preparation called ‘mukhomor’ to speak to their gods. These people, the Kamchadales and the Koryaks, eat between one and three dried mushrooms. They believe that smaller mushrooms and those with a large quantity of small warts are more active than pale red ones and ones with fewer spots. The Koryak women chew the sun-dried agaric and roll the product into small sausages, which the men swallow. The Koryaks also eat the flesh of slaughtered reindeer which have recently eaten fly agaric, but whose psychotropic condition has subsided. In a similar fashion to the Sami, the Siberians discovered that their urine contained the active principle of the fungi and they could consume this recycled product with less of the undesirable poisonous effects of the raw toadstool.

During a mushroom-induced trance, the shaman would start to twitch and sweat before falling into a deep coma-like sleep. During his coma, the shaman’s soul left his body as an animal and flew to the ‘other world’ where it communicated with the spirits. The shaman hoped these spirits could help him deal with major problems, such as outbreaks of sickness in the village, by imparting medical knowledge from the gods.

On awaking, the shaman found their muscular systems had been so stimulated that they were able to perform spectacular physical feats with seemingly little effort — such as making a gigantic leap to clear a small obstacle. The effect on animals was the same, and a ‘bemushroomed’8 reindeer traditionally guarded each shaman.

The poorer classes, who could not afford the time to gather the toadstools, would drink the urine of the better-off, collected in bowls or skin bags. Evidence suggests the drug’s hallucinogens remained effective even having passed through five or six people, and some scholars maintain that this is the true origin of the expression ‘to get pissed’ — rather than having anything to do with alcohol intoxication9.

The fly agaric may have been one of the earliest entheogens, that is hallucinogenic substances used for religious or shamanic purposes. Such use dates back as much as 10,000 years. The oldest archaeological evidence discovered so far of mushroom use by man exists as an image in a cave in Tassili, Algeria. The image dates back to 3500 BCE and depicts the mushrooms with electrified auras outlining dancing shamans.

Furthermore, the fly agaric has appeared for a long time as a popular image on Christmas cards in central Europe. In Kocevye, in southern Yugoslavia, folklore tells of the Germanic god, Wotan (the king of the gods, synonymous with the Norse god, Odin) who rides on horseback through the woods on Christmas night, pursued by devils. Red and white flecks of blood and foam spray from the horse’s mouth to the ground, where fly agaric toadstools emerge in the following year.

Climbing Down the Chimney Bearing Gifts

Siberian shamans live in tepee-like structures made of reindeer skin, called yurts, with a roof supported by a birch pole and a smokehole at the top. At the midwinter festivals of Annual Renewal, the shaman gathers the fly agaric from under sacred trees. Interestingly, whilst harvesting the toadstools, the shaman wears special attire, consisting of red and white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots ie, very much like the modern day depiction of Santa Claus. He then enters his yurt through the smokehole, carrying a sack full of dried fly agaric, and descends the birch pole to the floor. Once inside, the shaman performs his ceremonies and shares out the toadstool’s gifts with those gathered inside. Following this, he leaves up the pole and back through the smokehole.

It is interesting to note that, in central Europe, the fly agaric has been adopted as the symbol of chimney sweeps.

St Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is a legendary figure who supposedly lived during the 4th Century. He is best known as the patron saint of children, to whom he brings presents on the eve of his feast day, 6th December.

Most religious historians now agree that St Nicholas never actually existed, but was instead a Christianized amalgam of the historical bishops, Nicholas of Myra (4th Century) and Nicholas of Sion (d. 564) together with a number of pagan gods including the Teutonic god, Hold Nickar, corresponding to the Greek god, Poseidon. Legend tells that Hold Nickar galloped through the sky during the winter solstice, granting favours to his worshippers below.

St Nicholas is associated with a number of miracles, but it is the following one that integrates him into the legend of Santa Claus:

There was a nobleman who had three daughters, and who had fallen on hard times. As the nobleman could not afford their dowries his daughters had little prospect of marriage; and so they faced a life of prostitution. St. Nicholas heard of this and, one night, threw a sack of gold through a window of the nobleman’s castle. The sack contained enough gold to provide for one daughter’s marriage. The next night he tossed another sack of gold through the window for the second daughter. But, on the third night the window was closed, so St. Nicholas dropped the third sack of gold down the chimney. On hearing of this, townsfolk began hanging stockings by the fireplace at night to collect any gold that might come their way.

So also was born the tradition of the Christmas stocking and Santa arriving down the chimney.

The early Christians soon incorporated these traditions and folklore into their own ‘Holy Day’. Many images of Saint Nicholas from these early times show him wearing the red and white robes of bishops of the Roman Catholic church or standing in front of a red background with white spots, the design of the Amanita mushroom.

It would appear that around 1300AD, imagery of St Nicholas fused with the pagan god Wotan. Wotan rode an eight-legged white horse, Sleipnir, through the night skies, his long white beard blowing in the wind. Prior to this time, Saint Nicholas was depicted as having a dark beard.

In 1823, Major Henry Livingston published his ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…’ poem in which the connection between Santa Claus and reindeer appeared for the first time. Here, eight reindeer pulled a white-bearded Santa Claus in a sleigh. Livingston based his ideas on popular views of Christmas based mainly on his knowledge of diverse customs involving St Nicholas, brought to the area by Dutch, German and Scandinavian immigrants. Perhaps the eight reindeer echo Wotan’s eight-legged steed.

And to All a Good Night

In summary, it seems quite possible that the traditional image of Father Christmas, described in Livingston’s poem and universalised by the Coca Cola Company during the 1930s, has its real origins in shamanistic rituals involving the red and white fly agaric toadstool. From climbing into chimneys and gift giving, to dressing in red and white and flying through the air with reindeers, travellers and storytellers have fused these ancient customs with other pagan traditions and imagery. As is the wont of Christianity, these pagan customs have pragmatically been adapted and integrated into our Christmas traditions.

1 Attributed until recently to the author and scholar Clement Clarke Moore.
2 One of the oldest indigenous cultures in the world.
3 This is almost certainly the origin of the episode in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) where Alice eats a mushroom, one side of which makes her grow very tall, while the other makes her very small.
4 People once chopped the toadstool up and floated pieces in milk to attract, intoxicate and kill flies. Hence, the name ‘fly agaric’.
5 Ibotenic acid is alpha-amino3-hydroxy-5-isoxazole acetic acid. This is decarboxylated to form muscimol (3-hydroxy-5-aminomethyl isoxazole).
6 Capable of inducing an altered state of consciousness.
7 Village holy men.
8 Word coined by the ethnomycologist, Robert Gordon Wasson, to describe the state of mushroom intoxication.
9 Indeed, urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol consumption by thousands of years.

Categories: Holidays, Shamanism | 8 Comments

To Get You in the Holiday Mood

If Black Friday weren’t enough, with stores laden with holiday wares and endless sales, all television stations are apparently enjoined to transmit Christmas Cheer from now until December 26. (I console myself with the knowledge that nearly every hallowed Christmas image and symbol is utterly pagan in origin.) After that we get an endless week of Top Ten or Top 100 lists for 2006, then a few nights of drunken celebration because of a single digit change on a calendar. Oh goodie.

Perhaps it’s the news that my friend Jim will be driving down to join us for Christmas; perhaps it’s just dreaming of my next batch of CraigNog. Whate’er the reason, I’ve decided to officially get into the holiday mood. Knowing me, it will likely last only a day or two, but I’m going to grab it while I can.

To that end, I’m reposting my favorite holiday offering, a short story by David Sedaris originally published in Esquire magazine.


Six to Eight Black Men

A heartwarming tale of Christmas in a foreign land where, if you’ve been naughty, Saint Nick and his friends give you an ass-whuppin’.

by David Sedaris

I’ve never been much for guidebooks, so when trying to get my bearings in a strange American city, I normally start by asking the cabdriver or hotel clerk some silly question regarding the latest census figures. I say silly because I don’t really care how many people live in Olympia, Washington, or Columbus, Ohio. They’re nice enough places, but the numbers mean nothing to me. My second question might have to do with average annual rainfall, which, again, doesn’t tell me anything about the people who have chosen to call this place home.

What really interests me are the local gun laws. Can I carry a concealed weapon, and if so, under what circumstances? What’s the waiting period for a tommy gun? Could I buy a Glock 17 if I were recently divorced or fired from my job? I’ve learned from experience that it’s best to lead into this subject as delicately as possible, especially if you and the local citizen are alone and enclosed in a relatively small space. Bide your time, though, and you can walk away with some excellent stories. I’ve heard, for example, that the blind can legally hunt in both Texas and Michigan. They must be accompanied by a sighted companion, but still, it seems a bit risky. You wouldn’t want a blind person driving a car or piloting a plane, so why hand him a rifle? What sense does that make? I ask about guns not because I want one of my own but because the answers vary so widely from state to state. In a country that’s become so homogenous, I’m reassured by these last touches of regionalism. Continue reading

Categories: Holidays, Humor | 5 Comments

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