Category Archives: gratefulness

Poem A

Pine Ridge Nebraska

The Pine Ridge region, northwestern Nebraska

Turned Around

Find sample blogs on a gazillion topics at Alpha Inventions
Bucolic spot in the Pine Ridge area

Bucolic spot in the Pine Ridge area

Thanks to all 431 of you who visited Write Light on November 29 — my second-biggest day ever for this blog!

My dear friend and colleague Queen Jane the Easygoing and Way Smart is the person who submits my poetry and prose to periodicals and publishers. Sometimes she has difficulty choosing; I’m quite prolific.

In the next few weeks I’m going to post ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Thanks! Oh, I already said that. Well, thanks again, in advance….

TURNED AROUND

Because I have been less than inches
from the chasm of unbeing,
and have been afraid that, having
nowhere else to go, I would
on purpose, accidentally,
fall in, and simply fall and fall
forever, since unbeing has no
floor; and have been rescued, and
been certain of my rescuer,
and have again felt almost-solid
earth beneath my feet; when I
had given up on earth and sky
and sun and rain and comfortable
shoes and friends and weddings; having
been as good as dead, there in that
purgatory of unbreathing,
and then being turned around,
embraced, and liberated — I
believe in miracles. For everything
is living once you have been almost
dead; and all things shine, as if their
only purpose is to serve as
a reminder of that brief and
infinite dependence on
the spirit who exhaled to give me
breath again.

* * *

Advertisements

Out of Order

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically

What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady
Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

We are getting rather close to the end of this course, and I am finding bits and globs of material that should have been included earlier. If it’s a small bit or glob, I just quietly insert it. But if it’s a big fat key to the understanding of a major concept, which is the case here, I feel bound to call your attention to it. The left-out part is What Does It Mean to Live Poetically?” and I have stuck it in its logical place, namely, Chapter 11, “Living Poetically,” which began with Lesson 33. The new segment is Lesson 33.1 and you will find it here. 

A Living Poetically Fortune Cookie

I believe, when all is said and done, all you can do is show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

redoute-four-1

Little Things

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course
Lesson 35
Chapter 11 (continued): The Morris Chair and Other Metaphors for Love

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

morris-chair-ironwood_publicdomain

 

A freshwater swamp in Florida (U.S. Geological Survey)

A freshwater swamp in Florida (U.S. Geological Survey)

I am not into angst. Give me good, honest sadness, if you must, but don’t take me down sordid side streets dead-ending in despair.

Do not write poetry about your feelings, except metaphorically, or in passing. You will get stuck there, in that swamp of emotion, when the point is to uncover what lies beneath the muck.

Let’s say your mother has just died. Please, if she is living, know that I am not ill-wishing her; may she live in robust health and prosperity to 150. My mother — as you know, if you have been paying attention — died in 1974. I did not write much poetry then; it would be another five years or so before I started writing therapeutically, or out of pure joy, rather than to impress someone.

If I had wanted to write a poem about my mother, I would not have begun by recalling how wonderful she was and how much I had loved her and was missing her. Those were sentiments that were going nowhere… that were honest but superficial; my feelings were so much more complicated than sadness and grief. There were anger, regret, a little guilt, gratitude, laughter, bemusement, mixed with emotions that, to this day, I believe there are no words for — a tangle of knots and orphan threads that were going to either crush or choke me.

A schoolchild's slate very similar to Mom's

A schoolchild's slate very similar to Mom's

As it happened, I went into therapy instead of writing poetry. But if I had written poems for and about my mom, I think I would have begun with the little slate — one of the orphan threads in the tangle.

I have said that Mom was an antique collector and dealer. One of her prize possessions was a small slate — a child’s personal chalkboard from the days when paper wasn’t plentiful. I’m sure it was fifty or seventy-five years old; it was about five by seven inches if you count the rickety half-inch frame.

I found the slate in the closet of the spare bedroom a few days after Mom died. Written on it, with white chalk in Mom’s handwriting, was “Merry Christmas 1974.”

Now, this was very odd, enigmatic bordering on spooky. Mom died on August 8, 1974. For what possible reason might she have, that summer, to all appearances glowing with health and vitality, written “Merry Christmas 1974” on the little slate and put it in a closet where it would be easily found among her treasures?

Canon Typestar 110 electronic typewriter

Canon Typestar 110 electronic typewriter

Pappy’s Journal

When Dad died, in 1985, I was wiser. I did not go into therapy. Dad had retired about three years after Mom died, had bought an electronic typewriter, and had begun sending to his relatives, periodically, four-page documents printed on the backs of pieces of junk mail. He called this work-in-progress Pappy’s Journal. It contained amusing and sometimes poignant reminiscences about everything from ice-skating on the Des Moines River when he was a boy to a play-by-play of the previous Saturday’s Nebraska Cornhusker football game. Dad had been a CPA and a Scot, and he was thrifty to the core. (He had perfected a way of grafting soap slivers onto just-opened bars of Palmolive.) He always sent four pages, even if the fourth page ended midsentence, because four pages of twenty-pound paper was the maximum you could mail using a single first-class stamp.

The Red Sea—Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, 2007 (photo by Bobak Ha'Eri)

The Red Sea—Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, 2007 (photo by Bobak Ha'Eri)

So instead of seeking psychiatric help, I edited his reminiscences, sparingly, and wrote some annotations, and I also wrote several poems, one of which won first prize in statewide poetry contests in both Kansas and Arizona.

The Morris Chair

for Dan Campbell, 1913-1985

Once it was merely oak and textile, but you
chose it as your incarnation’s favorite
dwelling place; and since its cast, at first, was
hostile to your contours, something had to
give — the Morris never had a prayer.

As sitting folks do, you made an impression on the
topography of the worsted cushion, and, like the
victim of erosion, the planet was
reshaped: a plateau here, a gully there… a
landscape — where before had been mere
serviceable flatness — was now the sculpted
valley of adamant flesh, bone, and muscle.

After the armistice, you and the Morris were
compatible as the angular pieces of a
jigsaw puzzle, and anyone else venturing
to sit upon the thing would find it
uncongenial, neither rigid nor
relenting, just tenacious of its silhouette,
and true to its architect, and steward to
your indelible effect.

It doesn’t require a death in the family to write an evocative poem, choosing for its fulcrum something small and secretly prized, perhaps. Here are two of mine:

Photo by Meredith, http://modcottage.com, with permission

Photo by Meredith, http://modcottage.com, with permission

Sun Tea

When I was the mother of small
children, every summer morning I made
sun tea in a gallon jar filled with clear
well water and set it near the porch, so as
to sketch the season in my memory, and
not let pass without a grateful thought
those long, warm days and small, bare
feet—reason enough, even without the
alchemy of linking the deep river with
the open sky and drinking it with lemon;
and being put in mind of how things
happen in their time, and not before it or
beyond. Reason and more, as it ought to
be; for I am inordinately drawn to children
but not particularly fond of tea.

 

Summer Afternoon, Shinnecock, by Julien Alden Weir

Summer Afternoon, Shinnecock, by Julien Alden Weir

 

Meditation on a Summer Afternoon

All the riches of the world exist in shadows
of a walnut tree on sunny summer
afternoons: the small, expressive flutter of
a leaf in a listless breeze; the cleaving
scent of earth and pine and grass and
honeysuckle heavy on the vine; the
rough-and-tumble scratching of a
dozen squirrels in a frantic scramble
branch to branch, and suddenly
they’re statues munching fat, firm
nutmeats, littering with shards of
shell my cluttered yard that I shall
rake another day; plump robins, in
shy trepidation, venturing to search
for succulent gourmet delights, then,
frightened off by someone’s slamming
of a door, they dash away on wing
and call a warning to their mates.
Nearby a brash woodpecker hammers,
hammers more, persists in hammering
upon a maple tree. I clap my hands,
applauding, and to see what he will
do. He quits, and then resumes.

A book of poetry sits idly on my lap,
unlooked at. Pages turn upon a
breath of air; perhaps, I fancy, there’s a
spirit there, enjoying Blake. I listen to my
children at the neighbor’s, splashing in a
plastic pool and laughing with the
unrestraint that grace bestows on
childhood; and down the street, somebody
mows a tidy lawn that’s lined by rows of
peonies, exuberant and lush, ridiculously
pink or deep merlot.

Pink peonies (photo by Fanghong)

Pink peonies (photo by Fanghong)

Something sighs contentedly. Perhaps it’s
I, or else a pixie living in a tribe beneath
the shrubbery. Nothing weighs on me. I
feel so light that I’m surprised to find
myself still sitting on my rag of quilt upon
the grass instead of simply rising, chasing
birds or playing tag with bees. But I am
earthen still, and glad of it, delighted to
be wrapped in humid air; it moves
sufficiently to cool my skin and curl my
hair. The ground is warm, a comfort, womb
of seed and tiny creature curled in sleep,
awaiting dusk.

As shadows must, they lengthen and the
laughter shrills. The time has come. I will
collect the children and go in. I brush away
the thought, just for another minute’s
taste of pure serenity, but also fond
anticipation of the dinner hour—cheddar
cheese and melon salad, I decide, and
lemon pie, and then the bedtime stories
that transport us to exotic climes. The
time has come, but I have evening yet to
savor. Summer comes in such abundant
flavors—warmth and coolness,
thunderstorm, forsythia and clover, early
sunrise, tall and motley hollyhocks—I feast
upon them all.

garden_sister_alma_rose-120x139-90x105

Assignment 35.1

Every day if you can — but at least twice a week — choose a moment out of the day you have just experienced and write about it metaphorically in the poetic form of your choice. I hope you will do this for the rest of your life. It will prevent your “running on empty,” as Jackson Browne sang… or, perhaps even worse, running on autopilot. Entire spans of years of my life, when I was not living poetically or contemplating things by writing poetry, are a blur to me now, and sometimes I go back and try to recapture those lost moments, as in “Meditation on a Summer Afternoon,” above.

Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

* * *

 

Lady Irene

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33

Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Irene

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 … 

athens_school_of

Case Study #1: Living Poetically

Anne Bancroft

Anne Bancroft

None of my case studies is a perfect example of the poetic liver (or pancreas, or gallbladder…). We are, after all, talking about human beings, not gods or angels. But these are human beings who, in nearly every exigency, see not disaster but an infinite number of choices, and from these they select the most elegant or the kindest.

Irene is an exquisitely complex individual; accordingly, her life has always been complex. She is gifted in a hundred ways, and, with luck (and a bit more focus), she might have excelled in any of a dozen fields.

Irene the Artist 

She is an artist in the Renaissance sense: she sketches, she paints, she sculpts, she sings and plays the guitar. We met in high school — we were both singing in our school’s elite A Cappella Choir.

During our junior year, she had the lead in the Madwoman of Chaillot,

(French title La Folle de Chaillot) … a play, a poetic satire, by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, written in 1943 and first performed in 1945, after his death. The play has two acts and follows the convention of the classical unities. It follows an eccentric woman who lives in Paris and her struggles against the straitlaced authority figures in her life. —Wikipedia

Without Irene, such an ambitious production could not have been attempted at our school. Her performance was so exceptional that even the most lowbrow of our peers, the guys who still thought it was hilarious to make farting noises with their armpits, were agog.

Mel Brooks, 1984

Mel Brooks, 1984

Likewise, Irene’s appearance was, and remains, dramatic. Her late mother strongly resembled the actress Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), perhaps best known for her Academy Award–winning role as Annie Sullivan in the 1962 film the Miracle Worker. Bancroft was married for more than 40 years, until her death in 2005, to Mel Brooks, now 82. (1)

As Irene ages (she is nearing 62), she looks more and more as her mother did when I knew her — more glamorous, more Anne Bancroft-ish. For the past ten years or so — after decades of supporting herself, working hard at interesting jobs (she was, for example, the executive director of a ballet company) and learning, learning, learning (she studied under Robert Bly in Chicago) — Irene has lived almost entirely on disability income. She suffers agonies from spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. In terms of material possessions, she is quite poor — though she reverently keeps the family china from two generations — but poverty has never made her hard or bitter. It has, instead, fueled her imagination and called forth her creativity.

Gifts of the spirit

Irene's double cartouche, the ideal wedding, anniversary, or Valentine's gift

Irene's double cartouche, the ideal wedding, anniversary, or Valentine's gift

Irene has always been more independent than rebellious. Her spirituality is eclectic, embracing paganism, Wicca, and other fringe religious practices… but she never judges the religiosity of others, and she often prays fervently to “Whoever Is On Duty.”  She begins each day with a ritual of gratitude and a salute to the sun. Many years ago, she dramatically quitted the Presbyterian church she was attending when the pastor’s wife unceremoniously ejected a homeless man from the assembled congregation.

She knows more about Egyptology and pre-Christian Celtic religious practices than do many academics with doctoral degrees in folklore. She privately performs elaborate sacred rituals on the Celtic festival days:

  • Imbolc, celebrated on the eve of February 1st,… sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such … a spring festival. It was later Christianised as the feast of St Brigid….
  • Beltaine, held on the eve of May 1st., …devoted to the god Bel, and a common practise was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianised as the feast of St John the Baptist, and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it.
  • Lughnasadh, … in August, [which]… revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.
  • Samhain, held on October 31st, [marking]… the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and … similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans. It was Christianised as Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period. —Wikipedia, accessed January 31, 2009
Lunar-phase diagram donated to Wikipedia by "Minesweeper"

Lunar-phase diagram donated to Wikipedia by "Minesweeper"

In spite of the fact that she dances under the full moon and observes certain traditions associated with the new moon… and that she believes herself to be (half seriously, half with tongue in cheek) a latter-day priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis (or is it Bastet?), and carries forth the goddess’s legacy of protecting and sheltering cats… she is the farthest thing from a fanatic. She is in some ways vulnerable and in others impervious to the opinions of others, and she would be equally comfortable at Buckingham Palace, in an archaeological dig at the sites of the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, and at a roadside diner drinking coffee and munching on a cheese omelet.

Irene of the generous spirit

Irene's Isis print, signed and numbered, 11 x 17 inches; the original was done on real papyrus

Irene's Isis print, signed and numbered, 11 x 17 inches; the original was done on real papyrus

Irene is a vegetarian and an accomplished cook — chef might be the more accurate term — and she never comes to see me without a gift of food or the loan of a book. Her makeup is always perfect, her hair beautifully styled, and her clothing artistically accented with earrings or beads, or both. Her own home is approximately half of the second floor of a Queen Anne–style Victorian mansion, with a flank of long bay windows, doorways framed with intricately carved woodwork, and a stained-glass transom.

Her adopted cats live long, pampered lives, protected as they are by Irene and Isis (or, perhaps, Bastet). She (Irene — presumably Isis and Bastet as well) is patient; it took years, but she finally wore me down, in her gentle way, until I adopted two feral kittens, offspring of fecund mama Jezebel, whom Irene has never been able to trap in order to have her spayed. Irene speaks Cat fluently, to my shame, for I have not managed to pick up more than a few words of the language.

A Queen Anne–style Victorian house

A Queen Anne–style Victorian house

The yard of her mansion apartment is tiny, but Irene has found room for a small cat cemetery and for her summer fairy garden of herbs and flowers and stone pathways. She is an aficionado of meditation, visualization, and Tong Ren, and she is a healer by nature and experience.

I do not know if Irene has ever read Martin Buber’s I And Thou, but she relates to people in the way Martin Buber would have us do — as sacred, each and every one. As was often said about my late mother-in-law, she “never knew a stranger,” and she has instant rapport with everyone from the drive-through-coffee-shop personnel to the postal-service mail clerks and the other folks waiting for their prescriptions to be ready at the pharmacy.

Sweet basil from Irene's herb garden

Sweet basil from Irene's herb garden

Irene lives poetically about seven-eighths of the time. The lost eighth falls at the end of the month, when she has run out of money, in large part because of her excessive generosity. She is something of an adventurer and spent much of her life on the edge, marrying wildly unsuitable men, one of whom spent an entire night holding a gun to her head. She is far too intelligent and resourceful to have remained in these treacherous relationships, though they afforded her some interesting travel opportunities.

Thwarted

Among the top ten of My Most Embarrassing Experiences is the Incident of the Thwarted Escape Attempt. We were 19 or so, still living with our parents, and she had made plans to run off to meet one of the unsuitable men, who lived, I think, in Indiana. What was supposed to have happened is that I was to drive to her neighborhood and wait on a side street to the south of her house. Her parents left for work — they owned and operated a meat market — quite early, around 6:30, as I recall, and “always” turned north after reaching the end of the driveway, so I was, theoretically, in no danger of detection. As soon as they were out of sight, I was to pick Irene up and take her to the airport, where she would soar away to her assignation.

The view from the bay windows (photo by Mike Pedroncelli)

The view from the bay windows (photo by Mike Pedroncelli)

Unfortunately, her parents had detected her packed suitcase the night before and had prevented her from phoning me to warn me off. So there I was, at 6:30 a.m. on the designated side street, watching her parents back out of the driveway and turn… oops… southward. I scrunched down in the seat,  hoping to become invisible, but I heard their car pull up beside mine, and I heard her mother say, “Mary?” with a question mark in her voice. Well, there was nothing to do but pop back up into view, only to be scolded, berated, and forbidden ever to have anything to do with Irene again as long as I lived.

Fortunately, I did not obey. My life would be much the poorer without Irene and her charm, her grace, and her optimism, which sometimes flags but never fails.

___________

(1) Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky; June 28, 1926)… an American director, writer, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer, best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies. Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award. Three of his films (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein) ranked in the Top 20 on the American Film Institute‘s list of the Top 100 comedy films of all-time. —Wikipedia

Single cartouche with blessing

Single cartouche with blessing

The Sun Returns…

…and other metaphors of Christmastide

victorian_calendarsanta

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 22

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 1: Christmastide

At no time of the year — with the possible exception of Easter — are our activities more saturated with metaphor than at Christmastide. The –tide in Christmastide refers to “a time or season.” Technically, Christmastide is the Christian festival observed from December 24, Christmas Eve, to January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

It is no accident that ancient pagan customs are so tightly woven into Christian holidays. The missionaries who were called to “Christianize the heathens” believed, correctly, that Christianity would find greater acceptance if the converts were not required to shed all vestiges of the old religion.

Thus it happened that December 25 — coinciding roughly with the ancient Roman weeklong Saturnalia celebration and with other winter solstice feasts — was “selected” as the date of Jesus’ birth. The solstice occurs on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, between December 20 and December 23 in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 23 in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cultures throughout the world have, from prehistoric times, celebrated the winter solstice, when the “sun stands still”—that is, when the sun, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, appears to stop “moving southward” and returns to the north, bringing with it the promise of warmth and spring.

Winter was a dangerous season for our long-ago ancestors. Death claimed them more often in the winter, when they huddled in their meager shelters for warmth, and when there was no fresh meat or produce. And so they rejoiced when the longest night was past, and the sun stayed a bit longer each day, though the bitter cold remained.

NEWGRANGE

Newgrange today, aerial view

Newgrange today, aerial view

There are many prehistoric winter-solstice monuments into which the sun shines at dawn on the shortest day of the year and sometimes the days surrounding it, striking a particular spot in the monument and dramatically illuminating it. One of the most precise of these monuments, in terms of solar alignment, is the passage-tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.

Newgrange light passage entry, 1901

Newgrange sunlight passageway, 1901

Erected more than five thousand years ago, Newgrange is the oldest building in the world. It was once surrounded  by dozens of immense standing stones, of which just twelve remain. The structure itself, in addition to its connection with the solstice, was apparently a tomb and the center of a site where religious rituals and ceremonies took place. 
The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

Abandoned after a thousand years, Newgrange lay hidden for four millennia, until late-17th-century workmen found the entrance to what they believed was a cave. Excavation and restoration began in 1962. The restoration continues to be controversial; some consider the site overcommercialized, others feel that the new work is not in keeping with the period.

Nevertheless, seeing the sun’s first solstice rays striking the stone must be exhilarating indeed, even for jaded citizens of the twenty-first century. “In the bleak midwinter,” the life-giving sun signals a pledge to complete its circuit ‘round the sky and bring with it the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

Unlike the proto-Celtic peoples who worshiped at Newgrange, few of us today are wholly at the mercy of nature’s fickle temperament as we go about our daily lives. But when all is said and done, we are every bit as dependent upon the steady turning of the great solar wheel.

***

MRS. ARTHUR’S ANCIENT TALES

Some say it is a sin to practice pagan things at
Christmastide, and give each other presents, and be
festive much at all. But Mrs. Arthur, who is wise, lives
in a house that looks like gingerbread, with ivy growing
up the garden wall, and she believes that ancient
celebrations were the peasants’ or the common people’s
preparation to receive their own, the Baby Jesus, and
for all I know, she might have been there, Mrs. Arthur,
that’s how old she is.

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

We sit up in her attic room and listen to the wind
blow cold around the chimney, though we and
Mrs. Arthur’s pug, Sir Bedivere, are snug and warm,
while she knits or crochets and talks about the
days when Christmas mumming plays were practiced
in advance for weeks and weeks. “They had the time,
you see,” she says. “The grain was harvested, and
anyway, the solstice means ‘the sun stands still.’ There
was a man who played the Fool, and one was the Old
Hobby Horse, he wore a giant skirt in which to catch
the maids, of course. And someone’s killed and
resurrected in the mumming, for the earth is dead and
bare and so the mumming is a kind of prayer, a begging
to the sun to come and stay another year.

“And even now, upon St. Stephen’s Day, in Ireland and
Wales, grown men called ‘wren boys’ dress in straw or
some disguise and go from house to house, for
revelry—a merry time, no doubt, they have.”

Maenad

Maenad on Wheel of Life

She talks about the Yuletide and she doesn’t turn a
hair when telling of the sacrifice of goats and,
auld lang syne, of men, but mostly boars, and
that, she adds, is why we feast on Christmas ham.
“And what is Yule?” she asks, rhetorically (I’m not
supposed to answer). “It’s the wheel, of course,” she
says, as if I should have known; “just as the mummers
and the morris dancers mark the turning of the year;
likewise, the golden chariot and its path around the
earth. It disappears, the world goes dark and cold, and it
returns; but in the days of old, before the sacred birth,
before the Christ, the folk were never sure if they would
see the spring again. They feared that Death would come
for them, and so they wore the skins of goats and such,
and covered up their heads, and drank a great deal
too much wine, and hoped Death’s angel wouldn’t
recognize them when it was their time to go.

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

“Now, mistletoe—‘dung-on-a-twig’ it means in the
old Saxon tongue, because it grew where birds had
left their droppings on a branch—
has long been sacred, for it stays when all the autumn
leaves have fallen down and pranced away and would
be prancing still, except the snow comes, and the leaves
decay, and that’s what makes the garden bloom.”

Now Mrs. Arthur draws a breath and then resumes her
chattering, and I adore the stories and the soft and
secret voice she tells them in, as if it’s she and I alone who
are allowed to know the ancient tales.

Decorative mistletoe

Decorative mistletoe

“The mistletoe is
sacred as a symbol of fertility [she winked at me], and that
which grows upon the oak is the most mystical of all,
because it’s rare to find it there; it lives more commonly
on apple trees. The Druid priests believed it was the spirit
of the tree itself, and so they gathered it midwinter, as a
healing charm and life-giver, and at summer solstice so
the cattle and the flocks would flourish
and the crops would thrive.”

“And was it wrong of them?” I asked, just as I
always did, so she could say, “Oh, no. You see, it
was the only way they knew. And there is wisdom in
tradition and in ritual (though not in human sacrifice,
of course, but in the principle of giving to the
earth her own).”

And so, each year, we hang the mistletoe, suspended
from an oaken beam, and decorate a living Christmas
tree with lights and ornaments and candy canes, and
give each other presents that we’ve made, though hers
to me are thick and cozy sweaters, mine to her are
mittens with an extra thumb or some such thing.

At Christmas dinner there are nine. We thank the
Lord for nourishment, and then we drink a toast
with wine: “A Merry Christmas to you,” Mrs. Arthur
lifts her glass. “To you as well,” we chorus, and we
lift our glasses also. “Tell the gospel,” she says, and
we echo, “Tell the gospel. Tell the people that they
are made new today, and always, by the grace of
God.” She smiles and nods then, and we say,
as one, “Amen.”

 

* * *

THE HOLLY AND THE IVY

The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown

Refrain

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet savior

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
on Christmas Day in the morn

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all

Historians believe that the first stanza — the only one that mentions ivy — is based on another song — traced back to the 12th century but probably much older — in which holly represents men and ivy represents women. Deer are also mentioned in the older song, called “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy.” Here is one version of a stanza from that song, which clearly comes down on the side of the men:

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

In another ancient song, “Ivy, Chief of Trees,” however, the ivy prevails.

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

Sister Alma Rose drinks holly tea, but she won’t let me
have any. “Don’t even think about it, dear,” she says.
“Don’t even touch. It’s poison if y’all take too much,
but such a feast for birds,” she says. “I heard about a
boy bit off a piece; the leaf, it cut his lips to shreds.
A wonder that he isn’t dead,” she says, and sips her
brew contentedly. (I disobeyed and had a taste; I
won’t make that mistake again.)

Yule log

Yule log

“Holly frightens witches, too, and goblins, some believe,”
says she, “and it protects the house from lightning, and
a holly switch is good for bees. In ancient Rome, it was
the sacred plant of Saturn, pagan god of farm and harvest.
Secret Christians decked their homes with holly during
Saturnalia in December, Saturn’s time of celebration,
for it wasn’t safe to be a Christian then, you see.
Some people still put holly on the bedpost as protection
from disease and, too, to bring them pleasant dreams.

“And the Druids, centuries ago, they treasured holly
(for it blossomed even in the snow), and wore it when
they went to cut the sacred mistletoe. And nowadays
we bring all kind of greenery inside at Christmastide,
as in the times of old, to signify the things that never die,
despite the winter’s dark and cold.”

* * *

Wassailing

Wassailing

WASSAILING

Have you ever wondered why, at Christmastime, we go “a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? The word wassail is akin to Old English “be healthy,” but originally wassailers drank to the health of apple trees (and other vegetation, as well as livestock), not necessarily to each other. The custom of “apple wassailing” involved pouring spiced hard cider, or placing cider-soaked bread, on the roots of the trees “for their health.” Of course, there was always enough wassail to quench the thirst of the revelers as well.

In medieval Europe, the lord of the manor traditionally opened his home to his serfs, serving food and wassail as a gesture of goodwill and as reassurance that he would protect them from harm, as was his obligation.

* * *

TOMTE: THE CHRISTMAS GNOME

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte  (Swedish) or nisse (Danish) is a delightful creature of Norse pagan origin—a gnome (or brownie—it all depends on whom you ask) who protected a farmer’s home and children, especially at night. The word tomte comes from the Swedish tomt,  a farmstead.

Gnomes have been distributing Christmas presents since the 1500s, you see, but the people had forgotten until the folklore revival of the 1800s. All of Scandinavia recalled then that the Christmas gnome  (Danish julenisse, Swedish jultomte) brought gifts at Christmastime. An 1881 issue of the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning featured the first published painting by Jenny Nystrom, who linked the Swedish Santa Claus with the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Nystrom’s tomte was jolly, white-bearded, and red-capped, though not exceedingly plump.

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

The appearance of goats in Nystrom’s artwork also draws from ancient Scandinavian lore. Long ago, people disguised in goatskins knocked on their neighbors’ doors as a sort of practical joke. (One assumes that the skins had been dried, cleaned, and de-loused.) Goats pulled the god Thor’s chariot, you know, and masquerading at holiday times is a tradition older than history. It survives at Christmastime in morris dances and mumming plays.

Well—before the gnomes arrived in Sweden, Christmas presents were delivered by goats. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, for the goat; and when gnomes began to dwell in Sweden, the goats quite understandably sought their help. With goats pulling gnome-built sleds piled with gifts, the task became a joyful one indeed.

Assignment 22.1

Describe in a brief essay (about 250 words) the predominant metaphors of pre-Christian winter-solstice celebrations and customs, and the way these metaphors correlate with traditional Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)