Yuletide Eve

Tomorrow is Yule. We finally have everything together. I have accidentally baked five pies (I was trying to make 3), and we have two young rabbits in a marinade in the fridge. Two chickens have mostly defrosted in our sink and are ready to have citrus juice poured over them for tomorrow.

The portabello mushrooms have been selected, ready to receive their cashew and chickpea stuffing. Tomatoes have been purchased for the tops.

The sun breads have been baked. Two normal breads, one sweet. The chickens eggs have been stockpiled for the ‘nog. We drink raw eggnog on yule made with eggs from our chickens.

A crate of beer is sitting in the living room. An extra table has been brought in. The presents are wrapped and under the tree.

The most important part, the Yule log, is outside. It’s sitting, suspended off the ground so it stays dry, in the middle of a Goddess spiral. This year Dan will be joining me for my prayers, which will be a little odd. I’ve never had someone to pray with me before. I hope I can remember the lines properly.

At dawn we bless the log. The Yule log is an old tradition with a lot of variations. Many Wiccans for example rely more on the symobology of the log and often burn candles in a log that’s been decorated with objects from nature, or use it as a decoration rather than burn an actual log. One old Nordic variation on the tradition is to cut down the biggest tree in the forest, and burn the entire tree in a bonfire for 12 or 13 days and nights.

But the Yule log has some rules that go with it.

First, the log must be collected from your own or public land, or given freely from someone elses. You may not buy, trade or exchange work for your log. It must be obtained freely and without debt paid or unpaid.

Different kinds of wood have different kinds of symbology attached to them. Ash is considered an old wood, used for protection, strength, good health and visions for the future. That’s our log this year.
This Page has a pretty good list of sacred trees and their meanings. Here are two other links to more comprehensive lists. Some heathen faiths recognize many trees as having sacred properties, but some other only hold a few in esteem. We’re more inbetween.

The log should be blessed. I do this at dawn on the day of the Solstice (the 21st). First, there is a cleansing of the air of evil spirits by burning sacred herbs or incense. Usually this is sage. (This will be awkward because Dan is allergic. Because of this I have to give him permission to enter the circle after it’s cleansed.) We call on Gaia, mother earth, The Goddess, mother of all things, whatever incarnation of her that you prefer, as well as the four directions and their elements to bless our log and guard our circle. Then we make a statement of intention, why you’re there that day (to bless the yule log), what you hope the outcome will be (letting go of the old year, welcoming in a positive new year), and a humble request to the spirits that you choose to invoke that they help those things happen. Then we say prayers, asking specific spirits and ancestors to also bless our log. We reflect on the old year and let it be cleansed from us. then we close the circle. There are candles and incense involved as well.

The log (or candles on the log) need to be lit with the remnants of last year’s log (or candle) signifying the old year giving birth to the new year.

As the log burns, we make wishes for the new year by writing them on a scrap of paper and burning them over the flames. (People who celebrate with candles often burn the wishes in a small brass bowl after passing them through all three candle flames.) The wishes have their own sets of rules. They must be practical, not fantastic, in nature. (Wishing for a million dollars is not OK, but wishing for a new well-paying job would be.) They must not manipulate others. (Wishing that your boss would promote you would not be OK, but wishing to do well enough to earn the promotion yourself is.) They must be ethically sound (wishing harm on others is a big no-no) and positive (Wishing something to happen to you is better than wishing something wouldn’t happen). In general, making a thoughtful and ethical wish is the way to go. Also, spirits are NOT fond of being sucked up to, so if you are disingenuous to earn their favor it will backfire.  Only wish for well upon spirits or other people if you really, truly mean it. It’s OK to make a wish for yourself!

Then the log needs to be burned from night, through to dawn… Either by burning the actual log all night long or letting the candles burn all night. The longer it burns, the better. If it stays lit until dawn it’s considered a very good omen. (Or for all 13 days if you want to cut down a whole tree!)

The Yule Log ceremony is accompanied by all manor of frivolity, exchanging gifts, drinking, feasting, and friendship. Being generous to friends, family, and to the poor in exchange for good blessings and carols are BIG parts of the tradition. The goal is to make the day seem so festive that the sun longs to return to earth. We also decorate with lights, candles and suns, evergreens and other signs of life and light, to remind the sun of what the world looks like when the sun shines on our land.

I know that this holiday means a lot to me. It’s one little part of my heritage that I claim for myself. Yule is a pagan tradition, but a nearly identical celebration is held by the Native Americans as well. In our household when I was a kid we celebrated the quintessential American Christmas. While paganism wasn’t forbidden by any means, it wasn’t what we celebrated. We went to midnight mass, we had a nativity scene cobbled together from several sets, we hung tinsel and angels on the tree. Now that I live alone I absolutely revel in the opportunity to celebrate Yule every year. We go all out for it.

After Yule I go on vacation. I’m looking forward to burning this year away with our log and starting next year off with a fun, happy, relaxed mindset.

Happy Yule everyone! I hope your holidays are great and your plants and animals grow well for you this year! I’ll see you all in the new year!

A Yule Prep Poem

Twas the week before Yule and all through the house
Every creature was stirring, even in the henhouse.
The stocking were hung o’er the chimney with care
In hopes they’d look nice when the guests were all there.

Only the dogs were nestled snug in their beds
While visions of raccoons danced in their heads
While Dan shook rugs outside with a flap,
We were all super busy, no time for a nap!

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
The dogs ran to the window to see what was the matter.
Scrambling about they barked and they bayed,
It was just UPS with stuff for which we had paid.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But the man who I had lived with all through the year!

Removing his coat, so lively and quick,
He took off his boots so the floor wouldn’t be slick.
The chores had built up, and home from work he had came,
He told me to list them all out by name.

“The bathroom. The hallways. The tables and kitchen. The basement, the couches, the windows and cookin’
From the floors and baseboards to the top of the walls. We have to clean it up, clean it up, clean it up, ALL!”

I was so happy to have help, I felt I could fly,
I was grateful for housemates who’d work while the moon’s in the sky.
So through some rooms of the house they flew,
cleaning the games shelf, and the basement too.

And with the spare time I was able to cook,
Following recipes from an old book.
The house would be full when the guests came around,
Some of them may even be from out of town.

We baked loaves of bread that were nearly a foot,
We swept out the fireplace of all it’s soot.
We did dishes and scrubbed despite our sore backs,
We tucked travel gear away into packs.

We had to be ready for the night of the faeries,
We even made pies, some out of berries.
We found some old things, lost arrows and bows,
It froze cold outside and continued to snow.

Despite all the work, we gritted our teeth,
We even found time to hang up the wreath!
We washed the dogs cause they were quite smelly,
And wrapped up our gifts, some jars full of jelly.

We tidied up games, put cards on the shelf,
I cooked us some dinner though I was tired, myself.
Laundry was done, and clothing stitched up with thread,
The fridge even got cleaned, though it was something to dread.

We spent days on it, it was tons of work.
And at times, though we acted like jerks,
We got it all done, as outside it froze.
By the end we ached from our head to our toes.

And even though it caused us to bristle,
We even made it outside to cut down dead thistles.
And finally we slept, our house shining and bright.
And we wished each other a happy Yule, and goodnight!

Home-made Holiday Gifts; Wood ornaments

Every year we try to make holiday presents for Yule. This year is no different. This year I borrowed a wood burning kit from my sister to use for making these;

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These ornaments or keychains (or however you want to use them) are extremely easy to make. You simply use a saw (I used my circular saw) to cut slices of a stick. Then you drill a tiny hole in the top, and burn in your design. When you’re done, slip a ribbon through, add and secure a wood bead (if you like) and tie it closed.

You can see several different designs here. A star and a snowflake are simple and generic but they get more customized than that. One is a paintbrush and pencil crossed for an artist friend. One is a computer screen with YULE written on it in binary code for a friend who is a programmer. A third is an ornate cross and has a crown of thorns on the other side for a friend who is deeply Catholic (but celebrates my heathen holidays with me anyhow). There’ll be many more by the time I’m done. We usually have around 20-25 people over for Yule and each one receives a gift of some sort as a spiritual requirement for the holiday. That adds up, even if you only spend $10 per person. So we try to aim for home-made gifts as a frugal but thoughtful alternative. Plus it’s very in-tune with both the natural focus of the holiday and our desire to re-use and upcycle common items.

Here’s a step by step of how to make these neat little ornaments.

You’ll need…

  • A relatively smooth, straight and evenly round stick or small log of appropriate size
  • A saw of some sort to make clean cuts in the wood
  • A drill with a very small drill bit
  • A pencil
  • A scarp of thin cardboard with a straight edge
  • Sandpaper
  • A wood burning kit (These run from $25-$50 depending on what you get)
  • Ribbon, string or wire for the loops
  • Beads or other stringable decorations (optional)
  • Tung oil or other wood finisher (optional)

First, find a stick that you want to use that’s straight and smooth.

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Some notes about the kind of stick you should use. The wood type isn’t really as relevant as the literal shape of the stick. You want to pick a stick that has a fairly consistent width and is as straight as possible with very few knots and knobs. Make sure it’s long enough to cut enough discs of the sizes you’d like with enough extra to hold safely while you’re cutting. You also need a stick that is VERY dry and has been stored indoors for some months. A wood that’s very dark in color will have less contrast then a wood that’s very light, especially if you choose to oil it.

Next, pick a consistent width for your tokens and mark off one disc of wood. Cut and repeat until you have as many as you want to make. You can wing this but if consistency matters to you it pays to mark and cut carefully.

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Inconsistent cutting because I winged these means wild angles and different widths.

Next, put your drill to work making a small hole in the top of each one. Be careful about your angles. If your drill goes between the wood and the bark, the bark will probably peel away.

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Note the red staining on the lower disc on the right. That came from the blade of the circular saw. It’s just a surface scuff and will be sanded off later.

Bring your discs to a flat work surface and start to sand them. Sand both sides and lightly sand the bark edge as well. This makes the surfaces smooth and clean and nice to handle. it’ll also keep the wood from flaking. If you cut a piece wildly uneven (like I did), you can use the sandpaper to help even those out. Don’t over-sand the bark edges. You’re just trying to rub away some roughness, not take off layers of the bark. The whole piece of wood should feel almost soft.

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Now you’re ready to burn in some patterns. You’ll need a good wood burning kit. Choose a simple round pointed tip and set up your wood burner. I was using a Walnut Hollow kit, but there was a serious problem with it. The cord is extremely short, and it pulled itself off of the table onto the floor. One of the nibs broke and it snapped off inside of it. I have yet to restore the functionality of this wood burner. I had a backup, but in general, be very careful not to make my mistake.

A wood burner is just a hot metal pen, so you can draw anything with it if you’re careful. I did lots of designs, you can get extremely creative. I did a bear, a cat, a fox, a computer, a cross, theater masks, stars, etc. Just draw it out with a pencil first and then burn it in… But right now I will be showing you how to burn in a simple but pretty snowflake.

First, burn the ends of the hole open so they are clean and easy to work with. Then line up your straight bit of cardboard in the middle of the wood disc, across the hole to the bottom. I used a torn off tab from a box of cookies. Anything is fine as long as it’s straight and disposable.

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Burn a straight line from top to bottom, then do the same thing at a 90* angle so you have a big cross in the middle. At 45* angles from that, still using your straight edge, burn an X shape that’s about half the length inside it.

Next, you simply start filling it out with the crystal structure. Whatever you do on one long line, do the same thing to all the others. They can be straight lines or at angles pointing outward or even X shapes, so long as they are symmetrical across all the long lines. On this one I went for pointed angles on the long branches, and then pointed angles on the ends of the short branches, with straight lines under it. A good rule of thumb is two branches on each line.

I filled up some of the extra space with a moon and some stars. Stars generally have five points so a simple round, pointed nib can make a fuzzy star shape by simply burning five equally spaced points as tightly together as you can.

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At this point, I oiled all of the pieces I was doing. I used some tung oil that I had sitting around and an old scrap of towel to apply it. When you apply an oil like tung oil to the wood, it will dramatically change the base color of the wood. It will make it dark and rich, but it will also reduce the contrast. You may want to go over your wood burn again to make sure it comes out dark enough.

When you are done oiling you may find some of the edges of the wood are a little flaky, especially if you have a large grain sandpaper. That’s OK. Just use the side of your wood burning pen to burn those edges down flat.

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You can see what the oil looks like on these various patterns as well, and you may notice some flaking on the edges. Note that the very center of the wood may absorb the oil differently than the rest of the wood disc. If this is very bothersome, gently and quickly burn over just the center to darken it just a bit.

Now I’ll show you how I attached the bead. Start by deciding how low you want the ornament to hang, then double it (because the ribbon will be a loop). Then add an inch or two depending on the size of bead you’re using, and another couple inches for the knot on the top. These were a larger sized set of beads so about 2 inches would be right. I just guessed at a ribbon length, personally. Cut your ribbon and run it through the hole. You may have to fold it or use a needle threader or some such to make it go through if the hole is very small like mine were. String your bead over both ends of the ribbon.

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Part the ends of the ribbon down over the top of the bead, then bring them up through the bottom of the bead again one at a time so they form loops on opposite sides. Then simply tighten the loops with the beads close to the wood disc and it will hold very securely. Tie a knot at the top and you’re done!

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Let them sit for a time to absorb the oils, but at this point your gift is done. Cute, pretty and simple. Possibly most importantly, nearly free (if you don’t completely break your wood burning tool in the process).

I hope you enjoy crafting these!

 

BUT WAIT!

What if you make a mistake!?

If it’s a deep enough burn, you should probably just start over with a new disc. I mean, these are made out of sticks from your wood pile, after all. But if you have a light burn or don’t want to make a new disc you can actually just sand the burns out. It may take a while to actually get through the burn marks, but any blemishes on the surface of the wood can simply be sanded out with a little elbow grease and then re-oiled.

Happy crafting, friends! Until next time!

Yuletide Greetings

Hello! With the advent of December (if you’ll excuse the pun) my mind starts planning out my annual winter celebrations. In our household we celebrate Yule, a pagan and Wiccan tradition and one of about a dozen major religious winter celebrations in the US.

Yule is a really fun holiday, that was subject to heavy Christianization into the celebration we know today as Christmas. Many of the traditions were lost in the process and are hard to understand.  A lot of the history of this celebration has been lost to the ages and is slowly being pieced back together.

Modern celebrations have a few big elements in common with historical accounts of the celebration. The first being the purpose of the Yule celebration. Yule celebrates the spiritual embodiment of the Sun. Yule takes place on the shortest night of the year, and is a celebration designed to be so festive, happy, joyous and bright that it reminds the Sun itself of how wonderful the earth is, and begins the cycle of days getting longer again. This deep connection to the sun is intrinsic to ancient pagan celebrations of Yule, regardless of the specific faith that was celebrating it. In those times, celebrations were shared across cultures and many sects celebrated the same holy days in similar ways, just worshiping different gods. Because of this, nearly every major religion has a winter festival of lights, and it was this celebration that layed the foundation for Christmas as we know it.
The other thing these modern celebrations have in common with ancient ones are many of the broader traditions and symbology for the celebration. Filling the home with lights (in those days, specifically it was candles), and bringing a tree indoors to decorate with candles was meant to make the world bright and inviting and also depict the sun. The exchange of gifts and a grand feast was meant to make the season joyous and festive. Decking halls with boughs of holly, mistletoe and pines were a reminder of the beautiful green growth of spring. Wassailing was singing door to door, which evolved into caroling, but also was an exchange of song and alcohol from the poor for gifts and food from the rich. Usually, the poor also offered blessings to the rich if they received their gifts, and curses if they didn’t. This history lives on in some Christmas carols, such as “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and it’s references to carolers demanding a figgy pudding.

We celebrate Yule with these traditions in mind, and conveniently that’s pretty easy since most Christmas traditions are based off of old Germanic Yule traditions. We put up an evergreen tree (a fake one from my sister) and decorate it with baubles, ornaments, and lights. We hang wreaths of evergreens (Ok… They’re plastic too) over our bay windows, and put lights on the walls.
We also throw a big party on the 21st. This is my equivalent of Christmas, both eve and day, all wrapped into one. We invite a multitude of friends and family over to celebrate, 20 or so of our closest companions. At dawn I wake up to bless the Yule log (another old tradition we have a variation of) which is a massive chunk of wood. After that I spend the day prepping for the party. We enjoy a huge feast, an exchange of gifts, drinks, and a ceremony where we burn wishes for the new year over the blessed log in our fireplace, asking the spirits of the world to grant them to us.

Because of the nature of the celebration, it requires a lot of advance planning and a lot of resources. Like much of America these days, cash is in shorter supply than time, so we DIY many of our gifts. In the past we have given out trays of home-baked goods, home-made candies (including these really great caramels I made), some mushroom jars I made once, apple butter, etc.

Once again we will be giving out apple butter this year (we ended up making 3 gallons of it this year, after-all), but we’re adding some other home-made gifts to the list as well. This year we managed to make 13 half pints of home-made salsa, much of which will become gifts. There are other gifts we plant on making to give away that I will hopefully be detailing throughout the month.

We are also planning our feast and exploring options for our Yule dinner. This year we have two small(er) chickens we were planning on roasting, a pair of rabbits, and chickpea stuffed portabellas with pecans and carrots (for our vegetarian friends), roast veggies, stuffing, and deserts. But specifics are undetermined yet (beyond the vegetarian meal. We don’t eat holiday-worthy vegetarian meals often, so we pick recipes for that dish from the internet). Over the summer we made a Jamaican jerk chicken that was a big hit… Should we make that again? Should we go for something classic, loaded with sage and onions? Should we do a nice citrus pair of birds? Should the carrots be sweet or savory? The mashed potatoes plain and smooth, or lumpy and garlic filled like 2 Chainz famous mash? (We had those potatoes for Thanksgiving by the way, and they were excellent!)

There’s a lot of options but one things for certain, as the ability to leave the house recedes into freezing temperatures we’ll have more time to make those choices.

Do you have a favorite holiday dish? Share it with me! Yule is primarily about community and joy in literally dark times. I’d love to add a bit of your community and joy into mine!

Solstice Morning

7AM and my alarm goes off. There’s no rising before dawn naturally in a modern house, the sort in which we still live. Today I will be burning the candle at both ends, as it were, to keep my yule fire burning as late as possible. The dogs give me scornful looks as I slip out of bed. “What are you doing getting up?”, they say with their accusing eyes. “You’re interrupting our sleep! Go back to bed. The lights aren’t even on yet. Silly human.” Dogs simply don’t concern themselves with such things. Soon their stares were replaced with drifitng glazed eyes and twitching paws, chasing squirrels in their dreams.
The world is still dark but the snow, now a few days old, reflects every light, bouncing it around to give the whole neighborhood that early morning winter haze that makes seeing quite easy if one moves slow. And, in truth, it’s not as dark as it was just 10 minutes earlier. The first hints of color are just starting to appear on the horizon. The weatherman said that dawn would be at 7:15AM this morning, so at 7:05 I trundle off in my warmest pajama and gather my things. As the light went on in the garage, the rabbits eyes me with bleary eyes. I was never out at this time of day… What on earth was I doing up? “Go backto bed, silly human.” the rabbits told me as the shuffled in their boxes and nests, trying to stay in a nice, dark space. Dark makes rabbits feel safer, and more at home.
Tradition is such an important part of homesteading. Everything we do is seeped in it, and Yule most of all. Yule is one of the oldest holidays, the sort from which all the other ones stem. Trees, hats, carols, yule fires, gift giving, and even holiday lights came from this ancient celebration to welcome the sun. But the morning before ceremony is still all of it’s own. After assembling my candle, matches, sage stick, and saw (all waiting for me from the night before) I let the chickens outside. I couldn’t imagine a ceremony about nature and mother earth with my animals locked away in their coop. As they stepped outside and stretched their wings, I lit my candle. As the first bits of sun peaked the horizon behind our overcast skies, my rooster crowed. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate sound for the moment, loud, joyful, welcoming the sun. My sage was lit and burned, warding off bad spirits. Then everything fell silent. The wild birds were nowhere to be found and even the rabbits stopped their snuffling and held still. As if the world held it’s breath for a moment while I said my prayers.
I evoked the native American tradition of calling upon the spirits of the four directions and welcoming them to my ceremony, to offer their blessings. My great, great, great grandmother on my mom’s side was native american, but hid her heritage from everyone she could, as the time she lived was one where “injuns” were still persecuted with the harshest of racism. We have little ability to locaate the original tribe from which we came, but the culture has always resonated with me and their prayers are some of the finest in the world, coming from the soul rather than a rote passage.
Starting with the East, the direction I was facing, I welcomed the sunrise, life, and blessings into my home. To the south I welcomed summer, warmth, passion and glory. To the west I welcomed the sunset, wisdom, logic, thoughtfulness and introspection. And to the north I welcomed the winter, the strength to endure, to grow an (in the end) to be at peace.

I selected a log from my log pile as the birds resumed their morning racket. We have no trees to cut, so a precut log was my only option. Never purchased, but rather, a gift from the tree companies working on my street. A big log for our fireplace, a full foot across…. But somehow just the right length, and made of oak. I placed it on my haybale, with the candle just below and my saw in hand. I decided I would try to trim the edges, I took off the small branches coming out of it, and realized that the oak was so thick and heavy it would be very difficult to cut through the whole log… Even with my electric saw. Instead I cut a thick notch into the outer layers of the log and drilled a hole. This will be filled with alcohol and oil to help start the log burning the night. The cuts are ceremonial in nature anyhow, and it seemed that the universe had already gifted me the perfect yule log without my having to worry about it.
The world went quiet again as I picked up my candle and poured some wax over the log and asked the spirits for their blessings. I invited any other benevolent spirits to share their wisdom and kindness with us as the sky grew more and more day. I re-lit my sage, and began to cleanse the air again. I thanked the benevolent spirits for what they may bring, and asked with much politeness and respect that the bad ones avoid our home, and to only give us as much challenge as we could handle.
Then I said goodbye to the spirits of the four directions. I thanked them for their joys and strength that they brought our home each year, and wished peace upon them, sending them on their way, perhaps to another solstice log blessing somewhere else in the world.
By this point, the dawn sky had almost left us, replacing blues and husky greys with shimmering whites and bright light. I lifted up my log on one shoulder, and carried it inside to the hearth, as my rooster let out his last bevy of crows for the morning. He’s such a respectful bird, and never crows in the late morning, only at dawn. The hens resumed cackling and the rabbits began digging in their hay. Soon it would be time to get chores started, making sure everyone had food and water and clean cages… Everything was starting to sound busy again. But for the time it took the sun to rise everything was quiet, peaceful, magical. I was alone in an amazing world where even the animals respected the gravity of the moment. What a wonderful experience.
Good morning bloggers. Today I also sold one of my rabbits, one of Kibbles babies. We have a few new rex rabbits in the barn and so Kibbles can now have purebred rex kits, her first litter of them now being about 10 weeks. The smaller black otter buck went to a pet home for the holidays, somewhat unusual given my usual customers, but the man purchasing it seemed very eager to learn about the best rabbit care options…And every pet has to come from somewhere.
Tonight is my yule celebration. We’ll eat a roast duck, sing songs, wear Christmas hats and exchange some gifts. We’ll light the yule log and wish for the sun to come back into the world. It’s going to be here for such a short time today, and it will be such a long night after it leaves. The longest of the year.
I hope you have a happy Yule this year, regardless of what holiday you celebrate. I hope that today is a joyful day.