We’re in the depths of the hustle-and-bustle winter holiday season, and traditions abound this time of year. What are the roots of these traditions and how can they guide us in feeling grateful for the place in which we live?
Holy Days & Rituals
Holidays or ‘holy-days’ are a time of ritual, whether your perspective is religious, spiritual, or agnostic. We seamlessly mix together traditions like baby Jesus and Santa Claus without wondering why or how they came to be simultaneously celebrated. Repeating ritual is comforting and gives us a sense of our place in time.
And still, some people just like to shop!
Feasts & Winter
The winter holiday season begins at the time of Thanksgiving and carries through the winter to what American’s have designated as Groundhog’s Day. The series of holidays within this time period have roots in ancient traditions of the northern hemisphere, carryovers from the old world.
Thanksgiving kicks off the winter season, but the feast has roots as an ancient harvest feast. It celebrates the abundance of the year’s growing season and looks to the long winter ahead with faith there will be enough to eat.
The winter feast season peaks at the time of the winter solstice (December 21st), when the sun is at the lowest point in the sky.
Note that the modern calendar calls the winter solstice the first day of winter, but if we follow the cycle of the sun, it’s actually the middle of winter, thus the old English reference to the winter solstice as “midwinter”. Winter solstice is the halfway point between the fall and spring equinoxes.
Christmas traditions have deeper roots as well, a conglomeration of practices from many ancient northern hemisphere cultures that were assimilated into Christian ritual over a long period of Roman conquest.
Ancestors of the past may have celebrated the birth of Jesus, but they also celebrated a successful harvest season and the abundance of the earth that kept them fed through the long, harsh winter. It was a season to be grateful for the land, sun, water, animals, and soil.
No matter what your preferred historical perspective is, it’s a time to gear-up for the coldest part of winter ahead. Celebrations keep the mood optimistic and focused on what is abundant – support of family, friends, and community, even if food may be scarce.
In the U.S. this is a silly holiday about a groundhog seeing his shadow. This idea hails from northern Europe, as do other traditions that observe February 2nd. Whether you call it Imbolc or Candlemas, February 2nd is the first day of spring according to the cycle of the sun.
It’s the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, which is certainly something to celebrate, even if the cold weather isn’t over. The light is returning and it gives hope that green things will grow again soon.
Celebrate That Which Sustains Us
In modern times, as we’ve drifted from the practice of sustaining ourselves from our own land, we’ve also gotten away from gratitude in its pure form. We forget that we depend on the earth to keep the lights on and the heat pumping in our house.
Since food comes from a grocery store, it’s easy forget how important the rays of the sun are to our sustenance. In times past, simply opening a spigot wouldn’t bring fresh, clean, abundant, water at just the preferred temperature and desired pressure of the moment.
Access to food, clean water, and warmth are a few of the things that the original traditions celebrated and for which ancestors prayed and demonstrated gratitude.
Being intimately dependent on your immediate environment for survival would make you pretty grateful to that place for keeping you alive in the depths of winter when game was scarce and the crops dormant.
How well do you know your place?
‘Tis the season to acknowledge all the ways the earth in this place (wherever you are) keeps us alive through such harsh physical conditions. The following quiz was given to me at a conference several years ago. I wish I knew the original source, but like many of our holiday traditions, I’m left with this remnant of a deeper story.
Quiz: Are you “Place Literate”?
Where does your water come from before it gets to your tap?
Where does the water go after it goes down the drain?
Where does your food come from before it gets to the grocery store? How far has it come? What’s in it?
What’s in the air you breathe, both inside and outside your house?
Where does your electricity come from?
When you throw garbage away, where is ‘away’?
What kinds of trees grow in your yard, on your street, along the roadsides, or in the woods? Can you identify ten of them?
Can you identify ten common birds that live where you do? Which ones are there year round? Which ones migrate in the winter? Where do they go?
What wildflowers are common in your area? Can you identify ten of them? Can you identify the season in which they bloom?
What mammals live here now in the forests and fields? What mammals once lived here but are now gone?
Can you identify ten butterflies and insects that live here? Do you know about their lives?
How many days until the moon is full? Where does the moon rise and set?
What geologic events happened here long ago that left records in rocks and the earth itself?
Based on the quiz, I have an amateur literacy of my place. Even for a homesteader, I spend too much time inside, disconnected from my environment. I wouldn’t stand a chance for survival without the comfort of my artificially heated home, without the running water, without garbage service, without the grocery store, etc. Though I can identify plants, trees, insects, and wildlife pretty well in my area.
How did you do? If you’re like me, you have a ways to go before being able to say that you know your place well- that you are “place literate”.
To feel humbly dependent on a place, like our ancestors of any culture, creates an entirely different give-and-take relationship: we wouldn’t hurt that on which we depend for survival.
The Quality of the Land we Keep
I believe there would be fewer lawns and more gardens if we realized that our true wealth is in relationship with our place. The current arrangement is a ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ kind of deal. We keep our sterile, immaculate lawns, meanwhile we allow other lands to be destroyed to provide us three meals a day at bargain prices.
If we depended on our own land for survival, we would become caretakers of it (and save a lot of money!). Providing for ourselves would be less about the number of dollars made, and more about the quality of the land we keep.
In the new year, I aim to be more observant of the trees, birds, wildflowers, and insects that cross my path. I aim to observe them, identify them, learn more about their life cycles, and their behaviors and needs, so that I can lessen the divide that modern conveniences have created between myself and the environment of my own place. I want to remember – often – an appropriate amount of gratitude.
For now, I’ll enjoy thinking about my place in time and all of the ancient traditions that have mixed together to be the winter holiday season that I celebrate today. It reminds me how important it is to treat my land well and be grateful for what it provides me.
Do you feel rooted this time of year? What are you grateful for?