Thursday, December 25, 2008

“Peace on Earth, good-will to men!”

"I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!" 

-   Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What an impossible message. The hope of peace and good-will that echoes down through the centuries at this time of year is an aching one. If peace and good-will is what we all want, why is human-kind so horrible at this peace thing? It would seem that we love war more than peace because we spend so much time making it. We excel at hurting each other. As I write this Christmas day, there are dozens of armed conflicts going on all around the world. Why can't we all just get along?

Leave it to the Scandinavians to try, at least at Christmas, to enforce the peace. A remarkable, five hundred years old tradition continues to this day in Sweden and Finland. At noon on Christmas Eve, in the public squares of towns throughout both countries, a declaration is read out loud in the text of the middle ages. It's premise is simple: the twelve days of Christmas are to be a time of civil peace by law. In olden days, a person committing crimes during this time was liable to a more stiff sentence than normal. While the Vikings were long gone, I guess the villagers liked to carouse a bit more than was wise during the extended holiday period and what with all that Wassail flowing, some people forgot themselves. The nudge to seek peace is universal. The hope of mankind is that we can all learn, someday, to live together.

Today marks the first of the twelve days of Christmas; a season to give and receive good will, to spend time with family and friends, sharing in the light that has come to the world. Today my immediate family celebrates, aware that this is the last year before our family structure changes and our traditions will adjust as well. And I celebrate this first day of Christmas with a candle of gratitude in my window in memory of the kind and loving Mother I lost this year and my Father who passed to the light nearly four years ago. I am blessed to know personally the truth of these words:

“The best Christmas gift of all is the presence of a happy family all wrapped up with one another. “

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"A yule fog fills the sky--Yuletide. "

"A yule fog fills the sky--Yuletide. "
-Michael P. Garofalo, Cuttings

"The Winter Solstice, arrived at sunset tonight in the Northern hemisphere. The word winter solstice derives from Latin, meaning Sun set still in winter. Northern peoples called it "Yule”, (Yule Lore ) when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half.

Depending upon your attitude, you can think of the solstice occurring either on the shortest day or the longest night of the year. It's a great metaphor for life. Some see life as half full and a golden gift. Others live as if it more than half empty and drearily dark. I choose to think of this day as one of light. Starting tomorrow morning at sunrise, the sun climbs just a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky each day.

For we modern day humans, this night is dark and cold, only until we turn on a light or turn up the furnace. But the mystical nature of the solstice has been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since neolithic times. The layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archeological sites like Stonehenge and New Grange in the British Isles attest to the importance of this moment; the primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been aligned on a sight-line framing the winter solstice sunrise (New Grange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge).

The winter solstice was critically important because ancient communities had to prepare carefully to assure that they would live through the winter. Starvation was common between January to April, called the famine months. The midwinter festival was the last feast before deep winter began. There was feasting because most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. It was nearly the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available because food preservation was so difficult. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The celebrations usually began, not at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous evening.

Coinciding this year with Solstice, sundown today marked the beginning of Hannukkah, the “Festival of Light” for my many Jewish friends. I think perhaps that this celebration while not as old as the Yule of my ancestors, is more important than most who call themselves Christians, realize. Because frankly, there would not be a Christian religion if it were not for the Jewish religion. And there might not have been a Jewish religion were it not for the Macabees.

Hannukkah celebrates the 165 B.C. miracle of oil for the temple menorah lamps when the short supply of oil lasted many days past when it should have given out after one day. At the time, the Jewish religion was outlawed by the Greek empire, which preceded the Roman empire. But the Jewish Macabees refused to obey. They lit the lamps. The lamps burned for eight days. And the Jewish religion and it's people survived.

Today it's dark. But think about the light to come.

"So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!"
-   Susan Cooper, The Shortest Day

©2008 Jan Johnson Wondra

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sleigh Bells Ring, Are you Listening?

The sweet sound of bells gives me my salt as winter deepens into the end of the calendar year. That and the crunch of snow.

Coming from northern Wisconsin, you get versed in what “really cold” means. It's the below zero days and nights when boots on snow creak under your feet. When just turning the tires of a car makes the snow squeak and protest beneath the frozen rubber. You just know that unless there is salt spread liberally on the road, you're as liable to end up in the ditch as at your destination. Over it all sweeps the grandeur of the northern lights, majestic ribbons of rainbow light sprawling and swirling across the night sky.

Most have never ridden in a sleigh. I grew up on a farm with two draft horses named Prince and Pearl, and a couple of rickety sleighs. Our city cousins loved to come to the farm during the holidays, where Dad would hitch the horses to one of the sleighs, put on his old fur coat (homemade from trapping lines on the farm) and jingle us out into the fields of snow. The jingle bells weren't on the sleigh. They were on the horse harnesses. Dad communicated with those horse with the mere flick of the reins. Dad, the horses and the bells were one. It is a favorite memory of my Father.

For most, the sound of sleigh bells is a foreign thing. For them, bells mean the sound of church bells on a winter's day. The jingle bells hanging from the office decorations. Or the sound of Salvation Army bells being rung at the red kettles standing sentinel at store entrances. The tinkling sweetness of the sound brings to my throat the reserves of gratitude I feel for just being sheltered and warm at night, the love I have for family and friends near and far. It also brings the sadness of the great need in our world and how small I feel until I drop in my quarters or dollars, receiving more in grace from my gift than I deserve.

For young ones or those who remain young in heart, the sound of the bells is often the first gift of Christmas. It is the signal to believe, as in one of our family's favorite Christmas tales, The Polar Express, that there is a spirit of generosity about in the world. I still hear the bells and I hope I always do.

My Father wrote of traveling to the Norske Evangelical Lutheran church as a young child, secure between his parents in the sleigh, tucked beneath a buffalo robe. He remembered tinkling up the road to Christmas services and the magical anticipation he felt; the sense of complete safety and security. As we all begin the great migration “home for the holiday” I am thinking of my own dear ones who start for home from college tomorrow. Their ride will not be as magical, but I pray it will be as safe. For them and for all of is salt for the journey....the message of the sleigh ride:

"Just hear those sleigh bells
Ringing and jing ting tingaling too;
Come on its lovely weather for
A sleigh ride together with you.

Outside the Snow is falling and
friends are calling yoo hoo;
Come on its lovely weather for
A sleigh ride together with you.

Giddy Up, Giddy Up,
Giddy Up, Let's Go!
Just look at the show,
Were riding in a wonderland of snow.

Giddy Up, Giddy Up, Giddy Up
Its Grand, just holdin' your hand
Were riding along with the song
Of a wintery wonder land.

Our cheeks are nice and rosy and
Comfy cozy are we,
Were snuggled
Upp together like birds of
A feather would be.
Just hear those sleigh bells
ringing and jing ting tingaling too
Come on its lovely weather for
A sleigh ride together with you.
Come on its lovely weather for
A sleigh ride together with you."
-  Christmas Carol, Sleigh Bells Ringing

©2008 Jan Johnson wondra

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's a dark time to be focusing on light.

"Lighting one candle
from another -
Winter night"
-   Buson

Act II is upon us. December 13th is St. Lucia Day, (Luciadagen) in the Scandinavian countries of my ancestry. It's the day the eldest, blondest daughter gets togged out in white robes, plants a crown of holly and lighted candles on her head and brings breakfast to her family in honor of an early Christian martyr. Hopefully the daughter's hair doesn't catch on fire, like the day's namesake! The first century Roman girl refused to marry the man of her family's choosing who was not a believer. She was tortured and killed for her faith, reportedly by being set on fire.( This “festival of light” begins the traditional extended Christmas season, which lasts until at least January 6th and in Sweden until January 20th.

Why light? Ancient peoples from the Egyptians, Romans and Persians, to people of the far north all celebrate the winter solstice on December 21st or 22nd. This was the time when the light stopped receding, and days at last began to grow longer back toward the season of planting. For the Romans and their empire, it was called Saturnalia.

In a superb act of early Christian marketing, Yule (from the Germanic root geol) festival customs, like many of our Christmas traditions, were transplanted from pagan customs. If you can't stamp out the ancient rituals, you might as well just fold them into the new religion.

After the fall of Rome, the Vikings dominated Scotland and much of England and Ireland for centuries, not to mention much of northern Europe and Russia, as well as the trade routes down to Byzantium and into Persia and the far east. They lent much of their ancient solstice season activity, called Yule (in Swedish, Yul) to Christianity. We're talking major celebrating here, folks! Thus, people were encouraged to continue to dance around their midwinter bonfires but instead of Thor or Odin, it was done in honor of the King of Kings.

The predominance of the far north in the celebration of Christmas may result, not just from the extensive travels of the Viking Varangians, but from the plain fact that nowhere else on earth is the movement of the sun as drastic. From midwinter's near absolute darkness to midsummer's solstice of “white nights” when the sun never really sets, the north exemplifies best the light brought to the world via the “Son of Man.” In Scandinavia, this is an extended time of feasting and gathering together of friends and family. A time to celebrate away the long, dark nights until we are safely into a season of longer days. A time to remember and care for those who don't have the means to “celebrate the light.”

So much of what we have come to see as Christmas tradition comes from my ancient Viking heritage. The cutting of the mistletoe. Bringing in the greens to, literally, “deck the halls.” The giant Yule log dragged by chain out of the woods to provide fuel for the great bonfires. Instead of debauchery, there rose the custom of the midnight bells calling all to the Mass on Christmas Eve and to services on New Year's Eve.

So, back to that astute marketing move.

The traditional Christmas is not a single day but a prolonged period, normally from 24th December to 6th January. This included the New Year, thus increasing the festival value of the season. I hate that we have allowed Christmas to be co-oped by the retail profit machine. I hate that there are no songs of celebration on the radio after Christmas day. Who said Christmas ends at the stroke of midnight December 25? Who said this was only about buying things? Who said you had to be rich to celebrate? No one, that's who.

I'm taking Yule back. I'm selfish. I want all of Christmas, not just the retail version. This year, especially this dark year, I want a real yule celebration. Don't you?

"Holly and mistletoe
Candles and bells,
I know the message
That each of you tells."
-  Leland B. Jacobs, Mrs. Ritters First Grade Critters

©2008 Jan Johnson Wondra

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

It's harder to be thankful the week after Thanksgiving.

"O Lord that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfulness."
- William Shakespeare .

Act I of “Holidays circa 2008” is over. Our college kids have gone back to school for a few more weeks. The left-overs are gone, except for the turkey carcass awaiting its final destination in turkey vegetable soup. Americans are collectively hauling out the Xmas decorations, and trying to find reasons to be cheerful as recession bears down on us. Even the weather doesn't cooperate. In fact today the skies in Colorado are in a putty gray funk. The only cheering is going on up in the high country as snow accumulates at the ski resorts. (Which I personally think is a very great thing!)

We gear up for celebration this time of year (many major religions, in fact, share this season of celebration) and most of us are surprised by the odd sadness that can arrive this week. This is an emotional time of year. Our expectations run high. Our memories of holidays past add extra glow to old traditions. Most of us can't possibly measure up to the holidays we hope to create. We stress and fret and in the end disappoint ourselves. And not just because the coffers are low and we're frazzled by crowded malls or grim job prospects.

I think it is because for many of us, we lock thanksgiving into a single day; then we check it off our “to-do” list and move on to the next calendar event. There's a reason that thanksgiving comes when it does in the grand pageant of the year, not the least of which is that it follows harvest time. The difference between saying “I do feel grateful” and “I don't feel grateful” is two letters, an apostrophe and our actions. We are meant to do something. “Thanksgiving, after all,” as W.J. Cameron notes, “is a word of action.”

We aren't meant to relegate Thanksgiving's meaning to the traditions of a single day! Oh, we chuckle when Erma Bombeck notes: "What we're really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets. I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving ?"

Yes, but....I've spent the past several days, amidst the hubbub of Thanksgiving really considering what it means to be grateful and what I'm to do with what reveals itself. Cicero said that "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others."

So in that case, a grateful heart leads to other acts of character; like compassion, integrity and generosity. U.S. President's thoughts on Thanksgiving are recorded because they annually issue a proclamation of Thanksgiving. But they speak profoundly: Teddy Roosevelt commented that “True homage comes from the heart, and not just the lips.”

Other quotable folks have gone on record that gratefulness isn't just a matter of the heart, it's a case of the soul. Aesop Fables instructs us that “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

Aesop is not alone in that opinion. John Fitzgerald Kennedy noted that “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

It's Act II of Holidays 2008. I know that this year it is more of an effort than most years. But that is what will make it the most special holiday for us all if we get out and MAKE LIGHT, not just soak it in. Take time to DO something to act grateful, not just profess it.

Me, I've begun on my list of gratitudes: I've signed up to walk in the Jingle Bell Run/Walk ( ) on December 14th here in Denver to benefit the Arthritis Foundation. Join me or find a walk in your area to raise money for research programs to help fight the single most debilitating cause of disability in America. I've vowed to not miss a single Salvation Red Kettle in any store I enter this year, even if I've only got a quarter on me to contribute. I've prepared bags of out-grown coats for Good Will and this year I'm going to find one of those mitten trees that help kids in need and grab a couple of mitten wishes to fill. It's a start on a grateful heart.

©Jan Johnson Wondra