Tag Archives: traditions

The Things We Do to Trees

My festooned tree with new & old.

We have many Christmas traditions and the decorating of the Yule or solstice tree goes back a long ways. There are tree traditions in other cultures that involve adding wishes or charms or paper decorations but I’m going to talk about the Christmas tree tradition. It did begin long ago in Estonia and Germany, though the first recorded instance that can be documented was from the 1500s. But there is reference to other tree and winter solstice/Christmas activities going back farther. Of course the other end of the yearly tree celebration still takes place on May Day or Beltane and involves the May pole, where people dance around the tree, weaving it with ribbons.

In previous centuries trees were decorated with apples, figs, nuts, dates and other dried fruits. Candles were put in the trees to signify the return of the sun after the winter solstice and whether Christian or not there is a festival of light tradition in almost every culture. Earlier times and Victorian era trees may have seen strings of popcorn and cranberries (still popular with some) and chains made of paper. Sometimes these trees were done outside and any bounty of fruit and nuts would have been appreciated by the wildlife. Queen Victoria, from her German heritage, popularized the tree decorating, which then spread to Canada and the US.

And so, in Canada it was already a well-entrenched tradition by the time I came along. The house we lived in had a slanted ceiling and at its apex it was probably twelve feet high. My mother always bought a tree that just fit under that roof. I’m not sure of the true height but it had to be between 10-12 feet and a ladder was needed to decorate the tree. Besides department stores and civic centers I don’t even know if you can get a tree that big these days.

Once the giant tree was erected in its cast iron stand, the lights were strung on with care, where the bulbs would be switched about so there was no cluster of red, yellow, blue or green. The special lights–the bubble lights and the weird round snow globes or other odd colored lights–were distributed about the branches. These lights weren’t the little lights we all use today but those massive ones, only slightly smaller than the outdoor version and on sturdy cords. I once had candles to put on my  tree but I stopped after a few years because it was too difficult to keep the holders upright and not cause a house fire.

Decorating the tree was a full family affair and often took two days. My mother had two boxes that were three feet high and two feet square full of decorations. There were the balls that actually had an accidental hole  (where they get brittle over time and just a bit too much pressure will pop a hole through) but they were still beautiful. I’ve talked in another post about the vintage Christmas ornaments. The rarer ones: coffeepots, teapots, lamps, umbrellas, horns, birds and bells would go nearer the top. The very unusual and one of a kind balls were also placed about the tree. When I was little I had my ball and I had to put it on the tree. My siblings would often tease me that it was gone. That ball lasted forever, even into my adulthood and when I asked my mother where it was one year, she said, oh it broke years ago. I was heartbroken because that ball was the symbol of the good things in childhood for me. It was unique, turquoise and pink and silver, part bell shape and even had a little hole in it.

Same tree but without flash.

Once all the balls were placed, sometimes on every single branch, we festooned the tree with glass bead garlands and tinsel. I had to meticulously drape a piece of tinsel or maybe two on every branch. My younger brother got into tossing handfuls at the tree, which offended my young and anal sensibilities. The tinsel was accompanied by little twists of metal, icicles that were also hung. But the tinsel itself was also a bane. We started to not hang it on the lower branches since our cat, who loved to chew the spider plant and eat grass from time to time, found the tinsel a special grassy treat.

There was nothing worse than tinsel bum, when the cat went to poop and had a long brown dingle berry hanging on a thread of tinsel from his ass. His solution was to drag his bum throughout the house, over the carpet, leaving brown streaks in an attempt to dislodge the annoyance. We had to run after him, with wads of toilet paper, and try to very very gently remove the offending decoration from the cat. Tinsel was a pain to decorate with, mostly plastic, and non biodegradable, and disgusting when the cat got it. We did gather it up every year but a fair amount went out with the tree or was vacuumed up.

These days, I wouldn’t put tinsel on if I could find it. I use a winged thing theme, whether birds, angels, fairies, flying frogs or whatever, plus red apples and eclectically shaped balls. I use one color of light but I do tend to put on lots of decorations. This year my tree was a little more Charlie Brown than usual and I decided to forego the bead garlands and couldn’t fit the tree topper on. Still, if nothing else, I enjoy having a tree through the winter season. It symbolizes a more innocent time, the return of light and nature in the dark times, and a joyous comfort in the whimsical decorations. To me, it’s one of the best parts of Christmas.

Happy Holidays to everyone and may you have joy and celebration in all your traditions.

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Honoring the Dead: All Hallows

It is the end of October, Hallowe’en, All Hallows Evening or Samhain (pronounced sow-ain). In Celtic and early European traditions Samhain was the ending of the year, the harvest had been collected and the cold dark days began. Fears that the light wouldn’t return and that nocturnal and supernatural creatures came into the fore of most people’s thoughts. It was the time of the dead, when the veils between the worlds thinned. Those who had died the previous year crossed over and those who were dead could come through to haunt or visit their kin.

As Christianity worked its way through Europe the day came to be known as All Hallows Eve, and that which was hallow, meaning holy or to be revered, was honored. Christianity brought in All Saints Day, following on November 1st. Mexico combined their traditions into Dias de los Muertos, the day of the dead. Throughout many countries, but not necessarily at this date but often in this time of year, is the tradition of honoring the dead. Even Remembrance Day falls in the dark time (if placed on that date for different reason).

And so it is, with this dark and cold time I have found I’ve been thinking about people who I’ve known who have died. Unfortunately the list gets longer but we keep them alive through memory and love.

There was John “Bear” Curtis, part Cherokee, 6’7″, an actor, known as being a grumpy bear, but lover of art, generous and spiritual. He was a pipe carrier, had completed the sundance, and created various crafts from amazingly detailed collages to sculptures, drums and rattles. Bear was, in size and personality, larger than life. His strong spirit kept him going for over a year, after the unhygienic procedures of the hospital infected him with C-Deficil. I honor Bear for having touched my life and given beauty to the world.

I remember Lydia Langstaff, a young writer, born with a congenital heart defect and not expected to make it past infancy. White-skinned, blue-veined, as delicate as porcelain, Lydia never complained that she could never fly or even take a flight of stairs. She wrote and persevered and finished a first draft of her novel before she died at 28 in her husband’s arms. I still have the draft of her novel, and cannot find husband or family, afraid to throw it out and not sure what to do with it many years later. I honor Lydia and it was she who taught to use each day as best you can, even if I don’t always fulfill that.

I remember Jay Herrington, a bright star, a beautiful man, a powerful priest. Intelligent and gifted, he made amazing crafts and was just beginning to find his pace. He was witty and funny and did an amazing drag queen, High Joan the Conqueror. He died in a vehicle malfunction and never woke from his injuries. I honor Jay for bringing light and reverence into my life.

I remember Gerry Stevens, opinionated, strong minded, honorable and loving life. He battled cancer quite well, living longer than most. Gerry was a compulsive gadget fiddler, taking things apart and putting them together, to see how they worked, to figure out new ways to make things. A thinker, he created and changed and stayed involved. Gerry died with his boots on, staying strong till the end and saying, if it’s not fun, don’t do it. I honor Gerry for teaching something about dying with grace.

I remember Geoffery MacLean, Mischka and Berek Ravensfury who all left too soon from disease, car accidents and mental anguish. None of them were perfect men, full of complex contradiction. But all of them were impassioned, caring about people. I honor these three for seeing that heart mattered most of all.

David Honigsberg I only met a couple times. He and his wife Alexandra were vibrant, intelligent, creative, alive. They struck me as two people who lived very rich lives and only enhanced the bright flame within each other. David died suddenly of a heart attack and I was shocked, thinking someone so alive could leave so suddenly. Jenna Felice was a young editor at Tor, a firebrand not afraid to state her opinion or grab at what she wanted. She was another bright star on her way to greater heights when she died from an asthma attack. It saddened me greatly to see such a flame extinguished so soon. I honor Jenna and David for their fire and fervor.

There are more, ones I knew well, or barely knew. There are those people I never knew at all. There is my cat Figment, who was unique, maybe as all cats and people are. Intelligent, skittish, loving, playful, mischievous, I still miss him. I honor him for the unconditional love and company he gave me for 14 years.

All those who touch us, great or small, young or old, furred or flesh become part of our lives. They may not be famous but they matter to others, are loved and love. Immortality happens in memory, in honoring those who have move through the path of our lives. This is the time that the veil thins, as those who have gone beyond pass through our memories. Honor your ancestors, your loved ones, your acquaintances for we are all part of the great whole.

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What’s in a Name, and Changing It

Back around 1000 CE, surnames were not as common or set as they are now. Someone might just be known as John or Mary. If a second Mary showed up then you might be known as Mary of Kent, or Mary the weaver. John the smith or Liam of the potters’ field or Elizabeth from Gower got shortened in time to John Smith, Liam Pottersfield and Elizabeth Gower.

The taking of a surname started in the south and slowly spread north as cities and villages grew. The gentry were the first to take surnames and only around the 14th century did surnames become the norm for the common people.

When John Smith and Mary Kent married, she did not become Mary Smith but retained her name. Names became a little more standardized and were passed down in the family. No longer was there Erik son of Anders, and Bjorn son of Erik. They went through a transition of Erik Andersen and his son was Bjorn Eriksen. This is still done in the Scandinavian countries but I’m not sure if it changes per generation any more but there will be a Sigrid Eriksdottir and a Bjorn Eriksen, depending on your gender.

As far as English speaking, European culture went, the surnames stabilized. When John Smith and Mary Kent married, she did not become Mary Smith but retained her name, for a while. This was common practice but seems to have shifted somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries, though it is hard to pin down when this change happened. There is some indication it was happening earlier. In  other cultures women may never change their names or take on hyphenated or other joined surnames.

Being that European culture of the time (and still) ran on a patrilineal system it’s no surprise. It’s been argued, but in most cases, it is a woman’s choice. In my mother’s era women were no longer entities of their own but became part of the man, Adam’s rib, so to speak, with marriage. Mary Kent became Mrs. Smith, but even moreso, she was Mrs. John Smith. No longer did she have a name or identity of her own. Mr. Smith remained the same, no matter if he was married, single or divorced. Miss Mary Kent advertised her availability with that honorific and that she belonged to someone when she took Mrs.

Because I believe so much in equality, I don’t think it’s right or fair that a woman always takes the man’s name. But “always” is not the way it is anymore. Rock stars, movie stars and doctors often keep their birth names, not changing when they marry. Married women might be Ms. now instead of Mrs.

The rules change in different countries and I was aghast to see that in England today (according to the website on name changes) a woman is still referred to as Mrs. John Smith as is “correct” and “traditional” according to the site. Because it’s tradition to have slavery, or to beat spouses or to throw out working TVs does not make it right. Traditions change. Some of the argument against keeping one’s birth name (if a woman) is because it will cause consternation, people won’t accept it and it will be difficult. In other words they’re saying, don’t rock the boat and be happy we let you vote.

I’m single but were I not I would not take my husband’s last name. I would keep my name or might consider hyphenating it. I know one couple that chose a brand new name for themselves and another couple that did the same but combined parts of their birth  names. But why should I change my identity and he assume that he doesn’t have to? Why do I have to become the posession of a man. I certainly would never ever become a Mrs. John Smith. I remember my mother and women of her era having trouble getting credit cards in their own names once they divorced, because the companies presumed they were with men and issued the cards in Mr. John Smith’s name.

In Canada, the rules change province by province. I believe certain human rights pertain across the country but what costs in name changes will change. In BC, each person can keep their birth name, the woman can take the man’s or the man can take the woman’s. Should they want to hyphenate or use both names, that becomes a legal change of name for which they must pay. But otherwise, they can keep their name or change to it at a later date, only paying those costs associated with getting new ID, like driver’s licenses or passports.

In Alberta, it’s mostly the same but I believe a man must pay if he changes his name to his wife’s. There is another example of something not being fair. It’s assumed a woman will change her name and a man will not. A woman doesn’t have to pay but a woman does. I just wonder when the world will see women as equal human beings. It happens in some places and in others, women have limited rights.

I’m not saying one shouldn’t change a name but I think each person should think before they do so: is it necessary? Why me? Why not him/her? Will my identity change? Do I have to belong to someone? Should we choose a completely new name? It goes on. I just think that people changing their names because “it’s always been done” is not reason enough.

Here is a thesis on the changing of women’s surnames.

http://www.bsu.edu/libraries/virtualpress/student/honorstheses/pdfs/C692_1991CoxDinaM.pdf

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Dark and Scary: Bathrooms

Restaurateurs, wherever you are, learn this lesson. No matter how dreamy, retro, romantic, funky or sporty your restaurant, pub or lounge, one thing you do not want ever, and I mean ever, is a dark and scary bathroom.

Maybe guys like pissing in the dark, though I doubt it because their aim is never that good, but women really don’t.

When I was a teenager, in high school, the janitors went on strike. I didn’t have the opportunity to see what state the boys’ bathroom ended up in but reports were the girls’ was the worst. And it was more disgusting than a pigsty, which really is just pigs wallowing in mud (and maybe some other organic matter). The girls stopped short of wiping their butts and throwing it on the floor but used tampons and sanitary napkins were spread far and wide.

It was truly appalling. In our me-me-me culture, women are as bad as men. There are those women who don’ t like to sit on a toilet seat because of germs or because someone sprinkled on the seat, so they squat above. Some also come from cultures where squat toilets are the norm. However, some of these squatters spray everywhere because there is a larger space in which their non-aim can go. Unlike guys, we don’t have a hose to direct.

I think half of these people leave the bathroom stall, having flushed, but not wiping the seat, because they didn’t touch it, or they don’t care and are ignorant of other people’s use. Sometimes it is the toilet’s fault where the water splashes up when the toilet is flushed.  In either case, I tend to check and wipe the seat before I leave. After all, I try to leave the toilet how I would like to have it found.

When I enter any sort of public/restaurant bathroom, I always check for toilet paper and then put some down on the seat. The few times I haven’t checked, thinking I’m safe I’ve had the misfortune of sitting in a wet spot and there is nothing more disgusting than sitting in another person’s urine. Ick!

So bright lights for the toilets are tantamount. Romantic mood lighting doesn’t help there, nor when a woman is trying to fix her make-up. Glaringly bright fluorescents that give people green-tinged skin and makes them look like zombies is not optimal but I would take it over the dark and scary toilet.

One of the worst in Vancouver, is Waazubee’s on Commercial. It’s cramped with dark blue walls, doors that rarely close right and just too dark. Time for a reno, Bennie.

Of course the scariest toilets were when I was in Asia. Singapore had modern, flush toilets, but they were squat toilets. There was a hole in the floor (porcelain, mind you) with metal footprints on either side showing you where to put your feet, as well as which direction to face (it wasn’t always easy to tell). Being a big of a benevolent tyranny, they also had very large signs posted about the fines people would receive for not flushing. It was something like $50-100.

That was the luxury in the predominantly Asian squat  toilet. Some were a horrific combo, such as the porcelain bowl, absolutely filthy and stained, but with no seat. You had to squat halfway and that was harder than squatting to the floor. And try it with dysentery, not sure if you’re going to puke or have diarrhea or both. Yeah, that was way too much fun.

Then there was the long, unlit tunnel behind some ramshackle cinder block and brick building. You ducked and duckwalked in, past a tattered sheet hung on a string, and squatted over a runnel with some water trickling through. Fetid does not describe the odor in the hot Indian sun.

The experience of using a squat toilet on the Indian trains was something else. There was a bar to hang onto as you watched the tracks beneath the hole. As well, you’re swaying to and fro, which helps little with hitting that hole. Imagine trying to hold a skirt up, squatting and hanging on and then having to use toilet paper. That was a very interesting problem.

In Mexico City the toilets were usually brightly lit but few of them flushed. This wasn’t long after a big earthquake and their water table is notoriously low. If you didn’t bring your own toilet paper you had to pay some matronly senora for paper, by the square. But the worst was that because the toilets weren’t flushing, you did your business in them but put all paper in an open garbage can beside them. Imagine the smell in the heat of Mexican summer. Not exactly pleasant, and very very disgusting.

So, in retrospect a dark restaurant bathroom may be paradise but a lot of them could improve. The Japanese and some other European countries are big on bidets that wash and blow dry your nether regions. No paper is used and considering the number of trees we kill for toilet paper, it’s not a bad solution. In India they didn’t always use toilet paper either, or water. That’s why it was important to always always carry your own.

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The Stones of Ireland: II

Continued from the previous day’s post.

Kinbane CastleWe travelled to the Cliffs of Moher in northwestern Ireland, the tallest in Europe. Rugged and impressive, they remained formidable to drive up and to look down. The sheer audacity of Kinbane castle in Northern Ireland built down a very steep hill right on the promontory of the North Sea kept it impenetrable for years. Out near Kinvara and in the Burren were the Ailwee Caves, great underground caverns carved millennia ago by a subterranean river, fossils and minerals sparkling like the realm of Hades. Cool, pitch black except when they turned on the lights, and a den for extinct European brown bears, their might was in their endurance and solidity.

The Burren was as impressive in its way as the Giants Causeway. At some point in the ancient past a mountain or volcano erupted, spewing tons of flowing mud down mountain and hill. Eventually it solidified into grey rock but still has that look of a mud flow. Smooth in spots, rippled in others, there are dips that are treacherous to walk over but where wind and rain have blown deposits of soil over the centuries. There in those protected trenches are a myriad of plant life, some uniqe to that area.

The Burren

The Burren butts up to a rugged shoreline near Kinvara, but on the higher hills it is barren stone, short shrubs and the tiny plants that grow in their coves. Everywhere through this area are stone walls and hill forts that were stacked by hand centuries ago. In fact the stone walls are abundant throughout Ireland but rule supreme in the Burren. The stones might be stacked on their edges, resting against each other, placed flat on top of each other, or made with their widest sides facing out. Some are mortared, and they are ageless. They could have been built a week ago or a thousand years ago. They were used as natural boundaries, pens for cattle and sheep and as fortifications. I’ve been told that they now work at protecting species of flora and fauna throughout the emerald isle, working as borders where invasive species don’t encroach.

Upon the Burren with its hard, alien looking surface, unable to really support any crop, somehow people eked out a life, for centuries. And topping it was Poulnabrone Dolmen, a passage tomb made of four giant slabs of stone with a fifth resting atop them like a table. You can look through beneath the table stone, from one world perhaps to the next. It has stood for over 5,000 years, a part of every person’s life who lived upon the Burren.

All lands have stone in one form or another. Rock is the foundation of our world from its magma core to the volcanic eruptions and tectonic shifts that show our planet is alive. From sand and pebble to rock and boulder, stones have always been there to support and shelter. The Irish reuse the stones from any old building torn down, reworking it into something new.

The strong sense of the history of the stones, from the monasteries and castles to the cemetery tombs and headstones, to the walls and hill forts, they all spoke of a true Irish intimacy with stone. There is history, life and death. There is art, utilitarian purpose and mystery. And most of all, there is community; thousand of years of life with each person using what had come before, the ruins or the dead not forgotten but integrated into continuing family rituals. Ireland truly taught me the endurance of time and of stories shown in its stone, its very foundation. stone walls

The picture at the top of my blog is taken from the top of Blarney castle. All pictures are copyrighted.

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