Wednesday, November 30, 2011


When I was in my high school chorus, years ago, we did a piece called December is a Month for All at our winter concert.  It’s been so long since that was part of the choral repertoire that I can’t locate it on the web, but it was a collection of songs from both the Christian and Jewish traditions.  Today I can’t remember exactly which Christmas carols were sung, but I do remember some of the Jewish songs especially the one about Judah “with his shield and sword” and Hannah and her “sons who glorify her name”, because they were new and interesting. 

The mix of winter celebrations has always been fascinating to me. Over the years, whenever I heard a new tidbit of lore, I’d do a bit of investigation to learn more. The winter solstice, when the sun begins to shine for a longer time each day, was celebrated in almost all of the cultures of the northern hemisphere.  Think of the many megalithic monuments that serve as calendars to insure the correct date of the solstice, and think of all the observation and study that went into the precise building of them. Inquiring minds wanted to know. Picture a tree growing from the base of the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The rites of the celebrations were many and varied and usually lasted for days.  Today’s winter celebrations are branches of that same tree.  They are all holidays - festivals or celebrations - rather than holy days or solemn commemorations.

Spring lambs springing
It is generally agreed that Christ was born when the shepherds were abiding in the fields, watching their flocks at night, so it would have been almost any time of the year except winter.  Most likely it was the spring, but the proselytizers, the spin-doctors of the early Christian era, in an effort to attract pagans to their way of worship and thinking, cleverly placed the celebrations of their major and most attractive events to coincide with those of the solar calendar.  The spring equinox became Easter, and the winter solstice Christmas.


The winter event was celebrated as Saturnalia in Rome, Yule by the Germanic people, as Lenaea, the Festival of Wild Women (I like that one!) in Greece, and under many other names by people such as the Druids, the Buddhists, and the natives of our own southwest.  Until the more modern spin doctors of the eighteenth century elevated it again and made it more lucrative, Christmas was celebrated as a very minor holiday; Easter was the major holy day.  In some places, such as Cromwell’s Puritan England of the 1700’s, the celebration of Christmas was banned.   Many Christian sects still do not celebrate it.

There is more real history associated with Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, than with Christmas.  Starting on 25 Kislev, a date on the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah, in its modern spelling, is an eight day festival commemorating an event in 165 BCE.   On that day the Maccabees drove the army of Antiochus IV, king of the Syrians, from the Temple in Jerusalem.  In celebration, they rededicated the Temple, and lit the eternal flame.  They had only one day’s supply of consecrated oil, but it lasted for the eight days it took to prepare and consecrate a new supply.  This miracle became a good reason for a winter celebration, and, minor though it was then, it was a good antidote to the Greek festival celebrating Zeus. Yes, it too was a minor holiday, but in the last century it came into prominence perhaps as another antidote - this time to all the Christmas hoopla.

Most winter symbols transcend religion. Greens, especially evergreens as boughs or wreaths in the north, were always a part of the solstice celebrations. Many rural homes shared their living space with the livestock.  In many homes the windows were for light, not air, so in northern climates the unglazed windows were covered over in winter. It was customary, probably downright necessary, to bring fresh-cut evergreens into the homes to freshen the air during the winter months.  Candles too are part of the winter celebrations.  Whether the eight on a menorah or the multitude on a Christmas tree, real candles or electric, they represent the light and joy of the season. 

“Chrismukkah” has become a slang term for the combination of Christmas and Hanukkah celebrated in religiously mixed households.  The word sounds like a phlegmy cough to me.  All commercialism involved set aside, both holidays should be enjoyed and celebrated separately and fully in all their beauty and colors and traditions. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011



     Many folks I know from other areas of New York City never heard of this, but where I was born in Queens, New York, we didn’t go out Trick-or-Treating on Halloween, we ragamuffins went ‘begging’ on Thanksgiving. In the morning we were dressed up as beggars or Gypsies, in whatever old clothes were usable, and we went from door to door asking “Anything for Thanksgiving?” I was only in the second grade when my family moved from the city out to the country wilds of Long Island’s Nassau County, but my city memories tell me that we came home with apples and oranges, nuts and cookies, and perhaps a cup cake to add to the bounty of the day.
        Some recall that the items collected were given, in turn, to the various churches to then be distributed to the poor. I don’t recall this. I do recall a lot of walnuts at the bottom of my bag.

The custom may have a connection to November 11th, Martinmas, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of beggars and the poor, or St. Catherine’s Day, November 25th, both of which dates are used by many European cultures to signify the end of autumn and the coming of winter.  On either or both days, depending on the country and culture, children would dress up - or down! - and go around the town, especially with lantern on St. Martin’s Day, singing appropriate songs and, in many places, receive donations of food or money to be brought to the church, or get sweets for themselves.  Many countries celebrated with large, festive meals.

        It’s a certainty that the ancestors of these children brought these customs with them when the emigrated here, especially to the east coast, and they were gradually merged with the Thanksgiving traditions already in place.  Depending on the ethnic makeup of a neighborhood, some or all of the traditions carried over.  I’m sure that the ‘large, festive meals’ were easily transferred to the last Thursday of November. 

       Halloween has become a big, commercial festival, costumes and treats galore, so I’m not too sure that children still go begging on Thanksgiving Day. They’ve probably got a lot of loot left over from Halloween, and the lure of the Macy’s parade on the TV is just too enticing to miss. We adults fondly recall the simpler times of our younger years.  I suppose that today’s children will recall these days as being the simpler times - and I can’t begin to imagine the times in which they’ll be living in the future, when what today’s adults call ‘excessive’ will to our grandchildren be ‘simple‘. It boggles the mind!



Tuesday, November 8, 2011


     As Popeye said – “I yam what I yam,” and I’ve tried to live by that since the time, years ago, when I cut out and saved an article from Real Simple magazine ( and I can't find a date on it) about Finnish women who, on the whole, rarely if ever agonize over their body image.  They are what they are. The article, by now Associate Professor of Writing at the New School, Elizabeth Kendall, was titled The Naked Truth.
    Truth be told, not many of us are happy with our naked bodies.  Oh, I’d like to be many, many pounds lighter, but my body likes the “set point” I’ve been at for over a quarter of a century.  Diets and I don’t get along too well. 
So I dress as neatly and fashionably and comfortably as possible, and let it go at that. My sister and I were always great fans of “gut hiders”, those blouses and other tops that deemphasized our more-than-bountiful embonpoint. Loose is lovely, comfortable is lovely.

    I yam what I yam, and, being diplomatic about it, I do suppose that most other women of a certain age feel the same way.  But ladies, I do wish more of you well-endowed gals would give a bit more thought to how you dress.  Don’t agonize over the body you have and how to change it. By this time, like me, you’ve got to live with it. Worry more about other things such as dressing that body presentably.
    First of all, if the clothes go around you that does not mean they fit. Spandex is, as they say, a privilege. Wearing any tight, knitted garments is for the very young and the very slim. You don’t want folks saying “Looks like she’s been melted and poured into it,” now do you? 
    O.k., that top is a size 16 and you’re a 14, but it’s a tank top and your upper arms are way past flabby. Why would ya?  And just because something jazzy comes in a size you wear doesn’t mean you have to buy it.

    I love to see a well-turned-out woman of any age or size. I must admit though, I do love to sightsee in places like Walmart. Talk about “why would ya?” You know the ones I mean. Some of those folks are a definite hoot. Nudge, nudge, wink wink. That one over there!  You know the ones I mean.

(Well, maybe my halo is on too tight.)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Well, I am more than a little bit sad today: that curmudgeon of curmudgeons, Andy Rooney, a man I admired tremendously, has passed away.  He’s front page news everywhere, and even Wikipedia has updated his page there.  As the NY Times said, he was not everyone’s cup of tea, but he was mine, and I rarely disagreed with his stance on whatever was the subject of the week.  From kitchen gadgets and the proliferation thereof to organized religion and his disdain for it, I concurred. But then, I am a curmudgeon too. 'bye Andy.