‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 2 (A Colonial Christmas, Scrooge, Carols and the Tree!)

‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 2 (A Colonial Christmas, Scrooge, Carols and the Tree!)

Hi all you lovely students of Areteem Institute and fellow readers! We are still in the realms of Christmas Past and slowly working our way up to Christmas Present so don’t leave the jolly sleigh ride yet!

(As a side note: Today is the eve of St. Lucia’s Day observed on December 13th and is a holiday celebrated outside Lucia’s native Italy in areas as far away as Scandinavia. The saint’s feast day, an integral part of Christmastime in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland has ties with older pagan Winter Solstice traditions with its predominance of light. For instance, crowns of candles are worn by girls dressed in white chosen to play St. Lucia in homes and neighborhood pageants. To read more about St. Lucia day celebrations, click here).

And now back to Christmas in America…

Historical Jamestown Settlement Colonial Christmas event with a “Lord of Misrule”

As mentioned before Christmas eventually made its way into America but it was not recognized everywhere in the 13 colonies. In the Puritan-dominated New England colonies of the 17th century, Christmas was literally non-existent. Boston specifically outlawed the Christmas festival from 1659 to 1681 and even afterward it was still not widely celebrated until a couple of centuries later.

There were, however, other colonies that fully enjoyed the Christmas season with their own unique sets of folk practices and beliefs. Captain John Smith himself reported grand Christmas festivities in the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and there is even mention of drinking the first egg nog concoction! New York had its traditional Dutch ways, especially with St. Nicholas giving presents to children (more on him later!) while Pennsylvania Dutch/German settlers had quite enthusiastic Christmas celebrations. The Moravians, a religious group from the Germanic countries who settled in, for instance, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania are known to have grown the first American Christmas trees as well as creating the first American Nativity scenes which they call “putzes”. Bethlehem, PA as a result is now “Christmas City, USA”!  But despite all of the efforts at keeping Christmas, it eventually fell out of favor with Americans after the Revolutionary War as the holiday was seen as a British custom they should leave behind. So how did it arguably become the biggest holiday of the year? Why, through good literature of course!

Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA at Christmas

Yes it’s true! We have two great authors from America and merry old England to thank for actually “reinventing” Christmas. Up to this point Christmas had amalgamated older pagan Winter Solstice customs, been both a religious feast day as well as a wild Mardi Gras-like party before it was suppressed, shipped over to America and then eventually let go of again. To start off in America, early 19th century writer Washington Irving was interested in the Dutch lifestyles and folkways of his native New York. In 1819 he penned “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon” where among his many stories, such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, he wrote a series of Christmas tales relating a fictionalized visit by the author of the “Sketch Book” to an old English manor house in the countryside and partaking in the “alleged” British customs of Christmas. He had actually never experienced any of the traditions he wrote about and so scholars give him credit for “recreating” some Christmas traditions.

An Original 1843 Edition Title Page to “A Christmas Carol”

Across the pond it was the equally as celebrated author Charles Dickens who on December 19, 1843 published “A Christmas Carol”. The customs that he wrote about along with the feelings of charity, kindness, forgiveness, redemption and a sense of sharing the holidays with one’s family had a profound impact in England and the United States. The book has been a bestseller since and led Dickens to greatly profit from it, especially when he started presenting live readings of his story that his great-great grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens, continues today. So please thank Washington Irving and Charles Dickens for ushering in a revival of Christmas, Ichabod Crane and Scrooge will be much obliged!  

A Picture of the First Published Christmas Card!

Now that Christmas was becoming a prominent holiday again in the 19th century, some new traditions surfaced among the American and British populace. For instance, in 1843, the same year that Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was published, a British man by the name of Sir Henry Cole published the first set of commercial Christmas cards that Louis Prang later introduced in America in 1875. This happened after President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas to be an official US federal holiday on June 26, 1870, finally! 

By the Victorian period (later 19th and early 20th centuries), Christmas had become a staple holiday tradition. In the middle and upper classes, people enjoyed hosting lavish Christmas parties in their home parlours where people enjoyed eating large dinners, playing frivolous games and singing Christmas carols much like today! The working classes enjoyed their own Christmas traditions and, just as in the medieval period, went around their towns and villages singing Christmas carols hoping for a bite to eat or some ale to drink. The tradition of waits, singing groups belonging to different towns, had been partially renewed with the Christmas revival, and with that a whole slew of Christmas songs were “discovered” or composed.

Back in 1833, the antiquarian William Sandys published his “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” which collected several old Christmas songs, whether genuine or contrived, as well as some new ones. Such famous songs like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, “The First Noel” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!” were first seen in print thanks to Sandys’ music book. Another famous song such as the tranquil “Silent Night” was first sung in its original German and played at a small Austrian church on Christmas Eve in 1818 by its composer Franz Gruber and its lyricist Joseph Mohr. Since the 19th century more songs have been added to the ever-growing list! (I distinguish Christmas carols as those that were created during and before the 19th century and Christmas songs as those composed during the 20th century up to the present-day). Soon magazines were publishing recipes and party ideas to hopeful hosts wanting to celebrate the holiday season in a very merry way. With all of the songs, food recipes and the prominence of winter, Christmas was coming along quite nicely! So what about the Christmas tree?

It should be no surprise among the many traditions of Christmas, and of other holidays in the year like Halloween and Easter, that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol relating to ancient tree worship associated with the gods. Some scholars have posited that the Norse conception of Yggdrasil, the World Tree that connects the different realms of the living, the dead and the gods, in their cosmology, could be the mythic origin of the Christmas tree. Some other historical and legendary events have contributed to the creation of the Christmas tree during the conversion of Europe to Christianity.

St. Boniface, a Christian German missionary during the 600s and 700s CE, is believed to have come across a group of Norsemen praying to a tree dedicated to their god Thor. He then took an ax and cut down the tree, telling them that the fir tree should now be revered as a metaphor for the Christian God for its triangular shape was symbolic of the Holy Trinity. A tree was allegedly part of medieval Christmas traditions in England, decorated with apples to represent the “tree of paradise” found in the Garden of Eden and is a possible explanation for why red bauble ornaments appear on trees today. The Christian reformer Martin Luther during the 16th century is then credited for starting the modern Christmas tree custom when, upon walking in a forest one evening, he saw how beautiful the trees looked with the stars shining through them and decided to take one home to decorate, putting candles in the branches to represent the stars. Manufacturing ornaments have been a big part of German Christmas traditions since. Another theory posits that the tradition actually beganmuch later in Germany during the 18th century.

As can be seen, the Christmas tree has predominately German origins. The major influence behind this beloved Christmas tradition occurred in the 19th century when German-born Prince Albert brought this custom to England and set up a tree at Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria and their family to enjoy. From then on, the Christmas tree became a staple holiday decoration. After all, if the Queen herself had a tree so should every other British family as she was quite the trend-setter when it came to British lifestyles! Soon after, everyone had a Christmas tree in their homes with candles giving way to light bulbs with the discovery of electricity and at last Christmas found its major symbol! You can see one of the largest American Christmas trees in Rockefeller Center in New York City. But where does Santa fit in all of this?

To be continued in Part 3: Santa Claus, his various names and how he came to be THE gift giver of the holiday season! Do you have any traditions or history you would like to add? Feel free to leave comments or subscribe to our blog site as want to hear what you have to say! Season’s Greetings!

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City

  Come read more about Areteem Institute and what we have to offer at www.areteem.org

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‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 1 (Yule, Saturnalia and the Origins of Christmas)

‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 1 (Yule, Saturnalia and the Origins of Christmas)

Hello my fellow students and readers! With the year 2014 slowly coming to a close and the holiday season finally here, there is so much to think about, even here at Areteem Institute!  It’s a time to reflect on the events of this past year as well as making merry with family and friends as we enjoy a myriad of holidays that come at this time of year. Then there’s some of you who may ask why some of our holidays have come to be? I mean really, what is the history behind celebrating one of the biggest holidays of the year like Christmas?

We know Christmas is both a religious holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ as well as a secular phenomenon full of lights, greenery, wintry dreams and joy in the air. But what is the misty past behind Christmas? And what of the ancient holidays that have influenced this cultural phenomenon?

So with this in mind, and some help form the Ghost of Christmas Past and St. Nicholas, I your Whisperer present to you a sleigh ride full of  Christmas history (condensed)!

To be brief, before Jesus was even born,  many people around the world celebrated the return of the sun in the midst of darkest winter which we now refer to as the Winter Solstice (solstice being Latin for “sun standing still” with its counterpart being the Summer Solstice in June). This celestial event occurs every year between December 20th-22nd. Many ancient cultures from the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Celts, the Norse and Germanic peoples and more had their own unique festivals to welcome the sun back in the hopes of summer light and warmth returning to their lands. (Festivals like Christmas and Hanukkah can be interpreted as contemporary examples although each celebrates a different historic event in ancient Israel- the former the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and the latter the lamp oil lasting for eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem).

Many historians, scholars and folklorists agree that a few ancient celebrations highly contributed to the customs and superstitions that are part of our modern-day Christmas festival  revolving around the time of the Winter Solstice.

Walhall by Emil Doepler

To start off, have you ever wondered what the words “Yule” or “Yuletide” mean as they float through the lyrics of Deck the Halls? Yule, or Mid-Winter, in fact was a Winter Solstice festival celebrated by many races in northern Europe, in particular the  ancient Germanic and Norse people. This festival included much of the imagery we associate with Halloween as we know it today, as it was believed that any number of spirits, witches and gods were abroad during this time that could do good or ill well to mere mortals. These spirits were in essence representations of winter as well as the surrounding natural landscape they lived in, often cold, barren and unforgiving during the harsh winter months. People who lived such agrarian lifestyles were fearful for their lives for no one knew who would survive until the spring came. In an effort to both placate and honor these beings, grand feasts and sacrifices were enacted so as to encourage the sun to rise again, bring about good health among the people and to ensure a good harvest in the coming year.

Yule also contained many of the elements we see today such as the yule log (originally a large log cut down and brought into public halls to burn throughout the festival, similar to the tradition of bringing in the Christmas tree into our homes. Today it is popular as a holiday dessert called a “Buche de Noel” from the French).

The Yule festival was supposed to have lasted anywhere from two months from November to January, or more specifically for twelve days and is the origin of the so-called “Twelve Days of Christmas”. Over time when Christianity came to Scandinavian and other Germanic regions the customs of Yule became synthesized with the customs of Christmas and eventually “Yule” and “Christmas” became synonymous with each other. Even today people who live in  Scandinavian countries such as Sweden will wish each other “God Yul” as their way of saying “Merry Christmas”. In addition, modern Neo-pagan religions celebrate their own versions of Yule around the Winter Solstice on December 21st with reconstructed rituals that are believed to be close to how our ancestors celebrated this holiday long ago.


In the Mediterranean region, ancient Romans marked their own celebration of midwinter with a raucous time known as Saturnalia, in honor of the deity Saturn (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Kronos) who was the father of agriculture and culture. The Roman people celebrated for a week on their Julian calendar around our modern December 17th-23rd and during this time people were off from work, students did not attend any educational institution and role reversals were dominant with masters catering to their slaves for instance. These festivities later were turned into the Advent season that leads up to Christmas Day.

During Saturnalia, greenery was adorned in homesteads to remind everyone of their agricultural roots. It is the Romans and also the ancient Germanic, Norse (these latter two races celebrating Yule) and Celtic peoples we have to thank for introducing the holly, ivy and mistletoe decorations to Christmas traditions as all were sacred to these various people, either associated with gods or had magical properties of their own, and eventually were adopted by early Christians in their own unique celebration of Christ’s birth. (Holly and Ivy were considered male and female symbols, respectively, with the Holly taking on the image of Jesus’ “crown of thorns”. Mistletoe is in fact a fertility symbol relating to a Norse myth that eventually became a symbol for love as anyone standing under its branches was allowed one kiss after plucking one of its white berries).

Roman artifact with Sol Invictus (top middle with sun crown) and Mithra (to his right) atop a bull

Roman artifact with Sol Invictus (top middle with sun crown) and Mithra (to his right) atop a bull

Around the time of Saturnalia, Roman culture allowed for people to pick and choose religions as they pleased beyond the state-sanctioned Roman pantheon that derived from the older Greek pantheon. Among many of the Roman deities was Sol Invictus (“the Unconquerable Son”), mainly worshiped by the male Roman elite. His birthday was celebrated on December 25th, supposedly the date of the Roman Winter Solstice and he was often confused with Mithra, a god of Persian origins, whose religions, the Mithraic Mysteries, were practiced by an initiated group of worshipers.

Medieval Woodcut depicting the Visitation and the Nativity

Medieval Woodcut depicting the Visitation and the Nativity

As the early Christians spread throughout Europe, they realized that with so many different religions and practices they were outnumbered when it came to introducing people to their new belief system. Early Christians also were concerned with the fact that there was no exact date for Christ’s birth other than accounts written in the Gospels of the New Testament. When Emperor Constantine took up the cross in the 300s CE, he became the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity as the established religion. Under his reign, he helped to establish a more official date for the birth of Jesus Christ.  So as a direct act of “suppressing” older pagan beliefs,  Christ’s birth was proclaimed to be on December 25th overlapping the idea of the birth of the “sun” with the “Son of God” and the date of Christmas, known then as the Feast of the Nativity was established. The actual name of  “Christmas” came much later in medieval England from Old English literally meaning “Christ’s Mass”.

Depiction of a Medieval Christmas banquet

With the Medieval Period came many festivities establishing in essence the first Christmas holiday season (the twelve days of Christmas from December 25th to January 6th) as people attended lavish banquets and celebrations in the halls of manor homes and castles, landlords and their tenants paid their end of the year dues and everyone was very merry! This time in history also brought about the musical tradition of  Christmas that evolved from Latin hymns chanted by the clergy in churches into songs sung in the vernacular by lay people. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals who established his Order of Franciscan monks, is credited for inventing Christmas “carols”. (The word “carol” originally comes from the French to mean a song that was accompanied by dancing; this could be why so many are quite spirited today!). He is further credited to creating a live Nativity scene in a church one Christmas Eve in 1223, starting the practice of the “crèche” with the baby Jesus and the Holy Family now adorned in homes and churches around the world today. This also helped to start the tradition of Nativity plays that have been performed since the medieval period up to the present-day.

Beyond the solemn religious rites, the Christmas season acquired a carnivalesque atmosphere that continued through the later medieval period and into parts of the early modern period (1400s and 1500s). This raucous celebration then came to a halt under the Protestant Reformation that condemned Christmas as either too Catholic of a holiday or too pagan of a holiday because of its ancient roots. In England from 1642-1660, the Puritans in power abolished Christmas completely. This influence was also strongly felt among the Pilgrims and Puritans living in North America around this time as they could have been fined if they were caught celebrating the Christmas holiday! With the eventual Restoration of King Charles II to the English throne in 1660, Christmas became a recognized holiday once more  (although Scotland took until 1958 to adopt Christmas as a national public holiday). Soon the Christmas holiday was celebrated again and it did not take too long for it to come to the New World with a bevy of traditions still to be invented…

Next time for Part 2: Learn about some colonial American traditions,  how Christmas was “created” in the 19th century and how it has thrived in the 20th and 21st centuries!


Some books to read:

-“Christmas Past”  by Barbara Kissinger

-“The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” by John Matthews

-“Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth” by Dorothy Morrison

-“The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the  Year” by Linda Raedisch

-“Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide” by Christian Ratsch


Some Internet Websites to Check Out:










Come check at our programs here at Areteem Institute at www.areteem.org!

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Pilgrims and Pies 2 (An Historical Feast of Thanksgiving History and all of the Giblets!) – Main Course and Desserts

Pilgrims and Pies 2 (An Historical Feast of Thanksgiving History and all of the Giblets!) – Main Course and Desserts

The feast continues…

Sarah Josepha Hale and Mr. Lincoln

Sarah Josepha Hale

After the American Revolutionary War, people continued to hold more days of thanksgiving, taking George Washington’s example at the conclusion of the Revolution, as a kind of celebration and a day to remember those who died during the war. But “Thanksgiving Day” was still not the holiday we think of today. Major US holidays, like the Fourth of July and Christmas, have become federal holidays for people to take off from work and school. And we have one person to thank for making “Thanksgiving Day” one of the first major federal holidays in our history…Sarah Josepha Hale (pictured to the right).

June 1867 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book

Sarah, a prominent editor and writer during the nineteenth century for the popular “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, (pictured to the left), was also known as the writer who penned the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. She took a keen interest in Thanksgiving, especially during the height of our American Civil War. For years she wrote about the importance of having a legal Thanksgiving holiday in her magazine as well as several letters to politicians in Washington DC. Finally, after so many letters had been sent out, it was President Abraham Lincoln who listened to her persistent requests at last. In November 1863, he sent out a legal proclamation (see excerpt below) letting it be known that Thanksgiving would be a national holiday in America and to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. After Sarah was pleased with her job well-done, she started to include recipes in her magazine on how to celebrate Thanksgiving and in-so-doing provided some of the recipes of turkey, potatoes and stuffing that we now eat as part of our Thanksgiving Day feasts today. Thank you Sarah and Mr. Lincoln for our Thanksgiving holiday!

Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation

FDR and “Franksgiving”

Did you know that for a couple of years Thanksgiving Day was not held on the last Thursday of November but instead on the third Thursday of November? Yes it’s true! Between 1939-1941 during the last years of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, tipped off by a general manager in retail, actually decided to change the date of Thanksgiving going against Lincoln’s proclamation decades before. This was an attempt to start the holiday shopping season early as, shock beyond shock, it was not commonplace to display Christmas decorations and retail items prior to Thanksgiving during that time (as compared to what it is like today!). This last-minute change in the holiday, derisively dubbed “Franksgiving”, caused such a commotion among the American populace that FDR ultimately had to sign a law in 1941 which declared that Thanksgiving Day would now and         forever be held on the fourth Thursday in November, which most states adhered to immediately. In any case, thank FDR for changing the day back to normal!  

 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Football Season

Some of America’s best-loved traditions, besides gorging yourself for an entire day, not to mention all of the lovely leftovers, have included staying home indoors with your extended family, watching a Thanksgiving Day parade or playing football outdoors. The latter two options you can easily enjoy from the comfort of your living room too! So now let’s see how parades and football have become part of our Thanksgiving celebrations.  

One of the longest-running and most famous Thanksgiving parades is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City which started back in 1924 as a way for Macy’s store employees to celebrate Thanksgiving as well as usher in the Christmas shopping season. Each year more floats, balloon creatures, marching bands, celebrities and musical theater acts add to the pageantry of this event, watched by millions of people across America. Its most noted claim to fame was its appearance in the original “Miracle on 34th Street” film in 1947 featuring actual scenes from the previous year’s parade. Santa Claus always closes the event, signaling to everyone that the holiday season has arrived! 

Thanksgiving Cowboys Football Game

The annual football games on Thanksgiving Day actually first teed off back in 1876 when the Yale and Princeton college football teams competed with each other. Soon other football and athletic leagues joined suit and by the time it was a professional sport it was already an institution. With the indoctrination of the NFL in 1920, Thanksgiving games became an official tradition every year since, headed by the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions today. So whatever is your viewing preference, you will find something you can enjoy watching to honor this day!

 Pilgrim Children and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

As with many cultural American holidays, Thanksgiving is something that American children learn about when they are in preschool and elementary school. Students are told the Thanksgiving story and re-enact the events of the so-called “First Thanksgiving” in school plays, dressing up in costume as “Indians” and “Pilgrims”, oftentimes having a small Thanksgiving party or meal as well as making handy crafts for parents (anyone remember tracing their hand and attaching colorful feathers on their pieces of paper to create a hand turkey?!).

And like any American holiday, what would be complete without an annual TV special! Since they were first produced, the Peanuts specials from the 1960s to the 1990s, created by the late comic strip artist Charles Schultz, have had Charlie Brown, Snoopy and all the rest of the gang celebrating our holidays from Halloween (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown) to Christmas (A Charlie Brown Christmas) and several more. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving originally aired on CBS in 1973 and has been enjoyed by countless children and adults every year since (seen on ABC since 2001). Even this year on Wednesday November 26 you can watch it around 8pm PST on ABC (so now you know what yours truly will be doing around that time!).   

“A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” – Linus telling the Peanuts Gang about the “first” Thanksgiving

Contemporary Thanksgiving

Today, Thanksgiving is less a religious holiday and more about a time for family and friends to come together to enjoy a feast at the end of autumn. Some people even go out to help others less fortunate than themselves serving people at churches and civic centers across the country in order to provide a full Thanksgiving meal for those who attend. Thanksgiving also is the beginning of the holiday season and all of the shopping and merriment that will take place ahead (yes there can be stress too but I like to think on the positive side!). And just think it’s only a week away!  

So at your Thanksgiving table this year, whether you are enjoying lobster, ham or a “traditional” meal of turkey and stuffing, watching football or the Macy parade, going out or eating in, think of all that has come about to bring this holiday to your table for a true American pastime.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

“Freedom from Want” or “The Thanksgiving Picture” by Norman Rockwell (1943)

If you are interested in looking up some more Thanksgiving History try some of these sites:

  • http://www.plimoth.org/ A living history museum in modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts where you can learn and discover 17th century life in New England with activities themed around Thanksgiving in November
Pilgrims and Pies 1 (An Historical Feast of Thanksgiving History and all of the Giblets!) – First Course

Pilgrims and Pies 1 (An Historical Feast of Thanksgiving History and all of the Giblets!) – First Course

Thanksgiving at the Historic Plymouth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Hi Everyone, the Whisperer here at Areteem Institute is getting ready for another great day of relaxation at the end of the month. The Halloween season was wonderful but its still autumn, and although way too hot for our middle school and high school students here in southern California what better way to celebrate autumn than by eating! Yes I am talking about Thanksgiving!

Ah…Thanksgiving, that great holiday where you can take off for four or more days (kids these days sometimes get the whole week off!) to enjoy a wonderful feast that you can only eat once a year.

The Whisperer enjoys all of the favorites at his usual family gathering: turkey and gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green veggies and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. All quite delectable in their own good ways! We remember this event as the time when the Pilgrims,  a small group that numbered among many of the first settlers in the United States, enjoyed a meal with the neighboring Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, and had what we now call a day of  “thanksgiving” at the end of the harvest season. But how did Thanksgiving come about you might ask? What were the conditions the Pilgrims had to endure in their time? What about the food we eat such as the ubiquitous turkey? When did it become an American national holiday? Well just sit tight my friends, readers and students and we will catapult you through time to learn the history of Thanksgiving before the turkey runs off your plate!

Pilgrims in 17th century America

The people we now call the Pilgrims have also been referred to as “Separatists” as they did not believe in what the Church of England practiced during the 1600s in England apart from the rest of the British congregation. This group of religious dissenters assembled together and first traveled to the Netherlands to escape religious persecution. They came back to England and with the help of their soon-to-be governor William Bradford collected the necessary supplies and money to embark on a voyage over the Atlantic Ocean to the New World.

The Mayflower II, a reconstruction of the original Mayflower

After making all of the preparations about 102 passengers with Captain Myles Standish on board, set off on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England in September 1620. They had to endure poor and cramped living conditions out on the raging ocean, with many people dying on board. Land was not spotted until November 1620 which was a blessing for the remaining passengers on board during the long journey. Unfortunately their ship had gone too far north than their planned destination in North America and took several days by land and by sea until they reached the historic “Plymouth Rock”. Before disembarking they created a legal document known as the Mayflower Compact in order to set up a new colony and is considered America’s first step at democracy.

The reconstructed “Plimouth Plantation” in Massachusetts

 They established what is now known as Plymouth Colony before joining the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony several decades later. For the next year they had to learn to live off the land, growing their own food and having to endure constant sickness and disease with very few people surviving the harsh winter of 1620-1621. If it was not for a  native Patuxent tribesman named Squanto, who had learned to speak English from past British settlers, they would not have established their agricultural way of life.

 The “First” Thanksgiving

With help from Squanto and the neighboring Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims were able to become more self-sufficient in their new home learning to grow herbs, fruits (like pumpkins!) and vegetables native to America as well as how to hunt and cook their own meat. The surviving 47 or so settlers of men, women and children were able to enjoy a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621, marking a year after their arrival in the New World. After the harvest had been collected, Squanto, Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag and around ninety of his tribesman gathered together with the Pilgrim settlers bringing deer along with them while the Pilgrims hunted for wild fowl. Over a three day period they “entertained and feasted” (cited from Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation) , giving thanks to the harvest and of the year they had spent adjusting to a new way of life.


“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Governor William Bradford recorded this singular event, along with first-hand accounts of the Pilgrims’ and later the Puritans’ way of life from their arrival in 1620 through the 1640s in his work, Of Plymouth Plantation. Later Puritan settler and leader named Edward Winslow, who came after the feast, related about early life in Puritan New England, including a mention of the “first” Thanksgiving in his book called Mourt’s Relation, which he co-wrote with William Bradford. If not for Winslow’s book and Bradford’s accounts, we might not have known anything about what we now call our “first” Thanksgiving. Soon after the Pilgrims were settled into their new home across the Atlantic, they were joined by other members of the Puritan faith and so the seeds of the New England colonies started to take form. (A brief note to distinguish between the Pilgrims and the Puritans: the Pilgrims had “separated” from the Church of England but were still members of the Puritan religion while Puritans at large were mostly still linked with the Church of England and called for strict and conservative reforms from within).

A Picture into the Past – what the first Thanksgiving may have looked like

Onto the feast

So now we know about the Pilgrims, what about the turkey? Why is it a part of Thanksgiving? Although turkeys were indeed prominent and native to America, it may or may not have been eaten by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 or even the later feast held in 1623. Over time it may have been substituted being such a large bird found here in America to eat and has since graced our tables and has become a major iconic symbol for the holiday. An historical note of interest is that Benjamin Franklin actually proposed for the national bird to represent the new United States of America to be none other than a turkey. (Despite all of its delicious properties are we not glad we settled with the eagle instead, let Tom Turkey be the mascot of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day…but I get ahead of myself!)

Days of Fast and Thanksgiving and other Harvest Festivals

Now our American Thanksgiving holiday is not the only “thanksgiving” that has been celebrated before or since. We just refer to the historical event as a prominent recorded Thanksgiving Day which took place on American shores. Others had in fact occurred in the 16th and early 17th centuries by the Spanish and the British colonists who settled in Jamestown, Virginia. Also, the Puritans held their own “days of thanksgiving” with prayer and fasting as part of their religion. Our first American Thanksgiving was in essence a mixture of a harvest festival and a religious day of prayer. This is not something unique to the first settlers of America but indeed was practiced by our Native American ancestors to thank nature for her bounty and is a common festival that was and still is celebrated around the world with the end of the harvest season such as the one celebrated to honor the goddess Demeter in ancient Greece or even the Jewish festival of Sukkot. (Remember the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrated in China from the September holiday issue, it was also a harvest festival). Canada celebrates a Thanksgiving Day similar to the one celebrated in the United States that takes place a month before on October 12th every year. But the question still remains, how did we make Thanksgiving a “national holiday”?

                                                                                            Stay tuned to find out more!

What is Halloween? – From Medieval Hallowmas and Dias de Los Muertos to the Present! – Part 2

We’re back to continue our thousand year journey through history to learn about Halloween and its unique customs and traditions. Let’s speed through time now and learn how Halloween has evolved from European Medieval practices and how it has been celebrated in early colonial America up to the Present-Day!

But first, let’s stop and learn a little about another noteworthy celebration that is a very unique incarnation of Halloween and not Halloween at all at the same time!- The Days of the Dead, known as Los Dias de los Muertos in Mexico!

La Calavera de la Catrina - Jose Guadalupe Posada

La Calavera de la Catrina – Jose Guadalupe Posada

When the Spanish Catholics started journeying to the New World in the 16th century and came across the indigenous peoples of Central America, they discovered that they had their own festival to honor the dead. The Aztecs, for instance, honored their goddess Mictecacihuatl who ruled the Underworld and believed that the spirits of the dead returned to visit them. They felt these spirits should not be mourned but rather to be celebrated. The ancient practices of this festival and other Mesoamerican traditions somehow merged together with the Catholic All Hallowstide and what came from these is the elaborate and colorful pageantry that is known as “Los Dias de los Muertos”, the Days of the Dead Ones, celebrated primarily in Mexico but throughout Central, South and even North America amongst Spanish-speaking communities.

The Days of the Dead in Mexico are a happy and celebratory time that makes light of the dead and the concept of death with all of the figures and costumes that come with this time. People prepare special food, like pan de muerto “bread of the dead” (pictured below left) as well as create beautiful ofrendas (altars) (pictured below right) to deceased relatives in their homes and in public spaces, decorating them with marigolds, an ancient Mexican flower of the dead, food and beverages that were liked by the person when they were alive. On November 1st,  the souls of children are believed to visit the living while November 2nd is the main festival Day of the Dead to honor all departed souls. Here people picnic amongst the gravestones of their loved ones, singing, dancing, playing music and talking with each other about times gone by. People are not mourning the fate of their own mortality but rather celebrating death as another aspect of life.

Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead)ofrenda de muertos

During this time at the end of October and early November, and even today in Catholic parts of the world, people visit cemeteries, as in the picture below in Mexico, lighting candles, bringing flowers and attending special “requiem” masses to honor their loved ones. One tradition that came from the medieval period that was practiced around this time, and even around other holidays too like the Christmas and Easter seasons, was ritual begging. In this case, the All Hallowmass begging was known as “souling” where children and the poor went door to door, especially to the homes of the wealthy, asking for “soul cakes” or food in exchange to pray for the household’s loved ones to escape the middle spirit realm known as Purgatory, where souls were “purged” of their sins, so that they could go to Heaven. This practice of ritual begging, which continued in other forms such as European mumming troupes, asking for money to build Guy Fawkes effigies to set on fire during the British Bonfire Night and the Scottish and Irish guising (guise being another name for costume) are all thought to be the ancestor to the American custom of children going around their neighborhoods on Halloween  night “trick or treating”.

Cemetery at Night on Day of the Dead

The “soulers” asking for “an apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry/ any good thing to make us all merry” as one soul cake song goes, were adding to as well as re-creating a belief that spirits around this time could be appeased by providing food and beverage to the dead. So the trick or treaters we see around Halloween masquerading in costume are, metaphorically speaking, like the ghosts that haunt this holiday’s imagery, asking for candy in order to appease them. By wearing masks and costumes they disguise their identities in order to be someone they admire or want to be like, with some of the more “traditional” disguises of ghosts, devils and witches, all part of Halloween’s history, appearing every year. All of this in turn has become one of the most prominent customs of American Halloween (Really who wouldn’t want to wear a costume in order to get free food!).


Halloween Trick or Treaters

To speed things up, the “Catholic” Halloween was met with much opposition when the various “Protestant” sects came into power across Europe and England. As a result, its festivities were stunted and even the Calvinist Puritans who came to North America in the 17th century did not celebrate Halloween. However some parts of the United States not settled by the Puritans, predominantly in the South including Virginia and Maryland, where more Catholic and Anglican groups emigrated to, did in fact celebrate Halloween. In the late 18th and early 19th  centuries, autumn gatherings were popular for the first people of America where people would come together for dancing, merriment and preparing for the winter ahead with the harvest season and the making of warm quilts, among other activities such as fortune-telling. These get-togethers were known as “play parties” (see the painting below) with the British versions of these called Snap Apple or Nutcrack Night, featuring much of the harvest imagery we associate with Halloween today.  Even American author Washington Irving has his spindly schoolmaster Ichabod Crane attend one of these fall parties in the hopes of winning the hand of the wealthy farmer’s daughter, Katrina van Tassel in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

"Snap Apple Night" by Daniel Maclise (1833)

“Snap Apple Night” by Daniel Maclise (1833)

With the arrival of many Irish immigrants in the 19th century due to the potato famine, ghost stories, love divinations, witches, black cats, etc. were thrown into the brewing cauldron of Halloween. Long story short about why witches are part of Halloween is that they were thought to be evil practitioners of magic and so were seen as a threat to God and the Church. As a way to ultimately destroy pagan beliefs, the gods, goddesses and nature spirits such as faeries of the Celtic, Roman and Germanic traditions of Europe were corrupted into devils and demons in the medieval period as a way to steer people away from these so-called “barbarian” practices that were seen as creations of Satan, the adversary of the Christian God. People who still kept to the old ways, practiced folk magic or worked with elements of nature were thus seen as threats to the Church. For three centuries in Europe, from around the 1400s to the 1700s,  men, predominantly women, children and even animals were tried in court and killed, either by hanging (for a civil crime) or burning at the stake (for a religious crime),  for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. The famous Salem Witch Trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in early America, is a direct result of this persecution against so-called “witches”. Black cats became associated with Halloween as they were thought to be the witch’s familiar, either  a witch or an evil spirit in disguise.

The Victorians took a keen interest in romanticizing the past and so, like Christmas, “resurrected” and invented new traditions for Halloween. For example, the jack o’lantern was  used as a Halloween decoration. In Ireland, turnips, beets and a similar vegetable called the mangelwurzel were carved with faces to serve as lanterns and to scare away any evil spirits, like the ancient Samhain bonfires did centuries before. Pumpkins, a native fruit to the Americas, was in larger abundance in North America and soon people started to carve these into the jack o’lanterns we known today, becoming one of the major symbols of Halloween. You can look up the story of Stingy Jack (the real “Jack of the Lantern”) and his turnip lantern if you like!

Traditional Irish Halloween Jack-o'-lantern

Traditional Irish Halloween Jack-o’-lantern

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Halloween became more of a children’s holiday. To counteract much of the mischief and vandalism that was prevalent around Halloween night in the 1920s and 1930s, cities started to hold community-wide parties and parades along with “trick or treating” emerging as a way to keep children in line with the threat of a “trick” when not receiving a treat, be it food or money, disappearing into no more than the famous chant used today. It was not until after World War II in the 1950s and 1960s that Halloween became the way we know it today: children trick or treating in costume, attending parties and putting up fun and scary decorations. Despite fear over alleged contaminated candy and treats during the later 1960s and 1970s which proved to be mere urban legend, Halloween still came through as a popular holiday. In the latter part of the 20th century and into our own time now, Halloween has become a day for everyone, adults and children alike, where we can scare ourselves silly at creepy “haunted house” attractions full of costumed monsters, dance the night away at themed costume parties and get tons of candy!

So see there is much more about Halloween and its brethren celebrations than you thought you knew! All of these celebrate life and death, day and night, summer and winter and light and dark, the dual forces of nature that we have and will always think about, honoring, celebrating and pondering over what make us human with all the mysteries of the universe and whether there is in fact life everlasting.Nighttime Bonfire

And so I close by wishing you all a Happy Hallowe’en, Samhain, Dias de los Muertos and Bonfire Night!


Stingy Jack and his Lantern

For some good books on Halloween and Days of the Dead you can read:

  • “Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History”  and “Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night” by the renowned  Halloween scholar, Lesley Pratt Bannatyne (check out her website!).
  • “The Days of the Dead: Mexico’s Festival of Communion with the Departed” by John Greenleigh
  • “Day of the Dead” by Tony Johnston and Jeanette Winter (as a fun introduction to Dias de los Muertos)!
  • “The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark  Half of the Year” by Jean Markale
  • “The Real Halloween: Ritual and Magic for the New Millenium” by Sheena Morgan
  • “Halloween” by Silver Ravenwolf
  • “Halloween and Other Festivals of Life and Death” by renowned Halloween scholar, Jack Santino  (check out this article he wrote about Halloween on the American Folklife Center website!).

And many more!




What is Halloween? – Ancient Origins and Festivities for the Dark Half of the Year! – Part 1

Samhain- Celtic New Year’s Festival of the Dead


Hello my fellow readers, new and old, the Whisperer is back to tell you all about his favorite time of year as we slowly approach a certain date on the calendar. The nights are getting longer and colder, the leaves have changed into beautiful shades of red, orange, yellow and brown as they fall effortlessly from trees and the smell of pumpkins is everywhere (from pumpkin bread and pies to the famous Starbucks pumpkin lattes there is much to celebrate about this fruit (its not a vegetable)…but we will get back to them in a bit, I promise!).

To start off with Halloween is in fact the Whisperer’s favorite holiday! I love the masquerade side of Halloween and the decorations and treats and all of the fun and dark elements that are mixed together to create what we know of Halloween today as an American holiday. But then again what is Halloween really? How did it come to be? Why do we do the things we do at this time of year such as carving jack o’lanterns, putting up images of ghosts and witches and going trick or treating on the night of  October 31st?

There is certainly more to this day, and other fall and harvest-related festivals that take place around this time of year that many people may not know about. For certain though, despite popular misconceptions, it is NOT the “Devil’s Holiday” nor does it have anything to do with Satanism. Like many of the major holidays with Christian traditions, such as Christmas and Easter, Halloween has pagan roots that dealt with nature worship and veneration for departed ancestors (So yes the Christmas tree put up every year has ancient Norse origins before it became a Christian symbol, surprise, surprise!). So gather around the hearth fire my dearies and let’s go on a very brief and concise journey through time to learn about some of these holidays and their probable origins. The rest you can research in your good free time!

So, Halloween. Many scholars, historians and folklorists from around the world have agreed that the main predecessor to Halloween was  an ancient pre-Christian festival celebrated in Ireland known as Samhain (meaning roughly in Gaelic, the native language of the people of Ireland, “the end of summer”). It was a time celebrated by the tribal people known as the Celts at the end of their harvest season, bringing in crops and animals from the fields for the coming winter and one of four major “fire festivals” to mark major transitions in the seasonal year, in this case from summer to winter. Tribes came together to discuss business and politics as well as for feasting and remembering their departed ancestors as they prepared for the harshest season  ahead where death could be knocking at anyone’s door.

Pictured below is a contemporary Samhain gathering at the Hill of Ward in County Meath (Tlachta in Gaelic) in Ireland where Samhain was allegedly started and now is home to the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival!. Halloween is still celebrated as Samhain by many Neo-Pagan, Wiccan and modern-day Druid faiths and groups, harkening back to our ancient past by incorporating elements of a harvest festival and a time to honor the dead. It one of the most important holidays in the “Wheel of the Year“, splitting the seasonal year into eight equal parts, each with its own unique name, stemming from Celtic and northern European/Germanic festivals of the past.

Hill of Ward Halloween/Samhain Celebration

The Celts believed in a universal duality seen in nature and so split their “calendar” year into the “light” (Summer) and “dark” (Winter) halves of the year and Samhain, the beginning of their winter, was also the Celtic New Year’s festival. As it was believed to be a “time outside time” between one year and the next, people thought this created a portal and that the spirits of the dead, gods and fairies could come into our world, and likewise we into theirs and interact with the living, emerging from the mounds of ancient tombs, built long before the time of the Celts, that were later called fairy or “Sidhe” mounds seen across Ireland today (pictured below right). People looked to their priestly caste called the Druids for guidance as it was a great time for divination and communion with the dead in order to discover the health and well-being of the entire community and in some respects this group could connect our association with witches and magic makers with Halloween.

Bonfires were lit across the hills of ancient Ireland, starting from the Hill of Tlachta to the political site of the Irish kings at the Hill of Tara to surrounding areas. People would extinguish their own hearth fires and leave out food and beverages outside their home for wandering spirits to “consume”. They would then attend communal bonfires and festivities for three days and take a bit of the smoldering fire and bring it back to their homes, when the festival ended, to relight their own fires thus ensuring health and prosperity for their families in the New Year.  These bonfires served a dual purpose, so it is believed, to both welcome the kindly spirits of ancestors as well as to frighten away unwanted spirits (not demons as that is a Judeo-Christian belief!) who could possess or do harm to the living as well as to their livestock and crops (Remember that this was an agrarian society so a majority of their lifestyles depended upon working and living off the land so any blight or foul weather meant the community could be at risk. These issues were usually  blamed upon ghosts and earthly and otherworldly spirits, so people tried to best to appease them so as not to incur their anger). With all of these elements put together (e.g. ghosts, magic, fire, darkness and the night) we have the basic ingredients for Halloween.

(Sidhe) Fairy Mound

Later when Europe and the British Isles (the latter where Halloween was celebrated in Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom as well as in Brittany in northern France) were being converted to Christianity in the early Medieval period, the Catholic Church decided not to abolish old pagan holidays altogether but to instead allow people to continue celebrating their traditions but now as worshipers of the Christian God. During the Middle Ages, the Church tried to incorporate “Samhain” and other pagan festivals together by giving people days to honor their dead but now as Christians. All Saints’ Day, a holy day to honor early Christian martyrs without a feast day of their own, was created to counteract pagan worship and came as a result of the re-commemoration of the Pantheon temple in Rome as the  “Church of St Mary and the Martyrs” by Pope Boniface IV.  Early Christians  first tried to “de-paganize” an ancient Roman festival of the dead called Lemuria around May 13 and so this date was set aside as “All Saints’ Day” .  Later the date of All Saints’ Day  was moved to November 1st by  Pope Gregory III to “de-paganize” the Gaelic festival of Samhain. It was Pope Gregory IV that extended this feast day to all of the Christian world at that time. This was the first step to create a Christian festival of the dead. Centuries later All Souls’ Day, to commemorate all people who have passed away, was then placed on November 2nd, after All Saints Day.

In old English, the word for “saint” was also “hallow” and so All Saints Day was known as All Hallows Day. The day before was then called “All Hallows’ Evening” or “All Hallows’ Eve”, the date formerly known as Samhain to the ancient and medieval people of Ireland.  Over time, especially with Scottish influence, this became shortened to “Hallowe’en” and soon became the day we all know today…Halloween. All three days were put together as a triumvirate, akin to the three days Samhain was supposed to be celebrated over, and it became known as “All Hallowstide” or “Hallowmas” by the Catholic Church. So we have the medieval Christians to thank for giving this holiday its modern name!


The Day of the Dead and Bonfire Night

Other holidays similar to Samhain and Hallowmas came into being later on. For instance,  in Mexico to this day people remember their dearly departed loved ones during the Days of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos), a  holiday mixing together ancient indigenous and Spanish Catholic traditions that takes place from October 31st to November 2nd, the dates of All Hallowstide in Europe. More on this wonderful holiday later…

“Across the pond” on November 5th, people all across England will be celebrating Bonfire Night, commemorating the night back in 1605 when the plot to blow up the Protestant-run House of Lords in Parliament  by Guy Fawkes and his Catholic conspirators was foiled. Originally this holiday was predominantly an anti-Catholic one, with the heated tension between these two Christian traditions, but has now become a secular holiday for the whole family to celebrate out of doors on the night of. This holiday indeed incorporated some elements of Halloween and Samhain from around this time such as the prominent bonfires and begging traditions, however there is no concrete link to support this as people in England celebrate Bonfire Night to commemorate a one-time historical event- that of a failed political plot.

Our British compatriots enjoy eating toffee (caramel) apples, drinking mulled wine and watching elaborate fireworks (pictured left in London) and bonfire displays. One of the largest events takes place in Lewes, England (pictured above center and right) with various communities dressing up in costume, parading down the street with lit torches and setting on fire an effigy of Guy Fawkes, just like children had been doing years and years before asking for money shouting  “a penny for the guy” in order to buy firewood and materials to light bonfires and make Guy Fawkes effigies.  Most people outside of the UK know about Guy Fawkes thanks to the comic book series and movie “V for Vendetta”, but do know that Bonfire Night is quite popular in England and people love it just as much as we do for Halloween here in the States.


Guy Fawkes Effigy

London Fireworks Display for Bonfire Night


Annual Lewes Bonfire Night Parade


All of these holidays that are shown here, from Samhain and Hallowmas to Dia de los Muertos and Bonfire Night are unique in their own right but they do share some similarities: festive occasions occurring at the end of autumn and the harvest season, a time and place to remember the dead who return to visit the living and the lighting of many, mostly bonfires, fireworks, candles and jack o’lanterns, that are and were used for multiple reasons.


Samhain Bonfire

Tune in next time to hear more about the story of Halloween and other dark holidays from time of the Celts into the present day,  don’t fly off your broomstick yet!