On Solstices, Equinoxes and Cross Quarter Holidays
Imbolc, the Celtic pagan holiday on February 1, and the time of the Lunar New Year really mark the advent of spring in California, at least here in Sonoma County. The daffodils I planted in November are in full bloom. Just before a series of atmospheric rivers dumped 18 inches of rain (about three times the normal rainfall), we installed a water catchment system with swales in the front yard and three 1000-gallon tanks. Our system worked well to save water for future irrigation and to direct it away from the house. The January rains filled creeks to overflowing and greened the grass, although storms also felled many trees and resulted in flooding and some deaths.
The earth is turning and the light is returning, but it’s still dark at 5 AM when I go out to look for the comet called ZTF. I haven’t been able to see it yet, but skies have been clear lately and I keep trying. The comet can be found in the north sky between the north star and the big dipper. It will be closest to Earth on February 2. It’s green! Perhaps a sign?
A bit of angst seizes me whenever I look up for the comet. I can’t help thinking about the movie Don’t Look Up. We watched it again recently and it was just as hilarious and sobering as the first time. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you must! It’s a metaphor for climate change that hits us over the head hard, but lately I’m thinking nothing can be too subtle for us humans. (My friends, I’m not talking about you. I know you are aware and doing all you can do to avert the predicted climate disaster).
Every day, as the green comet comes closer, I’ve looked for it with binoculars, but it keeps eluding me. So we bought a telescope. I found two telescopes in town–an inexpensive one at a sporting goods store and a more expensive one at a camera store. I’m new at this so figured the cheaper one would be just fine. We brought it home and tried to figure out how to use it. It seemed so simple. We followed the spare directions but failed to make it work. We tried and tried. The manufacturer didn’t have decent assembly instructions. So we looked online for videos and found one in Spanish, but as neither of us understands the language (a failing I’ve always regretted) we didn’t really get it. Plus, to set the focus each time you have to bend over in a way that my old neck will no longer allow.
So I boxed the telescope back up and returned it. Then we bought the expensive one. This thoroughly modern telescope was made in France and must be connected to wifi and a computerized device. Directions say we can have as many as ten devices so we imagine we can host star watching parties where all the guests could see the comet, or the moon, or planets on their ipads. That’s the fantasy anyway. Still is.
We were directed to connect to the manufacturer’s wifi network, which didn’t come up on my phone. Later I was able to log on but couldn’t figure out the next step. Instructions are not terribly helpful. Are they translated? Or are we just too old to understand? Normally this tech breakdown would have me throwing up my hands in despair. But my wife Holly is kind of a tech wizard (witch?) and I depend on her to solve these problems. She couldn’t, but she is sanguine and so I haven’t lost hope that we can figure it out. Maybe I’ll see the green comet yet. It won’t be back around again for 50,000 years. I just can’t wait that long.
Aside from my unfulfilled obsession with the comet, life is good for us in Santa Rosa. We are thankful for our good fortune, but at the same time we are anguished by the growing wealth gap and the failure of our society to care for those more needy than we. The capitalist system values nothing as much as making (or stealing) money, assigning those with other priorities to the losers column.
My angst is multiplied by the recent explosion of gun violence especially in the past couple of weeks. California, with the strictest gun laws in the country, experienced some of the worst violence. We lesbian feminists laugh (and cry) about testosterone poisoning, and I do think that simple theory has some truth to it. Systems breakdowns and our society’s failure to prioritize the common good contribute. Gun violence has worsened with the proliferation of guns, but it has been going on for a long time. January 30 is the 75thanniversary of the shooting death of Mahatma Ghandi.
I support taking away the guns. That’s what Cheryl Wheeler sang. Her song, If It Were Up to Me, was written after the Stockton school shooting in 1989 and it still applies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op7agdIFOGY
If you don’t know Cheryl Wheeler, check her out. She writes funny songs too. My Cat’s Birthday comes to mind. We lesbians do love our cats.
Years ago my wife Holly and I invented a solstice ritual we named the Twelve Days of Solstice, starting on the solstice, December 21, and ending with New Year’s day. We made up our own daily rituals and customs, observing the natural world and the changing of the seasons.
Our invention was aimed at supplanting the christian holiday. We are both ex-christians, she tortured by a more evangelical denomination than me by my pale protestant presbyterian sect.
My antipathy has been mostly aimed toward catholicism, a particularly misogynist, patriarchal, racist, and homophobic cult whose latest endeavor is covering up its sexual abuse of children. It is only the most powerful example of christian horror, but there are many more worldwide who hide behind religion to perpetrate evil.
We want no part of this and so we eschew the trappings of christian holidays. However, we do feel the need for tradition and ritual in our lives and so must invent our own. This year in the wake of a worldwide fascist assault on democracy I was feeling a bit depressed in mid-November and sought holiday solace.
“Let’s start celebrating solstice early!” I entreated.
The festive custom of tree decorating is not owned by the christians. It was stolen from pagan religions and so I feel very good about reclaiming this pagan tradition. The term pagan was historically used by christians to refer to everyone not christian, so it includes all of us non-christians.
I checked around and there were no trees nor boughs to be bought until the day after Thanksgiving. So, after considering and rejecting cutting our own, on the morning of November 25th we drove directly to Grandma’s tree farm a few miles out in the country. People had already stormed the farm, a magical place with a huge old barn decorated to the rafters for the season. There was hot chocolate waiting, a flocking room, a real antique sleigh for kids to play on and all the ornaments and boughs and trees of every size.
We bought evergreen boughs for the mantle, adorable bird decorations and, of course, a tree, cut and carried by an agile worker who told me he has a landscape company in other seasons.
For the next couple of days we decorated the tree, taking all the time we felt like because why should we be in a hurry? One point of invention is to overcome all the obligations that make this holiday stressful. Like shopping. We are made to feel like we will be responsible for the U.S. economy failing if we don’t spend tons of money. Retailers depend on this holiday to bring in 40 percent of their annual revenue, an unsustainable economic program that bankrupts the poor and does not fit well with our effort to consume less.
With a much longer holiday schedule than usual, we were designing rituals for a month of celebrating instead of just the 12 days of solstice. Ok but no pressure. Instead, I decided to just appreciate the revelatory events that happened to me daily.
Nov. 24 As I planted 40 daffodils in the front yard, I thought bulb planting must be added to our annual constellation of solstice rituals.
Nov. 30 It froze! Contemplating the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, we acknowledged the wilting of the big flowers in our yard. The tree dahlia, which at nearly 20 feet tall had only just started blooming, died. And the huge marigold that had appeared late in the fall, maybe from a wildflower mix, froze. We appreciate that nothing is truly perfect or permanent.
Dec. 1 Then it stormed! We got an inch of rain. We invoked Tefnut, the Egyptian goddess of rain and moisture, responsible for maintaining life, as we watched the bright leaves fall from the trees.
Dec. 3 As I picked the first oranges from our tree and made juice, I called in Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest. When her daughter Persephone returns to Hades each winter, the plants die, only to be reborn when she returns in spring. The orange, one plant that the gods apparently overlooked, produces fruit all winter.
Dec. 7 I’m witness to a supernatural event at 5am while I soak in the hot tub. The sheet metal cap on the chimney glows with an amazingly bright light. I feel this is like seeing the virgin Mary on a slice of toast–positively spiritual. The cap continues to glow and I wonder what the universe is trying to tell me. It was so bright I couldn’t imagine what the light source could be. Could the light be coming from inside the house? Of course, it was the setting full moon shining at a direct angle, but so otherworldly that I wanted to take a picture to let someone else in on my religious experience. Who would believe me? Will I be the Cassandra of Hylandia?
I can find no goddess of chimneys nor sheet metal nor chimney caps, so I’ll have to decide whether to check in with one of many goddesses of the hearth. Or perhaps the moon was communicating with me through the chimney cap, in which case I can consult any number of moon goddesses like Selene, the Greek personification of the moon.
The universe is definitely talking to me.
Dec. 8 We spent a lovely couple of hours walking at the ocean with Holly’s brother and wife and afterward I happily consumed the sacred molluscs, oysters. Is there a seafood goddess? Maybe not exactly, but Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, was born in an oyster so she knew something about them.
Then on our way back from the ocean we hit only green lights on Guerneville Road. A total miracle! I didn’t even have to invoke Asphalta, the goddess of roads and highways, because I know that she is watching over us, especially when we look for parking. We recite the prayer “Hail Asphalta full of grace, help me find a parking place.” Then we rub the sacred crystals which are pieces of asphalt adorned with the yellow line, enclosed in an orange bag that hangs from the car’s mirror. Asphalta’s priestesses are the flag women of the highways. The goddess was invented by my friend Morgan Grey for a book called Found Goddesses and so fits right in with our effort to invent rituals.
Finding the sacred in my everyday life has definitely improved my spirits. It’s worked so well that I might have to continue this practice for the rest of the year.
Happy solstice my friends, however you choose to celebrate it.
Halloween might be the one pagan holiday that neither the Romans nor the catholic church could suppress or usurp, even after centuries of trying.
The Celt holiday of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) celebrated the end of summer and the start of winter. Celts believed that on the night of October 31 the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. People lit sacred bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. In some places, people doused their hearth fires on Samhain night; then each family solemnly re-lit its hearth from the communal bonfire, thus bonding the community together.
The Celts lived 2000 years ago in what later became Ireland, the UK and northern France. The 400-year occupation by the Romans left some cultural traditions. At Feralia the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. And the festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol is the apple, was held November 1. In Celtic mythology, apples were strongly associated with the Otherworld and immortality.
Then the christians invaded. Over the centuries, a couple of popes made the effort to subsume the pagan holiday under a new Christian one on November 2, All Souls Day. As with other pagan holidays, it is widely understood that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned holiday.
But the old customs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. Instead, the first night of Samhain, October 31, became All Hallows Day Evening, the night before the saints were venerated. That name eventually morphed into Halloween. One of the rituals adopted from the Celts waspumpkin carving, which held religious significance. The jack-o-lantern custom consisted of placing fire—which imitates the good magic of the sun—inside a hollowed out vegetable (usually a turnip), representing the harvest. The hope was that the good magic would help to preserve the harvested food through the dark half of the year, until the next growing season could replenish the community’s food stocks.
The practice of trick-or-treating began as the Celtic custom of giving token bits of the harvest to spirits wandering outside of houses on the evening of Samhain to placate them and prevent them from doing destructive things to the harvest or to homes.
Centuries later, Halloween customs were brought to the U.S. by immigrants from Ireland, Scotland and other ancient homelands of the Celts. That’s when pumpkins took over from turnips to make jack-o-lanterns, a modern advancement.
Here in Santa Rosa, Holly and I have invented new rituals and customs for Samhain.
The blessing of the flip flops. During the changing of the footwear we remove our flip flops and put them away for the winter after kissing them and telling them we appreciate their hard work of protecting our feet all summer. Then we don our winter slippers.
The beanie and toque resurrection. We bring down the box of winter hats, scarves and gloves from the top shelf of the closet where they have patiently waited all summer.
The moving of the deck furniture. All summer the outdoor couch has sat in the shade where we could be comfortable even on hot days. At this time of year we move the couch to a sunny spot on the deck near the house. The ceremony consists of grabbing the couch, saying one two three up and carefully carrying it to its new place.
The building of the ofrenda. Our little Dia de los Muertos altar sits on the fireplace mantle where we assemble pictures and clay figurines of friends and family who have died. We are reminded that many cultures remember their dead at this time of year.
The planting of the peas, the harvesting of persimmons and pomegranates. October is the time to plant sugar snap peas so we can eat them right off the vine in Spring. We also plant cover crops and colorful flowers like violas and pansies to keep us smiling through the winter. My favorite fall salad is made with persimmons, pomegranates, pecans and pears with a citrus dressing (I call it the P salad).
Wishing you, your pods and families a happy Halloween.
I’m writing this during a gentle rainstorm that has elicited delight among denizens here in Santa Rosa. Our weather station says it has brought a little less than an inch of rain. We are humbled when we think of raging floods elsewhere in the world but of course what we worry about at this time of the year is fire. Word is that the rain has dampened our biggest California fire, the Mosquito Fire, which has burned 75,000 acres in the Sierra foothills and is now 35 percent contained. This rain may not put an end to fire season, but we hope, as the fall equinox approaches, it marks the beginning of the end. This year the autumn equinox takes place on September 22, when the sun crosses the equator making night and day of equal length in all parts of the earth.
In Japan the equinox symbolizes the middle way between the seasons. This week will mark the start of Higan, a seven-day Buddhist celebration and national holiday in Japan during the fall and spring equinoxes. The origin of the holiday dates from Emperor Shomu in the 8th century. Higan means the “other shore” and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana. It is a time to remember the dead by visiting, cleaning, and decorating their graves. The red spider lily signals shūbun, the arrival of fall.
Buddhist psychology is neither a path of denial nor of affirmation. It shows us the paradox of the universe, within and beyond the opposites. It teaches us to be in the world but not of the world. This realization is called the middle way.
If we seek happiness purely through indulgence, we are not free. If we fight against ourselves and reject the world, we are not free. It is the middle path that brings freedom. This is a universal truth discovered by all those who awaken.
The middle way describes the middle ground between attachment and aversion, between being and non-being, between form and emptiness, between free will and determinism. The more we delve into the middle way the more deeply we come to rest between the play of opposites.
When we discover the middle path, we neither remove ourselves from the world nor get lost in it. We can be with all our experience in its complexity, with our own exact thoughts and feelings and drama. We learn to embrace tension, paradox, change. Instead of seeking resolution, waiting for the chord at the end of a song, we let ourselves open and relax in the middle. In the middle we discover that the world is workable. From the book The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
Here in Sonoma County at fall equinox we celebrate the end of those super hot days of summer. There was a day in August when we set a heat record of 115 degrees here.
We may still get some 90 degree days, but the withering heat is behind us and the cold of winter is yet to come. No more flex alerts! We look forward to enjoying the outdoors in this mild season.
Like all Californians we are conserving water during an ongoing drought. Our vegetable garden is not as robust and productive as in wetter years, but native plants thrive. Favorites include native Epilobium in bright reds and pinks, eriogonum (wild buckwheat), and a purple native aster given to us by a neighbor, still blooming happily without water! Birds of all feathers converge on our garden to eat the seeds of spent wildflower blooms.
I first learned of the August Celtic harvest festival, Lughnasa, from the play Dancing at Lughnasa. Written by the “Irish Chekhov” Brian Friel and first produced in Ireland in 1990, the play examines the cultural war between the catholic church and the old pagan religions it sought to destroy. Did destroy.
Set in County Donegal in 1936, the tale is told by the boy, Michael, of the summer when the family life carefully constructed by his mother and her four sisters begins to disintegrate. Their only brother, Uncle Jack, returns from 25 years in Africa, where he was sent to practice colonialism as a catholic priest, and has gone native. Supposed to be a “visible saint, exemplar of ideal piety in a sea of persistent savagery,” he responds more to the drumming and fires of the pagan celebrations than to catholic doctrine. When the local priest learns of Jack’s pagan “conversion,” he fires Kate, the oldest sister and the only one of the five sisters with a paying job, from the school where she teaches. Two other sisters made some money knitting gloves until a glove factory opens nearby. Then the family, already dirt poor, suddenly has no income, destroyed by the church, patriarchy and capitalism in concert.
The movie version, made in 1998, starring Meryl Streep as the conventional Kate and the Irish actor Michael Gambon as befuddled Uncle Jack is well worth watching. If you require car crashes or murders or automatic weapons, you will be disappointed. But these actors do a fine job portraying this resourceful proud Irish family in a beautiful rural setting.
A newly acquired wireless radio works on and off and provides a musical background to the family’s drama. We hear popular Western songs of the day, but it’s only when Irish music begins to play that the five sisters’ feet set to tapping and they dance with wild abandon, even priggish Kate, proving there’s still some pagan left in the Irish culture.
Michael’s father, absent for 18 months, returns on a motorbike but does not intend to stay. He plans to join the International Brigades to fight for democracy in the Spanish Civil War. Uncle Jack asks if the catholic church is for the dictator Franco. Yes, says Gerry Evans, the father. “They would be,” answers Jack.
Young Gerry says the war will probably be over by Christmas. Old Jack replies, “They say that about all wars.”
Says Kate, “It’s a sad day for Ireland when we send off our boys to fight for godless communism.”
Fr. Jack says he has been called away from the church to “the god of light, god of music.” He hints at his homosexuality when asked by Michael to whom he sings. With a nostalgic expression, he says it is his African houseboy. Jack has been given a feathered baroque helmet by an African priest. Colorful and magisterial, with its tall red and white feathers, it could be a piece of African regalia. But it is a remnant of British imperialism. The hat, reminiscent of a prop from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, has made its way from the British imperial army to Africa and back again. Ironic because the Irish themselves were slaves to English colonialism.
In the movie, on the night of Lughnasa, fires can be seen burning in the “black hills” of Donegal where bits of the old religions are still practiced. People gather to drink, dance, and jump the fire. From Fr. Jack we learn of the African goddess, Opis (pronounced Opee), the great chthonian goddess of the earth. The Chthonian deities are the manifestations of the Great Goddess, like Gaia or Ge. Jack explains to the family how the Ugandans celebrate the harvest festival. August is the time of the new yam and the sweet cassava. “The Africans cut and anoint the new yam and pass it around. They light fires and paint their faces and they dance and dance and lose all sense of time.” It is easy to see why Jack has renounced repressive catholicism for a freer earth-based religious experience.
Here in Santa Rosa there is good reason to celebrate the harvest this Lughnasa. Strawberries are at their peak and Holly has planted enough this year to have fruit every morning. The corn is as high as a Columbian mammoth’s eye (they were taller than elephants). We have just harvested the last of the peaches and Gravenstein apples. Eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, beans and cukes are happening. Figs are having a good year. Holly has harvested her herbs and is mixing up the medicine. Flower and pollinator gardens buzz with bees. Even as we strive to conserve water, our garden is happy.
I probably won’t paint my face (ok, maybe my hair) and I certainly won’t light any fires, but you may find me dancing around our garden on Lughnasa on the first day of August.
I think of summer solstice as the start of the dry season here in NoCal, but in ancient Egypt it presaged the start of the wet season when the Nile River began to flood.
Nile Valley civilizations acknowledged and celebrated the solstice, when the sun reached its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere, as the most important day of the year marking the African new year.
Celebrations commemorated the longest day of Ra, the sun god, as well as the rising of the star Sirius, which heralded the Nile flooding and divine blessings on the land of Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians recognized the importance of Sirius (one of the stars of the constellation Canis Major) as the brightest star in the sky, as well as the birthplace of the goddess Isis. They called this star Sopdet. The celebrations for new year’s day began at dawn when Sirius appeared on the horizon as the shining morning star emerging from the darkness of the underworld.
Goddesses were involved too. The great triad of goddesses, Isis, Hathor and Nut, was intimately connected with this “divine rebirthing” of Egypt each year, as depicted in detail on the walls of Dendera Temple in upper Egypt, built by Cleopatra. Traditional beliefs held that Isis was mourning her dead husband, Asar (Osiris), and that her tears made the Nile rise.
This festival is one of the oldest in Egyptian history, celebrated from archaic times all the way through to the Roman occupation of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians aligned the Great Pyramids so that the sun, when viewed from the Sphinx, sets precisely between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. Here on my block we stand out in the street to watch the sun set over the Coast Mountain range.
How will I be celebrating the solstice? Well, my weather app says it’s forecast to be 100 degrees here in Santa Rosa on Tuesday June 21, so my daily walk will have to be early in the morning. After the longest day of summer solstice, the days will gradually get shorter until the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Some part of me is looking forward to shorter, cooler days, longer nights and the coming of winter. Now we just have to get through fire season.
Beltane, May 1, is a pagan holiday celebrating the spring at its peak and the coming of summer. It is halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.
Driving by the Beltane Ranch, I’ve always wondered about its history and its association with the holiday. It turns out Beltane has historical representation right here in Sonoma County. Just outside the city of Santa Rosa, settled by pro-slavery Confederates from Missouri, Beltane Ranch has been recognized as a Black historic site by the National Park Service.
The reason is that Mary Ellen Pleasant, called the “Mother of California’s civil rights movement,” once owned Beltane Ranch in Sonoma Valley, near Jack London’s Glen Ellen home.
Most stories about Mary Ellen Pleasant lead with the fact that she was the first Black female millionaire in the U.S., years before Madam C.J. Walker earned that title. And this is true, but for me the most important fact about her is that she financed John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry with $30,000, (about a million in today’s dollars) and secretly traveled to the Eastern Seaboard to rally slaves to Brown’s militant cause from 1857 until 1859.
John Brown believed violence was the only path to end the institution of slavery and he planned to lead a slave rebellion with guns captured from the armory. After the raid failed, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged. In his pocket when he was arrested was a note signed with Mary Ellen Pleasant’s initials. She asked that her gravestone read “She was a friend of John Brown,” and that marker was placed on her grave in 1965 by the San Francisco Negro Historical and Cultural Society.
Born in about 1814 in Virginia, Mary Ellen spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she worked for an abolitionist family. She was of mixed race and was able to pass as white. She married James Smith, a wealthy former plantation owner and abolitionist who died four years later. After her work on the Underground Railroad in the East attracted the attention of slaveholders, Pleasant relocated first to New Orleans and then to San Francisco in 1852 where she continued her abolitionist work.
In a city overwhelmingly rich and male, Mary Ellen put her skills to work as a cook and housekeeper, learning about finance and picking up investment tips from eavesdropping on her employers’ conversations. She encountered Thomas Bell, a native of Scotland, who would remain her close confidante and business partner for a lifetime. Among his future ventures, Bell would serve as director of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad of Nevada and then director of the Bank of California. Often, Mary Ellen would be a silent partner in his real estate and mining transactions.
In the 1860s and 70s Mrs. Pleasant filed several civil rights lawsuits mostly against the trolley companies fighting for the right of Black people to ride public transportation, most of which she won. She also rescued enslaved people from the Fugitive Slave Act and found jobs for former slaves in her many establishments.
Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur “Mammy Pleasant” by local whites and the press, but she did not approve.
“I don’t like to be called ‘Mammy’ by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not ‘Mammy’ to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was ‘Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant.’ I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she said.
Mrs. Pleasant continued to maintain a close business association and friendship with Thomas Bell. She introduced him to his future wife, Teresa, and they married in 1879. Then Mary Ellen designed and constructed a 30-room gothic mansion on a lot she owned at Octavia and Bush streets where the three of them lived together. Mary Ellen handled all business matters for the residence and managed the Bells’ finances.
In 1890, Mary Ellen and Thomas and Teresa Bell purchased the Nunn Ranch on Calabazas Creek in Sonoma Valley. They soon acquired several other homesteads in the area and in 1892 purchased the Drummond Ranch, where California’s first bottled cabernet sauvignon had been introduced in 1884. They named it Beltane, perhaps in recognition of Thomas Bell and his Celtic heritage.
After Thomas Bell died in 1892, Teresa and Mary Ellen continued to run Beltane together, with Teresa owning the more mountainous 575 acres and Mary Ellen the lower 986 acres. Mary Ellen designed the ranch house with New Orleans influence and supervised its construction. She spent many weekends there in her later years.
With phylloxera present in Drummond’s prized vineyards, Teresa determined to convert the property to other uses, including starting a dairy, planting an apple orchard, and leasing the land to pasture livestock.
Mary Ellen Pleasant lost her fortune I would argue because of racism and sexism. After Thomas died, his widow sued for the estate and won in court. Teresa Bell took all the wealth Mary Ellen had created.
Despite being listed as the owner in Sonoma County records and as the result of ongoing litigation of the Thomas Bell estate, in 1895 Mary Ellen was declared an insolvent debtor. Even though Mary Ellen claimed her debts were due to guaranteeing Teresa’s debts, the titles to the San Francisco mansion and Beltane Ranch were transferred to Teresa Bell.
Mrs. Pleasant spent her final years with her friends, Lyman and Olive Sherwood of Napa and when she died in 1904 she was buried in a Napa cemetery. She is seen by many historians as “The Harriet Tubman of California.”
Beltane Ranch and Mrs. Pleasant’s house are still here, right off Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Napa. The house is now a bed and breakfast and most of the property is now part of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It will open to the public as a park in the future. I got to walk there recently with local naturalist Sarah Reid along Calabazas Creek, where remnants of old homesteads are still visible.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was indeed a fascinating historical figure and I’ve enjoyed researching her life, full of San Francisco stories and scandals not recounted here. I still want to read a couple of books about her. The Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff wrote a fictional account of her life, Free Enterprise. And Lynn Hudson wrote a biography, published in 2008, The Making of Mammy Pleasant.
Here in Sonoma County on Beltane we celebrate the height of spring and our wildflower season.
Happy Ostara, the celebration of the vernal equinox, which takes place this year today, March 20. Searching for spring festivals and hoping for inspiration, I found one from Iran.
“In Iran, the festival of NowRuz begins shortly before the vernal equinox. The phrase “NowRuz” actually means “new day,” and this is a time of hope and rebirth.
Boy, am I feeling the need for hope and rebirth right now.
“The Iranian new year begins on the day of the equinox, and typically people celebrate by getting outside for a picnic or other activity with their loved ones. No Ruz is deeply rooted in the beliefs of Zoroastrianism, which was the predominant religion in ancient Persia before Islam came along.”
Getting outside—yes! The vernal equinox must be celebrated outdoors.
Another inspiration comes from my neighbors, many of whom are my age, in their 70s. In Santa Rosa people take their gardens and landscaping seriously. When I walk down the street and see Dan and Karen tending their gardens or Howie down on the ground pulling weeds, or Pam planting natives in her front yard, or Susan wielding digging tools I think yeah I can do that too!
Gardening and planting plants—what a great way to celebrate spring!
I’ve always seen myself as a big strong woman and I’ve spent my adult life telling other women working in the construction trades “We Can Do It!” Admitting that I can’t do something is still hard for me, even though I’ve been practicing it for a decade now. At 72 I discover new limits to my ability constantly.
So, after Holly and I acknowledged to each other that there are some garden chores we just can’t do anymore, we hired a laborer to dig out crab grass, matilija poppy roots and a couple of stumps.
There is also this: I don’t want to do it. I might have felt like I had to in the past, or I was required to show that I could meet some physical challenge. Now I no longer have to make a point.
Or that’s what I thought before Maximo, the laborer, weighed in on my ability. He was digging out the poppy roots with an adz. I said to him, “that’s such hard work.” I knew this because I had dug out the roots a couple years before and found the job taxing.
“Yes,” he said, “you couldn’t do this.”
My hackles went up immediately. What do you mean I can’t do it! I thought to myself. He had said that as he worked without even looking at me. What was it about me that made him think I couldn’t do the work? Gray hair? My gender? To me them’s fightin’ words.
So of course after that I had to do it to prove I still could. I decided to start celebrating spring a little early, on the Ides of March. I know the last day of frost in Santa Rosa is April 15 but I can never wait that long and I figure global warming has moved it up at least a couple of weeks. And I was willing to take a chance. If my seedlings froze I’d just have to start over.
Holly had ordered seedlings from Annie’s Annuals and we set out to plant them in the front yard, which required squatting for long periods.
Look, I’m not decrepit and I’m proud that I can still pee in the woods and get up off my haunches (except for that one time after a back operation when my quads were so weak I needed help from a tree). But peeing is a short operation and planting takes longer. Especially since I get obsessed with pulling out the bermuda grass roots, an unending task (I do know we will never be rid of them).
After working at it for a while and feeling pretty good about my athletic ability, my neck and my hands started sending pain signals. Then suddenly the muscles in my legs objected, seizing up and screaming for me to move, but I was stuck in the position. Oh My Goddess I can’t get up!
I remembered the episode of Grace and Frankie where both Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda fell and couldn’t get up. They both raced for the phone by swimming across the floor on their backs. And the episode when Jane pulls a MacGyver, lassoing a sculpture to pull herself up off the toilet. If only my elderly exploits could be so funny!
I rolled over to get up the way they teach old people to do and I finished the job on hands and knees.
I did it! Not very gracefully, but I did it.
In the meantime Holly had finished her part of the planting without mishap, but she is a decade younger than I.
Acknowledging that I might not be so good at planting seedlings, I can still throw seeds around the garden and rake them into the dirt while standing up. And that’s what I did last fall for cover crops of mustard, red clover, calendula and fava beans. Now they are flowering and I’m appreciating the fruits of my labor.
Maybe next year I’ll find a new way to celebrate the advent of spring, something I can do while standing upright.
In the meantime I wish you all NowRuz Mobarak–Happy New Year. May this be the start of a new day.
Happy New Year! February 1 gives us many reasons to celebrate.
Imbolc, the Celtic pagan holiday celebrated February 1 and 2, marks the mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. And February 1 is the first day of Chinese New Year.
February 1 is also National Freedom Day. Have you ever heard of it? Me neither, but I plan to start celebrating it now that I have. Feb 1, 1865 was the day President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. The amendment was ratified by the states on December 18 of that year.
The holiday was created by a former slave named Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr., a committed community builder who founded a college and a bank. Born into slavery in Georgia in 1855, after the Civil War ended he moved with his mother to Atlanta where he enrolled in the Storrs School, the forerunner of Atlanta University. In 1876 he married Lydia Elizabeth Howard, who bore nine children. Wright was the first African American paymaster in the U.S. Army (appointed by President McKinley). As a major he was the highest ranking Black officer during the Spanish American War.
In 1948, the year after Wright’s death, Congress passed and President Harry Truman signed into law a bill to make February 1 National Freedom Day. It later became Black History Day. This gave impetus to national recognition for Black History Week and, in 1976, Black History Month.
Wright envisioned National Freedom Day as a day for “all Americans” to celebrate our freedom. Harry Truman, Major Richard Robert Wright and the U.S. Congress saw America itself as a symbol of freedom.
The arc of the moral universe is a lot longer than I had thought and I’m not convinced it bends toward justice without a lot of help. As we now lose freedoms we fought for in our own lifetimes—the freedom to vote, women’s freedom to control reproduction, the freedom to live without fear of fascism—let’s celebrate National Freedom Day by appreciating the freedoms we do enjoy and joining the fight to regain freedoms lost.
Our family never did that thing where white-robed virgins with candle crowns bring breakfast, but we did celebrate Swedish Christmas. Culture was supplied by my grandmother, Gerda, who grew up on a farm near Lake Vänern in central Sweden in an age when you really did hitch the horse up to the sleigh to go anywhere in winter. The farm, Stora Myren, is still there. The nearest village, Lugnås, hasn’t changed much since Grandma emigrated in 1905.
I hate a lot about Xmas—the whole religious thing, the requisite shopping to keep the economy afloat, the pressure to give the perfect gift, to give gifts at all. Bah humbug. I’m an atheist who joined the Church of Stop Shopping decades ago. https://revbilly.com
But, as my brother and I delve into the Swedish side of our family, we’re rediscovering ways that Swedish culture has influenced our family. One thing we all agree on: Christmas was the most important holiday of the year, when the Swedes pulled out all the stops.
The tradition is long. The winter solstice, representing the return of light and warmth, held great importance for pre-christian peoples. The earth had died and would be resurrected.
Solstice is a Saint Named Lucy
As with most northern European cultures, a christian holiday usurped the pagan solstice celebration. Catholics took over solstice festival and made it into St. Lucia or St. Lucy’s Day during the Middle Ages. Now, and ever since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Lutherans rule in Scandinavia, but they continue to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. The holiday is on December 13 because that was the date of the winter solstice on the Julian calendar before it was changed to the Gregorian. The actual solstice is now a week later, but St. Lucy’s Day retained the old date.
St. Lucia was a fourth century virgin christian martyr in what is now Italy. She invented the head lamp, putting a candle wreath on her head to keep her hands free as she hid christians in the catacombs. Or so it’s said. The name Lucia translates as light.
Candle wreaths have not yet been replaced with head lamps in modern celebrations, but I see it coming. I mean when I see pictures of people walking around with lit candles in their hair, all I can think of is–fire hazard!
The celebration is, or was, an all-female affair with one young woman playing Lucia and a court of girls and women. There are white robes, candle wreaths, singing and the serving of food. Lately, though, the boys have nudged their way into the celebration with a boy or two being elected to play Lucia. Traditionalists are not amused.
We grandchildren knew nothing of St. Lucy’s Day. It was, apparently, a Swedish tradition left in the Old Country.
But Grandma did envelop us in Swedish culture at Christmas.She brought with her the tradition of cooking the foods of her childhood when she immigrated to the U.S. In our hometown of Yakima, Washington, she was famous for her cooking, and especially her baking.
Our mother had the foresight to record Grandma’s childhood memories of Christmas in Sweden. My brother printed up a little chapbook of the stories, titled A 19th Century Swedish Christmas by Gerda Wick. Grandma was in her 92nd year but her memories were still clear.
Here are some excerpts.
“In Sweden we could, of course, always count on a white Christmas—snow that was “deep and crisp and even” and a great abundance of evergreen trees growing all around us. Christmas Eve was the official time for celebration and gift giving; Christmas Day was a religious holiday and holy day.”
“In a day without rural electricity or other conveniences that we now take for granted, our preparations for the annual celebration had to start in the fall with butchering of beef and pork and turning the slabs of dried cod into the famous and favorite holiday dish, lutefisk.
It is hard for me to realize now that all cooking was done on an open fire in the brick fireplace and all baking in a very large brick oven, heated by large logs about the size of railroad ties. In this oven breads of all kinds—flat bread, rye loaves, traditional braided coffee bread and dozens of cookies—were baked for weeks before the big day. Many kinds of sausages and head cheese were prepared and meat readied for another traditional food, Swedish meatballs.
“The food at Christmas Eve was a smörgåsbord of breads, homemade cheeses, pickled herring and korv (homemade sausage), but best of all the lutefisk which had been in preparation for several weeks from a dry slab of cod, by soaking in water and a “lute” of lime and lye. Served with a rich white sauce and white potatoes, it was and still is a favorite native winter dish. This was followed by meatballs made of ground beef and pork, sweet and sour brown beans and a dessert of rice pudding with wild lingonberry or strawberry jam (from berries we children picked in the nearby woods), or fruit soup.”
Loving and Laughing at Lutefisk
Lutefisk jokes elicit laughs in both cultures. Garrison Keillor told a story about people arrested for bringing toxic waste across state lines when they took lutefisk to Minnesota for Christmas dinner. Most actual Scandinavians abhor the fish, but Americans still eat it with gusto and most lutefisk is exported to the U.S. Served with white potatoes and white gravy, it resembles a blob of glue. Still, for my family, lutefisk symbolized Scandinavian culture.
Don says he has made Swedish meatballs and lutefisk many times since our childhood, but I only tried it once, recreating my family’s holiday meal for my gay San Francisco family. I bought frozen lutefisk from the Scandinavian Deli on Market Street near the Castro. No soaking necessary. I attempted to bake Grandma’s cookie and bread recipes, making krumkake using the pancake maker that you heat over an open flame. It didn’t go so well. No one would even try the lutefisk. I neglected to have a distribution plan for the cookies, which quickly got stale before we could eat them all. But I can say I did it!
In her small kitchen in Yakima, Grandma ground the pork and beef with a meat grinder to make Swedish meatballs. My brother Don served as Grandma’s little helper, and so his memories are best, butI do remember helping her make krumkake, Smörbakelser cookies and fancy braided breads. Don has her old Swedish cookbooks whose frayed binding opens to favorite recipes. Recently he challenged the family to remember the secret ingredient in Grandma’s meatballs. He kept us in suspense for a month. WTF Bro! It turns out the secret ingredient is crustless bread torn in pieces and soaked in cream, then wrung out and added to the meat. Never would have guessed that!
Gerda Persson was the second youngest child in a family of 12 kids. Born in 1888, she was 12 when the century turned. Her memories were about more than just food.
Birds and mittens and tree trimming
“My father would put my younger brother and me on a sled and take us with him into the woods to select a tree for our house. He would also cut other trees to place on the outside of the house and at the barn. Not forgotten in our celebration were the birds and our domestic animals. Papa mounted a large sheaf of oats on a pole for the birds and gave the animals an extra share of hay.
“Most of the tree trimmings were hand-made and our favorite was the customary paper-wrapped candies which we children could help make, wrapping hard candy in colored tissue paper. There was a variety of candlesticks for candles of all sizes, many of them hand-wrought of brass and wood. A candle was always displayed in the front window.
“We exchanged gifts, though this was not the ritual it is today. The gifts were mostly handmade and very practical—knitted socks, mittens and caps—all from yarn spun on my mother’s spinning wheel, wooden toys—a doll cradle or sled—and gifts like sewing boxes for the older girls and Mama.
“Christmas morning it was up early to be at church at six o’clock. Our church was the most important building in our village; it had been built in the 12th century and still stands and is in use today. Our family walked to church and those further away came in horse-drawn cutters (sleighs). And what a joy it was in the early morning light to see a lighted candle in the window of each home, reflecting on the deep white snow, and to feel the crisp crunching and squeaking of the hard-packed snow under foot.
“The two bells in the steeple were rung by hand. My father was an official ringer of the smaller bell, which required skill in alternating its sound with the large bell, and also very strong arms. The church was lighted with hundreds of candles at the communion table, the large hanging chandeliers and at each row of the pews. It was a thrilling festival of light and sound to a child growing up in a simple farm village in Europe before the age of industrial wonders. Inside the church Christmas hymns from the time of Luther were played on our ancient organ. This, too, required man power to operate, and my father served often as “pumper.” We children sang in the choir accompanied by the organ. The rest of Christmas day was quiet with a dinner of ham and goodies of the night before.”
Carry it on
Our family continued the Swedish traditions of trimming the tree with hand-made ornaments and of opening gifts on Christmas eve. My mother filled the house with colorful Swedish decorations like wooden horses and straw reindeer. After the big dinner with cousins at Grandma’s house, one of the men would excuse himself and (we later realized) would go back home to place all the presents under the tree. My father would drive home slowly from Grandma’s looking at all the outdoor decorations. Of course, we kids couldn’t wait to get home to open gifts.
I was glad Christmas Day wasn’t a religious holiday for us. Watching football, playing with toys and eating took up our day. Mom cooked the traditional ham and Grandma joined us for dinner. Her memories end with another delightful custom—robbing the Christmas tree.
“The neighborhood children took turns having these “untrimming” parties before the Christmas tree was taken out. Each child was blindfolded and allowed to pick a paper-covered candy from the tree until all were gone. There were cookies and cakes and milk for the guests. Since many homes were involved, the shared candies and goodies made a happy ending to the holiday for all the children.”