The Sacred Twelfth Day Feast for Southerners

This year I actually bought a can of smoked herring to try the traditional Urglaawe meal of herring on Twelfth Night, but I still won’t skip the traditional New Year’s meal that I’ve been eating since I was a kid: black-eyed peas!

When I was a kid my mom told me that you have to eat black-eyed peas on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day “for good luck.” Sometimes we’d just have some from a can as a side dish to whatever else we were having for dinner, but we’d always try to eat at least a few. There used to be a chain restaurant called The Black-Eyed Pea that we’d go to sometimes, and they would give you a special free cup of black-eyed peas with your meal on New Year’s. Of course, it was also packed on New Year’s and hard to get a table! Sadly, it looks like now that restaurant is out of business. I’d usually get the chicken-fried steak there. Yum!

Later I found out that you’re supposed to eat collard greens and cornbread with your black-eyed peas, so that’s how I do it now. I also cook the peas with the leftover ham bone from the Yule ham (with any leftover meat still on it), because the peas need some kind of smoked pork in them. The leftover meat ends up falling off the bone, and then I shred it up into bite-sized pieces and mix it back in.

In addition to the lucky peas, the collard greens represent money. The golden cornbread and pork are also symbols of prosperity. Overall, it seems like a very Vanic meal. In Urglaawe, the New Year’s feast is in honor of Frey, and the traditional fare is pork and sauerkraut. Well, collards are really just a more heat-tolerant, non-heading variety of cabbage, so I think this is close enough as a Texas equivalent of the traditional Twelfth Day feast for Frey.

You cook black-eyed peas about the same way you’d cook any other dried bean, though they are a different species than the common bean (pinto beans, kidney beans, etc.). They’re actually more tender and take less time to cook than common beans. It’s not even necessary to soak them, but if you do, they only take about an hour to cook. If you don’t soak them, they take about two hours to cook. I sweat some onions first, and then add the ham bone and a pound of peas, cover with water, and simmer until done. Simple!

There are actually more varieties than just the black-eyed ones. There are solid red ones, solid black ones, ones with purple eyes instead of black, etc. The ones that aren’t black-eyed are usually called “cowpeas” or “Southern peas.” I’m sure any of the colors would work for the magical meal. The black-eyed ones are just the ones most likely to be found at an ordinary grocery store.

As for the collard greens, I have some growing in my garden right now that are ready to harvest for the feast. Collard greens are just the southern version of kale, without all the trendiness. No really, collards and kale are just different varieties of the same species of plant! And they’re also the same species as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. I grow collards in my garden every winter. Yes, I grow kale too, but the collards do better. I grow mustard greens as well, and sometimes mix them in with the collards when I make a “mess o greens.” Mustard greens have a “bite” tot hem, while the collards are a lot milder, like cabbage. Turnip greens can also be mixed in, and even diced up turnip root, but my turnips are not anywhere near ready yet.

To make a “mess o greens,” I rinse the greens from the garden well (make sure there aren’t any bugs hiding in there), cut out the tough rib in the middle, and then slice them up into bite-sized pieces. Then I sweat some onions in bacon grease in a pot, add in the greens (keep in mind that they shrink a lot when they cook, so you have to have a lot of them), get the greens to wilt a bit, and then add water or chicken stock and gently simmer them.

In most cases I like my vegetables a little on the crispy side. Collard greens are an exception. In this case you’re supposed to cook them until they are very soft, maybe about half an hour. Then I add a splash of vinegar (members of the cabbage family really benefit from something acidic added to them) and salt and pepper to taste.

But if you boil vegetables for a long time, all the nutrients come out into the water, right? Well, in this case, the liquid from the cooked greens is called “pot liquor” and you are supposed to drink it. You can dunk your cornbread in it.

Which brings me to the golden cornbread, which is made with buttermilk and cooked in a cast-iron skillet. Texans also don’t like very sweet cornbread. I’ve had cornbread before that reminded me more of yellow pound cake than cornbread. In my cornbread, there is more cornmeal than flour (because it’s CORNbread), and only 2 tablespoons of sugar (because it’s cornBREAD, not cake).

Sometimes I mix the greens into the peas, and sometimes I eat them separately. Both the greens and peas get some hot sauce on top. You can also put the peas over rice (and then it’s called Hoppin’ John). Beer is my preferred beverage to drink with it.

Black-eyed peas are from Africa, collards (and other members of the cabbage family) are from Europe, and corn is Native American, so this meal is as multicultural as Texas itself.

To me, it’s just not New Year’s in Texas without it.

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Delicious Yule Treats from the Ancestors

When I was a kid, we used to go to this German restaurant and store in Dallas called Kuby’s. It was a hang-out spot for my grandmother and her German immigrant friends. I especially liked going there around Christmastime. Germans really know how to do Christmas right, and that whole place was turned into a Christmas wonderland with so many wonderful goodies. At least that’s how I remember it.

We’d always get an advent calendar with little cardboard doors to punch out and get a chocolate each day until Christmas. For Christmas I’d sometimes get these imported packaged cookies that “Santa” probably got from Kuby’s too. There were these little round spice cookies coated in white icing called Pfeffernusse, and these other spice cookies that were bigger, and came in different shapes like hearts and stars, and some of them also had white icing, but some of them were covered with chocolate.

This time of year, around Yule, when it gets cold outside, I start really craving German food. I never really want it the rest of the year, just when it’s cold and drizzly outside, so a couple of years ago I put The German Cookbook by Mimi Sheraton on my Yule wish list. I’m a lot more into cooking than my mom ever was, and my grandmother died when I was very young, so I never really learned how to cook any German food myself.

Then I put the book on my cookbook shelf in my kitchen with all my other cookbooks and didn’t really do much with it.

At least, until this week.

This week some kind of baking-madness came over me and I decided to try making, not just one, but THREE of the recipes for traditional German Christmas treats from this cookbook. I made Anislaibchen, Pfeffernusse, and Lebkuchen. Phew! And of course each of these recipes is huge, so now I have enough cookies to give some away to pretty much everyone I know and still have plenty for myself and my husband. (Especially since I also made a batch of not at all traditional peanut butter and oatmeal no-bake cookies because they are my husband’s favorite.)

I chose those particular recipes because I remember getting store-bought Pfeffernusse when I was a kid, and wanted to try homemade. There are several versions of Lebkuchen in the book, and the Nurnberger Lebkuchen looked like the recipe that was closest to those other, chocolate-coated cookies I remember. I also chose to make Anislaibchen just because it had only four ingredients that I already had on hand.

So how did they turn out?

Anislaibchen

The name means “anise drops” in English, and these are kind of weird. Anise is a love-it-or-hate-it flavor that I happen to love, so I don’t mind having a black licorice flavored cookie. The cookie itself is weird though. There are only four ingredients: sugar, eggs, flour, and anise seeds. You whip the eggs with the sugar for 10 minutes with an electric mixer (thank goodness I have an electric mixer and didn’t have to do that by hand!), and then mix in the flour and anise seeds, drop them by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet, and then leave them sitting out overnight! That’s the weird part. They’re supposed to dry out on the outside. Then when you bake them, the dried-out part forms a crispy, crackly crust over the soft inside.

Like I said, this week has been cold and rainy, so mine didn’t dry out as much as I think they were supposed to. The ones around the outside of the cookie sheet did form the crispy top, but not the ones towards the middle. Maybe I should have left them out longer to make sure they all dried enough, or maybe even put a fan on them to help with air circulation.

Pfeffernusse

This name means “pepper nuts” in English. This is the recipe that had the most spice in it: citrus peels, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cardamom, and black pepper. I couldn’t find candied orange or citron peel at the store, so I had to substitute just plain dried orange and lemon peel that I rehydrated with a little rum. They also have eggs, white sugar, brown sugar, ground almonds, “3 heaping cups of flour,” and “a generous pinch of baking soda.” That’s a thing that annoys me a little bit about this book. Baking is supposed to be precise! What do you mean by “heaping cup” or “generous pinch?”

These cookies were also left out overnight, and then it says to bake them at 300 degrees for 20 minutes, or “until they test done.” What does that mean? How do you test them? I ended up eating one to see if it was done, and it seemed like it was, I guess. Then when still warm, they are brushed with rum and rolled in confectioner’s sugar (I shook them in a Ziplock bag for that). I like the coating of powdered sugar better than the white icing on the store-bought Pfeffernusse. It’s pretty.

Lebkuchen

To my surprise, even though Lebkuchen is usually described as “German gingerbread,” the recipe in this book does not call for any ginger. Makes me think gingerbread is actually something different! This recipe has citrus peel, cinnamon, and cloves (along with eggs, sugar, a whole pound of honey, ground almonds, flour, baking powder, and black coffee), but no ginger.

I expected to end up with a cookie dough from this, but instead I got more of a cake batter that the instructions said to spread out into a jelly roll pan (I used a half-sheet pan), and then cut into bars when done and cool. So more like a bar cookie or brownie than something you roll out and cut with cookie cutters (like gingerbread).

The book had three different icing options: a white icing, a Lebkuchen glaze that has rum in it, and a chocolate glaze. I decided to do half with the run glaze, and half with the chocolate glaze.

I got really worried when I made the chocolate glaze, and I ended up with this really thin stuff. I put it on the Lebkuchen, and it was so thin that much of it ran off onto the pan. Once I finally got some to stick, I waited and waited for it to harden, and it still stayed wet and sticky. I was so sure I messed it up somehow.

But just like with the weird leaving-cookie-dough-out-on-the-counter-overnight thing, I should have trusted the wisdom of the ancestors, because I went and ate lunch, and when I checked them again, the chocolate had hardened up perfectly! The only problem is that it’s still thinner than I’d like, and I think that’s because I was supposed to have left the pan off the heat for a while longer to let it cool and thicken before trying to put it on. This was another place where the directions in the book were vague, and said to stir it off the heat “until a film forms,” so I guess I didn’t wait long enough.

Overall, I think I like the Pfeffernusse the best. They’re the spiciest of the three. My husband seems to like the Lebkuchen the best, which is less spicy and the chocolate and coffee gives it a mocha-like flavor. The anise drops would probably be better if I had let them dry enough, since I think the crispy top is the main appeal of them. They have the mildest flavor.

So that’s how I spent the beginning of Yule. I hope the gods and ancestors don’t mind that we’re not burning the Yule log until Friday night, instead of on the actual solstice, so my husband doesn’t have to go to work in the morning and can stay up late for that. I will use some of these goodies as offerings. I tend to use baked goods as offerings a lot. Considering the extra work that goes into baking something from scratch instead of buying it, it seems like a good thing to do.

And since I’m on a German food spree, I think for Friday night dinner I’m going to make another recipe from this book. Another thing I loved as a kid were German potato dumplings. My mom made them using a boxed mix, but the recipe in this book for Gekochte Kartoffelklosse sounds close to the made-from scratch version of what I remember. My mom once mentioned that you’re supposed to put a crouton in the middle of each one, but she never did it, so I don’t think I will either. I just loved the big slimy balls of starchy carbohydrate goodness! Yum! You’re supposed to eat them with meat and gravy, so I’m going to make German beer-braised pot roast to go with it, but I’m mainly looking forward to the dumplings. I hope I can at least make them as good as the boxed mix.

The Twelve Virtues of Yule

The final grades for the semester are turned in, I’m officially off of work for Winter Break, and now I can start getting ready for Yule! I need to clean the house, make a trip to the grocery store, and make cookies, but first I wanted to make a quick post about something I found a couple of years ago that I’d like to fully implement this year.

I’m not the first Heathen blogger who has criticized the Nine Noble Virtues, so I’m not going to go into great detail right now about why I feel they are lacking. In a nutshell, I don’t like how many Heathens who interpret them in ways that end up sounding more like Ayn Rand than Odin, and I also think they leave out some very important virtues that should be in there.

Thankfully, Urglaawe has its own set of Twelve Virtues that I like much better than the Nine Noble Virtues. This issue of Hollerbeer Haven talks about assigning one of them to each of the nights of Yule, which seems to me like a Heathen version of Kwanzaa. I like that idea, so this year I’m going to try to set aside some meditation time for each of these virtues on each night. Here are the Twelve Virtues with my initial thoughts on them:

  1. Stewardship – This is the night of the winter solstice, and obviously I’m going to like this virtue since I’m a tree-hugging environmentalist. I remember in my newbie Asatru days when I was disappointed with how many Heathens rejected the idea of caring for the environment because that’s hippie Wiccan stuff. The truth is that our ancestors, like all indigenous people, understood the importance of having a good relationship not just with your human community, but with the natural world as well. Placing this virtue on the winter solstice makes sense too, because its a natural phenomenon, so it’s a good time to meditate on our relationship with nature. Hollerbeer Haven pairs industriousness with it, but a lot of what we think of as “industriousness” these days leads to environmental destruction. Besides, we have Discipline and Self-Reliance on the list too.
  2. Curiosity – I am so glad that this is on the list! I think this was another terrible omission from the Nine Noble Virtues, especially since I view Odin/Wotan as pretty much The God of Curiosity. I’m a science professor, so my whole profession is basically trying to inspire curiosity about the world in others. To me, learning about things is one of the main purposes of being alive.
  3. Courage – This is one of the Nine Noble Virtues that people try to make all about macho Vikings dashing into battle, and forget about all the quiet acts of courage that people do every day without sagas being written about them. Courage is whenever you decide to do what’s right instead of what’s easy. That doesn’t always get you fame and fortune. Sometimes it actually gets you the opposite.
  4. Generosity – This is another important virtue that was omitted from the NNV list. Maybe its too altruistic? This virtue ends up falling on Christmas Eve, which is when everyone is getting their last minute gifts ready. I think it would also be a good time to do your holiday charitable giving. (No, I don’t think giving to charity is just a Christian Thing.) Being generous makes the world a better place. I think our ancestors knew this.
  5. Hospitality – This one ends up falling on Christmas Day, when most of us spend time with our Christian families eating Christmas dinner and exchanging those gifts, so that’s perfect for this virtue. This is the most altruistic of the Nine Noble Virtues, but I’ve seen it interpreted that you only need to be altruistic towards your friends and family that you have over for dinner. Fortunately Urglaawe’s virtues include “Generosity” and “Compassion” to make it clear that altruism is virtuous even beyond that specific situation.
  6. Compassion – This falls on the day when most people go back to work after getting Christmas off. In the UK it’s known as “Boxing Day,” and is traditionally when the boss was supposed to give his employees gifts. The idea here is higher-ranking people giving gifts to lower-ranking people. That matches well with this virtue. I know that Compassion gets a bad reputation with the macho Viking types who think it’s only for Christians or Buddhists. Even on one Urglaawe publication I saw a while back called this “appropriate compassion,” instead of just plain Compassion. Why is that qualifier needed? When is compassion ever inappropriate? I think a lot of people don’t actually know what compassion means.
  7. Discipline – After the last three were all altruistic virtues about being nice to other people, this one turns back on yourself. Maybe this is a good day to start making that list of New Year’s Resolutions.
  8. Self-Reliance – Like Discipline, this is one that can go too far and be abused. It’s good to be disciplined, but not too disciplined. It’s good to be self-reliant, but no one is an island. Everyone relies on other people (which is where 4, 5, and 6 come in), but you do need to do your part. Everyone needs to contribute something to the community and the world and not depend on other people for things you could easily do yourself. Maybe now would be a good time to look into learning to do a new craft or skill that would be useful to yourself and your community.
  9. Truth – Here is something that the world needs a lot more of these days! This one goes along with Curiosity as a virtue that is very important to me as a scientist. These days it seems like people are questioning whether objective reality even exists, which can put me in quite a bind since that’s the philosophical foundation of science itself. In Hollerbeer Haven this virtue is paired with Loyalty, and I’m not sure if I like that pairing. Lately it seems like people have been rejecting the Truth in favor of blind Loyalty to their tribe no matter what, even when they are wrong. I think Truth pairs better with Courage, personally.
  10. Perseverance – Don’t give up! This one goes well with Discipline and Self-Reliance. Like those, it can also be taken too far. You don’t want to fall into something called the “sunk-cost fallacy,” where you tell yourself, “I’ve already put so much into this, so I can’t quit now!” But I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to tell when you need one last push to finally succeed, or when you’re just wasting your effort and need to give up and let it go. Fortunately there’s Wisdom to let you know when you are in this situation. As an avatar of Odin once said, “You gotta know when to hold em. Know when to fold em. Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
  11. Self-Improvement – Now it’s New Year’s Eve, and really time to make those New Year’s Resolutions. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but there is always room for improvement if you make realistic goals. This one goes well with Discipline and Self-Reliance.
  12. Wisdom – The last virtue and probably the most important, and another one that is missing from the NNV. It goes well with Curiosity and Truth. You need Curiosity to motivate you to seek the Truth, and in seeking the Truth you gain Wisdom.

So there are the Twelve Virtues. Some of them still seem redundant, but at least they include the important things that I feel are missing from Nine Noble Virtues. This year I will meditate on each of these for each night, and if it goes well, I may make it a permanent part of my Yule observance.

Alfred has gone with the Wild Hunt

I waited as long as I could, but Sunday it was time for my Butzemann, Alfred, to leave for the Wild Hunt.

My husband still wasn’t happy about the idea, but I told him again that Alfred wants to leave, and if we don’t burn him by Tuesday, he’ll just leave anyway and leave his empty body behind. And besides, since I stuffed him with a stem from a frost-killed tomato plant from last year, I guess that means his soul was the soul of a tomato plant. Tomato plants usually only get to live for one year, so he got to live an extra year as a Butzemann.

Thankfully, it had finally gotten cold outside, or at least cold by Texas standards. In early October we had still been getting highs in the 90’s, so it really didn’t feel like Wild Hunt season. But just in time, we got a cold front that gave us nighttime lows in the 40’s. You know how cold air has a smell? I’m not sure what that smell is, scientifically, but it definitely has a smell, and just like how I associate the smell of rain with Thor, the smell of cold air means the Wild Hunt is in town.

Sunday morning I still had some garlic and onions left to plant, so Alfred helped me with that. That means I got to plant almost all of my winter garden before Alfred left. It’s a little tricky to adapt these traditions to my local climate, but I think it will work out having the Butzemann created right before it’s time to plant warm-weather plants (like tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, etc.), and burned right after planting my cold-weather plants (kale, collards, carrots, radishes, garlic, onions, etc.). That way he can participate in both growing seasons.

Alfred and I also sat down together and went over the seeds that I plan on planting next year, which will be looked after by his son. I’ll stuff his son with the stems of the tomatoes that Alfred watched over this year.

I decided I should make him a special dinner before he went, and since he’s a Texas Butzemann, I made a big pot of chili. That’s the thing that Texans always want to eat when it finally gets cold. I made it the long way with stew meat, dried beans, and chili powder made from grinding whole dried peppers (instead of the shortcut way with ground meat, canned beans, and pre-made chili powder – which is fine in certain situations, but not for special occasions). I cooked it for about 3 hours. Yes, I know some people say real Texans don’t put beans in chili, but I’m born and raised in Texas and I always do. I don’t like the idea of eating a big bowl of meat without any vegetables in there, and beans are one of the Three Sisters, and I got some very good quality beans that I knew would get nice and tender. Oh, and speaking of the Three Sisters, I also put some pumpkin puree in there to thicken it, and that was pumpkin that I grew in my garden. The sweetness from the pumpkin smooths out the spiciness without people noticing it has pumpkin in it.

I also made cornbread in a cast iron skillet to go with it. That’s the best way to make cornbread! So all three sisters were represented (along with peppers and tomatoes which are sort of honorary fourth and fifth sisters, or maybe cousins, or something like that).

I set three places at the table, one for me, one for my husband, and one for Alfred. He got his share of chili and cornbread and some Shiner Bock beer, a local brand. But then when dinner was over, it was time for him to go.

My husband made a fire in our patio fire pit. He put some juniper in there which smells really good when it burns, keeps the mosquitoes away, and burns really hot. He built up the fire so that it would be really big and hot to… you know… make it quick.

I also came up with an idea for one last thing Alfred could do for us that I hope isn’t taboo or something. Since my husband and I both have dead loved ones we remember at this time of year (both human and feline), and since Alfred was leaving to join up with the Dead, maybe he could deliver some notes to them for us. We wrote some notes for our dead loved ones and tucked them into his jeans.

Then it really was time for him to go. The fire was roaring. He was sitting on the bench on the porch and seemed ready. I got two sticks from the brush pile and used them to lift him up under his arms to stick him in the bonfire. Thankfully, he was engulfed in flames almost instantly. In fact, later I noticed I had singed my eyelashes putting him in! The flames gave off some interesting colors like blue and green before going back to orange. My husband and I sat on the bench watching the fire until it burned down to embers. I noticed there were tears in my husband’s eyes. There may have been some in mine too. Maybe some of the smoke got in our eyes.

Then we went inside and watched The Book of Life before going to sleep. I’d been wanting to watch that movie for a while, and this seemed like a very appropriate time.

I kept the ashes from the fire and will sprinkle them on the garden this weekend.

I don’t want to burn my Butzemann.

Back in February I made my first Butzemann, Alfred.

And then about a week before the Autumn Equinox I remembered: I’m going to have to burn him soon! And I was supposed to have been giving him offerings this whole time!

I did give him offerings of coffee regularly at first, and took him out to show him the plants, especially when I was planting my spring garden, but then summer got pretty crazy with me teaching summer classes, and then we went on vacation, and at some point in all that I started neglecting him.

While having coffee with my husband, I brought it up. “I feel bad that I’ve been neglecting Alfred lately, especially since he’s going to die soon.”

My husband goes, “WHAT? What do you mean he’s going to die?”

I told him, “Remember? We have to burn him some time between the Equinox and Halloween.”

He insisted I never told him I was going to burn him, but I’m pretty sure I did. Then he suggested that we keep him for one more year, since he hasn’t been getting his coffee, but I told him about how if we keep him past Halloween, his soul will leave to join the Wild Hunt anyway, and an evil spirit will inhabit his body.

Ugh, when I first made him, I knew I’d get attached and burning him would be hard, but it’s turning out to be harder than I thought. The Autumn Equinox is already a sad time for me anyway. Four years ago on the equinox is when one of our cats died AND I found out my dad had terminal cancer. So ever since then in late September I’m reminded of that.

And when I honor the Dead on Halloween, I have started to notice how my altar to the Dead has started to grow, and realize it will only continue to grow for the rest of my life as I add more and more loved ones (human or otherwise) to it.

So I know my little Butzemann is just a doll, but suddenly he symbolizes the inevitability of Death. And my husband saying maybe we can keep him a bit longer reminds me of people saying maybe our cat would be OK and will live a bit longer or maybe my Dad would be OK and pull through his illness. But nope, that didn’t happen.

I did tell my husband that I will make another Butzemann next year, who will be Alfred’s son. That made us feel a little better, but still, it’s not the same.

And I did decide that I’m going to wait as long as possible to burn him. I’m definitely in no hurry to do it. I’ll probably end up doing it on October 28 or 29. My excuse is he has to stick around long enough to watch me plant all my fall/winter crops. In Texas, this is the beginning of the winter growing season. I already took him with me to watch me plant the kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, and lettuce. He still needs to help plant the carrots, beets, turnips, garlic, and onions.

But then once all that’s done, I guess it’s time for him to go.

My First Butzemann

Meet my first Butzemann, Alfred der Nei.

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Ever since hearing about the Urglaawe tradition of making a Butzemann, I’ve wanted to make one, especially since I’m an enthusiastic gardener. I finally did last weekend.

I don’t have a sewing machine, and if I did, I wouldn’t know how to use it, so first I went to the craft store to see what they had there that I could use. They had 12 inch blank muslin dolls and straw cowboy hats to fit them. Perfect!

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If I wasn’t going to make his body myself, I wanted to at least make his clothes. I used the bottom of one of the legs of a pair of worn-out jeans to make overalls for him, and for his shirt I used the sleeve of a worn-out green t-shirt. I know that Butzemenner are supposed to have new clothes all to themselves, so I hope he doesn’t mind that his clothes are made out of recycled materials. I did have to hand-cut and hand-sew them with needle and thread, which took a lot of effort, so I hope that infused him with more energy, even if they did turn out a bit ragged and asymmetrical.

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Butzemenner also need to have some plant material from the land they are supposed to protect, and a heart of some kind. For that, I had to do a little “surgery” on him. I undid the seam on his left side (you can kind of see that in this picture) to insert a “spine” into his back made of a branch from one of my tomato plants that was killed by frost. For his heart I used one of the Calico lima beans I grew in the garden this year, so his heart also doubles as more garden plant material. After those things were inserted through the incision, I sewed him back up and got to work on his clothes.

When his clothes were done, I drew on his face and hair with a Sharpie. When I read up on how to construct a Butzemann, it suggested including runes in his creation. I drew four runes on him: Inguz on his right hand, Berkano on his left hand, Jera on his right foot, and Othala on his left foot. I then breathed Ansuz into his mouth, trying to mimic how Odin gave the breath of life to Ask and Embla.

I gave him the name Alfred, which is an old English name that means “Elf Counsel.” I thought it would be good if he was counseled by the Elves. That means the rest of his family line from now on will have the surname of Alfredsen.

Next it was time to take him around to show him what he will need to tend and protect for the next nine months. I introduced him to our two cats, Basil and Lily (it was easy for Lily, because she had been lying beside me the whole time when I was working on Alfred’s clothes). I showed him the back garden, which has peas and kale growing in it right now. Then I took him around to the front garden where the garlic and potatoes are growing. I also showed him the tomato, pepper, and tomatillo plants I have started in pots that will be ready to plant in the ground in a few weeks.

He then got introduced to the fruit trees. While we were out there we noticed the pomegranate is starting to leaf out, and the satsuma is starting to recover from the freeze, but the Meyer lemon still looks like it’s in bad shape. It’s lost all its leaves and there is no sign of new growth. I really should have done a better job covering it up when it got down to 23 degrees. I asked Alfred to give it some special attention to help it recover and grow back. The kumquat, loquat, and fig tree are all in good shape. This year I would like to plant some more fruit trees, maybe a couple of dwarf apples, or maybe a peach or pear.

The last thing I did was introduce him to my husband, who was working on a flower bed he’s building in the front yard out of cut limestone.

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Since I have crop plants in both the front and the back of the house, I decided that Alfred should live on the mantle in the living room where he’s in the middle of everything. If I posted him facing one garden, he’d be facing away from the other one, and I don’t want him to neglect anything.

I made a cake to celebrate Groundhog’s Day, so Alfred got a slice once I was done making him and giving him a tour of the house and he was on the mantle. The next morning I gave him a cup of coffee so he’d be ready for his first full day on the job. I have this little coffee cup that I think was originally a votive candle holder. It’s about the size of a shot glass, and I think it makes a good mini cup for him.

I’ve also decided that whenever I do any major work in the garden, like planting or harvesting, I’ll bring him with me so he can watch. I also had him watch over our usual Charming of the Garden Tools ritual I’ve been doing every year since we moved here.

Now if only I knew how to pronounce “Butzemann.” When I was trying to explain all this to my husband, he was like, “butts – a – man?” I guess that’s how you pronounce it. Pronunciation is a problem I’ve always had with Heathenry, and Urglaawe is no better. I’m not sure how to pronounce Urglaawe either, now that I think of it.

Oh well, I’ve already gotten pretty fond of Alfred. It’s going to be hard to burn him come October, but I guess that’s part of the point.

Yule After a Hard Year

It’s become a bit of a running joke that 2016 was a terrible year. Saturday I had my usual Yule get-together and during symbel I made the first round a chance to boast about something good that happened to us in 2016. My boast was that I got a job as permanent full-time faculty after 5 years of being an adjunct!

Let’s just say that it’s a good thing I did, because other stuff this year that made my husband and I very grateful I have a stable job that pays better and has really good health benefits. We really need it now.

This makes Yule even more important. For my ancestors, winter was hard. A lot of people weren’t even sure they would still be alive by spring. That’s why we have Yule. It’s a chance to live it up a bit before the long winter ahead.

This year, as usual, I’m going to try to do a social media fast during the 12 days of Yule. No Facebook or blogs from sundown tomorrow night through January 1. I’ll also do a news fast. No Rachel Maddow or NPR.

I need a break from all that. I’m going to concentrate on making delicious feast foods to share with the gods and spirits and spending time with my family and looking at the seed catalogs that are starting to show up in the mailbox.

And maybe go see the new Star Wars movie.

Yule is a time to rest. After Yule is when the battle continues.

Celebrating Allelieweziel this year

This year Halloween/Samhain/Allelieweziel is going to be a private thing with my husband and I. No parties. No festivals. Much of that is for practical reasons; right now we are having to avoid spending any money that’s not absolutely necessary, but I think it might be good to have a quiet Day of the Dead this year.

Since Oct. 31 is a Monday, I think I’ll cook a special meal on Sunday and honor the Dead then. Monday we will be giving out candy to the Trick-or-Treaters and probably watching Young Frankenstein honor Gene Wilder who joined the Ancestors this year.

This year I think I will try to do a little more of an Urglaawe-influenced observance. That means honoring Wudan (Odin), Frau Holle, and maybe even Ewicher Yeeger as they start the Wild Hunt.

Of course, Odin is already one of my main deities, but the other two are less familiar. I’m interested in learning more about them. Several months ago my husband found an old sickle that looked like it had been lying around for a very long time. He put resin over the cracked old wooden handle and polished up the metal blade to remove the rust. An old sickle is an odd thing to find, so I took it to be a sign, and added it to my altar as something for Holle.

I’ve been doing some research on Allelieweziel, and read that it can be celebrated as a 12 day holiday that doesn’t end until November 11. Well that’s nice. That means if I don’t have time to do everything I’d like to do next Sunday, I’ll have some more time.

Ever since my dad died, I’ve been thinking about Death a lot more than I ever did before. Sometimes it really troubles me. It feels like my life is wooshing by faster and faster. Even though I’m in my 30’s, and people don’t usually call you “middle-aged” until you are in your 40’s or 50’s, I’m already over half as old as my dad was when he died. I already started getting some strands of gray hair a couple of years ago. (And I didn’t pluck them! They’re still there. I earned those gray hairs, dammit! Even if they do remind me that I’m not a kid anymore.) It’s good to remember that we are mortal, but I think sometimes I let it depress me too much, especially when I think about my loved ones eventually dying. I have yet to find the right balance between the awareness of my own mortality being a motivator to live life to its fullest without letting it get me too depressed.

In Urglaawe, the Wild Hunt is Holle gathering up the souls of the Dead, and then on Walpurgisnacht she grinds them in her mill so they can go on to the next life. I like that better than the idea of Vallhalla, which I always thought seemed too Christian-influenced. The thing is, once you’re ground in the mill, what is left of you? Is it anything recognizable as being you anymore? The person you were still becomes just a memory.

Gardening as a Spiritual Practice

It’s Lammas, and since I’m one of those people who associate this holiday with Frey, I’d like to talk about one of the main reasons why Frey gets a lot of worship from me.

When I was a kid we had a small vegetable garden in the backyard. We grew cherry tomatoes, sweet banana peppers, yellow crookneck squash, and blue lake bush beans. The tomatoes and peppers were plants purchased from the garden section of Home Depot or Wal-Mart. The beans and squash were Burpee seeds from the seed rack there. We fertilized it with Miracle Gro, killed bugs with Sevin, and killed weeds with Roundup.

Eventually my mom said she had grown tired of the garden and I was old enough to be in charge of it now, if I wanted to still have a garden. The garden was now mine.

Soon an obsession was sparked in me. This was pre-internet, so I had to read books on the subject that I got from the library. I started to read about how harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides were, so I went organic. I started reading about heirloom varieties that they didn’t have at the big box stores, so I started growing those instead. I started tomatoes and peppers from seed in yogurt cups in the windowsill of my room instead of buying plants from the store.

When we moved into a new house with a postage-stamp yard, I had to downsize. I was constantly frustrated that I had so little room to grow much, just four tomato plants, four pepper plants, two bush squash plants, and some pole beans climbing up chicken wire I attached to the fence. I kept dreaming of one day having a huge garden where I could grow fruit trees, berry bushes, long rambling melon and pumpkin vines, and enough tomatoes to can and freeze.

Then I went off to college and lived in a tiny studio apartment. I couldn’t stand not being able to grow anything. I felt so cut off from Mother Earth and the cycles of the seasons. Eventually I heard about a community garden in town, so I got a plot there. It was great at first. I could finally grow things, and had a lot more room than I did in my mom’s backyard. The problem was I now I had to drive a few miles to putter in the garden, instead of just walking out the back door. For a while I had a part time job in the bookstore across the street from the community garden, so I would visit it every day after work. I didn’t want to get my work clothes and shoes dirty, but at least that way I could check on my plants almost every day, harvest anything that ripened, and take note of things I had to do on my next day off when I’m properly prepared to dig in the dirt.

But then I got a job further away and visiting my garden required a 15 minute drive to get there. And then I had a car accident and wasn’t hurt but totaled my car and now relied on public transportation to get there. Now it was a 45 minute bus ride to get to my garden, because public transportation in Texas is terrible. I have a vivid memory of dragging a large sack full of freshly harvested potatoes and onions onto the bus after spending a few hours digging them up. The bus driver and I had an interesting conversation about it.

The garden started getting neglected. Sometimes tomatoes would rot before I got to them. The weeds started taking over because I never had enough time to pull them all. I was going to college full time plus a part time job, so I could only visit the garden once a week.

The other gardeners at the community garden were almost all retired people who had a lot of time on their hands. Some thought it was really cool that a college student was trying to grow a garden there and were friendly and encouraging, but the lady who had a plot next to mine started getting increasingly annoyed. She kept her garden perfect with no weeds and little cherub statues and lattice fences around. She started making rude comments about how unkempt and ugly my garden was looking. I started trying to avoid being there when she was also there, which cut into the time I could spend in my garden even more.

Then one day I got to my garden and there was a yellow flag. That happens when someone puts in a complaint that a garden had excessive weeds or unharvested crops, so the garden might be abandoned. You had a week to clean it up or they would put up a red flag, and now that means you lost your garden and they were going to rent it to someone else. I don’t know who complained about my garden, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to clean it up in time, so I sent management an email saying I was giving up my garden. I didn’t want to get that red flag signifying it was abandoned, because I’d heard the complaints about all “those people” who come and get a plot and be enthusiastic for a few weeks and then realize it was hard work and disappear. I didn’t want them to think I was one of “those people.”

I ended up going to graduate school at a different university in a new town which had community gardens, but I had learned my lesson that I didn’t have time to tend a garden I had to drive to. The old saying goes that the best thing for a garden is the gardener’s shadow. A garden really needs to be checked on daily.

The best I could do was get a CSA membership, so I got fresh produce delivered once a week to my apartment. I made friends with the farmer, and would sometimes come and help him with his farm, which was about a 20 minute drive away. One time I went and helped him pick peaches for a few hours, and he let me take home all the bruised ones he couldn’t sell. Another time I got a bunch of imperfect tomatoes. I bought a canner and canned them in my tiny apartment kitchen. I bought a Meyer lemon tree and a Key lime tree for my apartment balcony. I even harvested a few lemons or limes from them each winter. It wasn’t much of a harvest, but at least it was something.

Then I met the man who would become my husband, and we moved in together in a rented house. Shortly after that I graduated during the recession and was unemployed for almost a year. We did ask permission from the landlord to have a garden, but I bet he didn’t realize I’d take up the whole back yard. When you’re unemployed they say you’re supposed to make looking for work your full time job, but you can really only keep that up for a few weeks before you run out of places to apply to, and then what do you do with your time? I also looked for places to volunteer at, but they were all full and said they didn’t need any more volunteers. I guess many other people out of work had the same idea.

At least my garden made me feel like I was doing something productive, and I did get a bountiful harvest, especially of tomatoes, squash, and garlic. I doubt I made a big dent in our bills, but I think it certainly helped with my mental health.

Then I finally got a job, we got married, and bought our own house. And that’s where I am today. Our house is on a 0.8 acre plot, but most of it is heavily shaded with oak trees, which is nice, but gardens need sun. I have two vegetable gardens, one in the front and one in the back, in the two sunny spots we had. I also have fruit trees in a row in the front yard between the oak trees and the road: a pomegranate, the Meyer lemon I used to have on my balcony, a satsuma, a kumquat, a loquat, and a fig. We tried planting the Key lime where the kumquat is now, but during its first winter it died down to its roots. We dug it up and put it back in a pot, and replaced it with the kumquat. I guess my area isn’t quite warm enough yet for a Key lime to survive in the ground (it did manage to sprout back from its roots and now seems to be thriving in its pot). I would like to have more fruit trees like apples, peaches, and pears, but I’m not sure where I have the room to squeeze them in.

I know most people don’t have gardens, but I simply need to have one. Fellow gardeners will understand that, and other people don’t get it at all. When my husband and I were looking for a house, my first priority was that there had to be room for a garden.

 

The main deity I associate with my garden is Frey. I know some people might think that my gardening doesn’t count as an act of devotion to Frey, since it’s something I enjoy doing anyway, and would do with Frey or without him, but that’s how it is with me. It’s also shaped how I view Frey. I’ve seen other people’s depictions of him where he ends up looking like Fabio, with long flowing blonde hair, but I have a hard time picturing him like that.

To me, Frey has hair and a beard the dark brown color of fertile soil and green eyes the color of healthy vegetation. He has the physique and tanned skin of someone who works outside most of the time. If he’s wearing clothes, they’re also green and brown, and he smells like soil and fresh cut grass. His sacred animals are the deer and the wild hog, which is ironic since both of those animals are very destructive to gardens. Deer are overpopulated here since we removed their natural predators, and wild hogs are a non-native invasive species. Maybe there’s a lesson here somewhere.

The idea that Frey is sacrificed and reborn every year is probably a bit of modern lore. I don’t remember anything about that in any of the Norse mythology I’ve read. But I don’t care, because it fits so well with him. The cycle of life, death, and rebirth is so obvious when you garden, and especially when you save your own seeds, like I do. It also makes sense for him to die on Lammas, because here that’s the hottest time of year, and that’s what ends up killing most of the spring-planted crops (the tomatoes, beans, etc. that were planted in February or March). Then there’s a second planting season for overwintering crops in fall when it cools down sometime around the Autumn Equinox.

In order to be a good gardener I also have to be on good terms with the local land spirits and the plant spirits, and that’s where things get a little trickier as a Heathen, because most of them are not European. Yes, Europeans have been here for a while, and many of them are buried around here and still haunt the place, but they are in the minority as far as local spirits go. As for the plants I grow, most of them are either native to the New World (squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes), or to Africa (okra, black-eyed peas) because of the hot climate here. In the winter I can grow some peas, carrots, turnips, and other European things, but for most of the year my garden is full of stuff that wasn’t domesticated by white people. I don’t think it’s right to ignore native spirits when I’m using their land and growing their crops, but cultural appropriation is always such a touchy subject. How I deal with this is still in the learning stages.

And I mean “growing their crops” quite literally sometimes. I get a lot of stuff from Native Seeds/SEARCH, which is an organization in Tucson, Arizona whose goal is to preserve Native American plant varieties from the Southwest. Some of their plants are native to the New World (like corn, beans, and squash), and some were brought by Europeans and then adopted by native tribes (like melons). Tucson is a bit hotter and drier than here, but that often means their plants think South Texas is a lush paradise. Sometimes I hardly have to water them at all. They do have a few varieties that are from the San Antonio area, like what is now my favorite okra, but I’m on the very eastern edge of the geographic range they cover.

But with climate change, maybe things from further southwest might be even better adapted to growing here over time. That seems to be the opinion of the founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, Gary Nabhan. He’s probably right that the world is going to need these desert-adapted crops in the future. I’m just not sure if it’s going to get wetter or drier here overall. So far it seems like we’ve just had more extremes: floods, then droughts, then a flood, then more drought. That actually makes it even harder than it would be if it was just getting consistently wetter or drier. Plant something from Florida during a dry year and it roasts to a crisp. Plant something from Arizona during a wet year and it rots.

 

Now my gardening has progressed into seed-saving to preserve heirloom varieties. I’ll probably join Seed Savers Exchange soon because I’ve gotten to the point where I have enough to share. I’ve also started a little bit of amateur plant breeding to get varieties that are even better adapted to my growing conditions, inspired by an author named Carol Deppe. I own all three of her books, and she’s one of those people who I think would make a good pagan (even though she says she’s a Taoist). There’s a lot of animism in the way she writes about the relationship between a gardener and her plants. She’s one of those gardeners who is not afraid to admit that she talks to her plants, and talking to them helps them grow better, and sometimes they do actually talk back.

Saving your own seeds closes the circle. I associate it with the rune Ingwaz. In general I think of Ingwaz as the rune for the legacy you are going to leave to future generations. It’s a counterbalance to Othala in that way, as Othala is the rune for what the ancestors left us.

I like to think that I’m doing my part to preserve seeds and knowledge for future generations who are going to really need them when climate change forces us to adapt the way we obtain our food.

But even if there wasn’t some “greater purpose” to what I do in my garden, I’d still enjoy doing it anyway. It’s just fun.

America’s Best Idea

Today is my country’s 240th anniversary, and before I go to a local city park with my husband and in-laws to eat very unhealthy food from food trucks (I’m thinking some kettle corn, hot dogs, and I hope they have those chocolate-covered frozen bananas again this year, yum!), listen to a band play music on the stage while small children dance in front, and then at sundown watch people set off multicolored explosives, I wanted to post something quick for this occasion.

There aren’t a lot of things going on right now that make me proud of my country. We’ve been at war for 15 years, we keep having mass shootings, we keep having unarmed black men shot by police or vigilantes, we still treat rape as if it’s not that big of a deal, but for some reason what public restroom you use is a huge deal, and one of our major political parties is about to nominate someone who admires Mussolini and is loved by white supremacists.

Theodore Roosevelt and John MuirBut there is one thing that makes we swell with patriotic pride: our national parks. Ken Burns was absolutely right, that was America’s best idea. All the other things that make America great are ideas we got from other places, but the concept of the national park was born here. Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world. And while there is a lot of talk in Pagan circles about honoring the “founding fathers” on the 4th of July, I’ve always felt better about honoring Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir as great Americans worthy of hero cults.

(Yes, I know John Muir was from Scotland, and yes I know Theodore Roosevelt had some problematic things about his presidency, but dammit, they gave us the national parks! And Teddy was a Republican. Can you imagine what he’d think about the Republican Party today?)

The idea of the national parks is that contact with Nature is a human right, just like free speech or the right to vote. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea. And now there’s plenty of research out to prove that Nature is vital and necessary to human health, both mental and physical.

And though the national parks were founded “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” they led to the modern American environmental movement and the idea (or rediscovery of the idea) that nonhuman life has a right to exist too.

The last episode of Ken Burns’s documentary series on the national parks had a segment about the return of wolves to Yellowstone, and I admit it, that part made me cry.

Yes, our country is very flawed, and yes, even the national parks themselves are flawed (they’re horribly underfunded and they don’t do a good job attracting non-white visitors), but I still think they’re a thing that truly makes America great. This year is their 100th anniversary. We must do all we can to ensure they last another 100 years.