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.

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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.

Thor and San Juan on Midsummer

Well, this is a nice coincidence. I was just looking at the website for one of my favorite seed sources, Native Seeds/SEARCH, where I found this article on their blog:

Celebrate Dia de San Juan!

This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about in my last post on Thor and giving him thanks in June for bringing the rains to the garden. I knew that June 24 was the feast day of St. John the Baptist, but I didn’t know that he was the patron saint of rain. It makes sense though.

Now I’m even more certain that Midsummer is Thor’s holiday in Texas! He fits perfectly to make a Heathenized version of Dia de San Juan.

This year’s Midsummer celebration went very well too. I did my usual barbecue and invited over several guests. Thor got honored, but also Loki. I gave the Trickster a piece of meat by throwing it directly in the fire once the meat was done. The feast contained a lot of vegetables and herbs that I grew in my garden, and the meat was smoked with oak wood from dead branches we trimmed off our own trees.

Then after the feast, even though it was a warm night, we made a bonfire in the fire pit in the back yard out of juniper wood, which repels mosquitoes. Bonfires are supposed to purify the area of evil spirits, right? Well, even if they don’t, it did purify the area of those darn mosquitoes!

Then we had a symbel around the fire with the last of my mead. I think it was the first symbel I had where some magic actually happened, rather than it being just a bunch of people getting drunk and chatting. What happens in symbel stays in symbel, so I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say after that I was like, “Oh, that’s why symbels are a big deal!”

It was pretty cool.

Ostara’s Sacred Birds

Tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, and it looks like in my household it will end up being a low-key affair because my husband and I have both been very busy and under a lot of stress lately. We haven’t had the time or energy to make a lot of plans for it. But I have to do something because in theory anyway, Ostara/Easter is one of my favorite holidays. Probably because when I was a kid, our secular celebration of Easter was tied with Halloween for second favorite holiday (after our secular Christmas, of course). After all, Easter is when the Easter Bunny came! That was always very exciting. I tend to make the date I actually honor Ostara flexible. I do it some time between the actual Spring Equinox and Christian Easter. That gives me some wiggle room in some years, but unfortunately this year is one of the ones where Easter comes at the end of March.

I’ve written here before about how Ostara, Goddess of Spring and the Dawn, is definitely a real goddess to me, no matter what anyone else says. So I was very happy when I found out that she’s definitely a real goddess in Urglaawe. They seem to have more information about her than any other Heathen group I’ve come across.

The Spring 2015 issue of Hollerbeer Hof was all about Ostara (or should I say Oschdra?), including a myth about how she brings color to the world. In the story, she’s one of a trio of sisters, the others being Nacht (“Night”) and Helling (“Daylight”). I know that in Norse myth there is a male deity named Delling associated with Dawn, while Nott is the goddess of Night in Norse mythology. Hmm, that’s interesting.

But what’s more interesting is the role of the Goldfinch (Distelfink) in this myth. Oh yes, there’s a Hare too, but I already knew that hares and rabbits were Ostara’s sacred beasts (like goats are to Thor or cats to Freya), but the goldfinch being her sacred bird is new to me. It makes a lot of sense though! For one thing, she just should have a sacred bird. Odin has ravens, Freya has falcons, so why shouldn’t Ostara get a bird too?

And the Goldfinch is a perfect bird for her, because it’s so colorful, and Ostara is the goddess who brings color to the world. It’s why we paint colorful Easter eggs for her holiday (or her Lagomorph helper brings them and hides them for children to find). I already associate Ostara with spring blooming flowers, so why not colorful birds as well? Especially migratory ones that leave during the winter and return in spring.

The original Distelfink was probably the European goldfinch. When European colonists came to the New World, they had a bad habit of naming North American birds that kinda sorta looked like birds from Europe with the same names, even if they aren’t the same species or even the same family, much to the annoyance of ornithologists! The American robin vs. the European robin is a notable example. At least American goldfinches and European goldfinches are both finches.

So when the Pennsylvania Germans came to North America, the American goldfinch became the Distelfink. They have a lot more gold coloring on them anyway, so they actually make a better Distelfink.

I only occasionally see American goldfinches around here. That’s why I was really happy to read in Hollerbeer Hof that there is conflation between the American goldfinch and Painted Bunting when it comes to the identity of the Distelfink. It also notes that Painted Buntings are uncommon in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

But guess where they are common!

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A male Painted Bunting at my birdfeeder

Painted Buntings are actually in the Cardinal family, but unlike their red cousins who are here all year, they spend the winter in Mexico and the summer here in Texas. That makes them a good Ostara’s bird because they don’t arrive until Spring.

They’re also the most colorful birds we have here. It looks like a kid’s drawing of a bird come to life, a kid who used every crayon in the box.

 

I started getting them at my bird feeder when I discovered by accident that their favorite food is millet. I had been putting nothing but black oil sunflower seeds in the feeders, thinking most birds like them better than millet. Then one day the grocery store had this seed mix on sale, so I went ahead and bought some, even though it had lots of “filler” seeds like millet. That’s when the buntings started showing up.

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A female Painted Bunting

Female painted buntings are less colorful. They’re more of an olive green, which makes them camouflage really well with green leaves up in the trees.

I haven’t seen any Painted Buntings here yet, but I know they are coming soon. When they get here, the feeders are ready for them

There is one more Distelfink that we actually have here in Texas, the Lesser Goldfinch. It’s a close relative of the American Goldfinch. I wish it had a better name. It’s called Lesser Goldfinch because it’s smaller than it’s cousin, but that makes it seem like it’s not as good of a finch or something. They’re very cute birds, though the Painted Bunting is much more colorful and Easter egg-like. The Lesser Goldfinch is still a striking bird. It looks like its back was colored with a black Sharpie, while its belly was colored with a neon yellow highlighter.

Lesser Goldfinch

A Lesser Goldfinch at the bird bath

So unlike the Groundhog, this is one sacred animal that we do have a Texas version of. If we had a Texas version of Urglaawe, we could have a version of the Oschdra myth with a Painted Bunting in the role of the Distelfink and a Jackrabbit as Haas (the Hare). They can bring color to the world by causing the Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes and Texas Redbuds to bloom. Someone needs to write that!

In Search of Texas’s Groundhog

Last weekend I celebrated Imbolg/Candlemas/Groundhog’s Day/whateveryoucallit with my usual Charming of the Garden Tools ritual. My husband and I gave the hoes, shovels, and spades a good cleaning and sharpening before taking them to our backyard ritual circle to be sprinkled with wine that was then given to the land spirits.

I’m still trying to figure out what to do with this holiday, and I’ve decided that I like the idea of doing a garden and garden tool blessing based on the Charming of the Plow tradition from England and will keep doing it. Yes, I know that was technically in late January, not February 2, but close enough.

I also like Groundhog Day, which is a big deal to the Pennsylvania Dutch Heathens (Urglawwe). I like the idea of celebrating critters coming out of hibernation as part of an early-spring holiday. Besides, we need a holiday between Yule and Easter. I guess in secular American culture that’s covered by the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, but I like having a more nature-oriented observance in there too.

But the problem is groundhogs don’t live in Texas.

And I’m not sure if any mammals hibernate here at all. In Germany the hibernating animal was probably a badger, but the closest thing we have to a badger here are skunks, and I don’t think they hibernate. Groundhogs are actually a type of ground squirrel, but the squirrels here don’t hibernate either and seem just as active in January as they are in March, judging from how fast they eat up my birdseed. Austin does have an armadillo named Bee Cave Bob who’s supposed to be our version of Punxsutawney Phil, but armadillos don’t hibernate either. The last time I saw one it was digging around in my neighbor’s lawn under their Christmas lights in mid-December.

The only critters here that definitely hibernate every winter are cold-blooded critters like frogs and toads. In fact, weekend before last we had to “rescue” some hibernating toads that were under a boulder in our backyard that we had to move. Thankfully we didn’t squish any of them, but five of them had burrowed under there, and that night it was going to get very cold, so we kept them in a plastic tub in the house overnight. When we found them under the rock they were comatose, but after spending the night in the warm house they were up and hopping around and looked healthy. We released them around noon so they’d have plenty of time to find a new shelter before it got cold again that night.

I love my toads, but Toad Day doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.

I’ll probably keep calling it Groundhog Day just because that’s what everyone calls it, and that Bill Murray movie was great, but the search for a Texas groundhog substitute continues. Texas weather is just so weird and unpredictable this time of year that it’s hard to pinpoint “this is spring now.” In the past week it’s been near freezing on some nights AND in the low 80’s on some days.

Which I understand is kind of the point of this holiday. Is it spring yet? It’s hard to tell. With no groundhogs around, which creature to I trust to make that call? Armadillos, skunks, and squirrels all don’t seem to have the best judgement to me. Hrrmmm.

The Season of Gebo

Thanksgiving is over, and that means it’s time to head into the Winter Solstice/Yule/Christmas season. This weekend the hubby and I are putting up the lights and getting our tree. We’ve also been working on our gift wish lists, though I admit I haven’t bought anything yet. Next week is finals, and then after that I’ll have more time for things like gift shopping.

And I’ve already seen the posts popping up about how horrible the Christmas gift giving tradition is because it’s just this orgy of materialistic consumerism. People proudly proclaiming that they don’t do Christmas gifts. People asking why we don’t just buy whatever we want ourselves and save everyone the trouble. Christmas gift giving is just a way for corporations to brainwash us into going into thousands of dollars of credit card debt buying a whole bunch of Chinese-made stuff that we don’t need, right?

I’ve heard it all last year and the year before that and the year before that, just as regularly as I hear that Christians are persecuted because sometimes they are reminded that not everyone is celebrating the birth of Jesus at this time and there are some other  holidays that happen in November and December.

It always makes me sad too. I know it’s none of my business if people don’t want to take part in a particular holiday tradition, but saying that they’re going to quit exchanging gifts altogether because Christmas has gotten too commercial and materialistic seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I even thought this when I worked in retail for five or six years, first in a big box store and then in a mall, while I was in college. The first time I worked retail over the holidays, they hung a sign up in the break room saying if you call in sick on Black Friday or Christmas Eve you’re automatically fired. At least this was back in the good old days when Thanksgiving and Christmas day were the two days of the year we were closed.

I’ve definitely gotten to see the dark side of the Christmas shopping season up close and personal, but the whole time I wasn’t thinking “Christmas is terrible. We should get rid of it.” More like, “You fools are ruining something ancient and sacred with this madness!”

434px-MerryOldSanta

For full disclosure, maybe I should remind readers that this is probably so important to me because Santa Claus was my first god, and now I consider him to be an aspect of Odin. I’ve written about this before, though I feel I have to keep repeating myself because so many people think of Odin as solely a scary war god. I know the Vanir are usually thought of as being the main gods of wealth and prosperity, but Odin has some wealth and prosperity aspects to him as well. One of his many names is Oski, the granter of wishes. He owns the golden ring Draupnir, which multiplies itself into nine rings every night. There are several verses in the Havamal about the value of generosity, and the rune Gebo is all about giving.

To me, the gift exchange is not only an important part of the Winter Solstice holiday; it’s central to it. The exchange of gifts symbolizes the bonds we have with members of our human community and with the gods, and those bonds are what allow us to survive through the darkest time of year. It’s not the Yule Father’s fault that his image has been co-opted by the big corporations for profit. He’s supposed to embody the exact opposite of greed.

It’s also not surprising that a prosperity deity would get co-opted by consumerist culture. That wouldn’t work with someone like Jesus who was all about denying material pleasures. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with prosperity deities. My pre-Christian ancestors lived in an environment of scarcity. Exchanging gifts would have been a really big deal to them. Now we live in an environment of excess, so that throws things off a bit. It’s kind of like feasting. Feasting used to be something special that you didn’t get to do every day. It doesn’t mean as much now that we’re getting health problems from having too much food to eat rather than too little.

(Yes, I have read that gift giving may have come from the Roman Saturnalia and not the Germanic Yule. I don’t care. Gift giving is part of the Yuletide now, and considering how important reciprocity was to our heathen ancestors, it seems to fit well even if it’s not entirely “historically accurate.”)

Like with so many things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Instead of throwing out the tradition of Christmas presents, I think this is another thing we pagans can reclaim.

 

One mistake we make is equating value with an item’s price tag. Spending lots of money is not the point. Yule gifts don’t have to be expensive, and they certainly don’t have to put you into credit card debt for months. There are all kinds of creative ideas out there for thoughtful gifts that don’t cost a lot of money. When I was unemployed I used to give people homemade candy or cookies. I made pecan pralines and fudge and put them in pretty tins that I had saved from previous years, or picked up for a dollar each. Now I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to buy gifts again, but I would never hold it against anyone if they had to give me something that didn’t cost a lot of money. If you can afford to, you don’t have to buy things that are mass produced either. You can buy things from local craftsmen or artisans or mom and pop stores or off of Etsy. You can get something from the gift shop of a nonprofit organization to help support their mission. You don’t have to elbow through crowds at Wal-Mart or get everything off Amazon.com.

The irony is that the most materialistic people I’ve known have also been the hardest to find gifts for. They’re always the ones that have the most stuff, so they already have everything they want. Whenever they see something they want, they just buy it for themselves immediately. They can’t handle the delayed gratification of putting it on their holiday wish list and waiting a few months or weeks for someone else to give it to them. And then even if you do find something to give them, you know it just gets thrown on their huge pile of stuff and forgotten.

People who obtain material possessions thoughtfully and deliberately seem to have a better idea of what they want, and when you hunt down that special thing that they want, they seem to appreciate it so much more. These are not the people the Black Friday commercials are marketing to, but they’re so much more fun to shop for.

 

And yes, I do think Christmas/Yule shopping is fun, and I usually hate shopping. I especially hate shopping for clothes for myself. I’ll wear things until they have big holes in them to put off buying new clothes for as long as possible. Grocery shopping isn’t quite as bad since I love to cook, but still more often than not it seems like a chore. But I love shopping for gifts for people! I love picking out the wrapping paper and ribbons and bows and wrapping it up and arranging it under the tree and then marking that person off my list. I love seeing the look on the person’s face when they unwrap it and see that I got them that thing they’ve been wanting for so long. I love the whole process.

I held on to my belief in Santa Claus much longer than my peers, but after a while I could no longer deny that those gifts by the fireplace every Christmas morning were put there by my mom, and the stomping on the roof I hear that one year that sent me and my sister scrambling to our beds on Christmas Eve (because if you’re not in bed when Santa comes, you won’t get any presents!) was my dad.

But then I discovered paganism and figured out that Santa Claus is a god, and now that I’m an adult, the way to continue “believing in Santa” is to perform his work in the world.

When I worked at Barnes and Noble, we had a tree covered with tags with the names of needy children and what kind of books they like. People could get a tag, buy a book, stick the tag on it, and put it under the tree to get donated to the child. Each year I would get a boy and a girl who said they like science or animal books and get them some of the cool books we had in our children’s department, the kind of books I looked at and went, “I would have loved this when I was a kid.”

The ultimate expression of Gebo is giving to someone that you know is never going to pay you back. That’s what Santa Claus does. He gave me a My Little Pony Dream Castle, a Super Nintendo, and a stuffed tiger that still sits in my bedroom to this day, and all he got in return were cookies. As a kid, that didn’t teach me materialism, that taught me that when someone has the power to be generous, whether you have a workshop of magical elves that crank out toys (or are they dwarves?), or you just have some disposable income to buy something for someone in need, you should do it just to make the world a happier place, not to get paid back. Santa Claus wasn’t a toy vending machine, he was a role model.

 

But yes, a lot of the people I buy gifts for could buy those things for themselves. I can afford to buy myself everything on my wish list this year. Why even bother with that? Why not just buy things for yourself if you want something? Why do the gift exchange? Why do you need to give people material things as a symbol of your love for them? Shouldn’t they just know you love them without you having to hand them a physical object?

Pagans should understand this. Why do we do rituals where we burn candles or knot chords? Why do I have statues of my gods on my altar? Why do I have an altar at all? On one level, the gifts are another magical prop like the candles in a spell. The exchange of gifts is a magical act that bonds people together.

I’m wearing a ring right now that’s the physical embodiment of my marriage with my husband. I’d still be married to him if I didn’t have a wedding ring, or if I lost it, but I still wear it every day, and if I lost it I’d be pretty upset. We could have just signed some paperwork and we’d be legally married, but no, I wanted to do a full ritual and exchange rings, because I thought it was important and needed a ritual.

The Yule gift exchange is kind of like that. Making a big production of it once a year through the Yule ritual reminds you how important your bonds are that are there throughout the year, and doing it at the darkest time of year makes sense because it’s during the dark times of your life when you need your tribe the most. Going to the trouble of finding out what the person wants, shopping for the gifts or making them, and packaging them all up in colorful paper and bows is all a ritual act. At least, it can be if you treat it that way. Pour positive intent into your actions throughout the way. Galdr Gebo and Wunjo runes as you wrap them. Pray to Jolnir to bless the gift’s recipient, and don’t forget to leave him out an offering of cookies on Christmas Eve to thank him.

People have been complaining about Christmas being too commercial for generations, so that’s not changing any time soon, but I’m never going to give the gift giving tradition up. I feel sorry for the people who dread the coming of the Yuletide and see it as just being a stressful chore and don’t see the magic in it. It’s the first magical ritual I ever did, overseen by the first god I ever believed in. I just try to emphasize the good bits and ignore the rest.

Honoring the Land this Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law is hosting this year, and I’ve been asked to bring pies. We’ll have enough people there that we’ll need two pies, though I’m sure a lot of people will want to have a slice of each. This year I’m going to make a pecan pie and a pumpkin pie. The secret to making a good pie is a homemade crust made with butter and lard. This is no time to be worried about saturated fat, and I don’t think anyone there is a vegetarian. Butter tastes delicious, and lard is what makes the crust tender and flaky. Yum!

Last year I talked about how I have decided that Thanksgiving is a time for me to honor the North American land spirits. Here are some ideas I’ve come up with to incorporate that into the usual secular American celebration of turkey, pie, and football.

Incorporate sustainable ingredients into your feast.

My pumpkin pie will be made with pumpkins I grew myself in my garden. If you have a garden, try to make at least one dish incorporating something from your garden, even if it’s just sage from a potted sage plant on your balcony.

If you don’t have a garden, check out your local farmer’s market and see what they have for sale. Get some fruits or vegetables to make a dish from something locally grown. If you don’t know much about the kinds of things that are grown in your area or are in season right now, now is a good time to learn.

For the turkey, I highly recommend getting a free-range bird if you can afford it. You have not tasted turkey until you’ve tasted one that got to run around outside. Butterball turkeys have been bred to have such huge chest muscles they can hardly walk. Free-range turkeys are going to have less white meat and more dark meat, but I prefer dark meat anyway. But even the white meat of a free range turkey is much more flavorful than a Butterball. I think it’s worth it.

Burn off some calories with a hike in your local ecosystem.

Maybe you can do this with your family after dinner in a local park, or maybe you can take a trip to a state park on Black Friday. It probably won’t be very crowded since everyone else will be at the mall. Take a look at what’s happening in your local ecosystem. Are the trees changing color or losing their leaves yet? Here they’re just starting to turn color. The Cedar Elms and Western Soapberry are turning bright yellow, while the Texas Red Oaks and Flameleaf Sumacs are living up to their names and turning bright red. Those are mixed with Live Oaks and Ashe Junipers that stay green all winter.

Are there any migratory birds passing through your area on their way south? Since I live in Texas, this is south for a lot of migratory birds. There are several species I only see in the winter, like Orange-Crowned Warblers and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets. There are other species of birds, like most other warblers and the hummingbirds, that only live here in summer and go to Mexico or South America for winter. Then of course there are the cardinals, wrens, blue jays, and mockingbirds that are here year round.

Or maybe where you lived there’s already snow on the ground, the birds have left, and the remaining animals are hibernating.

If you don’t know how to identify your local trees or birds, maybe some field guides would be a good thing to put on your Yule wish list. Our ancestors had detailed knowledge about flora and fauna that many modern people have lost. There’s even a trend among professional biologists that knowing “natural history” isn’t important, which I discovered when I was in grad school. I think that’s a big shame. I don’t think you can fully appreciate something unless you can name it. It’s kind of like the old adage about how the Inuit have all these different words for “snow”. To most people a tree’s a tree. Once you learn to identify which tree is which, suddenly you notice so much more about all the amazing variations of what a “tree” can be.

Visit a museum or historic site to learn some real history.

This might be a good idea if the weather’s bad and you don’t feel like spending much time outside. Learn about the people who lived on the land before you. The Thanksgiving story we were taught in elementary school about Pilgrims and Indians at Plymouth Rock has been mythologized quite a bit, so maybe it’s time to learn about the real Native Americans and various immigrants who lived where you live now.

For example, where I live there was the Tonkawa tribe, and then they got conquered by the Comanches. Then there are all those missions around San Antonio that were built by the Spanish to convert the native people to Catholicism, so that today most Latinos (some of their families go all the way back to when Texas was still part of Mexico) practice a version of Catholicism with a lot of native flavor. A bunch of Germans and Czechs settled the Hill Country and did cool things like inventing Texas-style barbecue. Yes, Texas barbecue was invented by Germans, not cowboys. It was only a couple of years ago that I learned about how the Texas Germans signed a peace treaty with the Comanches, but were persecuted by Confederates during the Civil War because they didn’t support secession.

My point is there’s a lot of complicated stuff about history they don’t teach you in school. I think Thanksgiving is a good time to remember your “ancestors of place.” They may not be your blood ancestors (who are honored on Samhain/Halloween), but they left their mark upon the land where you now live, so that makes them important too. Archaeologists have even found Clovis points only a few miles from my house. Those points were used to hunt mammoths during the last Ice Age. The Clovis people where probably the first people to immigrate to North America (as far as we know) and they lived right here!

 

Well, those are just some of my suggestions. Modern American Pagans celebrate all these holidays that are taken from European traditions. We’re always looking across the Atlantic to our “ancestral homelands” for inspiration. Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time for us to remember that we’re the descendants of immigrants who left Europe and came to America, many because they thought America would be a better place to live than Europe. Don’t forget to give thanks to the land that gave your ancestors these new opportunities, and remember that you share it with the plants and animals and people who lived here before they got here.

And don’t forget that Thanksgiving is the one time of year where it’s permissible to have multiple pies in one meal. I have some baking to do now!