That Sounds Delicious!

The winter holiday season is often a time of food and drink that is not on our regular menu rotation and even not available at other times of the year. Many have strong, distinct flavors.

Gingerbread and Candy Canes both have legends that pluck the chords of ritual, nostalgia, and tradition. But, does their history really originate with religion? Let’s get into it!


Gingerbread was not created to remind us of Jesus dying for sins and being prepared for burial with spices. But it does have an interesting history. Gingerbread as we enjoy it now, either as a crisp cookie or a tender cake, has very humble beginnings. The earliest records of something like it can be traced back to Rome and China.  This early gingerbread precedes sugar and leavening. It was quite different in texture and taste. Early recipes involve breadcrumbs, honey, wine, and spices that were baked at a low temperature.  Without a more finely ground grain, such as flour; and leavening, like eggs or baking soda, I expect it would have more of a granola bar texture than that of a crisp cookie. Ginger grows commonly in Asia and South Asia and most likely found its way to Europe when the Crusaders returned from their violent conquests. Ginger was considered medicinal and found to settle the stomach. Ginger flavoring may have been used to disguise the taste of meat that was starting to spoil.

Gingerbread gained popularity in Europe and was elevated with fancy, carved molds. The gingerbread mixture would be something like boiled honey, breadcrumbs, wine, and spices. It would be molded or pressed into a carved wooden board with images that were often seasonal or timely like birds, famous people, animals, armor. Festivals and other social gathering would include sales of this treat, called fairings. Some gingerbread was decorated so intricately it was used as decorations in the home. Queen Elizabeth I famously presented special guests with gingerbread molded to look like them.

In some regions, the folks who created the molds and the gingerbread were elevated to a guild and making gingerbread was limited to only those who had received special training with few exceptions. Guilds were intended to control design and quality but also to control supply and demand. A few of the molds still survive in museums today. Among them, a carving of a sun to celebrate solstice.

In modern Germany, gingerbread goodies are still seen at fall festivals. Some are a mashup with conversation hearts and include a friendly or romantic expression on them such as, “you’re really super!”

The gingerbread house doesn’t have clear origins. It’s kind of a chicken egg thing with the folktales around Hansel and Gretel in the 1800s in Germany. At some point, around the time of the popularization of the story, a house was carved into some wood slabs, gingerbread was molded, and it was decorated and displayed. (As you are no doubt aware, record keeping was pretty hit-or-miss in the 1800s.) The practice was brought to the colonies by German immigrants. It is more popular in the United States than it is anywhere else.

Gingerbread is a wonderful tradition to add to winter celebrations. I host a gingerbread house party every year with some dear friends. The gingerbread recipe I use relies on molasses and cinnamon for its dark color and of course, ground ginger. As with any heavily spiced foods, it is best if the dough is allowed to sit for a few hours to let the flavors mingle. Another fun way to experience the spicy fragrancy is by making ornaments. You can make these with a traditional gingerbread dough or with something that will last a bit longer.  I have made cinnamon + applesauce + glue dough a few times and used cookie cutters to make shapes for decorating. While I went for spring birds, there are lots of fun shapes that celebrate the coming spring.

Candy Canes

Bold red stripes twisting on a white sugar background shaped with a hooked bend on one end is the quintessential candy cane design. Perfect for hanging on tree branches, stockings and nearly anything, their pure peppermint goodness is part of many winter memories. But where did they come from?

Let’s start with hard candy. Candy like candy canes falls into a candy category called hard candy. They all have the same basic origin – sugar dissolved in water is boiled until it reaches around 300 degrees Fahrenheit (148 Celsius). Flavoring is added and the candy is usually pulled to add air once it cools a bit. (The next time you bite into a candy cane, you may notice little tubes of air – that air is adding during pulling and makes the candy appear opaque and white.) The stripes are made from artificially colored candy that is added to the white candy. The canes are pulled, rather than extruded, while the candy is still hot. They are also cut and shaped.

Hard candy started as a medicine – the sweetness helped make herbal remedies that were not as tasty go down a little easier. Peppermint oil was used as a flavoring at least as far back as the mid-1700s. And as sugar became more widely available, non-medicinal candy became more common and could be made in the home. The first peppermint sticks that turned up in the early to mid-1800s were straight and did not have stripes. The bend emerged somewhere around mid-1800s but were not widespread until a machine was invented that could mass produce the curved sticks in the early 1900s.

One connection to religion that the candy cane can claim is the machine that led to mass production. A candy manufacturer named Bob McCormack made candy canes, among other things. His brother-in-law, Father Gregory Harding Keller, was a Catholic priest and inventor. He designed a machine that could twist the candy so the stripes would curve around the stick and a second machine that would cut and form the canes.  This allowed candy canes to be mass produced with less waste and few broken candy canes.

Some legends about the history of the candy cane involve a choirmaster creating them to keep children quiet in church in the 1600s… or that the white color symbolizes the purity of Mary, the red symbolizes the blood of Jesus and the cane is either a shepherd’s crook or a letter J. There is no historical record that can substantiate these claims and more so, they did not get any circulation until the late 20th century.

Candy canes are fun addition to winter holidays. In our family, they are hung on the tree each year and we nibble on them Christmas morning while we open gifts.

Most of the foods and treats that are enjoyed during winter festivities don’t have religious origins and enjoying them can be fun for everyone. If you are looking to start some new traditions, maybe try making a Bouche de Noël which was briefly mentioned in Celebrating with Light. This is a dessert that seems to have evolved from the tradition of burning a Yule Log that somehow became a cake?! The origins are not completely clear but it sounds delicious! The most traditional version is a chocolate sponge cake roll filled with pastry cream and frosted with buttercream icing to look like a log. Mushrooms shaped out of meringue or marzipan are added and sometimes powdered sugar is used to add snow. Or, maybe gingerbread cookies, houses, or ornaments are a good fit for you. Candy canes are widely available as well. However you chose to celebrate, make it yours.

Have you read the rest of the series? You can start at the beginning with Why December 25?

Why December 25?

What About Greenery, Wreaths, and Trees?

Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

That Sounds Delicious!

Celebrating with Light

So, How do We Celebrate?

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So, How Do We Celebrate?

As spring approaches, there are lots of ways we secular folks can celebrate. After all, most of the celebration started well before Christianity and is still relevant today.

The changing season, renewed greenery, new baby animals, and passage of time are wonderful touch points.

Some activities to consider:

  • Enjoy a good, Marie-Kondo-style spring cleaning. Donate what you don’t need to an organization that can find them a new, loving home.
  • Dress up a bit if you like. Spring is a wonderful time to wear a fancy dress or make (and rock) an amazing hat!
  • Nourish yourself and your family with fresh foods. Prepare, enjoy, and share a special meal. Include some fresh grains if you like.
  • Celebrate spring all around you. Plant some seeds, celebrate Earth Day (May 22) and the wonders of nature’s renewal.
  • Host a gathering of family and friends. Invite everyone to make or wear an outlandish hat. Make or acquire seed bomb eggs and let them dry in the sun while you dine together on a succulent feast.
  • Create an egg-stravaganza of decorated eggs if you partake. Decorate eggs with plant-based dyes, markers, symbols of nature, or create your own special meanings.
  • Enjoy the sweets of the season. Celebrate benevolent giving with an egg hunt or a basket of goodies from a rabbit, a fox, a stork, or a loving person.

Rather than trying to find separations or ownership of beliefs and practices, I prefer the braided stream view that we also use for human evolution. That is, syncretism over time and space. There many similar beliefs and traditions that arose in geographically separate areas just as animal shells arose more than once in evolution. Each had its place and purpose in time. Stories about ancient gods explained things humans did not yet understand. They came out of the human need to find patterns, even when patterns are not actually there.

We can take these practices today and choose those that have meaning for us or consider the life they once supported. We can create our own rituals to celebrate the cycle of the year. Make this spring special any way you like!

Easter, Eostre, and Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

Easter, Eostre, and Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

Receiving a basket filled with candy and colored eggs on Easter morning is a tradition many families follow.  There are no ties to anything in the bible about a benevolent rabbit. You may also have heard about a goddess called Oestre for whom Easter is named but there isn’t a clear line on that one either. The connection between a goddess called Oestre and the holiday named Easter is tentative at best. The most recent research I could find regarding this goddess was presented in 2007 by Dr. Philip A. Shaw.

Over time, the tentative connections that researchers were able to glean from literature written by Bede somehow started being presented as irrefutable facts. They are not. According to Dr. Shaw, there was probably a goddess in a small part of Europe that was worshipped as nature’s resurrection after the death of winter. She did not bring anyone chocolate. She was probably part of a polytheistic culture that varied throughout the region. What we don’t know is how widely this goddess was celebrated. Keep in mind, early people were not jetsetters. Most people lived and died in a small community and while the tribes were often in conquest mode, not everyone participated. Even the notion of paganism is a broad brush to paint with since it covered so many groups in so many places over time and wasn’t a concrete set of beliefs.

So, who brings presents and treats in the springtime?

 In Iran is Amu Nowruz and his companion, Haji Firuz (sound familiar?) Amu is depicted as an elderly silver-haired man who brings gifts to children and his companion wears red and has his hands and face covered in soot.

In the United States, the Easter Bunny (originally called the Easter Hare) almost certainly came to us from the Pennsylvania Dutch (German speaking immigrants in the 1600s)

In some parts of the world, including western Germany, there is an Easter fox. The origins were hard to track down and sketchy at best but it seems at some point, folks brought a fox from house to house seeking donations for some sort of celebration or sacrifice.

In a small region in central Germany, since the 17th century, a stork brings Easter eggs on the Thursday before Easter (Maundy Thursday) Bakeries make a yeast-based sweet bread in the shape of a stork decorated with colored sugar. Some variations include a colored egg emerging from the stork as if it is being laid.

In parts of France, the bells in the church towers fly away in the days before Easter (Maundy Thursday or Holy Friday, I find resources citing both) and return on Saturday night or early Sunday morning to distribute chocolates all over town before settling back into their towers.

In Australia, conservationists are trying to replace the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby, an endangered species. Rabbits are an invasive species in Australia and while bilbies also have tall ears, they are a marsupial. Several candy manufacturers produce chocolate bilbies and donate proceeds to conservation efforts.

No matter who brings the goods, Easter is the second biggest candy consuming holiday in the United States. Halloween is #1.

What is Passover? So, How Do We Celebrate?

What is Passover?

Let’s unpack and review Passover.

Many of the words used to describe Easter traditions in Christianity are based off of the word Passover. In Hebrew, pesah means, “the passing over.” In Christianity, one may hear Paschal Feast (Easter feast), Paschal Lamb (death of Jesus), and Paschal Blood (sacrificial blood). The connection between the two is ritual sacrifice of life with the intention of protecting or benefiting others. In the Jewish religion, it is animal blood and in the Christian religion, it is human blood.

In the Jewish religion, this is the concept of God passing over people in certain marked homes and slaughtering those in other unmarked homes.

Passover is a Jewish celebration of freedom from slavery and the creation of a new nation under Moses around 1300 BCE. This freedom came from their god as he inflicted several (the numbers found in the Bible are not consistent) plagues on the Egyptians who were holding them enslaved. The final plague was the killing of the first-born children of all Egyptian families. The Israelites were to mark their doorposts with blood from a sacrificed lamb. This mark would ensure that their own children would not be killed. I will take just a brief moment to note the absurdity and horror that sacrificial blood must be used to mark a doorpost for an omnipotent being to kill innocent children who were of the wrong race. OK, moving on…

Another part of the celebration is not using leavening, such as yeast. Wheat-flour based foods that use baking soda or baking powder are permissible. To prepare, the home is cleaned thoroughly and laws prevent possessing even small quantities of yeast. A formal search ritual is completed in each home. Matzoh is a commonly sold unleavened bread that you might see in stores around this time. This tradition comes from the haste in which the people left Egypt.

Historical note: baking soda as a leavening agent did not come into use until 1846. Other ingredients with less reliability came into use in the late 1700s but prior to that, wild harvested yeast was the most common method used to get breads to rise.

However, the celebration rituals now called Passover probably started well before that as a spring celebration of the first grains of the season eaten freshly harvested grains, or, unleavened. Along with that, the tradition of sacrificial blood on the door frame would ensure that demonic forces could not enter the home. There was an offering either per family or in a temple also.

Historians have found evidence for the ten plagues of Egypt. Among other things, a drought and later, a volcanic eruption could have led to the reports of abundance of disease carrying insects and the subsequent death of livestock, strong storms and unusual weather, tsunami, red water, illness, etc. Specifically, historians have theorized that a particular mycotoxin could have killed the oldest child in each home while they harvested and ate grain. Mycotoxin is toxic fungus that may grow on grain in wet periods. It can be toxic if inhaled or eaten. Modern practices of mechanical harvesting, cleaning and sorting of grains prevent illness or death from mycotoxins today.

Passover is connected to Easter in several ways and has an interesting (and violent) history all its own.

Easter Dresses, Hats and Special Clothing Easter, Eostre, and Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

Easter Dresses, Hats, and Special Clothing

Since at least 420 CE, people bought and wore new clothes to celebrate renewal in Spring. In this instance, we are referring to the Northern and Southern Dynasties of China! These new clothes were a symbol of a fresh start as part of the new year.

Both NowRuz and Sham Ennessim include new clothing with their celebration.

In 300 CE, Pope Constantine declared that new clothing must be worn on Easter.

There are a few superstitions around wearing new clothing in the spring including one from Poor Robin’s Almanack in 1899, “At Easter let your clothes be new, or else be sure you will it rue.”

In many regions that celebrate Easter, a new “Easter dress” and “Easter hat” are very common in clothing ads although now, ads tend to refer to “spring dresses.”

Hats have a different evolution. In the Bible, Corinthians 1: 2-16, dictates that men should not cover their heads during worship, but women should cover their heads and their hair. It also dictates that women should wear their hair long and men should wear their hair short. There is a whole movement in Christianity aiming to revive these practices more broadly.

Head covering is practiced in many segments of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Muslim)

Until 1983, the Catholic Church requested that women cover their heads while in church with a chapel veil. I recall my mother telling stories about girls putting doilies on their heads before entering the church if they had forgotten their own. In other forms of Christianity, such as Amish or Mennonite, women cover their heads almost always.

Orthodox (ultra-conservative) Jewish communities require women to cover all of their hair once they are married. They believe the hair should be covered because it is too sensual for another man to see. This is thought to originate in other Bible passages about a woman being tested after being accused of infidelity.

In recent years, the head coverings of the Muslim religion have made headlines. The word hijab has made headlines but what is it, exactly? Hijab is an Arabic word meaning cover.  The hijab seen most often is a square scarf wrapped to cover the head and neck. However, there are other forms. This piece of clothing came out of the Muslim religious requirements for modesty. While many articles state that hijab is a woman’s choice, there is an underpinning that hijab allows one to succeed in fulfilling the obligation and command of Allah. In some countries, hijab is mandated by law. However, in some of those same countries, women were forced to unveil several decades ago. What is striking to me is that women were not given a voice in the matter. I wonder if this is why there is such a strong feeling of choice over mandate in conversations about hijab?

However, wearing a veil has a much longer history than that. Neolithic cave paintings depict head coverings circa Thousands of years before Jesus was but a sparkle in his father’s eye, veils were worn by women as a status symbol. In polytheistic Assyria, established by around 2500 BCE, women of status wore veils. Lower class women as well as prostitutes, were subject to corporal punishment for wearing a veil. It is interesting to consider a length of fabric as a status symbol.  In ancient Rome, women wore veils as a symbol of their husband’s authority and their own seclusion, among other things. From a practical standpoint, veils and head coverings are also useful in preventing sun, dust and dirt from getting in one’s hair and eyes.

In medieval Europe, women did not leave home without a veil or other head covering. Even medical texts with dissections included a head covering for modesty. This practice flexed and contracted from all outings to only during a religious ceremony, but stayed present in some form, at the very least in some churches, through the 1980s. By the 60’s, hats were no longer a fashion necessity.

Early settlers in North America, like the Ingalls family, got new hats every spring. Some were rougher for everyday wear and some were for Sunday best church attendance.

The religious insistence of head covering became more fashionable and also covered one’s skin from sun exposure. Hats varied in style dramatically over time. Some styles used wire frames woven with ribbons.  One particularly enormous hat, called the Merry Widow, after the play it was designed for, was 3 feet wide and 18 inches tall (almost 1 meter wide and 46 cm tall). Nevertheless, hats were considered proper attire for women and young ladies when out of doors. And, due to the complications of removing them, often remained on throughout the day if one was out-and about.

Today, women wear hats for many reasons. Hats are popular at music festivals like Coachella for UV protection as well as fashion. In the UK, hats are often worn to special occasions. A popular time for hats is at horse races like the Royal Ascot in the UK.  Attended by royalty, a strict dress code is enforced. Hats worn for this event are typically a single color, wide-brimmed hat decorated with feather, ribbons and the like. Another style is called a fascinator. They are smaller and worn more toward the front of the head. Many elementary schools in the United Kingdom have an annual Easter Bonnet Parade on the last day of their semester. Children wear DIY hats and a contest is held.

Across the pond we have the Kentucky Derby hat. The Kentucky Derby is a horse race held on the first Saturday in May in Churchill Downs, Kentucky, in the southwestern United States. The Kentucky Derby started when Meriwether Lewis Clark attended horse races like the Royal Ascot in the UK. Eager to recreate these extravagant and festive events, he started the Kentucky Derby.  An event to see and be seen, hats worn for this event are typically wide-brimmed with lots of ornate decorations. There is no such thing as too much with a Kentucky Derby hat! Another Easter hat tradition is the Easter Parade on 5th Avenue in New York City. This event started in the 1870s and grew in popularity, even spawning a movie called, Easter Parade. The original idea was to showcase one’s wealth, taste and good fortune. This tradition has changed over the years and now is a delightful spectacle of wonderous creations posing as hats. While I have not attended, photographs make the scene feel more like a Mardi Gras-like celebration of spring than a walk to church.

All in all, special new clothing did not originate with the Christian celebration of Easter. It is a common practice that predates Christianity in many cultures around the world. Head covering predates Christianity as both a functional piece and a gender and status specific social mandate. Piety joined the mix later and picked up steam quickly. Today, some religions mandate gender-specific head coverings in certain situations and others merely encourage them. Some ignore them altogether.

Decorating Eggs What is Passover?

Decorating Eggs

Decorated egg shells have been found at archeological digs as far back as the Neanderthals some 60,000 years ago. The practice has been found in ancient Egypt as well as in many other places around the world. Since the Neanderthals didn’t leave any written materials, we cannot know for certain what their eggs were for. Archeologists believe they were used to store things and note that not only did different eggs have different decorations, but also that the intricacies of the design changed over time. Neat!

Ornately decorated ostrich eggs, using materials like lapis lazuli, are found in Iraq dating about 5,000 years ago.

4,000 years ago, in ancient Egypt, decorated eggs were adorned with gold and silver and placed in tombs. They were also used as household storage items.

Decorated eggs as part of early Christian practices may have started in Mesopotamia.

In Slavic cultures such as Croatia, Ukraine and Poland, egg decorating traditions, including pysanka, started in pre-Christian times and were rolled into Christian celebrations. The method is similar to batik. Wax is used to block some portions of the egg from receiving dye and later removed. Some of the colors and symbols used are:

triangles symbolizing water, earth, air and later the holy trinity  

the Grand Goddess, a matriarchal symbol representing birth and renewal             

circles symbolize the cycles or the earth, seasons, and universe 

swastika symbolizes happiness and good luck     

dots represent stars or things without a beginning and end          

leaves and branches symbolize strength and growth       

butterflies symbolize the fun of childhood            

birds symbolize spring   

white represents new life, purity and light

yellow represents celestial moon and stars

red represents life-giving blood, love and joy, and the hope of marriage.

green represents new vegetation in the spring and renewal

blue symbolizes the sky, and good health

brown represents the richness of the soil

black symbolizes the world of the afterlife in a positive light

In Poland, similar traditions of decorating include treated wax pisanki (like batik), gluing shiny paper or fabric onto eggs (like Mod Podge) or etching an already dyed egg to reveal the white shell below.

In Iran, Western and Central Asia and other parts of the world, a New Year holiday called NowRuz is celebrated on the Vernal Equinox. Originating in Zoroastrian, it is now more or less a secular holiday. (Quick note, Zoroastrian shares the myth of the virgin birth of a savior(s) who is the son of god bringing judgment, resurrection of the dead and eternal life). Among other traditions, many families include decorated eggs as a symbol of fertility and new life.

In Egypt, Sham Ennessim celebrates the beginning of spring with, among other things, colored eggs. This holiday is the evolution of Shemu, the 1st-century celebration of spring.

In some regions, red is a common color for eggs in Christianity. Some say it symbolizes the blood of Jesus. There are several stories around the resurrection of Jesus where eggs turn red although none are referenced in the Bible.

Some of the most famous, slightly more contemporary decorated eggs, are Fabergé eggs. In 1885, Tsar Alexander III commissioned an egg as a gift for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. Intended as an Easter gift, this may also have doubled as a gift to celebrate 20 years since their engagement. This was the first is a series of 54 jeweled eggs made for the Russian Imperial family. Each one had a hidden surprise mechanism such as something hidden inside or a pop-up surprise. (To put this into historical perspective, the children of this marriage would result in Nicholas II, the Russian Revolution resulting in his abdication and later murder. Alexander and Maria’s grand-daughter is the famous Anastasia.)

Decorated eggs were also part of Spring celebrations in Germany and it is likely that these are the traditions that made their way to North America.

What Does Easter Celebrate? Easter Dresses, Hats, and Special Clothing

What Does Easter Celebrate?

What is Easter? blog series exploring the history and origins odfspring traditions What Does Easter Celebrate?

In the Christian religions, Easter is the celebration of Jesus coming back to life (called the resurrection) three days after being crucified by the Romans and buried in a tomb. Easter is not celebrated by all Christians. Some Christian groups that separated during the protestant reformation do not celebrate Easter and consider it, among other things, pagan. Other Abrahamic religions, such as Muslim, Bahá’í, and Judaism believe Jesus was a prophet.

For Christians who do celebrate, there is a lead up period called Lent when it is common to give up something, chocolate or alcohol are common today, as well as not eating meat on Fridays. In parts of the world, a weekly communal meal of fish is served, commonly called Friday Fish Fry. Sometimes, it is hosted by a church as a fundraiser and it is often a featured dinner special at restaurants.

In the past, a vegan diet (no meat or animal products such as eggs or honey) was the norm for some groups during Lent. Lent has subsections of time and days such as Palm Sunday (Jesus returns to Jerusalem and people lay down palm leaves for his donkey to walk on.) Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday (the Last Supper), Good Friday (crucifixion day), Holy Saturday (the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection)

Much like Christmas, the date of the Easter celebration took some time to be established. Even today, eastern Orthodox Easter is not celebrated on the same day as the Catholic celebration. The date is currently determined based on an ecclesiastical moon called the pascal moon. Pascal comes from the word Passover.  To be clear, this is not a lunar-based event, rather a roundabout date in the Christian calendar that is intended to be the Sunday following the Spring Equinox.

Like Christmas, Easter has also seen some religious syncretism (synk-re-tizm), that is, different beliefs blending and reshaping over time and influence.

Looking back through history, the Vernal Equinox and beginning of Spring was widely celebrated in many cultures. A time of renewal, celebrating the return of fresh foods, and new life. Return of birds (baking bread in the shape of a bird and throwing it into the air.)

In Slavic countries, Dazhboh was a deity of the sun. Birds were seen as the god’s special creations and getting the eggs laid by the birds was intended to bring the egg holder closer to their god.

In Egypt, Sham Ennessim, a contemporary holiday, celebrates the beginning of spring with, among other things, colored eggs. This holiday is the evolution of Shemu, the 1st-century celebration of spring.

In Iran, Western and Central Asia and other parts of the world, a New Year holiday called NowRuz is celebrated on the Vernal Equinox. Originating in Zoroastrian, it is now more or less a secular holiday. (Quick note, Zoroastrian shares the myth of the virgin birth of a savior(s) who is the son of god bringing judgment, resurrection of the dead and eternal life). Among other traditions, many families include decorated eggs as a symbol of fertility and new life.

In China, Start of Spring, also known as Chinese New Year, has been celebrated for almost 4000 years. Also based on a lunar calendar, Chinese New Year also incorporates the zodiac. You may be familiar with “Year of the Pig” and red decorations. This celebration also includes new clothing, special foods and gifts of money. The history of the holiday revolves around a mythical creature who would ravage a village and eat the villagers until a hero stepped up and scared the creature away with the color red and fireworks.

While we don’t have any evidence that the spring holidays coalesced into the Easter we see today, the celebration of Spring has a long history throughout the world.

Next, let’s talk about egg decorating…

So, How Do We Celebrate?

What is Christmas for Atheists: How Do We Celebrate?End-of-year celebrations throughout history have included light, decorations, gifts, feasting, frivolity, tradition, ritual, hope and celebration of prosperity, supernatural, sacrifice, scary characters and benevolent characters. Most of what is commonly celebrated during the winter is based on ancient traditions associated with the end of the year and not necessarily the Bible.

In my family, we always had the same meal on Christmas Eve at the same house (my maternal grandparents’), after the same mass, followed by the same Christmas curtain, in the same room, the same gift wrap (thanks to my economical grandmother who purchased a roll that I couldn’t get my arms around!) and many of the same ornaments. All of these memories together are what make Christmas. This year, when my brother and his girlfriend came for Christmas dinner, I served that exact meal to his delight!

So really, what is celebrated during the winter seasons, is traditions. In learning about the history of Christmas, one piece that really stuck with me was how quickly new activities and beliefs took hold and were considered age-old customs. The yearning for predictable comforts and ritual is the biggest part of modern end-of-year customs. This aligns with a lot of research about anticipation often being more satisfying than the event itself. When we consider how much of Christmas is anticipated, “they will *love* this gift,” “this special recipe *will* be so good!” Next year *will be* great!

Year after year of rituals that build a long-standing shared memory within families and communities is Christmas.

Alongside that, we know that memories often sweeten with time. That is, we may recall experiences more favorably than they actually were. Called rosy retrospection by researchers, this feeds into Christmas also and unlike other memories, is one a lot of folks share. You may also know it as nostalgia.

Ritual and anticipation, along with fond memories is excellent emotional priming that gives us a fantastic base for a cultural phenomenon.

Another common theme is revelry and hi-jinx. From changing roles to changing gender-oriented clothing, freedom of celebration and exploration abound. There is no pressure, just fun to be had. Add to it feasting, sweets, gifts and alcohol and you’ve got yourself a party!

Christmas has also become a holiday that is about celebrating childhood. A celebration of wonder through the eyes of children. Special gifts from a benevolent stranger, extra sweets, music, and special foods.

Another piece of Christmas is consumerism. The buying of things. The it toy, the must-have thing, the madness of Black Friday sales. When I was a child, there were fights over the last Cabbage Patch Doll and that seem to happen every year. It is here that we may find ourselves shaking our heads. I am right there with you. Certainly the folks who know how to play these chords the best are marketing firms.

Christmas is the time of year when advertisements are themed as nostalgic rather than innovative. Companies advertise how old they are to play the nostalgia chord in our hearts.

Old-fashioned candies, games, etc. are trotted out for black Friday sales. Even decorations feel nostalgic. Consider the charming, painted ceramic snow-covered villages that you can add to each year…

However, that consumerism has not been enough for me to say, “bah-humbug.” Instead, I look for the common themes and weave then together into something I can make my own. I start with the ancient celebration of hope and the return of light. From druid celebrations of the great mother giving birth to her son of light, to celebrations of fire as the hearth and center of family, light is a common theme that is easy to embrace and build on.

One of our family traditions is going out to look at holiday lights. My children will bundle up and take a cup of cocoa while we wander the neighborhood enjoying everyone’s decorations. We also like to visit neighboring towns and enjoy their community decorations.

Another common theme is greenery, if nothing else, as a symbol of the returning spring. In our family, we hang swags of garland over the fireplace mantle and stair rails. We have a Christmas tree that we decorate with ornaments that I buy when we travel. Each ornament recalls a family trip (that we most certainly remember with rosy retrospection!)

We enjoy music too, it is easy enough to create  playlist of songs that are about the season and not a specific religion if you like. And most holiday specials, like the Grinch, are not about a higher power.

We invite Santa to our holiday as well. I know there is a lot of controversy about Santa feeling dishonest and deceptive to some. I hear that. I value the wonderful surprise and the spirit of giving without expectation of reciprocity. We reinforce this throughout the year with random acts of kindness too.  In our family, Santa is benevolent, never watching, no elves reporting, and all children are on the list because we believe everyone is trying their best. I have explained to my children that many families talk about elves watching but I don’t know anyone who didn’t get gifts from Santa because of behavior.

Some families in our community do not invite Santa because they focus only on the birth of Jesus. That has been a talking point for us about how religion is the most important thing to some people and all of their choices are made around it, and not necessarily other facts or information.

We make special family recipes and host a gingerbread house decorating party too. While I did not touch on special foods, like gingerbread, this year, I will wrap back to that next year. Gingerbread however, is decidedly secular. And has a quirky background!

These articles are not intended as ways to start an argument. What I have found over the years is that gentle persuasion is more effective than the hammer over the head. When folks are confronted with facts so different than those they have embraced their whole lives, it takes some time to process them. So, dropping a historical reference here and there about other beliefs they may not align with is a gentler way to introduce folks to your atheist beliefs. This is my way, but certainly not the only way.

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How do you celebrate the holidays with your family? Drop me a line at

Want to dive in and learn more? Here are the resources I used to create this series:

Bowler, Gerry Christmas in the Crosshairs Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday
Oxford University Press 2017

Marling, Karak Ann Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday
Harvard University Press 2000

Brunner, Bernd Inventing the Christmas Tree Yale University Press 2012

Flanders, Judith Christmas: A Biography,
Thomas Dunne Books; 2017

Miles, Clement E. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,

Elliott, Jock Inventing Christmas: How our Holiday Came to Be
Harry N. Abrams 2002

Steves, Rick; Griffith, Valerie Rick Steves’ European Christmas
Copyright 2005 Rick Steves

Full Winter Solstice Saturnalia Ritual Instructions

Mistletoe Toxicity

History of Mistletoe

HIstory of Mistletoe

History of Mistletoe

Pine Branches in Japanese Culture

British Museum: Journey to the East

Click to access Chinese_symbols_1109.pdf

List of Christmas and Winter Gift Bringers

Santa in Japan

Ho, ho, Hotei: The Japanese Santa Claus

“Don’t take Odin out of Yule,” Norweigan American

Don’t take Odin out of Yule

Santa Around the World

Santa, around the world

The True Story of Hanukkah

The TRUE Story of Hanukkah

Yule Log

Yule Log

Roberts, Martha The Joy of Anticipation

Saint Lucia song lyrics

A Glimpse of Light (Norwegian version of St. Lucia song)

Saint Lucia Celebration in Scandinavia

Saint Lucy Day

A Victory for Light in Winter’s Dark Gloom

A victory for light in winter’s dark gloom

Making a Yule Log

The Magical history of Yule

Rosy Retrospection

Rosy Retrospection: A Look at the Psychological Phenomenon

The Joy of Anticipation

How to Make the Most of Your Vacation

Stuff you Should Know, podcast

National Geographic, various articles

Chicago Tribune, various articles

Celebrating with Light

What is Christmas Celebrating with LightLight is a common strand (pardon the pun!) in holiday celebrations. In fact, the earliest gifts for New Years were candles! Both artificial light, whether it be a flaming yule log, or a string of LEDs on a tree, pay homage to ancient traditions celebrating the return of sunlight and longer days. There are many celebrations of light to explore. Saint Lucia Day (December 13) is a Scandinavian celebration, of, among other things, light. While seemingly named for an early christian martyr, this holiday’s traditions are secular in origin. Norse rituals celebrated light on the darkest night of the year, (winter solstice), using the calendar of the time. Festivals celebrated that the demons of winter were banished by the coming sun. Work was forbidden for fear of Lussi, an enchantress, who would punish anyone who worked. As Christianity moved into the area, Saint Lucia was added to the celebration. Traditionally, the eldest daughter wears a wreath of evergreen lingonberry branches with a crown of candles and serves her family a special breakfast in bed while singing a special song. The original Italian version of the song is about a sailor enjoying the sea in Santa Lucia. Other versions are about welcoming light into darkness. The wreath is evergreen, symbolizes the coming spring. Diwali is celebrated in India as well as many countries in southeast asia, the south pacific and southeast asia. It, typically happens in the fall and among other things, celebrates light and the triumph of good over bad and knowledge over ignorance. It also celebrates community and  incorporates a fresh start with a deep cleaning of the home. Lanterns are lit and gifts are exchanged. Community events and parties are held over five days. Hanukkah celebrates light, too. The Maccabees successfully revolted against those that were forcing them to worship greek gods, among other things (at least according to some). And, when they successfully restored themselves in a beloved temple, the quantity of oil they had to keep their sacred lamp lit should only have lasted 1 day. Instead, it lasted 8. From the Jewish perspective, this celebrates a win of being able to worship as they wished and what some see as a miracle of the oil lasting 8 days. In modern interpretations, it also encourages folks to let their light shine as a positive influence on the world. This tie is a bit more troubling to me since much of what the Greeks were trying to curtail were things like circumcision and daily animal sacrifice. Yule Log The word Yule is traced back to the Anglo-Saxon word hwéol (wheel). The Norse believed the sun was a wheel of fire that rolled away from them in the winter and rolled back in the spring. On winter solstice, families would go to the forest to find a log to burn. Many superstitions surrounded this practice. Some involved certain family members having certain roles. Others involves whether or not the log lit on the first attempt. Still others had to do with what to do with the remaining stump and ashes. In France the Christmas log or Bouche de Noël, is a dessert! A cake roll, similar to a jelly roll and decorated like a log. Some folks believe this was a modernization of the yule log tradition for families who didn’t have a fireplace. Delicious in any case! Candletime, is a sweet tradition we have adopted in our family. It gives us an opportunity to slow down and savor our family time in the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving.  Next, we will bring it all together and talk about how a secular family might celebrate. How can you make the holidays your own? So, How Do We Celebrate? Have you read the rest of the series? You can start at the beginning with Why December 25? Why December 25? What About Greenery, Wreaths, and Trees? Gifts from Benevolent Strangers That Sounds Delicious! Celebrating with Light So, How do We Celebrate? If you’d like, you can subscribe below. You’ll get an email when the next piece is posted. Or, you can share this with a friend. While you are waiting, check out the shop!

Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith… and for Freedom, Dr. Karen L. Garst, editor

I had the pleasure of reading Dr. Garst’s last book, Women Beyond Belief last year and I am looking forward to her latest book, Women vs. Religion: The Case Against Faith…and for Freedom. Since I’ve not finished it yet, I wanted to share this review with you. 

Review written by Teresa Roberts

With a bold title like Women v. Religion: The Case Against Faith… and for Freedom, Karen L. Garst has once again provided an opportunity for women who have suffered at the hands of religious doctrines to speak out. Her first book, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion, showcased the personal stories of 22 everyday women who left religion. This newest work written by different authors, often professionals in their fields, focuses more on why women leave religion and how it is beneficial both to them and to society. Although the fight for the rights of women in general is experiencing steady progress in many parts of the world, religious dogma has shown to be insidiously regressive, and a constant threat to societal advancement. That’s what makes the content of this book so relevant. Religion is at the very root of these political and social movements designed to drag women back into the Dark Ages. Culturally, the threads of religious indoctrination have been so closely woven into our collective psyches that they are often difficult to recognize, but as more and more women turn their backs on religion, it becomes harder to justify such blatant oppression. Even liberal Christians, one of the most progressive sects of Abrahamic faith, are now being forced to find a way to align their fight for social justice with a book that supports the pervasive belief in male superiority and female subjugation. As women gain personal autonomy, these Christians are challenged to find reasonable explanations for the archaic belief systems in the Bible, the very foundation of their faith.     

Dr. Garst has managed for the second time to bring together a collection of bright women willing to share their perspectives about what it means to be a woman in a culture that worships old tomes packed full of harmful ideas. Traditionally, women from all over the world have been denied a place at the table with men. Abrahamic religion in particular has led a strong hand to the muzzling of women. The notion that women were responsible for the downfall of mankind and that they were created as an afterthought to accommodate males is well founded in their holy scriptures.

It is an absolute inspiration to read the words from women like Candace Gorham who has witnessed firsthand through her clinical practice the damage that religion does. Having been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of being raised in a Christian cult, I know the trauma that a young girl faces by experiencing the daily brainwashing of such harmful belief systems. Leaving an oppressive religion behind is a difficult task and the damage to my mental health was significant. It has taken years to rid myself of the shame and guilt and find freedom in following my own path. To have my experiences acknowledged and written about in such depth was life affirming.

This book is full of many such revelations as Dr. Garst was careful to include perspectives from women of different backgrounds and religions such as Deanna Adams who writes about the experiences of black women in America. She shows the historical importance of those brought here against their will as slaves and forced to transition from the faith systems of their ethnic groups to patriarchal Christianity. Or Aruna Papp who wrote a compelling chapter about the somber responsibilities she carried as a child born into a Christian Indian household. Trying to combine the cultural expectations already facing Indian women, she was also burdened with the limitations of Christianity. What an enormous challenge for a young girl.

From the transgender perspective to black and Hispanic experiences to Jewish law and Islam, the accounts are raw and powerfully persistent.  They all insist on calling our attention to the challenges of being a woman in any culture upholding a belief system of oppression that is supposedly sanctioned by a god. What a horrible cultural construct, designed to subjugate women while giving absolute power to men. That kind of absolute power inflicts pain and suffering upon women as well as limits their autonomy. And, although each essay is different, they inevitably have one thing in common: Religion stands firmly in the way of progress for women. It may very well be the last big obstacle that needs to be overcome. The evolution of our societies is significantly slower than it should be because of religious ideologies that continue to permeate our collective consciousness. Even in their complete absurdity by modern standards of morality, they persist. Old, archaic, even unscientific and harmful ideas live on and on and on while women are denied autonomy and freedom.

Dr. Garst has managed a literary accomplishment that forces us to open our eyes and acknowledge that it’s time to kick these outdated notions to the curb. Each essay written by a woman is a testament to their courage. By leaving their religious upbringings behind and embracing the responsibility that comes with true freedom, they set an example for all women. Furthermore, writing about sensitive, even controversial topics from the female perspective is long overdue. As more and more women leave religion, find their voices, and speak out, the great lie will be exposed. This book is packed full of thoughtful, well-written essays, making it very clear that religion has been one of the biggest lies ever perpetrated upon womankind.    

Teresa Roberts is a retired educator turned writer, travel blogger and professional myth buster. Raised in a religious cult, she soon discovered after leaving home that the world at large expected conformity as well. She is dedicated to debunking the many cultural expectations and myths that limit creative living. Teresa manages a website called Creative Paths to Freedom. Her most recent book is Have We Been Screwed? Trading Freedom for Fairy Tales.


Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

what is Christmas? blog series part 3 Gifts from benevolent strangers
There are ethereal visitors in many end of the year customs. Some are unpleasant and even violent. Others are benevolent gift-bearers. Most early gift-bearers brought New Years gifts. All seem to have a theme of rewarding good and punishing bad. Here are a handful of some lesser-known characters: Woden/Wotan/Odin and his flying, white eight-legged horse led an army across the sky during Saturnalia. He had black birds that would act as lookouts during his journey. Children would leave hay, carrots and sugar for the horse. Public banquets that spanned days included masters serving their slaves and gifts exchanged including dolls, candles, caged birds. A king of the festivities was elected and would preside over the celebration. St. Martin an adult male dressed as a bishop, complete with staff.  He gives apples, nuts, and cakes to good children and rods to bad children. In some stories, he fills stockings. It has been suggested, St. Martin may have taken the place of Woden. Befana-Grandmother Prior to Nicholas of Myrna (St. Nick) tossing coins down the chimneys of spinsters, Befana or Grandmother, was part of Italian folklore. Befana would visit children the night before the Feast of the Epiphany¹. She would come while the children were sleeping and fill their stockings with candy and presents or coal. Families would leave a glass of wine and some snacks for her. She may also sweep the house. Befana traditions are believed to have originated in Rome and spread from there. The followers of Nicholas of Myrna were able to grow their fervor and remade shrines to Befana to Nicholas of Myrna. However, Befana is still celebrated in Italy with festivals and celebrations. Saint Nicholas of Myrna is best know for secretly gifting sacks of gold to three unmarried young women without dowries to save them from prostitution.  He is celebrated as a patron saint of sailors and giving gifts in secret. His rise in popularity came from a small but devoted group who spread their devotion throughout the world. Even today, children put out stockings full of hay for his horse and receive candy and gifts in exchange. Also known as Sinterclaus in the Netherlands and surrounding areas,during the 16th century in the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas would leave small gifts. These traditions grew and morphed in fits and starts. Also called Sinterclaus, some festivities geared toward helping the poor with anonymous gifts started during the middles ages. There was also a lot of partying. Knecht Ruprecht often accompanied Saint Nicholas. He rewards children who say their prayers perfectly with small edible treats and punishes those who do not. Christ Child, Christkind was a reaction by the church to turn Saint Nicholas traditions toward Jesus Christ. One bishop wrote: “[Saint Nicholas] is a bad custom, because it points children to the saint, while yet we know that not St. Nicholas but the holy Christ Child gives us all good things for body and soul, and He alone it is whom we ought to call upon.” Christkind was developed and made popular by Martin Luther. Sometimes portrayed as a woman but most often a male, they bring gifts to many children in eastern and central europe as well as Central America. They are  intended to symbolize Jesus Christ as a child. Kolyáda, a maiden dressed all in white who goes from home to home on Christmas Eve in a sled with runners. Kolyáda is the name for Christmas and appears to be derived from Kalendae, which probably entered the Slavonic languages by way of Byzantium. The maiden is one of those beings who, like the Italian Befana, have taken their names from the festival at which they appear. Koyada was most common in pre-communist Russia. Grandfather Frost (Ded Moraz) emerged in Russia and other slavic areas from a god of snow and ice called Morozko after Kolyada. Popularity varied until Stalin reinvigorated Grandfather Frost in the 1940s complete with a blue suit and new years gifts. His traditional Russian sled is pulled by three white horses, each horse symbolizing one month of winter. I hope you enjoy these characters and that some are new to you as they were to me. If there is  character I missed, please share in the comments. Next up, Celebrating with Light Have you read the rest of the series? You can start at the beginning with Why December 25? Why December 25? What About Greenery, Wreaths, and Trees? Gifts from Benevolent Strangers That Sounds Delicious! Celebrating with Light So, How Do We Celebrate? If you’d like, you can subscribe below. You’ll get an email when the next piece is posted. Or, you can share this with a friend. While you are waiting, check out the shop! ¹ The Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated by Catholics and Protestants since before they celebrated the birth of Jesus. It commemorates the arrival of the three kings to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It also celebrates the baptism of Jesus as an adult by John the Baptist.

What about Greenery, Wreaths and Trees?

What is Christmas for atheists, greenery, wreaths and trees

Greenery was often used to decorate for winter solstice and new year celebrations, pre-Christianity. For some, the greenery symbolized the coming spring and hope for prosperity and good fortune. Wreaths symbolized victory, hospitality, the circle of the year, as well as the circle of life. Druids were known to decorate with garland, holly and mistletoe.

A quick note about mistletoe: Mistletoe was revered as a cure-all by the ancient greeks. The celtic druids thought it was special because it was green in the middle of winter. Both groups thought it had special properties of healing and re-invigorating. (please note, don’t try this at home, while american mistletoe is only slightly toxic, european mistletoe is quite toxic. It is likely the “invigorating” experience was the early stages of poisoning)

Evergreen trees are known in many cultures as symbols of longevity, renewal, endurance, and even revered as the homes of gods or goddesses. In some cultures, trees act as a symbolic gate, for the re-entry of departed loved ones.

Trees were decorated outdoors at least as far back as Saturnalia. These trees were decorated with sun, stars, gingerbread shaped like animals and gods, and perhaps coins. At some point, trees came indoors.

Christmas Eve had also been adopted as the feast day of Adam and Eve during medieval times. Some trees were decorated with apples symbolizing the apple Eve ate in the garden of Eden. These trees were also called Paradise Trees.

While it is not entirely clear whether indoor trees were part of the Saturnalia or Kalends celebrations, we can feel certain trees came indoors by 1600 in Strasburg in Protestant homes. There are records of tree decorating being denounced by a Protestant¹  theologian around the middle of the 17th century, the criticisms aimed to redirect this practice toward more appropriate celebrations of Jesus. These indoor trees were hung by the trunk from the ceiling (upside down), in the home and decorated with homemade decorations that were often food-based. They included nuts, marzipan and animals.

Indoor decorated trees slowly made their way across Europe, until in 1840 or so, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert very publicly had a Christmas tree. Quickly, opportunistic doll makers introduced tree toppers as winged fairy dolls. Birds of paradise, glockenspiels (similar to a xylophone), and flowers were also used. Glass blowers also took advantage of the new trend and introduced blown glass ornaments.

Community trees were also introduced by businesses and communities as part of their advertising efforts.

Later, trees in homes were also decorated with unwrapped gifts hung in the branches. (Wrapping gifts was not widespread until the 19th century.)

So, if you choose to celebrate with a decorated indoor tree or greenery, you are in good, and not necessarily christian, company. Greenery creates a transformative connection to nature that can be embraced by anyone.

Next up, Gifts From Benevolent Strangers

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¹Protestant is a christian religion that started bubbling up as a plan to reform christianity around the 12th century and took root with Martin Luther and the Gutenberg press in the early 1500s. Protestant beliefs differ from other christian religions, such as Catholicism, in several ways, they do not revere saints, Mary as the mother of Jesus, and rebuked the purchasing of forgiveness. In addition, they do not believe in transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the wine and bread included in the sacrament of eucharist actually change into the body and blood of Jesus.