Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


The counties my ancestors lived in NY.
I can look at my family tree over and over and every time, I see something different. The more variant ways I take in the data- the list of names and dates and geographical locations- the more three-dimensional the tree in my brain becomes. I can see the migration trail that my ancestors took as if they are rippling across the top of a map, travelling from right to left, seldom back again. I can see them moving further to the ocean and then across and down. Until the last two generations, we hadn’t moved further west than Michigan. We are a season-loving people.
Maybe it’s the constant of the seasons changing that reminds me most of the fluidity of life. Everything always changes. The future is always in motion, always moving. I am not sure where life will take me. None of us are. Sometimes, the uncertainty of not knowing where I’m going is eased by the ability to reflect back on where I’ve been, and the reminder that, whatever the circumstance, I navigated through it to get to where I am.
I know where I come from. The people and places I come from. As I write this, I am sitting in my childhood home, celebrating the holidays with family I don’t get to see often enough. I watch my nieces and nephew and think about how much their lives have changed as they’ve grown. I remember what kinds of things played through my head at their ages. I remember at what skin my worldview was. I remember the events that shaped my perception and my life… and me. I take in their stories and how much their lives have shaped them into who they are, who they are becoming.
Where will they go? Where will their lives take them?
The earth is sleeping in this part of the world. And in her slumber I can feel the thick roots vibrating where the feet of my ancestors have travelled, toiled and trod. In the wintering of the world I open myself to the unknown path that lies ahead of me and reach out to touch those tendrils of ancestral memory.

In America…

The cities in Connecticut we lived.

CONNECTICUT… Fairfield Co: Stratford. Hartford Co: Hartford, Simsbury, Windsor. Litchfield Co: Bethlehem, Kent, Washington, Woodbury. Middlesex Co: Clinton. New Haven Co: Milford. Tolland Co: Tolland. Windham Co: Ashford, Windham, Woodstock.

FLORIDA… Pinellas Co: St. Petersburg. 

MASSACHUSETTS… Barnstable Co: Sandwich. Bristol Co: Taunton. Essex Co: Andover, Beverly, Lynn, Methuen, Salem, Salisbury. Franklin Co: Whately. Hampden Co: Brimfield, Monson. Hampshire Co: Northampton. Middlesex Co: Concord, Marlboro, Reading, Watertown, Woburn. Norfolk Co: Boston, Charleston, Dedham, Dorchester, Medfield, Sharon, Stoughton, Walpole. Suffolk Co: Roxbury.
The cities in Massachusetts my ancestors lived.

MICHIGAN… St Clair Co: Memphis, Port Huron, Riley.

NEW HAMPSHIRE… Grafton Co: Orford.

NEW JERSEY… Bergen Co: Hackensack, Paramus, Pemmerbogh.

NEW YORK… Cayuga Co: Auburn. Clinton Co: Clinton, Dannemora, Mooers. Columbia Co: Kinderhook. Dutchess Co: Dover, Nine Partners. Erie Co: Tonawanda. Fulton Co: Gloversville, Johnstown, Mayfield. Genessee Co: Alexander, Batavia. Greene Co: Cairo. Monroe Co: Clifton. Niagara Co: Barker, Beach Ridge, Cambria, Hartland, Lockport, Middleport, Newfane, Olcott, Pendleton, Royalton, Somerset, Wilson. Oneida Co: Vernon. Orleans Co: Eagle Harbor, Gaines. Oswego Co: Redfield. Steuben Co: Cohocton. Ulster Co: Hurley, Kingston. Old New York: Flatbush, New Amsterdam, New Utrecht.

VERMONT… Caledonia Co: Danville. Chittendon Co: Barre, Burlington, Charlotte.

And in other countries…

CANADA… Quebec: Chambly, Contrecouer, La Durantaye, Lacadie/ St Jean, LaPraire, Montreal, Providence, Quebec City, Saint-Laurent/ I’le D’orleans, Varennes. Nova Scotia: Louisburg, Cape Brenton.

Counties in England inhabited by ancestors. 

ENGLAND… County non-specific: Armounderness, Cambridge, Chester, Cranefield, Devonshire, Doncaster, Gloucester, Hertfordshire, Hunterdon, Lazenby, Lea Hall, Preston, Lidel, London, Northumberland, Sussex, Totteridge. Berkshire: Bray, Eaton Hastings, Sulham. Buckinghamshire: Bourne End, Little Missendon. Cambridgeshire: Chatteris, Needingworth, Wimpole. Cheshire: Barrow, Clifton, Doddington. Cumbria: Kendal, St Olaf. Derbyshire: Sawley. Devon: Plymouth, Salcombe Regis, Sidbury, Sidmouth, Stapleton. Dorset: Bridgeport, Cadle Hadden, Dorchester, Piddlehinton. Glouchestershire: Witcombe Magna. Hampshire: Winchester. Hertfordshire: Minsden. Ipswitch: St Mary’s Tower, St Nicholas. Kent: Dover, Faversham, Headcom, Northclay, Turnbridge. Lancashire: French Lea. Lincolnshire: Crowland. Lincolnshire North: Barton. Norfolk: Hemsby, Norwich, Ormesby, Scratsby. Northamptonshire: Cottingham, Daventry, Long Buckby. Nottinghamshire: Worksop. Oxfordshire: Buford, Mollington. Shropshire: Eyton, Eyton on the Waldmores, Little Withiford, Leighton, Moreton Corbet, Oswestry Castle, Upton Cresset. Somerset: Chaffcombe, Glastonbury. Staffordshire: Cresswell Manor, Ford Green. Suffolk: Beccles, Groton, Moulton. Waltshire: Wighill. Warwickshire: Warwick. Wiltshire: Marlborough, Salesbury. Yorkshire: Bedale, Bracewell, Brideshall, Carleton, East Riding, North Riding, Norton, Norton Conyers, Skelton, Skipwith, Wighill. Yorkshire North: Knaresborough Castle, Tadcaster. Yorkshire West: East Haddlesey, Kirkburton.
Isle of Jersey. Isle of Man.

FRANCE… Abbey of St Grestain, Aix La Chapelle, Argences (Caen, Bayeux), Beaumont, Bretagne, Castle of Ambrieres, Challe Mesnil, Clermont (Lemans, Maine), Cleuville, Estouteville, Falaise, Fecamp, La Carite-Sur-Loir (Nievre), Lens (Artois), Liseux, Notre-Dame (Rouen), Saye, St-Jean-de-Montaigue, St Jean Baptiste (Caen), Toulouse/Haute-Garonne, Valognes, Y/Somme/Picardie.

GERMANY… Hesse Darmstadt.

IRELAND… Bannockburn, Tyrone County.

NETHERLANDS… Amsterdam, Enigen, Hees, Wageningen.

NORWAY… Maer, Nord-Trondelag.

PALESTINE… Damietta.

SCOTLAND… Orkney Islands.

TURKEY… Nicea.

WALES… Aberffraw, Dendaethwy and Malltraeth in Anglesey, Glamorganshire, Powys.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Modraniht, id est matrum nocturum

“the Modraniht, that is, in the night of the mothers[=matrons?]”
Early Germanic peoples celebrated the night before Winter Solstice as Mothers Night. The Venerable Bede, a Christian monk from the 8th century wrote about it in his description of the pagan calendar. In Old English they called it Modraniht. More than 1100 votive stones and altars have been found through the centuries, dedicated to the mothers, or matrons, and half of these altar stones were inscribed and dedicated with Germanic names.
The main areas of worship have been uncovered in ancient Germania, northern Italy and eastern Gaul. There are a few larger cult centers with temples found along the Rhine. Many of these altars were found near rivers, wells or springs. The dedicated altars and votives reached as far as present day Scotland, southern Spain, Frisia and Rome. There is reference to the Germanic Mother Cults in the writings of Bede in 725 AD: “And the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call modranect, that is, the mothers’ night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through.”
Altars and votive stones, as well as temples, were often carved with images showing three women of matron age and appearance, often holding baskets of fruit and a baby. Based on the inscriptions found, it is thought that these altars were dedicated as offerings of thanks for abundance, gifts and blessings that soldiers and sailors had already received. They believed the Mothers had responded to their prayers and this was their way of acknowledging them, burning incense and leaving sacrificial offerings of food.
Many of these goddesses or spirits were named for the family that was dedicating them, as well as being named for the river or spring that watched over the local town or village, such as the Albiahenae matrons of the town of Elvenich or the Renahenae of the Rhine. Of the 1100 votive stones found, over 360 different ones name the same sets of matrons, the Aufaniae, the Suleviae and the Vacallinehae. Based on the age of the stone inscriptions, it appears that the cult of the Matrons began to die out in continental Germany around the 5th century CE, and Modraniht was not as widely celebrated as Christianity took hold.
What can we take away from what history tells us? The Night of the Mothers was the time to honor the familial and tribal “soul” mothers who watched over them. It was intended for those mothers who had crossed over, not for those still living. On Mothers Night we honor the sacrifice of life so that the ancestral mothers might become a source of wisdom and strength for those still living.
I like to begin my celebration by creating a small rock cairn on a temporary altar. I honor first those of my mothers who have crossed over, inscribing their names on stone in chalk. I light a candle for each of them. I remember them and tell their stories. I also choose to honor the strength of the mothers still living, that they may become part of that ancestral current when it is their turn to pass through the veil.
I drink a cup of tea and invite them to share my cup. I crochet, something my Great-Grandmother taught me on the front porch over the summer when I was younger, gifting me her hooks when she could no longer use them. One way to honor the mothers is to honor their work and pass on the skills that have been taught to you by your mothers, and their mothers, that they live on through you, and the crafting of your hands. I sit and hand-sew, darning old clothes, and as I stitch I pray.

I am Sarah, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Patricia, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Eliza, daughter of Mary of Ireland.

I pray for health for my loved ones.
I pray for healing for my friend, a mother, battling through breast cancer.
I pray for healing for a friend whose mother died a year ago today.
I pray for healing for a friend who lost her mother recently, a mother whose birthday is today.
I pray for healing for a friend whose mother recently discovered her cancer has returned.
I pray for strength for my niece, a new mother this year.
I pray that the echo of the wisdom of the mothers who have come before is remembered.
I pray for the earth, for our Great Mother, whose bones and minerals and animal DNA gave us life.
I pray for all mothers who came before me, all who walk with me and all who will come after.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I Believe in Santa Claus

Last week, my wife flew into the house, cheeks rosy and eyes bright shouting that she had seen Santa Claus in the grocery store (insert childlike exclamation marks). I smiled while she elatedly described him to me, an old man with snow white hair and beard in a red sweater, slowly walking the aisles. He had candy canes and oranges in his cart and when she looked him in the eye, he winked at her. I felt the giddy welling in my own belly and wished I had been there to see him, too.
Whether you call him Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, Father Christmas or Pere Noel, the spirit of the myth that was once a man has lived for centuries in the hearts of people everywhere. Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna lived in the 4th century. He was the son of a wealthy family who used his money for the welfare and good of his people, performing miracles for those who might otherwise have been left destitute. He brought hope and light to the world. He was a real man before his spirit was blessed with immortality. In the passing of time and telling of stories a holy man became something greater. He became a season of giving and a myth with many faces.
It is the legend of the immortal gift-giver and toymaker that most of us grew up with. I still remember my love of the “jolly old elf” as a child. I remember because I still carry that love in my heart. My favorite version of his mythology comes from the fictional work The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank L. Baum. A babe left in the woods was raised in magic by the fairy folk and gifted the Cloak of Immortality for all of the joy he brought to an otherwise bleak human world, so that he might continue his good works forever. I like the idea that long after I am dead and gone, the spirit of the man called Claus will continue. Our world needs magic in it.
I wish that the joy and spirit of the holiday season could stretch out and blanket all of the calendar days, so I try to drink it in while I can, syrupy sappy happiness and all. I love baking cookies and delicacies and crafting presents for loved ones. I love the lengths people will go to in order to make a little Christmas magic happen. I learned that from Santa… and the spirit of him that lives in the heart of my mother and father.
How can belief in him be a bad thing? Santa Claus wants us to be good to each other. He promotes charity and compassion as well as candy canes and hot cocoa. I was the child who vehemently defended his existence far beyond what I should have, for as smart a child as I was. See, I’d done the math. I knew how much the presents we got from Santa Claus cost. Times that amount by three children. There was no way my parents could afford to spend that much on us. I was adamant, fighting with friends on Grand Street on the way home from school and stomping home angrily because they didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe in Santa, when he was so good to us. I really wish I could remember how old I was then.
I remember sitting on my dad’s lap, in his father’s rocking chair when I was a bit older. He mentioned how important it was that I not ruin Santa for my younger sister, or other young children. I was bright for my age and always a bit ahead of putting pieces together. He assumed I had already figured it out and knew I was the kind of child who liked to share the knowledge I had. I will never forget the way his face drained of color when he saw the look on my face – when he realized that not only had I not put it together yet, but I had not even suspected the truth. My poor father. I had been a warrior for the Northern Elf for years and now my dad was saying he was a figment, just an idea.
That did not take the magic away. I was not entirely sure that my father was right. Santa had to be more than an idea. My eyes opened wider in the wake of that moment. I understood that the mall Santa was like the priest at church, speaking for a man who could not possibly be everywhere at once. I didn’t negotiate much beyond that until I realized something about my parents. They never bought things for themselves. All year, I watched my mom not buy herself anything and realized she was squirreling money away so that they could make Christmas the most magical day for us. My parents sacrificed to gift us magic out of love. Because they remembered their joy as children, waiting for the sounds of sleigh bells in the night sky. It was a legacy they went to lengths to pass on.
I remember well my days as a young girl, waking in my flannel nightgown, waiting until we were allowed to wake my parents. I remember every year, our mornings around the tree unwrapping presents. Those mornings opened a window into the child that lived in the heart of my parents and my grandparents. I understood that they were once children my age, excitedly opening gifts with their parents. In my mind’s eye I can see the tree changing backwards into homemade ornaments and popcorn strands, paper chains and nuts strung. Rugs become rag wool become wood floor become dirt and straw… Always there is a child beneath the tree whose blood is part of me.
The real Santa Claus lives inside all of us, like the divine energy of god does. We all have a santa and a scrooge, a light and a dark side. At holiday time, we find it easier to feed our inner Santa. We feel the desire to give gifts of magic to children around us and fight hard to help him defeat our stressed-scrooge inside.
Like the Native American story, we have a choice to continue to feed our inner Kringle and spread the joy and light of love, compassion and charity throughout all of our days. Whatever you believe, whatever you practice, whoever you love, take the best of the holiday season with you into world, through the long winter, well after the snows have melted.

An old Cherokee Indian was speaking to his grandson:
"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. This same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a long minute. "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one I feed."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Healing Holiday Tree

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Yule, one of my favorite traditions of the season is decorating the evergreen tree. I celebrate both holidays, sitting vigil through the long night of Yule, the Winter Solstice. Dawn means that the coming days will lengthen and the longest night of darkness is over. The Christmas I celebrate is a cultural one. It has become bigger than its Christian meaning in America and its roots are twined in pagan practices of Winter Solstice. Whatever you believe and however you practice, the magic and spirit of the holiday is alive in all rites and rituals of the season, including caroling, office holiday parties, and secret Santa gift exchanges.
As I get older I find I need the magic more. I look forward to the holidays as the time of year when people hum carols under their breath, smile at cashiers and clerks and are generally in a good mood. It’s the time of year when I can look someone in the eye and the chance of them reciprocating is high. Christmas brings out the best in us, and we dream of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.
That dream is important to me and I use that energy to buoy my heart against the number of loved ones each year who are no longer living, who can no longer celebrate the holiday with me. Every year, I miss my grandparents more and more, not less like I hoped. You love the people you love, and for some of them distance of space or time doesn’t change that feeling.
It would be easy, I think, to be so overwhelmed with missing them to not care about the holidays. My grandma and grandpa were that special. So, putting up our Christmas tree every year is a moving meditation I do to work through that sadness, backwards, into the joy of every happy memory I built with them as the foundation of my own holiday spirit.
When we were young children, every year when the holidays rolled around, my dad would bring the artificial evergreen tree up from the gravel and dirt basement and my mom would pull two large cardboard storage boxes out of their bedroom closet. The boxes were patterned with large orange blossoms a la the seventies. Inside their walls lived our ornaments, which we put on the tree together.
My mother would put on the delicate ornaments and then we would take turns picking a favorite ornament to hang. When I was a little girl, I loved the family day of decorating the Christmas tree. My favorites were these white lantern tops, with colored gels that sat over lights on the strand. I loved those little lanterns. But more than that, I loved the event of being together.  It’s what Christmas is really about.
Putting the tree together still holds that joy for me, that act of setting the evergreen up in the house, of bringing nature indoors. We have a thirty-five year old artificial tree that we are recycling until it falls apart. After setting it up and wrapping thick garland in between the branches, you’d never guess at its age. I unwrap the ornaments from their boxes and spread them out on the coffee table. It’s a living collage of my childhood and the transformations I’ve undergone through and into adulthood.
I have a small angel with a plastic head and a white crocheted dress/body. She has brown pigtails and a small halo on her head. My sister had a similar one with a ponytail. She’s been a part of my Christmas tree for as long as I can remember, so long that her origins are unknown to me. Then there is the collection of apple themed ornaments gifted to me by my grandparents over the years. Some are dated, some have my name on them. I linger over these ones, remembering receiving them, remembering the laughter in the kitchen, the warm food and the card games afterwards.
Among our ornaments are an assortment of stars and moons from our early years, transforming into birch bark woodland creatures and plumed birds. There are ornaments crafted and given by old friends as well as handmade ones from family members. Each one has a story. Each one has a name and face behind it. Each one reminds me of the people I love, whose lives have touched mine.
As I hang these ornaments on my tree, I call those memories into the tips of my fingers and place them with purpose. Where do they want to go? It’s a dance I do to remember… to remember my grandparents, faraway friends and to remember that joy and love. To remind myself in the dark days of winter that there is joy and light to be had. My tree becomes a living memory. It becomes a beacon of hope.
            Everyone has their own style of decorating the tree. Mine looks like a quilting of memories, some nestled in each other and some taking center on their own. But the weaving of time and treasures becomes a spell that lifts my heart. We humans come and go like tides rolling in and out. But as I sit in a dark room, sipping hot cocoa and taking in the beauty of our tree, it is a light that can outshine any sorrow.

I cannot gaze upon it without feeling gladness in my heart, without looking forward to all the holidays yet to come.

Relevant Posts:
Poppets for Grief (posted December 15, 2010)
Christmas Legacy of Dick and Donna (posted December 22, 2010)
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