Reimagining Traditional Holidays
Yesterday an arborist pointed out a small colony of dwarf mistletoe, nestled high in a Douglas fir. I associate mistletoe with apple trees and winter holiday traditions, but this species (Arceuthobium douglasii) is a harmful if minor parasite, with ‘kissing cousins’ that attack other needled evergreens. Like the European mistletoe used in ancient pagan Solstice rites as well as yuletide kissing bunches, this native has viscous berries that burst when ripe, shooting sticky seeds as much as 30 feet, where they glue them to branches and create new colonies. Unlike European mistletoe, which has a long history as a medicinal plant with supernatural powers, our native dwarf species is apparently just a pathetic parasite with no obvious redeeming value.
As we all take deeper looks at many of our cultural traditions and assumptions, some are proving to be just as empty of benefit as dwarf mistletoe. Apparently. But even the hollow husks of some discredited holidays may contain seeds of value. I’m especially interested in reviewing holiday traditions these days, as their origins are being subjected to greater scrutiny. Halloween, one of my own favorite holidays, is a rich example; how did it move from a hallowed ritual to a candy holiday for kids? Like other, more major holidays, Halloween morphed over time, melding several ancient Northern hemisphere traditions associated with the waning of the year. It owes a lot to Samhain (pronounced sow-een, like hallow ‘een), pre-Christian Celtic festivities that involved bonfires to drive away darkness and costumes to confuse wandering ghosts. In 993 BCE, the Catholic church proclaimed October 31 All Souls Day, while November 1 became All Saints Day. In some countries, All Souls is like Memorial Day, a time for everyone to remember their dead in different ways. In North America, Halloween’s ghosts and ghouls and skeletons keep the fear of death to the fore, while in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a kindly, cheerful celebration of lost lives, focusing on appreciation and positive memories.
A Garden Ofrenda
Millions of people create ofrendas or shrines for Dia de los Muertos each October, filling them with pictures of the dead as well as decorated votive candles and flowers. Millions of flowers are grown especially for this holiday, notably marigolds, with their brilliant, sunny colors. For some years now, I’ve made outdoor ofrendas to honor the passing of summer and the swing of the seasons. This has been a marvelous year for fall color, so it’s easy to gather armloads of leaves stained gold or coral or bronze or blood red, adding sheaves of sunny calendulas for floral highlights. It’s especially fun to arrange leaves in artful sweeps along garden walks and public paths to entice walkers to pause and admire nature’s palette. These sweeps emulate nature’s ofrendas, gorgeous tapestries of colorful autumn leaves that shift with the wind (which there’s quite a bit of today, the aftermath of the “cyclone bomb” weekend storm).
I also love making fanciful costumes and so does my family, who this year are making matched pairs; a mosquito and a drop of blood; a moth and a lamp post. (I’m going as a fluffy pink unicorn, how about you?) We enjoy decorating with lights and candles, pumpkins and gourds as well as fallen leaves and bright flowers. Living in a mobile home park, of course it’s also necessary to have vampire flamingos and crows with flashing red eyes. All this is great fun, but even more valuable to me is the tenderness and good cheer of the ofrenda tradition. People picnic near the shrines and surround pictures of their dead with candles and lanterns, favorite foods, a glass of spiritous liquor such as tequila, candy and treats. There’s joyful music and dancing, story telling and exchanges of memories happy and poignant and sad. Sorrow is not denied a place at the picnic table of memory, but it’s interwoven with strands of gladness for love and lives shared. Our northern candy holiday tradition could be greatly enriched by intermingling with the loving, vibrant traditions of our southern neighbors, with their acceptance of grief and loss as natural parts of a life fully lived.
The Sweet Taste Of Sorrow
Traditional ofrenda foods include empanadas and enchiladas, various forms of mole, often with a bitter chocolate base, as well as any kind of favorite foods. The idea is that as family and friends savor the flavors, the spirit of shared food unites the spirits of the people as well. Sweet drinks like hot chocolate are also included, especially welcome on cold autumn days and nights. Sweet breads of many kinds are traditional ofrenda treats, from pan de muerto (‘bread of the dead’) to sweet potato or pumpkin breads. One of our sugar pumpkins took a tumble and after the largest pieces got roasted, they turned into this spicy pumpkin bread. It calls for 2 cups of cooked pumpkin pulp but a 15-ounce can of pumpkin works just fine too.
Spicy Pumpkin Bread
2 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (optional)
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups cooked pumpkin puree
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. (Lower than usual, yes.) Butter two standard (8.5×4.5×2.5”) loaf pans, set aside. Sift together dry ingredients, set aside. Cream butter and sugar, then add eggs one at a time, stirring in well. Mix in pumpkin, then stir in dry ingredient until completely blended. Divide batter between the two loaf pans and bake at 325 F for 60-75 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes, then remove from pans to cool completely on a rack. Serves at least one. Even better the next day!