Autumn Tea Blend for Samhain

Blessed Samhain to my friends who celebrate! In this season of pumpkin spice, I sometimes find myself craving something a bit deeper, so I thought I’d share a little tea I blended up for myself today.

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I’ve long had a complicated relationship with traditional “pumpkin spice” blends, as I’m not often fond of cinnamon, except in very specific contexts. More often than not, I prefer to focus on other spices, such as the cardamom and allspice in my Regency-inspired drinking chocolate recipe. And allspice, to me, is that certain je ne sais quoi that defines autumn spice. So my blend keeps allspice, but eschews the rest.

But what it lacks in spice, it makes up for in a deep, rich roasted quality that brings to mind cool forests and evening fires. Dark roast hojicha from Hojicha.Co gives that deep, smoky campfire note, while wild rooibos from The Rare Tea Company marries with the hojicha in a beautiful and inseparable way. I spoke yesterday about my previous dislike of rooibos, but this wild rooibos tastes of earth and wood and reminds me more of a good whisky than the insipid and artificial caffeine-free flavored blends I’d had previously. Combined with hojicha and allspice, this blend tastes like autumn in a cup.

I’ve left this recipe relatively unadorned, but I imagine it might be delicious with some additions. Add a splash of apple cider or maple syrup if you prefer something sweeter. A cinnamon stick wouldn’t go amiss, if you’re into that kind of thing. The most important thing is to experiment and have fun.

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Dark Samhain Night Tea Blend

2.5g dark roast hojicha
2.5g wild rooibos
0.5g allspice berries

Add the ingredients to a teapot or infuser mug and pour 250ml of boiling water over them. Allow to steep for five minutes. Sweeten to taste, if desired, and enjoy. May be resteeped at least once with delightful results.

NB: All ingredients were purchased by me with no incentive to feature.

Tea and a Story: Stories of Hallowe’en and Samhain

Happy Hallowe’en and blessed Samhain! In honor of the holiday that marks the beginning of the dark quarter of the year, I thought I’d talk a bit about the stories and legends I’ve encountered that deal with this spooky time of year. Hallowe’en falls at a time that is approximately halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, so it’s about halfway from an equinox to the longest night of the year. And, really, Hallowe’en is around that time of year where you really start noticing that the days are getting shorter. All of a sudden, the sun isn’t coming up until I’m on the train, with my morning commute well under way. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that we change our clocks to give us a bit more light in the mornings right around Hallowe’en.

In folklore and legend, Hallowe’en or Samhain is the time at which the boundary between light and dark becomes thinner and, in many traditions, the veil between the mortal world and the spirit world is more easily traversed. In neo-Pagan traditions, Samhain is a time to meditate on your ancestors. It’s also no surprise that this thinning of boundaries would bring spirits and ghosts into the world, hence the Hallowe’en imagery involving ghosts and other supernatural beings. Divination was also said to be more successful at this time, which is a part of a lot of old Hallowe’en traditions, and most of which center around determining when and whom one is to marry [1].

But I’m here for the stories, not the general descriptions of traditions. And one of the stories that has the most explicit link to Samhain is the story of the Kelpie in Celtic mythology [2]. The Kelpie is a water spirit that takes the shape of either a human or a horse, and lives in water. In the Celtic story of the Kelpie, the sons of the chiefs of the tribes of Ireland are lured onto the back of a Kelpie in his horse form and dragged into the water because they stick to the horse once they’ve touched him (similar to the story of the goose that lays golden eggs). One man escapes by cutting off the hand that touched the horse, and goes on a quest to try to free the princes. He encounters a magician who tells him that the princes have been taken to the Otherworld, which is the Celtic spirit world, and the only time they can be brought back is during the feast of Samhuinn, when the veil between worlds is thin. I would definitely suggest reading the original story (or at least listening to the Myth Podcast treatment of it) because I haven’t done the complexities of the plot justice here, but suffice to say, they are successful in rescuing the lost princes.

Another legend that I’ve come to associate with Hallowe’en is the traditional folk theme of the Wild Hunt. I first encountered the idea of the Wild Hunt in the book Dead Beat by Jim Butcher in his Dresden Files series. In the book, a wizard can summon the Wild Hunt on Hallowe’en because it is the best time for the spirits to come through. After reading the book, I looked up more legends and folktales of the Wild Hunt and found that it has a deeply-rooted tradition in Germanic and Celtic folklore [3]. In Germanic traditions, the Hunt is often led by Odin or Woden, as a god of both battle and the dead. In Celtic tradition, the hunt is led by legendary heroes, including King Arthur in some traditions. There are also varying derivative traditions that have the hunt being led by any of a litany of unpopular figures at the time of the particular story. In general, the stories of the Hunt have evolved to be a party of infernal or evil characters. There is even a story in the American wild west, immortalized in song by Stan Jones, of damned cowboys who hunt the Devil’s cattle across the sky [4]. They warn the cowboy who sees them that he will join them unless he changes his ways (presumably to become a better person, although it’s unclear why the cowboy is particularly in danger of becoming damned). In this version, the unseen “leader” of the Hunt would be the Devil himself, dooming the spirits of damned cowboys to chase his herds forever. While the story doesn’t explicitly take place on Hallowe’en, it seems as likely a “dark and windy day” as any for a visitation of damned spirits.

Finally, no Hallowe’en festivity is complete without a Jack o’Lantern. So I thought I’d talk a little about the folkloric story of “Jack o’ the Lantern.” In Irish folklore, there’s a story of “Stingy Jack,” who borrowed money from the devil and then tricked his way into not giving up his soul when the debt came due [5]. Through a series of annoying deceptions, Jack ended up being barred from hell by an exasperated devil, but because he wasn’t exactly a good person, he wasn’t allowed into heaven. Doomed to walk the earth as a spirit for eternity, Jack found himself possibly worse off than if he’d just gone to hell. The devil ended up taking a bit of pity on him and gave him a perpetually-glowing ember to help him light his way, which Jack put in a carved-out turnip. From then on, he was known as Jack o’ the Lantern and was something of a will o’ the wisp type of spirit. Originally, people on the British isles carved turnips before the tradition was taken to North America, where there were pumpkins.

So there you have three stories of the season. What’s your favorite Hallowe’en or Samhain story?

Sources:

1. http://www.americas-most-haunted.com/2016/09/21/halloween-and-the-lost-art-of-divination/

2. https://www.amazon.com/Mammoth-Book-Celtic-Myths-Legends-ebook/dp/B00OGV0KTU

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Hunt

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/(Ghost)_Riders_in_the_Sky:_A_Cowboy_Legend

5. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/jack-olantern-history

On Adventuring

I am not an adventurous person. Oh, yes, I will try new foods or new teas, or even put snails on my face. But when it comes to venturing outside my own house or neighborhood? Not so adventurous. My anxiety spiked when I took a new job that required a one-hour commute into the city rather than a 15-minute drive in my nice, familiar suburb. And the other thing I don’t often is travel.

Now, to be fair, until recently I’ve worked in a field where people at my level don’t get paid enough to travel much on their own dime and where it’s typical to only take time off to visit family once or twice a year. But there are plenty of people who find opportunities to go to international meetings. My ex-husband found himself invited to at least one international meeting per year and I did take the opportunity to travel with him when we were together. And it was a nice easing into the idea of travel because he took care of all the arrangements, but I was still left with eight or nine hours to fill by myself in a strange city where I may or may not speak the language well.

But even then, I tended to stick with European destinations for international travel. It’s my comfort zone. I speak fluent French and the other romance languages come pretty easily to me. And I’ve never really planned an international trip myself.

So this year, my new year’s resolution was to travel somewhere outside the country. And it seemed like it was going to be deferred, until Boyfriend and I decided that our vacation after his graduation didn’t have to be to a comfortable place we’d been before. So I started looking into planning a trip to Montreal — not exactly exotic, but it requires passports and may even put some of my rusty French into use. And it’s placing a toe outside my comfort zone.

Which is a first step.

Because I’ve decided that next year, I want to take a trip entirely outside my comfort zone. I’ve decided to visit Japan.

To that end, I’ve spent the last week learning hiragana and katakana, and even started a kanji study program, as well as lessons in speaking Japanese. I had forgotten how much I love learning new languages (I briefly studied Latin, German, and Romanian in the past, as well as picking up some Italian for a couple trips there). It feels like exercise for my brain. And I’ve been learning about the customs and culture, from the perspective of a visitor. It’s an exciting plan, and I hope to realize it next year. It will certainly be a bigger step in getting me out of my shell.

On Celebrating Love

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I was just tickled by that little Doodle yesterday for St. Valentines Day. Traditionally, I’ve not be a great celebrator of Valentine’s Day, and this year was no exception. Boyfriend and I had had plans to go out Saturday evening for dinner and a movie, but I was tired after going to aerials and a friend’s matinee, so we stayed in an ordered Chinese food.

Yesterday, we did go for our standing Sunday morning coffee date at a local coffee shop. The shop had recently renovated and it was fun to see the change. Plus they added this cute little table with two padded chairs that were still free for the taking. It felt a bit more special as we ate our kolaches and had our coffees. Despite not doing anything particularly out of the ordinary for the day, I prefer our standing coffee date.

Getting out of the house and out of our weekday routines has be a great way for us to reconnect with each other over a meal. Boyfriend doesn’t often eat breakfast, but will always have a cup of coffee, and I don’t often drink coffee, but will make an exception for the occasional, well-made cappuccino. And the ambiance of the shop is both quiet and not too quiet, if that makes sense. They play music that is enjoyable and unobtrusive enough that the rest of the patrons, many of whom are working, can focus.

We like watching the people and discussing the coffee, too. Boyfriend is surprisingly vehement about his coffee, despite being relatively unfussy elsewhere. And I appreciate that, should I desire a cup of tea instead, they do serve one of my favorite brands.

And so we wake on Sunday mornings, dress, drive to the shop, and find a place to park. The short walk and the lingering breakfast is the perfect amount of time to focus on just us, without the distraction of work or electronics or television, before we both head out back our lives.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Yuletide Celebrations

Now that winter and Christmas are officially upon us, I thought I’d muse a little bit about my winter holiday. While I was raise Christian and celebrate Christmas with my family, I’ve always maintained a slightly more pagan point of view, and to my mind Yule is one of my favorite holidays to celebrate. Now, I know the official solstice passed a few days ago, although it was so gloomy I hardly noted the difference between light and dark during the longest night. But I like to wrap my solstice celebration into my Christmas festivities with my family. We don’t attend church, but we indulge in the trappings of the holiday that largely derive from the pagan festivals anyway.

Oh, my interest in the winter solstice predates any official interest in pagan beliefs. As a runner, I celebrated the return of the sun, when in a few weeks it might be light enough in the morning to safely run in the local, un-lit parks. Nowadays, Yule marks the time when I can see the sun on the horizon earlier in the morning. Over the next couple of months I will go from “getting up at night,” as the old poem goes, to finding more and more dawn light coming in my window when I need to rise.

So as I rise on this holiday to celebrate around a tree and consider symbols of the Christmas holiday, my thoughts hearken back to an older practice, the practice of noting this darkest day and longest night not with fear of the dark, but with the hope of the return of the sun. Blessed Yule and happy holiday season to all!

A Holiday Gift Guide for the Excess-Adverse

Ever since I was a child, my least favorite day of the holidays was the day after Christmas. We would have descended on our piles of gifts, flinging wrapping everywhere, only to be left with a few discarded bits of paper, the candy in the toe of the stocking that we didn’t insist on eating right away, and piles of new gifts that had to be cleaned up and put away.

It was this feeling of letdown that ultimately led to my adult experiments with minimalism, even convincing my mother for a few years to have very frugal Christmases. It made me realize that my favorite parts of Christmas had nothing to do with gifts, except the enjoyment of choosing small gifts for others. One year, we exchanged our few gifts and then baked cookies for the rest of the morning. And the Christmas visits were always far more enjoyable than the debauchery of present-opening.

So I present my little gift guide, based on what I plan to give this holiday season. Rather than assuming I had to spend a certain amount or give a certain amount of things, I decided on something quieter and simpler.

  1. Homemade gifts: Never underestimate the appeal of a homemade gift. I like to make bath and body products and crocheted gifts. I think my absolute favorite gift experience in recent memory was one of the first years I joined Boyfriend’s family on Christmas Day. They had a family friend with them who had had a singularly rough year and I had not realized she would be with us until a day or two before Christmas. I spent the next day crocheting a very simple, quick beret-style hat with a flower motif. She was so touched that not only had I thought of her at all, but that I had made her something by hand, even though it was neither expensive nor particularly time-consuming compared to the other gifts I’d made. This year, I have an immense stash of soaps, lip balms, and a few scarves that I’ve amassed over the months. Handmade gifts transcend monetary value and are about as close as you can get to actually a physical representation of love and care.
  2. Local craft fairs: I am fortunate in that a nearby town has a two-day craft fair early every December where I can pick up any last-minute gifts. I also showed Boyfriend the joy of the craft fair this year. While it may not be the place to go to save money (although some of the crafters had very reasonable prices) I thoroughly enjoy handing my money to the person who either made the item I’m buying or is related to the crafter. Plus you can strike up all sorts of fun conversations. It’s where I met my friend who makes soap several years ago. Now she’s giving me advice about my own soap!
  3. Etsy: When I can’t make what I need myself and I can’t find it at a local fair, I turn to Etsy to find something handmade. I love that I can search within a given geographical area to save on shipping fuel, and I can communicate with a seller before buying. I buy much of my own accessories and clothing on Etsy, and this year, I bought a lot of handmade wooden soap dishes to make gift bundles with my homemade soaps.
  4. Gifts of time: They seem cheesy, but I love the idea of giving someone a coupon for something to do, either a walk or a hike or just a day where you do the cleaning. In fact, that would be a brilliant gift for me to give Boyfriend…
  5. Visits and (optional) Edibles: As I said before, one of my favorite parts of Christmas is paying visits to family and friends. Just spending time with someone who is often too busy or too far away to see often is a gift itself. And when I do visit, I bring homemade cookies or cake! I also have cookies and cakes on hand when others come to visit over the holiday season. I like to take assortments of cookies and freeze them so I can pop out a couple at a time and thaw or bake them fresh for company.

So there you have it: a gift guide for those who wish to be moderate in their giving. A few small, well-thought-out gifts will touch your friends and family far deeper than holiday excess.

A Day of Crafting and a New Year

Yesterday, I had plans for New Year’s Eve to go to dinner at the house of one of my oldest friends. So I had to finish her Christmas gift! I was making her a crocheted lap blanket, although I was not quite finished. I had the day off from work and my only plans were lunch with another friend, so I spent the rest of the day crocheting.

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I love this project, a chunky piece crocheted from two strands of boucle yarn. I think the combination of the yarns looks like the colors in a peacock’s feather. And it’s very soft. Some yarns rub my hands, but this one is wonderful to the touch. On a cold day, there’s not much that’s nicer than sitting and working on a big crocheted piece, with the finished work spread out over your lap.

And I was able to finish it to my satisfaction before the evening. I even had time to clean up, paint my nails, and put on a bit more glamorous makeup than my usual daytime look. I grabbed a bottle of Moet and then Boyfriend and I drove over.

When we arrived, she was finishing some last things in the kitchen while her fiance was checking the drinks. We were soon joined by her parents and my mother. Dinner was lovely and we all caught up.

After dinner, her father took out his guitar, and we all had a sing-along. It was a wonderful way to spend an evening, singing holiday songs as well as old folk and rock songs. We turned on the television just long enough to watch the countdown to the new year, and then we decided to turn in for the evening.

I’ve woken up this morning, a little bleary from staying up late, but happy with the memory of a lovely evening, pleased that I was able to finish her gift, and excited to see what I can make with the leftover yarn!

A Day at the Opera

Yesterday I had a treat. Boyfriend’s family friend has a box at the Metropolitan Opera and invited us to join her at a matinee of La Traviata. Although I’d seen teaser performances as a child and went to a performance of La Boheme at my university, I’d never been to a full-length, professional opera, much less at the Met. I was extremely excited.

IMG_0143I was certainly excited to dress up for the opera. I had found a great late-50s green brocade jacket the week before while out shopping, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring it out. We had lunch at the opera house restaurant first, which was delicious. I had a lobster pasta dish, and shared some of Boyfriend’s octopus starter, and the plate of cookies the table ordered. The waiter did try to mess with my tea (Earl Grey) before it was done steeping, but I fixed it.

And then, the opera. It was not a traditional staging, but a new one, first premiered in 2010. The stage is almost completely blank, with a huge clock that serves as a focal point, and a man who started the performance sitting on the stage the whole time we took our seats. Boyfriend and I spent a little time with the opera glasses trying to decide if he was real. He was. He was ostensibly the performer who sang the role of the doctor, but he stayed on stage silent throughout most of the play, to represent death. The clock and the death character highlighted that the play is not really about a romance, but about a death.

The singing was amazing. Obviously, I’d never seen a full-length professional opera before, but I was amazed at how pure Marina Rebeka, the soprano playing the role of Violetta, sounded. And the baritone Quinn Kelsey as Germont was fantastic as well. And Rebeka’s acting was great as well. I saw that the director really wanted to bring out the pain she was in from the beginning, to make both her facade as a courtesan and her seeming-recovery while in love with Alfredo more poignant.

The technical aspect of the play really drove home the vision. Above the curving upper level of the plain white set was a black screen that was replaced with a cheerful floral pattern at the beginning of the second act. When Giorgio Germont comes in to tell Violetta that she must give up Alfredo, and she realizes that he is right, the floral pattern’s colors started to fade to almost completely black and white, highlighting the third-act line about the flowers fading from her cheeks toward the end of her illness. The floral returns again at the end of the third act, as Alfredo returns and she has her illusion, but goes completely red just as she dies at the end of the show. It was very moving.

All in all, I so enjoyed my first excursion to the opera. It was a wonderful show, and a fantastic experience. I might have liked to have seen a more traditionally staged opera, but hopefully I will have my chance in years to come!

 

Christmas Festivities

My Christmas was lovely. It started the evening before, with dinner at my grandparents’ home. Classic appetizers of summer sausage, cheese, crackers, and a platter of shrimp cocktail led into a lovely traditional dinner of roast beef, scalloped potatoes, and a homemade pie for dessert.

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My grandmother had received a some lovely flowers and put them in her sun room, along with all her other flowers. The whole effect was lovely and reminded me of old British TV shows where there are always flowers.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/9d0/80693568/files/2014/12/img_0132.jpgThe next morning, we rose late for us, though still early by many standards. Boyfriend and my mother made coffee while I made a cup of tea. Earl Grey with lemon, in a mug my mother was given by a friend who went for a trip on the Queen Elizabeth II.

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We opened our gifts and enjoyed the displays of thoughtful generosity. I appreciate that my family does not offer excessive amounts of gifts. It’s just enough for each person to feel thought-of, without too much clutter. After opening gifts, I made scones while my mother cleaned fruit and cooked bacon.

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We had a lovely breakfast of fruit, bacon, and scones with cream, jam, and lemon curd. By noon, we were ready to get cleaned up and go visiting. We stopped at a dear friend’s house, where she and her family were opening their gifts. After that stop, Boyfriend and I made the trip up to his family’s house in another city. On the trip, we had the chance to listen to two Christmas radio plays airing on the various local stations we passed along the drive. We arrived, tired but still feeling festive, and wrapped up our Christmas day with a pot roast dinner with his family.

 

Christmas Memories

Merry Christmas!

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When I was a child, my mother and father would wait until we had gone to bed, and then transform the living room, where we had our tree. They would set out packages, wrapped in brightly colored paper, and fill the stockings. My father would rise early to turn on the lights on the tree so that when we came downstairs, it really seemed magical.

The whole room looked different, as though Santa really had visited and brought Christmas with him. And we would spend the morning opening packages and spending time together as a family. One of us always had to make a cup of tea for my mother, Earl Grey with just a pinch of sugar. It was tradition.

I hope you all have your own holiday traditions and are enjoying the day!