Raven's Pen

Writing, Reading, and Ruminating

Category: Holidays

Belated Happy Valentines’ Day!

Oh boy oh boy…

I intended to post yesterday, but I became swept up in a thousand other things. Since too many recent holidays have passed without sharing a bit of history, I couldn’t resist pulling something together.

To be honest, Valentines’ Day has always seemed slightly… odd. Love is the cherished mantra of the day; a plethora of pink and red dazzle store shelves; flowers are bought in the dozens; and chocolate is gleefully venerated. It’s usually time to rent a movie, curl up on the couch- or bed- with fuzzy blankets, and think of cupids or cute puppies.

Some people love Valentines’ Day and others despise it (both responses, in my opinion, are heavily influenced by social constructs- but that is a rant for a different day), I think that I sit somewhere in the middle.

If you have spent time reading any number of articles about the origins of many common holidays celebrated in the 20th century, you may have noticed that the church is an expert at stealing other cultures’ ideas.

Before trying to search for facts, a disclaimer is necessary: no one knows exactly where Valentines’ Day comes from. Much of what I am mentioning is based off of speculation done by historians for decades.

Let’s scurry though a bit of ancient history: Christianity began as an offshoot of Judaism (which had already been established as a monotheistic religion for thousands of years); eventually, it spread to Rome, where it became the dominant religion in the 4th century CE.

Before paganism was outlawed in Rome, the local pantheon of gods looked incredibly similar to those of ancient Greece. This is where vanquished and stolen ideas come in: Valentines’ Day appears to tie back to the Lupercalia  festival annually held in Rome between the 13th and 15 of February.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar anyone?

While the connection between Valentines’ Day and Lupercalia is debatable, it seems probable enough: Lupercalia was held at the Lupercal (at the edge of the Palatine hill, where Romulus and Remus were said to be raised by a wolf) for the Roman god of shepherds and fertility: Lupercus.

Because this was ancient Rome, someone was scarified, in this case, the someones were goats and dogs. Skipping over a few details… a procession was held; young, nude men slapped women and crops within reach, with strips of goatskin (they believed that being struck by a runner of the Lupercal would bring fertility); drunkenness was rife; and laughter was the medicine of the day.

Roman paganism was slowly buried by the adamant dislike of Christians; no one knows exactly what happened to Lupercalia, until the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius seems to have moved a new holiday honoring Saint Valentine (which St. Valentine is still a matter of debate) to the 14th of February.

According to most Christian traditions: St. Valentine defied Claudius II by marrying young couples when the emperor forbid it. The story ends with St. Valentine’s execution– which made him a martyr.

However… everything previously mentioned must be taken with a salty glass of suspicion.

Valentines’ Day does not appear to have been celebrated until the Middle Ages– the oldest surviving valentines’ day card was sent from the Tower of London by Charles, the Duke of Orleans in 1415. Most seem to agree that valentines’ day become a full holiday because of Chaucer: according to Jack B. Oruch, Chaucer portrayed the 14th of February as a day of love because of its connotations with spring, whether or not he pulled on the strings of an existing holiday is unknown; if he did, the holiday in question was probably one of the numerous saint days celebrated during february.

While a February 14th feast was mentioned in the Charter of  the Court of Love (issued in 1400), Valentines’ Day did not truly become popular until the 17th century, in England. Fast forward a century: Valentines’ Day was filled with love letters and , soon, love letters became postcards with the advent of a functioning mail system. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began mass-producing valentines in the US, similar endeavors occurred in England, and- well… I think we can guess where the holiday has traveled there.

I hope all of you are having a wonderful day!

And I promise to be back very, very soon.

A Bit about Kwanzaa

How it is the second to last day of 2015 already?

It seems impossible that it is will be 2016 on friday…. that fact also means that this post is late; but not too late.

Happy Kwanzaa to everyone who is celebrating!

Because it is still Kwanzaa, I have decided to pull together a short description of what Kwanzaa is.

Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday that was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga; his goal was to bring those with African heritage together. The celebration of Kwanzaa often includes traditional dances, feasts, readings of poetry and stories of all types. Kwanzaa lasts for seven days, and candles are usually lit at the end of each day.

Why does Kwanzaa last for seven days? Dr. Maulana Karenga created what is usually called The Seven Principles, they consist of seven things to strive for to become a better person in the African-American community. Or simply a better person in general.

  1. Umoja (Unity)
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)
  3. Ujima (Collective work and Responsibility)
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
  5. Nia (Purpose)
  6. Kuumba (Creativity)
  7. Imani (Faith)

Unlike most of the holidays in december, Kwanzaa is not religious. It was originally thought of as an alternative to Christmas by a few people, but that view quickly faded. The fact that Kwanzaa is a cultural rather than religious holiday is one of the wonderful aspects of it; anyone who celebrates can do so without disrupting whatever faith or traditions they believe in.

The last night of Kwanzaa takes place on January 1st; it is often called The Day of Meditation because it is a time to reflect on the past year and everything that has happened. It is also a time to think about the future and community.

I think that sounds like a pretty amazing holiday.

Funny Fact: The name ‘Kwanzaa’ comes from the Swahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’ which means ‘the first fruits’.


*More information about Kwanzaa: The Official Kwanzaa WebsiteHistory.com History of Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa History, History of Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa: History

A Bit of Christmas History

Belated Merry Christmas!

I hope everyone is having a great holiday month! And as I said that I would write a post with a bit about the history of Christmas… here it is!

Christmas is one of the most celebrated holidays around the world; however, it actually does not have a very nice history. I know I know, Christmas is a winter synonym for gifts, a feast, decorating trees and waking up way too early.

The thing is, the history of Christmas says something very different.

Christmas is thought of as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, however, no one seems to know when Jesus was born. According to the bible, Christmas should technically be celebrated in the middle of summer, or at least in January. Therefore, why is Christmas celebrated in December?

Because of Solstice, Yule and Saturnalia… also, there was an abundance of fresh meat. Many people will say that Christmas was placed where it is on the calendar because certain Christian churches wanted to convert everyone celebrating the other holidays placed in the same week. Other people will say that people simply wanted to be Christmas to be at a convenient time when it was a change of the seasons and they had the ability to have abnormally large feasts. Because Christian churches have a history of trying to convert people; I will say the latter is most likely.

However, everyone is entitled to their opinions… as long as those opinions do not hurt others.

Which is, unfortunately, not always the case when it comes to the history of Christmas.

Funny Fact: There are still a few places in the world (mostly Europe) that celebrate Christmas on January 5th.

Of course, there are many arguments to be made about many different things regarding Christmas; and unfortunately, most of them involve bloody traditions. One aspect of those bloody traditions are most likely related to Saternalia’s role in the history of Christmas. Of the pre-Christmas holidays in december, Saternalia and Yule seemed to influence Christmas the most.

Christmas is one of those holiday that people could write a whole book about one argument regarding it and still have many, many things left to say.

Historically, Christmas has been a day of bigotry and reticule. Surprisingly, many of the bloody moments in the history of Christmas occurred in the 17 and 1800s. For instance, in 1836 the Jewish community in Rome sent a petition to Pope Gregory XVI to ask him to stop an annual tradition of forcing Jews to run through the streets naked. Unfortunately, that was not to first case; nor was it the last.

Now, back to a very short description of Christmas history, and avoiding most of the gore…

Exactly who decided on December 25th?

The information that I have found points towards Pope Julius I. The first documented celebration of Christmas was held by Emperor Constantine of Rome in approximately 336 CE, but Christmas was not an actual holiday until Pope Julius I declared it as such a few years later.

Another Funny Fact: At many points through history some churches have banned the celebration of Christmas because of its relation to Saternalia and Yule.

How did this controversial holiday become what it is today? 

Christmas was brought over to the New World just like many other things; but it was not the commercial holiday that it is now. A large part of Christmas (at least today) is Santa Claus… and Santa Claus is a large reason for the commercialization of Christmas.

Santa Claus is actually linked to stories of a Turkish monk named Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was known for being kind and generous; and many stories were based off of him. He was most likely born around 280 CE somewhere close to Patara. After his death, people would hold a feast on December 6 to honor him.

However, he did not become linked to Christmas in the USA until the late 1700s. In 1809 Washington Irving published a book titled Knickerbocker’s History of New York that mentioned an elf-like Santa Claus. And in 1810 John Pintard hosted a holiday party and commissioned Alexander Anderson to draw a portrait of Saint Nicholas. And then, in 1822, Clement Moore wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas (or An account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas). Eventually, Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus.

Yet another Funny Fact: Santa Claus is not the only magical being who brings gifts on Christmas; there are also Swiss, German, Scandinavian, Russian, Italian and French versions.

Well… that is a very short, and very broken up, version of the history of Christmas. I hope you had fun reading it… or I hope that it was interesting. Fun might not be quite right.

Regarding writing: I will have something up soon!

I hope everyone is having a wonderful week!


*If you want to read more about the history of Christmas, here are some of the articles and sites I found:

History of ChristmasChristmas Customs, Origin of Christmas, Christmas History, Santa Claus, Saturnalia and the Roots of Christmas, St. Nicholas origin of Santa and A Pictorial History of Santa Claus.

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays everyone!

Well… I am still not quite back to the normal blog schedule. I am working on it through!

Did you know that yesterday was the 21st of December? Of course you did… But do you know what the 21st and 22nd of December is? Besides being after Hanukkah, and before Christmas and Kwanzaa that is.

Last night was the longest night of the year. That means it is time to enter the wonderful world of research.

Alright… I missed posting last week… But I am still giving into my temptation to learn about a few of the holidays in December. I am planning on writing posts about the history of Christmas and Kwanzaa as well, but last night was Winter Solstice. And that calls for a special post of its own.

I know I know, this is supposed to be a blog about writing… well… I will post something writing related later. Do not worry. But I am still not going to tell you want it is: that is a secret.

Alright, back to the 21st of December.

Solstice is one of the oldest holidays; yes, it is far older than Christmas.

Winter Solstice means that today is officially winter, but do not despair! It also means that the nights will start to become shorter again.

There are numerous things to think about regarding Solstice and just as many different ways that it has been celebrated. Just like all things regarding history, there are multiple different versions; I have tried to put together a brief history but I am sure that a few things are missing.

Funny Fact: Solstice is one of the reasons why Christmas is held in December and not spring. But I will explain more about that in my post about Christmas…

Solstice is one variation off of many… Yule is German; Saternalia is Roman; the Dongzhi Festival is Chinese, but there are also Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese versions; the Mayans, Incas, and many Native tribes have also had their own versions of Solstice.

Also, do you remember that thing called Stonehenge? Yes? Stonehenge is also linked to Solstice.

Why are there so many versions of Solstice? If you live somewhere on earth, it is quite possible that someone who used to live where you do now has celebrated Solstice.

Come, please step inside the stone circle… We have somewhere to go.

Solstice means: ‘the sun stands still’. Why does the sun stand still? On the 21st of December, the Earth is  at a tilt with the North Pole pointing to the star Polaris; this means that the sun will rise farther south than any other day of the year and create the longest night of the year.

Now… I cannot sneak into an ancient peoples’ minds, but I will try ponder what those who first saw solstice might have thought…

Imagine that you are tending your house and the days are becoming shorter and shorter; someone has said that day might cease to exist entirely… what can you possibly do? Just as with many things, those who believe in gods or goddesses (whether they are elements are something else) pray and plead for the sun to be brought back.

Solstice was the original Armageddon. Well… once people realized that the world was not going to end each December, the longest night of the year became a celebration. At least, that seems right; who knows… History is a mystery. It is hard to be exact.

But it is time to go back to what is known about the 21st of December…

To begin: It seems that no one knows when Solstice was first celebrated; but it most certainly has been celebrated for centuries. Because there are so many different versions, here is a bit of history about a few of them:

Saternalia was an ancient Roman festival to honor Saturn. It consisted of seven days of feasting and a complete turn-over of the social hierarchy; slaves would be served by their masters, people would gamble, and crime was often permitted.

It sounds like quite a large amount of chaos; and it seems as though it was. Saternalia usually began on the 17th of December and ended on the 23rd… over the course of that time: people would gather in the Temple of Saturn, privately give gifts, and eat far more than usual. Food always seems to be included in celebrations.

It sounds pretty fun right? Well, mostly. Saternalia often ended in a human sacrifice; most of the time, this person was either a criminal or a slave who would be treated as a ‘king’ over the course of the festival; before being sacrificed at the very end. It is hard to know if this tradition of sacrifice began when Saternalia was modified from its original form in 217 BCE, or earlier. But I will leave that up to you to learn about if you wish.

Now, what was the reason for Saternalia? While Saternalia was related to Solstice and the return of the sun, it was also a festival that prayed for a good harvest in the coming year. Thankfully (or unfortunately) Saternalia is not celebrated anymore, but it has influenced Christmas… Which is something that I will say more about in the post about Christmas.

Alright… Let us move onto ancient Germany and the Norse gods:

Yule is an ancient German midwinter celebration, it is also called Yuletide and occasionally Juul. Unlike Saternalia, Yule is still celebrated by many factions of Paganism and Neo-Paganism. It is also festival that has been modified by those celebrating it in the past and present; because of this, there are many different ways that it has been celebrated.

In most old versions: Yule usually included a toast to Odin, a feast with ale, the burning of a Yule log, and caroling that was called wassailing.

What was the Yule log? Nowadays, a yule log is usually associated with Christmas, but it was originally a Yule tradition! It was believed that the Yule log should burn without ceasing until it is ash. But there is conflicting information: It is also said that people would keep a small piece of the Yule log with them during the course of the next year for luck.

Of all of the Solstice related traditions, Yule has probably influenced Christmas the most… And it is one of those that has been brought back in one of largest ways.

Modern Yule traditions often mimic those that are centuries old; while occasionally adding gifts to the list of celebratory actions.

Yule could easily have its own post; but let us move on…

The Donzhi Festival is a traditional Winter Solstice Festival that has also been celebrated in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Unlike Saternalia and Yule, the Dongzhi festival is directly related to Ying and Yang beliefs; the longer days are symbolistic of good energy and light flowing faster.

The Dongzhi festival is centered around family spending time together; Tangyuan (glutinous rice balls in a syrup or broth) are usually made to symbolize the connections between people. And dumplings are almost always included, especially in Northern China. In some places, the Dongzhi festival is treated as the new year; everyone who is involved is remind that they must behave better after the festival because they are one year older since the last Dongzhi festival.

The literal translation of Dongzhi in Mandarin means ‘winter arrival’. And winter is most certainly arriving.

Now, I am going to skip over the rest of the Dongzhi festival and jump to something much older…

Wait, what about Native traditions regarding Solstice?

Well, that is exactly where this post is going next…

Because Solstice is a astrological phenomenon, it is probably not something to forget if your life centers around the land around you. And it most certainly was not. Which is where Stonehenge, Newgrange, Woodhenge and the Serpant Mound become relevant.

There are hundreds are places around the world where people have marked the winter and summer Solstices and the paths of the sun. Winter was often a time to slaughter animals for fresh meat (hence the many traditions of feasts), and to pay even more attention than usual to the world around you.

Because there are so many places and so much history attached to each place, I am not going to try and smash all of it into this post. I will leave the research that you wish to do up to you.

However, I will say that it is possible that Solstice has been celebrated since the Neolithic age; and that is amazing.

Since I have tried to explain a bit about the history of Solstice, I think an important question comes up: how is Solstice relevant today?

We live in a world where food is imported and placed on shelves in a store; water is brought into houses by pipes; and many people spend most of their time inside. In a world where the planting seasons and the movement of the sun is not as much of a concern as it used to be, where does Solstice fit in?

One obvious answer is that it is a tradition for the people who celebrate it; another answer is that is it often thought of as an ‘alternative Christmas’ because it is not nearly as commercialized… but that still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

In my personal opinion: I believe that Solstice will always be important, even if is it simply remembered because of its astoundingly long history and unusually long night. The question why could continue on forever.. because this post is already so long, I will leave everything else for later.

Please feel free to leave a comment with information about any of the holidays in December, or wherever you are inclined to share, if you so wish (you can click on the title of this post and scroll down to the bottom of the page). I am always open to learning new things, especially when it involves history!

I hope you have a wonderful Solstice day! And a happy first day of winter as well!

Halloween Anyone?

Last year I started NaNoWriMo by writing the first few hundred words of something that was supposed to be a horror story. I ended up dropping it after a few days, partly because I did not want to get inside the main character’s head.

Yes, it is possible to scare yourself.

You know that point when you must look over your shoulder to make sure no one is standing behind you with a very large knife or a noose? Yes? A secretly murderous six your old protagonist stuck in an alternate reality was just not for November of 2014. (I intend on picking it back up at some point, eventually.) I know, I know, why are you starting this post with a story about last year?

Well, this is the month of Halloween.

Last year, I spent most of October doing research for that story, and I ended up spending a large amount of time learning about Halloween. Or, as it is more traditionally called, Samhain.

As an introduction to Halloween….

Did I mention that I like to research the origins of holidays?

Samhain was originally a Pagan holiday, largely based in Ireland, which could be compared to the Mexican Dia de Muertos. It was the change of seasons and the beginning of the new year; it was the time for sheep to be brought back from the fields. What changed? Ireland was taken over by the Christians.

Of course, the Christians did not want the people of their new country to be worshiping their own gods, and so they turned Samhain or All Hallows’ Eve into something to be feared. The original holiday was a time for the ghosts of the dead to visit; this included the ghosts of family.

People would set out candles so that the ghosts would know where to go and put an extra place setting at the table for their beloved. There were always bad ghosts as well, but Samhain most certainly did not focus on them. Eventually, the meaning of October 31 first changed and masks became a way to ward off the evil spirits that might mean you harm. Jack O’ lanterns showed up at some point, and Samhain was set aside.

The origins of holidays are often twisted with multiple meanings. Thankfully, everyone can choose what they would like to celebrate nowadays.

Funny Fact: Pumpkins originated in America. Jack O’ lanterns were usually carved in turnips or other root vegetables. It seems as though Jack O’ lanterns were made popular by the pumpkins that the settlers of ‘The New World’ found. Blame the pumpkin for October’s obsession with orange.

How are you celebrating Halloween or one of it’s many forms?

I baked a batch of chocolate cupcakes, and now I am trying very hard not to worry about NaNoWriMo.

Before I end this post and in the fashion of the beginning of the next month… I present a quote for the month: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Happy Halloween everyone! And a Happy Fall as well!

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