December Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille
"Real Riches of the Season:
Tales from the California Gold Rush"
by Susan G. Butruille
As the sun sinks lower on the horizon and the light retreats, our thoughts move inward, to memories of past seasons, to home, and the warmth of family and friends. It is a time for telling stories and remembering, for celebration and gifts, and for awaiting the coming of the sun. And the coming of the Son.
On what we now know as the frontiers of the American West, December was a time of reflection and remembering and celebration. Perhaps the most amazing, wild, and sad tales of celebrating and remembering came from the mining camps of the California gold fields in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Young Hermann Sharmann's story is something of a mining camp "Gift of the Magi." After a terrible overland journey in 1849, Hermann's family settled on an isolated gold claim. Canvas was the little family's only shelter, the earth their only bed. Both parents lay ill, the father with scurvy. With Christmas approaching, Hermann and his brother took the $10 worth of gold dust they had saved and rode 90 miles by horseback to Marysville to bring back Christmas. They returned with a tree -- a branch of pine -- and their Christmas surprise for the family -- food. Proudly, the boys prepared their grand meal of flapjacks, biscuits and a precious can of peaches. But both parents were too sick to eat, and the boys ended up eating their gift themselves.
"Many happy Christmas days have passed since then," Hermann remembered, "but always there comes a moment, when my children and my grandchildren are about me, when I remember our sad celebration under the canvas roof on the banks of the Upper Feather River."
Louise Clappe (Dame Shirley) wrote of a noisier and longer celebration in Rich Bar, a lonely clump of windowless cabins where it had rained for weeks. The miners, cooped up in the dark wetness for too long, cut loose with a celebration that began on Christmas Eve and lasted for three weeks. Dame Shirley called it a "Saturnalia."
The revelry started at the Humboldt "Hotel" with a supper of oysters and champagne, "gay with toasts, songs, speeches, etc." followed by three days and nights of alternate eating, dancing and sleeping. "On the fourth day they got past dancing, and, lying in drunken heaps about the barroom, commenced a howling; -- some barked like dogs, some roared like bulls, and other hissed like serpents and geese." After that came New Year's Day, with another grand dinner, followed by more excitement, "if possible, worse than ever."
In 1850, a lonely young miner, William Perkins, recorded his thoughts: "Christmas day! But why mention it in this country! If makes me sad to write the words, for they bring memories of home and civilization and household affections."
In Sonora, Elizabeth Gunn wrote in 1851 of the kind of family celebration William Perkins longed for. "We filled the stockings on Christmas Eve, according to custom . . .. [The children] were all up early in the morning and after breakfast the grand opening began." The family's sumptuous dinner included roast pork and plum pudding.
At the same time, a variety of celebrations were going on, for it was in the California Gold Rush that perhaps the most diverse groups of people in history came together. Gold seekers swarmed into the Mother Lode country from every direction, bringing with them many cultures and myriad ways of celebrating.
Chinese honored their ancestors with a festival at Winter Solstice. There was Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights; and the Mexican Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12. In outlying villages, Indian people wrapped themselves in blankets of rabbit fur, told stories and the lore of the ancestors, and waited for the coming of the sun.
Most of the English speakers, especially those who came from the States, regarded their own celebrations as the authentic ones. Others were "different" or "quaint," "pagan" or "barbaric." Yet all celebrations had common roots in ancient worldwide Winter Solstice celebrations such as the masked revelries of the Roman Saturnalia. Pre-Christian festivals welcomed the return of the Sun and the coming of the Son, the Divine Child, born of the Great Mother.
In their mad rush for gold, few found the riches they sought. The miners longed for the warmth and protection of family and community, yet many died lonely and cold. Some, though, recognized that the real riches were in the land and peoples that surrounded them, and in the people left behind.
In this holiday season of wonderment, when many are lonely and cold, I wonder. Are we setting ourselves apart, or are we celebrating both the differences and the common roots we share with others in our communities and in our world?
"Celebrating Our Common Roots"
by Susan G. Butruille
Not long ago I heard a minister note that since Christmas is based on pagan celebration, we should abolish the holiday. He was right about the pagan part. But if we abolished every holiday that's based on "pagan" customs and rituals, we'd have little left to celebrate, especially this time of year.
As we observe the festivities of December -- the gift giving, the feasts and parties and religious celebrations -- let's honor our common roots of celebration that have unfolded over thousands of years. Most began long before Judeo-Christian times when people believed the power to create and sustain life to be female.
This time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the light retreats to darkness and the earth seems to retreat from life to death. We await the coming of the sun. And the coming of the Son. Ancient rituals this time of year centered on Winter Solstice, when the sun begins to bring more light with each day. When we light the darkness with candles and fire, we recall our ancient ancestors' ritual fires to honor the return of the sun, magical source of energy and power.
December 21, Winter Solstice, also begins the Jewish Chanukah, the eight-night Festival of Lights. The lit candles of the menorah celebrate their ancestors' winning back the sacred temple on Mt. Zion in the second century BCE.
The feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 honors a fourth-century saint from present-day Turkey. The mythology that grew into the jolly fellow we know as Santa Claus is probably based on Siberian shamanism which involves hallucinogenic journeys to the spirit world. Animals such as reindeer transport the shamans on their journeys. Santa's elves remind us of the magical fairies of Celtic tradition. The tradition of leaving cookies and milk for Santa comes from ancient beliefs that offerings such as milk, sweets, tobacco and wine would bring ancestor spirits near.
Many December holidays celebrate the Virgin Mary, whose mythology grew from ancient goddess worship. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 honors not Mary's miraculous conception of Jesus, but her mother Anne’s “sexless” conception of Mary. Before Mary's time, people believed that women grew the seeds of new life all by themselves, so "immaculate conception" was nothing new to them. The word virgin, by the way, did not necessarily refer to a woman's sexual inexperience. A virgin was simply a woman living independently of a man.
The Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12 honors the lady who magically appeared on a hill in Mexico and asked that a shrine be built there in her honor. The hill once was sacred to the Aztecan corn goddess Tonantzin.
In Sweden, St. Lucia's Day on December 13 honors the sun goddess and her gift of light. Celebrants light bonfires and young girls wear crowns of lighted candles. Lucia-girls distribute lussekatter, golden cookies shaped like spiraling wheel-like suns.
Ancient Romans began their celebration of Saturnalia on December 17 to honor the god Saturn, and Ops, Goddess of Plenty with wine, song, and general cavorting. Gifts exchanged included dolls and cerei (wax candles), signifying the sun.
Before the birth of Christ, people observed Winter Solstice as the Nativity of the Sun on December 25th. On this night, the Virgin, known then as Astarte, the heavenly Virgin or the Heavenly Goddess, brought forth new life, a son, among whose names were Mithra and Attis. By the fourth century CE, the Christian church declared the Nativity of the Sun as the Nativity of Christ the Son, born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas day.
Although church fathers tried to suppress pagan traditions, many people have continued the ancient ways. They light the fires of the Yule (Solstice) log and feast on the Yule Boar, ancient symbol of fertility and the corn spirit. They make crowns of holly with its blood-red berries, symbol of female fertility to some, Christ's blood to others.
We kiss under the golden bough of the mistletoe with its death-white berries, symbol of male fertility. Into our houses and churches we bring evergreen trees and branches, symbol of the Virgin's son, Attis. The star on the treetop honors the ancient mother goddess Astarte. Green boughs of female holly and male ivy decorate doorways. We greet the new Sun with lighted candles. The carols we sing were once ring-dances that celebrated the changing of seasons. Creche scenes recreate the Virgin birth of the new Son.
However you choose to celebrate this festive month, raise a glass to our ancient ancestors and our common roots of celebration. When you lift the glass, you continue another ancient tradition -- that of the chalice, the sacred cauldron, the grail that holds the sacred spirits.