Category Archives: Traditions

Happy Epiphany Day!

Today, we celebrate the last day of the Christmas Season, Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, as is known in some cultures. This is also the 12th day of Christmas. Epiphany celebrates the day Jesus was visited by the three kings (or three wiseman) who had observed a star that foretold he was king of the Jews. The story is not told in Luke but in Matthew…

They set out; and there ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The word “epiphany” comes from a Greek word whcih means something that is manifested. In France and now in the United States, some celebrate this day with a golden-crowned King Cake in which is concealed a trinket or small baby Jesus. The tradition is that whomever finds the trinket is given the crown and is “king” for the day. The French galette de rois is a flaky, delicious pastry and can be purchased at French bakeries, including La Madeleine.

And so ends another Christmas. It was a difficult year but there is always hope. I hope next Christmas we will no longer be in a pandemic and can resume the in-person joys of the Christmas season.

Epiphany marks the final post of the year on The Cool Yule Blog. It is has been my pleasure to celebrate the winter holidays with you. I wish you excellent health and happiness in 2021. Please join me for articles on goal-setting and self-care on my Best Life blog. I begin writing about fall and Halloween celebrations in September at Autumn in Virginia. I hope to see you back here in November for new articles and events posted on the Cool Yule Blog. Take care and thank you for reading.

 

The origin of the Yule Log

Photo by Khari Hayden on Pexels.com

As you may know, many of our favorite Christmas customs, such as decorating our homes with greenery, lighting candles and even eating ham, have ancient roots that pre-dated Christianity.

Ancient Romans and Germanic (Celtic) tribes honored their gods with tributes and feasts around the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year (coming up on December 21).

Some Germanic tribes believed the sun was a wheel and the term Yule is thought to be a derivation of the word for wheel. During this dark time of year, many of the customs revolved around light of some kind, such as candles and bonfires, and of course the Yule Log.

Yule log traditions were celebrated in what we now call Norway, England, France, Ireland, Germany and other parts of the world. There were many beliefs associated with the Yule Log over the centuries. Sometimes, the burning of the log prescribed how many days a feast would last, or a break from work. People made wishes around the Yule log. Pieces of the log were kept to protect a home from lightning strikes or to light the log for the next year. Ashes were used for medicine. Before it was burned, the log was sprinkled with flour and decorated with holly; in France, it was perfumed with wine.

The Yule Log-shaped cake is a relatively recent French invention, also known as the Buche de Noel, but Yule cakes have been made and consumed for centuries. Since the Solstice (December 21) is coming soon, maybe you would like to celebrate the day by making or purchasing a Yule log cake, especially if you don’t have a fireplace! La Madeleine sells a beautiful Buche de Noel cake you can order for $35.00.

Or maybe you and the kids would like to make your own mini Yule logs with Swiss rolls (the Great Value brand ones from Walmart are supposed to be pretty good) and frosting, as is done in this video from Hostess. This looks easy and fun! You can make holly leaves by rolling and cutting out green gumdrops.

If you don’t have a fireplace (neither do I), there are lots of fire place “Yule Log” videos you can wath on YouTube on the longest night of the year, such as this one. I watch these ALL the time 🙂 they are so relaxing! Some have music and some don’t. This one is nice because it doesn’t loop.

Or if you are feeling lonely, you can enjoy the fire with Nick Offerman…

You can also purchase one of these fun, electric vintage yule logs on eBay or Etsy.

And last but not least, here is a simple little, crafted oranment you and the kids can make 🙂

  I hope you have a lovely Solstice and joyful holiday.

Toys for Tots deadline is Dec. 12

Every year, the Marine Toys for Tots program collects unwrapped toys to donate to economically disadvantaged children. Donations of toys, plush animals, bicycles, sports balls, board games, electronics and arts and crafts kits from individuals and companies are dropped off at fire stations, doctor’s offices, area businesses and other sites.

Last year, Toy for Tots distributed more than a 100,000 toys to 100,000+ children in Northern Virginia. To donate a gift to a child in the Toys for Tots program, you can go online or donate a gift in person.

Continue reading

Why do we give presents on Christmas?

Many of our Christmas traditions are centuries old, others have only been around less than 200 years. Gift giving, as we know it today, wasn’t always part of Christmas.

Pagan Origins

It’s possible to trace the practice of giving gifts at Christmas time to early pagans. The midwinter festival was a time for feasting, drinking, performing skits and ritualistic begging. Continue reading

Origin of the Christmas Stocking

Do you know how the tradition of Christmas stockings began?

The Legend of Saint Nicholas

According to legend, St. Nicholas (a priest, then bishop, who was reputed to be generous to the poor) heard of a man who had three daughters but not enough money for their dowries.  Wishing to bestow an anonymous gift, St. Nicholas threw gold down the man’s chimney, which landed in the stockings of the daughters, washed and drying on the mantel.

For this reason, many people today still put a tangerine or orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking. It represents the lump of gold.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers, as well as children. If you see a symbol of three golden balls on a pawn shop sign, you now know they represent the three lumps of gold the saint bestowed on the daughters of legend.

The dreaded lump of coal

How about the lump of coal? Well, you can imagine what a big deal it was to receive gifts in the old days. It didn’t happen every day. Children had a big incentive to behave themselves, so their benefactor would bring them a surprise on St. Nicholas Day. What happened if they didn’t? They knew they would receive sticks, switches (to symbolize a thrashing) salt or lumps of coal to make the stocking look as if something was in it, bu not contain any small toys or gifts. Sometimes, there was another, more frightening figure to bestow the presents or punishments on naughty children. Coal was commonly used in later centuries, as it was handy. Today, of course, coal is usually placed in the stocking as a gag gift.

Although I remember hanging one of my real socks on Christmas Eve, nowadays, it’s more common to see a stocking that is shaped like a Santa Claus boot, and some adults also put up stockings. The humble sock has transformed into a decorative piece that can cost $50 or more.

Does your family hang stockings on Christmas Eve? What are your traditions?

What is Advent?

You may have heard of Advent, and you may have had an Advent calendar as a child. But do you know what Advent means?

Advent is a Christmas tradition and liturgical practice that marks the days of waiting before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Since early Christian times, it has taken place on the four Sundays before Christmas. The first Sunday of Advent is the first day of the Christmas season of religious observance and also the first day of the Christian liturgical year.

That day is today. Today is the first Sunday of Advent.

The last day of the Christmas celebration is Epiphany, in many traditions, which is January 6, and celebrates the day the Wise Men came to visit the baby Jesus.

You have heard of the 12 days of Christmas? Those are the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany.

The Advent Candles and Wreath

Some families have an advent wreath at home. When they do, it’s traditional to gather reverently to light a candle on the evening of each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Candles also appear at Sunday services in the churches of many denominations. The candles are often placed in a wreath of greenery and represents God’s never-ending love.The wreath is a custom that comes from Germany, like the Christmas tree.

On the first Sunday you light one candle, the second Sunday, two candles, and so on.

While the traditional colors of Christmas are red and green, Advent candles are often purple (the first two and fourth Sundays) and pink (the third Sunday). The clergy’s vestments during Advent are also purple and rose on these days. But there are different colors and customs. Some candles are all red, all white or other colors.

Meanings of the Four Advent Candles

The candles have different meanings and tell, sequentially, the story of Christmas.

  • The first candle is called the “Prophet’s Candle” and represents hope. The prophets of the Old Testament waited in hope for the arrival of the prophesied Messiah. The first, second and fourth candles are often purple, but in some denominations, they are blue. Purple represents penitence (and is also used during Lent), while blue represents hope and expectation.
  • The second candle is “Bethlehem’s Candle.” The candle represents the faith that Jews held that a Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
  • The third candle is the “Shepherd’s Candle.” It represents joy, the joy the shepherds had when the angels came to them to tell them that Jesus was born. This candle is pink. It is pink, because in liturgy, the color pink stands for joy. The joy is the anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Messiah. This service or Mass is also usually a joyful one.
  • The fourth candle the “Angel’s Candle.” It represents peace. The angels told that Jesus had come to bring peace to all people.
  • Sometimes, people or churches add a fifth candle, in the middle of the wreath and light in on Christmas Day. This one is usually white and is is called “Christ’s candle.” The candle represents the purity of Christ. It is also the color of celebration in the church, so vestments are white on Christmas and Easter.

Advent is a lovely, quiet and reverent tradition to add to your celebration of Christmas.

Christmas Tree Lightings in November and December

Do you light up like a Christmas tree when they light up Christmas trees? Here’s an ahhh-some (and printable!) list made just for you.

Some of these tree lightings occur in November so I’m giving you advance notice. Most events include free entertainment, visits from Santa Claus and in some cases, toy collections. Click the links to learn more and plan your fun evening.

Friday, November 15, 6 p.m. Tree lighting at Holiday Light-Up, Fairfax Corner, Fairfax. Plus: horse carriage rides!

Friday, November 15, 6 p.m. Tree Lighting on the Plaza with Tommy McFly and musical entertainment. The Plaza, Tysons Corner Center, Vienna.

Saturday, November 23, 6 p.m. Tree Lighting Ceremony in Old Town Alexandria, City Hall on King Street and Market Street.

Friday, November 29, 6 p.m. Tree lighting and Sing-a-long at Fountain Square in Reston Town Center. While you’re there, visit the Hyatt Hotel lobby to see a real gingerbread village.

Monday, December 2, 6 p.m. Tree lighting in the Town of Vienna at The Church Street Holiday Stroll. Santa arrives by firetruck!

Tuesday, December 3, 6 p.m. Norwegian Christmas Tree Lighting and ceremony at Union Station, Washington, DC. Plus: the famous model railroad display on view all December!

Wednesday, December 4, 5 p.m. U.S. Capitol Tree Lighting, West Lawn, U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC. The tree will be lit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and will be illuminated each evening in December until 11 p.m.

Thursday December 5, 5 p.m. The National Christmas Tree will be lit by the First Lady and will remain on view through December at the Ellipse (in back of the White House) in Washington, DC. The National Tree is surrounded by 50+ smaller trees for each U.S. state and territory.

Saturday, December 7, 5:30 p.m. Tree lighting at The Festival of Lights and Carols, Old Town Square, 10415 North Street, Fairfax City. Holiday Festival of Lights and Carols 2 pm. – 7 p.m. with live music, s’mores and hot cider.

 

Spread a little Yuletide Cheer

Mom making her purchases at The Christmas Mouse

Mom making her purchases at The Christmas Mouse

There’s this thing I do now during the holidays that I learned from my mom. I guarantee it will really make you feel Christmas-y.

Buy some small treat — you know like a Russell Stover mini box of chocolates, or a Godiva Bar. You don’t have to spend more than a couple of dollars, if that. And it doesn’t have to be candy — it can be like a $5 gift card for McDonalds or Starbucks or something. Even a candy cane or an extra Christmas card would do.

Just keep ’em stashed in your purse, or on you.

Then when you go out this time of year, like say to a restaurant, you leave that token along with the tip for the waiter. Or if you are Christmas shopping, you give it to the person who rings you up, even at the grocery store. At the drive-thru. For your pharmacist. For your bus driver.

Anywhere where people are nice to you or you think they could use a lift. The more random and anonymous, the more fun it seems to be.  You know, like your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing.

By the way, if you have kids, this is something you want your kids to “catch” you doing from time to time. Generosity is learned and modeling is the best way to do it. And what better way to be generous, in any way you can, than during the holidays?

This isn’t to replace the conventional tipping you would do during the holidays, like for your barber or hairdresser, dog walker, babysitter, etc. This is a little extra you give to people who would not expect it.

Let me tell you: people act like you gave them a million dollars! You want see a tired person grin, just try it.

They’re so surprised and pleased, and they really appreciate it — all you have to do is give it to him or her with a quick and warm thank you, and of course, Merry Christmas. Strangers have hugged me!

It is so much fun and it will make you feel like Santa Claus!

Celebrate Epiphany with a Kings’ Cake

January 6 is Epiphany, or the twelfth day of Christmas.  It is traditionally celebrated as the final day of the Christmas season, is a feast celebration, and marks the day that the wise men brought gifts to the Christ Child.

In our household, as in many, Christmas greenery is left in place until Epiphany passes.

When I lived in France, it was traditional to eat a delicious Kings’ Cake on this day, called a “galette des rois.” It’s different from the Mardi Gras King Cake you might have seen, which is shaped like a ring and decorated with purple, gold, and green sugar, and beads.  The Mardi Gras cakes are also offered on Epiphany through Mardi Gras, or the Tuesday before Lent.

The French Kings’ cake is a flakier pastry concoction, however, more like a Pithviers than a layer cake, and typically has almond paste inside, and is generally eaten during Epiphany.   The cake concealed a small baby or other nativity figure, and was adorned with a gold paper crown.  If you got the token in your slice of cake, you got to wear the crown and would be king for the day.

It can be hard to find a real, French-style king’s cake in this area.  I saw one at La Madeleine Bakery and Cafe this week, however, for about $16.

Cool Yule Video: Nutcracker Ballet Pas de Deux (Videos)

Here are not one, but two, choreographed versions of the pas de deux in The Nutcracker.

The first video (1968) portrays a classic version featuring the phenomenal Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as the Nutcracker Prince and the very great Merle Park as Clara. At the time, they were both dancing for the Royal Ballet of London. Her performance in The Nutcracker earned her international acclaim and assured her a place among history’s greatest ballerinas.

What I appreciate about this flawless performance, in addition to its beautiful choreography (by Nureyev) and emotional quality, is the athleticism and laser precision of the dancers. 

The second video (1977) is Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version for American Ballet Theatre in which he performs with Gelsey Kirkland. It created a sensation when it was presented at the Kennedy Center in 1977. This highly artistic and deeply psychological interpretation adds all kinds of novel elements.  For one, he puts Clara in the pas de deux, whereas in other versions she is merely a spectator of this dance.  Then he also adds Herr Drosselmeyer into the dance, which adds all kinds of layers of meaning and a novel dimension, really creating a pas de trois!

With its fluid choreography and drama, and the wispy costume and flowing coiffure of the delicate Ms. Kirkland, the intensely emotional, dream-like performance is full of mystery and beauty, conjuring up all kinds of musings about love, coming of age, strength and vulnerability, and even desire and sensuality.  (The pas de deux begins at 3:43 in this video.)