DECEMBER 2019

I am afraid of the darkness outside. I close my curtains every night  and open them to the earliest light. These are the end and the beginning of my daily routines.

At home or away, sick or well, troubled or at peace, routines are comforting. They create spaces in time and place for delight in the joyful unexpected and for coping with its dreaded counterpart.

Breaking with routine on occasion is comforting too: a holiday, a vacation, a spontaneous moment of presence:  watching the cat chase a butterfly or listening to a toddler learn to use language to bring order to the chaos of new sensations.

On holy days like Christmas, alternate routines are dusted off and elevated to the status of rituals, and they temporarily take the place of mundane habits.

There are people who are not around every day. There is food that is not part of the daily fare, and we give thanks to whatever we believe in for sunlight and darkness and curtains to let them in or close them out, for health and the sickness that makes health a blessing, for peace and joy and the trouble and sadness that make them real, for daily routines and holiday rituals, for food and coffee, cats and dogs, butterflies, Christmas trees, toddlers, and words. 

THIS MONTH IN COFFEE TALK

New blogs will be posted throughout the month

Christmas Joy in Cigar Boxes: Recipe for a Christmas Memory (posted December 2, 2019)

December 12, Guadalupe Day (posted December 1, 2019)

Gallery of Nativity Displays (posted December 1, 2019)

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Featured post

December 12, Guadalupe Day

The Virgin of Guadalupe is arguably the most popular religious and cultural icon in Mexico and throughout Latin America.  The dark-skinned Virgin is known as Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas. Many children, boys and girls are given the name Guadalupe (Lupe, Lupita), sometimes in combination with names of the Holy Parents, as in María Guadalupe or José Guadalupe. December 12 is a special day for everyone who is named Guadalupe, and especially for the lady whose name they share.

On December 12, 1531, Juan Diego was lost in thought as he walked across a hill near the Tepeyac Desert on the outskirts of  Tenochtitlán. He was astonished to see a beautiful young woman walking toward him. She was wearing a beautiful garment, and she seemed to appear from nowhere.

There is no record of the words the young woman said, but Juan Diego, a recent convert to Christianity, understood that she wanted him to build a chapel on that spot. Juan Diego ran to the bishop to tell him what he had seen and heard on Tepeyac Hill. The bishop was less than enthusiastic. "If this is true," he said, "bring me a sign that this is a holy vision."

Juan Diego, a bit downcast, returned to the hill, hoping that the young woman would show up again. He didn't have to wait long. There she was.

"I need a sign to show the bishop," he said.

"Pick up those roses," said the young woman. "Take them to the bishop."

("Roses?") thought Juan Diego. ("Roses don't grow here, and especially not in this cold.") But when he looked down, he saw a rose bush in full bloom.

Juan Diego was wearing a tilma, a blanket-like outer garment made of cactus cloth, so he used it as an apron to collect the roses. The beautiful dark-skinned heavenly lady arranged them with her own hands. 
He hurried back to the bishop, holding the flowers closely in his garment. When he reached the church, he released the garment to allow the miraculous roses to fall to the ground. An image of the young woman had been imprinted on the cloth.

The image, they say, is the same one that hangs today, almost five hundred years later, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, one of the world’s most visited shrines.

Although many people are devoted to the story of her miraculous appearance, The Virgin of Guadalupe has been controversial among religious  historians, including a number of noted Catholic scholars. There is no mention of the image in Church historical records until 1556. At that time, Francisco Bustamante, head of the Franciscans who had custody of the shrine, attributed the painting to native artist Marcos Cipac de Aquino.

The chapel was built on the site of a temple to Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin, which had been destroyed by the Spanish in 1521.  Indigenous converts came to worship there, but they continued to call the Virgin Mary Tonantzin.

Montufar and the Dominicans prevailed.  The Franciscans were relieved of custody of the shrine, the church was enlarged, and the image was mounted and displayed in enhanced surroundings. 

In 1883, noted historian and biographer Joaquín García Icazbalceta, after an extensive investigation of documents for Bishop Labastida, stated his conclusion that Juan Diego, who first appeared in the historical record in a written story in 1649, never existed.

Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in 1990, but in a 1996 interview with the Catholic magazine Ixthus, Guillermo Schulenburg, abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, said that Juan Diego was “a symbol, not a reality.”

Schulenburg, who was 83 years old at the time, was forced to resign. In 2002, Juan Diego was declared Saint Juan Diego Cuahutlatoatzin.

Featured post

Christmas Joy in Cigar Boxes

Recipe for a Christmas Memory

Candy is childhood, the best and bright moments you wish could have lasted forever.

Dylan Lauren 

Mama ushered in the holiday seasons by recruiting anyone whose hands were not otherwise occupied to shell pecans. The pecans were used liberally in the Thanksgiving dressing, cranberry salad, and pecan pies, but the biggest and prettiest ones were set aside for Mama’s Christmas specialties: divinity, marshmallow cream fudge, and date loaf. She would fuss and sweat in the kitchen for days, sometimes discarding whole batches that didn’t meet her high holiday standards.  These imperfect batches were happily devoured by less-demanding family members like me.

Perfect specimens, which were off limits to family, were saran-wrapped and artfully arranged in beautifully decorated cigar boxes, along with a few store-bought peppermint sticks and pieces of ribbon candy. These were hand-delivered to special people: neighbors, teachers, employers, merchants, the pastor, and the church secretary.

I never cared much for divinity, a mysterious tricky mix of egg whites and sugar, although I would eat most anything that contained obscene amounts of sugar, as long as shredded coconut was not involved. The recipe for marshmallow cream fudge was printed on every jar of the sticky stuff that was its star ingredient.

When I got married, I imagined coming home for many Christmases to learn from Mama the arts of candy-making and Christmas joy-box preparation, but she survived only one Christmas after my marriage, and the recipes, which she seldom used because she knew them by heart, were lost in a jumbled box of papers under her bed that she had intended to put in order someday when she had time. After Mama died, I pestered relatives and friends for the mysterious date loaf candy recipe. Several volunteered their versions, but none were a match for Mama’s. Cookbook and magazine recipes for just about anything called for ingredients like cardamom or capsicum that I’d never heard of and that were not easily available at the local A & P. Mama’s recipes were made from simple ingredients that we had at home all the time. She called them “staples.” Sugar. Butter. Flour. Vanilla. And the things she made from them were delicious.

Date loaf, however, was a Christmas joy beyond belief: sugar, butter, milk, vanilla, dates, and pecans combined, cooked, wrapped in a damp dishtowel overnight, and transformed into a small taste heaven. But I didn’t find the recipe in the box under the bed, and nobody else had the recipe.

I searched the internet for years with no success. Until today. Someone posted her great-grandma’s recipe, and it is THE ONE.

HELEN RUTH RICE LESH’S (AND SOMEONE ELSE’S GREAT-GRANDMA’S) FAVORITE DATE LOAF RECIPE

Stir together in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a hard ball. Do not stir after it begins to boil.

  • 2 cups of white sugar
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1/4 cup of butter

Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in

  • 1 cup of chopped dates
  • 1 cup of chopped pecans
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla.

Dampen a piece of cheesecloth or a gauze dishtowel, lay it flat, and pour the candy mixture into the center. Roll the cloth around the candy to form a log. Refrigerate 8 hours. Remove the cloth, and the candy is ready to be sliced and packaged (or devoured). 

Mama would put the rolled up cloths on the outside window sill because the weather was cold and refrigerator space was always at a premium post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas.

Happy Holidays!

Gallery

Dia de los Muertos en Mexico

All Saints’ Day (November 1), All Souls’ Day (November 2) and the Celtic prequel of All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day, Hallowe’en (October 31) celebrate the dead and usher in the harvest throughout Christendom. All Souls’ Day, or Dia de los Muertos, has enjoyed an astonishing surge of popularity in Mexico since 2000.

There is much speculation and many a theory about the indigenous roots of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. One popular idea is that it can be traced to Aztec worship rituals for Mictecacihuatl, “Lady of the Dead,” Queen of Mictlan. According to Aztec legend, Mictecacihuatl was sacrificed as an infant and married to Miclantecuhtl, king of the underworld, which she was allowed to leave once a year to return to the world of the living. The Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl’s return with death festivals and traditional dances, to honor her for her protection of the bones that created life and to seek protection for those who died.

Extravagant all-night graveyard celebrations and watches take place in many parts of Mexico, such as Patzcuaro and Oaxaca. Many families take the opportunity to remember deceased loved ones by taking flowers to their graves. Home altars or ofrendas were set up in homes where fervent Catholic faith encouraged the belief that souls might materialize to eat the Bread of the Dead and drink their favorite tequila. Nowadays, even non-believers decorate their homes with ofrendas to celebrate the season and remember loved ones. Public altars for celebrities or beloved figures in a business or school are now seen often. They are a way of keeping this tradition alive.

One reason for the surge in popularity of the Dia de los Muertos is UNESCO’s 2008 inclusion of the Mexican Day of the Dead in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” and in part because of the profit potential of transforming traditional practices into pop culture through modern advertising. Flowers for gravesites, food and beverage for dead and living, sugar skulls, and decorative cut paper are sold widely during the season, but there has been a recent proliferation of goods and services: manufactured costumes, professional Catrina face-painters, party venues, and knick-knacks manufactured in China. The 2017 Disney/Pixar film Coco increased international awareness of the festivities, romanticizing them with nostalgic stereotypes of Mexican life and culture.

There is another reason, a more sinister one, for the upsurge in the popularity of the Day of the Dead: a surprising increase since 2001 in the number of adherents to a leaderless cult, the worship of Santa Muerte. La Santa Muerte is a female deity of sorts, evolved from much older images of the Grim Reaper with a touch of various versions of the Virgin Mary. The skeleton image was enhanced by lithographist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), whose creepily playful late nineteenth and early twentieth-century drawings in turn inspired the elegantly dressed skeleton, known as a “Catrina,” among the crowd in Diego Rivera’s 1946-47 mural, Sunday Afternoon Dream in the Alameda.

Although the faithful in this cult represent a cross-section of Mexican society, it has become especially popular among drug dealers and other delinquents, who, with a mix of Catholic ritual and magic formula, request her blessing in life’s trials and tribulations as well as in their dubious enterprises. Many cultists consider themselves devout Christians, but Catholic hierarchy deeply disapproves of the cult.

On the positive side, keeping memories alive and reconciling the natural fear of death with acceptance of its inevitability, a celebration of the lives that make every death meaningful, and a touch of humor, music, and partying make life and death more bearable.

Sources

Reyes Ruiz, Claudia, Historia y actualidad del culto a la Santa Muerte

José Guadalupe Posada: Skulls, Skeletons and Macabre Mischief

The Aztec Origins of Día de Los Muertos

NOVEMBER 2019

In the northern hemisphere, November is the time of harvest. During the last days of October and the first days of November, customs, superstitions and beliefs blend together as contemporary religious practices and remnants of rituals from ancient religions invoke the gods’ and ancestors’ blessing on the harvest, their protection from dark spirits breaking through the veil between the realms of the dead and the living, and their intervention to assure that the sun will return after the deep darkness of the winter solstice.

In Christendom, these rituals center around All Hallows’ (Saints’) Day, November 1, ushered in the night before (All Hallows’ Evening, Hallow Eve, Hallowe’en) by an unusual level of Spirit World activity. In Mexico, All Souls’ Day is a time to remember friends and loved ones who didn’t achieve sainthood, but whose memory is cherished nonetheless. This is the world-renowned Mexican Day of the Dad, Dia de los Muertos.

In the United States, the fourth Thursday in November is a designated day of feasting and thanksgiving, a time to express gratitude for peace and abundance to the God of the harvest and of all good things.

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Evolution of All Hallows’ E’en

In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First decreed that Christian missionaries should not attempt obliterate potential converts’ native beliefs and customs, but rather consecrate their sacred rituals to Christ, allowing them to continue their practices with a veneer of Christian worship. Theologians and religionists are still arguing about whether this was such a good idea, but there can be little doubt that the resulting mosaic of belief fragments is fascinating to see, and of all the holidays in modern Western cultures, Hallowe’en is probably the one that reveals the most about our ancient spiritual roots.

Natural cycles of life and death, light and darkness, warmth and cold, planting and harvest, are underlying themes of all religions. Hallowe’en, as it is celebrated in the United States of America, brings together ancient Celtic harvest feasts, invocations of the spirits of dead loved ones, and Christian remembrance of souls who have passed through this world and on to the realms of eternal reward or punishment.

Samhain was a Gaelic festival that marked the approach of winter. Cattle were brought in from summer pastures, and some were butchered to provide food for the barren winter. Bonfires were built to protect and cleanse the atmosphere and to hold back the dark of the coming months. Samhain was a time when spirits could more easily penetrate the veil between the living and the dead.

Bountiful harvests were enjoyed and celebrated with feasts, and attempts were made to communicate with the deceased who, it was held, came closer at this time of year. Places were set at tables to welcome them home, and unpredictable spirits and fairies were offered food and drink to ensure health and fortune for the living family.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as the day to honor all the saints, or All Hallows’ Day. In 1000 AD, November 2 was set aside as All Souls’ Day to remember all the dead.

Traditions and rituals from many cultures, along with commercial innovations have accumulated through the centuries to characterize the many ways the holiday is celebrated today. Living people, especially children, in costumes act out the visitation of spirits and disembodied souls for a few hours, some of them with earthbound grudges and unresolved conflicts. Jack-o-lanterns and bonfires create light against the gathering and terrifying darkness. There are many origin stories to explain the incorporation of sweets, treats, and mischief into the holiday, but my guess would be that they persist because people enjoy an excuse for having some fun.

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