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Advent Olden Practice Week Three: The Simple Joys of Ancestral Aesthetics

Timed traditions and seasonal decorations that reduce waste and increase fun.

A traditional frame house capped with snow surrounded by people in Norwegian dress as they hoist a sheaf of grain on the roof for the birds.
Norwegian Christmas Tradition - Norsk juleskik Winter in Norway - Adolphe Tidemand, 1856

"With Christmas begin the national festivals...During this season all work is stopped...and the feasts are celebrated with the hospitality and simplicity of the olden time. It is also an old custom that even the phantoms of superstition must share in these winter fetes, as well as the animals of the earth and the birds of the air.

A dishful of oatmeal-porridge is placed by the women of the house under the steps of the staircase, to regale the goblin (or brownie) of the farm. Out of doors, a long pole is setup in front of the house, with a bunch of oats at the top, to serve as fare for the little birds...boys play in the snow with the "ski", or snow-skates; and the woman on the right is strewing pineleaves at the entrance of the gallery, or "Swalgang". This strewing of leaves is also a sign of feasting and rejoicing."

--"Illustrated London News," 1856.

Dear Community--this week's Advent series post may be on the shorter side. We celebrated an early Christmas Solstice with our three children yesterday as the week ahead is filled with work and travel. So I am a bit tired out, but also glad of heart for the gift of my family--these kids are our ultimate treasure and we so enjoy their company.

Also, one of the Olden Practices from this week is from my daughter, who made orange garlands for us all!

I was delighted to find the above painting and quote in my research for this post. The advent topic for this week is Joy, and certainly connecting ancestral traditions around this season are in alignment with the theme. I am continuing to discover (or in some cases, as you will see below, remember) patterns, crafts and rhythms that are enriching my experience of Yuletide.

One of these is the sacred rhythm around decorating, corresponding with feasts and reasons unknown to me until just this month. In the ancestral liturgical calendars, decorating began at Advent but was not usually full on until the third week. This is because the decorations are meant to be left out until Twelfth Night, which often (though not always depending on the beliefs in your country of origin) corresponds with Epiphany January 6th. Folk custom urges decorations to be left up until at least this date, or even until Candlemas/St. Brigid's Day February 2nd. Decorations taken down before Twelfth Night/Epiphany can mean bad luck for the household. Similarly, decorations left up beyond Candlemas can also call in the ill wish.

What I love about this calendar rhythm is it gives a clear window for celebrating the season, a beginning (Advent), central point (Christmas Day) and end (Epiphany). As I feel into this timing my sense of ancestral alignment is poignant. And by ordering this timing with an ancestral aesthetic--homemade, natural materials, feeding both nature and community with beauty and offerings--I'm discovering a joy in decorating I have not known before.

One of my new mantras is to live a life of practices my grandparents would (at least mostly) recognize. In today's post I'm sharing five simple, craft-based decorations that our grandparents would recognize.

These decorations are either inexpensive or--if using found materials--free. Most of them can be made by children with some supervision. And at the end of the season, if you so choose, they all may be given back to the earth, or, in keeping with ancestral practice, burned in a fire at Epiphany or Candlemas.

For me this ancestral aesthetic of less waste, natural materials, rhythmic timing, creation and connection is making a typically grey midwinter into rooted beauty. I hope that it may inspire your creativity too, if not for this season then for another ahead. <3

A family gathers around a Christmas tree with popcorn string decorations.
Christmas at Dan Beck's--1905

Ancestral Aesthetic 1. : The Simple Joy of Popcorn Strings

When I was a child we had very little money, but one of our beloved holiday activities was making popcorn strings to decorate our Christmas tree each year.

To make a popcorn string you will need a needle and a spool of cotton--or some other natural fiber--thread, along with a bowl of plain, unsalted/unbuttered popcorn. My mom used to make a bowl with butter and salt for eating but part of the joy of the popcorn string is sharing it with the birds after Christmas (now on Epiphany), in a tradition somewhat similar to the Norwegian painting of the sheaf on the roof.

Birds love popcorn and it is safe for them to eat but does not provide nutritional density, so consider setting out some bird seed with the popcorn strands for a balanced meal.

Look at the beautiful popcorn string in the above photo!

Three women prepare and hang greenery for Christmas.
Putting Up the Christmas - Frederick Walker 1860

Ancestral Aesthetic 2: Greenery

Yes, there are swags of greenery everywhere for sale. But my favorite greenery in this season comes from the simple joy of windfall branches.

After a big windy day (like today) I wander around our local streets and collect branches from beneath fir, cedar, hemlock and pine trees.

Then, at home I arrange them on the mantle or tie them together in a swag for the front door.

The found branches smell amazing, cost nothing and bring the symbolic beauty of the evergreen home.

Other greenery I have found on my walks and use in holiday decorating:





All of these plants have a "language" that corresponds to the season, which is fun to research and implement too.

An orange pomander on a rustic table with a candle lantern, coffee pot and more oranges before a fire.
Orange pomanders from the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Ancestral Aesthetic 3: Orange Pomanders

Another craft learned from my mother, which makes for a beautiful gift and scents the house with magic, Orange Pomanders were once a luxury in the winter season and have a historical record that goes back at least to the Medieval era.

To make an orange pomander you need oranges and whole cloves. Insert the cloves into the orange--you can insert them in lines, as above, or in a pattern--a star, a heart. Then tie a piece of twine around the orange and hang a dry place for two weeks (I'll be hanging mine off my mantle).

Once fully dried the orange may be hung from a ribbon, used as an ornament or in a closet to bring in their sweet clove citrus fragrance. Dried pomanders can last for years!

Children make paper chains with painted paper and pots of glue.
A Modern Village School- Education in Cambridgeshire, England, UK, 1944--Making Paper Chains

Ancestral Aesthetic 4: Paper Chains

This crafting Olden Practice was popular in my elementary school. Later my children adapted it by cutting out paper figures (Santa, Pokémon) and adding them to a garland we still bring out and hang up a decade later.

The principle is the same: cut similar sized strips of colorful paper--we have used construction paper, recycled wrapping paper, the "funny pages," grocery bags and more. We have also colored paper with markers or crayons then cut it into strips--it looks like the children in the above photo are cutting up painted craft paper.

Then the paper may be glued into chains. Here's an Olden Practice homemade paste:

1 part flour

1 part water

Mix until gaumy and use a paint brush to apply. It is not especially durable in small amounts so be generous!

Paper chains can brighten any room with homemade cheer.

My fireplace mantle with ancestor photos, Mary Undoer of Knots, lace, flowers and a string of dried oranges.
My mantle with Orange Garland from my daughter.

Ancestral Aesthetic 5: Orange Garlands--from My Daughter

This recipe comes from my youngest daughter, Rhea, who made orange garlands for us and her siblings this year as a gift. That's her handiwork above--isn't it lovely?

Rhea's Orange Garlands

1. Slice oranges as thinly as possible without losing the whole shape (do not use edge pieces with only rind)

2. Press between something absorbent (I used a towel because paper towels just got too wet)

3. If possible, place uncovered in fridge for a day or two to dry them out even more

4. Spread on baking sheet and bake at 200°F for 4-6 hours, flipping them every hour or two

For stringing:

1. Get a long piece of string or twine, make a loop knot at one end so it is easier to hang

2. If you have a large needle, thread it with your string/twine and begin. If not, use a pen to make the holes and thread the orange itself with the string

3. Poke two holes into an orange slice above the halfway point (if below the orange slices will tip around on the string instead of laying flat)

4. If you have a large needle, thread it with your string/twine and begin. If not, use a pen to make the holes and thread the orange itself with the string

5. Make loop knot again at the end of the string once you are done

6. Cut off any excess string

A horse drawn sleigh brings Santa with a tree and gifts.
Wesołych Świąt--Merry Christmas from Poland, 1937

The ancestral aesthetic of this Olden Practice post is about rhythm, devotion, time, attention, creation and feeding the more than human--nature, spirit, the birds, the soul.

May this week bring you closer to the sweetness of the season.

Next week will be our last Olden Practice post of the series, and I'll be introducing a fascinating tradition for Christmas Eve--which also happens to be the fourth Sunday of Advent.

With much love--Lara Irene


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