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Returning to the Real: 4 Olden Practices for This Advent Season

A weekly Advent celebration of ancestral crafts, skills and traditions to awaken our joy.

A rustic log home with traditional Christmas decorations, cast iron pans and a candle lantern.
Sky Meadows Holiday House 2013, Virginia

In the Northern Hemisphere we are in the darkening season of Solstice, anticipating the holy days--some with trepidation, and I once was one of those who dreaded Christmas. The pressures of this season, when weather conspires and my health is often at its worst, accumulated to a whole bah humbug. Combine this in 2023 with the endless anxiety brought on by current news, our isolations and loneliness in a post-covid world, and the season of darkness could become truly bleak.

In the past years, however, I have changed my perspective on the holidays through concrete practices that help me embrace the season. What began as an experiment is rapidly becoming an annual lived path. This Advent I am offering a series of sacred antidotes to the humbug, sharing simple olden practices--one for each week until Christmas--as part of a continual process I call "returning to the real," which invites us to center in and enjoy this season. These ancestral crafts, skills and traditions bring joy and light, keep me offline and rooted, and most of all involve the sharing with those I love, weaving compassion and creating community.

This share is not exhaustive! I would love for folks to enumerate in the comments, too:

What practices are you embracing this holiday season to root into real life?

What ancestral crafts, skills or traditions are part of your current celebrations?

What ancestral crafts, skills or traditions would you like to reclaim?

We live in a time of great potential for breaking free from the tethers of online life. Returning to real life offers meaning and purpose to our days, enriches our human relationships and has the potential to awaken our tenderness and increase our love.

Candles on a Christmas tree.
Kerzen am Weihnachtsbaum 2013

Advent Week One Practice: Embracing Candlelight

One of the traditions I embrace in the winter season is spending time in the darkness by the light of only flame. This wintertime lifeway came into my awareness some years ago as a way to slow down and reclaim the dark hours from blue lighted screens and the artificial storytelling of television.

For much of human history we lived by the light of fire, a daily reminder of the centrality of this element to our survival. In addition to light, living fire warmed our homes, cooked our food and was an ever present part of the winter season.

The light of flame is warm and inviting. In the gentle glow we may take a meal, make music or read something aloud. Flame light lends itself well to social gatherings, storytelling and song, but it does not naturally complement web browsing or social media feeds. (This disparity can be helpful...) Spending a few hours in soft illumination while darkness gathers close feels like a balm, an awareness that is absent in the switch flicking of our modern era.

Candles also have a festive beauty that adds to the magic of the winter season. This image below evokes the kind of lighting I would love my winter gatherings to hold, with a fire crackling in the background and everyone glowing with candlelight.

An old fashioned drawing of a Christmas feast with a girl offering a mug of beer, candles lit and people gathered round.
Julaftonen av Carl Larsson 1904

Advent Candles

Lit candles also carry a spirit of reverence. Lighting a candle as the beginning or end of a ceremony is a common practice, as is lighting a candle in prayer for someone, or in their memory.

At Advent we have the candle wreath, representing the season of preparation for the birth of Christ, (or the rebirth of the Sun, depending on your persuasion) for four Sundays--roughly one lunar cycle--prior to Christmas. Each week is represented by a different candle, three purple and one rose:

"The purple candles symbolize the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and good works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday...the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent, when their preparation is now half over, and they are close to Christmas."1

The progressive lighting of the candles increases anticipation, and each week's candle represents a new weekly theme for meditation: hope, faith, joy and love.

In this first week of Advent what hopes do you carry?

How can you--symbolically or literally--light a flame of hope in your life, or the lives of those you love, right now?

Candles lit before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Candele nella Chiesa San Zeno in Oratorio by Hermann Hammer

Candle Ritual

This fall I have not been able to tolerate any sort of smoke in my home, and my usually fine beeswax tapers have been irritating my chest when used indoors. Even now I have to be careful--my lungs have not been the same since my first COVID infection in 2020 and are easily inflamed--so my wintertime practice is not as cozy and evening as I would like.

As with all things this impediment is a call to creativity. I do have a covered porch and spend time there in the early mornings (which are now completely dark) writing by candle light.

I've shared this ritual many times over the years but will here again, as it helps me ground, center and connect spiritually at the start of my day. It could easily be mirrored at the end of the day, too:

In the morning I wake and make coffee, stretching while it brews. Then I trundle outside to my porch in all elements, sometimes with a towel (it has been very wet lately) sometimes with a blanket. I also bring my journal, a pen and some matches.

A blurry photo of a candle lit, a mug and a journal and pen in the dark.
This morning's porch candlelight session.

I say some words of blessing as I light my beeswax tea light. Then I write a letter to the Divine.

And then I pause, listen, and the Divine writes me back. <3

At the close of the ritual I say some more words of blessing and extinguish the candle.

This tiny ceremony helps me prepare for the day, and in the wintertime it lessens my resistance to being outside in the cold and wet. The candle provides a beautiful golden light, a meditation on fire--spark, creation, source--and in its circle my first prayers of the day begin.

A beautifully designed card advertising candles, beeswax and honey with a beehive in the center.
Trade card of Thorley, chandler, 1780, advertising beeswax candles

Candle Craft

The last olden practice I will share today is the recycling of candle ends into new candles. I realized some years ago that I was discarding a huge quantity of beeswax in the form of candle ends. I began to save my candle ends through the seasons, and once or twice a year I have a holder cleaning and candle making party. (There are proper and more complex ways to do this but my method is easy and makes the practice repeatable and achievable for me, the measure of a working practice vs. a theoretical one.)

Here's how it works: I save the wax ends in glass mason jars which can tolerate high heat. Bits of wick or the metal wick holder are fine to include, they will sink to the bottom when the wax is heated. On the day of making I pull out the saved ends plus any empty candle holders which are covered in wax, too.

I heat the oven to 180 degrees and place my empty candle holders along with the collected wax in mason jars on a cookie sheet that is covered with parchment paper.

Supplies I have on hand:

  • a spool of hemp wick

  • containers for new candles (small glass jars or metal tins work well, as do unlined tin cans (be careful of the edges))

  • repurposed metal wick holders (or bent paper clips, or bobby pins can also work)

  • small sticks for holding the wick straight (I collect windfall from trees in my yard)

  • tongs

  • pot holders

  • paper towels or scrap cloth

I position the wick into the wick holders and stick it to the base of the new candle containers with a bit of soft beeswax, then wind a length of wick around a stick so it is centered and upright in the candle container.

The dirty candle holders are always ready first, so I cover my counter with parchment paper and pull these out with tongs.

I pour any good wax worth saving from the candle holders into one of the new candle containers, debris from matches or wicks will float to the bottom so I just pour off the top layer of wax, and then pour the last bit of dirty wax onto a paper towel or rag.

Then I wipe off the melted wax from the candle holder with a paper towel or rag. If it starts to harden it can go back in the oven for a few minutes. With two or three sessions the candle holders are clean and bright.

Once the candle ends are totally melted in the glass jars I pull the jars out with tongs and my potholder, then carefully pour the top layer of wax into the candle containers, leaving the debris.

The new candles cool pretty quickly. Once they are firm I trim the wicks and begin to live by their recycled light.

Various examples of torches and candles hand drawn.
From A History of Inventions: Torch and Candle

One of the great gifts of Olden Practices is their simplicity. The accessibility of connection across time and space from this moment to the deeply ancestral and freely available if we only shift our awareness. Olden Practices offer a potent clarifying continuity in a time of ever deepening complexity, and can bring us home to the sweetness and joy of our sensory human lives.

When I rest in the thick dark of a candlelit winter morning I am never alone. The spirits of my ancestors--alive within me, within my creations and the work of my hands--gather close in gentle celebration.

I look forward to sharing more with you in this season of preparation.

By this and every effort may the balance be regained.

With love--

Lara Irene

1.What is Advent? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

All images--except my own--from Wikimedia Commons.

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