Sunday 22 December 2013

How Oliver Cromwell stole Christmas

No Christmas for you! 

Does Christmas make you want to shout Bah Humbug? You are not alone. Nor is the much touted "War Against Christmas" anything new. Oliver Cromwell goes down as history's biggest Grinch. The Lord Protector and his Puritan-led parliament literally stole Christmas in mid-17th century England.

A fervent Puritan, Cromwell was on a mission to cleanse his nation of what he perceived to be papist excess and decadence. He and his fellow Puritans regarded Christ's Mass as an unwelcome revenant of Catholicism, "a popish festival with no biblical justification." Nowhere in the Bible, they argued, were people asked to celebrate Christ's nativity on December 25. Moreover, in Cromwell's mind, the wild, hedonistic excesses associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas, stretching from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, undermined core Christian beliefs.

On November 19, 1644, Parliament resolved that Sunday was the "only standing holy day under the New Testament" and within a week they decided that no other holy day would be recognized. The new national liturgy issued on January 4, 1645, made no provision for Christmas and thus its abolition was legally achieved, although a parliamentary ordinance declaring Christmas celebrations a punishable offence was not passed until 1647.

Traditionally the Twelve Days of Christmas was a time of feasting, merrymaking, drinking, mumming, gaming, and dancing. Special plays and masques were performed. It's no accident that one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies is named Twelfth Night after the festive date of its début performance.

The Puritans viewed these festivities as wasteful vanities, an excuse for misrule, drunkenness, promiscuity, gluttony, and gambling. Under Puritan rule, all activities related to Christmas celebrations, including Anglican religious services, were banned and driven underground. In London, soldiers were ordered to seize special foods cooked in celebration of Christmas, such as roast goose. The day of Christ's birth was no longer a holiday--people were expected to be seen at work and were questioned if they were not. The sacred significance of the day could only be legally observed with fasting and private prayer. Exchanging gifts, wearing fine clothes, feasting, and dancing were punished with a fine of five shillings.

 The ban on Christmas endured after Cromwell's death in 1558 and was only repealed with the Restoration of 1660. Likewise the Puritans of New England banned Christmas in Boston between the years 1659 and 1681.

In Restoration-era England, the Anglican Church resumed its traditional Christmas observances. However, hardline Protestants, such as the Presbyterian Kirk in Scotland, continued to discourage Christmas celebrations long after Cromwell's demise.

Richard is a friend of mine, born in the 1960s in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands. In his tight-knit, kirk-attending community, he never celebrated Christmas. Instead the midwinter revels took place at Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year's celebration, an unabashedly hedonistic celebration of dancing, drinking, parades, and festivals.

Hogmanay, like many folkways related to Christmas itself, may have its roots in ancient, pre-Christian Celtic or Norse midwinter celebrations.

 "We drank like heathens," Richard remembers fondly.

 No doubt Cromwell is rolling over in his grave.

Source: Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

Sunday 22 September 2013

Hildegard: Reconciling Faith & Science

by Mary Sharratt

September 17 marked the feast day of Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the 12th century Benedictine abbess, composer, and Doctor of the Church.

Saint Hildegard, that famously broad-minded polymath, also wrote the Western world’s first known description of the female orgasm:

When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings forth with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract and all parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.
Hildegard von Bingen, Causae et Curae

How could a celibate nun write such a convincing description? Unlike some people in our own age, Hildegard saw no contradiction between science and religion, between being a religious woman and addressing every aspect of human experience, including sexuality.

Born in the lush green Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard was a Renaissance woman long before the Renaissance. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, and composed an entire corpus of sacred music. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. She was indeed a visionary in every sense of the word.

Hildegard wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as cosmology, botany, linguistics, and medical science, as well as theology. Even though she believed consecrated celibacy to be the highest calling, her medical text, Causae et Curae, discusses female (and male) sexuality frankly and without moral judgment. There is not a trace of prudishness or anti-intellectualism in her work.

In general, medieval thinkers, including monastics, were far more plain-spoken in addressing sexual matters than many of us might expect. But Hildegard’s writing on sexuality was unique in its inclusion of female experience, unlike that of her male confreres, such as Constantine the African, the 11th century monk whose book De Coitu manages to discuss every conceivable carnal pleasure without once mentioning women.

As the woman who coined the word Viriditas, or “sacred greening power and vitality,” Hildegard felt a profound connection to the natural world, which she regarded as the visible face of the invisible Creator who permeates every living thing. Her book Physica was devoted to natural science and is an encyclopedic study of plants, trees, mammals, reptiles, birds, marine life, stones, metals, and elements, describing their physical and medicinal properties. She lists in extraordinary detail the 37 varieties of fish to be found in the Nahe, Glan, and Rhine Rivers.

Her vision of the cosmos changed to reflect the science of her age. In Scivias, her first work of visionary theology, the universe appeared as a mandorla—shaped like an egg or almond.

But by the time she wrote De Operationae Dei, the third and final book in her visionary trilogy, her visions reflected the cosmos as a sphere.

Over eight centuries after her death, Hildegard was finally canonized in May, 2012. On October 7, 2012, she was elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have made a significant impact. Presently there are only thirty-four Doctors of the Church, and only three besides Hildegard are women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux).

My novel, Illuminations, based on Hildegard's dramatic life, is released in paperback on October 15.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

ILLUMINATIONS in Paperback, Fall Author Events, and Virtual Tour!

Like billowing clouds, like the incessant gurgle of the brook, the longing of the spirit can never be stilled.
--Hildegard von Bingen

Dear Friends,

I've had a very busy, productive summer.

My novel ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN has won the 2013 Nautilis Gold Award: Better Books for a Better World.

October 15, 2013, ILLUMINATIONS will be released in trade paperback. I think the cover is absolutely lovely!

Be sure to catch my Virtual Book Tour, beginning in October, which features book giveaways, reviews, contests and more.

I will also be visiting Minnesota for author events:

2:30 pm on Friday October 11, I will be speaking about ILLUMINATIONS at the Minnesota Library Association Convention's Break Out Books Series at St. Cloud's River's Edge Convention Center, 10 4th Ave. S., St. Cloud, Minnesota

10:00 am on Saturday October 12, I'll be visiting the Book Group at Fridley United Methodist Church, 680 Mississippi St. NE, Fridley, Minnesota.

2:00 pm on Sunday October 13, I'll be speaking in the Wilder Room at Chanhassen Library, 7711 Kerber Blvd, Chanhassen MN 55317

7:00-9:00 pm on Tuesday October 15, I will be joining Gabriel Ross of Creative Spirit for an An Evening Celebration of Hildegard of Bingen at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, Carondelet Center, 1890 Randolph Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105. This very special event will include presentation, conversation, and ritual surrounding Hildegard's music, theology, and life and a discussion of what Hildegard's work offers women today.

I'll also be visiting some wonderful Twin Cities private book groups.

1:00 pm, October 30, the Luann Dummer Center for Women's Book Club will be discussing ILLUMINATIONS. I will be attending via Skype. Luann Dummer Center for Women, University of St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105

If your book group would like to have me visit via Skype, please email me via my website. I love book groups!

In other news, my new novel in progress, THE DARK LADY’S MASQUE, the story of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the first professional woman poet in Renaissance England, and her collaboration—and star-crossed love affair—with William Shakespeare, as his Dark Lady, sold to Nicole Angeloro at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The publication date will probably be sometime in 2015. I'm really enjoying writing this new novel!

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Yoga & Writing: How Yoga Can Help Your Writing

Guest post by Stephanie Renée dos Santos 

Are you a writer? Novelist? Do you sit at a desk and computer, week after week, month after month, year after year? Any tightness or pain in your neck, shoulders, upper back, lower back, hips, or legs? A regular gentle Hatha Yoga practice with breath work can relieve and reverse these stressors, as stress in the body can inhibit creativity. When the body is relaxed, so are tensions of the mind, allowing imagination to flow freely.

I am a writer and yoga guide and practice yoga daily to help my writing endeavors. My suggestion for writers to get started with yoga is to locate in your area a yoga teacher who leads therapeutic style yoga like Yoga Therapy, Viniyoga, Yin Yoga or Kum Nye Yoga (Tibetan Yoga).  Initially, find classes with gentle and slow stretching combined with breath work.  On outset, share with the yoga instructor where your problem areas are in your body and/or mind so they can best assist you.  As your practice grows your inner voice will become clear, present, and will aid you in seeking out other types of yogic practices that will continue to help you in realizing your best self, authentic voice, and creative fire.

I highly recommend for the first 2 ½ months of starting up your yoga practice to attend classes 5 days a week, the reason is that it takes on average 66 days to form a new habit, according to new research by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from the Cancer Research UK Health Behavior Research Center as published in European Journal of Social Psychology. And you will immediately experience the benefits of yoga.

If it is not possible for you to attend this many classes a week with a local teacher or not at all, I suggest these DVD videos as supplements:

1.      Ana Forrest Yoga DVD “Strength & Spirit plus Embodying Spirit” for $20.  This DVD takes you through a regular hour long class which I have really enjoyed.

2.      And/or try Gary Kraftsow’s Viniyoga Therapy DVD’s  “For the Upper Back, Neck & Shoulders” and “For the Low Back, Sacrum & Hips” at $24.95. Gary’s instruction is on the clinical side, with good explanations of the stretches and how they work.

It is important to note that should you experience pain after doing a pose, listen to the wisdom of your body/mind and stop doing that position for a while, trying it again at a later date. Always honor yourself and your limits. After 2 ½ months of dedicated practice, try easing into practicing 2-3 times a week. At this point, more than likely, you will have experienced deep relief from bodily tensions and will easily want to continue your practice.

I love this quote by yogi/activist/writer Mahatma Gandi:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

The benefits of yoga for your writing?

1.       General physical comfort in the body and mind, making it easier to keep writing for days, weeks, months, and years on end.

2.      Developing a regular yoga practice helps reinforce discipline to write regularly.

3.      Yoga requires focus of concentration to enter, hold, and exit poses, as you develop this inner faculty it naturally becomes applied to writing projects.

4.      “Staying power” is developed as you try to hold a pose and this helps to then write-through difficult passages and obstacles all writers meet along the way when creating and structuring works.

5.       Inspiration and ideas spring or trickle forth when we are in a state of calm and our mind and heart are open, through yoga one learns how to access this state and stay there.

6.      You can learn how to set intentions/goals for your writing through the practice of guided meditation called Yoga Nidra.

7.       As you develop flexibility in the body that flexibility stretches to the mind, enabling creative thought processes and increased problem solving ability that naturally helps one through the writing process.

In general a writer will experience ease of body, mind, and an uplift of spirit with consistent yoga practice that in turn helps all aspects of living and writing.


Stephanie Renée dos Santos is a writer and yoga guide who teaches weekly yoga classes in Garopaba, Brazil. Currently, she is working on a historical novel: CUT FROM THE EARTH. She also leads/co-leads, half-day to week-long Saraswati Writing & Yoga Workshops in the USA and Brazil, should you like to explore briefly or intensely the synergy of writing and yoga. For more information visit Stephanie’s blog and workshop schedule

Sunday 12 May 2013

A Mother’s Day Gift from the Garden of Dreams

Guest Post by Carolyn Lee Boyd

For the past century, the greatest gift that mothers have been giving their daughters is their dreams. Each generation has opened up new opportunities for the next and given their daughters the courage and confidence to make the most of them. If we think of what life in 1913 was like -- when women could not vote or pursue most careers, domestic violence was to be suffered silently, constant child-bearing was expected, and women’s lives were repressed in so many ways -- we understand how much each generation received from their mothers and then passed on to their own daughters.

Dreams are like spirits, like living beings who thrive on being shared and loved. We have been given so much by our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, for Mother’s Day. Can we close the circle by giving their dreams back to them? If you are lucky enough to have your mother and even grandmothers still living, can you find a way to honor their unrealized dreams? If your mother always wanted to be a published author, can you perhaps self-publish some of her work and make her a gift of the book? If she wanted to travel to someplace, but she is now no longer able to go far from home, can you take her to a cultural evening of song and dance or make her a Mother’s Day meal from her favorite destination?

For those of us who have lost our mothers and grandmothers, we can still give them a gift by living out their dream for them in a way that would have made them proud. My friend Diane Saarinen recently realized that her career providing marketing and publicity to renowned authors through the Saima Agency (link- ) brought her into the same kinds of luxurious Manhattan apartment buildings as a guest that her mother had once worked in as a housekeeper. Now when she walks into one of those buildings, she knows she is honoring her mother and all she was able to accomplish in providing for her family by all those years of labor. Diane also named the agency after her mother, whose first name was Saima.

For me, I have just recently realized that both my mother and grandmother were warriors. My grandmother, for example, fought for her own and her family’s survival during the Great Depression when the family was virtually homeless, and was always very clear about making her opinions known. My mother was also a fighter as an avid supporter of social justice causes and signed up for a 30-year stint in the Navy as a nurse at a time when girls from her community stayed home and taught Sunday School. Perhaps for Mother’s Day I can find a way to “fight the good fight” for some cause for which they would have championed were they still with me on Earth.

Still, perhaps the greatest gift we can give our mothers, whether they are still with us or not, is to do something positive to make our own dreams come true. As a mother myself, I know that nothing is dearer to my heart than having my own child follow his brightest star. For Mother’s Day, can you choose the dream you have always had but that you perhaps never told anyone because you thought it was too outrageous? If you have always wanted to sing before an audience but cannot really carry a tune, can you start voice lessons so you can join an amateur chorus? If you have always wanted to paint but did not think you had the time or ability, maybe Mother’s Day is a good day to go out and buy a paint set.

And once you have made headway towards that task, how about doing something to improve the lives of the women who will come after us all? I saw in my own mother and grandmothers how their sights turned to future generations from all over the country and world once their own offspring were out on their own. Is there a cause dear to your mother’s heart that you can spend time benefitting together on Mother’s Day? If you have lost your mother, what ways did she make life better for those who came after her that you can continue, if even for just one day? Having grown up in a segregated community, my mother was an avid supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Maybe for Mother’s Day I can contribute or find another social justice organization in my own community that could use a day of service.

Mother’s Day is a time to honor our mothers and grandmothers in ways that go beyond flowers and cards. For those of us who honor divinities expressing the Great Mother whose compassion and hope for all beings is infinite, making dreams burst into bloom like roses on a rosebush for those in generations past, present, and future is a sacred act. This Mother’s Day, give the gift of a bouquet from the Garden of Dreams, a mother’s paradise.

Visit Carolyn Lee Boyd at her blog, Goddess in a Teapot.

Thursday 31 January 2013

Celebrating the Icy Mystery of Imbolc

Guest post by Carolyn Lee Boyd

Imbolc is traditionally the celebration of the very first stirrings of life in the spring. In New England where I live, however, Imbolc is the season of ice. The fluffy December snowflakes have been shoveled into piles and compressed into a landscape of ice mountains and fields of solid, slippery whiteness. Ice dangles from the stark trees and clings to the sides of houses, stone walls, and lampposts. For many years I wished for an early spring and for the February ice to melt quickly, but now I think that an icy Imbolc has its own wisdom to ponder.

Like humans, with our body/mind/spirit, water has three natures as ice/water/steam. If we associate these components, and consider ice to be like our solid earthly bodies, water as our freely flowing minds, and steam to be our heavenly-bound spirits, the season of ice is that time when we are most concerned with our physical being. I find that to be true of Imbolc. In times gone by here in New England, winter was a time of a struggle for physical survival, when many people were most concerned about whether their food stores would hold out and the woodlots provide enough heat until the crops and warmth returned in the spring. At the same time, Imbolc in its traditional meaning is the time when Earth’s physical being is re-emerging in the form of baby animals and the first plant buds and we are reminded that even below the seemingly dead ground new life is growing.

Icy Imbolc has much to teach us about our bodies and the physical world. Ice is magic. Its beauty appears in the shimmer of color when light hits it at just the right angle, in its cathedral shapes, in the rhythmic waves it forms across fields. It seems to be sentient in the way crystals combine to build the complex, perfect, and exquisite patterns of snowflakes and rime on the windows. Like ice, our bodies are also outrageously beautiful, complex, perfect, and exquisite if we really look at them and appreciate all that must happen in order to give us each moment of life. Ice holds life in the form of water until it can be released in the spring to nourish the young plant and animal beings in suddenly flowing springs, rising water tables, and vernal pools. Our bodies, too, hold life within us until we are ready to bring it forth into the world as children, art, kind acts, and other forms of creation.

Finally, ice and Imbolc teach us the importance of being able to move among our three natures at will. Ice covers our world when it must in winter, thaws to water that offers new birth in the spring, then rises as evaporation, becoming clouds, all coming together in the water cycle that makes life on our planet possible. We, too, must be able to move among our body, mind, and spirit selves as we need to and developing each fully over our lives. Too often we have been taught that our bodies, minds, and spirits are separate and that one is more important than the others. Only when we are one inter-connected being, like our Earth’s water cycle, can we be all that we are meant to be.

As we prepare for Imbolc, perhaps we can take the time to create our own ice ritual. If you live someplace where February is icy, why don’t you go outside for a walk and notice all the ways ice manifests itself. You might sketch some drawings or bring a blank book and make notes for poems or inspirational thoughts. When you come home, think what the ice you have seen – and maybe touched, tasted, heard, and even smelled --  teaches you. You might even create artwork about the ice and what it means to you for your altar to remind yourself of the mystery of ice when the warm days lead you away to the green and lush world of the spring. This Imbolc, instead of wishing for the disappearance of ice to hasten spring, enjoy it, learn from it, and honor it.

Carolyn Lee Boyd is a human services administrator, herb gardener, and writer whose work focuses on the sacred in the everyday lives of women. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews and more have been published in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work at her blog.

Monday 21 January 2013

The Soul is Symphonic: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen

Born in the Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary nun and polymath. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, and wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Over eight centuries after her death, Hildegard was canonized in May 2012 and on October 7 was elevated to Doctor of the Church in October, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have made a significant impact. Hildegard is only the fourth woman in the history of the Church to receive this distinction.

But to most people today, Hildegard is known best for her soaring ethereal music.

The first composer for whom we have a biography, she composed seventy-seven sacred songs, as well as Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music.

Her melodies are completely unlike the plainchant of her era—or anything that has come before or since. Likewise her lyrics are highly original and feel fresh to us even today. She was the only 12th century writer to compose in free verse.

A Benedictine superior, Hildegard and her nuns sang the Divine Office eight times a day. She believed that song was the highest form of prayer—the mystical power of music reunited humankind to the ecstasy and beauty of paradise before the fall, connecting the singer directly with the divine, and joining heaven and earth in a great celestial harmony.

Singing the divine praises was absolutely central to Hildegard’s identity as a nun. But late in her life, the great composer and polymath was silenced.

Hildegard and her nuns were subject to an interdict, or collective excommunication, when they refused to disinter a supposed apostate buried in their churchyard. As punishment for their disobedience, they were forbidden the sacraments, the mass, even forbidden to sing the Divine Office.

It was the prohibition against singing that hit Hildegard the hardest. She wrote a passionate letter to her archbishop in protest. “The soul is symphonic,” she told him. She also warned him that by forbidding her and her daughters from singing God’s praise, the archbishop himself risked going to an afterlife destination where there was no music, ie hell.

Hildegard’s words seemed to give the man pause for thought. He lifted the interdict just a few months before her death in 1179.

“There is the music of heaven in all things,” Hildegard wrote. “But we have forgotten to hear it until we sing.”

I find her song Caritas Abundant in Omnia (Divine Love Abounds in All Things) to be particularly stirring. Hildegard conceived of Caritas, or Divine Love, as a feminine figure, an aspect of the Feminine Divine:

                         Caritas habundat in omnia

Divine love abounds in all things.
She is greatly exalted from the depths to the heights,
Above the highest stars,
                        And most loving towards all things,
                        For she gave the highest King the kiss of peace.

Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is Kirkus Review 2012 Book of the Year. Visit Mary’s website.