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Natural Holiday Traditions

Most scholars believe the date of our modern Christmas holiday was likely based upon its proximity to the ancient solstice celebrations humans have held for thousands of years. In ancient cultures, these transitional times of year were so important they were honored with everything from weeklong parties to giant monuments designed to align with the sun at specific times on specific dates. Among the most important of these occasions was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when celebrations focused on the continuity of the cycles of nature, the return of new life, and a connection with the phases of the sun and moon.

Today it often feels as if the winter holiday has been tugged away from its early connection with nature and toward consumerism and perfection. Many of us feel pressured to meet sky-high expectations at this time of year — a magical experience for children; an Instagram-perfect dinner party for friends; a family feast where Grandma Rose’s apple pie tastes exactly as it did when you were a child and a 20-pound turkey is lovingly tended for 12 hours. It can all add up to a season in which we feel more frazzled than peaceful.

To re-center the season on nature and simplicity, I love to explore activities tied to the outdoors that bring me together with loved ones in a serene setting. Some of these ideas are inspired by ancient solstice celebrations, and others are simply a good way to spend time with friends and family out in the fresh air. For example, one fun and festive tradition is to decorate an outdoor evergreen tree, but rather than hanging ornaments and beads, hang decorations that feed wildlife: suet balls; pinecones with peanut butter; strung orange slices, dried berries or grapes; even bird “cookie” ornaments made of peanut butter, uncooked oats, seeds and cornmeal. Collecting and making your decorations, then decorating the tree, offers hours of entertainment for kids and adults alike.

Fires are often associated with the solstice. Consider hosting a bonfire night, telling stories, singing songs or simply observing silence. Or use candles to light the evening or as a symbol of unity in a simple ceremony. For example, sit in a circle and give everyone a candle. Have everyone light their own candle, then by candlelight make a list of loving wishes for friends, family and colleagues in the coming year. Afterward, everyone can blow out their candle and light one center candle to symbolize unity and peacefulness in their own lives and across the globe.

Of course, food is a fundamental component of nearly all celebrations, and its ties to the fall and winter holidays — when people traditionally gave thanks for a successful harvest — are especially deep. Special recipes connect us to loved ones and traditions of the past, while focusing on the plants and animals themselves honors our connection with the Earth. Making beloved dishes is a great way to spend time with others, too. But aim for a simple night of baking the family’s passed-down cookie recipe while reflecting on ties to our heritage and each other — not a hectic night staying up until 2 a.m. baking 12 dozen cookies for the holiday bake sale (unless that brings you joy).

Regardless of your beliefs, I hope this year you’ll consider incorporating our connection with nature into your holiday festivities — after all, to celebrate the Earth is to celebrate our connections with each other and with whatever divine creator you choose to believe in.

Three things I love in the November/ December issue:
Ideas and recipes for a hearty, healthy holiday season.

1 Handmade stocking stuffers you can create at home
2 A guide to simple, nourishing herbal infusions
3 Superfood-packed recipes for holiday meals

Photo by GettyImages/Imgorthand

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I find the interconnectedness among all of the creatures on our planet to be one of the most awe-inspiring and sacred components of our human existence. I am fascinated and humbled every time I learn more about the ways the many beings on our wondrous Earth work together in intricate harmonies.

Take, for example, forests, where vast networks of fungal threads act as communication and nutrient pipelines for trees. I enjoy listening to podcasts, and one of my favorite episodes of the podcast Radiolab (“From Tree to Shining Tree”) focuses on the amazing connectivity of the species in the forest. Here, ancient fungi (found even on the very earliest tree fossils known to man) attach to tree roots and form a symbiotic relationship. The fungi literally mine for nutrients in the soil and feed the nutrients to the trees, which could grow no taller than a tulip without the aid of these tiny friends. In return, the trees provide the fungi with the sugars they need to thrive — researchers across the globe have found that forest trees give an astonishing 20 to 80 percent of the sugars they make to feed their fungal friends. The trees may also use their association with fungi to communicate warnings and messages with one another; to share nutrients with other trees, thereby protecting the health of the entire forest; and even to store nutrients, with the fungal network acting as the trees’ nutrient savings account.

Of course, it’s no secret that humans also depend entirely on other creatures for survival — the earth provides the unbelievably vast array of plants we use for food, supporting the existence of all life on the planet. What’s more, scientists today confirm again and again that plants are our most important health ally, protecting us from disease, supporting all of our bodily systems, and even protecting us against what may be uniquely human ailments: stress, obesity, anxiety and more. Many of our most important medicines come from other creatures, too, whether plants, animals or bacteria; and more and more, modern research supports the sometimes thousands-of-years-old uses of medicinal herbs to fight an array of ailments, from minor everyday complaints to serious chronic diseases.

During this time of year, many of us are enjoying the delicious and nourishing fruits of our labors in the garden — harvest time must surely be one of every food enthusiast’s favorite times of year. I think gardening and growing our own food is one of the most profound ways we interact with our planet and the other creatures that live here. It’s not just us and the tomato plant that have created that beautiful fruit — every crop we pick is the result of thousands of organisms working in concert to create our soil, our plants, our very bodies. So as you bite into that perfectly ripe heirloom plum or enjoy the earthy flavor of an oven-roasted beet, maybe take just a moment to meditate on the intricate, beautiful and unfathomably complex system that led to this exact moment. And say thanks.

Plug in to Our Podcasts!
If you’d like to listen in on some fun and informative conversations about urban homesteading, natural remedies and sustainable living — especially on your commute or while you’re working in the garden — check out the Mother Earth News and Friends Podcast. Episode topics include Favorite Medicinal Plants, Keeping Urban Chickens, and Profit as a Homesteader. The podcasts feature several Ogden Publications editors, including Mother Earth Living editor Jessica Kellner. Find them at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Friends Podcast

Photo by GettyImages/Yuri_Arcurs

Three things I love this issue.

Information and recipes to pack more nutrition into every meal.

A look at declining nutrient levels in our food
A worldwide tour of the planet’s healthiest diets.
An in-depth investigation of hunger and satiety.