Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Discovering Santa Claus

[Nyerges is the author of several books and blogs. He can be reached at]

Christmas was always a special time, though in my very earliest memories, there were no religious overtones.  I was taken to church every Sunday, of course, but the Christmas decorations and gatherings were all something that happened at home, not at church.  When I was too young to speak, I realized that Christmas was the season that happened during the coldest time of the year, and it meant that we’d have a fire going in the fireplace, people would be coming over, and there’d be lots of gifts and food.  The food was cookies, tangerines, and walnuts.

One of my earliest Christmas memories was when I was told that Santa Claus would come to our home and bring gifts, and that he had some way to figure out where I lived.  I didn’t know exactly why, but there was a great mystery about this fat, bearded, red-suited Santa man.  People spoke about him in hushed tones, and would even sometimes stop talking about him when I came near. 

My brother Tom told me that Santa Claus would come down the chimney – something I found hard to believe considering how fat he appeared in the pictures.  We both peered up into our fireplace one day and wondered how Santa could get through the narrow passageway.  We didn’t even think that we would be able to crawl through there.

“Plus, doesn’t dad have a screen over the top of the chimney to keep the pigeons out?” Tom asked.  I didn’t know.  “I hope he remembers to remove it for Santa.” 

On Christmas Eve, our dad showed us a plate of cookies and a pot of coffee that had been set out for Santa. 

We barely slept, and I tried to not sleep so I could be the first to rush out and catch a glimpse of this Santa.  But I fell asleep, and Tom woke me and Rick.  We jumped out of bed, and ran down the hall.  We weren’t particularly interested in gifts, but we wanted to catch Santa.  We were too late, but the three of us carefully examined the remaining evidence.  There were no cookies left on the plate – only crumbs – and there was only a small amount of coffee left in the cup.  Tom held the cup and carefully peered into it, and then Rick and I stared into the cup, the proof that Santa had come and departed.

“See?” said Tom.  We all continued to stare into the cup a while longer, as if it might reveal some secrets to us.

In a few more years, I noticed that people didn’t fully hide their comments from me when speaking about Santa Claus. 

“He believes in Santa Claus?” was met with muffled response.  What an odd question, I thought.  Why shouldn’t I believe in Santa Claus?

When I actually learned about this mythical aspect of Christmas, I did go through a period of confusion and even anger at the world of make-believe perpetrated entirely by adults and foisted upon me.  I suppose I felt bad because I really wanted to believe in Santa Claus, and I felt that he was a positive figure.  And I had been told to “be good” for Santa Claus, and that Santa Claus knew everything I was doing.  I was very puzzled by all this, but I got over it.

In fact, I felt very uplifted when I learned that there was an actual historical person upon which Santa Claus was based: a Catholic bishop in Asia Minor (Turkey) of the 3rd century named Nikolaos of Myra gave gifts to poor newlyweds around Christmas time.  A century or so later, sainthood was bestowed upon him, and he was known as Saint Nicholas.  In honor of this very real person, people began to give gifts to others, especially others in need, during the Christmas season and say it was “from Saint Nicholas.”  What a wonderful story!  What would have been wrong with telling me that historical story rather than the garbled mythology?

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Year of "No Christmas"

 [Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” and other books.  His blog can be read at He can be contacted via his site, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

When Christmas rolls around each year, numerous memories flood in – some good, some not good, some different.  I suspect this is the way with everyone.  Over the years, a lot has happened during this December time.  Here’s one memory from my early years.

When  I was around 10, my brothers and I were particularly bad, belligerent, and misbehaving one autumn.  My mother gave us several warning and threats and a few “beatings” in her ceaseless attempt to get us to obey.  I don’t recall what was “wrong” with us that year.  It was as if we were afflicted by some unseen infection.  Or maybe it was what all teens go through when they believe they know more than their parents.  So my mother said, “Keep it up and there will be no Christmas this year.”  Of course, my mother didn’t control the calendar.  She just meant “no gifts.”  That threat did at first affect our behavior,  but then we’d go back to our nonfeasant and malfeasant ways.  There were numerous threats, as November rolled into December, but things didn’t substantially improve with our behaviour.

I was at the age where I began to think about things, and the relative unfairness in the world, and the questioning of authority. But I also wondered why we should  receive gifts at Christmas.  By this time, I was aware that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time, and that it was primarily a religious holiday.  I just didn’t get the whole gift thing –not that I minded receiving.  But because I lacked an understanding of the big picture, the idea of “no gifts”  didn’t seem that threatening to me.

Thinking back, our bad behaviour that year was likely the trickle-down defiance from our oldest brother.  David was never a defier, certainly not an open defier, but the defiance of Gilbert the eldest would have trickled down to Thomas, to Richard, to me.  We were not an ideal family, and I am sure I have suffered my entire life due to unnecessary defiance and the disrespect that I showed to my parents.  Did my parents deserve respect?  In retrospect, of course they did, though the question would have been irrelevant then – like the pot calling the kettle black. 

We were not saints, so who were we to point out hypocrisy in our parents?  Anyway, by mid-December, the word was out: No Christmas this year.  We were schizophrenic about this.  “Oh, we don’t care,” we sassed, but inwardly I believe we each felt a deep dismay at our own inability to live up to our household’s very simple standards.  I felt particularly dismayed that I had been no better, and that I was swayed along with the tide of my older brothers’ mob mentality.  No Christmas.  “She won’t follow through on it,” Tom told us with assurance.  But inwardly, I felt my mother had  to follow through, otherwise her word would mean little to us, and she’d gain little by “being nice.”  I don’t recall what my father had to say about this, but it wasn’t much.

So, sure enough, Christmas came, and we went glumly into the living room to a fire and the usual Christmas tree, but there were no gifts.  We went to church and we talked with our schoolmates. When they talked about what they got for Christmas, we just found ways to change the subject.  We had a quiet Christmas dinner.

One of my brothers told his friends that my mother was mean, but I never did that.  I knew we deserved nothing, and I felt a certain euphoric sense of justice in her actions, and I respected her more because of it. 

Interestingly, in certain ways, I felt closer to my mother after that, was more obedient because I simply felt better doing what was expected of me, and I never complained.  Despite a seeming lack, it was actually one of the best Christmas’ ever, where I received the most fitting possible “gift” – the ability to quickly experience that my choices and actions have consequences.

The story about my mean mother gradually got out into the neighborhood, and my mother once again became the topic of conversations, mostly criticizing her.  I always remained silent, trying to listen to both sides. But I only heard one side—no gifts – from those who truly lost the meaning of Christmas, whose sole focus for Christmas seemed to be the acquisition of things, most of which is forgotten by January anyway. 

So I was “given,” slowly,  a second “gift” by my mother’s action – a unique insight into the all-too-common mundanity of most people’s very narrow thinking.  And I was allowed the rare opportunity to try and experience the meaning of Christmas without the over-focus on material things.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Whose Child is This?

My earliest memory of Christmas is a jumble of activities and feelings, focused around receiving gifts and going to church.  Mostly, it was the season, not the day, per se, that I remember.  There was an aromatic, lit-up, star-topped tree, stockings thumbtacked to the fireplace mantel, lots of nuts and fruits in the home, and many parties and gatherings.  It was a warm time.

Sometime later, I learned that the primary Christian purpose for celebrating Christmas was to commemorate the birth of  Jesus, born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. But then, who was Santa Claus, I asked myself?  Why the fat man in a funny red suit with a gunny sack of gifts, riding around the world in an aero-sleigh, whizzing up and down chimneys, ingesting hundreds of tons of cookies and cocoa?

In my early teens, I didn't question the holiday season very much.  But I did feel anxiety, and I didn't know exactly why.  Everyone seemed "driven" to buy lots of things for lots of people, and I would often join the last minute rush to throw some gifts together with whatever money I had.  Usually, this frenetic activity resulted in my feeling let-down and depressed after it was all done.  But why depression?  Why such social pressure to "buya-gift"?  To wrap "just-so" only to see the wrappings torn-off into a mountain of "trash"?  To eat (and drink) so much that you were in actual pain (often accompanied by indigestion)?

Strange, it seemed, that some of my gloomiest days were before and after Christmas.  "Before" because I was full of anxiety to feel and experience that spiritual something behind Christmas (that joy, that unity), conflicted with the materialistic drive to get some money and go buy; "After" because all too often I felt as if I missed whatever it was that Christmas was supposed to be when the day was coming to an end.

In my mid-teens, I became intently interested in the deeper meaning and significance of this season.  Most of my studies were from encyclopedias, and from Ambassador College and Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlets on the subject.  I must admit that those particular studies -- with their particular slant (especially the Ambassador College literature) -- left me feeling at that time that Christmas began as an "un-Christian" holiday of pagan origins, which made it VERY peculiar -- perhaps even hypocriti­cal -- for Christians to be so deeply-immersed in it.

I will share some of the skeletal details of what I discovered about Christmas that led to this attitude of "Why bother celebrating Christmas at all?"

Some pre-1000 B.C. historical records indicate that Nimrod, a great war­rior who lived in ancient Babylon two centu­ries after The Great Flood, married his mother, Semiramis.  When Nimrod died, Semiramis claimed that Nimrod was resurrected out of a tree stump in the form of an evergreen tree.  She stated that Nimrod would visit his tree every year on his birthday -- which was December 25 -- and leave gifts upon the tree.  This ancient celebration was complete with mistletoe, holly wreaths, and yule logs!

The Nimrod celebration, in those pre-1000 B.C. days, was closely associated with the fluctuations of the solar year.  The midwinter fires of ancient Europe were to celebrate the increased length of each day, which eventually became the "Festival of Lights" as celebrated in Europe.  Also, inexplica­bly, December 25 was erroneously designated as the winter solstice.

During the time of the Roman Empire, the people believed in and worshipped Mithra, born on December 25 by Astarte, his virgin mother.  Mithra, who was called "The Unconquered Sun," was regularly identified by the worshippers of the sun, since his nativity fell on the same day as the sun festivals.

Further research revealed to me that numerous advanced and "primitive" cultures had similar religious beliefs, from the Egyptians to the Mayans, and many other cultures.  Osiris, Quetzalcoatl,  and others, all follow similar patterns with a resurrected savior whose birthday was the winter solstice (or a few days before or after the solstice).

Keep in mind that all those celebrations of the solstice had been going on for at least 2000 years prior to the historical birth of Jesus.

Some historical records indicate that Jesus's birth was sometime in September of the year 4 or 6 B.C.  No one knows for certain.  Three royal astrologers came to the child and presented gifts, the custom of the day when meeting someone of prominence.

However, Christians of the first few centuries A.D. did not celebrate the birthday of Jesus -- there is some Biblical reference that suggests the Jews of the first century and the followers of Jesus believed that it was improper to celebrate birthdays, though that is speculative.  Although the currently adopted versions of the Bible provide no means of precisely determining the birthdate of Jesus, historians know with certainty that it was not on the winter solstice.  [They know this because the Scriptures record a census being taken -- not a winter event -- and animals in the fields, also not a winter activity.  And astrono­mers who've dated various astronomical events that might have been the "star of Bethlehem" -- such as a comet or a triple conjunction of planets -- report that none of the dates coincide with any winter solstice.]

When the Christian emperor Constantine I came to power in the 4th Century, he began pressuring the largely non-Christian Romans to adopt the newly-"popular" religion of Christianity.  But those Romans were reluctant to part with the merriment and festivals that surrounded their "Old Religion."  To accommodate their reluctance, Constantine established December 25 as the day to celebrate the coming of the "Son of God" instead of the "sun."  Many Old Religion customs were carried over from the "birthday-of-the-sun" celebrations, and blended into the "Son-of-God" (that is, Christmas) celebration.  In reality, then, a few names were slightly changed, but the event largely remained the same.

When I first learned of this "other history" of Christmas, I recall thinking: This has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  Why should I be a hypocrite and follow this holiday custom?  Back then in my mid-teens, I concluded that Christmas was an invalid holiday, a pagan holiday masquerading as Christian.  Still, there was a "magic" to the Christmas season that I could not explain.

In the 5th Century, an addition was made to the Christmas celebra­tion.  Nikolaos of Myra was an historical 4th century Bishop in the Catholic church of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He became known as Saint Nicholas, and was well known for the gifts that he gave to newly married couples during the already established Christmas season.  Soon, whenever someone received a mysterious gift, it was attributed to Saint Nicholas.  St. Nicholas' name -- by the usual changes that occur in all spoken languages -- eventually degenerated into "Santa Claus."

And so today, we have a yearly custom that is an admixture of ancient pagan symbols: the tree, the wreaths, the lights, giving gifts, a birth of a savior, evergreen boughs, and eternal fires.  And even Hanukkah has now become commonly recognized as being part of the "Christmas season," with its symbol of light, the menorah.

And so, what does all this really mean?
[To read about how I had a transformational way of looking at, and observing Christmas, check out my Christmas booklet, which you can get from the Store at]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Problem – and Solution – of the Front Lawn

an excerpt from “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City”

[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” and other books. For information on his classes and books, contact him at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

When we first moved into our home, the front yard was ugly – barren and oily.  The previous residents had used the yard to park their cars, an area of about 35 by 15 feet.  Just a bit of crabgrass grew around the edges.  The inner front yard, which we called the courtyard, was almost as barren, though there were a few trees there.

One of our first improvements, once we had removed bits of old metal, wood scraps, logs, and and old shack, was to very heavily mulch the barren yard and the neglected courtyard areas.  Mulch consisted of natural materials such as wood chips, leaves, grass clippings – organic matter that can be spread on the ground to hold in moisture.  As the mulch decomposes, it helps to increase the soil’s fertility.

While driving home one day, we saw a yard that was covered with fall leaves.  We had our rakes and bags with us, so we pulled over and knocked on the door.

“May we rake up your front yard and take the leaves with us?” we asked the elderly man who came to the door.

He was silent for a moment, uncertain what we had said, or perhaps suspicious of our intentions.  We repeated the request.

“We’d like to rake up your yard.  We don’t want to charge you.  We just want the leaves to use for mulch.”

By now, his wife had come to the door and we had to repeat the request again.   They seemed to realize that we were sincere, and agreed. 

As we raked, they began to laugh at their good fortune with sheepish smiles – someone had actually knocked on their door requesting to do something for free that they usually had to pay for.

“Take all you want!” the man told us, cheerfully and loudly.

We busied ourselves filling up about four large trash bags of the yellow leaves, and they watched us from their window with large grins.  We laughed to ourselves too, and wondered if they would be telling and re-telling this curious story to their friends and grandchildren.

When we got home, we scattered all those leaves around the needy front and courtyard areas.  We knew that we’d have to add more and more organic matter before the soil would be fertile enough to grow plants, so we collected leaves from other sources as well and spread them in our yard.

Neighbors watched our leaf mulch project curiously.

We contacted an acquaintance who runs a tree-pruning service.  This man and his crew prunes trees and then chips up the prunings, and when their truck is full of chips, they take it to the local landfill and pay to unload the chips.  In response to our invitation, they were happy to bring a load to our place instead and dump it in a huge pile onto our front yard.

The huge pile covered most of the front yard, and the central peak was nearly five feet tall.   We knew the pile would get smaller over time as the chips decomposed.  In fact, the pile had sunk down about a foot after the first week, and we spread the chips out on each side so we’d have a mulch that uniformly covered the entire area.

If you’ve ever been around a big compost pile, you know how it generates lots of heat as the contents decompose.  We noticed our pile steaming in about two weeks, and we also watered it to help the decomposition process.

One morning, a neighbor form next door yelled, “Your front yard’s on fire!”

We ran out expecting to see flames somewhere but saw only the steaming chip pile.  We assured our neighbor that everything was fine.

In two  years, after two big truckloads of wood chips, we were able to sink our hand down into the soil in the front yard, and wild plants had begun to grow and thrive. 

FOR THE CONTINUATION OF THIS STORY, get a copy of “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City” wherever quality books are sold.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Newest book: "Foraging Edible Wild Plants of North America"

Look what arrived in today’s mail!  My publisher projected January 2016 for the publication date, but it looks as if they finished it early!

“Foraging Edible Wild Plants of North America” is a wild food cookbook, fully illustrated with color photos, with recipes for the most common greens that you can find anywhere in North America.  In fact, many of these plants are found world-wide.

I was really happy with the result, and the way the color photos turned out.  It’s 211 pages full of wild recipes, and various ways to use wild foods, their nutritional value, and the ways to process the plants.

The cheapest way to get a copy right away is through Amazon. The retail is $22.95.  The book will be on my web site in a week or so, but if anyone wants to buy a copy direct from me.   I have about two dozen copies which  I can sell at a discount if you want one right away – I’ll sell these for $20 each and that will include the postage – until these run out.  Contact me via the website at

Hey, just in time for Christmas, and holiday gifting. And I really like the beautiful cover of a table of wild foods being prepared – Helen took that photo.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Discovering Epazote

An aromatic Central American spice, said to prevent gas and indigestion,
believed to have been used by the ancient Maya

Anyone who uses beans as a significant part of their diet should know about epazote.

I first learned of the remarkable gas-relieving effects of epazote in 1975 while studying Mexican and Central American herbalism. Once my instructor had introduced me to this herb, I immediately recognized it as the common plant of so many of the streams I'd hiked along in the hills above my Pasadena home.

My Costa Rican instructor shared with me his family secrets: Add a few leaves of epazote to a pot of beans for a delicious flavor and to render the beans gas-free.

As the years progressed, I was astounded that virtually no Americans I'd talked with were familiar with this herb, let alone its anti-gas effects. Yet, this common, inconspicuous herb had been known and used in Southern Mexico and Central America for centuries!  Today, though still not common, you can find little packages of dried epazote in many markets, and bundles of the fresh leaves in many farmers markets.

In the recorded literature of Europe and North American, epazote (formerly Chenopodium ambrosiodes, now called Dysphania ambrosiodes by botanists) is known for it efficacy in expelling intestinal worms. For dogs and cats, add one teaspoon of the seed (or herb) to their meals  until the worms clear up. The herb is said to be less effective against tapeworms.

The Natchez Indians used epazote to expel worms in children. The Chinese used the herb as a diaphoretic (promotes sweating). The anthelmintic/vermifuge qualities of epazote are well recognized, and the herb is cultivated in parts of the Soviet Union for this use. 

Herbalists believe that epazote was also used by the ancient Mayans both as a spice and medicine.

It is believed that epazote's effectiveness in removing the "gassiness" of beans is due to the presence of oil of chenopodium, which is found in concentrations of 10% in the seed, and one percent in the leaf.

Remember that excess flatulence is a symptom, and that epazote only deals with that symptom. The gas problem will continue if the cause is not eliminated. Some methods to eliminate the cause of gas are eating slowly, proper food combination, and others.

I first began to collect the spicy leaves of epazote during my spring hikes into my local foothills.  But like most gardeners and herb-lovers, I eventually wanted to have my own patch of epazote growing near my kitchen door. 

In late summer, I collect the wild seed on the dried plants.  I plant these seeds in my yard, in an environment which somewhat replicates the plant's ideal wild environment.  Epazote prefers semi-shaded river beds where the soil is sandy and well-drained, and where it's usually moist.  Thus, I plant the seeds on the north side of my house where there's the most shade, in well-drained soil.  Epazote seeds may take up to a month to sprout, a fact which leads many gardeners to suspect their crop failed.  To help, the seeds should be soaked in water for 24 hours and then planted.  Additionally, you can sow the seeds in a pot or garden bed where other plants are growing.  This way, you won't get frustrated as you water a bare spot of soil.

Sprouted epazote has a bright green appearance, and even when very young you can detect the characteristic epazote aroma.  Sometimes you'll see a few blotches of red on the young sprouts.

Harvesting the mid-sized epazote plants is easy.  Just pinch off the top new growth.  Pinch off just what you need at the time, or pinch back a lot if you plan to dry some of the herb for storage.  The leaf production of each epazote plant is greatly increased by this pinching.  The entire above-ground plant will die back each year, but as long as the soil hasn't dried out, the roots will continue to produce year after year.  Also, the regular pinching-back of the leaves during the growing season will significantly extend the growing season for your plants.

Epazote leaves are best dried in the dark (I dry mine in an attic).  I spread the leaves thinly on newspaper or brown paper bags.  The dried herb is best stored in an opaque jar.

The seeds (for growing) and packets of the dried herb can be purchased from Survival Seeds, P.O. Box 41-834, Los Angeles, CA 90041.  Seeds for growing are $3; herb is $4.50 a packet.  There is also a unique booklet entitled What Causes Gas? ($7), which describes the many dietary and non-dietary causes of gas, as well as practical solutions.

This aromatic herb is a native of Mexico, Central and South America. It has now naturalized in many parts of the world. Epazote is found in many parts of the U.S., particularly in the southern states.

Cooking with epazote is easy! Add approx. one tablespoon of the herb -- both the chopped stems and the leaves -- to a pot of beans. You can use it fresh or dried.  The epazote herb can also be added to soups, stews, and made into tea. The powdered leaves can be added to salads, such as potato and bean salads. 

Here are some simple recipes I've developed for using epazote.

1 cup lentils                                         
1 bay leaf
5-6 cups water                                    
2 tsp. dried epazote
1 diced red onion                           
3 cloves of garlic
2 diced carrots
Wash the lentils, and then simmer for an hour and a half. Add the other ingredients when the beans are nearly soft. Simmer `til the vegetables are soft. (Add salt or kelp to taste, if desired.)

1 cup cooked/sliced green beans     
1 cup cooked kidney beans
1 cup cooked garbanzos
equal parts olive oil and apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. dried/powdered epazote
2 diced cloves of garlic
1/2 tsp. dill                                          
Salt and pepper, to taste, if desired
Marinate the beans in the dressing, preferably at least eight hours, but no less than 30 minutes.

1 cup black beans                          
sage, pinch
oregano, pinch
3 onions                                              
epazote, two tsp.
3 small potatoes                                  
salt and pepper, to taste
Cook the beans first for about an hour until tender. Then add the onions and potatoes,and cook until tender. Add the seasonings. Let simmer on low temperature for 15 minutes before serving.