Friday, December 30, 2016

Death, Life, and a New Year

 [Nyerges is the author of several books, including “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and others. He has led field trips and taught classes in self-reliance since 1974. More information on his books and classes is available at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

I had just been told that a friend had died.  It was sad to realize I’d never see him again.  The musical chairs of life goes on, but I always have to stop when I hear of death, at least a death of one who is close.  For me, life is about the people around me.  When they die, a piece of me dies.

Gato Barbieri’s “Europa” is playing on the radio.  That’s Ramah’s song.  Ramah was my purebred pitbull who came on my field trips.  When she died many years ago, I was holding her in my arms as she gave out her last goodbye cry, as the eerie nostalgic sound of Europa was playing on the radio.  Since then, Europa has been “Ramah’s song,” her goodbye rite-of-passage song.  I think of Ramah when I hear Europa, and I think of death and the seeming impermanence of life.

It is time for work so I drive away with the radio off. I want to hear the silence.  I arouse a cooper’s hawk as I go down the long driveway and he swoops away under the oaks with a pocket gopher in his claws.  More death. 

I think about the pocket gopher which devours my root crops, and I feel no sadness. Still,  I only shudder to think that he’ll be ripped apart and eaten while still alive.  Is that good?  Is it bad?

A local Sierra Club hiker wrote about his chancing upon a mountain lion killing a deer.  He said he could have interrupted it, but he didn’t.  He watched it. He said it was beautiful. He said it was part of the beauty of nature.

Beauty?  Certainly the kill is part of nature, part of The Way.  Eat or be eaten.  But “beautiful”?  The deer would have had its throat slit from behind, and while it struggled, the lion would have ripped open his underside and begun eating the deer while it was still alive.  Nope, not beautiful.  Brutal, vicious,  sobering. 

Part of The Way, yes.  Beautiful, no. 

Death is not beautiful.  To the dead, I presume it is peaceful. To the living, painful, especially when a close one goes and you experience their absence, and the pain of separation.  You’re forced to acknowledge the temporary nature of life.  You’re forced to make each moment count, to make each moment matter.

Off to my work of the day, I think about the immediate now, the temporary world of timeclocks and responsibility and bills and rents and taxes.  I am only mildly cheered up by telling myself this is only temporary.

I sip my coffee at a downtown coffeehouse in the dense fog of the early morning before my work begins.  The fog drifts and flows, like the drifting landscape of my thoughts of life and death and work and bills.

I think of the new year beginning. I pause as I sip my coffee, and acknowledge the endless cycle of year after year, life and death and life and death, and each new year provides new opportunities to improve and to do what has not been done yet.

Still, death is everywhere. It is inescapable.  And yet it is perhaps our blessing.  It is the sobering element that forces us to reconsider everything, and to strive to do the right thing in each moment.  Death forces us to think larger than just our own interests, and forces us to think about what is best for the most people, and what is best for the next generation.  It forces us to treat everyone around us even better, and we never need to wait for a “new year” in order to do that….

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Kurrajong Tree from Down-Under

Widely introduced as an ornamental in the United States, the seeds make good food

Copyright 2016 --
 [This article will be used in an upcoming book being prepared by Nyerges.  Nyerges has been teaching ethno-botany since 1974, and is the author of 16 books, including “Foraging California,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging Wild Edible Plants of North America,” “Nuts and Berries of California,” and others.   Information on his classes and books is available at, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

Where I grew up, our street was lined with stately and aromatic camphor trees, with their oval-shaped leaves that perfumed the air with camphor when you crushed them.  The fruits were little globose fleshy fruits about a quarter inch in diameter, with one seed inside. There was one tree, however, whose leaves looked like the camphor, but the fruit did not.  It had a  hard little pod that looked like a miniature wooden canoe. Inside the pod were about a dozen orange seeds.  I’d assumed it was a type of a camphor, or just one of those ornamentals from somewhere else with no practical uses at all.

I eventually learned that this tree is from Australia, where it is called  a kurrajong, and a bottle tree in the United States. The Latin name is Brachychiton populneus.

As far as I knew, this was one of those many inappropriately transplanted trees into Southern California from Australia, trees that were brought here as ornamentals or perhaps lumber, such as Eucalyptus, or Acacia.   Those have some good food and medicinal values, but I’d assumed that the Brachychiton was somewhat useless. It was just that odd tree with the hard canoe-shaped pod.

Biologists who track the movements of non-native plants point out that though the kurrajong is regarded as invasive to those parts of Australia where it was introduced by landscapers. It has also been planted far and wide as an ornamental, in South Africa, in the United States from Californian and Arizona down into the Southern states, and throughout the Mediterranean regions of the world. In fact, though certainly not as widespread as the eucalyptus trees, kurrajongs will grow wherever eucalyptus can grow.

Recently one of my students brought me some of the pods, asking me to identify it, and asking me if it had any value.  I confirmed that it was Brachychiton, and  just for the heck of it, I looked it up in a few of my books on the flora of Australia, and the bush foods of the native Aboriginal people.  I learned that the yellow seeds inside the pods were eaten by the Aboriginals, and that they were quite nutritious. According to a study by the University of Sydney, these seeds contain about 25% fat and about 18% protein.  The study also stated that 100 grams of the seed contains about 348 calories.  (Peanuts, by contrast, contain about 567 calories per 100 grams.)

My references were a bit scant about how exactly these were used, except that sometimes they were eaten raw, and sometimes roasted.

I did learn  -- the hard way – that you need to be careful when you clean each seed of the outer coating, which is covered in a very fine fuzz. When I first learned that these were edible, I picked a few of the dark yellow, fuzz-covered seeds out of the pod, and just rubbed them between my hands in order to remove the fuzzy chaff.  The fuzz is very fine and it’s not a serious irritant, but I did feel it, and afterwards,  I needed to wash my hands well.  The seed coating also imparted a yellowish pigment to my skin, which  washed off readily.

Several of us then tried the raw seeds. They’re hard at first, but they softened up in our mouths.  They become chewy, with a flavor reminiscent of corn.  Everyone was surprised that these odd fruits had a good-tasting seed.

I had been given a whole shopping bag of the seed pods, so my next task was to process the seed from these.  Originally, I was going to just pick out the seeds with my fingers, but I didn’t want that itchy fuzz all over my hands and arms and clothes. Instead, I used a butter knife and easily popped out the seeds from each pod.  They are stuck in the pods and are easily disattached with the knife.  I cleaned all the pods until I had a salad bowl of the seeds.  Next, I put all the seeds into a plastic salad colander.  To remove the coverings of each seed, you have to squeeze the seeds to crack the coating. It’s not hard, but you have to do it carefully to avoid the fuzz.  Wearing dish-washing gloves is the best way to do it, and you just crush all the seeds until the coverings are loose, and then you shake and colander and blow off the chaff.  When I was done, I had approximately one cup of the yellow seeds.

I stored the clean yellow seeds in a jar until I’d have a chance to cook them up, or grind them into flour during the next week.

In the meantime, I removed and washed all my clothes, and took a shower.  The fine fuzz isn’t like cactus spines, but there seem to be a lot of them, and I felt them everywhere, even though they are mostly not visible. 

I contacted my friend Daniel Sainty, who lives in Australian and who is a user of bushfood, and asked about the kurrajongs.  He knew all about this tree.

First, he told me that the use of its seeds as a coffee substitute has been well known in Australia.  They first require a light roasting,  following by a pounding or grinding and brief boiling; as you’d do with regular coffee.  I was eager to try this.

It turns out that there is a lot of history in the kurrajong.  Aborigines were known to  burn down the tree in the belief that this would drive water into the roots. They would then put one end of the roots into the coals of a fire, and the other end  into a container to catch water slowly dripping out.  This would be a good way to get water – if you’re in the Australian bush.

In fact, it turns out that two species of Brachychiton (B. rupestre  or bottle tree,  and B. populneum, kurrajong) are known to be good water trees, and probably other members of the genus also would have roots worth tapping.  There were reports that the Aborigines had subsisted in some areas almost wholly on water  from kurrajong roots.  One report on the kurrajong tree stated that “water gushes out rapidly when the pieces of root are set on end, the roots of a tree yielding gallons in quantity.”  Wow! 

Daniel also shared a reference to the fact that the young plants of the kurrajong  have a yam-like tuberous root, often considerably broader than the stem above, and this was a popular item of food with the Aborigines.  It is not clear whether or not they cooked or prepared it in any way before eating.

Daniel confirmed that the seeds were commonly eaten raw or roasted, or made into coffee, and that he enjoys the roasted seed.

So I took my cleaned seeds, bright yellow, and placed them in a cast iron skillet over the fire and roasted them.  I didn’t use oil, but just shook the skillet from time to time over an approximately 15 minute period.  I heard some seeds pop, but mostly they just faded from a bright yellow to a dull yellow bordering on brown.  I did this during an outdoor class I was conducting, and I let 8 students taste the roasted seeds. Everyone though the seeds had been  good raw, but they were very much improved when they were roasted, again tasting even more like corn.  At least two thought that the flavor of the seeds was more like sunflower seeds.

Next, I took the roasted seeds and ground them in a coffee grinder. This produced an obviously oily golden flour, that would cake up in some places.

I put two heaping teaspoons of the golden flour into my drip coffee filter and produced a somewhat opaque goldenish beverage.  The fragrance is somewhat like burnt corn, and the flavor is reminiscent of a grain beverage.  It produced a pleasant drink, not strongly flavored one way or the other.  I would not compare it to coffee, except that both are warm beverages.  Kurrajong drink has none of the bitterness of coffee, though I could detect a slight astringent undertaste.  The flavor is very much enhanced with a sweetener, like honey. I think that anyone you served this to would find it at least acceptable, and probably enjoyable.  I can see using this alone, or as a coffee extender, in much the same way that chicory is used.

I then took some of the ground up kurrajong seed flour, and mixed it half-and-half with some wheat flour.  I blended it well, and then cooked it like damper in a hot skillet.  The batter had that dark golden color of the seed, and it had  texture.  We cooked them well, and five of us tried them without honey or topping.  Everyone like them, even the children.  There was an initial burnt corn flavor, and just a very slight astringency in the mouth. As you chewed, it seemed almost oily, like eating peanut butter. I could see that some people might not care for the flavor, as it was distinctive, not bland like a wheat flour pancake. To me, the flavor was reminiscent of burnt corn, and was actually very tasty to my palate. 

We made a batch of several damper-pancakes, and we ate them all!  That says it all.  I believe that the flavor would be greatly enhanced with a jelly or butter topping.  I plan to experiment more with this food, and believe it can still be a very important modern-day bush food.

Personal contact: Daniel Sainty, Australia
“Bush Foods: Aboriginal Food and Herbal Medicine” by Jennifer Isaacs. Lansdowne Publishing, 1987.
“Wild Food Plants of Australia” by Tim Low, Angus and Robertson Publishers, 1988.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Symbols of Christmas



[A much longer version of this article is available as a booklet, “Whose Child is This?,” from the Store at]

Is it true that the modern Christmas day commemorates the birth of Yeshua ben Yosef, a Jewish rabbi?  Yes, of course, Yeshua (who the world knows simply as “Jesus”) did not create Christianity, nor did he create the “Christmas season.”  The winter solstice celebrations were already well established during his time.  Jesus, however, might have commemorated Hannukah, an event which took place some 150+ years before his birth, and Passover.

So where do all the symbols of the Christmas season come from, if not from Jesus? 

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 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. 

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.

Numerous 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 suggest that Jesus was born sometime in September of the year 4 or 6 B.C.  No one knows for certain.  However, Christians of the first few centuries A.D. did not celebrate the birthday of  Jesus.  Although the currently adopted versions of the Bible provide no means of precisely determining the birthdate of  Jesus, historians know with certainty, using several points of reference, that it was not on the winter solstice.

When the Christian emperor Constantine I came to power in the 4th Century, he Christianized the “pagan” (followers of Mithra) Romans to adopt the newly-"popular" religion of Christianity.  And to make this change easier,  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 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."

Here are the meanings of some of the other common Christmas symbols.

The Sun.  The star of our solar system -- which we call "sun" -- has been used by humankind for many purposes: measuring time, a source of warmth, and a venerated "god."  Without the sun's light, there'd be no crops, and thus no animal life, no transpiration, no evaporation, no photosynthesis, no chlorophyll, etc. etc.  In sum: no light, no "life" (as we know it).  By analogy, then, the sun epitomizes light.  Specifically, it represents the Eternal Consciousness, or what most people call "God".

The Solstice.  During the winter solstice (usually December 21), the Earth's northern latitudes receive the least amount of sunlight of the year.  The "esoteric meaning" of Jesus' birth at this least-hospitable time of the year is that The Christ comes to reaffirm to Mankind that there is a way out of the darkness, there is a way to the light again, there is a path back, out, up.  It is only after about 4 days after the solstice that the sun begin to move northward again from a point on the horizon.  That is the origin of the “birth” on December 25 in so many cultures.

Birth in a Stable:  Jesus' birth in the ignominy of an animal stable symbolizes that each of us IS born into an "animal" existence here on Earthsurface.  Another correspondence to the manger is that the pituitary body is situated in a "manger"-like bony depression in the skull, called The Turkish Saddle.  According to some metaphysical authors, the pituitary is the seat of our Divinity, (dormant in nearly all of us).  Thus, the allegory of the birth in the stable also represents the awakening of our own Divinity.

Wreath:  The Wreath symbolizes the circle, an ancient symbol.  One level of meaning is the cycle of the seasons, with the winter solstice being the end of a cycle as another begins, over and over again.  In fact, the various meanings of the circle are vast.

Evergreens:  Evergreens represent eternal life.  That is, enduring the "death" of this dark season, the evergreen trees remain alive. 

Giving gifts:  The gift-giving aspect of Christmas has interesting roots.  I've already mentioned the origin of Santa Claus.  Many people believe that the roots of the Christmas gift-exchange lie in the three royal astrologers (Magi) who brought gifts to the child in the manger. They didn't exchange gifts among themselves, but they gave unique gifts to the Christ child.   One way that we can practice this Real Gifting is to thoughtfully make (or purchase) gifts with the spiritual nature of a specific person in mind.  Then, personally hand the gift to that person and tell them why you are giving that to him or her.  Though this may seem awkward at first, it will elevate all your gifting (AND your gift-receiving).

Hanukkah:  Hanukkah has come to be associated with the Christmas holiday season, even though it commemorates an entirely different event.  Yet Hanukkah may have more in common with Christmas than at first meets the eye.

Hanukkah is an eight-day commemoration, recalling the recapture in 165 B.C. of the sacred Temple in Jerusalem by a small tribe of Jewish warriors.  The Temple had been taken over by Syrian Greeks, who were using it for their own rituals. When the Jews recaptured it, they found that the Temple had been desecrated and there was only a one-day supply of the sacred oil for the eternal light, which is supposed to burn continuously.  Miraculously, the small bit of oil burned for eight days until a new supply of oil could be obtained (which was found in the rubble of the Temple).  The eight-branched Menorah symbolizes these eight days.  In essence, Hanukkah commemorates the triumph of Light over the Darkness, which is exactly what Christmas and ALL the winter solstice events are intended to commemorate.

Again, Hanukkah commemorates the triumph of the Light over the Dark.   The 5 sons of Mattathias represent the 5 physical senses, that is, the "sons" of our body-mind.  The desecrated temple symbolizes our bodies desecrated by our envies, our angers, our hates, our lusts, and our baser desires.  The esoteric meaning is that we must drive out the sense-illusoriness of material "reality" if we are to retake control -- to rededicate -- our own Temple and allow the eternal Light to triumph within us.  And the "sacred oil" for that Light is found -- Phoenix-like -- in the rubble of our own desecrated Temples, if we only Seek it.

These have been but a few examples of the enrichments I've discovered as I've sincerely  looked for the esoteric meanings of each exoteric symbol.  With such searching, we can trace the entire cycle of  the life of Jesus, and see  each event as a practical symbol.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Christmas Cheer


Memories of Christmas Season 2008

Nyerges is the author of several books. This article is an extract from his book, “Til Death Do Us Part?: Lessons that Death Taught Us,” available from Kindle or as a pdf from the Store at  The book details many of the specific Lessons that Dolores and I received through our association with WTI.  I highly encourage you to obtain a copy!

In the days after my wife Dolores died, I still spent my evenings with Nami and Fikret and Nellie (the little dog that Dolores boarded), cooking dinner, sharing dinner, talking over television.  Both Nami and Fikret were living in rooms in the front part of the duplex.  Nami was from Tokyo, working at a Japanese firm in downtown Los Angeles while she earned her CPA license.  Fikret was a student from Germany who’d be going home in a few days. 

That December was dark, pressing, my mind a constricted box of sorrow and loss. 

A close friend had earlier suggested to Dolores that she take Nami and Fikret to see the annual Griffith Park festival of lights, and Dolores had mentioned it to Fikret.  I brought it up to Fikret and he wanted to go.  I think he was more concerned about me getting out and “getting normal” than he was about seeing some electric light display.  Anyway, he arranged with Nami to go one evening after Nami got home from work, and I drove.

I had never seen the light show either, and though I was in no mood for “joy,” I wanted Nami and Fikret to feel happiness, and the joy of the American Christmas season that the youth can best appreciate. 

My mental state was very constrictive, narrow, even subdued horror.  It was as if I’d been  hit in the face with a 2x4, and I could not see beyond my shocked pain.  But I tried, with great effort, to “enjoy” an evening out with Nami and Fikret as best I could.  It was the weekend after Dolores died.  Nami got home early from work, and it was already dark.  Fikret made a very light meal – more of a snack – for everyone before we drove off to Griffith Park in my Jeep.  I was preoccupied with now living a life turned upside-down, with no perception of light at the end of my tunnel.

Fikret and Nami were noticeably happy, upbeat, and they seemed to be happy to be doing something with me. Fikret had come on a few field trips with, but I’d only gone out rarely with Nami. I know they were both fully cognizant of my pain and I think they were being happy because they wanted me to be happy.  To me, the lights of Griffith Park were a very minor attraction.

As we drove, we spoke about their day, and other light matters.  I always enjoyed talking with Nami over dinner about what sort of day she had at work, and what new English words she learned.  We drove into the large expansive parking lot east of the Los Angeles Zoo, and drove around until we saw where to park for the festival of lights.  People parked their cars, and then boarded buses which set sail every 15 minutes or so, or until the buses were full.  The three of us were the first to enter a bus, so we got the seats we wanted.  A few adults filed in, and then a whole group of school children came in and filled the bus.  The driver turned off the lights, and we were off down the two miles or so of the electric light display. 

The children spontaneously sang Christmas carols at the tops of their voices. Nami and Fikret tried to follow along:  Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Silent Night, all the classics.  Mostly, the children sang enthusiastically and loud with lots of laughter for the first verse until the song faded as the children didn’t know the words. After loud laughter, another song would begin.

I could tell they were all having great fun, though I was barely there. I had to shut off most of my painful feelings and emotions and turn on only that part of me that was needed for ordinary interactions with others. I was glad that there was so much happiness in the world.

I was in a darkness of my own, alone, as if I was severely and suddenly cut off from all that was important to me.  Which was, in fact, what happened.  After the light show, we returned to the Jeep, and I drove on in a stupor.  I asked Nami and Fikret if they wanted to see more Christmas lights, and they said yes.  Christmas Tree Lane was impressive, but monotonous to me.  Nami and Fikret just said “Oohh,” and “Ahhh,” and “Look at those, wow!”  I tried to explain the history of Christmas Tree Lane, how I grew up just around the corner, and I drove by our family home on North Los Robles. 

I didn’t want to go home quite yet.  “Going home” would mean that I would go back home alone, would sit there for awhile listening to music or watching TV, feeling the full grief of losing Dolores, by myself.  It meant I would go to sleep with my grief, unable to find solace in music or TV.  I would turn off the TV and music, and in the darkness I would fall into my abyss of sorrow until I awoke the next day. No, I didn’t want to go home yet.

I told Nami and Fikret that I knew of another Christmas light display and we drove across town looking for it.  We never found it, but they got a tour of East Pasadena and Sierra Madre before we stopped for some snacks and finally went home. 

We then went into the front kitchen when we got home, and enjoyed some cookies and coffee.  We all laughed together and we watched a little bit of a Christmas movie on TV.  It was a good evening overall, but it would be a long time before I could feel joy again.

That was eight years ago this December. Life goes on. I learned to love again, and I realized that one does not want to “forget,” as we often hear. For me, it was a truly unique and special time to assist one in her final days. It made me feel the value of each day, of each breath, of each moment. And somehow, that death became a permanent way in which I commemorate the onset of the  Christmas Season, which is all about a New Life.

Terumasa's Question

From Christopher Nyerges’ book “Til Death Do Us Part?”

After my wife Dolores died on December 9, 2008, I wrote the book "Til Death Do Us Part?", detailing the death experience, and various ways that Dolores and I dealt with death.  You can get your own copy on Kindle, or as a pdf. from



Terumasa – Nami’s friend from Japan – had arranged to visit in December of 2008.  But unbeknownst to Terumasa, Dolores had died a few days earlier

In the evenings of late December and early January, I would often sit with Terumasa and Nami and have dinner together, often watching television, and always trying to converse with Terumasa.  Terumasa was a noble man who exuded greatness.  I loved to be around him, and wished that our language barrier was reduced.

One late afternoon, after we had the backyard memorial for Dolores, a few people lingered in the backyard and living room to talk.  Terumasa sat there next to me, with Mel sitting there listening.  Terumasa looked at me while we talked about Dolores.  He said, “Christopher,” to gain my attention. 

“Christopher,” he repeated with great concern in  his voice.

“Why are we born? Why are here?  Why do we live this life?  Why must we experience all this pain?”  He paused.  He was about to cry.  He added, “Why do we die?”

We were all silent for a few moments.  Joe Hall looked at me, wondering what I would say. Joe had previously made it clear to me that he didn’t believe in reincarnation, “and all that spiritual stuff,” bu I suppose he wanted to see how I would respond.   Mel commented, “Those are the questions, alright.”

I nodded to Terumasa.  What could I say?  Should I offer my opinion as to the meaning of life and death in a few simple words with the attempt to cross the chasm of our English-Japanese divide?

“Yes, what is this all about?” I asked rhetorically. I felt that I was certainly able to intellectually approach those questions, but I did not feel emotionally up to it in that moment. 

“Let’s talk about that some more soon,” was all I offered.

Eventually, only Joe Hall and Mel remained talking, and when I finally walked Mel to his car, he turned and said, “We should get together and talk about Terumasa’s questions.  I’d really like that.” 

“OK,” I told him. “We will, but you have to promise to come.”  Mel said OK.

About a month later near the end of  January, we planned Boy Voyage party for Terumasa, who would be actually departing the following morning.  We invited many people, and planned to have Japanese tea and Japanese food.

We set up an outside table up on the hill at the wildlife sanctuary, with lights and a table full of dinner.  Nami came up with Terumasa and we invited them to sit down.  It took a little while for Terumasa to realize that this was a party for him.  He laughed loudly when he realized this was a surprise for him!

We filled our tea cups and touched them together for our toast, and then all held hands and recited the words of the classic work “Friendship Bridge.” 

Then, after asking Terumasa about the details of his departure, and what he’d be doing back in Japan, we made the effort to answer his questions.  Prudence and I prepared with different parts of the book “Thinking and Destiny” by Harold Percival, along with our own insights.

We didn’t want our bon voyage to Terumasa to become a strict metaphysical study, but rather we wanted to provide some preliminary answers to his serious query.  It was as much for us as it was for Terumasa.

We decided that we were born upon this world in order to continue our spiritual evolution.  Each of us added some comments to this, but everyone seemed to concur that this is why we are here, and which is why we are here to live this life.

The subject of pain was much more complex.  Yet, we quickly denounced the notion that our pain is something given to us, or done to us, by “god,” as is so often averred by religious zealots.  In fact, in all the cases of individual and large scale pain that we could list, we felt that we are our own worst enemy.  We men and women are the sources of pain on the earth, which usually come about by some violation of natural law, some breaking of the Ten Commandments, not abiding by the Golden Rule, and by partaking of the Seven Capital Sins.  Our pain is the result of our own choices, and when we learn from our pain and our choices, we – if we are intelligent – learn to make other choices. 

This was a big topic, but again everyone was in agreement that we bring our own pain upon ourselves, and that pain is largely unavoidable unless we make other choices.

Then we talked about death.  Prudence read from “Thinking and Destiny” and pointed out that death can be a friend to our Spiritual Self, that our bodies are simply not destined to live forever, and that – like it or not – we will all die as part of our long progress towards spiritual perfection. 

This was not wholly agreeable to all, but the topic of death is so full of emotion and opinion and religious dogma that we did not attempt to have agreement all around, and that was OK.

By now we were feasting on some delicious Japanese fish and soup, and we gave Terumasa some gifts to take back to Japan. 

We all exchanged phone numbers and emails and we all hugged.  It was clear to all that change was coming soon, and that this wonderful warrior would soon be gone.  By 9:30, we all departed, and on the following Saturday morning, Terumasa flew away to Japan.


Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Who is Santa Claus?

[Nyerges is an author / lecturer / educator who has written such books as “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” and other books.  Information about his books and classes is available at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock,CA 90041]

Recently, I heard a discussion on the radio where two seemingly normal and sane adults were arguing about the racial heritage of “Santa Claus.”  They argued about whether Santa was white or black. Really?

A few years ago, I recall a Christian woman complaining that Santa Claus has gained a more prominent role during the Christmas season than the Jesus child.   She argued that this was a sign that “we” have allowed secularism – and maybe even paganism – to creep into the Christmas tradition. Really?

So, who is Santa Claus?  Isn’t he just a fictitious jolly man to make us feel happy during the dark of December?  Not really.  There actually was an historical figure, upon which “Santa Claus” is based.

Nikolaos of Myra was an historical 4th century Bishop in the Catholic church of Asia Minor (modern-day Demre, Turkey).  He was born on March 15, 270, in Pataya, Lycia, in Asia Minor, what is now modern Turkey. At that time, however, the area was culturally Greek, and was politically a part of the Roman  diocese of Asia.  He was the only child of wealthy Greek parents, who both died in an epidemic when Nicholas was young. Nicholas inherited much from his parents, and was then raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas), who was a Bishop of  Patara, and who trained young Nicholas into priesthood.

Nicholas was said to be religious from an early age, and he always fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.   
Because of his outspoken beliefs, he was persecuted by the Romans  and was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian.

In case you never heard of the “persecution of Diocletian” (I hadn’t),  it was the most severe of the persecutions against Christians, simply because they were Christians, in the Roman Empire.  It was also known as the “Great Persecution.”   In 303, four emperors issued a series of dictatorial laws which essentially did away with any legal rights of Christians.  The edicts demanded that the Christians comply with traditional Roman “religious” practices, meaning, giving sacrifices to the various so-called Roman gods.  This persecution was severe, and was weakest in the British colonies where the Empire had the least sway.  It was the most severe in the Eastern provinces, where Nicholas lived. 

Since Nicholas refused to worship the Roman gods, he was imprisoned, and suffered hardship, hunger, and cold for about 5 years. With the rise of Constantine, the persecutions came to an end in 313.   With Constantine in power, Nicholas was released. Constantine is known for “Christianizing” the Roman Empire, and re-naming all the Mythraic and so-called “pagan” holidays so they could all now be regarded as Christian holidays.

Shortly after his return to his homeland in 317 A.D., Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra. 

He was later invited to attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the famous council where much of the modern dogma of the Catholic church was determined.    Nicholas of Myra was one of many bishops to participate in the Council at Constantine’s request. He is listed as the 151st attendee at the Council. There, Nicholas was a staunch anti-Arian.  Arius, from Alexandria, held that the Son of  God did not always exist, but was created by the Father.  Nicholas disagreed with Arius, and defended the developing orthodox Christian viewpoint.  According to stories told, Nicholas got so angry at Arius that he punched him in the face!  Really?  Proto-Santa Claus punches a fellow man of the cloth?  Really? 

Back in his homeland, Nicholas became known as a very generous bishop.   Remember, he inherited wealth from his parents, and he would sometimes give gold and other valuables to those that he heard was in need.  In one case, it is said that Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins into a needy family’s yard, anonymously.   He was apparently humble, and didn’t want to be seen giving money to people, so he did it secretly.  He was so famous for wanting to give such gifts in private when he traveled the countryside,  children were told to go to sleep quickly or  Nicholas would not come with gifts.  This, apparently, is the origin of telling children to go to sleep or that Santa will not come.

In one story, he apparently snuck into the home of a family where the three daughters of a poor man were about  to get married. Nicholas put some gold into the stockings which the girls left by the fire to dry.  This, apparently, is the origin of hanging up stockings on Christmas eve.

He was also well known for the gifts that he gave to newly married couples during the already established Christmas season.

And so it goes.  Nicholas was a complex man, part of the new Catholic tradition which celebrated the birth of Jesus on the already-observed winter solstice. (Early Judeo-Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus, a date that has been lost to history, but was definitely not December 25).

He died on December 6, 343,which is to this day known as “Saint Nicholas Day.”  Upon his death, he was buried in the cathedral of Myra.  He is revered as a saint in most versions of Christianity and is especially honored in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

By the  year 450, churches in  Greece and Asia Minor were being named in honor of Nicholas.  He was officially honored  as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church in 800.  December 6 began to be celebrated as Bishop Nicholas Day in France  by the 1200s. 

As time went on, when ever someone received a mysterious gift, it would be attributed to Saint Nicholas! 

The Dutch called Saint Nicholas “Sinterklass,” which is the mostly likely manner in which the name Saint Nicholas gradually evolved into “Santa Claus.”  Along the way, Saint Nicholas was given some of the attributes of Odin, the Norse God, who could travel through the sky and who had a secret home somewhere around the north pole.  Come to think of it, even the Superman story also borrowed from Odin.  Remember how Superman sometimes goes to a secret cavern in the Northern coldlands and converses with his ancestors via ice crystals? 

The image continued to morph over the years, with the Coco Cola company giving the world a somewhat sanitized and plumper  Saint Nicholas-Santa Claus with their early 20th century ads. There we began to see the fatter bearded man in the red suit. 

Today, the man you see in the mall is the modern condensation of fact and myth, embodying the generosity of one Catholic Bishop, the good will of all who gave gifts in his stead, and bits of the mythology of Odin.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Searching for the Real Meaning of Christmas

[Nyerges  is the author of several books, including “Whose Child Is This” (about the meaning of the symbols of Christmas).  He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

In 1976, I was asked to conduct a Christmas event for the non-profit I’d been a part of.  My job: “Find the real meaning of Christmas.”  Even after I agreed to do this, I wondered:  How can I do that?  How can I be sure that I’ve really got the “real” meaning?  How will I know whether or not I’m right? 

I was told by Ms. Hall, the then-president of the non-profit WTI, to make a plan, and that I should write out the overall reasons and purposes for the event.  I was to start collecting all the facts I’d need for my study into the meaning of Christmas. Sounded good, so far. I needed to discover what all the symbols of Christmas meant, symbolically, to each of us.

“So you need to focus your thinking on all the important details that pertain to Christmas.  Your job is to find, and then to convey, that real meaning to the others at the event,” I was told.  OK.   I felt even more overwhelmed.  I was not sure I could actually do this and get meaningful results.  So, I did the best that I was able to. 

Finally, the Christmas Eve event took place.  It was half the day of music, movies, and delicious food.  Once it was underway, everyone seemed to fill their role rather professionally.  And then there was my presentation on the meaning of Christmas.  I had toiled over my research notes, and done considerable “thinking-into” the subject.  Still, even as I stood there in front of 20 or so people, I had my doubts about whether or not I knew what I was talking about.

I explained how I grew up in a Catholic family, and was taught that Jesus was born on December 25, which is obviously why we celebrate his birthday on that date. But by age 14, I began reading literature from non-Catholic, and non-Christian sources, that pointed out that most of the Christian Holy Days – including Christmas – were pre-Christian, as hard as that was to believe.  Those first revelations had the effect of making me even more depressed at Christmastime, since not only did I perceive it as time when the merchants induced us all to buy, it now appeared that Christmas had so-called “pagan” roots. 

I had a few encyclopedias with me, and read passages from them as appropriate.  I also had The Golden Bough, and Manly Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages.  I told the small group that was gathered there that day that I was amazed to discover that Jesus was not the only god or savior of world history who birth was commemorated on December 25, or a few days earlier on the solstice.   Mithra, for example, was born of a virgin mother in a cave. His birthday was commemorated on December 25.  Mithraism was the dominant religion of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus.  Nimrod from Babylon was also said to be born on December 25, as was Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, and others. 

“I was very influenced in my early teens by certain religious groups who taught that we should not observe Christmas because it is pagan,” I told the small group.  I explained that it was not until the 4th Century when Constantine was attempting to unite his empire that he made Christianity the official religion, and he “Christianized” all the so-called pagan commemorations.  As a result, the birth of the Sun that was already commemorated by the Mithra-followers was now going to commemorate the Birth of the Son. 

It turned out that nearly all of the Christmas symbols pre-dated Christianity, and were called “pagan” by some. 

“But what is a pagan?” I asked the group.  “It turned out that the pagani originally referred to anyone who lived in the countryside.  Only later did the term take on the somewhat derogatory “non-Christian” meaning, since it was harder to convert the people who did not live close to the cities of the day.”

During the next 45 minutes, I discussed the meanings of the wreath, evergreens, lights and candles, the giving of gifts, the virgin birth, and birth in a stable.  I pointed out that the winter solstice, that darkest day when the day’s light increases, has been used ceremonial to commemorate the birth of saviors for four or five millennia.  We know Jesus wasn’t born then, but we today use that day to commemorate the possibility of a new beginning.

Timothy,  who was a guest that night, described the importance of the winter solstice to ancient people.  “That’s why there are so many stone structures and shadows and drawings that tell people when it’s the day of least light.  Not only did the farmers want to know when the days would get longer, but it was also highly symbolic.  There in the deep of winter, when the days were darkest, suddenly the days started to get longer. That’s where the birth of the sun idea came from.  It’s highly symbolic, as you’ve been saying, and just about everyone throughout time has taken note of it.”

When it was over, I felt that I – and the guests – had come just a bit closer to finding this real, inner meaning to this special day.  But I knew this was not a matter of just collecting facts, like some college research project.

Can I even say that today I know the “real meaning”? 

I’ve concluded that, despite all the outward signs and parties and food, the “real meaning” of Christmas is that we should take the time to allow a “new birth” to occur within our own mind and soul.  Yes, that’s not easy, and it’s hard work, though very rewarding. This real, inner meaning of this time of the year, is something that anyone of any culture can choose to experience.