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.

The Witches in the Kitchen

A chapter from Christopher Nyerges’ unpublished book about growing up in Pasadena.

[Nyerges is the author of “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. All of his book are about self-reliance and wild foods and none of them are about witches.  He can be reached at School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

When I was 3 or 4 – I don’t recall the exact age except that I wasn’t in kindergarten yet – I recall waking up in the early morning and hearing sounds in the kitchen.  These were the sounds of movement, of pans moving, of doors opening and closing, the normal sounds you’d expect to hear in the morning in a kitchen. But the only reason I heard any sounds so early was that everyone else was asleep and the house of five boys was relatively quiet.

I recall lying there on the lower bunk of a bunkbed, wondering what I was hearing, and who was making the noises.  After some time, I had the realization that we had some witches in the kitchen. They came at night after everyone went to sleep and did whatever witches do in the kitchen.  They’d disappear by the time everyone woke up and crawled out of our beds and fought our way to the bathroom and then made our way to the kitchen to have cereal or whatever my mother might be cooking.

When I heard witches in the kitchen in the early morning, I was always cautious when I came to breakfast.  I’d look around for clues, something left on the counter, something out of place, some object forgotten. There were many clues, but none of them that would conclusively prove that witches had been in the kitchen during the night.

Sometimes I would ask questions to a brother or my mother, attempting to determine if they knew about it too.  But my roundabout questions were too indirect to get meaningful responses, and if anyone else knew about the witches, they weren’t talking.  I began to regard this as a very natural thing – witches in the kitchen – and barely brought it up anymore.

I could even “see” the witches in my mind’s eye when I heard them in the early morning.  They were very traditional-looking witches, with large black robes or gowns, black pointy hats, though I don’t recall seeing any facial features or indication of pretty or ugly, or young or old.  I knew they were female.  They moved about like gliding from place to place, doing secret magic alchemy with the ingredients in the kitchen and the fire on the stove.  I could mentally see that the kitchen noises came from them taking pots out of the cupboard, running water, the moving from place to place, the stirring of things in pots on the stove. If they spoke at all, they whispered.  I pictured them doing their early morning tasks knowingly, without the need to converse among themselves.  I pictured them expressionless, if I saw their faces at all.

Off and on for a year or so, I would hear them in the kitchen.  I believed that my dad knew about them.  Some of the “clues” to their presence would be cupboard doors left ajar, spilled salt or sugar on the table, odd smells – nothing that was absolute proof in itself, but all together I knew it added up to the mysterious mornings in the alchemical chamber of our house.  In a way, I was excited about this secret side of our house, and I wondered if everyone had witches in the kitchen.

One day, my dad fixed my cereal and put in two spoons of white sugar.  I didn’t stir it so the white sugar remained at the bottom of the bowl until I was nearly done eating. When I got to the bottom, though I liked the sweetness, I made a point of telling my dad how much sugar he put in the bowl.

“Look at all the sugar,” I said.  At first, it was no big deal, but somehow I knew that the extra sugar was my dad’s secret way of telling me that he knew about the witches.  So I repeated to him how much sugar was in my bowl, what an amazing thing. But then my mother walked into the room and said “What?”

“I just gave him a spoonful,” said my father defensively.

“Why did you give him so much sugar?” my mother said.  I don’t think she knew about the witches.  And, as was her custom, she kept asking about the sugar and talking about it  until they were both nearly in an argument about it.  I felt bad about this because I actually liked the extra sugar and was trying in my way to acknowledge the secret message about my father’s knowing there were witches in the kitchen.

I never received any more secret clues from my dad to tell me that he knew about the witches, and he never again gave me extra sugar.

Sometime later, while sleeping in the lower bunk and with eyes closed, I felt something touch me, and I knew it was one of the witches.  She’d actually came all the way into my room and touched me – not with her finger, but with a stick, or magic wand.  Just a light touch, and I could see her clearly – the same black outfit and hat as they always wore, and this time I could see her face.  She was middle-aged, some wrinkles, smiling, resembling one of the nuns at Saint Elizabeth school.  I opened my eyes startled, and she had managed to disappear before I could catch an open-eyed glimpse.

Maybe it had been a goodbye touch, since I never heard their eerie sounds in the kitchen after that. Each time I thought it was them, I listened carefully and could tell that it was my mother or father or my brother or someone else. For whatever reason, they returned to Witchland and never returned.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Roots of Thanksgiving

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” “Enter the Forest” and other books.  He leads courses in the native uses of plants.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday of the year.  It is our uniquely American holiday where the family gathers, shares a meal, and gives thanks for whatever it is we feel thankful for.  Yet everyone complains that it’s become too commercialized, some even calling it “turkey day,” and focusing instead on the great deals in the following day’s Black Friday sales.  How do we get back to the roots of this holiday?

Growing up, I was as ignorant as the next guy as to the origin of all our modern Thanksgiving traditions.  In 3rd grade, we would do little skits, where Indians and Pilgrims met.  The Pilgrims were all dressed up in black and white, and clean, with black powder guns, and the Indians wore loin cloths and feathers, and carried bows.  Somewhere in the back of my  10-year-old mind I knew that a lot of killing went on between the new Pilgrims and the Indians,  but this  was a moment of peace where all came together for some giant feast with turkey and cranberry, in the middle of the forest, on one Thursday in November a very long time ago, presumably,  Indians and Pilgrims alike giving thanks to God for their many blessings.  It was a very comfortable and pleasant image. 

So did it actually happen this way?  Let’s try to explore the roots of this day, and try to be honest with ourselves as we attempt to give thanks where it is due. 

First, the players. There were three main players among the Indians: Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag, the coalition of which controlled southeastern Massachusetts;  Samoset, the leader of a group to the north; and Tisquantum (whom history knows as “Sqanto”), who was there as an interpreter, and who also had plans of his own. Tisquantum had been taken to Britain and had lived there for a year and a half where he learned English. He was not trusted by Massasoit because it was feared he might side with the pilgrims, but Tisquantum was needed as an interpreter. 

The colonists were residing on what had been a Wampanoag village site, but the native inhabitants were wiped out five years earlier by a disease.  On March 21 of 1621, before there was any such thing as the United States of America, the three native men walked into the pilgrim village (actually, more of a hovel by most accounts) to make a deal.

Massasoit was worried that with so many  members of his coalition killed off by disease that he’d be vulnerable to attacks by the Narragansett alliance to the west. His bargain to the European settlers was that they could stay there as long as they aligned with him, against possible battles with the Narraganset. It had been over a hundred years since Columbus “opened” the Americas to Europe, and up to that point, settlers were treated friendly as long as they eventually moved along.  Various colonies had in fact moved on, or been killed off, before then. The leaders of what was then called the Plimouth Colony agreed to the bargain, and Massasoit enjoyed relative peace with his neighbors for the next 50 years.

Later that year, in October of 1621, the pilgrims had had a good harvest, and they held a thanksgiving feast to which Massasoit showed up with 90 of his fellows, mostly men.  The 3 day feast that followed was said to be a somewhat tense celebration, with much firing of blackpowder guns and firing of arrows, probably more of a show of bravado and daring than any sort of mutual sportsmanship. 

The Indians were more skilled at hunting and fishing in their native land, and they brought  fowl, deer, duck, goose, and fish.  Corn bread, wild greens, plums, leeks, and many other vegetables (wild and domestic) were shared in this celebration.  Interestingly, there is no evidence that wild turkey or wild cranberries  (totally unpalatable without cooking and adding sweeteners) were part of the menu.

The impetus for this so-called “first Thanksgiving” was for Massasoit to cement this tentative political alliance against another tribe.  The gathering was really more of a treaty gathering than it was any sort religious event.  The peace lasted about 50 years, until Massasoit died.  Tisquantum, who is credited with helping the colony with many of its survival skills, only lived another year. 
Interesting side note: school children are taught that Tisquantum taught the pilgrims how to fertilize their crops with an old fish, supposedly a Native custom in the Northeast. Historians, however, have found little evidence that native people ever fertilized that way, and it is more likely that Tisquantum learned that technique during his time in Britain.

Massasoit’s  short term bargain opened the floodgates for the tens of thousands of Europeans who continued to pour into North America in general and New England in particular.   And the settlers of Plimouth certainly didn’t see the October meal as “the first Thanksgiving.”  It was normal for them to have various thanksgiving and harvest festivals, usually held mid-week to differentiate from the religious Sabbaths.  And it wasn’t another 200 years or so before this became formalized as part of the mythosis of America,  as the American Day of Giving Thanks.

Giving thanks is a good thing. Among other things, it helps so we do not lose sight of our spiritual heritage, which is the real bounty.  But what should we focus upon, and who should we be thanking, on this Thanksgiving day?

With all the talk about the blessings and bounty from God, perhaps it’s time for Americans to realize that had it not been for that small group of indigenous people, that first colony might have not survived and might have been wiped out.  Though not entirely for altruistic purposes,  Plymouth people were  aided  by the native population. 

Perhaps sharing our bounty with the needy would be a better Thanksgiving activity than eating lots of good food.  More to the point, perhaps we should use Thanksgiving to give thanks where it is due -- to the American Indians who have become the “forgotten minority.”    Yes, there are some who have become enriched by casinos, but there are still many more who are struggling.

Americans have created a culture and a society that has become the focal point of nearly everyone else on the globe.  Despite all our unresolved problems, it is a fact that vast numbers of people all over the world aspire to come to the U.S. In the U.S. role as a world leader, we should not forget our national roots. 

Don’t just give lip-service thanks to the Native Americans whose land was taken.  Rather, find those organizations that are actually providing real assistance to Native Americans in poverty, such as many of those living in the third world conditions so prevalent on some of  today’s reservations. Support farming and self-sufficiency projects on reservations.

This would be at least one way to give back to the people who “lost everything” as the United Stated came into being. During this Thanksgiving time, the right thing to do is to find ways to uplift and support the native people, where it is needed. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

President Elect Trump: How the Pundits Got it all Wrong


[Nyerges is an independent, and is neither a Democrat nor Republican.  He is the author of several books including “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and “Squatter in Los Angeles.”  Information about his books and classes is available from]

First, I’m not a fan or supporter of either Clinton or Trump.  Out of a country of 300+ million, were they really the best that the two-party system could give us?  In fact, several good candidates on both sides were thrown under the bus during the campaign season because they could not compete with the deep pockets of either Clinton or Trump.  So sad!

I fully expected Clinton to win. All the commentators said she would win.  All the polls showed her being the first female president.  I was looking forward to a Clinton presidency with neither happiness nor fear, just more of the status quo.   I was not able to wrap my head around a Trump presidency.  Does he even know the intricacies of how Washington works?

Both Clinton and Trump had some big strikes against them, and that “dirty laundry” had been gone over and over in the media.  Both had unsavory elements, and a few come to mind now.

Where to begin? Trump’s female-groping and bar mouth seemed too undignified for a president, though OK for a wrestler.  And in one of his building projects, he agreed (meaning, contractually “gave his word”) to pay a certain amount to an architect, but later decided to pay much less. “I’ve already paid too much for this project and I don’t want to pay more,” said Trump and so he paid far less than the agreement.  Really?  Trump knew it was wrong but he was able to out-lawyer the architect.

And Hillary – where to begin?  The e-mail scandal and potential loss of national secrets and lying about it certainly didn’t help her.  And Benghazi still leaves me wondering if she was asleep at the wheel as Secretary of State.  She reportedly told the families of those killed in the U.S. Embassy that “We’ll find the people who made that video.”  Really?  How about “We’ll find the killers”?

In the end, they were the last two standing.  They’d won all their party’s primaries, and then, on election day, there was one left standing.

In the punditry that followed, they all wrung their hands and asked “How could this have happened?  How did we get it so wrong?”  These media pundits more or less blamed white hillbillies for Clinton’s loss, as if all the white rednecks who are normally out in the woods hunting in November came in just to vote down Hillary.  Really?  Do they really believe that’s what happened?

I think the answer is much simpler.  The American public had two choices, both bad and unsavory in too many ways.  Who would ever want to say that they supported Trump?  If you are a Republican, yours was not an ideal candidate, and he was easy to dislike and disavow, as many of his own party did.   Assuming you were asked by a pre-election pollster, I suspect that most said nothing, or lied.

In the end, the people spoke, via the electoral system.  Was it the so-called silent majority?  Maybe, maybe not.  Who really knows? 

Most people I know experienced very little political excitement this season, just annoyance that it all droned on for so long.  I often heard that we had to choose the lesser of two evils, that we had only two choices.  Though I’m sure there were many who liked Trump and his message, I’m just as sure that many were simply voting against Clinton.  In the end, voters do not vote for “ideas,” but rather, they vote for the very real people who are presented.

I noted that several people posted their anger on Facebook, stating that they would do everything in their power to block and undermine Trump.  OK, I understand that. I pointed out to one person that he now sounds like all the Republicans who, after the Obama win, said that they would do everything in their power to block and undermine Obama.  Many kept good on that promise.

“Yeah,” this person retorted, “but the difference is that I’m right.”  Hmmmm.  I didn’t respond, but I thought it very sad that we don’t see that we do precisely what we accuse our adversaries of doing when the shoe is on the other foot.

If the many protestors in the streets now want to do something positive, they should begin now, and not wait until after the next election which doesn’t go their way.  If they want to start a new party, start now. If they want to abandon the Electoral College, first find out why we have that system, and then, if they still want to abandon it, do the work that’s required to make that happen. 

The United States has one president, and whether I personally like or dislike him or her is irrelevant.  I respect the office of the Presidency, and I respect the founding Principles of the United States.