Friday, February 03, 2006

Another Judeo-Pagan Holiday

When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the L-RD. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.
-Leviticus 19:23-25

Most pagans of the celtic or druidical traditions will have lots of nice things to say about trees. They can tell you the historic, mystical personalities of different species of tree. The Oak was sacred for this reason, the Willow for that, etc. Ancient pagan celebrations and rituals were held in groves of trees, which led the Christians, on their fatwa against everything out of their control, to decree that Satan ruled the forest and everything natural was evil. But I digress.

Every state in the US has an official tree. In our mine's-bigger-than-yours society, trees have become a status symbol. The presence of trees on your property indicates wealth. The plantation manor Twelve Oaks, the home of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, was named for the trees which lined the approach to the property. The christmas tree at Rockefeller Center can evoke sighs of disappointment if the observer feels that "it looked bigger last year." And the Redwoods of California continue to be one of our nations most prized destinations. We all want to be around trees. Even if we must live in the city, we hope to be able to afford a tree-lined block. Modern society is as much in love with trees as the ancients were.

On February 15th, a minor Jewish holiday called Tu B'Shevat is observed. Shevat is a month, and Tu simply means the number 15, so this holiday has no real official name other than "the 15th of Shevat," like the fourth of July or Cinco de Mayo. It's unofficial name, however, is the New Year for Trees.

According to Tracy Rich of Judaism 101, the New Year for Trees is not mentioned in the Torah, so you won't find this in the old testament. Tracy found a reference to it in the Mishnah - a book of Jewish Oral Tradition, written down in the second century C.E. The quote from Leviticus above explains how we should harvest fruits from trees, but there isn't much explanation as to why the Arbolic World celebrates New Year's Eve in February. However, I have a theory.

Many holidays fall on February second. The Christians have Candlemas, the Pagans have the Feast of Brigit, and of course secularly we have Groundhog day. All of these traditions have to do with the return of Spring, of the re-awakening of the world. Candelmas, for example:

"The date of Candlemas is established by the date set for the Nativity of Jesus, for it comes 40 days afterwards. Under Mosaic law, a mother who had given birth to a man-child was considered unclean for seven days; moreover she was to remain for three and thirty days "in the blood of her purification." Candlemas therefore corresponds to the day on which Mary, according to Jewish law (see Leviticus 12:2 - 8), should have attended a ceremony of ritual purification. The gospel of Luke 2:22-39 relates that Mary was purified according to the religious law, followed by Jesus' presentation in the Jerusalem temple, and this explains the formal names given to the festival. the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Feast, called "The Coming of the Son of God into the Temple", is also celebrated on February 14.


Note the theological dispute of the date of Candlemas. I'll get back to that later.

From the pagan tradition, February heralds Imbolc, the approach of the Spring Equinox. From an agricultural standpoint, the approach of spring was assured by the lactation of the Ewes. Lambs were born, and the days started getting longer. Of course I can't talk about Imbolc or Spring or February without talking about Brigit:

"This season belongs to Brigid, the Celtic goddess who in later times became revered as a Christian saint. Originally, her festival on February 1 was known as Imbolc or Oimelc, two names which refer to the lactation of the ewes, the flow of milk that heralds the return of the life-giving forces of spring.


That date dispute I mentioned earlier? The Jews have their own dispute as to when exactly Tu B'Shevat should be celebrated. One Talmudic scholar says the 15th - but another says the first:

"...there is a dispute as to the proper date for the holiday (Beit Shammai said the proper day was the first of Shevat; Beit Hillel said the proper day was the 15th of Shevat. As usual, we follow Beit Hillel. For more on Hillel and Shammai, see Sages and Scholars).


What was the Christian's dispute again?

"In the West, the date of Christmas is now fixed at December 25, and Candlemas therefore falls the following February 2. The dating is identical among Orthodox Christians, except that the ecclesiastic December 25th of most Orthodox Christians falls on January 6th of the civil calendar (My emphasis) due to a theological dispute related to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, meaning that most Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast on February 14th.


So we've got supporters in both traditions arguing for the beginning of the month, and the middle of the month. What do the pagans say? It's the beginning. But pagan traditions are lacking a significant influence that rules the Judaeo-Christian world: The Gregorian and Julian calendars. I imagine, a few thousand years ago, far from the civilizations which created these calendars, Imbolc celebrations and the feast of Brigit might have taken place aywhere between the dates we recognize as February 1st and February 15th. According to Wikipedia, Imbolc is often defined as a cross-quarter day midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This would place the date, in 2006, on February 3rd.

In Pagan traditions, Imbolc is not among the most important holidays, but it was important to the well-being of the people. In the Christian tradition, Candlemas is minor. Given the early Christian church's infamous efforts to assimilate pagan cultures, especially in Ireland, I imagine the prominence of a holiday celebrating the return of the sun (son!) in early February is part of those assimilative efforts. It's stories like this that made me saddest. How does a little party for the trees and the lambs hurt the Church? The government? The possibility of collecting taxes?

The Jewish faith doesn't have a history of forcing people to join or die. They are a live-and-let-live faith. Ironic, considering everyone keeps trying to kill and convert them, but there it is. Pagan Celts can relate. First it was the Romans, imposing their gods, then the Christians. We are sibling traditions, Celtic Paganism and early Judaism. Here's another tradition we have in common.

If you look at the passage from Leviticus again, it fals completely in line with pagan attitudes toward non-human growing things. Don't kill and eat animals or plants too young. They are creations of the divine like us, and even if you believe they were put here for our use, show a little respect for the Great Provider. Don't gobble and grab. Give a few years reverence, and plan your harvest. Use this time to reflect on what you have been given, and what you have taken from the earth.

In America, on Tu B'Shavet, Jewish children often collect money to be sent to Israel, to finance the planting of trees. According to an article published by the Beth El Temple in Massachusetts,

"In modern times, Tu Bishvat has taken on additional meaning. With the establishment of the State of Israel, reforestation efforts became a priority. It is a popular custom today to donate money on Tu Bishvat to the Jewish National Fund to pay for the planting of trees in Israel.

Due to the increased environmental awareness of recent decades, Tu Bishvat has taken on the character of a Jewish mini "Earth Day." A Holiday for trees inspires reflection on the human impact on the environment.


Another popular custom to recognize this day is simply to eat fruits and nuts. One of my favorite recipes contains the fruit of the Apricot tree:

Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Almonds
From Weight

Servings | 4
Preparation Time | 15 min
Cooking Time | 30 min

This Moroccan classic is known for its exotic blend of flavourings: sweetness from the dried fruit and honey and a spicy warmth from the cinnamon.

4 oz dried apricot halves
1 cup fat-free chicken broth
1 pound chicken breast, uncooked, boneless, skinless, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 medium onion(s), chopped
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup slivered almonds, or whole blanched almonds
1/8 tsp table salt, or to taste
1/8 tsp black pepper, or to taste
1 Tbsp honey
2 cup cooked couscous, hot

1. In a small saucepan, bring apricots and chicken broth to a simmer. Set aside.
2. Coat a large, nonstick saucepan with cooking spray and place over high heat; toss chicken with flour and then sauté chicken until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in onion, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until onions are very tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in cinnamon and honey.
3. Stir in apricots, broth and almonds; season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes and serve over couscous. Yields about 3 ounces of chicken, 1/4 cup of sauce and 1/2 cup of couscous per serving.

In 2005, I got really into the idea of ritual foods and magical meals. Certain things just feel right to eat at certain times, and I think this is because the latent energies in certain foods resonate in harmony with what is going on inside of us, or outside of us, in the earth, or in the collective memory of humanity.

a lovely article that addresses this holiday as a time to share our wealth and be thankful for abundance in our lives, and in the world.

Trees are benevolent spirits. They are passive, but they are tough. They outlive most other beings on the planet. They are symbols of strength and protection, the guardians of the world. Think of the walking trees from the Lord of the Rings, Tolkein's aggressive, active embodyment of protector energy. They represent cyclical change, bloom and fade and death-like sleep and rebirth.

Creatures all over the earth make homes in trees. Children love treehouses. If you're not afraid of heights, and you can climb, you just feel safe, sitting on the high limb of a large tree, leaning against the trunk, feeling the sublte, slow, relaxed energy flow emanating from the trunk, watching the soft leaves waving in the slightest breeze like hair. How many children have wished they never had to come down? Trees reach for the sky, and never lose their grip on the earth, their foundation.

Blessings to all who live among the trees.

1 comment:

tornwordo said...

That was quite interesting. And I talk to and pet trees. Usually when no one is looking. Did you know that there are "walking trees" that move as the shoreline of an African lake expands and shrinks seasonally?