Celebrating winter

This time of year the Seven Trees Farm blog gets a lot of hits from people searching for information about the Krampus, the Wild Hunt, apple tree wassailing, and the Tomte. So to save a little effort, and also to better share our favorite winter solstice traditions, here they are in one list:

We hope you find some fun new ideas amongst all the history for celebrating the return of the sun to share with your loved ones.


Giving thanks for our pagan pilgrim ancestors

Thanksgiving, and its nod to the Mayflower colonists, is a perfect excuse to share this post from the New England Historical Society about a little-known episode in our Puritan past. The humans of Seven Trees Farm have ancestors on both sides of this incident, as do many of our readers no doubt.

There is a Rom/Gypsy proverb that says: “He who wishes to enslave you will never tell you the truth about your ancestors.” Here is some truth about our ancestors….

The Maypole That Infuriated the Puritans

maypole 2

Had it not been for his May Day party with a giant Maypole, Thomas Morton might have established a New England colony more tolerant, easygoing and fun than his dour Puritan neighbors created at Plymouth Plantation.

Morton was a well-educated, well-connected, free-thinking Englishman who came to America in 1624 as a senior partner in a trading venture sponsored by the Crown. He sailed aboard the Unity with Capt. Wollaston and 30 indentured servants. They settled in what is now Quincy, Mass., and began trading with the Indians for furs.

Morton wrote that he found two sorts of people in New England: the Christians and the Infidels. The Infidels he found ‘most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other.’

Morton would battle the Puritans over the next two decades using his wit, his pen, his political connections and his legal expertise. He even managed to get the royal charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony revoked. But his fortunes were tied to the Crown. When the Puritan Roundheads were clashing with Royalists in 1643, America’s first hippie was arrested and thrown in prison.

Pagan Past

Thomas Morton was born in 1576 in Devonshire, England, a part of the country that still bore remnants ot Merrie Old England’s pagan past. He was the son of a soldier, probably a younger son, and he studied law in London at the Inns of Court, the barristers’ professional association.

Morton’s lawyering brought him the connections that brought him to New England. He couldn’t get along with the Puritans at Plymouth Plantation, so he, Wollaston and the indentured servants established their own colony, Mount Wollaston. It grew quickly and grew prosperous.

Morton parted ways with Wollaston in 1626 when he learned Wollaston was selling indentured servants into slavery on Virginia tobacco plantations. Morton encouraged the remaining servants to rebel against Wollaston and set up their own colony. They didn’t need much persuading. The servants organized themselves into a free community called Merrymount with Morton in command. He called himself the ‘host.’ Wollaston fled to Virginia.

Merrymount was a colonial utopia in which the settlers were considered ‘consociates’ and lived in harmony with the Algonquin Indians. The Puritans were horrified that the liberal-minded Morton and his men consorted with native women. They considered Morton an impious, drunken libertine. They also weren’t happy his easygoing colony attracted escapees from the strictness and starvation of Plymouth.


Read the rest of this fascinating tale of how religious extremism shaped our country’s path here – The Maypole That Infuriated the Puritans

Leaders grasp nettles

“Leaders grasp nettles” ~ David Ogilvy, (Scottish born British military intelligence officer and later top advertising executive, 1911-1999)

While leaders sometimes must metaphorically grasp nettles, the humans of Seven Trees Farm look forward to a brief frenzy of literal nettle-grasping this time of year. We’ve written a lot about the medicinal, culinary, recreational and agricultural uses for nettles, but not so much about the magickal and metaphorical meanings our ancestors attributed to this prickly plant.Urtica dioicaIn 1838, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story about a girl who saved her brothers from their fate of being turned into swans by weaving them shirts made from nettles. She had to gather the nettles with her bare hands, process the fibers with her bare feet, weave the fabric and sew the shirts without speaking.

Unspoken nettles’ seem to be a standard requirement in getting the most efficacy from the plant, whether for magic or medicine. The Folklore Journal of January 1884 recounts this tale: UnspokenNettles also figure in many proverbs:  “If they would drink nettles in March and eat mugwort in May, so many fine maidens wouldn’t go to the clay.”

“Tender-handed, grasp the nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains.”

Old Norse/Germanic belief was that nettles were important to Thor/Thunor, and throwing nettles on the fire during a thunderstorm would protect you from his lightning bolts.

Nettles gathered before sunrise will drive evil spirits away from cattle, according to German folklore, ans a pot of nettle under a sick person’s bed indicated recovery if they stayed green, but death if they wilted.

This old Scottish rhyme needs a little translating, but advises harvesting nettles early in the day, cutting them low to the ground, in shady places, and substituting them for ‘kail’ or greens:

“Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle

Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early

Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o’ June

Stoo it ere it’s in the bloom, coo the nettle early

Coo it by the auld wa’s, coo it where the sun ne’er fa’s

Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early.”

(Old Wives Lore for Gardeners, M & B Boland)

Wikipedia says: Coo, cow, and stoo are all Scottish for cut back or crop (although, curiously, another meaning of “stoo” is to throb or ache), while “laich” means short or low to the ground. Given the repetition of “early,” presumably this is advice to harvest nettles first thing in the morning and to cut them back hard [which seems to contradict the advice of the Royal Horticultural Society].

Nicholas Culpepper, in his classic work Complete Herbal and English Physician says that Mars governs nettles. ” You know Mars is hot and dry, and you know as well that winter is cold and moist; then you may know as well the reason nettle-tops, eaten in the spring, consumeth the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness that winter hath left behind.”

Danes believed nettle patches marked the graves of elves, and Scottish Highlanders thought they marked human graves. Archaeologists know that nettles can mean ground that was disturbed by settlements, and where to start digging.

Gravestones among nettles

One last quote to keep in mind when you’re out harvesting your own nettles: “He who is afraid of every nettle should not piss in the grass” ~Thomas Fuller (British Clergyman and Writer, one of the most prolific authors of the 17th century. 1608-1661)

For more herbal folklore, check out these sites:

The Herb Society – Nettles

Nettles – Weeds or Wonders

The Practical Herbalist

Charming of the Plow

The days are getting longer, and everything is poised to burst into spring fever. Our ancestors marked this time in a variety of farmish ways…

Seven Trees Farm

Depending on where you’re located, winter is showing its age and spring is on the horizon. This transition has always been marked by local traditions. In modern East Coast America we have Groundhog Day, Christian Europe has Candlemas, Pagan traditions celebrate Imbolc, and descendants of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons welcome the new growing season in yet another way – the charming of the plough (also known as Disting).

In Sweden at this time, a religious festival was held called the Disablot, to honor the disir – female gods, landspririts, and ancestors. Included in this observance was the governing assembly called the Thing, where laws were made and interpreted, grievances were adjudicated, contracts sealed, and so on. The combined gathering was called Disting, and marked the start of the growing season in that part of the world.

A Scandinavian legend describes early ‘land-taking’ customs in the story of the goddess Gefjon. Like…

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Bean counting

We finally finished shelling all the beans and peas we grew this year, and ended up with a surprisingly colorful harvest. Beans2In 2011 we planted an early-maturing, light red kidney bean from Fedco Seeds. It performed well, even in unpredictable weather, and our trial planting yielded a fair amount. KidneyBeansBut a few of the beans were different, even though all the seed stock looked identical. We saved these mutants for planting in 2012. SpottedKidneyThe 2012 kidney bean harvest continued to surprise us. Seemingly identical mutant beans got a little kaleidoscopic that summer.

Who knew all those colors lurked in such demure pink beans!

Who knew all those colors lurked in such demure pink beans!

So for 2013, we separated the beans into color categories, a bit subjectively, since we hadn’t thought to keep track of which plants produced which color beans – tan, pink, pink spotted, purple spotted and dark. This time we planted them separately and labelled each patch. And again, we were bemused by the variety of colors hiding in the bean genes. Beans1Our camera is about ready to bite the dust, so the colors are way off. But the top beans are the 2011 seed. The next level are from 2012, the spotted mutants and the normal looking pink beans. We only planted the spotted ones in 2012, so the pink ones could have also produced more mutants. Third level are the five color groups we planted in 2013, and at the bottom are what those groups produced. So for 2014 we have to decide which to plant. Should we plant some of each color? Or only plant beans that are the same color as the parent beans from 2013?

I guess that depends on what we’re trying to achieve with this experiment…. With our chicken-breeding efforts, we’re working for productive, well-conformed chickens that lay a certain color-range of eggs. Kidney beans?? Maybe see if we can get the five color groups from 2013 to breed true by selecting the same colored ‘offspring’ for 2014. And at some point we should do a taste test to see if there is anything interesting (or icky) in the flavor. Luckily we have a few months to ponder that before planting time.

We also managed a decent crop of our exceedingly rare Bishop’s Grey peas, originally brought to us by way of Bosnia. It took a little research to discover that they are actually a Swedish soup pea, eaten as a staple starch before potatoes were introduced. After a couple years growing out the few we had, 2013 yielded a nice amount. The only problem is that all the peas came from only two plants. Not enough genetic diversity for a sustainable crop. PeasEnter NordGen! From their ‘about’ page:

Nordgen works to secure genetic diversity for agriculture and forestry in the Nordic countries.

NordGen promotes in a visible, pro-active and effective way, the Nordic co-operation on sustainable conservation and use of genetic resources for agriculture, forestry and food production.

NordGen promotes a balanced interplay between environmental considerations and sustainable use of genetic resources.

NordGen emphasizes the social, cultural and historical values of genetic diversity within and among different species.

NordGen is one of the leading international services and knowledge centers for management of plant, farm animals and forest genetic resources.

NordGen is an important service and knowledge center in the public arena, providing important consultation and support to decision makers.

NordGen works through its member countries for international openness, co-operation and ethically sound use of global resources.

We were able to find two different accessions of this pea, both from Sweden, and both with a donor history going back to the 1900’s. NordGen provides seeds free of charge to growers intending to ‘breed up’ their own seed stock for sale and sharing, and with one of Seven Trees Farm’s humans being of Swedish descent, we thought it a fine idea to work with heritage vegetables from ‘the old country’. But how to get plant material from there to here? A little help from Fredrik Ottosson, seed curator at NordGen, led me to the USDA’s ‘small lots of seed‘ program. I was able to procure a permit, good for three years, which generated some special import labels that I had to mail to NordGen so they could ship the seeds to an inspection station in Seattle. From there they made it to Seven Trees, and we will see if seeds from Sweden take root as naturally as human transplants did back in the pioneer days. PermitGiven that we had jumped through plenty of hoops for the permit, we did some rummaging through other seed accessions at NordGen. Their search feature is a little hard to navigate, but knowing the home county of the Swedish part of Seven Trees, we were able to locate a dry bean variety, not just from the same location that family members came from, but with a cultivar name right out of the family tree. It could very well be that we will be planting seeds that an ancestor developed as a landrace crop.

Twelve days of Yule

Winter Solstice is an action-packed time of year when it comes to celebrating ancestral-style. Our Northern European forbearers called this time Yule, and it took twelve days and nights to do it right. At Seven Trees Farm, the more we learn about the holidays, customs and traditions of our ancestors, the more we add to our own way of celebrating.

Yule kicks off with Modranicht or Mother Night, the longest night before the shortest day of the year. Our ancestors held this night as sacred to Frigga, who labored to help the new year be born. This is also the night when most farm and household work was supposed to be wrapped up for the year, and everything tidied-up and ready to celebrate. Failing to do so could make the various deities and lesser beings cranky. Wassail

Not only do we wassail our apple trees on solstice night, but we also welcome our Tomte home for the winter with a dish of porridge and milk left out at bedtime (perhaps where the idea of milk & cookies for Santa originated). I’m sure he is around the rest of the year, but with all the planting and harvesting and preserving busy-ness prefers to hide out until things settle down. jultomteWhile everyone was indoors as much as possible, heralding the return of Sunna with many candles and a brightly-burning Yule log, outside the restless dead followed Odin/Wotan across the night skies in the Wild Hunt.

Though it may be met any night of the year (especially those associated with the dead or their festivals), the Hunt is most prevalent on Winter nights, particularly between Yule and Twelfth Night. This goes back to the very old belief that the dead walk among the living during Yule. Ancestors were honored at this season and food was often left out for them, because the relationship between the living and the dead was essential for the well-being of livestock and family. The Wild Hunt may then be associated with ancestral spirits who come to collect their portion of the year’s spoils in return for a good harvest the following year. The Wild Hunt - a darker shade of Yule

Odin and his scary crew aren’t the only ones travelling through the Yuletide nights. The jolly fat man we know today as Santa Claus had early incarnations as a Nisse or Tomte, a household elf who brought gifts to people who had been productive and tidy during the year. He didn’t arrive in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. A goat (julbock) carried the gifts, and sometimes the elf himself. Santaandgoat

These days the Julbock is typically a straw figure of a goat used as an ornament, but it is actually an ancient Yule symbol that goes well back into pagan times. It is theorized that the Yule Goat stems from a connection to Thor, who had a chariot that was pulled through the sky by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.

Another connection with elves at Yule time are the Landvaettir or land-wights. They are beings or spirits that inhabit our surroundings and influence daily life (Iceland even has four Landvaettir on its coat of arms). Our ancestors believed it was very important to be in their good graces, and made small offerings to them, often in the natural places they liked such as large stones, springs or pools, trees. But at Yule time offerings were made in the form of ornaments, ribbons and holiday treats hung in the branches of a special tree. ornaments

The Yule Log is also a key part of the long winter festival. In fact, in earlier times it was part of the tradition to keep it burning the entire twelve days and nights of Yule. Hearths were much bigger then, so communities made a competition out of finding and hauling home the largest one they could. Long-burning oak was the most popular choice, and the new Yule log was supposed to be lit by a kindled remnant of the previous year’s log. Keeping this bit of charred wood under the mistress of the house’s bed brought good luck and also protected the house from fire. yule-log

One constant in all this Yuletide fun was drinking. Wassail bowls, ale, mead, and in later years, punch, all played a part in welcoming the new year. Our ancestors also offered drink to deities, landvaettir, ancestors, disir, alvar, missed friends and loved ones. Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla, in the Saga of Hákon the Good, describes the custom of the bragarfull at feasts:

The fire was in the middle of the floor of the temple, and over it hung the kettles, and the full goblets were handed across the fire; and he who made the feast, and was a godi [‘chief’], blessed the full goblets, and all the meat of the sacrifice. And first Odin‘s goblet was emptied for victory and power to his king; thereafter,Njörd‘s and Freyja‘s goblets for peace and a good season. Then it was the custom of many to empty the bragafull; and then the guests emptied a goblet to the memory of departed friends, called the minni [‘remembrance’].

New Year’s Eve marks the end of Yule, and the Norse brought their way of celebrating it to Scotland, where it’s known as Hogmanay. More drinking is involved, and oath-making (which we call ‘resolutions’), as well as the custom of first-footing. The first person to cross a home’s threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve will determine the homeowner’s luck for the new year. The ideal visitor bears gifts—preferably whiskey, coal for the fire, small cakes, or a coin—and should be a man with a dark complexion. Why? The answer hearkens back to the 8th century, when the presumably fair-haired Vikings invaded Scotland: a blond visitor was not a good omen.


If you’d like to learn more about Yule, both as it was celebrated by our ancestors and as modern people recreate those celebrations, check out the links below:

The Traditions of Yule Tide

The Old Norse Yule Celebration – Myth and Ritual

Yule Songs

Yule – The Midwinter Festival

The Wild Hunt – a darker shade of Yule

The Wheel of the Year Turns – Tomte and Julbock

Wassail, drink hail

Visitors from Norfolk

In April of 2012, we wrote a blog post about the Norfolk four course, an 18th century innovation in crop rotation. The principles behind this system have informed many of Seven Trees’ current growing practices, only scaled down to fit our space and time.

We recently received a notice that someone had linked back to this blog post, so naturally we were curious. A few clicks led us to a blog written by someone in training at a working historical farm in…..Norfolk! at the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. From their website:

In 1776 the combined parishes of Mitford and Launditch bought Chapel Farm at Gressenhall to build a ‘house of industry’ for the poor.

In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act led to the transformation of the house of industry into a workhouse. The aim was to keep costs low by making life for the paupers so unpleasant that people would do everything they could to avoid having to live there.

A new system of classification separated men, women and children. Work included breaking stones, pumping water, carting gravel and oakum picking for men and domestic chores in the kitchens, laundry and female wards for women. The only benefits were the health care and education.

The workhouse closed in 1948. After a short period of time as a home for the elderly, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse opened as a museum in 1976.

The WorkhouseThe animals on Gressenhall Farm are all East Anglian breeds that would have been common in our farmyards 100 years ago:

• Red Poll cattle

• Norfolk Horn sheep

• Suffolk sheep

• Southdown sheep

• British White cows

• Suffolk Punch horses

• Marsh Daisy chickens

• Norfolk Black turkeys

• Goats

• Large Black pigs

There is a lot to explore on the website alone, so if historical farm geekery is your thing, dig in and click around!

Working Suffolk PunchesI don’t think the humans of Seven Trees have too many ancestors from that area, but we added it to the list of potential stops when we make our big ancestral tour in the next few years.