PSYCHOLOGY OF CULTS

Cults are nothing new. Indeed, if asked to name a cult, you could probably name a few. In ancient Greece and Rome, a cult was simply the care owed to a deity, the rituals carried out at a shrine or temple. A mystery cult was a religious group that celebrated a minor god or goddess or a lesser-known aspect of a deity’s history. The word “cult” has different connotations today.

Janja Lalich, Ph.D., professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, is a big gun in cult research.  Her website, Cult Research, provides extensive information about the mental mechanics involved in cults. She has also included resources for recognizing signs of a cult and how to help others who may have been impacted by a cult.

Modern Cults

There have been too many cults to count throughout history, but the vast majority have been small and soon forgotten. A post on Insider.com listed the six most notorious cults in history. (These cults have been extensively discussed and researched by people who were kind enough to share their findings online.) 

  • The (Charles) Manson Family famously murdered seven people over the course of two nights. Their stated intention was to start a race war. The Manson Family was formed in the late 60s.
  • Members of Heaven’s Gate were told that their leader was the reincarnation of Jesus, that God was an alien, and that the end of the world was near. In 1997, 39 members died after ingesting barbiturates and putting plastic bags over their heads. It is the largest mass suicide on US soil.
  • The Children of God was founded in 1968 as a system of communal living under the strict teachings of preacher David Berg. Multiple former members have testified that the church used prostitution as a recruitment tool and engaged in widespread child trafficking and sexual abuse. The organization later rebranded to The Family of Love International, and it is still active online.
  • Jim Jones founded The People’s Temple in Indianapolis in 1955 but moved the band to Guyana, and called the place Jonestown, in 1977. Reports of member abuse followed the group from place to place. In 1978, Jones instructed all of his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. More than 900 people died. This is the origin of the slang expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” meaning a person who believes in a possibly doomed or dangerous idea.

From the Wikipedia entry on cults:

“In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religiousspiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal. This sense of the term is controversial, having divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia, and has also been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across several fields of study.  The word ‘cult’ is usually considered pejorative.”

Cults are attractive because they promote a feeling of comfort, and because they satisfy the human desire for absolute answers.

Characteristics Common to Cult Leaders 

Lists of characteristics vary in inclusiveness and contain both personality and behavioral characteristics.

Personality
  • Narcissism shows up on every list
  • Charisma is an essential quality
  • Personal proclivities that shape what’s expected of group members
  • Need for control/maintain power imbalance
  • Psychopath
  • Often delusional, believing their own teachings 
Behavior
  • Offer tantalizing promises
  • Be unpredictable (reactions, appearances, next demands)
  • Organize “love bombs” for new recruits
  • Promote an us vs. them mentality, feelings of superiority
  • Isolate members from family, former friends
  • Public humiliation of established members
  • Demand detailed acknowledgment of individual fears and mistakes
  • Repeat various lies and distortions till members can’t recognize reality
  • Promote paranoia: a group, family or government is out to get members
  • Encourage members to spy on each other

Writing in Psychology Today in 2012, Joe Navarro, M.A., presented his personal list of 50 clues to identifying cult leaders.  Listed below are several of his items.

  • A grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve
  • Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance
  • Demands blind, unquestioned obedience
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement or power
    • Expects to be treated as special at all times
    • Expects to be able to bend rules and break laws without repercussion
  • Arrogant and haughty
  • Hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others
    • Is highly dependent on tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments
    • When criticized, lashes out with rage
    • Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy”
  • Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly; often reacts with rage
  • Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy
    • Habitually puts down others as inferior
  • Ignores the needs of others, including biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs
  • Frequently boastful of accomplishments
  • Needs to be the center of attention 
    • The word “I” dominates his conversations
  • Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated, or exploited for personal gain
  • Is deeply offended by signs of boredom, being ignored, or being slighted
  • Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong, nor does he apologize
  • Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems
  • Works the least but demands the most
  • Sees self as “unstoppable” and perhaps has even said so

Characteristics Common to Cult Members

  • Female: world-wide, 70% of cult members are women
    • Explanations for this vary
  • Generally average sorts of people. No trends in location, income, etc.
  • Suffer low self-esteem, making them especially susceptible to love bomb (compliments, etc.)
  • Many have rejected standard religions
  • Intelligent
  • From sheltered environments
  • Blame others for their failures
  • Strive for perfectionistic goals
  • Often have no idea they are in a cult!

Characteristics Common to Religious Cults 

  • It opposes critical thinking
  • Isolates members and punishes them for leaving
  • Emphasizes special doctrines outside accepted scriptures
  • Seeking inappropriate loyalty to leaders
  • Devalues the family unit
  • Crossing boundaries of behavior (especially sexual) set in accepted religious texts
  • Separation from the main religious structure

Common Recruiting Tactics 

  • Target people who are stressed, emotionally vulnerable, have tenuous or no family connections, or are living in adverse socioeconomic conditions.
  • People who were neglected or abused as children may be easily recruited because they crave the validation denied them in their childhood
  • High school and new college students are good targets for cult recruitment since they’re still forming their identity and (in the case of college students) have recently been separated from their families
    • One old (1980) study of 1000 high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area found that 54% reported at least one recruitment attempt by a cult member, and 40% reported 3 to 5 contacts
  • I can only imagine that the rise of various social media platforms would have exploded those numbers.

Damage to Cult Members 

Various research has established that former cult members suffer long-term negative effects. Dr. John G Clark, Jr, of Harvard University works with former cult members and their families identifies the following 

  • Increased irritability
  • Loss of libido or altered sexual interest
  • Ritualism
  • Compulsive attention to detail
  • Mystical states
  • Humorlessness
  • Heightened paranoia

Because these are symptoms similar to temporal lobe epilepsy, it’s reasonable to assume that membership in a cult is a brain-changing experience. 

Bottom line: There is much we can and should learn about cults—possibly in our lives, certainly in the world around us. Many of these qualities and behaviors are present to some degree in people who aren’t actual cult leaders or members. Still, they provide fodder for compatible/consistent constellations of attitudes and behaviors. Think character creation!

Hot Fuzz, in addition to being a great movie, provides an example of two cults working against each other and destroying individuals in the way.

Betrayed by the Tongue

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher.

Believe it or not, not everyone speaks English as a native language. To strain credulity further, consider that not every character learned English as a native language. Shocking, I know!

But how to convey through written words that a speaker has an accent?

Otto von Chriek, vampire photographer

One method is to transcribe phonetically the way a character speaks, as the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett demonstrated so well. A vampire in his fantasy universe of Discworld, deliberately emphasizes his accent when he wants to appear odd rather than threatening.

“Vell, I’m not official,” said Otto. “I do not haf zer sword and zer badge. I do not threaten. I am just a vorking stiff. And I make zem laff.”
from Thud! by Terry Pratchett

But what about a subtler signifier of a character’s foreign origins? There could be a million reasons to let your audience know that a character was originally not a member of the “in” group.

  • Signal that a character will have a different cultural perspective when reacting to events.
  • Sign that a character, by virtue of a different upbringing, has insight or expertise others may need.
  • Foreshadowing of any kind of discrimination practiced against a group designated as “others.”
  • Mockery of any slight difference shows the character of the people mocking as well as those standing by and those reacting.
  • Very subtle differences can clue in a reader that something is off, for example a spy or an imposter.

Fortunately for our purposes as writers, English is weird. So many rules have exceptions or no reasonable guidelines of when to apply them…. it’s enough to drive any ESL student mad. If any of these rules (that you probably follow without noticing) are broken, that’s enough to make a reader notice that something is off.

Articles

Should a noun have a definite or indefinite article? Or no article at all? Go ahead and try to explain the rules without looking it up. I’ve been an EFL teacher for years (and occasionally an ESL teacher), and I still mix things up. Like most native English speakers, I tend to rely on what sounds right.

If your non-native English speaker hails from a real country on Earth (as opposed to another planet or a fantasy realm), you can simply have the character follow the rules of their native language. A native French speaker would be likely to overuse articles. A native Russian speaker might skip articles altogether.

Consider these examples:

  • Quick brown fox jumping over lazy dog.
  • The dog, she is lazy. A fox jumps over the dog, no problem.

Of course, if the character learned a language you’ve made up, the rules are entirely up to you.

Word Order

English, like Bulgarian and Swahili, is a SVO language; Subject Verb Object is the typical sentence structure. The meaning of a sentence can be changed simply by changing the word order. The most common word order is SOV– the verb comes at the end of the sentence, after the object. Qartuli and Mongolian are SOV languages.

Other common sentence structures include VSO (Hawaiian), VOS (Malagasy), OVS (Hixkaryana), and OSV (Xavante). Trying to fit English sentences into any of these other structures can create some very awkward conversations.

Just to be contrary, Latin word order makes no difference to the meaning of a sentence and is often jumbled deliberately for poetic effect. (I’m looking at you, Virgil!)

Yoda is one of the most widely known characters who speaks English with inverted word order. Although he has no obvious accent, his speech immediately lets the audience know that he is alien.

Agreement

Some languages have declensions and conjugations and all sorts of ways in which words change form to indicate specifics. Others have separate words to indicate number, tense, intention, etc., though the word itself stays the same. English has both.

Sometimes verbs change when they’re in the past tense (walk-walked); sometimes they don’t (put-put). Just for fun, some verbs change into entirely different words when they change tense (bear-bore).

Nouns are just as bizarre. In kindergarten, the teacher told me I just had to put an S at the end of the word. Then there were geese, children, moose, alumni, crises, and vortices. I still haven’t figured out the rule for the cello.

Naturally, this is an area of difficulty for many people who did not learn English as children. It’s also an area of difficulty for people who have been speaking English since infancy.

Idioms and Connotations

Even if a character speaks English absolutely fluently, there are still a million linguistic tripwires. A native English speaker from Minnesota will still have trouble understanding casual speech in Scotland.

I once watched a Scottish man and a South African man argue about something (I think it was Australian immigration policy, but that’s just a guess). They were mutually unintelligible. As they grew more excited, each slipped further into his native accent and became less understandable by the other. Theoretically, all three of us spoke the same language. In practice, I felt like I was watching a verbal tennis match that gradually turned into frantic hand gestures and facial expressions. It was both surreal and hilarious!

Other Sources

Translators are very useful sources for learning the grammar of a language you don’t know. If you want to have a character be newly arrived in Australia from Siberia, try looking at the translator’s notes in a new edition of War and Peace.

  • Mobi Warren, a translator of Hermitage Among the Clouds by Thích Nhất Hạnh, explained some of the difficulties in translating Vietnamese into English. He wrote, “All this moving between past and present is more easily expressed in Vietnamese, a language in which none of the words have tenses.”
  • Ancient writers can be particularly difficult to translate to modern English, but understanding those difficulties is a great way to highlight changes over time. If you’re trying to invent a language for a fantasy or science fiction setting, try basing the grammar on ancient Egyptian or Shang dynasty Chinese.

Another very useful source for finding ways to indicate non-native English speakers in dialogue is to look at resources for teaching English as a Second Language or English as a Foreign Language. If other teachers point out an area that’s particularly difficult, odds are that a character you write would have trouble with that same area.

Bottom Line: Lack of fluency is not the same as lack of intelligence. Odd speech patterns imply accents without needing to use odd spelling.

Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25th?

From the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris, France

The logical answer would be, “We celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th because that’s when He was born.” But in this instance, the logical answer is probably wrong.

From St. Joseph Catholic Church in Somerset, Ohio

Neither the Bible nor any other record dates Jesus’s actual day of birth. In addition, the season when shepherds would be watching their flocks by night and when the census was taken would argue that the actual birth was either spring or autumn.

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum

According to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, early Christians weren’t bothered by not knowing Jesus’s birthday for “It never occurred to them that they needed to celebrate his birthday.”

Further, according to Nissenbaum, the Church got into something of a crisis, with people tending to believe that Jesus never existed as a man. Instituting a birthday celebration was a way to counteract that trend.

From Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was 336AD, during the time of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. Perhaps he chose that date because Pagan Romans would be celebrating the Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, and “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (birth of the unconquered sun god, Mitra) anyway.

From the St. Michael Cathedral Basilica in Toronto, Canada

Another possible explanation stems from Jewish tradition. Male babies were circumcised and given their names eight days after their birth. Church elders may have settled upon the beginning of the new year as the Naming Day of Jesus; eight days before that would be December 25th.

Pope Julius I is said to have declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December. However, the sources for this claim are extremely questionable.

From the Church of São Salvador in Trofa, Portugal

One very early Christian tradition held that on March 25th the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would have a very special baby. The Annunciation is still celebrated on March 25th—and nine months later is December 25th.  

The early Church celebrated Christmas, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of Jesus all on January 6th. In some parts of the UK, January 6th is still called Old Christmas.

Then, too, not everyone celebrates Christmas on December 25th even today. Many Christians use other dates or December 25th on non-Gregorian calendars. The dates below are all Gregorian.

From the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey
  • January 6–The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church
  • January 7–Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholics in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  • January 7 or 8–Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
  • January 19–The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
From the Basilique Saint-Urbain in Troyes, France

If you’re particularly bored (or really itching for a fight) in the next few weeks, go online and declare that you know the definitive birthdate of Jesus. No matter what date you claim, people will swarm to prove you wrong.

“THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR.” REALLY?

CONSIDER THE DOWNSIDE OF CHRISTMAS.

Part of the downside of Christmas is this myth that everything and everyone is merry and bright, and if you aren’t, you must be a Scrooge. Or a Grinch. Or Burgemeister Meister Burgher. Indeed, much of what follows also applies to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ōmisoka, and other holidays too numerous to mention. Almost everyone (every character?) suffers one or more of these downsides of typical celebrations.

Exposure Fatigue

“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues reflects the loneliness despair of Christmas.
  • Going into a store in October and see “decorations” for Halloween, Thanksgiving, AND Christmas
  • Christmas music that begins to be played everywhere before Thanksgiving
    • Christmas music gets old fast, particularly for people working in retail
  • Commercials touting the “perfect” gift
  • The pervasiveness of sappy Christmas movies (and over-exposure to the good ones, such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street”)

Physical Fatigue

  • Decorating
  • Food preparation
  • Package wrapping and/or mailing
  • Attending celebratory events, especially navigating office/work place parties
  • Hassles of travel (insane boarding lines, delayed flights, driving clogged highways)
  • Making gifts or cards by hand
  • Shopping for presents
    • Finding a mall parking space 2 miles from the shops
  • Tracking down the right present for the right person 

Weather

  • Living in a warm place, one laments the lack of snow
  • Living in a cold climate, one laments cold and snow that keep people inside
  • Ice storms that keep one from attending/hosting a holiday event
  • Combination of extra traffic, stressed drivers, and wintry weather can make every drive a terrifying experience

Family Stresses

  • Feeling compelled to see family you’d rather not
    • Spending time with the family of one’s significant other can be even worse
  • Conflicts between/among guests
  • Pretending to like presents you don’t
  • Taking awkward photos
  • Kids demands for presents and apply pressure in  in terms of values, money, and parenting
  • Waiting in endless lines for kids to visit Santa at the mall
  • Bad situations can worsen, and marriages are strained
    • Recently divorced parents navigating custody arrangements
    • Divorce lawyers have their busiest month in January

Financial Strains

Why does everyone want a pony?
  • Feeling pressed to give a gift of equivalent value, even when the “gift lists” for giver and recipient aren’t the same
  • Dealing with a year when one’s gift-giving must be cut/downsized in number and/or expense and it will be obvious
  • Higher electric bill for huge outdoor displays 
  • Travel, tickets, decorations, food, etc., can drain bank accounts and max out credit cards even without buying gifts

Physical Health

  • Emergency room visits are up 5-12% around Christmas
    • Slips and falls on icy walkways or while putting up decorations
    • Sharp object injuries from unfamiliar cooking utensils, new toys, assembling gifts
    • Falls from a height
    • Workplace accidents
    • Abdominal discomfort from overeating
    • Psychiatric disorders exacerbated by stress and crowds
    • Poisonings
      • Incorrectly prepared food
      • Overconsumption of alcohol
  • Disruption of healthy patterns
    • Abandoning diets or eating irregularly
    • Loss of sleep
    • Failure to follow doctor’s instructions for treatment and/or medication
  • A typical Christmas meal is likely to be two-to-three times the recommended daily calorie count
    • Indulging in meals, cakes, pies, chocolates, or whatever sweets
    • Cookies, biscuits, candy, homemade treats brought in to the workplace or shared by shops for the entire season
  • Stress levels are almost certain to be higher than usual
    • Stress contributes to heart disease, stroke, and cancer
    • Stress leading to immune system breakdowns, leading to colds, for example
  • Mingling with more people exposes them to more infections, especially flu and flu-like symptoms
  • Falls, cuts, and burns result in tens of thousand of visits to the ER
  • Alcohol consumption resulting in alcohol poisoning, broken bones from skips and fall, car and home accidents, etc.
  • Domestic violence is up about one-third compared to an average day

An ambulance driver explained it to me this way:

“It’s like everyone’s on a hurt-yourself schedule, same every year. Early morning starts with the drunk drivers going home from parties, sometimes the homeless with hypothermia, depends on the weather. Then the kids get up way too early and open their presents and start hitting each other with them or falling off anything with wheels and breaking any bone you can think of.

Even the angels are drinking too much!

“After that, you get a mix of cooking accidents and alcohol poisonings through the afternoon. Eventually, people hit their limit with family, have too much to drink, and start beating on each other. That’s also about the time ‘lonely hearts’ start calling us, asking to go to the hospital just because they have no place else to go and they don’t want to be alone.

“People eat too much at dinner and get the ‘too-much-macaroni sweats.’ They get heartburn and think they’re having a heart attack. We get more alcohol calls, either people fighting or passing out.

“And then everyone heads home, driving drunk. Better hope your tree doesn’t catch on fire. Happy Holidays.”

Mental Health

  • There is a MYTH that suicides peak around Christmas – they actually peak in spring
  • That said, it is breakup season
    • The peak breakup time is the two weeks before Christmas
  • Overall, holiday depression is a real thing
    • Family conflicts
    • Financial woes
    • Expectations of perfection
    • Singles watching couples get all mushy
  • Loneliness is highlighted, especially for older people who live alone and have no one available with whom to celebrate
    • People 65 and older are twice as likely to spend Christmas alone, compared to younger people
  • The loss of a family member—previous or recent—is especially painful
  • Being/fearing being left out of desirable events
  • Mistletoe invites unwanted advances
  • People with birthdays anywhere near Christmas often find the events conflated
  • Dealing with someone who has problems, like alcoholism or domestic violence
  • Wishing to skip Christmas because of other events in one’s life
  • Accessing helpful services that normally help one cope can be more difficult
  • Finding other religious festivals or holidays fade in comparison to Christmas
  • Overall, people are more likely to experience anxiety, sleep disturbances, headaches, loss of appetite, and poor concentration
  • Call rates to help hotlines spike on Christmas Eve

Environmental Downside

It’s after midnight! Wake up! Time for presents and sugar highs!
  • Massive amounts of trash going to landfills
    • Decorations
    • Single-use wrapping paper
  • Food waste
    • Imported foods enlarging your carbon footprint
  • Energy consumption
    • Traveling burning fossil fuels
    • Turning up the heat
    • Electric lights inside and outside

The End

  • Taking down/storing items for next year
  • Missing the buzz and activity
  • Realizing that nothing can be done about many things now regretted
Queen Elizabeth doesn’t take down her Christmas decorations until early February, in memory of her father’s death.

Bottom line: These are all for typical Christmases.  Consider which might be eased and which might be exacerbated in the year of COVID?

SANTAS ARE MADE, NOT BORN

Chocolate Santas with marzipan masks made by Hungarian chocolatier Laszlo Rimoczi.

The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School is the oldest in existence. Before 1937, Santas were pretty much on their own, and any man with a red suit would do.

Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School

OUR MISSION:
To uphold the traditions and preserve the history of Santa Claus while providing students with the necessary resources to improve and further define their individual presentations of Santa and Mrs. Claus, allowing them to enter the hearts and spread the Christmas spirit to everyone they meet.

At the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, more than 200 aspiring Santas gather each year to attend a three-day series of classes where they learn everything from the history of Saint Nicholas to reindeer habits.

In November, 2018, Mental Floss took an in-depth look. Here are several points from their write-up, 13 Things to Know About The World’s Oldest Santa School.

It’s Considered the Harvard of Santa Schools

Each year, about 200 Santas (including a handful of Mrs. Clauses) attend class in Midland—but not everybody who applies gets accepted. Co-Dean Holly Valent rejects Santas who don’t seem interested in children or singing. (In other words, Santas who appear to be in it only for the money.) Additionally, she has to place around 40 prospective Santas on a waiting list each year. Thankfully, the workshop in Midland is not the only Santa school under the North Pole.

Child Psychology is the Name of the Game

The most important aspect of being a good Santa is learning how to genuinely listen to all kinds of children. “[Y]ou have to be on your toes all the time, because you never know what the children are going to ask you,” Mary Ida Doan, who plays Mrs. Claus, told WJRT. (Doan would know: She’s a member of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.)

During the workshop, the Santas get schooled in child psychology and learn handy tricks from experts and each other: How to deal with squirmy children, crying children, children who are afraid of you, and more. The Santas even learn basic sign language. “It’s important to be able to spread Christmas cheer to all children,” a Santa named Bill told Reuters.

An organization called Santa America provides extra training for Santas to connect with children who need a different kind of communication to reach all that Christmas cheer. The frenetic atmosphere at a typical Santa’s Grotto can be overwhelming and terrifying for any child. Santas who have trained with Santa America can create a quieter, calmer, slower space. These “Sensitive Santas” are in demand at Christmas for hospitals, very young children, children on the autism spectrum, and many others.

Santa America also connects local Santas and their companions with people who might need a visit from Santa Claus any time of the year: during a hospital stay, after major disasters, when a parent is deployed overseas. Part of their mission is to prove that Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and the elves never go off on vacation when children need them.

Gaining Background Knowledge Means Meeting Real Reindeer

Since kids are apt to ask Santa anything, it’s best that Santa draws his answers from real experience. What are the reindeer like? To find out, Santa students study reindeer habits and get to meet real reindeer.

How are toys made? The Santas spend quality time learning how to make wooden playthings.

The Santas also attend lectures about St. Nick’s backstory and the North Pole. “Know who you are,” Valent tells an assembly of Santas, according to CNN. “Know your legend. Know where you came from.”

They Have to Practice Their “Ho-Ho-Hos” and Their “Do-Re-Mis”
Despite being blind, this boy was able to see Santa during his visit.

Since each Santa must prepare for radio and TV interviews, much of Santa school focuses on teaching students how to craft an accurate and authentic persona. “For example, they’re advised to create a backstory for their ‘elves,’ pulling names and characteristics from kids and grandkids in their own circles,” Kathleen Lavey reported for the Lansing State Journal. It also means learning how to deliver a hearty but balanced Ho Ho Ho. “You have to do it mild,” Tom Valent explained. “It’s got to be a laugh.” (And to ensure the Santas are really in the Christmas spirit, they’re also taught how to sing with cheer.)

There’s More Dancing Involved Than You Might Think
From Santa’s Boot Camp, 2016

It’s not enough to nail the laugh. Being Santa requires you to be a full-body actor—and that means perfecting the big man’s jolly, bouncing swagger. The school is stuffed with movement lessons. “The school fitness teacher had them dance as if they were wrapping presents, baking cookies and filling stockings to classic Christmas tunes,” Christinne Muschi wrote for Reuters.

Santas also learn how to properly ease in and out of a sleigh and learn yoga and breathing exercises to keep limber. (It’s important work: Hoisting kids up and down from your lap for hours takes its toll.) As Tom Valent told CNN, “Santa is a healthy outdoorsman.”

Being Santa is not for the faint of heart or the faint of sinus. Pet photos with Santa are increasingly popular, often as part of a fundraiser. The Humane Society, Paws for a Cause, Sidewalk Dog, and many local animal shelters ask Santas to pose for photos with dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes, turtles, and any other pet they can safely hold. Better take that Benadryl!

They Receive Financial Advice
The cardboard versions are much cheaper!

At Santa school—which costs $550 for new students—they teach classes on marketing, accounting, and taxes. That’s because being a freelance Santa is not cheap. A Santa with a bare chin is advised to buy a custom beard and wig that can cost up to $1800. And while a generic suit costs about $500, a personalized one can run over $2000. Add to that $700 for a pair of authentic boots. And then grooming expenses. Oh, and makeup.

Santas Get Lessons in Grooming
I don’t think this Yugoslavian Santa was paying attention to the make-up lesson.

At school, Santas also learn how to curl their mustaches and groom their hair and beards (or wigs) to create a windblown I-just-got-out-of-the-sleigh look. They receive lessons in bleaching their hair to get a snow-white glisten as well as lessons in applying makeup.

 According to Lavey, teachers show other Santas all the insider secrets: “How to take the shine off their foreheads with powder, pink up their cheeks with rouge, and add stardust to their beards with hairspray that contains glitter.”

The big secret to making Santa’s beard smell magical? Peppermint oil.

Santa Day School

The Simpsons offer a reasonably priced alternative, but it is only open to two-dimensional Santas with three fingers.

For those who can’t—or won’t—spend three intensive days and nights in Midlands, Michigan, there are options! In-person schools around the country and online for DYIers.

In November, 2018, Business Insider did an article on Santa schools, particularly the finances involved. Here are several quotes from that article.

Santa Doug Eberhardt of the Northern Lights Santa Academy displaying a variety of historical Santa trends.

“There’s two kinds of Santas: There are professional Santas and there are guys in red suits,” Santa Rick, a former mediator and divorce arbiter who runs the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, told Vox. “And the difference for me is there are those who want to better themselves and learn and master the trade, and there are the others.” This Santa school also has classes for Mrs. Claus and elves.

“I’m very high-energy, so I tend to put on a little bit of a show: The Night Before Christmas, and caroling, and magic,” said Santa Jim Manning, who is the official Santa Claus for Boston’s tree lighting and has covered the Red Sox Christmas card.  “A lot of people think being Santa Claus means just showing up, sitting on the couch, and letting kids sit in your lap. But what I do is a lot more.” To the right, see Santa Jim jumping out of an airplane.

Fashion Santa of Toronto has a slightly different take on the traditional red suit and jolly belly.

Rick, of the Northern Lights Santa Academy, told Vox that high-end Santas can earn up to $25,000 a season, but the cost of travel, lodging, and garb can eat into the pay. A quality Santa costume and accessories costs at least $1,000 and a beard set made of human hair can range from $1,800 to $2,500, he said.”

Only the very bravest Santas are willing to risk turtle bites at the same time as dog fur on their suits.

“Santa Ed Taylor has been running the Santa Claus Conservatory, an online training program with more than 2,300 aspiring Santas, since 2013. The courses range from $97 to $347.”

The International University of Santa Claus

Not only does the IUSC offer courses around the world, they have a degree program recognizing a student’s years of dedication. A Santa or Mrs. Claus can earn a Doctorate of Santaclausology (PhD), with options for further advanced study.

Unfortunately, all 2020 International University of Santa Claus in-person classes have been cancelled. Online courses are available, so aspiring Santas can ask their grandkids for help logging in to Zoom classes!

Santa is a Super-Spreader

2020 is an atypical year. (You heard it here first!) And this is true for Santas and Santa schools as well. Dr. Fauci has assured the public that Santa Claus is naturally immune to COVID-19, but Santa can still spread the virus. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, Sinterklaas, and all other Christmas gift-bringers have been declared essential workers and therefore exempt from quarantine or isolation rules.

Santa Johnny of Hong Kong was proclaimed “Best Santa” at the 2019 World Santa Congress.

The 2020 World Santa Congress was cancelled. Many tree lighting ceremonies and holiday parties have been cancelled. Even the 2020 Santa Mediterranean Cruise has been indefinitely postponed.

Some Santas are adapting with smaller grottos, shorter visits, and lots of hand sanitizer. Others are setting up plexiglass barriers or arranging for children to stay more than six feet away. A few mall Santa Grottos are even setting up holographic Santas for photos.

However, possibly the safest option for Santa and for kids is to visit Santa digitally.

  • JingleRing will allow Santa and Mrs. Claus to speak to kids one-on-one with their very own North Pole TV platform.
  • AirBnB has created virtual visits with Santa as well as the opportunity to tune in to Story Time with Mrs. Claus or with Santa and a rotation of children’s book authors.
  • Macy’s Santaland has gone virtual this year, though there will be no real Santas in their stores. There are pre-recorded video messages from Santa Claus, games to play with the elves, and the option to sign up for a real-time video chat with Santa himself.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Awkward Family Photos for sharing the very best of the very worst photos with Santa Claus.

Bottom Line: There’s more to being a good Santa than putting on a red suit! Consider how Santas and Santa schools might broaden your cast of characters and/or plots.

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Candlelight Vigil in Seoul, Korea

As the Winter Solstice approaches, many people are feeling a little low—or a lot.  Fortunately, there are several holidays and celebrations around this time of year to add a little light to your schedule. Here are just a few:

Diwali or Deepawali is a festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. It is celebrated in mid-October to late November, according to a lunar calendar.

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival of lights celebrated in November or December, according to the Gregorian calendar.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture and community celebrated in late December. An important part of the celebration involves lighting the kinara.

Lussevaka or Santa Lucia Day is a celebration of light, community, and the triumph of good over evil. It is primarily celebrated in Sweden, but St Lucia festivals are also held in Croatia, Italy, France, Germany, and Norway on December 13.

Yule is celebrated in many different ways by Pagans and Wiccans. It is the celebration of the Winter Solstice, the return of the sun. This is often symbolically represented by burning a Yule log, signifying the rebirth of the Oak King and waning of the Holly King.

Don’t Be SAD

Daylight Sky Light Therapy by MTS Medical Device

There is a term for those who suffer most when the days grow short: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  SAD increases in higher latitudes where the winter days are short. Light therapy, where you arrange a special wide-spectrum light therapy box device at an angle to your face. Using such a device for several hours at the same time every day can be used to treat SAD. It can also help treat those who have depression all year round, improving their overall well-being.

Anger management therapy can sometimes be combined with light therapy.

Scientists have also discovered that light therapy can lower nighttime agitation in Alzheimer’s patients and reduce symptoms in Parkinson’s patients, including sleeping problems and tremors.

Whether sick or healthy, light definitely affects your mood. According to research, one in four people in Alaska suffers from depression – and it’s mainly caused by a lack of sunlight.

Sunshine Cures Everything

Superman may have had a bit too much sunlight.
“No One Can Save Us Now”
by Mojoko and Eric Foenander
Singapore Art Museum

Sunshine can also help with pain control. Research shows that patients whose beds are on a sunny side of a hospital experience less pain than those whose rooms are in the shade. As well as reduced pain, patients in sunny rooms tend to recover sooner, use fewer painkillers, and feel less stressed. One theory is that exposure to sunlight releases serotonin: a feel-good chemical in the brain.

High solar activity has been found to increase fertility rates. Furthermore, light can also give men a boost in the bedroom. Research has shown that higher testosterone is boosted by Vitamin D. The biggest source? The sun. A light box would have the same affect, but is possibly less romantic than a sunny picnic or stroll along the beach.

As far as I can tell, the health benefits of sunlight are all attributed to Vitamin D effects on/in the body.

Fake Light

Aside from the health benefits of light, many practical applications have lead to the creation of light when there is no sun—primarily the benefits of being able to see in the dark! 

Over the centuries, we’ve seen many advances in created light.

Campfires really create a sense of community!
(Thanks to H.R.Joe Photography)
  • Fires, the first source of created light
  • Torches
  • Oil lamps, precursors to candles
  • Candles (beginning around 500 BCE in Rome) 
  • Lanterns
  • Matchsticks
  • Flashlights
  • Fluorescent lights
  • Incandescent lights
  • LED’s 
  • Plasma Lightsabers
Traditional oil lamp for Diwali

Until the 20th century, candles were most common in Northern Europe. In Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, oil lamps predominated.

Besides providing light, candles were used for the purpose of measuring time, usually in hours. The Song Dynasty in China (960-1279) used candle clocks.

Kerzenhur- Candle Clock

A version of a candle clock is often used to mark the countdown of the days leading to Christmas. This is called an Advent candle.

Note: This term is also used for candles that decorate an Advent wreath.

Among the earliest forms of created light, candles have had the greatest staying power into modern times for numerous uses. An estimated 1 billion pounds of wax are used in the candles sold each year in the United States.

FYI: No candle wax has ever been shown to be toxic or harmful to humans.

Advent Wreath
  • Holiday decorations
    • Shaped candles for specific holidays
    • Candles for tree decorations
    • Menorah candles for Hannukah
    • Kinara candles for Kwanzaa
    • Nine candles in a lingonberry wreath for Santa Lucia Day
    • Advent wreath candles (marking the four Sundays leading up to Christmas)
    • Candles for windowsills (to guide the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt) 
Loy Krathongs – Thai Floating Lanterns
  • Lighting paper lanterns
  • Lighting and lifting sky lanterns
  • To produce a romantic mood
  • To make a dinner table more formal 
  • As backup for a power failure
  • To dispel unpleasant household odors
  • To test for drafts
  • Scented candles for pleasure and/or aroma therapy
Very Formal Dining Table

As the days grow shorter and night falls like a rock earlier and earlier, many people light candles around the house, even when they have electric lights, simply because the warm glow is cheerful. Which brings us back to human craving for light!

Cold Light

Gas lights were developed in the 1790s and were in common use in large cities by the middle of the nineteenth century. Streetlamps made the night safer (in wealthy areas) and gas piped into houses allowed (wealthy) homeowners to ignore the setting sun.

Too bright!

The invention of the electric-powered incandescent light bulb was even more effective in making the sun obsolete. Since electric lights have become nearly universal, ideas like a 24 hour workday and cutting sleep to work more have become nearly as universal.

Newborn incubators, refrigeration, pacemakers, surgical lighting, heated houses, underground ventilation, and electric harp string tuning meters are undoubtedly beneficial to human society. However, humans in general have become increasingly sleep-deprived and overworked since the spread of electricity. Heated and lighted houses have also made humans more likely to stay indoors all winter, avoiding direct sunlight. This leads right back to the beginning of this blog – Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Bottom line: Humans need light for a multitude of reasons, and in a multitude of forms.

Massive forest fires can’t stop Oregoners from playing golf. Maybe it’s not giving off enough light.

SMELL OR SCENT?

In my mind, smells are stronger than scents. But both are valuable to writers—and to those who just want to be aware of their surroundings. 

Writers are urged to use sensory details. By and large, hands, eyes and ears are often used but noses less so. This in spite of the fact that psychology tells us that the sense of smell may be the most impressionable sense—the one most likely to evoke memories or moods.

It’s also important for survival, especially smells like smoke or rotten food. Researchers have hypothesized that pregnant women’s morning sickness may be a result of a heightened sense of smell developed as a temporary defense measure.

Researchers have used math to give system and order to odors, though they can’t seem to agree on the system and order.

According to one lab, there are eight basic scents:

  • Floral
  • Fruit-like
  • Synthetic
  • Citrus
  • Green-vegetative
  • Woody
  • Spice
  • Rotten
Very different categories used by fragrance companies

Other researchers name ten basic scents:

  • Woody/resinous
  • Lemon
  • Non-citrus fruity
  • Chemical
  • Minty/peppermint
  • Sweet
  • Popcorn
  • Pungent
  • Decayed

Interesting as these categorizations might be—especially the little overlap between these two sets—people are likely to think of odors on totally different dimensions. Much of the work on odors stems from the 1980s work of psychologist William Cain, at Yale University.

Of course, marketers have found ways to capitalize on our associations with various scents. Listerine was used as a floor cleaners until the manufacturers started a campaign of social shaming against halitosis and added a “minty-fresh” scent. Laundry detergent, floor soap, toothpaste, pet food, trash bags, tea, and just about anything else you can think of has chemically added fragrances so consumers will associate the product with pleasant memories.

Shopping malls and amusement parks pipe various scents into the air at specific locations to encourage spending or guide traffic flow. Grocery stores often position bakeries or flower shops just inside the entrance so that shoppers are bombarded with smells of fresh flowers or baking bread (both departments often run at an individual loss).

FeelReal headset prototype

Film and game makers have tried to cash in on this as well, with mixed results. Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama were attempts to rig cinemas to release scents in time with scene changes in a movie. (This was not very successful.) Virtual reality developers are toying with the possibilities of headsets surrounding players with the smells of a video game as well as the sights and sounds.

Words that describe pleasant smells
  • Ambrosial
  • Aromatic
  • Bouquet
  • Delicious
  • Floral 
  • Fresh 
  • Fragrant

  • Perfumed
  • Rich
  • Savory
  • Scented
  • Sweet
  • Tangy
Words that describe unpleasant smells
  • Acrid
  • Damp
  • Fetid
  • Frowsty
  • Malodorous
  • Musty
  • Musky
  • Nasty
  • Nauseating
  • Noisome 
  • Overpowering
  • Pungent
  • Putrid
  • Rancid
  • Rank
  • Ripe
  • Sickly
  • Smelly
  • Sour
  • Stale
  • Stench
  • Stinking
  • Stuffy
Things that smell bad
  • Trashcans
  • Drains
  • Body odor
  • Sewage
  • Vomit
  • Spoiled milk
  • Rotting food
  • Public toilets
  • Diapers
  • Fish
  • Exhaust fumes
  • Blood
  • Open intestinal wounds
  • Rotten teeth
  • Old exercise shoes
  • Bleach
  • Manure
  • Morning breath
  • Plastic burning
  • Garlic breath
  • Bleu cheese
  • Locker rooms
  • Diapers
  • Wet dogs
  • Mildew
  • Old eggs
  • Nail polish
  • Mothballs
Newborns’ feet don’t stink too badly. Usually.
Favorite smells 

(At least in Great Britain, according to a Daily Mail poll)

  • Freshly baked bread
  • Bacon
  • Freshly cut grass
  • Leather
  • Cakes baking in the oven
  • The seaside
  • Freshly washed clothes
Live Christmas trees
  • Roses
  • Vanilla
  • Scented candles
  • Log fires
  • Lavender
  • Lemon
  • Chocolate
  • Barbecue
  • Cinnamon
  • Sunday roast
  • New car
  • Orange
  • Freshly washed hair
  • Coconut
  • Freshly cleaned house
  • Leather
  • Rain
  • Aftershave
  • Christmas cake
Coffee
  • Cotton
  • Shampoo
  • Cherry
  • New carpets
  • Marzipan
  • Musk
  • Popcorn
  • Furniture polish
  • Wine
  • New house 
  • Fresh flowers
  • New books
  • Lime
  • Doughnuts
  • Bonfires
  • Sun screen
  • Tea
  • Fish and chips
  • Cheese
  • Cookies
  • Gasoline
  • Matches
  • Strawberries
  • Lilies
Babies
  • NOTE: What one person finds pleasant might be unpleasant to another. Several of these “favorite smells” also appear in lists of unpleasant odors, such as fish and bleu cheese.
Words that smell like something
  • Citrusy
  • Coppery
  • Earthy
  • Fishy
  • Flowery
  • Fruity
  • Gamy
  • Garlicky
  • Leathery
  • Lemony
  • Medicine
  • Minty
  • Musky
  • Peachy
  • Smoky
The Perfume Makers by Rudolf Ernst
Words that modify smells
  • Aromatic
  • Cloying
  • Comforting
  • Delicate
  • Evocative
  • Faint
  • Heady
  • Heavy
  • Intoxicating
  • Laden
  • Piquant
  • Powerful
  • Redolent 
  • Reek
  • Savory
  • Whiff
Tasty
  • And if it has no smell: anosmic 
Name that scent!

Maybe, for the sake of efficiency (and word count) you want to evoke a smell with as few words as possible. If so, you might look for the world’s most recognizable smells—these according to Buffalo, NY radio WYRK.

  • Baby powder
  • Banana
  • Beer
  • Beach 
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Cigarette butts
  • Cinnamon
  • Clean laundry
  • Coffee
  • Crayons 
  • Dry cat food
  • Freshly mowed lawn
  • Gasoline 
  • Ivory soap
  • Juicy Fruit gum
  • Lemon 
  • Mothballs
  • Orange 
  • Peanut butter
  • Skunk
  • Thanksgiving turkey 
  • Tuna 
  • Vicks VapoRub
  • Wintergreen oil

Note: Women are generally far superior to men in identifying smells, even such “male-leaning”  smells like motor oil. In Cain’s work, women outperformed men in 66 of 80 trials.

Bottom line for writers: The nose knows—and now you do, too!

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SOAP

Soap is incredibly easy to work into a scene or conversation. But, as a writer, why would you?

Because—like everything else—soap choices make an impression.  “Soap” usually refers to what is technically called a toilet or toilette soap, used for household and personal cleaning. Soap choices reflect at least two things: need and personal preference. 

Traditionalists

An exact recreation of the Ancient Mesopotamian soap-making technique

The very first cleaning agents were likely ashes from fires used to cook animals. Fatty acid (which would have dripped from the carcasses onto the fire) and a caustic agent (such as the lye in wood ash) removes dirt from skin and clothing. Soap-making processes have gotten a little more sophisticated in the 5000 or so years since then. I’ll start with two of the oldest soaps made in the United States and still available.

Lava Soap

Ground volcanic pumice works as a mild abrasive, ideal for sloughing off viscous grime without removing the skin underneath. Lava is a heavy-duty hand cleaner in soap bar form manufactured by the WD-40 Company. In addition to the typical combination of fatty acid and salt, Lava soap contains ground pumice, which gives the soap its name. The soap and pumice combination is intended to scour tar, engine grease, paint, dirt, whale oil, and similar substances from the skin.

The Lava Bar is a heavy-duty hand cleaner, developed in 1893 with pumice. Do-it-yourselfers, auto mechanics, coal miners, locksmiths, luthiers, and oil rig workers commonly use Lava to scrub off the traces of their work. The original Lava bar was gray and dried the skin. The modern version looks more attractive and contains moisturizers. 

Anyone with children can make good use of Lava soap.

So, what sort of person/character would keep Lava around the house?  If all you knew about the person was the use of this hand soap, what would you expect regarding age, occupation, gender, education, occupation, etc.? How might those expectations change if it was a well-worn bar of soap or a brand-new bar still in the box? 

Ivory Soap 

The sons of the original Proctor and Gamble were responsible for the creation of Ivory soap. James Norris Gamble developed the soap with the intention of making mild, effective soap inexpensive enough to be widely available.  The name Ivory was created by Harley Procter, who was inspired by Psalm 45:8 in the Bible: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces whereby they have made thee glad.”  In September 1879, Procter & Gamble trademarked “Ivory”, the name of its new soap product.

Ivory soap is not for dogs. No baths for dogs!

During production, Ivory soap has air whipped into the solution, making the bars buoyant. James Gamble developed the process of adding air during production. When bathing in a murky lake or river or in a tub of bathwater that has already been used by the rest of the family, having soap that floated was extraordinarily convenient. This gave rise to the slogan, “It Floats!” in 1891. In 1992, Proctor & Gamble marketed a new formulation that includes moisturizers but does not float.

Ivory is ideal for building hair horns.

So who uses Ivory?  This soap has a long-standing image of gentleness and purity. Small children, people with sensitive skin, cleaners who need to avoid residue, and many people who simply prefer inexpensive soap choose it for that reason. What sort of characters might have a bar of Ivory soap in their washroom or liquid Ivory handsoap in the kitchen?

Shaving Soap 
Straight-razor shaving is tricky, so it’s best to start practicing early.

Though it is not typically used as a regular body soap, I’m including shaving soap here for its traditional connotations. Shaving soap is sold as a hard disc or stick that is used with a wet shaving brush to produce lather. The lather softens the hair before shaving and forms a thick, protective layer between skin and blade. Modern shaving cream is more convenient than shaving soap, but it does not work as well for moisturizing or giving a close shave.

It is possible to use too much shaving soap.

So what sort of character prefers shaving soap to shaving cream?  Would you expect old?  Or old-fashioned? And would the shaver choose a basic, inexpensive brand like Williams ($1.49 per cake) or something more exotic, like Molton Brown ($65 for one cake in a wooden bowl)? How much is it worth to get a moisturizing lather blended with coconut oil to prep skin for a clean shave, with a top note of mandarin, heart notes of jasmine and violet, and base notes of musk, sandalwood and vanilla, all in a slick shaving bowl?

And what if it’s a woman using shaving soap? Why? And on what part(s) of her body?

Medically Necessary Soap

I guess the specially important washing doesn’t include after handling raw meat or using the bathroom.

As dermatologists like to remind us, skin is the largest organ in the body. Many skin ailments can be improved or even cured by using particular soaps.

Note: The information provided below is not intended for medical diagnosis or treatment. This is only intended for writing purposes and providing examples.

Dermatologist Recommended
The best way to judge a dermatologist’s qualifications is by the size of her bustle.

Perhaps your character will do their own research, determining their particular needs and methods of treatment. What sort of person does this? For general use, dermatologists recommend AveenoDove, Olay, and Basis. Skin cleansers are better for sensitive skin, such as Cetaphil, CeraVe, and Aquanil. Deodorant soaps are often very harsh and drying.

Treatment of Skin Conditions
It is widely recognized in the medical community that dog slobber is the most effective treatment for every skin ailment. And for depression.

Many skin conditions can be treated topically with soap. Rashes from poison ivy, insect bites, and mild eczema can be relieved with oatmeal soap. Aloe Vera can help with sunburn and acne. Antibacterial soap has been in the news quite a bit lately. There is evidence that the symptoms of severe acne, athlete’s foot, scabies, ringworm, psoriasis, plantar warts can be relieved with prescription-strength medicated soap.

The research on specific drugs and usages is not conclusive for all of these conditions, so be sure to dig around in peer-review medical journals before including details in your writing.

Fancy Soap

Sampling of Soap Types
Me? Nah, I don’t need a bath, thanks.
Aleppo Soap

More information on all of these soaps is available online. Every type of soap has a different texture, smell, weight, and other characteristics that can add sensory detail to your writing. Would your character have a signature soap? Chose to make a statement—to self or others?

Expensive Soaps
You could also leave a whale on your front lawn to let all the neighbors know where you got that amazing soap!

Status symbols only work if other people know about them. Some of the most expensive soaps have distinctive scents. They may provide (mostly subjective) beauty benefits. Prominently displayed wrappers or overseas packaging left ever-so-casually where guests might see them

  • Qatar SoapA bar of this soap produced by a family-run business in Lebanon might make you think twice about washing too often. Infused with gold and diamond powder, a single bar costs $2,800 (£1,700; 2,050 euros).
  • El-Nino (Kenya) Soap: The soap is part of the Kenya government’s strategy to provide aid for victims of El Nino weather catastrophes. Each piece will retail for $375 (Ksh 37,500). However, it is not yet clear if this soap will be manufactured in Kenya, Lebanon, China or Migingo.
Chocolate Mud Mask?
  • Cor Soap: Cor was produced by Plank, a company that manufacturers yoga-themed products. Each bar will set you back $125 (KSH 12,500). The ingredients that made Cor expensive are the following:
    • Chitosan to even out skin tone
    • Sericin — a silk extract — to trap moisture and provide UV protection
    • Four types of collagen to help maintain skin structure.
    • Silver, a known antibacterial agent 
  • Cle de Peau BEeaute Synactif Soap: A facial cleansing soap that removes impurities from pores and lifts away makeup and dead skin to reveal purified skin filled with translucence and suppleness. $100.
  • Erno Lazlo Famous Black Bar: $38 for those who want to go for something a little less high end.
    • Dead Sea Mud: Restores skin’s own mineral levels; infused with 26 minerals and has a signature black color that transforms to white foam.
    • Glycerin: Attracts and holds hydration for a more moisturized, glowing complexion.
    • Palm and Palm Kernel Oils: Regulates skin’s oils and reinforces its defenses against outside stressors.  
Mud Mask!
  • Dragon’s Blood Cold Process Soap: Loaves / Bars for those who want to sound high end on a budget.  Loaves of soap are cut into bars and packed with your own custom label. Dragon’s Blood soap comes in custom sizes, colors, etc. for large orders. The famous fragrance contains “top notes of amber, vanilla, and patchouli. Also has hints of orange and other fruity base notes.” Sample 4.5oz. Bar ($3.50 / unit)

Bottom line for writers: Soap can flesh out a character, either subtly or in a more marked way. Think about it!

SUPERSTITIONS

By definition, superstitions are irrational beliefs that objects, actions, or circumstances not logically related to an outcome nevertheless influence those outcomes. Every Friday the 13th, I think of superstitions. In the past I’ve blogged about superstitions related to Fridays and to 13s. The superstitions below have nothing to do with the date directly, but there is a belief that negative things happening on Friday the 13th are worse than they would be on other dates.

The Superstition Mountains in Arizona

There are myriad ways to slice and dice the universe of superstitions, including by country or by topic (e.g., love and marriage or hearth and home).  Indeed, there are whole books of superstitions out there, and who knows what’s on the internet.  But anyone wishing to pursue the topic can do so easily.

Clearly, this blog can give you only a tiny taste of the superstitions out there. So here you go, alphabetically:

A
Spaghetti harvested on April 1st is full of extra nutrients.
  • April 1, April Fool’s Day
    • To be fooled by a pretty maiden means the man will marry or befriend her.
    • To lose one’s temper over a practical joke will bring bad luck.
    • A wedding on this day means the woman will be the family boss.
    • Being born on this day means lucky in business and unlucky in speculation.
  • Apron Dropping
    • A girl might meet her fiancé.
    • It may signify having two husbands.
    • It might mean illness or early death.
    • It might mean many children or no children.
    • It may mean spinsterhood.
    • Perhaps it portends desertion by a husband.
B
  • Bats are very good omens, denoting happiness, peace, long life, wealth, and virtue.
  • Birds are associated with both good and bad spirits, and are portents of things to come.
    • A bird in the house or tapping on a window is an omen of death.
    • Injuring a robin or disturbing its nest brings bad luck.
      • A friendly robin is a portent of a long, hard winter.
      • The first robin seen in spring portends good luck if it flies up, bad luck if it flies down.
      • A robin’s nest near the house brings good luck.
      • Seeing a robin in the morning portends a visitor the same day.
    • A swallow nesting in the eaves of a house brings good luck.
      • A swallow abandoning its nest is a sign the house will burn down.
      • A swallow skimming near the ground is a prediction of rain.
      • If a sparrow builds a nest under your window, you will take a trip.
    • Turtle doves near the house prevent rheumatism.
    • Eagles are said to carry off lambs and small children.
    • The cry of a peacock under a window predicts a death in the house.
    • Seeing a hawk is an omen of victory or success.
    • Seeing a crow in flight is time to make a wish; if the crow doesn’t flap its wings, the wish will come true.
    • Magpies (or jackdaws or crows, depending on where you live) mean different things depending on how many you see:
      • One for sorrow,
        Two for joy,
        Three for a girl,
        Four for a boy,
        Five for silver,
        Six for gold,
        Seven for a secret never to be told.
    • To break the curse of seeing a lone magpie, salute the magpie.
  • Bread
    • If bread falls butter side down, hungry company will come seeking food.
    • Eating bread crusts will make your cheeks rosy.
    • Two people saying “bread and butter” after someone or something comes between them will break the spell of bad luck.
    • Waving bread and sugar around a wound will make it heal faster.
C
  • Cards
    • A black ace falling on the floor during a bridge game is a sign to stop playing.
    • Singing during a card game is bad luck.
    • It’s unlucky to play cards on a bare table.
  • Cats
    • A cat washing its face is a sign of a visitor coming.
    • A black cat crossing one’s path is an omen of very good or very bad luck, depending on the culture.
    • A strange cat following you or making a home with you brings good luck.
    • If you wake up to a cat on your chest, it means the cat was under the influence of evil spirits and was trying to steal your breath as your slept.
  • Cutlery
    • If a knife falls on the floor you will have a gentleman visitor.
    • If a fork falls, it will be a lady visitor.
    • Crossing knife and fork is a bad omen.
D
Friday’s child
  • Days of the Week
    • Good or bad luck depends on the day of the week.
      • Monday for health
        Tuesday for wealth
        Wednesday the best day of all
        Thursday for crosses
        Friday for losses
        Saturday no luck at all
    • A child’s entire life is influenced by the day of the week on which they were born.
      • Monday’s child is fair of face
        Tuesday’s child is full of grace
        Wednesday’s child is full of woe
        Thursday’s child has far to go,
        Friday’s child is loving and giving,
        Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
        And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
        Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.
  • Dogs
    • A yellow dog happening to follow your tracks is a sign of good luck.
    • A dog howling in the night, especially at the moon, is a harbinger of death.
    • A dog predicts rain by lying on its back or eating grass.
E
  • Ears
    • Sailors held the belief that a pierced ear with a ring in it improved eyesight.
    • More generally, piercing a child’s ears will improve eyesight.
    • Size
      • Small = stingy
      • Large = generous
      • Long = long life
    • An itching left ear portends sadness or bad luck; itching right ear means someone is speaking well of you.
  • Eggs
    • Two yolks in one egg means great financial prosperity is on the way.
    • Refusing an Easter egg is an invitation to lose the friendship of the person offering it.
    • Rabbits lay eggs at Easter time.
    • Eggs blessed at Easter are supposed to ward off illness.
    • When cracking Easter Eggs with a friend, the one whose egg cracks first will have good fortune.
  • Eyes
    • If your right eye twitches, you are going to hear good news. 
    • A twitching eyelid means someone is thinking fondly of you.
    • A person with brown/ blue/ hazel/ green/ grey eyes brings bad luck.
    • A person with heterochromia (eyes different colors) is a witch or a demon.
    • Grey or blue eyes can see the future.
F
  • Fingers
    • Friends crossing index fingers over one another and making a wish will have their wish granted.
    • Crossing your middle finger over your index finger either brings good luck or is a sign of lying.
    • A person with a ring finger longer than the index finger is sure to be wealthy.
    • If a person points a finger in the direction of a graveyard, they must bite their finger to avoid inviting death.
  • Fingernails
    • Broad nails show that a person is generous.
    • Long fingernails reveal a lack of thrift.
    • Short fingernails mark a liar.
    • Specks on fingernails correspond with the number of lies told.
    • Cutting a baby’s nails before the first birthday means the child will become a thief. (Bite them off instead.)
    • Cutting nails on Friday is bad luck.
    • Cutting the nails of a sick person means that person will never get well.
  • Funerals
    • Handkerchiefs used to wipe tears at a funeral must be buried with the coffin or thrown away.
    • Singing, laughing, or talking too loudly at a funeral will wake the dead.
    • Not crying and singing funeral hymns loudly enough will anger the recently departed and wake the dead.
    • A man not wearing a belt to a funeral will bring death home with him.
G
  • Gloves are not good!
    • Picking up a glove is to risk bad luck.
    • Dropping a glove brings bad luck.
    • Giving someone gloves invites the breakup of the friendship.
    • Hitting someone with a glove, even accidentally, means wishing for their death.
  • Graves
    • Dig graves facing east toward Gabriel when he blows his horn.
    • Tools used to dig a grave should be left nearby for several days.
    • If someone shivers for no apparent reason, someone is walking over his/her grave.
    • Open graves are ill omens.
    • Leaving the site of a grave before the gravediggers lower the coffin means another death will follow.
    • Some cultures require a corpse to be buried in a standing position, holding weapons at the ready.
  • Gifts
    • Sharp objects given as gifts will turn on their new owner.
    • Giving certain numbers of objects (such as flowers or cookies) is unlucky, varying widely around the world.
    • In some areas, giving any unreciprocated gifts is unlucky.
    • Most of these gift taboos can be avoided by repaying the giver with a symbolic trifle, such as a penny or a piece of bread.
H
Crossed hands! No more babies!
  • Hands
    • An itchy right hand means money is coming.
    • An itchy left hand means money is slipping away.
      • Rubbing an itchy left hand on wood and wishing for money will break the spell of losing.
    • An itchy right hand means that a friend is coming.
    • Hand itching means you will shake hands with a stranger.
    • Itchy hands also means that you will be entertaining company.
    • Itchy palms means the receipt of unexpected money.
    • Every town and village in the world seems to have a different variation of hand signs to ward off evil.
      • Thumb holding middle and ring finger against the palm with other fingers extended.
      • Holding the hand with the palm flat and all fingers pointed forward, folding each finger against the palm separately and sequentially.
      • Tucking the thumb between the index and middle finger with all fingers pulled into the palm.
    • Binding anyone’s hands together will condemn them to a life of misfortune.
    • Folding or crossing one’s hands causes infertility.
  • Hens
    • Setting a hen on the first Monday of the month brings good luck.
    • Setting hens on Sunday night brings successful hatching.
    • If 13 eggs are set, 12 will be pullets and 1 will be a rooster.
    • Long eggs hatch roosters; round eggs hatch pullets.
  • Hiccups
    • Having the hiccups means someone is remembering you fondly.
    • Each hiccup is an attempt by a demon to draw your soul from your body.
I
Extreme ironing. People do this. Voluntarily. I don’t know why.
  • Ironing
    • If the tail of a man’s shirt is ironed (or starched) will make the man harsh.
    • An ironing board falling across a door is an omen of death.
    • Ironing the backs of clothes is bad luck.
  • Injury or Illness
    • Stepping on a crack will break your spine.
    • Sleeping with wet hair will make you sick.
    • Women sitting on bare cement will become infertile.
    • If your shadow falls on a graveyard or a funeral procession, you will become gravely ill.
    • Blowing in a baby’s mouth will cure colic.
    • The presence of a net beneath a trapeze or high-wire act will cause the performers to injure themselves or fall.
J
  • Jar of water with a knife in it behind the door will protect a building against the devil.
  • July 25, wet or dry, is the day to plant turnips.
  • Jumping
    • Jumping over a baby means they won’t grow very tall.
    • Couples jumping over bonfires together will have peace and good fortune for a year.
    • Jumping exactly as the clock strikes midnight for New Year’s will bring good luck in the coming year.
K
  • Knife
    • If someone gives you a knife it will cut the friendship unless you “buy” it by giving a penny, pin, etc.
    • Leaving a penknife open brings bad luck.
    • Handing an open knife to someone will lead to a quarrel.
  • Knocking on Wood
    • Knocking on wood before starting a project is inviting good luck.
    • Knock on wood after bragging/boasting to prevent future failure.
L
  • Ladybug / Ladybird
    • It’s bad luck to kill a ladybug.
    • A ladybug landing on you will bring good luck.
    • A ladybug flying off you will take away all your troubles with her.
    • More than 7 spots on a ladybug’s wing means famine.
      • Fewer than 7 means a good harvest.
    • Make a wish with a ladybug in your hand and the direction she flies shows the direction your luck will come from.
  • Lips
    • Itchy lips means someone is speaking ill of you.
    • Itchy upper lip, someone tall will kiss you
      • Itchy lower lip, a short person will kiss you.
    • If you bite your lip while eating alone, you have a great kiss ahead.
M
I guess neither of these two will get married. Their dad will be very happy about that!
  • Marriage
    • Unmarried people who sit at the corner of a table will never get married.
    • Girls who want to get married should write the names of three prospective spouses on slips of paper and slide them under their pillow. She then discards one at night, one in the morning, and the remaining paper will have the name of her future spouse.
    • Married women are very lucky wedding guests. The longer she has been married, the more luck she brings to the new couple.
    • A man who walks between two women will have an unhappy marriage.
  • Moles or Warts
    • On the forehead near the hairline is a sign of bad fortune.
    • On the chin or ear is a sign of wealth.
    • On the breast is a sign of poverty.
    • On the throat is a sign of good luck.
    • A mole on your arm, live on a farm.
    • Having lots of moles indicates future wealth.
  • Mirrors
    • Breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck.
    • Looking at your reflection in a broken mirror brings permanent bad luck.
    • Standing between two mirrors allows spirits to steal your soul.
N
  • Nine
    • Count nine stars for nine nights and on the last night one’s lover will be revealed.
    • Find nine peas in one pod, hang it above the door, and the next person through the door will be one’s spouse.
  • Nails
    • A nail dropped on the floor can only build crooked houses.
    • Carrying an iron nail will ward off evil influences and demons.
    • Looking at a coffin nail while carrying a body to a graveyard invites death.
    • A rusty nail stuck through a lemon will keep away the evil eye.
O
Superstitious architects design buildings without a thirteenth floor.
  • Omens of Misfortune
    • Spilling salt on the table.
    • Burning bread.
    • A rooster crowing at night.
    • Killing a spider.
    • Stepping over a snake.
    • Dropping a comb.
    • Stepping on sidewalk or road cracks.
    • Laughing before breakfast.
    • The number 13.
  • Owls
    • Hearing a screeching owl is an omen of bad luck.
    • An owl perched on a house predicts death to someone within.
    • In Wales, the hoot of an owl signaled that an unmarried girl had surrendered her chastity.
    • Owls are sacred in some parts of India because their eyesight is phenomenal.
    • Owls signal approaching death.
P
  • Pearls
    • A ring set with a pearl is unlucky.
    • Pearls signify tears.
    • A gift of pearls will bring tears and sadness to the recipient.
    • Finding a pearl in an oyster is a sign of good luck.
  • Phrenology
    • A high forehead is a sign of a reflective mind.
    • A high forehead is a sign of leadership.
    • Large eyes signify benevolence and wonders
    • A wide skull indicates pugnaciousness.
    • Large heads contain large brains, signifying high intelligence.
Q
  • Saying the word “quiet” will cause all hell to break loose.
  • Quail
    • Seeing a quail is a sign that a goal can be attained only if the seer acts immediately.
    • Seeing a quail in flight is an omen of danger or death.
    • Dreaming of a quail is a sign that love, good fortune, and victory are coming.
  • Quarters
    • Putting a quarter into a pot of black-eyed peas will bring good luck and money.
    • Adding a quarter to a tip jar will make it fill faster.
    • Tucking a quarter into a purse or wallet given as a gift means it will always have money in it.
R
  • Red Hair
    • Redheads are emotionally unstable and of terrible temper.
    • A redhead who tends a cheese vat will produce curd not fit to eat.
    • The appearance of a white horse heralds the appearance of a red haired girl, and vice versa.
    • Seeing a redhead first thing in the morning is a sign of bad luck.
  • Rats
    • Rats leaving a house signifies bad luck.
    • Rats entering a house bring good luck.
    • Rats won’t go through a soaped hole.
    • Catch a rat, paint it garish colors, and release. It will drive other rats away.
S
Indian Rat Snake (Grey and Yellow)
  • Snakes
    • Hanging a snakeskin from the rafters will protect a house from fire.
    • Killing the first snake you see every year will guarantee victory over any foe.
    • Seeing a snake cross one’s path or dreaming of a snake are bad luck.
    • Pregnant women who are frightened by a snake will give birth to a child with a constricted neck.
    • A snake will never bite a pregnant woman.
    • Tying a snakeskin around the waist of a woman in labor will ease childbirth.
    • Feeding women in labor a drink containing the powdered rattle of a rattlesnake will ease childbirth.
    • Carrying a snakeskin is generally beneficial to health, effective against headaches and extracting thorns from the skin.
    • Carrying a snake tooth will ward off fever.
    • Carrying a snake tooth is lucky when gambling.
    • To avoid getting bitten by a snake, wear an emerald.
    • When a snake’s head is severed, it will not die till sunset.
  • Singing
    • If you sing before breakfast, you will cry before the day is done.
    • If you sing before you dress, you’ll have trouble before you undress.
    • If you sing before seven, you’ll cry before eleven.
    • If you sing before you eat, you’ll cry before you sleep.
  • Sailing
    • It is unlucky to have an umbrella bought aboard.
    • It is unlucky to drive nails on Sunday.
    • Whistling aboard ship brings bad luck.
    • If a bee or small bird lands on the ship, it means good luck.
    • If a hawk, owl, or crow lands in the rigging, it means bad luck.
    • A horseshoe nailed to the mast protects against witches.
    • It is unlucky to set sail on Friday, lucky to set sail on Sunday.
T
I think this one is pretty safe. No hideousness here.
  • Thumbs
    • A baby who sucks its thumb will grow up to be hideous.
    • A thumb turned backward indicates an inability to save money.
    • Thumb pricking means something bad is coming along.
    • Thumb itching indicates visitors are coming.
  • Three
    • Closely associated with the Holy Trinity in several world religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam.
    • Some pagan traditions celebrate the trinity of land, sea, and air to make up earth.
    • Third time lucky/third time’s the charm.
    • A person will resurface three times before drowning.
    • If three people make up a bed, one of them will fall ill.
    • Good things and bad things come in threes.
  • Theater
    • Shakespeare’s Macbeth is so unlucky that people avoid saying the name in a theater, referring to “the Scottish play” instead.
    • Whistling onstage or backstage is bad luck.
    • Wishing a performer good luck will bring the opposite, hence the common “Break a leg!” wish before going onstage.
    • A terribly dress rehearsal means the performance will be excellent, and vice versa.
    • Failing to salute the resident ghost (every theater has at least one) will cause it to be angry and take revenge.
U
  • Umbrellas
    • Carrying an umbrella will ward off rain.
    • Opening an umbrella in the house is bad luck.
    • Holding an open umbrella over your head in the house will lead to your death within a year.
  • Upside Down
    • Turning a picture upside down brings bad luck to the person or place in the picture.
    • An upside down photograph or picture turned to the wall invites lurking evil spirits to attack the subject of the picture.
    • Turning a photo of a person to face the wall or the floor will protect you from evil influences caused by that person.
    • Slippers or shoes left upside down on the floor will cause trouble on the next journey.
  • Underwear
    • Wearing new underwear on a first date will doom the relationship.
    • Wearing underwear inside out will improve test or exam scores. 
V
  • Visiting
    • Visit on Monday and you’ll be visiting out every day of the week.
    • Guests, like fish, should be thrown out after three days.
  • Violets
    • Violets grow where tears have fallen.
    • Drinking tea made from violet petals cures heartbreak.
    • Dreaming of violets means you’ll come into money or marry someone younger.
    • When violets bloom in the autumn, an epidemic is coming.
W
If only he hadn’t whistled inside, his Mother might be happier…
  • Washing
    • Wash and wipe together, live and fight together.
    • If a woman gets wet while washing clothes, she will marry a drunkard.
    • A woman who wants beautiful hair should wash it in water from March snow.
    • Washing laundry on Saturday or Tuesday is bad luck.
  • Whistling
    • A whistling girl and a crowing hen always come to no good end.
    • If little girls whistle they will grow beards.
    • Whistling in the house invites bad luck.
    • If someone whistles inside a house, they will become financially irresponsible and lose money.
  • Weddings
    • A bride jumping out of bed and landing on both feet on her wedding day bodes well for her married life.
    • The bride and groom seeing each other before they meet at the altar will doom the marriage.
    • An iron horseshoe carried by the bride will bring good fortune to her extended family.
    • A thunderstorm during a wedding is an omen of bad luck.
    • A snowstorm during a wedding is a lucky omen.
    • A Sunday wedding is a good omen.
    • A Friday wedding is a bad omen.
    • Marrying on the last day of the year is especially auspicious.
    • Wearing pearls on your wedding day tempts sorrow, tears, and an unhappy future.
X
Y
  • Yawning
    • Yawning during prayers is a bad omen.
    • Yawning without covering one’s mouth allows the devil entrance.
  • Yellow
    • Giving yellow clothing as a gift will bring bad luck.
    • Wearing yellow clothing to any kind of test will cause a poor performance.
    • When speeding through a yellow traffic light, a driver throwing a kiss to the roof of the car will avoid accidents and police.
Z
  • Zero is a whole number as well as an even one, and thus a lucky digit.
  • Zebra
    • Seeing a wild zebra means you are spiritually safe from harm.
    • A zebra licking your hand can mean danger is coming or someone is holding onto bad memories.
    • The black and white of a zebra indicates good and bad.
    • Dreaming of a zebra means one is facing situations that are difficult to control.
    • Follow a zebra to find water.
    • More stripes on the front legs of a zebra than on the back is an omen of a baby, possibly twin boys
    • One zebra is a sign of good luck and blessings. Seeing two zebras in the morning is an omen of illness and maybe two bad harvest seasons.
    • A running zebras is an omen of an ample harvest.

Bottom line: The superstitions listed here are shared by many people, but every culture and person has different beliefs. Anything can become a personal superstition if something unrelated is associated in time or place with a dramatic event or outcome (such as lucky socks or particular foods). Consider how someone might come to feel anxious and fear bad things will happen if s/he loses a carved wooden heart. If you are writing about an entirely fictitious culture, you can invent whatever superstitions you like!

NATIVE AMERICAN FUNERALS: CELEBRATE OR MOURN

I’ve written before of the benefits for writers as well as for readers in expanding your cultural horizons. With Halloween upon us, what better time to discuss cultural variations in death, dying, and what to do after? A particularly tragic element of the current pandemic inspired this particular blog post.

Although not comprehensive, COVID-19 statistics indicate that the death rate for American Indians/Alaskan Natives is 3.5 times the rate for non-Hispanic white people. The upshot is that I was moved to explore beliefs, traditions and customs related to death among native peoples.

I used the plural on purpose.

There are 574 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States. I was surprised to learn that the labels nation, tribe, band, pueblo, community, and native village all are applied to ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse groups of people. Approximately 229 of these nations are located in Alaska; the other federally recognized tribes are located in 35 of the lower forty-eight states.

No slight to Alaskan Natives is intended, but this is a blog—albeit a long one—not a book, so I can only skim the customs and ceremonies of Native Americans. Further information about death and burial customs among tribes in Alaska is available on the Alaskan government website, several articles on JSTOR and other scholarly archives, and among training materials for healthcare workers who might be present at the end of life.

BTW, beyond the 574 federally recognized tribes, there are state government-recognized tribes located throughout the United States.

According to Michele Meleen, many tribes share beliefs about death and burial in general.

  • Each person has a soul or spirit that leaves the body after death.
  • Traditional burials take much longer than a modern funeral, up to several days, because the spirit of the person lingers before moving on.
  • Family and tribe members must help the spirit along its way through rituals and ceremonies.
  • Autopsies are avoided if at all possible because cutting open the body might prevent the spirit properly beginning its journey.

According to Klaudia Krystyna, there are further similarities in what varying tribes believed.

  • Most Native Americans worshiped an all-powerful Creator or spirit.
  • They believe in deep bonds between earth and all living things.
  • They also unite in a belief about an afterlife, with death beginning the journey that is a continuation of life on earth.
  • Many believe in reincarnation, coming back as another person or animal.
    • The type of person or animal depends on one’s deeds when alive, a bit like the Hindu cycle of reincarnation.

That said, in reality, the death practices in each tribe are unique. In today’s society, there is a tendency to view the immense variety of Native American cultures as all the same. Kara Stewart, a Sappony author and teacher, discussed the issues involved in authentic writing in an interview on The Winged Pen. As she said, “With over 567 very different sovereign federally-recognized nations and hundreds more sovereign state-recognized nations, nuance is everything.”

Given the number of tribes of Native Americans, what follows is just a sample of traditional Native American practices prior to the arrival of Christianity.

Navajo (Diné)

The Navajo tribe, also called the Diné, are the largest American Indian Nation. Currently, the Navajo nation covers approximately 17,544,500 acres in parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The tribe is divided into more than 50 families whose lineage can be traced matrilineally.

The religion and beliefs of the Navajo, like the Sioux (below), are based on animism.

One of the common Navajo beliefs about death was that the deceased goes to the underworld when he or she dies. Precautions must be taken to ensure that they don’t return to the world of the living. Navajos were very reluctant to look at a dead body. Contact with the body was limited to as few individuals as possible because contact with a corpse can bring sickness, misfortune, or even death.

If a person died at home, then the dwelling and everything in it were destroyed. Therefore, when death was near, the person was taken outdoors, or to a separate hut, to die. Family members and the medicine man stayed until close to the end. Shortly before death, everyone except for one or two individuals left. Those who remained would be the closest relatives of the dying person, those most willing to expose themselves to evil spirits.

Navajo Hogan in Monument Valley

Four men did all of the tasks involved in the burial of the body.

After death, two men prepared the body for burial. They wore only moccasins. Before starting, they smeared ash all over their bodies to protect them from evil spirits. Before burial, the body was thoroughly washed and dressed. It was believed that if the burial was not handled in the proper fashion, the person’s spirit would return to his or her former home.

While the body was being prepared, two other men dug the grave as far a possible from the living area. The funeral was held as soon as possible, usually the next day. Those four men were the only ones present at the burial.

The dead person’s belongings were loaded onto a horse and brought to the grave site, led by one of the four mourners. Two others carried the body on their shoulders to the grave site. The fourth man warned those he met on the way that they should stay away from the area. Once the body was buried, great care was taken to ensure that no footprints were left behind. The tools used to dig the grave were destroyed.

Sometimes the property of the deceased was disposed of by burning. In any event, none of it was left at home.

According to some customs, after the body was cleaned, the face was coated with chei (paint made of soft red rock, crushed and mixed with sheep oil) for protection during the journey. The body was dressed in his or her best clothes, hair tied with eagle feathers symbolizing the return to the homeland.

Another variation in customs: three family members wrapped the prepared body in a blanket and laid it across the back of a clean horse. One man leads the horse to a suitable burial place (such as a secure cave). At the burial place, the dead person was interred with saddles and all personal belongings. After the body was buried, the horse was slaughtered and buried as well, to aid the deceased on the journey to the afterlife.

There was also the custom of burying the dead as far north as possible, to help the soul move on to the next journey more quickly.

According to traditional Navajo beliefs, birth, life, and death were all part of a natural, ongoing cycle. Crying and outward demonstrations of grief were not usual when someone died, because showing too much emotion can interrupt the spirit’s journey to the next world. The spirit could attach itself to a place, an object, or a person if the proper process was interrupted.

Sioux/Dakota

The Sioux Nation is the second largest Native American Nation, comprised three major divisions based on language/dialect: the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota (Yankton-Yanktonai).

The Sioux tribe (like the Navajo) believed in Animism, that the universe and all-natural objects—animals, plants, trees, rivers, mountains, rocks, etc.—have souls or spirits.

Sioux did not fear the souls of the dead. In general, the Sioux believed that death was the beginning of another spiritual journey. They held that the soul of the deceased lingered four days before leaving for the next resting place.

Traditionally, Sioux people put the body of the dead person in a tree, or on a scaffold in a tree about eight feet above the ground.

The remains were left there for a year, and treated as if still alive. The body was dressed in the best clothes, and surrounded by personal property. Fresh food was provided for the soul.

Today, many Sioux practice both traditional and modern Christian death rituals. (See below.)

Cherokee

For the Cherokee, the funeral begins with prayers led by the shaman. During the service the shaman prays on behalf of the deceased and offers spiritual lessons to the living. The funeral ends in prayer and the body is carried to its final resting place on the shoulders of the funeral procession.

Chippewa/Ojibwe

The Chippewa are known in Canada as Ojibwe, Ojibway, or Ojibwa. They lived mainly in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ontario, occupying large areas of land. Their way of life belongs to the northeast woodland cultural groups. Their population in the United States ranked fifth in the indigenous tribes, behind the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw and Lakota-Dakota-Nekota peoples. One well-known scholar who wrote extensively of the Chippewa way of life was Sister M. Inez Hilger, O.S.B.

In the Chippewa culture, they believed that the spirit would leave the body after it was buried, rather than at death, so they preferred to bury it immediately. Simultaneously, they also traditionally believed that it would take four days to achieve a happy death for the spirit of the dead. These two beliefs drove their rituals, as family members considered it their duty to help the spirit move forward.

Ojibwe wigwam, 1904

If someone died in the morning, the body would be buried the same day to help the spirit reach the happiness sooner. If the body had to be kept overnight, people would go to the victim’s house, not only to spend time with the grieving relatives but also to be with the person who was lying there.

A pow-wow was held at the deceased’s home the night after the burial. Before dark, a fire was lit at the head of the grave, and this fire was lit every night for four nights to help guide the spirit.

At the end of the fourth day after burial, a medicine man presided over a feast and was responsible for giving away all the deceased’s belongings. Each person who received an item must give a new piece of clothing in return. All these new clothes were wrapped in a bundle and given, along with a dish, to the closest living relative. This person then handed out the new clothing to those he/she felt worthy.

The deceased’s loved one keeps the dish and carries it for one year to every meal he or she attends. It is filled with food to honor the deceased.

Kiowa

According to Toby Blackstar, a Native American funeral director, the Kiowa believe in-ground burial is the only acceptable way to release a body after death. They believe the Creator birthed the body from the earth, so it must return to the earth through decomposition.

For the Ponca Tribe within the Kiowa, there is a fear of the deceased which drives their death rituals. They are afraid the dead will resent them and the ghost will haunt anyone with his/her possessions. So, the tribe burns all of the deceased’s possessions, even if they are valuable. Any remaining family members who shared a house with the deceased person then moved into a new house.

Comanche

The burial customs for early Comanches were pretty simple. The body was not kept long prior to a proper burial. The deceased would be wrapped in a buffalo robe (or, later, blankets). The body was placed on a horse and taken to a burial place such as a cave or crevice in a rocky canyon. Burial sites would be in areas such as the Wichita Mountains and the slick hills or limestone hills of southwest Oklahoma. Personal items of the Comanche were placed in with the body and rocks were carefully placed on top to cover the deceased. It wasn’t until the Comanches came into contact with the early missionaries that they began burying their fellow Comanches in cemeteries.

Choctaw

From the middle to late nineteenth century, the Choctaw favored burying their dead directly in the ground. The deceased was buried in a seated position. Seven men placed seven red poles about the grave, with thirteen hoops of grapevines and a small white flag.

Iroquois

As a general practice, these tribes buried their dead in graves and traditionally took a more vengeful approach to death. They practiced revenge through torture of the person responsible for a loved one’s death, but these practices evolved into required payments of money rather than life. Taking a man’s life cost ten strings of wampum and taking a woman’s life cost twenty because she was valued for her ability to have children.

If a loved one was killed by a person from another tribe, the matriarch of that person’s family could ask tribal warriors to take a prisoner from the tribe of the murderer. These mourning wars often involved a planned raid on another tribal village for that sole purpose.

Once captured, the matriarch would choose whether the prisoner was adopted into her family or tortured based on her level of grief. If torture was chosen, all village members had to take part as a signal of ending the person’s old life. The Iroquois valued strength in numbers, so the tortured prisoner would often get adopted into the tribe as a replacement for the person they lost.

At some point in history, these mourning war practices were replaced by the Condolence Ceremony, particularly for clan and tribal chiefs. During this ceremony, members of several tribes would come together to mourn the loss as a nation rather than just the deceased’s family mourning a family member on their own.

These sacred ceremonies have not been well documented because they are deeply personal to Iroquois tradition. What is known is that leaders of another tribe were charged with conducting the ceremonies which included recitations of actions individuals could take to grieve the loss as well as comforting words. A string of wampum was presented by all the nations as one for each specific recitation, which could vary by tribe and circumstance.

From Then to Now

When Europe began to colonize America, European settlers brought great changes in Native American culture.

Eventually hundreds of tribes and ancient traditions disappeared.

The “mission” of Christian missionaries was to change the tribe. In 1882, the federal government of the United States attempted to ban the religious ceremonies of Indians and said they were “against public decency and morality”. Since the 19th century, some Native Americans have converted to some form of Christianity—becoming Catholics, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or whatever.

Although modern Native American death ceremonies have changed radically, often these practices still contain elements of traditional beliefs. A current ceremony often mixes traditional practices with elements of Christianity or other religions.

Chippewa Nation Flag

Tribes who converted to Catholicism celebrate All Souls’ Day on 1st November, commemorating the dead. Related to the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos, on this day Native Americans would leave food offerings and decorate their homes with ears of corn. The Chippewa way of death is similar to Hindu.

One modern practice by the Oneida Nation is the Community Death Feast. These annual feasts are held once each spring and once each fall to honor those who have died. Each person in the community brings a traditional food like corn mush, wild berries, wild rice, or venison to share with the whole group. One plate is filled with some of each shared dish and placed in a private area just before sunrise as a token for the dead.

One expanded example of the old being melded with the new: modern Sioux burials last four days before the dead are buried. The casket is rolled up a short ramp onto a scaffold eight inches above the floor, in the middle of the room. Flowers are arranged around the casket.

Family stand near the coffin. Mourners greet them, and gifts for the deceased (e.g., knives and shawls) are placed in casket before burial. The moderator reads the obituary, talks about the life experience of the deceased, and invites the people participating in the funeral to talk about their experience with the deceased. Then prayers start praying, and all participants pray, and sing an honor song in the traditional Sioux language. The participants walk counterclockwise in the hall.

At night, a thin layer of purple lace is laid on top of the opening of the casket to prevent evil spirits from taking the spirit of the dead. This is a common practice among the Santee Sioux because bad spirits are most active at night. The Santee Dakota, known as the Eastern Dakota, was established in 1863 and reside in the extreme east of the Dakotas, Minnesota, and northern Iowa. The last watch is held at midnight, and everyone stays overnight. At least one family member has to stay with the deceased overnight until the burial.

The next three days are the same as the first day, with the obituary, praying and songs of honor. After each ceremony, friends and family take turns paying their respects to the deceased, giving him/her “spiritual food” called wakan or pemmican to help the spirit move along the journey.

When the casket is lowered into the grave, those who carried the casket each shovel earth into the grave. People who wish to sprinkle a handful of dirt onto the casket. The men carrying the coffin had the job of filling the grave. More prayers and songs follow. Finally, everyone leaves to enjoy a last meal together.

BOTTOM LINE:

Sacred Native American traditions and ceremonies are most often preserved in oral history, and taught to the next generation by word of mouth. These ceremonies and beliefs are not always documented outside of oral tradition. Each medicine person specializes in different ceremonies. When someone dies they take that knowledge with them. Over the last several decades, the Diné/Navajo medicine people has gone from a thousand to just 300. The coronavirus threatens the few who remain. Potentially, COVID can decimate both populations and culture among Native American peoples.

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