Christmas Traditions Out on the Farm

Juniper bough 2There is an abundance of folksy Christmas traditions around the world. Some of them stir our hearts into a deeper appreciation of a holy and joy-filled season.

You know I’m an outdoorsy kind of gal, and partial to the Christmas traditions and legends involving animals and nature.

For the Christmas season I’m making a few guest appearances over at the Catholic web site So come on over for a visit, and a story or two.

Image from Creative Commons,



Christmas Houseplants and How to Care for Them

During the Christmas season poinsettias, Norfolk pines, Christmas cactus, cyclamen and rosemary are often purchased to decorate our homes or given as gifts.  Knowing how to care for these popular holiday plants can be a challenge. So for those of you with the not-so-green thumb, here are some basic care instructions.

2007-12-22Euphorbia pulcherrima02" by I, Wildfeuer. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Winter Rose”, 2007-12-22Euphorbia pulcherrima02 by I. Wildfeuer. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Poinsettia:  This is the most frequently purchased plant for Christmas. It ranges from tones of red to white. The colored leafy bracts, which we think of as flowers, can be smooth, deeply lobed or tightly crinkled as with ‘Winter Rose’.

This plant is touchy to extremes in moisture, temperature and drafts. To keep it looking good takes some skill and many people treat it as disposable much like cut flowers. The poinsettia likes a lot of sun, so if it is next to windows rotate the plant daily to allow light on all leaf surfaces. Keep it in a warm room of 70-75 degrees, away from heat vents and cool drafts. Water when soil is dry. Too much water and a chill cause the leaves and bracts to curl and drop. By late winter this plant wants to take a rest and its leaves will begin to fade. Lay it on its side in a cool dark basement. In May, prune it to about 4”, water well and plant in the garden.

Extensive research, including studies by Ohio State University, has shown that the poinsettia is quite safe and not toxic to children or animals; if consumed it will cause digestive expulsion.

002bChristmas Cactus (Schlumbergera sp.): First of all, this is not a true cactus and requires regular watering. It is one of my favorite house plants. I have a white one growing next to my desk and, down the hall, a large coral bloomer that enjoys a west window.

When grown in greenhouses they are regulated to bloom for December sales. In my home they bloom twice a year; in early November and, if not pinched back, again in late winter. To set buds these plants like it cool, around 60-65 degrees. Once buds are formed keep them at about 70 degrees and away from heat vents.

Grow in bright indirect sunlight, rotating plant by one quarter each time you water. Keep soil evenly moist but not soggy while blooming. When done flowering, water sparingly and cut back at a leaf node to encourage new branching (and more buds!). When new growth appears in the spring, use fertilizer every other watering.

By Obsidian Soul (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Obsidian Soul (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Norfolk Pine: This plantis often decorated as a living Christmas tree. Easy to care for, it can grow quite large.

It likes it cool, around 62-68 degrees. Grow in bright indirect light, but never in full sun. It does best about 4’ from a bright south facing window. Place closer to windows with sheers or awnings. Rotate by a quarter turn each time you water with a standard fertilizer. Allow soil to dry almost completely between watering but mist the needles with cool water 2-3 times a week if your house has low humidity.



Rosemary: In a previous column I wrote about rosemary being a common household herb during Jesus’ life.  It was used to repel insects and would have been placed in the straw of the manger.

Grow rosemary in a clay pot to allow the soil to dry completely between watering, place in bright full sun with good air movement but away from cold drafts and heat vents. Fertilize once a month with diluted solution.



Cyclamen: This plant is commercially forced to bloom at specific times of the year. Outdoors in mild climates it has a dormant period and then comes to life flowering in late winter to early spring.

Grow your plant in bright indirect sunlight, rotate by a quarter turn each time you water. Water at the side of the pot when soil feels dry to touch, keeping the crown dry. Mist 2-3 times a week or place on gravel in a tray partially filled with water.

Snip off old flowering stalks near crown. Eventually the plant will start to decline, needing a dormant period to rest. Place it in cool dark basement until spring and plant in the garden when soil temperature is above 50 degrees.



Bulbs that usually come as a gift kit are the Amaryllis and Paperwhite Narcissus. Following the packaging instructions will bring beautiful flowers in mid-winter.



Poverty of the Not-So-Obvious Poor

file0001606570188Christmas shopping and the Red Kettles bell ringers of the Salvation Army are calling us with a tinny jangle to help the poor. I nod my head and smile, walking by, not depositing even a penny. I have already given—to another group, at church or the office—earlier. I am annoyed by the once-a-year, in-your-face, give-to-ME-or-look-selfish-in-the-eyes-of-the-anonymous-crowd supplicants. The annoyance exists for more than whom they claim needs our help.

All year the obvious poor are easy to spot—financially destitute, mentally impaired, in need of food, shelter, clothing, or medical care. There are the poor souls in purgatory hungering for God with no one but us to ease their suffering. It is easing the discomfort of the poor that we are called to do as Christians, in whatever way appropriate to the station of our life.

Then there is a whole other level of poor that begs for Christ. It is often composed of those who live above physical poverty with few unmet earthly needs. They are the antithesis of the poor in spirit mentioned in the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3). Their spirits are often deeply attached to this world and find security in it, not realizing their need for God’s grace. The affluent that help build six-billion dollar sports arenas and place but $100 in a monthly offertory—if they attend church at all.

There are the poor in spirit who often lack understanding the teachings of Jesus and urgings of the Holy Spirit; the emotionally unstable but not fully deranged, the broken that are bullies, predacious sexual offenders.

These other levels of the poor are the ones who demand the greatest of us—of me—as Christians. To see opulence at its worst, bullies at their best, to hear sexual innuendos feigned as innocent of intent—blamed to my depravity—pushes me to my limit of being kind, compassionate, and loving. I just want to throttle them! It is in the effort to understand that they possess brokenness—a mental and spiritual instability nearly hidden in the normalcy of a broken society—which reins in my anger.

It is often easier for me to be compassionate towards the poorest needing a bath, a toothbrush, and clean clothes than it is to tolerate the presence of a person of entitlement, and delusional about their even being so!

Compassion is never meant to be at arms length. How desperately I fail at this when confronted by the fear-filled arrogant. I pity them, and another failing, this! For if I pity someone, I have adopted a stance of being superior to them, to be sorry that they are not like me—egad, but the charitable slope is slippery.

The poor, we are told will always be with us, for without them who would there be to call forth Christ?

I need to go read the Psalms and learn a deeper way to pray for the pompous few. And, while at it, ask the Lord to judge me less harshly for my sins of self-importance.

Litany of Humility

Written by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930), Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X.

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That, in the opinion of the world, others may, increase

and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I unnoticed,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I,

provided that I may become as holy as I should,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.


Image courtesy


Souls Guided Past Hell

SoulCarriedtoHeavenNovember offers a unique spirituality in the prayers for the deceased. In the northern hemisphere we experience the dormancy of nature, a seasonal dying back to new life in spring. The cycle in nature of death and new life is reflected in our Catholic tradition. November is the month to remember the dead and their in-between time in purgatory, waiting new life in heaven.

In an article at Aleteia I wrote about dying, and my comfort with the strange grace of purgatory. Another thought that comes to mind is the accompaniment of our soul by the angels and saints as it leaves the body.

I’ve often been curious why this would be necessary. If the soul is meant for heaven wouldn’t it be drawn to God, like a sliver of metal to a magnet?

In the soul’s journey from the body—and earth—does it, in its most vulnerable state, need to be protected through enemy territory? Does it need to be protected from evil principalities that may try to snatch it at its weakest, when fear and uncertainty are at their peak?

The Catechism (CCC 1864) teaches that sin against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. Is this the sin we face with our last breath of whether or not to accept Mercy? I wonder if the angles and saints come to us as an affirmation of heaven when the forces of evil, at our final moment, attempt to cloud our certainty of forgiveness and thereby gain our hell.

On the Roman Catholic calendar, the Feast of the Archangels is on September 29 and that of our Guardian Angels a few days later on October 2. Celebrating the person of angels may take place a few weeks ahead, but I come to appreciate their existence even more as I pray in November for souls in transition; in the process of departing their body.

I’ve nothing concrete to base this answer, and pray my words do not conflict with the teachings of the Magisterium. I believe Our Lord in his deep love for the soul, offers it protection along the final road lined with thieves. As always, we must choose to trust His gift.

Image William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain USA], via Wikimedia Commons. 

I you’re interested in creating a Liturgical garden dedicated to Archangels, a particular saint, or guardian angels, see A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac published by Ave Maria Press.

And here, a sweet offering of the Celtic Song of Farewell sung by MaryAnn Polich.

For those who prefer the Latin Rite, In Paradisum, this one from a friend.


St. Rita of Casacia and the Lovely Lebanon Statue

Aleteia Image St RitaMy excitement cannot be contained at the new sculpture of St. Rita of Cascia, the patron of desperate causes. Though she is not my patron saint, she is well loved.

The article at Aleteia, written by Sub-Deacon Antoine Antoun, Beirut, shares the story behind its origin. He notes…

How appropriate that this was done by someone from Lebanon, and from the rocks of Lebanon, specifically from Tartej. From these rocks, Nayef Alwan, who is from Aitou al-Zgharta in Lebanon, sculpted the statue of Saint Rita. This statue will be erected at the birthplace of Saint Rita—at the entrance of the town of Cascia, Italy…

The statue depicts elements associated with this saint, and as a gardener, I delight in the stories of St. Rita and her connection with bees and roses. As a Catholic I’ve also prayed to her when things seemed desperate and asked for her intercession. The artist, Alwan makes clear…

…that Christians are a foundation of Lebanon and the region and will remain in it, because nothing shakes their resolve, whatever the sacrifices and suffering…. Despite the problems that beset Lebanon this … is a sanctuary to the saint so long as she is known as the patron saint of impossible causes. Perhaps she will intercede for Lebanon and the Lebanese people after their own solutions become impossible!

Below is a small piece of St. Rita’s story, an excerpt from my book A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac, Ave Maria Press. St. Rita , also known as Margarita of Cascia, lived 1381-1457, was born Italy, passing into eternal life on May 22, her memorial date in our church calendar. She has several patronages, the first being the Patron of Desperate Causes, she also has a special miraculous association with bees that began as an infant.

In the parish church of Laarne, near Ghent, Belgium, there is a statue of St. Rita in which several bees are featured. This depiction originates from the story of albino bees, a unique gift from God, which drew near St. Rita as an infant and reappeared after her death.

On the day after her baptism, her family noticed a swarm of bees flying around her as she slept. The bees were unusual because they were white in color, and they peacefully entered and exited the baby’s mouth without causing her any harm. Instead of being alarmed for her safety, her family was mystified by this sight. It is said that one of the farmers witnessing the event, whose arm had been deeply cut by a scythe, passed the injured arm over the child to shoo the bees away and his arm was miraculously healed.

Nearly two hundred years after her death, at the monastery St. Mary Magdalene of Cascia, where St. Rita had lived, the white bees appeared again. Then, as now, they come out of the wall during Holy Week—which we as Christians know varies from year to year—and remain about the gardens until St. Rita’s feast day of May 22, when they return for their mystical hibernation until the next year. During more recent centuries the bees are no longer white, appearing as any other bee of yellow but without a stinger.

There is another miraculous story of this saint set near the end of her life. When St. Rita was bedridden at her convent a cousin visited her and asked the saint if she desired anything from her old home in Rocca Porrena, Italy. St. Rita responded by asking for a rose and a fig from the garden. It was January and her cousin did not expect to find anything at the gardens due to the snowy weather. However, when she went to the homestead, a single blooming rose was found in the garden as well as a fully-ripened and edible fig. Her cousin brought the rose and fig back to St. Rita at the convent. Legend has it that this rose bush is still alive today and often in bloom.

St. Rita’s tomb with her incorrupt body is at the Basilica of Cascia in Italy.

Image by Antoine Antoun, Used with permission.