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Cover Story: Yule Love Losar

Lesser-known winter holidays underscore cultural diversity

By Margo Pierce · November 28th, 2007 · Cover Story
GSL Monastery

Tibetan "donkey ear" cookies, flowers, candies, rice and other offerings to Buddha are part of the New Year celebration known as Losar.

Not all winter holidays are based on religion, but many are. Some of the more interesting events aren't very well known but embody the spirit of giving and renewal that are frequently missing in the parking lots and conventional events.

Dec. 21 marks the celebration of Yule, the Pagan recognition of the winter solstice, held throughout the Tristate. Most are on the quiet because of the lingering myths and fears surrounding the nature-based spirituality.

Vicki Hall, coordinator of Greater Cincinnati Pagan Pride and known in the Pagan community as Kyttenn -- numerologically speaking, this spelling matches her given name -- says Pagans tend to be private people and hold events in private homes of other Pagans.

"We tend to be guarded because there's such a misconception about Paganism," she says. "There are those that believe that it's Satan worship and it's evil. It is an earth-based spirituality."

Saying she prefers "spirituality" over "religion" because it's more accurate, Hall says she also thinks that's what faith traditions are all about -- finding a connection with each other and a higher power.

Pagans find that connection through the change of seasons or "turning of the wheel."

"Yule happens to be winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year," Hall says. "It's a celebration of the rebirth of the sun god. Because it's the longest night of the year, three days after the solstice the days get longer, the sun is out more and it's giving thanks to mother earth and to the higher being for the sun coming back out again."

The celebration isn't the same old thing every year -- the only "routine" component is giving thanks for that turn of the wheel. The ritual incorporated into the celebration of Yule is unique. Some covens hold their own events, while others welcome the community to participate.

Hall describes the celebration as a service including a ritual designed to recognize the importance of the event. Written by the woman who hosted the event last year, Hall says each year is different.

"This woman has a fireplace," she says. "She had us all write down ... anything that it's time to let go of. She asked for the goddess to help us let go of these things and move on and go forward to new things. Then we all, one by one, got up and, taking that list of things to let go of, put them in the fire and burned them. It's a symbolism: You burn them and they go out into the air and you release it."

Hall says her group's celebrations are welcoming and an opportunity for non-Pagans to learn something new. But don't forget your dish.

"Our Yule celebration is pot-luck," Hall says. "Everybody brings a dish to share."

Another unconventional celebration that happens in Cincinnati originated on the other side of the world in Tibet. Based on the lunar calendar, Losar is a time of celebration that begins with preparations that typically include cleaning and painting the house, new clothes and lots of cooking for the first three days of what can be a month-long event.

"Usually the most important part is the three-day celebration," says Venerable Jamyang lama of Gaden Samdrupling (GSL) Monastery in Colerain Township. "The first day of Losar is a spiritual time. People go to the monasteries for prayers and blessings. The second day is a family-oriented day when family members get together and enjoy special delicacies. The third day, they hang prayer flags and have a special smoke offering and throw tsampa (flour) in the air for good fortune, good luck for the coming year."

Celebrations can last for weeks or the entire month, depending on the number of family and friends involved in the festivities and the traditions of a particular region or sangha -- loosely translated, Buddhist spiritual community.

At the monastery, the focal point is the third day, according to Jamyang.

"That day we make a smoke offering and hang new prayer flags," he says. "And we hold a dinner party for the sangha members and the community."

In addition, the monks prepare two versions of a special Tibetan cookie, khapse (pronounced "cop-say"). The first is an offering to the Buddhas, also called "phunao amchok" ("donkey ear"); these are placed on an altar. The second is given to guests at the end of the dinner.

Feb. 7, 2008 is the beginning of year 2134, the year of the rat.

To learn more about the Cincinnati Pagan Pride Yule celebration, visit www.cincinnatipaganpride.com or send an e-mail to cincinnatipaganpride@gmail.com. For more information about Losar, visit www.gadenusa.org or call 513-385-7116.


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