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Windbreak House
Writing Retreats

In the center of the nation, deep in the grasslands of western South Dakota, essayist and poet Linda M. Hasselstrom grew up as an only child on a family cattle ranch homesteaded by a Swedish cobbler in 1899.

Today she invites you to benefit from a writing retreat on that same ranch. Come to the house where she discovered the Great Plains outside her windows, where she began to write the poetry and non-fiction books that have established her as one of the strongest voices on behalf of the prairie.

Linda holds a BA in English and Journalism, an MA in American Literature, and has been a teacher of writing for more than 40 years. She has hosted writing retreats at her ranch since 1996.

Not a writer but a reader? Enjoy Linda's vivid descriptions of her life and work on the ranch, as a writer, and as an advocate for the preservation of the prairies and the people and wildlife who inhabit them.

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Windbreak House
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If you "Like" me on this Facebook page you'll get notifications of my newly-posted blogs as well as announcements about my books, writing retreats, and other events to do with Windbreak House.​WindbreakHouse

No kitten videos, but I post Tuesday Writing Tips, Wednesday Word Posts, and various other writing-related stories, announcements, book reviews, photos and the occasional joke.

Christmas symbols with roots in ancient traditions.

Saint Nicholas, the kindly gift-giver.

This little skiing Santa Claus ornament belonged to my grandmother, Cora Belle, in the early 1900s.

The Evergreen Tree.

A symbol of life during the cold, dark winter.

Worldwide Circulation!

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, writes a weekly poetry column sent to 3 million readers worldwide via newspapers and individual email subscriptions.

In August, 2014 he shared Linda's poem "Planting Peas" in his column #490.

Read it here.

Listen to Linda:

Stories and Essays by Linda
may be found on this website.

* Linda's Blog
Linda covers a wide range of topics.

* Home Page Message archives
Many of these essays have writing advice. All have photos, some have recipes, a few have poems.

* Poetry Page essays
Read suggestions for writing and performing poetry and the stories behind some of Linda's poems.

* Critter Stories
Brief stories and photos of birds and wildlife seen on Linda's ranch may be found on this page.

* Gallimaufry Page
Stories and photos that don't fit anywhere else.

Linda on YouTube

Nancy Curtis, publisher and owner of High Plains Press, recorded a couple of videos of Linda reading her poetry and posted them on YouTube.

To see Linda read "Where the Stories Come From"
click here.

To see Linda read her poem "Make a Hand"
click here

Or go to and search for Linda Hasselstrom.

You may also want to visit the High Plains Press facebook page where you will find these two poetry videos and much more about the many great western books-- poetry and non-fiction-- published by High Plains Press.

Thanks, Nancy!

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Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2014.
The circular evergreen wreath is a traditional symbol of everlasting life.

. . .
Christmas and Xmas, Solstice and Pagans
A Home Page Message from Linda for the Winter Solstice --- December 21, 2014

A chill in the air. Early dark. Christmas carols on the radio. Voices screaming at us to buy BUY BUY!

That's how we know it's time for the annual battle cry: "They’re taking Christ out of Christmas!"

War cries may be appropriate since some past cultures believed the Winter Solstice was a war between dark and light.

That annual battle, according to traditions handed down orally even before written records, ended with the birth of the sun-child from a virgin mother.

Does that sound familiar?

Christ only became part of this humanity's winter celebrations about A.D. 273, when Christians in Rome began celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25, because the date was already a Roman holiday, Saturnalia. On that day, said the Romans, the sun god was born of a virgin.

Part of being a writer is curiosity, so I've done considerable research into the origins of the Protestant beliefs in which I was reared. I emerged with considerable respect for the canny intelligence of those early Christian leaders. Religious authorities disagree wildly about precisely when and where certain symbols and rituals first appeared, but there is no doubt that Christianity borrowed freely from earlier beliefs.

Before written records, long before passports, bards of many nations traveled widely, composing poems and songs that incorporated news, legends and anecdotes from their wanderings. Arriving at isolated farmsteads or castles, they traded their talents for lodging and sustenance, repeating the most memorable stories over and over until they became part of our history.

I deplore the commercialization of this time of year, but the sales pitches remind me that those who made the virgin birth of a god the centerpiece of a new religion were smart salesmen. (And yes, they were all men, determined to wipe out the older religious centered around gods and goddesses.) They built on established beliefs to encourage people to adopt their radical new view of the world. To make their message important and memorable, they chose symbols that had already been in circulation for years, perhaps centuries, to add power to their beliefs.

Surely this adds to the power of the Christian story; the idea of a god born of a virgin mother is so inspiring it has been part of our heritage for more generations than we can count. The lessons we derive from the whole exciting story of Christmas are abundant, stirring us and moving us toward worship and gratitude-- and even more important if they are older than I was taught.

In fact, solstice-related events are becoming more common among Christian churches, says the Rev. Barbara Lund, director of the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in St. Paul, MN, which is holding its solstice celebration on Thursday December 18. (Jeff Strickler wrote in the December 15th Minneapolis Star-Tribune about solstice celebrations in that area.)

"People who are faith-based," says Lund, "are finding a connection to a larger sense of earth-based spirituality." Jaime Meyer, who leads solstice celebrations in Minneapolis, says, "Recent surveys have shown that the largest denomination in this country is made of people described as spiritual but not religious. They want a spiritual and sacred event." Rev. Ron Moor, whose Spirit United Church in southeast Minneapolis is holding its annual winter solstice celebration Saturday says, "We have a wonderful Christmas Eve service, and we have a wonderful winter solstice service. We celebrate the son-- s-o-n -- and the sun-- s-u-n." The service centers on drumming by the audience as a dance troupe performs in a candlelit circle. "We want to honor ancient tradition," says Lund.

Jaime Meyer's service, he says, includes "mysterious music that Lutherans are not allowed to learn," but he laughs to show that's a joke. Churches aren't the only places marking the occasion. The American Swedish Institute hosts a winter solstice celebration on Sunday, as does the Center for Performing Arts in south Minneapolis. First Universalist Church will hold its 34th such service on Friday; Pamela Vincent, the church's service coordinator says, "We get 300 to 400 people," at the joyous celebration. During the first half of the celebration, the lights grow progressively dimmer, while in the second half the lights gain intensity. The middle of the service is 12 minutes of darkness and silence.

"I've heard people weep," says Vincent. "In our society, just being quiet for 12 minutes is a radical act." Meyer, who has a seminary degree, explains that his focus is "less on the astronomical solstice and more on the solstice of the heart . . . the yearning in each of us to be renewed and reborn. . . . Our culture is hungry for a new beautiful, meaningful expression of our relationship with the unseen," he adds.

Many symbols and rituals that are part of modern Christmas also come to us from long ago. The practice of abbreviating "Christmas" as "Xmas" is easy to trace. "X" stands for the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. Some say early Christians thought it disrespectful to write the name of Christ, so the abbreviation was considered more piously correct than saying "Christ."

Some traditions originated even longer ago. Our Christmas evergreen tree was regarded as a symbol of the essence of life as well as a phallic symbol by our Norse ancestors. On evergreen trees around their homes, the Norse hung apples, nuts and other foods, as well as ornaments symbolizing the sun and stars. Prehistoric Germanic tribes "wassailed," going from home to home bearing gifts, and were welcomed inside to feast and drink to everyone's health. They also gave gifts of food and clothing to the poor. During the Roman Saturnalia, tree boughs and fruits were exchanged to symbolize a hope for good harvests.

Mixing the fruitcake ingredients and then, when finished, cleaning the utensils.

The oldest reference I've found to fruitcake dates to Roman times, when the recipe included pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins mixed into a mash containing barley. During the Middle Ages, honey, spices and preserved fruits became part of the recipe, and crusaders and hunters carried similar cakes to sustain themselves on long marches. When the British began importing dried fruits from the Mediterranean in the 1400s, they adopted fruitcake as well.

Wreaths, circlets made of various plant materials, symbolized honor and moral virtue to the Etruscans and Romans. Building on these beliefs, Christians adopted wreaths to decorate the funerals of important people, especially saints and martyrs, because the circle symbolizes everlasting life.

Druids began our tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house to bring good luck as well as to ward off evil spirits, fire and lightning. To the Norse, mistletoe symbolized love and friendship; sprigs hung at one winter solstice often remained in the house until replaced the next winter solstice. So-- even leaving the Christmas decorations up all year is not a new idea!

And those stockings hung by the chimney with care? In pagan times, Scandinavian children left their shoes by the hearth, filled with carrots or straw for the god Odin's horse Sleipnir; if the horse ate the food, Odin left small gifts and tasty treats in the shoes.

Santa Claus is a folk figure with astonishingly varied multicultural roots; apparently a number of cultures needed a kindly god-figure, perhaps to offset some of the angrier deities. Claus embodies characteristics from Saturn, the Roman agricultural god; Cronos, the Greek god; the Holly King, Celtic god of the dying year; Father Ice, a Russian winter god; Thor, the Norse sky god; Odin, the Teutonic All-Father who rides the sky on an eight-legged horse; Frey, the Norse fertility god, and the Tomte, a Norse land spirit who gave gifts to children. Supposedly, the name came from the Dutch pronunciation, "Sinterklaas," of Saint Nicholas.

Church authorities also adopted the attributes of various pagan goddesses, combining them into the Christian Mary. Crosses, incense, bells: all were part of pagan rituals before they became associated with Christianity.

In fact, most of the customs, lore, symbols and rituals associated with what we call "Christmas" can be traced back to the winter solstice celebrations of ancient cultures we call "pagan." In Latin, where the word originated, "pagan" means "country-dweller," with the implication that these folks lived too far from town to go to church. Modern usage has twisted this original meaning to suggest non-Christian or even anti-Christian beliefs.

Many cultures, both ancient and modern, arrived at a similar idea: that from the dark womb of the night, the light is born. At the heart of all these celebrations was the idea of lovingly gathering family and friends together to hold the dark cold of winter at bay with feasting before winter’s famine. Understanding that life was precarious and precious, they brought tribe and family together as a whole before winter made everyone focus on their own needs. In fact, the word 'holy' may have been derived from the Old English halig, which means 'wholeness', or the Old High German hulis, meaning 'holly', considered a sacred plant to our pagan ancestors.

Winter Sunrise at Windbreak House, 2014.
"I've always liked the Norse idea that the sun is a great wheel of fire . . ."
(Photo by Jerry Ellerman)

Researching the history of our beliefs, I discovered that the word “yule” is derived from the Norse “Jul,” meaning “wheel.” I've always liked the Norse idea that the sun is a great wheel of fire that rolls away from earth in the winter, then wheels back in spring, a progression easy to visualize as the sun rolls along my eastern horizon, rising farther south each day. To lure the sun to return, the Norse built big bonfires outside and burned great logs-- Yule logs-- on the hearth. Neolithic monuments such as Stonehenge in England were associated with various yearly rituals, including the winter solstice.

Since my ancestry is apparently Celtic and northern European, I've concentrated on searching for the origins of customs among those traditions. But what of the rest of the world? Again, research indicates that many people celebrate the same ideas at nearly the same time, with many similar elements.

Archaeological evidence that Native Americans celebrated the winter solstice has been found at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near Collinsville, IL, and at the Great Serpent Mound in rural Peebles, OH. Various mound structures in other parts of the country are believed to have been associated with similar rituals conducted by various tribes. Stone medicine wheels in Wyoming and other rock structures in the West have also been linked to solstice rites.

Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, is celebrated at the start of winter in India, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Fiji.

Jews commemorate Channukka, the Festival of Lights, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev; this year the holiday falls on December 17. The eight-day fete acclaims the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration and of spirituality over materiality

Eid al-Adha, or “Festival of God,” is the Muslim feast commemorating Ibrahim's willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son, Ishmael, the ancestor of all Arabs. Beginning on the 10th day of the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, revels begin after the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Kwanzaa means “first fruits,” and marks the African-American gala beginning December 26 and ending January 1. Homes are decorated with vegetables and fruits recalling the holiday’s basis in an ancient African harvest festival, and candles are lit.

All through this season, people everywhere will pause to celebrate the solstice, and to search for light in the darkness. They will invite friends and relatives to feast, celebrating together their common ideals. They will live with joy and express gratitude for all the good things in their lives.

How does the worldwide acknowledgement of this winter solstice season connect with your writing?

I believe writers must keep searching, working to learn the rest of the story. As a writer, I often hunt for the origin of the words I’m using, even if their meaning will not appear in the finished poem or essay. Writers of family history keep investigating old records, knowing that they may uncover something that doesn't fit the family legends. To tell and understand the whole story, you must take the risk of learning more than you want to, of uncovering information that doesn't fit your preconceived ideas.

So if I stand in a Christian church adorned with a decorated evergreen tree at this season, I'm glad to know something of the origins of that tree's symbolism. Does that knowledge add to, or detract from, my appreciation? Each of us might respond differently.

No story belongs only to one writer, or one tradition, or one culture. To focus only on one person's ideas or on the culture into which we were born, is to narrow our attention. If a writer's work is too narrow, its importance diminishes. Introspection is not enough. We need to probe more deeply to discover how our individual stories are linked to those of our neighbors, our friends, and even our enemies.

I can picture Christ, Buddha, Muhammed and Confucius sitting down with female religious figures such as Mother Teresa, Sr. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Julian of Norwich and Ruth to share a dark fruit cake as they discuss how their beliefs have been warped by their followers. Celebrate in whatever way you choose!

The writing retreat house at night.
"All through this season, people everywhere will pause to celebrate the solstice, and to search for light in the darkness."
(Photo by Ruby Wilson, 2012.)

When I choose how to celebrate or write about each winter solstice, I wear like a warm cloak the knowledge of hundreds of years of people like me being joyful. As long as humans have walked the earth, we have looked into the darkness of winter nights and prayed for the return of warmth, of green grass, of soft spring air. Some of the voices rising in prayer or song in the cold darkness sing a language I cannot understand and follow unknown traditions. I find this knowledge comforting, not alarming.

We all live in a world of rapidly expanding knowledge and methods of connecting. Via the internet, and television, and dozens of communications devices, we can see how other people view the notions that we have accepted as unchangeable. We have an opportunity to adopt ideas because they fit the way our minds work, not simply because our fathers or their priests chose a particular way to think.

We don’t need to write for a unique and small circle of the like-minded, or for people who look like us; we might exchange ideas with people everywhere on this planet. We might learn from viewpoints different than ours.

When I look up at the dark sky, I feel ancestors standing beside me, and see our forerunners smiling down from the churning darkness behind the Milky Way.

Likewise, I feel as if I am holding the warm hands of every other human on earth, acknowledging the fact that we are more alike than different. In acknowledging our resemblance, we will find hope for the survival of the species-- and writers are an important part of that work, as are artists and thinkers of all kinds.

Here’s my “Hymn for the Winter Solstice”

Power hammers
in our throats.
Blood is water.
Drink to your life.

Power is black earth
under our fingernails,
grit between our teeth.
Plant your seeds.

The power
of the south wind
streams into our lungs.
Breathe deep.

A sunflower
a single spark.
Light your oven.

spills into rain.
Laugh at lightning.

Power sings
in the coyote’s yelp
the wolf wrawl,
the badger’s whistle.
Howl at the night.

The hymns are in our blood.
Our sinews sing the rites.
Earth tingles
in our fingertips.
Power churns
under our bootsoles.

The harvest of greed
is always ash,
the harvest of hate
is ever blood and shattered bone.
Darkness always dies, always
surges toward the light.

When you hear the thrumming,
inhale the honest wind
that lifts your wings;
feel your blood boil.
Put your faith in bedrock.
Trust treetops shaped by true blue air.
Believe in unconditional fire.
Remember water cannot lie.

Swear by your sweat,
Swear by your blood,
Swear by the power of the grass:
next time
next time
next time
we won’t forget.

Celebrate in December in whatever way you choose-- and allow others to do the same. Let us gather around the fire of love and hope for a better world which unites us all. No one's choice of observance can diminish my appreciation of the many meanings this season carries to us from out of time we can only imagine.

May Winter be kind to you, and may you appreciate its richness.

May Spring be always in your heart.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
For the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2014
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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These Home Page Essays Are Archived --- Linda posts a new message on her Home Page a number of times each year. We've archived the essays (click here) so you can read the ones you missed and re-read the ones you enjoyed. Some of them include recipes or poems or writing suggestions. All of them have photos.

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