by Claire du Nord
Building an Ancestral Altar – One Holiday Cookie at a Time
When you catch the nisser on your altar doing random happy dances, you know that Yule is right around the corner! Nisser is the plural of nisse, (gnome), in Norwegian. Claire du Nord here, a High Priestess in the Temple of Witchcraft tradition, with the sixth article in our “For Broom Closet Witches” series.
With the previous article, the Wheel of the Year Sabbat holiday, Samhain, (or Halloween), was in season. Now, we turn to the next Sabbat on the Wheel – Yule!
God Jul! (Good Yule!)
As a child, I never questioned my mother or my grandmothers about the types of Holiday cookies and breads that we baked at this time of year – year after year after year. I didn’t even think to ask. But as I grew older, I began to wonder about family traditions. I reasoned that if people repeatedly do things a certain way, they become traditions. And traditions have a way of being unique to the regions of the world where they arose. And why does that matter? Well…
My mother’s father was a first generation Norwegian American. So, it wasn’t so surprising to me that we would be baking Norwegian Sandbakkels/Sandbakelse, (cardamom-spiced cookies with the texture of “sand tarts”, baked in mini pie tins), every year without fail. We also baked Swedish Spritz, (buttery-sweet cookies made into various shapes with a hand-held cookie-press). Both of my grandmothers were first generation German Americans, and my mother’s mother would always bake German Stollen, a special holiday bread with candied fruit inside and frosting on the outside.
What got me wondering if there was more to my ancestry was that there were other cookies that we made that didn’t seem to be Norwegian, Swedish or German (or Scottish, Welsh, or Irish from my paternal grandfather’s side), as they either didn’t have Scandinavian, German, or Celtic names or they contained ingredients that are not naturally available in those regions, such as the dates in the “Date-filled cookies” my paternal grandmother made. And when I asked my mother why we always baked “Russian Tea Cakes” and drank “Russian Tea” for the holidays, her very generic answer was, “They are good. We like them.” “Hmmm”, I thought to myself, “Maybe she doesn’t know why…”
When I was in my last year of high school, my World History teacher gave us an assignment to put together a family tree, and so began my lifelong interest in genealogy. And, with the advent of genetic testing, the opportunity to find out the deeper, and more accurate, story behind my family’s origins presented itself. As the saying goes, “DNA doesn’t lie.”
Sadly, my mother passed away before I could do my DNA testing, and so I inherited her hand-made cookbook, her Sandbakkel tins and her Spritz press.
My DNA testing did indeed reveal that our family tree has many more branches than I had previously known about, and, as I had suspected would be the case, those other types of cookies and their mysterious names and ingredients aren’t so mysterious anymore!
What’s more, thanks to DNA testing, in addition to the candles, the flowers, the photographs of some of my ancestors, the nisser (gnomes), a dragon, a tartan ribbon, a leprechaun, a mermaid and two little hand-painted plates from Bavaria, my altar is now also home to a Saami/Sami flag, a Romani flag, a little plate from Paris with the Eiffel tower on it, a dreidel, a feather attached to a small jar with blue cornmeal in it, a Nazaar (amulet against the “Evil Eye”), a “Khamsa/Hamsa/Hand of Fatimah”, and a Matryoshka doll. My Ancestral Altar continues to grow, as I find a way to honor each piece of my family heritage – each piece of “me” – with a small representation of that part of my ancestry.
What does all this have to do with Witchcraft, especially Broom Closet Witchery, you may be wondering? Well, my long answer would be – “just about everything” – that is, if you wish to choose a pantheon along ancestral lines. If this is the case, it helps to know where your ancestors came from – really came from. In my case, what seemed like a clear-cut “We come from X, Y, and Z” turned out to be much more complicated. Now that I’m a grownup, I know that many factors can come into play to shift individuals and groups of people around the globe, far away from their original homelands, such as a nomadic lifestyle, diaspora, etc. I also know now that it is entirely possible that just a generation or two further down the immigration/assimilation line, a person might know little or nothing about their family’s origin(s), language(s), culture(s), etc.
My short answer would be that knowing one’s family origins and carrying on family traditions can give one a sense of grounding, of belonging and a base from which to build self-knowledge.
My in-between answer would be that if you are wondering what type of altar to build, you might choose an Ancestral Altar, which doesn’t necessarily need to scream “Witchcraft”, and this can be especially important for us Broom Closet Witches! As described above, you might like to have photographs of your ancestors, candles and flowers, miniature flags and characteristic representations of the places your ancestors came from, their cultures, traditions, art, etc.
But as always, please use your own best judgement when setting up an altar, as only you know what is best for your situation. Every Broom Closet Witch’s situation is unique and only you know what is appropriate for you.
I hope this article has been helpful, and until next time –
Merry Meet, Merry Part and Merry Meet again!
Yule Blessings to all,
Claire du Nord