Spiritual sustenance, naturally.

Sacrifice of the Balsam

As a child, I spent part of each summer at my grandparents’ house, where my younger sister and I shared a little attic room that they had prepared for us as a bedroom. The pine-paneled attic was also the storage place of items I found fascinating: books and clothing from the last century, postcards my grandfather bought in Europe in the early 1900’s, old furniture. One day, exploring the attic, I came upon a small pillow, made of rough, beige fabric. It felt peculiar, so I squeezed it, and caught the scent of balsam.

Balsam was our family’s tree of choice at Christmas. Discovering in my grandparents’ hot attic a scent I associated with the cold winters of Northern New York State transported me right back to the wonderful feelings I associated with that winter holiday time of year.  The pillow also reminded me of the happy, lazy summer days I spent at our cabin on the Raquette River in the Adirondacks, exploring the pine-scented trails, climbing rocks, and swimming. I slept with the tiny pillow each night of our visit, but left it behind at my grandparents’ when we returned to our New York home. A few years later, my grandmother died, the house was sold, and I never knew what became of the balsam pillow.

Many years later, not knowing this story, a friend gave me as a Christmas gift a balsam pillow filled with needles from the Adirondacks. I don’t think he realized how special that gift was for me. The scent was just as evocative as it had been when I was a child. That’s when I decided that I would make small, fragrant balsam pillows to give as gifts. I’ve done that each year, and I also sell some of them.

It’s become a January ritual. Earlier today I removed needles from our undecorated, dry, balsalm tree. This year, as in years past, I found myself entering a light trance state, as I methodically performed the repetitive motion of removing needles from each branch into a bag on my lap. I thought about this tree, about taking its life to bring fresh greenery into the house at a bleak time of year, which my Northern European ancestors did for centuries. Using the needles is a way of recycling part of the tree, but today, the word “sacrifice” came to mind.

The root word of “sacrifice” comes from a Middle English verb meaning “to make sacred,” from the Latin sacrificium: sacr, “sacred” and facere, “to make.” Perhaps I can regard cutting down the tree as a sacrifice of a living being, making the tree sacred as part of our mid-winter holiday. The tree is a symbol of life, because it holds its green throughout the winter. At this cold and dark time of year, the sacred tree reminds me that life does go on, the green is with us, and will return in full as the days lengthen. Hildegarde of Bingen (1098 – 1197) wrote of the greening power of the Christ, viriditas, green power and energy.

Creating the balsam pillows, I think about the tree’s sacrifice, and about the life that abides and returns. These thoughts transport me into the past of my ancestors, to my childhood, and into the future, as I daydream of the return of the green, with balsam needles in my hands.

Comments on: "Sacrifice of the Balsam" (8)

  1. What a lovely, evocative post. And just perfect for these cold, snowy days.
    Thank you, dear Katharine, and many blessings,
    Marian

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  2. Marian, Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. Today I added your Lilypad book to the blog’s reading list.
    Warm wishes for a wonderful year,
    Katharine

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  3. I really enjoyed all of these posts. You have a wonderful way of writing that brings up images and feelings. Thank you again for sharing your gifts and your light with us. Much love and many blessings to you as you begin this blog journey! (or “Blourney” LOL)

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  4. These are absolutely gorgeous and I love the connotations behind them. I will be making some with the left over pine needles from our tree harvested from the woods, not balsam, but hey, they still let off a fragrance.

    Are they stuffed 100% with needles, or something else too? I thought of dry rice which would hole the scent for longer?

    I also love your choice of book on your book list, I read many of them, esp. the Spell of the Sensuous, interesting as i have never come across anyone else citing this book.

    Thanks for a lovely blog, look forward to reading more, i am very interested in your take on spirituality.

    love and Light, Lou x

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    • Lou,
      Thanks for visiting! Yes, 100% needles. If you try the rice, let me know how it works. The needles do not poke through because I use two layers of fabric, and the fabric is tightly woven.
      Tell me about your sweet baby avatar!
      Katharine

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      • Ha ha! that photo was taken by my eldest girl when she was about 4 of me and my youngest girl when she was about 8 months old (I think!) I have always used the photo for an avatar, I love it because it involves all us girls and I see both my daughters (one behind the lens and one in front of it) when I look at it.
        🙂
        I am glad I came back to comment, this means I can look around your blog a little more…..fascinating…..

        x Lou x

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  5. […] Today is the day for the annual Sacrifice of the Balsam. (Click for last season’s post.) […]

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