Remember When . . . The City Disappeared?

In the final book of my Ladies of the Manor series, which I just finished writing, I have a character from Russia. Now, I’ve longed loved Russian literature, which has given me a bit of an understanding of that famed Russian soul, but it’s been a while since I’ve read any. So I picked up an awesome book on Russian culture and the ideas and morals behind it to help me write Kira Belova in a believable way.

Throughout the book, she peppers in some of her Russian-peasant stories and traditions, which I think are oh-so-intriguing. And tells one of their most prevalent folk tales, about the mystical city of Kitzeh.

Kitzeh, so tradition goes, was the most righteous city in the world, filled with true believers–those of the Russian Orthodox faith who practiced it as Christ and the disciples themselves instituted, with none of the compromises and corruptions that had crept into other faiths over the years. Kitzeh was so righteous that it was like Heaven on earth.

But when the Mongols invaded the Nizhegorod province where Kitzeh resided by a lake, the waters swallowed up this holy city to keep it from being overrun by the faithless invaders–but it was no tragedy for the occupants. No, they were all saved when this happened. And the story goes that the city is still alive and well under the surface of the waters…but only those of the truest faith can see it.

Every year on the summer solstice, people would go on pilgrimage to this lake in the Nizhegorod province, tacking icons to trees and gathering together in a sort of outdoor church, praying and singing…and listening for the tolling of the church bells under the water. Hoping, praying it will resurface.

Did Kira ever hear those bells? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to figure out that one. 😉

Remember When . . . Easter Traditions Began?

Remember When . . . Easter Traditions Began?

So, this past winter I looked up the start of some of our most long-lasting Christmas traditions–namely, Santa Claus. And what I learned made me determined to revive the roots of the tradition, not abandon them altogether as I’d been tempted to do.

The Easter Bunny, on the other hand…I think I’m pulling the plug on him.

I actually made Xoe look up the history of the Easter Bunny last year and write a report on it for school, LOL. She was totally confused by what she found–or rather, by what it has to do with Jesus’s resurrection. Good question, my girl. Good question.

Easter is actually from the Roman goddess of spring, Estre. She was a magician, a trickster, and her most famous trick was when she turned a chicken into a rabbit–but which still laid eggs. The Easter egg, then, was an ancient memorial to this goddess and her magic. The egg laid by a rabbit. The Easter Bunny was the product of this magic. Easter, in ancient mythology, was the celebration of the arrival of spring.

It just so happens that the date coincides with the Jewish Passover, which is, of course, when Jesus was crucified and resurrected. And so, the traditions of the Romans merged with Christianity when it was brought to Rome. But unlike Santa Claus, this was no saint who gave selflessly in honor of Christ, and in whose name other gave so their gifts could be anonymous, as Jesus commanded. No, this is pure paganism.

Do I have a problem with searching for colorful plastic eggs? No, not really. It’s a scavenger hunt, which is totally fine. But I do wonder why we call it Easter instead of Resurrection Day. (Actually, my piano teacher growing up thoroughly objected to this and always, always called it Resurrection Day.) I do wonder why the Easter Bunny still shows up. I love celebrating the resurrection, and I’m happy to do it with food, with treats, with things that bring Joy–because it should bring joy!

But I’m all done with the word “Easter.” I’m all done with the traditions that have absolutely no tie to what I’m really celebrating. Resurrection Day, even more than Christmas (in my opinion, LOL), is the foundational day of my Christian faith. Without this day, my hope would be naught. Oh, Jesus still would have paid the price for my sin had He not risen–but if He had not defeated death, then I wouldn’t have hope in life eternal with Him.

This Sunday, my friends, is the anniversary of the absolute best day in human history. And I’m tired of calling it by something that cheapens it. This isn’t the day of spring, of the rebirth of the year, of magical bunnies who lay eggs. This is the day of Resurrection–of the rebirth of my soul. The day Jesus defeated sin and the grave.

Way better than a chicken-rabbit. Just sayin’.

Thoughtful About . . . Santa Claus and Giving

Thoughtful About . . . Santa Claus and Giving

I admit it. Readily. I have occasionally had issue with the Santa question. I have friends who never introduced the concept, and part of me always wished I had put my foot down on it too. Because I never really introduced it. I just let it creep in. Whenever my kids would ask, I would say, “Well, what do you think?”
And I was about to pull the plug. Then . . . then I looked it up. I looked up the true history of St. Nicholas, and how he became Santa Claus. And you know what I discovered? That of all the many Christmas gift-giving traditions, this is actually the only one I feel has its roots in the right place.
Nicholas was from a city in the Byzantine empire, born in the late 200s and living through the mid 300s. From his youth, he was always given to matters of God. His parents died when he was young, leaving him a very wealthy boy. But rather than live in style, he was raised by his uncle, a priest, and soon followed in his footsteps. (Sorry–no Mrs. Claus.)
Even as a boy, he was known as the wonder-worker. He healed people of things like withered hands and illnesses with simple prayers. He calmed storms. He worked miracles. And he’s still hugely remembered for those things in Europe, where you’ll be hard pressed to find a town without a church dedicated to St. Nicholas. But do you know what else he’s remembered for?
His anonymous generosity. 
See, he had all this money . . . but a heart for the Lord. So what did he do? Well, whenever he saw the needs of someone in his community, he quietly met them. He threw gold through windows. Down chimneys . . . and on occasion, it’s reported that some of this gold landed in a stocking left to dry over the banked fire.
Sound familiar? For hundreds of years, Christmas stockings always had gold–or a golden fruit, like an orange–in the bottom, to recall this story.
But the beauty of the thing is that Nicholas never claimed to be the gift-giver. More, when someone caught him at it, he would beg them not to disclose the secret, not so long as he lived. Because Christ charged us to give in secret.
After his death on December 6th, however, the stories came out. Story upon story about the generosity and gift-giving of Nicholas, who was soon named a saint and whose feast day was established as December 6th. So a new tradition was born. Whenever an anonymous gift was given, and especially on his feast day, it was said to be given in the name of St. Nick. 
Anonymously–because that’s what Christ charged us to do.
Isn’t that actually what gift-giving should be about?? Not the glory of saying, “Look, I bought you something you’ll love!” but the knowledge that we’re bringing Joy to someone–better still, meeting the need of someone–without expecting anything in return. Even the Joy of seeing their faces when they open it.
That is true giving. And that’s what St. Nicholas represents.
So how did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? Well, because of the proximity of St. Nicholas’s feast day to Christmas, the two holidays eventually merged. But not right away. For hundreds of years, the gifts were given on December 6, and December 25 was reserved as a day of worshiping the Christ Child.
Then Martin Luther revolutionized the church and tried to do away with the saints’ days altogether. He was the one who said we oughtn’t to expect gifts from St. Nicholas. Instead, we ought to be grateful for the gift of the Christ Child. But in rather typical fashion, people weren’t willing to give up all their old traditions…so they just changed the name and began saying the gifts were from the Christ-kindl (German/Dutch for Christ Child). Which Americans later heard and thought was Kris Kringle. Which is how it became, ironically, another name for Santa. (Also note that Santa Claus is directly from the Dutch words for saint and Nicholas, Claus being a nickname for the latter and “sinta” the word for the former.)

So you see what happened? In effort to change a tradition, all we succeeded in doing was losing its meaning. Santa became a symbol of greed to many, when that’s the last thing he ever was in reality. He became a symbol of Christmas-when-you-take-Christ-out-of-it, when his life was dedicated to putting Christ in everything.

When I read all this history, I was inspired (hello, future novel!), and I was also saddened. Because one of the most honorable traditions surrounding gift-giving is the one so often hated by the Church. Oh, we’re happy to give gifts…but we don’t want to lie to our kids. (And let’s face it–we don’t want to share the glory when we find that perfect something for them.)
Well, I’m not going to lie to my kids. Instead, I’m going to teach them who St. Nicholas was. More, why he did the things he did. And I’m going to hammer home that the beauty of the thing is the anonymity. Who leaves those presents? Well, that’s for you and your faith and your logic to decide. But the most important thing as a receiver of said gifts is knowing they’re given from love–not just the love of a friend or the love of a parent or the love of any other family.
These gifts represent the love of God. The love of Christ. Embodied by the anonymous generosity of man…a man like St. Nick.
I’m not going to lie to my kids. I’m going to explain that St. Nick is a real person, who did indeed appear miraculously to many people. That’s it’s not about magic…it’s about miracles. That believing God can do the impossible is part of faith. And that another part is being His hands and feet. Being His vehicle.
Being St. Nick. Not just on Christmas–in fact, we’re going to try to get away from making the day set aside for Christ being Present Day. But we’re going to give gifts. We’re just going to change up how we do it.
My challenge to you this year is to start taking yourself out of gift-giving. Start signing gifts “Anonymous”–or, as the case may be, “St. Nicholas.” Start leaving them for people to find and never know they’re from you.
Let’s start giving for the right reasons. And let’s give some credit to the memory of a man who always, always did. Santa isn’t a symptom of the evils of a commercialized nation–we are. Our attitudes are. Santa, if you dig back to the history, is the memory of a man who knew how to do things right. And I bet if Nicholas of Myra could see how his image has been changed over the years, and even hated by some Christians, he would weep. Because all he ever wanted to do was show Christ’s love to his flock. He would want us, just like I firmly believe God does, to get back to the roots of that.
Will this be hard? Absolutely. Why? Because of expectation. Because we’ll feel cheap if we show up without something in hand and don’t reveal we’ve already given something. But that’s a symptom of the problem, isn’t it? Giving shouldn’t be about our pride.
Let me say that again:
Giving should be about Him.
Not me.
Not you.
If we’re giving in our own name…well, then who’s the gift about? Makes you think, doesn’t it? Or at least, it made me think. Because giving gifts has always been, to me, about (a) the recipient and (b) my Joy in giving it. Not really about God at all. And you know, maybe that’s fine on a birthday.
But on Jesus’s? I don’t think it is. I really don’t. And so I’m going to accept the challenge to myself. I’m going to figure out how to glorify the Lord and honor Christ on His day–on every day. And I’m never going to sell St. Nicholas short again. Because he understood all his life what it’s taken me a lot of years to figure out.
Remember When . . . Nero Fiddled?

Remember When . . . Nero Fiddled?

One of the most interesting aspects of my current biblical fiction is its position on the historical timeline. Not that anything particularly riveting happened in known history in the months during my story. But that’s kinda the thing. Big things had happened a few years before.
And really big things were coming.
Now, we all know me. One of my greatest loves in fiction is explaining historical facts through my characters, or at least having my characters interact with that fact. In A Stray Drop of Blood, my pivot obviously focuses on the crucifixion. I wrote those scenes with my Bible always open and lots of website visits to check historical facts. And at the end of the book, when Menelaus finally makes his way to the villa, I had to toss in a few other historical references. Just for fun. I state that the expulsion of the Jews from the city of Rome was largely because of Abigail angering the emperor.
Oh yes, great fun. Except that now I’m writing the sequel, LOL. So now I have to actually deal with all those things I threw in just for fun. And I also have to look at the current emperor.
Shudder. Nero is so infamous. So known for all his evils. In fact he did a lot of good for Rome too, but no one remembers that quite so well. I had never learned before that, in the aftermath of the great fires that swept through Rome, he was out in the rubble looking for survivors, right beside the common citizens. All I knew was that old saying that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” That some historians actually accused him of having the fire set so that he could build his new palace. We know for a fact he blamed the fire on the Christians.
But why? To blame the great fire on the Christians (this is about ten years or so after A Soft Breath of Wind will end), he must have already hated them. But, again…why?
Mwa ha ha ha. Insert Roseanna rubbing her hands together. I get to do my favorite thing. I get to explain the hatred of an emperor, of an empire, through my characters!
I toyed for a while with different ways, considering bringing Nero himself into my story in a critical role I already had planned out. But the more I thought about that, the more I decided it was too much. So I kept reading about him. And I hit on something else. One of the most important things Nero did in his early reign was oust all the old advisers and counselors, the ones loyal to his mother (whom he killed, by the way), and bring in young advisers of his own generation. Nero was young when he took the throne. In my story, he’d be in his twenties. He was handsome, with that rare golden hair you don’t often associate with Romans (much like two of my characters). He had a thing for prostitutes and enjoyed a good party. He was young, with the passions of youth. With friends now serving beside him, taking on important government functions.
I can totally work with that. 😉
I’m not going to give away exactly how, of course, LOL, but I’m really enjoying this part. I’ve twice now had Nero pass by on the streets, on his way to a harlot’s bed. (Stray Drop readers will perk up at this section of the book, with a certain name dropped.) And one of those friends of his (a fictional one) will take on that role I already had planned out. And then, when the climax of the story comes, Nero’s fury will be ignited.
And the readers will all know that this, then, is why the Christians later pay.
Oh yes. Such fun. I love writing historicals. =)
Remember When . . . The Old Was New Again?

Remember When . . . The Old Was New Again?

I’ve been enjoying my tenure back in Ancient Rome. Much as I miss my Culper Ring characters, it feels a bit like going home to return to the world of A Stray Drop of Blood and dig into life at the Visibullis villa outside Rome.
I haven’t chatted a whole lot about it here though. Some, but not a lot. In part because I haven’t been doing a ton of research. While, say, Jewel of Persia revolved around the historical events of the day, A Soft Breath of Wind is more about the people that made up the early Church. I haven’t had to look up things like fashion and housing much, because I already have that research on hand from Stray Drop. I haven’t had to do a ton of research on what was happening in the world that year, because, well, there wasn’t much worth noting, and my story revolves around those fictional lives.
But I’ve still had to look up a few things here or there, so I figured I’d share some of the fun things I learned recently. =) 
First, scissors. One of my primary characters is Samuel. Stray Drop readers will remember him as the little boy that Jason rescues, whom Abigail ends up adopting as her son. In A Soft Breath of Wind he’s all grown up and still the nurturer he was as a boy. He has, in fact, gotten some training from a physician and now serves as villa doctor whenever anyone needs him. 
My accident-prone heroine often needs him. =) I had a scene in which she falls off a stone wall and knocks her head pretty good, so he has to stitch her up. It was one of those where I’m describing the action as he’s talking to her mother, things like pulling the silk thread taut and then snipping it–somehow. What would he have used? A knife? Did they have scissors? (Yes, the things I have to question!)
Insert Roseanna jumping over to Google and asking. And finding these.
Picture from at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City in 2006 by Yannick Trottier
Apparently scissors have been around for a goodly while, LOL. These are labeled as being from the 2nd century, Turkish in design. But they follow the basic design used as far back as 1500 B.C., when they were invented in Egypt.
Sweet. So he can have scissors. =)
Around the same time, I was looking for details about Roman vineyards. I did a fair bit of reading, but one thing that really stuck out to me was that they used elm trees among the rows of grapes! I had no idea, but it’s pretty clever. The trees provide some shade, and the straight, slender trunks can be used like stakes to train the vines along. So when my characters wander the rows, they would have not just clusters of grapes at hand, but also elm trees.
Good to know. =)
So there’s just a taste of everyday life for Zipporah, Benjamin, Samuel, and Dara. Now back I go into their world. 😉

Traveling Times in the Ancient World

Traveling Times in the Ancient World

Yes, this is posting way late. Because I kinda forgot it was Wednesday. Because I was kinda caught up in writing A Soft Breath of Wind. Which I kinda can’t apologize for. 😉 But here, belated, are some random historical thoughts, LOL.

Fresco of a Roman merchant boat

We historical writers always run into some of the same problems, no matter what era we’re writing in. One of mine is “How long did it take to get from point A to point B?” By boat. Or horse. Or on foot. Or, eventually, by train. Where were the roads? The ports? Did they have docks? How did they get from boat to shore? How far would they have been from town?

These are the kinds of logistical questions that can drive me absolutely batty, because the answers can be hard to find.

Sometimes though, they come from the strangest places–like my daughter’s school books, for instance.

A couple weeks ago, we were reading through the assigned pages of The Awesome Book of Bible Facts, the pages about Roman travel. Xoe was not so interested–I, however, found it fascinating. Diagrams of their roads–details about their sea travel–time it took to sail from Jerusalem to Rome–BE STILL, MY HEART!


Yes, we must take our information where we can find it, check it where we can, and run with it.

I’m running right now. Because, finally, Samuel and Benjamin and company are aboard one of Titus’s vessels, on their way from the port at Joppa to Ostia, the port near Rome. One month, give or take, it shall take them, and then they’re home.

I’ll get to write my reunion scene. Which also happens to be a pretty big explosion, my mid-point pivot. Of course, in the meantime I have a couple hearts to crush and character hopes to dash to set them up for this, so do excuse me. Much to do. 😉