Tu BiShvat: Try a Jewish fruit salad?

A fruit market in Barcelona, Spain, shared via Wikimedia Commons by Mike McBey.

BEGINNING on the EVENING of SUNDAY, JANUARY 16: For Tu BiShvat this year, you might try a special kind of Jewish fruit salad. Gather diverse kinds (totaling 15 items) of fruit and display them in three groups.

  1. Fruit with a tough skin but edible inside such as pomegranates, coconuts, pineapples.
  2. Fruit with a soft, edible skin and inedible inner pit/stone: olives, cherries, plums.
  3. Fruit which can be easily eaten in their entirety: figs, grapes, berries.

Why 15? Keep reading!

What have you assembled? The centerpiece of a Tu BiShvat Seder. Many are familiar with the term “Seder” as it pertains to the holiday of Passover.  The word “Seder” refers to an ordered meal. A Tu BiShvat Seder, based on a practice begun by Jewish mystics in the 16th century, has become a welcome addition to Jewish practice for many families or communities. This Seder focuses on fruit, trees and environmental awareness.

At the Seder, include readings and poetry about trees and nature. Talk about how people’s personalities reflect the traits of the fruit groupings:

  1. People hard to get to know, but warm and wonderful when you get past their tough exterior,
  2. People easy to have superficial conversations with, but difficult to pierce their outer layer,
  3. People who share themselves easily and fully, and are transparent in interactions.

Consider: Some people present themselves as one type most of the time. Others move between these types. Invite people  at your Seder to think or talk about themselves or others through this lens. Make and enjoy a fruit salad with selections from each fruit group.

Display four cups of wine or grape juice consisting of four shades of purple/white. One cup contains only white wine/grape juice. This one represents winter. The next one holds 3/4 white wine/juice and ¼ red wine/grape juice. This blush color represents spring. The third cup is entirely red/purple. The deep, rich color represents summer.  The last cup holds ¾ red/purple wine/juice and ¼ white. This represents fall. Look at the subtle progression of color and how it represents one season blending into the next. This is true of the seasons of our lives as well.

Consider: what season of life are you in now? Perhaps your age represents one season but your attitude and openness represents another season. These questions can also form part of the discussion at your Tu B’Shevat Seder.

Along with organizing the food and drink components, you can invite a speaker or discuss among yourselves an article or organize an activity related to composting, solar energy, noise pollution or climate change. Use the Seder as an opportunity to learn about environmental issues in your community. Arrange a tree planting, beach clean-up, or garden tending event on the weekend before or after Tu BiShvat. These activities expand the holiday to broader concerns.

What Is Tu BiShvat?

Spellings vary in English from the Hebrew. Wikipedia editors have standardized their spelling as Tu BiShvat, even though they spell the month referenced: Shevat.

Tu BiShvat is the Jewish New Year of Trees.  In Hebrew, each letter has a numerical value. When linked, the letters “tet” and “vav”  are pronounced “Tu.” Their numerical value is 15. (Ahh, now you understand the importance of that number!) Therefore Tu B’Shevat refers to the 15th day of the Hebrew month, Shevat. This year, the month is concurrent with parts of January and February.

In Israel, the brief winter months are marked by heavy rains and surging creeks. By late January or early February, most of the rain has ceased and the earliest hints of spring can be discerned. Although several weeks of cooler, shorter days remain, buds appear on some trees. The sap begins to rise in almond trees. The sap can’t be seen, but it is a necessary precursor to the trees’ blossoming.

There are those who would suggest that the time to celebrate the spring or acknowledge our dependence on nature is when everything is in full bloom and the temperatures are mild. But a different perspective is offered by celebrating the rising of the sap and trusting that what needs to grow will grow at the appropriate time.

On Tu BiShvat we honor growth that begins silently, below the surface. Like life beginning in the womb,  and the birth of ideas and realizations originating in the unconscious, much that is creative begins in the  dark. What precedes growth and revelation isn’t seen but it is necessary for fruition to take place.  The darkness of the womb, of the night, of winter, of silence: the darkness and the waiting are powerful and undervalued.

Tu BiShvat provides a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the natural world.  In Judaism we have blessings for smelling fragrant trees, herbs, spices and fruit.  We praise God for seeing wonders of nature, such as oceans, lightning, shooting starts, deserts, mountains, rainbows, and  sunrise. We benefit from reminders that the preservation of the natural world is incumbent upon us.  Tu BiShvat provides a reminder of how dependent and enlivened we are by the physical world.

But Tu BiShvat also offers reflection in spiritual terms. Growth takes time and is rarely linear. What can’t be seen can be vital to full flourishing. Dormancy is not death.

Referencing what it truly means to grow and deepen, Henri Nouwen wrote: “We are called to be fruitful–not successful, not productive and accomplished. Success comes from strength, stress, and human effort. Fruitfulness comes from vulnerability and the admission of our own weakness.”

May our appreciation of nature and human nature be constant, and may it begin now. May we honor the unseen along with the seen, and may we cherish each stage of life for its unique gifts.

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Care to read more? 

Early in 2022, we will publish Torah Tutor by Rabbi Lenore Bohm, who began her career among the first wave of women ever ordained as rabbis. Drawing on a lifetime of teaching the Torah to groups of adults, Bohm divides her book into the 54 portions read each year from the Torah, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

This is a perfect book for individual reading or small group discussion.

Rabbi Jack Riemer—author of Finding God in Unexpected Places—was one of the early reviewers of Bohm’s manuscript. He adds a glowing endorsements:

Rabbi Bohm’s book is indeed a treasure—both for those who think that they know the Torah already and for those who have never studied at a grownup level before. It will open your mind to some of the questions that the Torah asks of us as well as to some of the questions that we should ask when we confront the Bible. I promise you that this is a book that you will find well worth reading—and that you will want to reread many times.

Twelfth Night, Epiphany and Theophany: Christians close Christmas, remember Magi

The journey of The Magi as envisioned by artist James Tissot, who stunned his colleagues in Paris when he felt a deep renewal of his Catholic faith in 1885. This led Tissot to do something that few Western artists had attempted at that point. He traveled to “the Holy Land” in 1886, 1889 and 1896 to sketch detailed studies of the region for his paintings. Today, his huge body of religious art is largely free from copyright restrictions, making them useful for individuals and congregations that enjoy adding visual imagery to their spiritual reflections. Here’s a Wikipedia link to Tissot’s biography.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 5 and THURSDAY, JANUARY 6: Christians worldwide welcome Twelfth Night and Epiphany in Western Christianity, and Theophany (or Divine Manifestation) in Eastern Christianity.

Did you know? Dates and customs vary widely! These festivals have been evolving for many centuries. Epiphany and Theophany customs in some countries actually mingle Eastern and Western Christian traditions—look to Eastern Europe for examples. For Eastern Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar, Theophany occurs on January 19.

Here’s more about these festivals …

TWELFTH NIGHT

Only a century ago, Christmas celebrations were reaching their peak on the night of January 5. Hard to believe? It’s true—the 12th day of Christmas, known better as Twelfth Night, has long been an occasion for special cakes, “misrule” (lively celebrations) and plenty of merrymaking. In the Christian Church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, as the faithful prepare for the feast celebrating the visitation of the Magi. In some Catholic countries, children anticipate small gifts and candies to be left on the evening of January 5, as the Magi “pass by” on their way to Bethlehem. Songs such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “I Saw Three Ships” pay homage to the Magi and, respectively, to their relics being transported to Cologne, aboard three ships.

Did you know? George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night. In past centuries, it was common for weddings to be held during Christmastide (the period between Christmas and Epiphany).

In centuries past, the early days of January were filled with plenty of fatty, sugary foods, drinks, parties and gatherings around the table with family and friends. Particularly in medieval and Tudor England, it was custom for a Twelfth Night cake to be served, into which a bean was cooked: the recipient of piece of cake with the bean would rule for the evening. As Twelfth Night ended a winter festival, the Lord of Misrule gained sovereignty. (Wikipedia has details.) For one evening—until midnight—peasants were treated as kings, and kings as peasants. The Lord of Misrule tradition dates back to Celtic and Ancient Roman civilizations.

In Colonial America, the Christmas wreath was left on the door until the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, at which time any edible portions were consumed. In a similar manner, any fruits on Christmas trees were consumed on Twelfth Night. (Interested in the Victorian era’s take on Twelfth Night? Read more at JaneAusten.co.uk.)

EPIPHANY AND THEOPHANY

ON EPIPHANY, Christians worldwide rejoice in the manifestation of Jesus, revealed as God the Son, on the Feast of Epiphany (in Greek, Theophany). Literally “striking appearance,” or “vision of God,” Epiphany and Theophany have been central to both Eastern and Western Christian calendars for centuries. Through Advent, the Western Christian Church anticipated the coming of Jesus, and of course Mary and Joseph were the earliest witnesses. But Christian tradition holds that one key moment in this revelation was the arrival of the Magi—representatives of other nations—when the true unveiling of God’s purpose took place.

In a similar way, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Jesus’s manifestation as the Son of God, at this time of year, but Eastern tradition focuses on his baptism in the Jordan River as the key moment of revelation.

Epiphany customs in some regions of the world rival those of Christmas, complete with parades, parties, king cakes and “visiting” Magi. On the morning of Epiphany in Poland, some children dress in traditional clothing, carols are sung and homes are blessed; in Argentina, many children awake to find gifts left by the “passing” Magi.

In Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, observances are far more elaborate. Epiphany is called Theophany and also commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Because all three branches of the Holy Trinity were present at Jesus’ baptism, according to church teaching, this event marks the moment at which Jesus was fully recognized as the Son of God. (Wikipedia has details.)

New Year’s Eve / Watch Night: Welcome, 2022!

New Year's Eve theme photo

Photo by Alexas_Fotos, courtesy of Pixabay

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 31: Champagne toasts, fireworks and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest kick off the start of the Gregorian year worldwide, as revelers usher in the year 2022. In several countries, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day means family gatherings, elaborate meals and plenty of parties. From the United States to Mexico, Ireland and Japan, time-honored traditions meet the latest global trends on New Year’s Eve. In New York, celebrities and party-goers watch the famed “ball drop” in Times Square, counting the seconds as the 12,000-pound crystal ball lowers to ground level.

NEWS: The New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City will be “scaled back” this year, according to Mayor Bill De Blasio; however, festivities will still take place. (Read more from Fox Business.) Worldwide, many major cities are canceling activities that typically draw large crowds, and experts are instead suggesting smaller celebrations at home.

New Year's Eve hat

Photo courtesy of Pxhere

NEW YEAR’S EVE: FROM MEXICO TO RUSSIA TO NEW YORK

For many, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day traditions span centuries. In Mexico, it is tradition to eat one grape with each chime of the clock’s bell at midnight, making a wish with each grape. A special sweetbread is baked for the holiday, and in homes across the country, red, yellow and green decorations are hung, in hopes of luck in the New Year in life, love, work and wealth. In Korea, ancestors are paid tribute at the New Year, and in Canada, the United States and the UK, Polar Bear Plunges have steadily been gaining popularity as a New Year’s Day custom. In Russia, some blini is in order for a proper New Year’s party. Tradition traces the thin pancakes back to ancient Slavs, and today, Russian blini may be stuffed with cheese or served in a variety of other ways. (Find a recipe and more at WallStreetJournal.com.)

From Times Square: Since 1907, the famous New York City “ball drop” has marked New Year’s Eve for millions in Times Square and for billions more through televised broadcasting of the event. Notable televised events began in 1956, with Guy Lombardo and his band broadcasting from the ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. During the tenure of Guy Lombardo, young Dick Clark began to broadcast on ABC, and following Lombardo’s death in 1977, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve soon became the hit of the nation. Dick Clark hosted the show for 33 years, and in 2005, Ryan Seacrest hosted his first show, which is now called Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.

WATCH NIGHT AND MARY: A CHRISTIAN NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

In some Christian churches, New Year’s Eve is a night of quiet reflection, prayer and thanksgiving. There’s a long-standing Methodist tradition called “Watch Night,” a custom started by Methodism’s founder John Wesley, and some Protestant groups follow similar traditions. In Greece and in Orthodox Christian communities, New Year’s is spent singing Kalanda—carols—and eating the vasilopita, or St. Basil’s, cake. On January 1, the octave of Christmas culminates in the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

SHOGATSU: JAPANESE BUDDHIST SPECTACULAR

In Japan, New Year’s preparations begin weeks in advance, with pressed rice cakes prepared in a variety of flavors and often cooked with broth for a traditional New Year’s soup. At midnight on Dec. 31, Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, which is an auspicious number in Buddhist tradition. After midnight, many families head to a local temple to pray, and then feast together afterward. The following morning, New Year’s greetings are exchanged and delicacies like sashimi and sushi are consumed.

AND MORE

  • Drink recipes are at Forbes.com and Delish. Looking for a mocktail? Delicious combinations are available from HGTV.

Christmas: Billions of Christians celebrate Christ’s birth

Manger scene with star lit up

Photo by Myriams-Fotos, courtesy of Pixabay

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 25: Sing for joy and ring the bells—it’s Christmas! The Old English Christ’s Mass celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ for Christians worldwide, hailing from snow-covered mountains to sandy beaches, crowded cities to rural fields—and everywhere in between.

Central to the liturgical year, Christmas closes Advent and begins the Twelve Days of Christmastide. Though the exact year of Jesus’ birth can’t be placed, Christian families re-read two Gospels that describe a lowly manger, visiting shepherds, magi and, of course, that mysterious guiding star (now believed to have been a rare alignment of planets). While previously a time of year when winter Solstice was celebrated in the Roman empire, Christians transformed this darkest period of the year and say that Jesus’ coming fulfills ancient prophesy that a “Sun of righteousness” would come, and that his (red) blood and (green) eternal life provide hope to the whole world. Even St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican boasts an impressive mosaic of Christo Sole, Christ the Sun, in its pre-4th-century necropolis.

Earliest evidence of a Christmas celebration centered around Jesus dates to 354 CE, when events took place in Rome (note that the birth of Christ was already being observed at this time by Eastern Christians, on Epiphany). The first Christmas hymns emerged in 4th century Rome, but the Epiphany holiday continued to dominate Christmas through the Middle Ages. During the medieval period, Christmas grew in popularity over Epiphany. During this time, the 40 days prior to Christmas became known as the “forty days of St. Martin”—a tradition that evolved into Advent.

CHRISTMAS DIY: DECORATIONS, RECIPES & PARTY TIPS

Whether your halls are decked to the hilt or boasting a sparse sprig of holly, have no fear—there’s still time to bring cheer to your home! We’ve searched the web and spotted these online gems that are worth a click and a look …

Martha Stewart offers a selection of handmade gift ideas, ornament inspirations and more. After the stockings and wreaths are hung, it’s time to focus on the Christmas meal—an all-important aspect to Christmas in many cultures. In areas of Italy, 12 kinds of fish are served on Christmas Eve (get Italian Christmas recipes here), while in England, fare often includes goose, gravy, potatoes, bread and cider. Whether Midnight Mass interrupts your menu or not, don’t forget dessert—American cookies, traditional pudding, fruit cakes and mince pies. (Taste of Home and AllRecipes offer everything from appetizer to dessert recipes.)

Cooking for guests with special requests? Find a gluten-free menu and a vegetarian menu from Huffington Post. In Malta, a chocolate and chestnut beverage is served after the 12 a.m. Christmas services.

DID YOU KNOW?

Sancte Claus was retroactively named the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam (the Dutch name for New York City) in 1809

• President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in the United States in 1870. Five years later, the first American Christmas card was produced

• Charles Dickens sought to recreate Christmas as a family centered holiday of generosity and secularity. Unlike modern-day Europe and U.S., workers in Dickens’ day did not get “days off” in their work schedules. In addition to campaigning for a full-day December 25 holiday in A Christmas Carol, Dickens was one of the leading British activists for Sunday-holiday laws in the UK that would give workers a weekly sabbath off work. So, there was a major political campaign behind Dickens’ fanciful tales.

Yule: Welcome winter on solstice with cakes, mistletoe and a log on the fire

winter scene

Photo by Sorbyphoto, courtesy of Pixabay

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 21: For centuries, the solstices have been marked as auspicious turning points in the calendar. For our Northern readers, today is the winter solstice!

Often termed Yuletide or Yulefest, the days surrounding winter solstice have long been marked with cold-weather festivals and warm feasts, giving thanks for the “rebirth of the sun” and the reversal from increasing darkness to increasing light. Ancient Germanic peoples observed Yule; ancient Romans held Saturnalia, Brumalia and other festivals for the sun with food, gift-giving, gambling and often ludicrous behavior. Today, Pagans and Wiccans gather for Yule festivities: feasting and the lighting of the celebrated Yule log, which traditionally smolders for 12 days.

Tray Yule

A tray for Yule. Photo by Synne Rustad, courtesy of Flickr

Want recipes? Bake a tasty version of a Yule log with a recipe from Martha Stewart.

Looking for an easy, no-bake Yule log cake? Check out this recipe, courtesy of Food Network.

Germanic peoples are credited the religious festival called “Yule.” Enormous feasts and livestock sacrifices were associated with Yule, and so merry was the atmosphere in these activities that Grettis Saga refers to Yule as the time of “greatest mirth and joy among men.” Today’s Pagans and Wiccans often exchange gifts at Yule meals, while praising the rebirth of the sun and various gods.

YULE: WASSAIL, HOLLY & MISTLETOE

Looking for some Yule inspiration? Recharge with some all-natural ideas from the Huffington Post, such as enjoying the beauty of firelight or relaxing to some Classical music. In years past, pagans “wassailed” their fields with cider drinks—but a tasty wassail is great for sipping! (Find a recipe here. For an alcoholic version, check out the New York Times.)

Get in touch with nature by decorating your home with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; for a warm scent, make a pomander by decorating oranges with cloves (get instructions from Martha Stewart), noting the orange’s resemblance to the sun.

Las Posadas: Hispanic Christians await Nativity with processions, community, food

Las Posadas music

Music for Las Posadas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16: The Hispanic countdown to Christmas officially begins tonight with Posadas Navidenas (or, more simply, Las Posadas) across Mexico, in Guatemala and in regions of the United States. Tantalizing dishes, merry carols and the story of the nativity has been bringing together communities in Mexico for more than 400 years in a beloved tradition that lasts nine nights and ends on Dec. 24. Each night of Las Posadas, a small, candlelit procession travels through a neighborhood, its participants dressed like Mary, Joseph, angels and shepherds, reenacting the search for a safe place to welcome the infant Jesus. Often, musicians follow the group, as do accompanying members of the community. (Note: According to news reports, this tradition will be adjusted in many communities in 2021, in accordance with continuing pandemic restrictions and/or requirements.)

Did you know? As a learning resource, NBC News suggests Posadas Navidenas as one of five Latino holiday traditions to share with children.

Spanish for “lodging” or “accommodation,” Posada recalls the difficulty Mary and Joseph encountered on their journey. Posada describes the events of Las Posadas: as the procession stops at designated houses and asks permission to stay, it is prearranged that all homeowners turn away the visitors until the host family is reached. At the home of the host family (or, in some regions, a church), the visitors are welcomed inside, and all present kneel before a nativity. Following prayers, tamales and ponche navideno are served, washed down with rompope, a Mexican drink with a taste similar to eggnog. Children may hit a five- or seven-pointed piñata, often filled with dried fruits, sugar sticks, candies and nuts. Often, Christmas carols are also sung by all. (Learn traditional carols and more at The Other Side of the Tortilla.)

FROM AN AZTEC WINTER CELEBRATION TO A NEIGHBORHOOD EVENT

Roots of the nine-day Las Posadas likely lie in the Aztec winter celebration of the sun god, which took place over nine nights; when the native peoples of Mexico were converting to Catholicism, church leaders encouraged nine nights of devotion to the parents of Jesus—focusing each evening on a month of Mary’s pregnancy.

Revelries outside of Mexico can vary: in the Philippines, Posadas highlights a Panunuluyan pageant, a type of play portraying the story of Mary and Joseph and recited in a local language. In Nicaragua, the event lasts only one day. In the United States, several regions hold some type of Las Posadas celebration, most often with carols, reenactments and plenty of Mexican food.

DIY: RECIPES & MAKING A PINATA

For recipes for tamales, rompope and more, check out an article from the Washington Post or this Pinterest page.

St. Nicholas Day: Christians, European traditions honor the famed bishop of Myra

St. Nicholas figure

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

MONDAY, DECEMBER 6: The white-bearded man in the red suit may travel by reindeer in the West, but today, Sinterklaas, or San Nicola, arrives across Europe on horseback—for St. Nicholas Day. For European children, St. Nicholas Day brings hope of sweets, small toys and surprises, as the fourth-century saint makes his rounds with Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). For Christian families, the excitement and gifts of St. Nicholas Day can better prepare children for focus on the Nativity on Christmas Day.

Advent season: For more than a billion Western Christians, Advent begins before St. Nicholas day. (The first Advent Sunday was November 28 in 2021.)

Nativity Fast: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, the 40-day fasting period known as Nativity Fast lasts through December 24.

Did you know? Most years, the nonprofit St. Nicholas Center brings new offerings to its website, which is full of information, craft ideas, recipes, printables and more—all related to St. Nicholas. This year, St. Nicholas Center added 36 new and updated articles, in addition to two new crafts: lighted miters (for use as a window decoration or luminaria) and a four-sided paper ornament, with instructions to print, cut out and fold.

NICHOLAS: A BISHOP, A LEGEND

The historical St. Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. When orphaned at a young age, Nicholas followed the words of Jesus and sold his inheritance, giving the profits to the poor. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.)

The generous young man devoted his life to God and was soon made bishop of Myra, where his reputation for compassion continued. Despite imprisonment and persecution during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas unwaveringly continued his servitude toward others.

Stories of his works and deeds spread throughout the land, and some of those stories are still told on St. Nicholas Day today. In 343 CE, St. Nicholas died in Myra. A relic, known as manna, formed on his grave, and the substance was believed to have healing properties.

NIKOLAOS:  EUROPEAN TRADITIONS

Saint Nicholas, Zwarte Piet

St. Nicholas and Zwarte Piet. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the many countries that observe St. Nicholas Day—the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria and more—the day is met with special baked goods, processions and reenactments of wonderful stories from the life of St. Nicholas. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in France, the spicy smell of gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) fills kitchens and bakeries. St. Nicholas is the most popular family patron saint in Serbia. Throughout Europe, children leave their shoes out on the evening of December 5, to be filled with either treats or coal by the passing St. Nicholas and his sidekick companion, Zwarte Piet.

RESOURCES: ST. NICHOLAS CENTER OFFERS ACTIVITIES, RECIPES & MORE

The St. Nicholas Center offers a video to introduce St. Nicholas, intended for St. Nicholas events and a handout on The Real Santa (with an Eastern image, too). Visitors to the site can find printable candy bar wrappers, paper bag puppets, cookies and even a religious devotional for churches—all with the intention of spreading the story of the life of the famed bishop of Myra.

Learn about the life of St. Nicholas, here. For children, check out this page.

Bake Speculaas cookies, gluten-free Speculoos and Ukrainian Christmas Honey Cookies, with recipes here.

Get creative with craft ideas and directions, here.

Access St. Nicholas Day blessings and other faith-based resources, here.