Moon Cake Recipe

For serving on the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival
From Chinese Seasons by Nina Simond

Filling
1/2 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped dried apricots (softened in hot water for 1 hr before chopping)
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup raisins
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts

Combine the ingredients and mix well.

Crust
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1 t salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 t vanilla extract
2 T water

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Using a large whisk or an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar for about 10 minutes, until a ribbon is formed. Add the melted butter, the vanilla extract, the water and the dry ingredients and stir until a rough dough is formed. Use your hands to press the dough into a ball. Form the dough into a long snakelike roll about 1-1/4 inches thick. Cut into 24 pieces.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Using your hands, press each dough section into a 3-inch circle, with the edges pinched thinner than the center. Place a portion of the filling in the center, gather up the edges of the dough to meet in the center and pinch to seal. Roll the cake into a ball and flatten it to a 3-inch round. Carve a decorative design on top or press the cake, joined edges up, in a lightly floured moon-cake mold. Invert the molded cake onto a cookie sheet. Continue until done. Arrange the cakes 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Prepare a glaze (by beating one egg) and brush the surface of each cake lightly with it. Bake the cakes for about 30 minutes until golden brown. Remove, cool and serve.

From my Harvest Holiday guide, available from my store.

Photo taken by Junelee. I found it on Wikipedia.

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Mid-Autumn Moon

On the full moon of the eighth Chinese lunar month, women celebrate the Moon. This moon is usually the full moon closest to the Equinox, and the same as the Harvest Moon in the West.  It corresponds with the Full Moon of October 5 in 2017.

In China, this is the beginning of the yin part of the year, when the dark takes precedence over the light, and the Moon is the symbol of yin energy, which also includes water, women and night. In the old Chinese agrarian system, autumn and winter were the women’s seasons.

The Moon Goddess, known as Hengo or Chang-o rules the Jade Palace of the Moon. Sometimes she is associated with a rabbit, sometimes with a toad. She drank the elixir of immortality meant for her husband and floated up to the Moon.

To honor the Moon, the women build an altar in the courtyard and put a figure of the Moon Hare in the center. Also on the altar are 13 moon cakes (to represent the 13 lunar months in the year), incense sticks, candles and plates of pomegranates, melons, grapes, apples and peaches. The pomegranates and melons represent children, the apples and grapes fertility and the peaches long life.

According to Anneli Rufus in The World Holiday Book, another popular fruit for the altars is the grapefruit-like pomelo, whose Chinese name, yow, is a homophone for “to have.” She also describes the filling of the moon cakes: sweet bean paste or lotus seed with a boiled egg at the heart to symbolize the moon.

When the full moon rises after sunset, the woman of the house approaches the altar and bows to the moon, followed by all the other women present. They sit in the courtyard all night long, feasting and drinking, some studying the moon for auguries, some composing poems about the beauty of the moon and the night, some playing the game of “Capturing the Moon,” by trying to catch her reflection in a bowl of water.

In Korea, to the north, this is a harvest festival. In Vietnam, it is celebrated by children who march in the night, carrying lanterns shaped like animals, birds, and fish, moving with a swaying motion, and chanting nonsense rhymes.

In Japan, this holiday is called Tsukimi. People gather at lakes or in special moon-viewing pavilions and eat “moon-viewing noodles”: thick white udon in broth with an egg yolk floating on top.

Photo by Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know

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Michaelmas

Photo by Mark Twyning

September 29 is the feast day of St. Michael and all the Angels, the most ancient of all the angel festivals. From fairly early on, Michaelmas was an important holiday, the religious or Christian equivalent of the autumn equinox. Just as spring equinox was associated with another Archangel (Gabriel) and a fixed date (March 25), so did the Archangel Micheal’s holiday become a fixed date to celebrate the harvest holiday of autumn equinox.

Michael is one of my favorite saints, especially in his role as a protector. When I was worried about my adolescent daughter, I asked Michael to protect her and promised a pilgrimage to one of his traditional sites of worship. I was hoping to get to Mont St. Michel but made due with a walk up to the top of Skirrid Fawr in the Brecon Beacons where there was a ruined chapel to St. Michael.  Most churches to St. Michael are on the top of mountains, like this handsome church on an island off the coast of Cornwall.

In England, Michaelmas was considered the start of a new quarter. It marked the start of a new business year, a time for electing officials, making contracts, paying rent, hiring servants, holding court and starting school. Obviously we still see the remnants of this in the timing of our elections and school year.

This is also a time when the weather is known to change. In Italy, they say “For St. Michael, heat goes into the heavens.” In Ireland, people expect a marked decrease in sickness or disease. Barolini records a nursery rhyme about hours of sleep:

Nature requires five,
Custom gives seven,
Laziness takes nine
And Michaelmas eleven.

As early as 1014, the laws of Ethelred in England prescribed a three day fast for all Christians before the feast. Servants weren’t allowed to work during these days. Michaelmas was a time when rents were due, and rents were often paid in food. The traditional rent for Michaelmas was a goose.

Eating something rich like goose at this turning point of the year brings good luck. In Nottingham they say “If you eat roast goose on Michaelmas day, you will never want money all year.” In Norfolk, they say, “if you don’t baste the goose on Michaelmas Day, you will want money all year.” In Italy, where this is clearly considered a harvest festival, they say “For St. Michael all the last fruits of the year are honeyed and ripe.”

The celebration of Michaelmas in Scottish highlands and islands clearly shows that this was the occasion for a ritual thanksgiving for the abundance of harvest. An unblemished ram lamb called the Michael Lamb was killed on the eve of the feast to be served as the main course. Women made special cakes called struan Michael or Michaelmas cakes, from equal parts of all types of grain grown on the farm, kneaded with butter, eggs and sheep’s milk, marked with a cross and cooked on a stone heated by a fire of sacred oak, rowan and bramble wood. A piece of the cake was thrown into the fire as a tithe to St. Michael’s opponent, the Devil. Other cakes were made for special people, for the family and for the community. Cranberries, bilberries, brambleberries, caraway seeds and wild honey were baked into the cakes. Clearly part of the purpose of this charm was to take the bounty of the farm’s harvest and use it to fashion an offering of thanks. In a similar gesture, people in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire scattered grain for the wild birds to bring good luck to the farm.

From this Waldorf site

Ginger was also a traditional flavor enjoyed at Michaelmas in the form of gingerbread. I love the playfulness of these little dragon breads which I found at a Waldorf site. They are made from bread dough, shaped like dragons, and decorated with almonds and raisins.

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A Harvest Loaf

by Kate May-Price

The colors grow richer in these early fall days – even here in San Francisco, though it pales in the shadow of upstate New York’s autumnal fires. I can still sense the natural rhythm as the weather blows the golden grains on our California hills.

It is harvest time, but nowadays it can be hard to see the relevance of ensuring the winter stores. Traditionally, this was a time for reaping grains and preserving the fruits of summer. Some of us continue this work, but many of us do not.

There is however much more than seasonal harvest nostalgia, many of us are looking for a return to the lessons learned from traditional or indigenous diets. Let us then look to Jessica Prentice’s book “Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.”

True to their personification, squirrels are clever – burying each acorn fools it into thinking its been “planted.” While the squirrel continues its gathering, the buried nut begins to release nutrients that are key to a germinating plant. In the spirit of coevolution,  these nutrients are exactly what is nutritionally required by the squirrel if it hopes to survive the barrenness of winter.

We can mimic this – increasing available nutrients – through the process of sprouting or fermenting grains. The recipe – without further ado.

From the “Full Moon Feast” book –

Sourdough:

Take 1 tablespoon of sourdough starter and mix it together with ½ cup filtered water and 1 cup freshly ground whole wheat (or spelt) flour in a clean jar. Let this sit for 8 hours at room temperature or between 48 hours and 1 week in the refrigerator before using in the recipe.  You can use it at room temperature, or cold.  Each time you cook with your sourdough, reserve 1 tablespoon of starter, mix with ½ cup of water plus 1 cup of flour, and store in the fridge for the next recipe. You can keep your starter going indefinitely this way.  Mine is about 15 years old.

 

The best way to get a good sourdough starter is from a friends or an artisanal bakery…The great thing about a real sourdough starter is that it is made up of wild yeasts – that’s what you want.  Try G.E.M. Cultures for sourdough as well.

 

You can also make your own starter.  Our hands have natural yeasts on them, so if we add the water, the flour and “get into the mix,” we have starter unique to ourselves. For more specific information, check out the new book, “The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time” by the Bay area’s own Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger.

“May we feel wonder for the gift of grain, which through dying is born again, or else gives its life to us.”

Kate is an educator, artist, gardener, and cook carrying on her family’s culinary history by following her nose. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay area. Her web site is called Pen, Trowel and Fork.

Portions of this article reprinted from Full Moon Feast, ©2006 by Jessica Prentice, with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing (www.chelseagreen.com). All of the photos are courtesy of Kate May-Price. First published August 29, 2010.

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Falling Leaves Day

Photo Credit: Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know

This has emerged in recent years as I have spent time focusing on the in between seasons. There is a time when almost all the leaves have left the trees. The trees stand bare and quite exposed but there is usually one of two leaves quivering and clinging to the last breath. This is a day that I like to spend with the leaves and it is a truly personal day created by me for me.

In itself the process of creation speaks a story that will unfold as the years do the same. This year that day is almost upon me. Once I see the day has arrived everything will be suspended. Mother Nature is in charge of when this day falls and that is one of the most enchanting things about falling leaves day.

My day with leaves will involve all sorts of creative activities with leaves. I have created leaf rubbings since I was small but I still get a gentle moment of excitement as the crayon finds the shape. Recent years have seen me dry leaves before creating a leaf garland to celebrate autumn.  My leaves are drying in readiness. Using cotton and a needle I make a small stitch into the back of the largest vein  in the leaf before leaving a gap of cotton and then continuing to sew. This garland remains in my sitting room for many months.

Over the years leaves have inspired many poems and short pieces of fictional writing and this will form the bulk of my inside time while sat next to my open fire. Before that though a ‘walk with the leaves’ is the heart of the day. Hoping for a dry crisp day where I can walk through piles of leaves tossing them into the air as I go. On our smallholding we use decaying leaves as a winter mulch and feed for the soil so some brushing of leaves will feature in the day. This raises the heart beat and reminds you that you are alive.

As I close my journal on my falling leaves day I will spend just a few minutes remembering all the times I have walked with the leaves.  It is a ritual that speaks to my spirit that immediately connects my soul to Mother Nature.

It promises to be the best of all holidays.

Fiona Doubleday is an artist who live on the Isle of Arran. Her most recent creative adventure has taken her into the textile arts. She is making and selling exquisite bowls made out of recycled and natural materials. She has also blogged for years under the name Scottish Island Mum.

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Making a Corn Dolly

By Jo Sullivan

When the last fall grain harvest was gathered in, ancient farmers in Europe (from England to the Baltics) always kept a few sheaves aside to be woven into “corn dollies,” shapes and figures thought to manifest the spirit of grain. Called the corn mother in Northern Europe, the hag in Ireland, and the corn maiden in parts of England, the spirit inhabited the fertile fields, and once the grain was harvested, needed a place to dwell until replanting time in the spring. Those final sheaves kept her spirit alive through the fallow winter.

Despite their name (corn evolved from ‘kern,’ the old English word for grain, and “dolly” is thought to have evolved from “idol”), corn dollies weren’t made of corn and didn’t always resemble the human form. More often, they were interpreted as circles, hearts, loops, goats, and stars that could be displayed in the home during the dormant winter, then plowed back into the earth in spring. When modern mechanical threshers came into use, the art of making corn dollies was almost lost. But in the past few decades, it has experienced a revival, usually under the name of wheat weavings,

Waverly published an article about wheat weaving in this magazine last year. You can also interpret the spirit of the grain in your own way. We chose to make ours look a bit like a proud, wild goddess with a head and hands of seedheads and a corn husk dress. This style is easy to make with older children, although an adult should be present for wire cutting.

Start with a four-ounce bundle of wheat and cut the seedheads off, leaving a little of the stalk intact for a base. Separate the taller seedheads from the shorter ones, then make two piles of short ones for the hands and one pile of big ones for the head. Wire the seedheads into bundles with 22 to 24-gauge wire.

Soak the long stalks for a few hours so that they’re pliable, then cut two piles of stalks: one for the body and one for the arms. Bind off each pile at each end, then wire the ‘hands’ to the end of the arms, the ‘head’ to the top of the body, and the arms to  the body. Hide the wire under raffia. Cut a piece of paper and secure into a cone shape. Anchor body in the cone either by poking wire through the paper and wrapping it around the body stalk or any other method that works for you. Now you can make the dress. We used corn husks and pinned them to the paper cone. This is just one simple way to make a corn dolly without being skilled at wheat weaving. Even without those skills, my daughter and I felt like we were taking part in an ancient tradition as we made our dolly.

Joanne O’Sullivan writes about art, culture, and traveling with kids from her home in Asheville, North Carolina. She can be reached through her blog, the Wanderlists.

Photo taken by Jo Sullivan: a corn dolly in front of a chocolate cosmos. First published August 29, 2010.

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Michaelmas Daisy

The Michaelmas daisy, among dead weeds
Blooms for St Michael’s valorous deeds

Any of the various asters can also be called a Michaelmas daisy, so named because they are members of the Daisy (compositae) family and they bloom through Michaelmas, providing a late show of color and bloom in the garden.

There are species of asters native to America, Switzerland and Italy. The aster amellus or Italian starwort is the original plant dedicated to Archangel Michael, whose holiday we celebrate on Michaelmas, September 29. (For more on this holiday, see this article.)

The 16th century herbalist, Gerard, commented on the aster native to England, the sea starwort (aster tripolium) which grew along the coast but flourished when brought into the garden. He called it tripolium because “It was reported by men of great fame and learning [he was referring to Discorides]..that it doth change the colors of his flowers thrice a day.”

In the 17th century, the plant collector, John Tradescant Jr. began bringing asters from North America to England. In 1633 he brought over the Virginia aster (aster lateriflorus). Later he introduced the very popular New England aster (Aster nova-angliae) and New York aster (Aster nova-belgii). These plants have since been reclassified; they are still in the tribe of Asters but under the genus name of Symphyotrichum (from the Greek words for “growing together” and “hair”—poor plant, aster is a much more appropriate and glamorous name).

Still if you were looking for one in a nursery, you’d probably say you were looking for an aster. There are many varieties available, most of them hybrids of the New England and New York asters, in many colors and sizes, with names like Harrington Pink (an heirloom aster dating from the 1930s) and Persian Rose, September Ruby and violet Carpet, Purple Dome and Wood’s Pink.

Aster Etymology

Asters are named for the stars they resemble—the name comes from the same root word as astrology and asteroid, asterisk and disaster–and in England, they are sometimes called starwort (wort simply means herb or plant with healing properties). Several legends are told about their origins. One says that Virgo scattered stardust on earth and they became asters. Another attributes their origin to the goddess Astraea (often associated with the constellation Virgo) who withdrew from earth out of sorrow and looking down wept. Her tears became asters

Aster Folklore

In ancient Greece, aster leaves were burned to keep away evil spirits and drive off serpents. Pliny the Elder recommended a tea of aster in cases of snake bite and an aster amulet to ease the pain of sciatica. Virgil wrote about it in the Georgics:

There is a useful flower
Growing in the meadows, which the country folk
Call star-wort, not a blossom hard to find,
For its large cluster lifts itself in air
Out of one root; its central orb is gold
But it wears petals in a numerous ring
Of glossy purplish blue; ’tis often laid
In twisted garlands at some holy shrine.
Bitter its taste; the shepherds gather it
In valley-pastures where the winding streams
Of Mella flow. The roots of this, steeped well,
In hot, high-flavored wine, thou may’st set down
At the hive door in baskets heaping full.

Helen Baroli in her book about Italian holiday food mentions picking yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on Michaelmas.

I don’t think the cake has any asters in it but the Plants for the Future website gives aster amellus, the native Italian aster, a rating of 2 for edibility and 2 for medicinal qualities. The roots have been used to make medicine for coughs, pulmonary infections and malaria. However they warn that although the native aster is probably safe to eat, the hybrid decorative varieties may not be.

The aster is considered a herb of Venus and like the daisy, which belongs to the same family of Compositae, it has been used in love divinations.

Growing Asters

Asters are easy to grow. I just saw a meadow full of three-foot high purplish-blue asters in a marsh on Puget Sound, where I presume they were growing wild. Although the plant can grow in poor conditions, it likes moist soil and lots of sun. Asters should be divided every three years.

One of my favorite garden writers, Paghat, offers a selection of aster photographs and tips on cultivation (at least in the Pacific Northwest) at her website.  Check her index for other asters.

She’s also the person who referred me to Picton Garden in Worcestershire, the site of the original Michaelmas Daisy Nursery founded in 1906 by Ernest Ballard. He was an English plant breeder who specialized in Michaelmas daisies.

China aster painted by Redoute

Chinese asters come from a different genus Callistephys, but they also bloom in autumn at the same time as the Michaelmas daisy. Their name means beautiful crown from the Greek kallistos (beautiful) and stephanus (crown). They were often planted in Chinese gardens in pots and arranged in a row with one shade blending into one another to produce a rainbow effect, something that might be fun to do with asters in your garden.

The sheer variety of China asters in shapes and color, is why aster means “variety” in the language of flowers. Asters are also associated with elegance and daintiness.

References:

Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1988
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, first published in 1597, reprint by Studio Editions 1994
Martin, Laura C., Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Martin, Laura C., Wildflower Folklore, Globe Pequot 1993
Martin, Tovah, Heirloom Flowers, Fireside 1999
Parson, Frances Theodora and Mrs William Starr Dana, According to Season, A Celebration of Nature, Houghton Mifflin 1990
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997

Illustrations:

The lovely picture of the purple aster was taken by Heather Oetkin’s elementary school students and featured at the Human Flower Project website, where Julie Ardery admits that asters are on her hated plants list.

For Cecily Mary Barker’s depiction of the Michaelmas Daisy Fairy
First published on September 9, 2011

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Plant Birthdays

Autumn Croci growing in the dirt

Autumn Croci growing in the dirt

Tell me of what plant birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

For Leopold it’s the cutleaf Silphium, blooming in the corner of an old cemetery. For me, it’s the autumn crocus, blooming on my birthday (September 4). It always catches my by surprise, even though I watch for it as my birthday approaches. I didn’t see a trace of it in its usual habitat but coming home from a BBQ on Sunday night, I spotted these autumn croci springing up from the dirt.

017Then on my way to work yesterday, I found them in the place I’ve grown accustomed to seeing them. With the sunlight shining on them, they truly resembled “the lamps of the ghoul,” the name the Arabs give this plant (according to Wilfrid Blunt) because they are so poisonous. Other names for them: naked nannies and bare bottoms.

So what does that say of me, that this is the plant birthday I oberve?

First published Sept 9, 2009

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Preserving Summer Herbs

by Erin Fossett

September is a month of changes. When our lives were bound more closely to the land, it was a time of hope, and celebration of the harvest. It was also a busy season, as farmers worked feverishly to bring in their crops before the first freeze. There was a feeling of abundance, but also of transition, of letting go.  We still feel it, watching the change of the seasons. The days continue to shorten, leaves change colors, and even in the glory of Indian summer the nights take on a chill. In our own gardens, the plants that we nurtured so carefully for months are now going to seed, losing their summertime glory. Soon it will be time to clip away the old growth and turn the soil over, preparing the ground for winter.

One way to celebrate the energy of September is to preserve the flavors and scents of summer through herbal teas, vinegars, flavored oils, and honeys. Whether you have a full garden, a kitchen window box, or buy your herbs dried and in bulk, these creations are fun and relatively simple to make, and offer another way to share seasonal bounty with your friends. (For buying dried herbs in bulk, as well as herbal making supplies, visit Mountain Rose Herbals.)

 

Herbal Iced Tea Cubes. In September, I try to make daily batches of strong herbal tea, using the last of my chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint, and catnip. I let the tea steep for up to eight hours, and then pour into ice cube trays and freeze. The finished ice cubes will store in freezer bags for up to three months, and can be added to smoothies, or melted and diluted with hot water for a refreshing cup of herbal tea.

Ice cube trays are also handy for freezing big batches of fresh tomato sauce or pesto, using the last basil from your garden. Let the sauce cool thoroughly before freezing, and store the frozen cubes in freezer bags for up three months, thawing as needed.

 

Herb Infused Vinegars. Herbal vinegars make a flavorful addition to salad dressings and dips, as well as a nourishing daily tonic to help strengthen the blood or tone the digestive system. Good herbs to use in your vinegars include garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, tarragon, and sage. Experiment with combinations. Pairings of dill and peppermint, or fennel and ginger, are wonderful for upset stomachs.

Place about a cup of finely chopped fresh herbs (or ¼ cup of dried herbs) into clean pint-sized glass canning jars. Cover the herbs with organic apple cider vinegar, leaving about an inch of room at the top of the jar. (Avoid white vinegar, which is bleached with harsh chemicals.) Cover the jar tightly, label with the ingredients and date, and then store the mixture in a dark place at room temperature, shaking vigorously every few days.

After about four to six weeks, strain out the vinegar by pouring it through a colander lined with a doubled piece of cheesecloth or an old sheet. Be sure to squeeze out all of the infused liquid from the plant material before composting. Store the mixture in glass jars or tincture bottles, carefully marked with the ingredients and date. The finished vinegar will keep for a year.

Herbal Oils. You can also use herbs to make flavored olive oils, for both internal and external uses. In this case, place 1/3 cup of already dried plant materials in a clean, dry glass jar. (Make certain the jar is completely dry, as any moisture can ruin the oil.) Cover the herbs with high quality, organic olive oil, leaving an inch or two of room at the top of the jar. Cover this mixture with a cloth for the first few days, before you seal the lid, as the plants will continue to expel gasses as they absorb the oil. Also be sure to check the mixture after a few hours to see if more oil is needed to cover the herbs.

Let the oil sit in a sunny window for 10 to 14 days, shaking daily, before straining the plant material out. Store the finished oil in a dark place, and use within a year. You might want to try garlic, oregano, or basil for use in cooking or dressings. I also like to make a mixture of calendula blossoms, lavender, and plantain for a wonderful skin conditioner.

NOTE: An easy way to dry herbs is to scatter them across an old window screen outside or in a sunny window, or hang bunches upside down until the blossoms dry and can be extracted.

Herb Infused Honey. Herbal honeys provide a wonderful addition to hot teas during the winter cold season. To make these, melt a quart of locally grown (if available) wildflower honey over low heat until it is just warmed through. (Don’t let it boil.) Add ½ cup of finely chopped fresh herbs, such as lavender, ginger, lemon balm, or chamomile. (Use only ¼ cup if the herbs are dried.) Leave the mixture on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then pour the honey (without straining) into heat-resistant glass canning jars. Secure the lids and label with the ingredients and date. The herbs will continue to infuse the honey as it sits. You can then either strain out the honey as you use it, or drink the tea with the herbs still in it. The honey will keep for 18 months.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

All photos taken by Erin Fossett.

First published August 29, 2010

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Summer Celebrations: Assumption

(Photo of the Barley Moon by Catherine Kerr)

by Waverly Fitzgerald

The Full Moon Festival of August is one of the oldest continuous holidays of the Goddess. At this turning point in the year, between the yang energy of summer solstice and the turning inward of the autumn, the Goddess comes into her own as protector, provider and mediator between the worlds.

Known by many names, at this time of the year she is revered as Artemis, Hecate and the Blessed Virgin Mary. All three are moon goddesses: Artemis as crescent moon, Hecate the dark moon and Mary is often depicted standing on the crescent moon.

Known by many names, at this time of the year she is revered as Artemis, Hecate and the Blessed Virgin Mary. All three are moon goddesses: Artemis as crescent moon, Hecate the dark moon and Mary is often depicted standing on the crescent moon. All three are invoked for protection of the grain and the fruit which is so vulnerable to storms in these weeks before harvest. And all three are mediators between the worlds: Artemis in her origin as Goddess of the shamanistic cultures of the North (see Geoffrey Ashe’s book Dawn Behind the Dawn), Hecate as the one who stands at the crossroads between life and death, who goes down into the darkness of the Underworld with her two torches blazing, and Mary as the mediator between Earth and Heaven.

Below I trace the way this holiday developed and provide links to articles about how it is celebrated around the world.

Ancient Greece: Artemis-Hecate

This feast of the goddess was first celebrated in Greece at the full moon of Metageitnion. In Erkhia, Artemis (as Hecate) was invoked, along with Kourotrophos, and beseeched for protection summer storms, which could flatten and destroy the crops. This image from a Greek vase (ca 440 BCE) shows Hecate lighting the way with her torches as Persephone emerges from the Underworld to be reunited with her mother while Hermes looks on.

Rome: Nemoralia

In Rome, the Greek lunar festival honoring Artemis-Hecate was placed on the fixed solar calendar on August 13th and called the Nemoralia, also known as Diana’s Feast of the Torches. Roman women made torchlight processions to the temples of Diana and Hecate or visited the groves of Diana with their hunting dogs leashed. Hair-washing was an important ritual activity.

Early Christianity: Assumption

The story of Mary’s Assumption derives from ancient stories called the Obsequies of the Holy Virgin, which were written in Syria at the beginning of the third century (or about 150 years after the event they relate). The story of “The Departure of My Lady Mary From this World” tells how Mary was lifted up into Heaven bodily, in other words, she did not die, but became immortal (a goddess). To commemorate this extraordinary event, the Apostles proclaimed a holiday in Her honor:

And the apostles also ordered that there should be a commemoration of the Blessed One on the thirteenth Ab, on account of the vines bearing bunches of grapes and on account of the trees bearing fruit, that clouds of hail, bearing stones of wrath, might not come, and the trees be broken, and the vines with their clusters.

According to the story, Mary’s Assumption took place at Ephesus, where she was living under the care of the apostle, John. Ephesus was one of the most famous sanctuaries of Artemis, the home of the famous statue of Artemis with many breasts, symbolizing the productive and nurturing powers of the earth. Mary, who is also well known for her nurturing and protecting qualities (she is so tender-hearted she cannot deny any sincere request for help), was clearly carrying this role.

Ab is the Jewish lunar month of Av and the thirteenth of Ab is therefore a full moon. So quite early on, long before Emperor Maurice proclaimed the Assumption a Church holiday during the seventh century, the apostles chose the full-moon feast honoring Artemis-Hecate as the time to honor Mary, as protector of the crops and mediator between worlds.

Wherever this holiday is celebrated, and it is a major holiday in many parts of the world, it is blended with native customs to produce a unique celebration.

Celtic Scotland

In 19th century Scotland, this holiday was called Great St. Mary’s Feast of the Harvest. It’s probable that many of its customs were once those of Lammas Day. Women made a magical bannock (a kind of cake) on this day, from ears of new corn which were dried in the sun, husked by hand, ground with stones, kneading on a sheepskin and toasted over a fire made of magical rowan wood. Each member of the family ate a piece of the bannock, in order by age, and all walked sunwise around the fire. Then the embers were gathered into a pot and carried sunwise around the farm and field, while reciting this charm:

On the feast day of Mary the fragrant, Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks, I cut me a handful of the new corn, I dried it gently in the sun, I rubbed it sharply from the husk, With mine own palms.

On the feast day of Mary the fragrant,
Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks,
I cut me a handful of the new corn,
I dried it gently in the sun,
I rubbed it sharply from the husk,
With mine own palms.
I ground it in a quern on Friday,
I baked it on a fan of sheepskin,
I toasted it to a fire of rowan,
And I shared it round my people.
I went sunways round my dwelling
In the name of Mother Mary
Who promised to preserve me
Who did protect me
Who will preserve me
In peace, in flocks, in righteousness of heart,
In labor, in love,
In wisdom, in mercy,
For the sake of Thy Passion.
Thou Christ of grace
Who till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
Oh, till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
– Carmina Gadelica

Poland: Blessed Mother of the Herbs

Virgin of Czestochowska

Virgin of Czestochowska

As early as the tenth century, the aroma of herbs and flowers was associated with Mary’s victory over death, and people brought medicinal herbs and plants to church (periwinkle, verbena, thyme) to be incensed and blessed, bound into a sheaf and kept all year to ward off illness, disaster and death.

In Poland, this holiday was called Matka Boska Zielna, Blessed Mother of the Herbs. Women gathered the plants growing in their gardens and brought them to church to be blessed. The blessed flowers were then tucked behind icons and over doorways in the house, and scattered into the seed sacks and feed bags, to bless them as well. Today August 15 is the day when pilgrims process to the shrine of the Virgin of Czestochowska.

In central Europe, August 15 was called Our Lady’s Herb Day. Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s mother kept this holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks, gathering wild grasses, a custom I’ve adopted in Seattle. It’s amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.

If you like charming little stories written in a rural, 1950’s folksy tone with lots of references to Scripture, you will like this story about a Catholic family gathering flowers and herbs by moonlight in honor of Our Lady.

Armenia: Blessing of the Grapes

In central Europe, it was called Our Lady’s Herb Day. Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s mother kept this holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks, gathering wild grasses, a custom I’ve adopted in Seattle. It’s amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.

In Armenia, the Sunday nearest the Assumption is called Blessing of the Grapes. None are eaten until this day when every churchgoer gets a cluster as she leaves church. This is also the name day for women named Mary, who host parties in vineyards or at their homes. The Syrian festival is characterized by offerings of new wheat and small three-cornered cakes.

Brazil: Our Lady of the Good Death

In Bahia, where Christian customs are mingled with African traditions, and the orixas are honored on the feast days of Catholic saints, a group of women created a lay sisterhood called the Sisters of the Good Death which worked to free slaves. Their descendants still celebrate the Festival of Our Lady of the Good Death today. Paola Gianturco who has been photographing women’s celebrations all over the globe has a photoessay about this festival at her web site.

Bolivia: The Virgin of Urkupiña

In Bolivia, August 15 is the holiday of the Virgin of Urkupiña and combines pagan and Christian traditions. There is a parade through town with dancing and costumes reminiscent of Carnival celebrations, followed the next day by a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin, where people leave items that represent their wishes. I learned about the holiday from Paola Gianturco, but also found descriptions of how it is celebrated at this blog and slide show at the Democracy Center web site.

Today Where You Live

Do you have any traditions you celebrate on this day? Or any customs you want to adopt? Will you pick herbs and flowers from your garden on August 15? Or do, as I do, and gather wild grasses? Will you wash your hair like the Roman women did on August 13? Will you leave an offering for Hecate on a crossroads on the full moon? Will you eat grapes for the first time on Sunday, August 16? Will you bake a magical bannock with ingredients you grew yourself? Let me know how you plan to celebrate this holiday.

First published July 21, 2009

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