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 September 27 in 2015.

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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Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland. March 2009

Purim performance at the Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland. March 2009

Jews celebrate the rowdy full moon festival of Purim with bawdy jokes, indulgence, gambling and dressing up in costume, all customs that link it with other springtime festivals of excess like Mardi Gras. Although Purim ostensibly celebrates the overthrow of the wicked tyrant Haman who was murdering the Jews, scholars believe the festival actually has roots in an ancient Persian spring holiday which featured a mock battle (like those often linked with Carnival and Easter).

People bring noise-makers to the evening service, to drown out the name of the tyrant Haman during the re-telling of the story of Esther. Some write his name on bits of paper which they tear up and toss into the air; others have his name written on the soles of their shoes which they stamp on the floor. The Talmud recommends drinking until it is impossible to tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai.”

hamantaschenAfter the service, everyone eats, hamantaschen, three-cornered cookies filled with poppy seeds or jam, which are said to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. But they also resemble the triangular filled pastries in the shape of a woman’s sex used to celebrate the  Roman birth goddesses and that would certainly go along with the bawdy flavor of the holiday. Not everyone eats hamantaschen at Purim. German Jews eat gingerbread men. Egyptians eat ozne Haman, deep-fried sweets shaped like Haman’s ears. Hungarian and Romanian Jews enjoy arany galuska, (aka monkey balls) which is similar an interesting cross between coffee cake and doughnut holes (reminiscent of the king  cake and doughnuts served at Mardi Gras).

This festival is also called The Festival of Lotteries, because of the lots cast by Haman to choose the day to destroy the Jews. But playing games of chance is a feature of other festivals of reversal like Saturnalia and Twelfth Night and other festivals of reversal. At Purim, sometimes a Purim-rabbi is elected to give a mock sermon.

In some traditional Jewish towns, teams of Purimshpielers tour the streets, juggling and singing, dancing and acting, wearing costumes and presenting plays on Jewish history. In Tel Aviv, there is a parade and carnival including a beauty contest to choose Queen Esther from among the women.

The traditional Purim dinner includes kreplach and peas, particularly chickpeas, a huge challah, and, ever since the turkey was brought to Europe from North America around 1524, turkey. Some say the turkey is served in remembrance of Ahasuerus, who was a foolish king, but it may have more to do with the scope of his kingdom, for he ruled from Ethiopia to India, and the turkey was known in Hebrew as “the Indian cock.”


Nathan, Joan, The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, Schocken Books 1988

Waskow, Arthur, Seasons of Our Joy, Beacon 1982

Photo of Purim play by Henryk Kotowski, found at the Wikipedia article on Purim

Photo of hamantaschen from this website which also offers a recipe.

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A Poem for St David’s Day

FebruarySince March 1st is the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, I thought I would share a Welsh poem with you. And since March 1 is famously the start of a windy month (March either comes in like a lamb (as it is in Seattle this year) or like a lion, reversing its nature at the end of the month), I wanted to share a poem (see the YouTube video below) about the Wind by Dafydd ap Gwilym (who is named after the saint as Dafydd is the Welsh spelling of David).

Dafydd ap Gwilym is one of my favorites of the Welsh poets. He wrote in the fourteenth century and his poetry is clearly influenced by the troubadour tradition. His favorite topics were nature and romance and he combines them beautifully in poems about trysting with the woman he loves in a grove of birch trees. In this particular poem, the poet addresses the wind and asks him to carry a message to his beloved.

If you would like to hear the Welsh version of this, you can listen to it here.

For a really interesting (but somewhat academic) article on the meter of Welsh poetry and why Wales has produced so many great poets, check out this article on “Extreme Welsh Meter” by Gwyneth Lewis from Poetry magazine: I’ve tried writing poetry using Welsh meters myself while I was in Wales and it is both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. Can still recite whole verses form the poems I wrote because the rhyming and meter schemes made it so memorable.

The photo of the bird flying over the ocean was used to illustrate the month of Windy in my French Republican Calendar in 2013 and was taken by Melissa Gayle West.

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Wet January

winter creek

Photo by John Brew

by Kelly Fine

January is the middle of the long wet season here in Seattle. It’s mid-January and I’m sitting beside a fast-flowing stream, a piece of vinyl between me and the wet sponge of the forest floor. I’ve come to my favorite neighborhood park – a remnant of second-growth forest – to see what drizzle, rain, and fog have made of the woods.

I visit these woods often enough to know that the leaf litter surrounding me has been wet for months. The water and fine sand splashed over its surface give it a matte sheen. On cold nights the leaves freeze brittle, and over the course of the overcast mornings, each leaf slowly relaxes again. As usual, it’s overcast today, and beyond the trees I can see a stretch of the white stratus cloud blanketing Seattle. That’s because the maples and alders surrounding me have lost their leaves for winter, and most of the taller shrubs have done the same. If I were a tree facing six months of cool, dim winter, I’d probably give up my leaves and go dormant too. But winter brings plenty of rain to those plants that keep their leaves all season, and the clearings in the canopy allow plenty of cloud-strained light to reach the understory evergreens — Oregon grape, young conifers, sword ferns, salal, and the mosses and lichens that grow on every surface of these woods and thrive in the Northwest winter.

Photo by Michelle Simkins

Photo by Michelle Simkins

When I lived in southern California, I thought I knew what health looked like: chaparral growing steadily in the sunlight, ravens gliding overhead. But in these wet woods, health looks like moss slowly pushing forth into another white day, drinking water from the air. On the lower branches of a small hemlock near me, moss grows long and thick. Sprays of hemlock needles emerge from the mats of moss, but it’s the moss that will shade the ground during the next cloudbreak. The moss reminds me of a retriever’s fur, muddy but drying in clumps after a dunk in the river.

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Photo by Curtis Kukal

Big-leaf maples must be the mossiest trees in the Northwest. Running my hand over the damp moss of the maple trunk beside me, I notice a pale dust lichen splattered over its surface and fir needles caught deep in its net. Springing from the moist decay held in place by the moss, I find a small mushroom, its delicate cap thin as an inner artichoke leaf. But the most prominent living things springing from the moss are licorice ferns. Moisture-loving, they poke their tips out from the moss every fall when the rains return. After the maples lose their leaves in November, the ferns come into their prime; maybe this access to the sky gives them the light and water they crave. Now they’re extending more than a foot out from the maple trunk beside me, and their tips are just starting to feel the pull of gravity. I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust entirely to the sight of ferns growing from live tree trunks, but almost every big-leaf maple in these woods supports at least a few of them.

Rain is never far from these woods in winter, and now it arrives, a few hard drops splattering my notebook page. Soon the mere tug of a pen will tear that page. I have a lot to do today, and the cold is starting to stiffen my writing hand. Rain gathers at the tip of a sword fern leaf, sags into a teardrop, and rips free. I want to stay and see more, but I should go. As I’m debating, a black lab discovers me on the ground and gives one startled bark. I tell him it’s okay, and he comes wriggling to bury me in steaming breath and dog delight.


Kelly Fine writes from suburban Seattle. Find her at Cracked Offering.

To view more of John Brew’s photos, go to Flickr. To see more photographs and other work by Michelle Simkins, go to her website:  Greenwoman Studio.



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Vasant Panjami

I learned about this holiday, which is new to me,  thanks to my Amber Lotus* calendar and wrote about it for the Amber Lotus holiday blog.

witchhazelThe fifth day after the new moon of January (January 24 in 2015) marks the first day of spring in the Hindu holiday calendar and is celebrated in India and Nepal.   Yellow is the auspicious color to wear: the color of happiness and the color of the mustard that is blooming at this time. (In my neighborhood in Seattle, witch hazel is already unfurling its yellow fragrant petals.) Like the early spring festivals in the Christian calendar (Mardi Gras) and Western European calendar (Candlemas), this holiday falls 40 days (or rather a moon cycle and a half in the Hindu calendar)  before the full explosion of spring celebration at the full moon of Holi (or Easter or Spring Equinox)

In ancient India, the festival honored Kamadeva, the god of desire, whose bow is made of sugarcane and strung with bees, and whose arrows are decorated with fragrant flowers. Dancing girls performed, and songs of love were sung in the royal court. It is still a day associated with love and an auspicious day for a wedding.

saraswatNow it is Saraswati, the goddess of art and learning, who is honored. Her statue is often dressed in yellow clothing. On this day, Kayastha scribes would retire their ink pots and adopt new ones, filling them with new ink for the following day. Children are encouraged to say their first word. Schools take a break. People attend art and painting competitions, music festivals, and poetry readings. Seems like a great day to set aside time for creativity, whether visiting a museum, attending a concert, writing a poem or creating something wonderful to eat.

gulab jamun


Since yellow is the color of the day, people wear yellow garments and eat saffron rice and yellow desserts. You can find recipes for Hindu desserts online (here’s one link but there are many) but if you can’t easily obtain the specialized ingredients, a rice pudding colored with saffron would be appropriate. I am planning to go to my neighborhood Indian restaurant, Kanak, and sample some of their yellow-colored desserts.

The photo of gulab jamun comes from the dessert site above. Gulab jamun is made from khoya (a dairy product) and flour, rolled into balls, deep-fried and finished off with a sugar syrup containing saffron.

*If you use the link above to Amber Lotus, I will get a small commission on any purchases you make.




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Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This blog was originally written for the holiday lore blog at Amber Lotus. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, like the stringing of Christmas lights on trees and houses, and the lighting of the Advent candles, celebrates light during the darkest time of the year. The Jewish holiday calendar is still a lunar calendar and that means that the theme of light and dark can play out in the timing of the moon as well as the sun. Hanukkah always begins on the 26th of Kislev, three days before the dark moon closest to the full moon that is closest to the Winter Solstice, so at the darkest time of the moon and at the darkest time of the sun. Most Jewish holidays are linked to a pivotal moment in Jewish history. For Hanukkah, that moment is the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, they chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple which had been desecrated three years earlier. But the temple contained only one sealed flask of oil, only enough to light the lamps for one day. Miraculously that oil lasted for the eight days of the ceremonies. But as Arthur Waskow points out in his wonderful book on Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy, the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and by claiming the same day for their festival the Maccabees

were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.

The main ritual for Hanukkah involves lighting candles in the menorah, a candelabra that contains eight candles in a row. The first candle on the right is lit on the first night (December 16 in 2014) and each night an additional candle is lit until all eight are burning. Since the lit candles are not to be used for any practical purpose, many menorahs have a space for a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is set above (or below) the others and used to light them. The candles are lit just s night falls and are left to burn for a half an hour. No work is to be done while the candles are burning (just as the candles are not to be used for practical purposes). Instead this half hour is a time for contemplation, for saying blessings and singing songs, eating special foods and playing games. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places, they don’t work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a time of rest at this pivotal point in the year. hanukkah geltHanukkah foods are cooked in oil: potato latkes and fritters and jam-filled doughnuts, all recall the miracle of the long-lasting oil. Children play with a dreidl and are sometimes given gifts, particularly Hanukkah gelt. I’ve always loved those thin gold-foiled chocolate coins which remind me of the gifts of money so common at New Year festivals (the Romans, for instance, gave coins as New Year Gifts) and certainly,with the return of light in the darkness, the new year is born. Photo of Hanukkah gelt was taken by Liz West and posted at Flickr. Photo of the silver menorah (found at Wikipedia) was taken by Ladislav Flaigl and released into the public domain.

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Thanksgiving as Harvest Feast

PAINTING DETAILMost Americans know the semi-mythological story of the first Thanksgiving, how the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony after a successful harvest in 1621 shared a meal with members of the Patuxet People of the Wampanoag tribe who had helped them plant their crops. But what we may not realize is that they were both acting out long-standing cultural traditions. The harvest festival, although it is celebrated at different times of the year and with different foodstuffs, is something found in every culture around the world.

The English settlers probably brought with them memories of the Michaelmas feast (September 29), the harvest festival on the English holiday calendar, a time to return home to eat together. The Wampanoag tribe had their own harvest festivals which coincided with the appearance of green corn and the arrival of certain fish species. In many African countries, the harvest festival, Odiwera, occurs at the time of the yam harvest. In Ireland, the first potatoes. In Hungary and Italy and Argentina, the grapes. In Papua, New Guinea, the pigs. In Bali, the rice. Everywhere, the festival usually involves a lavish meal, dancing, drinking, and ceremonies expressing gratitude to those (the gods or the farmers) who provided the food.

I am sometime annoyed by the insistence on recreating the ideal big family experience that accompanies Thanksgiving, an experience that is elusive but even in sitcoms, always triumphs over the forces of dysfunction arrayed against it. But I am ever so grateful that we have one holiday on the American holiday calendar that has not been co-opted by consumerism, that gathers us around a table to celebrate the food we’ve raised and cooked and shared with those we love.

This blog post first appeared at the Amber Lotus website, as part of a commissioned series of weekly posts on holiday lore.

The painting is called “The First Thanksgiving” and it’s by Jennie Brownscombe. I think it nicely illustrates the semi-mythological nature of the first Thanksgiving.


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Floralia Sparks May Day

Floradetail_WaterhouseThe Romans honored the Sabine goddess of blossoms and spring with six days of celebrations including games, pantomimes, plays and stripteases, which went on into the night illuminated by torchlight. Everyone wore their most colorful clothes and decked themselves and their animals in flowers. Goats and hares were let loose–they represented fertility and sexuality and Venus in her role as patroness of cultivated nature. Small vegetables (one imagines cucumbers and zucchinis) were distributed as fertility tokens. Flora represented the sexual aspect of plants, the attractiveness of the flowers, and was the matron of prostitutes.flora maria szobrok pinterest

In this Roman statue from Hadrian’s villa, she looks a little too prim and proper to preside over such frivolity. The painting of Flora and the Zephyr by Waterhouse captures Flora in a more wanton pose.

Floralia sets in motion all the delightful holidays associated with May Day. The English have a saying about children born between May 1 and May 8 (Between the Beltanes): they have “the skill of man and beast” and power over both.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Wikipedia has a well-documented article on the Floralia here.
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Easter Monday

locks 036Easter Monday

There are many unique celebrations that take place on Easter Monday but most involve playful pranks, splashing with water, whipping with switches and spending the day outdoors.

In England, particularly in the Northwest and along the Welsh border, young men roved around in a group, carrying a stout chair decorated with greens, flowers and ribbons in which they placed each woman of the house and lifted her three times in the air. They then claimed a kiss and a small gift of money. On Tuesday, women went around with the chair and lifted the men. The lifting ended promptly at noon on both days.

In some places the observance was rowdier. Both men and women were hoisted into the air and kissed by roving gangs. Sometimes a rope was stretched across the road and those who were halted by the obstacle were then placed in a chair and lifted. Christina Hole in her book on British folk customs suggests that lifting was the remnant of an older agricultural and magical custom, perhaps a rite of fertility designed to foster the growth of the crops.

In Shropshire and Herefordshire, the feet of the person being lifted were sprinkled with water from a wet bunch of flowers, recalling the watery sprinkling of the Easter Service (the purification and new birth symbolized by baptism) and the New Year festivals of Thailand and Sri Lanka (Apr 13 & 16).

Gertrud Nelson Mueller when writing about how she celebrates Christian rituals always takes the day off to take her kids to water. Usually they go to a nearby marsh for birding, but splashing is a part of their celebration.

pussywillowsDyngus Day/Smigus Day

The Poles celebrate the Monday after Easter under the name of Dyngus Day or Smigus Day. The customs are familiar: boys splash girls with water on Monday; and also strike at them with pussywillow wands (both sound like remnants of fertility rituals).  In earlier times, the girls had to wait for a chance to get revenge until Thursday when they threw crockery at the boys. However, now it is more common for them to fight back with water on Monday. This article discusses both names and traces them to the pagan practices of splashing with water and whipping with pussywillows.willow switches by shaw 0312

In American cities with strong Polish communities, like South Bend, Indiana and Buffalo, New York, Dyngus Day is celebrated with parades, pussy willow whipping and squirt-gun fights and traditional food, like kielbasa and pierogi.

When my daughter and I were in Prague around Easter time 2012, she took a photo of these willow switches that were for sale for use on Easter Monday.

La Pasquetta

In Italy, this day is called La Pasquetta, Little Easter. Everyone goes on a picnic, meant to last all afternoon (like the Persian festival of the Thirteenth Outside). They take along an antipasto of a hard-boiled egg and salt and local bitter herbs like aurugula or radicchio or fennel.

Feast of the Blajini

In Rumania on the Monday following Easter, women throw red Easter eggs into running streams for the benefit of the Blajini, the lost race of spirits which live on the bank of the river fed by all the streams in the world. They live so far away, they don’t know what’s happening in our world, so this is how they know that spring has come.

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Nelson, Gertrud Mueller, To Dance with God, Paulist Press 
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
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Slow Flowers

Dahlias by Debra Prinzig

I’m a big fan of Debra Prinzig. Naturally. Since she wrote a book called Slow Flowers (it was originally titled A Year in Flowers which worried me a little since that’s the working title for the book I’m writing about connecting with nature in my city neighborhood).

Debra is a garden writer who became alerted to the issues inherent in purchasing flowers after reading Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential, which was a wake-up call for me as well. Stewart traveled internationally to learn about the cut flower trade. In her chapter on roses, she documents the unnatural conditions in which the flowers are grown (tricked into blooming out of season with lights) , the efforts to breed flowers that are strong and long-lasting (thus breeding out fragrance and fragility), the poisons in which they are dipped (which affect the workers as well), and the long distances they travel, via airplane and refrigerated trucks, to get to your local grocery store or florist shop.

Debra began visiting the new breed of florists, flower farmers and floral designers who are focusing on local and seasonal flowers. She documents their work in her book The 50 Mile Bouquet, a play on the slow food movement’s exhortation to eat foods grown within a 50 mile foodshed.

Inspired by what she learned, Debra decided to create a banquet every week, using only local and seasonal flowers and foliage. She showcase the results in her book, Slow Flowers, and she continues to post seasonal arrangements on her blog, like those gorgeous dahlias from October 2013.

I gave myself (and the students in the Year in Flowers class) the assignment to make a flower arrangement using local and seasonal flowers. And it’s completely changed the way I walk around the block. Instead of looking at plants and naming them or pondering what I can do with them (a cordial, a salad, a salve), now I’m noting color, texture and shapes. My perception has shifted from useful to aesthetic. Now what would I pair with that fabulous leaf—purple on one side and bronze on the other? Some bright yellow calendulas? And what about those black berries? What would happen if I paired them with a cloud of white Michaelmas daisies?

I’m also noticing flower arrangements more when I encounter them. Waiting for a friend at a café, I was struck by the beauty of an arrangement of green hydrangeas in a tall jade green vase, with a few rust-colored leaves, red berries and cedar branches. And later in the day at a café in LaConner, I was impressed by the simple yet artful bouquet on our table: unique maroon buds with a sprig of something with tiny lime-green leaves tucked in on the side. I don’t even have to know their names to appreciate their beauty.

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