Celebrating Summer Solstice

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Photo by Julie Coningham

The summer solstice is the time when the sun is in its glory. This is the longest day of the year and the shortest night. The date of the summer solstice varies slightly from year to year. This year it falls on June 21st. Summer solstice customs are also associated with a fixed date: June 24 the Midsummer’s Day. June 23rd is Midsummer’s Eve.

As the name “Midsummer” indicates, this is considered the height of the summer. Yet there is an undertone of darkness in the light. While we celebrate the power of the sun, we also note its decline. From now on the hours of sunlight will decrease.

The Fire and the Sun

The great solar festival of the year is celebrated from North Africa to Scandinavia with fire. This is a traditional time for a bonfire which is lit as the sun sets. People dance around the fire clockwise and carry lit torches. In some places, they set fire to wheels of hay which are rolled downhill.

Flowers and May Day wreaths are tossed into the fire. They burn and die just as the heat of the summer consumes the spring and brings us closer to the decline of autumn and the death of vegetation in winter. As we begin the decline, it’s important to remember that the wheel of the year is a circle. The spring will come again. The sun will triumph over the darkness again. Thus, the circle is an important symbol. Wreaths are hung on doors. People gaze at the fire through wreaths and wear necklaces of golden flowers.

Before the calendar was changed in the 18th century, Midsummer fell on 4th of July. When you celebrate Fourth of July, think of all those brilliant fireworks and blazing Catherine wheels as devotions in honor of the sun.

St John and Honeymoons

Midsummer’s Eve is also called St John’s Eve. The official version says that St. John was assigned this feast because he was born six months before Christ (who gets the other great solar festival, the winter solstice). Actually it may have more to do with the story of St John losing his head to Salome. In ancient times, a ritual sacrifice was made to the goddess of midsummer.

Other midsummer symbols also accumulate around St John. He’s the patron of shepherds and beekeepers. This is a time to acknowledge those wild things which man culls but cannot tame, like the sheep and bees. The full moon which occurs in June is sometimes called the Mead Moon. The hives are full of honey. In ancient times, the honey was fermented and made into mead. According to Pauline Campanelli in The Wheel of the Year, this is the derivation of honeymoon.

Midsummer fire in Finland

This is a traditional time for honoring water, perhaps because it plays such a vital role in maintaining life while the sun is blazing overhead. Several of the goddesses worshipped at midsummer — Matuta, Anahita and Kupala — are associated with moisture and dampness. St John baptized with water while Christ baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. In Mexico, St John presides over all waters. People dress wells and fountains with flowers, candles and paper festoons. They go out and bathe at midnight in the nearest body of water. In the city, they celebrate at the bathhouse or pool with diving and swimming contests.

Herbs and Lovers

Photo by Alyss Broderick

Midsummer Eve is also known as Herb Evening. This is the most potent night (and midnight the most potent time) for gathering magical herbs, particularly St John’s wort, vervain, mugwort, mistletoe, ivy and fern seed. In some legends, a special plant, which is guarded by demons, flowers only on this one night a year. Successfully picking it gives one magical powers, like being able to understand the language of the trees.

This is also a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” According to Dorothy Gladys Spicer in The Book of Festivals, Irish girls drop melted lead into water and interpret the shapes it makes. In Spain, girls do the same with eggs. In Poland, they combine three of the symbols of the holiday for a divination. Girls make a wreath of wild flowers, put a candle in the middle, set it adrift on the river and tell the future by observing its fate.

Celebrating

This is a great festival to celebrate outdoors. Go camping. Go out into the woods or up into the mountains or down to the beach. Find some place where you can build a bonfire and light it when the sun sets. Bring along plenty of flowers (especially roses or yellow flowers like calendulas, St John’s wort, or marigolds). Fashion them into wreaths, wear them as you dance around the fire and throw them into the fire at the end of the night. Bring along sparklers too (but use them carefully). Indoors, use whatever symbols represent light and warmth to you: golden discs, sunflowers, shiny metal trays, chili pepper lights.

Gather magical and healing herbs at night on June 23. Hang St John’s wort over your doors and windows for protection; toss some on the fire as well. Harvest your garden herbs now so they will be extra potent.

To acknowledge the gift of water in your everyday life, decorate the faucets in your house. Z Budapest in The Grandmother of Time suggests walking to the nearest body of water, making a wish and then throwing in a rose you have kissed to carry your wish home. She provides the following wishing poem:

Yes, you are here in the soft buzzing grass.
Yes, you are listening among the flowering gardens.
Yes, you are shining from the most royal blue sky.
Yes, you are granting me what I wish tonight.
Grant me a healthy life rich with high purpose,
A true partner to share my joys and my tears,
Wisdom to hear your voice giving me guidance,
Wealth to give to others as you have given to me.

Honoring Your Strength

The sun is associated with will, vitality, accomplishment, victory and fame. As you throw your flowers into the fire, acknowledge your accomplishments. Write about these at length in your journal, perhaps while sipping a cup of tea sweetened with honey, or gather your friends in a circle and go around several times with each person boasting about their strengths. Assign a different topic for each round, for instance, aspirations, courage, achievement, competence. Toast each other (with mead, if you can find it). This is your night to shine.

This is an excerpt from my book, Celebrating the Seasonal Holy Days, which also contains ideas and suggestions for the other seasonal holidays like Lammas, Autumn Equinox, Yule and so forth. It is available for purchase at my store.

The same material, much expanded, can be found in my Midsummer packet, available at my store.

The attributed photos were taken by School of the Seasons readers who contributed them for my Leaves on the Tree of Time weekly planner.

Some cool links I found while looking for images:

A great article from Max Dashi on Midsummer dances.

A lovely entry about Latvian Midsummer celebrations.

Article about a Polish Midsummer celebration in Washington D.C. showing girls throwing their flower wreaths into the Reflecting Pool.

First published June 20, 2010.

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Ascension Thursday

Ascension Thursday is one of the oldest festivals in the Catholic Church, having been celebrated since 68 AD. Water is the primary element of this holy day, celebrated on May 29 in 2014.

The Armenians believe that on Ascension Eve, stones, stars and other soulless objects are said to receive the gift of speech and to share each other’s secrets. And in Poland, “the dragon who guards hidden treasures throughout the night, exposes them to view on Ascension, when he sets them out to air.” The sun is said to dance on this day when it rises.

In Armenia, girls tell their fortunes from tokens thrown into a bowl of water drawn from seven springs. All brooks and springs are said to be filled with healing power at midnight. If you don’t want to visit your local body of water at midnight, you might just put out a container and hope it rains since any water that falls from the skies on this day can also heal. In a somewhat related vein, in Sweden, a person who fishes from dawn until night on the Ascension will learn the hour when the fish bite best and be lucky in her angling all year.

In Greece, Ascension Day is considered the start of the swimming season. In Venice, the Doge used to wed the sea on this day by throwing in a wedding ring and some holy water. In Tissington, Derbyshire, wells are decorated on this day. In Nantwich, they bless the Brine, a very old pit, which is visited and hung with garlands. These customs seem to hark back to an old rite propitiating the spirit of the well (or the ocean).

In the early 19th century, the Halliwell (Holy Well) Wake was held on this day in the hamlet of Rorrington on the Shropshire/Wales border. The local people met at the holy well on the hillside at Rorrington Green and decorated with well with green boughs, flowers and rushes. A maypole was erected. While a fife, drum and fiddle played, the people danced and frolicked around the hill, followed by feasting, drinking and more dancing.

In Italy, Ascension is called La Festa del Grillo, the outdoor festival of crickets. People spend the day outdoors, reclining under the shade of trees, feasting on picnic and BBQ foods. Kids look for crickets, true symbols of spring, poking a piece of grass into their holes to lure them into cages already prepared with a piece of lettuce at the bottom. Nowadays the crickets are sold in pretty painted cages.

According to Toor, the Etruscans called the cricket scarabeus and honored it. The Greeks and Romans connected its chirping to the muses and music. The Greeks and Etruscans believed that the longer the confined grillo lived, the longer the life of its owner. The murals of Pompei depict tiny grillo cages made of reed. In Florence, they say that a singing grillo brings good luck. Freeing them also brings good luck. Children sing a song to their caged grillos (which reminds me of the American lady bug song):

Grillo, mio Grillo                    Cricket, my Cricket,
Se tu vo’ moglie dillo!              If you want a wife say so!
Se poi t’un la voi,                     If later you repent
Abbada a’ fatti tuoi!                 Then hold your peace!

References

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Toor, Frances, Festivals and Folkways of Italy, Crown 1953
First published on May 14, 2012
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Bringing in the May

Excerpt from my May Day/Beltane holiday e-book:

Many May Day customs involve flowers and green branches. Flowers are woven into wreaths to exchange as gifts between lovers or to hang on doors as decoration. Or flowers are placed in baskets and left on doorsteps for the recipients to find when they arise in the morning.

In Ireland, Beltane is the only safe day for wearing Irish lilacs (I’m not sure why). In France, the flower of May Day is the lily of the valley. Any wish made while wearing it comes true. The marsh-marigold or kingcup is called the herb of Beltane and is strewn against evil in the Isle of Man. Rosemary is another Beltane herb.

In England, there was a tradition of carrying about May garlands. At Horncastle in Lincolnshire, young boy carried May gads: peeled willow wands were wreathed with cowslips. In other parts of England, the garlands are small wooden crosses covered with flowers and greenery. But the hoop-garland is the most common: made from a framework of intersecting hoops so that the final effect is of a flower-covered globe. Sometimes a May Doll (sometimes said to represent Flora) is placed within or upon it. In Italy, the Bride of May carries the maggio, a green branch garlanded with ribbons, fresh fruits and lemons.

Sometimes flowers were given as messages: plum for the glum, elder for the surly, thorns for the prickly, and pear for the popular. In Lancashire, the flowers rhymed with their qualities. Any kind of thorn meant scorn (except for whitethorn or May), while holly was folly, briar for liars, rowan for affection and a plum in bloom rhymed with “married soon.” According to Porter, in Cambridgeshire, boys gave the popular girls sloe blossoms, while “the girl of loose manners had a blackthorn planted by hers’ the slattern had an elder tree planted by hers; and the scold had a bunch of nettles tied to the latch of her cottage door.” According to Hole, lime (which rhymes with prime) was a compliment and so was pear which rhymed with fair. The rowan (or quicken) since it rhymes with chicken was a sign of affection. But briar, holly and plum stood for liar, folly and glum while the alder (pronounced “owler” in some districts) rhymed with “scowler.” A nut-branch meant the woman was a slut, while a gorse in bloom implied her reputation was doubtful. Other plants you did not want to receive included nettles, thistles, sloes, crab-tree branches and elders. Obviously there are some contradictions in this list, and some unkindness as well.

I find it interesting that the three plants most often associated with May Day: Sweet Woodruff, Lily of the Valley and Hawthorn, all are connected in folklore with the heart. Summer is the time when Chinese medicine places the emphasis on strengthening the heart and the circulatory system. It also seems appropriate for the time of the year when we are focused on relationships and coupling.

For many more ideas on celebrating May Day and Beltane, see my May Day e-book.

References:

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow  1990

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Granada Publishing 1976

Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press 1997

Porter, Enid, Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore, 1969, quoted in Hutton

Image Credit: The hawthorn illustration is from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

First published by April 19, 2010

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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.
This article was first published on April 28,2014
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Earth Day/Arbor Day

Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation).  In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.

In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.

Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.

On the very first Arbor Day, more than one  million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.

Or you can simply admire trees. Go on  a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.

If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.

In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.

Resources:
Al Khidr web site (source of picture)

Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day

First published on April 12, 2012

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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
 
First published April 21, 2014
 
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Food for Nowruz

It’s spring, flowers full and happiness in the green-grass vine
All the blossoms are blooming except mine
Lose not heart, free spirit, on New Year’s day
I heard from the lips of a lily today
Do not sing the seven illusions this New Year’s eve I beg thee:
Complaint, curse, corruption, cacophony, clumsiness, chaos & cruelty.
The seven symbols make, of serene greenery, scented hyacinth and sweet apple
Senged, samanou, salway and song spell.
Send the seven symbols to the table of a lover.
Throw the seven illusions to the door of an ill wisher.
It?s New Year’s eve: rid the heart of darkness
Eventually this black night will turn to light and brightness
Carry out the New Year tradition and God willing
Bring back the feeling to that of the excellent beginning.
— Bahar

When I first learned about Persian New Year, all I knew was that it was customary to eat seven foods whose names started with S. Since I didn’t know the Farsi words for the foods, my daughter and I celebrated for years by eating spaghetti squash, spinach salad with sunflower seeds, smoked salmon and strawberries and shortbread for dessert.

In recent years, thanks to the internet, we’ve enjoyed traditional recipes like kookoo sabzi (an herb frittata recipe I’ve included in the Eostre packet) and a yogurt and spinach dip (the white and green colors symbolize spring). This year, also thanks to the internet, I was able to find a book about Persian cooking, Food of Life, by Najmieh Batmanglij, which provided me with the poem above, and some new information for Nowruz.

According to Batmanglij, meals are traditionally served on a sofreh, a cotton tablecloth embroidered with poems and prayers, of course, in the beautiful calligraphy of the Iranian language. This idea fascinates me as I wonder how I could create a sacred cloth that would embody prayers and poems. English words are not quite as visually gorgeous. Perhaps I could make a tablecloth embroidered with spring flowers to use every Nowruz.

As with the Easter and the Passover table, setting the table for Nawruz is part of the ceremony. Each item has its symbolism. Batmanglij says the seven S’s — sabzeh (sprouts) samanou (a dish of wheat germ or lentils), sib (apples), sonbol (hyacinth), senjed (jujube), seer (garlic) and somagh (sumac) — represent the seven good angels, heralds of life and rebirth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy and beauty.

Whenever I see the buds appear on my neighbor’s contorted filbert, I know that Nowruz is approaching as that is the gnarled branch I always pick to put on my table to represent the twisting paths of life. Batmanglij says I should have seven branches from gnarled trees (olive and pomegranate) on my table.

According to Batmanglij, Iranians always eat noodles at the start of anything new. They represent the choice of paths that life offers us. Picking your way through the tangled strands symbolized picking out the best paths in life. So noodles are eaten on Nowruz, the New Year, and also on the third day after friends or relatives have left on a trip (to help them find their way. Eating this soup on the eve of Nowruz will make a wish come true. The traditional noodle soup is called Ash-e Reshteh. You can find a recipe for it here.

Another dish served on the eve of Nowruz is Ajeel-e Moshgel Goshah (which means unraveller of difficulties), a mix of seven dried fruits and nuts: pistachio, walnut, hazelnut, pumpkin seed, peach raisin and fig.

Fish is another traditional dish served on Nawruz because it brings good luck. Batmanglij provides a recipe for a dish called Sabzi Polo Ba Mahi, or Rice with Fresh Herbs and Fish.

3 cups of long-grain (preferably basmati) rice
1/2 cup chopped chives or scallions
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped parsley
1-1/2 cups chopped fresh dill
2/3 cup butter
1/2 tsp ground saffron, dissolved in 2 T hot water
3 whole cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 whole leeks, thoroughly washed
1 large white-fleshed fish, about 3 pounds
1/2 cup flour for dredging
4 T oil
Juice of 2 bitter oranges, or 2 lemons

Cook the rice. In a pot, heat half the butter with a drop of the dissolved saffron. Add 2 spatulas of rice and 1 spatula of the herbs, garlic cloves and leeks. Repeat, arranging the rice in the shape of a pyramid. Pour over it the remaining butter, and half the saffron and hot water. Place a clean dishtowel or paper towel over the pot and cover with a lid. Cook 10 minutes over medium heat and then 50 minutes over low heat. While the rice is cooking, clean the fish (if necessary) and cut into six pieces. Wash and pat dry. Dredge in a mixture of flour and salt. Brown fish in the oil in a skillet, over a low heat. Remove the saucepan of rice from the heat and allow to cool for five minutes. Open the pot and remove 2 T of the saffron-flavored rice and set it aside for a garnish. Using a spatula, gently remove the rest of the rice and set it on a platter, without disturbing the crust at the bottom of the pan. This golden crust is a prized part of the meal and is set on a separate platter. Arrange the fish on a serving platter and garnish it with the bitter-orange or lemon juice and the remaining saffron.

Sweets are also an important part of Nawruz, as decorations on the table and a way of invoking sweetness for the coming year, so baklava would make a great dessert. Here’s a recipe from Batmanglij (she mentions in her book, but not this recipe, that you can use purchased filo pastry dough instead of making your own).

Here’s a great article (complete with recipes) which tells more about the traditional foods eaten on Persian New Year.

References:
Batmanglij, Najmieh, Food of Life, Mage Publishers 1986

First published march 12, 2012

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Nowruz: Persian New Year

The Persians have always celebrated the new year at Spring Equinox with the wonderful holiday of Nowruz (pronounced NO-ROOZ). And in some way, you might say, Nowruz was the start of my career as a calendar priestess.

It was the first new holiday I adopted and made my own, back when I was a college student. I found a brief (two-sentence description) of it in an almanac and began celebrating it with my college roommates. We would put a candle in the middle of the living room and jump over it on Red Wednesday, to get rid of all the things we didn’t want to bring forward into the new year. Once my daughter was born, it became a family tradition.

The Persians call the Spring Equinox Nowruz or Nourooz which means New Day. The Nourooz greeting is “Har Roozat Nourooz Va Nouroozat Pirouz” which means “May your every day be the new day and each new day be a successful one.”

According to Anneli Rufus, the festival is preceded, like Easter and Passover, with a thorough house-cleaning. The evening before, Iranians serve an omelet heavy with spinach, dill and parsley and also munch on bowls of ajeel-e moshgel goshah, “unraveller of difficulties,” a mixture of pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried figs, peaches and raisins. Note that most of these are seeds as befits a spring feast.

The evening meal on the day of Nowruz, is a grand feast, on the scale of Passover and Easter, and both the decoration of the table and the sorts of food served have symbolic significance. I’ve been celebrating Nowruz for years, using a set of directions from that long ago almanac page. I set my table with a leaf floating in a bowl of water, a mirror, yogurt, colored eggs, sweets, a holy book, rose water and a candle for every child in the house.

Rufus’ directions for decorating the table are similar but slightly different and equally intriguing: Gnarled branches which represent the twisting path of life. An orange floating in a bowl of water, to represent the world floating in space-time. A goldfish swimming in a bowl (also featured in feasts honoring St Joseph on March 19 and Maimuna, the day following the eight days of Passover). Plus tinted eggs, milk, rose water, candies, fruit, incense, narcissi, pastries, candles, coins and a mirror for every member of the household.

Whatever the decorations, the menu always consists of seven items that begin with the letter S. Rufus provides a list of the haft-sin, the Zoroastrian seven S’s: apples (sib), hyacinth (sonbol), garlic (seer), sumac (somagh), jujube fruit (senjed), sprouted seeds (sabzeh) and a wheat germ dish called samanon. Another 7 items that begin with SH are often served: wine (sharab), sugar (shakar), milk (shir), syrup (shireh), honey (shahd), candy (shirini) and rice-pudding (shir-berenj).

However, if these foods are not readily available in your area, you might consider doing what I have done for years, since I didn’t know the Farsi names of the dishes until recently. We eat seven foods that begin with S in English. Our usual menu includes smoked salmon, spinach salad with sunflower seeds and sprouts, spaghetti sauce, served over spaghetti squash, and strawberries and shortbread for dessert, and a glass of syrah (or sparkling soda) to sip.

Like most New Year’s meals, the food eaten at the Nowruz dinner has symbolic importance. The theme is the green of spring and most dishes feature either vegetables or the color green. One exception is a dish of mahi safid dudi, smoked white fish. Another dish usually found on the Nawruz table is kuku, a souffle-like vegetable and herb pie, in which the eggs represent fertility and happiness. Bread is dipped into a special yogurt and spinach dip: the white is for purity, the green for spring. Recipes for these two dishes can be found here. Other traditional dishes include sabzi polow, basmati rice with seven vegetables, and panir va sabzi, a salad of fresh raw vegetables, basil, tarragon, scallions, red radishes, and mint with feta cheese. For recipes, go here.

In the twelve days that follow Nowruz, Persians visit friends and families, share meals and give gifts. The holiday season ends with a picnic on the Thirteenth Outside (this year on April 3rd).

I realized after reading this recent New York Times article that calling this holiday Persian New Year has political implications.  I call it that because that’s how I was first introduced to it over 25 years ago and also because the holiday was first recorded in historical time when it was celebrated by Darius the Great at his new palace in Persepolis in 587 B.C.E. The holiday is now celebrated in Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea and some groups in the Balkans. Under some Muslim regimes, celebrating Nowruz was discouraged as it was seen as a frivolous, pagan festival.

It seems a living example of a process that happens over and over again, where a conquering people or religion tries to eradicate the ceremonies of the native people, like the Christians with the pagan holidays of Europe or the Puritans with May Day. However, like those efforts which were unsuccessful, the celebration of Nawruz has not been squashed. In fact, the UN put it on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994

Wikipedia article

Photo by Cathy Moore of her Nowruz table.

first published March 12, 2012

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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 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. The French Republican Calendar for 2016 is still available and Melissa’s wonderful photo of sprouting moss decorates March (the month of Germinal, Sprouting).

First published February 28, 2015.

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Tu B’Shvat: Birthday of the Trees

I first learned about the Birthday of the Trees in Arthur Waskow’s wonderful book about Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy. Celebrated on the full moon of the Jewish month of Shvat, it marked the year-end date for the fruit crop, the time when the tithe of fruit was calculated and paid. This was considered a pivotal point in the life cycle of the trees, when the sap began to rise again in trees which had been dormant during the winter. In Israel, the almond trees put forth blossoms. In 2017, it falls on February 11.

In the sixteenth century, the mystics of Safed associated the fruit tree with the Sephirot or Kabalistic Tree of Life. Thus, Tu B’Shvat was seen as the day the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe. We can help heal the world, they said, by offering blessings. On Tu B’Shvat we bless the fruit before we eat it, thus the more fruit we eat the more blessings we can offer.

Many different customs developed as Jewish communities around the world created their own versions of Tu B’Shvat. According to Ellen Bernstein, in an article on the history of the holiday, in Bucharia and Kurdistan, it’s called the “day of eating the seven species” (see Deut. 8:8) and a dinner of thirty kinds of fruit is prepared. In India, fifty kinds of fruit are served. In Moroccan villages, the wealthiest villager invites everyone for a feast and sends the guests home with their hats full of fruit.

A Greek legend says that on Tu B’Shvat angels tap the head of each plant on this day and command them to grow. Another Greek legends says that trees embrace on this day and anyone who witnesses this will get their wish fulfilled. Women who want to get pregnant plant raisins and candy near trees on Tu B’Shvat night and pray for fertility. And in some places, young girls, eligible for marriage, are “married” to a tree. If the tree buds soon after, this is seen as a promise of the marriage to come. For families who have lost a loved one during the year, Tu B’Shvat can be celebrated as a holiday of rebirth and remembrance.

In modern Jewish practice, the Birthday of the Trees has been taken more literally and many communities plant trees on this day or send money to support the planting of trees in Israel. At the same time it has taken on a new symbolic significance as “a day of celebration and reaffirmation of the necessity of protecting God’s world.” A number of new Hagaddot have been developed which focus on healing the wounded earth.

One of these is called The Tree’s Birthday and was written by Ellen Bernstein. She uses the following correspondences to explain what is served during each of the courses:

1st course
Represents Assiya, earth, winter, the physical, west
Fruit with a hard outer shell (like coconuts, bananas, walnuts, pineapple, cantaloupe)
Glass of white wine

2nd course
Represents: Yetsira, water, spring, the emotional, south
Fruit with a hard inner core (like peaches, dates, apricots, plums)
Glass of white wine with a few drops of red in it

3rd course
Represents: Briav, air, summer, cerebral, east
Fruit that is soft throughout (strawberries, cranberries, grape, apples, figs, pears)
Glass half red and half white wine

4th course
Represents: Atsilu, fire, autumn, spiritual, north
No fruit at all
Glass of red wine

If you think fruit will not be substantial enough, seeds (like chickpeas and sunflower seeds), nuts and sprouts are also appropriate, along with crackers and cheese (foods of the season).

Bernstein provides readings which she culled from sources as varied as the Bible, the Whole Earth Catalog, e.e. cummings and Rumi to celebrate the elements associated with each season, for instance, the passage where Mole first sees the river from Wind in the Willows for water. Each course begins with a song or dance appropriate for the season. For each course, the plate of fruits are blessed and before drinking the wine, a toast is offered to the season. The traditional blessing is “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree” or “the fruit of the vine,” but you can adapt that so it fits your concept of the divine. As Bernstein comments:

“Because there is no specified liturgy for the holiday, Tu B’Sh’vat readily lends itself to creative interpretation.” If you don’t want to do a complicated ritual, you might simply add fruit to your evening meal on the night of the full moon. One of the injunctions for Tu B’Shvat is to eat a new kind of fruit, one you’ve never tried before.

My first Tu B’Shvat seder was one I hosted at my apartment with a group of friends from The Beltane Papers. We didn’t have a copy of Bernstein’s book at the time, so we improvised our own ritual. I asked each of the guests to bring a reading that represented the various elements. At the start of each course, I brought out plates of fruit of the appropriate kind. Each of the guests chose a fruit and blessed it. Instead of using the traditional Jewish blessing, which we didn’t know, we made up our own words of praise, speaking about our relationship with or appreciation for the fruit. After the fruit had been consumed, we poured the ritual glasses of wine and someone offered a toast to the season.

The details are lost in the fog of time but I remember the juiciness: the kitchen counter dripping with fruit juice, the table crowded with plates of fruit, sticky fingers, juice running down the chin. There’s a certain lightheadedness associated with a meal, hours long, consisting only of fruit and wine. Although I was drinking white grape juice and cranberry juice rather than wine, I too felt the lightening as we moved from the heavy element of earth to the most insubstantial element, fire.

We were in the middle of our second course when the full moon appeared in the eastern windows of my apartment, striking us with wonder. It was a magical moment as we sat bathed in her rays, feeling our kinship with others who had sat feasting for centuries under the full moon of early spring.

Tu B’Shvat Links:

This website has a long list of articles; some of the links are broken; scroll down to the bottom for links to recipes:
http://www.jr.co.il/hotsites/j-hdaytu.htm

Let me know if you know of other good resources for Jewish holidays on the web.

Resources:
Bernstein, Ellen, “A History of Tu B’Sh’vat,” “The Tu B’Sh’vat Seder,” in Ecology and the Human Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet, ed. Ellen Bernstein, Jewish Lights 2000
Bernstein, Ellen, The Tree’s Birthday: A Celebration of Nature, 1988. No longer in print.
Elon, Ari, Naomi Hyman and Arthur Waskow, eds., Trees, Earth and Torah, Jewish Publication Society 1999.
Fitzgerald, Waverly, “Tu B’Shvat: Reawakening the Tree of Life,” The Beltane Papers, Issue Four, Samhain 1993
Waskow, Arthur, Seasons of Our Joy, Beacon Press 1982

All the photos were taken by me in my neighborhood in April of 2010 while on a tree walk with Arthur Lee Jacobson.

First published 2/6/2012.

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