Twelve Days of Christmas

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Photo by Cate Kerr

Excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book:

In Babylon, the 12 intercalary days between the Winter Solstice and the New Year were seen as the time of a struggle between chaos and order, with chaos trying to take back over the world. Other cultures (Hindu, Chinese, Celtic) also viewed this as a time for reversing order and rules.

This idea survives in the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas which end on January 6 with Twelfth Night. In Wales, they were considered ‘omen’ days. In Scotland, no court had power during the twelve days. The Irish believed that anyone who died during these days escaped purgatory and went straight to Heaven.

In medieval England, all work was suspended during the Christmas holidays. Women could begin spinning again on January 7, the day after Twelfth Night, which was called St Distaff’s Day. According to Germanic tradition, the goddess Holle, dressed all in white, rides the wind in a wagon on the Twelve Days of Christmas. During this time, no wheels can turn: no spinning, no milling, no wagons (sleighs were used instead). Holle punishes women who disobeyed the taboo. Women were also forbidden to work on the days of certain female saints whose holidays fall during the winter. Lacemakers and spinners take a holiday on November 25, St Catherine’s Day. And any woman who works on St Lucy’s Day (December 13) will find her work undone the next day.

Helen Farias suggests that the twelve days were originally thirteen nights, celebrated from the dark moon nearest the solstice through the next full moon. Greek women celebrated a Dionysian ritual on the full moon nearest the Winter Solstice.

Photo by Cate Kerr

The Greeks told a story about the halycon days, the two week period before and after the solstice when the kingfisher built her nest on the waves and the sea was calm while she hatched her chicks. Aristotle refers to a poem about this time written by Simonides of Ceos: “when in the winter month Zeus brings calm to fourteen days that earthlings call the time when the wind is forgotten, the holy breeding-season of the many-colored alcyon.”

Shakespeare refers to this legend in this passage from Hamlet:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, I, i 157

Thanks to Cate Kerr for permission to use these amazing photos.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Purim

 

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.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

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.

 

 

 

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

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.

 

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wild Grasses

I became an urban naturalist because of my fascination with holidays, an obsession that began back when I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, spending my evenings in the library, copying weird customs out of Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology and led me to graduate school at UCLA in Folklore and Mythology. Somewhere along the years of studying and celebrating, I recognized that most holiday customs were related to what was happening in nature at that particular place at that particular moment in time.

This day, August 15, is one of my favorite holidays because I can celebrate it with a simple custom: gathering wild grasses. I learned about this tradition from Gertrud Mueller Nelson who learned about it from her mother, who took her children down to the river to gather wild grasses on August 15, the Catholic feast of the Assumption. They would bring the grasses home in big bundles and pray over them. This ritual derived from a German custom of gathering wild flowers and herbs on this holiday and taking them to church to be blessed by the priest.

August 15 is an old harvest holiday (probably once celebrated on the full moon), when the grain goddess (later the Virgin Mary) would be asked to protect the harvest. All I ask is an opportunity to learn more about the wild grasses that grow on my block. There are plenty of those fancy ornamental grasses, planted by homeowners for decoration, and I admire those, but I’m more interested in the wild grasses, and their resemblances to rye, barley and wheat, the grains that have nourished humankind for centuries.

For a while, I was following the blog of Henry, a professor in San Francisco, who had taken on the project of identifying all the wild grasses he could find in the city in his blog. His commitment only lasted for two months in 2007 but it inspired me. How many wild grasses can you find and identify today?

 

The lovely photograph was taken by Melissa West.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Flower Carpets for Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi is the name of a Catholic festival, which takes place on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday (which is the Sunday after Pentecost which is the Sunday 50 days after Easter). It was first established by the Council of Vienna in 1311 to promote the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the host consecrated in the Mass actually becomes the Body of Christ). It was really promoted during the Reformation as a demonstration of Catholic solidarity.

I still remember celebrations of Corpus Christi from my Catholic childhood. It was an opportunity for pomp and pageantry. There is usually a procession during which the priest displays the host in a monstrance, a golden vessel which is shaped like a sunburst.  I often consider, since this festival falls so close to summer solstice, that the two holidays share a common underlying symbolism.

In France, this holiday is called Fete Dieu or the Feast of God. The priest wears red and gold lavishly embroidered garments. The monstrance is a golden vessel shaped like the sun. It is usually shielded by a canopy of silk and cloth of gold. Streets are scattered with flower petals and householders decorate their homes, often by pasting flower petals on a sheet and hanging them up.

Small altars are created along the roads. In France, they’re called reposoirs and are built at crossroads. They are decorated with flowers, garlands and greens and covered with canopies of interwoven boughs. The priest goes around and blesses them.

Corpus Christi is also a time for plays and pageants (although these were originally associated with Whitsunday). Fantastically dressed performers accompanied the processions and acted out scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints at stops along the way. In medieval times, each guild sponsored a scene in a grand play showing the whole scheme of Salvation. Some of the dramas were so long they could not be performed in their entirety: the Coventry cycle took two years.

Carol Field describes the way Corpus Christi is celebrated in Spello, Italy, where people transform the main street into a carpet of color using flower petals (infiorate). Collecting the flowers takes as long as two weeks. The oldest women are given the job of taking the flowers apart, petal by petal, and separating them by the subtle differences of hue. Pine needles, ivy leaves, camomile and fennel are ground up to make green. Poppies are used for red, broom for yellow and white from daisies. The designs are complicated, and often reproduce famous paintings, usually religious ones. The priest when he emerges from the cathedral holding up the Host walks down the length of flower carpet, and the petals scatter to the breezes. It is a display of beauty and richness that is as ephemeral as it is extravagant.

Julie Ardery of Human Flower Project wrote a column about the flower carpets of another Italian town, Genzano.

In keeping with the theme, my friend, Joanna Powell Colbert, recommended the spiritual and creative practice of making a flower mandala in her recent newsletter and illustrated it with this lovely example.

 

 

 

References

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, Morrow 1990

Painting of Corpus Christi procession by Carl Emil Doepler (found at Wikipedia’s article on Corpus Christi)

The photo of flowers at Spello comes from the French version of Wikipedia

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Holi

My favorite holiday I’ve never celebrated is Holi, which is celebrated in India on the full moon of Phalgun (March 6 in 2015). It’s a spring festival during which people splash each other with colored, scented water or throw colored dyes at each other. It’s a rowdy time when the genders can mingle, and so can people of different social classes. A popular Holi drink is milk, flavored with spices, and also sometimes infused with hashish.

In earlier times, Holi dyes were made from palash flowers, also known as flame of the forest or the parrot tree. The photo is from a long photo-laced essay which enthuses about the colors and geometry of these flowers.  The flowers which bloom at this time of the year, were plucked, then dried, then ground into a reddish powder. In modern times, the dyes used have been made from potentially harmful chemicals so there is a movement to return to more natural dyes. One mother cleverly adapted Martha Stewart’s natural dyes for Easter eggs to making dyed Holi water, boiling cabbage leaves to make blue, turmeric to make yellow, beets to make pink and onionskins to get red dye. Combining the blue and yellow water created green.

Vasanta Raga, Ahmadnagar, c. 1595

One of the earliest depictions of Holi is found in a 16th century temple panel at Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagar, which shows a prince and princess standing among maids waiting to spray them with colored water. Another early depiction is seen in this miniature painting of Vasanta Raga (or spring music).  It shows a royal couple sitting on a swing, while maidens play music and spray them with colors from pichkaris (hand-pumps).

In America quite recently, images of people splashing each other with paint and colored dyes are cropping up in car commercials. There is also an organization which sponsors color runs across the United States and throughout the world, where runners are asked to wear white and splashed with colors as they pass by color stations.

I’m not quite sure how I’m going to celebrate Holi. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to drink milk laced with hashish or throw colored powder on my friends or squirt them with colored water from a water pistol or even throw balloons full of colored water.

But that reminds me of the cascarones: eggs filled with confetti that are popular in Mexico at Easter. When thrown at someone, they break open to reveal a cloud of colored dots.  According to Wikipedia, originally these were filled with perfume and thrown at women by men, which sounds more appealing. And that reminds me of the confetti and blood oranges thrown during Carnival in Venice. Obviously there is something about juicy color and sweetness and mischief that I need to honor on this spring full moon.

Found the photo here.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Mardi Gras

In some parts of the world Carnival begins on November 11th. In other places it starts the week before Ash Wednesday. For the members of the Samba schools of Rio de Janeiro and the Crewes of New Orleans, the planning begins as soon as this year’s Carnival has finished.

Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the final day of the celebration. The whole time of Carnival is a time of riotous activity, when there are no holds barred on behavior. Masked balls gave people an opportunity to disguise themselves and act out fantasies. The name Carnival derives from carne vale, “good-bye to meat,” as devout Catholics abstained from eating any rich foods during the six weeks of Lent.

Fat Tuesday is usually marked by the consumption of rich, fatty foods and especially meats. Each part of France has its own special dish: pigs’ trotters in Champagne, pigs’ ears in Ardeche, a leg of goat in Touraine. It’s also customary to serve various rich, deep-fried pastries and cakes including pancakes, fritters, waffles, eclairs, doughnuts and cream puffs. In Venice, the pastry of the day is galani, egg dough fritters, made with white wine, eaten cold and powdered with sugar. In Russia, the special food of the day is the blini, which is served with butter, caviar, sour cream and other rich toppings.

In New Orleans, the epicenter of American Mardi Gras celebrations, the King Cake is the special food item associated with the holiday. I love this blog describing an easy version made from biscuits which was posted at the website Cookie Madness. The King Cake is a ring cake decorated with purple, green and yellow, the colors of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A plastic toy baby is inserted into the cake as it bakes and the person who finds it is crowned the King or Queen of the party. This tradition obviously derives from the celebration of Twelfth Night or Epiphany, the end of the Christmas holidays.

In Finland, Shrove Tuesday or Laskiainen is a time for outdoor parties. Everybody lends a hand to build a toboggan slide, and children as well as adults take part in the fun. Lanterns and candles are hung in surrounding trees and afterwards everybody comes back into the house for pea soup and laskiaispulla, almond-filled Lenten buns for dessert. I got this illustration and recipe for laskiaispulla from this website.

In England, pancakes are the special food for Shrove Tuesday (the name comes from the word, “to shrive,” referring to the custom of confessing before the pentitential period of Lent). It was said this allowed housewives to use up all the butter and fat before the diminished diet of Lent. Cristina Hole observes, :like hot cross buns, they have a long ancestry and are probably descendant sof the small wheaten cakes that were once made at pre-Christian festivals of early Spring.”

Carol Field describes a variety of Carnival celebrations in Italy. One of the wildest is celebrated in Ivrea which imports a trainload of blood oranges from Sicily for wild battles in the Piazza which leave the combatants bruised and dripping, while the gutters run with the red juice. In previous centuries, the items thrown included confetti (sugared almonds), candles, beans, caramels and coriander seeds rolled in plaster or flour and left to dry. Some of these make sense—the beans, for instance, recall the Roman feast of Parentalia when black beans were thrown to propitiate the ancestors—while the candles evoke the candles of Candlemas. Nowadays shaving cream is sprayed everywhere leaving everyone and everything covered in white foam.

Masked balls are part of Carnival celebrations in many places, but particularly in Venice and Germany. Pam Mandel, in her amusing chronicles of a winter spent in Austria, describes a sort of fancy debutante ball but in earlier times, the anonymity of masks and costumes allowed people to engage in licentious behavior that would normally be censured. Fasching is the name used in Germany and Austria for the masked figures, both grotesque and beautiful, that roam the street in search of food. Storace writes that in Greece, carnival provides an opportunity for free speech and uncensored social commentary. Costumes are used in this way, for instance to mock the pretensions of authorities. They also provide an opportunity for transvestism, not just sexual, but social, an opportunity to reveal what is normally hidden.

Celebrations of Carnival reached their height in Italy in the middle ages, especially in Venice. In 1214, in Venice, Carnival was celebrated with a sort of mock battle in which 12 noble ladies held a fortress which was attacked by assailants throwing flowers, perfumes and spices. Goethe attending a carnival celebration in Rome in 1787 wrote a beautiful passage about the effects of the candlelight processions of Shrove Tuesday which Carol Field quotes in her book on celebrations in Italy:

The darkness has descended into the narrow, high-walled street before lights are seen moving in the windows and on the stands; in next to no time the fire has circulated far and wide, and the whole street is lit up by burning candles.
The balconies are decorated with transparent paper lanterns, everyone holds his candle, all the windows, all the stands are illuminated, and it is a pleasure to look into the interiors of the carriages, which often have small crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, while in others the ladies sit with coloured candles in their hands as if inviting one to admire their beauty.
Sia ammazzato chi non porta moccolo. ‘Death to anyone who is not carrying a candle.’ This is what you say to others, while at the same time you try to blow out their candles….

Orloff’s description of Carnival customs still observed in Telfs in the Tyrolean Alps gives us a glimpse of some of the ancient aspects of this festival. At dawn, a baker, an innkeeper, a chimney sweep, and a peasant carry a golden sun on a pole through the village, begging the sun to shine down on the carnival. Later the Wilden appear, men and boys in grotesque masks and costumes of moss, representing winter. They roam the streets, drunk and riotous, attacking anyone who crosses them. There is a simulated bear hunt, then another procession headed by a lantern bearer whose role is to search for carnival in the darkness of winter. He makes room for the Schleicher, the spirits of spring. Each wears a fantastic hat, a mask showing the face of a young person and a giant bell. Each carries in his right hand a stick stacked with pretzels (symbols of the sun) and in his left a linen handkerchief. The Schleicher do a magic circle dance, with slow, deliberate steps, their bells awaken the slumbering earth. This is followed by a mock tribunal (making fun of local politics and gossip) and the squirting of the crowd with water from the mouth of the carnival baby.

Bulgarian carnival celebrations feature masked dancers known as koukeri or startsi (which means old man). They dance at dawn in groups of seven or nine and perform comic scenes from every day life. They are often accompanied by other characters such as a bride, a king or an Arab. In parts of eastern Thrace they dress in women’s clothing; in the Strandza mountains they dance on stilts. In some places they dance around a mast topped with a basket of straw which is ignited on the first day of Lent.

Like Groundhog’s Day, Shrove Tuesday is day for weather prognostication for the Pennyslvania Dutch who predict the height of the flax by the length of the icicles on Shrove Tuesday.

Bulgarian customs: http://www.eliznik.org.uk/Bulgaria/history/bulgaria_customs.htm

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1980

Hole, Cristina, The Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin Books 1976

Mandel, Pam, “Attack of the Jelly Donut,” http://nerdseyeview.tripod.com/austrianwinter
Orloff, Alexander, Carnival: Myth & Cult, Perlinger 1981
Root, Waverley, The Food of Italy, Vintage 1992
Storace, Patricia, Dinner with Persephone, Pantheon 1996
Yoder, Don, Groundhog’s Day, Staackpole Books 2003

The painting of the Ridotto is from Pietro Longhi. The other illustrations of Carnival in Venice came from this website.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Birds and Valentines Day

There is no connection between this holiday and either of the two St Valentines (a Roman priest martyred in the third century and a martyred bishop) although many legends have been invented to explain it. One story says that Claudius II during a time of unpopular military campaigns cancelled all marriages and engagements, hoping thereby to channel the energy of the young men into the martial arts. Supposedly Valentine, a priest in Rome during this time, secretly married couples, thus incurring the wrath of the emperor and martyrdom.

The custom of sending valentines may derive from the custom of drawing lots (names of partners) at the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia or with the worship of Juno Februata in whose honor on the eve of her feast day (Feb 15), according to my Lives of the Saints, boys drew names of girls. St Francis de Sales trying to abolish this heathen practice in the mid-sixteenth century suggested drawing the names of the saints (with boys drawing the names of female saints, and vice versa). This does not seem to have caught on.

According to Hutton, the custom of sending valentines began in England in the 15th century, and was more popular at first among the middle classes, who sent signed valentines (not anonymous ones). In Japan it is now the custom for women to give chocolates to men on this day, particularly their superiors at work.

In the Middle Ages, people believed that birds chose their mates on this day. Chaucer’s poem The Parliament of Fowles takes place on St. Valentine’s Day. This is the time of year when the courtship flights of birds, particularly of members of the crow family, are noticeable. Thus it is fitting that the Backyard Bird Count sponsored by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and Audubon is scheduled on Presidents Day weekend, usually close to Valentine’s Day.

In honor of the marriage of the birds, Mrs. Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach), sets out treats for the birds on this day: peanut butter balls rolled in bird seed, raisins and chopped nuts, chilled in the freezer and hung in a netted produce bag.

There was a folk superstition, mentioned by Shakespeare that the first person you meet on Valentine’s Day will be your true love. Ophelia plays with this idea when she says to Hamlet:

Good morrow, ’tis St Valentine’s Day
All in the morn betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine.

Another form of divination involves bird watching. According to British folklore, the first bird you see on Valentine’s Day tells you what sort of man you’ll marry. (Sorry, guys, but all these marriage divinations seem to be designed for women!) If you see a blackbird, you’ll marry a minister;  a dove, a good-hearted man; a goldfinch, a rich man; a sparrow, a happy man; a crossbill, an argumentative man; a robin, a  sailor; a bluebird, a happy man; a hawk, a soldier; an owl, a man who will die soon. If you see a woodpecker, you will never marry.

If you want to try a more modern version of this divination, you might do as I am doing: observing the birds in your neighborhood. I am taking the free course offered by Jon Young on bird language. From Jon Young, I travelled the internet to this site, Music of Nature, by Lang Elliott, where you can listen to specific bird songs. The Cornell Lab or Ornithology website, All About Birds, can help you identify the birds you see. And if you want to know what they mean, I found a thorough list here, complete with links to images and sound tracks.

To dream of your future mate, pin five bay leaves to your pillow on the eve of St. Valentine’s (one in each corner and one in the middle). Or you can adopt the divination method used by young people in England: write the names of prospective lovers on slips of paper, roll them in clay balls and drop them in a bowl of water. The first to rise to the surface will be your valentine. Or you can adopt the ritual suggested by the LaPlante sisters: Write the names of prospective lovers on pieces of paper, put them into a container, then draw one out and say: “Thou art my love and I am thine, I draw ______ for my Valentine.” The lover you chose will be yours by the following year.

References:

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

Hoever, Reverend Hugo, Lives of the Saints, Catholic Publishing Company 1955

Hutton, Ronald, The Rise and Fall of Merry England, Oxford University Press 1994

Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987

LaPlante, Alice & Clare, Heaven Help Us: the Worrier’s Guide to the Patron Saints, Dell 1999

Patricia Banker of Saints Preserved provides additional information on St. Valentine at her web site plus some interesting links, including one to a series of Victorian valentines, which is where I got the illustrations.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Happy Chinese New Year

I love all the opportunities the year offers for a new year, and here is one of the first: Chinese New Year!

The observation of this lunar festival (which occurs on the second new moon following the winter solstice) begins two weeks ahead of time (during the waning moon) as people pay debts, clean homes, return borrowed items, and make offerings to the household gods. Children are given little red envelopes containing money. Tangerines are also gifts of good luck. Firecrackers and lion dances scare off evil spirits.

People give each other special flowers called “hall flowers” because they have been reared in artificial heat (like forced narcissi): peonies, plum, peach and kumquat blossoms and jasmine. In earlier times, shallot, onion and madder plants were sprouted by the same method.

“blessings arrive”

People also put up lucky talismans—lucky words cut out in red paper, sometimes more than a foot long, which are pasted up on the front of gates. Pictures of the Eight Immortals are also cut out and hung up in front of divinities. (These are very much like the paper cuts that appear on Days of the Dead in Mexico and at Shavuot in Jewish synagogues).

Another New Year’s custom is the Money Tree: pine and cypress branches placed in a vase, and decorated with old coins and paper pomegranates and flowers. Old coins (with holes in them) are strung on colored threads in the shape of dragon and put at the foot of children’s beds. This is called “cash to pass the year.” It is supposed to be saved and not spent. However, money is given as a gift, usually in red envelopes.

New Year’s Day is sometimes called The Day of Beginning or the Day of Three Beginnings (of the year, of the season and of the month). On New Year’s Day, the aristocrats and officials of the Palace received purses from the Emperor embroidered with the eight treasures: the Wheel of the Law, Conch-shell, Umbrella, Canopy, Lotus, Jar, Fish and the Mystic Knot.

The meal is the most important part of the ceremonies, as each dish has symbolic significance. All the food is prepared ahead of time, as no frying or baking are permitted on the holiday. Knives and cutting instruments are put away as well. No one sweeps since that would sweep away good fortune.

The traditional main dish was a whole roasted pig, and at least one pork dish is still traditional. Chicken equals prosperity, a whole fish signifying the beginning and the end of the cycle is served but never eaten to symbolize plenty. Saifun (bean threads) represent long life and tangerines, piled high in a pyramid, are good luck and happiness. Expensive food items like sharks’ fin, bird’s nest and sea cucumbers set a tone of luxury. Clams are served to indicate receptivity to good fortune; vegetables are carved into the shape of coins.

Dumplings are popular: sometimes filled with meat and vegetables–and sometimes just vegetables as many families observe the practice of not eating meat on New Year’s Day. Deep fried to a golden color they are said to resemble bars of gold. Sometimes they contain a coin or other token inside the dumplings to bring good luck to the recipient.

In ancient China, the festival lasted two weeks, until the Festival of the Lanterns on the full moon. Today the festivities go on for three days.

According to the  writings of a sage from the fourth or fifth century, the ten days beginning with Chinese New Year are named after animals and plants. The first day is Fowl Day. The following days honor the Dog, the Pig, the Sheep, Cattle, Humans and Grains. Very much as the Twelve Days of Christmas predict weather for the coming year in British folklore, the weather on the these days predicts the coming year for each of these creatures. Bright clear days indicate prosperity while dark days warn of trouble.

2015 is the Year of the Goat

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

Li-Ch’en, Tun, translated by Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936

Simonds, Nina, Chinese Seasons, Houghton Mifflin 1986

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend