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.

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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

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All Souls Day

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Weather Report, November 2

All Souls’, blustery and chill. I hear them before I see them, six lines scribbling across the white sky. I look up at the tiny crosses beating above me. The pain is new each year, and I’m surprised, even though I expect it the sudden cold, the geese passing over.

From Dakota by Kathleen Norris

I love Kathleen Norris’ simple but striking evocation of the mood of November 2nd. The melancholy of the geese passing overhead, warns of the arrival of winter and resonates with the image of the Wild Hunt, the horde of wandering souls that flew through the winter night sky, sometimes disguised as swans or wild geese or the wind. In Scandinavia, they were led by Odin, in England by Herne the Hunter, but in earlier times, in the Mediterranean they were led by goddesses.

The Wild Horde itself was a complex phenomenon whose origins lose themselves partly in the prehistoric past. There was the assembly of ghosts under the leadership of a female divinity, Hecate or Artemis in ancient Greece, Diana or Herodias, the mother of Salome, in the Latin West. This gathering of feminine spirits which later swelled into the crowd of evil hags at the witch sabbath was well known to the theologians of the first millenium who in vain flung their anathema against it…

As usual the effort was in vain. For as late as 1484 the Austrian Sephanius Lanzkranna reports in his ‘hymmelstrasse’ about the exploits of the Demon Dyana, whom he identifies with the local demons Frawe Percht and Frawe Holt. Herodias herself rides to the present day with the Wild Horde in large parts of Italy and in the Eastern Alps…Ritual performances meant to embody ghosts of the defunct–a feature not mentioned by writers of the first millenium–have survived over a large part of the eastern Alps under the name of Perchta, a feminine demon in whom the spirit of the Carnival is incarnated. [Bernheimer]

Bernheimer points out that the masculine Wild Horde, led by Odin, Holler, Gwyn ap Nudd, etc. is a more or less Teutonic phenomenon while the feminine one seems to be of Mediterranean origin. It may be the northern male-led horde grew out of the Southern female-led one.

In his book, Ecstasies, in which he explores the imagery of the witches’ sabbath, Carlos Ginzburg describes evidence for an early shamanic cult, centered around a goddess of abundance and the dead. She was known by many names: Herodiade, Diana, Habondia (Abundance), Richessa and the Good Goddess (Bona Dea whose festival the Romans celebrated on December 1st). Her devotees said they flew with her through the night sky, entering the houses of the rich to feast; Ginzburg suggest these journeys were undertaken in trance.

The Cathars, who developed a unique Christian religion which flourished in Southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries until wiped out as heresy by a Crusade in the 13th century, believed that this was the day when the souls of those who died during the year entered into a place of rest. Before this day, they wandered around the earth, from church to church. Angels chose from this flock those ready to be admitted to the place of rest. The living could influence the selection by saying Masses for the dead, paying off their debts and giving gifts to the poor.

This is similar to the tradition of English tradition of going from house to house, gathering ingredients for soul-cakes. Sometimes these were left out for the poor to eat, sometimes given to the priest to pay for Masses for the souls of the dead, sometimes they were given to those professionals who took on the sins of the dead, as in this passage quoted by Kightly:

In the County of Hereford was an old Custom at Funerals, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sins of the part deceased. One of them I remember (he was a long, lean, lamentable poor rascal). The manner was that when a Corpse was brought out of the house and laid on the Bier; a Loaf of bread was brought out and delivered to the Sin-eater over the corps, as also a Mazer-bowl full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him all the Sins of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from Walking after they were dead.

John Aubrey, Remains of Gentilism 1688

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church tried to replace the idea of ghosts wandering around the night sky with that of souls who went straight to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory upon death and thus could not be contacted by those spiritual practitioners whose role it was to pass along messages from one world to another. With this development, the link was broken between people and their ancestors, who could no longer be prayed to or invited to return to provide advice.

Instead, wealthy patrons bestowed money on monasteries for the privilege of having the monks pray for their souls after death. In 998, the abbot of Cluny, Odilo, dedicated the day following All Saints Day as a day of psalm-singing and alms-giving, in memory of all who had died. One legend says he was spurred on in this action by a report from a traveler who had been told by an African hermit that the monks of Cluny were famous for saving souls. Another legend, related by the thirteenth century canonist, William Durandus, recorded the fate of a certain abbot who forbade saying Masses of the dead on Sundays. The souls of the deceased “afflicted him for this with very hard blows” and so he revoked his prohibition.

The dead saints replaced the ancestors as the subject of prayers and other-worldly assistance. The only dead still presumed to have contact with the living were evil spirits who still roamed the earth. They were not the sort you wanted to encounter on a dark night, thus the association of All Hallow’s Eve with ghosts and terror.

An excerpt from my Halloween holiday e-book which can be ordered at the Living in Season store.

Illustrations:

The first painting is called All Soul’s Day and it was painted in 1910 by Alader Korosfoi-Kriesch. The second painting is called Asgardreien and was painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1872.

References:

Bernheimer, Richard, Wild Men of the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology, Octagon 1970

Ginzburg, Carlos (translated by Raymond Rosenthal), Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, Pantheon 1991

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

Ladurie, Roy (translated by Barbara Bray), Montaillou, George Braziller 1978

Norris, Kathleen, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Houghton Mifflin 1993.

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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.

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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

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New Year Planning

I love planning. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Which is why I spend the whole month of January figuring out my goals for the new year. This year I’ll be doing it along with the students in my online class called New Year Dreams. I’ve been seeing an upswelling of posts on the Internet with great ideas for New Year planning and thought I’d point out a few of them.

There’s the one word approach. Christine Kane is known for this method and proposes a list of good words at her site. (My word isn’t on it though) My friend Christine Valters Paintner has a lovely blog about this one word concept too. My word for 2010 (which I got from Havi Brooks, who got it from Hiro Boga), was Sovereignity.

And if you want some magic spray to go with your word, check out Deborah Weber’s offerings. I just ordered her Sovereignity spray. She has auric sprays for many popular themes, like Trust and Serenity and she can make custom blends as well.

Chris Brogan uses three words which does extend the scope a little, and I like the mind maps that go with them. His words and maps are like little mysteries to me. They wouldn’t motivate me but I like it that they are concepts not qualities. His 3 words for 2010 were Ecosystem, Owners and Kings (which is kind of like Sovereignity).

I’m encouraged that so many people are realizing that having themes is a much more useful way to approach the year than goals, which usually get reduced to something soulless like make $XX,000 money or “lose XX pounds.” A theme helps you get at the longing behind the goal, the divine quality that is wanting to be expressed.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t need metrics. I really love the spreadsheet method of tracking your goals developed by Chris Guillebeau. (Although I do notice that the men on this list approach this process in much more practical way than the more organic approaches of the women. Still both are useful.)

I sometimes have trouble figuring out where to go with my themes and the spreadsheet helps me think of them in terms of concrete goals.

Alicia Forest has aninteresting way of working with themes and goalsthat combines the more rational approach with the organic one. She advises finding a theme for the year and then identifying four goals to accomplish, one per quarter (or season as I would have it).  She calls those the four Pillars of the year.

I may integrate this idea with the  Natural Planner process I developed to give me a more natural way of moving through the year. It reminds me to review my themes (which are different than goals) every season and acknowledge what I’ve achieved so far. Visual planning methods seem to work better for me these days than the grids and lists I used to love.

I hope you have a favorite planning process, one that fills you with delight.  If you do, please share it with me! I’m trying out as many as I can.

Collage made by me was one of my themes for 2012: Presence.

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Days of the Dead

The Tzeltals of Mexico celebrate the Feast of the Dead for thirteen days, beginning on October 25th. Graves are decorated with pine needles and tusus (yellow wild flowers).

In Puebla, the accidentados (the souls of those who died in accidents) return on October 28th, followed by the angelitos (the souls of dead children) who show up at noon on October 31, to be followed by the souls of dead adults on November 1. This sequence probably derives from the Aztec calendar which devoted two months to the dead: the ninth month to dead infants, the tenth month to dead adults.

The Aztecs did not fear death like European Christians, for whom it was a time of judgment. The Aztecs saw death as a phase in a cyclic journey. In fact, to die was to wake from the dream of life.

The Aztecs did not fear death like European Christians, for whom it was a time of judgment. The Aztecs saw death as a phase in a cyclic journey. In fact, to die was to wake from the dream of life. In the Yucatan, the Maya bury their dead with food, drink, clothing and other things they will need on their journey to the place of the dead.

The combination of the indigenous reverence for death with the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in 1521 produced a flowering of ritual and art in Mexico around the time of this holiday. Vendors sell skeletons made of paper mache or clay and wire with cotton wool hair, dressed as postmen, revolutionaries, street vendors, wedding couples and musicians and macabre toys, like clay skulls with movable lower jaws or skeletons that dance on a string. In Oaxaca, you can turn a handle and watch skeletons in small painted wooden theatres rise up in their coffins or drink from a cup. Printers make special editions and comic publications, satirizing famous people both dead and alive, who are depicted in skeleton or skull form with satirical obituaries, describing the person and his (mis)deeds.

Children beg for “a funeral” or “a death” and are given treats like bones made of milk chocolate and sugar skulls with maraschino cherries for eyes and grins of syrup and rows of fine gold teeth, sometimes bearing their name. One visitor to Mexico in 1884 remarked on figures in the shape of guitars, sheep, angels, souls in purgatory (I’d like to see this!) and animals “of every species, enough to form specimens for Noah’s ark.”

altar

Ofrendas, offerings, to the dead of food and drink are placed on the altar.

The Days of the Dead are a time of reunion. People travel home. Altars are set up in houses, and decorated with flowers, leaves, fruit, incense and candles.  Sometimes flower petals are scattered in a path from the altar to the open door to guide the returning dead.

Ofrendas, offerings, to the dead of food and drink are placed on the altar. The dead derive nourishment from the smell of the food and drink so it should have a strong aroma. Starr mentions liquors, cigarettes, mole, pulque and tamales. Anita Brenner in Idols Behind Altars mentionfoodonaltars beans, chili, tortillas, and other ordinary dishes plus the specialties of the season: “pumpkins baked with sugar cane, pulque or a bluish maize-brew with a delicate sugar film, and Dead Mens’ Bread. For the children, candy skulls, pastry coffins, ribs and thigh-bones made of chocolate and frosted sugar, tombstones, wreaths, and pretentious funerals.”

Everyone goes to church. Masses are said. Genealogies recited. On the night of November 1, people gather in cemeteries and spend the night with “the little dead ones.” A priest might come and sprinkle the graves with holy water. Candles burn on every grave which are decorated with offerings and flowers. Brenner mentions heavy purple wild blossoms and the yellow pungent cempoalxochitl (marigolds). In Zinacantan, the graves are covered with pine needles, pine boughs and red geraniums and offerings. In Jimenez, people bring the bed in which the person died to the cemetery, hung with lace and curtains, white for children and black for adults. Those who have no beds take tables and place them over the grave instead, decorating them with gold and silver paper stars, paper flowers, etc. Sometimes bands serenade the dead with songs and music. In other places, people dance. Refreshments are sold at the gate.cemetery2

In San Augustin, the children gather at the church early in the morning of October 31st. From there, they walk to the graveyard, carrying a banner depicting the Eucharist, bread angels and green branches, accompanied by a prayer-maker and a few women and a band. In the graveyard, they say prayers and then return to the church, bringing back with them the souls of the angelitos, the dead children. After praying a second time, they go home to feast with their parents on mole, tamales, bread, squash, fruits, pumpkin prepared with brown sugar, maize cobs and other foods. At night four dishes are put on the floor of the house, together with candles, flowers and food for the dead. Bread and fruit are put on a “sun-and-water” bed made from maize stalks. Candles and tiny angels are left on the dry stone walls and fences so that the village children can come and carry them off. Animals are watched to make sure they don’t eat the offerings; dogs are sometimes muzzled during this holiday so their barking doesn’t drive away tcemetery3he dead. In the morning, the family eats the food left out for the dead and prepares another feast for the dead adults. On the third day, November 2nd, the children, along with the prayer-maker and the band, take the dead back to the graveyard.

References:
Brenner, Anita, Idols behind Altars. Beacon Press 1970, quoted in Sayer
Sayer, Chloe, ed, Mexico: The Day of the Dead, London: Redstone Press
Starr, Frederick, from a catalogue for the Collection of Objects Illustrating the Folklore of Mexico, produced for the Folkore Society in London quoted by Sayer

The beautiful photographs were taken by Judy Maselli in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Taken from my Halloween holiday e-book which contains recipes for sugar skulls and bones of the dead, plus more information on other cultural variants of this holiday including I Morti in Italy, Samhain in Ireland, Nos Galan Gaef in Wales. You can order it and get an instant download link at my store.

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