Flower of June: Roses

 

Venus Verticorida by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Venus Verticorida by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As I write this page, I am swimming in the sweet, spicy scent of the ruffled pink rose sitting in a vase of water on my desk.. Having recently been introduced to the serious art of wine tasting, I am educating my scent palate to register smells like tar and tobacco in wines. And I find the same acuity extends to flowers. Roses no longer just smell like roses; some are black cherry and others have the spiciness of carnations. This pink rose, however, is all rose: but on the peppery edge of rose.

The name rose simply means rose, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, although other sources derive it from Rhodes (where, apparently, roses grew) or from a Greek root meaning “red.” The word for Rose in Avestan, the language of Zoroaster, is vareda and in Armenian it is vard; and we see this root in the name of the midsummer festival Vartavar, the Flaming of the Rose. The Persian word for rose is gul, which also means flower, and is close to ghul, the word for spirit. Rose water is called gulab, as is a beverage made from water and honey or syrup, from which (via Arabia julab) we get the julep in mint juleps.

I have found more confusion in flower lore than anywhere else in my research. Of course, part of the problem with flowers is that it’s often hard to tell which plant is referred to by which name. But that seems hardly likely for roses. Still of the twelve books about flowers on my desk, every one tells a different (unattributed) story about the early references to roses.

What is clear is that the rose was cultivated by the Greeks. One source says Venus pricked herself on a thorn of a white rose and stained it red. Or that Cupid spilled red wine on it. But I can’t find these stories in my usual source for Greek mythology, Robert Graves.

stylized roseThe Romans adored roses and used them liberally in festivities, so liberally it is said that at one party, the guests were actually smothered by rose petals falling from the ceiling. This is not the origin of the term sub rosa. That comes from the Roman practice of hanging a rose over a conference table, which was supposed to indicate that everything spoken there would be held in confidence. For many centuries, roses were carved or painted on the ceilings of dining chambers to indicate that the diners could talk freely.

Horace in the Odes said: “Nor let roses be wanting to our feast.” The Sybarites slept on mattresses stuffed with rose petals. The rose garden of King Midas was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Apuleius in  Metamorphoses, gives them as decoration to Venus, who after an evening of revelry is described “Heavy with wine and all her body bound about with flashing roses.” Many legends aassociate the rose with Venus. It is her flower, par excellence.

For a while, because of the bad reputation roses had acquired under the Romans, Christians did not allow the rose in church, but eventually it was adopted into Christian iconography. Christ is shown crowned with rose thorns and Judas supposedly hanged himself from a rose tree. Mary is addressed with various rose titles, including Rose of Sharon, the Rose-bush, the Rose-garland, the Rose-garden, Wreath of Roses, Mystic Rose and Queen of the Most Holy Rose-garden.

To the Arabs, roses signify masculine beauty. It is said that the white rose sprang from the sweat of Mohammed on his journey to heaven.

In Germany, the rose is under the protection of the dwarfs or fairies and you must ask their permission before picking one, this is the mistake Beauty’s father made when plucking the rose from the Beast’s garden. In a reversal on this motif, other legends tell of people who were enchanted and turned into animals who regained their human form by eating a rose, for instance, Apuleius in the Golden Ass and St. Denis, the patron of France.

For many centuries in Greece, Rome and China, the rose was a funeral flower. In Switzerland, the cemetery is sometimes called the Rosengarten. In England it is customary to plant a rosebush on the grave of a lover who dies before the marriage, thus combining the themes of love and death. Seeing the petals of a rose fall is a sign of death for the Germans although it can be counteracted by burning some of the petals.

An Indian legend tells about a quarrel between Vishnu and Brhama about the most beautiful flower. Brahma insisted upon the lotus (the flower of July) until Vishnu showed him a rose.

A Brief History of Roses

rosa canina

Rosa canina

Roses have been cultivated in Greece and China for over 3,000 years. The earliest rose is the dog rose (Rosa canina). Fossils of this species from 35 million years ago were found in Montana. I just smelt a dog rose as I strolled home in the midsummer sunshine and it has the most intense fragrance of any rose.

Rosa gallica by Pieree Joseph Redoute

Rosa Gallica by Pieree Joseph Redoute

The next oldest rose is the  rosa gallica (gallica officinalis), a symbol of the sun in the 12th century BCE. It has a rich cherry color and flowers the size of a field poppy. This was the rose used as a symbol of Lancaster during the War of the Roses. A striped Rosa Gallica called Rosa Mundi commemorates Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund, hidden by him at Woodstock near Oxford, and murdered by jealous Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is also known as the apothecary rose because it was used by herbal healers.

The next distinct rose type comes from 1000 BCE and grew at the Temple of Aphrodite at Samos. It has loose petals, voluptuous and scented, and was known as the damask rose in England, supposedly because it came from Damascus. Because of its wonderful scent, it was used primarily used to make rose water.

Rosa damascena by Pierre Joseph Redoute

Rosa damascena by Pierre Joseph Redoute

Another early rose is the sweet briar or eglantine (rosa rubiginosa), which is mentioned by Chaucer and also appears in The Song of Roland:

On white carpets those knights have sat them down,
At the game-boards to pass an idle hour—
Checkers the old, for wisdom most renowned,
While fence the young and lusty bachelors
Beneath a pine in eglantine embowered.

translated by CS Moncrieff

I believe this is the rose in the rose hedge observed by Richard Jefferies, a naturalist, near a farm at Wick in Wiltshire:

Some of [the] briars stretch forth into the meadow, and then, bent down by their own weight, form an arch crowned with flowers. There is an old superstition about these arches of briar hung out along the hedge-row: magical cures of whooping-cough and some other disease of childhood can, it is believed, be effected by passing the child at sunrise under the briar facing the rising sun.

Chinese roses first arrived in Europe near the end of the 18th century. These were the tea-roses, possibly so-called because they were imported along with tea. In China they were often named for poetic concepts, like “Clear Shining after Rain,” while in France, new varieities were usually named for men, wives and mistresses. When crossed with hybrid perpetuals, these roses produced most modern roses.

The rose is a member of the Rosacae which also includes strawberries and raspberries, apples and almonds, plums and apricots.

For a much more thorough discussion, see:

http://www.csulb.edu/~odinthor/oldrose.html

 

Rose Holidays

There are many holidays associated with roses, many of them in June. And in fact, June is national Rose Month (so declared in America in 1969).

Rose Monday is celebrated in Germany on the Monday before Lent begins, with parades, masked balls, parties, satirical speeches and other Carnival events.

Several saints with feast days in June are associated with roses. The yellow rose is the symbol of St. Nicomede whose feast day is June 1st. And the three-leaved rose is associated with St. Boniface on June 5. And on St. Barnaby’s day, June 11, it was customary in Great Britain to decorate churches and houses and even clergymen (who wore chaplets of roses while officiating)with Barnaby garlands of roses and sweet woodruff. Red roses are associated with St. George, whose feast day is April 23.

Ginzburg citing studies by Nilsson and Ranke says that the Christian festival of Pentecost derives from the Rosalia (a Roman ceremony honoring the dead, celebrated on May 10 and May 31). According to posts at several web sites that study ancient Roman religion, the standards of military units were brought out on these days and decorated with a garland of roses, presumably to honor soldiers from the unit who had died in combat.

The day before Pentecost is a day when many Christians visit and decorate the graves of their loved ones (and it may be the precursor of Memorial Day). And on Pentecost in Messina, according to Urlin, great quantities of roses wee dripped from the ceiling of the church during the singing of the famous Come Holy Spirit.

The Armenians have a festival called Vartavar or Flaming of the Rose. Originally a Midsummer festival, it is now celebrated at the same time as the Transfiguration, 98 days after Easter, but still involves the pagan customs inherited from the older holiday: decorating churches with roses, spraying each other with water and releasing doves.

Rose Water

The 16th century English herbalist, Gerard, recommended rose water for “the strengthening of the heart, and refreshing of the spirits and likewise for all things that require a gentle cooling. The same being put in junketting dishes, cakes, sauces and many other pleasant things, giveth a fine and delectable taste.”

Jean Gordon in her book, Cooking with Roses, provides instructions for distilling rose water:

Gather about a pound of fresh rose petals [be sure they have not been sprayed] from fragrant roses. Fill an aluminum tea kettle half full of water, strew rose petals thickly over the surface. Close the kettle and set over a low heat. Attach a clean rubber hose to the spout of the kettle and place the other end in a glass jar on the floor. Arrange the rubber hose so part of it is submerged in a pan of cold water. The essence of the rose petals will be extracted by the heat and carried off with the steam generated by the water. The vapors, on passing through that part of the rubber hose which is under water, are condensed and run into the glass jar in the form of rose water. Be certain the temperature is low, the petals do not clog the spout and that there is no obstruction in the tub, as the pressure of the steam may force the lid from the kettle and scatter petals over the walls and ceiling of the kitchen. Aside from this danger, rose water is not really difficult to distill. The first attempt may take time and patience, but after that success is almost certain.

When using rose water in cooking, Gordon suggests adding it near the end as the flavor is delicate and easily lost during baking and boiling. Add rose water to cakes, to frosting, to cookies (especially those with a delicate flavor like shortbread or sugar cookies).

Arabs use rose water with honey and butter to glaze a roasting chicken. In Greece, it flavors candies and pastries. In Turkey, a bottle of rose water sits on the table and is sprinkled over food for flavor. This same sprinkler is called attardane in India.

Rose water has also been used for baptisms and to purify mosques and temples. The Romans used rose water in their fountains.

Eating & Drinking Roses

Why not design a rose meal? You could serve rose sandwiches (rose petals and cream cheese), scones with rose jam or rose butter and rose tea (made from adding a few dried petals to black tea when steeping in the pot). For dessert, baklava or rose-flavored shortbread cookies or a rose cake decorated with crystallized rose petals.

For beverages, serve rose punch or rose wine, and use roses for cups. Lucy Maria Boston gives parties where she asks each guest to choose a globular rose to drink from. “It is rather a dribbly business,” she writes, “the roses leak, but utterly delicious; also long drawn out, the process can’t be hurried.” Shekinah Mountainwater suggests sprinkling rose petals in a cup of red wine or rose water. As you sip from it, the petals will caress your lips and the scent your nose.

Rose Blossom Punch

This punch recipe, which I believe comes from the Evelyn and Crabtree cookbook, features roses both visually (frozen in a block of ice) and with the flavor of rosewater.

3 pink unsprayed roses with about 6-inch stems, rinsed
8 cups dry white wine, chilled
1/2 cup kirsch
1 to 2 T rosewater
To serve:
small pink unsprayed rose petals and leaves, rinsed, and patted dry

To make the decorative ice cube:

The day before you plan to serve the punch, thoroughly rinse a cardboard milk or juice carton. Cut off the top and trim the sides to 7 inches. Put the roses in the carton and fill it to within one inch of the top with boiled and cooled water. Freeze overnight or until solid.

To make the punch:

Combine wine, kirsch and rosewater in a punch bowl. Remove the cardboard from the rose-studded ice cube and place in the bowl. Float small rose petals and leaves on top. Serve in long-stemmed wineglasses.

Rose Wine

The Gulistan, a collection of Persian wisdom, mentions a rose wine so strong that “a glass could make the sternest monarch merciful or make the sickliest mortal slumber amid his pains.” The Siberians make a bright red sparkling wine from the leaves of the wild rose, called Shimpovka.

1 quart dried rose petals
2 oranges
4 quarts water
2 lemons
2 pounds sugar
1 1/4 oz yeast cake

Add 2 quarts of water to the rose petals and boil for 20 minutes. Cool. Add lemons and oranges sliced very thin, the sugar and yeast dissolved in warm water. Add 2 additional quarts of boiled water. Let stand 8 to 10 days, stirring 2 or 3 times daily. Drain and put in a jug, lightly corked, until through working. Strain and pour into sterilized bottles and cork.

Rose Petal Jam

Gordon got this recipe from the Turkish Information Office.

1/2 pound red rose petals
1/2 pound white rose petals
3 pounds sugar
juice of 1 lemon

Place the red rose petals in a large jar in alternating layers of petals and sugar until all the petals are used. Press and pack tight. Using a different jar, repeat this process with the white rose petals. Set aside the remaining sugar for later use. Pour 3/4 cup hot water into each jar and cover each with a piece of damp cloth. Let stand for 3 days.

Strain the juice from the jar of white petals; discard the petals. Take the remaining sugar and add enough water to dissolve it; boil in an enamel saucepan to make a heavy syrup. Add the juice and petals from the red-petal jar and the juice of the white-petal jar. Bring to a boil and simmer until the mixture reaches the consistency of honey. Add the lemon juice and stir. Cool the jam and ladle into screw-top jars.

Every country has a slightly different way of preparing this treat. In Greece, 1 pound of rose petals are kneaded with 1 pound of sugar. This mixture is left to stand for a day. The following day, it is put into a pot, along with 3 pounds sugar, the juice of 1/2 a lemon and 3 glasses of water and boiled until it becomes a thick syrup.

rose nougatRose Conserve

There is also a way of making an uncooked rose petal preserve or conserve which seems very appealing to me. In Persia it is called Gulkanda, from Gul (for Rose) and Kanda (the same word which gives us candy). In India, a similar concoction is called Goolakund.

1 pound rose petals
3 pounds sugar3 pounds sugar

Crush the rose petals. Place a layer of sugar in a large jar and alternate with the crush petals until you’ve used all the sugar. Close the jar tightly and leave in the hot sunshine several days until all the sugar is melted. Serve as a jam.

Since it may be hard to obtain a pound of rose petals, you can reduce the quantities and use a cup instead. You can also use brown sugar instead of white. This was called Rose Tobacco in Colonial days.

Old Rose Recipes

Rose Butter

I love old recipes, both for the language and the technique. This one is over a hundred years old.

Wash rose petals and put them in a stone jar, sprinkling them with fine salt. Next day gather some more and repeat until the jar is almost filled. Keep the jar well covered at all times with a lid and also wrapped in a coarse cloth. When you plan to make rice pudding or cake, weight the butter you intend using and put it in the jar on top of the rose petals overnight. By the time you take it out, it will have absorbed a very fine rose flavor, superior to that of rose water. Rose petals may be kept in this way for a year, until they bloom again.

Rose Conserve

This recipe is even older. It comes from the 16th century English herbalist, Gerard.

Take Roses at your plesure, put them to boyle in faire water, having regard to the quantity; for if you have many Roses you may take more water; if fewere, the lesse water will serve: the which you shall boyle at the least three or foure houres, even as you would boile a piece of meate, untill in the eating they be very tender, at which time the Roses will lose their colour, that you would thinke your labour lost, and the thing spoiled. But proceed, for though the Roses have lost their colour, the water hath gotten the tincture thereof; then shall you adde unto one pound of Roses, foure pound of fine sugar in pure pouder, and so according to the rest of the Roses. Thus shall you let them boyule gently after the sugar is put therto, continually stirring it with a wooden Spatula untill it be raw conserve, as well for the vertues and goodnesse in taste, as also for the beautifull colour.

Rose Treats

Baklava

1 package phyllo dough
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 t mace
1 cup ground almonds or chopped pistachios
rose water or Baklava Rose Syrup (see below)

Lay a paper-thin sheet of phyllo dough on a buttered cake or pie tin and spread with melted butter, using a brush. Add five or six additional sheets, buttering each, then spread a mixture of the sugar, mace and nuts on top. Add 5 or 6 more layers and repeat. Do this until the baklava is about 2 inches high. With a sharp knife, cut crisscross slits on the top, about 1-1/2 inches apart. Bake in a 250 oven for about 1 hour. After you have taken it out of the oven, sprinkle it with rose water or Baklava Rose Syrup. Serve it with black coffee.

Baklava Rose Syrup

2 cups water
2 cups sugar
juice & rind of 1/2 orange
1 T rose water

Mix together the water, sugar, orange juice and rind. Boil for 3 minutes, then add the rose water.

Candied Rose Petals

2 cups fragrant rose petals
1/2 pound sugar
1 cup powdered sugar

Boil the sugar in 2 cups of water until the syrup spins a thread. Set on ice to cool. When the syrup starts to crystallize, dip the petals in with wire tongs or tweezers, a few at a time. Then take out and spread on waxed paper. When they begin to dry, dust with powdered sugar on one side and then on the other. Store in airtight containers.

Crystallized Rose Petals

Beat the white of one egg to a foam. Dip a small pastry brush (or use your fingers) in egg white and brush well over the sides of the rose petals. Be certain that no surplus egg white remains on the petal but that both sides are moist. Shake granulated sugar on both sides and place on a tray to dry in the refrigerator.

Rose Sugar

Bury a small fragrant rose in a screw-top glass jar full of sugar. Set on a windowsill that gets sun for several weeks. The scent of the rose will permeate the sugar.

Rose Fragrances

A story is told that the secret for making attar of roses was discovered by a princess at her wedding feast when she noticed that the rose petals floating in the water were leaving behind an oily residue as the sun made the water evaporate. This oily deposit was skimmed from the surface to make rose oil. Sixty thousand roses were required to make a single ounce of oil.

Tincture of Roses

Place the petals of fragrant roses, without pressing them, in a bottle. Pour some good spirits of wine over them. Then close the bottle and let it stand until required for use. It will keep for years and smells similar to attar of roses, which is much more expensive and difficult to make.

Attar of Roses

Fill a large glazed earthen jar with rose leaves, carefully separated from the cups; pour upon them spring water, just sufficient to cover them, and set the jar with its contents in the sun for two or three days, taking it under cover at night. At the end of the third or fourth day, small particles of yellow oil will be seen floating on the surface of the water. In the course of a week, these will have increased to a thin scum. The scum is attar of roses. Take it up with a little cotton tied at the end of a stick (sounds like a Q-tip to me) and squeeze it into a vial.

Rose Toilet Water

Press rose petals from the most naturally fragrant roses into a bottle. Add glycerin and keep tightly corked for four weeks. Strain or use directly from the bottle. A few drops added to rainwater make a fragrant rinse.

Rose Crafts

Roses and Rosariesrosenecklace

Many of you have probably heard, as I have, that rosaries were originally made from rose beads. But that is actually a fanciful derivation. The original rosaries were probably knotted ropes, and for gentlewomen, lovely strings of precious stones, much like the lovely Goddess rosaries Lunaea Weatherstone makes and sells.

But you can make beads from roses and one of my Living in Season friends, Eyln MacInnis, has created a Kindle book and a website devoted to explaining this craft. The rose bead necklace in the photo to the right is one she made.

References

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc, Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days, Oxford Univ Press, 2000

Boston, L.M, Memory in a House, Macmillan 1974

Castleman, Michael, The Healing Herbs, Rodale Press 1991

Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, first published 1653, reprint version published by Wordsworth Editions (Cumberland House, Crib Street, Ware, Hertfordshire) 1995

Digby, Sir Kenelm, The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened, ed by Anne MacDonell, London: Philip Lee Warner 1910

Frazer, Sir James, The New Golden Bough, abridged by Theodor H Gaster, New American Library 1959

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper & Row 1972

Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, London: Senate (Studio Editions, Ltd) 1994

Ginzberg, Carlo, Ecstasie: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbats, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, Pantheon 1991

Gordon, Jean, The Art of Cooking with Roses, Walker & Company 1968

Goudge, Elizabeth, The White Witch, Popular Library 1958

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

Luard, Elizabeth, Sacred Food, Chicago Review Press

Martin, Laura C., Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press (Chester CT 06412), 1987

Mountainwater, Shekinah, Ariadne’s Thread: A Workbook of Goddess Magic, Crossing Press 1991

Perlman, Dorothy, The Magic of Honey, Avon 1971

Rago, Linda Ours, The Herbal Almanack, Washington DC: Starwood Publishing 1992

Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik & William Hylton, Rodale Press 1987

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937

Urlin, Ethel, Festivals, Holy Days and Saints’ Days: A Study in Origins and Survivals in Church Ceremonies and Secular Customs, Gale Research 1979

Ward, Bobby J., A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth &Literature, Timber Press 1999

Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997

Web Sites:

On Roman festival of Rosalia:

http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Post/347224

For sources:

http://omega.cohums.ohio-state.edu/mailing_lists/CLA-L/2006/05/0435.php

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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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Solstice Traditions

My usual practice for solstice is to spend the day in silence. I don’t answer the phone or turn on the TV, radio or computer. It’s a short and quiet day of sleeping and reading, topped off by a long walk at dusk in the nearby park and a bubble bath by candlelight.

Jennifer Louden wrote about her Solstice in 2009. She lit candles in every room in the house, then went for a walk in the dark to talk with her sweetheart about the year and all it had brought, then turned the corner towards home to find the house blazing with light. It sounds like a brilliant idea (as long as you leave someone at home to watch the candles).

I hope you have a Solstice tradition you enjoy. Perhaps you could share it here.

First published December 23, 2009

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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.

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Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

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

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

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

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An Advent Garden

by Erin Fossett

The December holidays can be a hectic if festive time of year, a season that can leave us ungrounded and disconnected from our natural rhythms. And yet, this season can also be a call to strengthen these connections, while paying tribute to some of the most fundamental relationships in our lives: our connections to the earth, to plants and animals, and to the people around us.

One way we try to honor these connections in our home is an advent garden, a tradition that has become an anchor of my family’s celebration. It is also a tradition that can be adapted to your own beliefs and traditions, expressing what the season means for you.

To make our garden, I spread a starry blue cloth on a corner table at the beginning of December, and then add four unlit votive candles. Other people might want to use an advent wreath of pine boughs, though I admit that I’m too intimidated by florist wire to try this myself. Instead, I arrange a spiral of small stones to symbolize the first week of advent, the Festival of Stones, which commemorates the earth in its most basic form.

The first light of Advent is the light of stones,
Light that lives in seashells, in crystals and in bones.

This verse is one I learned at my son’s Waldorf school. It can also be found on a wonderful collection of holiday music, The Christmas Star, by Mary Thienes-Schunemann. Every evening, we gather before bedtime around the garden. We turn out every light, even the Christmas tree. Then, singing this verse, I light a single candle for the first week of advent. We might sing a song, and I might read a fable or myth of the earth, including creation myths from various cultures. One source of wonderful stories for the solstice season is The Return of the Light, by Carolyn McVickar Edwards.

This first week, our focus is on our connection to the earth. We try to go on a hike or snowshoe, and my children keep an eye out for special rocks that they can add to our spiral. In years past, I have also wrapped individual stones, seashells and crystals in tissue paper. Each night, my children choose one to unwrap and we add it to the garden. We end our ritual with Silent Night, or another song, and I lead them upstairs by candle light.

The second light of Advent is the light of plants
Plants that reach up to the sun and in the breezes dance.

The second week of advent we celebrate the Festival of Plants. I add pine boughs and moss to the garden, and I may wrap up some pinecones for the children to open, as well as seed packets that we can plant in the spring. I try to keep most of the garden natural, but my children like to add their own touches, and it’s always interesting to see what they come up with. We’ve had the plastic pine trees from my son’s train set, bits of orange peel and a pomegranate. The important thing is to make it personal, an expression of what has meaning for you.

This week, we talk a lot about plants, celebrating the bounty of the earth and expressing gratitude for the people who grow our food. We also pay special attention to our garden, thanking the sleeping plants outside. This year, we’re even talking about planting a tree during the holiday season. We light two candles this week, and continue with our stories of the natural world, reading stories such as The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim.

The third light of Advent is the light of beasts
Light of hope that shines in the greatest and the least.

The third week of advent, we celebrate the Festival of Animals. Our garden is starting to take shape now, and the children get excited adding figures of favorite animals from their toy collections and our nativity set, as well as small animals that I’ve felted. We may set out a bowl of birdseed, or a bit of hay, to represent caring for animals.

Last year, we also made bird feeders from pine cones dipped in peanut butter and bird seed and hung them out in our backyard. We leave carrots out for the bunnies and pumpkin seeds for the squirrel who visits our back door a few mornings a week. We tell animal stories and think about how much we appreciate all living things. One group of stories that my children particularly love is James Herriot’s Treasury for Children, which includes a family favorite, “The Christmas Kitten.” We light our third candle and celebrate the growing brilliance of our garden.

The fourth light of advent is the light of you and I,
The light of love and friendship, to give and understand.

The final week of advent is the Festival of Human Beings. Add to the garden pictures of special people: relatives and historical figures that have inspired you. My children like to include doll house people as well as figures from our crèche set. By the end of the week, our garden is quite crowded. My children often play in it, moving the figures around.

I set up a pathway of little gold stars leading to the table, and each day move Mary and her donkey a little closer to the garden. All four candles are lit and their brilliance is reflected my own children’s faces. Books I like to read this week include All I See is a Part of Me by Chara Curtis and The Shortest Day by Wendy Pfeffer, which also includes some craft ideas for celebrating the solstice.

Since this final week usually includes the solstice, I try to focus on how we can bring more light into the lives of those around us. We may visit a soup kitchen, go to a nursing home, or take small homemade gifts to neighbors and friends.  On the day of the solstice, we try to forego electric lights as much as possible, and spend a lot of time outside (weather permitting). Last year, a friend gave each of us large white votive candles and we wrote our wishes and intentions for the coming year on the outside of our candles before lighting them. Another favorite solstice memory is of the snow cave we dug in the back yard one year. We set out votive candles in that sheltered space to represent the birth of the light. We left them lit in the snow as long as they lasted, long after my children went to bed, and it is a memory that still means a lot to each member of our family.

If the idea of the advent garden doesn’t appeal to you, you can think of other ways to incorporate your connections to the natural world into your holiday celebrations. Hike or snowshoe together with family and friends. Plant a tree or some indoor bulbs that you can enjoy during the winter months. Do something special to honor the animals, and to help the people around you. The important thing is to make the season meaningful for you and your family, celebrating traditions that will create memories and connections into the years ahead.

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

Erin Fossett provided the photos of her Advent Garden. The snowy scene was taken by Mary Claflin. Originally posted in November, 2010.

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Celebrating Advent

by Waverly Fitzgerald

The period of Advent, which means “to come,” is a period of anticipation, of looking forward, of waiting. What are we waiting for? In the Christian tradition: the birth of the Christ Child, who will be recognized as the Son of Light at Candlemas (February 2, when Mary presents him at the temple). In the pagan tradition, the rebirth of the Sun, for the Winter Solstice is the moment when the sun is at its nadir (for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere). For a few days, the sun appears to stand still, and then begins its northward journey again, bringing more light into the world with each passing day.

In the Church calendar, the first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the Liturgical year. Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays before December 25, Christmas, beginning with the Sunday closest to November 30, St. Andrew’s Day. This period was first observed, as a time of solemnity and fasting, in medieval times. At the time of the Reformation, it became part of the liturgical calendar of Anglicans and Lutherans, and was subsequently adopted by other Protestant groups. According to Father Reardon, in Orthodox churches, Advent begins on the feast day of St. Phillip, November 15, and last for 40 days, echoing the 40 days of Lent in Spring. In fact, it is often called the Winter Lent or St Phillip’s Fast.

If you prefer to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun instead of Christmas as the turning point in the year, you could mark the beginning of Advent four Sundays before Winter Solstice (which is calculated astronomically and can fall on December 20, 21 or 22). This year, both Christian Advent and Pagan Advent begin on Sunday, November 28.

Most Advent customs have to do with marking time: opening doors in an Advent calendar, lighting candles in an Advent wreath, putting symbols on a Jesse tree. All of these customs are fairly modern. Though both evergreen wreaths and candles were important symbols during the winter holidays, the Advent wreath is first mentioned in the 19th century in Germany and spread to the United States in the 1930s. The first Advent calendar was also created in Germany in 1851 and the first printed versions were made in Munich in 1908. (We also have Germany to thank for the concept of the Christmas tree.) The idea of marking time with a Jesse tree (a symbol of the tree outlining Christ’s lineage on which symbols are placed that correspond with Bible stories) is even more modern, developed in American Protestant churches in the twentieth century. Before we used these devices for marking time, there were simpler customs, for instance, marking the passing days with chalk on a doorway, lighting a candle every day, or marking lines on a tall candle (like the one on the right which I found at the Wikipedia article on the Advent wreath) and burning it for a short period each day.

Although I remember Advent from my Catholic childhood, it was a minor celebration, easily overwhelmed by all the emphasis on Christmas (presents, decorations, etc.). But I have been a big fan of celebrating Advent ever since I read The Advent Sunwheel by Helen Farias (available at my store). She outlines a weekly ceremony to be performed every Sunday (Sunday being the Sun’s day) in which you light one candle on the Advent wreath, read a story (I love the stories Helen wrote but you could use any holiday or light-in-the-darkness tale), spend a few minutes enjoying the candlelight, then indulge in seasonal food and drink. This is a lovely tradition to share with family or friends. At our house, the grand finale comes on the Sunday before Solstice, when we host our annual Winter Solstice party and St. Lucy arrives to light the Sun candle in the center of the Advent wreath.

My particular spin on the tradition is to make my own Advent wreath from evergreens I collect in my neighborhood. It is part of my goal of living seasonally and knowing what is available at this time of the year. I go on a long walk on Wreath-Making Day, the Saturday before Advent begins, to gather the greens, returning every year to the same trees and bushes. In my neighborhood, I can find cedar, holly, pine, fir, spruce, and, I hope this year, my new best friend, cryptomeria japonica.

Another Advent-related holiday (which I have not celebrated) is Stir-Up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent begins, celebrated this year on the full moon of November 21 in 2010. The name comes from the Church of England collect for that day which begins “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” That became a reminder that it was time to start stirring up the Christmas puddings and was parodied with this verse.

Stir up, we beseech thee
The pudding in the pot
And when we do get home
We’ll eat it piping hot.

Charles Kightly in The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore mentions the belief that Christmas puddings should always be stirred with a wooden spoon and all present should take a turn in order, mother, father, children and babies, by seniority, then visitors. I like it that the mother comes first in this list! Not so in Roman customs where the paterfamilias usually takes the lead.

I do observe another cooking-related Advent custom recommended by Helen Farias, and that is the baking of 13 different kinds of winter holiday cookies, including Lucy cats, Advent pretzels, gingerbread men, cinnamon stars (Zimsterne), and shortbread. Because that’s a lot of cookies, I begin baking them at the start of Advent, making three or four different kinds a week so that they will all be done in time for the Solstice Party. You can get my cookie recipes and a schedule for baking that will allow you to serve the appropriate cookie each Advent Sunday if you buy my Thirteen Cookies for Christmas book.)

Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher and dancer. She founded School of the Seasons, edits Living in Season and is the author of Slow Time: Recovering the Natural Rhythm of Life. First published November 07, 2010.

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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.

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Vasant Panjami

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

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

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

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

gulab jamun

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Thanksgiving as Harvest Feast

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

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

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

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

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

 

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