The Romans honored the Sabine goddess of blossoms and spring with six days of celebrations including games, pantomimes, plays and stripteases, which went on into the night illuminated by torchlight. Everyone wore their most colorful clothes and decked themselves and their animals in flowers. Goats and hares were let loose–they represented fertility and sexuality and Venus in her role as patroness of cultivated nature. Small vegetables (one imagines cucumbers and zucchinis) were distributed as fertility tokens. Flora represented the sexual aspect of plants, the attractiveness of the flowers, and was the matron of prostitutes.
In this Roman statue from Hadrian’s villa, she looks a little too prim and proper to preside over such frivolity. The painting of Flora and the Zephyr by Waterhouse captures Flora in a more wanton pose.
Floralia sets in motion all the delightful holidays associated with May Day. The English have a saying about children born between May 1 and May 8 (Between the Beltanes): they have “the skill of man and beast” and power over both.Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999 Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987 Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994 Wikipedia has a well-documented article on the Floralia here.
There are many unique celebrations that take place on Easter Monday but most involve playful pranks, splashing with water, whipping with switches and spending the day outdoors.
In England, particularly in the Northwest and along the Welsh border, young men roved around in a group, carrying a stout chair decorated with greens, flowers and ribbons in which they placed each woman of the house and lifted her three times in the air. They then claimed a kiss and a small gift of money. On Tuesday, women went around with the chair and lifted the men. The lifting ended promptly at noon on both days.
In some places the observance was rowdier. Both men and women were hoisted into the air and kissed by roving gangs. Sometimes a rope was stretched across the road and those who were halted by the obstacle were then placed in a chair and lifted. Christina Hole in her book on British folk customs suggests that lifting was the remnant of an older agricultural and magical custom, perhaps a rite of fertility designed to foster the growth of the crops.
In Shropshire and Herefordshire, the feet of the person being lifted were sprinkled with water from a wet bunch of flowers, recalling the watery sprinkling of the Easter Service (the purification and new birth symbolized by baptism) and the New Year festivals of Thailand and Sri Lanka (Apr 13 & 16).
Gertrud Nelson Mueller when writing about how she celebrates Christian rituals always takes the day off to take her kids to water. Usually they go to a nearby marsh for birding, but splashing is a part of their celebration.
The Poles celebrate the Monday after Easter under the name of Dyngus Day or Smigus Day. The customs are familiar: boys splash girls with water on Monday; and also strike at them with pussywillow wands (both sound like remnants of fertility rituals). In earlier times, the girls had to wait for a chance to get revenge until Thursday when they threw crockery at the boys. However, now it is more common for them to fight back with water on Monday. This article discusses both names and traces them to the pagan practices of splashing with water and whipping with pussywillows.
In American cities with strong Polish communities, like South Bend, Indiana and Buffalo, New York, Dyngus Day is celebrated with parades, pussy willow whipping and squirt-gun fights and traditional food, like kielbasa and pierogi.
When my daughter and I were in Prague around Easter time 2012, she took a photo of these willow switches that were for sale for use on Easter Monday.
In Italy, this day is called La Pasquetta, Little Easter. Everyone goes on a picnic, meant to last all afternoon (like the Persian festival of the Thirteenth Outside). They take along an antipasto of a hard-boiled egg and salt and local bitter herbs like aurugula or radicchio or fennel.
Feast of the Blajini
In Rumania on the Monday following Easter, women throw red Easter eggs into running streams for the benefit of the Blajini, the lost race of spirits which live on the bank of the river fed by all the streams in the world. They live so far away, they don’t know what’s happening in our world, so this is how they know that spring has come.Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978 Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990 Nelson, Gertrud Mueller, To Dance with God, Paulist Press Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
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.
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
The Armenians believe that on Ascension Eve, stones, stars and other soulless objects are said to receive the gift of speech and to share each other’s secrets. And in Poland, “the dragon who guards hidden treasures throughout the night, exposes them to view on Ascension, when he sets them out to air.” The sun is said to dance on this day when it rises.
In Armenia, girls tell their fortunes from tokens thrown into a bowl of water drawn from seven springs. All brooks and springs are said to be filled with healing power at midnight. If you don’t want to visit your local body of water at midnight, you might just put out a container and hope it rains since any water that falls from the skies on this day can also heal. In a somewhat related vein, in Sweden, a person who fishes from dawn until night on the Ascension will learn the hour when the fish bite best and be lucky in her angling all year.
In Greece, Ascension Day is considered the start of the swimming season. In Venice, the Doge used to wed the sea on this day by throwing in a wedding ring and some holy water. In Tissington, Derbyshire, wells are decorated on this day. In Nantwich, they bless the Brine, a very old pit, which is visited and hung with garlands. These customs seem to hark back to an old rite propitiating the spirit of the well (or the ocean).
In the early 19th century, the Halliwell (Holy Well) Wake was held on this day in the hamlet of Rorrington on the Shropshire/Wales border. The local people met at the holy well on the hillside at Rorrington Green and decorated with well with green boughs, flowers and rushes. A maypole was erected. While a fife, drum and fiddle played, the people danced and frolicked around the hill, followed by feasting, drinking and more dancing.
In Italy, Ascension is called La Festa del Grillo, the outdoor festival of crickets. People spend the day outdoors, reclining under the shade of trees, feasting on picnic and BBQ foods. Kids look for crickets, true symbols of spring, poking a piece of grass into their holes to lure them into cages already prepared with a piece of lettuce at the bottom. Nowadays the crickets are sold in pretty painted cages.
According to Toor, the Etruscans called the cricket scarabeus and honored it. The Greeks and Romans connected its chirping to the muses and music. The Greeks and Etruscans believed that the longer the confined grillo lived, the longer the life of its owner. The murals of Pompei depict tiny grillo cages made of reed. In Florence, they say that a singing grillo brings good luck. Freeing them also brings good luck. Children sing a song to their caged grillos (which reminds me of the American lady bug song):Grillo, mio Grillo Cricket, my Cricket, Se tu vo’ moglie dillo! If you want a wife say so! Se poi t’un la voi, If later you repent Abbada a’ fatti tuoi! Then hold your peace!
ReferencesField, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990 Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978 Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937 Toor, Frances, Festivals and Folkways of Italy, Crown 1953
Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.
Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation). In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.
Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.
In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.
Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.
On the very first Arbor Day, more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.
Or you can simply admire trees. Go on a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.
If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.
In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.
Al Khidr web site (source of picture)
Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day
It’s spring, flowers full and happiness in the green-grass vine
All the blossoms are blooming except mine
Lose not heart, free spirit, on New Year’s day
I heard from the lips of a lily today
Do not sing the seven illusions this New Year’s eve I beg thee:
Complaint, curse, corruption, cacophony, clumsiness, chaos & cruelty.
The seven symbols make, of serene greenery, scented hyacinth and sweet apple
Senged, samanou, salway and song spell.
Send the seven symbols to the table of a lover.
Throw the seven illusions to the door of an ill wisher.
It?s New Year’s eve: rid the heart of darkness
Eventually this black night will turn to light and brightness
Carry out the New Year tradition and God willing
Bring back the feeling to that of the excellent beginning.
When I first learned about Persian New Year, all I knew was that it was customary to eat seven foods whose names started with S. Since I didn’t know the Farsi words for the foods, my daughter and I celebrated for years by eating spaghetti squash, spinach salad with sunflower seeds, smoked salmon and strawberries and shortbread for dessert.
In recent years, thanks to the internet, we’ve enjoyed traditional recipes like kookoo sabzi (an herb frittata recipe I’ve included in the Eostre packet) and a yogurt and spinach dip (the white and green colors symbolize spring). This year, also thanks to the internet, I was able to find a book about Persian cooking, Food of Life, by Najmieh Batmanglij, which provided me with the poem above, and some new information for Nowruz.
According to Batmanglij, meals are traditionally served on a sofreh, a cotton tablecloth embroidered with poems and prayers, of course, in the beautiful calligraphy of the Iranian language. This idea fascinates me as I wonder how I could create a sacred cloth that would embody prayers and poems. English words are not quite as visually gorgeous. Perhaps I could make a tablecloth embroidered with spring flowers to use every Nowruz.
As with the Easter and the Passover table, setting the table for Nawruz is part of the ceremony. Each item has its symbolism. Batmanglij says the seven S’s — sabzeh (sprouts) samanou (a dish of wheat germ or lentils), sib (apples), sonbol (hyacinth), senjed (jujube), seer (garlic) and somagh (sumac) — represent the seven good angels, heralds of life and rebirth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy and beauty.
Whenever I see the buds appear on my neighbor’s contorted filbert, I know that Nowruz is approaching as that is the gnarled branch I always pick to put on my table to represent the twisting paths of life. Batmanglij says I should have seven branches from gnarled trees (olive and pomegranate) on my table.
According to Batmanglij, Iranians always eat noodles at the start of anything new. They represent the choice of paths that life offers us. Picking your way through the tangled strands symbolized picking out the best paths in life. So noodles are eaten on Nowruz, the New Year, and also on the third day after friends or relatives have left on a trip (to help them find their way. Eating this soup on the eve of Nowruz will make a wish come true. The traditional noodle soup is called Ash-e Reshteh. You can find a recipe for it here.
Another dish served on the eve of Nowruz is Ajeel-e Moshgel Goshah (which means unraveller of difficulties), a mix of seven dried fruits and nuts: pistachio, walnut, hazelnut, pumpkin seed, peach raisin and fig.
Fish is another traditional dish served on Nawruz because it brings good luck. Batmanglij provides a recipe for a dish called Sabzi Polo Ba Mahi, or Rice with Fresh Herbs and Fish.
3 cups of long-grain (preferably basmati) rice
1/2 cup chopped chives or scallions
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped parsley
1-1/2 cups chopped fresh dill
2/3 cup butter
1/2 tsp ground saffron, dissolved in 2 T hot water
3 whole cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 whole leeks, thoroughly washed
1 large white-fleshed fish, about 3 pounds
1/2 cup flour for dredging
4 T oil
Juice of 2 bitter oranges, or 2 lemons
Cook the rice. In a pot, heat half the butter with a drop of the dissolved saffron. Add 2 spatulas of rice and 1 spatula of the herbs, garlic cloves and leeks. Repeat, arranging the rice in the shape of a pyramid. Pour over it the remaining butter, and half the saffron and hot water. Place a clean dishtowel or paper towel over the pot and cover with a lid. Cook 10 minutes over medium heat and then 50 minutes over low heat. While the rice is cooking, clean the fish (if necessary) and cut into six pieces. Wash and pat dry. Dredge in a mixture of flour and salt. Brown fish in the oil in a skillet, over a low heat. Remove the saucepan of rice from the heat and allow to cool for five minutes. Open the pot and remove 2 T of the saffron-flavored rice and set it aside for a garnish. Using a spatula, gently remove the rest of the rice and set it on a platter, without disturbing the crust at the bottom of the pan. This golden crust is a prized part of the meal and is set on a separate platter. Arrange the fish on a serving platter and garnish it with the bitter-orange or lemon juice and the remaining saffron.
Sweets are also an important part of Nawruz, as decorations on the table and a way of invoking sweetness for the coming year, so baklava would make a great dessert. Here’s a recipe from Batmanglij (she mentions in her book, but not this recipe, that you can use purchased filo pastry dough instead of making your own).
Batmanglij, Najmieh, Food of Life, Mage Publishers 1986
The Persians have always celebrated the new year at Spring Equinox with the wonderful holiday of Nowruz (pronounced NO-ROOZ). And in some way, you might say, Nowruz was the start of my career as a calendar priestess.
It was the first new holiday I adopted and made my own, back when I was a college student. I found a brief (two-sentence description) of it in an almanac and began celebrating it with my college roommates. We would put a candle in the middle of the living room and jump over it on Red Wednesday, to get rid of all the things we didn’t want to bring forward into the new year. Once my daughter was born, it became a family tradition.
The Persians call the Spring Equinox Nowruz or Nourooz which means New Day. The Nourooz greeting is “Har Roozat Nourooz Va Nouroozat Pirouz” which means “May your every day be the new day and each new day be a successful one.”
According to Anneli Rufus, the festival is preceded, like Easter and Passover, with a thorough house-cleaning. The evening before, Iranians serve an omelet heavy with spinach, dill and parsley and also munch on bowls of ajeel-e moshgel goshah, “unraveller of difficulties,” a mixture of pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried figs, peaches and raisins. Note that most of these are seeds as befits a spring feast.
The evening meal on the day of Nowruz, is a grand feast, on the scale of Passover and Easter, and both the decoration of the table and the sorts of food served have symbolic significance. I’ve been celebrating Nowruz for years, using a set of directions from that long ago almanac page. I set my table with a leaf floating in a bowl of water, a mirror, yogurt, colored eggs, sweets, a holy book, rose water and a candle for every child in the house.
Rufus’ directions for decorating the table are similar but slightly different and equally intriguing: Gnarled branches which represent the twisting path of life. An orange floating in a bowl of water, to represent the world floating in space-time. A goldfish swimming in a bowl (also featured in feasts honoring St Joseph on March 19 and Maimuna, the day following the eight days of Passover). Plus tinted eggs, milk, rose water, candies, fruit, incense, narcissi, pastries, candles, coins and a mirror for every member of the household.
Whatever the decorations, the menu always consists of seven items that begin with the letter S. Rufus provides a list of the haft-sin, the Zoroastrian seven S’s: apples (sib), hyacinth (sonbol), garlic (seer), sumac (somagh), jujube fruit (senjed), sprouted seeds (sabzeh) and a wheat germ dish called samanon. Another 7 items that begin with SH are often served: wine (sharab), sugar (shakar), milk (shir), syrup (shireh), honey (shahd), candy (shirini) and rice-pudding (shir-berenj).
However, if these foods are not readily available in your area, you might consider doing what I have done for years, since I didn’t know the Farsi names of the dishes until recently. We eat seven foods that begin with S in English. Our usual menu includes smoked salmon, spinach salad with sunflower seeds and sprouts, spaghetti sauce, served over spaghetti squash, and strawberries and shortbread for dessert, and a glass of syrah (or sparkling soda) to sip.
Like most New Year’s meals, the food eaten at the Nowruz dinner has symbolic importance. The theme is the green of spring and most dishes feature either vegetables or the color green. One exception is a dish of mahi safid dudi, smoked white fish. Another dish usually found on the Nawruz table is kuku, a souffle-like vegetable and herb pie, in which the eggs represent fertility and happiness. Bread is dipped into a special yogurt and spinach dip: the white is for purity, the green for spring. Recipes for these two dishes can be found here. Other traditional dishes include sabzi polow, basmati rice with seven vegetables, and panir va sabzi, a salad of fresh raw vegetables, basil, tarragon, scallions, red radishes, and mint with feta cheese. For recipes, go here.
In the twelve days that follow Nowruz, Persians visit friends and families, share meals and give gifts. The holiday season ends with a picnic on the Thirteenth Outside (this year on April 3rd).
I realized after reading this recent New York Times article that calling this holiday Persian New Year has political implications. I call it that because that’s how I was first introduced to it over 25 years ago and also because the holiday was first recorded in historical time when it was celebrated by Darius the Great at his new palace in Persepolis in 587 B.C.E. The holiday is now celebrated in Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea and some groups in the Balkans. Under some Muslim regimes, celebrating Nowruz was discouraged as it was seen as a frivolous, pagan festival.
It seems a living example of a process that happens over and over again, where a conquering people or religion tries to eradicate the ceremonies of the native people, like the Christians with the pagan holidays of Europe or the Puritans with May Day. However, like those efforts which were unsuccessful, the celebration of Nawruz has not been squashed. In fact, the UN put it on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Photo by Cathy Moore of her Nowruz table.
My favorite holiday I’ve never celebrated is Holi, which is celebrated in India on the full moon of Phalgun (March 17 in 2014). 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.
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).
I’m not quite sure how to celebrate Holi in Seattle. 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.
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.
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.
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.