Folklore: Lions, Lambs, and March

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” is probably the most famous and popular saying about this transitional month. But why those particular animals? Some authorities believe that the lion and lamb saying has a heavenly connection. The constellation Leo, the lion, is rising in the east at the beginning of March, hence the “comes in like a lion,” while Aries, the ram, sets in the west at the end of March, and so “will go out like a lamb.”

Perhaps the strongest literary and historical association of this month is not with the weather, but with the “ides”, or middle day of the month, in the ancient Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, who in Shakespeare’s play unwisely ignores the soothsayer’s warning, “Beware the Ides of March!”, was murdered on the Ides (15th) of March in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius.

imageThe proverbial phrase “mad as a March hare” has a similar origin: a “March hare” is a brown hare in the breeding season, noted for its leaping, boxing, and chasing in circles in its mating ritual.

The best known of March holidays, if Easter falls in April, is St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Saint Patrick used the

three-leafed clover (or shamrock) to explain the holy Trinity and cleansed Ireland of snakes by driving them into the sea with his staff (or shillelagh). To this day, shamrocks and shillelaghs are well known symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, and, there are no snakes in Ireland. St Patrick’s real name was Maewyn Succat. No wonder he changed it.

Vintage Valentine Memories

Some of you undoubtedly remember with fondness the pre-politically correct days when schools could have holiday parties in classrooms without causing an uproar over personal rights. Letters were sent home to parents asking for volunteers to provide cupcakes (almost always handmade) and punch, along with lists of all your classmates. There was a box at the front of the class that all the “pupils”  had a part in decorating with paper hearts and cherubs, and each child brought in a stack of valentines, signed and sealed at home, one for each classmate. Valentines would be made ahead of time during class to take home to parents. On the holiday itself, there’d be a celebration in the afternoon, after lunch, with the assistance of the official “room mothers”, valentines were distributed, and the fancy cupcakes would be devoured, more than one per child if there were extras. Then each kid would stuff his or her valentines into a specially decorated envelope made from construction paper, help clean up the party trash, and when the final bell rang, gather coat and mittens and head for home.

 

Those more innocent days are now but a memory, although from what I understand, there are still some Valentine related activities in some primary grades. What are your memories?

Monday Morning Poem: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where   
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

(1915)

Christmas Traditions: How to Make Sugarplums

Twas the Night Before Christmas, by Clement Moore. It’s become an indelible part of the American Christmas tradition, and many of us know it by heart. The line I’ve always wondered about is:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads….


So I set out to discover what this delectable sounding treat might be. The dictionary defines a sugarplum as a small round or oval piece of sugary candy. Knowledge about exactly what it’s made of is considerably less exact. Perhaps the name arose from its resemblance to a small plum, or from the practice of preserving plums in sugar, a way to keep some summer fruits around for a while longer. No matter. Recipes using real plums date from at least the 16th century. (The sugarplum referred to in the Victorian poem are composed of a mix of ingredients, including dried fruits and nuts.)

The making of genuine sugarplums is quite time consuming, although it is not difficult.

Recipe:

1 pound of plums

2½ pounds of white granulated sugar

16 ounces of  water plus 2 Tbls water

1. Make a thin sugar syrup by mixing ½ lb of sugar and 16 oz. of water in a large pot.

2. Slit the plums down the seam and place them into the syrup so they are fully covered. Poach gently until just tender. Cool, cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the plums to absorb the sweetness.

3. Make a heavy sugar syrup by mixing 2 pounds of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a large pot. Slowly boil until a drop of syrup in cold water makes a thick but soft ball. Transfer plums from the thin syrup to the heavy syrup and remove from heat, making certain plums are covered by the heavy syrup. Allow to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a glass or ceramic bowl, cover tightly, and refrigerate for about a week.

Once flavor has developed, separate plums onto parchment paper and place them in a warm (170 degree) oven, turning them every half hour until dry (or use a home dehydrator.)

Entertain visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy while enjoying this traditional confection!

Monday Morning Poem: Christmas Pageants

by Raymond A. Foss (2006)

Small voices, raised to the rafters
singing their hearts out in the familiar story
the tale of the babe and his parents
sharing his birth with donkeys and lamb,
with shepherds and wise men from the east
marveling at the wonder of his birth
in that humble place so long ago
hearing the words of the story again
richer perhaps in the telling with little voices
echoing throughout the sanctuary
a bit noisier perhaps; but a wonderful
place to be

Historical Fiction: Mrs. Poe, by Lynn Cullen

Mrs. Poe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edgar Allen Poe, in the eyes of modern readers, is many things, including enigmatic, gothic, talented, and a bit crazy. As author Lynn Cullen imagines him, he’s talented, enigmatic, and romantic. Yes, romantic. He fell madly “in love” with his young cousin, Virginia, ten years before this novel begins, but the marriage hasn’t developed as he might have wished. Instead, Virginia is still childlike and very sickly, and while Edgar does love her, any eroticism that he felt originally has long since dissipated. The constant presence of Edgar’s mother in law doesn’t help matters. Now he’s the toast of New York, and while attending an intellectual salon, meets Francis Osgood, a minor poet trying to eke out a living, as her profligate husband has deserted her and their two daughters. Edgar and Fanny are instantly attracted to one another, and a love affair, first platonic, then increasingly sensual, blooms. But Mrs. Poe, though frequently bedridden, isn’t blind, and as her suspicions grow, so does the tension, and, Fanny learns, danger.

Ms. Cullen has skillfully used the few existing grains of factual information about this relationship to pieced together a consuming romance which, in the pages of this novel, obsesses both Edgar and Fanny. Her attention to detail, her ability to bring the gas lit streets and mansions of the city to life, and her very human character portrayals, especially of Poe himself, are enthralling. Cameo appearances are made by the literati of the era, and Fanny encounters one famous personage after another. Imagine meeting Louisa May Alcott, Mathew Brady, and Walt Whitman as you sashay down Fifth Avenue. Actually, there’s a bit too much celebrity sighting, leading the reader to wonder if anyone ordinary lives in the city, but it’s a fun situation to picture. One of the personages in the book, the editor Rufus Griswold, did a thorough character assassination of Poe after his death, and Ms. Cullen has done a service by providing a more sympathetic image of the man, who had to be more complex than the one presented by Griswold. Mrs. Poe is intelligently written, and while it is historical fiction, it’s refreshing to shake up one’s notions and consider alternative possibilities to biographies believed to have been set in stone.

Edgar Allen Poe

Virginia Clemm Poe

Frances Sargent Osgood

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Folklore in My Garden: Roses

We are fortunate to have many varieties of roses in our Connecticut garden, and they are running riot right now. I cannot take any of the credit other than consulting, for my hardworking husband does all the bull work. Walking our paths, enjoying the luxuriant display has made me curious about the role of the rose in history and folklore.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. By the time Shakespeare wrote his immortal lines, the rose was well ensconced in the popular imagination.

Roses have been part of world folklore for several thousand years. They were probably first cultivated in Persia. Wall paintings and objects depicting roses were found in Egyptian tombs (5th century B.C.). The Greek poetess Sappho called it the Queen of Flowers, and it was believed to have sprung from the blood of Adonis. Confucius (551-479 B.C.), wrote that the Emperor of China had over 600 books about Roses. The Chinese (5th century B.C.), extracted oil of roses from plants grown in the Emperor’s garden which could only be used by nobles and dignitaries. A commoner found in possession of this oil was put to death. Roman emperors had their floors strewn with petals, and brides and goddesses were crowned with roses. Cleopatra had a passion for roses. To seduce Mark Antony, she had the palace floors carpeted with rose petals and her chamber filled with two feet deep with red rose petals and fountains filled with rose water. One of better known fables from 7th century history involves Mohammed, who ordered that a bouquet of red roses be thrown into a pool to determine his wife’s fidelity. If the flowers turned yellow, she would be guilty of adultery; if not, she was innocent. The legend tells us that they turned yellow, and this is the origin of the yellow rose. In 11th century Sufi poetry, the rose was held up as the symbol of life, a representation of perfection, with its thorns symbolizing the difficulties that must be overcome to achieve that perfection. Rosewater became an agent of purification, and rose amulets were worn to protect against the “evil eye”.

Because of its association with the “infidel”, rose cultivation was discouraged by early Christian churchmen, its use connected to deception and trickery. In Arthurian tales, Merlin is trapped in a tower made from a white rose in the Broceliande forest of France. But once the Christians adopted the rose as the symbol of the Virgin Mary, who herself became known as the rosa mystica, it became prominent in medieval European thinking. The Christian take on the rose’s origin is that it came about from a drop of Christ’s blood falling upon a thorn bush. Some say that the first rosary beads were made with rose hips. In a typical medieval myth, Rosamond, the mistress of King Henry II, is poisoned by his wife, Queen Eleanor Aquitaine, in a concoction sweetened with roses. Rosamund’s grave is now adorned with Rosa Mundi, which bears pink and white flowers. It was a custom to suspend a rose above the table to remind participants that proceedings were confidential (sub rosa), and the need for secrecy made the white rose a Jacobite symbol in Scotland.

To this day, white roses are traditionally worn at weddings in the belief they will bring happiness and security.

Today, folklore and tradition have attached associations to rose colors:

· Red = Love, respect

· Deep pink = Gratitude, appreciation

· Light pink = Admiration, sympathy

· White = Reverence, humility

· Yellow = Joy, gladness

· Orange = Enthusiasm, desire

· Red & yellow blends = Gaiety, joviality

· Pale blended tones = Sociability, friendship

Today there are over 10,000 varieties of roses. Hybridization has severely diluted the fragrant properties of most roses, and for the sweetest scent, rely upon the old fashioned varieties.

Folklore in My Garden: Angelica Herb

Angelica archangelica is arguably the most incredible herb in my garden. Here in eastern CT, it grows rapidly to the majestic height of 6 to 8 feet, and, if planted in semi shade, reseeds prolifically year after year.   It never fails to bring astonished comments from visitors. Care must be taken in thinning it out, because Angelica is biennial, and you don’t want to remove all the first year growth. A member of the parsley family, it was candied and put into fruit cake.

Angelica has been used medicinally for many centuries, and information about those uses abounds on the web.  Gerard the herbalist claimed that it “cureth the bitings of mad dogs and all other venomous beasts.”  It was also put to work against “poisons, agues and all infectious maladies.”   The Chinese variety is known as Dong Quai, and today it’s used widely in alternative medicine.

How did Angelica acquire its interesting name?  There are two different legends. The first says that the angel Gabriel appeared to a monk,  telling  him that Angelica is a cure for, and protection against, the plague. Another version indicates that this plant blossoms annually on the feast day of the Archangel Michael, September 29th. Maybe that happens in Europe, but in CT, my plants have long gone to seed  on that day.  All parts of the plant were believed effective against evil spirits and witchcraft, and was often worn around the neck as an amulet.  Angelica was held in such esteem that it was called ‘The Root of the Holy Ghost.’ In America it was used by the Iroquois and other tribes as Witchcraft Medicine, an infusion of smashed roots was used as wash to remove ghosts from the house.  Angelica is a traditional birthing herb,  used to help bring on a delayed labor and to help expel the placenta. And Harry Potter and his fellow wizards use it in all manner of spells and potions. What higher endorsement can there be?!

Easter Traditions: Polish Babka Bread

My mother’s family came to the US from Poland, first to Deep River, CT, then moving to Buffalo, NY. When I was little, after church and after my brother and I had found all the hidden Easter eggs, we’d all sit down to Easter brunch. The menu never varied: juice, fresh kielbasa, boiled eggs, and babka. No chocolate till we’d all finished brunch. This year, I’ve decided to make a babka instead of settling for the dry kind sold  in  stores.

bunnyline

This recipe is from Old Farmer’s Almanac.

  • 1 yeast cake, or 1 package dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) soft butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 egg yolks
  • grated rind of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
  • 1 cup white raisins
  • 1/3 cup fine bread crumbs
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds

Add yeast to lukewarm water and let stand until softened or dissolved, about 5 minutes. Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, add salt to egg yolks and beat until thick; then add to sugar and butter mixture. Add yeast and water, lemon rind, and cinnamon. Add flour alternately with milk and beat well to make a smooth batter. Add raisins and knead by hand until batter leaves the fingers. Let rise in a warm place until double (about 1-1/4 hours). Punch down and let rise again until double.

Generously butter a fluted tube pan. Sprinkle with  fine bread crumbs, sugar, and if desired, honey,   and fill pan  with dough. Brush with mixture of egg yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons water. Sprinkle with almonds and let rise again. Bake in preheated 350 degrees F oven for 30 minutes.

Folklore and Superstition – Art by James Christensen

This is so ingenious! Artist James Christensen has produced a whimsical and charming work featuring representations of 72 common superstitions. Just thinking about traversing a single room in this castle boggles the mind. What a fun piece to have in your home! More info can be accessed here:

James Christensen – Superstitions – Hidden Ridge Gallery.

While you’re there, check out the gallery of Mr. Christensen’s awesome work.