Folklore in My Garden: Lavender

Lavender, one of the most beloved of herbs, has been is use for more than 2500 years. The Romans are credited with naming this most aromatic of herbs, some say because of its use in washing (lavare), but others believe it derives from “livendula” (bluish.) I’m inclined to favor the latter theory.  In ancient Greece and India, and also in the Bible, this plant is called spikenard.

Although today, lavender is strongly associated with England , it is not native to northern Europe, but to the warmer climate of the Mediterranean. Originally, it was probably put under domesticate production in Arabia.  In Egypt, Phoenicia, and Arabia, lavender was used as a perfume and for mummification.  It spread from Greece into Europe around 600 BCE. The Romans made use of it in their elaborate baths.  By the early middle ages, washerwomen were known as lavenders, for spreading clothes to dry upon the bushes and for scenting clean clothes in storage. It was during the the same eras that monasteries began cultivating lavender in their “physic gardens”. Hildegard von Bingen made lavender water, a mixture of lavender and gin or brandy, as a remedy for migraine.
imageMuch of the folklore surrounding lavender is ancient. Cleopatra is said to have worn its scent (her secret weapon!) to seduce Julius Caesar and  Marc Antony, and some claim that the asp that delivered that fatal bite was hidden among her lavender bushes. Adam and Eve are credited with bringing the plant with them when expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Bible also tells us that Judith wore perfume containing lavender to charm Holofernes before killing him, and in the Gospel of Luke, Mary washes  the feet of Jesus and anoints them with ointment containing spikenard, one of its other names. According to one story, lavender got its scent from the clothing of  Jesus when his mother hung his clothes on a bush to dry. Many Christians crafted crosses with it to ward off evil.

A natural insect repellant, lavender was pressed into use as a plague antidote , worn in bunches tied to one’s wrists. (It probably repelled the fleas whose bites caused plague.) After robbing graves, thieves washed up with a concoction called “Four Thieves Vinegar”, to protect themselves from contagion. In France, it was noted that glovers, who perfumed their products with the herb, never contracted cholera. In the New World, the Quakers were the first to cultivate and sell lavender.

European royalty made lavish use of lavender in perfumes and foods. It has long been associated with love. In Tudor times, young maidens would sip on  lavender tea and say, “St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In my dreams, let me my true love see.”  Alpine girls would tuck some lavender under their lover’s pillow to foster romantic thoughts; once married they would put some lavender under the mattress to ensure marital passion and avoid quarrels. In England during the 1670’s, a love song emerged that survives in varying forms to this day:

Lavenders green, Diddle, diddle,  Lavenders blue

You must love me, diddle, diddle, cause I love you,

I heard one say, diddle, diddle, since I came hither,

That you and I, diddle, diddle, must lie together.

The modern version can be heard here.

Because of lavender’s purported ability to repel evil, it was (is) often used, especially as incense,  around Midsummer’s Day, in conjunction with St. John’s Wort. Cleopatra notwithstanding, girls who wore lavender sprigs on their persons were supposed by be well able to preserve their chastity. In magic, witches are said to prize the herb for its ability to increase clairvoyance, and a mixture  chamomile , lavender, mugwort, and rose petals will attract sprites, fairies, brownies, and elves.

Lavender has brought color and fragrance into our lives since time immemorial. Today there are over 115 species cultivated all over the world, and lavender products are inexpensive and readily available. Bring the charm of this ancient plant into your own life.

Modern Lit: The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Accursed is a tricky novel to categorize. Among its various features are elements of the gothic, the paranormal, fantasy, historical fiction, and parody.  The story is set at Princeton University in the year from 1905 to 1906, and reflects a Gilded Age mindset among upper crust characters,of the type that used to be referred to as WASPs. In style it is reminiscent of Edith Wharton in its formality and use of language. The plot, related by a fictional historian who draws from and interprets primary sources such as personal journals, concerns a series of tragic events that plague Princeton’s elite families.  But don’t expect such mundane troubles as health epidemics or train wrecks, for Princeton is about to be invaded by demons, vampires, and snakes.

What the novel is really about, however, is social injustice, and the propensity of the rich and famous to sweep it under the rug. At the turn of the twentieth century, the socialist movement was gaining momentum, and public outrage was about to be aroused, but such major changes as women’s suffrage, gender roles, labor rights, poverty, and racial violence take decades to achieve results.  In The Accursed, readers meet  personages from both sides of the arguments. Woodrow Wilson, then president of the college, represents the old school, interested in maintaining the status quo for the wealthy industrialists and unwilling to take a moral stand even when lynchings occur in the neighboring town. On the opposite side, Upton Sinclair has just published The Jungle, and he is held so in thrall by his socialist ideals that he can’t be bothered to attend to the needs of his wife and infant son. Mark Twain makes sporadic appearances as acerbic commentator.

The Accursed, I believe, is overly long. Some of its passages, however, are truly comical, as when the narrator describes an emergency conference called by President Wilson to talk about “the unspeakable”, and none of them knows what they’re talking about. (Nor does the reader, though it’s not hard to guess.) One of the faculty wives, who refers to herself as Poor Puss, is a professional invalid who relates her view of the Princeton Curse in her diary. But there are long passages dealing with physical and emotional misery that could stand some cuts here and there and still remain effective. This intricate book, the third in Ms. Oates’ gothic series, has been critically acclaimed by professional reviewers. If you want to know if the demons are real, or simply symptomatic of the characters’ collective feelings of guilt, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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