Thursday 31 December 2009

Blue Moons .... Last day of 2009

Blue Moons: do they exist? – well yes sometimes; are they rare? – well no they occur fairly regularly; are they the same thing? .. no! Is the moon made of green cheese – another idea promulgated in 1529, that’s stuck around. Bad housekeeping causes blue moons – in other words the atmosphere is dirty from this earth of ours exploding and depositing ash into the troposphere.

In 1883 the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa erupted with the effect that the ash microns scattered red light – discriminatory ash I reckon! Other colours were allowed through – hence the blue moon and green cheese effect, which lasted for over two years. For more technical information – just what you need on New Year’s Eve?! please see the site here.

See here for the blue moon as depicted by NASA in this photo.

We probably know the phrase “blue moon” from the1934 popular Rogers and Hart song, or being used as a metaphor for a rare event, expressed as “once in a blue moon”. They do occur relatively regularly .. if you can call 7 times in 19 years ‘relatively regularly’!

Green Cheese Moon -

Moons were named in folklore according to the time of year – usually twelve in preparation for the different growing seasons .. but if a moon came too early, and therefore couldn’t have a seasonal folklore name it was called a “blue moon”. As we know most years have twelve full moons occurring approximately monthly, but the solar year contains an excess of roughly eleven days over and above the lunar year. So about every 2.7154 years this “blue moon” occurs.

The Church being responsible for the calendar ensured that the important date of Easter related to the timings of the full moon. The Lent moon cycle (late winter moon) falls before Easter, while the next full moon is the egg moon (early spring moon) and Easter usually falls on the first Sunday after the full egg moon.

Man in the Moon

Every one to three years, the Lent and egg moons would come too early – the clergy would have to tell people whether the moon was the Lent moon or a false one, which they may have called a “betrayer moon”.

So the term “blue moon” may have come about from the first recorded usage of the term in 1528, in a pamphlet violently attacking the English clergy, entitled:

Rede Me and Be Not Wrothe” (Read me and be not angry)
Yf they say the mone is belewe” (We must believe that it is true)

In 1529 a similar moon-related adage was recorded “They would make men beleue ... that the Moone is made of grene chese” ....

.. reflecting the Old English meaning of belewe as “blue” or “betrayer”.

As the years where there are 13 new moons are relatively rare .. today in the northern hemisphere there is one! – but if you’re in the southern hemisphere the ‘blue moon’ will not occur until late January next year (as it’s only 2009 now).

Harvest Moon

There are two full moons in one month in the following years, based on the Roman calendar and time zones: today, 31 December 2009, the full moon will occur at 19:13 Universal Time.

2012 the year of the Olympics here in London, which will take place between 27 July and 12 August; with the Paralympic Games occurring between 29 August and 9 September – covers the two full moons on August 2nd and August 31st.

2015: will have full moons on July 2nd and July 31st.

I haven’t mentioned the two American Farmer’s Almanacs either, both of which are still published today – so the old is not the old! Oh well ... it is the last day of 2009. Then there’s the Sumerian Farmer’s Almanac, dated around 1500 BCE, discovered by an American expedition to Iraq in 1949.

The clay tablet is tiny (3 inches x 4 ½ inches), forming part of the middle section of the overall almanac – the complete document contains 109 lines of text, written by a farmer for his son giving instructions for the purpose of guiding him through their agricultural activities: which we can read about 3,500 years later.

This is a terribly simplified article about blue moons – without fully clarifying all aspects, beliefs and cultures, let alone which half of the planet you live in .. so for details on Harvest Moons, Hunter’s Moons, Black Moons, Wet Moons, seasonal moons and many more please see the net and Wikipedia.

A Black Moon means there is no moon in the month of February; but does that mean in Australia and the southern hemisphere January is a month with two moons – it appears it may do .... but is 2010 a year with 12 or 13 moons? I don’t know .. as these brains have had it – and the Roman calendar and time zones only enlighten me as far as Universal Time is concerned – not even GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

Happy New Year everyone – and thank you to Devon Ellington for reminding me that there is a Blue Moon today in the northern hemisphere – in his latest post here in “Ink in My Coffee – A Writer’s Journal”.

Dear Mr Postman – another calendar year has come round and my Ma, when she’s awake, is as with it as ever – quite amazing ... I still get ticked off!! Oh well ... I don’t think we’ll be seeing the Blue Moon here it is cloudy .. but if we’re lucky perhaps they’ll clear away in another 4 hours. Here’s to a happy New Year to you and thank you for continuing to deliver my letters for me.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Pantomime - Lord of Misrule - Grand Dame ...

That very English Christmas tradition of putting on a musical-comedic theatrical production to entertain the family, occurs in many villages, towns, boroughs and cities for some weeks during December and January. The tradition may well have stemmed right back to Roman times when a “Lord of Misrule” was appointed to oversee the wild party festivities in the pagan tradition of Saturnalia.

The Christmas Pantomime colour lithograph bookcover, 1890, showing the harlequinade characters

Historically a ‘pantomimos’ in ancient Greece was a group who imitated all, and were accompanied by sung narrative and instrumental music, often played on the flute: pantos = all, mimos = mimic. This was a popular form of entertainment, and became so in Rome, because like theatre it encompassed genres of comedy and tragedy, and evolved over time during the different eras.

In the Middle Ages when Kings and their Courts, professionals – the apothecaries, the tradesmen etc were all able to travel more easily to enhance their rank, their knowledge, increase their trade, learn new crafts - the entertainers went too. Theatre in Italy had been popularised through the Commedia dell’arte (Comedy of Craft) being characterized by masked ‘types’, the advent of the actress, and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.

Commedia dell'Arte troupe Gelosi in a late 16th-century Flemish painting (Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

From these traditions are characters we recognise today – Harlequin, Pantelone, Petrushka, Pierrot and Clown, while since the Victorian times pantomimes have tended to be based on Nursery Rhymes, Fairy Tales, established story lines. Commedia dell’arte is notable in that female roles were played by women – whereas in England theatre critics generally denigrated the troupes with their female actors .. Ben Johnson (1572 – 1637 English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor – a contemporary of Shakespeare) referring to one female performer of the commedia as a “tumbling whore”.

These groups of professional artists travelled from province to province in Italy and then France, they improvised and told stories which told lessons to the crowd and changed the main character depending on where they were performing. Each story had by that time the same fixed characters: the lovers, father, servants (one being crafty and the other stupid) etc and can still be found in today’s pantomimes.

Prince Charming meets Cinderella in a 1912 book of fairy tales

These performance conventions continue – the leading male juvenile character (the principal boy) is traditionally played by a young woman, clearly laying out her female charms; while an older woman (the pantomime dame – often the hero’s mother, is usually played by a man in drag. The gender role reversal resembles the old winter festivals and can be traced back to pre-Christian European festivals when it was customary for the natural order of things to be reversed.
Euan McIver as Pantomime Dame

Risque double entendres are used, often wringing innuendo out of perfectly innocent phrases: this is in theory over the heads of the children in the audience. The audience is encouraged to participate – to boo at the villain, “awwww” at the poor victims, to call out “He’s behind you” – warning the character that they’ll be overheard; and “Oh, yes it is!” and “Oh, no it isn’t!” in making sure the ‘correct’ information is given, ensuring a noisy interest by the audience.British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dress, in-jokes, audience participation and mild sexual innuendo. The schedule is demanding two shows a day, six days a week .. but some actors just love it and settle in to the annual routine in their planning, while actors we would refer as serious professionals accept parts, and overseas actors come over to join in this peculiarly British theatre.

In the past Sir Ian McKellen (the great Shakespearean actor, as well as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) played Widow Twankey in Aladdin in 2004 and 2005; "At least we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen's Twankey and it was huge," said Michael Billington, theatre critic of The Guardian, December 20, 2004, entering into the pantomime spirit of double entendre (see Wikipedia).
In recent times, the in pantomimes have featured soap stars, comedians or former sportsmen rather as celebrity attractions, supplemented by jobbing actors and pantomime specialists. Pamela Anderson, this year, is playing the genie in Aladdin at the New Wimbledon Theatre; The Fonz (Henry Winkler) plays Captain Hook in Peter Pan at the Liverpool Empire.

A good time is had by all in this extremely British tradition, though around the world Pantomime is now performed in mainly British settled countries, or where there’s an ex-pat community – Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands to name some countries.

Henry Winkler and Steve Guttenburg kick off the start of pantomime season: Henry Winkler (Captain Hook in Peter Pan) known by many as The Fonz from Seventies hit comedy Happy Days, was joined by fellow Hollywood star Steve Guttenberg (Baron Hardup in Cinderella) at a Shopping Centre to launch the 2008 London pantomime season. c/o

In America pantomime as such is seldom performed, and as a consequence Americans tend refer to the art of mime (as was practised, for example by Marcel Marceau) as a pantomime. Some shows come from pantomime traditions, especially Peter Pan, and are performed quite often – the tradition is spreading out and becoming part of Christmas time American style.

This is the time for those with theatrical ambitions to tread the boards – covered in thick gaudy make up, singing sometimes bawdy songs, exhorting the audience to participate and to provide a slapstick entertainment for all to enjoy.

Years ago we went en famille to Windsor theatre to see Peter Pan – I used to love Peter Pan – and surprise surprise we had a box .. wonderful .... until the very smelly, large, overly made up “Dame” appeared in our box – shouting to the audience and performers below ... I’m not sure it went down too well (we weren’t extroverts!) – but I do remember it!! Fun times ...

Dear Mr Postman – my Ma seems well – she’s had two days of sleep having sat up watching Hamlet the other night! How much she took in .. I do not know! The weather is terrible today, but at least we have rain and not the snow that's in the north.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday 28 December 2009

Wassail .. and "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Wassail – be hale and healthy – was an important ceremony practised in pagan times where the workers wassailed the various important areas of the lands – the apple orchards in cider producing regions, the byres where the animals were kept, or the coldharbours – the areas so described as being protected from the worst of the winter storms.

The Peasant Wedding, by Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1567 or 1568

The settlements gathered together to sing to the trees, then on to the coldharbour, stables, the byre – this wassailing was believed to bring prosperity and protection from evil – before moving on to their feudal lord for his charitable giving. Their work for the day would need to have been done – the animals being fed a double ration, so if the peasant didn’t quite rise in time, at least the animals would not be too starving!

The Twelve Days of Christmas are the festive days beginning on Christmas Day until the 5th January, the day before the Feast of the Epiphany. This period is also known as Christmastide. The traditions during this twelve day period have changed over the centuries, due to the differing churches, sects, eastern and western Christianity.

Boxing Day here in England (26 December) became so described as the day when gratuities were distributed by the priest, then the apprentices in Industrial Britain approached their masters’ customers for small donations into a box, which continued with the postal workers, the dustmen and errand boys until being phased out after World War II.

The custom of wassailing (old English and German) began in pagan Europe, where the timing of it varies due to the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, and also now has different connotations around the western world. In England some of these old customs still prevail and continue to be practised. The Lord of the Manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill .. often with a song:
Eight Maids a Milking - watercolour by Yvonne Arbor, England

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
A Happy New Year.

The Wassail cup is a hot, spiced punch, associated now-a-days with Christmas, made with cider or wine, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and cinnamon, sometimes honey and vanilla... can’t you just smell it wafting around? Historically wassail drinks were completely different, more likely to be mulled beer or mead (honey wine) – mixed with sugar or honey, available spices and topped with slices of toast as sops – a filling drink for the peasants on a cold wintry night.
French Red-Legged Partridge

The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” originally came from France, while being kept alive through the oral tradition of singing and reciting. Three French versions of the song are known, and if the “partridge in a pear tree” is to be taken literally, then it is likely that the chant came from France, since the red-legged (or French) partridge perches in trees more frequently than the native English common (or grey) partridge.

It is likely it became more popular from the early 1600s, as William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, was probably preceded by a “memories-and-forfeits” game using the cumulative chant of this English Carol: the leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse/s and added another, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with that player paying a forfeit ... such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. This is how the game is recorded in its earliest known printed version, in the children’s book “Mirth without Mischief” (published c1780) while the melody we know today was only written and registered in 1909.

Malvolio courts Olivia, while Maria covers her amusement, in an engraving by
R. Staines after a painting by Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870).

The carol or song has enduring qualities and catchy rhymes, which over time has had religious symbolism attached to each element that we now know so well today; as I had not realised these attributes I thought I would set them out here – courtesy of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas':
the full lyrics and tune are also available at this website:

1 True Love refers to God

2 Turtle Doves refers to the Old and New Testaments

3 French Hens refers to Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues

4 Calling Birds refers to the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings refers to the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace

6 Geese A-laying refers to the six days of creation

7 Swans A-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments

8 Maids A-milking refers to the eight beatitudes

9 Ladies Dancing refers to the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit

10 Lords A-leaping refers to the ten commandments

11 Pipers Piping refers to the eleven faithful apostles

12 Drummers Drumming refers to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

The intricacies of different countries’ symbolisms, traditions and cultures are still evolving around the December and January periods of Advent, St Nicholas, Santa Claus, Christmas Eve and Day, St Stephen and on beyond Epiphany towards Candlemas (2nd February) vary so much, though the links all go back to pagan times, we all remember in our different ways and celebrate this season.
The Bagpiper, by Hendrick ter Brugghen (17th Century, Netherlands

Dear Mr Postman – it’s good to see you back after a few days’ rest; my mother had a lovely time and this year stayed awake and enjoyed herself. I am so pleased I decorated the room – though at one stage she’d said to me “don’t worry” – as she is loving the change.

A merry time to you all as we prepare for the coming of 2010 ...
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Mum and Hardwick - decking out the tinsel ..

I feel as though you’re taking me for a ride – my mother’s comment as I appraised the Christmas decorations I’d packed away two years ago – not able to remember what I’d kept. This year my Ma has decided she’d like some decorations in her room .. so I must still go to work. I tipped the box out and spread the tinsel out around her and over Hardwick .. this was when she said “I feel as though I’m being taken for a ride”!

I feel as though you're taking me for a ride?!

Hardwick is a very special life like dog – he goes everywhere now with Mum ... either in her mind, or to the hospital .. and amuses everyone, as he’s so real and often mistaken as such!
Below: Hardwick - the favoured one! & "I'm not posing"!

The Christmas tree (below right) was given to Ma a few years ago by Elizabeth, her great friend in Cornwall, it plays a few tunes with the lights on, or just has the lights on twinkling away – she loves it! I rather hope she’d say she didn’t want it .. the tunes are ‘chippy’!! Good thing I didn’t give it away 2 years ago - isn’t it.. this is now its third year by her bedside?!

The flowers, which weren’t at their best, are anemones from Cornwall – they are jewel like colours and we all love them, pink freesias, then on the tv table – that we don’t watch – are narcissi and chrysanthemums – all replaced today – pink tulips instead, and a mass of narcissi, from Cornwall again. The jewels weren’t available – sad: Mum loves them.

Please spot the snowman on the made-up frieze above the window - Mum likes the dark curtains they keep out the light.

These pictures are all taken with an Apple iphone on a December afternoon in England! I'm impressed - just emailed and transferred across?!

A Christmas poem read to us recently .. appropriate for today as there’s snow around and it hasn’t melted during the day:

My Snowman Friend

I call him Mr Frosty-Face!
He brings us so much fun,
With black coal eyes, and carrot nose,
with a smile for everyone!

If we play Ring-a-Roses,
Then all our friends join in!
But, when the game is “Statues”,
He always knows he’ll win!

When I talk, I know he’ll listen
To every word I say.
I can shout, or knock his hat off,
And he’ll never run away!

But, when the weather’s warmer,
Then Frosty-Face must go –
Until the next time that he comes
with winter’s ice and snow.

Too right Mr Frosty you’re here to stay with us I suspect, at this unseasonal snow fell before Christmas, with more threatened.

Some lights from the harbour at Newlyn – my Ma’s Care Home overlooked this harbour, with views across Penzance, St Michael Mount’s Bay to The Lizard .. wonderful at all times of the year for the patients – as there was always lots going on out of their rooms or from the large window fronted sitting room.

Now the corner of the room that my Ma can see is decorated .. so more pictures .. up above the window (see above) – sit two Mr Frosties – mirror images ..

This small amount of area (only a corner and round the window) of taking down previous cards, putting up Christmas cards – making some “whizzy” of the decorations .. and even though I say it myself – I think it’s pretty good - & my mother is amazed – she wakes up to decorations ..

The first thing she said to me was – thank you .. and aren’t they wonderful, and how clever I’d been – she is truly a star!

Dear Mr Postman .. these pictures may not be very large – we shall have to see and then I need to learn what to do ... this took me a mere 12 hours .. and it’s tiny! Oh well .. it’s bringing huge pleasure. Mum think Hardwick’s outfit is very special. In fact emailed iphone pics have turned up trumps!!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Kissing under the Mistletoe - how did it all begin? and Asterix!

One plucked berry at a time .. and when the last berry has gone, there should be no more kissing under the mistletoe. This became an English Christmas-time custom dating back to at least the early 17th century (1600s). The correct procedure!, now seldom observed, is that a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a girl under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone there should be no more kissing... sad to say!

Shakespeare mentions mistletoe in Titus Andronicus Act II in an unflattering reference “Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe”, though why mistletoe should be so described is open to conjecture .. perhaps it was because the white berries form in winter, or it hangs in a tree open to the elements on bare branches at the time of the winter solstice.

Mistletoe in Silver Birch

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows attached to and within the branches of a tree or shrub. The word ‘mistletoe’ possibly comes from the old German Mist for dung and Tang for branch, since mistletoe can be spread in the faeces of birds moving from tree to tree, which can happen within 4 to 25 minutes. However the Old English word ‘mistel’ was also used for basil. Mistletoe had figured prominently in Greek and Roman mythology, while in Scandinavia the Norse God Baldr was killed with mistletoe.

In England and Europe the mistletoe favours apple trees, while the Druids held it in great veneration when found in oak trees; but as a parasitic plant, which mainly uses the host for water and mineral nutrients, it can be found in more than 200 trees and shrub species. Most mistletoe seeds are coated with a sticky material which are then spread by birds, such as the Mistle Thrush in Europe, the Silky Flycatcher in south western North America or the Mistletoebird in Australia amongst others.

Mistletoe Thrush

European mistletoe has waxy white berries in dense clusters of two to six; in America the Eastern mistletoe is similar but has longer clusters of 10 or more berries – and it is this variety in the States that is harvested for Christmas. There’s a red berried mistletoe in New Zealand, which is a threatened species, while Australia has the grey mistletoe, which is beloved by the mistletoe bird. South Africa too has its mistletoes.

Megan of It’s All About Joy! Suggested that in the States mistletoe for Christmas would be shot down, that may well be so as mistletoe would be found out in the woods when the men were hunting. Here, in the UK, our gun laws are distinctly stricter – though I could imagine years ago that the hunters might have gathered it that way – or if they are of Robin Hood ilk would have used a bow and arrow.

Mistletoe is commonly used as a Christmas decoration, though such use was rarely alluded to until the 18th century, though it was not used in Church. According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas (2nd February); however in the old days it may have been left hanging through the year, often to preserve the house from lightning or fire, until it was replaced the following Christmas Eve. The tradition has spread throughout the English-speaking world but is largely unknown in the rest of Europe.

Mistletoe was often considered a pest that kills trees and devalues natural habitats, but was recently recognized as an ecological keystone species, an organism that has a disproportionately pervasive influence over its community. A broad array of animals depend on mistletoe for food, consuming the leaves and young shoots, transferring pollen between plants, and dispersing the sticky seeds.

The sticky seed of the mistletoe stuck to a branch after it dropped.

The dense evergreen witches' brooms formed by the dwarf mistletoes of western North America also make excellent locations for roosting and nesting of the Northern Spotted Owls and the Marbled Murrelets. In Australia the Diamond Firetails and Painted Honeyeaters are recorded as nesting in different mistletoes. This behavior is probably far more widespread than currently recognized; more than 240 species of birds that nest in foliage in Australia have been recorded nesting in mistletoe.

If you like Asterix as a great many do (& I couldn’t resist this reference to mistletoe) - Getafix, the druid in the Asterix comics, was often seen up trees collecting mistletoe for his magic potion.
Asterix and the Big Fight (Le Combat des Chefs)

To fight Vitalstatistix, chief of Asterix’s tribe, the Romans enlist a Gallo-Roman Chief, Cassius Ceramix of Linoleum. Vitalstatistix would surely win with Getafix’ magic potion of invincibility, but the Romans plan to dispose of the druid long beforehand. In an effort to rescue him, Obelix accidentally puts Getafix out of action with a menhir (large stone), the impact of which causes amnesia and insanity.

I love those names! - who said Latin was dead?

According to a listing I found in Lesley Gordon’s “Green Magic”: Flowers with the Sentiments which they Represent” – Mistletoe’s sentiment = ‘I surmount all difficulties’. While she also let us know that the official floral emblem of Oklahoma is the American mistletoe.
If mistletoe will help us “surmount all difficulties at this time of year” – it is probably a good piece of greenery to have around, with or without its berries (once kissed up) and as it will preserve the house until next year.

Dear Mr Postman I send you and our readers a mistletoe Christmas card circa 1900! We're well and my mother is enjoying her Christmas cards with news from family and friends, from far and wide.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Cricket Ball Squash, Santa Claus, Italy and us ...

We do have some weird and wonderful mixtures of words and descriptions ... and as of last night my story today was not going to be on cricket, balls, squash, or Italy .. yes Santa Claus and obviously the blog. But there we go, another tale to tell.
What on earth could the connection be? Well – a friend of my mother’s, who lives in Cornwall, visits Italy twice a year .. and sees an old friend of hers, who used to live in South Africa, as I did. So one connection down! Elizabeth asked me if I’d heard of cricket ball squash .. “no”: I said – I’ve heard of and eaten spaghetti squash, but not cricket ball squash.

Oryx (a gazelle) – face similar to CedarPond’s herd .. but not the same!

The words don’t come out so easily now-a-days: too much going on – but I guessed that the little green round squash might hold the answer. This morning .. little gems came to mind. However I searched for “cricket ball squash” and up immediately up came the answer – little gems (acorn squash) halved, or baked and served a la Jamie Oliver. So that connection was solved – why it’s called cricket ball squash, when cricket balls are usually red – I have no idea.

Acorn or Little Gem Squash

The second of the searches stumbled me into CedarPond’s blog – and this wonderful picture .. which you have to click over to see – it epitomises Christmas as I’d love to see it outside my house – wonderful sheep (I tried to find out their name – not Bighorn, nor are they Mouflons – I hope Cedar Pond will tell us!) with their beautiful faces and clear eyes looking at us across the snow. On top of that Cedar Pond have their very own Santa Claus – and a very pretty good looking brood – looks like they’ll be having loads of fun at Christmas.

CedarPond had also seen the cricket ball squash and been so enamoured of it – they have posted a recipe for it. Well I have to say when I started out today I never thought our ubiquitous English game of cricket , usually played with a red ball not a green one, and certainly I never played squash with a ball larger than a squash ball – and the little gem is somewhat larger. Though the mess of hitting a little gem in a squash court with a cricket bat is a thought too far – especially now when we really don’t need any more cleaning up to do.

So I’ve solved one of Cilla’s (in Italy) question s – now the other escaped me .. it concerns Aesop’s African Fables .. and that I cannot find out about. However I have also been asked some other more suitable questions for this time of year – such as Advent, the 12 days of Christmas and the decorations of the Christmas tree – this last part was answered in my earlier post: What Christmas memory comes back to you at the beginning of December?

Mouflon in Buffalo Zoo (also not the same)

Santa Claus is another mix up – as his name is actually a contraction of Santa Nikolaus, the patron saint of German children, and he’s just had his feast day on 6th December, which still forms a major role at this time of year in certain European countries. He would be absolutely thrilled to visit CedarPond and all families with believing children to be able to work his magic there; as Santa Nikolaus distributes gifts to “good children”.
The present custom with his reindeer being introduced into England from Germany in about 1840, whereby small toys and other small presents are put into a stocking (as it would have been in the 1840s), so when they wake up on Christmas morning they find Santa Claus had remembered them. The wonders of childhood.
Merry Old Santa: 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, with Clement Clarke Moore, helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus

The beginning of the Church year is called ‘Advent’ and commences on St Andrews Day, 30 November, or the first Sunday nearest to it. It is the four week period before Christmas Day and commemorates the first and second coming of Christ; the first to redeem and the second to judge the world. The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the Church year. Elizabeth in Cornwall asked about this.

So now away from Cornwall and Italy to America, Japan and China .. another reader, whose wife is Chinese asked about the 12 days of Christmas ... in simple terms as far as the West is concerned it is the 12 day festival starting on December 25, and ending on January 5, known as Christmastide or the twelve days of Christmas.
The characteristic reindeer in Svalbard, an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole

As I described here Christmas as a date and period of celebration has over the past two thousand years been affected by societal development, from Saturnalia and paganism, to the more prescribed Roman practices, followed by Christianity and other changes .... including the move away from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar in the Middle Ages, also mentioned in this post.

The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 is a Christian feast day celebrating the revelation of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ, as described by the Magi (the three wise men) when they bore their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus. Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night” (1600-1601) was so called because it was written for acting at the Twelfth Night revels.

Byzantine art usually depicts the Magi in Persian clothing which includes breeches, capes, and Phyrgian caps). A restored mosaic, dated circa 600, found in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.

This third part of the Liturgical year has concluded our cricket ball squash story, Santa Claus and his hide out at CedarPond, and our tour around part of the world connecting questions raised with answers. Please continue to enjoy your Advent before the merrymaking of Saturnalia commences.

Dear Mr Postman .. many thanks for delivering this letter on what appears to be our last warm day before the cold of winter really sets in. All seems quiet at the moment with my mother and she is pleased to get her Christmas cards as they are starting to come in and it cheers her that she hears from family and friends. I have yet to do the decorations!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday 5 December 2009

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat ...Christmas through the ages ....

Some more fascinating facts as we roam around the world and wonder which century we are in? Turkey’s are American, the Spanish, in the early 1500s, brought turkeys with them on their return across the Ocean, established them in farms, from where they quickly spread across Europe, but it took a few centuries before our Christmas dinner was usurped by the American invader!

Medieval Christmas centred around the lord of the manor and his tenants and had different customs dependent upon the specifics for that lordship. The peasants would have bread, cheese, pottage, two meats, but would have to provide their own plate, mug and napkin, if they wished a cover to be on the table; then the peasant would have to bring a faggot of brushwood to cook his food, unless he wanted it raw!

Spring planting on a French ducal manor in March - from the illuminated manuscript: Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1410s

The manorial barons feasted when it suited them, not necessarily related to the Church festivals, though these merged over times, but the feasting could last for days. The quantity of food consumed appears to be huge, but the entourages of their guests needed to be fed too. The platters offered would have included a boar, beef, deer, pigs, fowls, partridges and geese, bread and cheese, gallons of ale and mainly red wine, though some white – and this was in the 1200s.

Early Medieval literature flourishes with descriptions of Arthurian Christmas feasts lasting over a fortnight – festivities over a period of days was quite common - clarion trumpets would marshal the guests to table, hands were rinsed in spiced scented warm water, while a Latin Grace was chanted. Then the servers would appear with steaming platters of spit-roasts, baked dishes, roasts and boiled dishes, and finally an elaborate “sotelty” – which is an entremet: ‘between the courses’ .. to allow time for digestive settlement, without stopping the festivities and may have depicted a successive phase of the Christmas story.

So I think you can see as England became more settled and more established into the manorial system, which over time has been phased out (though was still apparent in parts of east Germany even after the 2nd World War), food was the preserve of those who could earn or barter. As more and more produce became available either by cultivation of the lands, or through imports as the world became more connected our tastes grew. A sauce, similar to Worcester sauce, honey, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, saffron, mustard, dried fruits and nuts had all been available and would have been used by cooks even in Roman times.

However as with all good things, and all development, a spanner was thrown into the works in England as Christmas was banned by Oliver Cromwell (the Protector ruled 1653 – 1658); he banned carols and anyone cooking a goose, baking a cake or boiling a pudding was in danger of a fine, confiscation or worse! Charles II reinstated the holiday albeit in a subdued manner.

A tremendous amount of food had to be kept on hand, for the guests and family of the large houses, remembering as well as the servants, gardeners, coachmen, stable-hands etc. Recipes made in advance and served cold became popular – cold meats, pickles, jellies and puddings. There was always a turkey (picture above), this was the late1700s, goose or mutton, though venison held pride of place, while afterwards the Christmas or plum pudding was served ablaze with brandy sauce.

As the years passed people remembered the rituals of their ancestors or added new ones and by the 1800s it was once again a highly celebrated and significant time, though it would not reach its zenith until the Victorian era.

Did you know that Charles Dickens, in October 1843, was happily (I presume) writing Martin Chuzzlewitt, when he had an inspiration to write a “little carol” finishing it by the end of November, self-publishing it in time for Christmas .. and the rest is history for “A Christmas Carol”.

First edition frontispiece and title page: as published and approved by Charles Dickens

The impoverished Cratchits as described by Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” took their Christmas goose to the local bakers to be cooked for a small fee, as the homes of the poor in Victorian times were equipped with open fireplaces for heat and cooking, but not ovens.

The Victorian poor may have saved over several months, by paying a local public house landlord a small fee, in exchange for the goose at Christmas time – these were known as Goose Clubs. The bird may well then have been stuffed with various force meats, including chestnuts (free), herbs from the fields, vegetables, mixed in with rusky bread. It was those Romans again and the Arabs, who started filling the birds’ cavities before cooking to give extra flavour.

Now for our Christmas, we will have on Christmas Eve glazed roast ham with good fresh vegetables, and a light fruit dessert, like spiced oranges – before we go to midnight mass at our local Church of England church; Christmas Day is usually smoked salmon, fresh salad vegetables, mince pies, breads and cheese before a good walk across the Downs with the dogs.

A deserving slice of Christmas cake with tea next, followed later on by dinner of roast turkey and all the trimmings – ham, chipolata sausages (thin ones!), prunes wrapped in bacon, two sorts of stuffing, roast potatoes, carrots and brussel sprouts, with lashings of gravy, bread sauce and red currant jelly; then a flamed Christmas pudding dotted with silver good luck coins (we have to return them for next year! and we, being Cornish, have Cornish clotted cream with ours, as well as brandy butter.

My taste buds are salivating at the thought .. this is all laid out and served on a table well decorated with – flowers from the garden, probably autumn crocuses, linen table cloth, with napkins made into water lilies, wonderful crockery and glass, candles, crackers .. what else could one want – a pleasure to behold – watched over by a decorated Christmas tree bursting with birds, baubles, tinsel and glittering lights. We are blessed by my sister-in-law who puts all this together for us.

Norfolk geese

I have to finish with a poem .. and just a reminder of those days .. the animals and birds were walked to the fair before being sold! Tough times ....

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please to put a penny in the old man's hat;
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do,
If you haven't got a ha'penny then God bless you!

We can all give this Christmas according to our means ... even if we can only give our blessing and peaceful thoughts.

Dear Mr Postman – we will continue to visit my mother during this period, even though she cannot participate with the food or drink. Interestingly this year she has said she’d like some Christmas decorations .. so I shall have to put some up – the room is not really designed for things like this .. still I’ll make a plan – I decorated my uncle’s room when he was in over Christmas two years ago.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday 30 November 2009

What Christmas memory comes back to you at the beginning of December?

Cold weather, crispy grass under our feet, icy puddles, our breaths leaving vapour trails, dark outlines of bare trees, variegated holly with masses of berries ... inside warming fires, toasting marshmallows, crumpets by that fire, spicy delights coming from the kitchen – has your Christmas pudding and cake already been made – ready for that last minute decoration?

Are the children or (perhaps and/or!) grandchildren under your feet getting in your way, or asking to help .. their little fingers into every pie going, greedily tasting all edible goodies available? Looking under every bed, in every cupboard, every nook and cranny to see if their wish has come true?

Christmas market in Jena, Germany

Those were the days the excitement of the weeks before – Carol Services to sing in and go to, Nativity plays to watch applauding our nearest and dearest become little angels for a few dear minutes!! The gathering of the Christmas tree, the decorating the house with holly, mistletoe and decorations .. so much to happen in the four weeks of December starting tomorrow.
Where did it all start? and now .. what do we experience ...? The Roman festival of Saturn was held in December when the temples were decorated with the fir, the pine and the slow growing evergreen box (boxwood in the States); the Druids are associated with mistletoe, while the Saxons used holly and ivy. These customs have been transferred to the Christian festival. The holly or holy-tree is called Christ’s thorn in Germany and Scandinavia from its use in church decorations and its putting forth its berries about Christmas time.

The ancient Roman Saturnalia festival was celebrated on 19 December, eventually being prolonged for seven days, and was a time of freedom from restraint and merrymaking, and often riot and debauchery. During its continuance public business was suspended, the law courts and schools were closed and no criminals were punished .. lucky them – especially in those days of ‘being thrown to the lions’!
Mistletoe in a Silver Birch tree

The Romans also decorated a Christmas tree, though the Christmas tree as we know it today, was introduced by Prince Albert to Queen Victoria, influencing the way Victorian households provided a focal point for decorations, present gathering and general festivities around the fire hearth and the tree.

Christmas as a season, we in the western world have become accustomed to, began in the days of heathen peoples ... when the winter solstice was a time of festival; the Church fixed this day in AD 440 as what to the Anglo Saxons would have been known as the beginning of the year .. when the circle of life, according to the sun and moon, started again as the daylight hours increased.

So for the Anglo Saxons the 25th December was the start of the year, but from the 12th century until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the British and the Protestant world in 1752, the year began on Lady Day, 25th March. Did you know we “lost” ten days doing this?

Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar

The druids, a priestly and learned class active in Gaul (France and Belgium) and Celtic Britain during the final centuries BC, were suppressed by the Romans and had all but disappeared from the written record by the 2nd century, although outlying nomadic groups may have survived, particularly in Britain and Ireland as they feature prominently here in mythology. In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a revival of interest in Druidism, and a new romantic and unhistorical cult grew up, which has become known as Neo-Druidism.
Woodcut published in The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells Of England, including Rivers, Lakes, Fountains and Springs (Carrawbrough: Covertina's Well)

Society was settling down and developing during the next 1300 years before countries, or provinces came to be more established, populated with settlements, and brought with them their traditions and cultures they had been absorbing over the centuries. Today regional aspects of Christmas are still, and no doubt will continue to change over the future years to come.

The Christmas tree is an established part of our English Christmas time, while other traditions are entrenched in different countries – Mexico brought us the poinsettias, possibly because the Mexican Franciscan monks included the flower in their Christmas celebration in the 1600s and they thus became popular, and were brought back to Europe by the Spanish – remember then we were going through three Little Ice Ages (1650, 1770 and 1850) , when it was definitely colder than it has been during my lifetime. In the 1950s and 1960s it was also colder than it is today.
Pointsettia tree (with star on top) in San Diego

So many cultures and traditions have grown up in different countries of the world that I am sure most of us have not got a clue about .. when we start Christmas .. St Nicholas Day, or Christmas Eve .. or ... what we eat, what we do, and what little quirks we have each developed within our own families and that have been passed down through the generations. Is it Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, or Noel ... or, or, or ...

So much to find out in the month ahead – what we all do, what foods we eat, what are our expectations.... I have just been in Manchester about 250 miles (400 km) north from here where the population of the environs is approximately 2.5 million – so a city worth a street market for the month before Christmas.

There were stalls from Italy – with salami (including hazelnut ... see my last post), nougat from France, delicious Dutch ‘cookies’, carved wooden toys and small items from Nuremberg, Germany – famous too for spicy gingerbread - and I am sure many more .. I had a lovely time in the few breaks we had wandering through the Christmassy stalls savouring the days to come and remembering the days gone by of our childhood Christmas times.

So much to tell you and so much to find out from you, dear Readers, about your traditional and cultural celebrations – I remember my times in South Africa .. and it is seriously difficult to become enamoured about plum pudding when the sun is beating down – but we did and had the works .. though the Christmas tree was an aloe branch, painted silver, and decorated with Christmas baubles .. my best Christmas tree so far!

Dear Mr Postman – haven’t we had such terrible weather – floods in the north, floods in the south – we have floods here .. my brother’s village has been flooded – they are alright they’re high on the hill above .. but the last time it happened this badly nine years ago – a car was floating in the street – now that is a site to behold. They had 65mm of rain in the last 24 hours, while the monthly average is 80 mm. We count our blessings we do not have to deal with that aftermath. My mother is very sleepy .. so my visits are short ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories