Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Day For Poets and Lovers

Today Scots celebrate the birthday of Robert (or Rabbie) Burns, widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Have you ever sung Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight of the new year? He wrote that.

Robert Burns was born January 25, 1759 near Ayr in a house built by his father. As an adult, Burns was known for casual love affairs (and lovechild or two). He dedicated poems to Mary Campbell, a woman he fell in love with, while another woman, Jean Armour (who he later married) was carrying his twins.

Burns worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not Burns'), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns' most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, Auld Lang Syne is set to the traditional tune Can Ye Labour Lea.

Burns died at the age of 37, and was buried the same day as his last child was born.

A Burns supper is a celebration of his life and poetry. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet's birthday, and are sometimes also known as Robert Burns Day or Burns Night (Burns Nicht), although they may in principle be held at any time of the year.

The first suppers were held in Ayrshire at the end of the 18th century by Robert Burns' friends on the anniversary of his death, July 21, In Memoriam and they have been a regular occurrence ever since. The first Burns club, known as The Mother Club, was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. They held the first Burns supper on what they thought was his birthday on January 29, 1802, but in 1803 discovered from the Ayr parish records that the correct date was January 25, 1759, and since then suppers have been held on the 25th of January.

Burns suppers may be formal or informal. Both typically include haggis (a traditional Scottish dish celebrated by Burns in Address to a Haggis), Scotch whisky and the recitation of Burns' poetry. The dinner begins with the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.

It came to be called the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.

Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a haggis on a large dish. It is usually brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host's table, where the haggis is laid down. The host then recites the Address to a Haggis.

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn,
they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent lyke drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
"Bethankit!" 'hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

Confused? Yeah, me, too. So here is a translation:

Fair is your honest happy face
Great chieftain of the pudding race
Above them all you take your place
Stomach, tripe or guts
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm

The groaning platter there you fill
Your buttocks like a distant hill
Your skewer would help to repair a mill
In time of need
While through your pores the juices emerge
Like amber beads

His knife having seen hard labour wipes
And cuts you up with great skill
Digging into your gushing insides bright
Like any ditch
And then oh what a glorious sight
Warm steaming, rich

Then spoon for spoon
They stretch and strive
Devil take the last man, on they drive
Until all their well swollen bellies
Are bent like drums
Then, the old gent most likely to rift (burp)
Be thanked, mumbles

Is there that over his French Ragout
Or olio that would sicken a pig
Or fricassee would make her vomit
With perfect disgust
Looks down with a sneering scornful opinion
On such a dinner

Poor devil, see him over his trash
As week as a withered rush (reed)
His spindle-shank a good whiplash
His clenched fist.the size of a nut.
Through a bloody flood and battle field to dash
Oh how unfit

But take note of the strong haggis fed Scot
The trembling earth resounds his tread
Clasped in his large fist a blade
He'll make it whistle
And legs and arms and heads he will cut off
Like the tops of thistles

You powers who make mankind your care
And dish them out their meals
Old Scotland wants no watery food
That splashes in dishes
But if you wish her grateful prayer
Give her a haggis! 

At the end of the poem, a Scotch whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis, then the company will sit down to the meal. The haggis is traditionally served with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed turnips (neeps). The dinner usually begins (before the haggis) with soup and ends with dessert.

Coffee and speeches usually end the meal.

When it comes to haggis, people typically either look at you confused or disgust. I went today to pick up whiskey to make my own vegan haggis and the clerk asked what I was using it for (I had mentioned I was cooking with it.) When I said haggis he stared a moment before informing me, yes, he had tried that. Once. And then gave a little shudder. So, what is haggis, you ask?

Take the liver, lungs & heart of a sheep and boil them. Mince the meats and mix with chopped onions, toasted oatmeal, salt, pepper, and spices. Take one properly cleaned sheep's stomach. Stuff the cleaned stomach with the prepared contents. Sew up the stomach (leaving enough room for expansion to avoid a large messy explosion) and boil. Serve and eat.

You may now shudder, just like the liquor store clerk. Believe me, I did, too, when I first learned about it. So now you are wondering what the heck am I doing making something like this! Well, hold on. I'm all about cruelty-free dining. Mine is vegan! You can find my recipe here. And, yes, it is delicious!

So what does love have to do with this (apologies to Tina Turner)? Nothing, actually. But it does have a great deal to do with another celebration, this time in Wales. Today the Welsh celebrate St. Dwynwen's Day.

St. Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of lovers. She is also the patron saint of sick animals.

Dwynwen is believed to have been a daughter of King Brychan Brycheiniog, who lived in the 5th century. Dwynwen lived in Anglesey, and her name is still recalled in place names such as Llanddwyn and Porthddwyn.

There are several different versions of what happened:

- This version of the story is generally told to younger children, usually in primary school or nursery. It is generally considered the most appropriate for children.
Dwynwen was the beautiful daughter of Brychan Brycheiniog, who was said to have had eleven sons and twenty-four daughters (although these figures vary greatly, to the extent of suggesting he had over fifty children). She met and fell madly in love with a man called Maelon, and he reciprocated her feelings. She asked her father if she could marry Maelon, but Brychan disliked Maelon and refused to give his permission. Maelon begged, as did Dwynwen, but Brychan would not relent and Maelon was forced to leave. Dwynwen was so upset that she ran into the forests. There, she met with an angel in a dream who granted her the position of the Saint of Love.

- Dwynwen did meet a man named Maelon, and they fell in love. However, Dwynwen disliked Maelon's attitude towards sleeping together, as she wished to keep her virtue until after marriage but he wanted them to sleep together. She told him this, and enraged Maelon so much that he attacked and raped her. Dwynwen fled to the woods, distraught. There an angel gave her a magic potion that cooled her love for Maelon (it in fact cooled it too much, as he was turned into a block of ice). It also gave her three wishes. Dwynwen wished that she would never marry, and that she would become the patron saint of lovers to console others through sadness and love. She used the last wish (although some sources say this was her first) to get Maelon unfrozen.

- Dwynwen fell in love with a prince called Maelon Dafodrill, but unfortunately her father had already arranged that she should marry someone else. Dwynwen was so upset that she could not marry Maelon that she begged God to make her forget him. After falling asleep, Dwynwen was visited by an angel, who appeared carrying a sweet potion designed to erase all memory of Maelon and turn him into a block of ice. God then gave three wishes to Dwynwen. Her first wish was that Maelon be thawed; her second that God meet the hopes and dreams of true lovers; and third, that she should never marry.

- Dwynwen fell in love with a prince called Maelon Dafodrill but her father (the king) had already arranged for her to marry another prince. As soon as Maelon found out he was angry and said never wanted to see Dwynwen again.Dwynwen cried all night and asked god to make her forget all about Maelon. In the morning Dwynwen was visited by an angel, who appeared carrying a sweet potion designed to erase all memory of Maelon and turn him into a block of ice. God then gave three wishes to Dwynwen. Her first wish was that Maelon be thawed; her second that God meet the hopes and dreams of true lovers; and third, that she should never marry.

Regardless of what really happened, Dwynwen became a nun, fulfilling her wish to never marry, and left for the island of Anglesey to build a Church. This is referred to as Llanddwynwen, literally meaning 'Church of Dwynwen'. She is there until she dies, in about AD 460. Her church at Llanddwyn became an important shrine during the Middle Ages. The holy well became a site of pilgrimage, at which the movement of fish within its waters was believed to indicate lovers' destinies. Visitors to the well believe that if the water boils while they are present, then love and good luck will surely follow.

Saint Dwynwen's day, Dydd Santes Dwynwen, is celebrated on January 25. Seen as something of a "Welsh Valentine's Day", from the 1960s it has increased in popularity as a day when cards are sent and events such as concerts or parties are held.

Wish your loved one 'dwi'n dy garu di ' (I love you).

And make something sweet. I made Red Hot Popcorn.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream... said Edgar Allan Poe, whose birthday is today. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

Many critics have noted that Poe's life was marked by the loss of women he loved, a theme that occurred repeatedly in his writing. Having suffered the loss of his mother, Poe was haunted by the idea of a young, sick, beautiful woman, especially when he was forced to witness the illness of his "little wife" (a nickname earned in part by Virginia's delicate stature and in part by her age: she was thirteen when they married while he was twenty-seven) - she died of tuberculosis about 12 years after they married (Poe died two years later). This obsession is reflected in his heroines: Ligeia, Berenice, Lenore, and Madeleine Usher.

Poe was a divisive character while he lived, and had as many enemies as friends, in part due to his volatile, high-strung temperament. Yet he also had his champions: his wife and mother-in-law both doted on him, and the French poet Baudelaire lovingly translated his work into French and proclaimed him one of the greatest poets who ever lived.

The cause of Poe's death remains a mystery, but the more macabre story is the one surrounding his burial.  Poe is buried on the grounds of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, now part of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. He was originally buried without a headstone towards the rear corner of the churchyard near his grandfather, David Poe, Sr. A headstone of white Italian marble, paid for by Poe's cousin Neilson Poe, was destroyed before it reached the grave when a train derailed and plowed through the monument yard where it was being kept. Instead, it was marked with a sand-stone block that read "No. 80". In 1873, Southern poet Paul Hamilton Hayne visited Poe's grave and published a newspaper article describing its poor condition and suggesting a more appropriate monument. Sara Sigourney Rice, a teacher in Baltimore's public schools, took advantage of renewed interest in Poe's grave site and personally solicited for funds. She even had some of her elocution students give public performances to raise money. Many in Baltimore and throughout the United States contributed; the final $650 came from Philadelphia publisher and philanthropist George William Childs. The new monument was designed by architect George A. Frederick and built by Colonel Hugh Sisson, and included a medallion of Poe by artist Adalbert Volck. All three men were from Baltimore. The total cost of the monument, with the medallion, amounted to slightly more than $1,500.

Poe was reburied on October 1, 1875, at a new location close to the front of the church. A celebration was held at the dedication of the new tomb on November 17. His original burial spot was marked with a large stone donated by Orin C. Painter, though it was originally placed in the wrong spot. Attendees included Neilson Poe, who gave a speech and called his cousin "one of the best hearted men that ever lived", as well as Nathan C. Brooks, John Snodgrass, and John Hill Hewitt. Though several leading poets were invited to the ceremony, Walt Whitman was the only one to attend. Alfred Tennyson contributed a poem which was read at the ceremony:

Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.

Probably unknown to the reburial crew, the headstones on all the graves, previously facing to the east, had been turned to face the West Gate in 1864. The crew digging up Poe's remains had difficulty finding the right body: they first exhumed a 19-year old Maryland militiaman, Philip Mosher, Jr. When they correctly located Poe, they opened his coffin and one witness noted: "The skull was in excellent condition—the shape of the forehead, one of Poe's striking features, was easily discerned."

A few years later, the remains of Poe's wife, Virginia, were moved to this spot as well. In 1875, the cemetery in which she lay was destroyed, and she had no kin to claim her remains. William Gill, an early Poe biographer, gathered her bones and stored them in a box he hid under his bed. Virginia's remains were finally buried with her husband's on January 19, 1885, the 76th anniversary of her husband's birth and nearly 10 years after his present monument was erected. George W. Spence, the man who served as sexton during Poe's original burial as well as his exhumation and reburial, attended the rites that brought his body to rest with Virginia and Virginia's mother, Maria Clemm.

Adding to the mystery surrounding Poe's death, an unknown visitor affectionately referred to as the "Poe Toaster" paid homage to Poe's stone marking his original grave annually beginning in 1949. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would leave three roses and a partially-filled bottle of French cognac, then disappear into the night. As the tradition carried on for more than 60 years, it is likely that the "Poe Toaster" was actually several individuals, though the tribute was always the same. According to eyewitness reports, and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster visited the tomb from 1949 until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to "a son." Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity, and was rarely seen or photographed.
Members of the Edgar Allan Poe Society in Baltimore helped protect this tradition for decades.The Poe Toaster's last appearance was on January 19, 2009, the day of Poe's bicentennial. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster, nor did he appear in 2011 or 2012, triggering speculation that the 60-year tradition had ended and that the toaster had died.

There are a few ways you can mark this day for yourself, barring living near Baltimore and visiting his gravesite.

Tap at the door (bedroom door, office door, bathroom door) of a family member or coworker and keep tap, tap, tapping at the door. Wait if they tell you to come in until they actually have to get up to come answer it. When they do, stare at them for a minute, and then say, "Nevermore."

Too creepy?

You could find a place to perch and just say "Nevermore" to everyone who walks by.

Still not doing it for you?

Then curl up with a cup of hot tea and a warm throw, and read the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. A raging thunderstorm outside would really set the stage, but since we cannot control that, turn the lights down low or read by candlelight. Get out your Hallowe'en cds and have them playing in the background.

Enjoy the delightful shivers from the comfort of your own home.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

“When late morning rolls around and you're feeling a bit out of sorts, don't worry; you're probably just a little eleven o'clockish.”

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?" - Winnie the Pooh

Alan Alexander Milne was born on the 18th of January 1882 in Hampstead, London. In 1924, after the success of  the poem entitled, 'Vespers',  Milne published a book of children's poems entitled 'When We Were Very Young', with drawings by illustrator, Ernest Shepard. This book includes a poem about a Teddy Bear who "however hard he tries grows tubby without exercise". This was Pooh's first unofficial appearance in A.A. Milne's writing. It was not until 1925 that Pooh officially came into being. Milne's contribution for the Christmas Eve issue of the Evening News was a bedtime story that he had made up for his son (named Christopher Robin) about adventures he had with his Teddy Bear who was known as Winnie the Pooh. It was also at this time that the Milne family moved to the cottage at Cotchford Farm in Sussex which later provided the setting for the Pooh books.

Interestingly, Milne didn't write the Pooh stories and poems for children but instead intended them for the child within us.

Until he went to boarding school(where he got teased a lot about Vespers), Christopher Robin Milne (in his own words) "quite liked being Christopher Robin and being famous."

Vespers by AA Milne

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

God bless Mummy. I know that's right.
Wasn't it fun in the bath to-night?
The cold's so cold, and the hot's so hot.
Oh! God bless Daddy - I quite forgot.

If I open my fingers a little bit more,
I can see Nanny's dressing-gown on the door.
It's a beautiful blue, but it hasn't a hood.
Oh! God bless Nanny and make her good.

Mine has a hood, and I lie in bed,
And pull the hood right over my head,
And I shut my eyes, and I curl up small,
And nobody knows that I'm there at all.

Oh! Thank you, God, for a lovely day.
And what was the other I had to say?
I said "Bless Daddy," so what can it be?
Oh! Now I remember it. God bless Me.

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

There are many ways to celebrate today. You can start by pulling out any and all Pooh stuffed animals you have and setting them around the house. I have a small collection of Pooh themed items that I have collected over the years, including a small stuffed Winnie the Pooh. He takes pride of place today.

If you have children (and even if you don't!), read any of the stories from the 100 Aker Wood.

Make Winnie the Pooh cakepops. I'm new to the cakepop making, so haven't made any just yet. Today, however, might be the day I try my hand at it!

Make a Pooh inspired dish. I have the original 1969 Pooh cookbook. I really want to get my hands on the new one, though, to compare them.

Watch a Pooh movie or try to catch the episodes that came on tv. I still use Pooh's phrase, "Oh, bother!" when something doesn't go as planned.

This is a day that can be filled with sweetness and fun, so go and be a kid again. Isn't that what Milne wanted?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Argue Not With Dragons...

...for thou art crunchy and go well with brie.

Or so says my signature line I've used in my emails for years. I have never been able to track down where this quote originated, and have seen many variations on it, but this still remains my favorite. My daughter even found me a t-shirt, and even if it uses the more often used variation of ketchup, it is still the perfect shirt to wear today.

Why, you ask? Well, today is Appreciate a Dragon Day!

Appreciate a Dragon Day was created in 2004 by the author Donita K. Paul, to celebrate the release of her first book in the Dragon Keepers series, Dragonspell.

The spirit of Appreciate a Dragon Day is to get kids involved in literacy, art and reading, but is certainly not limited to kids! There are various ways to celebrate today. Some of those ideas could include:

-Create your favorite dragon in art. Drawing, painting, sculpture, Lego, paper mache, masks, collage, mosiac, mixed media, knitting, sewing, puppets - the list is endless!
-Devise a dragon treasure hunt, to find the dragon's hoard! The hoard can be anything from a gift to money to anything you want it to be!
-Become a dragonologist for the day! Check out any of the Dragonology books, but a Field Guide will be most useful.
-Learn about one or more dragons from different cultures and mythologies. Believe it or not, there are differences in dragons depending on the culture.
-Stage a dragon-themed puppet show, dance, play or musical. I think designing one of those Chinese dragons used in parades would be a blast!
-Make dragon food - this is just a given. Between today and the upcoming Chinese New Year's Year of the Dragon coming up, watch for recipes here.
-Have a dragon party. Dress up as a dragon, decorate with dragons, have dragon foods. There is a plethora of adult beverages that have the word *dragon* in the name.
-Watch a dragon movie or cartoon. There are so many. Dragonheart, Eragon, How To Train Your Dragon, just to name a few.
-Learn about dragons in history and legend. I bet you'll uncover something you didn't know before!
-Try origami and make a folded dragon out of paper. You can find directions here.
-Learn about REAL dragons, or even visit them if you have the resources nearby - find a Komodo dragon at your local zoo, or learn about bearded dragons at specialist pet stores or animal centers! Our local science museum has a live bearded dragon that my daughter brings out for birthday parties there. The animals she shows are animals that have been donated to the museum, often the result of someone getting one as a pet and no longer being able to care for it. (Small rant - why I do NOT believe in the sale of exotic animals as pets!)

Dragons are symbols of strength, fortitude and courage. Their fiery nature also means they are symbols of transformation. For those of you so inclined, spiritually, dragons are messengers of balance and can help strengthen psychic ability. They are rulers of all four elements and therefore embody primordial power, and as a "totem" they offer strength, wisdom, bravery and empowerment. They can also bring magic into our lives and encourage us to be peaceful warriors - standing up for ourselves, but in a constructive and harmonious way. Dragons can be a powerful ally and if you want to work with their energy, you can call upon your dragon totem through meditation. Look at dragon images and read about them - this can help draw them into your life.

Bring out all your (or your kid's!) stuffed dragons and place them all around the house. Light up some dragon's blood incense and enjoy the day!

Friday, January 13, 2012

“Paraskevidekatriaphobia – when you learn to pronounce it, you’re cured.”

According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, fear of Friday the 13th affects between 17 and 21 million Americans. Why should this day, over any other, inspire such fear?

Theories range anywhere from the the number 12 traditionally signifying completeness, therefore 13 is unlucky (which begs the question, what about 11? What about 10? What about - you get the idea) to  Friday being the day on which Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit and Jesus was crucified (but what has the number 13 got to do with that?) to the demise of the Knights Templar, a monastic military order whose members were arrested en masse by France’s King Philip IV on Friday, October 13, 1307.

Regardless of how it started, those who suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia, Friday plus 13 equals a paralyzing, debilitating fear for millions of Americans.

But for those of us that don't have such a fear...

Plan a Friday the 13th party!

Once again, anything Hallowe'en related is a brilliant choice, most especially anything such as black cats. Throw in other things related to superstitious beliefs, like paper ladders and the number 13.

Play spooky music. Some of my favorite creepy music is anything by Nox Arcana.

Dress up in costumes. The more mysterious, the better.

Play party games like Truth or Dare or Worst Case Scenario.

Of course, what party wouldn't be complete without watching Friday the 13th movies?

Make a trip to a scary or haunted place, or spend the night in a haunted hotel.

Whatever you do, just be safe and have fun. Don't belittle anyone who has a true fear or even a little trepidation about the day. While it is untrue that hospital admissions are higher on this day, that can be probably generally attributed to the fact that many are just being more careful.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Burning the Clavie

Today something wonderfully peculiar happens in Burghead, a fishing village on the Moray Firth. It's a fire ritual and celebration - one of Scotland's oldest and strangest and rather unique to the village. No one knows when it began or what exactly it means. It's the burning of the clavie.

Burning the clavie is an ancient Scottish custom still observed there. The clavie is a bonfire of casks split in two and lighted on January 11, the old New Year, before the calendar was changed in 1660. On the night, the clavie is nailed to a post by a huge nail - some say that the same nail is ritually used, year after year. It is filled with tar and wood shavings, then carried to the home of one of the town's oldest residents, the Burghead Provost, who lights the clavie with peat from his own hearth.

Always first to carry the clavie is the "Clavie King" who is accompanied by his 17 strong "Clavie Crew" made up of veterans of the ceremony who are often clad in old clothes and overalls bearing the scorch marks from carrying the clavie in previous years. Becoming a member of the Clavie Crew is one of the highest honours the community of Burghead can bestow upon its men and some local families have been represented in the crew for several generations.

They follow a set route through the village and along the way stop off to give smoldering embers from the clavie to householders who cherish them as tokens of good luck for the next twelve months.

They then make their way up to a headland upon which stands the ruins of an altar, locally called the Douro, or Doorie Hill. It here forms the nucleus of the bonfire, which is built up of split casks. When the burning tar-barrel falls in pieces, the people scramble to get a lighted piece with which to kindle the New Year's fire on their cottage hearth. The charcoal of the clavie is collected and put in pieces up the cottage chimneys, to keep spirits and witches from coming down. Pieces are also sent to family members who no longer live in the village so that they may have good luck, too.

No one is certain where the term *clavie* originated. Some believe the word is a derivation of cliabh(clee-av), a Gaelic word for a wicker basket, creel or cage. Others say it comes from the Latin word clavus (nail) and is Roman in origin. But since no one is sure whether this event is Celtic, Pictish or Roman in origin, the origin of the word itself is a mystery.

Regardless of the origin of the word or the celebration, it is fun for all.

Many of us don't have the luxury of lighting a huge bonfire, much less parading around with a flaming, tar filled cask, but there are still ways those of us with Scottish roots can celebrate. Drought conditions in your area may prohibit any kind of outdoor fire, but an indoor fireplace will suffice. Get a nice fire going and celebrate with Scottish food. If Scottish food isn't your preference, make a family favorite and just enjoy spending the time together. Save a piece of the wood from the fire to save for next year's celebration, much like you may have done with your Yule log in December.

Have fun!

Monday, January 9, 2012

St. Distaff and Plough Monday

While January 7th may be known as St. Distaff's Day, there is, in fact, no such person. The day is named for the distaff, a wooden tool with one narrow end and one flat end wrapped with raw fiber, such as flax, to be spun on a drop spindle or, later, the spinning wheel. In England, as well as other countries, the days from Christmas through Twelfth Night were considered a time of rest from the labors of spinning. January 7 marked the first day after the 12 days of Christmas when women would return to their normal duties, spinning whenever they had a free moment. However, it is unlikely much spinning actually got done. As women returned to their spinning, custom encouraged men to tease the women by setting fire to their flax or wool. This act in turn allowed women the pleasure of quenching the fire with buckets of water, drenching both fire and firebug. Robert Herrick’s (1591-1674) poem, “St. Distaff’s Day; or, the Morrow After Twelfth Day” tells us:

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night.
And next morrow, every one
To his own vocation

Today when we think about spinning, we envision the women we see spinning at fairs and craft shows, who do it for a hobby or pleasure. But it wasn't always so. Before the invention of factory-made cloth, the task of spinning constituted perhaps the most representative of all female chores. Before the invention of the spinning wheel, spinning on what is known as the drop spindle was a slow and tedious task. The spinning of one pound of woollen yarn could take about one week and one pound of heavy cotton yarn several weeks to spin. There are images from as far back as time of the Ancient Egyptians showing how the distaff was used to hang the flax or tow and the spindle to effect the twisting. The distaff was carried under the arm, and the spindle left dangling and turning in the fingers below, and forming an axis round which to wind parcels of the thread as soon as it was made.

Women of all ages, ranks, and incomes spun thread. In the evening, after the chores of the day were done, there would be spinning, and the spindle would be taken to visit friends as the task could be undertaken at the same time as a conversation. A further indicator of the importance of spinning in the life of women in the past, is the fact that it has entered the language. Spinster was a recognized legal term for an unmarried woman. In his Law Dictionary, Blount, wrote: 'It is the addition usually given to all unmarried women, from the Viscount's daughter downward.' Similarly the distaff side and the spear side were once legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of female from that of male children-and the distaff became a synonym for woman herself. A French proverb states that "The crown of France never falls to the distaff."

Whereas the women returned to their work on January 7, the day after Epiphany, men didn't return to work until the following Monday, or Plough Monday. In medieval times the ploughboys were supposed to return to work on Plough Monday, the start of the new ploughing season. In some areas, particularly in northern England and East Anglia, a plough was hauled from house to house in a procession, collecting money. Plough Monday was an important ritual for agricultural workers, providing the opportunity to make some money at a difficult time of year. The plough was paraded through the streets, often accompanied by musicians, an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman, called the "Bessy", and a man in the role of the "fool", with the aim to extort money from the wealthy landowners. All done in fun, of course.

I say in fun, but the penance for non-payment was to have the front doorstep pulled up with the plough.

The itinerant plough boys, often known as Plough Jacks, Plough Bullocks, Plough Witches or Plough Stots, depending on the locality of the custom, would blacken their faces as a disguise, a tradition still practiced today. In the Cambridgeshire villages of Ramsey and Whittlesey,  a Straw Bear was paraded through the village by the ploughwitches. A Straw Bear is still paraded through the streets as part of the Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival.

In the Isles of Scilly, locals would cross-dress and then visit their neighbors to joke about local occurrences. There would be "goose dancing" and considerable drinking and revelry.

So, what can you do to celebrate the return to work? Don't groan...make it fun! I realize most people returned to work days or weeks ago, and after all the holiday festivities many relish the idea of NOT celebrating anything. But with so many people out of work, it is still a time to be thankful, and that can be a celebration all of its own!

So, make a dish special to your family, give a blessing to any tools associated with your job (even if it's an unpaid job like domestic goddess!) and plan something fun to do.

Make every day a celebration!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

It's All Very Creepy and Kooky, Mysterious and Spooky

Today we celebrate the birthday of Charles Addams, the master of the macabre. Born in Westfield, New Jersey in 1912. He is known for his cartoon, The Addams Family.

Addams's first cartoon appeared in the New Yorker in 1938 and his biting, witty humor was a mainstay of the magazine for much of the 20th century. The cartoon featured husband Gomez, his wife Morticia (whose name was inspired by Addams flipping through the phone book and a list of morticians) and Lurch the butler, who had a beard. Uncle Fester, a bald ghoul who gave Addams the most room for wickedness, was described as "eyes are pig-like and deeply imbedded, circled unhealthily in black - no teeth and absolutely hairless."

Other characters that followed included Grandma Frump, Cousin Itt, Thing, and the children Pugsley (a nine-year-old troublemaker with a taste for torture) and Wednesday (a secretive daughter with six toes on one foot).

Addams's dark cartoons belied a dapper, sensuous man. Though he would have had the public believe otherwise, Addams in person was more Cary Grant than Vincent Price, debonair with a sunny disposition and a love of life’s pleasures. He liked to dress in Brooks Brothers suits and Saks ties and loved racing his expensive sports cars. Some of the things that gave Addams the most pleasure were glamorous company (he had love affairs with Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Jacqueline Kennedy), his collections of vintage cars and medieval armor, a good drink and a great meal. Addams was described by one biographer as "A well-dressed, courtly man with silvery back-combed hair and a gentle manner, he bore no resemblance to a fiend."
Linda H Davis, who wrote a biography called A Cartoonist's Life, said: "He was a most genteel, civilised, gracious, charming, witty normal person...with one exception. He did have a taste for unusual things. He decorated his apartment with real, working medieval crossbows and had a most unusual coffee table, made from a civil war embalming table. They called it a drying out table in those days and Addams loved to point out a sinister stain in the place where the kidneys would have been."

He once opened his West Fifty-fourth Street apartment front door to find "a fat little man standing there." It was Alfred Hitchcock, who had dropped by because he wanted to see Addams "in your natural bailiwick." It was no coincidence that Psycho, released in 1960, had featured an Addamsesque home for the psychopath Norman Bates. In Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Cary Grant references Charles Addams in the auction scene. Discovering Eve with Mr. Vandamm and Leonard, he says, "The three of you together. Now that's a picture only Charles Addams could draw." The filmmaker was a friend of Addams', and owned two pieces of original Addams art.

The Addams Family television series began after David Levy, a television producer, approached Addams with an offer to create it with a little help from the humorist. All Addams had to do was give his characters names and more characteristics for the actors to use in portrayals. The series ran on ABC for two seasons, from 1964 to 1966.

Sardonic by nature, Addams was also a fearful man. He suffered from claustrophobia and was deeply scared of snakes (giant snakes are a recurring theme of his work - drawn as a way of diffusing his fears). But there was always the wit. He used to answer fan mail on a letterhead inscribed "The Gotham Rest Home for Mental Defectives".

The elusive search for happiness was a theme of many of his cartoons. He replied to a priest's question about what he believed in once with the answer: "Mother Nature."

He signed all of his work Chas Addams, claiming it was "just a matter of design," that "it looks better than writing out 'Charles".

In September 1988, after having a heart attack inside his parked car (and dying later in a hospital), his third wife Marilyn (whom he had married in a pet cemetery) made a remark that could have been a caption for one of his cartoons: "He's always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go," she told The New York Times.

You can especially enjoy today by watching both The Addams Family and The Addams Family Values, both starring the late Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston.

You can also spend the day watching the entire series. I loved the humor in the show!

There is also Addams Family Reunion which stars Tim Curry (one of my favorite actors) and Darryl Hannah.

If you are looking for something macabre to make to eat, look at any Hallowe'en cookbook or website to find quite the variety. I was surprised to discover that Addams put out a cookbook, entitled Chas Addams Half-Baked Cookbook.

Hallowe'en may have been over for months now, but that doesn't mean one can't continue to scary fun! So, pop in one of the dvds I mentioned, grab the remote and settle in for some spooky fun. Creepy foods optional.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Lord of Misrule

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean's the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

Twelfth Night: Or King and Queen by Robert Herrick

In Tudor England. a King or Lord of Misrule would be appointed to run the Christmas festivities, and the Twelfth Night was the end of his period of rule. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed; masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal.

Twelfth Night is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking". However, there is currently some confusion as to which night is Twelfth Night: some count the night of Epiphany itself (sixth of January) to be Twelfth Night. In some cases December 25th is the first day of Christmas, so therefore January 5th is the 12th day.

Foods common for this day are wassail and King Cake. The cake is baked on Twelfth Night, but not consumed until January 6. The King cake contained a bean hidden inside. The person who found the bean would rule the feast the next year. Often a pea is placed inside as well, and the woman who finds it is the queen or lady for the feast.

Following such a night of merrymaking is Nollaig na mBan, or Women's Christmas, or Little Christmas Day. Whereas Christmas was marked as a time of heavy foods and whiskey, or Nollaig na bhFear, or Men's Christmas, this day is much more genteel - cake, tea, wine. The tradition, still very strong in Cork and Kerry, is so called because of the Irish men taking on all the household duties for the day.Most women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers.

In the Christian church, the day is Epiphany and it is said, "Oíche na dTrí Rithe  Deintear  fíon den  uisce, Síoda den triopall  Agus  ór den ghrean." "On the Night of the Three Kings, water becomes wine, clusters of rushes become silk, and the sand becomes gold."

The first known performance of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare was on the 2nd of February 1602, which is in fact Candlemas Day. It was a traditional festival at that time. The Elizabethans allowed time for fun and festivals to break up their long hard winters. The majority of the Elizabethans also believed in the "Lord of Misrule" and they were quite happy to do as they willed at certain times of the year to let misrule preside over the normal state of order. This echoes the very essence of the play as Twelfth Night is certainly about letting misrule appear greater in stature to controlled behaviour and the normal state of order.

Twelfth Night is full of moments that contain a very lighthearted atmosphere and this is expressed through both the main and the subplots. The main source of comedy throughout the main plot is between the complete and utter confusion of the four main characters Olivia, Orsino, Viola and Sebastian. One version you might enjoy is this one.

Another custom common to the day of Epiphany is taking down and putting away all of the Christmas decorations. One way to make this fun is by having a progressive party. Invite friends and family that live nearby, and go from one house to the next undecorating at each home. Agree ahead of time on food, but appetizers at each home would be easy and light enough.

One German tradition is choir boys dressing in white robes, carrying star topped wands and singing Christmas carols. I suspect many by this time have had their fill of Christmas carols, considering they've probably been playing in the stores and shopping malls since before Thanksgiving, but there is some fun that can be had with this. Perhaps the white robes and wands and music can all be a part of the undecorating.

Continuing along the lines of La Befana is Dia de los Tres Reyes - Three Kings Day. In Latin America, children leave straw out for the king's camels. They awaken the morning of Epiphany to find the straw gone and gifts left in its place. They know this is the work of the Magi and their hungry camels.

After Twelfth Night the Carnival season starts, which lasts through Mardi Gras. In some places such as New Orleans, Louisiana, the night of January 6 with the first Carnival celebrations is called Twelfth Night.

Let the partying begin!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Befana - The Good Witch

The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all broken
With a dress in Roman style
Up, up with the Befana!
She brings ashes and coal
To bad nasty children
To the nice good child
She brings candies and many gifts!

In Italy, Epiphany is the time of "La Befana," the legendary Good Witch of Christmas, who gives gifts to children. In European folklore the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany were the period in the year when the presence of witches was most felt. New Year's celebrations in Italian folklore included burning a straw effigy of an old woman, symbolic of the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new. Furthermore, throughout Europe, Twelfth Night was considered the most magical night of the year, as Shakespeare knew quite well ("A witchcraft drew me hither." - Antonio - Twelfth Night). And Befana with her broken shoes actually flies on a broom, another important magic symbol in a number of European cultures.

La Befana is seen as a “good witch”. She visits all of the children on the eve of January 6th, arriving on her broomstick. She is a smiling Crone who wears a black shawl covered in soot because she enters the children’s homes through the chimney. She carries a bag over her shoulder filled with candy, dried fruit, small gifts, and coal. She will fill children’s socks with the treats if they have been good, or with lumps of coal if they have been bad. Because she is a wise and tidy housekeeper, she will sweep the floor with her broom before she leaves. The children’s parents will leave La Befana an offering of thanks. This may be a glass of wine or a plate of food. Some Roman children leave her a gift of soft ricotta cheese, believing she has hardly any teeth.

The tradition of the old woman bearing gifts can be traced to the 13th century where celebrations for her arrival included dances, bonfires and songs. These festivities probably stem from the ancient tradition of gift-giving among Christians on Jan. 6 in commemoration of the Magi. The Befana was "officially" given her name during the Renaissance, through the rhymes of Tuscan poet Agnolo Firenzuola, where appeared historically for the first time in writing in a poem in 1549. She is portrayed like an old ugly woman, dressed in dark rags who during the night between 5th and 6th January flies over the houses riding her broom and entering through the chimneys (or a keyhole, if no fireplace exists).

The "coal" that she would leave to the nasty children was actually also a symbol of fertility connected to the sacred bonfires and the "ceppo".

Many people believe that the name Befana is derived from the Italians' mispronunciation of the Greek word epifania or epiphaneia. Others point to the name being a derivative of Bastrina, the gifts associated with the goddess Strina. In the book Domestic Life in Palestine, by Mary E. Rogers (Poe & Hitchcock, 1865) the author notes:

"But an 'Essay on the Fine Arts,' by E. L. Tarbuck, led me to believe that this custom is a relic of pagan worship, and that the word "Bastrina" refers to the offerings which used to be made to the goddess Strenia. We could hardly expect that the pagans who embraced Christianity could altogether abandon their former creeds and customs. Macaulay says, "Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity; the rites of the Pantheon passed into her 'worship, and the subtilties of the Academy into her creed.' Many pagan customs were adopted by the new Church. T. Hope, in his 'Essay on Architecture,' says: 'The Saturnalia were continued in the Carnival, and the festival with offerings to the goddess Strenia was continued in that of the New Year…'" – page 408

An interesting theory connects the tradition of exchanging gifts to an ancient Roman festivity in honour of Ianus and Strenia (in Italian a Christmas gift is called strenna), celebrated at the beginning of the year, when Romans used to give each other presents.

In the book Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823), the author says:

"This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year's gifts, 'Strenae,' from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character".

Also, popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn't wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds while parents are distributing candy (or coal) and sweeping the floor on Epiphany Eve.

The tradition of Befana appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year. Historian Carlo Ginzburg relates her to Nicevenn. The old lady character should then represent the old year just passed, ready to be burned in order to give place to the new one. In many European countries the tradition still exists of burning a puppet of an old lady at the beginning of the New Year, called Giubiana in Northern Italy, with clear Celtic origins. Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco, in their book Una Casa Senza Porte (House without a Door) trace Befana's origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices. The team of anthropologists also write about Befana as a figure that evolved into a goddess associated with fertility and agriculture.

In many cultures the relations between grown-ups and children is based on the observance of rules achieved through the fear of punishments and expectations of reward. To this family of figures belong the ogre and witch, transformed into the more positive figures of Santa Claus and the Befana. As a testimonial of this connection, here is an old Italian lullaby that goes:

"Ninnaò, ninnaò,
who will I give this child to
if I give it to the Befana
she will keep him one whole week
if I give it to the Bogey Man
he will keep him one whole year
but if the child goes to sleep
then his mother will him keep" 

Parents can use the wise and generous crone La Befana to give more personal, meaningful gifts. On the night of January 5th, let your children hang their socks from the mantle of your fireplace, or anywhere you might hang your stockings. Make goodies together for La Befana, like homemade cookies. After your children have fallen asleep, fill their socks with healthy snacks like fresh fruit and raisins and small, inexpensive gifts, like those from a dollar store.

Make some coal candy, either together, or on your own, if you have that kind of fun family and can leave it in the stockings without anyone getting upset.

There are several recipes out there, and I will admit I have not yet tried to make this. All I lack is some of the black paste food coloring.

Coal Candy

2 c. sugar
3/4 c. light corn syrup
1/2 c. water
1 t. mint extract
1/2 t. black paste food coloring

Line 8-inch square baking pan with foil, extending edges over sides of pan. Lightly grease foil with butter; set aside. Measure sugar, corn syrup and water into heavy 2-quart saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until sugar is dissolved and mixture comes to a boil, being careful not to splash sugar mixture on side of pan. Carefully clip candy thermometer to side of pan (do not let bulb touch bottom of pan).
Cook about 15 minutes until thermometer registers 290°F, without stirring. Immediately remove from heat. Stir in extract and food coloring. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Cool completely.
Lift candy out of pan using foil; remove foil. Place candy between 2 layers of heavy-duty foil. Pound with mallet to break candy into 1- to 2-inch pieces.

Many of the recipes call for anise extract instead of mint; one even suggested orange flavoring. I think I'll stick with mint.

Just be sure to make this fun. Let La Befana’s more gentle and loving approach show us how the world could use a little bit of her magic.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What A Grimm Day!

Today is the birthday of Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm. Grimm was born in Hanau, in Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel). He was a German philologist, jurist and mythologist. However, what you may know him best is as one of the Brothers Grimm, as the editor of Grimm's Fairy Tales. It was in Hesse that Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm, both law students, were persuaded to study ancient German folklore. Among the best-known story tellers of folk tales from Europe, the brothers collected, wrote, and compiled hundreds of folk tales, many from Hesse including the enchanted Rheinhardswald, the fairytale forest, which is part of the largest forestry area in Germany.

What a fun day to celebrate! You could, of course, watch The Brothers Grimm starring Heath Ledger and Matt Damon.

Most likely I'll watch Grimm on On Demand. Okay, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Jacob or Wilhelm Grimm, but I like the show!

There are several foods to choose from. Remember those gingerbread houses you made last month? The gingerbread house became popular in Germany after the Brothers Grimm published their fairy tale collection which included "Hansel and Gretel" in the 19th century. Early German settlers brought this lebkuchenhaeusle - gingerbread house - tradition to the Americas.

For something completely different, try some green sauce on your potatoes.  A favorite in Frankfurt, Hesse is this sauce made from borage, chervil, cress, parsley, burnet, sorrel, and chives that's often served with hard boiled eggs.

Grüne Sosse (Green Sauce)

1/2 c. plain vegan yogurt
1 c. vegan sour cream (schmand)
1 T. lemon juice
1 small onion, finely diced
1 1/2 c. finely chopped herbs, see hints below
1/2 t. sugar
salt, pepper

Mix everything together in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and mix well. Cover and put in fridge for at least 1 hour. Serve cold with potatoes cooked in their skins.

Use vinegar instead of lemon juice.
Replace sour cream with vegan mayonnaise.
Use any combination of herbs. Traditional herbs are borage, chervil, cress, parsley, burnet, sorrel, and chives. You can also include dill, tarragon, and/or lovage.
Omit onion if desired.

Have some French toast.  The earliest official mention of French toast may have been in the Apicius, a collection of Latin recipes dating back to the 4th or 5th century, but The Brothers Grimm mention it as Arme Ritter in the Deutsches Wörterbuch, quoting from the Buch von guter Spyse, which dates back to the 14th century.

The Brothers Grimm collected and retold the fairy tale in Das Märchen vom Schlaraffenland (The Tale About the Land of Cockaigne). Cockaigne or Cockayne is a medieval mythical land of plenty, an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist. While the first recorded use of the name are the Latin "Cucaniensis", and the Middle English "Cokaygne", one line of reasoning has the name tracing to Middle French (pays de) cocaigne "(land of) plenty the German equivalent is Schlaraffenland (also known as "land of milk and honey".

To celebrate the *land of plenty*, how about a dish with an abundance of vegetables?

Zesty Veggies

4 medium unpeeled red potatoes, sliced ¼-inch thick
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ¼-inch diagonal slices
2 T. chopped green onion
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
1 T. vegan butter, melted
1 T. Dijon mustard with a little agave nectar mixed in
½ t. caraway seed, crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Add potatoes to boiling water and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add carrots, cover and continue cooking until vegetables are just tender, about 7-10 minutes longer. After adding the carrots, combine remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Place the cooked vegetables in a serving bowl, add the remaining ingredients, toss gently to coat, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if necessary, and serve immediately.

Germans believe Der Zweck einer MahlzeitDessert, or the purpose of a meal is dessert. The Black Forest is 4,600 square miles of woodland in the southwest corner of Germany, not far from France and Switzerland. The name came from the Romans because very little light shone through the trees. The Black Forest is so dark and mysterious that much of Germany's folklore, including many of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales comes from the area.

Consider making a Black Forest Cake! You can find a recipe for it here. I'll admit I've never made one before, but if I can veganize it, I will!

So have some fun with The Brothers Grimm today. And just think, you can do it all over again on February 24 - Wilhelm Grimm's birthday!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Celebrate J.R.R. Tolkien's Birthday!

On the 3rd of January, 1892, JRR Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. To celebrate this event, on this day each year Tolkien fans around the world are invited to raise a glass and toast the birthday of this much loved author.

The toast is "The Professor".

For those unfamiliar with British toast-drinking ceremonies:
To make the Birthday Toast, you stand, raise a glass of your choice of drink (not necessarily alcoholic), and say the words 'The Professor' before taking a sip (or swig, if that's more appropriate for your drink). Sit and enjoy the rest of your drink.

You can celebrate the birthday of Tolkien by dressing as your favorite Hobbit, elf, wizard or other character from one of his amazing novels and inviting friends and family to watch the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Make sure you watch the extended versions! I've never been one to care for extended editions, but this time it is definitely worth it! And be sure to have Middle Earth themed foods!

An excellent cookbook for finding recipes all things Middle Earth is Regional Cooking From Middle Earth: Recipes of the Third Age by Emerald Took.

 Enjoy the day!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Today is National Science Fiction Day!

Today is the birthday of Isaac Asimov, and in honor of this day, scifi geeks all over have designated it National Science Fiction Day.

According to Wikipedia, Isaac Asimov; born Isaak Yudovich Ozimov, (c. January 2, 1920–April 6, 1992) was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. His works have been published in all ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System (although his only work in the 100s—which covers philosophy and psychology—was a foreword for The Humanist Way). Asimov is widely considered a master of hard science fiction and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, he was considered one of the "Big Three" science fiction writers during his lifetime.

The prolific Asimov also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as much non-fiction. Most of his popular science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms.

Asimov was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as "brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs." He took more joy in being president of the American Humanist Association. The asteroid 5020 Asimov, a crater on the planet Mars, a Brooklyn, New York elementary school, and one Isaac Asimov literary award are named in his honor.

So how can you celebrate this day?

You could pay tribute to Isaac Asimov and pick up one of his books and start reading it today. Or you could check out one of the film adaptations. I, Robot is one.

The film I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was released by Twentieth Century Fox on July 16, 2004 in the United States. Its plot incorporates elements of "Little Lost Robot," some of Asimov's character's names and the Three Laws. However the plot of the movie is mostly original work based on the Three Laws.

I, Robot is a collection of nine science fiction short stories by Isaac Asimov. The book also contains the short story in which Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics first appear. Those of you familiar with The Big Bang Theory may recognize the three laws from this episode clip.
1.A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3.A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

And, of course, my favorite show Doctor Who (and my favorite doctor!) featured a four-part serial in 1977 titled "The Robots of Death". The titular robots were controlled by three laws, taken almost verbatim from Asimov. The story plays out much like the Elijah Baley mysteries, in which a murder has been committed, and a robot seems to have been directly or indirectly involved (contrary to the requirements of three-law programming). You can watch the entire episode here.

If that doesn't interest you, check out your local movie theatre and see if any new science fiction movies are playing or see if any are available for rent at places like Blockbuster, Redbox or Netflix.

You could even go all out and dress up as one of your favorite science fiction characters and lose yourself in a world of make believe for a day.

How about creating your own science fiction food? I think on my menu tonight we will be having Klaatu Burgers.

One veggie burger patty of your choice
One large onion

Peel the onion and slice. Grill your burger patty. Eat!

Whatever you decide to do today, I'm sure you'll make Isaac Asimov proud. Have fun!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Whew! 2011 was a pretty good year for me, but I'm never sad to see a year end. I always view the new year as a time for celebration; a time for new beginnings.

After watching the awesome fireworks display we are usually treated with in our neighborhood, we start each new year off with our favorite First Footer crossing our threshold after midnight.

Yes, it is my gorgeous son - tall, dark and handsome! He walks through the front door with alcohol in hand (traditionally whiskey, but we use whatever we have, which in our case is typically wine!), usually some shortbread and a firestarter. To ensure good luck for the house for the year ahead the actual first footer into a home should be a dark haired male carrying these gifts. The symbolism of these items is:

a lump of coal (firestarter) - for a year of warmth and health
shortbread - for a year of plenty
whiskey (or wine!) - for a year of jollity and not melancholy

My family and any attendant guests then toast the new year with our hopes for what we'd like to see coming our way. My standard toast is Health, Wealth and Happiness!

On the actual New Year's Day itself, we dine on traditional foods of black eyed peas and collards. The peas are said to bring prosperity and the greens money. This year I added red cabbage to the mix.

You can find the recipes here.

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
~T.S. Eliot

May this new year bring your everything you desire!
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