Carnevale

This past weekend marked the beginning of the Carnival Season in Venice. Carnevale, as it is called there, is a time of masks and intrigue and high Baroque fashion. This year it is a bit later than usual; Carnevale is a moveable celebration based on the timing of Lent, which is based on the timing of Easter… all of which is based on lunar events, even within our solar-based calendar. And so Lent, which typically begins in February, won’t begin this year until March 6th, making March 5th Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras: the conclusion and height of Carnevale.

Carnevale in Italy has its connections to celebrations of the new year, which, for the early Romans, was the First of March. The costumes and the masks come out of this tradition, for they were part of the Roman New Year celebration. The old year was dying, the new one being born. Out of that chaos came a festival of excess, and masks provided anonymity. The Romans eventually moved the start of the year to January 1, but old habits die hard: The costumes and the masks then and now give us license to be whomever we wish, at least for a little while. And the costumes and masks of Venice are, I think, the most beautiful of all Carnival finery.

It is a time of clearing out the larder, for Lent will bring sacred restrictions on food. Nowadays, of course, the restrictions of Lent are pretty easy: the only hard and fast rule is no meat on Fridays. In times past, though, Lent was indeed a time of serious fasting: no meat, no eggs, no fun, no nothing. The provisions had to be used up before Lent and so that, too, was part of Carnevale’s excess. The Carnival Season became a time of feasting to use up all the sausages, all the eggs, all the things that would be banned for the somber forty days to come. But the fast was as much a common sense strategy as a religious ceremony: by late winter, provisions that were stored up were beginning to dwindle; a time of restriction and fasting helped insure the populace would make it through to spring, when fresh food would once again be available.

The elaborate costumes of a Venetian Carnevale go hand in hand with the traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy, which is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. The Baroque costumes and the plump man ringed with sausages are both in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones. She’ll come soon enough. For now, we celebrate. Traditional festive foods for Carnevale vary throughout Italy, but many, especially the sweets, are fried. It is even thought that the ever popular Cannoli, the Italian dessert known around the world, originated as a Carnevale treat from Sicily. A simpler Carnevale recipe to try, and a favorite throughout Italy at this time of year, is Chiacciere. They take their name from the Italian for gossip, or small talk, but we’re talking here not about gossip but about strips of lemon-scented dough, fried crisp and dusted with confectioners’ sugar. You’ll find many recipes online for Chiacciere through a web search. My sister is making some next week; we’ll be enjoying them, and if you are, too, let us know!

 

Image: Venice Carnival 2011, photograph by Petra Abendroth. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Hearts, & Your February Book of Days

The 8th of February and here, finally, comes your Convivio Book of Days calendar for the month! It is, as usual, a PDF document, printable on standard US Letter size paper. Half the red letter days of the month have already passed, I’m afraid, and what’s next is Valentine’s Day… and just so you know, we have so many delightfully odd Valentine gift ideas for you in our Convivio Book of Days Catalog. If you see something you like, order today or this weekend and you’ll have it in time for the big day. We ship via US Priority Mail, which takes two days to most destinations in the States. Spend $50 and we’ll even pay your shipping on domestic orders.

All that being said, you have my apologies for the belatedness. It’s been busy as all get out, mostly with things at work––markets, workshops, gallery concerts––and admittedly all things of my own doing. As a result, not only is the month’s calendar late, but I’ve also missed writing to you about St. Blaise’s Day, when throats are blessed, and St. Agatha’s Day, when we eat cream filled pastries that make us blush a bit, for they are meant to evoke a certain aspect of the female anatomy and it is hard to see them and to eat them, remembering that it was the chaste nuns of Sicily who first began making these delicacies centuries ago. And I missed writing to you about the Year of the Pig, this new year in the Chinese Lunar New Year cycle, although last night we celebrated––my mom and sister and Seth and me––at the beckoning of Joy, of Joy Noodles in West Palm Beach. We had her New Year dumplings and I had a pork soup that was Joy’s grandmother’s recipe, and we finished our meal with custard buns made of rice flour that looked like round little pigs. All this and yet February is not one of my favorite months. I have a lot to learn, I think, if I am to come to love it again. I keep busy busy busy and yet in the back of my mind I remember things like the 7th was the night two years ago that Seth and I sat in a box at the Kravis Center with friends listening to Rachmaninoff and Berlioz, even though my thoughts were elsewhere, with my dad in his hospital room. It was the night I first thought that maybe he would not make it through this ordeal. And today, the 8th, I will have to keep thoughts at bay that remind me that this is the night two years ago that I last spoke to him; the night we all kissed him goodnight and told him we loved him, and who knew then that that would be our last time to say these things?

I look back and I’m glad we did say them. We are not, by and large, a family that does. We are mostly loud (not me, so much… but these are my people) and a bit rough around the edges and not terribly emotional, at least not in obvious ways. We express our emotions through the kitchen and the table and we yell across the house at each other, just in conversation, and we often sound mad even when we are not. I would most likely never tell my family that I am thinking the things I think––keeping track in my mind of where I was on this date or another in Dad’s journey––but they’ll read it here, of course, and they, I imagine, will understand. I don’t need to tell them these things face to face. They know I ponder things a lot and turn thoughts over in my head and that I don’t talk much. Still, they love me as I am. They understand me, and I understand them. We are a terribly loyal bunch. We all miss Dad a lot. And we all continue doing what we do as best we can. This is what this time of year brings for me, and for them, too, I know, and perhaps for some of you, as well, for your own reasons––for the people that you miss, too. Which is all amazingly ok. We always have been and always will be well.

The cut and sewn paper hearts illustrating this month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar are by Merike Van Zanten.

 

The Bridge: Winter to Spring

Even in our contemporary, mostly urban, not so agrarian age, as distanced as we’ve become from nature and its rhythms, still, we have a pretty good understanding of the seasons. We know about solstices, we know about equinoxes, we know when spring has come and summer, fall, and winter. But we have, in general, lost touch with some handy units of measure: the cross quarter days. The cross quarter days mark the approximate halfway point between solstice and equinox. If we think of the year as a clock, and if we place the December solstice at 12 and the June solstice at 6, and if we place the March equinox at 3 and the September equinox at 9… well, we can divide things a little further and place the four cross quarter days at 1:30, 4:30, 7:30, and 10:30.

Traditionally, the cross quarter days are marked by holydays/holidays. The one we most recently celebrated was at the end of October and start of November: Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day––the Days of the Dead. We were approaching winter; life was descending below the earth. As February begins, we reach the next period of cross quarter days, marked by St. Brigid’s Day on the 1st and on the 2nd, Candlemas and Groundhog Day. This period marks the first stirrings of earth’s awakening on the approach to spring. Winter still has a firm grip, to be sure (it was 28 below zero at my aunt’s house in Illinois just last night)… but one thing to keep in mind with these traditional ways of reckoning time is they are always a small step ahead of the game. In this reckoning, the equinox in March will mark the height of spring… and so spring’s beginnings start here, as January melts into February. St. Brigid, sacred to Ireland and second in stature there only to St. Patrick, is honored on the First of the month. In the older earthbound religions, the day honors the Celtic goddess Brigid and brings the season of Imbolc. As the goddess goes, the old crone of winter is reborn now as the young maiden, for this is a time of renewal. The seeds that were planted beneath the earth last fall are preparing to bring forth lush green life, once spring truly arrives.

If you’ve been holding on to Christmas, this is the time to let it go. In some traditions, tonight marks the end of the Christmas season. Indeed, it is considered bad luck to have any remnants of Christmas greenery in the house beyond Candlemas Eve, which also comes this first night of February. Candlemas is the day that candles are blessed in the church, but it is also known as Purification Day, which harkens back to an old Hebrew tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, women would go to the temple to be purified. Again, renewal. And so Mary did this, for it was her tradition, and when she did, it was there at the temple that she and her infant child ran into the elders Simeon and Anna, who recognized the child as “the Light of the World.” Spring may be coming as we find ourselves forty days past midwinter, but the darkness of those darkest nights still closely lingers, and that light is still a powerful metaphor. One of my favorite Candlemas traditions is to go through the house at sunset, lighting every lamp, even for just a few minutes. Follow that with a meal of crepes (a European Candlemas tradition) or tamales and hot chocolate (the tradition in Mexico). One of the finest songs for this day and for those who follow these ways is an old carol called “Jesus, the Light of the World.” Candlemas is an old weather marker, too. As the old saying goes: If the sun shines bright on Candlemas day / The half of the winter’s not yet away. And while Candlemas itself is not paid much attention these days here in the States, this remnant of the day remains in our tradition of Groundhog Day.

The photo above is of St. Brigid’s Well at Cullion, County Westmeath, in Ireland. The cross above the name is a St. Brigid’s Cross, and it is traditional on her day to fashion crosses in this shape from reeds. Photograph by Laineylee [2015, Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons].