Some have Entertained Angels Unawares

Some_Have_Entertained_Angels_Unawares

Welcome to Concordia. It is a feast day of the Ancient Roman calendar falling on the 22nd of February, in which folks reconciled their differences over a good meal. That’s it, pure and simple: A gathering around the table with the purpose of breaking bread and sharing wine in order to make amends and to settle all disputes that cause discord. Harmony is the goal.

I’ve used this image before, but tonight, for some reason, it strikes me as particularly poignant. It’s a watercolor by Edward Clifford, and I’ve named today’s Book of Days post after it, for I love the painting and the idea behind it. You never know who you’re talking to… so why not strive for harmony as often as possible?

Image: “Some have Entertained Angels Unawares” by Edward Clifford. Watercolor, late 19th century. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Woof! It’s the Year of the Dog

Welcome to the Year of the Dog: Chinese Lunar New Year begins today. It’s the most important holiday of the year in the Chinese tradition. The new year is a long celebration that begins with a reunion meal on New Year’s Eve (that was last night, the 15th of February) and runs this year through to the 2nd of March, which is Lantern Festival. There are traditions for each of the days in between, traditions which vary across cultures within China. But certain things are common throughout the new year festival: the color red, an astonishing amount of exploding fireworks, gifts of money in red envelopes, and an abundance of good food.

As for Dogs (at least in terms of people born in Dog years), it is believed that they share some general characteristics. They make great friends, and are always ready to lend a hand. They are very loyal, not just to friends, but to family and work, as well. They are honest and just. They are often popular, despite a healthy dose of worry and anxiety that they hide from others. Be that as it may, they are resolute, and can typically overcome their worries once they decide to do something. Dogs are very compatible with Rabbits, Tigers, and Horses. Oxen and Goats, not so much. Dragons, like me, clash strongly with Dogs. Neither trusts each other and intense arguments are likely (apparently, I’ve never met a Dog). There are five elements associated with the years of the Chinese Zodiac––Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth. This year is the year of the Earth Dog, the first time since 1958.

Besides being Chinese New Year, it is also Losar, the Tibetan New Year festival. Seth’s parents are Buddhist. For Losar, they have cleaned the house and cleaned the shrine room. The cleaning is part of the preparation for the new year, especially in the kitchen, where special foods are made for the celebration, much like they are for Chinese New Year. This is, as well, a time to visit friends and relatives and to buy new clothes, settle debts, and resolve disputes. The prayer flags are replaced at Losar, too, with new prayer flags that will flutter in the wind… but my in-laws are in Maine, and Doreen says it’s too snowy to get out there to change the flags. We need to be practical about things, after all. The old prayer flags still are prayers, still just as beautiful in all that snowy pine forest. If it was up to me, I’d wait to change the flags, too. Once Lunar New Year is here, spring, we know, can’t be all that far away.

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A F T E R W O R D
Sometimes, as the events of a day unfold, the things I write about seem terribly unimportant. Really. I write about food and booze and the proper time to take down your Christmas tree. But this is what I do, and so I do it. I began writing this chapter about Chinese Lunar New Year at 3 in the afternoon on Wednesday, Valentine’s Day. I was having two new tires put on the car, so I sat on the sidewalk outside the tire shop and I got to work. Between the time I began and the time I had finished the first paragraph, a kid with a semi-automatic weapon took 17 lives in a high school in the neighboring county. This is not the way things are supposed to be.

In 1982, I graduated from Deerfield Beach High School, 14 miles due east from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. My niece went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the mid aughts. I worried about a lot of things in high school, and I’m sure Stephanie did, too, but neither of us ever worried that we might be shot in school. A lot has changed since then and much of it makes little sense. We have brought this terror upon ourselves and worse, upon our children, and they suffer through our debate. I suspect nothing will be done, not by us, not now. We are, sadly, entrenched in a period in this country of neither reason nor hope, and there seems little chance of the discord being bridged. My hope, though, is that our kids will have the spine to do what we will not.

 

Top image: A dragon puppet that we stumbled upon at this year’s South Florida Fair at the Palm Beach County Fairgrounds west of West Palm Beach. It is a Dog Year, but dragons are common symbols of the new year, and this dragon wound up being the cover star of our Convivio Book of Days Calendar for February this year.

 

Love & Lent

It’s Valentine’s Day and it’s also the first day of Lent. That’s one of the dangers of a February holiday like Valentine’s Day: sometimes it falls on a fasting day. A really nice dinner is a traditional part of many Valentine’s Day celebrations; sometimes, like this year, Lent shows up as an unwelcome guest at the table. Whether you fast or not is up to you. I certainly won’t say anything.

Nonetheless, with the passing of Fat Tuesday, the excess of Carnival is done. It’s now Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a forty day journey of penitence, fasting, and almsgiving. The idea of abstaining from meat and things of the flesh (milk, cheese, eggs) during Lent was instituted by Pope Gregory in the late 6th century as a way of helping his flock prepare for Easter and the miracle of spring by mirroring Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the desert. But although it is a season of denial imposed by religious belief, the fact is that in earlier times this was a season of scarcity in general. Folks did their best each fall during harvest time to store away food and provisions to last through the winter, but by this time of year, these things were beginning to get scarce. The salted meat would be running low, the eggs running out. There’s not much to gather in the wild and not much is growing yet in the fields. In the Northern Hemisphere, we are just beginning at this point to spring out of winter. In times past, if you were lucky, you’d still have a decent quantity of flour in the barrel and a good store of dried beans, root vegetables, and dried fruits and nuts and hopefully some salted fish. Even without a decree from the Pope, some fasting would almost always be necessary to get your family through the remaining weeks of winter.

As I mentioned in the Book of Days chapter two days ago, titled “Fat Tuesday,” the traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. He is in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones. She is known as La Vecchia. Her time gets the name Quaresima, which sounds so much more lovely than our stark English word Lent. Sometimes La Vecchia takes the form of a baked loaf of bread in the shape of a skinny old woman with seven legs. One leg is broken off with each passing Sunday of Lent, a calendar of sorts, marking the passage of this spare season.

Nowadays, most Catholics simply abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Restrictions have loosened a lot over the years, perhaps in direct proportion with our abilities to keep food on the table at all times of the year. The restrictions are mostly now just symbolic. But the custom we have of dyeing eggs at Easter comes directly out of the old ways of Lent: folks were so excited to welcome eggs back into their daily diet each spring, they celebrated by dyeing them with natural dyes like beetroot, chamomile flowers, red cabbage, and onion skins. I still like dyeing eggs with these things of nature.

Being a time of spare solemness, it is not surprising that there are not many celebratory foods that accompany Lent. There is one, however: The humble pretzel. At their most basic, pretzels are made with just three ingredients, all Lenten-friendly: flour, salt, and water. It is thought that the name “pretzel” is derived from the Latin bracellae: “little arms,” essentially, evoking the prayer posture of early Christians, who prayed with their arms crossed over the chest. Go ahead, try it right now, then look down at your chest: class pretzel shape. This penitential bread––again, so common nowadays so as to be nothing special––has a history that goes back many many centuries. The first pretzels were thought to be made in the 6th century. Some historians think they go back three centuries more.

Connexions like these are, I think, so fascinating. That a common pretzel can have such interesting roots (and deep ones, at that) and mark our celebratory days (or penitential ones, in this case) is such a wonderful thing.

Love is at the heart of our table no matter the meal or the season, even in the humble dishes that make up our meals during Lent. Perhaps there is no better Valentine’s Day than one that falls on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are made from the earth and to earth we shall return. The time is short. Ash Wednesday is, at its core, a day to remember the brevity of things and to understand that we are here to love and to lift each other up. These forty days of Lent are a good time, I feel, to focus not on what we deprive ourselves, but on what we can do to enrich the lives of others. So go on: Love with all your might.

 

Image: “La Quaresima Saggia” by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. Engraving, c.17th century. The haggard old woman of Lent, trodding upon the remnants of Carnevale, framed by the foods of her season: fish and snails, onions and other root crops, beans, and I’m pretty sure those are cardoon stalks at the top right.