Saint Andrew’s Day

November 30th is the feast day of Saint Andrew, best known in the UK as the patron saint of Scotland.  It marks the first of a series of Scottish winter celebrations, which continues with Christmas, Hogmanay and Burns Night.

Like other festivals in Scotland, St Andrew’s day is marked by a celebration of Scottish culture – traditional food, music and dance.  The very sociable Ceilidh dancing is popular, with large events being held around St Andrew’s Day in major Scottish cities, especially Edinburgh and Glasgow.

While the day has been celebrated by Scottish people for many years, in recent times it has taken on a more official status, largely due to the increased political autonomy that Scotland has enjoyed with its devolved government.  The day has officially been a public holiday in Scotland for ten years.  In 2002, the Scottish parliament passed a law stating that all public and government buildings would fly the flag of Saint Andrew (known as the saltire) on 30th November, and this has become a very noticeable element of the way the date is marked.  One notable (and controversial) exception to this rule is Edinburgh Castle, which continues to fly the Union Jack due to it being the base for a detachment of the British Army.

Like most patron saints, the links between Saint Andrew and Scotland are rather complex.  The saint himself is one of the twelve disciples of Jesus named in the New Testament, and according to legend subsequently preached the Christian message in South Eastern Europe.  He is said to have founded the first cathedral in Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and also preached throughout Ukraine, Romania and Southern Russia (he is the patron saint of all of these countries).  Legends state that he was martyred for his Christian beliefs in the city of Patras, Greece, where he is said to have been crucified on an X-shaped cross.  Traditionally, it is believed that he insisted on this as he felt himself unworthy to be executed on the same type of cross as Jesus (although this tradition did not really become established until several centuries later).  The shape of that cross (saltire) became the symbol of Saint Andrew, which is why it is used on the flags of countries that have him as their patron, including Scotland.  According to legend, his bones were collected after death as relics by a local monk and he set out to take them to “the ends of the world” to protect them.  Sailing West towards the edge of the known world, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland and the relics were brought ashore and kept at the town that now bears the name Saint Andrews.  Another tradition says that the relics of Saint Andrew were actually brought to Scotland by a bishop who was a keen collector of relics.  However it happened, it is almost certain that bones believed to be the saint’s relics did reach Scotland, and are still kept at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh.  Veneration of such an important saint began soon afterwards.  In 832 AD, a Scottish leader by the name of Oengus II was set to fight a battle against the Angles.  The night before, he prayed to the saint and promised that if he won he would designate Saint Andrew as Scotland’s patron saint.  The following morning, pure white clouds were said to have appeared in the shape of an X in the blue sky and, despite being heavily outnumbered, Oengus’s army was victorious.  As promised, he named Saint Andrew patron saint, and the white X-shaped cross on a blue background has been the flag of Scotland since that day.

Like many biblical and early Christian figures, the life of Saint Andrew is shrouded in legend and conflicting traditions.  But regardless of actual historical events, there is no doubt that the name of Saint Andrew and, especially, the saltire flag have been an important part of Scotland’s national identity for many centuries.  It is fitting that his feast day on 30th November will be a time when Scots can celebrate their cultural traditions and proudly fly the flag.

This was a guest post from my amazing husband, Ian Braisby, Blue Badge Tourist Guide

Related posts: St David’s Day    St George’s Day    St Patrick’s Day

The Story of the Dragon Nian

Once upon a time in China there lived a terrifying dragon called Nian. His home was under the sea, but once a year, on New Year’s Eve, he came to a nearby village where he ate their grain, their livestock and any young children who happened to be outdoors.

Not surprisingly, the terrified villagers used to run and hide in the mountains on this date leaving their homes behind.

One year a wise old man visited the village just as the villagers were fleeing, and he asked them why they were leaving. “The terrible dragon is coming!” they said. “You must come and hide with us for he may eat you.”

The old man said he wasn’t afraid and that he knew how to deal with the dragon, and so he stayed behind in the village.

When the villagers returned there was no sign of Nian, and amazingly their grain and animals were untouched. The old man said that he couldn’t protect the village every year, but he could show them how to protect themselves. “The secret,” he said, “is that the Dragon is frightened of the colour red and of loud sounds and bright lights.”

Now every New Year, the Chinese dress up in red clothes, hang red decorations in their doors and windows, and they set off fire crackers so that the noise and the lights will scare away the Dragon.

It must work because the dragon Nian has never been seen again since this wise old man’s visit.

Related post: Chinese New Year

Qi Xi Festival

hearts and flowers white

The QiXi festival is known by several other names, including the Double Seventh Festival, Qiqiao, Chinese Valentine and the Festival of Young Girls. It is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, which this year is today, 20th August 2015.

It celebrates the legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu, and for this reason it has come to be associated with love and romance.

Traditionally the festival was a time when young girls would pray for good skills in needlework which would help them to find a good husband. They have various sewing competitions, such as making things and threading needles as quickly as possible by moonlight or candlelight.

One custom is to drop a needle into water. If it floats the girl is already highly skilled at needlework; if it sinks she needs more practice. Another is for 7 close female friends to make dumplings together. They place a needle, a copper coin and a date into three of the dumplings and then eat them. Whoever finds the needle with be blessed with good needlework skills. The girl who finds the coin will be wealthy, and the one who finds the date will have an early marriage.

In some parts of China, children would hang flowers from the horns of oxen to celebrate the old ox in the legend.

Today the festival is heavily influenced by western traditions and so it is celebrated in the same way as St Valentine’s Day, with flowers and chocolates being exchanged.

Related post: Chinese New Year

The legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu

starsLong, long ago there lived a poor cowherd, named Niu lang. He had no parents and so lived with his older brother and sister-in-law who treated him very badly, until one day they drove him from the house completely.

As he was sitting alone and wondering what to do an old man came by and told him of a sick ox which needed tending. Niu Lang travelled far and wide and over mountains until he came upon the ox. He fed it and looked after it for a whole month until it was healthy again. The ox then began talking to Niu Lang, and said that he wasn’t really and ox, but a god who had been banished from heaven.

In the meantime Zhi Nu, the daughter of a goddess, escaped from heaven where she felt life was boring, and came to earth seeking new adventures. With the help of the ox, Niu Lang and Zhi Nu met and fell in love. They married and had two children, and lived a very happy life together, until one day the King of the Heavens discovered what had happened and ordered Zhi Nu back to heaven.

Niu Lang pined without her, but the ox had a solution. He ordered Niu Lang to kill him and wear his hide as this would enable him to get to heaven to find Zhi Nu again. Crying, Niu Lang did this and took the two children to heaven. Just as he was about to reach Zhi Nu, the Queen of the Heavens appeared, and taking a silver clip from her hair she scratched the sky to form a deep and wide river between the two lovers, separating them forever.

But the story didn’t end there, because all of the magpies on earth took pity on them and they flew to heaven and created a bridge across the river so that the two lovers could meet again. On seeing this, the goddess relented and permitted the couple to meet once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month.

This legend is now celebrated as the Chinese Qi Xi festival on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month.

As with many legends, they are inspired by the skies. The river that separates the lovers is the Milky Way, and the couple are represented by the stars Altair (Niu Lang) and Vega (Zhi Nu) which appear on either side of the Milky Way. Two smaller stars close to Altair were said to be their children.

Who was Good King Wenceslaus?

This is another guest post from my fabulous husband, Ian. Ian is a German to English translator and a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Good King Wenceslaus – The Story Behind the Carol.

We all know the popular Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”.  It’s a lively, jaunty tune with words that, although not about the biblical Christmas story, are about the spirit of generosity and friendship that the season is supposed to be all about.

But did you know there is a real story behind the song?  Or that Good King Wenceslas was a real person?

The real “Good King Wenceslas” is generally thought to have been Wenceslaus I (or Vaclav I in Czech), Duke of Bohemia, and reigned from 921 to 935 AD.  He was called a king in the legend (and the modern carol) because the Holy Roman Emperor gave him a royal title after his death in recognition of his good works.

As the title of the song suggests, he was certainly known as a good ruler, and a good man.  From early in his life, he was known as a humble, intelligent and educated young man and also as a devout Christian.  Despite ruling at a very turbulent time in Central European history, with numerous wars and alliances between the many fragmented states in the region, Wenceslaus acquired a reputation as a peaceful and benevolent ruler.  He was keen to establish Christianity in his lands, and built a new church dedicated to St Vitus in his capital, Prague.  This church became St Vitus Cathedral, which remains one of the biggest visitor attractions in the Czech Capital’s castle district to this day, and houses the remains of Wenceslaus at the good king’s shrine.

Despite his reputation, Wenceslaus alienated other members of the Bohemian ruling classes through his political alliances, including members of his own family.  A plot was hatched to remove him from power, with his brother Boleslav and other nobles at the centre of it, and in 935 AD Wenceslaus was murdered on his way to church.  Boleslav then succeeded him as Duke of Bohemia.

After his death, Wenceslaus soon started to become venerated as a saint and martyr.  Several biographies of him were produced, all of them emphasising his benevolent nature and his murder by a power-hungry court faction led by his own brother.  Stories of his good works were exaggerated to become legends.  And that is where the story immortalised in the carol comes in.

Later Christian chroniclers wrote of how Wenceslaus would rise every night from his bed and, accompanied by only one of his retainers, would walk barefoot – regardless of weather conditions, and I know from experience it can be brutally cold in Prague in the autumn and winter – to local churches, where he would give money, food, clothing and other kinds of assistance to widows, the poor, prisoners and others of his subjects in need.  These legends were the basis for him becoming a saint.  The cult of Wenceslaus was, naturally, especially prevalent in his native Bohemia, but he was also a popular saint in England.

The modern carol was written by John Mason Neale in 1853.  His lyrics are said to be based on a Czech poem about the good deeds of Wenceslaus.  The familiar tune is based on a medieval spring hymn, which had totally different words.  The reference to the “feast of Stephen” (St Stephen’s Day, 26th December) has no real link to the life or legend of Wenceslaus, with the saint’s day falling on September 28th, although of course there are parallels between the Duke’s charitable actions and the generosity associated with Christmas.  My suspicion is that the author used that reference to make his song one that could be sung at Christmas time!  Neale’s work has been heavily criticised for its sentimentality and Victorian moralising, but the carol remains hugely popular to this day.

Giving alms to poor people is just one of the legends associated with Wenceslaus in the Czech Republic, where his former Dukedom of Bohemia is now located.  In actual fact he is a kind of King Arthur figure for the Czech people, a medieval monarch with mythical status.  Legend maintains that an army of knights lies sleeping under a mountain in the country and, when the Czech people are in greatest need, they will rise up led by Wenceslaus and ride to save the nation.

Whether or not Wenceslaus was as generous and selfless as the legends and the carol suggest, there is no doubt that he is a key figure in Czech history.  If you ever go to Prague, you can find plenty of evidence of him.  A statue of him on horseback stands on the square that bears his name, one of the main squares in the centre of the modern Czech capital.  His armour and helmet are on display in Prague Castle, and his shrine can be visited in St Vitus Cathedral.  Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has its national public holiday on St Wenceslaus Day, September 28th.

So next time you are at a carol service and hear the famous melody, and join in with John Mason Neale’s words, remember that the man you’re singing about was a real person whose life and works have been celebrated for over a thousand years.

Related posts:  Who was St Nicholas?  Who was Babushka?  Who was La Befana?