Noche de los Rábanos

Believe it or not, in Mexico there is a festival dedicated to radishes!

Known as the Noche de los Rábanos, the festival takes place on the 23rd of December in Oaxaca City. It begins at sunset and lasts for just a few hours, during which time visitors can wander through the streets admiring ornately carved radishes.

Nobody knows why this festival came into being, but it dates back to 1897 and was the idea of the mayor at that time. One suggestion is that it is reminiscent of when the Spanish brought radishes to Mexico in 16th century. Two local monks encouraged the locals to cultivate and sell them. To entice people to their market stalls, the sellers carved some of the radishes into interesting shapes.

Contestants of the modern day festival have to register months in advance to be able to take part. Although they can plan their designs well in advance, they have to be carved on the day itself because the radishes start to wilt after just a few hours.

Usually the carvings are of nativity scenes, but they don’t have to be and it’s not unusual to see dancers, animals and kings amongst other things.

The radishes used can weigh up to 3 Kilograms and are about 50 centimetres in length. Nowadays they are grown especially for this event.

 

 

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is sometimes also written as Chanukkah, and both spellings are equally acceptable. This is because the word is actually pronounced with a soft ch sound, like in the Scottish word loch which is a sound that doesn’t exist in English.

The festival begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev and last for 8 days. This year that will be from 24th December to 1st January.

It is called the Festival of Dedication (hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew) or the Festival of Light, and is to commemorate the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

About 2500 years ago the land had been taken over by the Syrian-Greeks. The King, Antiochus, wanted the Jewish people to worship the Greek gods. The Jewish temple was desecrated and a statue of Antiochus was placed inside.

Against all the odds, a small group of Jews defeated the Greek army and reclaimed the temple. They cleaned it up and reconsecrated it, but they only found one jar of sacred oil, which was only enough to keep a flame burning for one day. Miraculously the flame remained burning for 8 days, which was long enough to prepare more of the oil to keep it burning.

At Hanukkah now Jews celebrate this miracle by lighting 8 candles on a special menorah, called a hanukkiyah, which has nine branches – one for an attendant flame and eight to represent the eight days during which the one jar of oil continued burning. One candle is lit on the first day, two on the 2nd and so on until all eight candles are lit on the final day.

The celebrations include spending time with family, eating foods which have been fried in oil (such as potato pancakes and doughnuts) and exchanging gifts.

Related posts: Sukkot

What is Sukkot?

Sukkot falls two weeks after Rosh Hashanah and a few days after Yom Kippur, and is quite a fun festival after the more serious ones. It begins on 15th Tishrei and lasts for seven days.

This festival celebrates the Jews being freed from Egypt, and is a commemoration of the following 40 years which they spent in the desert before reaching the promised land. During this time they had to live in temporary shelters, and sukkot is the Hebrew word meaning temporary shelters. It’s a joint thanksgiving / harvest festival as they remember God feeding the Jews while they were in the desert.

For the festival, Jewish people live in a sukkah (singular of sukkot) for seven days. Usually they just have their meals in the sukkah, but some people choose to sleep in them as well. Guests are invited to dine in the sukkah and Abraham and Sarah are thought of amongst the guests.

Although the festival is fun, there are some rules for building a sukkah: it must have at least three walls, it must be made from natural materials such as wood or stone – definitely no plastic (!) , and you must be able to see at least three stars through the roof.

Related post: Hannukak

Summer Solstice

In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the name given to the longest day of the year – i.e. the day when the sun appears highest in the sky and there is more sunlight than on any other day (16 hours and 38 minutes in the UK this year).  It falls on 21st June, but celebrations relating to the solstice are held on the day itself and the days either side, depending on local traditions.

Celebrations to mark the solstice date back to ancient times, when the sun was revered as a deity in many cultures, and its movements were the subject of great interest and had many legends and stories attached to them.  The name “solstice” comes from the Latin words for sun and standing still, as it is the day the sun can be seen to reverse its course in the sky.  These days, when we think of the summer solstice we tend to think primarily of the pagan festivities that take place, as these can still be found in modern society.  As was also the case in the distant past, they are most prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where people actually experience a full 24 hours of sunlight at this time of year.  In the UK, the summer solstice is marked by a 4-day festival at Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic site, where the alignment of the stones highlights the sunrise on midsummer day.  In past times, the most widespread practice was to light bonfires to symbolise the triumph of the sun over darkness.  Because it was seen as a time of warmth and light, when crops are in their main growing season, there were also fertility rituals at this time and it was considered an auspicious time for marriages.

Litha is the name that the Anglo Saxons gave to this much earlier festival, and that is the name by which most modern-day Pagans and Wiccans refer to the celebrations.  As well as watching the sunrise, it is a day for reflecting on “dark” and “light” aspects of your own life, looking ahead and planning for the harvest time and winter on the horizon, and also for spending time enjoying the sunshine in the outdoors with family, culminating with communal meals cooked outdoors and the lighting of traditional fires, accompanied by singing, drama and storytelling.  Generally speaking, it is one of the most light-hearted and festive of the major dates on the calendar.

As with many earlier traditions, the medieval Christian church co-opted existing festivals as days of religious observance.  In the case of the summer solstice, the midsummer celebrations became the feast days of St John the Baptist (24th June), with the bonfires lit to ward off evil spirits being a direct adoption of existing practices.

No matter what your religious beliefs, the summer solstice symbolises the arrival of summer (not that this is always apparent in the UK!).  As such, it heralds the time of year when we tend to spend more time outdoors – perhaps enjoying the sunshine on picnics or walks, or just experiencing the natural world – and when we take most of our family holidays.  And it’s interesting to think that if you are in the garden enjoying a barbecue or sitting around your fire pit with friends and family in the next few days, you will be doing the same as people the world over have been doing at this time of year for millennia.

Thank you again to my lovely husband, Ian Braisby (Blue Badge Guide), for writing this piece for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox, Yule

The Festival of Yule

As part of their Christmas celebrations, many people will probably be tucking into a delicious chocolate cake called a “Yule Log”, or they might even recognise the name “Yuletide” for this time of year, which features in the odd Christmas song.  But what does that strange little word mean?  What was, or is, Yule?

In actual fact, it is an ancient Germanic pagan festival that was traditionally celebrated throughout Northern Europe and was brought to Britain by settlers from those lands.  The full period of Yule lasted for almost two months through December and January, centred on Midwinter’s Day (21st December in the modern calendar – when the days are at their shortest before they start to get longer again), which was followed by the main 12-day festival.

As Christianity started to spread through Western Europe, one of the ways that conversion and assimilation to the new religion were encouraged was to hold the new Christian festivals at times when people were accustomed to holding major feasts and celebrations.  In the case of Yule and the Midwinter celebrations, the new Christian festival was Christmas and the 12-day Yule celebrations gradually became the 12 Days of Christmas familiar to us even today, with Christmas itself at the beginning and Epiphany (6th January) at the end (Easter, All Saints’ Day and many more were deliberately timed to coincide with earlier festivals too).

Because of its associations with the nights starting to get shorter at midwinter, Yule was a festival linked to the cycle of the year and people’s belief in the rebirth of the sun and was one of the main pagan fertility festivals.  It is also a fire festival, with celebrations centring on people gathering around a fire.  However, while the midsummer festival was all about public and community celebrations, Yule was a quieter, more reflective time when families and loved ones would gather at home around the fire.  At the centrepiece of the ancient festival was the “Yule Log”.  This was a large oak log which was brought into the house with great ceremony and lit at dusk, using a small piece of wood from the previous year’s Yule Log.  According to tradition, the log would remain alight throughout the festive period (it was considered unlucky for it go out), and was generally burned away completely apart from the small piece saved for next year.  Ashes from the Yule Log were used to make charms to bring luck, or scattered over the fields to bring fertility.

While most of us don’t burn a big oak log at Christmas, the name has persisted in one of the things we eat.  But that’s not the only link between Yule and our Christmas traditions – in fact some of the things most associated with Christmas festivities can be traced back to the ancient celebrations.  Some of us might be lucky enough to get to kiss the one we love under a sprig of mistletoe at a party or at home in the coming days, but bringing mistletoe inside at this time of year was originally a Yule tradition.  It was a sacred plant in many forms of pagan religion, especially if it had been growing on oak trees.  Midwinter was traditionally when the high priest would cut the first mistletoe, after which people would take some of the plant into their homes for decoration during the festival and because it was thought to protect the house against lightning and fire.

Light was an important element of the festival and people would try to make sure their homes and buildings in their community were as well-lit as possible to mark the time of year – just like we do by putting lights on a tree, on our houses or even on ourselves.  When you sit down on Christmas Day for dinner, you might have a lovely decoration in the centre of the table, with flowers, holly and other plants surrounding a candle that will be lit during the meal.  If you have one of these, you are also following a Yule tradition.  The Yule Candle was surrounded by evergreen plants including holly and was lit on the first evening of the festival to light the festive meal, then  burned throughout the night and all the following day.  It was then put out and relit on each of the 12 days of celebration.  Like the Yule Log, it was considered unlucky for it to go out unless extinguished deliberately.  The candle was thought to bring light and good fortune to a household for the coming year.  Burning a candle through the 12 days of Christmas was a tradition that persisted long after pagan beliefs had been largely replaced by Christianity – in fact it was common until around 150 years ago.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing a knock at the door and opening it to be greeted by people regaling us with well-known carols.  But although most of the songs they sing tell the Christian Christmas story, they are actually continuing the ancient tradition of Wassail.  The word was a common Yuletide greeting meaning something like “Good health”.  It was used as a toast while passing the “Wassail bowl” around a gathering for everyone to drink from, and when meeting friends and strangers.  People would go from house to house singing traditional festive songs and bringing their good wishes to others in the community.

It’s actually quite amazing how many of the much older Yuletide traditions gradually became incorporated into Christmas over the years.  Although the name of the festival and what people were marking and thinking about at that time of year certainly changed, many of the things they did remained the same, and some of them are still around today.  When we gather with loved ones in the coming days, we should remember that we are doing what our ancestors have been doing in late December for many centuries, and we are sharing not only a modern Christmas and all that goes with it, but also some ancient winter traditions.

Thanks once again to my amazing husband, Blue badge Guide, Ian Braisby for writing this for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox    Summer Solstice