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?

Who was Babushka?

Before the revolution in Russia, all the children had heard of Babushka, who left them presents on Christmas Eve. These days not all Russians know the story as New Year is a more important celebration to Russians, but the story of Babushka is slowly making a comeback. It is very similar to the story of La Befana in Italy. The word Babushka means “Grandmother” in Russian, and this is her story:

Long ago in a small village in Russia, far from the nearest city, lived Babushka. She was very house-proud, and she worked all day long scrubbing and sweeping and cleaning to keep her house nice.

One evening there was a knock at her door, and when she opened it she found three kings. They told her that they were on a long journey and that they were looking for a place to stay for the night. They had been told that she had the nicest, cleanest house in the village.

Babushka invited them in and prepared a meal for them. As they ate they told her that they were following a star which would lead them to a special baby. They asked her to accompany them but she protested that she didn’t have time – after all she had a house to keep clean, and who would dust and sweep if she went off travelling?

The three kings tried hard to persuade her, but she continued to protest – she couldn’t possible, she was too busy she had too much to do – and she waved them off as they continued their journey.

Later, she looked around. Her house was clean, the floors were swept, everything was dusted…. Perhaps she had time to go and look for this special baby after all. Quickly she packed some food and small gifts to offer him, and left the house. But where was the star? She had left it too late and the star could no longer be seen. She set off, asking everyone she passed whether the three kings had come this way, but nobody was able to help her.

Legend says that she is still looking, and that each time she passes a house where small children live, she leaves small gifts for them in honour of the special baby she seeks.

Related posts: Who was St Nicholas?  Who was La Befana?    Who was Good King Wenceslaus?

St George’s Day

“Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!”
William Shakespeare, Henry V

When the name of St George is mentioned in Britain these days, our thoughts turn to English patriotism, as summed up in Shakespeare’s rousing conclusion to King Henry V’s famous speech, given before he leads out his men to victory over the French army at Agincourt.

On 23rd April every year, we celebrate the feast day of England’s patron saint.  But who was he, and how does he come to be a symbol of England? Did he really slay a dragon?  And why is our national day not a public holiday and an occasion for mass public celebration like those of the other countries of the British Isles?

Let’s start with what we know of the man himself.  According to tradition, he was born to wealthy parents in Roman-ruled Palestine, and lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a senior officer in the Roman army and a favourite of the Emperor, Diocletian.  However, he was raised as a Christian and spoke out against Roman persecution of the emerging religion, refusing to carry out acts of violence against fellow Christians.  He publicly declared his faith in a face-to-face confrontation with the Emperor, who offered him land, money and titles to renounce his faith.  As a result, he was imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed by beheading.  He came to be venerated as a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox church over subsequent centuries.  When Western European crusaders were fighting in the Holy Land a thousand years ago, this figure of a brave, Christian soldier led to the saint being adopted by many knights, who brought George and his legends back to the West.

So what about that dragon?  Slaying mythical beasts, particularly dragons, is something that crops up a lot in legends, and is very often a metaphor for fighting against seemingly overwhelming odds, defying the political powers that are in place, and for battling against and triumphing over evil.  St George’s military background, defence of his faith and refusal to submit to Roman authority fit all of these criteria, and it is perhaps no surprise that dragon slaying was added to the legends that were built up around him, and popularised in the West by chroniclers who had accompanied the Crusades.

St. George is not England’s original patron saint.  Several other figures, including Saxon kings Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor, had been viewed as the most important “national” saints in the medieval period.  It is down to later kings that St George overtook them.  Himself a famous crusader, Edward I had his armies fighting the Welsh under the banner of St George and the saint became a symbol of English royal strength (especially in military terms).  This was continued by Edward III, who made St George the patron of his new Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in England, and Henry V whose devotion to St George was not just a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination.  The outstanding military victories achieved by these successive kings helped to turn the saint from a royal saint to a national one.  As well as being patron saint of England, he has that distinction for various other countries – including Ukraine, Portugal and Georgia although the latter, despite many claims to the contrary, is not named after him.

The flag of St George, a red cross on a white background, was a widely used symbol at the time of the crusades and became associated with St George when groups of knights adopted him as their patron (in other words, the flag was assigned to the saint and has no link to him in terms of the original legends).  The flag became part of the insignia of the kings of England and, after the split from the Roman Catholic church, was the only saint’s banner permitted to be used in English churches – thus cementing its position as a symbol of English identity and independence.  When the United Kingdom was established as a political union, the cross of St George represented England (and Wales) in the new Union Flag.

Despite a long history as patron saint, St George’s feast day has never been celebrated as a major holiday in England.  This contrasts with his counterparts in Wales (St David), Scotland (St Andrew) and, especially, Ireland (St Patrick).  These days, many towns and cities do have “St George’s Day” events, but these generally take place on the closest weekend to the actual day.  It is not a public holiday, despite limited but growing calls for it to be declared as one.  The reasons why the English patron saint’s feast is celebrated to a lesser extent probably lies in England’s political dominance of its neighbours.  In their cases, local traditions and symbols were very important as representations of their continuing independent spirit and culture despite being politically ruled by England.  There was no need for this to happen in England and so it never really did.  In recent years, greater political self-determination in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and ongoing debates over the future of the United Kingdom as a political entity have led to a growing search for a distinctly “English” – as opposed to British – identity.  This has manifested itself in a growing number of St George’s Day events, and increasing use of the flag as a national symbol (helped by its association with sports teams, notably the England football team – witness the number of flags on cars and in windows around the time of the major international tournaments).  However, this has not been without controversy as the flag also has very negative connotations through its use by football hooligans and extreme right-wing political parties.  There have been concerted efforts to “reclaim” the flag, as part of a wider move to establish a positive and inclusive English identity for the future.

So when we see those flags flying today, and no doubt during the forthcoming World Cup, we are witnessing the latest chapter in a centuries-old story that moves from the Roman army, to the Crusades, to the Reformation to modern England.  And even if there wasn’t really a dragon involved, that’s a pretty impressive story.

This is a guest post from Ian Braisby, Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Related posts: St Andrew’s DaySt David’s DaySt Patrick’s Day