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   Yom Kippur

Krampusnacht

Krampus is a horned, demon-type creature, sometimes depicted as half man half goat. His name means “claw” and he’s possibly based on mythological creatures such as the satyrs.

Mostly known in Austria and Bavaria, he said to visit on 5th December, the day before St Nicholas. He carries a chain or a birch stick to wave around, and his job is to remind the naughty children to be good.

According to some stories he leaves lumps of coal for the children who haven’t been well behaved but in others he goes as far as carrying them off to eat!

Autumn Equinox

Many cultures around the world hold celebrations on or close to the September equinox every year.  The date changes slightly due to it being based on the movement of celestial bodies rather than our modern calendar, with this year’s festival due to be marked on September 22nd.  So what is an equinox?  In simple terms, it is the date on which the sun shines directly on the equator, resulting in a day and night of equal length everywhere in the world.  There are two each year, one in spring (the vernal equinox) and one at the beginning of autumn (the autumnal equinox) – in the Southern hemisphere the reverse designations are used due to their seasons being the opposite of ours.

Traditionally, these two days have been understood to mark the change of seasons – from winter to spring and from summer to autumn.  No matter what region people live in, or what culture or religion they follow, they have always understood the importance of the seasons for their lives.  And such transitional times have always been used as times of reflection and planning.  So perhaps that is why the two days every year that mark the equinox are associated with festivals in so many current and past cultures.

In the case of the autumnal equinox, festivals have focused on expressing thanks for the good summer weather that brings the ripening of crops and fruit, and on looking ahead to the darker and colder days of winter.  Let’s take a look at a few of these festivals in a bit more detail.

In Pagan religious traditions, the autumnal equinox is referred to as Mabon.  It is one of the sun festivals that divide the year and marks a traditional harvest festival.  It is a time for people to complete projects, be thankful for harvest and start preparing for winter.  Sharing gifts and produce with those less fortunate is also an important tradition.  Because of the equal day and night, it is seen as a time of balance – the ideal opportunity to reflect on your life, count your blessings and refocus on what is most important to you.  In England, as with the other major astronomical festivals, pagans gather to witness sunrise at the ancient site of Stonehenge.

In Japan, as well as marking the end of the autumn harvest the festival is also about ancestors.  It is part of a Buddhist festival known as Ohigan, with the equal day and night said to mark the time when spirits of ancestors are able to travel to Nirvana.  It is a public holiday and people visit and decorate the graves of their ancestors as part of the celebrations.  In many ways, this element is similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is celebrated slightly later in the year.  The festival was also used as a national celebration of former emperors and members of the imperial family.  As well as thinking about ancestors, however, people meditate on their own lives and gather with living family members.

The Ancient Greeks also understood the equinox as a time when movement between worlds is possible and marked the date as the time when the Goddess Persephone would return to the underworld to be with her husband Hades.  People took the opportunity to reflect on their successes or failures over the previous months.

As the Christian religion expanded, it co-opted numerous existing festivals to aid acceptance among the population and ensure a smoother transition to the new religion.  The autumn equinox is no exception, and the Christian feast day of Michaelmas (St Michael and All Angels) is celebrated the week after the equinox.  Michaelmas has many of the same traditions as Equinox celebrations in other religions and cultures, including gathering fruit and nuts and eating a fattened goose to symbolise a successful harvest.  It was also seen as a time of transition – in medieval England, for example, the traditional employment fairs, where people could get new employment or find a new employer, were all held in the days and weeks immediately after Michaelmas.

It is clear that ever since humans have understood astronomy enough to recognise the existence of the autumnal equinox, it has been a significant date in the calendar.  The examples above show that cultural and religious traditions from throughout the world, and throughout history, have tended to hold equinox festivals with very similar themes.  These are celebrating the products of nature, reflecting on life, family and mortality, and preparing for the winter ahead.  All of these are universal human concerns, and it is fascinating how this date has been taken as an opportunity to think about them in so many different times and places.

Related posts: Lughnasadh    Yule

Poisson d’Avril

On the 1st of April in France they celebrate Poisson d’Avril. The idea of the day is to pin a paper fish on your friend’s back without them noticing.

Nobody knows for certain where this tradition has come from but it’s believed to date back to 1564 when Charles IX decided to move the beginning of the year from 1st of April to the 1st of January. In the days before phones and instant messaging, it took a long time for communications to filter through to everybody, and so the people in the countryside, that is mostly the uneducated folk, were the last to receive the news and so they carried on celebrating new year on the 1st of April. The upper classes mocked them for this, and started giving gifts on the 1st of April as a joke.

Because April 1st was often still during the period of Lent, meat was not allowed and so often fish would have been the main part of meal. For this reason many of the gifts were of fish, and over time the presents became more jokey and some people began to give fake fish on this day.

One of the best things about this time of year in France now, is that you can buy chocolate fish in the shops!

Related post: April Fools’ Day