Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cause for Cheer, Midwinter is Here

I bring tidings of hope for winter-weary souls: the midwinter is here. Now, it's a solid march toward spring. Shall we celebrate with the Bergen County Historical Society? Two midwinter feasts, Brigit's Day and Candlemas come halfway "between the winter solstice and spring equinox, when snowdrops, the first flower of spring, make their appearance, signaling nature's awakening from winter's sleep," the group tells us.

From my parents' home last winter, spring spoke via snowdrops whispering she will soon be here. Let Mother Nature have her temper tantrums (although the way we treat her, an outburst is understandable). Winter's days are numbered.

More from our teachers at BCHS:

"Candlemas is named for the blessing of candles, used to protect homes from lightning, evil spirits, and for procession through farm field and orchard. As evidenced by Groundhog's Day, weather prognostication was commonly practiced in anticipation of spring sowing. Hence, the saying, "If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year.""

In the Dutch out kitchen, Joyce is making beeswax candles (the pot where she dipped from is on the ground below). Tallow (from animal fat) candles were far more common, as beeswax would have been used among other things as a sealant for preserve jars of food.

Consider the labor and art form of candles, now mostly mass produced of petroleum-based paraffin. With such a process, you can understand why "farmers hours" were kept - up with the light, to bed with the dark.

Mary displaying a Betty lamp

Pancakes which resembled the golden disc of the sun were typical fare on Candlemas. I feasted on their close cousin - the crepe filled with apples, $3 - and a hot cider, $1, in their Black Horse Tavern.

From BCHS,

"In ancient Ireland, Brigit "the provider of all sustenance and agricultural bounty....was associated in folklore with the cow and its nourishing milk. Her feast coming when the winter larder was nearly empty and milk scarce, womenfolk "gathered a drop" of milk for churning on Brigit's Eve.

On Brigit's Eve, each family boiled and drained potatoes, with every member, young and old, taking a turn with the masher. The pot was placed in the middle of the kitchen floor on a sheath of straw. The mashed potatoes were served with a large lump of butter nesting in the center, with men eating from a large dish and women from the pot."

As a nation of immigrants, reflect on the traditions you've brought from foreign lands through your familial line.

Consider you are a settler, and your supplies are beginning to dwindle as you look toward the next planting season with a hopeful heart. So detached from our nation's food supply, we think little in modern times of the weather's toll on farmers - and too often think solely about how the weather impacts immediate, short-term matters, like mood.

Also ponder this disgraceful information: "A quarter to half of all food produced in the United States goes uneaten — left in fields, spoiled in transport, thrown out at the grocery store, scraped into the garbage or forgotten until it spoils." (Read "From Farm to Fridge to Garbage Can" from The New York Times.)

These two midwinter feasts did bring merriment and sense of tradition, but they were also essentially about the basic human need that transcends time and boundaries to harvest food for survival come spring. Today we are so wasteful - a great disrespect to the farmer (or more often migrant worker), animal (who suffers so terribly under our factory farming system) and to the Earth whose soil bore its fruit.

A sight of beauty, a harvest in the snow, soon to feed hungry souls.

One modern convenience is overlooked by most. I am grateful not to meet winter's harshness when nature calls.

Snow blankets even that which will restore fire and light.

Gaze into the simple beauty of the Betty lamp beside the eighteenth century window. How many of our possessions will last centuries?

Do you enjoy learning about history through travel, lectures, documentaries, films, books and group events?

The great historian David McCullough reflected,

"History is not about dates and quotes and obscure provisos. History is about life, about change, about consequences, cause and effect. It's about the mystery of human nature, the mystery of time. And it isn't just about politics, the military and social issues, which is almost always the way it's taught. It's about music, and poetry, and drama, and science and medicine and money and love."

For all those reasons and more, we shall look over our shoulder often at the past and embrace history. To understand who we were, and who we want to become.


  1. What a beautifully written post! I used to loathe history class in school. I couldn't stand that everything was taught from the perspective of the imperialist and it all centered on conflict and abuses of power. Then I got ahold of Howard Zinn. Yes! Eventually, I found my way to discussions of food and home life in an historical context and it all became far more interesting.

    It's also one of the reasons why I love your blog so much. I love these little adventures you take and particularly appreciate the photos. Fabulous!

  2. Many thanks, and so glad you are enjoying them. Many more adventures await!

    Agreed about some of those history teachers. I had one in high school that seemed more intent on instilling fear than inspiring awe. I think some of them were truly in the wrong profession.

    This group is member-supported and relies on volunteers for these events, and am so grateful people have stepped into the role of "teacher" for those of us long out of school with a thirst for knowledge. If I can pass their knowledge on, I am happy to. Isn't the drive for enlightenment contagious?

  3. Catherine what a beautiful description of these traditions. You won't believe how much these things are like the way I grew up in the Catskills, where we grew our own food, learned to make candles, and yes, had an outhouse. It nearly made me cry to read, but in a good way. Thanks for reviving the memories.

  4. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for the comment, and I'm so glad I invoked a positive trip down memory lane. I love when traveling in upstate New York seeing so many gardens in people's yards and the connectivity with the land.