Tag Archives: Festivals

Crowning the Queen of May

Bring flowers of the fairest,
Bring flowers of the rarest,
From garden and woodland
And hillside and vale;

Every mid-to-late May at my Catholic school we would host a mass run by the students called the May Crowning, where Mary, Queen of Heaven was crowned with flowers donated by parishioners and carried up to the altar by us. Given that my birthday was also in May (my favorite month) and Mary was already an important figure in my life it was one of the only masses that I actually cared about and paid attention to (the other was Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve). I was eager to be one of the students specially selected to carry the flower offerings to her statue and hold the candles to her honor. Some years I was lucky enough to do just that, other years I would look on in mild envy as I tried to praise her in song instead. Normally, due to my hearing impairment affecting my speech, I was discouraged from speaking at mass or singing, but during that mass I didn’t care if anyone heard me. I worked hard to memorize the songs for the mass and damn it I’m was gonna sing. I can still recite “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” by heart.

The Marian cult remains a constant, albeit a background, holdover from my Catholic childhood, a reminder of the few good things from the Church that I experienced. God was this abstract, formless being that was referred to, and used, as a hyper-masculine entity, but Mary was real. She had a form, she was once human like us, had to be strong in the face of her son’s torture and death, and then she became the eternal Queen of all of freaking HEAVEN. You don’t hear about Jesus being the King of Heaven nearly as much; King of Jews maybe, but not King of Heaven. In addition, she’s been named in various incarnations as the Queen of several countries, the supreme spiritual being of the entire nation for all its inhabitants, with no Kingly counterpart. Yet, for all her power she was still accessible and could relate to humans, constantly appearing to us and giving us tools to connect to her. She was real, God wasn’t.

Our full hearts are swelling,
Our Glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

At least, that’s how it felt for me. Many people use her as an example of being a meek, quietly devoted mother and wife, something all women should aspire to be, and I don’t blame people for being uncomfortable with Mary as a result. The Church is inherently anti-feminist, so naturally their depiction of Mary follows suit. But for all the attempts by the Church to keep her in a generic box and control her image she just couldn’t be contained. Her cult developed in hundreds of different manifestations, absorbing remnants of pagan cults and deities, and she become the most popular saint in the world. The Church tries to regulate them all but like anything else they’re never fully successful. The May Crowning event is one such manifestation, born out of (presumably) Italian folk customs some 2-3 centuries ago that had since been recognized and spread to some Catholic regions, including some parishes in North America. It used to refer to the Crowning of Mary feast day, which occurred on May 31, but in 1954 that was changed to August 22 and the May Crowning tradition became a separate semi-official event. Nowadays the May Crowning can occur anytime during May, and the entire month is dedicated to her as well.

Queen Mary, in her incarnation as Nagy Boldogasszony-Queen of Hungary, retains a place in my ancestor shrine. She is a homage to my immediate ancestors, who have been Austrian and Hungarian Catholics for at least 6 generations (most likely much longer than that), as well as my distant ones with her possible pagan origins as a “birth and fertility goddess“. In that same pagan context she’s also the one I honor during planting, harvests, and family-specific events. Since old Magyar traditions beyond 1000 years ago are scanty and speculative at best, and Christianity already existed as one of many regional influences on Magyar culture(s), it is difficult to tell where the Catholic beliefs begin and the pagan ones end. Recorded folk traditions are likely a combination of both and that’s the assumption I rest most of my customs on. My worldview is pagan, but my traditions are a syncretic blend of the folk Catholicism I was raised in (which is inherently syncretic already) and the pagan customs of my heritage. Keeping Queen Mary as a presence in my life just seems to fit.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

Art by Réka Somogyi

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Sources

Coronation of the Virgin: Wikipedia

Coronation of Mary: Jean Frisk

May devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary: Wikipedia

The goddess of birth and fertility: Fred Hamori

“Flowers of the Rarest”: Wikipedia

 

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The Returning Sun

Welcome back dear Lady. Image (C) Garcia Foto (Erik Garcia)

This time of year (late January, early February) is usually the peak of Winter in my location. Those two months is when we tend to get the bulk of snowfall and the coldest temperatures. Of course, climate change has disrupted that pattern lately, but there is still some snowing and cold temperatures for now, thankfully (both are necessary for proper water levels and plant growth later in the year; an improper winter means a bad harvest).

This is also time time of year when the days noticeably get a bit longer, especially at sunset. While it may be common to celebrate the Sun’s return at the Winter Solstice for some, this felt strange to me. We know now through technology what the days’ lengths are right down to the seconds and so can calculate exactly which day starts the Sun’s waxing period. But you don’t “see” it, or feel it. A couple of seconds of extra daylight doesn’t seem to make a difference to humans, environmentally speaking, so I generally fail to see the point of celebrating that on the Winter Solstice. I have always preferred to read signals from the land rather than using astronomical patterns, and the return of the Sun is no exception.

In keeping with both my heritage and the land, my preferred day for this celebration is February 2nd. Called by many names in various religions, this day has a common association with light (candles, fire, lightening), hope (that the groundhog/badger/bear do not foretell a long winter), and renewal (purification of Mary, creating new fires, taking down Christmas decorations, the coming burst of life from the snow). It is also interesting to note that in both the Old High German calendar and the Ho-Chunk moon calender, the month that roughly corresponds to today’s February has associations with bears. According to one source (that’s sadly without citations, but I’m going to look into it further) Feb. 2nd is the “Day of the Bear” in places such as the Alps. Given that I recently became interested in the Eurasian bear cults, I find the timing of all this to be intriguing.

There is also the association with the Deer cult in various Eurasian sources. Not of this particular day, but of the Sun’s movement across the sky. It has been noted in Scytho-Siberian sources that the Deer cults and the Deer goddess (occasionally god) carried the Sun in her antlers, which is also attested in a Hungarian song (link is cached version because sadly the original site is unavailable). Due to the Doe’s importance in my own life, I personally find it appropriate to honor her on this day as well.

For now I keep the name Candlemas due to its familiarity. I’m slowly developing a holiday system as I go this year, allowing it to evolve organically with both research and real-time environmental changes, so my celebration of Candlemas will be simple this year. Candles and pancakes in honor of the Sun, with some deep cleaning of the apartment to promote a sense of renewal. I have already taken down my Christmas tree and other holiday decorations in preparation for that. It’s said in places like Poland that keeping such decorations up past Feb. 2nd is bad luck, and I certainly don’t want to put that thought to the test. Plus, as much as I like my tree, it was starting to get in the way.

Black-capped Chickadee, an animal that displays much energy and endurance through these cold winters. Photo (C) levahnbros.wordpress.com

This time of year is also associated with efforts to get “rid” of winter, understandable from an agricultural perspective. Food stores would be getting lean and game animals may be scarce, desiring a return of Spring as quickly as possible to start sowing seeds. While processions have occurred as early as November in Central Europe, many of them start gaining traction in February when Carnival season is at its peak. One of my earliest blog posts here references those processions. As a day of longing for the coming Spring, I find Candlemas to be appropriate for starting the “settling down” of winter activities and the start of preparing for the Summer. The “end” of that preparation period would be in late April, with Totaustragen repelling off the last of Winter, death, and disease, and the planting of seeds outdoors in early May.

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References*

School of the Seasons: February. http://www.schooloftheseasons.com/febdays1.html#grdhog (a nice collection of cross-cultural holiday traditions for February)

*the other references are linked in post as underlined content

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Ch-Ch-Chaaaangeees!

Kudos if you know the song reference ūüôā

It has been so seasonally perfect lately, I can’t remember the last time I had a visually stunning Fall/Autumn like this. The colors of the trees are blazing amongst the remaining green that is mostly attributed to pines. The temperature has dropped to a high of mid-40 (Fahrenheit) and I’ve already busted out the winter gear in preparation (long johns, boots, wool socks, coats, etc.). A weekend visit back home in Chicago has given me a sharp contrast, as it’s much drabber and more green still there.

This beauty combined with my love for winter has helped much in adapting to living in a new place, and I’m starting to like it here. I’m very much looking forward to what festivities NE Wisconsin will produce for the holidays, starting with Halloween. Living out of my parent’s house has also helped in exploring my own traditions more, and what I want to keep and/or develop.

Some Neopagans call this time of year the “Dark half”. which coincides with the common Asatru depiction of this being the “Winter” half. I’m lucky enough to live in a location where the seasonal changes match quite closely to the old European calendars, so I’m easily able to incorporate my heritage’s traditions into my daily life.

Let’s start with Halloween, for example.

Like some, I treat Halloween as a secular, cultural festival day, and I’m lucky to have grown up and live in places that embraced Halloween as such. Free candy, scary movies, neighborhood bonfires with cider and beer, and the costumes; what’s not to love? As far as pagan attributes go, the partying and costumes alone are pretty pagan. How many stories are there of becoming intoxicated and dressing up as something else to BE something else from ye olde days, wrecking havoc and mischief along the way? Even in our secular, “enlightened” era many of us feel the need to play and exchange roles like children, and Halloween provides a culturally acceptable time to do so. A release from the usual day-to-day social rigidity.

If certain pagan stories were true, we’d be having a zombie apocalypse every year.

There’s also the pagan attribute of all the goulies, ghosties and overall scary things coming out on Halloween, especially at night, that remains in popular stories and movies. Some Neopagan descriptions relate that Halloween/Samhain is a time where the “veil” between worlds is at its thinnest, so that demonic beings can move into “our” world. While I don’t believe in the concept of “worlds” the same way, I can agree with the sentiment. Halloween is the start of the darkness of the year for me, therefore it is also the start of certain wiht activity, such as that of the dead. They become more active, and closer to home than in the summer.

Halloween, or the end of it, also starts off a season of ritual ancestor veneration. After the parties and trick-or-treating comes the solemn side of things. I come from a Catholic family, so I kept the Days of the Dead (November 1 and 2) in my calendar observations (no, it is not just a Mexican holiday, though their ways of celebrating this time is uniquely colorful and inspiring). Instead of the “official Catholic” way of doing it, I instead keep both days for ancestor veneration. Saying hello, giving thanks to them, giving offerings of food and coffee (ideally also liquor and tobacco, but I currently don’t know what brands my great-grandparents and beyond preferred so that may not happen). Preferably this would be done by visiting their graves, but for this and next year I won’t be close enough to do so. However, photos and items on a shrine work in a pinch.

Days of the Dead in Hungary. Candles and flowers are the two most commonly used items in the cemeteries.

I’m especially looking forward to Halloween and Days of the Dead this year because of finally being able to celebrate them in peace and as fully as possible.

Now I’m sure some of you may be thinking “well, wait a minute, I thought heathens did the ancestor worship bit during Yule and Samhain was a Wiccan/Celtic thing instead”. You would be correct. Like I mentioned earlier, Days of the Dead would be like Halloween in that it’s the START of a season of such religious activities rather than the only days I do it (US Thanksgiving in November is another, in the context of being a harvest feast). Late October/Early November is when I first sense the dead and certain other wihts becoming more active, but the height of their activity would occur during Yule, particularly just after Christmas/Winter Solstice. That time of year, called the 12 Rough Nights in contemporary Central European folklore, and the days just before that, are when a lot of things happen with ancestors and wihts (like the Wild Hunt). After that, the activity slowly dies down (no pun intended) until the last of Winter is driven out (one of the Perchtenlauf themes, possibly Busojaras and related demonic parades that occur prior to Lent). Then the dead settle back into the earth as the season shifts to the Summer half and different¬†wihts awaken or come back.

I love this time of year so much.

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Pre-Lent Costumes

In the US, this past Tuesday (March 8 ) was Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, also known as the last day before Lent starts in Catholicism (and a few other branches of Christianity). What it also concludes (usually, though not always) is the season of partying and parading known as Carnival, Fastnacht, Fasching, and variations of those terms (the starting point is sometime around the Winter solstice, though some places can be as early as November).

Various aspects of this season are going to be the topics of my posts the next few weeks, starting with the masks and costumes for today. Masks in general have a wide variety of specific meanings that is unique to their cultures, but the overall theme seems to be transformation and change. Given that this is the time of year when Winter is gradually turning into Summer, the use of the European masks during processions at this time makes sense, on top of other reasons given.

With regards to traditional Central and Eastern European winter costumes, there seems to be a similarity in their design (click pictures to view larger size):

Krampus/”Ugly” Perchten in Austria (There used to be a difference in the costume, but lately there has been overlap; now it’s mainly the time of year and roles that separate the two)

Kurents in Slovenia

Busójárás in Hungary

Kukeri in Bulgaria

And my favorite, the fox Schuttig costume from Germany:

These are just a few of the traditional versions; variations can exist from town to town let alone country to country, and that’s not including contemporary costumes that get even wilder.

Now, I don’t know about you, but none of this screams “Christianity” to me. Sure, there is the sense of getting as much fun out of the remaining days before Lent as one can, but the usual interpretations suggest a pre-Christian root.

As mentioned before, this part of the year starts in the winter for some places, and seems to have one peak of activity in early January; Austria’s Perchtenlaufen is a prime example of that. The other peak occurs around Ash Wednesday, usually the few days before it. Thinking in agrarian terms, which is what these festivities are thought to have developed in, this period of time is rather empty in terms of food production, and stored food is starting to dwindle away and probably starting to go bad. So what do people do? Scare off Winter and start spreading some fertility around.

Hence, the grotesque costumes. They both embody the spirits of Winter in plays that depict the battle between Winter and Summer, and act as live gargoyles that are supposed to terrify the real demons. One interesting twist on this exists with the Busos in Mohacs, Hungary; a legend that the costumes were used to scare off the invading Turks. They say that the doughnuts sometimes hung on the masks’ horns represent the heads of the Turks, though the validity of this legend is debatable.

The fertility aspect comes from the mostly male use of the costumes (though changing times have allowed women to partake in this) and how they often carry items to poke and whip (lightly) women they harass on the street. Birch rods, willow rods, gourds, and other phallic symbols (as well as literal replicas of penises) are used in this manner, and one could go so far as to say the wearing of horns (or predominance of horned animals like bulls and goats) supports this interpretation too. So many books and articles have been made about penis symbolism that I’m not going to delve into it much, but the sheer commonness of the connection does make tracing the origins harder to do. This could be something that popped up (no pun intended) on its own within the cultures, or influenced by people such as the Romans; it’s hard to tell. I can imagine that the anonymity offered by the masks allow the wearers to be unrestrained in their actions, further representing the seemingly chaotic transition from Winter to Summer. In Chicago at least, it could easily be warm and sunny one day, then snowing the next during March and April.

In addition to the demonic and zoomorphic costumes, there also exists more mundane ones depicting (or in some cases, exaggerating) every day life in traditional costumes, or stereotypes of foreign peoples and beings. These give a sense of reinforcing the status quo in the villages and maintaining what has worked for their survival thus far. Through this, the prosperity of previous years can continue, or bad years can be corrected by returning to the proper traditions. There is actually quite a bit of ritualistic behavior that goes into these activities and how the people act while wearing the masks, all of which needs to be done correctly in order to avoid bad luck for the town.

It’s one of my dreams to visit Europe and see at least one of these parades in action, if only to see these magnificent costumes up close. These are all hand made, each one a unique work of art and some of them even changed each year at that. I’ve never had a good hand with fabric and wood, so I admire those that create amazing things with those materials.

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References

Glotz, Samuel and Oerlemans, Marguerite. European Masks. The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 26. No. 4, Masks (Winter, 1982). pp. 14-18

Armstrong, Lucille. The Carnival at Basal, Switzerland. Folklore, Vol. 95. No. 1 (1984). pp. 54-56

Tokofsky, Peter. Masking Gender: A German Carnival Custom in Its Social Context. Western Folklore, Vol. 58, No. 3/4. Studies of Carnival in Memory of Daniel J. Crowley (Summer-Autumn, 1999). pp. 299-318

Steinlen, Jean M. and Oerlemans, Marguerite. Winter Customs in Eastern European Countries. The Drama Review: TDR. Vol. 26, No. 4, Masks (Winter, 1982). pp. 19-24

Busojaras photo album (scroll down to the single photo and click on it) http://www.mohacs.hu/?p=15&szid=10#bottom

Budablog: Carnival Time Part I, The Buso Kit http://ganchoverseas.blogspot.com/2007/03/carnival-time-part-i-buso-kit.html

SNPJ.org-Description of the Kurents                                                      http://www.snpj.org/Cultural%20Pages/kurentovanje.html

Webzine Sloveniana-Kurents                                                            http://www.thezaurus.com/?/webzine/kurentovanje/

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