Tag Archives: Spring

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

~~~~~~~

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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Killing Winter to Bring Back Summer

Alright, back on to Spring traditions!
Remember that post I made about Pre-Lent Costumes? I mentioned how the costumes, in some areas at least, were meant to scare off the spirits of Winter. There’s also quite a bit of fertility symbolism that went along with all the festivities. There is a sort of continuation of those themes in a ritual that is rather common across Europe: The Expulsion of Death and Winter.

Basically, an effigy of some sort, usually made out of straw, fir, or some other available material, is taken through or out of a village in a procession, and then destroyed. Afterward, a figure (human, tree, or otherwise) clad in some sort of greenery is welcomed in the village and celebrations ensue. This sometimes occurs on or around Mid-Lent, usually the 4th Sunday in Lent (Which is actually the week of this post’s date for 2011). This does not seem to be an uncommon practice, as many folklorists and anthropologists have noted parallels across Europe; even going as far as India with the drowning of a Kali effigy in March.

Winteraustreiben in Germany with Winter as the large blue puppet, and Summer following behind as the golden puppet (c) Katrin von Meer

However, I’m going to focus mainly on some of the German and Slavic names and customs here. In German, the festival is called Todaustragen, or Todaustreiben (from the words for “death” and “to carry out” or “to drive out”), with a few areas using the name Winteraustreiben and Sommereinholen (“Summer” and “catch up”). Similar rituals done in other countries have their own names, but I’ll mainly use the term “winter expulsion” for easy conversation.

In some German-speaking parts, winter expulsion involves creating a straw monster or being which is then driven out by being beaten and/or burned. With regard to the burning of the effigy, Mircea Elidae saw a “fertilizing power of Death-a power attached to all the symbols of vegetation and to the ashes of the wood burnt during all the various festivals of the regeneration of nature and the beginning of the New Year” (Flaherty 1992). He was referring to a practice seen in Austria during his time, where the effigy had a funeral pyre and people gathered around to grab bits of it. Also found in Austria are the Perchten, or followers of Perchta, who carry bells apparently as another tool to drive out Winter and Death. There are several interpretations of the effigy and none are totally agreed upon: Vegetation being, Death, Winter, or even the Bubonic Plague (which would still be Death, but Christian in origin instead of the commonly assumed heathen origins). The gender of the effigy seems to be male in German parts of Central Europe, which makes sense since Death is also considered to be male (der Tod).

In contrast, Slavic cultures such as those in Poland, Slovakia, and Czech Republic have a female effigy burned or drowned. She goes by the name Marzanna, Morena, and variations thereof. She is considered to be a remnant of a goddess of Death from pre-Christian times as well as a witch, so the female form makes sense if this is true. Other than that though, the steps for her expulsion is similar to German cultures. She’s taken out in a procession and then destroyed.

The Procession of Marzanna in Poland just before drowning

I can’t help but think of the witch scene in Monty Python: The Holy Grail whenever seeing Marzanna processions 🙂

In Hungary there does not seem to be as much fanfare for winter expulsion as in other places. The busos mentioned in the Costumes post linked earlier is suggested to be Hungary’s version of winter expulsion. There is a practice that links to the second half of the expulsion though, which is the welcoming of Summer to replace Winter. It is called Zöldágjárás, where they bring in green boughs through the village. To me it almost looks like Palm Sunday, so I wonder if this is really a remnant from pagan times or if it’s a variation on a Christian holiday.

School children going under the green boughs

Another, older image of Zöldágjárás

Judging from the images though, it seems that Hungary is already warm enough this time of year to start celebrating the arrival of Spring and Summer. Perhaps winter expulsion is simply not necessary at the same time and is better suited to the time of the busojaras earlier in the year.

Back to German-speaking cultures, once Winter/Death is driven out, a man dressed in vegetation and green colors walks into the village with much celebration. This is the personification of Summer, of new growth and good times to come. There is also records of a play that occurs to depict the fight between Winter and Summer (with Summer ultimately winning), called der Kampf swischen Sommer und Winter, which usually occurs during the winter expulsion.

There is a mention of March being the time of the new year in both Roman and Slavic lands until recently, which coincides with winter expulsion. In that context, it seems that driving away Winter is also driving away the old year, which makes sense. Summer in general seems to have a sense of “new-ness” with the arrival of fresh vegetation.

Looking out my window, I feel an urge to have a bit of winter expulsion myself. Only now are some of the trees starting to wake up and show their flowers, with small shoots in the grass here and there. Much of the world is still gray and wet; some chunks of old snow still scattered about even. We don’t really have a spring here in Chicago, it’s more like a month where the weather can’t seem to make up its mind. The idea of a war between Summer and Winter fits perfectly here, as we can get snowfall one day, and temperatures warm enough for shorts the next. Even gardening books say we have a risk of frost until early to mid-May.

Course, once Summer actually gets here in all its humid, blazing glory, people will start wishing for Winter again. It’s how it goes every year.

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References

Flaherty, Robert Pearson. “Todaustragen”: The Ritual Expulsion of Death at Mid-Lent: History and Scholarship. Folklore, Vol. 103(1), pgs. 40-55

(In German) Brief Explanation of Pertchen’s Role in Winter Expulsion: http://www.tomig.at/245/was-hat-es-eigentlich-auf-sich-mit-den-perchten/

Esbenshade, Richard S. Cultures of the World: Hungary. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=4QYidGdtpBkC&pg=PA118&lpg=PA118&dq=winter+expulsion+in+hungary&source=bl&ots=tmIwzSwPoI&sig=VyDUoziQiJByohp6hle747uGVJY&hl=en&ei=1MOYTbCGBcmY0QGQiNH7Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CCoQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=winter%20expulsion%20in%20hungary&f=false

Sinking of Marzanna: Pagan Traditions of Spring                                                 http://culture.polishsite.us/articles/art297fr.htm

Photos of Winteraustreiben, (c) Katrin von Meer                                   http://www.flickr.com/photos/35525979@N06/5509422479/in/photostream/

Kerenyi, G. I. (1962). The Melody Core of Ushering In Summer in Transdanubia (Hungary). Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, first page used-> http://www.jstor.org/pss/901641

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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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