Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mardi Gras' King Cake

Mardi Gras is a very popular celebration. All around the world people are preparing for colorful parades, festive carnivals, all night dancing, outrageous and often flamboyant costumes, and the traditional foods that mark this special time of year.

Originally a pagan Spring ritual, Mardi Gras (which means “Fat Tuesday” in French) occurs right before the Christian Lent season begins. This year it takes place March 8. Also known as Shrove Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday – it has come to represent the temporary putting way or leaving behind of physical pleasures so that one can enter into a more solemn, contemplative “other than worldly’ period of time.

The King Cake is one of the more popular foods served during this time. The custom surrounding this cake celebrates the Epiphany, when Three Wise Men/Kings who were said to come bearing gifts for the Christ Child. This visit took place twelve nights after Christmas and today’s Epiphany continues to be a time for people to exchange gifts and gather together for festival meals.

The cake itself represents the three kings who traveled from far away. Circular in shape it generally is a cinnamon-filled dough that is topped with a glaze sprinkled with sugar that has been colored purple, green, and/or gold. Other contemporary fillings and toppings range from fruit spreads and jams to sweetened cream cheese and butter.

It also contains a plastic or ceramic baby that is baked right into the dough. Traditionally, whoever receives the slice of cake with the baby in it is supposed to present the next King Cake the following year. He or she may also be expected to host the next King’s Cake gathering. At some gatherings, there are many babies in the cake so that everyone can feel like ‘a king’.

Hands down, it is the dessert of choice in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and, in fact, has such a following that many of these cakes are shipped across the country for those who want a taste of Mardi Gras New Orlean’s style.

Here are links to a few recipes:

Mardi Gras King Cake

Easy Mardi Gras King Cake

Gluten Free King Cake


Mini King Cake for Kids

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

All of the Presidents in February

February has quite a few folk traditions to its credit. Besides Valentine’s Day, it is also when the Chinese New Year takes place in America, is the final month of the Winter season and is when we American’s acknowledge our Presidents.

President’s Day itself can be traced back to the birthday of our first President George Washington. Born on February 22, 1732. During his term as president, his birthday became known as Washington’s Birthday. It didn’t become a national holiday until 1832.

President Abraham Lincoln was also a February baby. Born on February 12, 1809, there was not a national birthday celebration until the year after he was assassinated.

Fast forward to 1968 when the Congress voted to make Monday the day federal holidays would be celebrated. The result was that particular weekend, the third in the month, became a three-day holiday. Congress also voted to toss President Richard Nixon’s birthday into the mix as well. Shortly thereafter the holiday became a holiday for all of the nation’s presidents whether or not they were born in February.

So, for fun, here is a Presidential pop-quiz. See how much you know about our country’s leaders.

Questions:

Q: Why did Abraham Lincoln wear a tall black stovepipe hat?

Q: Which one of our president’s was the only unmarried man ever to be elected?

Q: The 20th president, James Garfield could do what with the Greek and Latin languages?

Q; What Potomac River water sport did President James Quincy Adams enjoy?

Before we get to the answers, here are some fun February weather lore tidbits:

  • Married in February's sleety weather, Life you'll tread in tune together.
  • Violent north winds in February herald a fertile year.
  • If February gives much snow, A fine summer it doth foreshow.
  • Frogs in February mean frosts in May

Answers:

A: Because he carried letters, bills and notes inside the hat and needed lots of room for them.

A: James Buchanan. He was engaged once. His fiancee broke off the engagement and he remained unmarried all his life.

A: He was ambidextrous and could write Greek with one hand while writing Latin with the other.

A: In warm weather he would go skinny-dipping in the Potomac River before dawn.

Happy February!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Valentines' Day Folklore, Folktales & Folk Art

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. On Monday we will be celebrating one version or other of Valentine’s Day. Either we will be romancing a loved one or reminding a family member of friend how special they are to us.

In the world of folklore there are many ways to express your feelings.

You can sing someone a song, you can bake cookies, send chocolate and flowers, write someone a poem about a special memory or make and send a card with a personal message.

Before you get going, though, here’s some folklore about this February 14th tradition to give whatever you do more meaning:

Exact details about the 14th of February are not archived anywhere. It is only through legends that we have the St. Valentine’s Day story.

Said to be of both ancient Christina and Roman Traidtions, the holiday is believed to have originated from the fertility celebration of Lupercalis/Lupercalia that took place on February 15. Pagan holidays, such as this one took on new meaning under the rule of Christianity which dedicated celebrations to early Christina martyrs.

Records do show that Pope Gelasius, in 496 A.D. turned the celebration into a Christian feast day for Saint Valentine, a Roman martyr who lived in the 3rd century. And he changed the date from the 15th to the 14th.

For the Roman, Valentine’s Day traditions included men giving handwritten greetings of affection, known as Valentines, to the women they admired. In the 18th century, gift-giving and card exchanges became common in countries like England. Eventually these activities made their way to America and in the 1840’s Valentine's Day greeting cards began to be commercially produced in the U.S.

The more personal Valentine’s Day gifts, of course, are handmade/homemade. So think about writing a vignette that tells in folktale fashion how someone is your hero or heroine. If you have decided to give someone a special gift, tell them in a handmade card why that gift was chosen for them.

To help you with folk art ideas to accompany your folktale, here are a few sites that offer fun, free ideas:

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Animal Folklore: the Chinese Dragon

Animals in folklore are very common. Dragons, in particular, are powerful, magical animal that can be benevolent or evil, depending upon where they show up in legends and folklore. From Grendel in English literature’s Beowulf to Vitra, the Hindu Dragon of the Waters to the Chinese Imperial dragon that is celebrated in Chinese New Years’ Day parades, it is a mythical force to be reckoned with.

In Oriental cultures, the dragon is a supreme force that represents both celestial and terrestrial wisdom and strength. These water-based animals are believed to bring wealth and good luck and can, according to Chinese folklore, bring rain for crops. The dragon often associated with the Chinese New Year parades is a protector against spirits that could otherwise ruin the upcoming year.

Traditionally portrayed in Chinese art as long, scaled serpentine creatures with four legs they are, unlike their European counterparts, primarily a positive symbol.

As an imperial sign, the dragon was a form taken by the first legendary Emperor when he ascended to Heaven. Emperor Huang Di’s brother Yan Di was also a legendary Emperor who was born by his mother’s spiritual connection with a mythic dragon. From then on the imperial throne was known as the Dragon Throne and that particular dragon (with five claws on each foot) became the Imperial Dragon which appears in carvings at the Forbidden City.

In all there are nine types of Chinese dragon. Here is an overview of four of them:

· The Dragon King: This is actually four distinct dragons each of which rules over the four seas. They can change into the form of a human and are guarded by shellfish soliders.

· Shenlong, the Spiritual Dragon: This creature generates wind and rain for the benefit of all.

· Dilong: Earth Dragons who rule over the rivers and streams. They are the female counterpart of the Shenlong.

· Tinalong: These Celestial Dragons pull the chariots of the Chinese gods and also guard their dwellings.

For more information about Oriental dragons, visit these sites:

Chinese Dragon Myths and Legends

Japanse and Chinese Dragon Myths and Stories


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When Dreams Go Bad

The world of dreams has long fascinated scientists, mystics and artists. Dream imagery has archetypal significance. As universal symbols, their mythological and folkloric interpretations are what make these sleep time symbols meaningful to a particular culture or society. Individual interpretation is what makes them personal and unique.

So what's in our dreams and why should we care?

I recently interviewed dream consultant, Dream Talk Radio host and author Anne Hill, D. Min. about these questions. Author of What To Do When Dreams Go Bad: A Practical Guide to Nightmares, founder of Creative Content Coaching, expert speaker and contributor to Huffington Post and SageWoman Magazine she shared with me a wealth of knowledge about how dreams fit into the weave of our lives.

Q: Why did you decide to write What To Do When Dreams Go Bad?


A:
I wrote the book as a response to a nightmare I had while presenting a workshop that dealt with participants’ nightmare material. In working with my dream I realized that the (seemingly) threatening figure was actually more of a challenger, opening my eyes to something that was right in front of me but I had been unaware of. I understood that to mean a couple different things, and one of them was that it was time for me to write a guide to nightmares.

Q: There are many folklore/mythological themes (motifs) in dreams. Are there certain motifs that are more common than others?


A:
I think the appearance of certain universal dream themes is cyclical, and that interests me very much. For instance, I heard literally dozens of reports from people this month who had tidal wave dreams around the first of the year. In the middle of this month, there was a cluster of dream reports having to do with the sudden death of children.

This is all anecdotal, of course, but I tend to look for patterns in what I hear, as a way of maybe tuning into a more regional or cultural level of meaning in the dreams of individuals.

Q: Sleep plays many roles in our culture. It’s about physical rest/restoration and it’s also about a time of day that has often been imbued with qualities that are mystical, even magical. Are there other roles?


A:
We also have phrases like “asleep at the wheel” and “daydreaming,” which usually mean that someone is not paying attention or is “out of it” when they need to be more awake. Meanwhile, there are so many people with sleep disorders—diagnosed and undiagnosed—that prevent them from getting the restorative sleep they need at night. Hence their inability to track things during the day, and the tragedies that arise from people who take sleep aids that make them do irrational or dangerous things while essentially sleepwalking. There is so much about sleep that we don’t understand, but fortunately more attention is being focused on the fact that sleep deprivation is a public safety as well as a mental health issue.

I think everyone longs for a better balance of wakefulness and energy during the day, along with a deep sleep at night that helps them connect to the mysteries and wisdom of the dream world. The good news is that there are so many pieces of this puzzle coming to light, and lots of specialized attention available for people who need help with their sleep patterns or their dream material.

Q: Can you cite an example of how dreams or nightmares challenge us to live up to our potential?

A: In the case of my nightmare, it scared me so badly I woke up petrified. The figure in the dream seemed so real and so threatening—there was a heavy emotional charge to the dream. But one of the practices I use with my own dreams is to pretend I am a reporter, looking for “just the facts, ma’am.” I took a step away from the emotional content and looked at what exactly was happening and what exactly I saw in the dream. As is so often the case, the literal truth of the dream was different from what I felt was happening.

This is one of the keys to understanding dreams: they are brilliant in the way they sharpen our perceptions. So many times in our lives something will be happening, or be on the verge of happening, and all we know is how threatening or scary it feels. Our emotional reaction may be way out of line with what is actually going on. Dreams that come in the form of nightmares highlight this disparity really well, and can help us re-focus on the real issues at hand rather than staying in fear.

Dreams can also accurately predict future events, warn us of potential dangers, and point out opportunities that we otherwise would have missed. The more we work with dreams, the more likely we are to recognize this information when it comes. That is one of the real cumulative benefits of paying attention to dreams over a lifetime.

Q: Do (and if so, how) night dreams differ day dreams?

A: Most dream researchers would agree that they are on the same continuum of dreaming to waking consciousness. There has been some really interesting research done about how a little daydreaming—even an afternoon nap—helps us remember things we have just learned, and makes us better at test-taking and other stress situations. In terms of dreamwork, I see no real difference between night and day dreams. And sometimes people who don’t remember their nighttime dreams have very detailed recall of their daydreams, so that is a good place to start in exploring what their dreaming mind is up to.