Today is Maghi (or some variant), in many parts of the Indian subcontinent and SE Asia. It is an annual festival on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar, when the sun enters the sign of Makara or Capricorn. The eve of Maghi is called Lohri (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/lohri/ ). It is one of the seasonal gatherings of the Sikhs, and is celebrated at Muktsar in the memory of forty Sikh martyrs (Chalis Mukte), who once deserted the tenth and last human Guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur Sahib, but later rejoined the Guru and died while fighting the Mughal Empire army led by Wazir Khan in 1705. Sikhs make a pilgrimage to the site of this Sikh-Muslim war, and take a dip in the sacred water tanks of Muktsar. A fair (mela) called the Mela Maghi is held at Muktsar Sahib every year in memory of the forty Sikh martyrs. Before this tradition started to commemorate the Sikh martyrs, the festival was observed and mentioned by Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of Sikhism.
Makar Sankranti (or Pongal) is celebrated on this date in other parts of the Indian subcontinent by Hindus, always on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar. Hindus bathe in the Ganges or if that is not possible, in some other river, rivulet, canal or pond.
Maghi is celebrated by eating kheer such as roh di kheer which is an old dish in which rice is cooked in sugarcane juice. The dish is prepared in the evening before Maghi and is kept overnight to cool. It is served cold next morning on Maghi with red-pepper mixed curd. In some parts of Punjab, it is also traditional to eat kichdi (rice and moong beans) mixed with lentils, or raw sugarcane and jaggery.
Here’s a great video on preparing roh di kheer in a traditional Punjabi kitchen:
Today is the festival of Lohri, celebrated by Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. It is observed the night before Makar Sankranti, also known as Maghi, which according to the solar part of the lunisolar Bikrami calendar typically falls on this date every year. Historically, the festival has been both a winter crop season celebration, and a remembrance of the Sun deity (Surya). Lohri songs mention Surya, asking for heat and thanking him for his return. Other legends explain the celebration as a folk reverence for fire (Agni) or the goddess of Lohri.
Other Punjabi folklore links Lohri to the tale of Dulla Bhatti. The central theme of many Lohri songs is the legend of Dulla Bhatti who lived in Punjab during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar. He was regarded as a hero in Punjab, for rescuing Hindu girls from being forcibly taken to be sold in slave market of the Middle East. Amongst those he saved were two girls Sundri & Mundri, who gradually became a theme of Punjabi folklore. As a part of Lohri celebrations, children go around homes singing the traditional folk songs of Lohri with “Dulla Bhatti” name included. One person sings, while others end each line with a loud “Ho!” sung in unison. After the song ends, the adult of the home is expected to give snacks and money to the singing troupe of youngsters.
Lohri is celebrated with a bonfire. The lighting of bonfire during this winter festival is a longstanding tradition, as is true of midwinter festivals throughout the northern hemisphere.
In Punjab, the harvest festival Lohri is marked by eating sheaves of roasted corn from the new harvest. The January sugarcane harvest is also celebrated in the Lohri festival. Sugarcane products such as gurh (solidified and unrefined sugarcane juice) and gachak (recipe below) are central to Lohri celebrations, as are nuts which are harvested in January. The other important food item of Lohri is the radish which can be harvested between October and January. Mustard greens are cultivated mainly in the winter months because the crop is suitable to the agro-climatic conditions. Accordingly, mustard greens are also a winter produce. It is traditional to eat gajak, sarson da saag with makki di roti, radish, ground nuts and jaggery. Jaggery is a solid brown sugar product made from cane sugar and toddy palm juice. It is also traditional to eat “til rice” which is made by mixing jaggery, sesame seeds and rice. In some places, this dish is called ‘tricholi.’
In various places in the Punjab, about 10 to 15 days before Lohri, groups of young and teenage boys and girls go around the neighborhood collecting logs for the Lohri bonfire. In some places, they also collect items such as grains and jaggery which are sold and the sale proceeds are divided amongst the group.
A popular activity engaged in by boys is to select a group member to smear his face with ash and tie a rope around his waist. The idea is for the selected person to act as a deterrent for people who refrain from giving Lohri items. The boys will sing Lohri songs asking for Lohri items. If not enough is given, the householder will be given an ultimatum to either give more or the rope will be loosened. If not enough is given, then the boy who has his face smeared will try to enter the house and smash clay pots or the clay stove.
During the day, children go from door to door singing traditional songs. These children are given sweets and savories, and occasionally, money. Turning them back empty-handed is regarded inauspicious. Where families are welcoming newly-weds and newborns, the requests for treats increases. The collections gathered by the children are known as Lohri and consist of til, gachak, crystal sugar, gur (jaggery), moongphali (peanuts) and phuliya or popcorn. Lohri is then distributed at night during the festival. Till, peanuts, popcorn and other food items are also thrown into the fire. For some, throwing food into the fire represents the burning of the old year and start the next year on Makar Sankranti
The bonfire ceremony differs depending on the location in Punjab. In some parts, a small image of the folk Lohri goddess is made with gobar (cattle dung) which is then decorated. A fire is lit beneath it and people chant its praises. In other parts, the Lohri fire consists of cow dung and wood with no reference to the Lohri goddess.
The bonfire is lit at sunset in the main village square. People toss sesame seeds, gur, and sugar-candy on the bonfire, sit around it, sing and dance till the fire dies out. Some people perform a prayer while they circle fire. It is traditional to offer guests til, gachchak, gur, moongphali (peanuts) and phuliya or popcorn. Milk and water mix is also poured around the bonfire by Hindus to thank the Sun God and seeking his continued protection.
Here’s a recipe for gachak. It’s not in English, but you’ll figure it out.
Today is the birthday (1935) of Elvis Aaron Presley, often known simply as Elvis, the king of Rock and Roll, or just the King. Elvis is one of the cultural icons of the mid-20th century, and his music marked a fundamental shift in popular music in the late 1950s from crooners and other solo artists to guitar playing rock stars fronting bands with guitars and drums. Prior to Elvis, rock and roll in the US was the domain of African-American musicians, but Elvis brought the style into the White mainstream.
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee with his family when he was 13 years old. His music career began there in 1954, recording at Sun Records with producer Sam Phillips, who was the key person involved in bringing the sound of African-American music to a wider audience at the time. Presley, on rhythm acoustic guitar, and accompanied by lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, was a pioneer of rockabilly, an up-tempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country music and rhythm and blues. In 1955, drummer D. J. Fontana joined to complete the lineup of Presley’s classic quartet and RCA Victor acquired his contract in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who would manage him for more than two decades. Presley’s first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was released in January 1956 and became a number-one hit in the United States. With a series of successful network television appearances and chart-topping records, he became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of rock and roll. His energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines during a transformative era in race relations, made him enormously popular—and controversial.
In November 1956, Presley made his film debut in Love Me Tender. He was drafted into military service in 1958, which the press made much about at the time, and then forgot him. He was intent on being a regular soldier rather than an entertainer in uniform, so he worked in a regular army unit, mostly in Germany. Meanwhile his handlers issued pre-recorded singles on a regular basis so that his music would have a continued presence even though the man himself was absent. In 1960 Presley was honorably discharged and relaunched his recording career with some of his most commercially successful work such as, “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” He held few concerts however, and guided by Parker, proceeded to devote much of the 1960s to making Hollywood films and soundtrack albums, most of them critically derided. They were all completely formulaic, involving beaches, pretty women, and cookie-cutter songs.
In 1968, following a seven-year break from live performances, he returned to the stage in the acclaimed television comeback special Elvis, which led to an extended Las Vegas concert residency and a string of highly profitable tours. In 1973, Presley gave the first concert by a solo artist to be broadcast around the world, Aloha from Hawaii.
Years of prescription drug abuse severely compromised his health, and he died suddenly in 1977 at his Graceland estate at the age of 42. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest, but there is continuing controversy about how (or even whether) he died. He did have well documented cardiac problems, and he did overdose on amphetamines several times prior to his death. So it’s probably likely that bad eating habits, drug abuse, and a weakened heart were all contributory factors in his death.
Presley is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music. He was commercially successful in many genres, including pop, country, blues, and gospel. He won three competitive Grammys, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36, and has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame.
Now let’s consider those bad eating habits. Anyone who is my age can remember the slender, highly active Elvis of the 50s versus the overweight, sluggish Elvis of the 70s. His eating habits (and recipes) have been documented in several books. Here I will focus on the peanut butter and banana sandwich, or peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich, sometimes referred to as an Elvis sandwich or simply the Elvis, consisting of toasted bread slices with peanut butter, sliced or mashed banana, and sometimes bacon. Presley’s fondness for peanut butter and banana sandwiches is well established; however, bacon is not mentioned in all accounts. His mother, Gladys Presley, says, however, that on one occasion he had “sandwich after sandwich of his favorite—peanut butter, sliced bananas, and crisp bacon”. Another passage describes him talking “feverishly until dawn” while “wolfing” down the sandwiches (described in this instance as being made with mashed banana).
A news report suggests that, based on renditions of sandwiches named after him, Presley ate his with caramelized bananas and crispy bacon on grilled Hawaiian bread, and grilled by his mother or his cook in bacon fat. The Good, the Bad, and the Yummy describes it as consisting of half a banana and a piece of bacon per sandwich, browning the sandwiches in a frying pan with butter, cutting the sandwiches into wedges, and piling them high.
Elvis is also well documented as loving the Fool’s Gold Loaf, a sandwich made by the Colorado Mine Company, a restaurant in Denver, Colorado. The sandwich consists of a single warmed, hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with the contents of one jar of creamy peanut butter, one jar of grape jelly, and a pound of bacon. The sandwich’s connection to the singer Elvis Presley is the source of its legend and prolonged interest. According to The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley, Presley and his friends took his private jet from Graceland, purchased 30 of the sandwiches, and spent two hours eating them and drinking Perrier and champagne before flying home. The story became legend and the sandwich became the subject of continued media interest and part of numerous cookbooks, typically focused on Presley’s love of food.
In Italian tradition, La Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts and/or sweets to children throughout Italy on the eve of Epiphany to be opened on the morning of Epiphany (today). This seems like a suitable way to open my “gift”of posts for 2020 (which will continue to be few and far between). The name Befana is likely some corruption of dialect for Epiphany, but you will also read the usual rubbish about it, and the custom, being a survival of some long-lost “pagan”tradition. I am not going to spill any more ink in that direction.
In popular folklore, Befana visits all the children of Italy to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana. She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.
Christian legend has it that Befana was approached by the biblical magi (Three Wise Men) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where he, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.
Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief caused her to become mad/crazy. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.
Another commonly heard Christian legend of La Befana starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus. In this version, Befana spent her days cleaning and sweeping. One day the magi came to her door in search of the baby Jesus. However, Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. Feeling guilty, she eventually decides to find Jesus on her own by following a bright light in the sky which she believes points the way. She brings along a bag filled with baked goods and gifts for Jesus, and a broom to help the new mother clean. Unfortunately despite her best efforts she never finds him. According to this telling, Befana is still searching after all these centuries for the new born messiah. On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana comes to every house where there is a child and leaves a gift. Although she has been unsuccessful in her search, she still leaves gifts for good young children because the Christ Child can be found in all children.
Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn’t wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds.
Befana was never a widespread tradition among the whole Italian people, having originated in Rome and having become well known and practiced by the rest of the population during the 20th century, and is now a national icon. In the regions of the Marches, Umbria and Latium, her figure is associated with the Papal States, where Epiphany held the most importance. Urbania is thought to be her official home. Every year there is a big festival held to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befanas are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children.
Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of “coal” in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring) along with treats, since every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year.
There are poems about Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy. Here is one of the versions:
La Befana vien di notte Con le scarpe tutte rotte Col vestito alla romana Viva, Viva La Befana!
Befana comes by night With her shoes all tattered and torn She comes dressed in the Roman way Long live the Befana!
Since Befana is originally a Roman tradition, a Roman recipe is in order. My fav is trippa alla Romana, but I have already given a recipe (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-peters-basilica/ ) so I’ll turn to spaghetti all carbonara which is also fundamentally Roman, and a great way to dish pasta.
Today is called Aðfangadagur in Iceland, the center point of Yule (Jól). They have the common church tradition of lighting a candle per week for 4 weeks beforehand.
But they also have a custom of the Yule Lads, that is exactly symmetric around the 24th. (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/threttandinn/ ). There are 13 Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir) sons of two trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði, living in the Icelandic mountains. They arrive one by one each night for 13 nights, and then depart after the 24th one by one – ending with Epiphany. Each of the Yule Lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing meat, stealing milk or eating the candles). I’ll place a poem about each one after the recipe. Yule Lads traditionally wear early Icelandic wool clothing but are now known for the more recognizable red and white suit. Starting 13 days before today, Icelandic children set out their shoes by the window for presents from the Yule Lads. Candle Stealer, last to come and leave, was recently voted the favorite, because, although he steals candles to eat them, he is also the most generous.
The Yule Lads’ mother, Grýla, likes to eat children that do not behave. She is often described with many tails, horns hooves, many heads and so on. She also has a huge cat called Jólakötturinn – the Christmas Cat – which eats children who don’t get new clothes for Christmas.
In Iceland people over the Yule holidays most often eat smoked lamb, ptarmigan, turkey, and pork. But they also enjoy reindeer – which is the reason for this post. Reindeer for Christmas is like rabbit for Easter — “Would you like another slice of Rudolf?” Here’s a video for you.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not to convenient.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stúfur – Stubby
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.
Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!
Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.
Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage-Swiper
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meet of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
Today features the fourth O Antiphon, O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah had prophesied:
“I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” Isaiah 22:22
“His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.” Isaiah 9:7
“…To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” Isaiah 42:7.
So . . . keys are the symbol of the day. When I checked online for recipes and “keys” I, of course, got recipes for the Florida Keys – duh! All right. That means you can make key lime pie, or do something with conch. Or . . . try this popular favorite: broiled fish Matecumbe. Upper and Lower Matecumbe are part of the Keys that have given birth to the recipe. Main idea is to make the marinade/ seasoning the day before and refrigerate. This is the basic recipe with my own twists.
Combine the following in a non-reactive bowl:
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
8-ounce jar capers with vinegar
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
5 shallots, peeled and chopped
5 tomatoes, chopped
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Next day, select 8 fish fillets. Heat the broiler and place the fillets in a broiling pan in one layer. Cook on one side, turn carefully, and divide the marinade between the fillets – spreading evenly. Broil this side until the fish is cooked through. Serve immediately.
The Bill of Rights 1689 is a landmark Act in the constitutional law of England that sets out certain basic civil rights and clarifies who would be next to inherit the Crown. It received the Royal Assent on this date in 1689 and is a restatement in statutory form of the Declaration of Right presented by the Convention Parliament to William III and Mary II in February 1689, inviting them to become joint sovereigns of England. The Bill of Rights lays down limits on the powers of the monarch and sets out the rights of Parliament, including the requirement for regular parliaments, free elections, and freedom of speech in Parliament. It sets out certain rights of individuals including the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and reestablished the right of Protestants to have arms for their defense within the rule of law. It also includes no right of taxation without Parliament’s agreement. Furthermore, the Bill of Rights described and condemned several misdeeds of James II of England.
These ideas reflected the political views of John Locke and they quickly became popular in England. The Bill also sets out – or, in the view of its drafters, restates – certain constitutional requirements of the Crown to seek the consent of the people, as represented in Parliament. In the United Kingdom, the Bill of Rights is further accompanied by Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 as some of the basic documents of the uncodified British constitution. A separate but similar document, the Claim of Right Act 1689, applies in Scotland. The Bill of Rights 1689 was one of the models for the United States Bill of Rights of 1789 (including the notorious 2nd Amendment), the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950.
Here is a recipe for rich meat broth from A True Gentlewomans Delight of 1653 that is not only contemporary with the English Bill of Rights, but also puts me in mind of classic Christmas recipes, such as mincemeat. Although it is a recipe for meat broth to be served as a savory dish, it contains currants, raisins, and prunes and spiced with mace, nutmeg, and cinnamon. It also has a great deal of sugar. The recipe calls for Saunders which is red sandalwood (giving a yellowish-red tint). If you do replicate this dish, you might want to reduce the quantities.
DESCRIPTION: How to make a rich broth of lamb or beef
To make stewed Broth.
Take a neck of Mutton, or a rump of Beef, let it boyle, and scum your pot clean, thicken your pot with grated bread, and put in some beaten Spice, as Mace, nutmegs, Cinnamon, and a little Pepper, put in a pound of Currans, a pound and a half of Raisins of the Sun, two pounds of Prunes last of all, then when it is stewed, to season put in a quart of Claret, and a pint of Sack, and some Saunders to colour it, and a pound of Sugar to sweeten it, or more if need be, you must seeth some whole Spice to garnish your dish with all, and a few whole Prunes out of your pot.
Today is the feast of St John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz); 1542 – 14 December 1591. He was a Carmelite friar and priest, ultimately of Marrano (converted Spanish Jews) extraction. He was a major figure of the Spanish Counter-Reformation, a mystic and Roman Catholic saint. He is one of thirty-six Doctors of the Church. John of the Cross is known especially for his writings. He was mentored by and corresponded with the older Carmelite, Teresa of Avila – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/teresa-of-avila/ . Both his poetry and his studies on the development of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and among the greatest works of all Spanish literature. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726.
John of the Cross lived a complicated life, fractured many times by his position on reform within the church that put him at odds with powerful factions. At one time he was even imprisoned and tortured – not by nasty heathens, but by supposed Christians. He was able to escape his tormentors, fortunately, and spent much of his life (both in prison and subsequently) writing mystical treatises. I do not have space to review all of his life and works. Instead I will focus on “Dark Night of the Soul” which is not the name John gave the poem; it was unnamed, but that is the name given by later commentators and is standard now. The poem is short, but he wrote an extensive commentary on it, following the visions that evoked the poem in the first place.
In “Dark Night of the Soul” (8 stanzas of 5 lines each), the narrator describes the journey of the soul to mystical union with God. The journey is called “The Dark Night” in part because darkness represents the fact that the destination, God, is unknowable, as in the 14th century, mystical classic The Cloud of Unknowing, which, like St. John’s poem, derives from the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the 6th century. Not only is God unknowable, the path to God is also unknowable. The first verse of the poem can be translated:
In an obscure night Fevered with love’s anxiety (O hapless, happy plight!) I went, none seeing me Forth from my house, where all things quiet be
At the beginning of his treatise on Dark Night (the Declaración), St. John writes: “In this first verse, the soul tells the mode and manner in which it departs, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, dying through a true mortification to all of them and to itself, to arrive at a sweet and delicious life with God.”
The “dark night of the soul” does not refer to the difficulties of life in general, although the phrase has understandably been taken to refer to such trials. The nights which the soul experiences are the two necessary purgations on the path to Divine union: the first purgation is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul, the second of the spiritual part (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Ch. 1, 2). Such purgations comprise the first of the three stages of the mystical journey, followed by those of illumination and then union. St. John does not actually use the term “dark night of the soul” but only “dark night” (“noche oscura”).
There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas of the poem. The theme of the poem is the joyful experience of being guided to God. The only light in this dark night is that which burns in the soul. And that is a guide more certain than the mid-day sun: Aquésta me guiaba, más cierto que la luz del mediodía. This light leads the soul engaged in the mystical journey to Divine union.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel is divided into three books that reflect the two phases of the dark night. The first is a purification of the senses (It is titled “The Active Night of the Senses”). The second and third books describe the more intense purification of the spirit (Titled “The Active Night of the Spirit”). “Dark Night of the Soul” further describes the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love, previously described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle.
The region of Spain where John of the Cross was born and lived for much of his life is noted for the dish Judías del Barco – locally produced white beans with spices and chorizo. Seems like a suitable Christmas feast dish – even for an ascetic monk. Here is a video – in Spanish, I’m afraid. You’ll have to just deal with it I’m afraid. The good news is that you can get the basics from observation only if you are Spanish challenged. It’s not complicated anyway.
Today is the birthday (1833) of Matthias Hohner, a German musical instrument maker and founder of the musical instrument company Hohner. Hohner’s father was a weaver, but when he was 15 he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law, watchmaker Johannes Kohler, in Trossingen. Because the watchmaking business suffered from competition from more established businesses, Hohner had to travel by foot great distances to sell watches from the training workshop. Unhappy with the development of the trade, he withdrew from watchmaking in 1855 and worked in his parents’ workshop, where, with the decline of the weaving mill, other handicraft orders were also carried out.
In his spare time, Hohner built his first mouth organ modeled after designs by Christian Messner and Christian Weiß. After the death of the mother in 1857, Hohner’s father handed over the property to his four children. Matthias received a share of 682 guilders, which he used to start an instrument making business which became his main occupation and henceforth called himself a Harfenbauer (harp maker). He married and had six sons and nine daughters, most of whom lived into adulthood. From 1879 to 1885 Hohner was mayor of Trossingen.
Production expanded through the use of machine tools and assembly line production (with increased staff). Hohner was known for high quality products and easily outstripped the competition. By 1875 Hohner already had 85 employees, and the size of his company had already exceeded that of older companies such as Messner and Weiß. The main sales initially went to the US, until the economic crisis of 1893 required reorientation. Subsequently, main sales shifted to Germany. Hohner also owned a farm of about 25 acres in addition to the instrument shop. Proceeds from the farm supported Hohner’s 20 to 25 apprentices. In 1900 Hohner handed over the company to his five surviving sons: Jacob, Matthias, Andreas, Hans and Will, while he remained a partner. He died in 1902, one day before his birthday.
In the 20th century Hohner diversified considerably. The diatonic mouth organ is a free reed instrument that operates on the blow/suck principle (i.e. one note when you blow and a different note when you suck). It was a simple step from mouth organs to button accordions that operate on the same principle except blow/suck is replaced with a push/pull of the bellows, and bass chords can be added with the left hand. I played a G/D Hohner melodeon for 35 years, and would still play one if I had one. Sadly all my instruments got put in storage when I moved from New York 10 years ago. Hohner also began making bandoneons for Argentine tango music and piano accordions for polka bands. Nowadays, the company also makes instruments besides the free reed family, including guitars, banjos, and kazoos.
Trossingen where Hohner was founded, and still headquartered, is in Baden-Württemberg, where there is a solid local cuisine. Käsespätzle is a great favorite – a comfort food along the lines of US mac and cheese, but much richer and more flavorful. This video is in German but with English sub-titles.
On this date in 1968 two celebrated theologians died: Thomas Merton and Karl Barth. Both are honored on this date by the worldwide Anglican community even though neither was Anglican, and neither has been beatified or canonized. Merton spent his active theological years (1950s and 60s) as a Trappist monk, and Barth was a member of the Swiss Reformed tradition. Nonetheless, they have both been praised by denominations across the Christian spectrum, largely because they thought outside of traditional ecclesiastical boundaries. For my money, neither went far enough ecumenically, but I’ll give them A for effort.
Barth first came to public notice in the theological community with his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans in the summer of 1916 while he was still a pastor in Safenwil, with the first edition appearing in December 1918 (but with a publication date of 1919). On the strength of the first edition of the commentary, Barth was invited to teach at the University of Göttingen. Barth decided around October 1920 that he was dissatisfied with the first edition and heavily revised it the following eleven months, finishing the second edition around September 1921. Barth argued that the God who is revealed in the crucifixion of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions.
In 1934, as the Protestant Church attempted to come to terms with the Third Reich, Barth was largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen declaration (Barmer Erklärung). This declaration rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity by arguing that the Church’s allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the impetus and resources to resist the influence of other lords, such as Adolf Hitler. Barth mailed this declaration to Hitler personally. This was one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church and Barth was elected a member of its leadership council, the Bruderrat. He was forced to resign from his professorship at the University of Bonn in 1935 for refusing to swear an oath to Hitler. Barth then returned to his native Switzerland, where he assumed a chair in systematic theology at the University of Basel. In the course of his appointment he was required to answer a routine question asked of all Swiss civil servants: whether he supported the national defense. His answer was, “Yes, especially on the northern border!” The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung carried his 1936 criticism of the philosopher Martin Heidegger for his support of the Nazis. In 1938 he wrote a letter to a Czech colleague Josef Hromádka in which he declared that soldiers who fought against the Third Reich were serving a Christian cause.
Barth’s theology found its most sustained and compelling expression in his five-volume (multiple parts) magnum opus, Church Dogmatics (“Kirchliche Dogmatik”). Segments of Church Dogmatics were required reading for me at Oxford as a first year theology student. Fortunately, we did not have to delve into the whole work. Church Dogmatics runs to over six million words and 9,000 pages – one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written.
Thomas Merton followed a much more checkered career path than Barth. As a youth he was a well-known profligate (much like so many legendary saints in early life before conversion). After numerous missteps and false starts he determined to become a Trappist monk perhaps as a counterbalance to his misspent earlier life. By coincidence, on this date in 1941 (the date of his death in 1968), Merton arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and spent three days at the monastery guest house, waiting for acceptance into the Order. The novice master came to interview Merton, gauging his sincerity and qualifications. In the interim, Merton was put to work polishing floors and scrubbing dishes. On December 13th he was accepted into the monastery as a postulant by Frederic Dunne, Gethsemani’s abbot since 1935.
In his time as a monk, and later priest, Merton wrote 50 books, primarily on spirituality and social justice, and became an international celebrity. He recognized many points of contact between other faiths, notably Zen, and Christianity, although he remained a dogmatic Catholic. Here are some quotes, beginning with his famous prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.
You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.
If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.
Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
5 cups broth
1 ¼ cups pearl barley
6 oz. mushrooms
2 teaspoons soy sauce
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil and add onion and garlic. Sauté until softened and beginning to brown. Add broth, barley, mushrooms, and soy sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until most liquid is absorbed and mixture is thickened. This will take about 40 minutes. In the last couple of minutes of cooking, stir in the cheese and season with salt and pepper.