Jan 172019

Today is the opening day of the Patras carnival, in Greece, the largest of its kind in Greece, and rivaling carnivals worldwide. So . . . when people feel the blues because Christmas is over and Lent is looming, they get into the party spirit with carnival. Of course, if Lent is not a big deal for you, then carnival will not be important either. But in largely Catholic countries, or enclaves, there is always at least one city – Rio, New Orleans, Venice – where they pull out all the stops. Such places attract huge numbers of tourists these days, but there is still very much a local presence under the schlock if you know where to look. Patras is unusual in that it occurs in a predominantly Orthodox country.

You might hear the usual rubbish about how Patras carnival has roots in ancient pagan rituals, such as those to honor Dionysus, but there is general agreement that the starting event of the current Patras Carnival was a ball given at the residence of the merchant Moretis in 1829. French troops of general Maison stationed in the city after its liberation from the Turks were a major influence on the carnival, bringing their own (Catholic) culture and traditions to the festivities. During the 19th century, new arrivals from the newly joined Heptanese, the seven islands (plus smaller ones) in the Ionian sea that became part of Greece in 1864 also added their own regional culture and music. Later on, and as a consequence of the prosperity of the city at the end of the 19th century, the carnival festivities took on a more regular nature. The geographical location of the town and the ever-increasing dominance of the port ensured constant communication with Italy and the rest of Western Europe. Their grand carnivals and the Venetian carnival in particular were especially influential in shaping the festivities, giving the carnival its Western characteristics.

The first carnival floats appeared in the 1870s. At that time the floats were exclusively the creations of individuals. Later the Municipality of Patras constructed a large number of them. In 1872, with contributions from the town’s wealthy raisin merchants, the celebrated Apollon Theatre was built by Ernst Ziller in George square. Carnival dances were hosted there, and they continue to be hosted to this day. George square is the central location in carnival celebrations and the Apollon theatre serves as a backdrop to most major carnival events, including today’s opening ceremony, making it emblematic not only of the carnival but of the town itself.

In 1880 on Saint Anthony the Great’s day (today), the first “mpoules” appeared. These were groups who were disguised and anonymously poked fun at friends and other people in the neighborhood. This custom has now disappeared. As the historian of the Patras Carnival, Nikos Politis, points out, beautiful carnivals were organized during the belle époque in the years 1900, 1907, 1909 with attendance for the first time of individuals from all social classes and origins. This period also gave birth to the egg-war custom. Wax eggs were made stuffed with confetti using specially designed machines which the carnival participants threw from balconies. Although this custom has disappeared, it is considered to be the precursor of the chocolate war which still persists. Bars of chocolates are thrown by revelers on floats or amongst groups at parties.

The developments of the following decade were not favorable for the carnival; the continuous wars and conflicts (Balkan wars, World War I, Asia Minor campaign) economic crisis and desolation to the city. In the first postwar years the situation did not improve perceptibly, but the years 1938 and 1939 saw revivals. Nevertheless, World War II and the subsequent Greek Civil War brought interruption. In the 1950s the carnival returned. In the same period the Greek cinema showed scenes of the carnival in its films. Other historic scenes can be seen in prewar films.

In 1966 the carnival was reorganized. The journalist Nikos Mastorakis introduced the Hidden Treasure Hunt, a game in which 94 citizens of Patras and visitors try to find a list of sometimes obscure objects. The first prize was won by a team led by a friend of the carnival from Thessalonica, Alkis Steas, and he started the game the following year, and for decades thereafter, becoming a carnival legend in person and on television. His expressions such as “the Carnival city of Greece”, when he referred to Patras and “be happy” and “keep dancing!” when he referred to the carnival groups, remain catch phrases. In 1974 the modern phase of the carnival began when revelers were convinced to abandon their cars and parade on foot in the streets (until then only floats paraded). Since then each year the spectacle has grown and the carnival has become enormous with thousands of revelers taking part in the parade as hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Patras to witness the proceedings.

Irrespective of when the Triodion falls, the three-week period preceding the first Sunday of Lent, it is customary for the Carnival of Patras to start on the feast day of St. Anthony the Great (17 January). A town crier appears on the streets of Patras; in recent years this has been a specially constructed float with music. The crier announces the opening with a satirical message and invites the town’s residents to assemble that evening for the opening ceremony in George square. During a spectacular celebration with elements of surprise, as the program is kept secret till the last moment, the start of the Patras Carnival is declared by the town’s mayor from the first-floor balcony of the Apollon theatre. The program usually includes pantomimes, dances, music and fireworks.

Patras is a port city that owes much of its growth and wealth to the import and export of raisins. Greece has been growing raisins since antiquity and Patras was one of the first areas where they were grown. The 19th century, when the Patras carnival was expanding, was a boom time for raisin production and export, reaching 80% of all Greek at one point. So, raisins it is. Here is a recipe for Greek raisin cake.

Greek Raisin Cake


4 cups flour
5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp salt
1 cup butter
1 ½ cups sugar
3 eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups milk
2 cups raisins
powdered sugar


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Grease a 9 x 13 inch loaf pan.

Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, and salt together into a bowl.

Put the butter and sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed until well combined. Turn the mixer to low speed and add the eggs a little at a time until they are well mixed in. Still on low speed, beat 2 cups of the dry ingredients into the egg mixture. Add ½ cup of milk and beat together. Add the rest of the dry ingredients and beat for 1 minute, then add the rest of the milk and beat again. Turn off the mixer and stir in the raisins using a wooden spoon, making sure they are mixed in well.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and let the pan cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out on to a serving plate and dust the top with confectioners’ sugar when the cake has completely cooled.

Apr 022017

Today is the 5th Sunday in Lent and goes by various names. Until 1959, the 5th Sunday in Lent was officially known in the Roman Catholic Church as Passion Sunday. It marked the beginning of a two-week-long period known as Passiontide, which is still observed by various denominations in Protestantism and by some traditionalist Catholics. In 1960, Pope John XXIII’s Code of Rubrics changed the name to First Sunday of the Passion bringing the name into harmony with the name that Pope Pius XII gave, five years earlier, to the 6th Sunday in Lent, “Second Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday.” In Passiontide personal (and Church) reflection shifts from contrition to the crucifixion (and beyond) in the liturgical tradition.  As you can see from my header photo, the light of the world is dimming. But . . . there is hope to come.  I’m sure we sometimes feel this way about the world.  I do these days.  The forces of darkness can seem in the ascendant – but light will prevail in the end.


Although Passiontide as a distinct liturgical season was abolished, the Roman Rite liturgy continues to bring the Passion of Christ to mind, from Monday of the 5th week in Lent onward, through the choice of hymns and readings, and the authorization of the practice of covering crosses and images from the 5th  Sunday of Lent onward, if the Conference of Bishops so decides. Where this practice is followed, crucifixes remain covered until the end of the Good Friday celebration of the Lord’s Passion; statues remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

The entrance antiphon of the Mass on the fifth Sunday in Lent begins with the word “Iudica” (older spelling, “Judica”). This provides another name for that Sunday: “Iudica Sunday” or “Judica Sunday”. Because of the custom of veiling crucifixes and statues in the church before Mass on the fifth Sunday of Lent, this Sunday was called Black Sunday in Germany, where the veils, which elsewhere were generally violet, were black.

This year the common lectionary includes the reading Ezekiel 37:1-14, the image of the valley of dry bones:

37:1 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

Ezekiel was a prophet of the Exile whose writings focus on various visions, especially of God and hope for a brighter future. The Valley of Dry Bones image became, of course, a famous spiritual:

Carlins, also called black peas, parched peas or maple peas, were once common in Lancashire, England, on the 5th Sunday in Lent, and the day was called Carlin Sunday. This is similar to the tradition of making carlings which I mentioned last Sunday, although the peas are different.  The words “carlin” and “carling” are obvious cognates and I have no doubt that we are dealing with merging traditions here although the etymology of the words, like the origins of the peas, is obscure. I am not sure why they are associated with Lent because they are typically seasonal in autumn in northern England and Scotland – although they used to be commonly found at fairgrounds and mobile food counters, traditionally eaten (hot or cold) from a cup with salt and malt vinegar.

Classically carlins are fried with butter for a few minutes after being boiled for an hour, rather than being slow boiled for up to three hours. But they can be prepared in the same way that you prepare any dried beans or legumes. They are difficult to come by in stores, but they are fairly easy to find online.  They have a distinctive nutty taste. I prepare them much the same as I prepare ful medames:


That is, I drizzle the cooked carlins with olive oil and cumin, and serve them hot with a boiled egg and flatbread.  Not very Lancashire.

Classically you soak carlins in water overnight. Drain them, then place in a pot, cover with water and simmer for about an hour. You can cook them to a mush of course, but after about an hour the dark skins are starting to peel back. Drain the carlins and let the surface moisture evaporate.  Meanwhile heat one or two tablespoons of butter in a skillet and when it is bubbling toss in the carlins. Make sure they are all nicely coated with butter, then serve with salt and malt vinegar on the side for guests to help themselves.

Mar 262017

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent and has been known by many names, Refreshment Sunday, Laetare Sunday, Rose Sunday, and Mothering Sunday, because of various customs associated with the day.  I’m going to focus on Mothering Sunday, but also tip my hat to the other names and traditions.  My mother, who was raised Anglican, vaguely mentioned it when Mothering Sunday came around each year when I was a little boy, 60 years ago, but it had no obvious meaning at the time outside of a few churches that honored it.  Then it was the custom to give little children posies of wild flowers to take to their mothers.

There is no precise documentation of what people did on Mothering Sunday historically but it seems that in the 16th century some people took the day to visit their “mother” church. What their mother church was apparently varied.  For some it was the diocesan cathedral, for others it was the church where they were baptized. It is tempting to see the latter custom as the reason why the day became a family reunion holiday, because people returning to where they were born would likely have the opportunity to visit their parents. But there is no strong evidence for this practice. However, it is known that in the 16th century going a-mothering was established in some regions of England.  Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674) wrote:


I’ll to thee a simnel bring,
‘Gainst thou go’st a-mothering:
So that when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.

A simnel is a simnel cake, a cake made with fine flour that has been around since the Middle Ages, and which was a customary treat on special days. Mid-Lent Sunday was commonly a time to have a small break from the fasting rigors of Lent, so a fine fruit cake was an appropriate gift to take to family on Mothering Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday. The old Gospel reading of the day concerned the miracle of loaves and fishes, so a little indulgence was warranted. After all, Sundays, even in Lent, are feast days, not fast days.

It’s not possible to make much historical sense out of the evolution of Mothering Sunday, but certainly by the 18th and (especially) 19th centuries it was customarily a day off for household servants to visit their mother church with their own mothers and other family members, or simply to visit their parents. It was often one of the few times that whole families could gather together, and because the focus was not on specific holiday celebrations it could be devoted to family activities.

By the early 20th century the custom of keeping Mothering Sunday had tended to lapse . In 1914, inspired by Anna Jarvis’s efforts in the United States, Constance Penswick-Smith created the Mothering Sunday Movement, and in 1921 she wrote a book asking for the revival of the festival. Constance was the daughter of the vicar of Coddington, Nottinghamshire, and there is a memorial in Coddington’s church. The wide scale revival of the day did not occur, however, until US and Canadian soldiers serving abroad during World War II brought Mother’s Day (a different day) to Europe.  By the late 1950s, prompted by savvy merchants, Mothering Sunday became England’s Mother’s Day, although it took some time to catch on as such.

Mid-Lent Sunday is also known as Rose Sunday, again for somewhat obscure reasons. The liturgy in Catholic and Anglican churches allows for rose-colored vestments on this day. It is said that pope Leo IX, in 1051, commanded the nuns of Bamberg in Franconia, to furnish a Golden Rose to be blessed and carried on Mid-Lent Sunday each year, but the blessing and presentation of Golden Roses by the pope was not restricted to this Sunday, although the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that “the Golden Rose, sent by the Popes to Catholic sovereigns, used to be blessed at this time, and for this reason the day was sometimes called ‘Dominica de Rosa’.”

In my Lenten wreath there is one rose candle that I extinguish on this day (the symbolic opposite of Gaudete Sunday in Advent).

Another tradition associated with Mothering Sunday is the practice of “clipping the church”, whereby the congregation form a ring around their church building and, holding hands, embrace it.

Simnel cake, via Herrick, has some association with this day, but it is more commonly associated with Easter Sunday. For a while in England “Mothering Buns” or “Mothering Sunday Buns” were made to celebrate. They are sweet yeast buns topped with pink or white icing and the multi-coloured sprinkles known as “hundreds and thousands” in the UK. They are not widely made or served today in the UK but in Australia they are a bakery staple year round.

This year I’ll eschew sweet things and go with carlings.  Carlings are pancakes made of split pies fried in butter that can still be found in the north of England and Scotland that were commonly eaten on Mothering Sunday.  You can choose whether to add herbs or not. Sage or parsley would be all right, but I don’t usually add any. You need to be fairly warned that cooking the peas too long, or not draining them sufficiently will make the carlings too moist and they will fall apart when cooked. It’s not traditional, but it might be worth it to try adding a beaten egg to the pea mix to set up the carlings better as they cook. In that case you’d need to increase the bread crumbs as well.



8 oz split green peas
4 cups stock
1 slice stale bread, grated into crumbs
1 onion, peeled and chopped finely
4 tbsp butter
dried herbs (optional)
salt and pepper


Soak the peas overnight.

Next day, drain the peas, place them in a saucepan with the stock and simmer for about an hour or until tender. Do not overcook them so that they are mushy.

Meanwhile, mix together the breadcrumbs, onion, and your choice of dried herbs.  Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and stir it into the breadcrumbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drain the cooked peas well and stir them into the breadcrumb mix. Chill for at least 1 hour.

Season a handful of flour with salt and pepper and place it in a shallow bowl.  Form the pea mixture into patties and press each side into the seasoned flour.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the patties in batches. Cook on one side then flip the patty to cook the other side, so that they are golden on both. Flip them only once because they have a tendency to fall apart if handled too much.

Serve warm.


Mar 192017

Today is Oculi Sunday – the third Sunday in Lent.  The name comes from the first word in Latin of the introit of the day (taken from Psalm 25): Oculi mei semper ad Dominum – My eyes are always on God. If you’re a real stickler you can hear (or sing) the introit as a Gregorian chant.  This site will give you the full monty: text, music, original Latin with translation and commentary, plus an .mp3.


My liturgical side is minute (at best), so I’ll pass.

The lectionary Gospel reading this year (Year A) is the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).  You may need to familiarize yourself with it if your memory is hazy – or you don’t know it.


The story has two key elements.  First, Jesus does not treat the woman harshly even though she has had 5 husbands and the man she is currently living with is not her husband. Jesus was not a moralist, unlike many contemporary so-called Christians.  Second, the woman was a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans generally despised one another (which is why the story of the Good Samaritan is so poignant). Jesus preached tolerance of those who are different from us in religion and culture. We could use a lot more of that kind of tolerance these days.

The story of the woman at the well does not get a lot of coverage in the popular world but, curiously there is an Irish song that tells it:

The story also introduces the idea of “bread of heaven” and “living water” as images of the spiritual life.  Both images are reflected in one of my favorite hymns, Cwm Rhondda (Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah):

The history of Samaria and Samaritans, and their historic relations with Jews is rather obscure.  According to the Bible Samaria is roughly coterminous with the region that was originally designated for the two half tribes of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh. Here we encounter an immediate problem.  There is no clear evidence that the tribal boundaries given in the Hebrew Bible match historical facts. It is certainly true (in my expert opinion !!!) that the farther back in time we go in the history of Israel, the more unreliable the Bible is. I have no hesitation in saying, for example, that the kings David and Solomon did not exist. At the purported time of their massive kingdoms, Jerusalem was little more than a village of shepherds according to archeology. It is reasonably clear that in the 8th century BCE the region of Samaria was wealthy and opulent. The early prophets Amos and Hosea rail against the region for its ostentation and greed, and this is confirmed by archeology.

In 726–722 BCE, the new king of Assyria, Shalmaneser V, invaded Israel and besieged the city of Samaria, the capital. After an assault of three years, the city fell and much of its population was taken into captivity and deported. The great mystery is what happened to the people who were deported (the so-called Lost Tribes of Israel), and who took their place. There was a lot of friction between the new Samaritans and the remaining Jews in Judah and in Galilee down to the time of Jesus. But from the outside it’s hard to distinguish between Samaritans and Judeans. The Samaritans used the Torah as their sacred text, celebrated the High Holy Days and so forth.  The Samaritan Torah is somewhat different in places from the classic Jewish Torah, but not significantly. So, why were the Jews and the Samaritans at odds so much? I suspect it was a simple matter of prejudice against newcomers (i.e. immigrants).  We know all about that. In Jesus’ time people usually skirted around Samaria if they were traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee. Jesus did not. He ploughed through Samaria in a straight line, and was not fazed at all by common prejudice. This behavior got him noticed.

The archeological record of Samaria in Biblical times is chock full of cooking pots. In fact styles of cooking pots are used to date sites and archeological strata.  What was cooked in the pots is mere speculation but some things are reasonably clear. If the people had kilns to fire pots they had ovens to bake yeast bread.  Furthermore, the superabundance of cooking pots tells us that boiling food was the common daily habit.  The Seven Species – wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olive, and date – were the staples in Biblical times. Meat would have been a rarity, and hunted meat was a bonus. Hence for a celebratory meal I’m going to make a rabbit stew.  Simplicity needs to be the order of the day here.  You can’t brown meat in a ceramic pot. You have to simply add the meat, jointed, to the pot, cover with water and add whatever seasonings you have on hand, such as onions and garlic. Then bring the pot to a simmer and cook for several hours. It’s a very simple dish, obviously, but you can dress it up. Bitter herbs such as horehound and wormwood were available, as were mushrooms in season.

Here’s my effort for the day:

Mar 122017

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, known as Reminiscere Sunday from the introit Reminiscere miserationum tuarum Domine, which in English can be rendered:

Remember, O Lord, Thy compassions and Thy mercies, which are from the beginning, lest at any time our enemies rule over us: deliver us O God of Israel, from all our tribulations.

I could write a whole post about this time of Lent, but today is also Purim in the Jewish tradition which, by coincidence, exactly reflects the sentiments of the introit which is taken from Psalm 24. This is a day on which Jews celebrate deliverance from persecution. So, whilst being mindful of my overall desire to unpack Easter, I’m going to shift my focus to Purim (folding together the ideals of the Lenten and Jewish traditions). As is true of Jewish celebrations in general, Purim actually began yesterday at sundown and ends at sundown today. Therefore a lot of the parties would have already happened. But in some places, notably Jerusalem (for reasons explained below), Purim begins a day later, which is sundown today. So somewhere in the world all day today there is a party.

Unlike pretty much every other Jewish annual celebration, Purim is just party time these days, although there are a few (minor) solemn notes as well. It has most of the characteristics of Carnival, and, like Carnival, it moves around the Gregorian calendar in the general vicinity of Spring.  I am slightly ambivalent about the holiday. Yes, it celebrates the deliverance of Persian Jews from the hands of the wicked and anti-Semitic Haman, but . . . in the process Haman, his ten sons, and over 75,000 of Israel’s enemies are slaughtered, and I don’t see this as a cause for celebration.

Purim commemorates the events recorded in the Book of Esther (מגילת אסתר‎).  The Hebrew פּוּרִים‎ (plural of פור‎ (pur) related to Akkadian: pūru) refers to lots that are cast by Haman to determine the date on which he planned to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. According to the Book of Esther, Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus/Achashverosh (presumed to be Artaxerxes I of Persia, “Artakhsher” in Old Persian), planned to kill all the Jews in the empire, but his plans were foiled by Mordecai and his cousin and adopted daughter Esther, who had risen to become Queen of Persia. The day of deliverance became a day of feasting and rejoicing.

Based on the conclusions of the Scroll of Esther (Esther 9:22): “… that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor,” Purim is celebrated among Jews by:

Exchanging reciprocal gifts of food and drink known as mishloach manot

Donating charity to the poor known as mattanot la-evyonim

Eating a celebratory meal known as a se’udat Purim

Public recitation (“reading of the megillah”) of the Scroll of Esther, known as kriat ha-megillah, usually in a temple

There are also special additions, known as Al HaNissim, to the daily prayers and the prayer after meals

Other customs include drinking wine or any other alcoholic beverage (often to excess), wearing of masks and costumes, and public celebration.  One of my orthodox Jewish students, who was extraordinarily prim and proper, once announced to me that it was her solemn religious duty to get drunk on Purim.

Purim is celebrated annually according to the Hebrew calendar on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (and on Adar II in Hebrew leap years that take place every 2 to 3 years), the day following the victory of the Jews over their enemies. In cities that were protected by a surrounding wall at the time of the Biblical Joshua, Purim is instead celebrated on the 15th of the month of Adar on what is known as Shushan Purim, since fighting in the walled city of Shushan continued through the 14th  day of Adar. Today, only Jerusalem and a few other cities celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar.

The Book of Esther begins with a six-month (180-day) drinking feast given by King Ahasuerus (sometimes identified with Artaxerxes) for the army of Persia and Medea and the civil servants and princes in the 127 provinces of his kingdom, concluding with a seven-day drinking feast for the inhabitants of Shushan (Susa), rich and poor, and a separate drinking feast for the women organized by Queen Vashti in the pavilion of the royal courtyard.

At this feast Ahasuerus gets thoroughly drunk, and at the prompting of his courtiers, orders his wife Vashti to display her beauty before the nobles and populace, wearing only her royal crown (i.e. naked), Due to a skin condition she refuses. Her refusal prompts Ahasuerus to have her removed from her post. Ahasuerus then orders all young women to be presented to him, so he can choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is Esther, who was orphaned at a young age and was being fostered by her first cousin Mordecai. She finds favor in the king’s eyes, and is made his new wife. Esther does not reveal her origins and that she is Jewish. Shortly afterwards, Mordecai discovers a plot by two courtiers Bigthan and Teresh to kill Ahasuerus. They are apprehended and hanged, and Mordecai’s service to the king is recorded in the daily record of the court.

Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his viceroy. Mordecai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman’s disfavor because he refuses to bow down to him. Having found out that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman plans to kill not just Mordecai but the entire Jewish minority in the empire. Obtaining Ahasuerus’ permission and funds to execute this plan, he casts lots (“purim”) to choose the date on which to do this – the 13th of the month of Adar. When Mordecai finds out about the plans, he puts on sackcloth and ashes, a sign of mourning, publicly weeping and lamenting, and many other Jews in Shushan and other parts of Ahasuerus’ empire do likewise, with widespread penitence and fasting. Mordecai requests that she intercede with the king on behalf of the Jews but she replies that nobody is allowed to approach the king, under penalty of death. Mordecai warns her that she will not be any safer in the palace than any other Jew, and suggests that she was elevated to the position of queen to be of help in just such an emergency. Esther has a change of heart, says she will fast and pray for three days and will then approach the king to seek his help, despite the law against doing so, and “if I perish, I perish.” She also requests that Mordecai tell all Jews of Shushan to fast and pray for three days together with her. On the third day, she seeks an audience with Ahasuerus, during which she invites him to a feast in the company of Haman. During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him; egged on by his wife Zeresh and unidentified friends, he builds a gallows for Mordecai, with the intention to hang him there the very next day.

That night, Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia, and when the court’s daily records are read to him to help him fall asleep, he learns of the services rendered by Mordecai in the earlier plot against his life. Ahasuerus asks whether anything was done for Mordecai and is told that he received no recognition for saving the king’s life. Just then, Haman appears, and King Ahasuerus asks him what should be done for the man that the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the king is referring to Haman himself, Haman says that the honoree should be dressed in the king’s royal robes and led around on the king’s royal horse. To Haman’s horror, the king instructs Haman to render such honors to Mordecai.

Later that evening, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther’s second banquet, at which she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, which includes her. Ahasuerus becomes enraged and instead orders Haman hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. The king allows Mordecai and Esther to write another decree as they wish. They decree that Jewish people may preemptively kill those thought to pose a lethal risk. As a result, on 13 Adar, 500 attackers and Haman’s ten sons are killed in Shushan. Throughout the empire 75,000 of the Jewish peoples’ enemies are killed. On the 14th another 300 are killed in Shushan. Mordecai assumes the position of second in rank to Ahasuerus, and institutes an annual commemoration of the delivery of the Jewish people from annihilation.

Like many modern Biblical scholars I doubt the historicity of this narrative, just as I don’t believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Even so I celebrate Christmas (at great length), and I see no reason to downplay the celebration of Purim just because its roots lie in historical fiction. Tradition is tradition.  It is the bedrock of culture.

(AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Many foods are associated with Purim, but the most widespread are hamentashen a filled-pocket pastry recognizable by its triangular shape. Hamantashen can be made with many different fillings including prune, nut, date, apricot, raspberry, raisins, apple, cherry, fig, chocolate, dulce de leche, halva, or even caramel or cheese. The most traditional, however, is poppy seed. The pastry varies considerably also.

The name hamantash, comes from Yiddish, and is commonly viewed as a reference to Haman (translated as “Haman’s pockets”). This use of “-tasche” in reference to filled pouches of dough is common in modern German, e.g. in “Teigtasche”, “Apfeltasche”, “Maultasche”. Another possible source of the name comes from folk etymology: the Yiddish word montashn and the German word Mohntaschen, both meaning poppyseed-filled pouches, transformed to hamantaschen to associate the pastries with Haman. In Israel, hamantaschen are called oznei Haman (אוזני המן‎‎), Hebrew for “Haman’s ears.”

Here is a recipe for a traditional poppyseed filling.  Use a sweet pastry for the hamantashen that suits you. Cut it in circles and place some filling in the center.  Then fold the pastry to make triangles and bake until golden. I’ve put a good instructional video after the recipe.

Poppyseed Filling


1 cup poppy seeds
½ cup honey
½ cup milk
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla extract


Finely grind the poppy seeds in spice mill or mortar and pestle.

In a medium saucepan place the ground poppy seeds, honey, milk, lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Bring slowly to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring often, until the mixture has thickened.  The best test that the filling is done is to drag a spoon across the bottom of the pan. It is ready when it retains a visible trail for a few seconds. This may take between 5 and 10 minutes (or more). Stir in the vanilla extract and let cool.

Mar 052017

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and, as I did for Christmas, I am going to “unpack” Easter here over the weeks in this blog by following the season all the way from Carnival to Pentecost. In some ways there’s less need to do this for Easter than for Christmas because Easter does not have all the secular, materialistic mayhem associated with it that Christmas does, and most of the church traditions are ignored or generally unknown nowadays.  Easter Sunday remains the best attended church day of the whole year, but much of the rest of the Easter season is forgotten by the secular world.  This is a considerable turnaround from the early days of the church when Easter was the prime holy day and Christmas was of little significance. Thus, unpacking Easter is quite different from unpacking Christmas for me. For Christmas I was trying to soft pedal the chaos and tease out individual strands. For Easter it’s more a matter of bringing key elements into focus that have been soft pedaled too much for my liking in contemporary times. Once, again, therefore, this is a personal journey.

Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas: a time of preparation. But the contours of the two seasons are diametrically opposite. Advent involves a constant building of joyful feelings whereas Lent is more about a continual submerging of joy and material pleasures in favor of penance and introspection. True, there is joy at the end on Easter Sunday, but the first destination of Lent is Good Friday.

In some churches, notably Roman Catholic and Church of England, the Sundays in Lent generally carry Latin names  derived from the opening words of the Sunday’s introit. The first is called Invocabit from:

Invocábit me, et égo exáudiam éum:
erípiam éum, et glorificábo éum:
longitúdine diérum adimplébo éum.
He shall cry to me, and I will hear him: I will deliver him, and I will glorify him: I will fill him with length of days.
Qui hábitat in adjutório Altíssimi,
in protectióne Déi caéli commorábitur.
He that dwelleth in the aid of the Most High shall abide under the protection of the God of Heaven.
Glória Pátri, et Fílio,
et Spirítui Sáncto.
Sicut erat in princípio,
et nunc, et semper,
et in saécula saeculórum. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Invocábit me, et égo exáudiam éum:
erípiam éum, et glorificábo éum:
longitúdine diérum adimplébo éum.
He shall cry to me, and I will hear him: I will deliver him, and I will glorify him: I will fill him with length of days.


Here it is as a chant:

For Advent I have an Advent wreath of candles which I progressively light over the course of Advent Sundays.  In recent years a tradition of the Lenten wreath has emerged which I am experimenting with for the first time this year.  They come in a number of forms.

In mine there are 7 candles in the form of a cross (see lead photo), much like the candle cross used in the traditional tenebrae service which I will talk about at length on Maundy Thursday. The seven candles consist of five violet ones (symbolizing penance), one pink one (for mid-Lent Sunday or Mothering Sunday), and one white one (the Christ candle). Lent begins with all the candles lit, and on successive Sundays, one by one, they are extinguished. The lone Christ candle is extinguished on Good Friday. The general feeling is that as we approach the crucifixion the light of the world is steadily going out.

These days I feel that the Lenten wreath is singularly apt. I feel that forces of darkness – greed, selfishness, pride, nationalism, war, famine, poverty etc. – are steadily taking over the world. This is a time for introspection and for reflecting on what we can do as individuals, and collectively, to combat these dark forces. Death and destruction, as symbolized by the crucifixion, are not the final ending points. Easter Sunday brings us resurrection and renewed hope.

The first Sunday in Easter was once celebrated with bonfires in festivities known as Buergbrennen (or the like) throughout northern Europe. The tradition is waning in Belgium, France and Germany, but since the 1930s Luxembourg has revived Buergbrennen festivities, and now about 75% of villages in the country celebrate the occasion. Originally the bonfires consisted simply of a heap of wood and straw but over time a central pillar of tree branches was introduced. Nowadays a crosspiece is attached near the top of the pillar, giving it the appearance of a cross.

Buergbrennen was once celebrated only by the men in the village, women only being admitted under exceptional circumstances. The most recently married men played a special role, the honor of lighting the fire falling on the last man to have wed. But the newlyweds also had the responsibility of collecting wood for the fire or paying others to assist in the work. At the end of the festivities, they were expected to entertain those taking part, either at home or in local inns. The tradition began to die out in the 19th century because of the high costs involved, but in the 20th century local authorities revived the tradition, taking over responsibility for the arrangements and the costs involved.

The national dish of Luxembourg is Judd mat Gaardebounen, or Smoked Collar of Pork with Broad Beans. It’s a hefty dish, but we need to remember that Sundays in Lent are not fasting days in the Catholic tradition. There are 46 days in Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday. 40 of them are fasting days, and 6 of them are Sundays when fasting is set aside. ALL Sundays in the year are feast days – even in Lent.

Judd mat Gaardebounen is associated with the village of Gostingen in the south-east of Luxembourg where the inhabitants are sometimes called Bounepatscherten in Luxembourgish, which as best as I can figure (the dialect is impossible), means something like “old broad beans soakers.” I’d be happy to be corrected by a reader.

Smoked pork collar, or pork collar in general, won’t be easy for U.S. residents to come by, but they are both fairly easy to find in Europe. The collar is the shoulder meat from neck to loin.  In Italy the leaner meat is used for capocollo and the fat for lardo. Shoulder is a simple substitute, but it must be smoked. If your butcher can’t provide smoked shoulder you’ll have to do it yourself (instructions follow the recipe).

Judd mat Gaardebounen


1.5 kg smoked pork collar
1 kg fresh broad beans, shelled
1 kg waxy potatoes, peeled, quartered
30 ml sunflower oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed
6 parsley sprigs, chopped
1 leek, chopped
150 g carrot, chopped
150 g onion, whole studded with 4 cloves
4 celery stalks, chopped
125 ml dry white wine
50 g butter
50 g flour
2 bay leaves
15 g summer savory
salt and pepper
stock (optional)


Parboil the potatoes for about 5 minutes and set them aside.

Put the smoked collar, carrots, leeks, onion, celery and bay leaves into a large pot, cover with water (or light stock), bring slowly to a simmer, cover and simmer for two hours.

Make a dark roux with the butter and flour. To do this heat the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat and add the flour. Stirring constantly let the roux heat through until it darkens in color. This may take 15 to 20 minutes depending on how high the heat is.  The darker the roux, the more intense the flavor.  Add 250 ml of strained cooking stock from the meat, whisking rapidly to ensure there are no lumps. Bring to the boil and then simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and the flour cooks through.

Blanch the beans in boiling salted water for about five minutes.

Add the wine and savory to the meat sauce, continue to simmer for ten minutes and check the seasonings.

Sauté the potatoes in hot oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until they are golden. Add 250ml of the meat cooking stock and the garlic. Increase the heat and reduce until the liquid has evaporated.

Add the beans to the meat sauce and heat through.

Remove the collar from the cooking water, leave it to stand for two minutes then slice thickly.

Serve the sliced collar with beans and sauce plus the potatoes with parsley a parsley garnish.

Smoked Pork Collar

This is the method for a 1.5 kilo piece.

Use an old large and deep saucepan with a tight lid in which you can fit a rack or steamer.

Line the saucepan with slightly crumpled kitchen foil to protect the base.

Add a tablespoon of rice, a tablespoon of jasmine tea, a large stalk of rosemary, a large sprig of thyme, 6 lightly crushed juniper berries, 12 lightly crushed black peppercorns and a good pinch of coarse salt.

Place the rack on top with the meat on the rack and put the lid on.

Heat the saucepan over the lowest setting. Turn the meat every ten minutes until it is evenly colored, about 40 minutes.


Mar 012017

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in many Western Christian churches. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the six Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter and can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. Ashes were an external sign of repentance in the Jewish tradition which Christians maintained for Lent. This practice is found in the Gregorian Sacramentary of the late 8th century. Two centuries later, Ælfric of Eynsham, an Anglo-Saxon abbot, wrote of the rite of throwing ashes on people’s heads at the start of Lent. Most Protestant denominations discontinued the practice, but the Church of England maintained it for a number of years before abandoning it also.  Since the 1960s a great many Protestant denominations have taken up the tradition again in ecumenical spirit.

In the contemporary Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance – a day of contemplating one’s transgressions.  Let’s distinguish between fasting and abstinence.  Fasting requires eating less than usual, while abstinence involves avoiding certain foods. You can fast without abstinence, and abstain without fasting. Historically the church “fasts” involved more abstinence than actual fasting.

According to the contemporary canon, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Roman Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 (whose health enables them to do so) are permitted to consume only one full meal, which may be supplemented by two smaller meals, which together should not equal a full meal. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are also days of abstinence from meat (mammals and fowl), as are all Fridays during Lent. Some Catholics continue fasting throughout Lent, as was the Church’s traditional requirement before the 1960s, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.

Ash Wednesday is exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday. The earliest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 4 February (which is only possible during a common year with Easter on 22 March), which happened in 1598, 1693, 1761 and 1818 and will next occur in 2285. The latest date Ash Wednesday can occur is 10 March (when Easter Day falls on 25 April) which occurred in 1546, 1641, 1736, 1886 and 1943 and will next occur in 2038. Ash Wednesday has never occurred on Leap Year Day (29 February), and it will not occur as such until 2096. The only other years of the third millennium that will have Ash Wednesday on 29 February are 2468, 2688, 2840 and 2992. (Ash Wednesday falls on 29 February only if Easter is on 15 April in a leap year starting on a Sunday.)

Practices concerning fasting and abstinence have varied widely over the centuries and from region to region.  The commonest rule of abstinence in Europe is to avoid meat, meaning that seafood in general is allowed. There are some rather dubious exceptions.  In parts of South America, especially in Venezuela, capybara meat is popular during Lent and Holy Week. In response to a question posed by French settlers in Quebec in the 17th century, beaver was classified as an exception and in 2010 the archbishop of New Orleans said that “alligator is considered in the fish family.” The canon law basis for the classification of beaver and alligator as fish seems to rely on the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, which bases animal classification as much on habits as on anatomy. Whichever way you justify this it seems pretty craven (and legalistic) to me. Either eat meat or don’t. Finding a way to eat meat whilst pretending legally to be avoiding it is rank hypocrisy.

It’s a bit over the top to give a recipe for Ash Wednesday given that it’s supposed to be a day of both abstinence and fasting.  Abstinence without fasting on traditional fast days is well attested in the Middle Ages but this is not appropriate even now for Ash Wednesday when both abstinence and fasting are recommended. Being a Presbyterian pastor I am not bound by any rules of discipline when it comes to Ash Wednesday, but I observe the day with fasting in a rather rudimentary ecumenical spirit.  In years past I occasionally practiced a more rigorous fast throughout Lent based on Medieval church law. But these were optional disciplines, self imposed.  Most of my friends, including Catholic clergy, were rather taken aback by the stringency of my fasting, but it was experimental as much as spiritual. I wanted to know what it felt like both physically and emotionally.

The thing is that in my (limited) experience, fasting improves the quality of feasting. An Easter dinner of roast lamb with all the trimmings is splendid always, but it is sublime after nearly 7 weeks without meat. In this regard, therefore, I see fasting as the natural partner of feasting. This little gallery may give you some idea of what to prepare today if you want to observe the beginning of the Lenten fast. The main point is to make it a real fast. Don’t gorge yourself on meatless dishes and then feel good because you have been abstinent. That’s not the point.  Fasting is fasting, not abstinence only.