Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Pumpkin Lanterns!

onight is Hallowe'en when, as the old ballad says, the fairy forces ride... It's the Eve of All Hallows (or All Saints) Day, when ghosts, spirits and witches can walk abroad, along with all kinds of ghoulies and beasties (three-legged or otherwise) and things that go bump in the night... But, according to legend, you can keep the dark at bay by ensuring a fire burns through the night... 

All Saints Day was one of the great festivals of the Medieval Christian church, but Hallowe'en and its traditions seems much more pagan. It's the Eve of Samhain, the last night of the Celtic Year, before the start of winter, when crops had already been gathered in, cleansing fires were lit, and animals slaughtered and their meat preserved for the months ahead. At this time people looked to the past and future, and considered ageing and death, and the circle of life.
Shine a light! Jack-o'-Lantern candles.
The Romans also had a festival at the end of October to celebrate Pomonoa, goddess of fruit trees, especially apples. Nuts and apples were roasted on bonfires, to symbolise the food stored up for winter and, presumably, because they tasted good! It's an interesting link with the past I think, because apple bobbing is a traditional Hallowe'en game, and sticky toffee apples are always popular at this time of year.

These days fancy dress, parties, and trick or treating seem to be the order of the day, but but there are all kinds of customs associated with Hallowe'en, many of them connected with foretelling the name of one's future wife or husband. Church bells were rung to keep away evil spirits, and in days gone by lanterns lit for a similar reasons were carved from turnips, rather than the pumpkins used today.
I knitted a Hallowe'en tea cosy!
According to one tradition, if a maiden threw unbroken apple peel over her shoulder it would fall to the ground and form the initials of the man she would marry. And there were similar superstitions involving mirrors, candles, nuts and even cabbages!

I would suggest you mark the occasion by lighting a candle an reflecting on the summer that has gone, and the winter that lies ahead, and thinking about the good things in life, and the people you have known. You could enjoy a warm and spicy celebratory meal of course – pumpkin soup perhaps, and baked apples (with sultanas and golden syrup), cook up some pumpkin soup, or carrots .. something orange and spice would be suitable... and a glass of wine. And you could listen to Fairport' Convention singing Tam Lin here (and the rest of the Leige and Leaf album). And if your nerves are up to it you could curl up with a spine-chilling ghost story, but I'm afraid I can't recommend anything, because spooky tales aren't my thing!
More Jack-o'-Lanterns -sadly, I can't eat chocolate, but I
bought these last year because they looked so sweet, and
the family ate them.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Don't Burn the Cakes!

et us celebrate Alfred the Great, who died today in 899 AD. Alfred was the father of Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians, who is one of my heroines (I blogged about her here), so I thought he desreved a mention. Alfred is, of course, famous for burning the cakes: he was (allegedly) hiding from the Danes in a humble cottage belonging to an old woman who asked him to keep on eye on her baking while she popped out for a bit, and the king (allegedly) forgot. He obviously lacked the culinary skills of the delectable Paul Hollywood, who I am sure would have had something to say about the disaster!
King Alfred, pictured in a 13th century
I must admit I always have a tendency to muddle Alfred up with King Arthur and Hereward the Wake, producing a composite figure of a heroic, mythical leader charging about the marshy countryside righting wrongs and repelling all invaders, with a little help from God and a magical wizard...

Anyway, Alfred became king of Wessex in 872 and won a series of key battles against the Danes before negotiating a treaty with them in 886, which established that land to the north and east of England (roughly the area between the Thames and the Tees) was subject to Danish law. Alfred hung on to Wessex, and also gained West Mercia and Kent. Think of the outcome as being like the football results – Invading Pagan Danish l, True Blue Christian Brits 3!

The pact put Alfred into a much stronger position (top of the league, but under threat of demotion, as it were) and gave him a chance to protect his new, enlarged kingdom by improving the army, erecting fortifications throughout the southern part of the country, and creating a navy to protect the coast. In addition to being a great military leader, he was an able civil administrator: he reformed coinaged, introduced a fairer justice system, and new laws, and promoted learning, especially for churchmen. It is believed that he learned Latin when hewas in his thirties, and helped translate books into Anglo-Saxon.

He supported the church and is said to have been a friend of Pope Marinus, who is thought to have given him gifts, including a piece of the True Cross. There always seems to be a lot of supposition involved in this period of history – early records are not always to be relied on, as they don't always separate fact from fiction.

By the time he died, at the age of 50, Alfred (who is the only English king to be known as'the Great'), he had pulled much of the south of England into a single realm, with unified laws and money, and he was known as the King of the Anglo Saxons on coins and documents. He was buried in Winchester, which was his capital city.

I think it's worth remembering his achievements, and there's only one possible way of celebrating – with cake! I doubt that Anglo Saxon cakes (I'm sure they had them) cooked on hot stones over an open fire were not as tasty as those available today, but there's plenty of choice, so just select your favourite. And to accompany it raise a glass of wine to the king who could rule a kingdom – but didn't know how to bake cakes!
The Alfred Jewel, which is kept in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. It's use
 is unknown, but it is inscribed with the words 'aelfred mec heht gewyrcan' -
Anglo Saxon for 'Alfred had me made'.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Buy New Shoes for St Crispin!

Today is the Feast of St Crispin, when a handful of stout-hearted English archers beat the mighty French army at Agincourt way back in 1415. Remember Henry V, and Shakespeare, and that stirring speech? But St Crispin is also the patron saint of shoemakers (or one of them – there's St Hugh as well). According to legend he and his brother Crispinian were Romans, who were martyred in Gaul, where they preached the Gospel by day and made shoes by night – which is why he has special significance for shoemakers.
In Medieval times shoe and boot makers were given the day off, for feasting and celebration, but since you are likely to be give a holiday, I suggest you mark the occasion by buying new shoes! And you could read 'The Elves and the Shoemaker', by the Brothers Grimm, which is one of my favourite fairy tales, or 'The shoes of Salvation', by Edward Monkton, which is a very small and very funny cartoony book about a woman who buys uncomfortable, expensive shoes, but she doesn't care because they make her feel so good!
Shall I wear cheerful pink sneakers to celebrate St Crispin?

You could get in the party mood by listening to Elvis singing Blue Suede Shoes and, if you can get hold of it, you could watch the old black and white classic 'Hobson's Choice', starring the late, great Charles Laughton in one of his funniest roles, and a young John Mills as bootmaker Will Mossop, whose life is turned around when the boss's eldest daughter takes a fancy to him. You could watch Red Shoes, with Moira Shearer (another wonderful old movie) but personally I think it's much too sad to be celebratory.

I can't think of any food featuring shoes. I did once read that during the seige of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of the 19th century starving residents boiled leather shoes and ate them, but I don't think that's to be recommended. What about choux buns? It's spelled differently, and it's nothing to do with footwear, but it sounds the same, and choux buns (with cream) are one of life's great pleasures.

So there you are, lots to choose from to celebrate St Crispin. And if you're not a shoe enthusiast, why not turn to Shakespeare - read Henry V, or better still watch the Kenneth Brannagh film.
From 'The shoes of Salvation', by Edward Monkton