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Christmas Always Comes Up Trumps

Christmas is different from what it was more than 100 years ago… yet it is much the same. At length, Christmas celebrations have become more and more elaborate – hiked up by the gravitational pull of commercialisation that might even lead us to believe that Walt Disney invented Santa Claus.

But the traditional oldies are there to fall back on: the Christmas Eve, the traditional Holy Mass, shining stars, cribs in Nativity scene, Christmas trees, angels, decorations, greenery, fairy lights winking and blinking, carols, songs, dances, gifts, wining and dining, stuffed poultry and plum pudding, white-iced cakes, Christmas & New Year greeting cards…..and then there are the candles calling attention to the legend of medieval times when lighted candles were placed in windows as a welcome to the Christ child, to show that there was a place in the home for Him.

As I wrote in my previous posts, I have had many Christmas memories from my childhood and one of my few flights of fancy is to allow them to flood me every now and then – especially during Christmas time. They are like Christmas decorations saved from Christmas to Christmas, and more added each year.

The joy of those carefree Christmases! Still and all, Christmas was something inside me – a singing in my heart. As if Mr. Charles Dickens might call at any time, our ritual of Christmas does not change. Each year there is much the same routine. The excitement spread over weeks as the star is hung, the crib is made, the Christmas tree erected hung with baubles and other decorations, and friends and relatives came in to visit.

The clever old Santa, with rhythmic, booming sounds and a certain sense of dignity will show up in the evenings without his sleigh, his eyes, exuding geniality and delight, peeping through the eye holes on his mask. He was accompanied by dancers and singers few of whom can’t carry a tune in a steam shovel. It’s all very Christmassy.

One of the neighbours of our traditional house was a family with three men good with their hands and easy-to-make notions. They are linked in my mind with stars and cribs. Two-to-three weeks leading to Christmas Day, these men and some of their friends, real no-nonsense workers, devoted their afternoons to create very low-cost and small-scaled Christmas trimmings for selling locally.

As it drew near to Christmas and there was no school to worry about, I sometimes went over to watch them create stars and cribs using bamboo. Their vibes was so grand that they could all laugh at the same things. Once the bamboo was cut vertically into sticks of required lengths, both surfaces are buffed finely to obtain smooth texture before they are tied into shapes of stars and cribs. The roof of cribs was thatched with hay.

Most of their exquisite works, some even varnished for glossy look,  are sold at Michael’s shop at the junction by our street and in the evenings people oh’d and ah’d looking up at the cribs and lighted stars on display for sale.

One of the most amusing was a wonderful Christmas in the 70s when our family made a beautiful Christmas tree. It stands out most vividly in my mind. Approximately 6ft. tall, it was bedecked with all the delicate sparkle associated with Christmas decorations. Given that the pine and fir (species grown as fresh Christmas trees in Europe and elsewhere) were not readily available potted at that time, a similar species (possibly, Araucaria Heterophylla) was acquired.

Set upright in base made of wooden pieces, the plant was decorated with gold and copper paper, gold and red ribbons, sequins, bugle beads, gold streamers, crepe paper strings, cardboard cylinders, fairy lights, etc., to create that jingle-bells effect. Copper and gold was kept as colour scheme to indicate the sparkle of the festive occasion. Few years saw us using a tree with branches cleared off its leaves as a substitute when the right plant was unavailable. Always the charming note is that the decorated Christmas tree, ablaze with tiny lights, represents the spirituality of Christmas.

The matter of substitute mentioned above brings to my mind the letter of a woman published in an old magazine about her great-grandmother who was a colonist passenger in a ship from Europe bound for Australia more than 160 years ago. As the narration goes, everyone was looking forward to spend Christmas in the new land and ladle great helpings of Aussie hospitality.

But, sweet suffering grief, on the Christmas Eve all were disheartened to learn that the ship was still hundreds of miles away which meant – no Christmas tree. Then again, did anyone there hear the angels in Heaven sing? When the children gathered in the saloon for their gifts, they were surprised to find a little tree with real leaves.

Assuming that the ship will be delayed and Christmas would be spent at sea, the ship’s carpenter had made the tree. Upon sailing from Cape Town, he had sowed parsley seeds in a box filled with sand (from ship’s ballast) and sawdust. Having kept out of reach of salt spray, the crew took turns to water it using their daily allowance of drinking water. As Christmas neared, the parsley had grown luxuriantly. From the firewood the carpenter carved out the stem and the branches on which the parsley leaves were tied. The tree was adorned with tiny candles, tinsel ornaments and white sugar for ‘snow’. A Christmas tree was born!

True to the Christmas ideal, how wonderful the ship’s carpenter had made his finest effort and shared his decorated Christmas tree to swell the hearts of strangers and friends. Indeed, Christmas, just as it always does, triumph after all. Merry Christmas, Jo

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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A Winsome Sweet ‘17

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2The New Year’s Day 2017 has arrived with hopes – giving new courage and belief for a fresh start. The transitory period when the old year gives way for the new often kindles a curious manifestation of optimism in us and inspires hope for a “happy and better New Year” – free from the misfortunes of the year just gone by. Inwardly, this feeling is merely a repetition of the optimism that inspired us at earlier New Year’s Eves when it was wished that the ensuing New Year would bring its own heaven. Even though the year’s outcome was contrary to our expectation, yet again, when the clock struck the first note of midnight at the New Year’s Eve, and the bells ring, the fire crackers were lit, Auld Lang Syne was sung to be followed by other old, new, nostalgic medley of seasonal carols and songs, and toasts were raised, we take fresh heart to, once again, hope for the best.

New Year’s Day is the eighth day after Christmas and traditionally, bears the name “Octava Domini” (In Octavas Domini) in the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries. The first of January appeared as an ecclesiastical festival at Rome for the first time at the beginning of the ninth century, where it is called from the first Circumcisione Domini. The idea and date of this festival are derived from the Gospel of St. Luke (Chapter II. 21), since eight days after birth, the Christmas child of Virgin Mary was circumcised and received the name Jesus, a personal name. The year ends with the birth and begins with the naming.

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This year’s crib in our house

The traditions and customs related with New Year’s Day were concerned with bringing good luck for the coming year. When the year dies out at the chimes of the midnight hour, and when the traditional toast and ubiquitous salutations of “Happy New Year” and “Good Health” resonate the air and people hugged, kissed and shook hands; whatever be the attitude of the body, certain thoughts in some of us would become silent prayers turned heavenward, thanking for the past years and hoping for the best times and good health. Holy Toledo! The truth is you cannot savour the joys of life without good health.

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It is also a time for New Year resolution – decisions intended to abandon a bad habit or adopt a good one in the New Year, most popular being the decision to give up smoking and to diet which are always updated as time passes by. According to a survey, two people out of three made such resolutions but most soon break them.

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Back in December 2013 we were in Bangkok for the festive season. There was political unrest in the country at that time between red and yellow shirts. But rather than let the tourism go haywire and celebration of people curtailed, the sensible local authorities, very efficient to cope with the matters of their positions and departments, did not clamp on any undue restrictions which was laudable.

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On that warm Saturday morning of December 2013, I was waiting to keep my appointment at one of my favourite Foot Reflexology parlours in Bangkok which I had managed to reach from my hotel with some difficulty. As many of you will know, Bangkok is notorious for traffic congestions, but since yesterday (Friday, 27th) the streets were unusually packed as the New Year revellers flocked out of Bangkok to their villages. A friend of the owner of the parlour, a middle-aged Thai was also in the lobby with me waiting for the arrival of his friend. A great conversationalist, he is known to me from my earlier visits. That was the extent of our acquaintance. Having known that I write about Bangkok, he wisely used my waiting time to give me a run through about some of the many traditions and customs of his land – most of which I had come to know over the years in some finery.

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9When our conversation touched upon Songkran festival (marks the start of the traditional Thai New Year which falls during April), he suddenly switched the topic to the hair style he would be getting at the adjoining salon either on 30th or 31st (specifically on Monday and Tuesday which he believed are the only good days for getting haircut!!) in time for the New Year’s Eve. At that time, his hairdresser would remove the red-shades from his natural jet black hair worn too long by Thai standards. Although I tried to avert the conversation from being nosy about his personal choice, he went right ahead and told that he is clearing the red shades for his elder sister who has invited him to her house for late dinner on the New Year’s Eve which he intended to attend, after cutting-short his own razzle-dazzle with his friends at the local pub.

8As assigned, he would be the “first-foot” to enter his sister’s household to usher in the New Year. This fairly clear-cut custom, which has many versions, is based on a Hogmanay (a New Year’s Eve in Scotland) tradition, and still kept up in some Far Eastern and Australian households.

It is believed that if the first person to cross the threshold of a house after midnight, when the old year ends and the New begins, is a dark haired man, a year of good luck will follow. Since her brother’s last “first-foot”, she had experienced lesser gale over the domestics. And certainly, once more the elements of specific gifts a “first-footer” usually brings which symbolised life, hospitality and warmth is in his consideration to take along with him.

For his sister, who displayed great strength and furious energy to go through the ritual of sweeping her whole house thoroughly on 31st of every December, the recruitment of her brother to make the necessary entrance at her house is rooted on her belief that it should be someone with dark hair and not of her household.

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Family ties are stronger at Christmas and New Year time – and louder, too. First of January is Global Family Day, too. Mind you, he would have his fun in her home ground – the whisky, the songs, the smile, the smells – and the mishmash of games: shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, Bingo, cards, and God knows what else. To reach her home at that time of the night without the bow-wow of stray dogs in her street would be a benefit since any stray dogs living in the premises on New Year’s Eve were particularly cleared because, according to his sister, they brought bad luck.

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People do strange things hoping for best things ahead. Not long ago, a European chef of Mandarin Oriental spoke about a Thai chef’s unbridled enthusiasm for anything associated with superstitions. The Roman belief that misfortune would come into a house by anyone entering with his left foot first, is a custom which is strictly followed with right foot by his family. They have a tradition to criss-cross certain rituals of the Thai Songkran festival also with the customs of New Year’s Day.  The ingredients they used in this respect, forming part of the ritual of bathing of Buddha statues during Songkran, consists of five bowls containing different-coloured floating flowers – each colour to represent prosperity in a variety of forms: Rose Red to bring a tranquil life devoid of obstacles; Marigold Orange to signify success and wealth; Anchan Blue representing strength to overcome obstacles; Pandan Green for peace without problems; and Jasmine White to symbolise a joyful life.

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The question about how a fairly intelligent and even moderately educated person could inwardly believe these superstitions – that number 13 is unlucky, or that one should not start a new venture on Friday, etc., in spite of its universal acceptance, is, how-do-you-say-it, much like a pyramid balanced in unstable equilibrium upon its point. Nevertheless, people do knock on wood; take a pinch of salt and throw it over their left shoulder; or refuse to walk under a ladder, and hope that, “touch wood”, this New Year would hopefully go down in memory as the year they moved into the house of prosperity, good health, peace, joy and all things of goodness – with the baggage of serious misfortune safely left behind. I remember the saying, if you must leave your old house and move to a new one do not take your old broom with you.

Thank you for riding with me during the past year. I raise a toast: Here is wishing my friends and readers a lovely, peaceful and prosperous new 2017. Jo

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

NOTRE DAME WILL STAND – Part II

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Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.”

Here at last, we are at the queue at Portail de Sainte-Anne and these lines from: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lobster Quadrille (The Mock Turtle’s Song) by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) had crossed my mind. To whoever was right behind me at the queue – there certainly was urgency to get into the cathedral.

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Once inside, we would soon realise that the timing of the visit to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris was perfect for us. Before we could explore the double aisles, various chapels, rose windows, the ambulatory, etc, our attention was drawn to the streams of music wafting from the central transept where, we soon found the Chorus, soloists and an orchestra in jubilant mood – practising a classical music concert. So that explained the urgency at the queue.

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In comparison with its length, the cathedral is extremely broad. Standing over the black and white coloured floor tiles at the west end, the interior appeared well lit though I could see a marked variation between the principal nave, the transept and the chancel.

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However, despite the changes made to provide more light to the tribunes, in gloomy weather, the cathedral can still appear sombre and even cavernous. This subject about the light reminded me of an entry I once read in the Duchess of Windsor’s (Wallis Simpson) memoirs: “….As the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) walked past, I (Wallis) overheard him mutter to his uncle, the Duke of Connaught: “Uncle Arthur, something ought to be done about the lights. They make all the women look ghastly.” (1)

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Good music often transports me into another dimension. Slipping into a wooden bench nearer the transept, we spent some time in glorious musical bliss while the 14th century Statue of Virgin Mary Holding the Christ Child joyfully watched over us as she leaned against the south-east pillar where an altar dedicated to the Virgin had stood earlier. This work is dedicated to “Notre-Dame de Paris” and the most distinguished of nearly 40 representations of the Virgin inside the cathedral.

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At every moment in the world, things change and the shape of things to come seldom announced its presence among us, but later on. It was as if fate had planned our visit to arrive here right on our schedule. Had we lingered longer by the banks of the Seine and watched the barges and bateaux mouches float silently along the river; or indulged longer to thumb through dusty volumes at the quayside bouquinistes’ stalls selling bouquins (old used books) and other special treasures, while enjoying the kiss of the sun from above; or idled more time away sitting under the candy-stripped awning of the open-air café on the chestnut-lined boulevard, with a lingering glass of red and a croquet-monsieur, relishing the general joy of watching the moving stream of pedestrians; – then, we might never have reached this cathedral to enjoy the musical treat on that day. Punctuality works! Carina always said Punctuality is indeed my first, last and middle name.

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I was too entranced in the music to turn around to look up the nave at the West end where, directly below the artistic upper West Rose window is situated the great organ (one of the three) – a marked feature of the Cathédrale. Rebuilt by Thierry Lesclope in 1730, enlarged in 1785 by Cliquot, and improved by Cavaillè-Coll, it is reputedly the largest organ in France, There is no need for me to look back at it now. I had endeavoured to study it during earlier visits and my mental picture of that area is clear down to the upper ends of the organ’s pipes obstructing the lower half of that Rosette.

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Presently the musical performance came to a close, and a wave of applause swept through the cathedral. Most of the crowd, as if signalled by an internal green alert, had started to head for the exit – possibly, in search of the sun.  We resumed our exploration along the far-stretching southern aisle, passing the great cylindrical columns rising to support the vaulted ceilings, their weights being shared by the external flying buttresses on both sides of the huge structure. On our right was the line of chapels forming part of the numerous chapels around the walls.

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I can well understand why Notre Dame de Paris has had a splendid acceptance. In its long course of construction, this edifice had to transit through the art movements of Romanesque and the Gothic, a progression that branded it as a transitional structure. The gauzy structure of Gothic architecture resulted in the rise of stained glass, the virtual elimination of solid wall space and transformed the walls as connecting space for windows. At that time, the thought crossed my mind that all this would be of professional interest to my second daughter Andrea, engaged with her studies in architecture back home.

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An important feature on the southern side of the slightly projecting transept is the Rose window. Now this is an artful creation of bold, simple trellis designs with an amazing arrangement of stained glass work. The most frequent background was a red trellis on a blue field. During an earlier visit, I overheard a local guide mentioning about the window’s primary colours to a group of American tourists, suggesting that “it is very drawable.”

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But if we observe it with a painterly eye, there is a revelation. We could see the predominant blue dissolves for different colours; and the window glows in pink and crimson tones. The colours had been there to be found all the time. When taken as a boy to Notre Dame, it was this rose window of the south which seized upon the imagination of the great architect Viollet le Duc (January 1814 – September 1879) and stirred his passion for Gothic. In “Paris; the Magic City by The Seine”, author Gertrude Hauck Vonne explains that situation: “While gazing at it the organ began to play, and he (Viollet) thought that the music came from the window – the shrill, high notes from the light colors, and the solemn, bass notes from the dark and more subdued hues.”

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2-013As we proceeded further ahead, we would notice that not only the nave, but the choir, possessed double aisles. To our right was the entrance to The Sacristy (formerly part of the Palais Episcopal) and The Treasury which housed many precious things. Before going around the magnificent semi-circular apse at the east end to the northern aisle, one could see the High Altar; the three large statues: the Descent from the Cross; Louis XIII, (both by Guillaume Coustou, 1677 – 1746) and of Louis XIV (by Antoine Coysevox, 1640 – 1720). The Ambulatory (pourtour) of the Choir was raised above the body of the church by three steps, both sides enclosed by a low grille in wrought iron with gilding. I could well imagine the magnificent set-piece of pageantry of various ceremonial occasions held here; and how the echoes of many “Te Deums” had resonated inside these old walls for victories long forgotten, and for those many long remembered.

The removable stones of the pavement close to the small organ on the north side of the choir lead to a subterranean burial chamber for eminent officials of the cathedral. Remains of a small Gallo-Roman votive pillar to Jupiter (which I had mentioned in the First Part) were discovered some six feet beneath the apse during excavations for this crypt during 1711.

Prior to the northern Rose Window, one could see the famous Porte Rouge (Red Door), a masterpiece that dates back to the 14th century. It derived its name from its painted doors.

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Corresponding with the statue of Notre-Dame de Paris on the south is a statue of St. Denis by Nicolas Coustou in the north. Although many of the treasures were destroyed by the Revolution, granted there is time and inclination to explore the interior, one could spot the intrinsic beauty of many things that were well made – the sexpartite system of alternating ground supports, the clearstory, the stone step, the various windows, moulding round the doors, an artistic door handle, the numerous sculptures, fine chandeliers, paintings of much value ,… and the flowers at the foot of the statue of Notre-Dame de Paris which seem, to some, suddenly glow as if they were lit from within.

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Having purchased a Médaille for Andrea from a counter at the west end, we walked out through the northern Portail ae la Saint Vierge. In the bright sunlight one could clearly see the splendid character of the ironwork of the outer doors.

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Curious tradition relates this to the skill and energy of the devil. Up above, the grotesque representations of Chimères and gargouilles or “Devils of Notre Dame” lurked on strategic locations of the cathedral, scowling down from their point of vantage upon the French metropolis – probably their mark of attention even reached our present hotel somewhat closer to Basilique du Sacré-Cœur – one of the many hotels of Paris noted also for its number of French oils – impressionist, expressionist, and abstract.

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As we took leave of Notre Dame de Paris, I reflected on the staying power of this ornate feat of architecture – this edifice of a community’s tangible bygone days. Have I missed something here? Although individual escape from the present into the past has rarely been more widespread than it is now, there is another side of the coin of course. Recently the world has witnessed the cruel destruction of historical monuments to suit the ideologies of certain groups.

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In September 2016, The Telegraph (UK) reported the discovery of upto seven cylinders of gas tanks and documents in a specific language in an unmarked Peugeot 607 next to Notre Dame cathedral, sparking fresh terror fears. Condemnations and appeals against such ideologies were heard. Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, was the product of a similar protest and aimed to draw attention of his contemporaries to deter the destruction of existing architecture.

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By visiting and polishing up our love for noble monuments of the past, relating the stories behind their construction, understanding the masters who build them in their times, we not only comprehend the traditions, aesthetic and cultural history of an area but also of the high-values reached by civilization. Time is the most precious commodity I possess. I am glad that the hour glass of my life is also filled by precious moments like the favourite footpaths I have treaded in the course of my visit here – helpful journeys into the past which I am excited to make from time to time. And, hopefully, when I come back here again, I know Notre Dame de Paris will be here – waiting. Jo

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Notes:

  • Besides other improvements, the Cathedral’s lighting system was upgraded by late 2012 owing to a year-long 850th anniversary celebration.
  • For those in need of flowers for Notre Dame de Paris, there is a huge selection at Marché aux fleurs, Place Louis Lépine – Quai de la Corse near Cité Metro Station.
  • I am indebted to many publications dating from the late 19th century onwards, for useful background data;
  • This article is dedicated to my daughter Andrea Lalis Sebastine, the architect in our family.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Kaleidoscope of Hoof Prints

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(This follows my article The Ballad of JEANETTE and MICHEL  of March 2, 2016)

If there are phrases on my tongue which connote the blessings that can unwittingly come in many disguises to the gentle-natured donkey, it is those plans and purpose which chanced upon as revealed in some events of “The Bible”. With Palm Sunday (March 20, 2016) followed by Easter (March 27, 2016) coming up, bringing in a time when it is not unusual for people to be religious in thoughts, I take a little liberty to reflect on those events.

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Animals like sheep, camel, donkey, have afforded their presence to many episodes of the Bible. Indeed there are momentous occasions when the donkey was part of events that were important junctures in the life of Jesus Christ.

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The ass of Palestine and the Bible has been identified as the Nubian wild ass of Egypt. This common beast of burden, used for agricultural work and also for riding, is not in the East by any means a despised or a despicable animal – but considered part of a moderate household. Whole families rode him, shared food with him, and sometimes allowed him to stay in a section of the room with the family.

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Visitation: It is related that Mary, pregnant with Jesus, used a donkey when she set out on her journey for her ‘Visitation’ to congratulate cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with the child who would one day become known as John the Baptist. According to tradition, that donkey had travelled about seventy miles from Nazareth over hills and through valleys to the little town in the Judaean hills where Elizabeth and her husband, priest Zachary dwelt. Considering that the feast of the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus is held on March 25th, this journey could probably have occurred during the last days of March or early April when the rainy season was just over. Although Joseph is not named in this journey, it is unlikely that Mary would have ventured on a long and arduous journey alone and abode with Elizabeth for about three months before she rode back to her home in Nazareth. Besides, it was customary to have a driver for the donkey, when women rode on them.

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To Bethlehem: The initial scenes of William Wyler’s biblical epic movie “Ben-Hur” (1959) portrays Joseph, a village carpenter, leading a meek donkey by the bridle, on which sat his pregnant wife Mary covered with a long cloak, during their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in Judea to enrol their names in a census which had been ordered by Caesar Augustus. The vague details of that journey of about seventy miles could be visualised as five days of privation, fatigue and discomfort through an uncomfortable path in the winter chill of December. A book on the Virgin Mary names this donkey as “Eleabthona”, but we could only wonder if it was the same animal which had previously been similarly used when Mary went on her “Visitation” to Elizabeth.

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To Jerusalem: Whichever donkey it was, that animal had the opportunity to be closer to the newly born Jesus in the stable outside Bethlehem. Besides, amongst the few other domesticated animals present there, he was the one who would render service as the mode of transport to Joseph’s family when, at the age of forty days, the infant Jesus was taken to Jerusalem for presentation in the Temple and return.

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To Egypt: Sometime thereafter, warned of an imminent danger to the child, the family hastily embarked on a journey in the middle of the night, with Mary and the child riding the donkey, as they rushed out of the territory of King Herod to retire into Egypt. With the winter still persisting, that journey of ten days covering about two hundred miles via the city of Pelusium (modern Tell el-Farama) was not without difficulties and dangers arising from cold, wet and stormy weather, lack of shelter over their heads, less water, attack by robbers and wild beasts, proceeding partially through the shifting sands of the desert as far as the land of Gessen, where they resided (1). Not until had King Herod died in the spring of 4 BC, did they retire to the early home of Joseph and Mary at Nazareth of Galilee.

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Soon after, the donkey of those journeys slips into obscurity even though according to a recorded event of Jesus’ youth, at the age of twelve, Jesus was taken on a long journey to Jerusalem to attend the Passover before returning to Nazareth when the service of a donkey would have been required.

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It is widely held that the dark line down a donkey’s back and across the forequarters in the shape of a Latin cross denotes the heritage of that race from the day one of their forebears carried Jesus on its back during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem which is commemorated as the first Palm Sunday (Dominica in ramis Palmarum), and marks the beginning of what is technically called Passion Week.

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To Jerusalem: According to the Gospels, Jesus, having come to the little village of Bethphage (Beitphage) on the summit of the Mount of Olives sent two disciples into the village to fetch an ass and a colt they would find tied there. Having brought the animals, they cast their garments upon the ass and made Jesus sit thereon. (2) The animal carried Jesus, sitting meek and gentle on its back, as it treaded over the olive palm fronds strewn over the garments laid on the path, amidst the joy and singing of a multitude of accompanying people wielding branches of palm trees as a testimony of honour and respect.

At that time Jerusalem was surrounded with fertile fields and trees, and on the southern slope of Olivet, where they were passing, date-bearing palm trees grew in great abundance. The Palm has been in all times and places the emblem of victory and its reward and it was the custom to carry and wave palm-branches as a sign of joy and victory.

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At length, the donkey carried Jesus down the hill, passed between the walls of Gethsemane and the Garden of Olives, crossed the Cedron valley (Kidron), through the road leading up to St. Stephen’s Gate (Lions’ Gate), and entered the Temple through the Golden Gate with its beautiful pillars. This occasion, commemorated on Palm Sunday with a Procession of Palms was customary in Jerusalem as early as 386 when it was first mentioned, and was adopted in the west by the seventh century as attested to by Isidore of Seville, who died in 636.

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Until the Reformation in the Middle Ages, the event was remembered in a folklorised ritual on Palm Sunday (Palmsonntag) in some southern German speaking regions when, in addition to the tradition of the blessing of palms (Palmbüscheln), a procession known as “Palmesel” (Palm Sunday donkey) was held when a statue of Jesus mounted on a wooden effigy of an ass fixed on a wheeled wooden bier was taken round the streets spread with clothes and strewed with palm branches. To mark this joyous occasion, people sang hymns and waved fronds of palm or of some other similar tree, while at some places bouquets of flowers attached to boughs of trees were sometimes carried in the procession calling it the Easter of Flowers.

The ass was not forgotten either. A book on ecclesiastical architecture relates an old tradition that “the ass on which Christ made His entry into Jerusalem left Judea immediately after the Crucifixion, and passing over the sea dry-shod to Rhodes, Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, and Aquileia, finally reached Verona, where it lived to a very old age. After its death its bones were collected and deposited in the belly of the wooden ass of Santa Maria in Organo, which was made as a memorial of it and its exact image.”

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Just as that event at Jerusalem made them an object of peculiar reverence to the early Christians, the cross on its back inspired belief that children suffering from whooping cough will be cured if they are made to sit on the mark and the donkey walked in a circle nine times.

It is interesting to think, with what different sentiments one regards the donkey at different periods. The poor quadruped which tradition says earned its reputation for stupidity in the Garden of Eden when it could not remember its name when God asked it, is actually, as one of my friends wrote, a poorly understood animal.

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Ass, when properly kept, is a handsome animal – much stronger in proportion, and much more hardy than the horse. The positive efforts of institutions such as Kölner Zoo in Germany, The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, England, etc, very much help the welfare of the docile and friendly donkey to save them from becoming snapshots of a bygone era. Let us be glad that they are there and keep alive the age old tradition that to see a donkey will bring one the good luck. Until next time, Ciao, Jo

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Notes:

  1. According to some publications, the particular place where Joseph settled in Egypt is probably Metaryieh, near On/Heliopolis, about two hours distance north-east of Cairo.
  2. A Franciscan church, built on the foundation of an ancient shrine, stands to commemorate the place where Christ mounted the ass, contains a stone traditionally identified as used by Jesus to mount the ass for the journey to Jerusalem.
  3. Thanks to: Mr. Bernd Marcordes, Kurator, AG Zoologischer Garten Köln, Germany for the picture of Michel and Jeanette; to Ms. Pippa Helock of The Donkey Sanctuary, Devon for the picture “Looking Handsome”; and to Stefan Ahrens of Bistum Regensburg, Germany for the four pictures.
  4. Print and visual versions of “Ben-Hur” is available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other leading dealers.

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Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

The Roots and Wings of Valentine

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Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year – the holidays of the short evenings are over. The spring vegetables are slowly entering the markets. Owing that love is the keynote of that sweetest day of February when moments are made into memories, shops have displayed pretty favours for exchange between lovers and couples to mark the Valentine’s Day. As usual, a good number of high-flying hotels will be a much sought after destination on the 14th of this month for the lovers and couples out for a memorable candlelit evening of gastronomy, drinks, music, romance and to feel like a million dollars.

2Where we live, distinctive venues for such occasions are many and more are sprouting up every other month. Ecstatic to get it going, the dining tables there will be prettily decorated with fresh flowers, ferns, bisque cupids, candles, tableware, in addition to scattered red rose petals over the table cloth where a wide range of delicacies will be served with emphasis on its appearance since eye has much to do with the flavour of all food. Some even have in-house Mehndi artists or caricaturist to enhance the romantic ambiance.

The succulent specialities on offer in many restaurants, especially on occasions of festivities present an extensive spread of seafood, meat and vegetarian delicacies and gorgeous after-food deserts very much compatible to all those gourmets. There are only a few of the dishes that need any explanation. From past experiences, the cuisine for the V-Day could include freshly shucked oysters, poached lobsters with dill and limoncello cream sauce, river Prawn Saganaki, baked fish, Beef Stroganoff, Braised Balsamic Chicken, Porcini Pork Tenderloin, Broccoli Quinoa Casserole, asparagus salad, etc, incorporating many of the general favourites of authentic regional Indian favourites cooked to perfection by chefs and their skilful teams playing cupids at the live stations. Be it ever so humble, praise for their delicious food never misses to light up their eyes as if they had won the lottery.

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The objective is to make the Valentine’s Day the sweetest and memorable day of the year – touchingly sentimental, fun and ethical for those who wish to share their love and affection towards one another. In a time when affection and meaningful human communication takes a back seat as most eyes are buried in Smartphones, iPads, or other distractions, occasions like the V-Day reminds us to show that we love.

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It is related that the tradition of the Festival of Love probably owes its origins to one of the pagan Roman festivals, Lupercalia, the festival of fertility which was celebrated in mid-February in ancient Rome. As part of its ritual, two young boys of patrician families dressed in goatskins, daub their faces with the blood of sacrificed goat and dog, and during a traditional course whipped maidens with stripes of leather as they passed. Expressing joy and happiness, such lashes were appreciated reckoning they would miraculously prevent or cure infertility. Somewhere between belief and doubt lies the faith.

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After Christianity became more prevalent in Rome, the festival became associated with St. Valentine (1) a Christian priest and physician in Rome who was martyred on February 14, c. 269 AD (on the eve of Lupercalia) for being an advocate for the cause of peace and love. The book “Saint Valentine” by Robert Sabuda relates the story about how Valentine restored the blindness of a young girl with his deep faith and healing skills. The custom of sending Valentines stems from a medieval belief that birds began to pair on the day Valentine was beheaded under the cruel Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus (Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius/Claudius the Goth, 268 to 270) who succumbed to plague in 270 AD. Amongst the customs that continued was the opportunity to choose a sweetheart or Valentine and letters or tokens can be sent secretly to the object of affection as a declaration of romantic love.

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The rejuvenation of this event, after a slack in popularity but persisting through writings including those of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1345-1400) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616), could be attributed to the innumerable cards, books, poems, songs, stage presentations and films that flourished since the eighteenth century onwards. Nevertheless, it is always those couples entwined in their genuine love for each other, blessedly always much abundant in the world, who have kept this tradition of love alive and blooming. Some of the legends and stories of love that sparkled as jewels through the timeline of our world has inspired millions and has undoubtedly caught the imagination of the world.

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I can think of many love deities and personalities in every culture dedicated to different fervours of love: Egyptian divinities Osiris and Isis; Roman Jupiter and Juno (Greek Zeus and Hera); Solomon and Sheba; Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) and Queen Nefertiti; Orpheus and Eurydice; Queen Cleopatra and Mark Antony; Justinian and Theodora; Lancelot and Guinevere; Layla and Majnun; Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal; Salim (Emperor Jahangir) and Anarkali (Nadira Begum or Sharf-un-Nissa);

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Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; Napoleon and Joséphine de Beauharnais; Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; Romeo and Juliet; Tristan and Isolde; Robin Hood and Maid Marian; Tarzan and Jane; to those stars of the film world who, at certain times, had become real life romantic characters they played on screen (2):

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Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini; Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh; Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; Clark Gable and Carole Lombard; Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles; Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; etc… the love is always in the air and for some, sometimes everything falls together.

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Of the many customs built around this festival of love, few old customs like the artistic Victorian cards, some of which often had trick or secret chambers to hide secret messages from the eyes of strict Victorian parents, have sadly disappeared while more formal ways of messaging through emails or SMS or that great equalizer called WhatsApp have taken over in popularity.

11Then again, besides the enthusiasm of some couples, the reason Valentine’s Day has garnered more popularity today is due to the print and visual media and to the efforts of the corporate/marketing strategists striving to make it a gross consumer fest.

If the customary choices of the old school fancied Valentine cards, books, tokens, boxes of Belgian chocolates or selected kinds of gifts, and even considered a hug as a great gift; the preferences has presently progressed to all things high-flying – the posh sort – choices big and small, often putting some aficionados under “wallet” pressure – choices of couture labels, a Visconti pen, a Supreme Goldstriker iPhone with the highest GB, a gorgeous clutch bag, a beautiful sparkling necklace, amazing Stuart Weitzman shoes, vintage boots, a Patek Philippe or Breitling wristwatch, luxury fragrances, a Lamborghini Veneno car, a holiday in The Bahamas, diamonds, secret tattoos, belly button ring, …. the list has become endless to maximize the vibes… The choice is ours.

Nevertheless, fresh flowers have always remained one of the popular gifts.

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To give fresh flowers, those embodiments of perfect beauty, to a sweetheart….. what gift could honestly be nicer and special? They even leave their fragrance on the hand that bestows them.

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When young mortal Adonis of Greek mythology lost his life owing to a wound he received from a boar during a chase, Aphrodite (Venus by the Romans), the goddess of love and beauty and the love of his life, found solace from her deep grief in the beautiful Anemone flower which sprung from his blood (or from her tears), until the gods of the lower world favoured her by allowing Adonis to spend six months of every year with Aphrodite upon the earth. And it is from Aphrodite’s son Eros (Cupid/Amor) that V-Day earned the grace of Cupid, the god of love – a wanton boy with arrows in a golden quiver, who is related to a thousand tricks and cruel sports – the most potent being the pierce from his golden arrow that would kindle love in the stricken heart.

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When my wife first came to meet me, she brought along an enormous bunch of fresh ivory coloured tulips in a box all the way from England, carefully looked after by the cabin crew of British Airways. She has a heart of gold. She specifically chose that spring flower having known of my ardent “tulipomania”. Of course, one’s own preferred choice would be different. A friend’s wife preferred velvety red roses, the symbol of happy and passionate love, from her husband while another friend suggested that if possible we bring garden daisies to cheer his hospitalised wife when we visited her.

15Somewhere along the way, love has taken its place in the age-old form of art that associate flowers with different meanings. Floriography signifies the name of the language of flowers as practiced in traditional cultures in many parts of the world. The Japanese call it Hanakotoba.

As ivory coloured tulips will always be the symbol of true love for me, the symbolism and hidden meaning of those flowers that express love and affection, subject to change with various combination (3), is generally regarded as: Apple Blossom (Good fortune) – Balsam (Ardent love) – Jasmine (Grace and Elegance) – Lavender (Devotion) – Lilac (First Emotions of Love) – Orchid (Fertility, love and Beauty) – Red Tulip (Declaration of Love) – Sunflower (Adoration) – Violet (Faithfulness), Hibiscus (Sacred Love and Beauty)….

Naturally, I do not remember them all and neither have I endeavoured to remember by practising that simple advice: “When meeting someone for the first time, repeat their name three times, and you won’t forget them.”

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Amongst the vast array of flowers lingers the “Forget-Me-Nots”, the lover’s flower. The legend has it that a valiant German knight slipped and fell into water when stooping to gallantly pick up some beautiful blue flowers growing in the water which his paramour wanted him to get for her. Before he finally sank under the water for the last time, he threw the flowers at his love and implored her to “Vergiß mein nicht” (Forget Me Not). It was the voice of genuine love that was calling out, to remind, “I will be always with you. I will love you just as you are.”   

Amore!   If love is the key to our hearts, then the heaven is within us. Ciao, Jo

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Notes:

  • According to the Roman Martyrology, two persons under the name of Valentine were martyred on February 14, c. 269. One is St. Valentine who was buried on the Flaminian Way where a basilica was erected in 350. Another Valentine was the bishop of Interamna (Terni) about 104 kms from Rome, beheaded there by order of Placidus, prefect of Interamna. Many scholars believe that the two are the same.
  • The book Saint Valentine by Robert Sabuda and DVDs of the movies of the stars referred above are available with amazon.com, amazon.co.uk and other reputed dealers.
  • Re. Flowers: I have noted variations in meanings in different texts.

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 (©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Flutter by, Melodic Butterflies

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There’s a song in the air !

        There’s a star in the sky !

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I have always found music delightful for relaxation. Lately I had been listening to music either streamed or downloaded from the web where we could find any kind of music we wish for. Unlike the effort to flip through our musical collections of vinyl albums, CDs, cassettes and videos for enjoying music in the conventional way, one needs only to flick some icons on the web, and the music comes pouring into the room. But how can I resist from admitting that I like music on physical formats, especially the tangible experience of holding a vinyl album and admiring the big cover art while it plays with the pops and cracks and imperfections of an old gramophone record.

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A week ago we were sorting out the Christmas albums in the storage shelf where they were waiting for the right time to arrive when we would let them play their joyful melodies – to experience the pleasure they would bring us.

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Waiting for Christmas! The instance reminded me of an old adage which relates that “a test for true love is a rose which has been picked on Midsummers’ Day and put away until Christmas. If it is found still fresh at Christmas, the love of the girl who plucked it and her beau will run true and flourish.” – the kind of love where the boy will kneel down and tell her that she is the sweetest, most charming and ravishing girl in the world and that he would be unable to live one more second without her! I personally know of instances like this.

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But vis-à-vis our present subject, the fact remains that listening to greater part of carols and Christmas songs surely create an effect we aspire to in our house.

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Christmas time is a warm and nostalgic time of a year – and Christmas, winter’s merriest tale, is all about the birth of Jesus Christ and cannot be rightly told without music. As it happens, throughout the festive season and often beyond – while we set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib, or hang up the stockings and decorations, or prepare the feast, or merry-make in the festive gathering, we play them as background music just for the warmth and joy of those seasonal melodies.

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Those are classical instrumentations by Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, etc, or sung by choirs, or carol singers or by Earl Grant, Ray Conniff, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, Nina Simone, Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Tom Jones, Fernand Gignac, Nana Mouskouri, Celine Dion, Muriel J, Jose Feliciano, Ajejandro Sanz, Andrea Bocelli, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Rod Stewart, Boney M and many others.

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Behind those songs were the lyrical and musical talents of folk singers, monks, the clergy, literary and musical luminaries.

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In the movies “The Alamo” (1960), “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1962), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), the viewer might have noticed a versatile actor named Jester Hairston who was also a songwriter/composer/conductor and singer. In 1956, Hairston wrote fresh lyrics for an earlier song he had written titled “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” and attuned in calypso rhythm but was never recorded in that form.

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The song with the new lyrics, later characterised as a Christmas carol, was titled “Mary’s Boy Child” and the world first heard of it when Harry Belafonte released it through his album “An Evening with Belafonte” (1956).

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The song was subsequently recorded by music artists such as Jim Reeves, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Anne Murray, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, including a version in 1978 by Boney M which is still popular like most of the Boney M songs released when they were in the prime of their time.

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Christmas carols lend an air to this festive season and over the years have spawned a variety of classics to make good cheer. In England of the olden days, groups went on “Wassailing” for “luck-visits” from house to house at Christmas time – singing carols and sharing the contents of their wassail bowls for which they expected to be rewarded with gifts, food and drinks.

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15They were considered to be the forerunners of modern day carol singers. This practise later evolved into modified versions. Then again, what is true in England is also true in Italy and in our Cochin, or everywhere.

And so, wassailing was enacted in our Cochin also when numerous groups dressed in character of Santa Claus and shepherds and shepherdesses in knee-length, floating skirts as dancers, together with their entourage of singers and musicians. They visited houses, predominantly in Fort Cochin and the coastal belt, to entertain during Christmas time.

Although this practise is slowly dying down, few groups are still active during the Christmas season. The songs which maintain great popularity in their street collection lists are “Jingle Bells”, and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” which tells of the approach of Santa Claus and his pack of reindeers.

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These songs are nice accompaniments to dancing and rather similar to renditions such as “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, etc.

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20Interspersed in their collection are popular songs from movies or simultaneously, versions in local language which some enlightened ones find not ‘hip’ and very un-English without some English terms peppered in it. But if there is one carol that is generally heard here throughout the Christmas time is the English version of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht), a reverential rendition written in German in 1816 by Friar Joseph Mohr of Austria with music added to it by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818.

This is said to be one of the main songs (and also ‘Adeste Fideles’) the German and the English soldiers jointly sung on the first Christmas of the First World War, in 1914 when, in a spontaneous and unofficial Christmas truce, their guns fell silent for a brief period and they emerged out of their trenches into no-man’s land in a number of places along the Western Front: to exchange gifts, cigarettes and joyously sing carols and songs to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. They knew that the war was going to last a long time and many would not live through for another Christmas Day or even see their wives back home knitting socks for the soldiers at the Front.

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This chivalry between enemies in the military air to uphold the Christmas spirit is depicted in the films: “Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas – 2005/French); Oh, What a Lovely War (1969/UK) (1)

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Many a Christmas carols and songs have played at the chords of the human heart with its angelic fingers: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” covers the 12 days starting with Christmas Day till 6th January (Epiphany); “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “In The Bleak Mid-winter”; “Joy to the World”; “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Away in a Manger”; “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”; “Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful”; “In Excelsis Gloria”, and many many more. Some of these titles are highlighted here.

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The most ancient carols known to us date from the Middle Ages. Historians contend that the word “Carol” passed from French into the English language in about 1300 and was associated with words, music and dance. Books of carols were cried about the streets of Paris as early as the thirteenth century.

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These carols shadow forth the true spirit of miracle plays, religious spectacles, and old religious legends. In most cases, they were by and large in Latin which was the medium for prayers and chants in the churches in those days. Latin being unversed to most common men of Italy, San Francesco di Assisi presented the carols in his native language – supported by theatrics.

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From there it gathered popularity, and despite occasional hindrances (such as the temporary abolition of Christmas in England in the 17th century), it survived through transitory periods spanning the medieval, the renaissance (rise of music printing and of vocal music performed with instruments), the baroque (invention of opera), the rococo (rise of comic opera and the symphony), the classicism (flowering of instrumental music), the romanticism (rise of the conductor and the golden age of the piano), the post-romanticism (dominance of mammoth orchestra), up to our time. In 1918, carols received the biggest boost when the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, a Christmas Eve service which includes carols and readings from the Bible, were adopted by King’s College Cambridge.

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People vary greatly in their way of responding to music. Tastes have altered. Then again, there is great proliferation of Christmas carols and songs, owing to the creative flair of many contemporary musicians who retain its originality.

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As for us, we treasure each Christmas of our years gone past – its virtues of humility, generosity and love. We admire the splendour of its true traditions: the birth of baby Jesus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas crib, the star, the old decorations of rosemary and bays, the holly and the ivy, the poinsettias (Flores de Noche Buena/Flowers of the Holy Night), the Mistletoe, the greeting cards, exchange of gifts, the banquet which includes plum pottage, minced pies, roast beef, Christmas ale, and of course, Santa Claus, dancing and singing….

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Although the Christmas festive season will come only once a year, our steadfast delight in the Christmas carols and songs ensure that those cherished melodies flutter around in our house, like butterflies, whatever the season may be. Enjoy your Christmas holidays! Ho! Ho! Ho!! Jo

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Notes:

  • Christmas Truce: In books: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub; Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy, etc. It is also the theme of Sainsbury’s official Christmas 2014 Advertisement
  • DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred above is available with main dealers of movies.
  • This is dedicated to Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI who received Doctorates honoris causa on 04 July 2015 for five contributions to knowledge and culture – which includes his great respect for the musical tradition of the Church and his remarkable sensitivity to the music of faith. May he enjoy blessings of good health.

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 (©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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