Tag Archive | holidays

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)

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Songkran: The Spirit of the Moment

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Thailand is in a festival cheer. Though rain was expected for sometime, as for now, the skies are clear above Bangkok. For the past few days, people were flocking to Don Mueang airport and to bus/metro terminal stations to head for their home provinces to celebrate the annual Songkran (The Water Festival) holidays.

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I heard that under the “Leave your homes in police care” programme, many houses in Bangkok have reportedly registered with the police for protection while the tenants are away on holidays. Owing to the heavy traffic on major routes out of Bangkok, the road safety campaigns for the “seven days of danger” are popularised.

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To prevent and reduce road accidents from drink driving, the provincial health officials nationwide are strictly enforcing an alcohol ban in designated areas during the 7-day period of the water festive season of Songkran which runs until Thursday.

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Believed to have been derived from the Sankranti Hindu festival, the uniquely beautiful tradition of Songkran (from the Sanskrit word samkrānti) marks the Thai New Year’s Day.

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Celebrated throughout the country, the occasion is a time for family re-unions and of bonding between family members, friends, etc.

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It is an occasion to show reverence and appreciation to one’s parents and seek blessings from the elders. Young people pour fragrant water into the elders’ palms in a gesture of humility to ask for their blessings.

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Traditionally, this is called the ‘Rod Nam Dum Hua’ ceremony which is performed on the first day of Songkran. Indeed, April 13th officially set as the day of Songkran also marks the National Elderly Day.

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The Songkran holidays signify the heritage and tradition of the people of Thailand. It marks the occasion for temple visits and annual house cleaning.

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Apart from the ritual of pouring water on sacred Buddha statues and making food offerings at temples, some enterprising Shopping Malls have also set up conveniences for the bathing of Buddha statues which includes five bowls containing different coloured (representing prosperity in a variety of forms) floating flowers for visitors to pour over the sacred statues.

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Our arrival here in Bangkok, the City of Angels, on April 4th was timed to coincide with the busy days of the special exhibitions, shopping promotions, entertaining activities including carnival games, craft and cooking demonstrations, traditional performances, etc, whilst Bangkok geared up for the start of Songkran.

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By April 12th, many fairs in Bangkok were offering a variety of attractions for the visitors. There is a fair where one can pay respect to the Buddha tooth relic from Tibet while another offered the opportunity to see a replica of Phra Narai Balaji or Lord Venkateswara from India. Then there are activities such as pail-kicking competitions for elderly people or facilities for children to build traditional Sand Piles (sand chedis), in addition to parades, beauty pageants, decorated floats, oyster shelling competitions and general merriment. Children can take enjoyment in splashing water at painted jumbos housed at the Elephant Camp in Ayutthaya.

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Water has a special meaning in Asia. It represents life, prosperity and, of course, a new beginning. It also symbolizes joy, tranquillity and coolness to hot summer days.

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During this festival, groups of farangs (expatriates) and local people armed with water-guns and buckets splash/hurl water at pedestrians and onto moving traffic as a ‘gesture to give and request a blessing”. The water splashing fun also symbolizes the washing off all misfortunes of the past year and welcoming the New Year.

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Many shops displayed water-guns of different colours and sizes to choose from. There are also places where barrels of water are sold or else, you can refill your water-gun from bottled undrinkable water on sale. Some shops sell beige coloured powder (Din sor pong) which is mixed with little water to smear on the faces and bodies.

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Also on sale are waterproof Songkran pouches to protect the cellphone, etc from the hurling water. It’s all part of the festival fun. When the water hits you – do it the Thai way. Don’t miss out on the fun. Just smile and move on, probably into the sunlight to dry off.

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A sure bet to get water-soaked in Bangkok is to be at the front courtyard of CentralWorld where a three-day event is held which includes a foam party.

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Apart from popular Songkran venues at the Ratchaprasong area, Silom Road, the biggest and wildest celebration was at Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker quarters.

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Everywhere you are often greeted cheerfully with “sawatdi pi mai” (Happy New Year) as they try to drench you with water.

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According to TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand), the occasion is fun time and attracts foreign tourists to the Kingdom. It’s the only time of the year one can bathe Buddha statues for blessings, enjoy a variety of themed activities and hurl water at one another!

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The water-guns were out on the streets by the afternoon of April 12th. We took the first hit from some children near our hotel while returning after a delicious lunch at the “Lord Jim’s” Restaurant of Bangkok’s legendary Mandarin Oriental Bangkok Hotel, cooked under the supervision of one of the top Executive Chefs of Bangkok, Chef Stefan Trepp. More about this in another write-up.

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Today April 13th, following the Palm Sunday Mass at the Assumption Cathedral we had taken an extensive drive through the water-splashing streets of Bangkok. At the wheel of the car was Mr. Vichai, a former employee of Saudi Aramco and later of Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, whose ardent fervour to receive maximum water-hits on his four-wheel drive perfectly matched the exhilarating enthusiasm of the young and old Songkran revellers engaged in the celebrations on the streets.

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I saw cheerful people everywhere – unified, smiling and cheerful. Some of them were dressed up in traditional costumes (Chud-Thai).

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The unity and the strong national spirit of the Thais will remain the underlining strength of this country – a need to be preserved. Earlier in the evening of this New Year’s day, just before we reached our hotel, it had rained. It is said that a light, lovely rain is always a blessing and a good sign of prosperity.

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To some, Thailand might just be a popular tourist destination. But to me, this country remains endearing not only for its charm and history but also for the many wonderful friends and memories I have gained since I first started visiting Thailand regularly (twice this year and counting) since 2002.

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At this late hour when I write this in the Suite in our hotel, I could hear the muffled sounds of merriment from the streets down below. Songkran is a time for togetherness, for love, for food, for fun, for exchanging-gifts, and for long holidays – and at the heart of this festival lie the important values of Thai Society. Sawasdee, Jo

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(© All photos except those credited to TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand): Carina-Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

Following two pictures – Courtesy: Bank Ake, Bangkok

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