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I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree. Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog). Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.
To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life. Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts. The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus. There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!
It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it! My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things. Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season. Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there! I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.
The historical roots of agriculture are a common topic of this blog–which has featured posts about the ancient domestication of pumpkins, pigs, olives, goats, and turkeys. However not all agricultural goods have such long tangled pedigrees which stretch into prehistory. Today we are celebrating a fruit which was first cultivated in 1816 by an American revolutionary veteran named Henry Hall. The deep ruby-pink berries were originally known as a fenberries because the wild plants grow in acidic marshes and bogs, however something about that name struck early pioneers as unpoetic and they started calling the fruit “craneberries”—which was shortened to cranberry.
Cranberries are low shrubs and vines of the subgenus Oxycoccus (of the genus Vaccinium, which includes other northern berries like bilberries and blueberries). The evergreen cranberries flourish throughout cold bogs around the northern hemisphere. Because cranberries grow in such poor acidic soil (which is also low in nitrogen) they are heavily dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi with which they are symbiotic.
The berries become ripe from September through the first part of November. There is a long history of cranberries being hand-harvested by hunter-gatherers as a valuable source of food and dye, however modern methods involve flooding the cranberry bogs and agitating the berries from the vine (at which point they float up and can be corralled en masse). As a food cranberries are extremely tart and contain an imposing mixture of vitamins, dietary minerals, fiber and antioxidants which make them a favorite health food. The cranberry is heavily associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas, when rich cranberry sauses, jellies, and aspics are a big part of end-of-year feasting. They also have an association with the American Navy, which in bygone days used the vitamin C rich fruits to stave off scurvy on long voyages. Just as sailors in the Royal Navy were limeys, American seamen were “cranberries” (there is no word on how offensive this is, so you might not want to run into a bar and start shouting this at drunk sailors).
Every year at the banquet table, I am fascinated by how beautiful the color of cranberries is. The berries themselves—and even more so their sauce–produce a sensuous deep crimson pink. Endless decorators and fashion houses have adopted this color for dresses, lipsticks, walls, and what have you, but they were not the first to appreciate the color. The people of the first nations and later colonial Americans made use of the cranberry directly as a fiber dye. Yarns, threads, and fabrics dyed with cranberries take on a delicate lovely pink color—a direct contradiction to the idea that everything the pilgrims owned was black and white.
Bilbies are blue-gray in color and they grow to about 29–55 centimetres (11–22 in) in length and 3.5 kgs (8 pounds) in weight. They use their sharp claws to unearth a wide diet of insects, arthropods, larvae, small animals, seeds, fungi, bulbs, and fruit. Bilbies rarely drink—they get all the moisture they need from their food.
But wait a minute! Fossorial Marsupials? Arid scrubland? Short gestation? What does any of this have to do with Easter? Well, due to a century of continent-wide ecological disaster caused by a plague of invasive bunnies, Australians hate rabbits with a burning passion (although of course this was not actually the fault of rabbits but was yet another mistake made by nature’s most problematic children). The Easter bunny is not as popular in Australia as elsewhere—giving an Australian child a candy Easter bunny would be like giving a New Yorker a chocolate Easter rat.
Fortunately Bilbies have boldly stepped in to the Easter bunny’s role. In a land where rabbits are regarded as an abomination, the long eared bilby has become the mascot of Easter. Throughout Australia, bilby-shaped confections and related merchandise are sold as an alternative to Easter bunnies. Additionally a number of children’s books have popularized the Easter bilby who seems to have a touch of animist aboriginal magic. For example a passage from Burra Nimu, the Easter Bilby, describes the dyeing of Easter eggs like a dreamtime myth of the desert:
“[The bilby] knew that eggs meant the start of new life and new hope, so he made his especially beautiful. He painted rich red eggs, the colour of the hot desert earth, and splashed them with bright sparkles, because the desert is full of life…Next, he painted soft green eggs and sprinkled them with the colours of the wild flowers he had once seen, soon after the water fell from the sky.
I always liked the Easter bunny (and don’t get me wrong, I’m still thankful for the baskets of candy and toys he left) but it seems appropriate that his role has been usurped in Australia. By taking over the function of a minor holiday deity, bilbies have gained new prominence as one of the symbols of Australian conservation. Enjoy Easter (or Passover or Mawlid-al-Nabi) and enjoy this little bilbie gallery I have put together!
December 6th, was Krampusnacht, a holiday celebrated in Alpine regions of Germany and Austria. The festival’s roots stretch back into pre-Christian times when Germanic mountain folk paid homage to Krampus the child-stealing demon of winter darkness. Krampus was a hell-sent god with goat’s horns, coarse black fur, and a fanged maw. He would visit disobedient or inattentive children and beat them with a cruel flail before tearing them to bits with his claws (in fact “Krampus” means “claw” in old high German). The demon would then carry the dismembered bodies back to the underworld and devour the human flesh at his leisure.
This harsh myth imparted crucial lessons about the cruel Alpine environment—which would literally reward inattention and carelessness with a terrible death and a vanished corpse. However there were also merry elements of year-end saturnalia to the celebration: young men dressed up as Krampus and drank and played pranks while unmarried women would dress as Frau Perchta—a nature spirit and fertility goddess who could appear as a hirsute old beast-woman or as a gorgeous scantily clad maiden. Amidst the mummery, feasts were held and presents were given. Unsurprisingly, when Christianity came to Northern Europe, these pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christmastime festivities. Thus Saint Nicholas–originally a conservative Syrian bishop (who became a protector of unfortunate children after his death) obtained a devil-like alter-ego. This wasn’t even the end of the pagan metamorphosis of Santa. The orthodox churchman also acquired a team of flying reindeer, a tribe of subservient elves, and a magical wife as Christmas traditions moved northwards into Scandinavia and combined with the universe of Norse myth!
For a time the Krampus story traveled with Santa and became part of the Christmastime traditions of German immigrants to America. Christmas cards and holiday stories often featured Krampus and his evil pagan god features were even incorporated into the popular conception of Satan. However, as Christmas became more important to merchants and tradesmen, the darker aspects of the story were toned down. Additionally fascist regimes in Germany and Austria were hostile to Krampus traditions during the thirties (and the grim imagery was not wanted after the horrors of World War II when those regimes were gone). Lately though the figure has been making a comeback in Austria and Germany and even America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in the fiend
I am writing about this because Krampus, the clawed god of winter death, is a perfect addition to this blog’s deities of the underworld category. However, I have a more personal (and twisted) Krampus tale to tell as well. As you may know I am a toymaker who crafts chimerical animal toys and writes how-to books on toy-making. Recently a friend of mine who is an art director asked if I could build some puppets for stop-motion animation. He asked for a traditional (not-entirely jolly) Santa and for two children with no facial features–the expressions would be digitally added later.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the puppets were for a dark Krampus segment on a celebrity chef’s Christmas special. Anthony Bourdain, celebrity personality, adventurer, and bon vivant wanted to do an animated segment about this murderous gothic god who is still a vestigial part of the holiday. The segment was supposed to go into the nationally broadcast “No Reservations” Christmas special alongside Christopher Walken and Norah Jones, but when network executives took a closer look at Krampus, child-dismembering Alpine demon, it was decided that he should remain a vestige. So much for my showbiz career (of creating an evil Santa puppet and two faceless victims)…. The stand-alone segment can still be seen by itself on Youtube (or below). Don’t worry though, this dark holiday fable has a happy ending—I still got paid!
September 13th is celebrated in Mexico as Día de los Niños Héroes, “the day of the boy heroes”, a holiday dedicated to the Battle of Chapultepec which occurred near the end of the Mexican–American War of 1847. This is peculiar because the Battle of Chapultepec was not an overwhelming success for the Mexican army. During the course of the battle, several companies of American infantry troops stormed Chapultepec Castle, a fort which guarded the western entrance to Mexico City and served as the Mexican military academy. As the Americans occupied the castle, (which was defended by cadets from the military academy as well as Mexican regulars), six young Mexican military cadets refused to fall back when the Mexican commander ordered retreat. They fought to the death and, according to legend, the last cadet left alive, Juan Escutia, grabbed the flag and lept from the castle (so that the colors would not fall into enemy hands). The castle’s fall permitted the subsequent occupation of Mexico City and hastened Santa Anna’s end (his last battle came less than a month later at Huamantla).
Despite the battle’s outcome, the cadet martyrs of Chapultepec suited the Mexican national consciousness and were lionized as heroes. One of the socio-political tensions which had dogged the Mexican army throughout the conflict was the distance between senior officers, who tended to be Spanish royalists at heart, and junior officers who embraced fiery republican principles. The boy heroes were seen as a newer braver generation of Mexican officers inspired by the egalitarian and romantic ideals of the French Revolution.
The grave of the 6 cadets was the scene of an unexpected foreign policy twist when President Henry Truman stopped there on his 1947 Mexico trip in order to plant a wreath. The Mexican public interpreted the gesture as one of apology and bathed Truman in adulation. When queried by American reporters, Truman, with typical brevity simply stated that “Brave men don’t belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it.” Of course a cynical historian might imagine Truman was trying to ensure Mexico stayed in the American fold during the Cold War—and accomplished his aim with a ten dollar wreath and a well-turned phrase.
The boy heroes are still celebrated with a popular (albeit unofficial) holiday. In 1952 their remains were moved to a large and somewhat florid public monument crafted of white marble by sculptor Ernesto Tamaríz in Chapultepec Park. Looking at the soaring columns dedicated to 6 cadets whose inability to obey orders cost them their lives it is difficult to conclude that the ancient Mesoamericans admiration for human sacrifice does not still live on.