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Posts Tagged ‘custom’

Photo: Suzanne’s & John’s Mom.
Have you ever wondered how this tradition got started?

Here is what I was able to find out about the custom of putting a tree on the roof of a building under construction.

Mark Vanhoenacker posted one explanation at Slate in 2013. “The tree is an ancient construction tradition. There are many such rites associated with a new edifice including the laying of foundation stones, the signing of beams, and ribbon-cuttings. But what’s particularly charming about the construction tree is that it isn’t associated with the beginning or the end of construction. Rather, the tree is associated with the raising of a building’s highest beam or structural element.

[The] name of the rite: the topping-out ceremony. It’s a sign that a construction project has reached its literal apogee, its most auspicious point. …

“When a new building reaches its final height, it’s not surprising we’d mark the occasion with a ceremony. But why celebrate with a tree?

“In fact, the first topping-out ceremonies didn’t use trees. In 8th-century Scandinavia sheathes of grain were the plant material of choice. But as topping-out ceremonies spread throughout northern Europe, trees were a natural evolution. …

“The ancient topping-out ceremony has survived mostly intact in this era of high-tech, high-altitude edifices. In the U.S., particularly on large projects, the final beam is often signed, and an American flag may accompany the tree skyward. The purpose of the ceremony — at least for shining skyscrapers — is usually couched in comfortably post-pagan terms: a celebration of a so-far safe construction site, an expression of hope for the secure completion of the structure, and a kind of secular blessing for the building and its future inhabitants.

“But superstition remains a part of the ceremony, especially on smaller projects. Elizabeth Morgan, an architect at Kuhn Riddle in Amherst, Mass., (and a childhood friend) told me that the general understanding among her colleagues is that the greenery may ‘symbolize the hope that the building will be everlasting.’ She also reports a vague sense among construction teams that ‘if you don’t do it, bad things will happen.’

“Her colleague Brad Hutchison noted that ceremonies often involve a pine bough, not a whole tree. He remembers a wintry Friday afternoon ceremony when a pine bough was mounted on the ridge beam of a recently framed roof. … ‘This is New England, so a lot of carpenters are/were sort of New Agey and took the tradition somewhat seriously,’ he said. ‘New-Agey superstition and carpentry/building go well together, I think.’ …

“What about outside of America? The tree tradition reputedly remains strong in much of northern Europe. … In Victoria, Australia, Kate Ulman, a farmer and blogger, recently attended a topping-out ceremony at her parents’ house. Their construction team had never been to a topping out but were familiar with the custom. This being Australia, in addition to a fir branch, they added—what else?—some eucalyptus. And there was cake.

“What about in Hong Kong, where skyscrapers are a revered form of public art, and the resulting skyline dwarfs even that of New York? I contacted Julia Lau, a Hong Kong architect. … Lau told me that despite Hong Kong’s British heritage, Western topping-out ceremonies are rare. The main celebration is Chinese-influenced and takes place at the start of construction, with a roast suckling pig. On the (auspiciously numbered) date of the ceremony, a stakeholder in the building will bow three times while holding three pieces of burning incense — a pleading for a ‘safe and smooth-sailing project,’ says Lau.”

Sandra and I walked by the building in the photo this morning around 6 (hot day). We’d been wondering about the custom. The topping-out here uses a branch from a nearby tree and is not actually attached to the roof but hoisted nearby to look like it. I hope it still brings luck.

More at Slate, here.

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I like this about traditions: they are always a little the same and a little different. You carry forward the old activities, but you and the people around you are a little different every year and customs get tweaked.

I’m posting a few pictures of holiday doings that are both the same and different in our family.

The youngest grandchild decorating a reindeer cookie. My collage gift tags made from scraps. Another grandchild’s Christmas tree watercolors. Luminaria bags with candles. A traditional light display.

My husband and I and Suzanne’s family gathered for a magnificent meal at John’s house, and everyone ended up dancing to Gummy Bears disco videos in the dark.

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When John was in fifth grade, the parent-teacher association held a “cakewalk” as a fundraiser. It was kind of like Musical Chairs except players didn’t sit down. People would get eliminated in each session, and the last one standing would win one of the cakes. At the time, the idea was new to me.

Now, as I’ve been looking into James Hackett’s Days Gone By again, I am realizing the cakewalk was based on a much older custom.

Writes James, “The cake dance, to which references were made frequently in the 18th and 19th century, was not a particular dance but rather a baire or session of dancing of which a cake was offered to the couple who proved themselves the best dancers. These events were usually sponsored by the local alehouse or tavern, and such gatherings were associated with hurling and other athletic contests. …

“The cake to be danced for is provided at the expense of the publican, or alehouse keeper, is placed on a board, which in turn is put on top of a pike that stands ten feet high, and from it hangs a garland of meadow flowers and also some apples fastened with pegs on the outside of the garland. … Those who are able to dance the longest around the cake are declared winners.”

Photo found here.
If you know where to find a photo of an actual Irish cake dance, let me know. In the meantime, here is an Irish piper accompanying a couple dancers.

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I have decided that if Ireland ever names people as national treasures, it should include James J. Hackett of Moate.

Last night at the Kellys’ party, James clinked the glasses at the table and called everyone to attention. Then he recited Yeats’s poem “The Ballad of Father Gilligan,” preceding it with a little history and acting out all the parts.

The grandson of a man who taught Latin and Greek in a hedgerow school back in the dark days when the English forbade sending Irish children to school, James has taken it upon himself to preserve the culture. His ordinary conversation is a living history, and he is frequently dropping into poetry.

James’s book Days Gone By is written in the way he speaks when talking to friends or taking people on a tour of some ruin. Consider this sample.

“It was long past the witching hour when the poteen revellers came upon Kate resting on the puchann and in a most distressful state.* They took her along to the wake, where she related all her adventures. Great was the wonder and fear that was expressed at hearing this story, and needless to say, many a post mortem was held upon Kate Brambles’s account of the witches’ dance at the half way house in Ballylurkin Bog on the Hallow’een night that Tubbs Lanigan was waked.”

Recent chronicler of Ireland lore and customs Turtle Bunbury discovered James in Moate and has included him in one of his Vanishing Ireland books. Bunbury also features James on a Facebook page, which I hope to access as soon as Turtle accepts my friend request.

[Update: Turtle has just put my post on his page, here.]

You may recall that I blogged about James once before, here, at another time that he was visiting his Rhode Island cousin.

(*James says a “puchann” is a little hill in a bog.)

Photo: Suzanne’s Mom
James J. Hackett in New Shoreham. He made his own shillelagh of blackthorn. He also made one for John and mailed it to him with instructions on how to cure the wood.

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