Posts Tagged ‘tradition’

In spite of living in the Greater Boston area for 40 years, I had never been to the Boston Pops. I decided to check out this year’s holiday concert and go by public transportation.

The Red Line subway track was being repaired and was not in use that Saturday, so the transportation ended up being a problem, but I was glad I went. It was lovely.

One of the pieces featured was the premier of composer Arturo Rodríguez’s Noche de Posadas (The Night of Las Posadas), which was based on a Mexican tradition and tied to a children’s book by the late author/illustrator Tomie dePaola.

Rodríguez, a native of Mexico, wrote in the program about the custom that inspired dePaola’s storybook and about working on the commission from the Boston Pops Orchestra.

“The enduring tradition of Las Posadas in México,” he wrote, “is a representation of Joseph and Mary and their pilgrimage from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The community organizes into two groups, those who accompany the couple while they go from door to door in search of shelter and those inside the houses that reject them. These are done by singing the traditional litany. Finally the couple are welcomed, and a big celebration with food and the emblematic piñata takes place. The piñata, symbolizing the triumph of faith over sin, must have 7 spikes, each of them representing a capital sin. The candy and fruit inside the piñata represent the grace of God. The high point of the celebration is when the piñata breaks and the guests are showered by all the blessings that fall from it.

“When I was asked to compose a work about the Mexican Christmas tradition of Las Posadas, to be premiered by the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by maestro Keith Lockhart during the Holiday season of 2022, I was delighted and honored, and immediately I had a flashback to my childhood.

“I clearly remember this particular day, growing up in my hometown of Monterrey, México (I must have been around 7 years old), when I had to stay home and skip school because it had snowed, a rare occurrence in that city. Luckily for me, the local TV cultural channel was showing a Christmas concert with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by maestro John Williams. The cold weather, the warm blankets, and the beautiful music that came out of the TV set have stayed in my mind and soul all these years.

“Cut to the present: having the opportunity to compose a work through which I can share my Mexican culture with the Boston audience as well as the amazing musicians of the Boston Pops Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus at Symphony Hall, that same venue I saw on the TV set as a child, is truly the best Christmas gift I could ever receive.

“The resulting work for orchestra with narrator and choir is also inspired and built around the touching children’s book written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola, The Night of Las Posadas. I hope this music lifts you from your seats and takes you right into the heart of some magical Mexican town and that you are embraced by the flavors, rhythms, and colors of this beautiful tradition of my home country.”

Also in the concert program, I learned about Karina Beleno Carney, who narrated the storybook in between sections of the music. “A Massachusetts-based actor, Karina has appeared this year in Central Square Theater’s Young Nerds of Color, Apollinaire Theater’s Don’t Eat the Mangos, and Huntington Theatre’s Breaking Ground Festival of New Work in Rough Magic. A first-generation Colombian American and mother of three, Karina is thrilled to bring the Latine children’s book The Night of Las Posadas to life with the Boston Pops.”

In the book, the couple playing Mary and Joseph for Las Posadas get stalled by a snowstorm, but the village doesn’t know it because everything goes on as it’s supposed to. How is that possible?

Enjoy this night, wherever you are. Try to find the hidden magic in it.

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Photo: Stef King.
Members of the venerable Gidgegannup’s square dance club near Perth have begun teaching the moves to a new generation.

The topic of square dancing brings both happy memories and uncomfortable ones. The uncomfortable occasions were the result of my mother trying to manage my social life by pressing into service a philosophy professor whose many avocations included square-dance calling. That meant that I, an uncool teenager, had to invite kids I barely knew to an old-fashioned kind of party under her watchful eye.

But in and of themselves, square dances are loads of fun, and I usually got into it despite my reluctance. There’s one I remember as awkward that my little sister remembered as magical.

Today’s story is about square dancing in Australia and how the seniors who love the camaraderie and the exercise are trying to introduce the tradition to a new generation.

Emily Wind writes at the Guardian, “Less than an hour north east of Perth sits Gidgegannup, a small township known for its picturesque hiking trails and agricultural shows – plus a vibrant square dancing community that has endured through the decades.

“Despite the challenges of Covid-19 and declining membership, passionate members of the town’s square dancing club have kept the tradition well and truly alive.

“ ‘We like to see people having a go at square dancing,’ club caller Ken Pike says.

“ ‘It doesn’t matter what age, what race, color, creed or religion … you’re all the same once you’re on the square dance floor and we just want people to have fun.’

“Pike resurrected the Gidgegannup Square Dance Club in 1985 after it closed in the late 70s. He did so after members of the local Country Women’s Association branch showed a keen interest in learning. …

“A square dance involves four couples (eight dancers) dancing together in a square formation. Rather than having to remember a complete routine, dancers only need to learn specific moves that are shouted out by the ‘caller’ in different variations.

“The Gidgegannup club hosts fortnightly dances, each with a different theme. … Rosemary Corbin, the president of the club, said there were about 60 people at the western dance, with many traveling from Perth. …

“Carol and John Parsons first saw an ad for square dancing in the local paper in 1979. They went along and gave it a go with their two daughters and are still going along each fortnight. … For the couple, now both in their 80s, square dancing not only provides them with a fun social activity, but real health benefits by keeping active.

‘Our doctor is thrilled with us; she doesn’t have to worry about us because we get plenty of exercise,’ Parsons said. ‘It is very important for your mental health as well.’

“One of the appeals of square dancing is that it can be done anywhere; once you know the moves, you can attend any club in Australia – or around the world – and dance with strangers as if you’re old friends.

“While there are some dedicated dancers who have attended the Gidgegannup club for decades, numbers have declined in recent years and the group is eager to see more young people get involved so the next generation can learn the moves.”

I actually know someone in Massachusetts who joined community square dancing after her divorce and met a guy there who also thought it might be a fun way to meet people. They have been together for decades now. I don’t know if they are still square dancing.

More at the Guardian, here. No firewall.

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Art: Anna Kronick.
Anna Kronick is one of very few Judaic paper cutters practicing today.

Every time you think an artistic tradition is dying out, some free spirit reinvents it for a new age. Consider the art of sacred paper cutting and its long history in Jewish communities.

Isabella Segalovich reports at Hyperallergic, “Few today know that the walls of many Jewish homes used to be covered with intricate papercuts. Bursting with detailed ornamentation and religious symbolism, these artworks decorated Jewish homes in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia for centuries. While some homes today may have a paper-cut marriage certificate or ketubah, the tradition has mostly evaporated. Much of the fragile paper archive was lost to the fires of the Holocaust, or has disintegrated over timeAnna Kronick is one of very few Judaic paper cutters practicing today, with a highly contemporary body of work that breathes new life into the sacred tradition. 

“After graduating from the New York Academy of Art as a sculptor in the ’90s, Kronick was working as a conservator when she came across a richly illustrated book, Traditional Jewish Papercuts by Joseph and Yehudit Shadur. ‘When you come across paper cutting, it’s usually Chinese or Polish. So when I came across Shadur’s book, I was amazed to find that Jews had been doing it too,’ she told Hyperallergic. …

“Some 25 years of practice later, Kronick has earned a place as a master artisan who not only continues this little-known craft but brings a fresh approach that allows the tradition to live on and evolve. 

“Traditional Judaic papercuts are made by slicing through a folded piece of paper, which is then unfolded to reveal a perfectly symmetrical design. While Kronick fell in love with their intricacy, she found this strict symmetry too confining. Instead, her pieces are defined by movement: Her compositions curve as if being blown by the wind. Stunningly, she rarely sketches out her designs. Kronick often draws with the knife itself, allowing her visions to guide her as she cuts through thin silkscreen paper.

‘In the beginning, I drew more,’ she said. ‘But the more I cut the less I drew.’ 

“Some of her papercuts bring life to old Yiddish songs. A navy blue paper rendition of ‘Belz, mayn shtetele Belz’ (Belz, my shtetl belz) lovingly depicts a group of Klezmer musicians — appropriate for a song about longing to return to a life of Jewish community. But while her Yiddish illustrations often contain English lettering, she prefers the graceful lines of Hebrew. ‘I don’t really do a lot of English text, because it stops the eye. It prevents movement,’ she says. ‘But Hebrew just flows.’ 

“Hebrew lettering is woven into her visions of passages from the Bible, like the story of Joseph. … This piece is dense with lush palm trees, bending piles of grain, and billowing patterned textiles. Look closely and you can find tiny cattle, brick walls, and a vast array of plant life swirling together in a dazzling vortex of religious symbolism. 

“The earliest recording of Jewish paper cutting comes from a whimsical 1345 treatise titled The War of the Pen Against the Scissors. The Spanish Rabbi Shem-Tov ben Yitzhak Ardutie describes how he resorted to cutting letters out of his parchment when his ink froze on a cold winter night. Since paper is so delicate, there is little physical evidence to trace the history of papercuts,. … Expert Joseph Shadur has written that the ‘more we learn about Jewish papercuts in one form or another, the more reason we have to believe that they were once exceedingly common.’ 

“While ritual art like spice boxes and Torah crowns were made out of expensive materials, paper was cheap and plentiful in many Jewish homes. Anyone could take up a small blade and develop their own masterpieces at home for very little money, thus fulfilling the Jewish principle of creating beautiful spiritual art known as hiddur mitzvah.

“Papercuts were hung from walls and windows as decorations for holidays like Sukkot and Shavuot, as calendars, and even as protective amulets to ward off the evil eye. We often imagine life in the shtetl as cold, gray, and dull. Rather, it was bursting with color and life. ‘Of all Jewish ritual and folk art, papercuts … lent themselves to the freest expression of religious spirit,’ Shadur wrote. 

“ ‘I think in pictures. When I listen to a Yiddish song, I just see it,’ said Kronick. ‘Maybe that’s why I don’t need drawing — I just cut it.’ But it’s nothing compared with how she sees passages from the Torah: ‘For me, the [Yiddish songs] don’t flow as much, even though it’s music.’ When she reads the texts, ‘it just moves differently. I can see the letters interwoven with the pattern.’ In work that keeps a beautiful craft from being forgotten, the results are deeply spiritual pieces, where we can witness Jewish joy and ancestral memories with our own eyes.”

Lots papercuts at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall, but subscriptions encouraged.

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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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Photo: Menorah Islands Project.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are referred to as the “Abrahamic” religions because they are all rooted in a common ancestor – the biblical Abraham.

Today is like an alignment of planets because the three main Abrahamic religions are celebrating three important holidays at the same time: Ramadan, Passover, and Easter. I was thinking it would a good day to remind ourselves what the three faiths have in common, so I did an internet search and found information at the British Library.

The library had put the question in the hands of Anna Sapir Abulafia, Professor of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall.

She writes, “When people refer to the Abrahamic religions they are usually thinking of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There are, in fact, more Abrahamic religions, such as the Baha’i Faith, Yezidi, Druze, Samaritan and Rastafari, but this article will focus on the main three aforementioned.

“The term ‘Abrahamic’ highlights the hugely important role which the figure of Abraham plays in each of these traditions. Jews, Christians and Muslims look to their sacred texts to find the history of Abraham and how it has been interpreted through the ages. For Jews, the central text is the Hebrew Bible consisting of the Torah (the first five books or Pentateuch), the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). Abraham’s story unfolds in Genesis, the first book of the Torah. …

“For Christians, the Hebrew Bible is the Old Testament, the precursor of the New Testament that narrates the birth, ministry, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as the life and preaching of the earliest followers of Jesus. For Christian understandings of Abraham the Letters of St Paul are of particular importance.

“Muslims engage with the figure of Abraham/Ibrāhīm in their holy book, the Qur’an, as well as in the Hadith, the body of writings which transmit the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.

“Let us turn to Genesis to map out the story of Abraham, which is shared by Jews and Christians. In Genesis 12: 1–3 Abraham (at that stage his name is still Abram) is called by God to: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ “

Professor Abulafia proceeds to describe in detail how each of the religious traditions perceives Abraham. She explains that Abraham has a son with Hagar (Ishmael) and also with Sarah (Isaac), saying, “trouble brews between Sarah and Hagar as their sons grow up, and Sarah persuades Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away (Genesis 21). God promises Hagar that Ishmael too will be made into a great nation.

“God then tests Abraham’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). But when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, an angel stops him and directs his gaze to a ram caught in the thicket. The ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac. …

“In Jewish tradition, Abraham became identified as the ‘first Jew.’ He is depicted as the embodiment of the faithful Jew upholding God’s commandments. Traditionally, Jews see themselves as the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac and Jacob, his grandson. …

“In Christian tradition, Abraham’s faith became paradigmatic for all those who followed Jesus. In the words of St Paul, in Romans 4: ‘For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” ‘ …

“Islam shares with Judaism the narrative of Abraham’s destruction of idols in the service of the worship of the one true God. In Surah 37 of the Qur’an, Abraham ‘said to his father and to his people, “What is that which ye worship? Is it a falsehood – gods other than Allah that ye desire? Then what is your idea about the Lord of the worlds?” … Then did he turn upon them, striking (them) with the right hand. … He said: “Worship ye that which ye have (yourselves) carved? But Allah has created you and your handwork!” ‘ …

“In the same Surah, Abraham has a vision that he must sacrifice his son. As in the Bible, Allah intervenes in time. The Qur’an emphasizes that this was a difficult trial which both Abraham and his son passed with flying colors. It does not specify whether the son was Isaac or Ishmael, although today most Muslims believe that it was Ishmael/Ismā‘īl.

“The biblical narrative concerning the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael is paralleled in the Muslim tradition with Abraham taking Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, where in due course Abraham and Ishmael build the Ka‘bah, the focus of the Hajj.” More from the professor here.

I wrote another post in 2011, here, on the Abrahamic faiths. In a 2014 post, I described a nonprofit that brings together young people from the three backgrounds. A post earlier this year was on an Abrahamic collaboration that is helping Afghan refugees in Maryland, here.

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Photo: China Highlights.
“In ancient China, lanterns were used to provide light and as aspects of worship. Today, they are used only for decoration,” says China Highlights.

There is something about candles and lanterns that seem to take one back in time. If I light candles in a hurricane when the electricity goes out, I don’t think of lighting candles last week for a dinner or a birthday party, I think of being a little girl in a long ago hurricane. Lanterns also take me back in time — to my college’s traditions and our night-time processions with the lanterns of our particular year and the songs we’d learned to sing in ancient Greek.

Rebecca Kathor at Public Radio International’s The World reports on how China passes the ancient tradition of lantern making to new generations.

“Sixty-five-year-old Li Jianguo grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution,” she writes. “He remembers not always having enough to eat when he was young and having to drop out of school. Yet, his happiest memories as a child were during the Lunar New Year.

“ ‘That was when we had new clothes to wear and good food to eat,’ he said. ‘After dinner, [we] kids would run outside and play with our lanterns in the alleyways.’

“In China, the tradition of children playing with handmade paper lanterns during the Lunar New Year has been passed down for generations. During Lantern Festival, the last day of Lunar New Year celebrations, families gather for a meal of dumplings and light lanterns together. …

“Today, most lanterns are manufactured, but when Li was a boy, everyone had simple bamboo and paper ones. His was made by his father who learned from his own father. It was lit by a candle and had four wooden wheels and a string to pull it along.

“ ‘At the time, the streets in Shanghai weren’t well-paved and our rabbit lanterns would bump along behind us as we ran,’ he said. ‘If the rabbit fell over, the candle inside would burn up the lantern. The other kids would laugh at you, but it was also considered good luck — like you burned up all your bad luck and could start fresh in the new year.’

“These days, Li doesn’t play with lanterns anymore. He makes them. Li is one of the last remaining lantern craftspeople in Shanghai. His cramped apartment is covered floor to ceiling with paper lanterns shaped like rabbits, dragons and lotus flowers. He and his wife spend the entire year making 600 lanterns to sell during the 15 days of the Lunar New Year. Sometimes, he’s so busy, he said, that he doesn’t have time to sit down for a meal.

“ ‘This isn’t the busiest time of the year for me. Every day, I’m busy,’ Li said. ‘If I don’t keep up the pace during the year, when it comes time to sell my lanterns, people will be disappointed if I run out too fast.’ …

“Li demonstrated how to make a rabbit lantern. It takes 60 intricate steps to build the bamboo frame and decorate each one — a nearly six-hour process that he learned from watching his father. Each sells for $15. …

“Craftspeople like Li are disappearing, though, in a rapidly modernizing Shanghai.

“Zhou Qi is the author of a book featuring 60 of Shanghai’s remaining craftspeople. Over the course of eight years, she searched out artisans who make everything from handspun cloth to woven bamboo shopping baskets to hand-stitched cotton shoes.

“ ‘They all make everyday things I used as a child growing up here in the ’80s,’ she said. ‘But they are more than just things we use, they are also a part of our culture.’

“Many of the craftspeople in her book are elderly. And they haven’t passed down their skills because there are few people who want to learn these crafts. Zhou said that she found only four lantern makers in Shanghai. …

“The craftsmen are tough to find — most of them don’t have a storefront and aren’t on social media.

“One place you can find lanterns is at Yu Gardens, in Shanghai’s Old City. Every year at this time, crowds flock here to take photos of the massive lantern displays near the City God Temple.

“Rabbit lantern maker Li is here too, but … many people are buying their children cheaper, mass-produced plastic and paper versions instead. And these days, they are lit up by battery-powered light bulbs.

“Li said that he doesn’t make lanterns for the money. He and his wife live off their retirement pension.

“ ‘I want my children and grandchildren to have a memory of playing with rabbit lanterns just like I did,’ he said.”

More at the World, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Taylor Luck.
The near-empty Souk Chaouachine, or traditional chachiya hat market, one of many historic souks facing closure from a pandemic-induced recession in the Medina in Tunisia.

The list of pandemic effects just keeps growing. Today’s story addresses what happened after Covid kept tourists from the colorful small shops in Tunis. Just like workers in the US that have decided they need to join unions, Tunisian businesses are realizing there’s strength in numbers.

Taylor Luck reports at the Christian Science Monitor, “It takes one glance to tell all is not well in the Medina. The walled, historic old city of the Tunisian capital – once marked by bustling markets and streams of people hustling between the shops, homes, and government offices along its narrow streets and hidden passageways – is nearly empty. …

‘We are waiting for nothing,’ a chachiya hatmaker says as he shuffles boxed hats from one wall of his shop to the other. ‘We just show up for a few hours out of habit. No one is coming.’

“The Medina’s shuttered shops serve as a stern warning that the pandemic and a recession are threatening to undo the old city’s rich tapestry of families and artisans who have made it their home for centuries. But not, it appears, without a fight.

“Banding together for the first time, Medina business owners and families are trying to reintroduce the UNESCO World Heritage Site to Tunisians and the world, sharing its secrets and inviting people to take part in its history – and save its identity in the process.

“M’dinti, or ‘My Medina,’ the brainchild of Leila Ben Gacem, a social entrepreneur and advocate for Tunisia’s artisans, is an initiative that has united two dozen boutique hoteliers, artisans, and restaurant owners into an economic lobby to advocate for the old city and search for new ways of resilience.

“ ‘By ourselves, we cannot survive the pandemic’s effects,’ says Ms. Ben Gacem, who is also a Medina hotelier. ‘But together we can make changes to improve the Medina.’ …

“For seven centuries, hatmakers, cobblers, silver and goldsmiths, and tailors have occupied craft-specific streets – separate ecosystems within the maze-like Medina. But with no business, unable to afford monthly rent … many of these artisans are now packing it up. … In their place are popping up cafes, cigarette stands, betting outlets, and fast-food joints – their chrome and blue plastic storefronts incongruous with the World Heritage Site’s cobblestone streets and wrought-iron windows. …

“Silversmith Mohammed Sidomou, whose family’s shop has stood on the narrow street of the birket al-fidhah (pool of silver) market for a century, [describes] the pandemic as the ‘greatest challenge’ the Medina has seen in his four decades in business.

“ ‘We have been hit by a revolution, terrorism, instability, but there was always some economic activity to keep us going. With the pandemic, everyone is affected. … It breaks my heart to see the Medina turned into shuttered storefronts. It’s as if the Medina is losing its soul.’

“Compounding troubles are the pandemic-induced jump in international shipping costs, inflation, and the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar, making it logistically difficult or financially prohibitive for artisans to get the raw materials they crafted, pounded, and molded into Tunisian heritage crafts for centuries. …

“The economic downturn is also fraying a unique community of 20,000 people who live in the Medina, including working- and middle-class families and transplants from rural villages.

“Before, residents say, families, shop owners, and artisans supported one another during lean months and years. … Neighbors would loan a few dinars, share groceries, and cook for each other’s weddings. Shop owners and artisans whose businesses were flush would divert customers to other craftsmen they knew were facing a rough patch. …

“Says Mohamed Ali Dweiri, a 26-year-old Medina resident and hotel worker, ‘People have become more selfish; no one is helping each other. This is the biggest change to the Medina I have seen in my lifetime, and it’s sad.’

“Enter M’dinti.

“With no foreign tourism, the joint initiative’s first priority was finding ways to attract Tunisians to the Medina. …

“Since October 2021, M’dinti has hosted weekend activities for families, inviting Tunisians into the district’s historic homes and businesses for culinary classes and workshops with artisans – such as carpenters or cobblers – offering a glimpse into the centuries of knowledge of the maalam, or craft master. …

“ ‘Each activity is bringing 100 guests to the Medina. They are learning there are days’ worth of sights to see, they are appreciating the traditional crafts we fight to keep alive,’ says Mr. Ghorghor, the perfumer. ‘Word-of-mouth is our best hope.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Colette Davidson.
“Arnaud Crétot holds three varieties of his organic bread, which he bakes using a solar-powered oven,” reports the Christian Science Monitor.He is the first baker in Europe to use the technique.

I was 16 when I went to France and got hooked on café au lait and baguettes. So good! Understandably, the French cherish the purity of such traditional foods, but according to this article at the Christian Science Monitor, even the French can experiment a bit around the edges.

Colette Davidson reports on Arnaud Crétot, the country’s first solar baker.

“Every Thursday, he takes a break from his small business NeoLoco, roasting local grains for snacks and aperitifs, to make bread using solar panels. For the next few hours, he will scuttle back and forth between the makeshift, cabinlike kitchen he’s built in his yard … to his wall of 57 concave mirrors.

“At 10-minute intervals, the 5-square-meter contraption needs to be manually rotated ever so slightly into position, in order for the sun to properly fire up the outdoor oven connected to it. …

“By the end of the day – if the temperamental Normandy weather cooperates – he will have produced 40 loaves of sourdough-fermented, sun-baked bread. …

“Mr. Crétot is part of a burgeoning group of ‘neo-bakers’ around France who are working to incorporate local products and ecologically friendly, ancestral methods into making bread. For some bakers, it’s a question of choosing additive-free wheat or organic ingredients. For others, it’s about method – hand kneading dough or using sourdough fermentation in the place of yeast. …

“ ‘We have to adapt, to constantly re-imagine and renew our products without abandoning traditions,’ says Patrick Rambourg, a French historian and specialist in gastronomy. ‘The French aren’t against innovation. They like new things – but based on something they know and love already.’ …

“Over time, [French bread] grew to be synonymous with French gastronomy, and this past March, France’s culture minister nominated the French baguette for UNESCO cultural heritage status. … But in recent decades, the role of bread has diminished. …

“While around 10 billion baguettes are consumed each year in France, some 20,000 bakeries have closed since the 1970s. Shoppers are more likely than in previous decades to buy their bread at the supermarket, where it’s generally made on assembly lines instead of using artisanal methods. 

“ ‘When you look at what the French are eating commonly as bread, it’s an awful product of really mediocre quality,’ says Steven Kaplan, professor emeritus at Cornell University who has written 15 books on bread, trained as a baker in 1969, and lives in southern France. ‘The everyday, white baguette is an insipid, denatured bread – tasteless, not properly fermented, and full of additives.’ 

“That’s created an opening for new techniques and ingredients for those hoping to revitalize this French staple. Among them is Paris baker Benoît Castel’s pioneering pain d’hier et de demain – ‘yesterday and tomorrow’s bread.’ It’s the culmination of a year’s worth of meticulous work to find the right combination of ingredients and method to create a sourdough-based loaf using pieces of leftover, already-baked bread. 

“At the outset, Mr. Castel set off on this baking journey to fight food waste. France wastes approximately 10 million tons of food each year, equivalent to 3% of its gas emissions. The government has passed a handful of bills in the last decade to address the problem. 

“ ‘I’m lucky to have grandparents who were farmers and it’s made me realize how much we take raw materials for granted,’ says Mr. Castel. His pain d’hier et de demain is a hearty round loaf with a crusty outer layer and airy, light body, and lasts up to five days – as opposed to one day for a typical baguette. 

“ ‘That means respecting the land as well as the hard work others put in to grow wheat, cocoa, etc. We throw away a lot of food before utilizing all the energy and resources it can offer us.’

“Local initiatives in bread-making move in the same direction as trends in France’s agriculture sector. Over 10% of French farmers work with organic products and in 2018, around 7,000 farmers registered to convert to organic farming, according to national organic agricultural agency Agence Bio. Approximately 13% of French people eat organic products everyday, according to the same agency. 

“But neo-baking remains niche, and most baking schools continue to teach primarily based on dominant techniques. Thomas Teffri-Chambelland, who founded the International Bakery School in southern France in 2005, is hoping to shake up modern-day teaching. The school focuses entirely on using organic ingredients and offers the only high school-level diploma in Europe dedicated to organic and sourdough baking. Since its launch, 80% of graduates have opened their own bakeries, and none have closed since. 

” ‘Most of our students have recently changed careers and are looking for something more concrete and meaningful,’ says Mr. Teffri-Chambelland. ‘Working with organic materials or sourdough isn’t just about being trendy. It’s raising awareness about the benefits they have for health, conservation, and the environment.’ 

“[Mr. Crétot] learned about Solar Fire – the company that developed his solar oven – as well as the solar tech nonprofit Go Sol during a trip to India in 2014. He went on to work on developmental projects across Africa with them, teaching sustainable baking. Now, every month he gives training to those looking to learn more about his technique. … [He] plans to start delivering his bread to sales points by bike to further reduce his environmental impact.”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT
The history of the Christmas market at Gamla Stan in Stockholm is described in a newspaper’s Swedish Advent calendar series.

This year I started following on twitter a newspaper called The Local. It covers Sweden, which is nice for me because my son-in-law is Swedish. Today’s post is on a series the paper has featured this month.

“Every day until Christmas Eve, The Local explains the unique history behind Swedish Christmas traditions in our own Advent calendar. …

“For centuries, Swedish Christmas markets have brought warmth and light to the darkest time of the year. Visiting a Swedish Christmas market (julmarknad) isn’t just a great way of becoming truly immersed in Sweden’s Christmas traditions, it may also be one of the best ways, short of a time machine, to experience what life was like in the past.

“The history of the festive markets goes back to 14th century Germany, and Sweden appears to have adopted the Christmas market not long afterward. Much like today, the earliest Christmas markets were typically held in town squares throughout the month of December, and featured small stalls where merchants and craftspeople could sell their wares.

“At Stortorget, Stockholm’s oldest square located in what is now known as Gamla Stan, markets were held at different times throughout the year as early as the 1300s, and there is evidence that one of these was held in connection with the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle on December 21st.

“In 1523, during the first year of his reign, King Gustav Vasa established a permanent Christmas market at Stortorget. Though there have been periods over the centuries when the Stortorget julmarknad has not operated, it is still the oldest such market in Sweden and one of the oldest in Europe.

“When the Stortorget julmarknad was established, the king took care to stipulate that only Swedish goods were sold, a tradition carried on today by Stockholms-Gillet, which has organized the market since 1915. …

“Scents from traditional Swedish favourites like warm glögg, brända mandlar (candied almonds), and julgodis like knäck permeate the air just as they have in the past.

“The traditional foods and handicrafts offered for sale give a glimpse of life in the past, as well as the opportunity to incorporate them into modern life. The sense of stepping back in time is enhanced when attending a julmarknad at a historic location, or at one of Sweden’s fantastic open-air museums, such as Skansen in Stockholm. …

“Each day until Christmas Eve, we’re looking at the story behind one Swedish festive tradition. Find the rest of our #SwedishChristmas series here.”

Other topics covered: How one Swedish woman influenced the candy cane, Sweden’s favourite Christmas film, how a folklore tomte became Sweden’s Santa, and how glögg sends Swedish wine consumption through the roof.

Erik has been known to warm our insides with glögg at Christmas. But not this year: the Swedish side of the family is celebrating in Guadalupe and keeping warm by the swimming pool.

Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
The gingersnap: A humble cookie’s journey from holy medicine to Swedish Christmas favourite.


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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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Maria writes, “Some memories from our very traditional midsummer in Dalarna.” That’s in Sweden. Erik or Margareta, care to explain what we see here?

I learned this much on the web:

“Ask a Swede what the most important holiday of the year is and Midsummer will come up as often as Christmas. Get older Swedes talking and their eyes will well up as they reminisce about community spirit, songs, barn dancing and the mystical atmosphere surrounding the Midsummer gatherings of their youth. Sure, there was a lot of drinking, fistfights and frolicking, but everyone shook hands in the end. For younger generations, Midsummer is mainly about heading out to the summer cottage and celebrating with a group of friends or family.” There’s more at the site Sweden.se, here.

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This is the story of how a song saved a cultural center in the Catskills.

Dennis Gaffney writes for the NY Times that at a recent celebration of success,  “Jay Ungar, a fiddler wearing a black vest and hiking boots, and his wife, Molly Mason, playing guitar, stood on a stage in a barnlike performance hall that did not exist a year ago. ‘Can you stand to hear this tune one more time?’ he asked the audience. …

“The tune is ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ the bittersweet lament familiar to millions as the theme song that the filmmaker Ken Burns used for the emotional crescendos of his Civil War series. But most do not know that Mr. Ungar’s moving hymn helped save the Catskill place that inspired the song, resulting in the Ashokan Center, a $7.25 million campus here dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts. …

“Many still assume that Mr. Ungar wrote ‘Ashokan Farewell’ with the Civil War in mind. But he wrote it on a September morning in 1982, after the end of his third Ashokan summer music and dance camp on this property, which the State University of New York at New Paltz owned and had used since 1967 as a field campus for environmental education.

“ ‘I left on a cloud of utopian euphoria,’ Mr. Ungar said of that summer. ‘You try to keep it alive, but it evaporates.’ ”

The song went on to have a life of its own, and Ungar even performed it at the White House. NY Gov. Pataki had heard it, too, and when a dismayed Unger contacted him about the pending sale of the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge,  the governor took action.

Soon a lot of people were on board, with the wistful song always at the heart of their efforts.

Writes Gaffney, “Mr. Ungar has come to believe that his song, like a traditional hymn, evokes much more than loss. In the mid-1990s, he got an e-mail from a man in Africa who said he was driving in his car when he heard ‘Ashokan Farewell’ on the radio. ‘He started crying uncontrollably and he had to pull off the road,’ Mr. Ungar recalled. ‘He said that in his culture, after the age of 10, men don’t cry, but he needed to cry.’ ”


Photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason playing “Ashokan Farewell” at the Ashokan Center.

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Today’s mild weather reminds me that May Day and Mother’s Day aren’t far off. Mother’s Day is a highlight of the year at Luna & Stella, Suzanne’s lovely birthstone jewelry company, for which Suzanne’s Mom blogs.

I hope you know about May Day, too. I’d like to see it revived, the ancient custom of leaving flowers at people’s doors in honor of spring. (I don’t begrudge the workers of the world their version of May Day, but they shouldn’t hog the whole thing.)

Why don’t Girl Scout troops do May Day? Why don’t florists? It mystifies me.

I still remember a May basket I made as a kid from a punch-out book. I thought it was a thing of beauty and kept asking my mother to get me another book like that. But they stopped making them.

Now I work from scratch if I have time. Last year I blogged about one kind of a homemade basket, here.

It’s always a surprise to see what flowers are available on May 1 any given year. Since these are in my yard now, I suspect there will be different ones by  May.

small rhodadendron

blue scylla



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