New Twists on Old Traditions

Purim Hamantaschen Gluten Free Elderberry Syrup Traditional Biscuit Recipe

Happy Purim to you! The sun has gone down and the festival can officially begin, but actually we have spent the afternoon frolicking in a celebration that my husband has declared is a Renegade Purim.

We held a “Purim Picnic Party” in a local park and took a huge basket of costumes, a suitcase full of instruments and rattles, and invited a bunch of kids to come and dress up and make noise with us. There are very few photos of the fun we had because we were having too much fun.

Purim New Traditions Cultural Experience Jewish Celebration Children Holiday Kids

I gather that this is a key purpose of the festival: making merry and having a great time. The other key purpose seems to be making and eating Hamantaschen, which are fruit-filled biscuits shaped to look like the ears of the villain of the Purim story.

And just as I went a bit left-of-centre with the mode of celebration, I also struggled to stick with the traditional recipes that were given to me for the biscuits. I ended up making two batches and started them off the same way; by using equal parts room-temperature butter and cream cheese, to create a lovely texture for the biscuit base.

Purim Hamantashen Gluten Free Traditional Jewish Cookie Biscuit Recipe

To one bowl I added plain flour and to the other I added dessicated coconut and LSA mix (which is made from Linseed, Soy and Almond meal). I combined them both well until I had a firm dough, which I put into the fridge for half an hour.

While the dough became stiff, I combined dates, sultanas, prunes and dried apricots with hot water on the stovetop until it was syrupy. This became the filling for my first batch of biscuits.

Purim Hamantash Gluten Free Elderberry Jam Traditional Cookie Biscuit Recipe

I decided to fill my gluten-free batch with the sticky jam that I made a few months ago with the elderberries from the tree in our backyard. I hadn’t strained the berries so it wasn’t suitable for cordial and it didn’t seem quite right for spreading on toast (it was a very simple recipe with just the berries, sugar and lemon, a bit like this).

Purim Hamantaschen Gluten Free Elderberry Jam Syrup Traditional Cookie Recipe

It turns out that it takes practice to take the step from elegant pastry rounds to excellent Hamantaschen triangles. I never really mastered it and then I ran out of time to get to our picnic. My attempts at gluten-free biscuits looked like puddles when I pulled them out of the oven, so I abandoned them on the stove stop and rushed out the door.

How incredible and wonderful, then, that two other attendees had gone to the trouble to make and bring their own, including another gluten-free version (seen at left in the picture below; the recipe sounds a bit like this one from Friendly Little Kitchen).

Mine are the ones at bottom right that are not triangles at all.

Purim New Traditions Cultural Jewish Hamantaschen Healthy Sugar Free Celebration Children Kids

We told noisy stories, held a noisy parade and played noisy games. Then nobody wanted to come home.

Purim Cultural Jewish Celebration Costume Tradition Cookie Biscuit Recipe

When I finally arrived back in the kitchen, I looked again at those gluten-free puddles and they had come good upon cooling. They were a little bit rustic, perhaps, but recognisable triangles (see the photo at the very top of this post).

And to be fair, all my Hamantaschen — of whatever shape — were actually really delicious.

So I think we were happy to be renegades with our celebration of Purim. Our festivities were a bit “unorthodox” to say the least, and our biscuits were non-traditional.

But this was a fantastic opportunity to connect with other families in our area, in a really fun way that held meaning for us.

Purim New Traditions Cultural Experience Jewish Celebration Children Many Cha Cha

To and Fro On Cinco De Mayo

Sometimes things are not what they appear, and traditions that may seem to have obvious origins may be deceptive. A closer look at the ostensibly Mexican festival of Cinco De Mayo provided me with a number of examples of traditions that have travelled.

My knowledge of Cinco De Mayo (Fifth of May) came from a Ween song that I enjoyed, back in the day. I figured it must be a Mexican holiday of some importance, given the “gravity” of the lyrics about murder and revenge (I think the delivery is less serious). The song popped into my head as the date approached and I wondered what the occasion was about, so I engaged the usual internet search machine.

Hang on a minute, Cinco De Mayo is barely a minor holiday in Mexico, and only in one area of the country. So what’s with all the drinking and street parties across America, Japan and increasingly, here in Australia?

It may have started as the patriotic response of expat Mexicans, who first celebrated the (unexpected) Mexican defeat of a French invasion that took place on May 5, the true origin of the celebratory date. It may have gained popularity because it took place at a convenient time of year for Mexican agriculture workers in the USA, who enjoyed the chance to partake of a fiesta but didn’t want to seem disloyal by partying too hard on Mexico’s official Independence Day, which is on September 16. And it seems to have spread because it seemed like another good opportunity to commercialise a holiday.

So Cinco De Mayo has become a sort of catch-all celebration of Mexican-ness. Which is what I thought I was doing (celebrating Mexico) when I made churros with chocolate-chilli sauce for a picnic in our yard.

But no, churros are Spanish, which I should have guessed. Possibly from a recipe brought back from China by the Portugese, just to complicate the story. They are named after an attractive and hardy variety of sheep — also from the Iberian Peninsula– because their curly, ridged forms are reminiscent of the rams’ horns. I was interested to discover that these sheep were imported to the Americas to feed and clothe the conquistadors and have been farmed there ever since.

So our colourful Mexican yo-yos shall provide our authentic link to Mexico, I thought, and we pulled them out for a play. They have “Mexico” stamped on them! But it seems that yo-yos have become a “traditional” toy only since the 1920s or so, partly because they are easily handmade. Yo-yos may have originated in ancient Greece or China, it’s not clear, but their popularity on the American continent can be attributed to the innovations of Filipino entrepreneur, Pedro Flores. He opened the first yo-yo factory in California in 1928 and the craze quickly spread south of the border.

Well. We added some craft to the mix for our celebration of Mexican culture, and I think we nailed it in the end (although the Internet offers few reliable sources of information in regards to “Eye of God” weavings so perhaps further research is required). Many of us have made paddle-pop-stick versions of these “Ojo De Dios” at kindergarten, without learning much about the customs behind them. Ojo De Dios weavings are apparently ancient, spiritual objects important to cultures indigenous to the Americas, including Mexico. They have various meanings and uses but I particularly love the idea of a father adding a new coloured band to the “eye” for each year of a child’s life, like the rings of a tree trunk.

We enjoyed a small Mexican picnic, and it was influenced by Spain, Portugal, perhaps China, Greece and the Phillipines. Our picnic marked an occasion that is barely a blip on Mexico’s radar but is huge in the USA and beyond.

Isn’t it incredible to discover, as you travel, how far cultures have travelled too.

Lucy, Queen of Light

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The story of St Lucy, or Santa Lucia, travels in time and across countries and reminds us of how fortunate we are to simply plug key words into a search engine to seek more information. The modern way leaves us vulnerable to less-than-academic research and “hearsay,” but let’s that not allow that to get in the way of this rambling good story.

Imagine, in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the days becoming shorter and shorter until it seemed like the darkness would not end. It must have been daunting, at the very least, and we can imagine that light itself must have seemed like something to worship.

Imagine, in ancient Syracuse, the powerful Mediterannean city-state (located in Sicily but founded by Greeks), a young woman martyred after consecrating her virginity to god and really annoying the man she was supposed to marry. She may or may not have had her eyes gouged out and is usually depicted carrying them on a golden plate. Even without this gruesome, symbolic connection to the idea of “light”, her name sounds like the word in Latin: luce.

St Lucy Saint Santa Lucia Eyes Plate MArtyr

After the Middle Ages when St Lucy’s story became famous, the festivals that venerated the last of the light on the shortest days merged with the celebrations of this virgin saint. Nowadays St Lucy’s Day is held on December 13 with processions of young girls in white dresses, wearing floral wreaths and candles around their heads (don’t try that at home!). It sounds very picturesque, in a cold and dark sort of way.

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Interestingly, the Venezia Santa Lucia railway station, the main terminus in the historic city of Venice, is the site of the church that was built to hold the remains of Santa Lucia. Her body was briefly held hostage in 1476 by a group of nuns from Corpus Domini, who did not want to hand her over to this new resting place!

When the Santa Lucia church was demolished to make way for the development, the relic was moved to the church of San Geremia. She was kidnapped again in 1981, by thieves demanding ransom, and the body was finally recovered by police on her feast day, December 13. Is it just me or does that sound like a bit of a publicity stunt?

In any case, St Lucy is famous and well loved in her own right, and she is the patron saint of the blind. With her compellingly tragic story and romantic symbols, she is a sweet addition to the mythic figures of the holiday season.

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Moroccan Match Making

Morocco Lemon Souk Aamor Agdoud N'Oulmghenni

During September, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the Betrothal Feast of Imilchil is held with much colour and fanfare. A story of forbidden love is apparently what led to the creation of this event, officially called Souk Aamor Agdoud N’Oulmghenni.

The legend of Tislet and Isli is like a cross between Romeo/Juliet and Swan Lake (a lovely version is retold at Friends of Morocco). Refused permission to marry, the lovers threw themselves into lakes, or were perhaps dissolved by grief to become lakes, only to be forever separated by the mountains. Their families vowed to gather in remembrance and to never again meddle in the marriage choices of young people.

The festival, also known as the Berber Bride Festival, seems nowadays to largely be an annual reunion for villagers in the region, rather than a match-making exercise, but the romantic roots of the event remain. I love the idea of a festival of courting and eyelash fluttering in Morocco (imagine the spectacle!).

Moroccan Preserved Lemon Recipe Jar Berber Bride Festival

Speaking of match-making, lemon and salt are an ideal pair, aren’t they? I have managed to sneak quite a few vegetables past the lips of my fussy eaters with a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle of salt. And with Morocco in mind, I have preserved the last tiny lemons from my lichen-covered trees.

Morocco Preserved Lemons Jar Salt Pickle

I found a variety of recipes for Moroccan preserved lemons, such as this one from David Lebovitz and another from this lovely blog called MarocMama. As usual, I took hints from a few different recipes and then improvised.

And now that I’ve married my lemons with so much salt, I need to find the perfect partner for this preserve. There are lots of suggestions on both of the above blogs, and more at A Recipe for Gluttony and Globetrotter Diaries.

Once the preserve has brewed for a month or so, I look forward to making a Moroccan feast for my own “betrothed”.

Morocco Preserved Lemon Berber Wedding Festival

Mofo Music Show Gives Statistics a Face

Most of the time, history seems far away and the people who lived before us are faceless and forgotten. Of the convicts who contributed so much to the history of Australia, Robert Hughes wrote (in The Fatal Shore): “They were statistics, absences and finally embarrassments.”

Indeed, it’s not that long ago that Tasmanians sought to have the World Heritage Listed former penal colony, Port Arthur, renamed and ignored because of its ignominious past. They did not want to be reminded of their convict roots.

So it’s amazing to be confronted with real convict faces, as is possible via the Tasmanian government archives. This is William Marsden, photo taken in 1874 by Thomas Nevin.

And it was an unexpectedly moving experience to listen to songs detailing the stories of 17 convicts and their families in the Dark Mofo event, Vandemonian Lags. It wasn’t musical theatre, exactly, it was a concert with a context. Short dramatised introductions, recreations of judicial court trials on the other side of the world, for example, set the scene for the songs with projected images and film. Most songs were about specific people who were transported here as prisoners. Some detailed what happened to their offspring, others were about the crimes that got them sent over.

The performers were legendary musicians from the Australian rock and folk scene and the songs, which were based on original convict records, were all immediately likeable. The stories and songs are available to explore on the Storylines website, which appears to have been made as part of the overall project and provides an incredible educational resource.

Husband, who is a storyteller by trade, felt that the lyrics occasionally got in the way of the story and sometimes the story wasn’t clear, but I didn’t think this detracted from the overall mood. The variety of songs created great texture and it maintained a good pace. In fact — surprisingly given the subject — it was frequently rollicking and at least once it totally rocked out.

Vandemonian Lags History Through Activities Tasmania Pageant Vintage School Book

I cried twice and tried to pretend I didn’t. Having just visited Port Arthur last weekend, I had colonial history at the forefront of my mind and I was really receptive to the emotional hardships that these people went through, as well as their physical travails.

It’s so interesting to notice how our attitudes towards the past changes, and that what is considered valuable is not fixed. History, so often written and dominated by the wealthy and powerful, is now “interpreted” (rather than told) to include and perhaps give dignity to those who were once ignored.

The songs and stories in this show were about forgotten folk, a reminder that some of the most unfortunate occupants of Van Diemen’s Land were real people too.

Ningyo Kuyo: Doll Funerals of Japan

Ningyo Kuyo Kokeshi Two Bobble Head Dolls Japan

Where do old dolls go to rest? Ignored at the bottom of the toy box, stashed in the attic or hidden under the bed? In Japan, old and broken dolls are honoured in ceremonial cremations. The intriguing festival, or matsuri, of Ningyo Kuyo took place at the Kishimojin Shinjou-ji Temple in Kanazawa last weekend.

While dolls in Japan hold a similar place as they do in other cultures, as playthings and companions, they also have symbolic roles as protectors, talismans and carriers of bad spirits to be sent away on miniature boats.

Ningyo Kuyo Antique Doll Face Kimono

Given the special qualities that dolls hold, according to traditional Japanese culture, they cannot be simply thrown away or abandoned. They must be given proper respect in their disposal.

During Ningyo Kuyo the dolls are blessed, comforted with religious chants and offered tea and flowers. Finally the dolls are cremated together on a large fire in front of the temple.

Ningyo Kuyo Antique Doll Hand Japanese Fabric

This matsuri takes place at many Japanese temples at different times throughout the year. There are a number of photos around the internet and more detailed information can be found on Kari Grohn’s page.

Ningyo Kuyo Kokeshi Old Vintage Doll Damaged Japan

Part of me appreciates the respect provided to the dolls, but at the same time I find myself distressed to see such beautiful, well-loved dolls burning.

Having said that, I can also see how it might also represent a therapeutic transition to adulthood, a symbolic letting go and a practical solution to limited space. It’s a fascinating and moving tradition.

Ningyo Kuyo Japanese Wooden Vintage Kokeshi Painted Doll

Songkran, Thai Festival of Cleaning

Nang Songkran Vintage Postcard Thailand

As New Year celebrations go, the Thai festival of Songkran seems to be one of the most sensible. It has become famous for its water-splashing fun, which of course provides relief from the heat in Thailand, but its origins lie in the religious and symbolic idea of cleansing and renewal for a traditional South East Asian New Year.

It took place last weekend and was celebrated with parades in some of the larger Thai cities. These days young people and tourists run around with water-pistols and buckets, dousing each other. Originally, the water (often fragrant) was used to clean statues of Buddha and the run-off was used to bless elders.

Part of the tradition is to crown a “Queen of Songkran” (or Nang Songkran), as seen on the elephant in the vintage postcard photograph, above, and each year the qualities of the queen differ slightly according to an interesting legend. The king had cut off his own head (long story…) and required his seven daughters to carry it, in turns, around a particular mountain. Whichever daughter held the head at the time of Songkran became its queen for the day, and predictions about the coming year could be made based upon her preferences.

In 2013, the Nang Songkran is the daughter who wears a black dress while riding a peacock, carries a discus and a trident and is a dedicated meat-eater. Thus, the projected outlook for the year is fairly dark and dreary.

Rather than dwell on this, I’m planning to take my cue from the older, sensible, version of Songkran, which was about starting the year off by cleaning. Once a year seems like a reasonable frequency with which to undertake this activity.