Celtic Wedding Ceremony

The wedding ceremony in modern western traditions tends to have more in common from one nation to another than there are differences. Even most of the prevalent customs such as the bride’s white dress, rings, wedding cake, flowers, and attendants as well as the feast and pranks played on the couple as they make their final exit are pretty much universal. Every ethnic group has its own peculiar customs and variations but if we were to drop in on a wedding in a strange land where we did not know the language, be it Lebanon, Finland, Argentina or the remotest and most Gaelic island of the any of the Celtic nations, we would probably have a pretty good idea of what was going on. In planning a wedding with a Celtic theme or incorporating traditions from a Celtic heritage, the basics of your ceremony will be what the Church and State insist upon. Your wedding will be special regardless of the trappings and ornaments you choose because it is your wedding and because of that special person who you are promising yourself to. Weddings are a time when families look back at their roots and dream about their future. Our customs and traditions are one way we express who we are.

If you research quaint marriage customs from the past, much of what you will find describes the folkways of largely pastoral, rural or village people. Courtship is under the scrutiny of parents, family elders or match-makers, although escaping that scrutiny has been a challenge that was frequently and boldly accomplished both in fairy tales and in real life if boys and girls have had eyes for each other. After consent and eligibility are established and the date is set, preparations for the festivities center mostly around preparing to entertain and provide refreshment for the guests. In this way, little has changed. In the old days most couples grew up within close distances and the gathering of guests would probably draw friends and relatives who would travel for many hours to attend, by walking perhaps twenty or thirty miles. Feasting, drinking, dancing, drinking, blessings, gifts and drinking would occupy two or three days. Well, maybe not everyone did that much drinking, but the Celts do have a reputation. The details vary as for location and time period change. Except for the twenty-mile hike, when people who grow up in small communities marry one another, little has changed.

What has changed for many is that as modern people live and move in areas of greater population density and with more frequent migrations between communities, it has become increasingly unlikely that the bride and groom’s families already know each other, much less live in the same neighborhood. Couples are likely to come from different religious, social or ethnic backgrounds. The melting pot of a mobile modern society has tended to dilute our traditions. Meanwhile, a whole industry has grown up catering to various aspects of weddings and encouraging extravagance and novelty. Rather than follow the strict script of simpler times we have many more choices in how we now conduct our weddings.

If you compare a wedding to a meal, the entrée, that is the meaning of the vows is one of the great bedrocks of our culture, unchanged for centuries. The choices of side dishes and condiments, however, have multiplied geometrically in the past half-century.

Many of the rustic wedding customs of our ancestors do not travel very well to our present times. If you break a shortbread over the head of the bride or groom as they leave the church what are the chances that the unmarried youths present will scramble to eat a bit of it off the ground to ensure a good match for their own marriage? Cutting the cake over the seated bride’s head at the reception has replaced this tradition. It was also customary to salute the bride and groom by firing guns in the air outside the church. Try that in the suburbs! If you did have your wedding at a venue where you could use firearms, what statement would you be making? Chances are at least some of your guests would think you are a gun nut rather than a traditionalist. Honking the horns of the cars in the procession from the church replaces the guns.

In some locations, the couple would spend their wedding night in the barn. The bride’s girl-friends would dress her for bed and tuck her in and then the male guests would enter and kiss her good night. The great sport was made of delaying and harassing the groom before he could join her. The couple could then expect pranks and peeping until everyone was too drunk or exhausted to remember. Our grandparent’s generation planned their weddings with an escape in mind from this kind of tradition. The tin cans tied to the get-away car evolved from this custom. Kidnapping the bride or groom is occasionally still attempted at some of the rowdier weddings. The salmon leap was the traditional way the groom joined his bride in the wedding bed. To do this he should crouch on the floor and then spring into bed in a single leap symbolically imitating a salmon swimming upstream to spawn.

There are old customs for good luck that are fun to follow. “Something old, something new, Something borrowed, Something blue, Silver sixpence in her shoe” (or “a penny in her shoe”) is fairly well known. For people of Celtic heritage who live in new lands, this is an opportunity to include something sentimental that relates to their heritage. An heirloom from the old country, if available can be used as something old or something borrowed. An Irish coin, or for Scots and Welsh an old British sixpence or penny can be worn in the shoe. Stock up now, the Euro-Dollar will not be as poetic. Something new items also can be chosen for their cultural significance also. Keep in mind the theme of a continuum that a heritage wedding implies. With an eye to the future, the brooch or pendant that is something new for the present wedding can be loaned at a future wedding and might be the something old at the wedding of your daughter or granddaughter.

It is bad luck for the bride and groom to meet on their wedding day before they meet at the church. It is good luck to take a different route leaving the church than arriving at the church. This signifies that life is different now for the bride and groom.

Musical traditions travel through time much better. Having a piper lead the bride to the church or down the aisle is a certain and reliable way to dress the occasion with heritage. This is probably the most common way to honor the bride and groom that gives the wedding a Celtic flavor. There is no single standard way to incorporate a piper in the wedding. Piping arrival or departure is the most common and goes back to the tradition of clan chiefs having personal pipers leading them with ceremonious fanfare. Sometimes they play outside as guests arrive or afterward as the receiving line forms. If communion is served at a wedding, a piper or other Celtic musician can play during that time also or pipers can play a wedding march processional and/or a recessional. You can find a bagpiper almost anywhere in the world at by searching at sites like gigmasters.com

Celtic music at the reception is another great idea. A ceileigh band that can play for dancing is great fun or there are groups that specialize in mellower sorts of Celtic music. Pipers again are frequently engaged to play when the couple arrives at the reception site, during drinks before the meal or as the couple leaves the reception. Hiring a piper to play as you leave the reception can be difficult to arrange if you do not want to lock yourself into an exact time, but it is one of the most traditional times.

Wedding clothes are another opportunity to incorporate some tradition. The bride’s white gown has become so traditional that many cannot imagine anything else but this is relatively recent development in the Celtic lands. The white dress is a cosmopolitan fashion that has become practically universal in these days of mass communication. In the 19th century colored bridal dresses were quite common at country weddings.   Kilts for the groom and attendants can be hired for weddings if they do not own their own. This is commonly done in Scotland these days and kilt hire is becoming available in other parts of the world as well. The wearing of kilts by those who were not brought up to it, and especially outside of Scotland should be considered carefully and thoughtfully. A man should not consider wearing a kilt for the first time at his own wedding if he thinks it might make him feel awkward or foolish. It takes a certain bearing to wear a kilt with confidence. The groom will probably have enough butterflies in his stomach just because he is getting married. The book So You Want to Wear the Kilt by Scotty Thomson is recommended reading.

In Scottish weddings where clan ties are strongly felt it is customary for the groom to pin a plaid or sash of his family tartan on his bride after the exchange of rings. Celtic design or traditional dress can be incorporated into the attire of the bride’s maids’ dresses as well or their jewelry.

The big wedding is not the only way to become man and wife. Eloping, marrying in a private ceremony or just shacking up until everyone thinks of you as married have all been practiced with various levels of acceptance or disapproval over the centuries.

Medieval marriages were, at least in theory, sanctioned and governed by the Christian church. The doctrine of the sacramental nature of marriage maintained that the institution was (and still is) a vehicle of divine grace. Early formalities of church weddings consisted quite simply of the couple meeting at the door of the local church, but outside it, to receive the blessing of the priest. Marriages that were not blessed by the church were still considered valid and in remote areas where priests were scarce people were still married. Marriages that were entered into informally were frowned on by the church, but the concept of “Common Law” marriages existing simply because the parties lived as man and wife were relatively common. The Council of Trent in 1563 established the requirement that the celebration of a marriage must be blessed by a priest before at least two witnesses. Both civil and ecclesiastical laws governing marriage in European countries evolved to discourage informal and secret marriages.

Banns of marriage were required in areas under British rule, including Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The banns consisted of an announcement in church for three Sundays prior to the wedding. This prevented people from marrying in haste and also gave any who might object time to learn of the match. Giving a fortnights notice to the registrar is still a legal requirement in Britain. Three months is required in Ireland. Waiting periods are common in most jurisdictions of the English speaking world, with the famous exception of the State of Nevada.

Banns were a much more thorough way of asking anyone who might object to “speak now or forever hold your peace.” If you ever wondered what objections were valid they are that either of the parties is already married, they are under the age of consent, they are too closely related or if either has concealed injury or disease that would make it impossible for them to have children. These are also grounds for annulment.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were all under English rule. Canon Law, the law of the church governing marriage was no longer universal. King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church in part so that he could rewrite marriage laws and divorce Catherine of Aragon. The creation of new Established Churches leads to hardship and resentment by those who remained loyal to the old Catholic faith as well as other sects that emerged. Catholic family history can be difficult or impossible to trace since their weddings and baptisms were not registered in the Established Church and were therefore not accorded the same status of the public record. This situation was improved in the mid-1800’s when marriages performed by secular registrars as well as ministers of religious communities other than the official state church were granted full legal recognition in the United Kingdom.

In Scotland Marriage by Declaration was once quite common and remained legal and valid until 1939. All that was required was that the couple declares their intentions before two witnesses. The problem with Marriage by Declaration was that occasionally there were misunderstandings and deceptions that proved messy. Issues of sobriety at the time of the declaration as well as the possibility of misunderstandings about whether the declaration was of betrothal or actual marriage could put the relationship in doubt, lacking reliable witnesses. Since the transaction was informal and unrecorded it could be difficult to prove the legitimacy of offspring and rights of inheritance if either party abandoned the relationship. Eligibility to marry could be cast in doubt if a previous marriage was alleged but could not be proved. The old practice of English couples running off to Gretna Green to the Scottish border to be married by the blacksmith, under the more expedient Scottish law presents an exciting and romantic scenario. Gretna Green is still a very popular wedding destination but nowadays prior notice must be filed with the local registrar.

Our knowledge of what common folk did at their weddings prior to living memory is limited to very few accounts recorded by travelers in the 19th century. Prior to then what the common folk did was of no interest to the literate. Many married with very little fuss. Established Church records are very good for weddings and baptisms going back well into the 18th century. It is quite common for baptisms and marriages to be recorded on the same dates which lead one to conclude that many couples sort of drifted into marriage and made it official only after the fact of their relationship was manifested in a flesh and blood child. On the other hand, betrothals could be cause for celebration and often as formal an occasion and good time a party as the wedding itself. Just as today some people got married quietly while others made the event a memorable celebration that involves many friends and relatives.

Dave “The Exile” describes a typical Scottish wedding circa 1950, from the SCT-INVERNESS Genealogy Mailing List:

The banns were read, and posted over the appropriate period, the couple turned
up, were married, stopped for photos on the church steps, then got in the car,
threw out haepennies for the kids and sped off to the reception where they got
drunk, there was a fight, the women cried, the men laughed, the pipes played,
drunks spewed, women yelled at their men and eventually dragged them home, there
was dancing drinking and feasting. Just like everywhere else. (Remember a
Scottish funeral is merrier than an English wedding.) I was shocked at my first
Canadian, and then American weddings. People were so well behaved. Ach well then
the piper started and it was back to life as normal.

Handfasting

Much has been made of the revival of the custom called handfasting, perhaps too much. In some places and times (Medieval Scotland, Northern England and perhaps Ireland) it seems to mean betrothal and in others genuine marriage. Many interpret it as a trial marriage or a step beyond betrothal but not nearly as permanent as marriage. It is often repeated that this handfasting is for a year and a day.

Appealing as the “trial marriage” concept of handfasting is too many, the “revival” of the practice is a case of life imitating fiction. The literary source for the “year and a day” originally comes from Sir Walter Scott.   The popular Outlander series by Diane Gabaldon is just one of more recent examples of ideas about handfasting entering  the popular imagination through historical novels. A year and a day was the period that a couple must be married for a spouse to have claimed to a share of inheritable property in case of the death of the other spouse. Misunderstanding of this fact combined with confusion about the celebration of betrothals in medieval times lead to the modern myth of the Celtic trial marriage.

Never-the-less the mythical “trial marriage” handfasting is now pretty well established in some circles. Handfasting, according to the historical novel tradition would normally lead to regular permanent and valid marriage but if either party chose to leave, the relationship was null. Even if children had been brought forth these children were considered lawful offspring of both parents. Neither would be prevented from seeking marriage to another after the handfasting was dissolved. Handfasting in a manner reminiscent of marriage by declaration is advocated by modern pagans and historical reenactment enthusiasts, sometimes as an off-the-books substitute for legal marriage, sometimes as a supplement to a legal wedding. Handfasting, it is claimed is a holdover from pre-Christian Celtic marriage laws. It should not be surprising that in this day and age when sexual partnerships often avoid the commitment of permanent monogamy, that a fantasy state of non-marriage should appear. If trial marriages existed in medieval times as it is claimed, they were just the sort of unregistered, off-the-books affairs that would be impossible to document historically. Thus the possibility that such arrangements once may have been being used to justify arrangements that are made to order for lovers wishing to live together in a partnership recognized by like-minded friends, but without the blessing of church or state.

Handfasting can be part of the religious or civil wedding ceremony. The hands of the bride and groom are joined as in the familiar scene as the person officiating the ceremony asks “Who gives this woman to be wed?” and then takes her hand from her father or whoever is giving away the bride and clasps it to the hand of the groom. In olden days the priest or minister would wrap the clasped hands at the end of his stole to symbolize the trinity of marriage; man and woman joined by God. With God’s grace in time, another trinity would be manifest; mother, father, and child. The Celts have always been good at seeing things in threes. This symbolic binding together in marriage evolved into the practice of wrapping the clasped hands with a cord or an embroidered cloth, usually made especially for that purpose. Handfasting in this manner is a legitimate part of a legally valid marriage, rather than a substitute for it.

It should be cautioned that while brides and grooms can be very creative with their vows, clothes, locations, music and religious content of their weddings, laws of the state and church still apply. It is a crime for clergy to knowingly perform marriages that would not be legally binding or to perform marriages and not record them properly with the state. If you ask a real ordained minister, who is licensed by the state to perform marriages, to bless a handfasting that you do not want to record as a legal wedding you are on very thin ice unless you make it very clear that it is a betrothal. Religious sects have rules about what they allow as well.

There are two reasons when it is OK and even advisable to have a second informal wedding ceremony that would not be registered with the state. When a couple joins or returns to active fellowship in religious faith after having been married outside that church they may be wed again according to the form and tradition of the sect they wish to have blessed their marriage. This commonly happens when a couple wants their existing marriage to be recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, but they may desire to reaffirm their vows in a religious ceremony in any faith, either because they are just now converting to it or for some other reason they did not have a religious ceremony at the time they first wed. This wedding is usually done privately. It need not be recorded with the state since as far as the state is concerned the marriage already exists. It is increasingly popular to renew wedding vows, usually on an anniversary. This can be a very touching ceremony and again there is no need to record the event with the state or comply with any of the legal requirements of a regular wedding as the marriage is already recorded.

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St. John’s Day

St. John’s Day and Eve, occasionally called the Feast of St. John or Midsummer is celebrated on June 23 and 24. This holiday is a chance to pay homage to water, fire, and plants. It is a time to cleanse one’s soul to become the best versions of one’s self, spread love and compliment the Energies of the Summer Solstice. Celebratory traditions vary from region to region; however, the main theme remains—to honor the sun.

At sunset on June 23rd, another of the ancient fire festivals begins. This midsummer festival was known as St. John’s Eve, or Bonfire Night, and not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition throughout Ireland.

The following description is edited from a piece written in 1943 by an old schoolmaster who lived in West Limerick:

“…old people of thirty years ago and more remembered how the fire used to be lit exactly at sunset and had to be watched and tended until long after midnight. Prayers use to be said to obtain God’s blessing on the crops, then at the peak-point of summer bloom.

Round the fire gathered young and old. There were much fun and music; a dance was started and games were played while some young men competed in casting weights or in feats of strength, speed or agility. I gathered that it was mostly women who shared in the prayers for the gardens and for good weather. Neglect in this respect might lead to a bad harvest or cause “the white trout not to come up the river” as they usually did with the mid-summer floods.

Unless the weather proved too cold, summer swimming in the river began on St. John’s Day and the observance of the festival was supposed to eliminate all danger of drowning.

…in my early youth near Knockaderry, County Limerick, I remember a curious custom repeated each St. John’s Eve. The young people used to gather from the marshy ground near the river Deel the large leaf and strong stem the hocusfian as it was called and each youth armed with one of these went around lightly striking each person that he or she met. This was supposed to protect those who were struck from illness and evil influences during the coming year. Afterward, the hocus stems were thrown into the fire. Here, too, people threw into the fire specimens of the most troublesome weeds in the district – this was supposed to protect the fields from these weeds.

Old people told me that it was customary to jump over the fire from side to side. Some wise elder claimed to be able to tell, from the manner of jumping and the flickering of the fire, whether the jumpers were guilty or not of certain misdemeanors, such as theft or misbehavior with women.

Some people used to take the ashes from the fire then extinct on St. John’s morning to scatter them on their fields. At the close of the festival too about after midnight any man who had built a new house or had nearly completed it took from the bonfire a shovel of red hot sods to his new home so that the very first fire there would be started by the ceremonial bonfire.

About the year 1905, a very old man told me that his grandfather had told him that in his young day – in the late 18th century – the young men used to walk through the fields with lighted torches and then cast these into the fire. This was supposed to bring a blessing on the fields and protect the crops from harm.

It was widely believed that a house built on a path frequented by the fairies and other such uncanny travelers would suffer from midnight noises or supernatural manifestations. Perhaps too, ill luck in the farm or personal illness might afflict the family. One remedy for these evils was to bring on St. John’s Eve portion of the blessed fire and to build with them on the path in several places small fires which would be left burning until morning.

It was also customary that small objects of piety, such as rosary beads, little statues or scapulars, when they became broken or worn out were destroyed without disrespect by being burned in the Midsummer Fire.”

While this very much abbreviated description of St. John’s Eve still captures this writer’s imagination, it overlooks the fact that there used to be two very distinctive fire traditions. The first was the one the old school master mentions – the large communal bonfire assembled and lit by the residents of an entire townland or village – and sometimes the whole parish! But, the equally as important tradition that he doesn’t mention is the one where small fires were lit by individual households. In contrast to the revelries of the community event, these were quiet occasions where the main concern was in observing the protective rituals. About the only merry-making, one might have witnessed was younger children playing around the fire.

But, enough of the peace and quiet. Back to the fun and frolic of a community festival!

For several days beforehand, children and young people went from house to house asking for donations for the blessed fire. It was considered very unlucky to refuse. In fact, at some fires, the names of generous donors were called out and the crowd would cheer. But then, the names of the miserly were also announced and these were greeted with jeers and catcalls.

Imagine what it must have been like. Around the fire were assembled all the people of the locality – from the smallest children to the oldest men and women. As the sun set, the fire was lit. Usually, this honor was given to a knowledgeable elderly man who would say the traditional prayer for the occasion. One verse of this prayer is:

In the honor of God and St. John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In many places, the older people continued the preliminary proceedings with more prayers. Afterward, the merry-making began. As the flames and sparks shot up, loud cheers would arise from the crowd, horns were blown and some people beat on tin cans. The musicians struck up and the young men asked their partners to dance. In-between sets, songs were sung, stories were told, and soloists – musician or dancer – demonstrated their talents. By now the fire would be well ablaze. People leaped through the flames for luck in a new venture, or marriage, when trying for a baby, for good health, and for self-purification. Farmers leaped high so their crops would grow tall. In many places, a young woman and man would join hands and jump together. Often, this was nothing more than a mere flirtation, but onlookers took it for granted that there was some intention of marriage between the pair. Some observers would even go as far as to predict the outcome of such a union by the way the flames flickered as the couple jumped!

It was indeed, a grand time enjoyed by all. But, perhaps the best part of celebrating a Celtic festival is that it continues until sunset the next day.

The large communal fires of St. John’s Eve were carefully tended so they would burn brightly long into the night. One of the favorite games for the youngsters was to snatch a burning stick from the fire and throw it high into the air — very exciting for the kids, but incredibly dangerous for the spectators!

It was reported that John Millington Synge and his friend, Jack B. Yeats attended a St. John’s Eve celebration on a visit to County Mayo in 1905. At first, they had been saddened by the depressed state of the area, but then Synge is quoted as saying: “…the impression one gets of the whole life is not a gloomy one. Last night was St. John’s Eve, and bonfires – a relic of Druidical rites – were lighted all over the country, the largest of all being in the town square of Belmullet, where a crowd of small boys shrieked and cheered and threw up firebrands for hours together.” Yeats remembered a little girl in the crowd, in an ecstasy of pleasure and dread, clutching Synge by the hand and standing close in his shadow until the fiery games were over.

Other customs included inviting the oldest woman in the area to go three times sunwise round the fire on her knees saying prayers, to ward off disease; in some localities, holy water was sprinkled on the fire and, as on other festivals, it was sprinkled on the house, its occupants, outbuildings, livestock and the crops. Generally, this was done by either the oldest person in the family, but in some parts of Ireland, the youngest child was asked to do it.

As might be expected, there was plenty of eating and drinking! Customarily, in Connaught, a special dish called “Goody” was made. This was white ‘shop-bread’ which had been soaked in hot milk and flavored with sugar and spices. It was usually made in a large pot that was either placed on the communal bonfire or heated on a smaller fire close by. Revelers brought their own spoons and bowls if they wanted to share in the “Goody.”

In many parts of Ireland, it was the tradition for children to go around the village asking for “a penny for the bonfire.” They used the money they collected to buy candy and cakes to eat that evening at the fire. Popular with the old folk were a few bottles of poitín (potcheen) or whiskey; the young men, on the other hand, would pool their resources and buy a barrel of beer or porter which was shared all around.

When the communal bonfires were dying down, cows were often driven through them. Just so you don’t think the Irish were being cruel to their livestock, the communal fire was often a pair of fires between which the cattle were driven to protect them against disease for a year.

Likewise, it was believed that the fire would protect all the crops grown on the farm and that it could increase the yield, ensure a good harvest, and keep away blight, rust and other plant diseases. To make certain the fields were adequately protected, the fire had to be applied to the fields.

There were two ways this was done; many people took embers from the big fire and threw them into each field; if the growth of a crop was high enough to hide the glowing ember, this was thought to be a very good omen. The other way was for people to bring a long stemmed bush to the communal fire, light it, throw it into a crop or carry it through the fields. Many times, each member of a family would make individual torches which were lit from the fire and then carried high aloft as the family processed around every corner of their property. It must have been quite a sight to see from a distance, as neighboring families performed the same ritual!

Before moving on to the other customs surrounding the festival of St. John, there was one last ritual to perform and that was the bringing home of an ember from the communal fire and placing it on the family hearth. Some families also kept ashes from the fire for luck, others because they believed the ashes would ensure a peaceful death to old people who were ailing. The ashes also had curative powers: mixed with water, they were drunk to relieve internal disorders and they were used to cleanse and bathe wounds, sores, and swellings.

After the merriment of St. John’s Eve and with the fire burned out, families retired to their homes to rest up for the festivities of June 24th, the Saint’s birthday!

In the city of Limerick, they would have eagerly anticipated a colorful parade of tradesmen. Adorned with sashes, ribbons, and flowers, and accompanied by musicians, they marched in groups through the principal streets. A similar procession took place in Galway City, except that the marchers were the fishermen of Claddagh village. They were all uniformly clad in an outfit that included a short white jacket, silk sash and a hat decorated with flowers. Each of them carried a long pole or staff on which was an emblem of their trade and two of them – usually the stoutest pair in the group – wore masks as well as hundreds of ribbons all over their outfits. These were the ‘merry men” or clowns of the day who performed tricks and antics along the route. At the head of the procession was a group of musicians who led the marchers through the streets and then wound their way through the city until they arrived back at the starting point.

In just about every fishing district, St. John’s Day was important. In many places, it was the day the boats and nets were blessed and there was many an angler living inland who eagerly anticipated the arrival of sea trout which entered the rivers at this time of year.
The Large crowds bent on fun and frolic would be attracted to these events which included the erecting of a decorated pole. This pole was once described as being “as lofty as the mast of a sloop” and on its top, a small basket of cakes or gingerbread and a bunch of garters were tied. The best musician attending the assembly was always selected to perform at the foot of the pole and the best dancers competed with one another for the honor of winning the prizes – a girl got the gingerbread and a fellow got the garters.

Indeed, Midsummer in Ireland was merry for most; however, there was sadness in west Ulster and West Connaught for this was the time of year when the menfolk went as migratory harvest workers to England and Scotland. Often, they would be gone until late fall or even early winter, which meant that the turf had to be saved and the potatoes earthed up before the migrants left. Overall though, it was a time of optimism, with farmers hoping they’d get a period of wet weather before St. John’s Day and dry weather afterward. Those who were ill hoped for improvement and it was generally believed that even the very sick if they survived over midsummer, would live on at least until fall. As for the children, they hoped the cuckoo would eventually return, for it was about this time that the cuckoo ceased its call and the children were told it had flown away to Spain!

Resources and adaptation from:

St. John’s Eve in old Ireland
by Bridget Haggerty

http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/index.html

Announcement

It is with great sadness that I have to announce: Bridget Nancy Margaret O’FlahertyHaggerty, founder, and controller of Irish Culture and Customs, passed away on Sunday, June 4th. She was 70 years of age but that was just chronology; in her thoughts and everything she did she was still a teenager.

Spicebush

Spicy, lemony shrub with its rich history needs a reintroduction into the kitchens and medicine cabinets of North America.

It can be found from Maine to Florida, as far west as Kansas, and in parts of Texas. It is happiest just inside the edge of the forest but can successfully be grown out in the open with strong attention to its watering. The bush has a long American history that is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

When European settlers first arrived in the Americas, they would have had to struggle with many elements of homesickness — particularly the loss of familiarity with the plants around them. Seeds were surely transported, and some even thrived in the New World, but many of the plants that colonists depended on for food, medicine, dye, and textiles had to be left behind. This meant that settlers needed to quickly understand which plants could serve as substitutes for lost staples.

If you’re in a strange place and need to know the landscape, the logical thing to do is to ask the natives. One of the important plants the Cherokee people taught early settlers about was spicebush. Spices have moved humans from place to place, started civilizations, and founded empires. Here on the temperate shores of the U.S., the bright spices cinnamon and ginger don’t grow, but we’ve always had milder and cooler substitutes. Spicebush berries can be used as a replacement for allspice, and the powdered bark makes a serviceable cinnamon.

Spicebush is known as fever bush, Benjamin bush, snap-wood, wild allspice, Appalachian spice, spicewood, and “forsythia of the forest” to name a few. Beyond its culinary use, Native Americans taught the settlers about the ways they used spicebush as a medicine. This native population used the leaves, bark, berries, and sap in various ways. Internally, they prized the plant for its diaphoretic properties, or its ability to induce sweating. Native people used spicebush to ease colds, cough, fever, and measles. Externally, they used oil from the pressed berries to ease the pain of arthritis. They used all parts of the plant interchangeably as compresses (external applications of cloth soaked in tea) for rashes, itching, or bruises, and they also used it to remove internal parasites.

Soon, the colonies began to expand, and many itching to explore the West. As they walked, they deepened their relationship with spicebush. Paul Strauss, in his book The Big Herbs, tells us that chewing on the twigs will quench thirst and moisten the mouth. In this way, spicebush walked with the settlers, many of whom were traveling with their families as they moved toward a farm they’d bought, sight unseen. Spicebush was associated with rich soil and easy access to the water table. If the surveyor said that the shrub was on the land in question, it was a safe bet for a successful farm.

Over time, the Americas’ access to the hot and intense spices of the East became easier. Medical advancements yielded awareness of plants with healing properties, and then modern drugs left the need for many plants behind. Spicebush was left alone in the woods to quietly feed the insects and animals that depend on it for survival. Only now are we coming back to an awareness of its presence?

Cultivating Spicebush

Spicebush is now a featured member of Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. Many are stepping back into the dappled shade of the forest’s edge to become reacquainted with this shrub. Spicebush is fond of moist soils along streams or in rich woods. It grows between 6 and 12 feet high. At its base, one often finds some of the most endangered of our medicinal plants, such as black cohosh, ginseng, false unicorn, goldenseal, and wild yam. In March and April, just before the leaves emerge, it sports pale yellow blooms that are a great early source of nectar for bees. The male and female blooms arise on separate shrubs. When the leaves appear, they are opposite, simple, smooth, and oval to oblong with a spicy, aromatic smell when crushed. In fall, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow that contrasts sharply with the red spicebush fruit. This fruit is an oval-shaped drupe containing one large seed. It’s bright, glossy red, and spicy when ripe in August through September.

In winter, after all the fruit has been eaten, you can identify the spicebush based on the gray to an olive-green color of the stems, which have a spicy smell when broken. The leaf scars are crescent-shaped, and both young stems and old bark are dotted with pale lenticels (raised pores where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged). Spicebush spreads as a colony, by its roots. If you have a friend with an expanding group of spicebush, late fall is a great time to dig up some of the colony and move it to your house.

Growing spicebush is relatively easy, provided you have a good spot. Plants can be grown in full sun if you water them often and provide a rich soil with plenty of leaf compost. After they get established, they require little in the way of pruning or animal-proofing (deer don’t like them). You can just sit and enjoy the constant visual interest and all the other wildlife your spicebush will attract. The real problem will be deciding exactly which recipe you’d like to use with the leaves, twigs, and fruit your shrub will provide.

Uses for Spicebush

As a supplement, almost all parts of spicebush can be used in food and medicinal preparations. Spicebush bark’s antifungal capacities were demonstrated in a 2008 study that showed its activities against both Candida albicans and the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. To use the bark in this way, either make a tincture or simmer (decoct) the root in water for 15 to 20 minutes.

The entire shrub is high in volatile oils, making all parts of the plant likely effective at settling the stomach when made into a tea. The leaves are especially good as a tea and should be picked while glossy and green. The twigs can be picked to add to a tasty medicinal brew at any time of the year. If you’re hoping to have a cleansing sweat or break a fever, brew your tea for 30 minutes (4 ounces twigs to 1-quart water) and serve hot.

If you wish to use the berries, the possibilities for food as medicine are endless. Berries are ripe around the same time as apples, so think of the potential combinations! Dry berries in a dehydrator, and store them on a shelf or immediately freeze them. Some people cut the seed out of the middle before freezing, but I think that’s unnecessary and potentially removes some of the flavors. You’ll need to run unblanched, frozen berries through the food processor before adding them to a dish. Dried spicebush berries can be ground with a spice-dedicated coffee grinder. Try adding the resulting powder or pulp to coffee, cookies, chai tea, cobblers, curries, and more.

Spicebush is a strong part of our country’s past — but why keep it there? With so much to offer our landscape and even more to bring to our pantry and apothecary shelves, it deserves another look by all who enjoy a little history in the garden.

Spicebush Seed and Plant Sources

Strictly Medicinal Seeds (listed as “spice bush”)
Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co.
Fedco Seeds

Fever Chai with Spicebush

spicebush teaRelieve typical fever symptoms, or make without milk to soothe fever caused by respiratory illnesses.

Total Hands-On Time: 1 hr

Cook Time: 1 hr

Yield: 5-7 cups

Fever Chai can bring some relief to fever symptoms, but you may make it without the milk for someone who’s experiencing a fever related to a respiratory illness, as milk can exacerbate symptoms of congestion.

Ingredients:

• 8 whole cloves
• 8 spicebush berries
• 7 twigs spicebush (broken to equal about 2 ounces)
• 2 sticks cinnamon (smashed)
• 1 cardamom pod
• 1 tablespoon fresh sliced ginger
• 1/2 star anise
• 2 cups water
• 4 to 6 cups milk (or almond milk)
• 2 tablespoons black tea
• Sugar or honey to taste

Instructions:

1. Crush all the spices lightly with a mortar and pestle and place them into a saucepan.

2. Cover the spices with water and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the water has reduced by half.

4. Add the milk to the saucepan and bring back almost to a boil.

5. Remove from heat. Add the black tea, cover, and steep for 5 minutes before straining.

6. While still warm, add sugar or honey to taste, and then use a milk frother to whip your chai.

7. Serve immediately.

Wild Allspice Java Rub with Spicebush

spicebush rubThis sweet and spicy rub is the perfect addition to steak, brisket, or pork.

Total Hands-On Time: 5 min

Preparation Time: 5 min

Yield: 1 cup

This rub is best on a grilled steak or brisket but also works well with pork.

Ingredients:

• 5 tablespoons ground coffee
• 2 tablespoons coarse salt
• 2 tablespoons brown sugar
• 2 tablespoons paprika
• 2 teaspoons freshly ground pink peppercorns
• 2 teaspoons garlic powder
• 2 teaspoons ground spicebush berries
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

Instructions:

1. Combine all ingredients and place in an airtight container.

2. This mix is shelf-stable but should be used within 6 months.

Scarecrows Historically Speaking

For thousands of years, scarecrows have helped humans save their crops from crows and other hungry mouths and provided an outlet for human creativity. Scarecrows are as old and as mysterious as human nature and have been useful friends to humans since the mists of early time.

A Brief History of Scarecrows

Scarecrow genealogy is rooted in a rural lifestyle. The Egyptians used the first scarecrows in recorded history to use to protect wheat fields along the Nile River from flocks of quail. Egyptian farmers installed wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets. Then they hid in the fields, scared the quail into the nets and took them home to eat for dinner.

Greek farmers in 2,500 B.C. carved wooden scarecrows to look like Priapus, the son of the god Dionysus and the goddess Aphrodite, who supposedly was ugly enough to scare birds away from the vineyards and ensure good harvests. They painted their wooden scarecrows purple and put a club in one hand to scare away the birds and a sickle in the other for a good harvest.

The Romans copied the Greek scarecrow custom and when Roman armies marched through the Europe they introduced Priapus scarecrows to the people there. Almost simultaneously with the Greeks and Romans, Japanese farmers made scarecrows protect their rice fields. They made scarecrows called kakashis, shaped like people. They dressed the kakashis in a raincoat and a round straw hat and often added bows and arrows to make them look more threatening. Kojiki, the oldest surviving Japanese book compiled in the year 712, features a scarecrow known as Kuebiko who appears as a deity who can’t walk yet knows everything about the world.

In Germany, scarecrows were wooden and shaped to look like witches. Witch scarecrows were supposed to hasten the coming of spring. In medieval Britain, young boys and girls were used as live scarecrows or “bird scarers.” They would patrol the fields of crops and scare away birds by waving their arms or throwing stones. In later times, farmers stuffed sacks of straw, made faces of gourds, and leaned the straw man against the pole to scare away birds.

New World Scarecrows

In the United States, immigrant German farmers made human looking scarecrows called “bootzamon,” which later changed to the bogeyman. They were dressed in old clothes with a large red handkerchief around their necks.

Native American tribes across North America used scarecrows or bird scarers, mostly adult men. In Georgia, Creek Indian families moved into huts in their corn fields to protect their crops during the growing season. In the Southwest, Zuni children had contests to see who could make the scariest scarecrow.

Pilgrim families took turns guarding their fields against birds and animals, but as Americans expanded west they invented new kinds of nonhuman scarecrows like wooden and straw figures. During the Great Depression, scarecrows could be found all across America, but in the agri-business era after World War II, farmers sprayed or dusted their crops with chemicals like DDT until scientists discovered their harmful effects. To substitute for chemicals, some farmers built scarecrows like whirligigs that revolved like windmills to scare away the birds.

Modern Scarecrows

Scarecrows still guard fields around the world during the growing season. Today some farmers use technological scarecrows instead of straw and wooden figures, technological scarecrows like reflective film ribbons tied to plants to create shimmers from the sun or automatic noise guns that are powered by propane gas. Other farmers in India and some Arab countries, station old men in chairs to throw stones at birds to keep them away from the crops just like the medieval bird scarers.

Just a Few Scarecrows of the Imagination

Even though Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, by American author L. Frank Baum, admonishes her dog Toto, “Don’t be silly Toto, scarecrows don’t talk,” the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz does talk. In his first appearance in the book, he reveals that he doesn’t have a brain and wants more than anything else to acquire one. The reality is that he already has a brain, but since he is only two days old it is largely unused. As the story unfolds, he demonstrates that he does use his brain and it keeps growing along with his experiences. The scarecrow is symbolic because even though he has the title, “the wisest man in all of Oz,” he is wise enough to know his limitations. He continues to credit the Wizard for his brains and he hands over the throne of Oz that the Wizard bequeaths him to Princess Ozma. He becomes one of her trusted advisors but carves out enough time for himself to play games and enjoy life.

Paul Cornell focuses on the sinister aspect of scarecrow evolution in his 1995 Doctor Who novel Human Nature, when he has his villains, the Family of Blood, create an army of scarecrows to try to capture the Time Lord.

Tim Preston, in his children’s book, The Lonely Scarecrow, sees a winter future for the scarecrow. He imagines that instead of dying in the fall after the festivals and fun of Halloween are over, the scarecrow is covered with snow in the winter and becomes a useful friend until he resumes his guard duties in the spring.

Scarecrows of the Future

Scarecrows have evolved along with people and people sponsor scarecrow festivals every year in places as diverse as West Kilbride, Scotland, St. Charles, Illinois, and Alberta, Canada. After the scarecrow festivals are over, both scarecrows and people enjoy a long, friendly, restful winter before they resume their more strenuous duties in the spring.

References: Brown, Margaret Wise, The Little Scarecrow Boy, Harper Collins, 2005
Miller, Marcianne, Creative Scarecrows: 35 Fun Figures for Your Yard and Garden, Lark Books, 2004.
Preston, Tim, The Lonely Scarecrow, Dutton Juvenile, 1st Edition, 1999

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