While the world mourns the passing of this remarkable queen, I'd like to take a brief look back through the centuries at her predecessor, Elizabeth I, to compare and contrast the lives of these female monarchs who shared a name.
Age at accession
Both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II were 25 years old when they became queens. A major difference is that Elizabeth II had been married for over 5 years at her coronation in 1953 and was the mother of two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Elizabeth I famously never married, which earned her the nickname "The Virgin Queen."
Age at death
Elizabeth I died in 1603 at age 69. Elizabeth II made it to 96 - a number that's the exact inverse of 69.
Though at first glance it would seem that Elizabeth II lived much longer than Elizabeth I, the picture changes when you factor life expectancies for their time. In 16th to 18th century Britain, the average life expectancy for women was 33 years old, and only 34 years old for men. By that measure, Elizabeth I lived to an amazing old age, just like Elizabeth II did in our modern time.
One of the greatest threats to Elizabeth's monarchy was posed by her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who was considered by many influential English Catholics to be the true Queen of England. Mary was suspected of being involved in plots to assassinate Elizabeth and take her crown, and the Scottish queen was popular enough that she just might have succeeded.
The threat Mary posed ended with her imprisonment and beheading in 1587, an execution ordered by Queen Elizabeth.
I suppose that's one way to settle a family feud.
In the 1990s another popular royal relative, this time the Queen's daughter-in-law, caused consternation in royal circles. Princess Diana's sudden, untimely death in 1997 became a problem for the reigning queen when the general public went into a massive nationwide mourning.
The depth of the people's grief was underestimated by the Queen and the royal family, who stayed mainly silent and secluded in Scotland while the public grieved. This seeming indifference to the death of a beloved princess was met with anger and hostility by the grieving nation, very nearly creating a crisis for the monarchy.
This crisis was averted when Queen Elizabeth made a widely televised speech five days after Diana's death, paying tribute to the late princess, calling her an "exceptional and gifted human being" who inspired others with her "warmth and kindness" and admitted to admiring Diana for her "energy and commitment to others."
In this speech the Queen tuned in to the overwhelming loss and grief her people were experiencing, and the Queen's well-chosen words went a long way towards defusing the volatile situation.
No beheadings were necessary!
Both Queens were dedicated to their jobs. Even before she became Queen Elizabeth II made her priorities in life clear in this speech she made in 1947 on her 21st birthday, during her first overseas tour:
"I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong."
That was a promise she would remain unfailingly committed to throughout her reign.
Queen Elizabeth I had her defining moment as well, in the summer of 1588 when England was threatened by an invasion by Spain. She stood before her troops as they prepared to defend their country. Wearing a white velvet dress adorned by a silver breastplate, Elizabeth inspired them with these words:
"My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I do assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people . . . I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm."
"Weak and feeble woman"? I don't think so. She was more like a Warrior Queen, a prototype for Xena, Warrior Princess.
The Armada never stood a chance.
Length of Reign
Queen Elizabeth I reigned for 44 years, a record that stood until Queen Victoria's 63-year reign. On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne for an astonishing 70 years, a record that's not likely to be broken any time soon.
The first Queen Elizabeth had a more ornate style. You can see that not only in her heavily decorated clothing, but in her signature as well. Just look at the flourishes and curlicues she adds to her name:
Now, I've written about Queen Elizabeth II many times in this blog, including posts about her Coronation (The Crown - Then and Now) and her and Prince Philip's 70th wedding anniversary (Happy Anniversary to the Queen and Her Prince).
I find it incredibly sad to be writing about her now in the past tense. She, and her reign, wasn't perfect - but then nothing is. However, throughout her long life she worked quietly and steadily to fulfill the vow she made as a young woman to dedicate herself to the service of her people, in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Her life was never about her; it was always about them.
And now, Queen Elizabeth II has earned her final rest and a place in history as one of England's greatest queens.
I believe Queen Elizabeth I would be proud of her namesake.
January 25 is a day of celebration for Scottish people around the world. Robbie Burns Day, as it's affectionately known, marks the birthday of 18th century poet and lyricist Robert Burns, born 263 years ago in Ayrshire, Scotland.
An early pioneer of the Romantic movement, Burns is famous for writing poetry that inspired other Romantic poets after him, including Regency poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Sympathetic to the American and French revolutions, Burns also wrote political commentary that inspired social reformers.
The Scottish poet was a well-known and beloved figure during the Regency. In fact, his friends started gathering to commemorate his birthday a mere six years after his death in 1796.
So, you have to wonder what another prominent Regency figure, Jane Austen, thought about her fellow writer. We know she was aware of him and his work.
In one of her novels, she mentions him by name and indicates she appreciated his poetic skills. However, if we read further, it seems as though Austen's general opinion of Burns is based on her understanding of his moral character.
But before getting into that, let's take a closer look at Burns' life and legacy.
Burns was born in 1759 to a tenant farmer, the eldest of seven children. Burns spent his youth doing hard physical labor, which affected his health throughout his life.
He himself became a tenant farmer in Ayrshire. But as a young teen he began to write romantic poetry, possibly inspired by a girl who was his first love.
While working primarily as a farm laborer, Burns received a rather haphazard education, initially by his father who taught him the basic reading and writing at home, and later in schools under the tutelage of John Murdoch, who instructed him in Latin, French, grammar and mathematics.
But in the 1786 Burns life began to change after he submitted some of his work for publication. Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect was an immediate hit, and soon he was famous throughout his homeland. He'd originally intended to use the money from the publication to buy passage to Jamaica, but his success encouraged him to stay in Scotland and keep writing. At the time of his death ten years later in 1796, he was still writing and working as an excise officer at Dumfries.
Burns was a romantic through and through, and is credited with being a pioneer of Romanticism, an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that blossomed during the 19th century. Burn's poetry is lush and sentimental (“My luve is like a red red rose/That's newly sprung in June”), spontaneous and sincere. And he was apparently just as romantic and ardent in his personal life.
He married Jean Armour in 1788 after she had already become pregnant with his twins a few years earlier. As his wife, she went on to bear him seven more children. Burns also had several love affairs, bringing the total number of children he fathered to 12. Only five of these twelve survived to adulthood, but they have reportedly produced 900 descendants.
In addition, to his writing, Burns was interested in Scottish folklore, and he collected and preserved Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising them in the process. One example is the New Year's favorite, "Auld Lang Syne." In addition to romantic themes, Burn's poetry also expressed themes of egalitarianism and other republican ideals. His poem "A Man's a Man for A' That," was especially popular.
Today Robert Burns is one of the most celebrated poets in the world. He's become a symbol of a national pride that unites Scots who've emigrated to countries far from their homeland.
The influence of Burns on art and literature is widespread, acknowledged by writers like J.D. Salinger and John Steinbeck (his book Of Mice and Men takes its title from a line written by Burns) and musicians like Bob Dylan, who said that Burn's composition "To A Red, Red Rose" was one of his greatest inspirations.
There are Burns' clubs all over the world, and over 60 memorials and monuments to honor him have been built across the United Kingdom, including Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, the United States, and even in Estonia.
A replica of the cottage he was born in was constructed in Atlanta, Georgia. A crater on the Mercury was named after Burns.
Though the UK has issued several commemorative postage stamps honoring Burns over the years, the former USSR was the first country to do so. In 1959 the Soviet Union created a stamp to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet's birth.
Burns was admired in Russia in the early 19th century for his writings supporting the working classes. Following the Russian revolution, Burns was even known as the people's poet of Russia, where he is still popular.
And as late as 2009, Robert Burns (aka the National Bard and the Ploughman Poet) was voted the “Greatest Scot of All Time” (he even got more votes than William Wallace!) in a poll taken by a Scottish television channel.
Now let's take a brief look at Jane Austen, Burns' contemporary.
Though the two writers never met, the lives of Jane Austen and Robert Burns did overlap chronologically. When Jane Austen was born in December 1775 at the Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England, Burns was already a robust lad of 16, working hard, falling in love and putting his feelings in eloquent verse.
And when Burns died prematurely at the age of only 37 on July 21 in 1796, Jane was 21 years old, working on what would become her best known novel, Pride and Prejudice. having recently enjoyed an exhilarating flirtation that would unfortunately go nowhere with Tom Lefroy.
Coincidentally, she would also die far too young at the age of 41 on a July day 19 years later in 1817.
Unlike Burns, who was married and had several love affairs both before and during his marriage, Jane remained resolutely single and close to her sister Cassandra until the end of her life.
Though Austen was never proclaimed a national hero, her legacy is solid. Not as successful as Burns during her lifetime, Austen nevertheless achieved great literary renown in the centuries that followed.
Since her death Austen's six novels have rarely been out of print. She has fans and festivals worldwide. Her novels and other writings have been the subject of countless scholarly studies and inspired equally countless literary spin-offs, popular fiction and cinematic adaptations. And in 2017 she replaced Charles Darwin as the face on England's ten-pound note.
Austen's opinion of Burns
In contrast to Burn's romanticism, Austen's literary work is known for its realism, sharp wit, and irony. Unlike him she never married (though she came close once) and the basis for the marriages in her stories were often more pragmatic than romantic.
So, what did Jane, a contemporary of Burns, think of him? We get a clue from a comment by one of her fictional characters.
In Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon, Charlotte Heywood, a single woman in her early 20s, says this:
“I have read several of Burns’ Poems with great delight”, said Charlotte, as soon as she had time to speak, “but I am not poetic enough to separate a Man’s Poetry entirely from his Character; — & poor Burns’s known Irregularities greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines. — I have difficulty in depending on the Truth of his Feelings as a Lover. I have not faith in the sincerity of the affections of a Man of his Description. He felt & he wrote & he forgot.”
"He felt & he wrote & he forgot.” Ouch.
But Jane Austen's criticism cannot dent the ardor of the admiration accorded to Robert Burns. Burns' birthday has become an unofficial holiday in Scotland. And for many, the best way to observe the occasion is by attending a Burns Night supper.
The first supper to commemorate Burns on his birthday was held on January 25, 1803. (Although a few of Burn's friends gathered the year before to honor him on January 29, thinking that was the date of his birth, they corrected their mistake the following year.)
Burns Night suppers have been held on January 25 ever since. Traditionally, Scottish dishes such as cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties are served, often with a whiskey sauce.
|Slicing a haggis at a Burns Night supper
To those unfamiliar with Scottish cuisine, "cock-a-leekie" soup is made with chicken and leeks, "neeps" are mashed turnips, "tatties" are mashed potatoes, and haggis, a dish only a true Scot could love, is made out of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, mixed with oatmeal and spices, and cooked in the sheep's stomach (although nowadays the stomach may be replaced by an artificial sausage casing).
Modern Burns Night suppers in Scotland are enlivened with events such as poetry readings (Burns poetry, of course) along with singing and dancing. Whiskey and the wearing of tartans are other popular features of Burns Night celebrations.
Gung Haggis Fat Choy
But perhaps the most unusual and festive Burn’s night celebration takes place in Canada, where the traditional Burns night supper has become a rollicking event known as Gung Haggis Fat Choy.
The origins of this event go back almost 30 years, when Todd Wong, a student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, saw that the 1993 Chinese Lunar New Year would be celebrated that year just a couple of days after Robert Burns’ birthday. Wong, who is Scottish and Chinese, decided to combine the two events to honor his own multicultural heritage.
|Dragon streetlight in Vancouver BC's Chinatown
Thus, his “Toddish McWong” persona was born. Wong hosted his first Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner in 1998 as a private party for 16 friends. The event is now a public event involving hundreds of people, drawn into a joyous celebration that combines Scottish and Chinese music, Burns’ poetry, singalongs. and live performances.
The festivities culminate in a banquet featuring haggis and turnips, of course, along with Chinese dishes like Mongolian beef and spicy jelly fish.
This year’s Gung Haggis Fat Choy celebration is on January 30 in Vancouver, B.C.’s Chinatown. Because of pandemic restrictions, instead of attending a banquet, participants can purchase a box dinner and watch a Livestream event at home.
Here’s a clip of a past celebration:
Bagpipes and dragons – a creative fusion I think an artist like Burns would appreciate And I'm pretty sure Jane Austen, who often wrote about the excitement of attending balls, would have appreciated the dancing at all types of Burns Nights.
So, on behalf of Robbie Burns, admirers of poetry, song, and Scotland, and Toddish McWong, Happy Burns Night, and Gung Haggis Fat Choy!
Sources for this post include:
"Robert Burns, 1759-1796," National Records of Scotland
"Robert Burns, Poet of the Russian People," Broughton Ales, July 31, 2020
"Burns Night 2022: Date of Burns Night 2022, what Burns Night is and how it is celebrated in Scotland" by Liv McMahon, The Scotsman, January 18, 2022.
"Bob Dylan: Robert Burns is my biggest inspiration," by Sean Michaels, October 6, 2008, The Guardian
"Robert Burns is Crowned the Greatest Scot," by Tom Hamilton, December 1, 2009, The Daily Record.
"Burness Genealogy and Family History," compiled by John Burness and updated on January 6, 2022
Toddish McWong's Adventures in Multiculturalism, Gung Haggis Fat Choy 2022
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
|The Resolution and Adventure in Tahiti, painted by William Hodges
in 1776 during Cook's second voyage of exploration
It’s raining steadily in the Pacific Northwest this month, following a late December snowstorm. During this kind of weather, I like to think about tropical islands. Hawaii and Tahiti are two that come to mind.
But the history of those Pacific gems is inextricably linked to one man: Captain James Cook, the 18-century British navy captain, cartographer, explorer and navigator par excellence whose scientific discoveries and explorations reshaped the world as he and his contemporaries knew it.
It's appropriate to think of Cook during the dreary month of January, because it was on January 17, 1773, that the HMS Resolution under Cook’s command became the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle. It was January of 1778 that Cook first set foot on the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. And it was another fateful January, in 1779, that he made his second and final visit to Hawaii, a trip that would prove fatal.
|Cook, as painted by William Hodges
Cook started his career in the Royal Navy as a surveyor. As a lieutenant in command of the HMS Endeavour, in 1768 he led his first voyage (1768-1771), taking a group of scientists to Tahiti to chart the course of the planet Venus.
On this trip he charted New Zealand's coastline and explored the coast of Australia, making contact with indigenous Australian tribes including the Maori and Aborigines.
A year later Cook was at the helm of the HMS Resolution, this time as a commander, as he made another voyage to the South Pacific region (1772-1775). His companion ship was the HMS Adventure, commanded by Tobias Furneaux.
It was during this expedition that Cook made history by crossing the Antarctic Circle in 1773 and circumnavigating the globe at its southernmost latitude.
Three years later Cook made his third and final voyage (1776-1779), once again in command of the Resolution. He was accompanied by another ship, the HMS Discovery, commanded by Captain Charles Clerke.
In January of 1778 Cook discovered the Hawaiian island group, naming them the Sandwich Islands to honor a patron of his, John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich. Cook and his companions were the first Europeans to initiate formal contact with the Hawaiian islanders.
On his first visit to Hawaii, Cook was welcomed by the Hawaiians, and he traded the ship's metal for supplies. Then his ships left the islands to search, in vain, for the western end of a northwest passage that would link the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
|Plaque on the shoreline of Kealakekua Bay,
near the spot Cook was killed
A year later, in January of 1779, Cook returned to Hawaii and found safe harbor in Kealakekua Bay. When Cook and his men arrived, the Hawaiians were having a religious festival.
The Hawaiians again welcomed the sailors and treated them as gods, a circumstance Cook and his crew took advantage of for about a month.
However, a crewman died, and the Hawaiians were disillusioned to see that the men were mortal after all. That's when things started to get ugly. The ships tried to leave the bay, but rough seas forced them to return. The Hawaiians threw rocks at the ships when they sailed back.
Then some of the natives stole a small boat, a cutter vessel, from one of the ships. Cook and some of his men went ashore to negotiate with the ruling chief to get the boat back. Cook even attempted to kidnap and ransom the King of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, as a negotiating tactic.
As Cook was leading the king away, an angry mob formed at the shore. Cook was hit on the head and then stabbed to death in the surf. His body was taken away and buried on the island with great ceremony by the Hawaiians, according to their rituals.
In addition to Cook, four marines were killed, and two others were wounded.
A few days later the crews on the two ships out in the bay fired cannons and muskets at the shore, killing about 30 Hawaiians. Then the ships left and went back to England.
The scientific legacy of Cook's three voyages is enormous. He and his men were among the first Europeans to survey the continents and islands of the South Pacific. They charted and recorded coastlines, islands and other geographical features, putting them on European maps for the first time. He also charted Australia's Great Barrier Reef and New Zealand, while disproving the imagined existence of a continent south of Australia - the mythical Terra Australis.
Cook is also known for his pioneering care of his crew. He made sure their quarters were kept clean and well-ventilated, and that their diet was healthy, including foods rich in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), like orange extract, watercress and sauerkraut. As a result, none of his men died of scurvy, an all-too-common ailment among sailors, caused by vitamin C deficiency.
Cook took scientists with him on his voyages, including botanists who collected over 3,000 plant species, and their observations added significantly to the knowledge of places like Tahiti, Easter Island and Australia. He also brought along artists, who were able to capture on canvas the beauty of the lands they visited.
|Map of Cook's voyages - the red line is the first,
the second is green and the final voyage is blue.
Despite his untimely death, Cook's scientific geographic discoveries were a major influence on those who came after him, and memorials have been erected to Cook around the world.
Here is a short video, created by the British Library, describing Cook's voyages:
For more information, see:
- This Day in History, February 14, 1779, "Captain Cook killed in Hawaii."
- BBC-History, Captain James Cook, 1728-1729
- Encyclopedia Britannica, James Cook, British Naval Officer
For a Hawaiian perspective, see:
- Death of Captain Cook- Hawaii Alive, Bishop Museum
|Charles Dickens in 1842, a year before
the publication of A Christmas Carol
Christmas in Jane Austen’s time
If we could travel back in time a couple of hundred years, we'd see that Christmas prior to the Victorian era bore little resemblance to our modern Christmas celebrations.
In medieval times Christmas celebrations were the highlight of the year, with feasting, pantomimes, dancing, singing, games, gifts, and other fun. But the Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries frowned on celebrations in general, and forbade any frivolity at Christmas.
This Puritan influence lingered, and during the 18th century and the Regency era, Christmas was low-key. Games, gifts and raucous merry-making were out. A toned-down observance of the holiday centering on a religious service was in.
In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen mentions Christmas exactly six times, and the references are brief. For example, Darcy says his sister will stay at Pemberley till Christmas, and Mrs. Bennet’s brother and sister-in-law are mentioned as having come as usual to spend “the Christmas at Longbourn.”
That's not to say that Christmas wasn't observed at all. Regency homes were often decorated with greenery such as holly or laurel. People went to church on Christmas Day, and then home to a dinner that included plum pudding and mince pie. Lucky servants or tradesmen might get "Christmas Boxes" - small gifts of money - but it wasn't the custom to lavish gifts on family and friends the way we often do today.
|A traditional bag-boiled plum pudding -
the kind Jane Austen may have eaten
Caroline, hoping to convince Jane that her brother was no longer interested in her, writes:
“I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings, and that your beaux will be so numerous as to prevent your feeling the loss of the three of whom we shall deprive you.”
"Gaieties" sounds nice, even if the intent of Caroline's letter was mean.
Christmas observances in England started to change when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, and Albert introduced the German custom of having a decorated Christmas tree to his family in the late 1840s. This royal example inspired English families to get their own Christmas trees.
But Christmas really started to evolve into the merry holiday we're familiar with after A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and became a smash hit with the British public.
Enter Charles Dickens
|Scrooge gets a visit from the
Ghost of Christmas Present
Throughout his life, Dickens authored 15 novels and five novellas, plus nonfiction articles and hundreds of short stories. He often wrote about the plight of the poor and the need to reform living and working conditions.
His literary works include A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, all of which were popular during his lifetime and still are. But it's A Christmas Carol, the little book Dickens had to pay Chapman and Hall to publish because they didn't think it would sell, that may be Dickens' greatest legacy.
Adaptations of A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol has been adapted too many times to count, in every medium imaginable (books, film, cartoons, stage, public readings, television, radio) with new versions appearing every year.
|Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit
A sentimental favorite of mine is Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) that I watched with my children. Scrooge McDuck made a great Ebenezer Scrooge!
The very first film adaptation as far as anyone knows was a 1901 British silent film, titled Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost. The special effects are primitive compared to current cinema, but I'm sure the film was scary for its turn-of-the-century audience.
If you're curious, you can watch a 3-minute clip of this black-and-white silent on YouTube:
The Man Who Invented Christmas
More recently, The Man Who Invented Christmas, starring Dan Stevens and Christopher Plummer, hit the theaters in 2017. It’s in libraries today, and currently available to stream on Hulu or rent/buy from Amazon and Prime Video. The film is based on the book of the same name by Les Standiford.
This adaptation is a new take on the classic story; here the focus is on Dickens himself. I found the film fascinating because it speculates on the people and events in Dickens' life that may have inspired him to write his timeless tale. I especially enjoyed the scenes where his characters come to life and help him write their story.
Here is a trailer for the movie:
- Inventing Scrooge, by Carlo DeVito, Cedar Mill Press Book Publishers, Kennebunkport, Maine, 2014
- The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford, Crown Publishing Group, Inc., New York, New York, 2008
- Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins, Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, England, 2013
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, first published in December, 1843, in London, England, by Chapman and Hall.
November 25 is Thanksgiving Day in America this year, but the United States isn’t the only country that sets aside a day for thanks and blessings for the harvest. There are similar national Thanksgiving holidays and observances in countries around the globe, including Canada, Brazil, and Australia, to name only a few.
In the U.S. our Thanksgiving observation is linked to the experiences of the first English pilgrims who came to North America in 1619. Those settlers endured a rough winter and many hardships, and tradition has it they celebrated their first harvest by sharing a meal with the Native Americans who helped them survive.
American colonists held Thanksgiving feasts throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, and in 1789 President George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration on November 26.
Thanksgiving in the U.S. continued as a fall harvest tradition, though the dates varied from state to state. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, to be held on the last Thursday in November. Because the Civil War was being fought at the time, the nationwide holiday wasn't actually celebrated till the 1870s, after Reconstruction ended.
The next president to weigh in on Thanksgiving was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who signed a proclamation fixing the date for the national holiday on the next to last Thursday in November.
Then on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution, again signed by FDR, moving the national Thanksgiving holiday to the fourth Thursday in November, where it's been ever since.
History buffs might recall that only a few weeks before the resolution passed, the U.S. entered World War II, following Japan's December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. You'd think that Thanksgiving would be the last thing on congressional minds in late December that year.
But I think there's a lesson in that 1941 proclamation, with its focus on gratitude even in the midst of a terrible war. It's important to take time to reflect on what to be thankful for rather than what's wrong, no matter how bad things seem.
In searching for quotes about Thanksgiving, I came across this one from the 13th century Persian poet Rumi: “Wear gratitude like a cloak, and it will feed every corner of your life.”
I think that sums up the spirit of the holiday nicely.
An ancient tradition, closely tied to gathering the harvest in centuries past, is enjoying a revival in our modern era of mechanized farming.
I’m talking about corn dollies, which usually aren't made of corn and don't necessarily resemble dolls.
I can explain!
Corn dolly historyTo begin with, in Britain "corn" was traditionally used to describe any type of grain. A straw figurine or "corn dolly" was constructed out of the remains of the last few sheaves of grain harvested. However, a corn dolly can be made of wheat, barley, oats, rye, or even reeds. In Ireland rush was used; in France, palm leaves.
Corn dollies were made in ancient Greece, and also found tucked into the tombs of ancient Egypt. They were seen throughout Europe, and even in Africa.
Corn dollies were also a staple in Pagan ceremonies, and still are. According to the Pagan blog Sabbat Box, the term "dolly" may be slang for "idol", and the figurines were believed to contain actual spirits, specifically the "spirit of the grain."
Corn dollies as a harvest tradition
According to the British organization Heritage Crafts, the making of straw figurines to represent an Earth goddess, spirits, or even a “sheaf maiden” goes back to the 16th century and probably even earlier.
However, these end-of-harvest straw figures only became more popularly known as “dollies” in the 20th century. Before that they were known as harvest “tokens,” “trophies” or by some other name used by farmers in a particular region.
Specific areas of Britain had their own signature styles of straw figures. For example, there's the Hereford Lantern, Cambridgeshire Handbell, Suffolk Horseshoe, Essex Terret, Stafford Knot, and Yorkshire Spiral.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, however, these figures became more closely associated with completing the harvest.
Jane Austen, who grew up in the Hampshire countryside, was no doubt familiar with these straw tokens. Perhaps she and her sisters even tried their hands at making them.Agricultural methods became more industrialized during the 19th century, and the tradition of creating straw figures to celebrate the end of the harvest started to die.
Corn dollies in the 21st century
What was once an endangered heritage craft is now a popular decorative art form.
Today corn dollies are considered good luck tokens and fertility symbols, and still used as harvest symbols. These straw creations come in a variety of shapes and may be decorated with bits of ribbons, lace, or other small ornaments. They've become sought-after gifts, house décor items, and tourist souvenirs.
Interested in trying to make a corn dolly of your own? This video by Sally Pointer makes the ancient craft look almost easy:
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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