ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “Beltane”

Quae Mutatio Rerum – or how things have changed (or not)

vår 20180425_182442Very many years ago, on this exact date, I was sitting in our large dining room with my mother. It was only us. My father was out in the Amazon somewhere for business purposes and our house in Lima felt very large without him. My sister was still a baby, asleep upstairs. The maid had been given the evening off, so here we were, my mother and I, having a party all on our own.

The table was covered in one of my mother’s precious linen tablecloths—always a major issue in Lima as the cold and damp winters tended to leave everything in the linen cupboard covered in a green fuzz. The china was our best, the crystal glasses sparkled in the light of the candles. My mother was wearing one of her long dresses. I remember thinking she looked very beautiful, her hair in a chignon, her shoulders bare. I was wearing my best dress and white knee socks with black patent leather shoes. We took this partying at home seriously in my family.

We’d had crab omelette for dinner. My mother loved Kamchatka crab and she made this absolutely lovely sauce with crab and dill which she then filled a fluffy omelette with. I still think this particular omelette is the best ever, even if I’ve never been able to replicate my mother’s crab sauce.
“We’re celebrating the advent of spring,” my mother explained. “And such things require the best food.”
After the omelette, we had ice cream. Well, I had ice cream—coconut ice cream. To this day, I cannot eat a scoop of coconut ice cream without being transported back to that evening in Lima.

April 30th in Lima has little to do with spring. But for my mother, who always suffered from homesickness while away from Sweden, April 30th was as important as Christmas. Almost. She told me of bonfires and songs, of how she and every other university student in Sweden would spend the entire day welcoming spring. Swedish university students still do that, starting the day with champagne breakfast and ending it with more champagne. Pretty Swedish young women will wear thin spring dresses “because it’s finally spring”. Young Swedish men will skip the jacket “because winter is over”.

The Swedish weather rarely cooperates with all this outspoken yearning for spring. More often than not, April 30th is cold. Icy cold. Those bonfires we light to usher in the six months of long days and (hopefully) balmy days are necessary to keep our fingers from freezing. Most of us shiver in our spring coats and wish we’d worn our winter stuff instead, but nope, not on April 30th, not on the day we welcome spring.

vår nordisk-sekelskifte-eugene-jansson-nocturne-1900-800x800pxThe tradition to celebrate spring on this date is old. Very old, even. It harkens back to ancient celebrations of Beltane, when the grass was long enough for the cattle to be let out to pasture. Our forebears had more to be grateful for than we do – watching the Beltane bonfires meant they’d survived yet another winter. I bet they did their share of carousing as well on this evening which, this far north, has dusk lingering until well after eight, the skies acquiring a violet hue that one rarely sees other than in April and early May. A night of magic, of hope and returning life.

All of this, my mother shared with me that long-gone April 30th. And then we sang. We sang about May, about walking through meadows. We sang about larks and blossoming green valleys. We sang about winter winds that died and were replaced by summer breezes. We sang of youth and brave heroic men, of Swedish steel and Karl XII (and no, let us not go there, but hey, we go a bit bombastic on occasions such as this). My favourite song, however, was the one with the catchy refrain in Latin: Oh jerum, jerum, jerum, quae mutatio rerum.

I loved this song because during the last verse we had to stand on our chairs and sing. I had no idea what I was singing, but I knew the words by heart and sang until we were done when my mother sort of oozed back down to sit and began to cry instead. Homesickness is a bummer…

The song as such is still one of my favourites. It’s originally a German song but us Swedes appropriated it back in the early 19th century and since then it is a must song at most formal events in the world of academia. And yes, we still stand on our chairs while singing the last verse, after which we toast each other, empty our glasses, clamber off our chairs and leave the dining room for the dance hall.

vår 20180428_112959Some things are inherited from one generation to the other. Just like my mother, I always serve cured salmon on Good Friday. Just like my mother, I consider April 30th to be a very important date. Just like her, I want bonfires and songs. Just like her, I’ve made sure my children can join in as we sing, watching their delight at being allowed to stand on their chairs with a little smile. In difference to her, since I’ve become an adult I’ve always been home for April 30th.

Tonight we will light the bonfire hubby has prepared so carefully. We will pop open champagne and toast the returning light. And at some point we will lift our glasses and sing:

Oh, jerum, jerum, jerum
Quae mutatio rerum

I will think of my mother. And of sun and spring. And maybe of coconut ice cream.

In praise of spring and the returning light

Welcome to Sweden, staunch home of the Lutheran church as is displayed by the relatively large number of religious red letter days in our calendar. Not that Swedes are particularly religious – not these days. Neither are we pagan, but some rituals are hard to kill, and no matter Anselm (our apostle) no matter the Reformation, the cathechisms, the strict Conventicle Acts, in Sweden some traditions simply can’t be stamped out.

Harking back to roots far more ancient than the Christian church, we still welcome spring in a most pagan manner, a throwback to the old feast of Beltane. In Sweden, this is celebrated the last day of April (we call it Valborg), and we light huge bonfires and sing songs that praise the advent of sun and warmth and the coming summer. Chances are the last day in April will be cold – even very cold. But the evenings are light – where I live twilight lingers to well beyond 21:00 p.m. – and all around are signs of returning life.

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View over “our” lake, 20:55 April 29

The birches are decorated with minuscule leaves of brightest green, the shrubs shift into an emerald haze, and everywhere tits and blackbirds and lapwings and larks and … well, birds in general – call and hoot that spring is here and so are they. In the woods anemones poke their heads of brightest white through drifts of russet coloured leaves, the lake shores are here and there still edged with ice, but a couple of swans sail by on the deep blue of the open waters.

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I’m here! Windflowers (or anemones) brightening my day

Over by the bonfire the songs have acquired a riotous tone as sausages burn to crisp over the open flames. Couples snog, or hold hands, or hug each other close, and the air is filled with the impressive sound of the male choirs singing in spring. That’s what we call it; “Singing in spring”.

We have books full of these spring songs, all about the melting drifts of snow, the return of the sun, of warmth, of hope that soon the ground break out in full flower. Songs that rather unabashedly praise that first deity of human life; the sun.

Beltane was a major feast day for the Celts – a fire feast, and as described above that tradition lives on up here in the north. Having said that, as far as I know there weren’t all that many Celts up here, but seeing as they were a trading people I assume their cultural influence was massive – plus feasts such as Beltane, Samhain, Midsummer are probably rooted in an even murkier past.

The advent of spring was of utmost importance for our ancestors. Today, 3-7% of the population in the developed world are farmers, producing huge excesses of food they can sell to the rest of us. (Plus we import; tons and tons do we import. Consider the chilling thought that all these developing countries that presently source our food were to say “no, we don’t want to”. What are we to do? Go back to living off Mother Nature? As if we can – we’ve forgotten how!) A century ago, roughly 50-60% of the population had their outcome from the agricultural sector. Before the Industrial Revolution, 80% depended on the land – and what little surplus they produced was sold to acquire necessities such as an iron plough, or salt. For them, spring was the difference between life and death, and a spring as dry and cold as the one we’ve experienced this year would have led to starvation – and death.

In celebration of this glorious day, this period of purple  twilights that fill me with restless joy I am going to take a page from my ancestor’s books and spend the day planting. Lucky for me, I don’t have to plant potatoes (back breaking labour when it was done by hand) or wheat. No, I’m going to plant flowers!

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So many wonderful plants! I am that much poorer, the Nursery Garden that much richer – or is it the other way around?

Come evening I will stand by the bonfire (it’s just me and my husband here, so it will be a very private bonfire) and sing. My husband will probably at most hum, which is a good thing as he can’t hold a tune to save his life. But I will stand on our jetty, open my arms wide to the returning light and praise the sun. Life is a miracle, an eternal cycle of dark and light. It behoves us to at times remember just how blessed we are to live on this green planet of ours. It behoves us to keep in mind that we are but the caretakers of a delicate sphere of life, as ephemeral in time and space as a soap bubble.

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Our jetty. Imagine me standing with my arms held high and wide, warbling something melodious to the night air. And yes, i will be very warmly dressed,

I’d like to end this post with one of my favourite poems – an ode of joy and gratitude for the world that surrounds us, in this case directed to God, but it could just as well be directed to Mother Nature. I don’t know why it always springs to the forefront of my head this season of the year, maybe it’s the sheer exuberance in it that speaks to me.

Glory be to God for dappled things – 
For skies of coupled-colour like a brinded cow;
For rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced; fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades; their gear and tackle and trim

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 89)

Happy Beltane, everyone! May the day be long and bright, may the sun warm your skin, may a soft breeze caress your cheek.

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