Monday, January 16, 2017


Origins of the Straw Bear

   In Whittlesea, from when no one quite knows, it was the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the 1st Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress one of the confraternity of the plough in straw and call him a "Straw Bear".  A newspaper of 1882 reports that ..."he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures, the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef".
   The bear was described as having great lengths of tightly twisted straw bands prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate enough to have been chosen.  Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over his head and the straw wound around upon them to form a cone above the "Bear's" head.  The face was quite covered and he could hardly see.  A tail was provided and a strong chain fastened around the armpits.  He was made to dance in front of houses and gifts of money or beer and food for later consumption was expected.  It seems that he was considered important, as straw was carefully selected each year, from the best available, the harvesters saying, "That'll do for the Bear".
   The tradition fell into decline at the end of the 19th century, the last sighting being in 1909 as it appears that an over zealous police inspector had forbidden  "Straw Bears" as a form of cadging.

Straw bear 1906

Reviving the Tradition

   The custom was revived in 1980 by the Whittlesea Society, and for the first time in seventy years a "Straw Bear" was seen on the streets accompanied by his attendant keeper, musicians and dancers, about 30 in all.  Various public houses were visited around the town as convenient places for the "Bear" and dancers to perform in front of an audience...with much needed rest, drink and food as available.

    The Bear is constructed in a more practical way now, the straw being fixed to a suitable piece or clothing or suit, the head is supported on a metal frame on the shoulders.  This allows the costume to be removable, which is essential, as the length of the parade route and the time taken, necessitates 2 people "driving the bear".  The person wearing the costume is adding approximately 70 pound to his own weight.

Another picture of the early years

    The parade now contains over 250 dancers, musicians and performers from various part of the British Isles performing traditions "Molly", "Morris", "Clog" and "Sword" (traditional English folk songs),  songs and dances.  There is also American style "Appalachian" or a type of square dancing, street performances and Mummers plays.  A decorated plough pulled by a local Morris side is now an established part of the parade.


   Recently the Straw Bear has made friend with a German Straw Bear from Walldurn, near Frankfurt, Germany, a town that celebrates its own Straw Bear Festival on the Monday before Shrove Tuesday the day before Lent, which is on a Wednesday.
   Although the festivities begin earlier in the week, Saturday is the only day on which the "Bear" makes an appearance before the "Bear Burning" on Sunday.  This leads the way open for a new bear to be created from the next seasons harvest.


   Just when many in the United States are done celebrating Christmas, folks in the Ukraine are just getting started.  The Julian calendar used by Orthodox Ukrainians is 13 days behind our Gregorian calendar.  That is why their Christmas is just beginning on January 6th-Christmas Eve.
   In 988 A.D., Christianity was introduced in the Ukraine.  The people were very loyal to their ancient pagan rituals of celebrating Winter Solstice and Feasts of Fertility.  The traditions of these feasts were incorporated into the Christmas tradition.

Facts about the Ukrainian Christmas or Reesdvoh

   Christmas festivities in the Ukraine begin on Christmas Eve, January 6th, with a sacred supper for the entire family.  Three rings of braided Christmas Bread or kolach is placed in the center of the table, God's Bread, called kutia, is the most important food, made from wheat, poppy seeds and honey.  The family eats of the kutia while drinking God's Drink uzvar, which is made of 12 stewed fruits.  The patriarch of the household offers prayer for the family at the onset of the communion.  Then it's time for the Christmas Eve meal.

   The Ukrainian Christmas Eve Super meal consists of 12 courses.  Each course represents one of the 12 Apostles of Christ as well as each full moon during the year.  The supper has no red meat, just fish.  It starts with 1)kutia, the main dish of the whole supper, 2)borshch, which is a beet soup, 3)vushka, boiled dumplings filled with chopped mushrooms and onions.  The vushka is followed by a variety of fish, 4)baked fish, 5)boiled fish, 6)fried fish, 7)cold fish in aspic (like a gelatin), 8)fishballs, and 9)marinated herring.  This is followed by 10)boiled dumplings filled with cabbage, potatoes, buckwheat grains, or prunes, called varenyky.  There are also 11)holubtsi or stuffed cabbage, and lastly 12)more uzvar.

   The Ukrainian Christmas includes caroling.  Ukrainian children travel from house to house through their neighborhoods.  They ask permission before serenading every member in the household, including babies.  At least one is dressed in costume; the goat.  The bag carrier uses his bag to carry gifts.  The goat is the main character in a skit the children put on in each house.
   Since the 17th Century, students of the Aiyvan Academy have traveled from town to town to present VERTEP, the Ukrainian Puppet Theater during the Christmas celebration.  The play consits of both serious and humorous acts in which the legendary Kozak is the folk hero.

   The Ukrainian Christmas includes the Chrstmas tree, along with a legend about a family too poor to have a tree.  The mother took some fruit and nuts and placed them in the tree outside her home.  That evening, the spiders weaved webs all over the tree which turned to silver and gold when hit by light.  This was known as the spider web legend.

   If you were expecting Santa or as he is known in Europe as Saint Nicholas, during the Ukrainian Christmas you would have missed him.  The celebration of St. Nick took place three weeks earlier.  The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated on December 19th on the Julian calendar.  The Patron Saint of Gifts is celebrated with gift giving, fun for young children and also sleigh rides.



   Epiphany (from the Greek word meaning "appearance" or "to appear") is a Christian festival celebrated January 6th, 12 days after Christmas.  Epiphany, often called Little Christmas, commemorates the appearance of Jesus to the Wisemen of the East.
   We often use the word "epiphany" to refer to a revelation or recognition of importance in our lives.  Epiphany, in the liturgical sense, is a feast day celebrated mostly in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.  Epiphany is the day Christians remember the visit of the Magi to the stable in Bethlehem.  In the eastern or Orthodox rites of the Church, Epiphany is also he day which we remember the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan river.  When John baptized Jesus, he also proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.  He said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world"


   There are some who suggest Epiphany was originally established in order to commemorate the appearance of the celestial phenomenon heralding the birth of the Messiah.  Still others maintain Epiphany is best remembered as the celebration of the manifestation of God's Son to the Gentile world.  Yet, this would hold with the typical understanding of Epiphany as the day to celebrate the adoration of the Magi-Gentiles all, or so it seems.
   As the Magi presented gifts to the Holy Child, many countries in southern and eastern Europe and also in areas of Latin America celebrate Epiphany, as the gift-giving holiday.  Although Epiphany is a major feast day in the Christmas season, it receives almost no recognition in many western countries.  The average American has never even heard of the feast of Epiphany.

Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist

    Early church fathers, Jerome and Chysostom recommended Epiphany as the day on which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and when Yahweh's (God's) voice was heard from heaven declaring, "this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased"(Mathew 3:17).  The Greek Fathers (church leaders following the Apostles in the first and second century) understood the Epiphany as the appearance of Christ to the world in the sense that Paul intends when he says "God's purpose and grace were made manifest now through the manifestation of our Savior Jesus Christ, who indeed did abolish death, and did enlighten life and immortality through the good news" (2nd Timothy 1:10).

Peruvian Three Kings Day

    Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem for the census where of course, Jesus was born.  But according to Jewish law, they needed to wait until the eighth day after the birth of Emmanuel or Jesus.  On the eighth day, a Hebrew male child is taken to the temple and presented for circumcision and the mother has her ritual purification.  We refer to this eight day period as the Octave of Christmas and the whole of the Christmas season as Christmastide.

   During this time, the first Slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Liturgical year: December 28th) by King Herod, occurred.  Herod had heard rumors of a "new king" that was born.  He ordered all male children under two killed in an effort to rid the area of the rumored king and potential threat to his throne.  Mary and Joseph were preparing to leave, having been warned in dreams of the immanent danger.  It was then that the Wisemen arrived and located the place where Jesus was.  They encouraged Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt for safety from Herod's soldiers.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


  • You wish you had eaten less. This is one of the most common complaints after the holiday. Why did you stuff down that last huge piece of ham or turkey, or that second dessert? Now you've gained five or ten pounds and you'll have to spend January and February working it off.

  • You wish you had done what you wanted. Every year during the holidays, many people find themselves being pulled in ten different directions. Grandma wants you at her house at noon for dinner, mom wants you to unwrap gifts at her house at 11. Your friends want to get together at 3 p.m., and then your aunt asks you to drop by at 2. After the day is over, you find you put more miles on your car in one day than you did during the whole month of December. You're exhausted, stressed out, and wish you had just stayed home in bed.

  • The desire to go back and get people different Christmas gifts. Now that you see your brother didn't really need a new razor, but could have used a gift certificate, you start wishing you had actually asked your relatives what they wanted before you bought them gifts they can't use.

  • The desire not to have bought gifts for anyone. Your realized that much of the spirit of the holiday season was lost by reducing the time you spent together to a gift exchange. You wish that you had just met to enjoy the time instead of going all over the town buying gifts to take up the whole holiday time.

  • You wish you had had more time. The holidays pass so quickly, it's as it they passed in the glimpse of an eye. You wish there was some way to go back and not waste time arguing, or buying gifts, so that you could enjoy every single moment.

  • You wish you had forgone that argument with a loved one. Chances are, you probably got in a huge argument with someone you really care about, it was about something stupid, and you wish you had just turned the other way instead of allowing a huge argument to ensue. Now, you and your mother aren't even talking.

  • You wish you had realized how special the day was. Perhaps you went in with a "bah humbug " attitude, and just sat around moping the whole day. Now you wish you had thought for a minute about how nice it was that the family got together, so you would have appreciated it more.


   The Festival of Masquerade Games is the most important cultural event in the region.  More than 5000 performers from all over Bulgaria, as well as groups from many European countries take part in the festival.  It the most vital and deep rooted tradition of masquerading rites dating back to 1965.  The festival has been held in Pernik since 1966.  It is held on the last weekend of January.
   In ancient times the old Thracians held the Kukeri Ritual Games in honor of the god Dionysus-the especially known as a god of wine and ecstasy.  Even today the games are also known as the Dionysus' games.  Among the Kukeri dancers' are many different character, including Dionysus and his satyrs as well as other from deep history such as the tsar, harachari, plyuvakachi, startzi, and pesyatzi.


   People from Europe, Asia and Africa as well as representatives from every folklore region in Bulgaria, all come to Pernik to celebrate.  They come for the thrill of competitions and the pride of representing the traditions of their ancestors.  They also come to have fun.
   The masked participants are call kukeri, kokove, surakari, startsi, babugeri, dzhamailan, kamilari, etc.  They dress in fur hides or in traditional women's costumes.  They will dance in many fancy dresses and costumes.



   The performance of the masked men, commonly known as Survakari or Kukeri.  Wearing unique costumes and magnificent masks, they move around in their characteristic stride filling the air with the sound of hundreds of bells, with songs, prayers and wishes.
   During the international  festival, Bulgarian and foreign folk groups march in a procession through Pernik, displaying exuberant costumes and fantastic masks to constant ringing of bells and rattles.  They are performing the ancient rite of chasing away evil and celebrating the triumph of life being reborn, with the beginning of spring and the hopes of man and for a better harvest and a better life.


   In Bulgarian folklore, the mask is believed to protect its wearer against powers of impure nature.  This is the most probable explanation as to why the masks look like fearful creatures with huge jaws and very large teeth, with horns and tails, snapping beaks and grisly bodies.  The sound of the bells hanging from the belts of the participants enhances their effect.  Participants from some regions use charcoal to paint their faces black and sheep's wool to make moustaches and beards.  The groups consists of various different characters.  Traditionally all parts are played by men dressed in carnival costumes.  They may carry symbolic objects with which they perform their rituals.  Bulgarian ceremonial masks are a valuable source of information for the various regions in Bulgaria. 



   All masks are made by the individual who will be wearing it, with the help of craftsmen known throughout the village for their skill.  It is a long and complicated process.  Even the making of the masks and costumes is shrouded in mystery, it's almost a ritual in its own right. 
   Pernik is the only place where you can see masks from every region of Bulgaria.  Visitors to the carnival say the feel invigorated after going and watching to this festival.


    Every year on January 17th, the people of San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain, celebrate St. Anthony's by riding their horese, donkeys and mules through piles of burning tree branches.
   The unique tradition of leaping over and through flames dates back 500 years, but the men and women of San Bartolome de Pinares still celebrate it religiously.  They gather all the branches they can find in the days leading up to the festivities, and when dusk falls on the eve of Saint Anthony's, they light the branches into a bonfire.  Riders jump and run their mounts through the burning piles of the branches in the middle of the village, accompanied by sound of drums and Spanish bagpipes.
   Jumping through the flames is said to bring the animals the protection of St. Anthony Abad, acknowledged as the patron saint of domestic animals, ever since the Middle Ages.  Locals believe the fire purifies their animals and protects them against illnesses, all year long.  So far as I know none of the horses we hurt during this festival.

Drinking wine during the purification festival


   Visitors from all over the world will be playing in the snow and enjoying the winter festivities at one of the biggest winter celebrations that Canada has to offer.  Quebec, Canada has been host to the winter wonderland known to locals as "Carnaval de Quebec", for more than 50 years and shows no signs of slowing down anytime in the near future as this year's carnival will see more than 400 unique activities.  It has been dubbed as the "The coolest Part in the World", and why not?  It has all of the offerings that you would expect form traditions Nordic culture, only they have went all out and included events for people of all generations, tastes, and backgrounds.



    The Winter Carnival got its start in 1894 and has grown each consecutive year by updating events and festivities to fit every lifestyle.  Starting at the end of January and lasting up until the middle of February.  Quebec opens its doors for a winter celebration that includes snow baths, glittering night parades, slide runs, ice fishing, concerts, snow rafting, snow sculpture competitions, a canoe race over the frozen St. Lawrence River, horse-drawn sleigh rides, husky powered dogsled rides, and skating.


      Music, dancing, live entertainment, deliciously prepared cuisine, rides and activities are also part of the Winter Carnival.  The activities are non-stop throughout the week, but the special events are typically held during the weekend.  If this isn't enough to tantalize your taste buds, then the city of Quebec itself might be what you are hungering for.  The medieval setting is something straight out of a book as you will delight in seeing everything from the French architecturally designed homes nestled along narrow, winding streets to the colorful and inviting restaurants and shops that demand your attention.  It is truly one of the most beautiful destinations that you will ever have the pleasure of laying your eyes on.



 The heart of the carnival is set up at the Plains of Abraham where the French and British once battled, but is now home to grazing cattle and the Winter Carnival.  A particular favorite is the St. Hubert Derby that easily draws crowds of people waiting to see the single and double championship drivers of the horse team competition.  While other visitors can't wait to chill out in the Ice Palace and see the one of a kind structure made up entirely of ice.  Children gather in large crowds awaiting the arrival of Bonhomme the snowman who  plays as Master of Ceremonies during the snow bath event where daring adventurists play in the snow the Eskimo way, in bathing suits.

   The city of Quebec not only offers fun winter festivities, but it also holds the allure of being the only walled city in North America.  More than 1.5 million visitors find their way to the Carnival de Quebec, and most of them will eventually find their way to the ancient part of the walled city that houses French neighborhoods that closely resemble a European village of sorts.  Brightly lit shops and local cuisine can be found along the heart of the city as well as scenic views of the lake and mountains.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


    If you're planning a trip to Thailand next year, one thing you might want to take into consideration when you choose your holiday dates,  are Thailand's public holidays.  Thailand has at least 16 public holidays a year, where everyone gets a day off, which is more than almost any other country in the world.  Thailand's public holidays are amazing, with fairs, festivals, concerts and more.  Most months have at least one public holiday, some have more.  Check out all of Thailand's public holidays and you can choose the best time to come to suite your particular interests.


   New Year's Day, Thai's do actually celebrate the Western New Year, even though the Thai New Year isn't until April.  Most people go home to visit family, which means if you're outside Bangkok, the roads can be pretty packed.  In Bangkok, it's like heaven,  as all the traffic jams disappear and the normally polluted air is clean from the lack of cars.  Thai's who stay in Bangkok tend to go shopping,  as all the shopping malls and stores are open in the Winter months too, beer gardens sprout up at shopping malls all over Bangkok, so you can spend New Year's Day having a nice meal and then head out to an open-air beer garden for great beer and live music.




   Makha Bucha Day, An important day in the Buddhist calendar, Makha Bucha Day celebrates certain Buddhist teachings.  On Makha Bucha Day, many of the schools in Thailand will march to their local temple carrying offerings for the monks.  They will walk around the temple three times and then go inside to hear the monks speak about the Lord Buddha and his lessons.  If you're staying anywhere near a Thai school, it's interesting to watch all the kids marching to the temple, some in traditional Thai costumes.  In some areas, you'll get 7 or 8 schools going to the same temple so, watching the kids walking there is like watching a mini parade.


   Chakri Memorial Day, Chakri Memorial Day celebrates the beginning of the Chakri Dynasty (the royal dynasty of the present King of Thailand).  It's normally just a public holiday where some Thai's will go to the temple but most will hang out with family and friends to go shopping or to eat.  You'll also see a lot of enormous photos of the present King and Queen being put up all over Bangkok.


   Songkran is the big holiday in Thailand as it's Thai New Year.  It's a three day holiday (Monday thru Wednesday) although many people will take the week off.  People travel with their families and then the water festival starts.  All over Thailand, for three days, if you venture outside, you'll get wet, as kids and adults both splash, squirt or throw water at you.  You may get a bit of a squirt of a water gun, or a hose, or an entire bucket of water poured over your head and nobody is safe.  If you don't like getting wet, stay inside until after 6 p.m., when it will stop until the day after.  But, Thailand is so hot at this time of year that getting wet is really fun and and enjoyable from the hot, humid surroundings.  Chiang Mai is the best place to celebrate Songkran, but anywhere is a blast!



   Coronation Day, Coronation Day celebrates the coronation of His Royal Highness King Bhumipol Adulyadej, the present King of Thailand.  Again, most Thai's spend the day shopping or eating out with family.  The slopping malls are packed on this day so, if you have urgent shopping, save it for another time if you can.  Again, it's also a time for even more enormous photos of the King to be displayed.  Some of these photos can be the size of a 12 story building.  You'll even see the King's picture decorating the outside of massive sky scrapers, so his face can be seen for miles!



   Royal Ploughing Day

   This is an interesting holiday as it blesses Thailand's farmers.  There is a fascinating ceremony at Sanam Luang, near the Grand Palace, in Bangkok, which involves several oxen, some government officials and different grains.  Depending on which grains the oxen eat first, this tells whether it will be a good harvest season or not in the coming year.  The ceremony is also shown on Thai T.V., so if you don't want to go down to the actual field (it gets quite crowded), you can still see it.  If you do go to the field, it's a wonderful place to take photos.


   May is chocked full of holidays as Vesak is also a public holiday.  Vesak celebrates Buddha's birthday, life and death, and on this day most Thia's will go to temple to give make merit (donate to the temple and to the monks).  Making merit means you will get a place in heaven, so public holidays like Vesak are important in Thailand.  Some temples will also have temple fairs with lots of traditional Thai food, games, dancing and even Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) matches.


   Asanha Bucha Day, Another important day on the Buddhist calendar, this public holiday commemorates the Buddha's first teaching after he attained enlightenment.  Again, another day where Thai's go to give merit at the temple, and another day where you might find the local temple putting on a fair.

    Khao Phansa Day

   This day marks the beginning of Buddhist Lent.  Buddhist Lent, unlike Western Lent, is not a time where Buddhist deprive themselves of anything though, it's simply a time where Thai Buddhists monks retreat to their temples for 3 months and meditate and pray.  Ordinary Thai's will spend some time at temple, but many will also spend the day shopping or with friends.


   Queen's Birthday, August is when the Queen of Thailand's birthday is celebrated.  It is also Mother's Day in Thailand (Mother's and Father's Day are the days of the King and Queen's birthdays, as they are seen as the "Mother and Father of Thailand").  On this day, every Thai who can, will spend the day with their families and usually take their mothers out for lunch or dinner.  Not a day to go to a nice restaurant if you don't have your mom with you,  as every restaurant in town is packed full of Thai families.  But, if your mom happens to be on holiday with you, then she'll be made to feel like a queen at any restaurant in Thailand.  Flowers are also incredibly cheap in Thailand.  You can actually purchase a bouquet of red roses for your mom for less than $3.00.


   Chulalongkorn Day, This day commemorates the death of King Chulalongkorn or Rama V, one of Thailand's most beloved kings.  King Chulalongkorn was involved in many projects that helped Thailand and the Thai people, and is spoken of having helped to bring Thailand into the modern day world.  He also abolished slavery in Thailand, so he is one of Thailand's national heroes.  On Chulalongkorn Day, again, it's a great time for families and friends to shop and eat, although many Thai's will also buy large floral wreaths and lay them at the base of Rama V's statue at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok.


   December is one of the best months for public holidays, as there are three important days in this

  King's Birthday

   One of the most important holidays of the year is the birthday of the King of Thailand.  It falls on December 5th every year and is also the day that all Thai's celebrate Father's Day.  The King of Thailand is revered almost like a living god, so Thai's from all over the country go to temple to pray for the King.  There is also an enormous celebration for the king at Sanam Luang (near the Grand Palace).  A few hundred thousand Thai's attend the celebrations.  Here, you'll find food stalls, musicians from all over Thailand playing on a gigantic stage.  Then, when it goes dark, everyone in attendance will light a candle...an unbelievably beautiful sight, against the backdrop of Wat Phra Kaow and the Grand Palace, the most beautiful buildings in Thailand.  In other provinces in Thailand, you will also find parades and fireworks as every Thai loves to celebrate the King.  For fathers, it is also Father's Day and many Thai's will take their dads out for a meal, to play a round of golf, or go to a movie.

   Constitution Day

   Constitution Day falls on the 10th of December and celebrates Thailand's first real constitution.  It's basically just a chance for a holiday from work after an exhausting year.  Thai's will either sleep, shop, eat or go and see a movie.

    New Year's Eve

   Even though it's a Western holiday, Thai's still really get into New Year's Eve.  There are several large concerts and shows all over Bangkok, all the night clubs throw big parties, and many of the restaurants will have special New Year's Eve dinners.  The shopping malls are crowded and everyone is in a wonderful mood.  Most Thai people are on holiday from December 31st to January 4th or 5th, so they're in a relaxed mood in preparation for their break.  Central World Plaza in Bangkok is the most popular place to see in the New Year.
   All of these public holidays in Thailand have one thing in common, Thai's love to have fun.  Even at temple, or celebrating the King's birthday.  Thai's are a fun-loving people and make the best out of every moment.  Public holidays are days to have a great time, so if you're lucky enough to be in Thailand for one of them, join in with the festivities and enjoy yourself.