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Venetia's Essay

The Winter Solstice

In the dark, dark winters of Northern Europe, the sun doesn't rise until nine or ten in the morning and the snow covers the dark green forests with a thick white carpet. Thousands and thousands of years ago, the ancient festival of Yule was held on Dec. 21st, the winter Solstice. As each night became longer, the people feared that the failing light of the sun might disappear one day forever. This was also feared in many other parts of the world, so the ancient people at this time paid homage to the source of light, the sun.

In northern Europe, winters were long and the ancient people would find themselves snowed up in their homes. Hunting and farming came to a halt and there was little to do each day, but wait for the first signs of spring. It must have been very cold and each day long and lonely. Somebody, somewhere started the custom of chopping the largest oak tree trunk in the nearby forest, hauling it into a clearing in the woods and then making a huge fire. The burning of the Yule Log as it was called, harks back to a Norse tradition of burning oak logs in honor of Thor the god of thunder. This was the sacred fire, which they kept alight from around Dec. 6th to Jan. 6th. In Celtic countries, a burning branch from this fire was taken by the Druids to light the torches at their temples in the forests. This fire was kept alight throughout the year until the next Yule festival, on the following winter solstice!

I can just imagine the Celtic and Viking warriors with their women and children, sitting and keeping warm near the huge blazing fire in midwinter. Outside in the snow, they must have sang songs and told tales of ancient heroes and wondrous happenings of the past. Stories of bravery, fortitude and romance were passed down from generation to generation. A warming alcoholic beverage made from some fermented honey, apples or wine was passed around in large flagon called a wassailing cup. 'Was hael 'means in Anglo Saxon 'to wish you good health'. They ate a gruel-like porridge, which was made from the only food that was available to them in the winter, such as dried meat, stone ground flour, dried plums and apples and a few spices.. The men, women and children must have passed many happy hours sitting by the warm fire, gazing up at the stars in the night sky, their stomachs full of the warm wine and gruel.

The consistency of the porridge gradually got thicker and thicker throughout the centuries, and became a steam pudding in England. Over the years, meat disappeared from its ingredients, except for a trace of suet. It began to be served at the end of the meal as a dessert and is now called Christmas pudding. At some point in history, the same ingredients in the pudding were used to make a cake. This heavy fruitcake made at Christmas also became the cake that is usually served at weddings and christenings in England. People believe that it is lucky to eat this cake and so they cut it into very thin slices and eat it slowly, so that the good luck will last throughout the year.

According to some historical records Christ's birthday was really on March 1st 7 BC. The early Christian church apparently miscalculated the year that he was born in. As Christianity gained acceptance among the people of Europe, his birthday was moved to the season of Yule. In European countries the season of Christmas is sometimes called Advent. It usually starts on Dec. 6th and ends on Jan. 6th, the same period as the festival of Yule was held.

The Winter Solstice in southern Europe was celebrated around the 25th of December. In honour of Saturn, the God of Harvest, the Romans held a festival called Saturnalia. During this season people living in the Roman Empire used to decorate their doorways and terraces with rosemary, bay leaf and other evergreens, which they believed were symbols of everlasting life. They also thought these herbs would protect their houses from evil spirits. It was usual for wealthy men to give money or clothing to their poorer neighbours, who lived near to their residences. A short time after on the 1st of January, the Roman New Year Feast called the Kalends began. At this time, there was another exchange of gifts, in which friends, relatives, children and dependants would give gifts to each other. Lamps were given as a symbol of the light of the sun. Sweets or honey were also given to wish that the recipient would have a whole year of sweetness and peace, and even gold or silver was given to bring prosperity and increasing wealth. This custom of giving presents carried on for many centuries and even today is an integral part of Christmas.

The tradition of the decorated Christmas tree began in the forests east of the river Rhine, where the tribes, which were called the Germani, lived. They also celebrated the Winter Solstice in their own unique way. If you ever have the chance to visit Germany during the Advent season, you will be entranced by the gaiety of the Christmas markets and the beautiful craftsmanship of the ornaments being sold for the Christmas tree. This is how I think it all began. The ancient people of Germany would in the dreary and dark days of winter, carve out small animals from wood and hang them on a small fir tree near their village. They would then on the winter solstice Dec. 21st, the shortest day of the year, dance and sing around the tree. And they called it the tree of life. Many hundreds of years later, when the early Christians arrived in Germany, they wanted to have the new teachings of Christ accepted. The original winter solstice festival was changed into the celebration of Christ's birthday and a large star was added to the top of the tree of life symbolizing the large star, which appeared at the time of his birth. We know that in 1605, in Strasbourg, an anonymous writer wrote how the citizens of the town set up fir trees in the parlor and how they decorated them with colored paper roses, apples, wafers, gold foil and many sweets.

Christmas trees reached America before they became popular in Europe, carried out there by German settlers. In 1841 Prince Albert of Germany presented his bride Queen Victoria with a lighted Christmas tree. This was the first of many trees at Windsor Castle in England. The royal trees made the Christmas tree very fashionable and by the 1860's the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree became commonplace all over England and the world. Nowadays, even in Japan Christmas trees can be seen everywhere at Christmas time. The ancient rituals of Yule continued through the centuries, despite the spread of Christianity. In the 11th century the church leaders officially changed the name from Yule to the present day name …Christmas. They tried to stop many of the Yule rituals because they thought them to be heathen!

However old habits die hard. In France the Yule log became the famous chocolate Christmas cake called the Buche de Noel. In England, carol singing, hot spiced wine, and the Christmas pudding have always been the most important traditions to keep. In Germany the Christmas tree and Stollen bread are the mainstays of Christmas. None of these customs are actually Christian! Nowadays Christmas is celebrated everywhere in the world. It has become a festival, which many adults and children look forward to, to brighten up the dreary days of winter. The Winter solstice is the time when the power of the sun should be remembered. Its a time when we can be filled with a sense of gratitude for our own life, and for the amazing beauty of the planet we all live on, which we call Earth.

St. Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day has become a time to tell our loved ones that we really do love and care about them, but it need not be only about sweethearts. In our daily life, we rarely have much time to show how much we love our partner, children, parents or friends. Perhaps we are busy, watching television, playing computer games, answering emails or surfing on the net. We forget that sometimes the people we love, even those under the same roof, could be lonely; they need us at as much if not more than everyone else in cyberspace! So, maybe, Valentine's Day is a good chance to just sit down, and really talk and listen to each other.

Just who was the man who became Saint Valentine, the Patron Saint of Lovers? Historians are not certain. Early church records show that a number of saints called Valentine were martyred on or around February 14th, in the third century, and it is likely that several life stories have coalesced.

Before Christianity was established in Rome, February 14th was the eve of the Roman fertility festival called Lupercalia: Goats and a dog were sacrificed for the protection of livestock, and two young men of high rank dressed in the goatskins, and ran about striking the women with goatskin thongs to make them fruitful in bearing children. Throughout the centuries this festival slowly changed and later the names of Roman girls came to be written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl's name from the jar, and the two would then become partners for the duration of the festival. Sometimes the pairing lasted beyond the festival and they would fall in love and marry.

One Valentine was a Christian priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Claudius outlawed marriage for young men, in the hope of more easily recruiting them to his armies without the demands of young families, but Valentine was more sympathetic to the people. He defied the Emperor by conducting marriages in secret, in castle basements and wine cellars. He was also believed to have helped Christians escape the harsh Roman prisons where they were subject to beatings and torture, sometimes to the death. When Valentine's defiance was discovered, Claudius condemned him to be clubbed and beheaded on February 14th. This was around the year 270 AD.

Another story has it that Valentine sent the first 'valentine' greeting himself. While in prison, he fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailor. By means of his love for her and his great faith, her sight was miraculously restored. On the night before his death, he wrote her a love letter, which he signed "from your Valentine," an expression that is still used today.

By the middle ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in France and England and he was declared the Patron Saint of Lovers.

The Christian church gradually banned the old Roman Lupercalia lottery for women. However, the mid-February festival became a day in memory of St. Valentine and continued to be used by Roman men for seeking women's affections. It became common for men to give the women they admired a hand-written message signed, not with their own name, but "with love from your Valentine".

Nowadays, celebrating St. Valentine's Day has become popular throughout the world, customs vary from country to country. In the UK, a card is still the most popular tradition. There is a wide range of 'Valentine' cards on sale, from the sentimental to sophisticated or humorous. Men and women send a card to their spouse or sweetheart as a sign of love or intention. However, they don't sign their name, they write, "With love from your Valentine" or just a question mark. There are also coded messages such as SWALK - sealed with a loving kiss. Part of the excitement of receiving a card is to try to guess who sent it.

In France, Valentine cards are not often sent. Instead, men invite their girlfriend or wife to a romantic candlelit dinner, and they each give each other gifts of flowers, chocolates or even jewelry.

In America, children usually celebrate St. Valentine's Day with a party at school. Before the day, each child makes their own decorated box with a slot in the top. During the party, the children put their own hand made cards, love letters and candy in to their best friends' Valentine boxes. My American friends tell me that, rather than cards, they send flowers to their loved one's workplace. Also, they find their own unique way to show their love - a husband may make his wife breakfast in bed or take her out to dinner. A young girl may make heart-shaped chocolate cookies for her boyfriend, or have a song dedicated to him on his favorite Radio show. A mother may hide a Valentine chocolate in her child's school lunch box. There is no fixed rule.

Lastly, in Japan, women give chocolate to their male friends and male co-workers. How did that come about? Word has it that in 1936, Mr. Morozoff, a European confectioner in Kobe, started to make Valentine chocolates and advertised them in an English language newspaper. Sales were far from overwhelming. However by the 1970s the custom of women giving chocolate to men had really taken off in Japan, and these days, men may reciprocate exactly a month later by giving white chocolate back to the women on White Day.

For me, Valentine's day is an excuse to have a romantic evening at home. I lay a beautiful table, set with a small vase of roses. (Rose is an anagram for Eros the Greek god of sensual love.) I cook some of my husband's and son's favorite dishes and then make a chocolate dessert. The fire in our kitchen gives a soft warm glow as it snows outside. February is the coldest month in Ohara. The exquisite fragrance of roses is relaxing and gives an air of well being and love.

Let's all make February 14th, a day to show love, not only to our own family but also to our friends, or an acquaintance somewhere who just might be lonely. A random act of kindness on Valentine's Day will always warm somebody's heart.

Traditional Remedies in Japan

Since the beginning of their time on earth, humans have been accumulating knowledge about the plants around them. Through trial and error, people gradually discerned which plants and combinations were delicious, which were deadly, which made them sick or cured their ills, and so on. This occurred in every civilization around the world. Many of these remedies were once thought to be ‘magical’ - they became known in English as ‘witches brews’ or ‘old wives tales’ - however, modern science is slowly catching up, confirming and explaining their validity.

In England, where I grew up, there developed a tradition called ‘folklore medicine’ or ‘traditional remedies’. Some of these old remedies used vegetables, some of them herbs and some, just things you can now find in any kitchen. I remember that as a child I was told to eat a prune if I had constipation, or to put vinegar on a wasp sting; if I grazed or cut myself my French governess advised me to lick the wound or cover it with freshly picked plantain leaves.

Japan, where I now live, has a lot of traditional remedies, some of which are based on plants and trees native to Japan, such as the biwa tree or the dokudami plant. Others of the medicinal plants and vegetables in Japan came from elsewhere. Of these, most were brought from China, certainly by Buddhist monks from the 7th Century onwards and, most probably, earlier.

By the 6th Century, it is likely that Chinese medicine had already been introduced to Japan via Korea: when a Japanese invasion of Korea in 593AD brought back reports of effective Chinese healing methods, the Empress Suiko sent emissaries to China to study kampo. Around this time, plants now widely used in Japanese cuisine, such as ume, sesame and shiso, were brought to Japan from China

In the Nara period (710-794AD) herbalism spread throughout Japan hand-in-hand with Buddhism. A monk named Ganjin came from China to Nara to teach Buddhism. He was not only a great monk but also had an extensive knowledge of medicine and herbs. The early-converted Buddhist monks taught common people the compassion of the Buddha whilst at the same time administering medicinal herbs, and so knowledge of herbs spread throughout Japan along with Buddhism and the plants themselves.

In the Heian Period (794-1192AD), the herbal book called ‘Shinnou-honzou kyo’(*1) was translated. This book became the basis of present-day Japanese kampo medicine. It included Chinese herbal remedies, and 730 items were listed that have healing properties. These included plants, trees, minerals, and animal products as well. The book showed the items classified into three types, a system unique to kampo medicine. They were named Upper class, Middle class and Lower class:-

‘Upper class’ corresponds to heaven. These items nurture and rejuvenate life and can be taken over a long time. These include ginger, liquorice, lemon balm, bancha and green tea.

‘Middle class’ corresponds to man. These are tonics, preventatives or aphrodisiacs and should not be taken too often. They need a rest time and include ginseng, sage, kuzu root, dokudami and yomogi.

‘Lower class’ corresponds to earth. Their utility of this group is purely for treating disease and they should not be taken for prolonged periods, for they have side effects. Such herbs include yarrow, St. Johns wort, gingko, angelica and valerian root.

Around this time the first official investigation of folklore medicinal herbs, native to Japan took place and in 918AD a medicinal book ‘Honzo Wamyou'(*2) was written. In this book Chinese herbs are matched with their corresponding Japanese herb. If there was not an exact match the Chinese herb was listed against a Japanese one with similar medical properties ? a decision that has led to some confusion in subsequently defining the exactly corresponding herbs between China and Japan.

Later, as trade between China and Japan flourished, the movement of plants and herbs continued apace. At the end of the 12th Century a monk named Eisai brought back from China the seeds of the tea plant. He had learned that green tea was effective for health and he introduced it to Japan as a medicine, not as a beverage, and cultivated it in Kyoto. It was he that also brought hakka mint to Japan. Hakka, like gennoshoko, is very effective for stomach complaints and people would carry small pills of mint in little ornately carved belt-pouches known as netsuke.

The 8th Shogun Yoshimune, who lived from 1684 to 1751, encouraged cultivation of medicinal herbs as part of a policy promoting self-sufficiency in farm produce all over Japan. Part of his policy was that herb gardens should be built all over the country and about thirty herb gardens were made at this time. In some of those gardens both imported Chinese and domestic herbs were grown. Yoshimune also appointed herbalists and botanists to investigate medicinal herbs in the provinces and to collect the seeds so that they could spread the cultivation of different plants throughout the country.

During the past ten or twenty years there has been renewed interest all over the world in herbs and traditional remedies. Many European herbs such as basil, chamomile and rosemary have recently become familiar in Japan, as have more tropical Asian herbs such as coriander and lemon grass. As a teacher of herbs, I was surprised by the intense interest, but I was also concerned: Are we in Japan forgetting the herbs that grow locally, naturally, around us wherever we live in this country? Are they still being used?

Since I started living in Ohara, in the Kyoto countryside, many of the elderly locals are curious to see me working hard in my garden. We live on a small country lane, and few cars pass through as it leads only through some rice paddies to a narrow mountain trail. However, the village cemetery is at the end of this lane and frequently little old ladies, dressed in their native farmers’ dress, pass by carrying a small bunch of flowers for their family grave. They often ask me what I am doing as I am working in my garden even in the rain or on a blustery winter’s day. Then I start explaining to them about the herbs. They often tell me about the medicinal herbs they collected when they were young: they used to make remedies with such herbs as yomogi, gennoshoko, dokudami, yukinoshita, shiso and biwa leaves. All these herbs grow naturally in the surrounding fields and also appear wild in my garden. The old ladies love to teach me about these herbs and are surprised when they find out that I try to use their advice.

The person I really depend on for knowledge about Japanese wild edible plants and herbs is Mr. Nakahigashi. I see him almost every Sunday at the weekly market in Ohara. He owns a small restaurant in Kyoto, which specializes in serving dishes of wild edible plants, and can be seen every morning in his little red sports car speeding up the road to collect wild plants in the local forests and fields. He has a wealth of knowledge and is a walking encyclopedia on Japanese plants. If I happen to bump into him, I always ask him about the plants he is looking for and gathering that day. He always patiently answers my questions and we chat about the names of similar plants in Europe.

Following are notes on some of the herbs I have come to use frequently at home:

Dokudami and gennoshoko, I let grow wild in my garden. I pick them on a hot dry day in summer and dry them for tea in a dark shady place.

Yomogi, I pick the fresh new leaves in early spring and lightly boil them. I then liquidize and freeze the mixture, ready to put in cakes and bread. Yomogi has many useful properties: it is an excellent nerve tonic, and fights infection, hay fever and allergies. I also dry the leaves for use in insect repellant bags. Yomogi leaves can be put in the bath, to help relieve eczema and rheumatism. (I also put dried biwa leaves in the bath, as they are very good for bronchial and skin complaints.)

Every year I put some kampo herbs into shochu and crystal sugar to make liqueurs. I use quince for coughs and honeysuckle flowers for food poisoning. I also make umeshu with ume and lemon balm; this combination is good for headaches, general fatigue and relieves an upset stomach.

Other herbs such as yukinoshita (creeping sailor), shiso, yomogi and fukinoto (butterbur) I cook when we are having tempura for dinner; all of them are delicious and have healing properties

In July and August I make gallons and gallons of shiso juice and put it in the freezer, so that we have a supply in winter. Ohara has a lot of shiso and is famous for pickles shibazuke. The seeds of both red and green shiso are carried by the birds and the wind, and so in May little seedlings of shiso appear in the most unexpected places. I pick them up and transplant them into my vegetable garden. I make a lot of shiso juice as it is good for hay fever, asthma and allergies. It is also good as a mood stabilizer. I dry it as a tea too and mix it with other herbs, as it has warming properties that increase perspiration and so is good for nausea, coughs and influenza.

Every year our family welcomes the New Year with otoso - eight herbs steeped in sake. Drinking this in ceremonial fashion first thing on New Year’s Day is supposed to protect from sickness for the year ahead as well as invite peace within the household. Folklore dictates that if just one member of the family drinks otoso, everyone in the family will be free of illness; if the entire family drinks it, the whole village will remain free from illness for the year. If that’s true we should never forget the old tradition of drinking otoso, first thing on New Year’s Day!

More recipes and tips for using herbs, particularly Japanese wild herbs, in cooking, remedies and household products, are available in my new book published in Japanese by Kateigaho in spring 2007.

*1 神農本草経  *2 本草和名