Category Archives: Holidays
by Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department
Happy St Patrick’s Day!
This Irish feast has taken on a life of its own in countries around the world. On March 17, we are inundated with cartoons, clothing, even cards, embellished with images of the day: shamrocks, harps, elaborate crosses. Familiar as they may be now, what do they really have to do with St. Patrick’s Day?
Symbols provide a glimpse into the psyche of an artist – or an entire culture. Sometimes, patterns and figures evolve to express an idea. Other times, the meaning follows the motif. (For example, when previously pagan symbols take on Christian significance.) Just like language, a culture’s symbolism serves both as a time capsule and an evolving conveyance of modern ideals. Today, we’ll take a look at some common symbols associated with Ireland, and discover the meanings they carry.
Shamrocks and Four-Leaf Clovers
When you think “St. Patrick’s Day,” do you visualize a lucky four-leaf clover, or is it a shamrock? With its three leaves, the seamróg, or shamrock, is the true symbol of Ireland’s patron saint. Legend has it that Patrick used the plant to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity to pre-Christian Ireland. So, while you might want to wear a rare four-leaf clover to represent the “luck of the Irish,” only the tri-lobed seamróg represents St Patrick himself.
Of course, pre-Christian Irish art indicates that the island’s inhabitants already had a concept of “three-in-oneness.” But it’s still a nice legend, and a great example of how we can find new significance in existing symbolism.
Spirals and Knotwork
One ancient motif resembling the Trinity is the triskelion. Three arms spiral out from the center, with rotational symmetry. Spirals feature heavily in ancient Irish art, but there’s no way of knowing what the earliest artists wished to convey. Perhaps the spiral represented the course of heavenly bodies through the night sky.
The triquetra, also known as a Trinity knot, is another indigenous emblem that found a Christian meaning. Its three distinct wings form an unbroken, never-ending whole. In one variation, a circle winds through the wings, further unifying the design. The triquetra is the simplest element of Celtic knotwork. Elaborate examples can be found in the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells, and on decorative crosses in churchyards up and down Ireland.
The Celtic Cross
A beautiful design that looks as striking on a tattooed arm as on a headstone in a cemetery, the Celtic cross is composed of a traditional Christian cross with a circle around the intersecting lines. The stem and arms of the cross are often decorated with elaborate knotwork.
Legend attributes this cross to St. Patrick himself. According to the story, Patrick stamped the cross over a circle representing the pagan sun god, emphasizing the spiritual importance of the cross by associating it with the life-giving powers of the sun.
A heart for love, a crown for loyalty, and two hands for friendship: these are the elements present in every Claddagh ring. They originated in the small fishing village of Claddagh in Galway, possibly earlier than 1700, and are now popular as wedding rings the world over. The hand on which the ring is worn, and whether it’s worn facing inward or out, can communicate the romantic status of the wearer to one in the know.
The Irish Tricolor
Ireland’s flag has three vertical bars, of green, white, and orange. The green represents the sovereign Republic of Ireland, traditionally a Catholic nation. The orange represents Northern Ireland, which is thought of as a Protestant land, and has been part of the United Kingdom since 1921. And the white field in between? Referring to the strife between his divided countrymen, Irish nationalist Thomas Francis Meagher explained, “The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between Orange and Green and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.”
It’s a concept that’s still relevant, as governments discuss what the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will look like in a post-Brexit UK.
As a nation of poets, storytellers, musicians, and bards, Ireland has long been represented by a harp. Before the tricolor flag, a banner commonly used was a golden harp (sometimes with a winged woman, the Maid of Erin, carved into it) in the center of a green field.
The Irish government wanted to trademark the harp symbol – but Guinness, hallowed creator of Ireland’s most famous stout, had gotten to it first, back in 1876. That means you’ll always see Guinness’s harp facing one way, and the government’s harp facing the other.
Speaking of Guinness, why does alcohol feature so heavily in modern St Patrick’s Day celebrations? It has to do with the calendar. No matter when Easter falls, the Lenten fast is already underway by the time March 17 rolls around. Until the 1970s, pubs in Ireland were closed – by law – on the day. The festivities were quiet indeed.
But somewhere along the line, Irish-American Catholics wanted to celebrate their honorary patron saint while still remaining pious, and so the restrictions on food and alcohol came to be lifted for the day. Try to fit 40 days’ worth of revelry into 24 hours, and excess is the natural result! This Americanized aspect of the holiday made its way back to Ireland in the 1990s, largely as an effort to promote tourism.
If you choose to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in this way, you’ll need a ready toast. Raise your glass and say “Sláinte!” (pronounced something like “SLAWN-chə” to drink the health of your party.
Thanks for joining me on this cultural expedition! I hope you’ll enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all the more, having these few fragments of knowledge. Slán go fóill! (Bye for now!)
- And, of course, Wikipedia!
By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
Well, here we are, that most obnoxious made-up “holiday” that some of us despise, Valentine’s Day. Yes, Darling Reader, I understand . . . and I’m here to help. Rather than dwell on the superficial and hypermarketed unpleasantness that I find Valentine’s Day to be (and you don’t EVEN know how tempted I am to abbreviate that to Vile Day, or even nastier, VD, throughout the rest of this blog), let’s try to find some positives. Why don’t we celebrate the day with books instead of garish, sappy greeting cards and booty-widening/tooth-rotting candy, and flowers that die three days after they arrive? Hence, in no particular order, is my personal antidote to February 14:
Here Comes Valentine Cat (J E Underwood) by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Claudia Rueda. Cat haaaaaaaaates Valentine’s Day. (Sound familiar?) Especially when the day arrives at the same time as a new dog next door. Through a series of misunderstandings, Cat comes to realize that maybe he has judged his loud new neighbor too hastily.
Henry in Love (J E MACC) by Peter McCarty. Henry the cat is the strong, silent type, and he has a little bit of a crush on Chloe the bunny, who is pretty and popular and can execute a perfect cartwheel. This sweet, subtle story is beautifully illustrated and demonstrates that sometimes just the right gift can capture the attention of the one your heart yearns for.
Zombie In Love 2 + 1 (J E DIPUCCHIO) by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Scott Campbell. This sequel to DiPucchio and Campbell’s previous collaboration, Zombie In Love, may not be everyone’s idea of precious, but it makes me smile every time I read it. Mildred and Mortimer reprise their roles in this subtly hilarious book, and a new baby named Sonny is an adorable addition to the family dynamic. But Mildred and Mortimer are worried to death (oooh, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Sonny hardly ever cries, his teeth are coming in instead of falling out, and most terrifying of all—he’s awake all day and sleeps through the night! This charming twist on the terrors of parenthood is sure to have you shrieking with delight.
Pete The Cat: Valentine’s Day is Cool (J E Dean) by Kimberly and James Dean. You might think that a cool cat like Pete wouldn’t think much of Valentine’s Day . . . and you’d be wrong. Pete reflects on how many special people he knows, and wants to acknowledge them all (especially his very best friend Callie, who just happens to mention as he skateboards past her that this is her favorite holiday of all) with perfect Valentine’s Day cards. So Pete sets about commemorating his love and gratitude to his friends with just the right card to each of them. As the title page says, I Meow You.
Llama Llama I Love You (J E DEWDNEY) by Anna Dewdney. Anna passed away in 2016, but her gentle spirit lives on through her books. Llama Llama I Love You is no exception, as Little Llama demonstrates to his family and friends how much he loves them with valentines and big llama hugs.
Love, Splat (J E SCOTTON) by Rob Scotton. Love is complicated. Splat, the adorably neurotic cat who made his debut in 2008’s Splat The Cat has a tremendous crush on Kitten, a fluffy white cat with mesmerizing green eyes. Splat likes Kitten more than fish sticks, more than ice cream. Unfortunately, he has a rival for Kitten’s affections in Spike, a boorish tomcat who gives Kitten a fancy valentine. Spike’s actions prompt Splat to throw his valentine to Kitten in the nearest trash can, but she notices it and reciprocates with an awesome valentine of her own to Splat. Let love rule.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse! (J E NUMEROFF) by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. This spinoff from Numeroff’s wildly popular “If You Give A . . .” series follows Mouse as he strives to make a perfect valentine for everyone. Each valentine is lovingly customized to represent what Mouse likes the most about each of his friends, such as Bunny because “she’s the best at hide-and-seek” and Pig because “she is the best dancer.” Of course, all of Mouse’s friends reciprocate with valentines and cookies, which as everyone knows, are one of Mouse’s very favorite things.
*** Darling Reader—please know that no harm came to any living creatures or books during the writing of this blog, even though the author hates Valentine’s Day with the fiery intensity of Dante’s ninth level of Hell.
We all know about Groundhog Day on February 2, when a fuzzy animal is brought forth to predict the weather. How could we miss that huge celebration at Punxsutawney, when Phil, the groundhog (the official term is woodchuck –remember the tongue twister?), is brought out of his den and the crowd goes wild. If he sees his shadow, then winter will end sooner than later, but if he doesn’t see his shadow, that means 6 more weeks of winter. Of course, this weather forecast has never been that accurate…
And of course, many people fondly remember watching the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. It has become a “contemporary classic.” In case you don’t remember, Phil (Bill Murray) gets stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day, and only after he learns from his mistakes is he able to get back on track. In 2006, it was even added to the United States National Film Registry for being a culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film.
So where does Candlemas fit in, you may ask?? This holy day is celebrated by Christians on February 2 to commemorate both the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and Jesus’ first entry into the Temple. Since Jesus is considered a “light-bringer,” the custom was to bless candles on this day as well, which is where we get the term Candlemas from. In pagan times, this day was also known as Imbolc (pronounced i-Molk), a festival marking the first day of Spring, which usually fell on February 2. Evidently spring came early in the Gaelic lands, and coincidentally (meaning it was probably a direct influence), this holy day was also used to predict the coming weather.
These poems, found in English and German, show how on Candlemas the weather could be forecast.
If Candle-mas Day is bright and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.
If Candle mas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
The German immigrants also brought with them the tradition of a hedgehog telling the spring forecast, but with no hedgehogs to be found, groundhogs were the closest animal they could find in the new world. And Pennsylvania has had many Germans settlers.
And now you know how Groundhog Day and Candlemas both have a place in American culture.
An aside: The name Punxsutawney comes from the Lenape name for the location “ponksad-uteney” which means “the town of the sandflies.” The name woodchuck comes from the Indian legend of “Wojak, the groundhog” considered by them to be their underground ancestor.