Happy birthday to Wolfgang and Charles!

I got these Christmas tree decorations–the Red Queen, the Cheshire cat, and the White Rabbit–at the Alice in Wonderland shop in Oxford.

Happy birthday! Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg on January 27,1756 and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (later known as “Lewis Carroll”) was born in Cheshire, England on January 27, 1832. Both created famous female characters steeped in mystery and magic.

Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute features the Queen of the Night. She is first introduced as the desperate mother whose beloved daughter was kidnapped. But it ultimately appears that she is the villain of the story, who wants to steal the powerful Circle of the Sun. In many ways the Queen of the Night can be regarded as an early symbol of a free woman, given that she claims something which she regards as her legitimate heirloom, but whose property she was denied because she is a woman. She strongly resents this, and is willing to defy the patriarchal order who denies her all authority by any mean she can. She can also be regarded as a symbol of ignorance, either one who covets the Enlightenment she was denied or one who wants to destroy said Enlightenment out of intolerance.

When Dodgson was a professor at Oxford, he created the Alice in Wonderland character. She is also a free woman who sets out on her own to explore the strange alternate universe known as “Wonderland.” Both Alice and the Queen of the Night seem to depend on magic–Alice needed the bottle marked “Drink me” as well as the cookie marked “Eat me” and the Queen’s power and position is threatened by the sorcerer Sarastro–but neither seem to be completely in control of the magic they depend on.

When I’ve been to Oxford, I have seen many of the places that also appear in the Alice stories, such as the tree that the Cheshire cat sat in and the small door known as the “rabbit hole” in the dining hall. There is a small store there that features nothing but Alice-related items.

You can see great spoofs of the famous Queen of the Night aria here and here. Enjoy!

May Day! Happy Summer!

Magdalen Tower, Oxford, is the center of the historic May Day celebrations in the university town.

Magdalen Tower, Oxford, is the center of the historic May Day celebrations in the university town.

May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, during the Roman Republic era; during the Middle Ages, the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries marked the last winter frolic of witches and devils. May Day is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane, most commonly held on April 30. The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer.

Secular versions of May Day, observed in Europe and America, may be best known for their traditions of dancing around the Maypole and crowning the Queen of May. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets,” small baskets of sweets or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps. I remember making May baskets in elementary schools and Maypole games on the playground.

May Day is celebrated at the University of Oxford with special gusto. The day starts early (at 6 a.m.!) with the Magdalen College Choir singing a hymn, the Hymnus Eucharisticus, from the top of Magdalen Tower, a tradition of over 500 years. Large crowds normally gather under the tower along the High Street and on Magdalen Bridge. (Magdalen Tower is one of the oldest parts of Magdalen College, Oxford, situated directly in the High Street. Built of stone from 1492, when the foundation stone was laid, its bells hung ready for use in 1505, and completed by 1509, it is an important element of the Oxford skyline. At 144 feet high, it is the tallest building in Oxford. It dominates the eastern entrance to the city, towering over Magdalen Bridge and with good views from the Botanic Garden across the street.) This is then followed by general revelry and festivities including Morris dancing, impromptu music, etc., for a couple of hours. There is a party atmosphere, despite the early hour. In fact, there are normally all-night balls the night before, so some people (especially students) are in formal attire (e.g., black tie/white tie or ball gown).

Ascension Day: “Beating the Bounds”

Ascension Day, celebrated on the 40th day after Easter, is always a Thursday and marks the last post-Resurrection appearance of Christ to the apostles.

Ascension Day, celebrated on the 40th day after Easter, is always a Thursday and marks the last post-Resurrection appearance of Christ to the apostles.

Ascension Day was a vital day in the pre-modern and agricultural cultures of Christian Europe. In many places it marked the beginning of the ploughing and planting seasons and in England there were processions to ask for God’s blessing on the crops to be planted. These processions often included “beating the bounds,” a practice in which young men would be led around the boundaries of each local farm and their backs lightly beaten so as to impress upon them where the limits of each farmer’s lands were; beating the boys’ backs helped stamp the landmarks and boundaries of each field into the boys’ memories so that any future disputes between farmers could be resolved by asking the boys what they remembered of the processions.

Some parishes continue the custom (e.g. the church of St Michael at the North Gate in Oxford). Today members of the parish walk round the parish boundaries, marking boundary stones (e.g. by writing on them in chalk) and hitting them — rather than the boys of the parish — with sticks. In addition to settling disputes between farmers, knowledge of the parish boundaries was once important since churches had certain duties such as the care of children born out of wedlock in the parish. One of the purposes served by beating the bounds was that of warning the young men of the parish that any sexual misbehavior ought to take place with women who lived outside the parish.

In Venice the ceremony of the Wedding with the Sea was traditionally celebrated on the Feast of the Ascension, while in Florence the holy day was observed by having a dove slide down a string from the high altar of the cathedral to ignite a large decorative container filled with fireworks in front of the main entrance of the cathedral.

There is a veritable treasure trove of folklore and folk practices associated with Ascension Day in the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and Occult Sciences, which you can read here. You can also read more in the very interesting study Eastertide in Pennsylvania which describes Pennsylvania Dutch customs.