Monday, December 27, 2010

six geese a-laying

It recently occurred to me that I was literally born to celebrate Christmas in the traditional order. What do I mean? Well, let me start with the order. These days, the Christmas season starts sometime in November. I suppose at this point, you'd have to say the "traditional" start is black Friday. Curmudgeons grumble when decorations and piped-in Christmas carols appear before Thanksgiving. The proper start is to haul out the decorations the weekend after, get a live tree if that's your thing, and start shopping, baking, etc. It's the season of church and office parties, all leading up to the main event on December 25. Once the presents are opened, food is packed away, and guests have gone home, it's time to take down the decorations. If you're especially lazy or busy traveling, you might let things go until New Year's.

But it wasn't always that way. We still sing about 12 days of Christmas. Some of us might even have a vague awareness of the Twelfth Night--either as a Shakespearean title or as a geeky excuse to drag out the Renaissance Fair costumes in winter. But what does it mean? 12 days, staring from December 25; that takes you to January 5. Why? Because Epiphany (Theophany in the East) falls on January 6--the next big feast on the calendar ends the Christmas season. Note: the traditional season does not end but starts on December 25. Formally, it ends at Epiphany, but in some places the celebration can actually extend into February.

Traditionally, the season before Christmas Day was Advent--the preparation for the feast. Instead of a month of lesser parties, Christmas songs, and shopping, you had 40 days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. It was a preparation of the heart for the feast. This is still a common observance among Eastern Orthodox. Among Western Christians, there is sometimes the positive spiritual preparation of the Advent Wreath. I've even spoken with at least one person who knew about an ascetic pre-Christmas season that might preclude listening to Christmas music. I don't think he was Orthodox--perhaps there are vestiges in Roman Catholic practice as well.

But generally speaking, the greatest hardship of the Advent Fast these days is how it runs counter to what everyone else is doing. For a month leading up to Christmas, you must politely abstain from offered foods or other aspects of our culture's pre-celebration. Then, the day finally arrives, and once again you're out of sync. You're finally ready to celebrate, but everyone else wants to put away the decorations and move on to something else.

Fortunately, there is New Year's Eve, which we can all celebrate together. (Apologies--and sympathy--to those of you still following the Julian calendar.) But aside from that, it's hard--especially for an introvert like me--to keep the celebration going on my own. Having visiting family helps--you retain something of a festive atmosphere just because you're together with those you don't see often.

But the point of all this is that my birthday also helps. I was born on the sixth day of Christmas, so I get the advantage of an extra excuse to celebrate. This realization not only encourages me in my feeble attempts to do something with the season; it's also a positive spin on something I've long lamented--the fact that my birthday comes so close to Christmas. And I'm happy to sacrifice December 30 as "my day," if it contributes to his.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

sources on St. Peter

Peter the Aleut is perhaps the most obscure Orthodox saint associated with North America. Very little is known about him, except the account of his martyrdom. And even that is a bit fuzzy, having originated with the testimony of one eyewitness, and recorded in a handful of written reports.

Unfortunately, the transcript of the 1819 eyewitness testimony does not appear to have made it into English yet. It is supposed to have been published in the first volume of the Russian collection Russia in California (ed. by J. Gibson, A. Istomin, V. Tishkov; 2005), with a planned English translation to follow. But I can't find any indication that the English translation has appeared, and since I don't read Russian, it wouldn't do me any good to track down a copy of the original.

A copy of his testimony is said to have been included with the earliest formal report, sent back to St. Petersburg in 1820 by Simeon Ivanovich Yanovsky, chief manager of the Russian Colonies from 1818 to 1820. It would appear that the written testimony was in fact included, since the administrator of the Russian American Company sent a much longer account to Tsar Alexander I later that year. Yanovsky, who eventually became a monk, wrote 45 years later in a letter to Igumen Damascene of Valaam Monastery about his relating the event to St. Herman. It is this last account that is usually repeated in lives of St. Peter.

Yanovsky's 1865 letter is a logical choice for this purpose, not only because it feels more hagiographical than the other accounts, but also because it cites St. Herman himself acknowledging Peter's sainthood. From a historical standpoint, this endorsement may not mean much, but his reaction of simple faith can serve as an example for the rest of us.

Both of Yanovsky's letters are reproduced in The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794-1837. His superior's longer report was published a decade later, in The Russian-American Colonies, To Siberia and Russian America: Three Centuries of Russian Eastward Expansion. All three are quoted in an article by Raymond A. Bucko, S.J., which is helpfully available online, though quite negatively slanted.

A special problem with Peter's martyrdom is identifying the actual location. Both of the 1820 reports indicate that the hunting party was taken captive somewhere on the Bay of San Pedro in 1815, and the eyewitness returned and gave his testimony in 1819. There is no evidence of a mission at San Pedro, so they may have been taken 30 miles north to San Gabriel. From here we're told that most of the party was taken 100 miles west to Santa Barbara, but that only two were placed in prison. It is unclear whether this means they were left imprisoned at the original mission, or were taken on to Santa Barbara with the others and imprisoned there. The former scenario seems more likely, since we're told the eyewitness was taken to Santa Barbara after Peter's death.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

singin' "this'll be the day that I die"

I guess I'm what you would call a historical drinker. I have no inclination to get drunk. I don't drink because I'm in any particular mood. I don't have much of a taste for many types of alcohol. I only drink socially sometimes. But most of my significant motivators have been historical.

In Akkadian class we learned about how Mesopotamia and Egypt were beer cultures, while Palestine was a wine culture. We read an article about how someone actually followed an ancient Sumerian recipe to brew a modern equivalent, and I remember thinking that it would be interesting to sample.

Sometime later, I was exploring Christmas traditions--actually trying to give more meaning to the season--and got interested in wassail. I never did come up with a good recipe, but I gave it a shot--that might be the first beer I ever bought. (Well, I think Julie bought it, but at my request.)

I reacted to the low-carb craze with indignation. Bread in one form or another has been a staple of just about every culture on earth. For most of human history, meat was too expensive to eat very often. I wanted nothing to do with a diet plan that reversed this trend. Drinking beer (liquid bread) was one form of rebellion.

More recently, I was looking up the differences between types of spirits out of curiosity. (Yes, that's what a serious drinker I am--three months ago, I couldn't have told you the difference between bourbon and brandy.) I noticed that several were tied to specific locales--bourbon to Kentucky, vodka to Russia, and of course scotch. I began to wonder--was there a spirit indigenous to Maryland?

Well, as it turns out, there is--or was. Before Prohibition, there were two main variants of American rye whiskey--Pennsylvania and Maryland. There was a minor revival of the industry after the ban was lifted, but over the next few decades labels went under or were sold off. Eventually, rye production--what remained of it--moved entirely to Kentucky. As it happens, the Pennsylvania variety survived almost exclusively. To my knowledge, the last rye to be produced in Maryland, and the only authentic Maryland style rye being distilled today, is Pikesville.

Yes, "rye" is an actual drink, not just a delicious kind of bread. It makes a good deal more sense, now that I know what "them good old boys were drinking" with their whiskey in "American Pie" (the song, not the film). And appropriate, too, that the drink is featured in a song about death and memories. The Free State, where Governor Ritchie thumbed his nose at Prohibition, now has some of the toughest liquor laws in the Union and trucks its favorite drinks from elsewhere.

Anyway, lucky for me the stuff is cheap. At $13, it wasn't too big a risk to buy a bottle and give it a try. (And speaking of cheap, I've already figured out that, matched drink for drink, it's a good deal more economical than beer.) So, how has it gone?
  1. I figured I ought to start by trying it more or less unadulterated. I wasn't quite ready to start pounding shots (don't even own a shot glass), so I had it on the rocks. I don't know enough of the terminology to say what I didn't like about it, but I decided pretty quickly that I'd need to mix it somehow.
  2. My next attempt was a rye sour. That looked pretty simple to make and didn't require any ingredients I didn't already have. Success. The concoction was much more palatable.
  3. I'd seen somewhere that rye was the traditional base for a Manhattan. I didn't have vermouth or bitters, and I didn't want to buy them before knowing what I was getting into, so I ordered one while we were out for dinner. Maybe Red Lobster just doesn't make a good Manhattan, but it tasted almost exactly like cough syrup. Guess I'll stick with the sour.
  4. I also ran across a description of a hot toddy, which is essentially a whiskey sour served hot. Tried one of those the other day--that wasn't too bad either. OK, so now I have a couple of options for using up the bottle.
Well, the other night I was killing some time in the liquor store while waiting to pick up a prescription for Julie. My beer of choice actually is brewed in Maryland (a microbrew, of course--Natty Boh moved away years ago), and I was looking for something to have on-hand. (You never know when you might want to bring something to a party, especially around this time of year.) I decided to pick up a six-pack of imperial stout. I'm not a big fan of hops, so I lean more toward darker beers. I was looking up online this morning to see exactly what makes something a stout (again, you see what an expert I am), and somehow I came across a reference to Diageo, the parent company of Guiness.

What? Diageo makes alcohol? Well, yes. As a matter of fact, they make Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Baileys, J&B, Captain Morgan, . . . they make a lot. But the reason for my double-take is that there's a Diageo plant just up Rt. 1, on the other side of the river in Relay. I've driven by it countless times--on the way to church, on the way to Walmart, on the way to get pit beef, etc. Pretty much everything around here sends you up or down Rt. 1, so odds are pretty good I'm going past the Diageo plant. I had no idea what they did.

I put up a comment on Facebook, and a friend who grew up in the area says it used to smell like whiskey driving Rt. 1 through Relay. Apparently it was once Maryland's largest distillery (including rye), back when it looked something like this:

After Prohibition, Seagram's bought Calvert Distilling Company. Diageo bought Seagram's somewhere around 2000, but before that happened, the distilling operation in Relay shut down. I haven't discovered exactly what they do there now--distribution, and probably bottling? It doesn't smell like whiskey anymore, so I assume they're not distilling. They do, however, turn up here and there in lists of environmental violations, including something about radioactive materials--no idea what that is.

From Maryland rye to miscellaneous alcohol--the story of a state, the story of a town. Sometimes being a localist is just depressing.