On October 5, 1921, the Ukrainian National Chorus performed before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall. A song known as Shchedryk, already popular in other parts of the world, was particularly well-received. Composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, it drew on traditional folk melodies commonly heard in that country during celebrations of the Orthodox New Year (January 14 in the Gregorian calendar).
Eventually, American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s work. Its bell-like ostinato inspired him to write new lyrics, attempting to capture the sound for his choir. After copyrighting and publishing the song in 1936, several choirs under Wilhousky’s direction began performing “Carol of the Bells” during the Christmas season.
Thanks in part to his Czech heritage, Wilhousky knew the old Slavic legend that, at midnight on the evening Jesus was born, bells began ringing spontaneously in his honor. His ability to capture that echo of ringing bells helped to make “Carol of the Bells” extraordinarily popular, especially in the United States and Canada.
Though nearly two hundred instrumental and vocal arrangments exist, and despite the occasional use of “The Ukrainian Carol” for a title, neither Leontovych’s Shchedryk nor the folk tunes it drew from make any mention of bells, or of Christmas. The song we know as a Christmas carol began life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol: one with distinctly pagan tendencies.
Say “Mardi Gras,” and it’s almost guaranteed: most people will think first of New Orleans. Other cities have their celebrations, but only in New Orleans has the combination of beads, bare breasts, fancy-dress balls, beer and Bourbon Street been elevated to high art.
In Cajun country, there’s no lack of beer and beads, but the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras at the center of the celebration has a slightly different emphasis: community, Capitaines, charity and chickens. (Yes, chickens. More about that later.)
In places like Iota, Church Point, Eunice and Mamou, the Mardi gras (when used as a plural for participants, it’s pronounced “grahz”) prepare for the courir, or run, under the direction of their Capitaine. On horseback or in wagons, they visit surrounding farms, collecting ingredients for the communal gumbo that will be served later that night.
In exchange for rice, potatoes, or even a chicken, the Mardi gras frolic for the entertainment of the farmer and his family, singing a variation of a song known variously as La Danse de Mardi Gras or La [Vieille] Chanson de Mardi Gras. A mainstay in Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, and often heard in dance halls or concerts, the song may be the oldest in the Cajun repertoire.
The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind blankets the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.
As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of No-Longer and the land of Yet-to-Be. Perhaps a moonlit shard of truth reveals itself to revelers in the street: this is the way of life. What has been passes away into forgetfulness, while that which is yet-to-be stirs toward vitality.
Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence, even as their grandparents sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn. Continue reading
Even tucked into a thicket of dense, interwoven phrases, the word stood out. Spotting it, I circled back for another look, surprised by what I took to be an obvious misspelling.
It was March, 2009, and the blogger known as Aubrey was considering a bit of milkweed fluff.
Walking to work, I saw a very peculiar thing on the sidewalk. Its color was soft and meek: a whimsical fluff, a piece of delicate detritus which had somehow lost its way and now lay defenseless on the granite causeway.
The word that captured my attention was detritus. I’d lived for several decades knowing it as detrius, so my initial inclination was to believe that Aubrey had misspelled it. Clearly, each of us was using it properly, and our spellings were close, but the different spellings meant different pronunciations — perhaps even different words.
I’d been reading Aubrey long enough to recognize her writing skills and admire her attention to detail, so a little exploration seemed in order. I didn’t expect to be the one who was wrong, but I was open to the possibility.
Decades ago, I learned to delight in that staple of elementary school education, the vocabulary quiz. As kindergarten students, we were exempted from its discipline, but once we entered first grade it was expected that we would learn twenty new words each week — not only their meanings, but also their spelling, correct pronunciation, and proper use in a sentence.
As far as I was concerned, forty weekly words would have been acceptable. Every word turned on my tongue like a key, unlocking a new and unexpected world. Sometimes, pushing against inexplicable spellings or mysterious definitions, I found words to be like windows, opening to reveal a variety of intriguing vistas.
Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling through sentences like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed they could go on forever. Walking to school in the morning, I’d rehearse them in my mind. Perspicacity. Archetype. Lacuna. Paraphernalia. Abnegate. Chrysanthemums. Continue reading
Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.
So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].
To her cousins, she was a caution. To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.
She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.” Continue reading