Where Les Bons Temps Still Rouler

Le Capitaine and his Chicken
In Eunice and Mamou, in Crowley and Church Point, the 2022 Courir de Mardi Gras will be continuing a beloved tradition. I’d hoped to make a run to Louisiana for a taste of this year’s fun, but the stars didn’t align. So, I’ll have some Texas gumbo, enjoy some Cajun music, and share this post once again: for my own pleasure, and I hope for yours.

Some years ago, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens, a friend from Louisiana emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want chickens? Come to Cajun country for Mardi Gras. We dance for chickens here.”

As proof, he sent the trailer for Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. I watched with a certain degree of astonishment, tucked the link into my bookmarks, and resolved someday to witness the improbable celebrations.

Occasionally I remembered the email, but only after it was too late to make plans. One year, I remembered, and made some inquiries. A few phone calls later, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called another Louisiana friend and said, “Pack your bags. The chickens are waiting.”

Traditionally, Courir de Mardi Gras is held on Fat Tuesday, but Church Point holds their celebration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Organized by Elton Richard in 1961, it’s a great example of a traditional, rural Mardi Gras. New Orleans celebrates in her own way, but in Cajun country, things are different.

As my friend and I traveled toward Church Point, the combination of dense fog and deserted roads lent an air of unexpected serenity to the scene. No crowds thronged the route, no music drifted through the air. Only occasional horses and riders, a cluster of horse trailers, or the drooping gold, green, and purple Mardi Gras flags suggested the festivities yet to come.

The View from an Outdoor Kitchen

Still, as we pulled into the drive and greeted our host, it became apparent that people had been up and about for some time. A few had gone into town to complete last-minute errands before road closures, and children were everywhere, amusing themselves with scooters, tricycles and a trampoline.

The fragrance of a good hen and sausage gumbo filled the air, watched over by a man who clearly knew his way around an outdoor kitchen.

In time, neigbors passed by for a visit…

…and a burst of color appeared through the fog as a traditionally-clad Mardi gras reveler headed for the beer fridge.

Mardi Gras costumes fashioned of colorful fabrics and fabric fringe include a tall, conical hat called a capuchon, and a mask. The homemade masks, traditionally constructed of wire screen, often sport beards, eyebrows, and exaggerated features.

Lucius Fontenot, a founder of Valcour Records, says,

The costumes are similar to those of the Mardi Gras in old France. They were a way of making fun of the aristocracy, and the frilly way they dressed at court. Because [the revelers] were peasants, all the costumes were homemade out of scraps.

Larry Miller, a retired accordian maker from Iota, agrees.

It’s the Mardi Gras of peasants, while New Orleans has the Mardi Gras of royalty. The traditions came over at different times, and in different ships.

Unlike costumed Mardi Gras (when plural and pronouned “grahz,” the phrase refers to participants in the Courir), Le Capitaine and his co-Capitaines ride unmasked. According to Fontenot:

The Capitaine typically is a strong figure of the community — a Sheriff or deputy– and his job is to keep everyone in line. When the Mardi Gras approach the house, the Capitaine approaches the home first, and alone. When the neighbor says it’s okay for the group to approach, the Capitaine waves his flag, and the traditional Mardi Gras song is sung.”

La Danse de Mardi Gras ~ Balfa Brothers recording c. 1964
Les Mardi Gras ça vient de tout partout
Tout l’autour au tour du moyeu
Ça passe un fois par ans

Demander la charité
Quand même si c’est une patate
Une patate et des gratins
Les Mardi Gras sont su’ un grand voyage
Tout l’tour autour du moyeu
Ça passe un fois par ans
Demander la charité
Quand même si c’est une poule maigre
Et trois, quatre coton d’maïs
Capitain, capitain voyage ton flag
Allons su’ l’autr’ voisin
Demander la charité
Pour eux autr’ venir nous r’joindre
Eux autr’ venir nous r’joindre
Ouais au bal pour ce soir
The Mardi Gras come from all around,
all around the center of town.

They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it’s a sweet potato, a sweet potato or pork rinds.
The Mardi Gras are on a great journey,
all around the center of town.

They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it’s a skinny chicken, or three or four corn cobs.
Captain, captain, wave your flag,
let’s go to another neighbor’s.

Asking for charity for everyone who’ll come join us later,
Everyone who’ll come join us later at the gumbo tonight!

The Capitaines not only maintain order and discipline among the Mardi Gras, wielding a mostly-symbolic whip of braided burlap as needed, they also serve as a liason between the Mardi Gras and the public. They’re imposing figures, particularly at first sight.

While a Mardi Gras run may seem chaotic, each Courir has its own code of conduct. Meetings held during the year teach the rituals and songs, but also emphasize the importance of discipline. During the Courir, runners as well as Capitaines monitor one another to ensure safety, if not sobriety. This partial list of rules for the Church Point Courir is instructive (emphases theirs):

Cajun Mardi Gras Tradition requires MEN ONLY on the Mardi Gras Run.
NO GLASS Containers or ice chest allowed. You will be asked to leave if caught with these items.
NO WEAPONS. You will be subject to A Search at any time during the Run.
No Fighting. YOU WILL GO TO JAIL.
You Must Stay on Public Roads Until Permission is Given to Go Onto Private Property.
Disobeying the Captain, Co-Captains and Law Officers will Result in being ejected from the Run.
Anyone under 15 years of Age must be accompanied by a Responsible Adult.
Everyone is Required to be Fully Masked [or painted face] and in Costume.
Anyone URINATING in Public will be subject to Arrest.
No PROFANITY or Indecent Exposure will be Tolerated. YOU WILL GO TO JAIL IF CAUGHT.
Anyone Seeming to be Out of Control or TOO Intoxicated will be removed from the Run and Contained.
Yes, Sir

The Capitaines also help with chicken control. As the runners collect one of the prime ingredients for their gumbo, the chickens are added to a traveling pen, recorded, and well guarded. Thievery seems unlikely, but on a day devoted to pranks, anything is possible.

Once the costumes, chickens, Capitaines, and the rest of the crew are gathered into one place, tradition takes over. Wilson Savoy, a member of the Pine Leaf Boys, describes it this way:

The runners go from house to house and ask permission to enter the yard of the home owner. They dance and entertain the owners and in exchange they ask for anything to contribute to the run, usually ingredients to make a gumbo at the end of the day: rice, chickens, sausage, flour.

If a homeowner donates a chicken, tradition dictates that the chicken be alive. That’s where the fun begins. Before the chicken can become a part of the community’s gros gumbo, it has to be caught. Words can’t properly describe what happens next, so I found a little something to help.

After the chickens have been caught and the Courir moves on to the next home, the fun isn’t over. Following behind are the Krewes with their music, art, beer, bead-tossing, and invitations to dance (did I mention beer?). The version of “La Danse de Mardi Gras” popularized by Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys is as danceable on a dirt road as at a dancehall or festival.

  Allons Danser!
No need to put down a drink..
Wouldn’t you grin if this fellow put some beads around your neck?

For those needing a rest from their dancing or bead-collecting, artwork on the passing parade of buses and wagons offered some delightful interpretations of the day’s primary actors.

Performance art wasn’t neglected. This live chicken (whose black friend seems to have escaped for the moment) rode quite happily atop the LSU bus. Snapping its tether at one point, it was coaxed back and re-attached, apparently unruffled.

In time, riders and wagons supplanted masked and costumed revelers. The slower pace allowed increasing interaction between spectators and participants, as well as time to appreciate the passing horses, donkeys, and the singular-in-every-sense zeedonk.

Occasional pauses in the parade’s forward progress also allowed time for kid-and-horse conversation. Only moments after taking this photo, I watched the little blond girl move over to offer the white horse the attention he clearly craved.

Even the smallest — and most ambivalent — got to experience the excitement of the ride.

As the last group of horses passed by, children began clearing the ditches of unclaimed beads and we settled in with our gumbo. Remarkably, there was no sense of disappointment at the parade’s end: no let-down, no sense that something had been lost.

That lack of disappointment surely witnesses to the power of the Courir as living tradition. Neither spectacle nor ritual re-enactment, neither a Cajun version of New Orleans celebrations nor a poor, rural imitation of city ways, the Courir embodies customs cherished by Acadian settlers and their descendents for centuries.

While its value as sheer entertainment can’t be denied, its greater importance lies in the opportunity it offers for affirming enduring ties of family and tradition. Parades may end, but heritage is forever.

Soon, this year’s masked and costumed riders will be gone. The beads will have been cleared from the roads, and chickens will forage in peace. Music always will echo through Acadiana while gumbo pots boil, but the extravagance and excess of Mardi Gras slowly will give way to other necessities of life.

Still, once the parties and parades of the season have gone, the beauty of the Courir will remain: a flag of tradition, civility, and commitment to community that waves for us all.

Comments always are welcome.

Songs of the Season ~ The ‘O’ Antiphons

Illuminated “O”

One of the most familiar and beloved Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” has its roots in Christian monastic life of the 8th and 9th centuries. In the seven days before Christmas Eve, a series of special antiphons — short phrases surrounding a liturgical psalm or canticle — would be sung. During that week, the antiphons were meant to point toward the Feast of the Incarnation, and to heighten anticipation of the celebration through references drawn from both Old and New Testaments.

Because their introductory phrases refer to various titles given to the coming Messiah, those last antiphons of Advent became known as the ‘O Antiphons.’

O Sapentia (O Wisdom)
O Adonai (O Lord)
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Oriens (O Dayspring)
O Rex Genitium (O King of the Nations)
O Emmanuel (God With Us)

The last antiphon, ‘O Emmanuel,’ traditionally was sung on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve. Perhaps as early as the 12th century, it was given a Latin metrical form and transformed into a hymn. When John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the architect of the Oxford Movement and a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, discovered it in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum,”  he included it in his collection of Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851) and it soon made its way into congregational settings.

Over the years, the popularity of the hymn never has waned. Stirring in a cathedral worship setting, it can be equally appealing when performed instrumentally. Now and then, an artist puts a personal stamp on the hymn in a way that is both faithful to the original and utterly new. Rearranging lyrics and simplifying their presentation, Enya has made a centuries old antiphon something wholly unexpected: both magical and memorable.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Songs of the Season ~ Sankta Lucia

The name of the young woman in this contemporary icon — Saint Lucy –is derived from the Latin word for light (lux), a fact which helps to explain how she became embedded into cultural traditions and Christmas celebrations from Italy to Sweden and beyond.

Born in Syracuse, Sicily in 283 AD, Lucy was martyred at the age of twenty after refusing to marry a pagan nobleman. According to legend, she was sentenced to a life of prostitution, but when guards arrived to take her away, she remained frozen in place and impossible to move. More torture took place before her death, including the removal of her eyes; some icons show her holding those eyes on a golden platter.

One of the earliest Christian martyrs to achieve popularity, Lucy became the patron saint of her city of birth, but her fame spread far beyond Syracuse. In Naples, along the waterfront district known as Borgo Santa Lucia, Neapolitan gondoliers sang a traditional song associated with her as they plied their boats, or barcas, across the water.

In 1849, Teodoro Cottrau (1827-1879) translated that song, “Santa Lucia,” from Neapolitan into Italian, publishing it as a barcarola, or boat song, and making it the first Neapolitan song to be given Italian lyrics.

A celebration of the Borgo Santa Lucia, the song portrays a gondolier inviting his customers to take a turn in his little boat, his barchetta, while they enjoy the beauty of an evening on the sea. Enrico Caruso’s recording of the song may be one of the most well-known, but this performance by Beniamino Gigli seemed lighter and more pleasing to me.

Sul mare luccia l’astro d’argento,
Placida è l’onda, prospero è il vento
Venite all’agile barchetta mia…
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Con questo zeffiro, così soave
Oh! Com’è bello star su la nave!
Su passaggieri, venite via!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
O dolce Napoli, o suol beato,
Ove sorridere volle il creato
Tu sei l’impero dell’armonia!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Upon this brilliant sea, a star of silver,
Across the gentle waves, the wind is sweeping.
Upon this brilliant sea, a star of silver,
Across the gentle waves, the wind is sweeping.
Come help my little boat sail swiftly to the shore,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Come help my little boat sail swiftly to the shore,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Full sail with breezes fair, so gentle are they,
Oh, how this ship can feel, so fine beneath me,
Full sail with breezes fair, so gentle are they,
Oh, how this ship can feel, so fine beneath me,
All passengers aboard, come sail the sea with me,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
All passengers aboard, come sail the sea with me,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Oh, my sweet Napoli, Oh, blessed soil,
Where nature smiles upon all of creation,
Oh, my sweet Napoli, Oh, blessed soil,
Where nature smiles upon all of creation,
You are the harmony, you are the empire,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
You are the harmony, you are the empire,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

As with most legends surrounding the life and death of St. Lucy, no certainty exists when it comes to her incorporation into Swedish life. During the 10th century, her feast day — December 13 — spread from France to Germany and England. She appeared on the Swedish liturgical calendar as early as 1470, when Sweden still was a Catholic country, and she survived the Reformation under King Gustav Vasa in the 16th century.

Still, her celebrations weren’t purely Christian. As with other winter solstice traditions, there were clear references to the dualities of life — darkness and light, cold and warmth — as well as to older, even darker traditions.

In northern Sweden, a belief held sway that Lucia was Adam’s first wife; that she consorted with Lucifer; and that their descendants spent their time in a very cold, very dark underworld. Even today’s traditional festive treat, the Lucia buns, or lussekatter, were in the old days called djävulskatter, or the devil’s cat; their shape was intended to represent a curled-up cat with raisin eyes.

Lucia Night, the evening before her feast, was considered a dangerous time: filled with supernatural beings and animals that could speak. The braver and bolder youngsters would dress as Lucia figures (lussegubbar), then wander from house to house singing songs and begging for food and schnapps.

Things began to take a turn with the first recorded appearance of a white-clad Swedish Lucia in 1764. By the 1880s, the eldest daughter in a household might serve coffee and lussekatter to others in the household. In the early 1900s, schools and local associations began promoting Sankta Lucia; as they did, lussegubbars faded away and singing processions became a more acceptable form of celebration than the youthful carousing of the past. In 1919, Sigrid Elmblad published lyrics to Santa Lucia in Swedish, using Teodoro Cottrau’s music, and Sankta Lucia was born.

Stockholm established its first Lucia celebration in 1927, paying tribute to Saint Lucy by placing a crown of fresh greens and lighted candles on the head of the girl chosen to represent Lucia. According to yet another legend, Saint Lucy had taken food to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs while wearing candles to light her way, leaving her hands free to carry as much food as possible.

In today’s homes, the eldest daughter may forgo white robes and candlelit wreaths, but she still rises before the rest of the family to serve them lussekatter and coffee, as well as gingersnaps and mulled wine (glögg). In  villages and towns across Sweden — and in Swedish communities around the world — there are Lucia processions, concerts, and celebrations to signify the beginning of the Christmas season.

Even though my own grandparents arrived in this country from Sweden well before the formalization of Lucia festivities, they knew and honored the traditions. My grandmother baked lussekatter; they taught me the song; and once — just once! — I was allowed to wear a candlelit wreath in my hair.

In frigid, snow-deep darkness, my parents drove me the thirty miles to my grandparents’ home. We let ourselves in, arranged the lussekatter on a plate, and poured coffee from a thermos. Then, candles lighted and excitement high, we sang my grandparents awake.

Natten går tunga fjät runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som sol förlät, skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus, stiger med tända ljus,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Natten var stor och stum. Nu hör, det svingar,
i alla tysta rum, sus som av vingar.
Se på vår tröskel står vitkläd med ljus i hår,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Mörkret skall flykta snart ur jordens dalar.”
Så hon ett underbart ord till oss talar.
Dagen skall åter gry, stiga ur rosig sky,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Night walks with a heavy step
Round yard and hearth,
As the sun departs from earth,
Shadows are brooding.
There in our dark house,
Walking with lit candles,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Night walks grand, yet silent,
Now hear its gentle wings,
In every room so hushed,
Whispering like wings.
Look, at our threshold stands,
White-clad with light in her hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Darkness shall take flight soon,
From earth’s valleys.
So she speaks
Wonderful words to us:
A new day will rise again
From the rosy sky…
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Comments always are welcome.

Songs of the Season ~ Riu, Riu, Chiu

Common or Eurasian Kingfisher  ~ Alcedo atthis

Advent and Christmas traditions vary from family to family and culture to culture, but those who celebrate cherish at least a favorite or two. Some have been maintained for centuries, like candlelight services at midnight. Others have emerged more recently, but are no less beloved: a certain Christmas dish; a favorite cookie; a must-see movie.

Each holiday season I recall traditions deeply embedded in the celebrations of my Swedish family: cardamom seed buns, kalvsylta (jellied veal), potatiskorv (potato sausage), and pickled herring; hand-strung cranberries on the Christmas tree; bayberry candles; and the delicate ringing of angel chimes. Pink and lavender trees, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and those ghastly ornaments made to look like a certain virus have their place, but I prefer my family’s more traditional ways, and probably always will.

Still, something occasionally emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of our commercialized season to attract my attention. Some years ago, a bit of song surprised me as I shopped. Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with indecipherable words, sung in an unfamiliar language.

Eventually, I found the name of the song and learned its extraordinary history. The song, Riu, Riu Chiu” is contained in the Cancionero de Upsala [sic], also known as the Cancionero del Duque de Calabria or the Cancionero de Venecia, a volume of mostly anonymous Spanish music printed in Venice in 1556.

The only known original manuscript, held at the library of Uppsala University in Sweden, either was “highlighted by Rafael Mitjana y Gordon in 1904” or “edited in 1909 by Rafael Mitjana,” depending upon which source you consult. Despite uncertainties about the date, Mitjana’s spelling of ‘Upsala’ is correct, since the name of the town wasn’t changed to ‘Uppsala’ until the major Swedish spelling reform of 1906.

That a collection of Spanish songs printed in Italy should end up at a Swedish university appears to be one of the more delightful accidents of history. The volume may have been acquired as war booty when the Swedish army plundered Prague in 1631, or 1648, although how the manuscript traveled to Prague isn’t clear.

In any event, “Riu, Riu Chiu” is part of a collection titled:

Villancicos de diuersos Autores, a dos, y a tres, y a qvatro, y a cinco bozes, agora nvevamente corregidos. Ay mas ocho tonos de Canto llano, y ocho tonos de Canto de Organo para que puedam aprouechar los que, A cantar començaren. Venetiis, Apud Hieronymum Scotum, MDLVI.

This translation not only clarifies the collection’s contents, it sugggests its broad appeal :

Villancicos from divers authors, for two, and for three, and for four, and for five voices, now newly corrected. There are also eight tones of plainchant, and eight tones of organum for the benefit of those that are still learning to sing. Venice, by Hieronymus (Girolamo) Scotto, 1556.

Two other songbooks, the Cancionero Musical del Palacio and the Cancionero de Medinaceli, contain all the richness and variety of the Spanish Renaissance in their collections of compositions for instruments and voices.

In addition, the Upsala collection has preserved fifty-four villancicos. Over time, villancico came to refer primarily to Christmas carols, but the songs, rooted in village life, were much like our folksongs. Sung in Castilian Spanish, Catalan, and Galician-Portuguese, most of the villancicos were secular, but twelve in the Cancionero de Upsala were meant for Christmas, including “Riu, Riu Chiu,” attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder.

Just as Swedish spelling reforms cause difficulty for people dealing with early documents, changes in the Spanish language have left room for interpretation when it comes to the lyrics of “Riu, Riu Chiu.”

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, tell us that:

“Riu, riu chiu” was a traditional call of Spanish shepherds when guarding their flocks in a riverside fold. Elsewhere, the catchy tune is found in a variant form with a secular shepherd-song, and it may derive from a genuine example.

Jula Karolaro, on his Yuletide Carols site reports that “Riu, riu chiu” is the call of a nightingale, or the call of a shepherd to his sheep. As he puts it:

The first line in Spanish is ambiguous, as to whether the riverbank is protecting a nightingale, or a shepherd is protecting his flock at a riverbank. So in both translations, I equivocated a bit in that first line by vaguely referring to a “riverside guardian”.

Lisa Theriot, in notes accompanying her own translation, says:

“Riu, riu, chiu” is meant to be onomatopoeia for birdsong, though the type of bird is still under debate. Leading candidates are the nightingale, for the beauty of his song, and the kingfisher, because of the concept of guarding the riverbank.

After listening to recordings of the kingfisher, Lisa found herself favoring its role as the anonymous bird. Well acquainted with the kingfisher’s call, as well as its willingness to aggressively defend its territory, I’m more than happy myself to consider “Riu, Riu Chiu” the “Kingfisher’s Carol.”

Whatever questions remain about the history of the villancico, we can be grateful for the graceful translation of the lyrics provided by the San Francisco Bach Choir, and the happy transmission of the melody through the centuries.

Today, versions of the carol abound. Everyone from Chanticleer to the Monkees have given it a whirl. But in this age of overly-produced recordings, the simplicity of the version offered by the Capella de Ministrers, an early music group formed in 1987 in Valencia, Spain, brings life to a timeless song of the season.

Cancionero de Upsala/Cancionero del Duque de Calabria ~ Atríbuido a Mateo Flecha el Viejo
Riu, riu, chiu
la guarda ribera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera.
El lobo rabioso
la quiso morder
Mas Dios Poderoso
la supo defender
Quizo la hacer que
no pudiese pecar
Ni aun original
esta virgen no tuviera.
Riu, riu, chiu…
Este que es nascido
es El Gran Monarca
Cristo Patriarca
de carne vestido
Ha nos redimido
con se hacer chiquito
Aunque era infinito
finito se hiciera.
Riu, riu, chiu …
Pues que ya tenemos
lo que deseamos
Todos juntos vamos
presentes llevemos
Todos le daremos
nuestra voluntad
Pues a se igualar
con nosotros viniera.

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank is protected
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God
Knew how to defend her
He willed to make her
Unable to sin
Even original sin
This virgin did not have
Riu, riu, chiu…
The one who is born
Is the Great Monarch
Christ the Patriarch
Clothed in flesh
He has redeemed us
By making himself small
Though he was infinite
He became finite
Riu, riu, chiu…
Now we have
What we desire
Let us go together
To present him gifts
Let us all give him
Our will
For he came
As our equal
Riu, riu, chiu…

Comments always are welcome.
The photo of the Kingfisher was taken by Mark Kilner on November 9, 2019, in Canterbury, England, and posted on Flickr.

NOTE: A commenter linked to the Monkee’s version of this song. When I visited that page, I noticed that the Kingston Trio also included the song on one of their albums. A commenter below the Kingston Trio version mentioned a secular version of the song, “Fa La La Lan” supposedly sung in Ladino, the language of Flory Jagoda’s “Ocho Kandelikas.” You can hear that version of “Riu, Riu, Chiu” here.

Songs of the Season ~ Ocho Kandelikas

Hanukkah (or Chanukah), the Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after an unexpected Maccabeean victory over the Seleucid empire in the second century BCE; the word itself, ‘Hanukkah,’ is rooted in the Hebrew word for dedication.

Observed for eight nights and days, the holiday begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev; being a movable feast, it can occur any time between late November and late December. This year, it happens to begin on the first day of the Christian season of Advent: November 28.

After recapturing Jerusalem from the Syrians, a first priority for the Maccabees, a family dynasty that brought about a restoration of Jewish familial, religious, and political life in the wake of centuries of imperial occupation, was the rededication of their desecrated Temple.

Essential to the rededication was the lighting of the menorah, but only one container of usable oil was found. Despite the limited supply of oil, and despite expectations that it could last for only one night, tradition says the menorah continued to burn for eight days and eight nights until more oil could be produced; that miraculous sign of God’s presence and favor lies at the heart of Hanukkah celebrations.

Menorahs still contain the same seven candleholders used in the ancient temple, but the hanukkiah, or Hanukkah menorah, has nine candlesticks: one for each night of Hanukkah, and a shamash — a ‘helper’ or ‘servant’ candle — to light the others.

Many traditions associated with Hanukkah — the spinning tops called dreidels; the exchange of foil-wrapped chocolate gelt; those yummy potato latkes — are familiar enough, but one of the most beloved ‘songs of the season’ is quite recent. Written by Jewish-American composer Flory Jagoda in 1983, “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”) celebrates the holiday in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language mixing elements of Old Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish, and other languages of the Iberian Peninsula in the 16th century.

Bosnian-born, Jagoda brought the traditional Ladino ballads and songs of her Sephardic ancestors to American audiences. From the Spanish Inquisition until World War II, Ladino was spoken by thousands of Jews throughout the Mediterranean. Today, it’s spoken primarily in Israel and in Istanbul, home to a prominent Ladino-speaking community and a Ladino newspaper called El Amaneser (The Dawn). Generally, however, Ladino has not been passed on to  younger generations; thanks in part to Flory Jagoda, interest is reviving.

In her latter years, Jagoda convened what she calledVijitas de Alhad, or ‘Sunday visits’ — weekly celebrations of Sephardic stories, songs and cuisine. Participants often included immigrants from Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey; they met in homes and sang in Ladino.

“I write Sephardic songs to continue my family tradition,” Jagoda told the Washington Post in 2002. “During the war, 42 people in my family were all thrown into a mass grave. In their memory, I write songs about them, about holidays, and about the legend of the key, the key they carried from Spain.”

The legend Jagoda mentions suggests that when the Sephardim left Spain they carried their house keys with them, passing them down through the generations. Even today, Sephardic homes may have ancient-looking keys hanging on the wall. “For us,” Jagoda said, “these keys represent a way to unlock the door to a world that has all but vanished, but is not forgotten.”

Flory Jagoda died in January of this year, but she certainly won’t be forgotten. “Ocho Kandelikas” has become as beloved as the woman herself, and it’s delightful to watch her own performance of the song. [Lyrics and translation follow the video.]

Chanukah linda sta aki, ocho kandelas para mi
Chanukah linda sta aki, ocho kandelas para mi
Oh ~ Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi
Muchas fiestas vo fazer, kon alegriyas y plazer
Muchas fiestas vo fazer, kon alegriyas y plazer
Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi
Los pastelikos vo kumer, kon almendrikas y la myel
Los pastelikos vo kumer, kon almendrikas y la myel
Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi
Beautiful Chanukah is now here, And eight candles for me appear.
Lots of parties for my leisure, So much fun and so much pleasure.
Dainty pastries for me to eat, With almonds and honey so sweet.
Oh – one little, two little, three little, four little candles;
Five, six, seven little candles, eight little candles for me.

Covers of the song have multiplied, sometimes in surprising ways. This version by the Music Talks ensemble has the sound of the Klezmer music initially associated with the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.

An important mitzvah, or sacred commandment, of Hanukkah is pirsum hanes: a public proclamation of the miraculous events that transpired in the days of the Maccabees. Sometimes that means lighting the hanukkiah at sundown and placing it in a window where passers-by are able to see it. Sometimes it means helping to promote public lighting ceremonies, and sometimes it means taking Flory Jagoda’s little children’s song to a somewhat unexpected venue, with a full ensemble and the Senior Cantor for Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon in a knock-out of a black dress. Enjoy!

Comments always are welcome.