Monday, March 1, 2010

From the Writer's Almanac

Today is the first day of March, and there are a number of holidays celebrated around the world today, many of which have to do with the coming of spring.

In Bulgaria, today is Baba Marta, or "Grandmother March Day." Baba Marta is a mythical figure, a temperamental old lady with big mood swings that correlate with the Bulgarian climate. When she's happy, she brings warm weather. When she's angry, the winter frost persists. So today, people in Bulgaria go around greeting each other "Chestita Baba Marta" — which means "Happy Grandmother March" — hoping that the old lady will be cheerful and bring warm weather and sunshine. And today in Bulgaria, people wear martenitsi. The martenitsa is a red and white brooch-like adornment made of yarn. It is supposed to make Baba Marta have mercy on the wearers and allow them be happy, so that they may all welcome the coming spring as soon as possible.

And today is St. David's Day. It's a national holiday in Wales, where St. David is the country's patron saint. Many Welsh persons are today wearing leeks in their lapels. The leek is a nationalistic Welsh symbol going back to when the Welsh resistance fighters were battling the Anglo-Norman invaders in medieval times. Welsh troops stuck leeks on their uniforms to so they could tell each other and themselves apart from the English troops, whose uniforms looked otherwise pretty much the same. There are parades throughout many towns in Wales today; the biggest are in Cardiff and Swansea. And today, Welsh schoolchildren all over the country are competing in poetry recitations and music competitions, performances entirely in the Welsh language. It's part of a tradition that goes back nearly a thousand years, called the "eisteddfod," from the Welsh words for "to sit" and "to be." The competitions are judged by esteemed elders or important people; historically, the winner is awarded a seat at the Lord's table at a castle. In schools across the country, it's more likely to be an honorary seat at the school principal's lunch table.

Today in Iceland, it's a big rousing holiday: The first of March is Beer Day. Far from being an arbitrary excuse to carouse, it's a commemoration of a legislative victory, the abolition of a 74-year ban on beer. The beer prohibition in Iceland ended just 21 years ago today in 1989. In the early 20th century, the same time the temperance movement was sweeping across America, Icelanders voted in a popular referendum to ban alcohol in Iceland. But Spain, whose economy depended on exporting wine to Iceland, announced it would not buy Iceland's fish (Iceland's big export) if Iceland would not buy Spain's wine. So by a 1921 act of the Icelandic parliament, wine was allowed, but other alcoholic drinks remained banned. But then, during the Great Depression, Iceland's voters passed another referendum demanding that hard liquor be legal. Still, beer was banned, mostly because of pressure from the Temperance Lobby, which argued that since beer was cheaper, people would drink more of it and therefore get more drunk with beer. But once beer became legal, it caught on in a big way in Iceland, and now beer is the country's most popular beverage. And today, bars in Reykjavik will be particularly rowdy and will stay open until 4 a.m., all in honor of Beer Day, the commemoration of a parliamentary action.

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