Category Archives: customs

Focus on culture: The Khamsa amulet (or Hand of Fatima)

Author: Bluewind via Wikipedia Commons
Collection of various Khamsa

Today’s blog post will take us to Israel and the Near East as well as to North Africa and to an ancient symbol of good luck and an amulet to ward off the Evil Eye, namely the Hamsa or Khamsa, which is also known as the Hand of Fatima or the Hand of Miryam. The Hamsa is a symbol of good luck in the Muslim and Jewish, but also Christian culture of the region.

The name hamsa (חַמְסָה ) comes from the Arabic word khamsa خمسة‎‎ and from the Hebrew word hamesh  חמש , both meaning ‘five’. In Berber, the Khamsa is called ⵜⴰⴼⵓⵙⵜ Tafust. In a Jewish context, the five fingers of the talisman refer to the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) and the Jewish Hamsa is also called the Hand of Miriam, who was Moses’ sister. In a Muslim context, the hamsa is also called the Hand of Fatima, who was one of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughters, and the five fingers refer to the Five Pillars of Islam (faith, fasting, prayer, tax and pilgrimage). The number five itself is also associated with fighting the Evil Eye. In the Levantine Christian community, the Khamsa is also called Hand of the Virgin Mary (Kef Miryam in Arabic).

The Khamsa usually takes the form of an open hand with three extended middle fingers and a thumb and pinky finger on either side, which are always symmetrical and are either curved outwards or just significantly shorter than the middle fingers. The fingers can be either closed together to bring good luck as a talisman, or alternatively the fingers can be spread apart to act as an amulet to ward off evil. Usually, the image of an eye is embedded in the palm. It represents the all-seeing eye and is said to watch out for the owner and to protect them from the Evil Eye, or ayin hara (עין הרע).  Other symbols that frequently appear on the Khamsa are fish  דָגִים   dagim, which are said to be immune to the evil eye since they live underwater (according to a line in the Torah “the water covers the fish of the sea so the eye has no power over them (Berakhot 55b)”) and which are also symbols of good luck. Also the Star of David מָגֵן דָוִד Magen David, prayers for the traveller, the Shema  שְׁמַע, the blessing over the house, the Hebrew word  mazal or mazel  מַזָל, meaning ‘luck’, and the colours red and blue, which reputedly repel the evil eye, are often featured on the talisman.

The Khamsa is an ancient symbol that probably predates Judaism and Islam, though its precise origin is not known. The symbol of the open hand first appears in Paleolithic cave art in Spain, France, Argentina, Algeria and Australia. Predecessors of the hand symbol can be found in various ancient cultures: The Phoenician goddess Tanit was symbolized by a woman raising her hands, and in Egyptian art, the human spirit ka is depicted by two arms whose two fingers are held in a horseshoe shape and which reach upward. The Etruscans decorated their tombs with paintings of hands with horns and some Jewish Levite graves had images of hands, representing a religious blessing, on their stone markers.

The Khamsa first appeared in Sephardic Jewish culture תרבות ספרדית , which flourished alongside Muslim culture. The symbol of the hand, and in particular of priestly hands, can also be found in kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets, where it doubles as the letter Shin, which is also the first letter of the divine name Shaddai. This association of the hand with the divine name was believed to create a bridge between the believer and G’d. However, amulets or kamiyot קמיעות , from the Hebrew word for ‘to bind’ , are seen as somewhat ambivalent in Judaism, because the Torah prohibits magic and divination, whereas the Talmud mentions them on several occasions and accepts them, and one law approves the wearing of an amulet on the Shabbat (Shabbat 53a, 61a).

In Islamic folklore, the Hand of Fatima as a symbol has its origins in a legend: when Fatima’s husband Ali brought home a new wife one day, Fatima, who had been cooking at that moment, dropped the ladle she was using and, lost in thought, continued stirring with her hand, hardly noticing that she was burning herself.

The Hamsa is intrinsically bound up with the concept of the Evil Eye or Ayin hara ( Hebrew ʿáyin hā-ráʿ (עַיִן הָרַע‎), Arabic ʿayn al-ḥasūd (عين الحسود‎ eye of the envious)), or the belief that a malicious look can bring about evil, which most often manifests itself through jealousy, but receiving the evil eye can also lead to misfortune and injury. To ward off the evil eye, many Jews will say ‘bli ayin hara’ בלי עין הרע (‘without an evil eye’) or ‘keyn eina hara’ קיין עין־הרע (Yiddish: no evil eye) after making a compliment or saying something positive. Muslims will say ‘Masha’Allah’ ” (ما شاء الله‎) (“God has willed it.”) and also “Tabarakallah” (تبارك الله‎) (“Blessings of God”) instead. Some people also use the saying ‘khamsa fi ainek’ خمسة في عينيك (lit. ‘five in your eye’) together with the gesture of their raised right hand with the palm showing and the fingers held slight apart, or  use the phrase ‘khamsa wa khamis’ خمسة والخميس  (lit. ‘five and Thursday’), since Thursday, being the fifth day of the week, was traditionally considered to be a good day for magic rituals and for pilgrimages to the tombs of saints.

The evil eye is also discussed in the Talmud תַּלְמוּד and the Kabbalah קַבָּלָה , though it is not mentioned in the Torah תּוֹרָה.

Other methods to ward off the evil eye in Jewish culture, besides hanging up or wearing a Hamsa, include wearing a Chai (חי) around the neck, symbolizing life ( Hebrew Chaya חַיָה life) or wearing a red thread around the wrist.

Author: Jehoshuapinto via Wikipedia commons
Chai symbol




Hebrew vocabulary: Rosh Hashana

This week’s blog post is taking us to Israel and to the Jewish diaspora again and we are going to look at the vocabulary related to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana ראש השנה, which was celebrated this week, and the foods that are usually eaten on this holiday (these vary depending on the country of origin).


Focus on culture: Turkish coffee/Türk Kahvesi

Author: Silverije via Wikipedia Commons

Author: Silverije via Wikipedia Commons

Today’s blog post is taking us to Turkey (Türkiye) and to the tradition of Türk kahvesi or Turkish coffee, which is recognized as an Intangible Heritage of Turkey by UNESCO.

Türk kahvesi is a special method of coffee preparation (i.e. not a special kind of coffee bean) in which coffee is generally prepared unfiltered from roasted and finely ground coffee beans (kahve çekirdekleri; sing.kahve çekirdeği) which are simmered (but not boiled) in a cezve, a special Turkish coffee pot. The term cezve derives from the Arabic term جذوة‎‎ ’ember’. The coffee is served in a cup, fincan, where the coffee grounds (kahve telvesi) are allowed to settle. If prepared well, the coffee has a thick layer of foam at the top (köpük). The word for ‘coffee’ kahve comes from the Arabic word قهوة qahwah. The importance of coffee in Turkish culture is also reflected in the word kahvaltı, breakfast, which literally means ‘before coffee’ (kahve + altı ‘under/before’.

Cezve, a special Turkish coffee pot

Cezve, a special Turkish coffee pot

To prepare Turkish coffee, finely ground coffee powder is immersed in hot, but not boiling, water. For each cup, 1 – 2 heaped teaspoons of coffee are used, which along with some sugar, are usually added to the water rather than first being placed into the coffeepot. The mixture is then heated until it starts to boil – at this point it is taken off the heat source. When prepared properly, a layer of foam called köpük forms on the surface of the coffee.

Author: Oliver Merkel, via Wikipedia Commons Preparation of mocha coffee (Turkish Coffee). 1: Ground coffee, water, sugar, and heat source. 2, 3: heat the water till it starts bubbling. 4: add coffee. 5: continue heating and mixing. 6: heat until the mixture starts to rise, then take off the heat source to settle it down while mixing the upper part (repeated many times). This creates a foamy top. 7: pour and serve hot

Author: Oliver Merkel, via Wikipedia Commons
Preparation of mocha coffee (Turkish Coffee). 1: Ground coffee, water, sugar, and heat source. 2, 3: heat the water till it starts bubbling. 4: add coffee. 5: continue heating and mixing. 6: heat until the mixture starts to rise, then take off the heat source to settle it down while mixing the upper part (repeated many times). This creates a foamy top. 7: pour and serve hot

Turkish culture distinguishes between four degrees of sweetness of the coffee, depending on the amount of sugar, şeker, that is added:

  • sade (plain; i.e. no sugar added)
  • az şekerli (little sugar; about half a level teaspoon of sugar)
  • orta şekerli (medium sugar; about one level teaspoon)
  • çok şekerli (a lot of sugar; 1.5 – 2 level teaspoons).

The coffee grounds left in the cup after finishing your fincan (cup) of Turkish coffee can be used for fortune-telling, called kahve falı or tasseomancy: the cup is turned over on the saucer to cool down and the patterns left by the coffee grounds, kahve telvesi, can then be interpreted to tell one’s fortune.

Author: Eaeeae via Wikipedia commons, A Turkish cezve coffeepot

Author: Eaeeae via Wikipedia commons,
A Turkish cezve coffeepot

For more information:

Is there also a special beverage in your country or are there any special customs or superstitions associated with a beverage in your country? Tell us about it in the comments! 🙂

Focus on culture: Święconka in Poland


Author: Błażej Benisz via Wikipedia Commons Deacon blessing the Easter food (Święconka), Ołtarzew, Poland 2007

Today’s blog post is taking up the topic of my last blog post, and is keeping us in Poland and in Eastern Europe for a little while longer.

Easter is an important holiday in Poland and a popular Polish Easter tradition is the ‘blessing of the Easter baskets’,  or Święconka [ɕvʲɛnˈtsɔnka], on Easter or Holy Saturday. Baskets lined with a white linen or a lace or embroidered napkin are decorated with evergreen twigs of bukszpan (boxwood) and ribbons, and filled with a selection of Easter foods and are then taken to church to be blessed.

The foods in the basket all have a special symbolic meaning:

  • chleb (bread), symbolizing Jesus
  • jaja (eggs) [jaja na twardo barwione w łupinkach cebulihard-boiled eggs dyed in onion skins] , symbolizing Christ’s resurrection
  • kiełbasę (sausage) or ham, symbolizing abundance
  • sól i pieprz (salt and pepper), symbolizing purification
  • owieczka (a lamb), either as a figurine or as a cake or bread in lamb-shape, symbolizing Christ
  • chrzan (horseradish), symbolizing the bitter sacrifice of Christ

Depending on the parish, the baskets are either lined up on tables or taken to the front of the altar in a procession of the parishioners. The priest or deacon then sprinkles the baskets with holy water, using either a straw brush or a metal aspergillum (i.e. a liturgical sprinkling wand). Special prayers addressing the various contents of the baskets, i.e. the eggs, cakes, meat, etc., are said. Traditionally, the blessed food remains untouched either until Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning.

The Christian custom of Easter eggs has a long history, reaching as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, where early Christians stained eggs red in memory of the blood shed by Christ at his crucifixion. The Church officially adopted this custom, and eggs came to symbolize the resurrection of Christ: The hard egg shell symbolizes the sealed Tomb of Christ, which, when cracked open, symbolizes Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the empty tomb left behind. Another interpretation sees the egg as being dormant, while containing seed for new life and renewal.

The custom of Easter baskets is also observed in some other Slavic countries, like Croatia.

Is there a similar custom in your country or region? Tell us about it in the comments! 🙂


Focus on culture: Śmigus-Dyngus in Poland


Author: Nationwide Specialty Co., Arlington, Texas — In Buffalo, N.Y., Stanley Novelty Co., 200 S. Ogden St., via Wikipedia Commons

Today’s blog post is taking us to Central and Eastern Europe, in particular to Poland and one of its Easter customs called Śmigus-Dyngus. Variants of this custom are also observed in Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Śmigus-Dyngus is celebrated on Easter Monday and is also known as  lany poniedziałek (‘Wet Monday’, or as Поливаний понеділок in Ukrainian). In the neighbouring countries, similar customs are Oblévačka (Czech) and Oblievačka (Slovak – both meaning ‘Watering’) and Vízbevető (‘Water Plunge Monday’ in Hungarian).

Traditionally, on Easter Monday boys are allowed to throw water over girls and spank them with pussy willow (Salix species) branches, even though this part of the tradition is less common nowadays. In former times, girls had to wait until the next day to do the same to boys on Easter Tuesday, but today everybody splashes everybody else with water on Monday. This custom is accompanied by a number of other rituals, like reciting verses or processions from door-to-door, and in some regions even involving boys dressed as bears. The origins of the custom are unclear but are thought to date to pagan times (before 1000 CE).

Pussy willow (Salix species) are the earliest signs of spring since the catkins appear long before the leaves, and are therefore a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Before the male catkins of the Salix plants come into full flower they are covered in fine, greyish fur, resembling that of tiny cats or ‘pussies’.


Śmigus-Dyngus  is actually a combination of two different customs, which long ago became merged. Śmigus refers to the water fight itself, whereas Dyngus refers to another custom according to which a girl, when threatened with a shower of water, could bribe herself out by offering a painted Easter egg (pisanka, plural pisanki) as a token. The term for this Easter egg had a German origin where it was called ‘dingei‘ (the egg that is owned) or ‘dingnis‘ (a ransom), which in Polish became ‘dyngus‘. During the Dyngus procession (chodzenie po dyngusie) , village boys went from door to door and recited verses and demanded gifts. The pisanki (painted Easter eggs) were thought to be magical charms that would bring good harvests, successful relationships and healthy childbirths.


Author: Opusztaszer via Wikipedia Commons, Húsvét Ópusztaszeren 2009, Hungary

Is there a similar tradition in your region or country? Tell us about it in the comments!! 🙂

Focus on culture: Martenitsa and Baba Marta (Bulgaria)


Author: Gustav @ Flickr, via Wikipedia Commons

Today’s blog post continues our culture series about interesting customs from all over the world and takes us to Bulgaria again and to Baba Marta Day with its Martenitsi which is celebrated on 1 March.

According to Bulgarian folklore Баба Марта, Baba Marta or ‘Grandma March’, is a grumpy old lady who is grudging at her two brothers and whose mood is said to determine the weather, so the sun only shines when she is smiling. There are different versions of the Baba Marta tale. One of them relates that Baba Marta is doing her spring cleaning on this day: While she is shaking her feather-filled blanket, all the feathers come out of it and fall down to Earth as the last snow of the year. This version of the tale has parallels to the German folktale of Mother Hulda (‘Frau Holle‘).

Bulgarians celebrate 1 March by observing the centuries-old custom of exchanging Мартеници Martenitsi in order to ask Baba Marta for mercy, in the hope that winter will pass faster and spring come sooner.

A Martenitsa (Bulgarian: мартеница, Macedonian: мартинка) is a small woollen ornament, made of red and white interwoven yarn, which usually takes the shape of two dolls, a male and a female. These are called Пижо и Пенда (Pizho and Penda): The male Pizho is predominantly white, while the female Penda is predominantly red and wears a skirt. Sometimes, the Martenitsi just take the shape of a red-and-white interwoven ribbon. The Martenitsi are good luck charms symbolizing health and happiness for the year and are said to protect against evil spirits. They are also a reminder that spring is near.


Author: Petko Yotov, via Wikipedia Commons Pizho and Penda

Traditionally, they are given away as gifts to friends and family, i.e. not bought for oneself, and are worn around the wrist or attached to one’s clothes for a certain period of time, usually until the first signs of spring appear, e.g. the sightings of a swallow, a stork or a crane, or blossoming trees. Then the Мартеници (Martenitsi) are removed. In the small mountain villages, people also decorate their homes and domestic animals with the Martenitsi. There are different rituals associated with the removal of the Martenitsi, which are different in every region. Some people tie their Martenitsi on a branch of a fruit tree, thereby also giving the tree the good luck that comes from the charm.Other people lay their Martenitsi under a rock, in the belief that the insect that will be closest to the charm the next morning will determine the owner’s health and luck for the rest of the year: If the insect is a worm червей or a larva ларви, the coming year will be full of success and health; if it is an ant мравка, the person will have to work hard to be successful; however, if the insect is a spider паяк, the person may not enjoy success or good health in the year to come.

The red and white colours of the charms are also associated with a colour symbolism: white бял symbolizes purity and red червен life and passion. At its origin, the custom therefore symbolized the cycles of life and death, good and evil, and of sorrow and happiness in human existence. White originally also stood for Man and the power of the sun, and under Christian influence came to stand for virginity and integrity and was the colour of Christ. Red stood for Woman and health, being a symbol of blood, conception and birth. The colours of the Martenitsi also symbolize Mother Nature: white symbolizes the purity associated with melting snow, while red stands for the colour of the setting sun.


Author: Danielgrad via Wikipedia Commons Magnolia full of tied Martenitsa, in Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново)

 The custom of exchanging Martenitsi is thought to have been inspired by an incident in the life of Bulgaria’s first Khan Аспарух (Asparuh), who sent a white string to his wife to let her know that he survived a battle. 

A similar tradition also exists in the Republic of Macedonia, as well as in Albania, Northern Greece, Romania and Moldova. Its origin derives from ancient pagan agricultural cults of nature common to the Balkan Peninsula. The specific ritual of tying red-and-white woolen strings suggests Thracian, Hellenic or even Roman origins of the tradition.

Is there a similar tradition associated with spring in your country or region? Tell us about it in the comments! 🙂



Focus on architecture: Trulli


Author: Marcok via Wikipedia Commons Trulli along Via Pertica in Alberobello, Bari, Italy

Today’s blog post is taking us to Apulia (Puglia), a region in Southern Italy, and to a type of architecture that is specific to the Valle d’Itria in the Murge area of this region: the so-called Trulli. Districts made up of trulli can be found especially in the town of Alberobello in the province of Bari.

Trulli had their origin as temporary field shelters or storehouses and as permanent dwellings of agricultural labourers. The italianized term ‘trullo‘ derives from the dialect word truddu, referring to a dry stone hut, which in turn comes from the Greek word τρούλος, cupola. Trulli are basically round or square dwellings whose internal space is covered by a dry stone corbelled or keystone vault. A trullisto or trullaro in Italian is a stonemason specializing in the construction of these trulli.  Trulli were formerly known under the local term casedda (pl. casedde) (Italian casella, pl. caselle).

Trulli were built singly or in groups of up to five, sometimes also as a cluster of a dozen as farmyard buildings, but for a single rural family. The houses were made from local materials, which were either hard limestone or calcareous tufa, using the technique of dry stone masonry, i.e. without any mortar or cement. Dry-stone walls are also used in the surrounding area to separate fields. Trulli are on average 0.80 m to 2.70 m wide and between 1.60 m to 2 m high (from ground level to the beginning of the vault). Each conical roof covers one room, but sometimes there are arched alcoves which provide additional space and were often used as bedrooms, with a curtain hung in front of them.


Author: Marcok via Wikipedia Commons Spaccato di un trullo in Alberobello (modello in scala)

The region were the trulli are located, the Murgia, is a karst plateau. This had implications for the construction: As winter rains immediately drain through the soil into fissures in the strata of limestone bedrock, there is no permanent surface water, and any water needed for living must therefore be caught and collected in catchment basins and cisterns.Trulli were started by digging a cistern (cisterna), and the excavated stones were then used to build the dwelling itself; the cistern was topped with a lime-mortared barrel vault or dome, above which was often the floor of the dwelling.

The roofs consist of two parts: an inner layer of limestone voussoirs, crowned by a keystone, and an exterior layer of limestone slabs which are slightly tilted outward, to make sure that rain can drain off and that the house is watertight. At the top of the conical roof, there is usually a pinnacolo, or pinnacle, made from sandstone, which takes various shapes, e.g. a cone, sphere, disk, bowl, or polyhedron, etc. which is the signature of the stonemason who built the trullo.


Author: Luuuceee via Wikipedia Commons Cime dei Trulli in Alberobello

Both the exterior wall, and often also the interior of the trullo, were rendered with lime plaster and whitewashed for protection against drafts. Heating came from an open fireplace, whose flue was concealed in the masonry and the high chimneys were made from stone. However, trulli are difficult to heat because of their design, since warm air will rise up into the interior cone and so the houses will become unpleasantly cold during the winter, as well as condensing moisture. The thick walls will keep the dwellings pleasantly cool in the summer months though.

Some of the conical roofs have a symbol painted on it, e.g. Christian symbols such as a simple cross, a cross on a heart pierced by an arrow (representing Santa Maria Addolorata, or Our Lady of Sorrows), or a circle divided into four quarters with the letters S-C-S-D in them (for Sanctus Christus and Sanctus Dominus or the initials of Santo Cosma and Santo Damiano, two local saints), a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit, etc. These symbols are not ancient, but date from the late 20th century, when they were added when the roofs were repaired.


Author: Niels Elgaard Larsen via Wikipedia Commons Trulli in Alberobello

The trulli‘s archaic form is related to the Sardinian nuraghe, the Balearic talayots and the sesi of Pantelleria.

Focus on culture: Jól in Iceland


800px-GrassodenhäuserToday’s blog post will take us to Iceland and to some special Icelandic Jól (or Christmas) customs. Jól is based on the Old Norse religious festival called Yule.

Jól is celebrated on 24 December, but the Jól season includes events over several weeks: Aðventa (advent, the four Sundays preceding jól), aðfangadagskvöld (Yule eve), jóladagur (Yule day), annar í jólum (Boxing day), gamlársdagur (old years day), nýársdagur (New Year’s Day) and þrettándinn (the thirteenth, and final day of the season).

The main event is Aðfangadagskvöld or Christmas Eve, when people meet for a Yule meal and exchange gifts. However, on the 13 days before December 24 the Yule lads or jólasveinar come into the towns from the mountains to give children that have behaved well small gifts. These they leave in shoes that have been placed near the window or on the window sill during the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve. Every night, a different Yule lad comes to visit, leaving either small gifts for well-behaved children, or a rotten potato if the child was naughty.

The Yule Lads, jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar, are figures from Icelandic folkore who in modern times have taken on the role of an Icelandic version of Santa Claus. There are thirteen jólasveinar. Originally, they were portrayed as mischievous pranksters who would steal from or harass the rural population, but in modern times they have been taking on a more benevolent role comparable to that of Santa Claus. They either wear late medieval Icelandic clothing or Santa Claus costumes. The jólasveinar are traditionally said to be the sons of the mountain-dwelling trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, and are often depicted with the Jólakötturinn or Yule cat.

The jólasveinar have descriptive names conveying their mode of operation and each day, a new lad arrives:

December 12  Stekkjarstaur (‘Sheep-Cote Clod’), harasses sheep but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs; leaves Dec.25

December 13 Giljagaur (‘Gully Gawk’), hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal some milk; leaves Dec. 26

December 14 Stúfur (‘Stubby’), unusually short, steals pans to eat the crust left on them; leaves Dec. 27

December 15 Þvörusleikir (‘Spoon-licker’), steals Þvörur (a type of wooden spoon – þvara- with a long handle) to lick them, is extremely thin due to malnutrition; leaves Dec. 28

December 16 Pottaskefill (‘Pot-scraper’), steals leftovers from pots; leaves Dec. 29

December 17 Askasleikir (‘Bowl-licker’), hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their ‘askur‘ (a wooden bowl with a lid), which he then steals; leaves Dec. 30

December 18 Hurðaskellir (‘door-slammer’), likes to slam doors, especially at night; leaves Dec. 31

December 19 Skyrgámur (‘Skyr-gobbler’), loves skyr (an Icelandic cultured dairy product which has the consistency of strained yoghurt, but a much milder taste); leaves Jan. 1

December 20 Bjúgnakrækir (‘sausage-swiper’), hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that were being smoked; leaves Jan. 2

December 21 Gluggagægir (‘window-peeper’), a voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal; leaves Jan. 3

December 22 Gáttaþefur (‘doorway-sniffer’), has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð (leaf-bread, an Icelandic specialty); leaves Jan. 4

December 23 Ketkrókur (‘meat-hook’), uses a meat hook to steal meat; leaves Jan. 5

December 24 Kertasníkir (‘candle-stealer’), follows children in order to steal their candles (which in olden days were made of tallow and thus edible); leaves Jan. 6

The Yule lads are often associated with the  Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur, or Yule Cat, a monster from Icelandic folklore, which is a huge and vicious cat said to lurk about the snowy countryside during Christmas time and eat people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve.  The Yule Cat is the pet of the giantess Grýla and her sons, the Yule Lads. In former times, the threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. Those who participated in the work would get new clothes as a reward, but those who did not would get nothing and would therefore be preyed upon by the cat. The cat has alternatively been interpreted as merely eating away the food of those without new clothes during Christmas feasts. The tradition has its origin in the 19th century.

On January 6, Icelanders celebrate Þrettándinn (the thirteenth of jól), the last day of Christmas. It is celebrated with elf bonfires and elf dances. Families come together to have dinner and light fireworks. People also go into a corner of their houses and shout out the following folklore poem to drive out evil spirits and invite good spirits and elves:

Komi þeir sem koma vilja (those come who want)
Fari þeir sem fara vilja (those go who want)
Mér og mínum að meinalausu (neither hurting myself nor my family)

Another Icelandic jól custom is the preparation of laufabrauð or ‘Leaf-bread’, which a kind of very thin pancake with a diameter of about 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches), which is decorated with leaf-like, geometric patterns and fried briefly in hot fat or oil. Here is a  video showing how it is made:

Here is a recipe for Laufabrauð (‘leaf bread’):

Focus on culture: Zereshk or barberries (Iran)

Author: Conifer via WIkipedia Commons Dried barberries Berberis vulgaris

Author: Conifer via WIkipedia Commons
Dried barberries Berberis vulgaris

Today’s blog post is taking us to the Near East, and here in particular to Iran, and focuses on a particularity of the cuisine there, namely the berries called zereshk (زرشک) or barberries, as they are known in English.

Zereshk are the dried fruit of the Berberis shrub (Berberis integerrima ‘Bidaneh’), which is widely cultivated in Iran and can reach a height of up to 4 m. The plant is mildly poisonous except for its berries and seeds. The berries are very sour and have a tart flavor, and taste a bit like cranberries. They are rich in vitamin C and are used both for cooking and jam-making. A traditional dish in Iran is زرشک پلو  (zereshk polow) or barberry rice, a dish of rice (pilaf) with spices, e.g. saffron, and zereshk-berries mixed into it. Other zereshk products include juice and zereshk fruit rolls.

Author: Arnstein Rønning via Wikipedia Commons

Author: Arnstein Rønning via Wikipedia Commons

Iran is the largest producer of zereshk, and zereshk and saffron are often produced on the same land and the harvest is at the same time. A garden of zereshk-shrubs is called zereshkestanزرشکستان) . The South Khorasan province in Iran is the main area of zereshk, and also of saffron, production in the world, especially the area around Birjand and Qaen.


Even though the barberry shrub is native to Central and Southern Europe, barberries are no longer widely known or used in Europe since the Berberis vulgaris (European barberry) is an alternate host species of the wheat rust fungus (Puccinia graminis), a grass-infecting rust fungus that is a serious fungal disease of wheat and related grains. For this reason, cultivation of barberries is prohibited in many places, e.g. in parts of Canada and the Unites States.