Tag Archives: cultural travel

Do You Celebrate a Medieval Christmas?

Cultural Travel

By Jessica Voigts

Medieval Christmas Nativity
Date 1262 (Medieval)
Medium ink, paint and gold on parchment from Walters Art Museum, Wiki Commons




Christmas traditions differ around the world but many traditional ways to celebrate Christmas find their roots in medieval times. During that era, the church promoted a serious celebration for the birth of Christ.  Medieval Christmas is still with us.

 The Twelve Days of Christmas

Although the church was serious, more popularly the main holidays in medieval times were a time for

feasting, dancing, singing, sporting, gambling, and general excess and indulgence. Part of the cause for celebration undoubtedly arose from the security that came with winter. True, the weather could be harsh and cruel, and food and stores could be in short supply, but political enemies were unlikely to start a war or undertake a siege in such conditions. One was alive, safe from enemy threat, surrounded by friends and good company, and had enjoyed plentiful harvests and good hunting with which to cover the tables and fill the belly. By all means, celebrate.” (Medieval Celebrations, by Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly, p. 22).

From these early celebrations of Medieval Christmas come many ways we still celebrate Christmas today.

Christmas Carols

Christmas carolers in Poland. Creative Commons, Wikimedia.

The origin of the word Wassail comes from the Old English  term, waes hael (be well, or good health). A large bowl of strong, hot punch (usually based on ale, with spices and honey added) was lifted by the host, who would say ‘waes hael.’  Everyone would respond with “drinc hael ” (drink and be well). Friends would finish that bowl of deliciousness, singing and laughing, and then head off to the next friend’s house. This led to the song,  Here We Come A-Wassailing, as people would move from house to house singing, and today’s caroling is a tradition remaining from medieval Christmas.


Medieval feast

Medieval feast of William the Conqueror. From Bayeux Tapestry. In the public domain. Scanned from Maggie Black’s “Den medeltida kokboken”, Swedish translation of The Medieval Cookbook

A Christmas feast was quite welcome at medieval Christmas, as the cold set in and food became scarce. People would slaughter animals that they didn’t intend to keep through the winter, thus ensuring a great feast. Peasants would receive a loaf of bread and some meat from their lord. The most popular feasting food at the time was goose, if you could afford it. In 1213, King John of England (who could obviously afford it) held a Christmas feast – and ordered a great amount of food to serve his guests. Records show that he ordered: 10,000 salt eels, 24 hogshead of wine, 200 head of pig, 1,000 chickens, 50 pounds of pepper, 2 pounds of saffron, 100 pounds of almonds, and 500 pounds of wax (for candles because you have to see to eat!).

The Nativity Scene

Medieval Christmas of St. Francis
St. Francis in the garden of San Damiano, Assisi, Italy

In 1223, St Francis of Assissi (Italy) created a crèche (crib) and Nativity scene with animals in a cave in Italy. He held a Christmas Eve Mass and nativity pageant there. Later medieval traditions included Mary and Joseph (and later, shepherds), in addition to the farm animals who kept the baby warm. Today’s town square large Nativity scenes, as well as the smaller plastic lit outdoor ones, and indoor figurine scenes, all got their inspiration from St Francis!

The Tree

Medieval Christmas candle.
Candle on German Christmas tree. Creative Commons, Wikimedia

In pagan times, people would bring in evergreens to bring ‘life’ to their solstice celebrations. In the middle ages, on Christmas Eve, Germans would carry an evergreen tree through the town and then erect it in the town square, to be decorated with paper flowers. After a great celebration (and feast), the tree was burned. What a great way to keep warm!

Martin Luther, the famous German religious reformer, put candles on the tree to represent the stars in the heavens, and a candle atop the tree to represent the star that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem.

Wherever you travel–England, Poland, Germany, Italy, France–and the United States still use many customs of a Medieval Christmas.

Which Medieval customs do you still follow in your home?

A Halloween Tale: Living the Legend of Sleepy Hollow


By Jessica Voigts

Destination: Tarrytown New York

Book: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1858 painting
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, Painting by John Quidor, 1858, Smithsonian Museum of American Art. From Google Art Project.

A headless horseman, riding through the night; the disappearance of the schoolteacher; the tale of unrequited love – all these come together in the classic and much-beloved story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Beautifully written by Washington Irving, this short story is a creepy tale, one that sneaks up on the reader and lodges in the memory, several turns of phrase coming back at you at odd times throughout your life.

Legend of Sleepy Hollow, 1907 edition
The Book, 1907 edition, from Wiki Media, used with Creative Commons license.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was published in 1820, and is set in Sleepy Hollow, which is located near Tarrytown, New York. You may have read Washington Irving’s many other tales, including Rip Van Winkle. The treasures of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow lie in the compelling descriptions, which make you feel as if you are there in the story with Ichabod Crane…

“Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley among high hills which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook murmurs through it and, with the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks the uniform tranquillity.
From the listless repose of the place, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow.”

“Just ahead, where a small brook crossed the road, a few rough logs lying side by side served for a bridge. A group of oaks and chestnuts, matted thick with wild grapevines, threw a cavernous gloom over it.”

In the story, Ichabod Crane is a schoolteacher – quite a learned man, having “read several books quite through.” He (rather unsuccessfully) courts the beauty Katrina van Tassel, who is also being courted (successfully, we might add) by the strong Abraham “Bram Bones” van Brunt. One night after a harvest party at the van Tassels’, Crane rides home. He meets and is chased by a headless creature, riding hellbent alongside him with a specific purpose in mind. And what comes next will send shivers down your spine…

“Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash – he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider passed by like a whirlwind.”

Sleepy Hollow Legend in etching
“Ichabod pursued by the Headless Horseman”, an etching from Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1848, from Wikimedia in public domain.

Ichabod Crane was never seen again.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (get it free here on Guttenberg) is one of those classics I read again each year – along with Robert Burns’ poem Halloween , Robert Burns’ tale Tam O’Shanter (1790), and tales of the Wild Hunt (epitomized by Bürger’s Der Wilde Jäger [the Wild Huntsman], 1796).

If you, too, are a fan of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, you can visit the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, where the main spooky action of the tale was set (you can also visit another legend of Sleepy Hollow, this one in the cemetery of the church.

“An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. He saw the whitewashed walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones’s ghostly competitor had disappeared. ‘If I can but reach that bridge,”‘thought Ichabod, ‘I am safe.’ Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath.”

Legend of Sleepy Hollow Story Teller
Jonathan Kruk performing at Old Dutch Church
Photo © Tom Nycz

And if you’re lucky to visit the Hudson Valley around Halloween, book a ticket to see Master Storyteller Jonathan Kruk, accompanied by Jim Keyes on the organ, bring The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to life  at the Old Dutch Church.










Old Dutch Church then 

Legend of Sleepy Hollow church then
Etching of Sleepy Hollow’s old church from 1864 edition of Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In public domain, from WikiMedia











And The old Church now:

Sleepy Hollow Old Church Now
Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, NY, USA. Oldest church building in New York and featured in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Creative Commons license.















Interview with Allan Karl–3 Years, 5 Continents, 1 Motorcycle

Book Cover: Forks
Book Cover: Forks by Allan Karl

Once writers, musicians, artists were dependent on wealthy sponsors. Then the commercial world took over publishing and distribution of the arts. But a new wave of creative people are taking advantage of the world-wide reach of the Internet to find like-minded people who are willing to help fund their projects.

When I was approached by Allan Karl about his Kickstarter project to publish a book called Forks: A Quest for Culture, Cuisine and Connection, based on a motorcycle trip to 35 countries, I was intrigued.  This is not your ordinary travel memoir, as you will learn in this interview. Allan has shared some of the photographs from the book with us here, and the book also  provides you with recipes from many of the countries he visited. Gotta love it–travel, adventure, photography and FOOD.


A Travelers Library:  You have combined a book about a motorcycle trip, a photo book and a cookbook in one.  Since any one of these would keep an author busy, why did you decide to combine the three?

Author Allan Karl
Author Allan Karl

Allan Karl: I planned to write a traditional travelogue/memoir, but when I returned home after three years of travel, I realized that the best way to truly share this incredible journey and the experiences that so moved me was to provide readers with a similar experience.

That is to allow them to see the world through photographs, to feel the world by reading stories of connections and cultures and to taste it the flavors of the world through photos and recipes of real local food.

So this is how, in FORKS, I share the discoveries, cultures and connections I made on my global adventure—stories, color photos and flavors—FORKS brings the world to the readers tables and this adventure to life: the kindness of strangers, beauty of humanity, colors of culture and the powerful gift of human connection.

ATL: How did you choose the countries you visited? I noticed in particular that you visited Syria and it is not a country people are flocking to from the outside right now.  Were you there before the hostilities broke out? Were there other countries that might have been a bit risky to visit?

AK: I have traveled extensively throughout my life, and I truly believe travel is the best way to learn about our world, history, culture, geography and about ourselves, that is, how to be more patient, compassionate and tolerant.

Allan Karl camping in Africa
Camping in the Nubian Desert of Sudan.

I originally planned to travel from Cape Town north along the western Coast of Africa and then into Morocco and to Spain. Along the way, someone shared with me great stories of Ethiopia and the baffling rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and I changed my plan and traveled Cape Town north on the western side of Africa.

Traveling overland is rigorous and, in Africa especially, often rough.

When I set out on this journey I knew I couldn’t simply chose the safe route. For to realize possibilities and expand my worldview, I knew I would have to take chances and step outside my comfort zone. Tired of the constant drip of media and government warnings of dangerous places, I wanted to see for myself.

Pages of Allan Karl's book, FORKS, about Syria.
Pages of Forks about Syria.

I traveled through Egypt just six or so months before Arab Spring, so I wasn’t in Syria near the time of the conflict. Yet what I discovered in Syria, was a country full of friendly people eager to learn about me, my travels and my country as much as I wanted to learn about them. In my book I share the initial frustration I experienced during my nearly 24-hour ordeal to secure a visa for entering Syria.

ATL: I noticed on your Kickstarter page that you said if you felt alone, you just looked around, and there was always someone there. But communicating with someone in a different culture and language can be intimidateing.  Any tips?

Allan Karl meets 105-year-old man
105-year-old-man and family from Lesotho

AK: I’m amazed at how easy it is to connect with people – humanity. Two things that are fail free: First, smile and look into the strangers eyes with warmth and openness. Also important, learn at least one sentence in the local tongue.

The language can be tough. Cause if you spurt out a few words, be prepared for the stranger to unleash a barrage of fast talking and in such a dialect you’ll never understand. But the fact you try to communicate proves your eager to learn and embrace their culture and their language. Learn.

ATL: How many of these countries had you visited previously?

AK: Out of the 35 countries I traveled on this adventure, I’d only been to 3 or 4 of the countries previously—Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica.

ATL:  Did you plan an itinerary in detail before you started, or just let chance lead you?

AK: I researched and planned for two years before embarking on this journey. I had an idea of the route I would take, and identified places I wanted to visit. One of my goals on this journey was to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as I could get to. In the end, I visited more than 40, including the more famous like Macchu Pichu as well as the obscure like León, Viejo in Nicaragua.

As I learned more about a region’s history, cultural heritage and taking tips from locals and travelers, I would change plans in a moment. I never had a hotel reservation. I would make sure to visit major cities on a regular basis so that I could service my motorcycle and have better chance of access to spare parts and other necessities.

ATL:  Just yesterday, after watching this video about a musician asking for community funding,  I was wondering why more authors had not taken the Kick Starter Route. Please talk a little about how you decided to do that.

AK: Often, I’m asked “Why Kickstarter?” The answer is simple—and part of my story.

As I mentioned, I had intended to write a traditional travelog or memoir about my journey. But as I traveled, I learned how important it is to connect with people on a deeper level. Most often this happens while sharing conversations and life stories over good food and drink—with locals.

I knew that recipes and photos of the food and the faces and places I visited would be essential and would enhance my stories. The publishing industry thought differently. They wanted that travelog/memoir. Traditional agents and publishers liked the idea for my book, but insisted I simplify it—asking me to remove the food and photos.

So rather than compromise my vision, I decided to go out on the publishing journey just as I did to travel the world–solo.

Kickstarter is perfect for creative projects that step outside that comfort zone, are risky and don’t fit within the self-induced constraints or limits of commercial enterprises. It’s a great way to validate the marketability of such ideas. My Kickstarter project for this book reached its funding goal in just nine days. As of today, and with 5 days to go, I’ve reach nearly 150% of that funding goal. I’m humbled and grateful for the support the crowd-funding community as given me and this project. I think it’s great proof that this idea — this book and message — resonates with people all over the world. I have backers from 11 countries who’ve pledged for copies of the book.

ATL: Final question–the one we ask everyone at A Traveler’s Library–are their any books you have read that inspired you to travel.

Allan Karl's favorite book
Book Cover: Ghost Rider

AK: Perhaps the book that inspired me to travel by motorcycle and opened my mind to the possibilities is a book called “Ghost Rider” by Neil Peart, a well-regarded dummer for the rock n’ roll band RUSH. Over a one year period he lost his only child in a car accident and his wife to cancer. Rather than dip into deep depression, he hopped on his motorcycle and rekindled his broken soul by traveling.

Meet Alan more personally in this video at You Tube or check out his Kickstarter Page.