North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
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Halloween Story Night

From the sunny warmth of September, the 10th month of the year really has felt like falling off the cliff into winter, with frosts and snow and pelting ice.  Living in the northland, we all know that it is coming…inevitably. 

But the coming of winter marks the beginning of the best time for sharing stories—and Halloween especially with flitting ghosts, glowing pumpkin faces, and thumps and bumps in the night.  In honor of the old traditions of Halloween, here is a classic American folk tale (though its origins stretch back to the Old Country) befitting this time of year.

Wicked John and the Devil

There once was a blacksmith named Wicked John.  Now, how he got that name, no one could really remember, but John was a rough and tough sort of fellow, strong as an ox, and he didn’t like to take no pranks from nobody.  Maybe it was all those hours by the hot coals, beating the black iron against his anvil with his hammers that smelted his character into something less than friendly.

Well, one day Wicked John was cooling a red-hot rod when he heard a commotion outside his shop.  He looked up to see an old, grizzly man teetering down the lane.  Around him were the neighborhood boys, laughing and teasing, calling the old man names and throwing small stones.  Wicked John might not have been a pleasant fellow, but he had his scruples, and seeing the elderly treated with such contempt made the curly black hair on the back of his neck bristle.

“Leave ‘em alone!” bellowed Wicked John, as we stormed from his workshop to help the old man up from the dusty road.  “That’s no way to treat this old man!”  Taking the strangers arm, John brought him into the shop and sat him down in the rocking chair he kept by the side.  Then he slipped into his house and brought out some bread and cheese and dark beer and shared these with the old man.

But when Wicked John turned away for a moment to check on his coals, he found sitting in the rocking chair a very regal and well-dressed man where the old, dusty vagabond had been.

“Where’d the old man go?” Wicked John demanded.  “And who are you?”

“I am he” replied the well-dressed man.  “Perhaps I should introduce myself, for I am St. Peter.  Every year, about this time, I come down to earth in the state you saw me before, to see how the people will treat me.  When I find someone who treats me well, I offer them three wishes.  This year, John, that kind person is you.”

Wicked John was not accustomed to being called a kind person, and he found himself a bench to sit down.  “You mean I get three wishes from St. Peter?” he asked, still feeling wary as to whether this was true or a hoax.

“That’s right,” said St. Peter.  “Name your first wish.”

Well, Wicked John had to think on this for a while.  Then a toothy smile began to slide from one side of his face to the other and he began a gravelly chuckle.  “I know!” he announced with certainty.  “That rockin’ chair you’re sittin’ in, sometimes those neighborhood boys come and sit in it when I want to.  They just sit there, takin’ up space.  Well, the next time someone sits in that there chair and I don’t want ‘em too, I want it to start to rock, and rock, and rock until they can’t take it no more, and it won’t stop rockin’ until I says so.”

St. Peter looked a bit horrified.  “Is that really how you want to spend your first wish?  That doesn’t sound like a nice wish at all, I’m disappointed in you, John.”

“That’s what I want,” says Wicked John, with a twinkle in his dark eye.

“Well, then, alright.  But make sure your second wish is better.”

“Ooh,” grins John.  “It sure will be.  Here’s my second wish.  See my hammer over there.  It’s the trustiest tool I have.  But sometimes them neighborhood boys come and steal it.  Well, the next time someone takes my hammer when I don’t want them to, I want it to pound, and pound, and pound, until they can’t take it nor more, and it won’t stop poundin’ until I says so.”

Now, St. Peter was looking pretty gray and upset.  “No wonder they call you Wicked John; that is a horrible wish!  Surely you must think up something better!”

“Nope,” said John.  “That’s what I want.  And here’s my third wish.  See that prickly bush over there?  If some feller comes around that I don’t like at all, I’ll throw them in that bush and it will start to poke, and poke, and poke, until that feller can’t take it no more, and it won’t stop pokin’ until I says so.”  And Wicked John began to howl with laughter.

St. Peter stood up, disgusted.  “Wicked John, I am ashamed of you.  No one has used their three wishes so vilely.  What a terrible waste.”  And with that, he vanished.

Wicked John was still chuckling a few days later, working diligently on a horse shoe with hammer and anvil, when he heard the sounds of someone stepping into his shop.  He looked up, then looked again, for here before his was a little devil, all red with little horns and a swirling tail, not unlike some kid in a Halloween costume.  He stood there with greedy little eyes, licking a big ol’ lollypop. 

“My daddy sent me to come and take you away to Hell, Wicked John,” piped the little devil’s voice.  “C’mon, let’s go.”

“Well,” said John.  “Why don’t you give me a minute to finish this horse shoe first.  Just take a seat over there on that rockin’ chair, and I’ll be right with you.”

Well, that little devil didn’t see no harm in waiting in that rocking chair, but as soon as he sat down, that chair began to rock, and rock, and rock.  Soon the little devil was green instead of red, his claw-like hands clutching onto the arms of the chair with whitened knuckles.  “Please!” the devil wailed.  “Make it stop, make it stop!”

“I’m not done yet with this horseshoe,” said Wicked John, without any show of worry.

“MAKE-IT-STOP!!!!  Oh please, I’ll never bother you again Wicked John!

“Promise?”

“Yes, I promise!!!”  And the chair stopped with a lurch and that little devil catapulted out the front of the shop and was gone forever.  He even left his lollypop and never bothered to get it back.

That was all fine and good, until a few days later Wicked John was hard at work fitting an iron rim to a wagon wheel, when he heard slightly bigger footsteps coming into his shop.  He looked up and there was a teenaged devil—you know, the sort with spiked hair, piercings, a few tattoos, and wearing his pants lower than anyone cared to observe.

“Yo, my daddy sent me to take you away to Hell,” said the teenaged devil.  “He didn’t like how you treated my little brother much, so let’s be off.”

“Well,” said Wicked John.  “I’m almost finished with this here wagon wheel, so why don’t you give me a hand for a minute, and then we can go.”

“Do I have to?” whined the teenaged devil.

“Sure,” John directed.  “Just grab my hammer over there for me.”  But of course, when that devil grabbed the hammer, it began to pound, and pound, and pound, and that devil was flying up in the air, whopping his spiky head on the ceiling, then crashing down on the floor again.

“Make it stop, oh please make it stop!” wailed the teenaged devil.

“I’m not finished yet,” replied Wicked John, the glint in his eye.

“MAKE-IT-STOP!!!  I’ll never come and bother you again!”

“Promise?”

“Yes, I promise!” and with that, the hammer lay still and that teenaged devil took off faster than you thought teenagers could move, never to be seen again.

But a few days later, John was cleaning up around his shop when he heard the sound of crunching claws coming in from outside.  There stood the Devil himself, eyes glowing, muscles built like John’s rippling against the sunlight.

“John!” the Devil boomed.  “You’ve been treatin’ my little devils something’ fierce.  So I’ve come up to take you to Hell myself!”  And the Devil leapt for John and John leapt for the Devil, and they began to wrestle like nothing you had ever seen.  There was punching and clawing and biting and twisting.  But sure as you’ll see pumpkins on Halloween, John managed to roll the Devil into the pricker bush outside.

And that bush began to poke, and poke, and poke, until the Devil screamed “Make it stop!”  But Wicked John just dusted himself off, stood back, and laughed.  “John, John!” the Devil pleaded, his voice growing small and pathetic.  “Please, let me out of this bush, please!”

“Why should I?” was John’s retort.  “I wouldn’t trust you for a minute.”

“I promise never to come and—ouch!—bother you again, I promise!”

“Are you sure?” John added with a kick at the writhing Devil.

“Yes, quite, you win John, there really is a reason they call you Wicked John.  I’ll never, in all my days, come and bother you again.”  And with that, the bush held still, and the Devil made a pained effort to stand, wipe his bloody nose, and limp off to the howling laughter of Wicked John.

But there comes a day when everyone must die, and Wicked John found himself at St. Peter’s gate.  But St. Peter remembered what John had wished for and said he wouldn’t be let into heaven…he’d have to go down and try the other place.  So John took the winding stairway down to Hell with its great solid wooden and iron door, but nobody was at the entrance.  John rapped at the knocker, and a little peep hole opened.  It shut again mighty quick, and Wicked John stood outside for a long while, waiting for what might come next.

Finally, the peep hope opened again, and out came a loooooooooong pair of tongues holding a coal.  A frightened little voice spoke from inside.  “The Devil says you’re too wicked to come in, so here’s a coal so you can start your own Hell!”  Some say that John is still out there, wandering the lands between, carrying that coal.  Maybe you’ve even seen him, out in the mists.

Happy Halloween!  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 

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Jack in the Lantern

It is true that art can be found almost anywhere and that almost anything can become art.  The unsuspecting pumpkin is a suitable example.  Nestled in the garden like renegade bits of the sun, they lie like orange treasure amidst the winter squashes and withering autumn vines.  A plant of the American Continents, its appearance in late October festivities is much later than bats, goblins, or black cats.  But Halloween is somehow not truly complete without lighted Jack-O-Lanterns on the front porch.

Now, Jack gets around—whether climbing bean stocks to stealing golden harps or outwitting giants—he’s a common figure in northern European folklore.  An everyday sort of fellow who bumbles into outrageous adventures, Jack reminds us that the unexpected can be just around the corner.

Discovering the unexpected has been part of the “Master Pumpkin Carving Classes” families have been enjoying this week at our farm.  While the parents or grandparents might have originally seen the event as something fun for the kids without any mess in the house, they quickly find out that pumpkin carving can go far beyond variations on Jack’s faces.

Just like a piece of stone can be a corner of a building or a magnificent sculpture, the pumpkin as a medium offers great possibilities for illuminated imagery.  The face might be Dracula, with fangs and glowing eyes.  Or it might be a witch with floppy hat and warty chin.  Go beyond faces, and the possibilities grow quite exciting.  You can make spiders, birds, cats, or any number of scenes.  With a few tips for designing and executing patterns, the world of Jack-O-Lantern possibilities ignites.  Working out our ideas on scratch paper first, we then draw the designs directly on the face of the pumpkins before carving.

Imagine a table, covered in black plastic for easy cleanup, with a big bowl in the middle.  Kids, parents, and grandparents are all busy sawing out the lids on round, orange squashes and scooping out the stringy, seedy insides.  Everyone is sticky to the elbow, laughing and talking.

“I’m pulling out its guts!” a seven-year-old boy exclaims.  “Ooh, or…maybe this is its brains.  My poor pumpkin is dying, AHHHHHH!”

“It’s not dying,” I explain.  “It’s entering a new phase in its life.”  As we scoop and carve, we put all the seeds, pulp, and pieces into the bowl, which are saved for the chickens.  Chickens love the seeds—gobbling them up like tasty little bugs—then run around with the strings like treasure and peck at the carving remnants.  It’s a great source of oils and sugars as the season turns cold, and pumpkin guts turned into eggs is great agrarian recycling of one project’s waste into another project’s product.

Pumpkins are a fruit and therefore have a finite life span, making Jack-O-Lanterns a transient form of art.  We enjoy them for maybe a week and then, their magic spent, it is time for the pig pen or the compost pile.  The humus is returned to the garden to perhaps someday grow another pumpkin. 

In a way, transiency can make something more special, and it mimics much of the aesthetic elements of farming.  A well-laid-out and kindly tended garden can both produce delicious food for the family and be a pleasing part of the surroundings.  But in the end, the frosts will come, and the garden will be finished until the following spring, when a new layout will take its place.

There are a couple tricks, however, for getting your Jack-O-Lantern to last just a little bit longer that I’ll share with you.  When carving, either plan a star-shaped lid that can be set cock-eyed when lit or cut a smoke hole in the back of a circle-shaped lid.  Allowing space for the smoke to escape out the top helps keep the pumpkin from “cooking” on the inside when lit.  After carving, rub all the cut edges with Vaseline, which helps to seal in the moisture and slow the dehydration (withering) process.  Finally, when your creation is not lighting the front porch, wrap it in cellophane and keep it in the refrigerator.  Do not leave it outside if the temperatures are freezing—exposure to frost damages pumpkins. 

There still is time to enjoy a pumpkin carving class at our farm, if you wish, though calling ahead to schedule a time is always best.  Maybe you’ve already been finding the hidden Jack in your pumpkins, amidst the gleeful giggles of creative youngsters.  But if you haven’t yet had your fill of old-fashioned Halloween delights, here’s an event you might not want to miss.

Halloween Night Harvest Dinner and Concert

When:  Friday, October 31st, starting at 6:00 p.m.

Where:  Farmstead Creamery & Café, at North Star Homestead Farms

What:  Join us for the first of our 2013-14 Harvest Dinner and Concert Series!  Prepare to enter a magical world of stories and song from hilarious to spooky with performers Laura Berlage and Tom Draughon.  A beautiful three-course dinner will showcase our pasture raised roast pork, with side dishes from the bounties of autumn’s garden.  We’ll top it all off with a special apple treat. 

You’re welcome to come in costume, if you like!  Reservations are required.  Food allergies are accommodated.  $40 per person or $220 for season tickets.  You can view the full Harvest Dinner and Concert Series poster on our website at www.northstarhomestead.com/docs/HarvestDinnerPoster.pdf to learn more.

Wishing for you the joys of finding the unexpected around the corner, lit by the golden glow of Jack in the Lantern.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 
 

All Hallows Evening

The ancient holidays follow the rhythms of agrarian life—of planting and harvesting, sewing and reaping.  In the age of the Celts, Samhain (said SAH-win, meaning “summer’s end”) was a special time for celebration.  It marked the final season of harvest and the time for preparedness against the oncoming winter months.  But it also held strong ties to magic and mystery, which linger yet today.

The Celtic peoples, who at one time ruled most of Europe, held beliefs that are remarkably similar to some of the theories being posed by quantum physics.  Simmering down the mind-stretching twists of quantum physics offers this nugget:  life exists in multiple layers of reality that can occupy the same space without interacting except at pivotal moments of collision between “planes.”  A collision of planes is one theory offered for the beginning of “The Big Bang.”  To the Celts, this phenomenon happened quite regularly, though in a much more mundane fashion.  When the two layers of existence touched, people could comingle with magic of the “Otherworld.”

Unlike the Greek “Underworld,” where the dead reside, the Otherworld is filled with magical beings, both human-like and non-human.  From this realm come the treasure trove of stories of the faerie (in Ireland, they are called the “shee”)—elves, sprites, trolls, gnomes, and many more.  To the ancient Celts, Samhain marked the time of year when the veil separating the two worlds grew thin, and the faerie might walk upon the earth equally with mankind.  It was a dangerous time for those uninitiated in the ways of the shee, who might beguile mortals into entrapment in the Otherworld for seven years or more. 

As Christianity spread through Europe, the magical peoples of the Celtic world became increasingly demonized, and the thought of having goblins and gremlins walking the earth in the lengthening dark grew to terrifying proportions in folk culture.  Priestesses of the Goddess were deemed wicked witches, and hair-raising tales were told of their magical potions and devilish spells.  Added to that were superstitions about black cats, ghosts, and other ghoulish creatures.  Samhain was no longer a turning of one year to the next for, as it had been for the Celts—it was a time of bewitching and spookish pranks like the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

Supplanting the ancient Samhain rights, medieval Catholicism offered celebratory alternatives.  Celtic holidays always spanned three days, so overthrowing the Celtic New Year took a bit of extra effort.  November first became “All Saint’s Day,” in honor of both patron saints and worthy martyrs, and November second became “All Soul’s Day,” in honor of those who had departed.  But still, the magic of the last day of October pulled at the memories of folk culture, especially in the British Isles.

The Christian calendar is heavily based on the Roman system, which puts the New Year in the middle of wintertime.  Equally so, the Roman day starts in the middle of the night.  The Celts had a different opinion about when things started and ended, with the end of the year at the end of summer and the end of the day at sunset.  Therefore, to properly celebrate a holiday beginning November first, the festivities commenced on what the Romans called the evening before.  Since All Soul’s Day was also called “All Hallows,” the night before was “All Hallows Evening.”  This can be shortened to “All Hallows E’en” (think British accent)—Halloween.

Now, if you were the sort of person who believed in spirits and lived in the rural English countryside with few good roads, no electrical lighting, and only your old gray mare to ride home in the gloaming (dusk), a few spooky sounds in the gathering mist might well spark your imagination.  So, at some point in the history of Halloween, a tradition developed to outwit the lurking demons.  If mere mortals disguised themselves as witches or fairies or spirits, then perhaps they could fool the real ones.  Keep in mind, this was still very much a holiday for adults, with undertones of real danger.  Bonfires were lit on hilltops in an effort to keep ill wishes and presences at bay.  It also happened to be a convenient way to dispose of Black Death victims—the original word being “bone-fire.”

On All Soul’s Day, it became a traditional practice for groups of folk to trek from house to house, caroling:

Soul, a-soul, a soul cake

Please good missus a soul cake

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry

Any good thing to make us all merry

One for Peter, two for Paul

Three for He who made us all.

Soul cakes were a type of moist bread with currants, and upon receiving the token food, the singers promised to pray for the departed souls of the family and offered blessings and wishes for growing prosperity. 

As people of Celtic ancestry immigrated to America, they brought many of their folk ways with them.  Out on the prairie, young men would play pranks on each other during this season—dismantling wagons and re-assembling them atop barn roofs.  Later, some would take apart model-T cars and put them back together inside a small space (like a dorm room) or other such less-than-convenient place.  Farm wives attempted to thwart such behavior by offering baked “treats” to their neighbors in exchange for not being the victim of a prank.

But Victorian culture was fast demoting folk traditions from the lived world of adults to the world of literature for children, and with this came many of the traditional holiday activities.  Soon, treats were offered in an effort to keep the windows from being soaped or other silly behaviors, hence the offering of a choice between “trick or treat.”  Children also embraced the idea of dressing as witches, devils, or ghosts (one has to find a way to be a little naughty sometime), which are traditional costume choices still today, though the repertoire has been widely expanded.

Carving turnip lanterns morphed into carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns, perhaps in honor of the Jack in folktales who was always getting in and out of trouble with giants, magic fingers, and flying boats.  Ghost tales continue to thrill children and some grown-ups, as do candied apples, roasted pumpkin seeds, and spice cake.  It is a great pity that the fear of ill-intended tampering has moved the giving of treats to children away from these agrarian harvest foods in favor of commercial candies.  Homemade popcorn balls or soft pretzels are healthier and full of more love than an artificially flavored lollypop.

This Halloween night, think on the ancient rights of Samhain—summer’s end.  And maybe, as the owls hoot or the wolves howl in the woods, you’ll find just the right time to share your own spooky story or memory of Halloween pranks amidst pumpkins or gravestones.  Catch a mug of hot cider, sing a song for those who have gone before us, and maybe we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 
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