Beware of the Message!

Posted on January 15, 2013



Teens tend to call anyone they meet on-line a “friend”.
More than enough has been said about the perils of this – how the lovely young lady who is so keen to help your daughter with her Italian homework is really an aging, balding, Macintosh-clad Lothario who would be grooming her for online exploitation.
Today, however, we will be focusing on another facet of “friendships” – the ones where contacts have their accounts hi-jacked by third parties, who then go on to ask your children for money, while pretending they have found themselves in dire circumstances.
The other day, a friend of mine had barely left my house, when I received an e-mail purportedly from her.
My Dear Tanja (and she had never addressed me like this before!)
I really hope you get this fast. Am in a really bad and terrible state right now, I traveled with my family to Manila Philippines for Holiday and Tour but unfortunately we misplaced our wallet and cell phones on our way back to the hotel we lodge in after we went for sight seeing. The wallet contained all the valuables we had. Now, our passport is in custody of the hotel management pending when we make payment.
I am sorry if i am inconveniencing you, but i have only very few people to run to now. i will be indeed very grateful if i can get a loan of $2,000 from you. this will enable me sort our hotel bills and take a cab to the Airport. I will really appreciate whatever you can afford in assisting me with. I promise to refund it in full as soon as I return. let me know if you can be of any assistance. Please, let me know soonest.
This particular friend and I have been buddies since we were in single number ages; I know that her English is perfect. Besides, since we live in Europe, we use British English – and this e-mail was in American English.
It was clear that whoever had hijacked her e-mail address book was sending long-shots haphazardly. They could not have known that we are “real life” friends and not merely “virtual” ones.
It got weirder from there.
On spec, I shot back an e-mail saying “I am worried. Call Me”, using a shortened form of her name that she absolutely hates. I waited.
Quick as a flash, the reply came back. Sure enough, it was signed as though by her, with the moniker she detested.
Am so glad you replied back,I can’t call or receive calls here because the hotel management would not allow me have access to any of their phone facility which is the reason why i need you to help me,You can have it wired to my name via any Western Union Outlet around you….. I’ll have to show my passport as ID to pick it up here and i promise to pay you back as soon as I get back home hopefully today.
Again, I noted that the syntax and spelling left much to be desired; and besides, there was also a different return e-mail address from the one in the previous e-mail. This, of course, would ensure that any monies would get directly to the perpetrator of the scam, even if the real owner of the original address would meanwhile have twigged about the potential swindle.
There followed the person’s name and address (which I was supposed to know anyway) and an address, with the ‘order’:
Here is my info where you will wire the money to:
The address, for what it’s worth, was:
Block 26 st Joseph Village Trece Materez
Manila Philippines
Out of curiosity, I put this in a search engine, and it came up, with a slightly different spelling as a House for Sale, as is often the case. Nobody would be living in this vacant property, so it would be relatively easy to crack open the letter box and steal the mail… hopefully, a handful of cheques-in-the-post if enough people decided to cough up without verifying whether the original mail was genuine!
There was even more. Of course.
As soon as it has been done, kindly get back to me with the western union confirmation number… Let me know if you are heading to the Western Union outlet now…
Oh, yes. These people did not even know that I live in a different time zone, and that it was around midnight when they asked me to inform them whether I was headed out the door.
Meanwhile, I called my friend and told her to change all her e-mail addresses and social sites passwords, which she immediately did.
I found it amusing that after she had told me they needed money to get home, she was apparently suddenly in the black again, with enough cash to return home and pay me back as soon as she got there. So, I ask myself, why was it that she was not allowed to access her own bank accounts if she had the money to pay off whatever debts she had incurred in her place of lodging?
The plot behind this dodge was a sieve.
I have been told that such letters, when formulated to be addressed to teens, will contain slang words and expressions such as “Mom’ll kill me”, to make them sound more authentic.
Please warn your teens that sob stories like these are barefaced lies, meant to skim money off them with no chance of redress.


Pigging Out for Prosperity!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009, 13:13


An Austrian New Year’s Eve celebration would not be complete without the traditional pink pig-shaped biscuits. A Sylvesterabend (Eve of St. Sylvester) dinner also includes actual pork. If it’s not a ham hock, it’s sausages – which, being fatty, connote fattening wallets. If the past year was unlucky, then the part of the hog to cook was the jowl, supposed to bring about a reversal of fortune. Germanic people tend to pick beef short-ribs as lucky foods.

Italians combine the pork with lentils. In other countries, the legumes of choice are black-eyed peas. This is because during cooking both swell and look like coins; in some cultures they are combined with rice or cereals. Strictly speaking, one ought to eat 365 lentils, black-eyed peas, or grains of rice, in order to “qualify” for a lucky new year. The Italians eat cotechino (boned, stuffed trotter) con lenticchie just after midnight.
Counting, for the Spanish and Portuguese, and their former colonies such as Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru, is a matter of months – they pop a grape for each stroke of midnight, and if a grape turns out to be bitter, the month it represents will be so, too. Peruvians insist on taking in a 13th grape for good measure. Rumour has it that this tradition was deliberately begun in 1909, when there was a surplus of grapes in the Alicante region.
Saint Sylvester is credited with having baptized Constantine the Great; and this means that not only is he the precursor of a new year, but also the vanguard of a new Christian era. It is traditional to toast one another with a typical punch on this night.
Dollar bills are called greenbacks and cabbage in slang. This idea is also transposed to the dinner table – and therefore, eating green leafy vegetables (kale, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, or, to stretch a point sauerkraut or coleslaw) that are torn, as opposed to being cut with a blade, is supposed to bring luck for the forthcoming year. The Danish sprinkled their stewed kale with sugar and cinnamon.
Germans have been known to place fish scales, since they look like shiny coins, in their wallets for good luck. By association, eating herring on the stroke of Midnight on New Year’s Eve will bring health, wealth, and happiness. Herring is eaten either as roll mops (marinated and rolled around a pickled cocktail onion) or, when it is of portion side, whole, with salad.
If the very thought of pink biscuits makes your tail curl, you can follow the Greek customs and put some coins into a plain cake – cheating to make sure that there is one in every slice, perhaps.
The pig, however, remains a prime candidate for New Year’s Eve dinners, perhaps because of its corpulent body, a symbol of opulence. In many American states, it is traditional to eat Hoppin’ John, which combines all three principal ‘lucky’ ingredients – pork, beans and greens.
As with minestra, Christmas Log, and other dishes, everyone insists that there is only one correct recipe – his – for Hoppin’ John. If the dish is going to be cooked like the Italian risi e bisi, must the rice and the peas be cooked separately, and combined, or must they be allowed to simmer together for the flavours to mingle better? Should tomatoes be added to the pot, or must they be purred into a pouring sauce consistency? Or must they be chopped, and raw? Must the peas be mushy, or must they have bite? Is it wrong to use a Dutch oven, a wok, a pressure cooker, or anything else except the traditional cast-iron skillet? If you are using chitterlings, must they be cooked separately, or should you begin with them and then add the rice, and later, the peas? May one use processed peas? The questions go on – and on.

Let’s Pretend…

Tuesday, October 16, 2012, 11:43

The other day, one of my vegan friends asked me over for lunch for the first time ever. I don’t really like fish flesh or fowl; so when she asked whether it would be a problem, I said it would not.
When she dished up, my eyebrows rose of their own accord. A huge, beautiful salad was topped by two cutlets. “Cute, aren’t they?” she asked. “They’re soya, and they’re simply delicious…”
Frankly, I cannot comprehend the pretence of eating meat when you profess to abhor it. Is this not the humorous version of The lady doth protest too much?
This blinkered attitude, moreover, is rife all around us.
Probably the one that hurts the most is the current exposé of Jimmy Savile and his cohorts. It is beyond obnoxious that when people tried to divulge their suspicions or even reveal what they knew, they were shushed up with complacent cajoling comments such as That’s the way it goes, or that’s Jimmy for you, and so on. This, the ugly version of eppur si muove is telling of how those who are in a position to do something, anything, often fear to rock the boat because complacency brings a hefty cheque at the end of the month.
So because the dirty old man (who began his nefarious career of abuse when he was still young) raised millions for charity, we condone his behaviour, and, worse, pretend that nothing was happening?
It was the same thing with the other predatory paedophile Jerry Sandusky’s reign of terror on the boys under his care. Let’s pretend, his defence attorney said, that he was teaching these inner-city boys how to use a bar of soap.
A lot has been said about how we must pretend it is only the people of Mellieħa who take exception at being called pufta. This, again, makes no sense at all; I do not see why anyone should consider it an affront to have his sexual orientation questioned. I don’t; I am content inside my skin and nothing anyone will say can make me change what I am into something they say I am, or that I ought to be.
More pretence comes with the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Let’s pretend that women secretly want to be dominated and beaten into submission is part of the spiel that has many men “buy it for their wives” and women fantasise about how they would like to be seduced and ravished in a way that involves pain. It could also be, of course, let’s pretend that most women’s sex lives are so vapid that they need lessons in how to get titillated.
This is as risible as the argument recently brought forth by Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. As he begins his Hague war crimes court defence, he insists that not only should we pretend his ten charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity during the war in the 1990s never happens, but that, moreover, he ought to be awarded for all the good he did – including “reducing the suffering of civilians”.
Abuse of power is something that happens not only nation-wide, but also inside a home where children have a right to be safe. It is beyond my comprehension how an incestuous father could be so wickedly diabolic as to pretend to each of three daughters she was his only victim – and doing this by placing a price on the life of a sibling.
And it must be said that the risible sentence he has received gives the message that – make no pretence about it – this taboo, at law, is certainly not held in the same way as it is viewed by mothers of children the same age as this fiend’s daughters, and many others too.
Hoaxers and conmen throughout the ages have long known that people tend to fall for the “let’s pretend” ruse most of the time. Some of the fabrications are fun; others could possibly have lethal consequences.
We used to laugh at The Addams Family cocktails emitting chill-and-smoke effect fumes that could have been obtained by dry ice or liquid nitrogen. However, we never saw Morticia Addams or anyone else on the series actually drink the potions. Yet, pretending it is trendy thing to drink a Nitro Jägermeister has landed at least one teen in hospital with a perforated stomach.
We have enough of “let’s pretend” in the cinema – and in certain so-called news bulletins.
Reality is something that isn’t even present in reality shows, or many of the magazine programmes in which opinionated people mouth off, often speaking over others, hoping that their loudness will make them credible.
Why are we allowing let’s pretend to rule, and truth to be so elusive, in real life?

The Maltese Hobża

Tanja Cilia describes the essence of the Maltese hobza in oven-glowing terms:give her oh lord her daily bread
Anyone who thinks that nectar, ambrosia, and manna are the foods of the gods is way off the mark.
Nothing beats a ġenba torn off the side of a warm ħobża before one even leaves the bakery premises. This explains the trail of crumbs from the counter (or a plank resting on two soft drinks cases) and the door. In my day, when the bread was too hot to handle, Tal-Ħobża always had a supply of bits of cardboard torn off the mound of collapsed boxes collected expressly for this purpose. And the aroma inside the bakery would cling to the clothes.
It is a Semitic tradition to break bread with someone as a sign of welcome, and friendship. And no wonder. Our bread is nothing like the anaemic, oblong, spongy loaves bought for convenience rather than taste and texture. Indeed, Maltese bread is the best thing since before sliced bread.
How could you honestly hope to mop up the gooey garlicky mess at the bottom of the fenek fry-pan? Could you use anything else but tal-Malti to slather with butter and eat with ġbejniet tal-bżar? Would any other type of bread taste as good, spread with kunserva, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled liberally with freshly-crushed black pepper and Mediterranean sea-salt?
Incidentally, if you can get an unbaked loaf of bread from the baker, you will find that it makes the ideal pizza.
The friable crust and soft crumb (this is the bieba as opposed to crumbs, which are the frak) make for an ideal marriage of textures and tastes… with one proviso: contrary to the sanitised breads that keep relatively fresh for up to three days, Maltese bread is best eaten on the day it is baked. And anyone who has bought sliced Maltese bread, packaged inside a knotted plastic bag, knows that this is not the way to eat it, either.
Most areas are blessed with twice-daily bread deliveries, mostly from the Maltese equivalent of Bethlehem (“the house of bread”) – Qormi, which was also known as Casal Forno. This enables us to purchase ħobż that are never more than half a day old (it takes eight hours in total to produce a loaf of bread). You may, of course, opt for the unleavened ftira – especially if you are off to the beach, as this holds my preferred filling – tomatoes or tomato paste, capers and olives, anchovies and onion rings – so much better.
Unless you intend to make speciality breads, the above means that buying a bread-making machine would probably be a waste of money. Bakers always leave a clump of dough from the day before, in order to start off the fermentation of the next day; machines always stipulate yeast as an ingredient – and the taste is never quite the same.
Bakers will tell you that the end result depends upon many variables – the type of flour, and water used, the proportion of the ingredients, the temperature at which it is cooked, as well as the type of oven. The dictum goes that the bigger the hole, the better the quality.
The dough is always different depending on the quantities of ingredients, the type of water used, the type of flour, the temperature to which it is subjected and so on.
As in the case of puddings and pies, however, each household has its own ‘recipe’ for what goes inside a ħobż biż-żejt… tinned tuna, pickles, garlic, marinated vegetables, leeks, thinly-sliced cucumbers, grated carrots, capsicums…
Maltese bread, soaked in a mixture of milk and water, and squeezed out, forms the basis for pudina. To this, you add whatever you have in your larder in the way of vine fruit, dried and candied fruits, cocoa, and rum (or anisette or brandy or vermouth). Some people add sugar, desiccated coconut, butter, and an egg or two.
The mixture is placed in a buttered, floured dish and cooked at a low heat until it forms a crust, and a knife stuck into it comes out clean.
Whichever way you decide to use it, small wonder that the smell, texture and sheer debauchery of the Maltese hobza, over any other local food offering, is what breaks the heart of all émigrés every time.

Vinegar Valentines

Wednesday, February 11, 2009, 09:45 by Tanja Cilia

As the days go by, I think how lucky I am…. Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day….. How can I say this….? I always wanted to have someone, someone to love…. I love your smile, your face, and your eyes…. I see your face when I am dreaming….. If we were on a sinking ship with only one life jacket… I’m so miserable without you… I want to feel your sweet embrace….. I want you, and I need you… Kind, intelligent, loving and hot….. Looking back over the years, I wonder….. My darling, my love, my beautiful wife… My love, you take my breath away…… Of loving beauty you float with grace…. Someday I hope to marry… We have been friends for a very long time… You are a part of my life….
Receiving cards with the above messages written on the front would make anyone’s day…. but opening them to find cruel words would wound deeply.
These cards are not run-of-the-mill “joke” cards. They deliberately seek to hurt, insult, the recipient, with acidic messages, and that is why they are called “Vinegar Valentines”.
They were originally sold for one penny – and that is why some people still mistakenly call this type of street literature “penny dreadful” (the name given to potboilers). They counteracted Cupid’s sweet arrows with tart barbs.
The picture, when there is one, is usually a caricature of the recipient, according to type… and sometimes, the message makes reference to this too. This is the type of card that Calvin (of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes) gave to his classmate Susie Derkins, along with a bunch of dead flowers, as an integral part of their love-hate relationship.
It is obvious that these precursors of hate mail were sent anonymously – and seeing that there was a time (not in Malta) before postage stamps were invented, when people had to pay to be given their mail… it means that recipients paid to get insulted.
Raphael Tuck & Sons, proud to be known as “Publishers to Her Majesties the King and Queen” with printing houses in London, Paris and New York, from the mid 1800’s into the early 20th Century also got on the Vinegar Valentines bandwagon, when they realised that it paid.
One could buy these Vinegar Valentines as we buy “open” cards today. Others were aimed at specific professions that people loved to hate – dentists, undertakers, politicians, lawyers, teachers, or anyone to whom one would have taken a dislike.
These days, most people tend to sign their Valentine cards – especially if they cost good money. It is only a few who want to play the guessing game.
Although Vinegar Valentines have gone out of fashion, some so-called humour cards are crass enough to be classified as worse.
Just in case you were wondering what was written inside the cards, the front of which was quoted at the beginning of the piece… here are the complete messages.
As the days go by, I think how lucky I am… that you are not my girlfriend!
Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day… too bad no one likes you!
How can I say this…? I can’t stand you!
I always wanted to have someone, someone to love… and you’re not her!
I love your smile, your face, and your eyes… am I not good at telling lies?
I see your face when I am dreaming… and that is why I wake up screaming.
If we were on a sinking ship with only one life jacket… I’d miss you!
I’m so miserable without you… it’s as if you are still here.
I want to feel your sweet embrace… but don’t take that paper bag off of your face.
I want you, and I need you… to leave me alone.
Kind, intelligent, loving and hot…. this describes everything you are not.
Looking back over the years, I wonder… what did I see in you?

My darling, my love, my beautiful wife… marrying you messed up my life.

My love, you take my breath away… what have you stepped in to smell this way?
Of loving beauty you float with grace… if only you could hide your face.
Someday I hope to marry… anyone else but you.
We have been friends for a very long time… how about we stop?
You are a part of my life… the negative part.

Private Dancers – In Public

Thursday, October 6, 2011, 12:45 , by


The sticky, stinky brown stuff has really hit the fan. Some asinine attention-seeking (female) teens have been cavorting in front of their peers, and the media caught wind of it.

However, I was more shocked at the reactions and opinions of quite a few of my friends – mur ara, as one of them succinctly put it, than at the foolish antics of the girls.

One of the women to whom I talked justified her point of view by saying at least I know where she is; another chided me for being behind the times for not taking this in my stride, and another insisted that these days you cannot stop them or ground them because they will call the Helpline – oh, yes, you can; and so what if they do?

Some time ago, in Italy, there was a great to-do about under-age cubisti; youngsters hoping to be ‘discovered’ by talent scouts, who spent their evenings writhing away in suggestive and provocative poses on ‘cubes’ (raised platforms) in seedy clubs.

Whether these, and our local girlies, are offered the casting couch is anybody’s guess.

But I digress. This is much more than a sad case of finding an outlet for raging hormones and the wish to ‘experiment’

Beyond the “what a shame” fifteen-minute yearning for fame lie deeper issues.

Is it possible that these children cannot find a better way of using their talents? If they love to dance so much, how about their organising dance-based fund-raising activities? Rope in some wannabe models and singers, and Bob’s your uncle. I am sure some NGO would back their efforts – if they could find the time to organize their thoughts – and their wardrobes.

My eye was caught by the fact that they had been paid (or rather, given a tip, considering the paltry amount) €10, for frolicking and prancing about in beachwear. Their payment would not even by them a decent – and I use the term judiciously – bikini. So somewhere along the line, I will have to believe that they do not do it for the money.

To call these dancers “erotic” is to make fun of them – I would prefer to call them a pedophile’s wet dream. And let’s not talk about married men who insist that variety is the spice of life to excuse their constant (not seven-year) itches.

But, alas, these girls too immature to realise that they are merely setting themselves up as such. To them, it is ‘fun’. And perhaps, mud-in-the-eye of their fuddy-duddy friends who are not into risqué behaviour.

We have been told that the children’s parents are their ‘friends’ on social sites. This assumes that the parents know about the behaviors, and possibly approve of the fact that their children are getting, if not fame and fortune, at least notoriety and pocket-money.

But wait – does not the fact that money has changed hands constitute “child labour”? I am under the impression that a teen cannot even receive money I she baby-sits the children of a neighbour; how does this, therefore, square up?

Deutschmarks or dollars; American Express will do nicely, thank you…
Tell me, do you wanna see me do the shimmy again?… And any old music will do… All the men come in these places…And the men are all the same…

So sings Tina Turner. And this might explain why all the dancers were girls. They usually are, except in certain dives.

Ironically, one of the dancers was saying that like Greta Garbo, she and all teens want to be left alone – and then, they go and show off. This is illogical.

It has been said that the Police and the Children’s Commissioner is “investigating” this. The parents of babies, toddlers, tweens and teens do not want investigations – we want action.

I have seen enough drunken children in Paceville, despite the ‘prohibitions’. There are enough teen pregnancies, despite the ‘sex education’ lessons. I have seen more than enough children puffing away in the street, despite the ‘awareness campaigns’.

With role models such as Rihanna and Lady (!) Gaga, children are wont to push the boundaries of what is accepted by society. They say that “everybody does it”; but peer pressure works in positive mode too.

If the dominant girl in the peer group takes it into her mind that they will henceforth go jogging, her followers could well agree. In any case, if state school grounds were open after hours, they would even have a place to congregate without risking future repercussions from potential employers who run internet searches on job applicants.

If one bossy girl commands her troop to wear jeans and a t-shirt, and hie off to an old people’s home to perform Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, they will toe her line. Eventually.

However – I will have to add that this requires dedication and rehearsals. It is much easier to grab some underwear and improvise, is it not?

Because, inter alia, mindless gamboling in non-restrictive clothing this is easier to fit in with studies and home life than something that requires assiduity. And ‘instant recognition’ of people in the street tends to be inebriating to someone who is too young to cope with its ramifications.

And…any excuse is better than none.

Baby’s First Christmas

Monday, December 7, 2009, 01:29 by Tanja Cilia

No mention of post-partum depression or the traditional emotional tug-of-war Maltese families are wont to play when there is a new baby in the family.
In fact, a new baby can be the reason, and the excuse, to miss out on the calorie-laden excesses that are an integral part of the festivities. However, such an innocent gesture could easily be misconstrued by otherwise well-meaning maiden aunts whose sole purpose in life is to spoil rotten any new baby in the family.
You don’t have to grit your teeth as he’s passed around like a tube of Pringles. He’s your child; so take a stand and say something on the lines of “I would rather you didn’t kiss the baby’s face or put his hands in your mouth, please…” Be warned that you thus risk being cut off without a penny from the Last Will and Testament of all those present.
The mother of a firstborn – never mind that she could have worked in a nursery or taken care of young siblings or cousins for years – is usually he recipient of unwarranted advice from others who have been there, done that, before her. Not all babies take to the sudden increase in noise, smells, and other incommodious issues when several people are gathered in one place at the same time.
Most babies end up crying; and this creates yet another vicious circle. If the mother does not appear flustered, well, then, she is uncaring. If she does, well, then, she is not a good mother because she does not know how to take care of the poor defenceless infant – who is in fact crying just to indicate that he is not poor and defenceless.
So it’s not a matter of people “competing” to see who can stop the bawling; one person can probably manage to do this without interference, as she probably does when she is at home and there is no one to interfere.
The magic word is “change”.
1. Obviously, the first thing this word brings to mind is “nappy”; a child who is uncomfortable will cry in order to draw your attention to this.
2. The rest follows automatically – you need to “change” what a baby has been feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and experiencing in order to “change” his attitude.
3. Try feeding the baby. If he is being breastfed, and you feel uncomfortable doing this in front of certain people, ask for privacy. Be confident in your choice – do not allow anyone to tell you that he is “too old for that now” or that you “should give him some water” or “teach him to wait” or “switch to a bottle”.
4. The baby might be feeling too hot; remember that in a closed room, with several people present (and perhaps a fireplace or the central heating turned up) the temperature will rise.
5. It is always advisable to dress a child in layers of clothing to remove or add as necessary, rather than having a fur-lined all-in-one over a baby-grow.
6. Sometimes, babies benefit from having their face wiped with a cold flannel; sometimes, all they need is someone to give them undivided attention. Strangers putting their face close to his will frightened a baby and make him feel powerless. Some children take late to socialising, and some simply hate a change in their routine.
7. A child, placed in a carrier or chair for long periods while the adults chat and eat, is bound to become irritable – and if he has needs to be burped, this will make him even more uncomfortable.
8. Do the opposite of what would have been the baby’s experience when he began crying; inside/outside; light/dark; noise/silence; immobility/movement – and vice versa. Some babies get tetchy when they want to sleep; others cry when they need stimulation.
9. Never, but never, dip a soother in anything other than water. If the baby is teething, do not allow anyone to give him anything from which bits might break off and choke him.

The Way We Were

Monday, December 15, 2008, 10:36

Ava Gardner; Dima Bilan; Edwige Fenech; Howard Hughes; Rex Stout; Ricky Martin; Saint Ignatius of Loyola…
All these people were born on December 24. And that, according to Maltese lore, makes them eligible for Gawgaw status.
Tradition held that it was “not nice” for anyone to share a birthday with Jesus – although, for some reason, the date ‘reserved’ for the Christ child was not December 25, i.e. Christmas Day, officially adopted by Bishop Liberius of Rome in 354, but Christmas Eve.
It was said that a person born on that day was destined to become a ghost on Christmas Eve, fated to haunt the streets until the dawn of Christmas morning… when the physical body would again come to life.
There was, of course an antidote for this curse – counting the holes on a sieve from dusk until dawn. Either way, the person would feel like a wet rag on the morrow; and not many people would believe the second option would have been the reason for this fatigue!
On the other hand, people who are born on Christmas Day proper are supposed to be immune to murders by hanging or drowning. The minus side of this is that they are gifted with “Sixth Sense” that allows them to see all manner of ghosts, ghouls, spirits and phantoms… although some cultures have it exactly the opposite… just as a black cat is good luck for some, and bad luck for others. The Irish believe that the gates of Heaven open at midnight on Christmas Eve, and therefore those who die then go straight to Heaven.
A poem dated 1525 says that it is not only the date of birth that matters, but also the day on which Christmas happens to fall that will affect the person’s life:
Yef that day that Cryste was borne. Falle upon a Sunday …
what chylde that day borne be, A grete lorde he shalle be
Yf Crystemas day on Monday be …
They that be borne that day, I wene,
They shalle be stronge eche on and kene…
Yf Crystmas day on Tuysday be…
Alle that be born there in may se,
They shalbe stronge and covethouse…
Yf Cyrstmas day the so the to say, Fall upon a Woydnysday
What childe that day borne ys, He shall dowghte and lyghte i-wysse…
Yf Crystmas day on Thursday be,
What chylde that day borne bee, He shalle have happy ryghte well to the,
Of deeds he shall be good and stabylle; Of speche and tonge wyse and reasonabylle…
Yf Crystmas day on Friday be,
The chylde that ys borne that day,
Shall long lyve and lecherowus be aye…
Yf Crystmas on the Saterday falle…
chyldren that e born that day,
Within a halfe a yere they shall dye, par fay.
In Malta, we are quite likely to have a mild winter – some foolhardy souls might even brave a dip in the briny to prove the point – but elsewhere there is the proverb that “A green Christmas makes a full graveyard”.
This distils the rural belief that mild winter weather is followed by more diseases in livestock and produce. The proverb does not refer to the custom of decorating homes with greenery – although for a time, even that was forbidden, since it was considered a pagan custom… for instance, Sweet By is the ancient laurel, the “glory herb” lorbeer or daphne, used as a wreath for heroes and poets. Indeed, the word “bachelor” in our college degrees comes from “bacca-laureus” or “laurel- berry” through the French bachelier.
Superstition and custom mish-mash in a nation’s folklore, such that no one knows where one begins and the other ends. Eastertide and Yuletide seem especially rife with these folk beliefs – perhaps because originally, the periods of the year in which these two major festivals lie were hitherto devoted to pagan deities, and several customs are but Christianised pagan rituals.
However, most people appear to agree that the first person to pass from near the door to the house (on the inside) on Christmas morning, was supposed to open wide the door, sweep the household’s troubles from the threshold, and welcome Christmas. For his pains, he was supposed to have good luck thought the year following, as did the first person in a household who heard the rooster crow.
That is – unless he took down the Christmas tree before the year was out, in which case, bad luck would dog him – or anyone else who did – throughout the next twelve months, up to the anniversary of the day in which he would have done it. It is also said that no decorations must be taken down until the twelfth night is past, but always before Candlemas.
It almost goes without saying that on Christmas Night, the bells of all the churches that have been destroyed by earthquakes, fire, flood, and landslides, may be heard tolling in unity, to celebrate this special time.
Many superstitions involve the greenery associated with Christmas – holly, for instance, was not supposed to be brought inside the house before Christmas Eve, lest a member of the family died during the year. It is said that myrrh plants will flower only for an hour on Christmas Eve… and some animals, if you listen carefully, will have acquired the power of speech on Holy Night, too.
Bales of hay carried around a church three times on Christmas Eve would meet the requirements of cattle far more efficiently than they otherwise would have done.
Even if you can’t bear the taste of mince pies – remember that eating one made by a different person in a different house, means a month of happiness.
For a full purse, you are to carry in your pocket a scale from a fish eaten at Christmas.


The miniscule snail, settled snugly between the tightly-packed folds of a humungous cabbage I’d got at the Farmers’ Market, didn’t know what had almost hit him. I had just sliced it in two before scooping out the centre for coleslaw and using the outer leaves as a shell for stuffing and baking, after boiling it.
I gouged out the gobbet of leaves around him, and transferred him to the garden. Throughout this operation, the creature’s antennae alternately undulated and retracted; no doubt he was wondering why his crispy universe was being disrupted.
How could he have comprehended that his refuge had been only millimetres away from oblivion by knife-blade?
But snails, like tortoises, are renowned for being slow and steady – so he might have taken it all in his stride, so to speak.
Sometimes, it is the little things that hold my attention, and the infinitesimal details that leave me fascinated. Pretentiousness leaves me cold.
The flash of a firefly in the night is more interesting than a bonfire; the raspy trickle of sand through my fingers is more appealing than miles of open beach; the droplet of dew hanging on the tip of a leaf is more impressive than bucket-loads of rain; the swirl of colour in a glass as a teabag releases its flavour is more inspiring than the monochrome infusion.
This is the obverse of the coin, what William Blake succinctly described as… To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.
Sometimes, we strive to impress others by brazen actions or grandiose schemes. Expensive gifts, designer clothes, and ostentatious jewellery are props we might use to make us feel better about ourselves because we couldn’t be bothered to delve deep into our inner beings to see our true worth.
There is the reverse of the coin – where something that would be inconsequential to most people takes on gargantuan proportions and needlessly spoils “everything” for the person who experiences it.
The afternoon siesta that’s cut short by a buzzing fly; the tiny stain on the white tablecloth that spoils a celebratory meal; the broken gel nail that stops us from going to our school reunion…
Little things mean a lot – both ways. Let’s make the agreeable ones count and ignore, or at least transform, the unpleasant ones.

Minute Minutes
I focus on my blessings
With an attitude of gratitude.
Content I have food to share;
Grateful my friend called me;
Happy to have a roof over my head, even though it leaks.
For I am alive.
I am secure in the knowledge
That I love, and that I am loved.
And that I have the gift of understanding, and the knack of empathy.
I am grateful. I am blessed.
–Tanja Cilia

Crying for Mooncakes

Holidays and Celebrations
Winter Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(4) page(s): 8 and 9

Fion Lim, a resident of Singapore, talks to Tanja Cilia about a special festival. Enjoy the questions and answers.
Yes, we are multi-racial and we practice several different religions here, in fact, we even have public holidays for many of them. In Singapore, at least, there is Vesak Day for the Buddhists, Good Friday for the Christians, Hari Raya Haji for Muslims, and Deepavali for the Hindus; and there are others including holidays for the New Year for the four major ethnic groups. Mooncake Festival is not a public holiday in Singapore, but it is a major Chinese festival with much celebrating.
This is not a moveable feast. Called Chung Chiu, this Moon Festival always occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The date for this year and the next few are:
2008: September 14th
2009: October 3rd
2020: September 22nd
2011: September 12th
2012: September 30th
2013: September 19th
2014: September 8th
2015: September 27th

One might say it is similar to a harvest festival or Thanksgiving. In Hong Kong it is celebrated simultaneously with the Lantern Festival. However, strictly speaking, it is not an agrarian rejoicing about gathering the harvest. It is more of a spiritual event. The Mooncake Festival celebrates the fundamental tenet of Taoism; the union of man’s spirit with nature. Mooncakes, called yue bing, in Chinese, take their name from their shape. Traditionally, they are stuffed with lotus seed paste, duck eggs, and ground sesame seeds.
One story traces the origins of this festival food back to the fourteenth century, when China was in revolt against the Mongol Empire who ruled them during the Yuan Dynasty (1280 – 1368 CE). It was then that Chy Yuen-chang and his senior deputy, Liu Po-wen, concocted a plan wherein the latter would dress up as a Taoist priest and take cakes to the people in the besieged city, ostensibly to bless the longevity of the Mongol Emperor. On the day of the festival as people would begin to eat the cakes, they found instructions on how to coordinate a midnight massacre of the Tartars. Doing so led to the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE).
Modern mooncakes have dozens of different fillings, savory as well as sweet. Some have nuts and ham, melon seeds and almonds, adzuki paste, green bean paste, fruit and orange peel, or even a coffee-flavored filling. Tai Pan’s Snowy Mooncake is made with piecrust pastry. It is very different from those traditionally baked with their slightly crumbly pastries. There are also Snow Skin Mooncakes and called bing pei. There is a Southeast Asian variation made with cooked glutinous rice flour and Haagen-Dazs ice-cream.
Usually, a golden yolk from a salted duck egg is placed at the center of each Mooncake. More elaborate versions have four yolks to represent the four phases of the moon. Traditionally, thirteen mooncakes are piled in a pyramid, as a symbol of the thirteen moons of a complete year representing the twelve moons, one for each month plus an intercalary month. There are calorie-controlled versions of mooncakes these days, too.
People congregate on a plateaux or on mountains to look at the full moon, which that night is at its fullest and brightest. They hope wishes they make will be granted and they take traditional lanterns with them to light the way. These are made in the shapes of lobsters, butterflies, rabbits, goldfish, carp, and star-fruit; these days many are made of plastic and are even battery-powered. There was a time when only paper lanterns with candles were used. Sometimes, riddles are written on lanterns for people to solve. This traditional game is called deng mi.
In some places, people burn incense sticks or plant Mid-Autumn trees, or have fire-dragon dances. Korean names for this festival are Chuseok and Hangawi. The latter is from han which means great and gawi meaning middle. Together they mean ‘a great day in the middle of the autumn.’ An eclipse of the moon would be an awful celestial happening; they would think the Heavenly Dog would be trying to swallow the Moon. Therefore, they beat gongs and drums to scare him away.
There is one about the Man and the Lady on the Moon. She is Chang-O, a beautiful woman who lived during the Hsia Dynasty (2205 – 1766 BCE). She was the wife of the Chief Archer of the Imperial Guard, General Hou-Yi. The story told is that the Jade Emperor had ten sons, each taking turns to shed light and heat on earth. One day, they inexplicably appeared together, and Hou-Yi was going to shoot them all down with his red bow and white arrows. However, he only killed nine of them. Why nine? Because his wife begged him to allow one sun to stay to heat the Earth at night. The Queen Mother of the West made this son immortal, lest the other suns appear again. If they did, he would be able to shoot them down each time so rivers would not run dry and people would not die.
The feminist version of this story says that Chang-O shot down the suns but chose to flee to the moon with the Herb of Immortality. Another legend says she stole that from her husband who was a tyrant. On the moon, she met the friendly Jade Rabbit and still lives there with Wu Gang, the Tree Cutter who cooks and brews wines for her. When he cuts trees, we can see the moon’s bright light. Wu Gang was sent there as punishment and can only return when he cuts down the cassia tree. This is impossible since the tree is immortal and grows back whenever he stops hewing at it.
One story tells of three mystics who disguised themselves as three old men. They begged for something to eat from a fox, a monkey, and a rabbit. The first two did have something to give. But the rabbit, not having anything, jumped into a blazing fire to roast himself. The gurus were impressed, and so touched by the rabbit’s sacrifice that they allowed him to live with Chang-O forever in her crystal palace. Actually, there are many variations of the above legends. Perhaps you know a different one.
Chang-O, with her flowing robes and Jade Rabbit are sometimes there for all to see and remember. During the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE), Mooncakes were renamed ‘Moon Flowers’ because in Mandarin the word yue bing for Mooncakes sounds like ‘monthly sickness’ (menstruation). It is said that if you point at the moon during this time, your ears will fall off and your fingers become crooked.
Yueh Lao Yeh or Yue Xia Lao Ren is the matchmaker who prepares marriages on the Moon. He writes down names of couples on his tablets, knows everyone’s future partner, and has a register with the names of all newborns in it.
This is a time for family reunions when its member are to reunite from the four corners of the world, if possible, and eat Mooncakes together. If anyone cannot attend, they are to all look at the moon from wherever they are and think of their loved ones. The idea is to catch the moon’s reflection in the center of their teacup. This is also a time for gift-giving. Chinese people do so for most festivals; for this one they give a box of Mooncakes to the family of each of their relatives. The more egg yolk they contain, the more esteem in which they hold them. Gifts can be augmented with star fruit, or sausages, even money. Chinese from Viet Nam make square Mooncakes rather than round ones; and they cut them diagonally into four pieces before eating them.
This holiday can be an expensive exercise. Many place orders beforehand and pay the baker or bakery in instalments until the gifts are delivered. This can have added value in the way of other edibles thrown in with thanks from the bakery. One can extend the Moon Festival adding ‘Moon Welcoming’ which is the day before and ‘Moon Chasing’ which is the day afterwards. During the time of The Empress Dowager Ci Xi, moon festivities lasted from the thirteenth through the seventeenth day of the eighth lunar month.
We chai (yams) and melons, pomegranates and dates, peanuts and fatt koh (steamed sponge cakes) are said to be special to Chang-O. All round fruits are reminiscent of the moon and are said to bring peace and unity. Women traditionally peel pomelos and mini yams and cut them so that the moon sees them doing this. They do this hoping that when seen, they will be rewarded by having a flawless complexion. The word for pomelo in Cantonese is yow which is the same as for the word ‘have.’
Food offerings for ancestors are placed on a table-altar, and are usually grapes, apples, pears, peaches, pomegranates, melons, water chestnuts, oranges and grapefruits. There also might be edible land snails. Cooked taro is essential, because one legend says it was the first food discovered on the night of creation.
Tanja Cilia is an Allied Newspapers (Malta) columnist. This edited article appeared in the Times of Malta, where she lives. Fion Lim, her friend, lives in Singapore. The Chinese she spells out in the article is mostly Cantonese, though some words are provided in other languages, as appropriate.