Catholic Activity: Ascension Thursday Picnic and Traditions
Holydays of obligation, such as the feast of the Ascension, should be days of festivity. Florence Berger describes different customs and foods on the feast of the Ascension, and then describes her family's Ascension day picnic and fishing.
Ascension Day is usually a beautiful blue day here on the Ohio and this year we all went fishing—not in the river, but in our own puddle pond. The tiny lake which we were able to dam up among our steep hills was stocked with fish about a year before. I suppose our catch of fish might be called a first fruit. Ascension Day has always been a day on which first fruits were blessed and eaten.
The Italians brought beans and grapes to church. These were blessed after the Memento of the Dead with the words,
Bless, O Lord, these new fruits of the vine which Thou hast brought to maturity by the dew of heaven, by plentiful rains and by tranquil and favorable weather. Thou hast given us this fruit for our use that we may receive it with thanks in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The grapes and beans were supposed to be used as a feast for the dead in heaven. At the Ascension, Christ, the first fruit of all men, opened up Limbo where the dead had waited. What a feast that must have been when Heaven's doors were first opened! But beans and grapes are non-existent on the Ohio at Ascension Day.
The Armenians celebrated the advent of springtime and the Ascension by making a big pan of Dolmas. This is a special dish which uses the new leaves of the grape vine, stuffed with a delicious filling. These Dolmas were the same as those used during the Armenian carnival as a treat before Lent. It seems that the first leaf to sprout in the spring, or after a drought, or after a flood, is the grape. Therein lies another story told by Mr. Mardikian.
Noah had been sailing in his ark for what seemed an endless age, and his diet seemed just about as tiresome. The dove had brought a willow leaf back in his bill, but that had been days ago and muddy waters still lapped at the side of the ark. Suddenly the hull grounded — at the town of Nakhichevan, better known as "first stop." The place was really a mess — nothing but slime and mud and sunken trees and vineyards. Suddenly the vines began to sprout. I am sure it was Mrs. Noah who came back with the first grape leaves, shaking them under the suspicious noses of her daughters-in-law. "And what do you intend to make with those?" they asked. "Don't stand there," Mrs. Noah insisted, "we have had no vegetables on this trip and we certainly do lack vitamins." Then she sent them off for the other ingredients she needed to make Dolmas.
I don't know where the girls found all those things, but they did. Even grape leaves are usually non-existent on the Ohio at Ascension Day, so we save the recipe for later in the year.
To the Germans the feast of the Ascension spells picnic, too, but in quite a different vein from our fishing project. In the beautiful Mansfeld Lake district, villagers gather in congenial groups to drink a toast to their benefactress Countess Elizabeth. It seems that Elizabeth cut their taxes and tithes centuries before and the wonder of it has never left their memories. Now see how easily our legislators could win undying fame and gratitude. The toast is always pledged to Elizabeth on this day and the traditional liquid required is "Ascension Beer." But neither reduced taxes nor German beer exist on the Ohio at Ascension Day.
Instead of following Italian or Armenian or German custom, we all went fishing. Freddie was our official worm digger and Ann packed the picnic basket. We set out near noon under beautiful blue skies; but before the first fish became foolish, dark clouds gathered in the east. Rain hung a gray curtain around us even though the sky still seemed blue above. Our holiday dispositions began to droop like the brims of our hats, and our spirits were as soggy as the sandwiches. We took shelter under a great shaggy sugar maple and tried to build a fire — not to fry the fish, because we had none, but just to console ourselves with some show of a picnic. Even that would not work for the wood was wet and an annoying down draft blew smoke in our faces. By this time the rain had turned from silver lace to dull dark suede. There was only one way out and that was to climb the hills and go home. As we were sloshing along, our official worm digger remarked, "Well, no wonder Jesus went up to Heaven on a day like this."
But He did not leave us only days like this. He told us to wait and watch and work — for the great day of the Holy Spirit was close at hand. Then, no matter how discouraged or dismayed we may be, we shall find fortitude enough to "renew the face of the earth."
Activity Source: Cooking for Christ by Florence Berger, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 4625 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50310, 1949, 1999