Wednesday, June 19, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Shemai all year round

Why certain foods make sense on certain holidays

Update : 08 Jun 2019, 09:43 PM

It might seem a little off to discuss the economics of a religious festival. But then, economics is merely a description of what people do, it is people who celebrate economic festivals, therefore there is an economics of them. 

This newspaper discussed such -- Muhammud Abdul Mazid telling us of the impact of Eid celebrations upon monetary policy, the newspaper itself about the food shopping and preparations for the festival. What struck me about those food preparations was the popularity of shemai -- vermicelli to me -- in that feasting.

No, not that it’s an unusual food, but that it’s not a seasonal one. Something which underlines a bit of economic history surrounding a quite significant cultural difference. Or perhaps the other way around -- a cultural difference which then dictates something about the food which accompanies religious celebrations.

I come, as should be fairly obvious, from Northern Europe. Where specific foods are associated with particular religious festivals -- no change there then. But those specific foods are seasonal in a manner in which vermicelli simply isn’t. This is a cultural difference which has led to this difference.

The big change is the calendar. Ramadan, therefore Eid, is determined by the lunar calendar. No event determined by the lunar calendar will occur at the same time of the year on the solar one each year. 

It will gradually move through time, that is. Eid was July 5 in 2016, and on June 5, this year and will be May 12 in 2021. Obviously, you know this. But here’s the bit that isn’t so obvious, something that won’t be all that obvious in a country with three growing seasons.

Agriculture works not to the lunar calendar, but the solar one. Thus a religious festival -- or any other event of course -- determined by the lunar calendar cannot have, as the favoured food, something that depends upon the exact season to be ready. 

A society which determines such celebrations by the solar calendar might well find that a food which just happens to be ready and plentiful at that time becomes part of the feasting that accompanies the celebration. Or even, as actually did happen, find that the date of a festival is fixed to suit the food.

The Christian Easter is set in a variation of the method by which the Jewish Passover date is decided. Given that the Biblical story mentions the latter as fixing the date, this rather has to be so. 

Other holidays within the religion have more variable origins. As Christianity expanded into Europe, it found the various heathen there celebrating other things. This led to the fixing of All Souls and All Saints -- better known to us today as Halloween -- at the end of October. 

Not really for any other reason other than the Celts celebrated Samhaim on this date -- this being a celebration of the end of the harvest and the beginning of “winter.” And very much a major celebration in both the culture and religion. 

If you were an insurgent religion into an area or culture, you too would find a reason within your own cosmology to give potential converts a reason to celebrate when they were going to be celebrating anyway.

Which is the explanation for the date of Christmas. There is absolutely no biblical, or historical, or even any reason at all for it to be December 25. Except that Northern Europeans used to have vast feasts at about that time anyway. The reason being purely economic.

In that climate, with the one growing season per year, and with inefficient peasant agriculture, there’s a time when the fodder available for the livestock runs out. You need to keep the breeding animals, of course, but the natural increase of the herd in the previous year cannot be supported over the winter. 

There’s just not enough hay or other saved food to keep them. So, they will be slaughtered. And that happens to be around mid to late December. 

So, a Northern European peasant society will have an excess of fresh meat at about that time of year. Preservation techniques weren’t all that good, so ... feasting on meat! 

Yule is an extant celebration, for which that insurgent religion will try to find a reason to include into its own cosmology. And so it did -- that extant feasting was now called Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’s arrival.

Whether the actual event being celebrated was true or not is another matter. The fixing of the date for the celebration really did come about this way. Everyone’s feasting at this time of year anyway, for good economic reason, we’d better tell them why.

All of which is rather a long way from the usual economics, yet true all the same. Christian feasts tend to have specific foods associated with them as a result of the European growing season and the use of the solar calendar.

Lamb is associated with Easter not just because of that connection to Passover, but also because the excess of male lambs over replacement ram requirements is the first fresh meat of the year. 

Fasting in Lent isn’t that much of a burden when the diet is very bland anyway. The Christmas feast is because the feast came first, the excuse being fixed upon later. 

That’s also why the feasting surrounding celebrations fixed by the lunar calendar may well be centred on specific foods, but they’ll not be seasonal ones.

One final little note -- one of the Ramadan injunctions is to enable, finance perhaps, meals for poor children. Especially at this time, over and above the more general one of charity. 

This newspaper is kind enough to pay a very reasonable fee for these articles. My colleague in Bangladesh, Wares, collects these and saves them up. 

This past month, as in previous years, that money has been spent upon that food. My thanks to all involved, you readers too, who ultimately finance everything, for allowing me to take part in this most lovely aspect of your culture.

Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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