Monday, March 12, 2012

Wonderful Maple Syrup: Some Lore & Customs

photo by Brad Smith

Maple syrup season has "officially" started in my area, which was ushered in this past weekend at a first tapping ceremony. So I thought that I would do a post about some folklore and customs around maple syrup and its production.

Production of maple syrup had been going on in North America prior to European colonization and is a craft that was discovered by the First Peoples of North America. {North American Maple Syrup Producers Manual}

My family's old farm in Restoule at one time had an active sugar bush, mostly for household and neighbour consumption. It was used for decades, but it was at most productive when diversified farming was still the norm here in Northern Ontario.

In her book Reflections of Restoule, June Hample writes:
"Many families {in Restoule} made maple syrup and maple sugar. Often this was the responsibility of the woman too, as her husband was in the logging camp or on the river drive at this time of year. The first buckets were hollowed-out blocks of wood and the first spiles were also made of wood. The sap was gathered by hand and carried to a huge iron kettle which was suspended over an open fire on a tripod of poles. When the syrup was almost thick enough, it was taken to the house to be finished where milk was added to it. As the syrup boiled up, the milk rose to the surface bringing all impurities with it. The foamy milk was then skimmed off leaving the syrup clear, pure and delicious; ready to be poured, piping hot, into empty whiskey bottles and stored for future use."

A little later on she says:

"The last boiling of the syrup was kept thin then cooled. Vinegar 'mother' was added to it and in a few weeks the vinegar was ready to be used for pickling and salads."
While settlers used block buckets, the Anishinabek people of the Restoule area seemed to prefer sticking to the birch bucket to harvest maple sap.
royalty free photo

Maple syrup season was quite a festive time of year, one that children of the village looked forward to almost as much as Christmas. Families would host "sugar on the snow parties". Today there are still various festivals to go to, including the local Powassan Maple Syrup Festival.

At the local first tapping they had a town-crier open up the festivities. In times past the "sugar on the snow parties" were kicked off by a reverend saying a prayer of thanksgiving.

Around Christmas some folks would sing to the sugar bush and give some of the older trees a wee drink of whiskey or ale. Sounds a lot like wassailing to me!

Apparently maple syrup season was important to the First Nations as well, who called this time "Sugar Month" or "Maple Moon". Some tribes celebrated with  various rituals including dancing to encourage the maple sap to flow. {The Maple Sugar Book by Janet Eagleson & Rosemary G. Hasner}

There are a few First Nations' legends about maple syrup and maple sugar. There is a story that I believe is local to Northern Ontario that can be found on the website of Professor Ian McKenzie {Nipissing University}.

First Nations woman tapping for maple sap, circa 1908
In this particular tale maple syrup flowed straight from the tree by simply breaking off a twig. That was until Manaboozho changed things. He was slightly peeved to find his people all lying down with their mouths open beneath a constant stream of syrup coming from the maple trees. So to keep them from being "fat and lazy", he pour baskets of water over every maple tree. With this all the trees would just produce sap, so to get syrup the people had to work for it.

Another legend says that maple sap was first discovered after Chief Woksis pulled his tomahawk from a sugar maple and sap flowed from it. His wife used the sap to cook dinner and it has been a dietary staple ever since {source}.

Besides its wonderful culinary uses, maple sap, sugar and syrup have a history in folk healing as well. Maple sugar was used by settlers for wounds and stomach problems, while some Natives used it for diarrhea and sore throats {American Folk Medicine: A Symposium Edited by Wayland D. Hand}. Breathing in maple steam while sitting in a sugar shack was supposedly used as way to cure colds {source}.

As far as magic goes, sugar maple products are not something that I
photo by Chiot's Run

use, so I am not too familiar with their properties. However, I do have a vegan friend who uses maple syrup in lieu of honey for honey jar spells and seems to think it does the trick.

On a final note, I find that maple syrup is a suitable and well received offering to local and nature spirits here in Northern Ontario.




  1. Great post! We are going to a friend's tomorrow to help out with their maple syrup. I bet she would really like this post. Well, I bet she would love your whole blog, being a witch and all. ;-)

  2. My family are maple syrup producers. I had no idea about all this history thank you for sharing. Blessings, Sue