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Different alphabets on old samplers

March 12, Monday — Feast Day, St. Gregory the Great. Coca-Cola first sold in bottles, 1894.

March 13, Tuesday — Vermont-to-Maine blizzard dumped three feet of snow in 1984.

March 14, Wednesday — German-born U.S. physicist Albert Einstein born, 1879. First Town Meeting, Faneuil Hall, Boston, 1743.

March 15, Thursday — Andrew Jackson Day (Tenn.) Beware the Ides of March today.

March 16, Friday — Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, 1939. Magellan sighted Philippines, 1521.

March 17, Saturday — St. Patrick's Day. Evacuation Day (Suffolk Co., Mass.), the day the British army withdrew from Boston in 1776. Rubber band patented, 1845.

March 18, Sunday — Third Sunday in Lent. Moon runs low. Moon at descending node.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: I purchased an old sampler at a flea market and find that it has the "J" missing. Do you think this was just a young girl's mistake? — H.P., Schenectady, N.Y.

Answer: More likely, the sampler is fashioned after some of the old ones that sometimes had letters missing, most commonly the J, V, W, or possibly U. One explanation is that some of the very early samplers reflected the Elizabethan time (1558-1603) when the alphabet was comprised of 24 letters. Another shortened alphabet, about that same time, included just 21 letters, dropping the W, X, and Y as well. What's more, U and V were sometimes shaped alike and thus not duplicated on samplers. Additionally, Dutch and German samplers sometimes reflect an early Latin alphabet that did not include J, V or W.

Interestingly, even modern samplers sometimes intentionally copy from these older styles. You may also see samplers where some of the last letters of the alphabet are left off, for reasons of spacing a line within the cloth borders.

It is believed that embroidery samplers date back at least to the ninth century, in Asia, while the earliest known English sampler is dated at 1598. (It hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.) Young girls used them to learn their needlework, as well as their letters, and sometimes Bible verses were sewn in or other bits of rhyme or fancy pattern work were included. Cross-stitch, satin-stitch and chain-stitch are just three of the common needlework techniques used. As early as the 1500s, there were sample books showing various styles and techniques, often printed as handsome woodcuts.

Printed patterns on linen or other cloth backgrounds also date back to the 1500s. A qualified antique appraiser might be able to tell you more about your particular sampler.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: Besides the trusty forsythia, what other shrubs can be forced for early indoor blooms? — H.E., Burlington, Vt.

Answer: Forsythia and pussy willows are the all-time favorites and have become symbolic of spring's imminent arrival. The former take about a week to bloom, while pussy willows can take up to two weeks, depending on when you first cut them. Consider your springtime forcing of these shrubs an early pruning, for if you do not snip them now, you should prune them back, after they flower naturally outside. While you are out there snipping the early blooms, you might also offer these shrubs a bucket of well-rotted manure, for good measure. If the manure is not well rotted, but "hot," as they say of fresh horse manure, be sure it does not touch the branches or it will burn.

Other trees and shrubs for forcing, in the two-week range of expected bloom, include the red maple, redbud, Cornelian dogwood and spice bush. Blooms in three weeks can be had from wisteria, magnolias, honeysuckle, flowering almonds and deutzia. Cherries, flowering quince, lilacs and spirea take about a month, unless you cut them when they're closer to their natural bloom anyway.

If you're really patient and can wait a full five weeks, there's always the buckeye, flowering dogwood, horse chestnut and red-twig dogwood. The trees tend to be more stubborn than the shrubs, and some of the above produce relatively disappointing blooms, in any case. But if you like to experiment and you're modest about the blooms you expect, any of these can be fun to bring indoors. "May the force be with you!"

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: Can you explain to me what a macrobiotic diet is? Is it meant as a way to lose weight? — T.G., Wheeling, Ill.

Answer: The word macrobiotic comes from the 18th century Greek for "long life." It is not generally considered a weight-loss plan, although it is certainly possible to shed excess pounds while eating a macrobiotic diet. The combination of food choices includes seeds, grains and organically grown produce with an emphasis on local sources. The choices are also meant to balance the body's nutritional and energy needs, while providing the greatest physical harmony. Some extend macrobiotics to a vegan diet, while others don't, but in any case, meats, dairy and eggs are de-emphasized, if they are consumed at all.

Many who choose a macrobiotic diet strive to include only foods locally available within their particular climate zone and season. While apples might be eaten year-round in New England because they store well, fresh tomatoes might only be used in the summer months, for example. Cooking techniques, similarly, tend to be more minimal, shunning the heavier seasonings and excessive salt, and avoiding preservative methods such as canning, freezing or preservatives in favor of fresher foods or dried cereals and whole grains. Some cooks extend these choices to the kinds of cookware they use (no aluminum, for example) or the methods of cooking preferred (a pressure cooker or wok, maybe, and gas stoves rather than electric).

Macrobiotic proponents often seek to balance the dual, complementary principles of light/dark, heat/cold and masculinity/femininity in Chinese philosophy called "yin" and "yang," both in the combinations of foods we choose and in matching the foods to our seasons or physical needs of the moment. In winter, for example, we might eat more "yang" foods for the colder winter months, possibly even meat or dairy, while in summer we might move toward "yin" foods such as the lighter summer vegetables and greens. Whole cereal grains, miso, tamari, beans, seaweed, fish and some teas are common aspects of a macrobiotic diet. Meats, dairy, sweeteners, sodas and other artificial drinks, hot spices and salt are generally minimized or avoided altogether. The choices are not hard and fast, but gradually assumed. The goals are greater health, well-being and a feeling of being in physical balance. Some would say that macrobiotics is more than just a series of diet choices but rather a process of living well within your particular environment, culture and tradition.

Stumped, baffled or just curious? Send your questions to: Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer's Almanac, Main St., Dublin, NH 03444. Web site: © Yankee Publishing Inc.