- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Decorating the body and hands with historic and wistful designs using henna has been part of the cultures of India, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle East for more than 5,000 years

During Yankee Homecoming, it’s arrived in Newburyport.

“I’ve been doing this for 14 years,” said Amesbury’s Maria O’Connor from her booth at the corner of State and Middle streets yesterday. “I never thought I’d be doing this so long. It’s become very popular. I do a lot of (hand) designs on tweens and teenage girls, but I’ve done men and older women as well.”

A life biology major, O’Connor said her background in science comes in handy when mixing the henna paste used in the needle-nosed squeeze bottles used to create the delicate artwork she places on the hands of her customers. The paste is made from the powder ground from the leaves of the henna plants, combined with lemon juice and essential oils.

“Depending on how well you take care of it, the designs can last for up to two weeks or even longer,” she said. “It depends on letting it set for a few hours (after the design is applied). Then you rub it with a natural oil, like olive oil, and the color will darken into a stain.”

In India, where weddings can last for three days, brides are pampered beforehand with a sangeet, O’Connor said, before they marry.

“They wash their hair and their body and then everyone grabs an arm and leg and they start painting (with henna),” O’Connor said. “The designs are drawn almost over their entire bodies, up their arms and their legs.”

Jacquie Claveau, of Georgetown, treated her younger sister to a homemade version recently for her birthday.

“They sell kits right here in Newburyport and you can do it yourself,” said the staff member at Not Your Average Joe’s as O’Connor painted a lovely flower design on her hand, complete with gold glitter.

The designs in O’Connor’s books for her customers to pick out are pretty; many are lacy artwork with flowers, shells linked with leaves and other graceful shapes. But in times past, depending on the civilization, she said, some designs have religious meaning that harken back to ancient religions.

“There are many henna variations that have spiritual backgrounds,” O’Connor said. “Some are symbols of protection against evil, others fertility.

“Some of these are ingrained in their cultures,” she said referring to books that carry designs from ancient Egypt, Morocco or India.

A New England native, Kevin Christoun visited Newburyport from Wisconsin with his family for the first time yesterday during Yankee Homecoming. He drove in while visiting family in Lowell, and was happy to indulge his daughter, Kaitlin, handing over the cash before the teenager sat in O’Connor’s booth. With his son, Kendall, and wife, Laura, Christoun watched as the pretty leaf design took place.

“(Kaitlin’s) had these done a number of times,” Christoun said. “Depending on how good the artist is, they can come out very good and last a week or longer. Sometime they aren’t done well.”

Kaitlin said she had her first henna design drawn on her hand by an Indian woman while she was playing volleyball on a trip to Atlanta.

For mom, Laura, the artistic expression of another culture is a pleasant opportunity to do something different.

“It’s not a permanent tattoo and we like that (henna) is made from a natural product,” Laura Christoun said. “It’s the best of both worlds. You have it, wear it for a while, and then it’s gone.”

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(c)2015 The Daily News of Newburyport (Newburyport, Mass.)

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