Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year's Celebrations

New Year's Day is this coming Tuesday (or was last Tuesday, depending on when you're reading this)…welcome to 2013.  This has become a traditional time of celebration.  We party on New Year's Eve and celebrate the moment the clock strikes midnight signaling the beginning of a new year.

And, of course, when the year 2000 arrived we celebrated for twenty-four hours as each time zone around the earth welcomed the new millennium on live television broadcasts.

But why and how did the New Year's celebrations become part of our annual routine?  The earliest recorded account of a celebration in honor of the new year dates back four thousand years to ancient Babylon.  For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox announced the arrival of the new year.  They celebrated this spring time event with a massive 11 day religious festival called Akitu.  It was during this time that a new king was crowned or the current ruler's mandate renewed.

Throughout antiquity, civilizations around the world developed more sophisticated calendars with the first day of the year associated with an agricultural or astronomical event.  For example, in Egypt the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius.  In China, the new year occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice…a day that is still celebrated.

The early Roman calendar had 10 months and 304 days with each new year beginning at the vernal equinox.  Tradition holds that it was created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, in the eighth century B.C.  Numa Pompilius, a later king, is credited with adding the months of Januarius and Februarius.  Over the ensuing centuries, the Roman calendar grew out of sync with the sun.  In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar which closely resembles the more modern Gregorian calendar used today by most countries.

As part of his reform, Julius Caesar declared January 1 as the first day of the year and Romans celebrated by exchanging gifts, decorating their homes, and attending raucous parties.  In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced January 1 as the first day of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25 as the anniversary of Christ's birth and March 25 as the Feast of the Annunciation.  It was Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 who re-established January 1 as New Year's Day.

In many countries, New Year's celebrations begin on New Year's Eve and continue into the early hours of January 1st.  These celebrations often include specific foods that are said to bring good luck for the coming year—grapes in Spain, round fruits in the Philippines, suckling pig in Austria, soba noodles in Japan, rice pudding in Norway, and black-eyed peas in the southern United States.  Other customs that are common worldwide include making new year resolutions (a practice started by the Babylonians) and watching fireworks displays.

In the United States, the most famous New Year's tradition is the dropping of the giant ball in New York City's Times Square.  This event, first instituted in 1906, occurs at the stroke of midnight.  The original giant ball was made of iron and wood weighing 400 pounds.  Today's giant ball is a brightly patterned sphere 12 feet in diameter and weighing nearly 12,000 pounds.

So, however you celebrate the arrival of the new year…whether you go out to a party, have family or a few friends to your home, or simply curl up by a cozy fire and watch the festivities in Times Square…I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year.

And peace on earth.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happy Holidays

Wishing everyone a happy holiday whether you have a specific day of celebration or pay homage to the season.

And most of all...PEACE ON EARTH

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Legend of St. Nicholas

Who is that man in red? The man who, every Christmas Eve, brazenly breaks into people's homes, helps himself to cookies and milk, and leaves things behind resulting in a mess of wrapping paper and ribbon for others to clean up the next morning. Reindeer and a heavily laden sleigh can't be good for the roof. Soot from a chimney tracked all over the floor…something else left behind for others to clean.

Yet every year we anxiously anticipate his arrival, track his progress through the skies, and welcome him into our homes.

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas. It is believed that Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. One of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery or prostitution by their father by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married. Over the course of many years, Nicholas' popularity spread and he became known as the protector of children and sailors. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, December 6. This was traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. By the Renaissance, St. Nicholas was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when the veneration of saints began to be discouraged, St. Nicholas maintained a positive reputation, especially in Holland.

Sinter Klaas Comes to New York

St. Nicholas made his first inroads into American popular culture towards the end of the 18th century. In December 1773, and again in 1774, a New York newspaper reported that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the anniversary of his death.

The name Santa Claus evolved from Nick's Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas). In 1804, John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society's annual meeting. The background of the engraving contains now-familiar Santa images including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace. In 1809, Washington Irving helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York. As his prominence grew, Sinter Klaas was described as everything from a "rascal" with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a "huge pair of Flemish trunk hose."

Shopping Mall Santas

Gift-giving, mainly centered around children, has been an important part of the Christmas celebration since the holiday's rejuvenation in the early 19th century. Stores began to advertise Christmas shopping in 1820, and by the 1840s, newspapers were creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, which often featured images of the newly-popular Santa Claus. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus model. It was only a matter of time before stores began to attract children, and their parents, with the lure of a peek at a "live" Santa Claus. In the early 1890s, the Salvation Army needed money to pay for the free Christmas meals they provided to needy families. They began dressing up unemployed men in Santa Claus suits and sending them into the streets of New York to solicit donations. Those familiar Salvation Army Santas have been ringing bells on the street corners of American cities ever since.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas. Moore's poem, which he was initially hesitant to publish due to the frivolous nature of its subject, is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a "right jolly old elf" with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head. Although some of Moore's imagery was probably borrowed from other sources, his poem helped popularize the now familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve in "a miniature sleigh" led by eight flying reindeer leaving presents for deserving children. An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas created a new and immediately popular American icon. In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. His cartoon, which appeared in Harper's Weekly, depicted Santa as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus.

A Santa by Any Other Name

18th-century America's Santa Claus was not the only St. Nicholas-inspired gift-giver to make an appearance at Christmastime. Similar figures were popular all over the world. Christkind or Kris Kringle was believed to deliver presents to well-behaved Swiss and German children. Meaning "Christ child," Christkind is an angel-like figure often accompanied by St. Nicholas on his holiday missions. In Scandinavia, a jolly elf named Jultomten was thought to deliver gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. English legend explains that Father Christmas visits each home on Christmas Eve to fill children's stockings with holiday treats. Pere Noel is responsible for filling the shoes of French children. In Russia, it is believed that an elderly woman named Babouschka purposely gave the wise men wrong directions to Bethlehem so that they couldn't find Jesus. Later, she felt remorseful, but could not find the men to undo the damage. To this day, on January 5, Babouschka visits Russian children leaving gifts at their bedsides in the hope that one of them is the baby Jesus and she will be forgiven. In Italy, a similar story exists about a woman called La Befana, a kindly witch who rides a broomstick down the chimneys of Italian homes to deliver toys into the stockings of lucky children.

The Ninth Reindeer

Rudolph, "the most famous reindeer of all," was born over a hundred years after his eight flying counterparts. The red-nosed wonder was the creation of Robert L. May, a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward department store.

In 1939, May wrote a Christmas-themed story-poem to help bring holiday traffic into his store. Using a similar rhyme pattern to Moore's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, May told the story of Rudolph, a young reindeer who was teased by the other deer because of his large, glowing, red nose. But, When Christmas Eve turned foggy and Santa worried that he wouldn't be able to deliver gifts that night, the former outcast saved Christmas by leading the sleigh by the light of his red nose. Rudolph's message—that given the opportunity, a liability can be turned into an asset—proved popular. Montgomery Ward sold almost two and a half million copies of the story in 1939. When it was reissued in 1946, the book sold over three and half million copies. Several years later, one of May's friends, Johnny Marks, wrote a short song based on Rudolph's story (1949). It was recorded by Gene Autry and sold over two million copies. Since then, the story has been translated into 25 languages and been made into a television movie, narrated by Burl Ives, which has charmed audiences since 1964.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

December In History

Every month on the calendar has its notable dates in history whether of major significance or merely a fun remembrance.  I've gathered a sampling of each to share with you here.

December 1          Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print (1887)
December 1          Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man which sparked a black boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, public transportation system, a significant event in the Civil Rights Movement (1955)

December 2          Barney Clark received the world's first artificial heart transplant (1982)

December 5          The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment thus putting an end to Prohibition, the only amendment to the Constitution ever repealed (1933)

December 7          Martin Van Buren elected the 8th President of the United States, the first president to be born in the U.S. (1836)
December 7          Thomas Edison exhibited the phonograph (1877)
December 7          Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bombed by the Japanese marking the U.S. entry into World War II (1941)

December 8          John Lennon murdered in New York City (1980)

December 10        Wyoming, a U.S. Territory not yet a state, allowed women to vote and hold office (1869)
December 10        Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., received the Nobel Peace Prize (1964)

December 13        The Clip-on tie was invented (1928)

December 15        The Bill of Rights were enacted, creating the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution (1791)
December 15        Gone With The Wind premiered in Atlanta (1939)

December 16        Boston residents protested a British tax by throwing barrels of tea over the side of a British ship in the harbor, known as the Boston Tea Party that sparked the beginning of the American Revolution (1773)
December 16        The World War II Battle of the Bulge began (1944)

December 17        Wright Brothers made their first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (1903)

December 19        Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (1843)

December 21        Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620)
December 21        Snow White premiered in theaters (1937)

December 23        Transistor invented by U.S. physicists (1947)

December 24        Franz Joseph Gruber composed Silent Night (1818)

December 25        William the Conqueror crowned King of England (1066)

December 26        James Mason invented the coffee percolator (1865)

December 27        Radio City Music Hall opened in New York City (1932)

December 28        William F. Semple patented chewing gum (1869)

December 30        Edwin Hubble announced the existence of other galactic systems (1924)

And that's only a sampling of what history in December offers.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bizarre and Unique December Holidays

There are certainly legitimate days of celebration and remembrance in December such as Pearl Harbor Day (U.S.) on December 7, Hanukkah on December 9, the Winter Solstice on December 21, Christmas on December 25, Boxing Day (UK and Commonwealth Countries) on December 26, and the beginning of Kwanzaa on December 26.

But every month seems to also come with a full calendar of bizarre and unique holidays and days of celebration…not the legal type of holiday that comes with no mail delivery, banks closed, schools closed, etc.  These are the days dedicated to the wacky and weird.

Here's a sampling (by no means all) of December's offerings for 2012 starting with the fact that December is Bingo Month.

December 1          Eat A Red Apple Day

December 2          National Fritters Day

December 3          National Roof Over Your Head Day

December 4          Wear Brown Shows Day
December 4          Santa's List Day:  Have you been naughty or nice this year? Thanks to Santa's elves and all their hard work, he now has two lists. An interview with Santa and his top elves disclosed that they strive to have the lists ready by this date.

December 5          Bathtub Party Day
December 5          Repeal Day:  The 1933 passage of the 21st Amendment is certainly a day for celebration. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment (the one that brought Prohibition to the United States on January 16, 1919).

December 6          Mitten Tree Day
December 6          Put On Your Own Shoes Day:  There doesn't seem to be any record of where this day came from or why someone felt a need to celebrate putting on one's own shoes. But…here it is!

December 7          National Cotton Candy Day

December 8          National Brownie Day
December 8          Take It In The Ear Day

December 9          Christmas Card Day
December 9          National Pastry Day:  This is a fun day where everyone is encouraged to make (and EAT) their favorite pastries. There doesn't seem to be any information about the origin of National Pastry Day, but a National day does require an act of congress.

December 11        National Noodle Ring Day

December 12        Poinsettia Day
December 12        National Ding-A-Ling Day:  On this day you should prepare to experience bizarre and crazy behavior from everyone you encounter. Some say this is a day for wackos, lunatics, and others of that ilk. Others say it's simply a day to cut loose and act a little weird. It is to be noted that Ding-A-Lings and Dingbats are not the same thing. Although referred to as a National day, there's no record of any congressional action.

December 13        Ice Cream Day
December 13        Violin Day

December 14        National Bouillabaisse Day

December 15        National Lemon Cupcake Day

December 16        National Chocolate Covered Anything Day:  Chocoholics rejoice! This is the day to indulge, binge, pig out, and consume your favorite food to excess. And is it a coincidence that this special day comes so close to Christmas?

December 17        National Maple Syrup Day

December 18        Bake Cookies Day
December 18        National Roast Suckling Pig Day

December 19        Look For An Evergreen Day
December 19        Oatmeal Muffin Day

December 20        Go Caroling Day

December 21        Forefather's Day
December 21        Humbug Day
December 21        National Flashlight Day
December 21        Look On The Bright Side Day
December 21        Mayan Calendar Ends:  This relates to the year 2012 only and has certainly been in the news a lot the last couple of years. The Mayan culture dates back approximately 6000 years with Guatemala the cultural and commercial center of their empire which covered much of Central America. Among other things, they were astronomers and considered 13 to be a sacred number. The Mayans kept several calendars to keep track of different things. The one ending on December 21, 2012, is only one of those calendars and represented only the current cycle. That doesn't mean there weren't more calendars with future predictions beyond that date that simply haven't been found.

December 22        National Date Nut Bread Day

December 23        Festivus
December 23        Roots Day

December 24        National Egg Nog Day
December 24        National Chocolate Day:  For those of you who haven't had your fill from National Chocolate Covered Everything Day, here's another day devoted to chocolate, and just the day before Christmas.

December 25        National Pumpkin Pie Day

December 27        Make Cut Out Snowflakes Day
December 27        National Fruitcake Day:  That much maligned and ridiculed seasonal treat couldn't be ignored. The jokes are plentiful—they can be used as a door stop or paper weight, it's so dense that scientists can't penetrate far enough into it to determine its exact composition, its density prevents it from being carbon-dated to determine its age, many fruitcakes are suspected of being hundreds of years old, it's the most re-gifted item with the same fruitcake being passed from person to person over many years.

December 28        Card Playing Day

December 29        Pepper Pot Day

December 30        National Bicarbonate of Soda Day (for those who attempted to eat the fruitcake?)

December 31        Make Up Your Mind Day
December 31        Unlucky Day:  Certainly this day will be unlucky for some people, just as any of the other days this year will be unlucky for some people. Perhaps the reason December 31 has been declared as Unlucky Day is to give everyone the opportunity to get everything bad out of the way so they can welcome a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

So, there you have it.  And, as seems to be with each month, many of the bizarre and weird holidays and celebrations are centered around food and drink.  For December, it's 20 of the days listed here…21 if you count bicarbonate of soda as part of the food and drink category.  :)