Interview with a Krampus

I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit this year. The decorations are up, the lights are lit, and rebellious radio stations are pumping out classic holiday tunes like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Most of my shopping is done, there are way too many cookies in my house, and a candy cane hangs on the star that tops our tree.

Everything is feeling like Christmas, and it’s kind of perfect. Or at least it was, until a more sinister holiday tradition found its way onto my radar. Before we snuggle into our beds to dream of sugarplums, I think it’s time we talk about Krampus.

carolers
I would give these people figgy pudding if they showed up on my doorstep.

Maybe you’ve always been aware of St. Nick’s demon counterpart. I grew up happy, so I didn’t know about him until a few years ago. And I never met him until last night.

The origin of this dark character is a little unclear. The name Krampus probably comes from Krampen, the German word for claw, though similar traditions have come from all over Europe and may predate the sweeter celebrations of Christmas.

He is part goat, part demon, reminiscent of the traditional horned Satan of Christianity, and he comes on Krampusnacht on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. He comes lugging chains and carrying a bundle of birch branches for swatting naughty children. The truly rotten kiddos, he stuffs in the sack on his back and carries them off, presumably to eat them.

Yikes. Merry Christmas!

krampuswarning
Krampus is useful if you need to keep the kiddos out of the room where the Christmas gifts are hidden.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of this particular tradition. Honestly, Santa breaking and entering from the rooftop to snack on cookies isn’t high on my list, either, but at least he’s not devouring the children.

But because I, thankfully, didn’t grow up with Krampus in my life, I thought I should learn a bit about him as his popularity resurges throughout Europe and the United States. I went to the one place where I knew he’d be.

Saint Charles, Missouri, not too far from where I live, hosts an annual celebration called Christmas Traditions through several blocks of its charming brick road Main Street that runs alongside the Missouri River.

It’s a great family event, where you can catch a horse-drawn carriage ride, buy chestnuts roasted on an open fire, and listen to roaming packs of Victorian carolers begging for figgy pudding. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, characters of Christmas, including Susie Snowflake, Tiny Tim, and a whole host of traditional Father Christmases from around the world gather along the shop-lined lane and mingle with the crowd, handing out trading cards and holiday cheer.

On Wednesday evenings you can find them, too, but that’s also when the darker side of Christmas comes out to play. That’s when I went looking for Krampus. I had a hard time finding him at first so I asked a kindly old Kris Kringle, who was visibly distressed by the question. “We keep the naughty characters on the north end of the street,” he explained. “I should warn you, they’re a tough bunch, a little rough around the edges.”

krampus2
One Christmas tradition I think I could do without.

I thanked him and headed north where I discovered an abominable snowman, the Ice Queen, and Jolakotturinn, an Icelandic mouse demon that also eats people and will now haunt my sugarplum dreams.

At last I spotted the man/goat/demon himself. He was busy wishing people a happy President’s Day, Labor Day, or Columbus Day—anything but Christmas, a holiday he didn’t care to acknowledge. He handed out cards only when children said the magic phrase: “Give me a card, now!” I didn’t actually see him stuff any of them into a bag, but I could tell he was thinking about it. I’d have asked him. I even planned to. But he was a little rough around the edges.

Is Krampus a part of your holiday traditions?

 

I Hope I Didn’t Ruin It

In 1906, Englishman George Albert Smith invented the Kinemacolor contraption for producing films in color. Smith was building on the ideas of Edward Turner who had done something similar in 1902, but passed away shortly after. For a good six years, Smith took the world of cinema if not by storm, then at least by steady shower.

Other techniques came along and soon surpassed the abilities of the Kinemacolor, and the world of cinema moved on and kind of forgot George Albert Smith. But film historians are beginning now to resurrect his work and have rediscovered how truly innovative and influential he was, not just because of the Kinemacolor, but also because with a previous career in hypnotism, Smith’s work had a sense of whimsy and wonder that was unique to film at the time.

Among some of his advances is the first ever use of parallel action in a film, which he did in the 1898 Santa Claus. And this is where I think the story gets really interesting, because even though no actual film historians that I found have made this claim, I think this man Smith basically invented the Hallmark Christmas Movie.

decorating-christmas-tree-2999722__340
Every Hallmark Christmas movie also includes a whimsical scene in which a Christmas tree is decorated. At least one person ends up wrapped in garland. And I love every moment. What?

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about—those feel-good movies that you can’t help but turn on this time of year, even though you know exactly how they’re going to end. This is where I give you a “spoiler alert” warning, just in case you don’t know that the pretty career girl turns down the big promotion to pursue a relationship with the handsome, rustic single dad who reminds her of the true meaning of Christmas, works tirelessly to save the small town’s endangered holiday festival, and has a cute kid who wants her to celebrate with them. Did I ruin it? Sorry about that.

Obviously, George Albert Smith didn’t manage such an intricate plot in a film that lasts about one minute and sixteen seconds, but he did choose the right topic if he wanted to evoke a sense of wonder. The basic plot of his movie, in case you don’t have one minute and sixteen seconds to spare, is that a nanny tucks two children into bed, Santa comes down the chimney and leaves them presents, and they wake up to a great deal of Christmas joy.

It is likely that this is the first Christmas story ever shared in the medium of film, though the tradition certainly took off. From It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to yet another version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, we love our Christmas movies.

scrooge
I bet even this guy likes to watch Hallmark Christmas movies. photo credit: H. Bos Dickens Festival 2015 via photopin (license)

It doesn’t really take much this time of year to conjure feelings of joy. No sophisticated plots or complicated emotional twists required. Even for those among us who find the holiday difficult or don’t celebrate it for one reason or another, it’s hard to shut out the warm fuzzies entirely. In those parts of the world where Christmas is widely observed, there is enough general holly jolly to penetrate nearly every heart. And if not, there are well over a hundred versions of A Christmas Carol to cheer your inner Scrooge.

But just to warn you, that one comes with a happy ending, too—Ebenezer Scrooge, the single-minded career man is reminded of the true meaning of Christmas and learns to open his heart to his family and friends, mostly because of a cute kid who loves Christmas and wants Scrooge to celebrate it with them. I hope I didn’t ruin it.

A NaNoWriMo Eggs-periment

Sometime in the mid-1500s as the Spanish Inquisition held a firm grip on Naples, Renaissance man and notable genius of cryptography Giovanni Battista della Porta discovered a useful little trick. Several of his clever friends had been imprisoned for presumably not being quite Catholic enough and della Porta needed to get messages to them.

egg head
16th century egg head Giovanni Battista della Porta. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Everything that entered through the prison walls was carefully checked, with the exception of food deliveries. So, della Porta allegedly used a combination of vinegar and alum to write messages onto eggs. The special ink disappeared when the eggs were boiled, but the letters transferred through the semi-permeable shell and imprinted themselves on the membrane of the egg.

All della Porta’s nerdy heretic friends had to do was to carefully peel the egg, read the message, and eat the evidence. Not bad, and definitely more subtle than writing “Hoppy Easter” in white crayon before dyeing, which is how I usually convey secret egg messages.

Now I’ve found plenty of references to this little eggs-periment (see what I did there?), but what I haven’t been able to discover is what the messages might have been, or how della Porta’s friends knew to look for them, though I suppose if you peel and egg and discover words on the white, you probably go ahead and read them.

egg
I am probably not the person you want sneaking you hidden messages in prison.

Were these escape plans? Tricks for correctly answering inquisitors’ questions to secure release? Clever microfiction featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison? Egg salad recipes? Alas, the world will likely never know, because egg messages rarely last very long.

But there are lots of words that go unread in the world, and not just the brilliant ones languishing between the covers of small potatoes authors you’ve never heard of. Just this past month thousands of writers joined in on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and produced millions upon millions of words, many of which are brilliant, and a lot of them will never be read.

Because this was a sprint, and for many it was probably a slog. Some writers made it to the finish line of their goal (or will in the next thirty-eight hours) and many did not. I’m happy to be among those who completed the challenge, but what I can tell you is that you will never see most of the words I wrote.

laptop
Confession: One of my biggest fears is that I’ll die with an unrevised novel on my hard drive and it will get published. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure my family knows better. Also I’m not famous enough for anyone to care what I have left unpublished. So, you know, thank goodness for that. photo credit: wuestenigel Close Up of Woman’s Hand on the Laptop at the Office via photopin (license)

They might as well be written in invisible ink on an egg white. Of course, they are here in my computer, all 50,000+ of them, waiting for me to trim and polish and hard boil. Only after I’ve done that will I allow anyone else to start peeling back the shell and reading them.

It’ll be a while. I’m excited about the book I just spent a huge number of hours drafting, but it’ll be many times that number of hours before I manage to turn it into something I’m proud to share. For now I’ll set is aside and let the hastily scribbled words soak into the eggshell while I change direction for a bit and write something completely different. Maybe I’ll see if I can put together some microfiction. I have a great idea for a story featuring a dashing 16th century polymath who breaks his friends out of prison using only a bowl of egg salad.

More Excuses and Turkey

turkey-218742__340
Yes, I do have more than one turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my friends here in the United States! And happy Thursday to all my friends around the world who will not be spending the day basting a turkey and attempting to remain calm while thirty-three relatives gather in your home that has a max capacity of much fewer than that. I’m not exaggerating here. I will have thirty-three people in my home today. I am thankful for each of them. So far.

I’ll be back to writing regular posts next week. In the meantime, I want you to know that I am thankful for each of you who takes the time to check in on my little corner of the blogosphere. No matter what you’re up to on this Thursday, I hope you have a great day!happy-thanksgiving-3767426__340

Excuses and Cocoa

It’s Thursday, which means this is the day each week when I would normally write a bunch of nonsense to send out into the blogosphere. I’m not doing that today for two reasons:

1. It’s the third Thursday of November, and I am not yet finished writing my 50,000 truly terrible words for National Novel Writing Month.

2. My kids are home for a snow day today, on this crisp fall day in Missouri in November. If you’re not from my corner of the world that may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s kind of a big deal. We get snow. We even get snow in November sometimes, but not the kind that blankets the entire yard and makes me have to find everyone insulated pants that fit so they can sled and build snowmen. And beg for hot chocolate.

hot-chocolate-1908099__340
Some of the locals have taken to using the word “Snow-vember.” I do not approve.

So you see, I’d blog, but instead I need to dig through the snow clothes in the basement, throw snowballs at my kids, make cocoa, and write at least 3,000 words of an awful draft. You understand, right?

In the meantime, please enjoy this piece I wrote recently for the online literary magazine, Women Writers, Women’s Books. It’s about writing, rather than history, but it does contain an amusing story about my grandmother’s terrible cooking.

http://booksbywomen.org/the-importance-of-writing-nonsense-by-sarah-angleton/

Have a great day!

 

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

In 1930, radio station WGN in Chicago approached new employee and former speech teacher Irma Philips to create a show targeted at women and the sponsors who wished to reach them. Debuting on October 20 of that year, Painted Dreams aired every weekday in a fifteen-minute time slot to tell (in highly dramatic fashion) the story of the Irish-American Moynihan family, consisting of a widow and her unmarried daughters.

tv
Television added so much to the genre—like the long, poignant gaze off camera in the middle of a conversation.

The new genre took off and the sponsorships rolled in from companies producing products of particular interest to the primary demographic—housewives. The American press dubbed the shows “Soap Operas.” By the start of World War II, there were sixty-four such programs available on American radio.

In the early fifties, after a few failed attempts to adapt the form to television, the Soap Opera became king there as well, and by 1960 the radio soap opera was a thing of the past. In more recent decades the once wildly popular genre has taken a hit as more and more American women work outside the home, but there are still a few of these silly shows going strong.

Days_of_Our_Lives_cast_1971
Days of Our Lives cast members from 1971. This was a good twenty years before I started watching, yet I know who these characters are. By NBC Television – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

And they do seem a little silly. With open plots that go on and on, some of them seemingly indefinitely, and the long, drawn-out dialogue that can make a single scene last often more than a week, the remaining viewership is made up of a loyal bunch of extremely patient people. And let’s not forget about the crazy plots that occasionally feature amnesia, evil doppelgangers, babies switched at birth, mind control, faked deaths, faked pregnancies, faked births, and real alien abductions. To name a few.

The acting leaves something to be desired as well, because in the process of filming a daily television show, probably quite talented actors are given very little time to memorize lines, let alone rehearse a scene in which a previously demon-possessed woman transforms into a leopard, but turns out to be fine because the leopard woman is actually just a twin sister no one knew about who’d been brainwashed to think she was someone else. It’s no wonder the genre has also produced so many comedy spoofs.

So why, despite falling ratings, do many viewers still tune in to watch? I started watching my soap of choice, Days of Our Lives, when I was in junior high, mostly because it came on pretty much as soon as I walked in the door from school. I kept watching in part because I couldn’t believe my mother let me, and also because she started watching it, too. Turns out she had been in recovery for several years since becoming a working mom without much spare time on her hands, but she’d been addicted to the same “soap” in its early days.

It wasn’t long before we’d pulled my sister in, too. For years we all watched and laughed together at the ridiculous plot twists, reminiscing about how far the characters, or their evil twin counterparts, had come, and appreciating that no matter how twisted up our lives might seem, it was nothing compared to the dysfunction playing out in what my mother referred to as “the story.”

hourglass
For years I listened to the introduction to Days of Our Lives and I still don’t get it. Does it mean our days go by fast? Or slow? Maybe it’s that we don’t get them back once they’re gone? Or maybe it just means that if our story isn’t working out we just flip everything on its head, give everybody amnesia, and start fresh.

I finally stopped watching sometime in my early twenties when life got busier. By then my sister had also given up on it. As far as I know, my mom still catches an episode now and then.

My memories of the show are fond ones and when I saw that today marks the anniversary of its first airing, 53 years ago, my heart swelled a little. There aren’t as many soap operas available to watch anymore, but I’m glad to know this one is still plugging away.

When I occasionally glimpse an episode in the background at a store display (or my mom’s house), there are now a lot of faces I don’t recognize, which I assume means the characters I know have all had face transplants. Or it could mean that even a slowly moving plot eventually moves forward. After all, “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

50,000 Words and Lots of Paint Dribbles

In 1508 Pope Julius II decided the Sistine Chapel with its blue, star-spangled ceiling was in need of a little interior punching up, and he knew just the artist for the job. Already the thirty-three-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was hard at work on the Pope’s marble tomb and it was only grudgingly that he accepted the new commission.

Not known for painting, the artist had made a name for himself producing marble masterpieces like Pietà and David, carefully detailing human anatomy and capturing subtle expressions of emotion like no one else. He hadn’t really had a great deal of experience with painting, and none with frescoes.

mikey
I bet this young Michelangelo wondered from time to time if he could really be a ninja. photo credit: Gonmi Tortuga Ninja via photopin (license)

There are some theories about why the pope may have approached this unlikely choice to spruce up the chapel ceiling. Perhaps Pope Julius, not especially happy with his tomb-in-progress anyway, decided it might be tempting fate for his tomb to be built while he was still alive and so wished to redirect the artist’s efforts. It’s possible, too, that some of Michelangelo’s biggest rivals on the art scene encouraged the choice, suspecting the sculptor would fail spectacularly when forced to work in such a different medium.

Obviously that notion backfired. Though he claimed to have despised every moment of it, Michelangelo bent and stretched and painted his heart out above his head. Over the years he worked on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo sealed his reputation as one of the greatest painters in history, and got quite a bit of paint on his face.

ceiling
I mean for a non-painter, it’s not too bad. By By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
I share this story today, on November 1, because this is the day when a lot of artists throughout the world are stepping out to create something new. Today is the kickoff for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that time of year when otherwise sane people from all walks of life, sit down at their computers (or typewriters, or notebooks) and attempt to scribble out a minimum of 50,000 words that will hopefully become the rough draft of a novel.

Some of these folks, like me, have written novels before, and though 50,000 words in a month can be a pretty tall order, they may not find the experience too overwhelming. However many other NaNo writers aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. They have regular day jobs and responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, and the experience can seem pretty uncomfortable and messy.

But they have these great ideas that’ve been tickling the backs of their minds for years just looking for an opportunity to jump onto a page and into the world.

These are the writers I think are the most exciting part of NaNoWriMo, and the reason that year after year, more and more people join in the agony fun. Not everyone will finish. Even some of the more seasoned writers won’t make it to the end of 50,000 poorly written words. Those that do will find the hard work has only just begun.

But that’s okay. Even Michelangelo took a break in 1510 from painting the chapel ceiling. When he returned to the work, it was with a new eye and a somewhat altered style, and that is when he produced many of the most iconic scenes, including The Creation of Adam.

adam
This kind of iconic image is probably worth a little agony and a few paint dribbles on your face. Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He was still in agony and struggled with the work, writing in a poem to a friend (because Michelangelo was also not a poet, who wrote quite a bit of poetry), “My painting is dead. . .I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

In this next thirty days, I suspect a lot of NaNo writers, experienced or not, will utter similar words. They may hit walls when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a creative effort that pushes them outside their usual spheres.

When they do, and when I do, I hope we remember that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by a man who claimed he was not a painter and who suffered a lot of cricks in his neck and had a lot of paint on his face. But this amazing work is imbued with the exquisite textural depth perhaps only a sculptor could have produced and that millions of people have literally looked up to.

I hope we remember that no one would ever tell our stories the way we will tell them. Whether you’ve written twenty-seven novels or work as a full-time accountant but have one really great idea for a book, know that even when you think your writing is dead, you’re not in the right place, and you have paint dribbling onto your face, your words might offer a perspective and textural depth the world has never yet seen.

Happy NaNoWriMo!