Harpin’ Boont on the Bucky Walter

It was somewhere around 1862 when John Bregartes arrived in the Anderson Valley of California, a little more than a hundred miles north of San Francisco, and founded the little town of Boonville. And it wasn’t long after that when the farmers, ranchers, and loggers who came to live in this fairly isolated community started to develop a language of their own.

Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, every region’s got one to some extent. If you come to my corner of the world here in St. Louis, for example, you might drive farty-far to get some t-ravs, go to the laundromat to warsh your clothes, and then grab a concrete for a treat. If someone accidentally bumps into you along the way, you’ll likely hear them say “Ope!” and they’ll expect you to respond with a friendly, “You’re fine.”

We’ve all got our little quirks, maybe made slightly more accessible by the mingling and spreading of regional expressions across the internet where I learned not so long ago that a take-a-plate dinner in New Zealand is the same thing as a potluck supper in the Midwestern US.

But what Boonville, California has going is much more than a few quirky expressions that rose up over time. By the dawn of the twentieth century, it had an entire language all its own.

I’m not sure what the Boontling word is for potluck. U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though Boontling is based on English, it contains more than a thousand unique words and expressions that show influence from Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Spanish, and Indigenous languages and is peppered with the names and experiences of generations of Boonters.

So, Bucky Walter is a payphone, because bucky is the word for nickel and a guy named Walter was the first person in town to have a telephone. To me this sounds a little like getting directions from a local that include turning left at the corner of the field Fred used to own that once had that big red barn that burned down thirty years ago. Except it’s a whole language with standardized grammatical patterns and there’s no GPS to guide you to the right address.

No one is quite sure why the small town invented its own language, though there are plenty of stories. Most suggest that it was a convenient way for one group of people to speak secretly about another group (wives gossiping about husbands, elders wanting to exclude youngsters, or vice versa), which led eventually to the tightknit residents of Boonville using it to keep themselves to themselves when strangers came to town.

Where St. Louis goes to eat its frozen custard concretes. Philip Leara, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The real mystery to me, however, is why it has persisted for so long. This peculiar language which has never traveled much outside of the Anderson Valley and has probably never been spoken by more than a thousand people at any time its history, has existed for nearly a century and a half. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, the number of fluent speakers has dwindled in recent years to include only a handful of people. Over the years it has generated lots of interest for linguists, but not as much for the youngest generations of Boonters. One source I found laments the fact that the elementary school no longer teaches Boontling, which indicates that at one time it did.

The Anderson Valley Historical Society would like to keep the language alive a little bit longer and has provided a nice glossary to get you started if you’ve a mind to learn to harp Boont on the Bucky Walter. Maybe you can even get together with your apple head, pike to grab aplenty bahl steinberhorn, and have yourself the bahlest harpin’ session you ever had. Or you could just stick to English and go out for concretes.

The One to Watch

Last weekend I watched football. Kind of, anyway. My husband and I attended a Superbowl party, but while I enjoyed spending time with great friends and good snacks and I do appreciate clever commercials, I am not really a fan of the sport. And honestly, I’m a little sported out at the moment anyway.

Because though it seems not many of us have particularly noticed, the Winter Olympics are also occurring right now, amid a great deal of geopolitical strife in a world that feels like it might be on the verge of reshaping itself in some fashion.

The Games have been on in our house because, as I have mentioned before in this space, I am married to an Olympic junkie. I can support this habit. At least he is not an actual junkie, which may not be true for at least one of the figure skaters competing in the 2022 Games.

Curling probably should have at least made the graphic. Image courtesy of stux, via Pixabay.

So, we have been watching. A quick and highly scientific poll of my friends at the Superbowl party suggests most of the rest of you probably haven’t been. Well, maybe with the exception of the occasional curling match, because who can resist that? I guess.

Actually, it might surprise you (or not) that curling is not the most popular winter event, though does easily crack the top fifteen.* It’s a little difficult to know which sport will end up on top for the 2022 Olympics since they aren’t over yet and most surveys I found looked at subsections of the population in either the US or the world. Still, figure skating tops most lists, often followed by snowboarding.

Ski jumping has also been popular this year, against the vaguely post-apocalyptic industrial backdrop Beijing has chosen for it. Short-track speed skating also pulls in a crowd of spectators, unable to tear their eyes from a race that will likely see the disqualification of a good 75% of the competitors and at any moment might result in someone losing a finger.

Perhaps it is the danger factor that keeps the spectators on the edges of their cozy living room recliners, because pulling up more or less in fifth place on the list of popular winter sports to watch is luge.

Sandro Halank, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I will be the first to admit that outside of the Olympic Games, I have never in my life seen a luge competition, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. I have, however, watched it quite a bit during the 2022 Winter Games, most of it through the slits between my fingers. I don’t know about you, but to me luge seems like the kind of bad idea a bunch of friends might cook up one boring winter day at a resort in the Swiss Alps.

And that’s exactly how the sport traces its history, to a posh resort in the town of St. Moritz in Switzerland, where in the late 1800s, tourists, allegedly at the suggestion of hotelier Caspar Badrutt, started entertaining themselves by commandeering delivery sleds and racing at breakneck speeds through town.

It must have been great fun, because the idea quickly spread to other resort towns and spawned competitions which led to new sledding technologies, international organizations, icier tracks, and in 1964 to the Olympics. All because some bored tourists decided it might be an entertaining way to pass the time. 

Nope. Can’t watch. Image courtesy of Victoria_Borodinova, via Pixabay.

Some of those early competitors even decided to go headfirst to make the sport, if not faster, then at least more devastatingly dangerous. That’s how skeleton was born. It made its Olympic debut in 1928, was dropped and added again in 1948, then was dropped again and added back in 2002. This may be because skeleton was a bit too niche for the Olympics, or it could have been because anyone who ever watches it surely realizes that a mistake in the sport will most likely lead to a swift death or life-altering injury for the athlete.

I draw the line at watching skeleton. My heart can’t take it, even through the gaps between my fingers, but for the Olympic junkie I live with, every Olympic sport is the one to watch.

*There are currently fifteen distinct sports featured in the Winter Olympic Games.

Worth Learning About Anytime

It wasn’t until 1976, under the direction of then US president Gerald Ford that Black History Month became an officially designated event in the life of the United States, though versions of it had been recognized in various parts of the country for fifty years by then. Ford hoped that Americans would “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

It does raise some controversy, which I can understand somewhat. To designate only one month to the contributions of Black Americans throughout history could be considered a disservice both to Black Americans and to American history itself, which is much better understood when all of its threads are looked at together. I get that argument.

It’s great to set aside a month for this to be our focus, as long as we don’t ignore the stories of Black Americans during the other eleven months.

I have, fortunately, seen in my lifetime a noticeable shifting in the way history is taught to incorporate more of the Black voice and I am hopeful that trend will continue, but I also see value in setting aside time to focus on some of the things we still have the tendency to miss.

I will be the first to admit that this blog rarely features history from the Black community. The reason for that is certainly not intentional racial exclusion, but stems rather from the reality that this blog is a place I generally try hard to keep fairly lighthearted, which so much of Black history sadly is not. It’s made up of a great deal of struggle and I have a hard time knowing how to write about that in the same space where I joke about cussing parrots and moon poop.

But today, I do want to take the opportunity to look at the neglected story of an impressive Black man who appears in my most recent novel, White Man’s Graveyard, a book that includes neither cussing parrots nor moon poop, but does wrestle with some complicated and racially charged American history.

Born free in Rhode Island in July of 1801, Reverend George S. Brown was a skilled stone mason and a powerful preacher. Rumor has it he also played the bagpipe, but I won’t hold that against him. Brown traced his conversion to 1827, when, emerging from a part of his life he referred to as his years of carousing, he felt called to the Methodist Episcopal Church where he soon became a licensed preacher.

I have found no pictures of either Rev. Brown or his mission at Heddington, but this is a Liberian mission station (Edina) from the same time period, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And boy did he preach. At one point while he attended seminary, he was told he couldn’t preach because it proved too distracting from his studies. He did it anyway. And it seems that people listened. His diary is filled with references to sermon topics and scripture passages, to congregations and conversions, and what is amazing for the time is that he was as likely to preach, and be well received, in white churches as he was in Black.

In fact, the only Methodist Episcopal Church to which he was ever officially appointed lead pastor was in Wolcott, Vermont, where in the 1850s, he ministered to a white congregation and even led them through a building campaign.

Before that, however, he served as a missionary to Liberia. That’s where I first encountered George Brown, encouraging purses to open and prayers to flow for the outreach opportunities presented by the colonization movement which sought to firmly establish an African colony for former American slaves.

George Brown was arguably the most effective Christian missionary to ever serve in the colony of Liberia. He established a mission post east of Monrovia called Heddington where he and his church of indigenous Africans withstood a brutal attack from slavers, and sought opportunities to reach further into the interior of the continent with the gospel message.

Brown also did not shy away from standing up to his white colleagues, including physician Sylvanus Goheen (one of the main protagonists in my novel) and mission superintendent John Seys, whose legal struggles with the colonial government seemed to Brown a terrible distraction from the mission. His refusal to align with a side, both of which he saw as wrong for various reasons, led to legal trouble of his own when Seys later attempted to block him from full ordination in the United States.

That’s where the story becomes sad and familiar because of course, the word of a white man outweighed the claims of even a well-respected and free Black man in 1840s America. Thankfully, George Brown persevered and eventually won the court battle.

I mean, this is one funny looking instrument, no matter who plays it. OpenClipart-Vectors, via Pixabay.

Reverend Brown is in my book because he was an integral part of the historical story on which it is based. In my earliest notes, he even provides one of the voices through which the story is told, but in the end, I didn’t think I could do him justice. Maybe someday another author will pick up his story and run with it. I hope so, because he strikes me as a man of deep conviction and unwavering integrity, an American well worth learning about this month and in the other months as well.

It’s true he never left bags of poop on the moon and if he owned a parrot that swore like a sailor, I never found any record of it. I do wish I had discovered more than a fleeting reference to his bagpipes, though, because I find that stories about bagpipes are often genuinely hilarious.

A Shakeup in the Weather

In 1900, Austrian inventor Erwin Perzy was given a challenge by a local physician who wasn’t quite getting the light be needed for his surgeries from Edison’s new-fangled lightbulb. Perzy specialized in designing medical equipment and the surgeon was hoping the inventor could improve upon the design to eek out just a little bit more brightness. Much to the relief, I’m sure, of the many patients facing the surgeon’s blade, Perzy rose brilliantly to the challenge by inventing the snow globe.

Snow globes are kind of oddly fascinating to look at. Image via Pixabay.

Of course, he didn’t exactly do this on purpose. Perzy attempted to increase the amount of reflected light by shining into a glass globe containing water and reflective glitter. The glitter, as it turned out, didn’t float well enough to really work, so he tried semolina flakes instead. That didn’t really work, either, but the whitish flakes swirling around in the globe reminded Perzy of snow and he thought they were kind of pretty.

Next, he did what any inventor would do if he tries to invent something really useful and instead stumbles onto something essentially useless that might make him a lot of money. He filed for the world’s first snow globe (or Schneekugel) patent and began production though the Original Vienna Snow Globe Company which still exists as a Perzy family-run business in Vienna today.

These original Vienna snow globes probably weren’t actually the first the world had ever seen. There is evidence that several years earlier at the 1878 Universal Exposition in Paris a glass company had exhibited something similar as a decorative paperweight. But Perzy is generally credited with the invention, which led to the inventor himself being honored for his accomplishment by Emperor Franz Joseph I, and eventually to Guinness Book of World Records title holder Wendy Suen’s collection of 4,059 snow globes.

That record is from 2016, so by now Ms. Suen’s collection has most likely grown. At least I assume it has since because experience tells me that once word gets out that you’re a collector, it pretty much snowballs (snow globes?) from there. The only thing I know for sure is that she has at least 4,059 more snow globes than I do. But that’s okay, because today I need one about as much as your average physician does who really just wants a little brighter light to illuminate his surgical table.

Ozzie and I agree that this is the best kind of snow globe.

My corner of the world hasn’t received much snow so far this winter season, or it hadn’t before the last day or so when a winter storm worthy of being named Landon by meteorologists came our way. School has been cancelled, activities have been postponed, the grocery shelves have been cleared of eggs, milk, and bread, and the world outside my house has been essentially transformed into a snow globe.

Since I don’t have to be out on the road, I don’t mind at all. I get to just sit back and watch what looks like a big bunch of semolina flakes swirl through the air and settle onto my lawn. And while it’s true that I haven’t been able to use the days for anything as important as improving surgical outcomes, it has been an awfully pretty couple of days for looking out the window.  

‘Cause I Eats Me Spinach

As I sit here at the end of January it is stupid cold in my corner of the world. But the sun is shining and the days are starting to get ever so slightly noticeably longer. We’re now less than a week away from letting a rodent who can’t even chuck wood tell us whether winter will last another six weeks or if it will be closer to another month and a half.

All this means is that I am starting to realize that the extra weight I packed on through the holiday season (and the months of pandemic-induced inactivity), isn’t going to be covered by a bulky sweater forever. It has occurred to me that if I would rather not try to squish the extra bulge into a swimsuit when the weather actually does warm up, that I probably need to start eating less cake and more spinach now.

So much iron. Except maybe not that much. But there’s some. nad_dyagileva, via Pixabay.

I guess that’s ok. I do like spinach, at least the fresh kind, and I know that it’s good for me because Popeye once said it’s what “makes hoomans strong an’ helty,” and then his forearms ballooned to three times their normal size.

Rumor has long held that spinach is a great source of iron, though not probably as much as originally thought. The story, or at least a version of it, goes that while German researcher E. von Wolff was studying the iron content of spinach in 1870, he misplaced a decimal point, leading to the conclusion that spinach had ten times the amount of iron it really does possess. So, Popeye creator Elzie Sager chose spinach as the superfood to fuel his hero because of a then sixty-year-old math error.

I encountered this story on a daily calendar that features quirky historical tidbits that I got as a Christmas gift. The accidental overcalculation of spinach iron sure does make for a great story, complete with a lesson in the importance of peer review. But like so many great stories, it’s not really true.

We know that now because of the solid investigative work of Dr. Mike Sutton, who also liked the story a lot before he stopped and thought about it and realized it wasn’t exactly well researched. He explained this in great detail in a 2010 article published in the Internet Journal of Criminology. It’s a pretty good read if you have the time and inclination.

In case you don’t want to read Sutton’s thoughtful work, and you’d rather take the word of a blogger who regularly engages in the type of shoddy research that leads to 150 years’ worth of great stories without much truth to them, I’ll sum it up:

  1. Although there hasn’t been an entirely exhaustive study of the work of E. von Wolff in order to evaluate every decimal point placement, no obvious error of this kind has been found.
  2. There is procedural sloppiness present in the work of some American researchers studying spinach around 1930, which may have contributed to a misunderstanding, and later clarification, of the iron content of spinach.
  3. Popeye claimed to eat healthful spinach because it had so much vitamin A, and under the direction of his original creator, never mumbled a single somewhat incoherent word about iron.
  4. You shouldn’t believe every story you read, even if it comes from a generally reputable source, unless it is supported by a reliable primary source, because everyone loves a good story and sometimes researchers are lazy. Quirky calendar makers and bloggers, on the other hand, are almost always lazy.
  5. Forearm bulge measurement may not be the most useful way to evaluate good health.

Actually, Sutton didn’t make that last point, but I think you can trust me on that one. I’m a blogger and I know what I’m talking about.

I mean, it’s no cake, but that looks pretty tasty. kaboompics, via Pixabay.

So, I will tell you that in my quest for a better swimsuit body, I’ll be including spinach in my diet, because I like it. It makes a great salad and it has some good stuff in it like vitamin K and beta-carotene, which as Popeye almost explains, does provide your massive forearms with vitamin A. It’s also a good source of folate, is low in calories, and high in fiber. And yes, even though it will probably not give you super sailor arms as soon as you eat it, it has some iron, too.

Most importantly, if you replace some of your cake with spinach, you stand a chance of fitting into your swimsuit in a few months.

The Practical Historian Has No Taste

If you had happened to live in 430 BC and you had developed a taste for cinnamon, you’d have to have been awfully wealthy and also pretty lucky, because in 430 BC, the process of obtaining cinnamon was pretty complicated.

According to that great ancient historian Herodotus, the only source of this most flavorful spice was an unknown land where the cinnamalogus bird harvested sticks from the cinnamon tree to build its nest high atop the sheer cliffs of Arabia.

Herodotus, the world’s first practical historian. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s where the Arabian cinnamon traders got their hands on it by luring the birds away from their cinnamon nests with tasty meaty morsels and knocking down the sticks with weighted arrows.

Now, I know you might think this sounds a little far-fetched, or perhaps you are skeptical because you’ve read my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which introduces Herodotus as history’s biggest liar, liar, pants on fire. But consider that the cinnamalogus bird and this curious harvesting method are also documented in the writings of Aristotle, Isidore of Seville, and Pliny the Elder, which, I think, clearly demonstrates that the human tendency to copy and share ridiculous rumors indiscriminately on the internet shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

In defense of Pliny the Elder, he did at least express a little skepticism, suggesting that tall tales may sometimes evolve as a way to corner the market on some commodities. Cinnamon would probably have been worth the effort because it is among those sought-after spices that helped shape the modern world. Spice encouraged trade, which led to cultural exchange (and sometimes conflict), and eventually resulted in greater diversity in every corner of the earth. Because no matter what our differences may be, pretty much all humans like to experience flavor in their food.

For some reason I was picturing this bird as a lot more red and spicy and maybe with flames coming out of its wings or something. At least that’s how I would have drawn it if I’d made it up. Unknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And that is something I have been made very aware of this past week when in the midst of surging numbers of Covid cases in my corner of the world, “the ‘Rona,” as it’s not so affectionately known around here, caught up with me. Fortunately, it wasn’t a bad case. I had a brief fight with fever followed by muscle aches, fatigue, and a runny nose. By day three, it had morphed into mostly congestion and as that cleared, I suddenly realized I still couldn’t taste and smell so well.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a terrible symptom, but it is a little frustrating when some of your favorite foods just stop tasting the way you want them to. In fact, if my senses of taste and smell weren’t already improving a little bit, it probably wouldn’t be long before I found myself willing to coax a mythical bird from its nest, to then destroy that nest with weighted arrows. Or at least if I found someone who said that’s what they had to do in order to bring some spice back into my life, I might just believe it was worth it.

Big Ben Takes a Tumble

It has been nearly ninety-six years since that fateful Saturday night when a previously peaceful unemployment demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square turned into a violent mob ransacking the National Gallery and the Houses of Parliament, and knocking down the clock tower containing the famous Big Ben.

A shock, for sure, the wireless report from the BBC may not have been entirely unexpected by a nation made nervous by the recent 1917 Russian revolution. England had elected its first Labour Government in 1922 and the country was in the grip social change.

Trafalgar Square with approximately the same amount of mob violence as was seen on January 16, 1926. Charlie Forman, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dumbfounded wireless listeners followed the breaking news story until the final moments when the BBC’s London station was overrun and the broadcast faded into assorted music. The audience was left to anxiously wait for their newspapers to arrive the next morning with more details of what had befallen their capitol city.

Then, heavy snows the following day in London delayed those newspapers to many of the more isolated rural areas, leaving some in great suspense, imagining the charred ruins of the Savoy Hotel and the terrible lynching of Minister of Traffic Mr. Wotherspoon.

Of course, astute listeners may have understood that there was, in fact, no such position as the Minister of Traffic in the English government of 1926 and that “Mr. Wotherspoon” is kind of a silly name, as is that of Mr. Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues and ringleader of the violence.

Standing tall. Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition, those listeners who had tuned in from the very start would have heard the preface explaining that the fictitious news account they were about to hear came from the imagination of brilliant satirist, Catholic priest, and maybe slightly ironic lover of cozy mysteries Father Ronald Knox, whose tongue was so firmly implanted in his cheek that it was surprising he could talk at all.

Knox’s performance piece Broadcasting the Barricades was a smash hit eliciting a huge number of responses which were about nine to one positive, and included only one report of a stress-induced fainting. The piece, written by the same man who would later come up with the “10 Commandments of Detective Stories,” one of which says that “No Chinaman must figure in the story,” encouraged the BBC to begin its long and glorious tradition of April Fools pranks a few months later, and most likely influenced the War of the Worlds radio play presented by Orson Welles in 1938.

And today it serves as a good example of why, when you hear something terribly upsetting on the news, you probably ought to take a deep breath and look for another source, from a different perspective before you pass out from the stress. Because surprising, terrible, scary things do sometimes happen, but there are probably also a lot of snarky priests out there, good detective stories involving Chinese characters, and, it seems, fake news reports.

Just the Cutest Little Poofy

In the spring of 1904 on a Rällinge farm in Södermanland, Sweden, a twelve-year-old boy named Gustav Karlsson made a big discovery in a potato field. What he found was a seven-centimeter-tall bronze statuette that dates back to the Viking Age.

There’s debate about the identity of the figure depicted, with some believing it is a playful Thor, others suggesting it is a game piece of some kind, and most others insisting it must be the god Freyr. But no matter who the statuette is supposed to be, the one thing no one argues about is that it is wearing a pom-pom hat.

If you happen to be French, or if you went to my American high school where our dance team *inexplicably shook their festive pompons whenever our team scored, then you may spell that a little differently, but I think most of us know what they are.

And I can pretty safely say that because while the Rällinge statuette is the oldest example we’ve found of the cutest little poofy, scraggly embellishment ever to adorn the top of a stocking cap, Sweden is far from the only place people have ever sported them. The fifteenth and sixteenth century cavalrymen of Central Europe known as the Hussars wore them as part of their otherwise intimidating hats. Napoleon’s army wore them as well, primarily as a way to distinguish regiments.

South Americans, too, long used pom-pom flourishes to indicate marital status. Clergymen in Rome have used pom-poms to denote their relative importance. And so have soldiers of the Scottish Highlands, from the time of the very earliest battles of the immortals among them trying to chop off one another’s heads, all the way up through much of the nineteenth century. And I’m betting all of those folks looked pretty darn cute.

Historical rumor has it that pom-poms have even occasionally been useful, and that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sailors out in rough waters wore adorable pom-poms on their hats to serve as a warning in tight, wobbly-legged spaces when one was about to bump one’s head so that maybe they could do something about it. Or perhaps be slightly cushioned if they couldn’t.

He does look awfully cozy.

That might be true, or it could be one of those unsubstantiated “facts” posted willy-nilly on the internet by Abraham Lincoln. Either way, I don’t think anyone would argue that if Abraham Lincoln had worn a pom-pom hat, he would have looked pretty darn cute, too.

I am a little bit excited that the weather in my corner of the world has finally turned a bit more wintery after a really mild December. The warmth was nice because I definitely don’t love the bitter cold of right now, but I do enjoy wearing my pom-pom hat.

I have one that was hand-knitted for me by my husband’s grandmother years before he was my husband and long before she’d ever met me, which because of distance and travel difficulties didn’t happen until after the wedding. She made it for me to coordinate with the one she had previously made for him, which in addition to an adorable pom-pom on the top, includes his first name in big letters right across the front.

There’s no question whose adorable hat this is.

Not long after we met in college, I admired it. He mentioned how much I liked the stocking cap to his grandma, and the next thing I knew, he received one in the mail just for me. She was obviously a really lovely person who I wish I’d gotten a chance to know better, and only partly because I admire anyone who can make a hat.

I think of her now every year when the air turns cold and I don my favorite hat with a pom-pom that she made just for me, to demonstrate that I was someone special to her grandson, and by extension, to her. I have to assume she also didn’t want me to bump my head should I find myself sailing rough seas. And of course, it’s just a pretty darn cute hat. 

*A few hours after I posted this, an alert reader (my mom) informed me that “pom-pom girl” can be used as another term for a prostitute, so as it turns out, the use of “pompon” in my high school was very intentional and not at all inexplicable. Thanks, Mom!

A Blog Post for the Rest of Us

I am a big fan of holiday tradition. My family has a lot of them, from watching Christmas Vacation on the day after Thanksgiving to eating cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Christmas day. Some of them are pretty normal, like spending an evening driving around to look at Christmas lights or eating a special dinner before attending church on Christmas Eve. Others are a little more unique like topping our Christmas tree with a star that is in turn topped with a candy cane or donning new pajamas after church on Christmas Eve before going to the movies.

Here’s a tradition I can get behind.

But I like to think that none of our traditions are quite as out there as the one observed in the O’Keefe household on December 23. It was sometime around 1966 when author Daniel O’Keefe introduced his family to a new kind of celebration, one that marked the anniversary of his first date with his wife and took a moment to step away from the commercialism of the Christmas season.

O’Keefe called the family celebration “Festivus,” and when his mother died ten years later, they continued to celebrate the day as a unique little holiday “for the rest of us,” meaning those who were still alive to enjoy it.

Some traditions are not worth keeping alive, like chestnuts roasting over an open fire. Turns out they’re kind of gross.

The observance of Festivus in the O’Keefe household involved a simple family meal, a clock placed in a bag that was then nailed to the wall, the airing of grievances, recognition of the mundane as the miraculous, and feats of strength.

Actually, it’s not entirely clear to me whether all of these elements existed in the original O’Keefe Festivus celebration or if some of them come only from the Seinfeld episode that launched this quirky family tradition into the mainstream in 1997. Daniel O’Keefe’s son Dan was a writer for the sitcom and allegedly he didn’t want the tale of Festivus explored in an episode, but was overruled by his fellow writers who heard about it and thought it was hilarious.

The holiday looked a little different on the small screen than it had in the O’Keefe household. The clock and bag nailed to the wall (for what reason, no one can say) was replaced by an unadorned aluminum Festivus pole, and the airing of grievances began with George’s father Frank Costanza announcing, “I got a lotta problems with you people and now you’re going to hear about it!” after a fairly generic meatloaf dinner. Feats of strength became a wrestling match with the head of the household, the pinning of whom signaled the end of the celebration. And the inconvenient coincidences and misunderstandings worthy of any good sitcom episode became Festivus miracles.

There it is, in all its high strength to weight ratio aluminum glory, right next to the leg lamp from A Christmas Story.

When asked by Mark Nelson, the writer behind FestivusWeb.com and Festivus! The Book!, the definitive work on the holiday, whether Dan O’Keefe still observes Festivus, he answered. “No.” But thanks to the Seinfeld episode, lots of people now do. Festivus poles have adorned the Wisconsin’s governor mansion, the Florida State Capitol building, and, I recently discovered, the holidays through the ages tree display at the “Christmas Traditions” festival in St. Charles, Missouri.

It’s worth noting, too, that as I type this, editing software has no problem with the word “festivus,” as long as I capitalize it. And if for some reason you hop on Twitter today, I’ve no doubt #Festivus and #AHolidayForTheRestOfUs will be trending.

But Festivus will probably not be a big part of my day. In preparation for writing this post, I revisited the Seinfeld episode (“The Strike,” season 9) with my 14-year-old who said, “Well, that’s stupid.” He’s not wrong. It is stupid, but come to think of it, I do have a few grievances to air:

  1. Yesterday, I ended up on a group text with literally no one whose name is saved in my phone and endured an hour or so of twenty unidentifiable people wishing all of us a merry Christmas while I was trying to use my phone to listen to an audio book.
  2. Missouri drivers continue to ignore the basic stop sign rule of stop first, go first, and instead, insist on waving on the other drivers at a 4-way stop. I’m especially annoyed when I get waved on and it is actually my turn. Because I know the rule and don’t need the prompt.
  3. My children continue to leave a trail of dirty socks and dishes everywhere they go. I do not know how to make this stop.
If I managed to serve a meatloaf that my children would eat, that would be a Festivus miracle. Image by valtercirillo, via Pixabay

Also, though it doesn’t seem likely that I will wind up wrestling anyone today, my youngest son has recently become obsessed enough with working out that he has created a fitness schedule for all of us through winter break and I’m pretty sure it’s leg day. I’m going to say that counts as my feat of strength.

And then there’s the fact that in the midst of all the other silly, but somehow important, Christmas traditions around my house, I managed to post to my blog just two days before the big day. That is something of a Festivus Miracle.

So, dear reader, Happy Festivus. I guess. Enjoy your meatloaf. Feel free to air your grievances in the comments.

A Prescription for Winter

In the late 16th century, Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta wrote, in what would become his Historia natural y moral de las Indias, or Natural and Moral History of the Indies, of a locally esteemed New World beverage that was “loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste.”

There is nothing unpleasant or loathsome about this. Image by blandinejoannic, via Pixabay

Acosta’s work is among the first thorough European surveys of Mexico and Peru and he was eerily spot on about a couple of things. For example, he was the first to suggest that the natives of the Americas may have migrated from Asia via a northern land bridge. Acosta also described altitude sickness, after huffing and puffing his way over the Andes, and was the first to attribute the problem to thin and delicate air, “not proportioned to human breathing.” And though he was a man of his time, Acosta was actually somewhat critical of the Spanish mistreatment of the indigenous population of the New World.

But about this loathsome beverage, he was definitely wrong, because he was referring to hot chocolate. We haven’t quite hit our cold weather stride here in my corner of the world yet this year, but it is looming just up ahead in a January and February that, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, promise to be brutal. As much as I am not really looking forward to the nonstop shivers, I will be prepared when they arrive with plenty of hot chocolate on hand.

I might even be looking forward to those cold nights in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa and a good book.

Mine is certainly sweeter than the Mayans enjoyed theirs, which was more likely to contain peppers or corn than marshmallows, but even bitter and evidently spicy, I find it hard to imagine hot cocoa could ever be truly loathsome. The Spanish eventually came to the same conclusion, most likely because the drink was highly valued, and they weren’t about to leave anything valuable behind.

They’d come around by 1631 when Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero published the earliest printed recipe for hot chocolate in his A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. The recipe required a hundred cocoa beans, two chiles, vanilla, anise, cinnamon, almonds, hazelnuts, some annatto, and finally a boatload of sugar.

Bring on the cold!

Just a quick glance at my spice cabinet tells me that these are not necessarily easy to come by ingredients, and at the time, they weren’t all that attainable for the common folk. Still, the beverage was beloved by nobility and was quite the versatile medicine as well. Colmenero suggests it’s good for treating the skin condition known as morphea, for cleaning teeth and freshening breath, for provoking urination, for expelling poison, and for general protection against communicable diseases.

I don’t know about any of that, but I do know that a nice cup of hot cocoa does fend off the shivers and gladden the heart, and that’s enough for me. I’m not going to add chile peppers or corn to my hot chocolate and I may not have anise quick at hand or, strictly speaking, know what annatto even is, but I do have a box full of Swiss Miss in my pantry just waiting for the weather to turn.

How do you like to drink your cocoa?