My Babylonian Resolution

Four thousand years ago, give or take, the Babylonian people celebrated a twelve-day festival called Akitu. I don’t know if it involved giving their true loves a bunch of gold rings, some milking maids, and an alarming number of birds, but it was a pretty big deal. Akitu was celebrated in mid-March and it marked the beginning of a new planting season, the beginning of a new year.

new-years-day-4707619__340It was the time when Babylonians decided to make some changes. They either reaffirmed their loyalty to their current ruler or got themselves a new one. And on a more personal level, they made vows to their gods to settle their debts, return what had been borrowed, and basically be better people. Though this particular practice doesn’t seem to be included in the histories we have, I think it’s also safe to assume most wanted to shed a few pounds and do a bit less drinking in the new year.

The Babylonians left us the earliest recorded evidence of New Year resolutions, but of course the practice, or some version of it, rose up all over the world. People seem to be hardwired to like a fresh start, a chance to do a little bit better the next time.

sleepy christmas
And I’m done. photo credit: Carol (vanhookc) Dreaming of Dec. 25th via photopin (license)

I’m not a big resolution-maker. Or at least not specifically at the start of the year. January, for me, has instead become a month of recovery. The Christmas season sort of wipes me out, and this one was worse than most.

I think it all started when Thanksgiving was such a late arrival. Everything felt condensed this season, with all the parties and traditions and fun crammed into a drawer that didn’t have quite enough space. Real life took a backburner while gifts were given and merriment was made. In the midst of that, a tragedy in my extended family zapped whatever I might have had left.

And so, a lot didn’t get done. I didn’t read the wonderful words of all my pals in the blogosphere. I didn’t write many either, not in this space nor elsewhere, and yes, that includes a Christmas letter that now will have to become a greeting for the new year instead.

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The sad part is that I didn’t have to stage this picture. I really probably should get more organized in 2020.

If you sent me an email in the last few weeks, I most likely didn’t open it, but it’s still waiting in my inbox and I’ll get there soon. If I agreed to read your book or play or short story, I’ll get to that, too. Fortunately, January is long and bleak in my corner of the world and there’s a little more space in the drawer.

It would be great if in 2020 I could lose a little weight and be a little more organized. I’d also still love to learn to teleport. But I think it might be more of a Babylonian New Year for me this year. I’m going to work on settling my debts by catching up on all the things I’ve let slide. By mid-March, I think I just might make it.

What about you? Got any goals for 2020?

I, Said the Cow

This has been a year of big transitions for my two sons. My oldest started his freshman year in high school and will soon be learning to drive; my youngest headed for the first time to middle school. Along with the academic challenges, each adventure has brought with it new social opportunities as well. For my youngest son, one of those has been school choir.

choral-3871734__340He was a little nervous to take this plunge but has had an absolute blast. He’s had the opportunity to perform the National Anthem at Busch Stadium before a Cardinals game, has gained a ton of confidence, and has been singing Christmas songs since the end of August.

I’m thrilled for him. I do love a good Christmas song, especially now that ‘tis the season. But I gotta say, as much as I am looking forward to the big winter concert coming up next week, I have listened to all the holiday tunes with less gusto this December than I usually might. My Christmas carol tolerance has been a little tested. Musically speaking, it’s been a long four months here in the Angleton household.

But humanity has been singing songs of this most jolly of holidays for a lot longer than that. The first Christmas hymns can be traced to the third century, probably around the same time St. Nicholas allegedly slapped a heretic silly.

Of course those first songs are no longer topping the charts. The earliest one that is still sung regularly today comes from 12th century France and is known now as “The Friendly Beasts.” It tells the charming tale of the animals in the stable on the night of Christ’s birth and consists of their first-hand witness accounts, including such brilliant lines as, “’I said the cow,’ all white and red, ‘I gave Him my manger for a bed.’”

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Maybe cows were white and red in 12th century France? Or couldn’t the cow all white and brown have given the baby a place to lay down? Just a thought. photo credit: Hindrik S hey man via photopin (license)

If that doesn’t impress you, you’re clearly not picturing it as performed by a children’s choir in animal costumes. Awww.

And if you are not as well-versed in Christmas melodies as I am, then you might take issue with my claim that it’s sung regularly, but just consider that it was easily one of the most ridiculous hymns sung every Christmas season in the midwestern church my family attended when I was young. Then when I lived on the West Coast a few years ago we attended a church of a different denomination and they also sang “The Friendly Beasts” every year, in full adorable children’s choir fashion.

That’s a pretty small sampling, I realize, but I’m sticking to my claim. Also, Garth Brooks sang a version of it in 1992, which now that I see that in print, doesn’t seem all that more impressive than the song appearing in the 12th century. Man, I’m getting old. Did I mention that I have a son who is about to start learning to drive?

As you might imagine, the original version of the song was not in English, though I hardly think that matters as few barnyard animals speak it anyway. The current English lyrics were set to the original Old French tune in the 1920s by a man named Robert Davis. The good old-fashioned Christmas hymn has been variously known as “The Gift of the Animals,” “The Animal Carol,” “The Donkey Carol,” and “The Song of the Ass.” That last one has been discarded for causing too many giggles among the children in the choir.

In my family we always called the song “’I, Said the Cow.’” And honestly, despite its age, and probably owing to the fact that it’s not on the list of selections for the upcoming middle school choir concert, it might be the only Christmas song I’m not completely sick of yet.

Stupid Holidays, but Milkshakes

In 1936, a man by the name of Earl Prince invented a machine that could make five milkshakes simultaneously. Made possible by the newfangled freon-cooled refrigerator systems, his “Multimixer” represented the greatest leap forward in milkshake-making since Steven Poplawski’s 1922 invention of the blender. Eleven years before that, Hamilton Beach made a drink mixer, which was soon put to good use making milkshakes at soda fountains everywhere.

blender
I received this Hamilton Beach blender as a wedding gift more than 19 years ago. To the best of my knowledge it has only ever been used to make chocolate milkshakes.

But Prince’s machine was a welcome leap forward because what the American public had come to realize in the forty-seven years since the word “milkshake” first slipped into the English language, was that this thick, chilly beverage was awfully tasty.

Late nineteenth century milkshakes were similar to eggnog in texture and usually contained alcohol. In the early 1900s they received a family friendly facelift with the exchange of whiskey for ice cream and malted milk.

By the time Earl Prince created a way to produce a lot of milkshakes in short order, lending the ability of the then barely emerging fast food industry to get in on the trend, the public was clamoring for them.

I prefer the hand-dipped variety created in a trusty blender. Preferably made with chocolate. Still, I can appreciate the innovation that allows for speed because sometimes you just gotta have a milkshake.

Father's Day Chocolate Milkshake with Bokeh
I’ll celebrate that. photo credit: marrngtn (Manuel) Father’s Day Treat via photopin (license)

And that’s why I was not disappointed to discover that today, September 12th, is a very special made-up holiday here in the United States. Today is National Chocolate Milkshake Day.

I will be the first to admit that here in the US we are maybe a little too obsessed with the stupid holiday. One online source for all things made-up suggests there are more than 1500 weird national holidays that some guy somewhere invented for some probably very silly reason.

But as far as ridiculous made-up holidays go, this is one I can get behind. I’m not sure how far this day of observation stretches back into history, but it’s at least a few years. I have to assume someone made it up because either he owned a shop that sold killer chocolate milkshakes and was looking for a way to drum up some publicity or because he lived near a shop that sold killer chocolate shakes and he was hoping for a discount.

Either way, I’m happy for an excuse to dust off the old blender and celebrate this most excellent day with a chocolate milkshake. Or maybe five.

Happy National Chocolate Milkshake Day!

Huggin’ It Out for Millennia

It’s been about twelve years since the discovery of a Neolithic tomb near Mantua, Italy set archaeologists’ hearts aflutter. In this land associated with Shakespeare’s famous pair of tragically short-sighted and love-besotted teenagers, a team of archaeologists led by Elena Maria Menotti uncovered a six-thousand-year-old tomb for two. Inside were two skeletons, a male and female, with their arms and legs entwined.

And that’s when the team proved they’d paid attention in high school English class and demonstrated their worthiness to be involved in such a find by incessantly quoting Romeo & Juliet. Located in the village of Valdaro, the couple has become known as the Valdaro Lovers, and they represent the only such entwined remains ever to have been found.

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The Lovers of Valdaro. Dagmar Hollmann [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Although the couple did die young (probably somewhere around age eighteen or twenty) it seems unlikely they died violent deaths, each making the assumption the other has kicked the bucket because one of them was dumb enough to play opossum without bothering to clue in the other.

Unlike their Shakespearian counterparts, the Neolithic lovers evidently managed to survive the throes of perpetual hormonal concussion associated with human teenagers. While it’s not impossible that they died in one another’s arms, according to researchers, the bodies were most likely arranged in a peaceful embrace after death.

Their deaths may have been somewhat less tragic, but their eternal embrace touching. While most Neolithic skeletons are studied bone by bone, the Valdaro Lovers have never been separated, and I suppose that’s the way it should be.

We are living in a world in which the most often referenced example of literary love is a couple of teenagers who were convinced to commit suicide rather than survive the flush of their first intense crush. Separation, divorce, and heartbreak seems more common than a relationship that lasts a lifetime. So, it’s nice, especially on Valentine’s Day, to think of a couple whose love has survived millennia.

hug
Pretty sure my stress level went down just looking at this picture.

Besides, who doesn’t like a good hug? Research suggests that those of us giving and receiving regular hugs—at least 8 per day—are probably reaping some significant health benefits. Hugs lower stress, strengthen our immune systems, reduce pain, and boost oxytocin levels.

Apparently, that wasn’t enough for the young lovers of Vadaro, but they’ll keep trying. Thanks in part to the efforts of an association called the Lovers of Mantua, led by Professor Silvia Bagnoli, the two will remain forever entwined and on exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua. This decision presents a difficulty when it comes to studying the couple, meaning their story—what pieces we might be able to find of it—may remain undiscovered. But it doesn’t really take fancy science to see the makings of a good love story.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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.

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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.

More Excuses and Turkey

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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