In April of 1716, the crew of the French vessel Ste. Marie got a strange and probably pretty scary surprise. Off the coast of Cuba, the ship, carrying at least 30,000 pieces of eight, was flanked by two small vessels full of pirates who were armed to the teeth and were otherwise as naked as the day they were born.
It had been eight months or so since eleven of twelve Spanish ships transporting a large haul of treasure from the New World to the old had fallen victim to a hurricane and wrecked off the coast of Florida. The tragedy claimed as many as 1,500 lives and quickly attracted the attention of treasure hunters, including partners Paulsgrave Williams and Samuel Bellamy who sailed from Cape Cod, arriving in the fall after much of the treasure had already been plundered.
Of the two, Bellamy was the experienced sailor and the historical rumor mill suggests that he had a pretty good reason for needing that treasure. He had met the girl of his dreams but her father refused the poor young man’s plea to marry his daughter. Frustrated at the lack of treasure, Bellamy, who would later come to be known as Black Sam, turned to piracy because, obviously, it’s every father’s dream for his daughter to marry a pirate.
And he was a really good pirate, actually one of the most successful of the Golden Age of Piracy despite a relatively short run. He often shared his ill-gotten wealth with those who needed it most, earning a reputation as the Robinhood of pirates. A brilliant strategist, he went out of his way to minimize violence, even stripping to the buff in order to shock the crew and take the Ste. Marie without a single shot fired.
And despite his nakedness, he allegedly treated his captives with respect, preferring “Please and thank you, sirs” to “Arrr. Walk the plank, ye black-hearted bilge rats!” That may be something to bear in mind as we celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day coming up this Sunday, September 19th.
You will be celebrating Talk Like a Pirate Day, yes? Among all the thousands of ridiculous made-up holidays and “official” recognition days that have been crowded onto our calendars over the years, this one is definitely on my short list of favorites (Pi Day on March 14 claims the top spot).
Originally created by some guy in Oregon as a way to pillage some fun on the date of his ex-wife’s birthday, the probably-not-so-celebration-worthy event attracted notice when humor columnist Dave Barry wrote about it in 2002. So now, people in the know, spend the day calling one another scurvy dogs and saying Yo ho ho a lot.
And why not? Historians may argue that outside of Disney movies pirates probably didn’t actually talk all that differently than the rest of us, but it’s kind of a fun challenge to try to work shiver me timbers into a conversation. Go ahead and give it a try; talk like a pirate. Just maybe think twice before dressing like one.
So, we’re about to celebrate a pretty big holiday here in the United States. We will follow in the footsteps of John Adams who wrote to his wife Abigail that Independence Day should be recognized with “pomp and parade, with [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
I think we’ll pretty much have that covered. But we won’t be celebrating on the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress first declared independence, nor the day one of history’s most famous breakup letters was drafted. The holiday won’t fall on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it doesn’t mark the moment when King George III read it and decided to sing a love song about sending an armed battalion.
Of course, the July 4th celebration does commemorate all of that, but what it actually marks on the calendar is the day of the final pen stroke of the final draft of the document that spurred a war that birthed a nation.
As a writer who recognizes that first drafts rarely amount to much and that most of the best writing occurs in the rewriting, I find this pretty satisfying. It seems John Adams would not have agreed with me. When he wrote of his future nation’s Independence Day, he was referring to July 2, 1776.
I get it. He was excited. He’d had a hand in the original draft, working with Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and of course Thomas Jefferson to get it just so. Like a student who waited too long to start his final term paper and stayed up all night before the due date, assuming that in his push to get it finished, he’d written the most brilliant words ever penned by any student in the history of students, Adams was probably anxious to get it turned in to the Continental Congress, send it on to the king, and sit back to watch the fireworks.
Not surprisingly, however, Adams and his fellow committee members weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the wording of the Declaration. The debating began. In some ways, this important American document was improved by a few tweaks here or there, a little tightening of language or nuance of phrasing. And in other ways, it was made worse, like in the removal of all references to the immorality of slavery.
It’s still possible to make the wrong decision in revision, too, which is one of the things that makes it so difficult. But the Continental Congress figured out where they had to compromise in order to make the declaration work well enough for all the representatives in the room to move forward. The final draft would be signed nearly a month later on August 2. The date at the top of the document, however, remained July 4, which became an officially declared federal holiday in 1870.
The date is pretty ingrained at this point and I think, all things considered, it’s the right one to celebrate, though with the 4th falling on a Sunday this year, and much to the frustration of my poor dog, I suspect many of my neighbors will celebrate with illuminations on the 2nd and 3rd as well.
But in my mind, the 4th is the day the United States truly embarked on the notion that freedom and liberty sometimes require compromise and consideration of those who don’t agree with us, and that revision is painful, difficult, and necessary work.
The United States, such as it was imagined by the Second Continental Congress, wasn’t a perfect nation, nor was the vision of it perfected yet. That would take many, many years. So many, in fact, we’re still counting, and I suspect always will be.
But the best work comes in the difficult, painful revision process in which debate and compromise occurs. No matter how politically divided we may think we are, or how we as individuals may feel our nation is doing in this moment, I hope that’s something every American can be proud to celebrate.
If you are celebrating American Independence this weekend, please be careful with all your pomp and illuminations, and have a wonderful holiday!
In 1930 King Alfonso XIII declared April 23 to be National Book Day in Spain. This proclamation changed the date from the previously celebrated Book Day on October 7, the alleged birthday of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes because it’s always nicer to walk around open-air book markets in the spring. Actually, it sounds pretty nice to me either way and given that my corner of the world saw a good snowfall earlier this week, I might quibble. But I’m not from Spain.
April 23 worked out pretty well because that’s when Cervantes allegedly died. It’s also the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England, Ethiopia, and Georgia, as well as Catalonia and the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo and some other places too. George is the protector of lovers and the patron saint of soldiers and chivalry and dragon-fighting. Or something. I’m also not Catholic.
I have read that it has become tradition in Spain to give a rose to a lady on April 23, and probably because the celebration has been mashed together with Book Day, a book to a gentleman. I certainly can’t speak for all the ladies out there, but I know I’d rather have a book.
And since 1995, that would be an appropriate gift in at least a hundred countries because that’s when the United Nations declared April 23 to be World Book and Copyright Day.
It’s a good day for it. It’s the anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, who is a pretty famous writer, as well as Cervantes, also famous. Some people even claim that Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, was the world’s first novel.
Personally, I think that’s a pretty tough argument to make since it wasn’t even the first novel written by Miguel de Cervantes, and is predated by thousands of years of narrative writing from around the world, and is a little bit of a spoof of the other novel-like works of chivalric romance that were popular at the time. Perhaps it would be fair to say it was the world’s first critically acclaimed novel. I don’t know. I’m certainly no professional literary critic.
But I do celebrate books. I’m actually happy to celebrate books any day of the year, and I look forward to joining with many nations of the world to celebrate books tomorrow. I suggest getting your sweetheart a rose and a book, or perhaps a book about roses if that’s your thing. Then curl up on the couch together and read. That might be even better than browsing an open-air book market on a spring day, or at least it will be if you get a stupid surprise snow shower.
It’s been kind of a crazy week here. It’s the third day in a row that my kids have had a snow day declared and haven’t gone to school. This is because we have received a grand total of very nearly two inches of snow in that time, if I squint just right.
It certainly hasn’t prevented me from driving to run errands, but then I assume school buses don’t handle as well as my Subaru. I suspect, too, it is significantly easier to be an armchair school superintendent than it is to actually be one, which also might be why a school superintendent makes a lot more money than I do.
But anyway, it’s been a strange week of thrown-off schedules, and also I just happen to have a perfectly good seasonally appropriate post from a few years back just collecting dust in the practical history archive. Please enjoy the re-run! And if you happen to live in a location with very nearly two inches of accumulated snow (or perhaps even more), stay safe out there.
Empress for Life and a Free Glass Vase
On November 30, 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte needed to deliver some bad news to his wife Josephine. Nearly fourteen years after he married this widowed mother of two who was six years his elder, and almost five years after he declared her Empress of France, the time had come for him to ask her for a divorce.
Presumably he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. It wasn’t a perfect marriage. The two had weathered family disapproval, a fair bit of infidelity, and the kind of long absences conquering often requires. But the love letters he wrote to her reveal that Napoleon was a man very much in love with his wife.
The problem was that an emperor needs an heir, and Josephine had yet to give him one, so Napoleon had to make a change. Josephine screamed when he broke the news to her, but after she had a little time to think about it she agreed to the divorce. And he insisted that she retain the title Empress, even after his remarriage.
Now either Josephine was an extremely understanding woman, or Napoleon was an incredibly convincing guy. Or maybe a little bit of both. But I’m guessing it also didn’t hurt that over the years he’d given her a lot of roses.
Because as everyone who ever turns on the radio, or watches television, or opens an Internet browser around this time of year can tell you, roses are the only certain way to a woman’s heart. And a lot of people are getting the message, because florists sell somewhere around 220 million of these most magically romantic flowers for Valentine’s Day each year. Half of those are sold in the US, where 75% of the sales are to men who are, obviously, the best husbands, boyfriends, or sons a gal could ask for.
And the best of the best of those men upgrade to two dozen of the all red variety along with chocolate dipped strawberries and a free glass vase for only $59.99 as long as they order before midnight on February 12 and use promo code: Napoleon.
Because who wouldn’t want that?
Maybe most women really would. Personally, I don’t get too excited about roses or free glass vases. Don’t get me wrong, I think roses are gorgeous, and they smell good, and it’s nice to get flowers every once in a while because it’s a reminder that my man was thinking about me and wanted to make a romantic gesture.
But the primary reason the rose (which in addition to representing love has often been adopted as a political symbol) has become our Valentine flower of choice, may have more to do with the fact that we celebrate love in the middle of winter. To do so, we have to import a huge number of flowers, and as flowers go, roses are pretty hardy.
And for Napoleon, it’s a good thing they are, because his Josephine loved roses. In 1799, without consulting her husband, she purchased the run-down Château de Malmaison on 650 acres a few miles outside of Paris, and began work to establish a large rose garden.
Soon, gathering roses for Josephine’s garden became something of a national priority. Napoleon ordered the French Navy to confiscate any seeds (and, I assume, glass vases) found aboard seized vessels. And even during the height of conflict during the Napoleonic Wars, many English gardeners were given safe passage through blockades so they might deliver rose varieties to Josephine.
When in 1809, Napoleon informed his beloved that he would divorce her to marry a woman who might conceive an heir, the jilted woman sought solace at her chateau among her hardy roses. By the time of her death in 1814, Château de Malmaison boasted almost 200 varieties of roses, and her enthusiasm had begun a trend, leading to the establishment of more than 2500 varieties by 1830 in nurseries across France.
By establishing a large garden devoted to only one type of flower, Josephine elevated the rose, long valued as a sweet smelling, medicinal flower, to the status of a flower grown primarily for its beauty, especially when gathered by the dozens and presented on February 14 along with chocolate covered strawberries and a free glass vase.
And now I don’t want to sell Napoleon short (see what I did there?). I’m sure it took more than roses to convince Josephine that a divorce was the right thing to do for the good of France. Because I gotta tell you, if my man were to present me with my favorite flowers (a bouquet of seasonally available, local-ish varieties at a time when flowers are more seasonally available), and then tell me that even though I’d always be his favorite empress, we had to break up for the good of our country, I wouldn’t scream. I’d just clock him in the head with the free glass vase.
In 1907, the city of New York banned the use of fireworks in Times Square. This was particularly disappointing to New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, who for three years had been responsible for one of the city’s biggest parties celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
When the Times moved into its new, impressively tall, office building in Longacre Square in 1904 and then successfully lobbied the city to rename the square in its honor, Ochs was in the mood to celebrate. He decided New Year’s Eve was a good time to do it and set about designing a terribly chilly street fair that culminated in a firework display and a swell of noisemakers and cheers at the stroke of midnight.
The party was a success, attracting more than 200,000 crazy people who didn’t mind freezing their toes off, and became a highly anticipated annual event in the city. So, when New York said no to the fireworks, Ochs wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he got creative and reached back into history for a new tradition.
What he found, with the help of his chief electrician Walter Palmer, was a time-ball that had been installed in 1833 on top of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The time-ball dropped at precisely one o’clock every afternoon and served as a tool by which ship captains could set their chronometers.
Adolph Ochs decided that what his party needed was a fancy time-ball to mark the precise beginning of the new year so that everyone could count down the last seconds and share the first kiss of the new year with someone special, or with whomever happened to be handy.
He recruited electrician and metalworker Jacob Starr and his company Artkraft Strauss to design a ball made of wood and iron and lighted by one hundred incandescent light bulbs. At only five feet in diameter, this ball weighed a mere seven hundred pounds and was hoisted on a seventy-foot flag pole by a thick rope and six men.
The Times outgrew its office space by 1914 and had to make another move, but the newfangled old and kind of weird ball drop tradition in Times Square has continued every year (except two) since that first one in 1907. The ball’s diameter has expanded over the years. It’s gotten a whole lot more Waterford crystal-y and more than five tons heavier. But it has become the world’s most widely recognized symbol for the beginning of a new year.
The only times the ball didn’t drop were 1942 and 1943 when wartime dimouts prohibited the display. But that didn’t stop New Yorkers, and probably quite a few very cold visitors to New York, from gathering and celebrating with a moment of shivery silence followed by the ringing of chimes.
Because when it’s important, the celebration goes on, even when it looks a little different. Sometimes people just discover that quieter celebrations will serve and other times strange and beautiful new traditions are born.
Much of the world, including New York City, is facing a lot of restrictions and challenges coming into the celebration today of the end of a year that has turned out to be pretty difficult to navigate and the beginning of a new year that we sure are hoping might turn out to be a little bit easier.
I imagine most of us will be engaging in somewhat subdued celebrations, maybe at home warm in our pajamas watching a broadcast of the ball in a much emptier Times Square than we’re used to seeing. There will be no public present. It’ll only be the press, a few performers, and some of New York’s first responder families specially invited and socially distanced from one another. There will be no kissing of just any old handy person, and also everyone will probably be even colder than they would be if they were pressed together with a large crowd.
Personally, I like being warm, and I’m not overly fond of crowds anyway so I’m happy this year, like every previous one of my life, not to attend the year’s biggest party in person. But I’m also happy that New York, which has been dropping the ball for a long time, is finding a way to make it work. I’ll probably be watching from my living room where I’ll join in the countdown to the end of 2020 and share my first kiss of 2021 with someone special.
Christmas traditions were a big deal in my childhood home, and we had a lot of them. From the homemade cards my mom designed (and still does) every year, to my dad’s special fudge recipe, to carols sung around the Advent wreath, to a candy cane hanging from the star atop the Christmas tree. And Christmas Eve always meant a big simmering pot of chili on the stove top.
I’m pretty sure this last tradition arose for us because Christmas Eve can get a little rushed as a big family pulls together all the last-minute bits of the holiday, wraps gifts, and tries to get ready for church service in time to get a seat on this most special of crowded occasions. Chili is started early and it can just wait, bubbling away, its flavors melding to perfection, until someone has time to eat it.
And it was something that everyone actually liked. Some of us were purists who enjoyed it straight up, others were picky eaters who preferred the beans separated out (thanks, Dad!), and others piled our bowls high with oyster crackers. What I never knew was that the crackers were a Christmas Eve tradition, too, and a much bigger one than our pot of chili.
I realize that Christmas Eve chili isn’t a thing commonly shared by families in the US, or anywhere as far as I know, but oyster crackers, and the stew they were likely named for, apparently are. All across the United States, especially in the southeast, and even in several other parts of the world, there are lots of people who insist that oyster stew is the dish that announces Christmas Eve is upon us.
Oysters were a large part of the diets of early European immigrants in North America, as they were for many of the indigenous peoples, but it was sometime in the 19th century that they became linked with Christmas.
Some oyster historians suggest that it was the influence of massive Irish immigration in the mid-19th century that made the oyster a holiday food of choice. The immigrants, most of them strict Catholics, followed the dietary guidelines of their faith and stuck to seafood on high holy days. Oysters were widely available and even tasted a little like the ling fish that formed the basis of the stew they would have enjoyed in Ireland.
Other oyster historians, because apparently there are at least a few, have posited that the ever-popular oyster was shipped overland to the inner parts of the US, but only after the weather was consistently cold enough to make the journey of edible bivalves possible. That would happen in early December, meaning the first time in quite some time that a Midwestern family could get its hands on fresh-ish oyster was around Christmas Eve.
I’m not sure the two theories are necessarily exclusionary. And having grown up in the Midwest, I think I can safely say that when it comes to eating fish on a high holy day, oysters that have traveled by wagon for two weeks probably aren’t any worse than a giant catfish that’s been sucking on mud from the bottom of the Mississippi River.
But then I’m not really a seafood girl. I do blame my Midwestern upbringing, and multiple encounters with questionable catfish, for that. When I briefly lived on the west coast in Oregon, I branched out and made peace with some seafood. I quite enjoy crab and most fresh ocean white fish is a tolerable alternative if the menu doesn’t contain chicken. I do, however, remain gleefully unacquainted with the oyster.
Oyster crackers are okay, though, and fortunately I have no religious qualms about eating chili, filled with beef or venison, on Christmas Eve.
I don’t actually do that anymore because the picky eaters among the family that inhabits my grown-up home don’t all like chili. Instead, we make fettuccini carbonara because everyone likes it and it tosses together quickly on a night that usually ends up being pretty busy.
And I suppose it’s okay for traditions to change sometimes. Because this Midwestern gal is definitely not eating oysters.
If you celebrate it, what special holiday dishes do you enjoy on Christmas Eve?
Normally, this first weekend of December that’s due to descend upon us would be the time when my family would open up our home for a Christmas party with our wonderful neighbors. Every year, in preparation for that party, I bake approximately four dozen each of at least five types of cookies. If you care to do the math, that’s approximately two hundred and fifty cookies.
In addition to the cookies, I make homemade peanut butter cups, chocolate covered cherries, Oreo truffles, turtles, chocolate covered pretzels, and a large batch of fudge. I might have a candy problem, too.
It’s a tradition that probably sounds pretty familiar to a lot of you. People have been making special Christmas cookies and desserts since before there was an official Christmas to celebrate. As early as the tenth century, solstice festivals in many parts of the world involved feasting before the long winter ahead. Animals were slaughtered because meat keeps better in the cold than live animals do. Final harvests were brought in. Springtime beer and wine were aged enough to be properly enjoyed. And newfangled spices from newfangled trade routes made interesting sweet treats attainable.
Then along came Christmas with all its many traditions including baked gifts lovingly given to friends, and neighbors, and jolly fat men sliding down chimneys. Actually, leaving cookies for Santa may have been influenced by a pre-Christmas tradition as well, involving the ancient Norse god Odin and an eight-legged horse who would happily exchange small gifts for some treats.
But none of that helps me in my current predicament. Because in years that aren’t 2020, I make enough sweet treats to feed my neighbors until they are sick, take plates of goodies to share with friends at church, send snacks to the break room at my husband’s workplace, satisfy my constantly hungry children, gain five pounds myself, and even have enough left over to leave out for Santa on his big night.
Making these treats is a Christmas tradition, among so many traditions we just can’t make happen this year in the midst of Covid. My kids want to make and enjoy them all—all five varieties of cookies and each type of candy—despite the fact that there will be no large gathering of neighbors, no in-person church activities, and a changing work situation that has drastically limited break room treat-leaving opportunities.
We can’t even count on Santa to be much help. He’s always forgetting to grab his cookies on Christmas Eve and I end up eating them myself. I can’t blame him. It’s a busy night and most chimneys are probably a tight squeeze.
Yes, I can make smaller batches, but it’s still a lot. And yes, I can deliver some to neighbors, but a lot of people are understandably a little weird about accepting homemade goodies in our current environment.
So, I have a cookie problem, which admittedly might not be the worst problem to have. But it is starting to look like I’m going gain more than five pounds this year.
In 1535, Spanish colonialist and historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés published his General and Natural History of the Indies in which he described for the old world some of the elements of the new, including hammocks, pineapples, and turkeys.
Though the turkey had already been imported to Europe by this time and had been greeted with enthusiasm by farmers who found that they were kind of delicious and got to work domesticating them, Oviedo’s work offers the earliest really good description of the bird that graces most US Thanksgiving tables.
But Europeans were far from the first to domesticate the wild turkey. More than two thousand years ago, the early people of Mexico could lay claim to that. Turkeys have long been an important part of most Native American cultures. Heavily featured in folklore, turkeys provided feathers for ceremonial headdresses, acted as insect control, and became a reliable food source when larger game proved more elusive. And in case you wanted to give one a try this Thanksgiving, the internet includes plenty of turkey recipes out of Mexico that claim to span millennia.
Anthropological research from the last few years suggests Native Americans in what would become the southeastern US were also domesticating this most thankful of birds as early as 1200 AD. So, when Europeans started to do it, it wasn’t exactly a big deal.
It was, however, a pretty good idea because turkeys can be a challenge to hunt. They are incredibly skittish and can be difficult to lure in with calls, despite the fact that manufactured calls are better than they’ve ever been. And according to a lot of turkey hunters, it’s getting harder every year.
Part of the explanation for this is that in the early twentieth century, wild turkeys in North America were nearly extinct. They were facing increased habitat pressure and had been severely over-hunted. The fact that the population is flourishing today is a triumph of intense wildlife management, but also of the process of natural selection which obviously favored the birds that were too careful to get themselves successfully hunted.
As a person who has no particular desire to go turkey hunting, this doesn’t much bother me. But I do have friends and loved ones who enjoy the sport, or at least they are pretty sure they would if they could find success. Personally, I’m perfectly content to buy a domestic bird from the freezer section of my grocery store. Even if I have trouble finding the exact size I want, I have never failed to bag a turkey at the grocery store.
That is until this week.
If you read my post last week, you know that my family and I have been quarantined since my youngest son tested positive for Covid. He’s fully recovered and at this point none of the rest of us have developed symptoms, but the timing of our quarantine caused a problem.
With Thanksgiving coming up next week, we are really close to the time when we’d have to remove our frozen turkey to the refrigerator to begin thawing. Trouble is, though we did have plenty of toilet paper on hand, we didn’t yet have our frozen bird when we went into lockdown.
We do live in an area where it’s easy to get grocery delivery, but when my husband and I started thinking about a stranger picking out our Thanksgiving turkey for us, we hesitated. We realize this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you’re looking for a precise size, this close to Thanksgiving, sometimes the perfect turkey can prove a little elusive. And we didn’t want our delivery person to substitute seven Cornish game hens and some AA batteries when they couldn’t find the bird we wanted.
It seems even domesticated turkey hunting can be a little tricky.
Fortunately, a hero emerged to rescue us from our predicament. My wonderful sister-in-law who lives a little more than an hour away from us, drove to our house to drop the perfect frozen bird on our doorstep. It should thaw in plenty of time for our favorite turkey recipe that doesn’t span millennia, but is still awfully good.
Barring any additional illness in the household, we should emerge from quarantine in time to hunt for all our own side dish ingredients, too. We have much to be thankful for this year!
I will be eating turkey next Thursday with my family, some live and most virtually, so I won’t be posting in this space. If you celebrate American Thanksgiving, I wish you and your loved ones a very happy holiday! If you don’t, then I wish you a very thankful Thursday!
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.
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
He 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.’”
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.