Piece by Stupid Piece

You may not be aware of this, but this is a very big week in the life of United States puzzlers, because this coming Sunday, January 29th is National Puzzle Day, which has been going strong since 2002. I know that if you are not a puzzle enthusiast, this may not seem like such a big deal to you, but I mean, come on, it’s January, and I’m betting we all could use a little something to celebrate.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

That’s a pretty safe bet, because just a brief internet search has informed me that there are more than six hundred specially designated days of observation that help us work our way piece by piece through this the bleakest of (northern hemisphere) months. Included on this truly inspiring list is Yodel at Your Neighbors Day, Gorilla Suit Day, National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, and Kiss a Shark Week. Really, National Puzzle Day seems like a relatively worthy one to acknowledge.

I don’t think I could ever be considered a puzzle enthusiast, but I do enjoy the occasional jigsaw, and I find that’s particularly true this time of year when the outside is not as friendly as I’d like. And whether you celebrate them or not, jigsaw puzzles have been around since about 1767.

That’s when an English mapmaker and engraver named John Spilsbury is credited with creating the first one. He called his puzzle a dissected map, because that’s just what it was. His intention was to use a pieced apart map with a wooden backing to help teach geography. The idea was well-received and Spilsbury soon found himself in the puzzle business.

This was the situation approximately a week after I started my last puzzle.

Of course, today’s jigsaw puzzles come with all kinds of images, some of them maddeningly complex because there are evidently puzzlers who pretty much just hate themselves, I think. I recently saw an ad for one that consists of a thousand clear plastic pieces all roughly the same size and general shape. No thank you.

But I do appreciate a little bit of a challenge. My family has a tradition begun by my dad when he and my mom were first married. My mom likes a good puzzle and every year for Christmas, my dad gives her one without the box, which he only gives her after she’s completed the puzzle. He eventually started also doing that for those of his children whose eyes didn’t start to twitch at the thought. This year, with a little help picking it out, he gave me one that did turn out to be a map. Sort of.

I’m not sure that John Spilsbury would have approved of this particular puzzle. The image is in the shape of the United States, with faint lines that accurately divide the space into the appropriate fifty states. But within those basic shapes, it’s a pretty artistic interpretation of the states that doesn’t always make a lot of sense.

I did it! Finally.

For example, Virginia includes a grizzly bear, Wisconsin features mountains, and Kentucky seems to be made entirely of desert. In case you are unfamiliar with the geography of the United States, none of that is correct. The puzzle is also a thousand small pieces of roughly the same shape and consists of large patches filled with nothing but subtly shaded pastels. It turned out to be a much more difficult puzzle than the person who chose it thought it would be.

I did finish it, though, because I don’t mind a little bit of a challenge, at least not too much, and I really wanted that box. Also, by the time I’d pulled a muscle in my back hunching over the maddening little pieces, there was no way I was giving up, even though it took me nearly two weeks and a lot of complaining.

Logically, the best way to celebrate National Puzzle Day is to put together a puzzle. Since it will still be January, there’s a good chance this Sunday will be cold and dreary and so it will probably be a good day for it. If you do, please put in a piece or two for me. I think I’ll skip it this year. My back still hurts from putting together the Great Kentucky Desert.

Advice for Avoiding Goblins and Drummers

A few days ago, on January first, I took down my Christmas decorations. I did this for a few reasons. First, as much as I love the holiday season, after six weeks of it, I do get tired. And it really is six weeks at our house. We decorate the day after Thanksgiving, more or less without fail and remain decorated until at least the new year.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, then you may recall that our version of decorating is no small task. It involves nine feet of Christmas tree, snowflake throw pillows, much garland wrapping, and lighted geese in the front yard. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea. As it says on our seasonal welcome mat, we’re like really into Christmas.

Second, after a Christmas spent with the deep freezer working overtime, the Midwest offered up a miraculous sixty-degree, sunny day perfect for pulling up lantern stakes from the yard and removing light strings from the roof. If I could ignore the coming two-and-a-half months of cold that remain this winter, it felt a bit like a spring cleaning kind of day.

I’m talking about the kind of day in which one might take a minute organize the Christmas storage boxes in the basement instead of continuing to shove the reindeer salt and pepper shakers into the same box as that string of broken lights that may offer up some replacement bulbs for the ones we used to use that looked kind of similar, except they included purple bulbs in addition to red, green, blue, and yellow.* That’s right. Not only did I put away our cherished Christmas decorations. I threw away a bunch of old, broken ones we no longer use. I was basically on fire.

The 2022 calculated cost of the gifts in Twelve Days of Christmas is $45,523.27. In case you needed another inflation index, that’s up 10.5% from 2021. Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay

And obviously the third reason I took down the Christmas decorations promptly on January first is because I didn’t want to risk, depending on who you ask, a case of bad luck, a possible goblin invasion, or the shock of hosting twelve drummers drumming in my home.

Because evidently Christian tradition dating back to the sixth century suggests that holiday decorations are perfectly acceptable at least until Epiphany, the day the wise men arrive on scene and twelfth and final day of Christmas. To leave them up any longer is, for many, a holiday faux pas that might just bring you bad luck or goblins or at the very least a disgruntled homeowners association.

I’m not sure I fully understand. Outside of singing the song about giving someone an alarming number of birds, I have never observed the twelve days of Christmas. Most of the traditions I grew up with and have continued in my own home occur in the lead up to and on the day of Christmas itself, which is why by the twelfth day of Christmas, on January 5th or 6th (depending on particular brand of Christianity or perhaps counting habits), I’m plum tired out.

I didn’t even put them away in a wadded mess this year. Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Right now, I’m looking around my bland, non-Christmas-decorated house on a day that is neither sixty degrees nor sunny, and I’m grateful to have gotten all the work out of the way several days ago. I’m also happy to report that there doesn’t seem to be a penalty for taking the decorations down early.

But if yours are still up, then today might just be the day. I tell you this because I care and because I don’t want to see your home invaded by goblins. Or drummers.

*I wish I could honestly claim this isn’t a real example from my life, but it is.

Rockefeller Around the Christmas Tree

On December 24,1931 a construction crew was hard at work on a twenty-two-acre building site between 48th and 51st Streets in Midtown Manhattan. Two hundred twenty-eight buildings had been razed, forcing the relocation of several thousand tenants for what was originally meant to be the new site of the Metropolitan Opera.

James G. Howes, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

The stock market crash of 1929 and the economic depression that followed made the planned move impossible. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had leased the land from Columbia University for the Opera’s use quickly reformulated a plan to build up a mass media entertainment complex with Radio Corporation of America and its subsidiaries. Over the next several years it would develop into the Rockefeller Center with nineteen buildings and a sunken square annually featuring an iconic ice rink guarded by a humongous Christmas tree passed by half a million people per day.

But on Christmas Eve of 1931, the public wasn’t yet thrilled with the plans for the space and there was still a lot of zoning red tape in the way. The Italian-American crew, however, was hopeful. They had work, when so many did not, and the promise of much more on the horizon. And it was the night before Christmas. What they needed was a great big tree.

The workers and their families chipped in to purchase a twenty-foot-tall balsam fir that they erected in the middle of the muddy construction site and decorated with cranberries, paper, and tin cans. I’m sure the tree wouldn’t have looked all that impressive alongside the fifty-footer that two years later officially became what the Rockefeller Center’s website refers to as “a holiday beacon for New Yorkers and visitors alike.”

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

Even fifty feet seems tiny when compared to the trees now used, which typically range between seventy-five and eighty-five feet tall, and once even as much as one hundred feet. The decorating of this beast of a tree takes dozens of workers more than a week to complete before the nationally broadcast lighting ceremony that takes place every year after Thanksgiving.  

Still, I think twenty feet is pretty impressive, if not even a little bit excessive. Many years ago, when my family and I lived in a different house in a different state, our living room had a high, vaulted ceiling. My husband, who pretty much loves all things Christmas, decided we needed a bigger Christmas tree to better fit our space than the measly seven-and-a-half-footer we’d been getting by with.

I couldn’t find a picture of our twelve-foot tree, but it pretty much looked like this, except three feet taller.

I took some convincing, but he found a good deal on an artificial (due to family allergies and general disdain of sap and spiders) tree that was twelve feet tall and since he was willing to move the ladder around to decorate the top five feet, I agreed to the purchase.

That first year the tree was a little sparsely decorated with our seven-and-a half-feet worth of ornaments and I can see why the construction workers at Rockefeller Center would have resorted to using tin cans to fill the space. The tree was gorgeous, and it made my husband very happy. I did, however, feel a little bit like I was living in a shopping mall. Or maybe at Rockefeller Center.

It didn’t completely break my heart when the next house came with lower ceilings and we had to trade down. Over the years we’ve managed to reach a compromise and now put up a nine-footer, which is still awfully pretty, but doesn’t require nearly as much ladder manipulation to decorate.

I do see him staring at it sometimes, though, probably thinking he could fit another several inches beneath the ceiling. Maybe someday we will. It is, after all, a holiday beacon for us and for visitors alike.

A Little More Magical

During the season of Advent in about 1880 or so, the mother of Gerhard Lang made her young son a cardboard calendar featuring twenty-four sweets, one per day, with which to mark off the time until Christmas. She surely wasn’t the only mother to do something like this for her child.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Advent was introduced as a four-week (give or take) period of preparation leading up to Christmas by Pope Gregory I in the early seventh century. It took a while to catch on, but by the nineteenth century, German families in particular were finding clever ways to keep track of the days. Some used tear-away pages or tally marks on doorframes. Others lit candles or placed markers on ladder rungs.

But it was Gerhard Lang who is generally given credit for popularizing the advent calendar style most people use today, as a direct result of the creativity of his mother and his resulting magical childhood. When Gerhard grew up and became a printer, he remembered the calendar his mother had made for him and began mass producing a twenty-five-day calendar with doors to be opened each day leading up to Christmas in the month of December. Behind each door was a picture or Bible verse.

I guess that’s one way to make your holiday season a little more magical, but I think I’d rather have the chocolate.

Then in 1958, Cadbury began producing Advent calendars with twenty-four chocolate treats to be enjoyed one at a time from December first to somewhere around December fourth, which is about as long as any chocolate Advent calendar has ever lasted for me.

But like Gerhard Lang, I had a pretty magical childhood. Not only did my dad usually purchase an inexpensive chocolate Advent calendar for me and for each of my siblings from the local high school German club’s annual fundraiser, but my mom also made a calendar for the family that we took turns opening.

Behind each door of the homemade version, my mom would write tasks we needed to do to get ready for Christmas. This included things like decorating the Christmas tree, making Christmas cards, or baking Christmas cookies. Sometimes our tasks were service projects for others or chores that needed to be done before Santa could come. Other times we found them more fun, like driving to look at Christmas lights or visiting with the big jolly elf himself. Seriously, my childhood was magical.

As far as anyone has found, this is the world’s tallest Advent calendar. (Thank you to my sister for the picture. I haven’t gotten there to see it for myself yet.)

And this year, in my hometown, the season has gotten even a little bit more magical. A few months ago, one of my favorite former teachers (who gets credit for my appreciation of The Great Gatsby) was in the town square and happened to notice something. He looked up at a tall brick Farmer’s Bank building that has stood guard over the old downtown for more than a century and counted the windows. On one side, there are exactly twenty-four of them.

An idea was born. The teacher solicited some help from around town (including the artist who designs my book covers) and approached the bank to ask if they might make what they believed would be the world’s tallest Advent calendar. The answer was an enthusiastic yes.

And that’s how Christmas in my corner of the world became a little more magical.

Thankful for a Kick in the Pants

On October 3, 1789, then president of the newly established nation of the United States George Washington issued a proclamation declaring November 26th “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He claimed to have done so at the request of both houses of Congress, who asked him to acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

I’m trying to imagine members of Congress coming up with such words today. I’m also thinking that if each elected member of the federal government, and perhaps all levels of government, spent some time focusing on the things they are thankful for, the United States would be a better nation for it.

In fact, I think if every American citizen spent more time thinking about the things they are thankful for and less time thinking about how stupid their clearly unthinking, unreasonable, stubborn donkey of a neighbor, coworker, sister-in-law, or drunken uncle on the other side of the aisle is, then the United States would be a much better nation for it.

We can, and probably should, do that every single day. Thanksgiving Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1870 when a post-Civil War United States desperately needed a reason to come together and focus on the good stuff.

Image by Babar Ali from Pixabay

The date wasn’t set on the calendar as the fourth Thursday of November until 1941, but since the very earliest days of the US, the Congress—arguably the collection of the most needlessly quarrelsome and infuriatingly frustrating of its citizens—has recognized that thankfulness is a good thing. And if rarely on much else, on this one thing, we agree.

It’s been a hot minute since I have posted in this space, as I was feeling a little burned out. I admit it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to be ready to jump back into the blogosphere, but as I reflect today on all the things I am thankful for, I am realizing the list definitely includes the opportunity this blog has given me to connect with so many wonderful, creative people all over the world. I’m so thankful for all of you. And I’m also thankful for a consistent weekly kick in the pants to write something, even when I’m too busy or stressed out or uninspired.

Happy official Thanksgiving to all my American blogging friends, and to my international friends as well, because even without a presidential proclamation or an act of Congress, thankfulness is a good thing.

A Day for Heroes

When at the age of ten, Christopher Walker began serving as ship-boy to his father’s merchant vessel, he could not have known how dramatically it would affect his wardrobe choices. Christopher’s father had begun his career similarly, as ship-boy on Columbus’s Santa Maria and that career ended on his young son’s first voyage when the ship fell under attack by violent pirates.

All aboard were lost, save one. Christopher washed up on the shore of Bengalla, a made-up setting that is vaguely jungle-like, where he was saved by a tribe of pygmy people called Bandars, which is also made up and is almost certainly a little racist.

Bengalla. Probably. Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The orphaned Christopher regained his strength there among these friendly people and took the “Oath of the Skull,” saying, “I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms!” Then he tacked on, as ten-year-olds are apt to do, “My sons and their sons will follow me.”

Christopher made good on his vow by moving into a “skull cave” secret lair and wearing his underwear on the outside. Four hundred years later, on February 17, 1936, his story was revealed to the world by the King Features Syndicate. He became known as the Phantom, or sometimes as “The Ghost Who Walks” or “The Man Who Cannot Die,” what with his descendants continuing to take the reins, giving him the appearance of immortality.

In reality, neither Christopher nor his twentieth century iteration Kip, ever had any super powers. He’s always been a talented martial artist, a decent linguist, an exceptional intellect, and the perfect specimen of fitness. You’d really only know he’s a superhero at all because of his skin-tight purple outfit, stylish mask, and his skull ring that leaves an impression on the recipients of his powerful punch. If that’s not enough, he also hangs out with a couple of trained homing pigeons. He even has a movie, though I never saw it:

Some superhero historians (who probably live in their mothers’ basements) don’t even credit the Phantom, created by Lee Falk and Ray Moore, with being the first real superhero because he lacked powers. They’d rather give the credit to Superman who didn’t arrive on scene until two years later than his purple predecessor.

Superpowers or not, the Phantom had a silly outfit, a secret hideout, a tragic backstory, and a constantly endangered girlfriend. I admit that, as I often tell my sons, I don’t really superhero, but that sound like the real deal to me. And as far I could find, the Phantom was never rendered powerless by some glowing green rock.

Apparently there is also a 1943 serial about the Phantom. But don’t worry. I’d never heard of him either. Neither had my son who superheroes much more than I do. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, I mean no offense to Superman. He has that cool crystal cave thing, plenty of past trauma, terrible taste in women, and questionable fashion sense. I celebrate all heroes, at least today, because I very recently learned that today is National Superhero Day here in the US.

National Superhero Day has been celebrated every April 28 since 1995. That’s when the pretentiously named Marvel Cinematic Universe declared it a day for turning our attention to their movies and merchandizing that are so ubiquitous, we usually just kind of tune them out. Also, I think we’re supposed to thank police officers and the like, even though they might be somewhat less heroic since they tend to wear their underpants on the insides of their uniforms.

As I mentioned, I don’t superhero much, but this whole thing got me thinking that I should designate a day myself. April 28 is already pretty crowded, so I am declaring right now that tomorrow, April 29, 2022 will be the first annual celebration of Read a Book by Sarah Angleton Day. Feel free to observe it on Saturday if that works better for your schedule. Spread the word!

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.

Who Really Wrote this Blog Post?

On December 23, 1823, The Sentinel newspaper in Troy, New York published an anonymous little Christmas poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem contained charming imagery, a memorable rhyming pattern, and the names of all eight of Santa’s original red-nose-phobic reindeer.

The public loved it. It pervaded the holiday. It cemented the image of Santa Claus as a right jolly old elf. And it came to be known popularly by its first line: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

You know your “long-ago trifle” has made it big when it’s honored on a postage stamp. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Designed by Stevan Dohanos., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But while the poem took on a life of its own for several years, no one knew who wrote it. Then in 1837, poet and editor Charles Fenno Hoffman included it in the collection The New York Book of Poetry and attributed it to his buddy Clement Clarke Moore. Moore, in turn, included the poem in his own 1844 collection, oh-so-cleverly titled Poems, stating that though it was only a “long-ago trifle” of a poem, he was pleased enough to take credit for it.

And everyone was happy with that until a few years later when there arose such a clatter. The daughter of American Revolution veteran, surveyor, farmer, and amateur poet Henry Livingston said she believed her father had written the poem in 1808 and that the original handwritten copy of it had been lost to a housefire. By this time Livingston was deceased and had never claimed authorship of the poem. And though he was related to Clement Moore’s wife, as far as anyone knows, the two men never met one another.

Sounds a little suspect to me, but there are quite a few experts who, in comparing the style of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with that of each man, believe there may be a case to be made. Also, Moore was allegedly something of an overly serious curmudgeon who didn’t care particularly for children or charming things like dancing sugarplums.

I don’t know that he looks all that curmudgeonly. Engraved by J. W. Evans, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, unconvinced experts who still believe Moore to be the author, suggest this is an unfair assessment of a man who could be playful and jolly when he had a mind to, and who, more importantly, wasn’t an especially creative poet. His literary style tended to be imitative rather than original and so, really, he could have written like anyone, even an obscure relative of his wife.

Then too, The New Brunswick Museum has in its collection a version of the poem handwritten in 1824 by a member of the Odell family, who were friends of the Moores. It’s assumed one of the Odells wrote down a version of the poem from memory after hearing it recited by the poet himself.

While this isn’t conclusive evidence, a handwritten note can tell you a lot, as I was recently informed by the attendance secretary at my oldest son’s high school. Through no fault of my son’s own, he had to be a little late getting to school a few days ago and showed up part way through his first hour class.

Thinking it might be an excusable tardy, I had written and signed a note of explanation before sending him on his way. Later that day, the secretary called me to confirm that I was, in fact, the one who had written the note, since “anyone can write a note.” When I confirmed that I was, she chuckled and told me that she had actually assumed so, because most of their students couldn’t write in cursive, which is both sad and hilarious.

Another note you can be reasonably sure my son didn’t write.

It was also not conclusive evidence that my son hadn’t forged his excuse. He didn’t, and I really don’t think he ever would. I’m also happy to report that he can write in cursive, though not nearly as legibly as I can, so I don’t think he’d ever get away with it if he wanted to try.

I suspect that Clement Moore wasn’t the sort to take credit for another man’s work, either, especially for a poem he thought of as a trifle. If only we had that 1808 copy of the poem handwritten by Henry Livingston. If we did, we might discover that it was written in cursive, which if nothing else, would serve as pretty good evidence that the poem was not written by a twenty-first century high school student.

Thank you to Herb from The Haps With Herb, who was kind enough to share this really funny clip in the comments of one of my posts a few weeks back when I mentioned that kids should learn cursive so they can read old timey documents.

The State of Christmas Puke

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad December is finally here. The last half of November is a little bit of a blur to me. It included two memorial services, lots of family visiting, many houseguests, a gigantic gathering for Thanksgiving at my house, and a book launch.

It’s not as bad as it might seem at first glance. I enjoyed catching up with family I don’t see very often. My houseguests were helpful people who I love a lot and, for a while, included an exceptionally snuggly six-month-old. Big family holiday gatherings, while chaotic, are also really fun and this one was no exception. The memorial services were emotionally challenging, but ultimately uplifting, too. And the book launch was stressful, with ongoing promotional efforts that fall way outside my comfort zone, so pretty much exactly what I expected there.

Still, I’m tired. My family is tired. My dog is probably going to do nothing but nap for the next month. And my house is kind of messy. I wasn’t sorry to see the month of November fade into the past. We all are in need of a little Christmas.

Who needs an elf on the shelf when you’ve got one of these?

I have mentioned in this space before that I’m married to a man who likes Christmas lights. Early on in our marriage, he liked Christmas lights a lot more than I did, though over the years he has slowly converted me. I think this is partly the fault of the Christmas light industry because lights are so much more efficient and long lasting than they used to be. There was a time when it made perfect sense to buy one new decorative something each year, because surely one of the older ones had run its course. Now they just accumulate. And I have learned to embrace it.

He put up lights the Saturday after Thanksgiving this year, the same time I decorated the tree, wrapped the banisters in garland, set up the nativity scene, and found a home for our Hawaiian shirt-clad Santa garden gnome.

When it was all done, we gathered together to take in the scene, including colorful lights along the roof line, glittering ice cycles above the front door, snowflakes dangling above the garage, a lighted wreath, two giant neon snowflakes above the front windows, chasing lights lining the driveway, a glowing snowman, and holiday projections. That’s not actually the full list, and if you’ve read my book, Launching Sheep & Other Stories, yes, we still have the Christmas geese, though they have undergone major surgery in the last few years.

Maybe we could be the Show Me Your Christmas Geese State.

It’s almost more than I can fully take in. As one of my oh-so-charming sons declared, it’s like “Christmas puked on our house.” Gross as it may sound, that is probably an apt description, and it even feels somehow appropriate since I recently learned that we live in “The Puke State.”

Missouri had quite a few nicknames over the years before settling on the current “Show Me State” boldly proclaimed on our license plates. Our most disgusting one allegedly arose from the 1827 discovery of lead ore near the town of Galena in the northern part of Illinois. Citizens of Missouri were quick to take notice and swarm to the area in hopes of growing rich on the mining boom.

And boy did they swarm, so much so that former Illinois Governor Thomas Ford wrote in 1854, it was as if Missouri had puked onto its neighboring state. And that’s how we became The Puke State, and how Missourians came to be known as Pukes. Of course, if one looks at current population trends, we could give the nickname back to Illinois.

My current welcome mat, and also a possibility for a state slogan without the word puke in it.

But I don’t think we should. The Missouri legislature has never actually adopted any state nickname, perhaps thinking they might have more important things to do. “Show Me State” became unofficially official in 1980 when it appeared on the license plate design. Still, I think there’s some flexibility here.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I’d like to be referred to as a “Puke.” It’s not a very nice word. But if we reframe it a little, we could probably make it work for us, maybe combine our unofficial slogans a little bit. I certainly wouldn’t mind, in concept, living in the state Christmas pukes on, with all its glittery lights and good holiday cheer. And I have to say, my neighbors are bringing it this year. Maybe November was rough on everybody and we all just need a little Christmas. So go ahead, Missouri, show me your Christmas puke.

The Naked Truth About Pirates

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.

There were many versions of the menacing flag associated with pirates. Among the simplest of them, this one was most likely flown by Black Sam. RootOfAllLight, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

If you do wish to dress like a black-hearted bilge rat, I suggest something more along these lines. It will probably still surprise most of the landlubbers you encounter and it is much less likely to get you arrested.

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.