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.

Celebrating the Not Quite Right Just Yet

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.  

A man who knew how to party. John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

That looks like a lot of hard work. Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

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.

Ooh. Aah. Illuminations! Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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!

Every Day is Book Day

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.

This only known portrait of Miguel de Cervantes may not even be him at all, as his name was added centuries later and there is no way to authenticate it. Attributed to Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguilar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Picture of Miguel de Cervantes excited about World Book Day. Or at least it could be. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

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.

Snow Day and a Free Glass Vase

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.

NM2432
Josephine, Empress of France and Patroness of Roses. By Jean-Baptiste Regnault – Per-Åke Persson / Nationalmuseum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52123172

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.

You can keep the flowers and the vase, but these do look pretty delicious. omisdo, via Pixabay

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.

napoleon_bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte, much to the dismay of high end comedians everywhere, was not as short as we’ve been led to believe. In today’s standard measurements he was around 5’6 or 5’7, respectably average for a man of his time. By Unknown – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21290

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.

And Once Again, NYC Drops the Ball

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.

Super pretty, but if launched from Times Square, admittedly maybe not the safest way to celebrate. Image by svetlanabar, via Pixabay.

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.

You Can Keep the Oysters

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.

Some traditions never change.

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.

The closest I’m willing to get to eating oysters on Christmas Eve.

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.

Nope. That does not look delicious. Image by jsbaw7160, via Pixabay.

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?