What the Cool Kids are up to this Christmas Season

There’s a strange thing happening in my house this holiday season. The delightfully tacky, lighted, multi-colored star that has topped my Christmas tree for more than a decade has been blinking. It never used to do that.

But this year, about a week into Christmas tree season (which for us begins the day after Thanksgiving), the thing began to develop a personality. Every night we plug it in to discover what color it’s going to be. Sometimes two colors switch on, sometimes only one. Other times all the colors come on or the star blinks for a while in a seemingly random pattern.

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Today it’s orange, which is not a very Christmas-y color. I think it wants to tell us a story that would be more fitting for Halloween.

Of course I realize the star must have a short and we need to replace it before our house burns down, but I jokingly said the other day that I thought it must be possessed. And that’s when my nearly thirteen-year-old son said, “Maybe someone from another dimension is trying to tell us something.”

He was making a reference to the Netflix series, Stranger Things, that you either recently binge watched, or you’ve heard your friends talking about how they did. My husband and I fell under the spell of the series shortly after the second season dropped at the end of October this year, when all the cool kids wouldn’t stop talking about it.

In case you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that something has gone wrong at a secretive government lab near a small town in 1980s Indiana, opening up a gate into another dimension. A boy goes mysteriously missing in the first episode. Trapped in the alternate dimension, the boy manages to communicate with his mother through surges in electricity and she eventually figures out that she can paint her walls with the alphabet and string Christmas lights so he can signal words to her. Oh, and the other dimension contains an insatiable, terrifying, virtually indestructible beast that likes to dimension hop and hunt.

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This could be yours. https://www.ebay.com/i/382304200890?chn=ps

I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s scary. Or that it’s not especially Christmas-y. But that hasn’t stopped Christmastime marketing geniuses from taking advantage of its popularity. Among the racks of ugly sweaters this season, you can find one that includes lights strung above crooked letters of the alphabet, with three that really light up to signal: R-U-N.

Yikes! Merry Christmas.

I suppose the concept of scary stories (and marketing genius) at Christmas aren’t particular to 2017. If you turn on the television at any given time in the month of December, I’m pretty sure you can find at least one version of A Christmas Carol to watch, filled with ghosts, and if you’re lucky, Muppets.

Charles Dickens wrote the original novella in 1843. It took him about six weeks to do it, and his publisher managed to release it December 19th. By Christmas Eve, the first run had sold out.

Dickens was already known as a writer of novels generally published in serial fashion, and with A Christmas Carol, he struck just the right cord with his audience. He rode Victorian surges in both the popularity of frightening stories and in newly imagined secular celebrations of Christmas. He captured people with his project, one that would provide him with a great deal of income through the rest of his life, and in some ways would shape the way Christmas is celebrated even in 2017.

I did (briefly) attempt to determine just how many adaptations of this Christmas ghost story have been made into movies, television specials, operas, radio plays, sitcom episodes, etc. As you can probably imagine, that’s a hard number to tally and I’m not that dedicated, so let’s just agree it’s somewhere around a whole bunch.

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Charles Dickens, penning strange holiday traditions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Dickens wrote his book, it wasn’t exactly a new thing, this telling of ghost stories and scary yarns in wintertime when the nights are long and the cold wind howls through barren trees. Such tales are referenced by playwright Christopher Marlowe in the late 16th century. But it may have been Dickens who so expertly associated the frightening winter tale with the cheery celebration of Christmas.

So I am going to choose to believe that it’s not unusual at all that my son is spending time this Christmas season binge-watching Stranger Things, because all the cool kids have been talking about it, and fortunately he’s much less susceptible to nightmares than I am. But I do think I’m going to take a little time out of my busy Christmas schedule to shop for a new, less blinky and more consistent, star for the top of our tree.

Monks Make Wily Guards and Santa Claus is Dead

As we enter into the busy Christmas season with the official start of Advent this past Sunday, I suppose it’s fitting to pause for a moment to observe the day when Santa Claus died. Yesterday (December 6) was recognized as the 1,674th anniversary of the death of one of history’s most widely honored saints.

Celebrated for his gift-giving and kindness, particularly to the children of the poor, and remembered fondly for slapping a heretic across the face during the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas is still the hippest 4th century bishop around.

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By Aloxe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3138918

And no one loves St. Nicholas as much as the people of Bira, Italy, where his remains have been at rest within the Basilica di San Nicola for more than 900 years. But the saint isn’t from Italy originally, and no, he’s also not from the North Pole. He also most likely didn’t make his home with an army of toy-making elves and a herd of magical reindeer. Sometimes, people (like history bloggers) make things up. Sorry.

St. Nicholas actually spent much of his life serving as Bishop of Myra, a Greek town on the Mediterranean Coast, in what is modern-day Antalya, Turkey. Most people assumed that’s where the saint was buried, and he remained there until 1087 when some rowdy Italian elves (or sailors) from Bira spirited away his jolly bones, landing themselves, I would think, permanently on the naughty list.

There are different versions of the story, of course. Italian church historians tend to refer to the theft as the “translation” of the St. Nicholas relics from one place to the other. They favor stories that suggest cooperation of the monks guarding the tomb who stepped aside both in fear for the relics under the threat of Arab occupation, and because they read the signs suggesting Nicholas himself was ready to move. This isn’t quite how the tale is understood by Turkish archaeologists who would like the stolen relics back.

But archaeologists working in Antalya recently claimed they might have evidence that would change the story anyway. Beneath the ancient St. Nicholas Church in Southern Turkey, researchers detected a previously unknown crypt beneath a mosaic floor. Because historic floor removal is a delicate process, it could be a while before the crypt can be fully revealed, and any resting occupants examined.

For now it’s enough evidence for the Turkish archaeologists to publicly claim that the bones stolen away to Bira probably didn’t belong to St Nicholas anyway. They reference records from the time that suggest instead the wily guard monks tricked the thieves and sent the remains of another less well known priest to Italy.

The word from Bira is that they will assume they hold the true remains until world-wide experts reassure them, and this silly Turkish ploy to steal their pilgrimage tourism dollars can be brought to a close (I’m paraphrasing a bit here). I’m not sure what the response has been from the at least three other locations that claim to possess bones of the saint.

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See kids? He’s just fine. And jolly as ever. By Oldschool at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
And therein lies the rub with relics. They’re hard to verify. All we really know for certain is that St. Nicholas is definitely dead. That’s what a lot of traumatized children are learning this holiday season. A friend recently posted on Facebook the contents of an e-mail sent to her by her child’s fourth grade teacher expressing concern that student-written responses to an article about the discovery in Turkey revealed some holiday anxiety. I suspect this was not the only teacher who has encountered this tricky problem this school year.

The good news is that regardless of where he was buried, the spirit of St. Nicholas lives on in an undisclosed magical location at the North Pole surrounded by flying reindeer and wily elves, and no way is anyone going to discover his bones there.

It’s Kind of a Big Deal

First of all, I have mixed feelings about writing this post. Secondly, today, October 12th, is the 525th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas, representing the most influential event in the “Age of Discovery” and the irreversible beginning of arguably the largest population and cultural shift to ever alter the dynamics of human history.

It’s kind of a big deal.

In 1792 on the 300th anniversary of that day, the city of Baltimore erected what it claims is the oldest American monument to the famous Italian explorer. A couple of months ago the monument was defaced as part of an anti-racism demonstration you can view on YouTube if you want.

Columbus Day has been celebrated in various forms since around the time that monument went up, but Colorado became the first state to adopt the official holiday in 1905. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12th a federal holiday in honor of Columbus, a day that eventually came to be observed on the second Monday in October to better accommodate long weekend big deal furniture sales.

Today, that Monday is recognized not only by low, low prices and zero percent financing on five-piece living room sets, but also with large parades, closed banks, and empty mailboxes, because frankly we can all use a break from the furniture store advertisements.

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No more slip covers required. Thanks to Columbus Day. photo credit: Mário Tomé 2013 living room via photopin (license)

But in the last few years, the day has also been marked by protest. In cities across the nation, the debate rages about the value of historical monuments that commemorate any kind of messy history and Baltimore’s is not the only Columbus monument to meet up with vandals.

And this brings me to my mixed feelings about writing this post. I have made no secret about the fact that I don’t want this to be another space of controversy on the Internet. I really don’t. There’s enough negativity out there and it would be nice if there are a few places where we can take a break from all that.

Still, this is a history blog (kind of), and more than that, it’s a blog that claims history as mostly story, directed by a few verifiable facts and a little made up nonsense. So I’ve decided it’s time to explore this highly contentious issue.

Because there can be no argument (well, I’m sure there could be, but to the best of my knowledge no one has made it yet) that upon meeting the natives of the Americas for the first time, Christopher Columbus wrote of them in his journal  that they seemed to be pretty nice folks who would make wonderful slaves.

I sincerely hope that makes all of us feel morally icky.

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Christopher Columbus, shifting history and pointing out all the people he hoped to enslave. By Kenneth C. Zirkel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I also have no problem with states like Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, North Dakota, and Oregon choosing not to recognize the holiday or to use the day instead to honor Native Americans or whatever feels appropriate to them. In fact, I applaud efforts to re-evaluate the way we view and interpret historical events. I think we learn a lot about ourselves and ultimately become better people when we do that.

But I’m also in favor of furniture sales and of the large celebrations of Italian heritage and patriotism for which many American cities use Columbus Day. Even though our school district does not take the day off, it doesn’t bother me that many still do. Again, Columbus’s voyages ushered in a gigantic shift in the course of world history. It was kind of a big deal.

I think that’s what these monuments that people get so upset about really honor. I think they remind us of the shifts, of those moments in history when the world changed, in some ways for the better and in some ways not.  That’s the thing about stories. They can be told and viewed from different angles and even the ugly ones often contain nuggets of beauty.

Actually I would argue that all of our history contains some ugliness, but much like an individual may look back at past mistakes and be grateful for the way he or she has been changed by them, those big deal moments have also led to a great deal of beauty as the world has moved through and looked back at them.

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That’s better. Beauty and a big deal. photo credit: mattwalker69 Contemporary Rugs Rowsyn Multicolor via photopin (license)

I hope as a society we continue to have conversations about how we view and discuss the stories from our past. It’s probably healthy to re-evaluate the ways we honor or remember or criticize the figures that represent moments of great shifts. And I hope we don’t spend so much time angrily tearing apart our history that we lose our ability to view it from different perspectives.

Instead, I hope we remember to look at all of it, and to take the time to sit down together on our new bargain living room sofas to discuss and consider both the beautiful and the ugly, even if we have mixed feelings about it.

A Cherry Popsicle and Other Things Mom Really Wants for Mother’s Day

If you live in the US (and you don’t live in a cave), I’m sure you know by now that this Sunday (May 14) is Mother’s Day. It’s hard to escape the ads for jewelry, and chocolate-covered strawberries, and flowers, and yes, free glass vases. And there aren’t many stores you could walk through without seeing some display or other of sentimental greeting cards and “World’s Greatest Mom” tee shirts or coffee mugs.

That’s all well and good. I’m sure many of you will pick out something like that to give to your mother to honor her on the special day, and I am certain she’ll appreciate the thought. But for me (and I suspect for a lot of mothers), it’s kind of a strange holiday. I hate to say it, but I don’t really look forward to it all that much.

Here’s the thing. Moms do a lot of stuff. And we’re pretty good at it. No, most of us are probably not born that way, but when we become mothers, we gain more than a child. We gain a desperate longing to do everything we can to ensure that child’s well-being. That’s challenging, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve, requiring some big adjustments, like:

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So. Tired. photo credit: taylormackenzie Lifeless via photopin (license)
  1. Accepting that the bathroom is the only place you will ever again have any privacy (a luxury that is by no means guaranteed).
  2. Learning to eat the yucky flavors in the popsicle box because that’s all that’s ever left.
  3. Managing to function, more or less, in a constantly exhausted state.
  4. Understanding that at no point will you be able to honestly say the laundry is done, unless you have convinced your family to go naked for a while.
  5. Feeling guilty if you don’t prepare a nutritious, balanced meal for your kids, while acknowledging that if you do, there is no way they’re going to eat it.
  6. Tolerating that your actual name will rarely be uttered anymore, but you will hear “Mom” at least 10,000 times a day, often several times in the same sentence, because I guess your kids assume if they don’t remind you who they’re talking to, your exhausted mind will wander.
  7. Knowing that no task (like writing a blog post) will ever be something you can complete without interruption by a kid who is learning about Scott Joplin in music class and desperately needs to use the computer to look up the “Maple Leaf Rag” on YouTube before he goes to school.

Okay, that last one might just be me, and it really did happen this morning. It was kind of awesome. But in a more general sense, the struggle is real.

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It’s not like I expect a cherry, but you couldn’t even leave me an orange?

So you might think that what moms really want for Mother’s Day is a day off, maybe even some time alone. I think I can speak for a lot of us when I say, yes, that is definitely something we want. The trouble is that the moment our children go away and leave us alone, we miss them. And then we kind of resent them a little because we can’t even take a break without thinking about them. And then we feel guilty because we feel resentment toward some of the people we love the very most in the whole world. And we’re sad that we’re missing the day with them, when all they wanted to do was to make us feel special.

You see why I don’t really look forward to Mother’s Day?

But I have given this a lot of thought lately. I’ve looked at some of the things said by and about famous mothers in the past, and I think I’ve finally figured out what moms want.

First, I read about Hoelun, mother of Genghis Khan (a fact which, according to some historians and geneticists, makes her the most successful grandmother in human history). She overcame a lot of tough challenges as a mom. Then when the successful Genghis rose to become a great conqueror and threatened to kill his own brother, Hoelun put her foot down. Out of respect for her, Genghis let his brother live and his mother became one of his most trusted advisors.

The second example I found interesting was Nancy Edison. When as a young boy, the eventually wildly successful inventor Thomas Edison was deemed mentally incompetent by his teacher, his mother Nancy began homeschooling him. Later he would say of her, “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Another great mom, Alberta Williams King worked hard to instill a sense of self-respect in her children, teaching them that segregation was a construct of man and had nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of natural order. It was a lesson her son Martin Luther King, Jr. took to heart, making it the cornerstone of his life, and not forgetting to give his mama the credit she deserved.

And of Abigail Adams, one of only two American women to have been both a president’s wife and a president’s mother, her son John Quincy Adams had this to say:

My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence.

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photo credit: Jill Clardy Tulips on my Windowsill via photopin (license)

Actually that might be a tad bit over the top. Because I would bet that even Abigail Adams didn’t feel like she always deserved such high praise. The lesson here, though, for those of us who are mothers and for those of us who have mothers, is that what Mom probably really wants is for you to love your family, to know that she is behind you, cheering you on, even in the really tough times, and to understand that regardless of what you look like or what the world thinks of you, you are precious.

But go ahead and get her some flowers, too. Because she also wants you to know that she appreciates that you appreciate her. And it’s nice, once in a while, for a mom to hear that she’s an angel upon the earth. Because she’s exhausted and her shower got interrupted when somebody needed something RIGHT NOW, and the laundry is piling up, and she never feels like she does enough, even when she feels like she does it all. And just this once, maybe you could insist that she chooses first, so she doesn’t get stuck eating the grape popsicles.

And because I know it’s in your head now…

Forget the Bunny: A Case for the Easter Fox

With Easter Sunday nearly upon us, it’s probably time we talk about rabbits. I have a complicated relationship with these admittedly adorable creatures. My first favorite stuffed animal was a floppy-eared bunny I received at Easter. My youngest son, too, has a stuffed bunny that is near and dear to his heart, enough so that when he was younger, there were many nights of frantic searching for “Bunny,” who always managed to disappear at bedtime leaving behind one inconsolable little boy.

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Just look at that twitchy nose. He’s up to something. photo credit: emraps my kid’s face via photopin (license)

And then there’s the Easter Bunny, one of a very few species of mammals to lay eggs, and the only one known to lay eggs filled with candy. This creature is also commonly classified as a rarely seen and likely nonexistent animal (like Big Foot), a creeper sent to spy on naughty children (like the elf on the shelf), or a guy in a scary costume that makes small children cry in the middle of the mall commons (like our favorite jolly fat man).

But where does this strange critter come from? The answer to that may be as hard to find as a favorite stuffed bunny at bedtime (make sure you check outside in the wet grass next to the play set). There are references to the Easter Bunny as early as the 16th century in Germany where it seems likely the tradition was born.  

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The only bunny I’ve ever liked.

And speculation that rabbits and hares became linked to the holiday because they are the animals most closely associated with the pagan goddess Ostara, traces its roots back to the connection of the goddess with the Christian holiday. That connection was first postulated by the 8th century monk and (practical) historian known as the Venerable Bede, who a lot of scholars now think probably just kind of made it up.

That didn’t stop Jacob Grimm (of fairytale-telling fame) from spreading the rumor in 1835, nor does it slow the annual onslaught of internet claims that Easter is little more than the Christian commandeering of yet another pagan holiday (which, even according to quite a few pagan scholars, it’s not).

But that still doesn’t explain why a bunny brings a basket of eggs, a common symbol of fertility and new life, to hide for the kiddos on Easter. All we really know is that the tradition seems to come out of German Lutheranism in various forms, all involving the hiding of colored eggs by an animal. The species of the egg-bearer varied by region, showing up sometimes as a rabbit, but in other places as a rooster, a cuckoo, a stork, or a fox. Eventually the rabbit won the day. By the time German immigrants began arriving in large numbers in America in the 1700s, they brought the Easter Bunny with them.

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Well, I’m fond of this one, too. Now that my son is getting older, it doesn’t hippity hop through my yard much anymore, but I didn’t really mind. Except at bedtime.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have a complicated relationship with bunnies. On the one hand, they are adorable.  And on the other hand, I hate them. Because while the Easter Bunny brings candy, plain ol’ bunnies hippity hop through my neighborhood with impunity.

These monstrous little nose-wigglers descend every spring to destroy my carrot, beet, and lettuce crops, decimate my blueberry bushes, and even nibble the life out of the new little tree shoots that have done nothing to deserve this harsh treatment. The demons dig ankle-spraining holes in my yard (never once having the decency to leave a candy-filled egg inside) and relentlessly taunt my dog who is well-intentioned, but too slow to catch them.

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My poor dog would like to add another argument against the Easter Bunny.

So here’s my proposal. Let’s go back to the Easter Fox. Foxes are shy enough you rarely see them. They’re also kind of cute, but much easier to say no to when your son begs for one as a pet, and they will pretty much leave your beet crop untouched. Also, in the wild, though foxes do not lay eggs (and neither do bunnies, in case you weren’t clear on that), they do tend to steal and occasionally hide them. Also (and I think it’s safe to say this is the most important point) adopting the fox as the official mascot of Easter would effectively put an end to all this “Hoppy Easter” nonsense.

So it just makes sense. Or at least it makes as much sense as the Easter Bunny.

Corned Beef and Cabbage and Something about Snakes

Last week I got to do something fabulous. I took a quick girls’ trip to Florida with my sister, cousin, and aunt. And I did not take my kids or my husband. Not that I don’t like traveling with them. They’re really fun people. But this was a special trip to celebrate my sister’s birthday by hanging out on the beach and watching some baseball.

We went to Jupiter, Florida, spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals (and the Florida Marlins, but nobody cares), where we attended three games, played on the beach, explored a lighthouse with the most amusing tour guide I’ve ever encountered (but that’s another post), witnessed a rehabilitated sea turtle get released into the wild, ate a lot of cheesecake, and had, generally, a really great time.

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Okay, so it wasn’t strictly a girls’ trip. Of course we had to take Steve the traveling sock monkey. He’s a huge fan!

And even though I didn’t take him with me, I could not have enjoyed such a trip without the efforts of my wonderful husband who rearranged his busy work schedule to hold down the fort for a few days, getting the kids to and from school, managing homework, keeping up with all the activities, and cooking dinner.

It’s this last part I may appreciate the most, because while I was gone, he cooked corned beef and cabbage. It’s a dish a lot of Americans will be preparing tomorrow in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, even in spite of the fact that it falls this year on a Friday in Lent and at least the dedicated Catholics among us should probably stick to fish.

I confess that not being particularly Irish, nor even the tiniest bit Catholic, I’ve never really known a great deal about Saint Patrick. I just know that if you don’t wear something green on March 17th, someone somewhere will feel compelled to pinch you and that if you cook corned beef and cabbage in my house while I’m home (or possibly in the same state), your fate will be much worse than that.

It turns out history doesn’t yield up a whole lot of reliable information about St. Patrick, either. We know that he was born in Britain sometime in the last half of the 5th century, that he arrived in Ireland as a slave at age sixteen (possibly kidnapped by pirates), made it back home six years later, and had a vision calling him back to Ireland as a missionary, where he proceeded to do all kinds of legendary things like preaching with shamrocks and driving out snakes. That’s where his story gets a little muddy, and may (as some historians suggest) get combined with another missionary known as Palladius who was in Ireland in the early half of the 5th century.

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Though we don’t know for sure, it seems likely enough St. Patrick may have used the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity, since Ireland actually has shamrocks. Unlike snakes, which Ireland never did have. Not even green ones.[Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the lack of concrete details sure doesn’t stop us all from gettin’ our green on, even though the color more historically associated with this saint is actually blue. Historical stuff does tend to yellow with age, and Chicago goes to all that trouble to turn their river disgusting green, so I guess I’ll allow it.

The tradition that I can’t tolerate, however, is corned beef and cabbage. And frankly, I shouldn’t have to. Because Saint Patrick is as likely to have eaten corned beef as he is to have driven all of the snakes from Ireland (which, according to fossil records, never existed there in the first place). In fact, historically, Irishmen in general never ate much beef, the meaty part of their diet tending to be primarily salted pork.

If we really want to celebrate St. Patrick and all things Irish, then it’s bacon we should be eating. Now that I could get behind.

It wasn’t until the great influx of Irish immigrants into America in the 19th century that corned beef became a St. Patrick’s thing at all, and that’s only because the meaty part of the American diet tended to be more beefy. Relatively cheap beef brisket was readily available to Irish Americans who settled in large numbers alongside the kosher delis of their Jewish neighbors, and so they convinced themselves, their descendants, and green beer-guzzling Americans from all walks of life that corned beef and cabbage is a good, Irish-y idea.

But it’s not.

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I’m not a total party pooper. I will wear this ridiculous hat while not eating corned beef and cabbage.

Still, Americans will fire up their crock pots, stink up their houses, and line up in droves to eat corned beef and cabbage tomorrow. And I’m sure those lines will include a lot of Irish and/or green beer-guzzling American Catholics throughout the country where many local dioceses (though far from all) have granted dispensations to their parishioners who wish to partake.  

I can honestly say there’s not enough green beer in the world to make me want to participate in the tradition, and because I married a very smart and thoughtful man, I don’t have to. He had his corned beef last week. By the time I got back from my trip, the house had thoroughly aired out. Had it not, I’d not have hesitated to head back to the beach.

Santa Might Be On To Something

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been busy this holiday season. Already several times I’ve party planned and cleaned and hosted and cleaned. I’ve shopped for gifts, a task that no matter how early I start, always seems to take until Christmas Eve. I’ve made Christmas candies and cookies, decorated and crafted and spread Christmas cheer in a lot of little ways. But in order to accomplish these tasks, I’ve had to let others slide.

The biggest of those other tasks is sending Christmas cards. I wasn’t feeling too bad about that, though, because I am fortunate not to have many overachieving friends. I’m happy to report that I didn’t receive a single card the day after Thanksgiving (seriously, such a betrayal might signal the end our friendship). Nor did I receive any cards for the first nearly two weeks of December, which goes a long way in making a busy gal feel truly special.

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I even received a Christmas card from my dog this week, though judging by a curious postmark (and his notable lack of thumbs), I suspect he had help.

But then this third week of Advent arrived, and with it came the postcards featuring the smiling faces of friends and family and busy children who are growing faster than I can quite grasp, handmade die-cut works of art filled with sweet holiday greetings, and letters recounting a year’s worth of adventures.

So that’s when the guilt started to set in. Because for all I have done so far this busy season, I haven’t designed a postcard or die-cut any artsy Christmas trees or written a year-end letter. I haven’t even purchased a big box of factory-made holiday greetings.

And I feel especially bad about it when I take a moment to realize that even Santa, easily the season’s busiest fictional character with tens of thousands of letters to send, already has this holiday task well in hand.

In my defense, Santa does have a lot of practice. He’s been sending Christmas letters to excited littles at least since the late 19th century, decades before postal policy technically allowed him to do so. Because letters addressed to Santa Claus used to wind up in the Dead Letter office.

Or at least officially they did. There were always  those kindhearted postmasters who couldn’t stand the thought of a letter to Santa going unanswered, or an innocent expression of real need going unmet.

One such kindhearted person was Connecticut postmaster Harris Eames, who in 1894 opened a letter addressed to “Sandy Clous” from a little girl in a family he knew. From the letter, Eames learned that the family had fallen on harder times than anyone had realized. The postmaster contacted local businesses and orchestrated a Sandy Clous miracle.

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Actually, I don’t think this guy really does much of anything himself. He doesn’t even deserve those cookies! Public Domain image, via http://www.costumers.com/

For years, similar heartwarming stories rolled in from post offices all over the country, until finally, in 1913, the Postal Department relented, accepting its position as the gatekeeper for Santa Claus.

The procedure for handling and answering letters from children to their Christmas hero has changed through the years amid growing privacy concerns, but many postal offices still partner with local charities to deliver Sandy Clous miracles through what is collectively known as “Operation Santa.” And the jolly old elf himself will take the time to write back to any child who wants to send him a letter.

Sort of.

Much like Santa’s brilliant gift-giving policy, his letters do require a little help from parents. The current USPS Santa letter instructions state that you must include the response letter in a self-addressed, stamped envelope included in a specially addressed outer envelope.

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If only I could get my family to buy and wrap their own presents.

Oh, and because Santa is super organized and on top of such important tasks, it has to be received in Anchorage, Alaska by December 1oth. That way the postal elves have time to process it and get it back to you by Christmas, postmarked from the North Pole, of course.

I do think the USPS and Santa are on to something. So, I’ll tell you what. If you are hoping to receive a Christmas card from me this year, all you need to do is design one, place it in a self-addressed stamped envelope and a larger envelope addressed to me. Then drop it in your mailbox and I will send it right back to you, postmarked from St. Louis to give it that truly authentic feel.

Now, if you wanted it by Christmas, you’d have had to get it to me by December 10th, since I’ll surely drive around with it in my purse for a few days before remembering to drop it in the mailbox. But since we both know you can’t reasonably expect a Christmas card from me until January, I think there’s still time.