Naked with Lava-tude

In 1948, former Royal Navy WWII pilot, accountant, and avid nudist Edward Craven Walker sat in a pub in Dorset County, England and noticed an inventive homemade device bubbling away on a stovetop in the pub’s kitchen. What he saw was an egg timer created by a regular customer using a cocktail shaker and two immiscible liquids, one of which danced before his eyes like some kind of alien blob.

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Tech security company Cloudflare has a wall of Lava Lamps in its San Francisco office that it uses to generate random seeds for its encryption algorithms. It also adds a pretty chill vibe to the place. photo credit: niwasan Lava lamp Gallery – colección invierno 2009-2010 via photopin (license)

Walker was entranced by the bubbly display and mulled it over for a long time after, deciding to experiment with the concept himself in hopes of finding a way to make a lamp device that worked in a similar fashion. He retreated to his mancave shed where, presumably naked, he tried different containers and liquid combinations until he found something that worked.

In 1963, he introduced the world to his Astro Lamp. Just one year later, a US Patent was filed and in 1965 the Lava Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago bought the American rights to what they would call the Lava Lite Lamp, because groovy alliteration sells. Or at least it did in the late 60s and 70s.

I mention lava lamps today, because according to several websites devoted to listing “this day in history” events, like brainyhistory.com, on-this-day.com, and some random guy on Facebook (who, admittedly comes off a little sleazy and maybe not entirely legit) insist that April 5, 1965 was the celebration of “Lava Lamp Day.”

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Groovy. And maybe that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Try as I might, I cannot determine why this particular date is important in the history of the Lava Lamp. It’s not the day the US Patent was filed. I suppose it could be the day the American rights were purchased, or even the day the lamps hit the US market, but I’m not able to verify either of those guesses. I also can’t find any reference to an actual celebration either in 1965 or beyond, that revolved around the Lava Lite Lamp. What I’m left with, then, is the assumption that it might be entirely made up and lifted and shared, as so many things on the Internet tend to be.

Still, when you come across a Lava Lamp (if you ever have then you know what I’m talking about), it’s hard to look away. And though the popularity of Walker’s psychedelic invention waned through the eighties as people became mesmerized instead by big hair and shoulder pads, it enjoyed a resurgence in the late nineties and well into today.

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The Internet is pretty quiet about how the original Lava Lamp Day was celebrated, but I imagine it looked something like this.

My son, who was not alive in sixties or seventies, even has one in his bedroom. If you felt so inclined, you could probably find your own right now at your local discount store. Or your basement. And if you’re the crafty type, you can try to make your own. There are plenty of instructions available on the Internet, most of which don’t even require nudity, but then Walker’s exact formula for perfect lava-tude is a proprietary secret. Also, as previously demonstrated, the Internet may occasionally be less than reliable.

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Trendy Escapes and Impressive Cleverness

At 7:15 on the morning of June 12, 1962, the guards of Alcatraz prison made a surprising discovery. During the night, three inmates had escaped the allegedly escape-proof prison. Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it out of their cells, onto the roof of the prison and into the San Francisco Bay without detection. The escape required teamwork, resourcefulness, and a great deal of cleverness.

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Alcatraz Island. Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And it turned out these guys were pretty clever. They drilled out the ventilation systems in their cells, work performed mostly by hand with rudimentary tools, though for a while they did attempt to use a makeshift drill run by a vacuum motor one of them managed to come by.

Using soap and toilet paper they fashioned crude paper-mache dummy heads painted with supplies from prison craft kits and topped with hair harvested from the prison barber shop. These they placed in their beds in order to avoid early detection.

With glue they stole from the prison glove factory, they joined pieces of rubber raincoats to make a raft and life vests. They may even have converted a concertina into a bellows to aid in the inflation of the raft.

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Dummy head found in Frank Morris’s cell. Not bad at all for crude paper-mache. FBI, public domain

Really, if these men had applied their ingenuity and resourcefulness to more societally accepted occupations, they probably could have done well for themselves, and spent significantly less time in prison. But it’s a fascinating story, certainly worthy of a book and a Clint Eastwood film.

I’ve had escapes on the brain lately. It’s a hot trend right now in education and entertainment. Patterns for classroom “break-out” boxes have spattered the Internet and full, themed escape rooms have been popping up across the country. They’re all pretty similar, requiring participants to gather clues and decode puzzles to solve problems, open locks, and escape the room within a time limit.

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Since the boys had access to a time machine, we figured fifteen extra minutes wasn’t really a big deal.

When my oldest son turned 13 recently, I decided to design an escape room for him and his friends, based on the quirky and beloved British sci fi show Doctor Who, which they all seem to love. If I were a different sort of blogger I would offer a step-by-step, photo-illustrated how-to guide to constructing your own Doctor Who escape room, but I’m not nearly ambitious enough to be that kind of blogger. Still, if you’re interested and want details, drop me an e-mail.

It was a big success, and so about a week and a half later when I got the opportunity to go to an escape room myself, I thought it might be nice to see someone else’s version. Along with my sister and my husband, I was “locked” into a room designed to look like an attic and tasked with opening a secure treasure box. We had an hour and no idea where to start.

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My crude paper-mache project was a Dalek piñata that the boys exterminated in less than two minutes.

Fortunately, we’re a good team of pretty resourceful people. And we’re also fairly clever. We uncovered our treasure and made it out of the room with twelve minutes to spare. The boys in the Dr. Who room were not quite as quick, but to be fair, their team consisted of six thirteen-year-old, hyperactive boys. Cleverness can only compensate for so much. They did make it out in about an hour and fifteen minutes with some occasional redirection.

Morris and the Anglins made their escape, too, becoming the only people to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Of course there was never any physical evidence that they managed to survive the cold water of the Bay and make it all the way to the freedom they wanted. Enough circumstantial evidence turned up to suggest to the FBI that the men perished in the attempt, and that became the official finding. Even so, it was an impressively clever escape.

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.

Game of Allergens

On June 13, 1483, just two months after the death of his brother King Henry IV and a few weeks before his own accession to the English throne, Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of the Realm, survived an evil curse.

The curse came from Lord William Hastings, a man who had served as Lord Chamberlain to Henry IV (basically the Ned Stark to his Robert Baratheon). I’m not going to try to puzzle out the mess that was the struggle for the English throne toward the end of the Middle Ages because either 1. You, dear reader, know far more about it than I can pretend to in the space of a blog post and will just find errors that you’ll feel compelled to tell me about or 2. Like me, you just assume that whoever had dragons and a proper attitude toward an invading zombie hoard eventually came out on top.

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Described by his detractors as a hunch-backed and deformed troll-ish sort of a man, Richard III was probably just a normal-ish looking guy. Unless you gave him strawberries. By Unknown, British School – Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But it seems that Hastings was just the sort of man to try to put the pieces together and he may have suspected that when Richard sought to declare his deceased brother’s marriage illegal and therefore his own nephew illegitimate, that Richard might have just wanted the throne for himself.

So, logically, when Hastings next arrived for a council meeting, he cursed the pretender to the throne. Shortly after the Lord Chamberlain’s arrival, Richard’s health began to suffer. His lips swelled. His face and limbs grew red and puffy. He became short of breath.

What today we might recognize as an allergic reaction to the fresh strawberries Sir Thomas More tells us Richard ate for breakfast, Richard identified as a curse. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that casting a potentially deadly curse on the Lord Protector of the Realm might result in a beheading.

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I suspect I’m allergic to dragons. Fortunately the current dragon count is pretty low. photo credit: SnoShuu Dragon via photopin (license)

That’s exactly what became of Lord Hastings, a man who might have otherwise caused a crimp in Richard’s plans to rule. The would-be king wasn’t taking any chances. Many contemporary writers (at least the ones that didn’t seem to like Richard much) suggested he murdered his young nephews as well.

There’s some speculation that perhaps Richard knew of his own allergy to strawberries and ate them anyway so he could pretend to have been cursed by Lord Hastings and justify ordering his death. Other historians argue that given the general belief in curses and ignorance of allergens at the time, Richard, perhaps already feeling a little paranoid in the course of his plotting, probably thought he really had been cursed.

I tend to believe the second scenario is more likely because of several good reasons explained by more informed historians (of the variety that would be sure to let me know about my mistakes when discussing the fall of the House of York).

First, fruit didn’t travel much in 1483 and so it was extremely seasonal, giving strawberries a pretty narrow window of availability in the English court. Richard wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunity to observe his own symptoms. Second, food allergies can be kind of like that, showing up unannounced after years of laying low. Third, a person would have to be pretty crazy to willingly inflict an uncomfortable allergic reaction on themselves. And finally, his successor, the usurper Henry VII probably had dragons anyway.*

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No throne is worth intentionally exposing yourself to a known allergen. But maybe it’s worth a curse or two? If you have dragons.

It’s the third point I want to discuss further because over the last week or so, some of my nearest and dearest have been cursed. Here in Missouri we are experiencing some of the highest mold and ragweed pollen counts we’ve seen in some time. That means that here in my household we have been experiencing some of the itchiest eyes, scratchiest throats, sneeziest noses, and achiest sinuses that we’ve seen in some time.

Catch them at the right moment, and my nearest and dearest might even suggest that having their heads lopped off might be more comfortable than the curse these allergens have brought upon them. This is definitely not a condition they would wish upon themselves, regardless of their aspirations to any thrones. Right about now, they’re kind of hoping that winter is coming. As long as someone steps up with a couple of dragons to take on the zombie hoard.

*No historians I came across actually suggested that Henry VII had dragons. Also, if you ever do stumble across a legitimate historian that references dragons, you should probably ask a few follow-up questions.

 

A Flocking Good Time

On September 4, 1979, the students of the University of Wisconsin in Madison emerged from their dorms to attend their first classes of the semester and discovered their campus had been overrun. As they’d slept, someone had filled the quad with 1008 bright pink, plastic flamingoes. The culprits were members of the Pail & Shovel Party that controlled the student government after campaigning on nonsensical promises and irresponsible fun.

The prank went down in history as one of the most delightful on campus, sparking an annual “Fill the Hill” university fundraiser and eventually inspiring Madison to adopt the pink flamingo as its official city bird in 2009.

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St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter garden gnome standing guard over the beets.

Why not? The students, after all, were simply participating in a longstanding tradition of lawn ornamentation, one that reaches back at least as far as the temple gardens of Ancient Egypt, and winds on up through the sacred groves of Ancient Greece and Rome. It includes the first manufactured garden gnomes of 19th century Germany, the inexplicable rise of Grandma’s polka dotted backside in the 1980s, and the wide variety of tchotchke in, and occasionally stolen from, my next door neighbor’s front yard, of which I am secretly super jealous. Mostly, I just want an excuse to use the word tchotchke as often as I can because it’s pretty much my favorite word of all time. Go ahead and say it (ˈchäch-kē). I bet it makes you smile.

But when someone mentions lawn ornaments, the image that springs to mind first for most of us is the classic pink flamingo, invented in 1957 by then fairly new Union Products sculptor Dan Featherstone in Leominster, Massachusetts. Featherstone’s flamingoes landed in yards throughout the United States during a time when subdivisions featuring cookie-cutter house designs were popping up at a great rate and homeowners were looking for a way to make their homes stand out.

The plastic pink flamingo joined only six species of the living bird, which gets its pinkish hue from the beta-cerotene in its food. Their population has waxed and waned in the decades since their initial introduction in 1957, but the plastic variety are the only ones you are likely to find these days in the wilds of the United States (or even in the suburbs).

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Ozzie wasn’t quite sure what to think of our visitors. Oh, and just in case you ever decide to participate in a flocking, I recommend gloves. Dogs are territorial.

And just like their more natural counterparts, the lawn ornaments tend to flock in large numbers. In fact, there is currently a flock or two living quite happily in my area, roosting each night in the yard of some “lucky” homeowner. The culprits this time are affiliated with my oldest son’s youth group, who will happily take donations in exchange for the nighttime flocking of an unsuspecting friend’s yard. They will also happily sell insurance to anyone not brave enough to host the visiting birds.

My son and I may have had something to do with a few of these migrations. And yes, we have also discovered a flock in our own yard. They’re not so bad really. The birds are quiet. They don’t eat much. And they only stick around to make your next door neighbor (who has otherwise cornered the tchotchke market in your more or less tasteful neighborhood) super jealous for 24 hours before flying off to roost elsewhere.flocked

The Pail & Shovel party would be proud I think. Of course, no matter how many yards get flocked, the official bird of the Greater St. Louis area will always be the Cardinal.

Slipping in Unicorn Puke

In the early part of the fourth century BC, a historian by the name of Ctesias returned to his native Greece after traveling through India and Persia, where he served a number of years as physician to the royal court. When he got home, he set to work writing about his travels in his great works Persica, which like many of the era’s works of history is somewhat dubious in nature, and Indica, which among other things, describes India’s native unicorn.

The unicorn, he wrote, was as large as a horse, with blue eyes, a red head, a white body, and a horn on its head measuring at least a foot and a half. It was also very strong and lightning fast.

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For a while rumor had it only a young virgin could successfully catch a unicorn because the creatures were attracted to purity. By Domenichino – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ctesias offers us the first written account of this elusive animal, but he certainly wasn’t the only “scholar” to write about it. Among those who mention the beast are Pliny the Elder, Saint Isidore of Seville, and Marco Polo. The unicorn even gets a nod in some translations of the Bible (I’m pretty sure the LSD translation is on the list).

Of course none of these writings seem to be eye-witness accounts, and the descriptions vary (some may more closely resemble a rhinoceros, which definitely is real), but for a good part of human history, there was little doubt of the unicorn’s existence. Its horn has been pulverized to make an antidote for poisons, it’s been used as a religious symbol of purity, and it’s even graced symbols of state.

Today’s unicorn is a little sleeker, a little sparklier, and a little more make-believe (though I hear Animal Planet is planning a show called Hunting Unicorns, which will air just as soon as they find Bigfoot). The unicorn of today also seems to have a hard time holding on to its lunch (which I have to assume is made up primarily of Skittles) because the creatures are frequently depicted puking rainbows.

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Yep. This sure makes me thirsty for something with sugar and sparkles.

I have to wonder if that’s what Starbucks was hoping to call to mind when they introduced their Unicorn Frappuccino last week. The multi-colored sugar bomb lasted only five days, and was even sold out at many stores faster than that, proving as difficult to catch as the unicorn itself.

I’m certainly not complaining. As a more or less non-coffee drinker, I have one Starbucks order I’ve convinced myself I enjoy when I occasionally have to meet up there, and the Unicorn Frappuccino isn’t it. But if they were still making them, then for the purpose of thorough research I suppose I would have gotten one just to take a picture. I might even have tried a sip so as to not anger the barista who just spent the last hour making 437 of them and is starting to take on a strange pink and blue hue.

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Since I didn’t get the drink you’ll just have to use your imagination. Picture this in a cup topped with whipped cream and pink and blue sprinkles.

So I didn’t catch a unicorn myself, but for a few days there I sure did hear a lot of rumors of their existence. I see from the Internet buzz that some Starbucks stores are now offering a Dragon Frappuccino made with green tea and magic and probably also a lot of sugar. I think I’ll pass on that one as well, but perhaps you’d like to try it.

If you tried the Unicorn Frappuccino, I’m curious, what did you think? Should Starbucks bring it back and make it a permanent offering, or did it make you puke rainbows like a unicorn?

 

That Gift in the Top of Your Closet

In February of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln followed up on a letter that had been sent to his predecessor by Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut, the king of Siam. The king had made a generous offer to the people of the United States, suggesting that he would be happy to send a gift of a sufficient number of elephants to breed in the wilds of the nation. And it certainly wasn’t the bizarre offer it might seem like today. Highly intelligent and useful in transporting goods and raising circus tents, Asian elephants enjoyed a long history as generous gifts.

President Lincoln crafted a highly diplomatic response, explaining that America did not offer environmental conditions conducive to wild elephant success and that when it came to transporting goods, we were scraping by okay with our newfangled steam engines. But he was also careful to thank the king for his very gracious offer.

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Consular Flag of Thailand, featuring an auspicious elephant. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because some elephants, particularly the rare albino ones, have long been considered sacred in Siam and throughout Southeast Asia, given their relationship to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). The story goes that Gautama’s mother dreamt of a white elephant descending from heaven on the very night she conceived her son.

So white elephants (and some not-so-white ones that are found to possess other traits earning them the title of “auspicious elephants”) have long been considered the sacred property of the reigning king in Siam. On occasion, the king also may have chosen to honor deserving courtiers by giving them the gift of trusting a white elephant to their care.

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Royal Elephant Stable where the King of Siam used to keep his White Elephants (today: The Royal Elephant National Museum, Bangkok) By Hdamm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It was a generous gift, but there were drawbacks. The amazing and rare creatures were too sacred to be put to work raising circus tents, had to be specially housed, and had to eat. A lot. A white elephant gift from the king, then, was not exactly something to be desired. It could easily burden a man into poverty. And it was a gift that couldn’t be refused.

Allegedly this is where the term “white elephant gift” came from, to refer to something you might give or receive that no one really wants. I don’t know about you, but over the years, I have been to my share of white elephant gift exchanges (also referred to as a Yankee Swap, or a Naughty Santa, which is NOT what it sounds like). These events usually come complete with rules that allow participants to trade the terrible gift they receive for someone else’s terrible gift. The idea, of course, is that one man’s trash may actually be another man’s treasure.

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Another man’s treasure. photo credit: sukigirl74 teacosy top view via photopin (license)

And who knows? Perhaps you have been searching for years for a tea cozy that’s the perfect shade of cerulean, and maybe your friend Ted has been just dying to get his hands on the Duran Duran cassette gathering dust in the top of your closet since the early 90’s.

But if your exchange doesn’t result in you taking home a gift you actually kind of want, don’t fear. You had a good time with friends, enjoying some laughs as everyone attempted to steal the same ceramic Yoda m&m dispenser. Besides you can always shove your unfortunate gift in the top of your closet and dust it off for next time.

Because over the last few years, the notion of re-gifting has gained some traction as a way to both rein in Holiday spending and create less waste. There are helpful re-gifting etiquette guidelines online and in October of 2008, then governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter declared December 18 as “National Re-gifting Day.” Frankly, I’m not sure the governor of Colorado has that kind of national authority. 

At least some people agree with me because a quick Internet search reveals that National Re-gifting Day can also be observed on either December 15, or on the last Thursday before Christmas, which to be fair to Governor Ritter will sometimes fall on the 18th. But I suppose it doesn’t matter when you mark it on the calendar because as other important festive occasions approach, National Re-gifting Day is a holiday that you can always pull off the dusty top shelf of your closet, stick in recycled gift bag, and celebrate again and again.