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.

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.

Why Ghosts are so Bad at Telling Jokes

Halloween is nearly upon us, which means it’s that time of year when we all better be prepared for little costumed ghouls and goblins to knock on our doors, throw flour in our faces, and tell us they hate us before scurrying off to dance wildly about the leaping flames of a bonfire in the middle of the street.

Or maybe not. I recently watched the musical movie Meet Me in St. Louis for the first time, which in itself is a shock, given that I live just outside of St. Louis and have been known to join in a singalong of the title song with 40,000 or so of my closest friends at sporting events in the city. But that’s nothing compared to the shock of the film’s depiction of a typical St. Louis Halloween celebration circa 1903, as experienced by Agnes and Tootie, dressed as a “horrible ghost” and a “terrible, drunken ghost.”

Of course, the mother in me had a visceral reaction to the scene, which is rude and scary and feels terribly dangerous. And I was also confused, because that is not how Halloween is done in St. Louis today. In fact, one of the more charming things about the city is that we have a really sweet and innocent and fairly unique tradition on Halloween night.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

Now, it’s not uncommon to see neighbors gathering around fire pits, sipping hot chocolate and handing out candy, but in the nearly eight Halloweens I’ve been here, I’ve never once come across a gang of children tossing furniture into a bonfire in the middle of the street. And while I suppose we do get the occasional horrible ghost or terrible, drunken ghost that shows up to ask for a Halloween treat, I usually see a lot more Disney princesses and superheroes than anything else.

The best part is that almost all of our costumed visitors come prepared with a joke or two to share. I’m talking scary awful, groan-worthy jokes, like the kind you would read in a bubblegum wrapper or like the kind that might encourage you to give someone a piece of candy just so they’ll go away.

Image by Pixaline from Pixabay

Not every kid will tell one. There are always some who are too little or too shy or too nonverbal, and that’s okay. Our candy distribution is not dependent on anyone’s joke-telling prowess, but it is a fun little tradition and no one really knows for sure how it got started.

The best guess comes from local folklorist John Oldani who believed it descended from an influx of Irish immigrants holding onto remnants of the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain. A lot of Halloween traditions were likely influenced by Samhain, including costumes, pumpkin carving, bonfires, and the offering of a song or poem or even a joke in exchange for a fun size Snickers.

No one seems to know why this took hold so firmly in the St. Louis area and not really elsewhere, except that perhaps the city started encouraging it as an alternative to pranks and vandalism and bonfires in the middle of Kensington Avenue. It seems to have arisen alongside trick-or-treating itself around 1940 or so. Maybe it was even a reaction to the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis that convinced the mothers of St. Louis that we needed a little more charm to our Halloween.

However it happened, the city has embraced it and come Halloween night, I’m pretty sure I’m going to hear some truly awful jokes. Maybe I’ll get lucky and hear some poems, too. And there’s probably a full-size candy bar in it for any terrible, drunken ghost that sings “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”

If you’ve got a good (or bad) Halloween joke, I’d love to hear it!

A Salute to Twenty-One

It’s the number of dots on a standard six-sided die and the total over which you can’t go in a hand of Blackjack. It’s the age at which a young American can legally drink and the number of the Amendment that restores the right to do so after the eighteenth Amendment took that right away.

In 1808, it became the official standardized number of cannon shots fired for a royal salute in Great Britain, a tradition that started as a symbol of exhausting one’s easily accessible ammo in order to signal peaceful intent. The United States wouldn’t adopt the number for saluting purposes officially until 1890, because ‘Mericans tend to be stubborn and they preferred their salute to correspond to the number of states in the union. Eventually, that began to seem like an awful lot of trouble, and twenty-one, like a pretty good compromise.

For me, the number twenty-one has gained a new significance this week as my husband and I celebrate twenty-one years of marriage. That’s twenty-one years in which we have lived in five different homes in three states, become the parents of two children, and shared so many private jokes that we probably don’t really need to talk at all anymore to make each other laugh. We’ve supported each other through schooling and job changes, through lots of frustrations and even more joys.

For almost ten years, he has been the first to read nearly every post that finds its way to this space, and a few that didn’t make cut, and has titled many of them. We share an appreciation for stupid puns, little known ska/punk bands, and overstuffed burritos.

So, this week, we mark an amazing twenty-one years. A quick internet search tells me that the traditional symbol for the twenty-first anniversary is brass. We’re not gamblers or big drinkers and I’m fresh out of cannons, but we are pretty big fans of brass. Happily “our song” comes with a healthy dose of it. Sounds like a celebration to me:

I Cannot Post a Lie: A Lesson in Irony

In 1806, sixty-eight years after it didn’t happen, minister, bookseller, and promotor of all things virtuous Mason Locke Weems revealed to the world that a six-year-old George Washington had once chopped his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet. According to the story, the unfailingly virtuous young George confessed his wrongdoing to his father who was proud of him for doing so.  

As far as pervasive lies go, I suppose Washington chopping the cherry tree isn’t so bad. Stephen Goodwin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t until the fifth edition that Weems included the charming tale in his instant bestseller, The Life of George Washington. Like all good biographers, Weems dug deep and attempted to look beyond the familiar public service life of his subject into the less well-known influential moments that eventually led to greatness.  

Weems spun his biography around the idea that in order for George Washington to grow into the great man he had been, he must have developed a healthy collection of good virtues throughout his early years of formation. The trouble was, Weems didn’t have access to all the stories he needed to make the concept work.

So, Weems joined the ranks of those who engage in popular history—that genre which includes a little less strict scholarship and a little more making stuff up for the sake of telling a good story and selling lots of books (or creating a silly blog post).

It worked. Weems sold a lot of books, and he invented one of the most often repeated stories told in American elementary school classrooms, where young children are lied to about history so that they learn to be honest and accountable for their mistakes if they ever want to be president.

I was wrong about cherry pie when I was a child, which I can admit to you because I am a very virtuous person. But as always, please do not vote for me for president. Image by Mary Bettini Blank from Pixabay

So that might have been a slight miscalculation on the part of Mason Locke Weems and the American school system, but at least it is a good lesson in irony. I could think of approximately 42 million things I’d rather do than become the President of the United States, but I do remember learning the story.

And I thought about the tale every spring, because at my house we always had at least one cherry tree that produced a ton of cherries for my mom to turn into pie. I would refuse to eat it, of course, because when I was young, I didn’t see the point of calling something dessert if it included more fruit than chocolate.

Still, I have fond memories of picking cherries. And seeding cherries. Lots of cherries. For hours. Until my fingers were stained red and everything was sticky and I might have been tempted to take a hatchet to that tree. I cannot tell a lie.

Ah. Spring.

I did eventually learn the joys of eating cherry pie and now that I’m a grownup with a home of my own, we have a cherry tree that we manage to pick a few cherries from every spring. For some reason, this was a particularly good year for it. I don’t know if it was the just perfect weather pattern or if our fairly young tree finally reached its fruiting potential or what, but we had a lot of cherries to pick and pit.

And about a week or so later, so did my parents. I recruited my youngest son and we went to the grandparents’ house to help pick more cherries. Their much bigger tree had outdone itself. We picked and reached and climbed and picked some more, until we were hot and tired, our fingers were sticky, and Grandma said she had enough for more pies than they could probably manage to eat.

By that point, I think I’d not have been surprised if my son had taken a hatchet to the tree. He would have come clean about it because he’s a pretty virtuous kid, and though I wouldn’t wish this on him, I’m sure he would make a brilliant president someday.

Weight for It

A recent study published on the JAMA Network platform of the American Medical Association on March 22 found that on average American adults gained 0.6 pounds every ten days of pandemic-related lockdowns. I’m delighted to be able to say that I am below average, but like most of us, this bizarre year has not been particularly kind to my waistline.

I’ve kept it in check as well as I have only because I started a running challenge. If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time or if you’ve read my book, Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense, then you may recall that I think running is stupid.

Prove me wrong. A good friend of mine likes to say he’ll believe running isn’t stupid when he sees someone both running and smiling. Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

But it is easy to do. All you need is a good pair of tennis shoes and a healthy dose of self-loathing. Also, it’s convenient because you don’t have to go anywhere. That’s literally true in my case since I run pretty much exclusively on a treadmill, both because my knees don’t care for downhills or uneven surfaces and because I don’t like looking like a wheezing idiot in public.

It’s going more or less okay. Of course, I wonder when I can stop with every single step, but my pants still fit and at least some of my below average weight gain could reasonably be attributed to an increase in muscle mass. The rest of it, not so much. So, I wouldn’t mind shedding a few pandemic pounds.

But I have a plan.

This very morning, Thursday April 1, 2021, at 9:47 AM, the earth will experience what scientists refer to as the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. That’s when the sadly demoted dwarf planet of Pluto will align directly behind Jupiter and produce a combined gravitational effect that will be noticeable on Earth.

1…2…3…Jump! Image by lena dolch from Pixabay

Some astronomers have suggested that the best way to experience this unusual phenomenon will be to jump into the air at that precise time, allowing yourself to hover just a bit longer than you normally would and experience a slight floating sensation. It’s expected that the hang time of an average human jump will increase from 0.2 seconds to as much as 3 whole seconds which, scientifically speaking, you’d have to be a pretty big fool not to notice.

That sounds fun and all, but I have a better idea. At precisely 9:47 this morning, I will be stepping on my bathroom scale, where I expect to note a loss of at least 0.6 pounds for each one of you who is gullible enough to jump in the air and expect to float.

It’s hard not to trust a man wearing a monocle. Sir Patrick Moore. South Downs Planetarium, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That’s right. I’m sad to have to let you know that the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect isn’t really real. It was first presented to the world in 1976 by well-known and highly-respected astronomer Patrick Moore who was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a war hero, and the longtime host of the BBC’s The Sky at Night program which aired for fifty-five years.

He also had a sense of humor and was credentialed enough to pull off a good April Fool’s prank for the BBC, which is well known for its April Fool’s pranks. I mean, this was no record-setting spaghetti harvest or flying penguin video, but it was pretty good.

And it got people jumping up and down and having a good time. The extra exercise may have even helped them lose a little weight, like an average of 0.6 pounds every ten days they tried again and again to experience the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. But as far as I know, no one has done a study on that.

Singing Badly into the Phone

This is a big birthday month for our family. Between us my husband and I have five brothers and sisters whose birthdays fall within the month of March, which means that if we were better siblings than we are, we’d spend a lot of time singing “Happy Birthday to You,” loudly and really off key, into the phone.

We don’t have a perfect record, but when we do manage to get the crew together to sing, it’s quite the ridiculous auditory experience for the recipient who greatly appreciates the effort, I’m sure.

I am at least a good enough sibling that I will eat cake in honor of your birthday. photo credit: joncutrer Happy Birthday cake via photopin (license)

It’s strange, really, that we sing so poorly given what a simple little tune the traditional birthday song is. Originally it was designed to be sung by kindergarteners, and at first it had nothing to do with birthdays at all.

It was in the early 1890s when Kentucky school teacher Patty Hill introduced the “Good Morning to All” song to her kindergarten class. Arranged by her sister Mildred Hill, the song first appeared in a collection called Song Stories for the Kindergarten published by Clayton F. Summy in Chicago. It was just a little diddy that was easy for the small kiddos to learn and helped remind them to focus at the beginning of each school day. And it was a simple enough tune that it could be easily adapted for other uses, like wishing a happy birthday, whenever the need arose.

We used such songs with my children when they were young. When as toddlers they were learning to brush their own teeth, we sang what I cleverly named “The Toothbrush Song,” which featured brilliant mommy-on-the-spot lyrics such as “I’m brushin, brushin brushin, brushin, brushin my teeth so I don’t have stinky bad breath.” It helped to liven up the experience and reminded them of how long to keep brushing.

When Warner Bros. purchased the company that held the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You,” the song was estimated to be worth $5 million. I would consider selling the rights to “The Toothbrush Song” for less than that. Like maybe even just $4 million. Image by spangle84 from Pixabay

That’s exactly the kind of thing “Happy Birthday to You” was, a song for teaching a life skill, before it became one of the most legally contentious tunes in history.

The song caught on, and showed up in numerous compilations throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, for the first time with the birthday lyrics in 1912. It appeared in the 1931 Broadway musical The Band Wagon and in Irving Berlin’s 1933 As Thousands Cheer. It became the song to sing at family birthday celebrations. It’s identified in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recognized song in the English language and has been translated into at least eighteen additional languages. “The Toothbrush Song” has yet to catch on quite so well.

Patty Hill and The Summy Company filed a series of lawsuits over the use of the song and in 1935 registered the copyright that would frustrate an awful lot of people for the next eighty years, including birthday celebrators in restaurants forced to wear silly hats in the middle of a circle of clapping waitstaff singing some song that sounded even more made up on the spot.

The Summy Company changed hands a few times and eventually became part of the Warner Bros. entertainment conglomerate, a company that for quite a while was making an easy $2 million per year on licensing that one silly little kindergarten song. It was serious business. Even Star Trek got in trouble for singing the song translated into Klingon.

I don’t know if the eighteen languages “Happy Birthday to You” has been translated into includes Klingon. I really hope not. photo credit: marakma IMG_3233 via photopin (license)

Any use of “Happy Birthday to You” outside of intimate family gatherings or obnoxious phone renditions performed for unfortunate siblings required a license that would cost from seven hundred to ten thousand dollars, making it possibly the highest-earning song in history.

Then in 1998, the US Supreme Court heard a case involving the Copyright Extension Act, which gets occasionally updated primarily in order to protect Mickey Mouse from ever entering the public domain. The Court upheld the copyright in that case, but in the dissention, the traditional happy birthday song got a mention.

That led law professor Robert Brauneis to do a little research into the history of the song and eventually determine that the copyright could only apply to the specific arrangement initially published by The Summy Company a very long time ago, and that the claim Warner Bros. held on royalties for any performance of the song was pretty shaky. That conclusion led to further lawsuits and a hefty settlement for Warner Bros.

So if, instead of sticking to a truly terrible phone rendition, you want to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to your sister while she wears a ginormous sombrero at the local Mexican restaurant, or if you want to use it in your Broadway musical, or perform it on the jumbotron at Lambeau Field, go right ahead. As of June 28, 2016, the song is in the public domain in the United States. In Europe, too, since January 1, 2017. And if you’d like permission to use “The Toothbrush Song,” just let me know. I’m sure we can work something out.

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.
By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24638618

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.

This view might be the only thing I’d find worse than being packed into the Times Square crowd on a cold New Year’s Eve. By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24638618

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.

It’s no chili, but I guess that doesn’t look too bad. Kent Wang, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure the two theories are necessarily exclusionary. And having grown up in the Midwest, I think I can safely say that when it comes to eating fish on a high holy day, oysters that have traveled by wagon for two weeks probably aren’t any worse than a giant catfish that’s been sucking on mud from the bottom of the Mississippi River.

But then I’m not really a seafood girl. I do blame my Midwestern upbringing, and multiple encounters with questionable catfish, for that. When I briefly lived on the west coast in Oregon, I branched out and made peace with some seafood. I quite enjoy crab and most fresh ocean white fish is a tolerable alternative if the menu doesn’t contain chicken. I do, however, remain gleefully unacquainted with the oyster.

Oyster crackers are okay, though, and fortunately I have no religious qualms about eating chili, filled with beef or venison, on Christmas Eve.

Nope. That does not look delicious.

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?

My Immediate Travel Plans

I don’t know about you, but all this social distancing and isolation has given me a bit of wanderlust. It’s unclear at this point when we might be able to incorporate travel into our lives again, but there’s no question in my mind where I would go if I could.

As soon as it becomes safe and possible, you’ll find me on a plane headed for the Indian Ocean, to a pair of small islands northeast of Sri Lanka. In fact, as travel to the nation of San Seriffe isn’t currently restricted, I might find a way to leave even sooner.

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Someday this will be me again. Image courtesy of KatyVeldhorst, via Pixabay.

It’s a great little place, consisting of the curvy southern island of Lower Caisse, and to the north the circular Upper Caisse which features the beautiful white sand Cocobanana Beach along its west coast. Home to about 1.8 million people of European and native Flong decent, San Seriffe possesses a rich cultural history dating all the way back to 1977 when it was dreamt into existence by Philip Davies, director of Special Reports for the Guardian newspaper.

Davies was thinking of the frequent special reports in the Financial Times, that highlighted the attributes of small countries he’d almost never heard of, when the idea for an over-the-top April Fool’s prank came to him. He pitched his imaginary island nation to regular staff members Geoffrey Taylor, Stuart St. Clair Legge, Mark Arnold-Forster, and Tim Radford.

The single-page joke feature rapidly expanded into a seven-page supplement that included articles about economic opportunities, political history, and the rapidly growing tourism industry in San Seriffe. The J Walter Thompson Ad Agency even sold ad space, which included a contest sponsored by Kodak requesting snapshots from trips to the islands and with a submission cutoff one day before the piece ran.

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An artist’s rendering of the approximate geographical shape of San Serriffe, featuring the islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse.

What was no more than an elaborate joke filled with puns that prior to the presence of desktop publishing software in most homes, weren’t very familiar outside the publishing industry, became a news-worthy story as readers flooded the newspaper’s office with calls for more information.

The report took on a life of its own then when more astute readers began sending in recollections of trips taken to the fictitious islands. The Guardian published an angry letter to the editor in which a member of the San Serriffe Liberation Front expressed concern about the paper’s clear pro-government bias. Real complaints came from travel agents and airlines, which had a hard time convincing people there was no such place.

It was a fairly perfect April Fool’s prank—one that captured readers’ imaginations and spawned an entire genre of jokes, including “I’ve Been to San Serriffe” bumper stickers, a joke article on WikiTravel, and several books, including The Most Inferior Execution Known Since the Dawn of the Art of Marbeling Collected by the Author During a Five Year Expedition to the Republic of San Serriffe written by Theodore Bachaus and probably available from a library near you.

ZoomBeach
This is the island beach from which I will be attending all Zoom meetings, as soon as I can figure out how to do it. It’s probably Cocobanana.

This year April Fool’s Day came and went with less frivolity. The world in 2020 is a little more scared, a little more serious, and a lot more sensitive about invented news. As much as I suspect we’d all love to call up a travel agent that’s now working from home, and book what would likely be a very inexpensive flight to San Serriffe, doing so is even less possible than it was in 1977.

But like the duped readers of the Guardian all those years ago, we can imagine. We can change our Zoom backdrops and pretend to attend meetings from somewhere on an island beach. Hopefully we can still laugh and appreciate a good joke, even while many of us are feeling scared and trapped. And we can dream of the trips we might take when this strange season of social distancing and travel restrictions is finally over, when we’re free once again to enjoy a beautiful day relaxing on Cocobanana Beach.

 

Live ReadingDon’t forget, it’s still a great time to pick up a book and transport yourself to new fictional worlds! If you want, you can join me on my Facebook page where through the month of April, I will be livestreaming my newest historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, one chapter each evening at 7 pm Central US time read by me. Previously read chapters are available for catching up.