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.

travel-778338__340
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.

Semicolon
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.

My Babylonian Resolution

Four thousand years ago, give or take, the Babylonian people celebrated a twelve-day festival called Akitu. I don’t know if it involved giving their true loves a bunch of gold rings, some milking maids, and an alarming number of birds, but it was a pretty big deal. Akitu was celebrated in mid-March and it marked the beginning of a new planting season, the beginning of a new year.

new-years-day-4707619__340It was the time when Babylonians decided to make some changes. They either reaffirmed their loyalty to their current ruler or got themselves a new one. And on a more personal level, they made vows to their gods to settle their debts, return what had been borrowed, and basically be better people. Though this particular practice doesn’t seem to be included in the histories we have, I think it’s also safe to assume most wanted to shed a few pounds and do a bit less drinking in the new year.

The Babylonians left us the earliest recorded evidence of New Year resolutions, but of course the practice, or some version of it, rose up all over the world. People seem to be hardwired to like a fresh start, a chance to do a little bit better the next time.

sleepy christmas
And I’m done. photo credit: Carol (vanhookc) Dreaming of Dec. 25th via photopin (license)

I’m not a big resolution-maker. Or at least not specifically at the start of the year. January, for me, has instead become a month of recovery. The Christmas season sort of wipes me out, and this one was worse than most.

I think it all started when Thanksgiving was such a late arrival. Everything felt condensed this season, with all the parties and traditions and fun crammed into a drawer that didn’t have quite enough space. Real life took a backburner while gifts were given and merriment was made. In the midst of that, a tragedy in my extended family zapped whatever I might have had left.

And so, a lot didn’t get done. I didn’t read the wonderful words of all my pals in the blogosphere. I didn’t write many either, not in this space nor elsewhere, and yes, that includes a Christmas letter that now will have to become a greeting for the new year instead.

drawer
The sad part is that I didn’t have to stage this picture. I really probably should get more organized in 2020.

If you sent me an email in the last few weeks, I most likely didn’t open it, but it’s still waiting in my inbox and I’ll get there soon. If I agreed to read your book or play or short story, I’ll get to that, too. Fortunately, January is long and bleak in my corner of the world and there’s a little more space in the drawer.

It would be great if in 2020 I could lose a little weight and be a little more organized. I’d also still love to learn to teleport. But I think it might be more of a Babylonian New Year for me this year. I’m going to work on settling my debts by catching up on all the things I’ve let slide. By mid-March, I think I just might make it.

What about you? Got any goals for 2020?

November is a Month for Silly Affectations

It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.

beardless lincoln
Lincoln in 1858, in need of a beard. By T.P. Pearson, Public Domain

And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.

But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.

There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.

bearddrawlincoln
An artist’s best guess. Original portrait by T.P. Pearson, Public Domain. Beard added by my 14-year-old son, used with permission.

Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.

But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.

realbeardlincon
Bewhiskered Lincoln in 1863. It takes a wise president to embrace criticism about his hair. By Alexander Gardner, Public Domain

He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.

It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.

Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.

Interview with a Krampus

I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit this year. The decorations are up, the lights are lit, and rebellious radio stations are pumping out classic holiday tunes like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Most of my shopping is done, there are way too many cookies in my house, and a candy cane hangs on the star that tops our tree.

Everything is feeling like Christmas, and it’s kind of perfect. Or at least it was, until a more sinister holiday tradition found its way onto my radar. Before we snuggle into our beds to dream of sugarplums, I think it’s time we talk about Krampus.

carolers
I would give these people figgy pudding if they showed up on my doorstep.

Maybe you’ve always been aware of St. Nick’s demon counterpart. I grew up happy, so I didn’t know about him until a few years ago. And I never met him until last night.

The origin of this dark character is a little unclear. The name Krampus probably comes from Krampen, the German word for claw, though similar traditions have come from all over Europe and may predate the sweeter celebrations of Christmas.

He is part goat, part demon, reminiscent of the traditional horned Satan of Christianity, and he comes on Krampusnacht on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. He comes lugging chains and carrying a bundle of birch branches for swatting naughty children. The truly rotten kiddos, he stuffs in the sack on his back and carries them off, presumably to eat them.

Yikes. Merry Christmas!

krampuswarning
Krampus is useful if you need to keep the kiddos out of the room where the Christmas gifts are hidden.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a big fan of this particular tradition. Honestly, Santa breaking and entering from the rooftop to snack on cookies isn’t high on my list, either, but at least he’s not devouring the children.

But because I, thankfully, didn’t grow up with Krampus in my life, I thought I should learn a bit about him as his popularity resurges throughout Europe and the United States. I went to the one place where I knew he’d be.

Saint Charles, Missouri, not too far from where I live, hosts an annual celebration called Christmas Traditions through several blocks of its charming brick road Main Street that runs alongside the Missouri River.

It’s a great family event, where you can catch a horse-drawn carriage ride, buy chestnuts roasted on an open fire, and listen to roaming packs of Victorian carolers begging for figgy pudding. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, characters of Christmas, including Susie Snowflake, Tiny Tim, and a whole host of traditional Father Christmases from around the world gather along the shop-lined lane and mingle with the crowd, handing out trading cards and holiday cheer.

On Wednesday evenings you can find them, too, but that’s also when the darker side of Christmas comes out to play. That’s when I went looking for Krampus. I had a hard time finding him at first so I asked a kindly old Kris Kringle, who was visibly distressed by the question. “We keep the naughty characters on the north end of the street,” he explained. “I should warn you, they’re a tough bunch, a little rough around the edges.”

krampus2
One Christmas tradition I think I could do without.

I thanked him and headed north where I discovered an abominable snowman, the Ice Queen, and Jolakotturinn, an Icelandic mouse demon that also eats people and will now haunt my sugarplum dreams.

At last I spotted the man/goat/demon himself. He was busy wishing people a happy President’s Day, Labor Day, or Columbus Day—anything but Christmas, a holiday he didn’t care to acknowledge. He handed out cards only when children said the magic phrase: “Give me a card, now!” I didn’t actually see him stuff any of them into a bag, but I could tell he was thinking about it. I’d have asked him. I even planned to. But he was a little rough around the edges.

Is Krampus a part of your holiday traditions?

 

Making a List and Checking it Twice

So we’re down to it, the last few days before Christmas. I’m not going to lie. I’m a little stressed, though in a good way. I want the holiday to produce warm, fuzzy memories for my children and the whole family as we gather together to celebrate. And it will, because the celebration is really in the gathering together.

But there’s definitely a certain image in my mind of how it will all go, observing just the right traditions, in a sparkling clean house that is only going to get covered in cast-off bows and scraps of wrapping paper. It’ll be perfect even if it’s not perfect, which it won’t be. I get all that. But I’m still running through my lists.

santa list
This guy gets it.

Because I am definitely a list maker. I’m one of those people who has several lists at once and then to keep track of them, makes a list of my lists. I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve accomplished a task that’s not included on my to-do list, writes it in, just for the pleasure of crossing it off. I think I may have a problem.

Actually, as a team of archaeologists working on a restoration project at a historic 17th century house in Kent, England discovered about a year ago, I might not be all that unusual. What they found under a floorboard in the attic was a shopping list, handwritten in October of 1633, by an obviously somewhat educated servant named Robert Draper. In it, he expresses the need for two dozen pewter spoons, greenfish (salted cod, allegedly), and a frying pan. The discovery is exciting because it’s a glimpse of the mundane stuff of life from the period, which is not always easily accessible information for historians.

It’s a bold list that includes instructions addressed to a Mr. Bilby asking him to send these items, along with some lights from the chamber of the lady of the house and a fire shovel from the nursery, to one of the family’s separate residences. I do tend to shy away from making lists for other people, unless specifically asked to, which occasionally I am, because I live with very non-list-making kinds of people who acknowledge that they sometimes forget things. And lists are handy.

That’s especially true if you’re Santa Claus and you’re tasked with remembering the gift requests of every child you’ll visit on Christmas Eve, and also whether or not they’ve been well behaved enough to deserve them. It sounds like a logistical nightmare to me.

santa cookies
No wonder the poor guy binges on cookies.

But Santa’s got it under control because he’s got a list that he checks twice. He’s had one since long before Eddie Cantor sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934, and even before 1633 when Robert Draper reminded Mr. Bilby not to forget the light bulbs.

It’s true that the American Santa Claus as we know him today comes partially from the stories of the 4th century bishop known as Saint Nicholas, but the character also descends from a more pagan influence, particularly from Nordic folktales that arose in the Middle Ages.

The jolly fat man in a red coat, designed in the late 19th century by artist Thomas Nast, bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of Thor. And the behavior of the dear old saint as reported by Clement Moore is reminiscent of Odin flying through the air on an eight legged horse, delivering gifts through chimneys. With him are two ravens, his constant companions that listen at the chimneys and report on whether the occupants of the home have been naughty or nice.

raven
A harbinger of death, and yet still less creepy than the elf on the shelf.

As Santa evolved the eight legged horse became eight reindeer and the eavesdropping ravens became a master list and, in the last few years, a super creepy elf on the shelf. Frankly, I think Santa should have kept the ravens.

I think it’s safe to assume the jolly old elf is a little stressed out with just a few days remaining before the biggest night of his year. He might even check his list more than twice. And then make lists of his lists, and add to each of them as he goes. Because he wants to make sure the holiday is merry and bright, and he’s probably afraid he’ll forget the lightbulbs. 

What the Duck?

Sometime in the 1930s, hunting buddies Frank Schutt and Chip Barwick returned to Memphis, Tennessee from a weekend of duck hunting in Arkansas. Like many hunting trips, this one allegedly involved a good bit of whiskey and like many hunting buddies that have imbibed too much whiskey the pair came up with a rather absurd idea.

Upon their late night return to the Peabody Hotel where Schutt served as general manager, the two decided it would be hilarious to take their live decoy ducks and place them in the marble fountain in the middle of the lobby of the very swanky hotel.

duck fountain
Mallard ducks, perfectly at home in the lobby of a swanky hotel.

Of course whiskey-soaked hunting buddies do eventually sober up and Schutt stepped into the lobby the next morning to assess the damage created by his tomfoolery. What he found were excited guests enamored by the presence of three well –mannered ducks swimming in the fountain and minding their own ducky business. The frazzled manager apologized to hotel guests who insisted that the ducks were a charming addition to the atmosphere of the hotel.

So the ducks stayed. And that was pretty weird.

Then a few years later, a bellman by the name of Edward Pembroke, whose previous professional experience included a stint as an animal trainer with a large circus, suggested he might be able to encourage the ducks to march a particular way. What he proposed was a kind of ceremony in which each morning the ducks would march down a red carpet into the fountain, waddling to the piped-in sounds of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March.” The ducks, he explained, would reverse the same march in the afternoon, in a theatrical performance that would mesmerize hotel guests.

duck carpet
These ducks are kind of a big deal.

It did. And it was definitely weird.

Pembroke was given the title of “Duckmaster” and ninety years later, the ducks are still waddling up and down the red carpet every day in the lobby of the swanky Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.

My family and I recently spent a long weekend exploring Memphis, and I have to say, in this town that features the delightfully gaudy home of the most likely dead Elvis, the Peabody ducks are still the weirdest tourist attraction we found.

duck master
The Peabody Duckmaster, whose job is not made up, is prepared to answer all your duck-related questions. Yes, all of them.

We got to the lobby of the Peabody around 10:30 and already one of the elevators was roped off and the red carpet had been partially unrolled. One of the current duckmasters, dressed in his brass button duckmaster finest, stood ready to answer all of the growing crowd’s duck-related questions, of which there were a surprisingly large number.

We learned that the Peabody ducks are treated as wild animals and will eventually return to the wild after their three month assignment in the Peabody fountain, and that when they are not swimming in the lobby, the ducks reside in a lavish penthouse duck suite that cost more to build (in non-adjusted dollars) than Elvis originally paid for Graceland.

ducky master
You will not find duck anywhere on the menu of Chez Philippe (the Peabody’s classic French cuisine-inspired restaurant), but you will find plenty of duck-related merchandise in the hotel’s gift shop.

As 11:00 approached, the anticipation in the crowd grew palpable. At about ten ‘til the hour, the duckmaster told the story of the drunken hunting buddies and named one lucky hotel guest the “Honorary Duckmaster” (a title he now shares with Oprah and that will allow him to forever include the initials HDM at the end of his name, that lucky duck). The two of them then finished rolling out the red carpet and headed up in the duck-designated elevator as the rest of us less fortunate observers stood with bated breath.

duck march
Ducks struttin’ their stuff behind the HDM, and being pursued by Paparazzi. #ducklife

Then at last the moment arrived. Sousa’s majestic march filled the lobby, the notes bouncing off gleaming marble surfaces as the elevator doors opened and in walked the HDM with five mallard ducks waddling behind him.

The crowd cheered. I cheered. The ducks waddled. And splashed. And quacked. It was just the kind of absurd spectacle you’d imagine might be dreamt up by a couple of whiskey soaked hunting buddies and a circus animal trainer.

Yep. It was super weird.

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.

evilbunny
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.  

BrownDog
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.

Bunny
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.

EasterOzzie
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.

FredbirdandSteve
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.

saint patrick
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.

stpathat
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.