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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1557, French cartographer André Thévet published Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique, an account containing a number of tales of the New World, gathered from men who’d been there. One of those men was Jacques Cartier, today credited with establishing a foothold for France in North America, laying claim to the country he named Canada, and for possibly being the first European to discover the ooey, gooey, deliciousness of maple syrup.
Well, it might not have been in an ooey, gooey form, but evidently Cartier relayed the tale to Thévet of a tree resembling a large European walnut that when felled, released a sugary liquid “as tasty and as delicate as any good wine from Orleans or Beaune.” Cartier’s party quickly filled several pots with the sweet sap and had they boiled it in those pots, they would have wanted some pancakes to go with it.
Native Americans in the area had been tapping maple trees during the Sugar Moon (the first full moon of spring) for enough years for several legends to have arisen around the practice, and North American squirrels had been doing it for even longer.
Europeans may have been late to the party, but they proved just as enthusiastic.Widely used as concentrated sugar during the 17th and 18th centuries, at around the time of the American Civil War, maple sap was largely replaced as a sweetener in American cooking by imported cane sugar. And so ooey, gooey, delicious syrup became the maple product of choice for most people (and probably squirrels).
It makes a good glaze for salmon or adds a lovely sweetness to barbecue sauce. It’s great in salad dressings, with bacon, or drizzled over nuts. And according to Yale-trained chemical engineer Edward Cussler—awarded a 2005 prestigious (sort of) Ig Nobel prize for his super science-y study—you can even swim in it. But the best thing to do with it is to pour it over a big stack of soft, fluffy, warm, and buttery pancakes.
That’s just what my family will be doing next Tuesday. While some people may be donning masks, throwing beads, or eating cakes with a plastic baby trinket baked inside, we’ll be marking Shrove Tuesday with the traditional pancakes, smothered in ooey, gooey, syrupy deliciousness.
Chances are, that deliciousness will come from trees in Canada, which produces about 75% of the world’s supply of maple syrup. And fortunately, they’re not going to run out anytime soon, thanks to the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, which is a real thing. Despite a notable robbery in 2012 in which 1000 tons of syrup vanished (I have to assume wily squirrels were somehow involved) and was only partially recovered, the reserve holds more than 12,000 tons of syrup in three separate warehouses throughout Quebec.
That’s probably just a little more than Cartier’s men gathered all those years ago. Now, the reserve is also a little controversial, because it’s essentially a cartel designed to control the Canadian syrup market and maintain higher prices. But it also means that if there’s a bad year for maples, my family can still observe Shrove Tuesday in style, with a big stack of soft, fluffy, warm, and buttery pancakes, smothered in ooey, gooey, syrupy deliciousness.
Sometime over the past few weeks, influenza descended in full force on our fair city, stretching across the region, flooding our doctors’ offices, our schools, and our homes. One area school even recently reported nearly 200 student absences in a single day. I probably don’t need to tell you there’s been a lot of sneezing, and a fair number of “God bless yous.”
For quite a while now my social media feed has been filled with friends lamenting that their households have fallen victim, warning those whose children have had social contact with theirs might just be next, and offering a sort of wish for good health in spite of the odds.
And, really, that’s what that wonderful phrase “God bless you,” is really probably all about. Though no one can say for certain exactly where it came from (even Snopes.com, which I have to assume at least tried), the most often related story attributes the custom to Pope Gregory I who took over for Pelagius II, when the latter fell victim to the plague in 590.
This was the tail end of what history remembers as the Plague of Justinian, possibly the first recorded instance of bubonic plague (like you might even today encounter in a National Park), or at least something related to it. The exact bug behind the pandemic probably doesn’t matter all that much. What we do know is that it killed quickly, and it started with a sneeze.
Gregory didn’t exactly want to be named Pope, but he received the title by acclimation, and soon set to work ministering to the stricken people of Rome. He prayed for deliverance from sickness and encouraged repentance, even organizing a large procession to the Vatican, in which the faithful gathered in a large coughing, sneezing crowd in order to share in worship and germs.
Allegedly Gregory also began the practice of offering a blessing for good health upon a person who sneezed, thereby praying away the plague. The Justinian Plague didn’t really extend beyond Gregory’s stint as Pope, so maybe there was something to his approach. Or maybe the bug had simply run its course through the population.
Either way, the tradition of saying, “God bless you,” or wishing someone good health (with a Gesundheit or similar expression) is so deeply ingrained in our behavior pattern now, it’s hard to remain silent when we hear a sneeze.
The question is, I suppose, does it help? Sadly, I don’t know that anyone has ever researched that. But what does help is vaccination. Now, fortunately for our family, we are well vaccinated folks, so when it was our turn last week our symptoms were relatively mild. We dealt with a few aches, some low-grade fevers, a good helping of fatigue, and plenty of coughing and sneezing and gunk. But all in all, it wasn’t too bad, with only my oldest developing a secondary ear infection, easily taken care of with an antibiotic.
For us, then, this week has been a return to our regularly scheduled program. Everyone has gone to school or work, and my oldest is off and running, heading into the next big thing. For him, that means making a movie with several of his friends to enter into the school district’s upcoming film festival.
For weeks now they’ve been working on a script and costumes, rehearsing lines, and practicing stunts. I admit I’m not entirely sure what the film is about. The plot keeps changing, though I’m fairly certain it involves a wizard or two. Their biggest hurdle in getting it finished has been that members of the crew keep getting sick.
But I’m looking forward to seeing the completed project and I imagine it will work out just fine. After all, the first surviving film copyrighted in the US, now considered by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” consists of nothing more than 5 seconds of a man sneezing.
And speaking of ongoing creative projects, I currently have two books projects underway that will be published this year. If you’re interested, you can check them out on this recently re-installed book page.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In April of 1864, during the American Civil War, Private John C. Lower of the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry, was captured and taken to a Confederate prison camp. There, after many months of captivity, he found himself on Christmas Eve, hungry, weak, and knocking on death’s door. He begged for help, appealing to the mercy of a guard who took pity on him and gave him a pickle.
It was this pickle that Private Lower later credited with the saving of his life, and when he finally returned home, he began a curious holiday tradition with his family. Whether Lower survived because the kindness of the prison camp guard infused him with hope for humanity, or because the slug of seven whole much needed calories provided him the energy to live on, no one can say for sure.
Pickles have long been considered to provide good health and vitality, and have been relied upon by military leaders dating back as far as Julius Caesar, to give their soldiers a much needed kick. Still, it seems likely that Lower’s story is entirely made up to explain the long-standing tradition of the Christmas pickle.
Never heard of it?
Neither had I, but apparently it’s been an American tradition since at least 1890 (or 1865, in the Lower household). Before that it was a “time honored German tradition.” The trouble with that theory, of course, is that most Germans haven’t heard of it either.
The idea is that parents hide a pickle ornament somewhere on the tree on Christmas Eve, and in the morning, the first child to spot it wins a small prize or receives a special blessing for the year to come, or earns the right to open the first present.
Okay, so it’s a little bit charming. And for the purposes of this blog post, I went on a pickle-finding adventure of my own. I searched several stores, asking employees if they had traditional Christmas pickle ornaments. Most of them looked at me with mystified expressions full of barely masked pity. Only one knew what I was talking about, though her store did not carry them. A surprised employee in the store where I finally had success, said, “Well, I think we had some cucumbers. Or maybe they were pickles?”
They were. And I bought one. Because even if it isn’t an age-old German Christmas tradition, we Americans sure do love our pickles. More than half of the cucumbers we grow eventually become pickles. That’s twenty-six billion of them per year. And each of us allegedly eats an average of nine pounds of them per year, which means someone out there is eating an awful lot of pickles to balance out my somewhat less than nine pound contribution.
But there’s still the question of how they ended up on our Christmas trees. There are a couple theories other than the one involving Private Lower, including one that suggests the source is a miracle of St. Nicholas in which he resurrected two murdered boys who’d been sealed into a pickle barrel by an innkeeper (securing his place on the naughty list). There are lots of variations of that story, though, and most don’t involve pickles at all. Also, it’s pretty awful and not very Christmas-y.
The theory that I find most believable, is that in 1890, F.W. Woolworth began importing Christmas ornaments from a German glass factory, many of them in the shapes of fruits. Some of them were pickles (and, yes, cucumbers, and therefore pickles, are fruits…ask a botanist). While the pomegranates and pears sold fairly well, for some reason, the pickles didn’t strike most people as particularly Christmas-y. And so a German custom was born, right there in an American five-and-dime.
It turns out this long standing Christmas tradition that few of us have actually heard of, may really stem from a marketing campaign and an excess of glass pickles, the most non-Christmas-y fruit imaginable. But, it’s kind of fun and weird. So, why not?