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.

Tree-Tapping Squirrels and Ooey, Gooey Deliciousness

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.

cartier
Jacques Cartier, dreaming of drinking maple syrup. By Theophile Hamel – Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

sap-collection
The squirrels may have been at it longer, but we do it better. photo credit: looseends sap season via photopin (license)

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 Cusslerawarded a 2005 prestigious (sort of) Ig Nobel prize for his super science-y studyyou 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.

squirrel
Clearly up to no good. photo credit: kennethkonica “Didn’t you see the STAY AWAY sign?” via photopin (license)

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.

A Plague of Gesundheits

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.

sickbed
Does it make me a bad person that I think this is actually kind of a relief from the political squabbling? photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

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.

Portrait of Pope Gregory I
If he were around today, I’ve no doubt Pope Gregory would encourage holy flu vaccination. By Unknown – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

washhands
All I can say is there is not nearly enough of this going around at that middle school. photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

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.

Gesundheit!

 

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.

 

That Gift in the Top of Your Closet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing Says Christmas like an Excess of Pickles

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.

christmas-pickle
If I owed my life to a pickle, I would definitely hang one on my Christmas tree.

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?”

larry-and-bob
I didn’t have the heart to tell her I already had a cucumber on my tree.

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.

chicken-sandwich
I wonder how many Chick-fil-A sandwiches I’d have to eat to meet my pickle quota.

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?

Superglue, Bailing Wire, and Candy Cane Goo

If you were to walk into my parents’ house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights and topped with the same lighted, multicolored star my parents have had for as long as I can remember. At this point I’m pretty sure the star contains more bailing wire and superglue than original material and still it’s held together mainly by the sheer will of Christmas spirit. Well, that, and maybe a little sticky candy cane goo.

The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.
The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.

I don’t remember when it happened because I had to have been very small at the time, but the story goes that as the family worked together to decorate the Christmas tree, my eldest brother, who is easily the tallest in the family, was teasing my sister, just two years younger and quite a bit shorter.

As she was always the most zealous keeper of holiday traditions in our house, I suspect she had been giving him a hard time about his tendency to clump the tinsel and to think little of the proper spacing of candy canes as he threw them randomly on the tree.

So he did what any young teenage boy might and stretched up beyond her reach to place a candy cane on the star. He expected it to irritate her. Instead, she was delighted. We all were. Somehow it seemed like the perfect touch to finish off the tree that primarily featured lumpy clay and Popsicle-stick-ornaments constructed by little fingers. And every Christmas since, the tree has been topped with the same (kind of garish) star and a single candy cane.

Because regardless of what religious symbolism a Christmas tree may hold (a hundred different sources will provide a hundred different interpretations), it should represent childhood and good Christmas memories.

At least that’s what Queen Charlotte, the German wife of England’s King George III, seemed to think. When she married in 1761, Charlotte spoke no English (though she learned quickly) and brought with her several German customs, one of which was the setting up of a decorated yew branch at Christmastime.

Christmas trees, or some version of them, had been part of German tradition since at least the 16th-century, when legend credits Martin Luther with the first. The claim of the legend is almost certainly false, but historians do generally agree that the first Christmas trees emerged from the general vicinity of Germany.

Queen Charlotte was certainly fond of the tradition and quickly transformed the private family yew branch celebration of her childhood into a spectacle like none the English nobility had ever seen. Then in 1800, she took the tradition to a whole new level, inviting the children of Windsor to a party featuring at its center an entire yew tree loaded with, according to one contemporary biographer, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

He makes no mention of Queen Charlotte topping the tree with a star or a candy cane. Of course since there’s no definite evidence that the candy cane was invented until a hundred years later, I can give her a pass on that one.

Queen Victorian and Prince Albert gathered with their family around the Christmas tree.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert looking very stylish around the Christmas tree.

What is clear is that the tree was a hit and Christmas trees started popping up in some of the noble households over the next few years, until in 1848, The Illustrated London News featured a woodcarving of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around their Christmas tree. After that, everyone wanted one. When the picture was run two years later in the American publication Godey’s Lady’s Book, the tradition caught fire (sometimes literally) in the United States as well.

Ours is not yet held together by bailing wire and hot glue, but give it time.
Ours is not yet held together by bailing wire and hot glue, but give it time.

Queen Victoria and her Prince Albert often get the credit for popularizing the Christmas tree, but the honor may more appropriately belong to Queen Charlotte, who knew that there are some traditions worth preserving.

So if you were to walk into my house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights, decorated with lumpy clay and Popsicle-stick-ornaments, and topped with a (kind of garish) multicolored, lighted star and a single candy cane.

What weird little traditions do you follow and wouldn’t dream of celebrating Christmas without?

Praying for KitKats

I don’t know how it is in your neighborhood, but mine is starting to get pretty spooky. Mummies, skeletons, and witches peek out from behind trees jumping, unwelcome, into my periphery. I love my neighbors, and they love Halloween, so I won’t really complain, but I admit, I’m not a big fan of this holiday coming up tomorrow.

As far as I can tell, fear isn’t a particularly enjoyable sensation. I have never understood the point of haunted houses or scary movies. I don’t like being startled. And I really don’t like nightmares.

Aren't you a little old to be Trick-or-Treating?   photo credit: abbynormy via photopin cc
Aren’t you a little old to be Trick-or-Treating? photo credit: abbynormy via photopin cc

But even though all of that is true, my family still observes Halloween, because I really do enjoy handing out candy to all of the creatively costumed kids and to the crowds of tiny Disney Princesses. As long as they don’t ring the doorbell past bedtime, I can even appreciate the clearly-too-old-to-participate teenagers that cut eye holes in their moms’ best sheets and show up on my doorstep.

My kiddos are all set, too. Their costumes have been pieced together and we’ve developed a plan for warm layers underneath because, of course, the meteorologists tell us that Halloween night may be bringing our first freeze of the season and I have worked too hard on these costumes to simply have them wear their coats.

I mean, I don't want to brag that I'm the best mom in the world or anything, but an awful lot of love went into that mask.
I mean, I don’t want to brag that I’m the best mom in the world or anything, but an awful lot of love went into that mask.

All that’s left is for me to figure out what the heck we are going to do with all that candy. Because, as I mentioned, my neighbors seem to love Halloween and I love my neighbors, so I will not refuse their generosity.

But trick-or-treating is kind of a strange tradition, isn’t it? It’s generally assumed that the practice is derived from the Celtic festival of Samhain. Observed as far back as at least 2000 years, Samhain marked an important seasonal transition and a time when the spirits of the deceased were believed to walk the earth again.

Since it’s probably not smart to presume all wandering spirits are friendly, gifts of food (mostly KitKats, I assume) were often left for them by the living who also cut eye holes in their moms’ best sheets or donned Disney princess dresses so any unfriendlies might not notice them.

800 years later, when the Church decided to Christianize the Celts, Samhain became a problem. It’s really difficult to overcome superstition and the desire to give KitKats to tiny Disney princesses. What the Church decided to do was commandeer the holiday and transform it into Hallowtide, a festival encompassing All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day, from October 31 to November 2.

Because what wandering spirit wouldn't appreciate this?  photo credit: Andrew _ B via photopin cc
Because what wandering spirit wouldn’t appreciate this? photo credit: Andrew _ B via photopin cc

Instead of fearing evil wandering spirits, the holiday became about honoring and praying for the departed. By the 11th Century, the Church had come to be pretty cool with the idea of dressing up as angels, demons, and Disney princesses as a part of the celebration and soon the tradition of “guising” emerged. Children (and probably a few neighborhood teens who were clearly too old to participate) knocked on doors, often with a song, to beg for food or money in exchange for prayers offered up for the dead. The beggars became known as “soulers” and the treat most often given was called a “soul cake.”

Soul cakes were small and round, often with crosses marked on the top. I can’t find a recipe, but rumor has it they were sweet cakes with things like ginger, raisins, and not nearly enough KitKats in them. I’m betting that’s why the tradition has evolved from “if you give me a treat, I’ll pray for you” to “if you don’t give me a KitKat I’ll egg your house.”

Where's my KitKat?  photo credit: katerha via photopin cc
Where’s my KitKat? photo credit: katerha via photopin cc

But the soul cake does give me an idea of how I can deal with the massive amount of candy that will be entering my house tomorrow night. I’m going to take a lesson form the early Christian Church and commandeer my children’s candy bags (after letting them eat A LOT of candy on Halloween night, I promise) and re-purpose as many of the sweet treats as I can into baked goods that I will serve to friends and neighbors during the coming, more cheerful holiday season.

I have been scouring the Internet for recipes that will help me do just that. My favorite so far is this one for KitKat Cookie Bars. If you know others, please feel free to share. And keep in mind that if you don’t, I just might egg your house.

Drinks with the Devil Lead to Puking Pumpkins

This morning I’ve been living the stay-at-home mom’s dream. I took my children to school, covered my kitchen table in newspaper, and carved jack-o-lanterns. Okay, maybe it’s not every stay-at-home mom’s dream, or even mine, though I’m pretty sure my kids think I make them go to school just so I can play with their toys all day long.

Remember when we were kids and we had to do this with just a spoon and a steak knife. And bandaids.
Remember when we were kids and we had to do this with just a spoon and a steak knife. And bandaids.

I really did borrow their carving tools because I haven’t carved a pumpkin on my own since my oldest could manage to rub pumpkin guts in his hair, but tomorrow are the fall parties in my sons’ classrooms and while I did manage to dodge being put entirely in charge this time, I volunteered to help.

And no fall party would be complete without a few Jack-o-lanterns, that bizarre Halloween craft that traces its roots back to a not-so-nice wandering spirit named “Stingy Jack.” According to an Irish tale, Jack was a ne’er-do-well who had a run-in with the devil, a much more famous ne’er-do-well.

Because he was such a good guy, Jack invited the devil to join him for a drink. The devil agreed and even said he’d pay the bill when Jack suggested that the devil turn himself into a coin from which he could later transform back, thereby cheating the bar owner out of the price of the drinks. As soon as the devil transformed, Jack grabbed the coin and placed it in his own pouch next to a small cross he had presumably stolen from someone much nicer than himself. The devil was trapped and Jack only agreed to release him for a promise that he’d leave Jack his soul.

pumpkindrill
Don’t worry, my boys will get to carve they’re own pumpkins, too. They might even get to use Dad’s tools.

Some versions of the tale claim that Jack trapped the devil in a tree with similar results, but regardless of how it happened, the years went by and Stingy Jack died, as nearly all ne’er-do-wells eventually do. Of course, because of his ne’er-do-well ways, Jack didn’t make the cut for Heaven. The devil wouldn’t take him in either and so Jack found himself stuck. Not knowing where to go, he asked his old drinking buddy for directions. In answer, the devil flashed him what I have to assume was truly a devilish grin and tossed Jack a burning ember from the eternal fires of Hell.

Jack wasn’t too bothered. He simply placed the ember in the trusty old turnip he happened to be carrying with him into the afterlife, because that seemed like a pretty good folklore-y kind of thing to do. And ever since then, we’ve been carving vegetables because, well…because…um…

So it turns out this story might not really address the history of today’s jack-o-lanterns at all. There’s not even much evidence that the tradition is particular Irish in origin. Jack’s story is similar to tales from around the globe, used to explain the ghostly phenomenon of ignis fatuus, or the eerie lights that sometimes appear at night over marshy areas and, like a newborn’s smile, are often attributed to gas.

The Māori people of New Zealand were carving gourds to use as lanterns as early as 700 years ago, and it worked pretty well. On a night when little ghouls and goblins are running through the streets, it seems like a good idea to light their way. The practicality of the carved gourd as a way to see where one was going and ward off the evil of the night eventually merged with the spooky tale of Stingy Jack and the Jack-o-lantern we know and love was born, maybe as recently as the early 19th century.

So today the jack-o-lantern is a staple of Halloween décor and of fourth grade classroom fall parties, where it’s featured in the “puking pumpkin” experiment. How could I not volunteer to help with that!?

Uh oh. These pumpkins don't look like they're feeling so well.
Uh oh. These pumpkins don’t look like they’re feeling so well.

After the party tomorrow afternoon you can check out a video of the puking pumpkins on my Facebook page.

How Joe Somebody Met Pretty Girl

Of the many wondrous mysteries of my childhood, one survived until I became an adult. Every year on the night of April 30th, someone rang our doorbell and disappeared, leaving behind a gift of four small fudge sundaes from Dairy Queen on our doorstep, one for each of the children in our family.

That's my kind of May basket!    photo credit: Mr.TinDC via photopin cc
That’s my kind of May basket! photo credit: Mr.TinDC via photopin cc

Often this happened shortly after we arrived back at home from our neighborhood May basket deliveries. I know, I know, that’s a quaint little tradition that nobody follows anymore, maybe even fewer people today than when I was growing up in the 1980’s, except that at my house we did. Up and down our block we placed a spring flower on each doorstep, planted in a little basket, usually made from a paper cup decorated with childish scrawl.

Most of the time, we left the gifts to be discovered in the morning, on May Day itself, but with some of the younger neighbors, the ones with kids our age, we would ring the doorbell and run like crazy to hide in the bushes or jump into the car with Mom at the wheel and the motor running (in another, less scrupulous, lifetime she might have made a good bank robber).

It wasn’t a huge secret that our family was behind the May baskets, but it was a great game for the neighborhood kids to try to catch us at it. And we were no better. I remember one year, one of my brothers (I won’t reveal which one because their children sometimes read this blog and it would be more fun to have them ask their dads), deciding he was going to wait out the fudge sundae bandit, dressed in head-to-toe black ninja garb and climbed the tree in the front yard to watch.

He successfully delayed the arrival of the sundaes (much to the dismay of the rest of us), but still they came. And my ninja brother didn’t see a thing.

The stealthiest and most efficient flower delivery service ever.    photo credit: JennyCide/grom via photopin cc
The stealthiest and most efficient flower delivery service ever. photo credit: JennyCide/grom via photopin cc

The May basket and the tradition of celebrating May Day has a messy history, not the kind of thing I usually like to write about. I’d love to be able to tell you about Joe Somebody winning the love of his fair maiden Pretty Girl by getting caught delivering a basket of flowers to her doorstep on May 1 of 472. This of course would have led to her kissing him and a happily-ever-after that their ancestors have been celebrating ever since. I guess that could have happened, but since no one thought to include that story on the Internet (until now), it’s forever lost to us.

What I can share with you is that May 1 has been observed for thousands of years, first as one of four seasonal Pagan holidays, symbolizing the beginning of summer and celebrated with purifying fire. Later the Romans got hold of the holiday and transformed it into a festival honoring Flora, the goddess of flowers. And there was a time when every English village had a Maypole to celebrate spring and welcome summer.

A May Day tradition that has nothing whatsoever to do with fudge sundaes. I don't get it.    photo credit: Liz Castro via photopin cc
A May Day tradition that has nothing whatsoever to do with fudge sundaes. I don’t get it. photo credit: Liz Castro via photopin cc

Not surprisingly, Puritan settlers in America didn’t care for the holiday and to this day it has never been widely observed in the United States. But there are pockets (like my childhood home) where the spring is marked by the sharing of a small gift with friends and neighbors and you might even find the odd festival that has children dancing around a maypole (which I’ve never done) and electing a May queen (which, alas, I’ve never been).

I’m delighted that my children enjoy the tradition now, too. But then what kid wouldn’t want to dress like a ninja and ding-dong-ditch the neighbors for a good cause? And it turns out we have a fudge sundae bandit in our neighborhood, too.

A fun, but messy tradition.
If only someone would sneak in and clean up the mess.

I did finally learn who was responsible for the annual sundae delivery of my childhood and it wasn’t the elderly neighbors down the street that for some reason I was always convinced were responsible. My mom let me in on her big secret a few years ago (sometimes even good bank robbers crack). In retrospect, I probably should have figured it out myself. But then childhood really should include a few good mysteries.