What the Cool Kids are up to this Christmas Season

There’s a strange thing happening in my house this holiday season. The delightfully tacky, lighted, multi-colored star that has topped my Christmas tree for more than a decade has been blinking. It never used to do that.

But this year, about a week into Christmas tree season (which for us begins the day after Thanksgiving), the thing began to develop a personality. Every night we plug it in to discover what color it’s going to be. Sometimes two colors switch on, sometimes only one. Other times all the colors come on or the star blinks for a while in a seemingly random pattern.

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Today it’s orange, which is not a very Christmas-y color. I think it wants to tell us a story that would be more fitting for Halloween.

Of course I realize the star must have a short and we need to replace it before our house burns down, but I jokingly said the other day that I thought it must be possessed. And that’s when my nearly thirteen-year-old son said, “Maybe someone from another dimension is trying to tell us something.”

He was making a reference to the Netflix series, Stranger Things, that you either recently binge watched, or you’ve heard your friends talking about how they did. My husband and I fell under the spell of the series shortly after the second season dropped at the end of October this year, when all the cool kids wouldn’t stop talking about it.

In case you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that something has gone wrong at a secretive government lab near a small town in 1980s Indiana, opening up a gate into another dimension. A boy goes mysteriously missing in the first episode. Trapped in the alternate dimension, the boy manages to communicate with his mother through surges in electricity and she eventually figures out that she can paint her walls with the alphabet and string Christmas lights so he can signal words to her. Oh, and the other dimension contains an insatiable, terrifying, virtually indestructible beast that likes to dimension hop and hunt.

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This could be yours. https://www.ebay.com/i/382304200890?chn=ps

I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s scary. Or that it’s not especially Christmas-y. But that hasn’t stopped Christmastime marketing geniuses from taking advantage of its popularity. Among the racks of ugly sweaters this season, you can find one that includes lights strung above crooked letters of the alphabet, with three that really light up to signal: R-U-N.

Yikes! Merry Christmas.

I suppose the concept of scary stories (and marketing genius) at Christmas aren’t particular to 2017. If you turn on the television at any given time in the month of December, I’m pretty sure you can find at least one version of A Christmas Carol to watch, filled with ghosts, and if you’re lucky, Muppets.

Charles Dickens wrote the original novella in 1843. It took him about six weeks to do it, and his publisher managed to release it December 19th. By Christmas Eve, the first run had sold out.

Dickens was already known as a writer of novels generally published in serial fashion, and with A Christmas Carol, he struck just the right cord with his audience. He rode Victorian surges in both the popularity of frightening stories and in newly imagined secular celebrations of Christmas. He captured people with his project, one that would provide him with a great deal of income through the rest of his life, and in some ways would shape the way Christmas is celebrated even in 2017.

I did (briefly) attempt to determine just how many adaptations of this Christmas ghost story have been made into movies, television specials, operas, radio plays, sitcom episodes, etc. As you can probably imagine, that’s a hard number to tally and I’m not that dedicated, so let’s just agree it’s somewhere around a whole bunch.

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Charles Dickens, penning strange holiday traditions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Dickens wrote his book, it wasn’t exactly a new thing, this telling of ghost stories and scary yarns in wintertime when the nights are long and the cold wind howls through barren trees. Such tales are referenced by playwright Christopher Marlowe in the late 16th century. But it may have been Dickens who so expertly associated the frightening winter tale with the cheery celebration of Christmas.

So I am going to choose to believe that it’s not unusual at all that my son is spending time this Christmas season binge-watching Stranger Things, because all the cool kids have been talking about it, and fortunately he’s much less susceptible to nightmares than I am. But I do think I’m going to take a little time out of my busy Christmas schedule to shop for a new, less blinky and more consistent, star for the top of our tree.

Hi ho! The Fourth and Final Voyage of Kermit the Frog

Christopher Columbus, famed explorer who kind of resembles Fozzie Bear. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On September 18, 1502, on his fourth and final voyage to the New World (which he still stubbornly insisted was Asia, because by then he was becoming a little floopy) Christopher Columbus arrived in what would come to be known as Costa Rica. I say “arrived” because “discovered” is certainly the wrong word, as he was warmly greeted by canoes full of Carib Indians, representing one of four indigenous tribes living in the area at the time.

In fact, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica dating back at least 10,000 years. A large variety of tools, weapons, metal work, and even remnants of an ancient city complete with aqueducts indicate that many cultures may have come, gone, and coexisted through the area.

By Tim Ross (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This tree frog from Costa Rica resembles Kermit the Frog when the pollen count is really high. By Tim Ross (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But its rich history of human diversity isn’t all that makes the country so fascinating, because representing just one third of one percent of Earth’s landmass, Costa Rica contains approximately four percent of the species that exist on the entire planet. It boasts the highest density of biodiversity of any country in the world, with hundreds of species that, outside of captivity, can only be found there.

And Costa Rica is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 species of amphibians. Eighty-five percent of those are frogs. It’s got the poison dart frogs, the famous red-eyed tree frog, the giant toad, and the rainforest rocket frog, which at a length of about half and inch is not the smallest frog in the world, but it does have the coolest name.

And now there’s one more frog in Costa Rica, because recently researcher Brian Kubicki found a previously undiscovered glass frog he named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. Like in so much of the world, Costa Rican species are being stressed by rapid environmental change and the country has already lost many frog species to extinction. So to discover a new one is pretty exciting.

photo credit: Kermit the Frog - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - 2012-05-15 via photopin (license)
Hyalinobatrachium dianae, a newly identified species of glass frog. Oh, wait, no that’s a Muppet. photo credit: Kermit the Frog – Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – 2012-05-15 via photopin (license)

Especially when the Internet decides that new species looks like Kermit the Frog. And it does, kind of, at least in the same way that if you put a domestic pig in a blonde wig and taught it karate, it would totally resemble Miss Piggy.

The new frog does have similar coloring to Kermit, except on its belly where its skin is nearly transparent so you can see all of its internal organs. It also has big white eyes that bug out of its head, and like its Muppet counterpart, H. dianae plays the banjo and harbors a not-so-secret wish to make it big in showbiz.

So the only real question remaining is what is Kermit the Frog doing in Costa Rica? Because as everyone who has seen the straight-to-video classic Kermit’s Swamp Years knows (and judging by the reviews that could be as many as a dozen people or more), Kermit is originally from the swamps of the Deep South, not Costa Rica.

The answer to the question may lie in the years he spent as a hard-hitting investigative journalist at Sesame Street News. As something of a hard-hitting investigative journalist myself, I have uncovered footage from Kermit’s past that may explain the link between the famous Muppet and this new little glass frog now taking the Internet by storm, a link drawn straight through the famous explorer Christopher Columbus who accidentally stumbled onto Costa Rica so many years ago. Enjoy!