A Little More Magical

During the season of Advent in about 1880 or so, the mother of Gerhard Lang made her young son a cardboard calendar featuring twenty-four sweets, one per day, with which to mark off the time until Christmas. She surely wasn’t the only mother to do something like this for her child.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Advent was introduced as a four-week (give or take) period of preparation leading up to Christmas by Pope Gregory I in the early seventh century. It took a while to catch on, but by the nineteenth century, German families in particular were finding clever ways to keep track of the days. Some used tear-away pages or tally marks on doorframes. Others lit candles or placed markers on ladder rungs.

But it was Gerhard Lang who is generally given credit for popularizing the advent calendar style most people use today, as a direct result of the creativity of his mother and his resulting magical childhood. When Gerhard grew up and became a printer, he remembered the calendar his mother had made for him and began mass producing a twenty-five-day calendar with doors to be opened each day leading up to Christmas in the month of December. Behind each door was a picture or Bible verse.

I guess that’s one way to make your holiday season a little more magical, but I think I’d rather have the chocolate.

Then in 1958, Cadbury began producing Advent calendars with twenty-four chocolate treats to be enjoyed one at a time from December first to somewhere around December fourth, which is about as long as any chocolate Advent calendar has ever lasted for me.

But like Gerhard Lang, I had a pretty magical childhood. Not only did my dad usually purchase an inexpensive chocolate Advent calendar for me and for each of my siblings from the local high school German club’s annual fundraiser, but my mom also made a calendar for the family that we took turns opening.

Behind each door of the homemade version, my mom would write tasks we needed to do to get ready for Christmas. This included things like decorating the Christmas tree, making Christmas cards, or baking Christmas cookies. Sometimes our tasks were service projects for others or chores that needed to be done before Santa could come. Other times we found them more fun, like driving to look at Christmas lights or visiting with the big jolly elf himself. Seriously, my childhood was magical.

As far as anyone has found, this is the world’s tallest Advent calendar. (Thank you to my sister for the picture. I haven’t gotten there to see it for myself yet.)

And this year, in my hometown, the season has gotten even a little bit more magical. A few months ago, one of my favorite former teachers (who gets credit for my appreciation of The Great Gatsby) was in the town square and happened to notice something. He looked up at a tall brick Farmer’s Bank building that has stood guard over the old downtown for more than a century and counted the windows. On one side, there are exactly twenty-four of them.

An idea was born. The teacher solicited some help from around town (including the artist who designs my book covers) and approached the bank to ask if they might make what they believed would be the world’s tallest Advent calendar. The answer was an enthusiastic yes.

And that’s how Christmas in my corner of the world became a little more magical.

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.