Why December 31?

Darwin's Christmas! December 31st

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

Currently, most people around the world begin New Year’s celebrations on December 31, the last day of the Gregorian calendar. But as with so much in the modern world, it wasn’t always so. Although people have celebrated the beginning of a new year for millennia, astrological or agricultural events typically marked the new year.

The earliest recorded celebration of the beginning of a new year was in ancient Babylon, some 4,000 years ago. For Babylonians, the new year began with the first full moon following the vernal equinox, a date falling in late March. It was a massive religious festival that required a different ritual every day for 11 days.

Dragon in Chinatown NYC Lunar New Year
By Patrick Kwan from New York City, USA
(Dragon in Chinatown NYC Lunar New Year) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Chinese new year was tied to the second new moon after the winter solstice. In Egypt the new year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, coincident with the rising of the star Sirius.

For early Romans, each new year began with the vernal equinox. A year had 304 days divided into 10 months. Over time, the calendar year deviated significantly from the sun year. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar consulted astronomers and mathematicians to solve the problem. He added 90 days to that year, adjusted the length of months, and declared January 1 as the first day of the year. January honors the Roman god of beginnings—Janus—who has two faces that look forward and back. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII established January 1 as new year’s day for Christians.

Bust of Janus by Fubar Obfusco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vatican museum, Vatican City
We’re all familiar with New Year’s celebrations that involve eating special foods for good luck on New Year’s Eve and/or New Year’s Day: legumes, such as lentils or black-eyed peas, signaling financial success; pork, associated with prosperity; ring-shaped cakes and pastries, because the year has come full circle; sometimes cakes or puddings with something hidden inside, to bring especially good luck to the one who gets the nut or prize. Sometimes the number of courses (3, 5, 7, 9, or 12) are specified. In several Spanish-speaking countries, eating 12 grapes, accompanied by 12 wishes, as the clock strikes 12 is traditional. (In Portugal, it’s 12 raisins.)

Making a lot of noise—shooting guns, banging pots and pans, blaring car horns, playing loud music, setting off firecrackers—is supposed to scare away bad luck and evil spirits. Partying with family and/or friends is common, as is fireworks displays or other ritual midnight activities.

In the U.S., the dropping of the giant ball in Times Square, begun in 1907, is now watched by millions. Spin-offs involve publicly dropping items that represent an area’s culture, geography, or history: the Peach Drop in Atlanta, GA; Pickle Drops in Dillsburg, PA, and Mount Olive, NC; the Possum Drop in Tallapoosa, GA; Wylie the Walleye Fish Drop in Port Clinton, OH; the Bologna Drop in Lebanon, PA; a Watermelon Drop in Vincennes, IN; the Midnight Muskrat Dive in Princess Anne, MD; a Big Cheese Drop in Plymouth, WI; a Pine Cone Drop in Flagstaff, AZ; a Grape Drop in Temecula Valley, CA; a Donut Drop in Hagerstown, MD; a Flip-flop Drop in Folly Beach, SC; a Wrench Drop in Mechanicsburg, PA; Beach Ball Drop in Panama City Beach, FL; the Music Note Drop in Nashville, TN; Chile Drop in Las Cruces, Mexico. Surely I’ve missed some! Please feel free to comment on your favorites.

Celebration in the ‘Big Apple’, SMP hosts trip to Times Square for New Year’s DVIDS511672
by Nichole A. Hall
(https://www.dvidshub.net/image/511672) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In England, the national icon is the tolling of Big Ben. Similar striking clocks or bells are widespread in Europe. In Albania, people watch a lot of comedy shows because one should enter the new year laughing and full of joy. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, playing the Czechoslovak national anthem at midnight honors the time they were one nation. In Turkey and Russia, New Year’s involves many of the traditions of Christmas in other parts of the world. In Costa Rica, running across the street with luggage is to bring travel and new adventures in the year ahead. But in Venezuela, only those traveling in January pull a suitcase around the house. In Japan, people clean their homes and Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times, representing the mental states that lead people to take unwholesome actions.

In the Philippines, many wear new, bright, colorful clothes with circular patterns. In Brazil, wearing white on the beach to ring in the new year is supposed to bring good luck. In Italy, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is traditional. Spanish tradition holds that wearing new red underwear brings good luck. In Venezuela, the underwear is yellow.

In Scotland, Hogmanay is celebrated with First-Footing (going to each other’s houses with gifts of whiskey and sometimes a lump of coal); Edinburgh hosts a 4 or 5 day festival, beginning on December 28th, including cannon fire and fireworks displays.

Edinburgh Hogmanay 2010 (4234793752)
By John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland (Edinburgh Hogmanay 2010)
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

North and South Korea celebrate New Years twice, a Lunar New Year which varies, and a Solar New Year which is always January 1.

The practice of making resolutions for the new year is thought to have been popular first among the ancient Babylonians.

And thus we come full circle—a fine New Year’s tradition!

Darwin’s Christmas series

Gift Giving Then and Now, Here and There

Gift Giving

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

The earliest gift-bringer I read about was Odin, a Pagan Germanic god who is thought to have influenced concepts of Father Christmas in numerous ways, including long white beard and riding through the night sky.

blue Santa Claus figurines related to Odin
Odin’s influence is seen in blue Santas

Odin wore a blue-hooded cloak and rode through the midwinter sky on an eight-footed horse named Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. According to pre-Christian Norse tradition, he entered through chimneys or fire holes on the solstice.

In 16th century England (during the reign of Henry VIII), Father Christmas was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He was associated more with good cheer, peace, joy, good food and wine, and revelry.

Father Christmas merged with St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas), which morphed into Santa Claus. Suffice it to say that most people around the world have a tradition of a Christmas gift-bringer: Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Christkind, the Wise Men, an old gift-giving witch called Befana (in Italy). In Scandinavia a jolly elf named Jultomten delivered gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. And in Russia, an elderly woman named Babouschka (grandmother) leaves gifts by children’s bedsides on January 5th.

figurines of Santas around the world
Representations of Santas around the world, L-R: Hungary, 1884; Austria, 1904; Russia, 1903; Canada, 1930; U.S.A., 1935; Mexico, 1923; U.S.A., 1925; Holland, 1920.

Presents are left in different places. In much of Europe, presents are left in shoes or boots put out by the children. In Italy, the UK, and the USA presents are left in stockings—and, of course, under the Christmas tree.

Presents are opened on different days as well. Children in Holland often receive the earliest presents, on December 5th for St. Nicholas’ Eve. On St. Nicholas’ Day (6th of December), children in Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, and some other European countries open some of their presents. Christmas Day (25th of December) is the most popular gift day for the UK, USA, Japan, and many other countries. The last presents are opened on Epiphany, January 6th, especially in Catholic countries such as Spain and Mexico.


Who gets presents has shifted dramatically over the centuries. Odin gave presents to “his people.” St. Nicholas gave to the poor. According to the Christian Science Monitor, in early modern Europe, gift giving also had roots in Christmas begging, when bands of young men, often rowdy, would wassail from house to house, demanding handouts from the gentry. It wasn’t till the mid-1800s that gift-giving shifted from the poorer classes to children.

On the other hand, giving gifts to heads of state, kings and queens, emperors, etc, pre-dates the birth of Jesus.

Today, it seems everybody gives gifts to everybody—an impression strongly supported by advertising and merchant specials! Christmas begging from charities is rampant. Salvation Army kettles (which first appeared in 1891) are on sidewalks all over the world.  Employers often give actual gift baskets or holiday bonuses. Co-workers, neighbors, and friends exchange gifts. Parents give gifts to children, but people also give gifts to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and step siblings, and second cousins twice removed.

wrapped gifts

By now, all the glittery wrappings are probably torn asunder, the gifts put away, exchanged, maybe saved for re-gifting, and the leavings look more like this.

gifts unwrapped

And I’m left wondering, how many Christmas presents are gifts and how many are perceived obligations.

Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25th?

Darwin's Christmas! December 25th

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

The logical answer would be, “We celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th because that’s when He was born. ” But in this instance, the logical answer is wrong.


Neither the Bible nor any other record dates Jesus’s actual day of birth. In addition, the season when shepherds would be watching their flocks by night and when the census was taken would argue that the actual birth was either spring or autumn.


According to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, early Christians weren’t bothered by not knowing Jesus’s birthday for “It never occurred to them that they needed to celebrate his birthday.” Further, according to Nissenbaum, the Church got into something of a crisis, with people tending to believe that Jesus never existed as a man. Instituting a birthday celebration was a way to counteract that trend.
The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was 336AD, during the time of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. Perhaps he chose that date because Pagan Romans would be celebrating the Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, and “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (birth of the unconquered sun) anyway. A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.


One very early Christian tradition held that on March 25th God told Mary she would have a very special baby.The Annunciation is still celebrated on March 25th—and nine months later is December 25th.
Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The early Church celebrated Christmas, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of Jesus all on January 6th. In some parts of the UK, January 6th is still called Old Christmas.


Then, too, not everyone celebrates Christmas on December 25th even today. Some Christians use other dates or December 25th on non-Gregorian calendars. The dates below are all Gregorian.


January 6The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church
January 7Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholics in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
January 7 or 8–Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
January 19–The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.


Still, for many Eastern Orthodox Churches, Western Christian churches, and the secular world, Christmas is over.
Christmas rose, hellebore niger
Christmas rose

Christmas Eve Then and Now

Darwin's Christmas! Christmas Eve

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

For centuries Christmas was celebrated as a season, not a single day, and the beginning of that season was on Christmas Eve. Western Christianity and the secular world recognize December 24th as Christmas Eve. The most widely practiced Christmas Eve tradition or custom that is still practiced today is the attendance at a church service.
Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Czech Republic
Church of Our Lady before Týn
Prague, Czech Republic
In predominantly Catholic countries (e.g., Spain, Mexico, Poland, and Italy) a Midnight Mass is the most important service in the Christmas season. People often abstain from meat or fish on Christmas Eve and then eat the main Christmas meal after the Midnight Mass Service. In other countries (e.g., Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, and Denmark) the meal is eaten before the Midnight Service.
wooden cutout christmas tree
Tradition  dictated that greenery such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe should only be brought into the house on Christmas Eve. We all know what’s happened with that one in the United States! In some European countries (e.g. Serbia and Slovakia) the Christmas tree is brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve, as well.


In Norway the decorating of the tree is traditionally done by the parents behind closed doors while the children wait outside. “Circling the tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and they walk around it singing carols. Gifts are distributed afterwards.
collection of wooden christmas trees
In Germany, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) was traditionally decorated by the mother, in secret, with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. It was lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under it.
christmas tree wooden cutout with bells
In the United States, the decorating of trees, houses, lawns, and people begins weeks before Christmas.
It is also common to go caroling on Christmas Eve. (Click here to read about the evolution of Christmas carols.) In the UK, if not caroling, perhaps wassailing or mumming.
figurine of three snowmen caroling
Another wide-spread custom is the hanging of Christmas stockings, preferably on the fireplace, since that’s where Santa Claus is supposed to enter. Traditionally, Christmas stockings are filled on Christmas eve.
stockings waiting to be filled on Christmas Eve
Even the Smithsonian can’t trace the origins of hanging stockings, but clearly it was well-established by the time Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”). In Tuesday’s blog, I mentioned the legend that St. Nicholas provided dowries for three pious but impoverished sisters. One version of that legend has St. Nicholas coming down the chimney at night and putting a gold ball in the toe of each girl’s stocking, recently laundered and hung by the fire to dry.


Of course families have their own traditions of activities, food, and decoration passed on from generation to generation. But one that is nearly universal is that the bringer of gifts now does so on Christmas Eve.
Santa Claus bringing gifts on Christmas Eve
P.S. I have focused on Christmas Eve from the Western Christian perspective. I urge you to explore more broadly, including Eastern celebrations and Jewish Christmas traditions!

Darwin’s Christmas series

How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

Darwin's Christmas! Santa Claus - the evolution of santa claus

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

Icon c 1500 St Nicholas
By Bjoertvedt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Saint Nicholas, born around 280 AD in Patara (in modern-day Turkey) was a Greek Christian bishop famous for giving to the poor, perhaps giving away all his inherited wealth and traveling the country helping the poor and sick. One much-reported story is that he presented three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they could marry, rather being sold into slavery or  prostitution—which, incidentally, says a lot about women’s options then! Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of many, including archers, sailors, children, and pawnbrokers. He is typically portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes, often thin and dour. But his image, too, has morphed.
saint nicholas figurines
During the Middle Ages, on the evening before December 6th, the name day of Saint Nicholas, children received gifts in his honor. Traditionally, this was considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married. The Reformation opposed the veneration of saints and the giving of gifts to children moved toward December 24th and/or 25th.
Saint Nicholas came to America and underwent a sea change during the 18th century. Newspapers in New York City (in New Amsterdam at the time) reported groups of Dutch families gathering to honor the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’s death. The name Santa Claus evolved from the name, Sinter Klass, a form of Sint Nikolaas, Dutch for Saint Nicholas. In 1809, Washington Irving published his “Knickerbocker History of New York” in which he mentioned St. Nick 25 times and referred to Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of New York. Some assert that he is responsible for remaking the original old, often stern bishop into the new “jolly St. Nick.”
santa claus wooden cutout
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem for his three daughters, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” This poem—now commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—established the visual imagery of the modern Santa Claus and his behavior. The image was solidified in 1881, when cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on the poem to create the first pictorial representation of Santa Claus.
Library of Congress
Ta-da! We have Santa Claus: rotund, cheerful, full white beard and mustache, bright red suit trimmed with white fur, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. He travels by sleigh and climbs down the chimney.
Santa Claus figurine entering chimney
Everyone knows today’s mall Santas. In 1841, thousands of children visited a Philadelphia shop to see a life-size Santa Claus mannequin. Not long after, stores attracted children and parents to see a “live” Santa Claus. Our current images of Santa Claus were further popularized by the Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s
Santa Claus figurine with Coca Cola
Education is the key to everything, and in 1937, Charles W. Howard established his Santa School, the oldest continuously-run such school in the world, teaching good Santa behavior and techniques.
Santa Claus figurine on mantel
There was a time, after the popularization of Santa keeping a list of who was naughty and who was nice, when Santa was thought to deliver a bundle of switches or a lump of coal to naughty children. This has largely dropped by the wayside.
Santa Claus figurine with switches
Psychology has no clear position on whether perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus is healthy or unhealthy. On the healthy side are assertions concerning creativity and imagination. On the unhealthy side are assertions that it is disrespectful of children and undermines their trust in their parents. If this is an issue for you, Google “Psychology on Santa Claus” and make up your own mind.
Santa Claus figurine holding "Believe" sign
I will end in the spirit of the season, by noting TV producer Jonathan Meath’s observation that Santa is really the only cultural icon we have of a male who does not carry a gun, is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. Yay, Santa, in all your forms!
three Santa Claus figurines

Putting Christmas into Carols

christmas carols - Darwinian Christmas

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.


Christmas Carols have always been around, right? No, not exactly.
Christmas carol book


Carols were sung in Europe thousands of years ago. The word “carol” means dance or song of praise and joy, and they used to be common during all four seasons. Pagan carols at Winter Solstice celebrations were sung as people danced around stone circles. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually falling around Dec. 22. Carols at other seasons of the year have largely disappeared. Perhaps winter carols have survived because early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones.


angel carolers figurines


In AD 129, a Catholic Bishop said that a song called Angel’s Hymn should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another early Christmas Hymn was written in AD 760, by Comas of Jerusalem for the Greek Orthodox Church. In subsequent years, composers all across Europe wrote such hymns. They never became popular, some say because they were written in Latin, which common people didn’t understand.


In AD 1223, St. Francis of Assisi started Nativity Plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang canticles that told the story during the plays, normally in a language that the audience could understand and join in. The new carols spread across Europe. In AD 1426, John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, listed twenty-five “caroles of Cristemas,” the first written record in English. During the 15th century and through the Elizabethan Era (ending 1603), these carols were untrue stories loosely based on the Christmas story and intended as entertainment rather than worship. They were sung in homes, not churches. Traveling minstrels freely changed the words to suit the local people wherever they were. For example, I Saw Three Ships might first have represented ships taking the skulls of the three wise men to the Cologne Cathedral, but over time and venues, the travelers on the three ships were sung to be many different Biblical characters.


traveling angel caroler


When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the singing of carols was banned. Carols survived because people sang them in private. During the Victorian period, many new carols were written including Good King Wenceslas. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (originally Hark! How All the Welkin Rings), The First Noel, and God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen were popularized. The custom of singing carols in the streets became popular and remains so today.


Martin Luther authored carols and encouraged their use in worship. Adeste Fideles had attained it’s modern form in the mid-18th century, although the words might date to the 13th century. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, The First Noel, I Saw Three Ships, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing appear in a collection assembled by William Sandys in 1833. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear also dates from this period. In 1865, Christmas-related lyrics were sung to the melodies of traditional English folk songs, such as Greensleeves—think What Child is This.


Good King Wenceslas and The Holly and the Ivy can be traced directly back to the middle ages, and are among the oldest musical compositions still sung regularly.


sheet music of Christmas carol "Holly and the Ivy"


In older times, caroling children asked for (and were given) edible gifts such as dried fruit, eggs, nuts or sweets. By the 20th century, the edible gifts had been replaced my money. Caroling is also done by choirs, marching bands, groups trying to raise money for trips, projects, or charity, folk societies, neighbors and well-wishers.


three carolers figurines


Now caroling often includes secular as well as religious music. Such songs written in the United States range from Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman to O Little Town of Bethlehem to Away in a Manger. So gather round the old piano and celebrate the season with songs of your choice!


piano player figurine

A Darwinian View of Christmas Trees and Greenery

darwins christmas greenery

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

There are those, for example David C. Pack writing in The Real Truth magazine, who denounce the pagan origins of Christmas trees and other greenery. Pack cites Jeremiah 10:2-5 to support his assertion that we should have nothing to do with Christmas trees.

I am not among those. The reality of the world is that things morph and change—the meaning of words, clearly, but other symbols as well. So let’s take a look at the consensus around the evolution of the Christmas tree.

collection of wooden christmas trees, greenery

Long before the advent of Christianity, evergreen plants had a special meaning for people in winter. Ancient people hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, people believed that these would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Today, Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God. Why can’t it symbolize all those things?

Although evergreen trees are the through-line, in parts of northern Europe, cherry or hawthorn plants or branches were brought inside in hopes they would bloom in time for Christmas.

Many early Christmas trees were hung upside down from the ceiling.

The first documented use of tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations was in 1510, in Riga, the capital of Latvia. After the ceremony (involving men wearing black hats) the tree was burned. This is sometimes associated with the yule log.

wooden cutout christmas tree

The first person to bring a tree into the house, in the way we know it today, is thought to have been the German preacher Martin Luther in the 1500s. The lore goes that he was walking home in winter, was impressed with the stars shining through tree branches, and cut a tree to take home. He put small lit candles on the branches to share his vision with his family. There are other stories, for example about St. Boniface of Crediton leaving England to travel to Germany. But this isn’t an encyclopedia, so I’ll move along.

christmas tree wooden cutout with bells

But another point of consensus seems to be that Christmas trees took hold in Germany and spread across the world from there. In Germany, early trees were decorated with edible things like gingerbread and gold-covered apples. But by 1605, they were decorated with paper roses, apples, wafers, gold foil, and sweets.

The Christmas tree came to Britain sometime in the 1830s, and became popular in 1841 when Queen Victoria’s German husband had a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. From England to the United States, from candles to electric lights, the evolution continued. Artificial Christmas trees have long been popular, from the trees made from colored ostrich feathers in the Edwardian period on. Over the years, artificial trees have been made from feathers, papier mâché, metal, glass, and lots of plastic. Now lawns sometimes sport inflatable trees!

So, if pre-Christians and Christians both found good in the green of midwinter, fine with me! I plant hellebores and other evergreens where I can see them on the shortest days of the year.


Considering Creativity

What do these five carved wooden Santas have in common? 

All were carved by James Haddon! I’ve had the trio for awhile. Last Christmas season, I noticed that all were by the same carver. So this year, I searched on-line and found the Santa on a rocking cow and the Santa riding a trout. I believe James Haddon is creative. Synonyms for creative include clever, ingenious, innovative, inventive, and original. Perhaps most importantly, he seems to me to be a divergent thinker.


Creativity and Divergent Thinking

Veering into psychology for a moment: a convergent thinker draws everything together to come up with the one perfect solution; a divergent thinker starts at point A and goes any number of places. There are approximately a gazillion definitions of creativity (forgive the high degree of technicality and precision) depending upon whether you are a visual artist, a mathematician, a musician, a chef, or an educator—or a researcher in any number of other fields.  But the requirement for divergent thinking comes up again and again.


Ancient cultures—including Greece, China, and India–had no concept of creativity. They saw art as a form of discovery or imitation, not creation. In Judaeo-Christian tradition, creation was the sole province of God, and anyone creating something was assumed to be acting as a conduit from God. The modern concept of creativity began in the Renaissance, when the idea that creation might originate from the individual, not God—so I read. Think Leonardo da Vinci. The idea gradually took hold, really digging in during the Enlightenment.


It wasn’t until 1927 that Alfred North Whitehead coined the term “creativity.”


Have you ever thought, “If only. . .”? If so, you are imagining alternatives to reality, and such counterfactual thinking is one example of everyday creativity.


In 1967, J.P. Guilford and his associates constructed several tests to measure creativity. How would you do?
  • Plot Titles: participants are give a story plot and instructed to write original titles
  • Quick Responses: a word-association test scored for uncommonness
  • Figure Concepts: participants get simple drawings of objects and individuals and are asked to find commonalities in two or more drawings
  • Remote Association: participants are asked to find a word between two given words (e.g., Hand           Call)
  • Remote Consequences: participants generate a list of consequences of unexpected events (e.g., loss of gravity)
  • Unusual Uses is finding unusual uses for common objects, such as bricks.
If you check out books on Amazon, you can find Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things, 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, and other books on uses for everything from baking soda, coconut oil, and vinegar to duct tape. Who knew we could reap the benefits of all that creative thinking!


101 Uses for a Dead Cat by Simon Bond
101 Uses for a Dead Cat by Simon Bond
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things by Cy Tymony
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things by Cy Tymony

Gregory Feist did a meta-analysis of data on creative people and found the strongest related traits were openness to new experience, conscientiousness, self-acceptance, hostility and impulsivity. Besides these traits, other research has identified additional traits associated with creativity: self-confident, ambitious, impulsive, driven, dominant, and hostile.


And what about mental health? Many people equate creativity with genius—and traditional wisdom says genius is akin to insanity. A Swedish study involving more than a million people reported a number of correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses—do remember that correlations mean a relationship, not in any way causation. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. Dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder. However, as a group, people in creative professions were not more likely to suffer psychiatric disorders that the population at large, though they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and autism.


So, I started with jolly Santas and ended up with mental illness. Is this divergent thinking??


Not to be confused with The Collector movie

I’ve mentioned here and there that I collect things: dictionaries, carved wooden Santas, napkin rings, funky earrings, and mah jongg sets, among other things.collector, collection of dictionaries

I’m not alone here. Indeed, I’m not not even close to making it into the The Mammoth Book of Weird Records.

There are people out there collecting

  • love dolls
  • dolls dressed as nuns
  • aluminum can pull tabs
  • belly button fluff
  • airsick bags
  • banana labels
  • nail clippingscollector, collection, wooden Santa
  • already chewed Nicorette Gum
  • wooden toilet seats
  • cow hairballs
  • pictures of cement mixers
  • toothpaste tubes
  • vacuum cleaners
  • key chains
  • back scratchers
  • beds
  • empty pizza boxescollector, collection, napkin ring
  • clothing tags
  • Walmart receipts
  • husbands (or wives)
  • traffic cones
  • umbrella covers
  • teabag labels
  • autographed drumsticks
  • dildos

AND THE LIST GOES ON!collector, collection, earrings

Think about the sort of person who might collect these things. And why. Who is comforted by plenty? Who wants to be distinctive, not one of the masses? Who sees it as a mark of economic superiority? Or maybe there’s a family competition going on.

Are you a collector? What and why?