Christmas Music Then and Now

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

Welsh druids are into extreme harping.

Carols were sung in Europe thousands of years ago. The word “carol” means dance or song of praise and joy, typically in rings and circles, 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.

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.

“Hey, any idea what that guy keeps singing about?”
“Eheu, enim operor non intellego.”

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 fictional stories loosely based on the Nativity described in the Gospels and intended as entertainment rather than worship. They were sung in homes or pubs, not churches.

“And the Angels came to Paris, where the French shepherds guarded their French sheep in the lovely Parisian evening…”

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.

No more obferving CHRISTMAS by dreffing in Fine Clothing or Feafting! Only Satan worshippers dreff and feaft!

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.

“No, I don’t have a clue what a welkin is; I thought you knew! Maybe we’d better change the lyrics.”

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 its 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.
Singing while wearing a corset deserves a medal of some sort.
Christmas carols are a bit different in Russia.

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 by 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.

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!

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: COLLECTING

I often start with a definition, so my readers and I are on the same page. In this instance, a collection is related things acquired on purpose. Collecting is not a new activity. Evidence of collections date back to 500-400 BCE. Mesopotamia?

Mesopotamian cat collector

Some claim that everyone collects something, be it athletic trophies, family photographs, antique farm implements, theater programs, or anything else that catches the collector’s fancy. Some claim that a true collection has no essential or practical use.

Which begs the question, what about a cookbook collection? In my opinion, a collection is like pornography: you know it when you see it.

In better knowing your character, there are two relevant aspects of collections: what is collected and why it is collected. These are often intertwined.

Investment

Investment often means collecting things that a museum might be interested in. The bottom line is that the thing collected has been shown over the years, potentially, to provide some degree of financial return to the collector. 

  • Art
  • Ancient artifacts
  • Coins
  • Stamps
  • Gems

Set Completion

A complete set of something finite, e.g., all 13 editions of the Fannie Farmer Cookbooks, would be worth more than the individual items, but financial reasons are often irrelevant. There is satisfaction in simply having all of them.  As a collecting motive, set completion may well be related to OCD tendencies.

I’ll bet many of these sets where broken up when the lure of the vending machine grew too strong.

Note: Most set completions do not preclude others completing the same set.

  • Putting together full service for eight or twelve in Colonial Knife and Fork depression glass
  • Getting signatures of all of the U.S. Presidents

No Potential for Financial Gain 

How does one rationally explain the collecting of matchbook covers, Cracker Jacks toys, belt buckles, salt cellars, shot glasses, door knobs, etc.? 

  • Creating and Projecting an Image
    • For example, a woman collecting Black Sabbath concert shirts gives very different vibes than one collecting fancy china cups and saucers.
  • Enhancing Social Status
    • This motive varies by reference group. What might be the reference for someone who collects copper food molds—or someone who collects first editions?
Imelda Marcos could probably have done without a few of those pairs of shoes.
  • Conspicuous Consumption
    • The only requirement is that the collectible be expensive AND others know it. 
Some people collect languages when they get bored.
  • Stave Off Boredom
    • The collection allows the collector to spend time learning about the item, acquiring it, and caring for it.
    • I met a man who has over 500 sets of salt and pepper shakers, knows where and how he got each, and built hardwood display cases to house them.
  • Continue a Family Tradition
    • I know one man whose mother collected elephants and mushrooms (various sizes, materials, styles). He inherited her collections and continued from there.
  • Childhood Connection
    • As a tangible connection to one’s childhood pleasures—such as Barbie dolls or Tonka trucks
Belgian hot cocoa sets
  • Compensating for Childhood Deprivation
    • To feel secure in having “plenty”—especially among people who grew up deprived of something.
    • A person who grew up in poverty might collect one thing after another as a financially secure adult : antique cars, napkin rings, mah jong sets, maps, buttons, marbles, artificial Christmas trees.

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  • Other Ego Defense or Coping Mechanism
    • For example, William D. McIntosh & Brandon Schmeichel suggest that collectors are drawn to collecting as a means of bolstering the self by setting up goals that are tangible and attainable and provide the collector with concrete feedback of progress.  

Questions for Writers

Collecting… shamrocks?
  • What surrounds your character? Are those things random or chosen?
  • What does your character collect?
  • What does collecting do for your character?

Throwback Post: Helpful and Hazardous Critique Groups

I’ve been writing a lot, but it’s something other than a blog post! For today’s post, enjoy a throwback article on the pros and cons of critique groups, originally posted in November 2016.

Last week I wrote about editing yourself. For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups
Regardless of number, good readers have much in common:

 

1. They want your writing to be the best possible version of your work.
2. They are frank, but kind in their delivery.
3. They don’t get pissed if you don’t make a change they suggested.
4. If the group is unanimous in a certain point (e.g., a weak opening paragraph), believe it.
5. They can help you realize that some vital information is in your head but not on the page, especially with memoirs.
6. They can tell you when the impression you intended to create isn’t the one you did create.
7. They understand the expectations of your genre.
8. They make specific comments, so that you know how to fix what doesn’t work.
9. They don’t try to compete to be the best in the group.
helpful hazardous critique groups
Bad groups can be hazardous to your writing health in numerous ways.

 

1. It’s all about the competition.
2. They confuse critiquing with criticizing, and so don’t offer praise.
3. They give vague feedback that gives you no direction (e.g., “This is great” or “This doesn’t do it for me”).
4. They try to get you to write like them.
5. They socialize, eating up meeting time with too much chit-chat.
6. They get so involved with agreeing or disagreeing with your premise that they lose sight of the quality of the writing. This is especially the case when the topic is politics or religion—or any sort of opinion piece.

 

There are some things that will help a group to be good. There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

 

1. Set down the group guidelines in writing.
2. Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
3. Be clear about how feedback will be given.
4. Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
5. Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting: Are they expected to send comments on others’ work? Can they send work anyway?
6. What if someone comes without having written anything?
7. Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
8. Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
9. Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
10. Meet at least twice a month.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups

You need to feel comfortable, supported, and helped. This is a very personal thing. If you find yourself in a “bad” group, get out!

Celebrating New Year’s: Why December 31?

This blog post was originally published on December 31, 2015. 


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.

 

Where did the holiday begin?

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.

chinese new year
[Source: NPR]
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.

julius caesar
The Tusculum portrait, possibly the only surviving sculpture of Caesar made during his lifetime. [Creative Commons]

New Year’s Traditions

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.

times square new years

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.

first footing
[Source: Flickr]
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! What are your favorite traditions?

December 21: More than the Winter Solstice

There is a joke (based on stereotypes, as so many jokes are) that goes like this: on the Winter Solstice, the English woman says, “Oh. The shortest day of the year.” while the French woman says, “Oooh, la la, the longest night of the year.” My point is that this date means many things to many people.
 
chase calendar of events
[Source: Amazon]
I love this book! Just browsing it is entertaining. For the specifics of the importance of this date, I am heavily indebted to Chase’s. But to start with the solstice, in the northern hemisphere winter begins on this day. (Of course, in the southern hemisphere this is the beginning of summer.) This means 12 hours and 8 minutes of daylight at the equator and zero at the Arctic Circle.

 

Holidays

Celebrate Short Fiction Day: Established in 2013, short stories have been around as long as people have been able to spin a tale about people, places, or things. So, on this first day of winter, when the days are shortest, take advantage of the long night and celebrate short fiction by reading a short story—or two or three! Totally self-serving, consider my collection Different Drummer.
 
Different Drummer - a collection of off-beat fiction
 
Forefather’s Day: Celebrated mostly in New England to commemorate the landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Plymouth Rock, the legendary place of landing since it was first “identified” in 1769 has been an historic shrine since.

 

Fogg Wins A Wager Day: From Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in 1872, Fogg walked into the saloon of the Reform Club in London, and said “Here I am, gentlemen!” exactly 79 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds after starting his trip. He won a 20,000 pound wager.

 

Humbug Day: Those preparing for Christmas can vent their frustrations on this day. Indeed, twelve “humbugs” are allowed.

 

Yalda: The longest night of the year is celebrated by Iranians in a ceremony that has an Indo-Irianian origin, where light and good are considered to struggle against darkness and evil. With fires burning and lights lit, family and friends stay up through the night helping the sun battle against darkness. They recite poetry, tell stories, and eat special fruits and nuts till the triumphant sun reappears in the morning.

 

yalda night
A family celebrates Yalda [Creative Commons]
Yule: This is one of the “Lesser Sabbats” during the Wiccan year. It marks the death of the Sun God and his rebirth from the Earth Goddess.

 

On this day…

1804: Benjamin Disraeli was born. British novelist and statesman, born in London and died there April 19, 1881. “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.”

 

1824: James Parkinson (born in 1755) died. He was a remarkable English physician and paleontologist who first described the “shaking palsy” that was later named for him, Parkinson’s disease.

 

1860: Henrietta Szold was born. She is best known as the founder and first president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. She established the first night school in Baltimore, focused on teaching English and job skills to immigrants. She died in 1945.
1864: Sherman took Savannah, despite the defense of Confederate general William Hardee. By marching from Atlanta to the coast at Savannah, Sherman cut the lower South off from the center.

 

1879: Joseph Stalin (whose family name was Dzhugashvili) was born in Gori, Georgia. He was one of the most powerful and most feared men of the 20th century. He died of a stroke in Moscow, 1953.

 

1913: The first crossword puzzle (created by Arthur Wynne) was published in a supplement to the New York World.

 

1917: Heinrich Böll was born. He was a German novelist, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature, author of 20 books. Born in Cologne, Germany, he died near Bonn on July 16, 1985.

 

1937: The film of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered. It was the first full-length animated feature film, also the first Technicolor feature. It was 4 years in production and involved more than 750 artists and 1500 colors. It featured the songs “Some Day My Prince Will come” and “Whistle While You Work.”

 

Snow White 1937 poster
Original theatrical poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren [Source: Walt Disney Productions]
1968: Apollo 8 was launched. It was the first the first moon voyage, orbited the moon, and returned to earth Dec. 27.

 

1970: Elvis Presley met with President Nixon. He offered to be “a Federal Agent-at-Large” to fight drug abuse and the drug culture. The meeting was cordial but he was not made a federal agent. Surprising (to me) the picture of them shaking hands is the most requested reproduction from the National Archives (more than the Bill of Rights or the US Constitution).
elvis presley richard nixon
[Source: Time]
1972: Joshua (Josh) Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the greatest slugger to play in the Negro Leagues, perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever. His long home runs are the stuff of legends, and he starred with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Born in 1911, he died in Pittsburgh June 20, 1947. His recognition was a long time coming!

 

1940: Frank Zappa was born. He was a rock musician and composer, noted for his satire and for advocating against censorship of music. He formed Mothers of Invention. He died in 1993.

 

1988: Pan Am flight 103 exploded mid-air and crashed in the heart of Lockerbie, Scotland, the result of a terrorist bombing. Those dead included 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. It eventually became known that government agencies and the airline knew that the flight was possibly a target of a terrorist attack.

 

2005: The United Kingdom allowed same-sex civil unions. Pop star Elton John and his partner, filmmaker David Furnish, were among the first to wed on this day.

 

same sex marriage uk
[Source: CNN]
People born on this day:  Among others, Phil Donahue, Chris Evert, Ray Romano, Michael Tilson Thomas.

 

What makes this day special for you?

Bradley Harper: The Man Behind the Writer

knife fog bradley harper

VL: I’ve often said that I’ve never met a boring writer. Here to prove that point is my interview with Bradley Harper, mystery writer and so much more!


VL: Let’s start with your debut novel, A Knife in the Fog. I loved it!  I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries since my college days, and when I read your book I found you had the tone spot-on. You evoked the time and the place in a way that took me there—which is no small feat. What drew you to writing a murder mystery in the first place?

BH: Doctors love mysteries in general, as the diagnostic process is much like solving a mystery. You collect data points and, after testing various hypotheses, arrive at a plausible diagnosis. A Pathologist does practically nothing else. Also, I fell in love with the Holmes stories the summer I discovered them at age 13. If you’re going to spend hundreds or thousands of hours writing a novel, it should be in a genre you know and love.

 

VL: So that’s why you are drawn to mysteries, and why this sort of mystery, but how did you come up with this particular plot?

BH: I discovered the four-year gap between the first and second Holmes stories, and that the Ripper murders occurred in the middle of that period. I became excited at the idea of a novel involving Doyle in the hunt for the killer, and explaining why he returned to Holmes after being soured on crime fiction due to his meager payment (twenty-five pounds), for the first one.

 

VL: I admire the way you combined real people—i.e., Doyle, his real-life influence Joseph Bell, and Margaret Harkness, a real woman of the time—and wove this wonderful fiction around them.

bradley harper author
Reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes himself!

 BH: I’m glad I found Miss Harkness. She was an author and Suffragette who lived in the East End of London for a while to do research for her novels featuring the working poor.

 

VL: I like her character a lot. I hope to see more of her! But let’s change gears here, and look at your work before you retired and started writing fiction. Where did you attend med school?

BH: Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, 1979-83.

 

VL: Well, that answers my next question about whether your medical training preceded joining the Army.

BH: I started as an Airborne Qualified Infantry Officer and at one time was a platoon leader in a Mechanized Infantry Battalion. Due to the draw down after Viet Nam, I was transferred to the Transportation Corps and ran a motor pool in Izmir, Turkey, as part of a NATO Headquarters there. One of the four walls of my motor pool was the remnant of a Roman aqueduct. Thirty-seven years later, I retired as the Deputy Assistant Surgeon General for the US Army in the Pentagon.

bradley harper man behind writer
In Padua, Italy

BH: During my Army years, I enjoyed many extraordinary experiences. This picture was taken shortly after receiving an award from the Knights of Malta for my assistance to the Italian Army in their preparation for deployment to Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission. The advanced first aid course I helped found has since become mandatory training for all Italian land forces prior to deployment, and was recently taught to the Italian Presidential security detail.

I also had the unique experience of serving as the acting commander of the US Army Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, on the fiftieth anniversary of General Patton’s death there. I presided over the commemoration ceremony involving both US military and local German dignitaries.

 

VL: Wow. Quite a progression! Congratulations. But hold on. If you didn’t join the Army to go to medical school, why did you join? 

 BH: My draft number was 84, so I knew as soon as I graduated from college I was going into the military. I decided to take an ROTC scholarship for my last two years. (My original goal was to be a high school Spanish and History teacher). One day relatively early in my service I went on sick call for an injured ankle, and the doctor who saw me was such an unpleasant person I decided that I and my soldiers deserved better care. So I went to med school with the goal of seeing to it that soldiers and their families got the care they deserved.

 

VL: What made you stick with it?

BH: I discovered I liked being part of something larger than myself, and found living abroad an amazing experience.

 

VL: What were the best and worse things about your time in the military?  

BH: I enjoyed being reassigned every two to three years into a new job. That allowed me to take on various roles and to develop a wide skill set. Frequent moves did limit my social circle, however, and I didn’t have what I would consider a close friend as an adult until after I retired. Fortunately, I had the love and support of Chere, my wife of 45 years.

what santa taught me

BH: In the five years since I retired, she has joined me in my Santa gigs as well. She’s wonderful.

bradley harper sisters crime

VL: When you addressed the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime—an excellent presentation, by the way—you mentioned having a $1.5 million bounty on your head at one time. Tell me about that.

 BH: While serving as the Command Surgeon for U.S. Army South, I spent time in Colombia overseeing a joint training course with the Colombian Army. That’s when the bounty was offered.

 

VL: I never expected to meet anyone wanted-dead-or-alive!

 BH: You still haven’t! The bounty was for anyone who could deliver me to the FARC alive. As the highest ranking U.S. officer in the area, I was considered very valuable as a live hostage to ransom. (Offer no longer valid, by the way.)

 

VL: Hmmm. If there’s no longer a profit in kidnapping you, I might as well get on with the interview. You are Board Certified in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, and you said you’ve conducted over two-hundred autopsies. What sorts of forensic autopsies did you perform that subsequently informed your writing?

BH: All military pathologists undergo forensic training. We are often sent to remote locations, and are the only game in town. I am not Board Certified in Forensics, however, so any cases which might go to trial would be sent to the nearest military forensic specialist. The cases I did were crib deaths, training accidents, motor vehicle accidents, suicides, or people who died on the job unexpectedly. Two suicides by standing in front of a train and one accident involved being run over by light rail informed my writing in one of the final scenes in A Knife in the Fog. I was involved in one case while in Germany which had mixed jurisdiction between the German civil authorities and the US, so I attended the autopsy performed by my German colleague, and my notes were used to prosecute the US serviceman involved.

 

VL: You’ve told us quite a bit about your work as Santa. But I’m curious about something you mentioned in the SinC-CV presentation. What prompted you to volunteer in Galicia? Apparently it wasn’t a one-off. Do you do this annually? How long does that take? Are you actually walking the pilgrims’ route?

way st james

BH: After I retired from the Army I walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. It is an ancient pilgrimage route begun in the ninth century, and millions have walked The Way to the bones of St. James as an act of atonement or contrition. I did it to give me some time to ponder what direction my life would take after thirty-seven years in the military. After a transformative experience I have written about and shared on a local radio program—which is too long to go into here—I wanted to give back, and to help others realize their dreams. I speak five languages other than English, and being functional in so many tongues allowed me to assist pilgrims from most of Europe and, of course, the English-speaking world. I got back as much as I gave. This is the first year I have not volunteered after five consecutive summers. These were fifteen-day stints—with my wife—first in the pilgrim office, and later as a hospitalero, or host, in a pilgrim hostel.

 

VL: Surely you realize that mentioning a transformative experience more or less in passing means I’m likely to come back to you for more about that! But forging ahead for now, what about your personal life? Do you have hobbies or pets?

 BH: I read incessantly, and swim for fitness when my shoulder allows. No other hobbies to speak of, and no pets. I travel a lot, still. Perhaps when I go from the “go-go” phase of life to the “go-slow” or the “no-go,” I’ll add a pet to my life.

author bradley harper
Still traveling

VL: I’d like to end with info on your future project(s). What are you working on now?

 BH: I am fortunate to have a two-book contract with Seventh Street Books, and am involving my heroine from book one, Margaret Harkness, in trying to stop an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria during her Diamond Jubilee ceremony. It will be titled Queen’s Gambit.

 

VL: When might fans hope to have Queen’s Gambit in hand?

BH: It’s scheduled for release in October of 2019, on the one-year anniversary of the debut of my first book.

 

VL: What, if anything, would you like to share with other writers about how you balance family life, Santa duty, volunteer activities, and your writing life?

BH: I don’t multi-task. I don’t believe anyone can accomplish their best work unless they are entirely focused on the task in front of them. So when I write, I go all-in. I do ponder plot points and issues when I’m not writing, but when I am playing Santa, for example, I am totally focused on the people who have come to see Santa. These encounters are brief, but if I can communicate to them that I genuinely wish them well, they will remember that for a long time after.

The best advice I got in med school was: when the body is tired, work the mind. When the mind is tired, work the body. Eat well, walk, laugh, engage with those around you, be grateful for every day, and life will sort itself out.

bradley harper author

VL: Let’s end with those words of wisdom! Thank you, Brad, for sharing so generously of your time, your experiences, and your thoughts. I look forward to wrangling another blog sometime down the road!

Follow Bradley Harper online at bharperauthor.com. You will find pictures and notifications of appearances, as well as bits of off-beat information about Victorian England, forensics, and whatever strikes his fancy! You can even get info about Harper’s compilation of four short stories.

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What Santa Has Taught Me

by Bradley Harper
what santa taught me
VL: My fellow writer Bradley Harper has graciously agreed to share the wisdom he has acquired in his second career as Santa Claus! I believe you will find this blog as moving as I have. Thank you, Brad!

After I retired from the Army, (37 years, 4 months, and 9 days, and yes, someone WAS counting!) I grew a beard because, hey, I could! It came out white, which at my age was no surprise. My wife began hinting that I should try being a Santa. I was very unsure about that suggestion, but over time decided that when she was eight she decided she wanted to marry Santa Claus. So, if she was to become Mrs. Claus … you get the idea.

I auditioned for a local park, and to my surprise, and more than a small amount of panic, I got one of the slots. Now I was in for it. I began walking through the toy section of stores. I memorized “The Night Before Christmas.” I speak various languages to differing degrees of proficiency, so memorized how to say “what would you like for Christmas” in Spanish, French, Italian, and German, (the park gets a fair number of international visitors.) I didn’t have to understand the reply. A smile and knowing wink is universal.

Day three in the throne. I got this! It’s kinda fun. As long as I don’t promise more than “I’ll look into it,” I’m golden.

Then life, as it is known to do, threw me a curve ball. One of the young ladies serving as an elf comes up to me and says, “Santa, you’re about to see three kids. They’ve been orphans for the past year. The foster parents keeping them have just been approved to adopt them, and they want YOU to tell them!”

I took about one deep breath, and there they were. No pressure, right? The girl was the oldest. Around twelve, she was obviously a non-believer by now, but playing along for her younger brothers. The ten-year-old was unsure. That phase where they don’t really think you’re real, but don’t want to blow their chances, just in case. The eight-year-old still had the faith. His eyes were large, brown, and round.

Unsure what to say at the moment, I fell back on the old stand-by, “What would you like for Christmas?” They said something, but honestly I didn’t hear a word, thinking to myself, “What can I say? What CAN I say?”

Then it came to me. I took another deep breath and said, “Those are great ideas. I’ll look into it, but I have something for you today.”

“What’s that Santa?” the oldest asked, obviously the spokesman for the group.

“A family,” I said.

They looked puzzled, but when I explained they would not have to leave the foster family, that they could stay together, well, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Yeah, I teared up just now, again, though it was six years ago.

So what did I learn? In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero comes back changed by their Quest. Though I didn’t leave my throne, I had just been on quite a ride.

I learned that I wanted to be Santa Claus more than anything else in the world. I fully embraced the role after that. Santa has made me a kinder, and more patient, man. With my beard, I stand out anywhere I go. I have to be careful what I say and how I act. I never know where or when a child might see me. I have to be in tune with “the better angels of my nature,” whenever I am in public. (OK, I can’t eat ribs in public anymore. But it’s worth it!)

Santa has made me a better person. When I put on my super hero costume and go forth to fight for happiness, I never promise a toy, but I always offer a hug.

I have a photo of my back side as I am hugging an elderly black man. His name was Walter, and I met him at a gift exchange at an Alzheimer’s day care center. Every patient got a gift bag selected for them by the staff. I handed them out and hugged each one. Walter’s face is beaming, and a trick of the lighting perhaps, but I see a small halo around his head.

what santa taught me

I got the photo from his daughter who tracked me down. She said her dad had been abandoned as a child, and had never had a visit from Santa his entire life.

The next year I was told that Walter had passed. His daughter told the director of the daycare center the photo of me hugging him had become his favorite, and at his funeral his daughter had that picture blown up and placed on an easel beside his open coffin.

That taught me how powerful even one moment can be in another person’s life. Don’t hold back. This moment may never come again.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that a man can never cross a river twice, for each time both he and the river will have changed. Every time I assume the role, it may be the first time for whoever I come into contact with. I may define Santa for the rest of their life.

No pressure, right? But here’s the thing. Just like Dumbo and his magic feather, the magic is not in the robe. It was inside me all the time. I just needed the license the costume gave me to tap into it.

You may not wear a red suit, but I hereby deputize you to share love and joy, wherever you go. You can do it. Find that better angel that has been inside you all along, and let them breathe. You, and all those around you, will be the better for it.

Hugs!

PS: Three nights ago, a little girl around five came up to me with her letter to Santa. On it were several letters carefully inscribed but not forming any words I could discern.

Me: “What does it say, Dear?”

Little Girl: “I don’t know, Santa. I can’t read!”

The adventure continues.

what santa taught me

PPS: My wife was hired the following year as Mrs. Claus. Adventures are more fun with the right companions.


Bradley Harper‘s writing credits include a short story sold to The Strand and The Sherlock Holmes Magazine of Mystery, as well as his debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, featuring a young Arthur Conan Doyle, Professor Joseph Bell (Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes), and Margaret Harkness. Miss Harkness was an author and Suffragette who lived in the East End of London for a while to do research on her novels featuring the working poor. Together these “Three Musketeers” assist the London Metropolitan Police in the hunt for the man who became known as Jack the Ripper, until he begins hunting them!

 

knife fog bradley harper

Why Writers and Readers Should Vote

why writers readers vote
Today I’ll start with the bottom line: every eligible voter should exercise that right, duty, and privilege! In a democracy, voting is the strongest way for political representatives to know the will of the citizens.

 

This chart is difficult to read, but it essentially says that even now, the president is elected by less than 45% of the U.S. population. Granted, some people are too young to vote, or ineligible for other reasons. But even in the best years, only about 60% of eligible voters did so.
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When I say voting is a privilege, I say so in light of the history of voting rights in the United States. Here is a list of the major milestones.

 

1789: The Constitution granted states the power to set voting requirements. Generally, states limited the right to vote to property-owning or tax-paying white males, approximately 6% of the population.

 

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1790: The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed white men born outside the U. S. to become citizens with the right to vote.

 

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1792-1838: Free black males lost the right to vote in several Northern states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
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1792-1856: Abolition of property qualifications for white men, from Kentucky in 1792 to North Carolina in 1856, the periods of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy. However, tax-paying qualifications remained in five states as late as 1860 (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and North Carolina). They remained in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island until the 20th century.
why writers readers vote
1868: Citizenship was guaranteed to all persons born or naturalized in the United States by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, setting the stage for future expansions of voting rights.
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1870: Non-white men and freed male slaves were guaranteed the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era began soon after. Southern states suppressed the voting of black and poor white voters through Jim Crow Laws. During this period, the Supreme Court generally upheld state efforts to discriminate against racial minorities; only in the 20th century were such laws ruled unconstitutional. Black males in the Northern states could vote, but the majority of African Americans lived in the South.

 

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1887: By the Dawes Act, citizenship was granted to Native Americans who were willing to disassociate themselves from their tribe, making them technically eligible to vote.
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1913: The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution gave voters the right to elect Senators, rather than state legislatures doing so.

 

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1920: The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote. The same restrictions that hindered voting for poor or non-white men also applied to poor or non-white women.
vote women
Women have had the right to vote for less than one hundred years. Many polls reveal gender gaps on issues and candidates. Don’t waste this opportunity to express your values!
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1924: All Native Americans were granted citizenship and the right to vote, regardless of tribal affiliation. By that time, approximately two thirds of Native Americans were already citizens.
why writers readers vote
1943: Chinese immigrants were given the right to citizenship and to voting by the Magnuson Act.
why writers readers vote
1961: Residents of Washington, D.C. were granted the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections by the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution.
 
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1964: The Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited poll taxes from being used as a condition for voting in federal elections.

 

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1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected voter registration and voting for racial minorities. This was later applied to language minorities. This has been applied to correcting discriminatory election systems and districting. (Updated in 1975.)

 

why writers readers vote
1966: The Supreme Court prohibited tax payment and wealth requirements for voting in state elections.
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1971: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution granted the right to vote to those aged 18 through 21. This was in response to Vietnam War protests, which argued that soldiers who were old enough to fight for their country (and maybe die) should have the right to vote.
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I’ve read that this age group is the least likely to vote. Some put the figure at 20%.

 

1986: U.S. Military and Uniformed Services, Merchant Marines, and other citizens overseas, living on bases in the U.S., abroad, or aboard ships were granted the right to vote in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.

 

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2013: The Supreme Court (in a 5/4 vote) struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. The core of the winning argument was that racial minorities no longer continued to face barriers to voting because “Our country has changed” (Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.). The majority determined that specifying states that must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before they changed voting procedures, moving polling places, or redrawing electoral districts was unconstitutional.

 

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This year, major outcries have arisen about everything from ID requirements to relocation of polling places that have a disproportionate effect on minorities. For example, suppression of African American votes in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas; Hispanics in Kansas; and Native Americans in North Dakota. Make the effort to vote in spite of obstacles!
vote 2018