Alcohol for Writers

"alcohol for writers" whisky poured into tumbler

Keep it on the page!

Surely everyone can name at least one famous writer also famous for drinking. Think Raymond Chandler, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Edgar Allen Poe. . . . If not, an internet search will turn up titles like these.

 

  • Top 15 Great Alcoholic Writers
  • Drinking Habits of Famous Authors
  • Top 10 Drunk American Writers
  • 99 Writers who Were Alcoholics, Drunks, Addicted To Booze, Etc.
  • 25 Great Writers Who Battled Drug Addiction and Alcoholism
  • All The Drunk Dudes: The Parodic Manliness Of The Alcoholic Writer
  • ‘Every hour a glass of wine’—the female writers who drank
  • What drives writers to drink?
This last question has led to numerous academic examinations and investigations of the topic.

 

As for “How to Drink Like Kerouac, Hemingway, and Other Famous Writers,” don’t try this at home, lest you end up on the list of “Famous Alcoholic Writers Who Died of Alcoholism.”

 

wine rack, alcohol for writers
So, although I don’t advise writers to drink, I do advise knowing about alcohol. It’s such an integral part of life in America—celebrations, business dinners, relaxation, sports events, picnics, parties, all sorts of gatherings from weddings to funerals—that one can hardly write realistically without scenes involving alcohol. So here are a few basic facts you should be aware of and ready to justify if you go against them. See below for why your petite female PI would be unlikely to drink a hulking athlete under the table.

 

Alcohol for Writers: The Facts

  • In general, bigger people, more muscular people, and males get drunk slower than smaller people, less-muscular people, and females.
  • Even controlling for height and weight, women absorb alcohol faster and metabolize it slower than men. In other words, they get drunk faster and stay drunk longer.
  • In general, the health-related problems for women drinkers come on faster and are more devastating than for men.
  • People get drunk faster on an empty stomach than after a full meal. I’ve read that ancient Romans drank olive oil to coat the stomach before their binges, because that slows-down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.
  • People who drink regularly and heavily have a greater capacity (tolerance) than those who drink less.
  • People are more likely to blackout from fast drinking than from slow drinking of the same amount of alcohol.
  • A standard drink is defined as 1.5 oz.shot of liquor, 5 oz. of wine, or 12 oz. of beer. Most wine coolers are the equivalent of one standard drink. FYI, heavy drinking = anything more than two drinks per day for men or 1 drink per day for women.
shot glass, beer glass, wine glass
  • Having 2-3 drinks can cause a loss of motor control 12 to 18 hours after drinking. Name your accidental injury—falls, drownings, automobile accidents, etc.—and the incidence goes up with alcohol consumption. Name your intentional injuries—shooting, stabbing, physical violence, rape—it’s more likely to happen with alcohol.
  • There’s a reason athletes don’t drink before big events. Two to three drinks can deplete aerobic capacity and decrease endurance up to 48 hours after consumption.
  • Alcohol impairs both learning new information and recalling previously learned information.
  • Alcohol is a depressant for the central nervous system. People initially get “high” because the first thing to get depressed is inhibitions, creating a willingness to party and live dangerously. But beyond the buzz is the risk of seriously depressing metabolic functioning. A pulse rate below 40 or a breathing rate slower than 8-10 per minute is a medical emergency!
  • The website brad21.org is a great resource for writers! B.R.A.D. stands for Be Responsible About Drinking. It’s a series of bullet facts, well-footnoted for further reading.

Other Things Writers Should Know

…especially if a main character drinks.

 

First, perhaps most obviously, you need to decide on a preferred drink. According to bartenders, here are 10 drink stereotypes to help you create the desired impression. (Taken from complex.com, “The Funny Ways Bartenders Stereotype You Based On What You Drink.”)
-Vodka sodas are for people who want to lose weight—or want people to think so—but not enough to quit drinking.
-Jager bombs and vodka Red Bull are for basic bros.
-Blue Moon is for craft beer posers.
-Real craft beer drinkers are actually pretty cool.
-Annoying people act like they invented picklebacks. (Apparently a shot of whisky followed by a shot of pickle juice—really.)
-Buttery Chardonnays are for soccer moms.
-Only rookies drink Appletinis.
-Bud Light is for sporting events and day drinking, not Saturday night.
-Martinis are a classic, classy drink.
-Shots should be taken with a beer or a celebration. (Otherwise they’re for alcoholics.)
For a funny but useful commentary on everything from absinthe to wine see pointsincase.com, in an article titled “What Your Drink Says About You.”
Scotch whisky and bourbon bottle

 

Second, know your character’s drink. Know what it looks like, how it smells, how strong it is, and its taste. Also, whether wine, beer, or liquor, a drinker is likely to have the everyday brand and the special-occasion brand.

 

Third, know your character’s drinking habits and reactions. Know when, where, under what circumstances, and how much s/he drinks. People usually have a pattern of reaction to alcohol, roughly: fall asleep, talk more, repeat him/herself, verbal abusiveness, physical violence.
beer, beer glass

 

Takeaway for Writers

What’s good for characters isn’t good for authors!

Education and Writing Inspiration

Where do you get writing inspiration? You may recall that I recently blogged about the pros of trivia for interest and entertainment.

 

trivia books
Trivia for writing inspiration

 

I mentioned that tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio. While having a character mention that fact might bring a smile or a raised brow, a writer could milk that tidbit for a whole story—such as a Buckeye living in a famous tomato growing county in Virginia alienating everyone at the annual tomato festival by bad-mouthing the local product, and someone ends up dead.

 

Famous First Facts: Third Edition, Kane, book, trivia, writing inspiration
Famous First Facts

 

If your genre includes historical fiction. . . 

Then this is the book for you. It includes an alphabetical listing of firsts, covering everything from the first abdominal operation and the first importation of Aberdeen-Angus cattle to the first zoological laboratory to the first zoom lens—thousands of story ideas just waiting to be exploited. For example, the first coeducational medical school in the world was the Boston University School of Medicine, founded in 1873. Imagine that first co-ed class—and the classes they would have had, such as anatomy in the days of grave robbers.

 

If you are obsessed with money. . .

Then delve into Charles Reichblum’s collection.

 

What Happens to a Torn Dollar Bill?, Charles Reichblum, book, trivia about money, writing inspiration
What Happens to a Torn Dollar Bill?

 

Suppose your character is in a bar and another drinker says, “Okay, mate, here’s the deal. I’ve won the lottery, and I want to share the wealth. I’ll give you $1000 a day for a month, or one penny doubled each day for a month.” What would the character choose? Why? And then what happens?

 

If your genre is magical realism. . . 

There’s no better place to look than science.

 

Genetic mosaics are not so rare, formed by fusing two gametes in utero or a placenta shared between fraternal twins or by the mother’s cells crossing the placental barrier and continuing in her child. Imagine that a woman had children with all of her genetics, so the cell lines were thoroughly mixed.

 

But it isn’t necessary to turn to hard-core science texts. Bits of science turn up everywhere.

 

You are One-Third Daffodil and Other Facts to Amaze, Tom Nuttall, book, trivia, writing inspiration
You are One-Third Daffodil and Other Facts to Amaze, Amuse, and Astound

 

Each newly conceived human has approximately 300 harmful genetic mutations. The life expectancy of professional cyclists is approximately 50. The closest living relative of tyrannosaurus rex is the chicken. And people are genetically one-third daffodil. Create a plot relating any two of these facts and voila, you’re launched.

 

Whatever your genre, books of little-known information are great sources of ideas.

 

A Compendium of Indispensable Facts, book, trivia, writing inspiration
A Compendium of Indispensable Facts

 

All sorts of genre’s could generate stories based on which big cats can interbreed, in the wild and in captivity. (Lions with tigers and leopards. Leopards with lions, tigers, jaguars, and pumas. Jaguars with pumas. Servals with caracals.)  It could revolve around an animal rights conflict, a new breed going out of control, zoo politics, or love in the workplace—or whatever your brain produces.

 

The Best, Worst and Most Unusual: Noteworthy Achievements, Events, Feats & Blunders of Every Conceivable Kind, Bruce Felton, Mark Fowler, book, trivia, writing inspiration
The Best, Worst and Most Unusual: Noteworthy Achievements, Events, Feats & Blunders of Every Conceivable Kind

 

This volume includes topics from consumer products to sports. You can read about a boat race in which two-member crews inside bottomless boats grip the gunwales and run a foot race along a dry river bed—which certainly be fodder for humor. And if you want to tie in to current events, base a character on Victoria Woodhull, who endorsed short skirts, an end to capital punishment, legalized prostitution, birth control, free love, and vegetarianism. On April 2, 1870, she became a candidate for president, running on the National Radical Reformers ticket.
Victoria-Woodhull-by-Mathew-Brady-c1870
Cabinet photograph of Victoria Woodhull, c.1866-1873. Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Readers like to learn something new, especially when it pertains to the plot.

Takeaway for writers

Whether you start with an idea and look for off-beat information to support it or welcome inspiration for novel ideas, off-beat information is the way to go.

Trivia Pursuit

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I like having books about places I’ve lived. I was born and reared in Ohio, and now live in Virginia, so those are two of the states I am drawn to. And given that I’m also drawn to the weird. . .

 

trivia books, Weird Ohio, Weird Virginia
Weird Virginia and Weird Ohio

 

From books like these, you can gain such vital information about Ohio as the location of Crybaby Bridge; abandoned hospitals, prisons, and asylums; and graveyards worthy of a safari. And as for Virginia, you might think Civil War Statues—but what about a statue of a giant Viking, or Johnny Appleseed, or the Auto Muffler King?

 

trivia books, Virginia, Ohio

 

Did you know that the official state drink of Ohio is tomato juice? Or that the 50-star U.S. flag was designed by an Ohio high-schooler? And FYI, the dorm room occupied by Edgar Allan Poe at the University of Virginia is on permanent display. And Secretariat was the first Virginia bred-and-owned horse to win the Triple Crown.

 

 

Of course, trivia can come in all forms. I have several books of lists. I like knowing the 6 illegal substances that occur naturally in our bodies, 21 biblical contradictions, and 12 erotic works by well-known writers. (Anne Rice? Piers Anthony?)

 

If ever evidence was needed that people will compete in anything, just check out weird records: the longest time balancing a Christmas tree on the chin (56,82 seconds), the longest time keeping toe in mouth while hopping on one foot (1min. 49.02 sec.), and the largest grand piano cake (300 lbs, shaped like a baby grand).

 

And examples could go on. But why? Either you love trivia—and therefore will own these books or others like them—or you won’t. In which case, why are you still reading?

 

Trivia positives for readers

Trivia is interesting, often funny, can serve as a conversational gambit, and you needn’t worry about coming to a good stopping place before going to bed.

 

Trivia positives for writers

Giving your characters off-beat information or obsessions adds interest—and you can enjoy the research!

A Murder of Crows

A murder of crows
Crows and ravens have been popular in myth and literature for centuries–Odin’s Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory or Mind) to Poe’s “Raven”–often with menacing depictions. Perhaps it’s because ‘murder’ has been the collective noun for a group of crows since the Middle Ages.

But I like crows! Every year they star in my autumn table.
a murder of crows in an autumn centerpiece
Indeed, I like the entire corvid family of birds—crows, ravens, jackdaws, and rooks. I once took a two-week float and paddle trip through the Grand Canyon, and every campsite came equipped with a pair of ravens. Our guides warned us about their tricks. Even so, we were taken unaware when a raven landed a few feet away and started performing—hopping about, dragging first one wing and then the other in a beautiful raven dance. In the meantime, its partner was unzipping fanny packs and making off with bits of food and anything shiny!
Raven overlooking Grand Canyon
Photo by Matteo Paganelli
The only one that seems to hang out near where I live is the American Crow, featured in the March-April, 2016 issue of Audubon, along with articles about Common Ravens and a corvid cousin the Eurasian Jay.
Audubon magazine featuring "Crows' Feats"
The articles provide fascinating glimpses of these bird brainiacs and the research that delineates their amazing abilities. Corvids are among the smartest animals on earth. They can make and use tools, play tricks, teach each other new things, and hold “funerals” for their dead. With only one exposure, they can form memories of human faces to be trusted and faces to be feared. Not only do these memories last for years, the fear response is taught to others born after the original exposure, and long after the exposed birds have died.

 

Birds are in the reptilian line of the animal kingdom (who knew?) but relative to their body size, corvid brains are comparable to primates. They appear to have cognitive abilities comparable to a four- or five-year-old child.

 

"Crows" by Candace Savage
Crows are survivalists and exploiters who thrive in urban and suburban environments. According to the Audubon article, “The crows in your neighborhood know your block better than you do. They know the garbage truck routes. They know which kids drop animal crackers and which ones throw rocks. They know the pet dogs, and they might even play with the friendly ones. If you feed them, they probably not only recognize you but your car as well, and they might just leave trinkets in return.”

 

They’ve been observed putting hard nuts in the street to be run over by cars and then collecting the cracked nutmeats after. They cache food, hide their caches, and steal from each other.

 

A murder of crows may not sound as appealing as an exaltation of larks, but I find them more interesting!

 

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS

Why use tired images of crows in a cornfield or birds on a wire? When a mention of birds fits your story, infuse your writing with much more interesting bird behaviors!
 
So, given how smart crows are, how long will it be before these learn that I only want to take pictures? I’m waiting for the day they let me come close!

The French Chef Lives On!

On February 11, 1963, WGBH-TV in Boston, Massachusetts launched “The French Chef,” featuring Julia Child. By the time The French Chef Cookbook was published in 1968, she was an international icon.
The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child
The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child

 

As far as I know, she is the only chef whose entire kitchen has been reassembled as a display at the Smithsonian.

 

“Writer” probably isn’t the first word you associate with Julia Child, although she authored or coauthored eighteen books. The success of “The French Chef” launched a whole genre of TV shows about cooking. If you visit the PBS website, you can find an alphabetical listing of cooking shows on Public Television. I counted 50 from letters P through Z!

 

Overstating the breadth and depth of Julia Child’s influence—both culinary and cultural—would be difficult as sprinting up Mt Everest! Her kitchen identity is French, complete with butter, cream, cheese, and eggs, and yet vegan chef and restauranteur Miyoko Schinner acknowledges her debt to Julia Child and Mastering The Art of French Cooking.
 
The Vegan Pantry by Miyoko Schinner
The Homemade Vegan Pantry by Miyoko Schinner
 

Heads up, writers!

Julia Child’s reach would have been much more limited if not for her personality. She was witty, appealing, with distinctive voice and body language. Your assignment: go on-line to view clips of her slapping the poultry around and rattling off one-liners, and then capture her in written words! And when you create characters for your stories, try to make them as compelling and vivid as Julia Child.

February: My Least Favorite Month

How do I loathe February? Let me count the ways.
I’ve never been a fan of February. For one thing, the weather can be all over the place. And then there’s the question of whether to pronounce that middle R. As far as I am concerned, the best thing about February is that the days are getting longer.

 

But in all fairness, I must admit that many people and organizations feel otherwise. February, in fact, is a very popular month. You can celebrate any of the following for the entire 28 days.

 

statueAmerican Heart Month

 

An Affair to Remember Month (Is there any other kind of affair??)

 

Black History Month—more widely celebrated than any of the others

 

canned food on shelf, February is Canned Food MonthCanned Food Month

 

Creative Romance Month

 

Great American Pie Month

 

National Cherry Month

 

grapefruit, February is grapefruit month
National Children’s Dental Health Month

 

National Grapefruit Month

 

National Weddings Month—which is odd, given that February is one of the least popular wedding months. (The most popular is June, followed by August, September, and October.)

If—for some reason—you prefer weekly celebrations, the 3rd week in February is International Flirting Week. And FYI, the internet makes international flirtations available to virtually everyone.

February Writing Prompt

Your assignment is to write a story involving as many of the romantic aspects of February as you can work in: an affair, creative romance, Valentine’s Day, an international flirtation, and/or a wedding!

 

Alternatively, write an essay on the theme of why any of these things should be tagged to February!

Writing Winter Weather

Writing 101: Winter Weather

Like so many other people affected by the recent extreme weather, I had plenty of time to consider snow. And as with so many other things that I consider, I started reading about it. Yes, Elmore Leonard is adamant that you never start a book with the weather—but that is not to say weather is taboo in your story. Your task as a writer is to make weather interesting. As an exercise, consider the following snow-related facts, and how you might fit them into a story in a way that seems natural, preferably relevant to the plot!

neighborhood with snow
Snow January 2016

 

Chionophobia is a persistent fear of snow, especially being trapped by snow. Winter cold kills more than twice as many Americans as summer heat does. Maybe your character has a reason to move to Key West!
snow drifts by house
Snow drifts during January 2016

 

Some parts of Antarctica have had no rain or snow for two million years. Also, snow has never been reported in Key West, FL.

 

On average, an inch of rain makes 10 inches of snow.

 

winter weather in Richmond, Virginia, January 2016

 

Skiing was introduced to Switzerland by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893.

 

Handschuhschneeballwerfer is German slang for “coward.” It means someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs.

 

A snowflake that falls on glacier in central Greenland can take 200,000 years to reach the sea.

 

Conventional wisdom holds that all snowflakes have 6 sides. But according to the Huffington Post, there are triangles, hourglasses, spools of thread, needles, hollow columns, dendrites, prisms, and flat plates as well. Asymmetrical snowflakes are more common than symmetrical ones. Shapes vary by temperature and moisture in the clouds. What sort of person would care about the shape of snowflakes?

 

It’s a myth that no two snowflakes are exactly the same; in 1988, two identical snow crystals came from a storm in Wisconsin. But according to physicists, complex snowflakes are indeed unique.

 

According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s largest snowflake was reported to be 15 inches across and 8 inches thick. While witnesses said the flakes were “larger than milk pans,” these claims have not been substantiated.

 

tree covered in snow, January 2016

 

Snow isn’t white; it’s actually clear and colorless. The appearance of white results from absorbing sunlight uniformly over the wavelengths of visible light.

 

Sometimes snow doesn’t appear white. Orange snow fell over Siberia in 2007. Deep snow can appear blue. Snow can also appear pink (watermelon snow). Snow in high alpine areas and the coastal polar regions contains fresh-water algae that have a red pigment that tints the surrounding snow. Perhaps your character made snowcream with pink snow and all who ate it got sick from the algae.

 

Each winter in the US, at least 1 septillion ice crystals fall from the sky—that’s 1 with 24 zeros. The average snowflake falls at a speed of 3.1 mph.
1 septillion ice crystals fall from the sky

 

An average snowflake is made up of 180 billion molecules of water.

 

Besides snowflakes, frozen precipitation can take the form of hail, graupel (snow pellets), or sleet.

 

The most snow ever recorded in a 24-hour period in the US was 75.8 inches (Silver Lake, CO, 1921). The second most fell in one calendar day, 63 inches, in Georgetown, CO, 1913. In 1959, a single snowstorm in Mt. Shasta dropped as much as 15.75 feet of snow in that California region.

 

Mt. Baker ski area in Washington State has the world record for snowfall: 1,140 inches in the 1998-99 winter season (about 95 feet). Who would be happy about that?

 

80% of the freshwater on earth is frozen as ice or snow, accounting for 12% of the earth’s surface.

 

footprint in snow
Footprint in snow

 

A blizzard is when you can’t see for 1/4 mile, the winds are 35 mph or more, and the storm lasts at least 3 hours.

 

People buy more cakes, cookies, and candies than any other food when a blizzard is forecast. And I thought it was bread and milk! What would your character stock up? Wine? Beans? Oatmeal? Dog biscuits? Toilet paper?

 

The US averages 105 snow storms per year, typically lasting 2-5 days and affecting multiple states.

 

An igloo can be more than 100 degrees warmer inside than outside—and they’re warmed entirely by body heat.

 

According to wikipedia, the Eskimo-Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but these languages allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word. This issue is still debated.

 

Snowboarders and skiers often distinguish different types of snow by labels such as mashed potatoes, pow pow, champagne, cauliflower, sticky, or dust on crust.

 

Ski lift in snow
By Nathalie Gouzée

 

Nova Scotia holds the record for the most snow angels ever made simultaneously in multiple locations: 22,022 in 130 locations in 2011. Bismarck, North Dakota holds the record for the most snow angels made simultaneously in one place:  8,962 in 2007.

 

The largest snowball fight on record involved 5,834 fighters in Seattle on January 12, 2013.

 

The largest snowman ever recorded was 113 feet 7 inches, in Bethel, ME. Perhaps your character wants to break that record.

 

Rochester, NY, is the snowiest city in the US, averaging 94 inches of snow a year.

 

In 1992, the Common Council of Syracuse, NY, passed a decree that any more snow before Christmas Eve was illegal.  Just two days later, they had more snow. But what’s the story there?
tree covered in snow

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.

Janus-Vatican
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

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