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.

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

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.


As American as Apple Pie

apple pie

What’s wrong with that?

First of all, with the sour exception of crabapples, apples themselves aren’t American. Apples as we know and love them probably originated in Asia and migrated to Europe.


apples in bowl


Apples and apple pie were brought to the colonies by British, Dutch, and Swedish immigrants during the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, that was pretty late in the history of apple pie.


Fossilized evidence of apples date as far back as the Iron and Stone Ages in Switzerland and other parts of Europe. Although most sources trace apple pie to Europe, there is a minority view that the first apple pie was made in Egypt, 9500 B.C.E.

English apple pie recipes go back to the time of Chaucer. A 1381 recipe calls for good apples, good spices, figs, raisins, and pears in a pastry casing. It is the first known written recipe for apple pie. Fruit sweeteners were typical of the times. Early apple pies had no sugar because of the expense but were sweetened with fruits such as these.

Apple pie was a prized dessert in England by 1577. The first mention of a fruit pie in literature was apple-pyes in Robert Greene’s Arcadia. Greene wrote between 1580 and 1592. A medieval Dutch cookbook (around 1514) has a recipe for apple pie that is almost identical to modern recipes. Such a pie was featured in a Dutch Golden Age painting from 1626.


In 1941, newspaper reporters talked about GI’s fighting for Mom and “good old American apple pie.” This seems to be the origin of apple pie attached to American identity—even though apple pie did not originate here. Vermont even made apple pie the official state pie in 1999.

The history of Mock Apple Pie (made with crackers instead of apples) is a bit murky. It may have been invented by pioneers on the move in the 19th century, or possibly in the South during Civil War food shortages. But in the 1930s, Ritz Crackers provided a recipe using Ritz Crackers, water, sugar, cream of tartar, lemon juice, grated lemon peel, margarine or butter, and cinnamon. The one thing that’s clear is that anything that leads to an imitation must be very popular indeed.

According to the American Pie Council, Apple pie is the most popular pie in the U.S., the favorite of 19% of Americans (approximately 36 million people at the time of the survey).


And now we get to the downside. Although homemade apple pie hasn’t changed much over centuries, anything that popular has to go commercial, including fast-food chains. McDonald’s started in California in 1940. In 1969, McDonald’s opened 211 new franchises, and the first Wendy’s was born in Columbus, Ohio.


Welcome to the world of food additives. L-cysteine, an amino acid used to condition dough for increased pliability, is derived from human hair and/or duck feathers. It’s used in McDonald’s Baked Hot Apple Pie (among other offerings). McDonald’s is only one of many fast-food providers who rely on L-cysteine in bakery products.


Bonus facts: Sand (silica dioxide) is an anti-caking agent that shows up in chili and other processed beef and chicken products on the menus of Wendy’s and Taco Bell; processed wood pulp (cellulose), used to thicken and stabilize everything from cheese to strawberry syrup, is on the rise because products  can boast less fat and more fiber. For more disturbing food additives, go to mnn.com.


And to know what happened when with food, go to good books!


The Century in Food and The Food Chronology

From Marines to Character Insights

Happy birthday, Marine Corps! On this date in 1775, the Marine Corps was established. Originally a division of the Navy, it became a separate branch of the military on July 11, 1789. One image imprinted on the national consciousness is the photo of five U.S. Marines and one U.S. Navy hospital corpsman raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima during WWII.
USMC War Memorial Night

Not a national holiday, but coming the day before Veterans Day, flags are often flying for the Marines as well.
Character considerations: does your character fly a flag year-round, on holidays, or not at all? Why?

Speaking of Veterans Day, this one’s enjoyed a twisted history. The fighting of WWI—known at the time as “The Great War”—ceased when an armistice took effect between the Allied nations and Germany. It went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—the end of the war to end all wars—in 1918. In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November the first commemoration of Armistice Day. In 1926, the U.S. Congress officially recognized November 11, 1918, as the end of WWI and urged people to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies. In 1938, it became a legal holiday—dedicated to the cause of world peace.

As we all know, WWI did not end all wars. Following WWII, in 1954, President Eisenhower signed the bill changing the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day.


And then there was the issue of dates. In 1968, the Uniform Holiday Bill was signed into law, intended to ensure three-day weekends for Federal employees. The holidays affected were Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day. Confusion ran rampant when Veterans Day was celebrated on October 25, 1971, and many states and organizations observed the original date. The disaffection was so strong that President Ford signed a law returning the annual observance to November 11.

Character considerations: is your character patriotic? By whose definition? How would your character have responded to the renaming of the day, the changing dates, and the changing nature of the celebrations?

When you think about it, writing fodder is everywhere. Think about it!


American flag, November 11, 2015, Veterans Day