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Showing posts from December, 2018

The First Christmas Trees

Many holiday traditions that are not explicitly religious often wind up attributed to pagans.  Easter eggs, Easter rabbits, mistletoe, jack o’lanterns… all these modern symbols of religious holidays that have pagan roots.  The Christmas tree also gets this association, but that isn’t entirely true.
There are pagan forerunners to the Christmas tree.  A pagan tradition from pre-Christian Poland involved suspending evergreen branches from a house’s ceiling and decorating them with fruit, nuts, wafers, cookies, and other decorations.  This was thought to suggest and inspire good luck and prosperity. While this does sound a bit like our modern concept of the Christmas tree, this tradition is not thought to be the inspiration of the iconic holiday decoration that we think of today.  Evergreen has long figured into the season, though. Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia (a festival that occurred during modern Christmastime) with wreaths of evergreen branches, which is a common Christmas de…

Christmas Ghost Stories

The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Ebenezer Scrooge his own gravestone.  Happy holidays!
Ghost stories have a long association with Christmas.  Of course we all know Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which dates all the way back to its first publication in 1863.  That was 175 years ago, but the tradition of the Christmas ghost story goes back much further than that.
When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, he knew he had a hit on his hands.  The idea for the story came to him in the spring, and he got it all down on paper fairly quickly.  In truth, Dickens was drawing on a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories. Dickens’ ghosts were menacing only to the fictional miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who was only menaced by warnings the ghosts brought of Scrooge’s own future.  The story has a moral to it, and it gives Scrooge a chance to mend his ways before it’s too late. The four ghosts who visit Scrooge in the book are only terrifying to a man who, on some level, knows he needs to reform.
Ghos…

Under the Mistletoe

Once a year, tradition dictates that we head out into the forest and seek out mistletoe, which we then hang in our houses somewhere so we can trick people into kissing us by leading them to a spot underneath the plant.  This is great news for people with chronic halitosis or a compulsive affinity for garlic or some other condition that makes us less likely to get kissed, but for the rest of us, it’s maybe not such a boon. But how did all this start?
Let’s start by defining just what mistletoe is.  Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that grows in trees, usually.  The term hemiparasite means that it gets part of its nutrients from the host plant, but still provides some of its own nutrients through its own means.  Like other green plants, mistletoe can perform photosynthesis, turning sunlight into nutrients. It just can’t do that enough to sustain itself.  Though the mistletoe tradition comes from Europe, there are literally hundreds of different varieties of mistletoe all over the wor…

Nostalgia

In 1688, young Swiss physician Johannes Hofer announced he’d identified a new disease.  He introduced this disease as mal du pays, but also referred to it as mal du Suisse and Schweizerheimweh.  The term mal du pays is still used in modern French, but it has come to mean homesickness.  What Hofer was trying to identify was something a little different, which was the earliest use of what we now call nostalgia.
The word nostalgia was coined from two Greek words: νόστος (/nɔsˌ tos/ or NOS tos), meaning homecoming, borrowed directly from Homer’s Odyssey, and ἄλγος (/alˌ ɡos/ or AL gos), meaning ache.  The other two terms, mal du Suisse  and Schweizerheimweh applied to Dr. Hofer’s definition because they translate specifically as “sickness for Switzerland”.  The idea wasn’t that Switzerland made anyone sick, but rather, it was being away from Switzerland that was the root of the problem.  Hofer used this term to describe something he noticed among Swiss mercenaries who often left home to fi…

President for a Day?

Of the 44 men who have so far served as President of the United States, Historians generally agree that the term of William Henry Harrison, which lasted from March 4, 1841 to his death on April 4, 1841, was the shortest.  “But wait!” says the trivia collector at the end of the bar, ready to take bets from all patrons, because he knows that’s wrong. “I can name a president who held the job less than that!” “No!” respond the other customers, sure that the old souse doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  But he does—sort of. So when the bar patrons place their bets, the old souse offers up a name, and the arguing begins.
The name, of course, is David Rice Atchison, a Democratic senator from Missouri, and the storied “president for a day.”  Your school textbooks and restaurant placemats with the portraits of all the presidents might never have mentioned him, but he was real, and quite popular in his day.  He was popular enough in the Senate for his colleagues to elect him President Pro …