“11 ball, corner pocket.”
-Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
As we gather around the roaring yule-log, sipping our rum laced with egg-nog, we too often fail to reflect on the true origins of our yearly holiday. And I certainly do not mean the Christ-y ones– I’m talking about the kind of origin that involves drunk rioters and talking farm animals. In times like these, I turn to my 1898 edition of Curiosities of Popular Customs, and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities by William S. Walsh for the proper perspective. I bought my copy from the Tabor Academy library for $1, the reference librarian having concluded that it was too racist and outdated for a modern high school. It is an invaluable source of naïvely Anglo-centric information about holidays no one celebrates anymore, or celebrates widely now but which were new then, or stories about where pieces of saint’s bodies ended up. Or of the horrible blood-rites common in heathen lands.
As my X-Mas gift to you, people who read this, I will simply excerpt a large piece of the fascinating entry on Christmas. (It may be read starting on page 226). No where else can you see the history of Christmas explained using words like ‘pagan,’ ‘Govr‘ and ‘Popish’? Or outlandishly racist sentiment from the 1890’s. Or phrases such as “…citizens saluted his charred and mangled corpse, when it was last borne to the grave.” Enjoy!
Christmas. The reputed anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, December 25, and as such one of the greatest festivals of the Protestant, Catholic, and Greek Churches. It is essentially a day of thanksgiving and rejoicing,—a day of good cheer. Though Christians celebrate it as a Christian festival, though to them it is the anniversary of the most solemn event in all history, the meeting of heaven and earth in the birth of the God-Man, the festivities that mark the epoch are part of the universal history of the race. In pagan Rome and Greece, in the days of the Teutonic barbarians, in the remote times of ancient Egyptian civilization, in the infancy of the race East and West and North and South, the period of the winter solstice was ever a period of rejoicing and festivity.
Even the Puritanism of the Anglo-Saxon has not been equal to the task of defending Yule-tide from a triumphant inroad of pagan rites and customs, so that the evangelical churchman who is shocked to see flowers decorating the sanctuaries at Easter would be sorry to miss the scarlet berries that hang there at Christmas, so that even austerest lovers of the plain-song tolerate and even weleome ” quips and cranks and wreathed smiles” in their Christmas carols, so that joviality and merrymaking are the order of the day at Christmas banquets,—a joviality sanctified and made glorious by good will to all men. Yet the holly and the mistletoe are a survival of ancient Druidical worship, the Christmas carol is a new birth, purified and exalted, of the hymns of the Saturnalia, the Christmas banquet itself is a reminiscence of the feasts given in honor of ancient gods and goddesses, when, as Cato said of the analogous feasts in imperial Rome, commemorating the birth of Cybele, the prospect that drew one thither was “not so much the pleasure of eating and of drinking as that of finding one’s self among his friends and of conversing with them.” Nay, the very idea of the Child-God, which gives its meaning to the Feast of the Nativity, was prefigured and foretold not only in the vaticinations of sibyl, seer, and prophet, but in the infant gods of the Greek, the Egyptian, the Hindoo, and the Buddhist, which in different ways showed the rude efforts of the earlier races to grasp the idea of a perfect human child who is also God.
Great as the feast is, however, nobody knows anything definite about its origin, nobody knows who first celebrated it, or when or where or how. And nobody even knows if December 25 be indeed the right anniversary of Christ’s nativity. Continue reading
1529: The Siege of Vienna: Austrians fend off a Turkish invasion of Vienna, halting the tide of Ottoman conquest across Europe. This proves to be a turning point, and counterattacks eventually drive the Ottomans from the continent. In retaliation, the Turks cease their importation of Fezzes to Europe, cursing hat-wearers to endure brimmed headwear. They also withdraw the closely-guarded Turkish technique for removing the naturally-occurring buttons of hard fabric-covered material that form at the uppermost part of hats. The haberdashiary-schism is the origin of the unwanted “squatchee” found atop today’s baseball caps. For this reason, the schoolyard trick of slapping it to produce a sharp pain is known as the “Turkish Tap.”
1582: As decribed in a previous “Today in History” the Gregorian calendar is implemented in Italy, Portugal, Poland, and Spain, causing October 15th to directly follow October 4th. On the morning of the 15th, citizens of those countries awake groggily, with the nagging feeling that they have forgotten something important. They halfheartedly do old-timey things while gazing disorientatedly from their windows or wall-holes, and rack their brains over the strange, unsteady feeling that they woke up with. Meals across the continent are punctuated by awkward conversational silences as 16th century people find themselves unable to think of things to talk about. For roughly 10 days (presumably due to the amount of time skipped on the calendar), much of Catholic Europe hangs under a cloud of vague unease.
It happens that Pope Gregory XIII pushed back implementation to October 4th over the initial choice of October 1st because he was concerned that the Cardinals would forget about his birthday which fell on the 3rd. He had a strong suspicion that they had pooled their gift money to buy him a reeeeeally special new pope hat, and he always felt that he never got what he really wanted for his birthday. But 1582 might be the best one ever if he got the hat he wanted the most in the whole world!
1864: The Battle of Glasgow is fought. This is probably exactly what it sounds like. Some kind of Scottish insurrection or something. Don’t worry about it. Who would ever name a second place after Glasgow, one of Britain’s most dismal industrial towns? And even if someone else did, it would probably be in like, Australia or Canada or something… but since nothing really happened in any non-American former British colonies prior to at least the 1960s it wouldn’t have happened there. It doesn’t matter, just move along.
1954: FORTRAN, the first high-level programming language, is released to the coding community for the first time. In 1954 the “coding community” consisted almost exclusively of men wearing horn-rimmed glasses, white short-sleeved shirts, narrow ties, and working in bright windowless rooms full of whirring machines. Developed by IBM, it was the first programming system consisting of readable statements rather than hard-coded machine language (though it still involved the use of punch cards). The first program run in FORTRAN was a sequence that would accept any input and return the statement “SEGMENTATION FAULT: NULL POINTER”
1501: Michelangelo’s second day of work on the statue of David. This is the day he started working on a certain part of the statue that you are probably very familiar with. You know the part I mean.
1752: The Gregorian calendar is adopted by Britain, finally ceasing the slipping of the equinoxes due to the imprecision of the Julian calendar. The transition requires skipping 11 days, meaning that Sept. 14th followed Sept. 2nd. Under the rules of the old system, years were 365.25 days long, with a leap day every forth year, but because the year is actually shorter, 365.242 days, the extra leaps had pushed equinoxes earlier and earlier since Roman times. The solution was to jump forward by length of this accumulated error, and to abolish leap days on years ending in 00, unless they were evenly divisible by 400. Because the new calendar was decreed by Pope Gregory, it’s adoption was viewed as controversial throughout the non-Catholic parts of Europe and only gradually came into effect. Irish rebels, for instance, took on the calendar as an act of anti-English defiance, celebrating Easter on the new date, switching back after being conquered, then finally re-switching back once Britain itself adopted the calendar, thus coining the term ‘Irish Easter’ to mean a breakfast of scrambled eggs with a side of rabbit bacon.
Incredibly, instead of making the change all at once, Sweden made the bizarre decision to push the calendar forward gradually by simply not having leap years between 1700 and 1740, then immediately forgot this plan in 1704 and 1708, and had leap years anyway. This all means that Sweden would spend 40 years completely out of sync with either calendar, and then still end up 2 days off their intended target. Having acknowledged the plan’s failure after having forgotten to implement it, the Swedish King Charles XII decided to give up entirely, and go back to the Julian system in a royal decree titled “Fuck the Flow of History.” Since the Swedes were now 2 days off, this was accomplished by extending the month of February by 2 days instead of 1, and meant that for the first and only time, there was a February 30th, the most depressing date in history.
Although the pre-United States adopted the new calendar as the same time as the rest of the Britishish people, the territory of Alaska experienced it following its purchase from Russia in 1867. Additionally, the International Date Line, which had originally been on the Eastern side of Alaska had to shift over the proto-state. This was accomplished at great expense and difficulty by teams of oxen, steamer vessels, and loggers, who freed the line when it became stuck on tall trees. The expense incurred by the operation is known as “Seward’s Folly” and it’s costly example is the reason that China uses only one time zone.
1901: US President William McKinley dies, having been shot one week earlier by Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz is commonly referred to as an anarchist in accounts of the assassination, however he did have some specific demands. Among them, an increase in vowel shipments to Eastern Europe*. It is an historical curiosity that Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was present at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo where the shooting took place, at Ford’s Theater when his father was killed, and an eyewitness to the assassination of James Garfield, while serving as Secretary of War. His attendance at a third shooting gave him the rare ‘Presidential Assassination Hat-Trick’ allowing him to retire from the exhausting task of following presidents around hoping someone would kill them.
1987: The Toronto Blue Jays hit 10 home runs in a single game, setting a new record. This is partially due to the fact that Canadian baseballs have an oval shape to make them more aerodynamic, as well as the field having shorter right and left field walls to accommodate the rounder, five-base Canadian baseball diamond. Interestingly, due to the metric system, the Jays only managed to score 8.5 runs in the game, due to the fact that a homer only counts for half a run throughout the Dominion.
* The recent acquisitions of Hawaii and Guam in the Spanish-American War provided the US with a surplus of vowels which it was leveraging for diplomatic favors around the turn of the century.
We need to talk about this Amish situation. Has anyone actually tried offering them a combustion engine free of charge, and seeing if they’ll just take it? Like, leave one under a tarp, turn around, close your eyes, see if it’s still there after five minutes, and if it’s not then just walk away without raising the point? Here’s why I ask: Because I just drove straight through the back of a horse-drawn buggy. Three times, actually, in three separate locations. I’m not sure why the Amish are a nocturnal people, and I’m not sure why they use such poor reflectors, although I imagine that one can only sew and churn so high a glossiness into a material. I blew right through them. Hat buckles sent asunder. Wooden shoes sailing through the air. Two thousand pounds (max) of bison meat strewn about the road. No, I don’t actually know anything about the Amish. Yes, I just cast them as Dutch Mayflower pilgrims in The Oregon Trail. I got as far as typing “amish wiki” into the Google bar and then decided, fuck it, I’m on vacation.
As long as we’re on the subject, here is the rest of the mosaic stereotype:
- Master Chocolatiers
- Hunting turkey with blunderbusses
- Windmills, which turn water wheels, which turn other, smaller windmills
- Constantly repelling Shawnee raiding parties
- Owning Ikea
- Pop culture representations include The Lollipop Guild, and at least one of the locations in The Bourne Identity
And here are some outstanding questions I’d like answered:
- How was Hans Christian Andersen Amish when they aren’t allowed to read or whatever?
- How did my 3G work so well during my entire trip through their [reservation? stronghold? protectorate?]
- What is their take on Jeff Ireland as GM of the Dolphins? Do they squarely blame Tannehill for the team’s ridiculous performance against Houston, or is it an all-around shoddy offense?
Yes the Ohio trip is going great so far. I’m going to go lay down so that a train can wake me up in an hour, every hour, forever.
1306: St Nicholas of Tolentino dies. Today is to become his feast day, an annual remembrance of the times he resurrected hundreds of dead children, (they were confused and hungry, and their parents barely cared because it was the 13th century), and the time he saved a burning palace by throwing some “blessed bread” on the flames. Firefighters in subsequent years attempt to understand and replicate the ingredients of ‘blessed bread’ with little success. Most inquiry focused around getting the essence of Catholicism into the yeast. The last notable attempt is made by a 15th century fire brigade, found to be responsible for grinding up the preserved hand of St Benedict to bake a loaf of this so-called ’emergency bread.’ Because the authorities successfully manage to burn them at the stake, St Nicolas’s feat goes unrepeated to this day.
1823: Simón Bolívar becomes President of Peru. He sighs heavily— it wasn’t the one he really wanted.
1858: George Mary Searle, overcoming a childhood of taunts based on his middle name, discovers the asteroid 55 Pandora from an observatory in Albany, NY. Little does he realize that nearly 300 years later, Marines from the Space Expeditionary Command, Ultra-Capitalist Division, will land on the rock and prepare to begin mining blue-skinned metaphors for living in harmony with nature. They will be disappointed to find that the barren, airless environment supports no life whatsoever, and leave before discovering that the object contains an untold wealth of Unobtainium, one of the MacGuffin Series semi-metals from the Fictional Periodic Table.
1939: Nine days after the outbreak of hostilities against Poland, Canada declares war on Nazi Germany. Having prepared for this eventuality, Himmler reports back to the Führer that the Germany’s stocks of maple syrup, beaver fur, and Labatt Blue are in full supply and they decide to proceed with their planned genocide and world domination.
1967: Gibraltar holds a plebiscite on whether to remain a British territory, or be ruled by Spain. Although voting to remain under UK control by a margin of 99%-0.36%, the possibility of voting irregularities were never conclusively disproved. If Gibraltar had required voter ID there is no telling how many Barbary macaque monkeys would have been prevented from subverting the true will of the people.
2001: Conspiracy theorists wonder to themselves about why they haven’t had a good conspiracy for a while. Sure, there was the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Queen getting those fake paparazzi to kill Princess Diana, but neither of those had the same panache as those really great ones from the 60’s. JFK, RFK, the Moon Landing. The sixties had it. Don’t get them wrong, there is nothing wrong with Elvis sightings, Big Pharma creating AIDS, and the Challenger explosion, but back then, the secret one-world government knew how to make an impression. Killing Paul McCartney and replacing him with a robot? Fluoridating everyone’s water? Classics. While brushing their teeth, they wish to themselves that something terrifying and significant would happen that could make them feel that way again— then sigh and go to bed.