Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Great Halloween Post of 2009

(Update: My Article below was published in the Staunton Newsleader in their "Go" section. Thanks guys!)

Oh is here. The Great Pumpkin is getting fatter as we speak, the owls are practicing their best sinister looks (over the shoulder is in this year), and the store-owners are cackling and wringing their knotted hands as we buy the latest in hip plastic-tombstones. Yes! We are stocking up on mountains of sugar-rush, pre-packaged joy to unload in mass to the glucose-charged, screaming hoards of pudgy ninjas and historically inaccurate pirates....even the fruit supplies are running low from the old couples who always give away apples, thinking they are somehow saving the children (every street has one).

Oh, we are loading up on miles and miles of colored plastic and cheap, lead-filled, Chinese-imported face paint. The kids mouths are drooling like Pavlovian dogs, their fat little bellies shaking in anticipation. The greatest holiday in the history of holidays is arriving in all its spandex glory, and America, as always, has put it's own unique, neon-green-sparkled twist on the ancient celebration. But where does Halloween come from? Did people always dress up? And what is with that figure standing behind you right now as you read this? (Whatever you do, don't turn around, seriously)

Well, it turns out a lot of the Halloween traditions are oldies, as in "what is that stuff called 'iron'?" oldies. And you thought the whole "ladies-dress-naughtily-as-a-way-to-express-that-desire-yet-not-be-condemned-by-society" was a new fad, didn't you? Nope, it goes back quite a ways (more on that later). At any rate here is a brief history of Halloween. And hey, I want credit for not using any Halloween puns, such as "a brief hisssstory of Halloween"....whoops, I just did it. I witch I hadn't done that. I mean, I wish I hadn't done bat. I mean...oh never mind.

- Where does Halloween come from? Well, the ancient Celts believed winter began November 1st (or around thereof). In modern Gaelic this day is called "Samhain" (meaning end of summer). The beginning of winter was regularly associated with death, and was also the time for slaughtering animals for the winter. For the Celts, the eve before - October 31st - was when the separation between the living and the dead became obscured. Burial mounds were opened, and the spirits could aid the druids in predicting food stores for the coming winter. The Celts would perform rituals such as lighting bonfires to keep bad spirits from crossing over. And so it began...

- All Saints Day - what is the connection? Okay, now pay attention - All Saints Day is a Christian celebration which celebrates Saints and Martyrs. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV placed the holiday guessed it....November 1st. This meant that All Saints Day and Saimhain fell on the same day. NOW, All Saints Day is also known as "All Hallows Day", and since October 31st is the evening before, Halloween was derived from "All Hallow Even." If this isn't confusing enough for you, look up the whole Florentine Calendar thing and how they measured the day starting at sunset. Loads of fun!

- Why costumes? One version is that people dressed up as spirits so they could "blend in" with the real spirits (remember the living and dead line was obscured). In addition, "All Souls Day", which falls the day after All Saints Day (confuuuuused yet?) was celebrated with costumes and parades. The traditions of these holidays seemed to overlap with time.

- Bobbing for apples - what exactly is going ON there? When the Romans took over much of Celtic Britain, their holidays began to incorporate themselves. A Roman Holiday celebrating the Goddess Pomona fell in late October, and her symbol was....wait for apple! Okay, so the connection is weak - just stick your head in the bucket and don't ask questions, I always say.

- When did it come to America? The Puritans, or "The Badly Dressed Party Poopers" as the Indians called them, banished Halloween (along with pretty much everything else). However, Americans being Americans, we slowly began to get our groove on, and the traditions popular in Europe made their way to the colonies. Early celebrations included dancing, story-telling, and of course crazed, pumpkin-wielding headless horsemen.

- Speaking of pumpkins - The tradition of carving vegetables into lanterns goes way back in Britain and Ireland. The Irish would carve turnips into faces on Halloween as a prank - it is possible they brought this tradition with them to America, finding pumpkins to be more plentiful. In addition, pumpkins happen to ripen around Halloween, much to the delight of testosterone-fueled, fire-cracker brandishing male adolescents (guilty!).

- Why "Trick or Treat"? Well, it seems on All Souls Day Christians would beg for "soul cakes" which were square pieces of bread. The beggars would then say prayers for the donor's deceased relatives. In addition, Irish in America were particularly "prank-prone" on Halloween, blaming mischief on the spirits roaming about. "Trick or Treat" seems to be an evolution of going door to door in combination with a general prank-friendly atmosphere. This is before people sued for "ghost-costume-shock-trauma", of course.

- Mischief Night? In the US, Mischief Night falls on the 30th. For those that don't know (or were never a teenager) mischief night is like distilling the pranks of Halloween into a pure, potent form the night before. Again, this is likely an evolution of various prank traditions, although the severity of it varies from region to region. A notable modern Mischief Night occurs in Detroit, where it is known as "Devil's Night".

- The whole "sexy" costume phenomenon - is it new? Halloween may be the one night a year where women can show off as much as they want at the company party and no one has a heart-attack. Interestingly, there is a long tradition of this. For example, during the Regency period women of status could put on "shows" where they dance and dress scantily - all in the name of art. Another example is benefit concerts done by woman's charity organizations, where they can wear "showgirl" costumes, show off a little leg, etc. A chance to let loose and not be tsk-tsked by old-lady Marge from the yacht club. And so the tradition continues!

- The old "razor blade in the apple" - is it true? Well, yes and no. It seems there have been cases of razor blades in apples, but they are somewhat suspect and possibly hoaxes. It is true that in 2004 James Smith in Minneapolis was charged with putting needles in children's candy. However, these instances are much rarer than popular legend has it.

- What about some other customs?

~ After bobbing for apples, if you peel the apple and throw it over your shoulder it might form your Love's initial. Particularly good if his name is in Klingon.

~ To protect your children from spirits, try sprinkling a little salt in their hair (Note: Do not do this before sending to a man-eating troll).

~ Mexico celebrates "Dia De Los Muertos" or "Day of the Dead" on November 1st and 2nd. It is an interesting mix of old and modern cultures.

~ A variation of the bobbing for apples is to hang it on a string, or use a fork in your mouth (Also great if you run out of black-eye makeup).

~ In Ireland, women would put slugs in a plate of flour. The subsequent shape in the flour from the moving slugs would supposedly make the face of your future love. This is probably more useful in divorce cases.

~ In Scotland, children "guise", or walk from house to house and perform a song, poem or other way to earn the treat. Imagine American kids having to earn anything? I can hear the lawyers shuffling their papers now.

- So Jarod, what are you wearing this year? I'm not telling! But it may involve some sort of...(message cut off)

Well folks, that is all for now. There is so much more, and I encourage you all to do some research into Halloween's history. In the meantime, close your windows, light your candles, and please......don't give away fruit.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Transylvanian Archaeological Dig

Ok folks, I just did a dig in Transylvania. Our accommodations were tents, we were digging in a Dacian fort, there were Gypsies (who stole the camp's beer one day), roving sheep, bears, caves, suspicious villagers, and ancient ruins. Suffice to say I loved it. I am not paler, but I do have a craving for meat. At any rate, the awesomenessism of the place is best relayed through the wonders of photography:

(Above) Our campsite and digging in a bronze-age trench

The local village of Racos, omplete with haywagons!

Bran Castle!

Of course I went fishing!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fun Things to do If Caught in a Time Matrix are walking down the street, minding your own business, when suddenly you are caught in a time matrix and thrust back into 10th century England. That's right, you should be prepared for this sort of thing - you never know when that old time matrix will come a knockin'. Well, what do you do? Do you despair, cowering in some corner, lamenting your wretched circumstances? Do you curse the day you picked up a history text, knowing full well the karma of your constant academic study has created this vortex? NO, I say! I say it's time to take over England with a little thing called GUNPOWDER. This is, of course, assuming you somehow learn old English, avoid being killed, and get over being sick from the food. Oh , and you also manage to make connections with some military faction or man of high position which enables it's manufacture. But that aside, here's what you can do:

15 parts Saltpeter, 3 parts Sulfur, and 2 parts Charcoal in a mixture. Combine slowly and in small quantities. As everyone knows, there will inevitably be a hunchback assistance who peers too close with a candle. Simply move his hand away, shaking your head slowly. Try grimacing for maximum effect.

First, of course, you must find or make the ingredients:

- Charcoal. Just get some wood, set it on fire, and cover it with dirt. Let smolder. Incidentally this will also impress the in-laws at next year's barbecue.

- Sulfur. This was rare, but was around. Typically you could find it at hot springs, so maybe take a trip to Bath, England. Alchemists would often have it. You might try asking for "brimstone" - (I know, I know - find out the 10th century vernacular). The good thing is you will know it when you smell it!

- Saltpeter. Saltpeter is that crusty white material found on top of manure-soil or in caves. Sometimes you can find it in tombs and such. On a recent trip to Rome, I saw it all over the catacombs. Heck, the early Christians could have destroyed Rome if they knew what it could do (the iconoclasts would have loved it!). If you want, you can mix a bunch of hay with manure and wood ash, cover, urinate on it occasionally (yep) and let sit for a year. Then strain it with water and crystallize.

Now that you have the gunpowder, the ladies will flock, the hats will be tipped, mutton will fly, and....oh wait, you don't know how to make a gun. Well, get yourself a nice round jig, and start forging the iron around...oh never mind - at least you can tell yourself you accomplished something as the crazed mob chases your tall, well-groomed, non-flea ridden butt out of town.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day

It's an all too familiar scenario. You are sleeping and comfortable, snuggled in your bed while dreaming wondrous and exotic visions. Perhaps you are a fairy, flying about with your perky little wings, possibly sprinkling some sort of radiant dust. Or maybe you just received a parachute package from your luxurious CEO job, relaxing on the beach as your colleagues are unanimously arrested. Or, perhaps, your band just signed with Atlantic records, and....and....Suddenly your cellphone ringtones the latest Kevin Federline masterpiece, waking you crudely from your slumber. It is, of course, your mother.

"It's time!" she says gleefully, "Go wash your face in the dew!"

You groan. You resist. But in the end, you drag yourself up, stumble out in the backyard, and wash your face in the crisp morning dew. It is, after all May Day, and who are you to break hundreds of years of tradition?

"But what IS May Day?" you ask, beckoning into the burning hue of the rising sun. "Where does it come from - and what's with that GIANT POLE?"

Well, here are a few items to ponder as your your face dries. It should be noted that May Day is somewhat elusive - some of these may be more legend than historical fact. Perhaps the thing to do is just take a Valium and go with it.

- May Day celebrations go back to pre-Christian Europe, particularly with the Celtic Beltane celebration and the Germanic Walpurgis-Night. Beltane marked the beginning of the Gaelic pastoral season, and involved dancing around fires, baking cakes and burning effigies. Walpurgis coincides with an older Germanic holiday, but is named after St. Walburga, the Abbess of the monastery in Heidenheim who died in 779 AD. Celebrations included bonfires and singing. Both celebrations were notoriously rockous and may be the origin of the phrase "BYOM" (Bring Your Own Mead).

- The maypole is possibly a phallic symbol originally associated with the worship of Germanic figures such a Freyr. However, a more likely association is with the Yggdrasil or "World Tree" linking various realms in Norse Mythology. To be sure, Germanic peoples had an affinity for giant trees such as Thor's Oak and massive carving decorations. As Gorgok the Pig-Enthusiast used to say, "Sometimes a pole is just a pole."

- In Sweden, the maypole is called "Midsommarstång," and usually appears as a cross with two rings hanging from the cross-beams. The pole is considered male, and the rings female. No symbolism to see here (wink), please move on.

- Common maypole-dancing is ancient and dates to the early pagan festivals. However, the ribbon dancing most associated with it today originated in the 18th century, deriving from French and Italian art dances which spread to England.

- May Day is half a year from November 1st, which is associated with the pagan festival of Samhain. This is just a little random info for the loin-cloth-frolicker in you.

- As Europe transitioned into the Christian era (or the "Great-Last-Call," as the Pagans say), the traditions of May Day became increasingly secularized. The Puritans in England, of course, outlawed Maypole dancing, but as soon as Cromwell was out Maypoles sprung up across London like a giant Chia Pet.

- The May 1st "Roodmas" took place in England at midnight every year. A Christian mass, it's likely origin was to counter the pagan traditions still ingrained in the population. The legend spread that witches and warlocks gathered on May 1st to honor the devil and diminish Christian sacraments. But then, up in the sky, along came....Roodmas!

- The May Queen, or the Goddess of Spring, is a symbol of the power of nature (Led Zeppelin unavailable for comment). It is unknown how long celebrations have been crowning a May Queen, but the tradition continues to this day in many parades and festivities. Depending on the city, the May Queen may or may not be female.

- The tradition of washing ones face in the morning dew possibly goes back to Beltane, and is said to restore beauty and revive freshness. As Mother Goose famously said: "The fair maid who, the first of May, Goes to the fields at break of day, And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree, Will ever after handsome be." Although first marketed as "Ye Olde Botoxe," the morning dew industry had to shut down from numerous lawsuits by dissatisfied Countesses.

- May Day celebrations spread to the Americas, and remained a steady part of American holiday tradition. Some parts of the United States adopted the custom of weaving baskets and placing them outside the door filled with candy. If anyone still does this, please contact me and send the candy-filled basket as proof.

- In the last century, May Day is also celebrated as "International Workers Day", associated with the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago. In 1889 the congress of the Second International in Paris called for a demonstration to commemorate the Chicago riots. Since then, May Day was been sort of a focal point for labor demonstrations as well as various worker's riots. Although there may not be a lot of prancing going on, they certainly get points for enthusiasm.

- The distress call "Mayday" comes from the french word "m'aider". It was chosen by Fred Mockford in 1923 when asked to think of a distress signal. Incidentally, it has absolutely nothing to do with May 1st (but spawned a cool nickname for Grace Jones' James Bond character).

- In Hawaii, May Day is also known as "Lei Day." In 1928 Don Blanding suggested creating a holiday for the Hawaiian custom of wearing Lei. Since then, Lei Day has been a major celebration of Hawaiian culture.

- Common May Day celebrations today include the traditional as well as the new. Parades, pageants, and public dances have translated the ancient traditions into modern terms. At the high school May Day dances, kids may not get their "groove on" in exactly the same way, but in essence they are following a tradition many hundreds of years old. This is fun information to share with students, and is sure to get an enthusiastic response of "Like, whatever."

Today May Day is a major holiday throughout the world. Although not vastly celebrated in the United States, elements such as May dances and general celebrations have manifested into our common culture. Whether you wash your face in the dew, dance around your co-workers in a loin cloth, or erect a giant pole in your front lawn, try joining the celebration this year - I promise the Puritans can no longer throw you in jail. Well...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Leprechans With Botox: The History Of Saint Patrick's Day In America

(Thanks to the Charlottesville Daily Progress for publishing my article)

It wasn't your fault. You had no idea traditional Irish music consisted of synth-guitars and double-bass drum kits until you went to the local "pub" and found out through a series of electrified power rifts. "The Verdant Braes Of Skreen," apparently, is traditionally screamed into the microphone while wearing a pair of leather chaps - dyed green of course. You also didn't know that the best way to honor America's legacy of Irish ancestry was to drink as much green beer as possible while howling incoherent phrases with a bunch of fat guys. Arm in arm, frothing, stumbling - it all starts to make sense. Eventually, it seems reasonable that not only did leprechauns exist, but they did indeed have PR agents. Yes, "Shamrock Shakes" are deeply historical, and yes, Saint Patrick would have wanted it that way...if you could remember who he was.

'Wait a minute,' you think to yourself after Jean-Pierre from accounting shows up in a green beret, 'what is this St. Patrick's Day thing anyway, and why do we celebrate it?' Well, here are a few highlights to win that next 3:00 am bar-bet:

- Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Britain in 389 A.D. His father Calpornius was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest (note: do not mention British ancestry in actual Irish pub)

- At the age of 16, Patrick was captured by pirates and sold into slavery for six years. Being sold into slavery was generally considered "a real bummer", but luckily Patrick had the gift of vision. He "saw" the ship that directed him to his escape, leading him to France where he became a priest (for God's Sake, do not mention the "French thing")

- Much later in life, Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary with the vision to convert the Irish to Christianity. This may be seen as the "ultimate mid-life crisis," although it should be noted that red sports-carriages weren't involved. Through preaching, working with royal families, and setting up monasteries, Patrick was extremely successful in his mission.

- Patrick's missionary work upset many Celtic Druids, and he was arrested several times during his tenure. To make matters worse, he was constantly sued by animal-rights groups for his "anti-snake" theories.

- Patrick died on March 17, 461. Upon learning this, many Americans are amazed at the coincidence that he "actually died on ST. Patrick's Day". By the seventh century Patrick had become the patron saint of Ireland and recognized as the founder of Irish Christianity. The Druids, of course, referred to him as "Mr. Big-Party-Pooper".

- The Irish celebrated St. Patrick's Day as a religious holiday, although it became increasingly secular and proclaimed an Irish public holiday by the Bank Holiday Act in 1903. In many parts of Ireland, it is still considered largely a religious holiday.

- Irish Immigrants brought the traditions of St. Patrick's day to the 13 colonies as early as the 18th century. The first public celebration took place in Boston in 1737, with the tradition spreading to New York by 1756. These early celebrations were mostly upper-class, although belching loudly and rude scratching were still encouraged.

- The first New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade took place in 1762 by Irish troops in the British Army.

- In 1780, George Washington allowed his troops of Irish descent to take holiday on March 17, becoming known as the "St. Patrick Day Encampment." Some say the "British-fop-joke" record set that night is unbeaten to this day.

- In 1827 restrictions on Irish emigration were lifted by the British government - by 1835 over 30,000 Irish had come to the United States. Politicians across the country held hands and formed an actual shark-circle as they swarmed in on the new voting block. St. Patrick's Day become a mandatory endorsement for any politician hoping to win office.

- With the large number of uneducated and impoverished immigrants, "Irish Aid Societies" formed in major cities, each one holding their own celebration with music, dancing, or parades. Eventually, many of these societies merged their festivities, giving root to the larger celebrations seen today.

- During the 20th century, St. Patrick's Day took on an increasingly commercialized tone in the US. As celebrations spread, various industries seized upon the incredible marketing potential, altering their goods to reflect support of the unofficial holiday. Green Beer, Shamrock Shacks, Leprechaun Toilet-Paper - everything became fair game. Eventually, St. Patrick's Day came to be celebrated by everyone, regardless of nationality. This is generally considered a good thing, giving people an excuse to kiss multiple co-workers.

- In the 1970's St. Patrick's Day took on an activist tone, with various charity fund-raising and attention to the troubles in Ireland. In the 1980's gay-rights organizations protested the parade in New York, run by the "Ancient order of Hibernians." The Hibernians refused to let them march, giving a hand-circle with two snaps to the right.

- In 1998 Bill Clinton invited political parties of the Irish conflict to Washington for a peace initiative, resulting in the Good Friday Accord which called for sharing political power in Northern Ireland. Clinton gave FOUR snaps to the right followed by a full-on head-bob.

Today, America's St. Patrick's Day celebration is one of the largest celebrations in the world. With Irish and non-Irish alike united in the common cause of drinking cheap beer and thinking of excuses to miss work the next day, St. Patrick's Day has taken on a uniquely American meaning. For better or worse, we have taken it, loaded it into Bubba's shotgun, and blown it far across our amber waves of grain. And that is what we do. Were else can you eat green tofu and not throw up half an hour later?

In the end, despite it's shameless commercialism and 20-foot styrofoam clovers, St. Patrick's Day has somehow managed to unite us. Go to the bar on the 17th, take a look around. We are all there, all Americans, laughing together, telling stories, getting along for at least one brief moment.

Yes, St. Patrick may be turning over in his grave, but I like to think that he's doing so with just a hint of a smile.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Romance in a Mass-Produced Envelope: The History of Valentine's Day

It could be the most important decision of your life. You stand there, pale and sweating, your eyes besieged by the endless aisles of red-satin boxes and cheaply-made plastic flower bouquets. Should you go with chocolate, or is that "so 2008"? Should there be roses, tulips, or carnations....hmmmm, which one of those is for funerals? And didn't a commercial just inform you that you are completely worthless unless you buy some sort of chain with a series of pretty rocks attached? My GOD, What do you do?

You begin to convince yourself that a nice set of fishing lures will last longer, AND have the added benefit of creating quality time for the two of you. Yeah, that's right - fishing lures! But wait, something is telling you..yes, there is definitely a distinct part of your primitive brain that is actually resisting this new theory. Your face flushes, your hands twitch, your feet begin sweating with frustrated vigor.

"Wait a minute!" you exclaim, "What has led me to this loathsome circumstance? What monstrous alchemy of human mechanism evolved itself into these wretched circumstances? Whose idea WAS this, Anyway!!'

Well, noble explorer of bath-stores and cheap seasonal holiday carts, here are some highlights from the bounteous and scented history of Valentine's Day:

- The ancient world often associated mid-February with fertility. The Roman holiday of Lupercalia was held on February 15 to purify new life and increase fertility. The Greek Month of Gamelion was dedicated to the blessed marriage of Zeus and Hera (without swan references, of course).

- 23,019 BC Gogak the Hog-Killer was the first to romance his potential mate by picking flowers. Although poisonous and resulting in an embarrassing rash, the flowers were appreciated and spun the phrase "It's the almost-thought that kind-of counts"

- 100 AD Valentinius of Alexandria was born. An early Bishop of Rome, Valentinius believed that the marriage chamber was actually important, causing numerous huffs and puffs and an occasional fainting.

- 496 Pope Gelasius I declared the "Feast of St. Valentine", referring to an earlier martyred saint (different than Valentinius) whose birth and death are not confirmed. Little is known about this early saint, although it may be a priest who was executed in the 3rd century by Cladius II. Incidentally, no cards were sent.

- 1382 Chaucer writes the first recorded correlation of Valentine's day with romantic love in his "Parlement of Foules". It is possible that the traditions of modern Valentines Day did not exist before Chaucer's writing, but rather started to come into their own around this time.

- Earliest surviving Valentine was a poem written by Charles the Duke of Orleans to his wife in 1415. Of course, being imprisoned in the Tower of London tends to bring out the romantic in you.

- English settlers bring the concept of Valentines day to North America in the 19th century. Hundreds of chocolate executives gathered in a dark room to laugh maniacally and rub their hands together (with actual organ music playing in the background).

- The first mass-production of Valentine cards began after 1847 by Esther Howland of Worchester, Massachusetts, whose father owned a stationary store.

- 1891 first case of "Valentine Insomnia", as New Jersey third-grader Herbert Bard debated whether Susy from school loved him based on the size of a mandatory Valentine card. Also first recorded case of broken heart by "cooties".

- 1929 In a sweeping gesture of romance, ol' softy Al Capone guns down seven members of a rival gang, forever known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

- As television and mass production sink deeply into the American psyche during the 20th century, Valentine's Day becomes increasingly associated with gifts and the gift-card industry. Some husbands claim this is good, as they can sum up all their love in one convenient, logical gesture. Other's claim this is bad because now they have to remember their anniversary AND Valentine's day. Two whole days? "What is this," they claim, "some kind of cruel joke?"

- 1980's The Diamond Industry begins actively courting the American public to associate Valentine's Day with their product. Although they aren't edible, diamonds are generally considered "interesting to look at", so the plan, of course, works.

- 2007 Valentine's Day is a worldwide phenomenon. For many, it is a day of love, generosity, and appreciation. Sappy? Yes, but heartfelt....and in the end that is all that matters.

- 2008 Sushi executives gather in secret chamber to plot their new wave of association advertisements. Coming soon: "Sushi: Because Romance is in the Guts"

Well, there you have it. Now remember, if you can't decide on a gift, try a nice set of Klingon bat'leths - both functional and practical!