Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Let the Belt-Loosening Begin: A History of Thanksgiving

We all know the drill. Just days from now, your relatives will invade like a crazed faction of clowns on a pie convention. Yes, Uncle Buford WILL talk about his colonoscopy at the dinner table, Aunt Bertha WILL unceremoniously re-arrange your decorations, and the Staler kids WILL ruin your new carpet through a series of carefully planned chex-mix attacks...and you will love every minute of it. After all, this isn't your typical, run-of-the-mill holiday - this is THANKSGIVING folks, and all bets are off. That diet you started after recovering from your Halloween sugar coma? Gone. Your jeans from two years ago you swore you would fit into again by Christmas? Ain't gonna happen. Might as well sit back, relax, and let the mouth-stuffing begin in all it's American apple-pie-with-three-scoops-of-vanilla-and-chocolate-syrup glory.

But where does it come from? Oh sure, we all know that there was something about a group of people with weird hats and another group who didn't really invite them over, yet at some point decided to throw a giant cooked bird and some yams their way....but where does it come from really? Who authorized this thing? And what are the bets that cousin Bart will eat all the rhubarb pie in one sitting? Well, pull up that recliner lever and grab the yams - here are some facts to get you up to speed.

- The "first" Thanksgiving, as you probably guessed, is a point of contention. Spanish settlers under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés held a thanksgiving mass and feast on September 8, 1565 after landing in St. Augustine, Florida. Technically, this was the first recorded "Thanksgiving" on what is now American soil, but ask any mom who watched her kid rehearse for two weeks in a giant, somewhat frightening turkey outfit, and you're likely to receive skepticism. You can decide for yourself.

- The Thanksgiving at Jamestown is another contender. You see folks, a long time ago, in a land, well...not so far away, a group of settlers showed up at "Berkeley Hundred" (December 4, 1619) - a site about 20 minutes upstream from Jamestown. It was declared (possibly with a drumroll) that every year the date of arrival would be a day of "Thanksgiving" to God. Now, were there groups of passed out men on couches with gravy drool running down their faces? Again, you can decide.

- The Plymouth Thanksgiving, or as the Pilgrim marketing people used to say "The Big Gut Buster" (tm), is seen by some as the more direct ancestor of our modern holiday. Here's what we know: The Pilgrims had a successful harvest in 1621 (sound of Pilgrims whooping and high-fiving). There was a Native American named Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn and catch eels ("go Squaaanto, go Squaaanto, you're a rooock star!"). The Pilgrims had themselves a big old feast, with plenty of fowl and deer - and there WERE Native Americans present, including King Massasoit, who according to English sources helped save the Plymouth colony from starvation (Massasoit stands on a cliff with a full chorus singing). So yes, there is SOME truth to the classroom plays for the last 50 years. All that paper mache and vicious fighting for the leading Pilgrim role was worth it.

- Thanksgiving began to catch on. The party-crazed Puritans over at the Massachusetts Bay Colony began a Thanksgiving day in 1630, and the good folks at Charleston, Massachusetts "cranked it up" (said with English accent) in 1671. Did they dance the Macarena while doing jello shots? Well, no - it was a day of spiritual observation - but Thanksgiving was here, and like the 2 tons of turkey leftovers in your freezer - it was here to stay.

- So when did it become official? Well, during the Revolutionary War (or the war of Harry Potter-Sounding-Scone-Eating-Aggression) the Continental Congress declared a day of Thanksgiving in 1777. In 1789 ol' George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving (the first one by the National Government) for the 26th Day of November. But it wasn't until Abraham "I Wish Big and Tall Stores Had Been Invented" Lincoln that things began to solidify. In 1863 He declared it should be observed the "last Thursday in November. This went on for about 8 decades, until Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill officially making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

- Canadian Thanksgiving Day? What? Yes, Canada has it's very own Thanksgiving Day the second Monday of October. I mean, isn't that CUTE? (sudden hate mail from geese) Here is the two cent history (in Canadian money): Martin Frobisher was trying to find a northern passage. Fails. Starts settlement around Newfoundland. 1578 has ceremony to give thanks. Boom - Canadian Thanksgiving. Don't try stuffing the moose.

- Whats with the Turkey and Sweet Potatoes? Well, take a look at the traditional Thanksgiving meal and something interesting pops out - most of the food, cranberries, corn, sweet potatoes, etc, are either native to the Americas or brought here by the early settlers. That's right, we may be passed out afterward, but we are passed out AMERICAN style.

- What about that Parade thing? The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Started in 1924 by workers of the company. In 1927 Goodyear threw in Felix the Cat as a giant balloon, and the rest is Helium history. Over the years we've seen Kermit, Bugs, Mickey, Garfield, and even Willard Scott...although he wasn't tethered.

- Black Friday, or as some like to call it "Give-Me-That-New-Toy-Model-Or-Die" Day, is supposed to be the official start of the Christmas season. For those that have been subjected to looped elevator Christmas music at Lowes since August, this is of course ridiculous a joke, but tell that to a 10-foot inflatable Rudolph. The term "Black Friday" was given by the Philadelphia police in the 1960s in reference to the traffic jams and mob-like crowds. Why is it so busy? Well, most of us have off work, AND we have enough carbs in us to kill a small horse - makes sense, really.

So there you have it. Thanksgiving is indeed as American as, well, five or six helpings of apple pie. So, don't worry about the commercialism, the hectic pace, or the in-law arguments. In the end, we are all in this together, and if we truly give thanks for what really matters, we may just earn our seat at the adult table...and possibly an extra helping of gravy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Neanderthals, Cro-Magnon, and Uncle Billy in a Deer-Skin Tube-Top

The idea hit you like a catapulted Dodo bird. You were at the Natural History Museum the other day, and you couldn't help but notice a striking resemblance between the Neolithic Man display and half of your in-laws. The Alpha Male, spearing a 15 foot Mammoth in the buttocks, bore a striking resemblance to your brother-in-law waiting in line at the barbecue. Same gaping mouth, same crazed eyes, same thick, sweat-filled back-hair.

"But" you openly cry into the air, beckoning to the great tourist spirit "I thought we were genetically different than our ancestors! I mean, how long have humans been, well, humans? Isn't there something about Neanderthals being pushed out? And most importantly, did cave-women wear leather bikinis?"

These are all interesting questions, and in order to save you from future embarrassing outbursts at the museum, here are some facts for you. Well, facts depending on who you talk to.

- How old are we? It depends on how you look at it. Homo sapiens as a distinct species started appearing approximately 200,000 years ago, however there are millions of years of protohumans running amok before this. Australopithecus, a group of hominids which existed as early as 4 million years ago, were considered for a long time our ancestors, however there is debate about the actual direct connection. Homo Habilis, the earliest fellows in our particular genus, began appearing about 2.4 million years. So where do "we" begin? Perhaps it depends on whether or not you would date a 4-foot hominid with no car. At any rate, probably your safest bet is to say "Homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago" and hope the early hominids aren't offended.

- How long have our ancestors walked upright? Probably somewhere between 4 and 6 million years (those early hominids again). Walking, of course, was invented when "Ook-Ook the Flea Master" tried to impress the good-looking hairy chick down the way. This led to the first "romantic walk on the beach," which ended in disaster as the couple was dragged screaming into the sea by a now-extinct species of sea-cow.

- Tools: How long have we been using them? The earliest stone tools we have found date to around 2.5 million years ago. There may have been bone tools used earlier, but this guessed it...debated!

- Fire: How long? Fast forward a million years, lots of evolution, lots of crazed whooping, and around 1.5 million years ago we started using fire - or more accurately one of our ancestors, Homo erectus, did (hey, no smirking at the name).

- Clothing? Unknown. There are estimates of between 100,000 and 600,000 years ago. However, it is known that the first childish tantrum thrown by a fashion designer followed the very next day.

- Neanderthals: What are they? Okay - now pay attention. Neanderthals started appearing around 250,000 years ago. It is confusing because Homo sapiens started appearing around the same time (remember - 200,000 years ago), and we share many similar characteristics. There is a debate over whether Neanderthals are a subspecies of human, or a completely separate species. However the current consensus is that they are indeed separate, we just shared a common ancestor.

- Cro-Magnon: What are they? Cro-Magnon are indeed modern human, they are simply the group that lived in Europe, named after the cave in France where the first fossil was found. got your first Homo sapiens appearing in Africa around 200,000 BC, they hang out there for awhile, then about 50,000 BC they start migrating out. The ones that went to Europe? We call 'em Cro-Magnon.

- Did modern humans and Neanderthals come into contact? Yes. there is evidence that in certain areas Neanderthals and modern man co-existed as modern man emigrated into their territories (50,000 BC). However, Neanderthals began slowly being pushed out, and by about 24,000 BC Neanderthals were extinct. Cooiiinciiideeeence??

- Could they mate? DNA evidence suggests no (sorry, Darryl Hanna). But, if you really wanted to, you could have a nice evening with a Cro-Magnon. Ladies, talk about your "real" man (don't put fingers near mouth)

- What exactly then, is a "caveman?" This is simply a pop-culture term for early hominids, particularly Neanderthals and Cro-Magnan. It is not used in scientific terminology, unless the professor actual caveman.

- So, did they...(drum-roll) in caves? Well, if there was a good one around, sure. There are lots of archaeological sites in caves, or overhanging rocks for shelter. But they also had huts made of branches and animal skins, and weren't "confined" to caves. As the Cro-Magnon used to say "Hut good. Cave Better. Cave with jacuzzi, best."

I know what you are thinking. 'This is all well and good, Jarod, but what about the cavewomen in leather bikinis?!' I'm sorry to report that there is no evidence of bikinis. There is, however, evidence of leopard speedos invented by Gakk-Gakk the Impressive (made out of actual leopards). Ironically, it may have been the tight-fitting speedo which drove the Neanderthals to extinction by causing the females to throw themselves off cliffs in masses. To be sure, something happened to the Neanderthals, and it wasn't pretty.

At any rate, the next time you are visiting your in-laws, have pity. They can't help the grunting, the bad posture, or the odor. They are the result of millions of years of evolution, and guess what, millions of years from now they will be saying the same thing about us. At least, as long as the leopard speedo stays in Europe.

Friday, April 27, 2012

So May Day...What's The History?

It's an all too familiar scenario. You are sleeping and comfortable, snuggled in your bed while dreaming wondrous visions. Perhaps you are a fairy, flying about with your perky little wings, 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 an old school 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.

- 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, join the celebration this year - now that's truly old school!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Why Easter Eggs? Some History....

Well all know the story. A giant rabbit, possibly escaped from a mental hutch, runs amok and plants eggs for children to find. We're sure he means well, but why colored eggs? What's going ON here, anyway? Who is this rabbit, and why is he terrorizing the local chickens with his egg-stealing racket? Well, here are a few fun-facts to put your mind at ease.

- Like many holiday traditions, decorated eggs go further back than the holiday itself. Both eggs and rabbits are ancient symbols of fertility (rabbits tend to mate like, well, rabbits). The Persians painted eggs for their New Years celebration, which for them fell around the Spring Equinox (Humpty Dumpty's favorite Halloween costume? "Persian Egg").

- The inclusion of eggs may have emerged to symbolize the ending of lent, since some Christian groups prohibited eggs and dairy products during the period.

- Legend has it that Mary Magdalene presented the Roman Emperor with a red-colored egg, symbolizing Christ's breaking out of his tomb and his blood saving the world.

- Although the origins of the Easter Bunny are not clear, the big fellow began showing up in the United States around the 18th century. The Pennsylvania Dutch called him "Osterhase", which aside from being far more cool sounding, indicates his identification in their tradition as a "hare" rather than rabbit. Unfortunately, Elmer Fudd is currently in hunting litigation and unavailable for comment.

- There are modern references to the Germanic Goddess Eostre concerning the Easter Bunny. According to the ancient writer Bede, Eostre and her worship is the origin of the name "Easter". A recent Pagan tradition tells of Eostre finding a wounded bird in the snow, then transforming it into a rabbit so it can survive. However, it retained the ability to lay eggs (Platypus quoted by friends as "totally jealous").

- The White House Easter Egg Roll dates back at least to the early 19th century. Dolley Madison may have first suggested doing a public egg-roll, although the first official White House Lawn Egg Roll took place in 1878. Today, hundreds of kids hit the lawn each year in a fun-filled celebration, safe in the knowledge that the Easter Bunny is thoroughly frisked by Homeland Security.

Well, that's all for now. There is more to the story, of course, but who needs that when there are chocolate bunnies out there? What are you waiting for...those cute little bunnies are staring at you, aren't they? Their delicious little ears are poking out, beckoning. You want those ears. You need those ears. It is useless to resist...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

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

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.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Dragonscale Custom Vampire Stake

Here is my latest custom vampire stake. I decided to incorporate dragon scales into it because, well, sometimes one needs dragon scales... (Zebrawood with Tung-oil finish)