Friday, October 31, 2014

A Little Halloween History...

(The Staunton Newsleader published this article I wrote in 2009)
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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

As Volunteer Firefighter Ben Franklin Said, "What's The Dealio, Yo?"

I know, I know - You've been sweating all week wondering when, oh WHEN will somebody post some firefighter facts? I mean, you were making phone calls to the government, frantic telegrams to your friends and family, begging, pleading. Well plead no more, young seeker of hydrant knowledge and explorer of hose wisdom - here are enough facts to last you until the next time you set the house on fire making your traditional holiday napalm.

- Dalmatians, what's the deal with them? Well, Dalmatians were used since the 19th century when firemen used horse-drawn trucks. You see, Dalmatians get along well with horses, are intelligent, and have good stamina. They were used to chase off the other dogs at fires, and horses could distinguish them because of - you guessed it - their spots. Plus, who doesn't like a Dalmatian? Just wook at dem cutey eyeballeys and spotsies, awwww
- What was the first major fire in the colonies? Get this - no sooner had Jamestown been settled than it is destroyed by fire in 1609. "For goodness sake, keep the Jedediah away from the matches!"

- What are some early forms of firefighting?
One of the earliest is the good old bucket brigade. Yep, passing buckets back and forth. You see, this was before people sued for breaking a nail, so it worked okay for the time. Another early form was the "hand-tub", which was basically a large wooden tub with a hand pump. How did they keep it filled? Bucket Brigade.

- Fire Hydrants...tell me about them (said with a tweed jacket and pipe in mouth). Well, in the 1600s people would dig holes down to the underground water pipes and use the spewing water in the bucket brigades. They would then plug the holes off. After the great fire of London in 1666, the city installed water pipes with access holes and risers. Humans being somewhat clever now and again, people invented all sorts of interesting caps for these systems which one might call hydrants. Modern fire hydrants began springing up probably around the late 1800s.

- This first volunteer company in America, the Mutual Fire Society, was organized in Boston in 1718. However, they only fought fires at their member’s homes!

- Ben Franklin, why the mention? When Ben was not fathering the country or seducing French women, he was a volunteer fireman! He established the Union Fire Company, the first fire organization in Philadelphia and one of the first in America to fight fires for the general public.

- When was the match invented? The first friction match was invented in 1827 by English chemist John Walker. The first dating match was invented by cave-mother Gogamock who set up her daughter with that "nice boy who hoards the fish-guts"

- Was the 1871 Great Chicago Fire really started by a cow kicking over a lantern? Probably not. However, it did start in a shed around Dekoven St. The cow story was made up by journalist Michael Ahern to make the story "more colorful". The fire itself killed between 200-300 people, burned 73 miles of roadway, and left 90,000 people homeless. It was said to have caused more damage than Napoleon's siege of Moscow.

- Sliding poles? Welllll? The first sliding poles were installed in 1873 in New York. They were made of wood, making for some interesting places for splinters.

- Gas Powered firetrucks?
Around the 1910s, but they probably came into real prominence in the 1920s. The last horse-drawn engine was retired in New York in 1922. The horses were overheard to say "Hey Mack, itza 'bawt time! Eh?!"

- The 911 Emergency Number - when? In 1968. The company that choose the number? AT&T.

And finally, I leave you with the Maltese Cross:

One of the symbols most often used by Fire Departments across the world is the Maltese Cross. The cross was originally used by the Knights of St. John, who were known for their courage and service to the people. During battle, the Knights of St. John would often risk their own life extinguishing the fire-bombs used by their enemies, thus becoming some of the earliest firemen. The Knights eventually settled on the Island of Malta, and their symbol become known afterward as the Maltese Cross.

Well, that's enough for now folks. Remember to thank your local fireman for their service, and if you are so inclined, they are always looking for a few good volunteers!