Podcast #18- 237 Days to Go!

Podcast #18– Click here to listen to this week’s podcast- Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer AND Gloria the Groundhog?

We start with a quick recap of the week’s highlights.  We move right into a discussion about picking the perfect name for our Christmas Groundhog.  What name will we pick?  Will our groundhog maybe be Russian? (Insiders know how I love Cheburashka) Our main focus is on Rudolph.  The little reindeer that was born as a Department Store promotional product has grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas icons- right up there with Santa himself.  Of course we discuss the 1964 television special from Rankin & Bass too.  This annual animated gift added so much more to the basic tale of Rudolph: best friend, love interest, danger, intrigue, travel, rescue, and more!  Enjoy and let us hear what other Christmas songs or traditions you want to hear more about.

Secret #8 for the Perfect Christmas

Remember that on the 25th of each month we will be revealing one of our secrets for the perfect Christmas in 2012.  Today we reveal Secret #8- Christmas is not the time to bear a grudge- forgive!

Better late than never!  In the excitement to discuss all the friends of St. Nicholas I completely lost track of the date and missed posting this on the 25th.  Keeping track of all our holiday fun can be more that one post a day can handle.

This secret to a perfect really gets to the heart of the spirit of Christmas.  It is a perfect time to forgive and if nothing else to forget.  Far too often in today’s hectic lives families can drift apart.  Divisions and arguments from the past can grow into year-long avoidance and even estrangement.  Christmas is the best time to put those differences to rest.  Include everyone for the party.  Don’t forget to extend Christmas dinner plans to your cousins, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, parents, and even children.  Use the happiness and kindness of the season to bridge the gap and start fresh.  It may end up being only a short reprieve from whatever trouble you were having, but it may end up being the start to a new time of happiness for you! Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  Forgive!

Remember in the movie Home Alone when Kevin finally talks to the scary neighbor man?  The neighbor shared about how he spent Christmas alone and didn’t get to see his son or grand-daughter due to a fight years ago.  Kevin convinces him to call them and try to make up for the past.  The end scene of the movie has Kevin looking out his window to see the neighbor man, who isn’t that scary anymore, walking up to his house with his grand-daughter and son.  Cue the sentimental musical score and grab the tissues.  Christmas might be able to fix just about anything.

Recycling gift wrap

My nephew experienced his First Communion today, and we were invited to the celebration.  I spent part of the afternoon digging out paper, ribbon, and tape to wrap his gift.  I started thinking about my (and most Americans) wasteful wrapping habits. I love to wrap Christmas presents, and I go out of my way to make the packages fancy with paper, bows, ribbon and more.

Our unwrapping traditions used to include my mother’s painstaking removal of tape and slow peeling back of the paper so that the sheet could be ironed and re-used.  I don’t remember when that behavior, which I remember teasing her about at the time, evolved into throwing the paper away.  Probably the increasing numbers of grandchildren had some influence, but now I’m re-thinking that earlier careful behavior.

According to Earth.911, half of the 85 million tons of paper products Americans use and discard are packaging, wrapping and decorating goods. Also, wrapping paper and shopping bags alone account for about 4 million tons of trash annually in the U.S.  During the holiday season, the amount of trash increases 25%.

Gift wrap was first invented in the early 1900’s and distributed by Hallmark. (Here’s a link to the history for more reading on the subject.) The paper was made possible by the invention of the  flexography process which combined very fluid inks with rubber plates wrapped around the print cylinder to make a printing process ideally suited to coarse or stiff papers that were durable enough for wrapping. Also, Victorians began using decorated paper for cards, wallpaper and more.

I love the rolls of paper more than gift bags (which didn’t become popular until the 1980’s) The easy answer for saving on paper waste is to wrap the gifts in something else, a basket, a jar, a bowl, something clever.  I know that one year, my sister-in-law wrapped all of her gifts in burlap bags tied with red ribbon.  I saved that oversized bag for years, waiting for the exact gift to fill it.

Wrapping paper is not easily recycled.  I fold mine neatly and put it in bags every year, but now I’m wondering if it does get recycled when it leaves my curb. According to Recycle Now, the paper is often dyed and coated or has non-paper additives, like gold and silver glitter.  If it is thin, it may not have good quality fibers for recycling.  Also, there’s the problem of tape leftover from the gift wrapping.

My mom has been wrapping various boxes and their lids with good-quality paper and then re-using these boxes year after year. The paper is never torn off.  Some people even record inside the lid who received the box and what gift was in it as a way of making a game out of re-using the same box.

The answer is not easy.  I’m going to look further into opportunities to recycle wrapping paper and try to buy only paper that has been recycled or can be recycled.  Any other suggestions?

More on Belsnickle

Linda's Belsnickles

Last post I focused on St. Nick’s companion the Belsnickle.  Turns out there is a little more to this story (thanks to some readers for sharing).  The Belsnickle is also a type of American craft item.  The Belsnickle is an old world Santa Claus figurine crafted from papier mache.  They are of German origin and date to the early 20th century.  Originals from the period are very rare and can be quite expensive.  Here’s one found on antiques.com- Pink Belsnickle.  Today you can easily find affordable recreations.  These Santas are popular with the craft crowd and the technique is used to make snowmen, reindeer, and even Easter bunnies.  I will be looking more closely into these crafty creations (maybe Natalie and I will make some).  Check out how a woman transformed her life when she discovered these figurines and how to make them.  Linda Lindquist Baldwin randomly found a book at a yard sale and 25 years later is one of the most well-know makers of the art.  You really can discover greatness at a yard sale!

Literary forensics and “Twas the Night Before Christmas”

Jeremy noted the traditions that came from the Old World to America and influenced our modern understanding of Santa Claus and his darker helpers.  Clement Clarke Moore is considered the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” published anonymously in 1923.  This is the beloved poem that many of us can recite from memory that we now call “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

It’s significant that the author, a wealthy minister and New Yorker published the poem anonymously and did not claim authorship until 1938.  In his book Author Unknown (published 2000)English professor and forensic linguist Donald Foster made the case that the poem was authored by Henry Livingston, Jr.  Descendants of Henry Livingston, Jr., a gentleman poet of Dutch decent who lived in Poughkeepsie, NY, claim the poem for their ancestor,  but its author was already dead when Moore took credit.  Those relatives solicited Foster’s help because Foster has a reputation for being a literary sleuth.  Early in his career, Foster identified a previously unknown poem as Shakespeare’s, and, even though that claim has since been refuted, Foster has been involved in other, more recent literary puzzles, including in 1996 helping to solve the mystery of the anonymous author of the political best-seller Primary Colors.

The argument about Livingston’s authorship is convincing and detailed.  I have included links to two documents supporting the Livingston authorship.  A lot of the discussion has to do with the origins of the names of two of the reindeer, Donner and Blitzen (which mean Thunder and Lightening in German).  The original spellings were Dunder and Blixsem.  Here are two links that explain Livington’s claims and the names of the reindeer. When I sing the song, I have incorrectly said Donder, and now I know why.  The updated 1837 published version of the Moore/Livingston poem uses the spelling Donder while the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” poem updates the name to Donner.

Santa’s Other “Helpers”

In my last post I shared a little about the dark companion to Santa, Krampus.  Natalie was not the only one to find him unpleasant and out of the Christmas spirit.  But we must look to all the helpers for St. Nicholas, not just happy, singing elves.  Krampus shows up in mainly Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia.  He is just one of the darker companions found with St. Nick in our European history.  There are MANY others, here are a few:

Knecht Ruprecht shows up as early as the mid 1600s in German folklore.  His name translates to farmhand or servant Rupert.  Ruprecht was also a common name for the devil at that time soon after the Protestant Reformation.  Knecht Ruprech appears in homes the night before St. Nicholas day.  He has a long beard and dressed covered in furs.  He carries a long staff and a bag of ashes and wears little bells. His origin story is a little muddy.  He might have been a farmer recruited by St. Nick, or maybe an injured orphan taken in by him.  Tradition also has some variation on how Ruprecht would “reward” the bad children.  Some tales have him call the children to the door and force them to sing or dance to show how good they were.  The good ones received treats, the bad were paddled, and the really bad were taken away.  Other tales say Ruprecht would only visit when the children were asleep and would leave gifts for the good and coal for the bad.  (Sound familiar to our American Santa Claus tradition?)

Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, is St. Nick’s loyal helper in Dutch tradition.  Black Pete helps Sinterklaas as they check-in with all the children throughout the Netherlands.  Pete’s job is to accompany St. Nicholas and to give candied treats and special candies to the good children as Nicholas visits children in the community.  He also delivers treats or switches to the children at home.  His hands and face are covered in dark black soot and he wears brightly covered clothes.   Why soot?  Because he enters the homes through the chimney of course!  (Another familiar tradition with our American Santa Claus)

In southwest Germany St. Nicholas’ helper was Pelznickel.  This helper did not accompany St. Nick.  He visited the children on his own to deliver joy to the good and punishment to the bad.  He left shoes or socks full of candy for the children, unless they were bad- those children discovered coal or switches in theirs.  Pelznickel moved to the New World with the Pennsylvania Dutch.  The name morphed to Belsnickle but he  could be discovered in holiday traditions from the Chesapeake to as far north as Nova Scotia.  One of the earlier written accounts of Belsnickle in America can be found in Brown’s Miscellaneous Writings.  Jacob Brown wrote in the 1830s from Alleghany County, Maryland.  Here he describes Belsnickle:

He was known as Kriskinkle, Beltznickle and sometimes as the Xmas woman. Children then not only saw the mysterious person, but felt him or rather his stripes upon their backs with his switch. The annual visitor would make his appearance some hours after dark, thoroughly disguised, especially the face, which would sometimes be covered with a hideously ugly phiz … He or she would be equipped with an ample sack about the shoulders filled with cakes, nuts, and fruits, and a long hazel switch which was supposed to have some kind of a charm in it as well as a sting. One would scatter the goodies upon the floor, and then the scramble would begin by the delighted children, and the other hand would ply the switch upon the backs of the excited youngsters – who would not show a wince, but had it been parental discipline there would have been screams to reach a long distance.

Krampus and these other helpers are certainly scary and sometimes do bad things.  St. Nicholas needs these helpers to “scare” the children.  Not too different from some of our traditions (Elf on the shelf?) but definitely a darker side.

Rudolph: another brilliant advertisement

I’ve been listening to a book on tape, The Man Who Sold America, about fascinating Chicago personality, Albert Lasker,  20th Century’s inventor of the marketing campaigns behind many of America’s biggest products.  While Lasker may not have been the inventor of Santa, the marketing strategies he started changed the way Americans perceive Christmas.

For instance, it’s hard to imagine advertising without “the give-away” item. In 1939, Montgomery Ward department store Santas distributed a souvenir booklet, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which added the 9th reindeer to Santa’s sleigh.  Written by a copywriter for the company, Robert L. May’s assignment was to write a “cheery” Christmas story with an animal main character.  Chicago-based Montgomery Wards had been buying and distributing coloring books at Christmas and was looking to cut expenses by making their own book.  May wrote the story, trying out the phrases on his daughter,  in the same meter as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Although they gave away 2.4 million copies, wartime restrictions on paper prevented another distribution until 1946, when 3.6 million copies of the story were distributed.

Robert May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote the lyrics and tune to the song in 1947, and Gene Autry recorded the song in 1949, where it rocketed to #1 on the Hit Parade.

According to the story, May considered naming his reindeer “Rollo” and then “Reginald.” In marketing, the name is everything.

It’s nine weeks after Jeremy’s initial idea of casting a groundhog in a Christmas story, and we still don’t have a name for the little fellow. I don’t think we can call him Phil because that groundhog has a weather-predicting purpose and a marketing life of his own.

Albert Lasker invented the marketing strategy of a baby naming contest to sell Pepsodent.  I think Jeremy and I will have to have a baby naming contest for a groundhog.  We don’t have the $5,000 Lasker offered, so we’ll make shortbread for the winner.  Grumbles the Groundhog?  Gabby the Groundhog?  What’ll it be?

Podcast #17- 244 Days to Go!

Podcast #17– Click to hear this week’s podcast- Chocolate doesn’t always make it better!

We start with the usual brief wrap-up of our posts for the last week and then get right to the good stuff.  We spent a little time exploring three different shortbread recipes.  Listen in as we taste the results of our efforts- some great reactions!  We also tackle conversions from the metric system and a quest for a lamington pan.  Full recipes for all three shortbreads can be found on the Yule Log post of April 13th or just click on the pictures listed below.   We are searching for the perfect shortbread recipe- please send us your favorite.  Who knows yours might be our next test case!

Recipe #1- Vel’s Shortbread from allrecipes.com

Recipe #2- Simple Shortbread from Martha Stewart

Recipe #3- Chocolate Shortbread from Taste.com


Cheap-Suit Santas: the happier version of Krampus?

Krampus and Krampus related information leave me a little unnerved.  I prefer my Christmas holiday with adjectives like blessed, merry, bright, and happy.  As I was reading Jeremy’s post yesterday, I followed some of the links.  As a joke, I even started to send him a Krampus e-card, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I want my Santa sanitized.  I want him to be good.  No alcohol, no tricks before my treats.  I’m unhappy that the letters of SANTA, re-arranged, spell SATAN.  I have just realized, though, that there are plenty who would take our innocent idea of a Guinness Book of World Record Santas crossing the Bay Bridge (see Podcast #16 on April 16th) and turn it into an opportunity for mischief.

Large gatherings of bad Santas started first in 1994. A group of pranksters dressed up in Santa suits and began partying in downtown San Francisco.  This local group, purportedly protesting holiday consumerism, became known as the “cheap-suit Santas,” whose antics spread along the California coast. Each holiday, bus-loads could be seen singing parodied Christmas carols, bar-hopping, and engaging in public displays of Santa silliness.  Popularity of these gatherings has spawned Santarchy, Santa Rampages, Santasms, and Santafadas, among others.

Organized anarchy has limits.  Last year, Santarchy, DC posted a songbook (to be downloaded on your smartphone) and rules for behavior.  I like rules.  My favorite is: “Santa does not make children cry.”  Even though this is an event that creates mayhem, the posted suggestions are designed for Santa to stay on the right side of the law.  If you are attracted to this sort of holiday party, check out locations near you at  santarchy.com.

We’re not too far along in our Santa planning, but I can tell you that our record-setting gathering of Santas will not be on Saturday, December 15, 2012, when Ocean City will be hosting a Santacon. Their board for the event names several potential gathering places (bars) and the message, “Don’t forget to invite Krampus!”

You better watch out… for Krampus!

Who?  What?  Krampus.  Still not sure what you’re watching out for?  It’s Krampus, the Christmas Demon- a mythical beast that accompanies St. Nicholas to visit all the children.  Krampus doesn’t get the same attention here in the United States as in the Alpine countries where he originated, maybe first in what is today Austria.  The creature pre-dates Christianity and is similar in many ways to a satyr.  It is beast-like in appearance, almost demonic and accompanies the kind and generous St. Nick on his visits to children.  On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 6th, the pair would visit all the children.  St. Nicholas rewards the good children with treats and gifts.  Krampus handles the naughty with warnings, punishments, and sometimes carts them off to be eaten!  Krampus is a frightening sight to behold.  It is hairy, usually brown or black, with cloven hooves and horns of a goat, and a long pointed tongue.  Krampus carries chains sometimes attached to bells and a bundle of branches used to swat at the bad kids.  It carries a tub or sack to carry off bad kids to be drowned, eaten, and sometimes taken to hell.  To begin your schooling on Krampus, take a few minutes to explore the official website at Krampus.com.

For generations the tradition of Krampus was practiced throughout the Alpine countries where parades and festivities were held annually on December 5th.  Drunken revelers crowd the streets dressed as Krampus and celebrating the coming of the beast.    These Krampuslaufen, as they are known, would run through the streets and people would offer them the gift of schnapps as they passed.  The night gained popularity with its emphasis on Pagan customs and traditions.  The powers-that-be have tried to be rid of Krampus and all the debauchery of Krampusnacht for centuries.  The Catholic Inquisition worked tirelessly to be rid of Krampus to no avail.  Even up through the 20th century the governments of modern Europe have tried to curtail the popular festivities.  The allure of Krampus has survived.  One of the more popular parts of the culture is the tradition of giving friends and family Krampuskarten.  These are greeting cards depicting Krampus interacting with children and others in a humorous way, sometimes with sexual overtones.

In the early part of this century there has been a burst of interest in Krampus.  References can be found in comics, graphic novels, television, videogames, and music.  Krampus was reintroduced to Americans in a 2009 feature on the Colbert Report.  Check out this little video depicting a visit from Krampus, A Krampus Carol by Anthony Bourdain.  If you need still more information, you must read Topless Robot’s 10 Fun Facts about Krampus.  So you better watch out if Krampus is coming to town!