Snowflake Bentley would have loved January 21, 2015

1999_Snowflake_BentleyAlthough he isn’t strictly Christmas, I bet Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931), the first man to ever photograph a snowflake, would have loved the wet snowfall yesterday. The snowflakes were huge, ideal conditions for studying the hexagonal ice crystals.

I stumbled across a short documentary about him when I was looking for more paper snowflake crafts.  His obsession with capturing the snowflakes on his Vermont farm required a unique rig of a microscope attached to one of the first cameras.  This type of photography is called “photomicrography.” In his lifetime, he took photos of over 5,000 snowflakes, one at a time–in a place where there snowfall averages 120 inches a year, I guess he really loved snow.  As the flakes fell from the sky, he caught them on a black velvet-covered tray.  Then, he pushed them into position with a chicken feather so he could photograph each one.

(I’ve got plenty of chicken feathers but none of the obsessive patience it must have taken to do this!)

The Jericho Historical Society was established in 1972 to preserve Bentley’s life and legacy, and this year they celebrated the 150th anniversary of Wilson Bentley’s birthday.  In conjunction with the historical society, there are authorized snowflake gifts for purchase.

One way to learn more about this remarkable man is to read about him.In 1998, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrator Mary Azarian published Snowflake Bentley, based on the true story of his life.  Azarian won the 1999 Caldecott Medal for her illustrations.

I would like to buy a copy of this book for my grandson.  We love “spiriments,” and I can imagine he and I would be out in the cold trying to gather snowflakes to photograph. The photos would make beautiful Christmas cards or winter thank you notes.  Watch out. . .I’m cooking up a great idea. . . and from the weather report, it looks like we might have our photo opportunity this weekend.  Fingers crossed!




Twelfth Night and Epiphany Jeopardy!

IMG_8760On this day in January 2013, Jeremy wrote about the ancient tradition of Twelfth Night, the night before the Feast of the Epiphany. I thought I knew everything there is to know about the Epiphany—but I was wrong—so wrong.

For his religious education family group on Sunday, my brother made a Jeopardy! game about all things related to the Epiphany. We took his test—and failed miserably.

The first problem was coming up with the names of the three kings. I defaulted to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, knowing I was very wrong, but there were three names, and they are figures in the Bible. I couldn’t conjure up Melchior, Casper (or Gaspar) and Balthazar. The pressure of the timed moment was just too great—even with the hint that one of them sounded like a “friendly ghost.”  This CNN iReport describes the Lithuanian celebration of the three kings.  (Another future post, for certain.)

I completely failed on the three gifts. I could name them, sure. But I forgot the spiritual purpose of each one, especially myrrh. Later, I spent some time reading about each of the gifts and how they relate to the recognition of the divinity of the baby Jesus.

My brother asked about the Massacre of the Innocents and the names of ancient kings. The only answer I was sure of was “Egypt” (where Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled).

Although, Roger and I earned an imaginary $1800, it was a struggle. I will be re-visiting some of the major points of the Nativity story this year. Be prepared for Epiphany Jeopardy! rematch.

“The Writer’s Almanac” today featured a description of Twelfth Night in the early American Colonial period.

This month marks the third year of The Yule Log 365, and I feel like I have so much to learn.


What’s the cost of those 12 Days of Christmas?

12 Days D3I had a little extra time while working with a group of kids today. To finish up our time, groups were challenged to see who could list all the gifts of the classic song Twelve Days of Christmas first.  Funny enough none of the groups got the list just right- not sure about the ducks and the chickens that were suggested- HA! After reviewing all the correct gifts for each of the days, the groups were challenged to guess what the cost of the gifts might be.  Following a WILD set of guesses we went to the web and found this little gem: The PNC Christmas Price Index.

According to the website the index was started 31 years ago by one of the economists at PNC.  HE wanted to know what the cost would be for one set of each of the gifts listed in the song.  This initial quest for knowledge has become 30 years of looking at the adjustments and cost rise and fall over time. You can see trends in the US economy reflected in the Christmas Price Index.  The site is pretty cool. There is a lot of interesting financial info- you can look at the total price over time, the price of individual gifts over time, and look how things as varied as the internet and fuel cost have affected the prices.  There is a complete separate section of the site the provides educators with ways to use the information to implement some lesson on financial literacy (don’t be surprised in my classes if you see this round about the 22nd and 23rd).

Great CarolThe site also has lots of fun and clever parts to it.  There is a section dedicated to “updating” the song itself since it “has fallen to an all-time low in popularity”. The section is titled The Great Carol Comeback and features cool renditions of the song for each of the 12 gifts.  Future classics like “Milk Bucket Music”, “Golden Ring Orchestra”, “Bird Call Quartet” and “French Hen Hairband”.  Be sure to check out all twelve of the The Great Carol Comeback.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the 2014 price of one set of all gifts is $27,673.21.  Seems fair, right?

Podcast #63- 275 Days to Go!

Christmas SPiderPodcast #63- 275 Days to Go! Click here to listen to this week’s podcast- Teens & Spiders!

This week Natalie & Jeremy cover a strange range of Christmas topics.  We start with the legend of the Christmas spider (some get rich slow ideas here). We then move to some discussion on our trees, teapots, old ladies, and a plan.  We wrap up with our actual topic for the show- Teen Gift Giving.  How do you shop for those 13-19 year olds in your life?  What are the best gifts?  Is it a mini-fridge?  A book?  A gift card?  Heck- maybe it’s a spider!!


Ghosts walk at Yuletide

Anne_Boleyn_London_TowerI am reading the historical novel, Wolf Hall, about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his intrigues with Henry the VIII.  In the novel, the author references the well-known fact that ghosts are astir during the holiday season, and that got me to wondering about ghosts and Christmas.  Of course, the first thought most of us have is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with its ghosts of past, present and future.  In much more recent lore, here’s a line in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963) that references the “scary ghost stories/and tales of the glories/of Christmases long long ago.”

Reading up on the topic and thinking about Henry VIII, I came across multiple connections to Anne Boleyn, unfortunate second wife of Henry VIII, who is reputed to walk the grounds of her beloved Hever Castle on Christmas Eve.  I discovered that she is just one of many ghosts connected to Christmas.  Next to Halloween, Christmas is the most haunted time of the year. (I could write some song lyrics for that, I think.)

While most connections between ghosts and Christmas center on the Winter solstice,  I found one source that highlights the proliferation of Victorian ghost stories to economic changes and the development of gas lamps?

Lighting was often provided by gas lamps, which have also been implicated in the rise of the ghost story; the carbon monoxide they emitted could provoke hallucinations. And there was a preponderance of people encountering ghosts in their daily life come the middle of the century. In 1848, the young Fox sisters of New York heard a series of tappings, a spirit apparently communicating with them through code, and their story spread quickly. The vogue for spiritualism was under way. Spiritualists believed spirits residing in the afterlife were potentially able to commune with the living, and they set up seances to enable this.The most ancient origins of ghosts at Christmas come from the Celts and their celebration of the Yule, the winter solstice, when the old year gives way to the new. In this ancient celebration, ghosts of the dead are roaming during this time of rebirth and return of the sun. I found an excellent discussion about the connection of the winter solstice and the longest night of the year being the perfect time for ghosts to roam about.  People light candles and burn fires to chase away these spirits and to welcome the sun’s return.  Many a night, when I’ve gone into the yard to lock up the chickens, the darkness of winter has seemed darker than usual.  I would not be surprised if I saw a ghost or two.  

(“Ghosts of Christmas Past:  Why were the Victorians to ghastly good at ghost stories?”)

I’m not convinced by this explanation above, but it leads me toward more exploration!  I’m on the hunt for good Christmas ghost stories.  



How did American slaves celebrate Christmas?

220px-Harriet_Ann_Jacobs1894This weekend, Roger and I had the opportunity to see the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave.  The film is based on Solomon Northup’s autobiographical work, and, for many, the film opened our eyes not only to the cruelties (“cruelty” is not a strong enough word) of slavery, but also,  to the stories that a few African American slaves recorded.  In elementary school, we learned about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, but there are many other African American authors who have recorded their narratives.

One such author is Harriet A. Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  She was a contemporary of Solomon Northup, living with her family in North Carolina.  Her largely autobiographical narrative includes a chapter titled, “Christmas Festivities.”  Leading up to this chapter, Jacobs’s character, Linda, has hidden in the attic of a small shed to avoid the sexual advances of her master.  She is able to see her children, cared for by their grandmother, but for her safety and theirs, the children do not know where she is hidden.  She lived in hiding for seven years.

Christmas Day for these slaves is both a celebration and a sadness because January 1 is “hiring day,” when slaves can be traded, sold or hired to a new master.  Often families were separated from each other.

In this story, Grandmother bring materials to Linda so that Linda can make small gifts for her children.  On Christmas morning, children rise to see the Johnkannaus,  characters in brightly colored strips of cloth and headdresses of horns.

“They consist of companies of slaves from the plantations, generally of the lower class. Two athletic men, in calico wrappers, have a net thrown over them, covered with all manner of bright-colored stripes. Cows’ tails are fastened to their backs, and their heads are decorated with horns. A box, covered with sheepskin, is called the gumbo box. A dozen beat on this, while others strike triangles and jawbones, to which bands of dancers keep time. For a month previous they are composing songs, which are sung on this occasion. These companies, of a hundred each, turn out early in the morning, and are allowed to go round till twelve o’clock, begging for contributions. “

On the North Carolina digital history page, this tradition is described as rare in America, unique to North Carolina, originating in the islands of the Caribbean.  The description of the Johnkannaus remind me of the tradition of mummers in early American history.  There are some connections, including the wild costumes, the music and the begging.  I’m sure Jeremy will discover many more ways the traditions are alike.  I’ve only scratched the surface.Johnkannaus

From Harriet Jacobs’ description, the time between Christmas Day and the New Year was one of the only times of the year when a slave, if he/she had a kind master, was given “time off.”  There was feasting and  small gifts exchanged.

Podcast #62- 315 Days to Go!

russian santaPodcast #62- 315 Days to Go!  Click here to listen to this week’s podcast- Russian Christmas!

Listen this week as Natalie and Jeremy discuss some of the Russian stories, traditions, and characters related to Christmas.  We’ve got Father Frost, a snow maiden, a snow queen, and Babushka!  Which one turns to a cloud of white smoke?  Guess you’ll have to listen to find out!