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!

bentley-snowflakes

 

 

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!

A True Tradition- Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Macys LogoAlmost through the first month of our new format for 2014!  My fourth Thursday entry each month will focus on tradition and/or history somehow connected to Christmas.  For January we’ll have a tradition steeped in history or is it  a historic tradition?  Hmm…  Either way, I’m talking about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  In my family it is most definitely a tradition.  We have watched this parade together since my earliest memories, and definitely every year my sister has been alive.  But the parade has a huge history having just held it’s 87th march.

Macys 2Today the parade is a modern marvel full of dancers, bands, floats, singers, balloons, and technology everywhere.  Over 3.5 million people watch it in person on the streets of Manhattan and 50 million more tune in to watch on TV.  10,000 volunteers and scores of city workers insure the success of the parade in our modern times but it didn’t start that way.  Let’s talk history!  The original Macy’s parade began in 1924.  It is the second oldest Thanksgiving parade in the US.  (the oldest is the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade- originally the Gimbel’s Parade.  Yes, that Gimbel’s!)
The original Macy’s parade was based on and took over a parade  from Newark, NJ where it operated as the Bamberger’s Parade.  That first parade in ’24 was re-named the Macy’s Christmas Parade.  It began in Harlem and moved through Manhattan to end in Herald Square in front of Macy’s Department Store.  It included floats, bands, and animals from the zoo in Central Park.  The parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus who was crowned as “King of the Kiddies” in front of the store.  Changes started right from the beginning and the parade had been modernized and improved continually for 90 years.  The iconic image with the parade has to be those giant balloons!

Macys 1Balloons were first added to the parade in 1927 with Felix the Cat.  He was filled with just air and carried through the streets by volunteers.  Helium was added to the balloons the next year (we can talk about some of the challenges of the helium balloons another time).  Also in 1928 began the release of the balloons.  They were let go at the end of the parade and each had a label.  If you found the balloon you could return it to Macy’s for a $100 prize!  That practice would end when the competition to “find” the balloons became too dangerous.  But the balloons are still one of the most popular parts of the parade.  Lots of different balloons have been part of the parade over time.  Some of the additions include Mickey Mouse in ’34, Donald Duck in ’35, Bullwinkle in ’61, Underdog in ’65, Cat in the Hat in ’94, and Buzz Lightyear in ’08.  Some balloons have made many different appearances in the parade.  “Harold” is a character who was in 4 different parades (1945-1948) as 4 different characters: a clown, a baseball player, a policeman, and a fireman.  Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, and Hello Kitty are some of the balloons appearing in different versions.  The winner is Snoopy.  Charlie Brown’s pet beagle has had seven different balloons in the parade- a record set in 2013.  A few interesting facts related to these balloons.  During World War II the balloons were given to the military to use- over 650 lbs of rubber!  Macy’s is the largest helium consumer after the US Government.  When a shortage occurred in 1958 the balloons were filled with air and moved through the streets on cranes.

Macys 3Aside from those incredible balloons, how did the parade grow into the global event it is today?  The parades of the 20s were watched by hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of New York.  It has been held every year since 1924 with the only break from 1942-1944 for World War II due to restrictions on fuel, rubber, and helium.  The awareness of the parade grew first from the radio broadcasts of the action.  Yes.  Radio! The parade was broadcast live on radio from 1932-1951.  The first television broadcast of the parade was an experiment in 1939.  Local tv broadcasts started in 1946 and national broadcasts followed in 1947. That year was the same year the parade got lots of attention from the movie Miracle on 34th Street.  The film used filmed scenes from the actual parade the year before.  NBC became the exclusive television broadcaster of the parade in 1952 with the name of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Color broadcasts became the norm in 1960.  NBC has been that exclusive broadcaster for the last 62 years, winning 12 Emmy awards since 1979.  Since the parade is in public other broadcasters can set-up shop and show the parade too.  CBS shows the parade too with the name The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS.  You can also catch it on local channels in the New York area and even streaming online.  The three-hour spectacle has become a focal point to officially begin the holiday season.  As we say in my family- “we can’t start our Christmas until Santa gets here”.

So make your plans now to include the parade as part of your holiday plans in 2014.  Tune in 9:00 AM, Thursday, November 27, 2014 on NBC.  Book a hotel and go in person maybe.  Until then find out more about the parade, play games, and shop at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade official website.  You have 308 days to wait for THE kick-off to the holiday season!

Baby, It’s Cold Outside–No Kidding!

snowflakeOn this cold, cold day, I thought it was appropriate to re-visit the Christmas statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Each year, they release Christmas weather statistics for the meteorologically curious.  Outside, this morning, it was a mere 1 degree.  How does that compare to recent Christmases?

In Baltimore, the coldest Christmas on record was within this lifetime–1983 with 3 degrees outside.   The second coldest was 1872 when it was 5 degrees.  In contrast, in 1964, it was a crazy 72 degrees.  Hard to imagine wearing shorts on Christmas when we’re all bundled up inside today.  According to the Farmers’ Almanac, the 1980’s were some of the coldest Christmases on record.

I prefer the Norman Rockwell snowy version of Christmas, even though we’ve seen only a few in the past 50 years, with over 5 inches on snow in 1962 and a little over 4 inches in 1969.

What to do?  Stay inside and keep busy preparing for Christmases yet to come.

  • Start a $5 jar for next year.
  • Try out a Christmas cookie recipe for 2014.
  • Crush your 2013 candy canes and make peppermint hot chocolate or peppermint bark.
  • Put away your Christmas decorations?  (Not yet!  I have to wait a little longer!)
  • Cut up your Christmas cards into gift tags for 2014.

Send your ideas to The Yule Log!

O Holy Night- Another Christmas Music Post!

Snowy Holy NightHappy 2014!  I am excited to be writing my first post in the new year.  I’ve been trying to come up with an organizational plan for my weekly posts.  I work much better if I have a plan, or perhaps theme, to guide my actions.  So for my first Thursday post each month I am going to focus on music!  No better place to start than with my absolute favorite Christmas song of all time- O Holy Night.  This song has been at the top of all my lists for years.  It is musically sound and even the worst versions can still prove somewhat enjoyable.  But when it’s good, O yeah!

The song originates in France.  It was written by Adolphe Adam in 1847  for the poem Minuit, Chretiens (Midnight, Christians).  The first performance was in a small french church to celebrate the repair of the organ.  The first singer was a well-known opera singer of the day.  The topic of the poem, and thus the song, is the birth of the savior and our redemption as man.  Check out the opening verse and chorus:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
 

St P crecheThe song has always had great success over the last 150+ years.  It has been recorded by world renown singers, bands, choirs, and orchestras.  It is part of many small church repertoire for the holidays.  Notably it is part of history as well.  In 1906 it was the first live performance on the new AM radio program.  That first broadcast version featured voice and violin.  It is truly timeless.  A recording made in 1916 is still being sold today!

One of the things I resolve to do with Christmas music this year is to find new versions of songs I love.  For O Holy Night I discovered a great version through a post on a friend’s Facebook page with a recording of Auld Lang Syne.  It featured three singers from the Broadway show Spider-man singing acapella.  I went a little further with some Youtube searching and discovered the had a recording of O Holy Night.  Not just their version, a great version.  Give it a listen-

This is my new go to favorite for this tune.  (Bonus is that one of the three guys is a JMU alum- Go Dukes!)   As I sit here watching the snow fall on a cold winter night it definitely fills me with the spirit of Christmas!