Sunday, December 28, 2014

"For last year's words belong to last year's language

And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning."
                                                      ~T.S. Eliot
2015 in our calendar sights...survived that grey/black/24/7 Christmas...maybe we can make some resolutions to keep that holiday a little saner next Christmas. 

Anyway, in pre-Christian times,  Babylonians celebrated the new year in March, but the Romans changed it to January.  Janus was the two-faced god who looks backwards into the old year and forwards into the new. Janus was the patron and protector of arches, gates, doors, doorways, endings and beginnings. He was also the patron of bridges, and the bridge Ponte Fabricio which crosses the Tiber River in Rome to Tiber Island survives from its original construction in 62 BC during the time of Julius Caesar.
Even today it is believed that if you touch the Janus head as you cross the bridge, it will bring good fortune.
The custom of setting “New Years resolutions” began during this period in Rome, and they made such resolutions with a moral flavor: mostly to be good to others. When the Roman Empire took Christianity as its official state religion in the 4th century, these moral intentions were replaced by prayers and fasting--so much for being good to others?

In the 17th century, Puritans in Colonial America avoided the indulgences associated with New Year’s celebrations and other holidays. In the 18th century, Puritans avoided even naming Janus. Instead they called January “First Month.” (Echoes of Harry Potter and "he who must not be named...aka...Voldemort!)
Puritans urged their children to spend their time reflecting on the year past and contemplating the year to come. In this way they adopted again the old custom of making resolutions.  American theologian and New England Puritan Jonathan Edwards took the writing of resolutions to an art form. During a two-year period, when he was about 19 or 20 following his graduation from Yale, he compiled some 70 resolutions (You can read all 70 on that link if you are interested), and they focused on various aspects of his life which he committed to reviewing each week.  A couple caught my eye: 5. Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can, 17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die, and 36. Resolved, never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it.

So, as the new year begins this week, I leave you with words from Mother Teresa...“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Symbolizing eternal hope, the wreath

goes 'round and round.  And where it starts or ends cannot be found.  Woven of things that grow-for life, and hung for holiday delight..."


Today ushers in winter, and the wreath has been used symbolically for centuries in pre-Christian, Pagan, and Christian cultures.  In earlier times, the Winter Solstice was a time of death and rebirth, a celebration of the end of the ever shortening days and the anticipation of the coming promise of spring.  As part of many celebrations, evergreen wreaths were gathered as a sign of the approaching spring light.  In Sweden, wreaths were fashioned for similar purposes, with the addition of candles that symbolized the power of the sun.

The wreath likewise has a storied history in ancient times. In the Persian Empire, wreaths were believed to be a symbol of importance and success and were worn as headbands.  Ancient Greeks placed wreaths of laurel on the heads of victorious athletes in their Olympic Games. Wreaths were worn similarly to crowns by Roman leaders and were also hung on doorways as a sign of victory.
The Christmas wreath has come to convey its own set of meanings in modern times. Across time, the circle or ring shape of a wreath that has no beginning and no end symbolizes eternity or eternal rebirth. Pre-Christian cultures’ interpretation of the power of evergreens to battle the forces of winter has evolved into a modern representation of eternal life. The vast array of materials that are used to create a modern wreath carry significance as well. Holly represents immortality, for instance, whereas cedar stands for strength. But for many, the wreath’s symbolic attributes are much simpler than all this. The Christmas wreath has evolved into a sign of welcoming and an acknowledgment of holiday.
Down the road here, is a wonderful small nursery...on Route 9 just north of the zoo...
And they are stocked with handcrafted...
They make everything from freshly cut materials, and they will create to order.  Pick a plain wreath and pick some ribbon...they have rolls and rolls of varied ribbons...
The little shop has a variety of arrangements and ideas for decorating...and not just for about something to brighten a cold winter's day...take a photo tour...

There is also a little outbuilding packed with antique/vintage goodies as well as traditional seasonal floral fancies...

Shopping in small venues is more personable than the big boxes.  Wandering around just frees the spirit...Christmas is more than "black" or "gray" days...more than 24/7 buying frenzies.  Christmas is finding a special wreath that someone lovingly assembled...
It is a creative idea for a post...
or a mailbox ...

or a window...
It is buying local...supporting those who live in your neighborhood...who work creatively...

 If you are in the area, stop in...get some greenery for January!  Think out of the holiday box...they will be there from 9 in the morning until 4...or give them a call...(609)465-7465...
"Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour. "
                                                                  ~John Boswell

Sunday, December 14, 2014

“There are two ways of spreading light;

to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”    ~Edith Wharton

Last week, I gave you some insight into a Dutch custom for the holiday, but being Irish on my Mother's side, here is an Irish Christmas custom--the candles in the windows.  Placing candles in the windows was brought to America by the Irish immigrants, but there are stories that relate it to Colonial times also. 
In early America, homes were often miles apart. The sight of a candle in a window from a distance was a sign of "welcome" to those wishing to visit.  Can you see people doing that these days?  Better text first!

The candle was often placed in the window when a member of the family was away. The lit candle was also placed in the window as a sign of good news or as a beacon to weary travelers. Candles also represented friendship and were seen as a sign of welcome to others. 

A less charming tale relates to the British persecution against the Catholic Church in Ireland. When King Henry II invaded Ireland in 1171, persecution against the Irish began and increased the wake of the Protestant movement, especially under Elizabeth I and then Oliver Cromwell. The logic was simply this: the British conquerors were Protestant and the Irish people were Catholic; therefore, to totally subjugate the Irish people, the British had to crush their religion, and that meant crushing the Catholic Church.   Ah, religion!  You are so unforgiving at times!

During Christmas, every faithful Irish Catholic family hoped to have a priest visit their home so that they could receive the sacraments and offer him hospitality. So they would leave their doors unlocked and place candles in the windows to signal a priest that he was welcome and would be safe. Sometimes, a single candle would appear in several windows, or three candles in one window, one each representing Jesus, Mary and Joseph.     

The British persecutors became suspicious and asked purpose of this action. The faithful Irish Catholics responded, "Our doors are unlocked and candles burn in our windows at Christmas, so that our Blessed Mother Mary, St. Joseph, and Baby Jesus, looking for a place to lodge, will find their way to our homes and be welcomed with open hearts." The British considered such a display another sign of superstition and "silly popery."

So feel free to engage in some "silly popery"! 

How far that little candle throws his beams
So shines a good deed in a weary world.
                 ~William Shakespeare

Sunday, December 7, 2014

“You give but little when you give of your possessions.

It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”  
~     Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

The whole idea of Christmas giving has certainly morphed into a giant overblown lawn-lit plastic ball!  There is a post going around on Facebook that reads: "I think as you grow older your Christmas list gets smaller and the things you want for the holidays can't be bought."   Those of us who are "older" know there is truth wrapped in that!  But, the custom of giving and receiving presents at Christmas relates to the presents given to Jesus by the Wise Men -- Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh.
Gold was a gift for a king; frankincense was a gift for Jesus' divinity, and myrrh was a spice for His burial. Even though these gifts provided financial resources for the round trip Mary and Joseph took to Egypt, they were symbolic of the future roles of Jesus.

In modern times, gift giving has changed dramatically, but here is a little Dutch gift giving history.  In Holland, St. Nicholas Eve is December 5, and the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas with festive family parties when gifts and surprises are exchanged. In the Netherlands, unlike other places, adults as well as children join in the fun. As the Dutch like an element of surprise, a small gift may be wrapped in a huge box, or it may be hidden and require following clues to discover where it is.
But the Dutch celebrations are far more controversial than the Santa Claus tradition enjoyed in the rest of the world. It's all down to the appearance of Sinterklaas's helper Zwarte Pieten, or 'Black Peter'.  Children are told that if they misbehave during the year Black Peter will put them in a sack and take them to Spain for a year to teach then how to behave. Dutch tradition says that St. Nicholas lives in Madrid, Spain(must like the tapas bars more than bitterballen).

The character has jet black skin, which is explained to Dutch children today as coming from soot in the chimneys. Traditionally though the character is black because he is supposed to be a Moor from Spain.

Regardless of the controversy, the event is still seen as being fun for all the family, with a whole host of fun and games for children. Sinterklaas parties are held that include treasure hunt games with poems and riddles to give the children clues to find presents left behind by St Nick.

St. Nicholas Day Eve has its own special treats too. One type of biscuit produced for the day is called 'letter blanket' or 'banket letter' which is made from marzipan or pastry.  The biscuits are made in the shapes of the first letter of the peoples names who are at the party.
On St. Nicholas' Day (6th December) children in Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic and some other European countries open some of their presents also.

As Amy Tan expresses,
"Writing is an extreme privilege but it's also a gift. It's a gift to yourself and it's a gift of giving a story to someone."

I hope enjoy the weekly gift of knowledge and trivia!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

“Life is like a blanket too short.

You pull it up and your toes rebel, you yank it down and shivers meander about your shoulder; but cheerful folks manage to draw their knees up and pass a very comfortable night."
          ~Marion Howard
Let's have a little trivia for December start-up...December starts on the same day of the week as September every year and ends on the same day of the week as April every year.  I am sure after the madness of Gray Thursday and Black Friday, minds may have to let that float around upstairs for a little bit, and you probably just want to crawl back under the blanket!

Which brings me to today's history lesson...the blanket!  Do you know there was a man named Blanket (no, not Michael Jackson's son!) who supposedly "invented" the blanket?  From my research a fascinating narrative...

In England, Bristol’s most colorful Victorian newspaperman, Joseph Leech, wrote an extremely fanciful account of the blanket’s invention/discovery. In a story in Brief Romances from Bristol History (1884, a collection of what were originally articles in the Bristol Times) he imagined ‘Edward’ Blanket struggling to make his weaving business a success. One very cold night he and Mrs B were shivering in their bed covered only by a ‘camlet’ of goat hair. Then he had an idea; he went to his loom and took a length of woollen cloth he had been working on that day, and covered the bed with it. They slept snugly, and the following morning he told Mrs. Blanket that he was going to go into the bed-covering business.

“My dearest dame,” said he, “I shall have the honour of giving a name to the article that will make my fortune and carry down my name to all future ages. Let others devote themselves to making cloth to keep them warm by day; be it my business henceforth to manufacture only that which will keep folks warm by night.”

Leech went on to call for an annual Blanket Day, in which Bristol would celebrate Mr Blanket’s most excellent discover/invention.
 The words ‘blanket’ and ‘blanchette’ (plus assorted other medieval spellings) had been in use for at least 150 years before Edmund Blanket’s time. The Blanket family themselves might have got their name from being makers of this cloth, just as medieval blacksmiths acquired the surname Smith, and bakers became Bakers.

Weaving was medieval Bristol’s main industry, but it was tightly regulated by the guilds and the corporation to maintain the quality of the finished cloth and protect the interests of the weavers and associated trades.  King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377) started to change all that. He wanted the vast English cloth industry to be more profitable, all the better to tax it to pay for his wars. He restricted the wearing and importation of foreign cloth and the export from England of raw wool. He encouraged Flemish weavers to settle in England in order to build up the cloth industry. Some of them came to Bristol; the Blankets may have been Flemish themselves, or they may have brought in some of these foreign weavers.

In the late 1330s, Thomas Blanket (Edmund's brother) set up several looms at his property in Tucker Street, just south of the Bristol Bridge. He was effectively setting up a factory, employing weavers rather than working as a self-employed artisan. Presumably his weavers hadn’t had to serve long apprenticeships in the traditional manner. The guilds and the Corporation didn’t like this and tried to put a stop to it.
The King was not happy with the guilds and issued the following order:
“The said Thomas and the others who have chosen to work and make cloths of this sort, and also the workmen, should be protected and defended from injuries and improper exactions on that account. Order you, that you permit the said Thomas and the others who are willing to make cloths of this kind to cause machines to be erected in their own houses at their choice for the weaving and making cloths of this kind … “

The direct personal support of the King means Blanket was no mere clothier but a very significant figure. The Corporation got the message and hurriedly performed a u-turn, and Thomas Blanket was made a local official in 1340. Blanket’s importance and royal support would have made him a well-known figure.

Beds were not common, and most poor people probably slept on the floor (perhaps on straw), fully or partially clothed, though getting completely naked to sleep was often favoured where possible as it helped get rid of the lice which infested most of our ancestors’ bodies.

The more prosperous classes owned beds and may have slept in linen sheets under animal skins. Woollen cloth, meanwhile, was expensive stuff, produced by artisans  until entrepreneurs like Thomas Blanket came along.

Blanket’s industrial production methods, however small they were by modern standards, may well have gone some way towards making woollen bed-coverings more affordable and fashionable.  So, as you get all comfy in your bed, tonight, you can thank Mr. Blanket...and the King...for giving all of us affordable comfort!


“I like to hear a storm at night. It is so cosy to snuggle down among the blankets and feel that it can't get at you.”   ~L.M. Montgomery 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Be thankful for what you have;

you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough."   ~ Oprah Winfrey
At this point, I am sure plans are laid out on the shopping GPS for Thursday.  I do not understand why every holiday has to be tied to buying stuff, but did you know Thanksgiving actually has a consumer background?  President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to help merchants in the post-Depression era (1939-1941), and so he proclaimed Thanksgiving to be moved to the third Thursday in November to create a longer buying season for Christmas. 

President Lincoln had declared it a national holiday at the urging of poet Sarah Hale (best known for "Mary Had a Little Lamb").  She had lobbied the previous 4 Presidents as well, but Lincoln decided it would unite the nation and in 1863 declared the last Thursday in November a "day of thanksgiving."   George Washington had declared it a holiday in 1789 but only New England rallied in support.

When FDR tried to permanently move Thanksgiving to the third Thursday, Congress said "NO" (see--you thought that was a recent phenomenon!), and they passed a joint resolution (at least they did pass something!) in 1941 decreeing that Thanksgiving should fall on the fourth Thursday of November where it now remains.

This Thanksgiving, ingredients for a typical holiday feast, with turkey and all the trimmings, averaged $49.41, up 37 cents from $49.04 in 2013, the American Farm Bureau Federation said in its 29th annual survey. Some grocers also use turkeys as “loss leaders" to entice shoppers to buy other popular Thanksgiving foods.
The Farm Bureau's dinner also includes bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a relish tray of carrots and celery, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, plus coffee and milk, all in quantities enough for a family of 10, with leftovers.

Foods with the biggest increases were sweet potatoes, dairy products and pumpkin pie mix. Among those declining modestly in price were stuffing, fresh cranberries, pie shells and brown-and-serve rolls.  The average cost of the dinner has remained around $49 since 2011.

So, whatever your day holds, remember...

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” 
                        ~ Ernest Hemingway