Saturday, December 19, 2015

Have a Wonderful Holiday!

Dear George,
We are getting ready for a holiday get-together with our son and daughter-in-law, J and K, and our grandchildren, L and V.  I can’t think of a happier way to spend the holidays.  Very best wishes of the season to our family and friends.  We’ll be back in touch in the New Year.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Getting in the Holiday Mood: Christmas from A to Z

Dear George,
Christmas is definitely in the air.  The lamplight poles in our neighborhood are decorated with evergreen boughs, and I’ve seen at least five Santas driving or hanging out in our neighborhood bar in the last two days.  With no children at home, it’s not quite as exciting as it used to be, but I find myself getting mentally ready for the holiday nonetheless.  I can’t think of anybody who’s had as much emotional impact during my lifetime as Santa.  Even nowadays my heart beats faster when I run across his image on TV or in the store window.  I decided I should do some refresher research on the meaning of Christmas as part of getting ready.  Here are some interesting facts about Christmas, ordered from A to Z.

·       Animal Crackers.  Barnum’s Animal Crackers circus-style boxes were designed in 1902 with a string handle so that they could be hung on a Christmas tree.  (8) 
·       Boxing Day.  Boxing Day in England dates back to the Middle Ages.  Because servants were required to work on Christmas Day, they were allowed to visit their families on the day after Christmas, and their employers provided them with a box containing food and gifts to bring along.  The English continue to celebrate Boxing Day today by visiting family and friends with gifts.  (8) 
·       Candy Cane.  The candy cane dates back to 1670 in Europe but didn’t appear in the U.S. until the 1800s.  It’s made in the shape of a shepherd’s crook.  The white color represents Jesus’ purity and the virgin birth; the red, the blood spilled when Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers; and the three stripes, the Holy Trinity.  (4)  
·       Depression.  According to Psychology Today, depression is particularly high at Christmas time because of excessive commercialization, rumination about the inadequacies of life, pressure to spend a lot of money on gifts, and dreaded social gatherings with family and friends that individuals would rather not be with.  (10)
·       Economics.  Retail sales during the 2014 holiday shopping season in the U.S. were approximately $616 billion, accounting for about one quarter of people’s personal spending for the year.  The average US holiday shopper spent over $800, three quarters of that on gifts.  (16, 17) 
·       Food.  The food served at traditional Christmas meals varies from one country to the next.  Twelve kinds of fish are served in Sicily.  A turkey or goose is common in England.  Goose and pork are favorites in German, Austria, and France.  The Japanese like fried chicken, and KFC sales reach their peak in Japan at Christmas.  (16) 
·       Gifts.  Gift-giving at Christmas has it roots in pagan traditions in Europe and the Middle East associated with winter festivals, including Saturnalia, the Roman festival in  honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture.  Christians have interpreted gift giving as a symbolic homage  to the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus.  (16) 
·       History.  Easter was the main holiday in the early years of Christianity, and Christ’s birth wasn’t celebrated until the fourth century.  The Bible doesn’t mention the date of Christ’s birth, and historians believe that Pope Julius I chose December 25 because it coincided with the pagan festival of Saturnalia and hence would be more readily adopted.  By the Middle Ages Christmas was celebrated with in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras.  (7) 
·       Iceland.  In Iceland there are 13 Santas, known as Yule Lads.  A different one arrives on each of the 13 nights preceding Christmas Eve, leaving gifts or rotting potatoes in the children’s shoes, depending on their behavior during the year.  Names of the Yule Lads include Doorway Sniffer, Window Peeper, Gully Gawk, Spoon Licker, Pot Scraper, Candle Stealer, and Meat Hook.  (18) 
·       Jingle Bells.  Jingle Bells was composed in 1857 by James Pierpont, a Unitarian church music director.  The song’s initial name was “One-Horse Open Sleigh,” and it was written for a Thanksgiving celebration.  Jingle Bells was the first song ever broadcast from outer space when Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra sang it on December 16, 1965.  (9) (19) 
·       Kris Kringle.  Kris Kringle, often regarded as another name for Santa Claus, is actually a mispronunciation of the German name “Christkindl” which was introduced by Martin Luther.   Christkindl is a child with blond hair and angelic wings that Luther referred to as the incarnation of Baby Jesus.  (3) 
·       Lussibruden.  At the beginning of the Christmas season in Sweden the oldest daughter in the family (who is called Lussibruden for the day) rises early and wakes each family member dressed in a long white gown with a red sash and wearing a crown made of twigs with nine lighted candles.  (7) 
·       Mistletoe.  The tradition of decorating a doorway with mistletoe in the hopes of getting a kiss is said to date back to the eighth century and Frigga, the Scandinavian goddess of love and beauty.  (8)   
·       NORAD.  In 1955 a Sears ad printed the phone number of a Colorado Springs store where children could call and tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas.  The phone number was a misprint, however, and calls went to the hotline for the US Continental Air Defense by mistake.  Rather than block the number, the Colonel in charge ordered his staff to give children updates on Santa’s flight coordinates, and that NORAD tradition has continued to the present day.  (12) 
·       Odin.  The Viking god Odin is believed to be one of the precursors to Santa Claus.  Odin rode his eight-legged flying horse Sleipnir and brought gifts and punishments to children in the winter.  The children, in turn, filled their boots or stockings with treats for Sleipnir.  (11); 
·       Puritans.  In 1647 Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, who considered feasting and revelry on a holy day to be immoral, banned all Christmas festivities.  The ban continued until Cromwell lost power in 1660.  (19) 
·       Quotes.  “The only real blind person at Christmas time is he who has not Christmas in his heart.”  (Helen Keller) (2) 
·       Rudolph.  Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer first appeared in 1939 in a Montgomery Ward department store booklet created by ad copywriter Robert L. May and  given to children visiting Santa at the store.  May set Rudolph’s story to music with the help of his songwriter brother-in-law Johnny Marks, and Gene Autry’s rendition in 1949 became one of the best-selling Christmas songs of all time.  (12) 
·       Silent Night.  Silent Night was written in 1818 by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest.  Sad because his church organ had broken, Mohr wanted to create a carol that could be sung by a choir to guitar music.  (5) 
·       Tragedies.  Hundreds of mineworkers and their families in Calumet in Michigan’s U.P. were enjoying a Christmas party in 1913 when some yelled “Fire”, and 73 people were trampled to death in the resulting panic.  (13) 
·       Urban legends.  Pepita, a poor Mexican girl, had no gift to give to the Christ Child at the Christmas Eve service.  She gathered a bouquet of common weeds from the roadside, and, when she approached the altar, the weeds burst into brilliant red flowers (that we now know as poinsettias).  (14) 
·       Vacations.  According to, the best Christmas travel destinations in the U.S. are New York City, Chicago, Colorado, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Alaska.  (1)
·       White Christmas.  The Guinness Book of World Records reports that White Christmas, written by Irving Berlin and recorded by Bing Crosby for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, is the best selling Christmas song of all time (over 100 million copies).  (8) 
·       Xbox.  Microsoft’s Xbox is one of the most popular Christmas gifts of the last decade.  Other top sellers include Elmo, Apple’s iPad, Kindles and Nooks, PlayStation, and Nintendo Wii.  (6) 
·       Yule log.  The burning of the yule log is an ancient Nordic tradition, going back to before the Middle Ages.  The yule log was an entire tree that was brought into the house with great ceremony.  The largest end of the log was placed in the fireplace hearth while the remainder stuck out into the room.  The log was slowly fed into the fire during the Twelve Days of Chrismas.  If any of the log was left after Twelfth Night, it was put away under the bed until the next Christmas.  (15) 
·       Zydeco.  Zydeco Christmas songs include “A Zydeco Christmas,” “Mardi Gras Party Christmas,” “Cajun Night Before Christmas,” and “Santa Claus Wants Some Zydeco.”  (20) 

SOURCES:  (1), “Best places to go for Christmas”; (2), “Inspiratonal Christmas quotes”; (3), “Why is Santa Claus called Kris Kringle?”; (4), “Candy cane history”; (5), “Christmas facts”; (6), “The most popular christmas gifts of the last decade”; (7), “Christmas traditions worldwide”; (8), “Christmas trivia”; (9), “50 things Yule never know”; (10), “Why people get depressed at Christmas”; (11), “Christmas facts(the), “A brief history of the Christmas present”; (12), “Christmas facts”; (13), “15 most horrifying Christmas tragedies”; (14), “Pepita’s poinsettias”; (15), “The history of the Yule log”; (16), “Christmas”; (17), “Economics of Christmas”;(18), “Yule lads”; (19), “Weird Christmas facts”; (20), “Cajun and Zydeco Music for the Christmas Season”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Meditations on a Dead Worm

Dear George,
I was walking down Ludlow Ave. the other day when I happened upon the remains of a dead worm on the sidewalk.  It was a sad sight.  For an organism whose entire life mission consists in burrowing through the earth, dying on top of a concrete sidewalk is a lousy way to end it all. 

Because of growing up in the country, I was much more connected to worms in my youth.  I spent a lot  of time digging holes in the ground, helping my mother in her garden, getting bait for fishing, or just digging for the sake of digging.  I’d inevitably find four or more worms every shovelful.  One especially memorable activity was going to Riverside Cemetery at night after a heavy rainfall and capturing night crawlers on the front lawn.  They were big worms — up to eight or nine inches long.  They surfaced on the ground during the rain to avoid drowning.  You had to move silently and quickly to grab a nightcrawler because they’d dart back into their burrows the moment they sensed your presence.   

We think of worms as lesser creatures, but there are many more worms in the world than there are people.  Experts speculate that the number of worms in the world runs in the hundreds of trillions.  A British research station reports that a single acre of rich fertile soil contains about 1,750,000 worms. (5)  Even poor soil supports 25,000 worms per acre. That’s a lot of worms.  Even if we use an overly conservative estimate of 10,000 worms per acre, that means there are about 21,643 times as many worms in the world as there are human beings.  Moreover, worm’s lives aren’t fleeting.  Many varieties of earthworms live four to eight years in the wild.  Worms’ life expectancies are longer than rats, mice, toads, foxes, squirrels, eels, and rabbits. (3) 

Although they live in crowded circumstances, I don’t get the sense that earthworms are very social creatures.  You never hear about worms fighting or collaborating.  On the other hand, they do have busy sex lives.  Earthworms are hermaphrodites, meaning that each individual worm has both female and male sex organs.  Worms attract a partner chemically by emitting sex pheromones.  This usually happens at night and above ground.  A pair of romantically attracted worms line themselves up side by side, facing in opposite directions.  Then the worms hook up by attaching themselves to one another with bristle-like hairs, and both excrete a lot of mucous that forms a slime tube around their bodies.   Next each member of the pair secretes semen from its male organ into the other worm’s swollen female receptacle which contains its egg capsules.  Afterwards the two worms slip headfirst out of their respective slime tubes and create lemon-shaped cocoons which are buried in the earth.  Each cocoon contains up to twenty worm embryos.  The cocoons hatch two or three weeks later, and the newborns develop their own sexual apparatuses over the next couple of months.  Then the whole process begins all over again.  (2, 5) 

Nobody knows exactly what it’s like to be a worm.  Most earthworms spend the majority of  their time underground, so they inhabit a limited world.  They don’t have any eyes or ears or noses, though they have a tiny brain located in their heads just above their mouths and can chemically sense their surroundings.  Worms are sensitive to light and vibrations, can detect the presence of predators, experience pain, and are capable of simple learning.  (5)  And earthworms are powerful. Newborn worms can push 500 times their own body weight as they burrow through the soil, while full-grown adults push 10 times their body weight.  Worms spend most of their lives eating, taking in all sorts of organic matter, from leaves to decaying animal matter.  They excrete the digested material into the earth as nutrients.  (5)  According to the US Soil Conservation Office, a single earthworm can digest 36 tons of soil in a year. (4)  

Biologists note the immense role that earthworms play in enriching the organic environment.  Charles Darwin wrote, “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”  (5)  Earthworms are like little farmers, tilling the earth and promoting drainage.  They move the soil upwards and downwards, aerating it and distributing nutrients.   Aristotle described earthworms as “the intestines of the soil.”  (2)   Researchers have found that earthworms increase the yields of peas by 70%, spring wheat by 400%, and clover by 1000%. (4)  Moreover, worms have a lot of economic value as a commodity.  In a recent year Canada exported 370 million worms with an American retail value of $54 million. (5)

My father always had a great reverence for life, and, by the time that he reached his eighties, he had extended this outlook to all living beings — animals, trees, plants, insects.  When Katja was dismayed by a large spider in the kitchen at Farm years ago, Vic explained that the spider was his housemate.  Reluctantly he gave us permission to relocate the spider to the front porch.  I think Vic even gave up swatting mosquitoes.  I decided that, as one gets older, life  of all sorts becomes more precious.  In any case, that’s what I thought about the dead worm on the sidewalk.

Sources:  (1), “Earthworm”; (2), “How Earthworms Work”; (3), “Chart showing the average life spans of animals”: (4), “Earthworm benefits”; (5), “Earthworm”.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Poinsettia Express

Dear George,
The holiday season is definitely upon us.  CVS put out its Xmas merchandise on sale the day after Halloween.  Our local paper on Black Friday last week weighed five pounds, and only two ounces of that was news.  I am getting in the mood by playing Xmas songs on my Internet radio stations, and I find myself humming them all day long.  Also I go to the Krohn Conservatory whose holiday show this year is named The Poinsettia Express.  Here are some images.