10 Things About Christmas Decorations

I love, love, love to decorate for Christmas. I enjoy it and look forward to it every year. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it makes me happy. And yes, I decorate for Christmas before Thanksgiving (the U.S. Thanksgiving, anyway, I do not decorate before Canadian Thanksgiving). If any of that bothers you, just don’t come over to my house during this time of the year. I’m not sorry and I won’t stop.

I realize that for many Christmas, a holiday that many people in Western society treat as a holiday of extravagance, can be difficult. And I don’t mean to be insensitive to that. It’s not about the money spent to me. I love digging through old boxes of ornaments each year and remembering where they came from, who made them (even the not-so-pretty ones), and why we have them. I like making small crafts with my kids to display around the house. One of the traditions I have with my boys is to help each other build a Christmas tree out of Lego to put in their room each year.

We don’t have an intricate Christmas Village display or a lot of moving parts, and we still shy away from anything particularly delicate, expensive, or irreplaceable (my kids are young and they play rough). But what we do have, I love. And I wait eagerly every year for Halloween to end so I can begin prepping for Christmas. Though, I do usually wait until the second week of November only because we have several family birthdays to celebrate first. My ADHD brain can only handle one event prep at a time.

But why do we decorate the way we do for Christmas? Why a large tree? Why all the lights? The answer is mostly Germany, but I’ll get into that in a minute. Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know About Christmas Decorations.

  1. Being that the birth of Jesus (yes, I am a Christian) has been argued to be in March, April, September, and several other months based on different points of reference, the old rumor that Christmas is celebrated in December to make it easier for Roman pagan converts to accept it is true. Why Romans? Because Christmas was not actually celebrated until about 300 years after the death of Jesus. It was during the final years of the reign of Emperor Constantine, who famously converted to Christianity himself. Romans had long celebrated the Winter Solstice as a time when Saturn (Roman God of Agriculture) would begin to return to full strength and bring the warmth and growth of spring with him. Evergreen boughs and branches were often used for Saturnalia decorations and transitioned somewhat easily into Christmas decor.
  2. Boughs and branches are great, but how did we get around to having a whole tree indoors? Remember when I said the answer was mostly Germany? This is where that begins. Sometime in the 1500-1600s, Germans began melding the formerly Pagan use of evergreens with the blossoming (no pun intended) Christian tradition of the “Tree of Light”. The Tree of Light is not an actual tree. It was more of a wooden pyramid that stood over an empty manger and held a candle on top. They began to decorate it with branches, pine cones, nuts, etc. And while there are still places where a wooden “Tree of Light” is more common than an actual tree, eventually the Germans moved on to just bringing an entire tree into the house. Though it should be noted that since the beginning of the tradition, it was more common to see trees about four feet in height, whereas once the tradition made its way to America it immediately became a floor-to-ceiling, bigger is better kind of thing.
  3. Martin Luther is credited with putting lights on the tree. The legend has it that while walking home one winter night the stars shining through the evergreen branches struck him as so beautiful and ethereal, he wanted to take the vision home to his family. He placed candles on their “artificial tree” (wooden pyramid decorated with evergreen boughs and branches) and voila the tradition of lighting the tree was born. I have no idea if this is in any way true, but several sources mention it so I’m rolling with it.
  4. German immigrants brought the tradition of a Christmas Tree with them to the United States. Actually, to be more accurate, they began bringing the tradition to the “New World” that was still divvied up among Western Europe despite having a thriving and sophisticated network of Native civilizations. But I digress. The best I can find (read: It’s okay to correct me if I am wrong here), most Indigenous tribes basically looked at the Christmas tree as one more weird thing White people did. And let’s be real, it really would have been just a drop in the bucket at that point. English settlers took great offense in the early days though. They decried the Christmas tree as being a “mockery” of the “sacred event”. They also thought Christmas Carols, any other kind of decoration, or “frivolity” was offensive. Basically, the English were sticks in the mud. It took a while, but by the mid 1700s, the Christmas tree began to take a foothold in the British colonies, though still mostly among German families.
  5. Enter Queen Victoria. The colonies are now their own country, it’s the mid 1800s and Queen Victoria (who was from a German line of English monarchs herself) and her German born husband are painted celebrating with their young children around a Christmas tree in the palace. Whatever Victoria did at this point in time immediately became fashionable, not only in England but throughout Western Europe. It also became so among the wealthy elite along the East Coast of the United States who desperately wanted to seem as trendy as their English counterparts. Suddenly, the Christmas tree and its growing list of appropriate decorations was not only something for poor or recent immigrant families, but also for those looking to keep up with the Saxe-Coburg-Gothes. What a mouthful. Methinks the change to “Windsor” wasn’t just a PR move during the First World War, but an opportunity to simply the House name. But again, I digress.
  6. By the end of the 1800s, Woolworth’s Department Store was selling about $25 million worth of German style Christmas tree “baubles” such as blown glass balls in a variety of colors. Other stores followed suit to try to get a piece of the burgeoning market. Mass production and a flood of supply suddenly made commercial Christmas decorations affordable to those outside the upper class. Christmas tree decorations as a business venture spread like wildfire (again, no pun intended). Today, there are Christmas Tree Farms in every U.S. State including Hawaii. I live in Mississippi and there are several within a half hour drive from my house.
  7. In the 1880s, the VP from the Edison Electric Light Company (started by Thomas Edison and now known simply as General Electric or GE) had the grand idea to design a special string of bulbs encased in glass to string around his Christmas Tree. He used Red, White, and Blue glass and used the lights to replace the “fire prone” candles that people still used to decorate the tree. He placed the tree in front of his parlor window. The window faced the street in his trendy, expensive New York neighborhood and passersby talked so much about it seemed to glow through the street that newspapers across the nation picked up the story and photographs circulated with the write ups. Soon anybody who could afford them (and had access to electricity) wanted electric lights on their tree. In 1895 then President Grover Cleveland would put up the first lit Christmas tree in the White House (the first tree without electric lights was brought in by Franklin Pierce before the Civil War).
  8. In 1923 then President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. During the Great Depression, construction workers building what would eventually be Rockefeller Center put up a small, plain Christmas tree to boost morale at the work site. In 1933, just two years after the workers put up the first tree, the publicist for Rockefeller decided it should be an annual event, complete with electric lights and fancy decorations. The lighting of the Rockefeller tree began to broadcast on NBC in the 1950s and remains a holiday tradition in the US today. This year’s Rockefeller tree will be brought in from Maryland, is the usual Norway Spruce, and is 79 feet tall. It will be lit (and broadcast) on December 1st. The National Christmas Tree Lighting in D.C. will not have a live audience and music show this year due to COVID concerns. However, the tree will still go up. This year’s tree hails from Six Rivers National Park in California.
  9. With all these beautiful spruces, firs, etc going up to great fanfare you might be wondering how and why modern artificial trees became prevalent. The answer is Boomers. No, really. After WWII suburbs were on the rise, Christmas decorations were somewhat affordable, and parents who grew up in the Great Depression were eager to share seemingly lavish Christmas traditions with their young children. However, now they more and more people were living in towns or even apartments without quick and easy (or cheap) access to trees to cut down for such a thing, the market for artificial, easily transported, trees opened up. They became so common and popular that for a time artificial trees were considered far more trendy than real ones. Especially when they became available in a variety of colors. My grandmother, who indeed grew up in the Depression and had Boomer children, loved her artificial tree. The rest of us not so much, but we loved her and so we helped her get it out of the attic and put it up each year without fail, while all having a real tree in our own homes. After her passing, the memory of that tree is something that makes us all smile. I now have an artificial tree so I can put it up so early. Thankfully, mine is at least meant to look natural, something my grandmother’s color changing tree did not even attempt.
  10. It was also during the childhood of Boomers that tinsel flooded the market. But about the time Gen Xers were joining their Boomer parents in decorating the family tree, tinsel was temporarily outlawed. Back then it was made of lead. Not that it was the first toxic decoration though. Ladies’ magazines had been suggesting ways to decorate for Christmas that included toxic substances since the late 1800s. Luckily, they all fell out of favor pretty quickly (turns out asthma attacks don’t exactly scream Christmas Spirit). Tinsel eventually re-entered the market as a plastic made item, for better or for worse.

That was a quick 10 things, and there is so much I didn’t cover! I didn’t even make it to poinsettias! Hmm. Maybe I should continue this discussion next month.

What holidays do your characters celebrate? Do they decorate? Where do those traditions come from and what do they represent? Are they toxic? Beautiful? Odd? We have some strange ways of celebrating different holidays, so having something that your characters celebrate makes them feel more relatable, more real.

In the real world, what holiday (not just Christmas) tradition represents this time of year to you and your family? My knowledge of anything related to Diwali is practically non-existent, Kwanzaa is not much better. I am very familiar with Hanukkah because I celebrated it with my Jewish friends growing up (we went to their house for one of the nights of Hanukkah and they came to our house on Christmas Eve), but I’d love to know how different people celebrate!

10 Things About Embroidery

Random fact about me: when I was very little there was an older lady who sometimes babysat me. I don’t remember her name or why she was the one watching me (I had three older siblings, three grandparents, and a whole host of aunts, uncles, and cousins in the same town back then), but I remember what I learned from her. She taught me how to crochet and to cross stitch. Going over to her house meant learning how to craft. She had a lot of doilies. A lot.

We moved out of that town when I was only eight years old, and I didn’t crochet anything again until I was in college. Several of my friends had learned how to knit, but I remembered being taught how to crochet and did that instead. It was like sort of like remembering how to ride a simple, but very painstaking bicycle. Eventually, I made baby blankets, hats, scarves, etc for anyone and everyone. I could afford yarn easier than I could afford other types of gifts. I could do a lot with a single skein. I never picked cross-stitching back up, though.

Fast forward to the present (2021). I was cleaning out a room in my house and came across a craft kit that I had actually bought for someone else before changing my mind about what to get them. Instead of returning the kit, I decided to save it for who knows what reason (hence why I have to periodically purge my house of unnecessary stuff). The kit was a “learning how to embroider” starter pack. It had a book of instructions, some floss, a couple of needles, a hoop, and some designs to choose from. I wasn’t having the greatest mental health day, and crafting sometimes helps me hit my emotional reset button, so I decided to give it a go. It’s been two weeks. I have now embroidered a small bag, several bookmarks, and have about five more projects planned out. It’s simple, it’s pretty, and it’s addicting. It gives my hands something to do even when my mind is kind of a mess. Unfortunately, it sometimes makes me go into hyperfocus mode and takes over my whole day. ADHD is a wild ride, y’all.

Anyway, since I have it on the brain, you get to join me in learning about my latest addiction (better books and crafts than dangerous things). Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know About Embroidery:

  1. Historians don’t actually know when embroidery first began as an art form. There are ancient examples of embroidered items from multiple different cultures and on most continents. A few years ago, a dig in Russia unearthed a Cro-Magnon (30,000 BC) with embroidery on his clothing and hunting gear. So it’s not just an old art, it’s literally prehistoric.
  2. In Greek Mythology, Athena is credited with gifting the mortals with embroidery. It is what led to an eventual showdown with Arachne, a mortal.
  3. It comes from a French word meaning embellish. While I’ve never heard it used this way, apparently there are places where to say someone is “embroidering” a tale colloquially means they are exaggerating quite a bit.
  4. The largest piece of embroidery in the world (that we know of) is the Bayeaux Tapestry. On display at a museum in the north of France, the tapestry is 50 cm high and 250 ft long. It depicts William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry dates to the 1070s.
  5. There is evidence of multiple ancient Asian cultures using embroidery as a sign of social status for centuries. The higher your rank or greater your wealth, the more intricate and pervasive the design on your clothing or other items.
  6. Cross-stitching, a specific style of embroidery, entered the scene–at least in the West–in the early 1800s. It quickly became all the rage for “well-bred” young ladies. Even after machine embroidery took over, for a young woman to know how to cross-stitch and to do so with skill was seen as a mark of refinement. That probably explains why I did NOT learn how to do it from my own family.
  7. Embroidery machines went through several phases before truly becoming a catalyst for change in the industry. Both of the earliest automated embroidery machines were designed by men from Switzerland. The first only ever sold two of his machines. But he inspired others to piggyback off of his idea.
  8. While artists, shop owners, and manufacturers have all been male dominated fields in pretty much every culture, embroiderers employed women before most other industries would even consider it. In fact, when the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing availability of embroidery machines, many businesses still hired women to run the machines and to serve as quality control for the designs. Men still got most, if not all, of the credit, mind you, but it was an industry that welcomed female labor.
  9. If you are a talented embroiderer and want everyone to know (especially if you’re a merchant), you can get your City and Guilds textile certification. City and Guilds began as a technical and vocational licensure committee in England in 1878. It still operates today. The president of the organization is a member of the royal family. I’ll be honest here and say I didn’t know that certification in a guild was still a thing people did. I thought they were like most professional organizations these days where you paid your money and generally agreed to follow a given set of rules in order to make your own business endeavors seem more legitimate. Apparently, there are still actual classes and exams involved for this.
  10. It is possible to embroider on wood. It involves drilling holes, sanding, staining, and then threading said holes, but it creates a very unique look for signs, plaques, and even furniture. It’s not a style I’m into, but there is apparently a decent market for it because when I looked up examples online I found a plethora and they are not cheap.

Since I generally try to relate these topics back to world building in writing, let’s do that. Here is an art that transcends culture, time, trends, etc and has stood the test of time. Technology has made it more affordable and easier to access, but “the old fashioned way” is still valued by many. I can sit down with needle, thread, fabric, and hoop or frame and literally do the same activity that other women have done for thousands of years. In your fictional world, is there something that can make that claim? Is there something so valuable, so beautiful, so appealing that people are still willing to do it “the hard way”? Why?

Cooking comes to mind, but it was a necessity before it was an art. Embroidery–to my admittedly limited knowledge–was never a necessity. Maybe the beading techniques I’ve read about from certain Native American Tribal Nations that get passed down each generation, though by some definitions that can be lumped in with embroidery. I suppose much like painting, sculpting, or even composing, the tools may change through the centuries, but the art is still the same at the heart of it. A tradition that is never traditional.

10 Things about L. M. Montgomery

Personal Confession: I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables as a child. Or teen. In fact, I was in my 30s before I ever gave Anne Shirley more than a passing glance. Many, if not most, of my female friends had the entire series collection, but somehow it always escaped my interest.

It was until the Netflix adaptation of Anne with an E, when many, if not most, of my female friends began to exclaim their excitement for the then upcoming series of the heroine of their childhood that I took notice. I watched the show and loved the spunky, intelligent, awkward Anne. But was a series that debuted in the early 1900s really this…progressive?

Yes and no. As many book lovers do, after seeing a story based on a book series that I had previously skipped over, I started reading. There are progressive sentiments, but they are not quite to the level of the series. In any case, I had questions about who L. M. Montgomery was that this person wrote a series that captivated the hearts of little girls across Western Civilization (and even some of my friends from across the world).

Recently, while volunteering in my church library (yes, I have fully embraced all facets of my nerdiness), I came across a DVD (re-release) of the 1985 film version of Anne of Green Gables. It got my easily distracted ADHD mind back on track wondering about the author of such a beloved tale. So I followed Google down the rabbit hole.

Here are 10 Things about L. M. Montgomery.

  1. Lucy Maud Montgomery was born November 30, 1874 on Prince Edward Island. Before she turned two, her mother died of tuberculosis. Her father, grief stricken and not trusting himself to properly care for his daughter, left her in the custody of his in-laws. He remained near their home in Cavendish, PEI until Lucy was about seven when he took a job in another territory.
  2. She hated the name Lucy, but rather liked Maud. However, she often pointed out to people that Maud was “not with an e, if you please”. Lucy was the name of one of her grandmothers, while Maud was the middle name of one of Queen Victoria’s own daughters (Princess Alice Maud Mary).
  3. In 1901, she got a job working for a newspaper in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was the only female employed by the paper and earned meager wages, but she adored her job. She wrote gossip articles under a pen name, but also proofread for other writers, and edited the society pages.
  4. Unfortunately, Lucy Maud would have to give up her beloved job at the paper when her grandfather passed and her ailing grandmother needed help running things around their home. Her grandmother wasn’t supportive of Lucy’s writing, claiming it was unpractical, so she often did it at night by sneaking candles into her room.
  5. She kept up her writing career by secretly sending off submissions to magazines and publishers. It was relatively simple to do since her grandmother’s farm also served as the local post office and she was the de facto post mistress during her grandmother’s illness. She sent off her submissions and received her replies with nobody the wiser. Through her writing, in 1904 she made about $700. The average woman at the time only made $300 in a year.
  6. She was courted by many suitors and had multiple failed engagements. She liked courting more than the thought of actual marriage and admitted that when she finally did get married, she regretted it before the bridal feast got underway. She claimed she felt trapped and craved freedom. Regardless, she stayed with her husband to the end of his life and had several children with him.
  7. She never wanted to write any of the Anne sequels. It was in her original contract with the publisher that should the story gain popularity, she would be obligated to follow it with more Anne books. She wrote to friends saying the thought of being tied to one story and one character made her sick. She loathed the idea of following Anne through college. By the end of the series she was “done with Anne forever–I swear it as a dead and darkly vow.” After such a claim, however, she did eventually return to the series for one final novel.
  8. She was infected with the Spanish Flu in 1918 and almost died. Her best friend did lose her life and afterward L. M. suffered from Depression and became addicted to barbiturates. It was the “family secret” for almost 100 years, but one of her granddaughters eventually revealed that her death was a suicide caused by overdose because she lost the battle against her Depression. Her husband also suffered from severe Depression and L. M. had to spend a lot of effort to mask his even more so than hers in order to keep his place in the community. It eventually proved to be too much.
  9. From the start of her career, she tried writing under several pseudonyms including Maude Cavendish and Joyce Cavendish, but none were so successful as her gender neutral initials. L. M. Montgomery.
  10. King George V honored her as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Forevermore, her official title is Lucy Maud Montgomery, OBE. I think even Anne Shirley would be impressed.

There are actually a lot more interesting facts that I discovered. Truthfully, she was a complicated and interesting lady. And it seems much about Anne was based on Maud. No wonder she has captivated so many hearts and minds. She wrote from a place of emotional vulnerability and readers related to it.

Somewhat unrelated side note: If I ever publish anything of note and somehow become deserving of something like a Wikipedia page, y’all be nice. There is absolutely no need for people a century from now to know every embarrassing detail of my life. Poor L. M. has no more skeletons left in her closet.

10 Things About Vacuum Cleaners

I have two sons. They love dinosaurs. One of their favorite games in the backyard is to dig holes to “excavate fossils” while pretending to be paleontologists. They have discovered and named many new species of dinosaurs in our backyard to date.

I encourage their imaginations and their love of science. Unfortunately, my carpet often pays the price. They track in dirt on their shoes, on their clothes, in their hair, under their fingernails, and–as in a recent case–sometimes they just plain ol’ carry in big chunks of it to further examine after they’ve been told to come inside. It doesn’t help that we have a Rottweiler who loves and adores these boys so much that she is more than happy to help dig holes for them and track in her own amount of debris.

First world problems, I know. But the truth is, in their short little lives so far, these boys have killed three vacuum cleaners. Expensive ones. A Dyson, you know, the kind that promises to never lose suction, choked on their dirt. A Shark choked on their dirt. Lately, we opted for a less expensive model just in case it happened again. It did. The Eureka also burned out. We have a stick vacuum to help pick up the slack, but I feel a lot like that little robot in Wall-E that rolls around screaming “CONTAMINANT” as it follows Wall-E around the spaceship. Side note, that’s an underrated movie.

It seems however, I am not alone in my struggle. A friend of mine was commiserating with me because her kids have also cost her more than one vacuum cleaner along the way and shared this video she found for a good laugh. I’m not ashamed to say that I absolutely cackled. I don’t know who this woman is, but SHE GETS ME.

As you can see, vacuums have been on my mind lately. And because the internet can be a very useful thing, I did a little research to share 10 Things You Might Not Know About Vacuum Cleaners.

  1. The earliest incarnation of a cleaning device that would eventually lead toward the vacuum cleaner was, like many of its immediate successors, quite the behemoth. Invented in the 1860s in Iowa, it used bellows and blew instead of sucked. After typing that sentence the former teacher in me immediately braced for teenage giggles.
  2. Most early versions of the vacuum had to be carted around on horse drawn carriages and took at least two people to operate the mechanisms. Moreover, they were too big to enter the buildings they were meant to clean, so they had to be hooked to pipes and hoses through windows and doorways. The most famous was the “Puffing Billy” and was commissioned to clean Westminster Abbey before the coronation of King Edward VII. Lord Chamberlain was so impressed that he commissioned a Billy for Buckingham Palace and another for Windsor Castle.
  3. The quest for the perfect vacuum technology also spawned the hair dryer. The large blowing machines were hooked up to chairs with large hoods and used to blow air from furnaces to a person’s hair. Modern handheld hair dryers wouldn’t become widely commercially available until the 1950s.
  4. Anna and Melville Bissell ran a crockery shop until they managed to create a mechanized sweeper that used brushes. Their invention took off and the company they started has carried their name (and been run by their descendants) ever since. In fact, in 1889 when Melville Bissell passed away, Anna took over the company to steward it for her five children before they were of age and became the first female corporate CEO in America.
  5. In the early 1900s a department store janitor named James Murray Spangler used the Bissell Sweeper and added a few modifications of his own and created something that would make his job easier. He quickly realized the commercial viability of his invention and patented it. However, he didn’t have the means to manufacture and sell the machines himself, so he turned to family. His wife’s brother-in-law just happened to be William Henry Hoover. Hoover bought the rights, but also kept Spangler on in the business. However when Spangler died in 1915, he changed the name of the company from the Electric Suction Sweeper Company to The Hoover Company.
  6. The first iron lung was created by using an electric motor and two vacuum cleaners in 1927.
  7. A woman purchased an Electrolux vacuum in the 1930s (when they were the equivalent about $800 today) in Kent. She continued to use it without replacing it until it finally kicked the bucket in 2008 when it exploded in mid use. The Electrolux Company sent her a new one for free. Maybe I should look into getting an Electrolux if the whole Ridgid Shop Vac thing doesn’t work out for me.
  8. There are modern artists whose installations are primarily made from vacuum cleaners, and even one stage musician who is known for “playing” a vacuum cleaner.
  9. There is a vacuum cleaner museum in St. James, Missouri. And actually, my research calls it “the first vacuum cleaner museum” suggesting that there are more elsewhere.
  10. Before World War II, vacuum cleaners ranged in price from the modern day equivalent of $800-$1,300. After the war, manufacturing processes helped lower the price somewhat. However, it was the rapid growth of the middle class that is credited with the boom of consumer sales. Today 98% of American homes own a vacuum cleaner.

There you have it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to clean my floors. Again.

10 Things About Funerals

I know I missed posting last month, but I have a good reason. My eldest nephew got married! My sons were both a part of the wedding, so there was a lot going on and I gave myself permission to spend time with my family in celebration instead of posting. I regret nothing.

Before I get started with this month’s post, though, I would like to let all of you science fiction fans out there know that you have only ONE MORE DAY to wait until the release of Erebus Dawning by A.J. Super! She is even hosting an online book launch party so you can join in on the fun! It’s all online and COVID protocol friendly, and she’ll even have a couple of special guests! I know that is a lot of exclamation points in a row, but I got to read the very first draft of this book and the fact that I’ll get to see it in full, published glory is overwhelmingly exciting. I’m like Buddy the Elf, only instead of Santa Claus I’m over here screaming “I KNOW HER” about A.J. Super. So head on over to Amazon, request the book at your local library, or visit your local independent bookstore! Wherever you get your reading material, look for Erebus Dawning tomorrow!

Okay, why did I start off talking about weddings and book launches and then start to write a post about funerals? Well, I’m fairly certain I’ve already written about Mother’s Day in the past, so that was out. And one of my sisters has been chatting with me this week about our own mother, who passed away many years ago. Since that has been on my mind, funeral trivia it is!

When you’re world building, even if you’re writing a contemporary instead of fantasy or sci-fi story, funeral practices can tell us a lot about family dynamics, character beliefs, etc. For instance, I know that a funeral in Mississippi and a funeral in Cambodia are two very different processes. Being that I’m not Cambodian and that’s not my culture to explain (as I would probably do it poorly), today’s post is primarily about Western Funerals.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Funerals:

  1. The word Funeral is derived from the Latin word “funus” which has several meanings, but primarily translates to “death” or “corpse”.
  2. In Ancient Rome it is recorded that family or close friends planted flowers over and around the grave to “cleanse the ground” of the spirits of the dead, and to ensure peaceful repose for the deceased.
  3. On the other side of that coin, it is considered bad manners to send flowers to a traditionally Jewish family during a funeral. It reminds them of the vibrant life that has been lost. Having said that, I have several Jewish friends who would welcome the sentiment with which the flowers are offered, so if you’ve ever unknowingly done it, don’t beat yourself up. Also, this is actually a growing trend in non-Jewish funerary practices too. In 1927 less than 10% of obituaries included the phrase “in lieu of flowers” asking mourners to do something, or perhaps donate to a favorite charity of the deceased instead of gifting the family with flowers. Today in the United States, that number is closer to 80%.
  4. Generally, a funeral in the West consists of three main parts (though some tend to blend the first two together). The first step is the viewing. Unless the body is too damaged or it is specifically requested by the family, the embalmed body is put on display so that friends and family may gather to say goodbye one final time. If the casket has to be closed, a photograph of the deceased is prominently displayed. I won’t lie to you, I have thought this part was kind of a weird tradition ever since I was a little kid. I’m in my mid 30s now and I still think it is a bit odd. The second step is the service, it generally includes a eulogy either by a member of the clergy or from close family or friends and, in the case of the Christian faith, Scripture readings. The final step is the graveside service, which is usually attended by fewer people than the first two. A few final remarks are shared and the casket is lowered into the ground.
  5. When you lose a loved one, especially in the American South, you will be given food by just about everyone you know. It is believed that a mourner should be able to take time to grieve and should not have to worry about such mundane things as cooking while they do so. However, they are expected to receive visitors who come to pay respects to the family and the deceased, so there are definitely still obligations to fill.
  6. We tend to use the words coffin and casket interchangeably, but they don’t actually mean the same thing. A coffin is the hexagonal box that tapers toward the bottom. A casket is rectangular and usually lined with a soft cloth. A casket is named after a special box that families kept their fine jewelry in. We don’t often refer to the velvet lined jewelry boxes as caskets anymore, but that is where the burial apparatus got its name. Of course, since the 1990s in the United State, the rising popularity of “green” or “natural” burials mean that there is not a coffin or a casket. While statistics show that this practice is gaining traction, I’ve never attended a green burial. The body is not embalmed and is buried with as little excess man-made materials as possible.
  7. While dark colors have been common during mourning for centuries in the West, wearing black specifically didn’t become standard until it was made popular by Queen Victoria. She wore black mourning clothes for the remainder of her life after her husband passed away. While dark clothes have been longstanding tradition, even longer standing traditions in many Asian cultures use white as the funerary color.
  8. Some gravestones are elaborate, some are all but bare. These days that might be a choice by the family, or it might be limited by the cost of the stone. However, in the early colonies, especially those inhabited by Puritans, elaborate gravestones were considered sinful. Trying to distance themselves from the elaborate memorial markers of the Catholic Church they were distancing themselves from, they went in the opposite direction and tried to keep both the funeral and the gravestone simple and austere. Today, you’ll find a mix in any given cemetery of elaborate gravestones and simple ones.
  9. Archaeological evidence in both Iraq and Wales shows Neanderthal bodies purposely buried and covered in a layer of pollen dust. While it is possible that the pollen dust has been deposited over the years by burrowing rodents, many believe this to be a sign that flowers at funerals were a concept even before modern humans entered the picture.
  10. There is another distinctly American type of funeral that is unlike any other. It started in New Orleans, Louisiana and it is not so uncommon that I haven’t seen it done. In fact, I have seen several. Jazz Funerals. During a Jazz Funeral, the family follows the hearse to the graveside on foot, followed by a Jazz band playing solemn hymns. After the graveside service, the Jazz band plays upbeat music and the family is joined by many other mourners to turn the mood into a true celebration of the life of the lost loved one. Everyone wears black, but it becomes a street parade. I’m not from New Orleans, but I do have to say that I like the idea of my family and friends celebrating my life instead of mourning my death. In my family, we have long embraced the concept of a wake and after all the loved ones we have lost, I think that celebrating their life helps my own personal grieving process much more than the somber whispers of a traditional funeral.

There you have it. If you are from a culture or part of the world that celebrates or mourns differently, I would love to hear about it. I know that sounds a bit macabre, but it’s true. Funeral practices and traditions can tell us so much about each other that I sometimes find them quite fascinating.

Celebrate life. Check out A.J. Super’s new book. Come back next month for more trivia.

10 Things About St. Patrick’s Day

I own exactly one shirt that says “Irish Proud” and zero shirts that bear the common “Kiss Me, I’m Irish!” I have a partially Irish heritage from both sides of my family. I can name at least three separate castles in Ireland where my ancestors were born (one of them is now a hotel). I’ve never taken St. Patrick’s Day very seriously. I’m not Catholic (though I certainly respect the solemnity of the day for those who are truly honoring the Saint), my heritage includes a hodge podge of cultures and this is only a piece of it, and I loathe the whole tradition of pinching anyone not wearing green. Don’t kiss me. Don’t pinch me. Do not touch me without my permission. And not just because we’re still in a pandemic.

Still. There are some fun things to know about St. Patrick’s Day and the holiday’s namesake himself. And since I have about a bajillion and one things going on right now, this month you get a short and sweet post.

10 Things You Might Not Know About St. Patrick’s Day:

  1. Saint Patrick wasn’t actually named Patrick. He adopted the moniker of Patrick during his years in the priesthood. It stems from the Latin “Patricius” meaning “father figure”. Scholars believe his given name was likely Maewyn Succat.
  2. Until the late 1960s and early1970s, pubs in Ireland were closed by law on St. Patrick’s Day because it was a religious observance holiday. The laws changed as Ireland began to embrace the opportunity the holiday presented for the tourism industry. However, Belfast (Northern Ireland) didn’t have an official parade until 1998 due to hostilities between Protestants and Catholics.
  3. The color green didn’t become associated with St. Patrick or his namesake feast day until the Irish Rebellion in 1798. Prior, St. Patrick was most closely associated with blue–so much so that there is a hue actually named St. Patrick’s Blue.
  4. The New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade was the oldest continuously running civilian parade in the United States. The first parade was held in 1762 and it continued every year until the current pandemic caused its cancellation. The parade takes nearly 5 hours to complete and includes over 250,000 marchers. No floats are allowed.
  5. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world is thought to be the one held in 1732 in Boston. So why doesn’t it get to have the title of longest running St. Patrick’s parade? Because it’s not just for St. Patrick. Some time after the American Revolution (the sources I checked seemed to disagree on exactly when), the St. Patrick’s Day parade also became the Evacuation Day celebration commemorating the evacuation of British troops from the city. These days it focuses more on St. Patrick than the Evacuation, but the brief interlude and change of focus cost it the title. And now, some historians are pointing to new evidence found of a St. Patrick’s celebration in part of Florida. It seems records have been discovered discussing a St. Patrick’s Day parade arranged by a clergyman serving in the then Spanish occupied St. Augustine in the 1600s.
  6. St. Patrick may be the patron saint of Ireland, but he wasn’t Irish. He was born to Roman parents in what is now England, Wales, or Scotland. Historians are not certain which. He was kidnapped as a teenager and sold into slavery in Ireland. Years later, he escaped in the middle of the night by traveling the peat bogs in total darkness and finding passage on a ship. He claims in his autobiographical Confessio that the reason he knew where to go and which ship to approach was because an angel appeared to him in a dream after he spent many hours praying in the field while working as a shepherd for his master. After his escape, he eventually made it home to his parents, but continued to have religious dreams and visions. Eventually he became a priest and returned to Ireland to minister to the people there. While plenty of historians say his capture and escape are entirely plausible given the circumstances of the day, others point out that the only reason we know any of this is because it’s what Patrick himself wrote. With that in mind, they think it is possible, though not an especially popular theory, that Patrick actually ran away from home to avoid being forced to follow in his father’s footsteps as a tax-collector.
  7. The legend that states St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland during a public sermon didn’t begin to circulate until some time after his death. There were never any snakes in Ireland. However, it is believed that the legend is metaphorical with snakes representing a form of evil in general.
  8. The reason shamrocks are so closely associated with St. Patrick’s Day is the Saint was regularly known to use the the three-leafed plant (as opposed to the four-leaf clover) to help explain the Holy Trinity to new believers.
  9. St. Patrick’s Feast Day, which was added to the Catholic calendar in 1631, falls during the observance of Lent, during which the Catholic church prohibits the consumption of meat (exceptions are made on Fridays, also fish doesn’t count as meat in the prohibition). However, the Church lifts the ban on St. Patrick’s Day to allow and encourage members to feast and celebrate the Saint.
  10. The dish commonly associated with St. Patrick’s Day is corned beef and cabbage. However, it turns out that it’s an American tradition. In Ireland, cabbage and bacon are commonly served on the feast day. However, in Colonial New York, Irish immigrants living in slums couldn’t afford bacon. Instead they purchased leftover corned beef rations from ships returning to port after long voyages. The “corn” in corned beef is actually salt. The meat had large salt grains, known as corns of salt due to their size comparison to kernels, because it was used as a preservative. The poor immigrants would purchase the leftovers and boil it three times to get ride of the taste of brine before serving it with cabbage.

For anyone wondering why I keep capitalizing Saint when it is not directly followed by Patrick’s name, it’s because there is a difference between saint with a lowercase s and Saint with a capital S. Saint with a capital letter refers to someone who has been canonized by the Catholic Church. However, saint with a lowercase letter retains it’s original definition–believer. All Christians are saints, but very few are recognized as Saints.

There are many catchy Irish Blessings, but I’ll leave you with this one because I grew up with it embroidered and framed on the wall of the farm house we lived in: May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

10 Things About Lego

I have two sons who love to play with Lego. I want to say Legos because that’s what looks correct to me, but as I researched for this post, I discovered that the company officially confirmed some time ago that the plural of Lego is Lego. Also, they have decided it’s an adjective, not actually a noun because it describes parts (Lego bricks, Lego wheel, Lego minifigure, etc). They’ve clearly given it quite some thought.

But I digress. My two boys (I’m sure if I had a daughter she could very well be just as enamored, but I only have boys), adore building anything they can dream up out of their Lego sets. Dinosaurs, laboratories, jails, zoos, houses, spaceships, time machines, etc, they never stop imagining and building. And since our country (the United States) is trying to deal with a lot of crazy right now, I thought I’d spend this month focusing on something simple and wholesome. Toys.

Here are 10 Things You Might Not Know About Lego:

  1. The company started during the Great Depression. A Danish man named Kirk Kristiansen stopped building expensive wooden furniture that nobody could afford to buy during such a time, and instead began making small wooden toys. The company name is a mash up of two Danish words Leg and Godt. They mean “play well”.
  2. It wasn’t until 1949 that a salesman pitching a plastic mold injection machine changed the fate of the company. For part of his sales pitch, he had a small, studded, interlocking brick to help demonstrate what the machine could make. Kristiansen and his son, who by now had joined the enterprise, soon began making their own little brick toys not knowing that someone else held the patent! By 1958, Lego had improved upon the design and the mistake involving the patent violation wasn’t discovered until after the original patent holder passed away. The company’s official stance is that Kristiansen was “inspired” by the original patent holder, and they did eventually buy out that man’s company to avoid any messy legal issues.
  3. The margin of error on a Lego brick is 0.005 millimeters. But the process is so streamlined and precise that only about eighteen bricks per million have to be discarded due to irregularities. And with over 400 billion bricks in circulation around the world, it’s important to be consistent.
  4. A Lego brick made in 1958 and a Lego brick made today would still interlock with each other.
  5. Lego didn’t begin making the little people–minifigures, or minifigs for short–until the 1970s. Yellow was chosen as the universal color for them because the company thought it was the the most “racially neutral”. Minifigs didn’t start to have any other skin colors until licensing contracts began for already existing products, properties, or people. The first were NBA players.
  6. It wasn’t until the company started having financial difficulty in the late 1990s that they started considering licensing Star Wars products. The prequel trilogy was being hyped and they needed something that would guarantee revenue, but the official company stance had always been that no toy should represent war. They’d never before made a Lego firearm of any kind, real or imagined. The Star Wars series would require weaponry. It took six month of arguing before the board convinced the head of the company, Kristiansen’s grandson at this time, to sign the contract. It basically saved the company and opened the door for many, many more licensing agreements.
  7. A single Lego brick and withstand up to 950 lbs of force without breaking and can be hit thousands of times before cracking. It might be the most durable (and painful to step on) toy in history!
  8. Lego produces more tires for their playsets each year than Goodyear does.
  9. The heads of all minifigs are hollow and have small holes on either side (sometimes hidden under helmets or hair attachments). This is so if a child swallows one, there is a way for air to get through the obstruction.
  10. During the Christmas shopping season, approximately 28 Lego sets are purchased every second worldwide.

For a television show on BBC, a team of master builders once built an entire, functioning–e.g. with working electricity and a flushing toilet–house entirely out of Lego just to prove it could be done. So not only can they be used to build small scale buildings like the ones my children love to make, they can be used as actual construction material! Though, I will say that my husband and I once tried to build a night stand for my eldest son out of Lego and it takes a lot more little bricks than you think. I feel like of the 400 billion Lego bricks around the world, approximately half of them stay scattered about my living room floor pretty regularly. It took a significant portion of the ones we had at the time to put together that night stand and it took a sweet forever. In the end, my son decided they were more fun to take apart and rebuild than they were to use as furniture, but it is doable!

10 Things About St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Last weekend, I ran the St. Jude 10k. I never really thought I’d do it before, but this year I started running and since the race went virtual, even an introvert with social anxiety couldn’t say no. I’m glad I did it. I love to support St. Jude and this is one of their biggest fundraisers of the year.

I was never much of a runner before this year. But 2020 has done weird things to a lot of people. For me, I started running. And soon after I started, I knew that I would want to run for St. Jude. My husband has run for St. Jude for years, but he’s naturally athletic and built to run. Me, not so much. Still, I wanted to try. When the race went virtual, meaning I wouldn’t have to be in the midst of roughly 26,000 runners (based on previous years’ numbers), I decided to go for it. So I ran a 5k and then a 10k for a dual race challenge.

Why was a non-runner like me so keen to run so much? St. Jude. I love their mission and I love supporting what they do. I don’t live terribly far from St. Jude and I know plenty of people who work there, but I’ve also met many families of patients there. St. Jude is a special place and I hope they continue to do amazing things for generations to come.

What’s so special about St. Jude? It’s not just a children’s hospital. It’s a place where families of pediatric cancer patients go to find hope. Let me tell you a little more. Here are 10 things you might not know about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

  1. Danny Thomas, born Amos Muzyad Yaqoob Kairouz, was an American comedian, singer, actor, producer and philanthropist. He founded St. Jude after his career took off. He said that in the early days of his career, when work was hard to come by and he wasn’t sure he could truly provide for his wife who was pregnant with their first child, that he prayed to St. Jude Thaddeus. One night, in a church in Detroit, he begged the saint for help and vowed that in return, he would build a shrine.
  2. St. Jude Thaddeus is known as the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.
  3. Shortly after that pivotal moment in the entertainer’s life, things began to pick up. He would eventually be a household name. And by the 1950s, he was ready to make good on his promise. He turned to Cardinal Samuel Strict, the man who confirmed him into the Catholic church as a boy. Cardinal Strict hailed from Memphis, Tennessee and suggested Thomas start there. Thomas knew he wanted it to be a children’s hospital, but his vision was for something bigger than a general hospital.
  4. In the mid-1950s, the childhood cancer survival rate was barely 20%. The survival rate for ALL, the most common form of childhood cancer, was only 4%. When Thomas enlisted the help of several Memphis area businessmen to help fund his hospital project, he declared that “no child should die in the dawn of life” and the decision was made that St. Jude was focus specifically on pediatric cancer care and research.
  5. That decision made, Thomas had another declaration to make. He wanted to remove the burden of the cost of treatment for patient families. No St. Jude family would ever be turned away for lack of insurance, nor would they ever receive a bill. They would forever be free to focus on their child during a critical time. That’s still true today. No family at St. Jude is ever billed for treatment, travel, accommodations, etc. Other charities partner with St. Jude to provide housing for families from out-of-town so they are not met with hotel costs. Meals are provided, and, of course, world class medical care.
  6. Funding the hospital without ever billing a patient is a major endeavor even today. But before it was even built? Thomas and his group of original donors knew they were going to need more help. Once again, Thomas knew where to turn, his fellow Arab Americans. In Chicago in 1957, 100 representatives of the Arab American community met to discuss the prospect of funding St. Jude. The American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) was founded during that meeting and is still responsible for 80% of the hospital’s funds. It is America’s second largest healthcare charity.
  7. On February 4, 1962, St. Jude opened their doors. They stayed true to the vision of Danny Thomas to never turn away a family based on race, religion, or financial status. St. Jude was an integrated hospital from the very first day, making it the first such hospital in the South. And it wasn’t just the patients who were integrated. At a time when many “white” hospitals refused to hire Black doctors, St. Jude hired an integrated medical and research staff.
  8. Since the opening of the hospital and research center, the way childhood cancer is treated has changed in many way thanks to scientific breakthroughs made there. The childhood cancer survival rate is now 80%, and the ALL survival rate is 94%. The research teams there have also made strides in treating sickle cell anemia, found a cure for “bubble boy disease”, and recently announced a discovery of how to successfully treat COVID-19.
  9. In 1996, Peter Doherty, PhD–the Immunology Chair at St. Jude at the time–won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  10. The child Thomas’s wife was pregnant with when he first made that desperate prayer to St. Jude Thaddeus would eventually be known to the world as Marlo Thomas, an actress, author, social activist and the current National Outreach Director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. If you’ve ever seen a St. Jude commercial asking for donations that she or any of her celebrity friends star in, the kids around them in the clips are actual St. Jude patients in Memphis.

St. Jude race weekend is one of the hospital’s biggest fundraisers of the year. This year 15,000 people participated, down from over 26,000 last year. And while so many people are not in a place to be able to donate during the pandemic, childhood cancer doesn’t care. I had the means to donate a small sum, solicit additional donations, and to run, so I did. I’m proud of myself for running the distance, but I’m more excited to be even a miniscule part of what goes on at St. Jude.

Because I agree with the late Mr. Thomas, who passed away in 1991. No child should die in the dawn of life.

10 Things About Birthday Celebrations

My eldest son recently turned seven years old. We don’t usually do big birthday parties, but we do like to take weekend trips to fun (and generally educational) places. Last year his obsession with dinosaurs began in earnest, so we took a day trip to a museum where he could see fossils and learn more about the types of dinosaurs discovered in our region. He loved it. But as you can imagine, the pandemic prevented us from continuing that tradition this year.

Sure, some places are open. No, we aren’t in lockdown at the moment. We are all healthy (knock on wood). But it just didn’t seem prudent. The fact that we were even able to make that decision based on practicality and not financially instability is something I recognize as a huge privilege in the uncertainty of 2020. I am grateful for that.

Luckily, my son had a great time anyway. Knowing there was only so much we could really do, he was over the moon at what we pulled off. I made him a dinosaur shaped cake, we took him to the local Lego specialty store (we were all in our masks) and let him pick out a new set–it was dinosaur related, and we took him to a restaurant to sit outside on the patio and let him order some of his favorite foods. He was all smiles and laughter the whole time. He didn’t seem some big birthday tradition of museums, zoos, or aquariums. He just wanted to have fun with his family.

I’ve been pondering that. I know it sounds like we go over the top for birthdays. And maybe we do. But I have found that it is easier and cheaper to take a day trip to a museum a couple of hours away than it is to prepare and host a room full of children. Even so, we make a big deal out of it.

Growing up, my family didn’t make a gargantuan deal out of a birthday. Maybe we had a party. Or maybe we went out to dinner. There were always gifts, to be sure, and there was no lack of love. But since my birthday was very close to a major holiday, a lot of the time if there was a party, it wasn’t for me. It just happened to take place on my birthday. It never bothered me. In fact, I never thought all that much about it except when I joked about how big some of the parties were. “Look at this place. These people really went all out for my birthday!” “These people” of course being people I probably had only met a handful of times, if that, and were acquaintances my parents knew. It might not have been for me, but those parties were often pretty fun and certainly on a bigger scale than any one event has any right to be. On more than one occasion, I got to ride in a limo or even a private plane on my birthday at someone else’s expense. I didn’t care it wasn’t specifically for me, it was cool. But my husband grew up in a family where birthdays are a big deal. He very fondly remembers birthday traditions in his childhood and wanted to pass that along to our children. We agreed to do so and I have no regrets. I find it’s more fun to celebrate their birthdays than it is to celebrate my own.

With so many birthday traditions in every culture being affected by the global pandemic, it got me thinking about where some of our traditions originated. Obviously traditions can vary from family to family, and certainly from culture to culture, but everything starts somewhere. Research target fully locked, I began combing through sources to find the answers and found a few interesting* snippets along the way.

*Interesting is in the eye of the beholder. I’m a nerd who likes history and random trivia so take my evaluation of the aforementioned snippets with a grain of salt.

And so we have it. 10 Things about Birthday Celebrations:

  1. Most sources cite Ancient Egypt as the first observed birthday celebrations. Pharaohs celebrated their coronation dates as their birthday because it was thought that when a person became a pharaoh, they were reborn as a deity. It was more of a sacred observance than anything and no mere mortal celebrated their own birthday.
  2. Historians believe the tradition of candles on a birthday cake stems from the Greeks. Like the Egyptians, they celebrated the birthdays of deities, not mortals. To honor the birthday of the goddess Artemis, it was common to make a moon shaped cake with a candle in it.
  3. The Ancient Romans are credited with taking the tradition of a celebrating a deity’s birthday and expanding it to the common man. Man, of course, is the key word there. In Rome, *only* men celebrated their birthdays (the first celebration of a woman’s birthday in the Western World that we have record of isn’t until the 12th century).
  4. A set of slabs made of “wooden leaf fragments” from 100 A.D., prepared by Claudia Severa, are believed to be the first birthday invitations. She prepared them for her husband, Roman Commander Aelius Brocchus. Discovered in Northern England, the invitations are part of the collection of Vindolanda Tablets that were unearthed in the 1970s. The invitations are thought to be the oldest surviving writing in Latin by a woman.
  5. Evidence of gift giving is also found in the Roman tradition. However, it was not guests who brought gifts to the birthday boy. The man being celebrated was expected to provide gifts to his guests. The gifts were meant to represent his thankfulness to his friends and family that he did not have to live his life in isolation (especially in largely agrarian areas where people lived great distances from each other).
  6. The “Happy Birthday” song is actually a rip-off. The tune was written by sisters and Kentucky school teachers Mildred and Patty Hill in 1893. They wrote it as a song to start of the school day. “Good Morning to All” was the original song. Patty wanted a song easy enough for her youngest students to be able to sing and remember. Mildred was a gifted pianist and composed the music. The newer lyrics pertaining to a birthday were first published in 1912 and in the 1930s a copyright was filed by The Summy Company. Years later that copyright would be challenged first by the Hill sisters and then their estate. They won, but had to split the royalties with the company. The copyright was challenged again in the late 1980s after another company bought up The Summy Company and increased royalties on the song. Eventually the decision was that the copyright really only ever applied to a specific piano arrangement of the tune, never the words, and that it should have expired anyway. The song is now in the public domain in the US and UK.
  7. The concept of the birthday cake as we know it today can be traced by to the early 1700s in Germany. Children, both male and female, celebrated their birthdays with “kinderfeste”. Instead of sweet bread, German bakers began making sweet cakes for such occasions. Unfortunately, at that time the ingredients it took to make a sweet cake with sweet icing were still fairly astronomical in price so only the rich could afford such a luxury. That wouldn’t change until the Industrial Revolution.
  8. The Chinese birthday tradition of “longevity noodles” dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). I had never heard of this before, but it sounds pretty delicious. Golden Egg Noodles are consumed and the longer the noodles, the longer the person’s lifespan will be–never, ever cut someone’s longevity noodles. I am given to understand that this is also a common dish at Chinese funerals to celebrate the deceased’s long life.
  9. There are cultures and religions that still refuse to celebrate birthdays. Early Christianity associated the celebration of birthdays (apart from the coming of age celebration of a bar mitzvah that many early Christians still celebrated) with pagans. It was sinful to celebrate one’s earthly birth because each person is born a sinner. This could be tied to why saints are celebrated on the day of their death (their birth into heaven) instead of the birthday (their birth into sin and a sinful world). In any case, sometime around the 4th century, the church began annually celebrating the birthday of Jesus* and it quickly lead to the celebration of everyone’s birthday.
    *Since the actual birthday of Jesus was not specifically mentioned in the Bible, it is unknown. In fact, most evidence suggests it is much more plausible that he was born in late summer or early fall. However, choosing to celebrate his birthday near Hannukah and also near Saturnalia was thought to make it easier for new converts to adjust to the different celebrations of Christianity.
    **I give this information without judgement. I am a Christian and do not see historical accuracy as a threat to my beliefs, nor do I see the efforts of the early church in this matter as inherently awful. Moreover, it is not my place to judge anyone’s religious affiliation or lack thereof. If you do not know and love my God, why would I hold you to the same standard as those who claim to do so?
  10. Sir Henry Cole is credited with the invention of the Christmas card in 1843 in England because he had too many friends sending him Christmas letters thanks to the new “Penny Post” system and it was considered impolite not to respond. He had an artist draw up a picture that he described (a family around a dinner table flanked by renderings of them serving the poor) and then had a printer make him 1,000 copies with a generic message on each–“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.” All Sir Cole had to do was write the recipient’s name and attach postage. This idea immediately took off and birthday cards (and subsequently other types of greeting cards such as “Get Well” cards) evolved from the idea shortly thereafter.

So while birthday celebrations are very personal–one family goes big, while another chooses a smaller celebration–our modern idea of a birthday celebration is really the result of several different ancient traditions (and a few more not so ancient ones) put into a blender. I find this interesting both from a trivia standpoint, but also from a worldbuilding one. In fiction, when we create our worlds and cultures, even if we don’t feature a character’s birthday, perhaps thinking about how their birthday would be celebrated might help us round out the character a bit more.

10 Things About Scary Stories

When I was younger, I used to love ghost stories, scary movies, haunted house attractions–the works. If it could make me jump out of my skin or lose sleep, I loved it. This changed at some point in my life. I don’t remember the exact moment that I stopped enjoying them, it may have been more of a gradual thing.

Now I don’t care much for scary stories. Maybe it’s because as an adult (with anxiety) I have enough things keeping me up at night. I don’t really know, but I still have fond memories of being scared out of my wits as a kid with horror movies and ghost stories told during the wee hours of an October sleepover party. I’ve even called for Bloody Mary in the mirror.

These days I’m much more interested in the origins of the scary stories we all know. All stories start somewhere. And with Halloween just around the corner this seemed like as good a time as any to dive into the history of a few famous ghost stories.

Here are 10 things you might not know about scary stories.

  1. The oldest (known) ghost story *written* in *Western Culture* (these are my disclaimers because I have heard some spine tingling things from Eastern cultures and have no idea how old they are, and because even in the West, so much was passed by word of mouth for so many centuries that who knows how old some of our favorite ghosties really are) is credited to Pliny The Younger of Ancient Rome. He wrote of a house in Athens that, though large and luxurious, had to be rented out of cheap because anyone who stayed there was tormented by spooky sounds and menacing whispers throughout the night. It was said one could hear chains rattling if you listened closely enough. Finally, one determined fellow waited for the apparition to appear and marked the spot where the ghost stood. The next morning, he had a crew come dig up that area of the floor. They found the decomposing body of an emaciated man in chains. They gave the unknown man a proper burial and the ghost was never heard from again.
  2. The Headless Horseman. In Washington Iriving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow we meet an apparition who stalks a particular road through the woods looking for a head to replace the one he’s missing. Some think that this story evolved after rumors of a Revolutionary War soldier losing his head to cannon fire in upstate New York being seen post mortem. However, if you look back far enough, you can find a character in Celtic Mythology–The Dullahan–who rides a dark horse and carries his own head under his arm. He is also said to stalk the night terrorizing the unwitting.
  3. The Exorcist. Before Linda Blair spewed green gunk across movie screens in the the mid 1970s, she spun her head around in a book. That book was based on an account of an actual exorcism in the late 1940s. A young boy that the records call “Roland Doe” because they would not record his true name, was said to scream, speak gibberish, and suddenly have terrifying powers manifest. His mother called priests who thought he must be possessed by demons and tried to exorcise them to save the boy. It wasn’t pretty. The Catholic Church admits this happened, though they’d rather people forget about it, and agrees that it was the wrong thing to do. In hindsight, it is believed the boy may have suffered from more than one psychological disorder and needed an entirely different kind of care.
  4. Ghost stories have been translated from Egyptian Hieroglyphics that could be even older than Pliny the Younger’s 1st Century A.D. story. The inscription was found in Luxor and parts of the story are missing or too damaged to read, but it is definitely about a ghost.
  5. The Mummy. A lot of the inspiration for this tale of a tomb raiding releasing the powerful mummy spirit comes from the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. The world was fascinated when the tomb was found and followed the story of it closely in newspaper accounts. However, very shortly after the tomb was opened, one of the team members died of a sudden and unidentified illness. One member was poisoned, another smothered by his own father who was then so distraught over what he’d done that he committed suicide. Even one of the first visitors of the tomb, who wasn’t involved in the actual opening of it, was shot by his wife shortly after returning from the site. All of these events may have been explained away, but at the time it caused rumors of ancient curses and vengeful spirits.
  6. Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs were all inspired by the same, very real murderer. Ed Gein of Wisconsin. In 1957, some of Gein’s crimes came to light when authorities discovered he’d been snatching women’s bodies from local graveyards and making “trophies” out of their skin and bones. He also admitted to the murders of two women, but was declared legally insane and spent the rest of his life in a mental health facility.
  7. Amityville Horror. Ronnie DeFeo murdered his entire family while living in this New York town. He claimed during his trial that “the voices” made him do it. The Lutzes soon bought the house, not so surprisingly at a really good price since nobody else wanted to live there. Practically before they were done unpacking they claimed to experience terrifying and dangerous things they couldn’t explain. They called in famous paranormal investigators, The Warrens (yes the same couple mentioned from above) who agreed the house had way too much paranormal activity and was absolutely haunted. However, what The Warrens, and most of Amityville, didn’t know was the the Lutzes were working very closely with DeFeo’s lawyer to try to help him get a lesser sentence. It didn’t work. No other family who has lived in the house since the Lutzes moved out has mentioned any unusual happenings.
  8. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on a young German woman named Annelise. While today it is believed she suffered from epilepsy, during her own lifetime her parents and the local priests thought she was possessed. The poor girl went through not just one, but numerous exorcisms, and died less than a year after the last of them was performed. Some think that all of the exorcisms weakened her, but the records claim her death is the result of parental neglect. Since they thought she was possessed, they didn’t think taking her to a doctor would do any good.
  9. Dracula, and by association the German knock-off Nosferatu (because the film company couldn’t get the rights from Bram Stoker’s estate), is based on European pagan folklore. It was basically how people explained deaths by plagues, heart attacks, pretty much anything they couldn’t understand with the limited resources and knowledge the average peasant had at the time. Some say Stoker based Dracula on Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia in Romania. And while Stoker’s research notes mention that “dracula” means “devil” in Wallachian, there is some doubt about whether the connection goes further than that. I’d argue that it does, but I’m not a scholar or a historian, I’m just a nerd with a website and a heavy dose of skepticism. But I digress. In any case, by the time Stoker’s vampire came to life, so to speak, vampiric novels, epic poems, etc were already rising in popularity throughout Europe, some written by his own friends.
  10. La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman, about a woman who murders her own children and then is so overcome with grief that she commits suicide and her ghost wanders the night wailing over the loss of her offspring (and in some recitations, taking or killing other children to replace her lost ones), traces all the way back to an Aztec earth goddess tale. Meaning she predates the use of Spanish as the primary language in Latin America, but I cannot seem to find the name the Aztecs used.

In any case, each of these stories, both the ancient and the horrifyingly more recent, shows that scary stories, especially those about the afterlife, have existed all around the world since the days of old. Some scholars argue that this is merely evidence of the humans’ persisting and inherent fear of death, but others argue that the apparitions and monsters have more often been used to critique something about society, while thinly masking the message behind a “campfire tale” in order to escape retribution from society, or authority. Is Frankenstein’s monster really any more frightening than a doctor and scientist who is willing to disrespect the dead enough to use them like jigsaw puzzles? In the exorcism stories, is it the unhinged actions of the “patient” that are so scary, or the fact that the person is suffering from something unidentifiable and instead of really listening to their needs, everyone around them chalks it up to demons? Is Dracula a threat because he’s a vampire, or because he has the power to lure otherwise “virtuous” maidens into his lair with suggestions of a pleasure they aren’t supposed to even know about?

Happy Halloween.