10 Things About Nail Polish

Today is Mother’s Day, my vegetable garden has been planted, and I sprained my calf and cannot do my interval workouts for a few days, so I decided to turn to something else that brings me peace–painting my nails. I’ve always liked to paint my nails, but quite frankly I’m not great at it, so I don’t do it terribly often. But I recently discovered nail stamping, and now with just a swipe and a press I can showcase my love for books, pretty flowers, Sci-Fi and Fantasy franchises, or even create dinosaur designs that my kids love. There’s nothing quite like stamping a triceratops on your nails and then having your three-year-old look upon you with awe and declare, “Mama, you SO beautiful.”

But where did the tradition of painting our nails even come from? The answer is actually pretty hard to pin down other than to call it widespread cultural appropriation. I did give it the old college try, though, and learned several interesting things along the way. So here are 10 things you might not know about nail polish.

  1. While some sources claim the tradition of pigmenting one’s nails began circa 3,000 BC in China, others claim there is evidence of soldiers from Babylon using it circa 3,200 BC. Still others point to mummified pharaohs with pigmented nails and say it all began in Egypt. However, I find the most plausible place of origin from all the different arguments to be India. Henna had been used to create intricate designs on the hands for thousands of years. And from India, the use of such a pigment could easily have geographically expanded to China, Babylonia, and even Egypt where–spoiler alert–henna was used to pigment the nails of the upper classes.
  2. While Babylonian soldiers used kohl to color their nails and lips before going into battle (there is also archaeological evidence that they also spent time curling their hair before heading out, which leads me to call BS on many modern gender norms), Chinese women painted their nails to show their class. Women of the upper class, and especially of the royal family, wore specific colors that women of lesser classes were not allowed to wear. They also created intricate designs and even wore long, claw-like tips to protect long nails on two fingers of each hand. It was to show others they didn’t have to use their hands for manual labor.
  3. During the Rennaisance, the trend of coloring nails and then buffing them to a shine spread to Europe. However, the available colors were few and sometimes toxic. And in Victorian England, for example, simple, clean, nude nails were seen as a sign of moral purity and good upbringing (nevermind mind the abrasives and processes they used to make their nails look “naturally clean”).
  4. Towards the end of the 19th century, French women began re-popularizing the use of colored pigment on nails. And the turn of the century saw suffragettes in both England and North America don make-up and colored nail pigment to outwardly showcase their rebellion against the status quo. Some went so far as to wear bloomers (gasp) or even, dare I say it, pants. The horror.
  5. In 1916 Cutex developed a clear lacquer to paint over nails to make them shine so that women no longer had to spend hours breathing in chemicals from the abrasives they used to buff their nails to a shine. It revolutionized the nail industry. Mary E. Cobb studied how French salons manicured the nails of their clients, both men and women alike–a tradition dating back to King Louis Philippe. She also spent years watching her husband who was a podiatrist and a cosmetics manufacturer. She divorced her husband, struck out on her own, moved to New York City, and opened the first nail parlor in America. “Mrs. Pray’s Manicure” was the official name of the service and it was a runaway hit.
  6. In the 1920s, Michelle Menard watched the automotive industry develop shiny, brightly colored paints for cars. She made some changes to the formula, and voila, modern liquid nail polish was born. Of course, her employer owned the rights to her invention and patented it himself. And in 1932 Ms. Menard’s invention flooded the shelves. We can still find it there today, but alas Ms. Menard’s name isn’t on it. Instead, it bears the name of the company started by the man who patented her formula: Revlon.
  7. Since 1932 was still during the Great Depression, it might make you wonder how a company based on a luxury cosmetic item could survive. The answer is that it wasn’t that much of a luxury. A bottle of nail varnish in the early 1930s was about thirty-four cents in the United States. While that still put it out of reach for large swaths of the population, many women deemed it an item worth buying to lift their spirits during tough times. However, during WWII as many women entered the workplace and embodied Rosie the Riveter, painted nails became impractical. Women didn’t give up painting their nails altogether, it just became more popular to paint them with clear lacquer.
  8. In 1957 Frederick Slack changed the nail game again. Dr. Slack was a dentist who had the unfortunate experience of badly chipping a nail during his workday. A resourceful gentleman, he used tin foil and dental acrylic to create a fake nail to cover his chipped one. It looked so real and so natural that he decided to collaborate with his brother to turn his invention into a marketable venture. The result? Acrylic nails. It would still take until the 1970s for acrylics to become widely available.
  9. With strong colors once again en vogue by the 1970s, it sometimes made it difficult for make-up artists and designers to find a way to paint the nails so they wouldn’t clash with clothing during runway shows with multiple wardrobe changes. In 1976, Jeff Pink (who founded Orly) created a new type of nail design that wouldn’t clash with the outfits and was understated but adored the moment it debuted in a Paris fashion show. Today we call it the French manicure.
  10. Today the nail polish industry is a multi-billion dollar market and lacquers, varnishes, dips, powders, and polishes come in different price ranges, color schemes, and even ingredients. The most expensive bottle of nail polish available though is created by crushing black diamonds which gives the formula a one of a kind sparkle. Of course, at $250,000 there would need to be a genie in that bottle before I got too close to it.

From ancient traditions to battlefields to politics to wartime factories, the history of nail polish gives an interesting insight into changing values and ideals for women. With each new trend or available product line coinciding with women taking a step away from the societal norms of their day, it is an art that tells a story all its own. A sign of the struggle for equality. Beautiful war paint.

Maybe that will clear out the pandemic induced cobwebs and spark an idea for a new world to build. If not, don’t beat yourself up. The creative juices will flow again at some point. Until then, cut yourself some slack. You’re in the middle of a major historic event. It’s okay to be off your game (I’m really saying this to me because I haven’t written any salvageable material since school closed).

As for me, I’m going to enjoy my Mother’s Day and paint my nails.

Happy Mother’s Day to you. Whether you are a pet mom, a biological mom, an adoptive mom, a step-mom, a pregnant mom, a legal guardian, caretaker, or someone desperately wanting to become a mom, Happy Mother’s Day.

10 Things About Trampolines

Like most of the world, my family is staying home and distancing ourselves from non-essential spaces, activities, etc. I have two sons. If they can’t play with their friends at school or have playdates at the park, they need to get their energy out somehow. Plus, they are young and while we have talked about the virus and the reason we have to stay home right now, I don’t want them to live in fear.

Just as the virus was ramping up in the United States, my younger son had a birthday. I found a mini-trampoline that could be used indoors (a major plus considering the epic amount of rain this winter), but I could also toss it out in the yard and let them turn it into a dinosaur nest, part of an obstacle course, and flying superhero training pad, or whatever else their little imaginations could produce. It’s not the same as a big trampoline, but it fit in my budget at the time and it has provided them with a blessed amount of stimulation.

Despite its size and ease of use indoors, it has become an outside toy for two reasons. The first is that they like to have it there to be part of their imaginary games of dinosaur, superhero, American Ninja Warrior contestant, etc. The second is that somehow when indoors the idea of using it to propel oneself against a wall as hard and fast as possible seemed like a capital idea.

Still, they have loved every second of having it around and for that I’m grateful. They are already campaigning to get a bigger one. My husband is against it for a plethora of safety reasons. I can’t blame him, but I also have to remind him that most of the common injuries on a trampoline are caused by things our generation did on purpose when we were young. Elder millennials are the reason they now sell nets to go around the outside of backyard trampolines. We tried to bounce each other off on purpose. It was great fun.

Anyway, it got me to thinking, where did this ridiculous and fun contraption even come from? And ta-da, a 10 Things post is born.

Here are 10 things you might not know about trampolines:

  1. Long before the modern trampoline, the Inupiat (I hope that is the correct term, please forgive and correct me if it is not), a group of Alaskan Natives, would toss dancers into the air from taught walrus skin as part of the whaling festival in the spring.
  2. There is also evidence of this type of activity–involuntarily bouncing a person from a cloth tightly held by a group of people–being used as a type of punishment in Europe before it became a tool used by firemen to catch people who jumped from burning buildings.
  3. In the early 19th and 20th centuries, circus performers used springboards sometimes called trampolines and “bouncing beds” in acrobatic routines and comedic performances.
  4. What we know as the modern trampoline is an invention credited to George Nissen and his University of Iowa gymnastics coach Larry Griswald. Nissen is said to have first gotten the idea as a teenager watching acrobats use their safety net as a part of their routine at the circus to wow the audience. At some point, he even took apart his bedframe at home trying to create a smaller-scale replica of the bouncing safety net. When he was in college, his gymnastics coach helped him create a new prototype and in 1934 they filed for a patent. They named their invention a trampoline–a purposely anglicized version of el trampolín, a Spanish term for a diving board.
  5. Trampoline was originally trademarked. The product’s generic name was a “rebound tumbler”. However, when the term trampoline lost its trademark, the term became synonymous with the generic product.
  6. During World War II, the United States Navy began using trampolines as a training activity for pilots. The rebound tumbler was a way for the pilots to get a more accurate feel of orienting themselves in midair, a skill often needed during air fights and bombing raids. It was also one of the tools first used by the newly developing space program after the war ended.
  7. As far back as 1959 and into the 1970s, outdoor trampoline parks popped up across North America. George Nissen often spoke out against this type of use, little supervision or training and with practically no safety regulations, of his invention, but could do little to stop it. He believed in the power of his invention as a training tool, exercise equipment, and even a platform for sports, but thought that safety should always be a primary concern.
  8. In 1962 trampolining was officially recognized as a sport by the International Gymnastics Federation. It was introduced as an Olympic event in 2000 in Australia. George Nissen was there to witness the moment.
  9. He was also, at 94 years of age, able to “test” the trampolines at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He died two years later in 2010, but his daughter–who now runs a trampolining academy in California–says it was a true highlight and an unforgettable moment for him.
  10. Competition trampolines are made with slightly different materials than the recreational backyard version. A competition trampoline can help an athlete reach heights of approximately 33 feet (10 meters). Recreational trampolines can be expected to serve up about 1/3 of that height. Thank goodness.

It should also be noted that the added nets around the outside of a trampoline haven’t actually caused a big decrease in the number of trampoline-related emergency room visits. Kids will find a way to hurt themselves.

So if you have a backyard trampoline, or just a backyard to play in, get out in the fresh air and have some fun. If your stay-at-home orders are more stringent and don’t allow outside play, or perhaps you don’t have an outside play space, nobody is going to judge you for the amount of screen time you allow your child right now.

Remember, during this time you are not homeschooling your child. You are providing educational triage. You are not simply parenting. You are parenting through a global pandemic, something the What to Expect series never prepared any of us for. Cut yourself some slack, and cut your kids some slack too. Most of them don’t know how to appropriately express their fear or anxiety. Reach out if you need help or your kids need help. There are teletherapists that can consult with you over the phone, there are food banks to help those without a paycheck right now, there are organizations that exist to help you. Let those of us who want to reach out a hand do so. Please. Like the old song says, no one can fill those of your needs that you won’t let show.

We’re all in this together no matter how far apart we are.

Happy Good Friday, everyone.

A 10 Things Repeat About Flu

I’ve never straight up repeated a post (that I’m aware of), however back in the fall I wrote a 10 Things post that seems super apropos right now. The world is concerned about a type of influenza. It doesn’t matter if you think the world is overreacting, if you feel the need to stockpile supplies, or if you are just taken aback by the seemingly overwhelming number of people in your town who apparently weren’t washing their hands before this. Seriously. If you are privileged enough to have ready access to clean, running water and AREN’T already washing your hands after EVERY bathroom visit I have serious questions. But I’ll ask them from over here because I don’t want to get too close.

Anyway, if you’d like to see the original post, I’ll post the text below or you can visit it at its permalink here.

The following was posted back in September:

I thought about doing a post about the traditions and origins of Homecoming Week, but I realized that I’ve done a lot of posts about sports-centric or sports-related topics. But while I was contemplating a post on Homecoming, I came across a piece of trivia that steered me in a new direction. Most of the homecoming celebrations for colleges and universities in the United States that try to lay claim to the longest celebrated tradition almost all have a gap in 1918 and/or 1919.

Why is not a great mystery to any world history nerd, or Twilight fan for that matter. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 killed millions of people worldwide. Hospitals were overcrowded with sick patients, so universities and colleges (and churches, high schools, community centers, etc) were often converted to makeshift clinics. And since the flu is, as it always has been and continues to be, highly contagious, you can imagine why people might have wanted to avoid crowded sporting events and the like.

When people think of an illness that killed millions and affected world history, most conjure up thoughts of the Bubonic Plague. However, the “Spanish Flu” affected more people. And a single virus that makes its way around the world could give a writer a lot of ideas about how something as simple as a cough can shape the worlds we build.

10 Things About the Influenza Pandemic of 1918:

  1. An epidemic is an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and across multiple communities, but a pandemic spreads throughout the world. Both words are Greek in origin and epidemic means “among the people”, while pandemic means “all the people”. The people part can also be translated as “district”, but since I have a less than rudimentary grasp on Greek, I’m just going to roll with it. The Influenza Pandemic affected most of the world, including remote islands and the Arctic. It killed somewhere between 3% and 5% of the Earth’s population at the time.
  2. Afraid of mass panic, many countries coming out of the war censored how widespread the flu was as much as they could for as long as they could. However, Spain had been neutral in the war and had no wartime censorship in effect. Other countries felt free to report on how the disease was ravaging the Spanish population, including the king. This misled the general public to believe that the flu originated in Spain, and that Spain was hit particularly hard by it. In truth, scholars and historians still aren’t certain where it began. So it’s called the Spanish Flu because of how newspapers reported it, not because it actually has any tie to Spain itself.
  3. It was not any more aggressive than previous influenza strains, or most since. However, a combination of crowded medical camps and hospitals, poor hygiene, and malnourishment helped it spread quickly. Many of the lives lost during the pandemic were actually from bacterial infections that patients got because their immune systems were so weak from fighting the virus.
  4. The reason for overcrowded medical camps and malnourishment had a lot to do with World War I. If the war had never happened, the pandemic might not have either. That’s not to say that the flu originated in Europe at the time. Different researchers have claimed the spread of this strain of the flu began in China, Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe. There is still great debate about where the spread of the disease began. But as travel modernized, the disease could be carried quicker and more efficiently than ever before.
  5. It has been dubbed “the greatest medical holocaust in human history”. It killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS killed in twenty-four years. It also killed more people in a single year than the Black Death killed over the course of 100 years. Think about that the next time you pass on getting a flu shot.
  6. The pandemic was truly worldwide and not just “Euro-centric World”, “First World”, or “Developed World”. There was not a single region of the globe that was unaffected. 3-5% of the world’s population died, but that was only somewhere between 10% and 20% of the people who contracted the flu at the time.
  7. While typical flu epidemics tend to be more dangerous for the very young and the elderly, the 1918 pandemic was different because it actually killed mostly young adults. Half of the fatalities were between ages 20 and 40.
  8. Because of secondary infections, symptoms such as bleeding from the ears, coughing up blood, and bloody stools, the flu was misdiagnosed as a number of other conditions early on. These included dengue, cholera, and typhoid.
  9. It came in two waves, but disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. The first wave of flu during the pandemic wasn’t much worse than the usual flu season numbers. The second wave was the deadly pandemic. However, less than three weeks after the largest spike in death tolls, many cities were reporting that the illness seemed to be disappearing. There are many theories about why this is, but the prevailing one seems to be that the virus began to mutate (which is common) to a less deadly strain.
  10. Even after the flu died down at the end of the pandemic, the havoc wasn’t over. Studies showed that babies who were in utero during the outbreak were more likely to exhibit physical abnormalities or disabilities at birth and in the long-term were less likely to achieve the same socioeconomic status or educational milestones as the generation before or after.

The Pandemic of 1918 changed how we study the flu, how we classify the flu, and how we treat the flu. Generations were affected and populations decimated. All from a “simple” respiratory illness. There are a lot of plot and world-building possibilities in that concept.

Also, flu season is rapidly approaching. Get vaccinated.

One more time for the people in the back.

GET. YOUR. FLU. SHOT.

And if you are running a fever, stay home if at all possible.

10 Things About Hadrian’s Wall

I’m not a runner. Generally, if there isn’t a scoreboard involved, you can’t make me run. I need a goal. Running marathons isn’t about winning (I know they have winners, but I’ve never met anyone who actually expected to be victorious in a marathon). They were named for a legend in which a man ran roughly 26.2 miles to Marathon, Greece to deliver a message and then dropped dead. Recreating that event for fun is madness to me. But I digress. My husband is a runner. He runs for St. Jude every December and usually has at least one or two (or more) other, shorter races throughout the year to help him train. He’s starting to collect quite a few shiny medals.

Shiny medals are something I can get on board with. My competitive streak has slowly awoken from her slumber and is now staring at those shiny medals. She’s rubbing her hands together like Gollum and saying, “Must get a medal, precious!” But I can’t just attack the nearest 5k from nothing and expect to not embarrass myself. It’s not that I have to be able to come in first. I need to be able to finish. Preferably not last.

Plain speak: I’m out of shape. Way out of shape. But I’m competitive. It’s a strange combination. I want to win a race medal, but I don’t want to run alongside skinny people who ARE in shape. That’s not my idea of fun. That’s masochism. While I was contemplating this for the 100th time, a new kind of race challenge appeared on my newsfeed in that creepy way they do these days. A virtual race.

Wait. Virtual? A race that I run on my own. By myself. On my own time. I’m competitive, but I’m also an introvert and that means that I was immediately intrigued by this concept of a virtual race. And the one I saw was for a course near Hadrian’s Wall. I’m a history nerd who can’t afford to travel. But this challenge would give me a shiny medal if I finished AND give me 360-degree views of my spot on the course along the way? Sold.

It’s a ninety-mile challenge, so it’s not meant to be finished all in one day. But Hadrian’s Wall is…not ninety miles. It is, however, a UNESCO World Heritage site so maybe it’s worth a look.

10 things you might not know about Hadrian’s Wall:

  1. Julius Ceasar first sent Romans to what is modern-day England in 55 B.C., but in an ironic turn of events, an island that would basically come to be synonymous with colonization was full of people who were determined not to allow Roman colonization. Eventually, the Romans decided the island wasn’t worth it and went home. They wouldn’t come back until 43 A.D. and spent the next thirty years solidifying control over what is now southern England and Wales.
  2. In 117 A.D. Emperor Hadrian came to power in Rome (under some shady circumstances that made even the Roman Senate raise their eyebrows, by the way). He decided that the Empire was big enough already and didn’t need to keep expanding. This was great news for the troops in Britain. They were having trouble with a particularly stubborn group of tribes (Picts) that refused to be conquered in what is now Scotland. Suddenly, all they had to do was hold on to what they had instead of forging into a land of angry, hostile, guerilla warfare.
  3. The wall’s construction began in 122 and took six years to finish. It was approximately 80 miles long, had forts built at intervals and was additionally protected by a large ditch on one side. The dimensions were not uniform, but it was generally 10 feet wide and 16-20 feet high.
  4. Scholars don’t agree on the exact reason the wall was built. Some say it was to protect against attacks from the Picts. Some think it was more of a way to control immigration, smuggling, and customs. Logically, the second explanation makes a lot more sense given the population density (or lack thereof) along the wall. Though the Picts did still raid Roman land after the wall was completed.
  5. After Hadrian died, his successor returned to the previous policy of constant expansion. Under his orders, troops once again marched northward. They made it 100 miles before deciding to just build another wall. This wall was never actually completed because after the Emperor died, the next Emperor decided Hadrian’s wall was just fine as a border because the Picts were too savage to control.
  6. Today, the parts of the wall we can see are only remnants, about 10% of the original. Much more would have been lost if not for the efforts of John Clayton in the 1800s. When he realized that much of the wall hadn’t just been lost to time, but dismantled in order to build roads, cottages, and farm fences, he began buying up as much land around the wall as he could. He established a large farming operation on the land in order to pay for restoration work. After he died, the successful farming operation, the land, and the wall section all passed to relatives who subsequently lost it all while gambling (or so I’ve read). Eventually, the National Trust stepped in and acquired the land.
  7. In 1987 it was designated a World Heritage Site. There is a path for tourists to walk along the wall, however, it is suggested to only use the path during summer.
  8. In 1990, excavations of a milefortlet (a small fort built as part of the wall according to Roman mileage measurements) shed light on what life was like for the garrisons assigned to the wall.
  9. There are bathhouses that have been excavated along the wall that have the best-preserved Roman toilets in all of the United Kingdom. There are also some stones along the wall with the name of the Centurion in charge of the construction of that portion of the wall carved in them. That’s a pretty old “Lucious was here.”
  10. George R. R. Martin has stated that a visit to Hadrian’s Wall served as inspiration for The Wall built by Brandon the Builder in Game of Thrones. Because of this admission, many believe that the Romans’ descriptions of the Pictish people are also what inspired the Wildlings.

Are there weird archeological sites in your fictional world? Do they serve a purpose? Does it have bearing on the story itself? Are you envisioning your own Wildlings/Picts?

And if you’re wondering how my challenge is going the answer is that I’m ahead of schedule, but my knees are super angry about it. But I WILL earn the precious  finisher’s medal.

10 Things About Santa Claus

It’s that time of year. Parents are rushing to and fro, whether from store to store or website to website, to find the perfect gifts for their children. And children are making lists for Santa. They will write letters and make pleas for all the things their little hearts desire and mail them to a “jolly old elf” clad in red and white furs who lives at the North Pole.

But wait. Santa Claus is also known as St. Nick. And Saint Nicholas didn’t call the North Pole home. He lived in modern-day Turkey. So when did Santa move to his new arctic digs? And just how old is he?

Let’s follow the evolution of the legend and see what it can teach us about world-building. Here are 10 things you might not know about Santa Claus.

  1. Nicholas, who would later be canonized as Saint Nicholas, was born sometime around 270 AD in a town that was at the time a part of Greece, but today is part of Turkey. He lost his parents at a young age, but was left with a large inheritance. Nicholas decided to dedicate his life to the Christian church and used his inheritance to help those in need whenever he could. The most famous account of this is when Nicholas secretly gave money to an indebted father of three daughters so he would have the money to pay their dowries. That meant the daughters could marry instead of becoming prostitutes to support themselves. The story goes that Nicholas, on three separate occasions (once for each daughter as she came of age) threw a small bag of gold through an open window into the family’s home during the night. The bags landed in shoes or socks that had been hung by the fire to dry. It didn’t take long for the story to spread and children began hanging up their socks to see if they, too, could wake up to life-altering gifts.
  2. Nicholas was made Archbishop of Myra and served the post at a time when Rome was persecuting Christians. He was no stranger to imprisonment, and possibly even torture, but refused to abandon or renounce his faith. When Constantine came to power, he invited Nicholas to Nicea where he was part of the council that gave us the famous Nicene Creed.
  3. Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD. Hence the reason December 6th is his Saint day. In fact, December 6th is still the day that many cultures exchange gifts–instead of Christmas Day. Fast forward to modern times and forensic scientists have been able to use his remains to create new models for what Nicholas actually looked like. Spoiler alert, it’s not the chubby, red-cheeked guy that pop culture depicts. It’s a man with dark olive-toned skin, deep brown eyes, and a gray beard. While the forensic picture the scientists came up with had to take some artistic license based on probability and common features of people in his area during his time, it still seems much more likely than the Scandinavian looking, blue-eyed version we know. What they can tell is that Nicholas had a crooked nose from a bad break that didn’t heal correctly (possibly from his tenure in prison courtesy of the Romans).
  4. After Nicholas passed, the stories of his generosity lived on. The tradition of secretly leaving gifts during the night around Saint Nicholas Day became increasingly popular throughout Europe. The prevalence of the celebration continued to spread until a man named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to a wooden door. After the Protestant Reformation, celebrating saints largely fell out of favor in Europe. However, by then people didn’t want to give up the St. Nick traditions, so they secularized him.
  5. Depending on which part of Europe we’re talking about, the new secular St. Nick took many forms. In some countries, he had taken on the abilities of old pagan deities/legends such as flight and immortality. In others, he not only delivered gifts in the night but also possessed the power to guide the hand of parents in disciplining their children whenever they misbehaved. In some areas, though, they dropped St. Nick altogether in favor of the “Christ Kind” or Christ Child giving gifts on Christmas day. However, the holy child didn’t seem one to be mean and discipline children, so he was given an accomplice who threatened to kidnap and/or beat bad children who didn’t deserve presents. What’s up, Krampus? In any case, and an ironic twist, the Germanic term Christ kind was eventually anglicized into Kris Kringle–another name for Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus.
  6. As you can imagine, as Europeans traveled the globe (and colonized everything they touched) they took their traditions regarding St. Nick with them. The Dutch took Saint Nicholas or Sint Niklaas, often shortened to Sinterklaas to the “New World”. This too was eventually anglicized into, you guessed it, Santa Claus.
  7. When the Dutch brought Sinterklaas to American shores, Christmas celebrations were not the family-friendly affairs we think of today. Unless you’re picturing rowdy and raucous holiday parties with heavy amounts of alcohol and at least one big bonfire. Then you’re totally on the right track. However, in the early 1800s it became the fashion for poets and novelists to write about Santa Claus and promote a much more heart-warming holiday. In 1809 Washington Irving gave Santa Claus a pipe and had him flying over rooftops in a wagon. In 1822, Clement Clark Moore, an Episcopalian minister and father of three young girls, wrote a poem for his children, “An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas”. The minister was very hesitant to have the poem published because of its whimsical nature, but his family adored it and pushed for him to do it anyway. It was instantly popular. We better know the poem today as “The Night Before Christmas”. It is in this poem that we first see Santa with a sleigh, reindeer, sliding down chimneys and being jolly.
  8. In 1881 Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, gave us a rendering of Santa Claus in his now-iconic red color (though this depicted long johns instead of fur robes) with a fluffy white beard, an armload of toys and a red hat. The image was published in Harper’s Weekly and quickly became the accepted image of Old St. Nick. During the 1930s a man named Haddon Sundblom took the concept Nast had drawn and ran with it. He replaced Santa’s long johns with red and white fur and replaced his pipe with a bottle of Coca-Cola. This image had been commissioned by the soft drink company as part of their holiday ad campaign and has been in use ever since.
  9. During World War II, American soldiers took their concept of Santa Claus with them across the ocean and the idea of a white-bearded, chubby, laughing, red-fur wearing Santa spread like wildfire. For a time, the Russian government even tried to bury Santa under the blue-fur wearing, New Year’s gift-giving, completely devoid of religious sentiment Grandfather Frost, but St. Nick persisted.
  10. As for Santa’s home at the North Pole, it has been a little harder to trace, but from I can tell it seems to stem from a set of letters that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his children from St. Nick (and sometimes his side-kick North Polar Bear). The letters were eventually published and there was great detail about how the North Polar Bear once wreaked havoc on Santa’s workshop through a series of accidents that almost ruined Christmas. The bear even wrote to the children in “arctic” and they had to decipher the language since it was too difficult for the bear to become truly fluent in English.

And that’s how a Turkish Archbishop gained immortality and moved to the North Pole. Is there a legend that the people in your fictional world believe? Perhaps it, too, evolved over time from something real to something fantastical. It might affect the way people celebrate or don’t celebrate something. Or it might add a touch of magic and evoke emotion. That’s why the Salvation Army began using Santas to ring bells to gather donations near Christmas. The tradition began in the early part of the 20th century when the organization needed to raise money to help pay for the meal they provided each year for families in need. They hired homeless and/or unemployed men to dress as Santa and ring bells on street corners to get attention. It was such a successful campaign that it continues today, though the bell ringers are now volunteers.

A man who became a tradition. A tradition that became a poem. A poem that became an image. An image that became a legend. A legend that became an icon. Never underestimate the power of a person with a good story to tell.

Happy Holidays.

10 Things About Nutmeg

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There is a cold front hovering over the northern part of Mississippi right now. It’s definitely colder than usual for this time of year and will get even worse over the next couple of days before the front moves on. But while it’s cold, I’m indulging myself by making my favorite fall treats. Apple cake, wassail, mulled cider. I love the way they smell and the way they taste. It’s hard not to feel warm and fuzzy while drinking mulled cider and smelling apple cake.

That’s the key, really. The smell of it all is what calms me and puts me in the right frame of mind for sweaters and fuzzy socks. Y’all can harp on skipping Thanksgiving all you want (I like Christmas movies and carols, dang it. Get off me), but when I start to smell nutmeg on a regular basis, it’s time for warm fires, thick blankets, and saccharine holiday movies.

That’s my signal: nutmeg. Everyone always mentions cinnamon, but in most of my faves nutmeg is the star of the show. I love cinnamon, too, but nutmeg is the fragrance I adore. So, this month, I’m showing love to an underappreciated spice. Because, after all, our characters should be using all their senses to draw the reader into their world/experience. Smell is closely associated with memory. Wars have been fought over access to spice routes. And some of the things in your spice cabinet today, probably aren’t as innocuous as you think–and the same is true of your characters.

10 things you might not know about nutmeg:

  1. It comes from the ground up seed of a type of evergreen called “true nutmeg”. The seed covering is also used to make a spice. True nutmegs are native to a small island in Indonesia.
  2. The islands around where nutmeg grows are known as the Spice Islands and Indonesia still has a 75% market share of nutmeg exportation worldwide.
  3. Indonesian traders would trade with merchants in India and the Middle East. Those merchants would then carry nutmeg to European ports, but wouldn’t divulge the origin of the spice. It wasn’t until the Portuguese invaded the islands that it was discovered (in 1512).
  4. In medieval Europe, nutmeg was thought to be a treatment and a preventative measure against the plague. Though today researchers say it has no medicinal properties, it made the spice quite lucrative at the time.
  5. Though the Portuguese were the ones to invade the Banda Islands (the part of Indonesia where nutmeg grows naturally), they weren’t able to completely conquer them. It wasn’t until the Dutch East India Company came a-colonizin’ in 1621 that the islands lost a monopoly on the spice (along with so many other things).
  6. In the 17th and 18th centuries, unscrupulous and desperate merchants would actually fake the look of nutmeg by grating wood and selling the shavings. “Wooden nutmeg” eventually became a common term for many types of business fraud.
  7. There are other types of trees that also bear the name nutmeg (the California Nutmeg, for example), but they are not closely related and do not produce the same flavor of spice.
  8. In small amounts, nutmeg makes a fragrant and flavorful addition to culinary dishes. However, in its purest form, or in large quantities, nutmeg is a toxin and psychoactive substance. Common symptoms of nutmeg intoxication are chills, anxiety, delirium/hallucinations, nausea, dizziness, headaches, and amnesia. It may take several hours for such symptoms to begin, but they can last for several days.
  9. When a new nutmeg tree is planted, it takes approximately nine years before the first harvest of nutmeg seeds can occur. The tree reaches full production after about twenty years.
  10. While we (and I mean “I” because I can’t really speak for anyone else) most closely associate nutmeg with the smells of the holiday season (pumpkin pie, etc), it can also be used to make industrial lubricants, toothpaste, and cough syrup.

What plant or spice is native to the world your character lives in? How does its cultivation/exportation affect the character’s world and/or life? What is it used for? You may not use all of those details in the story, but if you know the answers to the questions, you’ve already made your world more unique and identifiable.

10 Things About Halloween

It’s October. Cue the Monster Mash and start (erroneously) bashing the taste of candy corn. Seriously, there are worse candies out there. Candy corn isn’t half bad in small doses, it’s just too sweet to binge.

ANYWAY, much like I have for other holidays throughout the year, I thought this month I’d scrape up some trivia about Halloween. Holidays all start somewhere, and many evolve over time. This could be important for the world you’re building in your writing.

But I’ve said this over and over in previous posts, so I’ll skip the lecture this time and jump right in. Here are 10 Things About Halloween.

  1. Most scholars and sources trace our modern observance of Halloween back to a Celtic practice 2,000 years ago. At the end of the harvest, the Celtics celebrated Samhain, a day in which they believed the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest. They believed the dead could return to the land of the living on this one night. It was common to leave out offerings for loved ones, bonfires were lit through the night to guide the spirits, and sometimes disguises were worn to avoid confrontation with ill-intentioned spirits.
  2. While most scholars credit Samhain as the starting point for the evolution of what would eventually become Halloween, I find that it would be myopic and rude not to point out the holiday that would eventually become Dia de los Muertos had a similar origin with the Aztecs and other Nahua people groups another thousand years before the Celtics began observing Samhain. The Aztec believed that once a year, also in the fall, the veil or border between worlds grew thin and the dead could return. They also believed that when someone died and entered the land of the dead, they had to complete many different challenges to get through different “levels” of the land of the dead before actually getting to the final resting place. This process could take years and so leaving offerings for a loved one who you believed was still forging through the challenges as a way to encourage them was common. This belief would eventually blend with medieval Spanish beliefs and Catholic traditions to become what it is today, which IS NOT MEXICAN HALLOWEEN. It’s different. However, to not point out the similarities between the original celebrations and what they have become seems remiss.
  3. The Celtic tradition of Samhain would eventually get tangled up with the Roman tradition of Feralia when the Romans invaded, as they had a tendency to do. Feralia was a day, generally in October, the Romans set aside to remember and honor the dead.
  4. In 609 AD Pope Boniface IV established All Martyrs’ Day to celebrate those who died defending and spreading the Christian faith. However, All Martyrs’ Day was in May. Pope Gregory III chose to expand the holiday from all martyrs to all saints and moved the celebration to November 1st.
  5. Sometime around 1,000 AD the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day and the Celtic celebration of Samhain collided in the British Isles. Celebrations bled from one into the other. In Middle English, All Saints Day was said Alhalowmesse. Eventually, that became Hallowmas. The night before Hallowmas was Hallow’s Eve. Add several hundred more years, mix in different dialects, throw in a case of lazy mouth and we get “Halloween”.
  6. As Europeans, especially the British, colonized North America, they naturally brought their beliefs and celebrations with them. However, in most of the early Puritan settlements, Hallow’s Eve was strictly discouraged. It was, however, more commonly celebrated in the southern colonies (pretty much everything from southern Maryland down through Georgia). There is was further mixed with the celebrations and practices of several different Native American nations and became more of a harvest celebration/autumn festival.
  7. During the Irish Potato Famine in the late nineteenth century, Irish immigrants brought over their Halloween traditions and they quickly spread throughout the nation. These traditions included souling, guising, and innocent pranks. Souling was the practice that had the poor knocking on doors of their more affluent neighbors and offering to pray for the souls of their loved ones in exchange for loaves of bread. Guising was the act of wearing a mask and going door to door asking for food or coin in exchange for singing, dancing, recitations of poetry, or other performances.
  8. Over the years the innocent pranks portion of the tradition evolved into something more like vandalism. Where today we think of toilet papering houses and throwing eggs, at one point things got so bad that businesses began bribing the adolescents and young adults of the communities with candy or treats to keep them from damaging their stores. By the 1930s, it was pretty common for teenagers to go to both businesses and residences asking for these treat bribes. Anyone who refused got pranked. Trick or treat. Your choice. The definition of extortion.
  9. By the 1950s the holiday tradition had become more kid-friendly and the tricks a little less threatening. Now the adorable little princess or superhero at your door wasn’t actually threatening to bust out your windows or slash your tires, they were just asking for some free goodies using a mild threat they didn’t even understand. Ah, how precious.
  10. Today, Halloween candy, costumes, and decorations represent a more than $6 Billion industry with the vast majority of celebrants not knowing or caring why they wear masks (to hide from evil spirits), bob for apples (to celebrate a Roman goddess and to divine the future), or eat copious amounts of sweets (again, a history of extortion). They generally do know why they drink, they just might not know when to stop.

So there it is. The Celtics get all the credit, the Aztecs get overlooked, most Native American nations get left out of the story altogether, the Catholic church gets to name it, and lots of money gets spent. Halloween.

For kicks and giggles, I’ll end this post with a funny family anecdote. When I was very young, we lived in a tiny town where the Halloween tradition dictated that the more popular you were in school, the more likely for someone to roll (or toilet paper) your house. My older siblings were quite popular, but our house never got rolled.

Why?

Because when my eldest sister first got old enough for her friends to try to roll the house, my dad hatched a plan. He dressed in all-black tactical gear and hid in the bushes in front of our house alongside our completely black German Shepherd and armed himself with a super soaker filled with gentian violet–a generally harmless substance that stains the skin purple. When the kids showed up in our yard, he and the dog leapt from their hiding spot, already terrifying the poor lot, and sprayed them all.

Y’all.

It takes a few days for that stuff to fade away.

The HOMECOMING QUEEN had to accept her crown that year with a not-quite-faded purple streak across her face. Her mother was LIVID.

Nobody EVER rolled our house.

Trick or Treat.