January 9, 1493 Of Mermaids and Manatees

“Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone standing against them. The conquered peoples described the period differently. Sometime in 83 or 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, said “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during the 13th and 14th century. The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connected Europe with Asia, making it safe to travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east. Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes. It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

Never mind the pyramids of skulls, over there.

The “Black Death” and the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire brought that period to an end. Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible. Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

It’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth. Otherwise, the cats would have pushed everything over the edge, by now.

The fact that the world is round had been understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong. In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands. He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China). Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass, and the Americas were left out altogether.

This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486. At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but they were ready in 1492. The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.

By January 9, 1493, the expedition had been at sea for six months. Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, what we now call the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”. “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology. These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors were hypnotized, crashing their ships into rocks in their efforts to reach them.

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder. These marine herbivores measure 10 to 13-feet from nose to tail, and weigh in at 800-1,200 lbs.

Not everyone was quite so dismissive. A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, almost certainly a Manatee. It was “by no means unattractive”, he said, but I’m not so sure. It’s just possible Mr. Smith needed to get out a little more.

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January 3, 2000 Peanuts

Over fifty years, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 strips, taking vacation only once in 1997, to celebrate his 75th birthday.  In all that time, that five-week stretch was the only time the papers ever had Peanuts reruns.

Schutz-LetterCharles Monroe Schulz was one of the brighter kids at Central High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but that didn’t help his social life. He was already a shy boy and skipped two half-grades, graduating as the youngest student in the class of 1940.

The boy loved to draw. He was good at it, too. The family once owned a hunting dog called “Spike”, with the cringe-worthy habit of eating sharp objects. It didn’t seem to bother him much, and the boy sent a drawing to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! who ran it, complete with a description of Spikes unusual predilections.

The drawing was signed, “Sparky”.  Even with Schulz later celebrity, you could always Charles_Schulz_HS_Yearbookweed out those who merely claimed to know him, if they called him “Charles”, or “Chuck”.  Schulz’ uncle called him “Sparky” as a boy, after the horse Spark Plug in Billy DeBeck’s comic strip, Barney Google.  He always signed the strip “Schulz”, but friends and family knew him as Sparky, until the day he died.

Schulz was drafted into the Army in 1943, a Staff Sergeant with the 20th Armored Division in Europe and squad leader on a .50-caliber machine gun team.

He never got a chance to fire his weapon, though he did come face-to-face with a Wehrmacht soldier, once.  His blood must’ve turned cold in his veins when he realized he’d forgotten to load, but the man he faced was no Nazi fanatic.  This was just a guy, who wanted to go home. The German surrendered, happily.  I hope he did get to go home.

Schulz returned to Minneapolis after the war where he did lettering for a Catholic comic magazine, Timeless Topix. He took a job in 1946 at Art Instruction, Inc., reviewing and grading lessons submitted by students, a job he held for several years while developing his talents as comic creator.

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Charlie Brown, that little boy who was always close but never quite succeeded, first appeared in a series of single-panel jokes called “Li’l Folks“, along with a dog who looked something like Snoopy. It was published in the local papers from June 1947 to January ’50, and later syndicated.  The first strip was published in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950, but United Features thought the name was too close to two strips already in syndication, Li’l Abner, and “Little Folks“.

They called it “Peanuts” after the peanut gallery of the old Vaudeville days, the cheapest and rowdiest seats in the theater. Schulz didn’t like the name, saying it “made it sound too insignificant,” but the name, stuck.

Peanuts

Schulz took pride in his service during the war, and his strip paid tribute to Rosie the Riveter and Ernie Pyle.  More than any other, he’d honor “Willy & Joe”, those two GIs from the imagination of war correspondent and cartoonist Bill Mauldin, a man to whom Schulz always referred as “My Hero”.  Over the years, Snoopy visited with Willie & Joe no fewer than 17 times. Always on Veterans Day.

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, but Linus almost didn’t get to tell his famous story of the baby Jesus. ABC executives thought Linus’ recitation of the birth of Christ too overtly religious.  They wanted a laugh track too, but Schulz refused. “If we don’t do it, who will?” So it was that the scene remained, perhaps the most memorable moment in cartoon history. The laugh track version was produced, but never aired.

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Charlie Brown’s love interest in some of the TV specials, the “Little Red-Haired Girl”, was based on an accountant from that old job at Art Instruction, Donna Mae Johnson.  The two had an office romance, but she turned him down when he proposed they marry.

She wasn’t the only character based on a real person.  Linus and Shermy were patterned after Schulz’ close friends Linus Maurer and Sherman Plepler.  Peppermint Patty was inspired by a cousin on his mother’s side, Patricia Swanson.  Snoopy himself resembles that old family dog Spike, though he was a Pointer, not a Beagle.

American opinion polls showed a sharp drop in support for the war in Vietnam over 1967.  1968 was a wretched year in American politics, beginning with the Tet Offensive in January.   Media reporting turned the American military victory over the Vietnamese New Year, into a thing of despair.  President Johnson withdrew from the Presidential election, that March.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April and riots swept through cities across the country.  Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated that June, after winning the critical California primary.  The Democratic National Convention that August more closely resembled a riot, than a political convention.

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Franklin Armstrong

Race relations were particularly vile, when Los Angeles schoolteacher Harriet Glickman wrote to the cartoonist, asking if he could add a black character.  Glickman never expected a response from the now-famous Charles M. Schulz, but respond he did.  He said he liked the idea, but expressed a concern about seeming “condescending”, to black families.  With Schulz’ permission, Glickman asked friends of African ancestry, how to make such a character “more relatable”.

Franklin Armstrong made his first appearance on July 31, 1968.  What was remarkable for the time, was how unremarkable, he was.  Just another little boy, at first confused about the strange stuff in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  Particularly Linus’ obsession with the ‘Great Pumpkin’.  Franklin first met Charlie Brown on a beach.  He said his father was a soldier, off fighting in Vietnam.  “My dad’s a barber,” said Charlie Brown.  “He was in a war too, but I don’t know which one.”

One newspaper editor wrote saying he didn’t mind a “negro” character, but please don’t show them in school together.  Schulz didn’t bother to respond.

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I wonder if Donna Mae Johnson ever regretted turning down that marriage proposal.  Peanuts went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, with countless animated specials combining with merchandise sales to produce revenues in the Billions.  At it’s peak, Peanuts ran in 2,600 papers in 75 countries and 21 languages.  Schulz himself is estimated to have earned $30 to $40 million, a year.

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The command module for the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon was named Charlie Brown and the lunar module, Snoopy.  President Ronald Reagan was a fan, and once wrote to Schulz that he identified with Charlie Brown.

Imitation of Charles Schulz cartoon, mad

Over fifty years, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 strips, taking vacation only once in 1997, to celebrate his 75th birthday.  In all that time, that one five-week stretch was the only time the papers ever had Peanuts reruns.

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Stephen Shea, H/T Huffington Post

Fun fact: Former child actor Stephen Shea inherited the speaking role for Linus van Pelt when his older brother Chris’ voice changed, and went on to perform in eight animated specials. Chris went to summer camp with a boy who happened to be President of The Doors fan club. It turns out that Jim Morrison was a big Peanuts fan, and invited Chris and his father to be his special guests, at a concert.

Schulz’ health began to deteriorate in the late 1990s, his once-firm hand, now developing a tremor. He never really recovered from the stroke that hit him in November 1999 and announced his intention to retire, on December 14.  The last original Peanuts strip was published on January 3, 2000. This son of a barber and a housewife, just like Charlie Brown himself, passed away just over a month later, a victim of colon cancer.

There will never be another.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

 

January 1, 45 BC Happy New Year

A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled their calendar. Caesar hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. As we embark on the third millennium, we still have July and August.

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Roman Calendar

Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days. By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since then, we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.

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A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

The Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.

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The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition continues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors. It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year. The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

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In most English speaking countries, the traditional New Year’s celebration ends with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds something like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
“Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.  Happy New Year

December 28, 1981 Food Fight

In Spanish speaking countries, newspapers and television stations do gag stories on December 28.  A few years ago, headlines read that Kate Middleton was leaving Prince William for Mexican soccer star Chicharito.

In 1983, Boston University history professor Joseph Boskin explained the custom of ‘April Fools Day’ goes back to the Roman Emperor Constantine.  A group of jesters and fools informed the Emperor, that they could do his job, better.  Amused, Constantine appointed a jester named Kugel, ‘King for a Day’.

Professor Boskin went on to explain. “In a way,” he said, “it was a very serious day. In those times fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.”  The Associated Press picked up the story, and newspapers ran it, across the country.

It took AP a couple weeks to realize, the professor had made the whole thing up.  April fools.

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In one translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “March 32” in the year 1392 is the day the vain cock Chauntecleer was tricked by a fox. The fox appealed to the rooster’s vanity by insisting he would love to hear Chauntecleer crow, just as his amazing father did.  Standing on tiptoe with neck outstretched and eyes closed. The rooster obliged, with unfortunate, if not unpredictable results.

In most of the west, March 32 is that minor holiday on which we love to play pranks.  In Scotland, April Fools’ Day is called Hunt-the-Gowk Day. Although the term has fallen into disuse, a “gowk” is a cuckoo or a foolish person. The prank consists of asking someone to deliver a sealed message requesting some sort of help. The message reads “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile”. On reading the message, the recipient will explain that to help, he’ll first need to contact another person, sending the victim to another person with the same message.

On April 1, 1698, citizens were invited to the Tower of London to witness the “Washing of the Lions” in the tower moat. Quite a few were sucked in.  The April 2 edition of Dawks’ News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” The “annual ceremony of washing the lions,” lasted throughout the 18th & 19th centuries, always held on April 1st.

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There is no “White Gate”, at the tower of London

In 1957, (you can guess the date), the BBC reported the delightful news that mild winter weather had virtually eradicated the dread spaghetti weevil of Switzerland, and that Swiss farmers were now happily anticipating a bumper crop of spaghetti.  Footage showed smiling Swiss peasants, pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees.  Apparently, an embarrassingly large number of viewers were fooled.  Many called BBC offices, asking how to grow their own spaghetti tree. “Place a piece of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce”, callers were told, “and hope for the best.”

spagtreeIn Mexico as well as Spain and most Latin countries, pranksters practice their craft not on April 1 but on December 28.  The custom goes back to the biblical story of King Herod, who is said to have killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem, to rid himself of the future ‘King of the Jews.  The “Massacre of the Innocents” is a sad story but the ‘joke’ was on Herod.  Mary and Joseph had taken the baby Jesus away, to Egypt.

So it is that el Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Holy Innocents) is observed in Spanish speaking countries, on December 28.  In a sort of gallows humor, the butt of the joke is the “¡Inocente!” or “Innocent one”.

Newspapers and television stations run gag stories on December 28.  A few years ago, headlines read that Kate Middleton was leaving Prince William for Mexican soccer star Chicharito.

PrankedFor two-hundred years now, the citizens of Ibi, Alicante on the Spanish Mediterranean coast have celebrated December 28, with a giant food fight.  The practice was suspended for a time following the Spanish Civil War but revived, in 1981.  Now, it’s a big tourist attraction, and the event makes a ton of money, for charity.

Who needs to run with bulls when you have la fiesta de Los Enharinados.  “The Fiesta of the Flour-Covered Ones.”

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Participants are covered with flour at the fiesta of Los Enharinados in Ibi, Spain. Fotógrafo Ibi/Creative Commons ASA 4.0 International.

Feature image, top of page:  Food fight participants are at the fiesta of Los Enharinados in Ibi, Spain. 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 24, 1822 A Right Jolly old Elf

Santa Claus may be the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

The historical life of St. Nicholas is shrouded in legend.  Born in modern-day Turkey on March 15, AD270, Nicholas was the only child of rich parents who died in a plague, leaving the boy a wealthy orphan.

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1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

Nicholas was raised in the Christian faith and became an early bishop in the Greek church. One of many stories concerning the bishop’s generosity involves a destitute father, unable to raise a dowry sufficient to marry off his three daughters. On two consecutive nights, Nicholas crept up to the man’s window, and dropped a small sack of gold coins. On the third night, the man stayed up to learn the identity of his secret benefactor, only to be asked to keep the name, secret. 

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St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens, Decani monastery, Kosovo

Saint Nicholas passed on December 6 in the year 343. He’s entombed in a marble cathedral dedicated to his name, in Myra.

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The “Sinterklass” of the Netherlands, rides a white horse

Nicholas is remembered as the patron saint of whole nations and cities such as Amsterdam and Moscow, revered among the early Christian saints and remembered for a legendary habit of secret gift-giving.

Some ideas take hold in the popular imagination, while others fade into obscurity.  The “Three Daughters” episode made it into nearly every artistic medium available at that time, from frescoes to carvings and windows, even theatrical performances.

The Patron Saint not only of sailors, but of ships and their cargoes, the seas were the internet of the day, and the story of St. Nick spread from the Balkans to Holland, from England to Crete.

Krampus-340x540The Feast of St. Nicholas took hold around the 6th of December.  Children and other marginal groups such as old women and slaves could receive gifts, but only by demanding them.  The secret giving of gifts appeared sometime around the year 1200.

On the continent, legends of St. Nicholas combined with Pagan traditions and developed in quirky directions, including an evil doppelgänger who accompanies St. Nick on his rounds.  As early as the 11th century, the Krampus may be expected to snatch bad little tykes away from parts of Germany, Austria and the Alpine villages of northern Italy, never to be seen again.

In eastern Europe, the witch Frau Perchta “The Disemboweller” was said to place pieces of silver in the shoes of children and servants who’d been good over the year, and replace the organs of the bad ones, with garbage. Yikes.

In French-speaking regions, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) accompanies Père Noël on gift-giving rounds, dispensing beatings and/or lumps of coal to naughty boys & girls. In some German speaking regions, the malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, with a twig broom to spank wicked children.

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

The “Little Ice Age” of the 13th century, led to a proliferation of chimneys.  Windows and doors were the things of thieves and vagabonds, while the chimney led directly to the warm heart of the home.  St. Nick made his first gift-giving appearance via the chimney in a three daughters fresco, painted sometime in 1392, in Serbia.

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The Ghost of Christmas present as illustrated by John Leech, in Charles Dickens’ classic, a Christmas Carol

St. Nicholas was beginning to be seen as part of the family outside of the Church, which is probably why he survived what came next.  Saints reigned in the Christian world until the 16th century, when the Protestant reformation rejected such “idolatry” as a corruption of Christianity.

Whatever you called him:  Sinterklaos, Saint-Nikloi or Zinniklos, St. Nick went away entirely in England and Scotland during the time of Henry VIII, giving way to the spirit of Christmas cheer in the person of one Father Christmas.  England would no longer keep the feast of the Saint on December 6.  The celebration moved to December 25, to coincide with Christmas.

Protestants adopted as gift bringer the Baby Jesus or Christkindl, later morphing into Kris Kringle.

Puritan arrivals to New England rejected Christmas and everything with it, as “un-Christian”.  In 1644, Massachusetts levied a fine of five shillings, on anyone observing the holiday.

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

Sinterklaas survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation in places like Holland, transferring to the 17th century settlement of New Amsterdam:  what we now know as the new world port city of New York.

Sinterklass blended with Father Christmas, to create a distinctly American Santeclaus, which began to take hold in the 19th century.

The Christmas “celebrations” of the period, looked more like Mardi Gras than what we know today.  Drunk and rowdy gangs wandered the streets of New York, Philadelphia and the cities of the northeast, something between a noisy mob and a marching band.  Men fired guns into the air and banged or blew on anything that would make noise.  Mobs would beat up the unfortunate, and break into the homes of the “upper classes”, demanding food and liquor.

New York philanthropist John Pintard, the man responsible for the holidays celebrating the fourth of July and George Washington’s birthday, popularized an image first set forth by Washington Irving, in his satirical story A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, depicting St. Nicholas bringing gifts to good little boys and girls, and switches with which to tan the hides of bad kids.

220px-MerryOldSantaThe unknown genius who published and illustrated A Children’s Friend in 1821, first depicted “Santa Claus” not as a Catholic bishop, but as a non-sectarian adult in a fur lined robe, complete with a sleigh inexplicably powered by a single reindeer, coming in through the chimney not on December 6, but on Christmas eve.

An anonymous poem believed to have been written on December 24, 1822 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, began with the words: “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house“…

A Visit From St. Nicholas“, better known by its first line, gave us the first description of the modern Santa Claus and a tool for domesticating the occasion, agreeable to law enforcement for calming the rowdy streets, to manufacturers and retailers for selling goods, to the church to make way for a family friendly day of worship and to parents, to control unruly children.

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

The “Right Jolly old Elf” took his modern form thanks to the pen of illustrator and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant and scourge of the Tammany Hall political machine which had swindled New York city, out of millions.

The idea of a Mrs. Claus seems to come from a poem by Katharine Lee Bates of the Cape Cod Curmudgeon’s own town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Today, the author is best known for her 1895  poem “Pikes Peak”, later set to music and widely known as “America the Beautiful”.

Tonight, NASA may be expected to track Santa and his sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, though none are any longer, all that tiny.  Santa Claus will appear around the planet. Regional variations include Santa’s arriving on a surfboard in Hawaii.  In Australia, he’s pulled by six white kangaroos.  In Cajun country, Papa Noël arrives in a pirogue, drawn by eight alligators.

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Santa Claus may be the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

Fun fact:  Today, the port city of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy is remembered for the WW2-era mustard gas accident, which spawned the discovery of modern chemotherapy drugs. A thousand years earlier, city fathers feared growing Muslim influence over the tomb of Saint Nicholas, and went to retrieve his remains.  Find him, they did.  Saint Nicholas’ large bones were removed and brought back as holy relics to Bari, where they remain, to this day.  Smaller fragments were removed during the 1st Crusade and brought back to Venice, or enshrined in basilica from Moscow to Normandy.  According to one local antiquarian, the “Tomb of Saint Nicholas” in Ireland, is probably that of a local priest.

Feature image, top of page:  Hat tip GP Cox.  I don’t know where you got it, but I Love this image.  Merry Christmas and all the best for a healthy and prosperous New Year to you and yours, from Mr. & Mrs. Cape Cod Curmudgeon.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 21, 2012 The Apocalypse is Postponed

There have been no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years.

During the recent past, one of the sillier bits of pop culture nonsense served up to us, may be that time the world came to an end on December 21, 2012.

It was the Mayan Apocalypse. A day of giant solar flares, when the planets aligned to cause massive tidal catastrophe, and the Earth collided with the imaginary planet Nibiru.  Over in China, Lu Zhenghai even built himself an Ark. Sort of.

If I’d only been smart enough back then, to sell survival kits.

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Lu Zhenghai’s ark, 2012. H/T Huffpo

End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new. In 1806, the “Prophet Hen of Leeds” was laying eggs, inscribed with the message “Christ is coming”. It was the end of times.  The Judgement Day cometh.

The story, as told in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” written by Scottish author Charles Mackay in 1841, tells the story of a “panic[ked] terror”, when a “great number of visitors” traveled from far and near, to peer at the chicken Nostradamus.

befunky_21639Turns out that Mary Bateman, the bird’s owner and a serial fraudster, was writing these messages with some kind of “corrosive ink”, maybe an acid, and reinserting them into the poor chicken. The “Yorkshire Witch” met her end on a gibbet, hanged for the poisoned pudding she gave that couple to relieve their chest pain.  But I digress.

If you were around in 1986, you may remember the great excitement, concerning  the return of Halley’s Comet. The celestial body only comes around once every 76 years and, the time before that, it was the end of the world. In 1910, the New York Times reported the discovery of the deadly poison cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted the gas would “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

fin du monde
French postcard, 1910

Hucksters sold comet pills. Doomsayers claimed that massive tides would cause the Pacific to empty, into the Atlantic. Finally, the end of days arrived. May 20, 1910.  And then it went.  There was no end of the world though, tragically, 16-year-old Amy Hopkins fell to her death from a rooftop, while awaiting the comet.

There have been no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years, if Wikipedia is any source. Polls conducted in 2012 across twenty countries revealed percentages from 6% in France to 22% in the United States and Turkey, believing the world would come to an end, in their lifetimes.

MayanCalendar-300x3005,000 years ago, the Mayan civilization of modern-day Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar, working with a base numerical system of 20.

It was three calendars, really. The “Long Count” was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and an “Uayeb” of five days. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes. Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263-day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though the two can be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.

MayanCalendar

Get it? Neither do I.  Suffice it to say that the world of the Mayan Gods lasted 5,125 years and 133 days, a period of time known as 13 b’ak’tun.

The last Long Count began in August 3114 BC.  Counting forward, scholars decided on December 21, 2012, as the end of the cycle.

An estimated 2% of the American public believed this betokened the end of the world. Online searches went up for one-way flights to Turkey and the South of France, both of which were rumored to be safe havens from the apocalypse.

They should have asked a Mayan, who may have been amused by all those crazy Gringos.  The world wasn’t coming to an end.  The calendar just rolls over and begins again at “Zero”, like the old odometers that only went up to 100,000 miles.  What a party that could have been, though.  The “New Year” to end all New Years.  Only comes around once every 5,125 years, plus 133 days.  Happy Long Count.

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