On March 13th, 2018 we learned about

America’s mostly-successful history with student science fairs

My third-grader will be entering a project in her first science fair this week, and while she and her partners at least aimed higher than a vinegar volcano, nobody’s expecting to found a new company from their work either. That’s fine- the point of a science fair, particularly in elementary school, isn’t to set a kid up for a Nobel Prize. Even if one’s experiment (or let’s be honest, demonstration) isn’t completely successful, the real goal of a science fair is to give kids a hands-on opportunity to work within the scientific method. Unless, of course, we’ve somehow lost sight of why science fairs were ever started in the first place…

Shows for students to share the natural world

The earliest science fair on record was more of a general exposition, in 1828. The American Institute of the City of New York assembled exhibits on a variety of topics, from agriculture to manufacturing to the arts. The engineering on display included show-stoppers like an iron plow, so it wasn’t exactly a showcase of scientific progress. Still, kids did participate, although they were noted for doing things like making black veils instead of growing flowers in food coloring.

100 years later, the American Institute organized the first Children’s Fair. While there was more of a scientific focus, the mission of these events was to get high school students thinking about nature. In that context, it makes sense that the top entry from 1931 was a diorama about how dogwood trees function in their habitat at different times of the year. The Children’s fairs were popular, although by 1941, the American Institute realized they couldn’t financially support them any longer. This created the opening for what most consider to be the first ‘modern’ science fair for students.

Competitions to launch careers

In 1942, a non-profit institution called Science Services worked with Westinghouse to launch The Science Talent Search. World War II had demonstrated the utility of science and engineering most convincingly, and the competition was squarely focused around promoting what we now call STEM careers for high school students. Westinghouse has been replaced as the primary sponsor by Intel, and later by Regeneron, but mission to promote up-and-coming scientists has been consistent throughout the completion’s history. Out of the nearly 150,000 high school students who have participated, alumni have gone on to win 13 Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals, 11 National Medals of Science, 18 MacArthur Fellowships and more.

Students finding their way forward

A fair majority of those winners probably didn’t need a ton of encouragement though. Since 1942, students from specialized, science-focused schools have garnered the lion’s share of semi-finalist and finalist accolades, suggesting that they were starting from a substantially different position than most students in the United States. For many kids, a science fair is one of their first times thinking about how to come up with a testable question, make observations, etc. For many parents who are recruited to help see these projects through to competition, it’s a time filled with stress as they balance managing their kid’s progress while also allowing the student to have enough leeway to still learn something useful. Many parents report not knowing how to help, a dynamic that’s sadly reflective of survey results that show many American parents want their children to be well-versed in science, but also feel like it doesn’t really intersect with their own lives. We don’t have numbers on how many kids are scared away from science because of a bad project, but these factors probably don’t make for a good introduction to science or engineering.

Obviously, no iteration of science fairs or expos was meant to be confusing and frustrating. Fortunately, steps are being taken to help guide students if they don’t have all the resources they need to get started. ScienceBuddies.org is a website designed to help students find a project that is not only interesting, but practical as well. Aside from the pragmatic assistance this provides, it also seems to be looking to make science accessible to a wider audience, which is just what (I think) a science fair should do.

Source: The Rise of Science Fairs (And Why They Matter) by Rebecca Hill, Parent Map

On March 5th, 2018 we learned about

The origin and appeal of Lucky Charms’ crunchy marshmallows

In 1963, General Mills Vice President John Holahan was tasked with turning one of the company’s current cereals into something kids would find a bit more “magically delicious.” If a baseline of either Cheerios or Wheaties wasn’t restrictive enough, this new product had to be developed in six months, a fair amount shorter than the two to three years of development allotted to most of the company’s products. Fortunately for Holahan, inspiration apparently struck at the grocery store, when he encountered his favorite candy and decided to add it cereal, leading to the creation of the marshmallow-laden Lucky Charms. It’s a remarkable achievement, as Lucky Charms have now been produced for over 50 years, completely eclipsing the Circus Peanut candies that inspired them.

Unpopular influence

It seems fair to say that most people wouldn’t have been inspired by Circus Peanuts like Holahan was. The peanut-shaped marshmallow-based candy did used to be more popular, but the semi-spongy texture never made it a best seller. Instead of tasting anything like a peanut, the most common flavor is banana, and even that is rumored to have been the result of a “banana oil accident.” On top of all that, they’re also tricky to make, as the wrong amount of moisture will cause them to deform or get crusty. None of this sounds especially appealing when added to a bowl of Cheerios and milk, which is probably why the marshmallows in Lucky Charms were considerably altered before going to market.

Over five decades of marketing marbits

The marshmallows in Lucky Charms have actually been engineered enough to have their own name— “marbits.” To help get kids to try their new food, General Mills launched Lucky Charms with one of the biggest advertising campaigns for a breakfast cereal, pushing ads in comic books, newspapers and on television. Lucky the Leprechaun was invented providing a theme that would then influence the shapes and bright colors of the marbits, apparently making them more appealing in the process. This marketing push worked fairly well, although it should be noted that the allure of marbit clovers, hearts, stars and moons weren’t enough to really spike sales. To really solidify the cereal’s place in the market, the recipe needed extra sugar on the cereal pieces too.

With Lucky and the appeal of marbits being established in kids’ minds and palettes, General Mills only needed to play with the aesthetics of Lucky Charms to keep interest up. Lucky the Leprechaun and the marbits have been given regular updates, giving the cereal a dizzying array of shapes and colors in its history. In roughly chronological order, marbits have been offered as clovers, hearts, stars, moons, diamonds, horseshoes, whales, balloons, Christmas ornaments, candy canes, bells, trees, rainbows, pots of gold, different moons, hats with clovers, shooting starts, hourglasses, Olympic medals, Olympic torches, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, ice skates, snowmen, stockings, mittens, Man in the Moon (blue moons with a yellow-toothed smile), wreaths, presents, crystal balls, locks, bats, ghosts, cauldrons and books. If that somehow weren’t enough novelty for breakfast, other twists have been added to some of these designs, from swirled colors to colors that change when milk is added. If that weren’t enough to hold your interest, chocolate and berry variations of the cereal have been sold, although they don’t seem to have the staying power of the standard, Cheerios-based recipe.

The crunch of sugar crystals

Aside from the supposed “lore” behind each marbit (blue moons, for example, let Lucky turn invisible), the secret to Lucky Charms is probably the particular crunchiness of its marshmallows. It’s obviously an upgrade over the spongy Circus Peanuts, but isn’t exactly what you’d get from your usual puffed marshmallow either. While the latter option would offer plenty of sugar and opportunities for coloring, they would also be more likely to make the cereal go stale in the bag thanks to their internal moisture.

However, this doesn’t mean that Lucky Charms’ marbits are simply dehydrated marshmallows. That’s probably a close approximation, but doesn’t seem to capture the crisp texture of a true cereal marshmallow. General Mills isn’t in a hurry to release the official recipe, but marbits seem to be the result of unstable corn syrup. Unlike the shelf-stable corn syrup you buy at the grocery store, a homemade corn syrup is more likely to crystallize over time. The marshmallows are still dried out, but the crystallized sugar makes sure they develop a satisfying crunch instead of just getting powerdery when eaten.

Of course, if you’re not looking to cook your own batch of homemade marbits, you can always buy a bag of cereal marshmallows instead. It may be lacking in fabulous new unicorns, but if you wanted cereal, you’d be buying Cheerios, right?

Source: Let’s Raise a Bowl to the Little Fella, Recognizing Innovation

On February 18th, 2018 we learned about

Mulan versus history: women who assumed male identities to join the military

When watching a cartoon like Disney’s Mulan, my kids are fairly confident that things like the ancestors’ spirits, talking dragon and lucky cricket never really happened. When I press further, they’re hesitant about the rest of the story too. Movies are, by default, fiction in the eyes of my eight- and four-year-old, so why would Mulan be any different? As it turns out they’re both right and wrong about this— as far as anyone can prove, Fa Mulan never existed outside of folklore. However, the core premise of a woman disguising herself as a man to fight in the army seems to have been repeated in history often enough to make the story very easy to believe.

Disney didn’t invent the story of Mulan, although their version is definitely different from how she’s been represented in Chinese ballads and storytelling. Every version starts with the idea that Mulan wants to take her father’s place in the Chinese emperor’s army, the context and reactions to that choice diverge immediately. Whereas the Disney cartoon is based around a teenager who feels like she doesn’t fit society’s image of a woman secretly donning her father’s armor, a Ming Dynasty ballad by Xu Wei called The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of her Father is based around a girl who is comfortable with the idea of staying at home and sewing, but was also explicitly trained by her father to be a fighter as she grew up. She hides her sex from the army when she joins, but convinces her parents that her enlistment is the only sensible option for the family if they want to fulfill their duties to the emperor. She does unbind her feet to make this transition, but while planning to rebind them once she returns home. It’s a very different approach to gender roles than a modern audience might expect.

Incentives for enlistment

Of course, gender expectations have long been rigid enough to block women from enlisting under their own identities for most of recorded history. Even without a real Mulan to point to, many other women have fought under assumed male identities, usually to stay closer to a brother or husband, escape an abusive family, earn more money than a woman would otherwise have access to or, as in the Chinese ballad, fulfill a sense of duty and patriotism.

Elisa Servenius dressed as a Swedish man to fight in the Finnish War of 1808 in order to remain close to her husband, who was also a soldier. He went missing in 1809, but Servenius continued to serve, partially so that she could try to find her lost spouse. Having been captured, Mr. Servenius was released in 1810, and the two were reunited.

Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock signed up with the American Confederate Army to follow in her husband’s footsteps towards defecting to the Union Army. William Blalock purposely enlisted in a company he figured would be sent to the Virginia border so that he could flee north more easily. He didn’t realize that his wife, after cutting her hair and adopting the name Sam, would attempt the same strategy. It didn’t work for either Blalock as intended, and both had to simply flee north after getting medical discharges. In the end, they both joined the Union Army, fighting in raids in the Appalachian Mountains.

In a reversal from Mulan’s reverence for her father, Sarah Emma Edmonson joined the Union Army in 1861 to avoid her father. She’d fled her native Canada in 1857, starting a new life first as Sarah Edmonds, then later as Franklin Thompson. As “Thompson,” Edmonds enlisted and took on a number of roles in the war, from hospital attendant to spy to battlefield courier. While she managed to survive a broken leg and other injuries, she felt the need to desert the army when she came down with malaria, lest her disguise be revealed while hospitalized.

Earning, and claiming, income

Edmonds’ desertion raises the issue of how secretive these women had to be, and what the consequences were once their sex was found out. From the records we have, Disney actually suggested more severe penalties than anyone actually faced. Their version of Mulan feared not only the disapproval of her parents, but also execution by the state of the army discovered that she was a woman. Even the Ming Dynasty version has Mulan’s friends immediate embrace her identity once she reveals a 12-year deception, and nobody in the story worries about an execution in the slightest. While not every woman was able to leave the armed services on quite so favorable terms, multiple women did manage to receive pensions for their status as veterans.

In Edmonds’ case, her desertion did work to preserve her secret identity. Once she recovered, she worked as a nurse, but also wrote about her time in the Union Army. She even managed to get her alter-ego’s desertion charges cleared in order to claim her pension in 1884.

Mary Lacy posed as a 19 year-old-boy named “William Chandler” to join the British Navy in 1759. She was a successful sailor and shipwright, at least until rheumatism force her to stop working in 1771. Still, she did manage to not only earn a pension, but also receive it under her original identity, Mary Lacy.

Jennie Hodgers adopted the name Albert Cashier to fight in the American Civil War. She managed to keep her identity secret not only throughout the war, but even afterwards, as she chose to keep her male identity for the rest of her life. Not only did she receive the pension she earned under her new name, but also lived in a soldiers’ rest home in Illinois. The staff there did eventually discover her secret, but they never disrupted her life by making it public.

Consequences when caught

Not every woman managed to control their identity this well though. As in Disney’s Mulan, injury and illness that required medical treatment would, understandably, expose people’s secrets. Some were temporarily detained (sometimes to be guarded by another woman posing as a man!) while others were just sent home. In the case of Dorothy Lawrence, the British Army was more concerned with how easily she’d faked her way to the front lines of World War I. After confirming that she wasn’t a spy, the biggest concern was to make sure her story didn’t get out and embarrass the Army, or encourage more women would attempt the same feat Lawrence had. Luckily for the top brass, the multiple versions of Mulan weren’t in wide circulation at in England at the time.

Source: Mulan vs. The Legend of Hua Mulan, Disneyfied, or Disney Tried?

On January 18th, 2018 we learned about

Updating our spotty, rat-filled understanding of the 14th century plague epidemics

If there’s one thing we can learn from the Black Death in the 14th century, it’s the importance of record keeping in times of crisis. Granted, it was probably hard to focus on documenting what was going on when tens of millions of people were dropping dead for no obvious reason. However, piecing together exactly how the plague spread with the speed it did has been an ongoing question, even long after we’ve come to understand and successfully treat the Yersinia pestis bacteria that actually causes bubonic plague. While rats have long been thought to have carried fleas that carried the bacteria, new investigations are starting to cast doubt on what we thought we knew about these horrifying epidemics.

No rats required

To be clear, Y. pestis is still the cause of death that killed millions of Europeans on more than one occasion. The question is how big a role rats played in transmitting the bacteria to humans. Part of our evidence against the rodents is that they have often play a role in plague outbreaks today, which understandably makes a strong case for their guilt in the 14th century. However, there are some holes in the story of past epidemics, such as no reporting on dead rats turning up in large numbers (as the rodents can be killed by the plague just as we can.) Researchers have also questioned if the flow of infections that we do know about really required rats’ presence in the first place, so they ran some tests to find out.

These experiments obviously didn’t involve risking any human or rat lives. They were conducted as simulations in a computer, allowing changes in different variables to be run over and over, eventually revealing the likelihood of one scenario over another. Obviously, long-shots can still happen, but these simulations showed that fleas biting humans could be passed around quite efficiently with no help from furry friends. In fact, in seven out of nine cities’ virtual infections, the human-flea-human model was a better match for mortality records than scenarios that depended on the movement of rodents.

Looking at leprosy

While these simulations have tried to consider an array of data sources to build a more accurate picture of how the plague spread, some historical gaps have been filled erroneously. Many images that are now archived as contemporary depictions of plague victims are actually pictures of other diseases entirely, such as leprosy. This kind of mistake has become common enough that it’s likely reshaping people’s understanding of what symptoms the bubonic plague actually produces.

Medieval images of leprosy, later labeled as the plague, often include eye-catching lesions on the victims’ skin. It’s dramatic and easily understood as a sign of disease, making these mislabeled images all the more convince to audiences lucky enough to never encounter an actual bubo- the real calling card of the bubonic plague. While some victims could occasionally end up with dark red spots under their skin, most people would end up with a single swollen lymph node in the armpit or neck, depending on where the bacteria-carrying flea bit them. However, these buboes don’t turn up in any drawings or paintings from the 14th century outbreaks. Instead of showing the medical reality of the plague, the few contemporary images directly related to the epidemic focus on its effect on societies, such as a drawing of people burying coffins from 1349, or Jews being burned alive in the 1340s after they were blamed for the disease.

Seeing patterns in the symptoms

Even after the dramatic epidemic of the 14th century, the plague revisited Europe every few decades. Bit by bit, people started to put the pieces together, even making a point to record what an actual plague victim looked like. Images of swollen lymph nodes are directly connected to the plague in imagery from the 15th century, both in artwork and medical documents, some of which suggested lancing buboes to save infected patients.

It’s understandable that people didn’t know what to keep track of before they even knew what was making them sick. But it’s interesting to consider how much information about a curable disease is still hard to be sure of. As someone who was preemptively treated for bubonic plague once as a toddler, I guess I’m just grateful that someone around me knew what to look for at a time when it counted. For what it’s worth, in that case people blamed a flea-bitten cat.

Source: Maybe Rats Aren't to Blame for the Black Death by Michael Greshko, National Geographic

On January 4th, 2018 we learned about

Parsing the historical context of pipers and partridges in the “12 Days of Christmas”

While Santa may deliver front teeth and ’54 convertibles, it takes one’s true love to hand over an overstocked aviary plus enough musicians and dancers to put on a parade. Granted, the gifts in the “12 Days of Christmas” accumulate over nearly two weeks versus one night, but it’s still an amazing, if slightly baffling wishlist. Who needs that many birds at once? Since when do partridges live in trees? And aside from the extravagance of it all, how do these gifts relate to Christmas?

A dozen days to which holiday?

Some of this starts to make sense when you consider the fact that December 25th is only the starting point, or the first day of Christmas. The real holiday the song’s “true love” is building towards is Epiphany, on January 6th (or January 19th, for Orthodox Christians who observe Christmas on January 7th.) The holiday celebrates when the three kings or magi arrived with gifts for Jesus after his birth, or when he was later baptized as an adult. Gifts are a part of many people’s Epiphany tradition, but specifics like partridges and leaping lords seem to only be a part of the Christmas carol.

Despite efforts to retcon religious symbolism into the “12 Days of Christmas,” evidence suggests that the turtle doves and milking maids were probably intended for a 12th Night party. On Epiphany Eve, medieval Europeans would host huge feasts, complete with music, food and various games and diversions. Many traditions included playing with temporary changes in people’s social status, with masters doting on their servants, or the discoverer of a bean in a cake being crowned the Lord or Lady of Misrule for the night. All of this revelry would have likely been accompanied by various musicians, including bag pipers and drummers, although the headcounts didn’t necessarily match what’s listed in the song.

A fowl-filled feast

The vast quantities of birds listed in the “12 Days of Christmas” would have likely turned up at 12th Night parties as well, but on people’s plates. With some small corrections, it’s conceivable that all the fowl included in the song were on the menu at a large feast, from partridges (that probably weren’t in trees) to colly (not calling) birds, which a name for blackbirds back when people ate them more often. Even the five golden rings could have been delicious, since they were probably references to a pheasant’s neck, or possibly a goldfinch. If turning half the carol into a menu feels a bit gluttonous, it’s more pleasant without the lyrics that haven’t stood the test of time, like bears or badgers “a-baiting,” which is a much more horrible thing to include at a party.

A game with a different kind of score

It probably goes without saying, but there’s also no reason to believe that any true love actually tried to feed their guests all the birds included in the song. Looking beyond common sense, this is because this famous carol wasn’t originally a song at all, but was likely a memory game that was played at parties. Each participant had to remember all the previous lines, then add one of their own, which isn’t easy if you’ve ever tried to sing the whole carol from memory. While the first printed version of the “12 Days of Christmas” was in 1780, it wasn’t intended to be any more melodic than a chant or poem. The music that we know today, including the drawn out pronunciation of “five golden rings,” was only added in 1909 by Frederic Austin.

Adding music certainly hasn’t been the last change the “12 Days of Christmas” has seen, but it’s a significant one. If the birds, lords and pipers were originally meant to be a challenge for one’s memory, then transforming every line into a song gives us an unfair advantage to help us memorize the shopping list. On the other hand, modern listeners probably don’t see the once-obvious them of food and parties in the tune, leaving us wondering just were our “true love” does their gift shopping.

Source: 12 Facts About ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ by Kat Eschner, Smithsonian

On December 31st, 2017 we learned about

Wales celebrates mid-winter with the skull-faced puppet of Mari Lwyd

While climate control and electric lighting can now make the winter solstice a footnote in our seasonal plans, it’s fair to say that getting through the longest nights of the year were hard on ancient peoples. Dark, cold nights and fewer options for food seemed to really take their toll on early Europeans, who coped by focusing on the eventual promise of the next spring. Attitudes ranged from merry to macabre, with the particular tradition of Mari Lwyd in Wales encompassing a little bit of everything, right down to horse-skull puppets trying to invite themselves to a party.

From pagans to Punch and Judy

Mari Lwyd’s earliest origins aren’t explicitly recorded, but the symbolism involved suggests that it predates the early influence of the Christian church in the fourth or fifth century. The central figure of Mari Lwyd is depicted as a horse skull on a long pole, with its puppeteer covered in a white shroud like a ghostly steed. The name can be interpreted as “Gray Mare,” probably referencing the horse goddess Rhiannon, who was Queen of the Underworld in ancient pagan traditions. The long nights found between the solstice and New Years Eve were thought to be especially accommodating to spirits and ghosts, including the titular skull-faced apparition.

Documented accounts of Mari Lwyd celebrations show how the tradition changed over the centuries. Pictures from the 1900s include the horse-skull puppet being accompanied by a crew of well-dressed revelers, including people intended to be the 18th century characters Punch and Judy. Aside from the formal attire, the only hints at other holiday activity is the ribbons, ornaments and baubles draped off of the Mari Lwyd puppet, although the overall tone still seems to be tied to Halloween more than Christmas or New Years Eve.

Song of the horse spirit

If all this weren’t confusing enough, consider that the actual activity surrounding this motley crew of revelers is sort of like Latin America’s Las Posadas, except as a rap battle in Welsh. Typically, the Mari Lwyd puppet would be taken to people’s doors, but rather than reenact the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph looking for an inn in Bethlehem, the horse spirit requests entry into people’s homes via a song called pwnco so that it can have fun and banish bad luck. The occupants of the home respond with snappy rhymes of their own, either to outwit or insult the revelers outside, until finally relenting and allowing them entry. Everyone shares some food and drink, until Mari Lwyd and her entourage move to the next home. While this is often tied to New Years Eve, Mari Lwyd will sometimes the rounds closer to Christmas, in which case Christmas carols may be mixed into the pwnco repertoire.

Repudiation to restoration

As with many mid-winter festivities with pagan origins, the Christian church has had a hard time dealing with Mari Lwyd celebrations. In an attempt to assimilate the tradition, it has been suggested that the name be translated as “Holy Mary” instead of “Gray Mare.” Other members of the church, such as Babtist minister William Roberts, have been more confrontational. While the tradition was already in decline in the 19th century, the reverend Roberts actively campaigned against the “folly” of Mari Lwyd. However, by publishing 20 verses of the pwnco, Roberts inadvertently provided the most complete record of the celebration to future generations. You can still find people marching the streets of Welsh towns for New Years as a way to preserve their cultural heritage, even if they need to build their own horse skulls out of cardboard to do so.

Source: The Magic Of The Mari..., Folk Wales.org

On December 21st, 2017 we learned about

Iceland’s Christmas book flood encourages everyone to indulge in an evening of reading

Twas the night before Christmas, and all across Iceland, every person was up reading, new books in their hands. The books had been picked with excitement and care, for the night of jólabókaflóð finally was there…

It’s fair to guess that this couplet doesn’t describe most people’s Christmas Eve, because with a population of only 319,000 people, most of us don’t live in Iceland. For residents of this small island nation, the tradition of jólabókaflóð (“yo-la-bok-a-flot”), or “Christmas Book Flood,” means that December 24th is a time to  give books as gifts, then spend the rest of the evening reading. Unsurprisingly, Iceland boasts some of the highest literacy rates in the world, much of which is likely attributable to this annual exchange of reading material.

Rationing and reading

Even though most publishers don’t release books until November of each year, Iceland takes reading very seriously. 93 percent of Icelanders read at least one book every year, but 50 percent read at least eight. So even if less than a 1000 new Icelandic titles are published each year, they’re being read by a bigger portion of the population than in other countries. This probably helps encourage people to write more too, as on average, ten percent of the population will publish a book at least once in their lifetime.

Iceland’s love of literacy wasn’t completely organic though. Jólabókaflóð, in particular, can be traced back to events in World War II, when many materials were being heavily rationed after Iceland gained independence from Denmark. Paper, however, was relatively easy to obtain, making books the easiest and widespread gift option for the winter holidays. This was codified, also in 1944, by the Bókatíðindi, or “Book Bulletin.” Like a much more civilized version of Black Friday shopping, the Bókatíðindi is sent out to every citizen by the Icelandic publishing industry each November, kicking off holiday shopping for the whole country.

Reaching more readers

In a time when reading material is everywhere, jólabókaflóð is still going strong. Electronic books have seen slow growth in Iceland, largely because of the desire to gift substantial books as gifts. Most titles are still published in the winter only, although some, like translations of Harry Potter, have warranted publication dates in the spring or summer. And while speaking Icelandic helps with pronouncing a word like jólabókaflóð, people from other countries have been doing their best to adopt some form of Christmas book floods at home, adding new stories to their Christmas Eve traditions.


My four-year-old asked: That’s weird. Do kids still get toys too? It’s weird.

Yes, but probably nothing gigantic. Instead of a heap of presents under a Christmas tree, kids put their shoes in the window at night, and one of thirteen Santa’s will leave them some small gifts or fruit in the morning. Bad kids don’t get coal, but may end up with an uncooked potato.

Source: Literary Iceland Revels In Its Annual 'Christmas Book Flood' by Jordan G. Teicher, NPR

On December 20th, 2017 we learned about

How pagans, protestants, princes and presidents helped make trees an iconic part of Christmas

Many holiday traditions involve gifts, special foods and visiting friends and family, but Christmas holds the special honor of being the one time of year millions of people temporarily add a tree to their home furnishings. As lovely as a pine or spruce may be on its own, most people now decorate their tree with ornaments, food and lights, both for the spectacle and the annual experience of hanging the ornaments. As rote as this may seem now, Christmas trees weren’t always part of the Christmas holiday. They actually predate Christmas itself, which is also why their adoption as a holiday staple is a more recent development than many of us realize.

Sprigs for the solstice

In a world where we can flick on lights with a finger, heat our homes automatically and ship food in from any climate, it’s hard to appreciate how pivotal the winter solstice once was in people’s calendars. It was a time of celebration and relief, as people could start looking forward to warmer days, shorter nights and a chance to farm once again. In an increasingly bleak time of year, evergreen trees stood out for their perseverance, and so people would take tree trimmings into their homes. These sprigs and branches were used to decorate homes and temples from Scandinavia to Rome, with each culture honoring the sun deity of their choice. The fact that many evergreens smell nice only added to beliefs, as some cultures believed they’d help ward off witches, ghosts and illness.

Pretty lights or paganism?

In the 16th century, it’s believed that Martin Luther was inspired to take this relationship with evergreens to the next level, decorating them for Christmas. The idea caught on in Germany, but wasn’t exactly welcome everywhere. Even as German immigrants brought their traditions to new parts of the world, including the American colonies, many Christians weren’t happy with the integration of “pagan” practices in a holiday dedicated to the birth of Jesus. In some areas, the German Christmas trees were regarded as oddities, while other municipalities bothered to pass laws banning ornaments in trees, demanding that people only observe Christmas with a church service.

Christmas trees eventually won people over, largely thanks an endorsement from Queen Victoria of England and her German husband, Prince Albert. In 1846, an image was published of the queen and her family standing next to a Christmas tree, which seemed to break down a barrier for people in England and the United States. The influence of German immigration had been steadily growing, including into Canada, but this was a bit of a tipping point that brought trees into the mainstream.

Farms save the forests

However, getting a tree wasn’t necessarily easy at that point. Trees had to be procured from the forest and then brought home, or transported to urban areas to be sold. It was a successful business model, but the growing interest in trees and ornaments was contributing to noticeable deforestation. As conservationist, President Teddy Roosevelt campaigned to stop the purchase of Christmas trees, banning them at the White House during his administration.

The solution to rampant, uncontrolled tree-cutting came in 1901. An entrepreneuring farmer from New Jersey named William McGalliard figured he could supplement his winter income by planting the world’s first Christmas tree farm. Taking advantage of a patch of rocky soil on his land, he planted around 25,000 trees to eventually sell for a dollar a piece. He had to wait seven years for the trees to mature, but the investment proved to be quite successful. Forests no longer needed to be pillaged, and farmers adopting this model found a winter harvest to help get through lean winter months. By 1926, Christmas tree farming was so wide spread that Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin, closed the loop, so to speak, opening a tree farm on his property in Hyde Park, New York.

Acquiring a tree as agritainment

At this point, Christmas tree farms are doing their best to keep trees firmly rooted in people’s holiday traditions. Countries like Greenland import trees that they can’t grow themselves. Every state in the United States, including Hawaii, grow trees locally for the holiday. You can buy a tree from a store parking lot, or make an experience of picking your tree, cutting it yourself, and then letting a trained dog drag it to your car to take home. None of this is necessarily evocative of earlier interests in sun gods or wards against witches, but it looks like these trees have weathered centuries of controversy as well as they regularly winter’s snow.

Source: History of Christmas Trees, History.com

On December 19th, 2017 we learned about

A brief history of sharing holiday cookies, from solstice celebrations to saying thanks to Santa

As popular as it is today, people haven’t always left out Oreo cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. Obviously, Santa started delivering presents well before Oreos debuted in 1912, although he certainly doesn’t predate holiday cookies in general, which are actually older than Christmas itself. Before Europeans were celebrating the birth of Jesus, they were baking richly spiced cookies to celebrate, or help endure, the winter solstice. At that point, they were such a treat, they were basically gifts themselves.

Part of what makes a gift seem significant is how unusual or precious it is. Even if we pile cookies on platters with abandon today, the ingredients in gingerbread cookies, like nutmeg, cinnamon and sugar, were once precious imports for European bakers. Trade and technology eventually made these flavors a bit easier to obtain, and by the Middle Ages cookies were likely to incorporate black pepper, butter, citron, and dates. Nonetheless, each cookie would have still been pretty special, turning up only at feasts when a host wanted to impress their guests.

Showing appreciation to St. Nick

As much as people enjoyed their Christmas cookies, it took a new kind of scarcity to get them to share any with Santa. In the 1930s, the hardships of the Great Depression motivated parents to use cookies as a lesson in generosity and gratitude. By giving a little snack to Santa, the kids would hopefully think about how appreciative they were to Santa for bringing them gifts on Christmas Eve. This idea lives on today, but sadly never seems to stick with kids long enough to motivate them to write Thank You cards to relatives.

To Nabisco’s chagrin, not everyone leaves cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. It’s popular to leave Santa mince pies and sherry in England and Australia, Guinness and cookies in Ireland, and wine in France. German children think about their appreciation a bit more directly, writing letters to Christkind, a Protestant answer to Catholicism’s St. Nicholas.

Feeding Santa’s, and Odin’s, magic steeds

Santa’s reindeer (or in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, horses) are left treats too, from carrots to hay, often in kids’ shoes. This may seem like an extension of the cookies left for Santa, but like holiday gingerbread cookies themselves, it’s actually an older tradition that predates Christmas. During early Yule solstice celebrations, kids would leave carrots and hay for Sleipner, the Norse god Odin’s eight-legged horse. To say thanks, Odin would leave gifts for the sleeping children to find in the morning.

Source: Don’t Forget Santa’s Cookies and Milk: The History of a Popular Christmas Tradition by Sarah Pruitt, History.com

On December 18th, 2017 we learned about

Sharing ghost stories once added a spooky side to the Christmas season

According to Eddie Pola and George Wyle, marshmallows, caroling, mistletoe and ghost stories all help make the Christmas season “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The last item in the list may seem like a bit of a non-sequitur to modern listeners more accustomed to hearing about sleigh bells and failed relationships during the holidays. The song was written in 1963, but that supernatural element was looking back to a much older European tradition. Instead of pouring over Top-10 lists and predictions for the coming year, people focused on the darkness of winter’s long nights, coming up with stories to scare each other in a most festive way.

Dark and dreary Decembers

The dark of an unelectrified night is conducive to ghost stories any time of year, but the holiday season had a special bleakness to it that was attractive to story tellers. With the pagan Yule celebrations and winter solstice, many people felt that the longest nights of the year would strength bonds between the living and the dead. There was also a sense of reflection at work, as people remembered who and what they’d left behind in light of the coming year.

Christmas was also a different sort of holiday at that point as well. In the mid-1800s, a British Christmas wasn’t nearly the production it is today. Feasting and parties were less prevalent, although Oliver Cromwell’s ban on Christmas carols had at least been lifted in 1660. In general, the Industrial Revolution was simply demanding more time of every employee, and most people were more concerned with holding their jobs than even worrying about a day off on December 25th. A day ending with tales of restless spirits probably made a lot more sense when it wasn’t competing with lavish trees, gifts and other merriment.

Adding morality to tales of mortality

One Christmas ghost story in particular stood out though. Even in its first week of sales, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol made a significant impact on English notions of the Christmas holiday. The ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge were a perfectly natural plot device to Dickens’ audience, but the message of Scrooge’s redemption was quite eye-catching. Dickens wrote a few more holiday ghost stories in the years after A Christmas Carol‘s original 1863 publication, and each blended the spooky, supernatural elements people had come to expect at Christmas with ideas about morality and ethics. These stories sparked new interest in the Christmas holiday, and inspired more ghost stories as well, even though other authors generally focused more on terror than goodwill toward men.

Decline of the dead

Aside from the spirits in modern adaptations of A Christmas Carol, ghosts generally don’t play a big role in Christmas anymore. Part of this is thanks to other changes taking place in society during the Industrial Revolution. Businesses were discovering what the holiday could do for their bottom line, especially if customers could be found for the increasing quantities of products that were being manufactured. Items like mass-produced greeting cards were being printed for the first time, and marketing gifts and cards around horror stories probably wasn’t quite as easy as candy, lights and enthusiastic children.

In the United States, ghost stories hadn’t ever been very popular with early Puritan immigrants, but they did start to find a new home in Halloween. As Scottish and Irish immigrants brought Celtic and Catholic traditions with them to the New World, Halloween caught the attention of the general public. Ghost stories were still being published for Christmas as late as 1915, but Christmas slowly ceded its claims on spooks and specters in the last century. Even in the 1993 movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, ghouls and ghosts are trying to appropriate Christmas, apparently unaware that the Christmas spirits they really stole were the kind that fill us with dread, not delight.


My third-grader asked: So Santa wasn’t delivering as many gifts back then? Maybe he was waiting until people were more interested in Christmas again. Maybe…

Fortunately, I didn’t have to definitively answer this one, although Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” firmly established the idea of Santa Claus coming down the chimney in 1823, so… yeah, maybe Santa was taking a break while England regained its Christmas spirit. Or maybe Santa’s just afraid of ghosts?

Source: A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories by Colin Dickey, Smithsonian