I believe in Santa Claus

Doubting the existence of Santa is not new.  On September 21, 1897, the editor of The New York Sun newspaper published a reply to a letter from a an 8 year-old girl that has become a classic.  In it, he gives that famous line, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”  Now I am here to say, “I believe in Santa Claus.”  (click here for the entire article)  He also wrote, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”  Maybe part of the reason is that I am Santa Claus, to give the children a Santa to see.  Well, not all year, but a few special occasions each year.  But more on that later.  Let’s talk a little about who Santa Claus is.

St. Nicholas of Myrna

St. Nicholas of Myra with a white beard and the red attire of a bishop

Being in love with history, I am compelled to give a little history of the old fellow.  The name Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas (click here for more), a red-cloaked bishop with white hair and beard who brings gifts to good children on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6th.  His name comes from Saint Nicholas, the Greek Bishop of Myra (now in Turkey), who was known for his generosity (click here for more).  Early on, gifts were given to children in some countries on St. Nicholas Day, not on Christmas Day.  From Jolly Olde England came Father Christmas.  As early as the 1400’s, King Christmas would ride in the Christmas festival on a decorated horse.  Remember, Christmas trees were not a part of the English Christmas celebration until German Prince Albert brought them across the Channel when he married Queen Victoria (although they had been a part of the Royal Family’s since the time of George III), so decorating a horse had to do.  Over time, he also became known as Father Christmas, an old man in a long, fur-trimmed cloak.  However, King Christmas was known for bringing fine food and drink to the Christmas celebration, lots of it, rather than toys for children.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas

When the Puritans took control of England in the mid-17th century and banned the celebration of holidays, originally Holy Days, by anything but church attendance, Father Christmas was a casualty.  He also became a cause célèbre for the Royalists who longed for a return to the wilder, less restrictive days of the Stuart kings.  After the Restoration, when Charles II regained the throne, poor Father Christmas had served his purpose and was almost forgotten.  However, in the Victorian Age, he returned to prominence as the spirit of Christmas.  In fact, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a version of Father Christmas, dispensing Christmas cheer from his torch.  Check out the movie version with George C. Scott for a great example of how he looked to the English of that era (more on that and other versions of the movie here). But how did he join with Sinterklaas to become Santa Claus?  That’s an American tale.

Thomas Nast's Santa Claus

Thomas Nast’s 1881 Santa Claus

When Clement Moore’s (click here for author dispute)  “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) was published in 1823, it created much of the mythos.  (click here for the entire poem)  This was the first time we have a sleigh with the reindeer numerated and named.  St. Nicholas is dressed in fur (not red, though) and comes down the chimney to fill stockings.  While much of this is in the Dutch tradition, he does his good work on Christmas Eve or early that morning, not on St. Nicholas Day!  Next came Thomas Nast’s drawings that appeared in Harper’s Weekly from 1863 through 1886.   Nast is best known for creating the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and the donkey for the Democrats, but also did Santa.  His elaborate drawing of “Santa Claus and His Works,” was included in an 1869 printing of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and gave Santa his now-traditional red attire.  St. Nicholas had become Santa Claus.  Nast also gave us Santa’s home in the North Pole that he termed “Santa Claussville, N.P.”  and evolved Santa from a short elf into a full-grown man.  The drawing of Santa he did in 1881 is much like the current standard concept of Santa, except for the politically incorrect pipe.  Thank you, Thomas, for giving us our Santa.

Santa and Coca Cola

Santa and Coca Cola

In the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” the young Alfred says, “there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.”  Yet, it is a commercial ad campaign that refined our image of Santa Claus.  Nast’s Santa looks dated to us now, too 19th century.  It was Coca Cola that gave us the 20th century version that we still identify as the real Santa.  Although Coca Cola began using Santa in its ad campaigns in the 1920’s, it was Haddon Sundblom who drew the ones in the 1930’s until the 1960’s that we now consider the real Santa.  Since Santa didn’t and wouldn’t get any residuals from his images, the jolly old elf was the perfect promoter for Coke.  Still, we do get to enjoy the art and Haddon’s images are our image of Santa to this day, so that wasn’t all bad.  (click here for the Coca Cola Santa story)

Santa and a believer at the Roamin Angel Toy Drive in 2015

Santa Claus and a true believer                                  at the Roamin Angel Toy Drive in 2015

So what about me being Santa?  I believed in Santa as a child.  When I found that he was my dad, it didn’t damage my psyche.  I appreciated the magic that my parents gave me at Christmas, how they made the holiday even more special.  Since Christmas is about God’s gift of his Son as a child to mankind, isn’t there something appropriate about having a saint’s namesake bring gifts to children?  Even the idea of naughty and nice lists teaches accountability for our actions. I still believe in Santa.  In the mid-1970’s, my parents gave me a Santa suit for Christmas.  It was not an expensive one and they did so more as a joke, but it began a change in my life.  I wore it to our towing company Christmas party at a local restaurant, kidding around with the office staff and the drivers.  One of the drivers was sitting on my knee, telling me what he wanted for Christmas, when a waiter came up and told me a little boy would like to talk to Santa.  I went over to his table and took him on my knee.  As he told me of his Christmas wishes, it all changed.  It was no longer a joke.  I was taking on the mantle.  Since then, I have been Santa for many children, including my own daughter.  I only hope I have given as much joy to them as they have given to me.

Santa MacClaus and Mikey MacElf ring that bell.

Santa MacClaus and Mikey MacElf ring that bell.

I have also appeared as Santa MacClaus, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmas.  The response has been great.  Seeing people laugh at the Scottish Santa and contribute to help others at Christmas is wonderful.  Having the kids, eyes going wide to see Santa in a kilt, is hilarious.  Interestingly, none of the kids have a problem with that,  Santa is Santa no matter what.  And the cause is great for Claus.  All the money we raise goes to help others in our local community, whether it be for toys and clothes at Christmas or to keep the homeless from freezing to death in cold weather, it’s worth a little of my time.  Plus I love being Santa, bringing joy where I can.  I will keep doing it as long as I am able.  After all, I believe in Santa.

 

Memorial Day- Remembering Andrew Bryant, an Unsung Hero

A young and dapper Andrew Bryant

A young and dapper Andrew Bryant

While Memorial Day, which was started after the Civil War to honor the fallen soldiers and is not meant for remembering those who survive, I think we should also remember those who survived, but died inside protecting this nation.  Too many lived thorough a war, but at great cost.  One was Andrew Bryant.  Few people have heard of Andrew Thomas Bryant.  If you Google the name, you won’t find anything about the Andrew Bryant who was my great-uncle in at least the first few hundred listings.  I know because I’ve checked.  I only met Andrew once, when I was about 10 years old, and have little personal memory of him.  I never heard him talk of his wartime experiences.  Until a short time ago, all I had was hearsay evidence of his service.

Americans and Filipinos surrender at the fall of Corrigidor

Americans and Filipinos surrender at the fall of Corrigidor

According to my late mother, her uncle Andrew was in the Philippines when WWII broke out.  Having enlisted in the Army during WWI, he was due to retire about that time and had a Filipino wife who owned a shop in Manila.  They had stockpiled bolts of silk to bring back to the States as an early form of an IRA.  But things didn’t work out as planned when the Japanese cut off the islands and invaded.  He was taken prisoner at the fall of Corrigidor in 1942, but survived in the Bataan Death March.   He saw men fall on that march, killed and dragged to the side of the road by Samari swords.  Once in the POW camp, he traded gold rings off his fingers for salt.  He had been wounded and a fellow soldier dug out the bullet with a rusty bayonet, leaving a permanent hole in his side.  After being freed from the POW camp, he tried to find his wife, but her shop had been destroyed by a bomb and he never could find her.  Although he made it through the war physically, he drank heavily and would often descend into tears at the memory of what had happened in the war, talking about people long dead.  It was a classic case of PTSD.  He never forgave General Douglas MacArthur for secretly leaving Corrigidor in a submarine in the middle of the night after promising his men he would stay with them, no matter what.  But, like I said, all this came from my mother.

Andrew in 1946.  If he had survived a Japanese POW camp, why was he so fat?  Was it because when food was readily available, he went out of control?

Andrew in 1946. If he had survived a Japanese POW camp, why was he so fat? Was it because when food was readily available, he went out of control?

In history, every event should be verified by more than one reliable source to have credence.  Often that is not the case in family history.  A tour guide I met used to say, “There are lots of tales and some of them are true.”  Although I wanted to believe that what my mother had told me about Andrew was true, I wanted impartial proof.  All of my mother’s brothers and her sister have passed away and Andrew’s children by his second wife (if the story I was told was correct) have proved impossible to find.  So I tried to find any information I could about him.  I spent hours checking every website that had info on Bataan Death March survivors, Army personnel stationed in the Philippines at the outbreak of WWII, POW’s in Japanese camps and any other relevant source of such information.  Nada.  I was beginning to wonder if it were all a fake, if instead of being a hero, my great-uncle was a fraud.   Was this story from my mother one that wasn’t true?

Not long ago I had worked with my cousin’s son (first cousin, once removed for you genealogists) in researching my uncle, Earl Owen Thresher, a Marine who died on Guadalcanal.   We took on Andrew as a project and he sent a copy of a short item in the Louisville Courier-Journal from 1942 that said,”Second Lieu. Andrew Bryant, 43, former Louisvillian previously reported as missing, is a prisoner of war of the Japanese Government in the Philippines, the War Department has notified his sister, Mrs. Betty Thresher. A World War veteran, Lieutenant Bryant has been in the Army ever since except for a two-year period.  He was at Corregidor when it fell, Mrs. Thresher said.  He served six years in Hawaii and about twelve in the Philippines where he was stationed when war broke out.”  It was the only confirmation of anything I had been told, but I was inspired to continue my search.

The big break came when the deacon at our church, a chaplain for Marine survivors of Corrigidor,  gave me a website of Bataan survivors to check out.  Scrolling down, I hit “Bryant, Andrew T., 2nd Lt.”  A cold chill ran down my spine.  This was actual confirmation that Andrew was there.  More importantly, it gave me his Army serial number.  I was in.  From there on, the information about him was easily accessible.  He’d been in the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines and been shipped to Japan on 7/17/1944.  He’d been on the Hell Ship (so termed because of the horrendous conditions aboard these transport vessels that too often were sunk by unknowing American submarines) Nissyo Maru.   The ship took him to Takao/ Moji, Japan, arriving on 8/3/44.  He was interned in the notorious Moji POW camp.  If you want to know what it was like for men like Andrew, read the book Unbroken.  While the movie was not up to the quality of the book, it will give you an idea of what “hell on Earth” means.  Andrew was there.

Andrew the survivor

Andrew, a survivor in body.

After the war, Andrew returned to the U.S. on the S.S. Simon Bolivar, landing in San Francisco on 10/21/1945.  I know this from the official records.  But there is so much I don’t know for sure.  Did he have a Filipino wife who likely perished in the fall of Manila to the Japanese?  Did he somehow keep his rings after being taken captive and trade them for salt to keep alive?  Did a fellow soldier dig out a bullet or shrapnel with a dirty bayonet?  I doubt that there is any chance of actually knowing if these are facts or fiction.  However, in light of so many of the stories my mother told me being true, these might be as well.  One thing I do know is that Andrew really was a hero, a soldier who suffered and survived what might have killed lesser men.  So, while he did not physically die in the war, I think a part of his being died for his country.  For that reason, while I remember those who have given their lives for our country on this Memorial Day, I also remember all those men and women who physically lived through a war to protect this country, but suffered a certain type of death inside, known as PTSD.  Like Lt.Andrew Bryant.  I sing their praises.

The Real Mother’s Day

Cybele, Rome's Magna Mater ("Great Mother")

Cybele, Rome’s Magna Mater (“Great Mother”)

Through time, there have been certain days when many cultures have honored mothers, but they aren’t tied directly to the American Mother’s Day. To claim that a day organized by different individuals on a different day of the month for a different purpose is the same as Mother’s Day is as fallacious as claiming it has close ties to the Hilaria, the Roman festivals to honor Cybele, their Magna Mater or Great Mother of the gods.  She was all about the power of the Roman state, not a nurturing mother.  Not the same animal.  Today, there are celebrations of women or mothers, with a day set aside for them, in most every country of the world.  However, America was the first country to make an official day honoring mothers per se.  Such events as Mothering Sunday in Great Britain originally had more to do with returning to one’s mother church before copying the the American version and Russia’s communist International Women’s Day only became Mother’s Day in 1998.

Suffragette and peace activist, Julia Ward Howe

Abolitionist, suffragette and peace activist, Julia Ward Howe

There those who claim that Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day for Peace was the first Mother’s Day.  She is most famous for having penned “The battle Hymn of the Republic,” written to the music of the abolitionist’s theme song, “John Brown;s Body.”  It became the marching tune of the Union Army in the Civil War.  However, she later became a pacifist and proposed a day of “marching in the streets, not eating brunch” that started in 1872, to be observed every 2nd of June, known as the Mother’s Day for Peace. However, that Mother’s Day was never observed on a national level and Ms Howe’s version was almost defunct by 1893. Anna Jarvis started her efforts in 1907, inspired by honoring her own mother. Ms. Jarvis had no connection to Ms. Howe’s peace movement and only wanted a day to recognize mothers (beginning with her own), not of marches and protests.

Anna Marie Jarvis, beloved mother of the originator Mother's Day

Ann Marie Jarvis, beloved mother of the originator Mother’s Day

Some sources claim that Ms. Jarvis’ mother, Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, is a tie to Ms. Howe’s movement because of Ann’s efforts to help her community. While Ann Jarvis started Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to improve health and sanitation in 1858, which later treated wounded soldiers from both sides during the Civil War, and started Mothers Friendship Day to bind up families’ emotional wounds from that war in 1865 (or 1868, depending on your source), she had no connection with Ms. Howe. According to those sources, Ann Jarvis inspired Ms. Howe to start her day of marches, but no one claims either Ms. Jarvis were ever a part of them.

Miss Anna Jarvis

Miss Anna Jarvis, who almost single-handedly created Mother’s Day, was never a mother herself.

Miss Anna Jarvis dearly loved her mother, Ann Marie, and, after her death in 1905, strove to honor her. Notice “Mother’s Day” is not “Mothers’ Day,” because you are to honor your own mother on that day as Anna honored hers. In 1913 the House passed a resolution encouraging the wearing of a white carnation in honor of mothers on May 11th, but not creating the holiday Mother’s Day at that time.  Anna was not satisfied.  It was almost entirely due to her efforts that, on May 8, 1914, Congress passed the enactment of Mother’s Day (not Mother’s Day for Peace) as a national holiday to be celebrated on the second Sunday of May (not June 2).

Over-the-top Red Roses

Over-the-top Red Roses

It is true that Mother’s Day was soon commercialized, with businesses reaping great profits from the sale of flowers and cards, which greatly upset Anna Jarvis. She even became an opponent of her own holiday. However, if we wish to harken back to her original intent for Mother’s Day, we should write a letter to our wives and mothers, telling them how much they mean to us and go to church with them (Ms. Jarvis was a devout Christian). She even trademarked “Mother’s Day” in a vain effort to prevent anyone from misusing the name. Those were her soon-dashed hopes for Mother’s Day.

A simple White Carnation speaks volumes

A simple White Carnation speaks volumes

if you want to really observe Mother’s Day as its founder would have done, write a letter to your mother and, if you are also a father, to the mother of your children to say how much they mean to you.  Go to church or your own place of religious observance with her.  It is more in keeping with Anna’s vision than sending roses.  However, if you’re sending flowers, remember that a single white carnation is much more appropriate than a whole room full of red roses.

Christmas Truce

French Soldiers Marching to War

French Soldiers Marching to War

When the “War to End All Wars” began in August, a hundred years ago, governments on both sides were so sure of a quick victory that they assured their soldiers that they would be home by Christmas.  As a line of opposing trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Alps and men settled into living ankle-deep in mud and futile, suicidal attacks against entrenched riflemen, machine guns and cannons, the men soon realized it to be a vain hope.  Both sides were too strong and too determined for the war to have a quick conclusion.  Christmas would be spent in the trenches, with rats and trench foot instead of reindeer and stockings for Santa.

Washington Crossing the Delaware- He Well Might Have Been Standing in the Flat-Bottomed Boat

Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas night – He well might have been standing in the flat-bottomed boat.

The First World War was different from previous wars in so many ways.  Killing was much more efficient, with machine guns and monstrous cannons.  It was truly the birth of mechanized warfare, with trucks for transportation, airplanes for bombing and tanks for driving over the top of infantrymen.  And it spelled the end of armies going into winter quarters.  Up until the end of the nineteenth century, armies would have an unspoken truce during the harsh months of winter.  It was due to the impassable roads and difficulty of moving and provisioning of the troops in those conditions rather than compassion for the troops.  The men would usually be housed in rude cabins, where they would spend Christmas in time of war.  That is why George Washington’s attack on Trenton on the 26th of December in 1776 was such a surprise to the Hessians; he attacked in weather not considered suitable for military maneuvers.  While the mechanization of the armies did not eliminate those problems, it reduced them enough that there was no pause in the fighting for winter.  Christmas in 1914, the first of the war, would be spent in the muddy, cold trenches.

German Postcard from World War I

German Postcard from World War I

In an effort to to alleviate the misery of Christmas in the trenches, both the British and German governments sent packages and cards to their troops.  The Germans also received small Christmas trees with candle-lit lanterns.  In Germany, the main Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.  So the German troops lighted their lanterns and set the trees in front of their trenches, then started singing Christmas carols.  Since there had been a sudden frost, the landscape had a cover of white, like snow-frosted Christmases back home for both sides.  Understand that in many places the opposing trenches were so close that the soldiers had often yelled taunts at each other in the months before.  Now the lights and music of Christmas wafted across the war-torn terrain.  Since these were predominately men who were Christians and might even have visited each others’ countries before the war, no doubt the soldiers began to think that it was not right to kill each other on such a holy day.  They started singing the carols together.  They started calling to each other, with well-wishing rather than taunts.  Then, on Christmas morning, something most unusual happened.  In a number of places, the shooting did not resume with the daybreak.  An ad-hoc truce had started.

Private H. Scrutton of the Essex Regiment described it this way: “As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them.  We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:-
From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer).
“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer).
“GOOD MORNING FRITZ.”
From German trenches: “Good morning.”
From our trench: “How are you?”
“All right.”
“Come over here, Fritz.”
“No. If I come I get shot.”
“No you won’t. Come on.”
“No fear.”
“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”
“No. You come half way and I meet you.”
“All right.”
One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fritz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.”

Rifleman C. H. Brazier of the Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford, described what happened to him in this way: “You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ”

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

This was not planned.  There was no coordination to the truce.  It was not universal.  In some places, the firing continued and men died.  Germany had been a united country less than 50 years and not all German troops reacted the same way.  In one location, the British who came out of their trenches were fired upon by Prussian troops (much more regimented and militaristic than other Germans) and a couple were killed.  However, some Saxon troops near them threatened to shoot them and they stopped.  The Saxons even ventured out to put up a table to host their British enemies.  During Christmas Day, many locations down the line had an unofficial truce.  Hymns, carols and other songs were sung by the soldiers from both sides.  Souvenirs, food, tobacco and stories were shared.  Footballs (soccer balls) appeared and were kicked around.  There was even time to bury the dead who had fallen in no-man’s land, where trying to reach them would have meant almost certain death.

All too soon, the day of celebration was over and the killing began again.  On the same land where the day before soldiers had shared food, stories and bon humour, men were again mowed down by machine guns.  Although the top brass tried to stifle news of the 1914 Christmas Truce, censorship had not yet been formalized and stories leaked out to the general public from soldiers’ letters home.   However, as the war and killing ground on, the Truce was all but forgotten and never happened again.

Sainsbury TV Ad

Sainsbury TV Ad

Although briefly depicted in a couple of movies, the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noël” was devoted to the Christmas Truce and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year.  Now, on the centennial of that truce, Sainsbury supermarkets has made a TV ad depicting it, including the British Tommy handing a Sainsbury chocolate bar to his German counterpart (click here).  While some have claimed that this is blatant commercialism, at least it brings to light this most unusual event.  In doing so, it gives food for thought.  As a Highland Regiment officer wrote in The Times in 1915:  “It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.”

 

Ring Dem Bells- For the Salvation Army

The Duke

The Duke

While Duke Ellington made “Ring Dem Bells” famous in 1930, the Salvation Army has put it into practice for many years.  Ever since the San Francisco Salvation Army first utilized crab-cooking kettles in 1891 to collect money to help the needy, red kettles have become a part of the Christmas season.  While I can’t swear they used bells that first Christmas, we expect them now.  The kettles have become the biggest fund-raiser for the Army’s charitable programs for the whole year.  Although the Army does pay people to ring the bells when needed, they love it when volunteers ring the bells for two reasons: it saves money so there is more for their work with those in need and the volunteers are much more enthusiastic than the paid workers.  The kettle return for volunteers is almost always higher than for paid workers.  After all, they can arm-twist friends and acquaintances without any qualms.  I know.  I ring that bell.

Mikey and the Scottish Santa.  Great knees, huh?

Mikey and the Scottish Santa. Great knees, huh?

Bell ringing can be fun.  On behalf of the Gold Country Celtic Society, I recently took a shift with my friend Mikey.  Although he is a bagpiper and has played them when we’ve done it previously, we were going to be inside of a local supermarket and he thought it might be a problem.  Judging by the response, probably that would not have been the case.  I came as the Scottish Santa and it was a real kick.  Probably 99% of the people would break into a grin when we greeted them with a “Merry Christmas” as they came in the door.  I had one man ask what tartan I was wearing.  “McClaus, of course,”  I replied.  The women were interesting, with several of them stuffing money in the kettle while commenting on our good-looking knees.  When one woman I know came into the store, I said, “Merry Christmas, Carol.”  She looked at me quizzically and said, “How do you know my name?”  Mikey said, “Santa knows everyone’s name.”  But the kids were my favorites.  Handing them a candy cane and seeing the look in their eyes gives me a thrill every time.  As a kid who believed in Santa, I can relate.  As Santa now, I can enjoy.  Although the two hours standing after putting up Christmas decorations all over the house earlier did get to my aging back, it was well worth it.

salvation-armyOkay, here comes the pitch.  If you’re a part of any business, club or society, take a day and “ring dem bells.”  It is fun, rewarding and helps your community.  We’ve had a “Battle of the Media” between The Union newspaper and KNCO radio.  I don’t know who will win, but The Union publicized their day and gave away a lot of free stuff.  All that for bragging rights and a plaque.  If you want to have a kick while doing good, click here for your local Salvation Army location and sign up for bell ringing.

Merry Christmas from the Scottish Santa.

 

Mother-In-Law Day

Common idea of a Mother-in-law

Common conception of a Mother-in-law

Sunday, October 26, 2014, is Mother-In-Law Day.  Mothers-in-law are a favorite butt of jokes for stand-up comedians. Rumble seats in the old coupes and roadsters were called mother-in-law seats because those who rode in them were out of the passenger compartment, and presumably out of the driver’s hair. If you google “mother-in-law jokes” you will have page after page of sites listed. A few of the less offensive ones are listed below:

Adam was the happiest man who ever lived because he didn’t have a mother-in-law.

My mother-in-law’s second car is a broom.

A man in a bar says to his friend, “My mother-in-law is an angel.” His friend replies, “You’re lucky. Mine’s still alive.”

Q: What’s the difference between an outlaw and my mother-in-law? A: An outlaw is wanted!

The definition of mixed emotions is seeing your mother-in-law drive over the cliff in your new Porsche.

So is Mother-In-Law Day a joke, too? Absolutely not. Started in 1934 by a newspaper editor in Amarillo, Texas, it is now observed on the fourth Sunday in October. Or not. Over the last eighty years it has not exactly caught fire. But do mothers-in-law deserve the almost universal vilification and lack of recognition they have received? Maybe some do, for there are both good ones and bad ones. Yet, if anyone suggested ignoring Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because some mothers and fathers have not deserved to be honored, they would be booed and driven from the stage in a shower of rotten tomatoes. In that spirit, let we who loved our mothers-in-law honor them on Mother-In-Law Day. I will, even though mine is no longer on this earth.

True, my mother-in-law and good friend

True, my mother-in-law and good friend

From the moment we first met, my mother-in-law and I hit it off. Her name was LaTruda, a name she hated, so she went by True. It was an appropriate name for her because if anyone was true to the ones she loved, it was she. She was attractive, lively and had an incredible wit. If she were angry with someone, that wit could have a razor edge. However, in the 36 years I knew her, she never turned her quick mind against me. In fact, my wife (an only child) used to say that she knew we had to work any disagreements out because she could never “run home to Mama.” She said that Mama would have sent her back to me, her buddy.

My mother-in-law thought that the term “in-law” was demeaning to me and seldom used it. At a country club event to which my mother-in-law (sorry, True) belonged, we took an opportunity to dance together. A woman who was also a member asked her who I was. “My son, Ron,” she replied without hesitation. The lady smiled. “Oh, I can see the resemblance.” We both had a hard time stifling our laughter.

To say we were simpatico would be an understatement. She had a flair for style and I enjoy dressing with a flair. We had similar tastes in music, including classical, 40’s swing, rock and roll, and jazz, however she was a fine musician (like my wife), while I could only listen to the music. We both were avid readers, devouring books. We both enjoyed crossword puzzles. We both took Latin in high school, the “dead language.” We both enjoyed a similar sense of humor, oft considered warped by those who did not think in the same way we did.

After college, I ended up working in my in-laws’ family business. I ran one of two locations and had pretty much total control of its day-to-day operation. They also almost always had a house close to my wife and me. For 16 years, they even had one on the same property as ours. We went on a number of cruises as a family over the years. Normally, that would be a recipe for disaster: working, living and playing in such close proximity with family often causes friction. Such was not the case with my mother-in-law. While there were a few occasions when my father-in-law and I had problems, my mother-in-law stood as Horatio on the bridge against his angry outbursts (which he did have). Her rapier wit provided a great defense.

In 1994, we sold the family business and in 1995 all moved to the Isle of Man in the British Isles. There were my wife and myself, our daughter, my in-laws and our Sheltie, Fionna. We all lived on the same property and I remodeled their place, former stables, to reflect a bit of Southern California and to include conveniences not common in the Isles, such as a large shower with hot water from a pressurized tank and a side-by-side refrigerator. It was during the remodel, when she couldn’t remember what I had just said about the work being done, that we realized something was wrong. She had been stricken with Alzheimer’s. Even as this horrendous disease attacked her, she kept her sense of humor. “There’s one advantage,” she once told me. “I can read the same book over and over again.” One byproduct of the disease is a lowering of inhibitions. When she first went to the hairstylists with my wife, the assistant was a woman named Fionna. “Fionna?” she asked. “I have a . . .” She paused. My wife’s heart almost stopped as she expected the woman to be equated with our dog. “. . . a friend with your name.” To this day, I wonder if she were playing a mind game.

True as a young woman, with her movie-star looks

True as a young woman, with her movie-star looks.  Her beauty wasn’t just skin deep.

Due to my father-in-laws’ medical problems, we moved back to the States. While pricier, the medical care in the States had more to offer. But there was no “magic pill” for True’s condition.  As her disease progressed, she forgot my name, but she would look at me and say, “You’re a good man.” After her passing, I wrote her eulogy, which was sent to all who knew and loved her. It was a woeful duty and a great honor. As her son, it was also my right. So I now honor her memory on Mother-In-Law Day, although Altera Matris Diem, translated from Latin as “Other Mother’s Day,” would be much more appropriate and I am sure one she would prefer. It is also a title she deserves.

Memorial Day

I normally like to write tongue-in-cheek posts.  I do love witty pieces and make my own attempt to follow in kind.  While I hope that this will not be morbid (like the one about my dearly-departed Aussie, Jilly), it will be a reverent remembrance of an uncle I never met, Earl Owen Thresher.

Earl Owen and his fiance in happier times

Earl Owen and his fiance in happier times

Earl Owen (Eardie) was born on December 27, 1921.  He was my mother’s baby brother, the youngest of five children, and my mother loved him dearly.  He had been engaged to a girl, but they had a fight and broke up in October of 1941.  So, as young men often do, he reacted rashly and joined the Marines to get away from it all.  They made up and got back together, but there’s no going back on an enlistment.  After boot camp on Perris Island, he went into the First Maine Division.  Then December 7, 1941, came around.

Earl Owen's enlistment picture

Earl Owen’s enlistment picture

 

You can read a factual account of Earl Owen’s (using first and middle name is a Southern thing) service record by clicking here.   While he is listed as in the Fifth Marines, he was proud of being in First Marine Division, a part of the Fifth and known as “the Old Breed.”  While they were also called the “Raggedy-Ass Marines,” an officer said that, “the tradition of hard, dirty service started in the First.”  I will not cite the military data from that website, but will tell you what my mother told me.  Earl Owen was not a born soldier.  He wept when he returned for Christmas in 1941, telling how rough it was in the Marines.  This is not a criticism of the Corps, since they were going to fight a tough enemy and had to have tough men, but rather an attempt to convey how difficult a task it is we ask young men (Earl Owen was 19 years old) to do for us.  My mother said he feared he would never see his girlfriend or his family again.  And he did not.  On September 26, 1942, he was killed by enemy machine gun fire while on patrol on Guadalcanal.  His body was never returned to the States.

Earl Owen on his last leave before Guadalcanal.

Earl Owen on his last leave before Guadalcanal.

My mother told me stories of Earl Owen, his wit and his joi de vivre.  She said he always had a smile, a twinkle in his eye.  Once, when he was late for school, she took the blame (and punishment) for him.  It reminds me of how my two older sisters have treated me though the years.  She told me how his girlfriend did not marry or even date for many years after his death.  She told me how much she loved him.  PFC Earl Owen Thresher did not receive a Congressional Medal of Honor, a Silver Star or even a Bronze Star.  He had no Arlington burial.  He was one of many young men who gave their lives for this country and get no recognition.  They fight and die without any press, without any fanfare, without any ticker tape parades.  They just do their duty.  To me, he and his ilk are heroes.  I hope that, on this Memorial Day, he and so many other men who gave their lives for us will not be forgotten.

Easter Sunday Remembered

Easter 1951 with my mom, sisters and me.  Hey, it's baby fat!!

Easter 1951 with my mom, sisters and me. Hey, it’s baby fat!!

As long as I can remember, Easter Sunday has been a special day in my family.  Although my family definitely wasn’t rich, my parents found enough money to buy me a new suit if we I had outgrown my old one (from the discount stores of the day, J.C. Penney’s or Sears and Roebuck’s) and provide candy for our Easter baskets.  I always wore a suit to church.  Form follows function and the function was to give God our best.  For my sisters, my mom would sew a new Easter dress each year.  My oldest sister always wanted a “store-bought” one instead.  When she was in junior high, she saved up her baby-sitting money and purchased one.  Although it was not of the quality of the ones my mom made, it was “store-bought” and that was what mattered.

After church, my mom would lay out a lunch with a baked ham that had been cooking all morning.  My sisters and I would stuff ourselves on ham and scalloped potatoes before experiencing that high that only a chocolate bunny can bring.  While Halloween was a time of candy gluttony, Easter was a time of connoisseur candy.  Now obviously I did not get Godiva bunnies or truffle Easter eggs, but there was something about those chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks that was just, well, special.  It was quality rather than quantity.  At least quality in my young mind.

Then there were the dyed hard-boiled eggs.  I loved dyeing them in the solution made from dissolving  tablets in water, using flimsy wire holders to dip them.  Of course, they never looked as pretty as the pictures, but it was still fun.  However, I did not really like eating them.  I could barely stomach them, far preferring scrambled ones.  The pleasure was in the decorating, not in the eating.  So for many days after Easter, my dad would have hard-boiled eggs in his lunchbox.  Fortunately, he did enjoy them.

Easter in the Late '50's Dapper Dude with an Easter Bunny.   See, I told you it was baby fat.

Easter in the Late ’50’s
Dapper Dude with an Easter Bunny.
See, I told you it was baby fat.

Now there are those who decry the Easter bunny and colored eggs for Easter as pagan traditions of fertility.  Even the name Easter, they say, comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eostre.  That last has not been proven, but it is etymologically likely.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with “baptizing” a celebration, taking those “fun” parts that do not violate any Christian principles and incorporating them into a Christian holiday.  Many of those Christmas traditions so many cherish, like a Christmas tree, mistletoe and a yule log in the fireplace, were “baptized” as well.  There is nothing evil about enjoying yourself while celebrating a Holy day, a.k.a., a holiday.  God created fun.

Okay, I’m off my soapbox and back to remembering.  As you can tell from the pictures, celebrating Easter has been a long-standing event in my life.  And it continues to this day.  Having become an Anglican, I am into “smells and bells,” i.e., formal worship with incense and ritualism.  There is something that tugs at the heart strings when the organ hits the opening chords of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Hail Thee Festival Day.”

I admit, it does not appeal to everyone.  It’s sort of like sushi, you love it or you hate it.  No middle ground.  And I love it.

In my white suit with the late, great Jilly-dog.

In my white suit with the late, great Jilly-dog wearing her formal kerchief.

I have said before that I am an unabashed traditionalist.  I hate it when Shakespearean plays are given a modern setting and/or modern language.  I still believe in taking my hat off when entering a restaurant and opening the door for a woman.  Sadly, I admit that I have sinned in no longer opening the car door for my wife.  Mea culpa.  However, I continue to wear a suit to the Easter service, a white one for the last couple of decades (I know white is only for between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but rules can be broken for a good cause).  I have no intention of trying to make anyone else do so, but I feel I must.  Maybe it was by being taught, but then again maybe it was genetic.  It is who I am.

 

The Ides of March

Julius Caesar: The Ides of March Guy and Calendar Changer

Julius Caesar:
The Ides of March Guy and
Calendar Changer

When it comes to the most famous date in ancient Rome, the Ides of March comes to mind.  In fact, for most it is the only date that comes to mind, thanks to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  “Beware the Ides of March,” the soothsayer tells the doomed Caesar in Act I Scene 2 of that play.  Of course, because of his ambition Caesar doesn’t, and the rest is history and a great play.  But what exactly was the Ides of March?

To answer that, first I must give an explanation of the Roman calendar.  The first one was called the calendar of Romulus (the legendary founder of Rome) and had ten months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December.  Most of the names are familiar if you change the ones with a first letter of “I” to a “J”  because there was no “J” in the Latin alphabet.  The first three months were named after Roman deities, Mars, Maia and Juno.  The last six came from the Latin words for five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten.  Where Aprilis came from no one knows.  It supposedly had been created about 753 B.C.  Since six of them had 30 days and four had 31, the total number of days in the calendar was 304 and it had some problems coinciding with the solar year.  The next one, the Calendar of Numa, was claimed to have been created by the second of Rome’s legendary seven kings, Numa Pompilius.  It added three months (Ianuarius, Februarius, and Mercedonius, also known as Intercalaris).  In this calendar, 30 days hath September, Aprilis, Iunius, November, and December.  All the rest have 31, except Februarius which has 28 and Mercedonius which has none except on a leap year when it has 27.  Is that clear as mud?

When Julius (actually Iulius) Caesar came along, he decided to simplify things.  He axed Mercedonius and changed the number of days to thirty days hath September, Aprilis, Iunius, and November.  All the rest have 31, except Februarius, which has 28 unless it’s a leap year, then 29.  Sound familiar?  Once you change the names of Sextilis to Iulius and Quintilis to August (changed after the death of Julius and Augustus Caesars respectively), you pretty much have our modern calendar.  Each month has an Ides.  In Martius, it’s the 15th.  So why not just call it quindecim, the Latin word for 15?  Because it wasn’t one the fifteenth each month.  Get out a pad and pencil so you can keep track of what follows.  It is guaranteed to confound.

The Romans didn’t just number the days of their months from one to 28, 29, 30 or 31.  No, they had to be difficult.  After all, that’s Latin’s middle name.  Only three days are defined: Kalens, Nones and Ides.  Kalens (from whence we get the word calendar) is the first day of the month.  Easy.  Nones is the 5th day of short months and the 7th day of long months, while Ides is the 13th day of short months and the 15th day of long months (like March).  Hmm.  A little more difficult, but not too bad.  What about the other days of the month?  After the 1st (Kalens), the date is how many days before the Nones, until it reaches Nones.  You count nones itself in the counting.  So March 2nd would be “six days before the Nones of March” (VI Nonis Martiis in Latin), while April 2nd would be “four days before the Nones of April.”  A little more confusing.  Then you use the number of days before the Ides until you get to the Ides.   March 11th would be “five days before the Ides of March,” whereas the 11th of April would be “three days before the Ides of April.”  What about after the Ides?  Those days become the number of days before the Kalens of the next month.   March 29th would be “four days before the Kalens of April,” while April 29th would be “three days before the Kalens of May” (ante diem III Kalenis Maii).  Well, that works unless it’s the day before Kalens, Nones or Ides, then it’s “pridie.”  In Latin, March 31 would be “pridie Kalenis Aprilibus.”    Got it?  If you do, what would February 28th be in a regular year and in a leap year?  I never said this would be easy.

Julius Caesar's Friday the 13th was on  Wednesday the 15hth

Julius Caesar’s Friday the 13th was on Wednesday the 15th, the Ides of March. Happy Anna Perenna Festival, Julius.

So, was the Ides of March to the Romans like Friday the 13th to us, a day known for bad luck?  Not at all.  It was a festival day for Anna Perenna, who was either an old woman who gave food  to the plebeians (poor class) when they went on strike in the 5th century B.C. or Dido’s sister who fled Carthage after Queen Dido’s suicide (an interesting tale, but not for this post).  Nice to have a holiday for someone and not know who she really was.  So the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar had nothing to do with the day itself, but what was going to happen to him on it.  In Latin, the date when he was killed is Idibus Martiis DCCIX Anno Urbis Conditae, abbreviated as Id. Mar. DCCIX AUC.  The year is 709 AUC, how long since the traditional founding of Rome (Anno Urbis Conditae) in 753 BC, instead of 44 BC.

After Caesar’s assassination, however, referring to the Ides of March did become synonymous to referring to the assassination.  Not long after that deed, the famous statesman Cicero, no fan of Julius Caesar, wrote, “The Ides of March are encouraging.”  His meaning was obvious to any Roman.  Maybe that’s why Julius Caesar’s good buddy Mark Antony had him killed.  However, if not for Shakespeare most people today would have no idea even what the Ides of March is.

So, if you are at a cocktail party with boring people, you can now give a detailed explanation of the Ides of March to them.  By the time you finish, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be the only one left.  If the hors d’oeuvres are better than the company, it might be worth doing.

Presidents Day

 

February Birthday Boys George and Abe

February Birthday Boys
George and Abe

When I was growing up, we had two school holidays in February: Lincoln’s Birthday on the12th and Washington’s Birthday on the 22nd.  Now we have Presidents Day on the third Monday in February.  Then again, all telephones had rotary dials and were connected to the wall by a wire.  Times change and so does much of what we are accustomed to.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  While I don’t remember having any special ceremonies to honor Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, I do remember having my teachers speak about the men whose birthdays we observed as those days approached.  The school kids with whom I have recently spoken had not experienced this walk though American history.  In fact, some didn’t even know that Presidents Day is supposed to honor George Washington.  It’s just another day for stores to have sales.  How did it happen that we now “celebrate” this holiday when we do?

It all started with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968.  This moved Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday from his actual birth date of January 15th to the third Monday in January, George Washington’s Birthday from his actual birthday of February 22nd to the third Monday in February, Memorial Day from the traditional grave-decorating day of May 30th to the last Monday in May, Columbus Day from the day Columbus landed in the New World on October 12th to the second Monday in October and Veterans Day from the date of the end of World War I to the fourth Monday in October.  Due to protests by veterans organizations, Veterans Day was restored to November 11th.  Considering Columbus’ current unpopularity in some circles, it may soon become Indigenous People’s Day or Native American Day as it already has in some places.  However, the important point is that all of these holidays are becoming removed from the appropriate days for the people whom they honor.

For proof of this point, consider Presidents Day, supposedly honoring George Washington.  The third Monday falls on a day between February 15th and 21st, yet Washington was born on the 22nd.  Since Lincoln’s Birthday was never a national holiday and he was born on the 12th, obviously it is not to honor him.  It is merely a sanitized, convenient excuse to take a paid holiday.  I fear that there will come a time when other holidays will lose their original meaning.  Will Thanksgiving become Football Day, celebrated on the fourth Monday of November?  Will Christmas become Santa Day on the fourth Monday in December?  Like unruly stallions, will they be gelded so that they are easily tamed to be nothing more than meaningless excuses for an extended weekend?

General George Washington

General George Washington

I propose that we return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when holidays and the daysthey were celebrated on had meaning.  Let’s remember George Washington for what he was: a man who put patriotism above personal security, wealth and ambition.  He was a man of substance and position who risked it all for this nation.  He would have been executed as a traitor and his estate seized if the British had captured him.  He led a ragtag group of citizens who eventually became the Continental Army.  He inspired his compatriots to continue to resist in the face of what must have oft seemed certain defeat.  Reluctantly, he became President.  After two terms of office, he voluntarily stepped down, thereby establishing the two-term tradition that was not broken until Franklin Roosevelt.  Such a republican form of government was unknown in the world at that time and many wanted him to become king, to give stability to the government.  Yet, he refused, trusting in the people to have the wisdom and strength to make this country endure.  The more you read about Washington, the more admirable he is.  So let’s give him back his day on his birthday instead of some safe, generic Presidents Day that can never fall on it.  Then let’s make all our holidays remembrances of what they were originally established to remember.  If they don’t fall on a Monday, live with it.