28 February 2006

Mardi Gras: It Isn't Just About Bacchanalia in the Streets

Shrovetide is the English equivalent of what is known in the greater part of Southern Europe as the "Carnival", a word which, in spite of wild suggestions to the contrary, is undoubtedly to be derived from the "taking away of flesh" (camera levare) which marked the beginning of Lent.
More about Shrovetide from the Catholic Encyclopedia

And more:

BBC Religion & Ethics: Shrove Tuesday

James Kiefer's Shrove Tuesday Page

All that drinking, eating, and partying in the streets originally came from an effort to rid your house of meat, milk, eggs, and the other rich foods you were forbidden to eat during Lent but which would spoil if left until Easter. In England, this meant the cooking and eating of pancakes, and there the holiday is usually referred to as "Pancake Day."

Woodlands Junior School's Web Page about "Pancake Day"

Elaine's Pancake Day Page

Domestic-Church.com's Pancake Day Page

The most interesting custom to come out of Shrove Tuesday were the pancake races. One, in Olney, England, has become world famous.
No one is quite certain how the world famous Pancake Race at Olney originated. One story tells us of a harassed housewife, hearing the shriving bell, dashing off to the Church still clutching her frying pan containing a pancake. Another that the gift of pancakes may have been a form of bribe to the Ringer, or Sexton that he might ring the bell sooner; for the ringing of the Church bell was the signal for the beginning of the day's holiday...[Olney Pancake Day Site]
Read more about the Olney races.
In 1950 the race became an international event. A challenge was received from the town of Liberal in Kansas, USA, where they had, after seeing press photographs of the race at Olney, conceived the idea of starting a similar custom. Olney readily accepted the challenge and, in a spirit of international goodwill and friendship, the two towns now compete annually and prizes are exchanged....[Olney Pancake Day Site]
More info from the city of Liberal and the International Pancake Day site.

14 February 2006

"Will You Be My Valentine?"

I guess we were pretty typical as mid-60s elementary school kids.

The boys wore their hair short and parted to one side or the other. The occasional cowlick or bowl cut appeared. They wore button-down shirts—often "cowboy shirts" with piping—and pressed troussers (often courderoy in this winter season, or wool). The girls were in dresses, skirts and blouses, or jumpers. Short hair was popular (especially with moms who had to wash that hair), held back with a headband. They wore sturdy Oxfords or Hush Puppies, or strap shoes. A few extroverts whose moms allowed it wore patent leather dress shoes and might have had their hair permed. Ringlets were still popular, too, and hair bows. To stay warm during a long walk to school or at recess, the girls often wore snow pants under their dresses; these came off in the morning along with the thick winter coats and hats and scarves and rubber boots that fit over your shoes and were stowed in the chaos known as the cloakroom behind folding bulletin-board doors.

Valentine’s Day didn’t start immediately after Christmas as it does now. Yuletide was allowed to wind down past the new year before the candy started to appear, but it was only at the tail end of January and into February that schoolchildren started to gear up by surveying what classroom valentines were for sale in the eternal delight of the 60s child, "the five and ten"—Woolworths, Newberrys, McCrory, Ben Franklin, and whatever other local store plied the trade.

The least expensive Valentines, most endorsed by Mom, were just plain little hearts and cupids and other cartoon-like boys and girls or animals wishing each other a happy day or professing love or affection. Girls' Valentines featured dolls, flowers, cute animals, and lots of hearts. Boys' Valentines would more likely have their youthful protagonist in a train engineer's uniform or spacesuit, or would feature trains, cars, airplanes, or construction equipment. Specialty cards, like those with Disney characters or the cartoon heroes of the day like Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound, or theme cards involving real-life race cars or spaceships or television programs were pricier. There was always one, larger Valentine in the box reserved for the teacher; the most common design was some sort of a blackboard with the message written in white "chalk." These were purchased and (sometimes) laboriously signedover and over for twenty to thirty classmates until the day you could dump them in the big box on the teacher’s desk. (Mom always insisted you make out one for everyone in the class, even the kids you didn’t like, so it would be "fair.") In the lower grades, the teacher decorated the box herself, usually with white or pink construction paper. White was favored since then the hearts could be made in both pink and white, and on it in red crayon would be neatly printed the grade and the teacher’s name.

As you grew older the teacher would allow the best artist in the class to decorate the big box. It was an honor to encrust the box with layered hearts or tissue paper flowers, although some students always wanted input on the design.

One February art class closest to the fourteenth was always reserved for making Valentine cards for your mom and dad. Copious piles of white, pink, and red construction paper (sometimes black was added for a cool shadow effect) were plied into service. Sometimes the teacher purchased foil-like cupids or hearts to embellish each card, and lace paper doilies were always a favorite for backgrounds for mothers' cards. Some kids brought in magazine cuttings to further add to the decorative effect. Twenty-five children wielded twenty-five snub-nosed scissors, folding a red sheet in half and carefully reproducing the lopsided teardrop shape with the flat side that would open up into a really-truly heart. The more ambitious children cut odd shapes from the edge and the interior of the folded heart and what unfolded was a confection in "lace" design. These hearts, plain or cut-out, were layered with smaller or larger hearts and then stacked together permanently with the inevitable paste (the flicking paste brush sending bits of white everywhere, including on the clothing and hair of unsuspecting classmates) and cheerfully crayoned with greetings.

We also cut out hearts, again both the plain and lacy variety, to decorate the bulletin board at the back of the room or on the pivoting cloakroom doors, white or red scalloped edges surrounding our best designs.

Later, at home, you would happily hand the now-stiff hand-fashioned card to Mom and/or Dad with a proud "Happy Valentines Day!" and Mom and Dad would admire it and then set it on top of the television console or on the kitchen table, leaned up against the vase of flowers Dad had brought for Mom so everyone could see it. If you were lucky, Dad would take Mom out to dinner and you could come, too, although in most households this was postponed to the Sunday closest to the holiday. Still fresh in your Sunday dress or suit, you'd all troup out to a nice restaurant whene the waiters wore suits and there were cloth napkins instead of paper ones and white tablecloths.

In that Valentine afternoon at school, however, you had received your own haul. The Valentine box was opened and the cards distributed. A few girls shyly smiled at a few boys, and a few boys embarrassedly tucked special Valentines away. There was the constant squeal of a few girls who had received sarcastic comic cards from the few whose moms had not supervised their card purchases and were sticking their tongues out at the guilty, laughing boys. Afterwards, there might be cupcakes and punch or some chocolates Hershey kisses and then it was time to run home and show Mom your cards (after carefully anointing a chosen favorite classmate with that ultimate winter valentine, a snowball!).

"Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function?"

Now joining Conversation Hearts together!

There's also now a "to" as well.

13 February 2006

Little Tokens of Love

Valentines Day is upon us again, its world done in colors of pink and red and a touch of lavender and white. Both the site Valentines Day at the History Channel and Story of Valentines Day relate how this "loving" holiday came to be—and no, it wasn't created by Hallmark Cards!

Here are just two Valentine customs from the past:
In Wales wooden love spoons were carved and given as gifts on February 14th. Hearts, keys and keyholes were favourite decorations on the spoons. The decoration meant, "You unlock my heart!"

In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their valentines would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for one week. To wear your heart on your sleeve now means that it is easy for other people to know how you are feeling.
The longest-running Valentine tradition (besides a token gift of sweets or some memento) is the Valentines Day card. One hundred years ago, it was considered an special token of your affection if you made your own Valentine cards. Young men and women would spend evenings with a paste pot, red paper, white lace, and the enduring Victorian colored illustrations known as "scraps" to make Valentine cards for their favorite people. But a thriving business existed for "boughten" cards as well. In Victorian times lace-paper Valentines were the preferred missive. In the late Victorian era, a new type of card called a "comic Valentine" was printed. These were printed on cheap paper and featured rude caricatures of people emphasizing extreme body parts (long, warty noses, fat, etc). They were mainly sent by young men who thought the humor was funny and most contemporary publications had some not-so-nice comments to make about comic valentines—they asserted that "good, manly young men" would not think to buy such things.

Here American Greetings presents a History of Valentine Cards.

And here's the story of Esther Howland, "Mother of the American Valentine."

And since sweets and Valentines Day have gone together for more years than anyone can remember, here's a history of one of the most beloved of Valentine candies, Conversation Hearts from NECCO.

12 February 2006

Remember Valentine Boxes?

It's funny, I don't. Not individual ones, that is, as narrated in these two stories:

Celebrating Valentine's Day the Old-fashioned Way

Love in a Box

I remember there being a huge box on the teacher's desk. It had a large slot so many of the small, store-bought Valentine cards could be crammed in at one time. After lunch the teacher would open the box and distribute the cards. As they got older, the boys, of course, sent borderline nasty cards (apparently Mom wasn't helping them choose anymore), which really annoyed us girls. We tried within the limit of our budget to get the cutest cards we could, and those "darn boys" just ruined everything. :-)

05 February 2006

Some Hilarious Christmas Memories

Do note what site this is on. :-)

"The Ten Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time"

02 February 2006


From The Holiday Page:
...[T]his is really a very old holiday -- one that has its roots in astronomy. February 2nd is one of four cross-quarter days. It lies about halfway between a solstice and an equinox. Today's cross-quarter day was celebrated as Candlemas in England, where it marked the beginning of spring.

Try this old English rhyme -- "If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again."

Or here's another old saying -- "Half your wood and half your hay, You should have on Candlemas Day."

In Germany it used to be said that "a shepherd would rather see a wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than see the sun shine." A German badger was said to watch for his shadow. The National Geographic Society once studied the groundhog -- and found him to be correct only one out of every three times. One final note. It's supposed to be bad luck to leave your Christmas decorations up after today.
As you can see, the old English rhyme (and another, similar, Scottish rhyme) form the basis for Groundhog Day, which is chiefly celebrated in the United States. However, the folks in Canada also have a groundhog, Wiarton Willie. In the Southern United States, there is "General Beau Lee," who lives at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Stormfax's Groundhog Day Site contains more info about Punxsutawney Phil, the "official" groundhog, the Candlemas rhymes, and even some info about the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. And of course here is Phil's official site.

This is a Catholic page about Candlemas history and customs.

Circle Sanctuary's site covers all the different customs surrounding February 2, Christian, pagan, and secular.

01 February 2006

More Voices of Christmas Past

About a month ago I wrote this post, about a CD of Victorian/Edwardian Christmas music. I commented on how the singers' voices sounded markedly different in those days (and not just to do with the technical aspects of the recordings).

Well, it turns out that George Nelson, the "proprietor" of The Antique Christmas Lights Museum site, also collects old phonographs and has added to his site two pages of links to .mp3s of late Victorian/Edwardian/WWI-era Christmas music recorded from his own collection of cylinders and disks. He comments about his amazement at these disks still being viable after being recorded without the use of electricity 100 years ago.

In listening to these recordings, you can not only hear the difference in singing styles and voices, but also, on the earliest recordings, hear the custom of announcing the name of the piece and the singer or orchestra before the music started. Nelson also has two later pieces, Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and "Jingle Bells" from 1942, played on a 1918 wind up phonograph.

(I love looking at Nelson's site, no matter what time of year, because I love looking at the technology of the time. I am not too young to remember when my mother's electric iron and other appliances around our house had thread-wrapped electrical cords instead of the plastic ones with a groove in it like today, and I remember the old lights with their two-color wiring. There were still some C-6 bulbs in the attic when we cleaned it out and I forgot to bring them home, to my regret. For the longest time, my parents kept as a "spare" an old toaster—with the thread-wrapped cord—which didn't "pop." Instead each side opened like the door on a toaster oven and you leaned the slice of bread against the wires and then had to watch it to make sure your toast didn't burn.)