Popped Corks and Forgotten Resolutions

New Years comes with a set of annual traditions.  There is champagne, cork pops, ball drops, and then there is a list of things that we plan on doing over the next year that we inevitably seem to fail at doing.

Champagne is believed to have taken on the role of “symbol of joyful occasion” in the last two hundred years, but the legend is taht it was little more than a nuisance when it was first discovered.  Dom perignon, a Benedictine monk from the province of Champagne, France,  famed as the original discoverer of Champagne, as he stumbled upon the process of halted secondary fermentation through aeration of the wine that produces the carbonation in the liquid.  The story is something along the lines of him bottling the wines early and coming into contact with cold and damp weather that slowed the fermentation.  When the process was finished, accompanied by some exploding bottles (French bottles weren’t made to resist the pressures of the secondary fermentation) he tasted the drink and bolted about calling, “Come quickly!  I am drinking the Stars!”  While it is a popular story that is widely known, the assumption is that it is incorrect for a number of reasons.

The story that I’ve been able to find is that a group of Champenios (people from the province of Champagne) gathered together in the 1930s during the Depression and hosted a three day long brouhaha to celebrate “the 250th anniversary of Dom Perignon’s discovery” irregardless of the actual historical inaccuracies.  Their hail Mary worked and the Champagne sales rocketed while Dom Perignon was granted an immortal position in the wine maker’s pantheon.

Dom Perignon’s wine is believed to have been great, a grand red wine that was given to King Louis XIV, but it was not the bubbly that we know and associate him with today.  The true origin is now believed to have been in England, where Christopher Merret was believed to have written down a recipe for the drink over 20 years before Dom Perignon’s famous star tasting.  The English hold that Merret was experimenting with a similar process that the Brits used on ciders where sugar was added to start a secondary fermentation, and that English bottles were built stronger and thicker than French ones because of glassblowing techniques, making them able to withstand it.  The true reason for the secondary fermentation allowing the bubbles to begin wasn’t discovered until the mid 1800s when Louis Pasteur discovered how aeration could arrest anaerobic fermentation (originally to stop putrefaction of a liquid like milk), a process that we now call Pasteurization.

As for New Years resolutions, the history behind those is an old and religious one.  Babylonians would celebrate their New Years at the beginning of the Spring and would use the time as the moment to promise the Gods that they would do good things or great conquest.  Romans would start their new year on January 1st.  The date literally has no significance, it was just picked at random by Julius Caesar to honor the two faced god Janus.  The New Year’s beginning would mark the time where assorted vows could be reestablished (see “The Vow of the Peacock” to read a 1315 poem on the subject).  The most similar thing to what we have now is from the Watchnight service in the Methodist Church, thought to come form the Moravian tradition in Czechoslovakian history where people would stay up on the final day of the year and pray, sing, meet and make resolutions for their upcoming year.  As is the same with much of history, there is no true connection that can be easily found that connects the past to the present beyond the simple passage of time and the way that centuries can make a deeply religiously based tradition into a secular one that has less to do with not sinning and more to do with not eating cookies.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different.  Now when you look at a bottle of milk, just remember; both the moo juice and the NASCAR celebration bath were brought to you by the same guy.  Kudos to you Louis Pasteur.  Kudos to you.

Citations, because Champagne history is a surprisingly contentious issue:

Champagne from Champagne is totally Champagne champagne.

Merret’s Merits and Pasteur’s… Pasteurs?

Who watches the Watchnights?


The Wrapped are now Unwrapped, now what?

We celebrated the Christmas Holiday, but what did we forget, and what comes next?

The origin story to Christmas is quite muddy.  Nobody is truly sure whether to trace it back to Norse and Viking origins or if it traces back to Roman ones; and because historians love to lock down a single progenitor of any tradition, the sources never seem to agree on one or another.  The Norse origins are heavy ones that loosely link it to Odin and his Wild Hunt where he rides across the skies with dead warriors, raising hell and portending some sort of catastrophe.  The Roman origin story on the other hand, links it to Saturnalia.  Saturnalia was the Roman festival to the god Saturn, who was the god of everything from harvests to commerce.  Some historians believed that Saturn also took in a large set of traits from Babylonian and Assyrian gods of the harvest (what with the Roman tradition of stealing everybody’s culture).  Saturnalia, typically a three to four day affair, would occasionally run an entire week long from around the 17th of December to the 23rd of December, complete with mass animal sacrifices and a healthy quantity of Barbecue.  It would be accompanied by a whole host of crazy social upheavals where servants would be served by their masters, gambling would be allowed in the streets and sweets and treats would be made out of paste, simply to punk those who tried them.  Meant as a way of celebrating the “Golden Age of Saturn” before the modern era when all men were equal, it gave the farmers and the lower classes (slaves) a week of celebration after the harvests were finished.

Not to be confused with other wonderful Roman holidays, Saturnalia was the after the harvest fest, whereas the pre-planting festival (Romans loved to party) was Matronalia.  The party that was held on the first of March was another social upheaval occasion, where men gave gifts to women and female servants were given the day off as a “thank you” for the work that they would be putting in over the next year.  Another fun Roman holiday is Lupercalia, the February 13-15th holiday celebrating fertility.  What makes Lupercalia so memorable, besides the strange similarity to Valentine’s day, is the fact that men would go blazing through the streets in their birthday suits hooting and screaming as they battered anyone who got in their way with goatskin thongs.  Romans believed that the naked thongslaps would help pregnant women give birth, or help women become pregnant.  Nobody knows romance like a Roman.

As far as what comes after Christmas, as of the 26th, Kwanzaa began and will continue until the first of January.  Now in its 48th year, Kwanzaa is the first African-American specific holiday.  Began in 1966 to give African Americans an alternative to simply following suit with the dominant culture, it was created by Maulana Karenga to celebrate Pan-Africanism and to celebrate African history in America as a greater community.

As a bonus to this post, I’ve added a link that has the Gullah version of the Christmas Story.  Gullah is the language of the Gullah people who hail from near the coast of South Carolina, forming a culture and a community unlike many around them.  They have an different language which is in part English, in part Creole, part African, and wholly intriguing.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different.  When Valentines day comes this year, just be happy you won’t be assaulted by stringy goat strips.  Some traditions really need to be brought back…

Citations, while I still have faith that people use the links:

Odin, Saturn and Parties, oh my:

Goatskin thongs aren’t clothes, But if anybody would rock that, it would have been a Roman


Gullah: De Shephud Dem Go fa See de Chile Jedus

Christmas: the holdiay of Light, Yule logs and the Krampus.

When it really comes down to it, Christmas is a plain damn weird holiday in the way we celebrate it.  We lop down a tree, festoon it with colorful objects that represent slight personal memories, then string it up to shine brighter than a Yule log.  Incidentally, has anyone wondered what on earth a Yule log is before?  It may sound like some sort of holy fruitcake (fruitcake’s own personal history is quite far reaching as well), but the Yule log has a long and varied history that likely extends to before Christmas was even a part of the holiday season.

To begin with, just so we’re all clear on the point: Jesus was NOT born on December 25th.  That date was added later because of the lovely closeness to the Winter Solstice, which traditionally represented the point in the year that the days once again got longer and, in a sense, “when light begins to defeat the darkness”.  Christ’s actual date of birth is fully up for grabs, and has been guessed at many, many times.  Some people believed it to be in March, some in November, and my personal favorite: Hippolytus believed that Christ must have been born on a Wednesday.  What we do know with relative certainty is that December would not have been the time the census would have happened.  Roman censuses would not take place during the Winter months and Shepherds don’t tend in the fields at night during the rainy season of the winters.

Now, as to why we light up Christmas trees with fancy baubles and brilliant displays?  Originally, the trees would be coated with candles to brighten the darkest days of winter; until in 1882 when a fellow of Thomas Edison broke out the 80 light display on a tree to show off the power and majesty of electric lights.  By 1900, the light displays were popular, but also expensive; advertisements gave readers the idea of “renting Christmas lights” to decorate for the holidays.  Within 30 years, there were over 15 companies selling Christmas lights and the business of illuminating trees with man-made lightning had caught on.

The lights of the Christmas tree seem to trace their history to the Yule Log tradition.  A tree of exceptional girth would be brought into the celebration grounds and burned over the course of several days, bringing light and warmth to the nights.  Eventually it was grafted onto Christmas and the log would be burned over 12 days of Christmas, with any spare bits being used for various purposes.  Among the uses, a log could be used for warding off lighting in the year to follow the burning!  In Belgium, always the chocolatiers, they make a desert cake/pudding out of chocolate to be shaped like the log and consumed.

Moving on from log shaped cakes, the log shaped roll of candied blobs and sadness that we call the fruitcake also hails from a long tradition.  Traced back to Egypt, the fruitcake ancestors would be placed around the mummies as what could have been meant as a food for the afterlife.  Later found in Rome, soldiers would use fruitcakes as their rations because of their portability and extreme shelf lives.  As sugars and sweeteners became cheaper, fruitcakes became more rich and dark, eventually being banned in England in the 1800s for being “sinfully rich”.  The ban was repealed because the cakes were an essential part of teatimes.

Krampus as a topic requires more than I believe my writing skills can muster.  Just check it out in the citations section, German children had it rough.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different.  Next time you chow down on one of those fruitcakes, just remember: the Egyptians used them for mummies because they would survive into the afterlife.  It’s the Twinkie of the ancient world.

Citations, cuz it scares the Krampus away:

Jesus has the saddest birthday ever.  People show up to his party months late

Edison patented Christmas First!

Passing the Yule Log, Cake around

Fruitcakes and Krampus, who could ask for anything more?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krampus <– THIS IS THE ONE TO READ ABOUT

In Keeping with the Winter Theme

Like the title says, winter is a fantastic font of random information.  Today’s installment of holiday history is brought to you by snow.  Kind-of.  Just consider snow to be a really thin thread of logic that loosely ties the parts together.

In 1972, Richard Nixon traveled to China after a long period of political standoff between the States and the People’s Republic.  Nixon had the classic list of random locations to visit and gladhand Chinese diplomats, but he insisted upon a special trip being made.  He wanted to see the Great Wall of China, and as we learned from Watergate; what Nixon wants, Nixon goes to great lengths to have.  It was deep in winter during his trip, so inclement weather had struck and the journey to the Great Wall as well as the Wall itself were coated with a layer of snow.  Beijing’s Municipal government issued an all call to the citizens, asking them to grab dustpans and brushes and gather snow from the road and the part of the Wall that Nixon wanted to see.  Overnight, some 100,000 Chinese citizens went out and cleared snow from the roads and Wall so that Nixon and his wife could see it the next morning.

I won’t pretend to have a good segue into this next part, it’s really just a cool story about the Great Wall that needs to be told.  The Myth of Jiayuguan pass (Jiayuguan translates directly to “Excellent Valley Pass”)is a classic story about the Great Wall from when the gate section in Gansu was being built.  The myth is that the builder of the gate was told to estimate the number of bricks he would need.  He told the officials that he would need 99,999 bricks and when questioned added a single brick to the estimated number.  When the gate was built, a single brick remained leftover and was placed loosely on top of the gate, to show that it was not needed.

Back to snow stories and clunky transitions: Cocaine!  Another name people use for it is, believe it or not, snow.  Coca-Cola in the 1890s had trace amounts of cocaine in it because of the coca extract that went into flavoring it.  America’s drink didn’t remove the cocaine in it until 1929, by which point they had also began using the jolly elf of Christmas as their chief winter salesman.  The Coca-Cola public relations peoples enjoy telling the story that they are the entire reason for the chubby, ruddy cheek’d beard becoming the red suit we know today.  There are however, several images of the incarnadine Kringle from years before the Cola company began their advertising flood, as early as 1906.  While Coca-Cola was not the first to produce a happy red man, they were certainly a large reason for it becoming a standard image that can be recognized readily nearly a century later.

Part of the other reason why Coke has been able to spread their brand image (and the images they advertise, like Santa and the 1993 introduction of polar bears) so far and so successfully was World War II.  Coca-Cola, while quite popular in the early 1900s, was blasted to rockstar status during the Second World War.  They had paired their company brand with patriotism in the First World War, and when the Second World War hit, the company promised servicemen that it would sell them their Cola for the same price they sold it during the Great War, $0.05 a bottle.  Whenever a region was taken over by the American forces, advisers would set up a bottling operation to keep the flow of Coke going.  Cola even commissioned studies to prove that soldiers who were well hydrated would fight better.  Colonel Robert L. Scott said when he shot down Japanese fighter planes he only thought about “America, Democracy, and Coca-Colas.”  10 billion bottles of Cola later and the brand was a smash hit globally by the end of the war, and the brand images were disseminated widely.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different.  And the next time the television shows little polar bears chugging coke amid deep snowfall, just think to yourself how many subtle ironies you have just witnessed.

Citations, cuz it’s easier than persuading you I’m Omniscient:


Nixon abroad

The architect totally named “Excellent Valley Pass”

Coke, Cocaine, Snow, Santa and some really strained word associations
and a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, by Wayne Curtis, (Crown Publishers, New York. 2006)

These Days it Feels like the 9th Circle.

Dante had it right.  Hell is a flaming pit of darkness and sadness, but when you get down to where it really begins to suck, it freezes over.  The cold of Winter begins to hit and we all make for the nearest heated shrine to pay homage to the thermoelectric gods who provide us with our warmth.  The favorite comment at the bus stop when breath can be seen usually ends up being, “boy, it’s cold out today.”, but is it really?  As a dose of perspective if you ever feel chilly…

If your morning defrosting still seems like a struggle, just remember the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.  November, 1950, -25 degree temperatures impeded the troop retreat away from advancing Chinese and Korean forces.  It was so cold that the rations the soldiers had froze.  Miscommunications with the command ended in troops being sent boxes of tootsie rolls instead of ammunition or rations.  Troops quickly found that the odd little chocolate roll was an ideal food when you were unable to start a fire, and they would stuff their pockets with the tootsie rolls to slowly eat as they thawed (troops remember it taking 20 minutes to eat a tootsie roll because they were so cold).  “Ask any man who served at the Chosin, to be good a tootsie roll must be frozen”

Another famous popsickle of history, Otzi the Iceman famously found dead in the Alps in 1991, expired in a -6 Celsius zone somewhere in the realm of 5,000 years ago.  His unfortunate death in the mountains allowed an uncanny preservation of his corpse because of limited decomposition.  Scientists are still able to say with relative certainty that Otzi was 46, died shortly after eating ibex and venison and had Brown eyes.  His eyes literally froze in good enough condition that we can tell what color they are five millennia later, along with his stomach and whatever parasites he had (whipworm and lyme disease).

If you ever wished to see if you could freeze your eyes inside the sockets whilst still alive, the place to have tested it would have been in Antarctica on August 20, 2010, when it reached -135.8 Fahrenheit or -94.7 Celsius.  To put things in perspective, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Alaska, the place where they still use Sled dogs with surprising frequency, was -80 Fahrenheit.  We’re talking Antarctica was a full 170% colder than Alaska or even the coldest day in the Yukon.

And in the bigger picture, the Antarctic is barely chilly.  The assumed temperature of space is around 3 degrees Kelvin.  That’s somewhere in the ballpark of -270 Celsius, or in layman terms, so cold you’d willingly set fire to yourself on the off chance of feeling warmth again.  The reason it is not colder is because background radiation from the Big Bang is omnipresent and 3 Kelvin, for reasons I’m sure science can answer.  More than that, scientists have been able to reach 0.0000000001 Kelvin in a piece of Rhodium metal in a laboratory.  The popular description to explain just how big this is: “imagine the distance from 0 Kelvin and 273 Kelvin is the distance from New York to Seattle.  We have come within a pencil’s lead of distance to Seattle.”  i.e. really really cold.

We like to think that we rough it in the snow when the Winter hits, but when you consider the facts of the matter, none of us really know what cold is.
Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different.  Stay warm!

Citations, cuz I don’t know the science well enough to not use them:

Even Hell freezes over

Frozen Chosin

Frozen Eyeballs and Otzi

Rilly, Rilly, Chilly places

(additional) Turns out Frostnip and Chilblain are also things…

Winter Traditions

This time of year is one that hosts a wealth of random acts for strange reasons.  Why do we drop a New Year’s Ball?  Why do we clip drinks together for toasts when the aforementioned ball drops?  Why do we kiss under the mistletoe? (Seriously, why Mistletoe?  It’s basically the tick of the floral kingdom)

If you think about it, none of these things have anything to do with the Holidays or any sort of Christ-child merriment, festivals of lights or any real basis in modern memory. For starters, most of the traditions of today are assimilated from traditions of the past, as can be seen in many things we do almost subconsciously these days.  Take shaking hands for example: we are nearly always taught to shake with our right hand, but never why.  Historians posit that the handshake began as a symbolic transition of power between Assyrian rulers and the gods, where every New Years festival would be accompanied by the emperor clasping the hand of the statue (the Egyptian hieroglyphic for “to give” was a hand shake).

The Middle Ages is largely thought to be the cause of our obsession with the right hand in the shake.  Because most men would be right handed at this point in time (Anglo Saxon word for “weak”=lyft.  Nobody wants to seem lyft) extending your right arm would prove you were not packing a knife, and some people believe the shaking motion was meant to dislodge any weapons in the sleeve.  The left hand handshake, popular among Boy Scouts, is either an Ashanti ritual to prove you aren’t using your shield and trust the other person, or it’s a giant hoax by Baden Powell designed to rope more boys into the Boy Scouts.

As for the traditions of the Wintertime, the Ball dropping in Times Square began in 1904, to commemorate the opening of the New York Times on the newly christened Times Square.  Alfred Ochs lobbied to rename Longacre Square after his newly founded news press and as a result, Times Square was born.  Ochs decided to make his opening celebration a memorable one and spent vast amounts of money on lights and most famously, a 700 pound iron and wood monstrosity coated in 25 watt bulbs.  “From base to dome the giant structure was alight – a torch to usher in the newborn year…” –The New York Times.  So large was his celebration, he successfully replaced the Trinity church as the most popular place to be for New Years on the night he dropped the Ball.

The toasting that comes with New Years and nearly any other celebration or libation comes from a much older tradition.  The classic myth (which I hold to be awesome and metal regardless of the truth) is that the toast was a means of crashing glasses together to slosh your drink into the other revelers mugs on the off chance they were trying to poison you, thereby making them poison themselves.  The truth of it is less dark and harsh, most people used alcohols to celebrate many occasions and the only problem people had with the drinks were that it only appealed to 4 of the 5 senses.  You could see the pleasant hues, you could smell the mashed berries and fermentations, you could feel the liquid and taste it; but you could not hear it in any real capacity.  Clicking crystals together became the last piece to fully experiencing your drink, and in fact, many wine glasses were prized because of the tones they made.

Lastly, Mistletoe, the gnarly little berry-covered bloodsucker of the photosynthetic world, has become a marker for kissing zones.  One of the more famous examples of Mistletoe in motion was in the 1820, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Canyon by Washington Irving, he describes the mistletoe as put up “to the imminent peril of all the pretty house-maids”.  Thought to be a Scandinavian tradition, the hanging up of Mistletoe could be because the seeds seem to be coated in a white fluid and were associated with virility, making it the perfect zone for “closeness” (yessir, plants and semen have a lot of history together; just look up the mandrake).

Other origins stories tied it more closely to the Norse mythology.  Balder was the favorite son of Odin and his mother got an agreement from every substance on earth, except Mistletoe, that they would never hurt him.  Loki finds it out when a drunken god lets the secret to Balder’s strange immortality slip, then he fashions an arrow out of the Mistletoe.  He convinces the blind god of winter, Hodr, to have a William Tell contest with Balder because nothing can hurt him and Balder gets impaled.  The belief is that people use Mistletoe as a kissing booth because it will “never again be used as a weapon” that way.
Hodr, by the way can be pronounced Hoder or Hodor.  Disabled god of Winter who can be manipulated by the magician god and starts the end of world (Ragnarok)?  George R.R. Martin, I see where you’re going with that story…

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different.  Look at the world with a questioning mind and even the most basic things we do are steeped in history and culture.

Citations, cuz every historian needs them:

Balls dropping


The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Canyon, Gent, Volume 2, Washington Irving, pp.30