January 14, 1500: For the Ass Was a Donkey, You See

The Feast of the Ass held on January 14 from around 1100 until 1500 was meant as much as teach-in as a party-in, a way to present religious doctrine to the illiterati who had no books or Internet access. This festival, held primarily in France as a cousin to the Feast of Fools, celebrated the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

Traditionally, the most beautiful young woman in the village splendidly attired in gold-embroidered cloth, carrying a small child and riding a donkey would be led in a solemn procession through the town to the church. The donkey would stand beside the altar while a mock Mass was performed. Instead of the usual responses to the priest, the congregation would “hee-haw.” At the end of the service, instead of the usual benediction, the priest would bray three times and the congregation would respond with another round of hee-hawing. The choir would then offer up a hymn and everyone would bray along — except for the ass who thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and that these people were all making you know whats of themselves.

Another story from these Years of the Ass featured King Henry IV (of France not England as in yesterday’s post). The king was visiting a small town where he found himself listening to and growing tired of a long and rather stupid being delivered by the mayor. As the mayor spoke a donkey brayed loudly and the king with a tone of the greatest gravity and politeness, said: “Pray, gentlemen, speak one at a time, if you please.”

How Cold Was It?

January 14 is also St. Hilary’s Day which honors 4th century bishop St. Hilarius who sounds like a pretty jolly fellow.  In England, the day is considered the coldest day of the year, probably because of the great frost that began on this day in 1205 and lasted through March.  In many subsequent years, folks would hold festivals with thousands of them stomping around on the frozen Thames.

. . . pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers’ pockets just to keep them warm.

. . .  politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

. . . the squirrels in the park were throwing themselves at an electric fence.

. . . when I turned on the shower I got hail.

. . . mice were playing hockey in the toilet bowl.

 

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January 5, 2018: It’s My Bean, It’s My Bean

January 5 marks the last of the 12 days of Christmas, also collectively known as Christmastide, although some folks would have January 5 the 11th day of Christmas with January 6 being the 12th day of Christmas, their having started counting on the day after Christmas rather than Christmas Day. For these folks, Twelfth Day comes after Twelfth Night, which one would think might be rather confusing. The confusion is easily mastered for Twelfth Night is celebrated with a prodigious amount of drinking.

Once everyone is pleasantly plastered, they all head out into the fields where they toast oxen and trees and rocks until they get cold and decide to go back inside only to find that they’ve been locked out and will not be admitted until they sing a few songs. Those that don’t sing freeze to death. Everybody else goes back inside where they divide up a cake that someone has baked a bean into. Whoever gets the bean gets to be King or Queen of the Bean and boss everyone around until everyone passes out.

And the twelve drummers finally stop drumming.

An Ode to Snow

Warning – the following is quite lyrical.

O glorious snow surrounding me with immense drifty mounds!  What do thy mounds conceal?  How many cocker spaniels, small children, miniCoopers have you swallowed, not to be seen again until May.  I am quite conscious of those mounds surrounding me, looming, as I go to fetch the mail, keeping close to the shoveled path lest I too be lost in the mounds ‘til May.  But the path is icy (for that’s what winter is about – snow and ice, ice and snow) and my feet, which have been more accustomed to soft earth, grassy carpeting, fly out from neath me. I fall to the cruel ice.  And here I am in a place from which I never thought I’d be needing to shout:  “Help me.  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”  But I’m not going to shout, for it seems my mouth is frozen to the icy path.  O glorious ice!  Ice that holds me close to its vast but damn cold bosom.  I wait, hoping that someone will come along – a girl scout  peddling cookies, a hot dog vendor, or the UPS man delivering a package of lip warmers.  Or have they too been swallowed by the shifting, whispering mounds of snow?  I tell myself it could be worse; I could be in Chicago.  It doesn’t help.  Now my life flashes before me, especially the part where I’m on a beach in the Caribbean.   But what’s this?  My face is stuck in the sand.  Children frolic nearby, pointing and laughing.  “Hey, mon, why’s your face in the sand?”  Tanned beauties stroll by at a safe distance whispering about senility and too many pina coladas.    A sand crab sidles up and pinches my nose, and I’m suddenly back in frozen Vermont.  But help seems to be at hand.

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses approach.   They look down at me and ask,  “Are you ready to be saved?”  “Doesn’t it look like I’m ready to be saved?” I shout, but no words come out.   They chip me free from the ice with their Watchtowers.  I thank them, accept an armload of their publications, and they ask me if I’m ready for the end of the world.  You betcha.

January 4, 2018: Come Down, Come Down from Your Ivory Tower

If you’ve been keeping track of the Christmas season, you’ll be fully aware that January 4 is the eleventh day of Christmas, kind of an also-ran as far as days of Christmas go, although eleven pipers piping does make a rather dramatic gift from your true love (especially this year as frozen pipes are busting out all over).

In addition to celebrating plumbers, the eleventh day celebrates a saint, as each of the twelve days does. Day eleven is dedicated by those folks who dedicate such things to Saint Simeon Stylites also known as Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger. He is known primarily for spending 37 years on a platform atop a pillar outside of Aleppo in what is now Syria (one could make a pretty good case that in Syria on top of a pillar might be a good place to be).

Why did Simeon choose to live up there like an Arabian Rapunzel, you ask? Simeon was very likely a wise man or at least people thought he was, because they kept coming to him for advice. Many folks would be honored to be sought out for guidance. Not Simeon. Seekers annoyed him. He wanted to be left alone to pray his private prayers and possibly entertain other thoughts as well.

So he went out and found a pillar. His first pillar was a mere nine feet tall and he soon realized that people could easily shout their entreaties to him. He thus began a series of relocations, each pillar being taller than its predecessor. His final pillar was really up there, some 50 feet above the ground and its many pests.

Sort of gets you back in the Christmas spirit, doesn’t it?

Party Hearty

If the twelve days of Christmas are not exciting enough for your celebratory desires, party1 January is pregnant with potential excuses for partying, no matter how far one has to push the envelope.

Already we’ve had, in addition to New Year’s, national days devoted to both hangovers and Bloody Marys. You no doubt caught sight of the festivities as hordes of devotees took part in National Fruitcake Toss Day or sat on the sidelines during National Humiliation Day. Perhaps you were one of the three giddy participants in National Mew Year for Cats Day. And will you observe the dining protocols today as pasta lovers birdseverywhere pig out on National Spaghetti Day. Those of us who prefer cheeper pursuits, can flock together on National Bird Day, January 5. And National Feed a Bird Spaghetti Day is surely waiting in the wings, possibly coming to a January 6 near you.

If you think that most of these holidays created by people with little else to do are a tad trivial, you’re in luck. Today just happens to be National Trivia Day. Get out the pretzels and beer, the party hats and noisemakers, and contribute a nugget of trivia (one person’s trivia is another person’s essential information, you know).

 

If, at the close of business each evening, I myself can understand what I’ve written, I feel the day hasn’t been totally wasted. ~ S. J. Perelman

 

 

December 24, 1843: What a Delightful Boy

Published in 1843, it’s the figgy pudding of Christmas stories.  Don’t go until you get some.  Just one tasty scene for your merriness:

(Scrooge has been visited by the three ghosts on Christmas Eve, and he awakens the following morning.)

“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been alastair-sim-as-scrooge-at-windowamong the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; golden sunlight; heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh glorious, glorious!

“What’s today?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s today, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“Today!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow?”

“Hallo!” returned the boy.

“Do you know the Poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Scrooge inquired.

“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.

“An intelligent boy!” said Scrooge. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey, the big one?”

“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.

“What a delightful boy!” said Scrooge. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.

“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”

“Walk-er!” exclaimed the boy.

“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes, and I’ll give you half-a-crown!”

The boy was off like a shot. He must have had a steady hand at a trigger who could have got a shot off half so fast.

“I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hand, and splitting with a laugh. “He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be!”

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December 21, 1946: Don’t You Know Me, Bert? Ernie?

Frank Capra said that it was his favorite of the many movies he made throughout a phenomenal career. He screened it for his family every Christmas season. Yet it’s initial 1946 release at the Globe Theatre in New York did not bring about yuletide euphoria and visions wonderfullifed1018of sugar plums. It’s a Wonderful Life premiered to mixed and sometimes dismissive reviews, but it went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, garnering a permanent spot in every list of the top films of the last century.

From its very beginning, it did not inspire great expectations. It was based on an original story “The Greatest Gift”written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, Stern made it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in 1943.  In 1944, RKO Pictures ran across the story and bought the rights to it for $10,000, hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Cary Grant. Grant made another Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, instead, and the story languished on a shelf until RKO, anxious to unload the project, sold the rights to Capra in 1945.

Capra, along with several other writers, including Dorothy Parker, created the screenplay that Capra would rename It’s a Wonderful Life.

The town of Seneca Falls, New York claims that Capra modeled Bedford Falls after it. The town has an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival in December, a Hotel Clarence, and the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum. The town of Bedford Falls itself, however, was built in Culver City, California, on a 4-acre set originally designed for the western Cimarron. Capra added a working bank and a tree-lined center parkway, planted with 20 full grown oak trees. Pigeons, cats, and dogs roamed at will.

The dance scene where George and Mary end up in the swimming pool was filmed at the Beverly Hills High School. The pool still exists.

 

itsa-wonderfulll

 

 

December 20, 1880: Remember Me to Herald Square

On December 20, 1880, the stretch of Broadway between Union Square and Madison Square in New York City was illuminated by electric lights for the first time, becoming one of the first streets in the country to be lit up.  It had been exactly one year since over in New Jersey, in broadwayMenlo Park, Thomas Edison had demonstrated his incandescent light.  By the 1890s, the section of Broadway from 23rd Street to 34th Street had become so brightly illuminated by electrical advertising signs, that it was dubbed “The Great White Way.”  Later, when the theater district moved uptown to the Times Square area, the name moved with it.

Broadway is the oldest north-south thoroughfare in New York City, dating back to the first New Amsterdam settlement.  The name Broadway is an English translation of the Dutch breede weg, which means something like “street of hot pretzel vendors.”  Although best known for the boulevard portion that runs through Manhattan, Broadway also runs through the Bronx and north for another 18 miles through Westchester County to Sleepy Hollow.  There are countless landmarks along the route, but the one that first springs to mind this time of year is Macy’s Herald Square department store, between 34th and 35th Streets, where Christmas begins with Macy’s annual parade,  and its windows spectacularly celebrate the season.  (The store is also a costar of the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street.)

Continuing in the Christmas spirit, on December 20, 1989, Vice President Dan Quayle mailed out 30,000 Christmas cards with the inscription “May our nation continue to be the beakon of hope.”

 

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December 18, 1966: You’re a Mean One

grinch-thumb-525x325-23201In 1957, the most infamous Christmas curmudgeon since Ebeneezer Scrooge made his debut in a picture book called How the Grinch Stole Christmas by the amazing Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). It marked the first time an adult had been featured as the main character in a Seuss book and the first time a villain had starred. The book has remained a classic since then. Some conspiracy theorists suggest (and the doctor concurs) that the Grinch is Dr. Seuss himself. In the story, the Grinch complains that he has put up with the Whos’ Christmas celebrations for 53 years. Dr. Seuss was 53 when the book was written and published.

Several years later, on December 18, 1966, the furry misanthrope, now a sickly shade of green, was ready for prime time – television, that is. Chuck Jones of Warner Brothers cartoon fame brought the story to living room screens featuring Boris Karloff as narrator and Grinch. In addition to providing the story, Dr. Seuss created the lyrics for the songs featured in the animated special. (The songs were sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, who some will remember as the bass voice on Rosemary Clooney’s  “This Ole House” or Tony the Tiger – “They’re grrreat!”)

The word grinch has found its way into dictionaries as a person whose lack of enthusiasm or bad temper spoils or dampens the pleasure of others. “Noise, noise, noise, noise.”

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November 19, 2001: Thomas Crapper Would Be Proud

This is true stuff; Wretched Richard’s Almanac does not make this stuff up.  November 19 is World Toilet Day. The day was chosen because it is the anniversary of the founding of the World Toilet Organization (WTO), a global non-profit organization committed plunging-toiletto improving toilets worldwide. Founded in 2001 with just 15 visionary members, WTO now boasts 151 member organizations in 53 countries working to eliminate the suppression of toilet talk in polite circles and to bring the toilet out of the shadows of sinks and bathtubs, giving it its own well-deserved recognition.

 

Sad but true: more money is spent throughout the world on toiletries than is spent on toilets. (Toiletries are not off-trail facilities for hikers.)

In 2005, WTO created the World Toilet College (WTC), the only institution of higher education devoted to toilet design, maintenance, sanitation and use. The WTC is the first and only institution that addresses the needs of both urban and rural toilets (outhouses, presumably) in a holistic manner. The college also seeks to foster a positive image of toilets everywhere, eschewing the use of such mealy-mouthed euphemisms as lavatory, latrine, water closet, rest room, comfort station, powder room and little boys’ and girls’ rooms.

Annual WTO conventions are surely a laugh a minute.

In 2009, a new website was launched dedicated to the celebration of World Toilet Day. Its 2012 slogan was “I give a shit, do you?”

 

I cannot recall a more engaging passage in fiction, and I’ve been trying for almost eighteen seconds. ~ S. J. Perelman

November 5, 1605: And Brer Fawkes, He Lay Low

Please to remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot
I see of no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow…

Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido, was a protester some four hundred years ago, a member of a group of English Catholics who were dismayed at having a Protestant as King of England.  Their protests eventually moved beyond the verbal assaults (“Hi de hay, hi de ho, King James the First has got to go”) down the slippery slope to gunpowder, treason and plot.

Guy Fawkes was born in England in 1570 but as a young man went off to Europe to fight in the Eighty Years’ War (not the entire war, of course) on the side of Catholic Spain.  He hoped that in return Spain would back his Occupy the Throne movement in England.  Spain wasn’t interested.

Guy  returned to England and fell in with some fellow travelers.  Realizing that the Occupy the Throne movement required removing the person who was currently sitting on it, the group plotted to assassinate him.  They rented a spacious undercroft beneath Westminster Palace  where they amassed a good supply of gunpowder.  Guy Fawkes was left in charge of the gunpowder.

Unfortunately, someone snitched on them and Fawkes was captured on November 5.  Subjected to waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation methods, Fawkes told all and was condemned to death. (Evidently, James I was not amused.)  Just before his scheduled execution, Fawkes jumped from the scaffold, breaking his neck and cheating the English out of a good hanging.

Since then the English have celebrated the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 with the November 5 celebration, an integral part of which is burning Guy Fawkes (and sometimes others) in effigy.  Seems like a long time to hold a grudge.

 

It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man. ~ Jack Handey

August 24, 1850: Meet Me at the Fair

London’s Bartholomew Fair, a wild celebration on the eponymous saint’s anniversary, died not with bartha bang but a whimper after enduring for more than seven centuries, Although originally established for legitimate business purposes, the fair had become all eating, drinking and amusement (for shame!) and a bit of a public nuisance with rowdiness and mischief.

Serious pursuits, uplifting exhibits, and dramatic entertainments had given way to shows and exhibits catering to the lowest common denominator of British fair-goers tastes – conjurers, wild beasts, monsters, learned pigs, dwarfs, giants. A prodigious monster with one head and two distinct bodies, a woman with three breasts, a child with three legs. A mermaid with a monkey’s head and the tail of a fish. Puppet shows, pantomimes, and coarse melodramas. A pig-faced lady and a potato that looked like King Henry VIII.

Eventually the fair grew less curiouser and curiouser, and on August 24, 1850, when the mayor went as usual to proclaim the opening of the fair, he found nothing to make it worth the trouble. No mayor went after that, and in 1855 the fair rolled over and expired.

I went to the animal fair,

The Birds and the Beasts were there.
The big baboon, by the light of the moon,
Was combing his auburn hair.
The monkey, he got drunk,
And sat on the elephant’s trunk.
The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees,
And what became of the monk, the monk?
The monk, the monk, the monk.

— Minstrel Song