February 13, 1862: Thaw Out the Holly

With the giving and getting of gifts growing to a crescendo in late valentines-day3December, it is to many a glass of cold water in the face when the merriment suddenly gives way to a bleak long winter with scarcely a box or a bow in sight. The people of Norwich, a city on England’s east coast, a couple of centuries ago found a way to keep on giving by elevating February 13, St. Valentine’s Eve to a Christmas-like celebration.

According to an 1862 account, this Victorian tradition was evidently peculiar to Norwich: visitors to the city were often puzzled to find the shop windows crammed with gifts in early February and newspapers full of advertisements for ‘Useful and Ornamental Articles Suitable for the Season’ available from local retailers.

As soon as it got dark on St. Valentine’s Eve, the streets were swarming with folks carrying baskets of treasures to be anonymously dropped on doorsteps throughout the city. They’d deposit a gift, bang on the door, and rush away before anyone inside could reach the door. Indoors there were excited shrieks and shouts, flushed faces, sparkling eyes and laughter, a rush to the door, examination of the parcels.

Practical jokers  were everywhere as well, ringing doorbells and running off, leaving mock parcels that were pulled away by string when someone attempted to pick them up. Large parcels that dwindled to nothing as the recipient fought through layer after layer of wrapping, and even larger parcels containing live boys who would jump out, steal a kiss, and run away.

As with most holidays that involve children out after dark and mischief, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Eve fell out of favor, to be replaced by the Hallmark-inspired and saintless Valentine’s Day.


February 13, 1971

Golf is thought of as relatively safe sport.  But for the safety of others, there are just some people who should not be allowed on a golf course.  Vice President Spiro Agnew had the dubious distinction of beaning not just one but three spectators on this day during the Bob Hope Desert Classic.  On his very first drive, he sliced into the crowd for a two-bagger, bouncing off a man to nail his wife as well.  On his next shot, he hit a woman, sending her to the hospital.  The previous year, Agnew had managed to hit his partner in the back of the head.




December 25, 1914: Over There

Just after midnight on December 25, 1914, British, French and Russian troops at European battle fronts were stunned as German joyeauxtroops ceased firing and began to sing Christmas carols — in some cases, even backed up by oompah bands.

World War I had begun five months earlier and would continue for another devastating four years. This spontaneous Christmas truce continued through the night and into daylight when many of the German soldiers emerged from their trenches and called out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. Finally, Allied soldiers, seeing that the Germans were unarmed, climbed out of their trenches as well. Men from both sides ventured through the so-called No Man’s Land to shake hands with the enemy. The men exchanged small presents and sang carols and songs. In one case, soldiers played an international soccer game.

It was, of course, short-lived as both sides went back to their business of killing each other.  (This true story is told in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel.)

On Christmas Day in 1941 Bing Crosby introduced a new Christmas song on his weekly NBC radio program. The song, written by Jewish composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, went on to become the gold standard of Christmas music — the top-selling Christmas single ever and the top-selling single of any kind for another 55 years.

The success of “White Christmas” came as no surprise to Berlin, who was already a musical legend. He modestly called it “the best song I ever wrote…the best song anybody ever wrote.” Although Berlin did not celebrate Christmas, it was a day that did hold special meaning to him: his infant son died on December 25, 1928. That perhaps explains some of the ambiguous emotional strength of the song.


December 22, 1864: Georgia on His Mind

A tie might have been more appropriate. But it was 1864, the country was locked in a nasty civil war and the Christmas spirit was shermanwearing a little thin, even among the Whos down in Whoville. Union General William T. Sherman had spent most of his holiday season marching from Atlanta toward the Atlantic Ocean, being quite the Grinch along the way, destroying pretty much everything in his path. “I’ll stop Christmas from coming” he was heard to frequently mutter.

Sherman and his troops reached Savannah just before Christmas and, as the story goes, his heart grew three sizes that day. He didn’t destroy Savannah. Instead he sent a junior officer all the way back to Washington D.C. to personally deliver a Christmas card to President Lincoln on December 22. A message in the card read: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” And a partridge in a pear tree.


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.





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.”



September 27 1937: Only 89 Days until Christmas

Miracle on 34th Street is arguably the best ever Christmas movie. Early in the film, an indignant Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn, chides the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade Santa for being drunk on duty. The inebriated Santa was not Charlie Howard. The movie was made in santa11947; Charlie was the Macy’s parade Santa from 1948 to 1965.

Even before his Macy’s gig, Charlie was already the most famous and sought after Santa in the nation, having played the jolly old elf since his 4th grade Christmas pageant. He began passing his Santa skills on to other would-be Santas on September 27, 1937, when the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School opened its doors in Albion, NY. The campus was actually Charlie’s home, until in the late 1940s he opened Christmas Park right next door. There fledgling Santas could practice their ho-ho-hos on actual little children.

Now in its 79th year (Charlie Howard died in 1966), the school promises a well-rounded Santa education covering such topics as the history of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, the proper use of the red Santa suit and Santa make-up, working with reindeer, and flying sleigh lessons. Tuition is $475.  Students may major in either Santa or Mrs. Santa Claus. But hurry — classes begin in late October.

Inspirational Quote for 9/27/16