Monday, December 31, 2012

Renfusa's Top Ten Posts of Our First Six Months

Okay, granted, it's not a true year-in-review, since we've only been around for six months, but here are our top ten most viewed posts of 2012, in descending order. What really makes me happy about this list is how many of our guest contributors feature, and feature highly. Check these out, folks, and have a Happy New Year. We'll be back in January with a run of "5 Things I Learned From..." throughout January and February, thanks to many books obtained at Christmas.

  2. Lady Elaine Fairchilde: Devil in a Red Cape
  3. Jack, Discarded
  4. A Future Path Not Taken: The Magic of the Nixie Clock
  5. The Cellular Phones of Reservoir Dogs
  6. Five things I learned from reading Craig Koslofsky's Evening's Empire
  7. Genius in a Bottle: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ghosts, and Genies
  8. Why I Like Faeries
  9. Vortices of Blood: The Magic of Early Mexico City
  10. Two Roman out-of-place artifacts

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 12: Manger vs. Tree

We finish up our look at Christmas with the Christmas tree. It's a perfect summation of the essential duality of Christmas traditions, of conflict between Christian and pagan, Protestant and Catholic, Northern Europe vs. South, and private vs. public.

The Christmas tree as object of veneration obviously goes back to Northern European pagan practices, either Norse or Celtic. These traditions survived the figurative axe of Saint Boniface and found themselves reborn in the years following the Protestant Reformation, in Lutheran regions of Germany. Protestants found the sturdy tannenbaum an antidote to the idolatrous Papist practice of the Christmas creche.

These early Christmas trees were found in either communal-civic or wealthy private hands. Guildhalls displayed the very first Christmas trees that are identifiable in modern terms, and throughout the rest of the early modern period, wealthy German families could afford to have a tree chopped down, moved into the house, and decorated with rich baubles.

Indeed, the private ownership of a Christmas tree was seen, right up until the middle of the 20th century, as a sign of great wealth in all the Germanic-Protestant nations where it was common. This is probably why so many civic tree-lighting ceremonies survive down to this day.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 11: A Baby Boomer Christmas

Not a whole lot to add to today's Weirdmas post except to say that this Wikipedia entry on "Christmas in the post-war United States" is guaranteed to tickle your brain's nostalgia area, whether you're a Boomer, a Gen-Xer, or otherwise. A few fun facts:
  • The origin of NORAD tracking Santa's sleigh was a misprint for a department store's "call Santa" promotion.
  • "Sales of aluminum trees declined after being treated satirically in the 1965 animated Christmas television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas."
  • Corning put the glass Christmas ornament, formerly a luxury, within reach of all Americans with its specially-modified light bulb mass production process.
  • Cultural icons rolled out originally at Christmas include the Slinky, Chex Mix, the transistor radio, and the Etch-a-Sketch.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 10: Neither Bang Nor Whimper

As much as this blog loves crackpots, cultists, millenarians, and all the other assorted oddballs and flakes out there with esoteric beliefs, my fondest holiday wish for the end of the Fourth World is that no one today takes any of this too seriously, nor do their followers.

But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.
- When Prophecy Fails: a social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world, Leon Festinger and Henry Riecken, 1956, p. 3

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 9: Scrooge as Philosophers' Stone: A Christmas Carol as Great Work

Why does arguably the most famous and most imitated Christmas story of all time involve a haunting?

We've already talked about the supernatural liminality of Christmas Eve in this series, but when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, English literature had arguably left its Gothic period behind and was in an era of socially conscious novels... of the type written by a Mr. Charles Dickens. Why this dip into the supernatural for a tale of simple Christmas cheer and generosity?

Critics believe that Dickens's story was meant to unite the disparate threads of Christmas superstition and legend as embodied in the many Anglo-Saxon traditions we've looked at in this series, with a then-modern concern for the social plight of the poor. Perhaps Victorian England, like old Scrooge, would be shocked into action by the ghosts of Christmas.

Why ghosts? Spiritualism was just at the time (the 1840s) on the rise, especially in America, and Dickens had traveled there immediately prior to writing A Christmas Carol. Some have said his visit to a prison outside Pittsburgh may have also influenced his writing of the story.

When you look at the Ghosts of Christmas, you see some clear archetypes, some with Christmas antecedents, and some decidedly without. The Ghost of Christmas Past, for instance, is a shining light, a kind of androgynous and polymorphous will o' the wisp, but the description in Dickens evokes the girls wearing crowns of candles in the procession of the Feast of St. Lucia:
It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is probably the most famous folkloric archetype of them all: a jolly jovial giant, replete with cornucopia, he represents liberality and largesse, and comes from a tradition all the way from Jupiter himself (the horn of plenty was said to have fed him in his orphaned infancy), to St. Christopher, the giant who bore the Christ-child on his back. Of course, following the Ghost of Christmas Present's wake are the children Ignorance and Want, neither of them serene figures like the Christ-child but excellent metaphors for a lack of Christian charity.

And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, well. What more can be said of this Reaper figure other than the fact that by the end of the story, we have sort of gone through the purifying stages of alchemy in a strange order: from the white of Past, the green and red of present, to the black of future. Of course Scrooge comes out of this back to the Christmas at present, where he emulates the joviality and generosity of his rosy-red-cheeked and green-garlanded Christmas Present visitor... so perhaps the order isn't twisted after all?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 8: A Rose By Any Other Name Would Taste As Sweet

Let's do a quick hit on another UK Christmas tradition, this one a bit more modern: the Cadbury Roses collection of chocolates.

Having just purchased one of these tins for my goodly wife at a local British Isles-import store, I was interested in finding out how they became associated with Christmas and a little bit about their history. For instance, why are they called Roses when they are just a typical non-rosey chocolate assortment?

Well, quite simply, the candies were named for the machinery they were wrapped on. The Rose Brothers manufacturing firm didn't just made confectioners' wrapping machines, they were a supplier of gun sights and turrets in both World Wars. They were supposed to have done some "special work" on the Avro Lancasters flown by the famous Dambusters. Ironically, one of Rose's factories was located in the interwar years in Germany, taken over by the Nazis at the outset of hostilities, and then bombed into oblivion by the RAF!

My own mission now is to assign the 10 types of Roses to the 10 Sephiroth of the Tree of Life. Rosae mysticae et dulcissimae!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 7: Santa One-Eye, Santa All-Father

There are a lot of Santa Clauses out there.

I think one of the most interesting things I've discovered doing Weirdmas is that while there is a template for "gift-giving/punishment-inflicting supernatural being who commits B&E on Christmas Eve," in each Christian culture it varies wildly. At first glance, the Dutch Sinterklaas is as close to our Santa as could be imagined; an Earth-2 version, if you will, from an America where the Dutch never gave up New Amsterdam (exaggerated wink to my Changeling players). But dig a little deeper and there's depths to this figure that surprised even me.

First, let's get an unpleasant realization out of the way at the outset. Both Sinterklaas and the German Knecht Ruprecht have historically been aided by helpers in blackface. Both traditions have equivocated that this is because the servants have to go down a coal-filled chimney, but in reality the Dutch Zwarte Piet-as-Moor servant dates back only about a couple of centuries and is clearly culturally "Moorish" and a racist caricature.

But let's go back further than even that. In medieval Dutch, Black Pete was a nickname for a devil, and subsequently these "helpers" were the ones who punished the children and gave them worthless gifts while Sinterklaas rewarded them. In fact, in some tales, the black helpers would observe children to make sure they were good all year long.

Sinterklaas, unlike Santa Claus, doesn't have a sleigh. He rides a grey steed through the sky, often with two black servants who serve as his agents in our world and observers, as his thought and memory, if you will.

Remind you of anyone?

Monday, December 17, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 6: Eves of Liminality: Talking Animals on Christmas Eve

I did a good chunk of research on this one, and all I got was anecdotal evidence. The tradition of animals being able to speak on Christmas Eve was new to me when my British wife mentioned it to me a few years ago, and indeed, most sources seem to agree it originates in the British isles. But the web is full of "my mother told me this," "I remember hearing it somewhere," and other noncommittal origins for the story. The Christian overlay is that it's meant to honor the animals who themselves honored Christ in the manger, but as always seems to be the case during these investigations of weird Christmas myths: yes, there are likely pagan origins.

Probably one of the more interesting interpretations comes from this Strange Horizons post from 2006, in which it's thought that the evenings before holy days/holidays (All Hallow's Eve, Christmas Eve, and, strangely unnoted by the Strange Horizons author, Walpurgisnacht) always seem to feature some form of thinness between worlds, or speaking with the dead, some other sort of prophecy, or the "one night in the year" that Supernatural Being X is allowed to do Supernatural Activity Y. Witches on Walpurgisnacht, the unquiet dead on Halloween... but surely innocent animals could not have the same level of uncannyness or even evil?

Let's be honest; sometimes the animals are not speaking of innocent things. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, cites this story of a couple of ill-treated pets who speak and prophesy in Brittany:
Once upon a time there was a woman who starved her cat and dog. At midnight on Christmas Eve she heard the dog say to the cat, ‘It is quite time we lost our mistress; she is a regular miser. To-night burglars are coming to steal her money; and if she cries out they will break her head.’ ‘’Twill be a good deed,’ the cat replied. The woman in terror got up to go to a neighbour's house; as she went out the burglars opened the door, and when she shouted for help they broke her head.
In the words of esteemed parapsychologist Dr. Peter Venkman... dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 5: Choking on Aristotle

Quick hit today, on a Christmas tradition that's new to me, the Boar's Head Feast at Queen's College, Oxford. The tradition stretches back, yes, to pagan times and the triumph involved in slaying a wild boar; it also stretches forward to the present day thanks to settlers in colonial America and a continuous tradition at Oxford. But check out this purported "origin myth" meant to get rid of the boar's head's paganism and give it a nice personalized gloss for the University. Who needs pagan chieftains with spears when you have your handy copy of Aristotle:
Legend has it that a scholar was studying a book of Aristotle while walking through the forest on his way to Midnight Mass. Suddenly, he was confronted by an angry wild boar. Having no other weapon, the resourceful Oxonian rammed his metal-bound philosophy book down the throat of the charging animal, whereupon the brute choked to death. That night the boar's head, finely dressed and garnished, was borne in procession to the dining room, accompanied by carolers singing "in honor of the King of bliss."
That is the kind of Christmas legend that this blog can get behind fully.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 4: Whatever Happened to the Magi?

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

- Matthew 2:12

Come on, like I wasn't going to cover the Magi in this feature?

We all know the greatest hits of the three Wise Men: Zoroastrian priest-astrologers, or kings from three different continents (whom every nation in history, it seems, has tried to claim as their own), they offered gifts, probably symbolic of kingship, godhood and death, and then disappear from the story, careful not to tangle with the about-to-mass-infanticide King Herod. But where did they go after following their star to the Nativity of Jesus?

One popular tradition is that the three kings were martyred after later becoming Christians. This purported 4th century account, the Chronicon of Flavius Lucius Dexter, alleged to have been discovered in the 16th century and then widely transmitted in Catholic nations, was later revealed to be a contemporary forgery. Interestingly, many of these falsos cronicones, as they were called in Spain, were written at the height of the Spanish Empire as a sort of cultural valedictory, featuring many purported late antique authors from Roman Spain.

Marco Polo was supposed to have seen the tomb of the Magi, in Saveh in Persia, on his famous journey. While this would at least match the geographical origin of three supposed Zoroastrian priests, no other record has been found in the eight centuries since Marco Polo's visit of this tomb. It is interesting to note that in Saveh Marco Polo supposedly met "fire-worshipping priests," which is the sure sign of a Zoroastrian temple. Whether it is plausible for a prominent Zoroastrian temple to have still remained centuries after Persia's conversion to Islam is also doubtful; a vast majority had fled to India by the time of Marco Polo.

The convoluted tale of the "relics" of the three magi begins with their relocation to Milan from Byzantium in 344. During Frederick Barbarossa's conquest of Italy in the early 12th century, the relics were stolen and spirited to Cologne, where a great reliquary was crafted by Nicholas of Verdun. Were the bones yet another hoax meant to lend authority to a great imperial ruler? Umberto Eco thought so, and the early 12th century was a golden age of the propagation of medieval forgeries.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 3: Sol Invictus

We've spent some time in Northern Europe so far in the 12 Days of Weirdmas, but now, let's go south. South to the Roman Empire, where the late Empire's peculiar melange of Pagan, Christian, and neo-Pagan produced the popular date for what became Christ's Mass.

Two threads converge in this story. First, the popularity of new cults within the late Roman Empire generated the cult of the Unconquered Sun, or Sol Invictus, in the late 3rd century AD. This cult drew aspects from existing solar cults, including those of Apollo-Helios and of course the Syrian god Elagabalus, who lent his name to one of the cruelest Roman Emperors of the late period, who was largely believed to be original popularizer of the solar cult.

The sun, of course, would have its "rebirth" ceremony during the longest night of the year, when the days in the Northern Hemisphere would begin to grow again.

At the same time, in the 3rd century within Christian communities, some discussion was given for theological and historical purposes as to when Christ was born. Coming up with the 25th of December for Christmas and the 6th of January for Epiphany seems to have arisen in the Eastern Mediterranean in the late 4th century. We know this thanks to the record left behind by the contemporary Chronography of 354, which interestingly notes both the "birthday of the Unconquered" and the "birth of Christ in Bethlehem," but also due to the detective work of late antique exegetes who noted the pregnancy of John the Baptist's mother along with the date of the Annunciation in Luke.

It's worth noting that theologians such as Origen and Arnobius found the celebration of Christ's birthday to be too similarly idolatrous to Roman and other pagan traditions of celebrating birthdays of Emperors or kings.

And thus begins the shifting of Christ's birthday to civic holiday within the Empire. For a while there was deliberate conflation of Christ with the Unconquered Sun, encouraged by both Christian and pagan adherents.

Christ as "sun" of God (obviously the pun only works in English) was a connection not unknown to the early Christians nor unknown to pagan Romans. In one of many examples of Old Testament prophecy of Christ's coming, Christian theologians could cite Malachi 4:2: "But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall." And at least a century before the Chronography of 354 there is evidence of a solar Christ, taking on the iconography of Apollo-Helios in a Roman Christian mausoleum. With the slow and final takeover of Christianity in the Roman Empire, an unconquered solar deity whose feast day was at midwinter would jibe perfectly with the Unconquered (by death) Christ whose real birthday was calculated for that same date.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 2: Put a Great Stellated Rhombicuboctahedron On Top of the Tree!

Most folks are content to put a simple five-pointed star on top of their Christmas trees. But the Moravian Church has a tradition of putting a three-dimensional star on their trees that can feature anywhere from 26 to as many as 110 points. Where did this tradition start? Perhaps surprisingly, it's widely believed it was invented and developed as a geometry lesson.

The Moravian Star, as it is now known, was first crafted at the Niesky Moravian Boys' School and apparently spread throughout Germany, even among non-Moravians, as a popular form of the Christmas tree star, and wherever Moravian missionaries went around the world.

The typical 26-point configuration uses the sides of a figure known as a rhombicuboctahedron as bases for the points, or stellations. This doesn't have any special numerological or sacred geometrical significance to the Unity of Brethren or Moravian Church, but the star itself is of course representative of the Star of Bethlehem.

Where else has the rhombicuboctahedron appeared? Well, in the Portrait of Luca Pacioli, a late 15th century painting that depicts a mathematician, and where the rhombicuboctahedron takes on a, well, uncanny appearance.

Suspended from the darkened ceiling in front of Pacioli is a glass-sided, water-filled rhombicuboctahedron, along with a solid dodecahedron, whose mysteries we've plumbed previously here at Renfusa. Its purpose and selection in this painting is a mystery, almost as mysterious as the solid in Dürer's Melencolia I. In fact, some believe the figure on the right in the painting could be Dürer, whose devotion to and knowledge of solid geometry is obviously well-attested.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The 12 Days of Weirdmas, Day 1: Yule Lads

We get the majority of our modern Christmas traditions from Norse and Germanic culture. (This is a tendency we'll be returning to later in this series in a big way.) We can locate the origins of Santa Claus, the advent calendar, the Yule log and the Christmas tree in Northern Europe over the last two millennia. But even with most of the ancient Norse traditions being subsumed into the modern melting pot of Christmas, there are few that persist to this day untouched by the larger superculture. And one of them is Iceland's Yule Lads.

Figures of trickery and mischief run deep in the Christmas traditions of Northern Europe, especially when it comes to punishing naughty girls and boys. In the Yule Lads, we have an autochthonous Icelandic tradition that was actually forgotten for many years in the modern era and resuscitated later on in the 20th century. Probably because the idea of a supernatural creature who is the offspring of a giantess-witch who eats children and whose main idea of mischief is eating the crust off the pans left out overnight might have lost a little of its power in a more modern world.

But yes, the Yule Lads echo the bad household fairies like the boggart in that they invade the home to wreak havoc on the sanctity of its contents. And yes, they have awesome names. I can't pick a favorite between names like Bjúgnakrækir (the "Sausage-Swiper"), Gáttaþefur (the "Doorway Sniffer") and Meathook, a.k.a. Ketkrókur, who uses his long hook to sneak down the chimney to steal the family's meat.

As was stated above, the Yule Lads are the offspring of the terrifying giantess of Icelandic folklore, Grýla. Grýla is a typical witch-ogre of the Baba Yaga type, cooking and eating children with the help of her evil cat (who later joined the Lads as a Christmas-specific Yule Cat). Using Grýla to frighten children at Christmas seems to have started sometime in the 18th century, but her history is more profound than that; she appears as a figure of some fearful esteem in various Icelandic sagas and in various legendaria as a figure in animal skins on horseback who acts as a punisher of men who wrong women. It's hard to resist the interpretation that Grýla's evolution from a primal pagan force of vengeance to a mother-figure in a children's tradition was an intentional one meant to rob her of some of her power.

These days, the Yule Lads are starting to be subsumed into Global Western Christmas; some Yule Lads even wear red-and-white Santa outfits these days in Iceland. But as a resuscitated tradition, they and their ancestors in folklore reach back in time to some of Iceland's earliest settlement and strongest cultural traditions.

The 12 Days of Weirdmas: Introduction

First things first, yes, I know when the actual Twelve Days of Christmas are. I'm planning this feature so it's one post each weekday leading up to Christmas. So my inaccuracy is totally valid.

Second: Christmas is WEIRD.

When you think about it as the central modern Western holiday on the calendar, and all the myriad traditions that feed into what it is to us today, you quickly realize it's an ancient mishmash of pagan and Christian, commercial and charitable, the intimacy of family and the larger web of society, happiness and melancholy. It's downright liminal.

So for the next 12 days, I will be looking at a distinct weirdness of Christmas each day. These entries won't be nearly as discursive as most of Renfusa so far, but I guarantee you will not know anything about at least one of these weird Christmas facts.