Sunday, December 26, 2010

New Year's Celebrations

New Year's Day is this coming Saturday…welcome to 2011. This has become a traditional time of celebration. We party on New Year's Eve and celebrate the moment the clock strikes midnight signaling the beginning of a new year.

And, of course, when the year 2000 arrived we celebrated for twenty-four hours as each time zone around the earth welcomed the new millennium on live television broadcasts.

But why and how did the New Year's celebrations become part of our annual routine? The earliest recorded account of a celebration in honor of the new year dates back four thousand years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox announced the arrival of the new year. They celebrated this spring time event with a massive 11 day religious festival called Akitu. It was during this time that a new king was crowned or the current ruler's mandate renewed.

Throughout antiquity, civilizations around the world developed more sophisticated calendars with the first day of the year associated with an agricultural or astronomical event. For example, in Egypt the year began with the annual flooding of the Nile which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. In China, the new year occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice…a day that is still celebrated.

The early Roman calendar had 10 months and 304 days with each new year beginning at the vernal equinox. Tradition holds that it was created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, in the eighth century B.C. Numa Pompilius, a later king, is credited with adding the months of Januarius and Februarius. Over the ensuing centuries, the Roman calendar grew out of sync with the sun. In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar which closely resembles the more modern Gregorian calendar used today by most countries.

As part of his reform, Julius Caesar declared January 1 as the first day of the year and Romans celebrated by exchanging gifts, decorating their homes, and attending raucous parties. In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced January 1 as the first day of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25 as the anniversary of Christ's birth and March 25 as the Feast of the Annunciation. It was Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 who re-established January 1 as New Year's Day.

In many countries, New Year's celebrations begin on New Year's Eve and continue into the early hours of January 1st. These celebrations often include specific foods that are said to bring good luck for the coming year—grapes in Spain, round fruits in the Philippines, suckling pig in Austria, soba noodles in Japan, rice pudding in Norway, and black-eyed peas in the southern United States. Other customs that are common worldwide include making new year resolutions (a practice started by the Babylonians) and watching fireworks displays.

In the United States, the most famous New Year's tradition is the dropping of the giant ball in New York City's Times Square. This event, first instituted in 1906, occurs at the stroke of midnight. The original giant ball was made of iron and wood weighing 400 pounds. Today's giant ball is a brightly patterned sphere 12 feet in diameter and weighing nearly 12,000 pounds.

So, however you celebrate the arrival of the new year…whether you go out to a party, have family or a few friends to your home, or simply curl up by a cozy fire and watch the festivities in Times Square…I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year.

And peace on earth.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ancient Roots Of The Christmas Celebration

This Saturday is December 25th, Christmas Day. Where did December 25 as a day of celebration originate?

Early Europeans celebrated light in the darkest days of winter. They rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to extended hours of sunlight.

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from the Winter Solstice on December 21 through January. In recognition of the return of the sun, fathers and sons would bring home large logs and set them on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out which could be as long as twelve days.

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Odin during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Odin. They believed he made night flights through the sky to observe his people and then decide who would prosper or perish.

In Rome, where winters weren't as harsh as in the far north, Saturnalia was celebrated beginning the week before winter solstice and continuing for a full month. It was a hedonistic time with lots of food and drink. For that month the social order was turned upside down with slaves becoming masters and peasants in charge of the city. Business and schools were closed so everyone could join in.

Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. In addition, on December 25 members of the upper classes celebrated the birthday of Mithras, the god of the unconquerable sun.

It wasn't until the fourth century that Christian church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The Puritans denied the legitimacy of the celebration, pointing out that the Bible does not mention a date for his birth. Pope Julius I chose December 25. The common belief is that the church chose the date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to Scandinavia.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had mostly replaced pagan religion. Christmas was celebrated by attending church then celebrating in a drunken carnival type of atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras celebration.

In the early seventeenth century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. In 1645, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces gained control in England and vowed to do away with decadence. As part of their agenda, they cancelled Christmas. When Charles II regained the throne, he restored the holiday.

The pilgrims who came to America in 1620 were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. In fact, from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. In contrast, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all in the Jamestown settlement where they also enjoyed eggnog, first made in the United States in 1607 in the Jamestown settlement.

Christmas wasn't a holiday in early America until June 26, 1870, when Congress declared it a federal holiday.

One of our Christmas traditions is kissing when standing under mistletoe. But why do people kiss under the mistletoe? After all, mistletoe is a parasitic plant you find in the forest attached to and gaining its sustenance from its host tree. The entire plant is poisonous, especially the berries which are extremely toxic. Ingesting the berries causes acute stomach and intestinal pains, diarrhea, weak pulse, mental disturbances, and the collapse of blood vessels. Death has occurred within ten hours after eating the berries. Not exactly what first comes to mind when you think of kissing. :)

The tradition of linking mistletoe and kissing started in Europe. According to Norse mythology, Baldur, the god of peace, was shot and killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. After the other gods brought him back to life, Frigga, the goddess of love, transformed mistletoe into a symbol of love and peace. And to this day, everyone who passes under the mistletoe must receive a kiss.

Any on that note, I'll close this week's blog.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday season, whatever beliefs you follow. And most of all—Peace On Earth.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lucky Locations To Visit

Lots of things claim to generate good fortune for the lucky holder—a found penny, a four-leaf clover, and a rabbit's foot, although apparently not all that lucky for the poor rabbit.  :)

There are also various locations around the world that are said to be lucky. Here's a smattering of lucky locations to visit.

The Blarney Stone in Cork, Ireland: Found at the top of Blarney Castle (a trek up old steep stone steps that provides quite a workout before you get near the famous stone), it has long been held that anyone who kisses the Blarney Stone will be blessed with the gift of great eloquence and powers of persuasion. BUT, as someone who has been there…well, let's just say that it's not the most sanitary of activities. :)

Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois: In Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery is the tomb of our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. And at that tomb is a large sculpture by Gutzon Borglum, the man responsible for Mt. Rushmore. For many years, visitors have rubbed Lincoln's nose for good luck.

Winged Figures of the Republic, Nevada: These thirty-foot-tall Art Deco bronze sculptures are on the Nevada side of Hoover Dam, overlooking the canyon. Rubbing their toes is said to bless you with good luck.

St. John of Nepomuk in Prague, Czech Republic: Although there are more than two dozen sculptures along the famed Charles Bridge, only one of them is said to be lucky. Rubbing the plaque on the statue of St.John of Nepomuk, Archbishop of Prague when he was tortured and thrown in the river in 1393, is supposed to be lucky.  Hopefully luckier than the location was for the Archbishop.  :)

Everard 't Serclaes in Brussels, Belgium: In 1356, Everard 't Serclaes, a resident of Brussels, saved his city from an attack by the Flemish. A relief likeness of him is displayed near the Grand Place. Rubbing it brings good luck.

Schoner Brunnen fountain in Nuremburg, Germany: A seamless brass ring set into one of the railings surrounding Schoner Brunnen fountain is attributed with the power to make wishes come true, but only if you turn the ring three times.  That reminds me of my childhood and grabbinig for the brass ring on the merry-go-round at Santa Monica Pier.

Laughing Buddha in Hangzhou, China: The concept of patting a Buddha's belly for luck started in Hangzhou's Lingyin Temple which has been around since 328 AD. The temple has thousands of Buddhas, but the one visitors love to see is the Laughing Buddha. Patting his belly will bring wealth, good luck, and prosperity.

Bull Mosaic in Milan, Italy: Being a bull in Spain does not guarantee you a long or even comfortable life. But there's one bull in Italy who really has it tough. The Bull Mosaic on the floor of Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is subjected to particularly rough treatment. It's said to be good luck if you place your heel on the bull's testicles and spin around in a circle. All I can say is ouch!

On next week's blog, the last Sunday before Christmas, I'll be talking about the ancient origins of the Christmas holiday.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Crazy Things Confiscated By Customs Agents

These days just getting on an airplane is a cause for nervous tension. There's the latest TSA regulations about full body scanners and pat-downs. And that's in addition to long lines at security check points and what seems to be a constantly changing list of what you can and can't take on the plane.  And there's the ever increasing list of items and services that were once included as part of your air fare but are now additional fees charged by the airlines.  (What?  You mean you want to take luggage with you on your two week vacation?)  All-in-all, flying is not the fun experience it used to be.

And that's just on domestic flights. You add to that the need to clear customs on international flights, both entering a foreign country and coming home, and it's enough to make your head spin.

There's certainly been enough written about the TSA restrictions and requirements, so I won't dwell on them. But I did find an interesting list of contraband seized by Customs agents around the world…a bit more than trying to sneak in with an extra bottle of Merlot hidden in your suitcase.

And here is that list.

10) Shoes Stuffed With Heroin: Smugglers might be a scheming lot, but that doesn't mean they always use their brains. In October 2010, a 32 year old US citizen and her younger brother disembarked from a Caribbean cruise and were tagged by Customs for a secondary screening process. When they opened the woman's luggage they found 15 pairs of 1980s style men's shoes…definitely suspicious items for a woman to be bringing back from the Caribbean. They discovered over 6 kilos of heroin duct taped inside the shoes.

9) Human Skulls: And we're not talking about creepy Halloween decorations. In September 2010, two American tourists had 6 human skulls confiscated from their luggage at the Athens International Airport in Greece. They had purchased the 6 skulls at a souvenir shop on the island of Mykonos and thought they were fake. They were charged with desecrating the dead.

8) Tiger Cub: The 3 month old tiger cub was found sedated and hidden among stuffed animal tigers inside a woman's luggage at Bangkok International Airport when the oversize suitcase went through an X-ray machine. The woman was headed to Iran where the tiger cub could have brought in more than $3,000 on the black market. The cub was sent to a wildlife conservation center and the woman faced wildlife smuggling charges and fines.

7) Fake $100,000 Bills: In 2009, agents confiscated two $100,000 counterfeit bills from a passenger arriving at New York's JFK Airport from Seoul. In 1934, rare $100,000 bills were printed to be circulated between the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve Banks. The bills were never put into general circulation. The man claimed to have found the bills in an old book belonging to his father. The bills were determined to be counterfeit and turned over to the Secret Service.  The largest denomination bill printed in the United States today (and for many years) is the $100 bill.  It's possible that some larger demonination bills might still be out there and are legal tender, but they are taken out of circulation whenever discovered.

6) Cocaine Cast: A leg in a cast may garner some sympathy, but it didn't work for a Chilean passenger arriving at the Barcelona, Spain, airport from Santiago. Customs agents decided to spray the cast with a chemical that turns bright blue when it comes in contact with cocaine. And it did.

5) Bear Paws: And I'm not talking about the bear claw pastry, either. In October 2010, a dozen genuine furry bear paws were confiscated from a Vietnam man's luggage in Ho Chi Minh City Airport upon his return from Hong Kong. Bear paw soup is considered a delicacy.

4) Snakes and Lizards: You're familiar with the movie, Snakes On A Plane?  Well, in 2009 a would be smuggler taped 14 snakes and 10 lizards onto his body in an attempt to sneak them into Norway. Oddly enough, it was a tarantula spotted in his luggage that led to a full body search.

3) Bonytongue Fish: When an airline loses your luggage, it's an inconvenience. However, it's even worse when you're smuggling fish in your suitcases. In 2009 a man returning from Malaysia to his home in Queens, New York City, unfortunately did not have his luggage arrive on the same flight. The next day a Customs agent doing random checks on lost luggage discovered 16 fish packed in individual plastic bags and cushioned with Styrofoam. Considered good luck charms in Asian cultures, they sell for $5,000 to $10,000 apiece.

2) Rhinoceros Horns: Ireland is not where you'd expect to find pieces of safari animals. Over a period of time in late 2009 and 2010, three Irish passengers were busted at Shannon Airport for smuggling 10 rhinoceros horns valued at approximately 500,000 Euros, which at today's (Dec. 4) exchange rate is $670,700. Rhino horns are often ground down and used as a prized ingredient in Chinese medicine.

1) Snake Wine: A glass of snake wine might not have the same appeal as a nice Merlot. However, in Southeast Asian countries, a whole snake soaking in alcohol is a specialty. In May 2009, a routine Customs inspection in Miami revealed a cobra and other poisonous snakes packed into a jar of liquid in an express mail package from Thailand.  Snakes On A Plane part 2?

It makes that additional bottle of Merlot wrapped inside the sweater and stuffed into the corner of your suitcase not seem as bad.  :)