Category Archives: Holidays

Before the Parade Passed By

Years later, I scored seats in the grandstand at the Rose Parade.

Years later, I scored seats in the grandstand at the Rose Parade.

It was an accident.  I didn’t mean to set my best friend’s head on fire.

OK, let me just back up a little so I can explain how it happened.  The Tournament of Roses Parade is a New Year’s Day tradition, and there’s nothing quite like it.  Lots of parades have marching bands and equestrian units, but this one has elaborate floats, all decorated with flowers and plants and rose petals. For many of us who grew up in Southern California, it’s like a pilgrimage to go to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade in person at least once in our lifetime.

To secure a spot on the parade route from which to get a good view, we’d celebrate in the street on New Year’s Eve, and then spend the wee hours of New Year’s Day sitting or sleeping on the curb, huddled against the cold until the parade started at 8 a.m.

On this particular New Year’s Eve, my friend Bob Owen and I were among the thousands of people saying goodbye to whatever year it was.  We were either in high school or recent graduates, I forget which.  The point is, we were young — young enough that we enthusiastically said “Sure!” when the old guy next to us on Colorado Boulevard asked, “Would you boys like a flare to play with?”

Yeah, a flare.  Those fire sticks that you see on the highway when there’s been an accident.  It turned out that this man worked for some law-enforcement agency and every year he was issued a new vehicle that had flares in it.  When it came time to swap out his old car, he kept the flares, so over the course of his career he had accumulated quite an inventory of these devices.  And he gave one of them to us.

My excuse for poor judgment is that I was young and stupid.  In retrospect, I have no idea why that guy thought it made sense to give a fire stick to kids in a crowd.

Anyway, Bob and I activated the flare and took turns trying to find ways to entertain the throngs who, by now, were mutating from celebratory to sullen.  For instance, he’d wave the flare as if it was a flashlight and he was directing traffic, hollering “Let’s go, bring those floats down here!”

Then Bob passed the torch to me.  I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I think I may have been striking a Statue-of-Liberty pose.  Bob was closer than I thought, or one of us turned suddenly or something — and the flare wound up inches from the back of his head.

I didn’t realize it at first; as he ran away slapping at his scalp, I thought he was doing a comedy bit.  What had actually happened was that patches of hair had been burned off clear to the skin, which was blistered.

We probably should have gotten medical attention for him, but we didn’t.  Bob suffered through the rest of the night; we watched the parade and then we drove home.  Eventually the burns healed, his hair grew back and most importantly, Bob’s still speaking to me.  But I still shudder at the thought of how much worse it could have been.

So if you’ll accept a word of advice from a kid who has somehow become an old man:  If someone offers you a flare to celebrate with, just say no.  We want you around for this new year, and the next one, and the one after that, and…

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Guess Again, Groundhog

Hey, nobody's right all the time.

Hey, nobody’s right all the time.

As an excuse for misbehaving, Groundhog Day might be the worst holiday on the calendar.  Why would anyone want to roll out of a warm bed before dawn on February 2nd to get drunk and unruly?

Maybe I’m not giving it a fair shake, because I’ve never actually participated in a Groundhog Day celebration.  There are a couple of reasons for that:  One is that groundhogs don’t live on my side of the country.  Another is that I don’t need a rodent to tell me when spring will arrive; when stores start having sales on their winter merchandise, it’s a sure sign that spring is on its way.

As you know, that’s the folklore associated with Groundhog Day.  Supposedly if the groundhog emerges on February 2nd and it’s cloudy, that means spring will come early.  On the other hand, if it’s a sunny day — enabling the groundhog to see its shadow — it dives back into its burrow, signaling that winter will last six more weeks.

That tradition has been going on for quite a while now, with communities throughout the U.S. and Canada holding ceremonies.  The best-known is in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which is roughly 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.  The citizens of Punxsutawney have been coaxing a groundhog out of his hole on February 2nd every year since 1887.

Record keeping was spotty in the early years, but through 2012, Punxsutawney Phil, as the rodent is known, has seen his shadow 100 times.  Presumably the guys in top hats who preside over the ceremony could also see their own shadows.  I don’t get why they need to bother the little guy — let him sleep in, I say.  But then, I’m sort of a bah-humbug guy on St. Swithin’s Day, too.

Actually, the job of being Punxsutawney Phil (the occupant of that position changes every few years, for the inevitable reason) is pretty cushy.  Most of the year he lives in the town’s library and is well fed.  Your typical groundhog in the wild weighs less than 10 pounds, but the current Phil tips the scales at around 15, soaking wet.

It’s the early wake-up call on February 2nd that kind of takes the fun out of being Phil.  How would you like to be hauled out of bed on a cold morning to realize that thousands of people have gathered to stare at you?

So, you’re probably wondering, how are groundhogs’ skills at forecasting the future?  Well, slightly better than the guys who write predictions in Chinese fortune cookies, I suppose, but frankly — not great.

Encyclopædia Britannica says, “Convincing statistical evidence does not support this tradition.”  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is similarly unimpressed.  After reviewing a chart of groundhog predictions vs. subsequent weather patterns, NOAA bluntly states on its website:  “The table shows no predictive skill in the groundhog.”  Stormfax pegs Phil’s accuracy rate at 39%, which is about as reliable as flipping a coin.

But don’t let me be a wet blanket if you want to get out there and party at 8 a.m. in 30° weather.  I just know that if I did that, there’s a high degree of statistical probability that it would mean six more weeks of a bad cold.

Save Your Receipts

Buy six swans, get the seventh swan free!

Buy six swans, get the seventh swan free!

If you are thinking of  giving your true love eight maids a-milking on the eighth day of Christmas, you might want to check on the return policy.

Let’s say it’s “exchange only” and your true love isn’t enchanted with those eight maids; your options could be limited.  You might wind up eating the cost, which this year, according to the financial-services firm PNC Wealth Management, comes to $58.

That’s a bargain compared to some of the other items listed in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Ten lords a-leaping will set you back $4,767 per performance, and that’s if your gift is merely actors portraying lords.  If you go with actual lords — members of the British nobility — the cost could be significantly more.

The price of six geese a-laying is up by about 30% over last year, but for some reason they are still less than half the cost of four calling birds, assuming you give canaries in that category.  They would run you a little over $500 at Petco.

By now you may be thinking, “do I have to have twelve gifts?  Why are there twelve days of Christmas in that silly song!?”  (Calm down, the anticipated expense is making you irritable.)

The 12 days begin with Christmas and go until January 6th, which is observed in western churches as Epiphany.  By some traditions, that was when the Wise Men arrived to visit the baby Jesus.  The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches associate Epiphany with another event, but in any case that post-Christmas period of 12 days has been observed for many centuries.

In 1601, for instance, William Shakespeare wrote a play called Twelfth Night, with the action taking place at the end of the celebratory period.

The song that has inspired your generous impulse — “The Twelve Days of Christmas” — didn’t come along until later; it first appeared in English toward the end of the 18th century.  Presumably the enumerated gifts were a lot more affordable back then.

Attempts have been made to attach symbolic religious significance to each gift, such as the eleven pipers piping representing the eleven faithful apostles.  In all likelihood, though, the original lyrics were fanciful nonsense, a sort of singing game.

But let’s get back to your problem, which is the substantial investment you’re considering so that your true love can joyously sing this song.  As you may know, shipping costs for French hens have gone through the roof this year.  And don’t forget, the cost is cumulative — you have to spring for a partridge in a pear tree for each of the twelve days, and so on.  If you’re going to do this right, you’re on the hook for 364 gifts.

Considering that the going rate this year for seven swans a-swimming is $7,000, and nine ladies dancing cost just under $6,300, and factoring in the other gifts, too… here’s the bad news.

You’re looking at a total cost of $107,300.24.

OK, it’s a very romantic idea, and I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on it.  All I’m saying is, maybe your true love would be just as happy with a new Lexus, which would cost you about half that much.  Just a suggestion.

Essential Facts About Pumpkins

A tiny fraction of the 1.5 billion pounds produced in the U.S. each year

OK, the title is a little misleading:  There are no essential facts about pumpkins.  You can go on having a reasonably happy life without knowing where those members of the gourd family thrive — unless you’re a pumpkin farmer, of course, and if you are, you already know far more about pumpkins than I do.

The dictionary defines essential as “absolutely necessary; indispensable”, so I’m pretty sure it’s not essential to know that China is the world leader in pumpkin production, in spite of the fact that the Chinese do not observe Halloween or Thanksgiving.

Those holidays are associated with pumpkins in the United States, which is fourth among the world’s pumpkin producers.  States like California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan grow a lot of them, but take a moment to consider this fact, which, while not essential, is pretty darned impressive:

Ninety percent of the pumpkins grown in the United States are raised within a 90-mile radius of Peoria, Illinois.

That’s what a University of Illinois website says, anyway, and I don’t think they would make a claim like that just to boost Peoria tourism.  The University happens to have a trove of information about the orange-colored fruit that is related to the cucumber.  For instance, its website mentions that pumpkins were once recommended for removing freckles and curing snakebites.  Maybe someone at U of I should do a study to see if people living near Peoria have a lower incidence of freckles and snakebites.

You have to look elsewhere, though, to learn that the practice of carving jack-o-lanterns originated in Ireland.  The Irish typically used turnips or potatoes for that purpose, but when immigrants arrived in America, they applied their fruit-and-vegetable carving skills to pumpkins, and an American holiday tradition was born.

The University of Illinois hasn’t yet had a chance to update its information about the world’s largest pumpkin.  That record was set a few weeks ago by Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island (well, not by Ron himself — by a pumpkin he grew).  It weighed 2,009 pounds, breaking the one-ton barrier that had eluded pumpkin growers until now.  Presumably their new goal is to grow one that weighs more than a car; they’re only a few hundred pounds away.

The subject of colossal pumpkins leads us to Thanksgiving, the holiday traditionally associated with “topping off” a big meal with a huge chunk of pumpkin pie.

Let me pass along the pertinent facts to answer a question that has probably occurred to you by now.  The world’s largest pumpkin pie was made in New Bremen, Ohio, in 2010.  It contained over 1,200 pounds of canned pumpkin, 109 gallons of evaporated milk, 525 pounds of sugar, 233 dozen eggs and a pinch of cinnamon — 14.5 pounds.  I don’t have the details about the crust, but the whole thing weighed just under 3,700 pounds, and measured 20 feet in diameter.

Whipped cream?  Why yes, I don’t mind if I do.

What’s the Occasion?

Barcelona -- Festa de la Merce

Holidays were invented as an excuse to have parades.  Parades were invented by trombone players, who otherwise have no excuse.

Those statements may not bear up to the scrutiny of anthropologists (since I just made them up moments ago), but you have to admit, there does seem to be some connection between holidays and parades.  Can you think of any culture or nation that gets bands playing and people marching in honor of yet another *#&! workday?

Sometimes the reason for the holiday is pretty creative.  We were in London one year for Trooping the Colour, which is one of the grandest parades I’ve ever seen.  It turns out that the occasion marks the queen’s official birthday, which isn’t her real birthday. 

The actual date of Elizabeth II’s birth is in April when the weather can be a little iffy, so Great Britain celebrates the monarch’s birthday on a Saturday in June, when the parade participants are much less likely to get soggy.

In Australia we experienced ANZAC Day on April 25.  Bands and marching are involved, but it is a solemn holiday that commemorates the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps — soldiers who fought at Gallipoli in World War I.  ANZAC Day is similar to Memorial Day in the U.S.

While visiting the Hawaiian island of Kauai, a genial man invited us to come and see a Bon Dance.  These events are held during the summer months in Hawaii, and are quite colorful; the dancers we saw were illuminated by paper lanterns.  The Bon Dance is a Buddhist custom that, if I understood correctly, is a way of honoring ancestors and welcoming their spirits back.

Distilled spirits — specifically rum — were a big part of the Goombay Festival we attended in the Bahamas.  It was never clear to me what we were all celebrating, but I remember people in feathered costumes, marching bands… and a dull headache the following morning.

Barcelona is a great place to be in late September, when the city spends several days celebrating its patron saint in what is known as Festa de la Mercè.  There are events all over Barcelona, including concerts, traditional dances and fireworks.  We’re talking aggressive, street-level fireworks; if you go, wear clothing that isn’t flammable. 

There are groups called Castellers who stand on each other’s shoulders to build human pyramids, some that rise several tiers from ground level.

One of the highlights of the Festa de la Mercè is a parade down La Rambla that features gegantes and capgrossos (giants and big heads).  The giants are costumes that are 10-15 feet tall, carried along the route by someone inside.

Occasionally the more athletic “operators” spin or bow slightly or make sudden moves that get the crowd roaring.  The costumes represent figures from Catalan history or culture — there are kings and queens and knights and, judging from the catcalls, villains.

The big-head figures are also representations of popular (or reviled) characters.  Between groups of these enormous papier-maché heads and the towering giants come — what else? — marching bands.  They are unusual because the bands consist almost entirely of drums and some reed instruments I’d never seen before; they must be of Catalan origin.  Oh, and there were no trombones, either.

Those are some of the holidays we’ve gotten to share with the locals in various places; what about you?  Where were you, and what was the occasion for the celebration?

That Birthday Song

How many times in your life do you suppose you have sung it?

The words and melody are so simple, it might not have occurred to you that somebody actually wrote them.  At some birthday parties, it doesn’t occur to celebrants that the simple melody would sound better if everyone sang it in the same key.  The fact is, what is probably the best-known song in the English-speaking world was not only written, it is still under copyright.

“Happy Birthday to You” had its own birthday back in 1893, but it began life as “Good Morning to All”.  Sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill composed it as a start-the-school-day song for kindergartners.  (Patty worked at a school; Mildred was a pianist.)

Within a few years, the now-familiar “Happy Birthday” lyrics had been applied to the Hill sisters’ tune.  Professor Robert Brauneis of George Washington University Law School has investigated copyright issues related to the song and found sheet music for it that dates to 1912.  Paul Collins, writing for Slate.com, discovered it in print with “happy birthday” words even earlier than that.

What no one seems to know for sure is how “Happy Birthday to You” became so popular, but by the 1930s it was part of the culture.  It was broadcast by radio stations, Western Union used it as a singing telegram, it was appearing in Broadway shows.  That’s when a third Hill sister, Jessica, took legal action.

She had been administering the copyright of “Good Morning to All” for her family, and in 1934 she managed to get a court to see the similarity between that song and “Happy Birthday to You”.  Take a moment to imagine a judge listening over and over to the complexities of those six notes just to be sure he ruled correctly.

The Hills were granted the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You” and split profits with a publishing partner, the Summy Company.  The publishing rights are currently owned by Warner Music Group.  OK, so how much do you think “Happy Birthday to You” is worth?  No — more.  It generates approximately $2 million a year in royalties!

How is that possible, you may wonder, and the answer is that whenever it is publicly performed, someone owes Warner, which splits profits with the Hill Foundation.  Does that mean that you’ll be led away in handcuffs if they catch you singing it to Uncle Tony in your living room?  No, that’s not considered public performance.

However, Marilyn Monroe’s hormonal tribute to President Kennedy probably violated copyright laws.  Even if she got away with not paying back then, any filmmaker who shows footage of it now certainly has to ante up.  If it’s used in a television show or at a concert or in a commercial — if it’s the soundtrack for one of those musical greeting cards — those all require royalty payments.

The copyright laws have changed a couple of times since 1935, resulting in an extended life for the original copyright.  Warner Music can keep collecting until the song becomes “public domain” — in 2030!

There are those, including Professor Brauneis,who believe the copyright is no longer legally valid, but rather than go to the time and expense of challenging it in court, companies that want to publicly use “Happy Birthday to You” just cough up the $5-10 thousand that Warner Music charges for its use.

By the way, I didn’t do extensive research on this little detail, but as far as I can tell, no copyright has been granted for the “and many more!” part.  I know what you’re thinking, and I say go for it — it could be worth a bundle if you can prove you created it.

Goodbye, Mother

Elizabeth Reeder and her son Tommy, 1948

In one respect, it was not a difficult decision, because it had already been made for me.  My mother’s body had decided it could no longer live, even with artificial means of support.  Still, it was not easy to give my consent to remove all those tubes and machines.

She had a long history of health problems, but it was a massive heart attack that had brought Elizabeth Reeder to the end of her journey in September, 1998.  After a nurse disconnected the equipment, Sally and I went into Mother’s room in the  hospital’s Cardiac Care Unit.  She was in a coma; I have no way of knowing if she could hear me when I leaned in close and told her, “I love you.”

If this had been a movie, I suppose this is when it would have shown me having flashbacks.  I’d see myself playing on a Little League field with my mother in the stands, keeping score the way she always did.  Then the movie version might dissolve to her presenting me with a birthday cake, or taking pride in some youthful accomplishment of mine.

It wasn’t like that, though.  In the final minutes of her life, I wasn’t remembering the long-ago; I was in the present with her, and with my wife who stood on the other side of the bed.  Each of us held one of Mother’s hands, and we began to  sing softly to her.  My mother had been a devout Christian, so we sang her into heaven with some of the hymns she had loved.

Sally and I glanced at the monitoring equipment occasionally and saw the numbers getting smaller, the signs of life more faint.  Within a few minutes they stopped altogether.  The heart monitor showed eerie activity, but that was due to the pacemaker that had been implanted years before, not an actual heartbeat.  Mother had very peacefully slipped into eternity.

The medical staff gave us a couple of minutes alone with her, and then the emotion was abruptly displaced with business.  Documents had to be signed, the mortuary had to be contacted, arrangements needed to be made for the disposition of Mother’s remains.  In the midst of that, a nurse remembered to take the wedding rings off of my mother’s finger and give them to Sally.

At the mortuary there was more business to conduct:  pick a casket, choose flower arrangements, select a time for the service.  Did we want them to provide an officiant, or did we have one?  Would we be paying for all this with check or credit card?  And so on, for what seemed like hours.

Sally and I were emotionally spent when we finally completed the arrangements, but then humor came to our rescue.  As we were leaving the mortuary, an employee gave us a jaunty grin and said, “Have a nice day.”

The absurdity of his remark struck us both as hilarious:  Have a nice day!?  Too late for that, pal — you are aware that this is a mortuary and we’re not here for a picnic, right!?  It was all Sally and I could do to suppress our laughter until we were out of his earshot.

Once we exited the building, though, we let go — we were doubled over and gasping for air, we were laughing so hard.  Our shoulders shook; we practically had to hold each other up; tears were streaming down our faces.

Eventually the laughter subsided, but the tears — real tears — lasted a while longer.