And Along Came Twitter

The Internet is the most important single development in the history of human communication since the invention of call waiting. – Dave Barry

My compulsive personality is a double-edged hatchet that is impossible to conceal.  My ever-present caprice always seems to catch the bright glare of fads and new crazes. Fortunately, middle age, lack of stamina and a shrinking attention span have hobbled my propensity to chase popular culture like a dog behind a mail truck. I have left the pressure of keeping pace with social phenomena to the young and un-medicated.

Every now and then, a highly viral fad infects my judgment and I become a slave to a new master. In the last few years, the corrupting siren has been technology with her buxom applications and seductive promises of increased productivity, diversion and global access.  I am hardly a techie but I am a fast follower with a highly addictive brain that becomes almost bi-polar with a new toy.  To my spouse’s chagrin, I will disappear like an addict, staying up until all hours gorging on my fascination du jour until I literally become physically ill with its consumption.

It is bad enough when she is forced to physically disconnect the computer from our children who lack the maturity to know their boundaries.  It is quite another thing to lose your partner to the same malady. In her mind, technology has turned our home into a veritable den of iniquity with video games serving as gateway drugs to more potent preoccupations such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, instant messaging and blogging.  The computer, she has decided, is one massive crack pipe.

I started with Web surfing and moved quickly to Amazon and EBay.  These Internet applications are the cigarettes and malt liquor of cyber-life.  They are not very good for you but it would take years of daily abuse before these portals could bring you to your knees. At my most abusive point of EBay use I was a two purchase a day user.  It began with innocent acquisitions like baseball cards and nostalgic talismans from my childhood but moved on to useless flotsam like maritime clocks, antique jars filled with air from the 1870s and a Halloween mask of Bart Simpson.  I hit bottom when I mistakenly bid on an item that I had posted for sale two months earlier.

My passion for military history took me off the Internet and on to PC gaming.  I became a WWII armored division tank commander in Panzer General and a combat avatar in Battlefield 1942 and Call of Duty (COD).  I graduated from the PC battles to Xbox 360 sports games and literally spent one winter disabled in my leather chair playing Madden Football until my fingers would cramp from the incessant tapping of the X, Y and Z keys.

Along came Halo and COD 4.  They were higher end, designer narcotics combining historical gaming and the Internet.  They are the opiates of video games.  COD Modern Warfare has actually infiltrated our town at every level. I have it on good authority that a certain local celebrity routinely roams the fractured buildings and broken roads of Mogadishu searching for insurgents, doing his best to help make the world a better place.  I am pleased he is out there, helping my son and others get out of tough firefights with all our virtual limbs in tact. Yet, on the anniversary of my being killed for the 1,000th time on a virtual battlefield, I drifted back to the Internet – aimlessly following blogs, EBay auctions and The Onion. My fascination shifted to social networking.

As I approached my 30-year high school reunion last summer, I was urged to join Facebook (FB). I joined, posting the best, non-air brushed photo I had of myself in an attempt to torment any girl that ever said “no” to me to go on a date.  I dove headlong into serial posting and irreverent commentary.  Each day I would dredge up some old shoe from the muddied gray waters of the Class of ‘79.

FB gave me a chance to reconnoiter ahead of the reunion and to reconnect faces and names, safely determining who had completely lost their marbles and who had stayed reasonably normal. Life had thrown a few high hard ones to some folks and FB became their confessional and catharsis.  I avoided anyone who made entries to FB between 1am and 6am.  Social networking is like automobile driving.  The police allege that as many as 70% of the drivers on the road after 1am are under the influence of a mind altering substance. My reconnaissance proved invaluable at the California reunion as I successfully dodged someone on parole, two ex-girlfriends in the middle of strained marriages and one shady character interested in raising money for a hedge fund (hold that thought, Jim, I am just going to get a diet coke – – back in Connecticut)

My spouse sees the Facebook messages flying across our screen and is bemused. More private than me, she views FB as the equivalent of running my underwear up some narcissistic flagpole every day and waiting to see who notices. The web is like the atom – a scary unharnessed power that could easily become a WMD if placed in the wrong hands.  It is a neighborhood prowled by out-of-control teens, pedophiles and lonely hearts. Social networking is something one might find in hell — a veritable 24/7 virtual den of paparazzi where exhibitionists, garrulous wall flowers and curious voyeurs can safely post and be posted.  I pooh-poohed her conservative concerns and regularly checked my postings and blog site for comments from old friends and faceless strangers.

I was surprised one day to get a FB invite from the actress Elizabeth Shue.  There was a part of my brain that wanted to embrace Ms. Shue’s invitation to be ” friends” as validation for my rapid virtual social climbing. I had my own blog. I was a regular on FB. I had affiliated with other groups such as Linked In, Propeller and EBlog. It was apropos that a celebrity would want to network with me.  Yet social networking, like nostalgia, is a deceptive liar and you soon feel with so many friends, contacts and followers that you are ready to start your own religious denomination. You start looking for cheap land in Texas. Perhaps Elizabeth Shue would be my spokesperson.

I then got another invitation from a 28-year-old girl in Richmond whom I had never met. Her photograph was, how shall I say, a tad risqué. My immediate reaction was that she must be the daughter of a friend, and as a parent, I wanted to ask him why his daughter was sending invitations to come visit her on Tart Island. I surveyed her “friends” looking for a familiar face and it became very clear that she was only interested in meeting men – men between 40 and 80. The pathetic roster of friends was a dubious yearbook of every delusional, mid-life crisis male between Santa Barbara to Stamford. I was expecting to see Tiger Woods.  There was not a single woman.  The invitation cooed, “Hi handsome. I wanted to connect with you and be friends.”

As I scrolled the men who had consented to befriend this flattering FB figurine, I saw a friend of mine from California.  I immediately pinged him and asked him what he was doing consorting with what was most likely a Russian prostitute born when we were in our junior year in high school. He pinged me back almost immediately and sheepishly confessed, “She seemed vaguely familiar.” Yes, men are pigs.

And along came Twitter. Twitter allows you to post in 140 letters or less a daily message to those who choose to follow your “ tweets”. I cannot even use the restroom in less than 140 letters.  Twitter is all about brevity and sound bites.  Perhaps Twitter will cure my verbal incontinence. However, most tweets are inane mental droppings from celebrities and narcissists.  Rapper Ray J wants to know: ”what’s love got to do with it?” Um, ok. What does intellect got to do with it either? Miley Cyrus: “Party in the USA -I need expresso.” Good for you, Miley.  You almost spelled espresso correctly.

Social networking has created a new fifth dimension to interact and merchandise anything – a product, an idea or one’s self.  However, it is a slate gray 24-hour landscape where interaction is mistaken for intimacy.  As this sterile, achromatic vegetation spreads across our lives, perhaps it is time to turn off the computer, take a walk, say hello to Charlie and Karen next door, write a letter on my stationary and actually mail it.  Perhaps I will go meet a real friend in town for a hot cup of Zumbach’s exotic coffee.

Perhaps my next twitter should read, “ Gone to Z’s for a cup of Joe. Must recapture my mo-jo.  Say goodbye, cruel cyberspace, I’m off to join the human race. “

18 letters to spare.  Not bad.

Los Patinadores en Invierno ( Skaters in Winter)

LA Kings primary logo from 1967 82.
Image via Wikipedia

“Style is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward” Robert Frost

I have an antique engraving of late 19th century Spanish skaters fastening their blades as they prepare to glide across a great sheet of frozen opaque lake.  The etching is small and the figures are muted and impressionistic – the way one might dream about a past life – as if you are looking through a great frosted telescope through to some simpler time.

I recall as a child watching ice-skating in the Olympics – rooting for the hopelessly outclassed Americans as East Germans, Russians and Scandinavian pixies gracefully floated, skimmed and sailed across the blurred rink accumulating near perfect scores.

When our US skaters were not getting smoked in some far-off rink in Boogerglob, Yugoslavia, our hockey teams were getting worked over like Poland during the Blitz.  My father had told me of the “ miracle “ in 1960 when the unheralded Americans won the Gold beating Canada, the Russians and the Czechs at Squaw Valley California.  However, I grew up during the cold war and a period of total Soviet domination.  The US was no match for these bladed automatons jacked up on steroids and vodka. The eastern bloc teams had lots of time on their hands to practice. After all, home was a sterile one bedroom apartment shared with five people, two government run TV channels and bread lines.

In California, winter happened to other people in other places and ice rinks were as uncommon as wool sweaters and US gold medalist winter Olympians.  My first glimpse of an indoor ice rink was the Great Western Forum in Inglewood where the Los Angeles Kings played hockey.  I liked hockey instantly.  Hockey was exotic.  It was played on an ice rink that rested under the glossed wooden floors of the Lakers basketball court.  Hockey players were as fast and big as football players.  They were missing teeth, had scars all over their faces and were angry all the time.  They were like pirates or life without parole prison inmates.

It looked dangerous and exciting to try to score.  Once you got around six potential felons, you had to try to slap the puck past a faceless demon called the goalie.  Perhaps, he was so ugly that he was not allowed to show his face. Maybe goalies wore masks so fans would not recognize and assault them in the parking lot for allowing a goal.  I was mesmerized.  I forced my Dad to drive us great distances through very dangerous neighborhoods in South Central LA to watch the Kings slashing center Marcel Dionne, speedy forward Butch Goring and the courageous goalie – Rogie Vachon.

Alas, like most expansion teams, the Kings were hardly royalty.  They stank.  And it seemed whenever the Canadiens, Flyers, Bruins or Black Hawks came into town, my team got crushed.  To add insult to injury, the victors would usually leave one of their past-their-prime players behind with the Kings in some horrendous trade that would prolong our long painful climb our of expansion adolescence.

What I really liked best – was the fighting.  They called the players who fought “ goons” which I thought was hysterical.  The only goon I had ever seen was Alice, The Goon on Popeye.  With names like Dave “ Tiger” Williams and Dave “ Cement-head” Semenko, these insane asylum candidates wracked up more penalty minutes than maximum-security prisoners.  They had nicknames like “ The Grim Reaper”, “The Hammer” and “Bloody O’Reilly”. They high- sticked, slashed, cross checked, punched, gouged and broke more orbital bones than a medical examiner.  The goon’s job was simple: retaliate and protect their star player from the other team’s goons.

When a fight would break out, the gloves would fly off and the adults (refs) would not even try to break up the brawl.  For a kid who sought to be freed from the yoke of parental oversight and the suffocating civility of rules based games, hockey was sanctioned violence.  The referees just stared at the scrum of wild punches and ripped jerseys while everyone in the stands went absolutely berserk.  Eventually the refs jumped in once the players had punched themselves silly.

I decided I wanted to learn to play hockey and skate.  My father had grown up in a time of hockey leagues and early morning ice rinks and did not want to spend his weekends indoors in what smelled like a three week-old duffel bag.  He was a Californian now.  There was football, tennis, baseball, paddle and soccer – all to be played outdoors.

I dreamed of snow and ice-skating but did not understand that for ice to form, a person must endure consecutive days of bitter cold.  On New England lakes and ponds, there was no Zamboni machine to smooth the natural irregularities of a frozen body of water.  The ice accumulated and moved indiscriminately like a crack across a windshield.  But I had to try. Ice-skating and hockey looked so easy and I wanted to meet my Peggy Fleming on a frozen pond where we might waltz or tango and then spin around waiting until one of you fell to the ground and looked at the other and said, ” kiss me, you fool.”  I lacked the imagination to speculate what would happen much beyond this point.  I was ten.

My father bobbed and weaved with me like an outmatched prizefighter. Growing up in suburban Chicago and then discovering Eden at the University of California at Berkeley, my father vowed he would never return to the raw, sideways sleet and arctic winds that knifed across Lake Michigan. He had learned to skate, sled and survive in the snow but traded his Currier & Ives childhood for an aquamarine Christmas morning of 60 degrees and the rhythmic sway of palm trees.

I kept chipping away at his paternal guilt and finally convinced him that my inability to skate would one day keep me from getting into a good college.  He was about to say “ no” for the thirtieth time, when he got a wry smile across his face and said, “ Sure”. I will never forget his mischievous smile. He confessed that his aversion to snow had perhaps unfairly denied his sons the ability to attempt a triple axle.  In what we thought was a rare fit of nostalgia, he drove us to a suburban ice rink on Christmas Eve to “learn” to ice skate

The excitement was palpable as I laced my razor–edged rockets and ran my finger along the dull but intimidating blade that ran from the toe to heel. I was mentally already on the ice – a goon in search of mayhem and perhaps a six –year-old that I could check into the boards.   I got up to try to walk in the skates and my ankles buckled.  I fell to one knee and hit the ground hard. My eyes watered but I did not cry.

We walked on to the ice and I fell backwards, hitting my large head like a pumpkin dropping on the kitchen floor.  I had no helmet and saw stars as my head cracked on the hard ice.  A strange ensemble of people gingerly moved with arms under weak fluorescent lights flailing and awkwardly lunging like drunken sailors.  Suddenly, a pink flash shot past me.  A magnificent teenaged girl came to a knife edged stop and spun in place.  She was like a music box ballerina suspended by celestial gossamer strings.  I was in love. I tried to get up and my leg shot out from under me as if it had been fired from a rocket.

My father lifted and guided me to the railing where I moved myself along a great rectangular rink for one hour.  Each time the rose colored girl skated by, I let go and fell injuring some hidden body part with a flash of white-hot pain.  It was on my eleventh consecutive fall that I conceded that I did not have the patience or pain threshold to learn to skate or keep up with the pink projectile.  It was my secret shame – being so hooked on hockey and knowing that I could not even stand on skates.

The following morning, I awoke to sensations not dissimilar to the black plague.  Severe aching limbs consistent with internal bleeding, bruising and feverish.  My father looked on with amusement as I struggled downstairs and declared that I must have the flu.  My skating career officially died anno domini one thousand nine hundred seventy two.

Years later, I look on at skating with a twinge of envy and great respect.  I never returned to the ice.  I often slow my car to  watch as a small group gathers by the edge of  black frozen ponds.  Skaters ease on to the ice and breeze across dark, crosshatched arteries of rock hard water.  I now understand why the best skaters have quadriceps larger than many Christmas turkeys.  It is magic to stand in a cold biting wind, teetering on the razor thin edges of a single blade, pushing out with one leg while bracing the other leg to move ahead.  Slash-glide-slash-glide.  You move like winter wind across the ebony water trapped below.

It is part of the cinnamon scented of the holidays – these simple pleasures.  It is a new pair of skates under a tree.  It is a pond iced over to its proper depth.  It is frozen twilight and a single, solitary person floating like a downy feather across a frosted sheet of glass.  It’s Christmas Eve and the skaters cannot wait for the next day. I watch from a raised embankment along a serpentine road. I am thinking once again of that elegant ancient etching of “Los Patinadores En Invierno”– wispy shadows cast from another time. The skaters disappear, an evergreen pine suddenly obscuring my view.

The pond, it seems, goes on forever.

Christmas In Kamchatka

Risk map in Wikipedia.
Image via Wikipedia

Christmas In Kamchatka

I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly – Steven Wright

Competitiveness is like a morning cowlick that never seems to settle. It pops up in the most prosaic circumstances – at the family room table across a game of Hearts as a son-in-law drops the queen of spades on his mother-in law for the third straight hand. It is in the sharp elbows that suddenly fly in your annual family “touch” football game and it is constant skirmishes along the borders of Kamchatka during the Christmas Day game of Risk.

We like playing games in my family.  I pretend not to be competitive but it is a thin veneer.  The art of enjoying any contest as a type A cutthroat adult is to always win but never let others catch you trying to win.  Let them speculate on your motives but do not get caught blatantly attempting to succeed.  It is important to fake humility and to reinforce this with periodic excursions away from the board game – – requiring people to call you back.  Forcing them to shout, “it is your turn” can make you a master of misdirection. You must appear to not care.  When crushing a nine-year-old niece in Sorry, you must seem sympathetic. ” I rolled a six? Oh I guess that means you are bumped back to home. …What do you know? I win! (Tears) Ohhh, don’t worry sweetheart (feigned sympathy), your uncle Michael was just REALLY lucky this time. Honey, don’t cry, (more fake commiseration) it’s only a silly game.”

Each year, the same board games reappear – relics of the age of Parker Brothers, imagination, 11 television channels and computers the size of city blocks. It was the era of Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, Parcheesi and Yahtzee.  Later, we expanded our repertoire to include Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit. In fits of adult nostalgia, we re-purchased these games on EBay, at yard sales and on rainy days while on summer vacation assuming that we could vicariously recapture those magic nights through our children. Instead our children balked – bored by the games simplicity and alarmed by our hypocrisy as we espoused sportsmanship while nonchalantly trying to force them into Chapter 11 with hotels on Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana Avenues.

Once a year, the board games are excavated from an all purpose storage cabinet in our family room.  I am immediately on the defensive as my unimaginative teens complain about the games as too long, too boring or too simple. They possess that latent American gene that screams for instant resolution and constant action.

I am difficult to beat in Risk.  I am like the Chinese. While teenagers think in terms of minutes, I think in terms of hours. I fight a guerrilla war of attrition – first seizing the seemingly insignificant continent of Oceania comprised of Australia/Indonesia. I use the continent’s two bonus armies each turn to annoyingly pick away at anyone who tries to control Asia, Africa or the Americas. By the time my hordes of freedom fighters have rid the last continent of my blue, green and yellow opponents’ armies, no one is paying attention. They are watching television, texting or have left the room – indifferent Westerners bored with this protracted analog war of dice, luck and strategy. Perhaps the next American version of Risk should include a “surge” scenario that reduces the game duration to 18 minutes.  This seems to be the maximum amount of time this generation prefers to wage war.

Monopoly holds broader appeal although I always end up being forced to be the boot – which really bothers me. Others get to be the battleship, cannon or even a Yorkshire terrier. I am convinced the boot is jinxed, as I can never seem to land on Boardwalk when it is free to be purchased.  The boot usually lands on the luxury tax space until someone has built a hotel on Park Place and then it seems happy to pay $1500 for a shoeshine.

There are two types of Monopoly players – Main Street and Wall Street.  Wall Streeters buy everything, make deals and forge alliances.  They mortgage their own properties to raise more money to buy more properties and build more hotels. They are always one dice roll from bankruptcy. These risk-addicted individuals take on maximum leverage and seek to create a bubble that will pop in the face of their Main Street opponent.  Main Street is cautious but naive.  They buy properties like Mediterranean and Vermont Avenues because it is cheap to build hotels.  Main Street buys utilities and railroads.  Against the advice of armchair observers, Main Street trustingly trades Park Place to Wall Street for $1000 cash, Connecticut Ave and three free “lands”. An hour later, Main Street has mortgaged his last property and is begging for one last turn so he might pass Go and avoid losing his racecar.   The Wall Street ruthlessly crushes him like a cigarette butt.

In our house, my opponents are subject to constant third party coaching from in-laws and do-gooders who do not want to risk actually competing but loiter like homeless people and shamelessly kibitz. “Watch out for your Dad.” shouts my mother-in-law.  “Don’t do that deal, sweetie,” my wife says to my son. “Don’t you see in one hour, you will land on Park Place and owe him everything?” I look up with a frozen perfunctory grin – “who are you people, regulators? Don’t you have homes? Or perhaps some Christmas cards to write?”

My bloodthirsty competitiveness was borne out of a third child Darwinian struggle for attention in a four-child ecosystem. Competition was everywhere and my father did not necessarily attempt to diffuse it.  He correctly assumed that the youngest would struggle more fiercely and in doing so, perhaps be that much more braced for what lay ahead in the great oceans of life.

There was no mercy when playing games in our male dominated household. Games taught you valuable life skills such as “ the game face”, “ blackmail, extortion and intimidation. Each Christmas competition was a page torn from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate. “ My brother was the master of blackmail and misinformation.  He understood when Sun Tzu mused, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. “He could make me choke faster than a large piece of filet mignon. I can remember that fateful Christmas when I finally prevailed over him at Risk. As I harassed his pitiful armies across North America to a last stand in Greenland, I understood the sense of power of Alexander, Genghis Kahn and Caesar.   On this night, I was master of the universe.

Later Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary tested our left and right brains.  Trivial pursuit is more daunting and clearly creates social and generational barriers.  As a sports, history, literature and movie buff, I can adequately vie for 2/3’s of the pie wedges.   However, I am lost in geography and without Bunsen burner in science.  Trivial Pursuit has produced a variety of themed versions that hold more attention from younger family members.  However, the popular culture version has about as much appeal to me as a regular culture – a Petri dish of wriggling micro-celebrity parasites that will only infect and weaken society. If you ever catch me playing a game where the “Octo-Mom” is an answer to anything, please kill me.

Pictionary is very frustrating. As an artist, I am outraged when my wife’s Pictionary partner correctly interprets her Neanderthal hieroglyphic representing “global warming” while my impatient teammate is screaming out names of countries as I am trying to correctly draw the horn of Africa on my brilliant rendition of the earth.  Pictionary was invented by the legions of the artistically challenged that wanted to get back at their more talented right-brained siblings.  Pictionary is hell.

There are card games – hearts, poker, gin and bridge.  All of these games afford opportunities for reprisals, heckling and old-fashioned spirited competition and as the last card falls, the final property flips into foreclosure or the final pie piece is won, there is a great sigh.  Arms stretch and a slow migration occurs – usually to the refrigerator as the vanquished look to food for solace and comfort.  The game accoutrements are collected and carefully returned to their boxes.  It will be another year before we do battle.  However, there are really no losers.  We have huddled together once again like all families since the beginning of time.  A tiny human tribe – loving, fragile and imperfect – drawn together by competition and the chance, perhaps, to proclaim themselves ruler of the holiday.

A Saxon Christmas

A Country Christmas - 1913 Vintage Xmas card I...
Image by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via Flickr

A Saxon Christmas


If Christmas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year”, Saxon Farmers Parable

The city along the Thames unfolds for the Christmas season like a flower opening to the sun. From Bond to Regent Streets on to Sloan Street and Kings Road, the twinkling white lights and the festive green of pine boughs are thoughtfully decorated along London’s main shopping arteries.  In small villages, the traditional high streets adorn lights and tasteful holiday cheer.  The West end of London transforms each year into a garrulous, friendly face like old Fezziwig grabbing you and twirling you around the open floor of his counting house.

Global warming has conspired to deny London its most famous winter accessory – a dusting of snow that accents ancient stone churches and sweeps through its narrow mews and lanes.  The pubs, now smokeless, become even more inviting – – deep cavernous hubs of good cheer and raucous debate.  Down to Trafalgar Square, a massive Norwegian pine is erected each year – – an annual gift of friendship from Oslo to commemorate the friendship and sacrifice the Brits extended to their Scandinavian brethren during World War II.  Skaters glide across opaque rinks near Marble Arch and Oxford Street.

Still, as with all things British, the holiday season is understated relative to America. Father Christmas is less inclined to appear on every street corner and instead runs a more discreet operation, much like MI5 does for domestic security.  Christmas carols are much more traditional and echo with reverence and deep religious conviction. Although less than 8% of Brits regularly attend church, great Norman and medieval churches are constant reminders of this country’s history of religious fervor.  The Protestants and  Catholics, now at peace, compete with many other religions, for hearts and minds at this special time of year.  Each vicar or priest is particularly attentive to their midnight mass or service.  The chill of a clear, December 24th night blended with a brisk walk across an ancient graveyard to Westminster Abbey, Southwark or St Paul’s cathedrals is enough to stimulate the most latent religious gene in anyone in attendance on Christmas Eve.

We know that the Christian holiday of celebrating Christ’s birth has its roots in the  ancient white chalk across the Plain of Salisbury, home to the mysterious Druids whose most enigmatic contribution to the history stands ominously as Stonehenge.  The winter solstice, known as “yule”, was a time of celebration as the dark days of winter were slowly giving way to longer days and shorter nights.  Homes were adorned with evergreens as a gesture of hope that warmer days and better harvests lay ahead. The celebration around the 22nd of December was an agrarian ritual.  Somewhere along the way, the Christian celebration of the birth of their messiah coincided with this festival set in the bleak midwinter.

The British celebration of Boxing Day which is on December 26th is one of many tradition differences that arise between Mother England and the USA. Other irregularities range from the harmonies of certain carols different and a much more subdued commercialism.  As I studied my English holiday tradition, I read in the London Times of some ancient yuletide rituals that had some how managed to survive centuries of transition and change.  In Devon, there is the tradition of the Ashen Faggot.  The faggot which can be a yule log or a traditional bundle of sticks is bound with bands of green ash branches and tossed into a blazing fire.  Each unmarried woman chooses a band and whichever band bursts open first indicates which maid is likely to be the next to be wed. The chaos carries on to Yorkshire in the most obscure seasonal cavorting called “Mumping”. Mumping involves going house to house with a Christmas tree followed by a resounding carol and then begging for a treat.

On to Herefordshire and wassailing ! Wassail comes from a mid fifteenth century English greeting, “waes hael”, which means either “Be well” or could be have been started by a very drunken, toothless Welshman who  forgot his toast and raised his glass of ale anyway and shouted ” what the hell!”  Irrespective of its roots, Wassail is a powerful ale based drink that was customarily mixed in a large bowl or tureen – – mixed with sugar, spiced apples, cream, spices and even small rodents (just kidding).  Saxon farmers drunk with holiday cheer (and copious amounts of wassail) would move from farm to farm greeting one another, occasionally attacking the odd Norman bystander.  At the end of December, the feudal Lord would herald the New Year and wish all good luck who belonged to the feudal family.  The serfs, in turn, “waes-haeled” back at him, and in doing so, confirmed fealty for another twelve months or at least until bonuses were paid.  The drunken spree took an even stranger turn in rural areas where the wassailants would begin to pound on trees in the orchards, bringing good luck and making it difficult for dormant pests to get a good night’s rest.  This often led to improved crops and several arrests. When reviewing this practice, the London Times went on to muse,“ and we wonder why they had such a problem recognizing that their cows were mad”.

We next travel across to Ireland, where we walk along the narrow streets and canals of James Joyce.  Tradition runs deep in this wonderful part of the world and the vigilant pursuit of good luck was always a priority.  The ancient tradition of The Hunting of the Wren is a strange Boxing Day activity.  A group of men would kill a wren, hang the dead bird on a pole and sell its feathers as lucky charms.   So, if you see drunken Irish men running around on December 25th trying to catch small birds, you have some cultural context.

The holiday season is inevitably about family.  Perhaps the Irish, more than most, seem to understand that anything can be overcome by preserving family, faith and good fortune.  As this Irish prayer conveys, a holiday is a time to give thanks and to ask one’s Maker for blessings and perhaps, the slightest edge:

May those who love us, keep loving us

For those who do not love us, may God turn their ankles

So we will know them by their limp.