Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Before and After

Ono Almanac has played the boards of Blogger for a year and is looking forward to a second season in 2016. We'll be digging around for things to trot out for your enjoyment.
   An almanac is a collection of lore, facts, history, and observations. It was designed as a way to inform and delight readers as to the ways of the earth, the heavens, cultural beliefs (folklore), and the forces that act upon them. The little booklets were in almost every home with their important predictions of the weather for the coming year, remedies for common illnesses and first-aid advice for accidents as doctors were few, recipes for the housewife, and little essays of morality and service.
   The Harris' Farmer's Almanac, with its little hole for hanging on a nail inside the pantry door within easy reach, was first published in 1692, a scant fifty years after the first settlers arrived on the shores of the North American continent.
  A famous compiler of almanacs was Benjamin Franklin who published Poor Richard's Almanak for 1733 to 1758. It was filled with all of the above plus pithy saying that he collected from vast reading and percolated through his agile brain. The weather forecasts, recipes, etc. have passed into oblivion, but the sayings, maxims, and proverbs are with us today such as:

                Time is the herb that cures all diseases.

   When we say someone is "two-faced" we are being disparaging of their character. The new year starting in January is a civil function of counting time and has no religious significance. It was named for the Roman god of beginning, Janus who had always been represent as having two-faces, looking forward and behind.
   Today the old-year in cartoons is an old man staggering on weak limbs away into the past, while the new year's is shown as a baby lusting to grow and make tracks on the world.

                             Pale January lay
                        In its cradle day by day
                              Alfred Auston

   The vignettes for 2015 were compiled by peeking though the cracks of our memories and those of our friends who grew up in rural areas about the same time our country was beginning to recover from the great depression to be plunged into a devastating war. It has been fun to remember, research and write about everyday things of that era. We are looking forward to a brave new year in 2016 bringing you bits and pieces from the roots of home.
   So with Barbara Appleby, who designs our illustrations, Nash Black says:

           Happy New Year, Everyone.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Magic of Christmas

   Christmas is magic. Things happen that can not be explained in any other fashion. This is a true story. I know because it happened to me.
   Sometime during the 1960s, I'm not sure what year. I took my two young nephews to Hillinmeyer's Nursery, outside of Lexington, Kentucky to visit their living nativity scene on Christmas Eve.
   The local landmark was staged in a working stable with farm animals in their pens and the scene was built in a back stall. The human participants were mannequins. As we knelt before the slated door so the boys could see I noticed that a spider was weaving a web between the points of the crown of the wiseman nearest to us. I point it out to them and started telling my version of the following story.


   Once in the long ago when people went out to the back lot and cut their own cedar tree a strange thing happened that is true magic.
   When you bring a tree in from the wild buried deep in its branches are all the insects and critters who use the tree for their home during the winter. Where the temperature is warm they begin to hatch, much like the praying mantas nest brought home and put in a jar in your room.
   The tree was placed in a bucket of water to keep it fresh and green during the season. Every member of the family had been busy making strings of popcorn and cranberries, gingerbread men, balls of bright colored yarn, crochet snowflakes were starched and ironed, tubes to hold the candles were fitted with ruffled coasters to catch drips. The candles would be lighted on Christmas Day after the family returned from church. Gifts were wrapped in gay papers that had been ironed and carefully saved from holidays past.
   When all the decorations had been attached to the tree and the gifts laid around the trunk on a clean white sheet everyone was banished from the room and the housewife began to clean. The cat and dogs who'd watched from the hearth of the great fireplace were sent to the kitchen. The mother cat was reluctant to leave because she had spotted the pink nose of a brown mouse peaking out through the knot hole in the baseboard.
   The lady of the house took her broom to every nook and corner, polished the furniture, then rested from her labors. The family was ready to celebrate the Savior's birthday when family and friends would be stopping by to share their joy.
   The one place she never thought to sweep clean was deep in the boughs of the tree. A nest began to swell and cracks appeared, tiny grey bodies tumbled out each searching for food and a dark place to hide, like the corners under the eaves in the attic or in the cellar. They staggered out to the ends of the branches.
   Horrified, they confronted a little brown mouse with bright dark eyes staring up at them.
  "Hide, hide, she'll beat you with her broom."
   "The lady of the house. She doesn't want critters near when the baby comes, tomorrow is his birthday. Come down here and look. The gift tree is a sight to see."
   The spiders glided down on fine thin filaments from high in the tree to see why the mouse was so exited. It was hard for them to see until they'd scurried back against the wall.
   What a tree!
   It pointed to the heavens. At the very tip-top was a beautiful lady dressed in white with golden hair and she had wings. Wings like the birds that darkened the sky and ate little spiders. The spiders shook with fear. Where could they hide? Where would they go away from the danger of being devoured before they's had a chance to live? They were trapped in a closed room.
   "Don't be afraid," said the mouse. "Follow me and explore this wonderful tree while it is still dark. I will show you a place above my hole in the wall where it is safe.
   "Hurry. Don't waste my time. The child is almost here and I want a few nibbles of those tasty gingerbread men before I go."
   The spiders crept across the floor back to the tree where they were born, but it wasn't like the tree where their mother placed her nest. This was a brave new tree the likes of which they'd never seen.
   They climbed up the faint silver strands to begin creeping, creeping, and crawling along each branch. The bolder and braver ones took to swinging from branch to branch, delighting with all the exuberance of being alive. Few spiders had ever experienced the thrill of freedom away from fear of the swat of a broom or a heave from a gust of wind that would blow them from their home in the wild.
   "Hurry, follow me. Dawn is coming, we must hide." He gave a big belch and lumbered across the floor with his sides bulging.
   The spiders swiftly followed, dropping from loop to loop of the thin fine filaments. Leaving behind them the stark evidence of their explorations.
    The smallest grey spider turned back for one last look at the glorious tree. His cry of despair was heard by all and they hastened to look.
   Sharp rays of the rising sun struck the gift tree, but it wasn't even pretty. It was dull, bedraggled, and woebegone with branches drooping in shame covered with ugly cobwebs like something lost and forgotten.
   The little spiders shivered in fear and desperation. They never intended to spoil the tree, they only wanted to see what the mouse had proclaimed as so grand. They beseeched the heavens to save the tree for they had meant no harm to come to the child's birthday tree.
   Before their very eyes the beautiful lady began to glow and float from the tree on her pure white wings. She sailed toward them and they cowered against the wall.
   "Be not afraid. All creatures are important to me and have a treasure to give. I accept you gift with joy for this is a day to be shared through the ages."
   Each place she touched shimmered and glowed as the cobwebs turned to gold. She returned to her perch high in the tree and smiled down while the spiders curried to safety under the baseboard.

  As I finished telling the story and got up from the ground I looked up to face a large crowd. Everyone who'd come to visit the nativity were gathered around us watching the spider build its web and were listening to me tell the story.
   No one said a word, a path opened and we walked toward the entrance. There was an exhausted blatt from a pen inside the door. A ewe was giving birth to a black lamb.
   The bells were ringing midnight and it was snowing.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Mistletoe: Symbol of Peace

"Mistletoe and Ivy will be the death of me," sighed the old oak-tree.

   The use of mistletoe has faded in popularity as a yule time decoration, yet it may be the oldest of the holiday symbols. It held status of the sacred from the ancient Greeks, Norse, Druids, and Celtic peoples of Europe. The veneration of the plant moved from Europe to America.
   The custom of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe is the one we most remember; it was fun to catch someone unaware under a bunch hanging in a doorway. The kissing ball originated in England, where when someone was kissed a white berry was plucked for the stem until all the berries were gone. Then the bundle was burned to wait another year.
   A very disparaging truth is the word itself. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon as a compound word. "Mistel" means dung and "toe or tan" is a term for a twig or a branch. Putting the two words together they roughly translate as "poop on a stick." Remember they didn't have an old Sears catalogue in the garderobes, which served as indoor outhouses in the castles. So lost and hidden in time there may exist a grain of fact about an unheralded use for mistletoe. Somehow that fails to excite dreams of romance in our hearts.
   The under-the-mistletoe custom is much older than 17th Century England and goes back to the Scandinavian countries, whose Norse gods deemed mistletoe with powerful mystical qualities including protection. Armies would meet under an oak tree sporting the plant and lay down their arms in a truce. Hence it became associated with peace and goodwill. Later it was hung in doorways to tell visitors when they entered a dwelling or tavern there would be no fighting on the premises.
  A bundle of mistletoe hanging in the doorway of a home was protection against evil. Witches and ghosts were held at bay and not allowed to enter the home, much like the use of the herb, henbane.
   It is a rare oak tree where one will find mistletoe. I suspect because oaks contain tannin which acts as a poison to the roots of the interlooping parasitic plant. In Europe the apple tree is a frequent host tree, while in the United States you will find it growing on a number of different species. Here in Ono County the most abundant host trees are walnuts. There are numberous examples along the road from town to our home, some so lush with growth that against the winter sky they seem not to have lost their summer leaves.
   Birds eat the berries and excreet the seeds on branches where they roost. American mistletoe originally grew along the easter coast close to large bodies of water from New Jersey to Flordia. Gradually, the birds have distributed the seeds inland, again frequesntly growing in trees near an extensive body of water such as our inland man-made lakes.
   Romance, fertility, or peace, the use of mistletoe as a decoration for the holidays is a custom we should not let die as it connects us with our ancient past. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Greeting Cards

We got our first Christmas cards this week, a sure sign that the holiday season is upon us and the festivities are right around the corner.
   Sending cards and greetings to family and friends has been a holiday tradition my entire life. It is a holiday tradition our parents shared as we grew up.
   I love getting the colorful cards in the mail as so many contain notes and letters from people who have been a part of our lives in many places. Even the letter carrier looks for the one from Dolly Kalerak, a real Eskimo, who lives in Alaska but winters in Hawaii. We save the cards from year to year and enjoy the letters a second time, trying to answer any questions that were posed last year.
   I also breathe a sigh of relief when none of ours come back marked "addressee unknown" or "decreased" by the post office. At our age, I know, it is to be expected, but still it blights the season.
   A long time ago the jottings of what's been happening were called "bread and butter" notes and were an important part of a Southern education. These past years I've gone back to writing the notes by hand hoping all the recipients will be able to read my handwriting, as over the years it has gotten rather frail.
   The custom of sending cards is very young in terms of holiday traditions, a bit over 100 years  old. The first cards were printed in London, England in 1843. Thirty-one years later (1874) Louis Prang began producing cards in America. These simple cards featured owls, birds, and animals and carried brief messages like, "It's a poor heart that never rejoices." Later the famous Currier & Ives company began issuing their classic scenes of New England winters with horses and sleighs.
  This card illustration is Barbara Appleby's take on one of the delightful owls in a snowstorm card from the Wirths Bros. & Owen company. We thank her for the rush production as she managed to get the essence of the card from my description.
   We invite you to join us by sending cards and notes to friends and family. A card in the mailbox is a signal to let the celebrations begin, just like a Christmas parade. They only come once a year.