By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
Originally published on September 16, 2016
A brother and sister in the county recently decided to get their first library cards at WCPL. Let’s call them Jack and Jill for short. It is not known why they waited so long to get a card, but it turns out that Jill needs a rare and costly book that the library has on the shelf. Using the library for free (that’s right, free) saves Jill from having to buy the book with the equivalent of half her weekly grocery budget.
Soon Jack comes by the library to pick up Jill’s rare book as well the five movies his sister has reserved online from home. Since this is his first time in the library, Jack takes his own tour to see what’s here. He sees a huge collection of childrens’ books, and notices the Launchpads which could occupy his niece for hours. He browses shelves and shelves of entertainment DVDs, locating several older movies that are hard to find. Nearby is the large area holding an extensive fiction collection and Large Print books.
Jack thinks to himself, “Surely, there is more to the library than this,” and he is right. He sees the stairs and heads up to the second floor. Jack uses his card to access the public computers which offer the range of Microsoft Office software as well as photo editing and more. He discovers that there are nonfiction and documentary type DVDs on the second floor and locates two which ignite his interest.
Meanwhile, Jill is thinking about their family dinner party and texts Jack requesting two cookbooks, Rachel Ray’s Look + Cook, and The Best of America’s Test Kitchen Little did Jack know, but the Library has over 50 shelves of cookbooks upstairs, including one entire 27 foot long wall. He finds both books available, with the recipes Jack and Jill both love cooking.
Before leaving, Jack sees the Reference Desk and asks them a question regarding data for his business. Jack makes guitar pedals and wants to be sure he is speaking to every music place within 50 miles. He asks if there is a database that could help him. Jack gets back on the library computer and the librarian takes him through several databases available for library users. Most helpful is Reference USA, which lets him mine and correlate the very information he is seeking.
Jill texts again to remind Jack to schedule time for the winter family trip to Switzerland. This prompts Jack to think how he needs to learn more about his digital camera, while also brushing up on his French and German. To save time, he asks the librarians at the Reference Desk for help. They show him how to take advantage of the several eBook connections through the library, especially READS and R. B. Digital. With his new card, Jack is able to download on his ipad, David Pogue’s Digital Photography: The Missing Manual. The librarian also shows Jack the photography E-magazines available to check out free through the READS and Zinio electronic libraries. Jack downloads immediately Digital Photography from Zinio.
Jack tells the librarian, that if he ever worried the library would go out of business, he doesn’t now. “Are you as up-to-date on language learning? I need to refresh my French and German.” The Reference Desk librarian shows him the library learning site called Transparent Languages, and gets him into the German and French programs using Jack’s library card as the login.
On his way out, with books, DVDs, and electronic downloads in hand, Jack texts Jill, “There’s a lot here at the library. More than I realized. You say you like the newly designed card; I know you’ll like even more, using it. You’ve got to come check this out!”
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
WARNING! Dangerous, do not approach. If seen, call Santa immediately.
**The Rogues Gallery is the cast of colorful and numerous Recurring Characters that show up to torment the heroes week after week.**
Zwarte Piet, (aka. Black Pete)
Active Areas: Belgium, Netherlands
Bio: He was formerly a Moorish servant from Spain, or a Turkish orphan, or Ethiopian Slave rescued by Saint Nick and now attending Saint Nick as a helper
M.O.: A Prankster who might whip naughty children with birch wood rods or put coal in their shoes. However, those especially naughty he could stuff in his sack and carry them off to Spain.
Père Fouettard, (aka. “Father Whipper”)
Active Areas: France
Bio: This rouge’s chilling past involves his killing and cooking three wealthy children who stayed at his inn. Saint Nicolas ended up resurrecting the three children and bringing Fouettard to repentance. Fouettard then became St. Nick’s helper.
M.O.: For those untouched by the good will of St. Nicolas, Fouettard doles out whippings to children who misbehave.
Active Areas: Austria, Germany
Bio: Thought to be from a nature goddess who affects humans only during Christmas. She rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior.
M.O.: Good children might receive a silver piece in their shoes, while naughty children would receive something much, much worse. She would take out their insides by slitting open their bellies, and replace their entrails with garbage, straw and rocks which are sewn up to cause grievous pain. Oh for a mere lump of coal!
Active Areas: Alsace; Lorraine France
Bio: Trapp was supposedly a real man who was exiled into the forest where he would disguise himself as a straw-stuffed scarecrow and cannibalize children. He was struck down with lightening by the Lord.
M.O.: Trapp accompanies Santa to punish naughty children with beatings.
Active Areas: Iceland
Bio: She is a giant ogress who has powers that let her detect children who misbehave. Her favorite food is a stew of rebellious children.
M.O.: She is full of mischief and trouble, and likes to eat children who disobey their parents.
The Yule Cat
Active Areas: Iceland
Bio: The Yule Cat is ogress Gryla’s pet. And she is likewise dangerous and threatening.
M.O.: The Yule Cat encourages hard work. Children who do not work hard and are lazy will be eaten by the Yule Cat.
Active Areas: Germany
Bio: Belsnickel is from the word belzen meaning “to wallop,” along with nickel referring to St. Nicholas.
M.O.: He is a wandering man dressed in tattered furs wearing a mask and carrying a switch to frighten children into good behavior. He rewards good behavior with candy.
Active Areas: Found especially throughout the Alpine region and including Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia
Bio: The half goat, half demon appearance of Krampus seems most likely to have grown out of early Alpine traditions related to the Horned God of the Witches of the region. Krampus eventually becomes a “side kick” of St. Nicholas in a rogue sort of way.
M.O.: He especially punishes unruly children with birch switches. But for really bad children Krampus might put them in a basket, drown them in a stream, and then devour them.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
Originally published December 26, 2014
Holidays afford us time to relax, enjoy shows, catch up with friends, and share some of our favorite cuisine with special folks in our life. Funny thing, after those times of good cheer and catching up, one common post-festivity urge reported is the desire to stop into the library to simply browse around. Unfortunately, for many of these holiday moments, the library is officially closed. But please know, the back door is open. By this we mean the cyber door to all the library’s electronic offerings. Even on those “closed” holidays, the library still has some wonderful things available.
Here are just a few suggestions…
- Check out ebooks and audiobooks with READS!
- Browse online magazines.
- Explore Career Transitions if you’re thinking about new career opportunities.
- Learn a new word a day with Oxford Reference Online.
- Take a virtual tour of great artists without leaving home, through the helpful websites!
And there is a lot of online fun for children as well:
Online Fun Suggestions!
- Read digital picture books with our TumbleBooks Call us now for the id and password.
- Listen to an e-audiobook for teens and children via OneClick. All you need is your lilbrary card!
- Borrow an ebook via READS for Kids. Use the cute interface for young readers that lets them borrow chapter books and more.
- Explore new subjects in Kids Infobits with articles and reference books for young people.
- Play games and more in TEL4U.
- Learning can be fun for young ones with World Book Online. Try the Early World of Learning or one of the boxes labeled ‘Kids’.
So just remember, even though we are closed, the back (cyber) door is always open.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
Williamson County is home to many artists whose creative efforts enrich our land. We naturally think of musicians (Music City everyone), but not to be overlooked are the many who spend their greatest efforts creating visual art. The library offers two areas where visual artists are able to display their works for a month at a time. These are the Meeting Room Gallery Hall and the Grid Row of the Rotunda, both on the first floor as patrons enter the library. Our local artists showcase a wide range of art media to the delight of many visitors. Just last year alone the library recorded 465,445 patron visits. That’s a lot of exposure for those looking to share or create awareness of their work.
When visiting the library, why not take a moment to enjoy the many creative visual expressions on hand? If you are an artist, why not share your work with our patrons by a display at the library? The Grid Row Gallery is sponsored by the Arts Council of Williamson County, but local artists in all media are invited to exhibit their work in the Meeting Room Gallery. The exhibits change monthly and there is a waiting list, but that just means that you have time to get your art display together. For information about exhibiting their own works, artists should call (615)595-1250, ext. 1.
The varieties of art displayed over the last two years include watercolor, acrylic, and oil paintings of many subjects involving landscapes, portraits, still life, and the surreal. There are ceramics, mosaics, art masks, as well as many interesting fine-art photographs. Samples from each month’s artist on display are penned to the library’s pinterest page under Art@WCPLtn.
A representative sample from the last few years of exhibits is shown in the photographs included here.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
The library celebrated Halloween Day by creative decorations in every department topped off with offers of candy to patrons young and old throughout the day. With the festive atmosphere, it is easy to overlook the important event of 500 years ago by a young monk named Martin Luther, who started a cultural transformation known as the Protestant Reformation. But just how big a deal was Luther’s courageous act of pinning 95 theses to the Wittenburg Church door? No one, especially Luther himself, foresaw the far reaching results.
Years have since revealed the significance of what some have called Luther’s “accidental revolution.” PBS explained it this way with their documentary on Luther released just last month entitled, “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World:
The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of one on the most important events in Western civilization: the birth of an idea that continues to shape the life of every American today.
In 1517, power was in the hands of the few, thought was controlled by the chosen, and common people lived lives without hope. On October 31 of that year, a penniless monk named Martin Luther sparked the revolution that would change everything.
He had no army. In fact, he preached nonviolence so powerfully that — 400 years later — Michael King would change his name to Martin Luther King to show solidarity with the original movement.
This movement, the Protestant Reformation, changed Western culture at its core, sparking the drive toward individualism, freedom of religion, women’s rights, separation of church and state, and even free public education. Without the Reformation, there would have been no pilgrims, no Puritans, and no America in the way we know it.
Luther’s contributions started out in the religious realm but quickly impacted many areas of everyday life. Because of this, even the nonreligious may offer their genuine appreciation. One atheist mentioned to me how glad he was that Luther introduced to the West “the priesthood of all believers,” thereby giving legitimacy and impetus to human individuality. The leveling effect of Luther’s emphasis began to transform society such that the common people, often excluded from important discussions, were able to read primary documents like the Bible, which Luther masterfully translated into the people’s own local language. Luther gave millions of people a voice. There is a sense in which Luther democratized the faith, an impetus that would later on translate into full blown governmental democracy.
Luther’s continuing work soon also abolished the rigid distinction between clergy and laity. This meant that the concept of work as vocation applied to everyone, thereby exalting all types of work as important. Luther explained, “It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate’; princes, lords, artisans and farmers the ‘temporal estate.’ . . . . All Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate.’ …. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and everyone by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other …”
We take for granted many of the innovations set in motion by Luther that presently form western society. It is appropriate that we give Luther this small moment of recognition.
- Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (2007)
- Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (2015)
- Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (2015)
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
Someone told me they thought that living in Williamson County is like living in the “Australia of America.” Just like in Australia, there are many strange bugs here as compared to the rest of the world. This is most certainly an overstatement, but due to our mild winters, Williamson County does have significant insect concerns. Some insects are mostly nuisances, such as Japanese Beetles munching on tree leaves. Other insects, however, can cause significant injury or damage. What follows are five of the bugs of Tennessee that register higher degrees of fear among residents of our area. We will go from number five to number one.
Numbers Five and Four: Hard working but harmful Beetles or Borers. Most give little thought to various beetles that fly about our area, but those who manage our forests and those who love beautiful landscape trees soon learn to respect the menace that certain beetles pose. Landowners and cities see some of their favorite, older shade trees die within three years after being attacked by the Southern Pine Beetle and the Emerald Ash Borer.
5. Emerald Ash Borers (EAB)
Adults are dark green and fly in Tennessee especially in May and June. They spend the rest of the year as larvae eating away under the bark of ash trees, leading to the decline and death of their host tree. EABs emerge from the trees as adults and leave a small, distinctive D-shaped hole in the bark.
4. The Southern Pine Beetle
It is native to our area, causing extensive damage to pine trees during times when its population expands. When Tennessee’s southern pine beetle population gradually began to build in 1998, the beetles killed close to 350,000 acres and $358 million of pine in the years that followed.
3. Imported Fire Ants (IFA)
Lest the reader think I am exaggerating, I will quote from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture regarding this newcomer to the county which has a low tolerance for humans.
Imported Fire Ants (IFA) were accidentally introduced into the United States from South America, beginning in about 1918, and have spread to many counties in Tennessee, including Williamson County…. Imported Fire Ants are very aggressive when disturbed and cause a painful sting that produces a small white pustule about 8-24 hours following the sting.
Fire ant colonies build mounds that may be 10 inches or more in height, 15 inches or more in diameter, and 3 feet or more in depth. ….
Imported Fire Ants cause harm and economic losses in a variety of ways. Stings from fire ants inflict intense pain to millions of Americans each year with thousands requiring medical treatment. A small number of people develop a life-threatening allergic reaction to IFA stings. The number of human fatalities resulting from IFA stings is not known due to lack documentation. However, there have been confirmed deaths due to IFA in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Imported Fire Ants also attack and kill domestic animals and wildlife as well as destroy seedling corn, soybeans, and other crops. Fire ant mounds can damage farm equipment and lawn mowers. IFA are attracted to electrical equipment and chew on insulation, resulting in short circuits and interference with switching mechanisms. Fire ants can shut down air conditioners, traffic signal boxes, and even airport runway lights. Approximately $2 billion in damage, including costs for insecticide for fire ant suppression and eradication, is caused by IFA in the United States each year.” [https://www.tn.gov/agriculture/article/ag-businesses-ifa]
2. Yellowjackets (Paper Wasps, and Hornets runners up)
UT Assistant Professor of Entomology, Karen Vail, tells us: “Yellowjackets are often considered the most dangerous stinging insects in the United States. They are more unpredictable than honey bees and will sting readily if their nest is disturbed….. During late summer and fall, yellowjacket colonies are near maturity and large numbers of workers forage for food. Sweets support large populations of foraging
wasps. They are particularly fond of sweets (e.g., fruit, soft drinks, ice cream, beer), but they will also eat meats, potato salad and just about anything we eat.”
Many county residents are unaware of where yellowjackets build their paper nest. They nest mostly underground, which makes their presence harder to detect. They can be highly aggressive and sting multiple times.
1. The Brown Recluse Spider
The most feared bug of Tennessee as reported by several exterminators is the brown recluse spider.
Most of us are familiar with the Brown Recluse, if not by sight, then certainly by its reputation. I have unfortunate personal experience with the Brown Recluse, receiving two bites over the years that left the horrendous pain and scars that their bites can sometimes do.
So I am an informal “expert” on the spider, trying to avoid being bitten again. I even discuss them with our “bug man” exterminator named Joe from All-Pest Solutions, who sprays our house four times a year. He recently added to my knowledge about the spider when I explained the enormous size of one I saw last week. The “bug man” said that Recluses do get that big, but no bigger. What I saw was likely a female adult (larger than the males) in her prime (who can give birth to 130 little recluses just like that). So they will be around.
But the exterminator also gave me some good news. He said, “Did you know that they can’t bite you without help? Their mouths are too small. They have to be mashed or pushed into the skin, most often by ourselves, and then they have the force to bite.” I asked for clarification, “You mean if one just gets on you, or you hold it in your hand, it can’t bite you?” “Yes, that’s right. They have to have help.” That was news to me, and good to know.
Something else came out about the spider during my second bite (this one to the temple of my head from lying on an old, rolled up blanket for a pillow while camping). The venom of the Brown Recluse is interesting. It is only 15% or so actual poison, so it basically tricks the body into turning on itself in reaction. It is powerful through deception. Further, unlike the immediately painful and burning bite of the Black Widow spider, the Brown Recluse bite seldom hurts at first. In fact, the venom, for the first 24 hours, tends to create a state of euphoria (extreme gladness) in the human victim. I experienced this very thing. But afterward, the effects of the tricky venom begin to turn living tissue into dead tissue. The victim must wait and see just how deep the wound will go.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
“Today, the average household creates enough data to fill 65 iPhones (32gb) per year. In 2020, this will grow to 318 iPhones.”
This is a conclusion from the seventh EMC Digital Universe study at Hopkinton, Massachusetts highlighting a special concern with how “data is outpacing storage. The world’s amount of available storage capacity (i.e., unused bytes) across all media types is growing slower than the digital universe.”
Concerns about digital storage and preservation are not new, but they are now more pressing. Michael Irving, of New Atlas, explains how “even the best of our current range of devices are only relatively short-term solutions to the problem. Hard drives, and optical storage such as DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, are vulnerable to damage and degradation, with a life expectancy of a few decades at best.” Irving continues:
Scientists are increasingly looking to nature’s hard drive, DNA, as a potential solution to both the capacity and longevity problems. As our own bodies demonstrate, DNA is an incredibly dense storage medium, potentially squeezing in a mind-boggling 5.5 petabits (125,000 GB) of information per cubic millimeter. By that measure, according to University of Washington professor, Luis Ceze, all 700 exabytes of today’s accessible internet would fit into a space the size of a shoebox. You could then tuck that shoebox away in a vault for thousands of years, and the DNA-stored data would remain intact.
Indeed, digital storage modeled on DNA is a promising solution. But until it becomes more than experimental, what should we do in the meantime? For instance, what if you have just been chosen as the archivist for a massive collection of family photographs? How would you choose to store the data? In addition to preserving the actual physical photos, what is the best approach from a digital point of view? After the photos are scanned, what is the best way to store them as digital documents?
A helpful answer comes from Denise May Levenick, who inherited her family photo treasures. She shares tips and techniques for preserving a collection in her latest book, How to Archive Family Photos: A step by step guide to organize and share your photos digitally (Family Tree Books: Cincinatti, 2015. In our library nonfiction section under 745.593 May). It is good to keep in mind that, although focusing on photos, the principles she outlines apply to more than photo collections.
One important decision for digital material concerns negotiating different file formats. Ms. Levenich explains about using JPG and TIFF files.
JPG is a file format that uses compression when saving files and is called a lossy file format because repeated opening and saving of JPG files deteriorates the image quality over time. TIFF is a file format that does not use compression when saving files and is considered a lossless format because it maintains its quality over time.
What this means for preservation is that the TIFF lossless format better maintains the digital data than the JPG format, which loses quality with use. One concern with TIFF files, however, is that TIFF is sometimes unreadable by various programs. In this case, our staff librarian photo buff, Rebecca Tischler, recommends saving picture files in PNG. PNG, pronounced “ping,” stands for the Portable Network Graphics format which compresses information in a lossless manner, meaning all the image information is there when the PNG file is decompressed. Further it neither degrades nor loses information with saving, restoring, or resaving like the JPG. Don’t count out the JPG, however, as it has its uses too, one being the JPG can preserve a lot more color than the PNG.
Once your format is chosen, it is necessary to back up your photo files. Ms. Levenick recommends the 3-2-1 rule.
- 3 Copies
- 2 different media
- 1 copy stored off-site
She explains, “Many different combinations will provide a good backup solution, but the key to a great backup system is to spread out your copies across different media and different storage locations. When hurricanes and tornadoes wipe out a home and family photo collection, it’s reassuring to know that digital copies are safe in the cloud, or stashed at a relative’s home in another state. Don’t wait for a disaster to safeguard your precious family memories. Practice the 3-2-1 Backup rule regularly, especially after a major scanning session.”
- Michael Irving, “New record for storing digital data in DNA” in New Atlas (July 11, 2016)
- Denise May Levenick, How to Archive Family Photos: A step by step guide to organize and share your photos digitally (Family Tree Books: Cincinatti, 2015), pp. 108-109; 126.
- The Data Deluge: An e-Science Perspective, Tony Hey*(Tony.Hey@epsrc.ac.uk) + and Anne Trefethen*(Anne.Trefethen@epsrc.ac.uk),UK e-Science Core Programme
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
This year’s theme supplies a good reason: “Libraries Transform.” Over twenty years ago, some were saying libraries would go the way of VHS tapes, floppy disks, and beanie babies. But libraries are still going strong! Again, one big reason is how libraries transform people who visit. Please let me illustrate with a few examples.
One morning as the doors open to WCPL, a very focused patron marched in and went immediately to the computer center where he started searching for jobs. After 20 minutes of what he called, “Nothing,” he asked for help. He explains how he just lost his job and desperately needed to find employment. A librarian responds to his request by leading him to a few of the better job search sites, while at the same time helping him narrow his search. This was so helpful that he found three promising jobs to apply for. But he soon asks for help again, as his computer skills were challenged by the application process. The librarian takes time to help him set up a profile and become familiar with just what the applications are seeking. Upon finishing the applications, the man stops to tell the helpful librarian, “Thanks for being so kind to me and taking time. It restores my belief in human kindness.” This patron continues to come to the library, and will never forget how a librarian took time to help transform his situation.
Several weeks later a library patron approached the reference desk with a request. She had retired from two careers but, in her words, “had missed the computer age.” Her children and grandchildren asked her again and again to learn computers, but she held back. Until today. The patron wanted to “turn over a new leaf” and learn how to use a computer, so as to surprise her children by being able to look up answers online all by herself. The librarian gladly set up a one-on-one time with the patron, during which time, the patron disclosed, “I have to tell you, I have arthritis and trembling so bad that I have trouble using the mouse.” Not to be deterred, the librarian scheduled three months of one-on-one times starting with exercises on using the mouse. Although slow going at first, the patron learned to control and use the mouse, which led to creating her first email account. She learned to make and evaluate online searches as well as how to make lists and write letters in Microsoft Word. Over three months she went from being fully dependent on the librarian to semidependence to joyous independence. She reported how her children were impressed with her “entering the computer age,” but that now she uses the computer just because she enjoys it. The patron and her family were grateful that “libraries transform.”
There are many other stories I wish we could relate about patrons who experience the library as a place for transformation. They would talk about learning new skills like Excel; finding interesting books never before considered; discovering Powerspeak Languages to learn a language for their summer vacation; enjoying their first eBook; seeing a program on square foot gardening that doubled their gardening production; tailoring a resume and cover letter for a new career; finding a dyslexia friendly font; and many other stories. All would tell of how libraries transform and become very personal reasons why we celebrate National Library Week.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
This poem is also a candidate for the most printed, quoted, illustrated, and parodied poem in America. Most people, age six and above, are so familiar with the poem they can easily supply the words to the first lines:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the_____________;
Not a creature was stirring, not even a _______________.
If you identified the rhyming words “house,” and “mouse,” you are in a vast majority. The poem is best known as “The Night before Christmas.” It first appeared on the second page of the Sentinel newspaper in Troy (New York) on December 23, 1823. The fifty-six line poem was published anonymously with the title, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” It became an instant success as it spread in papers throughout the region.
Problems of Christmas Past
While “The Night before Christmas” continues to play an active role in shaping our Christmas imagination, this was not always the case. Christmas in early America was not always welcome, for its common celebration was very different from our current practices. In New England, for instance, Christmas was seldom celebrated for the first 200 years of settlement. There was instead a strong social hostility that suppressed, and sometimes outlawed, its observance. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (University of Massachusetts) explains:
The holiday they suppressed was not what we probably mean when we think of ‘traditional’ Christmas. As we shall see, it involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today – rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often with the threat of doing harm), even the boisterous invasion of wealthy homes.
It may seem odd that Christmas was ever celebrated in such a fashion. But there was good reason. December was the major ‘punctuation mark’ in the rhythmic cycle of work in northern agricultural societies, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly-fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals – meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled. St. Nicholas, for example, is associated with the Christmas season chiefly because his ‘name-day,’ December 6, coincided in many European countries with the end of the harvest and slaughter season.
Christmas was a social challenge in early American life. To be sure, there were churches and Christians in America who celebrated December 25th for religious reasons as they commemorated the birth of Christ The very name of the holiday (holy day) recalls Christ’s Mass for a reason. The basis for the practice goes far back to the early church fathers, beginning 200 A.D. and later, meaning that the date for Christmas as being December 25th was not likely the church simply displacing the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus, as is commonly claimed. The early church rationale is clearly otherwise, for their concern was to avoid pagan ways and persecution while reasoning to a common date for Christ’s conception and death. The early church thought Jesus was conceived at the same time of year he died, reflecting a symmetry in the redemption of the world. Since Jesus died during Passover time on the 25 March, they reckoned that Jesus was conceived on March 25. If Jesus were conceived at that time of month, his birth nine months later would be December 25th.
Even though the Christian religious element was certainly a part of Christ-mas, it was largely discounted by the more influential Protestant churches which refused to choose a date for Christ’s birth because the Bible is silent on the issue. Instead of Christmas, many focused their post-harvest celebrations on Thanksgiving and New Year’s. America in the early 1800s was ready for a new Christmas emphasis. This came in part from the poem, “The Night Before Christmas.”
By speaking of the night before Christmas, the poem takes the focus from common concerns with Christmas day itself. Taking one step back, it introduces players on the scene with a delight that ignites the imagination of children and adults alike. The poem simultaneously picks up emerging social developments of the day while also promoting the same. It gleefully reframes Christmas at just the right time, in just the right way, so that Christmas takes an amazing turn which continues through present day.
The Dutch Influence: Enter the Good Cheer of St. Nicholas
“The Night Before Christmas” centers on the activities of a pipe smoking “jolly old elf” identified throughout as St. Nicholas, or St. Nick. “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care / in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” When St. Nick arrives with a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, the poet remarks, “With a little old driver, so lively and quick / I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.” After the toy laden sleigh is flown atop the roof, to the poet’s surprise, “Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.”
The poet then spends a full thirteen lines describing the appearance and mannerisms of St. Nick, concluding significantly: “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly elf / And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself / A wink of his eye and a twist of his head / soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;” The remark about “nothing to dread” is especially appropriate. What a different feeling from Christmas past when reveling home invaders made for tense and cheerless times. In contrast, St. Nicholas leaves gifts in all the stockings, and a parting word affirming the new Christmas tone: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
With all the talk about St. Nicholas, it would surprise no one that the poet had connections to Dutch Christmas traditions. In Europe of the 1500s the Protestant Reformation undermined the practice of honoring the saints. Yet Biography.com explains:
St. Nicholas, however, remained an important figure in Holland.
The Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas, December 6. It was a common practice for children to put out their shoes the night before. In the morning, they would discover the gifts that St. Nicholas had left there for them. Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas, known to them as Sint Nikolaas or by his nickname Sinterklaas, and his gift-giving ways to America in the 1700s.
In America, St. Nicholas went through many transformations and eventually Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. Instead of giving gifts on December 6, he became a part of the Christmas holiday. . . . The cartoonist Thomas Nast added to the St. Nicholas legend with an 1881 drawing of Santa as wearing a red suit with white fur trim. Once a kind, charitable bishop, St. Nicholas had become the Santa Claus we know today.
So the “Night Before Christmas,” focused especially on “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The real Saint Nicholas was born around 280 A.D. in a Greek speaking area of what is now southern Turkey. He lost his parents early on in an epidemic, but inherited their wealth. As a devout Christian, he took seriously Jesus’ words to “sell what you have and give to the poor.” Even though exiled and imprisoned for his faith during Roman Imperial persecution by Diocletian, Nicholas maintained an amazing generosity to those in need, especially extending concern and protection to children.
One story of his humble generosity tells how he responded to a poor man who had no dowry for his three daughters. This meant the daughters might be sold into slavery. Under the cover of darkness, so as not to broadcast his good deed, Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the poor man’s window, and they landed in and about stockings the three girls left by the fire to dry. This eventually led to hanging stockings “in hopes that St. Nicholas would soon be there.”
In summation, turning again to the Christmas scholar Nissenbaum:
… The next incarnation of Christmas was taking shape. That incarnation engaged powerful new forces that were coming to dominate much of American society in the years after 1820—a heady brew that mixed a rapidly commercializing economy with a culture of domesticity centered on the well-being of children. Both elements were present in a new Christmas poem that soon came to define the rituals of the season in middle-class households throughout the United States. . . . . Although it was set on the night before Christmas, its subject was not the nativity but ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas.’ So it would be Santa Claus, not Jesus of Nazareth, whose influence finally succeeded in transforming Christmas from a season of misrule into a day of quieter family pleasures.
Ironic indeed. Yet there remains a subtle historical perspective unspoken by Nissenbaum. Not to be missed is the further irony of the subtle yet stupendous influence of the little Christ child lying in a manger on the youth from Turkey who became St. Nicholas. The saint who transformed Christmas would honestly say, he himself is a transformer only because of the impression on his heart by the Christ of Christmas Day. And St. Nicholas, both the historical and symbolic, would no doubt continue this hearty good will in wishing,
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
Note: “The Night Before Christmas” did not remain anonymous for long. It was later attributed to and claimed by Clement Clarke Moore, a scholar in New York City. However, the family of Henry Livingston eventually contested Moore’s claim, saying their father had written the poem, which they and a housekeeper heard at home as early as 1807. There have been detailed studies of word usage and phraseology by two scholars who separately conclude the internal evidence points best to Livingston as the author. But the external evidence has in the past led most to attribute the poem to Moore.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
One story of the present holiday season tells of Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus. These Magi from the East were riding a wave of expectation common in the Mediterranean world and beyond. One Roman historian of the day explains:
There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4.5; similarly other first century historians Tacitus, Histories 5.3 and Josephus, War of the Jews, 6.5).
Indeed, the Magi were bearing gifts fit for a king, but what gifts would properly honor one who is “to rule the world?” The Magi chose gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of course, gold makes complete sense as a fitting gift, but why would frankincense and myrrh rate so highly?
Frankincense and myrrh are widely available today as “essential oils,” but in the first century world, they were much more essential, especially since the peoples of that time exhibit refined sensitivities in matters of smell and fragrance. One geographer from Greece who sailed around southern Arabia, named Agatharchides, recounts:
A heavenly and indescribable fragrance seems to strike and stir the senses. Even far out from land as you sail past you do not miss the fragrant odors blowing from the myrrh bushes.
The tree that captivated the explorer’s sense of smell, might not appear so impressive in full sight. Myrrh trees are small, thorny, and often just a bush. Like frankincense, myrrh trees grow in places limited to an arid climate like that of southern Arabia.
Yet what matters is the treasure the trees produce. Both frankincense and myrrh are harvested by tapping the inner sap with cuts to the tree bark. The gummy resin oozes out in the form of what some ancients called “tears.” After two weeks for drying, the resin is scraped off the tree, and sent on a long journey aboard camels and ships to crossroads and ports the world over.
What were the Uses of Frankincense and Myrrh?
Frankincense and myrrh had common uses and were even sometimes used together. But frankincense was more fragrant as incense and myrrh more helpful for perfume and skin care.
The top use for both frankincense and myrrh was for religious expression. Religion in our western world is often separated from other aspects of life, whereas religion in the first century world was part of everything and considered to be the most important aspect of all. This includes the wide ranging pagan religions as well as the Judaeo-Christian stream. Since religion was so important, religious expression was essential. And essential to religious expression was offering incense, especially frankincense.
Both frankincense and myrrh were widely used in preparing bodies for burial, which also included groups who cremated their dead. Frankincense in particular was good for masking the odor of a burning body. Emperor Nero burned an entire year of the frankincense harvest in honoring the death of one of his favorite people. That was extravagant indeed.
Each substance had a number of particular uses as well, again sometimes overlapping. The Middle East Institute remarks:
The market for frankincense was unlimited. Whereas other exotic spices and aromatics were luxury items, frankincense, though expensive was a household necessity. For many families throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East frankincense was a basic staple just as things like toothpaste and deodorant are always on the grocery list today.
Among the medical uses for frankincense were: stopping bleeding, cleansing, and functioning as an important ingredient in prescriptions used as antidotes to poisons, help for side and chest pain, and abscesses. It was used as well for a pest repellant and food flavoring.
Myrrh likewise had many functions in the first century world. In addition to the uses common with frankincense, it figured prominently in perfumes and ointments. Furthermore, its medical uses were wide ranging, for both internal and external use. It was a chief ingredient for the Egyptian army’s balm for the healing of sword cuts and wounds. Myrrh is mentioned 54 times in the Hippocratic literature helping alleviate various diseases. It helped with snakebites, coughs, stomach pains, toothaches, and ear aches. It was in demand as a pain killer and antiseptic, and also served as a mouthwash. So while in the first century world, its religious significance was primary, myrrh was helpful in many other ways.
When the parents of baby Jesus saw the Magi bearing frankincense and myrrh, along with gold, they were most certainly not disappointed. The frankincense and myrrh had many more uses than gold, and were fitting gifts of high value and honor.