Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bushspeak Update, Second Half of 2008


Bushspeak pickings were slim as the final days of the eight-year imperial presidency of George W. Bush wound down and he made a concerted effort to rewrite history’s view of him. The number of Bushspeak quotes continue to be small as "the days dwindled down to a precious few." With W gone. we venture to predict that, in Richard Nixon’s immortal words, it won’t be long before we’ll regret "we won’t have him to kick around anymore.” For those keeping track of President Bush's malapropisms, here are more examples to add to your collection:

"I've abandoned free market principles to save the free market system." Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 2008.

"People say, well, do you ever hear any other voices other than, like, a few people? Of course I do." Washington, D.C., Dec. 18, 2008.

"So I analyzed that and decided I didn't want to be the president during a depression greater than the Great Depression, or the beginning of a depression greater than the Great Depression." Washington D.C., Dec. 18, 2008.

"He was a great father before politics, a great father during politics and a great father after politics." His comment on his father, George H.W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, 2008.

“I've been in the Bible every day since I've been the president." Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, 2008.

"Yesterday, you made note of my—the lack of my talent when it came to dancing. But nevertheless, I want you to know I danced with joy. And no question Liberia has gone through very difficult times." Speaking with the president of Liberia, Washington, D.C., Oct. 22, 2008.

"I want to share with you an interesting program—for two reasons, one, it's interesting, and two, my wife thought of it—or has actually been involved with it; she didn't think of it. But she thought of it for this speech." Washington D.C., Oct. 21, 2008, discussing PlayPumps International, which hopes to install 4,000 pumps so children can enjoy clean water in Sub-Saharan Africa.

"This thaw took a while to thaw [he meant freeze]; it's going to take a while to unthaw." Said at an economic roundtable held at Alexandria, La., Oct. 20, 2008.

“I didn’t grow up in the ocean. As a matter of fact, near the ocean. I grew up in the desert. Therefore, it was a pleasant contrast to see the ocean. And I particularly like it when I’m fishing.” Washington, D.C., Sept. 26, 2008.

"Anyone engaging in illegal financial transactions will be caught and persecuted.” Washington, D.C., Sept. 19, 2008.

"We’re fixin’ to go down to Galveston and obviously are going to see a devastated part of this fantastic state.” Houston, Texas, Sept. 16, 2008.

“The people in Louisiana must know that all across our country there’s a lot of prayer—prayer for those whose lives have been turned upside down. And I’m one of them." Baton Rouge, La., Sept. 3, 2008.

"I'm coming as the president of a friend, and I'm coming as a sportsman." Said about his trip to the Olympics in China, Washington, D.C., July 30, 2008.

"There's no question about it. Wall Street got drunk--that's one of the reasons I asked you to turn off the TV cameras--it got drunk, and now it's got a hangover. The question is how long will it sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments." Speaking at a private fundraiser, Houston, Texas, July 18, 2008.

"The economy is growing, productivity is high, trade is up, people are working. It's not as good as we'd like, but -- and to the extent that we find weakness, we'll move." Washington, D.C., July 15, 2008.

"I think it was in the Rose Garden where I issued this brilliant statement: If I had a magic wand -- but the president doesn't have a magic wand. You just can't say, 'low gas.'" Washington D.C., July 15, 2008.

"And they have no disregard for human life." On the brutality of Afghan fighters, Washington, D.C., July 15, 2008.

Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter." George W. Bush’s parting words to Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, at what was his final G-8 Summit. He punched the air and grinned widely as the British prime minister and French president looked on in shock. Rusutsu, Japan, July 10, 2008.

"Amigo! Amigo!" George W. Bush’s attention-getting call in Spanish to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at the G-8 Summit. Rusutsu, Japan, July 10, 2008.

"Should the Iranian regime--do they have the sovereign right to have civilian nuclear power? So, like, if I were you, that's what I'd ask me. And the answer is, yes, they do." Asked while talking with reporters in Washington, D.C., July 2, 2008.

"Throughout our history, the words of the Declaration have inspired immigrants from around the world to set sail to our shores. These immigrants have helped transform 13 small colonies into a great and growing nation of more than 300 people." Said in Fourth of July address to new citizens, Charlottesville, Va., July 4, 2008.

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Top Ten Notable Quotables of 2008


Each year, Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book Of Quotations, chooses the year’s Top Ten Notable Quotables. The following are his top ten for the year just past, 2008:
1. “I can see Russia from my house!” Comedian Tina Fey, impersonating Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live,” broadcast Sept. 13.
2. “All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.” Palin, responding to a request by CBS anchor Katie Couric to name the newspapers or magazines she reads, broadcast Oct. 1.
3. “We have sort of become a nation of whiners.” Former Sen. Phil Gramm, an economic adviser to Sen. John McCain, quoted in The Washington Times, July 10.
4. “It’s not based on any particular data point, we just wanted to choose a really large number.” A Treasury Department spokeswoman explaining how the $700 billion number was chosen for the initial bailout, quoted on Sept. 23.
5. “The fundamentals of America’s economy are strong.” Sen. John McCain, in an interview with Bloomberg TV, April 17.
6. “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.” Wording in the Treasury Department’s proposed Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, Sept. 2008.
7. “Maybe 100.” Sen. John McCain, discussing in a town hall meeting in Derry, N.H., how many years U.S. troops could remain in Iraq, Jan. 3.
8. “I’ll see you at the debates, [expletive].” Paris Hilton in a video responding to a McCain television ad, August 2008.
9. “Barack, he’s talking down to black people….I want to cut his balls off.” Rev. Jesse Jackson, overheard over a live microphone before a Fox News interview, July 6.
10. (tie) “Cash for trash.” Paul Krugman discussing the financial bailout, New York Times, Sept. 22.
10. (tie) “There are no atheists in foxholes and there are no libertarians in financial crises.” Paul Krugman, in an interview with Bill Maher on HBO’s “Real Time,” broadcast Sept. 19.
10. (tie) “Anyone who says we’re in a recession, or heading into one-- especially the worst one since the Great Depression--is making up his own private definition of “recession.” Commentator Donald Luskin, in The Washington Post, Sept. 14., the day before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy


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Friday, December 26, 2008

‘Twas the Day After Christmas: The Battle at Trenton


As every schoolchild knows, exactly 232 years ago George Washington crossed the ice-choked Delaware on Christmas night as depicted in the famous painting by Emmanuel Leutze and defeated the Hessians at Trenton, N.J., early in the next morning, December 26, 1776.

The year 1776 had not been a good year for American colonists revolting against British rule. In five months of bitter fighting since the Declaration of Independence, they had lost a succession of battles in Long Island, New York City and White Plains before retreating through New Jersey. Washington had committed a general’s greatest blunder: scattering his forces so as to subject them to defeat in detail, instead of keeping his units within supporting distance of one another.

Nevertheless, he did accomplish masterful evacuations after each battle, although his loss of Fort Washington was a disaster that was almost fatal to the American cause. The Americans' steady retreat was finally halted south of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. The small remnant of the Continental Army shown crossing the Delaware to attack Trenton in New Jersey in the Leutze painting were near the end of their resources. This is the story of that fateful expedition.

Early in December of 1776, Washington began to get reinforcements. Maj. Gen. John Sullivan arrived with 2,000 bedraggled troops. Gen Horatio Gates came with 500 ragged and ill-equipped men from Gen. Schuyler’s Northern Command. Col. John Cadwalader appeared with 1,000 Philadelphia militia known as "Assocciators." Col. Nicholas Haussegger brought his regiment of Germans from Maryland and Pennsylvania. Just before Christmas, Washington had about 6,000 men listed as more or less fit for duty. Time was a major element. The British could resume their offensive when the Delaware froze hard enough to allow troops, wagons and cannon to cross. Washington’s meager force would be reduced to about 1,400 men with expiration of enlistments on December 31st. Taking note of these impending deadlines, Washington issued orders for strikes against British garrisons in New Jersey.

Washington’s Plan
Selecting the isolated British post of Trenton as his objective, Washington ordered an attack by three columns. In personal command of the main effort, some 2,400 veterans and 18 cannon, the troops of Generals Nathanael Greene and Sullivan, Washington would cross the Delaware at McConkey's and Johnson's ferries (now called Washington Crossing), ten miles above Trenton, and surprise the village from the north. Gen. Thomas Ewing would cross with 800 Pnnsylvania militia at Trenton Ferry and seize the bridge across Assunpink Creek to block the enemy's retreat in that direction. Col. Cadwalader and 1.800 men—mostly militia—was to cross the river to Burlngton, and draw the attention of the garrison at Bordentown as a diversion to prevent their reinforcing Trenton. Two of these attacks never took place. Ewing failed to cross the Delaware because of a massive ice jam. Cadwalader got his men across, but could not land his artillery and so was too late to give the main attack against Trenton any significant support.

The Attack
Washington's column left camp south of the Delaware at 2 p.m. and started embarking at dark in Durham Boats manned by Col. John Glover's Regiment of seamen and fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts. These sturdy freight boats ranged in length between 30 and 60 feet and were eight feet wide, but drew only about 24 inches of water when fully loaded. Designed to carry pig iron, lumber and produce from upcountry mines, forests and farms to the thriving port and markets of Philadelphia, they were sailed or rowed swiftly downstream by oars and an 18-foot sweep to steer through rapids. Going upstream, a crew of two or four pushed long iron-tipped setting poles against the banks or shallow bottom. The largest could carry a 15-ton cargo.

Debunkers who have scoffed at Leutze's paininting for depicting George Washington standing up in a boat are apparently unaware that large ferries and freight boats had few seats or none at all.
Anyone sitting in such boats would have been sitting in ice water or slush. Most of the men who crossed the Delaware with Washington that night were standing up in the boats.

Despite swift currents, floating chunks of ice, bitter cold, and a fierce storm of wind, hail, rain, and snow that began about 11 p.m., the arduous crossing was made successfully without detection. Although the plans called for the crossing to be completed by midnight, leaving five hours to reach Trenton before daybreak, the last man did not land until 3 a.m., and the troops were not ready to begin marching for another hour.

"The story of ragged, shoeless men leaving bloody footprints in the snow has been told so often that it has become commonplace, and often fails to impress the reader as it should," wrote historian Christopher Ward in his two-volume The War of the Revolution. "Added to these physical tortures was the mental stress of the knowledge that they were four hours behind schedule, and could not now hope to surprise the enemy at daybreak. It would be broad daylight before the attack could be launched, and that might make all the difference between victory and defeat, a defeat that might develop into a catastrophe fatal to the American cause."

A chain of unforeseen events favored the American attack. Although British intelligence was excellent, received largely from the large number of Tories in the region, and American deserters had revealed the day, the hour, and the place of he attack, Hessian Col. Johann Rall had no reason to foresee the threatened operation as nothing more than another of the small hit-and-run raids to which he had become indifferent. But the intelligence had not included the information that this raid would involve more than 2,000 men and would be led by none other than George Washington, the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

Rall was a veteran of European campaigns, but had a fatal flaw as a commander that would contribute to his defeat and death at Trenton. Not only was he stupid, but also he was a drunkard and looked on his American opponents as "country clowns." Although his post was comparatively isolated from British garrisons at Princeton and Bordentown, he had not heeded suggestions to construct fortifications nor did he send scouting parties into the countryside . "Let them come," Rall sneered. "We want no trenches. We will go at them with the bayonet." So drunk from holiday revels was Rall that by Christmas night he had to be carried to his bed. Outside a howling northeaster raged. The Hessians felt secure from attack.

At Birmingham (now West Trenton), about four miles from their landing, the attacking force split into two columns. Turning left onto the Pennington Road so as to approach Trenton from the north, Gen. Adam Stephen's Virginia Continentals led the troops of Generals Hugh Mercer and William ("Lord Stirling") Alexander, a small troop of Philadelphia light horse, and about nine guns. Gen. Nathanael Greene was in command of this column, which Washington accompanied. Sullivan continued down the river road with the troops of Generals Arthur St. Clair and John Glover, Col. Paul D. Sargent, and a battery of about nine guns, to approach Trenton from the west.

Gen. Stephen had incurred Washington’s wrath for jeopardizing the attack on Trenton by sending a raiding party across the Delaware on Christmas Day to take revenge for the killing of one of Stephen's men. Washington summoned General Stephens and in an outburst of his famous raging temper said, "You, sir, may have ruined all my plans by having put them on their guard." As it turned out, the brief but vigorous firefight that had taken place the morning of the 25th when the American patrol had probed toward Trenton on Gen. Stephen's order, actually may have helped lulled the Hessians into a state of inattention. This raiding party, the Hessians reasoned, was the American force against which they had been warned in the intelligence reports, and the danger was now over.

On the morning of December 26, Rall was deep in an alcoholic sleep,. His 1,200-man Hessian garrison's three regiments were worn to exhaustion by constant alarms and attacks on patrols and outposts. Shooting started at about 8 a.m., when Hessian Lieutenant Wiederhold at the 20-man outpost occupying a cooper's shop saw the Americans emerge from the woods along the Pennington Road about half a mile from the northern edge of Trenton. Waiting until the enemy was within range, the outpost delivered an ineffective volley, and dropped back on Capt. von Altenbockum's company of the Lossberg Regiment, some 400 yards closer to the village. Threatened by flanking forces, the company then moved back in good order after firing one volley that did not significantly delay the American advance.

Coordination and timing of the attack was impeccable. About three minutes after the northern column made contact, to the south Gen. Sullivan's advance guard flushed and routed an outpost of about 50 jaegers who were stationed on the river road, half a mile west of Trenton. (Jaegers were light infantry recruited from foresters and gamekeepers for special missions such as reconnaissance or sniping.) Four other Hessian outposts south and east of the village did not figure in the action.

The Battle
The three Hessian regiments s quartered in Trenton turned out quickly and formed in King (now Warren) and Queen (now Broad) streets. Attempting an attack to the north, their formations were broken by the combination of artillery fire down these streets from the north and flanking fire from Mercer's troops attacking from the west. The artillery of Captains Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Forrest, whose fire enfiladed the streets, silenced four Hessian guns that attempted to go into action. Gen. Alexander's men charged down both streets toward the enemy batteries. Capt. William Washington (a distant cousin of the General) and Lt. James Monroe (who would later become the fifth U.S. president) were wounded in leading the capture of the cannon in King Street. Gen. Sullivan's troops, meanwhile, had penetrated the south end of the village, where they met the Knyphausen Regiment and drove it back. Several hundred men of this regiment escaped south across Assunpink Creek, where Gen. Ewing’s force was to have been positioned to block them.

The weather had rendered many of the American muskets useless, making it "mostly and affair of artillery, bayonet, sword and spontoon: (a form pike carried by foot soldiers), acording to Christopher Ward's The War of the Revolution. Superior in numbers, American artillery overpowered the Hessian guns and laid down barrage after barrage on Hessian forces, particularly their guns, causing Hessian gunners to abandon their guns and flee. The remnants of the Rall and Lossberg regiments retreated into an open field east of Trenton. When ordered to counterattack, only the Lossbergs moved forward, but they were stopped before they could get within bayonet range. Retreat to the south was now blocked by Sullivan's troops at the bridge over Assunpink Creek, so Rall ordered a withdrawal to the orchard at the southeast corner of the town. Seconds later Rall toppled from his horse, mortally wounded.

Rall's men next moved north only to find themselves confronted by more artillery and muskets and began striking their colors. At the same time, Sullivan's men captured the remnants of the Knyphausen Regiment and von Dechow's battalion of the Lossbergs, including the mortally wounding von Dechow. Some Germans tried to get across the Assunpink, only to find the bridge blocked and Gen. St. Clair's men covering the fords upstream. That route had been used earlier for the escape of the 50 jaegers who had manned an outpost on the river road, plus the 20 dragoons attached to Rall's command from the 16th Light Dragoons, the only British unit in Trenton, and others. Fifty infantrymen of the Knyphausen regiment escaped by swimming across Assunpink Creek, nearly drowning in the swift, icy waters of the stream. They reached the safety of Princeton ten hours later.

The Germans surrendered at 9:30 a.m., "only about one hour and three-quarters since the first shots had been fired," according to one writer. Other writers maintain that the battle lasted not more than 35 or 40 minutes.

Numbers and Losses
The Americans had won a decisive victory. About 2,400 American troops and 18 guns had crossed the Delaware. Losses were remarkably low. In addition to the previously mentioned William Washington and James Monroe, one or two privates were wounded in the action. Although some authorities say four Americans were killed, two from freezing (probably during the withdrawal), despite the ferocity of he battle, Douglas Southall Freeman, in his seven-volume biography of George Washington, says, "No American was killed in the skirmish at Trenton."

Of the 1,200 Hessians, 105 were killed or wounded (4 officers, 17 men killed; 6 officers, 78 men wounded). There were 896 prisoners, including the wounded (32 officers, 92 NCOs, and 29 men in such categories as musician and surgeon's mate, 25 servants, and 740 rank and file). As for those who escaped, sources put the number variously at between 400 and 500.

The Americans Withdraw
The failure of Ewing and Cadwalader to accomplish their missions made it impossible for Washington to continue his original plan of attacking Princeton and Brunswick. With a large body of prisoners to evacuate, and with enemy reinforcements nearby, his own troops exhausted, and with no prospect of adequate resupply from south of the Delaware, Washington had no choice but to withdraw to their camps in Pennsylvania. The return proved even more difficult than the advance. Leaving Trenton at noon, some of his men were not back in their bivouacs until noon of the 27th. Three men are said to have frozen to death in the boats. Some of the troops had been engaged for as long as 50 hours, some of them covering more than 40 miles, and in the worst of weather. British historian George Trevelyan wrote in his monumental six-volume The American Revolution, "It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater or more lasting results upon the history of the world."

Order of Battle in the Raid on Trenton

Washington's Staff
First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry
Commander in Chief's Guard (Washington's Lifeguard)

Bridgehead and Advance Guard

Brig. Gen. Adam Stephen's Brigade
Elliot's 4th Va. Regiment
Scott's 5th Va. Regiment
Buckner's 6th Va. Regiment

Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene's Division

Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer's Brigade
20th Continental Regiment (Durkee's Conn.)
27th Continental Regiment (Hutchinson's Mass.)
Smallwood's 1st Maryland Regiment

Brig. Gen. Lord Stirling's Brigade
Weedon's 3rd Va. Regiment
Haslet's Delaware Regiment
Read's 1st Va. Regiment
Miles' Pa. State Rifle Regiment

Brig. Gen. Roche de Fermoy's Brigade
Hausseger's Pa.-Md. Rifle Battalion
1st Continental Regiment (Hand's Rifle Rgt.)

Maj. Gen. John Sullivan's Division

Col. Paul D. Sargent's Brigade
16th Continental Regiment (Sargent's Mass.)
Ward's Conn. Regiment
13th Continental Regiment (Reed's Mass.)
Gransevoort 3rd New York Regiment

Col. John Glover's Brigade
3rd Continental Regiment (Learned's Mass.)
19th Continental Regiment (Webb's Regt.)
14th Continental Regiment (Glover's Marblehead, Mass.)
23rd Continental Regiment (Bailey's Mass.)
26th Continental Regiment (Baldwin's Mass.)

Brig. Gen. Arthur St. Clair's Brigade
5th Continental Regiment (Stark's N.H.)
2nd Continental Regiment (Reed's N.H.)
8th Continental Regiment (Poor's N.H.)
15th Continental Regiment (Patterson's Mass.)

Artillery (in support of several brigades, Col. Henry Knox in command)
Companies of Knox's Continental Artillery
New York State Company of Artillery
Eastern Company New York State Artillery
Western Company New York State Artillery
Mass. Company Continental Artillery
New York Company Continental Artillery
2nd Company Penna. State Artillery
The Pennsylvania State Navy reinforced the gun crews of the above artillery units

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Exploring the Origins of the Holiday


Christmas is almost upon us and with it the traditional complaints by editorialists bemoaning the commercialization of the Christmas season. Unhappiness with the way the holiday is observed is nothing new. In 1621, a year after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Governor William Bradford found some male members of the colony taking the day off from work and playing games in the street. He promptly ended such foolishness. Their more numerous and historically more significant Puritan neighbors in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were even stricter. In 1659, the Massachusetts General Court declared that anyone celebrating Christmas committed a criminal offense and would be fined five shillings. This law remained on the books until 1681, but the sentiment lingered for years after. The Puritans saw Christmas as nothing more than a pagan festival adapted to Christian purposes and would have none of it.

In America today, the Christmas season begins commercially on the day after Thanksgiving and continues well past New Year's Day. In England, the season can begin in mid-December and continues until the first Monday after January 1 (called "Plow Monday," which marks the return to the routines of farm work).

Fixing the Date
According to religious scholars, there is no biblical or historical basis for placing the birth of Jesus on December 25. Although the Gospel according to St. Luke describes how shepherds were living with their flocks, the cold weather in Judea in late December was hardly conducive to outdoor living. Not until the fourth century did the Church officially decree that Christmas should be observed on December 25. The date was not chosen for religious reasons, but because it was close to the winter solstice--an event celebrated in many cultures outside the tropics long before the coming of Christianity. When the Church set the date of Christmas Day, it took a calculated gamble, knowing that boisterous pagan holdover festivities in that time period were rooted in popular culture.

Many different cultures marked the period when daylight becomes the shortest with ceremonies involving light and greenery. An example is Chanukah, "the feast of lights." Other examples are the Yule log, candles, holly, mistletoe--even the Christmas tree. All have their roots in pagan traditions that have no connection to the birth of Jesus. In Europe during the three centuries between 1500 and 1800, Christmas was a time to let off steam and gorge oneself. In northern agricultural societies, December marked a critical point in the yearly cycle of farm work. The tasks of gathering in the harvest and preparing for the bitter cold of winter were over. Plenty of newly made beer and wine was available, with abundant supplies meat from freshly slaughtered animals that had to be eaten or be salted and preserved.

In ancient Rome, celebrations of the winter solstice became riotous festivals of gambling, the exchange of gifts, feasting and drinking. Called Saturnalia, these pagan solar and agricultural observances honored the planet Saturn. Social roles were reversed, and masters served slaves. The words Christes maesse, or "festival of Christ," entered the English language about A.D. 1050. Nevertheless, the celebrations retained the air of carnival. Churchgoers attended in masks and sang bawdy songs, even rolling dice at the altar. A "Lord of Misrule" was selected and authority was mocked in such "dangerous practices" as mumming and caroling. Mumming usually involved cross-dressing. Caroling was a "disgrace" because it as "generally done in the midst of Rioting, Chambering and Wantonness." It is interesting to note that the concept survives in Philadelphia, where participants in the annual mummer's parade select a Lord of Misrule.

According to Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, 16th-century bishop Hugh Latimer summarized the season, saying: "Men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the twelve months besides." Nineteenth-century British historian John Ashton reported an episode in 1637 in which the man selected by the revelers as the "Lord of Misrule" was publicly given a "wife" in a ceremony led by a man dressed as a cleric. After the ceremony, Ashton noted in circumspect Victorian language, "the affair was carried to its utmost extent." During the Christmas season, the social hierarchy was turned upside down. The young would imitate and mock their elders--a boy might be designated a "bishop" and briefly take on the authority of a genuine bishop. Men could dress like women and women like men.

At Christmastime, the rich were expected to offer charity to their poorer neighbors. For most of the year, the poor owed money, goods or labor, not to mention deference, to the rich. But when the tables were turned at Christmastime, the poor--mostly gangs of young men and boys--claimed the right to enter the houses of the well-to-do and receive gifts of food, drink and money. In Britain in a custom called "wassailing," roving bands of young men circulated through neighborhoods performing songs in exchange for gifts. In America, a nation of immigrants largely from the British Isles, these practices continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, causing much unhappiness among the middle and upper classes. What they desperately hoped for was a change in the celebration of Christmas to a home-centered holiday.

The Christmas Tree
Nineteenth-century America and Britain finally adopted new ways of celebrating Christmas from other traditions to create the modern domestically centered holiday. The tree that graces American homes today has a long history. At the Kalends of January, Romans trimmed their houses with evergreens to symbolize fertility and regeneration. Eventually, Christians appropriated evergreens for their Christmas celebrations, inventing stories explaining the origins of the custom and removing any taint of paganism.

By the first decade of the 19th century, German Protestants took the tree as an emblem of their faith, and the practice spread throughout Europe. It reached Denmark and Norway by 1830; by 1840, France. Swedes added trimmed evergreens to their Christmas celebration is the 1860s. It was German immigrants who brought the custom of Christmas trees to the United States early in the 19th century, according to Penne Restad, a historian of Christmas at the University of Texas. The trees quickly became objects of fascination for Americans. During the 1830s, evergreens began to appear in homes. Christmas trees next appeared in churches and the marketplace. To women fell the task of transforming this ancient pagan fertility symbol into an icon of domesticity. In the home, a place was found for it, usually in the front parlor. The first home Christmas trees had been squat evergreens, no more than two or three feet tall, set on a table top. Inevitably, the use of taller trees invited more ambitious trimming with strings of beads, gilt paper stars or shields and lace bags of candies.

Early Christians had shunned candles because of their use in pagan ceremonies, but by the mid-19th century, concerns about paganism and the ever-present danger of fire did not prevent Americans from dressing their Christmas trees with candles. In 1880, F.W. Woolworth bought from a Philadelphia importer his entire stock of German Christmas tree ornaments made of colored glass. Placed on a counter in his store in Lancaster, Pa., an area with a large Germanic population, in two days they were gone. "I woke up," he said later about his discovery of their sales potential.

Woolworth began making trips to Germany to buy directly from the ornament makers. In the small Thuringian town of Lauscha, the manufacture of Christmas tree ornaments was a genuine cottage industry. Woolworth initially placed an order for more than 200,000 ornaments. The craze for fragile glass ornaments had begun, and Woolworth was on his way to making his fortune. But the introduction of the Christmas tree into the holiday was only one aspect of the conversion of Christmas into a home festival.

Much of the charm of the Christmas tree was to be found in the small gifts that could be tied to its branches with colored string or spread beneath it. Early Christians refrained from gift-giving because the practice was associated with the Roman Saturnalia, which began in December 17. During the 16th century the English revived the custom. Women often received expensive pins or gloves--sometimes accompanied by gifts of money. This custom gave rise to the terms "pin money" and "glove money." By the middle of the 17th century, even members of the clergy were accepting gifts at New Year's. Unsurprisingly, Puritans strongly opposed such gift-giving, seeing the custom as another pagan rite.

By the 19th century, gift-giving in America had become prevalent. Workers began to remind employers or patrons that some token was expected. For example, newspaper carriers presented subscribers with a short poem (these were called "carriers' addresses") to signal that they expected a gift.

Gift Books
Books are among the earliest items given as gifts at Christmastime. Evidences of the practice abound in newspaper advertisements. In 1810, prolific author and bookseller Mason Locke ("Parson") Weems distributed his own books as Christmas gifts. Weems is best remembered as the inventor of the improbable legend about George Washington and the cherry tree. In that year, he advertised a discount to buyers of copies of his biography of George Washington and a companion work on Francis Marion, "the Swamp Fox" of the Revolution.

A new literary genre soon made its appearance, the gift book. Such books wee invariably published toward the end of each year specifically for use as Christmas presents. Gift books soon proliferated widely. There were gift books for boys, girls, young men, mothers, temperance advocates, abolitionists, and even for members of men's organizations, such as the Masonic order and the Odd Fellows. Although ordinary book publishing was carried on everywhere, including the smallest and most unlikely hamlets, three cities were centers of gift book publishing: Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Many gift books were lavish, with gilt page edges, ornate and embossed bindings, expensive engravings and colored presentation plates bound in. They were bought solely to be given to another. As such they were the first products manufactured exclusively to be given to another person at the Christmas season.

In 1840, when the nation had not yet recovered from the financial panic of 1837, gift books were offered at prices raging from three dollars to fifteen dollars--"within the range of most persons," noted The New York Herald, which added, "There are few that would wish to give a lady a present of less value than $3.00." Gift books were aggressively promoted using techniques new to the world of traditional book publishing. Often they contained advertisements for themselves in the text itself, especially in gift books intended for children. Some publishers were not above including blatant advertising for others of their books in the current lists.

Despite their opulent appearance, gift books were not bought and presented to others as a display of conspicuous consumption. Nevertheless, the prices of such books were so widely advertised that it would be unfair to conclude that recipients were not aware of the pecuniary value of the gift. These were luxury items, but one of their chief uses was as part of the courtship process,

Ironically, although intended to be seen as personalized gifts, gift books usually included a mass-produced formalized page (called a "presentation plate") designed to be filled in by the giver. One such presentation plate not only included places for the purchaser to enter his name, the name of the recipient and a line on which to show the sentiment the gift book was meant to convey. Gift books proliferated between 1825 and 1860, when the fad died out. One book that continued to sell steadily was the Bible. If they owned no other book, most American families owned a family Bible. These were large and sturdy volumes, meant to be passed down from one generation to the next.

Early in the 19th century Bibles evolved in more convenient formats, personal books that could be carried to church services, as well as hymn books, prayer books, and editions of the New Testament. Rivaling the finest gift book, was the Illuminated Bible, published by Harper and Brothers in 1846 with an elaborate presentation plate. So successful was the Illuminated Bible that it earned the publisher a half million dollars in a dozen years.

Greeting Cards
It had long been a custom in England for neighbors to send greetings to one another as the old year ended and a new year began. Engraved or lithographed notepaper specifically for this purpose appeared at the end of the 1600s. The earliest use of the phrase "Merry Christmas and happy New Year" was employed in a 1699 holiday letter.

The first true commercial Christmas card did not make its appearance until 1843. Designed by John Calcott Horsley for Henry Cole, it was printed in London and hand colored by an artist named Mason. The Horsley-Cole card was a postcard-sized piece of cardboard with a central panel depicting a happy family gathered around a large plum pudding. This panel also greets the recipient with the sentiment, "A merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you." In the left-hand panel, a man offers food to the hungry; in the right-hand panel a woman clothes a ragged child. Unlike earlier Christmas letters, there is no room for a personal greeting on this card. At the top a dotted line following the word "To" provides space for the recipient's name to be written, and at the bottom a shorter dotted line following the word "From" allows limited space for the sender's name.

The Horsley-Cole card may be considered a forerunner of modern Christmas cards in that it leaves little room for personalization by the sender. It presages a new commercial awareness of the commercialization of Christmas and the need to recognize a wider circle of friends and family members. According to Karal Ann Marling, a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, R.H. Pease, engraver, lithographer and variety store proprietor in Albany, N.Y., distributed the first American-made Christmas card in the early 1850s, but the practice of exchanging cards did not immediately catch on in the United States. What cards were sent were usually imported from England, manufactured by firms like Marcus Ward and Raphael Tuck.

American indifference to cards was eventually overcome by Louis Prang, a German immigrant. Born in Breslau in 1824, Prang left Germany after the 1848 revolution and established himself in Boston, setting up a lithographic business with Julius Mayer in 1856. By 1868, Prang owned perhaps half of the steam presses in America and two-thirds of the total by 1870). By then, he had significantly improved the quality of his prints by using a multicolor process he had invented, eventually switching from stone to zinc plates. Prang seldom use fewer than eight colors and often as many as twenty to produce his "chromos." These colorful but inexpensive prints soon decorated the parlor walls of most of the homes in America.

An exhibition of Prang's prints at the Vienna International Exhibition caused a sensation in 1873. The following year he added a Christmas greeting to his cards. Introducing these to the United States in 1875, Prang cards were such a hit he could not keep up with the demand. He increased his work force to 300 and was soon selling more than five million cards annually. Prang commissioned well-know American painters and illustrators to produce original works of art for his cards. Women, whose role in the fine arts had been limited, were represented in Prang prints.
Prang's cards soon sparked intense competition from British and German manufacturers. By the 1890s, German greeting cards dominated the trade. "Lower wages and cheaper materials," Prang admitted, "made it impossible to battle successfully against foreign competition." In 1890, Louis Prang withdrew from the greeting card business and turned his attention to art education and the manufacture of artists' supplies. Between 1900 and 1910, most of the major American greeting card companies were established. From the studios of Rust Craft, Hallmark, Gibson and Norcross the modern American greeting card was born. Designed as a simple folder, the card now had an illustration and short text on the front and a longer verse or message inside.

Advances in technology may be responsible for changes in holiday card usage in recent years. The estimated number of cards received by American households dropped from 29 in 1987 to 20 in 2004. Despite the increased use of e-mail, fax and telephone for communication, a staggering 1.9 billion cards were still exchanged by mail in the U.S. in 2005, according to Hallmark research.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 12, 2006.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Will 2012 Be "the Elephants' Graveyard" of American Politics?


In the recent presidential contest this nation experienced one of the most cynical and reckless political misadventures on record. We refer to the erratic, ill-conceived Republican campaign that from Day One was doomed to a failure of monumental proportions. Because an indecisive John McCain lacked a coordinated long-range strategy, his team of handlers and speechwriters scripted each day’s activity in impromptu fashion.

The publicly mild-mannered Mr. McCain, who initially promised to conduct an ethical and high-minded contest, turned out to be ill suited to the role of snarling attack dog. Determined to win at all costs, his unfocused campaign became so mired in pathetic personal attacks on his opponent that the prime issues on the minds of the electorate were ignored and excluded. The irony is that the McCain campaign embraced the very same shameful tactics used by George W. Bush that torpedoed an earlier McCain bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. Given that his dithering effort faced a superbly organized opposing team in the tightly controlled Obama organization, defeat was almost inevitable.

An Irresponsible Selection
Even more rash was Mr. McCain’s irresponsible selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate--a person he had met briefly only once and who was subjected to the most cursory vetting procedure ever accorded any candidate for high office. By doing so, he revealed himself to be capable of the most blatant political gamesmanship at the expense of the interests of both his party and this nation. His subsequent frantic latching onto another unvetted nonentity he dubbed "Joe the Plumber," making him the linchpin of his fast-fading campaign, was an exquisite example of both his desperation and his impetuosity.

In spite of having a remarkably thin resume, Sarah Palin, the surprising McCain vice-presidential choice, was a long shot plucked out of political obscurity. A former beauty queen and later mayor of a tiny and insignificant suburb of Anchorage, Alaska, when tapped by McCain operatives, she had been governor of that state for less than two years. In initial TV interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, Governor Palin became a master at evading answering a question by responding to a question that had not been asked. She exhibited such massive ignorance and lack of knowledge of or interest in the world outside Alaska that her handlers abruptly cut off future planned press conferences with the media.

Don't take our word for her abysmal ignorance. Here's the CBS Evening News account of the first of the Republican vice presidential candidate's interviews with anchor Katie Couric. Several times Couric asked Palin whether or not she was aware that the interviews were being taped, and that "other people would see them." Palin reportedly told Couric that she was indeed aware, but then asked Couric what she meant by "broadcast."

"I was concerned, after one of the times where she seemed to be answering a question I hadn’t asked," Couric said. "It didn’t seem possible that she would intentionally answer the question that way, knowing people would see it. So I stopped the interview, and I said, ‘Governor, are you aware that this is the actual interview? What we’re doing right now? That this isn’t a rehearsal?’ She said she was aware. I said, ‘Okay. Just so you know it’s being recorded and parts of it will be broadcast.’ And then she said, ‘You can’t blink, Katie, because we share a narrow maritime border with Russia and it has to be all about job creation.’ I didn’t understand it, but we just went on with the interview. I was pressed for time."

Ms. Couric said she became equally concerned during a session following a speech Governor Palin made, which preceded the second phase of the interview. "In one part of the interview, I asked her what newspapers and magazines she read before being asked to be John McCain’s running mate," Couric said. "And she couldn’t name any. So again, I turned to the crew and I said, ‘Hold it, guys.’

"I went to the Governor privately and said, ‘Governor Palin, did you not understand the question? I’m asking you to name some newspapers or magazines you read. You can’t come up with any? I’m just trying to make sure you’re clear and to give you a fair shake here.’ And she said, ‘Okay. Nightline? Is that a magazine?’ I said, ‘No, that’s a television show.’ She said, ‘What about Lou Dobbs? Isn’t that a newspaper?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s a man. Lou Dobbs is a man.’ And there wasn’t much more I could do. I’m not a miracle worker."

McCain's Monumental Task
Sarah Palin quickly demonstrated by her mangling of the Engish language and rules of grammar that she was little more than an unfunny version of comedian Professor Irwin Corey, "the world's gratest authoruty." Presidential candidate McCain’s monumental task was to attempt to convince voters that, should the ticket be elected, a nonentity ignorant of even the most rudimentary facts of civics or government was the best Republican candidate to stand ready to assume the presidency in an emergency. His casual selection of an inexperienced poser with a self-deluding personality that almost borders on compulsive lying is inexplicable. That his virtually unknown running mate might become president by an act of fate is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this whole shabby affair.

Nevertheless, Sarah Palin became an instant favorite of the fundamentalist religious right, while the usually aggressive mainstream media cut her an enormous amount of slack. Their acceptance of this totally unknown and unknowing woman as a serious competitor is an indication of the depths to which subservient press and TV reportage has descended in these United States. That Sarah Plain’s name should have been placed on a presidential ticket in a nation whose president is the leader of the free world was the height of irresponsibility and an insult to the intelligence of every voter.

The realization that a befuddled Senator McCain and his unqualified and virtually unknown choice would extend and perpetuate the catastrophic eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, another incompetent, uncurious and hopelessly uninformed individual utterly out of his depth in foreign policy or national affairs, was especially troubling. The prospect was awful enough to send a collective shiver down the spines of a majority of voters.

A Frightening Statistic
The very fact that Sarah Palin and her witting sponsor garnered 46 percent of the vote is by far the most frightening aspect of the whole charade masquerading as the Republican presidential campaign. It is scary to think that such a large percentage of voters in these United States in A.D. 2008 was willing to risk the possibility of an unqualified ignoramus becoming president simply because she embodied their own narrow ideology.
One has to wonder how many of those voters were aware of her anti-science attitudes and her belief that Alaska is one of the refuge states for the "End of Days" or that God intervenes in the selection of candidates for election.

Not only were we treated during the campaign to the spectacle of Sarah Palin, a glib mannequin spiffed up with a $180,000-plus wardrobe furnished by the Republican National Committee, but her every public appearance became a three-ring circus with her entire family on stage handing around her blanket-wrapped Down syndrome baby from family member to family member like some sort of a rented theatrical prop.

John McCain’s impulsive selection of a dressmaker’s dummy as his running mate and his attempt to fob her off as a serious candidate remain the most disquieting events in recent political history. In retrospect, her candidacy was an absolute farce. It still remains an unbelievable travesty, a nightmare from which this country thankfully is only now beginning to awaken.

What Next?
Despite all that has happened to her and the clear message from the electorate, Sarah Palin doesn’t get it. Refusing to accept that she was roundly rejected by a comfortable majority of voters, she is still basking in media attention. She pops up on cable shows as frequently as the ubiquitous Donald Trump. She was the featured speaker at the National Governors Association Conference in Florida. There is talk of a book deal for what will surely have to be the work of a ghostwriter--just like all her speeches.

Unbelievably, Sarah Palin is being touted by Republicans as a future leader of the GOP and a presidential candidate four years from now, when she will again be trotted out because she is naïve and malleable, a blank slate that can easily be manipulated. Dutifully, she will go anywhere and utter any words written for her. She has a strange appeal for the dying breed of Republican undiscouraged by the succession of gross failures during the two dismal terms of the Bush administration and his legacy of what will now have to be called "the Bush recession."

The elephant has been the longtime symbol of the Republican Party. Conventional wisdom holds that when elephants feel they are about to die, they head for a remote area known only to elephants. If Sarah Palin should become the standard bearer around whom the GOP builds its next national presidential campaign, then 2012 may indeed be "the elephants’ graveyard" of American politics.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Pleasure of Walking


by Oliver Wendell Holmes

You think you know all about walking, don't you, now? Well, how do you suppose your lower limbs are held to your body? They are sucked up by two cupping vessels ("catyloid"—cup-like—cavities) and held here as long as you live, and longer. At any rate, you think you move them backward and forward at such a rate as your will determines, don't you? On the contrary, they swing just as any other pendulums swing, at a fixed rate, determined by their length. You can alter this by muscular power, as you can take hold of the pendulum of a clock and make it move faster or slower; but your ordinary gait is timed by the same mechanism as the movements of the solar system.

I do not deny the attraction of walking. I have bored this ancient city through and through in my daily travels, until I know it as an old inhabitant of a Cheshire knows his cheese. Why, it was I who, in the course of these rambles, discovered that remarkable avenue called Myrtle Street, stretching in one long line from east of the Reservoir to a precipitous and rudely paved cliff which looks down on the grim abode of Science, and beyond it to the far hills; a promenade so delicious in its repose, so cheerfully varied with glimpses down the northern slope into busy Cambridge Street, with its iron river of the horse-railroad, and wheeled barges gliding backward and forward over it—so delightfully closing at its western extremity in sunny courts and passages where I know peace, and beauty, and virtue, and serene old age must be perpetual tenants—so alluring to all who desire to take their daily stroll, in the words of Dr. Watts—
"Alike unknowing and unknown"—that nothing but a sense of duty would have prompted me to reveal the secret of its existence. I concede, therefore, that walking is an immeasurably fine invention, of which old age ought constantly to avail itself. . .

The pleasure of exercise is due first to a purely physical impression, and secondly to a sense of power in action. The first source of pleasure varies of course with our condition and the state of the surrounding circumstances; the second with the amount and kind of power, and the extent and kind of action. In all forms of active exercise there are three powers simultaneously in action,—the will, the muscles, and the intellect. Each of these predominates in different kinds of exercise. In walking, the will and muscles are so accustomed to work together and perform their task with so little expenditure of force, that the intellect is left comparatively free. The mental pleasure in walking, as such, is in the sense of power over all our moving machinery.

from The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1887)


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