Friday 29 November 2019

The Origin of the Christmas Tree

Image result for victoria albert christmas tree 1848You are probably about to buy a dead tree and put it up in your living room. This is, if you ponder it, odd behaviour on your part. What's odder is that the tree you're buying is the Tree of Knowledge that was planted in the Garden of Eden and brought sin into the world, and the baubles you'll hang on it are the forbidden fruit. But the explanation is pretty simple.

Adam and Eve were a lot more popular in Medieval Christianity than they are today. There were even quite a lot of continuation stories - The Further Adventures of Adam and Eve, as it were - which was pretty common practice before the Reformation. The First Couple were even treated as semi-saints. They had a name-day like proper saints do, and that name day was December 24th.

This made a lot of sense theologically. Adam (via Eve) brought sin into the world, and Jesus (via Mary) brought salvation from sin. So the fall of man and the birth of Christ were a natural pairing, like blue cheese and sherry.

What Medieval people liked to do to celebrate religious events was to put on plays. Am-dram is fun, and it was a good way to tell a Bible story to a population that mostly couldn't read. Bible plays got so popular that in 1210 the Pope had to actually issue and edict banning priests from acting on stage as it was starting to look undignified.

Adam and Eve were a popular subject, so popular that "Paradise Plays" about the Garden of Eden was a whole sub-genre of the religious theatre. And very often they would be acted on Adam and Eve's name day: December 24th.

The set would be pretty minimalist, but if you're going to put on a play about people picking an apple from a tree and eating it, you do absolutely need to have a tree.

And they did. There's even a description of one in the script of a paradise play called Le Jeu d'Adam performed in Arras in Northern France (this is very lucky for historians as usually medieval play-scripts don't have stage directions).

Then shall a serpent, cunningly contrived, climb up the trunk of the forbidden tree; Eve shall put her ear up to it as if listening to its advice. Then Eve shall take the apple and offer it to Adam.

But, of course, trees are hard to come by in late December, and fruit trees are all leafless and bare. So the only solution was to cut down an evergreen, bring it indoors on Christmas Eve and hang it with fake fruit. This may sound familiar. That's what you're about to do. That's what your Christmas tree is: it's the Tree of Knowledge hung with the forbidden fruit.

There are records of paradise plays still being performed on Christmas Eve right into the 19th century, though they were very rare. There are even some parts of Germany where the Christmas tree is still called the paradeisbaum, though tannenbaum is now much more common.

All that remained was for Prince Albert and the royal family to make the Tree of Knowledge popular in Britain, which they did via a famous illustration in the Illustrated London News in 1848.

But this leaves two questions:

1) Who played the snake? It seems that somebody must have stood behind the tree with a long sock of something over their arm, tempting dear old Eve. It must have looked a little like the muppets.

2) At the beginning of the play, were Adam and Eve naked? And how can we obtain tickets? The disappointing answer is No. That same play, the Jeu d'Adam, has also has this stage direction:

Adam shall wear a red tunic, but Eve a woman's garment in white with a white silk scarf.

Thus making the plays utterly historically inaccurate.

All of the above (with some extra facts) and many many more explanations of Christmas traditions can be found in my book A Christmas Cornucopia: the hidden stories behind our Yuletide traditions, published by Penguin. It's filled with stories that allow you to be insufferably know-it-all about everything from now until the end of December.

It can be bought in all good bookshops or from Amazon here.

Also, Raymond Briggs said it was "Blooming brilliant!", which made me very proud.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Fatal Nostalgia

Image result for basel old printNostalgia was once a very serious disease. It could be fatal, especially to the Swiss.

Nostalgia is a Greek term and literally translates as home-sickness: nostos + algia. Indeed, the two terms are first recorded in English in the same sentence written in 1756. Before that it was unknown in Britain.

At least it is thus Scheuchzer endeavours to vindicate the nostalgia, pathopatridalgia, or the heimweh, i.e. home-sickness, with which those of Bern are especially afflicted.

Heimweh is German for the same thing and pathoptridalgia is, so far as I can tell, just disease-homeland-disease. The term had been around before, you see, but only in German, because only Swiss people ever suffered from homesickness. The rest of the world was fine and dandy, but the Swiss yearned for watches and fondue, fell ill and died.

It was a serious problem, first identified by a Swiss scholar at the University of Basel in 1688. And importantly it was considered not a light and fluffy emotion, but a real and serious disease; albeit one that only Swiss people could catch.

But then it spread beyond those neutral borders. People started to suffer from it in Britain, where, again, it was treated as a serious medical condition. The great botanist Joseph Banks whilst sailing around the South Seas in 1770 noted that the ship's crew had a case of "the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia."

It crossed the Atlantic to America, where it took an active and serious role in the Civil War. An official report by the US Sanitary Commission recorded that:

In the first two years of the war, there were reported 2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause. These numbers scarcely express the real extent to which nostalgia influenced the sickness and mortality of the army. To the depressing influence of home-sickness must be attributed the fatal result in many cases which might otherwise have terminated favorably.

And that was just on the Union side.

It could get even worse, though. The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine (1835) has an entry for Nostomania "the same morbid desire aggravated to madness", and hence, of course, there were nostomaniacs.

And then as strangely as it had arisen, it petered out. As with so many once-serious psychological terms - neurosis, narcissism, hysteria - it became just a feeling, a vague longing for what has gone before, a sentiment, a whimsy; felt for a moment and then blown away by a pufflet of wind.

Perhaps, we decided that home simply wasn't as we remembered it. The other English term that comes from nostos is nostos. It's a usually literary term to describe a homecoming scene. Usually it's Odysseus' return home to Ithaca, where he finds all the suitors drinking his wine and wooing his wife. But it can also apply to other homecomings, other nostoi, usually miserable, like Agamemnon and Bilbo Baggins.

And nobody dies of it any more, not even the Swiss.

Image result for fondue
O true apothecary, thy drugs are quick.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Unimportant Huckleberries

Image result for huckleberry finnI was listening to Moon River and noticed the lines:

Waiting round the bend
My huckleberry friend

And it occurred to me that I didn't know what a huckleberry was. The word, it turns out, has several meanings, one of which, astonishingly, is a kind of berry. But it also means, and has meant since 1835, a person of little consequence. Somebody unimportant.

This seems rather important to the naming of Mark Twain's character: Person of Little Consequence Finn, star of two books. Nobody seems to mention it.

Even the one essay on how Twain named the character - Huckleberries and Humans: On the naming of Huckleberry Finn - doesn't seem to mention it*. Instead, it suggests that the name comes from the fact that huckleberries, that's to say plants of the species Gaylussacia, can't be domesticated.

It also occurs to me that Huckleberry Finn obeys my rule that characters names should be half very boring and half very interesting: Huckleberry Finn, Indiana Jones, David Copperfield, Luke Skywalker, which I wrote about in an old blog post here.

There is another meaning of Huckleberry, though. As of the 1930s, it could mean sweetheart. So, I would imagine that the huckleberry friend, is just that.

All of these meanings, of course, are rural and Southern, but that fits with the fact that Audrey Hepburn is meant to be a secret hick.

*Well, the abstract doesn't mention it at all. I'd walk over to the British Library and read the whole thing, but it's raining.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Of the Gibbon, the Jockey, and the Womble

Image result for gibbon old printThe post will be about rude words. Well, rude compound words to be precise, but they're still very rude. If you are an infant or heavily pregnant, or lightly pregnant, or if you are easily offended (as so many are in these offended times) you should stop reading now, leave the Internet, and go and sit beneath a sycamore tree and weep at what the world has come to. Otherwise, read on.

Still here?

I was once driving in Wiltshire, doing just a smidgen over the speed-limit (which was 50mph, as I recall) and being tailgated at a distance of, I would estimate, two or three inches. It was remarkably dangerous as I couldn't even have dabbed the brakes without causing an accident. One of the other chaps in the car referred to the driver behind us as a "fucking knob-jockey".

I like this term. It amused me. But I did not at the time think that much about its structure.

Sometime later, I came across the term "cock-womble", this also amused me, but I did not think that much about its structure.

Lately, clever people have started thinking about such phrases, and a new technical term has emerged, and I mean technical, it's the term that you use in academic papers and the like. The term is Shitgibbon. 

A shitgibbon is formed when you take a one-syllable rude word, be it shit, fuck, cock or whatever, and then add a non-offensive trochee. A trochee is a two-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable. The resulting compound - knob-jockey, cock-womble or etc - is a shitgibbon.

The shitgibbon is the subject of a recent paper entitled Vowel but not consonant identity and the very informal English lexicon, which was written by Anne-Michelle Tessier and Michael Becker of
Simon Fraser University and University of Michigan and Stony Brook University. And these two have thought a lot about the shitgibbon's structure.

You can read the whole thing here. But the big point that I had never noticed was that a shitgibbon works best when the vowel of the rude word is the same as the first vowel of the trochee.

Shit-gibbon has two short i's.

it ib

Shit-monkey doesn't, and doesn't sound nearly as good.

Knob-jockey has two O's

So does cock-womble.

Meanwhile, dick-womble, doesn't sound nearly as good.

The paper's authors did an awful lot of research, which you can read in the original paper. They did surveys asking people how funny and satisfying any particular shitgibbon was and the compared it to a null hypothesis etc etc etc etc.

What's weird is that alliteration had no effect. Only assonance makes a shitgibbon work.

So, if you want to make your own shitgibbon (I now feel like a degenerate Blue Peter presenter), just pick a rude word. Identify the vowel. Then pick a trochee that has that vowel in the first syllable. Et voila:


Image result for gibbon old print
I cannot quite tell what the gibbon on the right is holding, but I hope it's fruit.