Earnest Shackleton and the Nimrod Factor

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Sir Earnest Shackleton

By Ken Zurski

The Nimrod Expedition despite its name was not a mission for dummies. Led by British explorer and Antarctic specialist Earnest Shackleton , the mission set off in January of 1909 with the objective of becoming the first team to reach the South Pole. That didn’t happen, but they did get closer to the pole than anyone else, just under 100 miles.

Basically they were all “nimrods,” but not in the way you think.

At the time, the word “nimrod” represented something different than it does today. Strength and courage was its bent. A nimrod basically was held in high regard. The name demanded respect, not jeers.

The polar expedition itself is named for Shackleton’s hand picked ship, the Nimrod, a reference to Nimrod, the biblical figure and “mighty hunter before the Lord” from the Book of Genesis. Nimrod was an older boat and needed work, but Shackleton had little recourse with limited funds. He would eventually praise the small schooner as “sturdy” and “reliable.”

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Shacketon’s Nimrod

Nimrod was not an uncommon moniker. In the mid 19th century, financier Cornelius Vanderbilt named a steamboat Nimrod to compete with other commuter boats on New York’s Hudson River. It had to be built stronger and faster than others, Vanderbilt instructed. No doubt the naming of the ship reflected this too. And in 1899, composer Edward Elgar wrote a symphonic piece that had 14 variations each written for or about a personal acquaintance.  The ninth variation was titled Nimrod. “An amusing piece,” Elgar said referring to his friend and subject, August Johannes Jagear, a music publisher and accomplished violinist. Rather than a slight, however, Elgar’s piece was a compliment.  Jäger in German meant “hunter.”

What’s Up, Doc

In 1940, the cartoon character Bugs Bunny is credited with changing the meaning of the  word.  During a short titled “A Wild Hare,” Bugs called his nemesis Elmer Fudd a “poor little nimrod,” a sarcastic reference to Fudd’s lack of skills as a hunter. Bugs was the one being hunted. Most children didn’t get it and Nimrod became synonymous with a bumbling fool, like Fudd’s character.

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That may have been the implication, but certainly not the description, of Shackleton and his crew. But those who wished to board the Nimrod, some might say, were playing a fools game.

Shackleton didn’t hide the discomforts and dangers of the mission when he advertised for a team of men . “A hazardous journey,” he warned, with “low, wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. If they made it back, which was “doubtful,” Shackleton implied, “honor and recognition” would await them upon return.

Basically, only Nimrod-types need apply, he implored.

Good thing Bugs Bunny wasn’t around to dissuade them.

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When Christmas Interrupted the War

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At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, 1914, only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers.

“I think I have seen today one of the most extraordinary sights that anyone has ever seen,” British Captain A.D. Chater later wrote to his mother. “We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles, so one of our men went to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.”

The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and rations and sang carols and songs. “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours,” recalled another British soldier named Stephen Lovell. “When we started up “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is a most extraordinary thing — two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

Captain Chater quickly realized his adversaries held the same concerns and thoughts as he comrades. “From what I gathered most of them would be glad to get home again as we should,” he wrote. “We exchanged cigarettes and autographs, and some more people took photos.”

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On the German side, sentiments were similar. “What I had still believed to be madness several hours ago I could see now with my own eyes,” recounted German soldier Josef Wenzl. “One Englishman, who was joined soon by another, came towards us until he was more than halfway towards our trenches — by which point some of our people had already approached them. And so Bavarians and English, until then the greatest of enemies, shook hands, talked and exchanged items.”

Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines.

But the fighting would continue once the brief respite ended. Each man knew it. They faced a court martial or worse for defying orders.

“This extraordinary truce has been quite impromptu,” Chater’s letter continued. “There was no previous arrangement and of course it had been decided that there was not to be any cessation of hostilities.”

Chater jokingly suggested the goodwill may continue after a week. “We are, at any rate having another truce on New Year’s Day, as the Germans want to see how the photos come out!”

Even on that day of the “Christmas Truce” as it is now known, and before hostiles would get “dirtier” in the years to come, 149 British troops were reported killed by enemy fire.

On one battlefield  however, there was Christmas cheer and a friendly soccer match.

A single star stood still in the sky directly above,” Wenzl recalled about that day, “and was interpreted by many as a special sign.”

(Complied by Ken Zurski. Some text reprinted from History.com “Christmas Truce of 1914”)

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Two Minutes

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When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was produced for television in 1965, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz asked for  one thing in particular. That the special be about something. Namely, he insisted, it be about the true spirit of Christmas.

Otherwise, he said, “Why bother?

Of course, the spirit of the holiday is exactly what the special is about. Mostly lighthearted and inspirational, it’s highlighted by a moving scene in which the Linus character, blanket in hand, stands on a spotlighted stage and explains the true meaning of Christmas.  It includes a  biblical passage from the Book of Luke.

His words, like the special itself, has been charming audiences ever since.

4Charming, however, was not the word CBS executives used when they first viewed the completed special. They hated it -– or just didn’t get it.  The pacing was off, they thought, and the music was different, classical in parts, jazzy in others. “This is probably going to be the last [Peanuts special],” one executive chirped. “But we got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it.”

The producers were deflated. “We thought we’d ruined Charlie Brown,”one exclaimed.

Until then, the only controversy was whether or not to include the use of a biblical verse in an animated special.  Schulz again insisted. “If we don’t do it,” he said “who will.” Coca-Cola, the soft drink giant that sponsored the special,  gave their blessing.

Linus’s big scene has reached iconic status now, both in popular culture and religious circles.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord,” Linus recites.   “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace and goodwill towards men.

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Linus’s effective speech is also credited to the child actor who provided the voice. Before the special, Peanuts characters had only been heard in a Ford Commercial.  The producer’s wanted them all to be voiced by children.  Christopher Shea was only 8 years old at the time. He had the most innocent sounded voice and was tapped for the Linus character. His measured, straightforward reading is considered legendary. “It’s one of the most amazing moments ever in animation, “raved Peter Robbins, the original voice for Charlie Brown.  Robbin’s voice was picked for Charlie Brown because it sounded “blah.”

Even though CBS thought it would only run for a year and be forgotten, once it was in the public consciousness, attitudes changed. Instantly, people began talking about it. The next year, the special won a Peabody award and an Emmy for Outstanding Christmas Programming. A lasting tribute to Charles Schulz original vision that it be about something – something with a message.

One scene in particular is still considered, as a producer described it later, as “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation.”

 

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How A Steamboat Wreck Ties Into Christmas

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By Ken Zurski

On the evening of January 13, 1840, a paddlewheel steamship named the Lexington was halfway through its voyage along the Atlantic coast, a short commuter jaunt between New York City and Stonington, Connecticut,  when it caught fire and quickly burned. The fire started in the mast but spread to a large load of cotton bales, which caused a raging inferno that engulfed the entire ship. Many frightened passengers were forced to jump into the frigid water.

By the time a rescue ship, the sloop Merchant, arrived around noon the next day, only a handful of people were found clinging to floating bales or other debris. Nearly all of the 143 on board perished. Only four were found alive, among them three crew members including the ship’s pilot who told rescuers he huddled with others at the bow before it was overcome by fire. He found a bale and was able to sit out of the icy water until help arrived. Only one passenger survived.

The news was devastating to loved ones back in New York where most of the dead resided. The big city newspapers relayed the story in their usual graphic and expressive detail and imagination soared with the shocking details. At the time newspapers were just words on paper with no illustrations. Thanks to the Lexington disaster however that was about to change.

1aA man named Nathaniel Currier was making lithographs of mostly business products like architectural plans and music manuscripts. Lithography, a process of printing using limestone, grease and water was not new, it had been invented nearly 30 years before Currier, an accomplished lithographer, perfected the craft in Boston and opened a New York shop of his own. But small printing jobs were not profitable and Currier needed to branch out. So he did portrait prints and memorials of the dead and finally made some money. In 1835, he had another idea. He produced a print depicting a true-life disaster. The print needed no more explanation other than the long title that accompanied the scene: Ruins of the Planter’s Hotel, New Orleans, which fell at two O’clock on the Morning of the 15th of May 1835, burying 50 persons, 40 of whom Escaped with their Lives. A picture that showed the news of the day, and produced at a rapid speed too, was striking indeed. It was a huge seller.

In 1840, Currier made another disaster print. It too had a long and detailed title: Awful Configuration of the Steamboat Lexington in the Long Island Sound on Monday Evening, January 13. 1840, by which melancholy occurrence over One Hundred Persons Perished.  Based on an eyewitness description. the scene  was as just as detailed as the newspaper’s words. The wounded steamship is seen burning in the background while a smattering of passengers struggle to stay above the choppy water. Some are on floating debris, others not. One man in a top hat and tails is seen reaching out to save another woman. Tragically, both are doomed.

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Currier sold a bunch of the Lexington prints and was soon contacted by the editor of the New York Sun who wanted to put the depiction in the paper. An engraving of another steamboat wreck Home appeared in a competing a New York paper and the Sun was eager to do the same. Currier agreed and the Lexington print was boldly featured in a special edition.

But that’s not why Currier is remembered today.

1aExperiencing a windfall from the Lexington sales, in 1852, Currier hired James Merritt Ives to be his bookkeeper. Just looking at the two men, the pairing was a physical mismatch. Currier was tall and thin while Ives was short and stout. But the two gelled together. Ives was an artist and quickly streamlined the business with his own and others artistic abilities. In turn, he built up a sizable and profitable inventory.  Ives soon became a valuable and dependent part of the team and he and Currier bonded as co-workers and friends. Their eventual partnership In 1857, began the company we know today as Currier and Ives.

Through the years Currier and Ives issued and sold colored and uncolored prints of every variety, included portraits, city and rural landscapes, trains and ships of note, famous race horses, and historical pictorials like milestones of the Civil War.

Currier and Ives left behind a lifetime of memories and thanks to a a print of the Lexington wreck, forever changed an industry. But their most lasting prints are featured during the holiday season. The folksy scenes of  snow and sleigh rides evoke a spirit that is immortalized every year on Christmas cards.

The song Sleigh Ride compares the Currier and Ives prints to “a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy.”

It all started, however, by disaster.

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Why “Jingle Bells” Is Such An Odd Christmas Song

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By Ken Zurski

Besides the wintry scene, snow and sleigh, there isn’t much Christmas spirit in the song “Jingle Bells.” In fact the word Christmas, Santa or anything else holiday related  isn’t included in the song at all. It’s about sleigh riding, more or less. More specifically, it’s about sleigh racing. After all, “dashing through the snow” didn’t mean taking a leisurely  ride through the countryside. Oh and the bells, the “jingle bells,” they were there for a specific reason too.

Like many traditional Christmas songs, “Jingle Bells” has a strange and fascinating history. Even the first arrangement, which was less upbeat, is  different than the one we hear today. Still it has a somewhat festive tone. So much so that early on, it is said, “Jingle Bells” was a used as a party song, featured in drinking establishments, and sung by drunkards who would clink their glasses like bells when the word was mentioned.

AA.jpgThis is not too difficult to imagine, since the song was written in the 1850’s, presumably inside a tavern. James Lord Pierpoint, a New Englander is credited with authoring “Jingle Bells.” Some suggest he wrote it in honor of the Thanksgiving feast rather than Christmas, which is unlikely on both counts.   After all, how many carols were being written specifically about Thanksgiving?

Roger Lee Hall, a New England based music preservationist, does not refute or confirm the Thanksgiving theory only reiterates that Pierpoint may have written the song around or for Thanksgiving, but certainly not about it (although some may argue the song is about traveling). But like the lack of any Christmas themes, the song does not invoke the spirit of food or sharing – only a time and place. So at least the snow fits, especially in the upper east. In this case, Medford, Massachusetts.

It’s also been reported to have been written for the Sunday Choir since Pierpoint was the son of a minister. But as others point out, the song may have been too “racy” for a church, even though by today’s standards it hardly warrants such distinction.

Obviously we don’t hear the “racy” stuff in the modern version of “Jingle Bells,” since many of the original lyrics and several verses are eliminated completely. Only the first and familiar verse of the song is heard and usually repeated several times:

Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way

Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!

In one unfamiliar verse, the rider and his guest, a woman friend named “Fanny Bright,” get upended, or “up sot” (meaning capsized) by a skittish horse:

The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot.

In another verse, a similar mishap is ridiculed by a passerby:

A gent was riding by
In a one-horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie,
But quickly drove away.

The chorus is then sung similar to what we know it today:

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! what joy it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.

(The word Joy was eventually replaced by “fun” in later versions.)

The last verse references the races:

Just get a bobtailed bay
Two forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you’ll take the lead.

Jingle Bells was originally released as “One Horse Open Sleigh” and later changed to “Jingle Bells, or One Horse Open Sleigh.” It was copyrighted in 1859 and first recorded on an Edison Cylinder in 1898. Popular  orchestra leaders like  Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller did big band renditions of the song in the 1930’s and 40’s and crooner Bing Crosby would record it in 1943. Crosby’s bouncy version with the Andrew Sisters is still considered a traditional favorite.

Today, “Jingle Bells” evokes laughter and joy and is often associated with Santa’s reindeer, so the term has certainly transcended its original purpose. Sleighs made no sound as they glided over the snow and bells were used as a stern warning. Hear jingly bells coming? Get the heck out of the way.

Or else.

Oh, what fun!

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‘The Christmas Legend’ and the Introduction of Mrs. Claus

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By Ken Zurski

 

“The Christmas Legend” is a short story written in the mid-nineteenth century by a Philadelphia missionary named James Rees. It tells the tale of a destitute American family that receives an unexpected visit from a couple of strangers on Christmas Eve. The constructive narrative sets up a deep exploration of family, loss and forgiveness; a classic Christmas formula.  But the story itself is not widely known. In fact it would likely be completely forgotten had it not been for one word- “wife.” Today, it is cited as being the first time Santa Claus was associated with a spouse.  It literately introduced the character we know now as Mrs. Claus.

Published in 1849, “The Christmas Legend” was part of a collection of 29 short stories written by Rees and compiled under the title, “Mysteries of City Life, or Stray Leaves from the World’s Book.” Each story is cleverly presented to represent the dissimilarity of many leaf types. For example, the maple leaf, Rees writes, is “golden and rich” and presents a sunnier disposition, while another like the gum tree leaf has a “bloody hue” and “stands fit emblem of the tragic muse.” He likens authors after the “forest trees” which “send forth their leaves unto the world.”

“And by what emblem shall we appear amongst those clustering trees,” Rees explains. “Let us see – Ah! The Ash Tree leaves are like ours, humble and plain to see, but hiding the silver underneath.”

In “The Christmas Legend,” Rees uses the spirit of the holiday to emphasis this point.

Here is the abbreviated story…

A family of four, mother and father, daughter and son, are sitting near the fireplace on Christmas Eve. The two children, especially the daughter, wonders if she should hang the stockings for Kris Kringle to come. But her mother raises doubt. There are more important things in life than earthly possessions, she states. “Poverty keeps from the humble door all the bright things of the earth, except virtue, truth and religion, these are more of heaven and earth, and are the poor man’s friend in time of adversity.”

“I thought that Santa Claus or Kris Kringle loved all those who are good, and haven’t I been good?” the daughter asks confused.

The mother tells her to leave the stocking up. “Customs at least should be observed, and perhaps the young heart may not be disappointed.”

The father is more introspective. He anguishes over a lost family member, the eldest child, another daughter who apparently ran away with a “dissipated” man seven years before and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Then there is a knock on the door.

Two strangers appear out of the night, an elderly couple carrying a bundle with “all their worldly wealth,” Rees writes. They ask how far away they are from the city and the father tells them it is “two miles.”

“Two miles?” the stranger says sadly, “we will not be able to reach it tonight. My dear wife is nearly tired out. We have traveled far today.”

The father invites them in and offers his best bed for them to rest. The strangers inquire if this is their whole family. “No. No,” the father says, “we had one other – a daughter.”

“Dead; Alas we all must die,” the old woman responds.

“Dead to us, but not to the world,” the man answers. “But let us speak of her no more. Here is some bread and cheese, it is all poverty has to offer, and to it you are heartily welcome.”

There is a silent pause, then the sound of cheerful merriment, music and laughter, is heard through the open windows and door. It’s their rich landlord, the father explains, mocking the poor. The old man interjects. “Ah, sir, human nature is a mystery, this is one of the enigmas, and can only be explained when the secrets of the hearts be known.”

The next morning, Christmas Day, the family awakes to find their small room filled with presents: books and games and toys. “O Father, Kris Kringle has been here,” the little girl says excitedly. “I am so happy.”

Here Rees as the narrator sets up the last part or moral of the story. “There are moments when the doors of memory and the bright sunshine of hope make the future all clear,” he writes. “Sorrow is not eternal; it has its changes, its stops; its antidote; they came in the moment of trial and – Presto! The whole scene of life is venerated in the pleasing colors of fancy.”

And that’s when something totally unexpected occurs. The old couple reappears to the family not as as they came, but as a vibrant young couple. The children recoil from fright, but the parents are curious. “How is this?” the father asks. “Why these disguises?”

“Hush, sir,” the once old man says laughing. “This is Christmas morn and we now appear to you not as Santa Claus and his wife, but as we are, the mere actors of this pleasing farce.”

The couple recognizes the old woman’s new face. It’s their long lost daughter. The girl hugs her mother, but the father is more skeptical, angry and weary of atonement.  He lashes out at the girl as she approaches him. “Stand back!”, he shouts, then chastises the man who stands with her as a “paramour.” She begs him to reconsider. “No Father he is my kind and affectionate husband.”

“Ah, husband,” the father replies.  He reaches for his daughter. They embrace.

Rees goes on to explain the girl ran away because she was “young and foolish” but loved the man who was forbidden from her home. They left America for England where her new husband became heir to a large estate. She sent letters home, but they were never received. Now she had returned back to her family on Christmas Day. A gift of love and hope. “Can you forgive me?” she asks.

“Say no more, all is forgotten. All is forgiven,” the father tells her.

Even though it is thinly defined, the mention of Santa Claus’s wife in “The Christmas Legend” is widely considered the first ever to appear in print.  Two years later in 1851, the name Mrs. Santa Claus would be mentioned again in a story published in the Yale Literary Magazine. History tells the rest. 

Today Mrs. Claus is considered a kindly old woman who helps her husband tend to his colds, stitches his clothes, and feeds his “round belly.”

“There are many interesting facts both historic and fabulous connected with the ceremonies, customs and superstitions of this day [Christmas], which if collected together today would make a curious and interesting book.” Rees explains in the introduction to his tale.

Apparently, he added to that.

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Twiggy’s Christmas Turn

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By Ken Zurski

In September of 1977, British model and actress Twiggy appeared with Bing Crosby at the taping of the popular singer’s annual Christmas special. That year, the family holiday staple was being filmed overseas because the 74-year-old Crosby happened to be in Great Britain at the time for a concert tour. Crosby recruited several British entertainers as guests on the special titled “Christmas in England.” Twiggy was one.

Considered the “face of the 60’s” with a rail thin figure, short hair and strikingly large eyes, the teenage Twiggy was arguably the most recognized model in the world. Now a decade later, and in her 20’s, Twiggy was a multi-talented performer who picked up two Golden Globes for her work in The Boy Friend, a movie based on a musical set in the 1920’s about a theater group in England whose stage manager Polly (played by Twiggy) gets her big break when the leading lady literally “breaks a leg.”

In the Christmas special, Twiggy and Crosby sing a tender version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Twiggy is refined, relaxed and clearly star struck. Crosby takes the lead on the song but the two trade verses and sing portions of the chorus together. Twiggy also appears in a sketch with Crosby and British actor Ron Moody, best known for his role as Fagin in the movie Oliver.

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When the show was broadcast later that year, viewers watched with a heavy heart.  Only a month after filming, in October, Crosby died from an apparent heart attack. The posthumously aired British-themed Christmas special would be his last.

In retrospect, Twiggy’s duet with Crosby is a bittersweet rendition of a spirited holiday standard, done with class and professionalism, a trademark of Crosby with any singer. But it’s forgotten today. However, another well-known British star – and an even more unlikely choice than Twiggy – would make a mark on the show that would last for years to come.

Glam rocker David Bowie initially turned down the request to be a guest because he didn’t like the song choice: “The Little Drummer Boy.” He eventually agreed to appear after Crosby’s musical arrangers wrote a new part of the song for him to sing, titled “Peace on Earth,” which he liked.

Peace on Earth, can it be
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see
See the day of glory
See the day, when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again

The two voices soared together. “Ah, that’s a pretty thing, isn’t it?” Crosby said after they finished the song.

Today it’s considered a holiday classic.

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