In the Corn Kingdom: Des Moines

Frank Lloyd Wright, upon seeing Arizona for the first time, commented that the saguaro, the tall cacti found among the scrub and desert, was the “natural skyscraper’ of the Southwest. He refused to build any higher than the noble cactus. Fifty years before that, Frank got his start in the Prairies of the United States, creating an architecture that complemented the flat, fertile vistas of the Midwest. When I think of the vast American breadbasket, I expected to find in Iowa nothing much taller than the cornstalks, perhaps the skyscrapers of the prairie. That ideal was put to rest, upon discovering the Des Moines, the capital of the corn kingdom of Iowa, was far more than granaries and pastures.

The Monks

Surprisingly, Des Moines is hilly, not steep or varied, but rather a rolling heath in the Des Moines River valley. I suppose I was expecting a great flat expanse. And nestled in that valley, Des Moines has the feel of a real city, with several buildings over 25 stories in the downtown core. Looking westward from the steps of the Iowa State Capitol, atop a modest hill overlooking the Des Moines skyline—yes, skyline, with the setting sun over the waves of grain, you get a sense of the tremendous pride Iowans have for their agrestic American Alsace.

Des Moines has of course, a decidedly un-English name. And like many Midwestern words, it is unclear how the river for which the city is named got its handle. One story recounts that the French explorers named the river for the monks who settled nearby—La Riviere des Moines. Others suggest the name was taken from a local tribe, called Moingona by settlers (but translating into horrible slang, according to scholars.)

When it comes to the locals today, Midwestern nice continues to expand westward. Having recently put myself through a self-imposed French diction boot camp (for mastery of singing in French as well as learning, finally, how to pronounce “Café au Lait), I couldn’t help but cringe when hearing the locals say:

“Welcome to DEE MOYN.”

“Certainly, you mean “Dey MWAHney?”

Really Big Ag

For outsiders, the emphasis on farming and corn in particular in Iowa seems cliché, or at least, the perpetuation of a stereotype. Not so. At a meeting as far removed from the campaign trail as possible, I heard both the governor and lieutenant governor weave corn and agriculture into their speeches—required homages and deference in a land where one out of every five ears of corn in America is grown in Iowa, one out of every 9 eggs and one of every three hogs.

It is for that reason that major companies like Archer-Daniels Midland, Monsanto, Cargill and Quaker Oats are among the Big Ag corporations operating in Iowa. And it is also why, once a year, Des Moines is on the international stage as the home of the “World Food Prize.” The Prize is regarded as the “Nobel Prize of Food,” founded by Norman Borlaug in 1986. Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his research and contributions to the “Green Revolution”—the increase of agricultural production through cross-breeding, fertilizing and hybridizing plants like corn and wheat for faster growth. Borlaug’s work specifically in wheat production is credited with saving nearly a billion people in the Indian subcontinent in the 1970’s. His legacy lives on in the Food Prize, even as the occasional protestors gather in Des Moines to rage against genetically modified organisms, pesticide producers and other first-world problems in a world where, as Borlaug put it “they have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger.”

Where else should a World Food Prize be in the world really? Chicago is too cosmopolitan, too much of a regional hegemon. This isn’t a culinary award, this is about agriculture at its core—the feeding a lot of people. Agriculture is, after all, how we evolved from hunter-gatherers into suburbanites. Food is, at this fundamental level, about survival. And for a planet that continues to add billions of mouths at an exponential rate—food here is about quantity.

More than Meat and Potatoes

This is not to say that Des Moines is bereft of a local food scene, where the locals are crafting the raw material of the harvest into something delectable. Court Avenue seems to have the happy hour pulse of Des Moines down, with local pubs as varied as Wasabi Tao and the Whiskey Dixx. For me, I was looking for some remnants of the old German populations that settled in Des Moines, and that took me to the Hessen Haus, an old train depot station repurposed into a beer hall. With just the right amount of grit and age, some may sneer at the place as a dive. But the charm of the building is in the old wood and brick of the depot, as well as the excellent German pils on tap and decent Jaegerschnitzel.

As for the new world, you will not want for modern, as fusion is alive and well. One place, Fong’s Pizza, is as fusion as you can get, with Crab Rangoon Pizza or Kung Pao Chicken on a thin crust. Opened in 2009 in the location of the oldest Chinese restaurant in Des Moines, the pizzeria has kept the décor and parts of the menu in a fit of creativity usually reserved for the Food Section of the New York Times.

Children of the Corn

My visit coincided with the return of the Kansas City Royals to the World Series. Forgetting that I was in a state without a major league sports team, the sentiments in Des Moines seem split between the Cubs and the Royals. I had never seen a Royals fan in the wild, not at least since the days of Bo Jackson or George Brett. Des Moines and baseball are things of legend. A very young Ronald Reagan called Cubs games on the local radio. And Bill Bryson, famous travelogue and favorite son, recalls in his memoir:

“My dad was a sportswriter for The Des Moines Register, which in those days was one of the country’s best papers, and often took me along on trips through the Midwest. Sometimes these were car trips to places like Sioux City or Burlington, but at least once a summer we boarded a big silver plane—a huge event in those days—and lumbered through the summery skies, up among the fleecy clouds, to St. Louis or Chicago or Detroit to take in a home stand. It was a kind of working holiday for my dad.

Baseball, like everything else, was part of a simpler world in those days, and I was allowed to go with him into the clubhouse and dugout and onto the field before games. I have had my hair tousled by Stan Musial. I have handed Willie Mays a ball that had skittered past him as he played catch. I have lent my binoculars to Harvey Kuenn possibly it was Billy Hoeft) so that he could scope some busty blonde in the upper deck. Once on a hot July afternoon I sat in a nearly airless clubhouse under the left-field grandstand at Wrigley Field beside Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ great shortstop, as he autographed boxes of new white baseballs (which are, incidentally, one of the most pleasurably aromatic things on earth, and worth spending time around anyway). Unbidden, I took it upon myself to sit beside him and pass him each new ball. This slowed the process considerably, but he gave a little smile each time and said thank you as if I had done him quite a favor. He was the nicest human being I have ever met. It was like being friends with God.”

–Bill Bryson, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”

Bryson was an early inspiration for this blog, especially in his craft and pen, an exceptional travel writer with a wit that was forged in Des Moines. The thing about flyover country is, that so many voices of Americana learned to speak here, in a Midwestern dialect. Mark Twain (Missouri). Carl Sandberg (Illinois). Ray Bradbury (Illinois), Toni Morrison (Ohio), Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota), Kurt Vonnegut (Indiana), Sherwood Anderson (Ohio), Jean Shepard (Chicago), Bob Dylan (Minnesota) among others. And so did Bill Bryson. There is something to this agrestic lifestyle—the right balance of sturm und drang (albeit, too much sturm in der Sommer). Having recently re-read Bryson’s memoir of his childhood, I felt a particular impulse to explore his old environs, around Drake University, and the streets on his newspaper route. But in my re-reading, Bryson himself catalogs all of the places of his youth now gone, those formative parks and theaters, corner groceries and even newspapers, are no more. In another way, even Des Moines cannot claim Bryson anymore, his Midwestern dialect burnished by 40 years of living in rural England, sounds exotic. But his tone, in his writing, captures the certain levity that I experienced in meeting Iowans at the pub, in conference rooms and on the street. In a recent speech at his alma mater, Bryson offered a valedictory, through a well-worn device, “you know you are from Iowa if:

“You can find nice things to say about Herbert Hoover.”

“No matter how small the plate is at the salad bar you can get 400 items on it.”

“You don’t think there’s anything funny about the name ‘Des Moines International Airport.’”

“You don’t freak out when you hear: ‘Tornado’s coming.’”

“You are out of state and meet someone else from Iowa and you both get really excited.”

Of the last wisecrack, I have a first hand account. When in grad school, a fellow student hailed from the Cornhusker Nation—the University of Iowa. When she introduced herself at a conference reception in a major coastal city, she shyly, almost apologetically offered that she was from “I-uh-wa.” A government official from Ames piped up from the back of the room, giddily,

“Don’t say it like that! You are from IOWA! And say where too!”

Photo Credits

Iowa Corn:

Skyline: Wikipedia

Borlaug Medal:

Fong’s: Dan V Food Blog:

Hessen Haus:


The Real Labor Day

A workman's tale...


In most other corners of the world, May 1st is recognized as Labor Day. But in the US, our Labor Day occurs in September. Assigning one of the less enjoyable aspects of humanity a spring holiday has the effect of brightening an otherwise depressing idea. In America, we kick off fall and the subsequent winter doldrums with Labor Day, the meteorological equivalent of heading back into the dark, dank coal mine. May Day–the first of May–was once a spring festival day, another inheritance from Germanic and Norse traditions. Some still spin around the Maypole and crown a May Queen in affectations of quaint nostalgia. But in the modern sense, May 1 is a memorial day for working people everywhere in the world, except the US. How did Labor Day end up in September? And how did labor become such a hated idea in the American political life?

American politicians have spent the lifetime of the republic afraid of the collective power of the people. John Adams and his Federalists referred to this as “the mob.” Rebellions are always led by citizen groups, and in the US, we’ve tolerated only one citizen-led rebellion, in 1776. When Scots-Irish wanted to assert their rights to distill their own spirits, they led a small rebellion against President Washington and the new government in 1791, Washington himself commanded the army that dispersed the rebellion led by his former comrades in arms against the British, the first and only time a sitting US president led a command from the front (rather than the White House Situation Room.) But, I digress.


The First Labor Day

In 1884, the divide between the very wealthy and very poor was even greater than today. Workers, influenced in part by the socialist writings of Marx but also earlier American utopianists like the British immigrant Robert Owen of Indiana, began to organize into unions.  In the post-Civil War years, American industry grew exponentially as immigrant workers from abroad took on jobs in the factories of major cities.  Those immigrant workers brought with them an anti-authoritarian, anti-class spirit, especially Germans, who escaped the creation of an imperial Germany after their 1848 revolution. Forty years of American assimilation did not deter German-speaking laborers in major cities from demanding a classless society and worker equity. Working conditions in factories of the time are well-known, 12-18 hour work days, seven days a week, child labor, and no concept of occupational hazards or human resource management. 1880’s America was what 21st Century China is now. 

At the time, workers’ unions were violently put down, often using local police forces to do the dirty work. Demonstrations reached a fevered pitch when, on May 4, 1884, protesters gathered on Haymarket Square in Chicago, calling for a fixed eight-hour work day. In the hysteria, there was an explosion. Police believed fringe anarchists bombed the square, the protestors maintained it was a capitalist conspiracy. Seven policemen and four protestors died in the melee. To take up the cause of those who died, the Socialist International declared May 1 to be the International Workers Day—or Labor Day. It is hard to believe with 21st century eyes that people were willing to die for the right to an eight hour work day.

This move was unwelcome in American society. After all, the late 1800’s were the American Gilded Age, and then-president Grover Cleveland owed his razor thin electoral victory to the titans of industry at that time. Cleveland was the only democrat elected to the presidency between James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson. He knew that the power center was center-right in American politics. And so, to avoid setting off a socialist labor movement in the US, he declared the first Monday in September to be the American Labor Day, cleaving the US observance from the international socialist observance and offering a bone to the rabid masses long after the international day. Every effort was made to minimize the Haymarket massacre in the American experience.

President Grover Cleveland Restored

To this day, May 1—International Workers Day, or Labour Day—honors the eight-hour work day, something that is severely eroded in American life today. While the Adamson Act in 1916 established the eight hour work day, and the Fair Labor Standards Act established the idea of the 40 hour work week with overtime pay, those laws have since been circumvented. Salaried employees are exempt—a trade-off for having a guaranteed income over hourly or piece-rate wage. With that exemption comes unwritten rules—as salaried employees can find themselves working more hours per week without overtime. Contracted employees are often exempt, as the contract is viewed as the binding document—a law unto itself. Retail employees often work above and beyond to earn commission on top of their base. Americans have seemingly cashed in their productivity not for more leisure, but perhaps the pursuit of avarice instead.

French Riviera

Not all countries behave this way, and in fact, are more productive with fewer hours in the office. According to yearly polls by the banking giant UBS, the French, who work 1453 hours a year have a GDP-per hour of $25.10 an hour. In America, we work 1792 hours a year and have a GDP per hour of $24.60. So, the French do more with less time at work, and do just fine as the 18th largest economy in the world. Not to mention the Germans, who also have mandated short work weeks, and are the 3rd largest economy in the world, behind the US and slave-labor China. Put another way, the French are working an average of 30 hours a week over a 50-week work year, and the US is working 35 hours a week over a 50 week work year. It is a little worse than that though—the French have a mandated 5 weeks-vacation per year while most Americans, if they have a two week vacation leave, will not take it nor will not avoid their BlackBerries while on vacation for fear of missing something back at the office. Some call this a freedom—a freedom to work as much as you want. And others say any tampering with the status quo could hemorrhage jobs–an obvious red herring in the face of global productivity from our European competitors. But I imagine those that say such things have no understanding of what it is to labor with their hands, in retail or in middle management.

Joseph McCarthy

Such talk would have roiled Senator Joe McCarthy, the obtuse drunken Cold War senator from Wisconsin, who launched into an irrational persecution of labor movements in the 1950’s. At the time, the US had rightly elected Eisenhower as president—the ur-cold warrior and greatest tactician we have ever produced. Eisenhower was the perfect foil against Stalinism—a completely different political construct that socialism. Most people, when mentioning a fear of communism mean to say Stalinism–the totalitarian, murderous tyrannical form of government. The USSR was an existential threat to the US, with its assertion of dominion over Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin American. Stalin was using the mantle of Marx and Lenin to hide his totalitarian grip on the USSR. He murdered his opposition. Like any utopian ideal, the wheels come off quickly in the hands of men. And so, we did have a Red Scare. We had a legitimate global problem off our shores.

But McCarthy, a real poll hound, got votes by Red-baiting the American public into thinking that any collective actions were essentially the same as “communism.” (McCarthy may be the singular person to blame for conflating communism, Stalinism, Marxism and Socialism as all the same thing.) A lot of politicians used this tactic back in the 1950s, including Richard Nixon. McCarthy and others quickly recast the US away from anything that favored populist or union activities. Unions were investigated for their anti-business whining for worker’s rights. Academics and artists works were scrutinized with a filter for perceived communist sympathies. Musicians and actors were blacklisted from practicing their art. The House “Un-American Activities” Committee began its inquisition into the First Amendment. The era of the individual–free to make choices, free to suffer consequences and loyal to the patriotic company store was back in style. And some of the by-products of those days—“In God We Trust” on our currency, the Pledge of Allegiance and Loyalty Day—remain with us, their origins obscured.

The Bellamy salute is the salute described by Francis Bellamy to accompany the American Pledge of Allegiance, which he had authored. During the period when it was used with the Pledge of Allegiance, it was sometimes known as the "flag salute". During the 1920s and 1930s, Italian fascists and Nazis adopted salutes which were similar in form, resulting in controversy over its use. It was officially replaced by the hand-over-heart salute when Congress amended the Flag Code on December 22, 1942.

Loyalty Day? In the US, May 1st is officially “Loyalty Day.” Signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1958, the day is set aside to reaffirm our loyalty to the American ideal. More importantly, it was  established to forever put a wedge between the international Labor Day and the US. Now, May 1 also happened to be a day when the Soviets liked to display all of their missiles in Red Square in the largest euphemism ever created by men. (geriatric old farts in awe of many a phallus being erected by heavy machinery, doing what they can no longer do, but I digress again). As America fell behind the Soviets in the early days of the Cold War, it is perhaps understandable that our leaders wanted to detract from the might of the Soviet Union and their display of missiles on May 1 with a day of our own. But that wasn’t the reason for why Loyalty Day came to be–fealty to jingoism was more important than to fellow laborers. American labor was to be celebrated as something unique, set aside from an international labor movement. Exceptional even, without peer.

While not an official holiday or bank holiday, US presidents have declared the Loyalty Day since 1958—Clinton and Obama included. An interesting note, Eisenhower himself declined to commemorate the day in his last two years in office, perhaps because McCarthyism had imploded, the witch hunt was no longer popular and the right to dissent is a first amendment protection. His precedent remains un-followed, for 25 years after the Cold War, the White House continues to proclaim a holiday that several generations of Americans have never heard of.

Labor Day in some ways is a farce in America; an old idea long lost in the economic juggernaut. We do not, as a culture, mourn the Haymarket martyrs nor celebrate the great American economic backbone–the Middle Class. We take the day off, or most of us do if our employers allow. Plenty of people work on Labor Day. It is as if the idea of honoring Labor movements, the winning of improved working conditions, occupational safety, work-life balance and time with family are unsavory and unpatriotic. And yet, standing up and demanding a right is the most patriotic thing we can do as citizens.

John Steinbeck once riffed that the reason why labor and other socialist-democratic movements never took deep root in the US was “because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” There is some truth to that, seeing how easy it is in modern America to put on the affectations of wealth through credit spending, leasing BMWs and composing well-crafted selfies on facebook. As a society, we could revisit this holiday, which has become nothing more than the last grilling-out day in September for millions of Americans. We could think of the eroding middle class and find a way back to that 1950’s era of prosperity, that came through the collective buying power of the middle class and not through a gilded oligarchy. We could join ranks with other nations and rightly celebrate the re-birth of our economy in May, rather than its fall in September, by honoring labor’s contribution to the right to leisure that we all can enjoy.


We have no need for Loyalty oaths or Loyalty days. They smack of control over the minds of men. Americans have preternatural fidelity–we know we have a good thing every day. Even the worst of us is better off than the rest of the planet, or at least the worst of other countries. Official duty days are the very exercise of the totalitarian, demanding blind loyalty to a narrow interpretation of the nation’s history and culture. This reminds me of North Korea, not the US. No, the tribute to labor is not the status quo, it is aspirational. And since when did we want to stop being aspirational?

Photo Credits

Labor Face: Rakesh JV / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Haymarket Riot: coolloud / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Grover Cleveland:  Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

French Riviera Beach Bums: irene. / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

McCarthy History In An Hour / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Bellamy Salute, American Flag:

Weber Grill Robert S. Donovan / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

On Eostre


Ostara by Johannes Gehrts

The Easter story–the Christian Easter story–gets its day in the sun this week. The story of life and rebirth is welcome after every hard, cold winter. As a kid, swinging my Buster Brown’s up against the oaken pew, doodling on the backs of tithing envelopes at the old Methodist church, I wondered a bit about where the word Easter originated. After all, it is a word that has no reference in Scripture, nor is derived from a Greek or Latin word. The answers to my childhood inquiry would not be found in that part of the ancient world. The word Easter, like Yule, originates from the Germanic tradition, the holiday of renewal.

The story of religion building and borrowing from other religions is nothing new. Like the Catholic usurpation of December 25th from the Roman Saturnalia to observe Christ’s birth, Easter was borrowed to convert the pagan Germanic and Norse tribes to the faith. Of course, Christians have the benefit of knowing approximately when Jesus died, during the Passover. While the exact date may be lost to history, the movable feast follows the Jewish calendar year.

Universal Symbols

As a young student, I had an exceptional reading teacher who found a way to teach Greek and Roman mythology as part of our curriculum—long before the “Common Core” and “No Child Left Behind” obliterated the education profession. Later, a high school lit teacher introduced me to the writing of Joseph Campbell. Campbell strove to find a kind of “unified field theory” for the themes and symbols of all mythology, and in his canon of writing, did so.  From an ethnocentric view, Greek and Roman myth has very little to do with my northern European ancestry. When it comes to “living mythology” in our day an age, the Norse can lay a greater claim to the survival of their symbols in the modern age. Sure, we have democracy from the Greeks. But we have Christmas Trees, Groundhog Day, and several Easter symbols from the Germanic tribes and their Norse and pagan mythology.

As Campbell would agree, Norse and Germanic myth differs little from Greek mythology at its core–being polytheism. With its own pantheon of Gods representing certain emotions and symbols, the Norse match point-for-point the Greek and Roman gods. Zeus? Try Odin. Apollo? Try Thor. Aphrodite? Try Freya. Hercules? Siegfried. Muses? Rhein Maidens. Hades? Valhalla. Animal reverence was more common in the Norse, but present in Greek and Roman as well.  What differs among the three is what was physically left behind. Greeks and Romans built magnificent marble temples that are still imposing in ruin today. We have their written word, through Plato among others. Germanic tribes however were mobile, or built their structures from wood that would not last the millennium. They put their effort into fine jewelry work, most of which was melted by the conquering Roman legions. Regarding their subjugated tribes as “barbarian,” the Romans did little to appropriate the Norse gods into the Pantheon. And, with the conversion of the empire to Christianity, what little symbolism remaining in Northern Europe was expropriated and reassigned within the Christian tradition. For the most important observance in Christianity, the Goddess Eostre–or Easter–was given a “page-one rewrite.”

The #Venerable #Bede - #BritishLibrary - - #fr

The Goddess Eoster

The Internet is awash in neo-pagan imagery of the Goddess Eostre, however the Norse myths around the name Eostre are fairly thin. The Anglo-Saxon historian and Catholic monk, the Venerable Bede, described Eostre as a pagan German goddess for whom the Eastermonth, now April, was named. He said:

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

By his time, the festival in her honor was supplanted by the Passover and Passion play. As is often the case with the Christianization of the tribes of Europe, the names of the deities changed by the holiday feasting and symbolism carried on, like techies replacing the operating system but keeping their computer hardware. Aside from that attestation in the 11th century Anglo-Saxon Bede’s De temporum ratione, there is little to go on. The name also survives in oblique ways—the Ostrogoth tribes to the east of Ancient Rome as described in Caesar’s writings on the Gallic Wars, the modern country of the Österreich (Austria), and even the surname Oster (as in the appliances among other uses) owe their root to the Germanic word for “East”—Ost. In fact, the alternative spelling of Eostre is Ostara. And, given the emphasis on the rebirth and renewal of the season, aligned with the vernal equinox, Easter is the rising sun, the rebirth of Spring and the renewal of life. Sounds like a familiar meme.

The Story of the Egg-Laying Hare

Myths around the Eostre goddess seem to be a modern construction, by neo-pagans and Wicca. Two in particular explain away the symbolism of another Easter symbol, the egg-laying hare. As a cultural touch point, Americans know well the Cadbury Egg commercial, of the clucking rabbit laying a chocolate, sugar filled egg. As far as my eight-year-old self was concerned, the Easter Bunny was the Cadbury Bunny, laying chocolate, fondant-filled eggs on television. I always preferred the mini-eggs, and still do to this day. Perhaps in a culture so steeped in animal absurdity–from the talking mouse to Brian in the Family Guy–no on thinks to ask where the idea of an egg-laying rabbit originates. And for that, we have to go to the Norse myth of Eostre and the Hare.

The Goddess Eostre, a lover of all of the creatures of the forest, was on her journey in the wood. She came upon a bird, its wing injured beyond hope. Eostre, so connected to the spirits of nature, shared in the anguish of the wounded bird and took pity. As the body of the bird would never be the same, she saved the spirit of the bird, turning the bird into a beautiful, bounding hare. Yet the metamorphosis was incomplete. In thanks to Eostre, the hare laid an exquisite egg for her, as a gift. (As retold by your author, playing Aesop)

Or something like that. The Wicca variation paints Eostre as more of a trickster, showing off for passersby, turning a bird into a rabbit. Eostre in this retelling broke a cardinal virtue–to do no harm. Eostre lost her powers, and was unable to return the hare back to being a bird, leaving the rabbit on earth to lay eggs.

But why a hare? And why eggs? Hares are prominent in Germanic lore. The Goddess Freya kept silver bunnies as companion animals. And eggs are a visual stand-in for the fertility of the Spring season. Our cultures most recent exposure to the magical hare was by Peter Jackson in his shameless embellishment of Tolkien’s Hobbit. Jackson employed rabbits as companion sled dogs of a kind, an obvious expropriation from Northern European folklore.

The translation of animal worship from Norse mythology to Christian tradition is again at the hands of the Germans. Those same Germans who gave us Groundhog Day (the reverence of the bear, or ground marmot as weather keeper) gave us the rabbit who lays eggs. The Easter bunny is prominent in America, in part because of the German settlers who brought the bunny with them. They turned it into a confectioner’s marketing machine, and sold off Easter eggs of chocolate. Thus, the ridiculous egg-laying rabbit became Christian. The very name Easter became the western name of the Resurrection celebration. The goddess was wiped from the historical record, the feminine replaced with the masculine (in terms of symbolism).

Faberge Egg
Eggs evolved from their fertility symbolism into something modern as well. When in Bavaria some years ago during the Easter season, I marveled at the local custom of painted eggs. These exquisitely decorated orbs were either drained of their yokes then painted upon, or preserved under layers of enamel. This practice is pre-Christian, but retained in Catholic Bavaria. Over time, the eggs would become so very elaborate, and in the case of Faberge, not even be made of eggs anymore, but of gold fit for a Tsar of Russia.

334. Pussy Willows (Feral Cat?)

A Brief Note on Fuzzy Palm Fronds

Some Christian traditions did not translate well in the cooler Northern European climate. For example, it was difficult, if not impossible for the laity to acquire actual palm fronds to celebrate Palm Sunday. A local, abundant substitute would have to suffice. The foothills of the Alps bloom with Pussy Willow in the spring, about the time of the Easter celebration, becoming a substitute for Palm Sunday. Pussy Willow branches usually begin appearing in stores around Lent, and were a prominent fixture in my childhood home, no doubt a tradition passed down from German settlers who knew no differently before the age of globalization could bring palm fronds to every chapel around the globe.

Cognitive Dissonance or Good Clean Fun?

Stripped of the universal and borrowed themes, the Christian Easter focuses on the leap of faith that every Christian is asked to make, of the passion, resurrection and salvation through belief. It is a leap of faith that cannot be made once, but as Soren Kierkegaard observed, must be made over and over again. That allusion—the leap of faith and renewal—of the recurring spring, the recurring observation that after the cold, barren winter life goes on should be lost on no one, in no culture. Humans welcome the return of hope in all things.

It is easy to appreciate why more fundamentalist strains of Christianity have tried to move away from those Germanic traditions, as they are not canonical or even related to Christianity. However, for those early proselytizers, trying to convert Vikings and Goths and Celts to a religion rooted in Bronze Age Judea, it is easy to see how appropriating local symbols and customs aided in conversion. The Middle Ages gave rise to Europe as Christendom, and the new, hybridized faith that emerged was exported to the United States and the world. However, as many Americans either observe the holiday or only the secular trappings of candy baskets today, it is clear that the feasting day of Easter looks very different than its roots as a resurrection story from the Fertile Crescent thanks to the admixture of Norse mythology into its symbols.

Eostre Goddess Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day Historic Marker

Received wisdom is a tricky thing. Most folks will meander through life rarely bothering to ask why things are the way they are. This is especially true of holidays on the calendar. Over the years, I have tired of a lot of those “received” holidays–those days reserved by tradition or federal law. When I think of the holidays set aside as “federal holidays,” the array does seem like a decision made by committee. Consider that we celebrate Columbus Day, honoring a man that was truly vile and was probably a pirating genocide artist. But Columbus was Italian, and to make Italian-American voters happy (and to continue with the farce that America was “discovered”) we continue that holiday. Or take Presidents’ Day, a holiday that was once reserved for Washington and Lincoln alone, now extends to the likes of Millard Fillmore, Richard Nixon, the Bushes and Obama. Independence Day was believed by some founding fathers to by July 2.  Labor Day in the US is not May 1 like it is everywhere else in the world (because May 1 was the communist and socialist holiday), etc. Then there are of course the homage holidays–those set aside for momma, daddy and valentines. Every day is their day, really.

Here on the Eclectic, I have taken up honoring some other holidays (Knut’s Day, The Armistice, Guy Fawkes Day, September 11), days that I revere and remember. Those days tie into my own family heritage, a certain rekindling of our Old European roots. Those days are also personal, having influenced my professional life. And chief among these holidays, for the former reason, is Groundhog Day. This peculiar observation, started by German immigrants to Pennsylvania centuries ago, was a turning point in my childhood calendar. Here, on this day, a rodent was invested with the duty to declare the winter doldrums to be over. In preschool, we would draw a Punxsutawny Phil groundhog on paper and glue his likeness to a popsicle stick. From there, we’d draw a landscape on another sheet of paper, with a little slit in the heath for the marmot to poke up through. Amazingly, I recall coloring the sky grey, earning a scolding from my Baptist schoolmarm. She declared that the sky could only be colored blue (how stereotypical). Clearly she didn’t bother to look out the window for the past five months. Thus, my earliest memories, of the Pennsylvanian homeland are of this odd ritual, and of course, questioning received wisdom and authority.


Unless that wisdom springs from the groundhog of course. Like so many traditions, the roots of this particular holiday trace much farther back in time. Ancient Celts and pagans centered much of their worship on sacred animals. In one tradition, called Imbolc, the pre-Christian Germans and Celts would honor the passing of winter by worshiping a bear,  badger, or marmot; looking to the fuzzy mammal for a sign of winter’s end. As the old world was converted to Christianity, the tradition was absorbed by German Catholics as part of the celebrations of Candlemas (Read: The feast of the presentation of Jesus at the temple. How is that like presenting a rodent to the faithful?) For the Candlemas holy day, the devout often place candles in their windows. That tradition is also ubiquitous in Pennsylvania and beyond, as their denizens often keep electric candles on the window sill year ’round.) As the casting of a shadow by the morning sun would allegedly scare the sacred animal away, and with it, the hope of spring, Light (holy or otherwise), plays a role in the tradition.

The light in the Window

As the first waves of Germans settled in Pennsylvania, they brought their winter tradition with them. However, no sacred bears or badgers could be found. The groundhog, that lovable over-sized ground squirrel, became a substitute god. While these observations occurred in several immigrant towns around Pennsylvania, it was the event at Punxsutawny that grew beyond the mystic and became a festival, beginning officially in 1887, and enduring. Their official god is named Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.

Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil climbs on the top hat of his handler after he did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring during the 127th Groundhog Day Celebration at Gobbler's Knob on February 2, 2013. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)


The basics of the tradition, according to the Groundhog Club’s “Inner Circle” at, goes like this:

“Myths such as this tie our present to the distant past when nature did, indeed, influence our lives. It is the day that the Groundhog comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow. If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole. If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground. The groundhog tradition stems from similar beliefs associated with Candlemas Day and the days of early Christians in Europe, and for centuries the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. Even then, it marked a milestone in the winter and the weather that day was important.”

Under the constant care of the “Inner Circle,” local fanboys in tuxedos and top hats tend to the needs of Punxsutawny Phil. Now in his 125th year, Phil is kept alive with a special elixir that gives him 7 more years of life, so they say. As a weatherman, he is about as accurate as any other, coming in correct about 39% of the time. When not on the clock, that is to say, during the other 364 days a year, Phil lives in an elaborate wing of the local public library, on display for tourists, with his “wife” Phyllis to keep him company. On the big day, Phil is transferred to the ceremonial Gobbler’s Knob, a big empty field with a stump on a stage, where he is fitfully hoisted from the tree stump at the appointed hour. He then whispers into the president of the Inner Circle’s ear, in “Groundhogese” (a form of Pennsylvania Dutch, or Amish German), his proclamation for the year.

Groundhog Day

In its nadir in the 1970’s, the day would draw a few dozens souls would brave the cold and hike out to Gobbler’s Knob, the ceremonial home of Phil, and await his prognostication. Today, this event has gained national notoriety, picked up by the news media and popularized in the 1993 classic film, Groundhog Day. Pennsylvania politicians and presidential contenders seek him out for a photo op. The modest town of 5500 people grows to 30,000 or more for the week. The region cashes in–this year’s economic benefit could top $5 million as Time magazine reports. Of course, animal rights activists have pleaded to let Phil return to the wild, instead of being held in a large zoo-like display at the public library (he does live there with his “wife” Phyllis.) Other towns around America have tried to promote their own rodent as the true seer of seers, but the faithful know that Punxsutawny Phil is the one, true groundhog.

I am not alone in my adoration of this day. The 1993 eponymous film has become a legendary part of American culture. The central plot, of Bill Murray’s vile weatherman forced to relive Groundhog Day until he becomes a compassionate human being, has been lauded for its Eastern philosophy-like exploration of cyclical rebirth and renewal. In 2004, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg declared that film the greatest of all time (and I am inclined to agree). And in The Atlantic in 2013, the film was praised for its exploration of metaphysics. You needn’t go that far to realize the film is inspired by the very nature of this holiday–the natural declaration of rebirth and renewal, heralded by an unlikely mascot.

Aside from going to Pennsylvania to join the revelers at Gobbler’s Knob, how might you celebrate this day of renewal? Well, I tend to watch the film, just as people at Christmas might watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story.” I make an excuse to eat meatloaf (Ground Hog, get it?) and root vegetables, unless a Super Bowl intercedes. I might dust of my Pittsburgese and start “yammerin abaht how awful the Super Bowl will be withaht the Stillers innit.” Chances are, the Pennsylvania Polka will be played more than once.  I often retell my preschool story and revel in my proud Pennsylvania heritage, to the ire of my friends and non-native family. Someday, I imagine I will take my kiddo on the pilgrimage to Gobbler’s Knob, to behold the world’s greatest weatherman at the height of his powers declare in his native Groundhogese the end of winter. Maybe I’ll teach him to color his skies grey instead of blue for his preschool class. Maybe he’ll yammer about Phil to his own kids.

But most of all, I celebrate the end of another long, hard winter…either now, or in six weeks.

Candlemas Photo credit: martinak15 / Foter / CC BY

Preschool Craft Photo Credit

Historic Marker Photo credit: jimmywayne / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Standing Groundhog Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Phil, Hoisted Photo credit: scottobear / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Phil Photo Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

Grattis Knut Dag! (Happy Knut’s Day)

Canute, Tallinn

Much of my blog’s content is about asking “why.” When I think about a city, a travel opportunity, a cuisine or custom, it is usually through that particular interrogative that I engage, and thus learn.  The answer to that question often leads to among other things, ethnicity and nationality. So much of our daily habits, from our food, language, clothing and holidays derive from the rich palate of ethnicity and nationality. Usually, Anglo-Americans do not celebrate a particular ethnicity, given our place as longest-simmering in the great American melting pot.

Ellis island 1902

While later immigrants from Europe brought with them some of their traditions, most of those traditions have been either ubiquitously commercialized (Guinness, Pizza, Croissants) or slowly faded and forgotten (Wienerschnitzel, Spotted Dick). Ethnicity, in the long genetic view, is rather fleeting. And in the cultural view, the formula for survival is its frequency of use. Consider that over the past few years, more people have embraced Cinco de Mayo with Margaritas. Yet Dyngus Day is a holiday only known to the sons and daughters of Poland.

I have gradually tried to bring in old customs from my forbearers in my daily life, even if some of them amputated them from our family traditions generations ago. I am more likely to say “Gesundheit” over “Bless You” and have hosted a few Oktoberfests of my own to celebrate my maternal family’s Bavarian roots and my paternal grandmother’s Rhineland and Swiss heritage. I have yet to convince my own family to sup on Haggis to celebrate Rabbie Burns and our Scottish heritage through my surname and my wife’s maiden name, though I do take in Scotch not so much as a celebrated restorative but rather a birthright. I don’t do much for my English heritage, lacking a palate for boiled food, flat ales and fish and chips and all.  


But this time of year, coming loose from the Christmas holiday (a holiday whose trees and yule and holly and elves harken past the Christ child and right into Norse mythology), I found a way to draw in my maternal grandmother’s Swedish and Norwegian heritage, and close out the holiday season with a tip to my Swedish ancestors on Knut’s Day.

Knut’s Day is a religious martyr’s day, commemorating the death of Canute, a Danish prince and heir to the Holy Roman Empire, assassinated in 1131 by his jealous family who wanted another scion on the throne. The day of his death coincided with the Feast of Epiphany, and as the years moved on, Canute and his story became a sort of final act for the Christmas season. Folks in Scandinavia would dress as a goat (?) and take down the Christmas festivities. Knut’s (an alternative spelling) Day was changed to the 13th of January to try to break the confusion. Today in Sweden, the day is usually reserved for tearing down the Christmas decor. For those who still decorate their trees with sweets and savories, the children are allowed to raid the tree of its candy canes and cookies, in homage to their raiding Viking heritage perhaps.

Canute had a relative, King Canute, who was also assassinated. (We are talking about Vikings, here). Both owe a certain polar cub, named Knut, for a rehabilitation of his name. You may recall Knut, the adorable polar cub saved by the Berlin Zoo, whose Bieberesque exposure led him to psychosis from the shutterbugs and fanatics. Of course, long time fans of Notre Dame football recognize Knute Rockne’s name, in any form.

Polar bear cub Knut in the Berlin zoo.

Ascribing so much meaning to a spot on the calendar may seem overkill. After all, most people toss their trees when the garbage pick-up says so. Some people follow the Christian season right up to Epiphany. Others want the Tannenbaum out before the first touchdown of the Super Bowl. Yet meaning is often under our noses. Most of the days of the week in the English language owe their names to the Norse Gods—a “win” for my Viking ancestors and their adoration of their god of war (Tiu’s dag),  the god of the hunt (Wotan’s day), the god of thunder (Thor’s day) and the goddess of love, (Freya’s day). Aside from the days of the week, my choices in observing anything Swedish in my year are limited to either this particular day, or perhaps going to IKEA.

yellow line on  blue wall

(I cannot deny that I sometimes tingle with scant nationalism for Sweden when seeing a big blue box blazed with gold on the horizon. My people?)

King Canute Tours North Carolina Shoreline

King Canute Photo credit: tm-tm / / CC BY-SA

Ellis Island Photo credit: unknown / / Public domain

Swedish Tomte Photo credit: jpellgen / / CC BY-NC-ND

Knut the Cub Photo credit: beingmyself / / CC BY-ND

IKEA Exterior Photo credit: ChromaticOrb / / CC BY-NC-ND

Knut’s Crown Photo credit: Mike Licht, / / CC BY

Remembering the Armistice

lest we forget

There are those of us old enough to remember our great-grandfathers, who when pressed with a child’s questions about The Great War would talk in quiet and protected ways. They saved their stories for their fellow soldiers down at the American Legion or VFW, where they could drink hard liquor and tell each other about the horrors they witnessed in far away lands, at the hands of the first mechanized warfare. They were told it was the “War to End All Wars” but they must have known better. My great-grandfather, George Henry Krider, served in the First American Expeditionary Force that went to Europe in WWI. While I do not know his regiment or tour of duty, I do know that he was mustard gassed and barely survived. He had breathing problems all 85 years of his life.

He and his buddies would ask us kids to sell the poppy boutonnieres that we rarely see nowadays. Those doughboys are now all long gone and the memory of their service wanes. In America, we tend to treat Veterans’ Day more as a celebration of Sparta and less as a day of extreme loss and sorrow. For our allies in the Great War, November 11–the Armistice Day–represents an end to the most violent war in their cultural memory. In England, where the poppy is worn to this day, whole towns saw no sons return from the battle. The scions of family names were cast to oblivion.

The British wear the poppy in honor of their forebearers. They also mourn the loss of all their sons in the maw of war. In particular are those artists–musicians and poets–whose pens were silenced in the battle. And it is from one particular pen that the poppy became a symbol of remembrance:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Written by John McCrae in honor of a fallen comrade, the poem was highly popular. McCrae was a Canadian field physician, who died at the end of the war from pneumonia contracted in the field. The words were first used for to recruit soldiers for the cause, but have since returned to their more honest origin–of sorrow.

While the British and her Commonwealth Nations still honor their war dead in this way, to this day in Washington, DC, there is no memorial to hold a remembrance for our great-grandfathers and their fellow soldiers. Official America has forgotten this conflict. While Congress and others play politics in advance of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (in 2018), each Veterans’ Day in my mind falls a bit hollow. This is a day to mourn, to remember, and to ask those veterans who survived the maelstrom to share, reflect and think not of the glory of battle but of the colossal tragedy. And since no one is alive from those days in 1918, it is left to those of us who succeed them to learn from the lessons of history, instead of allowing the vainglorious in places of power to repeat that history.

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!

Guy fawkes henry perronet briggs

Many schoolchildren and townspeople alike in the British Commonweal are observing “Guy Fawkes Day” today. Americans might recognize Fawkes, both from the film “V for Vendetta” as well as the use of his visage by those lefties engaged in “Occupy” movements around the time of the stock market crash of 2008.


The story of Fawkes is the story of success and failure. Whereas the US founding fathers were successful in their endeavor to end oppressive rule over them, poor Guy Fawkes was not so lucky. History remembers him as a terrorist. Ben Franklin knew as much when he quipped “We’ll all hang together, or all hang separately.”

Guy Fawkes was a disgruntled Catholic, who lived during the times of the English Reformation. His Catholic church persecuted by the newly-formed Church of England, Fawkes and a few conspirators decided to take matters into their own hands by plotting to blow up the House of Lords. On November 5, 1605, Fawkes put his plan into action, sneaking around the basement of the Houses of Parliament, but was foiled by the king’s yeoman before he struck the match.

Fawkes was summarily hanged, drawn and quartered. Parliament passed the “Observance of the 5th of November Act” in 1605 as a feast day giving thanks for King James’s survival. Over the years, the tradition took on anti-Catholic sentiment, and was celebrated as “Pope Day” in the US until the American Revolution (source: Wikipedia). My wife, educated in British and Australian schools, learned this rhyme well, and often joined her schoolmates in hanging an effigy of the poor freedom fighter or terrorist (depending on your stripes):

    Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!

    Guy Fawkes and his companions
    Did the scheme contrive,
    To blow the King and Parliament
    All up alive.

    Threescore barrels, laid below,
    To prove old England’s overthrow.
    But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

    A stick and a stake
    For King James’s sake!
    If you won’t give me one,
    I’ll take two,
    The better for me,
    And the worse for you.

    A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him.

    Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

Guy Fawkes

Variations of this poem have existed since the time of Fawkes and King James, with many a poet adding or deleting a verse. In parts of the UK and abroad this evening, the tradition of burning an effigy of Fawkes persists. However, many festival goers simply know of tonight’s events as “Bonfire Night”–the modern “holiday” devoid of the violence and lynching, akin to the rather sanitized “Trick or Treat” in the US.

Fortunately, the burning an effigy of the Pope has fallen off a bit. Intriguingly, other public demons have served as stand-in’s for Guy–including Lance Armstrong. The “holiday” seems to have morphed into less of a holiday celebrating the spoiling of a terrorist (or freedom fighter’s) plot, and more of an excuse to burn an effigy at night, in the fall, with beer in hand.

Getting ready for 5th November

Painting Photo credit: Henry Peronett Briggs / / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Guy Fawkes Mask Photo credit: gato-gato-gato / / CC BY-NC-ND

Guy Fawkes Night Effigy Photo credit: wwarby / / CC BY

Schoolkids on November 5 Photo credit: theirhistory / / CC BY-NC-SA