Left vs. Right: Why Does it Have to Be so Complicated?

via Daily Prompt: Complicated

You may think this is a post about politics, but –au contraire- I’m tackling an even larger issue, one I’ve dealt with quite normally my whole life, yet the world somehow still finds an oddity?!  I am left-handed, and so are my mom and both of my sisters. In fact, the only one left out was my dad, because he was a righty.

Ilefthanded1 decided to share my thoughts on this apparently “complicated” topic, because of stories like these below that appear in the news media, like clockwork, every August 13 – also known as International Left-Handers Day.

First of all, it is a very safe bet that MOST articles about handedness – the left hand, in particular – are written by people who are left-brained righties. Why do they care so much about us? Is it because we are more creative, more adaptable, more talented? Is it that they think there is something actually wrong with us? Or, is it because we lefties really aren’t even a tiny bit interested in why they aren’t left-handed, too?

For example, the Newsweek piece cites “getting elbowed at dinner” as a disadvantage to being left-handed. Um, as a very young child I had the cognitive ability to realize that if there was a righty to my left at the table, I just switched hands and used my right, too – to put them more at ease, of course. I even learned to bat right-handed in softball because that was the way my dad taught me. Yet, I drew the line at throwing and catching. I threw left-handed and caught with my right, and even in 7th-8th grade had one of the best arms in my Catholic grade school – I suppose that’s why they had me in the outfield. The first time I tried batting left-handed, when I played in a league for work, it came as naturally as blinking my eye. Go figure!

To that Medical Daily article linked above, I say hooey! Again, it is just a right-handed attempt to besmirch and belittle left-handers – or the parents of left-handers – into thinking there is somehow something inherently wrong with a “left” hand choice.

Good grief people – it’s 2016!! I shake my head every time I read that garbage and wonder if we’ve been magically transported back in time to when a certain medical practice was all the rage – yes, I’m referring to leeches, which date back to at least 1600-1300 B.C. In a world that is overly sensitive on any number of topics these days, we are still trying to figure out what makes left-handers tick?

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I grew up in a family where 4 out of the 5 of us were left-handed. I also went to Catholic School, where the nuns were quite insistent that if you were going to write with your left hand, by God’s will you were going to do it with correct hand placement! My mother remembers getting her knuckles cracked with a ruler by the nuns when she was young. I don’t remember a ruler, but I do remember getting pencil marks on the side my hand as I wrote with fat pencils seemingly too big for my small fingers. My teacher in 1st and 2nd grade was Sister Patricia and, like all nuns before her, she too insisted on proper penmanship – even with a left hand. Thanks to these Catholic teachers, my mom and I have perfect hand placement on a sheet of paper when we write. My two sisters, on the other hand, have the sort of oft-seen “curled” hand placement when writing, and I had long wondered why. One of them shared with us in recent years that it was because she was rebelling against conformity (i.e. Sister Patricia). I suppose there will always be a rebel in any group!

lefty_fordSo, here’s a question that has often crossed my mind. If only 10% of the world is actually left-handed and 4-of-5 people in my immediate family are lefties, along with several other great uncles, aunts and cousins, what does that do to all those “official statistics” other than skew them, and add additional weight to the “genetic trait” side of the debate. Yes, that means a left-handed preference is no different than whether you have red, brown, black or brown hair with blue, green or brown eyes.

Why does it have to be any more “complicated” than that?!

Mankind didn’t understand genetics or even have a means to map chromosomes way, way, way back when. For centuries, religion, myth and custom conspired to form a negative perception of those guided by the right side of their brains. From left-handed compliments to a left-handed oath and being out in left field, long-suffering southpaws have had to endure the discrimination of living in an overly right-handed world.

lefty_devilResearchers, scientists, teachers and parents have long debated whether left-handedness is a god-given gift or an abnormality that needs to be corrected. The controversy goes back centuries. The left side of anything has long been considered a bad omen, unlucky, evil and dirty. Ancient tarot cards and pictures often portrayed a left-handed Satan, who even plays his fiddle the “wrong” way. The devil and other “bad” influences appear on the left side of Jesus in many religious drawings and paintings. In 17th century America, the accused persons at the Salem witch trails were far more likely to be found guilty if they were left-handed.

On the other hand, the right side has always been portrayed as -and believed to be- lucky, good and correct: in short, normal. Even in more enlightened times, lefties have faced an uphill battle in learning to use everyday items, such as scissors, can openers, corkscrews, ladles, butter knives, spiral notebooks, camcorders, stringed instruments, and golf clubs – all of which were initially designed for use by right-handers.

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I had grown up knowing that being left-handed was something completely normal. My mom and sisters were left handed, so why should it be otherwise? My dad was outnumbered! And, even more than being left-handed, I had been so adaptable as a child, that I was ambidextrous in many things, because of the ease with which I could switch to the other hand if needed. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how lucky and blessed I was.

While living and working in Munich, Germany, I got an assignment to write a story about left-handedness for an English-language monthly magazine, called Munich Found.  There was someone they wanted me to talk to at an organization that had existed since 1985, the Beratungsstelle für Linkshänder und umgeschulte Linkshänder (Consulting Center for Left-Handers and Converted Left-Handers). This group  had dedicated itself to correcting lifetimes of misgivings, misdeeds and misinformation. The center was financed by the city of Munich and, at the time, was the only one of its kind in Germany. Its mission was to counsel left-handers and their families, and provide information about left-handedness. The director, Dr. Johanna Barbara Sattler, was a psychologist who had written several books on the subject.

Sattler´s work had a personal as well as professional dimension:  as a child she was forced to become right-handed. She believed that genetics determine whether a person is right-handed or left-handed, just as they determine whether a child will be a boy or a girl, short or tall, brown- or blue-eyed. Her research had shown that forcing someone to change their dominant hand – as was a common practice in many countries, including Germany – could do more harm than good.

lefty_hendrixBut long-held beliefs and opinions are slow to change. Sattler told me then that left-handedness had only become socially acceptable in Germany in very recent decades. In her quest to find a prominent left-hander for the cover of her latest book at the time, Übungen für Linkshänder (Exercises for Left-Handers), she could find none in Germany. Instead, she enlisted the help of the White House. On the book’s jacket, a picture shows a left-hander holding a pen (with proper hand placement, of course!) and asks the question “Wem nur gehören diese Hände?” (Whose hands are these?). When opening the book, the reader found a photo of Bill Clinton, someone that Sattler described as good role model for what lefties can accomplish.

Dr. Sattler had told me that it was common for Germans to force left-handed children to switch to writing with their right hands, by tying their left hand behind their back. I know this to be true because my German boyfriend at the time told me that he was subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment. Dr. Sattler went further to share that in some Muslim countries, where the left hand is viewed as “unclean,” children’s hands were submerged in scalding water to force them against that hand choice.

At the time, I remember thinking, “Huh?!??” My childhood was filled and reinforced with the notion that left-handedness was absolutely normal and good – and in other countries that was happening??!

Even a cursory look at many of the world’s languages can illustrate how the cards have been stacked against left-handers through the ages. In French, left is gauche, or tactless. In Latin, left is sinister, whereas the Latin word for right, dexter, is the root of “dexterity” in English. In German, the contributions to prejudicial views of left-handedness abound! Left-handed in German is linkshändig, and link means double-crossing. The verb linken means to con, while linkisch is used to describe someone clumsy or awkward. Calling someone ein ganz linker Hund (a conniving dog) accuses that person of being a cheat; ein linkes Ding drehen is to do something dishonest. Mit dem linken Fuß zuerst aufgestanden describes getting up on the left foot, that is, on the wrong side of bed. Links liegengelassen, links bügeln, links tragen: these mean the item is either ignored, wrong side up, being ironed wrong side out, or being worn the wrong side out.

If you only used language as a guide, you are left with the undeniable impression that anything “left” is wrong, right? Unfortunately, today, left-handedness is still not fully accepted in many countries, and culture or belief still prompts parents and/or teachers to change a child’s hand preference.

One day, while sitting in a Gasthaus (restaurant) north of Munich, drinking a great German Bier and jotting notes, I actually heard a Bavarian at a giant wooden table say from across the room, “Kuck mal, ein Linkshaender!” (“Look, a left-hander”). Since there was no one else in the establishment other than me and the Gasthaus staff, I was really taken aback when I saw everyone at that table turn their heads to look my way! Really?! It had already been decades since U.S. astronauts had made “One Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind” on the moon, and a table of 8-10 Germans was looking at me because I was – (gulp) – left-handed??!!! I knew then and there what a space alien must feel like after they drop in for a visit and make the front page of the National Enquirer! Of course, if that same scene had played out in the United States, the remark would have been “Look, a dog!” since my English Cocker Spaniel, Bo, was quietly sleeping at my feet under the table, a practice considered quite normal in Germany.

So, let’s move on, dear reader, and become enlightened – if you aren’t already!

Contrary to popular prejudice, southpaws are actually quite gifted. In general, they are individualistic, creative, intuitive, holistic and image-oriented. They are also strategic
thinkers. What’s more, they also have unusually good musical memories and are left_simpsons_imagesgood at recalling pitch, and are prone to high IQs. And because of their exceptional sense of distance and proportion, lefties also excel in the fields of art and architecture.

Qualities like these can explain why so many left-handers -past and present- have risen to greatness and have undeniably “left” their mark on history.

Ask any left-hander and they’ll tell you that, when compared to our right-handed brethren, we are the ONLY ones in our right minds – and damn proud of it, too! But there are still some in society, who would probably prefer we “left” that unsaid – don’t you think?!

If you need any more evidence of the greatness, talents and accomplishments of left-handers, check out this amazing list of southpaws below. I had previously compiled a list for that German magazine article. I’ve now supplemented it with information compiled by Indiana University (their full list here).

Famous Lefties

Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II; Alexander the Great; Caesar; Joan of Arc; Charlemagne; King Louis XVI; Napoleon Bonaparte; Queen Victoria; King George II; King George VI; Prince Charles and Prince William; U.S. Presidents: James Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford,  George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Artists: Michelangelo; Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer,  LeRoy Neiman, M.C.Escher, Hans Holbein, Paul Klee, and  Raphael; Composers Philipp Emanuel Bach, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel; Israeli prime ministers: Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert; Writers and Novelists: Peter Benchley, Lewis Carroll, H.G Wells, Eudora Welty (to name a few); Benjamin Franklin; Albert Einstein; General H. Norman Schwarzkopf; David Rockefeller; Helen Keller; Clarence Darrow; Dr. Albert Schweitzer; August Piccard; Henry Ford; Buzz Aldrin; Journalists: Edward R. Murrow, Ted Koppel, Forrest Sawyer, David Broder, columnist Dave Barry, and sports broadcaster Vin Scully; Caroline Kennedy and brother John F. Kennedy, Jr.; Ron Reagan (son of the U.S. president); Cartoonist: Matt Groening and cartoon Bart Simpson; Puppeteer: Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog; Microsoft founder: Bill Gates; lefty_paulMusicians & Singers: Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, Isaac Hayes, David Byrne, Kurt Cobain, Don and Phil Everly, Glenn Frey, Chuck Mangione, Errol Garner, Judy Garland, Melissa Manchester, Joe Perry, Crystal Gayle, Eric Gale, Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Billy Corgan, Cole Porter, Natalie Cole, Lou Rawls, Phil Collins, John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, George Michael, Seal, Ringo Starr,  Tiny Tim, Rudy Valee; Actors and Comedians: Charlie Chaplin, Robert Redford, Whoopi Goldberg, Emma Thompson, Don Adams, Dan Aykroyd,  Eddie Albert, Tim Allen, June Allyson, Robert Blake, Matthew Broderick, Bruce Boxleitner,Carol Burnett, George Burns, Ruth Buzzi, Keith Carradine, Chuck Conners, James Cromwell, Tom Cruise, Quinn Cummings, Matt Dillon, Marty Engles, Olivia de Havilland and Robert DeNiro, Michael Dorn, Fran Drescher, Richard Dreyfuss, W.C. Fields, Peter Fonda, Greta Garbo, Terri Garr, Paul Michael Glaser, Betty Grable, Cary Grant, Peter Graves and Luke Skywalker himself – Mark Hamill, Rex Harrison, Goldie Hawn, Joey Heatherton, Tippi Hedren, Rock Hudson, Angelina Jolie, Gabe Kaplan, Danny Kaye, Diane Keaton, George Kennedy, Nicole Kidman and  Lisa Kudrow, Michael Landon, Hope Lange, Joey Lawrence, Peter Lawford, Cloris Leachman, Hal Linden, Cleavon Little, Shirley MacLaine, Andrew McCarthy, Kristy McNichol, Steve McQueen, Howie Mandel, (mime) Marcel Marceau, Harpo Marx, Marsha Mason, Mary Stuart Masterson, Anne Meara, Robert Morse, Anthony Newley, Kim Novak, Ryan O’Neal, Sarah Jessica Parker, Estelle Parsons, Anthony Perkins, Ron Perlman, Luke Perry, Bronson Pinchot, Joe Piscopo, Robert Preston, Michael J. Pollard, Richard Pryor, Keanu Reeves, Don Rickles, Julia Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Eva Marie Saint, Telly Savalas, Jerry Seinfeld, Christian Slater, Dick Smothers, Rod Steiger, Alan Thicke, Rip Torn, Peter Ustinov, Brenda Vaccaro, Karen Valentine, Dick Van Dyke, James Whitmore, Treat Williams, Bruce Willis,William Windom, Oprah Winfrey, Mare Winningham, Joanne Woodward, Keenan Wynn, Stephanie Zimbalist, Jay Leno; Chef Paul Prudhomme; Athletes (partial list) – Soccer: Jans van Breukelen, Johan Cruyff, Willem van Hanegem, Pelé, Diego Maradona,  Romario,  Hugo Sanchez, Richard Witschge; Cricket: Alan Border, Alistair Campbell, Denis Compton, Saurav Ganguly, David Gower, Gary Sobers; Olympics: Francis Gorman and Greg Louganis (diving), Mark Spitz (swimming), Bruce Jenner (decathlon), Nikita Kohloff (wrestling), Dorothy Hamill (skating); Hockey: Tom Barrasso, Phil Esposito, Cam Neely, Terry Sawchuk, Roman Turek; Boxing: James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, Marvin Hagler,  Oscar de la Hoya, Reggie Johnson, Rafael “Bazooka” Limon, Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker; Auto Racing: Johnny Herbert, Ayrton Senna and Karl Wendlinger (Formula 1), Terry Labonte (NASCAR); American Football:  Mark Brunell, Frankie Albert,  Norman “Boomer” Esiason, Jim Del Gaizon, Gayle Sayers, Kenny Stabler, Steve Young, Jim Zorn; Basketball: Larry Bird, Charles “Lefty” Driesell, Nate Archibald, Walter Berry, Adrian Branch, Digger Phelps, Calbert Cheaney, Bill Russell, Mark Eaton, Nick Van Exel, Gail Goodrich, Bill Walton, Lenny Wilkins (to name a few);  Tennis:  Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova; Guy Forget, Andres Gomez, Goran Ivanesivic,  Rod Laver, Henri LeConte, John McEnroe, Thomas Muster, Monica Seles, Roscoe Tanner, Guillermo Vilas, Mark Woodforde; Baseball: Babe Ruth, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, Tommy John, Ron Guidry, Casey Stengel, Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, Ted Williams, Wally Joyner, Rafael Palmeiro, Leon “Goose” Goslin, David Justice, Barry Bonds, Fernando Valenzuela, Whitey Ford, Tommy Lasorda, Ty Cobb, Lenny Dykstra, Deion Sanders, Steve Carlton, Tom Glavine, Brett Butler, Darryl Strawberry, Lou Brock, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Reggise Jackson, Dave Martinez, Ken Griffey, Jr., Warren Spahn.

And what about the famous lefties who were forced to switch hands? They include these notable names: Al Capone, Winston Churchill, World War II generals George Patton and Erwin Rommel, U.S. president Ronald Reagan, and Marilyn Monroe.

Trying out something new!

Getting familiar with new tools is a bit like learning to ride a bicycle… don’t you think?!  Well, I’ve recently been exploring a new way to tell stories that is more photo-focused – the words are more of an accent.  Photography has long been a personal passion of mine.

Click HERE to see my first attempt and let me know what you think!

 

What Would You Do?

Thirteen years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the anniversary comes and goes and it never gets any easier.  I shared something with my friends on Facebook yesterday morning and realized later that I should’ve shared it here, too.  It all started with a link to a video that I spotted earlier on Twitter.  Here is what I wrote about it:

On this #Sept11, as you stop to Remember and #NeverForget – set aside some time to watch this powerful and very moving video. It’s about Boston College grad Welles Crowther who worked at the World Trade Center but felt his real calling was to be a fireman. I tell you, there will not be a dry eye among anyone who watches it – it’s an amazing piece of video storytelling. And it begins, rather poignantly, with this question, “What would you do in the last hour of your life….” – How would you answer it? #NEVERForget

There are so MANY stories, and having worked in the newsroom back then it seemed there was always another, and another and another. I spotted this on Twitter this morning (Tweet from SportsCenter) and watched. Can honestly say that I think it was the first time I had learned of Welles’ story. And the piece itself is remarkable. I have a book that was published in 2002, titled “September 11: An Oral History” and it sits right here near my computer. It is a series of essays, voices really and at least one of them haunting, from various people who were on the frontlines of the terrorist attacks: the firefighters, the window washer, the people who were just going to work. For me, at least, it is all of these stories together that provide a fuller picture of that day.

The tagline of my blog is “Proof that everything has a story.”  So many people were affected in one way or another by the 9/11 attacks in the United States that sometimes I think there will always be another story, and another… ad infinitum. I watched that video several times yesterday, and my eyes teared up each time.

How would YOU answer the question: “What would you do in the last hour of your life?”  And if we ALL asked that question of ourselves…could we hope to make it a better world?! I’d love to hear your thoughts…

*It is worth noting that Boston College will be honoring Welles on Saturday 9/13/14 when their football team plays USC on ESPN in the U.S. – everyone will be wearing red bandanas http://espn.go.com/blog/boston/colleges/post/_/id/5514/bc-honors-911-hero-welles-crowther

Oh Tannenbaum: A story of Germany and Christmas

Merry Christmas to one and all! Here is my Christmas gift to you…. a little something that I wrote several years back for a magazine in Munich. Figured I’d allow all that research to breathe again, so I freshened it up a tad and wrapped it up on my iPad in hopes of sharing all the great things I learned about so many of our Christmas traditions, and it all begins in Germany…. where else?! 

Of all the times of year to be in Germany, the Weihnachtszeit, or Christmas season, is my absolute favorite. The innate beauty, endearing charm, and colorful traditions that I found in Bavaria added to the distinct magic of the season….it was sort of like living in a Christmas card. Let me explain –

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The Zwetchgenmaendl (Bavarian), or Zwetschgenmaenner

Spanning from the first Sunday of Advent to Epiphany on January 6, Weihnachten is a time when Germany – and Bavaria in particular – displays a delightful and fascinating collection of secular and solemn contributions to this much-loved holiday. From Saint Nikolaus to the amusing Zwetschgenmandl (plum man) – a folk talisman of good luck – Christmas is a mix of religious devotion, folk heritage, pagan custom and Bavarian whimsy. In the Christian ecclesiastical calendar, Advent is the period before Christmas which spans four Sundays, beginning with the one closest to the feast of Saint Andrew (November 30) and ending on Christmas Eve — Heiligabend. The first Sunday of Advent is significant not only because it’s the official start of the Christmas season, but also because it marks the beginning of a new church year. And, according to tradition, it’s on this Sunday that the first candle of the Adventskranz, or Advent wreath, is lit.

Tracing its origins back to the mid-19th century, the Advent wreath is considered a relatively new holiday practice. An evangelical theologian in northern Germany is credited with the original idea — a wooden wheel, which held 24 candles, one for each of the 24 December days before Christmas. In the ensuing years, as the custom developed and grew in popularity, the wooden wheel was replaced by a wreath of evergreen branches, and the number of candles was reduced to four. By 1925, even the Catholic Church in Cologne publicly displayed the wreath. And by 1930, the custom had reached Munich, too.

Another Protestant and Catholic ritual is the December 4th commemoration of Saint Barbara. On this day, a branch is customarily cut from a tree – such as apple, hazelnut, cherry, plum or forsythia – and brought inside the house, where it’s placed in a vase. If the branch — called the Barbarazweig — blooms by Christmas, it is considered an auspicious sign for the future and the coming year. In some parts of Germany, the feast of Saint Barbara is also the day on which Kletzenbrot, a traditional fruit bread, is baked.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany will agree that the most spirited and visible sign of Germany’s Advent season is the Christkindlmarkt, also known variously as the Christkindlesmarkt, Weihnachtsmarkt or Nikolausmarkt. One of the oldest, and certainly the most famous, is Nuremberg’s Christmas market, which can be traced back to the mid-16th century. These immensely popular outdoor fairs, featuring rows of festively decorated wooden stalls, offer everything from holiday decorations, wooden toys and candles, to arts and crafts and warm, woolen socks. Filling the crisp Winter air with the wonderful aromas of grilled sausages, roasted chestnuts, gebrannte Mandeln (sugar-roasted almonds), Gluehwein (mulled wine), and Lebkuchen (gingerbread), no Christmas in Germany seems complete without a visit to one of these magical places.

A beloved pastime of young and old alike is yet another tradition with decidedly German origins, the Adventskalendar (Advent calendar), which appeared for the first time in the 19th century in one primitive form or another. The first printed version was produced in Germany in 1908. It was based on the childhood experiences of Swabian-born Gerhard Lang, whose mother made him cardboard Advent calendars to which 24 Wibile, or small candies, were attached.

Screen shot 2015-01-04 at 4.08.04 PMAn eagerly anticipated day on the calendar in Bavaria is always December 6 — the feast of Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra and patron saint of children. On this day, or more often the evening before, the bearded saint visits youngsters, presenting them with gifts from his sack, such as nuts, apples, clementine oranges, Lebkuchen, Kletzenbrot, and chocolate. More fascinating, perhaps, than the Christian symbolism associated with Nicholas, though, are the pagan roots of his scary-looking Bavarian companions.

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Thomas Nast Illustration

Depending on the region, they are referred to by any one of a number of names, including Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, Buttmandl, Klaubauf, Buttz, Pelzmaertel, Gangerl and Rumpelblas. These shadowy, sinister creatures with ghastly faces are typically covered in tattered garments, fur or straw, and known for their boisterous bells, Ruten (switches), loudchains or terrifying screams. In pre-Christian times, the foreboding characters were intended to scare away Winter’s demons on long, cold, dreadful nights. But today, Nicholas’ escorts often perform the additional task of scaring misbehaved children…. (I’ve heard that some even have burlap sacks to carry off any children who’ve been bad!)

Interestingly, Thomas Nast, the U.S. illustrator and cartoonist credited as the first to sketch America’s image of Saint Nicholas as a fat and jolly “Santa Claus” (Weihnachtsmann), was born in Landau, Bavaria, in 1840. It is said that his childhood memories of the Pelznickel contributed to his now-famous depiction.

Who then, one might ask, is the bearer of gifts to Bavarian children on Christmas Eve, if not Nicholas? Why the Christkindl, of course! Literally translated, the name means “Christ Child.” But the mysterious, captivating figure is usually female and dressed like a so-called Rauschgoldengel (gold foil angel), with curly, glowing hair, flowing robes and wings. Any youngster will tell you the Christkindl not only brings the presents on Heiligabend (December 24), when gifts are traditionally exchanged in Bavaria, but the Christmas tree and decorations too! At least one reference attributes the nickname of Nicholas – “Kris Kringle” – to an altered or misunderstood adaptation of “Christkindl.”

Bavaria’s age-old love for the Krippe, or creche (crib), is well known; the large annual Krippenmarkt (nativity scene market) in Munich during Advent attests to this. In fact, the city’s Bavarian National Museum is home to one of the most extraordinary and extensive collections of Krippen in the world. History credits Italian Jesuit Saint Francis of Assisi with assembling the first re-creation of a nativity scene in 1223, and the Jesuits brought this custom north of the Alps. But the talented artisans and woodworkers of southern Bavaria, especially Oberammergau, are said to have helped the custom propagate throughout the rest of the world.

Note the two miners in this classic Schwibbogen design

Two miners are featured in this classic Schwibbogen design

Craftsmen from Germany’s Erzgebirge (Iron Ore Mountains), in the state of Saxony, just north of Bavaria, have also made significant contributions to our Christmas holiday. The region, after all, is where the Nussknacker (nutcracker) first took its familiar grim-grinning form! Here the brightly lit and bowed Schwibbogen (flying buttress), displayed in windows at Christmas, is a local tradition dating from 1778. The intriguing artwork with its intricate interior designs, owes its name and shape to the architectural form of the entrance to the mountains’ mines, or tunnels (Stollen in German). It is worth noting that the similarly shaped, yet edible Christstollen (Christmas stollen) originated in Dresden about 1450.

The familiar Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas pyramid), meanwhile, also comes from the Erzgebirge. Made from rough sticks and branches in earlier times, the pyramid is believed to be the predecessor of the Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree. Long a pagan symbol of life and fertility to the Germanic and Celtic peoples, beliefs about the evergreen are firmly rooted in German soil and legends about the tree as a Christmas symbol abound. One such story tells of Martin Luther, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation, being among the first to use a candle-lit evergreen as a decoration at Christmas. The festive trees, of course, were eventually trimmed with such things as apples, paper roses, nuts and wafers. And thanks to glass-blowers of Thuringia, Christbaumkugeln, or glass ornaments, were introduced in the mid-19th century.  In 1841, the Christmas tree tradition spread beyond continental Europe to Great Britain. German Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, wanted his children to experience the Christmas tradition of his childhood. From Britain, the rest of the world was not far behind.

In German-speaking countries, the Christmas tree was part of a tradition called Rauhnaechte (harsh, or wild, nights) — known also as Eisnaechte (ice nights), Rauchnaechte (smoke nights), Zwischennaechte (between nights) and Zwoelfnaechte — in other words, the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” These are, quite simply, the 12 days between the end of Advent and Epiphany. According to custom still practiced in many German households, the tree is put up on December 24 and taken down around January 6 — Epiphany — which is known as the “Twelfth Night.” Age-old beliefs hold that during these 12 days, horrendous demons, witches, and mischievous spirits roam freely on earth to harrass the living. And loud noises, it would seem, are a successful means to drive the fiends away. So, as is still practiced in some areas, such as Berchtesgaden, whips are repeatedly cracked, bells are rung and gunpowder Boeller (muskets or canon) are shot with deafening repetition. Leaving nothing to chance, houses, stables and stalls are also blessed with holy water and fumigated with smoldering branches of juniper and other herbs.

A medieval legend that bones of the Three Wise Men are housed in a golden shrine at the cathedral in Cologne has, at least partly, contributed to the centuries’ old tradition of celebrating Epiphany — Heilige Drei Koenige. Children, dressed as the biblical Three Wise Men and carrying a Star of Bethlehem, go from house to house, singing traditional songs and collecting offerings for the poor. According to custom, they write “C + M + B” along with the year, above the door of each house. The meaning of the intials is two-fold: first, as the initials of the Three Wise Men — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar; and second, representing the Latin phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which asks God to bless the dwelling.

Without the influence of many of the customs that come from Germany, our own festivities would seem rather lackluster today. So, as we deck the halls with our own special traditions during Christmas, it’s worth remembering the abundant and colorful contributions made by this seemingly storybook land. 20111225-171627.jpg

Ornamental Delights

Christmas is a time for giving…. so, I’ve dusted the cobwebs off another item from my writing basement – again, something that I wrote when I was in Germany…

German Christmas Ornaments

They sparkle, they glitter…they come in all shapes, sizes and colors.  And for most people, they’re what makes every Christmas tree unique:  glass ornaments.

Since ancient times, people have brought evergreen branches and trees into their homes in the middle of the cold, dark winter as a symbol of everlasting life and health, and as a talisman to ward off tragedy and evil.

The custom of decorating these greens, using apples, nuts, cubes of sugar, cookies, wafers, and other home-made treats started in the late 16th century — about the same time that glass blowers in the quaint German town of Lauscha, in Thuringia, were making a name for themselves as exquisite and superb craftsmen.

As the story is told, the very first glass ornaments were created in the mid-1800s by a Lauscha glass blower who was too poor to decorate his Christmas tree with real fruit and nuts.  So, he created fruit and nuts — out of glass!

The key to this development was the invention of the internal silvering process, which enabled glass blowers to create a shiny, almost mirror-like surface inside the blown-glass shape by using a non-toxic silver saline solution.  It’s a process that is still used today. The outside of the ornament was then painted in various colors and decorated with materials like metal foil, wax, or paper.

Around 1880, something else happened that would change the future of these exquisite glass creations — forever.  An American merchant by the name of F.W. Woolworth spotted these marvelous glass creations in Germany.  He took such a fancy to them that he took some back to the United States to sell to his customers in Pennsylvania.  The glass ornaments — in the shapes of stars, angels, trumpets, Nikolaus, and other shimmering forms — were a big hit.  And by the turn of the century, Woolworth was importing 200,000 of them to sell at his five-and-dime stores.

Ornaments displayed in a storefront in Lauscha Photo/Kathleen Saal

In the years that followed, Lauscha’s world-wide popularity and reputation in the Christmas ornament market continued to grow.

Although much of the ornament production was automated during Lauscha’s days under East German rule, today glass blowers at privately owned companies are again making ornaments according to the traditional and time-honored method —- by hand.  Of the estimated five million glass ornaments made in Lauscha each year, roughly 60 percent of them are for export.  One of the town’s biggest customers?  The United States — over a century after Mr. Woolworth first visited the town.

Many of the wooden molds used to create the very early ornament shapes, are used now to inspire newer – yet still nostalgic – shapes and motifs.  If you counted all the various ornament shapes and designs existing today, you’d find about 10,000 — in every shape, size and color imaginable.  Some of them cost as much as $100 each.  They range from the traditional and ever-popular round ornament to those that look like icicles or birds, stars, churches, teddy bears, and Nikolaus, Santa Claus or Father Christmas.  More unique, but less traditional, are ornaments shaped like Bugs Bunny and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which can be found on contemporary Christmas trees in the U.S.

For something truly different, there are even ornaments shaped to look like watermelons, pumpkins and – yes – garlic bulbs and plain brown potatoes.  With a bit of luck, you can even find glass ornaments shaped like those fruits and nuts of yore.

A Hard Nut to Crack: The origins of a much-loved wooden Christmas figure

I’ve dusted off a story that I wrote at Christmas for Munich Found Magazine back in the late 1990s. Rather than do a simple paste up job here, I’ve polished it up a bit and added some tinsel and holly for a proper Christmas in 2011 (Ha!) – Froehe Weihnachten!  Merry Christmas!

Collected and adored around the world, the German nutcracker has been a beloved part of Christmas traditions for more than 100 years.  But cracking nuts has been a dilemma a lot longer than that.   How long you ask? Well, how about since the beginning of time!  Earlier versions, including simple stones and wooden hammers, have been used for more than 2,000 years.  The oldest known metal nutcracker, which is on display in Italy, dates back to the third or fourth century B.C.  Yet still, it is the younger, animated wooden figure of German folk culture which has influenced what we know and love today.

Originally designed as a rather simple-looking wooden gadget, the nutcracker has always had a very practical purpose:  to crack the hard shells of nuts.  The device itself, though, was considered somewhat frivolous …especially when strong hands and teeth could accomplish the same exact task…for free!  (Teeth… yes, you just read that.  Now think walnuts and teeth… yikes!)

In the early 18th century, wood craftsmen in Germany’s Thuringia and Erzgebirge regions had an idea — to create a nutcracker that looked like a toy and would appeal to children.  After whittling boughs of beech and pine, they adorned the wooden pieces with various materials, such as wool, leather or fur.  The resulting figure had a big head and a strong form, with a lever on the back to open and close the nutcracker’s mouth. When a nut was placed in the open mouth, it would look like the teeth of the nutcracker were cracking the shell — a none too subtle encouragement for people to use the nutcracker to open nuts…. instead of their own teeth.

The German word “Nussknacker” is said to have appeared in the dictionary of the legendary Brothers Grim.  It was defined as “often in the form of a misshaped little man, in whose mouth the nut, by means of a lever or screw, is cracked open”.

But the nutcracker, even with its toy-like design, still hadn’t reached its must-have celebrity status.  That didn’t come until about 1816, when German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann published his popular children’s fairy tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.  Nearly 80 years after that, Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky put a nutcracker in the title role of his ballet, “The Nutcracker Suite.” The rest, as they say, is history, because nutcrackers have played a role in our Christmas traditions ever since.

The “Grimmigens” – traditional German nutcrackers stand watch at a Christkindlmarkt in Bavaria

An estimated 80 percent of all the nutcrackers made in Germany seem to find their way across the Atlantic into the homes of American collectors.  Always dressed to reflect the tastes and times in which they’re created, popular designs include fairy tale characters and animals, dwarfs, the seasonal Nikolaus or Santa Claus, cowboys, indians, sport figures, models of everyday people like fishermen, dentists, mountain climbers, mushroom collectors or pottery makers… there’s even U.S. Civil War soldiers and a nutcracker dressed like Abraham Lincoln!

Over the years, there is one thing that hasn’t changed: nutcrackers have never lost their mean grins and gruff-looking faces…or their lesser-known secondary role as a popular means of social criticism. The most traditional and still popular figures of kings, soldiers, knights, foresters, gendarmes -and even Napolean Bonaparte- first appeared in the 19th century. These designs were originally a reflection of hidden resentment, representing the ultimate revenge of the wooden toy makers, and the poorer class. In every day life the common people had to work for and answer to these privileged rulers. But once they got home, they could switch roles and make the nobility and military work for them…by making them perform a menial, tooth-breaking task — cracking nuts.

Oktoberfest by the Numbers

Got another Oktoberfest-related piece published on CNN’s food blog this week (Oct 10, 2011)!  I think everyone will enjoy this one.. after all, what’s not to like about Oktoberfest?!  I certainly had fun writing it!  Full post can be seen here on the web: http://eatocracy.cnn.com/2011/10/10/oktoberfest-by-the-numbers/ – Let me know what you think!

The Road Less Traveled

A friend of mine posted a quote today that went like this:

If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.

This quote from Ray Bradbury got me thinking about how we live our lives.  Do we only make choices through careful planning…. or do we sometimes grab the bull by the horns and simply wing it now and then?

Not sure why all of this got stuck in my head, but it made me think of one of my favorite poems.  It’s one that I have taken to heart in my own life.

Some background:  I am a big advocate of thinking outside the box, of challenging the status quo, of not engaging in office group think, of tearing down silos…. and of not going on organized tours that have every moment of your vacation planned.  I have never liked being marched around like a sheep.  I don’t base my editorial news judgment on something just because it is or isn’t in the New York Times (you’d be shocked at how many do).  And, I look at things from a different angle… even when taking photographs.  So, taking the road less traveled is really nothing new to me.

One of my “Roads Less Traveled” in Germany. My dog Bo (in the distance) helped me navigate this one…

Maybe my being left-handed has something to do with this.  I mean, it IS a right-handed world – and for those of us who are Southpaws, that means adapting to products made for righthanders (scissors, butter knives, cameras, etc etc etc).  Being left-handed is being different (It also means that we are the only ones in our right side of the brain! Ha! But I digress…).

The best travels and adventures I have ever had involved a car and/or a map, and some good friends or family to ride along.  Of course, good wine, German Bier, some cheese and a baguette would be nice too…  What’s the worst that can happen?  Flat tire?  Getting lost? Some of the best adventures I have ever had were discovered this way.  One time while driving in Spain I picked a destination on a map simply because I liked the name of the very small town — “Montefrio” (cold mountain) — it was one of the most charming/memorable places to overnight ever, and I can guarantee that most of humanity has never seen this small place.  Another time, in Sicily, my boyfriend at the time and I were lost and trying to find our way to somewhere….  so, we stopped to ask directions and were told that the entire village was in the community hall celebrating the Festival of Saint Joseph.  They invited us to join them and sat us in the middle of a long table of Italians.  It was the most amazing thing.  And it was an adventure I will never forget.  It also ranks as one of the most memorable meals and exquisite experiences…

Here, then, is the poem.  What do you think about it?  Do you map out every moment…. or do you jump in now and then, and simply let life happen?

The Road Not Taken – by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

For German Bier, it’s all in the glass

Here is a blog item that I finished writing last Thursday night for CNN’s food blog “Eatocracy” – it was published last Friday. We still have a few more days of Oktoberfest (runs through Oct. 3 in Munich) so enjoy! But then, you don’t need Oktoberfest to enjoy a good German Bier… Prost! (click here to read the full article on CNN.com/eatocracy)  I should add that I have DOZENS of proper German Bier glasses (mugs, steins, Weissbier glasses) at my house…

Here is my story on CNN.com