Let it Snow - Mika-style

Sunday 30 January 2011

Another cover of a Christmas classic... Grace Kelly-bothering falsetto cat-strangler Mika had recorded his own version of Let it Snow. You can listen to it here.

A merry Christmas medley

There are only 328 days left until Christmas 2011, so here, to get you in the mood, is the incorrigible Julian Smith with his very own 'special' Christmas medley.

The Greatest Story Ever Told... via modern social media

Tuesday 11 January 2011

New Forum Added

Monday 10 January 2011

If you're a regular follower of this blog, or new to the site today, I know what you're probably thinking right about now, and that is, "Where can I chat with other like-minded individuals about the works of author Jonathan Green (a.k.a. The Chrismologist)?"

Well, have no fear, for you can now visit the official Jonathan Green, Author forum by clicking on this link (or the one in the sidebar to the right).

As well as discussing everything from What is Myrrh Anyway? to the latest Skyhorse miscellany, over on the forum you'll also find news on event appearances and book signings. There will also be exclusive competitions for forum members from time to time, so why not register today? It only takes a minute and doesn't cost a thing.

Maybe I'll see you over there some time soon.

The Secret History of the Candy Cane

Thursday 6 January 2011

A candy cane is a hard cane-shaped candy stick, traditionally white with red stripes and flavoured with peppermint or cinnamon (also known respectively as a peppermint stick or cinnamon stick). The candy cane is available all year round, but traditionally surrounds the Christmas holiday, particularly in North America.

In its early form, the candy cane began as a simple white stick of sugar for children to eat - there was no "cane" shape or stripes to speak of. While it is uncertain where the first canes originated, it is clear that by the mid-17th century, if not earlier, its use had already become widespread across Europe. These sticks were made by confectioners who had to pull, cut, twist, and (in later years) bend the sugar sticks by hand, making it a time-intensive process. Candy cane production had to be done locally, since they were easily damaged and vulnerable to moisture, and the labour required, and difficulty of storage, combined to make these candies relatively hard to get, although popular.

The distinctive "hook" shape associated with candy canes is traditionally credited to a choirmaster at Cologne Cathedral in Germany, who, legend has it, in 1670 bent straight candy sticks into canes to represent a shepherd's crook, and gave them to children at church services. The shepherd's staff is often used in Christianity as a metaphor for The Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. It is also possible that, as people decorated their Yule trees with food, the bent candy cane was invented as a functional solution.

In Europe, candy canes were used to decorate Yule trees along with other items of food. In North America, the first documented example of the use of candy canes to celebrate Christmas occurred in 1847, when a German-Swedish immigrant by the name of August Imgard hung the candy canes from the branches of a Christmas tree. Christmas cards from the following decades show Christmas trees decorated with candy canes, first white canes, then striped ones in the 20th century. This then spread to the rest of the continent, where it continues to remain a popular Christmas tradition.

The stripes are made similar in fashion to a barber's pole, with the red stripes twisting around the white stick of sugar. These signature stripes did not become part of the candy cane until the 20th century. It is uncertain who first started using the stripes, but evidence of their use only appears after the turn of the century. At around this time, candy makers began using peppermint as a flavour. One of the first documented candy canes in this form is the polkagris, invented in 1859.

Bobs Candies was the first company to successfully mass-produce and distribute candy canes while preserving their freshness. Lt. Bob McCormack began making candy canes as special Christmas treats in the 1920s. That decade also saw the company's use of cellophane as a wrapping to keep moisture from damaging the candies, and by the 1950s, they were using a candy cane machine invented by his brother-in-law Gregory Keller to mass-produce them. These two inventions made it feasible to mass produce, ship, and distribute candy canes. The following years saw further refinements in packaging and design to protect the candies from being broken, making it more practical to store them and ship them for longer periods of time.

Did you know...?
There is a modern allegorical tradition that reinterprets the candy cane's shape as a "J", standing for Jesus Christ or the right side up standing for the shepherds that came to visit baby Jesus. The stripes are said to represent his sacrifice, with the red being blood, and the white being purity. However, no historical information to support any claim that the cane was originally made with this allegory in mind has been produced, so it is regarded as an urban legend.

Twelfth Night traditions

Twelfth Night is traditionally the time to take down your Christmas tree and any other festive decorations. To leave evergreens up in the house after this point is to bring bad luck on the household!

Here are some other Twelfth Night traditions that you might - or might not - be familiar with.

1) Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany, the date on which the Christian Church celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.

2) The feast of the Epiphany originated in the East during the third century, in honour of Christ’s baptism.

3) During a special service held at St James’s Palace, London, on 6 January, members of the Royal Household present the Chapel Royal with the three gifts brought to the Christ child by the Magi.

4) At one time, the highlight of the Twelfth Night celebrations was the cutting of the twelfth-cake, which was supposed to have a dried pea or bean hidden somewhere inside it. Whoever found the bean was proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the evening’s fun and frivolity.

5) Another tradition involving a cake, upheld by the cast of the play currently being performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, is the eating of the Baddeley Cake. This is as a result of a stipulation made in the last will and testament of one Robert Baddeley, an actor from the eighteenth century, after whom the cake is named.

6) In the West of England Twelfth Night is the time when wassailing ceremonies are carried out.

7) At one time in England, Twelfth Night was known as being a good occasion on which to carry out various good luck rituals, as well as for its religious processions which almost went hand-in-hand with the spirited, and good humoured, revels.

8) One such ritual had farmers lighting bonfires to drive evil spirits away from their farms and fields, the tipsy agriculturalists cheering as they circled the fires to hasten the hobgoblins on their way.

9) There was also the time-honoured guessing game, whereby the (now probably inebriated) farmer had to guess what was being roasted in the kitchen before being permitted to re-enter his own home. This was not as easy as it might sound because his good wife might have something as ridiculously inedible as a shoe turning on the spit.

11) On 6 January you would also find Morris men dancing in the streets, along with fools and hobby-horses.

12) Practical jokes were the name of the game on Twelfth Night and the playing of games – particularly games of chance – with everyone determined to make the most of the last day of the holiday season.

So if you're planning to see Christmas out with a bang...

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you, and send you
A happy New Year,
And God send you
A happy New Year.

Blizzard Timelapse

Saturday 1 January 2011

December 2010 Blizzard Timelapse from Michael Black on Vimeo.

Happy Hogmanay!

Hogmanay is the Scots word for the last day of the year and is synonymous with the celebration of the New Year. It is, however, normally only the start of a celebration which lasts through the night until the morning of New Year's Day (1 January) or, in some cases, 2 January which is also a Scottish Bank Holiday.

The etymology of the word is obscure. It may have been introduced to Middle Scots through the Auld Alliance. In 1604 the custom was mentioned in the Elgin Records as hagmonay. The most satisfactory explanation is a derivation from the Northern French dialect word hoguinané, or variants such as hoginane, hoginono and hoguinettes, those being derived from 16th century Old French aguillanneuf meaning either a gift given at New Year, a children's cry for such a gift, or New Year's Eve itself. The second element would appear to be l'an neuf i.e. the New Year.

The roots of Hogmanay perhaps reach back to the celebration of the winter solstice among the Norse, as well as incorporating customs from the Gaelic New Year's celebration of Samhain. In Rome, winter solstice evolved into the ancient celebration of Saturnalia where people celebrated completely free of restraint and inhibition. The Vikings celebrated Yule, which later contributed to the Twelve Days of Christmas, or the "Daft Days" as they were sometimes called in Scotland. The winter festival went underground with the Protestant Reformation and ensuing years, but re-emerged near the end of the 17th century.

There are many customs, both national and local, associated with Hogmanay. The most widespread national custom is the practice of 'first-footing' which starts immediately after midnight. This involves being the first person to cross the threshold of a friend or neighbour and often involves the giving of symbolic gifts such as salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and black bun (a rich fruit cake) intended to bring different kinds of luck to the householder. Food and drink are then given to the guests. This may go on throughout the early hours of the morning and well into the next day. The first-foot is supposed to set the luck for the rest of the year.

The Hogmanay custom of singing "Auld Lang Syne" has become common in many countries. "Auld Lang Syne" is a traditional poem reinterpreted by Robert Burns, which was later set to music. It is now common for this to be sung in a circle of linked arms that are crossed over one another as the clock strikes midnight for New Year's Day, although it is only intended that participants link arms at the beginning of the final verse, coordinating with the lines of the song which contain the lyrics to do so. Typically it is only in Scotland this practice is carried out correctly.

When Ne'erday falls on a Sunday, January 3rd becomes an additional public holiday in Scotland; when Ne'erday falls on a Saturday, both January 3rd and January 4th will be public holidays in Scotland; when Ne'erday falls on a Friday, January 4th becomes an additional public holiday in Scotland.

As in much of the world, the largest Scottish cities, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen hold all-night celebrations, as does Stirling. The Edinburgh Hogmanay celebrations are among the largest in the world, although in 2003-4 most of the organised events were cancelled at short notice due to very high winds. The Stonehaven Fireballs went ahead as planned, however, with some 6000 people braving the stormy weather to watch 42 fireball swingers process along the High Street.

Historically, presents were given in Scotland on the first Monday of the New Year. This would be celebrated often by the employer giving his staff presents and parents giving children presents. Handsel Day is marked by teachers giving gifts to their students. A roast dinner would be eaten to celebrate the festival. Handsel was a word for gift box and hence Handsel Day.

Happy New Year!

Enjoyed yourself last night, did you? Feeling a little worse for wear now? Then what you need is an effective hangover cure. But before we get onto some, it's helpful to know what causes a hangover in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, the answer is fairly complex. If there was a single simple reason for all that pain, you can be sure that a catch-all cure would have been discovered long ago. As it is, there is a veritable cocktail of effects, all of which conspire to make 'the morning after' a grim one.

Pure ethanol is metabolically fairly clean, but an alcoholic beverage is a combination of water, ethanol, and flavourings, and it's the identity of some of these flavourings that causes many of the problems. Red wines contain all sorts of interesting chemicals, leading to the complex flavourings typical of the breed, and although many of these impurities - such as arsenic - are poisonous, they are usually present in such minute quantities as to be relatively harmless. However, if the wine is concentrated by distillation, then as well as increasing the alcohol content, you are also concentrating the poisons. This is the reason that brandy, port and cheap red wine can give you the most monstrous hangovers, as well as gout in later life.

Dehydration is a well-documented consequence of drinking and is caused because ethanol has diuretic qualities, so you end up expelling more liquid than you drink. This also results in the loss of important salts dissolved in it. Potassium and sodium ions in particular are essential for the optimal functioning of nerves and muscles. An imbalance outside a limited range can result in nausea, fatigue, and headaches.

Ethanol also acts on the brain's pituitary gland and
blocks production of a hormone called vasopressin, which usually directs the kidneys to reabsorb water that would otherwise end up in the bladder. Once this hormonal signal has been switched off, there is nothing to stop the bladder from filling up with all the water from the fluid that you drink. A supply of water is essential to the continuing functioning of the body, and when various organs find that their normal supply of water has been cut off, they steal it from anywhere they can, including the cells of the brain. Although the brain itself cannot feel pain, when it starts to shrink due to water loss, pain-sensitive filaments connecting the outside membranes to the inside of the skull become stretched, giving the symptoms of a headache.

Alcohol also attacks the body's store of glycogen, an important energy source kept in the liver, breaking it down to glucose which is then flushed out in the urine. Without this store of energy on call next morning, you are left feeling weak and wobbly.

Methanol is a simpler cousin of ethanol, and is found as a contaminant in cheap red wines, whisky and fruit brandy. This is 'meths', the fuel alcohol that makes you blind if you drink too much of it. The liver attacks it as the poison it is, but one of the break-down products is formic acid, a particularly nasty chemical which ants use to spray at their attackers.

But anyway, enough of the reasons why you're feeling rubbish and onto the cures...

Over the counter remedies
Sold in Australia as a vitamin supplement, Berocca is widely recognised as a hangover cure as it contains all the chemicals that are lost and destroyed in a drinking session, in the correct proportions.

N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is an amino acid supplement sold in health food stores, and is extremely good at mopping up the free radicals that have built up in the liver. NAC works because it is rich in cysteine, another amino acid that is used by the body in the manufacture of free radical-eliminating glutathione. For those in the know, this is a very effective hangover remedy, and is especially good if you need a clear head in the morning.

Sold in the UK as a stomach settler, Resolve is a powder that becomes a fizzy drink when added to water, and contains a painkiller and some anti-acid chemicals. Another common brand, although without the painkiller, is Alka Seltzer which comes in tablet form. For our purposes, these are best taken before going to bed, as the chances are that in the morning you won't be able to keep it down. It can work marvels, especially if followed in the morning by a vitamin supplement such as Berocca.

2) Eggs
Many traditional hangover cures, such as Prairie Oysters, omelettes and the English Fried Breakfast, involve eggs. Others swear by a downed raw egg in the morning. The reason that these are thought to work at all is probably that eggs also contain cysteine, and so help to mop up free radicals.

3) A hot shower

Another way of relieving a headache is to sit in a really hot, really powerful shower, and get the full force of it on the back of your neck. This may need some juxtaposition of plastic chairs and shower settings, so it might be an idea to practice first while sober, but it is worthwhile because headaches are often caused by constricted blood vessels and tense neck muscles. A massage under a hot shower relaxes the tension.

4) Isotonic sports drinks

In theory these are a great idea, for they are supposed to replace all the salts and sugars that are sweated out during athletic activity - surely much the same thing as we are trying to achieve here. The problem is that, due to market forces, they are usually fizzy, and probably the last thing you need while suffering a hangover is a bellyful of bloating gas. However, if you don't mind, or if you can find a flat one, it's definitely worth doing. One variation on the sports drink theme is a 50:50 mix of Tropical Tango and Red Bull.

5) Salt Solution

Apparently a poisoned digestive system is much better at taking up an isotonic solution than it is at taking up pure water, so if you're going to drink water put a spoonful of salt in it, and a couple more of sugar to increase the concentration and mask the taste. While you're at it, you might as well throw in some powdered painkillers, although bear in mind that some studies have shown that paracetamol can amplify alcohol's damaging effect on the liver. As with any medication, read the packet carefully.

6) A breath of fresh air

Popular wisdom dictates a brisk walk in fresh mountain air to dispel those post-binge blues, but the problem is that when you really need it, the last thing you're capable of doing is getting up off the floor, let alone going out into the outside world. The theory is that the increased oxygen flow improves the metabolic rate, and thus increases the speed at which the poisons are broken down. Be that as it may, SCUBA divers have long known that a blast from the tank first thing in the morning does wonders in blowing away the fog.

7) Pinching your hand

There is a nerve junction between the thumb and forefinger on your left hand which is reputed to be an acupressure point which can release tension in the head and neck. If you pinch it quite hard for 30 seconds every five minutes, normal tension headaches can be relieved. It's certainly worth trying if you can't keep down any painkillers.

And if you're really desperate there's always...

8) Kidney dialysis

Since you cannot depend on your kidneys to filter your blood properly after a binge, you could get a machine to do it for you. Admittedly most people don't have access to a dialysis machine, but if you can stand getting hooked up by nurses armed with needles while still drunk, you can be sober in four or five hours without any ill effects. Marvellous.

The following are also all commonly held to be effective hangover cures, but the truth of the matter is that they're just unhelpful myths, so I would recommend giving the following a miss in 2010...

A good strong cup of coffee or tea will perk you up at any time of day, but that's just the caffeine stimulating your tired body. It doesn't actually cure anything, and if you're at the stage when you can keep hot drinks down then you're probably on the road to recovery anyway. In addition, caffeine is also a diuretic, and you don't want to be losing any more water at this stage of the game, so from this viewpoint it may be best to avoid caffeine.

2) Hair of the dog

A tot of alcohol in the morning. For some particularly nasty hangovers, this can be useful, although the bad news is that the effect is only temporary. The liver attacks poisons in a certain order, with ethanol first. Once all the ethanol has been broken down, it starts on the methanol, which releases formic acid into your system and makes you feel bad. Hitting the liver with another dose of ethanol causes it to stop processing methanol and start on the new threat, but the methanol will have to be processed sometime so you are only postponing the hangover until later.

3) Water

The traditional hangover remedy, with folklore dictating that you should quaff a pint of water for every drink that you have consumed. Undeniably this has some ameliorative effect, but because your kidneys' water-absorption function has been switched off, a lot of it goes straight to your bladder, noticeably causing nocturnal trips to the bathroom and little else.


Please note that we take no responsibility for any ill effects caused by the remedies suggested here: you try them at your own risk. Nobody should mix their medicines. Similarly nobody should drink ten pints of lager and then eat a curry. You have been warned!

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!

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