Friday, December 31, 2010

1993 Predicts the Future

Not too bad for twenty years ago, but it wasn't AT&T that gave us all this:

They got some things wrong, of course--we don't swipe a card to use EZPass, and no one sends faxes anymore. But still, it's pretty good.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Halfway Out of the Dark

So I grew up as a geek; my mother raised me on Star Trek, my first computer was a TI99/4A, and I've had a subscription to National Geographic from the time I was nine. So the yearly Doctor Who Christmas special is a highlight of the holiday for me. And the most recent one is arguably the best (though "The Christmas Invasion" comes in a close second).

Yes, Michael Gambone is wonderfully nasty as the Scrooge stand-in Kazran Sardick; there hasn't been a Scrooge who was that much of a bastard since George C. Scott. And the steampunk mise-en-scène fits so nicely, so well for a Christmas Carol retelling (and for some reason, it works better for me than "The Next Doctor"). But what made this episode so good was two-fold: it gave a surprisingly fresh take on the Dickens warhorse, and it really embraced the secular meaning of this season: as the Doctor says, we're halfway out of the dark.

Amy and Rory are on an interstellar ship headed for disaster unless the man who controls the skies over his planet--Kazran, who inherited this position from his father--clears the skies and lets them land. He won't, simply because he can--and, as he says, the planet already has a "surplus population"--who needs another 4003? So, naturally, the Doctor needs to change him, and since it's Christmas, he's inspired (in a fairly straightforward way) to take on the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Kazran's memories are changed in front of his--and our--own eyes, once the Doctor goes back to change him into a better person. Moffat knows how to play with time travel better than any of the writers of the revived show, and he pulls out all the stops here, including a clever take on the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future. Kazran's lost love Abigail is, unfortunately, apparently suffering from Victorian Novel Disease, but at least she exists for more than breaking Kazran's heart; Katherine Jenkins's voice is appropriately haunting, and let's face it, singing to sharks is cool.

Like Dickens, and like It's a Wonderful Life, this is about someone who isn't too far gone, who can be redeemed. Kazran's father was too far gone--he was dead; Mr. Potter was too far gone--he never even had a crisis of conscience. But Scrooge? George Bailey? You and I? We're not too far gone--we can come back out and see the light.

We've come through the longest night of the year; from here on out, the days get longer, even if winter's grasp on us won't lessen for a long time.

On Christmas Eve, while driving home from seeing some friends, my husband asked "Why do you think Christmas is so tied up with being depressing? I don't think Charlie Brown started it--so where did it come from?" We didn't come up with a good explanation, just a list of examples--Charlie Brown Christmas, It's a Wonderful Life, the great O. Henry story "Gift of the Magi". Catcher in the Rye is about a kid losing his mind right before Christmas. The Bishop's Wife is about an angel who falls in love and can't do anything about it. We talked about whether it was a post-war phenomenon, whether it was born of that whole modern alienation problem. But now I wonder if it isn't partially because it really is the darkest time of the year, and we suffer from a type of seasonal affect disorder. Or if it's tied up in anxiety about families, and at least in the U.S., families are flung to the four corners, and often not speaking to each other; this is certainly true for my family. But Christmas is all about families, they say--and so anxiety reigns.

But maybe it's as simple as seeing all the commercialism, the worrying about money, about status, about presents, meanwhile every day gets darker and darker, and so striving for something more--because something has to bring us out of the dark.

Well, we're halfway there--the sun is no longer standing still, the days will slowly get longer, the year is about to begin again.

Also, finally, isn't Matt Smith wonderful as Eleven? I can't wait for the next series to start.

Monday, December 20, 2010

To Drive the Cold Winter Away

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend each merry man's friend,
That doth but the best that he may;
Forgetting old wrongs, with carols and songs,
To drive the cold winter away.

Here on the US east coast, the longest, darkest night in nearly four hundred years has begun.

Thankfully, this isn't a metaphor--it's science.

Tonight in the northern hemisphere is the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice; and it's the first time in hundreds of years that the longest night of the year has had a lunar eclipse.

Actually, I don't know how this is the darkest night--if the moon is in total eclipse, it's not like it's a new moon, which we can't really see; even if it's dark red, it's still a light.
The court in all state now opens her gate
And gives a free welcome to most;
The city likewise, tho' somewhat precise,
Doth willingly part with her roast:
But yet by report from city and court
The country will e'er gain the day;
More liquor is spent and with better content
To drive the cold winter away.
But that's not really why I'm posting. For what the moon is doing--passing through the shadow of the earth, from light into darkness and again into light--is much like the Winter Solstice itself, when we reach the longest night, when the strength of the sun (metaphorically) is at it's lowest point, and ancient people waited out the night to see the sun rise again, knowing that after this, the sun would gradually strengthen again, that the long, dark nights would eventually give way to spring, to summer, to growth. And regardless of whether we ever had Christmas, we would still have had the solstice, we would still have had that long, dark time of year, when we light lights through the night.
Thus none will allow of solitude now
But merrily greets the time,
To make it appear of all the whole year
That this is accounted the prime:
December is seen apparel's in green,
And January fresh as May
Comes dancing along with a cup and a song
To drive the cold winter away.
Last Friday, my husband and I threw a party, because that's what you do this time of year. I don't mean that dismissively--I am being entirely sincere. These are the longest nights; it's cold, it's miserable, and there's little to do outside but rush from one place to the other. We gather together, eating and drinking, talking and remembering, because this is when things are slow. We need a break--like the sun, we're worn down, and waiting for renewal.
To mask and to mum kind neighbours will come
With wassails of nut-brown ale,
To drink and carouse to all in the house
As merry as bucks in the dale;
Where cake, bread, and cheese is brought for your fees
To make you the longer stay;
At the fire to warm 'twill do you no harm,
To drive the cold winter away.
And from now until after the New Year, the sun stands still--for that's what "solstice" means in Latin--and so do we. And on this, the longest night, when even the moon, for the first time in hundreds of years, goes from full brightness to an eclipse, it's good to remember, beyond the politics of Christmas, of buying gifts and worrying about the bills to come, of whose family to visit (or whether to avoid families altogether), it's good to remember that while we live, each night will come to an end, just as much as each day. Sometimes it takes longer to see the sun again, but it's coming. It will come. And the night will, eventually, end.
When white-bearded frost hath threatened his worse,
And fallen from branch and briar,
Then time away calls from husbandry halls
And from the good countryman's fire,
Together to go, to plough and to sow
To get us both food and array,
And thus will content the time we have spend
To drive the cold winter away.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mumming--It's Not Just For Old People On Two Street Anymore

Philebrity has a post on Nerd Island, a new mummer brigade which directly tries to appeal to younger artists and activists in the Philly area.

For those who don't know, the Mummer's Parade is held on New Year's Day here in Philadelphia; it's a day-long parade of people in costumes, divided into four groups--comics, string bands, fancies (which combine elements of comics and string bands with small floats), and the fancy brigades, which have very elaborate, feather- and sequin-covered costumes.

It's something to see, usually while drunk--which is OK, since the comics are usually still drunk from the night before. All of which is keeping in the tradition of mumming, which goes back to medieval Europe. Mumming plays, wren boys, the Mari Lwyd, and the Philadelphia Mummers are all part of a larger tradition wherein the working classes (both urban and agricultural), given freedom from work for two weeks, drank and ate and partied, often to the dismay of their social "betters". It's one of the reasons the Puritans outlawed Christmas in both Britain and America in the 17th century (see the fantastic The Battle for Christmas for more on this).

What's interesting about Nerd Island is that unlike the other brigades, these aren't from the old neighborhoods--these are young people, seeing an opportunity to carry on a tradition, while getting it back to its anarchic roots. Like the best comic brigades, they're using pop culture and politics for their inspirations (for Nerd Island, it's the environment), and in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, taking donations for charity (in this case, Haiti).

This is one reason I love Philly--here we have this drunken, crazy parade, and it's entirely keeping with a medieval tradition, even if we don't realize it.

Plus ça change...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Happy Eponalia

Eponalia--the Feast of Epona, the horse goddess of the Celts--is one of the only pre-medieval festivals connected to the Celts that we can directly point to, if only because it was preserved in a Roman calendar.1 Though a Celtic goddess, she was adopted by the Romans, and her cult was widespread.

Called the Guidizzolo inscription, this rustic Roman calendar, found in norther Italy (near Verona), in the province of Gallia Cisalpina, mentions this feast as

'XV Kalendas Ianuarius Eponae'.

This date--counting backwards fifteen days from the Kalends of January (i.e. January 1), would lead to today's date, December 18th, as explained here:

--American journal of archaeology, Volume 8

Of course, why Epona was worshipped in December is unknown; but it is interesting to note the old Welsh custom of the Mari Lwyd held around the time of the new year (i.e. January 1), wherein a mumming troop carry around a horse's skull on a pole, the jaws hinged so that the skull can talk and engage in rhyming contests, earning food for the mummers. The origin of the custom is unknown, but certainly Wales had its own horse goddess in Rhiannon.

And so, have a happy Eponalia!

For more about Epona, check out, the most comprehensive site on the subject.


1. The other two are the famous "TRINOX[tion] SAMO[nii] SINDIV" i.e. "three-nights of Samonios today" on the 17th of Samonios; when the month of Samonios occurred is of much debate; the other is "DECAMNOCTIACIS GRANNI", the ten-night festival of Grannos, about which we know nothing, not even when it occurred.

Rachel Bromwich, 1915-2010

Via Heavenfield, I've learned that Rachel Bromwich has passed away at the age of 95.

Professor Bromwich, more than any other scholar, has influenced my work; my website (and really, my life) would be much poorer if I'd never come across her writings.

Her Trioedd Ynys Prydain is one of the most important works on Old Welsh literature--really, if you're interested in Welsh literature and legend, you can't just pick up a copy of the Mabinogion, you have to seek out TYP. The notes alone are an impressive encyclopedia of Welsh myth and legend. And her works on Welsh Arthuriana in general are without match. She also was instrumental in translating the works of Sir Ifor Williams, whose studies on Taliesin are among the best.

She published an updated edition of TYP as late as 2005; I can only hope to be as active at that age (or live that long).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Google's new reading level results have me feeling pretty good about my website (it could be worse):

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saving the St Chad Gospels

Via Heavenfield, there's apparently work being done by the University of Kentucky and the Litchfield Cathedral to digitize the St Chad Gospels:

Video via Heavenfield

For those who are wondering, this gospel contains the Surrexit Memorandum, one of the earliest texts in the Welsh language (which you can see at my website, with a translation of one section by John Rhys.)
Today's video: Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)--the Ramones.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Raiders of the Lost Ark is on; it's not very Christmassy, but it is one of the few perfect movies.