Friday, December 20, 2019

Merry Christmas, America!

Five clear ornaments filled with red, green and gold doodads.
Last year at this time, I wrote a blog about Christmas events around the world, so this time around  figured I’d explore closer to home and see what goes on in our country. What I found was, that when you remove the faith-based aspects of the season and other cultural celebrations (shout out to Kwanzaa), Christmas looks remarkably similar across the US. Everybody seems to like ornaments, Santa, Christmas trees and the general sparkle of the season. Where the differences lie are in the ethnic histories of communities, which makes sense in an immigrant country as diverse and multicultural as ours.

A green and white neon decoration, reflected in water, of Santa in a boat being pulled by gators.
In parts of Louisiana it’s not just Christmas, it’s Cajun Christmas. Cajuns are descendants of French Canadian Catholics who arrived in the area in the late 1700’s. The story of these people, known as Acadians, is (like many other settlers) one of religious and cultural persecution and exile (here is a short history). They settled in the bayous of Louisiana where they could live their own way and their ancestors continue that attitude to this day. Cajuns have their own very unique language, culture and traditions that pull from the ancestral French but are spiced up Cajun-style. And Christmas is no exception - in Cajun Country Santa is called Pere Noel and his reindeer and sleigh transform into alligators and a boat when they reach the bayous (and the alligators have names).  Along the levees, bonfires are set on Christmas Eve to help guide him along. These fires also light the way to Midnight Mass. Over the years, people have gotten creative with the size and shapes of these fires – here is a giant alligator being constructed for this year’s Christmas Eve.

Santa on a white and blue surfboard surfing a blue-green wave.
In our newest state, Hawaii, Christmas traditions are truly a cultural melting pot. For native Hawaiians, Christmas just happens to fall in the time period of their traditional observance of
Makahiki. This celebratory period between mid-November and late January-early February is meant to be a time to gather and pay tribute to leaders, harvest, rest and recreate. Christmas fits right into that. Many Americans became tuned into Hawaiian Christmas when Bing Crosby first sang Mele Kalikimaka(the phonetic version of “Merry Christmas” in native Hawaiian). Modern Hawaii has incorporated cultures from around the Pacific and their Christmas foods show it; sushi is as likely to be on the menu as poi. But, all in all, Christmas in Hawaii looks much like Christmas elsewhere – except that Santa is surfing, or wearing shorts, snowmen are sandmen and poinsettias are what’s blooming on those big trees in the backyard.

A brightly lit up stall in a market. Two women, with their backs to the camera, are talking to a woman in a booth. Christkindlmarket in Chicago, photo by Jaclyn Rivas
Christkindlmarket , Chicago, IL
Considering the huge number of Americans with German ancestry, it should come as no surprise that Christmas markets can be found across the US. Many, such as the Christkindlmarket in Chicago, reflect the large German populations within those areas; others are more fabricated and kitschy (but still fun). Having had the privilege of experiencing “real” Christmas markets in Germany, I highly recommend them in any form. Especially if they have mulled wine (Gl├╝hwein)! Here are of the best to be found.

Three cacti in red pots lit up in white lights and colorful ornaments.Here in southern Arizona (and everywhere else there is a large Latino community), Christmas is tamale time. Sure, people decorate their cactus and put out luminarias, but Christmas in Tucson is about the tamales. It’s just in the air. In the last couple weeks, I’ve had numerous random tamale conversations. And people take their tamales seriously. There are unlimited variations to the basic recipe that are endlessly debated, validated, criticized and discussed. In the end, people fall back on what their families have always done. Because those are the best tamales, with that special nostalgic taste that Christmas demands.
A drawing of a large family gathered in a blue and yellow kitchen. Everyone is doing there part in making tamales.
Una tamalada

Why tamales at Christmas? Good question. There are many anecdotal theories (this article has some of those), but there’s no one definitive answer. Tamales have been eaten in the Americas for a very long time and sometimes such ancient sources of traditions can get blurred. What is not in question is that tamales are a family affair. Because they are labor-intensive, the more hands to help, the better. When people gather for the holidays that labor comes right into the kitchen. Tamale making then becomes a bonding experience and a way to honor traditions that is priceless. Here is an excellent article that relates one family’s tamalada. If you don’t have tamale helpers nearby, just like working solo or have never tried making them before, here is an article with illustrated step-by-step instructions. While its title indicates that tamale making is a family event, the clear cut steps will work well for a solo tamale adventure.

A man dressed as George Washington face to face with a camel over a wooden corral fence.And now I’d like to pivot from specific traditions to straight-up Americana and talk about George Washington.  It’s never the wrong time of year to acknowledge the accomplished general and statesman who was our first president, but he also has some interesting connections to Christmas. His famous crossing of the Delaware, for instance. That took place, in the midst of a brutal winter storm, during the night of December 25-26, 1776. This historic moment is reenacted every Christmas in aptly named Washington Crossing, PA. Meanwhile, down at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, people come to see his Christmas Camel. Washington was an animal lover and was especially fascinated with creatures from foreign lands. According to historical documentation, he regularly paid to see exotic animals, including a lioness, a tiger, a sea leopard and an an elephant. In 1787, he paid 18 shillings (a considerable amount to pay, about half a laborer’s weekly salary) to have a camel brought to Mt. Vernon at Christmastime. It would have been an extremely rare sight for his family and guests. Modern Mt. Vernon pays tribute to that camel by having a Christmas Camel every year. The current star is named Aladdin and apparently he is happy to pose for selfies, although he has been known to eat the occasional hat.

There are so many fascinating Christmas celebrations that I simply don’t have the time or space to share them all. I encourage you to look around and find new, delicious, educational and plain old fun ways to enjoy the season in your area.
A Star Wars gif, with a young black man fighting a giant candy cane man with a candy cane light saber.
                                            May the force be with you this holiday season!
  Submitted by Pam

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Ordinary Ornaments? Bah Humbug!

A blue-green Christmas ornament with skinny little bird legs.An Christmas tree topper of an angel with gold wings and halo wearing a white dress. But the head is a Basset Hound head.While I was floating around the internet looking for inspiration for this blog, I landed in a realm that left me with anything but the Christmas spirit. I’m talking about the world of weird Christmas ornaments – in many cases, weird and disturbing. Most people dig out their sentimental family ornaments, jolly Santas and glittering decorations and beautify their house for the season. But I somehow can’t believe that the people who buy these ornaments also have a blow-up snowman in their yard. My over-arching thought process when looking at some of these  goes like this: “Why? Who Would Want This? What’s The Point?”

An ornament with a gold bow hanging on a grey wall. It is a baby doll face with two tiny reaching around by the ears.
There's something about those tiny hands...
First of all, I feel it necessary to point out that I am an open-minded and liberal thinking person who enjoys changing things up, but some of what I’ve seen just baffles me. For instance, there is an overabundance of “decorative” moose poop ornaments. I mean, there's a lot of them! They pop up everywhere. If this is a “thing”, I wish someone would explain it to me. Likewise, the great many gender-specific body part ornaments. The creativity of some of these is quite mind-bending (others are just plain crude). But since when does genitals -on-a-tree mean “Christmas”?

A pink blob-like thing with a giant blue eyeWe can probably thank the Goth community, as well as the ever-growing popularity of Halloween and the Day of the Dead, for the increased availability of some of the more horror-centric ornaments out there. But items like skulls are much more mainstream than edgy these days, and by the time Christmas comes, macabre decorations can seem more like stale leftovers from Halloween than festive Christmas fare. Nevertheless, there are still some out there that can make you go, "What....?". The eyeball thingy to the left is one.

Four hanging replicas of pink brains with spinal cords attached.Another question I have about all this is: why are fetuses considered suitable as decorations? Here is a whole page full of fetus ornaments (including one of fetal stem cells). The more I looked at it, the worse I felt about it, so be cautious clicking on that link. For an even more extreme fetus ornament, check out this one – it’s carrying an assault weapon. I’m positive I don’t want to know the people behind all that; the whole thing is offensive on many levels.

Three felt ornaments. They have white heads shaped to look like garlic and are dressed in colorful. They don't look too happy.On a lighter note: How about a brain with the spinal column attached? It even comes in a two-pack, because one is just not enough. Seriously, would even a neurosurgeon want this?

Four round ornaments. Inside each is multicolored crochet work made to look like mold and other growths in a petri dish.Garlic lovers can decide for themselves if they need some angry-faced garlic ornaments. The maker calls them cute and charming, I call them creepy and weird.

A man with dark hair and grey clothing sitting on s white rocket - meant to be Kim Jon Un, the leader of North Korea.Are you a fan of ruthless dictators? The Rocket Man is sure to brighten up any celebration.

An ornament of a Buddhist monk in saffron robes wearing a Santa hat. There are two vies - one inside the box and one outside.If you have a scientist on your list, surprise her/him with some handmade bacteria. No, not the kind you spread with your hands, the kind that is crocheted by hand. Although they don’t seem very yuletide-ish, I have to admire the work put into these.

For those families that are Buddhist but still want to decorate for Christmas, the obvious choice is Santa Monk.

A sparkly red and silver vacuum cleaner ornamentUnless you own a cleaning company, a vacuum cleaner ornament makes no sense at all to me.

And, finally, something that is sure to bring Christmas cheer to any family gathering - a Filthy Animal ornament. I highly recommend it as a gift for that relative with strong political opinions.

If you want to see some more off-beat ornaments, check out this article. It is eye-opening and hilarious.

Happy Holidays to you all!
                                                    Submitted by Pam
An ornament of Santa stuck in the chimney. He's meant to be a zombie and has blood dripping down his beard.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

World Soil Day - Build Soil. Help The World.

A drawing of a black rectangle with a green leafed plant growing in it. Some of the soil and leaves are blowing away on the right.Last Thursday Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, which is meant to be a day of gratitude. (Okay, you don’t have to be grateful for mean old Uncle Cyrus). But, as we were celebrating, I believe it is safe to say that very few people thought to be thankful for the ground they were standing on. Or for the soil that produced their annual feast. World Soil Day hopes to change that by building awareness of the precarious position of our soil in the world today.

Red/brown dirt ravines with green forest in the background - soil erosion from deforestation

World Soil Day is an annual event put on by the United Nations. It is observed worldwide on December 5th with outreach, functions and even contests. The basic purpose of this campaign is to raise awareness of and advocate for healthy soil. Every year there is a theme that relates to soil; last year it was soil pollution and this year it is soil erosion. All around the world, our soil is eroding at an alarming rate. According to the UN, one soccer field worth of soil is lost every five seconds and it is not an exaggeration to say that the very food we rely on is being threatened. Climate change (which is an even larger issue) plays a part in increased soil erosion, but an awareness of the importance of healthy soil and good soil management can make a real difference on a micro level. Big changes can be made in small steps. Here is a cool little cartoon on soil health from the World Soil Day site.

Yellow-orange flames in front of three men in turbans and white clothing. There are trees in the background.
Slash and burn farming in India
Aside from wind, water and other climatic factors, in many parts of the world soil erosion and degradation (when what soil is left is no good) is the result of human activity such as ecologically damaging farming methods like slash and burn agriculture. However, healthy soil loss from overgrazing, deforestation, mining and pollution is found everywhere. Combine all that with the extreme storms, drought and flooding that come from climate change and the need to do something is urgent. India, home to over a billion people, is already in crisis. Their largely poor and agrarian population is struggling and every year they are hit with intense monsoons and flooding. While the rains have always been a part of Indian life, they are becoming more and more extreme. The US is not immune to soil problems; this  enlightening article explains why we are running out of soil (including a super-interesting tidbit on the Roman Empire and their soil issues).

The Grand Canyon - the valley is purple-hued with a river running through it. The walls are yellowish. There are rocks and bushes in the foreground.
Here in Arizona, we have the premier example of water-caused soil erosionthe Grand Canyon. The canyon may have taken eons to be created, but we have all seen mini versions of it in our yards after heavy rains. This is a particularly thorny problem here in southern Arizona, where a good portion of our soil contains a Caliche layer. Caliche is, quite literally, as hard as concrete and does not allow water to pass through it. Combine this with the intense storms that we get during our summer monsoons (they can be bad, but not as bad as those in India) and there goes the surface soil.

Aerial view of a giant dust cloud bearing down on housing tracts. Photo by Jason Ferguson
Haboob bearing down on Phoenix
Additionally, we have extremely dangerous and damaging haboobs (dust storms), which are an exceptionally dramatic display of soil erosion. I once had the misfortune of being caught up in one of these on the freeway between Phoenix and Tucson. I am not a person who scares easily, but the whole experience was truly terrifying. Beyond the windshield everything is just a weird tan-orange color and all you can do is hope you don’t run into something and that nothing runs into you. Experts say you should pull over and turn off your lights (and pray nothing finds you), but I just got off on the first exit I could. I found out later that three people had died in a multiple car accident just ahead of me. If I hadn’t made that turn, I would have been a participant in that. Here is a video that really shows what they’re like.

Two hands holding a plant in black dirt. In the background is a field-on the left it is brown and on the right it is green.Addressing soil health is often done best right from home. Here at ARBICO, we have been singing the healthy soil song for decades. We have gathered a great many excellent products that anyone can use in their yard or garden to encourage strong soil that’s rich in microbial life. You could begin with a mineral (or more than one)  like Soil Replenish (Elemite), Andesite, Glacial Rock Dust or Harvest Gold Premium Soil Conditioner (Silica). To add nutrients and jump-start your soil biology, you can add items such as Fulzyme SP, Earth Alive Soil Activator, and Neptune’s Harvest Humate Concentrate. Or you could go the one-stop-shop route and get our Healthy Soil Recipe or John & Bob’s Clay & Hard Soil Kit (excellent for Arizonans). These are just a brief sampling of what we have to offer in the soil building arena, there is much more in our Soil Amendments, Micronutrients & Biostimulants category..

Short clip from the Food and Agriculture Division of the United Nations. The text reads, "Over 33% of the Earth's soils are already degraded and over 90% could become degraded by 2050".
If you are unable to contribute in changing the soil around you, I encourage you to consider recycling your green waste. And if you’re unsure of what to do with it once you’ve collected it, here is my blog with suggestions for that. If you are interested in reading more on soil building and/or soil in general, here is a link to some of our blogs that you may enjoy. Now, go out and get your hands dirty – and help the world!

                                                                                                                               Submitted by Pam

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