November 27

One day away from Advent, our look at Christmas in wartime takes us to Nazi Germany. If Hitler’s National Socialists (and especially the SS) had had their way Christmas would have been replaced by a pagan Julfest with festivities on the winter solstice instead of December 25. However, Christmas was too firmly rooted in German culture to be attacked so directly. Instead the Nazi state tried a campaign of bait and switch, offering material and ceremonies that looked like Christmas but which were really subversive of its Christian essence.

This is mostly clearly in evidence in an Advent calendar sent out to German families to use in the run-up to Christmas Day. There were no stories of the baby Jesus; rather, a forest-born Golden Child was featured. No angels on the tree but swastika-shaped ornaments; St Nicholas was replaced by Knecht Ruprecht who was linked in the text to Nordic mythology.

Note the whirling sun which evokes the solstice and the swastika.

The caption says “Soon Ruprecht will enter the house and empty his sack for me. I gave his white horse hay which he likes.”

The 1943 edition of the Advent calendar shows German soldiers mourning at the grave of a fallen comrade surrounding by vignettes of Nazi conquests: burning villages in Russia, sinking merchantmen in the Atlantic, grapes from France, etc. The next year, the last Christmas of the war, this advent calendar kept the image of the soldiers but removed the wreath of victories celebrating territories the Germans had been driven out of.

November 26

1853 Birth of a pistolero

Who would have thought that one of America’s most iconic Western gunmen was born in Canada? Bartlomew William Barclay “Bat” Masterson first saw the light of day on this date in 1853 in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, an English-speaking area of that largely francophone province. His Irish immigrant family moved to the USA and settled in Kansas.

In his late teens Bat took up buffalo hunting and while search for a herd of bison in traditional Indian territory in 1874 took part in the famous Second Battle of Adobe Walls. He, other hunters, and a wagon train of settlers found themselves under siege at a trading post in the Texas panhandle when they were attacked by a party of Commanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors, 700 strong. After 5 days they were rescued by cavalry and they abandoned the post to be burned by the vexed indigenes.

Masterston then scouted for the Army for a time, killed a man in a gunfight over a woman, and settled in Dodge City where he became a lawman. His handiness with a pistol led to many a posse, the capture of outlaws, and association with some of the legends of the West. Bat was friends with Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Soapy Smitth, and Doc Holliday.

In the 1880s Masterton dabbled in journalism, gambling, and theater ownership; his taste in women ran to other men’s wives, circus performers, and dance-hall girls. In 1902 he moved to New York where his colourful turns of phrase, love of boxing, and exciting adventures in the West led to him becoming a journalist. He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt who always had a soft spot and a government patronage job for a manly man. Masterton was also a timekeeper for some high-stakes boxing matches. He died, diabetic and overweight in 1921 in New York.

Though not as great a subject of popular culture as Buffalo Bill or Wyatt Earp, the figure of Bat Masterton appears in a number of movies, but most notably in an eponymous  television series starring Gene Barry.

November 22

1837 William Lyon Mackenzie calls for an uprising

On this date Toronto newspaper publisher William Lyon Mackenzie called on his neighbours to rebel against their British colonial rulers with this Proclamation to the People of Upper Canada:

We have planted the Standard of Liberty in Canada, for the attainment of the following objects:

Perpetual Peace, founded on a government of equal rights to all, secured by a written constitution, sanctioned by yourselves in a convention to be called as early as circumstances will permit. 

Civil and Religious Liberty, in its fullest extent, that in all laws made, or to be made, every person to be bound alike.

The Abolition of Hereditary Honors, of the laws of Entail and Primogeniture, and of hosts of pensioners who devour our substance. 

A Legislature, composed of a Senate and Assembly chosen by the people. 

An Executive, to be composed of a Governor and other officers elected by the public voice. 

A Judiciary, to be chosen by the Governor and Senate, and composed of the most learned, honorable, and trustworthy, of our citizens. The laws to be rendered cheap and expeditious. 

A Free Trial by Jury — Sheriffs chosen by you, and not to hold office, as now, at the pleasure of our tyrants. The freedom of the press. Alas for it, now! The free presses in the Canadas are trampled down by the hand of arbitrary power. 

The Vote by Ballot — free and peaceful township elections. 

The people to elect their Court of Request Commissioners and Justices of the Peace — and also their Militia Officers, in all cases whatsoever. 

Freedom of Trade — every man to be allowed to buy at the cheapest market, and sell at the dearest.

No man to be compelled to give military service, unless it be his choice. 

Ample funds to be reserved from the vast natural resources of our country to secure the blessings of education to every citizen. 

A frugal and economical Government, in order that the people may be prosperous and free from difficulty.

An end forever to the wearisome prayers, supplications, and mockeries attendant upon our connection with the lordlings of the Colonial Office, Downing Street, London.

The opening of the St. Lawrence to the trade of the world, so that the largest ships might pass up to Lake Superior, and the distribution of the wild lands of the country to the industry, capital, skill, and enterprise of worthy men of all nations.

This was viewed by most Upper Canadians as smacking too much of republicanism, innovation, and the example of the United States. Despite Mackenzie’s attempts to lead a march on Toronto and to involve American and Quebecois supporters, the rebellion was a pathetic flop. Mackenzie fled to the US where he was jailed for violating the Neutrality Act.

November 19

The Hartlepool Monkey

According to legend, a monkey in a French military uniform was washed up on the shore during the Napoleonic Wars near Hartlepool, England, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Locals were said to have been baffled by the beast and, supposedly moved by ignorance of what a real Frenchman looked like, hanged the monkey as a spy. 

Some have suggested that it was a “powder-monkey” — a ship’s boy charged with carrying ammunition — that was hanged. Others claim that it was only a myth suggested by a popular song of the era:

In former times, mid war an’ strife,
The French invasion threatened life,
An’ all was armed to the knife,
The Fishermen hung the Monkey O!

The Fishermen wi’ courage high,
Seized on the Monkey for a spy,
“Hang him” says yen, says another,”He’ll die!”
They did, and they hung the Monkey O!

They tried every move to make him speak,
They tortor’d the Monkey till loud he did squeak
Says yen, “That’s French,” says another “it’s Greek”
For the Fishermen had got drunky, O!

“He’s all ower hair!” sum chap did cry,
E’en up te summic cute an’ sly
Wiv a cod’s head then they closed an eye,
Afore they hung the Monkey O!

What is undeniable is that the inhabitants of Hartlepool have warmly embraced the accusation of simiancide and adopted the incident as a part of their public identity. There are two statues to the little hominid in the town; H’Angus the Monkey is the official mascot of Hartlepool United football team and one of the men wearing the costume won election as mayor running under the name of “H’Angus” and promising free bananas for school kids. The Hartlepool Rovers rugby team’s crest is a beret-wearing monkey hanging from a gibbet.

November 15

1968 Birth of Ol’ Dirty Bastard

On November 15, 1968, a poverty-stricken couple in Brooklyn welcomed the birth of a baby boy whom they named Russell Tyrone Jones. This child would grow up to be a famous entertainer, but not under his birth name, for young Russell would, in his meteoric  career, ply his trade under various noms de musique: ODB, Ason Unique, Dirt McGirt, Joe Bananas, Dog Osirus, Big Baby Jesus, Ol’ Dirty Chinese Restaurant, and Knifey McStab – but it is when he employed the sobriquet Ol’ Dirty Bastard that he would achieve everlasting fame. Well, everlasting until his 2004 drug overdose death. He was much missed by his 13 children and employees of the New York justice system who came to know the engaging rapper through his numerous violations of penal statutes.

It is not unusual for aspiring entertainers to change their names. Archibald Leach became (quite understandably) Cary Grant; Lucille Fay LeSueur became Joan Crawford; and Doris Kappelhoff took the name Doris Day. Tammy Wynette was once Virginia Pugh; Jon Stewart was born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz. But no part of the stardust and glitter industry resorts to name changes as much as rap music. So hats off today to

Drake, born Aubrey Drake Graham

Eminem, once Marshall Bruce Mathers III

50 Cent, Curtis James Jackson III

Flavor Flav, aka William Jonathan Drayton Jr.

Lil Bow Wow, Shad Gregory Moss

Lil’ Kim, Kimberly Denise Jones

Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill 

Lil Peep, né Gustav Elijah Åhr

Lil Wayne, once Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.

Lil Yachty, Miles Parks McCollum

Notorious B.I.G., born Christopher George Latore Wallace

Puff Daddy, Sean Love Combs

Travis Scott, né Jacques Bermon Webster II

Wicca Springs Eternal, aka Adam McIlwee

YoungBoy Never Broke Again, or Kentrell DeSean Gaulden

Young Thug, Jeffery Lamar Williams

Yung Bruh, born Jazz Ishmael Butler

November 14

As Yuletide draws nigh, I will be posting material from my collection of wartime Christmas cards. I’m always interested in the juxtaposition of the festival of peace and good will in a bellicose setting.

Today’s cards are from the Boer War (1899-1902), a conflict that pitted the might of the British Empire against two independent republics of Dutch-descended settlers in southeast Africa. The British motives were rather squalid, the casus belli was contrived, and the war was conducted, at times, in a shameful way by both sides. 

The dreadful pun on “Boer” is continued in this card which silhouettes President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal who went into European exile.

The British drew on troops from across the globe. Here is a unique “card” from an Australian trooper.

November 9

1914 The birth of Hedy Lamarr

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna and from a young age attracted attention because of her good looks. In her teens she began getting parts in movies, most notable of which was 1933’s Ecstasy with its notorious sexually-charged scenes. By 1937 she had ditched Europe, her rich husband (she would ditch five others before she gave up matrimony), and her birth name, henceforth adopting “Hedy Lamarr”.

In Hollywood, Lamarr was billed as “the world’s most beautiful woman” and most of her roles were meant to capitalize on that claim. Among a number of duds and flops, she acquitted herself well in Algiers (1938) with Charles Boyer, and Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature (1949). Her stardom faded in the 1950s and by 1958 she had made her last film.

These days Lamarr is mostly remembered for a spiteful little lawsuit against Mel Brooks for naming one of his characters Hedley Lamarr, and for her invention of a frequency-hopping guidance system for a torpedo, a discovery which led to secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth. Her last years were spent in sad isolation.

Despite her classic features, Ms Lamarr never set my heart aflutter. There was something a little too artificial and reserved about her screen presence. If I were to list film goddesses in order of swoon-worthiness I would do it thusly:

  1. Merle Oberon, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
  2. Anita Ekberg, La Dolce Vita (1960)
  3. Monica Bellucci, Malèna (2000)
  4. Sophia Loren, Sunflower (1970)
  5. Ewa Aulin, Candy (1968)

November 8

Debut Novels

The late (and much lamented) critic D.G Meyers once composed a list of the best 25 debut novels. It is interesting to note how many famous writers began their careers with a bang — and never got any better. As I peruse the list, I would say that the world would have lost little if the great majority of these authors had never come up with a second book. 

 1. Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740)
  2. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
  3. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)
  4. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)
  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  6. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)
  7. Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836–37)
  8. J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  9. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936)
10. Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (1929)
11. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)
12. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)
13. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
14. Thomas Pynchon, V. (1963)
15. Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
16. John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934)
17. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)
18. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
19. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
20. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)
21. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
22. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
23. Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1934)
24. Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
25. (tie) Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)
       (tie) Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1982)

November 7

1900 Battle of Leliefontein

Few Canadians are aware of their country’s participation in African warfare. The exploits of Quebec voyageurs in conducting a British army up the Nile to fight against Islamic jihadists is virtually unknown, even in la belle province. The contribution of Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons in the battle against German and Italian forces North Africa during the Second World War is seldom acknowledged. And how many of my countrymen know of the Battle of Leliefontein?

There was great enthusiasm in Canada for the British efforts in the Boer War. The nation’s foreign policy was still largely decided in London and an imperial war was deemed by Canadians to be their fight too. Men rushed to enlist and battalions sailed from Quebec City to South Africa.

Among them were troops of the Royal Canadian Dragoons who were part of a force in November 1900 pursuing Boer units across the veldt near Leliefontein in the Transvaal. When the British commander realized he had overextended himself, the RCD were charged with covering his withdrawal. In the fighting that followed, the dragoons bought time for the retreat and saved the guns from capture. The British commanding officer Major-General Horace Smith-Dorrien commended their actions in his report to headquarters.

Sir: I have much pleasure in forwarding attached statements on the gallant behaviour of officers and non-commissioned officers of The Royal CanadianForces in the actions of 7th November, 1900 between Witkloof and Leliefontein on the Koomati River. I must in bringing them forward emphasize the fact that the behaviour of the whole Royal Canadian rear guard under Lieutenant-Colonel Lessard was so fine that it makes it most difficult to single out for special distinction. There is no doubt that men sacrificed themselves in the most gallant way to save the guns which they succeeded in doing.

Three Victoria Crosses (the Empire’s highest military decoration) were awarded to Canadians for the battle. The cap badge for the RCD is still a South African springbok.

October 31

All Hallows’ Eve

November 1 is All Saints’ Day or Hallowmas and the night preceding is thus All Hallows’ Eve or Hallowe’en. Together with November 2, All Souls’ Day, it constitutes Allhallowtide, a period to commemorate the Christian dead.

Halloween has become a secular festival dedicated to the distribution of unhealthy food to costumed children and to the indulgence by their elders in thoughts of the macabre. October television is dedicated to films about chainsaw homicide, haunted mansions, and the grisly dispatch of teenagers who violate the prime directive of sticking together when threatened by serial killers. October marketing focuses on novel ways to sell pumpkin-, witch-, skeleton- and zombie-related foodstuffs and clothing. Halloween has become the holiday on which more discretionary income is expended than any other save Christmas.

What this says about North American culture in the twenty-first century is uncertain. Is it a healthy interest in human mortality or a morbid fascination with the unholy and forbidden? Are we mocking evil or temporarily embracing it? Here are some thoughts on the subject:

I think if human beings had genuine courage, they would wear their costumes every day of the year, not just on Halloween. Wouldn’t life be more interesting that way? And now that I think about it, why the heck don’t they? Who made the rule that everybody has to dress like sheep 364 days of the year? Think of all the people you’d meet if they were in costume every day. People would be so much easier to talk to, like talking to dogs. – Douglas Coupland, The Gum Thief

It is as if French society were looking for a kind of civil religion capable of replacing Christian symbolism. At Halloween the dead are imitated and their ‘ghosts’ come back to frighten us and threaten us with death. On All Saints’ Day, in contrast, we affirm that the departed are alive and that we are promised to rejoin them in the City of God. – Hippolyte Simon, bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Vers une France païenne? (Toward a Pagan France?)

Over time Halloween became an important night for customers, as well; for whereas children of the interwar years constructed their costumes from old clothes in the attic; for or closet and simply blackened their faces with burnt cork or soot, children in the more affluent 1950s and 1960s were more likely to buy Halloween masks and perhaps other articles of their costume from retail stores. By making Halloween consumer-oriented and infantile, civic and industrial promoters hoped to eliminate its anarchic features. – Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night