December 31 - Ōmisoka in Japan

Posted on December 31, 2017

Tonight is New Year's Eve - a holiday celebrated all over, with a variety of names and customs.

It's basically what Ōmisoka is all about in Japan. Some of the customs include house cleaning, repaying debts, and bathing - so that the new year can start fresh, clean, and debt-free. Of course there are parties; nowadays, rather than singing during Ōmisoka gatherings, people often gather to view a four-hour year-end singing battle on TV!

Also, of course, there is food. People often eat bowls of long noodles (toshikoshi soba or toshikoshi udon). The crossing of one noodle over many others represents the crossing from one year to the next. Also, there is a sweet beverage that is passed out to crowds surrounding Shinto shrines, and there are traditional meals prepared on the evening of Ōmisoka and eaten the next few days, in the new year. 

At Buddhist temples, large bells are struck 108 times. I have seen photos of things that are traditional around the world, like confetti fluttering down and fireworks soaring up, as well.

Happy New Year!

December 30 - Masks at Balls Banned

Posted on December 30, 2017

Even though ballroom dance is fairly popular these days - maybe partly thanks to shows like "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," I don't really think about modern-day people going to "balls." But a ball is just a formal dance party.

And - if you go to a dance party in fancy dress and a mask, you've just got to call it a masquerade ball, right?

In the British colonies and then the young United States, masquerade balls were becoming popular. (Masquerades had been increasingly popular in Europe for a while.) But, just as in Europe, there was also an anti-masquerade movement.

What's wrong with wearing beautiful clothes and masks, in order to have fun and dance the night away?

Well, the anti-mask folks pointed out that, when people are anonymous (their true names aren't known), they more often act badly. They feel more shielded in any wrong-doing. 

I'm not necessarily talking about murder - although a Swedish king WAS murdered at a masquerade ball in the late 1700s - but more along the lines of flirting with someone else's spouse or getting drunk.

Anyway, with the Puritan influence over New England, including Boston, Massachusetts, some people wanted to outlaw the wearing of masks at balls. And on this date in 1809, Boston passed such a law.

In 1849, the law was extended. It wasn't just masks at balls that was illegal - it was ANY "public assembly, at which the company wears masks, or other disguises, and to which admission is obtained upon payment of money..." I guess that means no costume parties at Halloween time? No trick-or-treating? I mean, most mask-wearing festivities are probably private, not public, and money doesn't change hands - but still, I am pretty horrified by this law!

Of course, that was back in the past. Masks and "disguises" are legal now, even in Boston.

But - shockingly - the law wasn't actually repealed until 1963. I was actually alive during part of the time that the no-masks policy was the law of the land in Boston!

(I bet it was rarely enforced.)

December 29 - Pants Arrest!

Posted on December 29, 2017

On this date in 1852, in Boston, Massachusetts, a young woman was arrested for wearing pants.


Emma Snodgrass was a 17 year old from New York. Her father was apparently a well respected man with money - either a police captain or an assistant police captain.

It's very interesting to note that news reports constantly harped on the fact that, when Snodgrass was was discovered wearing men's clothes, she was arrested and sent home to her father. There was definitely an idea that her father owned her, in a way. There was probably also an expectation that a police officer would be able to control his daughter.

But...apparently he could not!

Snograss had already shocked Bostonians several other times by "donning the breeches" - she had already been sent off to her father several other times - but she kept showing up in Boston for another round of sightings, arrests, newspaper articles, and home-to-father.

Everyone was talking about her. People wondered why she "rejected" women's clothing. 

These were typical women's clothes of the 1850s.

Why WOULDN'T a young woman want to reject all that cloth?
Check out the men's clothing below. Even the formal wear is tons
and tons and tons easier to get around in - to sit and walk in.

But this particular arrest, the December 29, 1852, arrest, was a bit different. This time, Snodgrass was accompanied by another woman wearing pants.

Harriet French was disguised as - and had apparently worked for several years as - a boy. She'd worked on a steamboat, and she had worked as a bartender. When asked why she wore men's clothes, she pointed out that she could get along better as a boy, and she could earn more money as a boy.

All through history - and probably everywhere in the world -
a few women have disguised themselves as men in order
to join armies, hold jobs, or for many other reasons.

Fair points, indeed. But French was sent to the "House of Industry" - a sort of workhouse or poor house, almost a prison. Newspaper reporters noted that Snodgrass was merely carted home, but French was treated more harshly. One reporter wrote that it "is the difference of breeches without money, and breeches with."

Aren't we all - men as well as women - glad that our laws and society are more equal now? And that appearing in public "in a dress not belonging to his or her sex" is no longer illegal? 

Of course, we can - we must - do even better!

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December 28 - Good Idea / Bad Idea

Posted on December 28, 2017

It's not so easy to sort out good ideas from bad ones.

And when you consider the mixed motivations behind ideas - wow! What a mess of good-and-bad you generally get!

Once upon a time, in a young nation increasingly divided over slavery, a man who was part African American and part Native American had an idea. He knew how difficult life in America was for non-white people - although he himself was a successful businessman! 

Paul Cuffee built a shipping empire, but he also was an activist. He was involved in the abolition movement - the efforts to end slavery in America - and he built the first racially-integrated school in Westport, Massachusetts. 

Here was his idea: Let's settle freed American slaves in Africa. 

Remember, Cuffee had an African father and was passionate about ending slavery and making life in America better for African Americans. I can see not an iota of bad motivations in him.

Cuffee didn't just sit around thinking his idea - he talked about it to other free black people and to members of both the British government and the American government. He was able to create enough support that he took 38 black Americans to the British colony of Sierra Leone.

The very next year Cuffee died, so he did no further work on his idea. But the idea didn't die.

On this date in 1816, a group called the American Colonization Society was founded. It, too, supported the migration of free African Americans to Africa.

This organization seemed to be headed by only white men. I looked to see how free black Americans greeted the startup of the ACS, but I couldn't see much support. Instead, I read that many free black people were against the Society and skeptical of its motivations and its goals.

No wonder! The group was made up of an unlikely blend: White abolitionists who were staunchly against slavery, who believed that the enslavement of people was evil and should be eliminated from the nation and the world, on the one hand, and white slave owners who stood by the institution of slavery, on the other!

No matter whether they were pro-slavery or anti-slavery, the white people who started the American Colonization Society were worried about free black people in America. Some white folks were rightly concerned about the prejudice black people faced and, they were sure, would continue to face. Some white folks were anxious that the presence of free black people would encourage enslaved people to run away or revolt. Some white folks were certain that black people were inferior in intellect and in morals, and they didn't want a bunch of them integrating into white society. Even many of the abolitionists were racist in the extreme.

The ACS helped more than 13,000 Americans emigrate to Africa - and the colony they helped found became the independent nation of Liberia. (Read more about Liberia here and here.)