In 2013, Canadian artist Gillian Genser started to feel sick and for two years, no doctor one could determine why. Agitation, headaches, and vomiting gave way to hearing loss and memory problems. Finally, Genser was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning. But she didn’t sculpt or work with metal; she worked with seashells. My name’s…
Art is beauty, art is life, art is what breathes magic into the mundane. We’ve all seen the bumper sticker that say “without art, the Earth is eh.” But what that pithy bit of sticky-backed vinyl doesn’t tell you is that art is also absolutely fraught with danger and sometimes, art can be death, too. topic voted on by Patreon
We opened with a sculptor, so let’s start there. It’s also the most obvious one, to my mind, and I like to get obvious stuff out of the way so we can get to that sweet, sweet obscura. If you’ve ever flown into Denver airport –perhaps to investigate for yourself the truly boggling number of conspiracy theories around it– you’d be hard-pressed to miss the 32 ft/9.7m tall blue fiberglass horse sculpture, complete with glowing red eyes. Love it or hate it (and many people do), the statue officially called The Mustang but colloquially known as “Blucifer” is eye-catching. And life-ending.
The man behind this now iconic piece was Luis Jiménez, who grew up working in his father’s neon sign shop – Blucifer’s glowing red eyes are actually a hat-tip to his father – wanted the piece to feel more blue-collar and less artsy. The specific inspiration came from waking in the night to a noise in the living room, only to discover their blue Apolloosa horse had somehow gotten into the house. An actually blue Apolloosa isn’t as blue as Blucifer would be – that’s a nod to the art of Jimenez’s Latin-American forebears.
The enormous sculpture is made up of three pieces – the head, torso and hindquarter – in total weighing 4.5 tons. The 65 year old Jimenez had just declared the head to be complete when a section being moved from his studio came loose and pinned him against a steel support, severing an artery in his leg, resulting in fatal exsanguination. Blucifer had to be finished posthumously by his family, friends, and professional lowriders and racecar painters Richard LaVato and Camillo Nuñez. I and we should really stop calling The Mustang “Blucifer,” btw the way. Jimenez widow and executor of his estate Susan keeps an understandably close eye and firm hand on how The Mustang is used, refusing almost all requests to license the image.
Okay, sculpture is inherently dangerous. Maybe we should stick to something safer, like painting. C’mon, we’re three minutes into the episode, you know that’s a fake-out. Ah, I could never put anything past you. Paints have a long and storied history of being made out of things that are antithetical to good health and long life. Ancient Romans and medieval monks alike used cinnabar for its rich red color, never knowing the dangers of preparing and working with what is actually mercury ore. Similar problem with its replacement, vermillion, which can combine with elements in the air to form mercury chloride. It’s any wonder the moniker “mad monk” was still available when Rasputin came along. Even the cadmium red that you can buy today is not without concern, as authorities in Sweden want to see it banned for contaminating the water supply from artists washing their brushes. Fellow lovers of the macabre side of history will probably know about Scheele’s Green, an extremely popular dye used in wallpaper, dress fabric, toys and even food. Unfortunately for everyone caught up in this early 19th century fad, it got its vibrant color from an arsenic compound. There are adherents to the theory that Scheele’s Green wallpaper is what killed Napoleon Bonaparte in his exile-home on the island of Saint Helena. As the wallpaper molded from humidity, it released arsenic into the air. The more time Boney spent in bed, the sicker he got, and the more time he spent in bed. Lather, rinse, repeat until you have a dead former emperor.
The grand-pappy of all paint problems is plumbum, aka lead. If you’ve purchased a house, at least in the US, built before 1970-whatever, you got a written warning about the possibility of lead-based paint. Lead in paint goes waaay back, like 4th century BCE way back, and the health risks to the artistic set have been known since the 1700s, though it would still take a century or two for people to connect the condition with the cause. It’s suspected that some of the great Western masters like Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Goya suffered from some form of lead poisoning. Lead poisoning was in a tie with syphillis for suspected causes of Caravaggio’s death, until recent studies of his bones found he probably died of sepsis, having picked up staphylococcus from a sword wound, like you do. Ah the good old days, when life was simple, everyone ate local, organic food, and you died at the ripe old age of minor injury. At least, researchers are pretty sure the bones are his. Sometimes science isn’t an exact science.
The 1834 London Medical and Surgical Journal describes this “painter’s colic” as sharp stomach pains occurring in patients with no other evidence of intestinal disease. Learned types called it saturnism, derives from the alchemic name for lead. While typesetters, tinkers, and, as anyone who’s learned five minutes of Roman history will attest, drinkers of leaded wine fell victim to saturnism, the disease was most widespread among those who worked with paint. What do those long hours slaving away over a hot canvas get you? Tell ‘em what they’ve won!
A “cadaverous-looking” pallor, tooth loss, fatigue, painful stomach aches, partial paralysis, and gout!
While you can’t and shouldn’t try to diagnose someone you’ve never examined(especially if you’re, you know, not a doctor), there are those who firmly believe that the troubled Vincent van Gogh suffered as pitifully as he did in life because of lead poisoning. He apparently had the habit of licking his paint brushes to get a fine tip, a technique that often carries a high cost. It mightn’t have been as unpleasant as it sounds to lick a brush that already has paint on it – lead has a sweet taste, hence its use in wine. Others think Van Gogh might have suffered from epilepsy and bipolar disorder, but Julio Montes-Santiago, a Spanish internist who evaluated the existing evidence of lead poisoning among artists across five centuries for his paper in Progress in Brain Research, argues that lead poisoning likely contributed to his delusions and hallucinations. Meanwhile, other scholars have disputed the lead poisoning hypothesis, arguing that the root of Van Gogh’s distress was porphyria, malnutrition, absinthe abuse or some combination thereof.
The best evidence for lead poisoning among artists comes from the relatively recent case of, the 20th-century Brazilian painter Candido Portinari, creator of *massive murals. Portinari used paints that were similar to those used by Van Gogh and was diagnosed with saturnism after bleeding in his stomach put him in the hospital in 1954. His doctors strongly urged him to change to safer modern paints, but he dramatically complained, “They forbid me to live!” He did try other media, but ultimately returned to his old paints, dying 8 years later.
You might think flat-out telling someone “that thing you make art with is literally killing you” would have some effect, but if you do, you don’t know human beings very well. We want what we want when we want it. Combine that with how the slightest taste of success drives us headlong down our chosen path, and you have conditions ripe for disaster. Don’t think dangers are confined to visual arts, either. Dance can be deadly too.
Problem one: the nature of dance costumes in general and ballet costumes specifically. They’re meant to be flowy and ephemeral, often meant to invoke a sense of otherworldliness, and therein lies the problem. “If you imagine a sheet of newspaper and a hunk of wood, essentially, chemically, they are the same. But one will catch light way more quickly than the other,” says Martin Bide, a professor in the textiles, fashion merchandising, and design department at the University of Rhode Island. “So if you have a very flimsy, flowing something that mixes well with air, it will burn quite readily.”
Problem two: the specific fabrics that were popular when spontaneous dancer combustion was an issue. Bobbinet, cotton muslin, gauze, and tarlatan were all diaphanous materials that could be made more cheaply thanks to the machines of the industrial revolution, helping to make them more common on stage and off. But their open weave also made them super flammable. They caught readily and burned *quickly. So it was less like “Mais non, Lisette’s tutu has caught fire. Let us help her put it out.” and more like “Mon Dieu, Lisette– now I’m on fire too!” In one instance in 1861, at least six ballet dancers died when they tried to help one dancer whose costume caught fire backstage. Sometimes entire theaters would burn down from a single piece of clothing catching.
Problem three: the lights. We’re talking about the era where candles were giving way to gas footlights, neither one of which is good to have sitting at the ankles of someone flitting about in a flowy dress. Bonus fact: the term “to gaslight” may seem like it came out of nowhere five years ago, but it actually dates back to a play in 1938 called Gas Light, in which a husband messes with the lights in the house and tells his wife she’s seeing things when she comments.
Perhaps the most famous case of this tragic accident was Emma Livry who made her Paris Opéra debut in 1858 at age 16. She was a prodigy and immediately rose to great fame. In 185*9, imperial decree demanded that all sets and costumes be flameproofed with the best method available at the time, carteronizing, treating the fabric with flame-retardant chemicals. This would make them relatively safe. But the ballerinas refused to use it. Many refused to perform in costumes or tutus that had been treated, as the process left the fabric dingy-looking and stuffer. “I insist, sir, on dancing at all first performances of the ballet in my ordinary ballet skirt,” Livry wrote to the Paris Opéra’s director in 1860 in a formal declaration of independence. This wasn’t a point she’d be able to argue for too long.
On Nov. 15, 1862, Livry fluffed her skirts too close to a gas lamp and nearly instantly was engulfed in flames. Another dancer and a fireman tried to save her as she ran frantically around, but by the time they smothered the flames with a blanket, she had suffered burns to 40% percent of her body. The heat was so intense that her corset fused into her flesh. She would die of sepsis while recovering. Many dance scholars pinpoint Livry’s demise as the end of France’s dominant role in ballet, but it also inspired better safety measures: new designs for gas lamps, the invention of flame-retardant gauze and wet blankets hung in the wings just in case.
It wasn’t only dancers whose lives were fraught with flames. The fashions and materials of the time put all women of middling-and-higher socio-economic status in extraordinary danger. In 1860, British medical journal the Lancet estimated that 3,000 women died by fire in a single year. It wasn’t just the fabric, but also the shape of the dresses that caused women’s clothing to erupt in flames. The popular silhouette in the 1850s was a giant bell shape, like Scarlett O’Hara in her curtain dress. To get that voluminous shape, women used a cage crinoline, a contraption introduced in the 1850s generally made from hoops that were attached with tape and then fastened around the waist. The crinoline allowed women to shed layers of petticoats they used to have to wear to get that shape, creating freedom of movement for their legs, as well as creating a boundary around them, letting them take up space in the world. Unfortunately, this full skirt, and the air underneath it, created a funnel for fire, essentially a chimney, with you standing in the middle of it.
the first real horror movie star, was known as “The Man Of A Thousand Faces,” and he earned it. He was a pioneer in movie makeup, and in behind the scenes suffering. For Chaney, the art of acting was the art of continual transformation, from pirate to Chinese shipwreck survivor, Russian revolution peasant to circus clown, to crusty railroad engineer to bell tower hunchback. People used to joke, “Don’t step on that spider! It might be Lon Chaney!”
In his efforts to bring his characters to screen with the greatest realism, Chaney employed painful techniques to distort and obscure his physical features, like a special harness to keep his legs bound tightly behind him to play a double amputation in The Penalty, which caused broken blood vessels. His Quaisomodo costume didn’t include the 70 or 90lb rubber hump of the urban legend, just a 20 pound hump made of plaster that he had to carry on one shoulder all day, but the role did cause permanent partial vision loss in one eye due to the putty and adhesive tape.
In a 1991 interview with Patsy Ruth Miller, The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Esmerelda, the actress conjectured that pain was part of Chaney’s process. “I felt that he almost relished that pain,” Miller said. “…It gave him that feeling he wanted to have of a tortured creature.” The Phantom of the Opera’s wire-frame nasal appliance left him bleeding. The primitive contact lenses he used to simulate blindness caused real damage to his eyes, necessitating glasses.
If I didn’t list a role and its accompanying injury here specifically, it’s safe to assume that it did some damage to his back or joints, either through weight, constriction or being twisted into an unnatural position for long periods of time.
In 1929, filming the movie Thunder, a piece of artificial snow lodged in his throat and worsened an already nasty infection. Doctors took his tonsils out, but his throat continued to bother him. Despite this, he filmed his first talkie, The Unholy Three, a film about three circus performers who decide to go into the crime business together, in 1930. When filming was complete, he traveled to New York where it was discovered he had bronchial cancer, then came pneumonia and it was a sadly rapid deterioration until his death that August.
Now if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times, correlation doesn’t equal causation, so why do I mention a piece of fake snow in a way that clearly implies the snow is to blame for causing or at least hastening Chaney’s death? Because, while that fake snow *could have been feathers, cotton, paper, gypsum or even instant potato flakes, right up until the end of the 1950’s Hollywood’s favorite fake snow… was asbestos.
Quick science lesson: Asbestos, once considered the “Magic Mineral” for its flexible fibers that are resistant to heat, electricity, and corrosion, was highly sought after in the early twentieth century. It made for the perfect fake snow on movie sets because it was water- and fireproof, lightweight, didn’t melt, and was easy to handle. But it was far from safe. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, which causes deadly illnesses including mesothelioma and cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovaries.
In order to create winter scenes in many old Hollywood movies, film makers used pure white asbestos fibers to replicate the look of snow. As the fake snow consisted of pure white asbestos fibers, it proved very dangerous when inhaled, which becomes extremely likely when you’re dropping it from the rafters on people or blowing it around with industrial fans. The use of asbestos was actually a suggestion from, I promise you you’ll never guess, the LA fire department, as an alternative to the inherently flammable cotton being used at the time. The asbestos snow had brand names like ‘White Magic’, ‘Snow Drift’ and ‘Pure White’. And yes, it absolutely was used in The Wizard of Oz, though ironically it probably wouldn’t make the top ten of awful things that happened to that cast, or even to Judy Garland alone. Hearing about how the studio execs treated her would break your heart.
The biggest name you’d probably recognize who died from the asbestos related lung disease, mesothelioma was the king of cool, Steve McQueen. He was diagnosed in 1979 and died in 1980, fully sure in his heart that stage insulation and stunt clothing he often wore, which were made of asbestos fibers, were responsible for his illness. I could easily do a whole episode on accidentals on movie sets – I was a hormone-ravaged teenager when Brandon Lee died tragically on the set of The Crow (and I’ve wondered ever since if anyone would have seen or remembered the movie if it had gone off without a hitch). And while sudden deaths fit the brief and you can read about several in the YBOF book chapter Lights, Curses, Action, I prefer the slow burn.
There are a lot of factors to consider when making a movie and choosing the right location to shoot a film is a pivotal decision. You have to take into account things like lighting conditions, availability of utilities, and proximity to noisy things such as airports. What you should not have to consider is the radiation level, but you should not ignore it either. The producers of the film 1956 movie The Conqueror chose an area of Utah desert a hundred miles away from the Nevada Test Site. (They also chose to cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan.) Throughout the 1950’s, approximately 100 nuclear bombs of varying intensities were detonated at the Nevada Test Site. The mushroom clouds could reach tens of thousands of feet high; desert winds would carry radioactive particles all the way to Utah. The area in which The Conqueror filmed was likely blanketed in this dust.
The Conqueror, co-starring Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz, was a moderate box office success, but a critical failure and soon found itself on ‘worst films of all time’ lists. The true legacy of the film had yet to be revealed. Of the 220 people who worked on the production, 92 developed some form of cancer, with 46 dying of it, including Wayne, Hayward, Moorehead, and Armendáriz. The director, Dick Powell, died of lymphoma in 1963. Wayne developed lung cancer and then the stomach cancer that would ultimately kill him in 1979. Wayne would remain convinced that his chain-smoking was to blame for the cancers, even as friends tried to convince him it was from exposure to radiation. Wayne’s sons, who visited the set during filming and actually played with Geiger counters among the contaminated rocks, both developed tumors. Susan Hayward died from brain cancer in 1975 at 57.
The authorities in 1954 had declared the area to be safe from radioactive fallout, even though abnormal levels of radiation were detected. However, modern research has shown that the soil in some areas near the filming site would have remained radioactive for sixty years. Howard Hughes, producer of The Conqueror, came to realize in the early 1970’s that people who have been involved with the production were dying. As the person who approved the filming location, Hughes felt culpable and paid $12 million to buy all existing copies of the film. Though the link between the location and the cancers that cannot be definitely proven, experts argue that the preponderance of cases goes beyond mere coincidence.
Sculptor Gillian Genser used mussel shells in her work, sanding and grinding them, and they likely came from water contaminated with industrial waste. After 15 years, she had built up high levels of arsenic and lead in her blood. She will “never fully recover,” in her own words, but she did complete her mussel-sculpture, a depiction of the biblical Adam, link in the show notes. She calls him her “beautiful death.”
On Monday this December 30th past, I clocked in at my retail jobs, put on my headset, and played the morning messages. There was one from my manager telling us what to expect in terms of sales volume that day and one from corporate welcoming us to the first day of 2020. The didn’t get their dates mixed up. December 30th 2019 was the first day of 2020 in a way that once crashed Twitter for hours. My name…
When we think of the calendar, we think of it as singular and exclusive. “The” calendar. Sure, there were other calendars, but those were for old-timey people in old-timey times. If you’ve ever listened to the show before, you’ll know I’m about to disabuse you of that notion; it’s kinda my schtick. The calendar we think of as the end all and be all of organizing time into little squares is the Gregorian calendar, but it’s just one of many that have been used and still are used today.
For example, at the time of this recording, it’s currently the 9th day of the month of Tevet in the year 5780 for those who follow the Hebrew calendar. The Hebrew calendar, also known as the Jewish calendar, was originally created before the year 10 CE. It first used lunar months, which will surprise no one who has had to google when Passover or Easter are each year. A standard Jewish year has twelve months; six twenty-nine-day months, and six thirty-day months, for a total of 354 days. This is because our months follow the lunar orbit, which is approximately 29.5 days. Due to variations in the Jewish calendar, the year could also be 353 or 355 days. It also used standard calendar years, but these two methods don’t line up perfectly, and this posed a problem. As time went on, the shorter lunar calendar would result in holy days shifting forward in time from year to year. That simply wouldn’t do as certain holidays have to be celebrated in a certain season, like Passover in the spring, Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish ‘New Year for Trees,’ needs to fall around the time that trees in the Middle East come out of their winter dormancy, or Sukkot, the festival that calls adherents to build and live in huts in their yard to commemorate Isrealites taking shelter in the wilderness, which is meant to fall in autumn. So a thirteenth month had to be added every 3 to 4 years in order to make up for the difference. Such a year is called a shanah meuberet (“pregnant year”) in Hebrew; in English we call it a leap year, and it makes up all the lunar calendar’s lost days. The month is added to Adar, the last of the twelve months. On leap years we observe two Adars — Adar I and Adar II. Today, the Hebrew calendar is used primarily to determine the dates for Jewish religious holidays and to select appropriate religious readings for the day.
Similar in usage is the Hijri calendar. The Hijri calendar, also referred to as the Islamic calendar, is based on lunar phases, using a system of 12 months and either 354 or 355 days every year. The first Islamic year was 622 CE when the prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina, meaning today is the 11th of Jumada Al-Awwal, 1441. The Hijri calendar is used to identify Islamic holidays and festivals. The Islamic New Year marks the journey of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. However, the occasion and the sacred month of Muharram are observed differently by the two largest branches of Islam, Shiite and Sunni. Shiite pilgrims journey to their holiest sites to commemorate a seventh-century battle, while Sunnis fast to celebrate the victory of Moses over an Egyptian pharaoh. Also known as the Persian calendar, it’s the official calendar used in Iran and Afghanistan, and it’s the most accurate calendar system going, but more on that later.
Further east you’ll encounter the Buddhist calendar, which is used throughout Southeast Asia. This uses the sidereal year, the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun, as the solar year. Like other systems, the calendar does not try to stay in sync with this time measurement, but unlike the others, no extra days or months have been added, so the Buddhist calendar is slowly moving out of alignment at a pace of around one day every century. Today, the traditional Buddhist lunisolar calendar is used mainly for Theravada Buddhist festivals, and no longer has the official calendar status anywhere. The Thai Buddhist Era, a renumbered Gregorian calendar, is the official calendar in Thailand. The Buddhist calendar is based on an older Hindu calendar, of which there are actually three — Vikram Samvat, Shaka Samvat, and Kali Yuga. The Vikram Samvat is used in Nepal and some Indian states, and uses lunar months and the sidereal year to track time. The Shaka Samvat, used officially in India and by Hindus in Java and Bali, has months based around the tropical zodiac signs rather than the sidereal year. The Kali Yuga is a different sort of calendar altogether. It meters out the last of the four stages (or ages or yugas) the world goes through as part of a ‘cycle of yugas’ (i.e. mahayuga) described in the Sanskrit scriptures. The Kali Yuga, began at midnight (00:00) on 18 February 3102 BCE, is the final cycle within the 4-cycle Yuga era. The first cycle is the age of truth and perfection, the second cycle is the age of emperors and war, the third stage is the age of disease and discontent, and the third stage (the Kali Yuga) is the age of ignorance and darkness. If your worried that you already missed 5,000 years of the Yuga, don’t fret; you have upwards of 467,000 years left.
You’ve probably heard of Chinese New Year, so you won’t be surprised that there is a Chinese calendar. According to this system, each month begins on the day when the moon is in the “new moon” phase. The beginning of a new year is also marked by the position of the moon and occurs when the moon is midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. China uses the Gregorian calendar for official things, but still uses the Chinese calendar is used to celebrate holidays.
You might be surprised to learn about the Ethiopian calendar. The Ethiopian calendar is quite similar to the Julian calendar, the predecessor to the Gregorian calendar most countries use today. Like the other calendars we’ve discussed, it’s intertwined with the faith of the people. The first day of the week for instance, called Ehud, translates as ‘the first day‘ in the ancient Ge’ez language, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian church. It is meant to show that Ehud is the first day on which God started creating the heavens and the earth. The calendar system starts with the idea that Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden for seven years before they were banished for 5,500 for their sins. Both the Gregorian and Ethiopian use the birthdate of Jesus Christ as a starting point, what Eddie Izzard called “the big BC/AD change-over,” though the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes Jesus was born 7 years earlier than the Gregorian calendar says. The Ethiopian calendar has 13 months in a year, 12 of which have 30 days. The last month, called Pagume, has five days, and six days in a leap year. Not only do the months have names, so do the years. The first year after an Ethiopian leap year is named the John year, and is followed by the Matthew year, then Mark, then Luke.
So what about this Gregorian calendar I keep mentioning? The Gregorian calendar was created in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, who made some changes to the previously used Julian calendar. Okay, so what was the Julian calendar? It should shock no one that the Julian calendar was ordered by and named after Julius Caesar. By the 40s BCE the Roman civic calendar was three months ahead of the solar calendar. The Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes, introduced the Egyptian solar calendar, taking the length of the solar year as 365 1/4 days. The year was divided into 12 months, all of which had either 30 or 31 days except February, which contained 28 days in common (365 day) years and 29 in every fourth year (a leap year, of 366 days). That 29th day wasn’t February 29th, it was February 23rd a second time. What a mess that would make, though that conflagration of confusion probably paled in comparison to to what Caesar did to align the civic and solar calendars–he added days to the year 46 BCE, so that it contained 445 days. Unsurprisingly when you try to make such a large change to the daily lives of so many people in the days before electronic communication, it took over fifty years to get everybody on board.
Sosigenes had overestimated the length of the year by 11 minutes 14 seconds. 11 minutes doesn’t mean much in a given year, but after, say, 1500 years, the seasons on your calendar no longer line up with the seasons of reality. That matters when your most important holy day needs to happen at a certain time of year. Enter Pope Gregory XIII, who wanted to stop Easter, which had been celebrated on March 21, from drifting any farther away from the spring Equinox. Aloysus Lilius, the Italian scientist who developed the system Pope Gregory would unveil in 1582, realized that the addition of so many February 23rds made the calendar slightly too long. He devised a variation that adds leap days in years divisible by four, unless the year is also divisible by 100. If the year is also divisible by 400, a leap day is added regardless. [OS crash noise] Sorry about that. While this formula may sound confusing, it did resolve the lag created by Caesar’s earlier scheme—almost; Lilius’ system was still off by 26 seconds. As a result, in the years since Gregory introduced his calendar in 1582, a discrepancy of several hours has arisen. We have some time before that really becomes an issue for the average person. It will take until the year 4909 before the Gregorian calendar will be a full day ahead of the solar year.
Maths aside, not everyone was keen on Pope Gregory’s plan. His proclamation was what’s known as a papal bull, an order that applies to the church by has no authority over non-Catholics. That being said, the new calendar was quickly adopted by predominantly Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy, major world players at the time. European Protestants, however, feared it was an attempt to silence their movement, a conspiracy to keep them down. Maybe by making it hard to remember when meetings and protests were supposed to be, I’m not sure. It wasn’t until 1700 that Protestant Germany switched over, and England held out until 1752. Those transitions didn’t go smooth. English citizens didn’t take kindly to the act of Parliament that advanced their calendars from September 2 to September 14, overnight. There are apocryphal tales of rioters in the streets, demanding that the government “give us our 11 days.” However, most historians now believe that these protests never occurred or were greatly exaggerated. Some countries took even longer than Britain–the USSR didn’t convert to the Gregorian calendar until 1918, even later than countries like Egypt and Japan. On the other side of the Atlantic from the British non-protests, meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin welcomed the change, writing, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14.”
At least as pleasant are our supporters at patreon, including our two newest patrons, Urspo and Michael L. Even as I record this, they and the other members get to vote on the topic for an episode this month. Will it be inventors who chose not to profit from their inventions or would my patrons like to see if I can do an entire episode on mud? Join now to cast your vote. The patreon is also so close to our first redistribution level. Once we hit $75, 25% of funds until the next tier will go to creators who make free resources for other creators, like Kevin MacLeod, whose music I’ve used since day one. If you’d like to be more involved with your fellow Brainiacs for free, you can join us at FB. We’ve had five new members this week, bringing us to 96 people who have a place to share interesting facts they find and see the neat stuff I find that doesn’t go on the social media feeds (urls) because it doesn’t fit that month’s theme. I’d also like to thank the people who have reviewed the podcast recently. There are two reviews through Apple podcasts to read, but today I’d like to share a message I received through the comment form on the bottom of the website, from someone we’ll call CK. CK wrote, “Moxie:
I would like to thank you for keeping my brain active. I am a former Marine with Gulf War Illness. I have cognitive issues and your program keeps me trying to memorize the facts that you present in such a lovely manner. Semper Fidelis, CK.” As someone with not-insignificant memory issues, it means more to me than I can say to know that my silly little radio show thing is actually helping someone. I just hope CK is able to memorize the facts better than I can. Seriously, my brain is like an encyclopedia being shredded by cranked-out squirrels. It’s all there somewhere; good luck finding it.
Back to our book of days. When Julius Caesar’s reformed the calendar in 46 B.C., he established January 1 as the first of the year. During the Middle Ages, however, European countries replaced it with days that carried greater religious significance, such as December 25 and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation). I didn’t google that one. After my mom listens to this episode, she’ll send me a gloriously incorrect speech-to-text message explaining it. Different calendars mean different New Years days even now, and the ways in which people celebrate as as splendidly diverse as the people themselves.
The Coptic Egyptian Church celebrates the Coptic New Year (Anno Martyrus), or year of the martyrs on 11th of September. The Coptic calendar is the ancient Egyptian one of twelve 30-day months plus a “small” five-day month—six-day in a leap year. The months retain their ancient Egyptian names which denote the gods and godesses of the Egyptians, and the year’s three seasons, the inundation, cultivation, and harvest, are related to the Nile and the annual agricultural cycle. But the Copts chose the year 284AD to mark the beginning of the calendar, since this year saw the seating of Diocletian as Rome’s emperor and the consequent martyrdom of thousands upon thousands of Egypt’s Christians. Apart from the Church’s celebration, Copts celebrate the New Year by eating red dates, which are in season, believing the red symbolises the martyrs’ blood and the white date heart the martyrs’ pure hearts. Also, dates are delicious.
Bonus fact: You know that guy, Pope Francis? He’s not actually the pope. The pope’s proper title, according to the Vatican’s website, is Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God. ‘Pope’ comes from the Italian ‘papa.’ Francis is the Sancta Papa, the Holy Father. The title of pope belongs to the head of the Coptic church. So if anyone uses the rhetorical question “Is the pope Catholic?” to imply a ‘yes’ answer, you have my authorization to bring the conversation to a screeching halt by saying “No. No, he’s not.” Double points if you simply walk away without explaining yourself.
Sept. 11 marks the day of the new year in Ethiopia. By this time, the lengthy rainy season has come to a close, leaving behind a countryside flourishing in yellow daisies. That’s fitting because Enkutatash in Amharic, the native language of Ethiopia, translates to “gift of jewels.” To celebrate New Year’s, Ethiopians sing songs unique to the day and exchange bouquets of flowers. Of course, there is plenty of eating and drinking, too.
If you asked a person to name a New Year that’s not the Jan 1, New York ball-dropping, Auld Lang Syne-singing new year, they’d probably say the Chinese New Year or Chunyun. In communities all around the world, people celebrate the lunar calendar ticking over with lots of food (especially noodle soup for good luck), parades, fireworks, special outfits just for the occasion, and the hanging of red lanterns. The one thing you mustn’t do is pick up a broom, in case you sweep the good luck for the New Year out of the door! Keep your eye peeled for it on January 25, 2020, when the moon is new and the year of the pig gives over to the year of the rat, two of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, who are assigned to years in a cycle — Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig. Because it depends on the moon, the date of Chunyun actually changes each year, but it will always fall some time between 21 January and 20 February. New Year is the most important celebration in the Chinese calendar. Adults might give red envelopes to children with money inside too. The festivities continue for two weeks, finishing with a special lantern festival, which signals the end of the New Year celebration period. Schools and businesses will be closed for the first few days of the year so people can celebrate with their families. So many people travel for new years that it’s referred to as the largest annual human migration.According to Lian Weiliang, deputy director of National Development and Reform Commission, 2.99 billion trips will be made over the Chunyun period. Of those, 2.46 billion trips will be made by automobile, 413 million by rail — a rise of 8.3% — and 73 million by air. Luckily, China has the largest rail system in the world.
Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, is a combination of two Persian words that mean “new day.” Before the celebration, members of the household prepare the “haft-seen” table of seven items that start with the letter S. These items can be fruits or spices. They symbolize sunrise and the spice of life, love and affection, and patience and age. Traditional food for Nowruz includes sweets such as baklava and a special noodle soup. Among other traditions, Iranians place a mirror on the table as a symbol for people to reflect on the past year.
The Sinhalese and Tamil Hindus of Sri Lanka observe New Year’s in mid-April by opening their doors to family, friends, and other members of the community. The new year is celebrated through various customs and rituals, namely boiling milk in a new earthen pot until it boils over, which symbolizes prosperity. Sweets like kavum, made of rice and coconut oil, and dishes with plantains are also served, and I’m totally here for that.
Imagine walking out of your office for three days — without having to request time off — to celebrate New Year? In Cambodia, and in a small community in Vietnam, Chol Chnam Thmey in mid-April is devoted to purification ceremonies, temple visits, and playing traditional games with family and friends.
The Assyrian New Year, Kha b’ Nissan, means the “First of April” and is a spring festival celebrating the rebirth of nature. The celebration involves parties and parades, and celebrants wearing traditional Assyrian clothes dance in parks. One of the customs, known as Diqna d’ Nisan, or “Beard of April/Spring,” involves Assyrian girls gathering flowers and herbs that are hung from roofs.
Otherwise known as the Festival of Lights, the Indian new year celebration of Diwali falls between mid-October to mid-November, depending on the moon’s cycle. This year, Diwali will fall on Nov 14, but celebrations will have begun two days prior and lasts for a total of five days. Diwali, the third day, is the most important day of the festival. On this day, observers say special prayers to several gods and goddesses and scatter lit candles and small clay lamps throughout the house. India is a multifaceted country, full of different religions, dialects, and languages. Hindu populations worldwide do not all share the same new year day and rituals. In fact, there are there at least three common new year days in the Hindu calendar. While the new year dates differ, many fall in March and April especially. Exchanging gifts, wearing new garb, lighting oil lamps, and decorating the house with blessing-inducing, colorful flowers are all examples of some of the traditions
Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali New Year, is celebrated with street fairs, musical events, and colorful marches. The day is marked by businesses opening up new ledgers to start the year. Singers perform traditional songs to greet the new year. Festive foods such as sweets are given out as gifts to friends and family.
The Tamil New Year, Puthandu, is observed in the the first month of the Tamil solar calendar. On the last day of the old year, Tamilians prepare a tray of mango, banana, jackfruit, areca nuts, betel leaves, gold or silver jewelry, a mirror, money, rice, coconut, and flowers. The tray is viewed when people awake the next morning. Celebrants then take a bath and go to temples to seek blessings.
People living in the the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh celebrate Ugadi, which takes place on the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. Based on the Gregorian calendar, this day falls anywhere between the end of March and the beginning of April. Preparations for the celebration commence a week prior and include scrubbing down the house and purchasing new clothing. On the day of Ugadi, people adorn their homes with mango leaves and colorful designs made of rice, flower, sand or flower petals called Rangoli.
Seōllal marks the first day of the year based on the Korean lunar calendar. It will be observed on Feb. 5 this year. During the celebration, adults wear traditional costumes. Koreans also eat Tteokguk, a traditional soup eaten for the new year. A more recent ritual is the ringing of the Boshingak Bell, which was constructed in 1396 and is only rung on New Year’s.
Songkran, the Thai New Year, means “passing” or “approaching” in Sanskrit. And the traditions of the day make for one truly refreshing experience. One New Year’s tradition involves the gentle pouring of water on elders of the community. Doing so is a way of paying respect and, in return, they bestow their blessing. Sprinkling water onto images of the Buddha is also a custom to receive blessings for the new year.
Thingyan, the Burmese New Year, is also an extravagant water festival. The Burmese ring in the new year by participating in several water-filled activities, including spraying one another with water guns, tossing water from buckets, and pouring water from intricate silver vessels. This water frenzy lasts for three to four days, ending just in time for dinner and a night’s worth of partying at promptly 6:30 p.m
Tet Nguyen Dan or Tet is the Vietnamese New Year marking the arrival of spring based on the Lunar calendar, a lunisolar calendar. The name Tet Nguyen Dan is Sino-Vietnamese for Feast of the very First Morning. Tet lasts from the first day of the Lunar calendar until at least the third day. Many Vietnamese prepare for Tet by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning their house. There are a lot of customs practiced during Tet such as visiting a person’s house on the first day of the new year (xông nhà), ancestral worship, wishing New Year’s greetings, giving lucky money to children and elderly people and opening a shop. Tet is also an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions. During Tet, Vietnamese visits their relatives and temples, forgetting the troubles of the past year and hoping for a better upcoming year. They consider Tet to be the first day of spring and the festival is often called Hội xuân (spring festival). Like other Asian countries, Vietnamese believe that the color of red and yellow will bring good fortune, which may explain why these colors can be seen everywhere in Lunar New Year. People consider what they do on the dawn of Tet will determine their fate for the whole year, hence people always smile and behave as nice as they can in the hope for a better year. Tet is the most important and popular holiday and festival in Vietnam, which was why North Vietnamese military and Vietcong chose it as the date for a series of surprise attacks on South Vietnam villages and cities in the aptly named Tet Offensive.
Tsagaan Sar is a Mongolian New Year celebration that lasts 15 days. Over this time, people gather to renew family ties, repay debts, and resolve disputes. People dress in traditional clothes, tell stories, eat traditional dishes, play games, and practice Mongolian customs.
Pakistanis celebrate Vaisakhi on April 14 to mark the start of spring. The day celebrates the harvest in the Punjab region of India and it is also acknowledged as when Sikhism was founded in 1699. The day is observed with processions known as a nagar kirtan and religious hymns recited from the Sikh holy book.
Jewish communities around the world celebrate Rosh Hashanah not only as the anniversary of a year, but as a celebration of the birthday of the entire universe. From sundown on the first day of the month of Tishrei, which will be Sept 18 this year, Jewish people light candles, have festive meals with sweet delicacies, abstain from creative work, and attend prayer services that include the blowing the shofar, an instrument made from a ram’s horn.
When you think of New Year’s celebrations in the United States, you more than likely picture people dancing to loud music with a drink in hand. In Indonesia, they celebrate in an entirely different fashion. On the day of Nyepi, instead of shuffling around hung over from the previous night’s adventures, the Balinese spend the day in utter silence. Those who follow the religious traditions in full also stay home, don’t work, and avoid engaging in any pleasurable activities. The objective is to spend the entire day reflecting, meditating, and fasting.
And that’s … So how was I at work on the second to last day of 2019 while simultaneously being at work on the first day of 2020? Our modern american lives actually run on two calendars, the Gregorian and the ISO week system, though many of us will never deal with the latter. It’s handy when dealing with accounting to have a year that divides into a whole number of 7-day weeks, but the Gregorian calendar simply doesn’t do that. In the 70’s, the International Standards Organization created a calendar that would, with a year that always started on a Monday for added simplicity. The ISO year number is usually the same as the Gregorian year, but sometimes it can slip a little. Like in 2014, when Twitter discovered they’d programmed their dates with the ISO week system, which can be only a single character different than the Gregorian. At midnight one day, their dates suddenly jumped 366 days forward and the whole system crashed. It took them a few hours to work out what had happened to fix it. Remember… Thanks…