Tuesday Jan. 5, 2016

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To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

“To the New Year” by W.S. Merwin from Collected Poems: 1996-2011. © The Library of America, 2011. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Twelfth Night. It’s the eve of Epiphany, the official end of the Christmas holiday season, and the day on which many people take down their Christmas decorations or risk bad luck for the coming year. Poet Robert Herrick wrote: “Down with the rosemary, and so / Down with the bays and mistletoe; / Down with the holly, ivy, all, / Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall.” It’s a last Yuletide hurrah before everyone returns to the mundane workaday world of the rest of the year. Though the origin of the celebration dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, most of the traditional observances of the holiday that have survived date back to medieval England. It was the end of a holiday season that began with All Hallows Eve and, in some cultures, it also marks the beginning of the Carnival season.

It’s a Twelfth Night tradition to choose a king and queen for the festivities. Usually, this involves beans and baked goods. In English celebrations, a plum cake is baked with a bean and a pea inside. If a man finds the bean, he is crowned the Twelfth Night King, also known as the Lord of Misrule. The woman who finds the pea is crowned Queen. But if a woman finds the bean instead of the pea, she chooses her own king.

Part of the Twelfth Night tradition involves pranks, role reversals, and general chaos. Servants dressed as masters, men dressed as women, and people roamed the streets in gangs, decked out in costumes and blackened faces. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night features many of the traditional elements of the holiday.

In some parts of England, Twelfth Night was also traditionally associated with apples and apple trees. People would troop out to their fruit orchards bearing a hot, spiced mixture of cider and ale for the “wassailing of the trees.” They would pour the wassail on the ground over the trees’ roots, and sing songs, and drink toasts to the health of their orchards. They also hung bits of cider-soaked toast in the trees to feed the birds. The attention paid to the orchards during the wassailing would be repaid with a bountiful harvest the following fall.

English settlers in the Colonies brought the Twelfth Night tradition with them. In colonial Virginia, it was customary to hold a large and elegant ball. Revelers chose a king and queen using the customary cake method; it was the king’s duty to host the next year’s Twelfth Night ball, and the queen was given the honor of baking the next year’s cake. George and Martha Washington didn’t usually do much for Christmas except attend church, but they often hosted elaborate Twelfth Night celebrations. It was also their anniversary; they’d been married on January 5, 1759. Martha Washington left behind her recipe for an enormous Twelfth Night cake among her papers at Mount Vernon. The recipe called for 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, and five pounds of dried fruit. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Christmas became the primary holiday of the season in America, and at that point, Twelfth Night celebrations all but disappeared.

It’s the birthday of writer Umberto Eco (books by this author), born in Alessandria, Italy (1932). His father hoped that his son would become a lawyer, but Eco studied medieval aesthetics and wrote his doctoral thesis on Thomas Aquinas. He said, “I developed a passion for the Middle Ages the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts.” He became a distinguished professor, lecturing not only on semiotics and medieval theory but also on popular culture.

By 1978, Eco was 46 years old, a well-known scholar, and the author of books like The Open Work (1962), Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality (1973), and A Theory of Semiotics (1976). A friend mentioned to Eco that she was hoping to publish a series of short detective novels by amateur novelists, and wondered if he was interested in writing one. He said no — that he would not be a good detective writer, and besides, his version would probably be 500 pages long and focus on medieval monks. He was intrigued, though, and later that same day he wrote a list of fictional monk names. Soon he was struck by the image of a poisoned monk. Before he knew it he was writing a novel: a whodunit set in a 14th-century Benedictine abbey. It featured literary theory and semiotics, and as he predicted, it was more than 500 pages long. His friends and colleagues suggested that he cut the difficult and tedious first 100 pages, but he refused; he said: “Those first hundred pages are like a penance or initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the mountain.” The book was The Name of the Rose (1980), and it became a huge international best-seller.

His other novels include Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), The Island of the Day Before (1994), and most recently, Numero Zero (2015).

It was on this day in 1914 that Henry Ford announced that he would pay his workers $5 for an eight-hour workday, up from an average of $2.34 for a nine-hour workday. This announcement was met with disbelief and criticism. The financial editor of the New York Times ran into the newsroom and said in a whisper: “He’s crazy, isn’t he? Don’t you think he’s crazy?” The Wall Street Journal accused Ford of bringing “biblical or spiritual principles into a field where they do not belong.” People were convinced that Ford would go bankrupt, and that the city of Detroit would collapse.

James Couzens, a Ford executive, said: “We want those who have helped us to produce this great institution and are helping to maintain it to share our prosperity.” However, Ford’s decision was primarily an economic one. He was experiencing high turnover rates, and on any given day 10 percent of the workforce didn’t show up. Men would sometimes walk away midday when they were sick of the job, which halted the entire assembly line. Ford identified two main reasons for his labor changes: he wanted to retain good workers who were invested in the company, and he wanted his workers to earn enough that they could buy their own automobiles.

Ford had built all sorts of strict rules into his plan; in order to earn the full five dollars a day, the men had to be sober, clean, not gamble or abuse their families, learn English (if they were immigrants), contribute to a savings account, and their wives could not work outside the home. A committee would visit employees’ homes to make sure they were following the rules. Despite these conditions, on January 12th, when the pay increase took effect, an estimated 12,000 job seekers waited in line outside the Ford plant ... despite the fact that it was close to zero degrees in Detroit that day.

Ford’s big idea paid off. Not only did turnover and truancy drop drastically, but between 1914 and 1916, the company’s profits also doubled from $30 million to $60 million.

On this day in 1933, construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco began. It was finished four and a half years later, in May 1937. The bridge is 8,981 feet (1.7 miles) long, 90 feet wide for six lanes of traffic, and 746 feet high — almost 200 feet taller than the Washington Monument. It’s suspended 220 feet above the water, and it links the city of San Francisco to the County of Marin. The color of the bridge is officially called “International Orange,” a slightly deeper shade of “Safety Orange.” Frommer’s travel guide called the Golden Gate Bridge “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world.”

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