Dec. 19, 2009

At Christmas, my sisters and I
learned to sing carols in German:
Grandpa would give us a quarter
apiece for performing, though
only Carol could carry a tune.
After the start of the War
Father forbade us to practice,
and when Grandpa asked for his songs
we told him they weren't allowed.
You are German, he shouted. Sing!

Singt, mein kinder, für mich!

We stood mute, unhappy, ashamed,
between father and son locking eyes
while the U-boats were nosing the currents
and propellers coughed in the skies
like angels clearing their throats.

"Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht" by Peter Meinke, from Liquid Paper: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens (books by this author) published A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, whom Dickens described as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire." In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge learns the Christmas spirit of generosity from three ghosts who show him his past, his present, and his future.

Dickens' previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1842), was a flop, and he was strapped for cash. Martin Chuzzlewit was satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. He started writing in late October and worked hard to get it done by Christmas.

It was on this day in 1732 that Benjamin Franklin (books by this author) began publishing "Poor Richard's Almanack."

Poor Richard's Almanac was a hodgepodge of stuff: It had information about the movements of the moon and stars, weather reports, historical tidbits, poems, and those adages that Franklin became famous for, like "Fish and visitors stink in three days" and "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead" and "A penny saved is twopence dear" (often misquoted as "A penny saved is a penny earned"). Some of the stuff was original and some was borrowed, drawing upon diverse sources like Native American folklore, common farmers' superstitions, politicians' speeches, and published authors' writings.

Franklin published his wildly successful almanac for a quarter century, and its popularity increased by the year. At its height, the book sold 10,000 copies a year, making it a best-seller in colonial America. Books were expensive and hard to come by in the colonies, and Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac was the only book that many households owned besides the Bible. It made Franklin rich and famous.

Benjamin Franklin said, "If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."

It's the birthday of the man known as the "Father of Black History": Dr. Carter G. Woodson, (books by this author) born in New Canton, Virginia (1875), the son of former slaves. He was a historian, journalist, and the founder of a scholarly journal devoted to African-American studies.

While teaching high school in Washington, D.C., he did research at the Library of Congress for his thesis, The Disruption of Virginia, and earned his Ph.D. in history from Harvard. He wanted to shed light on the unacknowledged and overlooked contributions of African-Americans to the history of the United States, and focused his research on this. He also collected relevant artifacts from the 18th through 20th centuries. His collection of 5,000 items was displayed in the early 1990s at a Library of Congress exhibition in his honor.

In 1926, he founded Negro History Week to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It was later expanded to all of February and is now known as Black History Month. When he died in 1950, he was at work on a six-volume Encyclopedia Africana.

It's the birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr., the father of Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this author) and a pastor and civil rights leader himself, born in Stockbridge, Georgia (1899). He led the Atlanta NAACP chapter and encouraged his gifted son — whom he outlived by 16 years — to become involved in the civil rights movement.

In 1950, MLK Jr. wrote: "The influence of my father also had a great deal to do with my going in the ministry. ... My admiration for him was the great moving factor. He set forth a noble example that I didn't mind following." King Jr. talked about how his father made him go work in the fields, so that he knew what it was like for his forefathers. He said that his father played a great part in shaping his conscience.

At the Democratic National Conventions in 1976 and in 1980, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. gave the opening prayer. In 1980, he also published a book, Daddy King: An Autobiography (1980).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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