Monday, December 31, 2012

Those Twelve Days of Christmas

It's the seventh day of Christmas. Do you know where your swans are swimming?

I look forward to reading the Christmas Price Index every year. That's the list detailing how much the traditional twelve days worth of holiday gifts would cost in today's economy. It was instituted in 1984 by Pittsburgh's own PNC Bank, gets updated annually, and receives attention whenever the media needs some holiday filler. In recent years, turmoil on the world stage have apparently eclipsed communal concerns about the cost of a partridge in a pear tree, because I've not seen much made of the rising costs of festive fowl and revelry. At this writing, if you're looking to gift your true love carol-style, the grand total will be $107300.24 for all 364 gifts. There was no report on the tax ramifications of those purchases for the 1% who can afford them.

I do see a fair amount of abuse heaped upon the Twelve Days of Christmas song. It's apparently a leading contender for stupidest holiday carol ever (at our house the winners are anything by the Jingle Dogs, Baby It's Cold Outside, that Santa Baby song, and Frosty the Snowman. Particularly Frosty. My bias is always against any character who sounds like he needs to blow his nose. Yeah, Pooh Bear, I'm looking at you).

Now I'll grant you that the Twelve Days begs to be parodied. Mock-worthy as it is, there exist countless versions with lyrics of various degrees of cleverness.  Despite that, I'm going on record to state that it's a childhood favorite of mine.

Back in the days before the Internet made searching lyrics not even a Thing, I was proud of my ability to memorize and recite the lyrics through sheer dogged repetition. I can't say that my family was enamored of my hard work, but I was pleased with myself. I still like the carol, and I appreciate the historical continuity it represents.

Twelve days constitute the Christmas season in Western and Eastern Christian church traditions, with the aptly-named Twelfth Night falling on Epiphany. Take your pick as far as when that might be, because the Western church counts beginning on Christmas Day so that Epiphany falls on January 5th, while in the Eastern tradition the "first day of Christmas" is December 26th and Epiphany falls on January 6th. Whenever it is, Epiphany is celebrated as the time when the Three Wise Guys, aka The Magi, arrived to present gifts to the young Jesus. The Bible stories never say how many wise visitors there were, and some Eastern traditions even say that there were twelve. I like the idea of an even dozen bearing twelve gifts for a mystical total of 364 gifts -- one for each day of the year except, uhm, I guess Christmas.

Journey of the Magi, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-62

There are those who have attached religious significance to the carol and believe we can trace its origins to 16th century England. That was the time of the Protestant Reformation, that period of religious revolution that Henry VIII unintentionally provoked by declaring himself head of the Church in his country so he could grant himself the divorce that the Pope in Rome denied for, well, complicated political reasons. Those who hold to this theory believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas carol was mnemonically constructed to help educate the Roman Catholic faithful in the doctrines of their faith. Supposedly the carol allowed them to remain under the radar of would-be persecutors, since its repetitive nature assured that they'd not have to write down anything incriminating that could be used as evidence against them. Adherents to this theory believe that the carol's 'true love' is God and the 'partridge in a pear tree' is Christ on the cross, while the 'three French hens' represent the Trinity. Or maybe the three theological virtues of Faith Hope and Charity. Or perhaps even the three gifts of the Magi. The list goes on: two Biblical Testaments are represented, as are four Gospels, five books of the Torah, seven Sacraments, eight Beatitudes, nine hierarchies of angels, ten Commandments, eleven faithful apostles, and (deep breath) the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed. Or maybe that's the twelve tribes of Israel?

Unfortunately for those who like their holiday carols fraught with religious symbolism, there's not a shred of documentation to provide contemporary evidence backing up this theory.

The idea seems to have had its virgin birth in the 1970s and gained widespread acceptance following a 1992 article in the Our Sunday Visitor Catholic newspaper.  The catechetical associations that the carol purportedly spells out were NOT unique to the Roman Church, not when compared to the beliefs of the newly-formed English-centric church at the point in time in question. They thus didn't merit the creation of a cumulative carol of dubious musicianship to remember them by, because everyone then KNEW this stuff.  It's an appealing folkloric explanation, to be sure, but there's no logical sense to the theory. Still, these lyrical religious attributions are repeated as if they were Gospel truths themselves.

The real history of the song is rich enough without added associations. Christmastide has historically been a time of twelves. The twelve days of the season were filled with feasts and frolics climaxing on the aforementioned Twelfth Night, which was for much of Christian history a more festive occasion than Christmas itself.  That's because birthday celebrations are more recent cultural customs, even Divine birthdays. Christmas wasn't made much of until Victorian times. Before then it was Epiphany that represented the revelation of Jesus, both traditionally as an infant to the Magi and liturgically through the symbolism of baptism in the River Jordan and that first miracle at Canaa.

Different customs have evolved over time and place for the Christmastide season, with some giving gifts only on Christmas Day, some solely on Twelfth Night, and some lucky souls receiving gifts on all of the twelve nights. I have my doubts as to whether any of the latter received partridges, turtle doves, or five golden rings (though I'd personally not complain about the latter, unless the lyric is referring to five ring-necked pheasants as some have theorized. I'll do without the birds, thanks).

Here in the States we've largely lost the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas, although the passing of Epiphany is often considered to be the traditional holiday de-decorating date. Of course if you live in an area that celebrates Carnival like New Orleans, you're just getting started on Twelfth Night, so it's not an ending but a beginning to revelry!

The origins of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol itself are truly lost to time and memory, but most likely it began as the musical accompaniment to a medieval “memories and forfeits game” in which a leader recited verses that followers had to repeat exactly or else forfeit a sweet or kiss or pay some other penalty. The carol was presented this way in its first known publication, a 1780 children's book called Mirth Without Mischief. Musicologists have suggested that the carol has French origins, given some of the items mentioned in the song. For example, the kinds of partridges which roost in trees were introduced from France to England in the late 1770s and the song definitely predates their introduction. There are even some theories that the "in a pear tree" lyric is a bastardization of "and a partridge, un perdis" (perdis being French for partridge). It's a medieval mondegreen!

So let's face it, this song is really no more than what it appears to be: a fun secular carol about music, dancing, and getting stuff -- albeit weird stuff like calling birds. Oh and about those calling birds? That's not right. Remember that it was a point of pride for me as a wee Sue to get the lyrics right, so I am proud to inform you that the lyric is not "calling birds" but "colly" birds. Time was when "colly" was another word for black, so the lyric would be understood as "four blackbirds." We can blame English composer Frederic Austin for publishing the arrangement in 1909 that we sing today, codifying the substitution of "calling birds" for the "colly birds." I console myself over this change by thinking of my black Rough Collie dog as a colly collie. She doesn't seem to mind.

The Twelve Days of Christmas song has captured the popular imagination, for good or ill, in all its variations and parodies. Several countries including the United States have even issued postage stamps to represent the gifts sung about in the carol, which you can see on THIS SITE.

But it's really all much ado about birds, maids, lords, feasting and revelry, like any good party should be. Whatever holiday you celebrate and whatever meaning you attach to your symbols, I wish you great joy of it, and a happy new year, too!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Forgotten History: John Brashear

Though my soul may set in darkness; 
it will rise in perfect light; 
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night. 

Andy Warhol famously stated in 1968 that "In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes." The Internet age of instant celebrity makes Andy look downright prophetic. Many of our modern stars bask in fame built on shaky foundations shored up by talented publicists. But there are other individuals whose contributions have been, well, astronomical. These are folks worthy of far more than fifteen minutes of homage and recognition, and yet they've fallen prey to collective popular amnesia. What will it take to give lasting credit where credit is due?

I recently attended a Heinz History Center Ambassador Lecture Series presentation about Western Pennsylvanian John Brashear. If you are an astronomy buff, or know about the history of the City of Allegheny and Pittsburgh's North Side, his name will resonate. But most would likely respond with blank stares or blinks of vague familiarity if asked to identify him. John Alfred Brashear was a famous and influential Pittsburgher, a polymath of the late 1800s and early 1900s who hobnobbed with all the luminaries who populate this city's history books. He was renowned for his self-taught innovative lens and optics work; stellar reputation as a scientific educator and administrator; abiding love for his wife and work-partner Phoebe; and many humanitarian endeavors.  His life story is inspirational for lessons learned about resourcefulness, believing in oneself and making the most of opportunities, and giving back to society.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

John Brashear was born in Fayette County in 1840. He fell in love with the stars at age 9 when his maternal grandfather gave him the opportunity to view the rings of Saturn through a traveling telescope. From humble origins as a Brownsville tavern-owner's son through early days working in a grocery store and various machine shops, an enduring love of astronomy and applied science drove Brashear to work on fashioning a better telescope lens. For five years he held a full-time mill machinist job by day and tinkered by night in a coal shed behind his South Side Slopes home, until he finally perfected a new silvering technique on a five-inch telescope lens. He presented this lens to Samuel Pierpont Langley, Director of the Allegheny Observatory and Professor of Astro-Physics.

Samuel Pierpont Langley. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Langley (who was to become the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution) knew genius when he saw it, and became Brashear's mentor. He brought Brashear into the Observatory fold to create lenses and other precision scientific equipment. In turn, Brashear's work facilitated Langley's solar research, standardization of accurate timetables, and experimentation with flight theory vis-à-vis the aerodrome. Langley's successor, James Keeler, did pioneering spectrographic observations of Saturn's rings that would not have been possible without Brashear's precision instrumentation.

In 1881 Brashear came to the attention of railroad tycoon William Thaw, who became his primary financial benefactor. With his research, travels, and a new workshop subsidized by Thaw, Brashear went on to revolutionize the field of astronomy with his advances in instrumentation.

Having never forgotten his chance to peer through a telescope as a young boy, Brashear was committed to making scientific findings available to all comers. He never patented or restricted his work, and made sure that the newly-constructed Allegheny Observatory was publicly accessible. At his insistence, the building included a public hall that hosted a lecture series funded by indistrialist tycoon Henry Clay Frick. The public was also invited to use the telescopes -- a great boon in 1910 when Halley's Comet passed through! Such accessibility was a critical concern, for as Brashear stated in his autobiography:
In my early struggles to gain a knowledge of the stars, I made a resolution that if ever an opportunity offered or I could make such an opportunity, I should have a place where all the people who loved the stars could enjoy them;...and the dear old thirteen-inch telescope, by the use of which so many discoveries were made, is also given up to the use of the citizens of Pittsburgh, or, for that matter, citizens of the world.

A strong believer in the moral necessity of doing one's civic duty, Brashear served as Acting Director of the Allegheny Observatory that we know today (he was its primary fundraiser as well) and Acting Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). Modest and wishing to remain focused on the work he loved best, he refused permanent positions in both cases. He was also a member of the founding committee of Carnegie Technical Schools (now Carnegie Mellon University); organized and served as Chairman of the Henry Clay Frick Educational Commission at Mr. Frick's personal request; and served as president of multiple professional engineering and science societies. His formal education consisted of one semester at a business school, but his work garnered him countless awards and honorary degrees. Brashear and his wife were great benefactors to the larger community. In 1915, a settlement house and community center were established on the South Side in his honor, where the The Brashear Association remains active to this day.

Brashear's star shone far beyond the skies of Pittsburgh and many of his instruments actually remain in regular use. Even Einstein owed him a debt of gratitude, for the Theory of Relativity was developed using a mirror that Brashear designed in 1886. My favorite Brashear accolades are the craters on the far side of the Moon and on Mars that were named for him!

Brashear Crater on Mars. Source: Wikipedia Commons

John Alfred Brashear died on April 8, 1920 after suffering for six long months from the effects of food poisoning. His ashes were interred in the Allegheny Observatory crypt along with those of his beloved wife Phoebe, and an excerpt from the Sarah Williams poem I quoted at the start of this entry is their epitaph.

So how is it that such a luminary, a man so popular in his day that he was known as "Uncle John" to the citizens of Pittsburgh, a man named “Pennsylvania’s Most Distinguished Citizen” by the governor in 1915, is unknown today to most people outside of his chosen field? The scientific advances and instruments he created are his legacy, but let's face it, telescope lenses aren't sexy popular topics.  People forget what they never knew, and so for the most part John Brashear has been left to idle his time on the heavenly bench where victims of collective popular amnesia sit.

There have been multiple on-going efforts to permanently and prominently inscribe Brashear's name in the history books, so that he's not left languishing in the footnotes. Dr. Don Handley created an hour-long documentary entitled Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory which premiered at the Heinz History Center in April 2012. Its release coincided with commemorations of the 100 year anniversary of the dedication of the Allegheny Observatory on August 28 1912 and Undaunted highlighted the work of Brashear and his contemporaries. It is available for public sale, and American Public Television accepted Undaunted for distribution to PBS stations throughout the nation.

I am hopeful that such a larger scale refocusing of attention on his story can spur further action on preserving the architectural witnesses to this man's fascinating life story. Brashear's home and factory have long been neglected on Perrysville Avenue of Pittsburgh’s North Side. The home, built for the Brashears by Thaw and incorporating the gracious Arts and Crafts styles of the day, is currently in private ownership and used as a transitional living facility for rehab patients. 

The nearly-adjacent factory of the Brashear Company is now owned by the City of Pittsburgh, but sits derelict and abandoned, as can be seen in these photos I took recently. 

Then-City Councilman William Peduto helped produce Undaunted and contributed to publicizing an effort by neighborhood activist/historian and artist Lisa Miles to register the Perry Hilltop buildings with the National Register of Historic Places. Both buildings were successfully nominated by the State of Pennsylvania in October 2012, and the final decision is currently under consideration at this writing. 

I've written before on this blog about how critical it is to preserve architectural witnesses to history.  Sometimes empty buildings are all that is left to memorialize someone and recognize their accomplishments, and those buildings can make all the difference in keeping memory alive. Brashear's friend Henry Clay Frick benefited enormously from his daughter's decision to honor his legacy through the preservation of their family home, Clayton. But there's no one to single-mindedly honor John Brashear through preservation efforts. 

The opportunities are there, for there are other tangible reminders of Brashear's legacy that vie for our attention. Brashear wrote an autobigraphy that was published posthumously and it's full of charming, fascinating anecdotes and reflections about his life and times. The book is in the public domain and can be viewed HERE.  The Allegheny Observatory that was so central to Brashear's life remains in Pittsburgh's public Riverview Park and is owned and operated by the University of Pittsburgh. Its white domes rise like an astronomical Taj Mahal over the trees as one navigates serpentine Perrysville Avenue. Though a private research laboratory, free public stargazing tours are available at the Observatory by reservation from April through October, just as Brashear would have wanted. A 2009 profile about Brashear on WQED's now-defunct news magazine show OnQ can still be viewed HERE.  A wider distribution of Undaunted might raise Brashear's profile in Pittsburgh and beyond. And a national designation of significance for the Perry Hilltop buildings associated with him may lead to their renewed historical preservation, and perhaps even conversion as astronomy and biographical museums -- surely a win-win situation for Brashear's legacy and greater Western Pennsylvania.  

If these things don't up John A. Brashear's public profile, I don't know what else can.


An unwelcome update:  On Monday, 16 March 2015 a wall of the Perry Hilltop factory collapsed, and demolition on the rest of this historic building followed the next day due to safety reasons. This is an incredible loss for our region's history of industrial and scientific innovation.  Now all we've got are memories of better days:  
John A. Brashear Co. Ltd Building.
University of Pittsburgh, Archive Services Center, Allegheny Observatory Records.

ARTICLE about demolition.

Further Reading:
Advancing Astronomy and Community: John Brashear
Allegheny Observatory website 
Biographical Fact Sheet
Brashear House Historical Marker
Centennial: New Allegheny Observatory Dedication

Dr. J.A. Brashear Dead Following Long Sickness
Help Achieve Historic Status for John Brashear's Home and Factory
Historical Status Sought for Brashear's North Side Home, Factory
Historic status sought for Brashear' s home and factory in Perry Hilltop
National Park Service: Astronomy and Astrophysics: Allegheny Observatory
New film stars Allegheny Observatory
Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory: New History Film
The Story of John Alfred Brashear, The Man Who Loved the Stars
"Undaunted" shows pioneers who reached for the stars at Allegheny Observatory
Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory film trailer