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Gender: Male
Hometown: Northern VA
Member since: Fri Oct 29, 2004, 09:34 AM
Number of posts: 39,847

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FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 18: The History of African American Department Store Santas

Last Christmas time, I wrote a long post of the origins of Santa Claus
This Advent season, I wrote a post on when women took over as Santa

What about African Americans? When did they start getting Santa jobs?

The first black Santas were part of racist minstrel shows. President Wilson attended one at his honeymoon at a Virginia resort. The press described it as a festive party "presided over by a dusky Santa Claus", with a large "gaily decorated" Christmas tree. Before [the tree] disported 15 Negroes, whose antics and musical efforts kept the President and everybody else almost convulsed with laughter."

Then In 1919,

the Pittsburgh Daily Post carried a report about the "the first negro Santa ever put on the streets of any city". He had been hired by the Volunteers of America in response to "appeals from poor coloured children", the newspaper added.

But the real breakthrough for black Santas came in 1936, when tap-dancing legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson became Harlem's "first negro Santa Claus" at an annual Christmas Eve party for underprivileged children. In previous years, the children had been visited by a "Nordic Santa" from downtown New York, reported a local newspaper.

In 1943, one of Harlem's biggest department stores, Blumstein's, hired its first black Santa Claus. It was followed, in 1946, by a store in Chicago. As white people moved out to the suburbs, and began shopping at the giant new malls that were being built there, it made economic sense for downtown department store owners to tailor the Christmas shopping experience to their now mainly black customers.


Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as Harlem's Santa, 1936

In the 1960s, Santa got caught up in the civil rights movement and boycotts. Santa was called "one of the established symbols of racism."

Shillittoes', (a Cincinnati department store), owner Fred Lazarus III refused to hire a black Father Christmas
claiming that, "this has nothing to do with equality of employment. It just doesn't fit the symbol as kids have known it."

He gave in to the boycotts and hired an African American Santa the following year. By 1970, even Macys had hired one.

One department store in Brooklyn even set up rival black-and-white Santas, separated by a low partition, to enable people to make their choice.


Kenny Green, the Santa of Iverson Mall in the suburbs of DC

Today, Macys in NYC offers two Santas (and yes, they speak Spanish too)


(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )

FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 17: Merry Christmas vs Happy Christmas?

Why say Merry Christmas? We don't say Merry Birthday, Merry Halloween, or Merry Easter.

Saying 'Merry Christmas' rather than 'Happy Christmas' seems to go back several hundred years. It's first recorded in 1534 when John Fisher (an English Catholic Bishop in the 1500s) wrote it in a Christmas letter to Thomas Cromwell: "And this our Lord God send you a mery {sic} Christmas, and a comfortable, to your heart’s desire."

There's also the carol "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" which dates back to the 16th century in England. It comes from the West Country in England and it was first published in the form we know it today in 1760.

In the English language of the time, the phrase 'Rest You Merry' didn't mean simply to be happy; 'rest' meant "to keep, cause to continue to remain" and 'merry' could mean "pleasant, bountiful, prosperous". The comma in the phrase should be AFTER the 'merry' not BEFORE it. But it's often put after the merry which changes the meaning to make 'merry Gentleman' and so a 'Merry Christmas.'

There are two different possible explanations"

The first Christmas Card, sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, had this wording on it: "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You". (as you may remember from my post on Christmas letters). https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181155244

The first card. Note the small child drinking wine

The other source is Charles Dickens', "A Christmas Carol", where he uses the term "merry" 21 times.

The carol, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year)" arrived in 1935, but the term had already stuck by then.

One proponent of "Happy Christmas" was Queen Elizabeth II who used that term in her radio broadcasts. As a result, Happy Christmas is used more in the UK. Clement Clark Moore used Happy Christmas too in "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (more commonly known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Of course that was published in 1823, which is before Sir Henry Cole and Charles Dickens commodified the term "Merry."

(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )

FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 16: The Origin of Mrs. Claus & the War Years when Women took over

Marriage is a relatively new gig for Santa Claus. There’s no record of his original incarnation, Bishop of Myra St. Nicholas, having a wife. Although it’s not impossible for a fourth century Turkish bishop to have had a wife, the figure would expand and morph until, by the end of the 18th century, the bishop had transitioned into a full-time behavior monitor, jolly-maker, and bringer of toys.
But even mythological love affairs don’t just pop up overnight. It would be years and years before Santa found his lady. The first mention of Mrs. Claus appears in the 1849 short story “A Christmas Legend” by missionary James Rees, in which a couple disguise themselves, angel-like, as travelers, and seek shelter with a family. As it turns out, the two strangers are not the Clauses at all, but long-lost family members in double disguise. Still, real or not real, Rees had created a legend.
Over the next few decades, the legend took shape. Mentions of Mrs. Claus appeared in short stories, poems, and songs. She also began accompanying her husband to Christmas parties. Some reported that she dressed in red; others, like the architect/narrator in E.C. Gardner’s 1887 fanciful essay “A Hickory Back-Log,” decked her out in green and plaid.


The Mrs. Claus in Gardner’s tale (why would a Saint have a wife anyways?) harasses Garner over kitchen design.
Mrs. Claus next appears in Katharine Lee Bates’s 1889 poem "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride" demands to accompany her husband on his rounds and wants to deliver the toys herself. Bates is more well know for writing "America the Beautiful.” (Goody is short for Goodwife or Mrs.)

The poem can be found here.

Filene’s Department Store in Boston was the first to have a Mrs Claus. They hired a Mrs. Claus to help Santa entertain the kiddies in 1906 which was a time when most people had not considered Santa as married.
Over the years, Mrs. Claus became depicted more as a plump, cheerful, and patient character.

But Mrs. Claus wouldn’t become a mainstay of the Christmas celebration until the Baby Boom era, with the help of Nat King Cole’s “Mrs. Santa Claus” in 1953 and Phyllis McGinley’s 1963 children’s book How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas.


The Second World War saw American women break into many male-dominated jobs: riveters, crane operators, cab drivers, and professional baseball players, to name a few. But perhaps the most unusual breakthrough of all occurred 76 years ago this Christmas, when department stores began hiring women to play Santa, sitting in thrones previously monopolized by men. Pretty soon, still more women in red Santa suits and matching hats could be seen ringing bells on street corners and ho-ho-ho-ing it up for charity.

Even before the U.S. officially entered the war, some astute observers saw it coming. “It is customary in wartime for women to take over numerous fields of employment conventionally reserved for men,” the St. Louis Star-Times noted in 1941. But while the paper conceded that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt might be right that a “woman’s place is in the office, factory, courtroom, marketplace, corner filling station, and other locations too numerous to mention,” it drew a line in the snow at Santa.


Charlie Howard, a department store Santa who also trained other practitioners, gave the concept a boost in 1937, when he announced that his program had gone co-ed. As he told the Associated Press, he planned to graduate two Mrs. Clauses that year, whose job, the story reported, would be to “greet little girls, learn what they want in their Christmas stockings, teach them how to play with dollies, doll houses, dishes and clothes.” The article, however, also quoted Howard as declaring, “And she’ll have to be good looking, too.”

Stay classy, Charlie.

Less than a year after the U.S. declared war on Japan, in November 1942, the first female department store Santa seems to have appeared in Chicago. “The manpower shortage has even hit old Saint Nick,” the caption on an Associated Press photo explained. “This lady Santa Claus has turned up—dressed like Mr. Claus except for the whiskers—at a Chicago department store, and youngsters seem just as happy telling her which gifts they are hoping for.” (Though other contemporary accounts would treat her as a full-fledged female Santa, the photo caption hedged a bit, ending with a reference to her as a “Mrs. Santa Claus” who would “pass on children’s wishes to her overworked husband.”)

In December 1942, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that, “Unable to find a man suitable for the job,” an F.W. Woolworth store in Union, New Jersey, had also hired a female Santa. Identified as Mrs. Anna Michaelson, she would “wear a skirt, instead of trousers, but all the other habiliments will be the same as those of the traditional Kris Kringle.” In Michaelson’s case that included a white wig and beard, which the mother of eight obligingly showed off for a news photographer.


Makeup artist, Max Factor, Jr tried to standardize the appearance of Santa in 1939 to help prevent department stores from confusing kids and he created a template for Lady Santa Claus too. (Sadly, I can’t find a image of his work on Lady Santa)

NYC got it’s first female Santa in 1943 when Daisy Belmore was hired for Saks Fifth Ave. Belmore was most famous for appearing in Dracula and All Quiet on the Western Front.

Daisy Belmore as Santa

Some people and papers took the female Santas stoically. The Washington Post (Dec 1942) admitted it was better to have a female Santa than no Santa at all. Other writers and papers freaked out. Many of the Dept Store Santa’s felt that women would be incapable of doing the tough Santa work. The Smithsonian link about is good reading of the whining.

After the war ended the female department store Santas disappeared.

This link has a good timeline of the female Santas:

My absolute favorite Female Santa has to be Mrs. Phoebe Seabrook, a diminutive 62-year-old grandmother. When challenged for having a fake beard and soft voice, she admitted she was Santa’s wife. When the kids said they didn’t think Santa had a wife, she replied, “Well, he’s got one now.”

(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )

FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 15: Joel Poinsett, US Secretary of War and the Poinsettia

Where did the poinsettia come from and how did it end up as a Christmas decoration?

As it turns out, the red-leafed plant was introduced to the United States by botanist and statesman Joel Poinsett (1779-1851), who as the first U.S. Minister to Mexico found the plant while serving there. The poinsettia is said to have been used by the Aztecs as a red dye and to reduce fevers.


John Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) (Library of Congress)

Besides being the US Minister (Ambassador) to Mexico, Poinsett was also the Secretary of War, presided over the United States Exploring Expedition which accomplished the first circumnavigation of the globe sponsored by the United States. Poinsetta also was one of the early promoters of the Smithsonian Institute, advising Congress over how to use;

James Smithson bequest. (Although Smithson had never visited the United States, he left his estate of $508,318—about $15 million in today's dollars—to establish in Washington, D.C. an institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." ) At the time, much debate was going on about how best to achieve Smithson's request.


But back to the plant itself,

Native to Central America, the plant flourished in an area of Southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The Aztecs used the plant decorative purposes but also put the plant to practical use. They extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics from the plant’s bracts. The milky white sap, today called latex, was made into a preparation to treat fevers.

Poinsett maintained his own hothouses on his Greenville, South Carolina plantations, and while visiting the Taxco area in 1828, (as US Minister to Mexico) he became enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to friends and botanical gardens.

Among the recipients of Poinsett's work was John Bartram of Philadelphia, who in turn gave the plant over to another friend, Robert Buist, a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Mr. Buist is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. It is thought to have become known by its more popular name of poinsettia around 1836, the origin of the name recognizing the man who first brought the plant to the United States.

Congress honored Joel Poinsett by declaring December 12th as National Poinsettia Day which commemorates the date of his death in 1851. The day was meant to honor Poinsett and encourage people to enjoy the beauty of the popular holiday plant.


Mexico has a creation myth about the poinsettia where a little girl attending a Nativity scene in a Church and gave the Christ Child the only thing she could find, a small bundle of weedy plants. The Christ child performed a miracle and all the leaves turned red. Mexico calls the plant "Flores de Noche Buena," or Flowers of the Holy Night.

The earliest poinsettias were sold by individual florists and merchants—including the patriarch of the family, Albert Ecke, a German immigrant—and usually as single-cut stems instead of rooted in pots. But they were hardly durable; most would last two or three days, at best.

The Eckes helped transition poinsettias from ephemeral flowers to potted plants, created new shapes and introduced new colors (from shades of white and yellow to those that have names, “ice punch,” “pink peppermint” and “strawberries and cream” among them).

One of the earliest varieties, for which Ecke sought a patent in 1937, was “longer and more attractive; … will bloom in a cooler temperature than other known varieties; the bracts are a clearer and more beautiful color; … will produce more perfect bloom … than any other species of Poinsettia,” he wrote.

It’s one thing to have a ranch bursting with new plants, but it’s another to try to actually sell them. By nature, poinsettias are at their best between November and January, which aligns perfectly with the Christian advent season. For that reason, Paul Sr. started to market the plants as “Christmas flowers.”

Plant Patent 1,207, July 28, 1953


The Eckes family moved their operations indoors and grow poinsettias year round. They hold over 500 plant patents and have unique cutting and grafting procedures that allow them to license plants to other growers. They were marketing geniuses too. They provided plants to many magazines, the Tonight Show and the White House and soon everyone wanted the plant.

(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )

Lost Highway

FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 14: The West Point Military Academy EggNog Riot of Christmas 1826

The Eggnog Riot, sometimes known as the Grog Mutiny, was a riot that took place at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, on 24–25 December 1826. It was caused by a drunken Christmas Day party in the North Barracks of the academy. Two days prior to the incident, a large quantity of whiskey was smuggled into the academy to make eggnog for the party, giving the riot its name.

The riot eventually involved more than one-third of the cadets by the time it ceased on Christmas morning. A subsequent investigation by academy officials resulted in the implication of 70 cadets and the court-martialing of 20 of them and one enlisted soldier. Among the participants in the riot—though he was not court-martialed—was future Confederate States President Jefferson Davis.


At that time, standards were pretty low and cadets where often being expelled.

During West Point’s early years following its founding in 1802, it hardly resembled the highly revered institution that exists today. According to Smithsonian, admission standards were lax, and students could be enrolled at any point during the year. Drinking was also a significant part of the campus culture, especially around the holidays. It was an annual tradition at West Point for cadets to drink eggnog during their Christmas festivities, but in 1826, the school’s superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, cut them off.

As a means of whipping the community into shape, Thayer imposed a harsh new rule that prohibited the purchase, storage, and consumption of alcohol on West Point property. Unfortunately for Thayer, a few cadets took these new restrictions as a challenge come Christmas Eve.


The cadets (among them class of '28 student Jefferson Davis, a.k.a. the future president of the Confederacy) smuggled in three or four gallons of whiskey from a local tavern. Thayer suspected there might be shenanigans afoot for the holiday party, but he only took the normal precautions that night, assigning two officers to the North Barracks. The officers went to bed around midnight with no trouble to report, but that all changed around four in the morning. One of the officers, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, was awoken by the sounds of partying a few floors above him. He went to investigate and found six or seven cadets in a drunken state. He ordered them back to their rooms, and as he went to leave, he heard a second party going on in the room next door. There he found two intoxicated cadets hiding beneath a blanket, and a third party who was so drunk he refused to remove the hat he was using to conceal his face. When Hitchcock demanded that he show himself, they argued, and things got so tense that after the officer left, the cadets declared, “Get your dirks and bayonets … and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!”

Soon after, the infamous West Point eggnog riot was underway. Anywhere from 70 to 90 cadets ended up taking part, and while no one was killed that night, the chaos did result in assaults on two officers, several shattered windows, and banisters being ripped away from stairways. By the time morning arrived, the North Barracks had been completely wrecked. Instead of indicting up to a third of the academy’s 260 students and further reinforcing its reputation as an unruly institution, superintendent Thayer chose to only target the worst offenders. Jefferson Davis was able to evade a charge, and he, along with fellow classmates (including future Confederate General Robert E. Lee) testified in their peers’ defense. Nineteen cadets were eventually expelled, and the buildings that served as the site of the riot were demolished.


More at:

(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )

FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 13: While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads... WHAT?

The line from Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," a.k.a. "Twas the Night Before Christmas" (1823) goes:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads...

Sugar Plums are also mentioned in Act Two of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet. In the Land of the Sweets, containing Marzipan, Chocolate, and Candy Cane, the Sugar Plum rules the kingdom in the absence of the Prince.

A label on a box of sugar plums with an early (1868) picture of Santa in his underwear.

What the heck are sugar plums?

What they’re not, annoyingly enough, is sugar-coated plums. According to candy historians and the Oxford English Dictionary, a sugar plum is a comfit—that is, a seed, nut, or scrap of spice coated with a layer of hard sugar, like the crunchy outer case of an M&M. In the 17th century, popular innards for comfits included caraway, fennel, coriander, and cardamom seeds, almonds, walnuts, ginger, cinnamon, and aniseed. Tiny comfits—“hundreds and thousands,” “shot comfits,” or nonpareils”—were made by sugar-coating minuscule celery seeds; “long comfits” were sugar-coated strips of cinnamon bark or citrus peel.

Comfits are thought to be one of the world’s oldest sugar candies. They most likely started life as medicine, devised by Arab apothecaries as treatments for indigestion, and were brought to Europe via Genoese and Venetian sugar traders. The Tudors ate them as stomach-settlers at the end of their sizeable meals, along with a glass of spiced wine.

Comfits were tricky to make. The sugar coatings had to be gradually built up over time, first adding sugar syrup with a special funnel (called a “pearling funnel” or “cot”), then shimmying the candies in a hot pan. This process-called “panning”—had to be repeated for hours or days on end, until up to 30 layers of sugar had been added to the mix. Comfits, since they were massively labor-intensive, were pricey. Sugar plums were originally snacks for aristocrats. Early comfits also tended to be lumpy. The perfect comfit was the work of a skilled, patient, and possibly lucky confectioner. The process was so difficult that trade secrets were strictly guarded. A rare survival are the instructions published by Sir Hugh Platt (1609) on “The arte of comfetmaking,” who spills the beans on techniques and recipes. (“A quarter of a pound of Coriander seeds, and three pounds of sugar will make great, huge and big comfets.”) Today panning is performed mechanically, which is how we get uniformly round jawbreakers and smoothly oval jellybeans and Jordan almonds.

“Sugar plum,” these days, is an obsolete word, which seems a shame considering its versatility in its 17th- to 19th-century heyday. In the 17th century, to have a “mouth full of sugar plums” meant that you spoke sweetly, but might have a deceitful hidden agenda; in the 18th century, “to sugar plum” was a verb, meaning to pet, fawn over, or make up to. In the 19th century, “plum,” all on its own, came to mean anything delightful and desirable—hence Tchaikovsky’s Sugarplum Fairy in the Nutcracker ballet.

More at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2014/12/23/visions-of-sugarplums/

Confectionery historian Laura Mason calls comfit-making "one of the most difficult and tedious methods in craft confectionery, requiring specialized equipment, careful heat control, and experience." Depending on the size of the finished product, a batch could take several days to complete. Not just anybody could make these candies. Until the advent of machine innovations, comfits or sugar plums were a luxury good, most likely to be found in an aristocrat's pocket or between courses at a banquet.


I don't know what exactly Clement Moore had in mind when he imagined sleeping children's heads full of "visions of sugar plums." Was it a specific confection or a more general notion of sweetness? The lasting power of his poem suggests that it doesn't really matter. Even today, when the original referent for sugar plum has faded into the historical mists, we still recognize its meaning: the excitement, the pleasure, the childlike wonder of Christmas, all in the shape of a little sugar plum.

More at https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/12/sugar-plums-theyre-not-what-you-think-they-are/68385/

(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )

Scientific Giants of All Time: Donald Trump's Gut

From Tom the Dancing Bug

FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 12: The Skeletal Welsh Horse You Must Beat in a Battle of Rhymes

In the Welsh folkloric tradition of Mari Lwyd, a horse skull visits your home around Christmas, and you must best it in poetry or allow it inside.

There’s a skeletal horse singing rhymes outside your door, and it wants to come inside. Can you beat the dead mare in a battle of poetic wits? This is the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd, a mid-winter custom wherein the skull of a horse, decked out with bells and ribbons, is paraded on a stick by a reveler beneath a sackcloth, who challenges neighbors in exchange for drink and food.

It probably goes without saying that although Mari Lwyd now manifests around Christmas and New Year’s, this is a pre-Christian practice, one of those pagan rituals that’s endured on the British Isles over the centuries. The rather terrifying spectacle of Mari Lwyd did nearly disappear from Wales at one point, yet it’s had a resurgence recently, with Christmas ornaments being used for eyes occasionally instead of old glass bottle bottoms. The insults in the “pwnco” battles, as they’re called, are milder these days, and the drinking a little less heavy, but the sardonic grin of the horse skull, sometimes with a spring-loaded jaw, remains to haunt your Yuletides. In the 1966 video from the BBC Wales below, the Mari Lwyd dialogue plays out in matching rhymes until the undead mare is let in.

Exactly why anyone, at any point in history, thought this was good fun is lost to the ages. Music Traditions Wales (which offers a flat-pack Mari Lwyd for schools to assemble) points to the deep visual culture of the white horse in Britain, such as the late prehistoric Uffington White Horse carved into the hills of Oxfordshire, England. And there is a wider, worldwide heritage of ritual animal disguise, including the similar practice of hoodening in Kent, England, which features a hobbyhorse on a pole held by a person under a sheet.

More at https://hyperallergic.com/345156/the-welsh-undead-horse-of-christmas-you-must-beat-in-a-battle-of-rhymes/



and http://resources.trac.wales/traditions/mari-lwyd
(which includes instructions to make your own horse skull if you don't have one laying around!)

I'll cover wassailing and caroling later this month.

(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )

FSogol's 2018 Advent Calendar Day 11: The Time J.R.R. Tolkien Saved Christmas

Starting in 1920 when Tolkien's oldest son was aged three, each Christmas Tolkien would write a letter from Father Christmas about his travels and adventures. Each letter was delivered in an envelope, including North Pole stamps and postage marks as designed by Tolkien.


For the next 23 years, every Christmas Eve, Tolkien wrote a letter to his four children from Father Christmas. What began as short, informative letters—“I am just now off to Oxford with a bundle of toys”—evolved into longer tales about life at the North Pole. The 1932 letter begins, “Dear Children, There is alot to tell you. First of all a Merry Christmas! But there have been lots of adventures you will want to hear about. It all began with the funny noises underground … ”


Tolkien continued the practice until 1942. His son Christopher Tolkien posthumously published his father's work in 1976.

The stories are told in the format of a series of letters, told either from the point of view of Father Christmas or his elvish secretary. They document the adventures and misadventures of Father Christmas and his helpers, including the North Polar Bear and his two sidekick cubs, Paksu and Valkotukka. The stories include descriptions of the massive fireworks that create the northern lights and how Polar Bear manages to get into trouble on more than one occasion.

The 1939 letter has Father Christmas making reference to the Second World War, while some of the later letters feature Father Christmas' battles against Goblins which were subsequently interpreted as being a reflection of Tolkien's views on the German Menace.


some critics believe Tolkien adapted parts of these stories into his epic, Lord of the Rings and the Father Christmas was the model for Gandalf.

The book was republished in 1999 and re-titled "Letters from Father Christmas". It contains some that were left out of the earlier edition.

(For an explanation of my advent project and a link to last years posts, see
https://www.democraticunderground.com/10181152160 )
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