The Countdown Begins

Fireworks, dancing, kissing at midnight … who doesn’t love the revelry of ringing in the New Year?

But what’s the deal with people dropping things on New Year’s Eve? We had to know. It turns out that the Times Square Ball was, indeed, the first celebratory ball to drop (on New Year’s Eve, 1907), but now there are all sorts of other crazy things descending from the heavens on the last night of the year. Where did it all begin?

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Photo by Hunter Kahn via Wikimedia Commons

Apparently, at sea. Before the convenience of modern navigational tools on ships, sailors relied on “time balls,” usually stationed onshore at observatories because the clocks were set according to the positions of the sun and stars. The large wooden or metal spheres were dropped once a day at 1 p.m., and ships could observe and reset their time when the ball started dropping. One time ball—installed at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, in 1833 (below)—has dropped at 1 p.m. every day since then.

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Photo by Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons

The dropping tradition has since been adopted by countless cities around the country—with certain regional eccentricities, that is. Take a look …

The Annual Peach Drop in Atlanta, Georgia, is celebrated by dropping an 8′ peach, crafted of painted fiberglass and foam, from a whopping 138′.

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Peach Drop Tower, photo by Rjluna2 via Wikimedia Commons

In Mt. Olive, North Carolina, you’ll find the New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop, but don’t wait until midnight to catch a glimpse of the giant glowing pickle’s descent, which is scheduled to coincide with midnight Greenwich Mean Time (7 p.m. North Carolina time).

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Photo by RadioFan via Wikimedia Commons

It would seem that North Carolina is keen on the New Year’s Eve drop because, in addition to the pickle, it also hosts the Raleigh Acorn Drop in “The City of Oaks.” The giant copper acorn weighs 1,250 lbs, and unlike the premature pickle drop, the acorn is ceremoniously lowered at the stroke of midnight. And at the Flea Drop in Eastover (known as Flea Hill until the 1920s), a 30-lb, 3′-tall flea made of fabric, foam, wire, and wood is dropped at midnight.

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Photo by Ke4roh via Wikimedia Commons

In Vincennes, Indiana, an 18′, 500-lb watermelon ball made of steel and foam is raised 100′ in the air during the countdown to midnight. On the hour, the watermelon opens and drops 11 real locally-grown watermelons amid a flurry of fireworks.

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Photo via VisitIndiana.com

Panama City, Florida, drops 10,000 inflated beach balls along Pier Park’s beachfront boardwalk at the nation’s only family beach-ball drop. Elsewhere in Florida, Key West drops a 6′ queen conch shell, Miami drops a 35′ orange from a 400′ perch, and Sarasota drops an 8′-tall glowing pineapple.

So this New Year’s Eve, look up … you never know what you might see dropping from the midnight sky.

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a magical visitor

Ah, the magic of winter on a farm.

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Photo by AwesomeMachine via Wikimedia Commons

There are trees draped in garlands of snow, gentle Jerseys warming the milk barn, and tracks of critters etched here and there upon the frozen ground.

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Photo by John Good via Wikimedia Commons

Look a bit closer … what kind of critter do you suppose left those tiny tracks?

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Photo courtesy of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve via Wikimedia Commons

Oh, maybe.

But if we were on a farm in Sweden, we might sooner say that the passing critter had been …

a tomten.

A who-ten?

A tomten! In fact, here’s one now—not the rabbit, mind you, but the mysterious little fellow traipsing around the farm buildings …

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Image courtesy of Pamsik.livejournal.com

The tomten is a legendary gnome-ish sort of figure from Swedish folklore. He was said to resemble a miniature, bearded old man wearing drab woolen clothing and a red stocking cap (much like another legendary character we all know).

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Image courtesy of Pamsik.livejournal.com

In stories of old, a solitary tomten generally lived on a farm and cared for its animal inhabitants by night. He was never seen by humans, though, and left little trace of his presence except for occasional tiny tracks in the snow. The farm people had an abiding respect for the tomten, despite his lack of visibility, and they would leave sweet rice porridge with butter outside for him on frigid winter nights—particularly on Christmas Eve.

Here, a wily fox is eyeing the tomten’s bowl of porridge …

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Image courtesy of Pamsik.livejournal.com

Speaking of tomtens and wily foxes, I found a video I had to share with you about these curious Christmastime creatures. It is a clip from an animated German film called Tomte Tummetott und der Fuchs (Tomten Tummetott and the Fox), and a bit of poking around revealed that the film is based on a (perhaps even lovelier) children’s book by beloved Swedish author Astrid Lindgren of Pippy Longstocking fame.

So, watch this tidbit of winter wonder:

And then check out this beautiful book, which can be read time and again until the spring thaw:

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And, if you want to include a bowl of tomten porridge alongside the cookies and milk you leave for Santa this Christmas Eve, you can find a tummy-warming recipe here.

arm yourself

My book designer, Karina, discovered a new way of knitting at her last craft party. If you haven’t heard of this latest craze, it’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s fast … necessarily so, since you’re all tied up … literally … in yarn, using your arms instead of needles. And as you can imagine, there are a number of reasons why you can’t be tied up for too long.

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Photo, flaxandtwine.com

Because of the size of the stitches your “needles” produce, you can make an infinity scarf in about a half hour, even if you’re a beginner.

Find a step-by-step written tutorial with photos for the scarf pictured above at a wonderful blog called Flax & Twine: A Happy Handmade Life.

Or knit a blanket in just 45 minutes with a great video tutorial from SimplyMaggie.com.

An added bonus? It’s a workout for your arms … we’re talking toning, big time.

Note: For 20% off Lion Brand Quickie Arm Knitting Yarn, enter MARYJANES20 in the coupon code box during checkout for yarns at: http://www.yarncanada.ca/categories/lion-brand/shop-by-product-line/quickie-yarn.html

Nostomania

You may find yourself overcome by nostomania this time of year.

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Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons

No, no—nostomania is not the sort of mania that causes you to become wild-eyed and rip up the house in a frenzy.

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Photo by Torbak Hopper via Wikimedia Commons

Nor does it make you scale tall trees to escape the madness.

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Photo by Quickndirty via Wikimedia Commons

That is an entirely different holiday issue. I’m talking about missing your one and only, Jasper Tomkins.

Jasper Tomkins

Nostomania is more this kind of mania:

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Photo by Doryana02 via Wikimedia Commons

You know the feeling. You don the cozy crimson hat your sister knitted for you last year and stare into space while absentmindedly humming “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” because you are beset by a certain melancholy that can only be called nostomania (nos-tuh-MAY-nee-uh): an irresistible compulsion to return home; intense homesickness.

Yup.

a little piece of Downton Abbey

What happens when you combine a dash of Christmas spirit with gingerbread, candy canes, and Downton Abbey?

I’ll show you what happens …

A little something, oh, like this:

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Photo courtesy of Eggton.com

Or, maybe, like:

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Photo courtesy of http://getbacktothedrawingboard.blogspot.com

And if you want to see how such a miracle might occur, just watch …

I know some of you are taking this post to heart, as if it’s some sort of triple-dog dare. What can I say?

First of all, remember that there are consequences to taking dares …

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Photo from A Christmas Story courtesy of Uproxx.com

And if that doesn’t deter you, then I triple-dog dare you to make a Downton Abbey gingerbread castle—and post pictures to prove it.

You still have time before the big day. Whip up some construction grade gingerbread (aka, “oven plywood”) and get busy!

Washi Tape

Have you been introduced to the colorful, textural, sticky goodness known as washi tape?

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It’s taking the craft world by storm and I love to use it to decorate boxes and envelopes, but what do I really know about it? Turns out the word “washi” comes from wa for “Japanese” and shi for “paper,” and it’s used to describe paper made by hand in the traditional Japanese manner. Although the tape isn’t always made outright from washi, the washi-like patterns and texture are where it gets its name.

Washi tape is typically made from natural fibers, such as bamboo or hemp, but most commonly from the bark of trees that are native to Japan—the mulberry, the mitsumata shrub, or the gampi tree. The beauty of the pulp from these sources is that it has no grain, making the tape easy to manipulate and tear. The whole washi tape phenomenon started in 2006 when a group of artists approached a Japanese masking tape manufacturer and presented them with a book of art they had created using the company’s industrial masking tapes. The artists requested that the company manufacture colorful masking tapes for artists, and washi tape was born.

In addition to being used as an art supply for things like business cards, serving trays, lampshades, nail art, and gift wrap, some artists, like Nasa Funahara, are taking it a step further by using washi tape as paint to recreate masterpieces by famous artists like Van Gogh and Verneer.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer created with masking tape, photo spoon-tamago.com

An art student at Musashino Art University in Japan, Nasa takes about a week to build her paintings by layering different washi tapes together. Her pieces mimic the original in basic composition, but the real magic lies in looking at them up close, where the vast array of color and texture are revealed. And in Sacramento, California, there’s an art collaborative that creates large-scale interactive art installations out of washi tape, a whole “washi” movement known as Tapigami.

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photo, tapigami.com

So next time you see a coordinated pack of washi tape in the checkout line in colors and textures that make you giddy, go ahead and grab it. Its versatility is literally endless.

Irish Trio Wins Google Science Fair

Three cheers for this lovely teen trio from County Cork, Ireland!

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Photo courtesy of Google Science Fair

Émer Hickey, Ciara Judge, and Sophie Healy-Thow recently won the Grand Prize in the 15-16 age group of the 2014 Google Science Fair.

To be sure, that’s pretty cool in and of itself, but it’s the particulars of their project that really take this farmgirl’s cake …

Reportedly inspired by Émer’s observations within her family’s backyard garden, the trio set out to study the effects of beneficial bacteria on the growth of cereal grain crops (and to think, we’ve just been picking and eating our veggies all this time).

“Émer and her mom were gardening, and she noticed nodules on one of their pea plants,” Sophie told National Geographic. “She brought that into school, and our teacher told us it was bacteria.”

As it happened, the girls’ class was in the midst of a lesson on the world food crisis, and they learned that the knobby nodules on plant rhizomes hold beneficial bacteria that boost growth. For visual reference, here are “Rhizobia nodules” attached to roots of a cowpea plant:

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Photo by Stdout via Wikimedia Commons

“We became really interested in what this bacteria can do and what people haven’t done with it so far,” said Sophie.

Atta girl!

People—lots of people—apparently told the girls that the bacteria wouldn’t have an impact on cereal crops, but they shrugged off the naysayers and decided to test their hypothesis on barley.

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Photo by Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons

According to Scientific American, the team has tested the effects of beneficial bacteria on some 13,000 seeds over the course of three years. “We did a lot of experimental work in Ciara’s house,” Émer told RTE radio after their win. “First, we took over the spare room, then expanded into the kitchen, sitting room, conservatory, and the garden … It was quite a lot of work, but it has really been worth it.”

They found (naysayers be darned) that the microbes increased seed germination rates by 50 percent! What’s more, harvest yields increased by as much as 70 percent. The girls currently have a controlled field site planted with 3,600 seeds in their hometown. Émer says that further benefit may be seen in the reduced need for fertilizers and that improved germination speed is of particular interest to farmers in places like Ireland, where seeds can rot in the damp soil before sprouting.

For more details, listen to the girls explain their awe-inspiring research in their own words:

Mr. G and Jellybean

I should probably assume that when something goes “viral” on the Internet, you’ve seen it already …

But what if you haven’t?

Some stories are just too heartwarming not to share—just in case. For instance, the story of Mr. G and Jellybean.

In a nutshell, Mr. G (a goat) and Jellybean (a donkey) were rescued, among many other animals, from an abusive California owner a few months ago. They were taken to separate animal sanctuaries in hopes of giving them happier homes.

And yet, Mr. G wasn’t happy. At all.

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Photo of Mr. G courtesy of Animal Place via Facebook.com/mrgjellybean

After arriving at Animal Place in Grass Valley, California, the 10-year-old goat stopped eating. For days, he wouldn’t even get up from the corner of his stall to go outside. Neither treats nor tenderness would perk him up despite a clean bill of health from a veterinarian.

There was only one thing to do …

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Photo by Grievous via Wikimedia Commons

There was only one “someone” who could come lumbering (lop ears and all) to the rescue …

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Photo of Jellybean courtesy of Animal Place via Facebook.com/mrgjellybean

Yup.

Grab a tissue and watch …

Adopt a Farmer

I just learned about a super-great program in Oregon called Adopt a Farmer.

Don’t worry—no one is abandoning farmers by the roadside!

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Photo by Tomas Sennett, Environmental Protection Agency, via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing like that.

In fact, this program is more about farmers helping kids by being adopted. If this isn’t making sense yet, just let me gather my druthers, and I’ll explain …

The Adopt a Farmer program, launched in 2011 by the Agri-Business Council of Oregon, is designed to help reconnect students in middle-school science classes to the sources of their food and fiber with hands-on farm education. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Oregon kids were grounded in good farm work …

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Photo courtesy of the Beaverton Oregon Historical Photo Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Each participating class “adopts” one Oregon farm or ranch for the entire school year. During the year, the class takes at least one field trip to “their” farm, and the farmer or rancher also visits the classroom once a quarter to share updates about life and work on the farm.

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Photo of Hurst Farm in Sutherland, Oregon by Ian Poellet via Wikimedia Commons

Plus, the students share a blog with their farmer, which allows them to communicate directly. You can view the blogs by clicking on the “visit blog” link shown below each farmer’s picture on the program’s website.

Twelve schools and over 1,000 students are currently participating in the program, and the Agri-Business Council plans to expand the Adopt a Farmer program to schools across the state.

Here’s a little more about the program from those who know it best: