The Feast Of St. Nicholas, The Saint Who Gives

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 5, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

You should be getting and reading this week’s East Bernard Express on December 5, 2019, the Eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas (according to Lutheran and Catholic liturgical calendars, and according to Catholic tradition in East Bernard). That fact suggested to me to write my column about one of my favorite Saints, whose name obviously gave us the sobriquet, “Santa Claus.”

            Not all folks from all religions or ethnicities celebrate St. Nicholas Day, but those who have Slavic and/or Teutonic ancestors generally do. It is widely celebrated in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, parts of Germany, and in a different way, in Mexico. Kids from the Slavic countries are doubly blessed with gifts on St. Nicholas Day and on Christmas Day. In East Bernard, and elsewhere in America where traditions were brought from the Old Country, children also receive gifts on St. Nicholas Day and on Christmas Day.

            As the Patron Saint of Russia, special traditions and celebrations of the Festival are enthusiastically observed by Russian Orthodox Christians. St. Nicholas is called “Svyatoy Nikolay” by Russians, “Mikulas” by Czechs, “Mikolajki” by Poles, “Swjaty Miklaws” by Wends, “der Heilige Nikolaus” by Germans, and “St. Nicolas de Bari” by Mexicans.

            Yes, St. Nicholas was a real Saint, not merely a legend. He was a Bishop who lived in Myra, in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and was considered Protector of Children and Sailors, and later, Patron Saint of Russia. He died on December 6, 343 A.D., in Myra, though his remains were eventually buried in Bari, Italy. He inherited a huge fortune when his wealthy parents died; and when he became a clergyman, he gave all his money to the poor so he could humbly serve God. He was very benevolent to all needy people, and especially to children. Serving as a Bishop in the Church, he would have worn red vestments and on special occasions carried a crosier (Bishop’s staff), which is why he is often depicted clad in red and holding a crosier. There are many more details about the life of St. Nicholas, but they tend to be legend rather than fact.

            Because of his love and compassion for children, traditions of gift-receiving on his Day developed among Catholics. In Poland, children receive gifts from St. Nicholas in their slippers on his Feast Day, and in Germany, children put out their shoes on the Eve of St. Nicholas to receive gifts in them. In the Czech Republic, three adults dress up like the devil, an angel, and St. Nicholas, and they go about the town, asking about each child, whether they have been good or bad, — only the “good” ones receiving gifts.

            In many parts of Mexico, The Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated on three Mondays in December, with numerous Masses being held on those three Mondays. I don’t think Mexican children, however, have the tradition of the Saint bringing them gifts on December 6; instead, on Christmas Eve, “Papa Noel,” or the Baby Jesus, bring gifts to their homes.

            Because of his generosity to all, his compassionate caring, and his love for children, many, many legends grew out of the true stories told about this extraordinary Bishop who gave so much in so many ways to so many people. Nicholas served during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, a time of severe persecution against Christians, and it was also a time of widespread poverty, as well as sickness and death caused by the Plague. As a Servant of the Word, his compassion and benevolence during such difficult times brought hope and joy to many, as he exemplified the Spirit of Christ, and thus the Spirit of Christmas.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

“Turkey Day” Is A Misnomer

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 28, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            When someone calls a person a “turkey,” he usually means the person is a flop, a failure, a stupid person. In show business, a show that flops is called a “turkey.” Considering the negative connotation the word has taken on, it seems strange to me that many Americans call Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Day.” Rather sad, considering the fact that the holiday was and is supposed to be a day of thanksgiving and praise to God. “Turkey Day” is a misnomer.

            What’s so odd about calling this very meaningful American celebration “Turkey Day” is that there’s no clear evidence turkey was served at that First Thanksgiving feast in 1621 between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony. Records from that time show a menu of “waterfowl, venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, and pumpkin.” It is very likely they did serve turkey, because wild turkeys were so plentiful in the area, — but it wouldn’t have been the main course.

            While we’re trying to clear up misrepresentations, I would point out, contrary to the popular belief that turkeys are the dumbest animals in the world, they are not. Facts about turkeys certainly disprove that idea. According to the National Wild Turkey Confederation, turkeys have a vocabulary of 28 distinct calls (or yelps), and each call has a general meaning to the creatures, and can be used in different situations to mean different things which the flock understands. The “gobble” sound is made only by male turkeys, the “clucking” sound is made by both male and female turkeys as a socializing sound, and a “purring” sound communicates “all is well.”

            Turkeys are also smart enough to roost high in trees to keep themselves safe at night from predators. Turkeys also engage in preening and sunning themselves, followed by a dust bath, — this keeps their feathers in good condition and helps remove parasites.

            My grandparents raised turkeys, and I can tell you from personal experience that they are strong and courageous animals and will attack you if provoked. They will also work together as a group to fend off predators like snakes. In fact, because of their courage, Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national emblem rather than the eagle.

            So, to me, it’s rather annoying that people call a person they think is stupid, a “turkey.” Not only that, but over the years, Americans have come up with many different “turkey” awards, and they’re all uncomplimentary. Film critics, Michael Medved and Harry Medved, created the Golden Turkey Awards, which they announced in their 1980 book, The Golden Turkey Awards. The concept of the Golden Turkey was a sarcastic spin-off on the golden statue awards like Oscars and the Emmy Awards, and “honored” the worst acting, the worst directing, etc., in current movies. Michael Medved even hosted a TV series, The Worst of Hollywood, showing who deserved these awards.

            The giving of some kind of “turkey” award extended beyond Hollywood and included doing so in business, sports, journalism, etc. For example, bowling enthusiasts began to give the “Wild Turkey Award” for six consecutive strikes and the “Golden Turkey Award” for nine consecutive strikes. Over the years, sports writers for newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times have given the “Turkey Award” to the worst athlete or team for doing something stupid.

            So why do we demean Thanksgiving Day by calling it “Turkey Day,” and why do we demean turkeys by considering them “stupid”? And why do we emphasize the “feasting” part rather than the praying and praising G

            When someone calls a person a “turkey,” he usually means the person is a flop, a failure, a stupid person.  In show business, a show that flops is called a “turkey.”  Considering the negative connotation the word has taken on, it seems strange to me that many Americans call Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Day.”  Rather sad, considering the fact that the holiday was and is supposed to be a day of thanksgiving and praise to God.  “Turkey Day” is a misnomer.

            What’s so odd about calling this very meaningful American celebration “Turkey Day” is that there’s no clear evidence turkey was served at that First Thanksgiving feast in 1621 between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony.  Records from that time show a menu of “waterfowl, venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, and pumpkin.”  It is very likely they did serve turkey, because wild turkeys were so plentiful in the area, — but it wouldn’t have been the main course.

            While we’re trying to clear up misrepresentations, I would point out, contrary to the popular belief that turkeys are the dumbest animals in the world, they are not.  Facts about turkeys certainly disprove that idea.  According to the National Wild Turkey Confederation, turkeys have a vocabulary of 28 distinct calls (or yelps), and each call has a general meaning to the creatures, and can be used in different situations to mean different things which the flock understands.  The “gobble” sound is made only by male turkeys, the “clucking” sound is made by both male and female turkeys as a socializing sound, and a “purring” sound communicates “all is well.”

            Turkeys are also smart enough to roost high in trees to keep themselves safe at night from predators.  Turkeys also engage in preening and sunning themselves, followed by a dust bath, — this keeps their feathers in good condition and helps remove parasites.

            My grandparents raised turkeys, and I can tell you from personal experience that they are strong and courageous animals and will attack you if provoked.  They will also work together as a group to fend off predators like snakes.  In fact, because of their courage, Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national emblem rather than the eagle.

            So, to me, it’s rather annoying that people call a person they think is stupid, a “turkey.”  Not only that, but over the years, Americans have come up with many different “turkey” awards, and they’re all uncomplimentary.  Film critics, Michael Medved and Harry Medved, created the Golden Turkey Awards, which they announced in their 1980 book, The Golden Turkey Awards.  The concept of the Golden Turkey was a sarcastic spin-off on the golden statue awards like Oscars and the Emmy Awards, and “honored” the worst acting, the worst directing, etc., in current movies.  Michael Medved even hosted a TV series, The Worst of Hollywood, showing who deserved these awards.

            The giving of some kind of “turkey” award extended beyond Hollywood and included doing so in business, sports, journalism, etc.  Over the years, sports writers for newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times have given the “Turkey Award” to the worst athlete or team for doing something really stupid.            

So why do we demean Thanksgiving Day by calling it “Turkey Day,” and why do we demean turkeys by considering them “stupid”?  And why do we emphasize the “feasting” part rather than the praying and praising God part of Thanksgiving?  Fasting would actually be more appropriate than feasting.  So let’s face it, in the great abundance God provides us, we need to be on our knees in thanksgiving.

od part of Thanksgiving? Fasting would actually be more appropriate than feasting. So let’s face it, in the great abundance God provides us, we need to be on our knees in thanksgiving

o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Purple And Our Color-Coded Lives

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 21, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            More and more, it seems our lives are color-coded, both in the secular world and in the Church. You can see this right after Halloween, when the retail stores begin replacing orange and black items and décor with green and red. And in our personal lives, we wear red, white, and blue to express the patriotic feelings we have for our country, and maroon and white as symbols of loyalty to our home teams, — and, even of our town itself. It seems to me that’s a good thing.

            In the liturgical churches, we color-code our liturgical seasons, a very ancient practice that goes back to the beginning of the Church. In the Church, the color for Christmas is not red and green, as in the secular world, but white or gold, the colors used for paraments and stoles, until Epiphany.

            Having grown up in a liturgical church, and, in later years, preaching in one, I find the color symbolism of the Church very meaningful. This year, the Church Season of Advent begins on December 1 and ends on December 24. Advent always starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and always ends on Christmas Eve; this means the beginning is always going to be between November 27 and December 3. During the Early Church, the color for Advent was purple, which was both a penitential color and the color of royalty, symbolizing the Coming of Christ. Since the Early Church celebrated the Second Coming of Christ during Advent, a penitential color was called for, emphasizing repentance in preparation for the End of Times and proclaiming Christ as King of Kings. From the earliest of times, purple was a symbol of royalty, the color worn by kings.

            In more recent times, many liturgical churches have changed the Advent color from purple to blue, blue also being a color of Kingship, but not a symbol for penitence. The reason for this seems to me to be switching the worship emphasis from the Second Coming of Christ at the End of Times to the First Coming of Christ as a child in Bethlehem. We don’t like to think about the End of Times, but we love to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child to Bethlehem. Not only are the paraments and stoles blue in contemporary churches, but also three of the candles on the Advent Wreath are blue (the fourth one, of course, being pink) rather than purple.

            The color purple for Advent has such meaningful symbolism for me that I was never tempted to change from purple to blue, either at my church, or on our Advent Wreath at home. Those weeks before Christmas should be a time of repentance and preparation. You see, the Latin word for “Advent” is “Adventus,” which means “coming.” Yes, Christ is coming first as a child to the little town of Bethlehem but understood in that Coming is His death and resurrection, which was necessary for our salvation, and which is followed by His Second Coming. The Early Church considered both happenings to be joyful events.

            Even long before Christ’s birth in a stable in Bethlehem, purple was the color of royalty and nobility, as, for example only the Roman nobility wore the color purple. And that was partly due to the fact purple dye could only be made from a hard-to-find sea creature, thus it was the most expensive dye of all. Such an expensive dye made the cloth expensive, thus purple cloth was the most expensive cloth you could buy. This fact was still true during the time of Jesus, and makes us realize how wealthy Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, was. She gave financial support to the followers of Jesus and provided them with room and board, thus using her wealth to help spread the Gospel. Being a Christian did not necessarily mean being poverty-stricken.

            Today, manufacturers of art supplies can create the color purple without using the scarce sea creature once necessary, so the significance of purple is sort of lost on us. However, the powerful symbolism of purple continues to be important in our lives in many ways. For example, the Purple Heart awarded by the President of the United States for bravery (wounded or killed) in battle is purple. Purple was chosen as the color of the heart, because it symbolizes courage and bravery, duty, honor, compassionate love, royalty, and good judgment, making it a powerful symbol.

            To be sure red, white, and blue, maroon and white, purple, white and gold, and even red and green, are meaningful symbols in our lives.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Although It’s Cold In Texas This Week, Ice Fishing Is Probably Not An Option

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 14, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Some years ago, my son-in-law and I had a bay boat and we went fishing quite often in Matagorda Bay. Having grown up in Dime Box and having fished only in Lee County creeks and ponds, I had to learn totally new fishing techniques. Bay fishing was both fun and hard work, and we did catch a fair amount of fish in those years, mainly when the weather was warm, which is most of the year in Texas. I developed a special fondness for flounder fishing, because I loved to eat them so much, and because they were easier to catch than red snapper, etc. Nothing my daddy had taught me about fishing for perch and catfish in Dime Box creeks and ponds helped me in floundering.

            The recent cold front, which blew in yesterday and has kept the temperatures no higher than 45 degrees today, plus the news accounts of snow and ice farther north of us made me think of winter in Michigan in the 1970’s when my wife and I were there for graduate school studies. It occurred to me that, though I would walk down to a creek (that’s what I called it) near the campus in midwinter and walk on the frozen-hard water, I never went ice fishing. Neither did my fellow students in the graduate program in which we were all enrolled; we were too busy having seminars, writing papers, taking field trips, and spending time in the University of Michigan library. I learned a lot about slipping on icy sidewalks, spinning your tires in the snow, and scraping your windshield, but never about ice fishing.

            Most of my fellow graduate students, like me, were married, and we were pinched for money, so catching our own fish to eat would have been a great thing. Most of the students living in “married housing” like we did grew their own zucchini and other vegetables in little makeshift gardens in front of the apartment units. Just didn’t have time for the ice fishing.

            Even great fishermen in Texas haven’t got a clue as to how you go about ice fishing, but it’s common knowledge in places like Ann Arbor, and really, quite easy. The first thing to know, of course, is whether the ice is solid enough to walk on. I was told that ice six inches deep was safe, and when ten inches, you can drive a car on it. But, if it’s only two inches, you can’t even walk on it. Also I learned that you don’t need power tools to cut through the ice, that a sharp ice chisel will work quite well if you know to use it right, — in fact, you can cut through six inches in a minute. It’s also better to ice-fish in smaller bodies of water.

            In winter, the fish apparently live at the bottom of the creek or lake, a few species even burying themselves in the mud, — kind of like flounder in warm water? So once you’ve got your hole chiseled out in the ice, what do you use to temp the semi-dormant fish to swallow your hook? Ice fishermen seem to prefer mealworms as bait (the mealworm is actually a beetle rather than a worm, as the worm-stage morphs into a “darkling beetle”). We have mealworms in Texas, but Texas fishermen prefer grubs. Obviously, you don’t use it after it’s a beetle.

            With its over 11.000 lakes, Michigan is an ideal place to go ice fishing, winter fishermen catching bluegill, perch, walleye, northern pike, trout, and sunfish, some of the same fish you can catch in the summer. On the plus side for ice fishing is the fact these fish are easier to catch in the icy water because the cold slows down their movements. Bluegill seems to be the most sought after fish, as it is probably the tastiest of the panfish and delicious fried.

            Even though more cold weather to come is forecast for us, and even if we do get a hard freeze at some point, I would not advise ice fishing in our area. Even in Dime Box (a little farther north) in frigid winters in the 1940’s, the ice on the stock pond near our house was rather thin. Although new ice is stronger than old ice, my brother and I found that even a small pebble would break through the thin sheet. And by midday, it will be melted anyway.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Why People Become Nurses And Pastors

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES November 7, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

In retrospect, I can’t say for sure why I wanted to be a pastor and serve a congregation, — obviously it wasn’t for the money. I think it may have been for the same reason someone wants to become a nurse or a counselor or a special education teacher, or any teacher for that matter. Women I have known who wanted to be a nurse or became a nurse expressed some of the same feelings I felt in seeking the route to the ministry. These want-to-be nurses were all very sensitive human beings who saw so much hurt, so many needs, so much sorrow all around them, and they felt “called” to help do something beyond themselves to help vulnerable, hurting human beings. The inner love they felt for others (and, in most cases, for God) pulled them toward a career that would fulfill this inner, indefinable something.

            My mother was one of those women, a fact that I did not learn about until pretty late in life. She was the ideal mother and the rock of our family, so I never thought of her as having any feelings outside of wanting to be a loving mother and splendid homemaker. But one day, when I was talking to her about my retiring from teaching and possibly going into the pastoral ministry and trying to express hard-to-express feelings (while I loved by father dearly, it was always my mother whom I could and would talk to), she said she understood, because she had once felt that way, too. She went on to explain that she had wanted very much to enroll in a nursing program and become a Registered Nurse, but there were way too many obstacles keeping her from doing it.

            To begin with, Dime Box Rural School in those days had only eleven grades, and you had to go to Giddings to complete the Twelfth Grade and graduate. One of her classmates in Dime Box was able to do that; he graduated from Giddings High School so that he could go to college and Med School and become a Medical Doctor. But my grandparents could not afford to pay room and board for her in Giddings, nor could they afford transportation back and forth to Giddings. From there, of course, were the even greater costs of college and nursing school. Instead she went to work as a clerk in Noah Alber’s Drug Store. But she confessed to me how very, very much she felt drawn to a career serving hurting people as a nurse.

            Others in my family had similar feelings of wanting to help suffering humanity. Two of my cousins became RN’s and one wanted to but did not finish the road to certification. She did, however, go on to work with small children, helping them to learn and grow in a Christian environment.

            My mother did go on to reach out to and help others in many ways, some through her church work and some through the bounty of her success with her garden, her canning, her cows, and her chickens. She would give free milk and butter to needy families, and many, many folks enjoyed the incredible abundance of her garden and her canning. She was never a person to feel sad or bitter about what could not and did not happen; she believed God directed our lives.

            During my 29 years serving in the pastoral ministry, I not only encountered many, seeking, hurting, lonely, depressed, defeated people who looked to the church, and especially to the pastor for help, but I also met many pastors who served those folks well and gave much of themselves to them. And I encountered a few pastors who probably should not have chosen the ministry as a career. The good pastors were helpers and healers and teachers and gave much of their time and energy to others. These were men who felt somewhat the same feelings the want-to-be nurses felt, — they felt drawn to love and serve others in many ways, and also had the component of faith in God and compulsion to serve God fully through the love of Christ Jesus. Meeting so many of these inspired Men of the Cloth, and getting to know them and learn from them, was one of the true “perks” of my ministry in the Circuit. I would not conclude that I myself ever completely achieved the fulfillment of those strong desires to serve God in that particular way, but, in retirement, and in retrospect, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to attempt to fulfill my dream.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

From Beer Barrel Polka To The Altuve Polka, The Polka Is Still Very Much Alive And Well Today

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 24, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            During my growing-up years, German and Slavic polka music was so much a joyful part of my life that I suspect the love for polkas must be in my DNA! Although the polka was “invented” in Bohemia, it became extremely popular among Germans, Czechs, Moravians, Wends, and Poles, throughout Europe, and immigrants brought the popularity to America. Just like in Czech-American families, in Texas Wendish families, you could always find an accordion, and several kids who could play it by ear.

            Unfortunately, I was not one of those kids, but I did learn to play the trombone in high school and was a member of the Giddings High School Band in 1949 or 1950 when we were invited to play polka music at the Serbin Church and School Picnic. I do remember our playing for about an hour in a gazebo on the Picnic grounds, and I remember playing the immensely popular (in the 1940’s) “Beer Barrel Polka.” There were three or four people standing around the gazebo watching and listening to us, and two of them were my parents. Obviously we were not the best polka-playing group that ever played for the Serbin Picnic.

            Nevertheless my brief polka-playing experience began a life-long passion for polka music, which I hid during my early college years, because loving ethnic polka music was not very “groovy” among my drama, art, and music major friends who were totally into progressive jazz and classical music. Not too many years later, freed from the “ashamed-to-be-from” and “ashamed-to-really-like” phase of my pseudo-sophisticated years, I began to enjoy, flaunt, and glory in my ethnicity, especially the love for old-time polka music.

            So, naturally, as an Astros fan who loved the polka, I was taken by Polish Pete’s smash hit (in Texas anyway), “The Altuve Polka,” honoring the Astros second baseman, Jose Altuve, in 2017 when Altuve first became a baseball hero in Houston. Polish Pete wrote another piece, I think in 2018, entitled “I Love Those Houston Astros,” completing a full-length recording in 2018. Played by “The Polka? I Hardly Know Her Band,” polka music and baseball played well together. So, Saturday night, when Altuve stunned the crowds by hitting that homerun which takes the ‘Stros into the World Series, “The Altuve Polka” was played and posted on Facebook

with even more oomp-pa-pa than in 2017.

            Naturally I have added “The Altuve Polka” to my collection of fun polkas to listen to and brighten up my day. There have been so many, many joyful-sounding polkas over the years. There were lots of great polka bands in the 1940’s when I was growing up in Lee County, Texas, and, as a teenager, I danced to their music at the SPJST Hall in Dime Box, though I was kind of a wall flower who didn’t dance very well. I loved music, I loved polkas, and I loved to dance in spite of my hindrances to having fun.

            The most famous polka band in the 1940’s was the Joe Patek Orchestra, originally called the Patek Band of Shiner. They were famous for “The Shiner Song” and “Beautiful America” (“Krasna Amerika”). Joe Patek’s recording of the “Beer Barrel Polka” sold more than a million copies. So polka music was alive and well in America in those days!

            And still is. Today, there is the Shiner Hobo Band, following in the footsteps of the Patek Band of Shiner. And there is the Moravian Polka Band of Ennis, Texas, founded in 2009 by seven high school students. They played for the recent Wendish Fest in Serbin, Texas, in September, and were much admired by the huge crowds attending the Fest. And there are many, many more that I have read about in the Texas Polka News.

            I have to end this with my favorite polka musicians, The Dujka Brothers, who were recently inducted into the South Texas Polka Hall of Fame, and whose latest recordings are “Twenty Five Years Making Tracks” and “On St. John Road.” Next month, the Dujka Brothers will be playing for a Royal Caribbean Cruise, which sales from Galveston on November 17. I am proud to say that I knew them when, lol.

            It gives me great joy to report that polka music is still alive and well and played and loved by the younger generation!

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Cotton-Picking Joy In the Good Old Days

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 17, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Several weeks ago when I took an infrequent drive-around-our-farming-area, I noticed that the fields were white with cotton, and I’m sure that the Farmers Co-Op Gin in East Bernard and the Tavener Gin were open for business.  I always get a little nostalgic around cotton-picking time, because both sets of my grandparents were small cotton farmers in Dime Box, and I have, believe it or not, some very happy memories about picking cotton.  By hand.

            Whenever I have reminisced about the good old days in the 1930’s and 1940’s, I have observed the contrast between picking cotton then and now, often wondering why we would pick all of my Grandpa Zschech’s cotton by hand.  Eventually I learned that it wasn’t just that my grandfather wasn’t affluent enough to buy a mechanical cotton picker, but also the fact mechanical cotton pickers were not manufactured until 1949, and were few in number until 1950.  By then, my maternal grandfather was getting ready to retire from farming. 

            My cotton picking days came in the early 1940’s, peaking in 1944 and 1945, a few years before John Daniel Rust invented the first mechanical cotton picker.  The local John Deere place sold tractors but not cotton pickers, a good thing, otherwise I might not have known the pleasure of picking by hand.

            In the 1940’s, the older farmers, like both my maternal and paternal grandparents, were full-time cotton growers, the younger families were often part-time cotton farmers, with the men making extra money working for the railroad.  While my parents raised everything from pigs and chickens to corn and maize, my grandparents grew cotton for their main income.  One of my uncles ran a gin in Old Dime Box.

            In those days, and in those small farming operations, just about everybody worked for everybody else, as the farms were rather small, the soil was relatively poor, and nobody expected to make more than a living.  My parents, brother, and I would pick cotton for my maternal grandparents, my father joining us after getting off work with the railroad.  When you picked by hand, you were paid by the number of pounds you picked, and since there were no mechanical pickers, you could always earn extra money during cotton harvest.

            Men, women and children picked alongside one another, sometimes the men and women competing to see who could pick the most, but they didn’t know until they got to the weigh-station.  Sometimes, we kids would sit on the adults’ long, long sacks, and cackle with laughter when they would pull and pull on their sack and wonder why it was stuck.  We also took what I considered a picnic lunch, to eat under the trees along the perimeter of the cotton patches, and, of course, water jugs.  The common fare, which we kids absolutely loved, was chopped-up smoke-dried sausage and smoke-dried beef mixed with onions, mustard and vinegar, — about the only lunch you could take in the Texas heat and it not spoil.  As rural Texans, we were all used to the relentless sun, but at night, our backs and knees and hands would ache.

            In the cool of the evening, spending the night with my maternal grandparents, I always enjoyed “carding” cotton, a really delightful change of pace from picking.  You see, for those of you who don’t know because you let the machines pick your cotton, un-ginned cotton has seeds in it and it’s rather clumpy; thus in order to get the bags of un-ginned cotton ready for Grandma’s quilts, my brother and I were enlisted to “comb” or “card” the stuff in the rough, and pull the seeds out.  The carders consisted of two rectangular paddles, each with wire teeth on one side.  You pulled the cotton between the two carders and refined it until it looked a little bit like cotton candy.  It had to be refined and seedless in order for it to be used as a batting between the pieced top of the quilt and the solid sheet of cloth serving as the bottom.  With the small needle my grandmother used for quilting, un-carded cotton would have been very difficult to quilt through.

            By the time I was twelve, I knew everything there was to know about cotton, or so I thought.  With one cotton gin in Old Dime Box and another in New Dime Box, the very air we breathed during ginning time in Dime Box was laced with cotton fiber.  It was so much a part of my life that when I used to tell my brother on-going, to-be-continued, bed-time stories which I made up, they were about cotton.  I even gave the series a name, “The Cotton Kids.”  My brother loved my stories about the cotton fields.  I’ve always been a story-teller.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Big Cakes, Cupcakes, and . . . Finally, Mug Cakes

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 10, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            One thing I never learned how to make was a cake. No doubt because I learned to cook in the 1940’s during World War II, when sugar and flour and many other goods and commodities were rationed by the government. Each household was allowed a certain number of coupons per month for each of the rationed items, and when you used up your ration stamps, you did without the rest of the month. The rationing began with a few items, but more were added as the War progressed. At various times, such things as sugar, coffee, meat, flour cheese, milk, canned goods, shortening, cooking oil, eggs, dried fruit, syrup, jellies, etc., required stamps.

            My family had the advantage of living in a rural area where we had chickens and cows and could produce our own eggs and milk, though not sugar and flour.

            While my mother could allow my brother and me to attempt to cook such easy dishes as goulash, which could be thrown together with leftovers, she couldn’t dare waste sugar, flour and shortening on our cooking and baking attempts. Like other women during the War, she learned to create cakes and pastries without using up scarce commodities. For those who lived in cities, “War Cake” recipes were especially necessary, and many ladies made milk-less, egg-less cakes, — such as the “World War II Ration Cake,” which could be made with brown sugar, water, raisins, and cinnamon. These “Ration Cakes” could be very tasty, and people came to love them and continued to bake them even after the War.

            The “Victory Cake,” the “Crazy Chocolate Cake,” and the “Weary Willie Cake” were very popular, though the Victory Cake did require one egg. The Crazy Chocolate Cake called for no milk, no eggs, and no butter. Believe me, nobody used cake mixes in those days!

            Having a sweet tooth, I have always loved cakes, all kinds, — fruit cakes, lemon cakes, white cakes, carrot cakes, angel food, etc., etc. So naturally during my bachelor years, I did try to learn to bake cakes long after the War but produced enough flops to give up on the idea. And I’m talking about baking cakes using cake mixes. In my early attempts, the cakes always broke into a dozen pieces when I tried to dump them out of the pan, or the dough didn’t rise, or it rose too much. Gave up for good . . . until recently when I discovered “Mug Cakes.”

            First of all, let me make it quite clear that there is a big difference between a “Mug Cake” and a “Cupcake.” A cupcake is as complicated to make as a big cake, only you use a muffin tin rather than a cake pan.

            The cupcake was invented in the United States in 1796, probably by Amelia Simmons. It became very popular in the 1800’s, because it took less time and was not so easily burned in hearth ovens as were big cakes. But by my standards, cupcakes were still difficult to do, and I wouldn’t have to make them in a brick oven in a stone-lined fireplace. Cupcakes were just a smaller version of big regular cakes.

            The first inkling I got about a “Mug Cake,” as they are now called, to be differentiated from a “Cupcake,” came as a gift to us from a friend, called “A Cup of Cake.” It consisted of a package of cake ingredients the person had mixed together herself. You spooned some of the mix into a cup, added water or milk, and microwaved it for a minute.

            Well, I couldn’t figure out how to replicate the mixture after we used it all up, so life went on without such easy little cakes. A month ago, I saw on Amazon.com something advertized as a “Mug Cake.” What an awesome discovery! You could buy a box of four packages of mix, choosing from several options, — a chocolate, a lemon, and a carrot cake. Pour the package in a mug. Add three teaspoons of water or milk. Microwave for one minute, ten seconds, and you’ve got one of the best little cakes in America! I now make cakes, finally!

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Small Town Festivals: Prescription For Joy

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for September 26, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Most “city folks” I know wouldn’t live in a small town no matter where it’s located, or what the incentives are. For them, It’s “Boredomville.” However, they’re not adverse to attending the many small-town festivals held all over the great State of Texas.

            That’s because small-town festivals are a prescription for joy! And I say prescription for “joy” rather than prescription for “fun.” Fun can be fun, but not necessarily bring joy. When you go to a country festival, there’s a feeling of abandonment to enjoy the splendid music, food, dancing, and unique ethnic displays and activities. Country people put their hearts and souls into these festivals. And what visitors take away from them is good medicine for all.

            My friends love festivals; in fact one of them recently sent out a list of all the many festivals held throughout Texas, and the list is mind-boggling long! My Wendish friends are still posting pictures on Facebook of the 31st Annual Wendish Fest, just held Sunday, September 22, in Serbin, Texas. Seeing the photos was like being there, — there were Wendish noodle-making demonstrations, coffee-cake bake-offs, quilting demonstrations, spinning, weaving, and tatting presentations, cross-cut saw competitions, and stuffing sausage and making mustang wine exhibitions. And, of course, there was Slavic polka music, explosively played by the Moravian Polka Band of Ennis (not Wendish, but akin).

            East Bernard folks held their version of the Wendish Fest this summer, drawing large crowds to the Kolache-Klobase Festival at Riverside Hall on June 8. Like the Wends in Serbin, many Czechs in East Bernard wore their magnificent Slavic folk costumes. And, not one, but four polka bands provided wonderful ethnic music, — the Ennis Czech Boys, Czech and Then Some, the Dujka Brothers, and the Red Raven Band. Dancing, kolache-eating contests, arts and crafts booths, and lots of very special food and drink brought joy to the hearts of those in attendance.

            Some of my friends enjoyed the Watermelon Festival, Parade, Car Show, and Street Dance at McDade, Texas, not far from where I grew up. Other friends described the joy of attending St. Michael Catholic Church’s Festival in Weimar on August 11, being especially delighted by the lively music of the Shiner Hobo Band. And there was also the St. Andrew Catholic Church Picnic in Hillje, Texas, on August 18, with great food, a live auction, country store, raffle drawing, cake walk, ring toss and much more. Combined with the great country air in Hillje, this festival was an uplifting experience for visitors, especially for the city folks who could experience the joy of country fun at the end of a hard week at the office.

            These were just the festivals I knew about; as my friend showed us, there are many, many more throughout the State.

            And, of course, there is the Festival still to come on October 4 and 5 that is so close to my heart, — The Dime Box Black Bridge Festival with Mini Marathon, Barbecue Cook-off, Parade, Crafts Booths, Street Dance, Domino Tournament, Quilt Display, and live music. The Traditional Mosqueda Mariachi Band will provide a great ethnic touch to the festivities. Only if you grew up in Dime Box, as I did, can you understand the profound love for, and attachment to, the Old Black Bridge, aka, the Moses Bridge, that used to hang dramatically suspended over the railroad tracks. Though smaller, it was our “Brooklyn Bridge.” If you want to find out more about the historic old Black Bridge of Dime Box, head off to Dime Box on October 4 or 5, and the friendly folks of Dime Box will be glad to give you a special history lesson.

            In this crazy old world we live in today, with all of its problems, violence, crime, vulgarity, and cold-heartedness, these small-town, country festivals are a rest and joy for body and soul. That’s why people spill out of the big cities to participate in them.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.

An Old Picture Is Worth More Than A Thousand Words

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for September 19, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Several years ago, a half dozen of my paternal cousins and I met at my home to discuss family genealogy, share family stories, and exchange old family photographs. The meeting was also a precursor for a Spitzenberger family reunion, something we have never had before.

            Ever since that meeting, I have been going through old photo albums, various collections of photographs, and stored boxes from my parents’ home, sorting pictures into family groupings. The oldest pictures were absolutely fascinating and I couldn’t resist posting some of them on Facebook and my Facebook Page, both those from Mama’s side and those from Daddy’s side of the family. Also, I have been reading many snippets of family history written by different relatives from different eras. The snippets of history were interesting, but the morsels of photos were more captivating.

            This discovery reminded me of the old aphorism, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” If “any” picture is worth a thousand words, then an “old” picture is worth more than a thousand words. The much-quoted saying, according to a quick google, was originated by Fred R. Barnard in 1921, and he said it as advice for advertising a product. Not everybody agrees with the idea, but it certainly held true for me. At least when it came to trying to understand my forebears and selling my book, It Must Be the Noodles.

            During that “Council of Cousins,” the cousins gave me copies of photos of my father as a boy that I had never seen before, and these photos gave me a new understanding of the man this boy became. In all the pictures of him, he was smiling, and the smile looked real, not posed for the photo-shoot. It also struck me that many of my other forebears were not smiling in pictures of them, — such as Great Grandmother Karoline Zschech, who looked so fierce and grim in the original, large, framed photo of her hanging on the wall of my maternal grandparents’ bedroom where grandkids slept, that she kept my cousin and me awake. And probably my brother, too, though he wouldn’t admit it.

            It also became apparent to me that in all the childhood photos of my father, he was wearing knickerbockers with long stockings, a dressy jacket, and a “flat cap” (“paddy” cap). For those of you not familiar with it, the flat cap looks like a beret with a narrow brim. In contrast, all of the pictures of my mother’s only brother showed him in overalls and sometimes wearing a straw hat. I couldn’t help but wonder why this contrast in the boys’ attire. Did it represent a difference in family finances, or lack of, or was it a Wendish/German cultural difference? Both families lived on farms in Dime Box, Texas.

            Daddy’s father spent his boyhood in the Black Forest of Germany, where boys wore knickerbockers, long stockings, and what most people call “Greek fisherman’s caps,” also known as “mariner’s caps.” The “flat cap,” so popular in America in the early 1900’s, bore a great deal of similarity to the Greek fisherman’s cap. Thus I concluded, whether right or wrong, that Grandpa Spitzenberger wanted my father and his other sons to dress like he did as a boy in Germany. My mother’s brother dressed like farmer’s kid from Dime Box, Texas, with no reflection of Wendish customs.

            One of the most delightful photos I came across was a shot of my mother’s sister, Malinda Zschech, as a teenager, standing under the hot Texas sun, holding a parasol, and wearing a sun dress and long black stockings. In those days, a lady used an “umbrella” to protect you from rain, and a “parasol” to ward off the rays of the sun, though I was never able to discern any difference between the two. Malinda’s grandfather (my great grandfather, Johann Gottlieb Zschech), narrating his emigration story, described the Wendish women and girls coming on deck on a sunny day on the German Steamer, the Frankfurt, holding their parasols above their heads while promenading. No doubt Malinda reflected a tradition of her culture.

            It’s been a few years now since the “Council of Cousins” met, but the Spitzenberger cousins are planning that first ever family reunion, to be held in March or April of 2020, in the Fellowship Hall of the church in Wallis, where I used to preach. Photographs will be taken!

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.