Cat Flag’s Southwest Tour


I just got back from another trip – this one to northern Arizona. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I did go to the Grand Canyon about this time two years ago. And, yes, I had to visit it again, just to make sure it was still as awesome, inspiring, and beautiful as I remembered.

Yup, still amazing!

However, this time I took far more time to see far more of the sites in the Grand Canyon State. I spent a week touring various notable locations in the side roads off of the I-40 that I had never previously explored. Arizona is the sixth-largest U.S. state, after all, and I wanted to learn as much about it firsthand as I could.

The first thing that I learned was how truly grateful I was for Willis Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning. It was quite hot for almost the entire trip, usually with temperatures in the 80’s, and one day that hovered around 100 degrees. (For those who use Celsius, that’s 26 to 38 degrees.) I had to wonder how people survived in such hot, desolate conditions with little to no water before modern conveniences made life in such a place bearable.

Yet, people have lived in Arizona for millennia. One of the places I visited was Wupatki, the medieval ruins of an ancient Indian town that flourished between 1100 and 1300 AD.

I was thrilled to see such an ancient and historic place up close. The National Park Service has put in a walking path that lets visitors walk right up to the ruins, and I couldn’t help but feel awe at being able to reach out and touch something with such a deep history.

Of course, the descendants of the people who settled at Wupatki are still around, the Hopi Indians who live a few miles to the north. Indeed, they still come to visit the site to remember their history, and according to the information at the nearby visitor center, they tell an Atlantis-like tale of how it fell due to its people forgetting their sacred deities and rituals.

I also drove through the Hopi and Navajo tribal lands during this trip, touring their respective reservations. I very briefly passed through Oraibi, the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the United States, estimated to be about as old as Wupatki! Oraibi is a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village built near the edge of a cliff. I noticed that it featured a number of very old buildings with newer, more modern wings added on, and I thought that was a clever way to preserve the history while still making the ancient homes habitable. Sorry, I have no pictures of the town, as photography is not allowed there.

In contrast, the Navajo Nation capital at Window Rock was almost indistinguishable from any suburban neighborhood anywhere in America, with a supermarket, a Chinese food restaurant, well-maintained roads, government offices, a McDonald’s, and even a zoo! I say almost indistinguishable because, of course, it had fantastic and impressive rock formations just sort of sticking up in the middle of town:

This rock formation was right next to the zoo

This is the sacred “Window Rock” for which the city is named, still used for important Navajo rituals

The Navajo Zoo was actually a fascinating concept: a zoo that only hosts animals that are native to northern Arizona. Many of the animals in its care were injured or sick animals that were rescued and are recuperating until they can be released.

Just next door to the zoo is the Navajo Nation Museum, a museum dedicated to preserving and teaching the history and heritage of the Navajo people. Appropriately enough, it features an extensive exhibit dedicated to Chief Manuelito, a Navajo war leader that led the resistance against the attempted expulsion of the Navajo people from their land in the 19th century, and later became one of the most important advocates for Navajo children being given a modern education. The museum also will soon feature the actual treaty that the United States signed with the Navajo in 1868 that allowed them to return home. Sadly, I arrived a few weeks too early to see it – the exhibit was under construction when I visited.

Another thing I noticed about the Navajo Nation was that it featured a number of memorials and references to the WWII-era Navajo Code Talkers, volunteers who fought in the Pacific Theater and sent vital military communications in their native Navajo language to avoid any English-speaking Japanese soldiers or spies who might be listening in from being able to understand them. This beautiful memorial statue was the largest one I saw:

The Navajo and Hopi lands also include a large part of the famous Painted Desert, so-called because it includes amazing colorful geological formations, such as this one:

I mean, it’s blue and purple! I didn’t know they made rocks in those colors!

That one was actually taken at the nearby Petrified Forest National Park. This park is filled with fossilized trees such as this one, which give it its name:

Millions of years ago, Arizona was not a desert but a tropical swamp near the equator, and it is positively full of fossils, which is why many of the roadside stops have giant dinosaur statues. Trouble is, with all of the sand blowing in the hot, dry, high-altitude air, many of these statues look like they could use a little TLC.

I can’t go on, captain…

The other common feature of these roadside stops that was a bit infuriating was that many of them had tipis. You know, the traditional home of the Plains Indians? The indigenous peoples of Arizona did not use tipis! Here, this is a picture of a hogan, the actual traditional home of the Navajo people:

By the way, that hogan was part of a really cool site that I visited: the Hubbell Trading Post. This is a store founded in 1878 to trade goods between the Navajo and Arizona settlers, and it is still in operation today, selling traditional Indian jewelry and blankets, books, and even some ordinary groceries and household goods, just like in the old days!

I have to wonder about those first pioneer settlers that moved into Arizona. How did they handle the heat in those layers of 19th-century clothing they wore? How did they make sure they had provisions for the journey, like water and food? How did they react to the way the landscape would change at the drop of a hat, from dry scrubland to piney woods with just a slight change in elevation or water availability? How did they respond when they saw the Grand Canyon for the first time? I’m just imagining some family on a wagon riding along through the pines and suddenly…

“Welp… I guess we’re not getting around this, folks.”

The Grand Canyon is far from the only awe-inspiring natural phenomenon in northern Arizona. One of my favorites is the Meteor Crater, a massive meteorite impact from 50,000 years ago that is the best-preserved such crater on Earth. It is an absolutely amazing sight:

However, it is not easy to get to. It is several miles down a country road, far from the highway, with absolutely nothing but empty land around it. If it weren’t for the signs assuring you it was up ahead, you might be tempted to think you made a wrong turn!

Interestingly, the Meteor Crater is NOT a national park, but is private property. I did notice a difference between this private business’s visitor center and the national park visitor centers I frequently stopped in on these trips. It was larger, better air-conditioned, slightly more well-maintained, and a bit more considerate of human creature comforts than the visitor centers built by our federal government. It had a theater showing a 10-minute film on the history of the crater, and it also had a Subway for customers to eat at. It was an interesting contrast to me, and allowed me to reflect a bit on how the government and private businesses have different priorities when designing the buildings they use. Admittedly, I kind of liked Meteor Crater’s visitor center a bit better.

Now, almost all of the travelling I did was based around what one could easily reach by turning off the I-40 freeway. This road was built in the late 1950s and much of it functionally replaced, or in many cases even destroyed, the historic Route 66 highway. Everywhere I went there were shops offering T-shirts, magnets, baseball caps, and other novelties that read “Route 66” on them. However, an even older mode of transportation was also constantly present: the railroad. Many of the towns in northern Arizona were originally railroad towns and were built to meet the needs of these massive machines transporting people and goods to and from California. To this day, railroads run parallel to the freeways and I was constantly seeing trains run by as I traveled.

Yet the romantic connection with Route 66 and the truckers who drove on it were also ever-present in the gift shops I visited, making it all the more sad that many roadside stops had clearly gone out of business and were sitting abandoned on the side of the road. It was a sad and stark reminder of the Great Recession and its continuing impact on America to this day.

Still, one small town is fighting back. Just off the highway, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a community called Winslow that was briefly mentioned in a throwaway line in the song “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. Well, the town has milked that tiny claim to fame for all its worth, building an entire monument to the song in the heart of their tiny downtown:

It’s called the Standin’ On The Corner Park. Yes, really.

I found the whole novelty of such a bizarre monument quite appealing, and I think that’s what the town is going for. When I got there, about a half-dozen people were taking selfies by the statues; it took a while for me to be able to get a shot of just the monument itself and not the crowd. Meanwhile, all of the neighboring gift shops were playing the Eagles’ discography on loop. I couldn’t help but smile as I wondered if the cashiers ever got sick of hearing those same songs over and over all the time. Still, good for Winslow for finding a way to become a destination people might want to visit.

This road trip was a wonderful journey that I learned quite a lot from. Arizona is a fascinating state with stark natural beauty accompanied by scorching temperatures, a fascinating past, and a present that is full of surprises that will renew your optimism. I am glad that I went, and if you haven’t done so, I would encourage you on your next road trip to go off the beaten path upon occasion and see what you will find. You just might be surprised.


The History of U.S. State flags

There are fifty states in the United States of America, and today, each and every one of them has its own state flag. However, that wasn’t always the case. Recently, I’ve had state flags on my mind, and since I have covered the topic a few times before, and I am Cat Flag, after all, I thought I’d talk about the history of U.S. state flags.

In the early days of this country, the individual states generally didn’t have any state flags. It was assumed that the only flag Americans needed was the good old Stars and Stripes.

I mean, I can absolutely understand where they were coming from!

Actually, flags in general weren’t considered as important in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as they are today. Mostly they were used by the government and military. However, when the Civil War broke out in 1861, more and more ordinary American civilians in the north began flying the national flag as a symbol of their support for the Union cause.

The modern conception of American nationalism was born in the Civil War, as Abraham Lincoln and his supporters among both the Republican and Democratic parties came together to form the National Union Party and pledged to defeat the Confederacy and abolish slavery. The national flag became a symbol that Americans from all walks of life would rally around, and after the war it became THE definitive symbol of patriotism in America.

However, in the years after the Civil War ended, something new appeared on the scene that would create the climate for state flags to start to emerge: the World’s Fair.

As the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear (pun intended), the nations of Europe wanted to showcase their latest inventions so they could brag to their neighbors about just how technologically advanced they were. In 1844, France held a 60-day public exposition of their latest and greatest advancements, with nearly 4,000 companies participating in the event. Not to be outdone, the British held their own Great Exhibition in 1851.

The United States wanted in on this action, and began holding its own World’s Fairs. In 1876, Philadelphia hosted an exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founding. This was followed in 1893 by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 in Buffalo, New York, the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

This was the fairgrounds for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for perspective.

Back then, these World’s Fairs were a BIG DEAL – millions of people would attend these events, and companies with innovations they wanted to showcase really wanted to be there to get the word out on their latest products. At the same time, each state also wanted to encourage investment in their own state’s industry and economy, so they needed something to help them stand out.

Enter the state flag – a convenient symbol that could be used to represent a state and its “brand” as it were. During this time, the Daughters of the American Revolution got involved as well, often running contests to help select state flag designs.

Unfortunately, as the states started adopting their own state flags, one by one, a pattern started to emerge:

That’s right. Most states just slapped their official state seal on a banner and called it a day. Maybe they would throw in the state name or the date of statehood to vary it up a bit. I mean, I know designing something can be hard, but can’t you put just a LITTLE effort into it?

There are 26 states that fall into this unimpressive pattern: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. That’s the MAJORITY. As a lover of flags, this makes me so sad at all the wasted potential.

I mean, look, even if we are to assume the state seal must be on the flag (which I charge is not at all the case), you can be creative with that. Look at Wyoming’s flag:

See? It has the seal, but did something interesting with it and created an iconic design that symbolizes the state quite nicely. The red represents the blood of the Native Americans and pioneers, the white stands for purity, and the blue represents the sky and the mountains. The buffalo, of course, is the ultimate symbol of the American West, and there is even an explanation for why the seal is on the buffalo: it is supposed to represent how livestock is usually branded to indicate the ownership of the animals.

Then again, you have the counter-example of Oregon, which decided to go with the worst of both worlds. It not only features another boring design with the seal and the state name written in big, bold letters:

It also is the only state flag to be double-sided, with a different design on the reverse:

Do you know how hard and expensive it is to sew a flag with two sides? You basically have to make two flags and stitch them together!

While the majority of state flags have some seal-based design, a few states took a different inspiration for their own state flags.

Three states – Texas, California, and Hawaii – have state flags that actually date from before they were part of the United States.

The flag of Texas was adopted in 1839 by the Republic of Texas, which was an independent country at the time. It was widely used as an unofficial symbol of the state of Texas until 1933, when a law was passed making it the official state flag. The red represents bravery, and the white, purity. In addition, a plain white-and-red flag was used in the 1826 Fredonian Rebellion against Mexican rule, a sort of prequel to the Texas Revolution. The independent Republic of Texas added a blue stripe on the hoist side to represent loyalty and the iconic “Lone Star” for the unity of all Texans.

Hawaii’s flag was designed by King Kamehameha the Great, founder of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The story goes that the king received a gift of a British flag from an explorer as a token of friendship, and he liked flying the flag from his palace. However, this upset American traders visiting the islands, so the king designed his own flag with elements of both the British and American designs to keep everyone happy. It has been used continuously by Hawaii ever since.

As for California’s flag, it was used in the Bear Flag Revolt by a group of American settlers in Sonoma, California, who learned that the United States was at war with Mexico and had invaded California. The rebels declared an independent “California Republic” that existed for three weeks before the U.S. Army arrived and the rebels joined the American forces as the California Battalion. In honor of these events, the flag was adopted as the official state flag in 1911.

New Mexico’s state flag sort of falls into this category as well. While the flag was designed in 1920 and adopted in 1925, the symbol it prominently features is ancient. The Zia Sun, as it is called, is sacred to the people of the Zia Pueblo, which has existed since at least the 16th century when they were encountered by Spanish explorers, if not earlier. Its four points represent the four compass directions, the four seasons, the four stages of life, and the four sacred duties of every Zia: being strong in body, clear in mind, pure in spirit, and devoted to helping others.

Some state flags are based on the flags used by military units based in the state. North Dakota’s flag was used by soldiers from the state that served in the Philippine-American War:

Then there’s the flag of South Carolina, whose roots date all the way back to the American Revolution:

The blue field with a crescent moon in the canton was used as the military flag of South Carolina’s troops in the War of Independence against the British, and was designed by their commander, William Moultrie. Moultrie is most famous for the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, where his troops held out against British cannon fire, in part because the cannonballs kept bouncing off the palmetto trees. Later, South Carolinians who fought in the Civil War added the palmetto to symbolize this victory.

Similarly, Alabama’s flag is based on the flag of the 60th Alabama Regiment in the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

Speaking of the Confederates, we have already discussed the story of the flag of Georgia and all the controversy surrounding it, but there is another flag with a blatant reference to the Confederacy in its design:

That is the flag of Mississippi. The state adopted it in 1894, and as you can imagine, it has become rather controversial over the years. Several of the state’s universities refuse to fly the flag. However, in a 2001 referendum, 64% of the state’s voters voted to keep it, and it appears to be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

I think I’ll close out with my personal favorite state flag, the flag of Arizona:

A large part of why I love Arizona’s flag is because it not only has a cool design, it was designed by a flag enthusiast like me!

In 1910, the National Guard was holding a rifle competition in Ohio for soldiers from across the country to compete. One of the participants from Arizona was Col. Charles Wilfred Harris, who saw that the teams from various states were using their own regimental flags to represent their states’ National Guards, and since Arizona was still just a territory at this time it had no flag of its own. So, Harris resolved to design one.

He placed a large copper star in the middle to represent the state’s copper mines. The bottom was colored blue to represent the United States, using the same blue as the Stars and Stripes, while the top was broken into thirteen rays of red and gold to simultaneously represent (1) the setting sun, symbolizing Arizona’s status as a Western state, (2) the state’s history as a Spanish colony, as red and gold are traditionally the national colors of Spain, and (3) the original 13 colonies that became the United States. The flag proved wildly popular, and was officially adopted in 1917.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, a brief look at the history of our great nation’s state flags. As well as my personal opinions about a few of them. If you enjoyed this subject, let me know and I may cover this topic again. There are so many states I’ve left out, and I’d like to talk about them, too!

Cat Flag Explains Popular Irish Symbols

It’s time once again to celebrate the ol’ Emerald Isle by wearing green, drinking Guinness, and putting on an embarrassingly bad phony Irish accent. Or, if you’re me, eating corned beef while listening to Enya.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Cat Flag special for St. Patrick’s Day, so this year I’ve decided to look at some popular symbols of Ireland that you tend to see this time of year. I’ve already discussed the origin of the Irish flag and the shamrock, but let’s take a quick look at…

The Irish Harp

The coat of arms of Ireland is a blue shield with a picture of a golden harp on it, and this has been the case since at least the 13th century. Not only is it the coat of arms of the independent Republic of Ireland, but you can also see it on the coat of arms of the United Kingdom, representing British-ruled Northern Ireland:

The oldest recorded image of the Irish harp that has been preserved to this day dates from 1280, but the origins of the harp as a symbol for Ireland are a bit unclear. One theory holds that it refers to a fictional King Anguish of Ireland that appears in some of the legends of King Arthur, another that it stems from a medieval Irish poem mourning the loss of a popular harp-playing king, a third that it symbolizes the Biblical King David.

What we do know is that the harp was made the official national symbol of Ireland in 1541, when King Henry VIII of England proclaimed himself “King of Ireland” to get around the pesky problem that Ireland had technically been granted to the English by the Catholic Church and King Henry had just had a bit of a falling out with the pope.

Today, the harp is such a well-known symbol of Ireland that many Irish businesses, such as Guinness, use the harp as part of their logo to show off their Irish heritage.



There is probably no fantasy creature more specifically associated with Ireland than the leprechaun. Technically a type of fairy, leprechauns are infamous for their greed and mischievous nature. They are short, wear green, drink heavily, and store a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Where did such a strange legend come from?

Like many aspects of folklore, tales of the leprechaun have evolved and changed over time. In early medieval times, Irish legends about water spirits called “luchorpán” started to be mixed in with legends about drunk fairies that lived in cellars and depleted the local booze supply. Many versions of the leprechaun tale say that the creatures are shoemakers by occupation, perhaps because the Irish for shoemaker is “leath bhrogan”. It’s a pun, you see.

Whatever their origin, the leprechaun has had staying power, not just in Ireland but around the world, in part because legends surrounding them have a universal message. Our protagonist finds the leprechaun’s treasure, but the little green-clad man manages to trick him or her into somehow losing the pot of gold. These tales are a warning against being too greedy and trusting “get rich quick” schemes, a moral that will always have relevance.

The Blarney Stone

About five miles away from the Irish city of Cork lies a medieval castle known as Blarney Castle. This castle was built in 1446 by a local Irish noble family. It has changed hands many times over the centuries, but one thing has been consistent in all of that time: the legend of the Blarney Stone. This seemingly ordinary, if large, stone built into one of the castle’s defenses, is said to give those who kiss it the “gift of gab”, i.e. the power of eloquent and persuasive speech.

How this stone gained this power varies from legend to legend. In one telling, it is the stone on which Jacob slept as he had his famous dream of a ladder to heaven as described in the Book of Genesis. In another it was the throne on which the ancient High Kings of Ireland were crowned. Still another says that the builder of Blarney Castle, fearing he would lose everything in an upcoming lawsuit, prayed to an Irish goddess who told him to kiss the stone, so when he testified at his trial he swayed the jury to his side.

Regardless of where and how the stone got its powers, it has become a magnet for many visitors every year who wish to try it out for themselves (and conquer their fear of heights in the process). In Irish slang, “blarney” has become a synonym for “empty, meaningless talk” in reference to this tradition.


Cat Flag asks: Who am I?

I’m sure you have seen the ads on TV or on YouTube that play all the time for services that test your DNA to tell you about where your ancestors came from. Well, this year I got one of those DNA test kits for Christmas! Specifically, I got an AncestryDNA test kit, which promises to tell me what percentage of my heritage came from which part of the world. So, I decided to share my experience with all of you Cat Flaggers.

This blog post will be broken into three parts. The first part I wrote before I got the test results; in it, I will recount what I knew, or thought I knew, about my ancestry. The second part describes the test and my experience with it. Lastly, I will go over my test results with all of you.

Before the test: My family history as I understood it

My father’s family has been in the United States for a very long time. Years ago, my grandfather had made a family tree tracing his heritage back to a Capt. Howell Griffith who fought in the American Revolutionary War. I have also been told that his father, my great-grandfather, is a very, very distant relative of the Swedish royal family. He married my great-grandmother, whose maiden name was Toothacher, but we don’t know very much about the Toothacher family.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was part Choctaw, and said her lineage can be traced to Suzanne Graham-Stewart, a Choctaw woman who married a Scottish-American and was present at the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. She also believes that other ancestors of hers were Scots-Irish.

My mother’s side came to America more recently. Her father’s family came from Wisconsin, an area that was heavily settled by Germans in the 19th century. Meanwhile, my grandmother’s father came through Ellis Island. His surname was Balde, but my family is convinced this was a misspelling or mistranslation of his actual family name that some poor immigration officer couldn’t write. We believe that he was Russian, but at the time the Russian Empire ruled over many, many different countries that are now independent, so it’s possible he was from one of these countries under Russian rule.

My grandmother’s grandfather was John Simbach, whose family name comes from the German town of Simbach am Inn. For years, we thought he was originally from this town, but recently we learned he was actually born in another part of Germany. Regardless, he he had twelve children – six from his first wife, and six from his Jewish nanny, who became his second wife. My grandmother is descended from one of the second set of six.

The Test

So, the test came in a small box, no bigger than a paperback novel. In the box were an instruction sheet, a plastic container with a test tube and cap, a small plastic bag, and a small self-addressed prepaid postal box.

First, you have to register for an account at After all, this service is provided by LLC, and they need to be able to tell whose DNA sample is whose. Registration only takes a few minutes. The most important part is telling the website what the 15-digit code on your test tube is. This way, the system will be able to track your test results. While registering, you can also opt-in to having your DNA be used not only to trace your own ancestry, but also to help in a scientific experiment to model human migration across time.

Then, once you have registered, you pull out the test tube. You are supposed to spit into the tube until the saliva reaches a fill line. This is more difficult than you might think. It took me about a half-dozen spits to fill that tube, with my mouth getting drier each time. Once you reach that level, you put on a cap filled with a blue liquid that is supposed to stabilize the DNA sample. You shake the tube for a few seconds to mix the two fluids together.

Then, you put the tube in the bag, and put the bag in the box to ship back to the lab.

It’s all quite simple and easy. The whole process takes no more than 10 minutes. Then, you just wait for the test results.

The Test Results!

It took about six weeks for me to get my test results. I have to say, I am a bit surprised! Considering how diverse my known family history is, and how much of my background was a mystery, I expected to be much more of a mutt. Instead, it turns out that I’m 85% British. Well, blimey, that’s bloody brilliant, gov’nor.

It’s pretty safe to say that the Eastern European part of my genetics can be traced to the Balde family, and the Western European (which includes German) and Jewish lines can be traced to the Simbach family. I’m also not surprised by the Scandinavian genes, thanks to my great-grandfather. However, I was quite surprised by the small percentages that came from the Iberian peninsula and the Caucasus. I mean, who in my family tree was Spanish or Portuguese? As for the Caucasus region, that includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia (the country, not the state), and I was never aware of any ancestors of mine from that region.

For context, my parents, my brother, and some of my other relatives also took the AncestryDNA test. My father turned out to be mostly British, like me, but my mother was surprised to learn that she had some British and Scandinavian ancestry as well. She expected to be mostly German and Russian, as those were the parts of her background that she was aware of. She was also the source of the Iberian peninsula and Caucasus genes. As for my brother, his results more closely matched my mom’s.

That’s an important point about these DNA tests. Your results are NOT an exact percentage-match to your family tree. You aren’t exactly 25% what each of your grandparents’ ancestries were. Genetics are a complicated mix of dominant and recessive genes that are mixed semi-randomly from each parent. My genetic profile more closely matches that of my father, while my brother’s more closely matches our mother. Similarly, one of my relatives DID find Native American genes in her AncestryDNA profile, but I did not. I guess those genes just weren’t passed down through my branch of the family tree.

This does beg an important question, however. How, exactly, do these genetic tests work? How do they figure out which genes are associated with which geographic regions of the world? Well, these tests look at your autosomal chromosomes – the parts of your DNA that are not responsible for determining whether you are male or female – and comparing them to other, known samples in an existing database of test results. In other words, if lots of people who take the test from a particular region have a particular genetic trait, that trait is probably associated with that region. That is part of the advantage of AncestryDNA; it has more than 6 million people in its database to compare against your specific DNA. More data means a higher likelihood of accuracy.

Still, I have to say, I did not expect the results I got, and I am now even more curious about my family history. Since getting the results back, I have learned a few more details about my family history. My Balde ancestors did, indeed, arrive in the United States from Russia… aboard the RMS Lusitania, one of the most famous ships in history! I’m sure even more interesting factoids about my family history are just waiting to be uncovered.


This was NOT a sponsored promotion. Cat Flag received no compensation whatsoever from LLC in the making of this blog post.

The Origins of Our Christmas Traditions

It’s time for my favorite holiday of the year! I absolutely love Christmas, as my past blog posts about the holiday might have indicated. I love Christmas trees, I love gift-giving, I love getting together with family to celebrate the holiday. Which is why it surprised me to realize that as long as I have been doing this, I have never written about where our most popular Christmas traditions came from. Well, let’s fix that.

Where did Christmas trees come from?

Winters in Europe, especially northern Europe, tend to be cold and snowy. This should come as a surprise to nobody. Having said that, one thing that anybody who lives in a place that gets snowy, cold winters can tell you is that, after a while, you come to miss the warmth and greenery of spring, and can’t wait for it to arrive. So, ancient Europeans would take the boughs off of pine trees and use them as evergreen decorations in their homes.

According to legend, though, it was Martin Luther that came up with the modern idea of the Christmas tree. The story goes that as the man who kick-started the Protestant Reformation was wandering through the piney woods in Germany on route to an important sermon, he looked up and saw the night sky shining through between the trees, and it reminded him of the wonder of God’s creation. This inspired him to bring a pine tree into his own living room and decorate it with lit candles so his family could see what he saw.

Seems pretty dangerous to me…

Christmas trees were brought to America by German immigrants in the 19th century. However, they didn’t become popular until something happened across the pond in England. Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German prince, and the two of them adopted the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree in Buckingham Palace, and that popularized the practice across the British Empire, which helped it to become popular in America as well.

A little side-note: the ancient European practice of decorating with pine branches in the winter may also have combined with the ancient Roman practice of putting wreaths on the door to celebrate an important victory to give us the Christmas wreath, though it may also have originated as a variation of another German tradition, the Advent wreath. This is a wreath laid on a table or mantle with four candles sticking out of it. The idea is that each week, as you count down to Christmas, you light one of the candles. On Christmas Eve, you put a bigger candle in the middle of the wreath and light it to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Why do we give gifts on Christmas?

I have mentioned this before on this blog, but the early Christian church liked to time Christian festivals to occur right around the same time as pre-Christian pagan festivals so that converts to the faith would have an easier time adjusting to their new religion. Christmas was timed to coincide with Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival honoring Saturn (hence the name). One of the most important aspects of Saturnalia was the exchange of gifts. Children would get toys, while adults would get everything from clothes to tools to books, just like today. Sometimes, these gifts would be accompanied by poems, sort of like a modern greeting card.

Showing love for those you care about by giving something of yourself is exactly the sort of thing that is in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, so it seems like incorporating gift-giving as a part of the celebration of Christmas was a natural move for the early church to make.

What is up with mistletoe?

This parasitic vine was believed by the ancient Druids to have magic anti-evil-spirit powers, and was widely used in pagan Britain as a decoration for that reason. Early Christian missionaries tried to ban the practice, but failed, as the plant was just so popular and so important to British culture. In medieval England, it was a common practice for young lovers to kiss under a mistletoe plant and pick a berry from it. The idea was that once the last berry was picked, you couldn’t kiss under the plant anymore. It was also once common to burn mistletoe after Christmas was over as a way to ward off Satan in the new year. Although ceremonies using mistletoe got far less elaborate over time, the practice of hanging the plant from the ceiling during Christmastime has managed to survive to this day.

Why do we eat candy canes?

By contrast, the practice of eating candy canes is a far more recent tradition, only dating back to the mid-18th century. Originally all-white, the red stripes were added in the early 20th century to symbolize their peppermint flavor. Many have attempted to assign a religious significance to their shape – either that it is in the shape of a shepherd’s cane in honor of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus in the manger, of that it is in the shape of a “J” for Jesus – though all of these meanings were later additions. It seems likely the first candy cane makers just liked the shape and thought it was festive.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the origins of some of our most popular Christmas traditions. At last. Check that one off the list!