Forewarned is forearmed! So be careful out there! Today, April 1st, is the one day of the year when people have free rein and permission to pull pranks, tell lies and cause general mischief, all in the name of fools.
In the Tarot card deck, the Fool is card zero. The Fool is the very beginning. He is optimistic, open to all possibilities, and ready for adventure. He is too happy and unaware to have any inhibitions or sense of danger. I like to think of April Fool’s Day as a celebration of the Tarot’s Fool — a day of joy, lightheartedness, new beginnings and clean slates.
Have you ever wondered about the origins of April Fool’s Day? It seems kind of crazy. Who would dream up such a thing and why? Although historians cannot agree on any one particular source for the day, there are some clues as to how this holiday came to be.
A lot of our weird customs trace back to the Middle Ages, and April Fool’s Day is no different. It seems the confusion and subsequent celebration of pranks started out with two simple calendars.
Throughout a good deal of the Middle Ages, most of Europe operated on the Julian Calendar. This was a calendar instituted by Julius Caesar (and named after him) in the year 46 BCE. The Romans had huge domination in much of Europe up to the 6th century, and even after that, their influence prevailed for hundreds of years. As a result, the Julian Calendar was kept in practice until 1582. It was then that the ruling pope, Pope Gregory XIII, instituted the Gregorian Calendar (also named after himself.)
According to Pope Gregory and his council, the Julian Calendar did not align well with the rhythms of the universe. The Julian Calendar had almost 366 days, and it did not correctly reflect the actual time it takes the Earth to circle once around the Sun. The new Gregorian Calendar basically shortened the year to include less leap days, and made a more accurate timing of equinoxes and solstices. Neither calendar was perfect, but it was believed that the Gregorian Calendar was more accurate.
There was, however one notable difference in the Gregorian Calendar, which effected everyone’s life — the designation of the beginning of the year. In the Julian Calendar, New Year’s Day had been celebrated sometime between March 25th and April 1st. In the new Gregorian Calendar, New Year’s Day was to be celebrated on January 1st.
That is a huge change! Medieval people loved their holidays! It was a break from their dreary, work laden lives. Keeping track of the feast days was important to them, in the same way keeping track of our vacation days is important to us.
Jesus, Mary and Janus
Interestingly, Julius Caesar had actually chose January 1st as New Year’s Day when he originally formulated his calendar. January was the month of the god Janus, who had two heads and hence, the ability to see the past, and future, at the same time.
It was only logical that a god who could see both the mistakes of the past and the possibilities of the future should have a month in which the new year would be celebrated. All very mystical…
Coincidentally, the Romans at that time also had a week of their own form of “April Fools” — this was a holiday called “Hilaria” which was celebrated in the last week of March and into April 1st. This feast day was meant to honor Cybele, a wise mother goddess who had a cult following. “Hilaria” is the Latin word for “joyful”, and of course, also the origin of the English word “hilarious.” During this time, people dressed up in costumes and played tricks. Nothing was off limits, and often magistrates and folks in high places were the targets of jokes.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, some changes were made. Christians began to think of of the January date, honoring Janus, as too Pagan in origin. Instead, they wanted New Year’s Day celebrated with some symbolism of Christianity. They began to celebrate New Year’s day on March 25, which was the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. The Annunciation also signified new beginnings, as this was the day the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would give birth to Jesus. Mary, of course, became pregnant. (Allegedly without sexual intercourse.)
If we do the math, we see that Jesus was born on December 25th, nine months later.
Mary can be thought of as the Christian equivalent of a mother goddess, similar to Cybele. She also has somewhat of a cult following within the Catholic church.
All things are connected.
** Side note: The Annunciation is NOT to be confused with the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception, celebrated on December 8th, signifies the conception of Mary herself, who was conceived through normal intercourse, but without Original Sin. (All humans, according to Christianity, are born with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Mary apparently was given a pass, since she was to be the mother of Jesus. ) But I digress…
Back to April Fools.
Peasantry and Pageantry
Ironically, when Pope Gregory made his new calendar, he decided that January 1st, after all, would be a better new year’s date. This raises a bit of suspicion, and I wonder why a Catholic pope would change the holiday back to a month honoring of a Pagan god. Maybe the Pope actually liked Janus. Who knows? But that’s what he decided.
So now, all of Europe had a brand new calendar, and a brand new New Year’s Day.
Needless to say, news traveled slow back in 1582. No electricity, no internet. It took a while for all Christian countries to catch on to the Pope’s decree. If you were a peasant living out in the sticks, the news might not reach you for years. These country bumpkins, who had no idea that the year had been changed, continued to celebrate the New Year around March 25th. Since Feast Day celebrations typically lasted around a week, and especially since the days were not very well mapped out, the peasants were often still celebrating, or at least adjusting to the new year, on around April 1st.
But alas! These backwater farmers were out of the loop! They should have known that the new year had already started, way back in January. They became thought of as silly, gullible, foolish people. They’d believe anything! They were pushovers, slow on the uptake, naive, unsophisticated. It would be easy to trick them. They were given the nickname “April Fools.” This pastime of trickery was, apparently, so much fun that in time it evolved to the “April Fool’s Day” of modern times.
And now, thanks to misinformation, slow communication, and a steady devotion to gods and goddesses, all of us get to celebrate and act like idiots, too.
For your viewing pleasure: The Safety Dance, by Men Without Hats. A perfect April Fools song!
Have a safe and happy April Fool’s Day! And remember to honor the spirit of innocence, the daring soul, the boundary pusher, the childlike Fool that dwells within all of us.
So warned the soothsayer to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s famous play. Alas poor Julius — he did not heed the advice and was stabbed to death in the senate. The bloody, infamous event occurred on March 15, 44 B.C.
Have you ever wondered what the ‘Ides’ of March actually means?
It was a designation for the middle of a month. Apparently, the ancient Romans did not number days of a month sequentially from first through last day. Instead, they divided the month and counted days from three specific points. These points were called the Nones (5th -7th of the month) the Ides (13th to 15th) and the Kalends (1st of the following month).
The divisions were determined by the full moon, which normally occurred between the 13th and 15th of the month. Thus the Roman senate would have actually gone ‘loony’ under the full moon.
The celebration of Imbolc is always a bit of a puzzle. Here in the Midwest, at the beginning of February we are still in winter’s deep freeze, with plenty more snow on the way.
And yet. There has to be some hope of spring. Enter Imbolc, the cross quarter fire festival that should help motivate us. This festival is often underplayed and really shouldn’t be. We all need a pick me up from winter doldrums. And besides, it is also a help to anyone suffering from post-Christmas depression 🙂
What It Is
The word ‘Imbolc’ (pronounced ‘immolk’ – silent b) literally means ‘Ewe’s milk’. It also can mean ‘In the belly’. Thus Imbolc traditionally marks the lambing season, the laying of seed, pregnancies (both physical and metaphysical) and new beginnings.
Imbolc is like a breath of fresh air, the very first stirrings of spring that help get us through…
With a New Year right on the horizon, we hope to conjure up the luckiest, healthiest, most prosperous one ever! Fortunately, there are plenty of superstitions to help us along the way. If you’d like to know more about the weird stuff people all over the world do, read on!
Want to get rich in the coming new year? Try eating some pickled herring at midnight on New Year’s Eve. This practice comes from Poland, Germany and Scandinavia. It is believed that the silver color of the fish, representing real silver, will help you acquire money.
Speaking of silver, another Slavic tradition holds that if you wash your hands with a piece of silver on New Year’s Day, you will be prosperous for the year to come. You can also fill the sink with coins and water, then wash your face with the coin saturated mix.
Anne Rice, the Mother of Vampires, Dark Queen of modern Gothic literature, has left this earthly realm. My favorite living author is no longer living. Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago, thought I’d reblog it in honor of her.
She is the mistress of the macabre, the weaver of witch tales, a native New Orleanian who may never have made her mark in the world if it weren’t for her near blood thirsty curiosity about what it would be like to interview a vampire.
We are only twenty seven days away from Halloween, and no countdown would be complete without a tribute to Anne Rice, my all-time favorite living author!
Luckily, today happens to be her birthday. (I’m sure it is no coincidence that this woman came into the world so near to Halloween.)
Anne Rice was born on October 4, 1941 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was the second of four daughters. Her parents, Howard and Katherine O’Brien, were of Irish Catholic descent. The family lived in the hard-scrabble, impoverished section of town known as the Irish Channel, where they rented a 3-room shotgun house. Most of Anne’s…
She was one of the most powerful and influential women of nineteenth century New Orleans, rumored to be a great priestess of Voodoo, as well as a practicing Catholic. She was a healer, a midwife, possibly a hairdresser and mother of at least nine children. To this day, her ghost is said to haunt the streets of the French Quarter, and people come from all over the world to pay tribute to her at her grave.
I am speaking of course, of the famous Marie Laveau.
A great deal of myths and legends have grown up around her, everything from her holding wild orgies on the Feast of Saint John, to her keeping a magical snake called Zombi. But Marie Laveau, much like William Shakespeare, is one of those historical figures of which we know very little. In fact, we do not even have any concrete evidence that she actually was a Voodoo practitioner! Like the religion of Voodoo itself, Marie’s life is shrouded in mystery, and most of what we think we know about her has been passed down by word of mouth.
“Just The Facts, Ma’am”
Marie Catherine Laveau Paris was born around September 10, 1801 in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Her birthday is confirmed by her baptismal record. Approximately one week after her birth, Marie was baptized by a priest named Pere Antoine in Saint Louis Cathedral. Marie’s father, Charles Laveau, was a wealthy businessman, a politician, and also a “mulatto”. (Mulatto is a rather obsolete term which means ½ black and ½ white.)
Marie’s mother, Marguerite Darcantrel, was Charles’ Laveau’s mistress. She was also a freed slave. Marie was born in a cottage on Saint Ann Street, the home of her grandmother, known as “Miss Catherine”. It was Miss Catherine who raised Marie. The cottage would stay in Marie’s possession for all her life. The location of this house is marked as a Historical Site in the French Quarter. To this day, people bring trinkets and offerings for Marie, which they leave near the building.
At age eighteen, Marie married a free man of color named Jaque Paris. She had two daughters with him before he died in around 1824. Following her husband’s death, Marie was ever after known as “The Widow Paris.” The two daughters probably died as well, as there are no further records of them.
Marie then apparently fell in love with a white man named Christophe Dumensnil de Glapion. She lived with Christophe, and they were together for around thirty years. As a biracial couple, it was illegal for them to marry.
Marie and Christophe had at least seven children together, according to baptismal records. (It is rumored they had as many as fifteen children, although some of these may have been grandchildren.)
Marie was a free person of color, and records show that she owned at least seven slaves in her lifetime. (It was not unusual for black people to own slaves in Louisiana. More on that later.)
An article in the New Orleans Republican published on May 14, 1871, described Marie Laveau as a “devout and acceptable member of the Catholic communion.” We know that Marie was a practicing Catholic because of her baptismal, marriage and death records in relationship to the Church.
Marie died on June 15, 1881, in the same cottage on Saint Ann Street in which she was born.
Medical records list the cause of death as “diarrhea” (yuck, I know) which most likely means Marie had dysentery or a similar illness. She would have been almost eighty years old, which is quite a ripe old age for a woman in those days.
Records show that politicians, lawyers, congressmen, bankers, and wealthy socialites had slush funds, which they tagged as “LAVEAU EXPENSES”, apparently intended to pay The Widow Paris for her services, whatever they may be…
When Marie died, her obituary in The New York Times claimed: “lawyers, legislators, planters, and merchants all came to pay their respects and seek her offices.”
New Orleans Cemetery records prove that she was interred in the “Widow Paris” tomb in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery.
And that’s it! That is all we know to be fact.
Ahhh, but the rumors! They are infinitely more interesting.
Marie Laveau was the first child in her family to be born free – that is, a person of color born outside the bondage of slavery. Marie’s great-grandmother was believed to have been brought to New Orleans as a slave from West Africa in 1743. Marie’s grandmother, “Miss Catherine” was born a slave and was eventually bought by a free woman of color named Francoise Pomet. During her enslaved time, Catherine gave birth to Marguerite, but in future years she was able to buy their way out of slavery as well.
The phrase “free person of color” comes up often in discussions of historical New Orleans. There are many stories of slaves “buying” their way to freedom. How, exactly, was this done? Most of us think of slavery as a complete and final institution. Once born to it you were stuck, unless you wanted to risk running away, a dangerous endeavor indeed. If you were caught, you might be whipped, get your foot cut off, or just be killed altogether.
But in the colony of Louisiana, and later the Louisiana Territory, things were a little different. Louisiana had a law called “Coartacion”, under which, slaves were given the right to own property and purchase their freedom. Slaves could earn money by selling produce in the markets, working as nurses and artisans, and hiring themselves out as laborers. When they saved enough money, they were allowed to petition to their owners to buy themselves out of bondage. If you were a “good slave” — meaning you basically kept your mouth shut and were obedient — the master was legally obligated to accept your petition.
The law of Coartacion existed only in Louisiana. It had impressive results. By the early nineteenth century, 1,490 blacks in New Orleans had acquired their freedom by cash payments. By 1810, the territory had 7,585 free persons of color, most of them living in New Orleans. Free people of color represented 44 percent of the city’s free population. In 1860, right before the Civil War, free people of color paid taxes on property valued at 15 million dollars – the equivalent of around $400 million in today’s money! Additionally, many free people of color were highly educated and had degrees from French universities.
As free people of color became rich, they eventually purchased their own slaves. This was the sneaky catch of the law of Coartacion; it was not really a way to get more people free, but rather a way to increase slavery. It was believed that the institution of slavery would be kept stronger if free blacks began buying slaves along with white people, thus giving the institution a wider scope.
In the end it all fell apart, but nonetheless, it was not unusual for free black people to own slaves in Louisiana. Marie Laveau herself is confirmed to have owned at least seven slaves during her lifetime.
It was rumored Marie worked as a hairdresser, although there are no historical records to prove this. It could very well be true. Marie was confirmed to have served politicians, and prominent people. Everyone knows beauty shop gossip runs rampant. It is therefore surmised that while working as a hairdresser, Marie serviced elite women of the community and they opened their hearts to her. Thus Marie was privy to many secrets. It was said she had a wealth of information, and was therefore able to advise all the big shots in the community, to the point where they actually had “slush finds” to pay her! (See above.)
And, of course, along with all this juicy information, Marie’s so called psychic abilities also came in handy.
At any rate, Marie’s opinion and advice were well respected. An article in The New Orleans Times Picayune, dated April 1886 (five years after her death) described Marie as “gifted with beauty and intelligence, she ruled her own race, and made captive of many of the other.”
Regardless of what anyone believed about Marie’s “magical powers”, she definitely had a certain natural charm.
The Human Touch
Marie Laveau was known as a humanitarian and healer. She is said to have cured people of yellow fever, which ran quite rampant in New Orleans during this time. She would also go to prisons and visit inmates who had been sentenced to death. She would pray with the prisoners and serve them their last meal, employing Catholic traditions, and often helping them prepare for the afterlife.
Marie often sought pardons and commutations of sentences for some of the prisoners. She’d wield her influence among authorities (or perhaps she’d threaten them with blackmail!) and was successful in her efforts. Some rumors (unconfirmed) claimed that Marie would give poisons to the prisoners before they went to the gallows, thus saving them the pain of the hangman’s noose.
Rumors circulated that Marie sometimes preformed Voodoo rituals in the prisons. After her death, Marie’s daughter Philomène stated during an interview with a reporter from the Picayune that “only Catholic traditions would take place during these visits.” Because Voodoo took on an undeserved “bad reputation”, it is believed Marie’s daughter may have been trying to downplay her mother’s Voodoo ties in order to keep Marie “respectable” in the public’s mind.
That Voodoo You Do
Any report about Marie Laveau would be lacking if it did not have at least a brief analysis of Voodoo – perhaps the most exploited and misunderstood religion in American history.
Voodoo is, quite simply, a religion, just like Christianity or Judaism. Originally, it was called “Vodou” which, in its original African language means “pure light.” West African slaves brought the practice of Vodou to the Americas. They mostly practiced it in secret, and masked it with more acceptable Catholic rituals, so the slave masters did not know what they were up to.
The Voodoo religion relies largely upon communication with ancestors who have gone to the Otherworld, or Afterlife. It also centers around the worship of a variety of nature gods who represent the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Voodoo has ordained priests and priestesses who are trained in elaborate rituals.
In Louisiana, everyone spoke French. The literal translation of “Old Gods” in French is “Vieux Dieux”, pronounced voo doo.
So there you have it.
To be clear, Voodoo has NOTHING to do with killing chickens, drinking blood, creating dolls to torture people, or anything Hollywood has told you. Somewhere along the line, someone realized that the “exotic practices” said to be associated with Voodoo were a great money maker. Hence the rumors began. They persist to this day.
That being said, Marie herself may have actually been theatrical, and a great marketer, helping to spread the dark, forbidden image of Voodoo. She may very well have taken the “wilder” aspects associated with Voodoo and used them for her own gain. After all, a scary Voodoo priestess is much more likely to earn respect than a mild mannered Catholic. (Debatable, when you consider the Vatican… But that’s another topic altogether.)
Some of the rumors that circulated about Marie’s Voodoo practice involved wild orgies that took place at Saint John’s Bayou on Saint John’s Eve.
Interestingly, the Catholic Feast of Saint John takes place on June 23rd. This is around the time of the summer solstice. Every good Pagan knows the summer solstice, or Beltane, is a time for great merry making, fire festivals, and worship of the god Baal, the goddess Aine, the Oak King, or whatever tradition you happen to follow. In Catholicism, Saint John the Baptist was born around this time (six months before Jesus in December, and also six months before the winter solstice.)
John was known as a wild man. He spent a lot of time out in nature, scantily clad and baptizing naked people. He ate strange things, like locusts and honey. You can see how a tribute to Saint John might get out of hand, especially when combined with those exotic Voodoo practices.
No one knows what really went on in Saint John’s Bayou, but apparently the gossip was endless.
Marie was also rumored to have a snake named Zombi. This magical snake could do all kinds of weird stuff, including curses and blessings. SO WATCH OUT.
Sealed in a Stone-Cold Tomb
Marie’s tomb is located in Saint Louis No 1 Cemetery. Just like the house on Saint Ann Street, the gravesite has attracted numerous tourists. People believe that doing elaborate rituals around Marie’s grave will bring them luck and good fortune. Some of these rituals involve bizarre things like walking backwards around the grave, spitting on it, and drawing three X’s upon the tomb.
Before Hurricane Katrina, people were rather respectful of Marie’s grave. I know this for a fact because I was there in 2005 right before the storm. See how the grave is pristine?
But after the storm folks got desperate. The grave was defaced multiple times.
In January of 2014, someone decided it would be a good idea to paint Marie’s grave pink, the color of pepto-bismol. (The man was believed to be mentally ill.) He painted the grave, which damaged its surface. It took a lot of time and money to restore it. As a result, tourists can no longer visit Saint Louis No. 1 Cemetery, unless accompanied by a formal tour guide.
Even with a tour guide, it is said you should never take anything from Marie’s grave. This includes rocks, stones and shells. A tour guide once told me that someone on his tour decided to take a stone from the land around the grave as a “souvenir”. Before the end of the tour, that person was stung by a wasp! So if you ever venture around Marie’s grave, please be respectful.
Regardless of what’s true and what’s false, it can’t be denied that Marie Laveau was an interesting woman, a force of nature, and a presence that has managed to live on for over two hundred years.
If you’d grown up in my house, you would have heard phrases like this quite often. The word “lollygag” was as common as “Be home before dark,” or “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” I think lollygag was one of my parents’ favorites. But it’s a strange word.
Think about it. If we break it apart, we get loll and gag. What the heck kind of word is this? It’s either comical, cruel, or very obscene…
For those of you who don’t know (and I’m expecting at least a few people don’t know, because the word is practically obsolete) Merriam-Webster defines Lollygag as follows:
LOLLYGAG: Intransitive verb
informal: to fool around and waste time : DAWDLE
“We were slow because the girl was lollygagging, the photographer was photographing, and I was on crutches.”
— James Robison
“The first author he’d chosen was lollygagging on his manuscript, so it was my chance.”
— Neal Pollack
When I was a kid, lollygag meant slowing down the operation (assuming the operation was important) and furthermore, you weren’t slowing it down for any good reason. Oh no. You were lazy! You were avoiding work, or you simply got preoccupied with something more interesting than the task at hand.
I was actually a world champion lollygagger. As were many of my peers.
It’s pretty easy to lollygag away your time as a kid.
In fact, we could easily lollygag away the whole summer.
But what can be said about the etymology of this word? I was really curious, because most words come from somewhere…
According to Word Origins, lollygag is an “Americanism” which first came in vogue around the mid 19th century. The word “loll” in northern English dialect relates to the tongue (hence lollipop) and can be used as a verb meaning “to embrace or neck.” (More on that later.) The verb loll can also mean “to droop, dangle, rest idly, or thrust out the tongue.” Shakespeare used it in his play Cymbeline, produced in 1611:
“the Army broken, And but the backes of Britaines seene, all flying Through a strait Lane, the Enemy full-hearted, Lolling the Tongue with slaught’ring: having worke More plentifull then Tooles to doo’t:”
The first known mentioning of the actual word, spelled as “lallygag” appeared in a poem about a dead cow, featured the the Sparta Democrat, a newspaper published out of Sparta, Illinois. The poem is dated September 14, 1859:
“22 Kwarts of milck she give, As true as Eye dew liv, but now er 12 Kwart bag Aint wuth a lallygag, Poor old thyng!”
In this case, lallygag seems to be a noun, meaning “something of little value.”
Lallygag appeared again in Harper’s Magazine in August 1862:
“Over the door was stretched a line of letters, reader ‘RESTERANT;’ while below the counter a label fluttered in the breeze, bearing on it, ‘1000 able-bodied men wanted immediately, to drink Swingle’s Lager Beer. Non but those having the spondulix need apply.’ It was before this place that Mr. Biggs paused and turned the flesh of the succulent lobster over with his finger. The gentleman inside addressed him:
‘Well now, bossy, what kin I do for you? Try er lobstaw, bossy?’
‘Ain’t got no money,’ said Mr. Biggs, still fingering the morsels.
‘Oh, come now, none o’ that ere lallygag,’ responded the gentleman. ‘Go in, bossy!’
Mr. Biggs raised a morsel to his lips, tasted, smacked them, and swallowed it. He gazed a moment on the dish and then turned away.”
In this excerpt lallygag seems to mean hanging around and loitering — but it is also associated with tasting the succulent piece of lobster, thus alluding to oral activity and the tongue.
The shopkeeper is telling Biggs to either stop loitering or not taste the food.
As time went on, lollygag took on a sexy twist — probably due to this association with tongues and gagging. It came to mean something like “to flirt, neck, snog, or otherwise engage in lovemaking.”
According to Merriam Webster:
“You certainly didn’t want to be known as a lollygagger at the beginning of the 20th century. Back then, lollygag was slang for “fooling around” (sexually, that is).”
Furthermore, it seems lollygagging got to be such a problem, it had to be addressed by the U.S. Navy!
“Back in 1946, one Navy captain considered lollygagging enough of a problem to issue this stern warning: ‘Lovemaking and lollygagging are hereby strictly forbidden… The holding of hands, osculation and constant embracing of WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service], corpsmen or civilians and sailors or any combination of male and female personnel is a violation of naval discipline…'”
Imagine that! Lollygagging might have hindered military operations.
But nowadays, if someone calls you a lollygagger, don’t get too offended — it only means a dawdler or a time waster.
At any rate, this is a word with a lot of character and I think it deserves a comeback.
Rolling Stones fans will recognize the song as “Sympathy for the Devil”, Mick Jagger’s lopsided tribute to the Prince of Darkness. The event in question was the slaughter of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family, an execution so horrendous that it could only have been orchestrated by Satan himself. (Or Vladimir Lenin.)
The Killing Fields
It was brutal and diabolical. Eleven people died. Some were killed by gunshot, but the more stubborn and slow-to-die teenagers (who actually seemed bulletproof) were carved up like raw chickens, stabbed until their blood-drenched bodies finally expired. Some historians call it the “most horrific” execution of the 20th century, but that would be an exaggeration, since the 20th century, like all centuries, contained an uncountable amount of horrors. The Nazis, as well as the Communists, were known to massacre families whole, whether it be in gas chambers, or by working them to death in Siberia, or by simply shooting them in the middle of their farm chores, land to be divvied up for the “common good”.
Nonetheless, the Romanovs loom large in our imagination, because they happened to be the royal family of Russia, a dynasty that had been in power for three hundred years, until the Bolshevik takeover. The family killed were: Czar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia, and their son Alexey who would have been heir to the throne. The servants killed were: Eugene Botkin, Anna Demidova, Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitonov.
Anastasia, the youngest daughter, was just seventeen years old. She was killed last. She is said to have screamed so heart-wrenchingly it was rumored for decades that the more soft-hearted guards may actually have spared her. (They didn’t, but more on that later.)
Sugar & Spice But Not Everything Nice
Anastasíya Nikoláyevna Románova, the Grand Duchess of Russia, was born on this day, June 18, 1901. Her father was Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia and her mother was Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina and Empress Consort, aka Princess Alix of Hesse, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
It’s a pretty impressive pedigree, and you would think the Tsar’s children would have been extravagantly spoiled, but apparently the Tsarina believed in the same sparseness and discipline favored by her grandmother, the no-nonsense Victoria. The Romanov children slept on hard cots, took cold baths, and were made to do their own housework. The girls were required to produce needlework that was later sold for charity.
Anastasia was a feisty and spirited child. According to her governess Margaretta Eager, Anastasia had ”the greatest personal charm of any child she had ever seen.” Her nickname was “Shvybzik” which means “merry little one” or “little mischief”. Apparently she liked the nickname, because well into her teen years, Anastasia would sign her correspondence as “Shvybzik”, rather than her real name. She was also a bit of a tomboy, known to climb trees and get in snowball fights. One observer reported that the young duchess couldn’t be bothered to remove her long white gloves while eating chocolates at the opera house. She was also fond of practical jokes.
During the first World War, the older Romanov women worked as Red Cross nurses. Anastasia and her sister Maria, both too young to for nursing, instead visited wounded soldiers at the hospital in Tsayskoye Selo. To lift the soldiers’ spirits, they played games like checkers and billiards. Some of the soldiers recalled them fondly, especially Anastasia’s contagious lough.
No matter how well-intended these charitable works from the Romanov family might have been, there was no denying the fact that Russia, at the beginning of the 20th century, was a mess. It was one of the most impoverished countries in the world. And many blamed Tsar Nicholas and the aristocracy for that mess.
Sunday, Bloody Sunday
Modernization and new, labor-saving inventions had not really made their way to Russia yet. Farms were in bad shape. People in the countryside had really rough lives. The harsh Russian climate made for poor crops in general, and the monarchy had failed to implement modern tools of farming. Russia was falling way behind the rest of Europe. In the cities, things were just as bad. There was massive unemployment, and those who were employed worked mostly in dangerous factories, laboring long hours for little pay.
Finally, everyone had had enough.
On Sunday, January 22, 1905, peasants stormed the Winter Palace, home of the royals, in protest. However, that rebellion was squashed by the palace armies, resulting in massive deaths. The rebellion was known as “Bloody Sunday”. Riots then broke out all over the country, but they did no good. The life of the average peasant remained the same, pretty unbearable.
When Germany attacked Russia in 1914, things get even worse. Tsar Nicholas was unprepared for war. (Tsar Nicholas was actually unprepared to rule. His father had died unexpectedly and Nicholas took over the monarchy in 1894 at age twenty-six. Not really young, but he had expected his father to be alive for a few more decades, so he had not given much thought to statecraft.)
Armies, made up largely of the peasant population, were sent to fight. They suffered from lack of everything — from bullets to fuel to food. Millions died. Revolution became inevitable.
On March 8, 1917, with the men away at war, Russian women decided to take matters into their own hands. Thousands stormed the streets of Saint Petersburg (then called Petrograd) in yet another protest. Their banners said things like, “Feed the children of the defenders of the motherland,” and “Supplement the ration of soldiers’ families, defenders of freedom and the people’s peace.”
The Tsar ordered his army to shoot them – however, by this time even the palace army was fed up with their horrible conditions. In the end, Tsar Nicholas had no choice but to resign and give up his crown.
Dead Man Walking
The Romanov family was put under house arrest and moved around to several locations. At first it wasn’t so bad. They were in palaces and comfortable environments. They still had a certain degree of freedom. But as the Bolsheviks gained more power, there was less regard for the royal family. Finally, they were sent to the dreaded Siberia, in a train with covered windows where they were denied food. Their new residence was in a town called Yekaterniburg. There they lived in a five-room dwelling that was ominously called “The House of Special Purpose.”
In the meantime, things were getting worse in Petrograd. A makeshift government had been put in after Nicholas’ abdication, but the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, were not happy with it. They staged another riot in October, 1917. This time full scale civil war broke out. On one side were the Bolsheviks – the Red Army. On the other side were the aristocracy – the White Army. Eventually the Bolsheviks, fearing the Whites might gain power and try to reinstate the Tsar, decided it was simply too risky to allow the Romanov family to remain alive.
In the wee hours of the morning of July 17, 1918, the family were awakened and told they were to be moved to another location, as more fighting had broken out in the area and it was no longer safe. They were told to gather their things and go to the basement of the house, then wait for further instruction until their transport arrived.
It was, of course, a lie.
In reality, the Romanovs were going to the basement where they would be executed.
Commandant Yakov Yurovsky, head of the secret police, told the family they must be positioned for a photograph. He brought in chairs for Tsarina Alexandra and also for son Alexey, a hemophiliac who was in bad health. He then told them he was going to get a camera.
Instead of fetching a camera, Yurovsky came back with eleven guards, all armed with pistols. But there was a problem — the assassins were not sober. Before their boss summoned them, they had been sitting in another room downing vodka. Yurovsky was furious, but the mission had to go on.
Yurovsky then informed Nicholas that he and his family had been sentenced to death.
An astonished Nicholas simply replied, “What?”
Historians are not sure whether Nicholas had figured it out. When the family were first escorted to the basement, he had said to his daughters, “We are finally getting out of here.” This could be interpreted as him knowing the execution was inevitable, and “getting out” simply meant dying. Or perhaps he was truly taken by surprise.
Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend
At any rate, Nicholas was lucky. A guard shot him point blank in the chest and he died immediately. The others would have much messier deaths.
One of the assassins aimed for Alexandra, but, half drunk, he missed his aim and shot her in the side of the head. Next, Maria was hit by a bullet in the thigh. She lay bleeding until a guard stabbed her repeatedly in the torso finally ending her life. Olga was shot in the jaw and Tatiana in the back of the head. Bullets aimed at Anastasia seemed to bounce off.
What the guards would not have realized was that the sisters, and Alexey too, had sown diamond jewelry into their underwear. (They had taken it from the Winter Palace and intended the sell it once they regained their freedom.) Diamonds, being the hardest substance in the world, now became their bullet proof clothing.
Unfortunately, this meant the guards resorted to bayonets. The Romanov siblings were eventually stabbed to death. What should have been a quick, clean execution had turned into an orgy of killing.
The last to die was Anastasia. A guard lunged at her, but, being drunk, kept missing with his bayonet. Finally, the sober Yakov Yurovsky took his gun and shot her in the head.
The entire ordeal was finished in twenty minutes. What had been a three hundred year reign of the Romanov family ended in a bath of blood and clouds of gun smoke. The drunken guards checked pulses to make sure the victims were really dead, then wrapped them in sheets and carried them to the pits where they would be buried.
The Romanov sisters were very close. In fact, they referred to themselves collectively as “OTMA” – meaning Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.
Young Anastasia, ever the “little mischief” was seen sticking her tongue out at Yurovsky behind his back.
OTMA were reluctant to marry and suspicious of foreign princes. When they were sent to meet Prince Carroll of Romania, a potential suitor, all four girls went to the beach and got sunburns on purpose. Having a sunburn would render them “unmarriable” in the royal circle, as only a peasant or a gypsy would stay out in the sun.
Ironically, while staying in Yekaterniburg, Maria became romantically involved with a young Bolshevik guard named Ivan Skorokhodov, who smuggled in a cake for her birthday.
When Maria and Ivan were caught “in a compromising position” the boy was dismissed from his job and sent away to prison.
Apparently, many of the young Bolshevik guards found the sisters attractive. Before the assassination, three of them admitted they would not be able to kill the sisters. They, too, were sent away to prison.
After the Bolshevik government took over, the name “Romanov” was forbidden. The mere mention of them, or keeping their picture, would result in imprisonment or death.
No one ever knew the burial place of the family. This resulted in rumors that they had not really been killed, and especially that Anastasia had been allowed to remain alive. Over the years, many imposters claimed to be the lost Princess Anastasia.
The bones of the Romanov family were discovered in 1979, but they were reburied because it was illegal in the USSR to mention their name!
In 2007, long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the bones were dug up again. DNA tests proved that they were indeed the bones of the Romanovs, thus ending the rumors that Anastasia was still alive.
A monument to Tsar Nicholas and Prince Alexey was unveiled in Siberia in 2017. Monuments to Nicholas were also erected in St. Petersburg, Kursk, Kaluga, Yekaterinburg, Sochi, Sevastopol, and in Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade.
In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, Prince Alexey, and Princesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia as New Martyrs for Christ.
The Romanov dynasty is still highly respected around the world, and loved by the Russian people. The Bolsheviks fell. So, in the end, we could say the Romanovs gained victory over the Devil. (Or Joseph Stalin.)
Happy Birthday Anastasia! You brought love, vitality and a little mischief to your country, and you will never be forgotten.
Clad in all black with a pixie haircut and a camera in tow, she was probably the coolest chick ever to walk in to the Kaiserkeller in 1960’s Hamburg. She was a German photographer, the first to do a formal shoot with the Beatles, and largely responsible for what later became their world-wide “image.” She was a practitioner of Sartre’s Existentialism, an art student, and as it turned out, a great cook. She lured Lennon, mesmerized McCartney, hypnotized Harrison, and later became engaged to then-band-member Stuart Sutcliffe.
Astrid Kirchherr was born on this day, May 20, 1938, in Hamburg, Germany. Her father worked for the German branch of the Ford Motor Company and her mother was a homemaker. Like all European children during World War II, Astrid witnessed its atrocities. During the bombings of Hamburg, her family evacuated to the Baltic Sea, where Astrid remembered seeing dead bodies washed up on the shoreline. It was perhaps this knowledge of the frailty of life that later attracted her to Existentialism.
John Paul Sartre, John Paul & George
The Existential crowd believed in “life defined by one’s experience.” Nowadays this sounds pretty obvious, but up until around the 19th century, people believed more in Plato’s philosophy of “Essentialism”. In brief, Essentialism says that we are given “essence” at birth, a role defined for us — assigned by god, society, or institutions. Existentialism posits that we must “create our own essence”, defined by ourselves and our experiences.
In practice, being an Existentialist meant Astrid was running with the cool kids. Those that dressed in black, smoked cigarettes and wore sunglasses at night. John Lennon dubbed them “The Exis”. If America had its Beatniks, Europe had its Exis. (I attribute both groups to the dire consequences of WWII and society’s questioning the meaning of life. )
According to Astrid, they were “trying to be French.” (Germany got a terrible backlash after the War. France was considered a more fashionable place.)
Astrid studied fashion design and photography at Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung, a school in Hamburg. She later worked as an assistant to photographer Reinhard Wolf.
Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, John Lennon, also an art student, was gathering his musicians. The very early Beatles consisted of Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best and John’s friend, fellow art student Stuart Sutcliffe. Although Sutcliffe could not play an instrument, John wanted him in because of the way he looked – a cute boy with great cheekbones who could rock a leather jacket. “He looks good, that’s all that matters,” John would say.
Stuart reportedly had no interest in being in a band, but John convinced him to do it. Astrid would later say, “John Lennon could convince anybody to do anything.”
When the chance came for the Beatles to play in Hamburg – a city ravaged by war and considered the seediest place in Germany, rampant with drugs and prostitution – the boys jumped at the chance. Paul’s dad and John’s Aunt Mimi were reluctant to let them go. John somehow convinced the adults that the money they would make would surely be worth the risk.
It’s Only Rock & Roll
In Hamburg, Astrid’s then-boyfriend Klaus Voorman, also an artist, was living with the Kirchherr family. The story goes that one night, Astrid and Klaus got in a fight. Klaus stormed out of the house and found himself wandering through the Reeperbahn – the city’s red light district, which was by far the sleaziest section of already sleazy Hamburg. Klaus stepped into a bar called the Kaiserkeller. There, he heard the most amazing music, being played by the most amazing band. Forgetting all about the argument, he couldn’t wait to get home and tell Astrid about his discovery.
It took Klaus three days to convince Astrid to go to the Kaiserkeller. For one thing, she wasn’t eager to mix among the Reeperbahn’s prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers. For another thing, she had never even heard of Rock & Roll music. It was true — the Existentialist crowd that Klaus and Astrid ran with were into jazz and classical. A sedate coffee house would have been more her style than the sweaty, beer drenched Kaiserkeller. Nonetheless, Astrid was finally persuaded.
Astrid said, “When I walked down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed at how beautiful these boys looked… It was a photographer’s dream. And then when I heard the music, it was even more fantastic.”
Astrid went to see them every night. When she asked – in very broken English – if she could photograph them, the guys eagerly agreed. As a new band, they had never been photographed except for some amateur snapshots. Astrid had the idea to take them to a deserted fair grounds. There she used a lorry truck and open fields as the background. She produced photographs that critics still consider as some of the most sensitive ever taken of the Beatles, showing both their toughness and vulnerability.
Astrid was not only their photographer, she became a great friend, too. She often brought the guys to her mother’s house and cooked for them, thus relieving them from their Kaiserkeller diet of beer and amphetamines.
“He Got Hair
to His Knees…“
Of course, no one really had hair down to his knees, but in an age of buzz-cuts and conservative short hair, the Beatles few extra inches were considered an outrage. Astrid was partly responsible.
Having studied fashion design, Astrid was hip to innovative trends. She is credited with changing the band’s clothing and hairstyles. Leather jackets were swapped for turtlenecks and Nehru collars. Brylcream and ducktails were replaced with the mop top.
Astrid is famously attributed with styling the band’s hair. It was actually Klaus Voorman’s hair she styled first. According to Astrid, “Klaus was the most beautiful boy the world had ever seen, but he had these big, sticking out ears. I had the idea to just grow the hair over them, which he then did, and it looked absolutely beautiful.”
Stuart saw the haircut, liked it, and asked Astrid to do his hair the same way. Months later, George followed suit. John and Paul stubbornly kept their rockabilly ‘doos, but then on a trip to Paris they were convinced to try longer hair. Tellingly, Pete Best never got the haircut. He left the band soon after. Enter new drummer Ringo, who was game. By the time they hit the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, all four Beatles were wearing the mop top as if they had invented it themselves.
You might be wondering what happened to Stuart Sutcliffe. His story is the most tragic of all.
Would You Believe in a Love at First Sight?
In a 2010 interview, Astrid said, “Maybe it sounds sentimental, but when I saw Stuart for the first time, I knew: That was my man. He was then, and still is, the love of my life.”
Stuart felt the same about her. He wrote of their first meeting “I could hardly take my eyes off her.” Stuart claimed he tried to talk to her during the break but much to his dismay, she had already left. Luckily, she came back the next night.
Klaus Voorman, realizing you can’t stop true love and overactive hormones, graciously backed out of his relationship with Astrid. There was apparently no jealousy. Klaus and Astrid remained good friends all the way till her death in 2020. (Klaus, a talented artist, maintained his relationship with the Beatles. He did a lot of artwork for them including the Revolver album cover, which was a masterpiece.)
After the gigs at Kaiserkeller were finished, Stuart quit the Beatles, moved in with Astrid, got engaged to her and pursued his painting. They should have lived happily ever after, a perfect couple in a perfect world.
Sadly, that was not to be.
“I Know What It’s Like To Be Dead”
Stuart began to suffer severe headaches and weakness in early 1962. In February he collapsed in the middle of an art class in Hamburg. Astrid’s mother had German doctors come to examine him, but they were unable to determine the cause of his illness. The condition got worse and Stuart’s health deteriorated. On April 10, 1962, Stuart collapsed in the Kirchherr’s kitchen. Astrid’s mother, in a panic, phoned Astrid at work and called an ambulance. Astrid hurried home, arriving in time to ride in the ambulance with Stuart. He died in her arms on the way to the hospital. He was only twenty-two years old. The cause of his death was most likely a brain tumor.
Astrid went on to work as a freelance photographer. In 1964, she and her colleague Max Scheler took “behind the scenes” photographs of the Beatles during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night as an assignment for the German magazine Stern. She published numerous collections of work, including a volume of the Beatles called Hamburg Days and another called Liverpool Days and her last, When We Was Fab, published in 2007.
Astrid never got over Stuart. She married twice, divorced twice, and never had any children. She once said, “Many people say their prayers at night, praying to god. I say my prayers too, but I pray to Stuart.”
Spoken like a true Existentialist.
Astrid Kirchherr died of “a short but severe illness” in 2020 at age eighty-one.
I like to think she has finally been reunited with Stuart.