Double Anniversary

On this day in 1870, caricaturist Thomas Nast first used the donkey as a symbol for the Democratic party. For a Democratic donkey comic, please see March On.

And today is the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), whose accomplishments and contributions we celebrate tomorrow. More on Dr. King in the Thomas Nast post, as well as tomorrow, on his national holiday.


Taking Down the Tree

The day after Epiphany is traditionally the occasion for packing up all the ornaments and toting the Christmas tree off for recycling (in honor of which I post this painting, and a poem by Jane Kenyon). That is, unless you live in a household in which the offspring are eager to extend the season as long as possible. One year we actually left ours up past Valentines Day. We did remove the ornaments, however, replacing them with red and white hearts. Very pretty, if rather unseasonal.

The painting is one of a new series begun in the fall. More on that soon.



“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.

—Jane Kenyon


Maid of Orléans

No one really knows precisely when Joan of Arc was born. But January 6, 1412 is traditionally recognized as the date, making today the 500th anniversary of her birth, the quincentennial celebration of her mysterious, heroic, and too-short life.


The outlines of the story are generally recognized: A pious girl from a rural family, in response to visions and voices she explained as those of saints and angels, approached the Dauphin, the future Charles VII, during the Hundred Years’ War, and convinced him to allow her to aid France.

Given a suit of armor and a banner with fleur-de-lis, she led newly-inspired French troops (who had formerly declined to follow the feckless and irresolute Charles into battle) to expel the English and Burgundians from her then-small country. Her successes in battle, and in eventually arranging for the coronation of the Dauphin in Reims, greatly encouraged the French, but alarmed the Burgundians and infuriated the English, who, when they finally had Joan in custody, burned her at the stake as heretic and witch and raked her ashes into the Seine to prevent the collection of relics—an indication of awareness that they had murdered an innocent. She was nineteen. Detailed records of her trial, painstakingly kept by the court, reveal to us Joan’s simplicity and humility, in contrast to the narrow-minded and vengeful scheming of her assorted judges.

These same records were made use of to acquit her posthumously later under Charles’ rule—for him it was politically expedient to have been crowned with the aid of a courageous maiden instead of a condemned witch. During the acquittal process the testimony of numerous witnesses reveals the original trial’s illegal and corrupt maneuverings.

How was an untrained teenage country girl able to lead dispirited soldiers in the wake of a string of defeats (notably Agincourt in 1415) to win a series of battles and break through enemy lines to see her king crowned? What was the nature of Joan’s voices? To this day much of her story remains unknown and a subject of speculation for historians, psychotherapists, artists, novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers. Statues of Joan are to be found all over the world, including here in Washington, DC, a gift from the Ladies of France in Exile in New York in 1922 and the only equestrian statue of a woman in the city. (There are actually only a handful of equestrian statues of women to be found anywhere, and probably more of Joan of Arc than any other.) As of 1920, Joan became—after five hundred years (the Catholic church moving with its customary excruciating slowness)—Saint Joan.

The image of Jeanne d’Arc has been co-opted, ironically, by the French extreme right, who more properly ought to take as their symbol a 15th-century right-winger: the manipulative and self-absorbed Duke of Burgundy, who turned Joan over to the English to maintain his power; the misogynist cleric Pierre Cauchon, who was fixated on Joan’s wearing of male attire; or the avaricious English themselves, whose desire for the French throne had been humiliatingly waylaid by an upstart female. The ultra-conservative Front National is no place for unconventional Joan, who defied societal expectations, suffered in battle and in prison, and died for her efforts.

The sketch is from a visit to the house in Domrémy thought to have belonged to Joan’s family.

Today is also the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which, according to tradition, three wise men from the East carried gifts to the infant Jesus. For another take on this event, please see The Three Wise Women.

The Feast of the Epiphany is also the birthday of Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). For a comic and a poem, please see Poetic Journey of the Magi.


New Year’s


The solid houses in the mist
are thin as tissue paper;
the water laps slowly at the rocks;
and the ducks from the north are here
at rest on the grey ripples.

The company in which we went
so free of care, so carelessly,
has scattered. Good-bye,
to you who lie behind in graves,
to you who galloped proudly off!
Pockets and heart are empty.

This is the autumn and our harvest—
such as it is, such as it is—
the beginnings of the end, bare trees and barren ground;
but for us only the beginning:
let the wild goat’s horn and the silver trumpet sound!

Reason upon reason
to be thankful:
for the fruit of the earth,
for the fruit of the tree,
for the light of the fire,
and to have come to this season.

—Charles Reznikoff
from Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays