DECK THE HOLIDAY'S: January 2013

Thursday, January 31, 2013


   The Kaapse Klopse is a minstrel festival that takes place annually on January 2nd, in Cape Town, South Africa.  Up to 13,000 minstrels, many in blackface, take to the streets garbed in bright colors, either carrying colorful umbrellas or playing an array of musical instruments.  The minstrels are grouped in klopse ("clubs" in Cape Dutch, but more accurately translated as troupes in English).  Participants are typically from Afrikaans-speaking working class "colored" families who have preserved the custom since the mid 19th century.
   Although it is called the Coon Carnival by Capetonians, local authorities have renamed the festival the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival as foreign tourist find the term "coon" derogatory.


   One story goes that the carnival was inspired by a group of African-American minstrels who docked in Cape Town in the late 1800's and entertained the sailors with their spontaneous musical performances.  The popular song Hier kom die Alabama (Here comes the Alabama) refers to the ship that is believed to have brought them.  Another story goes that the traveling minstrels were actually white and painted their face black...hence the painted faces seen today.


   The source of the parade and the festival are the horrors of slavery, as was blackface minstrels in the United States.  As Denis-Constant Martin's book Coon Carnival informs us, several forms given to physical torture, including the burning of effigies on Guy Fawkes day, evolved into the present day commemoration.  Some would remind us, however, that American style slavery has more influence in America than Southern Africa.  Guy Fawkes day is a British custom, and is not connected as such with American slavery.  Even American blackface minstrels are more connected with celebrations of the people that came out of slavery than with the institution itself.

Troupe Organisation

   The majority of the troupes (approximately 169) are represented by the Kaapse Karnaval ("Cape Carnival") Association.  In addition, two breakaway organisations (the Kaapse Karnaval Association and the Mitchell's Plain Youth Development Minstrel Board) represent a minority of troupes.

The Carnival Today

   The festival begins on New Year's Day and continues into January.  Traditionally, it has been a site for grievances against white supremacy.  Festivities include street parades with singing and dancing, costume competitions and marches through the streets.  While many troupes now are supported by corporate sponsors, many refuse and remain sticklers for tradition.  The 2005 carnival was nearly cancelled due to an alleged lack of funding, while the 2006 carnival was officially called off for the same reason.  However, the troupe organisations subsequently decided to go ahead with the parade despite continued unhappiness over funding, and the festivities, were opened by Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rascool on January 2nd, 2006.


5. Eastern State Penitentiary's Badass Haunted House

   First, let's talk about the Halloween staple, the haunted house. Unless you're 12, you probably can't remember the last time you were actually scared at one of these. Sure, you might have been startled at one, when the guy with the hockey mask and toy chainsaw jumped out at you. But not scared. You're far too old and jaded to ever go running home to mommy because of some big building with cheesy horror decorations taped to the walls.
   Now allow Pennsylvania to prove you wrong with Terror Behind the Walls. It's a Halloween attraction (talk about stretching a term) set in Eastern State Penitentiary, a  bona fide haunted prison complex.

Once you enter, you can never leave (except through the gift shop).

   Built in 1829, the ESP had a reputation as a pretty nightmarish place when it was operational -- a visiting Charles Dickens described it as "worse than any torture of the body."

"Although a lot of that is just Philadelphia."

   And the people who ran the place were as insane as the environment -- they happily imprisoned and messed up prisoners as young as 12 and even  dogs. Combine that with some fairly creative torture methods, such as "the mad chair," and it should come as no surprise that reports of paranormal activity on the site have been pretty abundant. And now, every Halloween, the long-closed penitentiary opens its doors to allow the public to revel in its arrested decay.

They've even kept some of the prisoners around on a steady diet of man flesh.
This, by the way, means the building is as abandoned as Chernobyl and about as well preserved, so it might be a good idea to make sure your Halloween costume includes a hard hat.

And maybe a dental dam.

   The Terror Behind the Walls event is a "low gore" walk through the pants-shitting premises, with plenty of actual gory historical facts mixed with balls-out-insane ghost stories to go with the top-notch production values. It all adds up to the scariest Halloween event in America.

An honor taken last year by that terrible Rocky Horror episode of Glee.

   Yeah, if you think you're too cool to be scared by masked actors chasing after you, you need to experience it happening while you're walking through the crumbling real-life equivalent of Arkham Asylum.   A haunted one.

This is why Batman has Robin -- bait.
And while we're on the subject of haunted houses ...

#4. Steampunk Haunted House: Through the Looking Glass

   If you don't have a "clearly really haunted" prison to turn into a haunted house, you can still present a pretty kickass experience. All it takes is a high production value and a little style. For instance, there's the Steampunk Haunted House in New York.

Behold Hipsterween.

   It has so many advantages over its "fake blood and plastic skeletons" peers that it's almost unfair. First off, it's steampunk themed, which is creepy all by itself. Second, it's based on Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the freakier sequel to the already pretty deranged Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

We're not sure what the label on her cupcake said, but we're not touching it.

   And trust us, that unholy combination works. Until NASA finds a way to actually enter Wonderland through a steampunk Stargate, Third Rail Projects' Steampunk Haunted House: Through the Looking Glass remains as close as you'll come to Looking-Glass Land this side of American McGee's Alice. Third Rail's take on the Ye Olde Haunted House routine is basically a straight-up steampunk museum in a century-old playhouse decked out in a Wonderland theme. It focuses on only the darker themes of Carroll's work, and also all your favorite Alice characters and settings now look like this:

This is far more accurate than the Disney version ever was.

And while you do have a tour guide, his main function is, in true Carroll fashion, to deliberately get you lost, give you impossible tasks and turn off the lights just when you need them.

   Adding to the insanity cake mix is the fact that the whole building is as deliberately nonsensical as New York housing law will allow. In short: Picture dropping acid before watching the animated Alice in Wonderland, and you'll have a fraction of an idea what you're in for.

Taking acid before visiting the Steampunk Haunted House ends with either the morgue or a bestselling children's novel.

#3. Halloween at the House on the Rock

   So as you can see, the best Halloween hangouts are the kind of places that are terrifying year-round. Which brings us to House on the Rock, aka The Most Insane Place in America.

   Architect Alex Jordan Sr. and his son Alex Jordan Jr. started building House on the Rock as a way to get back at Frank Lloyd Wright, who thought Jordan Sr. was a hack and kicked him out of his art school. We can tell Senior took this a bit personally, because he immediately started planning and building the most mind-bending house his peculiar architectural style could come up with -- in the vicinity of Wright's own house in Wisconsin. Then, the son turned the house's rooms into loosely themed crap exhibitions and proceeded to live his life in seclusion like a poor man's Howard Hughes.

In terms of taint-curling horror and giant sea monsters, he was as rich as creosote.

Every single inch of the House on the Rock is a horror movie waiting to happen. Let's begin with the Infinity Room, which juts out 218 feet for no other reason than to mess with your head.

Well this just seems infinitely unscary.

   The terrifying part is that the room is quite high from the ground and has no supports underneath. Here's the outside:


   When you enter the Infinity Room, you're essentially walking a 200-foot long plank, hoping against hope that Jordan Sr. (who, remember, was laughed out of the profession by one of the most influential architects in history) had his shit together.
   Speaking of which, let's take a look at the other rooms. The house features several "exhibitions," with all exhibits out in the open and contributing to the peculiar smell of rot that permeates the building. One room gives us what is allegedly the world's largest indoor carousel.

 Another features a frozen orchestra of mannequins.

No music. Just a steady stream of muffled coughs and far-off screams.

There's a circus room ...

... a room full of organs ...

All completely unplayable by the hands of man.

... an indoor old-timey street that brings to mind the Rapture ...

"Those hats belong to the previous occupants. They left rather suddenly."

... and another orchestra, only these are controlled by invisible robots, because everything is better with robots.

Ghosts, too.

   Wow. That's just ... wow. It's as if they've taken everything even remotely sinister in life and put them under the same roof to bear upon the wary visitor.
   And then there's the Halloween parties. Last year, for instance, the House on the Rock hosted a costume contest (judged by Neil Gaiman), and the winners got to ride that enormous carousel. Although, as evidenced by their disclaimer on Facebook, this is not necessarily a reward -- the riders are specifically told not to bring "open flames, weapons, smoke and sharp projections" and that "as the carousel was not meant to be ridden, there are sharp claws, fragile appendages, etc."
   So, it's a carousel with sharp claws that was not meant to be ridden, and you're specifically told not to take weapons with you? There is no way you're getting out with your soul intact.

#2. The White House Halloween Party

Remember when we said you can arrange a party literally anywhere? We weren't kidding. This is what you get at a White House costume party:

Surrealism and massive balls.

   While you may not immediately think of the White House for your list of "best party places in the world," people tend to forget that it is one of the best-equipped places for most occasions -- up to and including getting wild. In 1975, Gerald Ford's daughter, Susan, held her high school's senior prom there, and for good reason: the White House has everything anybody would need for the best freaking party ever. It features a movie theater, a ballroom, plenty of bedrooms, its own bowling alley, a basketball court and a swimming pool ... hell, there's even a hot tub.
   What's more, as you can see above, the festivities are now hosted by a President of the United States who is an unabashed Star Wars and comic book nerd. This translates to the exact thing you'd hope for and expect:

That's a fantastic President of the United States costume.

Hey, look at this! It's somebody dressed up as Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter:

Hang on ...

Yeah, that person would be Johnny Depp. Also at the party in 2009 was Tim Burton and Deep Roy (the guy who played all of the Oompa Loompas in the Willy Wonka remake).

Sasha looks adorably terrifying.

See, this is why you want to grow up to be president, kids. You get to use your status as the most powerful man in the world to have R2-D2 stare down an Ent.

"Could have used you on Endor, beep beep."

#1. The Queen Mary's Dark Harbor

   As you leave the trick-or-treating stage of your life behind and enter the beer-and-wacky-dick-costumes phase of Halloween celebrating, you tend to be less about the candy and more about the partying. Woe is you, however, when you find out that Halloween parties tend to be pretty much the same as your regular Friday nights, only everyone wears even dumber clothes than usual and there are little plastic bats everywhere.
   Yet with the right mindset (and some cash to burn), you can arrange a kickass Halloween at the Queen Mary at Long Beach, California.

That's the one where they refuse to let out Cabin B340 because of the murdered little girl living there.

   It's your average retired ocean liner that's been converted into a hotel/museum. And while that might seem more or less like the trifecta of lameness to most, the owners of the Queen Mary took a double take on their property and realized that what they had was a creepy-ass giant ship (that looks a bit like the Titanic for good measure) that is also a creepy-ass hotel.

Using a corpse as a mattress? Eh, we've done worse.

   So they have taken to annually converting the Queen Mary into a giant Halloween complex for an event called the Dark Harbor. The end result is the lovechild of The Shining's Overlook Hotel and a giant ghost ship.

He's there to take your bags, don't be rude.

   Yeah. The Halloween-ready ship features, among other things, three onboard and two onshore mazes, some 160 monsters, all the special effects you can eat and some big ass pyrotechnics.

It's not a holiday without pillars of fire.

   The horror action that takes place in and around the "damned" ship -- which, as they helpfully remind you during the event, is rumored to be haunted in real life as well -- follows a different script every year. This year's story revolves around a trio of she-demons who make it their mission to hunt the shit out of everyone entering the boat after sunset -- up to, including and especially you.

The service is impeccable in that respect.

   Oh, hell yeah. This is the kind of haunted house you get when the people setting it up have some serious money behind it.

We hope they also have some serious firepower.

And in case you still think this is kid stuff, please note that this is more of an adult haunted house than one for children.
Happy Halloween, indeed.

Sleep tight.


   Here's another terrific recipe from saveur magazine .  One of the best desserts to originate from France.

Chocolate Mousse

The ultimate of all of the French desserts to take hold of the American culinary imagination might be chocolate mousse. The simple yet sophisticated, airy yet intense concoction has been a hit with home cooks in America at least since the New York Timespublished its first recipe for the dessert in 1955. Suddenly, it seemed that every hostess was beating egg whites to perfection, folding them into melted chocolate, and chilling the mixture in crystal bowls for dinner parties. But the dish isn't reserved for the home—it was, and remains, a mainstay at restaurants, the foolproof finale to an elegant meal.



1 ⅔ cups heavy cream
2 tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. kosher salt
4 egg whites
½ cup sugar
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
Chocolate shavings, to garnish


In a large bowl, beat cream, vanilla, and salt with a whisk until stiff peaks form; chill. In another large bowl, beat egg whites with a whisk until soft peaks form. While whisking, slowly add sugar, and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Add melted chocolate to egg whites, and fold until almost incorporated; add whipped cream and fold until completely incorporated. Divide among serving cups; chill. Sprinkle with chocolate shavings before serving. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


   Christmas day – the day on which the birth of Christ is celebrated (and has been for millennia). All around the world people will be sitting down to special meals, giving gifts, singing, drinking and attending religious services. In honor of this great holiday (my favorite, in fact), we have a list of Christmas facts. 

The Date

   In the early Church, Christmas was not celebrated as a major feast. The first evidence of the Church attempting to put a date on the day of Christ’s birth comes from 200 AD, when theologians in Alexandria decided it was the 20th of May. By the 380s, the Church in Rome was attempting to unite the various regions in using December 25th as the universal feast day, and eventually that is the day that stuck. As so often was the case in the early Church, the influence of the pagan feasts of Rome is seen, because December 25 was the festival for the birth of the sun. St Cyprian makes mention of this: “O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born.”

The Nativity Scene
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   Everyone knows who Saint Francis is – the famed saint who had an apparent miraculous control over animals, and who traveled to the Middle East to convert the Muslims – offering to be thrown into the fire. And we have all seen nativity sets – little (or sometimes not so little) figurines which represent the people present at the birth of Jesus. What most people don’t know is that Saint Francis invented the nativity set in the 13th century!

Gifts Et Al

   Gift giving, Christmas drinks, Christmas Cards and many other Christmas traditions are not modern gifts of capitalism (though capitalism sure does love it) – they actually come to us via the Ancient Romans who exchanged all of those things on New Year’s Day (Strenae, named after Strenia the goddess of New Year’s gifts). This was initially shunned by the Church (“(Do not) make vetulas, [little figures of the Old Woman], little deer or iotticos or set tables [for the house-elf, compare Puck] at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks [another Yule custom].” -St Eligius, 7th century) but old habits die hard and it eventually transferred to Christmas.


   In England, Christmas was forbidden by Act of Parliament in 1644; the day was to be a fast and a market day; shops were compelled to be open; plum puddings and mince pies condemned as heathen. The conservatives resisted; at Canterbury blood was shed; but after the Restoration Dissenters continued to call Yuletide “Fooltide”. Following the Protestant Reformation, groups such as the Puritans strongly condemned the celebration of Christmas, considering it a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast.” Celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban by the Pilgrims was revoked in 1681 by English governor Sir Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region.


   As often happens with very ancient traditions, many myths have sprung up surrounding Christmas. The most popular is that the entire nativity did not happen and is based on the pagan Mithras character (a sun god). Many aspects of Mithra’s life are given as proof but it is only in fairly recent times that this notion has been promoted. In reality, many of the similar words were borrowed from Christianity which was sweeping the world during the height of the Mithras cult. Mithra is often said to have had an identical birth to Christ, but in reality the pagans believed he was born on a mountain top. Furthermore, the adoring shepherds at Mithra’s birth did not appear until well after the nativity of Jesus was known throughout the world. This is a case of paganism stealing from Christianity and not the other way around. 

Christmas Crackers

   I was recently surprised to discover that Americans don’t generally have Christmas crackers at Christmas. In the UK and many commonwealth countries, Christmas crackers (not the type you eat) are placed on the table and everyone pairs up to “pull” one. The cracker is a small tube of cardboard with a gift inside and a strip of paper that emits a bang when pulled. This is all covered with decorative paper and shaped to look like a bonbon. Crackers often include a little joke, a toy, and sometimes a party hat – all of which is usually kept by the person who ends up with the largest part of the cracker when it is pulled. You can buy very cheap crackers or very expensive (the ones above cost $1,000 US at Harrods). Because of the variety of prices available they are usually found in the homes of everyone, rich or poor, at Christmas. Crackers were invented by Tom Smith (a seller of candy), in 1847.

Christmas Tree

    Most people have heard the tale of how Martin Luther, the famous protestant rebel, gave the world the Christmas tree (or in some variations, candles on the Christmas tree). It is not true. The first association of trees with Christmas comes from Saint Boniface in the 7th century AD, when he chopped down a tree sacred to Thor to prove to the local villagers that the Norse gods were not legitimate. By the 15th century people were cutting down trees and putting them in their homes to decorate with sugared fruit and candy and candles. By the time Luther came around, it was a long established tradition.

Merry Xmas Lg

   That one small word causes anger amongst many people; many Christians consider it to be disrespectful to replace Christ’s name with an ‘x’ – even going so far as to that that it is a ploy by anti-Christians to de-Christianify Christmas. However, Xmas is almost as old as the feast it refers to – the ‘x’ is actually the Greek letter chi which is the first letter of Christ’s name in Greek (Χριστός). Xmas is every bit as religious as Christmas.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus is actually based on the early Church Bishop Saint Nicholas. He was born during the third century (around 270 AD), in the village of Patara in Turkey, and was known for secretly giving gifts of money to the poor. The modern image of him as a jolly man in red most likely comes from the 1823 poem “A visit from St Nicholas” also known as “The Night before Christmas” which you can read in full here.

Candy Canes

   In the late 1800's, a candy maker in Indiana wanted to express the meaning of Christmas through a symbol made of candy. He came up with the idea of bending one of his white candy sticks into the shape of a Candy Cane. He incorporated several symbols of Christ’s love and sacrifice through the Candy Cane. First, he used a plain white peppermint stick. The color white symbolizes the purity and sinless nature of Jesus. Next, he added three small stripes to symbolize the pain inflicted upon Jesus before His death on the cross. There are three of them to represent the Holy Trinity. He added a bold stripe to represent the blood Jesus shed for mankind. When looked at with the crook on top, it looks like a shepherd’s staff because Jesus is the shepherd of man. If you turn it upside down, it becomes the letter J symbolizing the first letter in Jesus’ name. The candy maker made these candy canes for Christmas, so everyone would remember what Christmas is all about.