Mary's diary is fascinating, but 1941 was long enough ago that some things get lost in translation. This is the first of several posts that will explore some of the outdated or unclear parts of Mary's experience.
Feel free to leave questions in the comments if you find an entry confusing!
The very first entry of Mary’s diary mentions a watch night, a practice that isn’t terribly well known these days.
The term “watch night” was first used in 1742, according to Merriam-Webster, and refers to a devotional service lasting until after midnight, especially on New Year's Eve (which is when Mary’s diary begins). Several Protestant Christian denominations hold watch nights, including Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostals. It’s a time when Christians can repent of their sins and begin the new year in a spirit of self-improvement. The services include singing, praying, and preaching, and Wikipedia compares them to the Midnight Mass observed by Catholics and Anglicans on Christmas.
Mary lived in a very white community, but watch nights hold a special significance in African-American history: Slaves went to churches on New Year’s Eve in 1862, waiting for President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to take effect on January 1, 1863. Read more about that here and here.
Oy. I’ve heard of birthday spankings, but I remember them being more of a joke thing among family members at a little kid’s birthday. A six-year-old might get 6 gentle swats on the butt, plus “one to grow on” -- though it seems even that is a thing of the past, as most of the friends I asked weren’t familiar with the tradition, and neither was this advice columnist, who was unsurprised that someone got kicked out of her friend’s daughter’s birthday party and unfriended on Facebook for mentioning the practice.
In today’s society, bringing up birthday spankings sounds odd at best and creepy at worst. Even for me, as someone familiar with the tradition, it seemed extremely bizarre that Mary and her classmates paddled Paul for his birthday. Teenagers spanking a classmate at school? That’s just … weird.
I tried Googling (make sure safe search is on if you try this) the history behind the tradition, but couldn’t find anything reliable about it. I did read a lot of forums, however, and learned the following:
- It seems like it wasn’t uncommon in the past for American kids/teens to be paddled in school on their birthdays;
- This seems to be a uniquely American tradition that weirds out Brits and other foreigners (as well as many Americans of younger generations);
- Though the spanking/paddling seems to be America, there are similar birthday customs in other parts of the world. Some English-speaking countries simply punch the birthday boy/girl instead of paddling. In several countries in Europe and South America, it’s typical to pull someone’s earlobes on his/her birthday. And in the UK, India, and elsewhere, they have the “birthday bumps”:
Don't remember your nursery rhymes? When Mary and Harriet talked about Leigh's father looking like Jack Sprat, they were calling him skinny.
Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.
Jack Sprat was used to refer to people of small stature in sixteenth century England, according to the 1997 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.
Hearts & Flowers
In her January 2 entry, Mary writes about practice for a school play called "Hearts & Flowers." I couldn't find reference to this play online, but I did learn that "Hearts and Flowers" is the name of an 1893 song that became frequently used in silent films. By 1920, this had evolved into an association with melodrama, and the phrase "hearts and flowers" came to mean "a show of sentiment or sentimentality" or a "cloying expressions of endearment," according to Merriam-Webster. Its first known use was in 1915.
I was familiar with the definition of a "grange" as a farm-like property, but I didn't know that there was a fraternal organization originally made up of farmers called the Grange. Its full name, apparently, is The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, and it seems to be what Mary is referring to when she talks about going to "the Grange" -- a frequent occurrence in the diary.
She is probably talking about the Invale Grange, located in the small community of Wirt. Based on the events described in Mary's diary, the Grange seems to have been a bit of a local social hub.
This Grange chapter was formed in 1914. Its hall has been "the scene of weddings, 50th Anniversary parties, showers for newlyweds, wedding receptions, birthday parties, special dinners, 4th of July picnics, chicken barbecues, pig roasts and Harvest dinners," according to the Richburg-Wirt Historical Society.
Apparently the Grange, which first began in 1867, borrowed from Freemasonry and involved secret meetings, oaths, and passwords. There are also seven degrees of membership, the first four of which were associated with the four seasons.
In addition to being a farmer's fraternity, the Grange was an important advocacy organization for rural America. It pushed for rural free delivery, which allowed people like Mary's family to receive mail for free. It was also surprisingly progressive when it came to female members; not only could women join the Grange, but four of its elected positions were open only to women.
That's it for now, but keep an eye out for more Footnotes entries coming soon.