The grandfather I grew up with was a retired schoolteacher and a voracious reader. Almanacs were required reading at the beginning of each new year, ranging from the Texas Almanac (which claims to be the source for all things Texan since 1857) to the Old Farmer’s version (in its 225th edition this year). Originally, almanacs were relied upon by farmers and gardeners for their astronomical tables, recommended planting times, and weather forecasts. But nowadays I read them for information in the form of interesting ideas and curious facts.
For example, the current Texas Almanac gives maps and profiles for all 254 of our state’s counties, as well as interesting demographic details like how many births, deaths, marriages and divorces occur on an average day in Texas. This is the book to consult if you’re curious about such things as our official state fruit (red grapefruit), reptile (horned lizard), seashell (lightning whelk), snack (chips and salsa), vegetable (Texas sweet onion), health nut (pecan), domino game (42), and numerous other (important?) symbols.
It is comforting to know that all these have been duly considered and voted on by our state legislators, who in 2001 decided that further additions to the rapidly growing list would have to come with a joint resolution specifying the item’s historical or cultural significance to the state.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac offers a different kind of reading material, as befits the oldest continuously published periodical in North America (since 1792). Among my favorites in this year’s edition are remedies carried over from long ago, such as one mixture concocted to “cure a pimpled face and sweeten the blood,” with prunes as the active ingredient. For relief you need consume only three or more prunes daily for six months.
In order to appeal to housewives as well as farmers, this almanac features simple and cheap solutions for common household problems. If you spill red wine or fruit juice on a tablecloth, pour salt on the spot immediately to absorb the stain. Baking soda can be sprinkled on icy steps and walkways to provide traction and melt the ice, without damaging the surfaces or your shoes. A tablespoon of lemon juice mixed with 2 tablespoons of salt will make an effective rust-removing paste. Toss used lemon slices or wedges into your garbage disposal to keep it clean and fresh-smelling. If you have an upset stomach, try sucking on a lemon to settle it.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac also reveals some little-known facts about the history of our calendar. I learned that in 1582 most of Europe went straight from Thursday, Oct. 4 to Friday, Oct. 15, eliminating the ten days in between. This was necessary because Pope Gregory XIII and a team of mathematicians at the Vatican had calculated that the calendar we had followed since Julius Caesar’s reign was longer than the Sun’s year by 10 minutes and 45 seconds. Deleting the 10 days (and tinkering with the rule for leap years) brought us back in harmony with the Sun. The Gregorian calendar we have used ever since provides a calendar year that is only 27 seconds longer than the Sun’s year. That won’t require skipping another day for a long time.
No doubt Granddaddy Jones would be proud of me for keeping up the family tradition of January almanac reading, and I thank him for getting me started on it.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches senior citizens how to write their life stories. A new class begins at Grayson College on March 8. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org