How Did the Standing Ovation Originate?

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Applause is one of those cultural rituals so ingrained in our habits that to clap is a nearly subconscious act. However, the choice to remain clapping—and, at times, to stand while doing so—is very intentional. But when did the standing ovation begin? 

Like many facets of our culture, this one dates back to Ancient Rome. Although today’s society counts a standing ovation as one of the highest forms of flattery, it was actually a tier below one of Rome’s most honorary celebrations. At the time, a “triumph” was a rite conducted to publicly acknowledge a commander who led the Roman forces to a great military victory.

In contrast, the definition of an ovation is derived from the Latin for “I rejoice” and while it’s still a pretty big deal, it’s a step down from a triumph: “A ceremony attending the entering of Rome by a general who had won a victory of less importance than that for which a triumph was granted.”

Fast forward a few centuries or so, and standing ovations are solidified in modern culture. In a 2003 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Jesse McKinley supposed that standing ovations became associated with theater around the 17th century, but noted that many historians cite the origin to the years following World War II. In fact, there’s even a (fantastically named) theory to support this claim.

According to McKinley, American musical scholar Ethan Mordden came up with the “Big Lady Theory.” In productions around the 1950s (My Fair Lady is cited as an example), the music left barely any time for the cast to bow during a curtain call. However, when musicals evolved to showcase a star performer—think Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!—the production was staged to accommodate a longer bow.

''The whole curtain call is built to a climax,'' Mordden said. ''The ensemble bows and sings. The male leads bow, and supporting women, and everything builds and builds and builds, and then when everyone's attention is focused, the star comes out in her 37th Bob Mackie gown of the evening. By that point, you have no choice but get to your feet.''

Standing ovations are so ingrained in our culture that we’ve reached a point where certain ones get additional recognition. For example, iconic actor Charlie Chaplin was given an Honorary Award at the 1972 Oscars. According to Harper’s Bazaar, his 12-minute standing ovation remains the longest in the award ceremony's history.

Sports are another area where standing ovations remain common. Cal Ripken, Jr. is widely reported to have received one of the longest ovations in athletic history. On September 6, 1995, Ripken broke the record for most consecutive games played in the Major League Baseball—and the stadium saluted him by standing and cheering for 22 minutes. Despite being honored by thousands that day, Ripken remains modest about the applause.

“It was really, really long,” he told Baltimore Magazine in a 2015 interview. “I was embarrassed because you don’t stop a game in the middle. Pitchers are warming up; players have a rhythm. So I was like, ‘I’ll celebrate afterward as much as you guys want, but let’s get this game going.’”

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Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

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iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

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iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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