Category Archives: History

Why Christmas is a holiday

Because congress adopted a federal holiday on June 26, 1870. Simple.

Why, you ask?

Well, it had an inauspicious beginning in the country. It was so controversial (decadent) in the 1700s that it was actively banned by Puritains, including those who left England to settle the early American states. Perhaps more importantly it was shunned by the Founding Fathers since it was considerd an English tradition and irrelevant to the observance of religion. Alas, Digital History suggests by the early 1800s Christmas in America had become just another famously drunken, lewd and riotous event, rivaling the decadence of old King Charles’ England:

But despite the Puritans’ best efforts, Christmas in America became an excuse for dangerous hell raising. At Christmastime, men drank rum, fired muskets wildly, and costumed themselves in animal pelts or women’s clothes – crossing species and gender. In New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, they formed Callithumpian parades, which involved beating on the kettles, blowing on penny trumpets and tin horns, and setting off firecrackers.

Sounds like a blast, no? Well, the fun obviously never lasts forever and so things eventually came to a head when, according to the History Channel, the effects of Christmas coupled with a rise in poverty and class conflict of the early 19th Century gave concern to those who were in power:

In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.

The new message was that people should stay home, sit by a fire, and drink and eat themselves senseless instead of partying outside with others. And so, out of the political discord of 150 years ago we can today say thank you to the federal government for inventing a national tradition and opening the door for America’s two great factions, corporations and religions, to fight over control of the “real” meaning of this holiday.

Nast's Santa
Thanks should also go to Thomas Nast, arguably the father of modern American political illustration, for creating the modern American image of Santa Claus during the Civil War…it might be worth noting that Santa was always pro-Union and anti-slavery.

Oh, and why December 25th? Apparently Pope Julius I wanted something to compete with the popularity of the festival “Saturnalia”, and probably found it most convenient to just rebrand the pagan holiday with a new name. Merry Saturnalia had a bad ring to it, I guess (especially since the word implied an “inversion of order” instead of something Christ-like).

Personally, I think the holiday should be celebrated on June 26th before someone starts another winter riot over the latest must-have expression of modern faith, like an XBox.

Historians rate the US presidents

I’ve been writing too many comments again on Schneier’s blog lately, so I thought I’d post a few interesting things here instead. This article from the History News Network caught my attention with some interesting insights into the risks from various Presidents and how they stack up from a historian’s point-of-view:

The George W. Bush presidency is the worst since:
In terms of economic damage, Reagan.
In terms of imperialism, T Roosevelt.
In terms of dishonesty in government, Nixon.
In terms of affable incompetence, Harding.
In terms of corruption, Grant.
In terms of general lassitude and cluelessness, Coolidge.
In terms of personal dishonesty, Clinton.
In terms of religious arrogance, Wilson.

And then there are the oft-cited Bush quotes that give another perspective on how some might use his own words to conclude he may be worse than so many of his predecessors:

“You don’t get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier.”
— From Paul Begala’s “Is Our Children Learning?”, Governing Magazine July, 1998

“If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”
— CNN.com, December 18, 2000

“A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there’s no question about it.”
— Business Week, July 30, 2001

Judge upholds intelligence in schools, strikes down school board liars

The BBC reports that a Judge in Pennsylvania has questioned the integrity of ID proponents and struck down their attempt to inject creationism into science curriculums at school:

Judge Jones said he had determined that ID was not science and “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents”.

Citizens had been “poorly served” by members of the school board who voted for the ID policy, he said.

“It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy,” he said.

“We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom.”

Religious extremists misrepresenting their true objectives? Impossible. My favorite comment from the BBC peanut gallery is from someone who claims to be from the US:

U.S. school students are falling behind their peers in developed countries in science and mathematics. Therefore, U.S. schools need to intelligently redesign their science curriculums not teach intelligent design as science.

Well said!

The Silent Majority circa 2005?

The “national security versus the public’s right to know” debate is nothing new to the US, but Bush appears to have lost serious amounts of credibility as key members of the House and Senate openly compare his faith-based requests for secrecy to Johnson’s worst decisions during the Vietnam War. For example Rep Murtha was just on the morning news yesterday and he was asked whether he believes the Bush administration’s assessment of the road ahead. Murtha retorted “Why should I trust him?” He went on to say that he remembers President Johnson’s announcement that he would not let the US pull out of Vietnam as things were about to get better. Murtha said the result was that more than 38,000 soldiers lost their lives before the US could admit that Johnson’s strategy was flawed from the start.

That brought to mind Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, which had a very different take on the situation (the beginning of the end rather than the end of the beginning). What Nixon lacked in domestic smarts he more than made up for in international relations, and yet he rarely gets mentioned outside of Watergate, which probably means either that the US still has a very long way to go in Iraq or maybe just that the “N” word is considered off-limits:

The other two factors on which we will base our withdrawal decisions are the level of enemy activity and the progress of the training programs of the South Vietnamese forces. And I am glad to be able to report tonight progress on both of these fronts has been greater than we anticipated when we started the program in June for withdrawal. As a result, our timetable for withdrawal is more optimistic now than when we made our first estimates in June. Now, this clearly demonstrates why it is not wise to be frozen in on a fixed timetable.

We must retain the flexibility to base each withdrawal decision on the situation as it is at that time rather than on estimates that are no longer valid.

Along with this optimistic estimate, I must-in all candor-leave one note of caution.

If the level of enemy activity significantly increases we might have to adjust our timetable accordingly.

Pinter on US foreign policy

Harold Pinter gave a spirited Nobel Lecture on December 12th:

Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.

But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States’ actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.

Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America’s favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as ‘low intensity conflict’. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued ­ or beaten to death ­ the same thing ­ and your own friends,
the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

And that’s just the warmup before he gets to a review of modern events:

The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading – as a last resort – all other justifications having failed to justify themselves – as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.

So from there he makes a helpful suggestion:

I know that President Bush has many extremely competent speech writers but I would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man’s man.

‘God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden’s God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam’s God was bad, except he didn’t have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don’t chop people’s heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don’t you forget it.’

He also presents a poem by Pablo Neruda as a window into the ravages of war.

Happy Thanksgiving

One day I became curious how Lincoln’s Presidential Proclamation to reunify America turned into a feast of turkey legs, mashed potatoes, and pie.

I mean it seems fairly certain at first glance that the American holiday today was a result of President Lincoln’s third day of Thanksgiving, October 3, 1863, when he brought to national attention the cause for a November holiday to give thanks for “general causes” rather than “special providences” such as wartime victories. He thus declared a general and national Thanksgiving that year to be held on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln proclaimed:

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well as the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is
permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

The actual origins appear to have been based in the observance of the bounty of peaceful industry and labor in-spite of ravages from a brutal civil war. And it was this particular Thanksgiving that was the first in the unbroken series of the national holiday tradition celebrated today. Unfortunately I never see this little bit of history brought to light during the holiday season.

Where did Lincoln get the idea from? It seems that the Thanksgiving holiday is evolved from a very routine English Puritan religious observation, which was irregularly declared and celebrated “in response to God’s favorable Providence”. Over time these observations by early settlers turned into a single, annual, quasi-secular New England autumnal celebration, but this was still a very small minority of Americans and it is not clear what Lincoln’s relationship with them might have been.

It is sometimes claimed that the first actual recorded “national” Thanksgiving was a formal declaration in 1777 by the Continental Congress. This event, however, had very little popularity outside a few peculiar and religious sects and “Thanksgivings” subsequently were only declared occaisonally and infrequently until 1815 when they apparently disappeared altogether.

The holiday thus was seen mainly as a regional observance until 1863 when President Lincoln declared three Thanksgiving days, two of which to celebrate Union military victories; the first following Shiloh on April 13 and the second a national day of thanks for the Gettysburg victory on August 6. The third day is the one described in the proclamation above. Perhaps Lincoln’s own family ties had some relevance to Thanksgiving, or perhaps he encountered it among his constituents and decided to expand the practice. Either way, today’s national holiday celebration was clearly founded at the end of the Civil War and not by the pilgrims or the Founding Fathers, as is often incorrectly claimed.

In fact, presidential declarations of Thanksgiving made absolutely no mention of the Plymouth Pilgrims or a “First Thanksgiving” until Herbert Hoover’s proclamation of 1931. This revision was apparently due to a change from how Pilgrims (and Indians) were perceived. Depictions of the settlers in America before the 19th century showed violent confrontation with people they encountered. As late as the 1910s a typical Thanksgiving “Pilgrim-puritan” image is more likely to have suggested settlers were fleeing a shower of arrows and running to safety than sitting down for a friendly meal with the “natives”.

The more modern imagery of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a communal and harmonious meal most likely found its place as an icon of American history in the early 1900s. The U.S. was concerned at that time with large numbers of immigrants and the related issues of integration into American culture. A Thanksgiving image of dissimilar ethnic communities co-existing amid peace and plenty was considered an effective message to help avoid confrontations. It was out of this school of thought that Jennie Brownscombe’s “First Thanksgiving” was painted in 1914 for Life magazine. Pilgrims were cast in a role to provide an example of the close-knit, religiously inspired American community. This also gained popularity as an image of American values and virtuosity to help boost morale during the dark days of the First World War.

Support for the holiday then unravelled a bit when President Roosevelt tried in 1936, against opposition, to move the day forward by a week to extend the Christmas shopping season. By 1941, during his administration, Congress declared the fourth Thursday in November to be the legal Holiday known today as Thanksgiving. However, since there are five Thursdays in November (two out of every seven years) several states continued to celebrate on the fifth Thursday for at least the next 15 years. Any guesses which states refused to comply?

Finally, in 1956 the fourth Thursday in November became the national holiday that Americans recognize today, observed similarly by every state in the Union.

The relevance of turkey to the holiday celebration is even more unclear than the origins of the celebration. Perhaps it stems from an early description of “men out fowling” for ducks, geese, and turkey (e.g. as described in the Bradford document, “discovered” in 1854). Or perhaps it is due to sentiment expressed in Benjamin Franklin’s note that “The turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America”. Franklin actually was so enamored of the bird that he was in favor of using the turkey as the national Bird, instead of the Bald Eagle. Thus, perhaps he is not the person to have suggested it as a centerpiece for the dinner-table.

And so, today, I have yet to meet an American who has any idea why Lincoln started the holiday, why they are asked to celebrate the image of Indians and Pilgrims, or even why they are eating a native bird.

Presidents as Poets

The US Library of Congress has launched an interesting site called “Presidents as Poets“, which has information about the following men:

  • George Washington
  • James Madison
  • John Quincy Adams
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Jimmy Carter

The collection includes an infamous poem attributed to Lincoln:

    To ease me of this power to think,
    That through my bosom raves,
    I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
    And wallow in its waves.

Haiku for today

Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, p. 190-191 (Translated from Swedish by Leif Sjoberg and W. H. Auden)

    Congenial to other people?
    It it with yourself
    That you must live.

    Denied any outlet,
    The heat transmuted
    The coal into diamonds.

    Alone in his secret growth,
    He found a kinship
    With all growing things.

The manuscript for the book was left by Hammarskjold to be published after his death. He was Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) when he died in an air crash on September 18, 1961 en route to negotiate a cease-fire between the UN and Katanya forces in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). I was introduced to his writings while studying the origins of the conflict.

Lessons from Guy Fawkes

Many years ago I rode through the English country-side with an Archaeologist (her house was filled with bones from the Mary Rose excavation) who pointed out the economic reasons for the hedge-rows, the meaning of every stained-glass window…and, as we passed the Holbeche House in Staffordshire, she told me the end of the Gunpowder Plot.

Even though I had spent some time in rural Devonshire (with people who said getting “pissed” on home-made hard cider and dancing half-naked with a burning barrel of hot tar on their back is one of the highlights of the year) I was not prepared for the reality of the Guy Fawkes story.

It was one thing to think about the Gunpowder Plot as just another excuse for lighting bonfires and having a party, but bearing witness to the house where the men who gave themselves up were shot, well, that was a different story entirely. The fact was a handful of men who wanted to end the opressive treatment of non-Protestants very nearly killed the King and all his successors. Not long after I couldn’t help but think it odd that the English celebrate a failed coup attempt essentially the same way that the US celebrates independence. Actually, maybe it would be more fitting to compare the Fawkes ritual to Burning Man, since Bonfire Night (supoosedly to celebrate a King’s survival) usually involves burning an effigy along with the fireworks.

Guy Fawkes

Anyway, the BBC has posted some interesting reports this year that make the obvious comparison to today’s fear of terrorism:

    “A plot to blow up the houses of parliament, with the monarch and politicians inside, has just failed. What can the government do to restore calm? Four hundred years ago the authorities in England faced exactly this question when they foiled a plot by disillusioned Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament.”

Many have suggested that Fawkes was tortured extensively and some say his shaky signature (Guido Fawkes) is sufficient proof. But the BBC quotes a historian from Cambridge who says “Victims often tell you what you want to hear, whereas the torturer – especially in this particular case – wants the facts. Torture isn’t the only or indeed the best way of getting at those facts. The authorities in 1605 knew that, and used other techniques to win secrets.”

End of the line for London’s Buses

I find it quite sad that the historic “Routemaster” red double-deckers are being put out to pasture, instead of updated and maintained as part of London’s heritage and gift to the world of transportation.

Something about the trust model of an open back entry space always intrigued me, as well as the fact that the driver was in a completely different role than the ticket-taker (similar to a train). I have known several people who spent their early years serving in either or both roles (rural routes often only employed a driver) and they shared many funny anecdotes about the security system used to keep passengers honest. In some sense the group of passengers themselves provided a baseline of behavior and could intervene if someone was out of line. I suspect it is the opposite today, with a driver relying on a surveillance system and virtual law enforcement techniques to protect the passengers from themselves.

There are some legitimate issue with the 50-year old design, which probably could have been improved. Similar to historic buildings that are updated and retrofitted to modern standards, at least some of these buses deserve to continue their services rather than be deprecated and wholly replaced by a series of economically driven short-term visions of the future. Fortunately, it appears a group is working on just that kind of mission, which they call the Heritage route.

Incidentally, London is scheduled to host an international transport security conference in central London, November 13-15, 2005. I wonder if anyone will cover the issue of domestic and secure fuel sources? With all the greasy fish-and-chip shops, one would think England’s public fuel supply-chain could be dramatically improved.