History Articles

History of Guy Fawkes

November 4, 2005 / 0 Comments
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HISTORY OF GUY FAWKES

For our friends across the Pond

November 5th is known as “Bonfire Night” or “Guy Fawkes Night”, and all over Britain people fire off fireworks, light bonfires, and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. Guido Fawkes was an Englishman who, in popular legend, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. He was caught, imprisoned, tortured on the rack, and finally executed, as we’ll see.

400 years ago, Guy Fawkes was a co-conspirator in the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 in England. He and his cohorts decided to blow up the both Houses of Parliament in London and kill King James I upon the inaugural opening of the Parliament, and succeeded in smuggling several barrels of gunpowder into the basement of the Parliament.

This “Gunpowder Plot” occurred two years after King James I (of the “King James Bible” fame) ascended to the throne. A group of English Catholics, of which Guido Fawkes was a member, decided to kill the King because it was felt he had reneged on his promises to stop the persecution of Catholics. To this day, it is the law in Britain that a Roman Catholic cannot hold the office of monarch. And the Queen is still Supreme Head of the Church of England.
The plot was foiled at the eleventh hour; some of the plotters escaped, some turned King’s Evidence and reported on the rest. The unlucky Fawkes was taken in chains to the Tower of London. He was hanged, drawn and quartered. After Guy was hanged, he was torn asunder and drug through the streets of London behind a horse cart. The charge was treason, though some people in England prefer to remember Guy as “the only man ever to enter Parliament with honourable intentions.”

To this day, one of the ceremonies that accompany the opening of a new session of parliament, is the searching of the basement, by a bunch of men in funny hats. Parliament somehow made political capital out of the close call, and poor Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy every November 5th on bonfires all over Britain. They sell a lot of fireworks too, and children beg for money on the streets to buy them. The children usually exhibit the “guy” or dummy that will be put on the fire. “Penny for the guy, mister?” is a common refrain at this time of year.

In the last dozen years or so however, with the pervasiveness of American television and culture in England, the custom of celebrating Halloween is in the ascendancy, and many children are now going for the double treat: candy on October 31, money for November 5.

Bill Petro – your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of October 31

October 30, 2005 / 0 Comments
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HISTORY OF OCTOBER 31

On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg 95 propositions or theses and marked the beginning of the Reformation. Of course, the Reformation began long before that, but this date proves to be a convenient coat hanger to mark the beginning of Protestantism. But the 95 Theses were not intended as a call to reformation and it is the story behind this event that proves so fascinating, and shows the real purpose of the 95 Theses.

Prince Albert wanted the archbishopric of Mainz. (You may know Mainz as the home of a goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg, who had developed the uniform-sized movable type printing press 60 years earlier.) Because Albert was less than 25 years old, the office of archbishop would cost him $500,000. Pope Leo X, who was financing the building of St. Peter’s in Rome (for $46 million) suggested that Albert borrow the money from the wealthy Fugger banking family. Albert was able to secure half the funds from the Fuggers, and for the rest he sold indulgences. An indulgence was a document which freed the holder from the temporal penalty of sin. The sale of indulgences, introduced during the Crusades, remained a favored source of papal income. In exchange for a meritorious work – frequently, a contribution to a worthy cause or a pilgrimage to a shrine – the church offered the sinner exemption from his acts of penance by drawing upon its “treasury of merits.” This consisted of the grace accumulated by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the meritorious deeds of the saints. In Castle Church at Wittenberg for example, it was believed that the relics (bones of saints, etc.) were reckoned to earn a remission for pilgrims of 1,902,202 years and 270 days.

When the Dominican John Tetzel came preaching through much of Germany on behalf of Albert, he boasted that for a contribution he would provide donors with an indulgence that would even apply beyond the grave and free souls from purgatory. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” went his jingle, “quickly the soul from purgatory springs”.

To Martin Luther, the professor of biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, Tetzel’s preaching was bad theology if not worse. Luther thought this practice was wholly unwarranted by Scripture, reason or tradition. It encouraged not repentance but mere payment. Luther promptly drew up 95 propositions or theses in Latin, following university custom, for a call to theological debate. Among other things, they argued that indulgences cannot remove guilt, do not apply to purgatory, and are harmful because they induce a false sense of security in the donor. The 95 Theses were not a general call to break with the Roman Catholic Church. The irony is that someone took the 95 Theses and translated them into German, the language of the common man. And with the aid of the printing press copies were distributed to the masses. This was the spark that ignited the Reformation.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Halloween

October 17, 2005 / 0 Comments
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HALLOWEEN

Halloween (Allhallows Even) is the evening of October 31. In its strictly religious aspect this occasion is known as the vigil of Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day, November 1, observed by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. In the fourth decade of the 8th century, Pope Gregory III assigned this date for celebrating the feast when he consecrated a chapel in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome to all the saints. Gregory IV extended the feast to the entire church in 834. In Latin countries the evening of October 31 is observed only as a religious occasion, but in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, ancient Halloween folk customs persist alongside the ecclesiastical observance.

Students of folklore believe that the popular customs of Halloween show traces of the Roman harvest festival of Pomona and of Druidism. These influences are inferred from the use of nuts and apples as traditional Halloween foods and from the figures of witches, black cats, and skeletons commonly associated with the occasion.

In pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic year ended on October 31, the eve of Samhain, and was celebrated with both religious and harvest rites. For the Druids, Samhain (pronounced: SOWin) was both the “end of summer” and a festival of the dead. The spirits of the departed were believed to visit their kinsmen in search of warmth and good cheer as winter approached. It was also an occasion when fairies, witches, and goblins terrified the populace. The agents of the supernatural were alleged to steal infants, destroy crops, and kill farm animals. Bonfires were lighted on hilltops on the eve of Samhain. The fires may have been lighted to guide the spirits of the dead to the homes of their kinsmen or to kill and ward off witches. In the City Center of modern day Dublinone can find signs advertising “Samhain Halloween” parties. Samhain is also the name for November in the modern Scots Gaelic and Irish languages.

During the middle ages when the common folk believed that witchcraft was devoted to the worship of Satan, this cult included periodic meetings, known as witches’ Sabbaths, which were allegedly given over to feasting and revelry. One of the most important Sabbaths as held on Halloween. Witches were alleged to fly to these meetings on broomsticks, accompanied by black cats who were their constant companions. Stories of these Sabbaths are the source of much folklore about Halloween.

Pranks and mischief were common on Halloween. Wandering groups of celebrants blocked doors of houses with carts, carried away gates and plows, tapped on windows, threw vegetables at doors, and covered chimneys with turf so that smoke could not escape. In some places boys and girls dressed in clothing of the opposite sex and, wearing masks, visited neighbors to play tricks. These activities generally resembled the harmful and mischievous behavior attributed to witches, fairies, and goblins. The contemporary “trick or treat” custom resembles an ancient Irish practice associated with Allhallows Eve. Groups of peasants went from house to house demanding food and other gifts in preparation for the evening’s festivities. Prosperity was assured for liberal donors and threats were made against stingy ones. These contributions were often demanded in the name of Muck Olla, an early Druid deity, or of St. Columb Cille, “dove of the Church” (also knownas St. Colomba) who was an Irish missionary to Scotland during the 6th century. In England some of the folk attributes of Halloween were assimilated by Guy Fawkes day celebrated on November 5. Consequently Halloween lost some of its importance there.

Immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland brought secular Halloween customs to the U.S., but the festival did not become popular in this country until the latter part of the 19th century. This may have been because it had long been popular with the Irish, who migrated here in large numbers after 1840. In America, though some churches observe Halloween with religious services, most people regard it as a secular festival. Other Protestant churches celebrate it as “Reformation Day”in commemoration of the date in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the95 Theses to the northern wooden door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Rosh Hashana

October 9, 2005 / 0 Comments
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ROSH HASHANA

Rosh HaShana designates the beginning of the Jewish new year. “Rosh” is Hebrew for “head” and Rosh HaShana refers to the head of the year on the 1st day of Tishri, the seventh month. Judaism has a solar/lunar calendar system, in which the lunar reckoning predominates. The first in the cycle of months is Nissan (which has nothing to do with the automobile manufacturer), the month in which Passover occurs. However, solar years are reckoned to begin at Rosh HaShana. The new year is heralded with the blowing of the “shofar” or ram’s horn by the “baal t’kiah” (meaning master of the shofar-blast). Some scholars have suggested (perhaps “speculated” would be a better word) that the Jews marked the beginning of the year at this time subsequent to the period of their Babylonian Captivity, in following with the Babylonian custom. It also marks the day on which God is said to begin examining the record of each person’s actions during the preceding year; Jews are called upon to take an “accounting of the soul” with the aim of correcting defects in one’s behavior — the ultimate goal is to help “repair the universe.” The audit is considered to end on Yom Kippur, on the 10th day of Tishri, which we will examine next time.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Patriot Day: 9-11-2001

September 9, 2005 / 0 Comments
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HISTORY OF PATRIOT DAY

With the following words and many others, President George W. Bush designated September 11 to be regarded as Patriot Day, or America Remembers:

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation

On this first observance of Patriot Day, we remember and honor those who perished in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We will not forget the events of that terrible morning nor will we forget how Americans responded in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in the skies over Pennsylvania — with heroism and selflessness; with compassion and courage; and with prayer and hope. We will always remember our collective obligation to ensure that justice is done, that freedom prevails, and that the principles upon which our Nation was founded endure.

The President inaugurated this observance on September 4, 2002 and repeated it the next year, following a joint resolution approved December 18, 2001 along with the US Congress, intending that it be firmly planted into the consciousness of the American people, and each year recalled to our memory “that more than 3,000 innocent people lost their lives when a calm September morning was shattered by terrorists driven by hatred and destruction.”

As the forth anniversary of this event occurs, what most people call September 11th or just 9-11, I am reminded of the article I wrote in the wake of it, and the one I wrote a year following. Should we remember these kind of events, recalling history? The words of the Oxford don C.S. Lewis are particularly relevant.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

– from “Learning in War-Time” (The Weight of Glory)

Lest we forget

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of Labor Day

August 23, 2005 / 0 Comments
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HISTORY OF LABOR DAY

Labor Day is the day we celebrate the process our mothers went through in order to deliver us at birth. Sorry, wrong holiday.

Labor Day is the day we celebrate the achievements of the American labor movement. While it is still disputed whether the holiday was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire, the leader of the Brotherhood of Carpenters, or Matthew Maguire, a machinist — observances of the holiday go back over a century.

The first Labor Day celebration was September 15, 1882 in New York City and was organized by the Central Labor Union. The legislature of New York first deliberated a bill to establishment a regular holiday, but Oregon was the first to pass it on February 21, 1887. It was first proposed as “a street parade to exhibit to the public the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

But it was on June 28, 1894 that Congress made the first Monday in September an official Labor Day holiday. In 1909 the Sunday preceding was designated as Labor Sunday, dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

History of the Holidays

August 23, 2005 / 0 Comments
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History of the HolidaysHISTORY OF THE HOLIDAYS

Welcome to this year’s edition of the History of the Holidays. I’m Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian. From now through the Spring or vernal equinox, we celebrate most of the major secular and sacred holidays. This is a series that recounts the history behind the major American holidays, some of the minor ones, and a few international ones as well.

Sacred and Secular

Many of the sacred holidays in our American “Judeo-Christian” heritage have secular associations, while many of the seemingly secular holidays actually have religious roots.

One example of the mixture of sacred and secular was that in ancient Rome the death and resurrection of Attis, the god of vegetation, was celebrated on March 24 and 25, corresponding to the vernal equinox.
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Future of the Moon

August 2, 2005 / 0 Comments
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FUTURE OF THE MOON

As a follow-up to my article commemorating landing on the moon in 1969, there is an interesting site here that shows what it will look like in the future:

In honor of the first manned Moon landing, which took place on July 20, 1969, we’ve added some NASA imagery to the Google Maps interface to help you pay your own visit to our celestial neighbor. Happy lunar surfing.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood futurist
www.billpetro.com

History of the 4th: Thomas Jefferson

June 30, 2005 / 0 Comments
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HISTORY OF THE 4th OF JULY: THOMAS JEFFERSON

Perhaps no one person is more associated with the 4th of July in American History than Thomas Jefferson, probably because he penned the immortal Declaration of Independence.

As my friend Clay Jenkinson says in his book Thomas Jefferson: Man of Light, “The Third President is the Muse of American life, the chief articulator of our national value system and our national self-identity. Jefferson was a man of almost unbelievable achievement: statesman, man of letters, architect, scientist, book collector, political strategist, and utopian visionary. But he is also a man of paradox: liberty-loving slaveholder, Indian-loving relocationist, publicly frugal and privately bankrupt, a constitutional conservative who bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803.” Even by 1782, as an admiring French visitor observed, Jefferson, “without having quitted his own country,” had become “an American who … is a musician, draftsman, astronomer, natural philosopher, jurist and a statesman.” He knew about crop rotation, Renaissance architecture, could dance a jig, play the fiddle, or tie an artery.

Though friends in their youth, disagreements separated Thomas Jefferson and our second President John Adams in later years. They were eventually reconciled toward their twilight years and though they never saw each other again after Adams left the White House to be replaced by Jefferson, in the last 14 years of their lives they exchanged 156 letters, some of them quite warm. This correspondence is generally regarded as the intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation and the most impressive correspondence between prominent statesmen.

They both died on the same day, July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, two of the last three signers. At the age of 91 John Adams collapsed in his favorite reading chair and died that afternoon, his last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” But Jefferson would have said “wrong, as usual.” In his last days his health had failed and he passed in and out of consciousness. On the 4th of July, 1826 just a few hours before Adams died — in his home in Monticello, Virginia — surrounded by his daughter and some special slaves, shortly after noon, at the age of 83, Thomas Jefferson died. His last words were, “Is it the 4th?”

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com/holidayhistory

Read more at: http://www.th-jefferson.org/home.html