HISTORY OF MARCH
The month that can come in “like a lion and out like a lamb” is named after Mars, the Roman god of war (and agriculture). Indeed, in French, the month is called Mars. March, or Martius as it was known in ancient Rome, is the first month of Spring and was considered a favorable season for travel, planting, or beginning a military campaign.
March 1st in the Northern hemisphere marks the beginning of the meteorological Spring and was the original New Year’s Day of Rome until at least 153 B.C. when it was changed to December or January under different Roman rulers. Some parts of Europe continued to use March as the beginning of the year until the 16th century and Great Britain and her colonies into the 18th century when the West changed the calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
As I mentioned in my first article on the History of Amazing Grace, this is the story of the lives of two men and that one song. In the first part, we discussed the life of the song’s author John Newton. The 2007 film “Amazing Grace,” however, is about the life of one of Newton’s protégés, William Wilberforce.
Wilberforce was a man well known to the Framing Fathers of the American Revolution. He became in his day, not just a politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist, but also a writer of such popularity at the time as C.S. Lewis was in the 20th century.
William Wilberforce was born to privilege and wealth in 18th century England and though physically challenged, worked for nearly 20 years to push through Parliament a bill for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire 200 years ago.
Early Life of William Wilberforce
Born in 1759 in Hull in Yorkshire, upon his father’s death in 1768, he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Wimbledon. While there, he came into contact with the great evangelist George Whitefield. He was also influenced by the former slave-trading sea captain, pastor John Newton. However, his mother and grandfather wanted him away from Newton’s influence, which they thought was too evangelical and “Methodist,” much too enthusiastic for respectable Anglicans, and returned him to Hull.
Following private school, Wilberforce took both his B.A. and M.A. at St. John’s College in Cambridge — where he began a lasting friendship with the future Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. Still, Wilberforce was not a serious student, and he was given to late nights of drinking, gambling, and card playing.
At the youngest age at which one could be elected, at 21, he was elected to Parliament. He was noted for his charm and eloquence; indeed, his phenomenal rhetorical skill caused the young Prime Minister William Pitt to later challenge Wilberforce with a considerable undertaking — the abolition of slavery. (more…)
On February 23, 1807, the British parliament passing a bill banning the nation’s slave trade. In these two articles, we’ll explore the lives of two men and one song that played a large role in that effort.
John Newton‘s devoted Christian mother dreamed that her only son would grow up to become a preacher. But he lost his mother when he was six years old, and at the age of eleven followed his sea-captain father to the sea. He did not take to the discipline of the Royal Navy and deserted ship, was flogged, and eventually discharged.
In looking for greater liberty, he ended up on the western coast of Africa in Sierra Leone, where he worked for a slave trader who mistreated him and made him a virtual slave of the trader’s black wife, who had descended from African royalty. At this time, he was described as
“a wretched-looking man toiling in a plantation of lemon trees in the Island of Plantains… clothes had become rags, no shelter and begging for unhealthy roots to allay his hunger.”
After more than a year of such treatment, he escaped the island by appealing to his father in 1747. (more…)
In the Western church, the first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday from the ceremonial use of ashes, as a symbol of penitence, in the service prescribed for the day. It follows Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday, and ends 40 days later, not counting Sundays, with Easter.
It is practiced by Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Anglican denominations, and by Roman Catholics and some Baptists. The Eastern Church practices the Great Lent during the 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter. The ash represents repentance and a reminder of death. The 40 days represent the duration of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
The ashes, obtained by burning the remains of the palm branches blessed on the previous Palm Sunday, are placed in a vessel on the altar and consecrated before High Mass. The priest then invites those present to approach and, dipping his thumb in the ashes, marks them as they kneel with the sign of the cross on the forehead, with the words:
Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.
HISTORY OF MARDI GRAS
In French, Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” and is celebrated the day after Shrove Monday and the day before Ash Wednesday as a last “fling” before the 40 days of self-denial of Lent which precede Easter. Lent is a word that comes from the Middle English word “lente” which means “springtime” — so named for the season of the year in which it usually occurs. While the practice of Lent is not mentioned in the Bible, it has been a tradition in the Christian world since the mid 4th century. It seems to parallel the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness that Jesus experienced following his baptism at the Jordan River.
Origin of Mardi Gras
Historically, Lenten fasting became mandatory, especially abstinence from eating meat. While recommended by St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in his Festal Letter III to his flock in Egypt in 331 AD, by the Middle Ages Lent was enforced throughout Europe, especially the forbidding of meat during the final weeks before Easter.
HISTORY OF SHROVE MONDAY
The Monday before Ash Wednesday is known as Shrove Monday. The three days before Ash Wednesday is also known as “Shrovetide,” starting with Quinquagesima Sunday and ending on Shrove Tuesday, known more popularly as Mardi Gras. Quinquagesima meant the fiftieth day before Easter, or specifically the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday which marked the beginning of Lent.
Shrove is the past tense of shrive and is an Old English word meaning “to repent.” Repentance from sin was a common practice during this season.
The Royal Shrovetide Football Match is typically played on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England tracing back to the time of Henry II in the 12th century (think of the play/movie “The Lion in Winter.”)
HISTORY OF PRESIDENTS DAY
During my lifetime, two American holidays got consolidated into one. In 1971, a day between both Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22 became a single holiday, Presidents Day — alternately spelled President’s Day or Presidents’ Day — to be observed on the third Monday in February, to honor all the past Presidents of the United States.
Presidents Day History
When I was a schoolchild, both Washington’s and Lincoln’s pictures were typically displayed prominently in school rooms. School children in many states have felt cheated out of an extra day off of school ever since with the two Presidents’ birthdays being combined into only one holiday. Is this a way of consolidating holidays for advertisers for “Presidents Day Sales?” Indeed, some state and local governments observe it as Presidents Day. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 established more three-day weekends.
Nevertheless, Washington’s Birthday is still observed by U.S. Federal employees, though it rarely falls on Washington’s actual birthday. His birthday was officially recognized as a holiday back in 1885. Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 is not a Federal holiday, though some states observe it, going back to 1873 or 1874 in Buffalo, NY.
HISTORY OF ST. VALENTINE’S DAY
St. Valentine was martyred on February 14. However, Valentine or Valentinus is the name of at least three martyred saints. The most celebrated are the two martyrs whose festivals fall on February 14. One was a Roman priest, the other, bishop of Terni.
It would appear from legend that both lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius II (Gothicus) around 270; both died on the same day. Both were buried on the Via Flaminia but at different distances from the city of Rome. A third Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of North Africa about whom little is known.
This Claudius the Cruel had banned his soldiers from getting married, believing that unmarried members were more reliable on foreign military campaigns. Valentine was beaten and beheaded because he secretly married soldiers to their wives, contrary to the ban.
It seems that the first celebration of the Feast of St. Valentine was declared to be on February 14 by Pope Gelasius I in 496. Valentine is the patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, and the plague, fainting, and traveling.
And, of course, he’s also the patron saint of engaged couples and happy marriages. Many authorities believe that the lovers’ festival associated with St. Valentine’s day comes from the belief that this is the day in Spring when birds begin their mating. But there is another view.