History Articles

History of Ash Wednesday: Where does the Ash come from?

February 17, 2021 /
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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: Why is it called Fat Tuesday?

February 16, 2021 /
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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: Ahead of Mardi Gras

February 15, 2021 /
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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: More than just Washington and Lincoln?

February 14, 2021 /
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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

washington.gifWhen 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

February 13, 2021 /
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St. Valentine

St. Valentine

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.

History of the Fourth Estate: The Press

February 11, 2021 /
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When you hear about The Fourth Estate, it usually means The Press.

  • Where did the term Fourth Estate come from?
  • What do we mean by The Press, and how has it changed in modern times?

I conclude with a cautionary tale from early U.S. history.


Origin of The Fourth Estate

The term estates is a European word that refers to a great power in the political life of a nation. It goes back to the separation of powers during the Roman Republic. In modern usage, the term is first attributed to Lord Brougham in 1823 while he was addressing the British Parliament, or to Thomas Macaulay, who in an 1824 essay wrote:

“The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.”

The idea is that the Fourth Estate could act as a counter-power to the three powers of the State. This counter-power reported, verified, and questioned various matters of governance, both public and commercial, that the other powers exercised. It was non-partisan, neutral, unbiased, and untouchable by the other estates. (more…)

History of Chinese New Year

February 9, 2021 /
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This weekend marks the beginning of Chinese New Year. This is the oldest, longest, and most important social and economic holiday in China. Chinese New Year, which begins the first day of the Chinese lunisolar calendar. It starts this year on February 12, though the celebrations continue for around two weeks. Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival and ends with the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese calendar.

It is celebrated across China as a national holiday and in many other parts of Asia with people of Chinese descent. About 20-25% of the planet observes this holiday. In the West, it roughly corresponds to the end of the winter season and the beginning of Carnival.

Chinese New Year is the largest annual human migration in the world. More than 400 million people are expected to travel during the holiday period, half that number in the Chinese mainland, almost four times as many as during the US holiday season. The Chunyun period, or the Spring Festival travel season typically starts 15 days before Lunar New Year’s Day and can last for 40 days. Some believe with the criss-crossing travel, 3 billion trips will be taken. Last year Chunyun lasted from January 10 to February 18.


History of the Super Bowl: Just another Religious Holiday?

February 7, 2021 /
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Super Bowl


The Super Bowl™ is a territory acquisition athletic contest played on a fixed agrarian grid using, as a token, an inflated porcine prolate spheroid. It is the most important holiday of the year in America some will say. While it is ostensibly a secular holiday, others argue that it is truly a religious holiday. And there are several reasons why. It has:

  • A liturgy
  • Multiple prayers
  • Special foods
  • Formal rituals that have developed throughout history


History of The Beatles

February 7, 2021 /
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The Beatles

The Beatles arrive in NYC at JFK


On February 7, 1964, The Beatles landed at JFK Airport in New York. The airport had recently been renamed by a mourning country in honor of President Kennedy, who had been assassinated just 77 days earlier. The airport was now full of 4,000 greeters.

Not realizing why there was such a crowd, Paul McCartney wondered aloud, “Who is this for?” as the screaming fans rushed the gates to meet The Beatles. Two days later, on Sunday night, they would appear for their first of three consecutive Sunday night appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.


First American Record Album

Meet The Beatles was the first record album I ever bought. A monochrome cover and a dozen monophonic songs opened with the clap-track augmented I Want To Hold Your Hand, then followed by I Saw Her Standing There, both were already massive hits in the US. To get a glimpse of the kind of cultural impact it had in America,– and the value of a clap-track — watch the Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do.”


History of Peter Pan: the Story Behind the Disney Classic

February 5, 2021 /
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All of this has happened before,
and it will all happen again.

So begins my favorite Walt Disney animated movie, Peter Pan, which debuted 68 years ago today on February 5, 1953. The original movie poster said:

“It will live in your heart forever”

…and indeed it has. Why was this turn-of-the-century tale one of Disney’s favorite stories?


History of The Day The Music Died

February 3, 2021 /
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On February 3, 1959, a plane crash occurred in Iowa during a snowstorm shortly after 1 am which killed three young rock and roll singers who would go down in history: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

Their story would later be captured as “long, long time ago” in the 8 1/2 minute hit song “American Pie” by Don McLean, released twelve years later in 1971.

Many attempts have been made to decrypt the lyrics of this abstract song. Though never explicitly stated — except that the song is dedicated to Buddy Holly — these musicians appear to represent:

the three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost… the day the music died.


History of Groundhog Day

February 2, 2021 /
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Groundhog Day comes from Candlemas Day, observed for centuries in parts of Europe on February 2, where the custom was to have the clergy bless candles — representing how long winter would be — and distribute them to the people.

This seems to have derived from the pagan celebration of Imbolc — the Feast of the goddess Bridget, or in Christian Ireland St. Bridget’s Day and, alternatively, “The Purification of the Virgin” commemorating the time when St. Mary presented Jesus at the Temple at Jerusalem.

It comes at the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The Roman Legions, it is said, originally brought the tradition to the Germans.