Don’t Know Much About@ Halloween–The Hidden History

When I was a kid in the early 1960s, the autumn social calendar was highlighted by the Halloween party in our church. In these simpler day, the kids all bobbed for apples and paraded through a spooky “haunted house” in homemade costumes –Daniel Boone replete with coonskin caps for the boys; tiaras and fairy princess wands for the girls. It was safe, secure and innocent.
The irony is that our church was a Congregational church — founded by the Puritans of New England. The same people who brought you the Salem Witch Trials.
Here’s a link to a history of those Witch Trials in 1692.

Rooted in pagan traditions more than 2000 years old, Halloween grew out of a Celtic Druid celebration that marked summer’s end. Called Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sow-een), it combined the Celts’ harvest and New Year festivals, held in late October and early November by people in what is now Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. This ancient Druid rite was tied to the seasonal cycles of life and death — as the last crops were harvested, the final apples picked and livestock brought in for winter stables or slaughter. Contrary to what some modern critics believe, Samhain was not the name of a malevolent Celtic deity but meant, “end of summer.”

The Celts also saw Samhain as a fearful time, when the barrier between the worlds of living and dead broke, and spirits walked the earth, causing mischief. Going door to door, children collected wood for a sacred bonfire that provided light against the growing darkness, and villagers gathered to burn crops in honor of their agricultural gods. During this fiery festival, the Celts wore masks, often made of animal heads and skins, hoping to frighten off wandering spirits. As the celebration ended, families carried home embers from the communal fire to re-light their hearth fires.

Getting the picture? Costumes, “trick or treat” and Jack-o-lanterns all got started more than two thousand years ago at an Irish bonfire.
Christianity took a dim view of these “heathen” rites. Attempting to replace the Druid festival of the dead with a church-approved holiday, the seventh-century Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor saints and martyrs. Then in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to remember the departed and pray for their souls. Together, the three celebrations –All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls Day– were called Hallowmas, and the night before came to be called All-hallows Evening, eventually shortened to “Halloween.”
And when millions of Irish and other Europeans emigrated to America, they carried along their traditions. The age-old practice of carrying home embers in a hollowed-out turnip still burns strong. In an Irish folk tale, a man named Stingy Jack once escaped the devil with one of these turnip lanterns. When the Irish came to America, Jack’s turnip was exchanged for the more easily carved pumpkin and Stingy Jack’s name lives on in “Jack-o-lantern.”

Halloween, in other words, is deeply rooted in myths –ancient stories that explain the seasons and the mysteries of life and death.

You can read more about ancient myths in the modern world in Don’t Know Much About Mythologymythology_cover_tilted

Ugly Campaigns Go Way Back

Think it’s bad now? How about being called a “whoremongering jacobin?”

“A Mormon and a Catholic Walk Into a Bar…”

Sounds like the opening line of a stand-up joke, doesn’t it?

The fact that a Mormon candidate for President and his Roman Catholic running mate seem to be attracting very little attention over their respective religions is almost news in itself. And good news. After all, the Constitution says,

 but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. (Article VI)

But in 1844, a Mormon and a Catholic certainly wouldn’t be running together for the top two offices in America. And if they walked into a bar in Philadelphia, they might get their teeth knocked out. Or worse.

That is the story I tell in this video about the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Bible Riots” of 1844 in the City of Brotherly Love.

We’d like to believe in that old “melting pot” myth of American religious freedom. But in fact, the nation’s history is riddled with religious intolerance –and it often reared its head in presidential politics. The “Christian Nation” fallacy is a subject I addressed in the article “Why US Is Not a Christian Nation,” published on July 4, 2011 –but as timely as ever.


A Nation Rising (Harper)

The story of the “Bible Riots” is told in greater detail in A NATION RISING.

The subject of religion and the presidency is also explored in my forthcoming book Don ‘t Know Much About® the American Presidents, available on September 18.

Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents
(September 18, 2012-Hyperion Books)

Don’t Know Much About Melville

In honor of the first U.S publication of Moby-Dick on November 14, 1851, a quick post on  Herman Melville.

In New York’s West Village, where I live, the streets are filled with literary “ghosts” –reminders of the great writers who lived and worked in this historic district of New York. Every day that I walk around the neighborhood, is like getting a literary education. It’s one of reasons I love to live here.

Nearby is Grove Street, which is where Tom Paine once lived. They say the locals called it “Raisin Street” back then because Paine had recently written the Age of Reason –its French raison sounded like “raisin.”
And around the corner from Grove is winding, narrow Commerce Street and the Cherry Lane Theater, where Waiting for Godot had its premiere.

But one of my favorites is Herman Melville, who worked in the Customs House on Gansevoort Street –in what is now the white hot center of the “Meatpacking District.”

Melville’s early success did not last and he took the Customs House job to make a living. He died on September 28, 1891, in New York City. His unpublished work, the novella Billy Budd was discovered after his death and published in 1924, 33 years after his death.

Find out more about Melville at his home in the Berkshires, Arrowhead and the Melville Society

Flag Day and Mr. Madison’s War

America  is preparing to mark the 200th anniversary of one of the most unnecessary and avoidable wars in its history– the War of 1812, or “Mr. Madison’s War,” declared by Congress  on June 18, 1812.

It is also appropriate to note that today  – June 14– is Flag Day, the day that the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the nation’s flag in 1777. These two landmarks come together because it was during the War of 1812 that America got the words that eventually became its national anthem –with music borrowed from an old English drinking song. Almost from the outset, the song has been butchered at baseball games and Super Bowls.

At war with England for the second time since 1776,  the United States was ill-prepared for fighting and the British were preoccupied with a war with France. So it was a fitful few years of war.

But the conflict  produced an iconic American moment in September 1814.  Francis Scott Key was an attorney attempting to negotiate the return of a civilian prisoner held by the British who had just burned Washington DC and had set their sights on Baltimore. As the British attacked the city, Key watched the naval bombardment from a ship in Baltimore’s harbor. In the morning, he could see that the Stars and Stripes still flew over Fort McHenry. Inspired, he wrote the lyrics that we all know –well, at least some of you probably know some of them.

But here’s what they didn’t tell you:

Yes, Washington, D.C. was burned by the British  in 1814, including the President’s Mansion which would later get a fresh coat of paint and come to be called the “White House.” But Washington was torched in retaliation for the burning of York –now Toronto—in Canada earlier in the war.

Yes, Key wrote words. But the music comes from an old English drinking song. Good thing it wasn’t 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. Here’s a link to the original lyrics of the drinking song To Anacreon in Heaven  (via Poem of the Week).

The Star Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1916 when President Wilson declared it by Executive Order. But that didn’t really count. In 1931, it became the National Anthem by Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover.,

Now here are two other key –no pun intended– events related to Flag Day, June 14:

•In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that  schoolchildren could not be compelled to salute the flag if it conflicted with their religious beliefs

•In 1954 on Flag Day, President Eisenhower signed the law that added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

 Learn more about Fort McHenry, Key and the Flag that inspired the National Anthem from the National Park Service.

The images and music in this video are courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History which has excellent resources on the flag that inspired Key.

This version of the anthem is on 19th century instruments:

The history of the War of 1812, including a Timeline of major events, is explored in greater depth in the Anniversary edition of Don’t Know Much About History, now available in paperback.

Don't Know Much About History (Anniversary Edition, paperback)


Don’t Know Much About® Memorial Day

(Images Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Flanders Cemetery image Courtesy of the American Battle Monuments Commission)

Every year at this time, I spend a lot of time talking about the roots and traditions of Memorial Day.

It’s not about the barbecue or the Mattress Sales. Obscured by the holiday atmosphere around Memorial Day is the fact that it is the most solemn day on the national calendar. This video tells a bit about the history behind the holiday.

One way to mark Memorial Day is by simply reading the Gettysburg Address. Here is a link to the Library of Congress and its page on the Address:

I also discussed Memorial Day in a previous post.

Have a memorable Memorial Day

When Irish Eyes Were Not Smiling-The Bible Riots

It is the day for the “wearing of the green,” parades and an unfortunate connection between being Irish and imbibing. For the day, everybody feels “a little Irish.”

But it was not always a happy go lucky virtue to be Irish in America. Once upon a time, the Irish –and specifically Irish Catholics– were vilified by the majority in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. The Irish were considered the dregs by “Nativist” Americans who leveled at Irish immigrants all of the insults and charges typically aimed at every hated immigrant group: they were lazy, uneducated, dirty, disease-ridden, a criminal class who stole jobs from Americans. And dangerous. The Irish were said to be plotting to overturn the U.S. government and install the Pope in a new Vatican.

One notorious chapter in the hidden history of Irish-Americans is left out of most textbook– the violently anti-Catholic, anti-Irish “Bible Riots” of 1844.

In May 1844, Philadelphia –the City of Brotherly Love– was torn apart by a series of bloody riots. Known as the “Bible Riots,” they grew out of the vicious anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment that was so widespread in 19th century America. Families were burned out of their homes. Churches were destroyed. And more than two dozen people died in one of the worst urban riots in American History.

The story of the “Bible Riots” is another untold tale that I explore in my book A NATION RISING


A Nation Rising: A Video Q&A with Author Kenneth C. Davis

(Originally recorded in May 2010)


“With his special gift for revealing the significance of neglected historical characters, Kenneth Davis creates a multilayered, haunting narrative. Peeling back the veneer of self-serving nineteenth-century patriotism, Davis evokes the raw and violent spirit not just of an ‘expanding nation,’ but of an emerging and aggressive empire.”

-Ray Raphael, author of Founders

The World is a Pear: Columbus Day

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
We all remember that. But after that basic date, things get a little fuzzy. Here’s what they didn’t tell you–
Most educated people knew that the world was not flat.
Columbus never set foot in what would become America.
Christopher Columbus made four voyages to the so-called New World. And his discoveries opened an astonishing era of exploration and exploitation. His arrival marked the beginning of the end for tens of millions of Native Americans spread across two continents.
Once a hero. Now a villain.
You can read more about Christopher Columbus, his voyages and their impact on American history in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About Geography.

The story of “Isabella’s Pigs,” and the role of Queen Isabella in the making of the New World, is depicted in America’s Hidden History

Don't Know Much About@ History: Anniversary Edition

Labor Pains: A Don’t Know Much About Minute

The end of summer, a three-day weekend, burgers on the grill, and a back-to-school shopping spree, right? And the most important question, “Can I still wear white?”

But very few people associate Labor Day with a turbulent time in American History. That’s what Labor Day is really about. The holiday was born during the violent union-busting days of the late 19th century, when sweat shop conditions killed children, when there was no minimum wage and when going on vacation meant you were out of work.

If you like holidays, benefits and a five-day, 40-hour work week, you need to know about Labor Day.

When Labor Day was signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894, it was a bone tossed to the labor movement. And it was deliberately placed in September to ensure that it would not recall the memory of the deadly rioting at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in May 1886. Europe’s workers, and later the Communist Party, adopted May Day as a worker’s holiday to commemorate the deadly Haymarket Sqaure Riot which came about during a strike against thee McCormack Reaper Company.

Although Labor Day did become federal law in 1894, most of labor’s successes –the minimum wage, overtime, the end of child labor – did not come about until the Depression-era reforms of the New Deal.

Labor Day was created to celebrate the “strength and spirit of the American worker.” But this holiday should remind us that — like so many things we take for granted — those victories for working people came at great cost, in blood, sweat and tears.

For more on the history of Haymarket Square, here is a link to the Chicago Historical Society’s web project.

“American Experience,” the PBS documentary series, produced a Homestead Strike piece as part of its film about Andrew Carnegie.

You can read more about the history of the trade union movement in Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition.

Don't Know Much About@ History: Anniversary Edition