(Earlier post updated 2/12/2021)
So What Day Is it After All?
Okay. We all do it. It’s printed on calendars and posted in bank windows. We mistakenly call the third Monday in February Presidents Day, in part because of all those commercials in which George Washington swings his legendary ax and “Rail-splitter” Abe Lincoln hoists his ax to chop down prices on everything from mattresses and linens to SUVs.
But, this February holiday is officially still George Washington’s Birthday –federally speaking that is.
The official designation of the federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February was, and still is, Washington’s Birthday.
But Washington’s Birthday has become widely known as Presidents Day (or President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day). The popular usage and confusion resulted from the merging of what had been two widely celebrated Presidential birthdays in February —Lincoln’s on February 12th, which was never a federal holiday– and Washington’s on February 22, which was.
Created under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which gave us three-day weekend Monday holidays, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is technically still Washington’s Birthday. But here’s the rub: the holiday can never land on Washington’s true birthday because the latest date it can fall is February 21, as it did in 2011.
There is a wealth of information about the First President at his home Mount Vernon.
Read More About the creation of the Presidency, Washington, his life and administration in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. Washington’s role in the American Revolution is highlighted Chapter One of THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR.
And George Washington’s role as a slaveowner is fully explored in IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
(Updated post: January 29, 2021)
America’s Poet, Robert Frost, died on January 29, 1963, in Boston. After his death, an unsigned editorial in the The New York Times, entitled “Ending in Wisdom,” noted:
Robert Frost was more than America’s best-known poet. He was a national figure, almost an institution, a man who went up and down the land saying his poems wherever, it sometimes seemed, two or three Americans were gathered together. He spoke in the language of the common man.
This is a brief video tribute to Robert Frost. (Originally published August 2009; video edited and created by Colin Davis. One correction: I no longer have a home in Vermont mentioned in the video, but have not lost my admiration for Robert Frost.)
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world
–Robert Frost’s epitaph
One of my favorite places in Vermont is the Frost grave-site in the cemetery of the First Church in Old Bennington -just down the street from the Bennington Monument. This video was recorded there.
Apples, birches, hayfields and stone walls; simple features like these make up the landscape of four-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Frost’s poetry. Known as a poet of New England, Frost (1874-1963) spent much of his life working and wandering the woods and farmland of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. As a young man, he dropped out of Dartmouth and then Harvard, then drifted from job to job: teacher, newspaper editor, cobbler. His poetry career took off during a three-year trip to England with his wife Elinor where Ezra Pound aided the young poet. Frost’s language is plain and straightforward, his lines inspired by the laconic speech of his Yankee neighbors.
But while poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” are accessible enough to make Frost a grammar-school favorite, his poetry is contemplative and sometimes dark—concerned with themes like growing old and facing death. One brilliant example is this poem about a young boy sawing wood, Out, out–
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
The first poet invited to speak at a Presidential inaugural, Frost told the new President:
Be more Irish than Harvard. Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age. Don’t be afraid of power.
Robert Frost died on January 29, 1963. He had written his own epitaph, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world,” etched on his headstone in a church cemetery in Bennington, VT.
This material is adapted from Don’t Know Much About Literature written in collaboration with Jenny Davis.
As the world prepares to mark “International Holocaust Remembrance Day” on January 27, it is a reminder that the date marks the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps by Soviet forces. And that is another grim reminder of what the Nuremberg Trials were about.
The Nuremberg Trials — A Don’t Know Much About® Audiominute
75 years ago on November 20, 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, the first trials of Nazi war criminals began. This military tribunal, the Nuremberg Trials, as they came to be known, was convened by the four victorious Allies—Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Listen to this audiominute.
That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.
What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power.
-United States Prosecutor Robert Jackson, Opening Statement (11/22/1945)
This is a timeline of the Nuremberg Trials from the Robert H. Jackson Center.
These resources on the Nuremberg Trials are from the Library of Congress.
(Originally posted on 1/24/2013; revised 1/24/2021)
You may have been assigned to read Ethan Frome in high school. Or you have read or seen the grand dramas of New York Society, House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence. That’s how you know the name Edith Wharton.
Born in New York City, January 24, 1862: Edith Newbold Jones, who achieved fame as Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 (for The Age of Innocence).
But the other lesser-known aspect of Wharton’s life is her experience in France during World War I, where she founded hospitals and refugee centers for women and children.
Romance, scandal and ruin among New York socialites—long before this was the stuff of People, and “Gossip Girl,” it was the subject matter for Edith Wharton’s most famous works. In such novels as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton painted detailed, acid portraits of high society life. In doing so, she created heartbreaking conflicts beneath the façade of wealth and manners. Again and again, characters like Newland Archer and Lily Bart were forced to choose between conforming to social expectations and pursuing true love and happiness. Her most famous work set outside the realm of high-tone New York was Ethan Frome (1911), set in wintry, rural Massachusetts.
Wharton had spent years in Europe as a child and teenager. But she moved to France in 1910 while war in Europe was on the horizon and her marriage to socialite Teddy Wharton deteriorated.
Once the war broke out, she also wrote urging the United States to join the war. Then she saw the hardship caused as the fighting that tore across Europe starting in August 1914 created masses of refugees.
American novelist Edith Wharton set up workshops for women all over Paris, making clothes for hospitals as well as lingerie for a fashionable clientele. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for refugees and tuberculosis sufferers and ran a rescue committee for the children of Flanders, whose towns were bombarded by the Germans. Her friend and fellow author Henry James called her the “great generalissima”.
Source: Radio France International: “Edith Wharton-The American novelist who joined France’s WWI effort”
She started in her neighborhood with sewing workshops that eventually employed more than 800 women, opened hostels for tuberculosis patients and refugee children, hosted benefit concerts, sent dispatches from the war front.
In the first year of her work, her Children of Flanders Rescue Committee could record:
Refugees assisted: 9,229
Meals served: 235,000
Refugees for whom employment has been found: 3,400
Garments distributed: 48,333
For her wartime work, in 1916 Wharton was awarded France’s highest decoration – a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.
Think you know your Wharton? Try this quick quiz–
TRUE or FALSE (Quiz adapted from Don’t Know Much About® Literature, written with Jenny Davis. Answers below)
1. Edith Wharton wrote about wealthy New Yorkers to escape the poverty of her own upbringing.
2. Though Edith Wharton was unhappily married, she could not get divorced because it was socially unacceptable.
3. In addition to her fiction, Wharton published several books on interior decorating and landscaping.
The Mount is Wharton’s restored home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
The Edith Wharton Collection of manuscripts, correspondence and photographs is housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
1. FALSE. Wharton was born to wealthy New Yorkers, and summered in Newport, Rhode Island. She grew up traveling through Europe, and was educated by private tutors. After an official debut into society, she married a rich banker twelve years her senior.
2. FALSE. She divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.
3. TRUE. Her first book was The Decoration of Houses, establishing her fame as a writer. She also wrote about Italian landscaping and architecture in Italian Villas and Their Gardens, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.
[Repost; originally posted 7/26/2013]
Today (January 22, 2021), Lloyd Austin III, a retired general, was confirmed by the Senate as defense secretary, becoming the the first Black Pentagon chief.
This historic landmark is a reminder that on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an Executive Order that ended official discrimination in the United States military.
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.
Coming in an election year, it was a daring move by Truman, who still needed the support of southern segregationists. It was also a controversial decision that led to the forced retirement of the Secretary of the Army when he refused to desegregate the Army.
As historical documents go, “Executive Order 9981” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Emancipation Proclamation” or “New Deal.” But when President Harry S. Truman issued this Executive Order, he helped transform the country. This order began the gradual official process of desegregating America’s armed forces, which was a groundbreaking step for the American civil rights movement.
It is worth noting that many of the arguments made at the time against integration of the armed services — unit cohesion, morale of the troops, discipline in the ranks– were also made about the question of homosexuals serving in the military, a policy effectively ended when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was overturned in 2011.
In a Defense Department history of the integration of the Armed Forces, Brigadier General James Collins Jr. wrote in 1980:
The integration of the armed forces was a momentous event in our military and national history…. The experiences in World War II and the postwar pressures generated by the civil rights movement compelled all the services –Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps — to reexamine their traditional practices of segregation. While there were differences in the ways that the services moved toward integration, all were subject to the same demands, fears, and prejudices and had the same need to use their resources in a more rational and economical way. All of them reached the same conclusion: traditional attitudes toward minorities must give way to democratic concepts of civil rights.
Here is the text of the Executive Order 9981 (Source: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum; dated July 26, 1948)
(First published in January 2020; re-posted 1/15/2021)
Marking the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, many people will read or hear his most famous speech, the “I have a dream” speech delivered in Washington, D.C. in August 1963.
Nearly five years after the celebrated 1963 rally, and just days before his death, Dr. King delivered his final Sunday sermon at National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. King’s words that day may not have the familiar ring of “I have a dream.”
Preparing to lead the “Poor People’s Campaign” into Washington later that spring, he addressed three central issues.
He spoke first about racial equality, the glimmers of progress that had been made in five years, and the promises still to be kept. Then he turned to poverty, hunger and inadequate housing in what he called “the richest nation in the world.” This was, after all, going to be the “Poor People’s Campaign.” King knew that economic injustice could be colorblind.
But there was a third piece of Dr. King’s vision. On that day in 1968, as the war in Vietnam raged and American opposition to that war mounted, Dr. King said,
“Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution.”
Guided by Thoreau, Gandhi and his own Christianity, King’s belief in nonviolence and the use of civil disobedience were central to his movement’s push for racial justice. But his unflinching opposition to the war in Vietnam tends to be shunted to the sidelines when discussing King’s legacy. Certainly when he first voiced his opposition to the war, his was not a popular stance. Accused of taking the “Commie” line, Dr. King acknowledged that his antiwar views were hurting the movement and his organization.
“There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular,” he told the thousands who packed the Cathedral. “… I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We ain’t goin’ study war no more.’”
Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (Retrieved September 2, 2013)
Ironically, King’s “other speech” was overshadowed. Later that evening, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to a national television audience that he was withdrawing from the presidential race. The weight of the war and the growing opposition to it had combined to force Johnson from his quest for another term. And a few days later, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis.
Those who wish to remember Dr. King’s impact and ideas must recall more than a gauzy, feel-good rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” It is mere lip service to trumpet King’s “Dream” without acknowledging the other piece of his call to conscience:
“Simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed.”
(Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute Retrieved September 2, 2013)
I am reposting this from November. First came the scenes of thugs in Washington, D.C. vandalizing a church and beating passersby.
Then came Wednesday January 6, 2021 – a new day of infamy.
It was just one failure in a dizzying list that day — and during the weeks leading up to it — that resulted in the first occupation of the United States Capitol since British troops set the building ablaze during the War of 1812. But the death and destruction this time was caused by Americans, rallying behind the inflammatory language of an American president, who refused to accept the will of more than 81 million other Americans who had voted him out of office.
These events only bring Hitler’s Brownshirts and the events of November 1938 into sharper focus. We can’t say “never again” and not mean it.
On November 9th and 10th in 1938, an outburst of anti-Semitic violence swept across Hitler’s Germany.
An audio lesson on “Kristallnacht.”
Read more about Hitler’s Germany in Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy
(Revision of post first published 12.11.2o13. But it never gets old.)
It’s that time of year. Cue the lights, decorations, music.… and the “War on Christmas.”
Proclaiming a secular assault on the religious significance of the holiday has become a seasonal tradition, just like the Macy’s Parade with Santa Claus. Saying “Merry Christmas” has been a staple of conservative talk show hosts for years and part of America’s political culture wars..
The basic premise: Christmas is under attack by Grinchy atheists and secular humanists who want to remove any vestige of Christianity from the public space. Any criticism of public displays devoted to religious symbols –mangers, crosses, stars — is seen by these folks as part of a wider attack on “Christian values” in America. Mass market retailers who substituted “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” are part of the conspiracy to “ruin Christmas.”
But in fact, most religious displays are not banned. Courts simply direct that one religion cannot be favored over another under the Constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Christmas displays are generally permitted as long as menorahs, Kwanzaa displays, and other seasonal symbols are also allowed.
In other words, the “War on Christmas” is pretty much a phony war. But where did this all start?
The first laws against Christmas celebrations and festivities in America came during the 1600s –from the same wonderful folks who brought you the Salem Witch Trials — the Puritans. (By the way, H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as the fear that “somewhere someone may be happy.”)
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
–From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659
The Founding Fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not a festive bunch. To them, Christmas was a debauched, wasteful festival that threatened their core religious beliefs. They understood that most of the trappings of Christmas –like holly and mistletoe– were vestiges of ancient pagan rituals. More importantly, they thought Christmas — the mass of Christ– was too “popish,” by which they meant Roman Catholic. These are the people who banned Catholic priests from Boston under penalty of death.
This sensibility actually began over the way in which Christmas was celebrated in England. Oliver Cromwell, a strict Puritan who took over England in 1645, believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of the sort of seasonal moral decay that Protestant writer Philip Stubbes described in the 1500s:
‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’
In 1644, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations. Attending mass was forbidden. Under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the Puritan mission to remove all merrymaking during the Christmas period. To Puritans, the celebration of the Lord’s birth should be day of fasting and prayer.
In England, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. In Massachusetts, the ban remained in place until 1687.
So if the conservative broadcasters and religious folk really want a traditional, American Christian Christmas, the solution is simple — don’t have any fun.
Read my article on religion in America, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance” (Smithsonian)
And read more about the Puritans in Don’t Know Much About® History and America’s Hidden History. The history behind Christmas is also told in Don’t Know Much About® The Bible.
The 2020 Winter Solstice arrived in on December 21 at 5:02 am EST. So saith the Farmer’s Almanac.
So ’tis a perfect day to talk about the real “reason for the season.”
Here’s the real first Christmas question: Why all the fuss over December 25?
For starters, the Gospels never mention a precise date or even a season for the birth of Jesus. How then did we settle on December 25 and all those festive lights?
If a bright light just went off in your head, you’re getting warm. It’s largely about the Sun.
In ancient times, a popular Roman festival celebrated Saturnalia, a Thanksgiving-like holiday marking the winter solstice and honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Saturnalia began on December 17th and while it only lasted two days at first, it was eventually extended into a weeklong period that lost its agricultural significance and simply became a time of general merriment. Even slaves were given temporary freedom to do as they pleased, while the Romans feasted, visited one another, lit candles and gave gifts. Later it was changed to honor the official Roman Sun god known as Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) and the solstice fell on December 25.
Two other important pagan gods popular in ancient Rome were also celebrated around this date. The Roman were big on adopting the gods of the people they conquered. Mithra, a Persian god of light who was first popular among Roman soldiers, acquired a large cult in ancient Rome. The birth of Attis, another agricultural god from Asia Minor, was also celebrated on December 25. Attis dies but is brought back to life by his lover, a goddess whose temple later became the site of an important basilica honoring the Virgin Mary. By the way, the symbol of Attis was a pine tree.
In northern Europe, the solstice was celebrated with the burning of the “Yule” log. “Yule” meant wheel. It was the wheel of the chariot of Odin bringing the sun -a dead god being revived- back to life.
Candles. Gift giving. Pine trees. Dying gods brought back to life. Hmmm. Sound familiar?
All the similarities between Saturnalia and these other Roman holidays and the celebration of Christmas are no coincidence. In the fourth century, Pope Julius 1 assigned December 25 as the day to celebrate the Mass of Christ’s birth –Christ’s mass. This was a clever marketing ploy that conveniently sidestepped the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday while converting the population.
As Christianity moved into northern Europe, the Norse myths were also repurposed to tell the Christ story.
There is a scholarly argument that the December 25 date was marked earlier in some Christian communities, as argued by Yale Divinity school Dean Andrew McGowan. But the official recognition by the Pope cemented the date for many Christians. In other Christian communities, January 6 — the Epiphany or the day the magi visited the infant Jesus– was considered more significant. The period between these dates also accounts for the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Other authorities disagree and say that December date was arrived at by adding nine months to March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day of Jesus’s miraculous conception.
But most modern Christmas traditions reflect the merger of pagan rituals, beliefs, and traditions with Christianity. The early church fathers knew that they couldn’t convert people without allowing them to keep some of their ancient festivals and rituals so they would allow them if they could be connected to Christianity.
The importance of the winter solstice, then, is crucial to understanding many of the other traditions of this season. Evergreen trees, mistletoe, holly, and Yule logs all relate back to pre-Christian practices and symbols that celebrate the return of light and life after the Solstice. That’s why the Puritans rejected Christmas celebrations under Cromwell and in the Massachusetts colony in 1659. (Read my post Who Started the War on Christmas?“)
While we are talking about dates, the precise year of the birth of Jesus is also a mystery. The dating system we use is based on a system devised by a monk around 1500 years ago and is seriously flawed. The historical King Herod who ordered the massacre of the innocents died in 4 BC (or BCE, Before the Common Era). The “census” ordered by Emperor Augustine is not recorded in Roman history, but a local census did take place in the Roman province of Judea in 6 AD (or CE, the Common Era). Is that all perfectly clear now?
You can read more about the mythic roots of Christmas and the gospel accounts of Jesus in Don’t Know Much About Mythology and Don’t Know Much About® the Bible.
“These are the times that try men’s souls…. Tyranny, like hell is not easily conquered.”
–Thomas Paine, The American Crisis (December 19, 1776)
Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.
-Thomas Paine Common Sense
Thomas Paine’s essay Common Sense is widely credited with helping to rouse Americans to the patriot cause. Its sales were extraordinary at the time; given today’s American population, current day sales would reach some 60 million copies.
The pamphleteering Paine is best known for Common Sense and The Crisis — first published on December 19 1776 — among other works that supported the cause of independence. But after the Revolution, Paine returned to his native England and later went to France, then in the throes of its Revolution.
Paine was caught up in the complex politics of the bloody Revolution there, eventually winding up in a French prison cell, facing the prospect of the guillotine. After eventually being freed, Paine wrote an open letter in 1796 angrily denouncing President George Washington for failing to do enough to secure his release.
“Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement. The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator…In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”
Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
This was a serious case of bridge-burning and Paine swiftly fell from grace in America. But apart from dissing the Father of the Country, Paine had also fallen from favor for his most famous work after Common Sense. In 1794, he had published The Age of Reason (Part I), a deist assault on organized religion and the errors of the Bible.
In it, Paine had written:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
After returning to the United States, which owed so much to him, Paine was regarded as an atheist and was abandoned by most of his friends and former allies. He died in disgrace, an outcast from the United States he had helped create. The Quaker church he had rejected refused to bury him after he died in Greenwich Village (New York City) in 1809. He was buried on his farm in New Rochelle, New York. A handful of people attended his funeral.
An admirer brought this remains back to England for reburial there, but they were lost.
You can read more about Thomas Paine, his relationship with Washington and his ultimate fate in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.