Memorial Day

This day is designated as a day of remembrance for all those who died in the service of the United States of America.  Originally called Decoration Day, this holiday has been observed by many Americans since the Civil War.   It did not become a federal holiday until 1971, and is observed by many as the unofficial beginning of summer.

The American Civil War touched nearly every family in the nation and claimed more lives than any conflict in US history.  Because of all these fallen soldiers, there was a great need for national cemeteries, especially for those who did not have land where there were family plots.  By the late 1860s, many towns were holding springtime tributes to fallen soldiers and decorating their graves with flags and flowers.  Approximately 25 cities, including Richmond, VA, Boalsburg, PA and Carbondale, IL, claim to be the home of the first Memorial day.  However, it was decreed by Lyndon Johnson in May 1966 that Waterloo, NY was the official birthplace of the holiday, celebrating it first on May 5, 1866.  There is a rivalry with Columbus, MS, which held an event to honor the dead of the battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866.  The ladies there decorated the graves of the Confederate soldiers who fell there, but noticed the Union graves were bare.  In the spirit of charity, they placed flowers on those graves at well.  

In 1868, General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11.  This read in part, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”  He said he chose May 30 because it was not the anniversary of any specific battle.  On the first official Decoration Day on May 30, 1868, General James Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery to a crowd of 5,000, who had come to honor those buried there. These were mainly children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR.  After the speech, the went through the cemetery putting flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, praying and singing hymns.  This was a tradition that caught on, and by the turn of the 20th century most places had ceremonies on May 30.  However, there was some controversy as many Southern states had separate holidays for honoring Confederate dead.  Many of these states did not sync up with the national tradition until after World War I.

Memorial Day Poster from 1917

Although the holiday original began as a day to honor the dead of the Civil War, it morphed into a day to remember all service men and women who gave their lives in war.  This especially became true as the United States entered World War I.  Memorial Day was consistently celebrated on May 30, until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May.  It was also declared a federal holiday.  This change went into effect in 1971 and gave all federal employees a three day weekend.

Along with tending the graves of service members who passed, many families also tend the graves of all family members who have passed.  Cities also have parades with veterans’ organizations and military personnel.  The largest parades in the US are in Chicago, New York and Washington DC.  Since it is the unofficial beginning of summer, families also celebrate by having the traditional first barbecue of the year.

To all service persons, past and present, we thank and honor you for your service.  Welcome to summer!


St. Patrick’s Day

History_St_Patricks_Day_Shamrocks_SF_re1_HD_still_624x352Everyone has heard of St. Patrick.  The patron saint of Ireland who drove the snakes from the island.  However, the famous Irish saint was not even Irish by birth.  It is thought that he was born in Scotland, England, Wales or even on the coast of France around 385 CE.  He wasn’t named Patrick either.  It is thought his original name was Maewyn or Succat.  When he was sixteen, a group of Irish pirates sacked his village and took him for a slave.  As a slave shepherd in Ireland, he turned to the religion of his youth- Roman Catholicism.  He eventually escaped and studied in a monastery in France under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre, and took the name Patrick as his Christian name.  He journeyed back to Ireland as a priest under St. Palladius, and when Palladius went on to Scotland became Ireland’s second bishop.  The Celtic Church flourished.  (For more on this, please read this post: )  

Many miracles and events were attributed to Patrick, and his life is shrouded in myth and legend.  He is said to have kindled fire from snow, raised the dead and preached a sermon that drove all the snakes from Ireland.  However, it is thought this reference to snakes is metaphorical.  “Snakes” in this case were the Druids and pagans.  “Driving them away” is thought to have merely driven them underground or out of Ireland to murdering them.  The most famous legend about St. Patrick links him to the shamrock.  A shamrock is small green plant with three leaves on one stem.  Legend has it that Patrick was explaining the trinity to a group of converts and they were struggling to understand.  Looking for a teaching tool, Patrick picked up the small plant and said for them to think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the three leaves on the plant.  They were separate, but together on one stem, which represented the single Godhead.  March 17 is his death day, and eventually became his feast day, which is what is celebrated.

How did the feast day of an Irish saint become such a celebrated holiday?  People in Ireland began celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day as early as the 9th and 10th century CE.  However, it was nothing more than another Church holiday.  St. Patrick’s Day did not even get a parade until the late 18th century, and the first one was in the United States not in Ireland.  In 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on St. Patrick’s Day.  They played Irish music and sang Irish songs.  Over the next 35 years, the parade continued.  There are records of George Washington giving his Irish soldiers a day off to participate.  As time went on, the parades were sponsored by Irish Aid societies such as the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society even though there was plenty of prejudice against the Irish immigrants who participated.  In 1848 at the height of Irish immigration to the United States, several Irish Aid societies combined their parades into one large one to form the official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  This was conceived as an act of rebellion against “nutty people who didn’t like the Irish very much”.  Catholics and Protestants marched together to “show how many there were of them”.  This parade grew into the largest worldwide St. Patrick’s Day parade.St._Patrick's_Day_greetings

The color green was not originally the color used for the holiday.  The original color was a light blue, and can be seen on ancient Irish flags and on flags and armbands used by the Irish Citizen Army.  This group tried to end British rule in 1916 with the Easter Rising.  However, as early as 1798 green was being associated with Irish nationalism to differentiate Ireland from the blues and red used by England, Wales and Scotland.  It also represented the lush green fields of Ireland.  Green became so popular that it eventually eclipsed the original blue badges altogether.

Green food may be considered something fun in the US for St. Patrick’s Day parties, but it really harkens back to an extremely dark time in Irish history.  During the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, starvation was not out of the common way.  Millions of Irish fled their homeland to the United States and elsewhere to find a better life.  Those that stayed tried to survive and resorted to desperate measures.  Christine Kinealy is the founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.  She said, “People were so deprived of food that they resorted to eating grass.  In Irish folk memory, they talk about people’s mouths being green as they died.”  Corned beef wasn’t an Irish dish either.  Cows were considered a symbol of wealth in Gaelic Ireland, and kept mainly for milk.  Meat was generally pork and not beef.  However, when the English invaded they brought their love of beef to the island, and corned beef was born.  

So something to think about as you eat your corned beef and cabbage and drink your green beer.


Lundi Gras

16997743_420738824934872_7863010776725097604_nLundi Gras is a popular name for a series of Shrove Monday events taking place during the New Orleans Mardi Gras. It includes the tradition of Rex, King of Carnival, arriving by boat. This began in 1874, but the term Lundi Gras (French for “Fat Monday”) was not widely applied until 1987 when the arrival was brought back as part of a series of river-related events under the name of “Lundi Gras”. Lundi Gras was the creation of journalist Errol Laborde.

In 1874, 18 years after the beginning of modern Carnival celebrations in New Orleans, Rex chose to have a grand arrival in New Orleans from the Mississippi River. Once on land, Rex and his royal court were placed in carriages and driven through the streets to City Hall. The mayor and various city officials would present Rex with the keys to the city and proclaim Rex’s mystical and temporary rule over Carnival. Typically, the proclamation decreed the beginning of Mardi Gras and Rex’s reign at sunrise the following morning.

The Rex landing was a success, and quickly became a integral part of the Carnival celebrations which are unique to New Orleans; no other country or parishes observed the Monday before Shrovetide. The landing continued until World War I stopped Carnival in New Orleans. When the parades again returned to the streets some two years later, the landing had fallen by the wayside, a seeming casualty of ‘the war to end war.’16939459_420738861601535_5647003288426144107_n

In 1971, the landing was recreated for one time only to celebrate Rex’s centennial. In 1987, Rex once again made a grand arrival on the Riverfront at the foot of Canal Street but now with the phrase Lundi Gras attached to the events which would include concerts and fireworks.

The King of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club also participates in the modern version of the event; the Mayor of New Orleans usually attends as well to salute the two Carnival monarchs and turn over symbolic control of the city for the following day.


Burns Night

230px-pg_1063burns_naysmithcropTonight is a celebration of the birth of the man who is widely known as the national poet of Scotland.  Robert Burns, or Rabbie Burns, is one of the most famous poets from Scotland and is considered to be a pioneer of the Romantic movement.  As the Scottish diaspora sent immigrants around the world, the work of Burns became a touchstone and a piece of home they could take with them.  Burns’ work is recognizable to many, including the famous song/poem “Auld Lang Syne” and “Scots Wha Hae”, which served as an unofficial national anthem of Scotland for many years.  Despite being born in humble circumstances, he left a huge catalog of poems and songs beginning with his first poem at the age of 15.  He was vaulted to celebrity after his collection of poems, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in 1786.  Despite his fame, Burns never forgot his humble roots and wrote about the life and issues facing those in the lower classes and preserving traditional Scottish ballads and songs.

Friends of the poet, initially celebrated the anniversary of his death with a private supper a few friends and acquaintances.  Two centuries later, this developed to in a national event on the poet’s birthday.  So how does one properly celebrate Burns Night?  There is a proscribed menu and dress for the whole affair.  Diners must wear kilts, however, there is some argument as to whether Burns would have worn a kilt.  Some argue that despite Burns being a champion of traditional dress, as a Lowlander he would have not worn a kilt.  Before dinner, the diners dressed in their kilts are escorted into dine by the sounds of bagpipes.  Then The Selkirk Grace is said before dinner.  This is a prayer that is said to been written by Burns.  It goes as follows:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

The menu is also traditionally Scottish with haggis and whisky being featured prominently.  Haggis is a savory pudding made from the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep.  This is mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt then cooked in the sheep’s stomach.  Despite this less than appetizing description, it is supposed to be delicious.  This is served with tatties and neeps, or potatoes and turnips.  Drams of whisky are paired with the haggis, and served neat or with a small amount of water.  Before the haggis, the dinners begin with a cock-a-leekie soup.  Then the haggis is carried in on a silver platter, as the diners stand and clap and accompanied by more bagpipes.  Then there is an Address to the Haggis, also written by Burns, where the haggis is lauded as the “great chieftain o the puddin’-race”.   During the last line, “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht”, the haggis is cut open.  Then it’s time to eat.

After dinner, the toasts begin.  A guest reads the Immortal Memory toast, which is in honor of Burns.  Then they read the Toast to the Lassies, to thank the women who cooked the meal.   This is a personalized toast where a male guest makes reference to the ladies in the group and quotes lines from Burns’ poetry.  The women then get a risposte to the Toast to the Lassies.  The night ends with all the guests joining hands and singing Auld Lang Syne.

Merry Burns Night to all!


Twelfth Night and Nollaig na mBan

yule-log-historyTraditionally, the Christmas season lasted from Christmas Day on the 25th to January 5, and there was a celebration and a holiday for each one.  These were typically in honor of a specific saint.  In medieval Europe, the Christmas holidays were:

  • Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day, which celebrated the birth of Jesus
  • Day 2 (26th December): St Stephen’s Day.
  • Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle.
  • Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents.  This celebrated the babies killed by Herod in his search for Jesus
  • Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket.
  • Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester.
  • Day 7 (31st December): New Year’s Eve  also known as Hogmanay in Scotland.
  • Day 8 (1st January): Mary, the Mother of Jesus
    Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen
  • Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The celebration of the “name day”, where Jesus is formally named in the Temple.
  • Day 11 (4th January): Saint Simon Stylites
  • Day 12 (5th January): Epiphany Eve

A huge party was given on the night of the twelfth day of Christmas called Twelfth Night because no one was very original.  This marked the end of winter and was a modern day Saturnalia where rich and poor exchanged roles.  A huge cake was baked made which was loaded with rich treats like eggs, butter, fruit, nuts and spices.  A modern cake that approximates the Twelfth Night cake is the Italian Panettone.  Inside the cake, a pea and a bean was baked.  Anyone who received the slices containing the bean or the pea was considered the king or queen of that night and would have good luck the whole year.  This is very similar to King Cake at Mardi Gras. (

There was general partying and mayhem.  As with Saturnalia, servants were served by their masters and the roles were very relaxed.  Pantomimes and plays which tweaked authority were popular entertainments.  In these plays, cross dressing was the norm, with the “Dame” being played by a man and the male lead being played by a woman.  To lead the revels, a Lord of Misrule was elected.  This office began as a “boy bishop” and morphed into the “Lord of Misrule” in England and the “Abbot of Unreason” in Scotland and the “Prince des Sots” in France.  This was usually a peasant or someone of lower social standing.  This started as a fairly innocent tradition where the “boy bishop” presided over a processions and church ritual.  This progressed to games that were less innocent and in 1523 at London’s Inns of Court a “Lord of Misrule” was responsible for a

When everyone woke up the next morning, they were tired, probably hung over and generally crabby.  Probably most of all the women as they had been responsible for the logistics of the celebrations, making the rich Twelfth Night cake and all other other food for the feasts along with all their other household chores.  From this Nollaig na mBan was born.

Technically, January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of when the wise men arrived at the manger in Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus.  It is also the first day Christmas decorations can safely be taken down without risking bad luck.  Any holly displayed was burnt.  Nollaig na MBan is celebrated on this date in Ireland, and translates to “Women’s Christmas”.  It was a well deserved rest for Irish women after the busy season of Christmas.  

It was tradition for women to sneak away for impromptu gatherings in their homes or in local pubs to enjoy their free time.  This was the only time a lady would feel comfortable in the traditionally male domain of a pub.  Any pocket money left over from the year’s budget or from sales of produce at the Christmas market was spent on treats at Nollaig na mBan.  It was never an elaborate celebration.  Mostly tired women putting up their feet with a nice cup of tea and chatting over a bit of cake or biscuit while the men folks minded the kids.  Children also bought their mothers and grandmothers gifts on Nollaig na mBan.

There was a joke in an Irish Times article saying, “Even God rested on the seventh day, Irish women didn’t stop until the twelfth!”  Having Irish women in my family, I can attest to this fact!