Friday, January 13, 2012

Do you have friggatriskaidekaphobia?

Yeah, I know it sounds like a cuss word and I swear that I didn't make it up...friggatriskaidekaphobia is better known as fear of Friday the 13th and from what I can tell, a lot of folks suffer from it. I was surfing around this morning and came across an article on discussing how retailers will lose somewhere around $800 million today simply because people are so superstitious that they won't even leave the relative safety of their homes today. (Not me, I've already been to Wally World once today.)

It seems that Friday the 13th packs a double whammy in the field of superstitions. Friday has historically been considered to be the most unlucky day of the week. Ever since the publication of The Canterbury Tales in the 14th century, many travelers have considered Friday to be the worst day of the week to begin a journey. In Christian mythology, Friday has always been seen as unlucky because Jesus was crucified on a Friday.

As far as poor 13, I think it's bad reputation comes more from its proximity to 12 than to real "bad" stuff associated with the number. Twelve has a special place in terms of numerology. There are 12 months in the year, Jesus had 12 disciples, there were 12 major Greek gods, the 12 tribes of Israel- I could go on and on. Thirteen suffers simply for being the next number in line after the great and powerful twelve.

Historically Friday the 13th hasn't always been seen as a bad day. Arguably what put this particular day on the "lock yourself up in the house" map came on Friday, October 13, 1307. On that particular Friday the 13th, King Philip IV of France decided to declare war on the famed Knights Templar. Essentially Philip was jealous of the money and power wielded by the priest/warrior group. Philip planned his power bid well. He issued orders across France that all Knights Templar were to be rounded up on October 13 on charges including idolatry, homosexuality, defacing religious relics, financial corruption and secrecy. According to Philip, "God is not pleased. We have enemies of the faith in the kingdom." The coordinated arrest worked with dozens of French Templars being rounded up and confessing to the crimes- after a lot of torture. Supposedly Philip's executioners slathered the prisoners' feet with cooking grease and then put them over an open fire. Philip gained so much power from this that Pope Clement issued similar arrest orders for the rest of the Templars in Europe.

Conspiracy theorist that I am, the Templar story combined with the superstitions of Friday the 13th have made for some really interesting books to read. One interesting tome that I just finished is Steve Berry's The Templar Legacy (shown above). Thankfully for those of you who are afraid to leave home today, technology has made it where you can just download this to your Kindle and read your way through the bad day. Chin up...Saturday the 14th will be here before you know it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bah Humbug!

Who makes it through a Christmas season without a "Bah Humbug!" or a "God bless us every one?" Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim are just as much a part of the Christmas landscape as snowmen and Santa Clauses. We can thank Charles Dickens for putting this little jewel of a novella, A Christmas Carol, into our hands today, December 19th, in 1843. You often hear literary works referred to as "instant classics" and A Christmas Carol is the perfect example of such. When the novella hit the shelves in 1843, Dickens' publisher simply couldn't keep up with the demand; people in Britain were absolutely jonesing for the interesting little read.

One interesting part of the Christmas must-have of 1843 is that it almost wasn't published. Dickens wanted to publish a story about Christmas and actually rushed to get it written. He started it in October 1843 and put the finishing touches on it the first week of December, a mere 6 weeks of writing time (something I as a writer bow to Mr. Dickens for accomplishing). When Dickens presented the work to his publisher, they were happy to get it on the shelves before Christmas but only wanted to pay him a very small lump-sum payment. The publishers had screwed Dickens over with such an act before- only paying him an upfront amount and then making big bucks off of his works- so Dickens walked away and published the work at his own cost. A gamble? Most definitely! A success? Even more so- 6000 copies were sold between 12/19 and 12/25 at the equivalent of $20 each in today's money and then SEVEN more publication runs were sold out in less than 5 months.

So what was Charles Dickens trying to tell his readers with A Christmas Carol? Two things actually. First, it is a tale of morality and redemption. Ebenezer Scrooge is definitely a reprobate- cheats, steals, mistreats sweet little innocents like Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim- but in the end, if he (and we by default) face up to our shortcomings and work harder, we have a second chance at the right kind of life.

Secondly, Dickens wrote this work at a time when Britain was trying to reestablish Christmas traditions. Back in 1644 (December 19th, the same day this book was published) Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had dictated that the country could not celebrate anything associated with Christmas and in the ensuing centuries, old English traditions had simply faded away. That changed with Queen Victoria taking the throne and her husband Prince Albert blending his own German holiday traditions such as decorating and having Christmas trees in with the royal family's typical non-Christmas plans. Dickens was one of many authors at the time who truly believed that Britain would be a better place if such ideas took hold and were celebrated year after year.

In all the years since its original publication, A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. It has been adapted into plays, musicals and movies. And I would say that Mr. Dickens accomplished his goal- we have our traditions in place and A Christmas Carol is one of them. I fully agree with Tiny Tim, "God bless us every one."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Drum roll exam curves!

Are you all breathing easy yet? Or are you burning your textbooks in the backyard? (Don't do that, you can sell them on ebay for a couple of bucks at least!) Now that the 1:00 close time on the exams have come and gone it's time to reveal class averages for the test, curves and brag on the high scorers.

M/W 12:30 class-
79 average
2 point curve
And sharing high score honors are Laura and Aaron!

M/W 2:00 class-
82 average
2 point curve
Thank Sarah C. for the extra points.

T/TH 11:00 class-
80 average
3 point curve
High fives to Emily P. but even higher fives to Brittany J. for being the
only person in all of my classes to make a perfect score on the test. Great
job :)

M/W CHS 7:20 class-
93 average
1 point curve (you guys always land right there don't you?)
Bow to Megan W, curve setter

Now that you guys are done, I'm in the process of getting the grades entered so I can head out for some Christmas vacation fun with friends and family. You all have a great Christmas break and I'll see those of you who are coming back for American History II in January.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Does one bad apple really spoil the bunch?

We've all heard the phrase, "One bad apple spoils the bunch," but where does this idea actually come from? I know it seems like a common sense thing...if you have a basket full of apples, make sure to throw away any rotten ones so they don't contaminate the good ones. But I think we all know that the literal meaning isn't necessarily what the phrase stands for.

The first known usage of the phrase is found in a list of 14th century Latin proverbs but famed English author Geoffrey Chaucer really put it on the map when he said "Better take the rotten apple from the hoard than let it lie to spoil the good ones there" in "The Cook's Tale" of The Canterbury Tales. The first American usage of the phrase is found in Poor Richard's Almanac.

By the late 19th/early 20th century in the US, it became common to use that phrase to describe the corruption in the Federal government; not everybody in the government was bad but the bad people ruined it for everyone. There was also the idea that if the one bad apple (corrupt politician) isn't removed, it will ultimately corrupt the entire bushel (the whole government).

I supposed that we can always try the "glass half full" viewpoint on this idiom if we look at it figuratively instead of applying it only to apples. Maybe a bad person will actually change his stripes and do the right thing when he sees others doing so. Call me cynical but I'm thinking not on this view.

But since it's Fall and apples are in season, make sure you look through your basket and throw away the bad ones.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Freedom isn't Free

As we sit in our own homes and live our safe and peaceful lives, it is very easy to let it slip to the back of our minds that the reason that we have this peace and freedom is because of the burden shouldered by our soldiers past and present. However, as I paraphrase the words of the great George Washington (one of the veterans we remember today) at Valley Forge, nothing is as important as the fidelity of the American soldier.

The history of Veterans Day goes back to the end of World War I. This war had been so bad that it was referred to as the "War to end all wars." At the time, people truly believed that this was the low point in modern history and we could never see another struggle so horendous (we with the benefit of hindsight know better). The official armistice, or ceasefire, of WWI occurred on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

Beginning in November 1919, the European and American world began to honor Armistice Day as a way to remember those who had served and those who had fallen in the War to End All Wars. President Woodrow Wilson made this comment, "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…" Our first Armistice Day celebrations included parades and a suspension of all business during the 11th hour of the day.

Over time, as the United States was involved in more wars, Armistice Day was sort of expanded. Rather than simply set aside a time to remember the veterans of WWI, the day became Remembrance Day in Europe and Veterans Day in the US to honor all the veterans of the Armed Forces.

As you wake up today and set about on your normal schedule, please take a moment to remember that freedom truly isn't free. If you have the chance, hug a veteran, shake their hand and thank them for their service to this country. Remember that it isn't just remembering those who are fighing now or those who fought in World War I. Our idea of fighting for our freedom goes all the way back to the American Revolution and gives us a grand history of the American Armed Forces.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Remember...remember...the 5th of November

Remember, remember the fifth of November
the Gunpowder Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
should ever be forgot.

If you are a movie lover or history geek like me, I'm sure you've heard this phrase or seen the mask many times. It seems to have become the it thing to do for protesters to co-opt right now. But do you understand the history behind why we should remember the 5th of November?

In 1605, England was still reeling from the religious upheavals caused by King Henry VIII's Great Matter (where he converted the country from a Catholic nation to an Anglican one with the king himself as the head of the church. All so he could get under his mistress's skirts!), Bloody Mary's execution of Protestants and the great Elizabeth's idea that there was "One Jesus Christ, the rest is all a trifle." By this point, King James I was on the throne. Yep, the one who's name is associated with the Bible. James, a staunch Protestant, believed that God had put him on the throne and therefore the only person he answered to was the Almighty Himself. All the lesser peons had no right to question any of James' decisions.

James' highhandedness led to dissent amongst the English Catholics. Robert Catesby, a Catholic from the outlying areas of England, led a group of 12 people in an attempt to rectify the situation. They planned to put barrels of gunpowder under the House of Commons (the English equivalent to our House of Representatives) and blow up the building on November 5, 1605, when King James was due to be giving a speech there. The plotters planned to put James' daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne as a Catholic ruler.

OK, you know how something like this goes...somebody rats them out before the big boom can happen. An anonymous letter was sent to a high-ranking noble who called in the troops. When they searched the tunnels under the Commons, they found Guy Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to make a BIG boom! Fawkes was arrested and the rest of the Gunpowder conspirators hauled booty. Seven of the conspirators were captured but Catesby, the ringleader, was among a group killed by the king's guard. Fawkes and the captured compatriots were sentenced to death by hanging and drawing and quartering.

Beginning the next year, the English government officially recognized November 5 as a holiday. Bells were rung, special church sermons were given, all in praise of the king and his government swiftly putting down this horrendous action planned by Catesby, Fawkes and the others. All over England, common people would burn bonfires in remembrance. English colonists brought their November 5th celebrations to the New World, often getting so rowdy with their celebrations that many were afraid to participate.

This is where the story takes a twist though. By the late 19th century, what had been a celebration of the king's actions gradually became a remembrance of the conspirators' actions, having the guts to stand up against a government they believed was mistreating them. The bells were still rung and the bonfires were lit but the effigies burned of Guy Fawkes and the others began to be honored rather than reviled. The word "guy" suddenly represented a common man. In recent years, especially since the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta, people have begun wearing Guy Fawkes masks as a form of protesting the government. Even the tremendously popular Harry Potter series had a reference to the Gunpowder Plot- J.K. Rowling named Professor Dumbledore's phoenix "Fawkes" after Guy Fawkes.

Each year in Britain, bonfires dot the towns and countryside in honor of Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Day, as it's often called. People still stuff scarecrows to burn effigies, now typically representing a soccer player rather than Guy Fawkes himself. Last year's effigy was Wayne Rooney; this year it's going to be Mario Balotelli, an Italian who's playing for Manchester City.

So if you are like me, walking around the house today chanting the rhyme, you can remember why you are supposed to remember the 5th of November.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Happy All Saints' Day

As we all rise from our chocolate hazed over minds and scrub off the zombie makeup to begin the first day of November, it seems like just another day. One of my former students/current Facebook friends commented, "Halloween's over; get ready for Christmas." But from a historical viewpoint, November 1 is an important day also.

October 31, All Hallows Eve, might be day that the veils between the world of the living and the world of the dead are at their thinnest, allowing those who have passed over to walk among us again, but November 1 is seen as All Saints' Day. This is the day that you go to church to pray for the saints, those who spent their lives or even sacrificed their lives for the religious cause.

In 1517, the Catholic Church was so riddled with corruption that German Augustinian monk Martin Luther had had enough. He wanted to protest to the church leadership but he knew that wouldn't do him any good. Any written protest he sent to Rome would be ignored; any spoken protest might end up with him disappearing. So Martin Luther used the October 31/November 1 holidays to his advantage.

He knew that everybody partied on All Hallow's Eve. It was fun to go out and celebrate, ignoring that little bit of fear that spirits were walking the Earth that night. Luther also knew that the next day, November 1, all the party goers would be at church to pray for the saints. This was the perfect canvas for Luther to post his protests.

Before dawn on November 1, Martin Luther snuck up to the front doors of his own church, Wittenburg Cathedral, and nailed several papers to the front doors. On these papers he had listed 95 problems that he believed high-ranking church leaders needed to address. Over time, these problems have been collectively referred to as the 95 Theses.

This was such a smart move to make. Luther knew that everybody might be bleary-eyed from the night before but they would stop to read the papers at the door. And then they would start talking about what was written there. It is often extremely difficult to make changes at the top but if you can get all the people at the bottom to talk change, change happens.

In the end, Luther got the change he wanted, just not necessarily in the way he wanted. The 95 Theses actually ended up sparking a 30 year long set of religious wars that changed history forever. From Luther's ideas, the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe, splitting the Christians in two. This was what opened the door to not only Catholicism but also Protestantism in the Christian world.