Category Archives: History
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Protests have been in the news for several years, coming out of the blue in Tunisia and spreading to the Arab nations becoming the Arab Spring. We all should remember Ferguson and the horrible continuous deaths that sparked anger, indignation and the Black Live Matter movement.
Well, 2017 is gearing up to be another year of protests. The world witnessed the Women’s March of Washington last month, and the marches around the world in solidarity of this cause. There were protests at airports after President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration went into effect. Scientists are planning to march on Earth Day in April. The protest against building two new pipelines is heating up again. Tunisian lawyers were protesting against a new tax that required them to pay a tax on each case they worked on. Students in South Africa are protesting higher fees for college education, which is similar to what happened here in recent years too. There’s even a website https://popularresistance.org that assists in organizing protests and getting the word out about them. And the protests don’t seem to be going away any time soon. The website www.change.org is also helping people find ways to protest by creating and circulating petitions.
In honor of Black History Month, let’s take a look at one of America’s most famous protestors and his belief in nonviolent resistance. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929 to a Black middle class family. His father had grown up on a plantation to share cropper parents, but he left as soon as he was able. He worked his way through school and was able to attend Morehouse College, which is an all-black men’s college. He became a preacher, and then married the daughter of Reverend Williams. Reverend Williams was the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church; MLK, Sr., “Daddy King” took over the duties when Williams died.
Both Reverend Williams and Daddy King stood against ill treatment, segregation and violence against African-Americans and MLK, Jr. followed in their footsteps. After several instances of facing white prejudice, Martin began to read about the history of his people, about slavery and the Civil War. Martin had always been taught that all people were equal, but reality was quite different, and it was his fervent desire to set it right.
He graduated from high school when he was fifteen, and attended his father’s alma mater, Morehouse College. He and other students were able to discuss prejudice and liberation of the Negroes long into the night and in many of the classes. On one of his summer vacations during college, he and some friends went to Connecticut to work on a tobacco farm, and it amazed them that they could freely go into stores, movies and restaurants.
After seriously considering a law career, he ended up majoring in sociology. But, he then began to realize that being a minister would allow him to have a closer relationship with his fellow man, and it was a good way to impart information. His friends would ask him to lead them in prayer, plus both his father and grandfather had been pastors. He hadn’t planned to become a minister, but he felt the call.
After he graduated from Morehouse, he went to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. It was here that he first heard in depth about what Mahatma Gandhi was doing in India, using non-violent resistance to get the British out of India. He had heard of Gandhi’s protest in India, but this time it was first-hand information from the president of Howard University. His interest in this type of non-violent protest had been piqued when he first read Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience. He was very interested in this idea of just refusing to cooperate with the entrenched system in place. As King looked deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi and civil resistance, he came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. … It was this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that he discovered the method for social reform that he had been seeking.
As we remember MLK, with his birthday and also Black History Month, and as many times as we can remember his clear call for equality, we remember a leader who showed us how to protest peacefully about things we disagreed with, that we thought were immoral or needed to be fixed. Thank you Dr. King for your example.
“…The nonviolent resisters can summarize their message in the following simple terms: we will take direct action against injustice despite the failure of governmental and other official agencies to act first. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts. We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to truth as we see it.” (quoted from MLK’s Nobel lecture in 1964.)
Fun Fact: there was an error on his birth certificate—his name was listed as Michael Luther King. He was always supposed to be Martin, but was called Mike by his family for a long time. He was able to change and correct his name officially when he applied for his passport.
For more information about MLK, Jr. and peaceful protests, check out these books:
- I have a dream: writings and speeches that changed the world by Martin Luther King, Jr. (323.092 KIN)
- The King years: historic moments in the civil rights movement by Taylor Branch (323.0973 BRA)
- Gospel of freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from Birmingham Jail and the struggle that changed a nation by Jonathan Rieder (323.092 Rei)
- Partners to history: Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and the civil rights movement by Donzaleigh Abernathy (323.1196 ABE)
- Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. : his life and crusade in pictures by Charles Johnson & Bob Adelman (92 KING)
- The autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by King, Martin Luther, Jr. (92 KING)
- The King years: historic moments in the Civil Rights movement by Taylor Branch (323.0973 BRA)
- Gandhi: the true man behind modern India by Jad Adams (92 Gandhi)
- Witness to the revolution: radicals, resisters, vets, hippies, and the year America lost its mind and found its soul by Clara Bingham (303.4840973 BIN)
- Toward a theology of radical involvement by Luther D. Ivory (230 IVO)
- http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20160819133155781 (South Africa)
- http://ivn.us/2016/07/08/martin-luther-king-jr-said-violence-protest/ his nobel prize lecture
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Soon we will have another quadrennial celebration of the changing hands of the highest office in the land. The inauguration is about hope. Yes, hope. Regardless of your political beliefs, we watch the events of a new presidency with hope of one kind or another. We hope the new person won’t make the mistakes of the old. We hope that our opinions will now be considered and valued. We hope this guy doesn’t screw up. We hope four years go by quickly and uneventfully. They’re all hope, some positive, some negative, but hope all the same.
This new beginning means that we all have a moment to take some time, look at our present situation as a country and decide if we are where we want to be and what we need to do to get wherever that is. This has been the burden of 43 men on 57 separate occasions. They all stood on a platform in Washington D.C., put their hand on a bible and swore to…wait, none of those things are right. True, this is the image we see when we imagine the inauguration in our mind, but none of those things are actually required for the inaugural process.
First of all, the inauguration does not have to be in Washington D.C. George Washington was had his first inaugural in New York and his Second in Philadelphia. Adams was also inaugurated in Philly. Two presidents have taken the oath of office in hotels due to the death of the prior president. Two took the oath in their private residences for the same reason. The most recent extraordinary inauguration was that of Lyndon Johnson in 1963 on Air Force One in Dallas.
The Swearing and the Bible are not dictated anywhere either and neither is the phrase, “So help me God”. Due to some religions prohibiting members from swearing to anything, the option to affirm the oath was built in to the ceremony. Two presidents are believed to have done so, Hoover and Pierce. We know that Pierce did for certain even though he was an Episcopalian and was not required to avoid swearing. Hoover was a Quaker and it was believed he had used affirm, but news real footage shows he said solemnly swear. The only other Quaker president was Richard Nixon, and he also chose to swear. Theodore Roosevelt did not swear on a bible, and John Quincy Adams and that rebel Franklin Pierce swore on books of law to signify they were swearing by the Constitution. Finally, George Washington ad libbed the line “so help me god” and most presidents have followed suit. It is the proscribed thing to complete an oath for federal judiciary members, but there is nothing in the presidential oath that requires it.
The Inauguration Address
The shortest inauguration address on record was Washington’s second address at one hundred and thirty-five words.
I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.
Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.
Not exactly, “Here we go again” but short sweet and to the point. Washington’s brevity seems to be a skill many politicians these days lack. William Henry Harrison should have followed Washington’s lead. His inaugural address was the longest so far and went on for 8445 words. Many people believe this lengthy speech, combined with the cool temperatures and cold wind contributed to the cold, then pneumonia, then pleurisy and eventual death of President Harrison. He died one month later and though he had the longest address, he had the shortest presidency.
The Twentieth of January
Weather was the original reason why most of the early presidents were inaugurated in March. Obviously those brought up from vice president to take the place of a deceased commander in chief weren’t given the option, but Washington Himself was inaugurated in April. The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution changed the date to the Twentieth of January. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was both the last to be inaugurated in March and the first to do so in January. Regardless of the change in date, the warmest and coldest inaugurations have occurred in the January era. President Reagan had the warmest inauguration in 1981 at 55° and the coldest, 7°, for his second in 1985
There have been a few issues with the oath over the years as well. Chief Justice Fuller accidentally replaced the word protect with maintain in regards to the constitution when administering the oath to Taft. Ironically, Taft did the same at Hoover’s inauguration when he, Taft, was chief justice. Chief Justice Stone replaced Harry Truman’s stand-alone middle initial with the name Shipp, one of Truman’s grandfathers’ last name, but Truman just rolled with it and said Harry S. Truman anyway. Finally Barak Obama waited for Justice Rogers to realize a gaff when he put faithfully in the wrong place when reciting the oath. Rogers moved the term but still had it wrong. Rogers and Obama completed the Oath properly in the Oval Office the next day.
All these little bits of trivia notwithstanding, we can observe this inauguration in which ever spirit we choose, be it happy, sad, skeptical or hopeful. However there will be people looking for mistakes or records, swearing or affirming and what the temperature was to add this fifty-eighth inaugural to the history books.
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
This poem is also a candidate for the most printed, quoted, illustrated, and parodied poem in America. Most people, age six and above, are so familiar with the poem they can easily supply the words to the first lines:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the_____________;
Not a creature was stirring, not even a _______________.
If you identified the rhyming words “house,” and “mouse,” you are in a vast majority. The poem is best known as “The Night before Christmas.” It first appeared on the second page of the Sentinel newspaper in Troy (New York) on December 23, 1823. The fifty-six line poem was published anonymously with the title, “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” It became an instant success as it spread in papers throughout the region.
Problems of Christmas Past
While “The Night before Christmas” continues to play an active role in shaping our Christmas imagination, this was not always the case. Christmas in early America was not always welcome, for its common celebration was very different from our current practices. In New England, for instance, Christmas was seldom celebrated for the first 200 years of settlement. There was instead a strong social hostility that suppressed, and sometimes outlawed, its observance. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (University of Massachusetts) explains:
The holiday they suppressed was not what we probably mean when we think of ‘traditional’ Christmas. As we shall see, it involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today – rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often with the threat of doing harm), even the boisterous invasion of wealthy homes.
It may seem odd that Christmas was ever celebrated in such a fashion. But there was good reason. December was the major ‘punctuation mark’ in the rhythmic cycle of work in northern agricultural societies, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly-fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals – meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled. St. Nicholas, for example, is associated with the Christmas season chiefly because his ‘name-day,’ December 6, coincided in many European countries with the end of the harvest and slaughter season.
Christmas was a social challenge in early American life. To be sure, there were churches and Christians in America who celebrated December 25th for religious reasons as they commemorated the birth of Christ The very name of the holiday (holy day) recalls Christ’s Mass for a reason. The basis for the practice goes far back to the early church fathers, beginning 200 A.D. and later, meaning that the date for Christmas as being December 25th was not likely the church simply displacing the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus, as is commonly claimed. The early church rationale is clearly otherwise, for their concern was to avoid pagan ways and persecution while reasoning to a common date for Christ’s conception and death. The early church thought Jesus was conceived at the same time of year he died, reflecting a symmetry in the redemption of the world. Since Jesus died during Passover time on the 25 March, they reckoned that Jesus was conceived on March 25. If Jesus were conceived at that time of month, his birth nine months later would be December 25th.
Even though the Christian religious element was certainly a part of Christ-mas, it was largely discounted by the more influential Protestant churches which refused to choose a date for Christ’s birth because the Bible is silent on the issue. Instead of Christmas, many focused their post-harvest celebrations on Thanksgiving and New Year’s. America in the early 1800s was ready for a new Christmas emphasis. This came in part from the poem, “The Night Before Christmas.”
By speaking of the night before Christmas, the poem takes the focus from common concerns with Christmas day itself. Taking one step back, it introduces players on the scene with a delight that ignites the imagination of children and adults alike. The poem simultaneously picks up emerging social developments of the day while also promoting the same. It gleefully reframes Christmas at just the right time, in just the right way, so that Christmas takes an amazing turn which continues through present day.
The Dutch Influence: Enter the Good Cheer of St. Nicholas
“The Night Before Christmas” centers on the activities of a pipe smoking “jolly old elf” identified throughout as St. Nicholas, or St. Nick. “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care / in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” When St. Nick arrives with a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, the poet remarks, “With a little old driver, so lively and quick / I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.” After the toy laden sleigh is flown atop the roof, to the poet’s surprise, “Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.”
The poet then spends a full thirteen lines describing the appearance and mannerisms of St. Nick, concluding significantly: “He was chubby and plump, a right jolly elf / And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself / A wink of his eye and a twist of his head / soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;” The remark about “nothing to dread” is especially appropriate. What a different feeling from Christmas past when reveling home invaders made for tense and cheerless times. In contrast, St. Nicholas leaves gifts in all the stockings, and a parting word affirming the new Christmas tone: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
With all the talk about St. Nicholas, it would surprise no one that the poet had connections to Dutch Christmas traditions. In Europe of the 1500s the Protestant Reformation undermined the practice of honoring the saints. Yet Biography.com explains:
St. Nicholas, however, remained an important figure in Holland.
The Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of St. Nicholas, December 6. It was a common practice for children to put out their shoes the night before. In the morning, they would discover the gifts that St. Nicholas had left there for them. Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas, known to them as Sint Nikolaas or by his nickname Sinterklaas, and his gift-giving ways to America in the 1700s.
In America, St. Nicholas went through many transformations and eventually Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. Instead of giving gifts on December 6, he became a part of the Christmas holiday. . . . The cartoonist Thomas Nast added to the St. Nicholas legend with an 1881 drawing of Santa as wearing a red suit with white fur trim. Once a kind, charitable bishop, St. Nicholas had become the Santa Claus we know today.
So the “Night Before Christmas,” focused especially on “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The real Saint Nicholas was born around 280 A.D. in a Greek speaking area of what is now southern Turkey. He lost his parents early on in an epidemic, but inherited their wealth. As a devout Christian, he took seriously Jesus’ words to “sell what you have and give to the poor.” Even though exiled and imprisoned for his faith during Roman Imperial persecution by Diocletian, Nicholas maintained an amazing generosity to those in need, especially extending concern and protection to children.
One story of his humble generosity tells how he responded to a poor man who had no dowry for his three daughters. This meant the daughters might be sold into slavery. Under the cover of darkness, so as not to broadcast his good deed, Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the poor man’s window, and they landed in and about stockings the three girls left by the fire to dry. This eventually led to hanging stockings “in hopes that St. Nicholas would soon be there.”
In summation, turning again to the Christmas scholar Nissenbaum:
… The next incarnation of Christmas was taking shape. That incarnation engaged powerful new forces that were coming to dominate much of American society in the years after 1820—a heady brew that mixed a rapidly commercializing economy with a culture of domesticity centered on the well-being of children. Both elements were present in a new Christmas poem that soon came to define the rituals of the season in middle-class households throughout the United States. . . . . Although it was set on the night before Christmas, its subject was not the nativity but ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas.’ So it would be Santa Claus, not Jesus of Nazareth, whose influence finally succeeded in transforming Christmas from a season of misrule into a day of quieter family pleasures.
Ironic indeed. Yet there remains a subtle historical perspective unspoken by Nissenbaum. Not to be missed is the further irony of the subtle yet stupendous influence of the little Christ child lying in a manger on the youth from Turkey who became St. Nicholas. The saint who transformed Christmas would honestly say, he himself is a transformer only because of the impression on his heart by the Christ of Christmas Day. And St. Nicholas, both the historical and symbolic, would no doubt continue this hearty good will in wishing,
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
Note: “The Night Before Christmas” did not remain anonymous for long. It was later attributed to and claimed by Clement Clarke Moore, a scholar in New York City. However, the family of Henry Livingston eventually contested Moore’s claim, saying their father had written the poem, which they and a housekeeper heard at home as early as 1807. There have been detailed studies of word usage and phraseology by two scholars who separately conclude the internal evidence points best to Livingston as the author. But the external evidence has in the past led most to attribute the poem to Moore.
- Martin Garner, The Annotated Night Before Christmas (New York: Summit Books, 1991)
- Stephen Nissenbaum, “Christmas in Early New England, 1620-1820: Puritanism, Popular Culture and the Printed Word” in American Antiquarian Society; First Edition edition (1996).
- See also Stephen Nissenbaum’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist book, The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday (Vintage Books, 1997).
- Andrew McGowan, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Bible Review (December 2002) The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in 2012.
“St. Nicholas” at Biography.com
- “Who is Saint Nicholas?”
- Samira Kawash, “Sugar Plums: They’re Not What You Think They Are” in The Atlantic (Dec. 22, 2010)
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
We all know about Christmas when we talk about December holidays. But there are other holidays around the world (and often celebrated in the United States) that you may not know about. You never know, you may want more days off to celebrate these holidays. Or a reason to celebrate in the first place!
Dec. 5 – The Day of the Ninja
This day was either created to commemorate Tom Cruise’s movie the Last Samurai (which had a ninja bit in it) or it was created by the Ninja Burger. Either way it really caught on, showing up in the nation’s consciousness by 2007. Now it has evolved to something similar to Talk Like a Pirate Day. So dress like a ninja on December 5 or watch your favorite ninja movie(s).
Dec. 6 – St. Nicholas’ Day
Yes, this is the same Nicholas that our Santa Claus comes from. Nicholas of Myra was a Christian bishop who legends say was a gift-giver, often putting coins in people’s shoes. Many people often left their shoes outside, so as not to track in outside dirt and keep the floors clean. It would have been easy to drop coins in shoes with no one watching. This day is most observed in the European countries (or families with European backgrounds here in the U.S.). Children often receive treats – including candy, cookies, small toys, or fruit – in stockings, socks, shoes or bags on December 6. Some churches have special services dedicated to the feast of St Nicholas on this day.
Dec. 10 – Dewey Decimal System Day
For library lovers everywhere, surprise! This day commemorates the birth of Melville Dewey (born Dec. 10), the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System of library classification, and if you’ve ever looked up books with a three digit number in a library, you were using the Dewey Decimal System. Maybe you’ve never thought about how you find a book in the library?? Dewey divided all of the world’s knowledge into ten sections, starting with 000 and ending with 900, using decimals to continue to group books into smaller and smaller subject categories, which would make longer and longer numbers (the longest so far being 331.892829225209712743090511). Anything that didn’t fit in any category was put in the 000s, which explains why computer books are there. They weren’t invented until many years after his death!
Dec. 13 – Saint Lucia’s Day
Saint Lucia (or Lucy) was a Christian martyr who according to legend brought food to Christians hiding in the caves and catacombs. She lit her way with a candle wreath, leaving her hands free to hold as much food as possible. This day is celebrated (or commemorated) mostly in the Scandinavian countries, where winter lasts longer; since she brought light, which is most appreciated on dark days. These days, girls are in white dresses with candle wreaths, and they bring cookies and pastries to everyone in the household.
Dec. 16-24 – Los Posadas
Los Posadas are held across Mexico and are becoming more and more popular in the United States. The word posada means inn or shelter, and these nine days commemorate and re-enact the arduous trip that Mary and Joseph took to get to Bethlehem. The celebration begins with a procession through the neighborhood where the participants hold candles and sing Christmas carols. Sometimes there will be individuals who play the parts of Mary and Joseph who lead the procession. Each night they go to one designated home in the neighborhood. There is even a special song for this event—it is “La Cancion Para Pedir Posada”. When they are finally let in to the house, the celebration starts. It can be either a big party or a small gathering. Often children get to break piñatas to get candy. I’m sure they like this part!
Switching gears completely, and also on December 16 (this year, it always falls on the third Friday of December) is Ugly Christmas Sweater Day. Basically it is an excuse to have a party and wear the sweaters you are often gifted that you wouldn’t normally wear. National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day (.com) has created a way you can make your party, either at home or at the office, a fundraising event. You can have fun and do good at the same time! In many countries, the holiday is associated with fundraising events for children’s charity.
Dec. 17 – Wright Brothers Day
In 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed December 17 as Wright Brothers Day. This is the anniversary of the day they actually got their first plane prototype up in the air in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This plane, Flyer, managed to stay in the air 12 seconds and it flew close to 120 feet. It was definitely a cause for celebration.
Dec. 24-31 – Hanukkah
The most well-known holiday on this list is Hanukkah, which this year starts on December 24 and lasts eight days. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the date for the start of Hanukkah is different each year. This Festival of Lights commemorates a miraculous event in Jewish history. The Jews were rebelling against their overlords, the Seleucid Greeks, during the Maccabean Revolt—some of the Jews revolted because they didn’t want to worship idol gods. After the victorious Jews regained the Temple in Jerusalem, they rededicated it to God. When they checked the oil for lighting the menorah (the seven candle slotted candelabrum), they only had enough oil for one day. That oil lasted for eight days, by which time they had created a new supply of consecrated oil. The priests called this The Festival of Lights or Hanukkah (or Chanukah.) This is why menorahs have nine candles, eight for the eight day festival and the middle candle to light them with.
Dec. 26 – Boxing Day
Boxing Day is always the day after Christmas and is mainly celebrated in the countries of the United Kingdom. There are similar celebrations in Germany, though. Why Boxing Day? The day after Christmas was traditionally the day the collection boxes in the churches were opened and the money distributed to the poor. Some churches are still carrying on this tradition. In Holland, the boxes were ceramic, and called pigs—could this be where our term piggy bank comes from?? Also, servants were given the day off on this day, probably to be able to get a share of the collected coffers from the collection boxes. So many companies continued this tradition in Britain that December 26th is now an official public holiday. Boxing Day has become Britain’s Black Friday, but many people are unhappy with this.
*Boxing Day is also St. Stephen’s Day—the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas tells the story of the king who goes out to help a poor family on the Feast of Stephen, or St. Stephen’s Day.
Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Ron Karenga; his goal was to reconnect black Americans to their African roots and recognize their struggles as a people by building community. Derived from the Swahili term, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first-fruits,” Kwanzaa is based on African harvest celebrations. According to the official Kwanzaa Web site,
“Kwanzaa was created out of the philosophy of Kawaida, which is a cultural nationalist philosophy that argues that the key challenge in black people’s lives is the challenge of culture, and that what Africans must do is to discover and bring forth the best of their culture, both ancient and current, and use it as a foundation to bring into being models of human excellence and possibilities to enrich and expand our lives.”
Just as many African harvest celebrations run for seven days, Kwanzaa has seven principles known as the Nguzo Saba. They are umoja (unity); kujichagulia (self-determination); ujima (collective work and responsibility); ujamaa (cooperative economics); nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity); and imani (faith). Kwanzaa is not celebrated as much as it was in the 1960s and 70s, for several reasons. First is the overkill of Christmas celebrating, with presents and food, and the second is it’s a relatively recent creation, which means it doesn’t carry a long tradition of celebration behind it.
- December 5 – the Day of the Ninja
- St. Nicholas Day – Dec 6
- Dewey Decimal Day – December 10
- Saint Lucia’s Day – December 13
- Wright Brothers Day – December 17
- Las Posadas, starts on December 16 – Mexico
- Ugly Sweater Day – 3rd Friday of December
- Hanukkah – December 24 (2016)
- Boxing Day – December 26
- Kwanzaa – starts on December 26 and runs for 7 days
- Omisoka – Japan’s New Year’s celebration omitted because of length
By Lance Hickerson, Reference Department
One story of the present holiday season tells of Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus. These Magi from the East were riding a wave of expectation common in the Mediterranean world and beyond. One Roman historian of the day explains:
There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4.5; similarly other first century historians Tacitus, Histories 5.3 and Josephus, War of the Jews, 6.5).
Indeed, the Magi were bearing gifts fit for a king, but what gifts would properly honor one who is “to rule the world?” The Magi chose gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of course, gold makes complete sense as a fitting gift, but why would frankincense and myrrh rate so highly?
Frankincense and myrrh are widely available today as “essential oils,” but in the first century world, they were much more essential, especially since the peoples of that time exhibit refined sensitivities in matters of smell and fragrance. One geographer from Greece who sailed around southern Arabia, named Agatharchides, recounts:
A heavenly and indescribable fragrance seems to strike and stir the senses. Even far out from land as you sail past you do not miss the fragrant odors blowing from the myrrh bushes.
The tree that captivated the explorer’s sense of smell, might not appear so impressive in full sight. Myrrh trees are small, thorny, and often just a bush. Like frankincense, myrrh trees grow in places limited to an arid climate like that of southern Arabia.
Yet what matters is the treasure the trees produce. Both frankincense and myrrh are harvested by tapping the inner sap with cuts to the tree bark. The gummy resin oozes out in the form of what some ancients called “tears.” After two weeks for drying, the resin is scraped off the tree, and sent on a long journey aboard camels and ships to crossroads and ports the world over.
What were the Uses of Frankincense and Myrrh?
Frankincense and myrrh had common uses and were even sometimes used together. But frankincense was more fragrant as incense and myrrh more helpful for perfume and skin care.
The top use for both frankincense and myrrh was for religious expression. Religion in our western world is often separated from other aspects of life, whereas religion in the first century world was part of everything and considered to be the most important aspect of all. This includes the wide ranging pagan religions as well as the Judaeo-Christian stream. Since religion was so important, religious expression was essential. And essential to religious expression was offering incense, especially frankincense.
Both frankincense and myrrh were widely used in preparing bodies for burial, which also included groups who cremated their dead. Frankincense in particular was good for masking the odor of a burning body. Emperor Nero burned an entire year of the frankincense harvest in honoring the death of one of his favorite people. That was extravagant indeed.
Each substance had a number of particular uses as well, again sometimes overlapping. The Middle East Institute remarks:
The market for frankincense was unlimited. Whereas other exotic spices and aromatics were luxury items, frankincense, though expensive was a household necessity. For many families throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East frankincense was a basic staple just as things like toothpaste and deodorant are always on the grocery list today.
Among the medical uses for frankincense were: stopping bleeding, cleansing, and functioning as an important ingredient in prescriptions used as antidotes to poisons, help for side and chest pain, and abscesses. It was used as well for a pest repellant and food flavoring.
Myrrh likewise had many functions in the first century world. In addition to the uses common with frankincense, it figured prominently in perfumes and ointments. Furthermore, its medical uses were wide ranging, for both internal and external use. It was a chief ingredient for the Egyptian army’s balm for the healing of sword cuts and wounds. Myrrh is mentioned 54 times in the Hippocratic literature helping alleviate various diseases. It helped with snakebites, coughs, stomach pains, toothaches, and ear aches. It was in demand as a pain killer and antiseptic, and also served as a mouthwash. So while in the first century world, its religious significance was primary, myrrh was helpful in many other ways.
When the parents of baby Jesus saw the Magi bearing frankincense and myrrh, along with gold, they were most certainly not disappointed. The frankincense and myrrh had many more uses than gold, and were fitting gifts of high value and honor.
- Middle East Institute
- Lankester Harding, “Inside Arabia Felix” (fortunate arabia)
- W. Everts, Jr., “The Place of Incense in the Mosaic Ritual,” The Old Testament Student, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Sep., 1884), pp. 29-30. Published by: The University of Chicago Press
- Gus W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist Vol. 23/3 (September 1960), 69-95.
- Erkki Koskenniemi, Kirsi Nisula, and Jorma Toppari, “Wine Mixed with Myrrh,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27.4 (2005), 379-391.
- Lytton John Musselman, Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh (Portland: Timber Press, 2007).
By Jessica Dunkel, Reference Department
Native American Heritage Month (also known as “National American Indian Heritage Month” and “National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month”) hasn’t been around for very long. Although Native Americans have resided on the continent for approximately 12,000 years, it wasn’t until November 1990 that President George H. W. Bush declared November to be “National American Indian Heritage Month”.
Honoring the month
Many of us are not exposed to Native American culture and do not know much about Native people, their way of life, and the issues they face. In order to honor this month, I’ve compiled some facts and figures, as well as answers to questions some of us may have about Native Americans and their culture. This list is far from complete, and I encourage you to discover what you’ve always wanted to learn about Native people and their history.
Below you will also find ways to celebrate Native American Heritage Month for yourself, plus Fiction and Non-Fiction books from Native American authors – and a few movies, too. All titles are available at our library, so get to celebrating!
Census information as of 2014
Population: American Indians and Alaska Natives made up 2% of the US population (5.4 million people), including those that are more than one race.
Race: Of the 5.4 million, only 48% are fully American Indian or Alaska Natives. The other 52% are American Indian or Alaska Natives in combination with at least one other race.
Reservations and Tribes: As of 2015 there were 326 federally recognized American Indian reservations and 566 federally recognized American Indian tribes.
Income: The median income for single-race Native American and Alaska Native households was $37,227 (compared to $53,657 for the United States as a whole).
Poverty: Single-race Native Americans and Alaska Natives had a poverty rate of 28.3%, the highest rate of any race group in America.
Higher Education: 13.9% of single-race Native Americans and Alaska Natives, ages 25 and over, had a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree.
Language: 26.8% of single-race Native Americans and Alaska Natives ages 5 and older spoke a language other than English at home.
More interesting facts here
FAQ about Native Americans
Are all Native Americans considered US citizens?
- In 1924, all Native Americans who were born in the US were granted citizenship, although not all states allowed them to vote until 1957.
Do all Native Americans live on reservations?
- According to the 2010 census, only 22% of the country’s 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands. Many Natives have left reservations seeking jobs and higher education.
Do any Native Americans still live on their original tribal land?
- There are some reservations that are located on a tribe’s original land, while others were created by the Federal government for the tribes forced from their land.
Do tribes make their own laws, or live under the laws of the US?
- Federally recognized tribes have a sovereign, government-to-government relationship with the United States. They legally govern themselves aside from some restrictions from Congress, federal courts, and treaties with the U.S. They are able to form their own governments, make and enforce laws, tax, provide licenses and regulate activities, and more. They are unable to print their own currency, start wars, or take part in foreign relations.
What is life like on a reservation?
- Living on a reservation has been compared by some to living in a Third World country. For many there are few jobs, a lack of employment opportunity, and inadequate and substandard housing including a lack of running water, phones, and electricity.
Can anyone visit a reservation?
- All reservations have their own laws and therefore different policies on visiting. Make sure to contact the proper tribe to ask about their policy and be aware of etiquette if given permission to visit. Here is a link to the Tribal Leaders Directory that provides contact information for each tribe. Here is a link to some tips on visiting a reservation.
Do Native Americans still speak their tribe’s language?
- Before European influence, it is estimated that there were over 100,000 different Native languages. Today, over 70% of Native Americans say they only speak English at home. Navajo is the most-spoken Native language, at 150,000 people.
What is the history behind Native American names?
- This is a fascinating topic that cannot be fully represented by a short answer. The brief version is that many Native Americans have a complex naming tradition. Their names are said to speak to an individual’s personality and even change over the course of their lives.
What was the Native American population before 1492?
- No one knows for sure. Not many population records were kept at all during that time period. All scientists have to go on are historical writings, and even then they can only guess. At the low end, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber estimated 8.4 million. At the high end, anthropologist Henry Dobyn estimated 112.5 million. What almost everyone can agree on is that the Native population decreased significantly after 1492.
Do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?
- In 2015, Huffington Post published an article that interviewed the ancestors of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, the first tribe to make contact with the Massachusetts Pilgrims of 1620. This is a quote from their current tribal president and chairman on how he celebrates the holiday: “We are Americans as well, and so even today, I sit down at Thanksgiving with family.” He goes on to note that Thanksgiving is equally a time to reflect on the tragedies they suffered then and ones they continue to suffer today. So while many consider it a day to give thanks, it is also seen as a national day of mourning.
What are some current issues facing Native Americans today?
- The Dakota Access Pipeline has been in the news recently. The construction of the pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation may potentially threaten their water supply. The Sioux also say the pipeline would disrupt sacred land.
- Click here for a Smithsonian article about the current controversy, and here to visit the Standing Rock Sioux website.
How can I find out if I have Native American ancestors?
- If you believe you may have Native American ancestry, here is a guide provided by the Office of Public Affairs – Indian Affairs on how to begin genealogical research as well as tribal enrollment information.
- Visit us at the Williamson County Public Library to get free access to Ancestry.com with your library card.
How can I participate in Native American Heritage Month?
- Click here for some creative ideas on how to celebrate.
- Read a book or watch a movie – all available @WCPL!
- The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens (978.02 COZ)
- Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan (770.92 EGA)
- Empire of the Summer Moon : Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne (978.004974572 GWY)
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (970.011 MAN)
- With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People’s History by Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun (973.04975 BET)
- On the REZ by Ian Frazier (978.366 FRA)
- Killing Custer by James Welch (973.82 WEL)
- Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie (F ALE)
- House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (F MOM)
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (YA F ALE)
- Smoke Signals (DVD SMOKE)
- Dances with Wolves (DVD DANCES)
- The Last of the Mohicans (DVD LAST)
- Longmire – TV series (DVD LONGMIRE)
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – (DVD BURY)
- More Suggested Reading:
Other Resources for Native American History Month
- Click here for audio and video resources from the Library of Congress, Smithsonian, and more.
It is impossible to accurately represent an entire people in a single blog while retaining the real essence, beauty, and complexity of their culture. I urge everyone who is interested in any aspect of Native American life to read more, learn more, and attempt to truly understand the lives and history of America’s Native people.
Check out the links above as well as the blog references section for a wealth of information.
By Jessica Dunkel, Reference Department
“Remember, remember, the 5th of November
Gunpowder treason and plot…”
Who is Guy Fawkes and why do they burn his effigies in England every 5th of November? I mean — that seems a bit harsh. To be fair, the modern-day celebration is more about fireworks and parades, which is far more humane than what actually happened to Guy Fawkes in the aftermath of November 5th, 1605.
Some History: A few months before the fateful November 5th a group of men, Guy Fawkes among them, were plotting to kill King James I of England. Why, you ask, would they want to do such a thing?
The hatred of the monarchy began with the throne’s predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I. Under Elizabeth’s reign it was illegal for Catholics like Fawkes and his co-conspirators to celebrate mass or marry according to Catholic rites. Maybe if the Pope hadn’t excommunicated Elizabeth I in 1570 she would not have gone to such lengths, which included killing dozens of priests.
After the reign of Elizabeth I ended in 1603 Catholics in England had hope that King James I would be different. His mother, Mary Queen of Scotts, was Catholic, and it was said that his wife converted to Catholicism. It was even rumored that King James I would convert as well. Unfortunately for the Catholic population, King James I treated them just as poorly as the former Queen had. He publically condemned the Catholic religion, referred to it as a superstition, and ordered all Catholic priests to leave England. And so, a group of Catholic dissidents decided to blow him up.
But how do you go about blowing up the King of England? In what would later be called the “Gunpowder Plot”, Guy Fawkes and 12 others planned to blow him up indirectly.
The Plot: Many people believe that Guy Fawkes was the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot. In reality, he’s probably so popular because he was caught in the act of carrying it out. The real leader and creator of the plot was Robert Catesby. His idea was to kill the king, kidnap his daughter, and marry her off to a Catholic to restore their rights in the kingdom. In order to do that the current regime had to be destroyed.
Using the alias John Johnson, Fawkes was chosen to pose as caretaker of a cellar located directly below the House of Lords. The group had managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar and would wait until the 5th of November when Parliament was in session for Fawkes to light the fuse.
The Mysterious Letter: To this day no one knows who sent the letter that unraveled the Gunpowder Plot. The letter advised its recipient to avoid the House of Lords, which was handed over to authorities and spurred them to search Westminster Palace. They found Fawkes in his cellar, along with the barrels of gunpowder and a match. That was all of the evidence they needed to capture Fawkes and torture him until (after two grueling days) he revealed the names of his co-conspirators. Four were killed while resisting arrest; the others were tried and executed for their treason.
The Punishment: Being found guilty of treason in seventeenth-century England was one of the last things you would ever want to happen. Fawkes was to be hung, drawn, and quartered after having his stomach opened before his eyes. Fawkes, a rebel until his death, jumped off the hangman’s platform and died from a broken neck. Although he saved himself from his horrible punishment, they still quartered him to be sent to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to potential traitors.
Unintentional Consequences: The Gunpowder Plot had not only failed, it backfired. King James I worked even harder to make sure Catholics knew he, not the Pope, had authority over them. The king required that every citizen take an oath saying just that. Catholics in England were not fully liberated from legal restrictions including the right to vote, practice law, or serve in the military until the 19th century.
The Celebration: The king and parliament had narrowly escaped being blown to pieces. In 1606 they would officially commemorate November 5th as a day of thanks and celebration. Back then, there was still an anti-Catholic atmosphere surrounding the festivities. They would burn effigies of the Pope and Guy Fawkes. They also gathered for parades, set off fireworks, and made huge bonfires.
Today’s Celebrations: Britain still celebrates Guy Fawkes Day every 5th of November. Although the anti-Catholic sentiment is nowhere near as wide-spread, some groups still burn effigies of the 1605 Pope in keeping with tradition. The town of Lewes is particularly noted for burning effigies, including the Pope, Guy Fawkes, and current political figures. Different towns celebrate in different ways, but among the celebrations you will find burning tar barrels, seriously big bonfires, fireworks, torches, costumes, and members of bonfire societies leaping through open flames. Not an event for the faint of heart.
The Mask: Americans might not know Guy Fawkes from the 5th of November plot, but from the Guy Fawkes masks used by protestors to protect their identity. The graphic novel and film V for Vendetta used the mask while overthrowing a suppressive government in future dystopian England. What inspired protestors to use it in real-life situations? The illustrator of the graphic novel, David Lloyd, says it best, “It’s a great symbol of protest for anyone who sees tyranny.”
Many groups have used Guy Fawkes’ face as a way to protect their identity while protesting against what they consider to be tyrannical establishments. From the hactivist group Anonymous to Egyptian protestors during the Arab Spring movement, these masks have become a symbol of anti-establishment protest.
Guy Fawkes may have lost the battle for Catholic rights in 17th century England, but his face has come to serve as a symbol of protest throughout the world.
- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/bonfire-night-why-do-we-celebrate-with-firework-displays-who-was/ – 10 unknown facts
By Sharon Reily, Reference Department
There are a lot of scary things in the world, and I’m not talking about the upcoming election. Literature and films are loaded with frightening monstrosities, but I’ll focus on three “classic” creatures – vampires, zombies, and mummies – and examine the origins of these horrors that have terrified folks for centuries.
From Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman and Robert Pattinson, everyone has a favorite movie bloodsucker. But the original vampires of legend weren’t as forlornly romantic as Oldman or as adorable as Pattinson. Ancient versions of the vampire weren’t thought to be humans returned from the grave, but were supernatural entities that didn’t take human form. There are many vampire variations around the world: an Egyptian vampire that was a demon summoned by sorcery, Asian vampires that attacked people and drained their life energy, the blood-drinking Wrathful Deities that appeared in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and many others.
Belief in vampires surged in the Middle Ages in Europe. Any unfortunate event that befell a person or village with no obvious cause, such as disease or crop failure, could be blamed on a vampire. Villagers combined their belief that something had cursed them with their fear of the dead, and concluded that the recently deceased might be responsible, returning from the grave with evil intent.
“The Vampyre,” the first fully realized vampire story, was written by John Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron (the haughty Byron often belittled his young employee). In 1816, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin joined Byron and Polidori at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that his guests each write a ghost story. Mary’s tale became the novel Frankenstein. One theory is that Polidori, inspired by his resentment of Byron’s arrogant treatment, based his character Lord Ruthven, a charming aristocratic vampire, on the poet. But when Polidori’s story was published in 1819, it was credited to Byron. Polidori tried to prove his authorship, but was accused of misusing Byron’s name.
The most famous appearance of a vampire in literature was Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. Like Polidori’s vampire, Dracula appeared as an aristocratic gentleman. It’s often assumed that Stoker’s Count Dracula was inspired by Vlad Dracula, a real-life prince cited as an influence for modern personifications of vampires. Known as Vlad the Impaler because of the gruesome method he used to kill his enemies, he is considered a national hero for the extreme measures he used to defend his Romanian principality in the 15th century. Historians have implied but never proved that Vlad drank the blood of his enemies.
Stoker’s novel was popular in the Victorian age, but it wasn’t until the 20th century film versions that it became iconic. The first adaptation of Stoker’s novel, the silent German film Nosferatu, was controversial because of its departures from Dracula – instead of being charming, Nosferatu was a vile character, and instead of drinking his victim’s blood to create new vampires, he spread rats and plague. The most influential adaptation of Stoker’s work was the 1931 film Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. His performance inspired future actors who took the role and was a factor in making horror films a viable genre in the U.S. market. In the 1950s and 1960s, Christopher Lee played Dracula in a number of violent adaptations. Since then Count Dracula has been portrayed more times in film and TV than any other horror character. Now vampires are everywhere – in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (depicted on TV in True Blood), the Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, the TV series The Strain and Being Human, and countless others.
Those shambling creatures intent on devouring Rick Grimes and his dwindling band of survivors bear little resemblance to the earliest incarnation of the zombie. The word “zombi” originally didn’t refer to the familiar brain-eating monsters but instead to a West African deity. It later came to suggest the human force leaving the shell of a body, and ultimately a creature human in form but lacking self-awareness, intelligence, and a soul. The notion was imported to Haiti and elsewhere from Africa through the slave trade. In Haiti and the Caribbean, zombies are an element of the voodoo religion and believers take them seriously.
Haitian zombies were said to be people brought back from the dead (and sometimes controlled) through magical means by voodoo priests called bokors, often as an act of punishment. Zombies were supposedly used as slave labor on farms and sugarcane plantations, although none of these zombie-powered plantations was ever discovered. Westerners considered zombies fictional horror film characters until the 1980s when a scientist, Wade Davis, claimed in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow to have solved the mystery of the zombie. The work met much skepticism. Davis asserted that he found the actual powder used by the bokors to create zombies – a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin that could bring on the appearance of death.
Early zombie films, most notably White Zombie in 1932 and I Walked with A Zombie in 1943, acknowledged the zombie’s voodoo roots. George Romero’s 1968 film The Night of the Living Dead introduced the current popular characterization of the zombie as a flesh-eating creature. Romero’s film established common themes in current zombie films – the zombie as a metaphor for societal unrest and alienation; unconventional protagonists (hello, Daryl Dixon); and humans reduced to “survivalist” mentality. Romero’s zombies attack in groups and can be killed with a blow to the head. Recent zombie films – 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and of course, The Walking Dead – feature elements of Romero’s films and ignore the voodoo connection.
Unlike vampires and zombies, mummies are not based on myth or legend. They are actual human corpses, preserved by a special method of embalming. Mummies have been found all over the world. But in ancient Egypt the mummification process was honed to a fine art over centuries, with the best prepared and preserved specimens, including Tutankhamen and other pharaohs, dating from around 1560 to 1075 B.C. The technique worked so well that after 3,000 years, we can still tell what the deceased looked like in life.
The elaborate procedure, as much a religious ritual as a technical process, took at least 70 days. The basic method was to remove organs except the heart through a slit in the body’s side. The brain was removed through the nostrils with a hooked instrument. The organs were preserved in jars and placed inside the body. The body was covered in natron, a salt with drying properties. Once the body was dry, sunken areas were filled with linen, sawdust, and other materials to make it to look lifelike. The body was then wrapped in hundreds of yards of linen strips. Finally a shroud was secured to the body and it was buried in a tomb along with objects the person would need in the Afterlife. Throughout the entire process, rituals and prayers had to be performed precisely. Why expend so much time and effort to preserve a body? The Egyptians believed that the mummified body was the home for the soul or spirit, and if the body was destroyed, the spirit might be lost.
How did a person so honored turn into the malevolent creature we know from films? Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt at the end of the 18th century sparked a European interest in ancient Egypt that was still strong in Victorian England, where public “unrollings” of mummies were held. In 1903, Bram Stoker published The Jewel of Seven Stars, the first novel featuring mummifies as supernatural antagonists. Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 fueled even more interest. Then came the famous Boris Karloff film, The Mummy. Released in 1932, it was based on the concept of “the pharaoh’s curse” (that anyone who disturbs a tomb would die) and featured the mummy Imhotep as an evil high priest. It set the stage for a slew of mummy films through the 1940s and 1950s. Imhotep recently reappeared in the 1999 remake of The Mummy and its sequel, The Mummy Returns.
Early film depictions of vampires, zombies, and mummies may seem a little dated and not that terrifying compared to the ultraviolence common in today’s horror films. But that might change. In 2014, Universal Pictures announced it would be rebooting its library of “classic” horror films, bringing new life to standard horror characters. The first release in this effort, The Mummy starring Tom Cruise, is due to hit theaters in 2017.
- Mertz, Barbara. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978.
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
I hear this and immediately think of Joe Strummer howling at the start of the Clash’s song of the same name. While that was about the smoke and exhaust of the metropolitan road systems and gridlock, three hundred and fifty years ago it meant something far different. From the second to the fifth of September, 1666, London did indeed burn. A huge swath of the old medieval city of London, north of the Thames, was nothing but ash.
The great fire of 1666 was not a terrorist plot like the abortive attempt to destroy parliament from sixty some years before with Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plot. It did not have anything to do with the English Civil War and the return of the monarchy six years prior with the coronation of Charles II. It didn’t even directly tie to the plague outbreak the year prior, although that did lend some contributing factors. No, while Great Britain in the 17th century was a tumultuous place, the fire began in a most mundane way. It started with a stray spark from a bakery oven.
Just after midnight on 2 September 1666, the bakery of Thomas Farriner caught fire. Farriner, baker to King Charles II, lived above the bakery with his three children and a servant. The Family was unable to get to the street but did manage to get into the next house through an upstairs window. The serving woman, terrified by the situation refused and became the first victim of the fire. By the end of the day on Sunday the fire had spread almost half way to the far city wall.
Samuel Pepys, the noted diarist, lived in the environs of the fire and was able to view it from a tower and from a boat on the river. As a senior official in the Navy Office he was called to the King and reported on what he saw.
“everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them onto lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.”
His report led to the Duke of York, the future James II, and King Charles himself going to the Thames to view the situation. The King ordered all buildings adjacent to the burning to be torn down. The Duke of York offered the life guards to assist in fighting the blaze. It was, however, a bit too late. The fire itself had created a chimney effect. A vacuum existed from the air being heated and pulled up through the fire. This in turn caused more air to rush into the area of the fire close to the ground. Anyone familiar with the principles of a blast furnace will tell you that this is a great recipe for extreme heat. The temperature was so high (approximately 1700°C) that pottery actually melted. From a position across the river, Pepys noticed the “one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it”
Over the following days the fire spread until it was finally contained and on Tuesday and brought to an end the following day. Gunpowder was used for wholesale destruction of houses to create fire breaks. That and the dying down of what had been a very stiff east wind finally allowed for control and an extinguishing. The damage included the destruction of 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches, and 44 Company (guild) Halls and the final total was accessed at £10,000,000 (more than a billion pounds in today’s money) Only eight people were reported to have died but this number is heavily suspect because the temperatures reached would have melted steel and certainly would have cremated the remains of any of London’s poor unfortunate enough to not be reported missing.
Why the fire happened was an interesting thing. At first foreigners and papists were blamed. This was proven false, but the prejudice lasted for many years. Because the fire started on Pudding Lane and ended at Pye corner, many people suggested the fire was God’s punishment for the gluttony of the city. In actuality it was a combination of cheap buildings, poor design and planning, and poor management on the account of the Lord Mayor. Buildings in London were supposed to have been made of stone to prevent just such a thing. Stone was too costly and everyone went to wood as the next best choice. Also, in order to maximize available space, each successive floor was slightly larger than the ground level floor, jutting out over the street. The close proximity of such dwellings caused the fire to spread very rapidly. Finally, Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth refused to act. Within an hour of the start he was called to Pudding Lane and asked to give the order to demolish surrounding houses to form a break. He declined initially and eventually left the scene, but not before declining the help of the Lifeguards and untruly telling representatives of the king demolitions were under way. That did not actually start until well into Monday.
The Great Fire of London changed the face of London. The rebuilding was similar to the prior plan and avoided the radical changes suggested by some like John Evelyn, but there were still changes. Regulations to avoid fire were more strictly enforced and fire companies better trained. To this day you can still see the monuments, the Great Fire monument near the start and the Golden boy of Pye where it finally was brought to a halt.
You can learn more about the 1666 Great Fire of London at the library:
- The Great Fire of London by Pam Robson (J 942.1 ROB)
- Fire Cat by Pippa Goodhart (J E GOO)
- By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London by Adrian Tinniswood (942.1 TIN)
- The Great Fire of London by Stephen Porter (942.1066 POR)
- The Mammoth Book of How it Happened in Britain by Jon E. Lewis (eBook through TotalBoox)
- In Ashes Lie by Marie Brennan (F BRE)