Category Archives: History

Quiet Heroism: the Legacy of Miep Gies, World War II Resister

By Shannon Owens, Reference Department

What constitutes a hero? Slaying dragons? Pulling children from burning buildings? Wheeling and dealing like James Bond to save the world from certain disaster? Certainly such dynamic situations come to mind immediately. There’s a particular brand of heroism, though, that is far less talked about and sadly, nearly always underrated: The quiet kind. The type of heroism that involves doing the right thing when nobody is watching. The type of heroism that may never be recognized and rarely offers the hero any personal benefit. The type of heroism that, if discovered, would spell certain death for the perpetrator.

Miep Gies, October 1980

Eight years ago on this day, we saw the final light extinguished from one such individual. At 100 years old, Miep Gies, the last living member of a small group that hid Anne Frank, passed away in the Netherlands. It’s difficult to overstate the courage it took this group (including Johannes Kleinman, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl, Jan Gies and Johan Voskuijl) who risked their lives every day for over two years while the Franks were in hiding. The Frank family, along with Otto Frank’s business associate and his wife and son, and Gies’ dentist, were hidden in the Secret Annex.

Miep Gies was born on February 15, 1909 in Vienna, Austria to a working-class, Catholic family. At the age of eleven, several factors (recovery from tuberculosis, poor nutrition, rising costs of food due to shortages related to the fallout of World War I) led to Gies being sent to live in Amsterdam with a foster family. Despite the family’s modest income, coupled with five other children, Gies was loved and treated with unending compassion. In fact, she loved the Netherlands with absolute ferocity; she vowed to make Holland her permanent home.  In 1933, Miep went to work as secretary for Otto Frank, who ran a company that produced a substance used to make jam.

In May 1940, German forces invaded the Netherlands, making daily life exceedingly dangerous for the Jewish population.  In early July, the Frank family went into hiding in the attic apartment behind Otto’s business (accessible by a stairway hidden behind a bookcase). Miep’s moral integrity was the reason, when asked by Otto Frank if she was prepared to be responsible for a family in hiding, she was able to respond with a resounding affirmative. At a lecture in 1994, Gies addressed the audience: “I myself am just an ordinary woman. I simply had no choice…it is our human duty to help those who are in trouble…I could foresee many, many sleepless nights and a miserable life if I had refused to help the Franks. Yes, I have wept countless times when I thought of my dear friends. But still, I am happy that these are not tears of remorse for refusing to assist those in trouble.”

Floor Plans for the Secret Annex

Over two years, Miep provided food, clothing, books, supplies, and news from the outside world to the Frank family (this included procuring additional ration cards, at great personal risk). On August 4, 1944, Miep Gies was working at her desk, and looked up to suddenly find a Gestapo officer in front of her, with information verifying the hideout. Gies realized the arresting officer was Austrian, like herself, and she pointed this out, which very likely saved her life. The officer arrested the Franks, the Van Pels, Dr. Pfeffer, Johannes Kleinman, and Victor Kugler. After a time, Miep and Bep returned to the Annex to collect the loose papers and the contents of Anne’s diary (they hid these away for safekeeping without reading them).

Acting with surefire moxie, Miep hatched a plan to negotiate for the release of the Franks. She collected money from the employees of the company and went to the headquarters of Security Service to offer a bribe. At the office, she met the Austrian who had arrested those at the Annex and he waved her upstairs. She reached the landing, found a half open door, and walked in to a startling sight: a group of high ranking Nazi officers were surrounding a radio, listening to a BBC broadcast. Likely, they were too shocked to see her standing there to react, giving her time to hightail it out of Dodge before they could arrest her (and likely execute her as well).

After the war, Miep was devastated to learn that all of her friends, excepting Otto, had perished. She gave Anne’s diary to her father, telling him that it was the lasting legacy of his youngest daughter. To this point, Miep had not read the contents of the diary, and was relieved. If she had read the diary, she surely would have had to destroy it since it implicated all of the conspirators who safeguarded the Franks and their friends for years. Miep received several awards late in life, including the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Yad Vashem Medal and the Wallenberg Medal. In 1987, Gies published her memoir: “Anne Frank Remembered”. Here, she makes several comments referencing her legacy as a hero, maintaining that she only did what any decent human would: “I am not a hero. I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did and more- much more- during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the heart of those who bear witness. Never a day goes by that I do not think of what happened then.”

Many of us believe that if we found ourselves in a similar situation, we would act as Miep did. The reality is probably a little more complicated than that. Miep Gies stated over and over that she was no hero. I disagree emphatically: her actions gave hope where there was little, showed humanity in a time when humanity was utterly depleted, and showed strength, will, and belief in all that is good and that connects us to others. It is hard to find more heroism than that.

 


Sources:

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Winter Solstice

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Winter Solstice Art

We all know that Christmas is on December 25, but do you know why?  It wasn’t necessarily because it was the date of the birth of Jesus (most biblical scholars think he was born in March, BTW).  The pagan winter solstice observances were bigger and more wide-spread, more popular and considered more important to most non-Christian cultures.  The Catholic church wanted to promote Christianity (and get rid of pagan religions) so the celebration of Christ’s Mass was chosen to be on December 25 and promoted as the birth of Christ.

The “sol” in Solstice is Latin for sun and the “stice” part comes from the Latin verb for standing still. We, in the modern age know about the solstices that happen twice a year and the equinoxes that occur twice a year as well (the equinoxes are when day and night are equal in length, which is what equinox means in Latin).  Cultures from the past weren’t aware of the reason for this phenomenon and so it took on a religious meaning.  The nights got longer and the days got shorter.  The longer nights got colder, generally, and plants died in the cold and dark.  Is it any wonder that older cultures created ceremonies to bring back the sun and the warmth and the growing season?  The northern pagans burned huge logs that last the midwinter celebrations, sometimes even saving a small last bit of the Yule log to burn in the next winter’s fire.  The ashes of the fire on the longest night became so special many claimed it had healing properties.  The livestock, cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals were often slaughtered around this time—they often would not make it through the harsh winter and much of the meat was preserved in salt. They had huge meals; sometimes it was the last of the vegetables as well as the meats, to celebrate the return of the sun.  Often the winter months brought famine to some parts of Europe.

A little history…

Saturnalia (1783) by Antoine Callet, showing his interpretation of what the Saturnalia might have looked like

Saturnalia was a Roman holiday, a festival that started off somber but became more and more raucous. In Scandinavia this festival was called Jul or Yule. The huge log burned to keep the long night lit became the Yule log.  (And in a roundabout way we now have a fabulous holiday desert called the Buc de Noel, which is shaped like a log.  It is made from chocolate cake, often decorated with marzipan mushrooms and covered in chocolate sauce.  Very decadent and it has been around for hundreds of years.)  Saturnalia was replaced with Christmas by the Catholic Church, to make it less pagan and to make it more solemn.  It took centuries, but Christmas eventually became so raucous that it was outlawed in the new world of America.

Another rival to Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Mithra, a sun god whose birth was celebrated by Romans all over the empire on December 25. Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the “Invincible Sun” or Mithra in the third century as part of the Roman Winter Solstice celebrations. In 273, the Christian church selected this day to represent the birthday of Jesus, and by 336, this Roman feast day was Christianized.

In Scandinavia, Yule is celebrated when the dark half of the year starts to get shorter  and the days start lasting a little longer.  The sun’s rebirth was celebrated with much joy. From this day forward, the days would become longer. Bonfires were lit in the fields, and crops and trees were wished good health with toasts of spiced cider.   The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the Solstice festival. In accordance to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder’s land, or given as a gift… it must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before set ablaze by a piece of last year’s log.

Mistletoe

Caroling, wassailing the trees, burning the Yule log, decorating the Yule tree, exchanging of presents, kissing under the mistletoe were all activities that are still part of our Christmas traditions that came from celebrating the solstice.  Even the foods that we associate with solstice celebrations are similar.  Cider, spiced cider, ginger tea, eggnog, fall fruits and other spiced breads and cookies.

Interested in celebrating the solstice?  Try some of these ideas to start your own traditions of celebrating the rebirth of the sun.

  • Many people make a winter solstice tree by hanging food to feed the animals when their food supplies have become scarce on the winter solstice.
  • Make sun and or star ornaments to hang on your Christmas Tree to symbolize the return of the sun’s light.
  • Some people celebrate by staying up all night on the night of the solstice to be awake to welcome back the light.
  • Many people choose to not use electricity on the night of the solstice and instead enjoy the darkest night of the year by candlelight. Some people carry this tradition through to Christmas Eve.  Consider inviting friends and family over for a candlelight feast!
  • Eat, drink, and be merry! You can find recipes for wassail online, either spiked or unspiked to serve with your meal.
  • You could burn a bigger log than normal in the fire place.  You can also find a Yule Log online and watch it burn on your computer.  There are even videos you could purchase to have a crackling fire on cold winter nights.
  • Yule Log by Nigella.

    If you don’t have one, consider making a cake Yule Log.  The Buche de Noel is stunning and delicious.  Try some of these recipes:

  • Consider writing down everything that you would like to release or change in the new year onto scraps of paper, then throw them in the fire or burn them carefully in a safe container.
  • You could also write down your intentions for the new year, similar to a resolution.

And just to throw this in, in the southern hemisphere, they celebrate the summer solstice.  Here are some of the things they do that you might want to incorporate in the summer or the winter.

In the past, people in the Southern hemisphere celebrated renewal, life, fertility, and the potential for a good harvest on the summer solstice.  Today, many people often celebrate the arrival of summer with outdoor feasts, singing, dancing, and bonfires.  You might want to bathe in sunlight; make a flower wreath to wear; start a garden or spend time tending your garden and celebrate rebirth and renewal; visit a local farm, have a festival and feast; throw a bonfire and dance; do yoga or meditation; get outside and connect with nature.

In other countries there are many traditions to celebrate the solstice.  Here are a few of the most interesting.  Revelers come to Hollabrunn, Austria to watch people dressed up like Krampus scare the crowd.  They dress to look like Krampus and carry soft whips that they use on the crowds.  Doesn’t sound like fun to me, though.

In Japan, they like to soak in hot baths outside with fruits tossed into the water that are believed to bring good health.  Often the zoos do the same thing for the animals (those that like water, that is.)  The macaques and hippos sure do like it!

In Korea, the meal to eat is red bean porridge.  It’s believed to keep the evil spirits away.


Further Reading:

  • Winter solstice by Rosemund Pilcher (F PIL)
  • Winter solstice by Elin Hildenbrand (F HIL)
  • Krampus: the Yule lord by Brom (F BRA)

Sources:

Grandfather Frost

by Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden

The Russians got used to not celebrating Christmas during the Soviet years; they celebrated New Year’s Day just like we celebrate Christmas.  Luckily for them there was a legendary figure who fit the bill as a Santa Claus figure to help celebrate New Year, and now also Christmas.  He’s known as Grandfather Frost (definitely not to be confused with Frosty the Snowman).  In Russian, he’s called Ded Moroz, “d’ed” being Grandfather, “moroz” being frost.  He is often accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden.  In Russian Snegurochka (just FIY – sneg is the Russian word for snow.)  And truly these are not modern figures made to help celebrate (and sell) a modern Christmas holiday.  They are ancient mythological figures.

Grandfather Frost predates Christianity.  In the pagan days, before the Russian tsar sent out envoys to compare the various religions in the area and chose the Greek Orthodox Church (choosing to differentiate their own version as Russian Orthodox), the peasants worshiped nature.  Frost and snow were very important in their lives, so they made a name for the frost lord.  He is a winter wizard who brought the frost and snow and he could be helpful if treated nicely, but vindictive if treated badly. Winter was a powerful figure in Russia; just look at what happened to both Napoleon and Hitler…

Troika

Frost is considered to be around 2,500 years old.  He usually wears a long red wool or fur robe and boots, but no belt.  He has a long bushy beard and sometimes wears a wreath of holly and sometimes a hat similar to our Santa Claus.  He has also been shown wearing a crown.  And he has powers.  He often carries a staff which he might use for magic spells and to help him walk through the snow drifts.  He doesn’t travel down chimneys either, he comes in through the front door.  He travels around in a troika; that’s a carriage driven by three horses (troika means three in Russian…). Even though there are caribou in some parts of Russia, they are not widespread enough for the legend of flying reindeer.  Though his troikas have been known to fly as well.

In 2002, a tradition was started between Finland and Russia where Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) crossed the border to greet Ded Moroz.  They hand out gifts to all, the crowd of children dance and then they all go inside and have fun.  We know that this Santa Summit was still taking place in 2016. Perhaps it still is.

The Snow Maiden is not as old a character as Grandfather Frost.  She first appeared in a collection of folktales published in the 1860s by Alexander Afanasyev.  He eventually collected three volumes of Russian folktales.  No one knows if the story of the snow maiden goes back further, though, since he was the first to collect the stories.  In her tale, she longs to be able to love her foster parents but has no heart since she is made of snow.  She is granted a heart by her mother and father but melts away as she joins other children jumping over the fire.  Grandfather Frost is considered her grandfather and the two of them bring joy and beauty to the snowy Russian winter.

Ded Moroz house in Veliky Ustyug

In 1998, the Moscow Mayor proposed to officially make Veliky Ustyug the residence of Ded Moroz,   The residence, which is a resort promoted as his estate, is a major tourist attraction.  The town also has a post office there that answers children’s mail to Ded Moroz.  Between 2003 and 2010, the post office in Veliky Ustyug received nearly 2,000,000 letters from all over Russia and worldwide.  On January 7, 2008, Vladimir Putin visited the estate for the Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve celebration.

Santa Claus made some inroads in Russia during the 1990s, but Russia’s resurgence has brought a renewed emphasis on the basic Slavic character of Ded Moroz.  The Russian Federation has even sponsored classes about Ded Moroz every December. People playing Ded Moroz and Snegurochka now typically make appearances at children’s parties during the winter holiday season, distributing presents and fighting off the wicked witch, Baba Yaga, who children are told wants to steal their gifts.

In November and December 2010, Ded Moroz was even one of the candidates in the running for consideration as a mascot for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

 


Further Reading:
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The Wacky World(s) of Quantum Theory

by Howard Shirley, Teen Department

“If you’re not shocked by quantum theory, you haven’t understood it.”—Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics.

“I think I can safely say nobody understands quantum mechanics.”—Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics

The Universe is weird. And the closer you look, the weirder it gets.

How weird you say?

Well according to quantum theory:

  • We know stuff cannot appear out of nothing (The Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy), but stuff appears out of nothing all the time, but disappears before there is any time for it to be here, so it doesn’t violate the previous law.
  • A pure vacuum, empty of all matter, isn’t actually empty (see the above).
  • A thing in one place can be changed, and it instantly changes an identical thing in another place, no matter how far apart they are.
  • Things can move from one location to another without going through the space in between.
  • Things don’t exist as things in specific places but as the possibility of things in different places at once, until you look at them.

Now, all of that is about things that are very, very tiny (add a lot more “very, veries” to that). Things like electrons and photons and all the things that make up all the matter and energy in our Universe. But it’s also therefore about all the big things too—like stars and planets and black holes and even you and me.

Which means that all that little weirdness has some weird implications for the big things, like:

  • We might be living in a massive simulation, like a virtual world in a computer (don’t take the red pill!).
  • Nothing might exist unless someone observes it.
  • OR, everything might exist in all possible combinations of all possible events, all at the same time, but we only experience (and observe) one progression of these (while, presumably, infinite other “us”-es experience all the other versions).
  • We (and everything else) are all just parts of one big energy field that “ripples” back and forth through time.
  • We could exist alongside a completely invisible, undetectable world with invisible, undetectable living beings, all made out of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

And none of the above is just another over-the-top Hollywood movie. It’s serious science, all stemming from the basics of quantum theory. And, yes, quantum theory isn’t just wild speculation, but one of the most robustly established concepts in modern science, going back to 1900, proven again and again by experimentation and practical application (you’re looking at one of those applications right now as you use an electronic device to read this blog; if quantum theory were wrong, your electronic device wouldn’t work).

Light photographed as both a particle and a wave by Fabrizio Carbone.

Quantum theory is based on the concept that energy, like matter, is divisible and isolatable into definable, self-contained bits, or quanta. Think of it as a long band of light, seen from a distance. The light looks like one continuous bar. But as you get closer, you can see that the bar is instead made of individual lights separated by gaps. We will call these lights “photons.” Each light in our analogy represents a single “packet” or “quanta” of energy, which cannot be any smaller, but is very much separated from each of the other photons, like particles. That may not be confusing, but what is confusing is that these photons behave both as if they each are individual particles and as if they each are also a continuous wave of energy, like our distant band of light. And if you observe them in one way, they will appear to be particles and not waves, and if you observe them in another way, they will appear to be waves and not particles. They are neither, and they are both, at the same time. And it is from this bit of weirdness that all the other weirdness of the quantum world arises.

It’s heady stuff, but it’s also a lot of fun. If you’re intrigued, come in and search for some of our titles on quantum physics. And don’t worry—they’re written for the layman to understand. So you don’t have to be either Niels Bohr or Richard Feynman to appreciate all that weirdness (but you probably will still be shocked).

*Howard Shirley is the Teen Library Assistant. And no, he doesn’t claim to understand quantum theory, but still enjoys being shocked by it.*

Sources:

  • Rocket Science for the Rest of Us by Ben Gilliland (YA 520 GIL)
  • Quantifying Matter by Joseph A. Angelo, Jr. (YA 530 ANG)
  • The New Encyclopedia of Science: 1 Matter and Energy by John O.E. Clark (YA 503 NEW vol.1)

The One and Only Flight of the Spruce Goose

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

On November 2, 1947 the Hughes H-4 Hercules drifted out of its hanger in Long Beach Harbor at the end of a tow rope pulled by a small boat. The authorities had cleared the water so the massive flying boat could do some taxi tests. Hughes, taking a break from congressional testimony over his government contracts (including the $18 million one for the H-4), decided it was time to get the massive plane out and see how she handled on the water. He invited the press and even the members of the committee he was testifying in front of. The politicos didn’t show, but the press did. The first run was a leisurely 40 knots, the second a much more brisk 90 knots. The plane lined up for a third run; Howard Hughes himself at the controls. The eight propellers spun up to speed. The plane lurched forward. Speed increased, and increased, and increased, and then it happened. The eight story tall Hercules took to the air.

To understand what a momentous event this was you need to understand three factors; the times, the plane, and the man.

The Time:

The early days of America’s involvement in the Second World War were costly, and America hadn’t even declared itself at war. Tons of ships and materials were being sent to the bottom of the Atlantic every month by German U-boats. We needed a way to move a lot of cargo weight a great distance, and to do it quickly. While the ship building industry began to ramp up production to an unequaled pace, some people looked to the skies to transport more. Seaplanes were used far more prevalently than they are now and were far from being a primarily private aviation phenomenon. Military and commercial carriers had sizable seaplanes, carrying upwards of seventy people.

The Man:

Howard Hughes was a man who thought big. He was brash and arrogant, but also pioneering and adventurous. He was born into privilege, but longed for meaning. He sought that in everything from business, to engineering, to Hollywood to flight. He had the arms of the most beautiful women in the world and the envy of the masses, but he longed for the respect of the powerful.

The Plane:

At the intersection of America’s need and Hughes’ ego was the Hercules. The largest seaplane ever built. A wooden gamble for the Hughes Aircraft Company. A five year project that cost millions of dollars, personal relationships, and congressional intervention.

The call for a new seaplane went out and amongst the bidders was an audacious project. A plane that could carry multiple tanks, hundreds of troops or huge amounts of supplies. It was so crazy it took Hughes himself to sell the project. By this time it was 1942 and the United States was no longer a sideline player in World War Two. This new design of Hughes’s could revolutionize troop deployment and materiel transport. Best of all, it would be easy on the precious commodities of metal and rubber. The Hughes H-4 Hercules would be made of wood. The press thought it was a huge mistake. The Flying Lumberyard and The Spruce Goose were the mocking names the media gave to what they saw as a colossal waste of money and time. Hughes hated the derisive nicknames, especially the Spruce Goose (especially because it was made mostly of birch).  

It wasn’t actually Hughes’s brainchild alone. Henry J. Kaiser, a builder of Liberty Ships, came up with the initial idea of a flying cargo ship.  Kaiser knew very well that he knew more about hydrodynamics than aerodynamics and that to pull off his enormous plan he would need to get an aircraft builder to help. Hughes was just the man. The problems began to pile up almost immediately. Building a plane mostly from wood solved some of the problem but there were still restrictions on strategic wartime materials like aluminum. The other problem was the partnership. Kaiser was from an industry that ran its production up to unheard of levels during the war. Hughes insisted on perfection over punctuality. The frustrations caused Kaiser to pull his support from the project and caused a rift between the two men from then on. It took sixteen months to go from approval to production start.

Five years after the initial approval, in 1947, Hughes still hadn’t gotten his magnum opus off the ground. The Senate Investigating Committee was looking into the project with a very skeptical eye. The war it was supposed to have helped fight had been over for more than two years. Hughes vowed to the committee that he would prove the plane was not a failure or he would “probably leave this country and never come back.” He left the hearings during a recess, went home and flew the plane on what was supposed to have been a taxi test. It reaches an altitude of seventy feet and was aloft for a single mile. This was all Hughes needed to feel that he had vindicated himself. The plane was moved back to its hanger, kept air ready by a crew of 300 employees, then cut to 50 in 1962 and finally just left in its hanger in 1976 after Hughes died.

The plane remains. You could go and see it in Long Beach, California for many years as it passed from one hand to the next several years until it was finally moved to its current home at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in Oregon. It’s on display for all to come and marvel at the folly and the genius and the audacity of one man’s need to be better than everybody else, and it still has the largest wingspan ever created.


Sources:

  • Biplanes, Triplanes and Seaplanes, Sharpe, Michael YA 629.13334 SHA
  • Flight 100 Years of Aviation, Grant, R.G. 629.13009 GRA
  • Howard Hughes His Life and Madness, Bartlett, Donald and Steele, James B Hughes
  • Howard Hughes The Secret Life, Higham, Charles B Hughes
  • Jane’s Encylopedia of Aviation, Taylor, Michael J. H. ed., R 629.13 JAN
  • The Timechart History of Aviation, Lowe & B. Hould Publishers, 629.13009 TIM
  • Time Magazine (Vol. 50 No. 19) November 10 1947 p27
  • Hughes H-4 Hercules (Spruce Goose) at Military Factory https://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/detail.asp?aircraft_id=349#specs

It’s the great TURNIP, Charlie Brown!

IMG_9370

Taken by Rebecca Tischler, Reference Librarian

By Rebecca Tischler, Reference Librarian

We all love It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but were you aware that the first Jack O’Lanterns were carved out of turnips?

Did you know that the horrifying mask worn by Michael Myers in the Halloween movie was actually a William Shatner Star Trek mask?

Halloween is the second highest grossing commercial holiday after Christmas. The National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts Halloween spending this year—including candy, costumes, and decorations—will hit $7.4 billion.   Candy will account for more than $2 billion of that amount and a quarter of all candy bought in the U.S. is for Halloween.

But what are the origins of this creepy holiday? Here’s what we do know about the history of Halloween: it wasn’t created by the Candy Companies, although they’ve certainly profited, nor was it created by the toilet paper companies (though I do wonder how much money they make with all the teepeeing).

The history of Halloween is a rather vague and confusing tale, mainly because no one can seem to agree on how Halloween evolved from a harvest pagan New Year celebration, to the candy gorging and anything goes costumes of today. One thing that everyone seems to agree on, even though there has never been a proven connection, is that modern Halloween begins with the Celtic festival of Samhain (although, they don’t know much about that either).

samhain_scarecrow_2_by_belisarius2930-d4es8y7Scholars are pretty sure that Samhain was an annual celebration of the end of the harvest months to honor the Celtic deities (as well little green leprechauns and tricky fairies). It was also a time to gather resources and slaughter livestock (or maybe they were sacrifices – who knows) in preparation for the upcoming winter months. Some say it was the Celtic New Year. It was also believed that this was the day that the veil between the dead and living was thinnest, and the dead could cross over. They would celebrate this day with bonfires, food laid out for the dead, and costumes to blend with the spirits. Strangely enough, they’re not sure whether these actions were to honor and welcome the dead or to ward off the visiting spirits. Either way, the dead were a big part of the pagan festival.

The second part of Halloween’s history that seems to be agreed on is the attempted Christianization of a pagan celebration. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III assigned the Christian feast, All Saints Day, to November 1, as a day was to honor all Christian saints and martyrs. It is generally believed that this edict was meant to cause All Saints Day to replace Samhain. However, instead of killing off the pagan traditions, these two celebrations combined to create All-Hallows Eve. The holiday was no longer about the Celtic deities, or about the Christian Saints. The previously celebrated supernatural creatures were now thought to be evil and the main focus of the holiday was about the wandering dead.

Bonaire_Holloween The third fact that seems to be agreed upon is that trick-or-treating came from another two practices that eventually combined. The first is “mumming”, a medieval practice where people would disguise themselves and go door-to-door asking for food in exchange for “tricks” (basically they were putting on shows and clowning around).  The second is the practice of leaving out food and offerings for the dead in order to gain favor with them, which is believed to be part of the original Samhain tradition. So basically, we give kids candy in exchange for entertainment, and to satisfy the little goblins that knock on our door.

 


Sources:

Columbus Day: A Study in Machiavellian Philosophy

By Shannon Owens, Reference Department

We can all recite the poem: “In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”…I know, I know, I can see your eyes rolling from here.  Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa (like the salami) Italy, is frequently credited with “discovering” the New World (aka: The Americas). This is a rather dubious claim, given that Viking explorer, Leif Erikson, landed in Newfoundland and Labrador a good 500 years before Columbus went about destroying indigenous Caribbean culture (I digress). It’s impossible to say why Columbus remains ingrained in our history books and general psyche, whilst Erikson is relegated to a footnote, but I would hazard a guess here: American culture is profoundly impacted by Western European culture, whereas Nordic culture remains a mystery. It certainly wouldn’t be the only factor, but I imagine this is not insignificant.

Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at the man who gives us parades, bank holidays, time off from work, and downright incredible retail sales (I’m eyeing a pair of gorgeous boots being sold at a fifty percent markdown as we speak, so kudos, Cristobol)! Mr. Columbus was a marine entrepreneur (read: seaman) who was obsessed with finding a western route to China, India, and the spice and gold islands of Asia.  Here’s where we run into another common misconception:  Lore suggests that the entire world thought the world was flat at this time and Columbus was the renegade willing to challenge this idea. Nearly all educated Europeans knew the Earth was round. This wasn’t even a recent revelation. Around the sixth century BC, Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, theorized that the Earth was round, and about two centuries later Aristotle concurred with his findings. So, no, Columbus’ crew was not terrified that they’d fall off the edge of the world (despite what Washington Irving would have you believe).

Columbus was barely successful finding anybody who would fund this venture. It took nearly a decade to find a backer (monarchies in England, Portugal, and France had all refused) and Spain was not an easy mark, either. In fact, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had once declined before changing their minds in the eleventh hour.  Still, Columbus was granted his fleet and crew, comprised of three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria (two of which actually had different names…Spain was an extremely Catholic country and named all their ships after saints…Pinta was a nickname translated as  “the painted one” and the Nina was actually the Santa Clara). This joint venture could prove mutually beneficial: Isabella and Ferdinand could gain power while exporting Catholicism to locals and Columbus’ contract guaranteed him ten percent of any riches he found and a noble title.

On October 12th, the expedition reached land (probably Watling Island in the Bahamas). Later that month, Columbus sighted Cuba (which he thought was China) and finally in December, the expedition landed on Hispaniola (Columbus surmised that this must be Japan). Here, he established a settlement of 39 men, and went about his business, terrorizing the locals (the Taino people, though Columbus referred to them as Indians). In March of 1493, he left the settlement and returned to Spain. Nearly six months later, he returned to Hispaniola to find the settlement destroyed. To this day, nobody knows exactly what happened.  Columbus traveled island to island, and since he couldn’t seem to find the riches he had boasted of to his patrons, he sent Isabella 500 slaves instead. This was downright horrifying to the Queen, who believed these people were now Spanish citizens, and she swiftly rebuked Columbus for his monstrous actions.

Christopher Columbus landing in Santo Domingo

In 1498, Columbus embarked on his third journey to the New World. First, he visited Trinidad and then South America before returning to the settlement in Hispaniola (which he had left his two brothers in charge of this time).  Once again, it was decimated, but this time it was by the colonists themselves who had revolted against their leaders. It would seem that brutality and mismanagement run in the family.  Spain sent new governorship and Columbus returned to Europe in in chains, arrested for the goings on.  By 1502, Columbus had been cleared of most charges (although stripped of noble titles he had received previously) and the Spanish monarchy funded one last trip to the New World. It was an unmitigated disaster. Columbus made it all the way to Panama and then promptly abandoned four ships when they came under attack by natives. Columbus returned, bereft, to Spain, where he died in 1506.

It would seem that the man’s lasting legacy was one of abuse, brutality and ultimately, felony.  He enslaved locals and introduced diseases that decimated the remaining indigenous populations. Other European countries hopped on the colonial bandwagon, which created environment change along with the borderline theft of local natural resources. He is blamed, not unfairly, for biological warfare. Interestingly, the phrase “Columbian Exchange” is used by historians to describe the exchange of plants, animals, and goods between the East and West. On the other hand, advocates could make the point that his legacy underlines the importance and history of the Age of Exploration. It’s globalization in its earliest form. Obviously, his actions cannot all be discounted as negative. Perhaps his lasting legacy is a cautionary tale on the grandest scale.

 


Sources:

Jack London: The Traveling Outdoorsman

By Allan Cross, Reference Department

Jack London

It now seems intuitive that Jack London would dream of living in a rustic setting. As a journalist, writer, and public speaker, London knew both renown and controversy. His output established him as a man of adventure, who expressed his beliefs with drive and vehemence. On January 12, 1876, London was born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco, California. His mother bore him out of wedlock and later changed his last name to that of his stepfather, John London, but from his earliest years, they referred to the boy as “Jack.”

The adolescent Jack London thrived on curiosity, which transcended the bounds of his blue-collar upbringing. Hours spent at libraries developed the young London’s mind, while instilling in him another desire: to travel. By the age of 17, he had gone on a sealing voyage in the Pacific. The trip was a professional catastrophe, but London and his shipmates returned home alive. The budding scribe jotted down his maritime story and used it to win a local writing contest. So began Jack London’s method of drawing themes from Mother Nature.

As he matured, London’s exploration only increased. After spending some time on the East Coast, he returned to California and attended UC Berkeley. London did not graduate, instead heading to the Yukon at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. This period in Canada supplied material for his novel, The Call of the Wild.

Jack London’s cabin in the Yukon

After the success of Call of the Wild, London was in demand and had made a fair amount of money. His innate ruggedness led him to avoid urban life. Like Thoreau before him, London sought out a countryside retreat, finding one of his own in Sonoma County, California. Here he purchased a ranch and lived in a small cottage, while conceiving plans to build an estate, Wolf House, on the property.

Though he no longer stood destitute, London still identified with the problems of working people. He didn’t hide his leftist views. London gave many lectures critical of capitalism. He also penned combative works that took on the upper class. London stayed always a fighter for the underdog. He never lost interest in travel, going as a newspaperman to cover the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.

London married twice. He and his second wife, Charmian, once made a grand escape across the Pacific. Their destinations included Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, and Australia. Unfortunately, London’s heavy drinking and extreme pursuits took their toll, forcing him to back off from seafaring. London returned to Sonoma County, where he resumed construction of Wolf House.

In the year 1913, an accidental fire destroyed the still incomplete Wolf House. London was aging fast and construction of the estate never restarted. The end of that dream disappointed him, but London’s intrepid fervor remained. He continued to explore, in spite of his doctors’ advice. Nature kept providing London with a foundation for stories, though at a growing personal cost.

Jack London’s gravesite

On November 22, 1916, Jack London passed away of kidney disease at the age of 40. His ranch has since become part of the Jack London State Historic Park. London’s cottage, a quantity of his belongings, and the shell of Wolf House remain preserved there. By reviewing London’s life, one might better understand the task of all writers: to hit upon the balance of careful refinement and unfettered inspiration.


Sources:

 

(All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

William the Conqueror Did WHAT?!?

William the Conqueror circa 1620 by unknown artist

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Rollo (not the candy) was a leader of a band of Vikings who invaded northern France and settled there in 918 A.D.   He was called Rollo the Walker, because he was said to have been too big to ride a horse (either too tall or too fat—it isn’t clear in the sagas). The area he settled, or took over, became the land of the Northmen which over time became the duchy of Normandy. Rollo is significant because he was the three times grandfather of William of Normandy who is known throughout history as William the Conqueror (aka, William the Bastard).

William’s father died when he was eight, and he instantly became the heir.  But he had to fight for his birthright since he was considered by most everyone as a bastard.  Luckily for William, he was very good at fighting and he won his place as the Duke of Normandy.  The English king, Edward the Confessor, had promised William the throne of England upon his death.  Perhaps he forgot this fact (or just ignored it) because he also promised the throne to Harold Godwinson (Harold the Saxon) as well.  Thus a contest for the throne of England was set. Harold was proclaimed king, and William decided to defend his right to the throne.

Family Tree of William’s Struggle for England

By a twist of fate, a Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada (the Ruthless) also decided to take England by force. He wasn’t promised the throne, though; his connection came from Harold Godwinson’s troublesome brother, Tostig (gasp! No nickname?).  He brought 300 ships and 11,000 Vikings to take the English throne.  They attacked at the north of England and managed to take the city of York.  Harold knew that William was going to attack as well but that would be at a different part of England, so what was Harold to do?  He decided to defend England against Harald Hardrada and his Vikings even knowing that William was close to sailing to attack from a different coast.  It turned out that William was delayed in his conquest of England because he was waiting for good winds to take him across the English Channel.  If the winds had turned good earlier, who know what would have happened (now that would be a good alternate history idea).

William the Conqueror and King Harold stained glass window in St Mary’s church, Battle.

Harold was successful in defeating the Viking forces at Stamford Bridge, but at great cost.  And since the Vikings had attacked England at the north end of the country,  the English under Harold Godwinson had to force-march ten miles a day for three weeks to get to the south of England and meet William.  They were mostly walking—most of the soldiers didn’t have horses, and given the distance, they made good time.  But they were exhausted when they got there, and they had to fight the next day.  No day of rest for them.  William and his Norman forces won the day; Harold was killed with an arrow through the eye; and history was made.  This was effectively the end of the English kings, and the beginning of Norman/French rule.  William continued to fight to consolidate his rule of England.  He fought other battles in 1068 against Harold Godwinson’s heirs and in 1069 the Danes attacked York, aided by revolting (what they did, not how they looked) English nobles.  He scorched the earth so badly after he won it was said that there was famine in the area for nine years.

And why was William conquering England so important? 

  • The Normans brought French language to England.  The rulers and the courts spoke French, and it was the official language of England for centuries.  In time it trickled down through the whole country and became closer to the language we know today.  The reason we can read Chaucer and other Middle English works is that they are not in Anglo-Saxon.
  • Many believe that the Normans won because they used stirrups when they rode to battle.  Stirrups hadn’t made it to the island of Britain yet and the Normans were using armored cavalry, 3000 strong!  When throwing spears and slashing from horseback, it is far easier to stay in the saddle with stirrups!
  • William ordered that a national census be done in 1086; the first census was called the Domesday Book.  He wanted to see what he had conquered.  It is still extant and can be looked at in the National Archives.  It is also available online and as a book.
  • Some sources believe that the legend of Robin Hood was actually born during the time of the Norman invasion under William, not under his 4th great grandson John.

Coronation of William the Conqueror

  • The Norman Invasion brought castles to England.  France invented the castle as a way to protect property and dominate the land, and the Normans built many stout and menacing castles in England to control England.  Many are still standing today.
  • Chivalry came to Great Britain with the Normans.  Imagine life without the romance of knights and their ladies; King Arthur would not have been such a great influence without this way of acting and living.
  • William banned the English slave trade.  He even sometimes freed slaves.  Some historians believe that 15% to 20% of the population was enslaved before the Invasion.  True, they brought in the feudal system with serfs, who were treated sometimes like slaves.  But they couldn’t be sold, except when the land was sold or traded hands.
  • William erected an abbey at the spot where Harold died, in remembrance and in penance.  Ruins of the abbey are still there, as is a town called Battle.  Normans erected other churches, cathedrals as well as castles.
  • The Battle of Hastings was recreated on a 230 feet long (and 20 inches wide) tapestry by the women of Bayeux, France (either nuns and/or women in William’s family).  It is the longest tapestry in existence.  It is known as the Bayeux Tapestry and is quite famous for the battle scenes, which are quite graphic.  If it was created by nuns, they knew battle…
  • Normans brought surnames to England as well.  Anglo-Saxons, similar to the Vikings, had a descriptive surname, like Luke the Fat or Marcus the butcher.
  • And finally, for the gross factor: William died in his French capital, Rouen.  He confessed his sins and distributed his treasure to the poor and to some of the churches in his realms.   It is believed that William was injured by a fall or perhaps from the pommel of his saddle (he was very heavy later in life).  In any case, it was an internal injury and swelled badly.  The priests had a hard time getting him into his stone sarcophagus, which was a little too short and not big enough for him, and had to push hard.  His wounds, having festered, burst from the corpse; it was a very quick burial after that… (ewwww…)
  • Still, all kings (and queens) in England after William were descended through him.  Some believe over 25% of the English population can trace their genealogy back through him.  And may Americans can also count him as an ancestor.  Justin Timberlake and Barack Obama are very distant cousins, both having lines back to William!

Further Reading: Read the rest of this entry

United States, or Uncle Sam??

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Most of us remember seeing the poster, somewhere, at some time stating that “Uncle Sam Wants You….”  Did you ever wonder why it is everywhere, and why this United States mascot is called Uncle Sam??  Prepare to be informed…

During the War of 1812, Sam Wilson (Marvel’s Falcon was aptly named), a meat packer in Troy, New York delivered meat for the soldiers fighting the battles of the war.  There was a directive from the government that all supplies sent to the troops be stamped with the name and location of the supplier.  He stamped the barrels with a U.S. which actually stood for United States.  Sam was locally called Uncle Sam; when the barrels were delivered to the troops, soldiers from Troy knew Sam Wilson and called him Uncle Sam to other soldiers.  Word spread and hearing the story, more and more soldiers began saying that the meat came from “Uncle Sam.”    The soldiers began calling themselves Uncle Sam’s soldiers.  By the end of the War of 1812, Uncle Sam was considered a new nickname for the United States.

Original design for the “Be Patriotic” poster by Paul Stahr, ca. 1917-18

The United States of America had also been called Columbia, shown as a classical Greek statue of a woman, sometimes holding a flag – dos the song “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” ring any bells?  The name Columbia was based on Columbus, since he discovered America (but maybe not the first discoverer any more…)

So now we know how the name Uncle Sam became associated with our armed forces.  But what about the picture?  We have to go back earlier than you might think. Thomas Nast was the first artist to create a picture of Uncle Sam.  He’s the same artist who made Santa Claus into the character we see today.  He created his image in the 1870s and 80s, and then continued to refine the image; he was the first artists to give Sam a white goatee, top hat and a suit of stars and stripes.

We’re probably all familiar with the poster Uncle Sam Wants You!  Artist James Montgomery Flagg (truly, his last name is Flagg!) designed over 40 recruitment post for the United States as it entered World War I.  Flagg was under a deadline; he didn’t have enough time to find a model for the poster.  He looked in the mirror and used his own face for inspiration for Uncle Sam.  He had a long face, with bushy white eyebrow and full beard.  So he had the image he wanted for the poster.  Flagg also had illustrations in “Photoplay,” “McClure’s Magazine,” “Colliers Weekly,” “Ladies Home Journal,” “Saturday Evening Post” and “Harper’s Weekly.”

J. M. Flagg’s 1917 poster was based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier. It was used to recruit soldiers for both World War I and World War II. Flagg used a modified version of his own face for Uncle Sam,[1] and veteran Walter Botts provided the pose.

Now…, to find the message.  He remembered seeing a poster of Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of War, asking the British to “Join Your Country’s Army – Lord Kitchener Wants YOU.”  Inspiration!  He created the poster with the soon to be iconic image of Uncle Sam with the caption Uncle Sam Wants You To Join the Army.  It was this image more than any other that set the appearance of Uncle Sam as the elderly man with white hair and a goatee wearing a white top hat with white stars on a blue band, a blue tail coat and red and white striped trousers, and his pointing finger.  Flagg’s Uncle Sam first appearance is generally believed to be on the cover of the magazine Leslie’s Weekly, on July 6, 1916.  Also on the cover was the title “What Are You Doing For Preparedness.”  A poster of the image was also created, using the now famous phrase I wan You for the US Army.  More than four million copies of this cover image were printed between 1917 and 1918.  When Flagg was asked to update his famous image, he hired Indianan veteran Walter Botts as a model.  Family lore has it that he was chosen because he had long arms, a long nose and extremely bushy eyebrows.

In 1961 the U.S. Congress recognized that Sam Wilson “Uncle Sam” as the progenitor of America’s national symbol.   Wilson died in 1854, and is buried in Troy, New York, which rightly calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”

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