The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows
Where her son flies in the sky
—Russian song whistled by Yuri Gagarin during the first manned space flight
For thousands of years, humans stared at the skies wondering about the composition of the stars, lights that shined through pinpoints in the banner of heaven. It took millennia for our knowledge of the skies to coalesce. And it wasn’t until 1903 that Wilber and Orville Wright appeared to have conquered gravity, albeit briefly.
Yet only six decades after that first flight, a human being transcended into outer space. That man was Yuri Gagarin. The day was April 12, 1961—now celebrated as Cosmonaut’s Day.
The 27 year-old Russian pilot stood only 5’2″, an advantage for the world’s first cosmonaut, crammed into the tiny cockpit of the spacecraft Vostok 3KA. The Vostok launched from Baykonur, Kazakhstan, at 9:07 am Moscow Time. The flight lasted only 108 minutes, but in that time Yuri Gagarin circled the globe, a feat that had taken Magellan’s crew three years.
As late as early April there had been six contenders for the first cosmonaut. Gagarin wasn’t finalized as the pilot of the craft until just two days before the flight. And if some officials had their way, we would be celebrating “Herman’s Night” today instead of “Yuri’s Night.” Herman Titov was Yuri’s backup.
According to Gagarin, the flight went mostly smoothly. He didn’t report an emergency during the mission, but:
“As soon as TDU (breaking engine) shot down, there was a sharp jolt. The spacecraft started spinning about its axis with a very high speed…Everything was spinning. One moment I see Africa — it happened over Africa — another the horizon, another the sky. I barely had time to shade myself from the sun, so the light did not blind my eyes.”
The 20th century Icarus faired better than his Greek predecessor. Gagarin ejected from the crafted at 10:44 am and landed safely.
His post-flight report wasn’t published until decades after the flight.
By beating the first American into space (Alan Shepard) by one month, Gagarin helped the Soviet Union emerge as the apparent leader in aeronautic technology, and the space race was on. Yuri went from complete obscurity to a national hero—perhaps THE national hero for two generations of Russians.
Gagarin legacy far outlasted his life. He died in 1968 in a training flight crash. He was only 34 years old.
Cosmonautics Day was established by the Soviet Union in 1962. Today April 12 is also known as Yuri’s Night, celebrated around the world in honor of the 5’2″ giant who first touched the heavens.
If you grew up in El Norte, chances are your history books skipped the chapter on William Walker and Juan Santamaría. The two men could not have been more different.
Juan Santamaría was a poor laborer, an illegitimate son raised by a single mother in the impoverished district of Alajuela, Costa Rica. He joined his country’s army as a drummer boy in the 1850’s.
William Walker was born to a well-to-do family in the American South and graduated from college summa cum laude at age 14. He went on to study at some of the most prestigious universities in Europe before earning his doctorate in medicine at age 19. He briefly practiced law in New Orleans before moving to San Francisco where he explored the field of journalism.
Despite their different upbringings, the fates of these two men would become inextricably woven at Rivas, Nicaragua in April 1858.
While in San Francisco, Walker had conceived of a political opportunity south of the border—he gathered a group of pro-slavery supporters to help him establish slavery-friendly zones in Mexico and Central America.
For whatever reason, the government of Mexico had issues with Walker’s notion. When they didn’t capitulate, Walker raised an army and took Baja California by force. He proclaimed it part of a larger pro-slavery region that would be called the Republic of Sonora. Later defeats caused Walker to retreat. He was put on trial in the United States for inciting an unsanctioned war. And was acquitted by a jury in eight minutes.
The William Walker story doesn’t end there. It worked so well in Mexico, he figured why not spread the love to Central America.
Walker set his sites on Nicaragua. Before the Panama Canal, Lake Nicaragua was the gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific. The overland route could chop months of a trip around the Tierra del Fuego. Nicaragua had just undergone a serious period of destabilization—15 presidents in six years—making it ripe for exploitation.
With an invitation from one of the feuding Nicaraguan political parties, the Democrats, Walker and 57 men invaded Nicaragua. They captured the city of Granada. With the support of the Democrats, Walker set himself up as de facto ruler of the country.
At this time, the President of Costa Rica, Juan Rafael Mora, sensing Walker’s future ambitions, made a pre-emptive decision—to cross over into Nicaragua and attack, not on the country of Nicaragua itself but Walker and his forces.
The climactic battle between Walker and Mora was the Second Battle of Rivas. The inexperienced Walker made multiple military blunders prior to the battle, forcing the small army to hole up inside a thatched-roof hostel.
Enter Juan Santamaria. There couldn’t be a more compelling antidote to the overeducated and overprivileged Walker. At the time of the Battle of Rivas, the day laborer was a 25 year-old drummer boy in the Costa Rican army.
Though Walker’s forces were outmanned at Rivas, their position in the hostel gave them a distinct shooting advantage. Costa Rican General José María Canas called on a volunteer to approach the hostel and light the roof on fire with a torch. It was a suicide mission. Santamaría stepped forward, asking only that should he die, someone look after his mother.
Under heavy fire, Santamaría reached the hostel and threw the torch, igniting the roof. Santamaría was struck dead by enemy fire; however Walker’s men were forced to flee. Santamaría’s last act was the beginning of the end for Walker, and marked a symbolic turning point in the repulsion of foreign forces from Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Walker was executed by firing squad in 1860.
Sadly, the heroics of the Battle of Rivas were overshadowed by a devastating cholera epidemic that killed a tenth of the population of Costa Rica. But in the decades that followed, Santamaría’s legend emerged as the leading heroic figure symbolizing the unity of the Costa Rican people against imperialist forces. Because Costa Rica hadn’t fought for independence from Spain, the battle against William Walker became event that solidified the nationalist spirit.
Even today, the young drummer boy from Alajuela is the only Costa Rican to be honored with his own national holiday—April 11, the anniversary of his death and of the Battle of Rivas.
Today the country of Finland celebrates Finnish Language Day, also known as Mikael Agricola Day.
Mikael Agricola may not have started Finnish but he is celebrated as a national hero for creating and codifying the written version of what was largely an oral tradition up until the 16th century.
Agricola was appointed Lutheran bishop of Turku in 1554. One of the tenets of the Reformation was the translation and reading of scriptures in native languages.
Agricola translated the New Testament into Finnish in 1548.
Some of his top Finnish language hits include:
ABC-kiria (The ABC Book) The first book in Finnish, published in 1543. It was a primer of the Finnish language. [I’d like to say it taught kids to read Finnish, but as the first Finnish book, it taught everyone to read!]
Se Wsi Testamenti — the aforementioned Finnish translation of the New Testament, Agricola’s greatest achievement.
Three liturgical books (1549). Two include prayers, services, and rituals. The third is an amalgamation of the Four Gospels, detailing Christ’s suffering.
Agricola hoped to translate the Old Testament as well. But his life was cut short. Returning from Moscow where he had negotiated a peace treaty, Agricola became ill and died on April 9, 1557. He was 47.
He’s remembered each year on April 9 as the Father of the Finnish language.
The major languages of the Scandinavian countries—Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic—are all related except for Finnish. Near as we can tell, Finnish isn’t related to anything except perhaps Hungarian and Estonian. Finnish isn’t even an Indo-European language. The Finno-Ugric languages are their own distinct branch, though from what tree is anybody’s guess.
It’s possible that if Agricola hadn’t come along when he did, the language of Finland would have been overrun by the languages of its more powerful neighbors.
Finnish is known for being a ‘genderless’ language, and for lacking articles such as ‘a’ and ‘the’. Also, there is no word for ‘to have.’
He stood the aged palms beneath,
that shadowed o’er his humble door,
Listening, with half-suspended breath,
To the wild sounds of fear and death,
— Toussaint L’Ouverture, by John Greeleaf Whittier
Toussaint L’Ouverture was born a slave in French Saint Domingue, now Haiti, in 1743. Many legends are told of his early life. He was nicknamed “Walking Stick” due to his narrow stature, and was later described as more charismatic than attractive.
At the age of 33 he was given his freedom. He married and by all accounts he had settled into a quiet life by 1791. By that time word of the French Revolution and its ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity had reached Saint Domingue, and the slaves and free men of color hoped the promises of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” would extend to them. When it became apparent no such action was forthcoming, the slaves revolted in the Boukman Rebellion of of 1791. Slavery was banned in 1793.
During the 1790’s the three great European powers, France, Britain, and Spain, were all vying for control of the colony. Toussaint joined the army, first working as a doctor; within a few years, now in his early 50’s, he underwent an unbelievable professional trajectory. Toussaint went from being an ordinary Haitian living in peace to an unparalleled military genius and the governor of Saint Domingue. A former black slave who would defeat the armies of the greatest European empires.
Toussaint became governor of Saint Domingue in 1797. Professing allegiance to France, he chased the last Spanish forces off Santo Domingo in 1801.
Toussaint next sought to make Saint Domingue an independent, permanently slave-free nation. Napoleon, seeking to reintroduce slavery to the island, sent 20,000 troops to the island to retake and depose of Toussaint.
“At the head of all is the most active and indefatigable man one can imagine. One can definitely say that he is everwhere and above all in the place where sound judgement and danger lead him to believe that his presence is the most essential. His great sobriety and the ability given only to him of never resting, the advantage he has of going back to office work after a tiresome journey, of replying to a hundred letters a day and of habitually exhausting five secretaries.”
—Colonel Vincent, in a note to Bonaparte. The Gilded African, Wendy Parkinson
Though initially told he could return to civilian life, Toussaint was betrayed and kidnapped by French forces, and was taken to a remote fort in the high French Alps. Unused to the freezing temperatures and kept under the harshest conditions, Toussaint died in French captivity on this day (April 7) 1803.
The U.S.’s second President (1796-1800), John Adams, voice of the American Revolution two decades earlier, had supported the L’Ouverture revolution against European colonialism.
Adam’s successor Thomas Jefferson felt otherwise:
“I become daily more & more convinced that all the West India Islands will remain in the hands of the people of color; & a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place. It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly and possibly ourselves (south of the Potomac) have to wade through to try to avert them.” — Letter to James Monroe, July 1793
When Haiti gained won its freedom in 1804 under the command of one of Toussaint’s generals, Jefferson, a strong ally of the French, refused to acknowledge Haiti’s independence. The island nation would have to wait until 1862 when Abraham Lincoln’s administration finally recognized it. Ironically, the Jefferson administration owed a great deal to L’Ouverture. It was L’Ouverture’s defection and uprising in Haiti that forced Napoleon to sell their continental North American possessions—the Louisiana Territory—to Jefferson for a song.
Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men…
O Miserable Chieftan! Where and when
Wilt thou find Patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
…There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultation, agonies
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
— William Wordsworth
“His political performance was such that, in a wider sphere, Napoleon appears to have imitated him.”
Two weeks after the spring equinox (usually April 5) the Chinese spend this day with their beloved departed. Qing Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Day is one of the few Chinese holidays to follow the solar calendar rather than the lunar.
On this day families travel together to the grave’s of their loved ones to honor their memory. It’s believed that the spirits of family members who have passed on continue to watch over the family.
The holiday has been celebrated for over 2,500 years, originating with a Chinese Emperor who honored the memory of a royal official who sacrificed his life to save the Emperor.
Today relatives try to ensure their ancestors’ happiness in many different ways. Some sweep away the underbrush and dirt that has accumulated, and decorate their graves with flowers. Others cook the favorite dish of the departed. It’s traditional to burn ‘fake’ money or paper models of other goods, but this year Chinese officials are concerned about dry conditions conducive to fires, and are encouraging other methods of honoring the dead, such as planting trees.
The cemeteries are swamped with visitors this day. Officials estimate 100,000 people will visit the Babaoshan cemetery in Beijing today.
Meanwhile a new tradition is developing online where relatives can light virtual candles and carry on the traditions of Qing Ming in cyberspace.
The 2008 Tomb Sweeping Day is an historic event in that it has been declared a national public holiday for the first time.
Early Morning – April 4
A shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
— Pride (In the Name of Love), U2
40 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. looked off the balcony of his room on the second story of the Lorraine Hotel.
King had given what would be his last address the day before. The Mountaintop speech. King was used to death threats, but their increasing frequency and vindictiveness had reached a point that even King himself may have known he was on borrowed time.
In his last speech King alluded to the journey of Moses and the Hebrew slaves who escaped from bondage in Egypt, only to wander for 40 years in the desert.
After four decades, God called to Moses and told him to stand on the mountaintop, to look over the land God would bestow on the Israelites.
Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
— Deuteronomy 34:4
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Today we sing the virtues of that most durable fabric, tweed.
Wait, no, wrong tweed.
Tweed Day remembers the corrupt politician who held New York City in the palm of his hand in the mid-1800s.
William Magear Tweed was “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that essentially ran New York. Tweed was born on this day (April 3) in 1823. The son of a Scottish-American chair-maker on the Lower East Side, he began his political career by organizing volunteer fire departments. He and Tammany Hall earned the support of New York’s working-class Irish immigrants, granting citizenship to potential constituents at the rate of 2,000 voters a day. (It Happened on Washington Square, Emily Kies Folpe)
He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at the tender age of 29, to the New York State Senate in 1867, and in 1868 was made “grand sachem” (Big Poobah) of Tammany Hall.
It’s estimated that Tweed stole—I mean “misappropriated” between $40 and$200 million dollars from the public during his tenure, which back in the 1860s was considered a lot of money. (We’re talking 1860’s dollars here, so billions by today’s standards.)
Boss Tweed’s downfall is often attributed to the satirical political cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly starting in 1868. Legend has it, Tweed said of the cartoons, “Stop them damn pictures. I don’t care what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures.”
But in truth Tweed was still at the height of his power in late 1870 when an investigation by “six businessmen with unimpeachable reputations” found that Tweed’s books had been “faithfully kept” and could find no wrong-doing. Tweed was expected to run for and win the New York U.S. Senate seat in 1872.
Tweed’s real downfall wasn’t the papers. It was a holiday: the Glorious Twelfth. No, not Grouse-hunting day, the other Glorious Twelfth. July 12th is a Northern Irish Protestant holiday celebrating King William of Orange’s victory over the largely Irish Catholic forces of King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
In July 1871, Irish Protestants in New York City (the Loyal Order of Orange) sought permission to throw an Orange Parade.
“Irish Catholic organizations protested that the parade would be an insult to their community and pointed to the Orangemen’s behavior the previous July 12, when they had marched up Eighth Avenue…”
The marchers the previous year had the ingenious idea of hurling epithets at Irish workers who were laying pipe along the streets they passed, and sang such rousing hits as “Croppies, Lie Down.” Eight people were killed in the violence that ensued.
Tweed nixed the 1871 parade, and the Protestants, fearing that Irish Catholics had taken over their city, laid into Tweed. Public tide rapidly turned against him until Tweed and the Governor were forced to reverse the decision and allowed the parade to take place.
In the infamous “Orange Riots of July 12th” that started as a parade, between thirty and sixty people were killed, including two police officers. Over a hundred citizens were wounded, and twenty policemen.
After the riot, both sides were fed up with the Boss. And someone upset at Tweed for the whole parade debacle supplied the Times with the incriminating evidence they needed to convict him in the court of public approval.
“On July 22, ten days after the Boyne Day battle, the Times began publishing solid evidence of Ring rascality, turned over to the paper by an aggrieved insider. Day after Day, publisher George Jones reproduced whole pages from the cooked account books of James Watson, who until his recent death in a sleighing accident up in Harlem Lane had been the Ring’s trusted bookkeeper.” (Gotham)
The investigation revealed a plague of graft and corruption unprecedented in American politics.
In one example, New York City paid more for a single courthouse under Tweed than Secretary of State Seward had just paid for the territory of Alaska.
In fact the courthouse cost twice as much as Alaska, and four times as much as Britain’s Houses of Parliament. [Now that’s fiscal stimulus!]
When news of New York City’s debt spread overseas, European officials cut off the city’s line of credit and removed NYC bonds from the Berlin Stock Exchange.
The rest of the Tweed timeline goes like this:
October 1871: Tweed arrested
November 1871: Tweed wins re-election
December 1871: Tweed booted out as “grand sachem” of Tammany Hall
January 1873: First trial results in hung jury, possibly bribed
November 1873: Tweed convicted, sentenced to 12 years
1875: Conviction overturned, Tweed is released
1875-1878: Tweed is immediately sued for 6 million by creditors. Unable to repay the debts, he’s re-incarcerated. He escapes to Cuba, but is returned by Spanish authorities.
1878: Boss Tweed, once the third largest property owner in New York City, dies in prison, a broken man. He is 55.
Moral of the story: You can lie, cheat, and steal, but don’t mess with people’s parades. Or their holidays.
Today is Tweed Day.
I’ve no idea who started this holiday, or why we remember a corrupt politician. The earliest references I’ve found are only a few decades old, in Chase’s Calendar of Events. But for the record, everydaysaholiday.org neither condones nor condemns this holiday, and we wholly support the right of the God-loving people of this land to celebrate the durable Scottish fabric we call Tweed.
“If everyone wears a tweed cap on April 3rd, after having endured the proper amount of ridicule from co-workers, you can all meet up in State House Square and re-enact the big dance scene from Newsies in celebration of Tweed.”
April 2 is Sizdah Bedar, the last day of the Norooz celebrations.
Sizdah means 13, and Sizdah Bedar is celebrated on the 13th day of the Persian new year, which begins on the spring equinox, March 20 or 21.
The first twelve days of the New Year are spent visiting the homes of family and friends. Grandparents and older relatives come first. Then other family members. Then families visit with friends during the later days.
All this leads to the last day of the Norooz season, the 13th.
It’s not because 13 is particularly lucky in Iran or anything. In fact, Sizdah Bedar translates roughly to “getting rid of the 13th.” Persians spend the unlucky 13th day mitigating its potential bad influence on the year by creating good luck of their own. They do this with big communal picnics and outings to parks or the Great Outdoors, and by being surrounded by nature in general. For this reason, Sizdah Bedar is also referred to as Picnic Day or Nature Day.
Some telltale signs it’s 13 Bedar and not just a really big picnic:
A lot of red, white, and green
Persian music and dancing
Noodle soup and lettuce in sekanjebin — a homemade syrup with sugar and vinegar
And you might see plates of what looks like grass growing in a patch of soil. This is sabzeh. These sprouts of wheat or lentils, are planted in early March so as to be short blades by the equinox, symbolizing rebirth. Sizdah Bedar is the traditional date to dispose of the sabzeh, which is often done by young a woman, who ties the ends of sprouts together before dropping them in running water. The tradition stems from fertility rites said to bring good luck in finding a mate in the coming year.
Sizdah Bedar is a cultural holiday, not a religious one. But by coincidence, Sizdah Bedar comes one day after Republic Day in Iran. Republic Day marks the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran on April 1, 1979. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary.