Independence Day – Croatia

October 8.

We don’t know who drew up the borders of the successors of former Yugoslavia, but Croatia has the good fortune to hog the eastern shore of the Adriatic, giving it some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe. Alfred Hitchcock once proclaimed the sunset from Zadar the finest in world.

It also boasts more than its share of a new UNESCO designation known as “Intangible Cultural Heritage.” At fourteen and counting, no European country has bagged more of these ‘intangibilities’ than Croatia (though they’re neck-in-neck with Spain). Croatia is indeed brimming with unique rituals, crafts, and traditions, not the least of which is my favorite: Gingerbread craft from Northern Croatia, or “Licitars.” Check out what these people can do with a little flour, sugar, baking soda, and spices. Mmm…

©seanpu1. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
©seanpu1. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Independence Day didn’t make the cut, but several other Croatian holidays and festivals did, including the Zvoncari Carnival bell-ringers’ pageant, the Hvar Island (forgive me if I’m pronouncing this wrong) Za Krizen Procession on Maundy Thursday, and the festival of Saint Blaise, patron saint of the city of Dubrovnik, on February 3rd.

Dubrovnik!?! Dubrovnik, you say! Where the heck’s that? Game of Thrones fans know it as King’s Landing. And it’s doing for Dubrovnik tourism what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand. Although this late in the game, Croatia needs little help in the tourism department. After years of warfare in the 1990s, Croatia became a leading European destination the following decade due to its pristine beauty.

Independence Day stems from the 1991 decision to split from Yugoslavia following a state-wide referendum. That declaration, made on June 25, 1991, is celebrated as Statehood Day. Afterwards, the European Community nudged Croatia not to do anything rash for three months. So they didn’t. But when moratorium expired in October, the Yugoslav Air Force bombed the Croatian president’s house, and Croatia officially severed its ties with Yugoslavia on October 8. Independence was recognized the following January.

Independence Day (October 8) became a national holiday in 2002.

A Midsommer Night’s in Denmark

June 23

The Scandinavians never pass up a chance for a good bonfire. Midsummer Night, or St. John’s Eve as it’s sometimes called in Denmark and Norway, is the perfect occasion. The holiday has little to do with St. John the Baptist, other than falling just before his saint day. In the 10th century Baltic and Scandinavian countries replaced the traditional names of Midsummer with allusions to the feast of St. John the Baptist, which fell on June 24.

In fact the tradition long pre-dates Christianity’s entry into Scandinavia. Midsummer was originally a tribute to the pagan sun god, and the bonfire represented defeat over darkness.

In Scandinavia, darkness hovers over the landscape for much of the year. On Midsummer Night however, it can stay light until midnight; in parts of Norway it can stay light for weeks at a time in late June, hence the name Land of the Midnight Sun.

For hundreds of years Midsummer Eve torch processions were common. Other rites centered around nature. Midsummer was viewed as an auspicious date for fertility. Farmers prayed for a bountiful harvest while maidens collected special herbs and plants, including St. John’s wort.

I must gather the mystic St. John’s wort tonight-
The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide
If the coming year shall make me a bride…

— “The St John’s Wort”, old German poem

In some towns, villagers would light a straw-covered wheel afire and roll it down a hill to be extinguished in the river. Across Poland and the Baltic, maidens would toss herbs into the fire to protect them from evil spirits in the year to come while young men would jump over fires to display their bravado.

Today the holiday is a time for community to come together around the bonfire and sing patriotic songs such as “Vi elsker vort land”, also known as Midsommervisen.

We love our land
Our midsummer most
When each cloud over the field sends a blessing
When the flowers are in bloom
And the cattle drags the plough
Giving gifts to laborious hands…

…Every woman, every man can
Find an example of love for life!
Let the times grow old, let the colors fade
We will however draw a memory in our hearts
From the North so rich in legends
A glory shines across the world…

To this day Danes continue to burn a straw witch effigy atop a bonfire on Midsummer Eve, a tradition borrowed from their German neighbors in the late 19th century. The witch effigy represents evil spirits, but to some the throwback eerily recalls the Danish witch burnings of the 1600s.

Other names for Midsummer Day and Eve:

Denmark: Sankt Hans aften (Hans is the diminutive of Johannes or John.)
Norway: Jonsok
Poland: Sobotka, Swietojanska, Wianki
Eastern Poland/ Ukraine: Kupalnocka, Kupala
Russia: Ivan Kupala

Teacher’s Day – Czech Republic

March 28

The Czech Republic and Slovakia celebrate Teacher’s Day on March 28 to commemorate the 1592 birthday of:

  • a. Frederick Scantron, inventor of the multiple-choice test.
  • b. Dixon Ticonderoga, explorer and discoverer of the graphite mountain from which all pencils are hewn.
  • c. Jan Amos Komensky, teacher, pastor and writer who was expelled from his own country to spend 42 years in exile.
  • d. All of the above

If there’s anything I learned in junior high school, it’s “when in doubt, pick ‘C’.”

Komensky on the Czech 200 note
Komensky on the Czech 200 note

Today is the birthday of Jan Amos Komensky, better known by his Latin name Comenius.

M: Come, Boy, learn to be wise.
P: What doth this mean, to be wise?
M: To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly all that are necessary.

So begins Comenius’s Orbis Pictus, a “Nomenclature and Pictures of all the Chief Things that are in the World and of Men’s Employments therein.” The first illustrated encyclopedia for children.

“…it differed from all previous text-books, in being illustrated with pictures, on copper and wood, of the various topics discussed in it. This book was universally popular. In those portions of Germany where the schools had been broken up by the “Thirty years’ war,” mothers taught their children from its pages. Corrected and amended by later editors, it continued for nearly two hundred years, to be a text-book of the German schools.”

— History and Progress of Education, by Philobiblius, N.Y., 1860, p. 210.

The Orbis Pictus covered subjects ranging from anatomy:

“The Head is above the Feet. below. the fore part of the Neck (which ends at the Arm-holes,) is the Throat, the hinder part, the Crag, The Breast is before; the back behind; Women have in it two Dugs, with Nipples…”

to Islam and Mohammad:

“His Followers refrain themselves from Wine; are circumcised, have many Wives; build Chapels, from the Steeples whereof, they are called to Holy Service not by Bells but by a Priest, they wash themselves often, they deny the Holy Trinity: they honour Christ, not as the Son of God, but as a great Prophet, yet less than Mahomet; they call their Law the Alcoran.”

to “Monstrous and deformed people“…

“…are those which differ in the Body from the ordinary shape, as the huge Gyant (1), the little Dwarf (2), One with two Bodies (3), One with two Heads (4), and such like Monsters. Amongst these are reckoned, The jolt-headed (5), The great-nosed (6), The blubber-lipped (7), The blub-cheeked (8), The goggle-eyed (9), The wry-necked (10), The great-throated (11), The Crump-backed (12), The Crump-footed (13), The steeple-crowed (15), add to these The Bald-pated (14)”

Deformed & Monstrous People, Orbis Pictus
Deformed & Monstrous People, Orbis Pictus

It’s inspiring that someone with Komensky’s childhood should have penned the primer by which all others would be judged. His father died when he was 10, his mother a couple of years later, followed by his sisters. “Comenius was thus left an orphan at an early age, and his guardians appear to have robbed him of any small fortune that his father had bequeathed.” [The Great Didactic, Introduction by M.W. Keatinge]

Referring to the schools of his youth as “slaughter-houses” of the young, it wasn’t until he entered Herborn University at age 19 that things turned around. He studied at Heidelberg, traveled to Amsterdam and Hungary, taught at his old Latinschool in Moravia, and became a teacher-pastor in 1618, at the outbreak of the Thirty Years War.

Things did not go well for Komensky during the war. As a member of the Brethren of the Unity, a Protestant group based on the the theology of Jan Hus, Komensky and his circle were persecuted. Spanish soldiers burned his village and most of his possessions, including his library and his own writings. His wife and two children died during an epidemic. And he was forced into exile.

Komensky’s exile would last the rest of the his life. Bad for Komensky, but good for Western education.

“Surrounded by the chaos and destruction of war, Comenius believed that guns were no way to restore order—what the world really needed was a revolution in learning. He envisioned a liberal-arts education that would create citizens, rather than specialists, and proposed a new teaching system based on the novel principle of ‘school through play.'”

Rick Steves, Prague and the Czech Republic

Emphasizing self-discipline as motivation for learning rather than physical punishment, he disseminated his progressive vision across the many lands he traveled while in exile, including Poland, England, Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Lithuania. He never made it to the Americas, turning down an opportunity to head up a new university called Harvard, in favor of an offer by the Swedish Ambassador. And in the 1650’s he supported the Sweden’s takeover of Poland, a move that led once again to the burning and destruction of all his property, this time by angry Poles. Decades of his writings went up in smoke.

Still, his Janua, Orbis Pictus, and The Great Didactic were among many works that survived to form the basis of elementary education in Europe. He is credited with redefining the curriculum and learning environment used in Western education for hundreds of years.

The Comenius Medal for education, established in 1992, is one of UNESCO’s most prestigious awards. And though he was never able to return to his homeland, the people of the Czech Republic and Slovakia honor Komensky on his birthday by celebrating the noblest of professions: Teacher’s Day.

Brief summary of Komensky’s contributions to education

Beware the Ides of Hungarian National Day

March 15


March 15 is synonymous with betrayal, treachery, back-stabbing and front-stabbing. It’s the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar by Brutus and the Roman Senate in 44 B.C.

But in Hungary, March 15 is synonymous with freedom and independence, so whip out your cockades and join the Hungarians as they sing their National Song today.

Turns out the Hungarians celebrate March 15, 1848, not 44 BC.

In 1848, as the fervor of revolution swept through Europe…

Nowhere else did the crowd assume such an emblematic character as in Hungary. The Chartists crowds of London might have been larger, the fighting on the barricades of Paris, Prague, Vienna and Dresden more intense, but Budapest instigated the only total revolution in 1848-1849, and Hungary’s crowds were the last holdouts.

Alice Freifeld, Crowd Politics in the Hungarian Revolution

March 15 marked the day that news reached rebellious students and intellectuals in Budapest that revolution had broken out in Vienna, the center of the Hapsburg’s empire. The rebel movement’s leaders had planned a protest march to take place on March 19, but when news hit Budapest, they spontaneously decided to demonstrate in celebration.

And it’s a good thing. The government had gotten wind of the demonstration, and had planned to arrest the movement’s leaders on March 18.

Students marched from Pest to Buda—the two cities that make up the aptly named Budapest—to protest the Hapsburg-dominated monarchy in Austria. Along the way, massive crowds joined the demonstration, spurred on by news from Vienna and the songs of a 25 year-old poet named Sandor Petofi.

Petofi recites National Song, March 15, 1848; by Mihaly Zicky
Petofi recites National Song, March 15, 1848; by Mihaly Zicky

Petofi had been chosen to put the movement’s demands to paper. Deemed the “Twelve Points,” they were:

1. Freedom of the press, the abolition of censorship.
2. A responsible Ministry in Buda and Pest.
3. An annual parliamentary session in Pest.
4. Civil and religious equality before the law.
5. A National Guard.
6. A joint sharing of tax burdens.
7. The cessation of socage.
8. Juries and representation on an equal basis.
9. A national bank
10. The army to swear to support the constitution, our soldiers not be dispatched abroad, and foreign soldiers removed from our soil.
11.The freeing of political prisoners.
12. Reunion with Transylvania.

On the steps of the National Library Petofi led the crowds in the singing of his famous poem “Nemzeti Dal”, which to this day symbolizes Hungarian self-determination and freedom:

Rise up, Magyar, the country calls!
It’s ‘now or never’ what fate befalls…
Shall we live as slaves or free men?
That’s the question – choose your `Amen’!
God of Hungarians,
we swear unto Thee,
We swear unto Thee – that slaves we shall
no longer be!

from “Nemzeti Dal” (National Song)

Unprepared for the rebellions of March 13 in Vienna and March 15 in Budapest, the court was forced to acquiesce to the demands of the Hungarian National Assembly. Hungary became the first (and only) country during the revolutions of 1848 to undergo a peaceful transition.

+  +  +

Peace was temporary phenomenon. Later that year the Austrian empire recovered from the shock and set about to reconquer Hungary. With the Russian Czar’s help, the Hungarian army was decimated. The Austrian army executed 14 Hungarian leaders, including the new Prime Minister.

Petofi is believed to have been killed at the Battle of Segesvar in Transylvania on July 31, 1849. He was 26 years old. By that time, the soldier-writer-revolutionary had written 10 volumes of Hungarian poems.

Throughout the past century and a half, March 15 has remained a symbol of the Hungarian struggle for liberty and self-determination.

Restoration of Lithuania’s Independence

March 11

The great thing about being a tiny nation sandwiched between Russia and Germany is that you get to celebrate so many Independence Days! Lucky Lithuanians. Here it’s only March and the country celebrates its third independence-related holiday of the year!

Lithuania’s main Independence Day is February 16, which celebrates the day in 1918 that the Council of Lithuania declared itself finally independent of both Russia and Germany during the chaos of World War I and the Russian Revolution. (See Lithuanian Independence Day.)

But the briefly independent nation was consumed by the Soviet giant at the outbreak of World War II.

Over fifty years later on March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian government declared that the Lithuanian State that was “abolished by foreign forces in 1940, is re-established, and henceforth Lithuania is again an independent state.

The aptly named “Act of March 11” is what the country celebrates today.

The act of rebellion didn’t sit so well with Soviet leaders. As nationalism in Lithuania rose, Soviet tanks entered the capital of Vilnius in January 1991, killing 14 people and injuring hundreds. Lithuanians remember January 13 as Freedom Defenders Day.

Defenders of the Fatherland Day

February 23

Today Russia celebrates Defenders of the Fatherland Day.

Russian Federation Flag

On February 23 (Julian Calendar) 1917, Russian women in Petrograd celebrated the 7th International Women’s Day. In response to food shortages caused by the war with Germany, the women of Russia’s capital city “poured onto the streets,” demanding “bread for our children” and “the return of our husbands from the trenches.”

The protests gained momentum the following days when workers’ strikes forced the closure of hundreds of factories. On February 26 the Tsar, who was away conducting the war, ordered his general to disperse the demonstrators, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, saying such disturbances were “impermissible at a time when the fatherland is carrying on a difficult war with Germany.”
(Tony Cliff Lenin: All Power to the Soviets)

Russian troops fired on the crowds, killing dozens of protesters. But the real problem for the Tsar was that many of the Tsar’s troops refused to fire on crowds and sided with the strikers. The clashes of February 24-27 claimed about 1500 lives on both sides. In the end the Tsar lost the support of his own troops, was forced to abdicate his throne.

But that’s not why the Russians celebrate on February 23.

Nope, it’s because of what happened on February 23 the following year.

Nicholas II’s abdication gave way to a Russian Provisional Government, led by Social Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky. Under Kerensky the government declared Russia a republic, pronounced freedom of speech, made steps to encourage democracy, and released thousands of political prisoners.

But Kerensky, perhaps because he was the former Defense Minister, continued to keep the Russians engaged in the disastrous war against Germany. Bad move. Like the Tsar before him, the war would be his downfall.

Alexander Kerensky

How Russia got its Soviet:

The Russian word soviet meant “council.” Soviets were workers’ councils with little power, set up in the wake of 1905’s Bloody Sunday.

The Bolsheviks were an extremist minority party and as such could not hold much sway in a democratic assembly. Instead Lenin and the Bolsheviks bypassed the Provisional Government entirely and consolidated their power in these urban workers’ councils known as soviets, the most prominent one being the soviet in Petrogad.

In 1917 their platform called for the seizure of land, property and industry by the peasantry and workers, for the transfer of power to the local workers’ councils, and for the immediate end of war with Germany.

In April few took the Bolsheviks seriously.

By November they ruled the country.

What happened in 7 months?

Under Kerensky’s Provisional Government food and supply shortages worsened. Mass numbers of Russian soldiers continued to defect. And the drain of resources for the war effort strangled the economy. Even though most people were against the war, political parties would not withdraw. Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war bought them enough support to pull off the armed uprising later called the “October Revolution,” which occurred in—you guessed it—November. (Gregorian)

After the uprising the Bolsheviks put forth a resolution before the Provisional Government to transfer political power to the soviets.When the Provisional Government voted it down (What a surprise) the Bolsheviks walked out. The next day the Bolsheviks, with the support of 5,000 members of the Russian Navy in Petrograd, issued a decree dissolving the Provisional Government.

Lenin with Sunglasses
Lenin: Future's so bright, gotta wear shades

Lenin believed a standing army was a bourgeois institution and would not be necessary in a communist society; he was proved wrong. In order to ensure beneficial terms in an armistice with Germany, and facing a massive civil war, the Bolsheviks called for the establishment of a standing Workers’ and Peasants’ “Red” Army to replace the disintegrated Imperial Army.

The decree was issued on January 28. Ten days later on February 23* assemblies were held across the country to recruit soldiers for the new army. The “mass meetings brought 60,000 men into the Red Army in Petrograd, 20,000 in Moscow and thousands more in other places around the country.”

*(On February 1, 1918 Russia switched from the old Julian Calendar, abandoned by the West in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the Gregorian Calendar. As a result, the date February 1, 1918 in Russia was followed by February 14, 1918.)

February 23 was declared Red Army Day. It was changed to Soviet Army Day by Stalin. And to Defenders of the Fatherland Day following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Recently, according to

“the long reaching poisonous arms of capitalism have found a new virgin field to exploit and made this day a “Men’s Day” where the women gives (or should give) gifts to their fathers, brothers, boyfriends and male colleagues.”

So, ironically, the date on which the Russians once celebrated women, February 23, is now a holiday extolling men.

Defenders of the Motherland Day

Lyubov Tsarevskaya has a more traditional, patriotic view of the holiday:

“This is the ultimate reflection of one’s devotion and patriotism. As Jesus Christ said, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13) The history of the army in Imperial, Soviet, and now, Russian times is replete in stirring examples of self-sacrifice and heroism.”

The Chechens regard February 23 in a remarkably different manner:

On Army Day Chechens Quietly Remember Mass Deportation

It Has Been 63 Years Since the Deporation of the Chechens and Ingush

Army Day blunder
A 2006 poster proclaiming “Congrats to the Russian Soldiers” mistakingly shows the USS Missouri.

Pancake Week

Date varies. February 20-26, 2012

There’s no Mardi Gras or Carnival in Russia. Lent doesn’t descend on Orthodox Christians in one big swoop as in Catholicism, but in a series of events with increasingly strict regulations.

Triodion begins a full month before Lent.

Two weeks later, Meatfare Sunday marks the last day Orthodox Christians can eat meat until after Easter, aka Pascha.

The Sunday after Meatfare is Cheesefare Sunday, the last day for eating dairy products.

In Catholic communities the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is sometimes called Pancake Day, while in Orthodox Russia the whole week before Lent is known as Maslenitsa (Butter Week) or Blini Week (Pancake Week). [Blini has the same root as ‘blintz’.] During Pancake Week Russians empty their pantry of milk, eggs, butter, and other Lent no-no’s, by throwing them into a bowl and mixing them to make pancakes. Russian pancakes are closer to what we would call crepes.

Maslenitsa, by Boris Kustodiev, 1919

The late-Februay/early-March celebration combines Christian theology with an ancient pagan tradition of welcoming the spring.

Maslenitsa comes to a close with Vespers on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.

In Orthodox communities this is also known as Forgiveness Sunday. During the evening ceremonies church-goers face and verbally forgive one another for anything the year before.

The Orthodox Great Lent begins on a Monday rather than a Wednesday, and is called Clean Monday.

Kosovo – Independence?

February 17

Happy Birthday Kosovo!

Although it’s not all that happy. The newborn nation is still in the throes of economic devastation and ethnic violence. Nor do we know yet if February 17 will continue to be celebrated as the young nation’s independence holiday. Or for that matter, if Kosovo actually is independent.

The State Assembly in Kosovo’s capitol of Pristina declared its independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008. Since that time over 50 countries have recognized the world’s youngest nation’s independence. However, Serbia is not one of those countries.

According to Serbian President Boris Tadic, February 17 is “just a date when an illegal act was enacted, when Pristina proclaimed Kosovo a so-called state.

Tensions between the ethnic groups that make up the Balkans and the former Republic of Yugoslavia were subdued under the leadership of Josip Tito, who ruled the amalgamation of states for over 30 years after World War II. The states that made up Yugoslavia were: Bosnia and Herzegovenia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia, of which Kosovo was an autonomous province. Tito’s government stressed “Unity in Brotherhood”, the idea that Yugoslavia’s people were essentially one, but had been divided by foreign occupiers over previous generations.

That idea didn’t fly after Tito’s death in 1980. Ethnic nationalism rose and in 1991 and 1992, most states seceded from Yugoslavia (literally, “South Slavs” land) leaving Serbia and Montenegro the sole members of the former republic.


Smaller than Connecticut, Kosovo is home to over 2 million people, 90% of them ethnic Albanians, with the remainder mostly Serbs. Kosovo first declared independence in 1991, but the movement was put down by Serbian leaders like Slobodan Milosevic.

War ravaged the Balkans throughout the 1990s. The Kosovo War of 1998-1999 left between 5,000 and 10,000 people dead, and culminated with the controversial NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The state was governed by the UN between 1999 and 2008.

…what Milosevic and his regime tried to do for the Serbian people during their time could not be more wrong. I mean you do not just dispose of people as they thought they could do. You do not fire people en masse, you do not take their housing rights, you do not ignore 2 million people as if they did not exist, and most of all you do not run them away from their homes and their property.

On the other hand what that regime did was not new to Kosovo at all, it had all been done before by the Albanian side…between 1974 and 1988. And let me tell you, it was not easy to be anything but Albanian during those years in Kosovo.

…Having said all of this I can say the place is cursed and will never be peaceful.

— “Srecko”, from Kosovo, “Memories of Kosovo“, BBC

[Published 2009]