Commonwealth Day

Second Monday in March
March 12, 2012

Here’s a geography quiz:

1. What is the official language of Belize?

2. Whose portrait adorns the Canadian loonie?

3. What comprises 53 countries, covers over a fifth of the world’s land area, and accounts for 2 billion of the earth’s population?

If you answered

  1. English.
  2. Queen Elizabeth II
  3. The British Commonwealth

you got 1 and 2 right. The word ‘British’ was axed from The Commonwealth to reflect the fact that 98% of its subjects are not British at all, and 93% of the Commonwealth’s population live in Asia and Africa.

Today because of British influence in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, English is an official language of over 50 countries, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Madagascar, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Liberia, Jamaica, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, The Gambia, Mauritius, Swaziland, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Guyana, the Solomon Islands, Malta, the Bahamas, Barbados, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Kiribati, Grenada, Seychelles, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru. (Note: not all the above are in the Commonwealth.)

Views around the web on Commonwealth Day…

Our integration with our continental neighbours has had the effect of weakening our ties with our Commonwealth friends.


…a staggering 1,921,974,000 people around the world will be celebrating Commonwealth Day, unless that is you’re British. We Brits it seems still suffer from an imperialist hangover, too embarrassed (dare I say ashamed?)…


The origins of Commonwealth Day date back to 1898 when Clementina Trenholme, author and social organiser, introduced Empire Day in Canadian schools on the last school day before May 24, Queen Victoria’s birthday…In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day, in accordance with the new post-colonial relationship between the nations of the former empire…


Heroic Defenders of the Motherland Day – Liechtenstein

March 1, 2007


Okay, this is not a real holiday. But it should be. On this day (March 1) in 2007, Liechtenstein was famously invaded by its “peace-loving” neighbor Switzerland.

170 Swiss soldiers armed with assault rifles (unloaded but still scary looking) and their trusty Swiss Army knives marched over a mile into the 4 mile-wide sovereign principality of Liechtenstein while on exercises.

So 170 Swiss guards may not seem like the big bad beast to you, but to a country the size of Liechtenstein, that’s like being invaded by Russia. The Swiss claimed it was all a misunderstanding. But we know better. This was the “Bay of Pigs” of Switzerland. They thought they would easily overrun the defenseless Liechtensteinian people. They underestimated the bravery and stalwartness of the men and women of Liechtenstein who, without a moment’s hesitation for their own safety, confronted the armed Swiss militia and gave them directions back home.

Switzerland’s thin veneer of neutral piety was cracked. The attack of March 1, 2007 revealed the Swiss monsters as the power-hungry aggressors they are.

Today the people of Liechtenstein (should) salute the Heroic Defenders of the Motherland, thanks to whom Liechtenstein continues to enjoy 200+ years of independence.

But keep an eye on that Western border…



Date varies. Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) falls on February 21, 2012


Scores of cities from Rio to Cologne host their own Carnival festivities during the week before Lent, but not many can boast a party that dates back to 1268.

In those days, the Venice Carnevale was frowned upon by the local authorities and the Church. The debauchery and gluttony of the celebration recalled ancient pagan rites that flew in the face of the austerity of the 40-day Lent.

The Carnival before Lent is kind of like the “Boycott Gas for a Day” movement. It takes the punch out of not consuming something for a day if you consume twice as much the day before.

But don’t tell this to the Venetians. The Carnevale is a symbol of the city. And the symbol of Carnevale is the mask. Celebrants don their “masquerade” masks and costumes for both outdoor and indoor celebrations. During Carnevale neighbors become strangers and strangers become friends.

Despite being the biggest and most famous Carnival celebration in all Europe, the current incarnation of Carnevale is only a few decades old. The festival has been banned numerous times by the authorities during its 800-year history, notably in 1797 when Napoleon conquered the Venetian Republic, and more recently by dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s.

The Venice Carnevale differs from its counterparts because Venice lacks the streets required for the processions which are the main event of other celebrations. But Venice more than makes up for it with indoor banquets and masquerades and outdoor parties.

“…the whole town was transformed into a vast theatre, full of music, dance and festivities. The various ‘campi’ or small squares throughout the town were traditionally used to stage various events, as they still are today.”

Melanie K. Smith, Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies

Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras

Every Day’s a Holiday didn’t have the resources to make it to Venice or Mardi Gras this year, but we did attend the next best thing: the Venice Beach Mardi Gras in California, which as it falls on Saturday, is technically a Samedi Gras.

The word carnival — literally “farewell to the flesh” — refers to the period before Lent during which Catholics could still eat meat. “Carnival” has since come to mean any large communal party with rides and cotton candy. So the term “Mardi Gras” (Fat Tuesday — the day before Ash Wednesday) has been mistakenly used to refer to all the festivities leading up to the big day itself.

Saturday’s Venice Beach Mardi Gras featured locals in outlandish costumes, loud musicians, ecstatic crowds of bewildered tourists, and merry-making all around.

So really it was indistinguishable from any other day at Venice Beach.

The Bushman of Venice Beach
The Bushman of Venice Beach

I spoke with “The Bushman”, a Liberian who’s been on the boardwalk for ten years, and who shouted at passersby in his distinct African accent the same question many of us have been asking this Carnival season:

“Where’s my stimulus package!”

Judging by the amount of bills tourists tossed his way…he may have entered a new tax bracket.

See you in Venice!

Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach Mardi Gras
Venice Beach mural
Venice Beach apartment building
Venice Beach apartment building

Venice Beach: California Carnivale

Originally posted Feb. 23, 2009


February 13

Overlooking Dresden

When I first visited Dresden in the mid-1990’s, to my eyes it looked like the city had just stepped out of World War II, even though, in retrospect, it must have undergone a great deal of renovation by that time.

Dresden miraculously survived the first five years of World War II intact, having dodged the Allied bombings that destroyed much of Berlin, Hamburg, and other German cities. Many Germans felt that the city had developed a de facto immunity, perhaps because of Dresden’s cultural significance, the beauty of its historic buildings, churches, and neighborhoods, and its diminished value as a military target.

For this reason, in early 1945 refugees streamed into the safe haven of Dresden from all directions. By February of that year, things were looking bleak for Germany; the Russians were closing in from the East, the British and Americans from the West. As stories of Russian atrocities filtered in from refugees from the East, Erika Dienel, a 20 year-old typist in Dresden, recalled the feeling on February 13:

“[W]ith a small ration of red wine, we brewed a hot punch and talked about where we would go should the Russians overrun us. But the Americans were also not too far away, and we only hoped they would come first.

World War II: The Allied Counteroffensive, 1942-1945

The Americans did come first, but hardly in the way the residents of Dresden could have imagined.

When the air-raid sirens began that night at ten minutes to nine, Erika and her family headed down to the cellar.

25 minutes later, approximately 250 British and U.S. planes unleashed over 800 tons of explosives and incendiaries. The largest bombs weighed two tons and were called “block-busters” because of their capacity to take out a city block.

When Dresden residents came out of the basements to see their city in flames, they thought the worst was over. They were wrong.

Around 1:20 am, just as crews were trying to put out the flames, a second wave of over 500 bombers arrived, dropping 1,800 more tons of explosives on the city. Because the first bombs had destroyed the city’s air-raid siren system, most received no warning of the attack.

By the morning of February 14 the entire center of the city was engulfed in a firestorm. Waves of bombers continued. Just when survivors would think the bombings had ceased, they would begin again. The temperature in the center of the city reached 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. Thousands of families who sought shelter in their cellars suffocated to death as the oxygen was sucked up by the massive fires.

The bombings continued until February 15. Erika Dienel survived like many others by diving into the Elbe River:

“Dresden was to burn for seven nights and days…In the centre there was no escape. The town was a mass of flames. People, burning like torches, jumped into the Elbe on this cold February night…

Every house we passed stood in flames; under our feet there were bodies, nothing but bodies.”

Kurt Vonnegut was an American POW in Dresden during the attack. His experiences there inspired the novel Slaughterhouse V in which the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is part of a squad of prisoners whose job is to remove countless corpses from destroyed buildings and shelters.

The Dresden death toll will never be known because the city at the time housed hundreds of thousands of uncounted refugees. The lowest estimates are in the tens of thousands. The highest are around a quarter million

The following year Dresden residents held memorial ceremonies on February 13, but the Soviet-occupied territory was under strict supervision:

“Anything that makes 13 February appear as a day of mourning is to be avoided…It is the mayor’s opinion that if a false note is struck when 13 February is commemorated, this could very easily lead to expressions of anti-Allied opinion. This is to be avoided under all circumstances.”

Dresden, Tuesday, February 13, 1945

Now however, Germans young and old gather in Dresden on the evening of February 13 and remember the lives lost here, known and unknown.

I was in Germany in March 2003, with a friend from East Germany, and learned Dresden was again a cultural landmark, “Paris of Germany” they called it, rebuilt like a Phoenix, except for the Dresden Church that remains as a reminder of the bombing.

That evening we turned on the TV see another city on fire. U.S. planes had just begun bombing the city of Baghdad.

My friend translated the reporter:

“Shock and awe.”

Up Helly Aa!

last Tuesday in January

If you thought the Vikings were a thing of the past, hold on to your helmet.

On the last Tuesday in January, hundreds of Vikings invade the otherwise sleepy archipelago known as Shetland.

Shetland lies between Scotland and Norway, making it the perfect pillaging point in the heyday of the Vikings. Around 1000 AD, the Vikings began settling on the islands. A thousand years later their descendants are still proud of their heritage.

Up Helly Aa by day

At no time is that more apparent than the morning of Up Helly Aa, when hundreds of men dressed as Vikings (women are not allowed) take to the streets of Lerwick to recreate events from the great Norse sagas. Now, if you’ve ever read the great Norse sagas, you would think this would be compelling reason to stay away. On the contrary, Up Helly Aa is one of Shetland’s biggest tourist draws, as travelers come from all over the globe to witness the motley crews and be a part of the drunken revelry.

Up Helly Aa by night

It’s at night that the Shetlanders really heat things up. Up Helly Aa is one of Europe’s greatest and most famous fire festivals. The bonfires and torchlit processions replaced the tar-barreling activities which were banned.

Enormous galleys are built for the celebration. The highlight of the evening is the torching of the amazing galleys, which light up the Lerwick night.

© Anne Burgess
© Anne Burgess, Creative Commons license

Could it Happen Again?: Holocaust Remembrance

January 27

Today the UK and Germany remember the Holocaust of World War II when 6 million Jews were killed in concentration camps across Europe, along with untold numbers of Roma, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, and political prisoners.

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It is estimated that as many Jews were slaughtered at this one camp than remain on the entire European Continent today.

To this day the Jewish population has never reached its pre-1939 numbers.

Berlin Holocaust Museum Memorial
Berlin Holocaust Museum

It’s easy to be tolerant in times of prosperity.

In better times Hitler may not have appealed to the Germans. But in times of scarce resources the search for a scapegoat as a possible way out was too appealing. The illusion Hitler sold was that Jews were responsible for the recession. The reality was that the seizure of Jewish assets and property meant “free money” for the rest of the nation. It was an offer too good for the Germans to pass up, even if it meant the “dehumanizing” of a minority.

Could it happen in America?

It would take a major catastrophe.

In the days after 9/11, though not widely reported in American media, hate crimes were committed against Muslims for no reason other than their religion. A Sikh man in Arizona was killed simply because he looked Muslim.

The nation waited for the speech in which the President made it clear to the public that Muslims in America are Americans, entitled to the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that violence against anyone based on their religion is contrary to the American way of life.

The speech never came. In the crusade against evil, preventing hate crime was not on the top of the agenda.

The weapons of hate aimed at one minority today can and will be used more effectively against others tomorrow, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Hispanic, Mormon, Catholic, Socialist, or Scientologist…<

As a pastor in Germany once wrote:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

[Note: in the Washington DC inscription at the Holocaust Museum, the “Communist” line is not included.]

Former Indonesian President Suharto, the genocidal architect responsible for the killing of 183,000 East Timorese, a quarter of East Timor’s population, died earlier today [2008].

His obituary reads: Suharto Leaves Legacy of Stability in Region. In some places ethnic cleansing still falls under stability.
And “Never Again” is an ongoing struggle.

What is Holocaust Memorial Day?


In Pictures: Holocaust Memorial Day

[published January 28, 2008]

in nights of Auld Lang Syne – Rabbie Burns, a Great Scot

January 25

Lang syne, in Eden’s happy scene

When strappin Adam’s days were green,

And Eve was like my bonie Jean

My dearest part,

A dancin’ sweet, young handsome quean,

O’ guileless heart

–from Address to the Devil

(unpublished version)

Robert Burns

Without ever picking up a sword or musket, Burns became a national hero of the Scots. His weapon was the pen. His ammunition the Scottish language. (Yes, they have their own language).

Even in Burns’ day the Scots language (a collection of dialects such as Doric, Buchan Claik, and Lallands) had lost favor with the upper crust. The 1707 Treaty of Union had united Scotland with England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, and the new establishment, for fear of sounding provincial, distanced themselves from the ‘auld’ dialects. English became the de facto language in education, and the language itself was blending with that of their neighbors to the south.

Robert (Rabbie) Burns entered the world on this day, 1759. His father was a gardener and an unsuccessful farmer, but he managed to secure an education for Robert, the first of his seven children at the village school.

“Forming a bachelors’ club and debating society at Tarbolton, young Robert became a Freemason, worked as a flax dresser in Irvine and enjoyed an active social and sexual life.”

The Canongate Burns By Andrew Noble

After his father’s death, Rabbie was forced to return to farming to support the family. It was during these years that he wrote some of his most famous poetry. (And conducted some of his more fruitful love affairs.) He also scoured the countryside collecting the traditional folk songs of his people, which would have otherwise been lost to history. His collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect earned him rapid fame, but not fortune.

Unlike the born-wealthy poets of his day, Burns earned very little from his writing. He continued to farm, and when the farm failed, he became an excise officer in Dumfries. His romantic, radical, idealist persona fostered by his works did not always match his life. Burns is often described as having a “weak heart,” but this did not dim his sexual escapades. He bore numerous prodigy by several women, including his long-suffering wife, Jean Armour, who bore their last child together on the day of his funeral.

from Bonie Jean: A Ballad

There was a lass, and she was fair,

At kirk or market to be seen;

When a’ our fairest maids were met,

The fairest maid was bonie Jean…

…As in the bosom of the stream,

The moon-beam dwells at dewy e’en;

So trembling, pure, was tender love

Within the breast of bonie Jean…

Burns passed at age 37 in 1796, leaving behind a romantic image of himself no man could match and a country beaming with nostalgic pride.

The first Burns’ Night was held five years after Burns’ death by a group of his close friends. They celebrated as Scots around the world will celebrate tonight:

Invite good friends, toast to Rabbie, roast said friends, drink heartily, savor the traditional haggis (everyone’s favorite) and recite the Bard’s immortal verse.

from A Bard’s Epitaph…

…Is there a man, whose judgment clear

Can others teach the course to steer,

Yet runs, himself, life’s mad career,

Wild as the wave,

Here pause–and, thro’ the starting tear,

Survey this grave

from Scots Wha Hae (unofficial Scottish anthem)

…’Wha, for Scotland’s king and law,

Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,

Freeman stand, or Freeman fa’,

Let him on wi’ me!

By Oppression’s woes and pains!

By your sons in servile chains!

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!

Tyrants fall in every foe!

Liberty’s in every blow!

Let us do or dee!

from Auld Lang Syne

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn

Frae morning sun till dine;

But seas between us braid hae roar’d

Sin’ auld lang syne…


We two have waded in the stream

From dawn till dinner time;

But seas between us broad have roared

Since days of long ago…

On Marriage

That hackney’d judge of human life,

The Preacher and th King,

Observes: “The man that gets a wife

He gets a noble thing.”

But how capricious are mankind,

Now loathing, now desirous!

We married men, how oft we find

The best of things will tire us!

from A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter

(The First Instance that entitled him to the Venerable Appellation of Father)

Tho’ now they ca’ me fornicator,

An’ tease my name in kintry clatter,

The mair they talk, I’m kent the better,

E’en let them clash;

An auld wife’s tongue’s a feckless matter

To gie ane fash…

from A Red, Red Rose

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

So deep in luve am I;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

Till a’ the seas gang dry…

Full poem recited (with sexy accent!)

Links and Info: – a Poet for All Men

Index of Burns’ Work – read it

Robert Burns Club of Milwaukee – all-encompassing resource

How to Organize a Burns Supper – celebrate it

Bay Area Bites – Burns Night – San Francisco – eat it

New York City Haggis – NYC – eat it

Once Upon a Time in the West of Scotland – a different view

Burns Night – reflections on his poetry

A Red, Red Rose – hear it

Whisky Please – drink it

Burns Supper Report – An American Toast in Scotland

Address to a Haggis – youtube

St. Genevieve

January 3

St. Genevieve of Paris
St. Genevieve of Paris

Today is St. Genevieve’s feast day. She’s honored as the Patron Saint of Paris.

St. Genevieve became a nun at the tender age of 15 and devoted the rest of her life—another 65 years—to Christ. The secret of her longevity may have been her diet. She didn’t eat much more than barley bread and beans, and according to her biography, only twice a week, Sundays and Thursdays. She loosened this restriction at the age of 50 at the request of some bishops.

When Huns Attack

During the Hun invasion of what’s now France in 451, St. Genevieve’s prayers were believed to have prevented the Huns from attacking Paris; they headed toward Orleans instead. (Notice Genevieve is not the patron saint of Orleans…)

St. Genevieve
St. Genevieve

The following decade, during the lengthy Childeric siege on the city, Genevieve sneaked through a blockade to bring back much-needed grain to Paris’s starving citizens.

Death did not stop Genevieve from performing miracles. Parisians held a procession of her relics during the deadly plague of 1129 which killed 14,000 people. Spread of the disease ceased almost immediately, and many who were sick were reported to have healed upon touching her relics.

St. Genevieve’s saint day is January 3, but for centuries Parisians celebrated the anniversary of that first procession–November 26, 1129–with another procession in her honor.