Canadian Thanksgiving

Second Monday of October.

Newfoundland and Nova Scotia each lay claim to Thanksgiving celebrations even older than the Pilgrims of Massachusetts.

English navigator Martin Frobisher enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal on Baffin Island in 1578, and Samuel de Champlain established an “Order of Good Cheer” in 1606, after most of his men died out the previous winter from scurvy and malnutrition.

But according to Robert Ruby, author of An Unknown Shore: The Lost History of England’s Arctic Colony, neither event can be linked to the modern celebration of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving in the Americas traces its history back to good old England, where Thanksgiving Days were declared not just for agricultural bounty, but for military victories as well. King Henry V held a Thanksgiving after a victory against France in 1415. Queen Elizabeth declared Thanksgiving in November 1588, upon hearing of the destruction of the Spanish Armada near Scotland.

The first annual English Thanksgiving was declared on November 5, 1605 (now Guy Fawkes Day) which celebrated the foiling of the infamous terrorist’s plot to destroy London.

English Puritans meanwhile refused to observe the many Saints Days celebrated in England, which they believed were contaminated by Europe’s pagan past. Rather, Puritans only recognized holy days observed by Jesus, such as the Feast of the Tabernacles in autumn. And they carried this harvest tradition across the Atlantic.

After the Seven-Years War, residents of Halifax declared a Thanksgiving for their victory. This, combined with the influx of Loyalists from the lower 13 colonies during the American Revolution, solidified Thanksgiving’s status as an annual holiday, though the date changed several times.

Thanksgiving was declared a Canadian national holiday in 1879. After WWI, Armistice Day and Thanksgiving merged to form one holiday. The two became independent holidays in 1931.

Children’s Day – Brazil

October 12.

It began with a two-foot tall sculpture. Headless at that.

Three fishermen were casting their nets in the Paraiba River in Brazil. The year was 1717. Their nets were turning up empty until one of the fishermen pulled up a dark brown headless statue of a woman. Intrigued the fisherman cast his net again and pulled up the head. After finding the statue, the men’s net grew heavy with fish. They called the idol Nossa Senhora da Aparecida–Our Lady Who Appeared.

For the first 15 years, the small black Madonna was housed in one of the fishermen’s homes. Legends grew around the doll and the miracles it performed, including one legend about a slave who visited the shrine, whose chains broke when he came in contact with the idol. It became a symbol of hope for the oppressed in Portuguese-controlled Brazil. By the 1760s, due to its popularity a basilica was built to house the shrine, and the town itself became known as Aparecida.

The basilica was renovated in the 19th century. In the 1950s a new, larger basilica was begun to accommodate the overwhelming amount of visitors.

The Pope declared Our Lady of Aparecida the patron saint of Brazil in 1928, and today the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida is widely considered the second largest church in the world after St. Peter’s. It can accommodate 45,000 people and receives almost 7 million visitors a year.

October 12th is the national saint’s feast day, but these days the holiday is also celebrated as Children’s Day. Children throughout Brazil look forward to this day all year, for it’s the day they unwrap gifts from their parents. In many places in Brazil, Children’s Day is even bigger than Christmas.

The Black Madonna and the Limits of Light

Double Tenth – Taiwan/ROC

October 10

Double Tenth (10/10) celebrates the anniversary of the Wuchang Uprising which brought down a centuries-old dynasty in 1911.

Dozens of uprisings against the Qing Dynasty had failed between 1895 to 1911, most the work of small secret societies. What separated the Wuchang Uprising was that it originated from inside the Empire’s “New Army.”

The New Army had been created by the Emperor and his Manchu cabinet with the intention of putting down the many rebellions across China and protecting the country from foreign powers after the Boxer Rebellion.

The Army’s 8th Division, stationed in Hubei differed from other divisions throughout the country for several reasons:

First, the 8th Division was perhaps the most highly organized and cohesive.

Second, it was stationed in a port city and major transportation hub, Wuhan, on the Yangtze. Wuhan had been a cosmopolitan port. Thus, its members had access to foreign ideas and influence.

Third, its officers were highly literate. Many had studied abroad or graduated from military university.

Many in the New Army’s 8th Division were also members of secret societies, the two biggest being the Literary Society and the Society for Common Advancement. The two underground organizations merged in September 1911, united by their opposition to the Manchu government. (Most of the Hubei army and the members of the secret societies were Han Chinese, who considered the Manchu as foreign as if they’d been European.)

Viceroy administrative office after 1911 Wuchang Uprising
Viceroy administrative office after 1911 Wuchang Uprising

Ultimately, the military that was supposed to strengthen the Empire against foreign powers and subversive ideas was the cause of its downfall. On October 10, two-thousand New Army troops revolted. The governor fled Hubei, and within two days the Division occupied Hanyang and Hankou. As word of the rebellion spread, other provinces followed suit. By January 1, 1912, the revolutionaries had declared the new Republic of China, and the nearly three-century-old Qing Dynasty was no more.

Sun Yat-sen Memorial, Taipei
Sun Yat-sen Memorial, Taipei

Future President Sun Yat-Sen has often been called instrumental in the Wuchang rebellion, but he was in fact in the United States at the time, garnering support for the cause. The story is he was somewhere between Denver and Missouri and learned about the revolution from a newspaper in the hotel. He spent the next two months convincing the Western Powers not to support the Qing government, and he returned to China on December 29, 1911.

Double Tenth is the national holiday of Taiwan, aka the Republic of China, although recently some Taiwanese have questioned why this is Taiwan’s national day, since Taiwan was not a part of China at the time of the rebellion and hadn’t been since 1895.

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.

World Teachers Day

October 5

There are dozens of Teachers’ Days celebrated on different dates around the world, often on the birthdays of countries’ greatest instructors.

Taiwan and India celebrate Teachers’ Day in September with the observed birthdays of Confucius and Radhakrishnan respectively.

The Czech Republic celebrates on March 28 with the birthday of Jan Amos Komensky.

Finland honors Mikael Agricola on April 9.

China celebrates Teachers’ Day on September 10.

In the United States, the first full week in May is Teacher Appreciation Week.

But October 5 is World Teachers’ Day, an observance that began in 1994 and has been picking up momentum as an international celebration ever since.

Why October 5?

October 5 is the anniversary of the day in 1789 that the women of Paris marched on Versailles in what became known as the “March on Versailles”, in order to…

“confront Louis XVI about his refusal to promulgate the decrees on the abolition of feudalism, demand bread, and have the King and his court moved to Paris.” (

But that has nothing to do with Teachers’ Day (though it does sound like something we should have learned in school).

No, best we can tell, the October 5 date may have something to do with the fact that most school years start in September, and by early October, the kids haven’t yet driven their teachers absolutely insane. (That comes mid-November).

October 5 was also the date in 1966 that UNESCO adopted a “Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers” at the Special Intergovernmental Conference on the Status of Teachers.

One of the document’s guiding principles was is:

“Education from the earliest school years should be directed to the allround development of the human personality and to the spiritual, moral, social, cultural and economic progress of the community, as well as to the inculcation of deep respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms…”

We doff our caps to those who have chosen teaching as their full-time profession!

Independence Day – Democratic Republic of the Congo

June 30

I ask you to make this June 30, 1960, an illustrious date that you will keep indelibly engraved in your hearts, a date of significance of which you will teach to your children, so that they will make known to their sons and to their grandchildren the glorious history of our fight for liberty.

Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the Congo, Independence Speech

The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) respect Lumumba’s wishes on June 30, the anniversary of the country’s independence from Belgium, but it’s a day tinged with sadness, as they also remember the death of the man who guided them to independence.

Lumumba also holds the distinction of being the only world leader we know of to have nearly been killed by toothpaste.

President Eisenhower was not a huge fan of Lumumba back in 1960. Despite being democratically elected, Lumumba had Soviet leanings, and the Congo held resources vital to the West, uranium being chief among them.

The Belgian government had issues with Lumumba as well. His independence speech, at which the Belgian king was present, made it clear that Lumumba would be no puppet ruler, and the Congo would be no colony.

The CIA installed an operative (Larry Devlin) to be prepared to assassinate Lumumba at a moment’s notice. The weapon of choice: a tube of poisonous toothpaste to be planted among the Prime Minister’s toiletries. For whatever reason, the CIA never gave Devlin the order.

Instead, in September 1960, the charismatic Lumumba was deposed in a CIA-supported coup d’état by his former aide, Colonel Joseph Mobutu, and was executed the following January under mysterious circumstances. Mobutu went on to control the country for over 30 years, renamed it Zaire, and embezzled over $5 billion from the nation’s purse. Mobutu lost power in 1997, and the country became the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Patrice Lumumba, USSR stamp, 1961
Patrice Lumumba, USSR stamp, 1961

The battle for power in the DRC since 1997—also known as the African World War—has been cited as the deadliest conflict since World War II.

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

Chinese New Year – Year of the Snake – Hong Kong fireworks

I was lucky enough to be in Hong Kong during the Chinese New Year this year. In China it’s known as the Spring Festival.

In case you were wondering, the inventors of fireworks are still the undisputed champions.

The whole show was about 30 minutes, non-stop explosive action. Here’s ten minutes. I shot this video from Wan Chai, looking out at Tsim Sha Tsui. Amazing show!

Chinese New Year Fireworks – Hong Kong – February 11, 2013