Leif Erikson Day

October 9.

Leif Erikson arrived in the New World 500 years before Columbus. But you don’t hear any schoolchildren singing, ‘In 1002, Leif Erikson sailed the ocean blue.’

August Werner with Leif Erikson statue
August Werner with Leif Erikson statue

Leif was the son of Norseman Erik the Red. According to the Norse sagas, Erik’s family had been exiled from Norway because of his father’s part in some killings there.

In Iceland, Erik continued the family tradition by getting exiled from Iceland, after committing two separate murders. (One of the victims was a neighbor who refused to give Erik back his shovel.)

Rather than head east, Erik followed the sun, landing in a frozen wasteland he deceptively named “Greenland” to attract settlers. The ploy worked.

Small Norse settlements on Greenland survived over 400 years, although at no time did the Norse population surpass 5000. The last written record of the Norse settlement’s existence was from a wedding dated 1408.

Leif’s father Erik was a pagan, his mother a Christian. Leif followed his mother’s religion, but carried on the male tradition—not of murder and banishment, but of heading west into the great unknown.

Leif had heard of a land to the west from a trader named Bjarni Herjolfsson, who had been blown off course on his way from Iceland to Greenland. Despite being the first European to site mainland North America, Herjolfsson was too anxious to get to Greenland to even make a pitstop. Had he been more patient, we might be celebrating Bjarni Herjolfsson Day today, but as it was, Bjarni passed word onto Leif, who gathered men to explore.

According to the sagas, Leif and his followers founded three North American settlements: Helluland (land of flat stones), Markland (forest land) and Vinland (meadow land.) But none of the settlements reached the size or longevity of Greenland, and knowledge of the existence of the land disappeared for centuries.

Jandamsfjelet, Norway
Jandamsfjelet, Norway

In the 1960s archaeologists excavated the remains of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, the first conclusive proof of Viking settlement in mainland North America.

In 1963 Congress declared October 9 “Leif Erikson Day,” following the lead of states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. October 9th isn’t actually Leif’s birthday, or the day he discovered North America. Nope, October 9th marks the anniversary of the arrival of the “Sloopers,”–early Norwegian immigrants to the U.S.–in New York Harbor aboard the ship Restauration, in 1825, following in the ancient wake of their daring westbound ancestor.

To all my Norwegian friends, Uff da! This day’s for you.

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.

Kunchi Matsuri

October 7-9.

At under half a million residents, Nagasaki isn’t one of the biggest cities in Japan, but it throws one of the biggest festivals in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Nagasaki Kunchi Festival, or O-kunchi Matsuri is celebrated from October 7th to October 9th every year. Kunchi means ninth day—ku nichi. The autumnal festival includes magnificent parades and processions, but what it’s world-famous for is its show-stopping dance-travaganzas performed over the three days across the city with its center-point at the Suwa Shrine. Imagine “Nagasaki’s Got Talent,” except instead of performing as individuals or pairs, the city’s proud boroughs, or machi, face off in elaborate communal group dances. The routines, each lasting about a half hour, can include massive, intricate floats and moving props, beautiful costumes, and brilliantly choreographed moves, all centered around a cultural or historical theme, each neighborhood showing its pride and out-doing the others. The show is televised nationally.

Sources say the festival itself was the result of competition—religious competition. Back in the 1500’s, Nagasaki’s position in the southwest of Japan made it an ideal landing spot for Portuguese and then Dutch navigators and traders making their way from India. Along with the traders came the missionaries, and Nagasaki became an early Christian stronghold. During the reign of Tokugawa Hidetada (r. 1605-1623), Christianity was persecuted, and the Suwa Shrine was built in 1614 as the focal point of the Shinto revival in Nagasaki.

Of course, shrines alone don’t win converts, or de-converts for that matter. To compete with the Christian Easter processions, Nagasaki’s O-kunchi Matsuri was established in 1634. One of its original intents was to root out Christians, but by the 1690’s even the Dutch had box seats to the celebration.

One of the set pieces of the festival is the ancient Dragon Dance, stemming from the Chinese New Year’s tradition. Even back in the 17th century, Nagasaki boasted a large Chinese population. Dance routines and performances often give a shout out not only to Nagasaki’s Japanese heritage but to its multicultural past.

In August, Nagasaki is home to one of the country’s most moving commemorations. Just seven decades ago, Nagasaki was virtually incinerated by the world’s third atomic explosion at the end of World War II. Miraculously, the Suwa Shrine survived intact. Every year on August 9, residents gather at the Suwa Shrine on the anniversary of the bombing to remember the 70,000 townspeople killed in the attack.

Japanese Festivals, Helen Bauer and Sherwin Carlquist. 1965.
Nagasaki Kunchi Festival: http://www.ltcm.net/~telkamp/japan/kunchi/kunchi.html [retrieved 10/7/14]
Suwa Shrine (Nagasaki) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suwa_Shrine_%28Nagasaki% [retrieved 10/7/14]
Nagasaki Kunchi Matsuri http://lilymonk.blogspot.com/2007/10/nagasaki-kunchi-matsuri.html [retrieved 10/7/14]

©Marufish. Creative Commons Attribution -Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
©Marufish. Creative Commons Attribution -Share Alike 2.0 Generic license


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.” (wikipedia.org)

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!


October 31

Pagan: “a follower of a rustic or provincial religion”
from the Latin pagus, meaning a rural district.

The word “pagan” goes all the way back to the Greek root pagos meaning “that which is fixed”. “Fixed” as in “staying in position”, not like, your dog.

After crossing the Adriatic, the Romans used the word pagus to refer to a rural district. Pagan came to mean “country-dweller”.

Under Constantine, Christianity was not only tolerated, the religion replaced paganism throughout the Empire, with a top-down implementation. [For a more scholarly discussion, see the deleted “Storm” scene from X-Men 1.]

Long after Europe had converted to Christianity, some country-dwellers continued to worship their local and regional deities and observe the seasonal rituals of their ancestors to ensure prosperous harvests. Eventually the name for country-dweller became synonymous for followers of the old religions.

+ + +

What makes Halloween so special among American holidays is that it appears to harken back to its pagan roots without the veneer of a Christian holiday, like Easter and Christmas. While Celtic and Germanic traditions such as Walpurgis Night (Witches Night) and Beltane (May Day) have all but died out, Halloween is among the most widely celebrated holidays in the U.S.

And while several national holidays (such as Memorial Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Labor Day) are celebrated with parades, sports events, or barbecues, Halloween has several holiday-specific traditions that are celebrated at no other time of the year. This puts it in a small class of holidays that include Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Independence Day. Yet unlike the above holidays, Halloween is not recognized by the U.S. government. Nobody gets the day off. And still Halloween captivates the country at large and is becoming increasingly popular in Europe. This may be why Halloween has been singled out as contrary to the teachings of Christianity by some sects.

In truth, the holiday owes as much to traditions picked up during the celebrations of the ‘All Saint’s Day’ as to its pagan past. An observer of the Celtic holiday Samhain would hardly recognize the holiday today. Samhain was a cross-quarter day (directly between the equinox and solstice) when the Celts would practice acts of divination—predicting the future.

Some historians believe it was also a day to commemorate the dead, which is why the Pope moved All Saints’ Day–originally May 13–to November 1 to compete with the age-old local pagan traditions.

German and Irish immigrants brought their harvest traditions with them to America in the 19th century, such as the good old pagan bonfire on All Hallow’s Eve.

Hallowe’en masquerade parties were fashionable in Victorian America at the end of the 19th century. By the 20th century, the holiday belonged to the kids.

Which came first, the trick or the treat?

The British tradition of playing pranks on one’s neighbors on the night before Guy Fawkes Day (instituted 1606) traversed the Atlantic, taking hold on All Hallow’s Eve. On the nights leading up to All Soul’s Day, youths would take gates off their hinges, soap up neighbors’ windows, and create all-around havoc and mischief. (Now October 30 is known as Mischief Night). Today kids are much less prone to pull pranks on Halloween, but are more than happy to receive their sugar-coated pay-off.

Halloween is at once a caricature of traditions of rustic peoples, as seen through the eyes of their former enemies, and a wholly unique celebration, that has picked up its own imagery and rituals throughout the centuries.

On Paganism and Etymology

Halloween: Customs, Spells and Recipes

Mischief Night

October 30

At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity.

We now return you to the music of Rámon Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.

In England Mischief Night originally referred to April 30 (May-Eve or Witches Night), the evening before May Day. Exactly six months apart, May Day and Samhain (November 1) were two of the four cross-quarter dates that Celtics and Druids celebrated during the year. The term Mischief Night was later applied to November 4, the evening before Guy Fawkes Day, when youths would play pranks on unsuspecting neighbors, like soaping up windows and prying gates off their hinges.

When and how Mischief Night got transferred to the evening before Halloween isn’t clear. In the United States, where Guy Fawkes Day isn’t observed, youths in the 1930s took it upon themselves to cause mayhem on the nights leading up to Halloween. What began as minor vandalism–egging cars and toilet papering houses–moved on to arson and destruction of property. In the 1980s and early 1990s, cities such as Camden, New Jersey, and Detroit–where October 30 is called “Devil’s Night”–reported over 100 fires in a single evening. Since that time however, serious Mischief Night crime has significantly declined.

It’s ironic that originally November 1 was the big holiday, and All Hallow’s Eve, was its prologue. Now Halloween has become the major holiday in itself, and Mischief Night fulfills some of the purpose Hallow’s Eve used to serve.

War of the Worlds

The greatest Mischief Night prank ever pulled happened seventy years ago today. A 23 year-old stage and radio actor named Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Players broadcast a radio rendition of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Rather than creating a static stage reading or radio-play, Welles took the extraordinary step of reciting the events of the novel as if it were a real news broadcast.

After the initial introduction, in which Welles explained this was a radio play of War of the Worlds, a fake announcer took the listener to the Park Plaza Hotel to hear to music of “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” The music was periodically interrupted to inform the listener of live events going on elsewhere, from reports of a gas explosion seen on Mars, to the crash landing of an alien craft in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

REPORTER: More state police have arrived. They’re drawing up a cordon in front of the pit…Wait a minute! Something’s happening… (Hissing sound) A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from that mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame! (Unearthly shrieks) Now the whole field’s caught fire. (Explosion) The woods..the barns…the gas tanks of automobiles…it’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right… (Abrupt dead silence)

ANCHOR: Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grover’s Mill…We continue now with our piano interlude…

It was so realistic that listeners who tuned in after the introduction had no idea they were listening to the Mercury Theatre drama-hour…

ANCHOR: Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.

The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most starling defeats ever suffered by an army in modern times; 7000 men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. 120 known survivors…

The monster is now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and has effectively cut the state through its center. Communication lines are down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. Martial law prevails throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.

Tragically, New Jersey was in tact. However, the broadcast reached an estimated 6 million listeners and led to widespread hysteria across the tri-state area.

At the end of the broadcast, Orson Welles assured his listeners that the prank was simply:

…the Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!…we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night…so we did the next best thing…So goodbye everybody, and remember please…That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian…it’s Halloween.

Orson Welles, October 30, 1938

Republic Day – Turkey

October 29

If the earth were a single state, Constantinople would be its capital.

–Napoleon Bonaparte

In the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Transylvania to Ethiopia, from Algiers to the Caspian Sea.

By the end of the 19th century, France had chipped away at much of North Africa, the Ottoman Empire’s ‘ally’ Britain had assumed protective control of Egypt, Balkin republics were declaring their independence in Europe, while Arab groups to the East were fighting for the same. In addition, the Empire was crippled by a mountain of debt to European creditors brought on by the Crimean War and the numerous wars that followed.

During World War I, the Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers (Austro-Hungary) against the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and Russia). The Empire met with initial successes, but weakened during the War’s progress, partially by internal conflicts such as the Great Arab Revolt and independence movements encouraged by the Allies.

A young military commander by the name of Ataturk, who rose to fame at the Battle of Gallipoli, was enraged at the Allied partitioning of the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of Constantinople. Between 1919 and 1923 he led the resistance in the Turkish War of Independence, fought mainly against Greece, France, and Armenia.

In 1923, after 8 months of negotiations, representatives of the warring states signed the Treaty of Lausanne. The treaty negated Ottoman claims in Iraq, Syria, and Cyprus, and acknowledged the Republic of Turkey as the successor to the Ottoman Empire. The Republic was officially proclaimed on October 29, 1923, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became its first president.

Ataturk and the Republic of Turkey

Battle of Milvian Bridge

October 28

October 28, 2010 marks the 1698th anniversary of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, a battle of two Emperors that changed the course of history.

Maxentius and Constantine were brothers-in-law, both had valid claims to the throne thanks to Diocletian’s division of the Empire in 306, and both their fathers had been previous Emperors. In fact, Maxentius’s father had committed suicide after a failed rebellion against Constantine.

In 312 A.D. Maxentius held Rome; Constantine held the north. Hearing of Maxentius’s claim, Constantine gathered his army and headed south, encountering Maxentius’s troops at the Milvian Bridge just outside Rome. The actual Milvian bridge was not functional, perhaps purposefully destroyed by Maxentius in preparation for the expected attack. But Maxentius made a grave tactical error. He used a makeshift pontoon bridge to transport his troops to the other side of the Tiber, and placed them too close to the riverbank.

Battle of the Milvian Bridge
Battle of the Milvian Bridge

Constantine, a 40 year-old veteran of campaigns against the Franks and Gauls, forced Maxentius’s army against the river, allowing them only one means of escape: the bridge. During the retreat, the bridge collapsed, and the portion of Maxentius’s troops stranded on the north side were slaughtered or taken prisoner.

Maxentius supposedly drown in the river. His body was found, decapitated, and paraded through Rome the following day.

It is said Constantine had a vision the night before of the sign of the cross, and the words “In this sign, you shall conquer.”

Constantine’s victory over Maxentius was later seen as a victory of the Christian god over the Roman pagan deities. Constantine became the first Christian Emperor, reversed the ruthless persecution of Christians that had dominated the reign of Diocletian, and implemented a policy of religious tolerance throughout the Empire.

Though not an official holiday, many Christian sects observe the anniversary of Milvian Bridge on October 28 in memory of the historic turning point of early Christianity.

Milvian Bridge: Unique Historical Moments in Christian History