Friday, December 24, 2010

History of Christmas Part 2

Many of Santa's attributes are thanks to the poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas." From this poem, we learn that Santa rides in a sleigh that lands on people's roofs with a bulging sack of toys to deliver to children. The poem also introduced the notion of Santa going down the chimney to get into the house. Santa is described as being a large man, with a belly like a bowl full of jelly. This poem also introduced the eight tiny reindeer that Santa used to deliver his toys.
Thomas Nast, a cartoonist in the late 1800's immortalized the image of Santa Claus that we know today. He published his own rendition of Santa Claus that looks like what we know today. From his cartoons the legend of Santa Claus living in the North Pole also came. By the 1870's all of this was widely known by the American public. Further lore on Santa Claus came from the story "The Life and Times of Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum in 1902. Baum is best known for penning "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." This gives another back story of Santa Claus and where his immortality comes from. The story was made into a stop motion animation in 1985, and is one of the weirdest Santa Claus stories ever. Check out the cartoon if you can find it. I have it on VHS and have watched it since I was a little kid out of pure nostalgia.

Santa Claus' image has changed slightly since then, only changing a little for advertising reasons for the Coca Cola company. Though Coke seems to have an embargo on Santa advertising, the jolly old elf has been a part of almost every other company in existence. Santa has been used also for charity. You will see a Santa perched outside of a department store ringing a bell for Salvation Army every season. Santa's wife was created around the in the early 1800's, being made more popular with more publications.

Several traditions have found their way into our lives because of Santa. Kids for ages have been writing letters to Santa, hoping that Santa will give them their wish for plentiful gifts. Stepping into the computer age, we even have children e-mailing Santa Claus. Also popular on the Internet and on your local news channel is Santa Tracker. This allows kids to know where Santa is at the time. Another tradition, this one for Christmas eve, is to leave something out for Santa. It varies from country to country what a family will leave for Santa. In the U.S., we usually leave him some cookies and a glass of milk. In some cases, carrots would be left out for Santa's reindeer. In Britain and Australia, kids will leave out mince pies and sherry instead. In Sweden they leave out rice porridge, and in Ireland they leave out Christmas Pudding and a Guinness. I'm thinking that Santa likes Ireland the best. He had to stop visiting there so early in the night though, as some countries would be accidentally passed over. For many kids now, there is less fear of a being such as Krampus or any other malevolent person punishing you for your bad deeds during the year, since most kids are just threatened with coal in their stockings.

Speaking of stockings, the story of their beginning is an interesting one: Very long ago, there lived a poor man and his three very beautiful daughters. He had no money to get his daughters married, and he was worried what would happen to them after his death. Saint Nicholas was passing through when he heard the villagers talking about the girls. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but knew that the old man wouldn't accept charity. He decided to help in secret. He waited until it was night and crept through the chimney. He had three bags of gold coins with him, one for each girl. As he was looking for a place to keep those three bags, he noticed stockings of the three girls that were hung over the mantelpiece for drying. He put one bag in each stocking and off he went. When the girls and their father woke up the next morning, they found the bags of gold coins and were of course, overjoyed. The girls were able to get married and live happily ever after. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.

We in America associate Christmas with so many things now, that it's hard to keep it straight what the whole point is. Is it about Santa and gifts? Is it about spending quality time with family? Or is it about celebrating Jesus' birth? If you are like many Americans, it is all three. Many people, even if they aren't religious, will go to a Christmas Eve service, then spend time with their loved ones. The family wakes up, then opens presents together and had a great feast. Many argue that Jesus' birth has been taken over by Santa and commercialism. It has in a way, but that doesn't mean that people should stop celebrating for the right reasons. Christmas is the epitome of holidays in my opinion. You have the best of everything; family, gift-giving, and a religious celebration. So, from me to all of my readers, hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!


Demosthenes' Christmas favorites:

-Mickey's Christmas Carol
-The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
-Muppet's Christmas Carol
-A Christmas Story
-Christmas Vacation
-Home Alone

Saturday, December 18, 2010

History of Christmas

Christmas is a special time of year where we all get together, give presents, eat food, and sing carols. Before the holiday, we decorate our houses, put up a tree, and put ornaments on it. Christmas night, as kids, we waited to hear Santa Claus on our roof, or perhaps sneak a peek of him from upstairs as he is putting our presents under the tree. Christmas is full of many different traditions and celebrations that have given people joy throughout the years.

Christmas is like many other holidays, such as Easter and Halloween, in that there is a religious theme around it (Remember that Halloween had All Saints Day), but that day is not specifically holy. What I mean by that is these holidays may be considered celebrations of Jesus’ birth and death, but neither holiday coincides with the actual days of those events. Pagans had festivals on these days and Christian Romans implanted Christianity into these festivals to slowly wane the people off their many gods. Does that take away from Christians celebrating the birth of Christ? Not at all, because though it may not be the exact day, we really don’t know when that day is, and at least we are celebrating it. In this case, it’s the thought that counts. I’m sure that the Lord will forgive us if we are a few months off.

Christmas started as a winter festival, just as Samhain was a fall festival, and Easter was a spring festival. In many cultures, it was the most important. This may be attributed to the fact that there was much less agricultural work to do and that made more time for merriment. From the pagan days, some of Christmas’ customs still live one. The Roman Saturnalia had gift-giving during this time in celebration of the god Saturn. The Romans also had greenery, lights and charity during their new year. Yule logs and various foods came from Germanic feasts. And pagan Scandinavians celebrated a winter festival called Yule.

Around the 300’s, a feast honoring the birth and baptism of Jesus started, as many speculated that Jesus was conceived during the Spring Solstice, thus giving him a December birthday. This was convenient as it put Christmas right around the pagan winter celebration. This celebration coincided with Epiphany, which was a festival celebrating the visit from the Magi. The celebration of that visit overshadowed Christmas for quite some time in the middle ages. Christmas made a comeback as the main festival once Charlemagne was crowned on that day in 800. Christmas, by the high middle ages, became extremely popular. Caroling became commonplace, as did drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling. Never thought those would all go together. England at the time exchanged gifts, but it was on New Year’s Day. The holiday in this time period took on ivy, holly, and other evergreens. During the next couple centuries, the date of gift giving was changed several times before they decided on Christmas Eve in the 17th century, and that baby Jesus was the gift giver.

And then came the Puritans again. They just didn’t like anyone having any fun. After the Protestant Reformation, the Puritans condemned the celebration of Christmas, claiming it was born of the Catholics. The Catholic Church responded by making the day more religious, and less about drunkenness. As royalty changed hands in England, Christmas was banned and un-banned. Puritans who went to America carried over their hate of the holiday, and it wasn’t until much later that Christmas was widely celebrated by colonist. It got worse after the American Revolution though, as Christmas was considered a European holiday. The Americans had just gotten over fighting the English and German hessians, and didn’t feel like carrying on their traditions. Christmas trees and nativity scenes were first introduced in colonial America by German immigrants.

In the early 1800’s in Britain, people started to worry that Christmas was fading away and was not as popular as it used to be, so Charles Dickens decided to write A Christmas Carol. The book was immensely popular and turned Christmas into a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion. Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Dickens single-handedly created a Christmas we all know today; a more secular celebration with family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, games and a festive generosity of spirit. We can also thank Dickens for the term “Merry Christmas”, as it was first used in his story. The term Scrooge became synonymous with people who don’t like Christmas.

The Christmas tree became popular in Europe when Queen Victoria and her German cousin Prince Albert got married. The trees were hung with lights and ornaments, and with presents underneath. Does this sound a little familiar? The image of the royal couple next to their Christmas tree was distributed around Europe and eventually found its way to America. By the 1870’s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America. Interest in Christmas was revived in America in the 1820’s thanks to Washington Irving who wrote of old Christmas celebrations in England, and Clement Clarke Moore who wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas (otherwise known as Twas the Night before Christmas). The poem helped popularize the exchanging of gifts, which led to seasonal Christmas shopping becoming an economic importance. This also led to the conflict of the consumerism getting in the way of the spiritual part of Christmas. So yes people, this was a problem way back in the 1820’s. The holiday became an official federal holiday in 1870, signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant. Also at this time you had the introduction of Christmas cards by Louis Prang, who is considered the father of the American Christmas card.

Christmas has had its share of gift givers, the most notable being Santa Claus. Other gift givers included Pere Noel, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Christkind, Joulupukki, Babbo Natale, Saint Basil, and Father Frost. All are essentially Santa Claus with different names due to area of origin. The name Santa Claus can be traced back to the Dutch, Sinterklaas, which means simply Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, in modern day Turkey, during the 4th century. Among other saintly attributes, he was noted for the car of Children, generosity, and the giving of gifts. His feast on the 6th of December came to be celebrated in many countries with the giving of gifts. Saint Nicholas traditionally appeared in bishop's attire, accompanied by helpers, inquiring about the behavior of children during the past year before deciding whether they deserved a gift or not. By the 13th century, Saint Nicholas was well known in the Netherlands, and the practice of gift-giving in his name spread to other parts of central and southern Europe. At the Reformation in 16th–17th century Europe, many Protestants changed the gift bringer to the Christ Child or Christkindl, corrupted in English to Kris Kringle, and the date of giving gifts changed from December the 6th to Christmas Eve. The modern Santa Claus came to us from the colonist in New York who needed Christmas without the influence of the English. Luckily, they had Dutch backgrounds and used Santa Claus as a new basis for the holiday, as a gift giver. The image of Santa Clause has changed over time from the saint attire to the Father Christmas attire with a robe and fur as we generally see him today. Father Christmas predates Santa Claus, as a jolly, well nourished; bearded man who wants to spread the spirit of good cheer, but more in the way of getting totally hammered and less in the gift giving way. His image was later retooled to be more like Santa Claus due to people not wanting to associate a man who was delivering presents to the town drunk that people avoided on the street.

Santa has had lots of different helpers over the years. In German folklore he is accompanied by a shepherd, Knecht Ruprecht, who according to tradition asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If they cannot, he beats the children with his bag of ashes. DANG! I mean, I know it’s harmless, but still…that’s pretty dang terrifying.

In Dutch folklore, Santa is accompanied by Black Peter. Black Peter gives all the good little children sweets. Other countries have other helpers of Santa, that don’t help as much as beat children. Krampus is my personal favorite, another punisher of children in Germany during the Christmas season. Instead of a shepherd like Knecht Ruprecht, this guy is a demon. And instead of a bag of ashes, he hits you with a switch. This is much more terrifying than an old dude with a bag of ashes. In our own culture, he is helped by elves, which make his toys for children. In Latin America, many of the countries believe that Santa makes the toys, and then gives them to baby Jesus, who then delivers them.

There is a lot more to Christmas then I can get to today so stay tuned for Part 2!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Herbert Hoover

Term: 1929-1933

Party: Republican

Nickname: about "The Vacuum."

Hoover gets a bad rap. He was blamed for the Great Depression, and still is to this day. But like most economic calamities, they are inherited by the new president, and started by the old. While he didn’t start the Depression, he couldn’t stop it either, which is what the public needed.
Hoover grew up a Quaker and became an international engineer. This meant two things: First, that he had a humanitarian background, and second, that he was a self made millionaire. Hoover did a lot to help people before he was president. He led humanitarian food programs for those displaced by World War I. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked him to manage the nation’s wartime food conservation programs. He became immensely popular and was a shoe in for the presidency. Hoover’s attitude about helping others stopped at being president though. He felt that personal responsibility was the key to progress. While individuals and private institutions were responsible for serving humanity, the federal government was not. Hoover felt that the Constitution did not permit direct federal relief to individuals. This put him at odds with the Bonus Army. The Bonus Army marchers were veterans who wanted Hoover to allow them to borrow against military bonuses they had been given six years earlier. Hoover refused and had the crowd dispersed with force.

This attitude carried over into his other dealings with poverty stricken America. Hoover took little to no action to soften the blow of the depression. Any steps he took were either wrong or too little. People became so disillusioned with Hoover that they began calling the ragged shanty towns Hoovervilles. Hoover left office under one of the darkest clouds ever to shadow the presidency.

Grade: D

Ok, so we have a string of bad presidents. It’s the Gilded Age all over again. Hoover may have not been to blame for the depression, but he did nothing to stop the spread of it. Hoover may have been a nice guy, but the country needed a man who could inspire people and get America back to work.

Calvin Coolidge

Term: 1923-1929

Party: Republican

Nickname: Silent Cal

Now tired of corruption, the U.S. public needed someone who was going to lead them in the right direction. Calvin Coolidge, or Silent Cal, as he was called for his quiet personality, was determined to do that for America, but with doing as little as possible. His straightforward reserve was popular with the American public, but most people today can’t figure out why anyone liked him. Coolidge was a strictly small government man. The government was to stay out of everyone’s business…literally. As farms nationwide suffered financial crises, he vetoed bills to send them aid. He also opposed a bill that provided WWI vets with bonuses, and he cut taxes dramatically to shrink the size of government coffers. Coolidge also failed to take any steps to rein in the massive stock speculation that helped bring on the Great Depression. Although he was warned about the danger of this sort of speculation, Coolidge scrupulously noted that as president, he had no direct authority over Wall Street. Although, he could have used his influence to request the Federal Reserve Board to tighten regulations, he chose not to do so. So, when people say that Hoover caused the Great Depression, they are wrong.

Coolidge did do some good. He passed the Air Commerce Act, which required that all airplane pilots and aircraft be registered. In addition to this, the Federal Radio Commission was founded to regulate the radio industry. Coolidge conveniently left the presidency when the crash happened and people looked to the next president to make things better.

Grade: D

Coolidge did do a very small amount in his six years as president. He kept the government out of everything, which is what he said he would do, so he was more honest than Harding. The fact that Coolidge turned his back on his citizens when they needed his help, just so he could keep the government small makes him a bad president in my book.

Funny Story:

Coolidge’s penchant for silence was well known. During a party, a guest went up to Coolidge and said that he bet he could get him to say more than two words. Coolidge replied, “You lose.”

Warren Gamaliel Harding

Term: 1921-1923

Party: Republican

Nickname: Eyebrows...not really...but he doesn't have any apparently.

The United States had just gone through a terrible World War, or known at that time as the War to End all Wars. Citizens of the U.S. were officially sick of dealing with outside powers. Luckily for them, as soon as Woodrow Wilson suffered his stroke in 1919, the Progressive Era was done. People wanted a president who would bring the focus back to the United States. What they got was Warren G. Harding. Harding did look right for the job. He declared that he wanted the country to be put back into normalcy, a word which he made up, which refers to a return to the political and economic isolation that had characterized the U.S. before the First World War. Harding handily beat his progressive Democratic adversary, James M. Cox. It might be for the better that we didn’t have a President Cox. This election was landmark in a few ways. First, it was the first time that a sitting senator became president. Second, it was the first election where all women could vote. Third, it was the first election to have the election results broadcast from the radio.

From the get-go, Harding was overwhelmed by the job of President of the Free World. He confessed that he didn’t know what to do or where to go. He was more than happy to rely on the Republican Congress for directions. Wartime controls were eliminated, taxes cut, tariffs raised, and immigration tightened. Things were looking up for Harding, and he remained immensely popular going into 1923. What the public didn’t know was how corrupt Harding’s administration was. His Interior Secretary Albert Fall, accepted bribes from private oil interests for naval petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California. Harding did not take place in the scheme, but he knew of it, and did nothing for fear that it would damage his reputation. Several other scandals surfaced during Harding’s administration, but the biggest, the Teapot Dome scandal, didn’t become public knowledge until after his death. In 1923, Harding, while on a national tour with his wife, died of heart failure. By the time a sensational book by a woman alleging to have been Harding’s former mistress-and mother of his illegitimate child-surfaced in 1930, Harding’s reputation was already sullied.

Grade: F

Harding is almost always listed as the worst president, or the second to last. He got a few things done, but that was more of Congress’ doing than his own. He allowed his administration to run free with corruption and did nothing to stop it out of fear for his own reputation. Harding literally had no idea how to be president and relied on Congress the whole way. He is even quoted as saying that he was not fit to be president. Plus, he had really creepy bushy eyebrows.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Thanksgiving is the time where we all go off our diets, where we have to spend time with family that we may not like, and the time where someone is most likely to clog your toilet. It’s a magical time filled with food, football, and parades. Beyond those things, it’s a holiday dedicated to giving thanks for everything we have. The tradition of Thanksgiving goes back a few centuries.

While we all associate the story of the pilgrims as the first Thanksgiving, there are many who claim that the first Thanksgiving happened in Saint Augustine, Florida. The Spanish, after ousting the French Huguenots from the area, created the first permanent settlement in America. From scraps of documents from the period, historians have surmised that a sort of Thanksgiving feast occurred with Native Americans from the area in 1565.

That’s not what we all celebrate though. We all like to focus on the Pilgrims. But, is the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans that had a feast together accurate? Well, in a way yes…but in a lot of ways, no. The Pilgrim Thanksgiving wasn’t a friendly get together between the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims with turkey and cranberry sauce. After fleeing persecution in Europe, the Pilgrims, a sect of the Puritans, landed in modern day Massachusetts; in a place they named Plymouth. Luckily for them, they had an OK relationship with the Wampanoag. They Pilgrims did make the assumption that they owned all the land in the area though, which probably didn’t go over well with the Wampanoag. Things smoothed over as the natives saw that the Pilgrims didn’t mean them any harm, and some decided to help the Pilgrims survive the rough winter. With the native’s help, the Pilgrims were able to yield a plentiful crop. This much is about true about the story we all heard in elementary school. Then it gets weird. The Pilgrims decided to have a big feast with games and everything to celebrate the great harvest they had. Some Pilgrims decided to show the Wampanoag how tough they were by going out into woods and starting some target practice. This caught the attention of the tribe and about 90 men came into the Pilgrim settlement with weapons ready. What the Pilgrims meant as a show of might backfired into almost starting a conflict. When the Wampanoags saw what was going on, they decided not to murder everyone and promptly joined the party…uninvited. Well, now the Pilgrims had way more mouths to feed and not enough food. The Wampanoags decided to chip in since they were creating a little bit of a bother for the Pilgrims and brought a few deer to help feed everyone. History only gives us one journal account from a Pilgrim describing the feast. This is all we really have to go on for any information about the first Thanksgiving. At the feast, they enjoyed fowl (which may or may not have included turkey), berries, various vegetables, venison, beans, squash, and maize.

It wasn’t called Thanksgiving from the get go either. For many after that, it was simply a harvest time feast. There was no set day to celebrate the day. The name Thanksgiving started being used in the 19th century for the day when puritans had a day of fasting and gave thanks. It wasn’t really that you couldn’t eat; it was that you were at church praying the whole time, so you couldn’t eat. The journal entry from the Pilgrims was lost until this time and with the knowledge, people started mixing the two together. Thanksgiving would be a day of great feasting, and giving thanks to God for all He has given us. Eventually, pumpkin pies and other Thanksgiving mainstays found their way into the meal. Turkeys were a popular main course for the feast as they were large birds that would yield lots of meat. Plus, they tasted delicious.

Like I said before, there wasn’t really a set day to celebrate Thanksgiving. People just had a harvest feast whenever they wanted, but usually in November. It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that the discussion of Thanksgiving being given a specific date was heard. Sarah Josepha Hale, a popular magazine editorial writer, started the campaign to make Thanksgiving an official holiday with a specific day. She felt that the holiday would bring the bitterly divided North and South together in solidarity to give thanks. She wrote senators, governors, and presidents, but no one really listened. The south began to see the holiday as a Yankee holiday, being pushed on them. They refused to celebrate the holiday, thus crushing any hope of a holiday bringing the north and south together. In the middle of the Civil War however, President Lincoln decided that the best thing to do for the people was to make Thanksgiving an American holiday, held on the last Thursday of November. Thanksgiving however, was not a national holiday until FDR’s presidency. He pushed to have Thanksgiving moved a week earlier so people had more time to spend on Christmas presents. He felt the best thing to do in the feeble economy was to give more time for the people to put money back into the businesses. This didn’t work however, as most didn’t like someone messing with what day they gave thanks. So, in 1939, some people celebrated Thanksgiving on the 19th, and some on the 26th. It was a mess. Congress finally decided to step in and make Thanksgiving a national holiday kept on the last Thursday of November. So, FDR’s blunder caused Thanksgiving to be made a national holiday, and the holiday that year was named Franksgiving. No joke.

In essence, the Thanksgiving tradition hasn’t changed much over the years. Some big changes however were the loosening of ties with religion. Thanksgiving has become a secular holiday; something for anybody to celebrate not matter what they believe in. Thanksgiving has gained a few things though. Starting in 1924, Macy’s department store has had a parade celebrating the holiday season. Supposedly started when patriotic immigrants wanted to show how thankful they were for their jobs, and they suggested to their employers to throw a parade. From the get-go, Macy’s had those character balloons. Always filled with helium, for a time they used to just let the balloons go at the end of the parade route. They figured that the balloons would flout around for a few days and eventually flout back down harmlessly to earth. This all ended in 1932 when a balloon was released and ended up hitting a passing airplane. The pilot was able to stay in the air, but the fear of death caused the act to stop from that moment on. Now, all the balloons are stored in an old tootsie roll factory in New Jersey. Many cities have their own Thanksgiving Day/Christmas Parade. We in Michigan have “America’s Thanksgiving Parade”, which I find to be the most notable. Balloons have been used every year in the parades besides during the Second World War, so they could be used to make tires and other stuff for the war effort.

Another tradition for Thanksgiving is Football. Whether you play it or watch it at the stadium or with your relatives at home, football is everywhere on Thanksgiving. Turkey Bowl games started almost as soon as football was invented in the 1870’s. People would go to their favorite college and watch their teams throw around actual pigskin. It wasn’t until 1934 when the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving that a tradition started in the NFL. Except for the years of 1939-1944, the Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day. Lion’s fans have waited since 2003 to see the Lions actually win a Thanksgiving Day game. Other teams have been added to Thanksgiving Day games such as the Dallas Cowboys since the 70’s and various others since the mid-200’s.

Myth debunking time!

True or False?

1. There is tryptophan in turkey which makes you sleepy, so that’s why you are so tired after Thanksgiving Dinner.

Answer: False! It does have tryptophan, but a very small amount. You are tired from all the carbs that you ingested and all the stress of making and eating the meal.

2. The day before Thanksgiving is the busiest day to fly on a plane due to everyone trying to get to their relatives.

Answer: False! The day before thanksgiving is not even in the top 25. The highest varies every year, but is usually a Friday during June, July, or August.

3. The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest day for plumbers.

Answer: True! When you have a lot of people in your house, you tend to have a lot of people using the bathroom. Toilets get clogged and have to be fixed the next day by plumbers. Also, many people put things in the garbage disposal that aren’t supposed to go in there, such as rice, potato peels, and bones. This again, causes a plumber to show up to clean up after your stupidity.

Though a few things have changed about Thanksgiving, the meaning of it has never. It is a time to give thanks for everything we have been given over the past year and a time to spend with our families. Thanksgiving is a time to sit and watch a parade and some football and skim through all the black Friday ads in the paper. Hope you all have a very peaceful Thanksgiving.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Birthdays: A day filled with cake and questionable gifts.

As my own birthday is tomorrow, I decided that it would be a good idea to write about the history of birthdays! Where did the song come from? Why blow out candles? Why presents? Why celebrate getting older anyway? It was fun as a kid, but now it’s just a reminder of the inevitability of being old.

Birthdays were not always around, since for a long period of time we didn’t have calendars. People kind of took a stab at their birthday and what time of the year it was based on the stars and of course weather. Once calendars were in use, people started to take more notice of their own day of birth. There were no parties though for the regular ol’ folk like you and me. History only gives us names of nobility and such celebrating birthdays with parties and fanfare. The consensus was that if you weren’t royalty, there was really no reason for anyone to remember your birthday.

Eventually, birthdays and celebrations became a mainstay for children, starting in Germany. The parties were called kinderfestes, kinder meaning children and feste meaning party. Though this name hasn’t stayed with us, a similar word has that came from the Germans, Kindergarten. The celebrations, like most at the time practiced by pagans, were done to ward off evil spirits. People believed that evil spirits targeted people on their birthdays and the only thing that could protect them was friends and family. Bringing gifts was another way of spreading cheer, which helped ward off evil spirits. I smell a scam here.

The birthday custom of lighting candles originated with people believing that the gods lived in the sky and by lighting candles and torches they were sending a signal or prayer to the gods so they could be answered. When you blow out the candles and make a wish this is another way of sending a signal and a message.

Birthdays have since lost the stigma of being about warding off evil spirits and more about celebrating a person’s transition into another year of their life. Birthdays are now celebrated around the world, each in a different way.

In America, we typically do the traditional birthday with cake and presents, but sing a specific song to go along with it. The Happy Birthday song was written by Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, though no one really paid much attention to it until the verse “Good morning to you!” was changed to “Happy Birthday to you!” Now the song is heard in every household. One place you will not here the song is at restaurants. You may have noticed while the people from Red Robin surround you and give you a free dessert that is much smaller than it should be, that they have their own dumb birthday song. Legally, no restaurant or business can legally sing the Happy Birthday song because that would be copyright infringement. The song surprisingly is not public domain and therefore has a copyright on it. So thanks to that, you get the “restaurant version.”

Some birthdays are special in the U.S., specifically a 16th birthday for a girl. This is of course known as a sweet 16 party. It’s sort of the equivalent to the official step into adulthood for girls. Or it’s just a huge party for spoiled girls whose parents will apparently buy them anything.

Other big birthdays are a person’s 18th birthday, which marks when a person can legally buy tobacco products, pornography items, and lotto tickets. This also the age at which people can vote and also have to sign up for conscription. 21 is another big one, marking when people are allowed to legally drink alcohol. In most cases, this is also the age at which people are allowed to gamble in casinos. This is different from casino to casino, as in some, you have to be at least 19.
25 is where you can rent a car and when your insurance goes down. I am very excited about this actually. Those payments are killing me!

From there, there aren’t any big birthdays besides the ones that are round numbers. You know it’s a big one when you get the obnoxious birthday cards that say things like “old”, “geezer”, and “over the hill.” When you see that, you are officially in trouble. That means your mid-life crisis is just around the corner.

Special birthdays or coming of age birthdays are different in other countries. Such as:

· Jewish boys become bar mitzvah on their 13th birthday. Jewish girls become bat mitzvah on their 12th birthday, or sometimes on their 13th birthday in Reform and Conservative Judaism.

· In Hispanic-American countries the quinceanera celebration traditionally marks a girl’s 15th birthday.

· In Indian Hindus, the 12th or 13th birthday is replaced with a grand “thread ceremony.” The child takes a blessed thread and wears it, symbolizing his coming of age.

· In the Philippines, they celebrate a debut on a girl’s 18th birthday, and a boy’s 21st birthday.

· In Asian countries that follow the Zodiac calendar, there is a tradition of celebrating the 60th birthday.

As for famous birthdays, many people celebrate what is perceived to be Jesus Christ’s birthday on December 25th, but it probably isn’t. The Queen of England’s birthday is known as Victoria Day. In the case of American birthdays for famous people, we basically just have Presidents Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Columbus Day does not mark Columbus’ birth, but the date he viewed Hispaniola from his ship.

If you happen to be one of the most unlucky people ever, you happen to have been born on February 29th. This, of course, is only a day in a leap year. That means that technically you are never going to get past your mid 20’s. This plot device is used in the musical “The Pirates of Penzance”, as the main character is made to stay a servant because he was born on the 29th and therefore is not really 21 and freed from his servitude. Yes, I do remember my days working in theater, give me a break.

Birthdays are extremely special to some people, and not at all to some. Some like to have people over and get gifts, while others don’t like getting older. Birthdays are a time of celebration, but also a reminder of our years on this earth. This year, make sure you tell a lot of people to come over and bring lots of presents to make sure that the evil spirits will stay away from you. It actually might work.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guy Fawkes Day

Guy Fawkes Day, or Guy Fawkes Night, is a celebration of the protestant victory over the gunpowder plot of November 5th, 1605. To this day, the holiday is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires...and the burning of effigies. To explain this, let's look into the past.

In the early 1600's, England was ruled by the Protestant King, James I. Hopes that religious tolerance towards Catholics would soften under James I wasn't happening, so English Catholics planned to assassinate James I, and put his nine-year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as Catholic Head of State. The group that planned to assassinate James I was led by Sir Robert Catesby who got together a group of men that was to blow up the House of Lords as Parliament met there. Guy Fawkes, being part of the group, had 10 years military experience and was given the job of handling the explosives. Unfortunately for the English Catholics, an anonymous letter found its way to William Parker, who gathered authorities and stopped Guy Fawkes from leveling the House of Lords. Fawkes had 36 barrels of gunpowder, which was more than enough to take down the House of Lords and kill anyone inside. Catesby was killed while trying to resist being captured and the other plotters were eventually captured, sentenced to death, and hung. The author of the anonymous letter has yet to be concretely proven.

Thus, the "Thanksgiving Act" was passed, ensuring that for more than 250 years November 5th was kept free as a day of thanksgiving. The day basically became one big Anti-Catholic celebration. The night, from the beginning, involved fireworks and the burning of a Guy Fawkes effigy. In England, specific foods were also eaten on Guy Fawkes Night, including bangers and mash, baked potatoes, and toffee apples. Guy Fawkes Night became a popular celebration in the U.K., and in it's colonies. This of course included the 13 British colonies in America, which celebrated Guy Fawkes Night (or Pope's Day as it was sometimes called) in the early days as a alternative to the Catholic celebration of Halloween that fell a few days earlier. Northern Ireland does not however celebrate the holiday, for they prefer celebrating the 12th of November, which commemorates the victory by King William the Orange over Catholic King James II.

The holiday has come upon a resurgence in America thanks to Alan Moore's graphic novel, V for Vendetta. The novel uses Guy Fawkes' story as a loose backdrop to the dystopian English future. The novel was also made into a movie which has furthered people's knowledge of the holiday and furthered Alan Moore's frustration with people making movies out of his graphic novels.

So was Guy Fawkes a man out to destroy the establishment and be an anarchist? Not so much, due to the fact that they were setting up a Catholic monarchy. The main character in the novel may sport Guy Fawkes face, but he is much more anarchist than the actual Guy Fawkes ever was.

So if you feel like celebrating the victory of Protestants over Catholics over 400 years ago, then grab your torch and burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes tonight!

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd (or by God's mercy*)
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him? Burn him!

Monday, October 25, 2010

A History of Halloween: Part 3

Halloween in the Victorian Era

Halloween thus entered the Victorian era of America: The 1870-1880's. Halloween all of a sudden became less about being scared, celebrating ancestors, and ghosts, but about having parties. Rich people parties. Most of the lore and modes of celebration were thrown out the window, being considered too un-Victorian. Halloween also became a holiday reinterpreted as the quaint practice of the English. They wanted to get rid of the Irish genesis of the holiday. Victorian upper crust hated the Catholics and wanted nothing to do with their evil holiday, so they changed it to fit their needs. On Halloween night, all the young Victorians would gather, have a nice dinner, bob for apples, and play fortune-telling games. These, again, were for the upper middle class and above. Most of the lower middle class to lower class people still celebrated Halloween like the people before them. The Victorians saw it as a holiday to be made safe for their children. It became more about what food to serve, what to decorate with, or how to break the ice at the party. Halloween was still seen as a mysterious night, filled with romance and divination. The tradition of predicting who a girl's husband would be was always popular. These parties, at first, were not for adults though, they were for the unmarried younger crowd. It would seem childish for grownups to be seen at a party of that sort. They were meant to help you find your husband or wife. Themed parties that were trying to be better than the other parties started to sprout up. People threw Cinderella parties, Black Cat parties, and even Mother Goose parties on Halloween night. The spirit of Halloween was starting to be lost among the vast amount of parties during that time of the year. Halloween at the time was extremely watered down, and became more for kids, though parents made sure that they gave a less spooky celebration to their kids. Think of it as the equivalent of your parents going through all your candy looking for razor blades. It was a downer.

It wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that Halloween began to look like what we see it today. Thanks to groups like the Lion's Club, Boy Scouts of America, and countless other organizations and churches, Halloween became something for everybody, not just a holiday for the rich or for children.

Halloween in the 20th Century

The first town celebration of Halloween started in Anoka, MN, in 1921. The town decorated its streets, hosted two parades, held a Pumpkin Bowl football game and roped off a city square for dancing. Halloween parades and town celebrations became all the rage in America, and soon all regional differences were put aside and Halloween was a holiday for everyone. With this came the "Halloween Problem," which was the rise in pranks and tomfoolery around Halloween. Many organizations tried to get as many kids involved to do service projects as to keep naughty kids busy. Some towns even had the police hire boys who were the most likely to cause trouble, to patrol the streets on Halloween. In Detroit in 1935, the city invited 45,000 kids to 90 public Halloween parties, just to cut down on traffic deaths and false fire alarms. Even though best efforts were being made, vandalism was still a huge problem, especially in cities. The fun stopped in 1942 when the second World War was starting. All of a sudden it was more serious to waste things and vandalize. Kids were warned against letting air out of tires and souping windows, as soup was a valuable thing and Uncle Sam needed it to throw at the Nazi's or something. Halloween was even canceled in some areas, due to the seriousness of the times and people feeling that there should be no tomfoolery. Anything that could be used for the war was, such as materials that would of gone to making decor and other such Halloween things.

After the war, things winded down and everyone started to party again. Halloween was celebrated everywhere again and costume parties became all the rage. Along with that, people started to make "haunted" rooms in their houses to scare guests and children. By the 1950's, Halloween was considered a real national holiday, up there with Christmas and Fourth of July, and the attendance at town Halloween parties rivaled those of Fourth of July celebrations and Memorial day celebrations. With the sudden spurt of children due to all the men coming home from the war (correlation?), Halloween again became a celebration for children. Town parties started to disappear and were replaced by school parties and personal parties. The most important thing added to the Halloween festivities at this time though was Trick or Treating.

Contemporary Halloween

All of a sudden, all of the old traditions came back into the mainstream. Trick or Treating took over the collection of cakes and nuts and became a time for kids to acquire candy from neighbors. The Jack-O-Lantern became more widely used, and the use of fantastic costumes for children while they paraded through the streets became common place. Why did kids expect to get candy from strangers? In the preceding decades, children were given treats to just stay inside and not cause trouble, so, now they went to houses and basically said, "Hey big nose, give me some treats or you're going to get up close and personal with these eggs I got here." As time went on, the trick portion was left for Mischief night, the night before Halloween, or as we call it in Michigan, Devil's Night. In the 60's and 70's, stories started to pop up about people putting heroin or poison into kid's treats. This did happen twice in the span of the two decades, both being deaths attributed to action inside the home. In both cases, a family member tried to kill their relative or kids and used poison in their Pixy Stix. In one case, the father had put a life insurance policy on all his kids. So what does this teach us? That we should suspect our own parents or relatives of murder before we suspect complete strangers. Even though these were isolated incidents, people started to freak out about trick or treating. People started to come up with stories about finding Cyanide in their kid's candy, or glass and razor blades. Though these things never happened, there was a big push to cancel trick or treating out of fear for the children. It was only later after people realized that these were hoax's and that there were no reported trick or treating deaths in the last thirty years, that people warmed back up to Halloween. But, as we all know, the myths about dangerous things in our candy remains to this day.

Halloween has again become a time for charity though, as many children collect money for UNICEF, or United Nasty Imps Causing Evil Forever. It is only through sheer ignorance that the children collect money from equally ignorant people and further the Imp cause. And of course the dressing up like ancient dead has carried over to our own time, as we dress up like witches, demons, and Hannah Montana.
Halloween has now become a celebration of many things, candy, ghosts, costumes, spooky things, and oh yeah...candy. That's what kids mainly think of these days, is how best to stick it to their parents. Only by completely rotting their teeth can they hit their parents where it hurts...the billfold. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. I have always loved all the spooky decorations, the ghost stories, walking around getting candy, dressing up like a pirate, and just having a good time being scared. That's something you don't get to do all the time. It's the one time of year where you can go around looking like a bum and actually get food from people as you go begging from house to house. I always enjoyed getting a pop from somebody. They were the ones who for some reason forgot or ran out of candy and had to give you something! Those kind of people also gave out apples, dental floss, pennies,
Hope you enjoyed my history of Halloween! Please feel free to share some favorite Halloween memories that you've had.


"Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History" by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A History of Halloween: Part 2

Halloween in Early America

When the Puritans settled in New England, they, in the tradition of taking the fun out of everything, had Halloween abolished and replaced it with May Day. May Day happened to be a holiday that was no where near October and involved people making baskets. Oh goody. Though the Puritans didn't like Halloween or honoring ancestors, they did have an interest in the spirit world-an interest that manifested itself in a fearful fascination with witchcraft and divination. Case in point: Salem. Puritans went crazy and killed anyone they even remotely thought were witches. Halloween was eventually brought by the Catholics, and Guy Fawkes day was brought by the Protestants who mainly settled in New York. So, besides New England, Halloween was around in every colony.

After the Revolution and the signing of the Constitution into law, a new era of Halloween began due to the freedom of religion. The Puritan grasp on the ban on Halloween slowly lifted. Halloween became more of a celebration of past and future, where people got together and had cornhusking parties, apple paring parties, and sugaring and sorghummaking days. Otherwise known as "Ask your friends to come over and help you with your work, but you'll give them alcohol as payment" parties. There was ghost stories and fortune telling games, dancing and plenty of food to go around.

The prominence of ghosts and the dead being around Halloween night carried over to America, as did tricks and mischief. Many boys would go out of their way to frighten or trick one of their peers during the night. Halloween was not a national holiday though, not like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. It was just a celebration that individual faiths did. It wasn't until the emergence into the 19th century that Halloween would become as popular and widespread as it is today.

With the emergence of immigrants, most coming in the early 1800's, there was more and more stories and customs that went into Halloween. The custom of begging for soul cakes, turned into children going to houses and asking for treats, thus becoming trick or treating. The custom eventually took on the wearing of costumes brought on by the Irish.

Divination became a part of Halloween thanks to the British Isles. Divination was mostly used to predict who you would fall in love with or who your spouse would be. A woman would light a candle and look into a mirror at midnight on All Hallows Eve and see the person she was going to marry over her shoulder. Sounds terrifying!

The custom of hallowing out a turnip and giving it a gruesome face, eventually turned into a Jack-O-Lantern, using a pumpkin instead. The story behind the name Jack-O-Lantern has many variations but most involve a man named Jack and the Devil. Jack hoodwinks the Devil out of crops and the Devil makes Jack hold a lantern for eternity. Tough break.
Black cats and witchcraft and bad luck superstition caught on in America, mostly in the South at first. All of these old traditions were kept intact and spread throughout America, until the late 19th century, when America entered it's so called Victorian Era.

A History of Halloween: Part 1

With Halloween only a few weeks away, you may notice one thing in stores: The loads of Christmas decorations. Though Christmas may be slowly taking over every other holiday, we can relish in the fact that Halloween does get its fair share of attention. This will be the first in my series of Holiday Histories. I will look at our holidays in America and share their sometimes unlikely beginnings.

As most people know, Halloween is a very old holiday, dating back centuries before the birth of Christ. Halloween was first celebrated by the Celtic people, who inhabited present day U.K., and France. The Celtics had two main festivals; one to celebrate the start of winter, when they had to bring the herds in, and one to celebrate the start of summer, when they brought the herds out. In that area, the cold came earlier, in early November, so it became the start of winter and the beginning of the new year. The finest of the herd were put in the shelter, while the rest were slaughtered for the festival. The festival was called Samhain, or summer's end, and was considered the most sacred of their festivals. The point of the festival was also to link the people with their ancestors and past. The Celts believed that the dead rose on the eve of Samhain and that ancestral ghosts and demons were set free to roam the earth (Much like the dead coming back in "A Night on Bald Mountain" from the movie Fantasia. You know that gave you nightmares as a kid).The Celts made offerings to the spirit world in hopes that the spirits of their loved ones would make a brief visit home to enjoy a warm fire at the hearth. Food and wine were set out for the dead souls of the ancestors, sure to be weary from their travels in the netherworld. To avert unwanted guests-any malicious spirits set free on that night-the Celts hid themselves in ghoulish disguise so that the spirits wandering about would mistake them for one of their own and pass by without incident.

The Romans eventually came and conquered the Celts and their rituals combined. The Roman's with their belief in mythological beings, celebrated the Goddess Pomorum, or the Goddess of orchards and the harvest, around the same time as Samhaim was celebrated, November 1st. The Roman celebration of the orchard harvest contributed the bounty of apples and nuts that remains a part of Halloween to this day. In other words, the Romans are to blame for those people giving you fruit and nuts on Halloween night. The Roman and Celtic cultures created what we might identify as Halloween in its ancient form. It was a night devoted to the dead, yet a night for divination and romance as well.

Then came the Christians. When Christianity spread across the Roman empire, the priests had to find a way to wane the new converts off of this pagan stuff. So, instead of destroying their rituals, they let them be, and eventually the people celebrated All Saints Day instead of Samhain. Both being on November 1st, and the celebrations being on October 31st. They had feasts and celebrations, but it wasn't in the same realm as Samhain. All Saints Day was to be a day set aside to honor the martyrs who died for their beliefs. All Saints Day used to be in May, but was set to November 1st to help assimilate people into the Christian faith and celebrations. People were told to pray for the dead, not to sacrifice to them. Instead of setting out wine and food, they set out soul cakes, which were little pastries and bread. The soul cakes would be given to the poor, and in return, the poor would pray for their dead family members. Eventually the custom changed to young men and boys going from house to house singing "souling" songs and asking for ale, food, or money instead of soul cakes. People were asked to masquerade, but to honor the saints, not ward away evil spirits.

A Hollowmas Soul Cake Song

Soul day, Soul day,
We be come a-souling,
Pray good people remember the poor, And give us a soul cake, One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him that made us all

An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry
Or any good thing to make us merry.

Soul day, Soul day,

We have been praying for the soul departed.
So pray good people give us a cake
For we are all poor people,

Well known to you before.
So give us a cake for charity's sake,

And our blessing we'll leave at your door.

-from Poole, Customs, Superstitions, and Legends of Staffordshire

It was the Christians that gave Halloween its name. During medieval times, All Saints' Day was known as All Hollows, making the night before it All Hollows Eve, which became Hallowe'en, and then Halloween. The church decreed that all celebrations be held the day before Saints Day, thus placing Halloween where we know it today.

The new group off of the Catholics were the Lutherans and Calvinists who decided to get rid of All Saints Day, which meant no Halloween. Thus, for a time, Guy Fawkes Day became the fall festival for some Europeans. Guy Fawkes being the man who tried to blow up the Protestant-sympathetic House of Lords when Parliament met. The holiday was set up to celebrate the Protestants victory over the Catholics. The similarities between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day were "scary." more puns. They had bonfires, celebrants carried lanterns of hollowed out turnips that had been fashioned into grotesque faces. The eve of Guy Fawkes Day became "mischief night" across most of northern England, an occasion of pranks and skylarking. Boys now begged for coal, so they could have something to burn their Guy Fawkes effigies. Some people even went as far as burning the Pope in effigy. The eve of Guy Fawkes night can be connected with Devil's night, being the night before Halloween, a semi-holiday that is only celebrated in Michigan. Instead of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes and the Pope, the people of Detroit in the 70's burned down small businesses. The day has been changed to Angel's night, but is still rife with pranks and vandalism.

The Catholic's All Hallows' celebration, the old pagan folk customs of the British Isles, and the secular Guy Fawkes Day festivities of the English protestants all helped give birth to the Halloween we know today.

Thomas Woodrow Wilson

Term: 1913-1921

Political Party: Democrat

Nickname: Schoolmaster in Politics.

Short Bio:
Wilson was basically the professor that you don't really like in college. He was smart, but not very friendly. Wilson entered the presidency and got to work. He lowered tariffs, established a graduated income tax, created the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Trade Commission. Later, he signed laws banning child labor and limiting workdays to eight hours. In foreign affairs, he promised that the U.S. would expand no longer. In 1914, the First World War begins. Wilson, seeing that the country is not ready to jump in, and not really wanting to fight, keeps the U.S. out of it. Wilson wins reelection due to his decision to stay out of war. However, shortly into his second term, he realized that war could not be ignored.
U.S. ships were being blown up while trying to deliver goods and possibly munitions to the English. The most famous is the Lusitania, which caused many to want to enter the war against Germany. Other boats were sunk, and Wilson was starting to see war looming. He started to build up his air force as soon as the war started, seeing as it was at a pitiful level compared to other countries. It wasn't until Germany sent the infamous Zimmerman Telegram that the U.S. had enough and declared war on Germany. The note basically asked Mexico to join Germany and attack the U.S. from the South. The U.S. intercepted the note and finally convinced Wilson to declare war. Also at this time, you had the beginning of Prohibition and Women's right to vote, brought on by Congress.
The put WWI into a short summary, the Europeans were in a trench war, the U.S. came over, refused to fight the same way, and used the air force to basically win the war. Germany quit and met with France, England and the U.S. in Paris. France and England wanted to punish Germany, while Wilson wanted to the Treaty of Versailles to follow his fourteen points. Wilson wan not persuasive enough, as only parts were accepted. Germany was punished thoroughly and came back with a vengeance later. Remember those consequences I talked about earlier? Perhaps if Wilson were not president, Germany would not have been punished so harshly. Or maybe they would have. Who knows.
While on a tour to promote the treaty and the League of Nations, Wilson suffered a stroke, which left him unable to really be president anymore. For the duration of his presidency, Wilson gave orders from bed. Others believe that his second wife, Edith Wilson, was the secret president, and made many decisions for him. Congress did not accept the Treaty of Versailles, and the U.S. was not allowed to be a part of this League of Nations. Wilson's vision led to the eventual creation of the United Nations however. Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in world affairs in 1919. He died in 1924.

Grade: C
Wilson is another president hard to peg down. Some give him more credit, and some very little. Did he bring about the end to the first world war? Yes, but he did not secure peace afterwards. Wilson did a lot of good for the country in terms of progressive reforms. On a character level, he wasn't the nicest person. He was also a extreme racist, which came in the form of firing everyone that wasn't white in the government sector *Disputed*. Had Wilson tried harder to give peace to Europe, perhaps we would not of had WWII. Wilson has some supporters today, and some people to who hate his guts, namely Glenn Beck, who makes a point to talk about his hatred for Wilson on a daily basis.

William Howard Taft

Term: 1909-1913

Party: Republican

Nickname: Big Lub

Short Bio:
Ok, before we get started, yes, Taft was the one who got stuck in his tub. He had to have a larger one installed to support his hefty build. Taft had the daunting task of following up Roosevelt's presidency. History shows us that most presidents that follow greats, do not fair so well. I'm looking at you Adams, Van Buren, and Andrew Johnson. Truman did alright. Taft could not, no matter what he did, get out from Roosevelt's shadow. Roosevelt chose him to keep his progressive ways going and promptly took a safari trip with his son Kermit. Not having Roosevelt around helped, but Taft was just no Teddy. Taft was deliberative and cautious which people perceived as slow moving, which was not what they were used to after Roosevelt.
Taft actually did more in terms of trust busting than Roosevelt, and did a pretty good job with everything else. He parted ways on how do deal with labor unions, income tax, and help for women, children and the poor, finding that those things the government could not interfere with. He believed that presidential power only went as far as the Constitution would allow. Roosevelt was dismayed by Taft's performance when he got back stateside and tried to get the Republican nomination in 1912. No such luck, as Taft won the nomination, though some think it was due to back room dealings to keep the hard to handle Roosevelt out of the office. The 1912 election went this way: Roosevelt made his own party and came in second to Democrat Wilson. Taft came in a distant third for the Republicans. Some argue that if Roosevelt won the nomination, or if he had just stayed out of it, perhaps the Republicans would have won. However, they split the vote and caused Wilson to win. This may of had far reaching consequences, which I will talk about later.
Taft went on to become the only former president to become Chief Justice in the Supreme Court, something that he enjoyed much more.

Grade: B+
I like Taft a lot. Not as much as Roosevelt, but he did a lot of the same stuff. He had a much more conserved viewpoint which may of kept him out of trouble. Taft was extremely hurt when Roosevelt tried to take the reigns back in 1912, and feared that he had lost a friend. The two became friends again afterward, but it showed that Taft had a good heart and cared more about his friends than his political appointment. Good character traits aside, Taft would of had a smoother presidency if he had followed any other person.

Theodore Roosevelt

Term: 1901-1909

Party: Republican, Progressive (Bull Moose)

Nickname: Teddy, Trust-Buster

Short Bio:
If you want to know a lot about Roosevelt, than read my earlier blog on why I like him so much. I'm just going to outline a few main things that he did during his presidency.

-Busted Trusts, or got rid of monopolies that he found to be harmful to the U.S.
-Created National Parks with the help of John Muir.
-Fought corruption.
-Put together the Great White Fleet which showed the U.S. might around the world.
-Supported Panama's revolt against Columbia to give the Panama canal to the U.S.
-Created the Department of Labor.
-Passed the Pure Food and Drug Act.
-Passes the Roosevelt Corollary.
-Wins the Nobel peace price for arranging a peace treaty between Russia and Japan.
-First president to go overseas.
-Shot during election for president in 1912, before giving speech. Goes and does speech anyway.
-Loses sight in one eye after a boxing match with a sailor.
-His refusal to shoot a baby bear that was set up to be shot by him leads to the creation of "Teddy Bears."

These are just a few points in a long and exciting life for Roosevelt. He decided to leave the reigns to Taft in 1908.

Grade: A

I may be a bit biased on this grade, but I still find him to be one of the best presidents, under Washington and Lincoln. He brought America in as a power and led the U.S. on its longest bout of peace, though he was a staunch imperialist. Roosevelt did more in his presidency than a bunch of presidents combined.

William McKinley

Term: 1897-1901

Party: Republican

Nickname: Idol of Ohio

Short Bio:
McKinley's presidency was a time of expansion. The period of Western expansion was over in the American frontier. That meant, if the U.S. wanted to expand, they would have to go outside the mainland. In 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana's harbor. Spain ruled over colonial Cuba. A media frenzy pushed a reluctant McKinley to declare war on Spain. Or that's what a lot of people think. There is still controversy today about the Spanish-American War. The U.S. was basically waiting for someone to beat up, and acquire more land. The USS Maine may of sunk for three reasons. First is the reason people agreed with at the time and for many decades after, which is that the ship hit a mine put there by the Spanish. Second, a fire in the coal bunker. And third, and probably the most disturbing, is that the Maine was blown up on purpose to start a war with Spain. We will probably never know which one is true, but it doesn't matter as much now since they went to war anyway.
The U.S. basically slapped the Spanish around, seeing as Spain was a fading power, and the U.S. was coming into an age of power. The war was over in the matter of a few months, and the U.S. now had new territories, the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico (The U.S. would let Cuba and the Philippines were let go eventually by the U.S. We are still in possession of Guam and Puerto Rico).The people of the Philippines were happy to be rid of Spain and hoped that the U.S. would grant them independence. No such luck, we colonized the area and used it for raw goods. The people of the Philippines staged a mini-war against the Americans that lasted for a few years.
McKinley, after the war, decided to reverse his decision on high tariffs, deciding that if overseas markets were to be opened to American goods, commercial barriers had to fall at home. He spent the rest of his presidency going against the Republican mode of protectionism and lowered tariffs. Thus ended the Gilded Age, and brought America into the Progressive Era. Even so, McKinley was still hesitant to use the full power of the presidency, a thing his successor would not do.
McKinley won a second term and learned that the rebel forces in the Philippines had been put down ending the war three years after the Spanish-American War. Scattered fighting lasted for about another year. A few months after, McKinley announces that he will not go for another term. *Fun Fact*: Most presidents were extremely hesitant to go for more than two terms due to the fact that Washington had only two terms. They didn't want to make the point that they were better than him. FDR apparently didn't think of it that way, or had no qualm with it.
On September 6, 1901, Polish-American anarchist Leon Czolgosz shoots McKinley in the stomach when the president was touring the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley dies over a week later. His Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt is sworn into office.

Grade: B
McKinley is sort of an enigma. He may of started a war to gain land, which is bad, but he also lowered tariffs, which is something he helped raise in the first place. He was an above average president in some regards, but too willingly went out to fight the Spanish I think.

Benjamin Harrison


Party: Republican

Nickname: Little Ben

Short Bio:

People found that Harrison had about only two qualifications to be president; a clean record, and being grandson of former president William Henry Harrison. Harrison basically campaigned from his front porch, literally. His campaign managers poured money into swing states and corporations who detested Cleveland and his lower tariffs, supported Benjamin Harrison. The race was closer than some, but Harrison won due to the support of corporations. Cleveland left his first term with a surplus, which quickly faded into Harrison's presidency.The House spent the money quickly with their thin margin of Republicans over Democrats. Cleveland had vetoed bills for Civil War pensions to veterans because the risk of fraudulent claims ran too high. Congress resubmitted these bills to Harrison, who only too willingly signed them into law. Civil War pension costs soon became one of the largest expenses in the federal budget. To fix the debt, Congress passed the McKinley Tariff, a dramatic increase in import fees. The tariff angered Americans by increasing the prices of many consumer goods. The public showed their dissatisfaction by giving both houses to the Democrats during the mid-term elections. Lingering anger over the tariff led to Cleveland being voted back into the presidency. Harrison went back to Indianapolis, and continued his law firm. He went on to help Venezuela in the settlement of its border dispute with Great Britain.

Grade: C-
Harrison was not a corrupt person, which helped him during his presidency, but was perhaps just a little too trusting. Giving pension to anyone who claimed to have fought in the Civil War was a huge mistake. Harrison backing that up and the McKinley Tariff was not the best thing to do in the economic climate they were in. Harrison is guilty more of bending over to Congress. They came up with the crazy plans, but Harrison agreed.

Grover Cleveland

Terms: 1885-1889, 1893-1897

Party: Democratic

Nickname: Big Steve, Uncle Jumbo

Short Bio:
Stephen Grover Cleveland went by Grover, probably because Stephen Cleveland sounds funny. Say it out loud. Now five times fast. Ok, now that you’ve embarrassed yourself, I’ll tell you about this man that was not a Sesame Street character, but a president.
Cleveland is one of the very few presidents that was a Democrat during the late 1800s, the other being Andrew Johnson. Cleveland was another honest president who wanted to make the presidency honorable again, and wanted to take the power back from the legislative branch. Cleveland was a smart man, and that was apparent in most of his decisions. He blocked civil war pensions that he suspected were fraudulent, vetoed anything that was against his view of limited government, and supported the gold standard as the only currency for the United States. Cleveland also favored lowering tariffs, something that the Republicans vehemently opposed. The issue of tariffs eventually cost him the election of 1888.
Cleveland came back after Benjamin Harrison served one term and served again, being the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. His second term was far less sunny. A new party had emerged, the People’s Party, which was basically for the workers. Cleveland’s innate conservatism made him generally unsympathetic to the worker’s cause. He lost support when he vetoed a bill that would give 10,000 dollars in aid to drought stricken farmers, and from his heavy handed response to the Pullman strike of 1894. People were also hoping for a silver standard, which went against Cleveland’s gold standard hopes.
Grade: B-
Cleveland was one of the smarted presidents of the time, but proved to be unpopular with the working class in his second term. Cleveland though, held a very strong presidency. He took power back from Congress and vetoed more bills than all presidents before him combined. Cleveland is also considered the most influential of the presidents after Lincoln and before Theodore Roosevelt.

Chester A. Arthur

Term: 1881-1885

Political Party: Republican

Nickname: Elegant Arthur

Short Bio: Chester Alan Arthur was a not exactly the most honest person before he was president. He routinely used his influence to give people high up jobs in exchange for money. He also allowed government employees to profit from their positions. In other words, Arthur was business as usual. The late 1800’s were rife with corruption and greed, and he was no exception. Arthur was basically not known for anything besides his corrupt past and being congressman Roscoe Conkling's puppet. Conkling, who was Arthur's mentor, had made Hayes' presidency a living hell as leader of the pro-Grant Stalwart (Stalwarts supported the spoils system which gave their financial backers positions in their administration once they became president) side of the Republican party. When Garfield won the Republican nomination-even though he was completely opposed to it-the moderate side of the Republican party knew they needed to put a Stalwart in as Vice-President, or Conkling and his Stalwarts wouldn't let Garfield win. So, they chose Chester Arthur. Arthur was satisfied with the position, as it didn't give him too much responsibility, and the proximity to the President would allow for him to destroy Garfield's presidency with Conkling's help. Yeah, Arthur and Conkling (pictured below) were basically heels.

Then, four months later, Charles Guiteau, a Stalwart and a possible lunatic shot Garfield. When Arthur was handed the telegraph about the shooting, his face went pale. He realized his days of lounging around as Vice-President were over; he was probably going to hold the highest office in the United States, which deeply frightened him. Where Garfield was an extremely learned man, Arthur was more of a party goer and lover of relaxation, and the public knew this. They also knew that Arthur was Conkling's lapdog, so Conkling would basically be the de facto President. Gulp. People were not happy about the thought of Arthur as president, a sentiment made even more apparent when rumors of Arthur and Conkling's involvement in the assassination began. The two men had to hide in their hotel until things cooled down lest they be lynched by one of the many mobs roaming around Washington D.C. Garfield worsened, due more to doctors prodding him than anything else, and died a few months after being shot. Arthur was now president of the United States.

What was the first thing he did? He ignored all his political supporters. He pulled a Hayes and had an incredibly honest presidency. He prosecuted Republicans for mail fraud and vetoed popular pork-barrel spending projects, such as the Rivers and Harbor’s Act of 1882. He also signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which set up a system through which government jobs were assigned on merit and no political favoritism. Public opinion had soured on the Spoils System and it was all of a sudden very bad to call yourself a Stalwart. This was a much different Arthur that what people saw before his presidency. To boot, he was also an environmentalist, who was concerned about the reckless destruction of forests. Otherwise, Arthur didn’t do too much in his presidency, and was passed over for nomination in 1884. People thought of Arthur as slow and bit lazy. Little did anyone know that Arthur had Bright ’s disease, which is a fatal illness of the kidney. The disease made him weak and accounts for his inaction throughout most of his term. Arthur, probably from knowing his time was short on the earth, was quite the partier. He had grand parties at the white house anytime he had the chance. Arthur in this way, acted like a college student; he went to parties and drank himself stupid. Arthur died two years after leaving office at fifty-six years old.

Grade: C-
He gets an average grade. Arthur had a very honest presidency, and did much for getting rid of corruption within the government. Otherwise he didn’t do that much. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was authored by Garfield, and it was basically a no-brainer for Arthur to pass it, so I don't give him too much credit for it. He wasn't a terrible president, but didn’t do much either. Some of that can be blamed on his disease, but at least he helped stamp out corruption, something he would not have done before his presidency. The biggest blight on his record is the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which made it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America. He had vetoed the bill before, but under pressure from American laborers, he signed the second draft of the bill which barred Chinese laborer immigration for ten years. America has always had a problem with foreigners coming in and “taking our jobs”, and in this case, they did something about it. The law would be renewed every ten years until 1943. This is the only law that was ever passed that banned a group of people from the United States because of their race or nationality.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

James A. Garfield

Name: James Garfield

Term: 1881

Party: Republican

Nickname: Canal Boy

Not-as-short-as-it-used-to-be bio:
James Abram Garfield was not a fat orange cat, but a man and beard enthusiast. I think I did Garfield a large disservice by giving him such a short bio originally. On learning about his life, I've gained a new found respect for this often forgotten president. Garfield was a lover of knowledge, learning all he could throughout his life, including Spanish. Garfield's life story would be a popular one at the time of his presidency, due to his coming from basically nothing and working his way up to being a congressman. Garfield came from a very poor family, so he had to work to fund his education. He worked as a carpenter, a janitor, a canal worker, and a preacher to get his higher education. After graduating, Garfield eventually married Lucretia Rudolph and started to serve as an Ohio State Senator. That was until the Civil War started. Garfield joined the Union army, due in part to his strong abolitionist feelings. He rose all the way up to Major General in the Army of Ohio and fought in the battles of Chickamauga, Middle Creek, and Shiloh. Garfield eventually left the war when he was needed in his newly won seat in Congress. He served as a congressman until 1880 when opportunity, instead of knocking, barged in and forced him into something he didn't really want to do.

Garfield was perfectly happy as a congressman. That's why he was completely horrified to learn that he had won the Republican nomination for President of the United States in 1880. Garfield had seen many of his friends in Congress get burned out and lose direction from he called the "presidential fever." He swore that he would never devote his life to gaining the presidency, lest he become a shell of his former self. The Republican Party at the time was split between two warring parties: The Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds. The Stalwarts supported the Spoils System, in which candidates for the presidency would reward those who gave them money by giving them positions in their administration. The Half-Breeds were the moderates and supported Civil Service Reform, which would see only those best qualified to be in administrative positions. Other than that, they agreed on everything. Greeeeeeaaat! Roscoe Conkling(pictured left) was the political strongman of the Stalwarts and his sole purpose at the convention was to get Ulysses S. Grant another term in the White House (he had served two before Hayes won in 1876). Garfield on the other hand was trying to get fellow moderate and brother to William Tecumseh Sherman, John Sherman nominated. Garfield gave his speech, and people were so impressed by it that they began to instead consider Garfield as a good compromise candidate. When it became clear after many ballots were cast but none defined a clear winner, people started to vote for Garfield. This was all to Garfield's horror. He didn't want the presidency and all its burdens. He asked several times that his name be taken out of consideration, but it was continuously ignored. In the end, Garfield was the nominee, much to his chagrin.

Now, don't get me wrong, Garfield eventually warmed up to being the most powerful man in America, it just wasn't something he explicitly wanted. Chester A. Arthur was chosen as his vice-president, not because Garfield and him got along, but because Garfield was a moderate, and Arthur a Stalwart. In fact, Arthur was Conkling's protege. With both a moderate and a Stalwart on the ticket, the Republicans hoped that they could patch things up long enough to get into the White House...again. Seriously, except for Cleveland and whatever the hell Andrew Johnson was, everyone was a Republican from 1860 through 1912. Before Garfield could do anything, he had to do something about Roscoe Conkling. Conkling had driven President Hayes insane and was liable to do the same thing to Garfield. To make matters worse, Conkling and Arthur were in cahoots. Arthur literally badmouthed the president to the press. Can you imagine Joe Biden doing that to President Obama? Or in fact any Vice-President doing that to any President in the last hundred years? NOPE! Garfield was kind of in a pickle, so what did he do? Nothing. Though not one to be walked on, Garfield never went looking for a fight. He knew that Conkling was trying to basically run the show, though he was only a New York congressman, but he also knew that Conkling would do something drastic. After Garfield posted half-breeds in government positions in New York, Conkling threw a hissy-fit and resigned, confident that the New York legislature would vote him back in, as that's how things worked back then. They didn't, and the Stalwarts lost their champion. With Conkling out of the way, Garfield could finally get something done. He knew Civil Service reform needed to be done, so he supported George Pendleton's bill for Civil Service Reform. If the bill passed, people would have to take a test to see if they were experienced enough to hold a government position.

This was about three months into his presidency. So, Garfield didn't really get anything done for the first three months. A month later, Garfield was gunned down by Stalwart and possible lunatic, Charles Guiteau. Guiteau was convinced he had helped get Garfield elected with a speech he had written and thus wanted a consulship as thanks. When he was denied this and told to never come back to the White House, Guiteau decided that it was God's will that Garfield we killed. Garfield at the time was walking with Secretary of State Blaine, when he was shot in the back twice with the second shot going through back and eventually resting inside his pancreas. Garfield was looked at by doctors, but it ended up being the worst thing for him. The doctors poked and prodded the president with dirty tools and unwashed hands which eventually led to Garfield's death. Alexander Graham Bell even tried to find the bullet with a makeshift metal detector. Too bad the bed springs were made of metal; he may have been able to find it. After Garfield passed away from a heart attack brought on by blood poisoning, the doctors took an autopsy and discovered that the bullet was four inches away from his spine, lodged in a protective cyst. This meant that Garfield would have been fine had it not been for his doctors. Well done! If you want to learn more about his assassin, please check out my post on Charles Guiteau!

Grade: ???
Like William Henry Harrison, it’s not fair to give Garfield a grade. Modern historians disagree and grade them anyway giving them below average marks. Garfield simply didn’t live long enough to do anything or mess anything up. Who knows what could of come from his presidency. Judging by his past accomplishments and his personality, I would think that Garfield would've had a great presidency. Alas, he was gunned down by a delusional man. The only good thing that came from his assassination was a feeling of unity. Garfield was mourned by all, which had brought the country closer together after all the resentment of reconstruction. Also, Arthur, now President, felt the need to get the Pendleton Act passed, seeing as everyone literally hated Stalwarts. I'm not joking, after the assassination, if you claimed to be one, you were liable to get lynched right then and there. Hooray!

All information from Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.