Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

The 4th of July wasn’t much fun in 1776

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Americans are getting ready to celebrate the 4th of July with parties, food and fireworks.  This year marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of a document in which we declared ourselves to be an independent nation.  And we will  wave our flags and think that the 4th of July in 1776 must have been a pretty great day.

But it wasn’t. The delegates in Philadelphia actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, but the news didn’t reach George Washington and his army in New York City until July 6. Unfortunately, the British navy had arrived a week before that, throwing the city into a panic.Kate Dolan writes about the 4th of July in 1776  So many ships arrived in such a short period of time that one Pennsylvania soldier said their masts looked like trees in a forest.  The streets of the city were jammed with families trying to leave while militia members from surrounding regions were trying to come to join in the city’s defense.

George Washington could not have been resting easy. Only a few weeks before, he’d learned of a loyalist plot to assassinate him and his officers when the British fleet arrived in New York.  Those arrested for involvement in the plot included the city’s mayor and two members of his Life Guard.  Alarm guns fired frequently in the city, perhaps reminding him that just five of the 120 British ships at anchor carried more firepower than all of the American guns along the shore. And they carried 10,000 troops, with thousands more expected daily.

The announcement that the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence did inspire celebrations in the streets and at least one officer reported that he and his cohorts spent the afternoon “merrily.” And it must have been reassuring to know that the governing members of the colonies were now publicly committed to a course of action that would be punished as treason if they failed. It was all or nothing, and they were all in it together.  As Benjamin Franklin famously summed it up, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Washington received a copy of the Declaration  on July 8 and had it read aloud in the city at 6 p.m. the next evening. Afterwards, swarms of people marched out to tear down a giant statue of King George III, hack off the statue’s head, cut off his nose and mount what was left of the head on a spike in front of a tavern.  Lead from the statue would  later be melted down into musket balls.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. Within three days, British ships brazenly sailed up the Hudson River and while American gun crews fired furiously all day, the ships suffered no harm and the only casualties were six Americans killed when their cannon blew up due to their own mismanagement.  More ships followed, and soon the British had a comfortable base on Staten Island.

To the British, the Declaration of Independence was a joke. The British admiral’s secretary said the document revealed “the villainy and the madness of these deluded people.”

Ships and troops continued to arrive throughout the summer until the end of August when the British attacked and defeated Washington’s army in the largest battle fought on North American soil up to that time. While Washington and his men were able to elude capture, they suffered a series of defeats and were chased out of New York.

Seven years of brutal fighing would follow before the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783.

So this year when we wave our flags and head out to parties to celebrate our nation, let’s be glad that “bombs bursting in air” above us are decorative amusements and not weapons designed to destroy. And let’s drink a toast to our forefathers who were willing to set aside their differences to “hang together.” We could use a little of that right now.


Much of the information in this article comes from 1776 by David McCullough.

Potato, Patata–and Stay Away from Green Ones

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

I can believe that some people say “to-mah-to” but I always thought that when Ira Gershwin wrote “You like potato, and I like potahto,” in the classic tune “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” he was just being lazy with his rhyme scheme.
Turns out he was being historically accurate. Sort of.
Potatoes were introduced into European culture by the Spanish, who discovered the crop in Peru. They called it the “patata” (maybe to go with the “tomata”). In any case, they still use the word, so the Gershwin lyric holds up. I’m sure you find that a relief!Kate Dolan warns everyone about deadly potatoes
But you should call the whole thing off if the potato is green. That’s because green potatoes are loaded with a poisonous substancen known as solanine. It’s a bitter-tasting chemical found in the leaves, stems and shoots of potatoes, and it protects the plants from being devoured by insects. When potato tubers (the part we eat) are exposed to light while growing, they turn green and fill with solanine as a means of protection. But what protects the plant is harmful to anyone who consumes it. Fortunately, because of the bitter taste, most people stop before they eat enough to cause major problems. But solanine poisoning can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, cardiac dysrhythmia, nightmares, hallucinations, paralysis, fever, jaundice, hypothermia and even death. Obviously this is rare, and it tends to happen only in places where famine is so severe that people are willing to eat something that tastes as bad as a solanine-infused potato.
And this made me think of the Irish potato famine. From 1845 until 1851, starvation caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop caused death of a million people in Ireland. I imagine those people would have been tempted to eat green potatoes, so I wondered if solanine played any part in the deaths. I haven’t been able to find any connection so far, and from the descriptions of the blight that ruined the crops, I imagine the potatoes turned to black mush before they had the chance to turn green.
It’s a pretty depressing topic for contemplation, and if you’d like to feel even worse, there’s a miserably informative series of articles about the famine starting here:
After reading about the devastating blight and the “relief” measures that pretty much succeeded in destroying whatever the potato fungus left behind, you might want to have a drink to forget your troubles.
It’s okay if your beer is green. But only on March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Rodent extortion and other ways to celebrate February 2

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Happy Cross Quarter Day! Today we celebrate the fact that we are halfway between Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Okay,  in the age of electric lighting the Cross Quarter is not a big deal for most of us, but every day closer to summer is a victory in my book. Plus, back when people lived their lives by the cycle of the sun, it was really something worth celebrating. And what better way to celebrate than with large furry rodents?Kate Dolan explores the history of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day itself seems to be an American tradition, but for centuries before Punxsutawney Phil made his debut, some Europeans celebrated this highlight in the calendar by watching bears, hedgehogs and badgers.  The legends say that if these animals see their shadows (i.e., it’s a sunny day) then we will have six more weeks of winter weather. If they don’t, then spring is supposed to start.  Germans brought these traditions with them to the United States, and of course Americans turned the idea into an opportunity for commercialism and extortion. During Prohibition, Punxsutawney Phil supposedly threatened everyone with 60 more weeks of winter if he couldn’t get a drink.

Another popular old festival from this time of year comes from the Romans, who celebrated the birth of their god Mars by parading through the streets with torches. Out of these pagan traditions, we ended up with Candlemas Day, which is supposed to commemorate the day of Jesus’s presentation in the temple in Jerusalem. People would bring in candles to be blessed for the year. They also made weather predictions such as the one in this popular English poem

“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.”

Like many other church holidays, Candlemas was probably devised to justify continuing a popular pagan celebration. The appeal  of candles and torches is obvious at a time of year when we’re longing for more sunlight. The appeal of the animal weather forecasting doesn’t make quite as much sense, but then part of the tradition of Groundhog Day used to involve eating the groundhog after  it came out of hibernation, so a rodent feast could have spurred that part of the tradition.

Candlemas is known as el Día de la Candelaria in Spanish speaking countries, where celebrations can last as long as a week. Coming 40 days after Christmas, Candlemas marks the official end of the Christmas season. It also coincides with St. Brigid’s Day in Ireland, based on the pagan goddess Brigid whose feast was known is Imbolc.

So this holiday may have more names than other on the calendar. Pick one and celebrate, with or without rodents. Just don’t threaten me with any extra days of winter.


For some interesting stories about about Candlemas Day and all its permutations, check out

New Years in Maryland Not What it Used to Be

Friday, January 1st, 2016

chestertownNew Year’s Day is often considered a day of change, but there was one year that the change was a bit bigger than usual for Great Britain and her colonies. The change had nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions and the fact that eleven days went missing had nothing to do with excessive drinking on the part of King George or anyone else. It was a calendar correction, like shifting to daylight savings time in hyper-drive.

Most of Europe, and therefore most European colonies, had been using the Gregorian calendar since 1582. But because this new calendar was the creation of a Roman Catholic pontiff, proudly Protestant Great Britain ignored the change and continued to use the Julian calendar developed during the reign of Julius Caesar. Under the Julian calendar, each year was about eleven minutes longer than a solar year. While this doesn’t sound like much, over the course of the centuries it added up. The vernal equinox was occurring in real life about 10 days before it showed up on the calendar. Something had to be done. (more…)

Here Comes Anti-Claus

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Have you seen the previews for the movie Krampus? These days we don’t tend to think of monsters during the Christmas season, but back before we had the option of watching Elf or A Christmas Story on TV every night, we humans satisfied our need for entertainment by sharing Christmas stories around the fire. There is an ancient tradition of telling “winter tales” that included fantastic or paranormal elements inspired by our fears of the dark.Kate Dolan writes about the Christmas demon

My favorite figure from these tales is the Belznickel, a figure from Germanic legend that is very much like Krampus. They’re the opposite of St. Nicholas. Where the saintly Nick rewards children who’ve been good, the Belznickel does the opposite – he punishes the bad.

With whips and chains.

That could make for a very scary Christmas if you’ve been bad. (more…)

Oktoberfest: The Beer Soaked Mystery

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Do we need an excuse to drink imported beer, sing loudly and wear silly hats? For some of us, these might be everyday occurrences, but for the rest of population, there’s Oktoberfest.

Man caught wearing traditional Bavarian hat after dancing to a polka band

Man caught wearing traditional Bavarian hat after dancing to a polka band

The tradition supposedly started in 1810 with the celebration of a royal wedding in Munich, which was then capital of the independent kingdom of Bavaria (now part of modern Germany).

However, some argue that the tradition is a bit older than that and has to do with innovations in brewing beer. (more…)

Lessons of “Juneteenth”

Friday, June 19th, 2015

In honor of “Juneteenth,” I’d started writing a blog post about a local African-American hero, Benjamin Banneker*. But then after I had most of it written and went to fill in details about Juneteenth, I realized I was completely wrong about the meaning of the day. SO, I’m writing about that instead, and Banneker will get his due on another day.
I thought that Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, marked the date of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln. I was wrong. Texans celebrate Juneteenth in 1900Lincoln issued the proclamation, which declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free” on January 1, 1863. So what is Juneteenth and why is it important? (more…)

April Fools Day – Why?

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Like the Ides of March, I think we expect April Fools’ Day to be an ancient tradition dating back to a time when people believed that anything disturbing could be attributed to witchcraft (whereas today we know such happenings are caused by either alien life forms or the Kardashian family.)Kate Dolan explores the history of April Fools Day But there’s no real evidence that April Fools’ Day dates back to the Romans or even the middle ages. In fact, there’s no concrete evidence of the origin of the famous day of pranks at all.   (more…)

Corned Beef and Cabbage is as Irish as St. Patrick—in other words, not so much

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

In anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, tonight my son hung Irish flags on the wall and we ate corned beef for dinner.  But my mom always told me that corned beef wasn’t Irish and I never saw any during the six months that I Iived with a family in the Dublin suburbs. I buy corned beef around St. Patrick’s Day every year only because stores put it on sale.Kate Dolan's Irish potato basket

But why do they? Why do we associate this un-Irish food with an Irish holiday?

It makes sense, actually.

Neither the holiday nor the saint are Irish, so it’s only fitting that we celebrate with food that isn’t either. St. Patrick was the son of a 4th Century Roman official, and although historians disagree as to whether his homeland was in modern day France or England, it wasn’t in Ireland. He was dragged to the Emerald Isle as a prisoner and escaped as soon as he could. (For more on Patrick, see my post here.) Centuries later, in 1762, other men who’d fled the green shores hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York. That’s right, the first rowdy celebrants of Ireland’s patron saint were not Irish but American. And they still are. Dubliners come out in droves to see the “Patrick’s Day” parade, and they come to see the show put on by the crazy Americans with green hair drinking green beer. (For more about St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, see my post here.) So we have an American holiday created to honor a Roman saint. Why not celebrate it with a Jewish culinary staple?

At the time the vast majority of Irish emigrated to America in the 1800s, most people in Ireland were not eating beef, corned or otherwise. They couldn’t afford it. Pork was much more common, and it was heavily cured with salt. When Irish arrived in cities like New York, they found beef to be cheaper than pork and they also found their Jewish neighbors serving a salt cured beef that tasted similar to the bacon they enjoyed back in Ireland (which is not much like American “streaky bacon”). So did the Irish immigrants eat corned beef because it was as close as they could get to back-home cooking or because it was the cheapest meat they could find? I think the answer is “yes.” They ate what was cheapest back in Ireland as well as in their new homeland. Good food is important. But it’s also important to save money so you have enough left to buy beer. In fact, you buy the beer first. Then after a while you don’t care what the meat is.  And the cabbage? Another U.S. substitution. Potatoes were relatively cheap, but cabbage was cheaper.  Again, more money for beer.

And that brings us to the one aspect of the holiday that is Irish – the drinking.  I don’t think the Irish drink any more than Americans do—in fact, I think most of them drink less. But in Ireland there is a culture of drinking and socializing in pubs—going out to drink rather than sitting down with a six-pack at home—and that is one aspect of Irish culture that we Americans copy on St. Patrick’s Day. People who would normally head home after work on a Tuesday will head to a bar instead just because it’s March 17. Hopefully they will meet up with friends, laugh, and have a “good bit of craic” as my host mom in Dublin used to say.  (Craic or crack meaning loud boisterous fun talk, not a drug derived from cocaine.) They say that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and in an Irish bar, that’s really true.

So if the alcohol is more Irish than the corned beef and cabbage, why aren’t the stores putting Irish whiskey on sale?


In the interests of authenticity, the author consumed beer whilst writing the above article. During the editing and photography session, she killed a bottle of Jameson’s and was excited to discover half a bottle of Tullamore Dew behind it in the liquor cabinet. The photo is of an “Irish potato basket” said to be the type used by the poor to both drain and serve the potatoes. Without plates or utensils, the family would gather around the basket to eat potatoes with their fingers. It is a sobering reminder of the hardships endured by my ancestors during the famine years. Did I say “sobering?” Well, it’s a reminder, at any rate.

How the Founding Fathers Got Drunk Part I – The Holidays

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

The founding fathers look pretty proper and straitlaced when they’re stamped on the front of legal currency, but these guys knew how to party. Or at least, they knew how to drink. And many of them knew how to mix drinks, brew beer, distill spirits, and how to make money doing it.

In the spirit of the season, or maybe just because I felt like I needed precedence, I’m going to see what they drank. We’ll start with the holidays.Kate Dolan writes about wassail

Today we think of the holidays primarily as Thanksgiving, Christmas (+Hannukah or Kwansaa if you’re being politically correct) and New Year’s (with an extension into football playoff season if you live in a city where the team is doing well). It was different in colonial days. (more…)