Category Archives: Special Days
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century CE bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century.
He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation
The naughty list
St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s CE, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home.
Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer
None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas.. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying.
The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears
A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So with Santa Claus once again coming to town, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
Our lives run on Roman time. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and public holidays are regulated by Pope Gregory XIII’s Gregorian Calendar, which is itself a modification of Julius Caesar’s calendar introduced in 45 B.C. The names of our months are therefore derived from the Roman gods, leaders, festivals, and numbers. If you’ve ever wondered why our 12-month year ends with September, October, November, and December – names which mean the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months – you can blame the Romans.
The calendar of Romulus
The Roman year originally had ten months, a calendar which was ascribed to the legendary first king, Romulus. Tradition had it that Romulus named the first month, Martius, after his own father, Mars, the god of war. This month was followed by Aprilis, Maius, and Iunius, names derived from deities or aspects of Roman culture. Thereafter, however, the months were simply called the fifth month (Quintilis), sixth month (Sixtilis) and so on, all the way through to the tenth month, December.
The institution of two additional months, Ianuarius and Februarius, at the beginning of the year was attributed to Numa, the second king of Rome. Despite the fact that there were now 12 months in the Roman year, the numerical names of the later months were left unchanged.
Further reading: Explainer: the gods behind the days of the week
Gods and rituals
While January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, February comes from the word februum (purification) and februa, the rites or instruments used for purification. These formed part of preparations for the coming of Spring in the northern hemisphere.
The februa included spelt and salt for cleaning houses, leaves worn by priests, and strips of goat skin. These strips were put to good use in the festival of the Lupercalia, held each year on February 15. Young men, naked except for a goat-skin cape, dashed around Rome’s sacred boundary playfully whipping women with the strips. This ancient nudie run was designed to purify the city and promote fertility.
The origins of some months were debated even by the Romans themselves. One tradition had it that Romulus named April after the goddess Aphrodite, who was born from the sea’s foam (aphros in Ancient Greek). Aphrodite, known as Venus to the Romans, was the mother of Aeneas, who fled from Troy to Italy and founded the Roman race. The other version was that the month derived from Latin verb aperio, “I open”. As the poet Ovid wrote:
For they say that April was named from the open season, because spring then opens all things, and the sharp frost-bound cold departs, and earth unlocks her teeming soil …
There were similar debates about the origins of May and June. There was a story that Romulus named them after the two divisions of the Roman male citizen body, the maiores (elders) and iuniores (juniors). However, it was also believed that their names came from deities. The nymph Maia, who was assimilated with the earth, gave her name to May, while Juno, the goddess of war and women, was honoured by the month of June.
Further reading: Explainer: the seasonal calendars of Indigenous Australia
The numerical names of the months in the second half of the year remained unchanged until the end of the Roman Republic. In 44 B.C., Quintilis was rebranded as Iulius, to celebrate the month in which the dictator Julius Caesar was born.
This change survived Caesar’s assassination (and the outrage of the orator M. Tullius Cicero, who complained about it in his letters). In 8 B.C., Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, the emperor Augustus, had Sextilis renamed in his honour. This was not his birth month (which was September), but the month when he first became consul and subjugated Egypt.
This change left four months – September, October, November and December – for later emperors to appropriate, though none of their new names survive today. Domitian renamed September, the month he became emperor, to Germanicus, in honour of his victory over Germany, while October, his birthday month, he modestly retitled Domitianus, after himself.
However, Domitian’s arrogance paled in comparison with the megalomaniacal Commodus, who rebranded all the months with his own imperial titles, including Amazonius (January) and Herculeus (October).
If these titles had survived Commodus’s death, we would not have the problem of our year ending with months carrying the wrong numerical names. But we would be celebrating Christmas on the 25th of Exsuperatorius (“All-Surpassing Conqueror”).
The origins of our days of the week lie with the Romans. The Romans named their days of the week after the planets, which in turn were named after the Roman gods:
- dies Solis “the day of the sun (then considered a planet)”
- dies Lunae “the day of the moon”
- dies Martis, “the day of Mars”
- dies Mercurii, “the day of Mercury”
- dies Iovis, “the day of Jupiter”
- dies Veneris, “the day of Venus”
- dies Saturni, “the day of Saturn”
When the Germanic-speaking peoples of western Europe adopted the seven-day week, which was probably in the early centuries of the Christian era, they named their days after those of their own gods who were closest in attributes and character to the Roman deities.
It was one of those peoples, the Anglo-Saxons, that brought their gods and language (what would become English) to the British Isles during the fifth and sixth centuries AD.
In English, Saturday, Sunday and Monday are named for Saturn, the sun and moon respectively, following the Latin.
The remaining four days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) are named for gods that the Anglo-Saxons probably worshipped before they migrated to England and during the short time before they converted to Christianity after that.
Tuesday is named for the god Tiw, about whom relatively little is known. Tiw was probably associated with warfare, just like the Roman god Mars.
Wednesday is named for the god Woden, who is paralleled with the Roman god Mercury, probably because both gods shared attributes of eloquence, the ability to travel, and the guardianship of the dead.
Thursday is Thunor’s day, or, to give the word its Old English form, Thunresdæg “the day of Thunder”. This sits beside the Latin dies Iovis, the day of Jove or Jupiter. Both of these gods are associated with thunder in their respective mythologies.
You may recognise a similarity here with the name of the famous Norse god Thor. This may be more than coincidence. Vikings arrived in England in the ninth century, bringing their own very similar gods with them. Anglo-Saxons were already Christian by this time, but may have recognised the similarity between the name of their ancestors’ deity Thunor and the Norse god. We don’t know, but the word Thor does appear in written texts from the period.
Friday is the only weekday named for a female deity, Frig, who is hardly mentioned anywhere else in early English. The name does appear, however, as a common noun meaning “love, affection” in poetry. That is why Frig was chosen to pair with the Roman deity Venus, who was likewise associated with love and sex, and was commemorated in the Latin name for Friday.
Of gods and weekdays
The concept of the week, that is, a cycle of seven numbered or named days with one of them (usually Sunday or Monday) fixed as the first, was originally probably associated with the Jewish calendar. This was complicated by the fact that early medieval Europe inherited its idea of the week from imperial Rome, via the Christian church.
In early Christianity the reckoning of time was crucial to the proper celebration of the church’s feast days and holidays, especially the variable feast of Easter.
We find day names similar to English in related European languages, like Dutch, German, and all the Scandinavian or Norse languages. Gods with comparable names, like Tyr, Othinn, Thor and Frigg, were certainly known to the Scandinavians and gave their names to weekdays in Scandinavian languages (compare Modern Danish tisdag, onsdag, torsdag, fredag).
The Latin names for the days of the week, and the Roman gods for which they were named, still live on in all the European Romance languages, like French, Spanish and Italian. Think of French lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi and vendredi, for example, and you will find the Latin Luna, Mars, Mercurius, Iovis and Venus hidden behind them.
This story contains images of people who are deceased.
Aboriginal missions, which existed across Australia until the 1970s, are notorious for their austerity. Aboriginal people lived on meagre rations – flour, sugar, tea and tobacco – and later, token wages. At some missions, schoolgirls wore hessian sacks as clothes or skirts made from old bags.
Christmas, however, was a joyful time on them. Old people remember Christmas for food, gifts and carols. But the celebration had a sinister edge. For years, missionaries hoped the joy of Christmas would replace Aboriginal traditions. But Christmas actually became an opportunity for creative cross-cultural engagement, with Aboriginal people adopting its traditions and making them their own.
The food was a respite from the usual diet of damper, rice or stew. On the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, missionaries would shoot a bullock, and the old women remember feasting on beef and mangoes on the beach.
Missionaries used food to attract people to church. Christmas might be the only day of the year that it was distributed to everyone. Cake was a favourite. On Christmas Day at Gunbalanya in western Arnhem Land in 1940 the superintendent called it “the happiest we’ve experienced here. Ten huge cakes for Natives – no complaints – 106 at service” (suggesting that church attendance was linked to cake quantity).
For elders on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, turtle-egg cake was a highlight of Christmas in the 1940s. As Jabani Lalara recalled:
We used to have a lovely Christmas … In front of the church, that’s where they used to put the Christmas tree and that’s where we used to get a present. Especially like cake, used to make from turtle egg. I love that cake. True.
Gifts were another drawcard. On Christmas 1899, the Bloomfield River Mission in far-north Queesland was said to be “overflowing” because Aboriginal people “heard there would be a distribution of gifts”. These included prized items such as handkerchiefs, pipes and knives. At some missions, Santa (often the superintendent) distributed gifts.
However looking back, old people have mixed feelings about the gifts. As much as they loved them at the time, they discovered their treasures were only toys that white children had rejected. As one person told me:
We didn’t have much in them days, it was tough, but we were happy. We were happy with those secondhand toys at Christmas from the Salvation Army. We didn’t know they were secondhand toys at the time. I found out in my later years.
Missionaries and Aboriginal people alike loved carols; they were an opportunity for shared enjoyment. Tiwi women look back fondly on their time singing with nuns. Said one woman:
Sister Marie Alfonso, she used to play organ and all of us girls used to sing in Latin, but we still remember… Every Christmas [the old women] sing really good. They all can remember that Latin. It’s really nice.
There were also nativity plays, with Aboriginal children proudly performing for their communities. Said another:
When there was Christmas or even Easter Day there was a role-play… On Christmas Day I used to read. Three of them was the Wise Men and the other one was Mary and the other young boy was Jesus.
Behind the lightheartedness came an agenda. As one priest commented, Christmas was to be a “magnet” to draw people into missions. Ultimately, missionaries hoped the celebration of Jesus’s birth would prove more attractive than Aboriginal people’s own ceremonies.
For those who would not settle on missions, Christmas was used against them. At Yarrabah in Queensland the “unconverted heathens” were invited to join the festivities, but their exclusion was symbolised by them walking at the back of processions, sitting at the back of the church and being the last to be served their meal.
In missionaries’ eagerness to use Christmas to spread Christianity, they started to use Aboriginal languages (with Aboriginal co-translators). At Ngukurr in southern Arnhem Land and Gunbalanya, the first church services in Aboriginal languages were Christmas services (in 1921 and 1936).
Aboriginal people loved carols, so these were the first songs translated. On the 1947 release of the Pitjantjatjara Hymnal, Christmas carols were the most popular (The First Noel sung in parts being the favourite). On Groote Eylandt, translation began with Christmas carols, nativity plays and Christmas readings in the 1950s. At Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, the annual Christmas Drama was in Yolngu Matha from 1960.
Translation was meant to make missionary Christianity more attractive, but it opened the way for more profound cultural experimentation. Aboriginal people infused Christmas with their own traditions. On the Tiwi Islands, in 1962 there was a “Corrobboree Style” nativity on the mission told through traditional Tiwi dance. Dance traditions missionaries had previously called “pagan” were now used by Tiwi people to share the Christian celebration.
At Warruwi on the Goulburn Islands in western Arnhem Land, Maung people began “Christmas and Easter Ceremonies” from the 1960s, blending ceremonial styles with Western musical traditions as well as their own music and dance. At Wadeye, in the Northern Territory, “Church Lirrga” (“Liturgy Songs”) include Christmas music, sung in Marri Ngarr with didjeridu. The Church Lirrga share the melodies of other Marri Ngarr songs that tell of Dreamings on the Moyle River.
Many who embraced Christianity sought to express their spirituality without missionary control. At Milingimbi in the NT, Yolngu people developed a Christmas ceremony with clap sticks and dijeridu outside the mission and free of missionary interference.
At Ernabella Mission in South Australia in 1971, people began singing the Christmas story to ancient melodies, with the permission of their songmen. Senior Anangu women at Mimili, SA, later sang the Pitjantjatjara gospel to their witchetty grub tune, blending Christmas with their Dreamings and songlines.
Christmas was woven into community life. Just as introduced animals found their way into Aboriginal songs and stories, Christmas became part of the seasons and landscape, as Therese Bourke explained at Pirlangimpi on the Tiwi Islands:
They used to have donkeys [here] and the donkeys used to come round in December. And my mother’s mob used to say, “they’re coming around because it’s Christmas and Jesus rode on the back of one.”
The missions transformed into “communities” under a policy framework of self-determination in the 1970s, although missionaries themselves often remained active in the communities for decades. Meanwhile, many Aboriginal people have mixed memories of the missions – fondness for some aspects, anger at others – including Christmas.
But regardless of the missionaries, Christmas became an Aboriginal celebration in its own right. Some missionaries even came to appreciate Aboriginal ways of celebrating Christmas in line with their Dreamings. Though missionaries had wanted to replace Aboriginal spirituality with a “white Christmas”, it became a season of deeper meetings of cultures.
Singing and Christmas seem to go naturally together, like plum pudding and custard. Even those who would not normally attend a choir concert or church service throughout the year might happily participate in a civic Carols by Candlelight or a Midnight Mass. In these settings, the carols come thick and fast, and everyone joins in, almost involuntarily. But what is the origin of the choral music which adorns these settings?
The tradition of carol singing dates from the Middle Ages, and was not restricted to the Christmas season. There were carols for Easter, for New Year, and sometimes even for political events such as the Battle of Agincourt.
The poetic form was simple: a succession of stanzas with different texts, interspersed with a recurring refrain. In more recent times, the term “carol” has come to mean any song associated with Christmas.
Medieval carols from England and elsewhere have survived, though much transformed.
Good Christian Men, Rejoice dates from the 14th century, though only its text has been reliably attributed, to the Dominican friar Heinrich Seuse (Suso). The melody is known in Latin as In dulci jubilo (in sweet joy), and has been frequently used as the basis of extended instrumental or vocal compositions.
This song found its way into English through the 1853 publication Carols for Christmastide by J.M. Neale. This and other volumes of carols contributed materially to the Victorian era’s wholesale adoption of seasonal trimmings, along with royally sanctioned Christmas trees and greeting cards.
During the centuries between the first iteration of a carol tradition and the Dickensian revival of the Christmas spirit in the mid-1800s, there was comparatively little in the way of English composition of new works in this genre. A few pieces that are more appropriately termed Christmas hymns were, however, produced during the 18th century.
One of these is Adeste fideles or O Come, All Ye Faithful. Its authorship is disputed, but the most likely source is the 1751 volume Cantus diversi, published by John Francis Wade. Like most other Christmas carols, its text has clear Christian references.
Interestingly, it is also thought to contain covert Jacobite symbolism, with the phrases “all ye faithful” and “to Bethlehem” referring respectively to the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie and England itself. Wade fled to France after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, but his hymn soon came into regular use, particularly amongst English Catholics.
An indication of its wider adoption is the inclusion of O Come, All Ye Faithful within the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, a familiar modern day tradition inaugurated at Cornwall’s Truro Cathedral in 1880. In the age of mass media, this most renowned Christmas ceremony, as practised in King’s College Cambridge has become universally familiar, firstly on radio and then television. Choirs around the world also perform their own Lessons and Carols programs every December, and most often conclude with this piece.
The most famous Christmas carol of all time is undoubtedly Silent Night, Holy Night. The original words for Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht were written by Joseph Mohr in 1816 and the melody two years later by Franz Xaver Gruber, when both were living in villages near Salzburg.
The German version was published soon afterward, and the familiar English translation in 1859, since when it has become known in nearly 150 languages. Due to its universality, Silent Night was in 2011 designated by UNESCO as an intangible item of cultural heritage.
With its stereotypical overlay of European winter costumes and snow-covered fir trees, the translation of Christmas traditions around the world is problematic. In Australia, there have been several attempts to develop parallel traditions of carols that eschew northern hemisphere references, in favour of local culture.
The best known are those composed by W.G. James, former federal controller of music for the ABC, to texts by John Wheeler. Outback images of drovers, summer heat, red dust and red-gold moon, dancing brolgas, mulga plains, Christmas bush, gully creeks and grazing sheep recur throughout these songs.
They were published in several sets, commencing in 1948. Despite several recordings by major ensembles, their familiarity and popularity has fluctuated greatly. However, two of James’ carols recently made it into a “top 10” list of Aussie Christmas songs by the Australian Times, whose target audience is expats living in the UK.
The tradition of singing Christmas carols is embedded in the season, even though the contexts where they are performed may differ widely from that where the words and music originated. We happily ignore the obvious disconnect between the imagery of some familiar carols and our hot Australian summers, and there is something reassuring about hearing and singing them once again, with feeling, every Christmastime.
There is no holiday more American than Thanksgiving – and perhaps none with origins so shrouded in comforting myths.
The story is simple enough. In 1620 a group of English Protestant dissenters known as Pilgrims arrived in what’s now Massachusetts to establish a settlement they called New Plymouth. The first winter was brutal, but by the following year they’d learned how to survive the unforgiving environment. When the harvest season of 1621 arrived, the Pilgrims gathered together with local Wampanoag Indians for a three-day feast, during which they may have eaten turkey.
Over time this feast, described as “the first Thanksgiving,” became part of the nation’s founding narrative, though it was one among many days when colonists and their descendants offered thanks to God.
The peace wouldn’t last for long, and much of America’s early Colonial history centers on the eventual conflicts between the colonists and the Native Americans. But the traditional version ignores the real danger that emerged from two Englishmen – Thomas Morton and Ferdinando Gorges – who sought to undermine the legal basis for Puritan settlements throughout New England.
Over 200 years later, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the first federal day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War, it was a good moment for Americans to recall a time when disparate peoples could reach across the cultural divide. He was either unaware of – or conveniently ignored – the English schemers who tried to chase those Pilgrims and Puritans away.
The Puritans followed the Pilgrims, founding the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630. There, John Winthrop, who became the governor, wrote that the English wanted to create a “city upon a hill.” The line came from Matthew 5:14, an early example of how these English travelers viewed their actions through a biblical lens.
The growing numbers of English migrants strained the local resources of the Algonquian-speaking peoples. These locals, collectively known as Ninnimissinuok, had already suffered from a terrible epidemic possibly caused by a bacterial disease called leptospirosis and an infectious disorder, Weil syndrome, in the late 1610s that might have reduced their population by 90 percent.
Worse still, in 1636 the Puritans and Pilgrims went to war against the Pequots, whose homeland was in southern Connecticut. By the end of 1637, perhaps 700 to 900 natives had died in the violence, and another 900 or so had been sold into slavery. The English marked their victory with “a day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for the victory obtained against the Pequods, and for other mercies.”
English hostility against Natives has taken a central place in historians’ version of the origins of New England. But though it is a powerful and tragic narrative, indigenous Americans did not pose the greatest hazard to the survival of the colonists.
A new threat emerges
Just when the Pilgrims were trying to establish New Plymouth, an English war veteran named Ferdinando Gorges claimed that he and a group of investors possessed the only legitimate patent to create a colony in the region.
Gorges had gained notoriety after battling the Spanish in the Netherlands and commanding the defense of the port city of Plymouth, on the southwest coast of England. Afterwards, Gorges was in search of a new opportunity. It arrived in 1605 when the English sea captain George Waymouth returned to England after a voyage that had taken him to the coast of modern Maine and back. Along with news about the coastline and its resources, Waymouth brought back five captive Eastern Abenakis, members of the indigenous nation that claimed territory between the Penobscot and Saco rivers in Maine. Waymouth left three of them with Gorges. Soon they learned English and told Gorges about their homeland, sparking Gorges’ interest in North America.
Gorges, with a group of investors, financially backed an expedition to the coast of Maine in 1607, though the colony they hoped to launch there never succeeded.
These financiers believed that they possessed a claim to all territory stretching from 40 to 48 degrees north latitude – a region that stretches from modern-day Philadelphia to St. John, Newfoundland – a point they emphasized in their charter. Gorges remained among its directors.
As luck would have it, Gorges soon met Thomas Morton, a man with legal training and a troubled past who had briefly visited Plymouth Plantation soon after the first English arrived. Morton would join forces with Gorges in his attempt to undermine the legal basis for the earliest English colonies in New England.
Morton and the Pilgrims despised one another. By 1626 he had established a trading post at a place called Merrymount, on the site of modern day Quincy, Massachusetts. There, he entertained local Ninnimissinuok, offering them alcohol and guns. He also imported an English folk custom by erecting an 80-foot pole for them to dance around.
The Pilgrims, viewing Morton as a threat because of his close relations with the locals and the fact that he had armed them, exiled him to England in 1628.
To the disappointment of the Pilgrims, Morton faced no legal action back in England. Instead, he returned to New England in 1629, settling in Massachusetts just as Winthrop and his allies were trying to launch their new colony. Soon enough, Morton angered the rulers of this Puritan settlement, claiming that the way they organized their affairs flew in the face of the idea that they should follow all English laws. The Puritans, looking for an excuse to send him away, claimed that he had abused local natives (a charge that was likely baseless). Nonetheless, they burned Morton’s house to the ground and shipped him back to England.
After a short stint in jail, Morton was free again, and it was around this time that he began to conspire with Gorges.
During the mid-1630s Gorges pushed English authorities to recognize his claim to New England. His argument pivoted on testimony provided by Morton, who claimed that the Puritans had violated proper religious and governing practices. Morton would soon write that the Puritans refused to use the Book of Common Prayer, a standard text employed by the Church of England, and that the Puritans closed their eyes when they prayed “because they thinke themselves so perfect in the highe way to heaven that they can find it blindfould.”
In a letter he wrote to a confidant, Morton claimed that at a hearing in London, the Massachusetts patent “was declared, for manifest abuses there discovered, to be void.” In 1637, such evidence convinced King Charles I to make Gorges the royal governor of Massachusetts.
But the king never followed through. Nor did the English bring the leaders of the colony to London for a trial. The Puritans maintained their charter, but Morton and Gorges refused to back down.
A quick compromise
In 1637, Morton published a book titled “New English Canaan.” In it, he accused the English of abusing and murdering Native Americans and also of violating widely accepted Protestant religious practices. (Today there are around 20 known copies of the original.)
With good reason, the Puritans feared Gorges and Morton. To make peace, they relented and in 1639 Gorges received the patent to modern-day Maine, which had been part of the original grant to the Massachusetts Bay Company. By then, Gorges’ agents had already begun to establish a plantation in Maine. That settlement ended the legal challenge to the existing New England colonies, which then prospered, free of English interference, for decades.
But Morton wasn’t quite done. He returned to Massachusetts, possibly as an agent for Gorges or perhaps because he had hoped that the situation might have improved. When he arrived local authorities, having seen his book, exiled him again. He retreated north, to Gorges’ planned colony. Winthrop wrote that he lived there “poor and despised.”
By 1644 Morton was dead, along with the scariest threat the Pilgrims and Puritans had faced.
Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
How and why did the dishes served at Thanksgiving dinner come to be so fixed?
Many assume that most of them were simply eaten by the Pilgrims during the first Thanksgiving. For this reason, they continue to be eaten today. And it’s true that most of the ingredients are American in origin: the turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, sweet potatoes – even the green beans in the casserole and the pecans in the pie.
Yet we only have one firsthand account of the “first” Thanksgiving – a brief paragraph by Edward Winslow that doesn’t mention any of these foods. And it’s been shown, time and again, that the idea of a unique culinary tradition originating from a feast between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors is more advertising myth than historical truth.
But maybe there is something, nonetheless, that’s very traditional about this meal.
In fact, there may be a very good reason these particular dishes – and even the way we eat the meal – came to be strongly associated with Thanksgiving. The first Americans simply mimicked or adapted the traditional fare, flavor combinations and rituals of Europe, using them to fashion the popular dishes we continue to enjoy today.
Alaye that fesande!
To start, think of when we eat the meal: always in the early afternoon, which is just as a proper dinner would have been served 400 years ago. Back then, supper was a smaller, evening meal. Of course, there are other early dinners that families traditionally observe (especially on Sunday). But Thanksgiving always has been, and continues to be, early. It didn’t simply start sooner to accommodate a football game.
As for the ritual of carving at the table, it’s not something we normally do. But it was positively fashionable when the colonists left Europe in the 17th century. There were even carving manuals replete with illustrations for serving their favorite roasts, which were almost always wild fowl. The only difference is that they would hold the entire bird up in the air to carve thin slices, which would fall gently on each diner’s plate. (With today’s huge, domestic turkeys, it’s understandable that we leave them on the platter.)
There was even a whole language of dismemberment in medieval England: you would lyfte that swanne, alaye that fesande, wynge that partyche, dysplaye that crane, but breke that egryt.
Raspberry sauce and pompion-pye
As for the turkey itself, it was one of the few New World foods that had already gained immediate acceptance in Europe, precisely because of its similarity to peacocks and pheasants, which were among the era’s most fashionable foods. In other words, the Englishmen who landed in Massachusetts didn’t eat turkey because it was the only local food available. Rather, they’d been quite familiar with it back in England, where it was even common to remove the skin and feathers, cook it and serve it with the feathers replaced, as if it were still living – a standard medieval trick.
The side dishes also date back to Europe, with flavor profiles that are actually medieval in origin.
Take cranberry sauce. In medieval Europe, sour fruit sauce with wild fowl was a popular combination, one that balanced a cold and moist condiment with a hot, dry meat. In the mid-17th century, for example, the famous French chef La Varenne served turkey with raspberries.
But the real connection between Thanksgiving and the medieval feast is in the spices. Although today we use the blanket term “pumpkin spice” to characterize variations of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger (and they show up practically everywhere in cheap artificial form), these flavors were the backbone of medieval cuisine, appearing in a wide array of sweet and savory dishes, from chicken to pasta.
Back then, it simply wasn’t a lavish meal without a riot of spices (which, because they needed to be imported from Asia, were wildly expensive). Today the only one of these spices that stays on the table year-round is pepper. But their pivotal role in Thanksgiving again is a reminder of the tradition’s remote origins.
And many think of green bean casserole as a classic postwar dish – invented in the 1950s as a way to use up all the cans of cream of mushroom soup that had amassed in the pantry. But “French beans” (from America) were already well-known and loved in 17th-century Europe. English Poet Gervase Markham, in 1608’s Farewel to Husbandry, remarks how tender they are when stewed. And Thomas Tryon, a British author of self-help books, writes in The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness that French beans “far exceed and are much better than other pulses eaten green.”
Candied yams were also a 16th-century staple. In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Sir John Falstaff exclaims that it should rain kissing comfits and hail potatoes, he is actually talking about Virginia sweet potatoes, which had been brought back to Europe in the late 16th century. (These weren’t just candied; they were also considered an aphrodisiac.)
Famed English chef Robert May in the mid-17th-century cookbook The Accomplisht Cook has a great recipe for (sweet) potato pie, which wouldn’t seem too amiss on the Thanksgiving table today (though with cockscombs, testicles and bone marrow would be considered perhaps a bit overgarnished).
As for that very American pumpkin pie? In the 17th century, it was already quite common. One of the earliest female cookbook authors, Hannah Woolley, has a recipe for “pompion-pye” with the same spices we use today. She also includes apples, which, incidentally, are also thoroughly English in a pie.
So despite the picture we have of English colonists adapting to strange new ingredients in their new home, most of the recipes – and those we still insist on having at the Thanksgiving table – were already regular favorites.
Remember that when you lift high your (very American) turkey leg, like Henry VIII.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day celebrations in Sydney, Australia.
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