Monday, May 25, 2015

The twisted history of Memorial Day

“Memorial” from the Latin “memorilis”  belonging to memory.

Over the years the true meaning of Memorial Day has faded more and more from public consciousness. It began as a solemn day of mourning in honor of our Civil War dead. It has degenerated into a celebration of barbeques, baseball, and "top 100 songs of all time" on the radio.

Ironic isn't it, that the nation has forgotten the meaning of a national day of remembrance?

So as you sit on a beach this weekend slathering sunscreen, or dancing between raindrops, consider the following:

In 1865, Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, NY, mentioned at a social gathering that honor should be shown to the dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves.

A dead Confederate soldier.

Townspeople adopted the idea wholeheartedly. Wreaths and bouquets were made for each grave. The village was decorated with flags at half-mast, evergreen boughs and black streamers.

The commander of the Grand Army of the Republic issued the first national recognition of Memorial Day in 1868. This was General Order No. 11 establishing "Decoration Day" (because the idea was to decorate the graves of soldiers.)

Decoration Day was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. 
When the Civil War was raging the location of Arlington cemetery was a carefully chosen act of retribution. It was the confiscated estate of Robert E. Lee. Graves were place all the way up to his doorstep. 

The South initially refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days. Several southern states continue to have an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee. 

After World War I, the holiday was changed from honoring the Civil War dead, to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war. It was now called Memorial Day.

During World War 1, some particularly bloody fighting occurred in Flanders along the French-Belgian border. A Canadian Doctor, John McCrae, visited the battlefield and noticed the only sign of life on the scarred landscape was the resilient little poppy. He penned a famous poem on a page torn from an autopsy book. It was entitled "In Flanders Fields." 

In Flanders Fields 
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD Canadian Army (1872-1918) 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow 
Between the crosses row on row, 
That mark our place; and in the sky 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 
We are the Dead. Short days ago 
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie 
In Flanders fields. 
Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw 
The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 
In Flanders fields.

The poem inspired Moina Michael an American War Secretary with the YMCA, she was moved by McCrae's work and replied with her own poem:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She sold poppies to her friends with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France learned of this new custom, when she returned to France she made artificial red poppies to raise money for the war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries.

And it's why you will see men and women from American Legion Posts selling little plastic red poppies at street corners this weekend. On TV you may also see images of the soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry as they place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington. . The commemorations at Arlington on Memorial Day are a lasting connection back to its Civil War origins.

In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation that changed the observance date from May 30th and made it into a 3 day weekend.

Many Veterans groups contend that the weekend has weakened the meaning of the day. Turning it from a day of taking stock to one of taking off for the beach. From an end of life to a beginning of summer occasion. In 1999 Senator Inouye, a World War II veteran, introduced a bill to the Senate to restore the observance back to May 30th.

Instead, the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that on May 30th at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans "To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps." 

“Taps” is another Civil War connection. The 24-note piece is a variation on a French military bugle call to tell soldiers to cork their bottles, close their taps and go to bed. During the Civil War the Union Army adapted it for their lights out command at bedtime and it quickly found its way into funeral services. It acquired lyrics along the way.

Day is done, 
gone the sun, 
from the Lakes from the hills from the sky, all is well,
safely rest, God is nigh.
Fading light, 
dims the sight, 
And a star gems the sky gleaming bright, From afar, drawing nigh, falls the night.
Thanks and praise, 
For our days, 

Neath the sun, Neath the stars, Neath the sky, 

As we go, This we know, God is nigh."

If you do decide to honor our fallen, New York is awash with war memorials. There's the Vietnam Veterans memorial on Water Street in the Financial District. A monument to Korean War soldiers in Battery Park (financed by a Korean Electronics company.) There's a World War I monument on Fifth Ave just outside Central Park across from the Frick Museum, a memorial to The Spanish-American war at the 59th Street entrance to Central Park (paid for by William Randolph Hearst who played a major role in their deaths.). At 59th and Fifth you'll find Grand Army Plaza named for the Civil War's Grand Army of the Republic, as well as Grand Army Plaza at the entrance to Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

It doesn’t really matter where you do your remembering, just that you do.

So this weekend don't forget the sunscreen and the Kingsford charcoal, and try to remember the fallen as well.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The twisted history of Cinco de Mayo

Contrary to popular opinion “Cinco de Mayo” isn’t Spanish for “ 5 ounces of Mayonnaise.” 
The fifth of May was a glorious day in the military annals of Mexico. 

Poor Mexico, it had only gained independence from Spain in 1810. On its 36th birthday it was invaded by the US (Which is how we got California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.)  After a Civil War in 1858 Mexico was flat broke.

So in 1862 those pesky French took advantage of the fact that we Americans we’re preoccupied with our Civil War. Using the excuse of some unpaid debts, the French invaded Mexico’s Gulf Coast and began a march towards the Capital. Their big idea was to install Napoleon III’s cousin, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as ruler of Mexico.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to Mexico City.    
On the 5th of May, Cinco de Mayo, the French army encountered strong resistance at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe.  There, a poorly armed militia of 4,500 Mexicans kicked some French derriere.  They defeated an army of 6,500 Frenchmen fabulously outfitted in uniforms by Coco Channel, saddlebags by Prada.

Unfortunately, the victory was short lived.
Napoleon ( Napster 3.0 ---Napoleon III , who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew ) sent 30,000 more troops and captured Mexico City one year later. Which is how for three years (1864-1867) the Archduke of Austria happened to be the ruler of our neighbor to the south. You know, you just can’t make this stuff up.

What happened to the Emperor Of Mexico?
The US eventually pressured the French into withdrawing (We cut off their supply of Jerry Lewis movies and they dropped the chalupa.)

In 1867 Max was captured by Mexican troops under Benito Juarez. He was tried and executed by firing squad. His body was shipped back to Austria where it lies entombed in Vienna in the Imperial Crypt. The inscription on his tomb reads: Yo Tien Taco Bell.
Cinco de Mayo isn't widely celebrated in Mexico.  It isn't their equivalent of our 4th of July, as most Yankees think. The major celebrations for Cinco de Mayo are in the state of Puebla where the battle took place.  However, here in the US, Cinco de Mayo has become kind of a St. Patrick’s Day or Columbus Day.  A day for Mexican-Americans to celebrate and take pride in Mexican history.  A Kiss me I’m Mexican day for everyone else. Most important, it's
a chance for Anglos to get drunk eat chips and do a Mexican hat dance.

And that’s about all there is to say about the fifth day of May.

Adios, Vaya con dios.

I fart in the general direction of the French. 

Generalissimo Dano

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Twisted History of May Day

Sticker on Newsbox NYC 6/1/13
May Day! May Day!
(not to be confused with the international call of distress “M’aider! M’aider!” French for: Help me! Help me!)

There are two distinct May Days.
One is political and American. 
The other pagan and Greek.
If you walk into Union Square today you might come across both.
You’ll see posters on light poles announcing the annual May Fair at the Grace Church Sunday School and you’d see a demonstration for Equality in Worker’s Rights.

Let’s talk politics first.

May Day Parade NYC 1910

Happy May Day Comrades.
May Day was invented in the United States and yet we are one a handful of industrialized nations that neglects to celebrate it.

On May 1, workers around the world will celebrate their Labor Day with rallies and speeches, picnics, demonstrations and maybe a riot or two.

Not many Americans realize that the celebrations being held in foreign lands, like the May Day Parade in Moscow, actually commemorate historical events here in the United States.

On May 1st, 1886, the American Federation of Labor declared a national strike to demand an eight-hour workday. At the time, six-day weeks and 14 hour workdays were the norm. (Kind of sounds like the Advertising Business doesn’t it?)

In Chicago there were riots and slayings of strikers. The police tried to break up a rally in Haymarket Square, a bomb was thrown. A policeman was killed. The Police fired wildly into the crowd wounding 200 and killing four strikers and apparently a few of their fellow policemen. 8 labor leaders were put on trial with absolutely no evidence they had any connection to the bombing. Most of them were executed.

The trial enraged labor groups and protests were held around the world.
In 1889, the Socialist International declared May 1st a day of demonstrations, and since 1890 these have been held annually worldwide.

Labor leaders in America lobbied for a national holiday to recognize workers. By the 1890’s May first was officially being celebrated in several states and was called “Labor Day”

In 1893 Federal Troops, ordered by President Cleveland, violently suppressed the Pullman Strike. Grover, in a bid to restore his tarnished image, declared a national holiday in honor of workers and intentionally chose a September date to keep it months away on the calendar from the Socialist “May Day – Labor Day”

This didn’t stop May Day celebrations in the United States. The biggest one every year was held in Union Square Park, which in the 1920’s got the nickname Red Square.

During the Red Scare days of the Cold War Congress officially declared May I, “Loyalty Day”. It was an all American anti American Communist Party kind of party.

During the 1950s, the largest Loyalty Day parade in the country was here in New York City. Its job was to distract attention from the Union Sq. rallies and Communist Party march on the same day.

By the time the Vietnam War entered the picture Loyalty Day Parades petered out, but so did May Day Parades. So I guess they had done their job.

So on this May Day I exhort the workers of New York to Unite, link arms head over to Union Square and see if you can hear the long dead ghosts of Labor leaders crying out to masses. Failing that, the Farmer’s Market is open so grab yourself some nice organic produce.

Comrade Dan

The Other May Day

Here’s the skinny on the more ancient randy celebrations of the first of May.

The merry old month of May gets its name from the Greek goddess Maia daughter of Zeus and mother of Hermes (The Romans called him Mercury – he’s the guy standing on top of Grand Central Station.)

The first of May --May Day --was midway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. Agricultural/fertility celebrations were held to mark the time.
At Greek festivals to honor Dionysus ( the god of wine and fertility) folks in togas drank wine and danced around a large phallus. The Romans would change the name from Dionysus to Bacchus and from that we get the expression “bacchanalian feast.”
Somehow this morphed into a custom in the Middle Ages where on May 1st commoners would erect a large pole (You don’t have to be Freud to get the symbolism there) attached vines or ribbons to it and the young studs and lovelies of the village would dance around the pole until they all became intertwined. (Think -- Medieval Twister©.)

There would be a character present called Robin Goodfellow 

(sometimes called the Green Man) who was the Lord of Misrule for this day. 

Here's the wiki on The Green Man

He would thumb his nose at authority and act as a mock minister and declare the lustful couples “officially” married and they’d head off into the green together.

Any resultant offspring from the merrymaking were called “Merry- begats”. These love children were said to have been fathered by god, a rather convenient excuse for the men folk don’t you think?

I also think it quite fitting that the political May Day is a day to question "the establishment." A bit of serendipitous synchronicity.

Eventually the festivities were banned, but as we’ve seen before folklore and tradition have a way of sneaking things back in disguise and so the character of Robin Goodfellow came back as the legend of Robin Hood, a man in green who understood the desires of common folk and would thumb his nose at repressive authority.

Robin Goodfellow had a companion; her name was the May Queen.

She was chosen from the local beauties –kind of a Medieval Home Coming Queen. The May Queen herself was a replacement for a pagan goddesses who was always associated with the festivities.

When Robin Hood replaced Robin Goodfellow – Maid Marian subbed for the pagan Goddess.
And that’s why today in England, Maid Marian the Queen of the May, mounted on a white horse is the central figure of festivities.

The Irish had their own May festival called "Bealtaine" On the eve of May 1st bonfires were lit on the hills to draw the sun back to earth. Villagers jumped over the bonfires in search of good luck or in help finding a mate.

Some modern celebrations of Beltaine resemble a Celtic Burning Man Festival
Beltaine. Girls and Boys Gone Wild.

According to Irish superstition the woman who washes her face with morning dew on May Day will be beautiful; the man who washes his hands will be skilled with knots and nets. And if you lived near water, you were supposed to make a garland and cast it into a lake or river to honor the water spirits. (It’s not too late to get a bouquet over at Union Square and chuck it into the Hudson.)

When the Romans arrived in the British Isles they brought their own traditions to the party. They already had a celebration from April 28th -May 2nd called Floralia. It was in honor of the goddess of flowers named --you guessed it --Flora. As part of the festivities, women and homes were decked out in flowers.

All of this stuff melded together. And eventually organized religion outlawed the randy stuff and made the whole fertility fest a cute little celebration where innocent children sometimes dressed in togas wearing flowers dance around a Maypole. 

And nowadays the closest that we come to honoring fertility in May is when we give mom a card on Mother’s Day the second Sunday in the month named for the Mother of Hermes.

Have a Merry May Day, a beautiful Bealtaine, and a festive Floralia everyone.
Medieval Twister© anyone?

Lord of Misrule